2002 Reading List

It’s the end of ’02, and once again it’s time to see the list of everything Kevin’s read this year. Now I don’t do this to gloat (okay, I do), but to recommend some good books. Writing is about reading, so I read. And if you don’t know by now, I read this much by riding the bus. Mmm… bus. I’m also proud to say that I beat last year’s tally. Of course it probably helps that I read a number of kid’s books. But hey, they’re still books.

So without further yacking, Kevin’s 2002 Reading List:

Ophelia Speaks by Sara Shandler
Teenage girls write about their experiences. Not exactly happy reading.

All New People by Anne Lamott
Fiction from one of my favorites, though not her best.

Enter the Worship Circle by Ben Pasley
Excellent introduction to God, very post-modern approach.

Strength to Love by Martin Luther King, Jr.
Collection of sermons, essays, and just smart stuff.

The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls by Joan Jacob Brumberg
An interesting look at the history of how we view the female body.

The Jesus Generation by Billy Graham
Billy “raps” with the kids to get them to “turn on” to Jesus.

On Writing by Stephen King
Unique insights on writing from the master of horror.

Big Trouble by Dave Barry
Pretty funny novel for a columnist.

The Stand by Stephen King
OK, I had to read some Stephen King. And it was really good.

The Jesus I Never Knew by Philip Yancey
This is a must-read.

When Bad Christians Happen to Good People by Dave Burchett
Medicine for those who’ve had bad experiences with Christianity.

What’s so Amazing About Grace by Philip Yancey
Another must-read. Bono even recommends it.

Babyhood by Paul Reiser
A fairly humorous look at parenthood. Yikes.

Open Heart by Frederick Buechner
Another in the book of Bebb series. Great character development.

Just Like Jesus by Max Lucado
Read it so I could be justified in ripping on Lucado. Consider me justified.

There’s A Boy in the Girl’s Bathroom by Louis Sachar
Sachar is the best when you need some light kid’s reading.

James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
Of course Dahl is pretty good, too.

The BFG by Roald Dahl
So why not read him twice?

The Gospel According to the Son by Norman Mailer
Interesting look at Jesus.

Sixth Grade Secrets by Louis Sachar
Once you start with Sachar you have to read some more.

Redesigning the American Lawn
Wouldn’t it be nice if you didn’t have to mow the lawn?

Rebel With a Cause by Franklin Graham
The story of Billy Graham’s eldest son.

Downers Grove by Michael Hornburg
I’ve been reading this in the bookstore for months and finally got my own copy. Not bad.

The Umbrella Man and Other Stories by Roald Dahl
Short stories for adults, some fairly dark.

Flint by Louis L’amour
Ah, nothing like a western.

The Quick and the Dead by Louis L’amour
And then some more.

The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (didn’t finish)
Started out interested, but then he lost me.

A Live Coal in the Sea by Madeliene L’Engle
Excellent novel for adults.

The Memory of Old Jack by Wendell Berry
Berry is so good at doing characters.

Just As I Am by Billy Graham
The details in this are amazing.

Dakota by Kathleen Norris
Good reading after you’ve been through South Dakota. Pitters out at the end.

Walking on Water by Madeliene L’Engle
I should re-read this every year.

A Wind in the Door by Madeliene L’Engle
Her children’s books are so engaging.

S. by John Updike
Had to read some Updike. Amazing writing.

Speaking with the Angel by various, edited by Nick Hornby
Interesting [and lewd] short stories

I Am Relevant by various
Very inspiring book.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Freaky considering the cloning news lately.

The Name by Franklin Graham
Not exactly Pulitzer material here.

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
Great story, better than the movie.

Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard
Good essays from the modern legend.

A Sort of Life by Graham Greene
A pretty dull autobiography that ends before his life gets interesting.

The Power of Positive Thinking for Teens by Mary Lou Carney
The selling power of drivel.

Among School Children by Tracy Kidder
Proof that teachers should be paid like doctors.

The Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver
She keeps getting better and better.

Ordinary Resurrections by Jonathan Kozol
This just makes you angry.

Soul Survivor by Philip Yancey
Introductions to the people who inspired Yancey.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Excellent autobiography, but it ends too suddenly.

Taming of the Shrew by Shakespeare
Now I remember why I don’t like Shakespeare.

Walk On by Steve Stockman
Read it again in preparation for an article, underlined for myself.

Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien
Saw Two Towers, couldn’t remember how it all ended.

Christians Like to Whine

Sometimes I think Christians are all about whining. Look at me, I’m a Christian, and here I am whining. Christians seem to spend more time whining about the things they don’t like than actually doing something to remedy what it is they don’t like. The country is in terrible shape. But rather than run for president, we complain about it. Abortion is rampant, but rather than influencing young women who are most likely to turn to abortion, Christians picket and put bumper stickers on their cars.

It’s become most apparent to me in television. Christians are constantly bemoaning the lack of moral choices while channel surfing. There’s never anything decent on, so the whining starts up again (of course the other side of the coin is that although Christians complain, they go ahead and hypocritically watch the crap anyway). But what I find amazing is that when decent alternatives are offered, Christians hardly bat an eye.

Four times a year the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association buys primetime TV slots in virtually every market across the U.S. and Canada. Three of those times they air two, hour-long re-broadcasts of recent Billy Graham Crusades. They usually feature several songs by different artists and then a message by Billy Graham himself. They’re hyped up church services, piped into your living room on the major channels. We’re not talking about the crummy Christian cable or satellite networks here, we’re talking major network affiliates. And once a year the BGEA buys air time to show one of their World Wide Pictures movies, films that quality-wise are very decent made-for-TV movies. Not only does the Association purchase all this expensive air-time four times a year, but they also put in a response mechanism. 1-800 numbers flash on the screen and hundreds of phone counselors are available across the country to talk with people about the basics of Christianity that they just heard about on TV. As if four times wasn’t enough, last week the Association bought a half-hour of late-night TV time on WB stations across the U.S. to air a TV special geared for teens.

So what do all the whiny Christians who have been begging for quality TV do? Little or nothing. A Billy Graham TV special is no cause for commotion. You’d think pastors would be announcing it and every Christian media outlet would be hyping it. And some do. But most don’t. You hear very little about it, and it’s certainly not for lack of trying. The Association spends a hefty amount on advertising, buying television, print, and web ads.

Now of course I work for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Perhaps I’m a jaded, cynical cubical jockey who likes to shake his fist at the masses. And perhaps I do enjoy a good fist-shaking, but this doesn’t just happen with Billy Graham. Big Idea scored a major first by getting local public broadcasting stations to carry their latest Veggie Tales Christmas special. PBS stations all across the country aired a wholly religious holiday special that explained the meaning of Christmas in language a child can understand. In many areas “The Star of Christmas” aired multiple times during the holiday season.

Yet this was hardly a blip on most Christians’ radar. I didn’t see single mention in any Christian media outlets (and I read most of them). Christians didn’t seem to care. No one was writing columns about how Christians are finally getting what we deserve, finally getting the credit from society, finally earning the respect we have whined for for so long.

And if it’s not straight-out ignoring the TV shows we whined so hard for, we decry any advances Christians make. P.O.D. is constantly questioned for selling out their message and for not feigning excitement at a few Dove nominations. They’ve been on TRL, who cares about GMA? Apparently it’s not good enough to take the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the MTV crowd.

And when Mandy Moore starred as a Christian lead character in a major motion picture, Christians complained that the sinners in the movie were portrayed too realistically. They actually said “shit” and “god damn” a couple times, something you’ll hear in any church parking lot when a parishioner locks their keys in the car.

No, I don’t think Christians actually want to be a well-heard and respected voice of moral clarity in society. We just want to hear ourselves complain.

Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s probably something good on FOX right now.

The Elvis of Christianity

Assuming Jesus doesn’t have the role, Billy Graham is the Elvis of Christianity. Or maybe just 20th century Christianity. Either way, Billy Graham has been the man when it comes to Christianity for more than 50 years.

The guy has preached to more people than anyone in the world, but more than just doing a lot of sermonizing, he’s been able to reach people. When Billy Graham tells you God loves you, for some reason people believe it.

Early on, he was fiery and charismatic. He could thump his Bible with the best of ’em, and ads for his 1949 tent-meeting revival in Los Angeles promised another “sin-smashing” week. He shouted, gesticulated, pointed his finger and was downright more animated than Mickey Mouse.

Over the years his style softened but his message stayed the same. In the past 20 years or so he’s become more of a grandfather than an Elvis. He’s soft-spoken, but filled with love and compassion. You get the impression he hangs out with God and a little something of the supernatural rubs off.

But for all the religious showmanship, the Elvis of modern Christendom truly has a heart for the young. He started preaching with Youth for Christ in the 1940s. In 1958 he published the book Billy Graham Talks to Teen-Agers. It included such classic questions and answers as this exchange about Rock ‘n’ Roll:

“Question: You had other types of music to face when you were young, but how would you regard Rock ‘n’ Roll?

“Answer: I rarely hear any of it, but I do feel that it has gotten out of hand. Anything that whips young people into a frenzy is bad, it seems to me. I often have been disturbed by what has happened to teen-agers [sic] after they listen to it. If I were 17 today I’d stay as far away from it as I could.”

Of course Billy changed his tune over the years. In 1970 he published The Jesus Generation which included the information that on a few occasions Billy Graham himself visited various rock festivals, protests and love-ins in an attempt to understand the masses. Of course he attended “incognito” (meaning he donned a hat, sunglasses, and a big sweater). He also managed to use campy 60s expressions, including trying to “rap” with the younger generation in order to “turn them on” to Jesus.

In the early 1990s he went a step farther and invited Christian hip-hop band dc Talk to perform at Crusades in what has been billed as “The Concert for the NeXt [sic] Generation.” The idea was to bring in current Christian artists that teens actually listen to in an attempt to bring salvation to a younger generation. It worked. Ten years later, almost a million teens have come forward at Billy Graham youth nights.

And now, for the first time in Billy Graham’s 50 plus years of ministry, he’ll be putting on a TV special especially for teens. Unlike other televised Crusades, there will be no choir, no old, gray-haired musicians, and no financial pleas. The 84-year-old Billy Graham will be the oldest thing in sight, but you won’t see the teens glazing over. Billy is surrounded and gladly interrupted with the voices and music of this generation.

“Inside Out” is the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s first TV special for teens. It airs next Friday, December 27 on the WB network in most areas (check your local listings) of the U.S. The half-hour show features the music of gospel star Kirk Franklin, rockers Jars of Clay, and Billy Graham’s faithful standby, dc Talk, interspersed with snippets of Billy Graham’s preaching. The show also includes the voices of real teens, talking about life and God.

The Elvis of Christianity has come along way, and if next Friday is any indication, he’ll continue to leave his mark. It’s been one sin-smashing lifetime.

The End is Near

On Monday Five Iron Frenzy announced the end of an era. They’re calling it quits. It’s kind of sad when your favorite band from high school throws in the towel. But they’ve had a pretty long ride, especially considering that they burst on to the scene with a specialized style of music that really didn’t last long. But you gotta love ’em.

Of course, Five Iron is going out in style. They’re planning to have one final hurrah in 2003 and call it quits at the end of the year. In the spring they plan to release a B-sides of album of goofy songs. The tentative title is “Cheeses of Nazareth.” In the summer they plan to release their final studio album, and then go out one last tour, which will be called “Winners Never Quit: The Farewell Tour.”

Donations Accepted

I don’t know if you noticed or not, but a week or so ago I added a “support” page to these humble thoughts. The idea came from a few places, including my yearning to get a little something out of this site I’ve put so much time into over the years, my staggering debt, and a handful of cyber-beggars, some of whom are raking in money to cover debts a fraction the size of mine.

I’m not looking for a handout. Well, I am, but I intend to provide something in return, thus transforming your alms into payment received. It’s certainly not a formal contract (such obligation can squash creative freedom), but I’ll do my best. Here’s the deal: I’m going to keep drafting these thoughts as long as I deem them valuable (and considering I’ve kept at it for four years, there must be gold in them thoughts), meanwhile the tip jar has been placed on the counter. If you feel so led, donate. If not, don’t. There’s no obligation on either side of the Internet.

My goal is simply to pay down some of my debt. Attending a private college, marrying a fellow loan-happy student, and diving into bottom-of-the-salary pile careers leaves the finances a bit tight. Now I don’t mean this as a sob story. There’s food on the table and presents under the Christmas tree. But an upsettingly large portion of our monthly budget goes to places like Wells Fargo and Citibank, places that really don’t need my money. I’d rather be putting that money into a fund designed to buy a roof for my family.

So that’s the story. I’m not begging and there are no subscriber fees. But tips are appreciated.

In the Middle with Jimmy

I picked up the new Jimmy Eat World DVD EP yesterday and I can now say that I’m the proud owner of the video of “The Middle” (from their self-titled album)This video has to be my favorite sneaky, counter-culture video of all time. The song itself talks about being your own person and not trying to fit in with what society expects. It’s what I needed to hear in high school: “Hey, you know they’re all the same / You know you’re doing better on your own so don’t buy in / Live right now / Just be yourself / It doesn’t matter if that’s good enough for someone else.”

Unlike so many music videos that are just a creative way to show the band performing and give them valuable face exposure, this video has a greater purpose. It’s one of those rare videos that actually expresses what the song is talking about.

The video starts with a girl getting out a car and walking into a party. She takes her jacket off as she walks in to reveal she’s only wearing her underwear. But no problem, every soul at the party is only wearing their underwear. Sounds like a perfect MTV video, huh? But be patient, it gets better. Then this new kid comes to the party, but guess what? He’s fully clothed. He spends most of the video walking around the party trying to find his own place and be accepted, but everyone looks at him weird because he’s not dancing in his under-roos with the rest of them. Fed up, the fully clothed boy heads off to a distant room of the house and starts stripping. Then we see a girl in the next room doing the same thing. Wham. Illumination. There’s this great shot of the two of them taking their pants off and they look up into each others’ eyes. The pants go back on, the rest of their clothes go back on, and they leave the underwear party fully clothed and together.

Now I’m the kind of person who likes to find hidden meaning and dig a little deeper than is probably intended, but for me, that video is the ultimate undercover agent. MTV put it in heavy rotation, yet the whole video undermines what MTV is all about. MTV markets sex and their own liberal worldview. Sure, MTV tries to act like they’re the most hip, understanding, open place there is. They give off this aura of acceptance and tolerance, when really they exist to tell you what’s cool. It’s a glorified form of the high school popularity system. Why do you think they only promote a limited list of proven artists? (and I say promote, because MTV no longer plays music). They don’t take risks and they’re not on the cutting edge. They’re just like mainstream radio, a wasteland that’s been bought out by the big players.

Okay, sorry about that little MTV rant.

“The Middle” is all about standing up against the crowd and being your own person. The video stands up in the sea of bare skin that is MTV and says no, you don’t have to do that to be cool. I’m going to keep my pants on, thank you.

That is counter-culture. And the fact that MTV played it is even better. Now if only the Christian music industry could take a page from that book.

Watch the video of “The Middle” (but also check out the rest of the Jimmy Eat World web site – they use frames so I couldn’t figure out how to link to the video page and keep the rest of the site’s frames).

Bono & Christian Music

“I think the most important thing, the most important element in painting a picture, writing a song, making a movie, whatever, is that it be truthful,” said U2’s Bono in a Mother Jones magazine interview in 1989. Art is about truth. Which is why Madeleine L’Engle described art as an incarnational activity. Too bad Christians often muck it up.

“I think carrying moral baggage is very dangerous for an artist,” Bono said in a Beliefnet.com interview in 2001. “If you have a duty, it’s to be true and not cover up the cracks. I love hymns and gospel music, but the idea of turning your music into a tool for evangelism is missing the point.”

It’s not as simple as the Contemporary Christian Music scene would have us think. Anyone could tell you — and the Rolling Stone critics gladly will — that the number of Jesus’s per minute is not proportional to the greatness of a song. Glossing over the doubts and the difficulties of faith does no service to Christianity.

“Rock ‘n’ roll, and the blues, they’re truthful,” says Bono, again in the 1989 Mother Jones interview. “It says in the Scriptures, ‘Know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’ So, there is this feeling of liberation in the blues for me. There is salvation in the blues.

“[But] Gospel music is about a step of faith, which is a whole different concept. The idea is that you step into a world where, if you like, the kingdom has come. You step into it, and you affirm that. You step into that and you sing! You know, people singing gospel music, they crowded into the churches from the ghettos, to make that ‘Joshua fit the battle of Jericho/And the walls came tumbling down’ step of faith. In their real life, they were living in leaky, rainy conditions, they were living in a sewer. So that’s not the truth of their own experience.

“The blues is the truth of their own experience, therefore closer to this idea of ‘knowing the truth and the truth shall set you free.’ In the Psalms of David, there is this powerful wailing against God. You know, ‘You call yourself God!’ and ‘Where are you when I need you?’ The Psalms of David are the blues, and I get great comfort from that.”

Modern Christian music often seeks to step into that kingdom come and look beyond the sewer of our current conditions for the hope that comes from above. And that’s all well and good. Some days we need to say, “I could sing of your love forever.” But where Christians so often fall short is in admitting that sometimes they don’t feel like singing of God’s love. We don’t sing the blues. We’re afraid to admit our doubts, we’re afraid to show weakness, we’re afraid we’ll look like we don’t have it all together. Which is completely true. And rather than making us look strong in our faith, it makes us look that much weaker.

“I like the anger of the blues,” Bono told Beliefnet, “I think being angry with God is at least a dialogue.” Christians are often too afraid to dialogue with God, something the Bible is full of. Something Jesus did in the garden the night before. We’re too afraid to dialogue with God, and we’re too afraid to dialogue with the unbeliever. Bono went on to say that anger with God and questioning God is all through the blues, and it runs right up to Marilyn Manson. Few Christians would be willing to acknowledge that someone like Marilyn Manson is asking honest questions of God. But Manson great up as Brian Warner in a youth group and a Christian school that lacked the grace to sufficiently answer Warner’s questions. We create our own enemies.

“These are big questions,” Bono said. “If there is a God, it’s serious. And if there isn’t a God, it’s even more serious.”

Bono on…

Selected excerpts from “Pure Bono,” an interview with U2’s Bono in the May 1, 1989 issue of Mother Jones magazine:

Bono on hereos: “My heroes are the ones who survived doing it wrong, who made mistakes, but recovered from them.”

On drugs: “I am the sort of person who needs to take drugs to make me normal.”

On the term “born again”: “I never really accepted the whole ‘born again’ tag. It’s a great term, had it not been so abused. I accepted it on one level, in that I loved the idea of being reborn…I think people should be reborn every day, man! You know, every day again and again and again! At 20 years old, this idea of ‘surrender every day,’ this idea of ‘dying to oneself’ … was so exciting! Then I came to America in 1981, the land of milk and the .357 Magnum. It blew my mind that this word reborn meant nothing. … It had been raped of its real meaning, of its spiritual significance, and instead a political significance was left.”

On rock vs. the church: “I think the most important thing, the most important element in painting a picture, writing a song, making a movie, whatever, is that it be truthful. A version of the truth as you see it. Rock ‘n’ roll, and the blues, they’re truthful. It says in the Scriptures, ‘Know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’ So, there is this feeling of liberation in the blues for me. There is salvation in the blues.

On U2’s music: “We always had this belief that there was something sacred about our music, that it was almost holy”

On Gospel vs. Blues: “Gospel music is about a step of faith, which is a whole different concept. The idea is that you step into a world where, if you like, the kingdom has come. You step into it, and you affirm that. You step into that and you sing! You know, people singing gospel music, they crowded into the churches from the ghettos, to make that ‘Joshua fit the battle of Jericho/And the walls came tumbling down’ step of faith. In their real life, they were living in leaky, rainy conditions, they were living in a sewer. So that’s not the truth of their own experience. The blues is the truth of their own experience, therefore closer to this idea of ‘knowing the truth and the truth shall set you free.’ In the Psalms of David, there is this powerful wailing against God. You know, ‘You call yourself God!’ and ‘Where are you when I need you?’ The Psalms of David are the blues, and I get great comfort from that.”

Are people getting numb? “That is the word I would use. And I think they need a really strong stimulus. … It just seems that a pinprick will no longer pierce. They need a shock treatment.”

On what U2 writes songs about: “There aren’t enough minutes in the day, or days in the year, for us to approach every abuse of human rights, and because, in the end, that isn’t our job anyway. Our own way of dealing with it is to try to get at what is essentially behind all abuse of human rights, to go to the heart of the problem, to the kernel rather than the husk. And that, of course, will always bring me back to the idea of love. Spirituality. That God is love. That love is not a flowers-in-the-hair situation, that it is something you have to make happen. It has to be made concrete.”

On the next album (what would become Achtung Baby): “I have this feeling of starting over, that things have reached their end,” he says after a pause, “and also this notion that while people always talk about being joined in common wants and aspirations, I’m finding the reverse. Finding we’re united in desperation.”