After Malachi Before Matthew: Long Silences and Christmas

The Harvest is past, summer is ended and we are not saved. –Jeremiah 8:20

A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. – Isaiah 40:3

When I was growing up I was always picked to play a shepherd in the manger scene. I’m a red headed, Caucasian male with not a drop of blood tracing back to the Holy Land, but I could stand still and be quiet (more or less) so I was perfect for the part. Luke 2 was a favorite chapter to act out during grade school Christmas programs, and for the past two decades, on every first Sunday of December I’ve watched the lighting of the first candle of Advent. From a young age I’ve performed rituals that cultivate anticipation.

Growing up I sang lots of Christmas carols about the coming of Christ, but never about the four hundred years of silence previous to his arrival. There was an emphasis on preparedness for Christ’s coming into the world, but there is a significant difference between anticipation for the month of December and waiting four hundred years. How long can you anticipate something without an intermittent status report or confirmation? What is it like to live in four centuries of silence?

I imagine my ancient ancestors, who didn’t anticipate a Messiah, were more familiar with silence then I am. I live in a world where expectation is celebrated every year for itself. Every Sunday the church is preaching, teaching, and singing about God’s love, his works, and his promises for the future. What would it be like for it all that to gradually go silent? And how long does it take for silence to encourage doubt—for it to make me rush to something talkative and loud? Israel once begged Moses for God to not speak to them “lest they should die.” But how long does he remain silent before you feel the anticipation of non existence?

Emmanuel –God with us—hasn’t always been a comfortable concept. “God with us” was a terrifying reality when Israel stood before Mt. Sinai. It was probably a distant memory for the anointed King David when he roamed the wilderness as an outlaw. For Ahab it was a rouge curse as Elijah cut the throats of the prophets of Baal in the light of heavenly fire. Emmanuel is a heavy reality—inviting a submission that can’t be volunteered by a hardened heart, and the obedient are always driven by Kings and nations into the wild places of the land. As Spurgeon says “men will allow God to be everywhere but on his throne.”

Throughout the Old Testament Israel’s remnant is pushed into the margins; sometimes the wilderness or as some exiled minority in a foreign city. When this happened Jerusalem became their orientation—it was the city of the temple, the place where God met with man. Inside the Holy of Holies God’s presence dwelled until it was pushed by disobedience into the tongues of the prophets. They prophesied to the nation and were killed by the nation. Zachariah is killed between the altar and the sanctuary. The reader finishes the fourth chapter of Malachi and then it goes quiet.

Four hundred years, roughly the same amount of time between Joseph and Moses. This would have been similar to the generations of Israelite slaves who slowly forgot the God of Jacob as they sweat under the whips of the Pharaoh. This would be four hundred years of building a nation that isn’t their own and giving birth to slave children threatened by population control. Four hundred years in subjection to Egyptian gods, Egyptian rule, and Egyptian scorn with no word from God.

Malachi stops writing and the situations are similar. Israel never regains sovereignty from foreign nations and is swapped between the Gentile kingdoms of the Persians, the Greeks, and then the Romans. Four hundred years—the excruciating pause before Incarnation.

From the barren places of the earth God sends a wild man. John the Baptist emerges—the voice of the nation’s remnant. As if the marginalized, abused presence of God in Israel was shaking with impatience John jumps out of the wilderness with a voice loud enough to be heard across the divide of four centuries. A voice so loud and direct that it could be heard through the span of history, from the ears of Moses to Elijah to the Jew under the Romans washing for repentance in the Jordan River. The spirit of the slain righteous shouts the culmination of their prophecies—the flesh blood reality of Emmanuel.

“He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, Born of the Virgin Mary, Suffered under Pontius Pilate was crucified dead and buried. On the third day he rose from the dead: he ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty…”

There he sits. We wait one season at a time as creation groans. We anticipate and suffer in silence. We light the candles and count out the years, knowing that when he comes, it will be exactly at the right time.

Phone Booths and Infinity

‘I shall live forever and ever!’ he cried grandly. ‘I shall find out thousands and thousands of things. I shall find out about people and creatures and everything that grows—and I shall never stop making Magic.’ –Colin from The Secret Garden 

When I walk down the street I keep my eyes open for phone booths. I find one, go inside and pick up the Dex yellow pages swinging on a silver line just above the floor that’s littered with dead leaves and old soda cans. I skim the pages of the old book— it was once used for its powers of alphabetical lists and orientation. Now it hangs like a jaundiced corpse, forgotten on a scaffold.

The yellow pages advertise barber shops and jewelry stores from the downtown district to urban sprawl. There are smiling, family-owned RV companies and car dealerships showing new cars, now wrinkled with the damp. I turn to the white pages and flip through the list of names—Kari Bush, Gary Caldwell, Steve Eliot, Terri Hadbrook, Rhonda Jerome…

I stop in the J section and notice that there are fifteen Clyde Jones’ listed in the area. I can never predict what any one Clyde Jones will be like, but I know that each of them have unique experiences of life. Every Clyde has a different perspective that changes with his address. Every Jones is as unique in design as the list of phone numbers.

An imagination can wake up and stretch in these musty pages. Donna Thomas on page 123 could have been the old woman I saw in Vons, sampling seedless grapes. Rick Tindol might be the squat man who cut me off in Sunday morning traffic—making me swear under my breath before pulling into the church parking lot. Derrik Uzaro might be an excessively tan man who lives on Belfast Avenue and refurbishes cherry red Mustang convertibles.

In the H section Jose Hernandez could have one wife, two kids and a three bedroom house on Fairhaven Street where his four terriers bark all night. The barking might drive Gerry Reesus on page 141 crazy. This might be why Gerry always dumps his lawn clippings on the Hernandez side of the fence.


The white pages are like reading the first chapters of Chronicles—the most skipped part of the Bible. Those verses are full of monotonous, outdated information—“so and so was the father of another guy, and that guy is the father of another name not remembered by anyone.” The Bible is not content with just the big names like Abraham and David; it dedicates chapters to names as irrelevant as the ones in the white pages.

List of names are like collection of blank slates, and they’re filled in by knowledge of a personal life. If I imagine the daily life of Clyde Jones, Jenny Smith, and Jose Hernandez  I find three separate sets of cares, expressions, likes, interests, loves, senses of humor, worries, habits, addictions, regrets, evils, and secrets. This is not to mention the various arrays of eye colors, facial expressions, hair styles, and liver conditions that paint the canvas of a named life. These names form human contact and relationships, moving and reacting like molecules in the city centers. Lists always give way to more lists—individuals turn into nations. The etceteras go to infinity.

White pages confine and shackle a name to a number and address. Insults and categories are also used to confine—they overshadow the immensity of a name. “Doug Ryan” could be the signature of an artist, architect, construction worker, lawyer, or janitor. He could sing like an angel, look ugly, score low on an IQ test, or have a “beaming” personality. He could be a heavy drinker or a religious zealot. When I call Doug Ryan an idiot, liberal, redneck, atheist, obese, pretentious, clown, gay, or drunk and leave satisfied with any of these as a wholesale description, then I demean the expansive space— I contain the endless possibility that a name accommodates when it’s first given.


It isn’t surprising that people assort and group infinite things. We get overwhelmed—it’s in our nature to classify. We catalogue the night sky like the white pages with constellations. We try to contain Nature in phylum, kingdoms, flora, and fauna. We generalize miles of vegetation and mountain ranges in paintings, photos, and video. The mysteries and statutes of God are assorted into our theologies, sermons, music, and conferences. It’s natural to try and comprehend inexhaustible things, but once they’re contained, minds become restless.

I continue thumbing through the Dex pages. This is a magical book in a glass treasure chest. In it I find a cast list of players in a drama full of love, hatred, beauty, murder, angst, exhales of sobs, blowing of birthday candles, memory, divorce, marriage, suicide, birth, accidents, romance, gunshots, lust, intrigue, cardiac arrest, miraculous recoveries, cancer, drugs, alienation, community, play, work, betrayal, and redemption.

I take a deep breath. I fill in the gaps with imagination. I read it like a biblical genealogy. If Ur of the Chaldeans had a phone book, Abram and Sarai would have been two blank names in the registry.

It shows God’s imagination is as strong as his sense of humor when he is willing to make two names in the white pages a mother and father of nations.


The Expulsive Power of a New Addiction: Smoking Might Save Your Life

This is for the downcast heads of people claiming to be happy. I want to speak to reflected faces in phone screens, enduring the tapping of their own fingers like Chinese water torture. This article is for those who have ever run into a telephone pole, tree, mail box, or pedestrian on foot or in their car. It is for the people who realize that their life, privileged with access to unlimited information, may be in danger of losing it. This message is for smart phone addicts.

Like leather pants or credit card debt, the life of a smart phone addict is easy to get into, but difficult to escape.  Research has shown that instead of seeking to “just stop” an addiction, it is better to replace that habit with new interests, therefore expelling the old one. With smart phone addiction being a new complication in our society, studies have been conducted to find an alternative to the lack of awareness and isolation that commits so many to therapy and the hospital. In searching for a replacement addiction, I have stumbled upon a familiar habit that might prove to be a viable alternative: cigarette smoking.

This might be a shocking suggestion since our society has had some reactions to cigarettes in the past thirty years. Lawmakers and activists have directed thousands of dollars into ad campaigns that raise awareness of its dangers. New laws have been successful in making environments like bars, casinos, and alleyways more health-conscious for citizens. We are indebted to the tobacco abolitionists. But, despite these prejudices and laws, I would like to offer a few comparative examples between smart phone and tobacco addiction that might change minds and possibly save lives.

  1. First I want to look at addiction communities. Smokers are evicted from our clean environments, but these exiled groups generate good will when a pack of cigarettes makes its way around a smoking circle. The life of a smoker is one where sharing (a concept we all learned in Sunday school) is encouraged when someone gives a smoke to a fellow addict who is “fresh out.”  Smokers often keep their habit because of the accepting groups who empathize in the weakness of nicotine addiction. The smart phone addict’s lifestyle is accepted everywhere, but not usually improved by tangible community. The concept of “sharing” something (in the carefully manicured spaces of Instagram and Facebook) is for improving the rhetoric of profiled lives—to filter out flaws. The  representation of a normal day passes through a dream catcher of digital enhancement.
  2. On the subject of smoking, safety is a topic of concern. Someone will argue that a smoker endangers lives by their habit. Please don’t misunderstand, I enjoy living in a society where safety and health are both top priorities, but the life of the smoker seems daring. It’s bold to defy the warnings of his Excellency the Surgeon General. On the other hand, smart phone addicts conform to the trends of the world and traverse the globe without any danger to their person. Riots in the Middle East can be witnessed anytime and anywhere without feeling one explosion.  A celebrities’ self destruction can be watched and gossiped over without the burden of empathy.
  3. The argument is often made that smokers smell and their habit does not produce good hygiene. It’s true that few things matter more than physical cleanliness, but smart phone addicts have a scent of their own caused from lack of social hygiene. This is sensed when a buzz or chime interrupts the flow of a good conversation and someone’s presence is ignored for texting or updating. It may be that some of us are not evolved enough to fit into this staccato rhythm of human interaction. Perhaps like a bad smell someone can learn to acclimate to it.
  4. A regular smoker will realize that there must be time in their day for one cigarette as needed. The smart phone addict is given to constant buzzing and beeping of an electronic device. There is a notification for email, twitter, hundreds of apps, social networks, and news feeds for this new habit that suffers from severe ADD, launching the addict into the poly amorous world of the temporary.
  5. The smoker’s head is vertical and sees the outside world. When the face looks down to light a cigarette it’s illuminated by the glow of real embers. Smart phone addicts continually have their heads down, with faces glowing by the light of all worlds, except the one they’re standing in.

Addiction can be deadly, no matter how you supply it. But if you’re facing the choice of feeding one in your life, then please think about the next generation in your decision. When a parent commits the unpardonable sin of smoking around their kids, the smell of burnt tobacco in crib blankets and nicotine stains will be evidence that they were present in their lives. But Lord save us from the days when the faces of healthy moms and dads are only remembered as colored rectangles, censoring full attention and affection.



Following Christ Into the Night: A Reflection on the Fear of the Unknown

I often feel very alone when I think of the uncertainty of my future. Sometimes at night a sense of desolation follows me and shakes me awake before my morning alarm. I wake up with fears of insignificance, rejection, and isolation. My mind and heart say maybe your fears are real. Maybe you are truly alone.

My response to these fears is often rationalization–convincing myself through logical analysis that I’m not alone. I have a caring family, good friends, and challenging mentors. I have a community that makes the feeling of isolation ludicrous. Furthermore my mentors always bring me back to Scripture. They quote I will never leave you or forsake you, and nothing can separate us from the love of God.

What happens then? The lack of evidence for reasons to be in despair only invites it back into my mind and heart.  I feel a sinking feeling in my stomach; like I’m walking a tightrope and all the assuring voices point me to the safety nets below. But nothing prepares me for the fall.


I wonder if that same feeling was in the mind of Jesus’ disciples. I suspect it wasn’t easy following the God man. There must have been confusion, uncertainty, and perhaps despair that trailed them on the roads of Galilee and Judea. They lived with a man who spoke like the Torah and the prophets all at once; who pronounced woes and wept over cities; who killed fig trees and resurrected dead men; who pacified zealots and cleansed the Temple with a whip.

They followed a man who was seen, even by member of his own family, as insane, and he was scandalous in his association with prostitutes and Samaritans. They followed him with bread-and miracle-seeking crowds who would disown him in a moment.  The disciples were cut off with Jesus in his offences. They were left alone with his person.

I think about Jesus prophesying his death. Of all the hard words of Jesus, this might have seemed the most ridiculous and possibly the cruelest. They had followed Christ, had been associated and threatened with him, and now he says he will die by the hands of their leaders. To their minds the fear of the unknown might have been the unspeakable thought of life without him. They would be mistaken and condemned men, submerged in the wake of another false messiah. I want to say I would have thought and acted differently from the disciples, but they faced a fear that I can’t comprehend. If all I had was Jesus and he told me he was going to die, I don’t know if I would have listened to him either.

I follow Christ into the unknown, and I strategize like the disciples did. I can be passionate like Peter and make big promises, prioritize the reign of the Messiah, and zealously cut off ears. I enjoy the grad attempts at control in the face of Christ’s unsettling prophecies.

I’ve often read Peter’s denial of Christ as an act of self preservation—saving his own skin. But what if Peter was afraid of the implications of Jesus’ death more than the loss of his own life? If he was trying to save himself, why would he follow Christ into the midst of the enemy? It seems like Peter was trailing Jesus to spring him from the situation—he was thinking like a revolutionary. But the plan of saving him meant Peter had to deny his relationship with his friend and God.

I follow Jesus into darkness. He could tell me exactly what I need do, who I’ll be, and where I’ll go, but he just says “Follow me.” So, like Peter after Gethsemane, I often follow him to upset his plans. I garnish his commands with my own schemes because I rely on evidence. I deny him to save him. I weep bitterly.

I want to see God, but he is invisible. I want to consolidate and organize his ways, but they are mysterious. Why doesn’t he remove my fears of insignificance and of hurting others? Why is the imminent future so unknown? Why am I haunted by loneliness when he says he’ll never leave me? Why does he allow Satan to sift me like wheat?

My faith is small and capricious. There are days when the Son of God is revealed and I, like Peter, fervently spew “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” There are other days when I would trade his Name for his Kingdom, and still other days I would trade it for peace of mind.


After the resurrection, Peter and the disciples are faced again with Christ on the verge of leaving them. He comes to Peter and asks “Simon, son of John do you love me?” and Peter says “Lord you know everything, you know I love you.” And Jesus answers “Feed my sheep.”

It’s here, in the ashes of Peter’s denial, in the fallout of faithless doubt, and in face of the unknown that Christ lays the foundation of his Church.

I am the son of Peter; inheriting all of the bad habits and fears of my father.

I’m the son of Peter; redeemed and empowered by the Christ who brings life from death and revelation from the unknown.




Black Dirt and Old Bones: Meditation on Ecclesiastes

Ecclesiastes 1:4 says “Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.”

After the deaths of two old men I understood that verse for the first time.

I grew up in Linn County, Oregon. When I was a kid my Dad was the pastor of a sixty person church, with farmers and truckers making up most of the assembly. I remember the scared hands and missing fingers when the communion cups tipped and the offering plate was passed. After the benediction I would sneak by circles of them telling stories about brushes with death while in the woods or jobsite, and I listened with reverence. Men like that don’t die.

In my hometown, if you were old enough to steer machinery or lift hay bales, you were expected to work harvest. I would spend my summers from the age of fourteen cutting, sacking grain, or pulling a plow. The dawn to dusk work six days a week was tedious, but interactions with ancient farmers at church and in the field usually broke the monotony.

One of these old farmers was Charlie Bearly. He could always be heard walking into Sunday service because his right boot heel was an inch taller than the other. Part of his foot got blown off in a hunting accident. When I summoned enough courage to ask him the story he only pointed at his boot and said “Remember young man, that’s happens when you hunt on a Sunday.” Charlie knew Linn County like an old friend. He worked plow horses in his youth and was known for herding mustangs over the Santiam pass. He was the last of the real cowboys.

He slowly succumbed to Alzheimer’s in his eighties. Dad would take me into the nursing home and read Louis Lamour paperbacks to him. I would sit there silently and watch as Charlie would sometimes laugh, sometimes cry—his eyes full of fading memories, happy moments and regrets. Charlie talked to Dad about his sin, saying he had done a lot of people wrong in his life. After he died there wasn’t an empty seat at his funeral.

I began working at Cross Roads farms in 2004, and there I became acquainted with Willard Keen. He had lived through the days of the Spanish Influenza and Great Depression, rarely leaving Linn County for ninety years. His vision was poor at best, so I’d be careful whenever he would start the forklift or fire his twelve gage. Willard had looked death in the face several times. One instance machine blades caught hold of his arm in the warehouse. It’s said he calmly wrapped his lacerations in rags, crawled over the cat walks, and down a twenty foot latter. After seeing his jagged scars I told my friends that the Grim Reaper had visited the Willard multiple times, but the old man always chased him off the property with his own scythe.

Willard was always trying to bring dead things to life. Every day he’d put a battery charger on a water truck that hadn’t run since the sixties. When that didn’t work he decided the spark plugs had dirty contacts and nearly destroyed my fingertips when he made me hold all eight of them up to a welding torch to “burn the dirt off.”  I would accidently break brooms and cheap tools only to find them put together disjointedly with masking tape. Grain bins in the warehouse were so old and worn that they would leak seed and Willard plugged the gaping holes constantly with burlap sacks. His thin, old frame never stopped moving. I was convinced he would outlive me.

Willard saw his last harvest at the age of ninety nine. They mentioned that in his twenties he had plowed with horses like Charlie and that his father had told him that the tractor craze was never going to last.

When I was seventeen I ran a John Deer with an eight bottom plow, working the same valley ground. I thought about plow horses eighty years before, lathered in sweat as they pulled with the young hands of Willard and Charlie straining to keep the main share straight from dawn to dusk.

I find my mind attempts to put flesh to fading memory—to revive dead things. Maybe Willard taught me that.  Sometimes like Charlie I lie in bed at night haunted by past happiness and regret. One day I will be as old as they were, and shortly after our bones will all be together in the dark soil. A sermon I heard many years ago in my little church comes to mind. A voice asks in the desert “Son of man, can these bones live?”

I think about the cycles of the earth: the new life in spring after winter; the green stalks of wheat before harvest; new dawns after new moons. I think about working in the same red twilights as Willard and Charlie, smelling the same fresh soil and watching the hours turn into days and days turn into years and I reply, “You alone know.”



No Trivial Suffering: Thoughts from 1 Peter

Prayer groups are tough for me. I sit and listen to people talk about hardships during their day, and I scratch the requests down like weekly reports that are oddly similar from the last week. Then we take our broken record requests and pray in a routine that makes the whole experience seem trivial. Suffering is usually brought up in the process and someone enlightens the group with stories of Christian dying in Iran, North Korea, and Syria and these examples and requests are usually taken more seriously than all the others combined. After prayer I don’t know what to do with these observations and I’m left with a feeling that their suffering is more significant than mine. I’m the mediocre follower of Christ on the sidelines with my water cooler prayers, while people are dying for what they believe and what for what I claim to believe.

I was reading in the book of 1 Peter where the Apostle writes to Christians who are suffering. The Believers in the first century are dispersed into many different cities of the Roman Empire that practice sensuous traditions and they are commanded to abstain. This holy restraint does not get them burned, killed, or hanged in the street, but it’s still not taken well. The affliction of these churches comes from being fully obedient to the empire and still being alienated by their neighbors and leaders. Peter meets those men and women who feel cut off from their culture and puts fresh blood into their body with an encouragement: “Though you do not see him, you love him (Christ) Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of you faith, the salvation of your souls.”

I found it refreshing to be reminded that Peter was not talking to believers who were experiencing the suffering of torture or the arena. Instead they were ordinary people who lived in the pressures of a world that snarled and scratched when they didn’t conform to its mold. They were people with day jobs: working class masons, farmers, builders, and craftsman. Some were slaves who worked in mines, cleaned households, ran stables, and repaired roads. They were scoffed at, perplexed over, and ostracized because they lived a life of obtaining the eternal joy through the salvation of a God man that they had never seen.

Peter tells them in their affliction to obey, look to the future, and to the past. He says “Concerning this salvation the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched carefully…it was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you…” and in chapter 2:4-5 he reminds them of their identity: “As you come to him a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus.” Peter does not see them as merely ordinary people because their day to day existence and hardship is brought into history; they were invited into God’s story and are fulfilling it.

The death stories of martyrs are repeated because their decision is clear cut and potent: Do you love Christ or your life? We glorify the end of a martyr’s lives because it’s visible and inspiring. But in comparison the believers of the dispersion are burdened by mundane affliction in obedience to Christ. If they believed that he was King of a world that was not yet in subjection to him then they were exiles and strangers; those who suffer.

If we live in obtaining the outcome of our faith, the salvation of our souls, then we live in the reality that the prophets prophesied for our benefit. This means that our daily suffering, no matter how small, is a fulfillment of the story of God. Our lives are pushed into the current of history past, the imitation of Christ in the present, and into the hope of glory. Our repeated, mundane requests have a place in the story of God’s salvation that started from Adam and is fulfilled in the second coming of Jesus. Perhaps in our prayer groups we need to ask to be reminded of a truth that the world, the devil, and our own heart undermine constantly: we are significant.

Heisenberg in the Mirror

I did it for myself. I liked it. It was good. It made me feel alive.
-Walter White from Breaking Bad

In the beginning of Paradise Lost John Milton describes Lucifer after his fall from Heaven:

O how fall’n! Who in happy realms of light clothed with transcendent brightness did outshine Myriads…now misery has joined in equal ruin: into what Pit thou seest from what height

In the epic poem Lucifer looks up to the glories of Heaven and is haunted by the distance of his fall. For Lucifer the torment of Hell is not the fiery pit, but the low position—the eternal incompletion. From now on he will go to any measure to restore his glory. With this resolve against Heaven and its King, Lucifer transforms into Satan; the lowest being, armed with terrifying power and voracious ambition.

Recently the AMC show Breaking Bad aired its final episode and ended with high acclaim from fans and critics. In 2008 the show had 1.4 million viewers, but five years and many Emmy awards later (including best show of 2013) its finale claimed 10.3 million laptops and television sets. Breaking Bad is the story of a suburban dweller named Walter White, a chemistry genius turned high school teacher and a man whose life is miserable anyway you look at it. His sixteen year old son has cerebral palsy; his teacher’s salary hardly pays the bills; his masculinity is dwarfed by his brother in law who is the DEA for Albuquerque; and the company he co founded out of grad school and sold for five thousand dollars now makes millions he’ll never have. Lung cancer is added to Walt’s list of complications and he is subsequently controlled by his fearful wife who finds out she’s pregnant after the diagnosis. Yes, Walter’s been dealt a terrible hand but he finds a niche that will allow him to practice chemistry and provide for his family before he dies: cook and sell methamphetamine.

As the story develops, the dopey but genius Walter keeps his cover by habitually lying to loved ones. Meth manufacturing inevitably doesn’t allow his hands or money to go blood free and the cash flow increases when he turns his mind to deception and manipulation. His cancer eventually goes into recession but his crime life turns into a vicious cycle of no return as Walt’s objective changes from providing for his family to controlling his destiny. In his rise from drug manufacturer to kingpin Walt gives himself the name Heisenberg; a name that grows into the biggest in meth production and eventually the most notorious name in the world of crime.

In sixty two episodes creator Vince Gillian successfully turned a cheesy dad into the image of Scarface, but the portrayal of Walt is much different than silver screen crime boss like Tony Montana or Vito Corleone. In a crime film the protagonist usually has a charismatic rise and fall and you feel the raw power of the character when the credits role. But in the five year rise and reign of Heisenberg, the belittled and somewhat pathetic Walter White is never forgotten to the character.

Often the best part of a crime film is being introduced to an entirely new world; a place distant from the viewer. For instance in the world of Goodfellas I can watch Joe Pesci murder someone with a knife and I’m inclined to believe I’m not capable of that kind of evil. But Breaking Bad starts in the suburbs–not the streets–and Walter White could be your next door neighbor. He doesn’t practice crime from cultural pressure, family heritage, or because it’s the only life he’s known, he does it because he has been slighted by a existence of namelessness, and cancer threatens to leave it that way. The awareness of his low position motivates him and he looks to excel by any means. This makes it uncomfortably easy to relate to Walter White. If we have been cheated, shamed publically, or forgotten by a loved one there’s always that feeling of desolation that tells us to do something rash or powerful to tip the scales in our favor. What if everything in life minimized and pained you and you were given less than a year to live? Wouldn’t you want to take control? The idea of taking owning of your own destiny is usually thought of as a good thing, but what if self fulfillment comes in the form of a pitiful suburban dad engineering a scheme that turns him into a monster? The results are not as sexy as most crime movies, but they are exponentially more terrifying.

The story of Heisenberg is as ancient as it is personal. After his fall from Heaven, Lucifer is trapped in a state of infinite smallness made from eternal loss. In Eden he temps Eve with the phrase, “you will be like God knowing good and evil.” This is the message: “you are not what you could be, think of what you could become.” We thought eating the fruit would make us closer to God, but disobedience made us haunted by our distance from him. We know from history and the evening news that people will do monstrous things in the search for some kind of fulfillment or satisfaction. Are we that different? Are we incapable of horrors?

Remember the pitiful Walter White. Remember the monstrosity of Heisenberg, because the story of Breaking Bad shares an ancient paradox with the Tower of Babel that is still relevant to our time and heart: the more bricks you lay to attain Heaven the farther you build from God.

Soundtracks and Hunger Strikes: Consumer Media and the Discipline of Self Awareness

“Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas, they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials.”
― Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

To say we live in a fast paced world is an understatement. The Pony Express shut down only 150 years ago and the technology that erases time and space in communication and media is breathtaking. The tapping telegraph wire has given way to instant messaging and social networks crammed with news about celebrities, i phones, hit TV shows, and blockbusters making up the ubiquitous small talk of Diaspora communities from Nairobi to New Hampshire. The world has become a marketplace and we, the inhabitants, have all become potential buyers. The large globe is now small enough to be accessed in a moment and consumed for a lifetime. Because of these rapid changes I’ve been given the unflattering title of “consumer” whether I like it or not and I’ve often wondered how I function in this cause and effect world of consumption. How self aware am I of who I am and what I view or listen to? Do I passively change with the world?

It always seemed naïve to say that chronic consumption of media doesn’t have repercussions like habitual eating, drinking, or smoking. It reacts in other areas besides the core organs but I have seen grown men punch each other in the face after watching Green Street Hooligans, and I’ve witnessed shy people talk to random strangers because the song “Small Town Girl” by Journey makes them feel ‘spontaneous’ and ‘romantic.’ If these emotions come from one movie or one song then how do they affect us in a world of constant access to movies and music?

Movies and TV shows, in some sense, are combinations of sounds and images tailor made to stir up a feeling or state of mind. For instance if we want to feel academic we might watch Dead Poets Society. That movie inspires academic and bohemian feelings—reading Thoreau in the woods or standing on desks while ripping pages out of textbook. These are potent images that make up one of many stories; boxed emotions and feelings at our disposal. When I sit in front of the red Netflix screen it’s a game of ‘pick a story’ as I scan movies like the 89-cent menu at Taco Bell. For better or worse our story telling has become as cheap and easy as a crunch wrap. And if it doesn’t satisfy us we turn to something else—something new.

The age of the iPod has revolutionized the world of music. Henry Ford crowded Times Square with Model Ts and Steve Jobs covered the world with white headphones. People listen to music while they run, work, and drive and look for particular songs to fit their context, giving us the ability to make soundtracks for our lives. We relate to soundtracks and characters in stories because both have been inspired by real life, but the age of entertainment technology has made the made the influence a two way road. Film and soundtracks invite our worldviews to be compartmentalized into movie-like scenes. Since the advent of eighties workout montages we can tend to think of long stretches of time cut it into images and sped up to music. Being someone who watches a lot of movies I often find my first reaction is to feeling cheated when real life is uninterested in fulfilling my expectations quickly. I have to remind myself that I don’t walk on a movie reel like a treadmill, I walk the earth and it turns much slower.

I also have to be careful to differentiate between the image and truth. I might be inspired when I watch a movie like Ghandi to fight for freedom through extreme actions (like a hunger strike protest), but in the film’s rhetoric I can get lost in presenting the show of a hunger strike instead of the conviction and deliberation it takes to lead one. My inspiration from a good character is actually good and might lead me to action, but to copy their style and creed can be as empty as buying a certain brand of t-shirt—it benefits my image and deprives my character.

We discredit and underestimate our media’s potential for good or bad if we consume passively. In the fast world of youth worship the consumer feels old and slow. The preacher in Ecclesiastes says “All things are wearisome; man is not able to tell it. The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor is the ear filled with hearing.” Consumers can easily be caught in a never ending cycle of cause and effect—chasing after the wind. Dry leaves and tumbleweeds are the fastest movers in the world of reaction, but both are dead.

It’s a lot easier in some respects to act like a dead man, but I have this chronic urge to want to be alive. When I think of myself as a food consumer I think of filling my stomach, but when I think of a food connoisseur I don’t often picture someone in the drive through line or palming their mouths with theatre popcorn—not to say that they never do, it’s just hard to picture. A connoisseur loves the aesthetic power of food just as a nutritionist is aware of its potential for harm or good. Both will eat deliberately because of knowledge and respect acquired for something as trifling as salad or steak, and if tri tip and cucumbers can inspire disciplined appreciation, then how much more songs and stories? This kind of awareness requires focus and deliberation. If our overload of film and music access turns to searching out the infinite design of God in one good story or track then we might find consuming the world doesn’t make as much sense as being fascinated by it.