Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Perils of Major Sports Gigs in Marginal Digs

Kicking a ball across a field.

Sliding down a mountain on strips of plastic.

Writhing and wriggling your body across a pool of water - and back again.

Taken individually, such expenditures of energy don't necessarily amount to much.  But put them in the context of an athletic competition, and suddenly, lots of people can become wildly excited.

It can be rewarding on many levels for both participants and spectators.  However, at what point does all of the skill, hard work, determination, tenacity, and even pain invested by athletes into their sport become just another commodity to be bought, sold, and manipulated by people who have their own agendas to win?

At what point do the promise and pleasure of sports become some sort of peril?

Earlier this week, in the storied Russian city of Volgograd, two terrorist bombings in two days killed a total of 31 civilians.  Although experts aren't sure, they believe Chechen rebels, Russian's main Islamist enemies, are likely responsible for the attacks, since earlier this year, rebel leaders vowed to destabilize the country as it prepares to host the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, now less than two months - and only 400 miles - away.

With no ability to prove it, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) yesterday nevertheless expressed confidence that the Russian games will be "safe and secure," as if anybody would be gullible enough to believe it now.  Considering the fact that Volgograd authorities either had no warning that these bombings would take place, or if they did, they couldn't prevent them anyway, hollow platitudes intended to pacify both locals and the international sports community don't help.  Hopefully, there will be no more terror strikes - at least in Russia, and related to the Olympics - but if that troubled region wasn't safe and secure before Sunday's first blast, why expect it to be by February 7, the winter games' opening day?

Ever since the IOC picked Sochi as a host city, and the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) picked Brazil for the 2014 World Cup, sports writers have been grousing ever loudly that the world's elite athletes have become political pawns.  That claim itself is not new, or even wildly doubted, since sports is big business all over the world.  Whether it's American football or South American fútbol, it's hardly the pure, altruistic exhibition of sportsmanship and athleticism that we like to excuse our collective infatuation with it as being.  But don't the locations being chosen to host our biggest and most celebrated sporting events seem to be getting more curious and marginal?

It's no secret that influence-peddling sports commissioners spend more time in boardrooms than on playing fields seeking cushy marketing and broadcasting deals.  In turn, potentates seeking validation for their rule promise the moon to these commissioners, even if it means a lot of nasty back-room wrangling - and labor rights violations - to get venues ready for their close-up in front of the planet's television cameras.

Meanwhile, in countries prosperous to impoverished, young people whose idealism drips out of them like sweat are the photogenic, adrenaline-fueled product being increasingly exploited for those high-dollar marketing contracts, broadcast rights, and stadium construction projects.  Not to mention the new airports, mass transit systems, highways, and other grand infrastructure dreams that get thrown into the mix with these mammoth sporting spectacles.  In countries like the United States, Canada, Japan, Germany, Finland, and Australia, virtually all of the elite athletes are very much aware of their sport's reciprocal relationship with these big events; those athletes who can excel will likely reap lucrative promotional deals, so performing for the cameras risks becoming more of a job than a passion.  But one wonders, for the kids coming out of poorer and more remote countries, where passion for one's sport will likely be their only long-term reward, if all of it is really worth it?  Especially now, with terrorism setting a gruesome prelude for the Sochi games?

Granted, with Russia's winter Olympics bearing down, it's a little late to pick a new venue, and besides, doing so would be the wrong response to the attacks in Volgograd (which used to be called Stalingrad, by the way).  Perhaps the IOC should never have picked such a sensitive location to begin with, as some critics have been suggesting, but then again, terrorism knows no boundaries.

Cancel the games?  Not only would that be unfair to athletes who've spent the past four years preparing for the Sochi Olympics, but perhaps more significantly, there are billions of dollars on the line that will not be ignored, or denied.

Close the events to spectators, to minimize their attractiveness as targets, and make everybody watch on television?  That's probably something crisis management experts are quietly encouraging, but a large part of athletic competition is audience involvement, and how well will athletes perform in empty, silent stadiums?

This isn't the first time terrorism has dampened the Olympic spirit, whatever the Olympic spirit is anymore.  And this time, some Russian spin doctors are attempting to portray the violence in Volgograd as mere intimidation tactics before the country's annual New Year's revelry, instead of a threat against the Sochi games.

But if the Olympics have become too tempting a symbolic target for terrorists, the options available to reduce whatever political significance particular geographic locations of the games may hold have already been offered.  For example, holding both the summer and winter games within a rotating selection of cities, where infrastructure has already been constructed for previous Olympic events, would save cost, time, and effort in a host of logistical areas.  Or, the IOC could hold the summer games every quadrennial in Athens, Greece, the original home of the Olympics, and the winter games in Switzerland, which has historically been a politically neutral country.  That way, a lot of the drama over site selection, security preparations, and venue installations could be more easily negated.

If the whole point of these athletic contests is supposed to be the athletes competing for national pride, why does the locale of the games matter so much to the IOC?  After all, it's a pretty sure thing that no games will ever be held in tiny Jamaica, or war-torn Sudan, or obscure Iceland, or polarizing Israel, so isn't the charade of site selection already prejudiced against such countries?  The IOC doesn't choose sites based on utter practicality or even popular consent (who wouldn't want the summer games in a Jamaican paradise every four years - except, perhaps, the Jamaicans themselves?).  No, frankly, the IOC's current site selection protocol rests on which country can offer the most loot.  Bribes, really.  How's that for a sporting competition?

No location can ever be totally secure - even in Greece, the populace has shown its willingness to riot lustily over economic issues - but site consistency could remove a lot of the guesswork from daunting safety concerns.  Perhaps that also means that the IOC would be relegated to being a rules-and-regulations authority responsible for administering athletic contests every two years and handing out medals to the winners.  But isn't that all most people around the world want it to be anyway?

And what about FIFA, the soccer authority that was roundly castigated for giving the 2014 World Cup tournament to Brazil, a country notorious for corruption and bureaucratic incompetence?  FIFA has also awarded their 2018 World Cup spectacle to Russia, for which our upcoming Olympics may be setting an ominous precedent.  And in 2022, the World Cup goes to Qatar, a country where personal liberty is notoriously restrained, and conditions bordering on slave labor flourish on construction sites as soccer venues are being built.  Ostensibly, sport is being framed as a populist means to a human rights end, but tell that to the hundreds - perhaps thousands - of manual laborers working in Qatar who are projected to die - yes, die; mostly from sudden heart attacks - from being overworked in the tiny emirate's $100 billion build-up to 2022.

By the way, both the Russian and Qatari bids and wins to host the World Cup are currently under investigation by a United States law firm amidst allegations of corruption in FIFA's site selection process.

Somewhere in all of this, it's easy to forget the throngs of young people out there who simply want to enjoy their sport.  Yes, and win, and gain some fame, and even some promotional income.  But at least they're earning it, as opposed to everybody else who's trying to piggyback onto the specter of international athleticism for their own personal gain.

We need to remember that the famous phrase is "let the games begin!"

Not "let the gamesmanship begin."

Friday, December 27, 2013

Sorry, I Haven't Stopped Learning

They say that in our modern world, we need to constantly be learning.

Well, believe me, that's a mighty true statement.  I've been learning a lot, and the more I learn, the more I write about what I'm learning.  But I'm learning that sharing with others the things I'm learning is, in itself, a learning process.

You wanna know what else I'm learning?
  • Well, for starters, I'm learning that most people really, really, really hate being challenged to think.  Not that I think I'm the best person to challenge other people with new ideas.  But more than ever, I'm finding that lots of folks hate having to process concepts that differ from preferences, assumptions, and even convictions that they've already nurtured and adopted.  Granted, to a certain extent, I'm one of those folks, too.  I'm not crazy about being presented with information and ideas that run counter to information and ideas my brain has already bought into.  But my problem is that I simply don't like change; my aversion to thinking has much less to do with my personal pride and a dislike for being wrong, and much more to do with adapting to something new - and whatever other changes this new concept might bring about.  Other people, however, hate the challenge of having to think because they risk admitting they've been wrong, or being forced to adapt to something new.  The only saving grace in all of this - if you can call it that - is that people are so afraid that their long-held assumptions might be wrong, they're willing to ignore what I have to say so they can preserve the status quo... yet I really could be wrong!  Believe me - most of the stuff I write about, I wouldn't mind being proven wrong.  But it seems that few people even want to spend the effort to prove me wrong.  Am I not worth the effort, or are they simply lazy?
  • I'm also learning that people really hate it when I'm the one challenging them to think.  Like it would make any difference if I had an alphabet-soup of degrees after my name.  My opinion doesn't mean much compared with the opinions of better-educated people, but it doesn't seem that people are even willing to consider the opinions of those better-educated people.  Just look at all of the churchgoers who sit under a preacher's preaching each week, or a seminary professor's lectures, and how many of them really like accepting new bits of knowledge that risk impacting how they think and view the world?  It's simply easier to ignore people like me, and the questions people like me ask, because we don't have advanced degrees. What could we possibly know?  And frankly, I can understand that type of logic.  There's nothing special about me that makes me any more qualified than anybody else to offer any other viewpoint than the ones being offered and endorsed by professional Christians.  I also should figure that since people aren't really paying much attention to "experts," why should I be surprised they're not interested in paying any attention to me?  After all, it's so much easier for any of us to simply find people with whom we agree and shuffle along through life with them.  We like to call it choice, freedom of expression, and agreeing to disagree.  But I wonder what Christ calls it?
  • And speaking of disagreeing, isn't it a lot easier to say "I disagree with you" and assume that's the end of the matter, instead of saying "I believe such-and-so," and then have to go about and explain your belief with proofs and rationale?  Agreeing to disagree is one thing, but agreeing to disagree without offering solid reasons for why you disagree is the easy way out, don't you think?
  • I've known this one for a long time, but this year I've continued to learn not to automatically trust preachers, pastors, theologians, and other professional Christians simply because they've got a collection of MDiv's and PhD's after their names.  Until you get to know them, trust them as much as you trust me.  Scary, huh?  But think about it:  Just about anybody can learn Greek and Hebrew in seminary, and the definitions for all of those fancy seminary words like "infralapsarianism" and "circumincession."  Shucks, even if I went to seminary, I could probably learn most of it.  But learning how to pass tests in seminary isn't enough, is it?  Writing words that convince and influence isn't enough either, is it?  At the end of the day, a seminary degree simply gives somebody more resources with which to propound an argument or philosophy, but it still doesn't make them right.  Or wrong.  Without the Holy Spirit inside of each of us, any of us can spout whatever we want and make it sound convincing, whether it's right or not.  This isn't to negate the value of a seminary education, or to demean and castigate professional Christians.  All I'm saying is that no matter their official qualifications, the truth anybody speaks comes not from their education, but from God.  And God's Word should suffice as a measuring rod for any of us to determine the legitimacy of what anybody else says.  Or doesn't say.
  • Perhaps because of all this other stuff I've been learning, I'm also learning that many of my readers figure I'm some bitter, confused malcontent who can't see the good in anything.  They think I intentionally pick on a lot of sacred cows.  I've also discovered that the same bit of writing can elicit a vicious ire from both liberal and conservative readers simultaneously.  And I'm not even trying to.  Yet it's as if readers assume I find some solace in being unpopular.  Or, perhaps they figure that the solitude resulting from unpopularity represents a well-earned reward for unintentionally offending so many other people.  I've been told I think too much, and I write too much.  I'm learning that sometimes, the things one writes simply can't go unpunished.
  • I'm learning that many people equate speaking one's opinion to belligerence.  I'm learning that no matter how hard I may work on a particular sentence or paragraph, any number of people will interpret it in any number of different ways, and few of those will ascribe any beneficence upon my motives.  I'm learning that just as people assume I'm inherently negative and cynical, both negativity and cynicism automatically become legitimate tones with which they can accuse me of being, well, negative and cynical.
  • And, you know what?  I'm learning that, seeping from some of those deep crevasses of my rapidly-aging brain, a veil of jealousy and dissatisfaction sometimes actually will drip down over my eyes to mar my view of life.  I'm learning that I need to be ever vigilant against such drippage.  I'm learning that sometimes my readers are more perceptive than I am.  Sometimes, at least!
  • Through the abysmal experience of the George Zimmerman trial this past year, and the recent debate over reformed rap, and even the insensitive comments from the Duck Dynasty crowd about Jim Crow Louisiana, I've learned that despite all of the progress we white evangelicals somehow thought had been made over the years regarding racial reconciliation in church, blacks and whites are still miles apart from where we should be.
  • As homosexuality continues to dominate America's social agenda, I'm learning that many evangelicals have no desire to speak the truth in love.  It's no secret that many churched folk hold gays in derision, but I'm learning it's not just puffy stereotypes that churched folk hold; it's outright hostility.  Not only do we hate the sin, we hate the sinner, and it almost seems as though some evangelicals hate the sinner more than the sin!  I'm not sure where the Biblical justification for that comes in, but I'm further learning that, as a single, never-married guy of a certain age, evangelicals feel all too comfortable making assumptions about my own sexuality, and using those assumptions as a basis for scoffing at my questions regarding their hatred of gays.
  • Which means that, all told, I'm learning that as evangelicalism continues to march into America's increasingly post-Christian culture, that culture itself is no basis for defending preferences, lifestyles, beliefs, and value systems.  Even our evangelicalized, Christianized, churchified culture.  We need to be wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.  God expects us to season our words with salt, not pepper.  But all of this takes more work than just being spiteful, hateful, intransigent - you know, all of those things people accuse me of being, but that I see in them as well.
  • And I'm learning that all of this means that as I continue to write, I'll probably not make myself any more popular than I've already made myself since I started writing this blog back in 2009.
Hey - at least I haven't stopped learning!  How about you?

Friday, December 20, 2013

Shooting Straight's Culture, Duck Dynasty

Okay.  I'm ready for my wrist to get back to normal!  

It's now been nearly three weeks of "Pain Strain Right Wrist Twist," my unwelcome memento from the "icemageddon" that slammed north Texas two weekends ago.   I slipped and fell on some ice, sprained my right wrist, and can still barely type a complete sentence, even though most of the swelling has gone down. 

In the meantime, then, how about some bullet-pointed thoughts on various topics, instead of essay-style posts?  Most people seem either unable or uninterested in following a train of thought longer than a bullet point these days, anyway.  Weapons experts say bullets are one of the fastest ways of communicating something, so hopefully we can communicate with grammatical bullets.

And not leave any scars in the process.


Today's Topic:  Shooting Straight's Culture, Duck Dynasty
  • After the current issue of GQ hit the stands, cable television's Duck Dynasty and its main star, Phil Robertson, have become embroiled in the cultural saga pitting homosexual advocates against proponents of Biblical sex.  Granted, being punished with censure by A+E, the producers of his show, flies in the face of the very free speech most broadcasters claim to cherish.  However, Robertson's vulgarity in his anatomically-laced beliefs about sexual morality doesn't help his cause.  Let's face it:  Robertson did not answer the question posed to him by GQ biblically.  He quoted the Bible, yes, but he did not answer in a Christlike manner.  What is sin?  Sin is anything that offends our holy God, including homosexuality AND vulgar speech AND pomposity AND a lack of the Fruit of the Spirit.
  • I've never watched the show, but I understand that the quirky Robertson has a penchant for colorful soliloquies and blunt mannerisms that have become popular reasons people enjoy tuning in.  It's possible that Robertson really doesn't care what other people think about what he said, and he's independently wealthy enough not to need A+E's money.  Indeed, he also probably didn't calculate how his Duck Dynasty merchandise would fly off of store shelves as his fans reacted in glee to his censure.  Nevertheless, how is it anything less than reckless of him to deploy such language for publication regarding such a volatile issue as homosexuality?  Yes, the words of Christians should be seasoned, but they should be seasoned with salt, not pepper.
  • Duck Dynasty's Robertson is also coming under fire for his reminiscences about how content Louisiana's blacks seemed to have been when he worked alongside them as a farm laborer.  Some blacks have taken offense at his portrayal of an idyllic South in the 1960's, which the rest of us know as being a crucible for civil rights.  Here again, Robertson's personality may hew to the folksy and unconventional, but when he's speaking as a celebrity to a writer from a salacious men's magazine, shouldn't he prioritize his testimony of the Fruit of the Spirit in his life over whatever indifference towards a topic's weight he's become famous for exploiting?
  • And if Robertson really is clueless about the strife topics like homosexuality and civil rights elicit in our culture, might he benefit from watching all of this current dust-up over his comments?  Not that he doesn't have the right to speak his mind, but just because we have the right to do something doesn't mean we should.  His words weren't exactly helpful, loving, kind, good, gentle, or even indicative of self-control.  After all, Robertson's matter-of-fact philosophising and carefree loquaciousness may endear him to people who share his opinions, but popularity should not supplant Biblical ethics.  And, by the way, that "happy, happy, happy" mantra of his may be appealing to his viewers, but since when is happiness a Fruit of the Spirit?
  • Of course, one of the main reasons for Duck Dynasty's unexpected success involves how the back woods, deep South, bayou-casual culture of the Robertson family clashes as much as it meshes with conventional white, conservative, middle-class, suburban culture.  WASPS comprise the bulk of Duck Dynasty fans, and even though many fans share similar perspectives on religion, faith, politics, and family with the Robertsons, they don't have the Robertson's wealth - and certainly not a wealth earned through duck calls, of all things.  And even if, individually, Duck Dynasty fans may have the charisma and idiosyncrasies of the Robertsons, they all lack the media platform to spout their views and celebrate their lifestyle that A+E has given the Robertsons.  Thanks to the magic of television, Duck Dynasty's far-fetched redneck revelry may lull  viewers - and even the Robertsons - into a false sense of reality, yet our responsibilities for how we conduct ourselves when sharing our faith never go on hiatus.
  • There are real people out there who are watching Christ's self-professing followers, whether it's in our schools, our offices, our neighborhoods, or even our churches.  When one of Christ's self-professing followers has been given his own TV show, and grants a media request for an interview with a secular fashion magazine, their previous culture of anonymity is gone, and even though God always holds His people responsible for their words, even pre-celebrity, now a whole cohort of critics and pundits are going to as well.  And they likely won't be as gracious as our Lord.
  • As it is, Robertson doesn't need to apologize for having opinions that mirror the truth of the Bible, or even airing them to a reporter.  As even some liberal gay-rights activists have protested, A+E has no standing to deny Robertson his First Amendment rights, as crude as they may be (unless he signed a contract with A+E which forbade his public dissemination of opinions regarding topics like homosexuality and civil rights).  However, according to my understanding of the Fruit of the Spirit, Robertson would display a heartbeat for God by publicly apologizing for being as flippant as he seems to have been with such topics.  He shouldn't do so to get back on the show, which he doesn't really need anyway, but to demonstrate his love for people whose sexual orientation he may not agree with, or whose struggles for racial equality he may not appreciate.
  • That's taking responsibility and acting with maturity in the cultural role he's been given.  By God, not A+E.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Shooting Straight Through Culture

Okay.  I'm ready for my wrist to get back to normal!  

It's now week two of the "Pain Strain Right Wrist Twist," my unwelcome memento from the "icemageddon" that slammed north Texas two weekends ago.   I had slipped on some ice, sprained my right wrist, and can still barely type a complete sentence, even though most of the swelling has gone down. 

In the meantime, then, how about some bullet-pointed thoughts on various topics, instead of essay-style posts?  Most people seem either unable or uninterested in following a train of thought longer than a bullet point these days, anyway.  Weapons experts say bullets are one of the fastest ways of communicating something, so hopefully we can communicate with grammatical bullets.

And not leave any scars in the process.


Today's Topic:  Shooting Straight Through Culture

The Holocaust.  In our dialog over culture and its importance in validating a people group, the Holocaust often is cited for being the bitter end of culture's negativity scale.  The worst a culture and a society can be, the Holocaust encapsulates.  I used it myself yesterday to make such a point.  Yet in doing so, might the Holocaust, for all the evil that it represents, be too singular and extraordinary an example?  Maybe even overdone, and almost trite?

When I say that no culture is intrinsically good, but can be intrinsically evil, or that culture itself simply represents a poor barometer by which a people group's relevance and integrity is measured, would it be more helpful to consider examples other than the Holocaust?  Or slavery, or any other despicable cultural relic?  Would some everyday, straight-from-the-headlines stories about how impure, imperfect, illogical, and even vile individual cultures can be provide fresher validity for claiming culture's reproach?
  • How about this development, coming hard on the heels of Nelson Mandela's memorial service and burial:  Archbishop Desmond Tutu is criticizing the overt dominance of black South Africans during their country's highly symbolic and internationally commemorated pageantry for the civil rights icon.  Upon his release from prison, Tutu argues, Mandela himself worked for reconciliation between blacks and whites, but public observances after his death were heavy on party politics and cultural dogma favored by black South Africans.  Tutu is troubled that this was done to the blatant exclusion of white South Africans with whom Mandela was able to secure a remarkable level of peace and cooperation.  "We were amiss in not being as inclusive as Madiba [Mandela's clan name] would certainly have been," Tutu chided his fellow blacks yesterday.  For his part, Tutu is reportedly considering leaving the African National Congress, the political party of Mandela, because it's becoming too radical and polarizing.
  • Or how about this?  Customs authorities in New York City have arrested a diplomat from India who allegedly has committed visa fraud over the nanny/housekeeper she brought to America to work for her.  After receiving complaints from the worker about not being paid all of her wages, the State Department allowed the diplomat to be arrested and held on a $250,000 bond, which was paid last Thursday.  Back in India, tempers over the incident have boiled over, with politicians pulling out all the stops in their attempts to exploit the arrest as a way to project their own patriotic dignity during an election season there.  Apparently, however, the anger isn't about a diplomat not paying the wages she claimed she would pay her employee, but that the diplomat was arrested at all.
  • To demonstrate their indignation at the United States refusing to accord diplomatic immunity in this allegation, the Indian government decided to remove the protective barriers around America's embassy in Delhi.  As if diminishing the security of a place many Indians themselves go to work and process customs paperwork for their benefit will penalize more Americans instead.  And if that wasn't illogical enough, as concrete barricades were moved, construction equipment was brought in, and temporary pads of wood were placed under the stabilizing arms of a backhoe to prevent damage to the pavement from the equipment.  However, workers simply pushed and dragged the concrete barriers along the pavement, causing pavement damage anyway.  To top it off, a chauvinistic candidate in the upcoming elections tweeted an unnecessary reference of their diplomat's gender:  "protesting ill-treatment meted (out) to our lady diplomat in USA."  Maybe such language plays well to a home audience in India, but can you see how patriarchal it sounds to us Americans?
  • Then there's this:  In Nigeria, 11 women have been killed just in the past two weeks in pagan fetish rituals to spirits.  Apparently, some tribes there also continue marrying women to their traditional gods, a practice that violates Nigeria's constitution, yet persists as a feared superstition nevertheless.  Earlier this month, 100 women rallied to petition the government for greater protection against such customs, but again, in patriarchal societies, changing practices that only benefit men can be a long and arduous process.
Do I need to go on?

Just because the culture in which you live, or with which you choose to identify, may not be killing women or marrying them to deities, does that make it better and more worthy of honor?  What things do we do in our Westernized cultures that tribespeople in rural Nigeria might find disturbing?  Who decides whether the things that disturb us in other cultures, or the things we Americans take for granted that strike tribal Nigerians as bizarre, are right or wrong?

Ultimately, it's God, isn't it?

Now, God didn't send His Son to save cultures, did He?  Not that cultures are such pure creations that they don't need to be saved, of course.  But God sent Jesus to save individual people because, ultimately, God is not a God of cultures as much as He is the God of souls.  Christ became incarnate - as we commemorate during Christmas seasons such as this one - to redeem sinners.  And He desires a personal relationship with us, not our culture.

No matter who we are, or where we live, or the moment in history in which our life flashes across this vast panoply of human existence, we are called to worship God.  That worship will inevitably be flavored by who we are, where we live, and the moment in history in which we live.  And to the extent that God gives us the talents and opportunities to impact our culture for Christ, we should.  But does that mean we justify our worship based on our culture?

Or that we worship despite our culture?

Another thought:
Please indulge me one more time on this rap flap.  Does God listen to rap music?  That's the title of a new book written by Curtis Allen in defense of the musical genre.  However, right off the bat, I have questions about that title.  Isn't it as misleading a question as asking whether God listens to Bach, or anything by the self-professed atheist, John Rutter?  Instead of asking what kind of music God listens to, I wonder if it's at all appropriate to anthropomorphize our holy Creator by asking such a question.  Does God listen to music the way we do?  Or does He receive it as an offering... or not, as the case may be?  Might even asking such a casual question betray a forgetfulness of our Creator Lord's utter sovereignty?  Some might say my questions dabble in semantics, and deflect attention away from the main point of Allen's book.  However, I'd counter that if semantics don't matter, then how much do any of us have to believe - about anything?

Monday, December 16, 2013

Shooting Straight on Culture

Okay.  I'm ready for my wrist to get back to normal!  

It's now week two of the "Pain Strain Right Wrist Twist," my unwelcome memento from the "icemageddon" that slammed north Texas two weekends ago.   I had slipped on some ice, sprained my right wrist, and can still barely type a complete sentence, even though most of the swelling has gone down. 

In the meantime, then, how about some bullet-pointed thoughts on various topics, instead of essay-style posts?  Most people seem either unable or uninterested in following a train of thought longer than a bullet point these days, anyway.  Weapons experts say bullets are one of the fastest ways of communicating something, so hopefully we can communicate with grammatical bullets.

And not leave any scars in the process.


Today's Topic:  Shooting Straight on Culture, Music, and Sanctification
  • First of all, can we agree that all cultures may have positive, negative, and neutral qualities?  And that cultures do not inherently hold value?  They're also rarely whole units, but an amalgamation of various trends that ebb and flow based on ancillary factors, like the economy, politics, and geography.
  • After all, just look at what many people call America's "culture."  To be honest, doesn't your definition of American culture vary from mine?  Doesn't "culture" depend on who's describing it?  How authoritative does that make our descriptions?  How sanctimoniously should we defend our "cultures?"
  • Secondly, can we agree that the Tower of Babel was not primarily God's tool for creating diverse cultures, but to remind us mortals that we are not omnipotent?  Diversity itself may have admirable qualities, but does that automatically mean applying diversity to cultures, automobiles, hair styles, tomato sauces, political ideologies, opinions on pre-born life, and music is just as admirable?  Is cultural diversity inherently good because God scattered peoples across His creation - because they wanted to build a monument to their own capabilities, is it?  Is it the expressions, traditions, expectations, moral structures, and music within cultures that matter most to God, or is it the people within each culture?
  • In fact, could it be said that multiculturalism is one of the results of sin, and the fall of mankind, not only in the Garden of Eden, but the great flood of Noah's day?

  • God used the Holocaust to bring people to Himself.  Witness, for example, the ministry of Corrie Ten Boom.  So does that mean the Holocaust was worthwhile after all?  Was it "redeemed?"  Does that make the Holocaust something honoring to God?
  • Can we agree that the popularity of anything is not sufficient justification for that thing?  If a group of seminary professors, or professional musicians, or pastors all agree on something, does that make it right?  Some evangelicals are fond of saying that they want to make God "famous," but fame and popularity are two different things, right?

  • Are discipleship, corporate worship, and evangelism about fame, or popularity?  Or something else, like honor?  After all, fame isn't the same as honor, is it?
  • Would you say that music appropriate for the worship of God is worship that ascribes to Him characteristics embodying the Fruit of the Spirit?  Or is God glorified simply through music and art that embodies the qualities of a particular culture?  Do people know we are saved because of the culture(s) with which we identify?  Who gets to decide what parts of any culture are appropriate for God's people to participate in?
  • When we get bemused or belligerent when somebody says a certain aspect of culture isn't appropriate for Christians to participate in, how reliable are our presuppositions and personal preferences as guides for how we challenge, refute, encourage, or otherwise engage in any rebuttal?  Whose culture gets priority in such discussions about cultural relevance and importance?
  • Can seminary professors, preachers, and other professional Christians be wrong about Biblical concepts?  How strongly can a Christian subculture negatively impact Biblical concepts?  How eager are we to assume that simply because we like something, and a favorite Christian celebrity also likes it, it must be good?  Is life too short to conduct vetting processes on what we've determined to be arbitrary judgments like musical tastes to determine if our judgments are accurate or not?
  • How much of a role does one's culture play in the ability of the Holy Spirit to teach His doctrines of grace, reveal sin, and guide us to repentance?  How reliant are we on culture instead of the Holy Spirit when we share the Gospel?  How much of our understanding of the Gospel is based on our personality?  Our worldview?  Our upbringing and education?  To what degree do we superimpose our own cultural background on our opinions?  Does doing so create a hierarchy of cultural viewpoints, with our particular one holding higher credibility than somebody else's?
  • Does the Bible ever specify a point in time at which all of us believers will be in complete accord regarding the customs and practices that are otherwise foreign to us?  Yes, and that time will be in Heaven, correct?  Together with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we'll join the Church Triumphant from "every nation and tribe" to share in the adoration of the Trinity.  Until that time, however, how are we to conduct ourselves?  Especially in those times when we don't - or won't - agree?
  • How counter-cultural is that love with which we're supposed to treat our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ?  No matter the culture from which we've come, or feel the most comfortable associating with?

Friday, December 6, 2013

Holland's Alcoholics Can Drink Their Pay

For what will you work?

Some folks will work for lots of money.  Others will work for the satisfaction of helping their fellow man.  And still others will work for low pay but great benefits like employer-paid healthcare.

At stoplights here in the Dallas area, there are homeless men who hold up signs that read, "will work for food."  Then there are the jokesters who claim they'll work for chocolate, or for beer.

Well, the Dutch city of Amsterdam has you covered, at least on that last one.  They've initiated a program that pays alcoholics in beer.  Well... beer, lunch, some money, and more beer at the end of the workday.  Run by a non-profit called the Rainbow Foundation, this unconventional initiative is designed to give nearly-homeless alcoholics, who can't find regular employment because of their addiction, something worthwhile to do - pick up litter in public spaces - and pay them on the cheap.

Cheap, as in cheap beer.  The Rainbow Foundations get the least costly canned beer they can find from sympathetic distributors, and gives each destitute alcoholic two cans in the morning, two for lunch, and one or two at quitting time.

Plus lunch, half a packet of rolling tobacco, and 10 euros.  Every workday.

The Dutch claim they're not the first to try paying drunks in beer.  They say they got the idea from the Canadians, but oddly enough, several Internet searches didn't turn up anything on it.  Maybe the Canadians didn't have the guts to stick with it like Dutch liberals claim they have.  After all, they say, this is about providing a little bit of human dignity to a group of people who've been marginalized by society.  That's what Holland is all about these days, it seems.  Or so they want us to believe.

Otherwise, they rationalize, all alcoholics get told is "alcoholism is bad for you, and you should seek help."  Which, of course, is true.  Alcoholism is bad for you, and you should seek help if you have it.

But increasingly, not just in Holland, but across the Western world, it's a lot easier to be the enabler than the accountability partner.  Look at the distribution of condoms in schools, for example, or needles to drug addicts.  While paying drunks with beer may be a different wrinkle to the problem, how much of a fix is it for anything?

In an op-ed on the strategy for Bloomberg.com, writer Leonid Bershidsky actually praises Amsterdam's program, raving about how some of the men in it have reduced their alcohol consumption, and pointing out that it doesn't include hard liquor.  Holland's effort "may appear immoral to people accustomed to treating addiction with punishment," Bershidsky reasons, but he credits the country's famous secularization for nurturing the civic boldness of what he considers a creative solution.

So, the idea that an alcoholic needs to admit their problem and seek treatment is a "punishment," according Bershidsky.  Removing the consequences of antisocial behavior from the individual committing it actually is beneficial for that person.  He prefers blaming a society that doesn't benefit from certain undesired behaviors for imposing a moralistic expectation on the individuals perpetrating that undesired behavior.  Instead, he wants society to make amends for whatever the perpetrator of certain undesired behaviors has suffered.

Hey - as Bershidsky points out, it's cheaper than addiction counseling and therapy.  Amsterdam gets its parks cleaned on the cheap, and gets the drunken sots off of their benches.  Plus, participants in the program get a little self-worth from holding a job.  It's not even like it will severely impact Holland's mortality rate due to alcoholism (the men are already alcoholics).  It's a win for everybody, even the taxpayer.

Of course, as Bershidsky gets himself bogged down in national mortality rates based on alcohol consumption, he handily ignores that half-pack of tobacco the alcoholics also receive daily, but hey - why not kill two birds with one stone, right?

It's difficult to pin down Bershidsky's politics, since he's a Russian based out of Moscow, and most of his beat seems to revolve around Vladimir Putin.  But from the sound of things, might his take on the role of government sound suspiciously like that of libertarianism, in which fiscal expediency trumps morality?  After all, would either Democrats or Republicans officially advocate enabling self-destructive behavior in such a blatant fashion, even if some of their policies, however unintended, end up creating the same effect?

If you're not willing to brand Bershidsky a Libertarian, perhaps it's because beer-for-work theoretically gives government a more intrusive and decision-making role in society.  Let's start with the belief - held by many experts in scientific and medical communities everywhere but the Netherlands, apparently - that alcoholism is a biological disease.  If we can get past the liability issue of the malpractice involved when patients are intentionally given a substance that could exacerbate their medical condition (Holland has socialized medicine, after all), how much control of a society's conscience gets transferred from the populace to the government?  Yes, some experts claim that dispensing vices like prostitution, marijuana, and now beer - and Holland does all three - actually helps control the problems more conventional societies try to solve by restricting them.

But who is responsible for a person's actions?

If a government assumes more and more responsibility for how its citizenry behaves, instead of expecting its citizenry to maintain their own responsibility for their behavior, who gets to define morality?  The government, correct?  But then, who gets to enforce that morality?  Not the citizenry, for whom new moral standards may seem arbitrary.  Kind of scary, huh?

But wait - there's more.  If the government is going to pooh-pooh the objectification of women, the mental instability of pot, and now the payment of alcoholics in the very vice that locks them into their condition, how much more is government playing a role in helping to institutionalize the very problems that even the Dutch realize are, well, problematic?  If these weren't problems, after all, the Dutch wouldn't be looking for solutions.

And the solutions the Dutch have found have increased the role of government in their lives.  You see, prostitution in Holland is regulated, as is the dispensing of marijuana, and now, the beer payment method.  You can't just participate in these activities unilaterally.  The government makes certain allowances for them, and they are allowances that grant the government even more control of Dutch society.

As it is, there are currently less that 20 men in the beer-for-work program, which in terms of impact, isn't numerically significant.  So maybe the Dutch could be excused for flirting with yet another exotic government program upon which data can be collected for research and further social experimentation.  After all, for centuries, people have been fighting alcoholism with limited success.  Nobody's saying that it's easier for alcoholics to go sober.  But maybe now, after the numbers get crunched on this latest scheme, we'll have one less proof that, oh, say, five beers a day is a good way to rehabilitate a drunkard.

Meanwhile, in their coverage of this story, the New York Times tells the tale of one of the beer-for-pay workers who began to abuse alcohol in the 1970's, after his wife, pregnant with their twins, died of a drug overdose.

Whoa!  Wait!  Hold it!  You mean to say there are deeply tragic stories behind the pickled livers of these alcoholics?  You mean they didn't just show up in Amsterdam's parks as drunks?  There are painful reasons for why people are driven to make alcohol such a central - and destructive - part of their lives?

And five beers a day in partial pay represents an adequate substitute for dealing with the causes of such distress in life?  Talk about drowning your sorrows.  Or rather, drowning "in" your sorrows.

So much for the Dutch trying to portray themselves as humanitarians.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Past Present: On Mandela and Rap

One of modern history's most famous heroes died today.

Nelson Mandela spent nearly all of his 95 years fighting for an end to segregation in his homeland of South Africa.  He tenaciously endured 27 years in prison after he gave up on peaceful protests against apartheid, the country's official system of discrimination, and turned to violence.  In 1962, he gave a speech in which he justified armed conflict as a means to an end, and a forced response to the violent suppression of civil rights imposed on South Africa's vast underclass of impoverished and disenfranchised blacks.

Not exactly the way most people picture him.  But then again, like it is for most heroes, Mandela's legacy, while remarkable, isn't entirely pretty.

Contrary to what you might hear during the next few days, he was no saint.  Years ago, American blacks counseled him to adopt Dr. Martin Luther King's practice of non-violence, but Mandela would make the point that things were far more dangerous in South Africa for his people than they were in the United States for King's.  It was for his refusal to denounce violence that Mandela ended up in prison, and it was the constant pleas to world leaders by his then-wife, Winnie, whom he'd married three months after divorcing his first wife, that finally brought international pressure to bear for his release in 1990.

Unfortunately for Mandela, after decades of imprisonment, he discovered that Winnie was carrying on an affair with a younger co-worker of hers, and they divorced while he was in office as South Africa's president in 1996.  It was that presidency, which seemed so improbable when Winnie was herself tortured for her efforts on Mandela's behalf while he was imprisoned, that symbolized the extent to which Mandela had achieved the bulk of his goals.

Respect, Irrespective of Culture

Although blatant racism still exists in South Africa, Mandela tempered it exponentially.  In a way, his forced confinement honed him into the respectable yet defiant agitator for civil rights that he didn't think would work when he advocated instead for violence.  His fellow prisoners marveled at how Mandela insisted on maintaining his dignity while being incarcerated, even to the extent of making sure his prison uniforms were always pressed with proper creases.  Intelligent, eloquent, idealistic, and charismatic, he built awareness for the plight of his black countrymen despite having to do so from behind bars, and even though all South Africans still have a long way to go down the road towards racial reconciliation, his life - and indeed, in all likelihood, his death - represents the key turning point.

Of course, many of his fans across the globe would bristle at such a eulogy, because it isn't entirely flattering.  But then again, Mandela himself didn't seem to work overtime hiding his imperfections from the world.  He never asked for supremacy, and he never appeared to expect the adulation others bestowed upon him.  He believed he had a mission to accomplish, and although some of his early methods were debatable, they ended up placing him at the point where the oppression against him and his people became unsustainable.

Indeed, it's not even what Mandela did, but what he didn't do, that ended up solidifying his reputation as a hero.  Upon his release from prison, with the world watching on television - including me - he could have announced a mass revolt against the government that had held him, and who knows the civil war that could have broken out during that emotionally tender time.  Yet Mandela committed himself to creating institutional change through the institutions he knew would need to endorse it.  When he ran for president, he only ran once, serving one term, so that he wouldn't appear power-hungry.  He could have probably served in office for as long as he desired; yet his desire wasn't fame, but progress.

Many will now mourn his passing as they would that of some eminently successful political figure, or even a conquering crusader.  Others, however, will recognize the deeper legacy of Nelson Mandela as being one of an unwaivering believer in basic rights who reminded the world that human dignity isn't something a government can bestow, but is something government should protect.

Human dignity is irrespective of politics, skin color, and culture.

Interestingly, it has been against the backdrop of evangelical Christianity's current debate over reformed hip hop that news of Mandela's death comes and reminds us of the not-too-distant physical struggle for civil rights, even here in the United States.

And as I've been reading many of the articles, blogs, and feedback posts from professing Christians who feel passionately about this issue of rap and its application to our faith, I wonder if I'm beginning to see why blacks, in particular, defend rap as strongly as they do.

The physical struggle for civil rights may be over, but that's the only one.

It appears that this discussion has tapped into a deep suspicion, skepticism, anger, and perhaps even hatred that black Americans have towards whites.  Am I wrong about that?  Some people who identify themselves as African Americans are framing the debate over rap as one between blacks and whites, us vs. them, and freedom vs. bigotry, whereas many whites simply seem to be asking if form follows function.  On some feedback forums, it's almost as if the Biblical merits of rap music are beside the point; what people want to address is the suspected bigotry and veiled audacity whites have to bring up the question in the first place.

A lot of similar frustration came to the surface earlier this year, during the trial of George Zimmerman, when conservative whites like me pleaded with blacks to wait and let a jury decide based on the facts.  Now, however, there's no mainstream media involved in the debate upon which whites can levy blame for distorting the perspectives of their viewing audience.  This is purely a tribal battle within our Christian subculture, and it seems that only we conservatives whites have been caught off-guard by it.  Meanwhile, the resentment being directed towards those of us who do not consider rap to be an appropriate way to express the Gospel has obviously been building among rap's fans for a long while.

During the Zimmerman experience, I found myself almost as perplexed as I am now by the radically different worldview - and, seemingly, theology - being expressed by our black brothers and sisters in Christ.  But now, I'm convinced that the Zimmerman dichotomy was no fluke.

There is something separating us.  And it's real.  And it may be very, very deep.

Respect, Irrespective of Culture

A lot of what separates us must stem from our country's dreadful history with civil rights.  A lot of what separates us involves blatant disparities in areas such as economic attainment, incarceration rates, and educational achievement.  For the most part, we go to different churches.  Both whites and blacks are aware of all these disparities and differences, but how likely is it that these mean something else entirely to whites than they do to blacks?

I'm not saying that blacks today blame today's whites for how their ancestors have been treated.  It's just that cultures evolve, and they evolve based on historical precedents, and hey - from that perspective, things don't bode well for future African-Americans.  I'd like to think that we've come a long way, but - at least emotionally - how much farther do we whites have to go than blacks?  That's not to say that reparations are in order, or that affirmative action is necessary, or that social promotion has validity.  What it does say, however, is that in terms of "overcoming," it's not the blacks who forced whites to use different drinking fountains, or sit in the back of restaurants, or walk a gauntlet of screaming bigots on their way to Little Rock High School.

After all, we're on the "favored" side of all of these differences.  When we walk into a store, clerks don't check us out defensively.  When we're stopped by a police officer, we don't have to brace for how improperly we might get treated simply because of our skin color.  When we listen to music, we don't think about how "white" it is, and likely, it doesn't speak to how white we are.  It's just music from some genre, like country, or classical, or Gregorian chant.  Even jazz or blues seems to be devoid of race and color, but when it comes to rap, whites may not understand how many blacks - particularly younger ones - may identify with it.

I don't "identify" with the music I like.  I approach music purely on the merits.  But then, I'm not a terribly romantic guy, or enthralled with any particular lifestyle, or a follower-fan of certain trends or fashions.  And maybe a lot of blacks aren't, either.  At least, on the surface.  But subconsciously?

For many people, music speaks more than just aurally.  It gets under their skin.  And for blacks, having a musical style that originally spoke uniquely to their presumed position in life may be far more meaningful to them than we whites realize.

Now, I'm not using any of this racial reality as a reason to exonerate rap, or to excuse the problems I have with it.  But I can't ignore the growing evidence that there is a hurt and a pain in here somewhere that I don't feel, but African Americans do.  They've been subjected to humiliation and cruelty by the broader white culture, and now, we're picking on something that they claim as theirs.  Could that be sparking a new release of resentment?  Resentment of us and our white culture's historic treatment of them?  Maybe even more than they're aware?  How dare we whites presume to have the right to criticize something that is a direct link to black pride and passion?

I'm not going to trivialize either the passing of Nelson Mandela or the evangelical debate over rap music by trying to tie the two together.  But I will point out that in both narratives, the plot may be the same:  getting to where you want to go can require overcoming afflictions of historic proportions.

For a similar perspective regarding the late Nelson Mandela, consider this op-ed by Gideon Strauss, a native of South Africa who served on his country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

For more on the growing divide between black and white Americans, consider this recently-released report on race relations.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Before Bashing Bashir, Pivot Past Palin

Bashing Martin Bashir.

In the wake of a dust-up over the celebrated journalist's derogatory remarks about Sarah Palin and human excrement, Bashir has tendered his resignation from the left-wing MSNBC cable channel.  And many right-wingers are cheering this afternoon at the news.

You can Google what Bashir said about the former governor of Alaska yourself.  It's not worth repeating here.  Suffice it to say that, even though I'm no Palin fan, what came out of Bashir's mouth, and what he wanted to put in Palin's, equated to pretty much the same thing.

Bashir is a British-born journalist of Pakistani Christian heritage who gained international fame when he scored a rare personal interview with the late Diana, Princess of Wales.  Bashir was also a confidant of the late, highly eccentric Michael Jackson.  His peers consider him a workaholic, even by their own hard-driving standards, and he's developed an uncanny ability to cultivate unusually jovial relationships with the personalities upon whom he reports.

Well, obviously, except for Alaska's former governor, who has a talk show of her own on the FOX network, where her legions of fans, even this long after her failed bid for the vice presidency back in 2008, simply adore her, and vehemently defend her against her many, many critics.

What is far less known about Bashir, however, is that he's a born-again Christian, and attends Rev. Tim Keller's Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.

For some "new Reformers" and other evangelicals, in whose eyes Palin represents a sort of patriotic saint, it may make for an uncomfortable - and unwelcome - irony to be faced with a brother in Christ who has publicly pronounced a dreadfully vile analogy against another self-professing Christian.  It may not bode well for Redeemer's reputation, either, that one of Keller's more prominent congregants has been outed as such a ridiculer of the Republican right.  Some evangelicals have quietly supposed that Redeemer is full of closet Democrats, or at least - gasp! - moderate Republicans, who represent subversive elements in Christendom's attempts at wrapping the Cross of Christ in the American flag.

Two weeks ago, when I first heard of Bashir's remarks, which were not extemporaneous, but scripted, pointed, and wholly deliberate, leaving nothing ambiguous, I was disappointed, and a bit surprised, because I'd known about Bashir's involvement with Redeemer for a while.  And if you know what Bashir said he'd like to see happen to Palin, you know that his was not a Christ-honoring hope in any way, shape, or form.

Not that the rest of us haven't said things we wish we hadn't.  Granted, few of us do that in such a public forum, and to such a charismatic media darling.  But I wonder how many evangelicals would not have really had a problem with what Bashir said if he had been talking about Nancy Pelosi, for instance, or Harry Reid?  Or our current president?

Why does the name and identity of the person Bashir was talking about mean anything, if we're talking about the social propriety, respect for one's basic humanity, and concern for our faith witness that each of us believers in Christ should be intent on maintaining?

I've been reminded lately of a little phrase one of my grandmothers used to whisper to my brother and me when we were children, in kind of a sing-song fashion.  And it seems so appropriate here: 

Be careful of the words you say, and keep them soft and sweet.
You'll never know, from day to day, which ones you'll have to eat.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Keeping Command in Rap Debate

"A new command I give you:  Love one another.
As I have loved you, so you must love one another.
By this all men will know that you are my disciples,
if you love one another."  - John 13:34-35

If you call fretting work, I worked all the way through this past Thanksgiving weekend.

Yeah, I know - God doesn't want us to be anxious about anything, but I readily confess that I was sinning all through the holiday.  And yesterday.  And up until about 11:20 this morning, Central Standard Time.  It was at that point when God finally convinced me that He's got this thing well under control.

What thing?  What has been my angst these six-and-a-half days?

That polarizing video about Christian rap that popped into the blogosphere last week.  I wasn't even looking for it, and I can't remember how I discovered it, but suddenly, I was watching the video, agreeing with some of it, recoiling at some of it, and then witnessing self-professing Christians coming out of the woodwork to blast the folks who believe Christian rap is not an appropriate worship format.

"Good grief," I panicked within myself.  Privately, I knew my own anti-rap opinions could be misconstrued as pompous ethnocentrism.   "But maybe... am I a racist because, although I don't mind the lyrics of reformed rap, I find its acoustics and its vibe unconducive to holiness?"

Hey - I don't want to be a white bigot.  I don't go looking for problems with Christian rap.  But neither can I simply snap my fingers and ignore what bothers me about Christian rap.  Shucks, I can't even help but wonder if many of those problems stem from unresolved cultural disconnects within and between white and black Americans.  Might ignoring such concerns contribute to the acquiescence that's helped them fester?

Starting on Sunday evening, I began writing down a litany of questions I'd assumed I'd already answered in my own mind about reformed rap.  But I was willing to admit they could be the wrong answers.  It turned into one of the most stressful blog essays I've ever written.  Yesterday, when I finally forced myself to stop writing, editing, and re-writing, I sent links of what I posted live to several people whose feedback I value.  Then, this morning, I was back at my computer, voraciously surfing evangelical websites, reading the arguments still being posted - and argued over - regarding Christian rap.

And to be honest, I appear to be in the minority on this one.  There aren't a lot of people writing in support of the idea that Christian rap is an inappropriate expression of worship.  Maybe that's because many of us know we're being branded as bigots for holding that viewpoint, and don't want to be blasted off the Internet by people refusing to let us explain ourselves.  Indeed, there's a ton of vitriol out there directed at people like me from people who love rap and the hip-hop lifestyle, believe that rap is key to evangelizing the inner city, and seem either oblivious or apathetic towards the impact rap's history has on its "reformed" style.

To be frank, the attitudes being conveyed by some of reformed rap's supporters could actually be used to support my contention that rap, at least in its "non-reformed" iteration, engenders rage, hostility, bravado, and belligerence.  These opinions are being maliciously voiced online, a venue which makes cruelty and mockery a lot easier to dish out than in face-to-face encounters.

Then there are those who scoff at the notion that white people think they have any skin in this game.  Why should people like me have an opinion on anything outside of our suburban ghettos, let alone America's urban ones?  We're not doing the heavy lifting in south Dallas, or Brooklyn's Brownsville neighborhood, or Detroit.  Quit criticizing and complaining, and if you don't have anything supportive to say, don't say anything at all.

Which, technically, isn't exactly a Biblical attitude to take, either.  Haven't we believers in Christ been empowered by our Savior to hold each other accountable, to sound warnings, and to encourage each other towards love and good deeds?  If a deed looks good, sounds good, tastes good, feels good, but really isn't good, we're not given a pass to just shut up about it since we're not the right race, or the right culture, are we?

Of course, we are to speak the truth in love.  And while that's what I usually attempt to do, especially in tricky, sticky situations like this, I realize that a lot of folks on either side of an issue don't even bother to try.

Then, too, just about everybody in support of rap has caved to the notion that the battle over contemporary Christian music (CCM) has been won.  They've determined that CCM's legitimacy as a worship style is unassailable, which in itself is rather discouraging to me.  Perhaps it should come as no surprise that, with CCM now firmly entrenched in most white evangelical churches, the acceptance of reformed rap represents simply the next step along that continuum.

Complicating matters even further appears to be not only the white infatuation with CCM, and the black infatuation with reformed rap, but the contentment everybody seems to have settled into, letting each fiefdom march off and do its own thing.  Nobody seems genuinely interested in combining forces and serving together in a broader discipleship effort, except when it comes to sharing an enjoyment of a particular music style at a rap concert.

But you know what?  As I was fretting a lot - and only praying a teeny, tiny bit - over this bitterness, hurt, and confusion in my own heart and brain, and wondering why I don't just shut up and be the silent, middle-aged white man so many people want men like me to be on this issue, God told me it was time for me to do pretty much the same thing.

Be still, and know that He is God.  I am His sheep, and this is His pasture.  He knows my heart, and He knows that I don't want to be a bigot, and He knows that my pride is hurt because I'm worried that other people will assume I am one.

So what does God expect from me?  And from you?  And from everybody who claims the name of His holy Son over their entire being?  It's that "L" word, isn't it?  The "new command."

His "new command" isn't to convince, or to condemn, or to chide, or to accuse, or to begrudge.  It's to love His people.

And you know what?  I can't do that on my own.  I still really think I'm right.  And I believe that God has allowed me to express my frustration on this blog to clarify my position as I believe it should be.  I'm not beholden to any culture, tradition, people group, race, nationality, ethnicity, musical style, or opinion.  My obligation is to honor Him in what I express and how I express it. 

And you know what else?  I could still be wrong about this reformed rap stuff.  Apparently, I'm going to have to wait and see.  In the meantime, it would be sinful of me to assume that because rap's fans and I are not on the same page, they're not even reading the same book.

Who among us likes to follow orders?  Yet, loving one another is a command from God; not a suggestion, or a helpful tip-of-the-day.  That means He knows there will be times when we won't feel like it, or be drawn to do it instinctively, or will love because we have so much in common with others.  There are times when love will be work.  It will be intentional, and it will be risky.

Since I'm not beholden to any culture, and instead am a product of God's grace, it is by my reliance on that grace that I will endeavor to love.  And I will pray, and be patient, and trust in God's sovereignty.

After all, if my main point in all of this involves my concern that God's holiness is not being honored, don't I need to let His holiness work in me, too?

Monday, December 2, 2013

Questions Regarding Reformed Rap

When Satan wants to pit God's people against each other, he sure knows how to do it.

And using music as provocation is one of his specialties.  Perhaps of all the world's art forms, music has an uncanny ability to elicit emotions, depict cultures, and frame worldviews that eludes most literature, sculpture, or paintings.

Simply witness the grinding controversy that erupted this past weekend in the wake of a video about Christian rap music.  The video was recently taped during a conservative religious conference entitled "Worship of God," hosted by a previously-obscure evangelical group, the National Center for Family-Integrated Churches (NCFIC).  During that conference, the assembled speakers were asked to discuss the appropriateness of rap music in the Christian life.

One of the panelists at that conference, a Presbyterian minister from Georgia, pronounced rap music as "the death rattle in the throat of a dying culture."  Another panelist claimed that rap is all about the rapper, instead of the lyrics, or the music.

Perhaps the most instantly-vilified claim by one* of the panelists, however, was that rappers and people who enjoy rap are, by their musical choices, being "disobedient cowards."

Now, for the record, I do not believe any of these assertions are true.  What I do believe, however, is that a lot of people don't understand how rap came about, what purpose it serves, and why it resonates with what appears to be such a diverse audience.

Being Wary of Racism in Issues of Race

After all, it's not just black people who enjoy rap - and Christian rap, too - but white people as well.  In fact, some of the most vociferous criticisms of this video and the people on it have come from older white men, who may not personally prefer rap music, but don't have a theological problem with it.

Oddly enough, it's considered okay for older white men to support Christian rap, but when white people bring up criticisms of Christian rap, suddenly they're disqualified from the discussion because they're white.  Which points to an unfortunate dualism when it comes to debates regarding things our society interprets as belonging to particular cultures.  If somebody of Chinese ancestry, or Brazilian, or Vietnamese, were to make the same claims questioning rap, would they get any more respect than a Caucasian American?

Granted, some Caucasian Americans who oppose Christian rap seem to be doing so through a veil of  bigotry.  Then, too, other people simply see racism behind every statement with which they don't agree.  Plus, although the question of Christian rap's appropriateness is not a racist question at its core, some people nevertheless desire to make it one.  It's become popular in our politically-correct society to burden these discussions with the extra emotional weight of America's atrocious history with civil rights, even though such a tactic can command a deference that, paradoxically, may help perpetuate the racism such claimants ostensibly want to refute.

After all, if the color of a person's skin unilaterally dictates whether their opinion on a subject will be accepted or rejected, don't we have more than one problem to be addressed?

It's at this point where many people who don't agree with what they've already read will be tempted to brand me as a white racist and call it a day.  They will determine that because I don't have a PhD in theology, philosophy, music, race relations, or anything else, that I'm not qualified to educate them on anything.  They will ignore the reality that educated "experts" from varied disciplines disagree amongst themselves regarding rap music.  They will forget that God expects us to make up our own minds about "whom we will serve," and that we need to base our lives not on what is expedient, popular, or enjoyable, but on what is true.

So let's go with that - except the white racist bit - and assume I don't know what I'm talking about.  Let's suppose I'm wildly naive and uneducated on the topic of Christian rap music.  After all, I don't have an alphabet soup's litany of capital letters after my name.  And, yup - my skin is pretty white, now that whatever tan I got during the summer has faded away, and I've only ever lived in a ghetto - in Brooklyn - for a year and a half in the 1990's, so how could I possibly have anything worthwhile to contribute to this conversation?

Besides, my life would be a lot easier if I was wrong about this whole thing.  Please - PLEASE! -  prove me wrong!  I'm not kidding - do you think I enjoy holding an unpopular viewpoint?  Do you think this is fun for me?

Because this is not fun.  I derive no pleasure or satisfaction from believing that "reformed rap" is an inappropriate musical form with which Christ's followers should not significantly engage.  I do think rap and hip-hop serve a purpose, but it seems to be very limited in scope, and not exactly worshipful.  So I certainly wouldn't mind being proven wrong here.

To prove it, I'm going to try and be respectful and gracious, and instead of lecturing you about why I think I'm right, I'm going to ask you what you believe, so you can show me the errors of my opinions.

After all, if we can't at least survive this little exercise, then the Devil will have already scored, right?

Hey Hey Q&A

So, without any further ado, let's start where rap started, at its own beginning.  According to Kurtis Blow, the world's first commercially-successful rapper, all we need to know about rap is that:
  • Rap is talking in rhyme to the rhythm of a beat.
  • Hip-hop is a culture, a way of life for a society of people who identify, love, and cherish rap, break dancing, DJing, and graffiti.
Which brings me to my first question:  I get what Blow is saying, and it all sounds fairly innocent, except for that antisocial graffiti stuff.  However, isn't rap more than just rhyme, rhythm, and break dancing?  As the genre has grown, wouldn't it be accurate to say it's become an expression of a culture that believes it has been disenfranchised by society's power structures?  Isn't it a voice of America's urban ghettos that speaks defiantly of cultivating a unique moral code in conformity with the perils of the streets, where violence, poverty, sexual abuse, dysfunctional families, drug abuse, illiteracy, and vandalism dictate authority?

When the genre was in its infancy, nobody was running around, documenting who was doing what in chronological order, which means that a definitive timeline for rap's early years doesn't exist.  However, most experts on rap agree that it started on the grim streets of New York's infamous South Bronx, as far back as the 1970's, when white flight had decimated much of the city, and whole apartment blocks were being torched by landlords unable to find market-rate tenants.

Amidst all of this chaos, blacks from a variety of international and ethnic backgrounds were trying to find a unique way to express the socioeconomic marginalization they collectively felt.  The remarkable amalgamation of oral histories among slave cultures represented in the South Bronx, including progeny of America's Deep South, the African continent, and the historic slave trading post of Jamaica, contributed an ancient tradition of storytelling through song that entrepreneurial blacks began tweaking with electronic musical equipment.

Based on this perspective, could it be argued that the original sounds and demeanor of rap found a certain legitimacy in their call for action against the stereotypes, bigotry, and violence that actually helps perpetuate those characteristics of racism and urban nihilism?  Could the more commercialized rants of rage and angst common among more modern rappers be considered a trend towards the glorification - instead of a refutation - of those socially-destructive characteristics?

And speaking of history and authenticity, how much legitimacy does the "secular" rap industry ascribe to Christian rap?  Can Christians worship to music designed to decry political and economic desperation?  Remember, America's revered negro spirituals, an even earlier form of storytelling through song, were based on Biblical concepts that were tied to metaphors related to emancipation, almost as a code language with which they could communicate right under their owner's nose.  Rap, meanwhile, is as blatant as the poverty in which most of its originators lived, or the materialism flaunted by so many of its present-day purveyors.  It's one thing to be defiant, but don't you have to be defiant about the right things?  And what about Christian hip hop, with lyrics about salvation, purity, and Godly love?  Might those themes so mock the genre's formative laments and current hedonism as to render it technically distinct from the form from which it came?  Might "reformed rap," with its lyrical emphasis on true hope, be too reformed to benefit from protected status as a radical, racial art form?

Or does the history of anything have no bearing on its legitimacy?  Does the purpose for why something exists today have no bearing on its legitimacy?

To what extent is materialism present in rap music and its hip hop culture?  To what extent does a musician's clothing, jewelry, shoes, and overall personal appearance play a role in the message being communicated?  What's the difference between criticisms white people levied against the flamboyant Liberace, for example, and the criticisms white people levy against many of today's rap stars for the same type of over-the-top indulgences?

In previous essays on this topic, I have agreed that, at least for "reformed rap," much of the lyrics are theologically-sound, and some are downright poetic.  So why can't rap artists simply recite their poetry without the acoustic accompaniment?  After all, hardly anybody is complaining about Christian rap's lyrics.  What is it about the heavy beat that is so essential?  Is it mesmerizing and hypnotic, or even sensually sexual?  Is Kurtis Blow correct in claiming that rap is nothing without its thick, primal beat?  Are the acoustics of rap not morose to its fans?  Am I completely off-base here, and is rap's sound not belligerent, or aggressive, or threatening?  Advocates of Christian rap claim that they're redeeming the genre for Christ, but even if lyrics can be re-worded, can rap's soundtrack be uncoupled from its distinctive anger and petulance?  Have defenders of rap developed a new standard for beauty?  And, if that's the case, what makes this new standard for beauty better than the old one?

How much of the respect being given to Christian rap music is based on a desire for cultural integrity?  Do you believe all cultures are equally valuable, and that they all make equally-valid contributions to our shared experience on this planet?  Do you believe that everything is relative, and that there are no moral absolutes?  Do you believe that some cultures should be given some slack because historically, they've been at some sort of disadvantage?  Do you believe in Affirmative Action, a policy that does not reward people based on objective merit, but on subjective backgrounds?  Does the very implication that rap music is an inferior form of expression offend you, and if so, why?

Do you have a problem with rock music?  I do, especially in the context of corporate worship.  So do you think I'm wrong for opposing rock music in church?  What is rock music, generally, if not an expression of rebellion, a loosening of inhibitions, and a defiance of propriety?  Am I even more of a prude to you, now that you know I don't even consider rock music appropriate for corporate worship?  At least I'm an equal-opportunity sour-puss, right?

How about this one:  Might the evangelical infatuation with rap and hip-hop be - at least in part - a subconscious attempt to gloss over the economic depravity that overtook urban ghettos as a result of white flight?  Many younger evangelicals today were born after white flight had already devastated neighborhoods across urban America, and they neither have nor want any connection with that part of our country's history.

Might evangelical cultural elites be unable to bring themselves to inspect the causes for the dark environment that helped give rise to rap?  Alternatively, could their own frustrations with their faith in light of our country's dismal post-Christian metamorphosis - not to mention our dismal post-Great-Recession economy - be seducing them into rap's nihilistic beat?

Topping Hip Hop?

Um, I've got a few more questions, but can we at least agree that rap music indeed taps at the root of angst, anger, frustration, and other physiological manifestations of naturally-occurring emotions on the negativity spectrum?  Can we agree that it's easy to assume that there's little danger in Christians mimicking the music of the ghetto, because the enlightened mind says it's all a matter of taste?

But is that really true?

Some try and compare rap music to meat sacrificed to idols, from Paul's exhortation about diet and weaker brothers in 1 Corinthians 8.  However, isn't there a big difference between what we mortals eat for ourselves, and what we offer up in worship to our Heavenly Father?

To what degree might we as a culture have lost our appreciation for the concept of "holiness?"  To what degree do we consider God more of our celestial buddy than our Creator?  To what degree do we consider Christ's purpose on Earth to have been for our good, instead of His glory?  Do we really understand that we were bought with a price, and that price was God's holy Son?  Do we really understand that we are not our own, because our debt was paid by Christ?  Do we really understand Biblical freedom?  Do we really understand that God looks at our hearts to gauge how committed we are to Him and His truth?

What is truth, anyway?

Here's some truth:

"Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; worship the LORD in the splendor of his holiness."  - Psalm 29:2 (variations at Psalm 96:9 and 1 Chronicles 16:29)

"Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our 'God is a consuming fire.'"  - Hebrews 12:28-29

For years, these two scriptures have served as the backbone for my arguments against the legitimacy of most contemporary Christian music (CCM), and especially its more rock-and-roll iterations.  And another reason I've refused to embrace CCM is because most of it is geared for a white, suburban, and middle-class audience.  In my feeble little brain, I imagine all of God's people worshipping Him not only in their native tongue, but in unison, like the hosts of angels.  So why we should intentionally segment corporate worship into fiefdoms based on race, geography, and economic status baffles me.

Why is this so important?  Because God still looks at our hearts, both yours and mine.  And a lot of people who seem to be after His are vehemently defending rap, which represents another huge disconnect for me.  You can tell by the questions I've asked that there's either a lot of stuff I've learned about my faith that either doesn't apply to this discussion, or there's a lot about my faith that I still need to learn. Or maybe there's a lot that other people of faith haven't learned about rap that should apply to this discussion.  Or there's a mixture of the three that needs to be sorted out.

Somewhere in all this, there's the answer that is rock-solid truth.  Truth apart from culture, or race, or political correctness.

Wouldn't it be nice if we didn't have to wait until we got to Heaven to find it?

* That panelist, Geoffrey Botkin, has issued a personal apology, which can be read here.

Update:  An online dialog on this subject between reformed rapper Shai Linne and seminary professor Scott Aniol can be found here.