Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Aftermath: On change, balance, and learning

Well, the 30 Day Challenge is over, and as far as I can tell I didn't win an iPad mini. Oh darn.

But of course the question I'm sure you're asking is, "Did my life change? Were K-LOVE's transformational promises fulfilled?"

Well, no. Not exactly.

I mean, sort of. Did my life change in 30 days? Yes, of course. And it will in the next 30 days of listening to heathen rock music as well.

To put it another way, I think one of the things the Challenge led me to reflect on is how I think of--or better, how I tend to experience--change.

I have friends--mainly I'm thinking of Christians who tend to swim in more evangelical waters, but also some more secular folks, too--who have had very genuine experiences of rapid and radical change. Addicts who stumbled into an 12-step meeting and never took another drink or hit. Non-Christians who met Jesus--in a church or on a sidewalk or at a sporting event--and whose lives were turned upside down. People who went to the Holy Land as raging Zionists and came back to start BDS movements in their churches.

Like I said, I'm not talking about phonies here. I'm talking about friends of mine whose stories I trust who were walking along one day and then found themselves walking completely differently the next.

But for me--and for most people I know--change doesn't work like that. Change happens slowly, incrementally, often weakly. Little habits, hard earned. The slow accumulation of repeated conversations, steadily changing minds. Healing that never looks linear. Choosing to get out of bed again on hard days. Learning new skills or new ways of dealing. Figuring out how to pray again. Saying, "I'm so sorry," again.

Grace seems abundant some days, but many days seems barely sufficient. I'm a total Wesleyan nerd, and I believe in sanctification. But for me, anyway, it's gonna take awhile. And as William James is reported to have said: “I am done with great things and big things, great institutions and big success, and I am for those tiny, invisible molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, yet which if you give them time, will rend the hardest monuments of man's pride.”


So then what did I learn in 30 days? Well, other than learning that Christian radio is just as annoying as most other radio--more annoying in some ways, less annoying in others--I think that I learned that there is a real mix of good, bad, and ugly in the CCM world.

Here are some things I heard:

I heard the story of a psychologist who killed himself told in a way that suggested that if he had known Jesus it wouldn't have happened, as if suicide and mental illness are symptoms of a lack of faith.

But I also heard the mic handed to people, from CCM artist Jamie Grace to random people who called in, who told stories of real struggle and hurt and pain and for whom the music of stations like K-LOVE helped them keep taking that next step.

I heard a radio station that claims to want to avoid scaring people off with Christian or sectarian language give airtime to the deeply socially conservative group Focus on the Family (whose CEO Jim Daly, incidentally, paid himself more than $250,000 in 2011, a salary most of the call-in listeners of WGTS could only dream of).

But I also heard some honest and powerful advice given about families. Like that there are going to be times when you like one kid more than another, and that that's not a sign that you're a terrible person.

I heard a lot of language about shame, some of it not so good, but some of it sending the message that the good news is a good news that releases us from shame, a gospel message that reminded me of the powerful work of Brene Brown.

I heard Matt West's song "Do Something," which--every single time of the 1,000 times I heard it--hilariously reminded me of Aldous Snow's latest single in Saving Sarah Marshall (I mean, seriously, the videos even have the same "hold up a card with a message on it" thing going on):

But I also heard Matthew West's song "Do Something," about a thousand times; and it's a song about standing up for justice and advocating for people who are being crushed, and it's playing over and over again on Contemporary Christian Music radio, and I think that's a really good thing.

I heard God called King over and over again, mostly because it handily rhymes with sing.

But I also heard about God as an oceanic force, as Love that never stops loving, as a Storyteller and a Dreamer and a Friend.

I heard a musical genre so narrowly defined by an industry that no non-Christian artists with positive and encouraging messages, and not even a lot of Christian artists that I love, will ever get a voice in it; a Christian subculture that doesn't seem to recognize itself as such.

But I also read the genuine, humble, and deeply considered thought of a station manager who wanted me to know that he wanted to share music and message with people in a way that wasn't intimidating or sectarian, that he didn't have all the answers, and that he welcomed further conversation.

I heard almost exactly the same guitar loops, over and over.

But I also heard...ok, no, I basically heard almost exactly the same guitar loops, over and over.


So, it's not surprising, exactly, but it is good to experience first-hand, that like any social/cultural phenomenon, there is plenty to be valued and appreciated about K-LOVE.

Will I keep listening to K-LOVE/WGTS? Probably not. Maybe occasionally if I'm looking to glean a new worship song or two, but mainly I'll go back to my NPR or my Spotify account (on my schnazzy new iPhone!!).

But I like to think that I have learned a few things, become a bit more open-minded, and started some great conversations.

And so, in those little ways, I suppose that my life has, in fact, been changed by the 30 Day Challenge.

So thanks, K-LOVE. You keep doin' what your doin'. If your positive, encouraging music helps Shelly in Omaha who's helping her daughter get through school by working two jobs get through her week, then God bless you, and God bless and sustain and uphold her.


Currently playing on kidding, I'm listening to Son Lux on Spotify because Mike Stavlund told me to, and I like ironically treating post-modernist writers as arbiters of absolute Truth 'cuz it drives 'em crazy. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

"The Challenge" Day....HOLY CRAP IT'S DAY 30!!!

It's true! It's Day 30 of the K-LOVE Challenge and I didn't even realize it! I figured they'd email me to ask if my life had changed or something.

For the report on whether or not my life has changed, you'll have to wait until tomorrow's post. Today, on Day 30, I figured I'd give you a totally cheesy top 10 list, because....crap, y'all, because it's Day 30 of this blog series and I can't come up with anything good and my reflection paper for Emergent Gathering was on an old Anglican hymn instead of CCM, ok? Don't judge. Jeeze. Y'all need some positive, encouraging music in your life.

So here it is, the Top 10 things I like about K-LOVE and/or WGTS, in no particular order.

1) The song "Oceans" by Hillsong United (as previously mentioned)
2) The fact that one WGTS DJ declared the week after Valentine's Day to be "singles appreciation week"
3) The relative lack of commercials (again, as previously mentioned)
4) The relative lack, especially on K-LOVE, of social-conservativism-confused-with-Christian-theology (with the exception of a few songs and a few DJ comments)
5) The genuine commitment to their particular understanding of sharing something they're passionate about (Rob Conway's response to my email is a great example)
6) The fact that the DJs know that they've got cheesy senses of humor. They strike me as total dorks, not as people trying to be cool to impress the youths, which I like. I love dorks. I'm a dork. It's cool.
7) The theological content of the songs is actually broader than I expected when I entered into this experiment, with some great creative metaphors like "write your story on my heart" and "you call me out upon the waters"
8) CCM takes seriously a very important idea: that shame is one of the major addictions of our society and is a major barricade to a healthy life. Many, many songs address the idea of healing from shame (more on that tomorrow)
9) The attempts to create a community by having people call in to share stories or prayer requests. While many radio shows have "call-in" segments, how many radio shows let you call in to share with folks that you're worried about your mom's cancer or your son's struggles in school? I honor anyone who creates spaces for vulnerability
10) I have been able to glean a few songs that I could use in worship, which is definitely a good thing.

So there you have it. Tomorrow, post-challenge, I'll let you know if I have, in fact, had a life-changing experience and, I think, give a bit of a "good, bad, and ugly" overview.

Much love to ya!


Currently playing on "Beautiful Day" by Jamie Grace

Thursday, February 13, 2014

"The Challenge" Day 24: Thoughtful response from local CCM station

So as I mentioned, I emailed K-LOVE and the local CCM station that I've been listening to (WGTS 91.9), to ask about the tendency not to use (or at least not to emphasize) the word "Christian" on air. I got a form response from K-LOVE saying that they have pastors on staff and one would love to talk to me. I think I probably will call the number they gave me but I honestly haven't had the time to.

I was really impressed, though, that Rob Conway at WGTS took the time to provide a very well thought out response. I include it, with his permission, below, and with no further comment from me. When I asked for his permission to use it, he provided the following caveat: "Please feel free to use on your blog--it's a good discussion to have...and believe me, no one in CCM radio will (or should) tell you we have all the answers." 

Here's Rob's response:
Hi David, 
Really appreciate you taking the time to write us and asking about that. I think it's great that you're listening critically and curious. I'll try to give you the abridged version, but hopefully it'll give you a little "peek behind the curtain" to help bring a little more understanding to our mission and goals here. 
First, I'll answer your question with a question. What makes something "Christian?" No doubt, we like to have defined lines between the sacred and the secular. But are we Christian just because we claim we are? The first followers of Christ simply called themselves "followers of The Way." It wasn't until later that others (outsiders) labeled them "Christians." And this was because of what they saw lived out. 
So in essence, we would rather have people call us Christian because of what they see in us, rather than make the claim ourselves. In fact, we like to think of this as a radio station operated by people that happen to be Christian. 
Second, the term "Christian" has an unfortunate amount of baggage that comes with it. (See books like unChristian and You Lost Me by David Kinnaman). Christianity is a subculture--which even comes with its own lingo--"Christianese." Maybe you've heard other Christians say something like this: "Brother, I felt like I was really backsliding, so I crucified my old man and put on my new man, and now the fruit of the spirit is evident in my life!" (Ok, a little over-the-top--depending on your background). 
And in a city as diverse as Washington, DC--people from all walks of life--we don't want to shut the door before they're willing to crack it just a bit to see what it's all about first. We'd rather allow the songs to speak the truth, since music has a universal appeal that is able to break barriers that even the spoken word can't. 
Lastly, it's about finding common ground. As a station that has put emphasis on family over the years, it's been a way for us to connect with anyone--no matter where they are in their faith. Because family is something we can all agree is important. One person may think baptism by immersion is what we should do, while someone else believes in Christening, or even someone else doesn't even really care either way. We're not here to debate points of doctrine, but to encourage the next step in someone's faith, no matter where they are in that journey. And it's one reason why we've been intentional with our Chaplain's program, which has started ministries like our Saturday afternoon gathering Gateway Fellowship, which is a worship gathering in a relaxed setting, where people can come and not feel threatened to take that next step and connect them to churches around our area. 
But what I'd like to make sure is clear--we are not ashamed of Christ, or of what being a Christian is about. We're humbled every day that God gives us a new opportunity to serve Him and reach others--and we see evidence that it's working so far. But every day presents a new challenge, as times and culture changes, it can be like chasing your own tail to remain relevant for our times. We just hope that through it all, Christ is uplifted (sorry, had to use some of my own Christianese for a moment). 
Anyway, I hope that helps you understand just a bit. Again, I appreciate your openness to learning about what we do. If you have any questions at all, or if there is anything else I can do for you, please let me've got my email. 
Rob Conway 

Now playing on WGTS 91.9 "Amazed" by Kutless 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

"The Challenge" Day 23: Amazing Grace (or, a toast to John Newton)

One. Week. Left. If you don't know what this is about, you can start at Day 1, but I wouldn't recommend it. 

Here's to you, John Newton.

Former slave trader turned Anglican priest. Mentor to British abolitionists, including William Wilberforce. Suspected Methodist sympathizer.

And author, in 1779, of a little hymn called "Amazing Grace."

235 years later, and if you flip on K-LOVE you will likely hear all of the following in a day (or, in an hour):

1) Chris Tomlin and His Perfect Hair's version of the song, "Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)," which appeared on the soundtrack of a film about William Wilberforce called...wait for it...Amazing Grace
2) Matt Redman's "Your Grace Finds Me" (to which I gave the Moltmann treatment to a few posts back), which is an ode to God's "great grace" and which includes an overt melodic reference to the familiar tune of Newton's hymn
3) David Crowder's "I Am," which begins with the lines: "There’s no space that His love can’t reach/There’s no place that we can’t find peace/There’s no end to Amazing Grace"
4) Phil Wickham's "This Is Amazing Grace"

And that's just the current CCM references to the song off the top of my head.

Not bad, John Newton. Not bad.

Just to make sure, I did a search of the phrase "amazing grace" in the KJV. Nope. It's Newton's phrase.

I'm not going to go into any sort of long hypothesis about why the song has stuck around so long.

But I am going to give a brief nod to the fact that a song about conversion from complicity in the systemic sin of slavery has stuck around.

Maybe Redman, Crowder, and Wickham weren't overtly referencing that aspect of the hymn in their songs. But then again, maybe they were. And Tomlin's version was included in a movie about abolitionism, so I'm assuming he was conscious of the fact that the grace he was singing about was not a just-me-and-Jesus, fire-insurance sort of grace. That the grace that is so amazing that we just keep singing about it is the kind of grace that can break addiction to injustice and violence. That grace doesn't just make you feel good, it can change the world.

That's some good news.

That, in fact, is some amazing news.

So here's a toast to you, John Newton. Thank you, from one wretch to another. Pardon the pun, but you really struck a chord.

Instead of telling you what's playing on, I'm going to post this video of Chris Tomlin's Platinum Hair singing about justice:

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

"The Challenge" Day 22: Some more thoughts on the word "Christian"

If you're not sure what the hell I'm talking about, you could start at Day 1. You know. If you're bored. 

Last week I wrote about K-LOVE not really talking much about being Christian, at least on air. I actually wrote a quick email to the folks at K-LOVE and at 91.9 here in DC, asking for their thoughts. They haven't gotten back to me but it was only last night that I sent the emails, so I'm holding out hope for a response. I think it would be cool to hear what they say.

In the meantime, I've been pondering the question in relation to a discussion that we had last week in my Emergent Gathering class.

We weren't talking about music, per se, but we did talk about the aesthetics of church/worship spaces. For example, we talked about churches that meet in movie theaters. On the one hand, it moves church out of a specialized building--a place where only "church people" go--to a shared cultural space. Part of the idea is that church buildings--certainly the building where my office is located is a good example--can be quite intimidating:

I mean, look at that thing. It has buttresses. 
On the other hand, movie theaters are designed--aesthetically and functionally--for a purpose. That purpose is viewing a movie. So worship ends up looking kind of like viewing a movie: you are alone in your seat, with minimal interaction, watching a big image on a screen. That can make things like growing together in community a challenge. (And any other set up, from traditional church building to coffee shop, will have its own advantages and disadvantages).

So is the avoidance of "Christian" language meant to have the same effect as a movie theater setting--to be non-threatening and make it clear that this is not just music for churchy-type people?

What's interesting about that to me is, as I mentioned a few posts back, the music has overtly religious language. So the question is--if it's designed to be non-threatening, does it work? I don't know--because I'm pretty much a churchy-type person, a person who feels comfortable in church buildings.

The flip side of this is that the campus ministry I work with tends to be very traditionally "churchy" in a lot of ways. Our chaplain wears a clergy shirt and collar, and an alb in worship. We sing out of a hymnal. Our logo involves the UMC cross-and-flame.

Yet, as I shared in class last week, people with a lot of questions about their faith--and people who explicitly are not of the Christian faith--attend worship and participate in the campus ministry activities. Somehow the very "churchy" language and aesthetics create a safe space, or a safe space is created in spite of the traditional aesthetic. Not sure which. On the flip side, my undergrad's campus ministry was much less "churchy" looking, but tended to be much less tolerant of divergent views.

We talked in class a bit about the breakdown of traditional terms to differentiate churches, such as "conservative" and "liberal." Metropolitan is "liberal" in its politics and theology, but "conservative" in aesthetics and structure. My undergrad campus ministry was quite "liberal" aesthetically and structurally, but very "conservative" politically and theologically.

I guess I just want to make two quick points to close this. The first is that I think authenticity, as much of a buzzword as it is, matters. Rev. Amy Butler, my preaching prof and a pastor in DC, made the point in class the other day that someone can be transparent in a high pulpit or faking it from the floor, and I think that is true. To a certain extent there's no "should" to worship styles or aesthetics--just be real. There's room for a diversity of expressions.

The second is a bit more critical, and that's to say: there is more to being welcoming of folks who are scared off by church than trying to mess with aesthetics a bit. There is also a need to create room for doubt and pain and even anger at the church. I think that's some of what my students tried to do last semester with their "What Sucks About Christianity" tabling.

So how do we do that, more, together?


It's hard to tell what's playing right now on, because the connection keeps crapping out on me, but I think it's "The Proof of Your Love," by the oddly named for KING & COUNTRY, a band that would get John Wesley's stamp of approval on its name. Damn Tory. 

Monday, February 10, 2014

"The Challenge" Day 21: "Oceans"

If you want to know what the Challenge is, you can start with Day 1. If you want to know why it's sort of a miracle I've made it to Day 21, read Day 2

So, I'm sort of sorry that I haven't posted in days, but actually pretty much not sorry because it's been a totally bizarre and stressful week. Lots of amazing and beautiful things and lots of discouraging and demoralizing things. So most of my creative energy was spent getting through the week and reminding myself (and being reminded by many loving others) of the truth of some of the things I always say about where God is. So... #sorrynotsorry

One of the things I said I'd write about in this blog series was images of God on K-LOVE. And one of the songs that I've heard a million times on K-LOVE is "Oceans" by Hillsong United. And I'll be honest: I love this song. God as ocean, vast, unchanging-but-always-changing, is one of my favorite God-images. And the story of Peter being called by Jesus out into stormy seas is one of my favorite stories. I love the movement-imagery in this song. The idea that we're calling on Christ's name because we are trying to go out into uncertain waters, because we are doing the kind of daring and confusing things that we might be called to do.

So I love this song. So much so that I'm not even going to use this post as a launching point for a discussion about what we mean by calling God "sovereign."


Currently playing on "Write Your Story" by Francesca Battistelli 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

"The Challenge" Day 16: On not saying "Christian"

What's the K-LOVE Challenge? Why am I doing it? Check out Day 1 for some explanation...

So here's an interesting tidbit: K-LOVE doesn't really describe itself as Christian, at least not often.

The word is almost never mentioned on air.

At this moment, if you search the homepage for the word Christian, you get one hit, and its in reference to a particular artist.

Click on "About Us" and do the same search, and you again come up with only one hit.

I'm fascinated by this. Why the avoidance of the word Christian?

It's not as if the Christian content of the music is subtle or anything. And you can certainly click on their "Mission, Beliefs, and Values" to discover not only a vague Christian affiliation but a traditional/conservative (depending where you stand) theological bent (Bible as infallible, God as Trinity, virgin birth).

I'm actually kind of stumped by this. Is the word "Christian" associated with stuffy religious folks and K-LOVE wants to be cooler than that? Does "Christian radio" conjure up more of a TBN/Christian TV sort of feel, with more talking/sermons/overtly politicized discourse?

The local DC station that I'm listening to (since there's no K-LOVE station in DC) talks a lot about introducing people to God through their music, people who would be uncomfortable in a church setting. I know a lot of folks who are uncomfortable in church settings, but I don't know that many of them would be any more comfortable with CCM on the radio.

I will say this, though. An interesting--and I think positive--side effect of this downplaying of the word "Christian" is that I don't tend to feel like K-LOVE thinks of itself as the only Christian voice out there. That's important because it speaks to a lot of the concerns that I've raised. For example, I often feel like there's little room for lament in CCM. But maybe it's ok to have a station that's full of "positive and encouraging" music, as long as there are other spaces for lament. Maybe K-LOVE doesn't have to do all things.

I'd love to talk to some of the DJs to find out what they think about that. Do they think that "positive and encouraging" encompasses the totality of faith? Or do they see themselves as fulfilling a particular role, with other spaces being open for lament, anger, doubt, and/or silence? Is K-LOVE a symptom of a Christian culture that's afraid to break down? Or is it a space to escape from the break downs?

I don't know, what do you all think? Why avoid the word "Christian" but play overtly Christian music?


Currently playing on "Your Love Never Fails" by Newsboys [who I am not-so-secretly-delighted are still a thing]

Monday, February 3, 2014

"The Challenge" Day 14: On dragons, families, and the power of media

Don't know what the K-LOVE Challenge is and why I'm doing it? No problem! You can start at Day 1 and learn all about it!

Sorry it's been a few days. I've known what I wanted to post on, in general, but was processing a bit. Still don't have it quite nailed down but the perfect is the enemy of the good. Or, in this case, the coherent is the enemy of the "well at least I posted something."

Last post I quoted Pete quite a bit, and he and several others posted some great follow ups on my Facebook page. Hope he doesn't mind me quoting him again:
"Family friendly" actually implies that everywhere else "there be dragons here" - patently false fear mongering.
"Family friendly" is, explicitly or implicitly, how I've heard a lot of CCM stations describe themselves. K-LOVE often has little blurbs from listeners who will say things like, "It's great to be able to listen to the radio with my kids and not have to worry about what they'll hear."

There are a bunch of things to say here, and they go in all sorts of directions, so forgive me. There's a sense in which I think Pete is spot on--that calling Christian radio "family friendly" is a way to say that anything that's outside of our little Christian box is scary and dangerous. And while Jesus certainly had some particular things to say about those who would endanger kids (something about millstones and necks and the sea, I think), Jesus also had some particular things to say about those who closed themselves off in pure religious boxes. He also had some particularly challenging things to say about families--stuff about divisions and turning against one another and hating mother and father--which, while certainly in need of a lot of interpretation, at the very least make me a bit suspicious when "Christian" and "traditional family values" are assumed to be synonymous.

On the other hand, there are a few dragons out there, aren't there? Dragons like sexual objectification, based on understandings of beauty so unrealistic and oppressive that Jennifer Lawrence has to be photo shopped in order to be magazine cover ready. Dragons like graphic violence as entertainment. Dragons like greed being worshiped. Dragons like the Hit Song of the Summer being about rape. And not in like an awareness raising way. In like a "this is the soundtrack to your rape" way.

I don't think that to try to ignore these things, or to try to create a "nice, safe" world where nothing hurts, is the best answer. But I'm not sure that uncritical consumption is the answer either (not saying that's what Pete was saying--it's just what I'm chewing on). Because I think that media and art are really, really powerful stuff, and can have real effects on us.

Case in point: Leigh and I watched 12 Years a Slave the other night. Let me first say this: every USAmerican who can stand to should watch this movie. It is incredibly made and acted and it shines light into ugly, ugly, ugly places of our collective past that continue to affect how we relate to each other today.

But when I left the theater, I felt like I needed some sort of cleansing. I felt dirty, or more accurately, I felt poisoned. Like a bitter, angry liquid had replaced my blood. That film had an impact, a real, physically felt impact on me. It took me a day or so to even be able to talk much about it.

Now, 12 Years a Slave was designed to disturb, to trouble. To lead to reflection. But what about all of the incredibly violent and objectifying stuff that we consume without reflection? Isn't it a bit naive to think that none of that can affect us? Isn't there some sense in being discerning about the types of media that we consume?

I don't think that said discernment should be confined to a sort of religious-secular divide, though I don't judge K-LOVE-listening parents who would really rather not have to explain to their kids what Bruno Mars means in the lyrics to "Gorilla."

When I was little, my dad didn't let my sister and I own a radio. In his car, we always listened to mix tapes that he would make. They had all sorts of stuff on them -- Michael Jackson, Iron Butterfly, Pink Floyd, gospel music, and for some reason Mary Chapin Carpenter. I probably owe my sort of weird, eclectic musical likes to those tapes. They certainly weren't K-LOVE. But, in my dad's unique way, they were kid safe.

There's nothing wrong with having "family friend and kid safe" radio. It's just that if that's the only form of Christian expression we let ourselves have access too (although K-LOVE never describes itself as "Christian," an interesting tidbit that will be the topic of my next post) then I think we're limiting ourselves too much.

Or, to pull from a message I gave at AU about two years ago on Psalm 102:
Scripture, and the message of the gospel, is so much fuller than that. It covers the entire range of human experience and emotion....I have trouble imagining a Christian radio station whose tagline is “Hold the stones dear, and have pity on the dust.” It’s not exactly an uplifting slogan. But in a deep way, it is a hopeful slogan, a testament to a God who does not leave us even when we feel we have left God, even when we feel that there is nothing left.
Now playing on "God's Great Dance Floor" by Chris Tomlin's Perfect Hair