Fumbling the Torch


Our television died last weekend.

My parents had a 70’s-era Sony for 25 years. Our JVC lasted only 11. Bought it for my wife when we were engaged. (The vacuum my parents bought us for our wedding croaked this last summer. Thankfully, the marriage still holds up.)

Toward the end of our TV’s life, the favored fix for its tendency to scrunch the entire image down to a line a quarter-inch thick across the middle of the screen consisted of an authoritative whack to its cabinet. Kapow! and the picture would balloon to normal size. Over the last six months, it resembled a speed bag more than a television. Last Saturday, no amount of throttling on my part could bring it back.

Given that a new television compliant with the FCC-mandated digital requirements will set us back a minimum of $750, we may simply have to do without. It’s just the way things are right now.

Though I wish things were not that way, my television viewing’s fallen off to a limit approaching zero since The X-Files went off the air, anyway. Back during its network run, I taped nearly every episode, my devotion to the show evident in my inability to participate in any event that coincided with it, for fear some drunk would crash into a power line somewhere and erasing my carefully crafted programming of the VCR. That, of course, didn’t happen—except on the one night I had no choice but attend an event. The episode in question just so happened to be the infamous inbred family one, which FOX elected never to run again. Ever. Of course.

But that slavish devotion taught me never again to surrender time to TV. I haven’t followed anything since and probably never will.

(Readers: “So, Dan, where does this boring intro actually lead?”)

Imagine a campfire on the plains of Palestine circa 200 AD. A dozen people gather ’round its warmth, trading stories. At one point, the elder of the group stands up and tells of Jesus, His ways, and how those ways became the ways of their people. He talks for an hour, while the younger ones trade questions with him, learning, absorbing. Tomorrow night, the conversation will be similar, but varied enough to take others to a fractionally deeper place than the night before. The faces might be different this night, the main storyteller another of the wise ones, but what lingers in the cooling night air contains the same truth, the same life-giving wisdom.

On some nights, stories surrender to music. But the music doesn’t jar with the oral traditions. No, it reinforces truth, resembling what was taught and told, only in words set to rhythm and melody.

Night after night, this is how it unfolds for those people. This is their entertainment and their revelation.

My parents’ generation was the first to adopt television. I will argue that theirs was the first with a soundtrack from cradle to grave, too. They embodied the first completely media-savvy generation.

And for that reason, my generation got ripped off. My son’s generation will be, also. And his son’s.

Media stole the passed torch. It distracted those who came before us from their primary duty of ensuring the wisdom of the ages survived into the next generation. Whatever that wisdom may have been, that generation preferred the dull gray light of a cathode ray tube, or the voice of a box of transistors, to passing on the only things worth saving.

In time, their newly adopted habits combined with the islandization of the cities and the suburbs to destroy community as known by the denizens of Palestine 200AD. Work habits changed, and employment moved far from home. Every day. Connections withered. Who we were supposed to be in our souls got lost amid The Honeymooners and Little Richard.

My entire twenties consisted of the relentless drone of young Christians around me repeating the the same mantra over and over: “I wish I could find a mentor.” Sorry, but the mentor couldn’t pry himself away from Charlie’s Angels.

But who could blame him? He slaved in an office in some nondescript tower of glass and steel all day, had no one pouring life back into him, so what did he have to give at the end of the day? Better just to tune into Laugh In and tune out for an hour or two than to step out of the cultural programming and back into something older and more lasting.

I look around today and can’t help but think it’s infinitely worse. Cruise the Godblogosphere long enough and it seems like everyone’s glued to a 50″ plasma display OR an iPod OR a PS3 OR the two dozen flicks at the multiplex OR some pointless Internet distraction. Meanwhile, the next generation’s holding out their hands, dying for what little got passed on to us.

So the threads of tradition thin and weaken. Trivia replaces wisdom. Words lose to throwaway images.

Meanwhile, the thief breaks in to steal and destroy. And he plunders the entire house because the homeowner couldn’t pry his attention away from Lost or American Idol or 24 or some other pointless entertainment guaranteed to burn on Judgment Day.

Hey, I know that’s a tough word, folks, but we’re fiddling while America burns. It’s one thing for Christians to be culturally-savvy in cultural distinctives that last for generations, but quite another to be so enamored of pop-cultural artifacts that won’t stand up to a decade’s time.

If the best we can give our kids when they move away from home is the complete DVD collection of The Office or our Radiohead box-set, how is Jesus going to get a word in edge-wise?

But He’s Jesus, right? He’ll find a way to compete!

Can we hear ourselves? What life is going to flow into those kids? And into their kids?

My generation got mugged on the way to “maturity.” My parents did a decent job and were good people, but they still suffered from media distractions. They fell prey to disconnection and fractured community. My mother’s generational wisdom should’ve fed me, but by the time I realized I needed it, she was too far gone to help. And I didn’t know I needed it because I was too lost in my own media-driven stupor. Because the generation before me was, too. It was all I knew.

In the end, the torch I should be passing on to my child resembles a paper matchstick.

All that wisdom—gone. When my parent’s generation dies off entirely, so goes heritage, at least for many like me. We won’t remember all the second and third cousins. We won’t know how Christ changed that one great-uncle. Those salvation stories won’t be repeated around campfires any longer. The Bible passages that changed a generation will retreat into the book, to be remembered no more. And the hard-earned wisdom gained through decades of walking with Christ will blow away like dust along with the folks who learned it through bloody prayer, but took it to their graves.

What a grievous loss!

I wish we could grab our old people by the lapels and beg, “Don’t die before you instill in us what you learned about Christ. If you’ve been to the secret places, show us how to get there, too!” Don’t leave our generation to reflect on what might have been!

You know what I wish more of us did on Sunday? Rather than the same old, same old, why not begin a quarterly recollection Sunday (and center it around a full church meal and communion), where people tell stories of how Jesus changed their lives. How He came through and led out of the darkness. Have our kids hear those stories from people besides us for a change. Show them the relevancy of Christ from one generation to the next. And please God, send the fire on us so those stories burn with miracles and deliverance and the kind of supernatural power that proves to the next generation that “Awesome God” isn’t just a tired old song on the radio.


Because that’s the kind of thinking we must resurrect if the generation that follows us is going to have any sense of purpose and history to pass on to their children.

{Image: Rembrandt—Jacob Blessing the Children of Joseph, 1656}

Busting Myths About Christianity: Assessing Myths 9-10


Entering the homestretch of this series on myths believed about the American Church by those outside it, it's hard to avoid the cruel fact that several of these myths aren't myths. At one point, they may not have had one shred of truth to them at all, but something's happened to the Western Church—a very bad something. Sadly for us, those people who hold no pretenses to following Christ have noticed, yet we haven't. 

The myths: 

  1. Christians are more judgmental than non-Christians.
  2. Christians are stingier than non-Christians.
  3. Christians are more intolerant of other people than non-Christians.
  4. Christians are more short-sighted than non-Christians. 
  5. Christians don't know how to have fun. 
  6. Christians despise intellectuals more than non-Christians do.
  7. Christians prefer kitsch over important art.
  8. Christian subculture mimics the world rather than creating anything lasting.
  9. Companies run by Christians are as unethical as secular companies, and perhaps more so.
  10. Christianity causes more problems in the world than any other religion.

Today, we'll look at the final two.

9. Companies run by Christians are as unethical as secular companies, and perhaps more so

One of the most damning newspaper articles I've read in my life arrived in The Wall Street Journal shortly after the Enron and Worldcom scandals rocked the business world. In that article, the author took an in-depth look at the religious backgrounds of all the principal players in all the scandals. In nearly every case, those leaders were Evangelicals deeply involved in their churches as elders, teachers, deacons, and more.

I read that article about five times, attempting to find some way to reject what I was reading, but the truth shouted from the page.

My own personal odyssey dealing with Christian businesspeople is about as bad. When I look back on all the times I hired self-professed Christian professionals to help me resolve a problem, the number of times I got stiffed—and grossly, too, I might add—far, far, far outweighed the number of times the same happened with folks who made no pretenses to being Christians. Like 10:1.

So when I need an electrician to wire my house correctly so that the resulting "fix" doesn't burn it down, an ICHTHUS plastered on a Yellow Pages ad is my sign to hire someone else.

I hate saying that. As a Christian businessman myself, I would go sleepless for months if I knew I didn't turn in my best work. I'm a representative of Jesus Christ. My word and my work mean something deeper than putting food on the table. Doing outstanding work on every job I take is more than just the norm; it's my worship!

Why, then, do so many Christian businesspeople do such shoddy work—and under the guise of Christianity, too? Don't they know that's an anti-witness? Perseus slaying the MinotaurThat kind of carelessness may be the foot that stomps out the Holy Spirit, not only in the life of the businessperson, but in his or her client's life, as well.

Why does this happen? I think it may have something to do with a hyperinflated and mind-bogglingly poor notion of what grace entails. Some Christians must cover their atrocious work ethic with such a thick lacquer of "grace" that they convince themselves it will hide all the flaws. Or they're nothing more than cultural Christians, reflecting no true inner conversion, bereft of the Holy Spirit who would never let them rest for doing such poor work in the name of Christ. I have no other explanation.

At one time in history, Christians could be counted on to provide the best of every service and manufactured product available. I can't muster the historical proof to say that we're far worse now than then, but doesn't it seem like it? Sure, a real mythbuster would have the proof, but all I have is a lopsided series of encounters with Christian businesses that weighs heavily in favor of a negative assessment. That doesn't mean that millions of good Christians who would never lie, cheat, or steal from a client don't exist. But whatever the case, the scoundrels are making it tough on all of us.

So while Hebrew National Hot Dogs claims to answer to "a higher Authority," we Messiah-worshipers better do more than just answer.

Assessment: Plausible, and very likely Confirmed.


10. Christianity causes more problems in the world than any other religion

Let me make this simple: Bull.

If anything, the heritage of the Christian Church since its founding proves a history of God using believers to fashion every good we enjoy today. Anyone who believes that Christianity is more a problem than a solution long ago turned off the brain cells.

If no Church of Jesus Christ graced this planet, we would kiss goodbye…

…the majority of the world's greatest art, music, and literature.

…large portions of philosophy, science, and invention.

…nearly all charitable organizations that reach out to the least of these.

…virtually all hospitals and medical centers in the world.

…every concept of personal freedom in government.

…the hope of rescue of oppressed people everywhere.

In fact, I would guess that a world with no Church would be so hopelessly grim by now that a traveler through such an alternate Earth, if not already a Christian, would convert on the spot after returning to his Church-filled reality. And that's true of no other religion or thought system. 

For this reason, it's imperative that we Christians assess where we are today and ask if we're still making that kind of difference. If we're not on the forefront in every fruitful endeavor that Mankind enjoys, then we've failed to live as the Lord's fully redeemed people.

Our ancestors understood what Christ bought them by His blood, and they ran with that opportunity. They understood what it meant to live like wise Daniel did among the worldly, that it was more than just being pious. It meant learning! It meant expanding the horizons of what is known and what can be. Those wise men from the East called by God to visit the infant Jesus were the direct result of a godly man like Daniel who saw that serving God wasn't just a set of religious rituals separated from the whole of life.

Those Christians before us got it. Their devotion spawned countless benefits to us in every part of our lives. We can't drop the baton. To those who have been given much, much has been required.

Assessment: Couldn't be more Busted!


In the end, every single Christian in America should be a mythbuster. Too many of the myths held by unbelievers about Christianity today are shockingly closer to the truth than we care to admit. We can't continue to reinforce those myths.

If our passion for Christ is outweighed by our longing for entertainment, then we shouldn't call ourselves Christians. I'm afraid that in too many cases we're more concerned with our Tivo programming than reversing the mindset of unbelievers about the Church, and Jesus Christ, in particular. By living such worldly, meaningless lives, we only drive the lost away from their only hope.

Those Christians who gave their best to give us the science and arts we enjoy today took risks and God rewarded them. Many sinned boldly, yet loved God more boldly still. That kind of baldfaced living under grace seems foreign to us today. The modern American Church shies away from wrestling with angels. While some small-minded Christians point with pride to the fact they're not limping, it's also why so few of them go on to have their names listed among the heroes and patriarchs of the Faith. And it's why there's so little greatness in the American Church of the 21st century.

Christian, live in such a way that no myth hatched by the world applies to you.

Have a great weekend.

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{Image: Perseus slaying the Minotaur

Busting Myths About Christianity: Assessing Myths 7-8


Odysseus blinding the cyclops PolyphemusOver the last week, we've been looking at commonly heard statements about Christianity that have taken on mythical proportions. It's hard  to be a Christian in the West and not encounter these myths: 

  1. Christians are more judgmental than non-Christians.
  2. Christians are stingier than non-Christians.
  3. Christians are more intolerant of other people than non-Christians.
  4. Christians are more short-sighted than non-Christians. 
  5. Christians don't know how to have fun. 
  6. Christians despise intellectuals more than non-Christians do.
  7. Christians prefer kitsch over important art.
  8. Christian subculture mimics the world rather than creating anything lasting.
  9. Companies run by Christians are as unethical as secular companies, and perhaps more so.
  10. Christianity causes more problems in the world than any other religion.

Today, we'll look at myths #7 & #8:

7. Christians prefer kitsch over important art

As the Church of Jesus Christ grew and expanded, it touched nearly every art form. The Gospel's revelation of the divinity of Christ and His human nature resulted in a synthesis that ultimately broke the back of gnostic religions. This, in turn, created an environment in which art flourished, as God's coming to Earth as Man hallowed imagery.

But while the important artists that forged the backbone of Western art identified as Christians, the 19th century saw an increasing backlash against the realism that undergirded Christian art up until that time. With the coming of German higher criticism in the late 19th century, questions about the veracity of Scripture led to questions about absolute truth. The resulting cultural decline reflected in art that deconstructed itself.

Christian artists, unable to fend off the trend, either stayed true to their art and faded into profitless obscurity, or they pandered to low culture in an attempt keep bread on the table. When modern marketing techniques raised advertising to the level of popular art, the culture rewarded ad icons. Those icons, when mass marketed, led to an even lower form of art now known as kitsch.

I suspect that the rise of fundamentalism on one side and higher criticism on the other, dealt a death blow to Christian art during the Great Depression. Fundamentalists, in an entrenchment move, lumped all contemporary art into the category of "potentially evil," and this spilled over into the Evangelical consciousness. As a reaction against the supposed judgment that fell upon this country for the Roaring Twenties, Fundamentalists pushed hard against all forms of profligacy, and art, as a whole, suffered in that wake. Art, in general, lay damned.

But God built a creative spirit into man, so that desire to create needed a channel. What it got was a version of art that combined advertising imagery with a new sanitized Christian "ideal." And popular art, especially by Christians, has not recovered.

In her seminal book, A Profound Weakness: Christians & Kitsch, Betty Spackman argues from two sides of this issue, at once decrying kitsch as poor art, while acknowledging that it can still carry meaning for Christians. More to the point, she makes a bulletproof case that much of what passes for Christian art today is more kitsch than art, and that recovering a true appreciation by Christians for more masterful art may be difficult given the current state of Christian subculture around the world.

When all of Evangelicalism in the West is considered, it's hard to escape the truth that kitsch dominates our expression. From our "His Pain, Your Gain" t-Shirts to "WWJD" jewelry to modern megachurches, Christian culture perpetuates kitsch over substantive works, the typical Christian bookstore replacing the secular museum. Worse yet, the average Christian today can rack his brain and not come up with the name of a contemporary Christian artist—with the possible exception of Thomas Kinkade.

The problem of Christians and kitsch extends to all parts of the creative life within the Church. As kitsch itself is a derivative form, so too many creative endeavors within the Christian community lack a true defining Christianity, instead adding a Christianized coating to secular forms. What a true Christian expression of the arts might look like in the 21st century is yet to be seen, but we all should hope to live long enough to witness its full blossoming.

Assessment: Confirmed


8. Christian subculture mimics the world rather than creating anything lasting

Our affinity for kitsch means Christian expression cannot avoid including it at the core of our subculture. As mentioned above, the derivative nature of kitsch means the art itself has come from some other source, itself often derivative. Christians attempting to create out of that limited pool come off as pseudo-sanctified mynah birds, rather than images of the Spirit as dove.

For this reason, contemporary Christian culture in the West lives more off a perverted form of its past than a vital present. When the Reformation is reduced to a derivative t-shirt, it's hard to argue that modern Christians care one iota about leading culture, preferring instead to be culture's dog on a leash.

Appealing to cultural relevance only worsens the problem, pulling the Church down into the world's cultural cesspool. Though not all of modern culture should be viewed at arm's length, sadly, the aspects deemed most usable by the Western Church are the ones most needful of discarding. Sure, it may be possible to erect something intriguing out of rusty tin cans, but is that redeeming the time we've been given by the Lord?

Until the Church in the West abandons its love affair with redeeming the sleaziest parts of our culture, most of what we redeem from it will be garbage. And derivative garbage, at that. Encouraging folks guided by the Lord to create new directions in culture—leading, not following—and backing their gifts wholeheartedly is our only hope.

Assessment: Confirmed 


Stay tuned, the final two myth assessments still to come… 

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{Image: Odysseus blinding the Cyclops Polyphemus