My Breakup with American Cultural Christianity

Dear American Cultural Christianity,

man-person-fog-mist-largeI’ve been thinking about writing this letter for quite a while, but just couldn’t bring myself to sit down and type out what needed to be said. You and I have been together for so many years that it seems unthinkable that it could come to an end. But as Chaucer said, “all good things…”

I’d like to say that it’s not you, it’s me, but that’s just not the truth. It is you, and it is me. We’ve just grown apart. And it’s time to admit it, face the fact, and move on.

When I left America to live overseas back in 1999, we both knew that it would be tough. Back then, the internet was not nearly as accessible as it is now, and so our ability to spend time together was limited to the few mix tapes and books that I could bring with me.

This was such an abrupt change for me.

Before leaving America, you were everywhere in my life, all the time! You were everywhere, American Cultural Christianity, and it was one of the sweetest things about growing up in the South. Radio stations, bookstores, television stations, concerts, conferences – I could hardly have gotten away from you if I’d wanted to. Knowing that you were right there whenever I needed you was so amazingly comforting to me.

I remember the times I would go running along the waterfront in Charleston, listening to you on my walkman. Or the times I would spend with you at the Christian bookstore in Mt. Pleasant, wishing I had the money to pick up the latest novel, devotional, or CD you’d released. I didn’t tell you then, but I wanted to spend all my money on you, I just didn’t have much to spend. But that didn’t seem to bother you; you were still there for me.

But when I decided to go to Kazakhstan, you couldn’t go, and that’s where the problems started. Long distance relationships are not easy on anyone, are they? Suddenly, you weren’t there to help me with spiritual growth. Yes, I wore out those few cassettes, CDs, and books I’d brought, but I hadn’t realized how much I’d come to depend on you.

lonely-man-wallpaper-s-aty-wallpapers-walking-painting-bench-room-beach-lonely_man_wallpaper_s1aty_zpsa0a8d329The worst part, American Cultural Christianity, was that it felt like you didn’t care. I know that I was far away, and you were busy. And while it might be a bit self-centered of me, I just didn’t understand why you didn’t do anything to try and help. It was my time of greatest need, and you were just… business as usual. It felt like I had never been a part of your life, as if we’d never had anything at all.

So, it’s not surprising that our relationship deteriorated so much during that time. A good relationship has to have proper give and take, and we didn’t. It was hard at first, but I slowly adjusted, and became okay with the fact that we were just going to be friends. I started reading my Bible for spiritual nourishment rather than depending on your music and devotional books. It became good. It felt pure.

But I won’t lie. I still missed you. I would see something you’d done, a CD, a book, even a movie (when did you start making movies?), and I would think about the old times we’d had together. They were really nice memories, American Cultural Christianity. But still, you were far away, and it seemed like there was nothing either of us could do about it.

And then something changed, and this time, it was you. You started making more of an effort. You got onto the internet in a way you never had before, and you began reaching out to me, even if I lived so far away.

It was a “world’s collide” moment for me – having you with me in Kazakhstan. Once again I could listen to you while walking the streets – this time the streets of Kazakhstan, now with podcasts. I could read your books with my Kindle, any book I wanted, sitting on the bus in Atyrau. I could even watch your preachers on youtube when the internet was working! You were back in my life, and I loved every minute of it.

But even so, I began having nagging little itches in my mind that I had difficulty ignoring. You were so absorbed in what was going on back in America that I wondered if you really could understand what I was experiencing overseas. By this time, I’d moved to China, and all you could talk about was American politics, American culture, American sports, American problems. I soon realized that you hadn’t come to me at all. You had just figured out how to bring me back to you.

Last year I decided to do something extreme. I made the decision to only spend time with you for forty days (a good Biblical number) to see if our relationship could be salvaged. I only watched your movies, only read your books, only visited your websites, only listened to your music, and I learned things about you during that intense time together, things that part of me wishes I had never learned.

You’ve changed, American Cultural Christianity, even if you don’t want to admit it. And looking back, I can see that those changes really started before I ever left, but I didn’t want to see that you were changing.

Those forty days together brought it all to light.

Where before, you seemed fearless, you’ve become fearful. Even paranoid. You’re afraid that the government is making plans to start persecuting you. You’re afraid that Hollywood is actively seeking to ruin your family. You’re afraid that Muslims are outside your door, planning to behead you. You’re afraid that homosexuals are going to indoctrinate your children and turn them gay. You are afraid of anyone who says anything that makes you uncomfortable. It’s what you talk about nearly all the time: your fear. It’s wearisome, and – I’m sorry – not at all like Jesus.

Where before, you seemed encouraging, you’ve become angry and bitter. Even hateful. Often when someone says something with which you disagree, you lash out. I read the things you write online, and I wonder what happened to the American Cultural Christianity that I’d loved so much before! Were you just pretending, or did you just wear a mask whenever I was around, hiding your true nature? Maybe that part of you was actually there all along, but recently you’ve become way too comfortable taking off the mask in front of me. I just can’t be with the one behind that mask.

Where before, you cared about welcoming others, you’ve become inhospitable. Even reclusive. You sit in your circled wagon, complaining about everyone outside the circle, rather than offering them to come in and sit around the fire. You’ve built up the faith into a fortress to repel attackers rather than opening the doors and tearing down the walls so that outsiders can feel welcomed. You talk about wanting to engage the culture, and in the same sentence talk about winning the culture wars. I’m tired of all the fighting, American Cultural Christianity. I’ve got maybe 40 years left on this earth (if I’m lucky), and I want that time to be about something else.

And maybe the worst part, the part that stings the most: it turns out that you really were irritated that I didn’t spend more money on you back in the day. It seems that what you really wanted from me was my money. Buy this book, buy this CD, buy this t-shirt, buy this DVD. Even now, it seems like all you care about is money in our relationship.

For example – let’s talk for a minute about the movies you’ve started making. I have to tell you, I am so proud of you that you’ve started to make movies. I know that it is a big deal, and takes a lot of your time and energy. But then you pressure me to buy out blocks of tickets and invite all my friends, and my youth group from church, and even my non-Christian friends (who you’ve NEVER gotten along with). But that’s not all – you also want me to buy the books and study guides from your movie, the soundtrack, the t-shirts and ball caps, and then then DVDs when they come out. You pressure me by insisting that this is how I can “send Hollywood a message”, but I wonder – if you really cared about me, would it be so much about the money?

Anyway, I think I’ve said enough. Probably too much. I thought about getting into your obsession with certain politicians, but I decided to let that ride. I just want you to know that I am thankful for many of the times we had together. You taught me a lot, for which I will always be grateful. And even though we are broken up, I will still listen to your music from time to time, and I know that you really can put out a good devotional when you set your mind to it. I’ll look forward to reading them. I won’t erase all your podcasts from my iPhone. And yes, I will even still watch your movies.

But, it’ll be different now. We’re done, American Cultural Christianity. But I do wish you the best in the future, and hope that you find happiness.

Sincerely,
Your friend,
Nate

 

 

 

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The SCOTUS Ruling and the Early Church: An Encouragement

In recent years, Christians have been pining for a return to first century Christianity. For example, articles and sermons like the following have been seen with increasing regularity:

4 Ways the Modern Church Looks Nothing Like the Early Church

How Can Today’s Church Be More Like the Early Church?

What can we learn from the early church? – Living like the first Christians

It’s a somewhat romantic notion, that we get away from all of the centuries of tradition and added-on elements of the church and return to the simplicity and purity of the early church. But doing such a thing is easier said than done, as it is no easy feat to get rid of traditions and added-on elements that we have come to appreciate and enjoy. And this includes the power that the church amassed in the public arena, especially in the United States.

gay_scotusHowever, with today’s SCOTUS ruling and the subsequent celebrations by all corners of American culture (thanks for the rainbow header I didn’t request, WordPress), things have reached a turning point. We’ve been seeing it coming for years, but today’s ruling which recognizes homosexual marriage across the land has determined that – at least in the United States – Biblical Christianity is now officially counter-cultural.

The recent findings by the Pew Research Center seem to support this idea, that Christianity’s influence is waning in the United States. These findings have been disputed, but I think we can all agree that Christians don’t influence culture in America the way we used to. Given, Christians still have quite a bit of power and influence – we can still impact an election, we still buy a lot of products, we still make up a healthy percentage of the population, but it’s obviously a waning influence.

Just like in the first century.

Screen Shot 2015-06-26 at 10.38.52 PMIt seems that we Christians are getting our wish, and we may be heading towards a more authentic twenty-first century expression of first century Christianity than we were banking on. We’re losing our influence, and they never had influence. Our hold on political power is slipping, and they never had power. We used to help guide culture, and now our attempts to impact culture are laughable. The culture of the first century didn’t care a whit about Christians, except as macabre entertainment in the colosseum.

The bad news is that the first century church suffered quite a bit of persecution for standing up for their faith, and this may or may not be where we are headed. However, if it is, we need to remember that Christians are guaranteed persecution in Scripture, and we’ve managed to avoid it for a long, long time – while much of the rest of the world has experienced it for a long, long time. It could be that our time has come.

The good news is, even twenty centuries later, we still look back at the first century church as what we want to emulate, persecution and all. They had their problems (as evidenced in the letters of Paul), but they learned and grew. More good news is that the God that they worshipped in the early church is the same God we worship today. He hasn’t changed. So no matter where we find ourselves in America in five years, it won’t change Him, and we can take great reassurance from the truth of that idea.

keith green - no compromiseIt could be that losing our influence and becoming counter to the culture will force us to ask ourselves what we truly believe and if we’re willing to stand for it. It could be that losing our hold on political power will give us a humility we haven’t had in ages. It could be that becoming outcasts will make us interact with the culture in a way many of us have avoided as we’ve built our cloistered walls and hid in our bubbled communities and universities. It could be that becoming helpless in the world’s eyes will push us to treasure God’s Word and study it with more intention and urgency in the same way the early church would have done. It could be that not getting what we want from government or society will compel us to revive our prayer life, and to truly seek Him. It could be that we will become more creative, more innovative, more ground-breaking in our art and our ministries to reach a potentially hostile, potentially disinterested majority.

In short, it could be that losing influence and becoming authentically counter to the culture – truly being forced to become like the first century church – would be the best thing that happened to American Christianity in the history of American Christianity.

Branding the Christian Faith • 40 Days (and Nights) of Christian Media • Day 32

Consumer Jesus by Bangsy

Consumer Jesus by Bangsy

Branding Christianity.

As I enter the home stretch of my 40 Days (and Nights) of Christian Media Challenge, I’m struck by the irritating oxymoron that we sell our Christian faith as just another brand on the shelf.

But before I get into that, I want to consider the concept of branding as a practice.

I just returned from a week in Arizona with my Chinese and Korean elementary and middle school students (yeah, I know… the world’s coolest field trip) and seeing my home country through their eyes, I was struck by how intently everyone and everything is branded.

For example, the boys in my group desperately wanted to get to clothing shops like Hollister’s, because the Hollister’s brand is so popular among a segment of youth in China.  They also wanted Gap, Target, Sketchers, Abercrombie and Fitch, and others.  But it wasn’t just clothing, because when we took them out to eat, they wanted to try the branded restaurants – Chipotle, Cracker Barrel, Red Robin, etc.  The one notable exception was the non-franchised generic Chinese restaurant we took them to so that they could experience Americanized Chinese food (which is almost a brand unto itself), and which they loved, to my amazement.

On the one hand, branding makes sense.  You know that you’re going to get the same quality product no matter where you are.  A Starbucks in Phoenix is the same as a Starbucks in Shenzhen.  The Apple computer you buy in Richmond is going to be the same as the Apple computer you buy in Hong Kong.  There’s a comfort in that fact.  There’s security in that fact.

And isn’t that what we’re after in life?  Comfort and security?

[On a side note, this recent exposure to the concept of branding makes me think my next 40 day challenge should be to try and live a brand-free life.  But I digress…]

rebrandingJesusBranding has worldwide power and influence, and so it comes as no surprise that the faithful would seek to take the Christian faith and turn it into another brand on the marketplace.  Want a hamburger?  Go to McDonalds.  Want to be entertained?  Go see the latest Disney movie.  Want spiritual salvation?  Why not try brand Jesus?

The problem is that the practice of branding the faith has led to the less-than-stellar state of Christian media that we experience today.  And yes, after the past 32 days, I can testify that Christian media, even made with the best of intentions, is less-than-stellar.

After all, branding brings comfort and security.

Branding doesn’t encourage risk and asking difficult questions.

And while Christianity does both of those things, most of our media does not.

For a good example of where I’ve seen this, during my week in Arizona I didn’t have time to expose myself to much Christian media.  We were running all day and night (not just shopping, by the way), and the only place I could find Christian media was while driving the van from place to place, in the form of Christian radio “family-friendly” radio stations, stations that are infamous for trying to appeal to the “Becky” demographic archetype.

Not surprisingly, I was completely underwhelmed by what I found there.  But, I’m not a middle-aged soccer mom, so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that it didn’t surprise me.

Here’s the rub with my response to Christian family-friendly music:  I personally know a few Christian musicians and songwriters, and they are – without a doubt – talented people.  In fact, the ones I know have more talent in their little toe than I have in my entire body.  And yet, popular Christian family-friendly music, the kind you hear on our radio stations, arguably the most visible (audible?) part of the Christian brand, is just… bland.

Uninteresting.  Predictable.  Over-produced.  Safe.

And those are not words that I would use to describe the Christian faith.

It seems like Christian music makers are limited by the restraints put on them by the Christian Industrial Complex, which tries to please a certain demographic, and that makes me sad.

But then, that’s the whole concept behind branding, isn’t it?

This practice also underscores my argument that the last thing that Christian filmmakers need to do is allow their craft to be pigeon-holed into some sort of Christian filmmaking industry.  Because at the end of the day, you can be the most talented filmmaker of your generation, but if you have suits from the Christian Industrial Complex above you dictating what you have to do and what you can’t do in order to fit the niche audience’s needs, you will never make a movie that rises above the level of bland.

But again, it all comes back to the bad idea of the creation of Christian brands in the first place.

Can you imagine if the writers and characters of the Bible had been restricted by 21st century evangelical faith-based branding?  If the Christian Industrial Complex had had a hand in what we read today when we open our Bibles?

I think our Scriptures might have been pretty different.  For example…

adameve• Adam and Eve would have been created wearing modest clothing, and the couple would probably also have been wearing complementary Lord’s Gym and His Pain Your Gain t-shirts.

• The story of Noah would have been a nice story about a kindly old man who builds a big boat filled with animals, and saves them from a flood.  There wouldn’t be anything about worldwide devastation, about the death of all other young and old living creatures.  No, it would be something well suited for a Sunday School flannelgraph.

• Forget the whole Noah post-flood-getting-drunk-on-homemade-wine thing.  Welch’s grape juice, maybe, but definitely not homemade wine, and definitely not to the point of getting drunk.

• Abraham would have proudly told Pharaoh that Sarai was his wife, showing the power of his faith, the strength of his convictions, and his respect for the sanctity of marriage.  Then he might have been invited by Pharaoh to speak at the annual Egyptian Men’s Conference.

• The Israelites would have shown much more faith as they wandered in the wilderness.  Making the golden calf?  Out!  Complaining about manna?  Forget it!  Being killed by snakes for their unfaithfulness?  Wouldn’t happen!  They would have been a much more faithful lot, and then Moses would have gotten to go to the promised land, too.

peanut-butter-cup• David dancing naked into the city after the return of the Ark of the Covenant?  Are you kidding me?  First of all, he wouldn’t have danced.  Second, he would have been wearing suitable clothing, including quite possibly the Jesus, Sweet Savior t-shirt along with a respectful pair of dungarees.

• Speaking of David, he wouldn’t have had the whole embarrassing Bathsheba affair.  But if it had to happen, then he would have been excused from his role in leadership until a proper amount of time had passed, and then he would have been allowed back, properly contrite, having learned a valuable lesson, and he would have written a book about his experiences.

• Song of Solomon?  With all that sexual content?  Not a chance.

• And don’t get me started on the prophets.  There would be some serious retooling of those stories needed to make them more palatable to Becky and her friends.

So, what do we do?

Knowing that The Christian Industrial Complex is out there, researching us, trying to figure out what it is that will motivate us to use their services or buy their products, just like Apple, just like Coca-Cola, just like every other branded producer on the marketplace?  What do we do?

It’s really quite simple.  We make a concerted, focused effort to grow in the Christian faith – apart from The Christian Industrial Complex.

9k=

Christian publishers, a Duck Dynasty Bible is too much. Way, way too much. Seriously.

And that means we need to take a page from the Reformation and learn to study God’s word for ourselves.  We don’t need to depend on study Bibles written by the celebrity pastors, famous singers, or even famous duck call salesmen.

Not that the celebrity pastors can’t write worthwhile stuff.  Of course they can.  But we shouldn’t depend upon the celebrity pastors at the cost of not thinking for ourselves.

We must study the Scriptures and learn for ourselves.

The problem is that we’re not doing this.

Last year, Lifeway Research (admittedly part of the CIC) concluded that 19% of American churchgoers read the Bible every day, 26% a few times a week, 14% once a week, 22% once a month, and 18% never read it.

No wonder we’re settling for what The Complex serves us, because we’re not growing in our faith on our own!  We’re expecting others to feed us, and we’re not interested in working for it ourselves.

But here’s the kicker – we’re told very specifically in Philippians that we are to be working out our salvation with fear and trembling!  That doesn’t give the impression that we’re to be concerned with comfort and security, but that we’re supposed to be working!  Yes, it’s work, and it can be scary business, if you’re doing it right.  It’s unsettling!  It’s not at all simple!

And the branding of the Christian faith is just the opposite.

And meanwhile, here I sit, with eight days left on my challenge.  To be honest, I’m really, really looking forward to this challenge being over.  I think I can handle Christian media when I take it in bite-sized chunks, but when I consume nothing else each day, it’s too much.

I long for a Sacred Arts Revolution.

But it’s not all dark, creatively.  There have been some hopeful signs I’ve found in the world of media (specifically music) being made by Christians, but typically outside of the Christian Industrial Complex.

Enjoy Mutemath, Future of Forestry, and Audrey Assad.

 

 

 

 

 

It Almost Begins… 40 Days (and Nights) of Christian Media

I just posted this on Facebook:

Here I am, 10 minutes away from the start of my 40 days of Christian Media, and I’m starting to feel nervous.

This is going to be a long 40 days.

And after spending Saturday preparing for the next forty days, scouring the internet for Christian media that I think I could consume and not feel physically ill, I’m seriously concerned about what will happen over the next month and 10.

I have subscribed to Christian Faithbook – the Christian equivalent to Facebook.

I have subscribed to Godinterest – the Christian equivalent to Pinterest.

I have subscribed to Parables.tv – the Christian equivalent to Netflix.

I have subscribed to every podcast hosted by Christians that I think sounds the least bit interesting to a person who loves film, creativity, the arts, humor, and culture.

I have cleansed my iPod of all secular music and podcasts.

I spent the last hour before the challenge began watching the last episode of The Flash – one of my favorite television programs currently being broadcast.  I’m seriously bummed that I’m going to miss the premiere of the new season of Community, which starts in just a few days.  I’m not at all sure what I will watch during lunch, since I’m used to watching old episodes of The Office, Community, and Parks and Recreation.

And I’m spending my time leading up to midnight listening to Hans Zimmer’s Interstellar score, the soundtrack – the music – that I’m going to miss the most over the next forty days.

I plan to wake up tomorrow and start my day with Skye Jithani’s With God daily devotional, and do so for the next forty days.

And it’s now 12:01 AM (China time).  The 40 Days (and Nights) Christian Media Challenge has begun.

See you on the other side!

Nate

C.S. Lewis on Reasoning to Atheism

cs-lewis“Supposing there was no intelligence behind the universe, no creative mind.  In that case, nobody designed my brain for the purpose of thinking.  It is merely that when the atoms inside my skull happen, for physical or chemical reasons, to arrange themselves in a certain way, this gives me, as a by-product, the sensation I call thought.  But, if so, how can I trust my own thinking to be true?  It’s like upsetting a milk jug and hoping that the way it splashes itself will give you a map of London.  But if I can’t trust my own thinking, of course I can’t trust the arguments leading to Atheism, and therefore have no reason to be an Atheist, or anything else.  Unless I believe in God, I cannot believe in thought: so I can never use thought to disbelieve in God.”

– C.S. Lewis, The Case for Christianity, p. 32

The Upper Room Monologues • Part 3

This is the third part of a three part monologue cycle I wrote and performed during the Chengdu International Fellowship’s 2013 Easter celebration. The monologues each take the perspective of a different unnamed witness to the events of the Passion of the Christ, and they all take place in the upper room, where Jesus and his disciples celebrated Passover on the night he was betrayed.

The third part is the from the point of view of one of the disciples who encountered the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus.

He is Risen!

“The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Sepulchre on the Morning of the Resurrection” by Eugène Burnand

“The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Sepulchre on the Morning of the Resurrection” by Eugène Burnand