Category Archives: Cultural Quakes

Major shifts, trends, disruptions and re-alignments within American culture.

I Want More Carol Burnett Comedy

This past Friday night Blairlee and I had the rare gift (thanks to a very kindly aunt) of seeing Carol Burnett in person at the Strathmore Music Center. We had center-stage second row seats, too! I don’t think I’ve ever had concert seats like that.

Carol Burnett Live on April 15, 2016

Carol Burnett Live on April 15, 2016

When Carol took the stage, she electrified and captivated the entire audience for a full hour-and-a-half. Not bad for an 82-year-old comedienne. And Carol did something which only a seasoned, veteran entertainer would ever do. She took the stage with no script. Only a handful of video clips anchored her show. Everything else was live Q&A with her audience. Audience members could ask anything they wanted, and she called on people from all over the theater. As a public speaker, believe me, that takes guts… and a wealth of talent.

I can’t remember going to a show and laughing so hard. In all the years I’ve known Blairlee, I’ve never heard her laugh that hard, either. From the moment Carol took the stage until her final bow, we were both non-stop smiles.

A friend of mine commented that Carol Burnett is a comedic genius. That she is. I think it’s a combination of her charm, her wit, the way she uses her body and face, her timing, voice inflection, and this uncanny sense that she’s the everyday woman next door. You can relate to her and deeply appreciate her, too.

And then another thing struck me. Carol Burnett put on a full show without using one vulgarity or profane word. It never occurred to me while she was performing. It was so natural. But once I realized how “clean” her show was, it left me longing for more comedians and comediennes like Carol Burnett- women and men who can make us laugh without dragging us through the basest part of our nature. She could wink at it while not taking us all the way there, and to me, that made it all the more funny. It was like telling a clever joke without having to explain it.

For example, Carol told a story about a skit she performed on The Carol Burnett Show which featured her as a character who lived in a nudist colony. That concept could go in a number of directions! Carol’s character was being interviewed while standing behind a fence, and the interviewer asked her what she and her fellow colonists do for evening entertainment. (The eyebrows just got a little higher.)

Without missing a beat, Carol’s character said, “We go dancing.” [Lots of laughter.] The interviewer then asked how a bunch of nudists dance. Carol’s original line said, “Very carefully.”

Well, that line got scrutinized by the TV execs. So at the last minute she changed it to, “We like to dance cheek to cheek.” Apparently, the TV execs were fine with that. Now that’s hilarious!

And notice: no profanity, no vulgar descriptions. Either you got the joke, or you didn’t.

I’m not one to long for the good ol’ days or to wish we could go back to the happier times. Longing for the past is always through rose-colored glasses. We tend to over-inflate the pleasant things while sanitizing or forgetting the less pleasant things. For example, while television was freer from profanity, violence, and nudity, there was certainly lots more racism and sexism. Smoking was widespread and socially acceptable. Would we want to go back to all of that?

You could convincingly argue that Carol Burnett’s humor was shaped and controlled by much stronger censorship and different viewer sensibilities. Very true. Without those restrictions, maybe her humor would have been quite different. Perhaps. But Carol and her co-actors managed to be hilariously funny in that (controlled) environment. In 2016, it’s still just as funny.

Carol Burnett demonstrated that masterfully last Friday night.

Carol Burnett proves that we don’t have to gaze in the rear-view mirror to find and create good comedy. She and her kind of humor still have a place in American entertainment. Her comedy uses wit, physicality, charm, and off-the-wall antics to make people laugh. Much has changed in the nearly 50 years since her show took the airwaves. But some forms of comedy, like Carol Burnett’s, are timeless.

I’d like a lot more of that. I’m not asking for her kind of humor to supplant and replace what’s out there now. I don’t want to see Carol Burnett-style humor attempt to prove a point or stake a moral high ground. That’s simply not funny. True humor has a selfless simplicity to it that doesn’t preach or demean. It just brings joy.

Yet there is a sizable audience including people like me who would thoroughly enjoy humor that isn’t demeaning, overtly profane, violent, or pornographic. For me, it’s not moral snobbery. I laugh at all kinds of things. Funny is funny. At the same time, there’s something refreshing and fun about Carol’s humor that would offer alternatives to some of the other modes of comedy out there.

And while comedy is never culturally universal, Carol Burnett’s brand of comedy can unite multiple generations and multiple moral sensibilities to laugh together. Very few things in life can bring people together like laughter. Thank you, Carol, for 50 years of laughter. May others follow in your stead to bring us joy, happiness… and Tarzan yells.

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Fellow Christians, Could We Please Stop Whining over Movies?

NoahSo, the highly anticipated, much derided Noah is playing in theaters now, and no, I’ve not seen it. I’m not avoiding it, per se. I’m just not a big fan of spending $30 for overpriced tickets and popcorn… unless it happens to be a new Star TrekStar Wars, or Tolkien movie. Then I’m there front and center of that 3D IMAX theater with my big tub of $15 popcorn and soda. But I digress…

Beyond the mere movie, I’ve been entertaining myself with all the commentary, much of it negative, from fellow Christians. To be honest, I don’t know whether to sit back and laugh, throw up in disgust, or hide in embarrassment.

It’s like we have this HUGE, insurmountable hang-up with… of all things… movies. When a movie comes out that brushes even slightly against our faith, good or bad, we lose all composure and go berserk.

If it’s something like The Passion of the Christ or that new movie God’s Not Dead, we go gaga over it! We tell all our friends about it. We preach highly marketed sermon series about it. We buy out whole theaters to get as many of our heathen friends there as possible in order to convert them. I mean, it’s as if movie manna has descended from the heavens into the chaotic moral decadency of Hollywood, and we gobble it up for all it’s worth.

Hallelujah! It’s about time we have some God-glorifying, holy movies to watch. Pass that $15 popcorn my way.

But… let’s say it’s a movie like The Da Vinci Code or the new Noah movie.

Shrieks of terror and disgust… How dare those atheistic, money-grubbing Hollywood types make a mockery of our faith! Oh, no… Those poor, ignorant, unsuspecting, unbelieving masses will go and see this piece of heretical trash and become indoctrinated with un-Christian, unbiblical views. Lord have mercy! Bar the theater doors! Sound the alarm! And whatever you do, don’t go see that movie, or it will ruin your faith forever!!!

<sigh…>

Could I interject a little bit of sanity here? I’ll begin with four words. Calm down. Stop whining.

Before you jump on a movie bandwagon, either for a wonderfully godly movie you love or a movie produced by minions of the Antichrist, let’s consider a few things and then re-examine our approach to movies.

Movies aren’t as culturally impactful as we think they are. In a world fully saturated with media, social networking, and instant communication, one 15-second video or a meme could impact the culture more than a multi-million dollar movie. Even then, our media saturated minds have in increasingly short memory span. That electrifyingly hot thing now will be forgotten within a few news cycles. Example: remember Gangnam Style? Seems like forever ago, doesn’t it? So, we need not fret or get too gleeful about the latest-greatest movie to hit the theaters. They will soon be relics of the past.

Information is everywhere. We need to stop fretting about the masses being misinformed by a movie. Most Christians think we’re still in the Modern world in which information is controlled and disseminated by a few institutional sources like school books, clergy, Walter Cronkite, and of course, Hollywood. It’s time we wake up to the reality of the 21st century information superhighway. People can get information about anything, anytime, anywhere. If I want to know the diet of a giant squid, the history of pre-Columbian South America, or the biblical story of Noah, I pick up my iPhone and find what I want in seconds. That reality still fascinates me. All that to say, people who really want to know the correct biblical stories or what orthodox Christian theology has to say can find it without a whole lot of effort. One short-lived movie is not going to leave the masses misinformed, unless they just don’t care. The later is most likely the case.

Even bad movies are great opportunities… if we stop having hissy fits. God has a way of redeeming even the worst things for life-giving good. So let me suggest a strategy for engaging movies that inaccurately portray Scripture and Christian theology: conversation. The world doesn’t want to be preached to about how bad its movies are, but people do enjoy an engaging conversation.

When The Da Vinci Code was released, the star of the film, Tom Hanks, purportedly had this to say to churches, “If they put up a sign saying: This Wednesday we’re discussing the gospel, 12 people show up. But if a sign says: This Wednesday we’re discussing The Da Vinci Code, 800 people show up.” And that’s precisely what many wise churches did. Instead of howling heresy at the movie’s treatment of Jesus, they took the opportunity to reach out and include people in a conversation about the film which included sharing accurate Christian history and biblical theology.

What if we took this same approach to Noah. Everyone knows the story, but most take for granted why the story was told and what it truly reveals about God, humanity, creation, and covenant. Imagine that…

Movies don’t change lives; relationships do. Movies, good ones or bad ones, don’t bring droves of people to the faith, and neither do they lead them away. Relationships make the difference, either in a positive, life-giving way, or a negative, life-diminishing way. I came to faith in Christ, not through a movie, a book, a religious tract, or a sermon. I came to faith through my positive interactions with Christians. And yes, great sermons, good books, including the Bible, and other Christian media helped. But when it came down to it, seeing and sampling Christ in other people is what led me to faith.

And this stands as a warning, too. When the world sees Christians having a cow over movies like Noah, well, you can imagine what they’re thinking. I mean, who wants to identify with a paranoid, reactionary, judgmental group of people? (Oh sure, let me sign up for that happy cruise.) But, open, engaging, humble, inviting, warm, peaceable, joy-filled, loving people… that’s hard to pass up.

*******
It’s time for us Christians to take a breath and calm down about media.

Media is definitely a huge part of our lives and does have a hand in shaping what we think, what we see, and what we value. So let’s take a cue from Jesus who told us to use the worlds’ means for good, and intentionally, humbly engage folks through the things they watch and observe. Movies like Noah, while biblically and theologically inaccurate, can be a gift if we know how to use that gift productively.

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What a Pastor and a Duck Dynasty Star Have in Common

Schaefer and RobinsonThey both are Christians. They both are outspoken. And, they both got fired today. The cause: their stances on homosexuality. The real irony is that their positions could not be any more different.

Rev. Frank Schaefer, (as of today) a former United Methodist pastor, married off his son to his partner in a church wedding. He and his many supporters and advocates saw this  as a sacred act of compassion and love for his son and a necessary, conscientious act of disobedience to church law. After a painful church trial which found him guilty, a 30-day suspension, and massive protest, the Board of Ordained Ministry from his Annual Conference removed his credentials as an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church.

Phil Robertson, star of the popular reality show Duck Dynasty, also spoke out on homosexuality, calling it sinful and lewd. Today the A&E Network indefinitely placed him on filming hiatus. His numerous supporters call this a breach of personal free-speech, protesting A&E’s actions as punitive, discriminatory, and intolerant. Meanwhile, members of the LGBT community are angered and hurt.

Two men. They represent polar opposite positions of a contentiously emotional debate. Both got fired for standing up for what they believe to be right. Is there a message or at least a lesson to be learned?

I think so.

This message would appeal to most people but offend passionate believers from both sides of the LGBT debate. There must be a way to honor each other, talk and act respectfully towards each other, and give space for each other to exist. Time will continue to bring about change, and I imagine that in generations to come, there will be no relevant debate. But for the time being, we must learn to allow space for all in the same room and at the same table.

In no way do I believe that these polar views on LGBT to be reconcilable. One side finds the views of the other equally appalling and morally detestable. But until the day in which one view becomes the prevailing view of most, we can find ways go forward together without violence or collateral damage.

I believe the church can and should lead the way to discovering a mutual way forward. That’s because in the church, we all claim one Christ, we are one family of God, and we love each other as brothers and sisters… well… ideally. It’s all a work in progress, and certainly the struggle over LGBT is testing our mettle.

But the Apostle Paul just might provide a model of unity we can apply to our struggle. In the First Century church of Rome, there was division among those who ate meat purchased in the market place and those who believed that eating this meat was blasphemous because it was first used in idol worship as an offering. (Remember the Second Commandment!) The division was so irreconcilable that these two groups refused to eat together any longer. That was a big deal because shared meals were majorly important to the life of the church. Why? These meals were the celebration of the Lord’s Table. One group saw that eating meat was perfectly fine; the other thought this to be utterly sinful. Sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it?

Paul’s solution stated in Romans 14:1-15:13 was ingenious. And I believe it is quite applicable to our struggle to find unity in the church over the presence of LGBT people. Please take the time to read this passage for yourself, but here are the highlights:

  • We are all God’s servants, so who are we to judge fellow servants who belong to God?
  • Whichever side we’re on, as Christians, we are both convinced that what we do and believe, we do for the Lord.
  • Treating others with contempt because of their divergent convictions opens us to the judgment of God.
  • Respect the fact that what one calls sin is to them truly sin. Acting in a way that distresses them is not love. So don’t let something one calls good to be spoken of by the other as evil.
  • Do not let your convictions be a stumbling block to another. Rather do anything necessary that leads to peace and mutual edification.
  • The kingdom of God is not about eating and drinking, but rather peace, righteousness, and joy in the Holy Spirit. (Could we also say that the kingdom of God is not about sex and marriage? Jesus says as much.)
  • Whatever you believe, keep it between yourself and God.
  • We are called to bear with each other, especially when we find the faith of the other to be weak.
  • Accept each other since Christ has already accepted each of us so that we can glorify and serve Christ together.

That’s the gist of it. But imagine what the church would be like if we operate this way towards each other, in the gracious love of Jesus Christ. Larger still, imagine a world in conflict that loves each other this way… Perhaps if we did, Rev. Frank Schaefer and Phil Robertson would still be employed today.

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The Beautiful Beloved

I just saw a YouTube video produced by the makers of Dove soap. It was an experiment conducted with several women which focused on self-image versus the way others image us. This video was one of the most breathtaking things I’ve seen in a while.

In case you didn’t watch the video, here’s how it worked… A woman was asked to come into a large, empty studio apartment and sit down. Seated on the other side of a curtain was a forensic artist. Neither the woman or the artist could see each other. The artist asked the woman to describe her facial features in some detail, and based on what she described, the artist drew up a portrait. Once the interview and portrait were completed, the woman was asked to leave, curtained from seeing the artist or the portrait.

Then she met with another person, and they interacted for a while. This person then went to that same studio apartment and described this woman to the forensic artist who was still hidden behind a curtain. A while later, the woman would go back to that apartment to view both portraits.

The results were astounding. For every woman, her self-described portrait was shockingly unattractive, scarred, often older, and disfigured– an utterly unlovely picture of herself. But the portrait described by the stranger was altogether lovely, beautiful, and awe-inspiring. You could see the woman begin to melt with affection, gazing at the second portrait. Meanwhile, when ruefully glancing up at her own self-described portrait, she affirmed her need to work on her own self-image– that she is indeed, beautiful.

The simple message: you are more beautiful than you think.

As a pastor, I am all too familiar with the kind of poor self-esteem and outright self-loathing that plagues most all of us, myself included, to varying degrees. We’re brought up in a hyper-critical world bent on success, strength, and beauty and reminded regularly of the ways we don’t measure up. The harsh judgments and descriptions others make of us unconsciously become the labels with which we image ourselves.

What’s the net result? It’s a severely deflated understanding of ourselves that cannot be strong, courageous, or loving enough to become all that God shaped us to be. Or, we fashion a hyper-inflated persona of ourselves to woo and wow the people around us, craving their approval and whatever else we can get from them. In either case, we mask the wounds and painful scars we so desperately try to hide.

It’s no wonder then that we cannot see and love ourselves for who we are. And, even more egregious, we cannot understand, fathom, or receive the ways that our God sees and holds us. We think we are ugly, small (or too big!), hopelessly flawed, unlovable (if they really knew me!), and hopelessly limited. What would God want with this mess of a human being?

So we go through life hyper-critical of ourselves, naturally assuming that others around us and God are just as critical and judgmental. We find subtle, yet harrowing ways of forging others and God into ugly, critical versions of ourselves. This reality alone may very well be the primary source of all the depression, anxiety, boredom, addiction, violent and stupid acts of desperation, and relational brokenness and infidelities we see all around us.
My BelovedSo what if we began a journey of self-definition beginning with how God, our Creator sees us? I looked at the biblical word “beloved” and was surprised to see how often this word was used to describe us. We are indeed God’s beloved (1 Thess. 1:4), uniquely created in God’s uniquely divine image (Gen. 1:26, 27). When we’re lost, God desperately, relentlessly pursues as that one lost sheep, then tenderly, joyfully carries us home on his shoulders (Luke 15:4-6). Even when we purposefully reject God, he patiently, longingly stands there as our Father who cannot wait until we come home, runs to embrace us, and brings us in to a warm, grand feast waiting for us in our honor (Luke 15:20-24).

This is just a snapshot of the biblical images that describe God’s tender love for us. I believe that not even all the words of Scripture can fathom the way God cherishes, adores, and longs for us. God knows our beauty and worth, no matter the ways in which we and world attempt to trash what God has made. God rejects the hyper-critical ways we see ourselves and others.

In short: we need to see the portrait God has made of us. It is strikingly more beautiful, handsome, and captivating than the ugly, scarred self-portrait of ourselves. Seeing God’s portrait indeed melts us and keeps us forever within the passionate embrace of our God and Father.

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Reviving the Art of Neighborliness

Today I conducted a funeral for a man who was a longtime resident of Laurel, MD. The man was in his early 80’s. In recent years he and his wife had become Florida winter birds until this past year when the man got sick with cancer. And yet the sanctuary was packed with people, all kinds of people, young and old. There’s a reason for that…

Laurel has that classic small town feel, even with all the growth and expanding diversity Laurel has seen over the last 30 years.We have an historic district, a mayor and city council, a Main Street, and lots of community events. There’s a Masonic lodge and a Moose lodge, a Rotary Club, and a plethora of other kinds of clubs and fraternities. Of course there’s a Laurel Volunteer Fire Department and Rescue Squad.

It’s not too difficult to get to know your neighbors here, and yet Laurel is one of the most transient places I have ever seen. Situated right between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., most people move here for a few years at a time and then move on. Hardly anyone decides to retire here.
NeighborsI’ve conducted many funerals for longtime residents of Laurel, people born in the 1920’s and 30’s. And I’ve always heard these things said about them:

“They were the neighborhood parents and grandparents. Everyone knew they could go to their home and called them Mom and Pop.”

“He never knew a stranger and treated everyone the same, whether it was a homeless man or the mayor- made no difference.”

“She and her girlfriends got together every Thursday night at the Tastee Freeze for coffee and ice cream. They never missed it.”

“I could rely on him for anything, and anything he had was yours.”

“I never met a more generous, warm, welcoming woman in my life. Her home was my home.”

I have to admit, it’s hard to find younger, more mobile people described this way today. It’s not that people have changed. I don’t think human nature does change. It’s just that with our high mobility and ever complex schedules and lifestyles, we’ve become detached and isolated from each other. Now it’s possible to live right next door to someone, never know anything about them except their name, never enter each others’ homes or have anything to do with one another.

Recently I heard someone describe the decline of neighborliness this way: we’ve gone from homes with front porches to homes with back decks. So true…

In an ever complex, highly mobile, fast-paced world, we need to re-discover the art of neighborliness.
I want to suggest a few things:

  • Let’s slow down to get to know the people around us. What’s going on with them and their families? What do they like to do? How can we support each other? Invite them over and hang out.
  • If we’re too busy to be a neighbor, we’re too busy. Slow down a bit and make being a neighbor one of our personal priorities, higher up on the list. Schedule neighbor times.
  • Use social media to be a neighbor. Instead of just posting the latest meme or complaining about your hangnails, use it as a way to encourage and love on people. For example, I have friends in California I have never met in person. In some ways, they have been better neighbors to me than some of the people in my own neighborhood. They’ve been there for me in critical times with phone calls and gifts, and when I need a boost, they send thoughtful notes. Even through we’re on separate coasts, they’ve shown me how to be a good neighbor.

All of this reminds me of a very practical admonition given to an early Christian community in the book of Hebrews:

Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. (Hebrews 13:1-2)

I know there are many many other ways to be better neighbors. What are some ways you’ve experienced good neighborliness? Leave a comment, and in the spirit of being good neighbors, let’s continue the conversation on our virtual front porches…

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The YouTube Edition of Christian Jerks on Social Media

Following up with my last blog post about how Christians can be real jerks on social media, my buddy Rev. John Rudolph and I recorded an 18 minute conversation about social media and how people, particularly we Christians, use and misuse it. John and his wife Rev. Dr. Melissa Rudolph are co-pastors of the North Carroll Cooperative Parish UMC. They have been really innovative in their use of technology and social media to engage folks in their congregation and of course to a potential world-wide audience, too!
So clear aside the 20 minutes you’d spend messing around doing something else, and get ready for a really cool conversation:

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Christian Jerks on Social Media

Yesterday I saw this tweet from a pastor friend of mine:

I responded with the following:

fighting over internetGranted, the behavior of fellow Christians– and admittedly my own behavior from time to time, too– can be anything but Christ-like. When anyone tries to imagine  the ideal Christian one thinks of graciousness, love, humility, strength, sacrificial.

However, we all know how lacking some Christians can be in those departments in our everyday interactions with other people.

But peoples’ behavior on social media takes on quite a different character from their everyday face-to-face or voice-to-voice interactions.

Social media creates a semi-anonymous atmosphere. It’s not completely anonymous because we can see each other’s names (or some semblance of a real name) and a picture. But I think of the people I know in person and on social media. Often there’s a difference. Social media removes levels of accountability, and when they are gone, we tend to keep a shorter leash on our virtual tongues and on our manners.

Have you ever noticed that it’s easier to spout off or be confrontational in an e-mail that in person? Just the other day, someone sent me an e-mail complaining about something I recently said. Why not pick up the phone? My guess is that would been too hard. But without my voice or face there, it was all too easy to just shoot off an e-mail. In that forum, they could say whatever they wanted. After a few e-mails back and forth, I picked up the phone and called the person. It’s funny. When I did that, suddenly the words were calmer. Understanding and resolution suddenly became a lot easier, spurred on by the necessity and accountability of actual, live, verbal contact.

So, back to social media, an interaction may go like this… Someone posts something on Facebook or Twitter that I don’t like. I either don’t agree with it, or I find it offensive. So I spout off on it, and before I know it, I’ve become a Christian social media jerk. Debates start. The virtual anger level ratchets up. After a while I know I’m saying things I would probably not say in person with this semi-anonymous face I’m interacting with.

And as for Christian love and grace? Whew… Gone out the window and replaced with righteous indignation, argumentativeness, condescension, and just plain ol’ jerk-face behavior. Again, all this gets magnified in the social media world. I’d never be so “daring” or “candid” in person.

Christians already get a bad rap for being judgmental, arrogant, holier than thou, and in general being short-fused snots. Admittedly, much of that criticism is well deserved. It’s high time that we own up to it, confess it, and repent. But, when all of this behavior gets exacerbated in the semi-anonymous world of social media, it only reinforced the stereotypes people already have of us “good religious folk”, a.k.a Christians.

Now I know what’s going through the heads of my fellow Christian readers, something like, “But Chris, we have to stand for Christ and stand for what is right, no matter the cost. Are you going to let unrighteousness and anti-Christian messaging go unchecked, especially when it has the power to influence so many spiritually wishy-washy people??”

To that I have three thoughts to offer:

1) Do you remember the childhood lesson of “it’s not what you say- it’s how you say it?” So often we mess up, not in the message, but in how we forward the message. We can challenge people without coming across as disdainful, know-it-all jerks.

2) We Christians need to learn the wisdom of picking our battles. Ask yourself what’s really at stake before responding to a post. Is it that big of an issue? Before blasting off some angry post, make sure you think about anticipated fruit and consequences. If what you’re saying is only going to fire up people who think like you and tick off everybody else, what have you really accomplished? Was that a battle worth waging?

3) Ask yourself this question and be brutally honest with yourself: what’s at stake in what I’m about to post, Christ or my own self-esteem? I think people often try to make points on social media to stoke their own ego or to vent their own laundry. Well, brothers and sisters, that approach is exclusively about you, and little to nothing to do with Christ. Remember that Jesus knew when to engage in a discussion and when to walk away. Pray for that kind of wisdom. Believe me, the gospel is at stake.
So to reform ourselves from being online Christian jerks, I’d like to suggest a few behavioral modifications that will go a long way to making for better interactions.

1) Read, listen, and think. One of the most underutilized forms of witnessing for Christ is the ministry of listening, learning, and curiosity. That communicates respect and humility which then earns a listening ear from someone else.

2) Ask open-ended questions without copping an argumentative attitude. You’ll be amazed at what you learn. Misconceptions are cleared up, and– miracle of miracles!- you might actually find points of agreement to go on.

3) Make your points calmly and respectfully. Yes, you can do that. Enough said…
4) Have the courage to shut up and move on. In all the years I have been on social media, I have never, ever, ever seen anyone converted to a point by losing an argument. In fact, rarely have I seen anyone lose an argument because that would require a degree of humble concession, a rare bird to find on social media. So, never hesitate to say, “Thank you for sharing that,” and move on.

So there you have it: Etiquette for Christian Jerks on Social Media 101. Now, I have class 201 to attend…

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It’s the Most Politically Correct Time of the Year

I never thought to exert any effort addressing this topic, or worse yet subject you, my patient readers, to this dribble. Yet every time I think it’s gone away, it starts barking again. I recently posted a question about this on Facebook and got overwhelmed with the varied responses. Yes, I’m talking about the battle over Christmas.

Every year, this time of year, without fail, it goes something like this:
Do we have a Christmas Tree at the town square or a non-sectarian Holiday Tree? Do we put up a Nativity there, scrap it all together for lights and snowflakes, or maybe put up a Nativity alongside a Menorah and a Kwanzaa kinara? Oops… forgot to add the Festivus pole… oh yeah, and the Yule Log.

And of course, there’s the seasonal salutation question. Do we keep to a faithful “Merry Christmas” or offer an all-inclusive “Happy Holidays”? If we ask that, we might as well consider whether to boycott those ungodly, anti-Christian stores who refuse to acknowledge Christmas with that secular “Happy Holidays” garbage or perhaps shun the stores who sold out to the Bill O’Reilly evangelical fundamentalist right-wingers and now emblazon that bigoted “Merry Christmas” hate speech all over their stores. How oppressive!

You get the idea…

Now, just to turn down the heat with a reality check, let’s keep three things in mind.

First, Happy Holidays was originally shorthand for Merry Christmas and Happy New Years. While it’s become a polite, non-sectarian seasonal greeting for most people, some still use Happy Holidays as a catch-all for Christmas and New Years.

Second, the widespread celebration of Christmas with Santa Claus, decorations, Christmas Eve services, gift giving, and the whole nine yards is a fairly recent phenomenon. Ironically enough, 200 years ago, most Protestants could have cared less about Christmas or even wrote it off as a “papist” folly. Christmas is the Christ-Mass, after all. That’s why, historically speaking, it’s pretty amusing to hear us evangelical Christians coming to the rescue of a once-avoided Catholic feast day.

Third, for Jews and Christians, Christmas and Hanukkah are not the most important religious celebrations of the year, despite all the hoopla. For Christians, Easter Sunday is by far the foremost feast day, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And for a long time, the January 6 celebration of Epiphany was more prominent than Christmas. (I know some folks who out of principle purposefully still honor this.) For Jews, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the most important day of the year, followed by Rosh Hashanah. Hanukkah, a far less important Jewish celebration, has earned a place of unintended cultural prominence for Jews living in the clang and clamor of Christmas, which again, once upon a time, was never all that important to a significant segment of Christendom.

So why all the fuss over Merry Christmas versus Happy Holidays or whether or not it’s appropriate to have a Nativity on public property?

This is part and parcel of the ongoing culture wars. Looking at the scope of human history, the transitional years between major periods of history have always been politically, economically, and culturally turbulent. I believe we are in that time of turbulent transition from Modernity to the next thing. That’s why we speak of everything now as post—post-Enlightenment, post-Imperialism, post-Christendom, post-Western, postmodern. These are not definitive, concrete terms, only negations of what used to be, making way for the next thing. Meanwhile no one seems to know what that next thing is. Until the next thing comes, we get to endure the culture wars of our times, the struggle between what we conserve versus what we change or simply throw out.

The struggle over Christmas is over the identity of Christmas and the place of Christmas, among many other traditional things, in an increasingly pluralistic culture. When we see the bumper sticker slogan “Jesus is the Reason for the Season,” we’re dealing with a strictly contemporary sentiment that would have seemed patently absurd to people just forty years ago. That’s recent past, really.

But there’s another oddity about our post-everything age. When dealing with cultural differences, we have set up an incongruent paradigm. It’s kind of funny, actually.

On the one side of this paradigm, it is increasingly poor manners to “judge” anyone or anything. Live and let live. I don’t have the right to tell you how you should live, what you should think, and what you should do, most especially if it doesn’t directly affect me. Nor do I have the right to enter your personal space with my values and beliefs without your explicit permission. Personal freedom, privacy, and tolerance are the basic, inviolate interrelational virtues of our day.

However, on the other side of the paradigm, we hold a fundamental right to never be offended. Maybe that’s why we get so cranky! Someone says or does something that clashes with my life and values, and I feel personally violated, as if what was said and done was explicitly intended to attack my personhood. For example, I wish you a Happy Holidays, and you might interpret that as my trivializing your Christian holiday or even your Christian faith. Or if I wish you a Merry Christmas, you might interpret that as a manipulative form of proselytizing. So much for tolerance. (For the record, I don’t know of anyone who ever became a born again believer or who was ever coerced into Christianity after being wished a Merry Christmas. And no, I don’t buy the argument that saying Merry Christmas is a necessary preservative of Christmas. Unpretentiously working in a homeless shelter on Christmas Day, however—now that’s preserving the gift of Christmas.)

So, we live in this paradigmatic tension of tolerance versus never offending or being offended.

Strangely enough I live with this same tension in the church culture. On the one hand, we mainline Protestants pride ourselves for practicing “Open Minds, Open Doors, and Open Hearts” (a recent United Methodist slogan). But on the other hand, the baseline question that drives the bulk of our decisions and behaviors is, “That won’t offend anyone, will it?” Unfortunately, all too seldom do we ask, “What is the right thing, the most holy thing, the most Christ-like thing?” Instead we walk on eggshells, neurotically sanitizing everything we say or do, lest this group or this person should get their panties in a bunch (oops, that last image might have offended someone!) and walk out… with checkbook in hand, of course.

Getting back to Christmas, all sides of the debate have made it a politically correct nightmare. Both Christians and non-Christians want tolerance but are offended when their sensibilities are violated. Christians cannot charge non-Christians and secularists with a politically correct tyranny of Happy Holidays and non-sectarian winter solstice festivities and at the same time turn around and demand carte blanche for Merry Christmas and Nativities. Both demand tolerance while simultaneously filing a public grievance over the cultural violations of the other.

So, how do we go forward? I think we need to ask a question to ourselves. We need to go beyond the question, “Can’t we all just get along?” That question asks for basic toleration, and toleration isn’t enough. We must ask ourselves, “How can I fully embrace the other, honoring them while remaining true to myself?” That doesn’t mean I agree with all they believe, do, or say. But I don’t have to let those incongruities bother me. Instead, I can appreciate them for the gift from God they are and the gifts from God they offer, and fully value and include them for that.

That would mean you could see me out on the street and wish me a Happy Holidays, a Happy Hanukkah, a Happy Kwanzaa, a Happy Winter Solstice, a Happy Christmakwanzukkah, or just a “Hey there, Chris!” and I would receive that as your blessing to me, and receive it with joy because I receive you with joy. At the same time, I could joyfully wish you a Merry Christmas in my excitement over the birth of Christ, and you would receive that and me for what they were intended to be: a blessing and a gift to you, however you choose to receive me.

All this would be a significant down payment on the angels’ proclamation to the shepherds of “…good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all the people” (Luke 2:10).

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Steve Jobs: the Everyman Who Made Genius So Simple

When Steve Jobs came back to Apple in 1996, a company he co-founded and from which he was dismissed 11 years earlier, he inherited an operation in steep decline. At that moment, Jobs became the modern-day equivalent of David going to pick a fight with Goliath. Goliath, of course, was the unquestionably dominant presence of Microsoft embodied in none other than Bill Gates. Without a doubt, Microsoft was the universal standard of the computing world. Microsoft didn’t make computer hardware, but Bill Gates and Microsoft made Windows, and Windows became the way most of the world interacted with computers. Thus, Bill Gates and Microsoft formed the seemingly impervious imperial power of the computing world.

What chance did Steve Jobs and Apple have against a Goliath like that? Well, everyone but hardcore Apple users would have said, “Absolutely none!” while they installed Windows 97 on their PC’s. But little did they know, Steve Jobs had a hard, smooth stone in his slingshot. Right after he wound up and skillfully fired off that smooth stone directly at Microsoft, we began to see the giant lose its monopoly. Goliath had met his match.

The smooth stone of Steve Jobs was this: captivating simplicity. Steve Jobs was an everyman who believed that people really wanted their electronic tools to be cool, sleek, elegant, simple, and yet powerful pieces of technology. And while he began making drastic improvements to Macs, he made a fascinating, risky move to catch the public’s attention. It was the iPod. For most everyone, including myself, this was the first Apple product we ever owned, the first of many more. I remember being amazed at how cool and sophisticated the iPod was. I could have all my music in one polished little flat box that only had one button and a touch-wheel. There weren’t a half-dozen buttons to figure out and push. No complicated menus or screens. A small but beautifully rich display. And I could watch TV shows I missed on it, too!

Now how cool is that??

It probably goes without saying that Steve Jobs stunned Goliath, and Goliath has continually tried to strike back, often with little success. (Anybody remember the Zune?? You may be able to find one on eBay… maybe.)

We all know the rest of the story. And I have to admit, I’m not nearly the Apple enthusiast I may appear to be. (Yes, everything you’re reading here was produced on a PC.) But I have been an admirer of Steve Jobs for one major reason. Steve Jobs was a man who knew his strengths and then invested them into a career and into several companies which became wildly successful. Don’t forget Pixar was a Jobs company, too. One could even argue that media giant Disney owes most of its success over the last 20 years to Pixar and to Steve Jobs.

Since his death yesterday, many people have been trying to capture Steve Jobs’ legacy. I believe Steve Jobs’ legacy was his core strength of being an everyman. In other words, he was a regular enough guy to know the kind of technology that people wanted and weren’t getting anywhere else. He harnessed his own and others’ creativity, created products that were nothing short of cutting edge excellence, and then became their passionate champion. Jobs and the people he chose to work with created products they truly loved. Then Jobs became the living billboard of those products with his passion and persona, serving as Apple’s best advertising.

Apple products: simple and captivating. Steve Jobs: jeans and a t-shirt with tons of pizzazz. Together, they made market-shifting genius that shaped an entirely different contour to the computing, entertainment, and communications world. (Jobs also affected the church world, too. “Simple Church”, based on Jobs’ concepts, has influenced many congregations to keep things both deeply authentic and structurally less complicated and cumbersome.)

Steve Jobs was an everyman in another way, too. Like everyone else, Jobs was endowed with unique strengths and gifts. Jobs, however, took the rarely taken step of channeling his energy into those strengths, and we all now live with the results. It’s easy to take for granted that Steve Jobs possessed no formal education in engineering, programming, or computer technology. The Geek Squad wouldn’t have hired him, and you probably wouldn’t have want Jobs to build and program much of anything. But he didn’t need to, and he didn’t waste his time trying to learn how. Instead, Jobs worked with the engineers and programmers to create the products he envisioned. He hired lots more non-engineers and non-programmers and turned them loose in the design phase of Apple products, too. Thus, Jobs didn’t make the mistake Microsoft has made of hiring computer nerds to manufacture products that only semi-computer nerds can fully appreciate and understand while everyone else fumbles through Microsoft error pop-up windows.

In the wake of Steve Jobs passing, his absence will be felt for a long time. But then again, we all can spot and indeed posses Steve Jobs-like genius whenever we singularly live into the strengths and gifts God has given us. People like that are always amazing. We love being around them. Their abilities and passion are a marvel to watch, no matter what they’re doing. There’s pure genius in the God-given strengths of teachers, managers, chefs, entrepreneurs, sales clerks, table servers, analysts, preachers, artists, athletes, or stay-at-home parents. Our strengths are invaluable gifts to God, to others around us, and to ourselves. Fully realized, those strengths are the hallmark of human genius, distinct and powerful because we have been made by God in his image. And there’s no greater genius than God!

Steve Jobs was blessed to know and courageous enough to live through his strengths. To honor Jobs and his legacy, I hope you and I can keep it simple and do the same.

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Something Was “Raptured” on May 21: Fundamentalism

Fundamentalists themselves are not gone. We certainly haven’t heard the last from them, either. But any remaining sliver of Christian Fundamentalism’s influence was effectively “raptured” in the waning hours of May 21, 2011. This was the day Harold Camping predicted a worldwide judgment day and rapture of a faithful few Christians.  The day came and went with barely a fizzle. And now, incredulously enough, Harold Camping has announced yet another prediction… well sort of. You can read all about if you care to.

Now I know that it’s all the rage today– certainly a politically correct must— for Christians like me to distance ourselves as far from Fundamentalism as we can by publicly trashing it when the occasion suits us while using the stupidity of May 21’s failed apocalypse as a chance to say, “See there? What a bunch of simple-minded, radical kooks… Oh, and by the way, for the record, let it be known I am not one of them.” Well, as much as I’d love to jump on the bandwagon, that’s not my goal, especially when the vast majority of Christian Fundamentalists I know were just as adamant, many of them far more vocal than the rest of us, denouncing Camping’s May 21 predictions as a fraud, well before the actual day.

Even then, disturbing behaviors like the the May 21 Doomsday shenanigan, the repugnant Westboro Baptist Church and Pastor Terry Jones jeapordizing our national security with his Koran burning have thoroughly demonstrated that any lasting value of Fundamentalism has been “raptured” away and is no longer any good for the Church, Christianity, or for anyone else. All that’s left behind is a liability. When pastors like me have to spend increasingly more time and effort dispelling the damage done by Fundamentalism in recent decades while not coming off as self-righteous jerks ourselves, then I think it’s safe to say in the memorable words of astronaut Jim Lovell, “Houston, we have a problem.”

Fundamentalism as a movement has run its course.

Still, I do believe that in its heyday, Fundamentalism had a degree of value and place within Christianity, even if the majority vehemently disagreed with its teachings. And to be fair, Fundamentalism has been apishly caricatured by those who do not understand what it is and why it came to be. So as a eulogy for Fundamentalism, perhaps a brief, non-partisan description would be helpful.

Fundamentalism began in the early 20th Century as reactionary movement to the rising influence of new science and biblical criticism, i.e. Modernism, that was vastly reshaping the Protestant church. Darwin had famously challenged previously unquestioned assumptions about our origins in a way that radically departed from a face value reading of Genesis 1. Literary and historical criticism began to take a more critical view of the Bible’s authorship, historicity, and divine influence. As a result, Protestant church leaders, especially in the Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Anglican churches began to question the necessity or relevance of the more supernatural, “mythical” elements of the Bible and Christian doctrine, taking a step back from theology that now seemed to be too primitive and unnecessary in light of new scientific, literary, and historical findings.

Fundamentalists slammed on the breaks and insisted that there are “fundamentals” of the Christian faith that cannot be abandoned. In fact, a pastor/evangelist named A. C. Dixon published a series of essays called The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth that upheld what he considered to be several fundamentals of the Christian faith including:

  • the verbal, plenary inerrency of Scripture
  • the literalness of the gospel accounts, especially Christ’s miracles and resurrection
  • the Virgin Birth of Christ
  • his bodily resurrection
  • Christ’s physical return
  • the substitutionary atonement of Christ on the cross.

These were all essential beliefs that Fundamentalists claimed were being compromised in the wake of modern scholarship. Since those days, I believe that Fundamentalism served as a direct, or most often, an indirect counterweight to the rapid pull of Modernism.

For all their faults and follies, I believe that at a bare minimum Fundamentalists challenged the Protestant Church to not give up on several things, namely three things: 1) the central importance and uniquely divine inspiration of Scripture; 2) a vigorous confidence in Jesus’ miracles and his actual, historic resurrection; and 3) his promised return as a definitive future historic event. I get the sense that at one time much of the mainline Protestant Church was tempted to reshape these three historic doctrines to be mere allegories or even a fanciful fiction.

But somehow, enough of the Protestant Church has been kept from sliding away on these “fundamentals” of our faith. Even though I’ll get slammed by some people for saying this, I believe we have Fundamentalism to thank for part of the conservation effort. And for that reason alone, Fundamentalism has had its place as a vocal counterweight to the more unhealthy sways of Modernism.

The main character flaw of Fundmentalism– and granted it’s a big one– has been their failure to be self-critical and adaptive. That’s the fatal flaw of any movement whose inception is a reaction to circumstances it sees as a threat.

They become a self-pronounced and appointed “faithful remnant” whose job it is to zealously guard the faith against unfaithful incursions while ceding no ground doing it. The defensive nature of Fundamentalism has made it nearly impossible for them to self-critically evaluative their assumptions and methodology. While the cultural landscape has continually changed, offering new challenges and opportunities for the Church, Fundamentalists ardently entrench themselves while denouncing what they claim to be further spiritual and cultural backsliding.

Only now they have dug themselves in too deeply to see and understand their own shortcomings and damaging behaviors, and that’s why Christian Fundamentalism in the Protestant Church has met its functional end.

When a Fundamentalist like Harold Camping horse-blinders his understanding of the Bible to mean that every single word of Scripture is the the literal, historically, scientifically (and apparently mathematically!) infallible Word of God and then turns around to rebuff any honest critique of his organization’s teaching, even from other like-minded Christians, the results are the failures of May 21 and the embarrassment he causes the rest of us. Worse still, people got hurt, and Camping has taken no personal responsibility for it. I think of those who believed Camping and threw away their jobs, lifesavings, and reputations to “sound the alarm.” [Brief time-out…. Before you proudly regard yourself as smarter or wiser than they are– for you would never fall for such an idiotic thing as that— think about this: how many times have you found yourself wronged because you honestly believed in something or someone that didn’t live up to their promise?]

Aside from even the far extremism of Harold Camping, the biblical literalism of Fundamentalism flatly ignores and rejects any reasonable way to read and honor the Bible as God’s Word in any other way than strict literalism. That makes it nearly impossible for Fundamentalism to inform and be informed by ongoing scientific, historic, and cultural awareness while still upholding the Scriptures as God’s Holy Word. In effect, that has rendered this movement a dead sect which does not produce enough good and far too much bad to justify its continued existence. Harold Camping and crew proved this beyond any reasonable doubt this past Saturday. Not only that, but Christian Fundamentalism has been implicit in propagating attitudes within the Christian community that are sexist, homophobic, racist, and anti-scientific. Please note: I’m not saying that all my Fundamentalist brethren are themselves all those terrible things. However, Fundamentalism has aided and abetted  these attitudes, and that has become a black eye on all of Christianity. I have personally worked with too many victims of these unchristian attitudes espoused by “good, loving Christians.” Therefore, while Fundamentalism may have played a role in Christianity at one time, it does no longer.

So to honor whatever contributions Fundamentalism has made in its storied past, let’s give it some dignity and say, “You’ve been raptured!” The rest of us are still here, trying to build the kingdom of God with as much Christ-like integrity as we can. I only hope my Fundamentalist brothers and sisters will acknowledge this “rapture” and join in on building the kingdom of God’s righteousness here on earth as it is in heaven while joyfully anticipating the return of our Lord in glory and power!

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