Archives For The Arts & Culture

This entry is part 17 of 22 in the seriesBook of the Month

GileadThis is the first fiction work to be included as our Book of the Month. I’m sure it won’t be the last. After years of people telling me that I need to read Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, I finally did (the book is a Pulitzer Prize winner, by the way). Quite simply: This is far and away one of the best books I’ve ever read. It’s in my top three, for sure. Having just finished it this weekend, I’m still feeling emotional and inspired.

Like all good fiction, Gilead pulls you away from the strains of every day life so that you can see life in a new light and then be thrust back into life with a new sense of appreciation and wonder. Here’s how Robinson does it.

Gilead is written as a memoir from an old preacher writing to his young son after having been diagnosed with an illness that will soon end his life. John Ames, the preacher, writes to explain himself to the son who will be too young at the time of his death to understand who his father was. He writes about his preacher father, his preacher grandfather, the small and quirky town in which they live, the old and dilapidated church and its history, etc.

The storyline itself is fairly simply and endearing. It’s Robinson’s fascinating ability to draw her readers casually into the deep mysteries of life and faith that give this book its power. Here are just a couple of examples from near the end of the book. The Reverend Ames tells his son:

“I love the prairie! So often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turn radiant at once, that word ‘good’ so profoundly affirmed in my soul that I am amazed I should be allowed to witness such a thing.”

“It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance—for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light. That is what I said in the Pentecost sermon. I have reflected on that sermon, and there is some truth in it. But the Lord is more constant and far more extravagant than it seems to imply. Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?”

These are just a couple of the gems Robinson offers in this masterful book. The plot and character development are wonderful, and the pacing of the book itself is a breath of fresh air. Robinson has a calm writing style, and John Ames’ simple outlook on life as he reflects on a long life in a quiet but often troubled town is oddly life-giving.

Marilynne Robinson

I would have a hard time explaining exactly why I love this book as much as I do, but I’m certain that I have closed the back cover with a greater appreciation for life, a greater respect for the mysteries of God, an increased love for the Creator, and who knows what else. I am also certain that I will be re-reading this book multiple times.

If you love reading fiction, this is a must read. If you have not yet learned to love fiction, this would be an excellent place to start. And if you need to be convinced of why fiction matters, click here for some wise words from C. S. Lewis.

19 Weddings & Counting

Mark Beuving —  October 29, 2014 — 2 Comments

I am going to (unwisely) analyze something that will probably make a lot of people upset. Last night, my wife and I watched Jill Duggar’s wedding on TLC. It was great. The Duggars are great. Honestly, how can you not love this gigantic family that clearly loves the Lord deeply, loves each other deeply, and constitutes a rare and refreshingly wholesome spot in television programming?

I am pro-Duggar. Hear me say that. But as I watched Jill and Derick’s wedding last night, I was struck by the focus of it all. The wedding (episode) was not about marriage, not about Jesus and his bride, not about love. It was (at least as I experienced it) about (1) kissing and (2) having babies. Please feel free to disagree with me entirely, but hear me out.

The Duggars are famous for their no-nonsense approach to courtship. Jim Bob (aka, Daddy and Pops) actually introduced Jill to Derick. Derick was serving as a missionary in Nepal when the relationship began, and since that moment every conversation, every Skype session, and every face-to-face interaction has been chaperoned. Meaning that as the “kids” got to know each other, Jim Bob was there, often sitting between the two.

Hand-holding was strictly forbidden until engagement, at which point it was carefully chaperoned. There was even a moment of controversy during the engagement in which the couple’s over-exuberance turned an approved (and chaperoned) side hug into a full-blown real hug. Not to worry, the anxiety died down when it became clear that this was the unintentional result of Jill zigging while Derick zagged. (It would have been hilarious if it wasn’t such a serious issue.)

Now some clarifications. I’m intentionally playing up the sternness of it all. The Duggars are a fun group, and they all seem to be thriving in ways that most families don’t. Also, I have no intention of sending my daughters (now 3 and 5 years old) out into the world to make out with whomever. That’s not happening. I believe in wisdom, patience, principles, and the limitation of physical intimacy prior to marriage.

Chaperoned Date

But in my opinion (which you don’t need to share), this ever-watchful-chaperoning approach to dating (courtship) has some potentially negative side effects. One side effect is what it communicates. Do the Duggar parents trust their kids? I’m sure they do. And why wouldn’t they? Those kids are angels! If you set a Duggar loose for three days in Willy Wonka’s factory with a clear command to eat no candy, you can be sure that no candy will be eaten.

And that’s the irony. The Duggars seem to have done an incredible job of raising godly, trustworthy kids. So why treat them like criminals? Sigmund Freud thought that all human interaction boils down to the urge for sex. But the Bible doesn’t teach that. And the Duggar’s don’t believe that. So you don’t need to send your kids into vulnerable situations, but you might try letting them have a conversation or two that’s not wire-tapped. Maybe even a devotional time on the morning of their wedding that’s not chaperoned (that was a real scenario).

As I said, my girls are young, so I do not know what I’m talking about here. But it seems to me that this vigilant chaperoning communicates (probably unintentionally) that these wonderful young people are untrustworthy.

The second side effect I see is that it turned the marriage (episode) into a giggle-fest about kissing and having babies. Now, I know that the Duggars didn’t edit the footage for this episode. I’d be willing to bet that everyone in the family said some wonderful things about the true meaning of marriage that the producers simply didn’t find compelling. However, the courtship emphasis on lack of physical contact and private conversation made the marriage about the kiss. And, from the moment the “kids” got engaged, the big question was how quickly the couple would begin having kids.

Duggar Wedding

Kissing on your wedding day and having children in your marriage are both great. I’m for those things. But marriage is more than kissing alone. It’s more than reproducing. I’m sure the Duggars communicated these truths to their children. But I do think it’s unfortunate that the televised version of their wedding came down to unsupervised kissing and the any-minute-now expectation of having kids.

And now let me backtrack. I realize that it’s terrible to critique the Duggars, especially when there are so many obviously flawed programs and people on television. The Duggars are indeed a bright spot. But much of what we love them for is their quirks, their well-meaning (and probably well thought out) idiosyncrasies, the things that make them, well, Duggars.

Many of those quirks are wonderful. But perhaps we would all do well to consider that the opposite of sexual immorality is not constant policing. The cure for physical temptation is not Jim Bob’s inquisitive look as you accidentally front-hug. Sexual immorality comes from the heart (Mark 7:21–23), not unsupervised finger-contact. The Duggars know that. We should too.

 

Jack-O-LanternI’ve written a bit on Halloween in the past, and I’ve even engaged in a very gentle debate with some of my coworkers on whether or not it’s appropriate for a Christian to Trick-or-Trick (here). Some people can be dismissive about this issue (myself included), but there are significant factors involved. It deserves careful thought.

Here’s what no one should ever do on Halloween, or any other time of the year:

  • Worship Satan
  • Call upon evil spirits, enlist their aid, or try to appease them
  • Celebrate evil
  • Harm other people or their property, whether through physical or magical means

If Halloween means any of those things to you, run from it. If taking your kids door to door to ask your neighbors for candy implies any of the above listed activities to you, then find a suitable alternative. I have no agenda to convince anyone to go against their conscience. My simple and slanted thoughts are offered only for those who aren’t sure what to make of Halloween.

Here’s what you need to know. Halloween has pagan roots. I have not done the work to verify this, but I’ve read it a couple of places and it sounds right. I’m not interested in finding a credible source to verify the pagan roots because they don’t bother me. The names of our planets have pagan roots. So do the names of the days in our weeks. So does the timing of our celebration of Christmas and several of our Christmas traditions. Same with Easter.

So the roots are pagan. Do we throw it out? Honestly, why not? Definitely feel free to stop celebrating Halloween. There’s no reason why you need to. I’m not going to argue that it’s the Christian thing to do.

Halloween Hula GirlsBut here’s something to consider. Kids have fun on Halloween. My girls love to play dress up any day of the year, so they have a good time when all of the kids in our neighborhood dress up. Our country happens to celebrate National Dress Up Day on October 31. That makes for a fun night for my kids. This event also happens to coincide with National Share Your Candy Day, which my kids also happen to love. So it’s fun for them to go door to door, say hi to the neighbors, bump into them on the sidewalk, talk about each other’s costumes, and share candy with each other.

What I’m trying to say is that I don’t believe my neighbors are engaging in the occult on Halloween. They’re having fun. They’re atypically social on this one night. Some of my neighbors have decorated their lawns with spiders, tombstones, and ghosts, but I’d be willing to bet a lot of money that they won’t conjure a single dead soul or perform a single hex on October 31. They’re not thinking through the cultic connections of some of the original Halloween practices; they’re just enjoying what our culture has made Halloween into: National Dress Up Day / National Share Your Candy Day.

I’ll admit that I could be wrong here. My neighbors could be sacrificing goats in their backyards. But from everything I know about them, they’re not closet occultists. I’ll also acknowledge that while my neighborhood doesn’t seem to be into Satanism, yours might be. If so, don’t engage in their celebration of evil. That’s an easy decision.

But statistically speaking, your neighbors and mine are more likely to be naturalists than Wiccans. Which means that they don’t believe ghosts, spirits, curses, or the any other supernatural manifestations are real. I’m pretty convinced that my neighbors are not worshipping Satan—not because I think they’re too Christian to do such a thing, but because I don’t think they believe in Satan or anything similarly “unscientific.” I think they’re dressing up and sharing candy.

To me, this means we all have an individual choice to make. You can view Halloween according to its pagan roots and avoid it as a celebration of evil. You’re entitled to make that decision, and I won’t look down on you at all. You’ve got to do what’s best. Or you can view Halloween according to the way its modern celebraters see it—as a day of fun and games and sociability. I’m choosing to see it that way, and I hope you won’t look down on me for that.

Vampire TeethIt may be difficult to overlook the evil origins of Halloween, but our Christian predecessors thought it was possible—even beneficial—to take a pagan celebration and rework it into a reminder of good things. That’s why Christmas is when it is, why Easter is the way it is, and why we have All Saints Day at the close of October. Maybe they were wrong, but they took a celebration and tweaked it for what they believed to be God’s glory. In my view, our culture has handed us a gift in weeding out the actual Satanism of some early Halloween practices and giving us a night of fun and games. They’ve done the hard work of systematically forgetting all of the pagan implications and viewing it in terms of the imagination.

If you’re still up in the air on the whole issue, ask yourself whether it’s possible to redeem National Dress Up Day / National Share Your Candy Day for the sake of your friends and neighbors.

You are free to decide.

 

iPhone 6Two significant events took place in the same moment this past week. The first was the release of the iPhone 6. Of course, most of us could argue convincingly that this does not qualify as a “significant event,” but the fact remains that people freak out and line up every time a new iPhone is released. Culturally speaking, it’s a big deal.

The second event was the instant devaluing of our “old” iPhones. (In case I’m about to lose my Android-using readers, keep in mind that everything I say here is true of any smart phone, and any product, really.) My iPhone 5s was exciting, useful, and elegant—until last week. Now it’s outdated. It no longer does what I need it to do, or at least not with the style and speed that I’ve learned to expect this week.

I’m being a bit overdramatic, of course, but while most of us would never say this directly, we feel it deep down a lot more than we’d be willing to admit. This is because our society has successfully trained our desires. We in the church know that “life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15), but we still really want the newest technology.

James K. A. Smith explains that this odd tension we feel between what we believe intellectually and what we desire in our guts comes from the “cultural liturgies” that train our hearts. Through powerful mini-narratives (like the one in the video below), through misguided messages about our identity, and through a host of tactile experiences in which we are invited to “taste and see” that Apple is good, we now know—in our hearts if not our heads—that the newest iPhone is essential to human flourishing.

The irony in this is that in teaching us to overvalue things, our techno-idolatrous society also teaches us to undervalue things. Smith explains:

“Hence comes the irony that consumerism, which we often denounce as ‘materialism,’ is quite happy to reduce things to nothingness…On the one hand, this practice invests things with redemptive promise; on the other hand, they can never measure up to that and so must be discarded for new things that hold out the same (unsustainable) promise.”[1]

We always hope the newest phone or gadget will satisfy. But in the end, the thing is never more than a thing, so we quickly realize that our problems aren’t solved with technology. We are kept on the line, however, because as soon as we realize the iPhone 5s hasn’t delivered on its promises, the iPhone 6 is already whispering to us about the inadequacy of the 5s and the joys it can provide. By the time we realize the iPhone 6 can’t bring happiness, the 6s will be saying sweet things in our ears.

Again, this all sounds overdramatic. None of us would admit to buying a smart phone in an attempt to gain happiness. But I challenge you to listen to the ads and images around you. The next time you see an add for a smart phone, ask what you’re being promised. When you find yourself wanting to upgrade your phone early, ask whether you’re intellectually convinced of the superiority of the new phone’s features or whether there’s something more deep-seated and intangible that is drawing you to see your “need” for this new device.

I’ve explained before that a smart phone can be a glorious gift from God, a gift that can compliment our true humanity and serve God’s purposes in this world. But we must always keep a careful eye on our desires. And when we find our desires veering towards idolatry, we must begin retraining our hearts to seek first the kingdom of God.

 

 

[1] James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009)100.

I’ll explain what I don’t mean by that in a minute; first let share my experience with worship leading.

I was a junior in high school when I asked a friend to teach me to play guitar, partially out of boredom. He graciously taught me a few Nirvana songs and a few basic chords (in that order). From there, I started trying to bang out a few worship songs in an effort to train my rookie fingers to go where they were supposed to. This means that my intense efforts at training my fingers to play the guitar coincided with my first personal experiences with playing “worship music.”

I have been a Christian as long as I can remember, but I don’t recall having been passionate about my faith prior to this point. I repeatedly sang basic songs like “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” as I laboriously positioned my fingers for each of the four chords the song requires. I can’t tell you how many times I played that song in those months, but it was A LOT. As my muscle memory kicked in and I developed the ability to switch chords without prolonged pauses, the song itself began affecting me. I can still remember the night that I got down onto my knees as I continued to strum the guitar and sing that song directly to the Lord. It was the first meaningful worship experience I can remember.

Why? Why should forcing my fingers to move into unnatural positions bring me into a deeper expression of praise? I am only recently realizing that it has a lot to do with the embodiment that playing an instrument requires. Though we think of singing praise songs to God as a spiritual experience (and it is), it would be impossible without the body. When we sing to God we are using our brains, mouths, vocal cords, and lungs in addition to our souls. The praise may be spiritual, but it works in conjunction with the physical, embodied functions of the bodies God created. All of this deepens the impact. Just as the physical practice of taking communion deepens the impact of remembering Jesus’ sacrificial death—chewing the bread, tasting the wine—so the physical involvement of singing deepens the truths we express when we praise God. It involves the heart as well as the mind.

So adding another dimension to that embodiment by involving the arms and fingers sinks these truths into our hearts. “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” became ingrained—not just in my mind, but also in my muscle memory. I believe that the authenticity of worship that came from this experience stems in large part from the involvement of my body. Prior to this, my worship consisted of words. Now more of my body was involved, and my desires were being shaped at a deeper level.

Presumably, all worship leaders have experienced something similar. They went through the initial process of training their bodies to engage with music at a deeper level. And week after week they participate in embodied practices that express worship to God. These processes help the truth to sink in, and the worship deepens.

I know that many worship leaders become calloused to the truths they sing about. Through over-familiarity a song can lose its potency, and a worship leader can become numb to the powerful truths embedded in the song. Nevertheless, the solution to this is not stepping away from embodied practices that can help the truth to sink it, but instead to continue to pursue creative ways of expressing truth so that it has the greatest possible impact.

When I titled this post “Why Worship Leaders Are More Spiritual,” the full thought I’m getting at is not that worship leaders are more spiritual than other people, as if singing into a microphone were a sign of spirituality. What I am actually suggesting is something more along these lines: worship leaders are more spiritual than they used to be. The idea is that worship leaders are engaging in a powerful means of expressing truth, and that truth is bound to sink in more deeply as it involves more of the person.

God created us as whole beings, and we are made to glorify him with every integrated aspect of our being. Worship is more than contemplating spiritual concepts. Worship is meant to seep into our bones, to transform our hearts, to come to expression through our fingers, our voices, our footsteps, through every gesture and pursuit. Learning the guitar deepened my faith. You may have no inclination to follow my lead in this, but all around you are embodied practices that can deepen your faith. Pick a handful and pursue them to the glory of God.

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