All is Calm

This has been the calmest December of my life.  No holiday parties, parades, or paraphernalia.  No white elephant, secret Santa, or cookie exchanges. This Christmas, all is calm.

But all is not bright.  We’re edging nearer and nearer to the winter solstice and the sun only feebly attempts to show its for a mere six hours a day.  All is calm, but all is dark.

The absence of a frenzy of festivities combined with long shadows make for a very different Christmas experience this year.  These dusky days are teaching me the importance of light and hope, a lesson that’s easy to forget in sunny San Diego.  My advent reading included this prophecy from Isaiah chapter nine – a beautiful reminder that it is in the darkness that the hope of Christ’s coming shines all the brighter.

Isaiah 9:2-4

2  The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.

3 You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil.

4 For the yoke of his burden, and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.

I showed the original “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” cartoon to one of my ESL classes yesterday.  It’s one of my favorites although I failed to anticipate the difficulty in explaining words like “bizilbigs” and “fliffer bloofs”  While most Christmas cartoons today center around a mad rush to save Christmas, this classic reminds us that a celebration of Christmas is not a collection of things but an expression of gratitude, love and hope.

Like the Whos, there will be no whoboohoo bricks or pankunas on Christmas morning this year for Luke and me.  We’ll be celebrating alone on the 25th, amidst a culture that doesn’t celebrate the holidays until New Year’s Eve.  Like much of our experience here in Russia, everything seems so different than what we are used to and yet the important things are still the same.

God’s love has not changed.  His gift of salvation through Jesus Christ is still ours.  Our hope still rests in Him alone who has the power to create worlds and recreate our lives.  I’ll take that over roast beast any day of the year.

Merry Christmas, everyone! Wishing you a day filled with true gladness of heart for the life God has given us, now and eternally.

P.S.  You are welcome for not titling this one “The Reason for the Season”.  So tempting.

Of The World, But Not In It

When my husband and I first moved to Southern California from rural Pennsylvania, we suffered from culture shock.  You couldn’t escape the smell of tacos and citrus trees seem to sprout of sidewalk cracks like weeds.  I also noticed the same bumper sticker on most of the cars parked on the street in the neighborhood and in grocery store parking lots.  

2760795Did we just move into a gang neighborhood?  The bumper sticker contained the acronym “N-T-W” and triggered some kind of childhood flashback I just couldn’t put my finger on.

It finally hit me.  I had a sweatshirt with that symbol on it once, back when it was the cool 7th grade thing to do to wear obscure Christian slogans on your hoodie. N-T-W = Not of This World.  I had no idea the company mass producing those sweatshirts and bumper stickers was still around, let alone infiltrating the the rear view windows of suburban San Diego SUVs.

As Christians, is this the best we can do to engage with our culture in a meaningful manner?  And yes, I mean our culture.  The one we live in.  Not the ambiguous secular culture we love to hate or the Christian culture we pretend to like.  But the culture created by where we live and the people we work with and the neighbors next door.  Are they really going to look at that cryptic bumper sticker and think: “Now that’s someone living with Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior!”

Probably not.  The message is a good one–paraphrased poorly from John 18:36: “Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.’”  But the delivery via bumper sticker falls short.

In his book, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes, cultural apologist Ken Myers argues that rather than being in the world but not of it, Christians are far more likely to be of the world but not in it.

It has not been uncommon for evangelical Christians to give up trying to come to terms with “secular” popular culture, and to boycott it altogether.  But often they have simultaneously endorsed the creation of an extensive parallel popular culture, complete with Christian rock bands and nightclubs, Christian soap operas and talk shows, Christian spy and romance novels, and Christian exercise videos.  They have thus succeeded in being of the world, but not in the world.  The “Christian” popular culture takes all its cues from its secular counterpart, but sanitizes and customizes it with “Jesus language.”

Traditionally, critics of popular culture have focused on it’s content.  You turn on today’s latest hits for 60 seconds and you’ll hear filthy language, objectification of women, questionable sexual morals, and violence. But is the solution to replace crass bumper stickers with our “Christian” ones?  Perhaps the problem is not only the content of popular culture but the way we’re sending and receiving messages with one another in general?

Back in those hoodie wearing days of 7th grade, I was invited to an older girl’s 13 birthday party.  This was a big deal, because I was only 12.  The popular catch phrase of the day was a sarcastic “whatever,” usually accompanied with an eye roll.

This birthday girl’s well-meaning parents picked up on their daughter’s favorite retort and decided to slap some Jesus on it for her birthday present.  They gave her a t-shirt with “whatever” screen printed on it in size 72 font and the remainder of Philippians 4:8 in tiny letters: “…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” They took a popular culture form of t-shirts with sassy sayings on them and attempted to “Christianize” it.  The result?  The Word of God placed on the same level as “I ❤ New York”

It’s the same reason why those cheesy Christian movies always leave a bad taste in our mouths.  And why when my high school youth group leader encouraged us to cut out all non-Christian music from our lives, another mentor suggested that we start listening to country songs to help us make the transition from secular to Christian music.

Later in his book, Ken Myers goes on to ask, “Are there natural virtues of sympathy, of love, of justice, of mercy, of wisdom that can be encouraged by aesthetic experience?  According to Lewis, learning to ‘receive’ a work of art does encourage habits of the heart that have effects in other areas of life.  And now, to put popular culture on the spot, does it have the same capacities?  No, and few people, even its most ardent fans, would claim that it does,” (Myers 97).

This is why being a critic of form and not just content matters.  Intaking messages that are delivered through media that does pass the Philippians 4:8 test makes us more like Christ.  It’s tempting to make rules like: “No music with 5 or more “yeahs” inserted randomly into the lyrics” or “Only read books that are at least 200 pages long,” but that just teaches us how to check things off a list, not how to value and hunger after the truly beautiful things in this world, explicitly Christian or otherwise.

C.S. Lewis provides a useful guideline for form criticism in his book, An Experiment in Criticism by suggesting we do some self-examination about the way we intake everything (movies, paintings, music, writing, etc..) and ask: Am I receiving this or just using it?  He distinguishes between the two this way:

A work of (whatever) art can be either ‘received’ or ‘used’.  When we ‘receive’ it we exert our senses and imaginations and various other powers according to a pattern invented by the artist.  When we ‘use’ it we treat it as assistance for our own activities….’Using’ is inferior to ‘reception’ because art, if used rather than received, merely facilitates, brightens, relives or palliates our life, and does not add to it.   

Most of the forms chosen by pop and Christian culture leave little room for receiving the message.   As Lewis says, we become “so busy doing things with the work that we give it too little chance to work on us.  Thus increasingly we meet only ourselves.”

Lewis’ distinction helps us find forms that encourage us to receive and interact with the message instead of just using it.  Not only will you find yourself a better reader, appreciator of art, and listener, you will also be developing those “natural virtues of sympathy, of love, of justice, of mercy of wisdom.” Using these same forms to glorify our God and share His Gospel encourages active and thoughtful reception of the best message of all time.  I’d say that beats a bumper sticker or t-shirt any day of the week.

Evangelic-who?

Do you remember that point in 11th grade when your English teacher told your class enough already with quoting the dictionary to start every. single. paper! That’s a good principle to follow.

9431792_orig

Oops. Do you forgive me for breaking the cardinal rule of grown-up writing? I hope so, because there really was no other way to start this post. This is the definition Google gave me of the word “evangelical.”

Throughout all my life, when I heard the word “evangelical” I associated it with the word “evangelize” and assumed that this adjective form of the verb must mean “something/someone that evangelizes.” Google seems to agree with me, but every other Christian community I’ve encounter doesn’t.

9870264.jpgAs far as I can deduct, the word “evangelical” in the Christian subculture of colleges, churches, and seminaries means “any type of Christianity that’s not exactly like the Christianity I associate with” For example, here’s a quote from the excellent book, Ordinary: “Whenever a new generation announces its radical and totally unprecedented culture shift, there is an evangelical movement that pressures churches to get on board if they wan to adapt and survive the next wave.” (Horton, 25).

I think “evangelical” has become the catch-all for Christians that are more liberal, more modern, more “relevant”, and more likely to sing Chris Tomlin songs. Yet all these are comparative statements. More liberal than what? What’s the baseline?

Can the evangelical Christian be defined with a certain set of denominations, the year their church was founded, the kind of music their worship includes, or even better, a uniting doctrine or lack thereof? For as much as I hear the word “evangelical” tossed around, I have yet to hear someone concretely set the parameters for who are evangelicals and who are not.**

This blog post is full of question marks because I still have no idea. I’m genuinely curious and inclined to continue to believe evangelical is the adjective form of to evangelize, unless I can be pointed to a robust and generally agreed upon definition. So, my dear readers, comment away! What do you think of when you hear “evangelical”?

As confused as ever,
Chloe

**Disclaimer: I realize that every professor, author, and preacher can’t spend 10 minutes defining all the words they use in their lectures, books, and sermons. However, since the word “evangelical” can both mean “according to the teaching of the gospel” and “Christian churches/movements we don’t agree with” I think it’s worth a footnote.

Christian Living

I used to read those Christian girl magazines when I was younger.  Pages of tips on boys and make-up and modest dress interwoven with articles on how much you should tithe or Christian musicians and the occassional Bible reading plan.  Eventually, the editor canceled my subscription because I had an issue with some of their content and we got into an e-mail argument over it.
Oops.

Anyways, that pretty much shaped my view of Christianity.  Not that it was run by egotistical overly-defensive editors rather, that it was a Christian life which was filled with normal life stuff like applying eyeshadow and doing “Define the Relationship” talks (so maybe thats not so normal) with a bit of Christianity interwoven.  Not the mainstay of your life by any means, but the 15 minutes in the morning for Bible reading, an hour or two for youth group, and tithing at the Sunday morning worship service.

Because I was a good little homeschooled grew-up-in-the-church girl, I followed the expectations and read my Bible in the mornings.  Its a dangerous thing to give a literalist 12 year old who devoured books a Bible.  I was told to believe it and thats exactly what I did.  Except it didn’t paint the same picture my Christian magazines were painting.  It wasn’t telling me which Christian fiction book series about the Amish to read.  It wasn’t telling me how many inches my shorts were supposed to be above the knee.  It was telling me to love always and to pray continually and live every day, no, every second, for the glory of the God.  Something wasn’t meshing for me.

Throughout highschool, I was content with the Christian life.  I really enjoyed it even.  I was content to believe that what I was doing was enough, because after all, one can’t always be praying can they?

I started reading the Bible again.

After a while, I couldn’t keep lying to myself.  I had to accept the Bible for what it said or not at all.   I started reading these books like Do Hard Things and Crazy Love and I finally found someone else that saw a disconnect between Christian living (it sounds like a Marthat Stewart brand) and what the Bible was saying.

Now, its easier than ever to completely live for God.  I’m surrounded by church, discipleship groups, classes on the Bible, prayer groups, worship nights, prayer partners.  It’s also harder than ever to be authentially living and radical in a bubble where the basics are already being met.  I’m only at college for a season.  God didn’t call me to live completely for Him for four years, He called me for life.

I’m reading another radical Christianity book right now.  I watched the Passion 2012 stream last night.  Yet I was talking to my friend and we both agreed that if we actually tried some of the radical love and trust in God that these people talk about, most Christian adults we know would discourage us.

What do they know that we don’t?  I hear these ideas of living fully for God dismissed as a phase young Christians go through.  Do we turn 30 and suddenly get to ignore those radical parts of the Bible?  Does God stop convicting us to live completely for Him?  I see this generation ready to be different but I think we need some adults too.  Its too easy to be caught up in the hype and we need those are wiser to ground us.

I’m tired of Christian living and not living for Christ.