Friday, October 26, 2007

Quote of the Day

My friends over at Think Christian very kindly linked over to a previous post here about self-promotion in Christian ministry. A comment there from REB is today's quote of the day:

"God isn’t going to bless vanity!"

Short and sweet. It preaches. Nicely done; it beats out the quote I was going to run with, from Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets: "Go sell crazy somewhere else."

I suppose the two are related . . .

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Tripe for the Picking Apart

The hardest thing about writing a book--at least for me--is having other people read it. All my defense mechanisms kick in, including the pre-emptive self-effacement ("It sucks; I'm sorry I subjected people to this tripe"), the reactive self-defense ("What the &%$*%& do they know, anyway?") and the self-serving faux humility ("Oh, glad you enjoyed it; of course it's totally meaningless, in the same way that everything is ultimately meaningless--oh, I'm so spiritual and couth"). So far with Deliver Us from Me-Ville I've received a "bit-o-encouragement" from a guy whose book I'm editing (pretty delicate situation I've forced him into, isn't it?); he said it offers a good discussion of the distinction between significance and self-absorption (I'll have to reread it). A friend who is on the pastoral staff of a church on the east coast says she likes it a lot; "the authenticity and transparency is really going to resonate with people." A friend and unknowing mentor of mine sent me a quick e-mail letting me know that from his quick initial scan, the book looks decent. I should quickly aver that none of these folks has read the whole thing yet, so it's possible they haven't yet reached the really lame parts.

The big test of my depth of character is on the immediate horizon. Some friends are writing a full constructive critique of the manuscript as it is. These are folks well-heeled in the publishing industry, so they know what works and what doesn't, and they have little patience for mindless tripe. One of them e-mailed me today to let me know her critique is in the mail. I suddenly don't feel well.

My subject matter doesn't help. A potential alternate title for the book was Enough About Me. So far, that's not been my experience; I'm generally up for talking about myself, and writing a book makes for lots of polite conversation about yourself anyway, no matter how hard you try to avoid it.

It strikes me that there's a paradox in the escape from superbia (another potential title, once upon a time): you think about yourself through to the other side, where you (hopefully) understand yourself in proper context. It's like getting over smoking by smoking till you throw up, but it's also like sitting down with God and saying "Search me and know my heart," and then really paying attention to what he has to say.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Why Joel Gives Blood

My friend Joel Scandrett (unlike me, he is well schooled in theology) wrote the following as a general invitation to me and my colleagues to take part in a blood drive at work. I can't give blood today, but maybe some of you can and would appreciate a brief theology of blood donation. I therefore gladly yield the floor to Joel Scandrett.

***

Giving blood is just about as "Christian" a thing to do as anything I can think of. We donate money, time, clothing, food and any number of other things to churches and charitable organizations--and all of those are extremely important. But when we give our own blood for the sake of another person's life--that is an act of giving of an entirely different and more profound sort.

When we give blood, we give of ourselves in a way that no other kind of giving does, with the possible exception of a mother bringing her baby into the world. But giving blood is like giving birth in the sense that we are giving life to another person. When we give blood, we give life.

When we give blood, we sacrifice something of our very selves for the sake of someone who is not capable of living by their own power. Yes, giving blood hurts--not a lot, but it hurts. And it costs us: it costs us time, sometimes money, and can take a temporary toll on our energy. But isn't that is the nature of sacrifice? It hurts and it costs us, but both the pain and price are for the sake of the other, and so are well worth it.

Finally (and this probably goes without saying) when we give blood, we imitate Jesus, who gave his blood for the world so that the world might have life, and who sacrificed himself for our sake, who could not have Life by our own strength. When we give blood, I believe we reflect in a small way Jesus' own act of self-giving for the sake of the world.

Is giving blood some kind of super-Christian thing to do? Absolutely not. And, of course, if physical reasons prevent us from giving, there's nothing to feel guilty about. But are there Christian reasons for pressing through our initial fear or dislike of the idea in order to give the gift of life to someone who desperately needs it?

I believe there are.

Joel Scandrett

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Come Together, Right Now: Exploit Me

Perhaps my fondness for the Beatles is slipping into dogmatic obsession, but I'm really bugged by the sloppy sublicensing their music is currently being subjected to. Adweek picks up on my ennui: first was the lame homonym substitution by Target of "Good Buy" for "Goodbye" that stripped the song "Hello, Goodbye" entirely of its poignancy; now comes a diaper ad that, pardon my french, craps all over the song that the Beatles considered important enough to invite all their friends to perform with them for a worldwide satellite broadcast: "All You Need Is . . ."--wait for it--"Luvs.(tm)"

Come on, people, now. This is the Beatles song that most explicitly articulates John Lennon's worldview; only "Imagine," perhaps, gets more straightforward. Someone gave Luvs(tm) the right to this travesty, and that someone ought to have his or her face rubbed in it.

Someday Tupac and U2 are going to have to endure this kind of sacrilege of their canon too. I'd like to see Bono, in fact, fight the power here: "The diaper industry stole this song from the Beatles; we're stealing it back."

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The 1960s: Two Cinematic Views

Last weekend I saw two movies (I don't have kids): Across the Universe and Hairspray. I was dying to see one and had been hoping to avoid the other (I'm married). It occurs to me now (I'm a little slow on the uptake) that both movies were musicals, both visually adventurous, and both were painting a particular picture of a bygone era. Both pictures, however, were startlingly different in their approach. I actually left the theaters liking the one I expected to dislike and being mildly disappointed in the one I'd been dying to see. Go figure.

Hairspray is, in a sense, no surprise. It was originally scripted in 1988 by John Waters, providing Ricki Lake with a breakout role nearly twenty years ago. This one features the perky and irrepressible Nikki Blonsky as Tracy Turnblad. The film takes place in Baltimore, Maryland, circa 1962, and is built around the Corny Collins Show, a local dance show featuring the "nicest kids in town," a nicely ironic musical number tells us to set the general tone of the film. Once a month is "Negro Day," when the normal cast (including host Corky) cede the stage to an all black dancing troupe. Tracy makes it her goal to (a) join the cast of the show because she loves to dance and (b) "make every day Negro Day" because she's a fundamentally decent human being. Two problems with her plan: (a) she's overweight and (b) the TV producer is a racist. Hilarity ensues.

Across the Universe is a history of the 1960s through the music of the Beatles and the lens of a handful of young people coming of age. It's like A Hard Day's Night meets Rent. Liverpoolian Jude (get it? "Hey Jude"--hah!) leaves England in search of the father he's never met, who happens to do maintenance work on the campus of Princeton University. Jude meets his dad but, more importantly, meets Max (get it? "Maxwell's Silver Hammer"--hah!) and, soon enough, Max's sister Lucy (get it? "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds"--last one, I promise). Jude and Max leave Princeton behind to live in the city with sexy Sadie, Jo Jo, Prudence and a bevy of other young bohemians, and when Lucy's Army boyfriend dies, she joins them. Jude and Lucy fall in love, but they have different visions of how to change the world: Lucy says she wants a revolution, while Jude thinks nothing's gonna change his world. Romantic complexity ensues.

It struck me as I watched Across the Universe that there's not nearly as much idolatry of the 1960s these days as I experienced growing up. The culture, in many ways, has moved on to the 1970s--That 70s Show enjoyed a long run on network television and dominates the rerun schedule where I live, and Momma Mia's theatrical ode to ABBA debuted long before Across the Universe was even an idea. But perhaps we now have enough distance from the 1960s to see it as more than its reductions. Hairspray makes a legitimate claim on the early 60s with Tracy's spunky, Sally Fieldesque can-do-ism changing Baltimore for the better. Tracy's mother, Edna, historically played by a man in drag (first Divine and now John Travolta in an uneven performance), keeps the mood constantly light and airy, and the wonderfully innocent Christopher Walken, who is clueless to the romantic manipulations of a brilliantly vampish Michelle Pfeiffer, keeps the laughs coming with his joke shop and his mattress made of whoopie cushions. By 1962 the Civil Rights Movement was in full force, a young, spunky, Sally Fieldesque president and first lady were in the White House, the Beatles had (relatively) short hair and peppy, bouncy lyrics, and the 1960s were still a decade of possibility: a time when it made sense to "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." Now go get em, kids.

Flash forward to 1964, when the Beatles stepped into the cultural void left by the assassinated John F. Kennedy, the Vietnam War dragged on, and the Civil Rights Movement started to weather internal strife and more forceful conflicts. Young people began experimenting with drugs and free love and political alternatives to the social order (T. V. Carpio's "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" is a must-download track), and the champions of the social order didn't like it. The collective patience of the culture wore thin, and the world headed for a crash. the cultural crash was given a soundtrack with Dana Fuch's rendition (as Sadie) of "Helter Skelter," Bono's unsatisfying "I Am the Walrus" and Joe Cocker's forced "Come Together," but the emotional breakdown that inevitably follows careless relational experimentation and uncivil war was accompanied by the jaded "I Want You/She's So Heavy" and "Happiness Is a Warm Gun," reinterpreted brilliantly by Joe Anderson as Max, and the less satisfying "Oh Darling" by Sadie and Martin Luther as an otherwise wonderful Jo Jo. Even the very funny Eddie Izzard kept the mood cynical and tired in his wildly creative "Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite," which I'm sad to say is not on the soundtrack.

Across the Universe ends on a hopeful note, with performances of "Don't Let Me Down" and "All You Need Is Love" evocative of the Beatles' rooftop performance of Let It Be, but it's worth noting that Let It Be was essentially a postmortem for the Beatles; by its release they had disbanded.

The thing is, both these pictures of the 1960s are wildly exaggerated, but both are essentially true. The decade started in wild, unfettered hope and ended in tired protest and rote experimentation. No wonder the 1970s were so lame; everybody was burned out from trying to change the world.

At least they tried, I guess. If you're looking for a fun, feel-good film, go for Hairspray. If you're looking for a more melancholy retrospective of a troubling time, get Across the Universe. But if you want to know the 1960s, you'll need to see them both.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Spam of the Day

Can't pass this one up:


Hi,
i am here sitting in the internet caffe. Found your email and decided to write. I am 25 y.o.girl. I have a picture if you want. No need to reply here as this is not may email. Write me at abreanne681@medicalgloveonline.info


I don't think Breanne should be sending these very personal e-mails from work. I also hope her spelling is better in her official correspondence. I can't imagine she sells a lot of medical gloves with such an atrocious writing style. Then again, she's probably pretty, which I'm told covers a multitude of sins in sales.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Me-Ville

My forthcoming book now has a title--Deliver Us from Me-Ville, which I like very much--and a cover, which I like very much and will post here when I get a final JPG from my publisher, Cook Communications. Suddenly it all feels real to me, and I am beset with a real anxiety. All my neuroses (or at least more neuroses than are appropriate for one person to have) come into play in the production of a book.

I have performance anxiety: what if my editor, Andrea Christian, whom I respect and feel a great debt toward, hates the draft? What if she writes back and tells me that the draft is so bad that she can't edit it into publishable form and thus demands that I (a) start from scratch or (b) give back the advance money (which I've [c] already spent).

I have social anxiety: I'm asking friends and colleagues to review and potentially endorse the book. What if they don't like it? How will our relationship be affected? I tell stories from my own experience in the book; what if friends or family misinterpret my meaning in how I tell a story? How will our relationship be affected? And eventually, I hope, the book will be reviewed in various media outlets. What if they don't like it? Then the book (and, by extension, I) am publicly and broadly known as that guy who wrote that bad book.

I have ethical anxiety: Am I overstepping professional boundaries by contacting people I've met through my work to support a book I'm not even publishing through my employer? Am I coercing people who want to maintain a good working relationship with me? Is it really OK that I'm publishing with Cook instead of with InterVarsity Press, or have I transgressed some boundary of loyalty in the minds of my coworkers?

I have evangelical anxiety: I talk about Jesus in this book a lot. I mean a lot. Is that going to make people uncomfortable? Have I inadvertently confessed heresies I'm not even aware of? Have I taken a "holier-than-thou" posture that I don't even recognize? Is this book a fair representation of the faith I profess?

I could go on, but my heart rate is way up. And it hasn't slipped past me that in declaring myself an expert on narcissism, I am showing myself to be highly vulnerable to narcissistic tendencies.

The final title of this book was not the first title: the first title was Escape from Superbia, a play on some language from Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Life Together and a reference to one of the seven deadly sins recognized by the church from antiquity. Apparently, Latin words in English book titles don't fly, so we went with Me-Ville. The new title is meant to evoke the Lord's Prayer--not, as some people have mentioned, Dr. Seuss. I like the final title more and more as I reflect on it, because more and more I see how every word tells.

"Me-Ville," I suggest, is the culture we inhabit, a contention common to many social psychologists. We live in an age and a context where looking out for number one is a virtue, and we are regularly exhorted to be so virtuous.

"Us" is a reminder that all of us are individually and collectively shaped by this culture, and that despite the privatizing, isolationist tendencies of the age, we're all in this together.

"Deliver" evokes one of the great glories of God, who delivered the Israelites from bondage in Egypt, only to set them on a long and complicated journey of self-discovery to a promised destination. He similarly delivered individuals and families and cities and ethnic groups from wrongs being done to them, and drew them out of the traps of self-serving narcissism that they invariably got themselves into. Most emphatically, God delivered the world from evil by virtue of the death and resurrection of his Son, who called people to follow him into their own journey of self-discovery toward a promised destination.

"From" is a preposition. You have to have it.

I end the book as I'll end this post, with a brief reflection on the Lord's Prayer. The two stanzas are held in tension with one another. The first is a self-forgetting paeon of praise to our Father in Heaven, whose name is hallowed and whose kingdom is forthcoming, whose will is unflinchingly good. The second is self-absorbed, concerned with mundane, daily needs, emotional well-being and an ultimate sense of security. It ends in a reminder of the journey that God has us on:

Lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.


The later imposition of another phrase swings the pendulum back and bookends the prayer in the goodness and power of God:

For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours
Now and forever.


I take solace in the words of that prayer, and my anxieties are eased--not fully, not even finally, but enough to remind myself that God is king even over my narcissistic, anxious self, and he delivers me, and he leads me, and he restores my soul. Not bad.