Archives For The Arts & Culture

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.

Erosion

Chris Hay —  August 11, 2014 — Leave a comment

A few weeks ago I posted a blog about the beauty of God’s creation as it was unwrapped in some of our National Parks; how God’s creative work is just a hint, a sampling of His majesty and glory; and how all of His creation should cause us to fall on our faces in worship. These stunning, breathtaking vistas are just a drop in the vast ocean of God’s stunning beauty and breathtaking character.

Las Vegas StripOn this same trip, we took the time to drive The Strip in Las Vegas. Never been there before, and since we were driving right through Vegas anyway, we decided to check it out. Yes, it was impressive. Man certainly has been given great skill in designing and constructing impressive monuments to himself, such as the sphinx and the Eiffel Tower in miniature; of course the originals, also built by man, are even more impressive!

It was the very next day that we drove through Zion National Park, and I couldn’t help comparing God’s handiwork there with man’s handiwork in Las Vegas. Both impressive, both beautiful, both worthy of taking lots of pictures, both attract thousands of people. But I was overwhelmed with the contrasts. The Strip requires constant and expensive maintenance to keep it looking beautiful. If it were neglected for just a few years, it would deteriorate into rubble. Whereas God’s work has been sitting there just fine for millennia, arguably getting more stunning as the centuries pass. The natural massifs and vistas lifted my soul in worship to the Creator God; The Strip was a jarring reminder of man’s greed and emptiness.

Grand CanyonIt struck me that much of God’s creative beauty is from erosion. The sandstone monoliths of Capitol Reef have been scoured clean of dirt and debris, revealing their impressive beauty. The Grand Canyon and all its stark beauty exist solely because of erosion. The hoodoos of Bryce Canyon are the result of the caressing of the wind and water over the centuries. The wind and the rain are brushes in the Artist’s fingers; they are hammer and chisel in the Sculptor’s hands.

Those same tools, wind and rain and erosion, would desecrate man’s works. Buildings would rust, windows would break, landscaping would run wild or die from lack of water. Erosion is the enemy of man’s work; it is the agent of God’s work.

Bryce Canyon HoodoosThe parallels in the life of a Christ-follower should be clear. The winds and rains of life are what make us more beautiful and Christ-like. Erosion is God’s normal and required process to form beauty and character in us. We can desperately fight to keep ourselves ‘maintained’ and looking good as we stroll down the road of life, or we can accept and even embrace God’s erosion of ourselves to make us a stunning reflection of Him.

If we try living with Self as our god, the tools of erosion will only make us more bitter, filled with rust and deterioration that oozes onto those around us. And that makes us ugly. So we need to allow the erosion of life to make us more beautiful, more stunning. We can’t let it deteriorate our spirit and make us ugly. I would much rather be a National Park than the Vegas Strip.

This entry is part 15 of 22 in the seriesBook of the Month

To this point, the books we’ve recommended as our book of the “month” have been popular level books—books that the average reader can get through without too much difficulty. This “month,” I’m recommending a book that will require more effort from the average reader, but I think it’s worth it.

The book is Desiring the Kingdom by James K. A. Smith and it’s the first in his “Cultural Liturgies” series. I think this is an important book, especially for those of us who are convinced of the importance of “worldview.” Here’s why.

Smith invites his readers to view our familiar world in an unfamiliar way. One poignant example he explores is the shopping mall. We believe the mall is a purely secular location that we visit on our terms to pick up items we need for our own reasons. But Smith paints the mall in a religious light (or rather, reveals the inherently religious nature of the mall, hence the term “cultural liturgies”).

Mall Cathedral

The moment we enter the mall, we gain a sense of transcendence from the vaulted architecture, the skylights, and the lack of windows, which divert our attention from the sea of cars outside and the mundanities of daily life. In this place, time is marked not by the ticking of the clock (which you’ll be hard pressed to find) but by cycle of festivals and celebrations for which the “cathedral” is regularly re-adorned. Oversized photographs on the walls and mannequins in shop windows function as icons, embodying for us a vision of the “good life,” reminding us of what our “worship” will produce and calling us inside to “taste and see.” When we decide to partake of this vision of the good life, we approach the altar, item(s) in hand, and the priestly salesclerk guides us in consummating our worship, sending us out with a benediction (“Thanks, have a great day”).

On one level, this is all nonsense—the mall is not a church. But Desiring the Kingdom argues that this interpretation of the mall is profoundly realistic. The world around us shapes us, not simply at the level of our intellect, but at the level of our desires. Commercials don’t convince us of the logic of buying their products, they appeal to our desires. They make us want it. And in doing so, Smith argues, the marketers are exhibiting a more biblical view of humanity than most churches hold.

Our society recognizes that we are not primarily thinkers. Rather, we are primarily lovers. We do what we do not because we follow our logic in every case, but because we are driven by desire. Think about it: Do you drink Starbucks coffee (or the more obscure and therefore more trendy type of coffee that you consider far superior to Starbucks) because you intellectually believe it is so much better than the alternative that you’re wiling to spend $2 for a small coffee and $5+ for other drinks? No. You drink Starbucks because your desires have been trained, not just for the flavor, but for the atmosphere and experience. It’s not necessarily illogical, but it’s deeper than logic. It’s about a vision of the good life that resides more in our gut than in our brain.

PrintAnd here’s where Smith’s argument gets very important. The world is busy shaping our desires. Meanwhile, the church fights back by filling our minds. We fight love with facts. This is where the worldview approach often falls short. Descartes famous saying, “I think therefore I am,” summarizes our default view of humanity. We are thinking beings. So put the right knowledge into a person’s head and he or she will behave accordingly. And there is some truth here. But we all know it’s not the whole picture. We don’t upgrade to the new iPhone because we believe the new features are worth the price. Our desires have been trained to despise our (months) old iPhone and long for the newest.

Smith’s solution is worship. Our desires are trained through worship, not just ideas. We need to shape our worldview, but we also need to shape our longings. We need formation, not just informationWe need to desire the kingdom. In this regard, Smith advocates liturgy, but in a broad sense. He’s not saying we all have to become “high church” in the sense that we all do responsive reading and observe lent. But he does argue that those things can play an important role in shaping our desires. Biblically speaking, we are whole beings. We’re not disembodied minds, we are embodied creatures. So involving our senses in worship, engraining deep habits and rituals into our routines can help to train our desires. It’s not just about thinking, it’s about worship. It’s about love. The marketers understand this, the church should as well.

That’s Smith’s overall contention, and I’ll warn you that he’s persuasive. As I said, it’s not the easiest book to read, but it’s also not the hardest. Smith intentionally took a middle path: the most scholarly discussions are moved to the footnotes, but the overall discussion is still meant to contribute to higher-level debates. Anyone who has had a year or more of college education should be able to hang with Smith’s arguments, and his writing style continually emphasizes key points.

This book has been very influential for me, and it’s shaping the way I view my role as a Christian, as a parent, as a church member, and as an educator. I would say this is one of the most important books I’ve read in a long time. Give it a shot.

 

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...