New Burnside on Monday

This may very well be the final post on the Burnside Blog.

On Monday, barring any unforeseen disasters, and requiring a load of work this weekend, we will launch our new site. We've been working on it for a while, and we're thrilled to finally show you what we have. We've also changed our URL. The new site will be at burnsidewriters.com.

The blog will still be up, but posts won't go here. Our old site will link directly to our new one. The blog and main site will be integrated. Some of the posts you've seen here will become articles. For shorter pieces, our site will offer an Asides department, for quick links, posts, and videos.

I get a lot of the glory around here for making this thing happen, but the truth is John Pattison did a thousand times more work than I did bringing this all together. I also want to thank John Whitaker for helping build our site, Metaleap Design for our logo, and a whole host of others who consulted and helped us out along the way (in particular, John's.

More thanks to those who donated to Burnside. Your incentives for giving will be sent out as soon as we get copies of Million Miles.

We're still working out bugs, but the submissions process will be greatly streamlined. Upon launch, we'll be welcoming open submissions, and we'll be much better in fielding them and responding.

Thank you for visiting so far. Spread the word about our new site!

Genesis - The Facebook Edition

I'm so glad I have access to David Sessions' Google status, or I would've missed this.

And speaking of our friends at Patrol Magazine, they have a terrific editorial on profanity and Christian magazines.

We've got a similar piece on censorship and profanity as it pertains to Burnside coming with the launch of our new site...stay tuned.


Relevant Magazine asked a few Burnside writers for short reflections on 9/11.

You can read those here.

We didn't have a ton of room, but I do want to mention how writing about 9/11 feels vaguely self-absorbed. I mean, think that day changed everyone on some level, but writing on how my thoughts about the world, politics, and war began to shift seem to pale in comparison to people who suffered directly, before and since.

(It's also a shame Susan Isaacs' memories weren't posted...she didn't have time to write a piece, but her story is in her book, and it's crazy.)


"More coffee, hun?"

I’ve had many memories at Waffle House. But I’m guessing some of you have never even been to one before. For those who don't know, it's a 24 hour grease-pit. A southern staple of grits and hospitality. It originally began in a little suburb outside of Atlanta Georgia in 1955 and now reaches as far north as Pennsylvania / Rhode Island and stretches west to Arizona / Colorado. Sorry Portland, but Waffle House might be my favorite cup of coffee. The coffee is not good, it’s bland. But the atmosphere is ironically endearing in that white-trash sort of way. A classic American icon if you ask me.

With three of us at the table my friend looks at my other friend and says, “translate this for me, I’ve been wondering about this for a while.”

He glanced across my friend’s brand new MacBook Pro and starts translating arcane Greek sentences from the ancient Nicene Creed devised by the Romans in 325AD. This is a bedrock, if not the bedrock document securing the survival and health of Christendom.

From across the table I hear, φς κ φωτός, Θεν ληθινν κ Θεο ληθινο, γεννηθέντα ο ποιηθέντα, μοούσιον τ Πατρί, δι' ο τ πάντα γένετο . . . God from God, Light from Light . . .

In Waffle House, mind you, he starts telling us about the annoying propensity to which the Grecians utilized reflexive participles. A literary faux-pas if you ask him. I start laughing at the insanity of it all. I mean, a Waffle House is no place for a MacBook. Let alone an opinionated lecture on an archaic language. My life doesn 't make sense and I'm beginning to be okay with that.

And right before this happened on the same MacBook we purchased plane tickets from Shanghai to Xiamen (pronounced Shaw-Men) a paradise city located on the southern shores of China where we will be living and teaching English next week. A United States Passport and a Chase MasterCard were on the table trying to avoid coffee stains. Ten minutes before all this my friend was quoting Shakespearian Sonnets from his iPhone. This had to be the most sophisticated table in all of Waffle House history.

As we were laughing at this juxtaposition our waitress yelled across the room, “Good morning Duke!”

I looked up at Duke. Duke was more probably a local trucker. He had a Harley Davison hat with flames coming off the bill. A cigarette hung from his mouth and tattoos lined his arms. His black Sturgis t-shirt was tucked into his Brett Favre Wranglers but on his feet he did not have boots . . . on his feet he had flannel house shoes.

Duke garbled, “Good morning darlin.”

I later got in my car and followed my friend back to his house so he could use my car the next day. He was driving his mothers car at the time. And I passed a cop and panicked because my speedometer light is out in my hubcap-less 95’ red Buick Skylark. I didn’t know how fast I was going. It was five in the morning. The story started swirling in my head, “Officer, we were just at Waffle House buying a plane ticket to China because we’ll be over there next week and my friend needs to use my car because he’s taking his mothers car back to her so she can go to work in a little bit. He needs to go to this bookstore in Fayetteville and buy himself a dry erase book with the 500 hundred most used Chinese characters in it. He’s really smart, he knows a lot about Koine Greek and Shakespeare and all...you know he's a good guy.”

And I’m sure he would have said something like, “Sir, I’ve heard a lot of stories in my day. Step out of your car.”

Teach Me To Pray

I write at a kitchen table.  There are days when I'd love to have a writer's desk with an old Tiffany lamp perched just so and fountain pens in an empty soup can and copies of The New Yorker strewn about the edges and...but that would be someone else's story.  I write at a kitchen table.

As I wrote yesterday, I could see him.  Then he'd disappear.  Then I'd see him again.  Rising. Falling.  Rising again.  You see, his backyard has a trampoline, like our backyard does.  I watched him turn flip after flip after flip, I bet twenty in a row, his eyes closed.  He was poetry. Our trampoline has a black safety web that feeds our abandon.  His does not; he jumps without a net.

The lights in his house stay on all night long and the windows are always, always open, every last one, and people are always yelling or screaming or crying or hollering.  Sometimes, when I'm writing at the kitchen table in the wee small hours I see the lights and hear the sounds. Sometimes I stop writing and pray.  There used to be a daddy in his house, but now he's gone. There were rumors about, well, they were rumors.  Now there's a boyfriend in his house and rumors of marriage.

Sometimes I stop writing and wonder about him.  It used to bug me that the lights stayed on all night but then I thought what if that's because a daddy loved darkness rather than light?  That was the rumor.  It doesn't bug me so much now, after that thought.  And I used to wonder why he would spend long stretches of time doing flip after flip after flip.  But then I thought sometimes even a new boyfriend can't put humpty together again and maybe he asks God to make him a bird so he can fly, fly away but God doesn't listen, so the closest he can get to the sky, to being untethered by the things of this world, is to barrel outside and close his eyes and spread his wings and jump without a net.  

If I had that writer's desk like I mentioned, it would probably be tucked away in some corner of the house surrounded by books that reached to the ceiling.  If I had that desk, I couldn't see Icarus; I wouldn't know how to pray.  


Wait a minute...THERE'S A WALL HERE!!!


If there's a single area of the world I would infer would be completely covered by archaeologists, that single area would be Jerusalem.

You know what they say: when you infer, you make an in out of 'f' and 'er'.

But seriously, they just found a giant wall in Jerusalem. Now the maps in the back of every Bible ever have to be rewritten!!!

(When reached for comment, the Christian book industry simply said, "Cha-ching!".)


Ugly Ducklings

I'm trying to remember a worse day to be a Duck fan.

It was nearly comical.

The Oregon Ducks-Boise State Broncos matchup to kick off the college football season ended up a disaster. From the opening kick-off, the aura played into Boise's hands: the plucky, all-American underdog facing its Nike-funded, evil-empire, neighboring state, BCS rival.

In last year's game, a Boise State defender delivered a vicious helmet-to-helmet cheap shot to Oregon QB Jeremiah Masoli after his first pass attempt. It was the one moral ground a Ducks fan could stand on going in, and even then it was reluctant. Before the last two season, most Oregon fans loved Boise State. The Broncos aren't in the Pac-10, they've featured a slew of Oregon-grown talent (like Jared Zabransky and Legedu Naanee), and they pulled off one of the greatest games in college football history against a team Duck fans do hate. Even their head coach, Chris Peterson, is a favorite son in Eugene, serving as an assistant coach under Mike Bellotti for six years.

They were also ranked two slots higher in preseason rankings, making this game a lose-lose situation. Smaller conference teams aren't expected to beat teams like Oregon, even if they're consistent college football powerhouses. On paper, in Boise, the Ducks were the underdog, but most of the country doesn't know that. This game also marked the beginning of a new era under the Ducks' promising new coach, Chip Kelly, after the 14 year reign of Mike Bellotti.

What ensued was the most frustrating game imaginable. Despite their much-vaunted offense, which racked up an average of 54 points per game over the last three games last season, Oregon gained a total of 14 yards in the first half. They did not manage to convert a first down until the third quarter.

Despite the ineptitude, the Ducks kept getting breaks. They were only down 13 at the half due to Boise State's two missed field goals, and a series of fumbles and stops kept giving the ball back when it looked hopeless. After their first first down of the game, the Ducks suddenly started playing like they usually do, and rolled in for an easy touchdown. There was an entire quarter and a half to go, and the Ducks were only down 11 points.

It never panned out, and neither team scored again. It was sloppy and ugly on both sides, and I was almost relieved when the clock finally ticked out, but not before Oregon's hardest hitter, T.J. Ward, was injured badly, and not before they repeatedly the same teary-eyed Duck fan in the crowd, a man who looked to be in his 20s, sulking.

Then, things got really bad.

From ESPN's game report:
As the Broncos began celebrating on their famous blue turf, Hout yelled in Blount's face and tapped him on the shoulder pad. That drew an immediate scream from Boise State head coach Chris Petersen, but before Petersen could pull Hout away, Blount landed a right hand to the defensive end's jaw.
Then, Blount wouldn't leave quietly, fighting with the police escorts ushering him off the field, and making blind rushes at taunting fans over the exit tunnel.

I felt two primary emotions in quick succession.

1. A vague sense of justice. I like to pretend, despite my fanhood, I'm fairly objective. But that Boise State player sure came off an @$$hole. Who taunts an opposing team like that, especially after such a humiliating loss? Trash talk is part of the game, I know, but I've always felt sore winners are more obnoxious than sore losers. LaGarrette Blount entered this game one of the top NFL running back prospects in the nation. He finished with -5 yards on 8 carries. That's all the talk you need...rubbing it in during the post-game handshakes is classless.

So watching Hout get absolutely cold-cocked in response was vaguely satisfying. I'm ashamed I felt this way.

2. Anger. I was embarrassed to be somewhat pleased by the punch, and immediately swung the other way. My exact Facebook post was "LaGarrette Blount should be kicked off the Oregon Ducks." Blount's actions made Oregon look as evil as Bronco fans wanted them to be. It's bad enough being the powerhouse team humbled by their small conference neighbor. It's another to punch a guy in an epic display of bad sportsmanship, on national television, in the first game of the year. For many Ducks fans and players, it was shame heaped on a humiliating game.

The next morning, I don't feel the same. Blount should not be kicked off the team, though he should suffer a lengthy suspension. With one emotional reaction, Blount has done irreparable harm to his future. His actions could cost him a shot at the 1st round of the NFL draft (maybe more - with more emphasis on character in pro sports lately, he could drop considerably, costing him millions of dollars in bonuses).

I wasn't alone in my response. The cries were out all over Facebook ("Horrible, I say. Hope they boot him from that sorry excuse of a team..."), from the announcers ("unconscionable!" "reprehensible!"), and the always-indignant John Canzano.

Here's my problem, 10 hours later, with the outrage:

The Oregon and Boise State players had just finished 60 minutes of football. They are big and powerful men, running across the field and slamming into each other at full speed. These men are ridiculously strong. As Chuck Klosterman pointed out years ago in a brilliant essay for ESPN, NFL linebacker Shawne Merriman weighs more than the greatest offensive tackle of all-time (Anthony Munoz, who retired in 1993) and runs faster than the greatest receiver did during his draft combine (Jerry Rice, who retired in 2005). These men are destroying each other for our entertainment.

And yet, when that raw emotion and energy spills out for even a moment after the game, we gasp in self-righteousness. We recall our time on the field - in Little League, or out with friends - and pretend we understand what it's like. If we were tackled just once by a 200 pound man, we would file assault charges. LaGarrette Blount was pulled to the ground 8 times by groups of men even larger, while he was running full speed. We can't fathom, from our pure white towers of the finest carved ivory, how he could ever resort to flinging his fist into an opponent's smug grin?

Maybe I should start taking some notes from hockey: if I'm going to cheer on the barbarism and slow death of athletes, I may as well cheer when they fight, as well. Or at least not recoil in hypocritical horror like a pious windbag.

(UPDATE: Maybe I'm not such a homer after all...Deadspin's post on the incident has some similar themes.)

(FURTHER UPDATE: Blount has been suspended for the rest of the season.)


This has to be a joke...

Apparently, Christians aren't the only ones looking to profit off the apocalypse.

I'm not sure it's real. (The FAQs say it is!) If it is, though...oh, mama. What a wonderful scheme.

(Thanks to reader James for the tip. This blog would be a sad, liberal-infested place without him, and we love him for that.)

Who wants SEC Championship Game tickets?

Okay, I know a great many of you live in the Pacific Northwest. And I know most of you who care about football care more about the PAC 10. But I'm writing a book on Faith and Fanaticism in the Southeastern Conference, and to generate a little interest in the project I'm giving away two tickets to the SEC Title Game.

Here is how the contest works.

You have until Oct 17th to enter. On the 18th I will draw 10 names, and those fans will compete in a six-week, knock out style pick 'em contest, with the winner taking two tickets to the big game. So how do you get entered? Easy, there are three ways.

1. Join my Facebook group.

2. Take the Faith and Fanaticism survey.

3. Re-tweet the survey or Facebook group along with @Chad_Gibbs on Twitter.

In fact, you can do all three and triple your chances of winning!

Thanks for your help, and good luck!


"E" - the estrogen factor of American Christianity

I'm intrigued by a study David Murrow did (found here, archives of the Winter 2008 issue) that examined a possible hypothesis regarding the vast percentage difference between the genders when it comes to church attendance. It's about 60/40 in our church, and this is common. This imbalance is unique to Christianity, as Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, and Hindus all display a remarkable gender balance in their faith practices.

One could speculate about the 'why' of this, and such speculations abound, including hypotheses that address the patriarchal bent of other religions ("of course men are in... they carry all the power cards!"), or their cultural mandate ("it's just that everyone's in, unlike our secular society"), but Murrow's hypothesis is the one I find most intriguing.

He asked both Christians and Non-Christians to answer the question: "Which set of values better characterizes Jesus Christ and his true followers?" They chose between:

Set #1
Proving Oneself
Results Objects

Set #2
Loving Cooperation
Personal Expression

95% of those surveyed said list #2 represents the values of Christ. In reality, the lists aren't the values of Christ and/or someone else, but the lists of masculine and feminine values from John Gray's book, "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus". You can debate the merits of this book. You can decry the generalizations and stereotypes. What you can't do is ignore the reality that men don't get involved in faith communities as consistently as women.

The thesis of the surveyor is that American Christianity has been feminized. That's one theory. But those who go down that right tend to simply move the ethos of the church from one imbalanced list to the another. This doesn't seem adequate.

Instead, I'd suggest that men are staying away for a few simple reasons:

1. Men are bored by church. It might be because the sermon's boring, or it might be because there's no compelling vision or venue for involvement. When Christ called his disciples he didn't call them to sit in endless meeting, but to go out and change the world. The school of faith that Jesus ran took place in markets, on walking trails, at sea. Yes, there was teaching, but the teaching was only important to the extent that there was a real thing happening. I'm bored by reading books about the technicalities of mountaineering - unless I'm about to go climbing. Our need to provide a balance of teaching and activity is vital, and addressed here.

2. There's no "vision quest" anymore. My 23 year old son just phoned me from Yosemite Valley in California. He got there by riding his bicycle over 1000 miles, from Seattle, down the Oregon Coast, down the California coast, to San Francisco, and then east to the Sierra Nevada mountains, and into Yosemite. I can tell, just by phone, that he's profoundly changed by doing this. In a sanitized world where even play sets are injury proof, we run the risk of boring our sons to death with Bible stories, Bible ethics, Bible characters, and oh so mellow music, when what might be needed is a week at sea, or a 1000 mile bike trip, or a month in Central America or Africa or... ? You tell me.

3. There's just not enough vision. I don't want to overgeneralize, so I'll say it this way: There are millions of men, and many women as well, who need a mountain to climb; who need a vision that will engage their whole selves; who need to shoot for the moon and the stars when they wake up each day. These people (of both gender) are the ones the church runs the risk of losing if we don't help people see that 'church life' isn't about sitting quietly and singing sweet songs - it's about being spun out (see previous post) of comfort zone, and using our gifts to make the invisible God visible in tangible ways. Doing that will require character qualities from BOTH lists, and both genders.

What do you think? Agree or disagree? Why is there a shortage of men in church?


Derek Webb, Stockholm Syndrome

I like Derek Webb a lot. He's a truly creative guy, working in and around the fringes of Christian music, a genre that doesn't exactly prize "the artist" often. I met him briefly when he was touring during his first round with Caedmon's Call (a band Webb announced he will be reuniting with soon) and it already seemed he was uneasy with the constraints of the business, frustrated by the limitations of playing in churches and the unofficially-enforced Jesus-per-minute standard. After a very weird time in Caedmon's (his songs seemed either pinned on at the last minute, or on a few albums, Webb didn't get a song on at all), he turned to a solo career that seems to flirt with controversy with each release. His first album used the word "whore" in the lyrics, other albums hit hard on social justice issues. Webb transitioned from a straight-ahead singer-songwriter type to a more experimental performer, although in a generally Yankee Hotel Foxtrot way. In the meantime, Webb gave an album away online, and then, inspired by the experience, started Noisetrade.com, a remarkable way for artists to market their music in the uncertain digital age. It's easy to cheer for Webb. He seems like a man with honorable convictions and a desire for his music to mean something.

Which brings us to Webb's new album, Stockholm Syndrome. Webb's online marketing project leading up to the album and controversy with his label over his use of somewhat banal profanity built a frenzy for its release, and now reviewers seem to be lining up to hand out album-of-the-year honors to Stockholm Syndrome. Notably, culture e-zine Christian Manifesto called SS "one of the most important albums of the last 10 years." The problem is, Stockholm Syndrome doesn't come close to deserving that sort of hype.

Stockholm Syndrome is as enjoyable as any disc full of songs intending to be prophetic is likely to be, but neither the message nor the medium end up being all that powerful. The lyrics on "What You Give Up To Get It" are painfully trite at points. The profanity on "What Matters More" is no big deal, especially for anyone younger than age 50 (which includes essentially everyone in Webb's core audience) and the rest of the album ends up interesting and somewhat thought provoking if you're willing to bring your own issues to the table. Still, "Freddie Please" is a criticism of Westboro Baptist "pastor" Fred Phelps, someone you'd have a hard time finding a defender for, even in the most homophobic mainstream churches. I think the church should do a better job of sorting out our attitudes about homosexuality, too, but this particular song, like most of the album, seemed to be more about Webb scolding his audience for their intolerance.

The unfortunate thing is his audience is likely to assume the song is directed towards someone else - someone not hip enough to pick up the Derek Webb disc. Webb is at his most effective when he turns to the theme of the album's title: that, as Christians, we have become too sympathetic to our captors (the world). A few songs seem to return to that thought, but not quite enough. For every profound moment, Webb goes back into prophet mode, but his reliance on extended metaphor and imagery fails his message, and that's assuming the message is focused to begin with. It's not enough, and at times it seems Webb has become overly sympathetic to his captor named Outrage, forgetting about grace. He's not alone in that camp, however...you could probably count the number of Christian musicians able to bring the balance of the Gospel to their work on one hand, and that's only if you include musicians no longer with us, like Rich Mullins.

The album as a whole reminds me of what someone (I wish I remembered who) said about U2's "Pride": "When you think about it, what does that song tell us about either Jesus or Martin Luther King Jr.? It just evokes our memories of them in a mishmash of imagery to seem evocative and meaningful." The same is true for Stockholm Syndrome, minus the Martin Luther King part. For all the stumbling to try to crown this album as "a force that could topple the Jerichos of modern evangelicalism" (as David Sessions wrote for Patrol), I can't quite figure out what to take away from Webb's work, and I suspect I'm just looking in the wrong place.

Besides the muddled message, what's going to keep Stockholm Syndrome from being one of the "most important" albums of the decade (even if we're limiting ourselves to releases in the Christian genre) is that the sound of the songs themselves isn't as innovative as critics (or Webb himself) think. This probably wasn't his intent, but the influence that I kept thinking of throughout repeated listens wasn't Aphex Twin or Radiohead, but David Gray's White Ladder, recalling a time around the turn of the century when folk type musicians started messing with synths and drum machines. So, on the tracks with programmed beats, there isn't the uneasiness or induced paranoia that comes from a Massive Attack record or the aggressiveness that comes from great hip-hop; just a beat that doesn't add much of anything. The Patrol review throws out adjectives to try to describe the album's sounds, including "chopped" and "screwed", which makes me wonder if the reviewer has ever heard a Houston-area remixed rap album (from which those terms come). Webb might have, but if there's a single moment on Stockholm that DJ Screw would have recognized as derived from his influence, that would be the surprise of my lifetime.

I suspect "Jena & Jimmy" is supposed to have a sensual, sexy feel, but it fails on that front. Slower paced tracks like "The Proverbial Gun" and "The State" drag on without much momentum. It's not like there aren't enjoyable moments, because there are ("I Love/Hate You" is probably one of Webb's best songs to date and "Cobra Con" has a nice feel to it), but overall, Stockholm Syndrome sounds like a moderately hip adult contemporary record. The electronic accoutrements feel tacked on and lack a connection to either the present or future of music. (The programming on the most recent David Crowder Band album felt far more connected to a specific musical intent and aesthetic, for example.) Would I recommend the album? Maybe, as long as you temper your expectations. If you're looking for an album that "deserves comparisons to Ok Computer and Kid A" as John Wofford wrote in his review, you'll be incredibly disappointed.

It's certainly not just Christians that get into this endless quest to crown the next great album. There's something about the internet that encourages that sort of behavior. After all, remember when every music site went nuts for Clap Your Hands Say Yeah? I like the Talking Heads as much as anyone, but it didn't take long for that bubble to burst. Sometime next year, the authors of these glowing reviews will move on to something else, and what was "Derek Webb’s exhilarating, subversive masterpiece [Patrol]" will be consigned to the archives. The fault isn't with Derek, who clearly put a lot of effort into Stockholm Syndrome, with moderately successful results. The problem is with our need to feel validated and to have someone in the marketplace championing what we feel is wrong with Christianity.

I loved Steve Taylor when I was younger, as his albums took on Christian retail, Operation Rescue and holier-than-thou church goers; the same people we jaded kids in the back pews couldn't stand either. [In fact, what does this line from a British magazine's review of Taylor's I Want to Be a Clone remind you of?: "
This six-track 'mini-LP' is the most exciting and radically 'prophetic' recording the rock'n'roll subculture has so far presented to the Church." As they say, there's nothing new under the sun.] While Taylor has moved on to other ventures, his catalog of albums which seemed prophetic then are now out of print and largely forgotten. Taylor then, and Webb now, aren't exactly preaching to the choir, but instead headline a pep rally for those frustrated with mainstream Christianity.

Oddly, the same day Stockholm Syndrome hits iTunes, the new David Bazan album arrives as well. While Curse Your Branches doesn't attempt to create a new sonic landscape, Bazan hits a new high mark lyrically, essentially writing a concept album on doubt, with every song aching with a struggle to believe. Bazan turns the spotlight on himself and then on the Christian evangelical ideas of God and truth, which is definitely more difficult to listen to and take in, where Webb (and his laudatory fans in the review pages) just keep pointing at a crowd that, to be frank, probably won't ever hear his words. Maybe it's enough to make those slighted by the dominant paradigm to feel better about life on the fringe, but we can't confuse that with prophecy or the likelihood of real change.


A repurposed Parable

Sarah, allow me to build upon your words.

Not long before I left Portland I found myself reading a small book in Powell’s dubbed Flight of the Hummingbird: A Parable for the Environment, a fun little book. After the parable it contained insights and advice from the Dalai Lama and Wangari Maathai, an environmental activist and leader from Kenya.

I don’t remember all that the Dalai Lama and Wangari Maathai had to say (don’t get me wrong, it was charming and to the point), but I do remember, almost verbatim, the parable about the hummingbird and the environment. Parables are funny little creatures sometimes. They stick to you like ticks stick to socks after a walk in the woods.

I got excited when I found the parable in video form. I, like Sarah, want to inspire change and not merely guilt. Here is the repurposed parable:



In the home goods section of most department stores, you can find generic plaques with inspirational words like, “Family…Love…Memories” written in fancy scroll.

The other day I was walking through a Target in Portland when I saw one of these cream-colored plaques with black cursive writing. Except instead of “Family…Love…Memories,” it said, “Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.”

Only in Portland does the word “Recycle” make it into artwork, I thought.

The plaque makes for a tacky decoration, but I appreciate the thoughtfulness behind it, especially since I’ve been thinking recently about a Christian’s response to consumerism. Living in Portland where values like stewardship, conservation, and frugality are widely practiced makes this endeavor easier.

When I first began thinking about the implications of my spending habits, my initial response was guilt. I felt very, very guilty about where I shopped, what I bought, and the wages that people were paid to produce these goods. And that’s where my response started and stopped. Just feeling guilty, about most things, most of the time.

And then I began to feel guilty about feeling guilty and it got really ugly.

I think guilt is a common response, especially for people who have been brought up in a punitive religious culture where feeling guilty seems to be the actual chief end of man.

The problem is that feeling guilty is not a helpful response to anything. If it doesn’t change your heart or your actions, what does it matter?

But then there’s conviction, which is the healthy alternative to guilt. Conviction recognizes that a behavior or an action has caused someone grief or harm, and this knowledge becomes the driving force for change.

Instead of being paralyzed by guilt, I’m trying to respond in practical ways to genuine conviction.

My best friend studied home economics in college, and she has been a great resource. She has useful insights into what it could look like to live out the concept that, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

We talked about clothes shopping, and she suggested that instead of getting brand new clothes from the store, I go to thrift stores and consignment shops to get things second-hand.

I bought a townhouse earlier this year, and we spent a long time brainstorming about the most responsible way to furnish my new home.

She suggested that I start furniture shopping at garage sales, thrift shops, or even antique stores. This practice is essentially recycling old furniture, which is environmentally responsible. And getting used furniture also means I’m not directly increasing the demand for new goods from stores who get their labor from cheap international factories.

We even had a conversation about the best way to dress the windows in my new place. “It’s smart to use curtains rather than blinds,” she said, “Because you can repurpose the fabric when you don’t need the curtains anymore.”

I’ve been trying to apply these principles over the past few months. And when I become convicted about another area of my life that could be more intentional, I call my friend and we brainstorm some more.

I think in our online community, the brainstorming needs to continue as we “spur one another on towards love and good deeds.”

And soon we may discover that it’s not just our curtains or our furniture or our clothes that are repurposed, but our minds and our hearts and our souls.


Evangelical Myths

A couple months ago I started watching the television show “Northern Exposure” on DVD. “Northern Exposure,” which ran for six seasons on CBS starting in 1990, is set in the fictional town of Cicely, Alaska. One of the most fascinating themes of this quirky, funny, and sometimes deeply moving series is the way Cicely’s white and Indian residents co-exist in community. One of my favorite episodes in Season Four depicts the Thanksgiving celebration, which in Cicely has taken on elements of El Día de los Muertos. Indians ambush whites on the street, pelting them with tomatoes – and then they hug, friends. The holiday culminates with a parade down main street with the Indians dressed as skeletons and spirits. Then everybody gathers at The Brick tavern for a community feast.

I’m in Season Five now, and an episode I watched yesterday corresponds nicely with something I’ve been struggling with re: "On the Narrow Road", my upcoming "evangelical pilgrimage" across the country. A recurring character in the show’s later seasons is a local shaman (he prefers the job description “healer” to “medicine man”) named Leonard. Since he is taking on more white patients, Leonard decides to do some research. He sets up a table in the community center and invites whites to come in and tell him their legends. One white man tells Leonard the story of Paul Bunyan. “How often do you think about that story?” Leonard asks (I’m paraphrasing). The man replies, “Oh, I haven’t thought about that story in years.” Other whites tell him campfire stories like the one about the man with the hook. But these stories aren’t what Leonard had in mind. Toward the end of the episode, Leonard is talking with the white DJ of the local radio station. “I’ve failed, Chris,” Leonard says with a defeated sigh. “I’ve failed to locate the white collective unconscious.”

I laughed out loud.

I read somewhere recently that many pilgrims will prepare for their journey by studying the stories, legends, songs, and myths of the land and people they plan to visit. This is one way I want to prepare for my own pilgrimage through evangelical America. But I feel a little like Leonard in that episode of “Northern Exposure.” I have failed so far to locate American evangelicalism’s collective unconscious.

What are the guiding myths, so to speak, of American evangelicals? Do we look to stories of the Puritans and the Piligrims (speaking of Thanksgiving), or to a particular interpretation of America’s founding? Does the Left Behind series qualify? Those stories do act as a symbolic representation of a meaning system – the beliefs, assumptions, and organizing principles – of a great many people in this country. What about “The Purpose Driven Life” or books by James Dobson? My sociologist friend Matt suggested I may have to approach these questions from a regional perspective – reading Jerry Falwell, for example, to better understand evangelicals in Virginia.

None of these are particularly satisfying, and I am starting to wonder if I am looking for something that doesn’t exist. Is American evangelicalism so individualistic that the only guiding myth that matters to the average evangelical is his or her own testimony (conversion story)? If this is true, what are the consequences for the movement? What does it mean that we don’t have stories to bind us together?

What do you think? Do American evangelicals have guiding myths? Does the shortage of these stories (if in fact there is a shortage) say something about the individualistic nature of evangelicalism? or about its regional and denominational complexity? I’m lost in a morass of questions.

The Image of God in Ted...

I remember, about a decade ago, interviewing for a ministry position and getting into a doctrinal discussion about the image of God in man, particularly debating the question of what extent the image of God resides in fallen humans. "None" was the right answer, according to the team across the table from me, steeped as they were in a strong reformed theology and doctrine of depravity. "Humanity lost any capacity at all to display the character of God when Adam aligned with Satan."
There it is. Simple. "Cut and dried" as they say. They quote some passages from Romans 3 that talk about none who do good, and how our righteousness is as filthy rags. Yes. I understand. I went to seminary.

The problem with this, it seems to me, is that it fails to take into account the profound respect that God has for all humanity in Genesis 9 where God says that human life is valuable precisely because we are made "in His image" - all of us. Fallen? Yes, tragically so, as each of our lives testifies in various ways. Yet, it's so often the case that, right there in the midst of our fallenness, we rise up for moments and align ourselves with God. Isn't Mozart's Requiem something that displays God's image, in spite of the drinking, gambling, and womenizing that characterized the composer? To declare that no unregenerate person displays the image of God in the face of evidence to the contrary seems tantamount to offering a mathematical explanation regarding why it's not raining while standing in the middle of a downpour; evidence to the contrary is everywhere, if we'll just pay attention.

All of this is the backdrop for my contention that, among politicians, Edward Kennedy displayed the glory of God's image more gloriously, and the tragedy of man's falleness more tragically, than most politicians who've graced the pages of history with their exploits.

The tragedy is easy to see. Chappaquiddick stands at the top of a sizable list of improprieties, leaving us with, at the very least, severe question marks regarding judgement and moral character. Christians will excoriate him for his treatment of Justice Bjork and his views on abortion. All this is true.

But there's another side to the man. In 1964 he was instrumental in passing the critical Civil Rights Act which has helped turn the ship of American history away from blatent racism towards egalitarianism. Kennedy's Immigration Act of 1965 sought to give non Europeans some sense of reality for the words that are inscribed at Ellis Island: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free. If you're a woman and you played high school sports, it's because you had an advocate in Ted Kennedy. If you're disabled, and you have access to major buildings and sidewalks in your city, it's because of the efforts of Kennedy. If you're a senior citizen living on fixed income and thus receiving "Meals on Wheels", it's because Kennedy went to bat for you.

A constant advocate for the downtrodden, marginalized, and weak, I can't help but think of James definition of true religion when I think of Kennedy, which has to do with caring for widows and orphans in their distress.

You can argue the politics if you like, declaring the government shouldn't care about racism, or gender equality, or health care, that the extent of their 'intrusion' should be to pave our roads and provide an army, leaving us to fend for ourselves with the rest of life. You can point to his failures. But what you can't do is declare that he didn't "give a damn" about the least of these. As the church has, in recent years awakened to her calling to care for those who can't care for themselves, we've been reminded that caring for those on the margins is our calling precisely because such acts of mercy make the character of Christ visible.

Ted cared for the "least of these" and in so doing, displayed something of the image of God. This is not only a blessing, but a challenge. The challenge lies in our propensity to put black or white hats on everyone, presuming the unfallen to display only the character of Satan,and painting the saved in white because, as we like to say, we're "clothed in Christ".

It's all a bit too convenient. Reality forces us to wrestle with the truths that Samaritans, homosexuals, and political liberals, all manifest compassion, sometimes more visibly than the "saved". Maybe it's time for a little humility on our part, and a little gratitude, and a little openness to the possibility that there are those in this world who've not yet been born again who, nonetheless, display Christ's character at times. May we learn from them by their acts, and honor them.

Portland Wins yet another Beer Game

I almost titled this “Portland Ruins yet another Mid-Western Beer Drinker.” And I very well could have because that’s what it did. The greatest city in the Northwest ruined me. And I'm here tell about it. It’s a tragic tale. It really is.

I recently moved from Portland back home to Missouri. A drastic and brave move if you ask me. This place is a real bore sometimes. Not much is shaking in the Midwest. Portland looms large in my heart. But this is home and I’ll embrace it nonetheless (at least for a few more weeks…I’m leaving for China very soon if all the paper work goes through). But this place is special to me. It holds all the familiar quirks and smells that I’m used to. I can’t abandon it just yet.

Out on the town I leaned in and asked the hearty blonde haired waitress with exaggerated curls and spritz perfume what she had on her beer menu and she replied most mysteriously, “Bud Light, Budweiser, Miller Lite, Miller High Life, Miller Genuine Draft, Busch, Busch Light, Coors, Coors Light, Pabst etc… I scratched my head and asked, “Corona?” She shook her head and said, “No.”

I don’t remember what I drank that night, and no not because I drank too much, but because it was awful. I am baffled. I really am. How did frat-boy light-beer win the Midwest beer game? I don't like it.

I am beginning to understand why most Christians in the Midwest demonize beer. Chalk it up, it's a taboo 'round them here parts. But it can't be because beer is evil. No, that’s foolishness. Drunkenness is evil. I believe we've ostracized beer in the Midwest because the only names that are known around here sound so much like Bud Light and Coors Light. If this is the case then I don’t blame you (Midwest) for your beer hating. I mean, you don’t know the other names. The better names. Here are a few . . . take notes: Deschutes, Widmer’s, BridgePort, McMenamins, Rogue, Full Sail, Henry Weinhard's.

And I haven’t even scratched the surface. I told you I wasn’t a snob. Somebody else please fill-in the blanks. But I promise you won’t hate beer anymore. Or at least you’ll hate the right beer for the right reasons. Proper hate is good. I'll let you hate Busch Light if you like Deschutes Black Butte Porter.

I cannot go back. I can’t possibly nurse a Miller Lite. And like that . . . Portland wins again.


back to school

Last night the air in Portland was crisp and cool, and this morning it rained. As I was sloshing to work in the rain, I realized that summer is almost over, which means that school is just about to begin. Which means, of course, that back to school shopping is in full swing.

I have never been a fan of back to school shopping. I have always thought of it as one of those contrived holidays meant to entice shoppers to flock to stores to spend their money on things they don’t need. Like shady salesmen who exhort you to celebrate President’s Day by buying a new king-sized mattress. It just hits me wrong.

Most shopping hits me wrong these days, actually. The emphasis on quantity rather than quality, the constant message that there’s something better than what you have, the idea that this purse or these shoes or this cologne is the missing piece that will make you feel complete…it’s all very empty.

I’ve been doing some thinking and reading and praying about consumerism lately. As part of this self-imposed research project, I watched a documentary called “What Would Jesus Buy?” It was produced by Morgan Spurlock, the guy who starred in “Supersize Me.”

“What Would Jesus Buy” was another, cheesier way of asking the questions I was wondering: What should my response be to consumerism? Where is my treasure? Where is my heart?

I bribed one of my friends with ice cream, and he agreed to watch the movie with me. The movie featured a man named Reverend Billy, who looks a lot like a blonde Elvis impersonator, and his back-up singers called the Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir.

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, Reverend Billy and his choir toured the U.S. in a charter bus, stopping to proclaim on street corners and in churches that America should stop shopping so much.

If you think this sounds like the plot of a good movie, you’d be wrong. At one point, The Rev tries to get an audience at Wal-Mart’s headquarters, but the security guards won’t let him in. So in a fit of passion, he does a spread eagle onto the shrubs in front of the Wal-Mart sign. Nothing gets executives to think seriously about the implications of their business decisions like a lunatic jumping into their bushes.

So anyway, about half way through the movie I decided I would rather poke my eye out with a stick than keep watching it. I was about to turn it off when the producers turned the cameras off of The Rev and his antics, and onto a man who was an advocate for employees of overseas manufacturing companies.

The man was standing in his office with his arm around a slight adolescent Asian girl who, when asked what her life was like, looked blankly into the camera and replied through the translator, “I feel like I’m dying.”

I feel like I’m dying.

I looked at the clothes I was wearing, the furniture I was sitting on, the dishes I was eating from. Was it possible that my purchases had contributed to the outsourcing of labor to Asian children who felt like they were dying?

If money talks, what was mine saying? That instead of getting an education that would enable them to improve their earning potential and their quality of life, these children should be earning pennies a day in sweat shops so I can have my clothes a little cheaper?

Of course, this is a bigger problem than you or I can solve on our own. But maybe we could start with changing the way we approach clothes shopping this fall.

American kids aren’t the only ones who should be getting back to school.


Colored Men

The speaker was Robert Bly.  The evening was titled "Red, White, and Black."  The topic was specific to men; there are some similarities to women, but maybe that's for another day.  Here's the Reader's Digest version:
In their late teens, 20s, and early 30s, men should have a sense of "red" about them - a.k.a., blood.  Whether they're feeling their oats or behaving full of piss and vinegar, this is knowing that if a fist fight is awaiting you, it's best to get the first hit.  Most mothers hate to see their sons in "red."  
In their mid30s up to around 60, men move into the "white."  They've settled down a little and are very much a champion of "community." They'll organize groups to clean up the parks, serve on the school board, take the cub scouts fly-fishing, go to Father-Daughter balls, etc., etc.  It can be a very productive season.
Past 60 and beyond, a man goes "black" - think Eastwood in Gran Torino; the old curmudgeon who growls and tell the neighbor kids, "Hey, punks, get the hell out of my azaleas!"  He'll stand up in health care reform town hall meetings and get rowdy. He'll also tell the young emerging preacher to tuck his shirt in and nobody gives a whipple-eyed dingleberry about the monastics.

Bly held fast to these colors; he supported his beliefs with the weight of man-history.  There was obviously much elaboration; one point I'll mention.  Bly spoke directly to men who considered themselves Christian: "You skip the red and go straight to white because that's who you think Jesus wants you to be and then wonder why you're so mad in your late 30s/early 40s...it's so unfair; everybody expects you to be white as snow from beginning to end.  The 'red' doesn't go away; it has to be honored somehow, someway, sometime."

Bly's not God; he'd be the first to tell you that.  And yes, these colors could be seen as limiting, possibly even constricting because 50 is the new 30, blah, blah, pa, ma. And if you should go looking for scriptural chapters and verses that speak of the red, white, and black, well, let me go ahead and tell you you'll be disappointed; oh, I believe they're there, but you can't find them via Bible Gateway.  But I also believe the old poet said much that is true, especially about "red."

Men, you may not agree with this, but something deep inside tells me you may believe it.  

Church Hopping: Monastery of St. Ephraim of Mount Amomon

As I write this, the worse fires to ravage Greece since 2007 are blazing through the northern suburbs of Athens. I’ve been following developments closely. This is more than a morbid curiosity. My brother goes to college in Athens. From the news reports, I’ve gathered that although the fires rage on, they haven’t reached the city proper. They have, however, forced at least one monastery in Attica, the region that contains Athens, to be evacuated, according to this story from the AP:

A Greek monastery clanged its bells in warning Monday as an out-of-control wildfire raced down a mountainside, elderly nuns were evacuated from its threatened convent and the remains of Saint Ephrem were removed to a safer location.

At the Saint Ephrem* Monastery near Nea Makri, north of Athens, buildings were silhouetted against a red sky lit up by the glow of nearby wildfires. Workers shoveled sand and sprayed areas with limp garden hoses in apparently fruitless attempts to battle the inferno.

"The flames were 30 meters (100 feet) high," said one of the dozen nuns evacuated, wearing a black habit and a surgical mask to ward off the smoke and grit. "Thankfully they came and rescued us."

This story piqued my interest. While mopeds, taxis, and subway trains whiz through Athens, much of the rest of the country, with its small, antiquated villages, seems to have remained untouched by the hustle-and-bustle of modern-day life. If one ever needed a retreat from civilization, Greece would be an ideal place to escape to. Tiny monasteries dot the mountainous landscape of the Orthodox country.

One such hermetic abode is the Monastery of St. Ephraim* of Mount Amomon. The closest city to the monastery is Nea Makri, which is one of the areas the famous Marathon race passes through. Just northeast of Athens, Nea Makri is considered prime property, which is why many are blaming the current crop of fires on arsonists who want to free up the land for development. Nestled near the forests of the Panteli Mountains, at Mount Ammon, and in a dry area akin to California, it’s no wonder the fires are rapidly spreading.

The Monastery of St. Ephraim of Mount Amomon is reportedly one of the oldest in Attica. It used to be a place where priests and religious followers could come and pray. Although the Turkish Empire, which practiced shamanism and then followed the Muslim religion, was generally thought to be tolerant of Greek Orthodoxy, during the Ottoman rule, a group of barbarians attacked the monastery.

One of the people said to have been killed at the monastery was St. Ephraim. He was born on September 14, 1384, in Trikala, Thessalia, as Konstantionos Morphes. He moved to the monastery in Attica, taking on the name Ephraim. He survived one attack on the monastery, but in September 1425 was captured and tortured for eight months. He was hanged on a mulberry tree outside the monastery on May 5, 1426. These exact details come to us through Makeria Desipri, a nun who dreamed them in 1950. A body believed to be his was consequently found on Mount Amomon, and kept as a relic. The Synod of the Orthodox Church in Greece declared him a saint, but since there are no historical sources to verify the account dreamt by the nun, Ephraim’s saint status is controversial. It has yet to be approved by the Patriarch of Constantinople.

His remains, however, are still considered holy and were transported to safety during the fires that are currently ablaze.

[Photo of remains of Ephraim via Orthodox Wiki]

If you are looking for Ephraim in art, note that he is remembered through iconography as having a black beard and wearing a black robe.

[Image of St. Ephraim, donning blue instead of his customary black, via Uncut Mountain Supply]

The monastery was destroyed during the Ottoman Empire, but has since been re-erected. Today, many Orthodox believers pilgrimage to the site. (For information on tours, visit Premier Taxi or VIP Taxi.) Prior to the fires, the monastery was most recently in the news in 2005 when the bishop of Attica and the nuns of the monastery accused each other of embezzling pilgrim's donations.

[Photo of monastery via Premier Taxi]

Unlike houses of worship, which are built to inspire awe of God, St. Ephraim Monastery is humbly made, probably as a means to promote the nuns’ efforts to live modestly and without distraction. The monastery is built of rough stone. It reminds us that none of us, not even nuns, are perfect. We are coarse and jagged, but God allows us to come as we are, and uses us despite our imperfections. That no two stones are alike also reminds us that no two people are alike. Each of us, even if we dress uniformly in a habit, are unique. Still, we come together, like these stones, to build up the body of the church.

[Photo of monastery via VIP Taxi]

Typical of Greek Orthodox cathedrals, the monastery features a domed roof. This architectural feature is designed to make God feel close, as it encircles the viewer.

There is much shrubbery around the monastery. The mulberry tree on which Ephraim was believed to have been hanged is on view within the confines of the monastery.

[Photo of mulberry tree via Orthodox Wiki]

*The reports indicate that the monastery is question is affiliated with Saint Ephrem, however the only monastery in Nea Makri I could find is affiliated with Saint Ephraim. Ephrem the Syrian was a hymn writer who died of natural causes in Edessa. The biography of Ephraim differs and is given above. If I have reported inaccurately which monastery was evacuated, please let me know.