Thursday, January 30, 2014

"The Challenge" Day 10: Genres, Ghettos, and Starlings

A third of the way there! If you don't know what I'm talking about, you can start at Day 1

I'm taking a class this semester called Emergent Gathering, which is shaping up to be pretty cool. Our first class we had a lecture/discussion led by Pete Bulanow, who is a professional smartypants. The lecture focused on the science and math of emergence--it was, as our professor (Mike Stavlund, whose hair is itself a stunning statement on the power of self-organizing groups and whose book, A Force of Will, you should read) said, a "non-theological, non-ecclesiological, non-liturgical introduction to emergence."

Pete said a number of things that really stuck out to me, and since I'm having pretty good luck letting other people write my blog for me I figured I'd just quote him a bunch.

The thing that got me thinking about connecting his talk to the K-LOVE Challenge is a point Pete made about genres. He was talking about the way that the 'modern' view of reality--very ordered, very neat--is imposed on reality rather than being reality. He compared modernism to a graph laid on top of the world--straight, measurable lines.

To make the point, Pete talked about genres of music. "Musicians didn't invent genres," he said. "Marketers did."

So when I flipped on 91.9 in the car, I thought to myself, "Who the hell invented CCM?"

I mean, the idea that there is contemporary music about faith and Jesus and grace isn't surprising at all. That Christians would pick up instruments and write songs about the core beliefs and commitments of their life is a natural--and very cool--thing.

But at some point, the "sound" of CCM developed into something that others emulated, and that could be marketed to a certain audience. Taglines were developed: "Positive and Encouraging." "Family Friendly and Kid Safe." Certain vocabularies, musical and lyrical, became prominent. And now CCM is a thing unto itself.

Another term that jumped out at me from Pete's talk was "Christian ghetto." The idea that Christians can get kind of stuck in a closed off community, in which we never interact with people outside of aforementioned vocabularies, is fascinating to me. And as a seminarian, worrying to me.

Ironically, though, part of my goal with the K-LOVE Challenge is trying to enter a little bit deeper into the world of the Christian ghetto, since otherwise I'm much more likely to listen to NPR or to something on Spotify than to listen to Christian music. What's happening in here, behind these Jesus walls? What language is being spoken? Is it the language that I speak, or something different? And is the language that I speak able to communicate outside of my own ghetto, or not?

Ok, one last thought. As an example of emergence and complexity, Pete played the amazing video that's been going around the interwebs of the flocking starlings. He talked about how a predator could come at the flock from one direction and, within milliseconds, the far side of the flock has reacted. But there's no leader.

How is that possible? We're not quite sure. But one possibility is that each bird, although unable to see the whole flock, has its eye on seven other birds.

And that's the thing, right? How I move and how I act and how I speak isn't entirely an atomized, individual choice. It's also a product of the seven birds that I have my eye on. The music I listen to. The literature I read. The people I spend my time with.

So although, after the Challenge, I'll go back to listening to non-CCM, I do have to ask myself: "What am I keeping my eye on? And how is it moving me?"


Now playing on "Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)" by Chris Tomlin and His Perfect (But Not Nearly As Stunning As Mike Stavlund's) Hair

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

"The Challenge" Day 9: Maybe I'm thinking too much about this...

This is part of a 30 day series on the K-LOVE Challenge. Find out more here

My friend Nelson is a musician, a worship leader, and a smartypants. A few weeks ago we were talking about music in worship and he brought up something really interesting.

He said that Methodists have generally thought of music as facilitating the teaching role of the church. We "sing our doctrine." In fact, when I took United Methodist Doctrine this past summer, we actually read hymns for the class, which I thought was pretty cool. If you take a glance at Charles Wesley's hymnody, for example, you find some pretty extensive theological work going. John and Charles Wesley were particularly big fans of hymns about communion. One could hear or read John's sermon on "Constant Communion"; or, one could just sing Charles' hymn "Come, Sinners, to the Gospel Feast" and get much of the same doctrinal content, only in song.

What Nelson pointed out to me, though, is that much contemporary worship music arises out of more charismatic churches or movements. And the emphasis among those groups is on the creation of an experience of worship rather than in the teaching function of music. If most contemporary worship musics seems a bit simplistic, that's because it's designed to be easy to get into, to sing along. To really get caught up in it. To get energized by that soaring, repetitive chorus, rather than to be intellectually examining every word of ever song.

Nelson added something else. He said that, in his worship class at seminary, people were asked to define what worship meant to them. And almost everyone spoke in terms of experience rather than teaching. Now, remember: this is a seminary crowd. So these are folks who are likely to be thinking carefully and theologically about worship. Yet when they define worship for themselves, they think in terms of experience.

I was thinking about this conversation recently, while listening to K-LOVE. I don't even remember which song it was, it could have been any of several. But it talked about Jesus paying our debt.

And I had this weird dual consciousness moment, where one part of me reacted to the fact that I have critiques of that theological claim (see Monday's post).

But the other part of me thought, "Wow. I just got out of debt (I'm talking concrete, financial debt) because of a series of surprising events and the generosity of others. It's an incredibly freeing feeling. It's like this thing that has been haunting the back of all of my thoughts is suddenly gone. I feel free and grateful and I feel inspired to be more generous and a better steward of my resources. My debt got paid."

And it's that feeling, that experience, more so than a systematic explanation of atonement, that I think the K-LOVE artists are singing about and the K-LOVE listeners are grooving too.

Now, I still think that we need to bring our brains to worship, and that people planning worship need to have an eye on a diversity of theological viewpoints, cultural perspectives, and ways of engaging. But to discount the experiential power of praise choruses--which, interestingly, aren't that different in structure from the Taize choruses that are often favorites in more progressive church circles--is missing out on something powerful about worship. Or in the words of the Renovatus Community: "We will embrace the liturgy and the primal shout."

There are, of course, other ways besides praise choruses to create space for cathartic and transformative experiences of worship. I think of the crumbling bread of communion, the firm pressure on my head as someone anoints me with oil. And I think we need to be careful to not be too Cartesian--intellectual engagement is also experience, and can also be transformative. But I do think this conversation with Nelson, and my experience with debt, will make me a bit slower to judge what I see as overly simplistic theology in worship.

Because while there is a time for critical articulation of faith, there is also a time to be--in the words of that great singer of doctrine, Charles Wesley--"lost in wonder, love, and praise."


Now playing on "Need You Now (How Many Times)" by Plumb

Monday, January 27, 2014

"The Challenge" Day 7: Matt Redman and Jurgen Moltmann walk into a (really weird) bar...

What's The Challenge? Check out Day 1 for the explanation, and Day 2 for why it's gonna be tough. 

One of the questions that I came into the K-LOVE Challenge with was: are there songs that are playing on Christian radio that would connect well with what we're trying to do at Crossroads?

I've heard Matt Redman's "Your Grace Finds Me" about 750 times since I started the K-LOVE Challenge (as a side-note, I'm realizing that a lot of what annoys me about Christian radio is just stuff that annoys me about radio in general, namely: aren't there more than a dozen songs in existence at any one time?). It's one of the songs that has made me think, "hmm, maybe we could sing that at Crossroads."

But then the chorus comes in, and I cringe a bit.

"From the creation to the cross/there from the cross into eternity/your grace finds me."

At Wesley, we learn a style of biblical interpretation that starts with a step called, informally, "speed bumps." Read the text, see what makes you go "Huh?" or "Nope!," and then figure out what in your context is making you react like that. It's pretty basic, but it has the interesting effect of making the things that bug you about a passage the focus of your study rather than being things you avoid or gloss over.

So when I "speed bumped" at Redman's song, I figured I'd dig in a bit.

What bugs me about the chorus of "Your Grace Finds Me"? The cross, rather than Jesus' life or resurrection, is at the center. And I'm uncomfortable with that. And that's worth exploring.

It's not just Redman's song. I would argue that there is a trend in contemporary worship music to focus on the cross and on atonement, with less emphasis on resurrection and even less emphasis on Jesus' life or on the way of discipleship. (I'd be willing to listen to counter-arguments, and I've got 23 days left, but that's my working hypothesis). What's more, I often perceive that the theology of atonement being proffered in contemporary worship (and in much traditional worship) is a form I don't have a very high opinion of, namely substitutionary atonement.

Here's the basic outline: we're sinners. God is holy and righteous. Since God is holy and righteous, God can't stand sin, so He (and in this theology of atonement, God is MOST DEFINITELY a He with a big ol' capital H) has to wipe us out. But luckily for us, Jesus, who is completely without sin, steps in to take the punishment instead. So if we believe in Jesus, we're good. But if not, we're doomed to God's wrath.

There are a bunch of problems with this idea. Like the fact that it's largely based on the writings of a medieval monk named Anselm who understood God as a feudal overlord, which is a wee bit of an outdated metaphor. Or the fact that it makes God into a child abuser. Or the fact that it separates God the Father from God the Son in a way that, I would argue, is actually counter to the traditional understanding of Christian theology that it claims to represent.

But none of that is really the point of this post. The point is that Matt Redman doesn't actually say anything about substitutionary atonement in "Your Grace Finds Me." He just says creation-cross-eternity. And there are other ways to understand the cross as central to Christian theology; ways that, in fact, I'm kind of a big fan of.

Take, for example, my favorite old German dude, Jurgen Moltmann, who says that in Jesus on the cross we see God in solidarity with suffering humanity--even God in solidarity with those who feel Godforsaken, since Jesus cries out on the cross in the words of Psalm 22: "My God, why have you forsaken me?"

Moltmann argues that the cross is a paradox that is in a sense the crux of the Christian understanding of God: "On the cross the Father and the Son are so widely separated that the direct relationship between them breaks off. Jesus died a ‘Godless death.’ And yet on the cross the Father and the Son are so much at one that they present a single surrendering movement....Christ’s giving of himself to death on the cross unites the Son with the Father at the very point where the separation and mutual abandonment is at is deepest.” (Those quotes are from his book The Way of Jesus Christ, pg 174 and 95 of the Fortress Press edition, if you're a glutton for punishment.)

This is getting a bit heady for a blog, but here's a simpler way of saying it. In the cross, we see God present in the hurting, broken, awful places of the world. Or, as Nadia Bolz-Weber says, "God isn’t feeling smug about the whole thing. God is not distant at the cross. . . . God is there in the messy mascara-streaked middle of it, feeling as shitty as the rest of us."

In the cross, we also see the cost of discipleship. Jesus tells his disciples that they are going to have to take up their own crosses. They, too, will have to face the powers of the world, and it might not turn out so well. And maybe Redman's song reminds us that, when faith is a struggle, grace is there.

So while I am still a big advocate of not separating the crucifixion from Jesus life and resurrection, and not separating the cross of Christ from the cross of discipleship, I think I will try to temper my reactivity when I hear CCMers singing about the cross. Because there really is a connection between creation--which, as a sort-of-boringly-orthodox Christian I think Christ has something to do with--and cross and eternity. Jurgen Moltmann, this round is on you:

“Jesus therefore dies the death of everything that lives, in solidarity with the whole sighing creation.”

Solidarity with the whole sighing creation. I'll drink--and sing--to that.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Sermon: "Counting Broken Windows"

I figured I'd share the sermon I preached this evening at Crossroads instead of a K-LOVE post tonight, but don't worry! Plenty of 30 Day Challenge thoughts to share this week. Just to keep you interested, tomorrow's post will be: "Matt Redman and Jurgen Moltmann walk into a bar."

The text was from Luke 4

            At the beginning of the month I had the opportunity to travel with 20 other seminary students to Baltimore for a 10-day class on urban ministry. Our professor, Dr. Anthony Hunt, told us that the first thing he has students in his urban ministry classes do is to split up in teams, walk neighborhoods, and count broken windows. Broken and boarded up windows, he argues, are a good first indicator of the sort of challenges facing a community. Broken windows and vacant houses are concrete symptoms of economic disparities. They present overt public health risks. They are often connected with the sale and use of drugs. More than that, though, they are symbolic of the feelings of abandonment and shattered hopes experienced by communities in crisis.
We visited the Sandtown neighborhood, part of an area of Baltimore that experiences some of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS infection, incarceration, violence, and rates of school dropouts in the country. There, we learned about the work of New Song Community Church. When the New Song church first started in a row house living room, participants—including children—took crayons and drew their vision of what a renewed community would look like. Their first priority? No more vacant houses. The community members felt that, more than any of the other struggles of the community, those broken and boarded up windows most stood in the way of their dream of new, abundant life.
            Now, let me state what might be obvious: if you were to walk the area around this building, say from Massachusetts to New Mexico and down to say S Street—which is something that I’m going to strongly suggest we all do—you would probably not count a lot of broken or boarded up windows. I won’t list statistics right now—if you’re interested, we have them over there, at our new prayer station—but according to our demographic data, the average person living in this area is affluent, white collar, and well-educated. Broken windows get repaired pretty quickly around here.
And yet, St. Luke’s Mission Center and Metropolitan Memorial UMC together provide space for three homeless shelters, one advocacy and service organization for unhoused neighbors, and multiple hunger ministries. So what does that mean for who we are as a congregation? What does that mean for those of us who are trying to figure out how to be disciples of Jesus in this community and in this city?
            In last week’s passage from Luke, Jesus started preaching in the synagogue of his hometown, Nazareth. He preached about good news to the poor and justice for the oppressed. And it went really well. But in this week’s passage, Jesus starts going on about how the word of God and the messengers of God often show up, not where we would expect, not in our congregation or, as we might say, our church building, but rather in the Other, in the Outsider, in the Stranger. Jesus’ listeners were understandably upset about this. After all, they were Galilean Jews. They were under the thumb of Roman imperial rule and an oppressive puppet king named Herod. They felt victimized and oppressed. So here’s Jesus, the hometown boy, showing up and telling them that God’s going to do work somewhere else? Who do you think you are, Jesus?
            I think if any third party were observing the goings-on in First Synagogue of Nazareth that day, they’d probably feel pretty confident in declaring Jesus’ inaugural sermon a huge failure. Sure, he miraculously escaped. But if your first move in a campaign is alienating the hometown crowd, what are you left with?
            Now, as we walk through the gospel of Luke, we are reading it forwards and backwards simultaneously. What I mean is that, unlike Jesus’ first disciples, we know how this thing ends. As we read the narrative from beginning to end, we also read it all in light of the eventual execution and resurrection of Jesus. So, when the crowd drags Jesus to the crest of a hill to throw him off, my mind is drawn to another hill, where another crowd cries out for Jesus’ death and, this time, gets their way. The seeming failure of Jesus’ Nazareth address isn’t a blip in an otherwise successful mission. It’s a foreshadowing of the Cross.
            Declaring Jesus to be a failure is probably about as wise a preaching strategy as Jesus’ Nazareth sermon, but I’m not making this stuff up. In Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, he writes: “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength….God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing that’s that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.” And then he adds, “When I came to you, brothers and sisters….I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”
Isn’t that interesting? You’d think Paul would want to emphasize God’s strength and wisdom. And yet he talks about God, and Christ, as foolishness and weakness. You’d think Paul would want to forget about that crucifixion business and focus on Christ’s resurrection. But no, he writes that he “decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” Nothing except Christ crucified.
            The word “Christ” is just the Greek for “messiah,” which means “anointed one.” In Jewish thought, the word referred to a coming figure who was going to bring about real liberation from Gentile oppression. So Paul is saying, “I only preach a failed messiah.” Which is an oxymoron. A messiah who fails is no messiah, no liberating king, at all.
            So we have Paul saying “I only preach Christ crucified,” and Jesus starting off his ministry by getting himself dragged out of his hometown synagogue and almost killed for saying that God’s word is going to show up somewhere else. Which makes me wonder whether we need to be looking for Christ in places that the world sees as failed or weak or worthless. And that brings me back to counting broken windows.
What if we, as disciples called to “take up our crosses and follow,” are sent exactly to those places with broken windows, the places that people look at and say, “Drugs. Violence. Poverty. Failure. What good could come from there?” Jesus could come from there. So we need to go there, looking for Jesus, looking for the hope and beauty and strength hidden where the world sees despair and ugliness and weakness.
I’m going to be really concrete here. We have grate patrol next week. If you’ve never been out in the van to meet some of our unhoused neighbors, sign up. Tonight. The sign up sheet is back there on the table. Don’t just give people food. Look them in the eye. Wish them a goodnight. Treat them like what they are, humans created in the image of God. If you haven’t gone to one of our services or events with our partners at Brighter Day ministries in Southeast DC, where people are trying to get the city to reopen affordable housing unit that have been shut down, do it. If you don’t want to go alone, that’s cool—a group of us will go. I’m serious. We’ve got a church van. Let’s talk about this after worship. There are hurting people out there, and Jesus—the crucified one—is calling us to be in relationship with them.
            Of course, even in communities where there aren’t literal broken windows and boarded up houses, there is plenty of brokenness, plenty of shattered hopes and abandoned dreams. There is poverty and hurt hidden in the most affluent community. It’s always struck me, the times I’ve gone out in the van on grate patrol, that we stop at a Starbucks on K Street. Not a lot of broken windows around. There we are, in the midst of an area symbolic of DC-insider-status, giving food to people who are sleeping outside of a coffee shop they can’t afford. And it’s closed, because none of the people who work in that section of the city live there. So we pass out sandwiches to people who are experiencing not only hunger and homelessness but also social isolation.
Rev. Rodney Hudson, a pastor in Sandtown, told our group that the most important thing he’s learned in urban ministry is to shift from thinking of his church as the people in pews on a Sunday morning and to begin thinking of his church as all the people in his surrounding community. The kids on the street corners selling drugs, the single mother who has to work on Sundays to support her family—they are just as much of his church as the faithful worshipers on Sunday. Another pastor, Rev. Yo-Seop Shin of the Eden Korean UMC, told us that in Korean, there is really no way to say “my church.” It’s always “our church.” Can we make those shifts in our thinking? Our church includes the folks in the shelters. Our church includes the families in the park. Our church includes the women who dance at the strip clubs that are a one minute walk from here. Our church includes the college students at Starbucks. Are we talking to them? Are we hearing their stories, their needs, their dreams? If not, why?  What would it look like for us to walk the neighborhood together, saying hello to people, and asking if there is anything they would want us to pray for? Because as Jesus told the congregation in Nazareth, God might be showing up in places outside of the circle that we’ve comfortably drawn around ourselves. There are hurting people right here, in Glover Park, and Jesus is calling us to be in relationship with them.
            And then there’s us, sitting here in the sanctuary of the St. Luke’s Mission Center. And we all know, whether we have found words to talk about it with each other or not, that we have some broken windows in our own lives. Some abandoned hopes. Some dreams that we’ve boarded up and forgotten about. There are failures and weaknesses that we are scared to share. But “God chose what the world considers weak to shame the strong. God chose what is considered to be nothing to reduce what is considered to be something to nothing.” What if, in the broken places in our own individual lives, Christ is waiting as well?
            By looking for Christ in our own hurt, brokenness, and failure, we’re not indulging in selfishness. In fact, when we take time to welcome our own strangeness, our own hunger and thirst, we are paradoxically pulled outside of ourselves, to the hurting places in our community and world.
Dr. Brene Brown, a sociologist and researcher, talks about the between sympathy and empathy. She says that sympathy sees someone in a hole, looks down into it, and says, “I’m sorry you’re down there.” Empathy is getting down in the hole with someone. She doesn’t mean reappropriating someone else’s story, or saying things like “Oh, I know exactly how you feel.” But, in Dr. Brown’s words, “in order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.” In order to connect with the brokenness of the world, we need to connect with the brokenness of ourselves. The inward journey is the outward journey. The outward journey is the inward journey. Vulnerability breeds solidarity.

            Friends, Jesus is waiting. Calling us into places of failure and violence. Places of hurt and abandonment. Places of crucifixion. Because remember—the resurrection happens after, and in the same city as, the crucifixion. So as we go to participate in God’s healing and reconciling work in the world, we go with great hope, knowing that “those who plant with tears reap the harvest with joyful shouts” (Ps 126:5). We go looking for signs of a new kingdom, a new community coming into being right here in our city.

Friday, January 24, 2014

"K-LOVE CHALLENGE" Day 4: I think Jamie Grace is pretty cool.

What's the K-LOVE CHALLENGE? Check out Day 1. Why is it...a bit of a challenge for me? Check out Day 2. And how about this sweet new blog design courtesy of Leigh Finnegan?

Last night the folks at K-LOVE had Jamie Grace on as a guest. Jamie Grace is a young (22 years old!) CCM singer-songwriter.

In between songs, the K-LOVE DJs would chat with Jamie about various things, including her music and her faith. One of the things that she talked about was living with Tourette Sydnrome, a neurological disorder marked by involuntary tics.

Here are some things I learned from Jamie Grace:

-- the thing that people most often refer to as "Tourette's," the involuntary shouting of words, is actually a very rare form of the syndrome, and it's problematic for people to say "I have Tourette's" when what they mean is, "I say stuff I don't mean" or "I curse when I shouldn't."
-- Jamie has often been bullied and made fun of for having Tourette Syndrome. She was often called a "retard," and advocates for people to not use that word as an insult or putdown.
-- Jamie has had to learn how to tell people about Tourette's. She shared that she used to sit people down right away and tell them everything, but that it would overwhelm them or freak them out, so she's had to learn how to build trust with people and share bit by bit some of her experience (I really identified with this--it's tough to know when/if to tell people about bipolar, what to tell them, how much to share, etc.)
-- Living with Tourette's has been tough with Jamie, but she also sees the ways that, in her words, "God uses the bad stuff for good." She talked about how it's really created a sense of empathy in her for people who are considered different or "strange."

I think you could definitely put Jamie's story in the category of "inspirational"--certainly fits K-LOVE's "positive, encouraging, vibe." But also, Jamie seemed really down-to-earth and insightful. She certainly is inspirational, and she definitely wasn't saccharine. She was real about the sucky parts and encouraging to others. And I also really liked how the DJ's interacted with her. It didn't feel like they were pushing an agenda--they seemed really curious about her life and grateful for her story.

I probably won't ever go see Jamie Grace in concert. But I am grateful to have heard her on K-LOVE.

Now playing on "God of Wonders" by City On A Hill

Thursday, January 23, 2014

"K-LOVE Challenge" Day 3: A few thoughts on money and ads

What's the Challenge, and what are the rules? See Day 1. Why is it a bit of a challenge for me? See Day 2

K-LOVE is listener supported. No on-air ads.

Same with 91.9, my local CCM station of choice.

This is a big deal for me. The thing that turns me off of radio more than anything else, more than same-y music or bad lyrics, is ads. They drive me up the wall. Spotify has successfully bullied me into paying them for music by playing really obnoxious ads. I pay about $10 a month so that I can listen to music without ads.

The lack of ads is actually the first big thing that I noticed about K-LOVE. In fact, not only are there no ads, but there isn't really much thanking-of-sponsors a la NPR, either. I've only heard one sponsor thanked (something called Trinity Debt Management). Not only does NPR have to thank its sponsors a lot more, but some of its sponsors are somewhat problematic. Tough to report objectively in the DC Metro area if you are beholden to major defense contractors for your funding.

What's more, there is relatively little in the way of K-LOVE product promotion. The only thing that I've heard them selling is a book of stories about miracles written by K-LOVE readers. Whatever you think of that, I think it's pretty cool that the only product being pushed by the station features stories written by listeners. They do have a store on their website (as I'm sure pretty much all radio stations do) but they aren't constantly promoting it on air.

What they generally cut away from music to do on K-LOVE is to share an inspirational story or Bible verse. Cheesy? Sometimes. Better than the umpteenth million GEICO ad? Absolutely.

This is particularly remarkable to me because I just recently read Salvation on the Small Screen by Nadia Bolz Weber. The book consists of commentary by her and a group of willing (in a kamikaze sort of way) friends during a 24-hour session of watching the Christian TV channel TBN. She keeps a running total of the cost of products offered on TBN over the course of 24 hours. The total is around $8,000.

What Bolz Weber argues, and I agree, is that this is beyond absurd--it's predatory. That there are people at home for whom TBN is their main connection with the outside world and a community of faith who are being preyed upon by the channel--just send in your check and your life will be changed!

But the K-LOVE 30 Day Challenge, which promises to change my life, costs me absolutely nothing. In fact, I didn't even have to pledge to listen specifically to K-LOVE for 30 days. Just "Christian music." I was the one who came up with the rules about what that meant.

Now, I'm sure K-LOVE has to have a pledge drive, just like any other listener supported effort. And I'm sure they have some big donors that have some pull, just like in any donor based organization. But still--you gotta give them, and 91.9, and I'm assuming a lot of other CCM stations, some credit for not just being a marketing machine.

And that's a pretty important point to make, I think, in a time in which one of the accusations people aim at churches is, "They just want your money."

By the way, the second thing that drives me away from non-talk radio, at least on the ride in to the city in the morning, is horrible morning radio talk shows headed up by DJs who think they're funny.

K-LOVE and 91.9 play music in the morning.

Currently playing on "East to West" by Casting Crowns

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

"K-LOVE Challenge" Day 2: Why I don't like contemporary Christian music (aka my one negative nancy post for the series)

Don't know what the K-LOVE Challenge is? Check out Day 1 for an explanation.

Alright. So. In Rule 4 I gave myself permission to write exactly one post about what I don't like about Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) before I try to enter into a space of non-judgment and curiosity.

And here's the thing that I want to say right up front. There is one very clear, very obvious, reason that I don't like CCM. It's the most important reason. It's really simple:

I just don't like it.

I don't like it the same way some people just don't like country or just don't like folk or just don't like bluegrass.

To me it all sounds the same, like everybody is running their guitar through the same effects pedal and all the male vocalists learned to sing either from that Creed guy or from "Everything I Do"-era-Bryan Adams. Michael Gungor, himself no small player in the CCM genre, says that he can always tell a Christian radio station from a secular one within 3 seconds without hearing any lyrics. What annoys me about that is that there is all sorts of great music out there that I think speaks to faith and searching and justice and joy--you know, Christian music--that doesn't fit in the CCM mold and so won't ever be found on K-LOVE. And conversely, I've already heard several songs on K-LOVE that I originally heard in worship at Crossroads and loved. It's just the radio version I can't stand. Take the same lyrics, and even the same tune, and have our funky little band at Crossroads jam on them a bit, and I love it. (The two songs I'm thinking of are "Your Grace is Enough" by Matt Maher and "Everlasting God" by Brenton Brown and Ken Riley, if you're curious).

I really want to emphasize this point--that the main reason I dislike CCM is because I just don't enjoy it that much--because I would bet that a whole, whole lot of the criticisms of CCM are really based in that. A matter of different tastes.

And honestly, there are worse things, right?

I mean, I'm going to follow this with a list of some more substantial critiques, but ultimately what separates me from a lot of "on the reg" CCM listeners is the same sort of thing that separates me from most HOT 99.5 listeners--we just have different preferences. Nothing to do with more sophisticated theology or worldviews. Just different.

And that is something we can all learn to deal with, I think.

With that said, here are a few more substantive critiques. With each of these, though, keep in mind that I don't listen to a lot of CCM--because, as I said, I don't much enjoy it--and so it might be that, over the course of the K-LOVE challenge, I will be dissuaded from these points. I'm pledging myself to keep an open mind (Rule 4):

1) "Christian" vs. "secular" dichotomy. I think a big thing that Jesus did is challenge the separation of sacred space from the scandals of "secular" life. The New Testaments shorthand for that is, "eating with sinners." The idea that there is "Christian stuff" that needs to remain separate from "secular stuff" is a little bit problematic, I think; so I'm a bit suspicious of a whole industry built around that.

I heard from several people in response to my post yesterday who talked about how jarring they find the rest of the radio world with songs about sex and drugs, etc. Fair point. If I ever have kids, I'm not exactly going to rush them to Kanye. There was a great Onion article recently imagining what Eminem would do if he found out his daughter's boyfriend liked his music that I think makes the point well.

But there's two problematic assumptions there. (a) "Secular" means "promiscuous sex and booze and negativity," when in fact secular music has heartbreak and falling in love and lamenting and breaking free of difficult circumstances and struggling with depression and and and....Well, a lot of things that I've needed to have music for in my life; and (b) If there are things going on that we don't like, we shouldn't make music about them. The thing is that addiction and abuse and sex have all sort of been around for awhile, and so has music, so there will probably be music about them.

The danger here is as old as Christianity. It's called gnosticism--the belief that the material world is bad and that salvation means escaping the corrupt material world to a purely spiritual realm. So if we can create purely spiritual areas of life, like radio stations and bookstores, separate from the dirty, ugly, broken world, we're better off. And the thing is that, for me, Jesus is God in solidarity with that dirty, ugly, broken world. Not cordoned off. But radically present with.

2) By "Christian" we mean "positive." K-LOVE's tagline is "positive and encouraging." There's no room for lament. It's ok to tell a tough story, but it has to have a redemptive ending. So what if your cancer doesn't get miraculously cured? What if you don't reconcile with your drug addicted brother before he dies? What if your depression just keeps coming back? Do you have space to share your story on K-LOVE? Does the music that plays on the station give you that space?

And what about really tough parts of our faith? Like, what about the imprecatory/enemy psalms? You know, like the baby killing in Ps 137? What does K-LOVE do with that?

Don't get me wrong. There's nothing wrong with being positive and encouraging. Faith should certainly offer positivity and encouragement. But there is more to faith than that--there is struggle and lament and sacrifice--and I wonder if those aspects of faith are honored by CCM or K-LOVE.

Which brings me to

3) Theological same-ness. Again, don't get me wrong. I don't want my worship music to sing like a theology textbook. (Brian Wren, I. Am. Looking. At. You.) But is there a diversity of theological viewpoints available in CCM, or is it all 4-points evangelicalism? Give me about 30 days and I'll tell you...

4) King. It's a related point to the last one, but in particular--can we sing a song that doesn't call God "King"? Like, just once? There are other words that rhyme with sing. Like ring. And amazing. And bring. And thing.

The thing is, I'm not just trying to be gender-inclusive here, although that is important to me. I also just don't care about kings at all. I don't owe allegiance to a king. I don't care about the royal family. So the idea of Jesus as King isn't that powerful to me. When the first Christians said, "Jesus is Lord," they were saying, "Jesus, and not Caesar, is Lord." But I feel like when we sing of Jesus as a King, it's just a nice worshipy thing that we're supposed to say. What does it mean? Since none of us has an earthly king with any real power, what does it mean for us to say that we have a king in heaven?

5) Blood. I hear things like "covered in your blood" in Christian music and I wonder what meaning it holds to the listener? There's a lot I could say on this point, but for now, I'll just say: if I don't hold to substitutionary atonement theology, is there anything out there for me in CCM?

Ok! That's it! No more being critical-mc-criticizer 'til I've finished The Challenge!

Currently playing on K-LOVE: "Mountain of God" by Third Day

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

"The K-Love Challenge" Day 1: Rules

When I'm driving through rural 'Merica, where the radio station selection is limited, I have a little hobby. I listen to Christian radio and see what wild things I hear.

Driving out to Deep Creek Lake this past weekend, I heard some doozies. For example: there was the couple who wanted to make sure I knew how very important it is for Christian families to have 10 kids because the children of Satan are multiplying faster than we are. And by the children of Satan, what was explicitly meant was: Muslims. In case there was any confusion.

And then, on a different station, there was a preacher who said, "God's name is EL SHADDAI" (this was shouted for emphasis) "which MEANS" (followed by a several minutes long explanation of what El Shaddai means, none of which was very much related to what the Hebrew actually means).

And then, finally, I landed on K-LOVE (teehee), the Christian music station. "Positive, Encouraging, K-LOVE" is a national franchise with local syndication. And nationally, they are kicking off the new year with something called "The 30 Day Challenge": Listen to nothing but Christian music for 30 days, and K-LOVE promises it will change my life.

Also I might win an I-Pad Mini. For Jesus.

"Nothing but Christian music for 30 days!" I thought. "That sounds awful!"

So I'm going to do it and blog about it.

(If you're thinking, "You're a Christian, aren't you supposed to like Christian music?," then stay tuned for tomorrow's post).

I signed up for "The Challenge" yesterday, so I've gotta stick it out 'til Feb 18 for my life to be changed. We'll see how long I last.

The "Challenge" page is a bit short on guidelines, so I'm setting my own rules:

1) By "nothing but Christian music," I mean music that plays on K-LOVE or on the local equivalent (there's no K-LOVE syndication in DC, so my local station of choice is 91.9 WGTS). I can't pick and choose what Christian music I listen to. No playlists of mewithoutYou, Gungor, Matt Jackson, and/or Jenny&Tyler covering Smashing Pumpkins. It's 30 days of Matt Redman, Natalie Grant, and Chris Tomlin's Perfect Hair for me. And it's gotta be Contemporary Christian. No listening to the Staples Singers or Mahalia Jackson, unless they're played on K-LOVE.

2) I will not force the K-LOVE Challenge on anybody else. If someone else is listening to music, I won't tell them to change it. In my car, only 91.9 or its equivalent will play unless someone asks it to be turned off, in which case I'll turn the radio off. I'll wear headphones while listening to music while working or studying.

3) An exception to the Challenge is if I need to listen to anything else for worship planning at Crossroads or AU. (Funny that I might to break the Christian music challenge to plan Christian worship, eh?)

4) My goal--and here I am indebted to Nadia Bolz-Weber's Salvation on the Small Screen? and Kevin Roose's An Unlikely Disciple--is not to mock or judge, but to bring an attitude of curiosity and discernment to the Challenge. I will post one (1) blog about what annoys me about Contemporary Christian Music, and for the rest of the Challenge (as long as I can take it), I'll post about things like: what are the images of God that are prominent on K-LOVE? What sort of theology is communicated? How does K-LOVE compare to other radio stations? Are there songs that I would like to see introduced to the worship services that I have a role in planning? Now, you know me--I struggle to turn off the snark completely. But I'll try to keep an open mind and, when being critical, I'll try to keep my critiques substantive and productive. Ish.

5) I will attempt to blog about my experiences every day, as far as is possible.

And, finally:

6) On the off-chance that I win an I-Pad Mini, I'll donate it to a good cause.

Pray for me! Wish me luck! Do whatever you do! On with The Challenge!

Currently playing on "Lift Me Up" by The Afters

Sunday, January 5, 2014

epiphany and hurt

The students that I work with at American University did something this past semester that might seem strange to most church folks.

They tabled outside of the student center with huge sheets of paper and invited passing students to write on the paper the things that they don't like about Christianity.

The point wasn’t to argue with people or defend Christianity. The project was born of a genuine interest in campus conversations about faith, and a feeling that a lot of people have some pretty negative feelings about church and churches.

Some of the responses were flip or sarcastic, but many of them came out of a place of real, deep hurt.

Some students shared that church had always been a place of shame for them—about their body, or about their mental illness, or about their family.

Others shared stories of being ostracized or prevented from taking on leadership because of their gender or their sexual orientation.

Some talked about bullying.

Some recalled times of mourning or doubt when they had been given insensitive and simplistic “answers” instead of empathy and presence.

There was a lot of pain on those pieces of paper.

After the tabling was finished, the students who had come up with the idea sat down with the sheets of paper and talked about the responses, and about what it would look like to offer a space of healing and love for people who are have feelings of hurt and anger about the church. What it would look like to live up to their mission statement: Love God. Serve Others. Welcome All.

We are in the season of Epiphany, in which the church celebrates the dawning of the Light of Christ throughout the whole world. We begin the season with the story of strange people from far to the East discovering God in an unexpected place. Who was more surprised—the learned astrologers from a great civilization who found the Light of the World in a backwater town in occupied territory? Or Jesus’ family, finding weary foreign travelers at their door? Looking for Jesus means meeting strangers.

During Epiphany, it’s worth asking ourselves: How are we looking for God in unexpected places? How are we looking for God outside of the walls of the church? 

If we commit ourselves to asking that, then we will—as my students did—find that there is a lot of hurt, pain, and anger, much of it directed at the church.

Will we respond defensively? Or will we take it as an opportunity to find Christ in those places of hurt, anger, and disappointment?

May we find the Light.