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

 

 

 

Fear, Reason, and The Ebola Virus

What is the most frightening word in America right now?

Depending on your level of media coverage, it might just be a word that rhymes with Coca-Cola.

Not Ayatollah.  That’s so 1980’s.

The word we’re looking for is Ebola, and I’m joking about it because it frightens me.

This is a new fear for the lexicon.  For years,  Ebola was just a device in a movie or a novel.  Like the fictional virus in the film starring Dustin Hoffman, the film that had something to do with monkeys and people dying horribly and Donald Sutherland wanting to drop a nuke on a small town in California.

Or maybe Steven Soderbergh’s film where Gwynth Paltrow cheats on Matt Damon and winds up spreading a hybrid bat/pig virus that wipes out a bunch of people.

It’s really odd, how fascinated we are with fictional doomsday movies and books, but when one is teased as actually being on the horizon, we freak out as if we are the hysterical characters in a fictional doomsday movie or book – the panicked crowd running from the monster, or being crushed under the falling building as the superheroes duke it out in the sky.

Could it be that we’re afraid with good reason?  What scares us about something like this current outbreak of Ebola?

That’s easy enough to answer – the possibility of a potential nightmare scenario becoming a living nightmare reality – as it is doing in three countries in West Africa – with devastating effects.

But for those of us not in those countries – why are we afraid?

It’s because of the fear of what might be.  It’s terrifying to imagine that one of those nurses from Dallas may have passed Ebola on – somehow – to someone who is carrying the disease and doesn’t know it.  Yet.  And that those ignorant carriers might somehow pass it on to someone else until the growth becomes exponential and we have a 21st Century global plague that decimates the world population.

It could happen.  Right?

Nevermind the odds.  Nevermind statistics.  Nevermind healthcare professionals and precautions and the CDC and the WHO and the government.

Nevermind God.

It might happen, and the possibility is terrifying.

That’s how fear works.  It’s based on things that could happen in the future.  It’s based on the unknown.

And fear misused can be one of the most dangerous and paralyzing things on the planet.

Fear itself isn’t bad, of course.  God gave us fear to keep us from harm, and that makes it a wonderful thing.  A gift.  For example, fear of falling keeps us from approaching the edge of a cliff, and this saves us from falling.  Fear of getting bitten keeps us from approaching a strange dog, and that keeps us from getting bitten.

God also gave us the ability to reason, to help us understand what we should fear and what we needn’t fear, and when we have the two in balance, we’re fine, operating the way we’re supposed to operate.  We can decide what is deserving of our fear, what isn’t deserving, and what things we need to keep our eyes on – just in case.

Where we get in trouble is when we let fear get the upper hand.

It could be that our fear of Ebola needs to be balanced with a bit of reason.

So, if you are fearful about the potential for an Ebola disaster of summer blockbuster proportions, I’d suggest you ask yourself the following important question:

As of October 17, 2014, what does reason tells us?

1.  Ebola has mostly affected Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea in West Africa.

2.  It has not spread substantially to neighboring countries, largely because of the active intervention of those other countries.

3.  There has been one death caused by Ebola in the United States: a man who travelled to West Africa and had direct contact with an infected person.

4.  Two healthcare professionals in the United States have been identified as having contracted Ebola as a result of caring for that man, and they are currently being cared for by teams of medical personnel.

5.  The people who had contact with the three individuals above are being tracked down and closely monitored – a situation where our Big Brother world is actually coming in handy.

6.  The virus is not airborne, so being in the same room (or airplane) as an infected person does not mean you will become infected.

7.  Ebola is transmitted by having direct contact with the bodily fluids of a person who has been infected, or possibly by having contact with things that have been infected by having contact with fluids from an the infected person – such as soiled clothing or linens.

8.  Ebola isn’t passed on during the 21 day incubation period, only after the person has become symptomatic.

9.  The virus cannot go through skin.  It is transmitted when a person touches someone or something infected and then touches their own eye, nose, or mouth – or through an open cut in the skin.

10.  There is no known cure for Ebola, so when a person contracts the disease, he or she will fight it off on their own.  The things that seem to have an impact on the person successfully fighting the disease include the following:  age, access to modern medical support, nutrition, and prior health.

You can read more facts about Ebola here and here.

What will happen tomorrow?  I have no idea.  None of us do.

But tomorrow isn’t my concern, because right now I can’t do anything about it.

In Matthew 6:34, Jesus said:

Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.  Each day has enough trouble of its own.

I’m an elementary school teacher, a want-to-be writer, a dad, a husband, and ultimately, I’m just riding the same wave you’re riding, hopeful that we’ll all make it to shore.

And here’s the big thing:  I can’t control the wave.  None of us can.

I can only control my response to the wave.

Using reason, I will ask myself what I can do to prepare.  I will educate myself on the disease and how to recognize it.  I will be careful to wash my hands as often as possible, especially after being in public.  I will be vigilant to do what I can, but I will not be afraid.

Using reason, I will ask myself just who stands to make the most out of an increased amount of fear in the population as a whole.

I wonder who?  Who stands to profit off increased newspaper and magazine sales?  Who gets more ad revenue when we desperately click on their links to find out the latest bit of news?  Who thrives off sensationalism and agitation and unrest?  Who – like a Dementor in a Harry Potter book – loves to suck out all our joy and peace and replace it with fear and panic so that we keep coming back for more?

Who, indeed?

I will make the choice to not permit fear to outweigh reason.

I will make the choice to be wary and careful today, but to let tomorrow worry about itself.

And finally, I will make the choice to continue trusting God, regardless of what happens tomorrow.

An outbreak of Ebola in West Africa or the United States or anywhere doesn’t make God any less God, and doesn’t make Him in any less good, or any less trustworthy – just like cancer doesn’t change who God is, or a job promotion, or meeting the love of your life, or losing a baby in a miscarriage, or any number of the other good and bad things that happen in our lives.

God is still God, even in the face of everything that life throws our way.  And He’s still good.

So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God.  I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.  Isaiah 41:10

Fear balanced with reason, held up by faith.

I can live with that.

 

Reclaiming the Anchor of Hope

I’ve been thinking a lot about hope lately.

It’s a good word, isn’t it? No one I know dislikes the word, unless it is preceded by some form of “I don’t have any” or “I’ve lost all”. And even then, we usually mourn that someone is without hope.

A Hopeless Dawn 1888 by Frank Bramley 1857-1915

When hope is taken away, it creates a visceral response in us, doesn’t it?  Something is wrong in a world where hope has been lost, and that’s the thing – it does have to be lost. It’s like we come factory made, ready-loaded with hope – and we have hope until someone gives a reason not to.

But I don’t want to focus on the loss of hope.  There’s enough darkness in the world that revels in the destruction of hope.  Rather, I want to focus the presence of hope, what that means, and how we can avoid losing it.

We all want hope, don’t we?  And it doesn’t matter our place or situation in life.

The Blind Girl - John Everett Millais-1856

The Blind Girl – John Everett Millais-1856

The teenager, thinking about university?  Hopeful.

The nervous guy, about to propose to his girlfriend?  Hopeful.

The young woman, waiting to see if she got the job?  Hopeful.

The married couple who are trying to get pregnant?  Hopeful.

The older couple just entering retirement together?  Hopeful.

And we find themes of hope scattered all around us; in music, in art, in film, in literature.

For example, The Shawshank Redemption, one of my all-time favorite films, has a strong theme of hope.

We find the theme of hope coming back up again in one of my brother’s favorites, Hitch.

http://dai.ly/x16u6h9

And then there’s this…

The world – as seen through the lens of Hollywood – gets it.  Hope is a good thing!

And then we have popular music, which is full of songs about hope.  For example…

There’s the Script’s Hall of Fame.

Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’.

Sarah Bareilles’ Brave.

Alright then.  So I think we can all agree that hope is a good thing, that it is something that we should all be encouraged to have, and that we should be encouraged to express our hope.  So what then?  What’s your point, Nate?

I want to turn the page for a moment to find my point, and look at the idea of hope from a Christian perspective.  If you aren’t a Christian, just hang with me.

In the Christian faith, hope gets an added boost in that it’s one of the triumvirate specifically mentioned by the apostle Paul in his famous “love” chapter of 1 Corinthians – the one that lots of people, Christians and otherwise, have read at weddings.  In that chapter, Paul clearly lays out the power of love (to borrow from Huey), but ends with:

And now these three remain (or last, or endure): faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Think of all the other good words that Paul could have put into that verse as the things that will remain.  He could have mentioned all of the “fruit of the Spirit” from Galatians 5:22 as enduring: joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, self-control.  But he didn’t.

Only three things will endure through anything, and they are faith, hope, and love.

Do you get the power of what Paul is saying here?  When everything else is gone, these things will last.

Hope remains.

Isn’t that amazing?

When the sky is darkest, and the tempest is about to break, hope remains.

When your world has fallen apart, hope remains.

When the one you married has left you behind for a newer edition, hope remains.

When the bank account reads negative, hope remains.

When the doctor gives  you the last prognosis you ever wanted to hear, hope remains.

And to put a more global perspective on this…

When a group of thugs has rampaged across your country and you’ve lost everything, hope remains.

When the earthquake destroyed everything you ever knew or cared about, hope remains.

When the ever-present threat of terrorism has you living in fear of going to the market, but you have to go to get food, even then hope remains.

But here’s where we run into a problem with hope.  Where do we get it?  Where does it come from?  What kind of hope can survive all the crap that the world throws at it, able to remain?

Think about the screenwriter in Hollywood who is putting his hope on his ability to write the next big script, and properly play the networking game to get it made into a film, thus making him a success in his field.

Think about the surgical resident who is putting her hope in her hard-earned skills, and through her sheer determination to be able to overcome the biases and stereotypes inherent in the system so that she will be able to become a fully qualified surgeon and do what she’s dreamt of doing.

Think of the farmer who is putting his hope in the weather, that the rains will finally come and he’ll be able to actually have a harvest this year.

Think of the unemployed single mother who is putting her hope in the government to provide enough money to pay the rent and feed her kids.

Think of the displaced refugees – who have lost their ancestral homeland, who have lost family members to hatred and ignorance, who are hated for what they believe.  And so they put their hope in the military of another country to come in, clean house, and set things right again.

Do you see the weakness in these hopes?  Like ships dropping anchors in sandbars – they are all examples of people putting their hope in things that are malleable.  They are hoping in things that can and will change in a moment’s notice.  They are hoping in things that may not actually be dependable at all.

And a hope built on something that isn’t dependable is a weak hope.

It’s a hope that can be stripped away.

It’s a hope that will fail.

And that’s not the kind of hope that Paul was talking about.  Not even close.

Remember, the hope Paul’s talking about is one of the three things that will last, no matter what.  This is a hope that nobody can take from you, even yourself.  This is a hope that will never fail.

In the first centuries of her existence, the church was undergoing fierce persecution at the hands of the Romans.  To be able to meet clandestinely and safely, the followers of Jesus would mark a location with an anchor.  It was a symbol that looked innocuous enough, but held the image of the cross, and so the believers could use it freely.

Anchor, fish, and Chi Rho symbols. Slide Photo by Ferrell Jenkins, 1975.

Anchor, fish, and Chi Rho symbols. Slide Photo by Ferrell Jenkins, 1975.

The anchor represented safety and security, and the image of the cross it contained reminded the believers that they could find their safety and security – their hope – in the Jesus who died for them on that cross, no matter how hot the heat of persecution became.  They knew that He was the one they could count on, even when the difficulties, the tragedies, the hardships of life were threatening to capsize them.

They knew that if their hope was in Jesus, it was like a ship who drops anchor and finds purchase, and is able to ride out the storm without being dashed to pieces on the rocks.

And so, as I sit here, pondering hope, pondering the ultimate source of hope, I’m challenged to reconsider where I get the hope to which I’ve been clinging.  

Me?  I’ve been hoping on my friends, my family, my work, my gifts, my abilities, my dreams…

I’m challenged to let go of these temporary things that I’ve been depending upon, good things though they may be, and to reclaim the kind of hope that Paul was speaking about, the kind of hope that sustained those early Christians in the face certain death.  I’m challenged to place all my hope in the anchor that holds, to have the kind of hope that remains.

To be honest, I’m still trying to figure out what this means.  It’s a journey, after all.  Into uncharted waters.

But if I’m going on a journey, I don’t go alone.  I go with the faith and hope that I have a dependable anchor, an anchor that – as odd as it sounds – loves me.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

SC2670