Tuesday, November 30, 2010

God's Deep Presence

So far, I’ve blogged through the first section of Dick Staub’s book, The Culturally Savvy Christian, in which he encourages Christians to be savvy (that is, to get it) about popular culture and the uniquely American brand of Christianity that has been influenced by popular culture, and which may be a part of our own Christian communities. He has harsh words for both popular culture and what he calls “Christianity-Lite”; they are not, however, the rebuke of a self-righteous Luddite, but rather a call to both to rise out of the mire in which they are stuck.

In the second section of the book, Staub urges believers to get serious about pursuing God’s presence in their lives, identifying three characteristics specifically: God’s loving presence, his transforming presence, and his deep presence.

In the chapter on the deep presence of God, Staub calls out today’s evangelical pastors, who, he sees, are more concerned about building their empires than knowing God deeply. “We need fewer entrepreneurial pastors and more pastors who actually know God deeply.” (71) Have we, as pastors, been seduced into pragmatism, defining success by results—numbers of attendees, numbers of salvations, numbers of baptisms—rather than on how deeply and intimately we, and our congregations, know God? Has the siren call of success caused us to run aground? Have we been deceived into believing that celebrity is an effective tool for building God’s kingdom?

God is the point. He has always been the point—the goal. But we evangelicals have substituted heaven for its maker. When doing evangelism, I was trained to ask, “If you were to die tonight, how certain are you that you would go to heaven?” We have made heaven the goal—or worse, escape from hell. But heaven is not our destination. “Popular culture believes that the destination is personal fulfillment, and the church generally teaches that the destination is heaven. In fact, our destination is God, and what we seek is not our inner self, nor do we seek some future bliss; what we seek is reunion with God now.” (72) What our hearts need most is not the promise of a future paradise or the actualization of our unique self, but rather the deep presence of the one who made us from scratch, knows us from Adam, and loves us from the cross.

Our culture and our churches will not be transformed until we are transformed. We must become well, and only people who dig deep wells will become deeply well. “Only God’s deep spiritual, intelligent, creative presence in us will draw people to him. Only the presence of deeply well people will transform popular culture, and only by going deep in God can we be restored to deep wellness.” (79)

God wants you to know him deeply. He wants to rescue you from the triviality and shallowness of popular culture. He wants to take you out of the kiddie pool and show you the ocean. “In God, we find springs of living water, the sustenance of daily bread, light in darkness, truth, the guidance of a shepherd leading his sheep, abundant life beginning now, and, after death, a resurrection that extends this new life into eternity.” (81) You are invited to become, not merely God’s fan or his follower, but his friend. You are invited, not simply to heaven when you die, but to the depths of God’s presence today—which is, in fact, heaven in the here and now. But you must pursue God. You must chase him. You must run after him with all your heart. “The well soul is available to the pursuer of God’s presence, but not to the halfhearted, superficial seeker.” (90)

Monday, November 29, 2010

Popular Culture • Redeemable

The reason Dick Staub is so hard on Popular Culture in his book The Culturally Savvy Christian is because he sees in it the possibility of incredible power for good. These wonderful storytellers could be writing the tales that would guide future generations into lives of wisdom and excellence, but instead they're merely hawking merchandise. The content of Popular Culture could be life-giving and soul-enriching, but instead it is mostly shallow, self-indulgent, hedonistic tripe. It could be a force for spiritual guidance and conversation, but instead it dumbs everything down to the lowest common denominator and invites us to write our own Scriptures and become our own gods.

Popular Culture must be redeemed. Fortunately, it is redeemable. While much of what we find in Popular Culture is the 21st Century version of Baal worship, there are elements which still seek to tell the truth rather than simply get ratings or sell records and merchandise. One piece that comes immediately to mind is one of my favorite TV shows of all time--LOST. I've blogged extensively about LOST, and even taught a Sunday School class using it as a paradigm for how Christians should engage with Popular Culture.

In one of those posts I wrote about my own understanding of how Christians ought to engage with Popular Culture:

My hope is that we can find a middle ground where Jesus is redeeming Culture, where we can find spiritual value in the art, film, music, etc. of the unbelieving world. This is a place where we are not afraid of the media of Hollywood and the entertainment industry, but where we can view it critically and redemptively--where we come to a show like LOST not expecting a full gospel presentation, but rather an artful glimpse of the image of the gospel. If we can manage this perspective, not only will we no longer be so exasperating to a cynical and unbelieving world, but we'll find doors of connection and evangelism opening for us that never would have opened before. Who knows but that God would want to use a silly TV show like LOST to bring some people into his kingdom.

There are a host of redemptive elements within Popular Culture--doors not only for the Gospel, but also for the cultural transformation that comes from telling the truth, pursuing the good, and creating the beautiful. This cultural transformation will not happen, however, unless individuals are transformed. As Staub says, "Any hope of restoring culture starts with restoring the individuals who make culture, and any hope of restoring individuals starts with rediscovering the origin of our capacities in the one who made us." (60) We cannot transform culture unless we ourselves are transformed. We must become well; and the only way to become well is to get serious about God's deep, transforming, and loving presence. More on this to come...

Sunday, November 28, 2010

*deep inhale of surprise, delight, and anticipation*

Okay, I'm really, really excited about this. The Violet Burning haven't put out a new record since 2006, and now they're putting out 3! Ahhhh!!! *head explosion*

the violet burning from the violet burning on Vimeo.

rock is dead from the violet burning on Vimeo.

the violet burning from the violet burning on Vimeo.

the violet burning from the violet burning on Vimeo.

3 albums. 33 songs. Coming in December.

Popular Culture • Spiritual Delusions

In the first chapter of his book, The Culturally Savvy Christian, Dick Staub describes the popular culture in which we live as having four dynamics: General Superficiality, Soullessness, Powerful Influence, and Spiritual Delusions. In previous posts I covered General Superficiality, Soullessness, and Powerful Influence. Today we'll finish this miniseries off with the Spiritual Delusions of popular culture.

Spiritual Delusions

“The teacher and the preacher tell the stories. The stories shape our beliefs and values. The beliefs and values guide our choice of an identity. The identity determines our association with a community or tribe. This entire system was once the domain of religion, but today, media culture has displaced religion as the mediator of the spiritual journey. How reliable is this new guide?” (21) Where are we going? Who are we becoming? By what principles is popular culture guiding us? Who has drawn up the map? When and how and why does popular culture possess the moral authority to be our guide? The answer to these questions is frightening.

“Today’s spiritual delusions are the product of misguided beliefs embedded in the sixties credo: I am the supreme arbiter of all things. Experience is better than reason. Feelings trump traditional mores. If it feels good, do it. Relativism trumps absolutes. There is no truth; there is only what is true for you in a given situation. Expression is more important than imaginative capacity or beauty. All authority and every institution must be questioned. You can’t trust anybody over thirty.” (22) To reasonable people, this philosophy—this religion—is easily refuted; but popular culture has taught us to abandon reason for relativistic pragmatism (Whatever works!) and self absorbed emotionalism (Whatever!). Rather than freeing us, this religion traps us within the worst of ourselves. It keeps us juvenile and shallow—exactly the types of people who make the best consumers!

The so-called pursuit of freedom of the 1960s has given way to the religion of affluence in the 21st century, something called “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”. It is moralistic because people believe that if they are good they will go to heaven. (What is good? What is heaven?) It is therapeutic because people believe that God wants them to be, above all, happy; he acts not as God or King or Lord, but as a Cosmic Therapist who helps you work through your issues. (What does it mean to be happy? How do we become whole? How do we become well?) It is deism because this God is distant and only involved in what you want him to be involved in. (What sort of God waits at your beckon call?)

Popular culture teaches us that we don’t need God to be spiritual. In fact, we don’t need religion or church or any other human being on the face of the earth to be spiritual people. We can love others well enough by ourselves, thank you very much! It tells us that we are the masters of spirituality—that we can pick and choose what is true for us and what works best for us. At the heart of the spiritual delusions of popular culture lies syncretism, the fusion of elements of different religions into one, personalized religious system. Everyone gets to write their own Scriptures and be their own priest and god. After all, I am the supreme arbiter of all things.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Popular Culture • Powerful Influence

In the first chapter of his book, The Culturally Savvy Christian, Dick Staub describes the popular culture in which we live as having four dynamics: General Superficiality, Soullessness, Powerful Influence, and Spiritual Delusions. In previous posts I discussed General Superficiality and Soullessness, and today I'm writing about popular culture's Powerful Influence.

Powerful Influence

Staub assigns roles traditionally fulfilled by religion and education—that of preacher and teacher—to popular culture. “Popular culture systematically preaches and teaches, informing its audience about which issues matter most, fulfilling an educational role once occupied by schools and a spiritual role once filled by religion.” (16) People today know Beyonce better than Moses. They’ve memorized the lyrics of Eminem but haven’t a clue about the poetry of David. They sing along with Lady Gaga but don’t know how to pray with Jesus, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”. Who are the teachers? Who are the preachers? Who are the influencers of this culture? They are our celebrities. Would you trust them to watch your kids?

Popular culture wields such power and influence because of the inherent power of Story, and the best storytellers live and work in Hollywood, where stories are told not for enrichment or education, but for money. “Told well, truthful, wise stories can provide insight, understanding, and illumination for a path to a richer life for all who hear, understand, and embrace them; misguided stories, however, can lead an entire population astray. People who believe they know the truth need to realize that cultural influence requires more than knowing the story; it requires telling it thoughtfully and artistically. Never has there been a greater need for wise, gifted storytellers who understand the story we are in and can communicate a better way gracefully and truthfully.” (18) Cultures become corrupt when they tell their stories for money instead of for the passing on of wisdom and communal identity.

Popular culture is, inherently, identity-forming. The stories and rituals of a culture provide meaning and identity for individuals within the community. Relationships within the community formed character in younger generations. “In the past, we imitated individuals who embodied our core values and whom we respected because we had observed their application of those values in everyday life. Today, our identities are often formed more superficially by adopting outward appearances and behaviors without regard for the internal values held by the originator, who, to us, is disembodied. Thus, people whom we do not know and cannot observe closely are influencing our life choices.” (20) No longer are our character and identity shaped by parents, teachers or pastors. All authority has been called into question. Now we wear masks, pretending to belong to the tribe of our favorite celebrity, never thinking that it is they who wield the most power and authority over us, dictating that we become shallow, mindless, soulless consumers of the products they sell to prop up their pop empires. They don’t care about you. They don’t know you. They don’t want to talk to you. To them, you are one of the faceless, nameless masses they control with a word and a rhythm. They tell you to rebel against authority. Perhaps it is time to ask where the power truly lies in this culture.

Indeed, the question must be asked: “What is the future of a society in which our identities are shaped by a multitude of impersonal, uncaring, commercially motivated forces instead of by people who know and love us?” (20) The answer, to borrow from Tolkien, is that we become Gollum. When our identities are shaped by an uncaring force we become less than human, slowly wasting away into the soulless, superficial depths of the kiddy pool until we drown because of the atrophy of our intellectual, spiritual, and moral strength and that apathy that overwhelms when popular culture has removed from us our will to change and grow.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Black Friday

Today is Black Friday, and every year before this one I spent this "national holiday" sitting comfortably at home, smugly congratulating myself on not being one of those exhausted consumers scratching and clawing their way through the stampeding masses on safari for the latest toy, television, or gadget. Every year I scoffed at the idea of waking up at 3am to stand in line in the cold November air, waiting to rush madly into the local superstore in a vain attempt to quell my own (and now, my children's) materialistic desires. Every year I refused to participate in this cavalcade of consumerism--every year, that is, until this one.

My wife is very much not like me. I hate crowds. She thrives on the chaos of a packed parking lot and the buzz of a crowded mall. I hate shopping. It breathes life into her soul. But I love my wife very much, and because I love her very much, I found myself at a WalMart teeming with shoppers at 12 midnight on Black Friday.

We all stood idly by large pallets covered in wrapping paper, waiting for the signal to come over the intercom that the clock had struck 12:01 and the free for all could begin. My pallet contained Lego sets of 405 pieces for a scant $15. Cyrus loves Legos. This is a great value. I can purchase his happiness at Christmas and pass on the savings to Eisley and Ezekiel. These were the thoughts running through my head when an unintelligible voice cackled over the intercom and my fellow consumers began tearing through the wrapping paper. There was a rush from behind me as arms came flailing through every available opening grabbing at the blue boxes (the green ones were Duplo--lame) full of Junior's happiness. I grabbed my box and moved away as quickly as I could, searching out a part of the store less populated by overly motivated parents.

When all was said and done, Breena and I managed to get what we came for (and a little bit extra, of course--that's how they get you!) without doing too much damage to our bodies, our bank account, and possibly our souls. This is not something I would ever do by myself or for myself. I participated in Black Friday because I love my wife and I wanted to spend time with her in her world. And because of that, it was fun.

Black Friday isn't for me. Maybe it's for you. It's certainly a smart consumer choice if you're willing to sacrifice some sleep and physical comfort. You can get your Christmas shopping done and spend less money doing it. But, for me, Black Friday isn't about savings, it's about love. I love you Breena!

Popular Culture • Soullessness

In the first chapter of his book, The Culturally Savvy Christian, Dick Staub describes the popular culture in which we live as having four dynamics: General Superficiality, Soullessness, Powerful Influence, and Spiritual Delusions. On Wednesday I wrote about General Superficiality, and today we'll cover Soullessness.


Popular culture is soulless, and the more we thoughtlessly and passively engage with it, the more we surrender our own souls to it. “Though often devoid of spiritual, intellectual, or aesthetic substance, popular culture nevertheless thrives because the sustaining forces of today’s entertainment culture are technological and economic, not spiritual, ideational, or artistic. Despite its mind-numbing shallowness, popular culture appears alive and brimming with vitality because impersonal commercial interests are propping up and exploiting today’s spiritually, intellectually, and artistically anemic enterprise.” (11) Popular culture is not about art, knowledge, education, enrichment, beauty, or truth; it is about money.

Teenagers are uniquely targeted by popular culture because it thrives on youth. “Eight year olds are persuaded that they are teenagers already and then the twenty-five year olds are convinced that they are still teenagers. …For the first time in the history of our species the most vital, active years of a person’s growing life are dedicated to one major goal—self indulgence.” (Robert Bateman, 12)

“Humans have been transformed from producers to passive consumers.” (13) You are a bank account. Worse yet, you are a credit card—consuming more and more of the products of popular culture with money you don’t have. You are not a valuable member of culture because you produce something worthwhile or because you pursue the good, the beautiful, and the true. Your value is directly tied to your capacity for consumption. “The driving force behind the emergence of popular culture…is not a love of artistry or the good, the true, and the beautiful; it is the cultivation of a sizable, wealthy, impulsive generation groomed to be consumers from the cradle to the grave.” (13)

The whole exercise is ridiculous! “We buy things we don’t need, made by people who don’t know or care about us, with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t really like!” (14) Popular culture promises us abundance—life to the full!—but in the end it dehumanizes us. From the perspective of popular culture, we are not people seeking depth and enrichment, we are a demographic and a marketing target. The soullessness of popular culture strips us of our humanity.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Popular Culture • General Superficiality

In the first chapter of his book, The Culturally Savvy Christian, Dick Staub describes the popular culture in which we live as having four dynamics: General Superficiality, Soullessness, Powerful Influence, and Spiritual Delusions. In this post I'll discuss what he says about General Superficiality, and will deal with the other dynamics in future posts.

General Superficiality

Staub describes popular culture as divisionary entertainment and mindless amusement. Too much of our time is spent in front of the computer or television, minds turned off, absorbing media that is free of useful knowledge or edifying messages—free, in fact, of anything that is good, beautiful, or true. More and more, we exist to be entertained. With every passing moment of this divisionary entertainment and mindless amusement, our real lives are disappearing into a bottomless pit of entertainment.

Reality television has, in fact, managed to marry divisionary entertainment with real life. “As we increasingly morph real life into entertainment and vice versa, entertainment is becoming our central reality, and real life is becoming subsumed in our entertainments.” (7) There is no longer a line between real life and entertainment, reality and fantasy. In a recent seminar at USC, Bill Nye the Science Guy collapsed while approaching the podium. Rather than rushing to his aid, every student in the room pulled out their cell phones, tweeting and updating their facebook statuses about the events unfolding before them. Although a man’s life was in danger in their physical presence, these students were so disassociated from physical presence that they could not distinguish between reality and entertainment.

The superficiality of popular culture is most clearly expressed in our obsession with celebrity. These days, you don’t need to do anything great to become famous; people are known for being known. One young woman described our celebrity-centered culture this way: “Those of us who are fans, we use these celebrity lives in ways that transform our own. I sometimes think that these are our gods and goddesses, these are our icons, and their stories become kind of parables for how to lead our lives.” (10) The pervasiveness of our superficial, celebrity-driven culture demands that we consider it thoughtfully. “What are the implications of knowing more about what’s going on in the personal lives of celebrities than we do about our neighbors, coworkers, or, worse yet, our own family members?” (10)

The superficiality of popular culture, coupled with its gluttonous consumption by the masses, is retarding the moral, spiritual, intellectual, and creative development of the majority of individuals within our society. We do not know how to think. We do not know how to behave. Our art is shallow and derivative. We believe in only ourselves. Popular culture has convinced us that our lives are not part of a Greater Story, but that we are the masters of our destiny, if only we would believe in ourselves and follow our hearts. It has removed robust theology and philosophy from the public discourse, replacing them with the paper thin platitudes of self-absorbed emotionalism. Reason has been abandoned for waffling, relativistic pragmatism. We are drowning in kiddy pools.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


I've just finished reading Dick Staub's excellent book, The Culturally Savvy Christian. The tagline for the book declares it to be "a manifesto for deepening faith and enriching popular culture in an age of Christianity-Lite", and indeed it is. Staub's thesis centers around Evangelicalism's capitulation to the ways and forms of popular culture, which has resulted in a weak, insipid form of the faith he calls "Christianity-Lite". The way out, he postulates, is to deepen our faith and become deeply well, enriched people who are then able to enrich culture.

This is such an excellent book that, rather than giving it a one-time review, I'd like to spend more time with the material. I'll begin with this quote from the Introduction:

We've arrived at a crossroads in faith and culture. The Christian community has degenerated into an intellectually and artistically anemic subculture, and the general population is consuming an unsatisfying blend of mindless, soulless, spiritually delusional entertainment. We are caught between a popular culture attempting to build art without God and a religious culture that believes in a God disinterested in art.

The American Music Awards were on TV this past Sunday, and I watched some of it with my wife. The terms mindless, soulless, and spiritually delusional apply nicely to the dreck I saw celebrated that night. Neither a note of the music nor a syllable of the lyrics was true. It was all false--an ecstatic, hedonistic, autotuned Bacchae exalting the worst and most deceptive elements of our culture. And this is the culture to which Evangelicals seek to be relevant--to imitate and sanctify, if such a thing were possible.

We Christians are, in large part, intellectually and artistically vacuous because we have followed popular culture down the spiraling whirlpool of eros-replacing-agape, emotional sentamentalism, self-defining reality, and the victory of style of substance. We have elevated product over process and justified the means by the ends, which we have devastatingly misinterpreted. Though we set out to transform popular culture, we have been transformed by it. We have turned our pastors into celebrities, elevating them to god-like status while they produce to our liking, but then discarding them with the Paris Hiltons and Brittany Spearses of the popular culture machine when we are done with them. We have exchanged discipleship for consumerism, true community for celebrity-association, and transformation for trendsetting. We have turned the deep and vibrant faith of Augustine and Aquinas and Luther and Lewis into "mindless, soulless, spiritually delusional entertainment."

As a result, we are an insecure and fearful people embracing a decontextualized faith-substitute. We are biblically illiterate. We are theologically anemic. We are intellectually vacuous. We are artistically derivative. We are, in a word, unwell. This is not the way the people of the creating, redeeming, resurrecting God ought to be.

Monday, November 8, 2010


An excerpt from "Not the Way Its Supposed To Be", by Cornelius Plantinga:

What are some features of this [spiritual] flourishing? As Christians see her, a spiritually whole person longs in certain classic ways. She longs for God and the beauty of God, for Christ and Christlikeness, for the dynamite of the Holy Spirit and spiritual maturity. She longs for spiritual hygiene itself--and not just as a consolation prize when she cannot be rich and envied instead. She longs for other human beings: she wants to love them and to be loved by them. She hungers for social justice. She longs for nature, for its beauties and graces, for the sheer particularity of the way of a squirrel with a nut. As we might expect, her longings dim from season to season. When they do, she longs to long again.

What do you long for?

The point of our lives is not to get smart or to get rich or even to get happy. The point is to discover God's purposes for us and to make them our own. The point is to learn ways of loving God above all and our neighbor as ourselves and then to use these loves the way a golfer uses certain checkpoints to set up for a drive. The point is to be lined up right, to seek first the kingdom of God (Matt. 6:33), to try above all to increase the net amount of shalom in the world.

What is the point of your life?

To glorify God is to do these things, and, by doing them, to make God's intentions in the world more luminous and God's reputation more lustrous. To enjoy God forever is to cultivate a taste for this project, to become more and more the sort of person for whom eternal life with God would be sheer heaven.

Do you long for eternal life with God? Would that be heaven for you?

Saturday, November 6, 2010


While putting Eisley and Cyrus to bed tonight, I asked them if they were glad that I was back from Charlotte. "Yeah!" they shouted.

"Did you miss me?"

"Yeah, we missed you." Then Cyrus asked, "Daddy, why were you in Charlotte?"

"I had to go to Charlotte because my Uncle David died," I replied.

"Why did he die?" Cyrus asked.

"Well," I stalled, searching for an explanation that would satisfy a 4-year-old. "He got old and sick, and then he died."

"Did he get sick because he ate lots of junk food?" he asked. Mommy is clearly brainwashing him.

"No," I said, "sometimes we just get old and sick, and our bodies can't live anymore."

"Why did he get old and sick?" Eisley asked.

Not wanting to scare her about death or say something stupid like, "Oh Eisley, we all get old and sick and then we die, even Mommy and Daddy"--that would not have gone over well--I searched for an answer but couldn't think of one. So, instead, I said, "Oh, honey, sometimes people just get old and sick."

Then Cyrus asked the clincher. "Did he have Jesus in his heart when he got sick?" What do you say to that?

"Yes he did," I said. But to be honest, I'm not very confident of that.

"Will Jesus heal his body?" Cyrus asked.

"Someday he will," I told him.

"I want to go to heaven with Jesus and God and everyone!" Cyrus said, excitedly.

"I want to go to heaven because Jesus loves everybody!" Eisley shouted.

So then we all prayed; Eisley first, then Cyrus, then Daddy. We thanked God for our friend Sophia, for almond butter sandwiches, and for bringing Daddy safely home from Charlotte. And they asked me to sing "Jesus Loves Me", which of course I did; and for the first time I can ever remember, they both joined in. And we sat there in the dark, singing about how much Jesus loves us. I choked back tears as I thought about Heaven, and how this moment was a little, priceless taste of eternal life.

Thursday, November 4, 2010


I'm in Charlotte, NC, today. My uncle David died last week and the funeral is tomorrow. He was a great guy, although I only got to see him about once a year. He was always ready with a joke and I can only remember him laughing and smiling. His health took a turn for the worse about five years ago, and he finally succumbed last Thursday. He will be missed.