Meditations: Creating Culture with Care

One of my childhood memories was that of my mom placing a plaque of Philippians 4:8 over the family television. At this point in his letter to the Philippians, Paul uses tells the faith community to focus their attention solely on positive things:
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
In our house, Philippians 4:8 was used as the official filter of the Hollywood cesspool that threatened to seep into our minds. Maybe my mom hoped that placing the plaque next to the rabbit ears would somehow block interfere with the television reception if one of her children tried to sneak an episode of an unworthy show. More likely, she just wanted us to be thoughtful TV consumers.

The plaque, combined with the fact that we used rabbit ears and not cable, seemed to have its desired effect. We laughed at the Cosby Show and Home Improvement, but in the back of our minds we knew that corruption was just a turn of the dial away.

I’ve never challenged our family’s use of Philippians 4:8 until recently. The problem with using this verse as a filter to censor movies, TV, and literature is that the artist loses permission to describe the world as it is. Dostoyevsky couldn’t have used murders to propel the conflict in Crime and Punishment and the Brother’s Karamozoff. Melville wouldn’t have been able to write about Captain Ahab’s desire for revenge. Law and Order couldn’t bring criminals to justice. The Bible itself couldn’t hold up to this use of Philippians 4:8.

When I look more closely at the context of this verse, I see Paul is writing to the church with advice on how to handle anxiety and adversity. Paul tells first tells the church pray. And then he instructs them use a sanctified imagination. I have a theory: What if Paul is telling us that in the middle of adversity we are to visualize what the situation could look like if we were to bring God’s kingdom order into the situation?

How can I communicate truth here?

How can I demonstrate honor and bring justice to those who need it?

Am I influencing those around me to purity?

Can I create beauty here?

What could I do that would cause people to notice God and provoke them to speak highly of him and his followers?

What if Paul is not admonishing me to be careful with how I consume culture, but instead is encouraging me with how I create culture?


Larry Shallenberger is the pastor of Next Generation at Grace Church in Erie, PA. He’s the author of several books including Divine Intention: How God’s Work in the Early Church Empowers Us Today.


Prayer Request

Diane Nienhuis is a school teacher in Grand Rapids. She is also one of our writers.

A few weeks ago, Diane fell off some desks she was standing on in her classroom and hit her head. She shook it off and moved on with her day. Her students were the ones who told her she was acting funny.

Diane suffered a concussion, but some of the symptoms haven't gone away. The doctors say she's suffering from post-concussion syndrome. They're monitoring her, but they're also concerned about what showed up on Diane's MRI.

Head injuries are scary, and we figured we'd send out a prayer request for Diane. You can read the whole story and updates on her blog.


War Damn Eagle!

I'm sure Jordan will have his Ducks v. Beavers post, and I suppose I could set my Iron Bowl post to publish on Friday, but what if the world ends tomorrow, and no one ever sees it!??

So here's a friendly reminder that it's been 2,565 days since Alabama last beat Auburn, and here's hoping we see a little more of this on Saturday night!

Happy Thanksgiving everyone, and War Eagle!

Thanksgiving...or Festivus?

"...there was famine in all the lands..." (Genesis 41:54)

I know all the talk about the cup being half full or half empty, depending on one's perspective. I know that we've much for which to be thankful if we'll but open our eyes and see. "There's still plenty of turkey and all", and "look at the starving children on the other side of the world". These are the things we tell ourselves this year as we gather around tables laden with feast to celebrate and express gratitude for God's provision.

But this year, more than many, is a year when "giving thanks" might feel a little strained, a little forced, as if we hope that by saying it often enough, or loud enough, we'll actually begin to feel grateful. After all, thousands have lost their homes in fires just in the past week. Before that their were floods in the south. Draped across the entire country there's been an epidemic of foreclosures so that tens of thousands who sat around their own table last year are somewhere else this year; jobless, homeless, and afraid. Let's throw in the impending implosion of the auto industry, the realization that two wars and mountains of debt will make it difficult for any incoming president to fulfill promises made in the heady days of campaign speeches, and one might begin to wonder if this might be a good to skip thanksgiving, or at least downgrade it from "turkey" and "thanksgiving" to "tofu" and "airing of grievances" - more like Festivus than anything else.

Ah, but this is precisely where we go wrong. We thank that gratitude is all about remembering the good things God has done for us and giving thanks. Surely this is a piece of gratitude and thanksgiving. But if we limit our thanksgiving to recalling the visible gifts, the stuff we wanted either materially or emotionally, we will miss most of the story, because most of the story is about how God transforms us right in the midst of challenges in this fallen world. "And there was a famine..." is what Genesis says, and only then are the wheels set in motion for God's chosen family to begin their process of profound transformation.

Up to this point, the family chosen to represent God's heart had instead been a tragic display of pride, jealousy, hatred, lust, greed, fear, deceit, self-righteousness, rape, polygamy, and murder. But when the famine came, a whole story began to unfold that would eventuate in the confessing of sins, the forgiveness of wrongs committed, the healing of a family, and the establishment of a nation from which would eventually come the Light of the World. It all began, not with a campfire moment, but with a famine. Without it, the brothers might have died in the tragic prisons of selfishness which had held them for so long.

The famine's begun for many in our own land; right here; right now. The reality is that we only come to know Jesus as the bread of life because we've known hunger. Whether we hunger for meaning, freedom, intimacy, freedom from fear, or our next meal, when we find the one who can satisfy the hunger, our gratitude becomes a natural wellspring of praise. The same thing is true again and again. We know Christ as light because we've walked in darkness; know Him as life because we've been in the realm of death; know Him as father because we've stood by the grave of our own dad. However it works for you, I hope you can see that real thanksgiving is always born out of the transformation which comes from crisis.

So perhaps this is the year when we'll give thanks, less for what's happening in this present moment (though God knows that there's still plenty of reasons for gratitude if we take even a cursory look around us), and more for what God will do as we collectively walk through these 'very interesting days', as I recently heard them described. I hope and pray that on the far side of these crises, we who claim to follow Christ will be shaped, liberated, and transformed, so that our lives will overflow with the purity, generosity and joy that is the heart of Jesus.

Happy Thanksgiving! God is at work! May you have the eyes to see His hand in this glorious, beautiful, fallen world.


The Idiot Box: A Colbert Christmas

Where Jon Stewart dices the news with an acerbic wit, Colbert swings a lightsaber of madcap absurdity. I've always felt, underneath his right-wing pundit parody, there's an element of moderation. His questions to particularly liberal guests may be delivered in Papa Bear-esque bluster, but it doesn't mean they're in safe harbor.

But The Colbert Report is less about political or media satire than plain-old goofy comedy. Can you see Jon Stewart blowing off the dusty videos of his old 80s band (or, for that matter, showing us archived episodes of Remote Control)?

It's not just his penchant for self-mockery. As his interview with Terry Gross in 2005 will attest, Stephen Colbert is a comedic anomaly. He's a devout Catholic and a family man. You get the feeling, watching him on screen, that Stephen Colbert is a good, friendly and contented guy. He's not neurotic like Richard Lewis or tortured like...well...every other comedian. He seems to view the world with a sense of glee and humility. It's that charm which has wound him into the national lexicon, from language to the NYT Bestsellers list to arachnology to pseudo-arachnology.

And all this makes Stephen Colbert the perfect vessel for a timeless, good-natured Christmas special.

A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All aired on November 23rd, a bit early for my liking. But by the time Colbert and his host of musical guests were harmonizing their way through "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding", Mindy and I were grinning with holiday cheer.

For those of us raised on Christmas specials, A Colbert Christmas is a wave of nostalgia. It's funny, of course, but the comedy was upstaged by earworming original tunes, and a thrilling appearance by Colbert's three children.

The songs were a bit hit or miss. Toby Keith's jingoistic ode to the War on Christmas, "Have I Got a Present for You", appeared to be a laudable self-parody, but Keith seemed too wooden to laugh at himself. Being super-imposed over nuclear detonations might have given him pause. Similarly, Willie Nelson's appearance as a fourth wise man bringing Baby Jesus a rather Willie Nelson-ish gift was off-target.

Fortunately, those were early in the program, and the music (penned by comedy writer David Javerbaum and Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne) took a hard brilliant turn from then on. Feist's "Please Be Patient" was slow but strong. Jon Stewart's guest appearance, a duet with Colbert on "Can I Interest You in Hannukah", was satisfying and imparted the sense these guys really like each other.

The highlights, though, began with John Legend's filthy ode to nutmeg, which will have you blushing when you find yourself humming it later on. Colbert and his co-star, Elvis Costello, leads the menagerie of guests on the aforementioned "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding". Maybe it's the background of the nativity and the variety of folks represented, but the result is strangely moving.

Finally, the special closes with a duet between Colbert and Costello, "There Are Much Worse Things to Believe In". The pair rids the room of snark and cynicism, a rare moment of sublime earnestness from a wizened punk and a comedian known for rarely breaking character.

For all its sincerity, A Colbert Christmas still has a biting edge, and that balance is what makes it an instant classic. Here's hoping Stephen Colbert makes his special a yearly occurence...it'll become a tradition on par with A Christmas Story at my house.


Great Christian Music: Amy Grant's "Lead Me On"

by Adam Newton

Everyone has their musical guilty pleasures: even the most diehard music snobs, in their darkest moments, will confess to you their undying affection for some cheesy hair metal band, ‘60s folk singer, or some atrocious soul singer. The vast majority of these guilty pleasures are typically holdovers from the bygone days of youth, those halcyon days when we were allowed to like music just because it was popular, because our friends liked it, or just because we liked it. For me, this person was, is, and will always be Amy Grant, one of the most prolific, celebrated, honored, distinguished, and recognized singers in contemporary Christian music (CCM) circles. Nay, she defined CCM in the ‘80s and into the ‘90s, serving as the movement’s poster woman when people complained that CCM always sounded (at minimum) five years behind the musical curve.

But the result of these accolades and pioneering is that she also was the focal point for a seemingly perpetual swirl of controversy. Whether it was wearing a animal print jacket on her Unguarded album cover, singing “The Next Time I Fall” with Peter Cetera, making pop music from the masses on Heart In Motion, dancing in videos with people who weren’t her husband in the videos from Heart In Motion, divorcing Gary Chapman, or marrying Vince Gill within two years after the finalization of her divorce from Gary Chapman, Amy has faced a level of character assassination that would crush a lesser human. Thus, when you combine her thirty-year-long penchant for writing clean, smart pop music with decided folk and country influences with her intestinal fortitude in the face of her accusers and the result is a woman whose career I will unceasingly defend and champion.

But in the midst of all of that unnecessary drama stands her 1988 magnum opus, Lead Me On, an album so full of heart, depth, and spiritual strength that it stands not only as Amy’s best work, but most likely, the best album in CCM history. At a time when only Stryper and Petra appeared to be even remotely viable as cool music that your non-Christian friends might want to listen to, Amy’s work stood up and boldly proclaimed that Christians could write tough, gritty, raw albums full of hurt and hope, without having to rely upon safe musical patterns and shallow spiritual platitudes. From the opening strumming of “1974” to the closing synthesizer chords of “Say Once More,” this record serves as a master class for artists who want to proclaim their beliefs, but want to do so with an intense honesty and an appreciation for spiritual reality, since they know that the Christian life is full of both peaks and valleys. My personal favorite tracks are “Lead Me On,” with its clarion call to God that, despite life getting her down, Amy wants to be led into more of God, “Shadows,” where Amy joins the Apostle Paul in discussing humanity’s light and dark natures, and “All Right,” because no matter what may come, God can always make it all right.

Sure, other artists have joined her in branching out to the mainstream – I’m not sure that Underoath or Maylene and the Sons of Disaster would be playing the Vans Warped Tour every year if Amy hadn’t forged those paths – but there will only be one original trailblazer. Amy Grant is that artist and Lead Me On is that record.

Jesus Loves...the Holy War

The Holy War, the annual rivalry game between the University of Utah and Brigham Young, had some national implications this year. The 7th-ranked BCS bound Utes ended up trouncing the 14th-ranked Cougars 48-24. But even among the community-splitting engagement, I had time to pose and remember what truly mattered.

The Utah/BYU rivalry shares many of the same rivalry traits as the more well-known match ups: geographical proximity, equally matched schools in size and ability, shared conference, longevity, and history; but this rivalry comes with something else. Religion.

Although the University of Utah was founded by pioneer settler and Mormon leader Brigham Young in 1851, the public university and the Mormon owned Brigham Young University couldn't be more different.

The tailgate parties started in the Ute parking lots on Friday; no alcohol or coffee is allowed on the BYU campus. Pick-up flag football games ran all morning long on every slice of Utah campus grass to be found. Signs that read, "Cougars don't cut corners," adorn the perfectly manicured BYU grass, which is forbidden to walk on. Many Utah fans grow out beards so they have more face to paint; Cougar students must remain clean shaven and keep missionary-style trimmed hair or they aren’t allowed to take tests in the testing centers. Utah fans paint letters on their topless chests; one former BYU student is presently having his degree revoked (and has been excommunicated) for publishing a calendar of topless missionaries. Obama won Salt Lake County (home of the Utes); Utah County (Cougar country) is traditionally the most conservative voting county in America, often with no Democratic running opponent.

Sadly, during this rivalry week, the trash talk often turns from the game to the faith. When I saw some blue fans blowing long horns, I myself was tempted to shout something about looking like Moroni (the Mormon angel seen on all the LDS temples). There tends to be more intentional foul language used at the game. There were signs peppered throughout the stadium that said something about forgetting to pray or that God loves one team over the other or some other religiously motivated jab. What's worse is that there's no opposition in any sports bar or tailgate bash.

But in the big scheme of things, it's important to remember that "Jesus loves U."

Part of the Solution: Poverty and Real Food

An article found in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, written by Adam Drewnowski and S.E. Specter and entitled “Poverty and obesity: the role of energy density and energy costs,” reports the following:
  • There is an inverse relation between energy density (MJ/kg) and energy cost ($/MJ), such that energy-dense foods composed of refined grains, added sugars, or fats may represent the lowest-cost option to the consumer.

  • Poverty and food insecurity are associated with lower food expenditures, low fruit and vegetable consumption, and lower-quality diets.

  • The highest rates of obesity occur among population groups with the highest poverty rates.
Upon considering the following statements made by D.J. Hoffman, taken directly from his Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations article, “Obesity in developing countries: causes and implications,” it can be concluded that obesity only perpetuates the cycle of economic oppression by making regular participation in the workforce a challenge:
  • An increased fat mass has been reported to inhibit spontaneous movement, result in poor health that reduces overall activity and inhibit various movements, as several studies have reported a strong relationship between body mass index, decreased physical functioning and a reduction in overall productivity.

  • An obese person reportedly experiences a 50 percent increase in lost productivity and visits a doctor 88 percent more than a healthy person during a six-year period in the United States (Wolf and Colditz, 1994).

  • The more sick a person is the greater his or her degree of absence from the workplace; chronic diseases related to obesity increase absenteeism.

Hoffman’s findings could apply just as easily to obese American residents studied in Drewnowski and Specter’s report. And too many health-related work absences (beyond the allotted paid sick leave, if any), result not only in loss of income but often loss of employment. Both consequences put a major strain on the ability to buy nourishing groceries and force one to purchase the aforementioned low cost, energy dense foods that contribute to obesity - if able to even purchase them at all – thus perpetuating the cycle of poverty and obesity.

So here’s the deal:

When my husband and I moved our family back to the States, we ate the typical American diet. Attempting to nourish my family on a budget equal to my grocery allowance in Germany (i.e. low), I purchased low cost, energy dense foods. While we were able to procure fresh produce and the like in Germany on our low budget, the high cost of those items here in the States surprised me. Unaware of any potentially negative consequences to our health, I frugally resorted to feeding my family pre-packaged foods laden with bad fats, sugars, and taste enhancers. Yum.
But the money I saved on groceries was spent at the hospital, for example, when my husband’s gall bladder was finally removed due to symptoms that a fresh food diet would come to completely erase. Due to yet another MSG-sugar-caffeine induced, sleepless night, the saved grocery money was also spent on fast food dinners as I was too overwhelmed by life to cook, exhausted and lethargic. In the long run, I really didn’t save us all that much.

A minor breakdown following something like the fourth week (or was that month?) of what I just decided to call “open-eye” left me desperate for anything that would help me regain control of my life. The valuable help of health professionals guided me down a path towards a Real Food diet. This meant eating a diet consisting of whole, minimally processed foods with a focus on vegetables while eliminating sugars and other refined carbohydrates, plus hydrogenated oils and MSG. As my diet gradually shifted from processed to fresh foods, my health – our health - shifted from uncontrollable to manageable. And affordable.

As I began to reap the benefits of a Real Food diet - health, stamina, and energy - I noticed the types of food placed in the “Bag Hunger” bin at church and began to think. Generously and lovingly bagging hunger with sugary breakfast pastries or tiger-endorsed refined cereal certainly helps fill empty stomachs in the short term – definitely a worthy cause. But what are the long term consequences of feeding energy dense foods to those who have no other option but to rely on such donations? And are we just perpetuating the cycle? My thick middle (I forgot to mention that earlier), sleepless nights, and drowsy days, not to mention Bjoern’s surgeries, came to mind and my logic grew to uncannily resemble the researched statements above.

So this is where you and I come in.

I now believe that one possible strategy in eradicating poverty could come from nourishing our neighbors in need of grocery or meal assistance with Real Food. A Real Food diet (coupled ideally with education on making healthy food choices at the grocery store, cooking classes, and so many other social and systemic changes way beyond the scope of this article) would bestow the gift of health and strength by preventing obesity, thus supporting the ability to maintain a steady means of income and putting the brakes on at least this particular facet of the all too complex poverty cycle. This could happen by:
  • Paying close attention to the ingredients of the groceries we donate to our local food pantries. Looking for sugarless canned fruits and vegetables, tomato sauces, or oatmeal to donate is just one idea.

  • Starting a community garden, as my friend from church and fellow Burnside contributor Sara Sterley did. Right in our church’s backyard, she and others planted vegetables that, once harvested, were brought to a food pantry for distribution.

  • Donating surplus produce to shelters and pantries. Farm Fresh Delivery, a company that delivers my family a bin of vegetables every week, donates its surplus to a local organization for meal preparation.

  • Donating seeds and gardening supplies, together with supporting gardening education, as the least expensive food of all is home grown.
Jesus came to establish a New Kingdom that would turn the world’s systems upside down. As the hands and feet of that New Kingdom, maybe it is time for us go against the (refined?) grain of the American diet and love our neighbors with something other than empty calories. Designated as believers to be a part of His solution for poverty, perhaps we can and should serve something whole and full of healthy life.

    This column is intended be a place where we can come together and share our knowledge - our facts and our experiences - to empower and encourage one another into action. Let’s learn together how we can be a part of the solution in dismantling our world’s unjust systems of oppression. So, if you’ve got something we ought to know, send your facts and story, in 800 words or less, to this address.


Meditations - Judgment

The notion of God as the judge is, in our culture, one of the most difficult declarations for people to accept. Our culture likes tolerance better than judgment, or at least that's what we like to think. Other cultures around the world, though, find the mercy of God more offensive than the justice of God, feeling that His mercy is a sign of weakness.

Setting aside the discussion about our propensity to pick and choose which parts of God to believe in based on which parts we find appealing, there are some careful considerations to make about God as the judge:

1. Judgment is about moving the story of God's redemptive plan forward by curbing, containing, or destroying evil. The goal is seen in Ephesians 1:10-11 where we learn that history is moving to Christ's life filling all things. This will require the subduing of all that refuses to be filled, and this subduing is judgment. We say we don't like judgment, but we really do, when understood in this light. We like it when 'cancer' is subdued so that it doesn't spread. Most people were happy when the holocaust ended. We like it when child molesters are contained so that they can no longer inflict their damage on young lives. So, before we get too bothered by the notion of God as a judge, perhaps we'd better consider the reality that we really do look forward to the containment of death, evil, and suffering. Such containment is judgment. Perhaps the best being in the universe to orchestrate that containment is God!

2. Judgment is therefore motivated by both love and justice - Containment of evil is an act of love and justice for the whole of creation, eventuating in blessing and fullness of life for all who are willing to receive it.

In enlightened days like these, it's politically correct, perhaps even spiritually correct to avoid any discussion about judgment, to believe that all roads lead to the pot of spiritual gold at the end of rainbow. But this is not only a contradiction to the Bible, it's a contradiction to the real world, where evil things happen at the hands of people. So here are some things to ponder:

1. Are we resistant to the idea of God as the judge? Why or why not?

2. Is judgment similar to discipline?

3. Share a time when discipline are judgment served a redemptive purpose in your life.

4. What are the dangers of the doctrine of judgment and how can we avoid them?


Letter from Bethlehem: An Open Letter to My Detaining Officer

Dear Sir,

You might not recognize my name, but I am one of the half-dozen people who you and your fellow soldiers “detained” for a few hours last month. It happened in a place that I call Oush Ghrab and you refer to as Shdema. Even as I type this letter, I realize that the gulf that exists between us extends even to the language we use to refer to the exact same spot of ground.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that we don’t understand each other at all. You most likely see me as a left-wing radical, an anarchist, or an anti-Semite. I see myself as one who cares for the oppressed, works for justice, and loves Palestinians.

You see yourself as a brave young man who is defending his country. I see you as an instrument of an unjust system that is perpetuating the decades-old conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

Now, after thinking about how to bridge this gap, I think I see where this misunderstanding is coming from: you see yourself as oppressed, I see you as an oppressor.

You talk about the history of anti-Semitism in the world, and you have a point. Throughout history there have been those who have hated, persecuted, and killed Jewish people. You see yourself as an heir to that legacy. You also tell me that you have no choice about whether you want to put on a military uniform. Your country requires you (and every other 18 year old) to serve in the army. Your opinion is not taken into consideration. You see yourself as a powerless victim.

I once saw you the same way. My opinions of Israel were the same as many Evangelical Christians in America. I visited Yad Vashem. I have listened to and read the stories of Jewish persecution that have taken place over the centuries. As a child, I was taught that the country of Israel was birthed out of the discrimination and persecution that took place in Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. I was taught that Israel was the only friend of democracy and justice in the Middle East. I saw you as a victim trying to defend yourself.

Now, please try to see what I see today:

I see my best friend in Palestine unable to visit the ocean for years, even though it is only 30 minutes from his family home. I have seen him accosted and kicked out of a pub in Israel (one out of the two times he was allowed to enter Jerusalem during the year) because he is Palestinian. I have seen him tell, in a matter-of-fact way, about the time Israeli soldiers pulled him from a car and beat him because he didn’t show them the 'proper' respect. Last month, I saw you arrest him because you didn’t like his tone of voice.

I have seen the funeral of an 11-year-old boy who was killed by soldiers when they entered Bethlehem to arrest someone.

I have seen a 12-year-old student arrested from his home in the middle of the night.

I have seen an orphanage in Hebron raided and looted by soldiers.

I have seen a beautiful 11-year-old girl (my daughter is named after her) who suffered head trauma and hearing loss because she ran from soldiers who were occupying her family’s home for 5 years.

I have seen a middle-aged Jewish man with an assault rifle stop 20 Palestinian kids from going on a nature hike. I saw you back him up.

I have seen 200 settlers attack a group of about 30 Palestinians and internationals (including me). I saw you respond by treating us as the aggressors and corralling us into a corner until the settlers decided to leave.

I have seen a settler with an automatic rifle yell death threats to me and my friends, and then go on his way. You were there for that one too.

I have seen that 194 Palestinian children have been killed by Israeli troops since I moved here in August of 2006.

I see that Israel has the power. Your government decides who can go and who can come, who can defend themselves and who cannot, who can live where, who can do what and when.

When you hit, kicked, and mocked my friends and me, you saw yourself as defending a people who have been hated and persecuted for their entire existence. To you, each word, each blow, was a step in evening the score. To me, each blow was a blow to the face of justice.

When I refuse to move out of your way, demonstrate against new settlement construction, and live and work in Palestine, you see me as contributing to the story of injustice that has been the story of your people. I see myself as trying to rewrite the story without injustice.

As far as our chances of understanding each other are concerned, I’m afraid I don’t see much cause for hope. I tell you that I am here because my God commands me to stand up for the oppressed, and therein lies the rub. My very presence here calls into question your view of the Israeli-Palestinian issue as a sectarian conflict. My presence reframes it as a struggle between the oppressed and the oppressor. You do not see yourself as oppressing anyone. Until you do, you will not be able to understand that my love for Palestinians is not hatred for you. Until you do, you will always see me as an enemy.

With Love,



Across the Universe - November 21st, 2008

Oi. 20 days is a long time to go without a link dump. So here's what's happening in the outer reaches of the world wide web. I think I'll begin in the most self-absorbed way possible.

- Spencer Spellman is a Burnside contributor. He has a helpful blog which provides tips on freelance writing. For some reason, he thought I would be a good person to interview. I happily obliged.

- Ah, but the self absorption isn't over. Here's a rundown of a scene from the Blue Like Jazz movie, provided by the always awesome Steve Taylor. Yes, I am a character. Yes, that is quite an honor (though I probably wouldn't say 'dude'). And no, the story does not follow the book, which is a good thing in this case.

- "I may be a Christian, but it's not like I'm one of those wacko 'love your neighbor as yourself ' types." I get the distinct feeling this is mocking folks like us...?

- This was utterly horrifying. Is this really "widespread"?

- The Bible in sand.

- If this headline doesn't grab you, nothing will.

- Heather Cherry's "Top 10 Things That Creep My Mother Out."

- The previous post reminded me of one of my favorite websites ever, which I revisited this week and branched off of to find new, equally spectacular sites. The acronym "LOL" generally makes me mad, because it's so disingenuous. 98% of the time, people are not, in face, laughing out loud when they write that. These sites, however, had me rolling.

We hope you have a pleasant weekend! Thank you for stopping by.

Aask Aaron: The Great Spirit

Aask Aaron – A forum where Aaron Donley provides insightful and educated perspectives for the questions being raised in our time.

Stephen from Colorado:

Dear Aaron,

I lie awake and wonder; will the white man someday so pillage the earth to his own desires he’ll ultimately cause the collapse of all society, thereby returning mankind to a day when the buffalo and eagle dominate the vast plains as Native American tribes rise once again to worship the Great Spirit in peace and harmony?

Dear Stephen,

The answer is no.


This has been Aask Aaron.



On one slow evening at the store where I worked in Portland, I was working the cash registers when a boozed-up gentlemen in his mid-20's with a backward baseball cap stormed in.

"WHERE'S YOUR BEER?!" he shouted. I squinted derisively and pointed toward the back. Moments later, he waddled back with a case of Coors Light.


"Yeah," I muttered back. "We have one of the best beer selections around."

What I didn't say is nearly all of those "effeminate" beers had at least double the alcohol content and hundreds of times the flavor of his selection. Pearls before swine, I guess.

If The New Yorker's excellent article (sent to me by my old friend Kristy) on the rise of craft brewing is any indication, my backwards-capped nemesis will learn the truth soon enough. The article focuses on Dogfish Head Brewery and their founder, the charismatic Sam Calagione. While the essay doesn't stray far enough west, I'm happy it sheds light on how craft brewing is shifting to the mainstream.

Dogfish Head, located in Milton, Delaware, is fighting the battle against bad beer on the East Coast. I've long held a West Coast-based bias against Dogfish Head, snootily accusing them of gimmickry. But the truth is, I can be a pretentious idiot. Dogfish Head experiment with the best of them, tossing in everything from raspberries to spirulina to stuff you've never heard of. One of their most notable beers is their 120 Minute IPA, a brew so hoppy it's nearly syrup, and almost satirical of the West Coast trends. It's also nearly undrinkable, but that's neither here nor there. Dogfish Head loves to innovate. And if we've learned anything from American automakers, it's that we could use more innovation in this country.


Poets on Poeting: Franz Wright

This week, I’d like to introduce (or reacquaint) you with a poem that rendered me honestly a little unsteady upon a first (and second. and third) reading. Nestled within Franz Wright’s 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of poetry, Walking to Martha’s Vineyard, it is one of many stunning, raw works that explores belief, sadness and wonder. The following spoke to me immediately--its edges both sharp and soft-shorn, it alternately devastates and leaves me nodding my head, yes yes yes. What do you think? Does it match any experience you may have had some Sunday morning? Are we truly ‘created by being destroyed’?

January 1998

I am not acquainted with anyone
there, if they spoke to me
I would not know what to do.
But so far nobody has, I know
I certainly wouldn’t.
I don’t participate, I’m not allowed;
I just listen, and every morning
have a moment of such happiness, I breathe
and breath until the terror returns. About the time
when they are supposed to greet one another
two people actually look into each other’s eyes
and hold hands a moment, but
the church is so big and the few who are there
are seated far apart. So this presents no real problem.
I keep my eyes fixed on the great naked corpse, the vertical corpse
who is said to be love
and who spoke the world
into being, before coming here
to be tortured and executed by it.
I don’t know what I am doing there. I do
notice the more I lose touch
with what I previously saw as my life
the more real my spot in the dark winter pew becomes—
it is infinite. What we experience
as space, the sky
that is, the sun, the stars
is intimate and rather small by comparison.
When I step outside the ugliness is so shattering
it has become dear to me, like a retarded
child, precious to me.
If only I could tell someone.
The humiliation I go through
when I think about my past
can only be described as grace.
We are created by being destroyed.


Burnside Sells Out: Stephen W. Simpson

Burnside is blessed with a whole slew of talented contributors. Sometimes, to our utter delight, those contributors become published, and some area already established authors.

Our to goal is to interview each and every one for this feature, which we've entitled "Burnside Sells Out". It's our dream that this goal is never attained, not for lack of effort, but because our compatriots just keep getting book deals. Here's our first interview with Ariele Gentiles.

Our next Sell Out is Stephen W. Simpson. Steve has a PhD in clinical psychology and an MA in theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He's written two books on relationships, What Women Wish You Knew About Dating and What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew About Sex, the latter of which probably wouldn't teach me anything new. (Right, honey?)

His most recent book is a memoir, Assaulted By Joy: The Redemption of a Cynic. The book chronicles Steve's exodus from the throes of disillusionment, primarily through his marriage and the subsequent birth of his four children.

Oh, and the four children all came at the same time.
Burnside: Tell us about how "Assaulted By Joy" ended up in print.

Stephen W. Simpson:
I wrote an article about our first year with quadruplets. Angela Scheff, an editor at Zondervan, read it and asked if I'd be interested in doing a book. Since I'd spent the past 3-4 years blasting out proposals and query letters, I can't tell you how good it felt to be asked for a book! I wrote a proposal, Angela made some suggestions, and then I rewrote it. She saw the book I wanted to write more than I did. I was thinking CBA fatherhood book, but she could tell that I was working with a couple of themes and suggested I do a straight memoir. Love that woman!

It took me about four or five months to write the first draft and another three or four months working with Angela to make changes. The book was on shelves about two years after the initial proposal.

BWC: The first four chapters deal specifically with growing up in the church and your building disillusionment toward not only Christianity, but your relationship with God. I was surprised at times how much our lives paralleled, and I kept wondering if this was unique to you and I, or if that bent toward cynicism is common. If cynicism is a natural part of who we are, is there a healthier focus it can take?

SS: I think idealism and passion in youth almost sets you up for cynicism. Cynicism comes from having big expectations lead to big disappointments. A lot of evangelicals start off thinking that God and The Church will bring them nothing but happiness and safety. That illusion gets shattered pretty fast for most of us, but it's a good thing. If we believe that faith is just about freedom from pain and individual happiness, then it's just a prosperity gospel that has little to do with the Bible.

How heavily was your content edited? It seems like there were times you weren't telling everything, or couldn't.

SS: I was heavily edited but in the opposite way: Angela kept asking for more. I have a terrible habit of "telling instead of showing" in first drafts, and Angela broke me of that. She wanted everything to be a story. She opened me up a lot more than reigning me in. I ended up adding about 20,000 words. But, yes, I didn't tell everything. It's a CBA book and I knew what to avoid, but I'm cool with that. The important stuff is all there.

BWC: That's a great way to put it. So the first half of the book, you're basically mired in this ebb and flow of cynicism. Then you meet Shelley, and you guys get married. After two miscarriages, your doctor prescribes Clomid, a fertility drug. Does anyone on fertility drugs NOT end up with at least triplets? Because that's my impression. Fertility medication seems like the monkey's paw: "Be careful what you wish for".

SS: Multiple births are only slightly higher for women taking Clomid, so people shouldn't be afraid of it. It's in vitro that gets you a litter. Our situation was very unusual.

You and Shelly learn you're having quadruplets. From that point on, your lives...and particularly Shelley's...become a living nightmare. Just one horrific obstacle on top of another. It's astonishing. This may be my sadistic side, but there were points reading where something else awful would happen, and I'd just laugh out loud, like I was watching someone comically tumble down a hillside. I realize this is a ridiculous question, but did you ever see it that way, even for a minute? If Job wasn't just an allegory, I'm going to ask him the same question in heaven.

SS: We laugh about it now. While it was happening, we just went nuts and snapped at each other all the time. Once, however, we were having a really bad day and a can of peaches fell off a shelf and hit me on the head. It hurt like hell, but I just fell on the floor laughing. I looked at Shelley and said, "We'll break out in boils any minute now."

BWC: That sounds like that show "John and Kate Plus Eight". If you haven't seen that, you should watch it just for the relational dynamics. It seems like their marriage is doomed, but then you realize the incredible stress they're under and it's at least somewhat reasonable. By the way, I'm honored you named your son after me.

SS: I wanted to dedicate the book to you, but Zondervan vetoed. They've heard that story about you and Bette Midler in Biloxi.

BWC: Bette Midler? Zing. Moving on...are you planning on having any more children? Think of how easy it would be with just one!

SS: Let's put it this way: another child would be a real miracle.

I love taking just one of my kids to the park or something. I realize that I'm actually a pretty laid back dad instead of some stress ball constantly scanning the environment for danger or shenanigans.

BWC: I think one of my favorite parts of the book is toward the end, when you acknowledge life doesn't always turn out so well, that the miracles you experienced don't happen for everyone. I think the line many of us toe is about expectation of miracles. I know a family, for instance, who's child has a chromosomal disorder, and they believed very fervently for a long time God would heal her. It seemed crazy to me, but on the other hand, I rarely expect God to intervene tangibly in my life, even though He has on occasion. Is that a cynical way of viewing things? Does the expectation of miracles set someone up for more disillusionment?

SS: The primary message of the book is that joy is about something bigger than happiness or comfort. It's realizing that you are connected to something that will make sense of your life if you let it. That doesn't mean we will always know the reason for everything. Rather, it's finding a sense of meaning and purpose in trusting a God who is much bigger than quick answers or instant gratification.

Most of the miracles we want are about freedom from pain. I'm all for that and I think God provides those sometimes, but He's got much bigger things in mind. I believe that miracles happen to us all the time, but we won't recognize or understand them until we get to heaven. We might be playing a part in God's plan that doesn't have anything to do with our happiness. When I remember that, it give me peace. When I don't, I just get pissed off.

Our kids were in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) for six weeks. They all came out healthy and thriving. Other babies in the NICU suffered and died. There's no way our family deserved a miracle more than the ones who lost their kids. I believe in miracles, but I'm not going to pretend that I understand how God chooses to use them.

BWC: Being someone who suffers through some of the same issues, is there a way to get around cynicism without having quadruplets? I'm sure you're glad for everything you went through now, but I'd like to avoid going one year without sleep.

SS: No. You're screwed without quadruplets. Otherwise, my book is a cynic's only hope. They should visit www.assaultedbyjoy.com before their heart shrivels into a prune.

BWC: Way to get that plug in there. We don't call this "Burnside Sells Out" for nothing.

SS: If you had any idea how much we spent on diapers, you'd understand.



What if Starbucks marketed like the church?

What are your thoughts? Should churches be marketing themselves in the first place?


Prince Beelzebub, Your Anti-Ombudsman

Hello Darlings!

My name is Prince Beelzebub, but my friends call me Prince B. The pimps in the eighth circle bequeathed me with this moniker some thirty years ago and it stuck. PrinceB at your service, my dears.

I’ve been waiting a long time for this. Waiting for the time when Satan lost interest in all but the most sensational aspects of public life. From time immemorial he had his hand in everything, and he was quite the micromanager. Over the past couple centuries, however, he’s become not only increasingly irrelevant, but less motivated. If something doesn’t involve death or the occult, he has no interest. He stays mostly in Africa now, being particularly fond of poverty, genocide, and disease. And since he just can’t bear to live without constant adoration, he insists on working only in cultures that take witch doctors and demonic possession seriously. The fool. I care far more about the attention of major media outlets than voodoo shamans. To his credit, he’s kept Africa out of the spotlight. Nobody cares about what happens there because Satan’s work in Africa lacks panache. Famine, disease, and poverty are sentimental and quaint, but hardly relevant to our work in the West. The important duties fall to me now, and I daresay they’re in more capable hands. You are in more capable hands, darlings. No thanks required, dears, for it’s my pleasure.

I am delighted to be joining you. Moreover, I am delighted that you will be joining me. You see, almost since its inception, religion has been one of my favorite tools. It is wonderful when those who fancy that they are working against you are actually in your service. Unfortunately, there are still those annoying few who remain steadfast in their absurd devotion to The One Who We Do Not Name and his Bastard Son, that feckless thug who’s foot has been on my neck since before the dawn of time, curse that excremental, holier-than-thou tyrant and his slimy fu-

A thousand pardons. What was I saying? Oh yes – religion.

For the past fifty years or so, the extreme conservative right wing of evangelical Christianity was most amenable to my designs. I achieved this mostly through tempting them with politics. Religion and politics together create a veritable smorgasbord of Plutonian pleasures: power mongering, manipulation, exclusion, strife, forced categorization – I could go on forever! The Christian right has been one of my greatest allies for decades. Not even Tim LaHaye had the faintest clue.

Of late, however, the hard Christian right has lost the fabulosity that once made them so useful to me. They’ve lost much of their influence, even allowing that Obama creature to steal the presidency. I love my dear right wing extremists, but I tire quickly of humans without power and influence. They are a waste of time to me now, darlings. What’s a devil to do? Where would I find a group of Christians that would work with me while not embarrassing me? I needed to find a new Christian faction on the ascent. I needed a rising star in Christian media with a fresh, hip message combined with glamour and style.

What I needed, my darling beauties, was The Burnside Writers Collective.

Every other week, I will update you on BWC’s progress in executing my designs. However, since instant gratification is the very bread and butter of human existence, I shan't leave you waiting. Let’s revel together in a few things that you’ve already accomplished.

First, I would like to congratulate all BWC writers on instilling feelings of shame. Hardly a day passes when the BWC blog doesn’t make dozens of readers feel bad for being middle class. I thought only the Christian right had mastered this art, but you do it with aplomb. I learned centuries ago that guilt and shame accomplish next to nothing in the long-term while making one look tragically hip in the short. Ab fab!

And thank you for your excessive, um, I mean excellent coverage of popular culture! You present the illusion of meaning and value within, for which I cannot thank you enough. Very little serves my designs more than the pleasant malaise that washes over those who have been stimulated into passivity.

I would also like to give thanks for all the cynical challenges flung at your newly elected leaders. Hear, hear! Nothing inspires leaders more than skepticism and doubt before they’ve even gotten behind the desk. By all means, cut your celebrations as short as possible. Feeble requests for Democrats not to “screw up” would have brought tears of joy to my eyes if I had the ability to shed them.

Most of all, I want to thank you for from saving me from oblivion. With the demise of the conservative extremists, I thought I would be out of a job. The Burnside Writers Collective has changed all that. I’ll miss my frothing fundies, but I forget old friends and make new ones quite easily. Thank you for renewing my faith in the usefulness, wit, and glamour of Christians. All that’s left is to get that assh- er, I mean- celebrity Donald Miller to run for political office! Imagine what we might accomplish then!

See you again, soon. Until then, my darling beauties, I remain . . .

Your friend until The End,


Jesus Loves...Robert Mugabe

Meditations - Gods of Dirt

There’s a fascinating but overlooked scene at the end of Namaan’s story in 2 Kings. Namaan was the military genius who architected Syria’s rise to power. Syria would eventually invade the Northern Kingdom and leave it a wasteland. However, we meet Namaan when Syria was still a rising star. As such, tension between Syria and its neighbor Israel were high.

General Namaan was afflicted with leprosy. Finding no cure in his own country, the king of Assyria addressed a letter to the king of Israel and asked him to use his connections to persuade Israel’s God to heal his general. Israel’s king panicked; this medical referral was a ploy. Namaan would return to home unhealed, giving Syria a pretext to invade Israel. The threat of war was averted when a true prophet healed Namaan.

The last scene in the story gives us insight to the prevalent theology. Namaan leaves Israel with all the soil that two mules can carry. Namaan believed each nation had a divine sponsor responsible for the general welfare. A nation’s borders delineated the influence of king and the jurisdiction of their god. After being healed, Namaan wanted to worship Israel’s God. He believed that he needed Israel’s soil to make long distanced worship possible. Namaan wasn’t collecting souvenirs but a necessary tool to connect with his new god.

We see this same entanglement of nationalism and worship in the Book of Jonah. Syria has continued to increase, while a divided Israel is slowly withering. God commissions Jonah with the task of travelling to the capital of Assyria and warning them to repent. Jonah balks. What if Syria repents and God’s judgment is averted. Jonah sees the impending doom of Nineveh as an opportunity for Israel’s strategic defense.

So Jonah did what any patriot would have done, he self-imposes an exile and attempts to escape past the edge of God’s influence. Jonah understands that God’s might extends past Israel and into Syria, so he attempts a different strategy. Perhaps God’s power doesn’t extend to the open sea. Jonah booked a fast ship to the far off city of Tarsus where he intended to lay low until he heard visiting merchants gossip about Nineveh’s destruction.

God responded by proving the sea was on his beat was well. God whipped up a storm to batter Jonah’s ship and gave Jonah a three day “time out” in the belly of a giant fish. Jonah is persuaded to return to Nineveh, where he petulantly delivers God’s grace to his enemies.

The accounts of our general and prophet combine to remind us that the true God will not be mistaken for a dirt-god, a minor league deity staked to a plot of land. Namaan learned that even though his national strength was superior to that of Israel that the true God had entered into a covenant with a weaker nation. Being a powerful and wealthy nation was not the same thing as being blessed by God. Jonah, meanwhile, viewed God as Israel’s exclusive national treasure, a commodity to be withheld from their enemies.
And God ignored these boundaries. He offered physical healing to an enemy general and forgave the considerable sins of his nation. God refused to be reduced to a god of dirt. He asserted his role as the creator and lover of all.

Namaan and Jonah’s religion seems downright primitive to modern eyes. That is, until we hear the radio preacher talk about America’s unique relationship with God; until we listen to our own apathy of the suffering of people who live on the wrong side of our borders, in impossible places like Haiti and Darfur.

God insists on loving, leading, correcting, healing, and redeeming all people, in spite of the arbitrary lines we’ve drawn on our maps. And like he did with Jonah, he invites us to put away our dirt-gods and join him in this work.


Focus on the Family: Getting Acquainted

This past Monday, CBS ran an article with the headline: "Monks Brawl at Site of Jesus' Tomb." Again, that was a CBS headline, not one from The Onion. Click here for the full story, which includes a disturbing video of the fight caught from above.

The irony runs thick, as could the commentary on how time and again, Jesus' followers fail to demonstrate the ideals of the one they claim to follow.

I tend to see a news story like this or another report on foreign Holy Land bickering and think, why can’t they just get along? Why so much division and hatred? Why can’t they see what negative implications this power struggle is having on the religious traditions they are trying to uphold?

But if one were to see religious spats in the United States from an overhead video, wouldn’t we see the same threads of immaturity and futility? the fruitlessness of shoving around fellow believers, hoping for a bigger piece of the pie?

We Protestants have split denominations literally thousands of times in our brief stint here in the United States, sometimes over differences that could/should have been solved over a civil cup of tea or, at most, a feisty thumb war. Case in point: the denomination of my upbringing split from another partially because our side did not believe church members should also be members of a lodge.

In fact, most of these church schisms come in the name of claiming rightness. One group thinks they have a better handle on the truth than another and therefore are entitled to more power and control. The others, they think, should be stripped of this power and control.

The problem with religious groups wishing to gain this control, is that its accumulation is something Jesus, their supposed leader, did not model. If that were his prerogative, he would have been born into royalty and not near barn animals. He would have ordered others to serve him, not washed stinky feet. He would have given easy moral answers that people could used to judge one another instead of challenging people to look inward and drop their rocks of judgment.

We all want to be right in our theology and practice. But, as my friend and pastor says: we have to acknowledge that each of our faith traditions is ultimately insufficient. That they all lack something.

In this column, I plan to look at how my beliefs differ from conservatives evangelicals like James Dobson. But can I (without excessive twitching) acknowledge those points where we agree? Could I admit that our motivation to serve Christ might, at its elemental level, be similar?

I don’t think we are called, as believers, to pretend that we always agree. I also don’t think it’s a sin to be critical of others’ beliefs or actions, especially when we think that they are hurtful to growing the Kingdom of God. But it is to say that the way we go about this disagreement (throwin’ down like monks or through verbal condemnations) is helpful to no one.

Living in the Heart of Mormondom: A City Like No Other

Every city has it’s own pulse that pumps life into the community. Each is unique in its special way with quirky or cool personalities, or both. My city, Salt Lake City, is no different.

Salt Lake City roads are built on a grid system. From a center point, each road is numbered in an outward direction. That center is Temple Square, the Mecca of the Mormon Church. All roads are defined by their proximity to the trumpet playing golden angel. Finding your way around is a snap. But in the city by the big salty lake, it’s hard to miss that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), or the Mormon Church as it known by most, plays a major part in sculpting the city beat.

Despite outside perceptions, Salt Lake City is not all Mormon. In fact, a couple of recent news articles suggest the population is only about 40% LDS, likely because of the growth of the city and the many Mormons fleeing to the outlying suburbs.

So as a non-Mormon resident of the city, I hope I can use this Burnside column to shed light on life from within Salt Lake. Living in such a place, where the religious divide cuts deep, has taught me much about my own Christian faith and the body of believers. Looking through the lens at the Mormon culture is interesting, humorous, and often acts as a mirror.

As the months pass and I share more and more about life in Mormon Country, I’m guessing a member or two of the LDS church will stumble upon this column. If I’ve done my job correctly, they’ll say, “Well, that’s fair” and maybe they’ll join the conversation. (If I haven’t done my job well, they’ll think, “That dude is a jackass.” But they can only think it to themselves because like with most Evangelicals, it’s not appropriate for Mormons to say “ass.”)

But if I’m honest, the non-Mormons will find more than just interesting information on Mormonism and the Mormon culture, they’ll see something of themselves in a new light or they’ll have a firmer grasp on a foundational portion of their own beliefs. And for the rest of you, maybe you’ll just have a laugh or two. Whatever the case, I look forward to where this column may lead our discussion.


Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week

I'm wearing a specially-designed, long-sleeved green t-shirt today as part of Hunger and Homelessness Awareness
Week here at Lehigh University. It's honestly not something that I think about enough, and in the midst of a very major decision that my family is making this week, it is giving me pause to realize just how much we have.

Here are some facts on the back of our t-shirts:

pounds of edible food are thrown away in the US per year
US residents experience homelessness in a given year

Americans are homeless in any given night

Dollars per year is the poverty line for a family of four

People worldwide die each day from hunger-related causes

Children a year are housed in a shelter in the Lehigh Valley

Hours a week must be worked at minimum wage to afford rent

Dollars a day are given to people relying on food stamps

Person needed to start a hunger revolution

The Verdict of History

A verdict on the last administration?

And a warning to the next:

"If the men in power will do these things that are so clearly right and just, they will earn the gratitude of the living and of the unborn. If they will do not them, they will be infamous, and will be unworthy of the respect of any honest citizen."

- Wendell Berry, "Mayhem in the Industrial Paradise" (1972)


Dan Gibson Pop Culture Minute, Vol. V

So, it's Thursday, and on the new “nose to the grindstone” schedule Jordan has the various Burnside staffers working on, it's time for a new Dan Gibson Pop Culture Minute, so I'll pull myself away from my novel via Twitter to update you my beloved reader on the pop culture happenings of the moment.

Last installment, I teased a preview of the slate of movies coming out over the next few months. Normally, that sort of thing would be Pop Culture Minute gold glowing over snobby, somewhat indecipherable films made by foreigners while scoffing at the sort of mainstream comedies that studios roll out to actually make money. Unfortunately, looking the schedule this year, there are a few of the big commercial flicks (Owen Wilson in a touching story about a dog!) and a few artsy films (a four hour Che Guevara biopic and seemingly six films with Kate Winslet as the star), but otherwise, few things for your cultural correspondent to get too excited about. While the comeback of Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler certainly intriguing, nothing hitting theaters in the next two months matches up with last year's list of heavyhitters including There Will Be Blood, No Country For Old Men, American Gangster, Gone Baby Gone, Sweeney Todd and of course, the new classic Water Horse: Treasure of the Deep.

Still, that doesn't mean there aren't movies creating excitement for both theater owners and the popcorn industry. Besides the new James Bond movie, the media has latched on the film adaptation of Twilight, a teen/vampire romance best seller by Phoenix author Stephenie Meyer. The four books in the Twilight series have sold approximately one billion copies despite somewhat dismal reviews, but it's not entirely difficult to see why the story would appeal to the teenage girls of North America (and teenage girls at heart) with the story of a awkward high school girl who moves to a new town and falls in love with a classmate who is secretly 107 years old and a vampire (albeit the sort that drinks animal blood, rather than human). Entertainment Weekly in particular has contracted a nasty case of Twilight fever, with pages of coverage in the magazine itself and a special section on their website. While this is only my particular theory, I tend to believe the story is an allegory for the loss of control associated with a woman's entrance into womanhood and the accompanying sexual frustration, with the scary vampires representing sexuality in general (the good vampire chastely holds back on his lust for human blood, while the more carnal vampire will stop at nothing to take the girl's innocence and life through more traditional vampire activities). Of course, this is just my guess. I might be reading too much into it all encouraged by a bit of sleep deprivation. Whether a single straight man will willingly go to see Twilight remains unseen, but a legion of Hot Topic shopping, Paramore listening teenage girls is likely enough to send the movie to number one, at least for a week.

Speaking of Paramore, here is their contribution to the film's soundtrack, which went to number one on the album charts this week:

To close things out this week, a few Dan Gibson Pop Culture Seconds:

MTV's Total Request Live (better known as TRL) ends its ten year run this Sunday with an all-star spectacular. My money's on a surprise reunion of 'N Sync, but most likely, it'll just be way more Carson Daly than any human being should be exposed to (there's a reason they put his talk show so late on at night, you know?). In celebration of the show's contribution to youth culture, here's a poorly focused clip of the show's finest moment, Mariah Carey handing out ice cream and making a case for her forced institutionalization at a mental health clinic:

The ridiculous lists that critics put together at the end of the year are starting to roll in, including the Amazon.com editorial staff's mystifying choice of the Kings of Leon disc. I mentioned the Fleet Foxes disc would be a big hit among record snob types in the first DGPCM, and British magazine Uncut comes through for me, naming their self titled debut the “most rewarding or inspiring album” of the last twelve months. I think that level of acclaim is a bit excessive, but then again, I'll likely give serious thought to including the 2008 release by emopop act The Academy Is... on my list, so that might discount my opinion entirely. Still one disc that will definitely make my list will be the collaboration between Welsh singer Gruff Rhys from Super Furry Animals and Los Angeles producer Boom Bip. One of my favorite tracks from the disc is “I Told Her On Alderaan”, here remixed by Richard X:

I leave you, in honor of Twilight, a clip of pre-teen girls reacting to this year's American Idol finale. Enjoy.

The Idiot Box: Mad Men

The span of years from immediately after World War II up until around 1963 is generally viewed in a number of ways.

Conservatives tend to remember the 1950s with an awed nostalgia. It was a time when you could leave your doors unlocked, when families stayed together, when people were moral and upright. It was the dawn of American supremacy, the point when the United States stood alone for the forces of freedom against the tyranny of the Soviet Union.

On the other hand, the Left define the '50s by consumerism and sexual repression, a patriarchal, buttoned-down era where men couldn't be themselves and women were property. It's the picture painted simplistically by films like "Pleasantville", where adultery is usually the answer to all life's problems.

"Mad Men", the critically-acclaimed television series from AMC, leans toward the latter, but avoids those gauche simplicities. To be fair, the series focuses on the early 1960s, when puritanical facades were beginning to crumble and the country began to show signs of a hard left turn. Besides, watching cleancut men smoke, drink cocktails and toss sexist jokes at very attractive women is only novel for so long...eventually, we want to see what makes these characters tick.

It's hard to tell how accurate "Mad Men"'s portrait of that era is, primarily because it seems so alien. Ironically, the world "Mad Men" depicts is more shocking than "South Park"...every character smokes constantly, drinks at work, and the only conversation between sexes is draped in obvious double entendres. I found myself cringing more at some of these lines (watch with caution) than I have during profanity-laden moments in, say, "Curb Your Enthusiasm".

"Mad Men"'s depiction may be over the top, but I'm inclined to trust the spirit it portrays. I've grown up believing in the idyllic '50s, but it's reality doesn't fit with A) what we know about American history and, B) what we know about human nature.

Historically, it's impossible to believe an era could be so clean and pure when it was bookended by the horrors of World War II and the overreactive, explorative 60s. The men returning from the European and Pacific theaters had experienced atrocities and barbarism, and we are expected to believe they just went back to normal lives? Similarly the hedonism and self-centeredness of the '60s had to be a reaction to something.

What's even more difficult is to imagine a time when sin just wasn't as prevalent, when society as a whole was somehow "better". If we're to believe what Jesus says about sin in Matthew, we know that action is not required for sin, that lust and murder can happen in our hearts. It's easy to say our inner and outer sins are equal, but many of us don't quite believe it because the consequences aren't so obvious.

In a sense, our nostalgia for the '50s is what politicians like Sarah Palin are appealing to, a time when our societal laws took a stand against sexual immorality and crime. The problem is, those societal laws just drive the sin underground. The sin is still there, but we're forced to deal with it on our own, afraid of how we'll be judged. As any recovering addict will tell you, overcoming your demons alone doesn't work out too well.

Oh, and "Mad Men" is extremely good.


Foxhole Community

Few events in life bring spirituality into clear focus like that of war. Too often since my return from Iraq, I’ve heard the hollow statement, “There’s no such thing as an atheist in the fox hole,” as if this is somehow a truth to take joy in. In reality, the Christians that love to say this don’t understand what they are saying. They have no idea what a spiritual experience provided by war is. While their statement is intended to be a jab at atheism, it’s really a statement about America. A foxhole that lacks faith, love, and fellowship is far easier to find in States, and often easier to see in the church.

Ironically, my wartime spiritual experience was so profound that I now believe that I will never again live in such communion with the spirit until I give up my last breath. Even among great shortfalls and mishaps of morality, hardship, and loss, I know that the sacred was always extremely close. And while I don’t know if it’s possible in America, I hope that one day we can all experience the diverse community of believers like the community I knew in war.

My duties afforded me the opportunity to travel all over Iraq with a number of different units. It wasn’t uncommon to hear a prayer shouted by someone in the truck as we embarked on a mission. It didn’t always happen; there was no unwritten rule. It just happened when it happened. Often, these prayers from the heart would go something like,
“God, protect our asses on this mission. But if you decide it’s our time to go, please be merciful and put an inattentive guard at the gate so we, the undeserving bastards of the (insert unit here) may sneak our way in to heaven. Amen!”
And usually all would shout a true, deeply honest, “Amen!” On these trucks, there were Catholics and Baptists and Pentecostals and Mormons and those who had never stepped foot into a formal church building a day in their lives. And yes, there were probably atheists.

And when we returned there’d be glory given to God, usually in the gruffy way of the soldier as we smoked Cuban cigars (because there’s no embargo in that part of the world). There, the warrior would think of his existence and ponder about his Creator. It’s easy in war to see God, but it’s even easier to question of Him, “Where are You?” At that time, we had no idea the spiritual conflict we’d face at home, alone, because the American church is more concerned about protecting marriage, whatever that really means, and electing their flavor of faith to political office.

It was difficult not to be thankful, profoundly thankful. Nothing was taken for granted. God was significant, far more than I had ever experienced back home.

The soldiers came together in community. As our tour was winding down and the incoming unit was picking up our mission load, we started holding movie nights. A sheet—that often warped the picture as it swayed in the breeze—would act as our screen and the commander let us use the mission briefing LCD projector and a laptop to play DVDs.

These DVD were the newest films, still in the theaters but bootlegged. We bought them from the locals who got them from the Saudis or Kuwaitis. They usually had subtitles in Arabic and the silhouettes of theater attendee’s heads bumped across the bottom. On occasion the shot would be obscured when the bootlegger moved the camera; but what more could we ask for? We were in Iraq.

One night, we got a copy of “The Passion.” It was just out in theaters so many of us wanted to see what all the hype was about. The room was packed. Our copy was subtitled in Arabic; English was nowhere to be read or heard. To top if off, the movie doesn’t do a good job of telling a story to those who don’t already know the story, which just happened to be most of the scouts in our unit.

So the chaplain’s assistant and I decided to attempt to be the voices of the characters, simply making a best guess effort at what was being said. However, there was no mistaking the opening scene.

As Jesus is on the ground in prayer and Satan is moving around the garden, our group fell silent. Off in the distance we could hear test fire, or maybe real gunfire, but it was too far off to worry about. Normally the radio in the HQ area was alive with units calling in for QRF or reporting their positions; but at that moment, it was still. Nobody was breathing.

Satan bent down and released a snake at Jesus’ face. The Devil’s eyes told the story. Perspiration drained from Jesus and soaked the dirt. The fog ebbed and flowed through the trees. Then, from the back of the room, a young soldier who had no affiliation with church, shouted, “Punch him, Jesus!” Seconds later Jesus stomped on the head of that snake to the great cheer of us warriors forged by blood and fire.

We watched that movie together as a community, no different than how we experienced war. There was no debate as to the accuracy or theology or whatever. We had no controversy, only the love for one another and the desire to “sneak” into heaven someday, as a team. Collectively, we were what America needs. Together, we wanted to understand Jesus and each other. Iraq, as it turns out, was the safest place I’ve ever experienced a believing community. Too bad our foxholes in American aren’t as great.

Honoring Our Veterans: Listen to What Killed Sergeant Gray?

Today is Veterans Day, which for most of us means we can't go to the library, cash a check, or get a new driver's license. For veterans all over the country it means something remarkably different. Their days are full of memories, memories that are ringing with conflicting emotions: pride, regret, fear, confusion, excitement, guilt, shame.

Today, as I listened to What Killed Sergeant Gray, I was filled with some of the same feelings, but most of all with regret - for these men who share their stories, for the Iraqis they tortured, for the pieces of themselves they left on Middle Eastern sand.

This piece is a timely and critical expose´ of the lives that men in uniform are required to lead in our pursuit of the War On Terror, and everyone - no matter where they stand on the war - should be exposed to what these men go through in their execution of it.

Here's a bit of a teaser:

Sergeant Adam Gray made it home from Iraq only to die in his barracks. He was found dead, a plastic bag was cinched around his neck, and can of Dust-Off - a cleaner used for electronic equipment - lying beside him.

The Army ruled that his death was "accidental" - a result of inhaling chemicals to achieve a high (a practice known as "huffing"). But that explanation seemed insufficient to Gray's family. It didn't seem like something the Adam they knew would have done.

Investigating his death, American RadioWorks pieces together a story of soldiers suffering psychological scars – because they abused Iraqi prisoners.

You can download the radio program, listen online, or read the transcript at American Radio Works.