I graduated from Wheaton College 10 years ago this month. This Friday, I’ll be attending commencement ceremonies at Biola University, where I’ve had the pleasure of working for nearly seven years. I’ll be cheering on a dozen or so students who I’ve mentored, taught, employed or befriended; students who will be walking across the stage to receive their diplomas, much as I did when I was their age, a decade ago.
For many moviegoers, watching a so-called “art film” can be an arduous task. But it doesn’t have to be. The following (taken from my new book, Gray Matters) are some tips for how to enjoy films that might at first glance seem difficult, esoteric, or painfully slow.
For my book Gray Matters I asked Jack Hafer to categorize different approaches Christians have taken to film & filmmaking, and he described three. Below I’ve summarized his three approaches, plus a fourth that I have personally observed.
Below is a list of 20 "moments of tension" that I include in chapter six, "A Brief History of Christians and Movies," of Gray Matters. It's not an exhaustive list of all the films that provoked the wrath and boycotts of Christians, but it gives a general sense of the narrative, going back to the earliest decades of film history
Gray Matters is the culmination of ideas I've long contemplated—perhaps dating back to high school when I first starting really getting into movies and "secular" music. How and why should Christians enjoy art and culture? Is our consumption of culture simply a "diversion" with no meaningful bearing on our faith? Or should our faith inform, deepen, and open up new layers of enjoyment in our consumption of culture? And how does a Christian evaluate and interact with the thornier areas of culture? Is it better to just flee from anything potentially hazardous and consume only the safe, sanitized or "Christian" cultural items? Or does Christian liberty (e.g. Romans 14) make it possible for us to consume anything and everything as it pleases us, without worrying about it?
There’s a lot of talk these days about “cultural engagement” and how it’s important for Christians to be culture-makers, culture-watchers and culture-advocates. Umpteen books, blogs and conferences have been developed around these themes. And rightfully so. This is an area in which evangelical Christianity has been notoriously apathetic for far too long. But what does it actually look like to be a “cultured Christian”? And by “cultured,” I don’t mean fashionable, well-heeled aristocrats who frequent the opera and attend gallery openings. I simply mean people who take culture seriously and love it enough to approach it with nuance, intentionality and an open mind. What does it look like to do this Christianly?
Christians have had a decidedly love/hate relationship with alcohol. The infamous “drink” has been regarded by Christians at various times with awe, horror, religious devotion, fear, obsession, prohibition, addiction, and temperance. It has been one of the most divisive issues within modern American evangelicalism, creating rifts within churches, within families, within Christian institutions.
How are Christians set apart or distinct from the unbelieving world? When push comes to shove, would any observer be able to pick today’s edgy/authentic/real/raw/not-your-grandmother’s Christian out of the proverbial crowd? In what ways are we embodying the call to be salt and light, a city on a hill (Matt. 5:13–16), and a “royal priesthood” called out of darkness and into light (1 Peter 2:9)?
Because I adore good food and drink, I thought I'd recap 2012 through the lens of culinary highlights. Below are my picks for the best things I ate and the best places in L.A. (all of which I recommend to fellow food-lovers!).
A major biblical theme as it relates to food is thanksgiving for God’s provision. One of the most interesting food-related stories in Scripture is the miraculous appearance of manna each morning for the Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness (Exodus 16:4). That they gathered only enough for one day on each morning demonstrated the extent to which they had to trust and depend on God’s faithfulness. For them, the manna was a very tangible, honey-tasting reminder of why eating food is an act of thanksgiving.
How do Christians engage the culture in a way that enriches our spiritual walk, edifies God, and contributes to broader human flourishing? How should we go about consuming potentially dicey — but also potentially edifying — areas of pop culture? How do we get the most out of that which we consume, and how do we discern what is and isn't appropriate among the vast range of cultural goods, experiences, and products to which we are daily beckoned as consumers? These are the sorts of questions I'm always asking, and they're questions that loom large in my next book project.
I’ve been reminiscing/laughing about my CCM youth a lot recently, sort of longing for a return to a musical world where we knew Christian bands from secular. Things are so fuzzy nowadays (are they or aren’t they Christian?), and it seems that many CCM bands are trying a little too hard to be subtle about it. Be out with it, I say!
Yes, it is ridiculous that there is such a thing as “Christian music.” I am totally of the mind that the contemporary Christian music industry is something that never should have existed, and that most of its output has, in fact, been utterly forgettable. That said, however, I must admit that not ALL of so-called “Christian” music (and in my definition, it’s basically any music made with Christian spirituality in mind or in heart) is horrific bilge. Some of it is good, and some even great. I suppose that in any largely-crappy genre of anything, there are some standouts. In this case, I think that the following ten albums more than hold their own in the company of any other “best-of” list, secular or otherwise. So, without further ado, here’s my list of the best “Christian” albums of all time (and when I say “all time,” I mean anything after 1990… which is when I started buying albums):
U2, The Joshua Tree (1987): It might seem cheap and superficially obligatory to include this album on a list like this (b/c U2 has never and will never call themselves a “Christian” band), but there’s no denying: this album is the one of the most glisteningly spiritual creations in pop music history.
Sufjan Stevens, Seven Swans (2004): Again, not a traditionally CCM artist, but Sufjan Stevens can’t be left off of this list. I’m convinced that history will look back on Sufjan as a turning point in the musical trajectory of “spiritual” music. Perhaps now Christians who are into good music won’t feel ashamed if they care more about being true and artistic rather than obvious and didactic.
Jars of Clay, Much Afraid (1997): Some might claim that Jars of Clay’s debut album (with that happily earthy feel) is their finest work. However, I’ve always contended that Much Afraid is their masterpiece. Subtle, subdued, and sonically rich (with gorgeously lingering songs like “Frail”), this sophomore album from a seminal CCM band is truly worthy of accolades.
Pedro the Lion, It’s Hard to Find a Friend (1998): When David Bazan (aka Pedro the Lion) emerged from the Seattle indie/emo scene in the late 90s, he was like the Christian version of Kurt Cobain (tortured, passionate, dark) with the mellow style of Eddie Vedder. His first full-length album remains his best, with quietly tragic (and catchy) tunes like “Big Trucks” and “When They Really Get to Know You They Will Run.”
Over the Rhine, Ohio (2003): This could be my favorite album of all time. Certainly it’s the best album ever to come from blatantly Christian artists. The folky double-disc masterpiece from Cincinnati’s best kept secret is nothing short of magnificent, with its backwoods mystery and latter days prophetic gravitas (“Changes Come”). There are about six songs from this album that should be sung in churches every Sunday.
Sixpence None the Richer, Sixpence None the Richer (1998): Though the uber-catchy “Kiss Me” got all the press, the rest of this album is equally marvelous. Leigh Nash—the queen of CCM’s “indie” sound—gave beautiful form to Matt Slocum’s well-crafted classics on this album, which remains a rainyday staple and a major step into mainstream success for CCM.
Caedmon’s Call, Caedmon’s Call (1997): This is an album of the “college folk” movement in the late 90s in which “earthy” bands with world music leanings became “alternatives” for the over-18 set. Caedmon’s Call filled the Christian niche nicely with this album, which—among other things—launched the solo career of Derek Webb, who would later become the Martin Luther of CCM.
Waterdeep, Everyone’s Beautiful (1999): Even more grassroots and folky than their contemporaries Caedmon’s Call, the Kansas City-based Waterdeep became something of a legend among Christian hipsters for a few years in the late 90s/early 00s. Everyone’s Beautiful is their most diverse, satisfying album, though their live shows are still this band’s strongest suit.
DC Talk, Jesus Freak (1995): Though it can’t be denied that this album is a two-year delayed derivative of the grunge craze, it also can’t be denied that Jesus Freak is a super catchy, well-crafted effort from CCM’s favorite boy band. Give the trio credit: they went from rap outfit to rock band in seamless fashion, reinventing the Christian music industry (and giving it license to rock!) along the way.
Switchfoot, New Way to be Human (1999): Though this San Diego surfer band has since fallen victim to “crossover” MTV irrelevance, their older stuff is actually quite good. I especially like this album for its beautiful ballads (“Sooner or Later,” “Let That Be Enough,” and “Only Hope”) which appeared all over teen media (Dawson’s Creek, Party of Five, A Walk to Remember) in the late 90s.
Honorable mention: Burlap to Cashmere, Anybody Out There? (1998), The Innocence Mission, Christ is My Hope (2000), Eisley, Room Noises (2005), Danielson, Ships (2006), Half-handed Cloud, Halos and Lassoes (2006), Rich Mullins, Songs (1996), Vigilantes of Love, Audible Sigh (1999), Damien Jurado, Rehearsals for Departure (1999), Relient K, The Anatomy of Tongue in Cheek (2001), Audio Adrenaline, Bloom (1996).