In Which I Slowly Become Rev. Toller

We look to the Bible for answers on how to live in our day. Which makes sense, it’s a document that’s been passed down for all of human history, telling the story of God. Its words have inspired and led billions of people. Yet when we interact with the text, trying to apply the Bible’s wisdom and God’s will to our modern life it becomes absurd. The concerns that I have for my life are of the utmost importance to an all-loving God, but rendered instantly absurd when light is shed upon the state of our world. There are 65 million people who are displaced and somewhere over a billion living in some form of poverty around the world. The world is steeped in a global economic system that highly benefits one half, while leaving the other to live suffering lives. This is not to discount the lives of those living in poverty, there is much beauty to be found in any life, but any sermon about honoring God with money feels ridiculous in light of this. How are we to honor God with our money when most of our purchases are– at worst –causing the direct harm of others (sweatshops, etc…) and — at best — a part of a corrupt and unfair system that benefits the few at the expense of the many. God surely is not pleased by this. But there’s almost nothing an individual Christian can do, we are cogs of a grander machine where God does not seem very present. Except for when God is. Like when God blessed us with that parking spot or helped us to pay our bills. Bummer that God didn’t use that providence to save one of the 9 million people who die every year because they do not have enough food. Thy will be done, though. “Vanity, vanity, it’s all vanity.” This may be the truest verse of them all.

Christian Music Tales II: Transcendant Nothing

We used to hang out at this place called The Underground Cafe all the time. It was a music venue located at a church in the suburbs of Sacramento, a ministry for the church to attract youth and attract them it did.

My teenage years saw me slowly listening to faster and heavier music, my parents would only let me listen to Christian bands, luckily there was a plethora of record labels to choose from–Tooth and Nail, Solid State, Facedown, Mono vs. Stereo, Flicker, Floodgate–all Christian based alternative music producers. I soon discovered that all these bands I loved would tour locally and my town was surprisingly a hit place to come–The Underground one of the most featured venues.

The Underground experiment was actually pretty successful, as far as being hip goes (not sure how effective of a ministry it was). Black adorned teens with swooping hair cuts formed long lines waiting to get into shows, several dozens showing up just to hang out on a daily basis. This suburb church actually turned into such a mish-mash of counter culture that my parents were reluctant to let me go to shows on a continuous basis.

Waking Ashland, a piano driven pop-rock Tooth and Nail signed outfit was playing one weekend (everyone click on that link, it will take you to a PureVolume page). I decided to go, though I wasn’t the biggest fan of the band, my friends were going though so I chose to (this one perhaps?)

Again it was a battle between my parents to let me go, but the band was positive enough, supposedly Christian (we can talk about this more on another future post) and so I went. My friend’s mom was going to pick us up at the end–we didn’t have our licenses yet.

The show was amazing, Waking Ashland and the supporting bands that played before them were all great and I had a really good time. In my memory I remember them playing a song and it being absolutely beautiful. I closed my eyes in a moment of transcendence–even worship. Their songs, even if not explicitly religious, had taken me to a spiritual level.

When the show ended, we left, my friend realizing he had missed a bunch of calls from his mom who had been waiting outside. It went a little later than expected and she was not happy. Apparently as she sat there, sitting in the church parking lot she had witnessed kids doing things that she did not like. The kids who always hung out outside The Underground were notorious for smoking, drinking, and cursing and she had seen that and maybe more (I never got the full story).

Not only was she mad, but she had told my parents what she saw and when I got home, we had a long discussion about all of it. Near-accusatory marks were made about the church, my friends, and me. There was a lot of pain and questioning on both sides, my parents wondering what I had gotten myself into and me wondering why they didn’t trust me.

But I think the confusion rose beyond that for me. Here I was feeling as if I had had this amazing spiritual and Godly moment only to have it crushed down in talk about curfew, wrong and right, and that type of music. I was experiencing something good, without leaving the confines of conservative doctrine (at least personally) and all of that was thrown under the bus.

I desired the honesty and authenticity that the lyrics of those in the Christian alternative music scene brought. The music was fun and aggressive, but fairly positive and conservative in worldview, at least comparatively. It meant a lot to me to be able to share in those moments of emotion, while still coming around to an ultimate belief about truth and God and life. Yet somehow in all of the structures of fundamentalism and “Growing Kids God’s Way” and “safe for the whole family” there wasn’t enough space to allow for this to exist. The lines were blurred, questioning if safety was the greatest value to come out of the faith and what exactly was God’s way.

This Christian alternative scene that I found myself a part of pushed back against these norms–at least for certain pieces of time in certain people’s lives–finding themselves caught between the expectations of a clean Christianity and a larger desire to follow God. I don’t think that either side really ended up okay and the struggle between both sides really was a bloodbath, damaging those–who, like me–found themselves looking heavenward only to have it flipped upside down in moments of fear.

Weekly Thoughts 4

The Appreciative Inquiry into Life

If you look back through my high school journals you will see a guy conflicted between being someone he thought he should be compared with the failure he thought he actually was. Perhaps this is typical of any male journaling their way throughout high school, but part of these sentiments and feelings came from the evangelical strand of Christianity.

Evangelicalism and the reformed brotherhood that has taken hold of its mainstream the last ten years is often spent discussing the comparison of who we are versus who Jesus wants us to be (answer: not who we are). This is even further emphasized by circles who firmly step their feet into the Calvinistic, totally depraved, sinners in the hands of an angry God camp. They spend their time quoting David’s ‘woe is me’ Psalms, Paul’s ‘why do I do what I hate‘ speech, and unleashing more self-hating poems than all the songs featured in Sunny Day Real Estate’s Diary.

This theology of deprivation is matched by a God who has chosen each of us, even though he hates us, and thus celebration is initiated. This celebration can be quite deep and some of these people are some of the most grateful people I know. However, some of this can lead to a deep sense of shame within people. We cannot believe that we won’t commit more of our lives to God even though He has done so much for us! (This actually leads to another unique discussion within evangelical circles where Christians feel as if they cannot take credit for any of their own talents, because they, being evil, cannot do any good. So all credit goes to God in everything, even being good at sports!)

With this, the Christian is constantly hounded by a constant pressure of living up to God’s standards (even though by theological grounds they literally cannot); this pressure is even exists in scenarios where people believe that they do not have to live up to God’s standards, but merely should want to – an easy way to lead to guilt accumulation. Small groups and spiritual discussions inevitably lead into this sort of talk where people confess that they haven’t spent enough time with God or that they have committed (insert sin here) lately.

To get to my point, I am going to talk about something else I’ve discussed here before – the idea of appreciative inquiry. Now appreciative inquiry (AI) is an idea meant for groups of people, supposed to spark creativity and new ideas, but I thought I would force it into a personal spiritual situation (if you want to read an academic overview and critique of AI, go here).

AI’s basic viewpoint is that rather than taking things from a negative angle, it is much more constructive to build off of the positive that already exists. Look for the places that are already producing instead of highlighting the deficits and from there you can make something greater. The underlying perspective is that in most communities there is already some sort of life force that is causing it to exist and stay afloat. By focusing on all that is wrong, negative results will come forth.

Before I continue I must say I am going to try to avoid making this a positive thinking piece, where all your problems will go away if you think about good things. I am certainly no Joel Osteen (I dwell in the sadness), but there is something to this. Wracked by guilt for so many years, it feels good to let go of the shame that constantly hounded me. Maybe I’m a character from Dr. Strangelove, letting go of worry of the atomic bomb as it’s about to strike, but being set free from the narrative of total depravity has been a blessing.

Narratives and how we inquire into those narratives affect how we perceive ourselves and our own story. When we continually see ourselves as depraved beings who will never measure up, what will come out of it? When we continually tell our children to pray prayers so that hell no longer hangs over them or exhort them with tales of them being incapable of choosing good, where are we leading them? (Sidenote: In a conflict class I took, we studied an almost completely non-violent society whose strategy of avoiding conflict was to insult their children so that they would not develop an ego, negating any sense of pride or indignation of being treated a certain way, because, well, they were entirely unimportant compared to the society as a whole. So I suppose there could be some merit to this way of parenting, but certainly to a Western mindset it sounds strange.)

Appreciative inquiry posits that when the little micro narratives we hold – that when combined make up our being  – are changed, the macro narrative will also bend in that direction. When our micro narratives tell us we are incapable of good, generally not worthy of love, and are failures, our macro narrative shifts to one deeply sensitive about a lot of small things.

When are micro narratives begin to tell us that we are capable of good, of making beautiful things, and loving people, perhaps those characteristics will abound. When we become wrapped up in a larger story of mercy, justice, and love rather than one of shame and guilty pleasure our lives will expand into greater things.

I say this all while acknowledging that repentance and humility are two of the most important traits a person can have – we must recognize that we are not more important than other people and when we screw up we should seek reconciliation. But when we ask questions of ourselves, let’s look at the ways we are contributing to life, for we are beings wrapped up in a cosmic tale of love, grace, justice, and beauty. Let us not be overcome with shame at our failures.

Of Gods and Men (2011)

Of Gods and Men is a movie about values, convictions, faith, tolerance, martyrdom, mission, community, brotherhood, outreach, it’s a movie about living, and it’s a movie about dying.

It takes place in Algeria in the mid-90’s, focusing on a group of French  Trappist monks who have taken a vow of poverty in order to reach out to a largely Muslim community. The monks fit in with those around them beautifully, providing free medical services, participating in the town’s market, and even attending children’s birthday parties. Their relationship with the community is one of the best interfaith portrayals of tolerance as both get along, helping and loving each other, while still maintaining their beliefs with conviction. The monks are never seen proselytizing, but always acknowledge whom they serve.

The people of the community’s lives are interrupted by a civil war in Algeria and their lives are threatened when a radical Muslim group begins causing chaos all around. This becomes especially personal to the friars when they hear (and we see) that the rebels have attacked and killed a group of Croatians who live in the country to provide aid. The scene in which monastery leader Christian hears of this news is one of the most saddening scenes I have seen in a while; the way his face drops is utterly heartbreaking.

From here, the monks must make a decision. The Algerian government suggests that they get army protection, something the monks are unwilling to do, because they do not believe in violence or in using a corrupt government for protection. Christian and the six other brothers residing in the monastery must make a decision… Should they stay in the monastery and risk their lives? Or should they flee, saving themselves and potentially helping out other communities elsewhere around the world. The town desperately needs what they provide and abandoning it in its time of need would be tragic. Should they give up on their calling in order to seek safety? They are a group of people who have already given up nearly everything for their beliefs, are they willing to give up absolutely everything? At the same time, they also question what laying down their lives would actually accomplish. Would it be for the sole purpose of the glory in martyrdom? In beautiful long shots these questions are asked.

The friar’s acts of mass and liturgy serve as the only background music to accompany the entire film and is almost like the canvas to which the entire film is painted on. Each song fits what is happening dramatically and allows for the monks to express their trials, doubts, and fears beautifully.

The entire situation gets even more complicated, when they are approached by the terrorists themselves and asked to provide medical aid to injured members. The monks face pressure from both sides of the war to help, but must follow their allegiance to their God above all. The scene where this situation is presented is one of the best in the film, I won’t spoil it, but I will say that Christian handles this terrifying predicament in a way I can imagine Jesus or the early Apostles handling it. It shows a wonderful, uncompromising way of dealing with your enemies that is so refreshing.

No matter what your experience with the Christian faith, there is still plenty to admire and enjoy with this movie. The passion exuded by the monks is awe-inspiring and the love that they show for their community is an example all should follow.

For those of the Christian faith, it is an absolute must see. It expresses all the love, the mission, and the struggle that is contained within the true Christian and shows how to put those desires into action. Though at times it is sad, it also remains uplifting and is an image people should share and watch for a long time to come.