Don Draper is an Ad, Man

Mad Men, one of the best television shows in history, will always be known as “more than just a show about advertising,” in the same way Friday Night Lights is “more than just a show about football.” And yet Mad Men is, in an important sense, about advertising. Its characters, relationships, themes and mood should all be viewed through the lens of advertising.

I’ve done some work in advertising. I’ve written ads, developed slogans, pitched concepts. I know that advertising is about positioning something in the most attractive light, selling the idealized version of it, convincing people that their lives would be improved by purchasing it. Though some advertising is flat-out deceptive, in most cases there is at least some connection between “how it’s sold” and “what it is.” But the reality is that “what it is” rarely lives up to its advertised billing.

But isn’t this how humans live? Particularly today, with the aid of social media posturing and Photoshop touchups, our existential inclination to “sell” an idealized version of our self is easier than ever. Mad Men is set in a pre-Instagram world, but the disconnect between true identity and projected ideal is central to most of the story arcs of its characters, none more than Don Draper (Jon Hamm) himself.

Don Draper isn’t real; he’s an advertisement. He’s an ad man who is also an ad, man. He is a story Dick Whitman is telling about America and self-made men. He is a Gatsby-esque myth of building an identity from scratch, becoming very rich and attractive, a well-dressed, well-coiffed, well-spoken ad man who women want and men want to be. But as we see so vividly throughout the seven seasons of Mad Men, the real Don Draper (Dick Whitman) is a broken, messy, vulnerable man. In the same way that he sells some toxic things (cigarettes, the eventual undoing of his ex-wife Betty) in attractive packaging through his Lucky Strike ads in the pilot episode, Don is from the very beginning selling himself in the same way: A cool, confident, necessary, powerful man. Yet he’s empty inside, severely broken and far less composed than he lets on. To his wives, his kids, his many mistresses and colleagues, Don frequently falls short of the “as advertised” ideal.

But there is another way Don Draper is a metaphor for advertising. Advertising is about commodification. It’s about leveraging real emotion to drive transactions. In the transitional era of advertising which Mad Men depicts, advertising begins to blur the lines between real human feelings and financial transactions.

It’s fitting, then, that Don Draper’s experience of life, emotion and relationships is largely transactional. It’s about earning and payment, giving and getting. Having been raised in a whorehouse, Don’s skewed sense of romance is deeply informed by literal transactions: “love” for a price. This manifests itself throughout the show as he struggles to view women beyond this “transactional” sense, viewing them (and himself) as simply commodities being exchanged. In both love and advertising, Don is painfully aware that what is bought is never satisfying, yet he can’t seem to live in any other way. Is there something else to life beyond the give-and-take transaction?

The show’s final episodes [spoilers from here on] end with Don on a last-ditch search for that “something else.” His cross-country roadtrip — reminiscent of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road or any of a number of 1970s road movies (e.g. Easy Rider, Two-Lane Blacktop) — leads him to a hippie commune on the California coast. It is here, in the series finale, aptly titled “Person-to-Person,” that Don comes to an epiphany: Relationships needn’t be transactional; love needn’t be bought. Connection can be free, a grace given and received between two people, so long as they are willing to set aside pride, be vulnerable and accept love.

This epiphany may or may not inspire in Don the idea for the relationally altruistic Coke commercial (“I’d like to buy the world a Coke”) that is the show’s final scene; regardless, the lesson is learned. Up until the final moments of the series, Don is still stuck in the transactional framework. He sleeps with a girl early in the final episode and pays her. He phones Betty with hopes of offering her something (“I’m coming home”) only to be denied. He hands a wad of cash to the woman who shows him to his room at the commune (“You are so generous!”). He needs to be needed. (See his $1 million check to ex-wife Megan in episode 708, “Severance”).

Don’s armor begins to break when he makes an operator-assisted, “person-to-person” call to Peggy, the woman on the show who knows him most truly. As he lays himself bare to Peggy ( “I broke all my vows. I scandalized by child. I took another man’s name and made nothing of it.”), she responds with grace. And yet Don is not yet in a place to accept it. He hangs up before she can talk him off the proverbial ledge.

This is but one of many “person-to-person” phone calls in the episode, “connections” that come with a cost to the caller (literally) in the transactional sense. Don also calls his daughter Sally and wife Betty. Joan calls Peggy. Peggy calls Stan. Notably, many of these conversations are followed up later with in-person, “free” connections: Joan meets Peggy at a restaurant. Stan leaves his phone-call with Peggy mid-stream and runs to see her in person. The episode is pushing us to see the true, non-transactional magic of in-person, vulnerable connection.

Indeed, Don fully cracks only in the physical presence of a stranger, Leonard, whose monologue at the retreat causes Don to break down and embrace a man he doesn’t know but deeply understands. Leonard’s monologue resonates with Don: feeling unnecessary, unable to receive love unless he is giving as much as he gets. “No one cares that I’m gone,” says Leonard, who describes a dream where he is a product in a refrigerator that no one ever reaches for. Something clicks for Don, who has heretofore struggled to receive love freely given, when Leonard describes his own inability to understand and accept love: “You spend your whole life thinking you’re not getting it, that people aren’t giving it to you. Then you realize they’re trying, and you don’t even know what it is.”

When Don gets up and wraps his arms around Leonard — two broken men in awkward, ugly-cry embrace — it is as beautiful a picture of grace as has ever been seen on the show, reminiscent perhaps of the tender embrace of Don and Peggy in episode 706 (“The Strategy”). It is an embrace that signals release, freedom, the willingness to let the “real self” be known and to lay aside the “advertised self.” It is an embrace that allows Don to receive grace, to go back to New York (if that is indeed what he does) debt-free.Don and Leonard

Similar moments in “Person-to-Person” happen with other characters who, in the midst of the messiness of the past, forgive one another and accept grace, person-to-person: Former lovers Joan and Roger share a laugh and wish each other well (though note how this also has a “transactional” layer as Roger leaves part of his fortune to Joan and her son). Pete and Trudy reconcile and start afresh. Roger and Marie choose each other in marriage, amidst their bickering and flaws. Peggy allows herself to accept Stan’s love.

As the series ends with what will become one of television’s all time most iconic shots (“Smiling Zen Don Draper”), Don appears to have found redemption. Yet it doesn’t come from within, as the guru’s transcendental meditation suggests (“New day. New ideas. New you. Ommmmm.”) It comes from Don’s moment of weakness and vulnerability in allowing himself to be accepted: not as a product that needs a slick advertisement in order to be chosen, but as a sinner who knows he needs grace.

What Proximity is Worth

In my mind this post began as a recap of Q Boston, an attempt to make connections between the disparate array of presentations and conversations that took place during its 2.5 stimulating days. Much has been made of the focus of this year’s Q conference on the church’s “gay dilemma,” a subject explicitly addressed by at least six speakers and implicitly by several more. I’ll say more on that later, but there was more to Q than LGBTQ discussions, and the myriad of ideas, problems, provocations and prophetic calls offered from the Q stage each deserve far more analysis than could be offered here. Plus, I wouldn’t know where to begin.

One of the downsides of a conference like Q (but also one of its selling points) is the overwhelming nature of its programming–a fire hose of as many trending topics as can be squished into two and a half days. The idea, I think, is that something will stick with each attendee in a profound way, or that the cumulative effect on the influencers present will be to go back home to spread the “stay curious, think well, advance good” ethos in existing communities and networks. A valuable aim, to be sure.

But I think there can be a bit of a numbing effect too–a “where do I begin?” paralysis that results when one Most Important Idea after another comes at you with little context, little time to process (aside from a meal conversation here or a coffee break there) and little connection to the sorts of long-term relationships where real change happens. In a way it’s reflective of how one experiences the world through the “feeds” of Facebook and Twitter: an article about ISIS followed by an op-ed on religious freedom followed by suffering in Syria followed by an opinion on gay marriage followed by a joke and a video and statistics and personality tests, and so on… A schizophrenic stream of passionate ideas embedded in only the loosest of social ties capable of spawning tangible action.

In On Christian Doctrine, Augustine writes about what we are to do with the “where do I begin” dilemma in the face of all the problems and suffering in the world:

“Since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special regard to those who, by the accidents of time, or place, or circumstance, are brought into closer connection with you.”

Proximity. The needs, the people, the relationships right in front of you.

This is an idea I’ve been pondering a lot lately, from a variety of different directions. Since being married, my wife and I have seen our respective friend groups change; the people who’ve emerged as the most important have (surprise!) turned out to be the ones who are most proximate in our church, workplace and city.

Being a blogger and writer on the Internet, there are many amazing people from all over the world who I “know” and have occasional online exchanges with. On rare occasions I get to meet them in person at things like Q, and it’s a delight for which I am very grateful. But more and more I see that the relationships that matter most are the ones right in front of me: My wife, church, neighbors, co-workers, the members of the life group I lead, the college students I teach or mentor. These are the people who inhabit my incarnational reality, who show up in my daily and weekly rhythms, who know me in an integrated way. These are the people I grow with. If any of the ideas I gleaned from Q are to develop into good-advancing action, it will be in collaboration with these people.Q Ideas

This is not to diminish the goodness of my digital friends, contacts and social network; nor the value in attending annual conferences like Q. It’s just to say (and it probably goes without saying) that the “back home” relationships, particularly in the local church, should be the priority. But this is harder than it sounds. It’s easier to find a tribe of like-minded kindred spirits online or at national conferences; much harder to make community work with the “hand you’ve been dealt” in physical proximity. As my pastor likes to say, it’s often harder to love and serve the guy across the street, the crotchety landlady, the awkward coworker, than it is to go on a mission trip to Myanmar or support a cause on the other side of the world. People who go to the ends of the earth or take up “radical” calls are to be commended, of course, but the “ordinary” calling of domestic faithfulness and commitment to community is never to be diminished. Augustine is right: We should show “special regard” for what and who is right in front of us.

As idea heavy as Q Boston was, one of the thematic main ideas of the conference was that people should matter at least as much as ideas, communities as much as concepts. One speaker suggested that entrepreneurs build successful businesses not by thinking of ideas but by focusing on people, observing them and caring for them. This was evidenced in speakers like Dana Tanamachi, a graphic designer who got her start designing chalk art for her friends’ parties in Brooklyn, and parlayed that into a business with clients like Nike and Oprah.

Michael Gerson’s talk (one of my favorites) suggested Pope Francis as a model of cultural engagement for contemporary evangelicalism. Why? Because while Francis holds firm on certain convictions and concepts, he is resolutely people-centric and relationally oriented. Too often evangelicals have chosen principles over people, Gerson suggested, but Francis is a model for balancing both.

The false dichotomy of “people vs principles” was on fascinating display during the LGBTQ discussions, particularly a panel that included Gabe Lyons interviewing David Gushee and Dan Kimball. Both Gushee and Kimball have felt the tension of being relationally proximate to LGBTQ people while wanting to hold to biblical principles that preclude same-sex marriage. Gushee started with the traditional view but then changed his mind after he came to have relationships with gay people. Kimball grew up with gay friends and didn’t think anything of it; only after he became an evangelical and encountered Scripture’s witness on the matter did he feel any tension between what he believed and the people he knew. While Gushee decided he couldn’t hold the two in tension and ultimately re-interpreted Scripture through the lens of his relationships, Kimball concluded that he must hold Scripture’s authority above the authority of relationship/experience, but that this did not foreclose the possibility of having loving, profound friendships with LGBTQ people.

The idea that two people cannot be in relationship with one another and simultaneously hold conflicting convictions is simply silly. Loving, civil, productive disagreement is admittedly a hard thing, but it’s possible. It’s necessary. People like Robert George and Cornel West, Princeton friends and colleagues who hold vastly differing views on most things, model it well. Just watch their recent discussion at Biola. The Biola University Center for Christian Thought also models it well, holding entire conferences on the value of collegial disagreement and living it out each year by bringing scholars from varying backgrounds to campus to pursue truth together (note: not always agreeing). Gabe Lyons and Andrew Sullivan, who spoke together on stage at Q Boston, are another model. They’ve become friends in spite of their agreeing to disagree on matters of sexuality (among other things).

Each of these examples showcases mutual respect, empathy, listening and love. But note how each is born out of proximity. These people are not online-only friends, speaking to each other from behind screens and trading tweets and blog barbs. They have offline relationships. Their connections are premised on more than just principles. They are to one another more than just @names who hold opinions. They are image-bearers of Christ, the fleshly neighbors we are called to love.

It can be easy in today’s world to live, breathe and lose oneself in ideas. Profound think-piece articles, fascinating documentaries, books, blogs, even entire college courses, have never been more abundant and accessible. There are great things about this, but also risks. We risk becoming bored, disenchanted or disconnected from the everyday rhythms and proximate communities that actually shape us.

Because make no mistake: It is the proximate that shapes us most. The physical, embodied rhythms of worship in community shape our desires (see Jamie Smith). If we lose the proximate community because we are distracted and lost in the chaotic maelstrom and unintelligible multivocality of Internet community, we lose everything. Perhaps that’s why calls to embrace more localized, intentional communities (for the sake of preservation, among other things) ring so true. It’s what Rod Dreher spoke of with “The Benedict Option” at Q Boston (another of my favorite talks).

To be able to grow in mind and character as part of a community with shared convictions, to have weekly rhythms with the same church family, to be able to sit around a table with people regularly, to embrace them, to cry and laugh and grow together, to disagree in love and debate without starting a flame war … this is what proximity is worth.*

*The title of this post is inspired by a lyric from one of my favorite songs of last year, “Parade,” by The Antlers: “When the streets get flooded, we know what proximity’s worth, ‘cause we’re already here, in the same place when our phones don’t work.”

Things I’ve Learned From C.S. Lewis

The world didn’t take much notice of C.S. Lewis on November 22, 1963, the day he died. It was too frenzied by the shocking assassination of John F. Kennedy, which occurred in Dallas about an hour after Lewis died in his Oxford home, The Kilns. Every moment of JFK’s assassination aftermath and funeral was watched by the world. His exit of this life had the attention of billions. Lewis departed quietly. Word of his death traveled slowly to many of his friends, and his funeral was poorly attended.

Lewis’ inauspicious end, however, was doubtless for him the most auspicious of beginnings. That day, before all hell broke loose on Dealey Plaza, all heaven broken open for Lewis, and for the first time the longings he so eloquently articulated in life were satiated; the weight of glory made material. On that day, he drank joy from the fountain of joy.

csl

50 years later, Lewis is still drinking that joy–tasting at the fountainhead that stream of which we can only taste the lower reaches (but even so how intoxicating!). Meanwhile, for us, “the cross comes before the crown and tomorrow is a Monday morning.” But we carry on. And at least for me, the carrying on is a whole lot easier because of Lewis.

I’ve learned a lot from the man. His words have played a significant role in my spiritual, intellectual and professional development. Even before I spent a week living at the Kilns, sleeping in the room he slept in, I felt him to be a kindred spirit–a man who gave eloquent expression to my “inconsolable secret” and awareness of Sehnsucht.

The first time I visited Oxford was absolute magic. The “city of dreaming spires” was indeed a dream. One of the unforgettable moments from that first trip was an evening worship service at the University Church of St. Mary as part of the C.S. Lewis Foundation’s Oxbridge 2005 conference. Part of the program was a reading by British actor Joss Ackland of the entire text of “The Weight of Glory,” a sermon delivered by C.S. Lewis in the same church in 1941. It was quite something to hear those words–one of the most eloquent and profound sermons I’ve ever heard–in that church, on a humid summer evening likely similar to the summer night on which Lewis originally delivered the address.

Since then, “The Weight of Glory” has become one of my favorite Lewis works. It manages to capture an amazing amount of truth, beauty and longing in just a few short pages. I’ve read it a dozen or so times, and in re-reading it this week it struck me that there are a few key ideas that have particularly impacted me:

“We are far too easily pleased.”

The first part of “The Weight of Glory” examines desire and debunks the notion that it is wrong to desire too much; rather, argues Lewis, we desire too little:

If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and to eagerly hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion…is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

This idea rang so true for me. I had sensed, ever since I was a young boy, that my deepest experiences of joy were often intimately tied with longing. I loved reading great books and watching awe-inspiring movies. I loved traveling and camping and exploring the creeks and rivers of my Oklahoma youth. But each of these things only fanned the flames of exploration and the longing in my soul. They whispered of even greater wonders. And that was the joy. It was the realization that what stirred my heart most when I encountered something beautiful was not the thing itself; but the reality that it was only a glimpse of something more. “They are only the scent of a flower we have not found,” wrote Lewis, “the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

“We cannot mingle with the splendours we see.”

One of my favorite sections of “The Weight of Glory” comes when Lewis elaborates on the bittersweet longing we feel when we encounter beauty:

We usually notice it just as the moment of vision dies away, as the music ends, or as the landscape loses the celestial light… For a few minutes we have had the illusion of belonging to that world. Now we wake to find that it is no such thing. We have been mere spectators. Beauty has smiled, but not to welcome us; her face turned in our direction, but not to see us. We have not been accepted, welcomed, or taken into the dance. We may go when we please, we may stay if we can, no one cares. Now, a scientist may reply that since most of the things we call beautiful are inanimate it is not very surprising that they take no notice of us. That, of course, is true. It is not the physical objects that I am speaking of, but that indescribable Something of which they become for a moment the messengers. And part of the bitterness which mixes with the sweetness of that message is due to the fact that it so seldom seems to be a message intended for us, but rather something we have overheard. By bitterness I mean pain, not resentment. We should hardly dare to ask that any notice be taken of ourselves. But we pine. The sense that in the universe we are treated as strangers, the longing to be acknowledged, to meet with some response, the bridge some chasm that yawns between us and reality, is part of our inconsolable secret.

This section illuminated for me a connection between my faith and my love of art and culture. The longings stirred up within me through a beautiful film or a beautiful sunset were exactly as Lewis describes: unsatisfied desires to not just observe something so beautiful but to be a part of it. And yet there are barriers: “we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see.” For Lewis this is a reflection of the now-but-not-yet nature of glory, which he defines as the fact of being noticed and known by God, more fully than we have ever been known before (1 Corinthians 13:12). There’s a sorrow wrapped up within our present joy because we know the beauty, goodness and truth we touch in this life are only “through a mirror dimly.” But one day we’ll see the glory face to face. Lewis saw the glory 50 years ago today.

“There are no ordinary people.”

For Lewis, the “weight” of glory is the mind-blowing reality that we will one day be in the presence of God and a pleasure to Him, “a real ingredient in the divine happiness … to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son.” This improbable notion is the weight of glory. But weightier still is the reality that every human we’ll ever know–our neighbors, our classmates, our enemies–will either be glory-filled in heaven or gloriously hideous in hell, and “all day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.”

What are the implications of this in our day to day lives? What Lewis says here is truly convicting, especially at a time when it seems so easy to abstract our enemies or wish ill upon the many people we encounter everyday (hundreds on Facebook, for example) who are irksome or difficult to abide:

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinners – no mere tolerance, or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.

As with much of what I read in Lewis, I pray that I take these words to heart. I pray that I would always seek the “infinite joy that is offered us,” and that I would gladly, gracefully bear the weight of glory as Lewis did.

Lost At Sea, in Space, in the Cloud

Two of my favorite films of recent months, Gravity and All is Lost, have more than a few things in common. Both are basically one-man or one-woman shows about individuals trying to survive in an incomprehensibly vast wilderness. Gravity finds Sandra Bullock desperately attempting to return to terra firma after being stranded in space. All is Lost shows Robert Redford (in a mostly silent, yet tour de force performance) lost in the Indian Ocean after his solo yacht venture goes awry. Both films are very much about the visceral, unnerving feeling of alone-ness; both are about the frailty and contingency of man in an often-hostile universe, but also man’s ingenuity, adaptability and cleverness in survival mode. Both are very good films that you should see before they leave theaters.

Another survival-story of sorts: Blockbuster video. The once-dominant video store chain survived the digital revolution (and transition to cloud-based media consumption) longer than many expected. Yet as we knew it would eventually, Blockbuster announced this week that it will soon be closing its final 300 stores and ending its DVD-by-mail service.

The death of Blockbuster, following the death of the record store and the local bookstore (Barnes and Nobles will surely not survive much longer), marks the ongoing transition to a new era in which cultural commerce unfolds no longer in any sort of common, physical Third Place, but in a digital diaspora wherein individuals personally access streams and store (I wouldn’t say “collect”) media for their convenient consumption. And while this iMedia world has its advantages (the ability to access millions of songs and movies on one’s phone with just a few clicks and swipes), it also has severe drawbacks.

all is lostSuch as: Are we losing a sense of common culture? Perhaps that is an outdated question. To the extent that it ever existed (in America for instance) “common culture” has been rapidly dissipating since at least the 1960s. Still, I wonder if the post-Blockbuster world of cloud-based media consumption is making it ever more unlikely that “culture” or “the arts” or “media” will be something that in the future pulls people together in unifying experiences, discussions and debates. After all, we don’t have to talk to anyone anymore (not even a person behind a counter!) when we purchase a movie, an album, a book. From start to finish, our entire experience of pop culture can happen through one little screen and/or one pair of headphones, wholly unique to us and totally tailored to our tastes, preferences and whims.

With everyone becoming their own self-styled curator, commentator, and ala carte consumer, and with the Internet exponentially subdividing niches, genres, and micro-communities for any of a billion interests, it seems implausible that “common” anything will survive the 21st century. As much as the Internet has gotten mileage out of the “connectedness” metaphor, it seems to be more adept at making us isolated consumers with the power to curate consumer pathways and narrative webs entirely on our own timetables and at our own discretion. We are subject to no one and nothing but our “instant” whims and desires; the curatorial power of “gatekeepers” has been diminished; metanarratives have been long deconstructed. We’re on our own, lost in the vast wilderness of the consumptive “cloud.”

Perhaps this is why the theme of “isolation” seems ever more ubiquitous in our cultural narratives. The solo shows of Gravity and All is Lost are not (of course) overt commentaries on 21st century media consumption trends. But I do think the subtext is there. We are alone, navigating our way in a free-for-all space. There’s a freedom in that. But also a terror. It’s a reverse claustrophobia: a fear of too many choices, too many open roads, too few guides and too little guidance.

One sees the isolation elsewhere. Mad Men’s Don Draper and Breaking Bad’s Walter White are quintessentially American anti-heroes: stubbornly independent, allergic to attachment and subsequently desperately alone. Walt White’s Whitman-esque “Song of Myself” in Breaking Bad–often played out in the vast, unforgiving landscapes of the desert Southwest–illustrates the sobering reality that utter independence often leads to wayward isolation. To a lesser extent, Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha conveys a similar, albeit more humorous, sense of freedom as isolation in the character of Frances (Greta Gerwig), a twentysomething hipster whose freewheeling decisions to go to Paris on a whim, for example, or to literally dance in the streets of Manhattan, only deepen her directionless despair. It’s perhaps noteworthy that the free spirit dancing pose of the Frances Ha poster resembles the iconic iPod ads featuring silhouette bodies solo dancing against a bright neon background.

gravityAre these movie and TV narratives reflecting the unforeseen isolation of the iPod age? As we further individualize our mediated and cultured lives and embrace the freedom to dance to whatever cultural beat we like, are we simply left spinning and dizzy? That’s certainly the way I felt after watching Gravity and, to a lesser extent, All is Lost: dizzy, unsteady, destabilized, sea-sick. I was left feeling hungry for ballast, for anchors, for solidity; for something outside of myself to offer orientation.

Because going to Blockbuster on a Friday night used to be overwhelming enough. But at least the options were finite. These days the sheer ubiquity of all that is available, all that is recommended, all that is buzzed about in ceaseless streams of 140-character bursts, leaves me with a bit of vertigo: spinning like Sandra Bullock in Gravity, pulled in a million directions at the mercy of vacuity, untethered and uncertain which way is up.

Body Politics in the Films of Steve McQueen

With his new film 12 Years a Slave earning rave reviews and Oscar buzz, British filmmaker Steve McQueen–whose background is in fine art and experimental filmmaking–is poised to become a darling of this year’s awards season. Accolades are pouring in for McQueen’s Slave for its powerful depiction of slavery and the dynamo performances of its cast. But to me the most interesting thing about Slave is what it means in the larger context of McQueen’s feature work. His films–Hunger (2008), Shame (2011), and Slave (2013)–each depict visceral, sometimes brutal explorations of human embodiment. They are centrally concerned with the body: its power, its limits, and the complex manner in which it interacts with one’s will.

1212 Years a Slave, as any movie about slavery must be (including last year’s Django Unchained), is a harrowing look at the politics of the body. In the flesh-for-cash world of slavery, bodies are reduced to property: instruments of labor that can be beaten, whipped, lynched or worse with nary a conscience-pricked hesitation (this is all horrifyingly depicted in Slave). The illogic and evil of this is underscored by the plot of Slave, which follows free-born African American Solomon Northrup as he is kidnapped from his home in New York and sold into slavery in Louisiana, where he is in bondage for 12 years. McQueen foregrounds the shocking juxtaposition of the civilized, middle class Northrup at the film’s start–decked out in antebellum suit and top hat–with his stripped, beaten, bloodied body later as a slave. It makes the now familiar imagery of slavery seem shocking and horrific in a new way. A scene of Northrup and other naked slaves being “inspected” by auctioneers and white suit-clad aristocrat slaveowners has a similar effect.

One of Slave’s most indelible images is a prolonged, agonizing scene in which Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) hangs by a noose from a tree, his toes just barely touching the ground, enough to shift his weight around slightly but not enough to relieve the suffocating pull at his neck. McQueen’s camera stays on this painful scene for what seems like an eternity. It’s hard to watch, yet McQueen forces us to watch. As kids play in the background, and the lady of the plantation (Sarah Paulson) peers out coldly from a nearby balcony, we are confronted with the horrifying humiliation and degradation of a human body. Similar scenes (particularly a brutal lashing near the end of the film) are repeated throughout. Over and over again, the slaveholders express their power position by beating the slaves into submission. The idea is that over time, the relentless lashings will break the slave’s will–rendering him or her wholly obedient (which is to say largely powerless).

Yet the human body is resilient. One of the striking things about Slave is that it shows just how much bodily violation a human being can withstand. To keep living, to refuse to break (as Northrup does), is to wield the last shred of power an embodied being can exert. The opposite may also be true: To end one’s own life, especially when one is held captive as valued “property” of another, is in its own way an act of power. This is an idea flirted with in Slave by own of its most tragic characters. It’s also the idea at the center of McQueen’s first feature film, Hunger.

hungerIn that film, control over one’s body as a means of political power takes the form of the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike. As Bobby Sands, Michael Fassbender leads his IRA comrades in a statement of rebellion by refusing to bathe and then refusing to eat. In prison, these men have no freedom but the freedom one can wield (in some capacity) over one’s body. They intentionally wallow in their filth and refuse to bathe as a punishment to their captors. They refuse to eat until their demands are met. And yet one’s ability to push the body to extremes in this way, while retaining the ability to function, has its limits. In both Slave and Hunger we see visceral portraits of the bodiliness of bodies, simultaneously strong and frail, willed and wild, under and out of control.

McQueen’s second feature film, the controversial Shame, explores these same issues by depicting one man’s (Michael Fassbender) struggles with sex addiction. With its scenes of pain, frustration, guilt, and self-loathing, Shame soberly illustrates how one can be both master and slave to their body. Brandon (Fassbender) is at war with his carnality. Even while he is free to employ his physicality at will to charm any woman he wants into fulfilling his lustful desires (a form of power, to be sure), he cannot fight the bodily desires that plague him: to have more, and more, and more sex. Brandon finds himself a captive in his own body. The film’s deepest conflict is Brandon’s conscious desire to do one thing vs. a body that wants to do another.

In all his startling depictions of the raw carnality and fleshiness of humanity, McQueen is less interested in judging the morality of his characters’ actions as he is with observing the curious ways that humans attempt to control their bodies or abuse them as a sort of power play.

It’s interesting to consider these themes in light of our contemporary culture’s peculiar relationship with the body. Increasingly disembodied/digitized both in our expressions and perceptions of reality, are we becoming estranged from our own embodiment? Has our body become an abstracted other?

Think about all the ways we treat our bodies as almost alien things to be conquered and controlled:

  • We adopt bizarre diets and crazy fitness regimens to force our body into whatever beefed-up or slimmed-down physique we desire (often in efforts to mimic some idealized body image we’ve been mediated to envy). As a corollary to this, eating disorders are rampant.

  • We can purchase a medicine or an implant or a surgical procedure for almost anything we could possibly want our body to do or be.

  • We use contraception, and in some cases abortion, to stop the body from doing what it naturally does (procreate).

  • We use technologies and performance-enhancing drugs to push our bodies beyond the limits of what they can naturally do.

  • We pierce and tattoo our bodies, we reconceive our body’s gendered makeup, we twerk around like Miley Cyrus, all to declare our absolute ownership and dominion over the body, however transgressive it might be.

What does all of this say about the way we think about our bodies today? In some ways it’s simply a natural progression from the feminist and racial body politics of the latter twentieth century. What’s new is the extent to which technology is reshaping our understanding of embodiment and our ability to manipulate our bodies to our liking. Not only can we define our bodies, reshape them and package them to serve an agenda, but we can also manipulate how others see them. Think about Facebook/Instagram. In the Photoshop era of quick-click touchups and cropping, our actual embodiment is sometimes less important than the way it is portrayed to others. This is just another way we alienate ourselves from the body, even while we seek to control it more.

Is Steve McQueen conscious of these changing realities of how humans understand embodiment? Is that what’s behind his films’ preoccupations with bodies as symbols of power and politics? Perhaps. Or maybe he’s simply an artist with a particular fascination with the complexity and brutality of embodiment. In any case I find his vision absolutely fascinating, frequently beautiful, and provocative without being gratuitous. His films are not easy to watch, by any means, and I cannot in good conscience recommend Shame to anyone (I would never see it a second time). But Hunger and 12 Years a Slave are compelling works of art. Punishing, yes. But also profound.

Album Review: Over the Rhine, ‘Meet Me at the Edge of the World’

I’ve always loved the section of George Steiner’s Real Presences where he describes the role of art as helping us get through the metaphoric “Saturday” space between the “suffering, aloneness, unutterable waste” of (Good) Friday and the “dream of liberation” and rebirth that is (Easter) Sunday. Steiner writes of this “Sabbatarian” aesthetic space:

The apprehensions and figurations in the play of metaphysical imagining, in the poem and the music, which tell of pain and hope, of the flesh which is said to taste of ash and of the spirit which is said to have the savour of fire, are always Sabbatarian. They have risen out of an immensity of waiting which is that of man. Without them, how could we be patient?

meet meOver the Rhine’s gorgeous new double album, Meet Me at the Edge of the World (stream it here), is precisely this sort of art. It helps us to be patient amidst the burden and immensity of waiting. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an album so eloquently and tenderly express the Christian truism of “now and not yet,” mostly by painting pictures of cottonwood and tupelo trees, goldenrod in the autumn, wedding dresses and porch swings.

The two discs that comprise Meet Me (released Sept. 3)–entitled “Sacred Ground” and “Blue Jean Sky”–represent the sacredness of both life’s “now” and “not yet.” Perhaps fittingly, the nine songs that make up the “Sacred Ground” side (the more earth-bound half, complete with blood, teeth marks and scars) were recorded on March 28-30, 2013 (Maundy Thursday-Holy Saturday). That disc ends with the song “Wait,” in which Karin Bergquist sings, Life is a beauty that’s mocking you / She’s a river to drown in while singing the blues.

The 10 songs of  “Blue Jean Sky,” on the other hand, are more mindful of death, resurrection and the eschatological. They are songs of love, dreams, hope, healing and blackbirds in the once and future farms of Ohio. In my favorite song on this disc, “Wildflower Bouquet,” Bergquist sings about the types of flowers she desires when she is “called home”: If I die in the winter send roses  / In the spring, magnolias / If I’m called in the summer or in the fall  / Best of all – bring me a wildflower bouquet. Your tears will not be necessary / Build a blazing fire, drink something merry / When the sparks fly off into the wind / That will be me blowing away.

These songs were recorded on April 1-3, 2013, in the days following Easter.

The sacred and mundane, the mortal and immortal, the horizons of earth and sky merge on both halves of Meet Me, a collection of love songs inspired by Over the Rhine’s home on a farm in Highland County, Ohio.

OTROver the Rhine is the duo of Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist, a married couple who have made music together for a quarter century. Meet Me, their 15th studio release, is not their first double album. In 2003 they released the exquisite Ohio. It seems the duo reserve their magnum opuses for music where the muse is their home state.

“Home” is indeed the central idea of Meet Me. Home as in: a place of settledness; or more specifically for Berguist and Detweiler: the Old pre-Civil War brick house / Standin tall and straight somehow / Called home (“Called Home”). As Detweiler recently noted in an interview with NPR, “I think this is a record about finding a place, finding a home. I think we’re still aware that loved ones are moving on, and there’s joy and sorrow on the record. But there is a sense of, ‘We’re gonna be okay.’”

These songs all grew loosely out of the soil we live on. We had always dreamed of having a piece of unpaved earth which would serve as our home base, just like many other American artists or writers that are immediately associated with a specific geographical place. We call our place Nowhere Farm: nowhere, or now here, depending on how you look at it.

The “now here” way of looking at home’s temporality is especially present on Meet Me, which riffs on the Christian understanding of home in both the earthly and heavenly senses. Note the meaning of “home” in the first stanza of “Called Home” (Just shy of Breakin’ Down / There’s a bend in the road that I have found / Called home) versus the last stanza: Our bodies’ motion comes to rest / When we are at last / Called home.

The eschatological hopes of our heavenly home–long a trope of the Appalachian hymnody, blues and folk of which Over the Rhine is descendant–is everywhere on the record, in songs like “Gonna Let My Soul Catch My Body” (I’m gonna lay out fine linen / Gonna make up my dyin’ bed / If you call me sweet Jesus / I’m ready to lay down my head). But this “I’ll fly away” escapist sensibility is challenged at times too, such as in the standout “Earthbound Lovesong”: They left the jukebox loaded / Our world exploded / Did the preacher have it all wrong? / Is heaven a place you fly off to / When the day is done? / Or do you work right here / On an earthbound love song?

In the end, Over the Rhine presents a world where all reality is sacramental. The thesis can perhaps be summed up in the song “All of It Was Music,” where Bergquist sings of the miraculous melodies that come from even the most mundane: The night was bending in a grin / As streetlight shadows tattooed skin / Whatever we were tangled in / All of it was music. … The humming of the window unit / The street noise often sang right through it / A drunken song somehow we knew that / Even it was music.

The “edge” of the world Over the Rhine dwells within is the horizon-line space between ground and sky, the flesh and spirit, mortality and immortality. But in contrast to the hard-line that “edge” implies, it’s actually a far blurrier space, where the Holy Spirit mingles with rivers, trees, leaves, skinned knees and broken hearts. In this world, “sacred ground” isn’t an oxymoron, and “blue jean” isn’t a demeaning adjective to describe the heavenlies. Rather, it’s the language that best fits our experience of the quotidian mysteries that buzz around a Christ-haunted world where, as OTR declares, All the ghosts are in the trees.

The album makes me think of Heidegger’s concept of the “fourfold” manner in which humans dwell on earth: “to save the earth, to receive the sky, to await the divinities, to escort mortals.” Earth, sky, the divine, and the mortal. It’s all there in Over the Rhine’s music. And it’s all there in any of our lives.

Heidegger said, “To be a human being means to be on the earth as a mortal. It means to dwell.” (“Building Dwelling Thinking”). In our brief time on this planet, we dwell. We find a bend in the road to call home.

Home is a place of healing, forgiveness, growth, stability and protection in a world that can be frightfully hostile. Whether it be a few years, a few decades or a lifetime, the continuity of home is a heavenly gift: armor against the relentless barrage of change. But home is about more than just biding one’s mortal time before before being “called home” in the final sense. To find and make an earthly home is to continue the task of Adam, spreading Eden’s order and flourishing outward in the chaos, making the world a more graceful place. Writing about America’s western frontier and the concept of a homestead in her glorious essay, “When I Was a Child,” Marilynne Robinson (who has written books with titles like Home and Housekeeping), reflects:

I must say how beautiful human society seems to me, especially in those attenuated forms so characteristic of the West — isolated towns and single houses which sometimes offer only the merest, barest amenities: light, warmth, supper, familiarity. We have colonised a hostile planet, and we must staunch every opening where cold and dark might pour through and destroy the false climates we make, the tiny simulations of forgotten seasons beside the Euphrates, or in Eden. At a certain level housekeeping is a regime of small kindnesses, which, taken together, make the world salubrious, savory, and warm. I think of the acts of comfort offered and received within a household as precisely sacramental.

Over the Rhine has always been a band with a knack for capturing the sacramental beauties of home and place. Meet Me At the Edge of the World is their latest–and perhaps most masterful–addition to a body of work that, taken as a whole, is among the most impressive faith-oriented catalogue of songs you’ll find anywhere.

It’s the best kind of rainy day, homebound music: dusty and bedraggled, weary yet wonder-filled, dazzling in its ability to simultaneously convey contentment and restlessness. It’s the happy longing, the divine discontent, of sitting on a porch swing with a loved one, at rest but restless for what lies beyond the fields of our vision. The final lines of the album’s closer, “Favorite Time of Light,” express it perfectly: Leave the dishes in the sink don’t overthink it / Close up the brokenhearted piano / Join me on the porch if you can swing it / Let’s dream an ocean in Ohio. 

Are You Free to NOT Drink?

I went to an evangelical Christian college that did not permit the consumption of alcohol. I grew up in a household and a conservative church culture–Midwest to boot–where drinking was out of the question and seen as bereft of goodness. I’m the child of an American evangelicalism that has had a decidedly contentious (to put it mildly) relationship with alcohol (see “Christians and Alcohol: A Timeline”).

But as I grew older, left home and left college, I came to see that drinking alcohol is a) not forbidden by Scripture (as opposed to drunkenness, which is) and b) actually quite wonderful. Like many of my peers who grew up in similar environments, I became rather fond of drinking fermented beverages in social settings, whether a Cabernet with dinner, IPA with friends or a single-malt scotch on special occasions.

beerOver time I noticed that it seemed increasingly popular amongst my fellow “twentysomething Christians” to embrace the fullest extent of liberty in the area of alcohol. I attended church small groups where beer and cocktails were regularly consumed; I went to parties where dozens of Christian college students and alumni were drinking from kegs and doing Sake bombs; I visited churches that met in bars; I went to Christian conferences where the “after parties” were raucous affairs at pubs; I met Christian beer critics, bartenders, pub owners.

I’m not saying any of this is inherently bad. In fact much of it is to be celebrated as harmless, good-old-fashioned “exhilaration,” as in the famous Martin Luther quip, “we should not be drunken, though we may be exhilarated.”

What worries me is this question: Are we so embracing our Christian liberty to partake of alcohol that it threatens to become less a “liberty” and more a shackling legalism–something we can’t, or won’t, go without? As my pastor Alan often says, are we as free to abstain from alcohol as we are free to enjoy it?

Other questions I think many of us would do well to ask ourselves:

  • Is alcohol a “nice to have” or a “must-have”? Can we go out to eat without ordering an alcoholic beverage? Attend a party and only drink soda? Dare to not have some booze in our house for a stretch of time?
  • Are we mindful of those around us, and if they struggle with alcohol in any way are we willing to abstain for their sake? Drinking alcohol may be a perfectly biblical, perfectly Christian thing to do. But if for others in our community it is a hardship or a temptation, then shouldn’t we abstain? As Christians, the ascetic call to deny ourselves perfectly good things for the sake of a community or a commitment is a worthy pursuit.
  • Do we wear our freedom as a badge of honor, as “proof” that we are under grace and thus can drink and party to our heart’s content? If so, we should check ourselves, because reducing grace to a sanctioning of pleasure is tragic; furthermore, if we are talking about freedom under grace, then what about the freedom to deny ourselves and go without? Grace makes this possible too.
  • Do we have a serious-enough understanding of how dangerous alcohol can be? Alcohol has a long and tumultuous history as an addictive wrecker of lives. We all know people who’ve been ruined or nearly ruined by it. We must be careful that our incremental habituation of it in our lives doesn’t become a controlling idol. Alcohol is not something to be trifled with.

Christians have the “right” to consume all sorts of things, though we are told not everything is beneficial or constructive (1 Cor. 10:23). Rather, we are instructed, “whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31) and “do not cause anyone to stumble” (10:32).

This last part is key, something the Apostle Paul routinely emphasized (especially in Rom. and 1 Cor.). Because it is true that Christians have differing tolerances (“One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables,” Rom. 14:2), we should not pass judgment on or treat with contempt those with different liberties than us.

But we must also be real with ourselves. What’s the point of freedom if it doesn’t free us to enjoy, but also to abstain from, something in culture? And it goes beyond alcohol. There are all sorts of good items and activities in culture that we are free to enjoy in moderation. Food, fitness, movies, music, travel, sports, gaming, and on and on. But the minute any of this becomes something we can’t live without, or something we excessively consume to the point that we need it more than we enjoy it, we should be concerned.

Because ultimately, the goodness of something that we might consume is at its most good when we enjoy it in a God-centric way rather than a me-centric way. That is: when we see it as a gift from God and something to reflect glory back to him, rather than something that serves us and our needs.

Alcohol, like food or any number of things in God’s created world, is a good thing that can become a bad thing if we consume it recklessly, excessively or selfishly. It’s good insofar as we consume it not as something we must have but as something we can have, as a special delight of God’s glorious creation, which includes man’s creative (fermenting) genius. The freedom to drink should not be a freedom to drown one’s sorrows, prove a point or get a fix; it should be a freedom that fixes our eyes ever more on Christ, the giver of life who turns water into wine and makes all things new.

This is the third in a series of posts on contemporary Christianity’s relationship to culture, based on ideas from my new book, Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty (Baker Books). See also: part one and two.

Selfie Deception

What and how we consume says a lot about what we value. And what and how we consume has never been more public.

Thanks to the broadcasting devices in our pockets and the social network audiences always just a few finger taps away, our interactions vis-a-vis culture are increasingly the means by which people make assumptions about who we are and what we worship.

One of the premises of my new book, Gray Matters, is that in this consumerism-as-social-media-identity world, it is all the more imperative that Christians be intentional, thoughtful and critical in their consumer choices. People are watching. We are observed, processed, known through our consumptive habits. What message are we sending?

The new paradigm of digital/mediated/consumer “identity” is on disturbing display in Sofia Coppola’s new film, The Bling Ring, which depicts the true-life drama of a group of L.A. teens who robbed the Hollywood Hills mansions of celebrities in the late 2000s. The film’s opening is interspersed with snapshots of partying teens’ photos on Facebook and Instagram, and the plot turns on the way that social media makes one’s cultural consumption public, enviable, and (in this case) vulnerable to property theft. But what is most striking is the sheer proliferation of “selfies”: characters holding out their arms with phone cameras to document (and immediately publish to the world) all manner of pursed-lip posing, stolen cash flaunting, booze-imbing and other such glamorization of vice.

There’s an unsettling ambience of directionless vacuity in these youngsters’ lives. Where is their sense of purpose (moral or otherwise)? All that seems to animate their reckless behavior is the possibility that it will play well on social media or get picked up by TMZ.

Bling’s teen bandits are obsessed, first and foremost, with celebrity. But it’s not that they are fans of the films or television shows which made people celebrities in the first place. Nor is it that they are particularly interested in the celebrities as people, with unique personalities and stories. Rather, what interests these Millennials most about celebrities is simply the celebrity-ness of them: their paparazzi aura, nightclub exploits, tabloid scandals and–above all–haute fashion. In short: their conspicuous consumption. As Richard Brody observes in his New Yorker review of the film,

Nobody here cares very much about movies or television shows. Nobody talks about stories, and certainly nobody is reading anything other than magazines. They know the actors whom series and movies have turned into celebrities but have little interest in the shows themselves.

This sort of fetishizing of celebrity at its most superficial (the Louboutin heels, Rolex watches, Birkin bags and Herve Leger dresses they wear), isolated from any broader narrative of who they are and why they are famous, helps explains the existence of famous-for-being-rich people like Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton. But it also reveals a larger cultural problem, which Brody pinpoints as “narrative deprivation.”

Today’s youth, reared in the Google age of on-demand, isolated bits of information and the real-time feeds of a million little “snapshots” (tweets, Vines, rabble-rousing blog posts, etc.), have no patience for narratives that give context or make connections. It doesn’t matter who Kim Kardashian is or how she became famous. What matters is that she gets to wear Lanvin dresses while on red carpets with Kanye West, while paparazzi take note of the slightest details of her Judith Leiber clutch. And these kids want that too. Brody continues:

In their selfies and their videos, the teens broadcast themselves living out crude fantasies of what, as one of them says, “everyone” aspires to be. What isn’t shared is the way they actually live: the teens don’t depict themselves breaking into houses and cars, stealing, selling stolen goods, or driving drunk. They don’t talk about their own lives in terms of stories. Rather, they live in a world that detaches effect from cause, and they depict only the outcomes.

Hence the sheer ubiquity of selfies. For them, earning jail time for thievery is a small price to pay for the opportunity to broadcast images of themselves wearing Prada sunglasses and guzzling Cristal at Lindsay Lohan’s favorite nightclub. It doesn’t matter what they had to do to get there (steal) or what will happen later (jail). The “now” of social media glory–however fleeting it may be–is what matters.

This “narrative deprivation” is symptomatic of (or perhaps another name for) “narrative collapse,” a phenomenon discussed at length in Douglas Rushkoff’s Present Shock. Rushkoff suggests that today’s world is defined by presentist, fragmented media consumption and an “entropic, static hum of everybody trying to capture the slipping moment.”

Narrativity and goals are surrendered to a skewed notion of the real and the immediate; the Tweet; the status update. What we are doing at any given moment becomes all-important–which is behavioristically doomed. For this desperate approach to time is at once flawed and narcissistic. Which “now” is important: the now I just lived or the now I’m in right now?

Social media’s “what are you doing now?” invitation to pose, pontificate and consume conspicuously only amplifies the narcissistic presentism of the generation depicted in The Bling Ring. It makes it easier than ever to tell the world exactly what you want them to know about you. Through a carefully cropped and color-corrected selfie, depicting whatever glamorized “now” we think paints us in the best light, we can construct a public persona as we see fit.

But it’s a double deception. The projections of our self that we put on social media blast are more often than not deceptive in the way they skew, ignore or amplify realities that constitute our true identity. But it’s also a self-deception. That social media conflates our identity with what we consume leads us to the erroneous conclusion that “who I am” can be easily summed up in the ingredient-listing “profiles” of the bands, brands, books and causes we “like,” the restaurants at which we “check-in,” or the songs we let everyone know we are currently enjoying.

Social media exacerbates our ever-growing tendency to approach cultural consumption as more of a public, performative act than an enjoyable, enriching experience. It becomes less about the thing we consume and more about how our consuming of it fits our preferred image. Bling’s high school burglars steal thousands of dollars worth of jewelry, clothes, and shoes not because they find those things inherently interesting, beautiful or pleasurable; but because they hope the accoutrements of celebrity will rub off on them. The things themselves are merely a means to an end.

For anyone who loves culture and recognizes the inherent beauty and value in, say, an expertly crafted table or an exceptionally roasted coffee bean, it is regrettable to see such things reduced to status symbol or fodder for social media selfie-deception. Making cultural items mere props in our social media performance is just another way of “using” culture to meet our needs rather than “receiving” it and letting it “work on us,” to borrow from C.S. Lewis’ An Experiment in Criticism.

For Christians, resisting the temptation to use culture rather than value it for its inherent goodness is a worthy endeavor, but it’s not enough. Using culture for self-worship is bad, but worshipping culture for its own sake is too. The “goodness” of culture, while certainly a thing to be celebrated, comes not from what it can do for us or even what it is in itself, but rather what it reflects about God and how it points humanity toward Him.

Every piece of culture we consume is an opportunity to glorify and give thanks to the Creator. We of all people should not cheapen culture by reducing it to something that mostly serves our narcissism. We of all people should not strip a cultural thing of its God-given goodness by focusing on its potential to aid in our strategic social media identity construction.

For Christians, culture should never be a tool in service of selfie-deception or self-worship. Rather, it should be something that brings us to posture of gratitude and confronts us with who we really are, laying our deceptions bare and focusing us away from ourselves. And if our consumption of culture communicates anything to the world, it should be a testimony not to our own greatness, style, or Valencia-filtered taste, but to the grandeur and glory of God.

This is the second in a series of posts on contemporary Christianity’s relationship to culture, based on ideas from my soon-to-be released book, Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty (Baker Books).

Have Christians Lost Their Sense of Difference?

How are Christians set apart or distinct from the unbelieving world? When push comes to shove, would any observer be able to pick today’s edgy/authentic/real/raw/not-your-grandmother’s Christian out of the proverbial crowd? In what ways are we embodying the call to be salt and light, a city on a hill (Matt. 5:13–16), and a “royal priesthood” called out of darkness and into light (1 Peter 2:9)?

These questions have nagged at me for a number of years, as I’ve witnessed younger evangelical Christians (myself included) more often blending in with the dark than advancing the light. When I go to parties with Christian friends, and then parties with non-Christian friends, I often lament that they are observably indistinguishable.

We are the same in how we talk: the petty subjects of conversation, the toxic cynicism lacing our speech, the obscene language, the general negativity … same.

We are the same in the way we dress, the way we drink, the way we smoke, the movies and TV we watch, the music we listen to, the pop culture we consume, and the way we cordon off “spirituality” in a manner that keeps it from interfering with our pursuits of pleasure.

We are the same (maybe worse) in the way we shred each other to pieces in the blogosphere, caddily gossip about each others’ social media posts, and jump to complaining before we think about complementing.

It’s all the same… And we wonder why so few bother with Christianity anymore. By the looks of many Christians, it offers nothing radically different or new.

Of course it’s easy to understand how it came to this. Many of my generation grew up in an evangelicalism that was perhaps too excited about its different-ness; it separated from “the world” and created its own media empires, with churches that tended to pull in and hunker down while the rest of the world went to hell in a handbasket. All of this left an understandably bad taste in many of our mouths for the concept of being “set apart” vis-a-vis the world. If all our difference amounts to is cheaper, sanitized versions of the same consumer culture pervading everything else, it just feels a bit phony.

But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Just because previous generations have gone about Christian “difference” in perhaps less than ideal ways, it doesn’t change the fact that the call remains: to be set apart; to “be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 2:16). Swinging the pendulum in the opposite direction to the extent that holiness is altogether absent is not a helpful solution.

The thing about holiness, though, is that the point of it is not to steer clear of all that is unholy; it’s not about retreating from “the world” and existing in some perfect space untainted by temptations and immoral sights and sounds. This only leads to legalism and a neutered, irrelevant witness.

Rather, the point of holiness is positive: to live in the world, reflecting Christ and his holiness outward in the way that we live our lives. Holiness is more complicated than just abstaining from a checklist of vices. Does holiness require us to avoid certain activities? Certainly. But fleeing from potential hazards is only part of the story.

Should there be a noticeable difference between Christians and “the world”? Yes. Christians are called to be holy, set apart, sojourners and exiles in this world, bearing witness to the gospel through the way that they live. But the difference between the church and culture is not a “hard” difference, notes Miroslav Volf in his analysis of 1 Peter (a key text on the nature of Christian difference).

For Christians, the distance from society that comes from the new birth in Christ is not meant to isolate from society, notes Volf, but rather serves the mission: “Without distance, churches can only give speeches that others have written for them and only go places where others lead them. To make a difference, one must be different.”

Volf goes on to describe this “missionary distance” in 1 Peter as “soft difference,” which is not to say weak difference:

It is strong, but it is not hard. Fear for oneself and one’s identity creates hardness. … In the mission to the world, hard difference operates with open or hidden pressures, manipulation, and threats. A decision for soft difference, on the other hand, presupposes a fearlessness which 1 Peter repeatedly encourages his readers to assume (3:14; 3:6). People who are secure in themselves — more accurately, who are secure in their God — are able to live the soft difference without fear. They have no need either to subordinate or damn others, but can allow others space to be themselves. For people who live the soft difference, mission fundamentally takes the form of witness and invitation. They seek to win others without pressure or manipulation, sometimes even “without a word” (3:1).

Rather than an embattled, separatist, or hard-line “holiness vs. worldiness” approach to culture, I think Christians would do well to adopt Volf’s “soft difference” mindset. Again, this is not to say the church should deny any difference from the world, or that it should be tepid or weak in its different-ness; it’s just to say that we shouldn’t wield our difference as a weapon in a culture war, attacking the world for its worldliness and positioning ourselves arrogantly and with an oppositional attitude. Rather, our differentness should be positive, attractive, desirable. It should be conversational, relational. It’s about witness. We should keep our conduct “honorable” for a missional purpose: so the world would “glorify God” (1 Peter 2:12).

For the sake of Christ-like holiness, it may very well be the honorable thing for a Christian to abstain from some cultural activities or media choices that may be “permissible” but perhaps not beneficial. But those choices should be lived out as a positive affirmation of one’s convictions rather than a negative chastisement of others, as if anyone who does partake in such things is evil and dangerous.

Insofar as Christian identity is different from that of the surrounding culture (and it should be), it is a difference that is, according to theologian Darian Lockett, “constructed along the lines of its own internal vision of wholeness before God, and not through a negative process of rejecting outsiders.”

We are a people chosen by God, set apart for kingdom purposes, charged with a task of being light in the darkness. The salt of the earth. But is our light shining? Is our salt losing its saltiness? That question should haunt us. Because it’s not just about us. It’s about our credibility and effectiveness on mission for Christ.

We Christians need to stop overcompensating for the wrongheaded approaches to culture that our forebears might have had. Getting drunk proves nothing other than the fact that we can lift a glass of alcohol. Smoking and cussing doesn’t prove we are “more accessible” or “authentic” Christians; it proves we can suck in tobacco fumes and use our lips to utter four letter words. Oh, and it also might prove that we’d rather look like everyone else than be identifiably “set apart,” which probably also communicates that following Christ is in fact as superficial as some skeptics assert.

Friends: let’s stop deluding ourselves in thinking that by shirking holiness we’re advancing the cause of Christ by “breaking stereotypes” people might have of Christians. All we’re actually doing is demeaning the name of Christ by cheapening the cost of discipleship. We can do better than that.

This is the first in a series of posts on contemporary Christianity’s relationship to culture, based on ideas from my soon-to-be released book, Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty (Baker Books).

Catching Up With Time in the “Before” and “Up” Films

A professor I admire once said — while discussing the films of Yasujiro Ozu, or maybe it was semiotics (can’t remember) — that watching the sun set can be both a thing of incredible beauty and deep sadness, often simultaneously. I thought of this as I watched Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, which includes a scene of a couple sitting by the sea in Greece, watching the sun slowly dip below the horizon. It’s there, there, there — and then it’s not there. A fleeting flare of arresting orange. Present and then absent. Perhaps the beauty and sadness of a sunset has to do with the fact that it’s the process in nature we humans most identify with. Ours is a context of ephemerality.

Midnight just released in theaters, and it is certainly one of the best films of 2013 so far. But before you see it, be sure to watch the two preceding films in Linklater’s Before series: Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004). Together they comprise a trilogy that is one of the most understated and elegant in the history of cinema.

Before MidnightLinklater’s films follow the love story between Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) as it plays out in more or less real time in one Vienna night in 1994 (Before Sunrise), a sunset stroll in 2003 Paris (Before Sunset), and an evening jaunt in Greece in 2012 (Midnight). The films let us peek in on these two lives every nine years, witnessing only as much of their “present” as the 90-100 minutes of movie watching allows us to see. The glimpses we get into this couple’s journey together are snapshots not just of their particular world — compellingly characterized by highbrow garrulity, philosophizing and Gen X angst — but of humanity in general: how we age, how we love, how we fight and how we dream.

Similar in many ways to what Linklater, Hawke and Delpy are exploring in the Before series is what Michael Apted has done and is doing with the astonishing Up series. Beginning in 1964 as a British television documentary examining the lives of fourteen 7-year-old children representing a diverse array of socioeconomic positions in 1960s Britain, the Up series has followed its real-life characters every seven years since. 14 Up (1970) checked in on the children at age 14; 21 Up (1977) updated audiences on their lives as they each turned 21; and so on. 56 Up just came out a few months ago and is now available to watch on Netflix, as are all of the other Up films.

In his review of 56 Up, the late Roger Ebert — who once called the Up series “the noblest project in cinema history” — wrote this: “It is a mystery, this business of life. I can’t think of any other cinematic undertaking that allows us to realize that more deeply.”

Indeed, I think that one of the great potentials of cinema — particularly when it is used in the way Linklater and Apted are using it in their respective series — is that it can capture some of the idiosyncrasies and mysteries of the “business of life” that we might otherwise fail to see (presumably because we are too busy wading through our own “business of life”). Things like the peculiar experience of the passage of time: simultaneously the most obvious and yet ungraspable mystery of existence.

The Before series is about love and relationships on one level, to be sure. But the real subject of these films is time, and the frequency with which it is discussed by the characters in the films hammers home that point.

“O let not Time deceive you, You cannot conquer Time,” says Jesse (Hawke) in Before Sunrise, quoting Dylan Thomas quoting W.H. Auden. At other times Jesse waxes philosophical about how surreal it is to self-consciously observe himself living in real time, or Celine shares about how she always feels like her life is either a dream of the future or a memory of the past. Meanwhile, the couple walks and talks in (more or less) real time, as the sun — that most vivid of all reminders of temporality — either rises, sets, or cedes its position to the moon. As Hawke said earlier this year when Midnight premiered at Sundance, the star of the Before series “is not Julie or [Hawke] but Father Time himself.”

Up SeriesThe Up series is far less meta in its treatment of time; yet like the Before films, Father Time is a palpable presence in every frame. There’s something compelling about observing the passage of time — 56 years, in this case — as it molds, batters, refines and weathers these people on each of their wildly divergent paths. Some of the original fourteen children grew up to be very successful; others not so much. Most started families and now have kids, grandkids, stepkids, and exes. Some (but not all) exceeded the expectations of the social class into which they were born. Some are happier than others (from what we can tell in our peeks inside, at least), and the only thing they all have in common is that none, not a one, has conquered time. They are all aging, and with every passing Up film we feel the weight of this ever more.

Cinema is unique among mediums in its ability to “sculpt in time,” as Andrey Tarkovsky wrote. It’s all about compressing, elongating, speeding up, and editing time to tell a story (that may span millennia or minutes) in the span of just a few hours. But Before and Up are especially compelling because rather than focusing on the filmmaker’s power over time, they focus on time’s power over us. Linklater tries his best to tell each Before film in real time, avoiding cinema’s manipulative power and instead foregrounding the somewhat eerie feeling of just sitting with time as it unfolds.

The Up films leverage cinema’s ability to compress time by including footage from the previous entries in each present portrait. What we get is essentially a moving-image scrapbook of each of these peoples’ 56-years, summarized in about ten minutes each. Watching it evokes the emotions of looking through an old box of photos and reliving an entire past in one quick burst of nostalgia. It confronts us with the expansiveness of what has come before; which seems large to us because our memories are painfully small and cannot hold every special moment we’ve had or beautiful thing we’ve seen, let alone the histories of other lives and lands.

Unless we have cameras there to capture every moment, our pasts are just as inaccessible to us as our futures. Memories, photos, tales of old can only reconstruct former glories up to a point (for a smart take on all this as it relates to “documenting” one’s past, see Sarah Polley’s amazing new film, Stories We Tell). And yet it could be argued that the “present” is the most elusive of all. For in reality, what we think of as the present is really just our brain processing things in the past — even if just a millisecond ago. Time is most relentless in the present because try as we might to slow it down or speed it up, it only goes by its own pace. The past and future are more malleable categories because they exist entirely in our minds, where we can elongate, embellish, or edit our recollection or vision of an experience, to our liking.

Tarkovsky puts it well in this excerpt from Sculpting In Time:

“Time is said to be irreversible. And this is true enough in the sense that ‘you can’t bring back the past’. But what exactly is this ‘past’? Is it what has passed? And what does ‘passed’ mean for a person when for each of us the past is the bearer of all that is constant in the reality of the present, of each current moment? In a certain sense the past is far more real, or at any rate more stable, more resilient than the present. The present slips and vanishes like sand between the fingers, acquiring material weight only in its recollection.”

The Before and Up films are powerful because they embody the “sand between the fingers” brevity of the present: reminding us that even the most magical moments in life are fleeting, that our “when I grow up” dreams will be here and gone before we know it, and that as a result it makes little sense to live in search of a permanent state of pleasure or satisfaction. Such a thing would be, as Solomon might say, like “chasing after the wind.” Our hearts will be restless, said Augustine, until they rest in Thee. And perhaps that is “Father” Time’s greatest gift to us: stirring up a restlessness in our souls that directs our longing to something Other, unfathomably infinite and unbound by time.