Dear God

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted anything. To the handful of people who have noticed, I apologize. It’s not that I haven’t been thinking about life and observing culture through the perspective of my faith, I just haven’t been making time to share my observations. Let’s not pretend this is the rebirth of anewdoxology.com, but if new content starts finding it’s way to this URL more often I hope a few people will see it as a good thing.

Like anyone else, my musical preferences have been changing, evolving, even maturing throughout my life. The first CD I owned was Hi-Five, but back then I pretty much listened to whatever was on Casey’s Top 40. I also had a Shaq CD (as in Shaquille O’Neal, the now really old basketball player). I’m not one to talk about liking “good” music, at least not when I was younger. In high school I listened to a lot of hip hop (2Pac, Notorious B.I.G. and Outkast being some of my favorites). I played basketball into my first couple years of college, so the rap thing never quite left my system, but I also began listening to a lot more acoustic and folk rock in college.

I realize that many young people’s musical tastes are influenced by their college experience (parties, friends, whatever the people down the hall decided to play LOUD), but for me I think it also had a lot to do with the specific college I attended. The Dave Matthews Band had been to Luther College twice in four years before I arrived in the fall of 1999 (including a live album that was released during my senior year of high school). During my four years as a student at Luther we hosted concerts by Live, Guster, G. Love, Jurassic 5, Blues Traveler and a couple singer-songwriters who at the time I had hardly even heard of; named Ben Harper and Jack Johnson.

College is also the time in my life when I discovered Christian music (and it’s sibling genre “praise and worship” music). Being a person of faith who also likes a lot of mainstream music, I’ve always had a hard time finding music that connected with me on multiple, meaningful levels. During my early music-listening years I probably would have responded to questions about my favorite music by saying “I like what I like, because I like it.” Bring up the fact that a lot of the lyrics in rap music are vulgar, violent and speak poorly of females, I’d tell you “I don’t really listen to the words, I just like the beat.” Try telling me that the content of an acoustic or pop rock song is all air (fluffy and nice, but without any real substance) and I’d probably have said “but it makes me feel happy,” or “it’s good background music when I’m studying.” Ask me how I can listen to cheesy love songs about Jesus and I’d struggle to come up with a response but eventually say it’s “encouraging” even though it’s also corny and unrealistic. (Thankfully, music made my Christians has come a long way in the last ten years and we now have artists like David Crowder, Bethany Dillon, Shane & Shane and the Robbie Seay Band making music that speaks of God and faith while maintaining some sense of human reality and musical quality.)

The music I most enjoy today falls somewhere between genres or categories (by the way, “Christian music” is no more a genre than “80s music” is). I love music that’s difficult to describe, but can be felt (especially at concerts or through really good headphones). Really great music is a form of art, and when the lines between genre, style and even religion are blurred you can experience something that is truly real and beautiful. I love hearing Chris Tomlin and Phil Wickham sing specifically about God’s healing love and the hope they find in Jesus, but after a while I want to hear the vague words of Mat Kearney when he sings to a struggling young girl that “he hung in love just to draw you near” or even Kanye West when he honestly raps “I wanna talk to God but I’m afraid cause we ain’t spoke in so long.” (For an earlier example of this, listen to Jeff Buckley’s version of the Leonard Cohen song “Hallelujah.”)

Music doesn’t need to include the name Jesus, or any of the other Christianese words to express faith and a longing (or searching) for God. I still remember the first time I heard Matt Wertz sing about life, love and faith in a style that spoke to the core of my music-loving soul, and it wasn’t long after that I discovered his buddy Dave Barnes and felt a similar response. More recently, I’ve discovered Brooke Fraser, Needtobreathe and MuteMath. They all make good music that is honest about life but also recognizes the role of God and the influence of faith. You can add your own favorites to this list, but these are just a few examples. I suppose two obvious bands that haven’t been mentioned yet are U2 and Lifehouse, whose music is laced with God and faith, whose music has inspired worldwide organizations, been used in worship, and even a youtube famed dramatic skit and other/lesser-viewed projects.

There are many artists or bands whose music doesn’t include consistent theological themes or undertones, yet in select songs (or albums) it’s definitely present. Kanye’s “Jesus Walks” is an example of this, as is Coldplay’s Viva La Vida album (check it, yo!). But in the end, the reason I started writing any of this on a Thursday afternoon while sitting in my office is because I ran into a student on campus here at the seminary this morning and he asked if I was going to the Monsters of Folk concert in Minneapolis tomorrow. I mentioned that I hadn’t really listened to their album much, but that I’d check it out soon. “Soon” became reality when not even five minutes later I was back at my desk facing MOF’s myspace page, listening to the first track from their album, “Dear God (sincerely M.O.F.).” Wow! Talk about music in the grey area between sacred and secular, the church and the world, theology and life…this is it. Click play on the video below to listen to the song. I’ll post the lyrics below in case you want to follow along.

Dear God (sincerely M.O.F.)
by Monsters of Folk

Dear god, I’m trying hard to reach you
Dear god, I see your face in all I do
Sometimes it’s so hard to believe in
Good god I know you have your reasons

Dear god, I see you move the mountains
Dear god, I see you moving trees
Sometimes it’s nothing to believe in
Sometimes it’s everything I see

Well I’ve been thinking about,
And I’ve been breaking it down without an answer
I know I’m thinking aloud but if your love’s
Still around why do we suffer?
Why do we suffer?

Dear god, I wish that I could touch you
How strange sometimes I feel I almost do
And then I’m back behind the glass again
Oh god what keeps you out it keeps me in

Well I’ve been thinking about,
And I’ve been breaking it down without an answer
I know I’m thinking aloud but if your love’s
Still around why do we suffer?
Why do we suffer?

The Soloist

My dad reads, a lot. When he was in Tanzania for three months last year he read something like 12 or 13 books. Put simply: the dude likes to read. One of the great things about knowing someone who reads this much is that they often tell you about the books they’ve recently read, and in the event that any of the books sound interesting, you can usually borrow them. Several months ago my dad told me about a book he had just read about a newspaper columnist in L.A. who met a homeless man who was a former Juliard music student, and thanks to their friendship and the power of the press (the man wrote about his new friend in the Los Angeles Times) the homeless man slowly got back on his feet…kinda — it’s a true story, so it doesn’t have a perfect/happy Hollywood ending (even though the events transpired in the shadows of the Hollywood hills).

The book is The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music, and it’s on sale at Amazon right now for only $3.99. If title or the storyline sound familiar, that’s because it was recently made into a movie (starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey, Jr.) and it comes out this Friday. Here’s the trailer:

The real stars of the story – Nathaniel Ayers (mentally ill musician who has lived on the street of L.A. for years) and Steve Lopez (columnist for the L.A. Times whose articles about Nathaniel — and the response they received — inspired him to write the book) – were on 60 Minutes a few weeks ago.

OLD school hip-hop

When I started a website exploring the intersections between faith and pop-culture I did not have this in mind, yet while visiting the COLLIDE Magazine blog this morning I found this video and just knew it had to be shared. I mean, isn’t a church choir singing rap songs pretty much the epicenter of the intersection between faith and pop-culture?

I don’t want to ruin any of the surprising humor of the video, but if you’d like to know titles and artists of the choir’s selections, read the rest of this entry.

Continue reading

Happy Birthday!

I doubt anyone is aware of this (I didn’t even realize it until today), but on November 4, 2008, anewdoxology.com turned one-year-old! Since there was no birthday party (and I’m sure most of you forgot to get a gift), this is your opportunity to share your belated thoughts on year number one and perhaps even offer some well wishes for health (and existence!) in the years to come. To sign the online birthday card, just leave a comment. (Even if you’ve never left a comment on a blog before, just give it a try. I promise it’s even easier than it looks…plus it will mean so much to this young and still somewhat self-conscious blog. Maybe you could even comment on how mature anewdoxology.com is for its age, or something complimentary like that.)

bday-cake-1st

As I wrote in the very first post on this site just over a year ago, the word doxology means “words to glorify,” and through the thoughts, links, videos and images shared here, I am seeking to find new words to glorify God. Words that are relevant in today’s world…for today’s people.

God is still active in the world, and today more than ever I believe that the music, movies, reality tv shows, books, magazines, art and other expressions of popular culture are windows into the lives (and faith) of the younger generations. People like me, and perhaps people like you as well. This is why I started anewdoxology: I wanted a place to share some of my thoughts on how I saw God’s activity intersecting with my life. Not in forced ways that were restricted to moments when I was in a church or reading the Bible, but even when I was doing regular/everyday/normal stuff like watching tv or listening to music. Because if we really believe that God is active in the world, then we must acknowledge that God is somehow (mysteriously?) present in many – if not all – of the various expressions of art, life and faith in our culture (even, or perhaps especially, those considered “secular”).

I appreciate all the support and encouragement everyone has shared toward what I’ve been doing the last year. It’s been cool to witness all the random and unexpected ways God has used these “reflections of faith in an MTV world” to connect people with the love, grace and hope of God as revealed in Jesus (something that’s even more transforming than a really great movie and more life-changing than a soldout concert).

If it’s not too much to ask, I’m hoping you, the readers of anewdoxology.com, might be willing to answer a few quick questions about how you discovered this little corner of the world wide web and how you think things are going so far.

Thanks again for making this a great first year!

Clumsily following Christ,

Andy

P.S. If you’d like to give the perfect gift, I’d appreciate nothing more than if you told someone about anewdoxology.com!

Religulous in Next-Wave

My pre-review of Bill Maher’s documentary Religulous was published in this month’s issue of Next-Wave Church & Culture E-zine. Next-Wave is a cool publication I discovered when one of my former seminary professors wrote an article on the theology of the TV show Lost for their June issue, and my theological review of the new Coldplay album was published in the August issue. The editor’s at Next-Wave titled my most recent article “I Might Go See Religulous” and ran it next to another article about the same film, that one titled “I Did Go See Religulous.” I really like the juxtaposition between the two articles; one written by a person (me) thinking about seeing the film, the other by someone who has just seen it. And perhaps the coolest part is who that other person is… Dan Kimball (pastor, speaker, and author of The Emerging Church, Emerging Worship, and most recently, They Like Jesus but Not the Church).

Here are links if you want to check them out,

If you like the articles, please leave a comment (or vote for them) on the Next-Wave website.

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By the way, I saw Religulous last week and although it was quite predictable in format and content (especially the people Maher chose to interview), I thought it offered a humorous look at an otherwise serious topic (especially because of the people Maher chose to interview). I actually really enjoyed it, with the exception of the last 5 minutes when Maher shares his belief that “all religions must die” and religious leaders are basically brainwashing people. As someone who is part of a religion and is somewhat of a “religous leader,” I took offense to those comments. Regardless of how much I agreed/disagreed with, I would definitely recommend that people of all faiths (especially pastors and ministry leaders!) see this film, because although it offers a rather harsh critique of the current state of our religion, churches and fellow believers…it is often right on! Which should scare us but also inspire us…to honestly and humbly think about what we believe and how we express those beliefs to others (both in organized and unorganized settings). But that’s just my two cents. You should see it for yourself and then share your thoughts if you’d like.

religulous

There’s a new documentary that came out in theaters recently (Oct. 3) called Religulous (“religion” + “ridiculous”). Bill Maher stars as the film’s “host,” guiding viewers on an exploration of organized religion in our world today – offering plenty of his opinions along the way – and it was directed by Larry Charles, who also directed Borat … so you probably already know enough to determine whether this documentary will be wildly, or simply mildly offensive to you.

Apparently aware of the film’s potent potential for offense, the front page of the official website offers visitors two options; the typical “enter site” link (which happens to be on the left side of the page) and the unusual “enter kosher site” link (which just happens to be on the right). I’m not Jewish, so I entered the regular site and watched the trailer. For what it’s worth, the website does boast that it’s “one of the funniest and most offensive documentaries ever made.” At least they’re honest, right?

Let me be clear on a few things: I’m serious about my faith and I consider myself part of a religion. Maybe it’s because I try not to take myself too seriously, but this film looks really funny. If I end up seeing it, I’m guessing I will find myself nodding in agreement with a lot of the jokes being made on religions and religious people…even the ones about Christianity (and it’s not all a spoof on Christianity by the way, Maher takes shots at other religions as well).

Going beyond a just an awareness of his irreverance, Maher seems to take pride in his atheistic/anti-religion stance. While I can’t speak for other religions or Christianity as a whole, if Maher’s goal was simply to expose that uncertainty must be involved for any system of faith or belief to work (or make sense), then I would agree completely with him, but I haven’t seen the movie yet to know if that’s one of the points that he is trying to make. (I have seen this clip of Maher on Larry King talking about religion, this new movie, and even Rick Warren.)

Although Religulous probably fits best in the documentary genre of “look how stupid those [fill in the blank] people are,” from what I have seen and read so far it seems much more Bowling for Columbine and much less Jesus Camp. I mean, sure, Maher pokes fun at religious fanatics (like the guy who plays Jesus at the “Holy Land” theme park in Florida) and if the movie poster is any indication, I’m guesing they mock a few examples of light-hearted religious ridiculousness (like the stories in the news a few years ago about a man who burnt a fish stick and thought it looked like Jesus or the woman who reportedly sold a grilled-cheese sandwich on eBay that bore the image of the Virgin Mary…final bid: $28,000), but clearly, the film is about much more than just making fun of sacred sandwiches and Christian theme parks (since religious folks wouldn’t be offended by a movie that only makes fun of fanatics and others who have found ways to pimp religion to make a few dollars).

If nothing else, Religulous offers a slap in the face to religious leaders and people of faith – whatever flavor of belief they prefer. The film provides humor as a way of helping people realize that it might be a good idea to be capable of responding to basic questions about their faith and, although it’s not necessarily a requirement to “validate” their faith (depending on the religion), we should all possess enough understanding to express what we believe in a way that doesn’t make us sound like the butt of a joke. I’m definitely not saying people need to act like they have it all figured out – since I don’t believe that is possible – but at least take some time to think things through, being honest with yourself and others about what you think and believe so that when/if the questions are too big or your understanding is too limited, you have the marbles to say “I don’t know.” Because let’s be honest, that’s where faith comes in…not as an excuse for not knowing things, but as a way of admitting the limits of our understanding and the vasness of God’s. It also forces us to put trust and faith in a God who reveals himself to us in ways that are often mysterious at best, since the reality of life and faith seems to be that sometimes, we’re simply left wondering in awe at the mystery of God, but even this confusion is an expression of faith and worship. Having doubts is okay. Not having all the answers doesn’t mean we don’t believe, or even that we believe less. Doubts and confusion simply remind us of our need for faith…our need for God.

So what is the point of Religulous? Why did Bill Maher decide to point out that religious people don’t have things figured out any more than other people? I’m not sure yet, but I think he’s probably right in a lot of ways, he just doesn’t happen to be a person who can get over the fact that believing doesn’t always mean knowing (and he’s a guy who likes to know stuff).

Here’s the trailer:

Would you pay money to watch this movie?

cheapo memories

“I like money.”

This obvious statement is uttered by one of the many stupid characters in last year’s wildly unsuccessful movie Idiocracy. While saying “I like money” is obviously obvious – everyone likes money – I think that’s why it’s funny. Idiocracy got terrible reviews (like, almost straight-to-DVD bad), so there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of it, but I actually thought it was pretty good; so allow me to give a quick summary that will put the quote about money in context. Luke Wilson stars as an Army librarian who is considered to be the most average person in the entire military, and because of this distinction he is selected to participate in a top-secret experiment (he is frozen for a year). Through a series of unforseen events, he remains frozen for a bit longer (500 years) and when he finally thaws out (in the year 2505) he discovers that humans have become exponentially dumber and he is now the smartest person in the world. When he is forced to interact with the idiots who now make up the world’s population, he resorts to the most basic of all human motivators, bribery. He offers a man named Frito (yes, like the corn chips) several billions of dollars to help him (remember that with inflation this isn’t much money). It’s at this point that Frito utters the obvious response, “I like money.”

To me, this is funny, but maybe you have to see the movie to see the humor (view the trailer here). Regardless of whether or not you like stupid comedies, I’m quite sure you like money. If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent much of our life trying to find ways to make, save or somehow obtain enough money for an endless list of reasons.

I have been a full-time grad student for the last two years, and I’ve been only “partially-employed” during this time. As you might expect, taking loans and stealing money from my savings to pay for tuition, rent, gas, food and insurance kind of forces a person to develop an attitude about money that is much different than at other “fully-employed” stages of life. I have been living a very simple/no-frills lifestyle for the last two years. I graduated last spring and am now closing in on full-time employment (with benefits, hopefully), so I’m already getting excited about a life with a little extra coin to throw around, you know, stimulate the economy a little bit. I’ve been carefully determining how to put money aside for my next big purchase; a new computer (I’m waiting for the new macbooks to be released, which is rumored to be Oct. 14).

I saved some of the money I made teaching at the seminary this summer, I’ll hide the money I get for coaching at basketball tryouts recently, and since I already paid the deposit for my new apartment I’m going to save the money I get back from the deposit at my old apartment. I’m even considering going back to my old “job” of donating plasma twice a week (don’t laugh, it pays well and it’s really easy). Making big purchases is never an easy decision, especially when you’re just barely making enough to pay your monthly expenses, but having a good and trustworthy computer is about as important a possession as there is in my daily life (second probably only to my car). I would probably consider my computer a necessity (when I’m away from my computer, or somewhere without wireless, I feel like something is missing. I hope I’m not the only one who feels this way about their computers) – so of all the things I could buy that cost more than a pair of jeans, I can justify buying a new computer more than anything else. I actually think the reason Apple has become so popular and successful is because they help create/inspire feelings of dependence and euphoria within their customers, about their products. So you could actually argue that in buying a mac I’m actually joining a cult (for more on this argument, read Douglas Atkin’s book The Culting of Brands).

Sorry for all the tangents, I promise there’s a point to this, stick with me if you can.

I was hanging out with my sister at her house yesterday (by the way, her health is continuing to improve…thanks for all the comments and emails in response to what I shared last week). While at her house, I decided to look through some of the boxes of my stuff that have been stored in her basement ever since I lived there a few years ago. While looking for something else, I found a large collection of my old CDs, some of them from when I had my first CD player as a little guy in 6th grade. I was overwhelmed with memories looking through albums by some of my favorite artists from my earlier years. I found albums by Boyz II Men, Blind Melon and even Coolio. It was a lot of fun thinking back on the memories represented by all this music. I mean seriously, who doesn’t smile thinking about middle school and the ackward slow dances while “On Bended Knee” was playing, or watching that little girl running around dressed like a bumble bee in the video for “No Rain”, and how awesome was “Fantastic Voyage”?

For a while now I’ve been thinking about going through my old CDs and taking them to a store that buys used discs, if for no other reason, just to see how much I could get for them. Yesterday that idea came to life. I am usually a packrat. Nearly everything I’ve ever touched has sentimental meaning, which makes moving every year a real treat, but somehow yesterday I overcame my nostalgic nature and sorted through hundreds of CDs that included the songs that made up the soundtrack of my life as a teenager. It was quite an accomplishment for me, all things considered, and as I drove to the Cheapo Records near my sister’s house with a box full of CDs in the back seat of my car, my heart was filled with memories and in the back of my mind were plenty of reasons why I shouldn’t get rid of the discs that had brought all those memories back. You see, for me, getting rid of the source of a memory feels like losing the memory all together. I know this isn’t how it is in reality, but that’s still how it feels to me. I overcame these previews of regret by reminding myself that I haven’t listened to any of those CDs for years and, until that morning, hadn’t even known where they were stored. Plus I was going to get a fair amount of money for them that would go toward my new computer, so I drove on and dropped off the box, being told that it would take about 30 minutes to determine how much they could give me for my precious collection of classics.

During the time between dropping off the CDs and waiting to go back to hear the verdict, I tried to determine a dollar amount that would be enough to make me feel okay about selling them – as if you can place a value on memories – but my online research on how much to expect to get paid for used CDs was fairly inconclusive (every site said the same thing, “the price we pay is dependent on condition and demand”). I knew I probably paid between ten and fifteen bucks for each of the 125 CDs I brought in, they were all still in good condition and since I’m the one who bought them in the first place, I thought they were all pretty good, so I figured there should be other people who would pay for them. I drove back to Cheapo a few hours later to collect a small fortune for recycling my music. The guy working there fit the stereotype of a used record store employee to the T, complete with thick-black plastic frame glasses, floppy hair, old jeans and a ratty t-shirt that definitely could have been purchased at a local thrift store. I couldn’t see his shoes because he was standing behind a counter the whole time, but I’d bet he was wearing an old pair of New Balance. (Side note: I guarantee this guy reads Chuck Klosterman, or at least claims he does, and my internal jury is still out on whether he enjoys or is offended by Stuff White People Like.) Yep, this hipster found the perfect job to fit his lifestyle and personality, and now he was guy who would define the value of a large portion of my music collection. When I walked back into the store I saw my CDs on the counter in three stacks of nearly equal height. The previously described hipster recognized me as the guy who had brought in a box of old hip-hop and R&B CDs (I’m guessing he wasn’t impressed, although I guarantee that dude listened to Coolio back in the day), and without saying much, he unpeeled a post-it note from atop one of the stacks and explained that my discs fit into three different categories; some value, little value and nearly no value. He could give me $78 for the CDs in one of the stacks, $0.25 each for the CDs in another stack, and only $0.10 for each in the final stack. All together, my collection of musical memories was only worth $88.  <insert curse words here>  I froze for a minute as he let me think about what I wanted to do. It’s not that I thought I would get rich from this exchange, but the reality that my collection of Janet Jackson CDs for instance, were worth less than a dollar (combined) was a lot to take in all at once. So as it went, deflated, I walked back out to my car with an empty box in my hand and 88 bucks in my pocket.

Things had not played out as I had hoped, but as I’ve been reminded time and time again lately, such is life. I don’t mean to be cynical or cliche, but honestly, this is just how life is sometimes. I never thought I’d quit working in my mid-20s to pursue a master’s degree in theology, spending over half my savings in the process and taking on more school loans. My sister and her husband never thought they’d wait so long to get pregnant, and when they did finally conceive they never imagined it would result in so much pain and confusion (and no child). As a little boy, the guy working at Cheapo probably didn’t think he’d be stocking racks and making stacks of used CDs when he grew up, and Luke Wilson and the other people involved in Idiocracy could have never predicted it would do as poorly as it did, but they are still moving forward and trying to put it behind them. As one of the most influential poets of my generation (2Pac) shares on one of the CDs I no longer own, “life goes on.”

Life goes on even though our lives may not always result in memories that end up being worth as much as we had hoped or imagined, but there is still hope that things will one day get better. As a person of faith, I put my hope in Christ as the sign that God will fulfill the promise found in Revelation 21:5, “behold I make all things new.” I like new stuff, but it only takes one bad experience to realize that even new things can disappoint and fail to meet our expectations, but the “new” that God promises to bring will be better than anything we’ve ever imagined (even better than HDTV and new macbooks). This new creation will be the fulfillment of God’s ultimate will for the world, transforming things to be how they were always intended; perfect. In the meanwhile, Matthew 6:19-20 reminds us not to care so much about stuff.

“Do not store up for yourself treasures on earth, where moth and rust will destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust will not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.”