Thursday, June 26, 2003

Jesus is the Answer?
(but who's asking)

I was talking today with a co-worker, and we somehow got onto the idea of how many people walk around having all the answers. Well, it got me to thinking... which got me to journaling...

(You knew that was coming, right?)


Bear with me just a moment as I play both Devil's Advocate and Devil's District Attorney (or would that be Devil's Defense Attorney?).

Devil's Advocate side: You people need to realize that religion is a private matter, and you need to stay out of my private religious and moral choices. Whether or not I have faith of any kind, or sleep with nobody or anybody I choose is none of your business. Sure, you can talk a good talk about loving the "sinner" but hating the "sin," but we all know it's just rhetoric designed to help you pass laws that practically make this country more Judeo-Christian in spite of the changing religious face of the country.

Devil's District Attorney: Well, if you only understood the problem and the spiritual danger that you're in, then you'd be just as zealous as we are. It's like this, if we're right then, the whole world's racing at breakneck speed toward a destroyed bridge that's no longer there, and if we don't stop you and tell you that the bridge is out, we're just letting you race to your deaths. So, if you look at it from our perspective, it's only love that's motivating us to try to help you from a danger you don't realize you're in.

It's been said that the ability to put yourself in the shoes of an enemy is one of the first steps toward peace. (Because I just said it. So there.) And while different religious views may not constitute people as enemies, it can often play out that way in practice.


I once read an essay in which the writer talked about the song "Jesus is the Answer" as the perfect apologetic for its time. Then he mourned in ink that the trouble today is that contemporary Christians grew up in a world in which they were told "Jesus is the Answer" so much that they forgot how to ask questions -- or more important, to take the time to learn what the questions are.

Instead, they became a generation of religious zealots running around with "the answer" to questions no one was asking, ticking people off willy-nilly with their insistence and poor people skills.

I still believe that's true.

Hence the problems in our zeal to determine anything that might have some sort of proselytizing use as being a "tool" (i.e., music, art, plumbing, relationships) and nothing more. And the problems in our inability to interact in any real, two-way dimension with people who believe differently than we. Because if we have "the answer," what do we care about what you think?

And that's sad.

I still remember one of the conversations with a person I'm honored to call a friend. Having working in a building that equates Wicca with all sorts of things from "Satan Worship" to "witchcraft" to "nature worship" and genuine curious to know what adherents or even former adherents considered Wicca to be, I simply asked.

Not to try to argue or look for "wrong" things to give me an opening to "share my faith" or convert anybody. But simply to ask a question I knew I didn't already have the answer to.

And maybe that's the starting point for those of us in this part of the faith camp. Even if we feel we have THE ultimate answer (42, right?), we need to learn that we don't have ALL the answers. And that we can learn a lot of answers still from other people who may believe different ultimate answers than we do.

Personally, I don't talk about my faith to others in conversation unless they're comfortable with it or ask me. And I can't stand those sort of "bait and switch" tactics people are taught to "begin spiritual conversations" just for the purpose of making their pitch. To me, it's just a courtesy I'd hope people would extend to me (do unto others, and all that...).

But I've found that people are open to talking about spirituality and faith if they feel like both sides have something interesting to say are aren't just lying in wait to bombard them with "the answer" as soon as it's their "turn" to speak (which comes off more like a polite debate than a genuine conversation).

So what's the point of all this? I don't know. Not entirely. Because I know I don't have all the answers.

I guess it's simply this. Try on the other person's shoes before we throw our feelings around. Sometimes conversionistic zeal really does come from a heart of genuine love and a desire to help, and even if you don't welcome the help, don't run off the helper. Maybe you can help them understand how they're perceived and how it's not helping them help anyone. And for those of us who believe we have "the answer," perhaps for us, we need the bigger lesson -- shut up for once, make some new friends, and let nature take it's course.
Suburban Life?

The pop artist Jewel, a young woman in her middle 20s whose albums have sold millions, talked several years ago with Rolling Stone magazine about her motivations. She said, "I'm just a person who is honestly trying to live my life and asking, 'How do you be spiritual and live in the world without going to a monastery?'"

Her question rattled around in my brain, for neither can I move to a monastery. I'm stuck in the 'burbs; I don't have easy access to nature (that is, enough cash flow to afford a second house in some rural area), to quiet, to a more contemplative life. Something deep within me yearns for a more spacious spiritual consciousness, a more direct connection to the God of the galaxies. How can I draw close to my Creator in a world of endless strip malls, cookie-cutter houses, ubiquitous vans and sport-utility vehicles, and no space for solitude? A colleague calls the Chicago suburbs "the land of no horizons." Power lines, the dormers on a neighbor's Cape Cod, and mature hardwoods obstruct the full evening's redness in the west. The day's final beauty is always about an hour away. I commute to the country to see the stars.

Some days I fantasize about moving my family from our western Chicago suburb to a small town in the western United States, edged by a rambling stream and cradled in the foothills of a mountain range with a romantic name like the Spanish Peaks. There we'd live out our days in simplicity and in natural beauty and with few financial anxieties. Life would be fully aligned. Our frenetic life would slow to a manageable pace, and God would be easier to access.

NOTE: Click here for the rest of this article by David Goetz.

I've wondered about this myself. Sometimes I feel like suburban life is so stifling, but I don't want to raise kids downtown in the city proper where the cost of living is even more expensive. Nor do I want to find the slowed-down life I'd love in east-bumble-nowhere at the risk of my kids not being able to have a good school system and opportunities I never had.

So I waffle.

Part of me longs to get back to a quiet place like I grew up. A place where you didn't have to lock the doors, or even close them except for the gnats. A place where 7-year-old kids could walk up the street to the park by themselves and you didn't have to worry about them being run over or abducted.

But the other part of me doesn't won't to leave all the stuff behind that only the city can provide -- plays, a symphony, museums, bookstores that actually have out of print books and first editions, music stores that sell more than just Top 40.

So, here am I, stuck in suburbia.

Spiritual suburbia has set in too, though, and in spite of my posts here, I do find myself longing for the Mother Teresa experience of being able to completely empty myself out into the lives of others. Either that or throw myself headlong into so-called hedonism and live out my every selfish fantasy.

But no, I have tempered the selflessness and selfishness, becoming the kind of Revelation spew mentioned in the following verse:

I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm-- neither hot nor cold-- I am about to spit you out of my mouth. (Revelation 3:15-16, NIV)

That's me. Biblical puke material.

Too wrapped up in the Joneses and my new gadgets and the ones I still want (plasma TV, anyone?) to be any kind of Mother Teresa.

And too wrapped up in being "presentable to the neighbors" to let my hedonistic side out beyond losing my temper or experiencing it vicariously through friends.

Sad, ain't it.

Spiritual Suburbia. Population Sean.


Friday, June 20, 2003

Articles I found in my inbox today I enjoyed...

Life is a series of spiritual battles, says author John Eldredge, but "too many Christians have approached their lives as though they were stepping onto the beaches of Normandy on D-Day with a lawn chair and a book to read. God did not redeem us so that we could spend our lives being punctual and well-behaved people. He called us to an abundant life that is fueled by the desires he has written on our hearts."

"The church tends to send the wrong signal about what the gospel is all about," he sighs. "It's not primarily about sin management or being able to regurgitate right doctrine. It's about a relationship with a romancing God who has done everything in his power to win our hearts and then set those hearts free to live life to the full."

From "The Gospel According to John (Eldredge)"

From a religious perspective, maybe these five collections merely underscore that you cannot always judge a poetry book by its title. And it is perhaps not surprising that, even in religious dress, contemporary poetry tilts, or most often bows down, to the delights of a well-wrought image. As a genre, poetry seems better equipped to raise a question as vividly as possible than to reply with a solid and set, catachetical answer.

From "Faith in Poetry"

Wednesday, June 11, 2003

Web Evangelism Soapbox

This wonderful tidbit appeared in an email from an online outreach newsgroup I'm in:

But again, as I tell my speech students "You preach to the converted, but reason with the heathen." Nevertheless, too many of our "evangelistic" sites are mostly in the "preaching to the choir" category.

As is most of our "Christian" anything these days, I'd add.

I have long held that we need to abolish the use of the "Christian" as an adjective and just stick with being Christians (noun) who are engaged in transforming the culture by interacting with by being salt and light, whether artists or web designers or plumbers or musicians.

Instead of creating Christian subgenres of everything that has been successful in the world.

Would this mean fewer "Christian" websites and more websites maintained by Christians who can interact with those in the world who need that salt and light? Probably so, but I admit I'm still the chiefest of sinners in this respect.

I've found that my best online outreach comes from going to where other people are rather than trying to get them to come to a site where I am. It's a lesson we can learn from what's happened to our churches lately, I'm convinced. I get much better "play" (if you will -- or interaction to use a more conversative word) by engaging non-Christians in their world -- on message boards, via Live Journal, etc. -- than I do in getting them to come to my Form & Matter site.

Regarding the F&M site, it has never been my intention to make it a lighthouse that sits on the web and says, "Come on, I'm here!" as it has been to give myself and other Christians an outlet to say, "Hey, here's a cool site where you can get more information about what we've been talking about. It might answer some of your questions."

As such, I've offered free business cards to anyone who wanted to have a supply on hand to hand out to people they actually speak with in person. It's more a partnership clearinghouse for second- and third-touch (and so on) than a first-touch website.

I don't expect to have people break down the doors to "seek" the life of faith (and by extension, visit the site), but I do think it's important to have a non-theological-sounding place that speaks the right language (ie, not church-talk) when our interaction with them reaches the level that they are asking questions.

And I think that's another important point to be made for today's seekers or pre-seekers -- you can't go further than you're asked. It's something we need to keep in mind when interacting with people. It's one thing to wax spiritually convicting or convincing (*grins*) with people who hit an evangelistic page and ask for more info, but not with people who have no interest in such waxings.

I think that when we see a website as a "first touch" place for evangelism, perhaps we are overestimating the usefulness of the web.

I agree that too many of our sites jump too high on the Gray Index, but I also think that we can't think a website is the most effective tool for that particular part of a person's journey up (or down) the Gray Index. I still contend that that's the importance of varied degrees of relationships with non-Christians.

Ironically, a few years ago I noticed that most of my circle of friends were all people from my church. So I prayed that God would lead me to a new group of friends (in addition to the others not in place of) who needed to hear about Him and perhaps hadn't yet, people who didn't typically hang out with Christians or even find them to be likeable people. But not to see them as merely some sort of "outreach project" but as real friends for whom I'd lay down my life if need be.

I'm happy to say that my current circle of friends (online and in person) includes mostly non-Christians, most of whom have never had a significant relationship with a Christian before -- fetish models, tarot card designers, rpg geeks, sci-fi convention nerds, a member of the porn industry, yoga teachers, and more agnostics and atheists than you could shake a stick at (why'd you want to shake a stick at them I'm not sure). And they feel comfortable enough around me to call me a real friend, knowing that we disagree about many of the key things in life. And they regularly listen to me rant from my soapbox of faith about the ins and out of this life of faith I've chosen.

Okay, I'm rambling now, so I'll stop.
Tom Petty’s Theological Extravaganza

So I was listening to Tom Petty yesterday, and it got me thinking about church.

Yeah, I know church isn’t usually the first thing that comes to mind when I listen to Tom Petty (actually it’s usually that image from the “Don’t Come Around Here No More video in which Alice has been turned into a cake and is being eaten by the partygoers at the Mad Hatter’s un-birthday gala), but somehow the song “Listen to Her Heart” really struck me yesterday as a perfect picture of how the story is presented in the Bible.

No, really. I mean it.

It was the chorus in particular:

She's gonna listen to her heart
It's gonna tell her what to do
She might need a lot of lovin'
But she don't need you

Even with all the rules and regulations and religiosity we Christians have built up around and through and within the common canon of writing typically referred to as the Holy Bible, those writings taken in total are simply one of the coolest love stories ever told. Ultimately it boils down to this simple plot.

(Disclaimer: This story could just as easily be told from the perspective of a female creator who created a groom, but I’m too lazy to type it twice. I wasn’t trying to maintain any stereotypes of the “woman ultimately as whore” that, believe it or not, some people actually try to use the Bible to support. But not me. Phew.)

A lonely creator decides to create himself a bride. That bride falls head over heels in love with him for a while, but eventually gets the urge to try other men.

But each time, after sharing the beds of others, she comes back home, and he takes her in again and lavishes his love on her. Because he knows something she doesn’t – he knows how the story ends, with her at his side, finally realizing she is his and he is hers (fated, one might say).

Still, she can’t resist the urge to stray each time some hunk of a boy-toy turns her head, and sure enough, she often ends up back in bed with another man, and eventually gets herself so deeply that she is taken as a whore and is sold into slavery.

So this lonely creator who wants nothing more than for her to love him back the way he loves her decides that the only way to prove it is to show her, and he offers not his money to buy her out of slavery, but his life, because he knows her price is far above any sum of cash. Only his love for her is too much to let him remain dead, and he comes back to let her know that never again will she have to be a slave. They can be together forever, and for a time she returns home.

Only, although her head is still easily turned, he told the truth – no matter what she does or who she sleeps with, she is safe from the slavers because her slave contract has been paid and destroyed forever and for good.

But here’s the kicker, even though it breaks his heart to know the she still wants to “see other people” from time to time, he knows that ultimately they’ll be together, just the two of them. Because he can see the future. (Some might even say he planned it in advance.) and he loves her enough to wait and let his heart get trampled on in the process.

So he waits -- and smiles inwardly despite his outward tears.

Now, with that story in mind, here are the rest of the lyrics (with hopes that I don’t get sued by Tom Petty for reprinting them here):

"Listen to Her Heart"
By Tom Petty
Copyright © 1977 Skyhill Pub. Co., Inc.
All rights reserved.

You think you're gonna take her away
With your money and your cocaine
Keep thinkin' that her mind is gonna change
But I know everything is okay

She's gonna listen to her heart
It's gonna tell her what to do
She might need a lot of lovin'
But she don't need you

You want me to think that I'm being used
You want her to think it's over
Can't you see it don't matter what you do
Buddy you don't even know her

She's gonna listen to her heart
It's gonna tell her what to do
She might need a lot of lovin'
But she don't need you

And you just can't creep up behind her
And you can't understand that she's my girl
She's my girl

She's gonna listen to her heart
It's gonna tell her what to do
She might need a lot of lovin'
But she don't need you

Petty has perfectly summed up my thoughts on the church at this point as the “bride of Christ.” She’s just a lover who can’t settle down… yet. But she’s like the proverbial diamond in the rough,” just waiting (without knowing it, often) to be polished to the jewel that she is inside.

Or to quote Petty:

You want me to think that I'm being used
You want her to think it's over
Can't you see it don't matter what you do
Buddy you don't even know her

Wednesday, June 04, 2003

Buffy and Christ?

Buffy: Theologian of the Year


A Look at the Layers of Meaning and Symbolism in the 100th episode of Buffy

I found these very interesting, especially in light of the panning Buffy often receives from Fundamentalists (of which I'm a member) and other Christian groups. I particularly love the idea of Buffy as a modern mythology in the wake of current postmodern hopelessness.
Inspiration from the Bulletin Board

I keep a quote I clipped from a magazine (along with its illustration of a man holding a guitar and staring at the earth from a point far removed from it) pinned to the bulletin board above my desk. I've had it there for years, and even when I do a periodic cleaning of the clutter, this clipping stays put.

It simply reads:

"Is there anyone out there fool enough to think they can still change the world with their guitar? I don't think anything's going to happen until there is."

That quote almost haunts me as I go through life. Can my pen or my word processor or my guitar or my bass or my looping program change the world?

I hope so.

That's the goal anyway.

If I fail, so what? I tried. And if nothing else happens, the effort at least changes me for the better.

From a new book I'm reading...

"The language of the arts, it can be argued, is a language born of faith. In other words, all art forms attempt to translate what is unseen into what is seen. Painter Joel Sheesley states, 'I... suggest that the definition of content in art is very much like that New Testament definition of faith that calls faith the substance of things hoped for.' Art... becomes an activity of faith, translating the 'substance of things hoped for' with words, paint and other materials into the content and form of art."

-- Makoto Fukimura, from the foreword to Scribbling in the Sand by Michael Card

What a beautiful definition, I think, and one that, for me, integrates art into the very fabric of a worldview, not just a mere addition to life, but an integral part of it.