Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Problem With Boxes

Ever notice that there come seasons in your life when you just can't find enough boxes? You notice it most when you move, of course, but there are countless other times when you stand above a pile of stuff that needs to be stuffed in a box as you covet said box. We as a nation have a box fetish. There are so many things in our lives that we need bigger things to hold all the smaller things. When I was in New York City this spring, I had my first encounter with The Container Store, which exclusively sold these bigger things. It was positively swarming with people, happily paying ten dollars for twenty cents' worth of cardboard, because it was shaped in a manner which made it capable of holding things.

We like boxes because they allow us to categorize things. If you have similar things and find a big box to put all the similar things into, you are now "organized" and suddenly have license to feel slightly better about yourself. And if you get overrun with boxes, you can pay to put your small boxes in a very large box - a box that locks - which is itself part of a huge box with an office at the end. We of course label the boxes inside the box inside the box, but since half of them read "MISC" this is of dubious value.

And all of this is fine. I don't begrudge my wife because she likes to organize things in obscurity while I like to organize them in the open. I don't begrudge self-store landlords - who wouldn't want a rental with no plumbing, HVAC, carpet, walls or tenants? The people I begrudge are those who carry this mentality of boxing from their little pile of clutter to the world at large. This works itself out in any number of ways, but one I'm increasingly bothered by is music.

We have dichotomized music, like everything else, into crisp "secular" and "sacred" camps - and wrongfully so. Kids in my generation were told that the former was inherently BAD and the latter was inherently GOOD. Only buy music at the overpriced Christian bookstore - all else is filth. "Worldly" music couldn't glorify God, because it didn't talk about Jesus (in reality, because the consecutive syllables "Gee" and "Zuss" were not present in the song).

It took a long time, but I finally divined the folly of that admonition, because the opposite is so often true. Now, don't hear what I'm not saying. I realize that there is awesome music labeled 'Christian' out there, just as I realize that there is secular music that is patently worthless or even antithetical to leading us unto grace. But the fact remains that many of us have thrown the baby out with the bathwater in an attempt to purge that which is 'foreign.' So called 'secular' music has often connected me to God in ways no "clean air" radio station has. For instance, listen to "Hear You Me" by Jimmy Eat World:

It's a hymn of sorrow over the death of a friend, lamenting the narrator's lack of gratitude while they were living. In case you're skimming or conscience precludes you, here's a sample lyric:

There's no one in town I know
You gave us some place to go
I never said thank you for that
I thought I might get one more chance.

Similar sentiment in "My Immortal" by Evanescence:

I'm so tired of being here
Suppressed by all my childish fears
And if you have to leave
I wish that you would just leave
'Cause your presence still lingers here
And it won't leave me alone


Or "The Saddest Song" by The Ataris, as the narrator tries to encourage the daughter of a broken home who doesn't understand yet:

Only two more days until your birthday - yesterday was mine
You'll be turning five - I know what it's like
Growing up without a father in your life

Raw, real, honest-to-God emotions. Stuff that constitutes the floorplanks of where people live. Expressing that which burdens the heart. Now compare that to examples in CCM, where by turns you have wide-eyed, sappy sentimentality:


"Shine, Jesus! Shine!"


Ooh, ooh, you know it’s gonna be alright
Ooh, ooh, you know it’s gonna be alright
There’s a love much stronger than everything
That holds you down right now
Sayin’, ooh, ooh, you know it’s gonna be alright


You give me joy that's unspeakable!
And I like it...and I like it!

Then you have misleading or false theology:

With boldness we draw near
And in His presence our problems disappear

(So if you have problems in your life, we have to surmise that we are not in the presence of God? What are we to do with Jesus' promise that, "In this world you will have trouble"?)

The weaknesses I see in me
Will be stripped away
By the power of Your love.

(So being beset by weakness means God doesn't love us? Or does it mean His love lacks power? Or does it means He loves us powerfully, but something we did weakens it?)

Then you have repetitive lyrics. Third Day's "You Are So Good to Me" repeats the phrase, "You are beautiful, my sweet sweet song" a total of fifteen times in a sub-four minute song (and the first, second and fourth verses consist of a short, repeated phrase). MercyMe's version of "I Could Sing of Your Love Forever" repeats the titular phrase TWENTY TIMES. And in my experience, worship leaders wanting to wring all the emotionalism they could out of a song could, with a swirl of their index finger to the band, subject the audience to an indefinite chorus cycle.

Others have framed these laments well; Marc Barnes, writing for Ignitum Today, had this to say:
Imagine, for an instant, that you’re writing a song for a girl you love, a girl you want to marry (or a guy, as the case may be). Would it be fine and dandy to write all your songs with an “I love you so much, your love feels so good, I’m really grateful that you love me, it’s so amazing that you love me” approach? Would you rhyme “the way she walks” with “the way she talks” all the time? Alright, that wouldn’t be completely miserable, but it’s the most macroscopic view you could take of the subject. You’re not singing about your girl, about what she – as a person, as your lover – speaks to your heart, about your insecurities, your doubts, your fears, your hopes, no. You’re singing about General Girl and General Love. Eventually, you’re gonna have to mention that you love her blue eyes, her pretty, short blonde hair, and her incredible sense of humor, or else she’ll leave you for a man who does. But somehow, when we’re singing about the Lover of Lovers, the Prince of Peace and the Lord of Lords, we think we can get away with singing “Jesus Saves”, “Our God Reigns” and rhyming “grace” with “face” all the time. Now God won’t leave you, but any human who appreciates the poetry of music will. And that’s a lot of people.
We seem, in any number of quarters, to have lost an ear for poetry - and in the process have confused the sentimental with the beautiful. Here's Eugene Peterson's take on that from The Contemplative Pastor:
Not all words create. Some merely communicate. They explain, report, describe, manage, inform, regulate. We live in an age obsessed with communication. Communication is good, but a minor good. Knowing about things never has seemed to improve our lives a great deal. The pastoral task with words is not communication but communion - the healing and restoration and creation of love relationships between God and his fighting children and our fought-over creation. Poetry uses words in and for communion. This is hard work and requires alertness. The language of our time is in terrible condition. It is used carelessly and cynically. Mostly it is a tool for propaganda, whether secular or religious. Every time badly used and abused language is carried by pastors into prayer and reaching and direction, the word of God is cheapened. We cannot use a bad means to a good end. Words making truth, not just conveying it: liturgy and story and song and prayer are the work of pastors who are poets.
Now, the question is this: Can music we have chosen to put in a box labeled "Secular" accomplish this task? I posit that the answer is yes - and if you reframe the lyrics, you'd be shocked at how so many songs in this box fit better than ones we have engineered from the start as "Christian." What do I mean by that?

What follows are song lyrics from "secular" songs. Imagine Jesus Christ singing them to you, and see if they aren't breathtakingly beautiful:

I've felt so strong for you ever since
The day you caught my eyes and I
Can't help but wonder if my life
Is turning upside down this time
I wasn't sure of when but I
Knew there'd come a time when I
Would feel this way about someone
And always need them by my side
You could make me want
To leave the one I'm with
And never wonder why
If I was ever given something else
I'd give it back a thousand times
There is just something hard for me to grasp
How it was I could survive
If I would have to live my life without
One thousand times


You'll sit alone forever
If you wait for the right time
What are you hoping for?
I'm here I'm now I'm ready
Holding on tight
Don't give away the end
The one thing that stays mine


Yeah, life is beautiful
Our hearts, they beat and break
When you run away from harm
Will you run back into my arms?
Like you did when you were young
Will you come back to me?
And I will hold you tightly
When the hurting kicks in

Are those not haunting? And inevitably someone is going to protest that there's a lack of intentionality behind these songs - that they weren't intended to be spiritual, and therefore aren't. Yet have we completely foregone Saint Ignatius' call to "find God in all things"? We've decided that because these words were published by Atlantic, Interscope and Sony BMG, instead of Sparrow or Provident, that they are valueless? And I'm not about to pronounce redemption upon your efforts for being intentionally vapid.

Let's broaden this out a bit. Do you still feel you dispense God and his grace like a spiritual pharmacist, or have you caught on to the fact that wherever you go in an effort to communicate God's grace, you're merely breathlessly catching up with Him - that He's been there, working, long before you even thought to go? And that the Spirit works even in our absence in the places we haven't proceeded to yet?

The underlying issue here is that we place too much emphasis on purity and not enough on holiness. What's the difference? Purity is specklessness; holiness is reservedness. The English word 'holy' comes from the Greek 'hagios,' which means to be distinguished from that which is common and reserved for a particular use. In case you haven't noticed, we're all speckled. When Jesus said, "Be holy as I am holy," He didn't mean to not be speckled - to be perfect, without blemish, never getting worldly cooties. He meant to be distinguished from that which is common and reserved for a particular use - God's. Be as committed to the purpose of heralding the coming of the Kingdom of God as I am. And that...well, I'll let you connect those dots.

My message to you in sharing these things is this: Abandon thy boxes. So much of the stuff of our lives is spectral as opposed to digital. Music won't fit in your boxes. Philosophies won't fit in your boxes. People certainly won't fit in your boxes. Just content yourself with engaging them as Christ did. Bind their wounds. Look into their eyes. Rebuke the religious around you who would prevent them from encountering their God. Feed the hungry among them. Make sure the threshold to draw near is low (Matthew 11:30), but that the threshold to identify and remain is high (John 6:60,66). Do true things instead of just saying true things. But first and foremost, don't hasten people into boxes.

We'll all be in boxes soon enough.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

K-Mart, Hipsters and the Faceplanting of America: An Intermittently Cohesive Rant

I watched America die a bloody, gruesome death in K-Mart last year.

Okay, okay, that was a shameless, hyperbolic ploy to raise your eyebrows. But I, like many of my countrymen, have a bit of a queasy feeling about some of the things I'm seeing around here. America seems to be sucking wind, and I think your local K-Mart is a perfect microcosm (petri dish might be more apt) in which to study this dynamic.

It's funny how brand loyalties persist. K-Mart is part of Sears Holdings now; and while you'd think that most people would be indifferent about who's selling their gizmos to them, people seem to have a nostalgic benevolence toward Sears that K-Mart does not find itself the beneficiary of. I don't know if you can decouple Sears and K-Mart at this point without killing both, but K-Mart really is a boat anchor. The ones I've been in lately all commit the same four sins - unkempt stores (almost to the point of being ratty), an aesthetic I'd call Forwardish Thinking 1999, indefensible price points (about 15% more expensive than Wal-Mart for no discernible uptick in quality), and bad customer service.

The lack of customer service is probably the most grievous of them all. If I was a brick and mortar retailer in this economy and someone actually took the initiative to leave their home, drive on congested roads, navigate their way to my store, park, and walk themselves in, I would assault the fiery gates of Hell to ensure that they were provided what can only be provided in meatspace: human interaction. This somehow escapes K-Mart management. Attention stuffed suits: If I wanted to purchase mass produced items in the absence of other sentient beings, there's an app for that.

And no, the eighteen year old girl who rings me up in lane eight, who is busily gnawing her thoroughly gnawed gum and in the dispassionate throes of a looking-bored contest with the eighteen year old girl in lane nine, does not count. I would hate to disturb the contest, because it's a two horse race - she is, after all, the only other cashier working, minus the mindless busybodies at the customer service desk, who conveniently aren't allowed to ring you up, forcing you to shuffle along in a procession reminiscent of a bread line circa 1931. Especially true since all seven of the frail people in America who still pay by writing checks out longhand are somehow in front of you in line at K-mart, who of course wants two forms of ID, a retinal scan and an epithelial swab from these people - even though they wouldn't blink particularly hard about a guy with filed teeth and a spike nail impaled through the bridge of his nose swiping a Hello Kitty debit card belonging to someone named Brittani through the reader, because, you know, cards are all safe and stuff. The gum gnawers surmise this based on their inability to understand the technology, which is their threshold for assuming something is secure. This is why, when they see a padlock on the Internet, they assume that using "ilove" followed by their boyfriend's name as a password provides a layer of impenetrable security.

This is a procession so mind numbing and life draining that when you at last get to the register, you're torn between two principles: abandoning your purchase to prove that you're a real person with a real soul and aren't dependent upon the corporation's benevolence in allowing you to purchase their precious product, or making your purchase, and another from the kaleidoscopic display of mints and gum you're blinded by on approach, just to prove that there was some semblance of a point to the last ten minutes of your day that might, at some future time that is most definitely not now, further your overall welfare as a human being. You feel victimized, both at being forced to take the stand you did and at being a sissy for not making the other stand, and you wind up leaving doubly depressed either way.

All of this is a distant memory, because I can't remember the last time I actually made a purchase at the K. For instance, last year I was in K-Mart and I had a question on specs for a certain headphone set. I scoured about 40% of the store before I found an employee; they in turn had to start begging on the PA for someone in Electronics to return to their post. It was one of those instances when you can almost see the snark dripping from the speakers, coming from the voice of one bound to their handset out of the fear stemming from the thought of having to traverse five acres of dingy tile floors trying to find a reclusive shelf shuffler:

Would an OR AROUND Electronics...please return to Electronics for customer assistance! I need an associate. In or around Electronics. To please return to Electronics for customer assistance. Thank you.

Twelve or fifteen minutes in, I get my coveted prize - a hipster doofus in a frumpled red smock. Not a hipster doofus in a Cosmo Kramer, so uncool he somehow transcends himself and becomes ironically cool kind of way - in an annoying I-wanna-[insert slightly dated fad]-too kind of way. I could tell that this fellow represented a significant chunk of the future of America. And I shuddered. I didn't shiver, like ooh there's a draft, I shuddered, like oh no what's applying massive torsion to the hull of this battleship.

I could immediately tell this was the kind of annoying shrew who treats life like a walking sit-in protest against being misunderstood and maligned. A too-enlightened-for-here priss who listens to esoteric music that 1) nobody has heard of (anything that sounds like a mangled car crash at the intersection of Emo and Ska fits here) or 2) can in any way be construed as "underground" or "indie," not because they've found their favorite niche, but just because nobody else listens to it. This can thus be lorded over everyone they know and/or don't know. Music quality doesn't matter - it could be the sounds of a baby being beaten with a cat, layered over someone doing a poor imitation of a screech owl in heat, so long as nobody else understands what in God's name is going on and it exists as an ongoing opportunity to sigh in disdain at society's lack of culture and willingness to be societal lemmings. Those stupid sellouts, listening to music that, you know, other people listen to and enjoy. This fellow thinks needlessly doubling a word constitutes phrase coining (bro bro, low low, right right). That patronizing benevolent corporations constitutes personal charitable giving. That he is the most important because he pays lip service to the least important. That sarcasm is a rhetorical device.

I ask my question, but realize I should have messed with his mind. Before I said anything, I should have said, "I am now writing the future," then taken a piece of paper and written, "You're going to say, 'Well...' then trail off to silence as you pick the headphone package up and study it in hopes of finding the answer on a huge orange sticker I somehow missed." That would have been funny, because I knew it was going to go down like that. Then I could have blown his mind.

And it did go down like that. But I didn't write the note in advance, and he wouldn't have believed me if I'd told him that I knew what he would do. So I left. He may still be looking at the package. Not on my behalf...he's probably comparing ohms or something, trying to figure out if they're worthy of a discerning audiophile like him. To be fair, you do need a good set of cans in which to turn the baby/cat/pining screech owl noise up to eleven, so you can drown out the sound of your mom begging you to get your hemp-burlap shoes and Jets to Brazil t-shirt out of the living room.

But is this America circa the future? One represented by a dude who's hapless and aimless, smelling faintly of smoke of unknown origin and missed opportunities? With no work ethic except when it comes to complaining about the drudgeries of reality? Who is defined by what he is opposed to?

And it just gets worse as you go down the line. When I was in kindergarten, the most heinous offenses I could fathom were cutting in line, talking without having been called on, and having the utter crass necessary to say the word "poop" out loud. One day Mrs. Russell put my name on the board for tickling Joey Collins during nap time, and I thought the universe was in the process of collapsing in upon itself and becoming a singularity in space-time...or whatever equivalent I would have understood at the time. Now my wife comes home with horrifying stories of kicking and screaming, biting and hair-pulling, refusal to acknowledge adults' presence and openly urinating on the floor just to spite them. All the offenses of five-year-olds who seem to know the constraints placed upon their zookeepers when it comes to discipline and reprisal. Welcome to tomorrow.

I doubt this is the America that my father's father dreamed of when he was sporting blistered hands, hoeing weeds out of twenty acres of watermelons when he was a boy. That my mother's father dreamed of as he stood on the decks of an aircraft carrier off the bitter shores of Korea. That I, frankly, would care to live in. So what's the answer? Well, it's really big, so we'll need to take it in steps. Let's start small.

We would do well to just start caring. Not in a sappy, sentimental, believe it and you can achieve it, Care-Bears-circa-1986 kind of way, but in a maybe you could start giving two hoots in Hades about things that are not you kind of way.

It's the simple stuff. Do you know your neighbors? No? What's your excuse...that they're hard to find? They live so far away? When was the last time you deeply listened to someone, instead of nodding while you worked on a story to top theirs in your head? When was the last time you committed a random act of kindness when you were by yourself? When was the last time you asked someone how their family was doing? When you made a mindful decision regarding your non-negotiables when it comes to the stewardship and generosity of your resources, whether that's space, time, talent, or money? I can almost forgive the one who makes such a choice and chooses wrongly - at least they had the brass to stand in front of that bank of levers in their life and actually pull one. The Unconscionable are those who exist as rudderless societal flotsam and call themselves principled.

Maybe that's what bothered me about K-Mart - it seemed to exist as a vast testimony to brokenness. Perhaps the answer is to start some institutions of our own. Monuments to Method. Temples of Thoughtfulness. Synagogues of Serenity. Pillars of Promise. Shrines to Studiousness. I pray for us the courage and diligence necessary to build them, so that they might serve as quiet, humble outcroppings of stability among people with increasingly gelatinous foundations. May we serve as harbingers and prophets of the dawning of a new day. One which shines a warm, orange light of redemption and hope.

Sure beats the competition...which has always been two kinds of blue.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Of Roses and Razors

I've had a lot more opportunities to read since I began my pastorate here in Mountain Grove. I've probably already read more in a month than I did all of last year. There's something to be said for such rich intellectual stimulation - in fact, it's been such a difference that it has affected my dreams at night. They've been more vivid, and for only the second time in my life, I had one in which I recognized that I was dreaming and was able to control myself within the dream. In all the reading I've done, though, some authors stand above others.

Eugene Peterson is my hero. Finally, writing for the sake of fidelity to idea and not immediate digestion. Sometimes there is a concept in your head that can only be made incarnate by virtue of one word. I don't want to tell you about what I'm thinking. I want to tell you what I'm thinking - and Peterson apparently agrees. Propinquity. Vacuous. Miasmic. Braggadocio. Ostensible. Blithely. Pedagogue. And that's just a few pages' worth. In one book. He could have made the concepts he talked about accessable to lower thought...but it would have required tiresome explanations that would have mandated blather about the general concept. Blather populated only with words easily understood, whatever that means.

And I'm sure some stupid editor probably highlighted all of his chosen words and told him he needed to find alternatives. Some poetry thankfully escapes the bloodletting of editors' pens. I love reading a fellow lover of language, who rightly regards it as art instead of a bloody cudgel - who uses words as seed in a garden of high rhetoric instead of splinters in the handle of a propagandic hammer. Language is to idea as physical intimacy is to love - the unutterable given utterance in the flesh, expression in action.

If language and rhetoric and semantics aren't passions of yours, that's fine. But don't expect me to goosestep under the banner of this ridiculous notion that we have to mushmouth our speech and cripple our penstrokes for the benefit of people who are unable to divine contextual clues of meaning from a printed text. If you write, instead of writing so the masses can understand, write so that people who actually read can understand - the rest needn't be catered to, because they don't care. They're too busy living their lives vicariously through someone else and allowing themselves to be thought for.

This insipid Basic English movement is distastefully unromantic - rose petals crushed beneath tank treads. It's like shaving your wife's head - much lower maintenance, but at an unacceptable cost to beauty.

Everyone has gnawed their fingernails to the quick over the economy. But a quick overview of history reveals that we've had money before. Several times. And the funny thing is that, despite porcelain promises long shattered, it never solved our problems. Given its company again, we would just as quickly give it to whomever whispered most insistently in our ears that we deserved something it could buy.

Money we've had. It's beauty we need. So for God's sake, put the razor down.