Saturday, January 15, 2011

Tolerance Isn't Just About How Much Beer You Can Drink

I have one more assumption that requires a more in-depth look:

We all have a "tolerance level." When talking about engaging in cultural artifacts like movies, books, music, television, etc. this means that each individual can put up with a leveled amount of certain components (sex, language, gore, violence, and more) in a book, movie, television, music, and anything else. Some of you have a rather "low" tolerance level and, thus, can put up with only a little bit, if any at all, of these components. Others have a "high" tolerance level, which means you can put up with a large amount of these components. Some have such a high tolerance level that they do not mind any use, excessive or moderate, of these components. I must point out that these statement are not value statements. If you have a low tolerance for such things, that's perfectly fine. But equally fine are those who have a high tolerance level. Your tolerance level simply guides you and informs you when you are confronted with a cultural artifact.

Now when I say tolerance level, I do not mean acceptance level. This is key! Our American culture has made large strides to change the meaning of tolerance to be the same as acceptance. They are not the same! An acceptance level would be a value statement. It would mean that I could put some sort of morality spin on engagement with the culture. In other words, someone who has a low acceptance level could say they are "better" morally than someone who has a high acceptance level. After all, the one with the lower level avoids sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll, right! If you think about it, many people in our society do this very thing. Many of them, sadly, are Christians. They denounce those who may watch a sophomoric comedy (like Jackass or The Simpsons) or those who watch movies of violence (like Saving Private Ryan or Saw). All the while, they set themselves up on a pedestal, because they "only" watch "Little House on the Prairie" or "Touched by an Angel." However, this is not what I mean by tolerance level. The classic example I have for tolerance is the crying baby. All of us have experienced a crying baby while we're trying to enjoy a nice quiet flight, car ride, or even church service. What do we do? Do we get up and yell at the baby? Do we tell ourselves that the crying does not bother us? No! We tolerate it. We may not like the baby crying or screaming, but we "look" past it. We don't let it affect us.

This is what I mean by tolerance levels. I, for example, have a rather high tolerance level. I can enjoy artifacts that have cursing, sex jokes, violence, and more. I can do this, not because I accept cursing, sex jokes, violence, and more, but because I can look past it. I don't let it affect me. To be clear, I'll say it once again, if you have a low tolerance level, that's fine too!

I must say, however, that we should all have a level of tolerance. In fact, we should all strive to improve our tolerance level. After all, a tolerance level allows you to meet sinners where they are in their life. Think about it. If you go to a football game at a friend's house, chances are you'll have to tolerate a bit of dirty language. If you talk to your friends at work, chances are you'll have to tolerate a bit (or a bunch) of gossip. If you talk to teenagers, chances are you'll have to tolerate a good bit of sexual innuendo. If I remember, Jesus did it too:

Luke 5:30-32: "But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belong to their sect complained to his disciples, 'Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?' Jesus Answered them: 'It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.'"

In Luke 19, the story of Zacchaeus testifies further (19:7-10): "All the people saw this (Jesus staying with Zacchaeus) and began to mutter, 'He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.' But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, 'Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.' Jesus said to him, 'Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to see and to save what was lost."

These passages show, obviously, that Jesus hung out with people who didn't share his beliefs or morals. He ate dinner and spoke with them all the time. He tolerated their sins, but he didn't accept them. He makes it clear that the people sin and need to repent.

A friend of mine suggested that distinguishing between tolerance and acceptance has wide application. He used the so-called homosexuality debate as his example. Christians are often shy or scared about talking to people about homosexuality. The old adage of "Love the sinner, hate the sin," while true, is a bit outdated. It also assumes people know what sin is and accept it as a premise. However, in today's world, most people do not accept the concept of sin, even if they know what it means, which is rare. Therefore, he suggested, we must reevaluate our use of language. Though I certainly agree, I believe this should also be our approach to engaging our entertainment culture. Of course, we are not trying to witness to movies, television shows, books, etc., but we are trying to reach the people who watch and enjoy those things. The bottom line is that if we cannot tolerate the things we do not approve of, whether they are sins or not and whether they are in cultural artifacts or real-world relationships, then we lose an angle of approach towards evangelism.

Monday, January 10, 2011

We All Make Assumptions

Writing my last post about the movie "Easy A", I realized that my assumptions might not be as obvious as I had hoped they would be. Therefore, this post is to lay out my assumptions.

1) This may be obvious, but I cannot discuss everything about a particular movie, tv show, book, etc. As a result, I must choose what to talk about. This is not to say that there are not and cannot be other important (or possibly more important) points to draw from a particular cultural artifact (movie, book, tv show, etc.). For example, I discussed the portrayal of Christians and, by extension, Christ when I examined "Easy A." However, there were many good portrayals of the family, a good moral lesson about lying, and several other approaches I could have taken. This is simply the nature of what I am doing. I can only type so much until you (or I) get bored and move on to something else. Furthermore, I assume you don't really want a full point-by-point examination of the artifact. I assume that ruins it for you, as it does for me.

Anyway, you might be asking, how I choose what to discuss. In response, I say I will always try to find points that help you "flex your filtering muscle." What does this mean? Well, anyone who watches "Easy A" knows the lesson being conveyed by the movie is "You shouldn't lie." However, they may not know that the portrayal of Christians makes a statement about Christ. This statement may or may not be intended by the writers, director, or actors, but that does not really matter. The statement, I believe, is being made anyway. So, my hope is that once you know this, you can filter that garbage and enjoy the movie and appreciate the good things it says and does. Therefore, hopefully you will learn how to use your filtering muscle and be able to do it more and more.

2) I assume you have already or plan to see the movie or television show, read the book, or heard the music, etc. This is important, because it tells you what this blog is NOT. It is not a collection of reviews. I am not in the business of telling you what artifacts to engage and what artifacts not to engage. Frankly, you do not need such a website/blog. You don't need someone making decisions for you, do you? Of course not! In fact, who am I (or anyone else, for that matter) to tell you what is acceptable in the culture and what is not? I once listened to a reviewer who told me to avoid a certain movie. I listened to him, because his argument was good, and went to see another movie. When I did finally see the movie I was convinced to avoid, I was surprised to find myself deeply impacted by it. The person who told me to avoid the movie was wrong. He didn't know it and I don't blame him for it. However, I tell you this, because I will not be using this blog to tell you what to do. I hope to help you understand what you engage so you can better decide what you want to and can engage.

Furthermore, because I assume you've seen the movie, I may include "spoilers" in my filtering process. I will, however, be sure to inform you at the beginning of the post if I give something away that may ruin the movie if you have not engaged with the artifact. Finally, even if you have not seen a particular movie, television show, or read a particular book, etc., you can certainly still benefit from the posts. You will be able to anticipate that which I point out and work on filtering it.

3) I assume the entertainment culture is unavoidable. Individuals are able to avoid it for a variety of reasons, even small cultures (like a particular church or group) may avoid it. Individuals or small cultures may even condemn it. However, the entertainment culture is not going anywhere. Why not? Well, I may someday explain a deeper reason why entertainment will never go away, but money will suffice as a reason for now. And money is indeed a very good reason for entertainment, as we know it, to be around. Americans spent $10.57 billion on movies (in theaters alone), $1.5 billion on music, and $405.4 million on video games last year. Though I cannot back this up quite as well, I think it is safe to assume Americans spent at least $25 billion on entertainment last year, if you include DVD sales, cable, internet, and book sales. I know that estimate is probably pretty low too. What do you make of these figures? Well, you can either deny or accept the reality that people spend a good amount of time, energy, and money in the entertainment culture. If you accept it, then the question that follows is, "What are you going to do about it?" My hope is this blog will help you know what to do and prepare you to do it: witness.

4) Another assumption of mine needed more space to discuss. It discusses tolerance.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Our Culture Isn't Stupid, Though It Is Wrong

You know, our culture isn't stupid. It is actually quite intelligent much of the time. Once and a while a movie, book, or television show comes along that insightfully points out the problems Christians can have. "Easy A" is such a movie. In it, Christians are shown to be judgmental and hypocritical. Marianne, played by Amanda Bynes, spends the movie judging Olive, played by Emma Rose, for supposedly losing her virginity. At the same time, Marianne gossips and spreads a lie, made by Olive, throughout the entire school. Christians are also shown as selfish and mean. Nina, another Christian, openly derides and insults Olive in the middle of class for being a "whore." When Olive tries to comfort Marianne, their relationship is restored only because Marianne believes she has "turned" Olive from a whore to a Christian. The Christians also impose their beliefs on everyone. They change the mascot from the Blue Devils to the Woodchucks, because they believe having Blue Devils as mascots is devil worship. Finally, Christians are shown as detached and out of touch. They remain in their own little group and avoid everyone else, especially those who really need community with loving people. They also seem to be oblivious to the condition of their own lives. Marianne's boyfriend (another Christian) is sleeping with the school counselor and Marianne keeps bringing him to the counselor so that she can "comfort" the student over his parents' divorce.

Sound harsh? Though the examples are probably pretty extreme, who amongst us can say we aren't judgmental, hypocritical, mean, selfish, imposing, detached, and oblivious some or all the time? Our culture isn't stupid. It recognizes all of these things amongst Christians and though some of them may not be true for one particular person or denomination, Christianity as a whole is guilty for all of these things. And this movie reminds us that people see it.

"Easy A" uses these insightful observations to suggest that because Christians are useless, God is useless too. This is best observed in the confession scene. After Olive realizes her lies have caused problems in her life and the lives of those around her, she turns to God for help. To do so, she goes to a church and enters the confession booth. She precedes to pour out her heart and soul, culminating with the declaration: "Alot of people hate me, now. I kinda hate me too." The response? Silence. Flash forward to the scene where a teacher realizes his wife (the counselor) is cheating on him with a student. As he walks through the campus, he passes the Christians, who are in their own world singing, "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen." All the while, the teacher is in obvious pain and needs real help. Implied here is the Christians are caught up in their own world, that they are too selfish, to recognize the real pain this teacher now lives with. More than saying things about Christians, these scenes say something about Jesus. The implication behind both of these scenes is that Jesus is equally as useless. When the characters needed him most, God is silent. He did not comfort Olive as she realized the pain her lies caused other people and the damage it had done to her life. God was not there for the teacher who needed love and understanding from His people.

But, you know, our culture is wrong. God is not useless. God knows the pain our sin causes us and other people in our lives. He knows what it is like to be shattered by the betrayal of those we love. He knows we need people who love and understand us. How? Because he experienced the pain of sin, the betrayal of friends, and the absence of love. As a result, God is not useless. He does not sit in silence as we suffer. He does not ignore us when we need love and understanding. He is always beside us as we suffer. He is always suffering with us.

In summary, "Easy A" reminds us that we aren't perfect. As Christians, we are often judgmental, oblivious, and hypocritical. It reminds us that we need to rely on the Holy Spirit to be better witnesses to those around us. More important, it shows us that people are in pain and need to know that God is not useless. Rather, God is always beside us.

As a practical note, I have enabled the comments for those who do not have a blogger (google) account. Anyone can now comment, either anonymously or by typing his/her name. I hope some of you comment so I can improve my posts!

"Easy A," most notably starring Emma Stone and Amanda Bynes, begins when a high-school girl, Olive, lies about having a date in order to get away from her friend's camping trip. When her friend returns from the trip, Olive's lie grows from one little white lie to a full-fledged system of lies. The movie culminates when Olive realizes her lie has gotten out of hand and cannot bear what it has done to her life.

Though the movie did only somewhat well in theaters, the movie is a smash hit amongst many people. According to, Easy A sold $58.5 million worth of tickets in the United States and ranks as #55 on the top grossing films in 2010. What surprised me is that many people said this movie was the best movie of the year when all the year-end lists started coming out last month. To be honest, I had no intention to see this movie until I heard these lists.

The Christian reviews for this movie surprised me. I expected most Christian reviewers to dismiss this movie completely, because of all the sex, vulgarity, and profanity. However, most reviews praised this movie for pointing out the high-school culture of judgment and hypocrisy, which they say is visible in all spheres of our world. One review said, "You gotta see it! Just in the way that it pokes at the hypocrisy in our culture." Though I'm not entirely sure what he means by that, it is clear that most Christian reviews pay no attention to the ridiculously poor characterization of the Christian evangelical. If they do, they may mention how that the characterization is outdated, incorrect, or, most notably, a true characterization, but of "other" evangelicals.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Eat, Pray, Love

"Eat, Pray, Love" is a movie most notably starring Julie Roberts. The story began its life as a book of the same title by Elizabeth Gilbert. The book remained 187 weeks on the New York Times best-sellers list. I have not read the book. The movie, however, follows Elizabeth as she travels through Italy, India, and Indonesia in search of herself or, more specifically, in search of new pieces of her life, which she believes need (re)definition. My guess is that the author intended to link Italy to "Eat," India to "Pray," and Indonesia to "Love." Therefore, each part of her search feels like a mini-chapter, culminating with a new definition, or realization, of "Love," which ironically set her on the quest to begin with.

A standard Christian review of this movie might point out that divorce and premarital sex is portrayed as acceptable in many different situations, that the quest is a glorification of selfishness ("ego-centric"), that extravagance ("bourgeois decadence") is beneficial, or that Eastern Spirituality is used as the catalyst to fulfill her pilgrimage. A standard Christian review may also comment on the universality of the desire to "reset," or reshape, one's life and that this is a good thing, because it deals with the real feeling we all have at times.

I, however, will take none of these approaches.

For me, the movie does a very good job at expressing the pain we all feel in our lives. Naturally, the main character, Liz, feels the pain of her divorce and the pain her divorce has caused her husband, however rational and reasonable she believes the divorce to be. Liz encounters an older man in India who is pained by his own mistake with alcohol and the divorce that it caused. Liz befriends a young lady who fled an abusive marriage without any means to support her or her child. In Indonesia, she falls in love with a man who has also suffered from a divorce, but realizes and feels the pain it caused his children. In fact, a backdrop of pain colors everything being learned and enjoyed. Most important, the pain of each individual draws them all into community with one another; everyone feels a sense of worth belonging to their communities. We see this best in Italy, where one such community cook and enjoy a traditional American Thanksgiving.

Take note of this sense of pain and community. These are not evil and should not be ignored! Movies can help us understand our human condition (pain) and gifts from God (community) even more. Particularly, "Eat Pray Love" does a fantastic job of fostering sympathy for the pain of the characters and  an even better job of creating a desire for a community.

All is not well in this movie. Specifically, in India, Liz becomes a part of a community in order to learn how to meditate (the "Pray" of the title) properly and effectively. However, the lesson expressed in the movie is not about pray, but about forgiveness. Liz's mentor pushes her to forgive herself and even suggests she not worry about earning forgiveness from others, at least until she forgives herself. This culminates on the rooftop where her mentor tells of his pain in life and his inability to forgive himself even after his many years of trying. He says, "You stay here until you forgive yourself. Everything else will take care of itself." Liz is then confronted with the thing she needs to forgive herself for: her divorce.

What troubles me is Liz does not recognize that she was wrong for divorcing her husband. She makes rationalizations and bargains with her husband, who is really herself, in order to solve the problem of her pain. Here is the issue. She has not achieved forgiveness for herself. She has only found a way to hide her pain. It may always be effective of hiding the pain, even from herself, but reasoning with her divorce (sin) will never solve the real issue. Sin, and the pain it has caused, will always resurface in your life. You cannot hide from it, you cannot run from it, and you cannot defeat it. Only one has really see our sin and only one has been able to defeat our sin and the pain (and death) it causes: Jesus Christ. Here we come to the problem with movies, books, television shows, etc. They create a world where there is no tomorrow. We do not see what has happened to Liz since or will happen to her in the future. Though we cannot peer into her future, it is safe to say that her divorce will come up again and again. She will be required to deal with the reality of what she did. And though she may not always feel the pain of that divorce, it will be there to sneak up on her the next time. What's the lesson? Go to the one who has promised to forgive you through His death and resurrection.

In the end, "Eat Pray Love" can help us realize more deeply the joy of God's gift of community and the universal human plight of pain. However, it points us to a solution to that pain that fails.