Monday, June 6, 2011

Cult of Personality

I’m not really all that interested in the arguments and politics of either side, but something a radio host recently declared interested me. He said that it wasn’t shocking to him that the President responded to a pop culture icon (Donald Trump), because the President himself is a pop culture icon. This statement made me think of one of my favorite songs: “Cult of Personality” by Living Colour. It’s not a particularly complex or musically revolutionary song, but the lyrics have a way of pointing out something I find rather obvious about our culture. Take a look:

“Look into my eyes, what do you see?
Cult of personality
I know your anger, I know your dreams
I’ve been everything you want to be
I’m the cult of personality
Like Mussolini and Kennedy
I’m the cult of personality
Cult of personality
Cult of personality

Neon lights, a Nobel prize
The mirror speaks, the reflection lies
You don’t have to follow me
Only you can set me free
I sell the things you need to be
I’m the smiling face on your T.V.
I’m the cult of personality
I exploit you still you love me

I tell you one and one makes three
I’m the cult of personality
Like Joseph Stalin and Gandi
I’m the cult of personality
Cult of personality
Cult of personality

Neon lights a Nobel prize
A leader speaks, that leader dies
You don’t have to follow me
Only you can set you free

You gave me fortune
You gave me fame
You me power in your god’s name
I’m every person you need me to be
I’m the cult of personality”

Before, during, and after the song itself quotes from Malcom X, John F. Kennedy, and Franklin D. Roosevelt are heard.

This song resonates with me, because I see this “Cult of Personality” everywhere. It is within our worship of celebrities, of historical figures, and our politicians. So, I wondered how far off this radio show host was about our President. Aren't most elections a battle of personalities? Another recent event in popular culture was the Royal Wedding. I'm not saying it's a bad thing to watch the wedding or to get up at 3am to be sure you catch everything, but I am saying that there seemed to be a flavor to the lead up and day of the wedding that tasted like what this song is pointing out. The same can be true about professional sports figures. Some get paid an extraordinary amount of money, not because they are particularly great, but because they have "star power." People worship them, in a way.

As Christians, this cult of personality should give us pause.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Born This Way?

By now, I’m sure you’ve all heard of the hit television show “Glee.” It is a show that takes popular songs and sings them in a show choir style in the setting of a high school glee club. Now, I am not someone who normally puts such a label on things. Most of the labels put on cultural artifacts are too restrictive for the totality of that artifact. Honestly, this post is guilty of this crime too. Even though Glee tackles self-esteem issues, community issues, and more, by and large, the show centers around the gay characters and/or themes. In fact, what tends to be the case is that the other issues are meant only to support the episodes where homosexuality is discussed in depth. Therefore, what the show is about, however, differs completely from its context. The show is about an agenda. And, if you have seen the show at all, you can probably confirm that the agenda is a pro-gay agenda.

The most recent episode of Glee, called “Born This Way” is one of their agenda heavy episodes. The whole episode hinges on the last song, where the “kids” come out wearing different t-shirts with words on them. These words or phrases point out a “perceived” flaw. All the while, they sing a song by Lady Gaga, called “Born This Way.” I could spend a whole post each on Lady Gaga’s song and album “Born This Way,” but I won’t. This post is for the show. However, it’s important to know the lyrics of the song, so here they are:

Lyrics | Lady GaGa lyrics - Born This Way lyrics

As these words are sung, the kids all reveal their different t-shirts. Let’s see if you can tell where I’m going with this post as you read down the list:

“Butt Chin” (chin looks like a butt)
“No Weave” (a hairstyle)
“Can’t Sing”
“Brown Eyes”
“Can’t Dance”
“Trouty Mouth” (mouth looks like a trout’s mouth)
“Ginger” (red hair and freckles)
“Bad Attitude”
“Likes Boys” (on a boy's shirt)
“Lebanese” (contextually means 'lesbian' in this episode)

I am convinced the key words from Lady Gaga’s song used to make the point the writers want to make are: “I’m beautiful in my own way/’Cause God makes no mistakes/I was born this way.” To those who are following me so far, you might be able to see that this presents us with an interesting problem. First, applying these lyrics to the first 8 phrases is brilliant! It is an affirming message to send to people, especially the teenagers that watch this show. Your eyes, nose, chin, mouth, even ability or inability to do certain things should not judge you as a person. They shouldn’t force you to think you are less of a person or not valuable. However, the last 5 phrases cannot be applied to the lyrics. They are all effects of sin, in one way or another. OCD is an expression of the oppression we all feel from sin. The rest are behaviors that are sinful. Period. They are not how God makes us. They are not what makes us beautiful people.

It is here we see the agenda being carried out. You see, sin is being disguised as God-given identity; homosexuality is being compared to brown eyes. A moral lesson on acceptance is being disguised as a song about tolerance. For some reason, we allow this to happen when it comes to certain behaviors, most recently with homosexuality. But, we don't allow it to happen with alcoholism or murder, for a couple of examples. We wouldn't expect to see "Alcoholic" or "Murderer" or "Child Molester" on any of those shirts, would we? Why do we expect "Likes Boys"? Probably, because we're letting the agenda gain influence in our culture. But, as Christians, we don't need to let the agenda gain influence in our lives. Do we?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

A New Way to Watch a Story

One of the greatest modern inventions is Netflix. In terms of watching new releases, it really isn't all that great. But, in terms of watching television shows, it is superb! With Netflix, one is able to watch television episodes back-to-back. Aside from the obvious absence of commercials, we are now able to watch the story "uninterrupted" by a week of life. As a result, story-heavy television shows, like Lost, Fringe, Heroes, and more, have the potential to strike us even more powerfully than a movie.

Think about it. On the one hand, a movie has two, maybe three hours to tell you a story, develop characters, and create meaning. On the other hand, television shows can have up to 100 hours and more to tell a story, develop characters, and create meaning. I have often heard movies compared to the book it is based upon. Almost always, the comparison declares the book the winner. However, consider the possibility of putting a book on a television show. Episodes can be dedicated to side-stories that do nothing for the main plot, but develop the characters or add significance to certain events. Plots can take time to develop and lead to dead ends that frustrate both the characters and the viewers. Views can truly follow, respect, and even love characters within the show.

Do not misunderstand me by thinking I am deriding movies. In fact, movies are the prevalent form of storytelling in our culture today. However, some brilliant writers have decided to tell a story over a longer period of time, in a hard format to do so, and with a more demanding audience. Some of these stories pay off huge dividends and change not only the industry, but also the culture and, especially, viewers like you and I. Though not a typical post in this blog, I say all of this as a way to simply suggest that you watch for those stories that do such a thing. If you find one of them, try to watch it all the way through in a relatively short time. I urge you to try it at least once in your life. I don't think you'll regret it.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Isolation Network?

Are you on Facebook? Over 500 million people are. Over half of them check their Facebook page each day. Facebook is easily one of the most popular websites on the internet. Many people see it as a way to connect with old friends or to stay connected with their friends. Some even use Facebook to make new friends. Others, however, see Facebook as a vehicle for isolation in our world. Some argue that there is something fake about Facebook. You aren't really "friends" on Facebook and you don't really know people just because you know what they're doing.

So, who's right? If you're like me, you might realize a tension within you between the isolation Facebook causes and the community it offers. After all, Facebook has given us the ability to "know" people we would never meet on the street or in our workplace, in our church or our neighborhood. We have the ability to talk with anyone and share our lives, even our deepest thoughts and feelings, with them. However, Facebook also gives us permission to be less involved in relationships, doesn't it? We no longer need to talk to people face-to-face when we see them. This raises the question: Why spend time getting involved in a relationship, when we can just spend time, alone, getting to "know" people on Facebook?

The Social Network speaks to us about this tension. It should be noted that the movie was advertised as a story about the creation of Facebook, but it really does more than that. In fact, its focus isn't really on the creation of Facebook. Nor does it really portray the life of Mark Zuckerberg. Nor does it really care much about the lawsuits against Zuckerberg. The Social Network does not focus on any of these aspects. Rather, they all serve as a backdrop to discuss the consequences of the creation of Facebook, both for Zuckerberg in the story and us. The movie brilliantly portrays the tension Facebook and other social media has fostered within our culture:

Though we are interconnected with each other, possibly more than ever in the course of modern history, we are also isolated from each other, possibly more than ever in the course of modern history.

We see this tension portrayed through the Mark Zuckerberg character. For example, while Mark Zuckerberg begins creating his first website, which compares the attractiveness of females on campus, his roommate sits in the background and talks with Mark. But, you hear no voice. You only see his mouth move. Meanwhile, Zuckerberg is busy in his own head, narrating his problems and successes as he goes about creating the website. Though he is in the room with someone else, Zuckerberg is isolated. Flash-forward to a scene where Mark is calling his CFO, Eduardo Saverin, to inform him about an investing deal made to secure the future of Facebook. When he finishes the phone call, he stays outside, separated from the party occurring within the house. Though he has the opportunity to join the fun, he remains isolated. Near the end of the movie, Eduardo Saverin confronts Mark Zuckerberg in the Facebook corporation offices and Zuckerberg is seen in the midst of a busy office wearing headphones as he works. Though he is amongst his friends and employees, he is alone. It is important to keep in mind that there is an implied tension behind all these portrayals of isolation. The movie assumes that you know what Facebook is all about, that you send people friend requests, which connect you to people all over the globe. More importantly, it assumes you know Facebook offers people community.

Perhaps the best portrayal of this tension comes from the opening and closing scenes of the movie. The movie opens with Zuckerberg arguing with his girlfriend. He says a very important line, which can be missed very easily, when he says, "I don't want friends." However, the movie ends with Zuckerberg sitting alone in an empty conference room, staring at his computer. He decides to go to Facebook and find the same girlfriend from the beginning of the movie and send her a friend request. The movie fades out and Mark continually refreshes the web page in order to see if she accepted the request, if she became his friend. Though Zuckerberg may say and act as he wants to be isolated, he really craves friendship. Similarly, though Facebook is a vehicle that may encourage isolation, it helps people find friends.

Even if you do not use Facebook, isolation is a common experience for Americans. In fact, it may be more of a problem than most of us realize. If you're like me, you probably have done away with many of the polite "inconveniences" of life, such as saying, "Good morning" to a total stranger or a friend. I know I've often "looked busy" just to avoid conversation. Have you? Perhaps, when at the grocery store, you ignore the people in the line. How about your neighbors? Do you know them all? I know I do not. Now you may not agree that these examples are examples of isolation and you may not see yourself in them. However, I do know that all of us have our moments of, if not tendencies for, isolation.

Isolation is all the more troubling, because we are created to be in community. In Genesis 2:15, God says, "It is not good that man should be alone." Man is not meant to be alone; it's not good for us. We live better in relationship with one another. We live better in a community. The Social Network encourages us to come to this very conclusion. It does so by portraying the loneliness of isolation, a loneliness that produces pity in most of us. This pity moves us to see the need and beauty of community, which we know is really a gift from God. Fortunately, Christians have a response to those who feel isolated. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came to our world to create a community with His creation. God became flesh in order to show us His desire for our lives, that is, to be in a relationship with Him and with other people. Because of this, we have the desire to share our lives with one another, to live together, to be in community with one another.

One final point to consider is the ultimate question of the movie: "Is Facebook or, by extension, are the other social networks, real community?" Though I do not intend to answer this question, I will give you some questions that may help you consider it.

Has Facebook helped you to connect with long-lost friends?
Does Facebook help you keep in contact with your friends?
Will the friends you have on Facebook pick you up from the airport?
Will those Facebook friends console you when you are sad?
Will they bring you chicken soup when you're sick?

These questions are meant to get at the deeper question, "Are we able to be in a God-given relationship with people on Facebook?" In the end, this is not an easy question to answer, but a question we need to consider. The Social Network is an encouragement for us to do so.

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.