Monday, December 13, 2010

Visual Art

I found it hard to love art (especially modern art) and dwell within American Evangelical Culture. As previously stated, I had originally intended to go to art school. In high school, I had an art teacher that really focused on the intent of art. Students needed to have a purpose in what they were doing. They couldn't just sketch cute little things and call them art in his class. He required each student to have a written, clearly defined objective for each piece. I thrived in this type of environment. That approach helped me to see the impact a well crafted work could have on its audience.

When I ultimately decided to attend Conservative Christian College, I didn't just let go of that love. While touring CCC, I asked if I could see their art gallery. My first red flag should have been how surprised my student tour guide was by that request. She led us up to this small gallery nestled above the auditorium where student work was currently on display. My heart fell. It was all so cliche and contrived. Images of Jesus on the cross, lions and lambs, etc. At that point, I knew I could never pursue an art major there. If the work of these students reflected the approach of the staff, it wasn't what I was looking for in an art education. I had no interest in a path that seemed to lead only to shallow paintings that would be used as sermon illustrations or designing a set of Bethlehem for the church every winter. That's how I made up my mind to pursue a youth ministry degree. (As a side note, I would like to give a warning to all those making college decisions. Never, never, NEVER choose your field of study by default. You'll tell yourself it isn't exactly what  you want, but you'll tweak it to apply to the environments you'd prefer to work in. I'd be willing to estimate that 9 out of 10 times that doesn't happen and you're forced to choose between working jobs in your field that you don't really enjoy or paying off a degree that you now have no intention of using. I'm currently engaged in the latter.)

So what type of art does the AEC enjoy?

1. Thomas Kinkade

Odds are if you've ever been to an AEC organization or the house of one of their members, you've seen at least one Thomas Kinkade painting. He has dubbed himself the "Painter of Light" and composes paintings of pastoral scenes of cottages and houses with a warm glow coming from the windows. A glow so vivid that were it to exist in reality it would be indicative of the fact that the place is burning down. (Honestly, look at the above picture again and tell me it doesn't look like the houses are on fire.) He expresses his mission as "creating a glimpse of a world that is tranquil, peaceful and full of the beauty of God's creation." I would argue that he paints a world that never was. If you look at any number of Kinkade paintings, there is no shifting intent or struggle with larger personal/spiritual/global issues. They all have the same purpose: to make people feel warm and cozy. I can't help but wonder if and how his recent DUI, bankruptcy filing, alleged fraudulent practices, and partnering with big companies such as Disney will affect his standing in the American Evangelical World. Odds are they'll feel too warm and cozy to care.

2. Anything that portrays a Bible story or character (unless it's a Renaissance painting that includes nudity)

3. Anything that shows Jesus intervening in a modern situation

4. Anything that depicts a dove, lion, and/or lamb

5. Anything that combines Christianity and our Founding Fathers

6. Anything that looks good as the background to a Bible verse

In contrast, what types of art do I relate to the most on a spiritual level??

1. The works of Anselm Kiefer

The size and scope of his pieces alone are enough to make you ponder a world much bigger than your own. Many contain lead, a material ancient alchemists thought they could turn into precious gold, paralleling the religious concepts of turning humanity into divinity. His work flows directly from his own spiritual questions. He has been quoted as saying, "I follow the ancient tradition of going up and down. The palaces of heaven are still a mystery...I am making my own investigation." Viewing his art is a direct invitation to investigate along with him.

2. Works that Manipulate our Perception of Reality

Monochromatic Hallway at "Take Your Time: Olafur Eliasson"
Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
The above picture is from an Olafur Eliasson exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago in 2009. This piece was a hallway with monochromatic yellow lighting. The effect was that when you were in the hallway, everything appeared to be in black and white (with the exception of that girl's bright red hat). You knew that what you were looking at was still color in reality, but you could no longer perceive that. Eliasson's work creates these environments in which you have to question how you perceive things, because you realize the extent to which your perception can be manipulated. You begin to view the world with a fresh set of eyes and a mind full of new questions after exploring his work.

James Turrell's "Sky Pesher"
Walker Art Museum  Minneapolis, MN

James Turrell creates spaces in which you perceive reality more vividly and see things that you weren't previously aware of. When you sit in the "Sky Pesher" (pictured above), the night sky which had looked to be a dull dingy black while you walked underneath it is revealed to be a shockingly rich shade of deep blue. The lighting of the installation also creates the illusion of the absense of architecture. You cannot percieve the corners of the opening in the ceiling, so it looks as if the sky has descended to hover directly above you. He also had an amazingly extensive walk-in piece known as "The Wolfsburg Project"  that created a sense of a never ending interior. It provided visitors with a sense of eternity, for once inside it didn't seem like there was anything beyond what they were experiencing. There was no identifiable beginning or end.

3. Modern Art, especially Abstract Expressionism

"Red, Orange, Tan and Purple" - Mark Rothko 1954
 This was my greatest point of contention with the most fundamentalist in Evangelical culture. While working at a fundamentalist owned business primarily employing the same, I was cornered in my cubicle by a co-worker while she lectured me on why modern art wasn't art, Christians should have nothing to do with it, and it has no redemptive value whatsoever after hearing that I had recently gone to the local modern art museum. You could almost see the steam come out of her ears when I calmly responded, "I like it."

The reason that I find modern art so complimentary to faith is that it requires you to interact with it and ask questions in order to understand it. You'll get out of it what you're willing to put into it. It isn't about trying to show reality exactly how you already see it in every day life or provide a comfortable experience for people, but rather create this relationship with its viewers that invites them to reevaluate their understanding of reality. Isn't that essentially what faith should be? A place where you are invited to ask questions and examine things more closely in order to gain a better understanding of the true nature of things?

I truly believe it would be beneficial to people's faith if their churches encouraged interaction with these types of works rather than simply clinging to that which is easily identifiable as Christian.

What about you? What works most inspire your own spiritual contemplation?

Saturday, December 11, 2010

We Need an Exit Strategy

I love the season of Advent. I love the days leading up to Christmas. I love the candles being lit on the Advent wreath and the soft glow of lights displayed in the darkness. I love the season of contemplation and preparation. It always seemed like such a calm, peaceful, and hopeful time of year. But little did I know there was a war raging.

Or at least that's what many I met in my time in American Evangelical Culture (AEC) would have me believe. That was the first place I ever heard that there was a "War on Christmas." (Insert dramatic music here.) Sometimes it cracks me up to try to envision elves defending the North Pole by shooting candy canes at invading hoards, but I digress. The actual "War on Christmas" is an idea perpetuated in AEC that everyone else to trying to destroy Christmas as we know it by utilizing generic greetings such as "Happy Holidays." And boy do they feel strongly about it.

They seek to defend themselves in this war primarily through boycotting any retailer that doesn't explicitly mention Christmas in their ads or stores, expressing outrage at city council/school board meetings if they don't feel public displays/pageants are Christian enough, and by wearing buttons that say things like "It's okay to wish me a Merry Christmas," "I don't celebrate 'the holidays'" or "Merry CHRISTmas"

Here are the issues I have with this war. First of all, if we truly want to honor the real meaning of the season, wouldn't we reject the mass consumerism and expensive needless gifts altogether? Wouldn't we focus on service and charity rather than putting a giant bow on the Lexus in the driveway? Wouldn't we focus buying gifts that aren't produced through the exploitation of impoverished communities throughout the world? Wouldn't that honor God much more than refusing to shop at stores with "Happy Holidays" signs in the windows?

Secondly, there are more holidays than just Christmas being celebrated this time of year. And some, such as Hanukkah, come from religions that predate Christianity. It also neglects the fact that many aspects of Christmas tradition (the date, trees, etc.) originated with Pagan practices. Overall, regardless of what is printed on the sales fliers, the one thing retailers care about is making money. They will market their sales however they need to in order to increase their profits. If that means exploiting your religious beliefs, so be it. They aren't seeking to honor any particular faith, but rather their bottom line.

Finally, how in the world does picking fights with people over their choice of terms and constantly playing the victim express the radical hope of God wrapped in human form entering our world?

So, wage this war if you must. But I hope you'll at least consider a few of these questions before reminding your co-worker that "Santa" and "Satan" consist of the same letters.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Why I Probably Won't Tell You I'm Praying For You...Even if I Am

New Evangelicals tend to be a little overzealous. They are so excited about their new found faith that they are determined to witness to everyone and openly demonstrate their faith as often as possible. As a teenage Evangelical, I was no exception. But one of my biggest regrets about my behavior was how often I told people, "I'm praying for you." Let me explain.

It's not that I don't believe in prayer and it's not that I don't pray. I think it's important to pray for others and I do believe there are times where it is indeed helpful to let people know you're praying for them. The reason I regret it is because I began to realize how often those words carried a hidden agenda.

As a new Evangelical, the words are almost thrown around as proof that you are serious about your faith. It's not enough to simply be praying, but they must know that you are praying. They must know that you follow Jesus. They must see that you're different. When you attend Conservative Christian College, proving your faith to others isn't as much of an issue, since you assume that everyone shares the same beliefs. There the words serve a new purpose. Apart from expressing the fact that you are indeed praying, they are often used as a passive aggressive disapproval of the prayer recipient (ex: Upon seeing a friend leave a movie you think it inappropriate for Christians, you say "I'm praying for you.") or simply what you say when you don't know what else to say or don't want to actually help with the issue at hand.

That may sound harsh, and for that I apologize. However, having both seen and perpetuated the misuse of this phrase I think it can be true in many cases. About five years ago, I was involved in a severe car accident that left me with permanent injuries. Even though my injuries were not that bad all things considered, their nature made some everyday tasks nearly impossible, especially certain household cleaining activities and anything involving a lot of lifting. (To be fair, neither of these are things I enjoyed pre-injury nor are they enjoyable to most people.) My point is that in that time when many of my Evangelical friends asked what I needed, it ended with a lot more "I'll be praying for you" than it did with offers to help carry my luggage or clean my bathtub. I don't think this phrase should ever be used as a replacement for helping in tangible ways when able. How many times have we heard that a church/ministry/charity we like is struggling financially and respond by telling them we'll pray rather than donating within our ability? As one of my fellow students at Conservative Christian College said "I hate when people use prayer as an excuse not to do what they already know they should be doing."

There are times, such as when faced with devestating loss, when there isn't much you can do apart from pray. And there are times when people need to hear that others are praying for them. Yet in an effort to make sure I don't participate in the type of misuse that I have experienced, I'm learning to embrace a more humble approach to prayer. One that tells people I am praying for them only if it will be beneficial to them. I want to live my life in a way that others know I will always be willing to help them and pray for them, whether I continually broadcast that fact or not.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Intimacy of Communion

This past weekend, I officially joined the church I've been attending. Whenever there is a new member Sunday at this church, the joining members participate in the service. This can be done in a number of ways including leading prayers, greeting people at the doors, reading scripture or personal faith statements, etc. One of the aspects of the service that I participated in was serving communion.

For those of you that didn't grow up Catholic, Lutheran, or any other denomination that uses liturgy, the way communion is served may be a little different. When I was attending Evangebapticostal churches, I noticed that the majority all served communion in the same way. The bread and wine would be passed out to everyone in their pews and the entire congregation would partake together at the pastor's prompting. I always liked the symbolism of the fact that communion was a shared experience. In all the Lutheran churches I've ever been to communion is served at the front of the church and everyone forms a line to walk up there as they are dismissed by the ushers. As each individual passes the servers they are handed a communion wafer/bread and told "The body of Christ given for you." They then either take a tiny cup of wine or dip the bread/wafer (depending on the practices of that particular church) and are told "The blood of Christ shed for you." They consume them both and return to their seats.

It had been a long time since I'd helped serve communion. I was a little nervous at first and asked more questions than were probably necessary before the service began. "Where do I pick up the bowl?...What station am I serving at?...What do I do if someone needs a gluten free wafer?...Is there anything else I need to know?...Where are the gluten free wafers again?" I could just picture myself dropping the bowl, forgetting the words, or having some other not so major incident during the process. Another aspect was concerning me that many may not think about. I would have to tell each person "The body of Christ given for you." I found myself worried that as I said that phrase more than 100 times in a row the words would ring hallow with no real meaning to me and sound empty to those who heard them. How does a pastor do that week after week? I imagined that the repetition would become mundane. It was a strange concern, I know. But I couldn't help but wonder.

The service began and before I knew it it was time for communion. I managed to pick up the bowl and make it to my station without dropping it, spilling anything, or tripping. Success. The line began to form and I soon found each congregant passing before me with his/her hands folded over one another, palms towards the sky.

"The body of Christ given for you."
"The body of Christ given for you."
"The body of Christ given for you."

One after another I repeated the phrase as I placed the small white communion wafers into their outstretched hands. I looked at each one as they approached. I've always been a people watcher. I like to see the variety of people that are gathered in a single place at any given time and wonder what circumstances caused their paths to converge at this particular time and place. One by one they passed in front of me: the cheerful elderly gentleman in his festive red and white Norwegian sweater, the somber middle aged woman, the young boy who nervously held out his hand as his mother encouraged him from behind, the older woman who grinned from ear to ear clinging to the wafer as precious treasure as she replied "Praise be to God." As I looked upon each face, suddenly the words I was repeating took on a new emphasis. "The body of Christ given for YOU." Each face appeared to me as if it were the only face Christ saw when dying on the cross. Each person that passed before was instantly recognizable as the one Jesus loves. At that moment communion wasn't just about a representation of communal salvation as I had understood it in previous churches. It wasn't just a corporate moment where we proclaim "Christ died for us."  It was a deeply personal and intimate moment. A moment where each person walks to the front of the sanctuary in faith and takes hold of a little piece of Christ and says "This one. This was done for me." A moment where each person claims the promises and hope of Christ as their own. "The body of Christ given for you."

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

More about Me and Why I am Writing This

I grew up attending a Scandinavian Lutheran church here in the Midwest. It was there that I was baptized and confirmed. I attended Sunday School, went on retreats, helped with service projects, and generally had a good time.

While I was in high school, I became close friends with some kids from the local Evangelical church. I began to attend events and youth group with them. That was how I ended up wading in the American Evangelical culture. I had fun with them, but that was when I started hearing about lukewarm Christians, saving souls, rededicating your life to Christ, why other denominations aren't as good, etc. It sounded good at the time. I was on board. I was going to be a witness for Christ to everyone and show them all the error of their ways! Right? Soon I was listening primarily to Christian music, reading mostly Christian books, and spending most of my time with my Christian friends.

When it came time to choose a college, I could no longer imagine going to a secular school. After all, I need to be surrounded by people who shared my faith (or so I thought at the time.) So in spite of my mother's protests about our financial situation, I only applied to private in-state Christian schools. I had once dreamed of studying art and even had a professor from a local secular university express interest in getting me into their program. But the Evangelical world didn't seem to have much of an appreciation for anything outside of the work of Thomas Kinkade. Besides, how could a good Christian attend drawing classes that would have nude models?? (Yes, I actually thought that!) So I ended up attending what I will from here on out refer to as Conservative Christian College studying youth ministry. Looking back now, my thinking seems a little messed up. But after years in Evangelical youth group culture, it made perfect sense to me to set my original plans aside to pursue a "higher calling."

My time at Conservative Christian College wasn't all bad, and I did make some great friends. But I never quite fit in there. There was always something restless in my soul. Even though I could agree on most theological points, once people talked about politics, pop culture, gender roles, movies, books, etc. it was obviously that we were on different wavelengths. The last semester there was one of the most difficult for me personally and rather than leaving me feeling like a well rounded strong Christian, it left me wondering if I could even call myself a Christian anymore because I wanted nothing to do with that culture.

After graduation I shopped around, trying a number of different churches. Deep down, I knew I still believed in God, so I couldn't give that up entirely. I never felt fully comfortable in any of them until I found my way back to my liturgical Lutheran roots. That's where I am now and feeling like I'm finally finding my place in this crazy world.

I write this because I need to write this. I need to release the toxic experiences that were poisoning my faith. I need to recognize the good things about it and sort out the bad. It's the only way for me to move on. I keep encountering people who like me felt wounded by their experiences in Evangelicalism. I want people to know that choosing to stay in that culture or reject God completely aren't the only two options. I want people to know that others feel the same way. A little Evangelical detox is not only good for the soul, but it's what saved my faith.

Some Helpful Definitions

I'll add to these as needed.

American Evangelical Culture:
A religious subculture in the US composed primarily of Evangelical Free, Baptist, Pentacostal, and Non-denominational Christians typified by it's hyper-spirituality and rejection of all things secular
*Note: Not all Evangelical Free Christians are part of this culture and not all members of this culture are affiliated with the E-Free church. It is a general term not meant to reflect on any one denomination in particular

A term that lumps Evangelicals, Baptists, and Pentacostals together when there is cultural overlap. Basically, it's what I type when I don't want to have to type all three names.

A type of spirituality that seeks to find and pronounce the defense of one's theology in everything they see or attatch a spiritual element to even the most minor of things.

Anything that is not explicitly and openly Christian in nature

Passive Agressive Prayer:
Any prayer spoken publicly that is a veiled way to tell someone what they should do. Ex: "Oh Lord, help Jeff to know if this girl isn't the best for him" prayed out loud with Jeff in attendence

Gossip as Prayer Requests:
Expressing "concern" over an issue involving someone in order to tell everyone about it first. Ex: "I wouldn't tell you this normally, but I just really think we should pray about it. I saw Betty out to dinner with a man that wasn't her husband and it looked pretty romantic."

Love On: 
Experiencing/Expressing love in a tangible non-sexual way. Ex: "Just let God love on you." "We really need to love on him right now." Possibly my most hated of all American Evangelical Culture terms.

A way of speaking that involves a number of hyper-spiritual terms that would not be easily understood by non-Christians

I just feel like the Lord wants me to...:
Although sometimes valid, this is a heavily abused phrase within Evangelical circles that is often a get out of jail free card to give someone else a very uncomfortable answer, because even if they can be mad at you, they can't be mad at God. Ex: "I just feel like the Lord wants us to take a break from dating for awhile."

Have a burden for:
to feel a special connection or calling to serve God in a specific region or with a specific group of people. Ex: "I really have a burden for urban youth."

Prosperity Gospel a.k.a. Name it and Claim it:
A theology gaining popularity in the US centered on the belief that God wants to bless His follows with money and possessions

Bedside Baptist:
the church Christian College kids attend when they sleep in on Sunday morning

MRS Degree:
a.k.a. Ring by Spring: A common phrase heard on Christian College campuses regarding the seemingly high number of female students who get engaged while studying there

A term used to describe someone who has fallen away from his/her faith or is engaging in activities that the speaker believes they shouldn't. Ex: "I think Paula is really starting to backslide. I saw her drinking at a party."

Nominal Christian:
Christian in name only. Although sometimes used in the proper context, this is another often abused term that is sometimes used to describe anyone who doesn't adhere to every little aspect of what the speaker thinks the Christian lifestyle should look like. Ex: "My aunt is really nice, but she's a nominal Christian. She doesn't have a small group or bible study that she regularly attends."

What This Blog Is and Is Not

Evangelical's not a retreat in the woods that promises to pray your alcohol/drug addiction demons away. The type of detox I'm speaking of is the type that recognizes the elements of Evangelical American culture that have done more to hinder our faith than to help it and seeks to strip those away in order to strengthen our faith.

This blog is not a place to simply badmouth those that are a still a part of that culture. I want to make it clear that I don't think everything about it is toxic and I will try my best not to simply paint it in a negative light. It is not a place to demean others. It is not a place for those still in the culture to question my faith or the faith of any readers who may relate to my stories. It is not a place for those who threw the baby out with the bath water and left their belief altogether to prove that God doesn't exist. It is not a place to debate minor theological issues while ignoring the bigger picture. (All comments will be moderated to avoid these things.)

I simply want to share my own thoughts and experiences of my time living the life within that culture, what I learned, how it affected my beliefs, and why I had to leave it behind before I lost my faith entirely. It is a place that welcomes people with doubts, those who have experienced spiritual abuse at that hands of those they thought would encourage their faith, those who have more questions than answers, and those that just can't go through the motions any more. If that describes you, welcome. If it doesn't, I hope you find some sort of insight here nonetheless. I don't have all (or even most) of the answers. I don't believe that faith is supposed to be easy or comfortable. I believe in a God that rewards those who wrestle with what it means to follow Him.