Ushering in 2014: Reflection and the Future

This has been a crazy year for us at Evangelical Outpost. Aside from a plethora of personal events (multiple moves, a wedding, and all sorts of exciting happenings), we’ve found some success putting words out into the cold space of the internet. This marks the first calendar year that I’ve been at the helm of this little corner of the internet, and I’ve been blessed to read and edit so many great posts this last year (not to mention pen a few).

And so, a reflection. During the last year, we thought long and hard about how to utilize our partnership with the Torrey Honors Institute. We came up with taking on current students (for credit), and letting them loose on the public world. We ran into some rough spots, and we had some absolutely excellent writers along the way. It was a great experience, and while we will be constantly tweaking and rounding up some of those sharp edges, we all are looking forward to more interactivity with those students.

In addition, we managed to get featured at The Gospel Coalition twice this year. One article was penned by one of our aforementioned student writers, and I was pleased to write the other. It was a good year for us, in that way.

Since a retrospective is the current goal, here are some of our top posts from the last year:

Just Let Them Think You’re Stupid: Choosing Humility

On Singleness: Six Principles to Keep in Mind

Iceland, Pornography, and What Liberty Doesn’t Mean

Salad, Sex, and Lent: Abstinence for a Purpose

The Expulsive Power of an Addiction: Why Smoking Might Save Your Life

But I didn’t just promise you links to what we’ve already done, I promised a look into the future. So, here’s what the next year holds for us at Evangelical Outpost. First, we’re going to keep mentoring young writers. We’ll continue to work with Torrey students, taking on as many as our current writers can keep up with. This change won’t be too visible, for most people, but it is still something we’re excited about.

The second change–and perhaps the most significant one for readers–is that we hope to do a full fledged redesign. That’s right, the old style of this site will be gone. We’ll have a clearer announcement of this when we get closer, but keep your eyes out. I’m excited, and can’t wait to reveal what we’ve come up with.

As the calendar turns over, we all celebrate living to write the next year on our checks. May God guide us into the new year, no matter what it may bring.

Proving Rap is Sinful: A Quick Guide

If you’ve found the recent debate in some circles of Christianity about hip-hop to be a bit overwhelming, I’d recommend focusing here. I suspect that Scott Aniol represents some of the best arguments out there against the rap as a musical genre, while Shai Linne is not only a successful Christian rapper, but also a devote believer who has interned with pastors, and has released albums centered around theology (The Attributes of God was fantastic, and his most recent album, Lyrical Theology, Pt. 1: Theology is pretty solid, as well). It is always good practice to read and represent the best possible position, and I commend their thoughts to you.

I gave my thoughts on the topic shortly after the panel that sparked the whole thing. It’s a little odd to me to watch scholars who have spent very little time looking at hip-hop disregard it so quickly, especially when confronted with solid Christian brothers and sisters who so strongly disagree with them. This isn’t something like pornography, which can easily be dismissed as sinful; there aren’t huge groups of otherwise righteous people devoting their lives to it. But media, broadly speaking, has devotees among Christians–rap music is no different. While this is far from enough to conclude that rap is holy (after all, some cultural realities may be sinful), it should at least give us pause.

Here’s why you should care about the debate, no matter where you currently stand (and why I’m eager to follow along): if rap is inherently sinful, it ought to be avoided, plain and simple. At all times. Vigilantly. Let us not sin that grace may abound. If, however, rap is not intrinsically sinful, but only made sinful by some other quality (whether content, some particular style of beat, or something else), then we have to be careful about shutting out something that has apparently helped many people draw nearer to the face of God. There are reports of people who have been saved by rap music; I myself have been convicted and encouraged by Christian rappers, including Shai Linne.

If there were no good to be saved here, we could give it up. In fact, it might be wise to give it up, for the sake of our brothers and sisters.

From utility, it seems that we can’t quite discount rap on the suggestion that it might be sinful. After all, it is putting Scripture into the hearts of many listeners, both believers and skeptics. Even if sin plays a large part in rap music, isn’t the light worth preserving?

To convince me that hip-hop is not worth investing in, an opponent would need to address a number of issues: first, I’d need to see evidence that something about the musicality of hip-hop (the drum, the synths, the bass, the samples, or something else entirely?) is somehow universally going to result in sinfulness. If someone could genuinely explain how the beats of hip-hop universally encourages lust in people, or hatred, or any other sin, I’d be pretty quick to drop it (at least) in front of others, if not personally.

Second, if someone could prove that the the majority of those who are brought to Christ through rap music are somehow hindered by rap, rather than helped by it, then I’d be happy to sit and talk about other evangelistic tools. This is a bit of a utilitarian view, but if you can’t convince people that it is a sin, you could at least attempt to convince people that it is harmful.

Third, I think if someone actually spent time with an album recommended by a Christian fan of rap (might I recommend Shai Linne’s The Attributes of God?), listening to the album all the way through more than once, I’d be a lot more likely to listen to them. Perhaps this is asking much of those who think the music is sinful (though Scott Aniol did post a YouTube link for his argument from Christian “Death Metal”, suggesting that perhaps just listening for the sake of discussion is not a problem). But if it isn’t, I think this should really be a prerequisite.

Finally, I think those who wish to claim rap is sinful should provide some metric by which all music may be judged. How did rap (and death metal, apparently) end up on the short-list for sin, while many other genres have not (country, rock, folk, etc.)? Other than plain assertions, this hasn’t yet been demonstrated.

I don’t throw these challenges out to be trite, nor do I intend them to be rhetorical. I’ll listen to any responses, either sent to me personally or otherwise. My bias shows through, I’m sure, and I won’t pretend otherwise.

But I really do believe that the debate is important, and I wish to see it advanced. If the conclusion is one I don’t like (and, frankly, am skeptical we will be led there), so be it. May God be honored in all we say or do, whether we listen to hip-hop, debate hip-hop, or abstain from hip-hop. And may we all learn which way to best serve God.

Against Erasure: Why Hip-Hop and the Gospel Belong Together

There is a lot to say about the recent flurry of posts regarding the NCFIC panel about Christian hip-hop. I’ll start by pointing you to Joe Carter’s round-up of the whole thing. Included is a transcript as well as the video, and then a number of links from around the web that refute the panel. And rightfully so. The panel is woefully mistaken in lots of ways.

A quick caveat, that will sound familiar if you’ve already read some of the responses: I write this not because I wish to defame any of the men on the panel, but because I wish to encourage truthful and Gospel-centered rhetoric from all sides. Not all of the responses have been equal, though most of the ones that Joe linked above are excellent examples. I’m a fan of the genre (in spite of finding the genre of music and the culture surrounding it later in life), so the panel was somewhat personal. I cannot imagine how it must have felt for those who are actively involved in Christian hip-hop, though perhaps much of it was old-hat (sadly).

Most of what was said was presented as fact, when each should have been conditional. Some examples:

The question is where is the emphasis. And I would argue that with the rap [sic], with the heavy beat, with those things that the physical distraction is so much that the focus is no longer on the words.

-Dan Horn

If it is the case that rap music, entirely and wholly, loses the words (and, as I suspect is the case, is just not easy to hear when you don’t listen to it very often), perhaps then we can make the case that it should be abandoned or changed. But surely some music borders on the sublime, regardless of lyrical content (or the absence of lyrics)? A beautifully played instrument reflects the glory of God, even when there are no lyrical signposts to say “God made this beauty: seriously, look at God.” Some music can bring you to tears, and hip-hop is no exception (if you don’t believe me, give Beautiful Eulogy a listen).

. . what concerns me about this this so-called “art form” – it’s a picture of weakness and surrender on the part of people who think they’re serving God. And they’re not. They’re serving their own flesh. They’re caving into the world. They are disobedient cowards. They’re not really willing to engage in the fight that needs to be engaged.

-Geoff Botkin

If it is the case that Christian rappers are giving up on their Christianity to pursue rap, that would be evil. But perhaps that’s not fair to Mr. Botkin’s point. I suspect he means this: Christians who choose to create and dwell in the culture of rap have made friends with the world. They’ve decided to give up on being set apart, and attempt to blend in, live in a sinful culture, and make a living doing it. If that were the case, it would be frustrating.

But the point, aside from making a strangely personal attack (that he apologized for, sort of), is that I believe Mr. Botkins (and the rest of the panel) simply don’t know the medium well enough to recognize when someone is acting against it, and when they are conforming. P.O.D. often got attacked for “conforming”, but the band consistently represented Jesus in their context: I recall Skillet’s lead singer telling the tale of P.O.D. encouraging women to put their tops back on at a show, in spite of every other band encouraging them to strip. From the outside, it was hard to see P.O.D.’s representation: but some were capable of seeing it, precisely because they were part of the culture.

One respondent nailed this point:

The elephant in the living room is that you and your colleagues—as intelligent as you are—do not know anything about Hip Hop. It is frustrating to hear you speak about it with the confidence of an expert.

When those who do not know hip-hop come forward and tell people that it is sinful to participate, it flies in the face of wisdom. Perhaps there are some things we ought to outright condemn, but those things were already listed for us once: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” (Col. 3:5, ESV)

If we see those things growing in us on account of us listening to rap music, let us drop the rap for something that will encourage us to live God-honoring lives. But so should it be for all styles of music. Augustine even once contemplated the usefulness of music itself, since it can draw our ears to the performer rather than the glory of God. (Granted, Augustine makes some odd moves here; pleasure in good things on earth is incompatible with pleasure in God, since man is so far removed from God. I tend to believe that beauty and glory can be reflected in skillful musical expression, and that we can see it by appreciating that musical reflection. But the point remains.) And, if we push this further, we should have the same concerns about anything: if your right hand (or your musical genre of choice, your film of preference, or your web-browsing habits) causes you to sin, you ought to cut it off. But that doesn’t mean you have to cut everybody’s hands off.

I’ll move past the points that should have been conditional, and on to the ones that just shouldn’t have been made, frankly. The first:

When it comes the art form of hip-hop, very few will disagree with the cultural milieu out of which it grew. What it was intended to express by those who created the art form.

-Scott Aniol

If culture is made by creatures, and creatures are fallen, much of culture will be fallen. That seems straightforward, and I’m not sure I’d disagree. But lots of good comes out of evil. Look at Matthew (the tax collector), Zacchaeus, Paul (remember the guy who persecuted Christians?), or even someone like the author of the fourth Gospel, who is pretty clearly influenced by Greek thought, much of which was evil. Or, if you’d rather look at a more direct music and culture comparison, just listen to some old hymns, and realize that many of them are put to the tune of drinking songs. These were in a culture many would say is sinful (drunken bar culture), but were redeemed (and, indeed, are now only remembered in their new form). There was a bit of utility in this (everyone knew the tune), but there was also a sense of redeeming that which someone had used to encourage evil (though I don’t think drinking itself is evil).

Albert Mohler responded as someone who is ignorant of hip-hop ought to respond: he was honest (and admitted to making many of the same arguments, albeit internally and not at a panel), and willing to defer to those with other cultural backgrounds:

The good, the beautiful, and the true are to be combined to the greatest extent possible in every Christian endeavor, rap included. I have no idea how to evaluate any given rap musical expression, but rappers know. I do know how to evaluate the words, and when the words are saturated with the Gospel and biblical truth that is a wonderful thing. Our rapping Gospel friends will encourage one another to the greatest artistic expression. I want to encourage them in the Gospel. Let Bach’s maxim drive them all — to make (their) music the “handmaid of theology.”

The bottom line in all of this is simple, I think: rap music, much like any genre of music, has potential. It can be misused, and frankly, perhaps it often has been misused. But there are hungry souls out there, and to argue against providing a culture with a relevant Gospel presentation is heinous. Let us never sacrifice the Gospel, and let us always preserve those who bear the image of God. Even hip-hoppers.

[Edit: This morning, another apology was issued. You can read it here. I think most will offer forgiveness. In fact, many have done so, and I extend it as well. Now that the apologies are over, I hope that NCFIC will say what they mean about hip-hop. Or, if they’d prefer, just point to those responses that they found convincing, and own up to the growth they’ve experienced through the thoughtful critique from Christian brothers and sisters. After all, isn’t that what this discussion has become? A way for us all to encourage and edify one another?]

Lecrae’s Back: Church Clothes Volume 2

Lecrae’s done it again, and I’m glad I’ve seen less frustration and criticism this time out. Maybe it’s just that he’s managed to keep saying Jesus as he performs, well, everywhere. But just a quick reminder, for the naysayers. I reported this same bit before, but it bears repeating. Here’s an excerpt from a post Lecrae wrote when the first Church Clothes was released:

We limit spirituality to salvation and sanctification. As long as we are well versed in personal piety and individual salvation, we think we’re good. But most Christians have no clue how to engage culture in politics, science, economics, TV, music or art. We tend to leave people to their own devices there.

We subscribe to views like, “Politics and movies are evil or of the devil,” and we don’t touch them. Leaving them to be dominated by non-biblical worldviews. Or, since we don’t have a philosophy or filter, we do it the way culture says to…chasing vain ambition.

Most professing Christians have no idea how to direct their careers with biblical lenses, but instead of praying for and offering solutions we usually just shake our heads and dismiss these “sellouts & compromisers.”

We are missing out on the gospel’s power of redemption and glorification in all things.

Since then, he’s actually managed to avoid controversy. People loved Church Clothes, more-or-less loved Gravity, and have eagerly watched him interact with fame. Between 106 and Park appearances, interviews with secular media, and performing for BET, Lecrae’s really had a whirlwind year.

The closest he came to controversy was when he put out a song written to his younger self. In it, old (“Rebel”) Lecrae argues that new (“Rehab”) Lecrae has sold out, and is sacrificing the Gospel for the sake of fame. But Lecrae rebuts his own argument, claiming the maturity allows him freedoms he wasn’t able to embrace when he was a newer Christian.

It’s an admirable view, and mature Lecrae has definitely given us another good mixtape. You can download it for free, here. I haven’t been able to give it enough of a listen to provide a solid review.

We should definitely spend some time working through what it means to engage culture, whether that’s hip-hop, music more broadly, politics, film, alcohol, or anything else. I’ve found Brett McCracken’s book Gray Matters helpful in this regard (you can see my review here).

If you find yourself critical of this mixtape, so be it. If you don’t like the artistry, I’ll perhaps be surprised. But if you want to say that Lecrae’s made a mistake working with secular artists, promoting himself on secular media, and generally presenting a “walk with you” rather than “preach against you” attitude, I’ll leave you with this conclusion, that I wrote when the first Church Clothes came out:

And, finally, let’s remember that Lecrae shouldn’t be the end-all of our involvement with those listening to his music, believers or otherwise. If he is offering us words of encouragement, or perhaps a gateway into the lives of non-believers, let’s remember that we have our part to do as well. A corollary to this is that Lecrae isn’t the end-all influence in his genre. Just because one member of the body expresses things a certain way does not mean all members should. I’m grateful for Lecrae’s music, and I’m grateful for music from guys like Shai Linne, Swoope, and KJ-52. They all have different sounds, different focuses, and different purposes. But they help weave a tapestry within the genre that more accurately represents a holistic Christian lifestyle.

Ender’s Game Movie Review

Ender’s Game was good. That’s an extremely short version, but  the rest of this will mostly be caveats on that statement. So, don’t miss it: I really enjoyed Ender’s Game, the film.

The source material is among my favorite books. I own multiple copies, have read it five or six times in the last decade, and have spent a fair amount of time in its extended universe. I’ve used the ideas explored in Ender’s Game to illustrate philosophical points in papers. In short, I’m probably one of the biggest fans of the book. I’m also not the sort of fan who thinks that the film had to be one hundred percent exactly the same. For a story like this, that would be nearly impossible.

Spoilers from here on out.

So I won’t complain about those changes. I won’t complain that the film cuts down on Ender’s interactions with Peter and Valentine. I won’t complain that the entirety of the movie is condensed down into approximately a year, rather than the six that the book takes. I won’t complain that most of Ender’s frustrating zero-g battles are condensed into one battle, rather than a slower increase in difficulty.

I really want to complain about Bernard making it all the way to the end of the movie. But I won’t, because that’s really petty. It does bother me, though.

Here’s the biggest issue with the movie: pacing. While the movie manages to hit almost all of the major notes in the book (and this is actually quite impressive), in order to do so the film moves as quickly as possible through nearly everything. There’s some sense to this: we should probably feel the impending invasion the same way that the characters do. But it gets to the point where every line feels like it is rushed. You could pull almost any 30 second fragment from the film and make it into a trailer. Provided you avoid spoilers, that would actually work just fine.

I’d have rather the film been three movies, or at least two. Give the first film a bit more time on earth, then Battle School up until Ender is promised Dragon Army. Then, do a movie from his first battle up until he is transferred to Command (spending some time showing how much they are sacrificing as far as the school itself). Finally, do an entire film for Ender’s time on the asteroid (rather than the planet), fighting new types of battles, focusing on the background learning of the Formics.

I recognize that you couldn’t really talk a studio into doing that. Without proving you can sustain audiences (*ahem* The Hobbit), you won’t get funding to turn “one story” into three movies.

So that’s the biggest problem. My second issue is more localized. When Ender fights Bonzo in the book, the fight is visceral; Ender’s win is both decisive and intentional. Bonzo attacks, and even after Ender has incapacitated him, he continues to beat him. The fight is a clear mirror with Ender’s fight before he leaves Earth, which was depicted in the film. Ender is still a monster. A relatable protagonist, with clear motives, but one who clearly acts violently in ways that are morally evil. Even at the end of the text, when Ender has won the war, he feels guilty not just because of the actions he participated in, but because he was convinced that he would have acted the same way, had he known.

In the film, however, Ender progressively becomes less violent. Rather than continuing to possess the reasoning he has in the beginning, after Ender enters Battle School, he starts to think the way he grows to think in Speaker for the Dead. Eventually, Ender grows to hate himself in the book series, branding himself as the Xenocide and working hard to bring back the Formics he had previously destroyed. But while he is still a functioning and active part of the International Fleet, Ender pretty clearly maintains the willingness to destroy his enemy, if need be. He won’t like doing it, but he thinks that it is necessary. It isn’t until he’s completed the task he was asked to do (and had spent half of his life working towards) that he manages to snap himself out of this “fight to end all future fights” mentality. But when Ender fights Bonzo in the film, he doesn’t actually hurt Bonzo intentionally. Ender lands one solid kick, mostly to keep Bonzo away from himself, and Bonzo falls and hits his head on an edge. Ender calls for help, immediately, and even goes to watch surgery being performed on Bonzo’s now-shaven head. There’s compassion, sure, and Ender has always had that. But we still end up with a different Ender than the one in the books.

That said, the Ender in the film is probably the moral superior. Book-Ender is a killer all the way up until Speaker for the Dead, even as he is incredibly compassionate. But Film-Ender manages compassion from the moment he leaves Earth. He doesn’t even have to fight back against Bernard, who miraculously stays with him through the end (those who haven’t seen the film but have read the book: if you’ve forgotten who Bernard is, that’s understandable; he isn’t memorable by name, and shouldn’t have gotten that far in the film).

Oops. I said I wouldn’t complain about that.

The film looks fantastic, to give it the praise it is due. The acting is top notch, regardless of characterization decisions. Ender is incredibly emotional, and Asa Butterfield portrays that excellently. Harrison Ford pulls off Graff better than I had hoped. All around, the cast is tight, the effects are cool, and the experience as a whole just plain works. The moral conflict is preserved, and even the Giant’s Drink game manages to do well.

But really, Bernard?

‘The Stanley Parable': Choice Finally Done Right

Sometimes, game developers surprise us. I’ve got a vested interest in gaming as a medium. Not only is it one of my hobbies, but I suspect it is a place where Christians can go to engage a large number of young men (and, increasingly, women) who are unwilling to engage with us directly. Most of the industry, unfortunately, is filled with problems that film critics regularly lament: the same, boring action game comes out year after year. Whether that’s Call of DutyBattlefieldHalo, or whatever Michael Bay is currently working on, both industries are filled with appeal-to-the-masses, easy to digest franchises. While some productions become worthwhile, even from the standard formulas (InceptionThe Matrix), mostly the top films and games of any given year are telling the same stories, only pushing forward graphics or special effects.

Enter The Stanley Parable. While some games have attempted to push the boundaries of what we can accomplish with game mechanics (BraidPortal), a few franchises have stepped up and attempted to provide solid narratives (Mass EffectDishonoredBioshock: Infinite, Braid, and, again, Portal). But this is something different. Here’s the description, straight from the game’s Steam page:

The Stanley Parable is a first person exploration game. You will play as Stanley, and you will not play as Stanley. You will follow a story, you will not follow a story. You will have a choice, you will have no choice. The game will end, the game will never end.

If that sounds contradictory, welcome to the game. The game begins with a narrator explaining Stanley’s thoughts, who you are (allegedly) controlling. Very quickly, however, the narrator starts to predict your action. “When Stanley came to a set of two open doors, he entered the door on his left.”

Of course, you can step through either door. The narrator reacts accordingly, sometimes addressing you directly, sometimes getting angry at you and forcing a game reset, and sometimes he just lets you do what you want. It’s an interesting illusion of control. Each of these reactions had to be programmed based on all of your options, and the game is clearly quite complex. It has kept me coming back to it over the last week, and I’m still finding “endings” to the game that I never knew were there.

That’s a lot of lead in, and I’m not shy about my endorsement. If you’re a gamer, you ought to give The Stanley Parable a shot. You’ll laugh, you’ll be surprised, and if you’re reflective you might just face some new thoughts about the limitations of interactive narratives.

More on that last point. Many gamers claim they want the stories of their games to offer them choice. Remember the outcry from the Mass Effect finale? “You promised us choice, but you only let us choose the color of the ending!” This was in spite of the numerous actual choices presented throughout the series. You could lose characters, damn entire races to extinction, make friends and enemies, and these all changed the story you told. But the ending fell flat, because of the final “decision.”

Mass Effect‘s problem was that it was simply too large to offer actual choice. It isn’t financially feasible to produce what amounts to three or four games. There is already a ton of content that I never saw in all three of those games, and their narratives were all more-or-less concluded the same way. What Mass Effect has in scope, The Stanley Parable has in choice. I’ve found branching paths, complex sequences that must be completed to arrive at different endings, and even unique dialogue if I’d acted a certain way in a previous play-through. Much like the Choose Your Own Adventure books of my childhood, The Stanley Parable invites repeated engagement, though holding your finger in the book to save your spot is considerably more difficult.

The choices are deterministic, sure, but that is one of those inherent limitations of produced media. No game, movie, or book can answer your questions in real time, or offer you unique and personalized content as you request it. Until someone manages to devote staff to answer questions online and program new sections of a game in real time (or, more likely, figuring out a way to make procedural generation more intelligent), or until we develop AI, we won’t really be able to incorporate the sort of choice The Stanley Parable offers at the length and breadth that Mass Effect promises.

For a generation that loves to conceptually play with reality (if you thought “wow, so postmodern” as you read the description, you weren’t far off; if you were just intrigued, you’re likely more postmodern than you realize), The Stanley Parable hits all the right notes. This is a clear subversion of the form, a step away from the normal narrative that games possess. It even takes jabs at the promise of choice, throughout. There are times when the narrator removes your options, forcing you along some path or another. In a game centered around choice, that can be jarring.

In fact, jarring is probably the right word to describe the game. In a time when we’re flooded with games that don’t really challenge expectations, The Stanley Parable stands out as a unique exploration of gaming itself. While the game lacks the moral punch that something like Mass Effect can explore (there really aren’t characters to care for or make moral decisions about in The Stanley Parable), it demonstrates one method to offering something approximating actual choice.

And gamers everywhere ought to rejoice.

The Importance of Listening: A Lesson from Derek Minor

“I just want to be heard.” It’s the battle-cry of my generation.

Or at least that is what I argued in a recent post, where I attempted to work through what it means to listen well in an age where all we really care about is listening. Some take listening to be necessarily affirmative, but that’s a narrow view of what it means to hold an honest conversation. There are times when we should be listening to those we disagree with, as an act of love. There is something personal about listening to someone tell their story: we feel affirmed in our humanity, regardless of the person’s conclusion about the merit of our lifestyles.

While I spent most of my time reminding readers that there’s a difference between listening and affirming everything you hear, we often need to be reminded that listening is itself an act of love. The Church ought to be listening to those around us, in the context of meals, friendship, or travel. There are some individual churches that are attempting to do this well, and of course some people are better at this than others, but it is rare that we spend time going above and beyond the call to listen: giving voice to those who need it most.

If there is any genre of music focused on story-telling quite like hip-hop, I’m not sure what it is. Perhaps country, or certain brands of folk music, but you’d be hard pressed to find a rapper who hadn’t shared his life story on at least one song, usually early on in their career (and, at least in a few instances, multiple times throughout, as their stories shift).

One artist in particular took it upon himself to tell the stories of those he’d spoken to throughout his career. In the song Dear Mr. Christian, Derek Minor, with assistance from Dee-1 and Lecrae, writes from the perspective of his audience, targeted at himself. For those of you who aren’t usually interested in hip-hop, the video for this song actually includes the lyrics. Hopefully that will help.

The chorus expresses a sort of exasperation with attempting to tell stories to Christians:

Dear Mr. Christian, I know you’re on a mission

I know you say the answer to my problem is religion

I know I’m supposed to change the way I live and stop sinning

But I’d appreciate it if you take some time to listen

There’s a lot packed into those four lines, and the critique of Christian action is scathing. The speaker of the chorus has already heard the answers: this isn’t a problem with evangelism, in that sense. This isn’t an individual who has never heard the gospel. They understand that the gospel offers change, and even that Christianity calls us to stop sinning. But their frustration is, unfortunately, rather justified: many Christians don’t know how to listen without qualification.

We’ve bought into the cultural stance that listening is the same as affirming everything we hear. Rather than attempting to nuance what we believe to include the ability to listen without absolute affirmation, we often decide to just run away from listening.

Of course, there are two sides to the issue. Some Christians run the other way, opting instead to listen and affirm everything they hear. Stories become intrinsically helpful and holy, regardless of their content. We’re really interested in ‘messy’ stories, these days. Gone are the days of clear good and evil in films, and the music industry is starting to follow suit. We’ve seen Christians advocate for “real” stories above all else in the last few years.

In spite of some hesitations that I think are well grounded (the strongest concern is the unintentional glorification of sin), we would be do well to encourage this sort of interaction. Listening to non-Christians is important, if only because the current cultural norm is to focus on the importance of voices. But more-so: our communities are able to be even more picky than before, thanks to social media. If you aren’t even willing to listen to a story, that person will go elsewhere, and you’ll never have a chance to share the gospel.

So listen to your neighbors. Hear their struggles, have meals with them, spend time understanding who they are and what makes them tick. Maybe they’ll listen to you, as well. But the best way to make disciples in today’s day and age is to start by listening.

“Mundane” Testimonies

Christians struggle with their own testimonies. Our stories are boring, uninteresting, and mundane, or so it seems to us; who would listen to us even if we did share? What often qualifies as ‘interesting’ is the sort of thing someone would write (and read) a book about: ex-felons, ex-addicts, ex-something-or-others. We are all sinners saved by grace, and as unclean and broken as we may be many of us haven’t gone a day in our lives not knowing about God. We remember repeated prayers as naturally as we recite the alphabet; some of us even had songs for both. Often we describe our testimonies in terms of a reshaping or a renewing of our current faith: we are reminded of the sin we have, or convicted of the sin we didn’t see, and now we can return to the Cross we’ve known all our lives. It isn’t so much a one-eighty as a couple of degrees at a time; we may admit to forty-five, at most.

There’s nothing satisfying, at least to our current experiential palate, about turning away from pride, for instance. No one can look and see an immediate or obvious change; pride is a matter of the heart, and our actions often contradict our motives. We look and see good people, but until they start talking, until they start telling us of their evil hearts, we can’t be witnesses to their redemptive stories. But this isn’t a problem with their redemption. We’re suckers for big and loud stories—look at the film industry for evidence—and so we tend to write off anything that doesn’t fit the bill, at least when it comes time to share. We don’t volunteer to tell people we grew up in the church and asked Jesus into our hearts right as we learned to speak; who would find that anything but boring?

The solution isn’t to seek a more powerful testimony—let’s not sin that grace may abound—but to expand our understanding of what constitutes a beautiful testimony. We can describe those who grew up in the church as spared from the horrors of the criminal life, but this feels empty. The negation isn’t nearly so powerful as the positive expression: we are saved from the damnation we earned by the great grace of God’s son, Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Of course we desire to be remembered, to be seen as moving examples of the grace God can provide. The examples trumpeted to us are those who stand out in the wide course of history, especially those saved from what we see as powerfully damning testimonies: Paul’s persecution of Christians, Augustine’s many sexual sins, right on up to the teenage-atheist-turned-thirty-something-Christian C.S. Lewis. We see that great Christians of the past have often come from broken places.

This emphasis on Michael-Bay-esque testimonies can be harmful, despite the intention to inspire us. While these testimonies can encourage us to look and see the greatness of God, our tendency is to only see God’s grace manifest in those who have been saved from what appears to be much. If we took for our role models ‘ordinary’ Christians—local pastors and elders, our parents and professors, our peers—perhaps we’d be more capable of seeing God’s explicit and awesome grace in our ‘ordinary’ lives.

I don’t recommend removing the historical ‘greats’ from our studies, nor should we discount the explosive testimonies we so often hear. Rather, we ought to broaden our understanding of what makes for a compelling story of grace.

To borrow a phrase from Matthew Lee Anderson’s discussion of the ‘radical’ movement within Christianity: if we lose out on mundane spirituality—that is, if we aren’t “more attentive to the homeless fellow nearby us than […] the grand, architectonic life that […moves us to] the third world”—then we’re certainly skipping out on appreciating mundane testimonies. While we should not fight against radicalism in one sense (in precisely this sense: Christianity is radical because God stepped into the world to save us, and our lives will be changed; we will look different), it is worth remember that Paul was a tent-maker, and continued to make tents even as he went about his missionary journeys. Jesus often met people in what seem like minor ways: eating with them, spending the day with them, and traveling with them. The disciples were ordinary people pulled out of more-or-less ordinary lives, made memorable by Christ’s interaction with them. Some we hear a lot about, John and Peter especially, while others are more-or-less forgotten: Bartholomew, Judas son of James, Simon who was called the Zealot, and at least one of the two named James. These men could have taught us much—after all, they walked with Jesus—but their Biblical conclusion comes almost as soon as they are introduced: they become absorbed by the term “the twelve,” rarely to be heard of individually again.

And so it often is with us. There are many unsung heroes in your local church, and I’m not talking about those often described as unsung heroes. Every Christian has a redemption story. Whether you are saved from cocaine addiction or a prideful heart, from deep in a prison cell or the comfort of your suburban home, your story is one filled with grace. If we can’t see the beauty of a redemption story, the problem isn’t with the story: the problem is with us.

After all, every story of redemption is one so powerful that Christ died to fulfill it.

Mourning and Grief: Even Jesus Wept

In the book of John, we read the one verse almost every kid in church memorized, if only for its brevity: Jesus wept. I hadn’t given much thought to the passage until recently, but there’s a lot going on there. Let’s set the context.

Jesus receives word that Lazarus is sick from Mary and Martha. Jesus decides, in spite of this, to stick around where he is at for a couple of days. Jesus then announces to his disciples that they should go to Lazarus, who has now “fallen asleep,” so that Jesus may awaken him. The disciples are confused. For starters, Judea is dangerous for them; the last time they were there, the religious leaders were seeking to stone Jesus. In addition, why travel into dangerous land just to see someone who is sleeping? In spite of the prevalence of “sleep” as a metaphor for death in the Old Testament, Jesus is forced to clarify: in verse 14, Jesus tells his disciples that “falling asleep” actually means that Lazarus has died.

Even with the knowledge that he will “awaken” Lazarus, Jesus doesn’t weep just yet. In fact, Jesus doesn’t weep until after he’s reunited with both Mary and Martha. Once he sees the two of them weeping, he is “deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.” After asking where they have laid Lazarus, Jesus finally weeps.

What causes Jesus to weep here? If Jesus knew he was going to raise Lazarus—and he has already made it explicit that he was going to do so—then why weep in the face of this death? Jesus knows the outcome, so couldn’t he comfort others with his confidence that everything would be okay?

Jesus weeps in spite of his correct knowledge regarding Lazarus. The emotions overwhelm him, and he proceeds to mourn with Mary and Martha.

We do the same thing when a fellow believer passes away. We can be certain, or at least nearly certain, that the loss on earth is a gain in heaven and yet, we mourn. This isn’t unhealthy, but it can sometimes riddle us with guilt.

It is appropriate to mourn the loss of someone, even if we rejoice in where they have gone. It is also appropriate to grieve, even if we know that God will be glorified with the result. This need not be restricted to death, of course: sometimes our circumstances are troubling, even if we have the confidence in faith that they will work out in the end.

Christian funerals, at least as they are practiced today, often ride the strange line between true mourning and celebration. On the one hand, we recognize (simply by looking inward) that death is difficult, saddening, and can make us feel as though we are going to collapse. This is often at the forefront of our graveside services: the casket is ceremoniously lowered into the ground, as family and friends of the deceased look on.

The other side of our funerals, however, are often filled with worship and celebration. Pastors and family members will say that our loved ones are standing in heaven, looking down at us. They’re running with Jesus, laughing with him, and doing what they love. In light of this fact, we should rejoice. Let’s celebrate our fallen friends, with loud worship music and (somewhat) forced smiles.

There’s truth to the reaction. I won’t argue that we ought to allow our grief to overwhelm our sense of perspective. There’s a time and a place to remember that to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if Jesus wept for Lazarus, or even just for those around him who were experiencing the loss, then we mustn’t throw off grief entirely. It’s appropriate to cry, to mourn, to sit in the discomfort and sadness that naturally comes with death, even if our knowledge doesn’t quite line up. Sometimes, our call is to comfort those who mourn, rather than mourn ourselves. We would do well to remember that grief is temporary, but still real.

Weekly Roundup

If you’re watching Syria, and most of the nation sort of is, the folks over at Mere Orthodoxy had a great discussion about how Christians ought to think about the implications for Christians in Syria.

Trevin Wax had to remind his son that going to church on Sunday isn’t just about education. In spite of the language of “Sunday School”, we don’t graduate from church; in fact, what we’re doing is worship.

While famed “new atheists” like to trumpet the wars that religion has caused, their data may be misleading. In fact, “misleading” might only scratch the surface.

It’s easy to be an unbalanced Christian. Not physically, and not even mentally (though that happens), but theologically. How might we stay balanced? What might that even mean? Derek Rishmawy gives us five tips for finding our theological balance.

Perhaps my favorite article from the week, and certainly the one that I relate most to, here’s one blogger’s account of what it is like to be 26, unmarried, and childless. The conclusion, which is that instead of asking everybody “What’s next?” perhaps we should sometimes (often) ask “What’s now?”, is spot on.

And, in case you somehow missed this strange song as it made its way around the web over the last couple of weeks, ask yourself one simple question: what does the fox say?