Archives For The Arts & Culture

iV

Mark Beuving —  October 28, 2015 — Leave a comment

When I teach my Christianity & the Arts class, the students have to create and present artistic projects. These are always a high point in my semester. We spend weeks talking about art, how it relates to God and the Bible, and the role it plays in the mission God has given us; then the students put their God-given creativity to work. These are some of the richest, most challenging, and most worshipful times I ever spend in our classrooms.

Last night, one of my students, Emily Scheibenpflug, shared a project that “speaks” eloquently to one of the issues I revisit from time to time on this blog: our relationship with technology (here’s a recent one). Without further ado, here is Emily’s drawing, which I have presumptuously entitled iV (the lowercase i is intentional).

iV

I’m sharing the drawing here because I believe it merits contemplation. It forces us to wrestle without offering a simple answer to the dilemma. As I’ve said in past posts, we are rightly uneasy about our relationship with our devices. I’ll leave you to do the actual contemplating, but here are some questions Emily’s drawing raises for me:

  • How digitally connected am I?
  • How digitally connected should I be?
  • Could this be my arm, or is this merely a warning/question for others?
  • Is the iPhone giving or taking from my personhood?
  • What is the iPhone putting into or drawing out of my arm (assuming the image fits me)?
  • Do the suggestions of a hospital setting indicate health or addiction? Is the iPhone there medicinally, or am I needing some sort of amputation?

All of these questions are extremely important for us to consider on a regular basis with respect to our electronic habits. This drawing moved me because it eloquently addresses all of them, without providing any specific answers. And this is the power of art: it suggests, asks, and challenges. What the art “does” to me depends on what is going on in my life at the moment.

So what do you see? And how should you respond?

 

 

In this post, I’m going to argue that the Church ought to be (1) a place to feel at home and (2) a place to feel like a foreigner or a pilgrim.

WelcomeGod has so constructed the Church, created as it is through the building material of the gospel, that we can feel fully at home in the Church. There are many places in our modern world where we feel out of place. (I would guess that you’d feel out of place in at least one of these locations: a court room, a bar, a black-tie event, or a boxing match.) But the Church is no such place. The Church is a place to feel at home, to know that we are accepted, to know that we belong.

This complete acceptance is because of what God has done for us in Jesus. We are accepted regardless of what we are or who we’ve tried to be. It is a gospel fact that Christ died for us “while we were still sinners” (Rom. 5:8). The gospel grabs hold of us gently and declares that we are washed, cleansed, re-created. It places us within the Church as full members of the Body of Christ.

Through the gospel, we’re not just given a seat at the table, so to speak, but we become indispensible members. Paul argues that we are such a part of the Church Body that if one of us were missing, the Body would be crippled (see 1 Cor. 12 and Eph. 4:12–16). We belong in the Church.

The same can also be said cross-culturally. No one needs to leave their culture at the door when they enter the Church. This question was settled in Acts 15 when the apostles decided that Gentile converts did not need to first become Jewish (culturally) in order to be Christian. The gospel cannot ever be expressed without culture (we must use cultural forms like language), but the gospel is not bound to any one culture. The gospel can be fully at home in any culture, so we as gospel-made people can be at home in the Church regardless of our culture.

Missiologist Andrew Walls calls this concept the “Indigenizing Principle.” Throughout history, the Church has made itself a place where people can fully belong.

And yet the Church is also a place to feel like a foreigner. This is what Andrew Walls refers to as the “Pilgrim Principle,” and it stands in tension with the Indigenizing Principle.

While the Church truly is a place to be at home, to fully belong, the Church always calls us to change. We are fully accepted in the Church, yet we are always being called into something deeper. While we are accepted as we are through the gospel, the gospel also transforms us ever more into the image of Christ.

Traveler

This, too, can be viewed cross-culturally. Every culture is equally at home in the Church, yet every culture will be called to some sort of transformation through the Gospel. For example, we can be American and fit fully within the Church. But the Church will call us to lay down some aspects of American culture. The Church, when functioning properly, will always be making us feel like foreigners, like pilgrims, in the midst of our world. Being at home in the Church will always mean being at least slightly out of sync with the world around us.

This tension is real, and we must feel this tension constantly if we are going to life faithfully in the world as the Church. Andrew Walls insists that while the Indigenizing (at-home) Principle and the Pilgrim (out-of-sync) Principle are in tension, we shouldn’t be trying to find a balance between the two, as though we should be less than fully at home in the Church, or only sometimes out of sync with the world around us. We can never have too much of either principle, we can only have too little of one or the other.

The goal is to see the Church as a place where we can be fully at home—fully accepted, fully interconnected—regardless of our past, or our culture, or our personalities. And the goal is also to be constantly challenged by the Church to perpetual growth, to never-ending transformation, to the perpetual renunciation of idols that we have subtly soaked up from our culture. We always need both.

This is the mystery and miracle of the Church. The Church is a place to be part of the family and a place to be a pilgrim. It’s a place that reassures us that who we are is enough while also calling us to be more than we ever thought possible. It’s a place of comfort and belonging to a tired and hurting world, and a prophetic voice calling the world to repentance and change. Nothing in this world can be or do what the Church is and does. And this is why the Church is and always has been indispensible.

In many American churches, consumerism is being used as a vehicle for the gospel. With lessons gleaned from the entertainment industry and the world of marketing, these churches present the gospel using forms of communication familiar to every American. Many people hear the gospel through this type of church. It’s effective. But should they being doing this? And what do we mean when we say it’s effective?

[For any theology/missiology nerds reading this, what I’m seeking to address here is an issue that involves contextualization and syncretism. If you care to explore that connection, view this footnote: [1]]

So let’s consider the consumerist model of doing church. Consumerism is all about creating products that will appeal to consumers. In the church, this can look like anything from performance-oriented bands to entertaining sermons to polished programs. I can sense many of you preparing to throw stones at other churches at this point, so before you do that, consider: all of our churches do this to some extent. I have yet to encounter a church in North America that avoids all elements of the consumerist model. I want to be clear that the enemy is not entertainment, programs, or “being relevant.”

It’s easy to be superficial in our dismissal of consumerism in churches: “Their worship is so showing…they’re so ‘seeker sensitive’…people are only going to that church because the children’s ministry is a huge production…” But the problem is actually far deeper than all that.

It’s not wrong for people to be entertained. It’s not wrong for pastors to carefully craft their sermons so their congregation will be entertained so they will stay engaged so they will take another step on their spiritual journey. Skill, professionalism, excellence—these are not the problem.

The problem with consumerist models of doing church is the way this approach shapes us. And it does shape us—deeply.

Visit the mall regularly and you will be shaped. You won’t notice the shaping, of course. You think you’re going to the mall to complete your errands, or perhaps just to enjoy the atmosphere. But you’re being trained to view life in a certain way. You’re imbibing an embodied vision of “the good life.” You are “listening” to powerful “sermons” about the way your life could be if you’d only shop here, if you’d only adopt this lifestyle, if you’d just give this product a try.

Why are so many people going to quickly purchase the new iPhone 6s when it releases? (Or the Android equivalent.) No one is actually eager to buy it for the two or three things it can do slightly better than the previous version. People are going to quickly adopt the newest iPhone because the advertisers are masters at training our desires. They know how to bypass the head and go for the gut. The malls, the commercials, the coffee shops, the auto dealers, the layout of our cities—all of it pushes us towards a specific version of the good life: have this, live this way, and you’ll be happy.

Now mentally walk into an American suburban church. The service is carefully tailored to appeal to you. Programs are designed to meet your needs. You choose which church activities you want to sign up for. The church staff is the production company and you are the consumer.

“It’s different,” you might say. “I’m not being offered a ‘product,’ I’m being offered Jesus. I’m being drawn into worship.” Yes and yes. And this is why I’m not accusing the consumerist mentality of being evil. People do come to know Jesus through this approach—often!

am arguing, however, that this approach subtly shapes our view of the gospel, its purpose, and our role in the mission of God. For the first Christians, church was anything but consumeristic. They didn’t need to advertise programs to meet one another’s needs. Their lives were intertwined enough that they just knew where the needs were and did what they could to meet them.

When church is set up in such a way that every aspect of our spiritual life is presented like a sales pitch, wrapped in entertainment value, and tailored to catch our fancy, we’re bound to misunderstand the purpose of it all. We’re bound to miss the reality that we don’t go to church or volunteer at church, we are the church. When we embrace the consumerist mentality, we get the impression that all God expects of us is to sit in on services and attend programs.

But there’s more to the Christian life than this. And the tragedy of the consumerist model is that we’ll never allow our people to experience how much more there is until we stop marketing to them. The gospel calls us to self-denial, not savvy shopping. We have to find a way to view the people in our churches as members of a body rather than costumers, attendees, or even volunteers.

So instead of assuming that attracting large groups and gathering loads of signups for our programs is a neutral way of communicating the gospel, what if we all stopped to consider how our approach to “doing church” shapes the people we’re reaching out to? What if we asked if there is a better way to do what we’re doing, a way that will communicate the gospel effectively without unintentionally validating the consumeristic mentality of the shopping mall? The reality is that many of our churches are doing pretty well in this respect, but we could all afford to do better.

 


[1] In my missiology classes, we talk about principles of missions: how to best present the gospel in a certain culture. One important concept we discuss is “contextualization.” How do we take the cultural forms we encounter in a given society and accurately express the gospel in terms that are familiar and compelling to that group of people? For example, when you enter a Middle Eastern society, you’ll want to start by presenting the gospel in the local language. That much is easy. Other questions are more difficult: Should we refer to “God” (a generic English term for the Divine Being) as “Allah” (a generic Arabic term for the Divine Being)? Or does that go beyond contextualization and enter the realm of “syncretism,” which is missions-talk for mixing two religions together? The goal is to find the cultural forms that can best express the gospel and to avoid those that might distort the gospel. It’s not easy to do, but it’s an important concept. Missionaries and missiologists are careful to think through these questions as they bring the gospel to new cultures. Yet few in America have ever considered how the cultural forms they utilize affect the gospel message they are trying to communicate. Specific to this post, how can we contextualize the gospel in North American cultural forms while avoiding syncretistically distorting the gospel? My argument is basically that utilizing the consumeristic methods of the shopping mall have led us past contextualization and into syncretism.

On Being Well Read

Mark Beuving —  September 16, 2015 — 2 Comments

 

I got serious about my faith when I entered college, and one fruit of this increased commitment was that I found myself turning into a reader. This newfound passion for reading would end up costing me way more money and time than I could have imagined (and at this point in my life, I’m sure I’m just seeing the tip of the iceberg).

Stack of BooksAt that early stage in my Christian development, I felt the urge to be the kind of person who is “well read.” “Well read” people were so impressive to me: They seemed to know everything about everything, they could make casual references to important books, and they never had to be insecure about books they hadn’t read—because they had read just about everything. Or so I thought.

I’m beginning to realize that “being well read” is far more complex than I thought. Here are some unorganized realizations that I’ve come to as a 33-year-old who reads a lot:

Being “well read” is elusive. Precisely how many books must one read before he or she is “well read”? The more books I read, the more I become aware of a hidden world full of books I never knew I needed to read. You’ll never reach the end of the list of “books you ought to read.” There’s always more to know. And if you’re a true reader, being considered “well read” will never be enough for you: you’ve caught the bug, you have to read because you realize how much you still need to learn.

Being “well read” is a horrible goal. I’m surprised I didn’t see this coming during my college years. A lot of my initial desire to be “well read” was wrapped up in wanting to appear intelligent in front of other people. I’m embarrassed to admit that. I know people who are always trying to demonstrate their intelligence, always making mention of important-sounding works they have read. I don’t want to be that guy. I still crave knowledge; I still love books. But as soon as “well read” becomes a status marker we’re striving to attain, then we’re perverting the wholesome pursuit of knowledge. Read as much as you can, but don’t give a moment’s thought to “being well read.”

Being a reader is a better goal than being “well read.” You should read. It’s important, helpful, edifying. You should read as much as your schedule, temperament, and curiosity will allow. But you shouldn’t be worried about whether or not you’re reading enough. That’s not the point. Let books teach you what they can, but don’t let books determine your value or dignity. Reading is not about gaining respect, it’s about growing. Fame is the pursuit of fools; social status is fleeting. Don’t read books for other people, read them for your own growth.

Reading happens one page at a time. During those times when I felt insecure about all of the important books I hadn’t read, I’d feel this burning motivation to quickly read every significant book ever written. But how do you go about doing that? I’ve come to realize that you’ll never finish a whole group of books if you wait until you have time to read a whole group of books. What you have to do is pick up one book and read one page. When you’ve finished that page, you read the next page. That’s the only way to do it.

Every book takes a certain amount of time to finish. You can dream all you want about how many books you’d like to read, but there’s no way to get to that point without picking up one book and reading it a page at a time. If you hate reading pages, you’re not a reader, so do yourself a favor and give up on “being well read.” If you love reading pages, you’ll spend the rest of your life doing it. And while becoming “well read” will always be elusive, you’ll be the kind of person who continually gleans much from many books. And that’s what you really want to gain from reading.

On a related note: if you want some tips from C. S. Lewis on reading well, click here.

 

 

 

[This post contains minor spoilers, but nothing you won’t get from reading the back of the book.]

All the Light We Cannot SeeAnthony Doerr’s novel All the Light We Cannot See is one of those rare books that is actually difficult to put down. While most books that fit this category are white-knuckle thrillers that keep us reading because we need to know what happens next, All the Light We Cannot See is gripping beyond an action-packed plotline. C. S. Lewis once said that there are some books we read and wonder with excitement, “Will the hero escape?” while other books leave us thinking: “I shall never escape this. This will never escape me. These images have struck roots far below the surface of my mind.” For me, All the Light We Cannot See is that kind of book.

The novel is set during the second world war, and follows two main characters: Werner, a burgeoning young radio engineer/genius who is essentially forced to use his unparalleled gifts for Hitler’s cause, and Marie-Laure, a young, blind French girl whose father orients her to the world, only to have that world shattered. So the book is about the invisible spectrum that carries radio signals (hence the title), and it’s about living without sight in a beautiful and often terrifying world (hence the title).

The characters’ lives are ripped apart by the unimaginable violence of World War II. Doerr uses this violent backdrop to show us more about his characters than we would otherwise see. Flannery O’Connor explained the role of violence in fiction like this:

“It is the extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially…the man in the violent situation reveals those qualities least dispensable in his personality, those qualities which are all he will have to take into eternity with him…”

It is what Doerr reveals through this violent backdrop that makes the book so stunning. Doerr’s characters are wonderful; they are subtle, nuanced, believable, surprising, and inspiring. Doerr gives us likable characters who are full of hope and potential. The phrase “what you could be” is almost a refrain in the book. Most of the key characters view the world with wonder, with hope. But Hitler’s regime rips their worlds apart, and the characters are robbed of their reasons for hope and happiness, and instead given every reason to despair, to hate, to give up. Siblings are torn apart, fathers and friends and grandparents are imprisoned and/or killed, homes are stolen or destroyed in an instant, talents are bent to evil purposes. Ultimately, the world is shown to be a dark place (hence the title). Doerr illustrates this side of the world perfectly:

“It strikes Werner just then as wondrously futile to build splendid buildings, to make music, to sing songs, to print huge books full of colorful birds in the face of the seismic, engulfing indifference of the world—what pretensions humans have! Why bother to make music when the silence and wind are so much larger? Why light lamps when the darkness will inevitably snuff them?” (364–365)

But it is against this backdrop that Doerr shows us the light that is there, even when we cannot see it (hence the title). He convinces us, without directly saying so, that these things—buildings and music and books full of colorful birds—matter and are far more powerful than the deepest darkness ever could be.

Christian artists are infamous for insisting on saving all of their characters. (Think, for example, of God’s Not Dead, where all but one major character becomes a Christian, and the entire philosophy class acknowledges the superiority of Christian truth.) We need to grow in our appreciation for subtlety. We need to learn to value traits like faith, hope, and love—even when those traits are expressed in ways other than a repentant sinner “praying the prayer.” All the Light We Cannot See shows us bravery flourishing in big and small ways. A blind girl learning to navigate a sighted world, learning to recognize truth and manipulation, seeing what others cannot. A German soldier gradually learning that human dignity and love and friendship matter more than life or the prospect of torture. A father whose entire life has been given day by day in service to the blind daughter whose future is more promising than she could ever imagine.

Saint-Malo, France, the setting for much of the novel.

Saint-Malo, France, the setting for much of the novel.

One of the characters continually thinks of the hopeless miners who spend their short and overburdened lives deep underground, producing coal for a madman’s war. Throughout the book he is tempted to see life from a nihilistic perspective: everything is horrible and meaningless and then you die. But he comes to see life as a gift, however fleeting:

“He thinks of the old broken miners he’d see in Zollverein, sitting in chairs or on crates, not moving for hours, waiting to die. To men like that, time was a surfeit, a barrel they watched slowly drain. When really, he thinks, it’s a glowing puddle you carry in your hands; you should spend all your energy protecting it. Fighting for it. Working so hard not to spill one single drop.” (476)

These images are powerful. Doerr gives us our world—amplified by violence and then enriched through subtle acts of bravery and love and enjoyment of the world and a commitment to the value of humanity, to the preeminence of relational love. The other main character that runs throughout All the Light We Cannot See is a large gemstone rumored to make its owner immortal even as it curses all of the owner’s loved ones to death. The book never gets around to affirming or denying the legendary power of this stone, but it does give several characters the opportunity to discover what they value most, where their heart truly lies.

This is the power of reading fiction. We may not be living through the earth-shattering conditions of World War II or come to possess a cursed gemstone, but we do need to better understand the human condition, to value the life we have been given, to love the people who have been gifted to us. The light is there, whether we see it or not. And it is possible to summarize the Christian life as a process of coming to recognize all the light we cannot see.