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Monday
Jan052015

Unpacking Christian Cultural Backlash

I know, I know… Christians are an easy target for just about every kind of criticism these days.  Criticism doesn’t just come from outside perspectives anymore.  In fact, I would suggest that Christians have gotten incredibly skilled at attacking their “one body,” like a form of aggressive cancer.  Why?  I can’t really answer that.  But at the onset of 2015, I would love to see the attacks become less prevalent.  

I recently stumbled upon an article describing the state of the union of so-called Christian music.  It was bleak.  That is, the article was bleak, maybe not the state of “Christian music.”   The so-called “journalist,” felt like he and the rest of the Jesus loving community had been duped.  Christian artists were now dropping like flies.  The artist community was part of a mass exodus away from orthodoxy and well wrought Christian fundamentals.   He described a landscape of seed thrown on rocky and thorn-marbled ground.  Artists were being choked and uprooted left and right.  Like I said, the article was bleak.  

The examples the writer gave to prove his position included artists, Michael Gungor and Vicky Beeching along with a slight career spanning nod to Amy Grant. He might have just needed a Festivus-esque moment to vent his own frustration and disappointment.   Whatever his motivation for writing the editorial masquerading in journalistic clothing, it got me thinking about why Christians are so often disappointed in the artists they once loved. 

I guess it all really does start with a song.  An unsuspecting artist writes something that gets picked up and broadcast to the masses.  It resonates with people in a way that allows people to feel things they haven’t had permission to feel before.  For some it is the first time their own emotions have been given words or utterances that pin point something they could not express.  It is a powerful thing.  It is also not the artist’s fault.  Beyond being thoughtfully self-aware and eloquent, the songwriter must disavow any implication in the way a song actually connects with the masses.  Songwriters write about what they know to be true in their own lives, community and birds eye view of the world.  If they do a good job at that, if they do not lie, the truth spreads like a drop of dye in a bucket of water.  But the artist has zero control over the way someone else interprets and responds to the song. 

So many factors are responsible for a song's connection to a mass audience.  Culture, history, war, economics, social landscape, political cycle, technological innovation, emotion, geography, and a thousand other things moving from broad 40,000 foot perspectives to the thing a person ate for breakfast can all contribute to the success or failure of a song to truly weave itself into the collective conscience and become the soundtrack for the masses.  Sometimes even talent can play a role. 

That said, we do give artists a great deal of credit.  But the point of connection is not what matters most to me in this conversation.  It is what happens next.  Once an artist makes a connection to the masses everything changes.  The honeymoon is immediately over.   Whether it be spurred on by an overly curious media frenzy or fan mania, we require something completely unrealistic from our artists.  We demand that artists have informed opinions.  Not necessarily about their own music, but rather, we force them to know about societal issues and religious conundrums oft wrestled by theologians, philosopher and intellectuals for decades or even centuries without clarity or conclusion.  There are few topics that escape our need for the artist’s perspective. Fashion, economics, religion, ethics, justice, sexuality, morality, politics…and the list goes on and on.  We'd prefer all our artists be Tom Ashbrook with a guitar and a tattoo. 

This is not entirely bad.  Pressing in on an artist can serve as a way to provoke them to explore and observe the world with greater discipline and thoughtful responsibility.   The pressure can help an artist form their space as a thought leader or develop an artist’s keen eye and voice used to describe our ever changing world back to us and thus give us a chance to see it more rightly and with greater hopes that we can make it better.  In other words, our pressing in can help train up a prophet. 

Eventually the artist is nurtured into a space where they often display a mixture of tendencies both narcissistic and prophetic in form… (we are human, after all.)

Occasionally, the artist looks carefully at the world and decides to speak out of their prophetic role.  Even if “Jedi training” is not fully completed, they write a song or article asking a “forbidden” or provocative question. Or the artist makes a statement based on their own emotional state, conviction, or view from the stretch of road they currently can see, and the masses don’t like what they hear.  Often an artist ends up with a pesky spotlight on their less than devout lifestyle.  It happens all the time. 

This is the part that matters.   The damaging and often inhumane ways that individuals and masses respond to the artist should tell us something about the distorted ways we use music and artistic expression.

Obviously something must be awry when the masses respond with accusations of heresy and backsliding.  Something is wrong when the proverbial pitchforks and lanterns come out and the artist is assumed to be a witch or even described as a, quote, “minion of Satan.”  (yes, I was called this.) Something is askew when the CD's are pulled from shelves and the church denounces God's ability to work through the artist's expressions.

Boy, if only everyone's bosses and working establishments would do the same over the lies we tell and the ways we treat our spouses in private or the way we drink too much on occasion or the way... well, you get the idea.  (I know, you have proclaimed the artist to be a "christian leader" and so they are judged differently...but who proclaimed them? Did they do it themselves? Did you? Did CCM magazine? Was it the Dove Award they won for "Christian Leader of the Year?")

Music listening is a hopeful engagement.  We listen with the desire to feel connection, surprise, challenge, wonder, and comfort.  Whether we know it or not, we have expectations that we hope are met when we place the needle down or switch on our music subscription services to hear a new song.   Those hopes are affirmed and met or dashed and unachieved.  Our engagement with music can be a potent drug depending on our listening habits and motives giving us the purest kind of high or the darkest crash.

What kind of person reacts to artists so negatively as to seek to destroy their career or platform or even personal reputation? 

I would suggest that people who front load their engagement of musical expressions with the requirement that a song should affirm their own bias or their particular understanding of God and the world are the dangerous sorts of people that end up reacting with unbalanced anger, frustration and even violence against artists.  Sadly, we probably all land on the spectrum at some point if the artists we listen to are strapped with the weight of our unrealistic expectations.  The understanding that we have any ownership in the artists who create music we love to the end that we require that artist to fall in line with us is incredibly toxic and sorely misguided.  This way of engaging the artist community needs to end. 

So how do we know if we are on that spectrum?  I think we can start by asking a question.  When we resonate with a song or connect with an artistic expression, what do we require next from that artist?   Do we require them to bend and mold themselves and their expressions subservient to our emotional or spiritual expectations? 

My gut tells me that we are to various degrees, all implicated in this distorted way of approaching art and responding to artists.   We can’t really help ourselves can we?

The hard truth is that we cannot control artistic expression.   We cannot expect artists to believe what we believe the way we believe it.   A healthy worldview and mature faith leave room for blind spots in our understanding of God and humanity.   A dynamic faith allows God to look, sound, taste, and feel different in God’s revelation to one person than to another.  These realities are what make art and music so vibrant and important to our lives.  Art brings the color and the aroma and the beauty while not sacrificing the mystery.  If you have slandered an artist or editorialized about their personal faith or heretical perspective a conversation needs to happen.  We need to stop burning thoughtful artists at the stake. 

How many times must it be spoken or written?  How many stories about God using the broken, undiscerning, unwise, unloved people to carry out the message of grace and truth that leads to freedom do we need to read before it sets in and gives us reason to lighten up on the artists in our community? 

I hope that 2015 marks the end of the silly and completely unfounded accusations of heresy or un-godliness toward artists that experience the living God in ways that are different from our own.  I hope that we see the value in having songs and stories and prose that asks uncomfortable questions about the core elements of our faith and worldview.  We need them. 

We need to make a choice to welcome the hard questions instead of fearing that they will undermine God or tarnish the human soul.  (hint:  they won’t.)

Go hug an artist.  Happy New Year!!!

Thursday
Jan012015

Welcome to 2015, The Year of the _____________!

Here we go...

We love clean slates don’t we?  However intimidating a blank canvas can be, it still represents the potential for something great.  It is strange to me that the turning of a single number on a yearly calendar can give me the sensation of newness.  It is a form of jubilee, where my emotional and personal debts seem to be forgiven and I am able to walk a bit lighter.   What happened overnight?  Was there some kind of supernatural intervention tagging in and allowing me to escape through the ropes?

Whatever that sense of newness is and no matter where it come from or how oddly feeble it’s origins, it is somehow real.  It changes the story.  I find myself in a different mental space today than I was in yesterday. 

Taking inventory of our blessings and mistakes is never a bad experience or exercise.  It is always a good method to get us on course.  For many of us New Years Celebrations are the only opportunity we take to learn from our blunders and mistakes.  We slow down just enough to see the landscape behind us and offer a sigh of relief that whatever stupid turn we took or risk we cowardly chose not to take did not kill us.   We survey our wounds and scabs from the previous year and recognize that when all was said and done, we still don’t have a firm idea of how our stories will turn out.    How often am I left with a single sentence, “Wow, I didn’t see that coming” on the tip of my tongue?  

Even still, today we get to start over.  We get to take the pen and begin the first words of the new chapter.  We offer our own gripping line to draw us in.  We write our own, “It was a dark and stormy night…” 

We get the next few days to push off from the shore of last year in a new direction before the wind and waves do their magic and join in the journey or before the other characters in our story add their own unpredictable influence on our path. 

I hope the next week will be filled with good music, good contemplation, reflection and inspiration.  I hope the brush feels comfortable in your hand, and that the keys strike in a familiar and confident cadence.  My wish for you and for me is that we find ourselves warmed by a fire so brilliant and wild, born out of our dreams and ideas for a life better lived, a love more readily offered and a hope more sincerely spoken.  

Happy New Year!  Welcome to 2015….  The Year of the ______________________________!

 

-Dan

Wednesday
Dec312014

THE FATIGUE FIGHT

THE FATIGUE FIGHT

Are you feeling fatigued yet?  Have the requests in your email inbox, FB feed and Twitter account finally elicited the anti-response of glazed eyes as they merge into white noise and fade into the ambient background of things you can’t control, fix or care about?   You are not alone. 

I have already turned glossy eyed over the amount of requests to make an end of the year donation to a myriad of organizations and causes that although, I care about, are not so visceral that I should act upon their requests.   It scares me a little.   Why?  Because I have spent the last decade trying to convince people why they should care and why they should act.  I have stood upon stage after stage telling the story of my friends in Africa and doing my best to show that their story is not so far away.  Their story is not so different than our own.  And for years, I have been amazed at the response.   But this year feels different.   I feel like we are starting over. 

There has been a rebirth of cynicism that I had hoped would never be seen again.  The tall weeds of organizational operations and financial percentages have trumped the dreamers into hibernation.   The “what ifs,” have been stunted and answered with “practical wisdom.”  Don’t get me wrong, the reason so many organizations and ideas fail to thrive is that the people who run them or have them ignore the advice of those who have walked the road that they are embarking on.   No healthy organization should spend needless energy reinventing the wheel. 

In the last decade the landscape of humanitarian causes has had an amazing level of growth.  It was like watching a tree explode and seeing every splintered piece land on the ground to begin the growth of a new and different tree, the colors and textures of the leaves and bark showing different in character as the one growing inches away. 

The work of helping and empowering people in need moved to the creative boutique level.  With the advent of social media, the stories of people in crisis, in poverty, in the grip of injustice, finally landed where we all needed them to land, in our living rooms and around our dining room tables.  We began to hear individual stories that connected with our hearts rather than just the obtuse and overwhelming declaration of poverty and disease in mass scale.  We started understanding the humanity and urgency of the people in crises.  We started relating to their desires as they wished and aspired to the same kinds of things we did.  Mothers just want the best for their children.  Fathers just wanted to find work.  Our hearts were so engaged.  And from the heart came a desire to be involved.  It all became spectacularly...well,... human.

We all found ourselves tearing up over the story of the boy throwing stranded starfish back into the sea as thousands still rested hopeless on the beach.  We knew and hated the cynical voice of the old man saying, “Why bother, you know you can’t save them all?”   And we were inspired to see the right response of the boy who never stopped his seemingly futile task even while saying, “ I can save this one, and this one, and this one…etc.”   

There was something to the ground level storytelling and smaller scale investment that meant everyone could make a difference, and it didn’t even take that much away from our normal every day routines. We could do what we loved and add deeper meaning at the same time.  And it was what the world needed. It was what most of us needed.  It was a rescue from our trivia.  But that very rescue for so many has become more of a cinderblock than a life raft. 

Here we are today with a tidal wave of small organizations asking for money, signatures, or for re-tweets, making us feel overwhelming.  We are not inspired to give.  We are provoked to unsubscribe.   I can relate. 

So, how would I convince you to still give?  How can I convince you that your involvement in the stories matters?  There are no breadcrumbs leading back to our passionate moments when we first heard that it was possible to provide clean water to a person for only a $1.  I can’t manufacture the passionate response, that audible sigh when you found that the ramp into serving people in need was easy enough for even your children to understand and act upon.  There was something powerful when you heard about a crisis, had your heart broken, and then were given a real chance to make an impact in the lives of those whose story had captured your attention.   

As stewards of the stories of people we work to serve, we have to do our best to show you the hope your attention brings.  We must do our best to share how courageous an act it truly is to support an organization that helps people thrive with dignity and health.   We are ALL fatigued.  We ALL ping-pong between what more can we do and why do we need to care.   

My hope for you, for me, and for everyone today is that we will find ourselves passionate enough to make one last offering in 2014 to the work of restoring families, bringing education to those who do not have it, fueling the hopes of mothers who want their children to be healthy, making less of our own temporary struggles in order to change the geography of those who have suffered for generations upon generations for lack of things we have so readily at our access.   

Today is a day to be generous.  It is a day to be thankful, and it is a day to be courageous.   Fight the fatigue one last time in 2014. 

I would humbly ask that you make a donation to bloodwater.org, but honestly, I would simply ask that you support the work of any organization that serves and loves people well.   And…I look forward to building a better world with you in 2015.

Happy New Year!  -Dan Haseltine

Tuesday
Dec092014

White. (How Did I Get Here?)

I am white.  In fact, I am so white that my mother used to give me small doses of Antihistamine when I was a child because it drew color into my cheeks.  It is a common understanding amongst my friends and family that I have the ability to repel sunlight, a skill that leaves me neither Coppertone tanned or Lobster red.  I simply arrive at the beach and then leave having not a single change in pigment or shade.  No tan lines.  I haven’t always cared about being white.  It hasn’t been a focus for me except in the limited moments when I found myself lost in some inner-city neighborhood or when I inadvertently scared African children who had never seen someone with my skin color set foot in their village.  Aside from those experiences, I have never had to give much attention to the color of my skin and so I have not had to give much thought to how I have been privileged because of it.

But this is a moment in history that cannot be shrugged off.  We cannot simply coast along and disregard our implication and influence in the effect and affect of those whose skin color has kept many forms of freedom and equality at bay. 

To be blunt, this is not a conversation I want to have.  This is not a topic that I want to address.  It is not something I can speak to with much life experience anchoring the points I make.  But I have read enough, and listened enough and have kept my eyes open long enough to offer a perspective that may be helpful to some.

I will attempt to keep this as brief as possible, as I know the way you operate.  No one likes to read long essays.  We live in a culture based in 140 character conversations, emoticons, and Snap-chats.  And life is becoming faster and more disposable with every text. Even if McDonald’s earnings are down a significant 5% this fiscal year, we still value brevity over quality.

I’d like to start at the beginning.  White western culture has been a fly in the ointment of equality for centuries.  History whether revisionist or not has not been able to fully hide the fact that white people have always thought a bit too highly of ourselves.  And we have historically established some pretty asinine ideas about bone structures or heights or facial features or skin colors that mean a person is more valuable than another.  We should not think for a second that we have ever embraced the concept of equality with any true fervor.  The closest we have come is best exemplified in the famous quote from Benjamin Franklin, “All men are created equal… some more than others.”

The genocide that took place between once peaceful and intermixed tribes in Rwanda began decades before when the Belgians enforced their colonial hierarchy of value and separated the tribes based on the length of the nose and structural features of the faces of tribes.  They basically came in and started a system of marginalization that grew until 1994 when more than 100,000 people were mutilated and hacked to death in less than 100 days. 

That was only one example of how whites have acted on our perceived sense of superiority over other races.  I am going to step out on a limb and indict the white man as acting superior when we offered small pox contaminated blankets to the natives in that historic Thanksgiving season.  In the name of freedom and the ability to worship God in our own way, we enslaved and dehumanized everyone else.

It was not simply the act of establishing a human hierarchy between other races that was problematic.  It was the mindset that we had thinking we even had the right to step in and declare anything of the sort.  Who were we to make such judgments?

Who are we to suggest that a person, because of their skin color, is expendable, or useful only to our own ends, or for our own means?  We have skated by never having been accountable to those questions. 

Let’s continue with historic slavery.  We live somewhat enlightened these days, and most white people believe that slavery was cruel and wrong.  We have watched The Color Purple, Roots, Glory, Amistad, 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained.  The portrayals we observe on the screen leave us little elbowroom to argue the positive benefits to humanity that slave culture provided.  It was evil. 

The modern civil rights movement that has ebbed and flowed over the past 50 years has taught many of us that our ideas about color have been grossly out of balance.  Our white supremacy reared its face in the form of lynching’s and burning crosses and dignity stripping assigned water fountains, bus seats, schools and restaurants. 

And although most of us are quick to see how wrong things like segregation are, we are slow to understand and acknowledge the long lasting structures and systems that are resting faithfully on the inhumane foundation of racial inequality that we, the white people of the world, benefit from every day. 

It is a hard pill to swallow.  No one wants to look in the mirror and see a racist staring back.  But lets face it.  We might as well admit that we are recovering racists because when we don’t, we are simply committing another act of racism. There is no way out of this one.  

It isn’t that we outright embrace ideas of racism as it has historically played out. …at least the majority of us do not.  It is that we fail to acknowledge and break the constructs of racism that have and presently are giving us the upper hand compared to those it oppresses.

To put it crassly, lets say there is a torrential rain that causes the land to flood.  We escape the floodwaters because we live in a house that was built on top of other houses inhabited by people who have drowned or are presently drowning.  It’s complicated, and also very simple.  We have two choices. We can either continue to live in the house enjoying the benefit of our safety without acknowledging the people who drowned and are currently drowning to give us our safety.  Or we must choose to undermine the foundation and bring light to the people who are suffering under the weight of our safety.  This would mean that we would probably get a little wet. 

White people benefit every day from foundations of racial inequality that exist in the form of job opportunities, educational, geographic, and economic opportunities.  It also plays out in the fears and prejudices that hold influence over the institutions of criminal justice and trickles down to homeowners associations.  

I spoke with an elementary school student recently.  I asked him for his perspective on black people in his school.  He said that the black people were not as smart as the white people.  This seemed like a harsh and probably unfounded statement, but for the sake of conversation, I let it stand.  “Do you think, if given the same opportunity and set in a more common environment that the black kids would be just as smart as the white kids?”  His response to that question was utter silence.  I could tell he was just thinking about all the layers that had to be uncovered to answer that question with more than just a hopeful positive. 

White people are so free we have to create cages for ourselves.  We set our own boundaries.  We make up things to fear.  We develop the knee jerk reaction of being offended.  But honestly, we get to live where we want to, shop where we want to, apply for jobs with an unbridled trust that we actually have a good shot at landing it.  We can trust that our police officers are there for our protection.  We can lean on the banks to give us loans without the threat of overwhelming and impossible obstacles.  We are not immediately perceived as suspect when we enter a gas station or shopping mall.  These are things we take for granted as white people.  I know I do. 

Being white has its inarguable privileges.  It always has.  And even though I strongly believe that opportunities are made and not just taken thus there is a bottomless well for the making and seizing, the harsh reality of life is that we function as if opportunities come as a result of taking away opportunities from someone else. 

Social constructs being what they are, it will take generations to identify and demolish the racially perverse systems that we live with.  And that all begins with the acknowledging that they exist, and that we have benefitted. 

I have heard so many of my white friends flippantly ask why black people can’t move on and get over it. ..As if the very same structures that have given them opportunities and security have not and are not balanced on the other end by ambient and present oppression.

As Mel Brooks said, and Tom Petty sang, “It’s good to be king.”  But every king knows the weights and balances that keep everything working to their advantage.  And it is time that we remove ourselves from the racial throne and look carefully at our foundations, histories, and lifestyle.  We have been given an opportunity to choose love for all humanity.  We have all been handed a pen to write the next chapter of world history.   Do we continue to live out of our ignorance or do we accept that we are implicated in the history of oppression and inequality and find a healthy forum for repentance and reconciliation? 

I won’t turn these musings into a pep talk.  The issue is too complex and although it began on the surface with a judgment based on skin color, it is a matter of hearts and souls.    So at the very least, even as we roll our eyes at looters and violent protestors, take some time making an inventory of what you hold dear.  List the ways your life is beautiful and free.  Ask yourself the question David Byrne posed in the 80’s… “You may ask yourself… “How did I get here?”

Monday
Dec082014

Advent...

Waiting.  We need not give too much of our attention to the percentage of our lives spent in the state of waiting.  We know it is a lot.  It is more than a visceral or present function.  Waiting is an ambient and consistent tone, the eternal ringing in our ears that often we are deaf to, but occasionally aware that it does not go away. 

We are waiting right now.  It is, quite possibly, the very thing, like the tension of a great story that keeps us moving forward.  I might even suggest that if there were no waiting, there would be no living.  There would be no hoping. 

It seems to me that the escalation of abuse, racial discrimination and violence, war, and suffering does not seem out of place.  When we enter the season of Advent we must raise our eyes up to see if whom we are waiting for is coming.  The view before us, is undoubtedly obscured by things neglected or unacknowledged.  We see the world with such clarity.  If what we wait for is peace, love, and understanding, we will see more vividly, the places, the people, the acts that say, “It is not here yet.” 

It draws our hearts and minds to lament.  The human heart with its enormous capacity for holding pain and suffering, in its broken state, cannot hold everything.  It cannot deal with the weight of watching a man die at the hand of police brutality just as the mind cannot organize the puzzle of racial discrimination and hatred that set the acts into motion over the bleeding of hundreds of years. 

In the absence of a path filled with light, or a compass, or a plumb line, we must lament.  We must wait.  Advent is a time of careful and thoughtful attention to the way the world is and the way the world should be.  It is a time of wonder about things we cannot describe and yet long for with every beat of our hearts.  Advent is a time to let our imaginations stride the sacred space of bridges not yet built across the chasm of where we are and whom we are to where we could be and who we could be.  

And we do hope that this point in the history of all things will be brief.  That it will be followed by a time, as C.S. Lewis might have imagined, that is much more like Christmas and much less like winter.  While we wait, while the days of Advent unfold, let us pray for those we do not understand.  Let us pray for those whose very existence provokes us to act less humane.  Let us be mindful that our story is not the only one with pain and disappointment.  May we continue to speak hope to one another through the simple acts of kindness and respect that we perpetuate even if they seem futile and disconnected. 

Waiting is not easy.  It is not easy for anyone.  And we are all waiting.  What will we be about?  What story will we tell?  What star will we point to?  What ways will we serve those within arms reach?  What will we do while we wait?

May your Advent be lightened by the weight of hope. 

-Dan