Christianity Life Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Musings on Making a Difference

A few Sundays ago, the pastor at our church gave a sermon about making a difference, examining how there are basically two approaches—institutional and personal. Institutional change seeks to change how society and laws are structured so that it affects the greatest number of individuals. Personal change is what he called the “grunt work” of change. You could also call personal works of change “band-aid solutions.”

Jesus, of course, did both. If you believe in traditional Christian doctrine, Jesus changed the entirety of humanity by instituting the forgiveness of sins and the accountability and sacrifice for those sins, abolishing the idea of earning one’s way to heaven. At the same time, he worked one on one with individuals, talking and listening, preaching and healing.

I’m no Jesus.

I don’t know where I fit in with change. Like most people, I have ideals. I want change. I’m not your traditional activist. I don’t go to rallies and protests. I’m not on the board of directors for a non-profit organization that deals with animal cruelty, environmental pollution, human rights, or boycotts. I also don’t help out in soup kitchens on a regular basis or give out sandwiches or money to homeless people I see on the street. Malcolm X would be disappointed in me.

What do I do?

I live life in accordance with my beliefs. I try to treat other human beings equally. Some people make a big deal about looking homeless people in the eye. I don’t see why. I offer them more dignity by ignoring them—that’s what I do to rich people. I don’t look rich people in the eye. Strangers are strangers. I try to be helpful when people ask me for directions. I donate what little money I can to causes I believe in. I write essays, hoping people will stumble upon them and think or learn something. I spend a lot of time online trying to help people adopt a computer operating system (not Windows) that stands for freedom. In my speech and actions, I try to model what I think are attitudes and behaviors that would discourage sexism and racism.

Sometimes it’s the simple things. I always use “she” when referring to the generic third-person singular. It’s not grammatically “correct,” but I don’t care. It gets people to think. It makes men feel uncomfortable. They wonder why they’re getting “left out.” If you use “he” instead, no men wonder why or if women feel “left out”—men assume women have no problems being “included” with the term “he.”

I recycle and try not to waste materials—that includes not making excessive photocopy or print errors at work. I swear that half the paper waste out there is from people not paying attention when printing or photocopying.

I believe we should each examine our own talents, resources, time, and inclinations, and we should see what can feasibly be done to make a difference. Will it be a difference in “the long run”? It may. It may not. Jesus stopping to talk with a Samaritan woman at the well may not have made much of a difference in “the long run,” but it sure made a difference for her.


Progress isn’t Relative

Two things baffle me about politics and religion, from what I’ve seen: 1. that political progessives tend to be moral relativists and 2. that moral absolutists tend to be political conservatives.

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis makes a fairly convincing case for moral absolutism tempered with relativism. The idea is that any time someone gets offended by an action, there is a sense of common decency or morals that is invoked by that outrage. If no one’s held to a standard, there’s no outrage. His second point is that while different cultures may have different ideas of what is offensive, appropriate, kind, etc., all cultures consider it desirable to be kind and appropriate and undesirable to be offensive. One culture may think giving someone the “thumbs up” is rude. Another may consider giving the “thumbs up” affirming. Both cultures would agree, though, that being affirming is a good thing and being rude is a bad thing. Rudeness and affirmation simply manifest themselves in different ways.

I don’t fit into either of the following categories, but I’d say the vast majority of Americans I’ve encountered fall into one of the following two profiles:

1. Conservative Christian: moral absolutist, political conservative
2. Liberal atheist/agnostic: moral relativist, political (or at least social) liberal

I view these two stances as being at odds with themselves, though. Moral absolutism, as I see it, goes hand in hand with progressivism. Take, for example, gay marriage. One of the arguments for gay marriage that social and political liberals rely upon is the argument that only a few decades ago popular morality frowned upon interracial marriage and that within a few decades people will realize (as they do now about interracial marriage) that gay marriage is a just occurrence.

The idea of justice and the idea of progress are based on the assumption that there is such a thing as justice or that you can be progressing “towards” something (a better society or whatnot). If morality is truly relative (what we think is abhorrent is perfectly acceptable in X time period or Y culture, so who cares?), then what’s the point of protest? What’s the point of progress? What is justice? Any kind of deviance from the natural course of popular opinion or general trend is an appeal to a universal morality. Without realizing it, most political and social progressives are really saying “What is happening right now is not right in some absolute sense that we don’t realize now in our relative culture.”

Then why don’t those two neat categories described above notice the inherent contradictions in their stances, particularly the liberal atheist/agnostic?

I don’t know.

My guess, though, is that most people don’t examine the full implications of a belief system. They just know their immediate concerns (gay marriage, for example).

Let me put it another way. If I lived in the sixties and opposed interracial marriage, what would be wrong with that? Do you have more respect for someone who is “ahead of her time”? Why? Why not fit in with your own time? After all, if morality is relative, you’re just fitting in with the morality of the culture you live in. If you’re “ahead of your time” it means your current time is behind. It means morality isn’t relative to time or culture. It means there may be a prevailing thought or feeling at the time, but that others are more “enlightened” (presumably more in touch with the moral absolutism built into each one of us).

You can’t make “progress” unless what you have now is not meeting a standard—that standard… is absolute morality.


The Power of Prayer

I’m only a little bothered by atheists or agnostics who say when they were young they used to believe in God, prayed to him for something, didn’t get it, and then didn’t believe in him any more. What bothers me more are the atheists and agnostics who claim that prayer does nothing—that God does not or probably does not exist—but when the first sign of trouble comes (a terrorist attack, the death of a loved one, a divorce, a lost job, etc.), the first thing they do is pray to the God they were so disrespectful to before. I call the first group childish and selfish. The second I call fair-weather friends.

There’s something problematic about a Santa Claus approach to God; I’m not sure what it is.

I’ve always wondered what it means for God to “answer” prayer. Sure, some people say God actually “talks” to them, but most honest Christians admit there isn’t a real conversation going on. Sometimes I can feel an idea. Sometimes it’s actually nice to be able to speak out into the void and not have someone talk back. That’s the problem with humans. They don’t really listen. Silence is just too uncomfortable. You tell humans your problems, and they want to “help,” give you advice, “relate.”

Some people take a scientifically skeptical approach to prayer. If you can’t “prove” it exists, it doesn’t. If God doesn’t definitely answer “yes,” he isn’t answering. Others seem nonsensically devoted to the idea of prayer. If God doesn’t answer the prayer, he’s saying, “No” or “Wait.” If he answers, he’s saying, “Yes.”

There’s a problem with both of these approaches, and they actually feed into each other.

The skeptical approach still has that Santa Claus assumption about prayer. What can it do for me? If I ask for something, can I get it? I want a new job. I want a new car. I want this disease to disappear. I want my children safe. If God says, “No,” he couldn’t possibly want the best for us. Yet, when these same skeptics become parents, they realize the most important thing for them to learn is how and when to say “No” to their own children, the ones they love the most.

The nonsensically devoted idea is equally flawed. If God is saying “No,” “Wait,” or “Yes,” unpredictably, how is that different from rolling dice or praying to a wall?

I don’t know where I stand… somewhere in the middle, I guess. I can be skeptical about prayer. Sometimes when I’m praying, I do wonder, “God, are you really out there? It’s me, Margaret.” Other times, I do feel a connection to God. Maybe, as the haughty skeptics say, it is a psychological retreat I make up in my mind. Maybe, it’s all a mental illusion. Still, it feels real, a lot more real than some of the other things I’ve had to accept (I did finally get real proof that the state of Wyoming exists… when my car broke down in it. Before that, I’d taken its existence on faith alone).

I have seen miracles happen. I’ve seen them not happen, too.

Maybe it’s just Pascal’s wager, but I feel prayer is worth investigating, worth doing, worth experimenting with… and if it’s only a mental exercise, a psychological trick—me talking to myself—then, it’s one of the best tricks I’ve ever played on myself. God—omnipotent powerful being or the cognitive abyss that the wall next to me is—has been a great friend to talk to.

I’d urge all the skeptics out there to just give it a try, an honest try—not to get anything concrete out of it, but just to see if it could be real. They don’t have to tell anyone about this experiment. They can just try it for their own personal curiosity. They need a little honest self-examination: “Do I require scientific proof for everything or just religious stuff? Do I hold double standards for burdens of proof?”

And for the religiously unquestioning, stop pretending you can reason the power of prayer to others any more than you can reason a friendship, marriage, or other relationship to others. Just live it and enjoy it.


The Scary Charismatic Movement

Let me start off by saying, as obnoxious as it sounds, that some of my best friends are Charismatics. I know it’s dumb. When White people tell me some of their best friends are Black, I can only roll my eyes. But, I mean it. I don’t doubt Charismatics’ sincerity of faith in God. I don’t doubt their good intentions. I’m not theoretically opposed to anyone speaking in tongues ever, but there is a problem with how the Charismatic movement has appeared to me through many people (mostly friends).

My only encounters with the Charismatic movement have all been scary, and they usually involve some person or people praying in “tongues” (translation: gibberish). One time, I even went on a retreat where, while someone was playing guitar continuously in the background, everyone else was rocking back and forth (sometimes on all fours), making animal noises, moaning, and just generally being scary. For a while, I stayed, hoping it would go away. Maybe I was too shocked to move. Eventually, though, I had to hide in my little bunk to get away from the insanity, but the noise still penetrated the walls. I thought to myself, “How could this be godly? What non-Christian would ever want to become a Christian after going to a retreat like this?”

Even though I’ve heard friends and acquaintances of mine pray “in tongues” on many occasions, I’ve never once heard anyone interpret tongues. I’ve also heard some people insinuate or say straight-out that having the gift of tongues is indicative of having a closer relationship with God. This is dangerous territory, folks. That would be like a situation in which a teacher tells another teacher, “I’m a better teacher because my students give me better Christmas gifts.”

What bothers me more is that there seem to be no bounds to what can be considered a “spiritual gift.” Tongues is clearly a spiritual gift outlined numerous times in the New Testament, but people will go to holy laughter, holy feeling each other up, holy whatever-I-feel-like-doing-but-am-usually-too-inhibited-to-do. Worship services dominated by a Charismatic ideology have an anything-goes and anything-is-valid feel to them, in which if someone says, “X is from God because I feel it,” there’s little room for any kind of validation or challenge.

What’s worse is that oftentimes participants in and proponents of the Charismatic movement do not even follow scriptural guidelines for gifts. The most appropriate scripture (which Charismatics conveniently ignore in sermons, Bible studies, and general conversations) is I Corinthians 14, where Paul urges people to conduct an orderly worship (no animal noises and such, I’m assuming) in order to bear good witness. Paul also encourages those who speak in tongues to do so in private or to ask God for the gift of the interpretation of tongues. I’ve never seen any Charismatic be at all concerned with how Charismatic manifestations, however “godly” or “spiritual,” may turn off seekers, nor have I seen Charismatics express to me any sentiment similar to “I know I’ve been blessed a lot in my times alone with God to be able to pray in tongues, but I have asked God to give me the gift of the interpretation of tongues so that others, too, can be edified when I pray in tongues.”

I have, however, seen a lot of Charismatics flaunt, in direct opposition to Paul’s admonishments, their “spiritual gifts” in extremely unedifying and haughty ways.

I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with gifts, healing, or “feeling” God, but when an Evangelical Christian movement becomes too experienced-centered and not scripturally centered, it must be called into question. It must be made accountable.


The Pledge Under God

Okay. I’m confused. Why is there all of a sudden a “new” controversy over the phrase under God being in the Pledge? Wasn’t this a news story about a year or two ago? Then, it just disappeared. Now, it’s resurfaced again for no apparent reason. Anyone know? Well, I just think the whole thing’s stupid. I can see both sides of the issue. First of all, from the standpoint of someone against taking it out, who cares? Does it matter if we say “under God”? Most of the people saying it don’t believe it, really. A lot people don’t believe any part of the pledge, let alone the “under God” part. In elementary school, we’re forced to say a lot of things we don’t believe. What’s the big hub-bub about “under God”? Is it really worth all the trouble? On the other hand, I don’t see any reason to oppose taking it out. Is it worth the trouble opposing it? What does the phrase “under God” being in the Pledge really do for us Christians? It doesn’t make the people who say it become Christians, appreciate Jesus more, or become more open to accepting Christ into their lives. If anything, it makes them more bitter and less receptive to the Gospel.

I am a devout Christian, and I’ll say it: I believe in the separation of church and state. Yes, I know the phrase “the separation of church and state” isn’t in the Constitution. I still believe in the idea. Let’s take the “In God We Trust” away from the coin. Let’s take out from the courts “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” If I’m ever on a witness stand, I’ll grab the Bible out of the bailiff’s hand, flip open to Matthew 5:33-37, and highlight the part that says, “Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” Why do they have you swear on a document that condemns swearing? And this is the type of swearing Jesus was talking about—he wasn’t talking about cussing. Bottom line: God should not be in the governmental system (godly individuals might be, but God shouldn’t be there institutionally… only nominally), but if he stays in, it’s not worth raising a big fuss over. Geez.


Missionary Dating

Oddly enough, even though I have many friends who have either considered or actually have gone “missionary dating,” I never felt an inclination to do so. I’m married now, of course, so it’s personally a non-issue, but I still have a number of Christian friends who struggle a lot with whether or not to date a non-Christian. When I say “Christian,” I mean devout, usually Evangelical Christians, not nominal Easter-and-Christmas-I’m-a-Christian-because-my-ancestors-were Christians. If you’re a nominal Christian dating/marrying an atheist, I don’t really consider that an interfaith relationship.

Naturally, the issue of interfaith dating or marriage is going to keep coming up. Without even considering faith, people are desperate enough to find someone to connect with, to feel themselves with. Now, just think if you cut the “eligible” dating population down by 90%. As far as feelings, money values, extra-curricular interests, curricular interests, sexual peculiarities, career aspirations, etc. are concerned, it would seem you’re far more likely to find someone compatible using 100% of the “eligible” population than to do so using only 10% of the “eligible” population.

Now, there are plenty of Christians who will tell others not to date non-Christians. I’m one of them, but the usual reasons given (see links below) are 1. Biblical mandate 2. The possibility the non-Christian in the relationship will somehow cause the Christian to backslide. 3. The inevitability of values disagreements later on. Now, there’s some validity to all of these arguments, but there’s something else seriously wrong with Christians dating non-Christians, particularly when it includes a “conversion effort.”

Now, I’ve seen a lot of these conversion efforts in missionary dating become successful (usually when a Christian woman dates a non-Christian man but not as much vice versa). What worries me most about “effective” missionary dating is the conflict of interest built into the relationship from the very beginning. Granted, most missionary daters do not say to their boyfriends something like the following: “Oh, you want to date me? If you want to date me, you have to become a Christian.” Usually the devout Christian meets someone who’s newly interested in but not committed to Christianity. Perhaps the non-Christian is starting to consider God may exist but doesn’t know that Christianity is the thing yet. The non-Christian is beginning to find Christianity itself fascinating at the same time he is finding the Christian herself fascinating. The Christian then becomes both the religious guide and the love interest.

If I “successfully” missionary dated, I would always wonder… I would always wonder, “Did she do it just for me? How genuinely interested in Christianity was she? Would she have found God without our relationship?” I’m not suggesting the non-Christian has somehow tricked the Christian into believing the newfound faith is genuine. There’s no “Ha ha ha! Little does she know I’m really still a non-Christian… my act is working!” The new Christian may have even convinced himself his faith is genuine, but how will either one really know?

It’s akin to, but obviously not the same as, a student-teacher relationship. If the student earns an A, he will never know whether he earned that A or if the teacher he’s having sex with gave the A as a pity grade. It works the other way around, too. The teacher herself may not even know “Did he really deserve that A? What will other people think?”

The real problem, which undermines the relationship, is not that the Christian will backslide, that “the Bible says so,” or that a difference in values will lead to disagreements and conflict. It’s the doubt that will follow the relationship wherever it goes. Anyone who doesn’t acknowledge that component of the “unequally yoked” relationship is in denial.

Further reading I don’t necessarily agree with:
Date to Save
“What if he or she is a non-Christian?”
“What does God think of ‘missionary dating’?”

Christianity Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Why I’m a Pro-Choice Christian

My first exposure to talks about abortion came from the conservative Chinese church I attended growing up. The youth minister, the head pastor, almost all of the adults, and almost all of the children espoused the same approach: no tolerance—abortion is wrong; it's murder; it should be illegal; and the only possible excuse for it is rape. The propaganda they fed me was the following:
  1. Pictures of how disgusting and brutal abortions were
  2. Stories of mothers who had regretted their abortions
  3. Psalm 139:13
  4. Statistics of how many babies were left unadopted each year versus how many abortions occurred

There may have been more, but that was the gist of it. There were several things that troubled me about the pro-life propaganda at our church (and, I do not believe it was at just our church—but, for now, I will concern myself with the model, not the scope).

In light of the popular evangelical campaign of the 1990s, WWJD, harping on how abortion is murder and should be illegal did not seem like something Jesus would have done. In fact, I'm sure abortions or infanticide occurred during Jesus' time. He may not have approved of it, but he spent most of his time preaching, performing miracles, and loving people. The emphasis seems out of place, in other words. We, as loving Christians, should be spending most of our energy somewhere else.

The strong association my church made between being Christian and being pro-life was also disturbing. There were, of course, pro-choice members of the congregation, but they were constantly subjected to pro-life rhetoric from the pulpit, in the Sunday School classrooms, and even in everyday conversation. What seemed odd to me about it was the idea implicit in equating Christianity with the pro-life movement that Christians somehow valued life more than non-Christians, that telling a Christian that abortion was taking a life would somehow mean more to that person than telling a "heathen" the same thing. Do not even "heathens" hold life sacred?

The quoting of Psalm 139 I found simply amusing. To our detriment as Christians, historically the church has misquoted scripture to support anything from torture and animal cruelty to slavery and misogyny. Psalm 139 speaks of God making David: "For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb" (NIV). God's "knitting" supposedly means that David was "alive" or "human" even as a fetus and that killing him then must have been just the same as killing him at the time he wrote the psalm. But how could seminary-trained religious scholars even imagine David was singing anti-abortion rhetoric or even establishing a theological basis for a scientific view on when babies are "alive" or "human"? Didn't the church learn that what Biblical figures viewed as science is not meant to be theological truth? Isn't that why Galileo got in trouble with the church? Now, of course, all Christians believe the earth revolves around the sun. The context of the psalm (which, interestingly enough, most of the preachers I've heard quoting the psalm leave out) is speaking about how well God knows David: "Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely" (139:4, NIV), "When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be" (139:15-16, NIV).

I'm not a Biblical scholar, but it seems to me that David is saying God knew him even before he existed, knew him so well that David did not even have to be in order for God to know him. You could even use the passage as a pro-choice argument—that David's emphasis on being in his mother's womb shows just how non-existent he was at the time. He does speak about God's knowledge of him before he experienced life; he does speak about God knowing the words he speaks before he speaks them. The point of the psalm is really that God knows people even before their lives begin.

The tragedy for me about the misinterpretation of scripture is not so much that Christians do so to suit their own politics and agendas so much as that it makes Christianity meaningless to non-Christians. Many jaded non-Christians think you can use the Bible to support anything. Even the devil uses it for his own purposes (Matthew 4). But there is truth in the Bible. The Bible does say something (or a number of things), and twisting is twisting, distorting is distorting, and taking passages out of context is ignoring context. What amazes me is that jaded non-Christian English teachers can actually believe the Bible is more meaningless and subject to interpretation than any other text. Shouldn't English teachers know that context is important to understanding content? I could very well say that anyone could use a Hemingway book to support anything. But there are standard interpretations of Hemingway and there is plenty of context to consider when writing about Hemingway—his life, his worldview, the actual surrounding text, the word choices, etc.

My mom was a social worker. She would indoctrinate me against the church she brought me to. She would, in fact, de-program me from youth group activity and propaganda. As a devoted Christian and Chinese immigrant, she recognized the value of going to church and worshiping with other Chinese people. However, as a social worker, she also believed that many of the things I was learning at church were wrong. I was already aware that the pictures of disgusting abortions were merely a shock tactic. My mom made me recognize, though, herself having worked around adoption, that adoption is not so easy. It's a complicated and expensive process, and the babies who are being aborted are not always the babies couples want (there is a racial angle to adoption). Also, some babies don't get adopted right away, and most couples wanting to adopt do not want a toddler or young child—they want a newborn baby.

I remember there being a debate at my high school once. It was part of the 10th grade English curriculum—a speech class. Part of the speech class was the presentation to the class of a debate on a controversial subject, and someone brought up a pro-choice stance on abortion. Some of the arguments I heard from my classmates were not too intelligent (I'll write it off as 15-year-old parental brainwashing—I was lucky enough to be brainwashed by both my mom and my youth group, so I had a unique perspective). Many of them actually thought "life" did not begin until the fifth month. What does that mean—that someone injects life into a bunch of cells all of a sudden? Could you then take the fetus out of the mother at the fourth month and then put it back in before the fifth month and have it still turn out fine because life has not yet begun? Any argument that says life does not begin until such-and-such a time does not make logical sense. The baby is alive from the moment it is conceived. It is living tissue. It is not necessarily human, though. I remember one particularly volatile Sunday School teacher I had who proclaimed that he did not have two children—he had four. He counted the miscarriages. I almost laughed when I heard him say that. First of all, I knew that's not what he really thought. If someone at a dinner party asked him, "Oh, how many kids do you have?" He wouldn't have answered he had four and that two were dead. He didn't name those unborn babies. Life does not equal humanity. I stand by it. My biology is a little shaky (I was an English major, okay?) but as I understand it, a baby's life begins when a sperm and egg come together and form a one-cell organism that then splits into a two-celled organism and a four-celled organism, etc. That four-celled organism is alive, as much as bacteria or mold is alive. It isn't human, though. It will become a human, though.

It's tricky. At what point does it become a human? I don't know that we can rightly say that, anymore than we can say at what point a girl becomes a teenager or a teenager becomes a woman. I'm a vegetarian. I eat eggs, though. I love eggs. What would those eggs have become, had I not eaten them? My guess is that they would have become chickens. I don't eat chicken, though. There is a difference between a chicken and an egg, whichever one "came first."

I value the sanctity of human life not because I am a Christian but because I am a human. I do not think that contraceptives (even emergency contraceptives) and male masturbation ("spilling the seed") are the same as abortion, and I think even though you are stifling a potential human life when you have an abortion, I do not know that you're committing murder. I think it's wrong, I don't approve of abortion, I take abortion very seriously, and I'm repulsed by the idea of people using abortion as birth control. I do not equate abortion with murder, though. And, I do not necessarily think that just because I think abortion is wrong that it should be illegal.

I honestly do not know where I stand when it comes to abortion. All I know is where I do not stand. I cannot rightly say, "Have an abortion if you want! It's your choice," nor can I say, "It's wrong, and it should be illegal at all times."

Then, there is always the issue of the act of making it illegal encouraging women determined to have abortions to do so dangerously. It is not the same logic as saying that if the government makes pot illegal (which it is now) that people will smoke it anyway. If people smoke pot illegally, it is just as dangerous to their health as if they smoke it legally. If women have coat-hanger or dirty-scalpel abortions, the women could die in addition to the fetus.

Finally, there is the issue of choice: women's choice. You cannot separate the personal from politics. There is not necessarily just a right or a wrong when it comes to abortion. I have my own views, but I think whatever is decided should be decided by women. Women, of course, will disagree with each other, but a woman's body is a woman's body. I do not think men should have the right to legislate women's bodies. Every time I hear men (Christian or non-Christian) make a big hoopla about how abortion is murder and blah blah blah, I wonder if they can hear themselves. I wonder if they can hear how stupid they sound. I wouldn't mind hearing an Asian-American say, "Let's get it together. Let's be more political. Let's not be invisible. Let's not be the model minority anymore," but I'd hate to hear a white person tell me, "You. You Asians. Get it together. Be more political. What's wrong with you?" It's not the same message because it's not from the same messenger. The first says, "We have to do something. Let's change together." The second says, "What's the matter with you? I've done it. Why can't you?" I would imagine it's a similar experience to any woman (pro-life or pro-choice) hearing a man spew off about abortion. He doesn't have a right to talk.

That said, if any woman reading this thinks, "What right does he have to talk, then?" I will be the first to concede that I don't have a right to talk. If you're a woman reading this and you want to write me off and say, "he has no clue what he's talking about," it is your prerogative.


Secular Music Edifies Me

Almost every devout Christian knows at least one person who doesn’t listen to secular music. This is a very popular course of action for those who have attended a lot of youth retreats or who go to Christian colleges. I’ve heard about record burnings and commitments to throw away old CDs. The thinking behind this is obvious: “I won’t be corrupted. I’ll listen to only music that is ‘edifying.’ I must think about what is good and praiseworthy. Everything I do should be for the glory of God.”

Ironically, it’s when these individuals make this commitment… that they’re at their least holy in terms of attitudes and behavior. Oftentimes, they become judgmental, ignorant, hypocritical, and pushing of pre-marital sexual boundaries. They become self-flagellating, guilt-ridden Arthur Dimmesdales. I don’t see their spiritual lives improve. I don’t see non-Christians observing, “It’s so great that you just turned off my favorite radio station. You’re such a testament to Christ’s love.”

Whether or not the Bible supports a ban on secular music-listening is up to interpretation, of course. There is a seriously misplaced assumption underlying the screening of unedifying music—that not listening means not doing or thinking about. For example, a ton of secular songs deal with love, heartbreak, and longing. Are these unedifying things to think about? Well, if they are, it doesn’t show in the Christian community. Every Christian I know who’s made a commitment to abandon secular music still has crushes, heartaches, loves, losses, misunderstandings, etc. If you’re thinking about such things already, why not have a song to commiserate with? Why not know that you’re not alone?

More importantly, why don’t more Christian artists deal with in their music the everyday issues and thoughts even “holy” Christians face? The average Christian CD has eight songs praising God, one song lambasting some mysterious listener for not accepting Christ right now, and one song deprecating the self (“I don’t deserve you, Lord,” etc.). One of my favorite Christian bands, PFR, tends to have the usual selection of songs but also chooses to have one of their songs about the death of a dog named Goldie (“Goldie’s Last Day”). Is dealing with the death of one’s dog unholy, unedifying? Why can’t one do that in music? Music that ignores human woe, suffering, joys, concerns, and living is not “holy.” Look at David’s Psalms. Sure, he acknowledges God’s greatness and spends a great deal of time praising the Creator, but also cries, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” Bottom line, unless a song says, “God doesn’t exist. He sucks!” who’s to say it’s unedifying?

There’s a more fundamental issue at stake, though. While Joseph’s failed seduction by Potiphar’s wife is held up as an example of running (rather than resisting) in the face of temptation, is listening to unedifying music (or words, really) temptation? Does it cause you to sin? I haven’t found it causes me to sin. Counterintuitive though it may seem, it’s good witness, actually. In fact, non-Christians have been more impressed by how eclectic my tastes in music are than they have been with how limited the tastes of my “edifying-music-only” friends. Remember, Jesus said it’s what comes out of a man’s mouth, not what goes in, that indicates his cleanliness.

Jesus didn’t avoid spending time with the tax collectors and prostitutes because he worried they’d be unedifying. How much less harmful is a piece of music? In fact, some Christian music is downright unedifying, and that’s what’s so insidious. For example, Caedmon’s Call’s “All I Know” encourages Christians to disengage from intellectual defenses of Christianity (not the same as pointless debate, a real danger) and polarizes religion into experienced-based Christianity and scientific-based secularism. Even though I love Caedmon’s Call’s music, I find their lyrics both banal and unedifying. Sometimes, supposedly Christian music has even debatable heresies in it. David Ruis’ “Let Your Glory Fall” has a line in it that makes me cringe every time I’m supposed to sing it (“…the world has yet to see/ The full release of your promise/ The church in victory”). I guess it depends on how you define “church.” To me, the church seems corrupt. I don’t think God ever promised the corrupt church would be in victory. God will be in victory. He will bring his people to victory through his own work. I also find it unedifying to see people singing, “I feel like dancing for joy” (or something similar) when they are not, in fact, dancing and don’t look the least bit joyful.

A last point about Christian music v. secular music. In order for Christians to really be good witnesses, they should be innovators, not copycats. A lot of conservatives complain that Christian rock now sounds too much like secular rock. The problem is not that they shouldn’t sound like secular rock but that they should sound better than secular rock. The one possible exception to this trend is the incorporation of Gospel music stylings into pop and R&B.

Christian musicians need to give up the idea that they are primarily (edifying?) lyricists who simply adopt pre-existing musical styles. Musicians should be song-writers first and foremost, then lyricists. Nobody wants to listen to mediocre music with incredible lyrics, let alone mediocre music with mediocre lyrics. Let’s raise the bar for Christian music (varied subject matter, innovative music); then, the issue of whether or not to listen to secular music will be moot.

Further readings I don’t necessarily agree with:

“Don’t Listen to Secular Music”
“Growth in Faith Leads to Rejection of Secular Rock”
“Is Listening to Secular Music a Sin”


“Subversive” Saved!?

I’m not one of those Christians without a sense of humor. In fact, I was excited to see Saved! I know some Christians will judge a movie before it’s even been released (The Last Temptation of Christ, for example, which turned out to be offensive to me more in how boring it is than in any of the content of the film–I actually thought a lot of the film had theological value, particularly Satan as an attractive girl “angel” and Christ’s last temptation feeling so real). I thought Saved! would be a good laugh, and it was. I wasn’t offended by the many (many, many, many) puns and ironic jabs at Christian culture.

I am, however, offended by people’s reactions to the film. This MTV interview with Jena Malone (star of the film), uses the word subversive three times. If you do a Google search for “saved subversive” (obviously, the results will change depending on when you read this essay), a good fifteen of the first twenty results have to do with the movie Saved! In fact, the movie’s (official?) description seems to be the following: “In this sweetly subversive comedy, a group of outsiders band together to navigate the treacherous halls of high school and make it to graduation, ultimately learning more about themselves, finding faith in unexpected places, and realizing what it truly means to be saved!” The other words that get thrown around in discussions of Saved! are irreverent and satire. The movie is certainly irreverent. Irreverence is where 99% of its humor derives from. It is also satirical in the strictest sense of the word; though, satire generally pokes fun at universally recognized human folly, as opposed to unfamiliar, “straw man” human folly. Does the church have hypocrisy, intolerance, judgmentalism, and scary cult-like features to it? Yes, of course.

The movie doesn’t seem to get at the heart of the real manifestations of church problems, though. There are few Christians like Hilary Faye, who will do almost anything (even deface their own school) to get someone expelled from school. There are few kidnappings of friends to perform exorcisms. Yes, yes, yes, I know. The movie is supposed to be campy and exaggerated. It’s not meant to be taken literally, but just what is it supposed to be exaggerating? What comes even close to kidnapping your best friend in order to exorcise demons from her just because she hasn’t been spending as much time with you recently? The truth is the movie reaffirms the prejudices and misunderstandings of the Christian community that the secular communities in the United States already have, and it ridicules practices and faults that the church doesn’t have.

According to, subversive means, “Intended or serving to subvert, especially intended to overthrow or undermine an established government: ‘Sex and creativity are often seen by dictators as subversive activities’ (Erica Jong).” A movie that reaffirms prejudices against a not-too-well-understood outsider group is not subversive. It is not undermining anything. It is reinforcing barriers that already exist. It is further polarizing the non-Christian and Christian camps in America. Just look at the Yahoo! movies user reviews section for the film. Most people aren’t able to judge the film objectively. People who want to ridicule Christianity love it (lots of A’s and A+’s), and people who view the film as anti-Christian hate it (lots of D’s and F’s). The truth of the matter is the film is in the B or C range–it’s mediocre; funny but formulaic, flat, and (ironically) preachy.

The effect of a work of art is what matters most, not the intent of its creator. I’ve tried to tell my English students this over and over again. The running (and erroneous) joke being, of course, that English teachers read too much into literature, that such-and-such an object is a symbol that is the secret to unraveling the meaning of a book. The author later comments that the object was incidental. Last laugh on the English teachers, right? No. The author doesn’t have the last say. The author’s intentions aren’t the last say; the author’s work is. Works of art, particularly cinema and literature, are forms of communication. If the audience or critics misunderstand your intention, it’s not because they are defective or unable to appreciate the genius of your craft—it’s because your craft needs reworking.

Many members of the cast and crew have been quite defensive about the movie, writer/director Dannelly himself claiming “[u]ltimately, it affirms faith.” I’d like to know just what about the film affirms faith, and faith in what? It is one thing to say, “Look at those morons who don’t truly understand the beauty of Jesus and the Christian message; they’re so caught up in Christian culture and feeling superior,” but if you don’t have any characters who do appreciate and understand Christianity, how is your movie faith-affirming?

A truly subversive film wouldn’t, as this film does, leave non-Christians thinking, “Ah, those Christian weirdos—they just need to lighten up and get with the times.” Non-Christians already think that. At the same time, a truly subversive film, as many Christians wish this film would do, wouldn’t make Christians feel comfortable, either (“Yes, that’s how we truly are; that’s a fair portrayal of modern Christians”). I’d love to be able to laugh at Christians, and I did while I watched Saved!, but I’d love even more to see a truly subversive film, that undermined conventional wisdom on both sides of the Christian/non-Christian barrier. I’d love to see a film that made non-Christians think, “Wait, maybe Christianity isn’t so bad” but that also made Christians think, “Wait, what the hell are we doing? We need to shape up.” If one film could elicit both of those responses… that film would be truly subversive.

Christianity Education Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Distracting Dress Codes

One of my friends from youth group is now a youth pastor and has posted a dress code on his church’s website. I find one sentence particularly amusing: “Undergarments should be worn and they should not be visible.” If they’re not supposed to be visible, what does it matter if they’re not worn? The rationale behind most of the guidelines is expressed in a statement implying that certain ways of dressing (“rags or ripped clothing”?) tempt others into sin: “Each of us have our own responsibility to take measures to protect and hold ourselves accountable from temptation and resulting sin.” The explanation for the rules doesn’t explicitly say what the “resulting sin” is, but the rules themselves seem to indicate lust.

There are several things problematic about this line of reasoning. First of all, it places too much of the responsibility for lust on the lustee rather than the luster. This runs dangerously close to the “She was asking for it” mentality of the rapist. By extension, it gives lusters an excuse for their lusting: it’s the provocative dress that makes me sin. Such reasoning is false, of course. Both men and women lust with little or no visual provocation. In fact, if one is lustful, one tends to seek out stimulation. If people don’t provide it in the way they dress, one may look to pornography, television, erotic literature, or even brain-generated fantasies. Certainly people can dress inappropriately, but it seems to make more sense to make rules about lusting than to make rules about what might possibly provoke lust, especially when many items on the list do not seem to be undeniably provocative (lack of “clean[liness] and neat[ness]” or “fish nets”).

My current school has a similar (but less stringent) dress code, and there’s much debate among the faculty as to how much energy we should put into enforcing it. The dress code is, on one level, a nod to the professionalism that not only teachers but students, too, should observe—the motto we use is “it’s school, not the beach.” There is a hint, too, of the “don’t provoke lust” ideology inherent as well, though, since we do allow students to dress shabbily or in an ugly way, but we don’t allow bare midriffs or short skirts. It’s not the sinfulness of lust that schools fear so much as the supposed “distraction” cleavage, bare midriffs, and short skirts provoke in a co-ed environment (with the assumption that all boys are heterosexual, of course). Honestly, though, I have never had a male student so distracted by his fellow classmate’s dress that he is not able to function in class. It would seem to me to be more distracting (or to take away from learning time) to stop class, single out the offending student and have her go get a change of clothes.

In some ways, it’s kind of like Christians protesting The Last Temptation of Christ or Jews protesting The Passion of Christ. The publicist’s proverb “All publicity is good publicity” has some truth to it. Sometimes if you don’t raise a big fuss over something, it loses its power. Sometimes the best way to defuse an offense is to ignore it; not always but sometimes. Why do girls dress scantily? For attention. What do you do by policing them about it? You give them attention. In some ways, it’s a lose-lose situation, but policing isn’t the solution. Both girls and boys need to understand what motivates people to dress provocatively. The natural defense is “It makes me feel better/more confident about myself.” The more important follow-up question is “Why does it make you feel better about yourself?”