A few reflections for Good Friday

Today is Good Friday (or Holy Friday in some traditions), the day Christians commemorate the execution of Jesus. Rather than one long post on a single topic today, I thought I’d share a couple of brief(ish) observations on topics related in some way to the cross.

  1. Sometimes we spread the message of the cross in some really screwy ways. Mel Gibson’s 2004 splatter flick The Passion of the Christ, for example. When it first came out, an awful lot of voices in the Christian press were proclaiming how wonderful an opportunity it presented for evangelism. Take your friends to see it! Show them how much Jesus suffered for their sake!

    Except no. If you already know the story of Jesus, sure, you’ll have some context for the events of the movie–but if you don’t, all you really see is some poor guy getting wailed on for two hours. It’s basically torture porn. This is a message of love … how, exactly?

    In a way, what it reminded me of most was a movie they showed at a Maundy Thursday supper at our church when I was maybe three, that my parents didn’t think to remove me from the room for. It was one of those reel-to-reel jobs, and for some reason it didn’t have sound, because I remember the pastor narrating (“This is Peter–crying, because Jesus is dead”). But there was a graphic depiction of Jesus’ crucifixion. I remember thinking for months after that, “I’d cry if I were nailed to a cross.” I also remember unsettling dreams about myself or my family members facing imminent crucifixion, usually as some sort of medical procedure whose purpose was never explained. Point is, I saw Jesus’ crucifixion in the context of his life and in a family and church community that would continue to care for me and help me understand, and it still kind of traumatized me. As essential a part of the Gospel as the crucifixion is, we should think more carefully than we sometimes do about how we talk about it with non-Christians, not-yet-Christians, and new Christians.

  2. The theology of the cross is another thing we do weirdly sometimes. About ten or twelve years ago I found myself in conversation with the pastor of a Reformed Presbyterian Church. He was a great guy, but it was clear from the beginning that his theological perspective was very different from mine. He talked about the relationships between grace and law or between the Old and New Testaments in more oppositional terms than I was comfortable with. It wasn’t that I disagreed with his theology, not entirely; I just thought he was allowing too little room for other interpretations to supplement or modulate it.

    As our conversation wrapped up he handed me two pamphlets he had on him that he said would help explain the matter further and give me something to think about. I gladly accepted, and when I got home I read the pamphlets. His good intentions notwithstanding, they were no help whatsoever.

    The problem was that they were written not to convince an outsider that the RPC’s theology of the cross was true but to convince other RPC folks that this or that soon-to-be-ex-RPC-pastor’s theology of the cross was false. Both pamphlets were strident in their defense of something they called “classical reformed covenant theology” (which I’ll abbreviate “CRCT”), but I only knew what that was from a college class on the Puritans I took years before; the pamphlets themselves told me nothing about CRCT, except that so-and-so’s theology wasn’t it. We should defend truth against error, sure, but I was rather put off by the weak arguments (“He can’t be teaching CRCT because he’s not using the phrase ‘substitutionary atonement'” and that sort of thing), the theological rigidity, and the hostile tone of the pamphlets.

    To be fair to the pastor, he hadn’t meant to alienate me. I couldn’t help wondering if he’d meant to hand me those pamphlets or if he thought he was handing me different ones. Or maybe he meant to hand me those because he hadn’t read them and thought they were about something different. I guess, if there’s a lesson here, it’s to know what you’re sharing with whom.

  3. One day during our junior year of high school (which is grade 11, if any non-Americans are reading this), one of my best friends gave me a tape she’d made for me of the soundtrack to the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. I hadn’t seen a stage performance or movie of it–still haven’t, actually–so it took me a while to sort out which characters were singing some of the songs. But I liked the music well enough, so I kept listening to it.

    I was a bit bothered by Jesus’ apparent lack of concern with matters of salvation and his ignorance of why his Father wanted him to die. And worse, the play ends with Jesus’ burial and doesn’t include his resurrection. Seems rather a glaring omission.

    But as I listened to the tape again and again over the years, I came to appreciate what the opera does well. For example, the political side of what some people hoped and others feared that Jesus would do often gets ignored amid our discussions of spiritual salvation, but Superstar captures it very well. The disciples’ cluelessness about what Jesus is actually up to is evident throughout, as are their changing moods, as the jubilation of Palm Sunday gives way to the violence of Good Friday–and as an egotistical Jesus swings wildly (as they see it) from benevolence to wrath to despair and back again. Even if it takes some liberties with the Scriptural accounts, Superstar has forced me to think about the events of Holy Week, the role of politics, and the perspectives of the disciples more deeply than I might have otherwise. That tape my friend gave me remains a staple of my music collection. And I’ve been grateful to her ever since.


Me and the Eucharist: a brief history

Tomorrow–maybe today, by the time I get this posted–is the day that my church calls Maundy Thursday, some other churches call Holy Thursday, and pretty much all churches commemorate the Last Supper Jesus shared with his closest followers before he was arrested. So here’s how I came to think what I think about the Lord’s Supper–or Communion, or the Eucharist, or whatever you might call the thing with the bread and wine (or grape juice or whatever).

I grew up in a Presbyterian (PCUSA) church that served Communion on the first Sunday of every month and invited all baptized Christians, regardless of their denominational background. There was a brief liturgy, including prayers and responsive readings, and then the congregation stayed in the pews while the servers brought around plates piled with small cubes of white bread followed by plates filled with small plastic shot glasses of grape juice, each of which elements we’d consume immediately.

Then my family moved and we began attending a local United Methodist church. Communion was also the first Sunday of the month there, again open to all baptized Christians, and again we’d have a brief liturgy of prayers and readings, but we’d receive the elements by going forward to kneel at the altar rail, where the servers would give us cubes of white bread and shot glasses of grape juice.

A few years later I attended my first Roman Catholic service: a Christmas Eve Midnight Mass with a friend’s family. My friend advised me that, since I wasn’t Catholic, when the time came to go forward for Communion I should remain seated. That was my introduction to the concept of closed Communion, which is when a church doesn’t serve Communion to people who aren’t of its denomination, and also to the practice of giving the congregation only the bread and not the wine.

That closed Communion experience followed me to an Anglican church I visited with some friends when I was in college. The service felt similar enough to the one at my other friends’ Catholic church that I assumed the same rules applied. When the time came for the Eucharist to be served, I went forward but crossed my arms over my chest, and the priest prayed a blessing over me. After the service, though, he asked if I was a believer and if I’d been baptized; when I said yes to both questions, he assured me that I could indeed receive Communion there–which, on subsequent visits, I happily did.

But during college I also attended a few other churches on occasion, including some non-denominational evangelical churches. The contrast between the way these churches did Communion and the way the Anglicans did it could hardly have been starker. Where the Anglicans had a complex, thorough, and well-ordered liturgy, these other churches had a Scripture reading and a brief extemporaneous prayer, and where the Anglicans made a point of serving Communion every week, these other churches served it once a month and in some cases only a few times a year. And I found that, where I left the Anglican service feeling like I had partaken of a sacrament infused with meaning and sacredness, I left these other churches feeling like I’d just eaten a crumb of bread and drunk a shot of grape juice and that was it.

Now, I’m not saying there wasn’t any spiritual significance in the way these other churches served Communion; I expect there was for most people in the congregation. And probably some folks would have found the Anglican liturgy impenetrable, restrictive, or otherwise off-putting. I’m just telling you how I felt about the services after I attended them. Your mileage is perfectly welcome to vary.

Anyway, after college I moved again and started attending another Presbyterian church (PCUSA again), but this one did Communion differently from the church of my childhood. Twice as often, for one thing: the first and third Sundays of the month, and a few years later they began serving Communion every week. For another thing, the congregation went up front to receive the elements, we’d tear pieces off a large loaf of bread–or break off a piece of matzo–rather than picking up pre-cut cubes, and we’d dunk the bread in goblets of grape juice rather than sipping the juice from individual shot glasses. On the whole they were a much more liturgical lot.

Then I moved again and started attending an Anglican church plant. The only thing that made their Communion feel any less meaningful than my earlier Anglican experience was that instead of the usual wafers they had us tear off pieces of pita, but for some reason the pita they used was made with a grain that sent big cough-inducing chunks down our throats.

Another move saw me again make my church home at an Anglican church–though this one uses the wafers, so there aren’t any grain particles. Also, you have the option of sipping wine from the chalice or dunking your wafer. (I usually sip, unless I’m sick.)

But one of the things I’ve found, after going to Anglican churches regularly for the last few years, is that, at least for me, weekly Communion doesn’t dilute the meaning or sacredness of the sacrament the way you might assume. (More than likely, that very assumption is precisely what drives some churches’ decision to serve communion only a few times a year: the less frequently Communion happens, the more it will probably mean to people when it does.) No, for me it’s quite the opposite. Weekly Communion becomes almost a form of sustenance, a frequent reminder of my dependence on a grace that I can’t earn but am still given and must still come forward to receive.

And tomorrow, on Maundy Thursday, I’ll go forward again.

Peace to you, whatever your faith, tradition, theology, or lack thereof, and whatever you’ll be doing on Thursday.

Christian rock: How I started listening and why I started listening less

A couple of weeks ago I said I might write a post about how I got into and then back out of listening to Christian music, so here I go.

I grew up in a church that sang hymns. I knew of a few Christian songs in other genres, like the folk-ish kinds of things you’d hear someone strumming on a guitar in the ’60s or ’70s, and I was dimly aware of something called “gospel,” but most of what I knew was what you’d find in a standard white mainline Protestant hymnal. But then I started attending Bible studies and other events for a youth group at one of those suburban megachurches, where we sang what I can best describe as newer songs in the tradition of the ’60s and ’70s folk stuff. It was fun, but not particularly earth-shaking.

Until the night they showed us the music video for Michael W. Smith’s “Secret Ambition.” (Warning to sensitive viewers: The linked video includes brief scenes of flogging and crucifixion. Also, a mullet.) This was the first exposure I ever had to Christian rock. I’d never believed (or been taught) that you couldn’t combine Christian themes with rock music; it just hadn’t crossed my mind that you could.

Shortly after that I learned about Petra (Warning: More mullets. I’ll stop with the video links here, though.), then others. My high school days brought me Audio Adrenaline, the Newsboys, DC Talk (of course), Jars of Clay, the O.C. Supertones, and Caedmon’s Call. Then in college I joined one of those CD clubs they had in those days, where you get a dozen CDs for the price of one and then every month they send you another one in your genre of choice and you can either pay for it or send it back. That CD club was focused on Christian music, and through it I discovered the likes of Skillet, Bleach, Guardian, mxpx, Burlap to Cashmere, and Room Full of Walters. I even had a show on the campus radio station one semester, playing Christian rock for the, like, two people who were awake and listening to it at 6:00 on a Wednesday morning.

I should point out that I never adopted the mentality that a Christian should only listen to Christian music. But I was impressed with the variety and quality of some of the acts, and I liked the music and lyrics I was hearing.

But college was also a time to start thinking about life more deeply than I had done so far, and Christian music was part of my life so I started thinking more about it.

At first the question was merely one of taste. I’d heard enough Christian music I didn’t like that I came up with a rule of thumb: if I wouldn’t like the music of a given act without the Christian-themed lyrics, I wouldn’t bother with it as a Christian act either. That was simple enough.

But then the questions started getting more complicated. A woman I knew wouldn’t let her teenage son listen to the Christian heavy metal he liked because the lyrics weren’t clearly audible. Does music not count as Christian if the words aren’t distinct? Another friend pointed out that the applause at Christian artists’ concerts might not all be given to God. Is an artist’s message invalidated if some of the fans are applauding the band instead of God–or if the artist is accepting some of their applause for himself? I found myself less willing than some of my friends were to reject most music as Christian over issues like those, but the questions still troubled me.

The questioning continued after college. An article about author Reed Arvin’s struggles to find a Christian publisher for his novel got me thinking about Christian music in the context of the larger Christian publishing industry. A book about the spiritual journey of U2 and a couple of interviews with Bruce Cockburn (the sources for which I can no longer find), which included Cockburn’s and some of the U2 members’ thoughts about deciding whether to identify as Christian artists, pushed that issue further. I came to understand that, in their capacity as gatekeepers, publishers can legitimate or exclude certain voices and could restrict the kinds of decisions artists made about the lyrical content, the auditory balance between music and words, and so on. And marketers, culture-makers (like the reviewers who wrote for Christian magazines), and retailers shape both production and consumption along similar lines. It becomes easy for Christians to sequester themselves in a sort of pop-culture silo, hearing little from outside and being heard by few who aren’t their own.

On its own, those insights might have made me appreciate how the cultural gatekeepers can protect Christians from unwittingly hearing anything that might be a bad influence (although that kind of protection isn’t something I’m inclined to appreciate to begin with). But couple them with some theological points that I was beginning to understand–namely, that all truth is of God regardless of whose mouth speaks it and that creativity and excellence honor God simply by virtue of creatures made in his image using gifts he gave them to create and to create well–and I was bound to start seeing the Christian gatekeepers as restricting the artists, sanitizing the art, and inhibiting the integrity of their art and their messages. And I didn’t want to restrict my own art consumption that way, to implicitly validate the pop-culture silo’s restrictions, or to privilege Christian art over art that took other forms or spoke other messages.

So I backed off a bit. I didn’t stop listening to Christian music–and in fact I still listen to most of the CDs that meant something to me when I was in high school or college, and they still speak to me–but of the new music I’ve bought in the last twelve years, none has been Christian.

And it’s been interesting to notice the truth and beauty I’ve been finding in other places. Maybe eventually I’ll write a post about that, too. But no promises.

On Walkmans and habitual music-listening

Confession time: I do not own an mp3 player.

Nope, if I want to listen to music, I have to be in my car or at my computer or someplace I can plug in my small but better-than-nothing boombox.

And I’m OK with that.

I had a Walkman or two when I was growing up, but since then I’ve never really felt the need to own a portable music-playing device. For those of you who don’t remember the 1980s, a Walkman was a portable battery-operated gadget that usually included both an AM/FM radio and a cassette player and that allowed you to listen to music through headphones so you weren’t inflicting Motley Crue or LL Cool J or Weird Al or whoever on the people around you. Walkmans went through AA batteries faster than a competitive eater goes through hot dogs, and they usually ate tapes after too many plays as well, but we still thought they were a pretty neat thing to have.

(Also, a cassette was a rectangular plastic thing that could hold a recording of music or anything else audible on a long strip of magnetic tape that wound from one spool to another within the cassette. Cassettes broke a lot, but they were versatile and convenient for their time.)

But the thing was, I didn’t actually use my Walkman all that often. If I wanted to listen to music at home, I’d use a radio or boom box or the home stereo or whatever was convenient. And it wasn’t often that I wanted to listen to music on the go, either–though on family car trips the Walkmans our parents bought my sister and me (probably for this very reason) spared us many a squabble over control of the car stereo. I like music plenty, but most of the time my music jones was satisfied by what I’d heard on the radio as I was waking up and what I’d play on the stereo when I got home from school, and I didn’t need much else.

One thing I noticed about Walkmen was that headphones tended to isolate people. Any given person who was wearing a pair may or may not have been trying to cut off human contact, but people in general were much more reluctant to try to speak to headphone wearers than to other folks. Sure, sometimes not having to deal with people is nice, but most of the time I felt like I wanted to at least be available and approachable if somebody (or at least somebody I didn’t actively dislike) wanted to talk to me. Even today, on the public buses, earphones send a signal that a person doesn’t want to be approached. I half suspect that some people just wear the earphones without even listening to anything, just to ward off other humans.

Another thing I noticed was that, for some people, listening to music or at least having some playing in the background seemed to be a compulsion, a need. The first place this became painfully apparent to me was when a high-school friend confessed to a group of us that she listened to music all the time because she was afraid of silence. It hadn’t occurred to me that silence was a thing you could be afraid of, but she got me thinking about why someone might have that fear and what it must be like. The second place was in one of my first post-college jobs, which was in an office where we were subjected all day to a certain local radio station, probably chosen for its inoffensive song selection. (Note to self: “How that station represents everything that is abominable about radio today” would make a good topic for a post.) It was as though the denizens of the office had collectively agreed that even tiresome repetitions of the same grating pop hits were better than an hour without music (or even, heaven forbid, different music).

Now, different people like different things, and I’m not out to criticize anyone’s taste in music or anyone’s preference for where or when or how often they listen to it. There’s nothing at all wrong with Walkmans or radios or mp3 players or music. Do not take my own habits as either typical or prescriptive; you do what works for you.

What I do want to encourage you to do is to think about your music-listening habits and why they are what they are. Do you typically listen to music simply because you want to, or because you feel like you need to? If you feel like you need to listen to music, why do you suppose that is? Does it provide some benefit, like helping you stay awake or motivated, or is it a way of avoiding something, like silence or conversation? (Some needs, after all, are legitimate needs; others are symptoms of a bigger problem.)

If listening to music is simply a source of pleasure for you, well and good. But if it’s an addiction or a response to the fear of something, seeing that fact is the first step to freeing yourself from what holds you prisoner. And if it’s a way to avoid interacting with people, maybe it’s time to stop shutting out the world–and depriving the rest of us of what you have to offer.


The real reason time occasionally goes missing

I have a problem with computer games.

My problem has nothing to do with the games being violent; there are violent games I enjoy, and I’m not about to go out and actually take a sawed-off shotgun to someone just because a character in a game does it. It also has nothing to do with the marketing strategies behind various games; sure, there are some of those I don’t like, but the games I actually play are generally open-source or otherwise (legally) freely available.

No, it’s the very practical problem of time. You can argue about whether that’s also a moral issue, depending on your views of what a person should and shouldn’t spend his or her time doing, though for my part I don’t think computer games are inherently wrong. My problem, however, simply boils down to games sucking away more time than I intended from the things I need to or ought to be doing.

The sprawling epic adventure games, the first-person shooter games, the real-time strategy games, and a bunch of other kinds are all fine. Those, I don’t spend much time on, because I don’t start playing them in the first place unless I know I’ve got a couple of hours free.

No, my problem is with the short games. You know, the games that take only a few minutes per play–puzzle games, especially. The problem with those is that I’ll sit down at the computer, think “I’ll just play a quick game or two and then get to work,” and then twenty-odd games later realize that I’ve been at it for two hours and not actually done the work I meant to do.

I’ve learned that I have to delete games like that from my computer if I’m to have any hope of getting any work done. No more solitaire, no more “Minesweeper,” no more “Othello,” that sort of thing. (There’s a “Worms” clone that’s kind of borderline; I keep uninstalling and re-installing that one.)

Browser-based games are a problem, though, because I can’t delete them. I can avoid going to their host sites, but that sometimes takes more willpower than I can muster.

That was the problem today. I came across a reference to a game called “2048” and went to check it out. (For the sake of any of you who may have a work ethic, I won’t provide a link.) Turns out it’s a simple puzzle game that involves trying to pair up numbered tiles that appear in a 4×4 grid. It’s not quite “Tetris,” but it tickles my brain’s reward centers in some of the same ways.

About four hours after I first checked the game out, I glanced at a clock and noticed I’d been playing it for four hours straight without so much as pausing for a sip of water. So I closed my browser, stood up, and spent a good fifteen minutes pacing around my apartment trying to teach my eyes to see things that were more than two feet from them once more. Since then I haven’t played any more “2048”; it’s only been six hours, but so far, so good.

My name is Andy, and apparently I have a problem with computer games.

What I’m doing for my Lenten vacation

In a little over an hour I’ll be heading to church to receive a smudge of ash on my forehead.

Today is Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent for Christians in the various Western churches. (Our brothers and sisters in the Eastern churches follow a different liturgical calendar .) For me, as for many Christians in the U.S., this Lent will be a season of repentance, fish fry dinners, and giving something up for the next six weeks or so.

Now, I should state for the record that neither the Presbyterian tradition of my upbringing nor the Anglican tradition of my present affiliation has any particular rule about the Lenten giving up of things. Both traditions do encourage adopting some kind of discipline that will mark the season of Lent as different, as a time to focus on God and contemplate one’s sins and one’s spiritual life, but neither tradition insists that we must give up anything specific or anything at all.

A campus minister friend, for example, decided to adopt a discipline of patience for Lent one year, which he practiced by standing in the longest checkout line every time he went to the grocery store. A Presbyterian pastor I knew announced to the congregation that he was adopting the Lenten discipline, not of giving up chocolate, but of eating just a little bit of chocolate every day. The next morning he walked into his office to find that someone from the congregation had sneaked in during the night and left thousands of M&Ms(tm) on his desk, bookshelves, and chairs. So at the next service he told that story, commented that he loved having such a responsive congregation, and joked that he had decided to give up money for Lent as well. Sure enough, the next morning when he walked into his office, he found that someone had left pennies on every available surface. The church was embarking on a building campaign at the time, so he treated the pennies as a donation to the building fund, and the anonymous prankster did not object.

I’ve never been quite so creative at Lenten disciplines as these two men, but a few years ago I gave up soda for Lent and found that the practice did force me to start thinking about my beverage choices in different ways. More to the point, though, giving up soda also made Lent feel like a season apart that year–not because it made me suffer in any noticeable way but because it was different enough from my normal patterns that I noticed it and had daily occasion to remember what season it was.

The other thing I typically do during Lent, usually when the season is more than half over, is that I have a great idea for a discipline to adopt the following Lent. I vow that, when the next Lent rolls around, I’ll remember that discipline and adopt it. Then, by the time the next Lent does roll around, I find that I’ve completely forgotten what it was. This has happened at least three Lents in a row now.

But today I had an idea for a Lenten discipline that I might try adopting this year.

And that’s why this post is here to read. What I’m going to do for Lent this year is post something to this blog every day.

Well, not every day. I’ll take Sundays off (which actually fits with the tradition of treating Sundays as an exception to the Lenten fast anyway), and possibly Saturdays as well (which fits with the fact that my Saturdays tend to flow differently from my weekdays). Also, if I’m traveling or something and don’t have time to sit down at a computer and write something, I’ll take those days off as well. But otherwise I’ll post something to this blog every day during Lent this year.

I’m making no promises about content, though I’ll try to make it substantive or at least readable. I’m also not going to restrict myself to a particular topic or theme, though it’s possible that one may emerge over the course of several posts. But I’ll post something at least every weekday that I’m not traveling or otherwise prevented by a cause more legitimate than laziness.

There are two disciplines at work here. The first is the discipline of regular writing, which is meant to stimulate my creativity, organize my thoughts, and render my ideas into a communicable, understandable form. Sometimes the only real way to create anything is simply to start getting it down somewhere. The second is the discipline regular posting, of placing my ideas where others can read them. I tend to be timid about letting others in on what I’m thinking, so I need to give myself practice submitting my ideas for others to review, whether or not those folks will like or agree with what I have to say.

So here we go: This is the first post in my Lenten series for 2014.