Friday, August 29, 2008

Relevancy, or Godzilla vs. Batman

Some of you may not like this. I know for a fact that some of you will, but I'm sure at least a few people will disagree with me. If such is the case with you, I would encourage you – no, I would ask you – to speak up. Not so we can argue or change each other's minds, but I would really appreciate a look at somebody elses perspective. The same goes for any of the other topics I've touched on.

I believe there are very few things in life which do not strive to be relevant. Music plays on our emotions and personal experiences, becomes relevant to us, and then we spend money on it. Movies and television appeal to our perceptions of what's cool or interesting, and so we spend money on them. Politicians exploit issues and current events to win the loyalty and enthusiasm of the public, becoming relevant to their supporters, and then they prosper.

Relevancy may be one the most powerful forces in existence. Things that are relevant or interesting to the general public tend to warrant more attention than things that aren't. They prosper. They live on, even if not in a tangible form, at the very least in infamy.

Example: I love Godzilla movies. Love them. I've seen most of the twenty eight or so that have been filmed since 1954, and most of the ones I've seen I have on DVD.
Most people on the other hand don't like Godzilla movies. For some reason they find the idea of a suit actor in a dinosaur costume stomping on cardboard buildings to be boring, stupid, and irrelevant, while as far as I'm concerned movies of that genre are about as interesting as you can get. Don't ask me why.
If another Godzilla movie were to be imported to the united states and saw a theatrical release, it probably wouldn't do very well at the box office. The great, great majority of people wouldn't bother with it. I would, some my friends probably would, but most people would not.

Now imagine what the public response would be if another Batman movie were released. Dark Knight just slaughtered at the box office, and it was a really good movie. So if in another year or so, another Batman movie comes out(which, fingers crossed, it will) it would probably make millions and millions of dollars and be loved by most of the people who see it. The same people who wouldn't give the time of day to Godzilla vs. Some Other Monster would probably flip over the release of Batman: Please God Let It Still Be Christian Bale.

I believe the reason is because Batman, unlike Godzilla, is relevant. Godzilla doesn't appeal to what people want or enjoy or find interesting. Godzilla isn't a character you can identify with. Godzilla is just a big dumb lizard who makes a lot of noise, breaks things, and spits atomic fire from his gaping maw.

Batman on the other hand is the ideal personification of human ingenuity and physical ability. He's strong, fast, smart, and by all accounts, nigh-unstoppable, and he doesn't even have super powers. He's something or someone that most everybody can identify with, because everybody wants to be Batman, in one sense or another. Don't tell me you don't, because you'd be lying.

Nobody wants to be Godzilla.

So by this point you might be asking yourself why I've devoted four paragraphs to a comparison between Godzilla and Batman. You may have even stopped reading. If you're still with me, then good for you. Hang in there.

My point is simple: The Church, like most other things in life, strives to be relevant. We want the message of love and hope and forgiveness which is the foundation of Christianity to mean something to people. We want them to feel that Jesus' message can be and is a part of their daily lives. And this, I believe, is a worthy and potentially obtainable goal. We CAN reach people, we CAN be relevant. We've done it in the past.

Unfortunately though, the Church, more often than not, seems to completely blow off Batman's example. We don't identify with people. We don't portray ourselves in a way that people can relate to. We achieve no real, large scale success in being something that people can understand, and as long as we continue, we will never, never be relevant.

As far as I'm concerned, Jesus' life was the most relevant thing in our history. It put us back in touch and gave us direct contact with our creator, something we hadn't had for thousands of years. This is what Christians believe. In addition, we believe we're supposed to share said belief with the rest of the world. And in in attempting to do so, our words often fall on deaf ears.

I could give you any number of reasons as to why I think this is, but in my mind the main reason is that the rest of the world doesn't see us or our message as relevant. Our beliefs don't seem to pertain to peoples lives. What we say doesn't make sense. We come across as spewing irrelevant babble in the form of folk tales and moral principles which, in today's society, seem outdated, stupid, and unimportant. And when we express our beliefs with the vehemency which many attempts at “evangelism” often are, we end up turning people off to Christianity altogether. We either accomplish nothing, or even worse, are counter-productive in our efforts to share the truth of the single most beautiful and miraculous thing to occur on Planet Earth.

We act too much like Godzilla. We talk too loud, say too much, and shut ourselves off in our own little worlds with our bookstores and record companies and T-shirts and social clubs. We make it all about us. Like a mutant atomic dinosaur stomping on Tokyo, we make it all about us. We become irrelevant.

And then we do one better, by taking logos from things like Reese's and Starbuck's and photoshopping them to say things Jesus and Serve-me. I'm not kidding. These are actual T-shirts.

I saw a shirt in a Christian book store a couple weeks ago with a screen print of a cowboy riding a bull at a rodeo. At the top it said, “I can stand anything for eight seconds.”

And then at the bottom it bigger, bolder letters(but the same font) it said,
“Except Hell.”

And then there was some verse about the wages of sin.

And I stood there, mouth nearly agape, scratching my head asking myself how, in a million years, we can ever hope to be relevant when this is medium through which the world sees us.

I realize that we shouldn't just roll over and say to the rest of the world, “OKAY YOU'RE RIGHT” on anything, but for decency's sake, can't we at least not use our faith as an excuse to stick out like a blue swan?

I just made that up, blue swan.

I submit to you that if we meld our faith and our values with a practical world view, and stop all this microcosmic, “it has to be all about old-time religion” crap, then the church would have a much better shot at being seen as a relevant and significant part of modern society.

I know that the cowboy T-shirt isn't the standard. I know that a lot of Christians don't think that coming within a hair's breadth of copyright infringement is going to change the world for the better. But I also know that we need to meet people where they are, and I think it's impossible to do that as long as we make a spectacle of ourselves and wear weird T-shirts and adamantly refuse to listen to secular music and then chock it all up to being faithful.

A friend of my sisters bites her nails. Once while attending a homeschool group outing, one of the mothers of another kid saw her biting her nails. The woman rushed up in a frenzy, demanded that the girl place her hands on the car, and then proceeded to pray, loudly, that God would give her the strength not to bite her nails, and then continued to pray, loudly, saying the same thing over and over again, but with different phrasing. Right there in the middle of a skating rink parking lot.

Could we get any stranger?

I am not so arrogant as to assume that I'm the only one who's ever said or thought this. Plenty of other people have said the same or similar things(see 1 Corinthians 9:22), but this particular topic, for whatever reason, hits home with me. Every church service I attend I find myself trying to see it from the eyes of someone who's never been to church before, and often, from that perspective, I become bored, irritated, and confused. Sometimes I even become that way from my own perspective.

I don't have a solution. I don't even have a suggestion. My goal is not to be combative or overly negative, and I'm sorry if this rubs you the wrong way. But can't we at least consider that maybe we've missed something, somewhere, and start looking for ways to make the church more real? More relate-able? More Relevant?

(1 Corinthians 9:22)
“To the weak I became weak, in order to win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I may by all means save some.”

Blue swans and white swans had a hard time relating to each other.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Two wrongs don't make a right and being the loudest won't stop abortion.

In most Christian circles abortion is thought of as a bad thing. I agree. But I'm not going to spend the next few paragraphs telling you why or trying to convince you to agree with me. We all know that enough cyberspace and oxygen are already devoted to that. What I'd like to do instead is talk about our - the Christians' - response to abortion, and why a lot of us are failing miserably at making a positive impact.

Before I continue I should emphasize that by no measure do I mean to make light of what is a very serious issue. If I seem flippant or as though I'm trivializing, then I apologize with all due sincerity. Abortion is a serious thing no matter what side you're on.

In 1993 a group of antiabortionists protested outside a clinic in Pensacola, FL. They waved signs and chanted and shouted and did all the other stuff that we typically associate with an antiabortion protest. As the doctor who ran the clinic was walking from the front door to his car, a man in the crowd "prayed for the doctor's soul" and then stepped forward out of the group and shot the doctor three times in the back, killing him.

When I was in high school I took a government and economics class(Not at home. This one had other folks and a teacher I wasn't related to.) It was a Christian class taught by and for other Christians. One day we talked about abortion and weighed both sides of the issue and just kinda tossed it around.
The teacher told us a true story about an elderly Christian woman who spent a lot of her time in abortion clinics. What she did was hang out in the waiting room with cookies or brownies that she had baked, sitting down with the women who were there and talking with them. Finding out their stories, who they were and where they were from, why they were getting an abortion, so on and so forth. She never tried to change their minds, never told them they were committing a sin. Some of them changed their minds, decided to raise their kids themselves or put them up for adoption. Others went through with the procedure.

I believe the following with every fiber of my being: One old woman sharing brownies and taking the time to listen to a confused and scared teenage girl is more powerful than a million people waving signs and screaming on capital hill.

We love protests, we Christians do. Gay Marriage, Abortion, Scientology, Terri Schaivo. Give us a cause and we'll give you a sign made out of poster board. The thing is in all of these examples, protesting hasn't changed anything. (And just for the record, I'm not talking about Scientology or Gay Marriage. That's for another day.)

Put yourself in the shoes of a sixteen year old girl on your way to an abortion clinic. You're scared, confused and maybe feeling guilty. You've put a lot of time and thought into the decision you've made and you're gonna go through with it. You pull up to the clinic, and instead of seeing the empty parking lot you were hoping for and expecting, you see several dozen people who look like they might tear you to pieces if they so much as suspect you're about to walk through the doors of the clinic.
But you've made you're decision and you're sticking to it, so you get out of the car and walk to the door. On your way there, people run up to you and hand you tracts. They start spewing medical facts at you about when a fetus' heart starts to beat or quote that scripture about how God knew you in the womb. Or, if they're really zealous, they try to keep you from entering the clinic. Maybe they even threaten you.
You were already scared and confused. Now in addition you're feeling alienated and humiliated. And on top of all that, you've just been blasted with an extremely negative side of the church and Christianity in general.

I could be wrong – and I mean that, I could - but I find it difficult to believe that Jesus would be okay with this kind of behavior.

Now consider the same scenario as the one above, but this time, instead of the Christians being outside the clinic en mass, there are only one or two of them, inside the clinic, and after you've been in the waiting room for a few minutes, one of them comes and sits next to you, asks you your name, and takes the time to listen to you. And they care, they genuinely care when you tell them your story. Who are you more likely to listen to?

And on a grander scale, who would you say looks more like Jesus?

I'm not saying that we should never protest or stand up for what we believe in. We should all do as God calls us to do, regardless of what that means, and just because I think protesting abortion is a bad idea doesn't mean no one ever should. That's not the point.

My point is that we were called to love.

We've been waving signs and chanting and shouting for years now, and nothing has changed. What if we stopped protesting and yelling and alienating people, and took a step back and looked at things in more practical terms?

What if we spent more time and money and energy raising awareness about adoption and foster care, or sponsoring support programs for young and single mothers, or at least trying to understand the issue a little better?

You can't stop with "it's murder", because there's more to it than that. If it were that simple it'd be illegal. And even if you disagree, there are people for whom the issue is more complicated. And aren't they the ones we should be trying to reach?

One of these days abortion may be outlawed. There are plenty of people in Washington who would love to see that happen. But even if it isn't, we still have the ability to make a difference for the positive.

And we can do it without a megaphone.

Luke 6:31

"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

I don't want people waving signs at me, and megaphones hurt my ears.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Us vs Them

There's a popular sentiment that seems to run deep within most Christian circles. I've experienced it for much of my life, and felt it on a personal and ambient level. If we're to be honest, most will probably agree that it's nearly as old as the organized church itself. In a sense I think it's a natural, even sensible way to feel, but only in a certain context and to a certain degree. As it exists now I'd call it unhealthy, dangerous even, and I believe that if the church ever hopes to really be relevant in the contemporary world, the state of mind I'm about to touch on should be done away with all together.

The thing I'm talking about is this: The general attitude, the feeling of "Us vs. Them". Like any group or organization, Christianity can be, and often is, an extremely separatist entity. We have a tendency to make our events and music and even our way of speaking esoteric and exclusive. We see ourselves as being separate from the rest of the human population, and I'll give that yeah, in a way, we are.
But here's the thing - we're all human. I can't count the number of times I've heard the phrase, "non-Christian friends" used in a negative, almost derogatory context. I mean sure, if somebody asks, then say "No, so and so doesn't go to church." "No, so and so doesn't believe in God". But why does it have to be such a big deal?

A couple years back I and a few friends hosted a new years party at the church. It was a last minute, spur of the moment thing, and we called everybody that day to invite them. It wasn't a church sponsored event, but we got permission from the pastor to use the building. We invited somewhere near twenty people and everybody brought snacks and drinks so that we didn't have a spend a bunch of money on food. The plan was that we'd all meet there around seven, and probably stay the night, so as to avoid the danger that comes from driving home on new years eve after midnight. Drunk drivers and all, you get the picture.

Neil and I were the ones that put it together, and Neil and I have for several years had a lot of friends in common. We worked at Target together, and so we invited a bunch of people from work. We went to youth group together, and so we invited a bunch of people from church. Do you see where the chemistry is going? Two groups, two dichotomies - a bunch of church people and a bunch of not-church people.

At first I thought, hey, this is a great idea. This is the perfect opportunity for us to show my non-christian friends that we're not all uptight and unfriendly. We'll show them how cool the church can be to outsiders and maybe, just maybe, they'll show up on a Sunday. In high school, I was very naive.

I'll say first that we, overall, had a good time. A lot of people showed up and most everybody enjoyed themselves.

But instead of the two groups mixing and melding and bonds being formed that would bridge the gap between "christian" and "secular", all of my christian friends hung out in one of the offices(which we weren't even supposed to have access to) while all my friends from work stayed out in the main room and enjoyed each other's company. Everybody from work felt shunned. I later asked them(the church people) why they'd even bothered to show up, since the message they sent was that they weren't even interested in what was going on. The general attitude that several of them had was that they weren't happy about all these strange people being in their building, and they didn't like that they and these other people had so little in common. Perhaps I'm being presumptuous, but several of my friends from work later asked me exactly what the problem was and what they had done wrong. To me it was a disaster.

It's my opinion that the entire fiasco took place because Christians spend way too much time focusing on how "different" we are. We think that because we've met Jesus and we spend a lot of time and church and we try to exercise self control and whatever else you want that we're somehow on a different playing field. That the people outside of our religious circles are somehow of a different species. I doubt you'll find many Christians who profess to this as a matter of principle, but I'd wager that if we were honest with ourselves and each other, that most of us probably feel this way on some level. And the proof of it is in our behavior, as I've already illustrated.

The fact of the matter is that we're all the same. We're all human. We're all descended from the same thing, whether you believe in Adam and Eve or primates that learned to hunt with clubs. We're all sinners, we all screw up, and Jesus died for all of us. Believing in him or not believing in him doesn't make you any less or more of a person. It doesn't put you in a separate category. They're just two different ways of thinking(and hopefully) living, and when we forget this, the results can be embarrassing at least and catastrophic at worst.

It's my firm belief that if we focused on the fact that we're all the same, and work at integrating the belief of it into our lives and way we deal with people, then the church would probably have a lot more credibility. If we stopped ridiculing our fellow Christians for hanging out with their, "non-Christian" friends, then we'd probably have a much better chance of connecting with said non-Christian friends. We'd probably have a better chance of getting them through the front door of the church building. And even if they don't stay, at least they'd know we don't resent them for not agreeing with us.

There is no Us, and there is no Them. It's ALL of us. It's We. And We can't afford to forget that.

Romans 3:23
"for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God"
As far as I'm concerned, that's a a pretty cut and dry statement.