I’m My Own Proof

A friend asked me the other day what I thought about an article that accused Christians of giving into materialism. I admitted the article was right, but expressed a lot of frustration that it would take a whole lot to change people’s actions. I was my own proof.

And it’s really beyond Christians. Certainly Christians have the most pressing reason to leave materialism behind (let’s just say it wasn’t listed as an ideal in the Sermon on the Mount), but it’s really a problem endemic to Americans.

And who’s doing anything about it? A few kooks have started a magazine and published a book or two. Sometimes they hit the nail on the head, sometimes they don’t.

The whole issue is boiling below the surface of American thought, waiting to rise up. The real question is whether or not the church is going to force the uprising and cause the change, or will the church once again be following culture’s lead with a nod of our heads and a “Yeah, that’s what we thought all along.” It seems the church has been caught with its pants down on plenty of broad cultural idea like environmentalism and feminism. Will materialism be next?

I think it’s time the church lead for once in its life. It happened before when a man named Rev. Martin Luther King lead scores of people on march after march. The Civil Rights Movement succeeded. It was a costly battle, one you could easily argue has been given up recently, but it was successful nonetheless.

The Pope vs. Materialism

“Before our eyes we have the results of ideologies such as Marxism, Nazism and fascism, and also of myths like racial superiority, nationalism and ethnic exclusivism. No less pernicious, though not always as obvious, are the effects of materialistic consumerism, in which the exaltation of the individual and the selfish satisfaction of personal aspirations become the ultimate goal of life. In this outlook, the negative effects on others are considered completely irrelevant. Instead it must be said again that no affront to human dignity can be ignored, whatever its source, whatever actual form it takes and wherever it occurs.” — Pope John Paul II, “Respect for Human Rights,” January 1, 1999 (appeared in the July/August 2001 issue of Adbusters magazine)

Sometimes the Pope can be pretty smart. I marvel at why Christians (especially the brand of Christianity I grew up in, where Catholics aren’t considered Christians) don’t give the Pope more credit. No one stands up against more of culture’s crap than the Pope.

And now he’s set his sights on materialism and consumerism. Where do evangelical Christians stand?

Lake Louise State Park

This weekend we went camping at Lake Louise State Park.

Were you expecting words of wisdom as well? You’re probably pushing your luck. But do you know what I like about camping? Aside from the fact that you get to burn things, you’re free to do whatever you want. If you feel like sleeping in until noon, you can. If you feel like going on a bike ride, you can. If you feel like reading a book all afternoon, you can. There’s no pressure to do anything. I like that. I think I need that once in a while.

Bono Thanks Billy

“At a time when religion seems so often to get in the way of God’s work, with its shopping mall sales pitch and its bumper sticker reductionism—I give thanks just for the sanity of Billy Graham, for that clear, empathetic voice of his and that southern accent, and part poet, part preacher, the singer of the human spirit I’d say. Yeah, I give thanks to Billy Graham. Thank you, Billy Graham.” – Bono, lead singer of U2, in a video on the [now defunct] Thank You Billy Graham website.

His name was Earl

He didn’t sit down. He landed. He bumped into me as he settled into the seat, and then turned to ask me what I was reading. I could smell the alcohol on his breath.

His name was Earl. He worked as a machinist, “a good one, too.” He would turn 59 years old this year. He wore a navy blue t-shirt and pants. His beard was long and curly, with bits of silver. His glasses were smudged and finger printed. He had a few stitches in the middle of his forehead.

He had been hit by a car going 65 mph. At least that’s what they told him. He was pronounced dead. Now he’s having a lot of back pain. “I won’t lie to you…” he said several times, then going on to tell me how he’d turned to alcohol. But it didn’t help any. He told me alcohol was far worse than any rock you could take.

He was on his way to the doctors, needed to make an appointment. He said the doctor wouldn’t see him like this, but he just wanted to make an appointment. He tried taking the medicine. Didn’t work. He’s in a lot of pain.

I hardly said a word. I just let him talk. What could I say? He was drunk, probably on his way to a hangover. I had to struggle to understand each word he said. Most of the time I just let him talk and picked up what I could, nodding my head when I understood.

“I need something to help me with the pain. Alcohol sure don’t do it.” He said. I wondered if I was supposed to tell a drunk about Jesus. I prayed silently, not wanting to preach to this guy. It was the last thing I wanted to do. But I also know this was one of those moments of truth. One of those moments I’d look back on and write about. But I didn’t say anything. I waited for an opportunity, and kept listening.

Finally my stop came, and as I gathered my things Earl said, “You should be a psychiatrist.”

I laughed. “Why?”

“Because you listen.” He said.

Traffic Promo

Remember all those hokey e-mail forwards promising that random company X would donate Y dollars per e-mails forwarded to random charity Z? Many of them touted some fancy new e-mail tracking system that Bill Gates was testing, an idea that made real techies laugh and newbies ponder the quick buck they could earn. We all laugh now and think it’s an e-mail gimmick of the past that will no doubt crop up again and again.

Well guess what? It’s back. And it’s for real. Univeral Pictures is donating $1 to Partnership for a Drug Free America for every e-mail you send advertising the movie Traffic‘s debut on Pay-Per View–up to $50,000. And from everything I can tell, it’s legit.

You send the e-mail from a form on their site, so they can track everything. And they put a cap on it, so it doesn’t get out of hand. To top it off, they’re promoting a really good movie (admittedly, they’re hyping a really lame promotion–how many people actually watch movies on Pay-Per View?). So why not send an e-mail to a friend? Go for it.

Bugle Boy? Umm… no.

The other day I felt like a modern suburban American. I was wondering through the mall on a Sunday afternoon and the only thing I was missing was a cell phone. Pop culture puzzles me.

Retro is in. However it has to be simulated retro, not authentic. Every storefront was sporting the latest style from twenty years ago at today’s prices. Apparently going to Goodwill isn’t good enough.

And while I’m on the subject of malls, what’s up with Sam Goody? That store charges $16.99 for a CD on sale! Regular priced CDs were $18.99. What idiots are buying CDs there and keeping that place in business?

It’s also bothersome that you can’t buy plain clothing anymore. You have to become somebody’s walking billboard. And the worst part isn’t that you have to submit to having some corporation’s logo plastered across your chest, the worst part is that’s what determines how cool you are. Abercrombie? You’re cool. Bugle Boy? Umm… no.

Another thing that bothers me is magazines trying to make ends meet. Rather than try to improve their content to bring in ad revenue, they run several full-color pages of their target demographic wearing trendy wares, and then tell people where they can buy each item of clothing and for how much. Killer ad placement.

I’m also bothered by magazines for teenage girls that feature stick-thin models on the cover, and then have articles moaning about stick-thin models and warning of the dangers of anorexia. It’s magazine-orexia. Then there’s the magazine’s for guys, put out by the same companies, with nothing but pictures of rail-thin women and articles about how to score. It seems we’ve mastered the art of selling magazines and ruining a generation’s concept of self-worth–at the same time! What a deal.

And finally I love the attempt to be on the cutting edge. Every teen magazine and website has a little trendsetter’s club you can join and share the latest trends. It sounds like a totally fresh and out there idea until you realize the magazines are just culling you for information, taking your fringe, soon-to-be-cool trends and putting them on the front page so they can look hip and sell more magazines.

Is there anybody out there that actually cares about people?

The Endangered Church

Some days I wonder if the church will ever be extinct. Today I walked into a church that was well on its way. The average age of the congregation was probably 55–and it’s only that low because of Abby and I and the lone two-year-old that waved her hands during the worship time.

The church had an enormous balcony that went around the entire church, a huge choir loft, and a huge floor area with two wings. The balcony was empty. The last five rows were corded off. There was a sign asking people to fill in the center pews. The side pews were mostly empty. The people attending could easily have fit in the empty choir loft.

The church was on the corner in a city neighborhood, a block from a major bus lines, and three blocks from a major free way. A college campus was only 5 blocks away. There could easily be 25,000 people within a half-mile of the church. Of course none of them are coming on Sunday morning. It’s the kind of church that won’t be around in ten years if things continue as they are.

There’s probably two dozen churches with in a half-mile of my apartment. I wonder how many of them are shrinking, failing to reach the community around them, failing to have an impact. And we wonder why modern American culture feels little impact from Christianity.

The Trouble Being a Critic

It’s hard to write a music review of an album when your name is in the thank you’s. The other day I wrote a review of Maskil‘s new album, Alta Products.

For those of you who don’t know, I’ve known the guys in Maskil and been in contact with them for a few years. It started during my sophomore year of college. They showed up unannounced and uninvited to be the last act of a tiny talent show. I was impressed. It was just two guys then, a guitar and a bass. I asked the guys if they’d like to be on my radio show. The next day they were hanging out at my place and we spent the afternoon laying down some live tracks for the radio.

While they were in town I saw them perform at least twice more. I stayed in touch with them and talked again the next time they came through the Twin Cities. This time we put them on our radio show live. At this point I was involved with ReALMagazine.com and made sure Maskil made it to our Indie Band MP3 section. After all that I didn’t hear much more from Maskil.

Then I ran into Aaron Everitt, the band’s founder, at GMA in Nashville. Their newest album had been picked up by True Tunes Records and Aaron was trying to promote it as much as he could. We bumped into each other several times during the week, and tried (without success) to get together for a longer period of time.

Here I am several months later and True Tunes has released Maskil’s latest CD. It’s time to live up to my promise of reviewing the album on ReALMagazine.com. Unfortunately, I don’t really like the new album. The Maskil I know and love is really simple: acoustic guitar and bass. Occasionally I’ve heard them with more than that and it works pretty good. But this new album had electric guitar and an organ, it had drums throughout, and sometimes a piano. It just didn’t work. Frankly, it was a disappointment. The vocals and the lyrics were still excellent, but the instrumentation and production didn’t match.

My one hope is that someone will notice the shining moments on the album. The parts that get back to the simple Maskil I remember. The parts were Aaron’s writing stands on its own and the music supports it, instead of battling against it.

When you know someone like this and you have to write an honest review of their album, it’s really difficult. This is probably a great opportunity for Maskil. I’d love to help them out and encourage people to buy their CD. But it’s just not there. It pains me to have to rip into it. I guess that’s part of being a critic.

American Beauty is Not What’s Wrong with America

Every once in a while there comes a movie that really makes me stop and think. Those who have read these thoughts for a while know this.

Everyone once in a while there comes a movie that makes Christians throw their arms up in the air and declare that this is what’s wrong with America. Every once in a while such a film wins an Oscar for Best Picture. And every once in a while I throw my arms up in the air and declare that Christians just don’t get it.

Squeakies. As Bono once said, “Christians are hard to tolerate, I don’t know how Jesus does it…I’m one of them.”

Tonight I watched American Beauty.

It contained one actual sex scene, one implied sex scene, one almost sex scene, two breast shots, a couple butt shots, two instances of masturbation, multiple scenes of drug use, multiple scenes of alcohol consumption, including an under-age drinker, an affair, a near-affair, domestic abuse, child abuse, portrayal of a fatalistic attitude, portrayal of a slutty attitude, portrayal of a selfish, materialistic attitude, disobedience and lack of respect for parents, divorce, a portrayal of the homosexual lifestyle, a portrayal of violent bigotry towards the homosexual lifestyle, violence, murder, and multiple profanities and instances where the Lord’s name was taken in vain.

I think that about covers it. And this is what so many Christians see when they watch this movie. They throw up their arms and declare that this is what’s wrong with America. Hollywood dares to show us this filth.

Am I denying that it’s filth? No. It is. My point is that the filth is not what’s wrong with America. The filth is inherent in every American. It’s inherent in every Christian. It’s inherent in every person. It’s called sin. That doesn’t mean it’s okay. That means it requires the very essence of the Christian faith. It does not require a moral condemnation and suggestion that good Christians never watch the movie.

American Beauty is darkly tragic look at the modern American family. It’s so filthy because the modern American family is so messed up. Hollywood is simply serving as a mirror.

I just wish that for once Squeakies would look beyond the surface and see that rather than a condemnation, a call to action is warranted. Do people on your block live like the family in American Beauty? If so, you better get your butt next door and be the neighbor you’re supposed to be. That family doesn’t need you to tell them how sinful they are. They need a solution.

The essence of the Christian faith is not a good, clean, sparkly life. Ned Flanders is not the epitome of a God-fearing Christian. American Beauty requires the essence of the Christian faith, and if Christians can’t see that, what do we think we’re doing?