Monday, April 21, 2008

"It Ain't No Sin To Be Glad You're Alive" (Church)

Last week, I attended my very first Bruce Springsteen concert. Until recently, I would have only considered myself a casual listener of his music, but I have since become a full convert to the Cult of Bruce. I have come to a place where I fully understand the kinds of people who would drive hundreds of miles to see a Springsteen concert even though they have already seen him three times on the same tour. When people have asked me how I liked the concert, the best answer I have been able to give is this: "It's like Bruce was backstage with the rest of the E Street Band and said, 'Hey guys, Rob's out there tonight. We've got to make him happy." He delivered. The first three songs in the setlist were among my three favorite songs from the Springsteen catalogue. He played for two and-a-half hours, and I never found myself in any way wanting the show to end.

I've always been moved by great music. There are very few things that I would rather do than attend a good concert. It does something to my soul. As I stood in the middle of a crowd of thousands of Springsteen fans pumping their fists and singing along with their eyes closed, I took a few deep breaths. For those two hours, all was right with the world. Bruce had come to Dallas and breathed into my soul.

I believe that this is one of the primary roles of the church. The church should be a place that allows people to come and to exhale and nurse their wounds and experience something that gives them a glimpse of hope and beauty. When a person leaves on a Sunday morning, they should not primarily feel as though they have been informed so much as inspired.

Honestly, I think this is the true meaning (or at least one of the true meanings) behind the common church-goer complaint, "I'm just not being fed." For a long time, I had such a negative attitude toward someone who would say this. I assumed that these were people who were attending the church with the same attitude with which they interact with the food court at the mall. When they stop serving what you want and how you want it, you're shopping somewhere else. I felt that this complaint was a spiritual-sounding way of articulating the emotion of being an unsatisfied customer. However, I think there's at least some legitimacy to this complaint (at least some times). I think what people are saying--although they often don't really know how to say it like this--is that they aren't being inspired. They attend a church service that is entertaining and flashy and well-done, but they leave with no greater sense of hope or restoration. They haven't had an experience. I think this is why it's so difficult for many of us to feel comfortable inviting skeptics and people who are spiritually curious to our church services. It's a lot of information and a lot of style, but at no point has anyone's soul been refreshed.

I read a book last summer called The Shaping Of Things To Come by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch. This is one of the best books I have ever read about the role of the church in a Postmodern world. In this book, Hirsch and Frost devote an entire chapter to this very concept. They tell us that one of the church's roles in society is to whisper into the souls of people. When I attend a weekend church service, it shouldn't be like attending a seminar; it should feel like my batteries are recharging. When I gather with others in the name of Jesus, I should feel as though I am plugging in to a power source that is bigger than myself. I should be moved.

Then, as members of the church, our role is to enter into the worlds of the people in our lives with this same purpose. This idea flies directly in the face of the notion that my responsibility is to confront non-Christians without the intention of befriending them (or, perhaps worse, befriending them solely to attempt to convert them). This idea of breathing into the soul is the call to simply enter the life of someone and be a constant presence of Jesus in their world. We don't introduce people to Jesus by wearing down their resistance or by arguing until they can't stand being around us. We show people who Jesus is by being a voice of hope and life. Hirsch and Frost say this:

"To whisper into the souls of not-yet-Christians, we need to lie in the grass under a starry sky with them. We need to wander with them through an art gallery." (102)

To continue with the Springsteen-centric theme of this entry, there is a line in the song "Badlands" that says, "It ain't no sin to be glad you're alive." I think the role of the church is remind people that this statement is true. I think it's our job to find the people in this world who have given up and breathe life into their broken souls. This isn't a sales technique. This is who we're called to be. We are to be a people who say to the citizens of this world, "There is a God who has created you, and the fact that you are alive is a beautiful thing."


In case you wanted this (you probably didn't), here's the setlist from the Springsteen concert in Dallas on April 13, 2008:

Tenth Avenue Freeze-out
Radio Nowhere
Lonesome Day
Gypsy Biker
Reason to Believe
Prove It All Night
Because the Night
She's the One
Livin' in the Future
The Promised Land
Girls in Their Summer Clothes
Independence Day
Devil's Arcade
The Rising
Last to Die
Long Walk Home
* * *
Meeting Across the River
Born to Run
Glory Days (with Jon Bon Jovi)
Dancing in the Dark
American Land

Friday, April 18, 2008

Not Every Sermon Is A Good One (The Purpose-Driven Pisser)

I really never intended to become a blogger who relies on lots of videos, but you have to see this. There are some who have called this the worst sermon ever. I'm not sure if that's accurate, but it's got to be close. Brace yourself people.

Also, if anyone wants to attempt to comment and articulate what you think this guy's point is, feel free. I'm just as curious as you are.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

A Non-Theological Post

I just wanted to share this. It's neither deep nor thought-provoking, but it does have a certain quality of awesome. Enjoy!

Friday, April 11, 2008

Story and Scripture

I was in class a couple of weeks ago, and we were discussing the narrative behind the Psalms. One of my classmates (We'll call him Christian Cliche Man, or "CCM" for short) always seems to say the most ignorant things and this particular day was no exception. CCM raised his hand, and when the professor acknowledged him, he said with a very serious look on his face: "One of the things that we've lost in America is the ability to truly tell stories. We can't understand a lot of the Old Testament because we don't understand stories." Now, I'm not totally adverse to some good old-fashioned America bashing. But I've observed that any time a Christian wants to make a point or a cultural statement, the easiest platform on which to stand is, "In America, we've lost ____________" (I'll let you fill in the blank. Go ahead. It'll be fun!). Of course, these statements aren't always inaccurate. This is certainly not a nation without some major blind spots in its ideology. If someone in my class had said that Americans are over-consumers or that we are an unusually hostile nation, I would had trouble offering any vocal disagreement. However, I think that to claim that American society doesn't produce good storytellers reveals one's lack of understanding of American culture. Allow me to offer a short list of American storytellers from various mediums, and you can tell me how egregiously we have lost the ability to understand story:
Mark Twain
Cormac McCarthy
Ernest Hemingway
Orson Wells
Quentin Tarantino
Martin Scorcese
J.D. Salinger
J.J. Abrams
Flannery O'Connor
Bob Dylan
Tom Petty
Johnny Cash
Upton Sinclair
John Updike
Walt Disney
Steven Spielberg
John Irving
Diablo Cody (the woman who wrote "Juno")
Stan Lee
Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (creators of Superman)
James Michener
Stephen King
Bruce Springsteen (Don't laugh. Just go listen to the albums Born In The U.S.A., Born To Run, and Darkness On The Edge Of Town. You'll see. The Boss can weave a tale)

Obviously, I could keep going, but I think I've made my point. However, I might point out that there is one type of person missing from the list above. Look closely. Closer. Keep looking. What group of people do you not see on this list? Give up? I'll tell you. Christians (not that none of these people could possibly be followers of Jesus. They just aren't known for being nominal "Christians."). Now just settle down for a minute. I'm not saying that Christians are incapable of producing good art or telling great stories. On the contrary, I think Christians should be leading the way in producing great art. However, I think my misguided classmate, CCM, is almost right--there is a group of people who have lost the art of story, but it's not Americans. It's the church.

I don't think I've ever heard a compelling sermon about the Bible. I'm not saying that I've never heard a compelling sermon that uses the Bible. I'm saying that when a preacher stands up and says, "Today, I'm going to preach about why we should love the Bible and how we should use it," I instantly get bored. For one thing, for someone to say that they are preaching about the Bible on one particular Sunday might imply that they neglect to do so on all other Sundays (another topic for another post). For another, almost any sermon I've heard about the Bible tends to fall into one of two categories: 1) "Let me prove to you with archaeological evidence that the Bible is accurate." This inevitably descends into mechanics and charts. Not that this isn't useful information, but it's certainly not inspiring. And 2) "Here are some charts and graphs that should help you categorize the Scriptures and become a better student of the Bible." Again, this could be somewhat helpful, but it lacks any sort of inspiration. In both cases, I'm asleep before the speaker can say, "Turn with me to Zephaniah chapter 1." (Let me acknowledge that there is so much more to say about both of these types of sermons, and I am only scratching the surface. I'm sure I will return to both of these at a later time.)

I think the reason that so many sermons about the power of the Bible fall flat is that they are devoid of the element of story. We try to make the Scriptures something that they never claim to be, and we drain them of any life or beauty. One of my favorite theologians and communicators, Rob Bell, says it like this in his book Velvet Elvis:

“The Bible is not pieces of information about God and Jesus and whatever else we take and apply to situations as we would a cookbook or an instruction manual…We have to embrace the Bible as the wild, uncensored, passionate account it is of people experiencing the living God" (page 63).

What if we began to interact with the Scriptures as though they were a beautiful story? As I pointed out in the second post on this blog, there is a single metanarrative flowing through the pages of the Bible, and to reduce these beautiful words and passages to something smaller than they are, we've done something tragic.

I don't think Americans in general have lost the ability to tell and hear stories. I think the church is the truly guilty party here. I also think it's time to reclaim the story within which we have been placed. What would it look like if Christians began to interact with the world around us as though we were living within the pages of a beautiful story that God is in the midst of telling?

I only ask because we already are.