Viva La Vida | a theological review of Coldplay’s new album

Note (7/22): This is the second draft of an article I posted last week. Many thanks to my editor Heather for all her help.

Growing up in the church I developed a strong faith, but I also grew up watching MTV and caring a lot about popular culture. Today, as a mid/late 20-something, I still have a fascination with popular culture (music, movies, sports, even celebrity gossip), but I also feel a desire to understand and share my faith. Bringing these interests together, I graduated from seminary this past spring with a master’s degree in Theology & Pop-Culture (a degree that didn’t exist until I created it). As a “pop-culture theologian,” I see the world through a unique perspective – seeking to interpret what is happening in today’s culture and translate it in a way that reflects God’s activity in our world. It is through this perspective that I would like to guide you on a search for the sacred in the (perceived) secular, by reviewing Coldplay’s new album theologically.

I became a Coldplay fan while on a trip to New Zealand in January, 2001. It was my junior year of college, and one of the guys I was traveling with wanted to listen to an album called Parachutes (their first album) on our group’s bus. We listened to it over and over while exploring NZ’s south island and it provided an incredible soundtrack to an amazing trip. I loved the music because it was both depressing and hopeful at the same time, much like the tension of real life. I downloaded Parachutes when I got back to campus, and seven years later I’m still listening to Coldplay’s music and they’ve become one of my favorite bands.

Along with millions of other Coldplay fans around the world, I spent the past year awaiting the release of what coldplay.com promised would be “the album people will remember them by.” That is certainly a bold statement to make about an album that was already highly-anticipated; especially since their last album, 2005’s X&Y, received some rather harsh reviews, but since Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends came out last month I have been listening to it on repeat. Although it took me a few weeks to move beyond simply listening to the melodies and feelings of the album, I have now begun hearing the songs on a much deeper level (i.e., the lyrics and meaning of the music) and to my excited surprise, I have come to realize that much the album focuses on issues of faith and theology.

An unexamined album is not worth listening to.

Nearly every song on Viva La Vida contains theological undertones and themes. Taking a quick tour through the track list (although not necessarily in the order they appear on the album), ‘Yes’ seems to be about personal faith and possibly even decision theology; ‘Cemeteries of London,’ ‘Death and All His Friends’ and ‘Violet Hill’ address death and the inevitability of dying; ‘Lost!’ explores the search for meaning and identity; and ‘Viva La Vida,’ ‘42′ and ‘The Escapist’ (the “hidden” song at the end of the album) focus on heaven/hell and the thought or hope of life after death.

While songs like ‘Reign of Love’ lead listeners to more theological questions than answers, I happen to believe that it is in the questions and the search for understanding that faith finds its home. The Greek philosopher Socrates once said “an unexamined life is not worth living,” and many theologians have borrowed from his quote to say “an unexamined faith is not worth believing.” I agree with both statements, and as a theologically-minded music fan, I would like to add another Socratic saying into the mix, “an unexamined album is not worth listening to.” Coldplay’s new album might not be a contemporary expression of Socratic philosophy or theology, but it’s definitely more than just another rock album.

Long live life!

“Viva La Vida” is a Spanish expression, and depending on who you talk to it means “long live life” or “live the life.” (“Viva La Vida” is also the name of a painting by Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, which is where Coldplay got the name of the song/album, although that’s not the art that serves as the album’s cover.)

All four members of Coldplay (Chris Martin, Jonny Buckland, Guy Berryman and Will Champion) wrote the lyrics and music of Viva La Vida together – at least they all share the credit in the album’s liner notes – and listening to this album as a whole you get the sense that they are all very interested, if not obsessed with thoughts of death and dying, as well as heaven and hell. Viva La Vida is a deeply theological album, and there are moments when Martin, the voice of Coldplay’s music, sounds more like a prophet or priest than a rock star or pop-culture icon.

At times, Viva La Vida hints indirectly at themes that seem somewhat theological – for instance, ‘Strawberry Swing’ is a happy song that creates the mood and images of what a “perfect day” in heaven might be like (either that or it’s about a marching band of Oompa Loompas) – but I would like to focus the rest of this article on a few songs that dive directly into theological waters.

In the album’s co-title track ‘Viva La Vida’ (the song featured in the colorful iTunes commercial), Martin sings “For some reason I can’t explain, I know Saint Peter will call my name.” To be completely honest, the first couple of dozen times I listened to this song I thought Martin was singing “I know Saint Peter WON’T call my name,” as if he thought Peter wasn’t going to be let him through the pearly gates. Even listening to the song really closely several times through didn’t help me determine if Peter “will” or “won’t” call his name. I think Martin’s British accent made it difficult for my American ears to decipher what he was saying, but I was also interpreting and making assumptions based on other songs on the album (see my thoughts on the song ‘42′ below). It wasn’t until I looked up the lyrics online (and checked at least four different websites to make sure they were correct) that I realized Martin was indeed singing, with what sounds like a sense of confused confidence, that he thinks Saint Peter WILL call his name and let him into heaven. This was quite a relief to me, since it hadn’t felt right driving around singing along with a song that was about not making it into heaven.

It’s a cool song musically; I just have no idea what it’s about.

The fourth track on the album is ‘42.’ The musical structure of ‘42′ will be familiar to Coldplay fans, as it starts out slow and peaceful – even somewhat boring (reminiscent of ‘Fix You’) – only to build and transform into an almost entirely different/driving rock song by the 1 minute and 30 second mark. In the second half of the song, after an extended instrumental interlude, the somewhat bizarre lyrics “You thought you might be a ghost” and “You didn’t get to heaven but you made it close” are repeated several times until the song ends with the same disturbing words it started with, “Those who are dead, are not dead, they’re just living in my head.”

I wish I knew who Martin was singing to in ‘42,’ or how he knows that the recipient of the song’s message didn’t get into heaven. As for what it means to “almost” make it to heaven? I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s a variation of the Catholic understanding of some sort of in-between place – not heaven, not hell (“purgatory”) – almost like a heavenly waiting room, where people hang out until learn whether or not they will get into heaven. It certainly seems to be based on an understanding of eternal life/salvation that requires good works. In some ways, it reminds me of NFL players, coaches and fans anxiously waiting to see if the call on the field will stand or be overturned after the referee reviews the play in question; since it’s all about performance and based on what happened (who did what, when and why). I personally have issues with understandings of faith that require anything, especially as it relates to salvation, but I will save those words for a different time and place.

Although there are only 10 tracks on Viva La Vida, three of them are two-for-ones (tracks that include two separate songs). Only one track is officially/appropriately labeled as a twofer (‘Lovers in Japan / Reign of Love’), but you can find titles for the other bonus songs online. (The song after ‘Yes’ is ‘Chinese Sleep Chant’ and the song after ‘Death and All His Friends’ is ‘The Escapist’.)

Although ‘Lovers in Japan’ is a nice tune that seems to be a fairly typical romantic love song, it’s the second song of the track (‘Reign of Love’) that is of more interest, for theological reasons. I can’t tell if the “reign of love” that Martin is singing about is of human or divine origins. There are a few spots in particular that confuse me. First, the word “locusts” is used in both the second and third stanzas. The word “locust” is not a very commonly used word these days – people usually just go with “grasshopper” – so when it shows up twice in a fairly short song, I notice. People familiar with the Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures may recognize locusts as one of the Ten Plagues of Egypt that God inflicted on the Egyptians to convince Pharaoh to let the Israelite people out of slavery (see Exodus 7-12, locusts were plague #8). The last two stanzas of the song (the post-locust verses) require some theological analysis. I’ll let you read the lyrics for yourself, but then I have some questions for you to think about in response.

Reign of love
By the church, we’re standing (1)
Reign of love
My knees go praying (2)

How I wish
We’d spoken up (3)
Or we’d be carried
In the reign of love (4)

(1) Do you think “reign of love” is another way of talking about God, or God’s sovereign love?

(2) Who is praying and what are they praying about? Since Martin is the one singing, is he praying? If so, what do you think he is praying about? Who is he praying to?

(3) What do he wish they’d spoken up about? Was it perhaps an injustice that displayed a lack of love?

(4) Are they being carried in the “reign of love,” or not? Is the “reign of love” a call for universal love, a worldwide “reign” of love ruling over all? or is it something more specific to faith/religion?

Aside from the few songs that were analyzed theologically above, there is a lot more material on Viva La Vida that could be included in theological conversation(s). I will leave most of that for others to do, but here are a few obvious “God spots” that deserve some attention.

From ‘Cemeteries of London’

  • “Through the dark streets they go searching to see God in their own way.”
  • “God is in the houses and God is in my head…I see God come in my garden but I don’t know what he said, for my heart it wasn’t open.”

From ‘Yes’

  • “Then we were dying of frustration, saying, ‘lord ‘lead me not into temptation.'”
  • “God only, god knows I’m trying my best. But I’m just so tired of this loneliness.”

From ‘Violet Hill’

  • “Priests clutched onto bibles, hollowed out to fit their rifles. And the cross was held aloft.”

From ‘The Escapist’

  • “And in the end, we lie awake. And we dream we’ll make an escape.”

Coldplay’s tour in support of the new album began in July, and as part of the tour, they are offering a free song for download to people who purchased tickets to a show. The song is titled ‘Death Will Never Conquer’ and it sounds a bit like a hymn. It includes the hopeful line “I hope sweet heaven is a place for me,” which seems to express a Christian understanding of eternal life and the hope of spending eternity with God. What do you think?

Is Viva La Vida the album people will remember Coldplay by?

Only time will tell how or if Coldplay will be remembered 30 years from now, and Viva La Vida certainly hasn’t been out long enough to determine whether it will be the album that defines their music (like Radiohead’s Ok Computer); but for now one thing is certain…it is a very good, if not a great album, and it says a lot about their beliefs in God, life, death and whatever comes next.

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In case this wasn’t enough Coldplay for you, here are a few extras:

Rolling Stone recently featured an interview with Chris Martin titled “The Jesus of Uncool” in which Martin opens up about a whole slew of issues related to life, music and even his experiences growing up in the church (a portion of the article can be read on RollingStone.com).

Dan Kimball (pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, CA and author/speaker in the emerging church) wrote an interesting response to the Rolling Stone article on his blog a few weeks ago (it includes a few quotes from the interview that aren’t included online).

Chris Martin was interviewed by coldplay.com just before beginning their current tour and he talked a lot about what’s involved in taking their show on the road, how much control they have in making decisions about the production of their concerts and what you can expect to see if you see Coldplay live.

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The theologoy of Lost

My advisor from seminary (Dr. Andrew Root) recently wrote an article for Next-Wave Church & Culture Ezine titled “The TV Show Lost and Eschatology.” I have personally only watched a few episodes of Lost – and I think it’s pretty good – but I know there are a lot of people who get really into the show and read nearly everything written about it online (fans of the show have even started a user-generated wikisite called Lostpedia to share thoughts and theories about the island, characters and direction of the show). As I said, I like the show, but I’m not into it like many others, so I’m just passing on the link to Dr. Root’s article for people like my roommate who can’t get enough of this stuff. By the way, the word “eschatology” is a theological term used for the study of the last things, or what is sometimes referred to as “the end times.”

Holy Week

Easter comes earlier than usual this year. But in many ways, Easter can never come early enough. As a young boy growing up in church, I remember thinking Jesus lived a really short life. This was during my early Sunday school years, well before I learned that he was probably around 33 years old when he was killed. I was just old enough to realize that we celebrated Jesus’ birth at the end of December, but just young enough to find it confusing that only three or four months later we had another holiday to remember his death and celebrate his resurrection. Luckily, I got the whole story cleared up somewhere along the way, otherwise I’m sure my seminary classes would be much different today (can you imagine an infant Jesus walking on water?). But regardless of the misunderstandings I had about where death and resurrection fit into the overall time line of Jesus’ life, I always realized that Easter was a really special holiday, even bigger than Christmas (although — compared to presents — chocolate eggs don’t make a very convincing argument to children).

How did I realize Easter was a big deal? For starters, my mom made me and my sister dress up more on Easter Sunday than any other day of the year. That meant it was a big deal. We had to wake up super early for church, and when we got there it was quiet and there were flowers everywhere. Flowers are special, and so is anything that you have to wake up early for, so these things meant it was a big deal. The Easter service always started with someone playing a timpani, which is basically just a drum that you can hear at any middle school or high school band concert, but when it’s used to begin a worship service at church, it becomes really special. The timpani at church meant Easter was a big deal too. Finally, our family got together with relatives at my grandma’s house or had a really nice lunch at our house on Easter, and at some point (usually before we could lunch and before we were allowed to change out of our church clothes), we had to take a family picture. This wasn’t the only time of year we had to do this, but every time it happened it meant that whatever was going on was…a big deal.

The church season of Lent started in the beginning of February this year. For the past six weeks, people have been preparing themselves for this “Holy Week” by doing all sorts of things, like abstaining from certain things (that they like) as a way of remembering Jesus’ sacrifice for them. Most Catholics don’t eat meat during Lent, which is why all the fast food restaurants seem to have a new fish sandwich on the menu this time of year. Some people give up chocolate for Lent, with the knowledge that there will be chocolate everywhere on Easter and it will taste that much sweeter after not having tasted it for nearly two months. I know of other people who have given up myspace or facebook for Lent, which is probably a bigger sacrifice to many young people than giving up meat (but probably not as big as giving up chocolate!). I considered giving up my iPod for Lent this year, but then I realized how silly the idea was and decided against it (thanks to Martin Luther and the Reformation, I have never felt the pressure to give up anything for Lent, although I would imagine it’s a worthwhile spiritual discipline).

Holy Week has finally arrived. Churches everywhere are preparing for the largest gathering of people they’ll have in their building all year. Flowers known as “Easter Lillies” are being given in memory of loved ones. Youth groups are getting ready to serve brunch in their church gyms. Moms are trying to convince their sons to wear the new suit they bought them (because they will look so cute in the family picture). Stores are stocking the shelves with chocolate eggs, bunnies and those weird marshmallowy things called Peeps. Many students and teachers are loving this week because it’s their spring break. It’s also the first week of the NCAA basketball tournament, so many people are filling our their brackets and scheming ways to get out of work or class to watch basketball all day on Thursday and/or Friday. Some people, regardless of whether they follow college basketball or have school or work this week, are counting down the hours until they can take a big bite of meat, devour some chocolates or check their facebook again. There are certainly reasons to be excited that this week is finally here. For me, I am excited because not only does my spring break start tomorrow (which means I can watch the NCAA tournament), but I am most excited that in only two days I will pick up my parents at the airport and get to see my dad again (he has been in Tanzania for nearly three months and my mom has been there visiting him the last two weeks).

But in this season of Lent and this Holy Week of Easter, let’s be careful not to let little things outshine the big thing. Perhaps you didn’t grow up going to church like me, or don’t understand family and faith the way others reading this might, and even if you’ve never given up meat for Lent (and didn’t even realize some people did), none of that changes anything about the reality that Jesus gave himself for your sins to rescue you from the evil in this world, and he did this according to the will of God (Galatians 1:4).

In my understanding, this is what Easter is about: Jesus defeated sin and death on the cross and through his resurrection there is hope for all of us to share in his eternal life. Easter cannot come early enough because we cannot hear this Good News often enough. Jesus rescues us. Have you ever heard a survivor say anything like “Wow…that was close, but I wish they hadn’t rescued me so soon”? Of course not, because rescue can never come early enough.

I hope you enjoy this week for many reasons. Have fun watching hours of basketball, eating chocolate, hanging out with friends and family and enjoying some time off from work or school. But I hope you also take some time to remember why this week is called Holy Week. For as the congregation will exclaim at the beginning of the service I attend on Sunday, “He is risen. He is risen indeed.”

(If you’d like to read more about the history, theology, Scripture, or view some art or video about Holy Week and Easter, here are some links you might find interesting).

  • Article on “Holy Week” from Wikipedia
  • Video from The Passion of the Christ mixed with “The Reason” by Hoobastank
  • Famous painting by Grünewald called “The Crucifixion”
  • My video “Broken” that will be used in worship at a church in Stillwater this week
  • Reflections on each day of Holy Week from my friend Bryan’s blog
  • The Gospel narratives of Jesus’ death and resurrection in the Bible; from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Re: Yes, we can.

I want to share and respond to some of the comments I’ve received about the “Yes We Can” video of Obama’s speech that I posted earlier this week. First, I’d like to restate – perhaps more clearly this time – that by sharing the video I was in no way endorsing a specific candidate or political party. Notice that the first things I wrote in Monday’s entry were that I am not into politics, never have been and am not even sure who I am going to vote for in the upcoming presidential election. I’d also like to tell anyone reading this that I don’t want anewdoxology to become a political blog. I can see why it may have appeared that I was trying to venture into the topic of politics by posting that video, but really, the only reason I shared the video for “Yes We Can” is because of the many connections it has with the world of popular culture (since it featured several musicians, actors and other recognizable “famous people”). The fact that Barack’s speech is incredibly inspiring and gave me goosebumps probably played a role in why I decided to share it, but it was really more about what the creator of the song/video (will.i.am) wrote in his explanation,

it inspired me…
it inspired me to look inside myself and outwards towards the world…
it inspired me to want to change myself to better the world…
and take a “leap” towards change…
and hope that others become inspired to do the same…
change themselves..
change their greed…
change their fears…
(…)
I produced [shared] this song to share my new found inspiration and how I’ve been moved…
I hope this song will make you feel…
love…
and think…
and be inspired just like the speech inspired me…
that’s all…

With that being said, I want to pass along a few comments and links that some of you have shared with me in response to Obama, the “Yes We Can” video and how it all connects with the ideas of hope, love and change (that I personally happen to associate with God and my faith).

From an article by Michael Chabon in the Washington Post, but borrowed here by one of my seminary professors (Mary Hess) from her blog, this quote is about the fear involved in supporting and voting for Obama.

“But the most pitiable fear of all is the fear of disappointment, of having our hearts broken and our hopes dashed by this radiant, humane politician who seems not just with his words but with every step he takes, simply by the fact of his running at all, to promise so much for our country, for our future and for the eventual state of our national soul. I say “pitiable” because this fear of disappointment, which I hear underlying so many of the doubts that people express to me, is ultimately a fear of finding out the truth about ourselves and the extent of the mess that we have gotten ourselves into. If we do fight for Obama, work for him, believe in him, vote for him, and the man goes down to defeat by the big-money machines and the merchants of fear, then what hope will we have left to hold on to?

Thus in the name of preserving hope do we disdain it. That is how a phobocracy maintains its grip on power.

To support Obama, we must permit ourselves to feel hope, to acknowledge the possibility that we can aspire as a nation to be more than merely secure or predominant. We must allow ourselves to believe in Obama, not blindly or unquestioningly as we might believe in some demagogue or figurehead but as we believe in the comfort we take in our families, in the pleasure of good company, in the blessings of peace and liberty, in any thing that requires us to put our trust in the best part of ourselves and others. That kind of belief is a revolutionary act. It holds the power, in time, to overturn and repair all the damage that our fear has driven us to inflict on ourselves and the world.”

A theologian might suggest that this is what we mean, in part, by “eschatological hope.”

I don’t want the connection Hess makes between Chabon’s quote and Christian theology to be lost because people don’t understand a confusing theological term, so here’s a quick teaching moment on eschatological hope…in my best understanding this term refers to the hope Christians have that Jesus Christ will return to make things right on earth (including our personal salvation). This is a very basic definition, and is in no way complete, but eschatology is the name for the area of study within theology that is concerned with the final events of the world (including, but not limited to, the return of Jesus, the resurrection of the dead, the renewal of creation, the final judgment, the establishment of the kingdom of God and the fulfillment of all God’s promises). I asked Mary to explain how she was using the term in her post and she said that she was “noting the resonance to a form of hope that can not be proven, that indeed is often not demonstrable in human terms, but exists nonetheless and draws us out to live LOVE.” Meaning, the hope Chabon (and many others in America, including will.i.am and the other celebrities in his video) have that Obama will deliver the change that he has been promising in his campaign is not something that can be proven any more than Christians can prove that Jesus Christ will return to earth at the end of history and deliver the promises we believe God has made for all of creation, but just because it can’t be proven does not mean we can not or should not hope for and support the idea of those things happening.

Fox News ran an interesting article to read alongside Chabon’s article, this one was written by Father Jonathan Morris (a Catholic priest typically known as simply “Father Jonathan”) on the Virtue of Contemplation on Super Tuesday. Father Jonathan is a regular contributor to FOX News and is perhaps best known for being Mel Gibson’s theological advisor during the making of The Passion of the Christ. You might not agree with everything he writes, but I think he offers an interesting perspective on how we should view politics within our culture, especially for people of faith in God.

Thanks to my friend Paul for passing on the article from Father Jonathan, and also for writing several comments in response to the Obama speech/song. I decided not to share his comments on anewdoxology only because they are very political in nature, and like I wrote above, I don’t want this to become a political blog.

As always, thanks for reading. I hope you’ll continue sharing your thoughts in response to anything on this site.

The Last Semester

Today is my last first day of school EVER…probably. Let me clarify what I mean…today is the first day of spring semester at Luther Seminary, where I have been a student since 2006, and from where I will graduate and receive a master’s degree (in Theology & Pop-Culture) this coming Memorial Day weekend. I added the modifier “probably” at the end of the first sentence because I have made that statement once before in life — on my last first day of college — because I never thought I’d go back to school after getting my bachelor’s degree. But the saying goes, “never say never,” and I’d assume that whoever first said that also meant it to mean “never say ever,” since never and ever are often synonymous. I highly doubt I will go back to school again, either for another M.A. or the life-stealing Ph.D, but who knows. Never say (n)ever.

Looking back on my experiences as a seminary student so far, it’s been an interesting personal and educational adventure. Please don’t misunderstand that to mean it has been anything but a positive experience, but there’s been a lot of “stuff” involved beside just going to class and studying. For instance, it was a major life change going from working full-time at a church (and loving my job, for the most part), making decent money (relatively speaking for someone recently out of college and working at a church) and basically feeling comfortable in life (even being able to put money into savings every month) … to being a full-time student (after a three year break from school, a break I thought would last the rest of my life), making basically no money (except the small amount I made as a barista at Caribou–until I quit after only two months, and then the money I made donating plasma for a year–a job that caused my mom and many others to worry about/for me), yet still feeling relatively comfortable in my life (even though I have been stealing from myself by spending the money I put in savings to buy things like rent, gas, and of course macaroni and peanut butter & jelly).

So here I am, about to start my final semester of seminary. Four classes, an independent study and an optional audited course are all that stands between me and a piece of paper stating that I am more intelligent than I was before…supposedly. I have taken some great courses in my three semesters and two J-terms at seminary thus far, but looking at my schedule (and even reading the syllabuses, or is it syllabi? that’s a weird word, huh?) and the courses I’ll be taking over the next four months or so, I think I’m probably more excited about this semester than any of the others. The courses I’m taking sound really interesting, they’re being taught by excellent professors and if I’m able to learn even 53% of the stuff I’m hoping to, it’s going to be a great semester. I’m sure you can count on reading about some of the things I’m studying as the semester goes on, and I actually think that some of my assignments (papers, projects, videos) might end up on here. In fact, the major writing assignment for one of my classes is to create/write a blog in which I “reflect theologically on popular culture.” Done and done.

In case you’re interested, here’s a list of the courses I’m taking along with the things I’m most excited about each…

  • Singleness, Marriage and Family — the focus of this class is to develop a biblical and theological understanding that will allow me to help individuals, couples and families deal with the realities (struggles, joys and everything in between) of life, with some attention given to scientific approaches of counseling.
  • The Spirit, the Church and the Triune God — the final installment of the three core systematic theology courses, the others being “Creation and the Triune God” and “Jesus the Savior and the Triune God” (both of which I’ve already taken). In this Trilogy, there is a course focused on each part of the Trinity, and each studies what theologians throughout history have written about the Father, Son and Spirit; but then the challenge becomes turning that new knowledge into understanding and then practice for ministry and life, which is my favorite part of the class.
  • Proactive Ministry in a Media Culture — this is the course where my blog will temporarily become “homework.” The class is going to focus on issues like media literacy, social networking, religion and violence in media, the shape of education in a media culture, and the question “what is ‘real’ anymore?” We are also going to create two short videos documenting faith stories/journeys as assignments for class. The only negative thing about this class is that it meets on Monday nights during the games for my basketball league.
  • Ministry for the Sake of the World — this course serves as my senior seminar for my degree program, so much of the work will draw on writings and learning from previous courses as I attempt to bring it all together into an explainable vision/mission strategy for transformational ministry with younger people (the MTV generation) in a world influenced by pop-culture. Reading through the syllabus for this course, I was drawn to a sentence stating that the objective of the course is to “utilize a theology of hope as a compass for moving [young adult] ministry out into the world to witness to the Gospel and care for all of God’s creation.” I really like that objective. I also like the writing assignment from this course to pick either a song or a scene from a movie or TV show that has led me to feel something deeply and then (in two pages) explore why I feel the way I do when listening to (or watching) it, and what questions does this song or scene seem to ask me?
  • The Meaning Project: faith & facebook (independent study) — I mentioned this study in a previous post about social networking (I also included a video of Demetri Martin from The Daily Show). Basically, the study is an examination of how things like social networking sites, reality television, music, movies and other “texts” of pop-culture influence the faith and values of college-aged young people (18-22 year olds). To help with the project, I spent two weeks this past summer at a Bible camp interviewing counselors and conducting surveys. There’s no excuse for why I am just now working to finish the study, I guess I’ve just been lazy, but I’m excited to finally focus some time to work on it and see how it turns out.
  • Ethics I (course audit) — I am probably going to attend this class, but most likely won’t do any of the work (which means I also won’t get credit for it, which pretty much defines what it means to “audit” a class). I don’t actually need this class to graduate, but I’ve wanted to take it for a while, and since I’m already taking four classes and doing an independent study, I thought it would be better/easier to just go to class to learn what I could from lectures (and not have the pressure of doing all the reading or writing the papers). About the course, according to the academic catalog, it’s “an overview of various ways that Christians make moral arguments and decisions. The focus is on methods and models important for moral discourse and the relationship of theological ethics and its biblical, historical, and confessional sources to insights from philosophy and other disciplines.”

Well, I should probably stop writing about my classes and actually drive to campus so I’m not late for class.

Finding my way back to church

One of my friends from college is currently working on her PhD (she’s wicked smart!) and every once in a while she sends emails about articles that she has read (and that she thinks others might find interesting). Last week she sent a link to a talk given by Robert Jensen, a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin. The talk is titled Finding my way back to church — and getting kicked out: The struggle over what it means to be Christian today and it was presented to the Methodist Federation for Social Action (probably sometime in 2006). I’m posting an abbreviated version of the talk and want to note that due to my edits, the version below does not follow all the main themes from the talk (all the text is directly quoted, all I did was take sections out in a way that I hoped would not change or confuse any of Jensen’s thoughts/ideas). If you would like to read the talk in its entirety, the title above is a link to the full version. The sections I chose to focus on deal with his personal struggles with faith & belief and the ways the Church has helped/hindered him wrestle with his questions and doubts. I do not know anything about Jensen beyond this article, so I am not endorsing him or anything else he has written, but I think he raises some good questions/issues in this talk and shares opinions about the church that are worth reading, thinking about and discussing. If you have anything to say in response, I hope you will leave a comment for me and others to read.

This past year, after decades of steadfastly avoiding churches of all kinds, I returned to church…I don’t want to be overly dramatic, but my early experience with church had been life-threatening: I was bored, nearly to death…

Whatever one thinks about theology, church is a place where people go to think about essential questions: What does it mean to be human? What are our obligations to other people and the non-human world? How do we create meaning in a world that appears to be playing a cosmic joke on us…

I think about those questions a lot. I ponder them in the abstract, and I struggle with the very concrete implications of them in a world saturated in so much suffering. I am always looking for help in that pondering and struggling, which is what led me to a new church…

I described myself as “a Christian, sort of. A secular Christian. A Christian atheist, perhaps. But, in a deep sense, I would argue, a real Christian.”

After talking to people about what I believe, they quickly realize I’m not a dogmatic atheist, the kind who takes pleasure in ridiculing religion or faith…So, people ask me, why don’t I call myself an agnostic or a seeker or a doubter or something that conveys more openness? Am I really so sure God doesn’t exist in the traditional form? How can I be so sure?

I can’t be sure, of course. It’s impossible to prove the non-existence of God. In that sense, I’m an agnostic, just as I’m an agnostic on the question of whether or not my life is controlled by tiny magic elves who live in my desk drawer at work. I can’t prove that I’m not under the influence of those alleged elves, and hence I can’t really be an atheist on the question. But what really counts is not what I can or can’t prove, but how I live. Do I go about my day as if elves are running the show? Do I sneak a peak into my drawer now and then to try to catch them plotting? Do I ever offer prayers to the elves to which I think they will respond? No, I don’t. In philosophical terms, I’m agnostic on the question. In practical terms, I live like an atheist, on the assumption they don’t exist.

In that sense, most people in this culture, no matter what their stated beliefs about God, live like atheists… Continue reading