Why I think so many people like Downton Abbey

There is no doubt that Downton Abbey is quite a popular show in America. After several folks recommended it to me, I finally caved. I hadn’t watched any Masterpiece Classic stuff at the time. I since have watched and enjoyed several mini-series like North and South (which features a very feisty Mr. Bates) along with Wuthering Heights. But at the time, the premise of an aristocratic family pre/post WWI didn’t seem to strike a nerve, or even tendon for that matter. I didn’t care. Until my wife and I watched, and were immediately hooked. Gut hooked.

But we only comprised a small portion-you do the math, (seriously I don’t feel like it)-of the viewers.

The Season 3 premiere of the World War I-era British costume epic on PBS on Sunday drew 7.9 million total viewers, its highest total yet, according to Nielsen. That figure is four times PBS’ typical nightly average and nearly twice the 4.2 million who showed up for the Season 2 premiere last January.

The question is why? For a show on PBS to draw these kinds of ratings, we have to stop and ask this question. If we are to live lovingly and responsibly within our culture, and probably among neighbors who appreciate this show, we need to ask this question. For any show to garner such viewership, there is usually a reason for its success. Now for shows like Baywatch, or other shows which profit from showing gals in bathing suits, the answer lies very much on the surface. For other shows like Parenthood, the answer is fairly easy: many people still value the traditional marriage and nuclear/extended family unit. But for a show to take us to another century, to another continent, to a life like none of really know, and leave many wanting more, we have to dig much deeper.

So why is Downton Abbey popular and growing in popularity? Is it because people empathize with the characters (and we do)? Yes, but why is there such affinity for these lads and chaps? And even with crazy neurotic and often manipulative lasses?

Nicolaus Mills, writing a piece for CNN.com takes a stab at offering a suitable explanation.

The earl of Grantham, played with enormous subtlety by Hugh Bonneville, doesn’t look like a democrat or speak like a democrat. When crossed, he even displays an imperious temper. But appearances are deceiving when it comes to Lord Grantham’s character. The earl treats those who work for him with a compassion that goes well beyond noblesse oblige. He regards the World War I deaths of those who once worked on his estate as a family tragedy.

I wouldn’t disagree with Mills, but would rather expound a bit upon his explication. The earl’s compassion is extraordinary and exemplary, a challenge for all Americans who find themselves in the role of an employer. Yet it is also in some ways still limited by his stratified societal worldview. It is more than compassion, and it is more than the Earl of Grantham.

Why I appreciate Downton so much, and I think what may draw people to it, is the character redemption. It’s the opposite of Breaking Bad. Some people do change. And people want to change. And people want to see people changing, becoming “better,” or at least more compassionate people.

At Downton, that is what exactly what we see. For the most part we see people moving from selfishness to selflessness. We see a movement from envy to rejoicing at the fortunes of others. We see remorse over past actions. We see class segregation begin to slowly fade away in some cases. We see people changing for the better as the seasons progress.

Under the roof of Downton Abbey, we begin to see the normally slow process of sanctification (I’m of course now using Christian terminology) unfold over the course of an hour, just as we hope to see in those who take refuge in the grace found and preached under the “roof” of Christ’s church.

People like to see people changing. People like to see that people can change. We see these things happening in most of the characters (some go back and forth) and that’s why I think it is so popular. At least that is one reason why I’m drawn to enjoy and empathize with almost all of the characters.

Xmas questions from a Xmas Prude

I will confess something, I don’t think I’ve ever been called a prude. But I’m beginning to think I am one, at least in part. I’m a self professed Xmas Prude. No one has ever called me that, at least to my face, or facebook, but I think I am. 

I must confess I do have strong opinions on how the Henderson family celebrates Christmas and Advent. We have convictions, but God gives me neither the right nor platform (pulpit, blog, relationships) to demand people to conform to our convictions. Our lives, thoughts, desires are to conform to Christ not to the pattern of this world (Romans 12:1-2). But our convictions are the applications of the transforming work of the Spirit, and we know that convictions will differ from person to person (Romans 14). Even to the point where some things might be sin to some and not to others.

We live, or at least I do and probably the few readers I have do, in America. We have American Christmas traditions. As a result, our celebration, will have an American feel to it. And that is fine. The celebration of Xmas is isn’t in the bible per se, but we do say many folks celebrating our Savior’s birth. So it’s probably a good idea to do so.

But our celebration of Jesus’ birth takes place within a culture; if he were born today in America, we wouldn’t be bringing gold, frankinsense, and myrrh. Gifts and celebration would look more American. And they should today.

Yet that is only part of it. Because culture is shaped by people made in the image of God (good stuff will be present) yet fallen (bad stuff will also be present) we can’t simply say, “We’re Americans and this is what we do today.”

So in lieu of a Christmas rant from a Christmas prude, I want to pose a few questions that may be helpful in discerning what God would have you do this Xmas season. I realize people have strong convictions about other issues, so this is how I would want them to treat me. Ask me questions, and trust I’m in God’s Word, prayer, and in community. If we do those things, we can be confident that we’re in God’s will. So here they are!

1.) How does God want us to celebrate Xmas today? It is scary how fewer and fewer professing Christians even ask this question (in reference to anything). We all do a number of things to celebrate Xmas that are culturally conditioned, but the question is to what extent should that be the case? Does he want me to continue with Santa, Elf on Shelf from Hell(f), etc…..? Or in other words, is Jesus really cool with Santa, Elf on a Shelf, Frosty or any other myth we feel the need to perpetuate? On a side note, I think we all need to evaluate what we do each year (did we spend too much on our kids, did we bless other needy families or widows, did we care about others then but now?).

2.) Are these extra cultural figures things which harmlessly add to the anticipation of Xmas Day, or do they detract/distract/take away, serving as replacement saviors? In other words, are they primary or supplementary? I can see how kids enjoy Santa and Elves (though personally they are kind of freaky to me), and how parents find joy in them. But they need to be made supplementary. Just because kids enjoy them, doesn’t make them good. I stole that idea from this article on kids and Sabbath keeping. Novel isn’t it? Anything good can distract us from He who is great, particularly when it is something kept in front of us for a month.

3.) If you decide that they are supplementary, then how will you intentionally make them supplementary? If we don’t intentionally make Jesus big (or rather reveal to our kids He is bigger), then these things will naturally replace or overshadow Jesus. This of course applies to the whole year. Idols are never satisfied with a 50-50 share of the glory. Its probably more like a 75-25 % kind of thing, just enough so that we can still think we’re honoring Jesus in theory without actually honoring him in practice. There are only so many hours in the day, and after that only so many teachable hours in the day, and now we’re really talking more minutes than hours. So it does take effort and intent to pull it off.

4.) Santa traditionally understood- and I”m less familiar with Elf on Shelf but I think its the same deal-seem to promote shallow moralistic manipulation, doesn’t it?  I made it into a question! If you’re good, then you’ll be rewarded. If not, well, tough stuff. But no one ever really follows through on the “if you’re bad scenario,” and I’m glad. However I heard of a kid say, “I don’t want anything for Xmas, so I’ll just behave how I want!” Smart kid. 

Yet Santa could actually be turned into an example of grace, if he were to give good things to bad boys and girls much like God our good Heavenly Father lavishes grace upon His undeserving children. In teaching your kids about grace, how helpful/hurtful are some of these cultural forms of Xmas? Maybe you don’t feel these things hinder, but certainly something each parent has to discern.

5.) Isn’t it presumptuous to assume our kids cannot have the same excitement about Jesus that they do with Santa or Elves or whatever? OK that was rhetorical! Sorry. Now I know my kid gets excited even when a vacuum salesman comes to the door, but isn’t it possible that other kids can still love this season without Santa? My wife did growing up. I know other kids who are full of joy now despite never believing in Santa. I’m talking kids who have faced real trials with joy. You shouldn’t feel sorry for them that the “magic” has been taken away. Perhaps making much of Jesus the whole year had something to do with that? 

And if our kids can’t get as excited, is that an indictment on the faith of the parents (that Jesus isn’t exciting to them)? After all, Jesus is as exciting as He is glorious.

If you made it this far, thanks. I’m fine if you disagree with me. We don’t need to be a people who always arrogantly and angrily have all the answers at our disposal, we but I think we need to be a people who always ask ourselves questions. That is how we sharpen and shape our convictions to conform them to Christ’s design for our lives.
If you celebrate Christmas with or without Santa or Elves or Blake Shelton, just remember to make much of Jesus, because He has made much of us by coming down here in the first place.

Breaking Sad: Last thoughts on Breaking Bad

I recently finished the series Breaking Bad with my wife.  Now I’m Breaking Sad because NetFlix only has the first four seasons. Several folks told me to give the show a try, but I resisted, based on the simple fact that the show is about a chemistry teacher turned meth “cook.”

But after a number of my Christian friends actually told me to check it out, I decided to give it a shot. We got hooked very quickly. “Must have been love, but it’s over now.” Roxette once sang that. I feel her pain.

There are a number of shows out there dealing with issues that aren’t illegal. I tried several. And there were others I wanted to watch, but instead felt convicted after the first few minutes that I shouldn’t be watching them. But what makes one suitable and another one sin (at least for me-Romans 14)?

I think most Christians fall into two categories. Don’t watch anything “secular” unless we’re talking about Americas Funniest Home Videos. Or they choose what I call “the route of the oyster” and watch anything you want to watch and therefore suck in any “teaching” without thinking.

Here are some reasons, outside the the fact I appreciated the acting, writing, storyline, why I felt Breaking Bad was more than enjoyable, but instead devotional. They aren’t from Mount Sinai but the Valley of West Virginia. Yet perhaps they could be helpful to serve as principles to help guide us through the sometimes difficult process of discerning what shows/movies we watch…..

1.) Does the show glorify a particular sin?

In Breaking Bad, I found nothing glamorous about the whole meth making/dealing process. Duh…Of course there is money to be made, and lots of it, but the reality is that this “get rich quick scheme” ended up creating new problems (people asking where did the money come from, more crime like laundering, threat of death, more lying, murder, etc..). Ironically in order to provide for his family, the main character Walt actually destroys his family, hardens his heart, harms little children, kills people without thought, etc….It was kill or be killed, always looking over shoulder. Nothing glorious about meth. Walt becomes the kind of person he initially hates and judges. The specific sin of drugs only hardens and hurts himself and others. Know drugs, No glory.

2.) Does the show tempt you toward a particular sin?

Obviously no temptations toward Meth, only confusion how folks think meth is a good idea.

3.) Does the show expose sin, in any way, for what it is: rebellion, idolatry, deceptive, destruction/decay/death?

One of my greatest appreciations of the show is how it exposes Walt’s insistence that this drug making, and the affects of it, were only his problem. Breaking Bad really debunks the popular myth that an action is really only bad if it harms another person. That’s impossible. Each “sinful” action has a harmful affect on those within one’s community. Stealing affects the person whom the object was given. Affairs negatively the cheater, one cheated with, the children and husband. Lies destroy marriages and harden one’s soul to where one can then justify everything. Walt allowed a gal to overdose on drugs when he could have saved her. That in turn led to a horrific plane crash. Sin brings harm to individual and community. All sin does. Jonah ran from God and each step took him further away from life. Walt’s sin did the same thing.

In addition, there was really a greater sin behind Walt’s meth making: pride. Walt makes Oedipus’ “hubris” look like mild in comparison. Drugs and money were merely, as Keller calls them, “Surface idols.” Walt sought money and making drugs in order to be meet his need to be seen as successful and independent of others. Money simply provided this temporary prideful “success” and “independence” for him. To the discerning eye, the outward sin was only a symptom of a deeper heart idolatry of pride.

4.) Is there any positive takeaway or opportunity to discuss with neighbors or fellow believers?

On several cases, characters are placed in moral conundrums but have no real basis other than a feeling for whether something is right or wrong. Walt’s wife reacts disapprovingly against his incessant lying to her, but then she decides to make up a story for how her husband has so much cash. She used to think lying was wrong, and not reporting income was wrong, but she later participates in a money laundering scheme. A man who has been concealing income from the IRS, later refuses to pay off the 600,000 he owes the IRS with money he believes is obtained through gambling? He says he just doesn’t feel right about it. Walt once asks, “Where do we draw the line?” The show clearly shows the inability and inconsistency of an ethical system that is not based upon some overarching standard. Now it doesn’t reinforce God as that standard, but it does seem to raise the question: if there is no standard, can we really deem something right or wrong?

I see great opportunities for discussion in future.

5.) Is there anything clearly redemptive? 

At one point, Walt is actually broken. For a short time. His son sees him crying. The next day the father says, “Don’t ever think of me like this.” The son responds, “This is the best I’ve seen you in the last year and a half. You were real, authentic.”

Brokenness over sin-though this was merely brokenness over the consequences of sin-is a beautiful thing to the world around us. Jesus reminds us of its necessity in our posture before God as well as others in the Beattitudes: “blessed are the poor in spirit, and blessed are the meek….”

Just for a moment, there was something clearly beautiful…..

If we watch TV shows like an oyster and just suck in everything without thinking, we will do ourselves and families harm. But if we can actively discern messages in shows, and ask several key questions, they can be more than entertainment for us. They can be devotional and evangelistic. 

Why I’m appreciating Breaking Bad

Due to the recommendation of several folks, and the opportunity provided by Netflix, my wife and I have been enjoying the series Breaking Bad. While I must admit that the plot of the show initially turned me off (and I guess it should have, I mean a chemistry teacher with terminal cancer turns into a Meth dealer? ) Breaking Bad regularly attempts to deal with honest questions facing humanity. 

For instance, the main character Walt’s brother-in-law just happens to be a DEA agent. When he offers Walt a Cuban cigar at his baby shower, Walt responds, “Isn’t this illegal?” The DEA simply laughs it off and tells him, “The forbidden fruit sometimes tastes the sweetest.” Then Walt, the chemistry teacher/meth dealer calls him on his inconsistency, “Where do we draw the line? What if marijuana is illegal this year and not next year? Seems arbitrary how we draw lines?”

And for the unbeliever who rejects any overarching standard-and I realize plenty of unbelievers live inconsistently actually believing in some standard-Walt does raise a good point. When you take God out of the picture, lines become merely whimsical suggestions.

Yet another scene in a different episode actually reveals a suppressed God-centered worldview. Remember, mankind can only suppress his/her knowledge for so long. Usually you’ll see evidences of it bubbling over. Walt and his chemistry partner put together a breakdown of the chemicals comprising the human body. This scene is beautifully juxtaposed with a moral dilemma Walt faces: what to do with the drug dealer in his basement. Should he kill him or let him go, with the potential that “Crazy 8” could come back and kill his family? The actual list of pros and cons he makes just doesn’t cut it. He needs something more.

So the directors switch back to the chemical reconstruction scene, where Walt confusedly asks, “What is missing? Why are we only at 99%?” His partner responds, “What is missing is the soul.” Now Walt has his answer. The human is more than chemicals, but endowed with a soul, therefore it would be morally wrong to simply kill this drug dealer.

I haven’t even seen the whole first season. And thanks to an article on CNN.com comparing Walt to Apple’s Steve Jobbs, I’m aware that Walt’s character becomes darker and darker as the seasons progress. Nevertheless, despite Walt’s ongoing descent into darkness, Breaking Bad has raised topics which challenge the Christian to go back to God’s Word and find solid answers to the world’s fluctuating morality. So far, at least in this first season, it has proved devotional and may open evangelistic doors in the future.

Caution: Breaking Bad is dark and deals with drugs, so don’t watch it if you’re unable or unwilling to question, to filter, to genuinely reflect, and proactively “take every thought captive” to discern what is good, true, and beautiful.

Young adults, sex with "strings," and later marriage

Here is a fairly disturbing article explaining that fewer Christians are actually saving sex for marriage. In some cases, it looks like evangelical Christians and those who don’t profess Jesus at all, often have a similar sexual ethic. And it is reminiscent of the Nike command: “Just do it.”

Several reasons are given for the numbers of young adults engaging in pre-marital sex nowadays. From the “everyone else is doing it,” to the oversexualized culture we live in. However the article concludes with one major reason.

Scot McKnight, author of “The Jesus Creed,” and “One.Faith: Jesus Calls, We Follow,” acknowledges that young, single Christians face temptations that their counterparts in the biblical age didn’t face. He  tells Relevant: Sociologically speaking, the one big difference – and it’s monstrous – between the biblical teaching and our culture is the arranged marriages of very young people. If you get married when you’re 13, you don’t have 15 years of temptation.

Is that point relevant? Does it matter that the scriptures were given to a culture when in actuality, it wasn’t AS hard to follow? I mean, I can remember being a 13 year old, and I can’t say that my temptation for pre-marital sex was even on my top 5 sins radar list. I’d have rather gone fishing than have a girlfriend. At 16, I actually had a girlfriend, but still, I can’t say that it was as hard as when I was 25 years old.

So how should we think of the now increasing marrying age discrepancy?

We need definitely don’t need a simple answer if we’re going to apply the gospel to a very serious, and hard problem. So here are some of my thoughts.

First of all, Jesus actually raises the bar when it comes to sexual fidelity. He says that if we look lustfully upon a lad or lass, that we are actually committing adultery in the heart. His standards are incredibly high. Even lusting is off limits. Wow.

As a result we need Jesus more than we think we do. Fortunately Jesus didn’t remove himself from female company, yet he walked without lusting among them-even though, he was fully human. He would have done the same for our culture today where women shower, shave, and smell better, and tend to dress a little more, shall we say, “progressively.” He did this for us, and now he empowers us to live as citizens of heaven while here on Earth. While the culture says, “Just do it” in relation to sex; the church can’t say, (and its primarily those who are married saying it-which sometimes makes it harder to hear) “Just do it,” in relation to remaining faithful until marriage.
In order to be faithful to the scriptures AND gracious with those dealing with this struggle, we do need to lay all cards on the table and be honest with some new difficulties present in our world.

The article ends with a few questions and no answers.

So what should a Christian parent or youth pastor do? How do they convince more young Christians to wait until marriage, or should they stop even trying?

Let me simply continue the discussion-not attempting to “solve” the problem (that won’t happen till Jesus returns) but try to honestly reflect on this difficult trend.

Honesty with the difficulty, without being quixotic

People do get married later these days. It is true. Therefore that can present some problems. Obviously. I think we need to recognize and be honest that the struggle is going to be hard. Will it be harder than in previous times? I think in some ways, yes. Simple math tells us that. 13-15 is different than 26.

Nevertheless, if you say, “well people got married earlier then,” it doesn’t change the situation. Sex did not ever come with “no strings attached” but within the confines of the committed covenantal relationship. No matter what age it is regularly experienced, sex always comes with “strings.” For Christians, those “strings” are called a covenant.

But do 13-15 year olds really want to get married? Are they ready for jobs, to be responsible for family? They can’t even drive yet. We can lament the age difference, but even with hormones raging, do guys and gals really want to get married in their teens? 

Still, you can argue the command to wait until marriage may in some ways be more difficult today, but that doesn’t nullify the command-or the reason for the command. And, some commands were probably harder then than they are now. Whether you like Obama or not, he’s a lot easier to honor than Nero, or Trajan, or any other awful emperor that Romans 13 refers to.

There wasn’t some golden age to live in, where sexuality was something easy to live out. It certainly wasn’t that way with the bible. We need to recognize that it may be harder in some ways to live chastely before marriage now, but in some ways it could have been just as hard then.

Is our Culture worse?

The culture of Jesus’ times was no less sexualized than today. I’ve seen the artwork on pottery when on foreign study in Italy; it’s literally pornographic. I saw a mural in Pompeii where a lad was weighing his oversized penis. Seriously. Sex was all around them, just as it is all around us.

Biblical commands have always been counter-cultural. They continue to be today. We still have to affirm God’s good design for sexuality. And we still have to affirm God’s sufficient grace for our forgiveness (when we fail or have failed) and for our sanctification. I’ll try to get to some more thoughts on the latter later.

Modnik Recap-Cultural Diagnostic questions

This is the 2nd part of my update for our recent youth retreat on Kingdom and Culture. The first can be found here. Since these principles seemed too good to not share with parents, or much less anyone of any age, I felt compelled to put them on the blog.

In our Saturday morning session, David Grant gave us some helpful diagnostic questions to ask while watching TV, movies, or listening to music. I appreciated the fact that he did not say, “You should watch this show and shouldn’t watch that show.” He exclaimed, “What you watch is between you and your parents.” David instead challenged the youth how to watch shows. Provided they are faithful to ask these questions, as are the parents, it should open the door to stop watching certain shows which may be negatively transformational. 

Here are his five questions, and my thoughts (which may be the same as his) are in italics. He reminded the youth that they are being taught something. Movies and TV shows and music have SOMETHING to say. Figure it out or you’ll end up being taught without realizing it.

1.)  Did you enjoy it? Why did you like it or not? This is a great question for parents to ask to find out why people connect to certain shows or movies. There is a reason why so many young girls like Twilight. Consider the why if you want to begin thinking critically.

2.) What did it say about Authority? How were authority figures depicted? Parents, police, government, bosses, etc…..

3.) What did it say about Morality? What kind of morality was being promoted? Immorality? Legalism? Amorality?

4.)  What did it say about God? God may or may not by name be mentioned. But you can discern the worldview, and how God does or doesn’t fit into the characters dialog or directors arrangement.

5.)  Where can you see the “finger prints” of God? If you look hard, you can see aspects of God’s “finger prints” in movies and TV shows. Because we are all made in the image of God, we should be able to see something commendable in all movies. Sometimes it can be very clear as in the gospel illustration at the end of Gran Torino or the beautiful love a parent places on her child immediately upon birth in The Waitress.

My take on parent possibilities:

Parents have the responsibility to determine what each child can correctly and biblically filter. That filter needs developing in all of us. Middle Schoolers don’t need to watch Jersey Shore. Of course, no one probably does, but that is of course, my own opinion. 

Nevertheless since parents are ultimately responsible for training their children, watching movies and TV shows with them NOW-even ones that might not be faith based-might be the best way to train them to watch movies and TV shows when they leave your house THEN. If your kids are watching movies, watch them WITH them. At the very least, you need to be asking questions of the movies and TV shows. They won’t always have you telling them “you can or can’t watch this or that,” but if you’ve helped them develop some sort of diagnostic filter, they can turn movies, TV, and music into devotional and teaching moments for themselves and their friends. And many times, because they have such working filters, they may decide beforehand, “This movie or show isn’t worth my time.”

In some ways, the movies both reflect and shape culture. But as Christians, we can through these same movies begin to be shapers of culture, instead of simply reflectors and consumers. One person at a time.

Modnik Recap-Cultural Models

Just got back from our Jr High Modgnik Retreat at Young Life retreat center called Rockbridge yesterday afternoon. I think it was the first youth retreat I’ve ever been on when I didn’t hear one, even miniscule, bit of whining. Of course, if you whine at this retreat center, you’ve got serious issues. This place is the Greenbrier (for those in WV) or the cadillac (for everyone else) of retreat centers. Hardwood floors, all you can eat delectable food, engaging speaker, rocking electric praise band, ropes course, rock climbing walls, ziplines, wiffleball/kickball field, game room, frisbee course, soccer field, picturesque stream leading to lake, etc…..Yeah, there should be no whining.

Since what we learned was so helpful, something Jr Higher’s should consider themselves “lucky” for being able to hear, I’d like to pass it on. 

The Modgnik Retreat (Kingdom backwards) is put on by the P.C.A.’s Blue Ridge Presbytery (but open to all churches-we had PCUSA, Non-denom, Nazarene, etc…) and intends to teach youth how to live out their faith in light of Jesus’ Kingdom having come. The specific aim of this retreat centered around how to impact their culture.

Talk #1 Definition of Culture and Cultural Models

Culture: a reflection of group of people, what they consider important and value. This can include things as obvious as following particular college sports teams to preferences for regional specific styles of barbecue. However we know that Satan is also at work to influence the culture and need to think critically about that. The hope is that Jesus is also at work in the culture and can use youth to change the youth culture and culture in general. 

Different Models: 

1.) Monastery-retreat and hide away from culture so that we can’t be influenced by any of the negative aspects. We discussed afterwards as a cabin that our enemies are the world (negative cultural influences), flesh (our OWN tendency to sin) and the devil. Hiding is not an option because even locking yourself in the closet will not deal with your own flesh and Satan’s advances.

2.) Camouflage-you can try to blend in with the culture and adopt all cultural beliefs and activities as though Satan doesn’t exist or that he’s lazy. As a a result you accept without critical thinking or interaction such cultural values that may be quite contrary to Jesus. Many times this can be quite subtle, as we begin to adopt commonplace views of money, family, sex that are idolatrous and detrimental not only to our influencing culture but to our relationship with Christ. 

3.) The Boat-he told a story about going on a date and forgetting to put the drain plug in the boat. Boat in the water is good. Water in the boat is not good. This model encourages us not to retreat, nor adopt, but to live out our faith among those who don’t believe. The scripture passage he used was from John 17:14-19 

14 I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 15 I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19 And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth. 

Some questions for parents to consider-these are just my reflections.

1.) Can my kid really live out his/her faith in the world without adopting unhealthy cultural values? Yes, it happens all the time. For the most part, the church expects very little from its youth. We’re content if they simply come to church without griping, and don’t cuss, drink, or chew or go with girls/gals who do. But such youth can play a part in the work of redemption. They really can. I have a friend who traces back his spiritual journey to a middle school friend inviting him to church and youth group. He’s one of thousands.

2.) How do I know if my kid is really ready to make an impact? Obviously not all middle schoolers are mature enough to make any sort of “dent” in the culture. Here are some diagnostic questions that may be helpful for you to think through. Can he/she articulate the gospel to you or others? Would he/she come to church if you didn’t? Does he/she recognize that many of their classmates are probably not Christians? Can they detect a difference in lifestyles betwixt Christians and non-Christians outside of “not cussing?” That’s the default mode of middle-schooler’s I’ve noticed.  Does he/she simply try to blend in with whoever is around them? If you feel uneasy about any of these answers, then God may open up some different doors, like be-friending and welcoming visitors to youth group and church, as opposed to gathering, investing, and inviting. If you interact and ask them questions, you’ll be able to tell. 

3.) Do you believe that Jesus is greater than he who is at work negatively in the culture? Jesus as The Great High priest, prayed for your kids. He will hold them in his hand, and no one can take them out of His hands (John 10:28). Sometimes I wonder how much we really believe this is true, as though they will walk with Jesus only if we shelter them enough. Of course there are times when we will need to say, “No, you can’t go there with so and so.” But we also need to realize that if Jesus is the author and finisher of our faith, He is also their author and their finisher.

Our speaker David Grant of Irving Bible Church in Texas, (a cross between Brad Pitt and the lead Russian bad guy from the movie AirForce One-just click the link) has 5 kids, so he’s lived this truth out as a family. That certainly carried some weight with me. 

Anyhow, the next post will present some diagnostic questions to help them as they watch movies, TV shows, and listen to music. Hope it helps.

Susan Enan, and why bad news can be good to listen to

Yesterday my reading of Psalm 49 definitely helped frame my frustrations with an apparent dip in my neighborhood housing prices. Houses just don’t last forever. Nothing man-made necessarily will last forever, just like “cold November rain.” Thank you Axl Rose. 
But Revelation 21 does remind us that there will be business going on and people will be bringing their “glory” into the new heavenly city. So the good stuff of culture will be around: I just don’t get a vote or say or knowledge of what might be staying. With that said, we can’t take anything to the grave. Especially not homes or kayaks.
“10 For he sees that even the wise die; the fool and the stupid alike must perish and leave their wealth to others. 11 Their graves are their homes forever, their dwelling places to all generations, though they called lands by their own names.” Psalm 49:10-11
Far from depressing me, this Psalm actually encouraged me. The thought that the materials in the world I often envy, like bigger houses, or better fishing gear, will ultimately be in-accessible in the grave encourages me to put them in their proper place in the bigger story.
While I’m not sure where artist Susan Enan stands spiritually (she did respond to an email saying “thanks” after I told her how much I liked her music-so obviously that bumps her up in my book), her music is deep. I don’t expect Christian themes from non-Christian artists, but I do expect music to be robust, deep, and true to life. And all her music from is. It actually seems very “psalm-ish” or maybe even “ecclesiastes-ish.” Below are lyrics from “The Grave” off her most recent album Plainsong.
All of your work won’t fit in the earth
When you’re lying underground in the grave
Whatever amount in your balanced account
There’s nothing you can buy in the grave

In the next age, no stock exchange
Is going to pass on the money we make
No lottery wins, political spins
When we’re lying underground in the grave

No surgery defies gravity
But it all falls away in the grave
And who’s gonna care what color you wear?
There’s no fashion show in the grave

So swallow it down, no easy way around
Just a pill for the thrills that we crave
But no medicine to stop kingdom come
It’s your time, get in line, for the grave

And we’ll all be the same
And we’ll go as we come
Side by side, as we lie in the grave
We’ll all be the same
We’ll go as we came
Side by side, as we lie in the grave 

I love raw music. And I love music that is true. So much of this is true. While there are shades of redemption like “kingdom come” and “next age,” nothing hopeful seriously emerges. But whether Enan believes or not, she points me to Someone who conquered the grave and will one day usher in the resurrection. The grave is our next stop, and should always sober our idolatry of material, appearance, fame, prosperity, approval, pleasure. That’s one reason we have the book of Ecclesiastes. But the New Heavens and New Earth, and the bodily resurrection to a new and physical world, marks the final destination for the Christian pilgrim.
All good music points us to Jesus. Either indirectly to our need for Jesus or directly to what Jesus has already accomplished for us. I definitely recommend checking out Susan Enan’s Plainsong, though its no longer free at noisetrade.com.  You’ll be glad you did, as it is worth $8.99 here.

Not over thinking transforming culture: part II

This is a continued reflection on Tony Dungy’s prison trip with Michael Vick and Dan Patrick. While Paul questions what “fellowship can light have with darkness,” when it comes to a yolk-esque relationship like marriage (II Cor 6:14), does that mean He never uses non-believers in building His Kingdom? Has he ever done it in the past? Should we expect him to do it in the future and should we ever partner with non-believers when it comes to common justice issues in our communities?
When Solomon builds the Temple, he employs pagan labor and pagan goods (I Kings 5). In fact, the Sidonians are simply more skilled than the Jews in knowing how to cut timber. Then later comes the Persian King Cyrus, who actually orders the Temple be rebuilt and helps fund it by returning the originally confiscated Temple items taken by Nebucadnezzar (Ezra 1). In addition, their Babylonian and Persian neighbors reached into their pockets to give them all kinds of goods like gold and cattle (though I use “pockets” proverbially with the latter). We’re not talking post cards or things sentimental trinkets to remember their time in Babylon. These gifts made a difference.
God’s ultimate goal was not a building to “house” his special presence and glory. The end picture in Revelation is one of His glory and His will filling up the whole Earth, perfectly and completely as it is in Heaven. God accomplishes this through the preaching of the gospel. 
Sometimes unbelievers are hostile to it, and sometimes, they actually play a part in its promotion. At the end of Acts 27, and beginning of Acts 28, you see protection, provision, and hospitality shown to Paul and Luke by an unbelieving soldier and townsfolk.
So if God used unbelievers to partner (although granted it’s not the same sense of “koinonia”) with them through protection and provision, there’s no reason such folks can’t be used to assist in the proclamation of the gospel and the blessing of our cities. I don’t think God has since ruled out using unbelievers alongside believers to bring about His will on Earth as it is in Heaven. 
That’s why I think that Dungy using Michael Vick (professing believer) who’s done hard time, and Dan Patrick (not sure of his faith profession) simply because the inmates listen to his show and has credibility was a good idea. 
The most impacting thing the Glazer family (Tampa Bay Buccaneers owners) have ever done was to hire Tony Dungy back in 1996. And perhaps the next greatest impact for the city of Tampa was to fire him six years later (after a 9-7 season and first round play-off loss). Not because the team won the super bowl the next year with Jon “Chucky” Gruden, but because God raised up Dungy with the Indianapolis Colts only to give him a further platform to come back and bless the city.  
How God uses unbelievers always amazes me and often shatters our separatist paradigms.

Not over thinking transforming culture

One struggle for Christians is the tension of how exactly they are to relate to their surrounding culture. They are not to simply embody the surrounding values of their non-believing neighbors-which often happens so subtlely that many of us don’t realize it. Yet we aren’t to separate from it either. And still, a neutrality or ambivalence isn’t even a possibility. Check out this Keller quote from his article “Church and Culture” I found on church planter Joe Holland’s blog.
“To say ‘we must never try to change the culture’ is simply an over-reaction. No one
can live in the world neutrally. Culture is living out what we truly worship, and everyone is
worshipping something. Simply to work and live in the world, without sealing our faith off from our work, will transform culture.”
There are a few similar and related cultural models based upon the portrait of living FOR your city in Jeremiah 29. Exiles are to pray for and bless their pagan city, “For in its welfare, you will find your welfare.”
But I think this is the most simple and succinct Jer 29 based model I’ve seen. I’ve read a number of books like Culture Making, and Christ and Culture:Revisited. And I have benefited from them and don’t regret reading and engaging with them. However, simply living out your faith and loving your neighbors, co-workers, and friends is the simplest and perhaps most effective way to transform the culture.
Here’s a great example of Tony Dungy living out his faith and inviting others, even unbelievers to join him in visiting a Florida jail. I originally heard about this on the Dan Patrick radio show, because Tony doesn’t often self-promote. Dan was actually very excited to come alongside Tony and Michael Vick.

I don’t know what kind of gospel centered conversations Tony and Dan have had behind the scene. I imagine that those things have come or will come up over time. But for the time being, Dungy is simply living out his faith and sharing his life with others. What ends this will have for the culture of Tampa is not Tony’s job, burden, or responsibility. What means God delights to use is his (and ours) calling, joy, and privilege.