A Roman Appeal

Romans 12:1-2, 9-21 (MSG):

So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him.

Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle.

Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant. Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality.

Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody.

Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody. Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do. “I’ll do the judging,” says God. “I’ll take care of it.”

Our Scriptures tell us that if you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch, or if he’s thirsty, get him a drink. Your generosity will surprise him with goodness. Don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good.

Theologizing superheroes (or, revealing my inner geek)

Original post: December 5, 2008; repost: March 20, 2010.

Last night I satisfied for a brief moment my inner comic book fanboy and watched Superman: Doomsday, the cartoon adaptation of The Death and Return of Superman series. [Some of you may be saying, “Superman died?!” Others will be rolling your eyes that I even need to explain that, and there will undoubtedly be a few who don’t really care.] I’ve always loved superheroes. Maybe I’m mindlessly buying into what Robert Jewett in Mission and Menace calls “the American monomyth paradigm” (236-238); maybe I’m just indulging in childish flights of fancy. Regardless, since I was a kid, I’ve loved Batman’s fun gadgets, Wolverine’s ridiculously cool adamantium claws, and Spider-Man’s webbing (and humor). But Superman has always been my favorite superhero.

Every hero has angst. It’s part of the comic book code: everyone struggles with something, whether it’s Spider-Man trying to figure out how to balance school and girls and fighting crime, or Wolverine wrestling with his shadowy past and trying to control his feral nature. Superman’s angst is his otherness, his difference, his rootlessness; his struggle is to find his place in a world that is simultaneously his home and yet not.

Here then is the first parallel, one of the reasons I like Superman: because I identify with him. Both for myself as a Third Culture Kid, and for myself as a Christian, whose citizenship is not in this world but in heaven (Phil. 3:20), this search and longing for home—to find people who really understand me and welcome me for who I am—is one of the struggles I face. Where do I fit in this world?

But the second parallel is what struck me (again, but with more clarity) last night, when I watched Superman: Doomsday. What makes Superman who he is? It isn’t just his super-strength, or his laser sight, or his super-speed, or his ability to fly, or his invincibility. It’s his values. It’s the fact that, even though he’s got the capacity to have the world fall at his feet, even though he’s got the power to subjugate all people and do whatever he wants, he chooses to be a servant, even to the point of laying down his life to defeat evil. Uh … obvious analogy, anyone?

Of course, the Superman mythology can be interpreted another way, as feeding into some of the American myths that Richard T. Hughes looks at in Myths America Lives By: of invulnerability, of always trying to do good, of American innocence. But I think even this way of understanding the Superman/Christ/America association belies the way that we as Americans (and we as Christians) can sometimes tend to (consciously or unconsciously) claim for ourselves a messianic mantle. (New discussion … go!)

Anyway … just wanted to bare my comic book-loving soul for y’all.

[Disclaimer: The movie isn’t all that amazing; but it is 75 minutes of fun.]

Spectacle over substance, quirk over quality

Author and entrepreneur Seth Godin has a fascinating post up, entitled “Driveby culture and the endless search for wow.” In it, he critiques how our culture feeds into and perpetuates our already-consumeristic (thanks to modernism) mentality, creating a shallower and more easily distracted society.

We’re creating a culture of clickers, stumblers and jaded spectators who decide in the space of a moment whether to watch and participate (or not).

Imagine if people went to the theatre or the movies and stood up and walked out after the first six seconds. Imagine if people went to the senior prom and bailed on their date three seconds after the car pulled away from the curb.

The majority of people who sign up for a new online service rarely or never use it. The majority of YouTube videos are watched for just a few seconds. Chatroulette institutionalizes the glance and click mentality. I’m guessing that more than half the people who started reading this post never finished it.

This is all easy to measure. And it drives people with something to accomplish crazy, because they want visits to go up, clicks to go up, eyeballs to go up.

Should I write blog posts that increase my traffic or that help change the way (a few) people think?

Should a charity focus on instant donations by texting from a million people or is it better to seek dedicated attention and support from a few who understand the mission and are there for the long haul?

It bears thinking about, especially for us as Christians. Do we seek to draw and engage people, online or otherwise, with substance or spectacle, with quality or quirk? With spectacle, with quirk, with cheap entertainment, we may draw more, and more immediately; we might have numbers to point to or more easily-categorizable statistics; and we might look, at least in the short-term, like we have found success.

But those we attract with such an approach are not, and will not be, the ones who will dig deep, who are genuinely interested, genuinely seeking, genuinely wanting to know more, and who are willing to sacrifice and work on the journey on which we are inviting them to join us, and more importantly, God. It is with substance, with quality, with genuine depth, that true change comes about and true disciples are made.

And that, going against the grain of culture, will be a challenge. But, as Seth concludes–and obviously, I’ve appropriated what I learned from him into my own framework of theology and life:

In the race between ‘who’ and ‘how many’, who usually wins–if action is your goal. Find the right people, those that are willing to listen to what you have to say, and ignore the masses that are just going to race on, unchanged.

We do the best we can with what we have and with what we know, and trust that God will do the rest.

It is his story after all.

Wanna come work at Sojourners for the summer?

Applications for The Beatitudes Society Fellowship are open for summer 2010. One of the options for placement is here at Sojourners, so yeah, you’d get to work with me. Isn’t that exciting? 😉

Here’s a description of the program:

This core program of The Beatitudes Society empowers seminary students to

  • Expand their experience in ministry,
  • Engage in praxis and reflection with peers,
  • Develop skills to effectively engage media,
  • Serve God in the world, and
  • Equip them to change the world.

Please forward word of the Fellowship Program to any seminarians you know – or to contacts you have at seminaries that might help us spread the word at their schools. The deadline to apply is February 15.

Let me know if you have any questions.

Culture, technology & theology

One of the classes I’m in is Theology & Culture with Barry Taylor. I love it. We’re looking at the way in which God can be found in various aspects of culture. This week, we looked at media, and we noted how technological advances have revolutionized not just media and media communication, but how technology has also lent itself to a developing theology. Barry made the point that technological advances have laid the groundwork for imagination to play a more central part in shaping our realities; not that imagination (or vision, as someone else phrased it) was not previously involved in the process of seeing and working towards a better or alternate reality, but that it’s place is becoming more central and its potential is becoming more wide-ranging. At least, that’s how I understood his point.

A year ago, I wrote a paper on spirituality and technology in the 21st century. My basic point was that technology is a boon to us–it allows us to do so much more than we were ever able to–in this specific case, in terms of communication, with email, with social networking, with sites like YouTube and Twitter; but that we need to be aware of how it impacts us and how it influences us. This is a particular challenge since technology is such a part of our lies that it is often difficult to see what influence it has upon us. But we need to be active and proactive in engaging with culture, in seeing how God is working in the culture we inhabit, in the technological advances that we see and the benefits that they bring, as well as being aware of the pitfalls and risks. Media and technology and their benefits for culture and spirituality can only be properly enjoyed and appreciated if its challenges to culture and spirituality are also properly understood and engaged–the best way to engage is with an eye on the whole picture.

I love technology. As a musician, I love the convenience of being able to carry my entire music collection around on my laptop. I have over four thousand songs in my library, and assuming (generously) that a CD can hold fourteen or fifteen songs, that would equal almost three hundred CDs. As someone who lives on a different continent to most of my family and many of my closest friends, I appreciate th ease with which technological advances have allowed me to chat with friends over IM or talk to people long-distance for cheap (or free). As an activist, I love that the internet can be utilized to bring people together for a common goal, to share with and to encourage one another.

But I’m also distinctly aware of the challenges that technology poses: the temptation to avoid silence and contemplation having so much with which to distract myself, the tendency to waste time browsing inane websites (and there are A LOT), the abuse of the internet to spread falsehoods and malice, the multiplicity of creative TV shows that can take up much of one’s time (to the point where one doesn’t even take time to be creative oneself!).

As a church, as Christians, we need to be engaging with culture; we need to be seeking God in culture and seeing where he’s working. I think if we really open our eyes and look for him, we’ll be surprised where he shows up.

Speaking of media, there’s a new NBC drama that I love. It’s called “Kings,” and it’s based on the biblical story of David, translated to a fictional modern kingdom. Apart from the fact that Chris Egan, who plays David, seems to always have a look on his face as if you’ve just wounded him (I suppose that’s the natural look for a young, righteous hero), it’s been interesting to see how the writer Michael Green has brought this story to life for modern times. Here’s a teaser video for the premiere episode.