Monday, March 31, 2014
It's the state in which many North American evangelicals find themselves when Biblically-themed movies are released from Hollywood.
It never fails - from the Last Temptation of Christ and the Passion of the Christ to Son of God and, now, Noah, conservative Christians immediately begin bickering amongst ourselves. We bicker regarding the theological merits of each one. And whether self-respecting Christ-followers should pay good money to go see them. Even if we admit that, yeah, the movie is full of heresies, we still feel entitled to go see it and evaluate it on its cinematic merits.
As if a movie's cinematic merits account for as much value as its Biblical accuracy! Some people might say that in any other context, assuming such a thing means we're lowering our standards. Even though cinematography did not exist when the Bible was written, it's safe to say that any move that does not portray the Gospel or any aspect of it in a God-honoring fashion is not worthy of our patronage.
Although... perhaps the fact that we evangelicals have so many different ideas about what constitutes "honoring God" should be more troubling to us than the content of these controversial movies.
I offer my opinions on a variety of subjects, but I am not a movie critic. For me, a good movie is one that lets me escape my troubles for an hour or so, preferably with some clever slapstick humor and some witty satire. There aren't many stories from the Bible that can be adapted into such a screenplay. So since your taste in movies is likely broader than mine, you'll be happy to know that I'm not going to try and foist a movie review on you.
But every time one of these Christian-themed releases comes out, I find myself bewildered. Not exasperated, like the legions of evangelicals who are arguing all over the place about whether to go and see such-and-such movie or not. I simply get bewildered. Why do we assume Hollywood wants to get the Bible right? Why should we assume that we have the right to expect Hollywood to get the Bible right?
As much as conservative evangelicals rail against entitlements in politics, it seems that many of us feel entitled to watch movies that don't insult our doctrinal sensibilities. At their heart, isn't that the pulse behind all of the discussions, arguments, evaluations, editorializing, reviewing, and hard feelings behind movies like Russell Crowe's Noah? That evangelicals have a right to be entertained by movies, to see them regardless of what anybody else warns about them, and even the right to not be offended when movies "creatively" adapt Bible stories and characters for the big screen?
How much of this is part of the entitlement of fun that North American evangelicals have honed over decades of affluence? We enjoy paid vacations, the relatively new invention of eight-hour workdays, taxpayer-funded parks, relatively affordable airfare, and professional athletics, DVRs, personal computers, and the reclining chair, just like unsaved heathens do. How many other Christ-followers around this globe enjoy such sophisticated First World diversions?
I know self-professing Christ-followers who can rattle off entire sports team rosters from twenty years ago, or plots from the most obscure movies, but who have to hunt up verses in their Bible, instead of being able to recall God's Word as effortlessly as their favorite pop culture data.
Hey, I haven't memorized the Bible either, but then again, I can't remember my own driver's license number, let alone sports rosters or movie plots. Scientists say we humans utilize only a fraction of our brains, and I don't deny that in my case. I will readily confess that until spoiled North Americans like me are forced to memorize scripture, instead of being able to rely on any number of translations readily available on bookshelves in our homes, or on our personal communication devices, few of us will commit the time it takes to memorize scripture.
But that's not my point. The point is that just as we feel entitled to have God's Word at our fingertips, if not tucked within the memory folds of our brain, we feel entitled to enjoy a movie like Noah simply because it's a much-heralded blockbuster. And if we don't enjoy it, we should be able to blame it on comparatively insignificant reasons, such as dowdy special effects, or mediocre acting. But Hollywood forbid that we feel compelled to blame it on how the purity of God's holy, inspired Word was disrespected.
This past weekend, Noah opened at the top of the box office, grossing an estimated $44 million upon its release. It had already raked in $95 million overseas, where it has been met with far less critical theological scrutiny - which perhaps should have been a clue right there for North American evangelicals wondering if its theology was worth the price of admission. Noah cost only $130 million to make, so its producer, Paramount Pictures, has already earned its money back, thanks in no small part to legions of evangelicals who I know packed theaters this past weekend to see what all the fuss was about. How do I know? From all of the reviews posted on Christian websites, and even my own circle of friends.
Indeed, I realize my viewpoint is quite unpopular, since it seems as though every other Christ-follower I know in North America loves to go to the movies. But I just don't get it: why the infatuation with them? Especially when it comes to products made disproportionately by a pop-culture industry that historically has displayed little interest in Biblical inerrancy? I can understand going to the movies for a rainy Saturday afternoon diversion, but why do evangelicals insist on perpetuating high expectations when it comes to Hollywood's interpretation of what are supposed to be our sacred scriptures?
And why do the people who apparently feel compelled to write positive reviews of the cinematography for Christian websites apparently feel compelled to rationalize that Hollywood's depiction of sin and man's depravity has been authentically captured by Hollywood? Do we need a movie version of Noah or Last Temptation to describe depravity creatively? By digesting how awful Hollywood can make immorality appear, are we somehow comforted by the idea that since we don't act like those people in the movies, we're somehow better than they are?
You and I don't slaughter, rape, pillage, and defame God (at least, not publicly). But one, single, solitary sin in any of us would be enough for God to turn His face from us, and banish us to an eternity in Hell. And it wouldn't matter whether that sin was murder, or eating one too many Krispy-Kreme donuts.
Folks, we're talking h-o-l-i-n-e-s-s here. Holy. That's what God is. And what we're supposed to be, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Meanwhile, movies are mere entertainment. A way to kill a couple of hours. Nothing particularly wrong with that, but consider the contrast between the two: God. A movie. And we think we're entitled to have the two meet up pretty closely with each other? After all, isn't that what we're saying when we complain about movies like Noah?
Our world has deeper problems than whether or not we get to go see a movie like Noah. Or even whether we should see it. Our world even has deeper problems than however heretical Noah may be.
If you're trying to redeem the time - and money - you spent ostensibly hoping to redeem Hollywood by patronizing a movie like Noah, then give up. Might there be reasons why God didn't appoint Christ's time on Earth to take place during our audio-visual age? Maybe I'm not culturally sophisticated, but I don't think I spend enough time reading the Book, let alone watching its movie version.
Then, too, some Christians postulate that we need to protect Biblically illiterate moviegoers from Hollywood's bad portrayals of theology. However, I suspect that if we were as concerned about not portraying bad theology in our own lives, as we are with advocating for good theology in the movies, our Biblically illiterate society would suffer far less.
Do we honor God by deciding to go and watch controversial movies about Him and His people? And then struggling to find something good about the experience? Perhaps, but might we demonstrate less hedonism on our part if we decide to honor God by not bothering to see such movies in the first place?
Not out of piety, of course. But to live in a better state than exasperation.
Friday, March 28, 2014
American pastors seem to be under the cross-hairs a lot these days.
They get into scandals that can morph from congregational gossip to national news practically overnight. They burn-out from stress at alarming rates because most American congregations expect their professional Christians to do everything they're supposed to be doing.
Preaching? That's just was pastors do on Sunday mornings. What are you doing the rest of the week? Somebody's gotta feed the homeless, visit the sick, counsel married people, counsel divorced people, mow the church's lawn, make sure the elder board gets its agenda notes before their meeting, make sure all of the video games work in the teen hang-out, and put gas in the church van.
Then there's all that theological stuff that they graduated from seminary with, and they say they still want to read about. And the denominational stuff, and keeping up with the trendy guys on the worship team. Has anybody updated the church's website lately? Why don't we have more visitors on Sunday mornings? Why does the pastor's wife say she hardly ever sees her husband? He has the most fluid schedule of anybody!
At the rate America's seminaries keep churning out graduates, I suspect that Church Reality 101 is not a prerequisite to graduation, and if it is, it's not being taught properly. Either that, or seminary graduates really do think they can change the world.
It's only when they start paying for their seminary education with their first church job that most of these eager, altruistic souls start realizing that they're not entering a profession that is admired both in society in general, and Christian congregations in particular. These graduates knew money would be tight; but respect? Have you noticed all of the articles on Christian ministry websites lately, lamenting the loss of respect that many American pastors feel today? They're suddenly realizing that, for church-goers, going to church is merely one of many activities in which they participate during the week. And it's the one with the greatest lack of personal accountability. Studies calculate that less than 20% of church members ever tithe, hardly any church vote draws 100% of the membership, and corporate worship attendance is a fraction of the membership. Volunteers are never in oversupply, and in fact, are usually chronically late, apathetic, unprepared, and needing to leave early for something else more fun, fulfilling, or demanding.
Indeed, there is much to lament about the casual attitude American churchgoers possess regarding their church, and their pastors. Yet as much blame exists on the part of churchgoers, the breakdown in pastoral prestige is a two-way street. Pastors have been among the most vocal about abandoning traditional symbols of their trade, like clerical robes, and even the prefix "Reverend" or "Pastor." When you want people to treat you casually in America, the land of fast food and dress-down Fridays, you'll usually get what you ask for.
Nevertheless, whether your pastor wears a robe while preaching on Sunday morning is a mute point when it comes to what they're actually preaching, doesn't it? And this is what a lot of pastors don't want to talk about. Particularly in our post-modern era, where the relativism that is corrupting American society has seeped into pulpits across the country. American Christians have become woefully infatuated with the popular culture all around us, and so have our pastors.
I read a recent article on a popular evangelical website in which two pastors were debating the merits of two well-known secular movies about Jesus Christ. Over the years, I've come to regard one of the pastors as a typical consumer Christian, infatuated with culture, and quite willing to embrace fashionable trends to appear relevant. For this article, he was the pastor standing up for some pretty heathen moviemakers, arguing that even if their theology wasn't accurate, at least they helped encourage moviegoers to think about the Son of God.
The second pastor, who wasn't buying the "relevant" pastor's argument, is somebody whom I'd characterize as less progressive, less stylish, and less cosmopolitan than the other pastor - although I suspect both of them are about the same age. Basically, this second pastor was trying to point out that theology is still important, even in the movies, and even in movies produced by a secular studio. And especially when the move is about the Bible, God, Jesus, and the Gospel.
Most feedback writers in the comments section following this article were enthusiastically siding with the first, "relevant" pastor. Me? Of course, I sided with the pastor who is right!
After all, if we truly believe the Bible contains God's holy Gospel, aren't we trivializing it by shrugging our shoulders and busying ourselves by looking for artistic merit and arbitrary validations when movies adapt the Gospel by which we're saved in ways that don't honor God?
And just because it's trendy and popular to go see movies that don't honor God, and then try to extract nuggets of religious relevance out of them anyway, does that make such moviegoing honorable in God's eyes? By feeding on artificial depictions of our Savior, does our faith grow? Or does it metastasize into a form of relativism, which would help explain the status of the office of pastor these days?
Don't we Christians have a bad habit of giving too much credit to our culture, and not enough respect to our Savior?
Then there was another article I read by a popular worship pastor in a large church that most evangelicals would readily recognize. He began his article by gushing about rap music - and not Gospel rap, either; but ghetto rap. Then he quickly transitioned into his admiration for a popular rap artist's latest creation, a vile depiction of nihilism, sin, and what we Christians call legalism. It's dark, agonizing rap, and full of really bad theology.
And this evangelical music pastor loves it. He thinks it's a perfect description of human sin. How wonderful that a secular rap artist has been able to so forcefully portray debauchery and hopelessness in such a loud, pulsating fashion!
I have a very, very hard time respecting a pastor who thinks that our world needs any more reminders about what sin is, and how it feels. Especially from an "artist" that has no intention of immediately contrasting that sin with God's grace.
I also have a very, very hard time respecting as pastor who wholeheartedly abdicates scripture in his musical tastes by defying Philippians 4:8, which encourages us to do the exact opposite of admiring songs about sin:
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
It's quite possible that this music pastor who works at a well-known megachurch has a rationale for hammering his musical tastes within the metric of truth, honor, purity, loveliness, and excellence. And what would be the foundation of that rationale, but relativism? It's all relative, isn't it? You might not like it, but I do.
But is that what the Apostle Paul means by this verse?
Pastors who can argue that it is are the pastors who enjoy significant popularity today. But perhaps not as much respect. If you're building your ministry on what our popular culture values, that's a paradox that can evolve. Popularity isn't a validator of truth, substance, and eternal significance. And no, respect isn't, either. But people can respect you even if you're not popular.
Well, I suppose you can also be popular, while people don't really respect you. But how meritorious is that? How many of our pop culture celebrities embody such unrespected popularity all too well?
Meanwhile, Christ was never respected, or popular. It's not the best way to get a job at an American church these days, but it appears if they can't have respect, some pastors are fine with popularity.
But then, who's leading whom?
Thursday, March 27, 2014
Talk about intimidating!
Can you think of two more blockbuster issues in North America today than abortion and gay marriage? For us evangelicals, it can seem as though the ground under our feet is slipping away, like sand as we stand on a beach in the lapping surf.
Perhaps you’re tempted to simply stand and become a bystander, and let other people grapple with these blockbuster issues. Yet, particularly if you're an unmarried evangelical, like me, have you ever realized that we are in a unique position to advance the cause of Christ regarding both abortion and gay marriage?
Think about it: most women who consider abortion – along with the men who’ve impregnated them – are single. And how many people considering same-sex marriage are currently in heterosexual marriages? See – these are singles issues, and who do you suppose has the most access to North American singles? Other North American singles – especially those who belong to Christ!
We’ve got our own mission field right here where we live.
We evangelicals know where we’re supposed to stand on these issues, even if where we’re standing seems like the proverbial beachhead of civilization as we believe the Bible teaches it should be. And where we’re standing is being lapped away by the surf of relativism.
It’s one thing for us to sit in church or a Bible study and agree with our pastors and popular evangelical personalities when they teach about how God’s Word views same-sex marriage, and how society discards lives it claims are inconvenient. Yet we can do more than just agree with what the Bible teaches. We can testify to God’s truth with our own lives, in our personal spheres of influence.
Most of the activism being seen in the public square on these two topics appears to be coming from older, married Christians – people who may not possess much credibility among those actually making the personal decisions that, cumulatively, are directing the outcomes of these debates. Meanwhile, where are we evangelical singles in this mission field of blockbuster issues that directly affect our fellow unmarrieds?
Okay, so taking a stand for Christ’s truth isn’t as easy as it sounds, is it? For one thing, both of these blockbuster issues share a key sex component. Considering how much our society openly worships sex these days, perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that both abortion and gay marriage have as much to do with sex and interpersonal relationships as they do legislation and morality.
But, for a variety of Biblical reasons, our church leaders haven’t historically encouraged us to talk about sex. As evangelical singles, we may consider ourselves to be an unlikely group of people to champion the lives of fetuses, and heterosexual marriage. After all, we’re supposed to be chaste, sexually inactive people, for whom marriage has been deferred, however temporarily. How could we possibly be relevant ambassadors for God regarding such sexually charged issues? How can we lovingly and effectively engage our friends, co-workers, and family members who may hold different opinions than we do on these topics?
Why not try doing it one person, one friend, one co-worker, one relative at a time?
Blockbusters issues like abortion and gay marriage can be intimidating because, as social norms change, it’s easy to forget that societies don’t change without individual people actually changing. In other words, the continent of North America isn’t waffling on these two issues; the people who live here are! Society is a collection of people; people like you and me. Societies don’t make decisions; people do. And God places us where we are – here in one of the wealthiest, best-educated, and technologically advanced societies our planet has ever seen – for a reason.
And what is that reason? The same as it’s always been: To glorify Him, and that involves testifying of His goodness to those with whom we come in contact! Some people call it evangelism, but even that can sound intimidating to many of us. But think about it: everything you do, everything you say, and even everything you don’t do – it all tells people around you something about what you believe.
So, what are your life and your lifestyle telling people about your belief system? Are you glorifying God with what you’re saying, even non-verbally? Even when it comes to blockbuster issues like abortion and gay marriage?
Remember, however, that to glorify God, we have to allow His Holy Spirit to produce His fruit in our lives. Things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. It’s hard to see how berating people who advocate for abortion, or mocking those who advocate for gay marriage, models the Fruit of the Spirit. So how do we advocate for those things that honor God – in ways that also honor God?
First, we probably can all agree that the time to be hesitant about committing to Biblically based standards in these two politically-charged has passed. We can no longer ignore abortion and gay marriage. So when you hear about these issues in the media, and especially among your friends, co-workers, and relatives, don’t shrink away from the discussion. After all, timidity regarding truth is part of what has gotten us into this ever-expanding morass of moral relativism.
When we interact with other people – people who are made in God’s image, remember – we need to model the Gospel appropriately. Christ only displayed His anger once – when He was clearing out the moneychangers in the temple. Otherwise, He displayed pity upon people who did not agree with Him. And so should we.
Pity. Not contempt. Remember the Fruit of the Spirit! Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, patience, gentleness, and self-control. Matching vitriol with vitriol is not a hallmark of Christlikeness, is it?
Consider, too, the ways in which you can develop interpersonal relationships with people who don’t agree with you on abortion and gay marriage. Christ did not flinch from associating with people whose morality did not approach His own, and He did not prohibit His disciples from associating with them, either. There is a difference between associating with people who do not believe in Christ, and copying their sinful lifestyles. If we spend all of our time cloistered within our “sacred huddles” or “Christian ghettos,” then how can Christ use us to influence society for His glory?
For example, would Christ refuse to be friends with somebody who is gay just because they are gay? Would Christ de-friend a person simply because she’s had an abortion, or he encouraged his girlfriend to have one? Christ never taught His disciples to disassociate from people because they’re sinners. Shucks, we’re all sinners! We should use discernment regarding the lifestyles and behavior patterns with which we choose to associate, but the same sins we see in others mimic the sins from which Christ has saved us. Perhaps He wants to use us to do the same for our friends, co-workers, and relatives.
Just because abortion and gay marriage are blockbuster issues doesn’t mean that Christ can’t use people like you and me to influence our society in ways that glorify Him. After all, Christ doesn’t save countries or societies; He saves individuals.
Tuesday, March 25, 2014
Part 1 - I've a Confession to Make
Part 2 - Not Your Everyday Depression
How do they fit?
How can a person who claims to be a Christ-follower also claim to have chronic clinical depression?
Isn't the one supposed to cancel out the other? Isn't faith in Christ supposed to be the all-encompassing happy stuff that cures whatever ails you? Or, alternatively, shouldn't chronic clinical depression corrupt enough of your soul with despair to convince you that God isn't so loving after all?
Or am I simply pursuing some vain hope that a belief in Christ can be a panacea for my problems? Is my faith merely a crutch to help me deal with chronic clinical depression?
I'll be straight-up honest with you about this, so you won't go reading any further, expecting me reach a conclusion of profound insight that nobody else in the history of humankind has ever had. No, I don't have a lot of answers for you. Especially if you're not already convinced that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that He died on the cross to take away the guilt of your sins. Neither am I at complete peace simply accepting that God allows stuff to happen to us purely for His glory and our good, which the Bible teaches are the two basic reasons why anything happens to any of us.
I'm sorry to disappoint you, but I'm not a mighty Christian. Hey - I'm a red-blooded, self-indulgent, 21st Century American. Which means I'm spoiled. I'm also skeptical, iconoclastic, and cynical, which means I've looked high and low for the easy exits, and discovered there aren't any. There are no magic beans, and there is no tantric bliss.
However, there is the Holy Spirit, and He has assured me of eternal life in Heaven with God through Christ. I trust in God because the Holy Spirit enables me to, just as He enables me to endure, day by day - and often, hour by hour - whatever troubles, anxiety, pleasures, and accomplishments He allows. For His glory, and my good.
If you think this makes me a dim-witted humanoid weakling who needs to hope in a Deity to make some sense out of life, then you'll probably not find anything helpful in my perspective of how my faith and my depression fit into my body and brain. I invite you to read on, of course, perhaps only as an experiment in having an open mind. However, if you yourself have been convinced by the Holy Spirit that God exists, and that He loves you, and you've invited Christ to be the Lord of your life, then hopefully my rough-hewn theology of clinical depression can be helpful to you.
Because I do think there is a theology of clinical depression, and I think God is teaching me about it and Himself through this experience.
Spiritual, Physical, Emotional
Admittedly, I don't know as much about the different types of serious problems other people face.
However, my theology of clinical depression probably follows along the same lines as most other perspectives of suffering, sickness, and pain that take place in the life of every born-again follower of Christ. God never promises anybody a life of ease and carefree, pain-free idyll. If your life seems like one big festival for you, then the cynic in me would wonder if your faith is as genuine as you think it is. Why? Because the Devil, our enemy, is real, and one of his vile tasks involves trying to corrupt your faith to the point where you're willing to deny your Savior because you can't make sense of what He's allowing to happen to you.
The book of Job in the Old Testament is one massive parable about how Satan went to God and proposed that he could destroy Job's faith. God allowed Satan to try, but even after Satan caused everything that Job had to be taken from him, with the exception of an unhelpful wife and unhelpful friends, Job remained faithful to God. Today, some Christians think that the problems they face are cataclysmic meteors direct from Satan, like Job's were. Or they wonder if maybe God is secretly testing them, to see how genuine their faith is.
I don't necessarily hold myself in such high regard to presume that either God or Satan have chosen me to be some pawn or allegory. Satan may have devised my chronic clinical depression to see if my faith will collapse, which is his singular modus operandi, but I'm pretty sure God is letting this happen to me to build my faith. And part of building my faith is trusting in God's sovereignty. My personal sin nature did not directly cause my depression, although it certainly plays a role in how I deal with it. If medical science is correct, and my allocation of the neurotransmitter serotonin is wonky, then I was likely born with a predisposition to clinical depression, and it won't be my fault if I have it the rest of my life. My parents and I, as we've worked backward from my diagnosis, now suspect that some of my oddities as a child and a teen stemmed from clinical depression, only back then, hardly anybody knew what clinical depression was. The diagnosis, after all, is relatively recent. Nevertheless, suffice it to say, whether this is a direct test, from God or Satan, it's something that God has allowed, and something that I may overcome with His help here in this life. And if not in this life, then most assuredly in the one to come.
Maybe that sounds like fatalism to you. To me, it's more like hope.
Two Views for Treatment
Unfortunately, for those of us in the Christian community, even everything I've just written is not enthusiastically embraced by Christ-followers who try to treat people like me. You see, there are two general schools of thought within evangelicalism regarding treatment methods for chronic clinical depression. The conventional method is the one in which I've been treated, and am still being treated. It involves traditional Christian counseling that looks similar to secular psychotherapy, except it's conducted by therapists trained in Bible-based approaches to emotional disorders. It can include a liberal reliance on psychiatric theory and medicine, as a mixture of science and spirituality.
However, a newer school of thought has developed as a reaction to the conventional Christian counseling model, and its practitioners call themselves Nouthetic, or “Biblical,” counselors. This isn't entirely helpful for a couple of reasons, the first and most obvious one being that by calling themselves "Biblical" counselors, advocates of this school of thought are insinuating that their approach is theologically superior, and that traditional counseling methods, by contrast, are not Biblical.
This is no mistake on the part of Nouthetic practitioners, because many of them dismiss traditional counseling, no matter the clinician's evangelical devoutness, as too corrupted by worldly science and fuzzy psychiatry. Nouthetic counselors tend to emphasize theological discipline to the exclusion of medical considerations. They theorize that their patient's sin is the dominant problem, and believe that helping their patients confront their sin is more effective than considering biological contributing factors to clinical depression.
Understandably, conventional Christian counselors caution that Nouthetic/Biblical counseling risks being too simplistic, aggressive, and medically dangerous. For their part, Nouthetic/Biblical advocates contend that Christian counseling flirts too much with secular theory, and it's too generous to the patient when sin issues comprise only one of several aspects to be addressed by Christian counselors - whereas Nouthetic counselors focus mostly on their patient's sin. In other words, if I allowed myself to be treated by a Nouthetic counselor, I would likely be directed to simply confront my fears, lack of trust, selfishness, and pride - all components of my chronic clinical depression, I admit; and all sins. And I would likely be strongly discouraged from continuing my medication regimen.
Perhaps for people who are merely wallowing in self-pity over something, such an approach is appropriate.
Meanwhile, I don't see why considering certain biological factors and medical treatments - such as prescription drugs - for clinical depression is being unBiblical. I'm willing to explore aspects of my sin nature that likely contribute to my problems, but is science so wrong that it should be excluded from a treatment plan? From what I've read about the Nouthetic approach, most of its advocates have never been to medical school, and seem annoyed that traditional counselors put as much faith in science as they do, as if science in general - and psychiatry in particular - is utterly unGodly.
Much of this discrepancy likely stems from continuing confusion over what "depression" really is, and the degrees of severity it can involve. Personally, I suspect that too few Nouthetic advocates have actually ever had chronic clinical depression, and they have no idea what their patients are going through. I had several therapists who admitted to being recovered depression patients themselves, and I could tell that they had a good handle on what I was experiencing.
Having said all of that, I am grateful to have had (with the exception of my first psychiatrist) born-again evangelical therapists to help counsel me, and they incorporated both science and scripture. If you or somebody you know is in psychotherapy for chronic clinical depression, and your therapist is not discussing your sin patterns with you, then you need to get a new therapist. It's possible that Nouthetic counselors have deemed some traditional Christian therapists to be inadequately incorporating difficult discussions about their patients' sin patterns in the treatment mix. In my opinion, if you're wanting help, everything needs to be on the table.
You see, sin does not cause chronic clinical depression, but it can exacerbate it, prolong it, and even deny a patient their recovery from it. With an illness as individualized as chronic clinical depression, even if medical science ultimately confirms that serotonin plays a causal factor in the brain, nobody can assert that sin isn't lurking somewhere deep in the soul. No matter how physical chronic clinical depression may be proven to be, there is still an emotional component to it, and to varying degrees, I believe that our emotions can be brought under the Lordship of Christ. Not completely, of course - even people who do not suffer from depression have imperfect emotions. But anxiety is a form of fear, and God commands us dozens of times in His Word not to fear. If He commands us to do something, or not to do something, shouldn't that imply that He provides us a way to do it - even if it's solely through our imperfect reliance on the Holy Spirit?
As I've struggled with my depression, I've actually been able to identify some fears that I can indeed place in His hands, and from which I can walk away. I doubt that there's a born-again, evangelical Christian therapist out there who believes that not one fear a patient of theirs may have can be brought under the Lordship of Christ. Any good Christian therapist's job involves helping their patients trust in God, instead of being fearful. Even if progress in that trust is incremental.
So, why am I not cured? I've had this diagnosis for 21 years. Shouldn't that be long enough?
Actually, thanks to the Lord's working in my life, plus the medication I'm on, I've been able to plateau at a point that is considerably higher than where I was when my treatments began, way back in New York City. So I count that as progress, even though it's not what anybody would call "normal." Part of this experience is learning what I can do, what I shouldn't do, and what I can't do. Most of all, however, the Lord has given me an all-new appreciation for the Fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Some therapists have their patients do breathing exercises when they feel panic attacks coming on. One of the best ways I've found to short-circuit a panic attack is to slowly recite the Fruit of the Spirit. And speaking of panic attacks, I'm thankful to God that I can't recall the last one I had!
This is my version of the theology of chronic clinical depression. I can't say it's cured me of my problem, but then again, no theology can, can it? God is the sovereign Creator and Healer; not any scientific or religious theory, no matter how accurate they may be.
So, how can a Christ-follower like me also have chronic clinical depression? Through God's sovereignty, and with the relief of His sustaining grace.
I told you it wouldn't be a fancy answer, but at least I can testify to it now, and thank Him that it's true.
Monday, March 24, 2014
Nobody wants to hear they have it. A lot of people don't even believe it exists.
"Chronic clinical depression."
Technically, the "chronic" part means it's recurring. "Clinical" means that it's been identified as something that exists. And we all know what "depression" means - or, at least, we think we do. The folks who say we're talking about simply having a bad day are the ones who think the whole idea is bogus.
But is it? I'm one of those people who's been diagnosed with chronic clinical depression, and I've come to understand that the more we understand how these three words represent the problem they're trying to name, then the whole concept of medically treating long-term depression becomes less abstract.
Why? Well, for starters, I don't just have the blues. When I was diagnosed, I wasn't upset over the loss of something, like a relationship, a job, or my health. At the time, I wasn't facing imminent financial peril, although I certainly am now. Everybody has stressors in their life, and everybody responds to them in different ways, and in various intensities. We grieve, we fret, we hate, we complain, we worry, we become sad, we become ambivalent. Sometimes we panic. Yet "normal" people rarely become crippled by these emotions for long periods of time. "Normal" people don't dwell on the idea of killing themselves as a way out of these persistent emotions. These are the differences between having a bad day - or a bad year - and having chronic clinical depression.
When two different evangelical psychiatrists here in the Dallas area both independently confirmed over a several-year period that I indeed have chronic clinical depression, they based their diagnoses on a broader set of quantifiable emotional disorders. These disorders exhibit deviations from what could be expected from ordinary reactions to ordinary stressors. For example, these doctors evaluated my history of crippling panic attacks, my pervasive fear of being physically alone, the fact that I used to be on a suicide watch, and several other personal factors which I still want to keep private. Frankly, I've been such a reluctant patient over the years, I don't recall everything they did to render their diagnoses, but I do remember being satisfied with their explanations, even if I didn't particularly welcome the idea of having chemical problems inside my brain.
Chronic clinical depression, after all, is widely believed to be a medical problem. Not just an emotional one. Studies suggest that it involves levels of a chemical called serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps send messages throughout our brain. Unfortunately, the fact that science has yet to discover irrefutable proof of this causal factor simply lends more credence to skeptics who deny the reality of chronic clinical depression.
My fears of being physically alone, ironically, coexist with my preference for solitude, and although I've had periods in my life where I'm more socially active than at other times, I have to force myself to work harder at my people skills than is normal.
Which brings us to another problem with having this diagnosis. What is "normal" for you might not be normal for me, and vice-versa. To an astonishing degree, we are all unique individuals, and "normalcy" is a state of being that is shaped not only by biology and DNA, but also culture, and social expectations. Skeptics could claim that people like me are simply being too hard on ourselves - or, not hard enough. Conformity is one thing, but celebrating our individuality shouldn't be punitive. Just snap out of it and get on with life!
But if that were as easy as it sounds, wouldn't most of us with this diagnosis already be doing that? You think this is fun, or rewarding?
Believe me, this isn't a good way to get my ego stroked, or my fretful half-baked brain cosseted with attention. I may have to work hard at interpersonal relationships, but I seriously doubt that paying a therapist or a psychiatrist to listen to your problems serves as a suitable substitute to having people befriend you without being paid to do so. I can't remember how many years I spent in therapy, but those were not happy hours that I spent struggling to come to terms with my problems in front of somebody watching the clock. In fact, finally, my last therapist, an earnest fellow who plied me with scripture during every session, literally threw up his hands and told me I could answer all his questions, and even come up with applicable scripture for my problems as well as he could. Therapy wasn't helping me, he admitted, and I needed to spend my rapidly-dwindling financial resources on medications we knew worked. And most of all - we needed to trust God for His sustaining - and hopefully, healing - grace.
I haven't been back to therapy since.
That's another problem with having this diagnosis. It doesn't have the immediate impact like "you have cancer" can. With a cancer diagnosis, you may want a second opinion, but not only is there usually no social stigma with it, you can ask all of your friends to pray for you. You don't need to hide it. And even if you get a second opinion, you need to act quickly, and decisively, to get the cancer treated. With clinical depression, things can go on for years - and that's why they call my form of it "chronic."
Yet another problem is that a diagnosis of chronic clinical depression isn't nearly as objective as "you have a broken arm." With a broken arm, there are x-rays and other obvious diagnostic tests to help confirm why your doctor is saying your arm is broken. So you have an operation, or your arm gets put in a cast, and as it heals, you can watch its progress. With clinical depression, unless you have the money to pay for expensive brain scans and high-priced specialists, very little of one's problem is ever visible.
Currently, my prescriptions are being monitored by the family practice doctor I've had since I was a teenager. He monitors my vital signs through regular check-ups, and he's willing to give me the benefit of the doubt as I trust in my "Higher Power" for help. So far, this arrangement has established a plateau of sorts that, while not optimal for the sort of productive "normalcy" I'd like to have, has lifted me above what I used to endure. After all, sometimes progress has to be measured not in what you've done, but what you haven't done. Like suicide. Some days I struggle with it more than others, but as time has gone on, I believe God has taught me more about trusting in Him, rather than in my emotions.
Suicide is one of those elephants in the depression room that none of us likes to talk about. And I'm not going to get too personal here, either, except to give you a little background about how it plays into my diagnosis. Suffice it to say that I began suffering from bleak, life-ending desires after some particularly troubling emotions were triggered by an unstable domestic situation while I lived in New York City. I'd never entertained such thoughts before, but they were pervasive, and almost tangible. I'd stand in the street, a foot or so away from the sidewalk, and marvel at how closely - and how fast! - those lumbering city buses would shoot past the tip of my nose. Just one more step...!
When I eventually caved, and admitted I needed some sort of help, it was my first therapist - at the time, the only born-again psychotherapist in the entire city of New York - who put me on suicide watch. I had to call her message service and check-in every morning and every evening for about two weeks. That was when she told me she would either contact my parents in Texas, saying she was absolving herself of my personal safety, or I would have to go on Prozac.
I'd been fighting her on the Prozac thing - until her ultimatum. At the time, I thought taking Prozac was akin to admitting I was a heathen unbeliever, because I didn't trust God to deliver me from the sin of panicked fear. For my prescription, my therapist sent me to a secular psychiatrist on Central Park West, who officed out of the swanky lobby of the building where Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver used to own an apartment. Like most expensive Manhattan apartment buildings, its exterior was drab and unimpressive, while its exclusivity was best conferred to those granted access inside. In this buildings' case, its lobby reeked of affluence, with spacious hallways lined by glossy brass paneling - I kid you not. Walking among those panels almost made up for the doormen who looked me up and down whenever I entered and left, knowing looks plastered on their faces: yeah, that's one of those nut jobs going to see the quack at the other end of the lobby.
I don't know, maybe that doctor was a quack. He was Jewish, and a self-professing Freud scholar, who kept asking me if I was sexually frustrated, gay, or mourning some unrequited love. New York City, after all, can wreak havoc on a young person's love life. Especially if I was gay, he kept hinting?
I'd relay my conversations with this high-dollar shrink to my Christian therapist, back down in her rickety Greenwich Village walk-up, and she'd roll her eyes and apologize - he was the only doctor she could find in the city who was willing to give Bible-based psychotherapy any sort of chance. Oh well. I enjoyed those floor-to-ceiling walls of brass panels. I have to say that I sure felt important entering and exiting that luxury building across from Central Park, even if it was only tourists on the sidewalks along the park who thought I might be somebody!
These days, I understand that Manhattan is oozing with Christian psychiatrists and psychotherapists, thanks in no small part to Tim Keller's Redeemer Presbyterian Church, and the emphasis they've placed on servicing the legions of Millennials and Gen-X'ers who've flocked to Gotham. That's likely one of the reasons skeptics of clinical depression are skeptical: it seems as though a cottage industry has sprung up over the past twenty years to treat what appears to be an offshoot of "affluenza," as more and more urban young people want to talk out their fears and frustrations, instead of grinning and bearing them like their forefathers and foremothers had to do. After all, is clinical depression suddenly some new disease? Why does it seem like Baby Boomers discovered it, and their kids are the ones suffering the most from it? Maybe we're all too spoiled rotten for our own good by all of our First-World problems. It's just the ones who need to blame something - or somebody - else for their personality issues who are trying to validate clinical depression as something genuine.
Believe me - I've had all of those doubts, and more. Regular readers of mine know that I can be excruciatingly cynical. How do I know for sure that the Devil isn't just trying to make me some lazy, dithering, good-for-nothing spoiled brat who'd rather worry about his problems than find a good-paying job and working so much that he doesn't have time to worry?
Because I have to admit: chronic clinical depression is surprisingly debilitating. And a lot of people - church-goers in particular - think I'm just being lazy. They peg me as one of those man-boys we're hearing so much about these days, who doesn't want to leave his Mommy and Daddy's comfortable home, and have to try and make his own way in this big, bad world. I need a swift kick in the seat of my pants so I don't end up as a drain on society. I say I'm a man of faith? Well, put your big-boy pants on and just trust in God. I say I got sick when I lived in New York City? Well, there's your problem! You can't make it there! No big deal; Texas should be right up your sniveling little alley!
Since I know all the things people are likely saying about me and people like me, where's my incentive to actually prove them right? I have my pride; otherwise, why would I be concerned about what other people think? If I couldn't care less if other people think I'm simply lazy, would I care that something seems to be malfunctioning somewhere inside of me that makes people think I'm lazy? Since I say I'm a born-again follower of Christ, who believes that God loves me and invites me to trust Him implicitly for everything, why don't I just do it, like the Nike commercial says?
That's probably the biggest reason why I don't like having chronic clinical depression. Nobody can really answer all of those questions. There is no 12-step recovery process. There is no magic pill. Moving away from the big, bad city doesn't cure it. In fact, living in a place like New York, I could find plenty of compelling diversions to help dull the pain in my brain, and those diversions don't exist in suburbia. New York City wasn't my main problem. Something in my brain was - and is.
You can tell me I'm not sick, and I could tell a cancer patient they're not sick, but how does that change anything?
Like they say, some things you simply have to experience for yourself. Only I hope you won't have to.
Part 3 - My Theology of Chronic Clinical Depression
Friday, March 21, 2014
...I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. Though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
- 2 Corinthians 12:5-10
Things like what I'm about to do are never easy. Yet sometimes, we find ourselves compelled to do them anyway. As I meditated on this scripture from 2 Corinthians this morning, I thought I heard the Lord telling me to tell you what I'm about to tell you. But here I am, closing in on the end of this Friday afternoon, and I still haven't done it.
Because I don't want to.
But here I go anyway: My name is Tim, and I have chronic clinical depression.
I've had it for years. Two highly-regarded evangelical psychiatrists have separately confirmed the diagnosis, and I'm on two prescription medications for it. I think I've had five or six other therapists over the years, but frankly, I've lost count. It's been at least a decade since my last visit to one.
Okay, so... I'm not gay - which is what some of you were probably expecting me to admit. And no, I've not been engaged in some adulterous affair. I'm not a left-wing Communist, either, although some of my right-wing acquaintances will probably never be convinced of that. I suffer from chronic clinical depression, and while by itself, that's not a crime or something I should be intrinsically ashamed of, I constantly feel like it is, and that I should be.
Particularly as a self-professing, evangelical Christ-follower.
None of our lives are perfect, although a lot of us pretend really hard that they're close to it. But few diagnoses carry with them such punitive baggage in society - and especially in the Christian church - than having some sort of emotional or mental disorder. For years, I've only whispered my condition to select people within the churches I've attended, exclusively on some need-to-know basis, because I'm aware of the stigma attached to it, and how most churched folk treat people like me.
A couple of close friends have asked me why I don't write more about my depression, and my answer to them has always been the same: I have few friends as it is. Letting this type of information circulate in the public domain isn't going to help me find more of them. Especially not in church! Sympathy? Perhaps onlookers think that's what I secretly want, but they'd be completely wrong. A flurry of self-help motivational information by people who think they're being supportive? No thanks, because all you're doing is presuming that conditions like mine are "all in the head" - only metaphorically. Not physically, which is what clinical depression really is. It's a physical problem involving chemicals in my brain.
One does not simply "snap out of it."
Meanwhile, all of the other evangelicals who remain closet sufferers of depression are agreeing with me right now, knowing their own private pain, and their gnawing fear about what would happen if it were widely known.
As I read this passage this morning, which was part of the scripture from this past Sunday's sermon at church, and that subtle little thought sprung up through my brain's morning haze, I fought it. I fought it for the same reason I always fight it, because I've been thinking of doing this for some time, but I've never had the courage to actually do it. Part of me wonders if things really won't be so bad if I go ahead and admit it, even if it's here in an amateur blog that only a few people read regularly. But most of me has seen and heard how my fellow church-goers treat other people who admit they're clinically depressed. And I don't want to be their victim, too.
Yet, neither do I want to be a victim of fear. And fear has become the all-consuming manifestation of my clinical depression. From those excruciating days, 21 years ago, right before my parents in Texas convinced me to go see my singles pastor at my church in New York City for help... when I'd be literally curled up in that fetal position you always hear about deranged people crawling into... fear has reigned in my brain. And probably my heart, too, if I wasn't so scared to open it up and look around inside of it.
And I'm under no delusion that this little essay will really help me feel better. Besides, I'm not telling you my secret so I can feel better. I'm telling you my secret because I don't think I'm honoring God with everything I've got by keeping this a secret. I've got chronic clinical depression, and the "chronic" part means I've had it a long time, and I'll probably have it for a long time to come. God has allowed this to be part of the life He's given me. I didn't earn it through my personal sinfulness, having it is not a crime, and the Lord is revealing some eternal truths to me as He leads me through it.
Most of all, however, He has continued to sustain me through near-daily thoughts of suicide, and teach me why He created life in the first place: for His glory.
Theoretically, at least, I'm learning that my life isn't about me. And your life isn't about you. Not ultimately, anyway. For me, however, chronic clinical depression has been a significant part of life. Even though some people with this condition can - and do - earn a lot of money, I can't handle the stress required for most high-income jobs. Chronic clinical depression has factored into why I don't have a spouse or children of my own, although lots of people with this condition do. Yes, I've come to realize how much of my time I spend being resentful, and jealous, as well as fearful. But then again, a lot of people who don't have chronic clinical depression are also quite resentful, jealous, and fearful. These are things to work through, right? Not ignore.
So, what's your problem? 'Cause we've all got 'em.
My name is Tim, and I've got chronic clinical depression. And I've got God, Who knows what I've got, allows me to have it, and is guiding me through it. And that's the truth.
So - help me, God!
Part 2 - Not Your Everyday Depression
Part 3 - My Theology of Chronic Clinical Depression
Thursday, March 20, 2014
I thought about writing a eulogy today for Fred Phelps, the pastor of Westboro Baptist Church who died last night, in the style of Hank Kimball.
You know, from Green Acres? The absent-minded county agent from that classic TV sitcom, who was always contradicting himself, yet sometimes with revealing frankness? His eulogy for Phelps would probably begin with something like this:
"Uh, hello, ladies and gentlemen. We are here today to celebrate the life - well, no, we're not here to "celebrate the life" of Fred Phelps, as much as we're here to celebrate his death... Fred was the founding pastor of Westboro Baptist Church - well, actually, he wasn't much of a pastor, and it wasn't much of a church..."
And he'd grimace, stick out his tongue, and rock back and forth on his heels for a moment, with a blank expression settling across his face.
Yet, as easy as it would be to poke fun at somebody like Phelps, better people rise above such an opportunity, don't they? It's not easy, though. The folks at Westboro embody so many paradoxes, and repudiate so much orthodox Biblical theology, making light of them - or venting hatred at them - seems entirely appropriate. Almost as if they deserve a bit of their own medicine of mockery.
Under the vicious leadership of Phelps, they've wasted untold opportunities to honor God. Nevertheless, that's no excuse for us to do the same at their expense.
Actually, you might be surprised to learn that Phelps used to be considered a brilliant lawyer, and earlier in his career, he vigorously advocated for civil rights, boasting that his firm "systematically brought down the Jim Crow laws" in Topeka, Kansas. He fought against school discrimination and police harassment of minorities. He even won an award from the NAACP for his successful representation of black clients.
Against such a progressive backdrop, the prejudice, antagonism, and hostility for which Phelps is infamous today is confounding. Yet there's no disputing the fact that his hatred, and its manifestation extended through his followers, has become legendary. Their small yet potent band has pilloried people and institutions as varied as Ronald Reagan, gays, Swedes, Mr. Rogers, the Irish, the University of Kansas School of Law, Jews, Muslims, and victims of the I-35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis. The scope of Phelps' scorn would be ludicrous in its breadth, if it wasn't so plainly repugnant.
In fact, it could have been that God allowed Phelps and his followers to so egregiously misrepresent the cause of Christ so their hatred would spark a compulsion by many evangelical churches to ditch whatever proclivities they might have otherwise felt to be cavalier towards the gay community. Instead, seeing how ugly bigotry can be, evangelicals have been able to draw clear lines of demarcation between bigots masquerading as Christians, and genuine Christ-like concern for sinners, despite whatever sin they may publicly advocate. There have been many examples of conservative churches publicly denouncing Phelps and Westboro, and what they stand for.
And speaking of public sin, how unBiblical is it for Westboro's demonstrators to say things like "God hates fags"? God hates sin, yes, and ultimately He "hates" unrepentant sinners who do not claim His Son as their Savior. But does God hate "fags," in the sense that He utterly despises every person who's currently a professing, practicing homosexual? Absolutely not. In fact, just as He hates the sin of homosexuality, He hates the condescending attitude people exhibit when they use terms like "fags".
Phelps and his flock may have hated gay people, but he remained a registered Democrat for all of his voting life, and even unsuccessfully ran for office as a Democrat. How he reconciled his theology with his party of choice remains a mystery, although he claimed to be the loyal Democrat, instead of all the left-wingers who've changed his party. However, it also says something about the Democratic party that, because of his staunch support over the years, he was invited to both of Bill Clinton's inaugurations - although he protested at the second one! Maybe a Democratic president could get away with risking such awkward diplomacy, while a Republican almost certainly could not.
Of his 13 children, four have left Westboro over the years, and disavowed their father's doctrines. Those of his family who remain in the church insist that there will be no funeral for him, claiming they're unnecessary, and besides, American society has made an idol out of funerals. Which begs the question why they've protested at so many of them around the country. Obviously, they've strategically picketed the funerals of service members, knowing that doing so would be an easy way to garner attention. And in that regard, they acted in the best spirit of carnal, hedonistic Hollywood: "there is no such thing as bad publicity!"
The police department in Topeka, where Westboro is based, has likely heaved a huge sigh of relief at the news that there will be no funeral for Phelps. Can you imagine the crowd control - make that riot control - that would have been required for such an event? Phelps has been called the "hateful preacher Americans love to hate" and it would be so tempting to let his public epitaph erupt into one sarcastic, bombastic orgy of condemnation by people Phelps and his congregation have themselves enthusiastically reviled.
As it is, I simply feel sorry for the lot of them. The people who Phelps and Westboro have targeted at funerals and through other demonstrations, as well as Phelps' woefully misled family and congregants. I can't say for certain that Phelps isn't enjoying an eternal reward in Heaven, but little in his public life gives me hope that he is. For all the distortions of the truth that he flaunted and perpetuated, and in which he led his congregation, the grace of God can be greater still, if he, even on his deathbed, accepted Christ as his true Lord, and repented of his sins. If he did that, then those of us who are in Christ will actually see him again, someday. But if he didn't, then we won't.
That the grace of God is greater than all of the heinous things Phelps did here on this Earth should amaze us. After all, it's the same grace that saves us, we whose sins would be calculated at the same weight as Phelps' in God's eyes, were it not for our trust in Christ's shed blood on our behalf.
It's not a comfortable thing to contemplate, but how far different are we from Phelps, anyway? We look at outward actions, and assume they reflect what's in a person's heart. But is that an accurate estimation of our sinful nature? Or are we simply taught to politely hide what we think? Meanwhile, Phelps simply didn't bother working very hard at hiding what was in his heart with religiously-correct words and actions. He reflexively acted out the sin in his heart, even if the rest of us have been trained not to. Perhaps that raw manifestation of his sin is what made his deportment so bizarre to us. But God still looks at all of our hearts, and whether we think a sinful thought and leave it in our head, or demonstrate it physically, we've still sinned.
That perspective kinda narrows the difference between Phelps and us, doesn't it? But take hope! The power of the Holy Spirit works in the lives of God's people to lead us in ways that honor Him, even if our hearts are still vile inside of us. Perhaps there are things that you and I have thought of, and desired, and maybe even acted upon, that Phelps never did. We already know the opposite of that is true.
See? The problem with sin is that we can't compare ourselves with each other, and guesstimate which of us are better, or worse. We need to look to Christ for His assurance that despite our sins - whatever they are, and however many there are - we are saved from being punished for those sins through faith in Him.
As sober as Phelps' death is for us in this context, we are the ones who have hope! We also have the Fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, meekness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Let's not dwell on the ones Phelps didn't demonstrate in his life. Instead, let's concentrate on how we can demonstrate all of them in ours.
Wednesday, March 19, 2014
|Can you guess what this building is? |
A military bunker? An old K-mart? A really low-budget municipal library?
A designer museum by a world-famous architect?
She struck a pose against the glass cabinet.
"Consider it matter of perspective," she encouraged me.
I was in the gift shop of Fort Worth's acclaimed Kimbell Art Museum, near the entrance doors of its venerable Louis Kahn building, where I had just arrived after touring a brand-new building on the museum's grounds. Compared with what I'd just left, the original Kahn building seemed like a faithful friend.
"You have to look over at this Kahn building from inside the Renzo Piano pavilion," the curly-haired docent in the gift shop advised, using the names of each building's architect to differentiate them. "Don't try to appreciate the Piano building from over here, in this masterpiece."
Talk about putting things into perspective.
I had finally plucked up the courage to make my first visit to the controversial new gallery space designed by celebrated Italian architect Renzo Piano. It had been constructed on a broad, grassy lawn that used to lie just to the west of the Kimbell's first building, designed in the 1970's by the late Louis Kahn. And while I've grown to thoroughly enjoy Kahn's building, I'd seen enough pictures of this new structure in the local media to know it was really going to have to impress me for me to like it in person.
And sure enough, it didn't, and I don't.
I can't decide the least unflattering comparison to make with the Piano building. A military bunker? An old K-mart? A really low-budget municipal library?
If you can call $135 million "low-budget," that is. That's the amount paid by patrons of the Kimbell for what's basically expansion space. As the Kimbell's diverse and well-regarded collection has grown over the years, the original Kahn building couldn't hold it all. Besides, the Kimbell has won the rights to host some elite international exhibitions, which also need more room. Initial ideas for expanding the treasured Kahn building were quickly shot down by the world's architectural community. So an annex of sorts was commissioned, with directors of the Kimbell specifically pursuing Piano, since he's one of the most prominent architects practicing today. Yet as Piano's proposal filtered through its design process, the customary superlatives for what was being planned became muted. The New York Times diplomatically focused on Piano's environmental features for his project, while local critics presumed anything by Piano had to be good.
Meanwhile, regular readers of mine know that "I don't do new well," so I didn't really expect to like it. Yet I was still surprised by how unsatisfying a design it really is.
Not that I'm an expert, of course. But considering the bar that had been set by the precise lines of Kahn's masterpiece, his clever use of light, and the richness of his materials, I didn't think Piano, whose career has crested far higher than Kahn's ever did, would so confidently wallow in mediocrity. The entrance hall he gave his pavilion looks like a high school gymnasium without the bleachers. The wood floor creaks annoyingly, even though it's brand new. The lighting - from both an overabundance of tall windows and expensive-looking spotlights - was garish on this ordinary spring day in Texas. And Piano's gallery space? Perfunctory and adequate, if not a bit dark in the corners, with ceilings that seem almost too low.
There's absolutely nothing in the Kimbell's new building that indicates they paid a premium for a rock star architect from Italy. Apparently, there are some glass louvers around its roofline that Piano says will refract some sunlight, but with environmental technology being so sophisticated in far more mundane applications these days, Piano's louvers - again - seem merely adequate.
And to top it all off, there's a meager, narrow, concrete and wood sidewalk connecting the two buildings. Two buildings that happen to each be worth tens of millions of dollars in their own right, and containing priceless art. Talk about pedestrian! Walking between the Kimbell and Piano buildings, I felt like a high-schooler trekking between the main schoolhouse and, well, an annex.
This is world-class design? I didn't contribute any money to the construction of the Piano pavilion, I don't know anybody who works there, I'm not a member of the Kimbell's association of patrons, and I don't even live in Fort Worth. But I was actually embarrassed for the folks who did, and do.
So when the docent in the gift shop quietly sighed - as though she'd heard complaints similar to mine quite often from other visitors - and leaned against her glass display case, in a gesture of "here we go again," I wasn't surprised that she had a ready answer for me. But what she said did surprise me.
Without outright admitting that the Piano pavilion was underwhelming and, frankly, one of Piano's less stellar designs, she framed the quandary not from the perspective of the Piano pavilion's deficiencies, but from the Kahn building's strengths.
"I was at an evening function in the Piano pavilion's basement right after it opened," she recalled, "and there's a glass elevator that faces this Kahn building. When you come up from below ground, at dusk, and you see the Kahn's facade fall in front of you through the ascending glass elevator, with the special lighting, and the setting sun from the west hitting it, it's simply beautiful."
Okay, so, are folks at the Kimbell satisfied with spending $135 million for a glorified storage annex, while their original building continues to receive the accolades? That's not what the docent said, but perhaps even Piano himself had that perspective in mind. "The positioning of the [Piano] pavilion on the site focuses attention on the west facade of the Kahn Building," purrs a description on the Kimbell's website of the intended interplay between the two buildings.
Which, if that's the case, makes my perspective, for what it's worth, that much more amenable. Granted, in terms of the grand scheme of life today, it's not Russia invading Ukraine, or relatives fretting over loved ones missing on a Malaysian jetliner, or even the March Madness about to be unleashed on the basketball world. But the Kimbell's Kahn building has been my favorite public architecture in all of North Texas for years. And if the Kimbell's own directors, not to mention one of their gracious docents, don't mind if I completely ignore their Piano annex, then I won't either. Since I will.
It's a matter of perspective, after all.
Tuesday, March 18, 2014
Once upon a time, there was a mighty Empire.
And in a rural part of that Empire, where the hills are green, the lakes are a deep blue, and the citizens are industrious, there was a vibrant mid-sized city. The city had been built by entrepreneurs, manufacturers, merchants, and educators, along the banks of a well-traveled man-made waterway linking the Great Lakes with the Hudson River.
Tens of thousands of people were employed in a variety of ventures, from making Carrier air conditioners to parts for Chrysler automobiles, and designing sophisticated radar systems. The dental chair was invented there, along with the traffic signal, the serrated knife, synthetic penicillin, and the drive-in bank. Several prestigious universities, including a world-class institution named after it, were established there, producing graduates like entertainer Dick Clark, sportscaster Bob Costas, actors Peter Falk and Suzanne Pleshette, and NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb.
But then the mighty Empire, having become accustomed to success and wealth, assumed that its citizens would pay a premium to continue living within its borders. This Empire also assumed that the large corporations that had been birthed, nurtured, and celebrated within its borders would gladly assume more and more tax burdens, governmental regulations, and other onerous costs of doing business. After all, social experimenters down in the Empire's biggest city, at its far southern tip, were allowing over a million people to accumulate on welfare roles funded partly by everybody else in the Empire. And those costs were adding up.
Back upstate, residents in the Empire's smaller cities and towns - where much of the Empire's manufacturing had taken place - began to suspect that a lot of their ever-increasing taxes were being spent down at the Empire's southern tip. Companies, too, began to wonder if the cost of doing business in the Empire might be getting a bit too costly. But the Empire's political leaders were paying no mind to the rabble. They took for granted that taxpayers would let them get away with just about anything.
Somewhere along the way, that old canal, through which the Empire's many goods used to be shipped, became obsolete, as rail service, Interstates, and then airports became far more convenient. By then, that vibrant, mid-sized city, surrounded by green hills and blue lakes, had seen those greens and blues become far less vibrant, as pollution from generations of rampant industrialization - byproducts from all of the frenzied manufacturing - had been dumped indiscriminately into its ecosystem. The county's largest lake, for example, had become a big, fetid, smelly mess; awash in a stew of cancer-causing chemicals.
It was about that time when somebody even further south of the Empire, in what used to be called Dixie, discovered that all of those air conditioners being built in the Empire's cavernous factories along the disused canal made living and working in warmer climates newly bearable. Dixie's cost of living was far less than it was in the Empire, and Dixie was desperate for employers and jobs. There was a lot of cheap land to construct ever-modern facilities to replace the Empire's aging relics, and few unions to inflate manufacturing costs. It didn't take long for employers back up in the Empire to calculate the opportunities in Dixie as being too valuable to pass up.
So they began to leave the Empire. At first, the exodus was a trickle, but by the 1970's and 1980's, it was a full-blown torrent of employers and their employees, heading for the Empire's rusting exits. And suddenly, that mid-sized city along the now-overgrown canal was barely even mid-sized. Empty, dilapidated buildings appeared throughout its core. Abandoned factories began caving in on themselves - one even collapsed partly onto a freeway. Weeds grew along sidewalks that no longer saw foot traffic, and in paved lots where shoppers and workers used to park their cars. Windowless houses sagged under every winter's bitter snowfall, and once-grand churches sat as silent sentinels over neighborhoods where crime, instead of a sense of community, was thriving.
Eventually, New York State's decay could not be written off by elected officials as anecdotal complaints by disgruntled voters. Urged by their remaining constituents, New York's politicians began to wonder if their policies could be a major reason for why so many employers and their employees were leaving. But instead of admitting their faults, and cutting their wasteful habits, they began to devise intricate new laws and incentives to try and staunch the exodus, preserve what economic vitality remained in the Empire, and jump-start some new ideas to at least create the impression that the Empire wasn't really dying.
And it didn't take long for one particularly clever developer in Syracuse, that hard-hit industrial city on the historic Erie Canal, to figure out that he could make a lot of money by exploiting some of these new laws. But he needed an alibi; or at least, that's how his growing list of detractors now sees it. He knew that his beleaguered hometown of Syracuse needed something flashy to reinvigorate it, and about the only thing he knew how to do was build shopping malls.
Hey - it could be the perfect cover! How about a new (drumroll, please) mall?
You'll Always Know Your Pal
Never mind that shopping malls would soon become anachronistic, or that the Internet would eventually render brick-and-mortar shopping unnecessary. This was long before corporate America allowed technology to upset the status quo. For all the future-visioning and trend forecasting good businessmen are supposed to do, Congel can be excused for hatching his grandiose scheme before any American real estate developer really understood that the writing for such projects was on the proverbial wall. At the time, Congel simply wanted to build something that would outclass anything in the Central New York market, to entice shoppers from not only the Syracuse area, but even Canada, where taxes were more punitive than New York's.
At least, that was how he sold his idea for Carousel Center Mall to the various agencies in the city, the county, the state, and even the federal government. He needed all the financial help he could get for making a destination project work in a place like Syracuse.
Congel found a location along an Interstate highway with lakefront acreage on Syracuse's carcinogenic cesspool. By that time, the corporation that had been most responsible for illegally dumping its toxic effluence into Onondaga Lake had been dragged into court by the state, which was intent on suing for payment of the lake's clean-up. Congel was after millions of taxpayer-funded brownfield cleanup dollars, which were supposed to be used to repurpose land that had been previously contaminated by industrial activity. Clean it up, build a new environmentally-sensitive project, and get reimbursed by the government for part of the cost.
At this point, everything seemed to be falling into place for Congel. After all, he was doing nothing illegal, or even immoral. It was all above-board, it was benefiting the people of Syracuse, and he happened to be making a handsome profit off of it. Nothing wrong with that. Granted, a shopping mall isn't exactly the best type of economic redevelopment. Retail jobs aren't a good replacement for manufacturing jobs, of which the city had lost the most, or even white-collar jobs. But by this point, beggars couldn't be choosers, and it was hard to turn down a bauble that could become a new tourist attraction for the city.
Congel went out and found a real, antique carousel, fixed it up, and built a wing of his new mall around it. He put a banquet hall atop his mall, and anchored some high-dollar stores at his mall's entrances. Sure, only about a dozen people in Syracuse could seriously afford to shop in those stores, but Congel was after Canadian tourist money, not meager Syracuse dollars. His strategy paid off, and before too long, Carousel Center was a hit.
He could have checked his ego and retired comfortably at that point. But Congel wanted more. After a few years of pointing with pride at what he'd given Syracuse, on a lakeside field that used to be contaminated with a potpourri of lethal chemicals, he stunned Central New York with audacious plans for an even grander vision: a dazzling "DestiNY," with the "NY" in caps, for "New York." DestiNY would be a $20 billion behemoth of green glass towers, an indoor amusement park, a replica of Venice, and a plethora of other attractions that would make Disneyland look like McPlayPlace.
|One of the official concept drawings for DestiNY...|
"Wait a minute!" you may be saying. Why did politicians need to be sold on his fantasy? Because Congel knew that his idea was preposterous. It wasn't economically viable. One of his former employees would later admit to a reporter that executives at Congel's development company would sit around all day, trying to out-do each other with wildly impossible ideas to include for the project. Their aim? To bid up the project, and push up its pricetag, so that they could go not just to Wall Street investors and banks for funding, but to government agencies, looking for taxpayer-funded incentives. And not just brownfield incentives, but tens of millions of dollars in all sorts of other environmental give-backs for things like solar energy, water conservation, harnessing the wind, and on and on and on. Plus tax-free bonds, and other taxpayer-funded perks.
Today, however, Carousel Center still is just a mall. There are no soaring green towers with wind farms on top of them. There is no indoor golf course, or anything else from the original plans. He did get to construct an expansion for his now-dated mall, but Congel ended up in a lawsuit with his banks over its financing. And that expansion? Picture a generic - albeit spacious - pile of concrete and steel shaped in what looks like a warehouse with big skylights. But it was enough for him to re-name the whole mall Destiny anyway, except without the "NY" in caps. He's struggled to fill what additional space he's constructed, and even then, his only tenants are some kiddie diversions, a few restaurants, and assorted outlet stores. Customers still flock there from as far away as Canada, but it's not out of loyalty to Congel. His albatross has ended up cannibalizing shoppers from what few other malls were left in Central New York. Two of them are on life support as you read this.
Nevertheless, for whatever damage Congel has inflicted upon the overall retail industry in Central New York, as well as upon his personal reputation, Destiny is currently America's sixth-largest mall, and expects to attract nearly 30 million visitors this year. But has it been worth it for taxpayers? As it stands, Destiny benefits from one of the most lucrative portfolios of taxpayer-funded incentives and subsidies in American history. All $703.6 million of it, over the course of the next 30 years. For a mall.
But wait! There's more...
Certainly by now, you'd think Congel would be licking his wounds, yet content that, with Destiny's size and foot traffic, plus his taxpayer subsidies and tweaked financing, he could still face a pretty comfortable retirement. But no, Congel has decided to ask for still more taxpayer benefits to construct a 17-story, 255-room, $75 million hotel across the street from his rechristened Destiny. Even though the current occupancy rate of Central New York's existing hotels hovers around 65%.
And Congel wants a property tax exemption for twenty years, worth about $20 million. He might also apply for more of that brownfield reimbursement from taxpayers, in the amount of $7.5 million.
Not only that, but due to some of the complex contracts Congel got New York State to agree with, he gets a $10 million property tax refund from state taxpayers every year on the mall building itself, even though he currently does not pay any property taxes on it. And it's all still legal.
Indeed, the Empire has no clothes.
Even though Congel's Destiny has plenty. For a price.