Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Get Rid of Your TV

What?! Prude! Legalist! Religious Pharisee!

I know. I was thinking the same thing. It seems ridiculous, indeed impossible, in our day and in our culture. But oh man is it convicting, especially to someone who struggles with laziness to the degree I know I do. I so want to be “jealous for my evenings”. And I’m not even married, and have no kids. If and when I do I hope I can be exponentially more jealous for my evenings, and my time in general, so that I can savor the time with them, and the time with God with them, instead of watching my brain be sucked out by Alec Baldwin on a commercial for Hulu.

So let me tell you what I’m going to try to do. If you watched this video exchange with John Piper and Mark Driscoll, and then hopefully read this article clarification of Piper’s heart in this matter, you probably find that you agree more with Driscoll. So do I. I don’t think I’m going to get rid of my TV (s) or stop going to the movies. It would be great for extra cash, but not necessary I don’t think. However, I do feel convicted to get a hold of myself and not let my TV watching push me over the cliff of wasting my short life, or lead me in the opposite direction of seeing and experiencing the beauty of Christ. No entertainment is worth either.

I’m going to gage everything I watch through the filter of Philippians 4:8 in an effort to discipline my mind. Is that reasonable? Is it ridiculous? Whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, excellent, praiseworthy; this is what I should think on, and if what I am watching on TV is making me think about other things, it doesn’t make the cut. Help me, please. This is going to be crazy hard, but it’ll be worth it. Let’s see how this plays out in my normal TV watching habits:

SEINFELD

This is, and will always be, the best situational comedy on television. The simple brilliance of this show can hardly be described and will never be replaced. The casting of characters and raw acting performances were historic. I became somewhat obsessed with this show in high school, right around the time it was ending. Now, having seen each episode about ten times, I find myself referencing lines on the show in any and all circumstances. The comedy and timing of Jerry Seinfeld alone has had a huge impact on my communication style, for good or for bad. Certain parts still leave me on the floor. To me, it makes it all the more funny to know that maybe I’m the only one who thought that particular line was funny enough to leave me on the floor. Oh the subtlety.

As you know, this show is now known for the fact that it was about nothing. Essentially it was about four thirty somethings living life in New York City hardly working, complaining, drinking coffee, and screwing people over (as was so brilliantly culminated in the Finale). The nothingness of the show has been rightly described as a dangerous and ungodly portrayal of our culture and the meaning of life. Living anything like any of the characters on the show will surely be considered a wasted life when it’s all said and done. The little mention of the most glorious being in the universe (Jesus Christ) was only as a few punch lines (some fairly hilarious ones, though).

Still, it was a television show, so what would you expect? If viewed with the right amount of wisdom and discernment, lots of material from this show will present itself for use in biblical gospel presentations. I'm serious. Take for example the following dialogue between George and Kramer in the episode The Keys:

Kramer: Do you ever yearn?
George: Yearn, do I yearn?
Kramer: I yearn.
George: You yearn?
Kramer: Oh yes, yes, I yearn. Often, I sit, and yearn. Have you yearned?
George: Well not recently. I crave. I crave all the time; constant craving. I haven’t yearned.
Kramer: Look at you.
George: Oh, Kramer, don’t start!
Kramer: No, no, you’re wasting your life.
George: I am not. What you call wasting, I call living. I’m living my life.
Kramer: Oh ok, like what? No, tell me. Do you have a job?
George: No.
Kramer: Do you have any money?
George: No.
Kramer: Do you have a woman?
George: No.
Kramer: Do you have any prospects?
George: No.
Kramer: Do you have anything on the horizon?
George: Uh, no.
Kramer: Do you have any action at all?
George: No.
Kramer: Do you have any conceivable reason for even getting up in the morning?
George: I like to get The Daily News.
Kramer: George, its time for us to grow up and be men. Not little boys.
George: Why?

If you know this episode, you know that Kramer’s yearning led him to California to “find himself” after a key dispute with Jerry. Perhaps you’ve had a similar trip or period of life. I used this scene at a talk for Greek Intervarsity Christian Fellowship at IU once. My talk was on the relevance of Jesus in our joy, and my point was to tell the narrative of the Bible, to see the final accomplishment in the cross of Christ, and the final completion in the second coming of Christ, where we will have complete joy. I said that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the only complete source of joy now, and the only source of complete joy in the future. And then I asked them the same questions Kramer asked George, and I said, even if your answers were yes, how is your joy? Is it on a trajectory of completion in Jesus, or is it precariously jumping from one temporary pleasure to the next, waiting, desperately, for something to cling to, perhaps in California like Kramer? His challenge is valid and relevant to us: are we wasting our lives?

So I will continue to watch this show, when the opportunity presents itself, and trust that God can use it to expose the gospel in my life and through my life. There is value in humorously viewing our brokenness in a way that leads to the glory of a blood-stained cross, and amazingly, I think Seinfeld can be the context for that.

THE OFFICE

So far I have not found any sermon illustrations in The Office (I'm still looking). As you probably know, this show is all kinds of awkward and usually outright inappropriate. But I think it is excellent, and so as per Philippians 4:8, I’m going to watch. It has its issues, and some episodes fall short of the description of “classic”. But some greatly exceed that description. The characters alone (most of them) just make me so happy. So I think, by the grace of God, I can watch this show (and you can too!) through the filter of Philippians 4:8. Plus I work in an office so surely some of the lessons transfer over. Wish me luck. Good luck.

SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE

Yes, I watch this show. Does that surprise you? I’ve mentioned that I do before, and even showed a clip of my personal favorite audition. I’ve said that if the title of the show were a question addressed to me, my answer would unequivocally be NO. Sadly. In my book, though, it’s the best entertainment on television. And when I say entertainment, I mean the full spectrum: funny, creative, exciting, suspenseful, breathtaking, intelligent, glamorous, and professional. I’ve personally become very intrigued by the choreography. Not being an artist, I would say that it seems to be one of the most creative, difficult, and comprehensive forms of art. It showcases story-telling, technique, beauty, emotion, and creative expression in a way no other art form I can think of does. And it captures all that in a fleeting moment that you can’t hang on a wall. And it brings out parts of the creativity and brilliance of another, related, art form - namely music - that may not otherwise have been seen. I usually like a song a lot better after I have seen a brilliant routine danced to it.

Anyway, you should watch the show, because I think you will be amazed. Unlike Dancing with the Stars, which you may know, it features talent and diversity in style and training that is beautiful and unpredictable. Unlike American Idol, which you certainly know, it actually becomes more entertaining, instead of less so, once the auditions are over. Unlike just about any other reality show, it has purpose beyond the TV ratings, and seeks to expose to the world a unique art form and develop the industry that displays that art in a healthy way.

But it is not perfect, and its purpose is not primarily to display the beauty of Jesus, so viewers (like me) who care about not wasting their lives should take caution. What it does do, purposefully or not, is display beauty that only a Sovereign and intricate God could create. If you’re not moved by the elegant, and sometimes freakish, dancing in some of these routines you need to check your pulse. So in that sense, it displays the common grace that God has lavished on all his children by creating us in His image and giving us skills and abilities that show His glory in very unique, creative, and irreplaceable ways. That is praiseworthy.

Of course, the instant that beauty is attributed to the people and not the God that created the people, you are on a slippery slope. I’m not na├»ve – the show is also entertaining because of the beautiful people. They don’t have to be moving to be beautiful, but indeed the moving makes them more so; in some cases scandalously. If you grew up in a legalistic, strict church culture that didn’t allow dancing, you know what I’m talking about and I’ve either already lost you at this point or started to articulate for you finally your opposition to the rules all these years.

Perhaps if all this could be true about the beauty of the people without the costume design, or lack of costume design if you know what I mean, that is featured every week, than it wouldn’t even be an issue. But it isn't true without that, so it is an issue, and I’m totally aware of it and totally vulnerable to it. But with anything, there is a thin line between appreciating the beauty in order to praise your Father in heaven, and worshipping the beauty because of the temporary pleasure of eye candy. And walking that line and coming out closer to Christ in the end is honoring to God. But knowing that you are going to fall off the tight rope the minute you start walking, and still get on it anyway, is not honoring to God. I intend to walk the tight rope and come out praising my Father in heaven. But I am aware of the risk, hope you are too, and pray that together we can encourage each other to keep our balance.

NEWS

To me, watching the news is the classic example of balancing being in the world but not of the world. It is a very difficult balance. I watch, probably, not enough local news and too much national news. I don’t know why this is. When something “breaking” is going on, I’m pretty much hooked. The death of Michael Jackson, September 11, presidential debates, the plane that landed on the Hudson; the stories they talk about for days and days are usually the ones I watch. And I think that is good. Its good to know what’s going on, good to see the emotions and perspectives of people, good to be educated on what excites and affects our culture. But I have found, specifically with news of a political nature, that there is a point in my watching where it is no longer healthy. Have you experienced this? You know you are watching just to get mad at somebody or something. Even if your (my) anger is justified, I think this is the point the TV should go off, or at least changed, to Seinfeld, The Office, or So You Think You Can Dance (among perhaps other things).

But the news is important, and, I would say, mostly noble. It is not always true, but the more professional networks don’t mislead intentionally. So it makes it through my filter, but I will be careful. And I’m convicted to be aware of more local news so that I can more easily relate with my immediate community.

SPORTS

For me, my engagement in sports is simple. I play golf and tennis and basketball (and occasionally wiffleball, as of late). I watch NCAA basketball religiously, NCAA football consistently, NFL football moderately, golf and tennis on lazy Sundays, and everything else sparingly. I get emotionally involved in IU basketball. I get really excited for March madness and college football bowl season. I root loyally for the Colts. I like the Pacers and the Chicago Cubs, but my heart is not with them. After that, my amount of sports intake and knowledge is probably less than most men my age.

So probably I don't need to say much about this category. Two things I should mention though. First, some athletic stories are so inspiring and miraculous that watching them on TV may be one of the best things you can do with your time. People like Jimmy V., Tony Dungy, Tim Tebow, Tiger Woods, and others whose names you wouldn't recognize, give performances and examples that are certainly praiseworthy beyond words. I think it would be hard to understand the emotion and drive of people without being aware of and experiencing many sports stories like this. So you should.

But second, I know the danger of having a favorite team that you prioritize above everything else in your life almost on accident. I know what it is like to be actually depressed after a devastating loss and not want to do anything or talk to anyone. I am an IU basketball fan, so if you're needing to feel sorry for someone, feel sorry for me (until the program recovers and we dominate again...). I still am not quite over the loss to Minnesota that added insult to injury after the debacle of Kelvin Sampson. I try to read this post frequently to maintain my perspective on the bigger picture.

Moral of the story is there is a lot more I could say about sports; more about the value and more about the danger of obsession. But I think you understand my point. Moderation. No team can die for your sins and no championship will satisfy your soul. So go Hoosiers, and praise Jesus.

MOVIES

This is a hard one for me because sometime in college I made the decision that I either was going to have a DVD collection, or I wasn’t. There was no reason to go halfway. So I began one, and now 300 movies later, I could easily spend the majority of my leisure time watching morally suspect content on a 50” plasma television. Over the years now I have been careful as to the content of my collection, and I very seldom watch a movie by myself, even if it is Shrek. I just have found that my time is better spent elsewhere. There is an All State commercial that talks about the wisdom of caring more about who is around your TV, rather than how big it is. So when I don’t have solid company around, the bigness of a TV is not reason enough for me to watch a flick in my spare time.

But I still do on occasion, and I still have a mammoth collection. So in the context of this post I have a fresh motivation to be intentional about this part of my life. And to quote John Piper, who says he hasn’t been to a movie in like 30 years (I don’t intend to do that):

“Being entertained by sin does not increase compassion for sinners. There are, perhaps, a few extraordinary men who can watch action-packed, suspenseful, sexually explicit films and come away more godly. But there are not many. And I am certainly not one of them.”

There are so many movies that give a glorious occasion to present the gospel, like Seinfeld, and there are so many movies that demonstrate the brilliance and beauty of artistic talent, like So You Think You Can Dance. I will look for them, and by God’s grace use them for His glory (and enjoy them along the way, which is also just fine). But for now, the quote above will suffice to share my heart about the discipline I believe God is calling me to. For me it will specifically apply to movies on television – I spend absurd amounts of time watching parts of movies I have seen 100 times. Although this is fun, I’m determined to find a more productive form of relaxation. As a wise man once told me, it is quite embarassing as a Christian to know more movie lines than bible verses.

WHAT'S THE BIG DEAL?

If you don’t believe and find your treasure in Jesus, this post no doubt sounds ridiculous (it is a little). In your mind you might be trying to imagine how much more fun you have, how much more happy you are, and how much more fulfillment you receive from watching television than anything else you can conceive of doing with your evenings, especially anything of a “religious” or “spiritual” nature. You might be trying to compare the relaxation, amusement, entertainment, or escape you get from TV, with the unknown pleasure or satisfaction from anything else. And because it is unknown, you easily can feel perfectly content continuing with your habits and not feeling guilty or worried about what you might be missing.

What I’d like to try to convey to you is that what you are (and what I am) missing is infinitely more valuable, entertaining, relevant, fulfilling, enjoyable, lasting, and in some ways relaxing than what you are envisioning in your head right now regarding television. And I’m not telling you to give that up or to feel guilty about watching what you watch. My goodness, why are you even reading this blog if I made such ridiculous contentions as that? What I am telling you is whatever good it offers, it does not offer forgiveness of sins, or escape from righteous wrath, or reconciliation with the God of the universe, in whose image you were created, or authentic gospel community. Without those things, a lifetime of relaxation and entertainment will be little consolation to an eternity of separation and misery. And above that, it does not offer the giver of those things (Jesus), who is more precious than all the gifts combined. The separation from him because of our sinfulness and obsession with the temporary pleasures of television will be horrible, conscious, and forever. I’m not trying to be mean or scare you; I’m trying to rescue you (and me) from a wasted life.

Television is not the point, and neither are the things portrayed and glorified through it, namely greed, violence, drunkenness, sexual immorality, etc. These things are symptoms, and vessels, by which the real problem manifests itself. The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but righteousness, joy, and peace in the Holy Spirit. Whether you (we) agree that these symptoms, or the vessel by which they come, are wrong or should be avoided is irrelevant. What is relevant, and indisputable, and the real problem, is that these things draw us away, and distract our attention, from the most glorious and infinite reality in the universe, namely, the Person and Work of Jesus Christ. Television is an idol (and a killer) if it, and the entertainment from it, becomes ultimate, and not an additional, undeserved blessing from the treasure of our life (Jesus).

Please at least consider the risk you are taking unwinding your stress, losing your mind, and devoting your precious time to the unrealistic and fleeting world found broadcast through our television sets. You can still watch. Just consider. I know I am.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A Confused Culture and a Clear Christ

Writing on a blog is hard. I really try to be clear and helpful, engage the culture in a timely and relevant way, and tie my posts together enough so that if you are a faithful reader, you can really see the connection and direction of my thoughts. But then I also want them to be independent and simple enough that if you are a first time reader they will make sense to you and be worth your time. And of course I try to be brief, but so far that has been a futile effort (sorry!). I guess for me, life is too short to be brief. I want to use the words in my brain and on my heart while they are still there. And then of course I try to be humble, knowing that my words are temporary, not original, and come from a highly imperfect man. But by the grace of God I know that they might possibly lead people closer to the infallible and eternal word in the Bible, and the irresistibly desirable and infinitely perfect Person of Jesus Christ found in it.

The last year or so on this blog, within the overall theme of offering the Gospel of Jesus Christ as simple and profound truth for a complex culture, I have been trying to do two things:

1. Discern and participate in the nature and developments of the “church” in America, and understand and live what the church really is and what it should look like. Why should I go to church? What church should I go to? What does “church” mean?

2. Discern and participate in the nature and fruits of a “Christian” person, and understand this in order to live and explain it in such a way as to be confirming for the Christian, convicting and loving for the non-Christian, and effective for all so the increasing reality of loving our neighbor in an authentic and God-honoring way is realized.

These two things are starting to come to a head in my life, and in current events, which is encouraging, complicated, and a bit convicting. Encouraging because it confirms that questions, answers, and insight I have experienced in the last several months have not been without purpose, and have been from God. Complicated because what it means to be a Christian in community, and individually, is messy, and not neatly outlined in the Bible to be understood and experienced without effort. And convicting because it is real; there really are churches that are unbalanced and unbiblical in a way that is detrimental to the kingdom of God; and there really are people who profess to be Christians but defraud the name of Christ by their unbiblical proclamation or hypocritical demonstration of the gospel. The Bible commands us to be aware of and respond to both these realities.

So what I am absolutely convinced of is that as followers of Christ we have to be clear, so that we can be helpful. We have to be clear in our truth. We have to be clear in our community. We have to be clear in our love. We have to be clear that God is holy, that we are sinners, that the Bible is preeminent, and that the cross is central, to all of life and human experience. We have to be clear that if we have not love, we have nothing. It sounds simple (even if you disagree). Alas, our sinful nature has made it horribly confusing, so much so that non-Christians aren’t even listening to our message and some Christians don’t understand its power, and too many are choosing a temporary, functional savior instead of the eternal savior who went through a bloody cross to the right hand of God.

SEXUAL SAVIOR

I'll spare you the news update on the fallen Governor of South Carolina, except to say that it is clear we don't seem to be at the bottom of his failure yet. He is not the first to fall in this way, and he will surely not be the last. Such a shame that he confused some into believing he was worthy of being in the 2012 presidential conversations. Such a shame that many trusted and respected him to lead them in a confusing time in our country, and for his party. Such a shame that the adultery was not the end of this story; deception was and is there also. Such a shame for his wife and children. Such a shame that there was a spiritual component to this journey, yet little true repentence and little mention of the cross of Christ.

But we shouldn't forget about those who have fallen before him: United States presidents, popular and influential pastors, and Old Testament heroes. Let anyone who thinks he stands firm take heed lest he fall! We scorn and rebuke his actions, as we should, but we also should appreciate the gut check. In our wordly hell of loneliness, tension, and unquenced desire for companionship, do we above all else seek for sexual escape and romantic fairytales, or do we seek the crucified and exalted Christ? Mark Sanford went through spiritual boot camp looking for an answer to his condition, but in the end, the escape and romance he found in Argentina was his functional savior, and look where it led him.

FINANCIAL SAVIOR

In all likelihood, Bernard Madoff will die in prison. 150 years is a long time. Most of us are glad and acknowledge that he deserves it. And he does. He deceived and stole untold amounts of money from people of all kinds and manipulated the system in ways I am certainly not bright enough to explain or understand. His crimes will trickle down and affect generations of Americans. 150 years doesn't seem that long when you think about all that.

Yet we shouldn't be quick to judge. What was at the bottom of Madoff's motives and deception? Was it not greed? In his worldly hell of fear and insecurity, he sought after the functional savior of monetary gain and financial wealth. Are we so different? What Madoff, and all of us, actually deserve is far longer than 150 years. And no amount of money will save us from that plight. Only a crucified and exalted Christ can. Bernard Madoff escaped a life of poverty to become one of the riches men in America, and look where it led him.

PHYSICAL SAVIOR

Breaking the trend of the two men mentioned above, this doesn't seem to be the time to discuss the controversy surronding the life, nor the confusion surrounding the death, of Michael Jackson. I grew up in the 80s and for my money entertainment does not get better than the gravity-defying lean in the Smooth Criminal video. He was an amazing talent and entertainer. I will not paint a picture of his sin and brokenness and then say look where it led him. Like some, I would like to believe the Sovereign God of the Universe opened the eyes of his heart and gave him the strength to believe in his last days. It is certainly possible.

But I think it is helpful to look at his life as an example and warning of the insufficency of functional saviors. Dan Phillips says it this way:

"What Jackson did to himself is what we all do to ourselves outside of Christ. The difference is that Jackson's failed attempts were all worn obviously, in public view, on the changing tapestry of his face, while we may mask ours better. As you shrink from the Frankenstein shock of Jackson's visage, reflect: mankind was created in God's image, and still bears that image. But in seeking to take God's place and make themselves gods, our foreparents did to their whole beings what Michael Jackson did to his face: they horridly disfigured themselves and all of us, leaving a repulsive mockery of what we were meant to be. The only solution for us is not a succession of endeavors to remake ourselves. Each attempt leaves a worse spectacle than the previous, and moves us further from what we truly need. We do not need new faces. We need new natures. We need the miracle of regeneration, not the tragedy of manmade makeovers."

In our worldly hell of confused identity, low self-esteem, and ridicule from men, do we seek the temporary, functional savior of glamour, physical makeover, and external beauty, or the eternal savior of the crucified and exalted Christ?

RELIGIOUS SAVIOR

Continuing to break the trend from the first two people mentioned, I am using Obama here merely as an example of what so many in our culture do. Obviously Barack Obama is not in the same category, and actually, in many ways, doesn’t even deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence with these three men, certainly not the first two. But because of the timing and relevance of his journey as outlined in this article, I included him in this post.

The Obama family is looking for a church. Can you relate? There are mixed reports on whether they have found one, but I'm not sure that is the point. The point is that so many in our culture are in the same situation, and don't seem to think it is a big deal. Some never stop looking. Some stop and find one, but it becomes a religion only to them. In their worldly hell of legalism and self-justification they seek the functional savior of religion, and accomplish their salvation when they find a building to go in every week or so. But then when life gets hard, or the church changes the music, or real trial and tribulation come, they leave the church or become angry and confused as to why their religion did not bring constant reward. Like the elder brother in Luke 15, they (we) demand a celebration because of our goodness. And if we our lucky, we realize that our goodness is detestable to God (and not really that good), and our only hope is the eternal savior of a crucified and exalted Christ.

CHRIST THE SAVIOR

There is nothing uniquely special or uniquely immoral about these men. We are all human and are all sinners, so even the President (and certainly you and I) could be included in a list such as this to illustrate the relevance of the gospel to our broken condition. We all resort to confusing functional saviors when a clear everlasting savior beckons. Rebellion against the beauty and all-sufficiency of Christ for salvation, as a talented and legendary (but disturbed) pop star, or as a crooked and deceptive scam artist, or as an adulterous governor, or as the President of the United States, or as a middle-class Joe Sixpack, or as a well-meaning social worker, (etc.), results in the same separation from the desire of our souls and purpose in creation. If you don’t agree with that statement, not much else on this blog will make any sense to you. And that is not because it is confusing. It is because it is foolishness. But it is gospel.

Because repentance and trust in the atoning work of Jesus on the cross, for a talented and legendary (but disturbed) pop star, or for a crooked and deceptive scam artist, or for an adulterous governor, or for the President of the United States, or for a middle-class Joe Sixpack, or for a well-meaning social worker, (etc.), results in the same reconciliation with the desire of our souls and purpose in creation, and everlasting joy. That is the gospel.

So as the culture challenges its expectations and desires for “church”, and the “church” challenges structure and style with new ideas and programs and manages the reality of hypocrisy and false proclamation in its midst, ultimately the gospel and the fruit and love from it is the only thing that matters. My deepest hope and conviction is that focus on the gospel will reveal (and increase) those with saving faith, and organically create and maintain the biblical, effective, God-honoring concept of “church”, namely people living the gospel word in gospel community; until He comes back and establishes forever the reality that authentic Christians living in gospel community (church) have always meant to foreshadow.