Monday, August 24, 2009

Fantasy and Christians

I am 22 years old and I have a love for fantasy. Be it the Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Twilight, or even Disney movies, I will probably love it. And I have been thinking, as a Christian, how right is it to love these stories? I was in junior high when the evil Harry Potter emerged from the shadows, and I witnessed a large influx of Christians going to great lengths to give reasons why nobody in their right(eous) minds should read these books. As a result, for many years I assumed these books were horrible, and I did not become a fan of the Boy Who Lived until half-way through high school when I finally read the books for myself.

I have witnessed many Christians bash fantasy, mainly stories such as Harry Potter or Twilight—probably because these have been among the most popular. While I can see both the good and bad in these stories, I wonder why we go to such great lengths to speak out against them—and not other things. I wonder how many of these people are willing to sit and watch other movies produced by the Hollywood industry—movies that, I might add, are far more likely to contain language or sexual content than a fantasy movie directed at the younger generation; yes, even more than Twilight. Why is it that when a story includes an element of magic or myth, we only then choose to be wary? I will tell you right now, I love Harry Potter. I also think Edward Cullen is one of the most brilliantly thought-up characters—really. I grew up on Disney movies and continue to love them, and am a little kid at Disney World. I’m a Christian who loves fantasy.

I wonder why the same Christians who speak out against Harry Potter aren’t coming forward to speak against Lord of the Rings. These movies contain elements of magic, wizards, and the mythical. Even Chronicles of Narnia does, although I do realize that this series is a portrayal of the Bible, so if you are wary of fantasy this is a safer option. However, Chronicles of Narnia does contain many mythical creatures, which I find interesting (centaurs, minotaurs, sea monsters, talking animals, trees that are alive, etc). While I definitely am not against fantasy, I don’t believe that people should be consumed with these stories either. There needs to be a balance.

I think that where the real problem arises in fantasy, or any other book or movie, is when we allow it to become the center of our lives. Believe me, I spent three fourths of my Christmas vacation last year reading the Twilight series. It practically consumed me. And that is where I think the problem arises with anything. It becomes our idol, our god, and replaces our time with God. I attribute my obsession with Twilight in December to the beginning of a spiritual dry spell, one which I am still struggling to get out of. But I don’t think that Twilight itself caused it, because I know that I caused it. I take responsibility for it myself, having made the choice to spend hours a day reading the books instead of with God and my family—and not wanting to spend the energy it takes to do what I know I need to.

I’m not here to encourage anyone to start reading Harry Potter or Twilight. Whether or not you think it’s right or wrong is your business, but I suppose I would like for people to think about why Harry Potter is bad, but why a story like Lord of the Rings is ok, or any other movie in Hollywood that might contain “a few” negative elements that are outweighed by the “positive” elements. I simply want to raise the question about Christians’ often selective hatred for the fantasy genre. It is a subject that has bothered me for a few years now, and I wonder why we can’t allow these stories to raise some real questions rather than completely disregard them.

All in all, I think that fantasy is one of those disputable issues spoken of in Romans 14. We so often pass judgment on other Christians for such things. We can be so petty! Be it fantasy, books, movies, or anything, I think that as Christians we have to be very careful. However, I feel that this attitude towards fantasy gives Christians this air of superiority over others. You watch Harry Potter? But I thought you were a Christian! Surely a good Christian would condemn young Potter and all his wizarding ways. And don’t you know Dumbledore is gay?!” I have gotten a bit of this attitude from Christian friends when they are appalled to find out I’m a fan. We should definitely question things, but I think that Christians are so quick to point fingers toward those who love fantasy. Don't want to watch fantasy? Fine. In the end it's your choice to go by what your convictions are, but think twice about your other entertainment choices before pointing fingers.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Grace Feels Like a Cop-Out

You know how people talk about how easy it was to be a child? Free food, free clothes, free shelter, free love, etc. "I wish I could be a kid again." We only ever say things like this once we grow up and realize that nothing -NOTHING- is free or easy. It has been ingrained in my mind that nothing is free. Nothing. In shopping, sales require you to buy one to "get one free". Free (legal) downloads on the internet? I have to submit my email and receive spam for the next five years. Even when someone does you a favor, there's an incalculable obligation and all of a sudden you're in their debt for a simple, friendly favor.

Was reading a book the other night that was talking about "God finding us" after we wander. The author made it sound so easy. "Just come home and let Me hold you, protect you, cleanse you from the world that ravages your very soul". Just come home and let someone else do all the work. Let someone else take over. Give up control and receive an amazing gift.

I can't help it. I just don't understand grace. Really. I get something for free? Something I don't deserve? Can never deserve? And you'll fix everything? Grace doesn't make sense. I realize that what I outlined there is a very simplistic view of Grace and missing probably quite a few bullet points, but that's the vague gist I get. Not only do I not understand it, but even in those few moments where I think I might know, I can't ever give up the control.

My life hasn't been incredibly difficult, but neither has it been a walk down Easy Street. Maybe this is just another place where the supposedly-American 'can-do' attitude and that cursed 'American Dream' is really going to do me no good at all. I have worked hard for things I now feel that I have earned or that I deserve. I have struggled to get my life under control, my control and to suddenly give up the reins and accept a free gift while I'm at it feels like a cop-out. Grace feels like a cop-out.

"I cannot escape the exceeding wonder that not only does God look upon a guilty person in the court room and exercise clemency and forgive him and say, 'You're guilty, I forgive you, go and sin no more', but he also, beyond all imagination, looks upon this guilty sinner and does not just say 'You're guilty, I forgive you' he says 'You're not guilty.' I mean forgiveness is understandable --just a little bit understandable. We kind of had some way to get our hands around forgiveness: you let it go; you don't hold it against them. But this looks me right in the face, right in the face, sinner that I am, and says 'Righteous'." -John Piper

Buchanan, Anne and Tammy Maltby. 2008. "Confessions of a Good Christian Girl". Thomas Nelson: Nashville.

Friday, August 14, 2009


Dear Reader,

As I am currently the sole male contributor to this blog, I thought I would submit a post on the topic of masculinity. My first idea was simple yet profound: a post containing nothing but random words and phrases relating to masculinity. “Football,” “Bud Light” (although I prefer Sam Adams or Yuengling if I have to drink beer), “Sperries” (just learned this name yesterday although I’ve known what it was all my life—it’s a boating shoe popular with upper-middle-class Southern frat boys), “growl,” “ESPN,” “Braveheart,” “corvette,” “jackhammer,” “remote control,” “golf,” and “beating the shit out of someone,” et. al.

Then I decided it would be slightly more constructive to talk about how masculinity is defined in our culture and by the Church. How do these definitions differ? How do they reinforce each other? How could they be improved upon? How are they right or wrong, logical or completely stupid, beneficial or destructive? But that, I realized, was a post that would require significant research and patience on my part, and as I am generally lazy, this did not agree with my natural inclinations whatsoever.

I toyed with the idea of “opening up” (not a phrase to be automatically or instinctively joined with the ones listed above). I could talk about what I think masculinity looks like from my own point of view. I can assure you ladies that we guys do have an easier time of being single in the church. We’re expected to be less mature and need far more time before we “settle down,” but we are expected to do so eventually, and the cultural wedding clock is ticking, although not as quickly or as loud as yours.

But opening up—that’s sissy stuff.

I can’t deny that I prefer to watch a 1940s mystery like The Big Sleep rather than “Movies For Guys Who Like Movies” (i.e. Dirty Harry or Point Break or something with Jean Claude Van Damme or Bruce Willis). Although I have to admit that Die Hard is one of THE most exciting movies of all time. And watching football is only a little less boring to me than watching C-Span or Senator Joseph Lieberman (or worse, Joseph Lieberman on C-Span…talking about football. That would be really bad. On the other hand, insomniacs would rejoice at finally discovering a cure that works.)

I eagerly await a Facebook quiz entitled “How Masculine Are You?” I’m a big fan of self-diagnosis by way of the internet. It saves me a trip to the doctor and lots of money and also the burden of having to “open up.” I’m relieved to report to you that this means I will probably pass the impending Facebook masculinity quiz.

I have noticed that within the church there is this sort of “Battle of the Sexes.” Not in the Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn-Adam’s Rib way, but this sort of social construct that says “birds of a feather flock together.” Boys hang out with boys and girls hang out with girls. Won’t dispute the healthy, natural importance of this. It is important. Very important. On the other hand, a little integration could go a long way in helping students to be able to converse with the opposite sex in ways other than awkward, irritating, or restraining-order-inducing.

I close, with these thoughts, dear Reader: We ought never to define ourselves solely by our masculinity—or femininity, as it is the lifelong work of childhood bullies, nosy church wives, and facebook quizzes, to forever undermine our security on either side of the pendulum. And in the words of someone very wise, “I’m afraid I’ve run out of things to say.”

Friday, August 7, 2009

Church Street

Would you believe a street with such an unassuming name is the hub of night life in downtown Orlando? Yes, these bar-lined sidewalks crawl with stilettos and smoky eyes and, though I lived in Orlando for four years, the sheer irony of Church Street did not hit me until I was back for a visit recently. On a balmy summer night, I found myself downtown to celebrate a friend’s birthday and for some reason I could not shake the eerie sensation that I was standing on holy ground.

Now, hear me. I am not condoning weekend orgies. Nor am I prohibiting a night on the town. Honestly, I am a bit out of my element in the hazy atmosphere. I soon tire of shouting to be heard. I squirm at inevitable contact with strange figures. But with a group of friends, a drink and night of dancing can be fun. And on that particular evening this summer, as I fingered a martini and dug my elbow into the slick counter of a downtown bar, I wondered at the desperate immediacy of the hunger around me. Bodies and souls entwined on that grinding dance floor. No mistaking the dingy sacredness of that room, a yawning cathedral, where men and women gathered weekly to worship and feast. Ginger nods and the curl of cherry lips acknowledged familiar faces. People shook the dust of the week at the door and drowned their sorrows. Absolut. Corona. Jack Daniels. Stolen kisses. Reckless moments.

We are all hungry wanderers in search of communal, life-giving experiences. While some file into Sunday-morning pews among candles and liturgy, others flock to disco ball and pulsing beats. Neckties and plaid skirts costume church-goers while skin spills out of lace and leather of the devout on Church Street. Though dress code and behavior differ, thirsty hopes and fearful aches are the same. Hence, the following lines of poetry conceived in my mind that night, born of sadness and conviction. Sorrow for these silhouettes who may feel disappointed tomorrow or, more likely, will feel just fine. Sad because I, too, love to gorge my heart on hollow, frozen gods. I am just better at hiding, skilled in erecting a tidy exterior. So much easier to enter church with an apathetic, critical and selfish eye. I rarely wear desperation on my sleeve.

Church Street

Ring the bells, tinkle
of martini glasses
and whiskey sour. Pick
me please
on porcelain faces, silent
call to worship. Ladies drink
for free tonight, so come
ye weary, find rest
in a sea of fractured
light and lurching
beats where hollow
and holy break
body, sip blood.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

What Matters More In Jesusland

When I first heard mention of the song "Jesusland" by Ben Folds, I was a little wary. I was expecting a song of mockery and ranting against the evils of religion, or some such. What I got was a moving melody and a bittersweet lyric of cultural (Christian and secular) commentary that brought me to tears at the first listen.
"Town to town
broadcast to each house, they drop your name
but no one knows your face
Billboards quoting things you'd never say
you hang your head and pray".
Ben Folds has said that the song was written to be a view through Jesus' eyes if he came back to see what had happened to the land that was originally founded as "Jesusland". It seems slightly ironic that this honest appraisal comes from a non-Christian secular artist and disappointing that this kind of examination is not more prevalent in popular contemporary Christian music (CCM).

While I had grown up on the likes of Caedmon's Call, Derek Webb (one of Caedmon's former lead singers) was actually an acquired taste for me. The folk rock/country sound usually featured in his music was never really my 'thing', as I tended to lean towards stuff with more of a jazz/blues foundation. However in recent years what drew me to Derek's music was not the music as much as it was the lyrics and his timely messages for the Christian community.
"If I can tell what's in your heart by what comes out of your mouth
Then it sure looks to me like being straight is all it's about
It looks like being hated for all the wrong things
Like chasin' the wind while the pendulum swings".
The powerful lyrics on the new album, plus a new and different sound make this well worth the listen.

There are several themes that jump out at me when I study these lyrics. The one that seems most prevalent in both "Jesusland" and "What Matters More" is the sadness at the lack of action in the religious community of today. Webb sings to the people who "don't give a shit / about 50,000 people who are dying today", noting the relative silence on subjects of world hunger and genocide in comparison to more favorable or fashionable christian causes. Folds, too, touches on the inaction of Christians. His lyrics about "parking lots / cracked and growing grass" portray a broken down city without a cure in sight. Even more gripping is the imagery in the second stanza of walking through a city brimming with apparent prosperity, but never truly seeing the people; we "still / have yet to see a soul".

"Jesusland" covers the subject of materialism which is even more illuminated by a view of the music video. Against a backdrop of melancholy music and heartfelt words, a televangelist with ring-laden fingers sells guaranteed "miracle-working holy water" juxtaposed with pictures of a decaying city and devotees sitting in front of ramshackle houses and boarded up shops. He even goes so far as to mention the "McMansions" that have come to equate happiness and the American Dream in our culture -even in our religion today with the excess of 'Christian' merchandise and even books promoting material gain as evidence of a strong prayer life.

Folds' composition touches on the disconnect between Christians and the culture they are professing to reach. Webb, too, has a point to make about the dichotomy between what Christians are called to and what they do instead. Webb plays on the Golden Rule (Luke 6:31), remarking that "you say you always treat people like you like to be" and goes on to bring up the example of the conservative Christian community's evident animosity toward homosexual people and the gay rights movement.

What I get from both of these songs is an overwhelming sense that the Christian community has lost it's focus. Reverence for God; for our fellow man have been pushed aside in favor of consumerism Christianity and material religion. There is a difference between being a 'light in the darkness' and being so isolated that we lose touch with the rest of the world.

"Jesusland" by Ben Folds

Take a walk
out the gate you go and never stop
past all the stores and wig shops
quarter in a cup for every block
and watch the buildings grow
smaller as you go

Down the tracks
beautiful McMansions on a hill
that overlook a highway
with riverboat casinos and you still
have yet to see a soul

Town to town
broadcast to each house, they drop your name
but no one knows your face
Billboards quoting things you'd never say
you hang your head and pray

for Jesusland

Miles and miles
and the sun goin' down
Pulses glow
from their homes
You're not alone
Lights come on
as you lay your weary head on their lawn

Parking lots
cracked and growing grass you see it all
from offices to farms
crosses flying high above the malls
A longer walk

through Jesusland


"What Matters More" by Derek Webb

"You say you always treat people like you like to be
I guess you love being hated for your sexuality
You love when people put words in your mouth
'Bout what you believe, make you sound like a freak

'Cause if you really believe what you say you believe
You wouldn't be so damn reckless with the words you speak
Wouldn't silently conceal when the liars speak
Denyin' all the dyin' of the remedy

Tell me, brother, what matters more to you?
Tell me, sister, what matters more to you?

If I can tell what's in your heart by what comes out of your mouth
Then it sure looks to me like being straight is all it's about
It looks like being hated for all the wrong things
Like chasin' the wind while the pendulum swings

'Cause we can talk and debate until we're blue in the face
About the language and tradition that he's comin' to save.
Meanwhile we sit just like we don't give a shit
About 50,000 people who are dyin' today

Tell me, brother, what matters more to you?
Tell me, sister, what matters more to you?"


Folds, Ben. 2005. Jesusland From Songs for Silverman. New York: Epic Records.
Mishan, Ahrin. dir., 2005. Jesusland. 4 min. New York: Epic Records.
Webb, Derek. 2009. What Matters More From Stockholm Syndrome. Nashville: INO Records.