CaPC Podcast: Rob Bell Gets an Oprah Show

Rob Bell

“Captivating stuff”–Bell on this Podcast

So, I was on the Christ and Pop Culture Podcast again this week. If you haven’t already done so, go ahead and subscribe to it iTunes. Though I’m not on it every time, it’s always good stuff.

On this episode “Managing Editor Alan Noble is joined by staff writers Derek RishmawyKevin McLenithan andWade Bearden to discuss hoping for the best from Rob Bell’s new show, whether Christian films as a genre are a bad idea, and if moviegoers are starting to favor storytelling over special effects.”

I’m the point guy on the Rob Bell getting a TV Show on Oprah Winfrey Network thing. I’ll say that I may have been a bit cranky as I recorded.

So, you can go listen to that here: CLICK ON THIS LINK.

Beyond that, you can go read my review of Rob Bell’s last book:

So does God keep up with the modern world? Bell thinks so, and I’m inclined to agree. The question remains how does God do so? Is it by trading in our rusty old concept of God, and wheeling out the new, shiny one, finely-tuned to fit postmodern sensibilities, that Bell presents us with?

Or maybe, just maybe, it’s by dusting off the broad tradition of reflection about God’s self-revelation we find in the Fathers, the Medieval Doctors, and Reformation scholars who gave us a God both “with” and “above,” both “for” and, yes, complexly “against,” both “ahead” and yet “before.” Just a thought.

Also, this is the excerpt from the interview with Rob Bell and Oprah that increased my sense of dread about the show:

Oprah: What is the soul?
Bell: It’s the thing that keeps telling you there’s more.

Oprah: Your definition of God?
Bell: Like a song you hear in another room, and you think, “wow, that sounds beautiful but I can only hear a little bit.”

Oprah: What does prayer mean to you?
Bell: Prayer to me is usually one word, which is, “Yes. I’m open. What’s next?” That’s what it is.

Oprah: What’s the lesson that’s taken you longest to learn?
Bell: There’s nothing to prove … All that’s left to do is enjoy.

Oprah: What do you know for sure?
Bell: That you can say “yes” to this moment, and you can experience a joy that can’t be put into words.

Oprah: The world needs…
Bell: … All of us to wake up.

Oprah: I believe…
Bell: … That we’re all going to be fine.

So, there you go.

Soli Deo Gloria

Are We Losing a Generation? (CaPC Podcast with @dandarling)

capcThis week at the Together for the Gospel conference I had a chance to hang out with my editor Richard Clark and connect with Dan Darling of the Ethic and Religious Liberty Commission to do a little podcast for Christ and Pop Culture. We chatted evangelism, the new cultural situation we find ourselves in, and whether or not we’re “losing a generation.” It was a good time.

You can go listen to it here at the Christ an Pop Culture site.

You can also go check out Dan Darling’s CNN article on the same subject here.

Soli Deo Gloria

Keller, Evangelical Polarization, and the Folly of Measuring Coffins

So, the Evangelical twitter world just had another blowout this week. While these sorts of things happen every month or so, providing a bit of cathartic release from the build-up of rage, veiled contempt, and genuine frustration, this last one over the World Vision hiring policy kerfuffle seemed particularly nasty. Hysterical accusations were levelled, tweets were tweeted, unfriendly farewells were traded across the aisle, and a few sane arguments were sprinkled in for good measure.

In the middle of it all, on an unrelated note, Tim Keller tweeted out this:

It echoed his opening analysis in his best-seller The Reason for God, which seems worth quoting at length:

There is a great gulf today between what is popularly known as liberalism and conservatism. Each side demands that you not only disagree with but disdain the other as (at best) crazy or (at worst) evil. This is particularly true when religion is the point at issue. Progressives cry out that fundamentalism is growing rapidly and nonbelief is stigmatized. They point out that politics has turned toward the right, supported by mega-churches and mobilized orthodox believers. Conservatives endlessly denounce what they see as an increasingly skeptical and relativistic society. Major universities, media companies, and elite institutions are heavily secular, they say, and they control the culture.

Which is it? Is skepticism or faith on the ascendancy in the world today? The answer is Yes. The enemies are both right.

Skepticism, fear, and anger toward traditional religion are growing in power and influence. But at the same time, robust, orthodox belief in the traditional faiths is growing as well. The non-churchgoing population in the United States and Europe is steadily increasing. The number of Americans answering “no religious preference” to poll questions has skyrocketed, having doubled or even tripled in the last decade. A century ago most U.S. universities shifted from a formally Christian foundation to an overtly secular one. As a result, those with traditional religious beliefs have little foothold in any of the institutions of cultural power. But even as more and more people identify themselves as having “no religious preference,” certain churches with supposedly obsolete beliefs in an infallible Bible and miracles are growing in the United States and exploding in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Even in much of Europe, there is some growth in church attendance. And despite the secularism of most universities and colleges, religious faith is growing in some corners of academia. It is estimated that 10 to 25 percent of all the teachers and professors of philosophy in the country are orthodox Christians, up from less than 1 percent just thirty years ago…

In short, the world is polarizing over religion. It is getting both more religious and less religious at the same time. There was once a confident belief that secular European countries were the harbingers for the rest of the world. Religion, it was thought, would thin out from its more robust, supernaturalist forms or die out altogether. But the theory that technological advancement brings inevitable secularization is now being scrapped or radically rethought. Even Europe may not face a secular future, with Christianity growing modestly and Islam growing exponentially.

–The Reason for God, pp. ix-x

As I thought about it, I couldn’t help observing that it seems like we’re witnessing something of the same thing at work in Evangelicalism, with some slight variations. On the one hand, you see more conservative tribes, especially of the Reformed sort, talking about the growth of the movement, praising the blitz of theologically-conservative books, and conferences. On the other hand, its not hard to find progressives and post-Evangelicals speak about the tide going their way, the upsurge of popular support amongst the younger generations, a similar spate of books, and general grass-roots rejection of conservative ham-handedness.

So who’s right? From where I’m standing, they both are. What seems to be getting lost is the Evangelical middle. Why? Well, probably a lot of reasons, but in view of the last week’s “dialogue”, in the technologically-amplified Argument Culture, centrist voices tend to get marginalized and the loudest mouths dominate the air/screen-time.

Now, though I line up theologically more to the Reformed right, as I you might be able to tell, I don’t think this is necessarily a good thing. While the ‘Evangelical middle’ isn’t always some theological safe zone, a spectrum is usually more helpful in terms of thoughtful conversation and deliberation that a highly-politicized, whole-package, two-party system you have to buy into in order to have a voice. In a polarized culture, every event, every issue becomes a battle-line to take your place on. While I don’t mind laying my cards on the table most of the time, I do like having a full deck to choose from.

(This, by the way, is why I love Christ and Pop Culture’s voice. And have you seen the slick new site?)

As for long-term prospects, I’d say that in light the overall secularization of culture and the broader influence of liberal theology in the culture, despite the institutional decline of the mainline that Christian Smith and others have talked about, progressives and Post-Evangelicals do seem to have the cultural edge. Of course, it’s an open issue whether they can pull their disparate streams into the corresponding institutions needed to sustain a full-fledged movement. Its anti-hierarchical, and, at times, anti-doctrinal stance makes that more difficult than more conservative or confessional groups. What’s more, I have admit, I do wonder if the superficial unity we see on flash-point cultural issues, or in vocal opposition to mutually-disdained conservative organizations, covers a deeper, disunity on fundamental presuppositions within it. Who knows? I’m just spit-balling here.

CoffinsFollowing off of this, if Church history teaches us anything, it’s that measuring coffins is an ugly business and an unpredictable one. All you have to do is study the ebb and flow of the Trinitarian controversies in the 4th century to know what I mean. A lot happened between the First and the Second councils of Nicaea. Which is why I’ll admit that I kind of cringe when some Reformed types talk in self-assured tones about the “death” of the emergent movement. The name died, sure, and Brian McClaren books maybe don’t have the sex-factor they used to, but evaluations like that still underestimate the movement’s long-term impact, and metamorphosis into the Post-Evangelicalisms of various sorts we’re seeing.

On the flipside, when progressives talk about millennial exodus from Evangelicalism and hopefully predict the imminent death of its conservative expressions, they ignore how much of that movement is not to progressive forms, but to conservative communions like Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and other confessional traditions. What’s more, these prognostications seem a bit parochial in their focus on the Western, American context at the expense of the growth of robustly conservative Christianity in the Majority world and Asia.

Now, for a final note that may undermine all of my ramblings: we Evangelical/Post-Evangelical Twitteratti (and yes, I do include myself in the mix now), often-times have an over-inflated sense of the importance of our own conversations. For every blog post shared, thousands wouldn’t think to waste their time reading one. Not that it’s right, but more American Evangelicals probably know about Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow breaking up than they do about the World Vision (non-)decision this week. Every once in a while, it’s good to step back and take a breathe on this stuff.

Soli Deo Gloria

Three Themes to Watch For in Legend of Korra (CaPC)

the-legend-of-korra

You probably know by now that The Legend of Korra has returned for a second season on Nickelodeon. Originally planned as a single 12-episode follow-up to the award-winning Avatar: The Last AirbenderThe Legend of Korra been expanded to four seasons, much to the delight of its loyal fans.

Without getting too bogged down, the Avatar series occurs in an Asian-influenced world containing four nations associated with the classical elements (air, water, fire, earth). Some within each nation are able to manipulate their nation’s respective element through a form of “psychokinetic” martial arts called ”bending.” The Avatar is the only one who can master all four elements and is charged with maintaining balance and peace. The Legend of Korra follows the new avatar, Korra, an impulsive yet courageous young woman from the Southern Water Tribe who is tasked with becoming the guardian and enforcer of balance within the world.

We’re several episodes into the second season, and it’s off to a brilliant start. Artistically, it’s clearly on par with previous seasons. Character and plot developments are developing quickly, and the dialogue is as rich and humorous as ever. Since I hate it when people blow shows for me, I won’t really talk too much about the plot so far. (Also, that’d be really silly to do after only a handful of episodes.) However, I do want to note three themes that I’ll be keeping an eye on, and raise a few corresponding questions.

You can read my analysis and questions over at Christ and Pop Culture.

A Few Good Links and a Hymn on the Fourth

Stare into the face of America.

Stare into the face of America.

I was going to write something this 4th of July, but I decided not to. It’s been a busy week already. Maybe next year. Still, as our nation celebrates Independence, I figured I’d offer up a few helpful links for your consideration:

First, Ryan Hoselton over at Christ and Pop Culture gives us a quick history lesson and reminds us:

On July 4th, Americans will wave our flags proudly, belt out our national songs triumphantly, and consume our barbecue and lemonade a little too freely. Why? Because we live in America, the best nation this planet has had the privilege to host. I’m grateful to be an American, and I enjoy the many freedoms and benefits that come with my citizenship. Nonetheless, our nation’s history has a track record for taking patriotism beyond gratitude and into nationalist idolatry. Many Americans through the years have harvested a superiority complex—a mentality and posture that has been harmful to our country and others. Patting our backs for our supreme eminence is not how we should be celebrating this holiday.

Brett McCracken offers up a defense of patriotism as nostalgia for home:

Patriotism is more existential than ideological, I think. It’s less about propagandistic justification for “exceptionalism-oriented” foreign policy (though it can be this) than it is a natural feeling of admiration and nostalgia for the place we call home.

My buddy Carson T. Clark offers up his annual downer of a post exposing 10 Myths about Independence Day (read at risk to your good mood):

This week a lot of American Christians are experiencing a patriotic fervor that’s premised upon historical falsehoods concerning our country’s origin. Let’s correct some of those misconceptions, shedding light on the Top 10 most unsightly facts that most of these folks haven’t heard, or refuse to acknowledge, about our country’s war for independence.

To lift your spirits, the best version of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” by Page CXVI. This one has been stripped of some the more nationally-idolatrous verses and is simply beautiful:

Finally, an apostolic injunction for Christians looking be faithful to King Jesus in the way they relate to their nation:

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. (1 Timothy 2:1-2, ESV)

Soli Deo Gloria

Justin Bieber: On the Dangers of Being Famous Too Early (CaPC)

That happened.

That happened.

Back when my wife and I used to watch American Idol with her family every week, I had a staunch policy of not supporting any contestants under the age of 18, regardless of talent or the competition.  My gut feeling was that 16 is just too young for most people to have that much attention focused on them.  If they were good, take a shot at it in another couple of years.

A few years on, a couple of years of college ministry later, my gut hasn’t changed. (Well, my inner gut. We’ll pass over my waist size in silence.) I still think being too famous too early is an unfortunate turn of events.

My evidence? Justin Bieber and Anne Frank.

You can go read the rest of the article over at Christ and Pop Culture HERE.

What’s a Culture and How Does it Work? 4 Functions of Culture According to Vanhoozer

everyday theologyThe notion of culture has been on my mind for a long time now, but after joining the writing staff over at Christ and Pop Culture, I figured it was appropriate to do a little more digging on the notion of culture and cultural analysis. To that end I finally picked up a little volume edited by Kevin Vanhoozer Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends. While there are many volumes out that address the issue of biblical exegesis, there are few that address the crucial task of “cultural exegesis”, the practice of reading culture, interpreting the “signs of the times” (Matt. 16:1-3), in light of God and his revelation. That’s the gap that Vanhoozer and his co-editors (Charles A. Anderson, Michael J. Sleasman) aimed to fill. The volume opens with an programmatic essay by Vanhoozer in which he outlines a theory of culture, as well as a methodology for cultural interpretation. The essays that follow are examples of the method put into practice, with explorations of the check-out line, Eminem, Gladiator, and the blogosphere. In this post I’d like to take a (very) quick look at Vanhoozer’s view of culture and the way it works.

What’s a Culture? (Again)
Working primarily at the levels of what Roger Scruton has identified as “common culture” and “pop culture”, Vanhoozer’s discussion is fascinating and helpful many ways. One important point to note is his dependence on Dilthey’s idea that cultural studies observes the realm of human freedom, spirit, and creation v. that of nature. On this view cultural artifacts are concrete expressions of the human spirit by which our values, beliefs, and aspirations are given objective existence. As such, cultural artifacts such as songs, architecture, poetry, games, literature, and political practices “call not for explanation but for interpretation.” (pg. 22) Hermeneutics is key.

Another distinction he makes is the difference between culture and society; his chosen metaphor to understand the difference is hardware and software. Society is viewed more as the hardware of social institutions that gives shape to the shared life of a people. Culture he says, “is the software that determines how things function and how people relate in a given society. Culture is both system and practice, a means through which visions of the meaning of life (cultural worlds) are expressed, experienced, and explored through the diverse human products (cultural texts).” (pg. 27) So, police are institutional hardware that can be found across cultures, and yet an American “cop” is understood differently than a British “bobby” that usually doesn’t carry a gun. (pg. 23) Same institution, different cultural implementation.

How, then does Vanhoozer define culture? I won’t go into his very long and rewarding discussion, but in the end, Vanhoozer views culture “as a world and work of meaning. Better, culture is made up of “works” and “worlds” of meaning.” (pg. 26) It’s a work because it’s what humans do freely. Cultural objects are intentional creations–texts that communicate meaning. It is a world because these texts “create a meaningful environment in which humans dwell physically as well as imaginatively.” *(pg. 26)On this view,  popular culture is the shared context, practices, and “resources” that shapes and forms our way of life. (pg. 30)

How Does it Work?
The question remains, how does culture do this? Vanhoozer identifies 4 things that culture does to shape our lives.

  1. Culture communicates – First of all, culture is constantly communicating to us in ways both explicit as well as subtle, in a variety of formats, media, advertisements, and cultural artifacts. While there are hundreds of different specific messages aimed at a every discernable area of human life, the over-arching goal is to communicate a vision of the meaning of life, and the embodied form it should take. We mustn’t be naive the way this vision is communicated though. As Vanhoozer notes, “form and packaging” are just as important as content here. (pg. 28) Most cultural communication happens not through propositional argumentation but through allusion, suggestion, and connotation. It gives us pictures and metaphors (“life is like a box of chocolates”) that give rise to broader stories about the world we live in; subtle hermeneutical suggestions that shape the way we interpret our lives.
  2. Culture orients – This gives rise to the next function of culture: it orients us. By providing us with metaphors and models it gives us the inner logic by which we live our lives. “Life is like a baseball game”, “Life is like an episode of X show”, etc. These models also have “evaluative” and “affective” dimensions to them, in that they shape and form our loves and hates, our very sense of right and wrong. (pg. 29) Culture maps the world for us and creates a sense of mood by which we experience life. Moral and social orientation that we previously drew from family, community, and cult, we now draw from popular cultural texts such as movies, shows, song lyrics through which we construct the scripts of our lives. While How I Met Your Mother gives us a script about dating, childhood soccer-fields teach us about the nature of victory and competition. Importantly for Christians, Vanhoozer notes that while in the past culture gave us narratives of faith, we now more often find stories of “broken faith: defiance or anger at God; of fear of an indifferent or oppressive reality; of escape from sorrow over the absent God by finding joy in one’s immediate, mundane life.” (pg. 29)
  3. Culture reproduces -We need to understand that culture spreads. “Culture spreads beliefs, values, ideas, fashions, and practices from one social group to another.” (pp. 29-30) in the past through institutional force or colonization, but now it mostly happens through memetic reproduction. A “meme” is a “cultural unit” analogous to a gene in that it reproduces and passes itself on by means of imitation (mimesis). This could be anything from an idea, a fashion, phrase, song, or practice. The point is that cultural “programming” is spread from person to person, sort of like a virus, as people encounter each other and begin to copy or imitate the cultural behaviors that they see. This can happen institutionally in schools, or through parental instruction, but more often than not it’s happening informally all the time through everyday interactions with friends, online content, and media saturation.
  4. Culture cultivates – Finally, culture “cultivates”–it develops and grows. What does it grow? Well, recalling Dilthey’s point earlier, it cultivates the human spirit. By communicating and creating worlds for us to inhabit, metaphors to live by, or the basic orientation for our lives, culture develops our souls. It gives a vision of the meaning of life for our “hearts”–the seat our willing and acting–to desire and pattern itself against. “In short, culture cultivates character traits–the habits of the heart–and in doing so forms our spirit so that we become this kind of a person rather than that kind.” (pg. 31) The point isn’t that we are helpless against the onslaught of culture’s imagination or affection-shaping power. It is rather that we need to understand that it’s not a question of whether a particular show is educational, but what’s the lesson being taught? (pg. 31) Prolonged exposure to cultural texts presenting us with similar narratives and worlds shape our self-understandings and create a sort of “second nature” for good or ill. (pg. 32) Culture is a spirit-forming reality.

Because of this, Vanhoozer calls Christians to wake up and not simply walk about in culture like “sleep-walkers” unaware of the worlds which they are being invited to inhabit. (pg. 32) We need to be discerning readers both of Scripture and of culture, determining which is exerting a greater force on our hearts, and for what end. What vision of the good life are we buying into? What narratives and metaphors have we adopted? Which works and worlds dominate our imagination? The various little texts provided by marketers and other meaning-makers in pop culture, or the works and world of God as found in his Text?

Soli Deo Gloria

I Am Not Abraham’s Mistake (My Christ and Pop Culture Feature)

Illustration by the amazing Seth T. Hahn. Pretty stoked.

Illustration by the amazing Seth T. Hahne Pretty stoked.

9/11 was a weird day for me. I was a sophomore in high school at the time and I distinctly remember thinking to myself, “Oh God, I hope it wasn’t Arabs”, as soon as I heard that a plane had been crashed into the first tower. I’m 3/4 Palestinian and at times have a distinctly Arab cast to me. My last name is Rishmawy. Admittedly it was a selfish thought, but I just didn’t see that going well for me in high school. And I was right.

That afternoon in football practice, upon discovering that I was of Arab descent, a “Palestilian” according to one educated linguist on the team, a team-mate of mine took it upon himself to spear me in the back–twice. For those of you who’ve never played, that sort of thing hurts. Thankfully my coach caught on quickly and put an end to that. Still, for the next few years I was lovingly called “dune-coon”, “sand-nigger”, “Taliban”, “Osama”, etc. by a good chunk of my team-mates and friends. And yes, I do mean lovingly. It was wrong, and I don’t really get it, but for some reason racial slurs were a way of bonding in the locker-room. Still, it grated on me at times.

As frustrating and awkward as being an Arab high-schooler in post-9/11 America could be at times, given garden-variety prejudices, fears, and ignorance–none of those slurs frustrated me as much as what some of my well-meaning, Evangelical brothers and sisters ignorantly implied: that I and my entire ethnic heritage were an unfortunate mistake–Abraham’s mistake to be exact.

Please go read the rest of this piece at the Christ and Pop Culture blog at patheos.com.