Why Was I Raised Evangelical? – or – What I Think I’ve Learned From 70’s Movies

I have an unsubstantiated, somewhat out-there theory regarding some possible socio-political influences on my Evangelical upbringing. Basically, I blame the 1970’s.

Now I wasn’t around for any of the 70’s, so all of my primary sources are the films of that particular decade.  But something happened during the 70’s that gave a lot of people from my parents’ generation cause to do some major life reevaluation and ultimately turn to Jesus. And I think there are a lot of clues in these movies.

Recently, I was watching the 1976 film Network when it dawned on me: The 70’s sucked! This fantastic movie contains the iconic quote, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it any more!”  This, I think, is how a lot of people felt during the seventies and the phrase served as a rallying cry for the masses in Network as people watched and identified with the ravings of a news anchor descending into madness.  The film also features a violent, ultra-left terrorist group, early discontent with globalisation as a major American corporation is sold to Saudi Arabian investors, and the dramatic desensitization of people through popular media.

I don’t want to give away the ending, but let’s just say the film does not end happily.  Then I started to think about other movies from the 70’s.  The Godfather. Godfather II.  The French Connection.  China Town.  Apocalypse Now.  Taxi Driver.  Godfather I and Taxi Driver have arguably the happiest endings of all, but that’s not saying much.  SPOILER ALERT – Michael wins his war on the five families but is still left without a father or brother.  And the praise for DeNiro’s character’s heroism in Taxi Driver seems tacked on, especially since we know he’s more angry than courageous, simply disgusted by the moral emptiness of the city.

Happy endings were hard to come by in the seventies. The films were mostly dark both in color and subject matter. The line between hero and villain was often blurred. They were largely bleak and devoid of hope. Compared to these movies the Gospel message must have been pretty appealing.

That’s actually why the original Star Wars movie was such a big hit in 1979.  After a decade of tragic endings and moral ambiguity, the American Public was ready for a straightforward, action-packed, good vs. evil, western/martial arts movie that happened to take place in outer space. Star Wars, to its original audience, was an enormous breath of fresh air.

But that was after an entire decade of suckiness.  It seems to me that the some pretty exciting stuff happened during the 60’s but it kind of peaked at Woodstock and it was all downhill from there.  The things that the 60’s romanticized took an ugly turn in the next decade.  Happy hippies twirling in fields via recreational drug use gave way to an epidemic of crack addiction in major cities. The sexual liberation of the 60’s was replaced by an HIV/AIDS panic, explicit pornography and discos where people would apparently do coke and have sex with each other (if the E! True Hollywood stories are to be believed). Fortunately, we’ve classed things up a bit now.

And weren’t there a lot of serial killers in the seventies too?  Two more contemporary  movies, Summer of Sam and Zodiac, remind me of this fact.  Worse still, you had Charles Manson using the lyrics of Beatles’ tunes as motivation for his murders.  Talk about ruining the sixties.

Annie Hall demonstrates how throwing off the shackles of society’s rules to seek your own happiness devolved into a neurotic over-obsession with self-actualization. The characters all follow their ‘analysts’ advice and end up jeopardizing their own happiness by over-thinking it. Even comedies didn’t have happy endings in the seventies.  Ugh.

In a way our culture has returned to morality a bit since then.  We don’t have much ultra-left-wing violence.  Protests, at least in our country, maintain relative peacefulness.  We don’t do drugs or have sex in public (at least its not a prominent thing, anyway).  We’ve cleaned up Times Square (a pretty apt metaphor I think for removing ‘sin’ from the public space or at least the public eye)  and I think we’ve realized as a culture that some amount of restraint is desirable in both public and private life.

My parents have always said ‘liberal’ as if it was a dirty word.  I have to admit I’ve been somewhat baffled by this.  But I think when my parents rant and rave about ‘liberals’, they have the seventies in mind.  The seventies were about as ‘liberal’ as I can imagine.  The were ‘liberal’ to excess. And I believe most of our parents acted pretty ‘liberally’ in the seventies and then thought better of it.

So for having lived through the seventies, which as far as I can tell completely sucked, I suppose I need to cut my parents some slack.  But I think also that they need to recognize that that era is over.  The United States has changed.  Movies today by and large have happy endings.  And even the raunchy comedies (Knocked Up, Superbad) end up coming down on the side of love, family values, loyalty and moral choice.  These days, the good guys win.  Our society has learned from its mistakes.  We’ve grown.  We’ve compromised.

It’s time to forget the stupid, sucky seventies and move on.  And that may mean stepping back and reconsidering our faith on contemporary terms; viewing it in a less reactionary way.  It’s not as simple as an us vs. them mentality anymore.  The secular world is no longer spiraling down a liberal toilet bowl as I was taught growing up.  And while that makes things more complicated, I think it’s ultimately something to be thankful for.  It’s a new challenge.  And it’s our responsibility to step up.

Correction: The original Star Wars was released in 1977, after not quite an entire decade of suckiness, not 1979 as previously reported in the above post.

Temple of Doom – or – Who’s Got Your Heart?

The other night I went to a friend’s bible study and we watched a short video to get the discussion rolling.  The video was called “Sunday” and featured a young, hip-looking pastor of some mega-church out west sitting at a table in some local diner.  He had frosted blond spiky hair and a pair of thick, black-rimmed glasses.

Now, I must diverge here for a moment to point out that everybody from Rivers Cuomo to every slightly visually impaired hipster in Cambridge wear these type of glasses, but I remember a kid named Shawn McGoldrick who wore these things when we were in high school.  High School.  We’re talking 1996 here.  The only people wearing thick, black framed glasses in 1996 were Garth from Wayne’s World and Shawn McGoldrick.  So props to Shawn.

So anyway, twelve years post-Shawn McGoldrick, here’s this youngish pastor in a somewhat hip short video sermon and he’s talking about going through the motions of church attendance and tithing.  He’s talking about the passage in which Jesus excoriates the Pharisees for their practice of public prayer and fasting, going through the motions so that they’ll be viewed as devout by the people in their neighborhood.  But their hearts are far from God.  Right.  Not Good.

So the gist of the pastor’s point is that we shouldn’t go to church and tithe just to go through the motions.  The young pastor said, “Do you think God needs you in church?  Do you think God needs your money?  No.  God wants your heart.”

Now, I think he had a decent point to some extent but I couldn’t help but think how many people might be fast asleep this Sunday morning with fat wallets thanks to this video sermon.  Why haven’t you gone to church?  Oh, I’m just not feeling it this week.  Why haven’t you tithed?  I’m just not sure my heart is in the right place right now.

What does that last statement even mean?  I swear, I’ve heard these words from Christian friends and I’m willing to bet that you have too.  How many abstract terms can we fit into one excuse?  What is this heart?  It’s certainly not the organ that pumps blood through our circulatory systems.  What is the right place?  How does this indefinable heart get to this vague right place and how would you know when it got there?

How many dollars might not be given while Christians convicted by this video sermon sought to achieve this state of joy and passion they were supposed to have about giving away their money.  This pastor was essentially arguing that if you’re not feeling excited about God and church and if you’re not feeling passionate about giving your money to the church and to the poor, then you’ve got a problem.  All of your church attendance, all of your tithing, all of your charitable giving, it’s not pleasing to God if he “doesn’t have your heart.”

Well, okay, but does that mean we should stop going to church?  That we should stop giving our money away?  Here, this pastor charges us with making sure we have “given God our hearts” before we can please God through church attendance.  But how do I know when I’ve given God my heart, barring some special revelation on God’s part, except through a certain subjective feeling of having done so?  And might it be possible to confuse the feeling of wanting an extra hour of sleep on Sunday morning with a failure of my heart to be with God that particular day?

I think this system of “giving hearts to” and “getting right with” God is dubious at best.  I remember talking to a friend in college about a short-term mission trip we were both considering going on.  She told me that she would like to go, but that she just wanted to be sure that God was really calling her to go.  We were going to build a school for poor children in Guatemala.  Why does God have to call you to do that?  Even if he doesn’t call you, do you think he’ll mind if you go build a school for poor children in Guatemala?

I told her I was pretty sure it’d be okay.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I think our Evangelical culture places too great an emphasis on feelings.  We feel God’s calling in our lives; we feel that our hearts are right with God, etc.

You know what?  Sometimes I don’t feel like going to church.  Sometimes I find church downright boring.  Okay, if we’re being totally honest here, sometimes I can’t wait ‘til church is over and I can go out to the pub and watch football with a nice, juicy hamburger and a frosty beer (preferably a pale ale).  And if we’re being TOTALLY honest, sometimes I think organized religion is inherently corrupt and populated by self-righteous, power-hungry hypocrites and that I ought to give it up altogether.

Surely, my heart cannot be much further from God in these moments.  But I go to church anyway.  And I give money to the church and to Christian causes because I think it’s the right thing to do.

The pastor is right.  God doesn’t need our money.  But poor people definitely do.  And the church probably appreciates it as well.
What I’m saying is that there is no way I can be sure that my heart is right with God because this heart, as we’re defining it, does not actually exist in actual, real life.  But my butt does exist.  And I can sit my actual butt down in church and I can sing with my actual voice and I can listen with my actual ears and I can think with my actual brain and I can actually write a check with my actual hands and give actual money to actual people who actually need it quite a bit.  Sometimes that’s all I can do.  And I’m not excited about it or passionate about.  I just do it.  It could be called obedience or doing the right thing.  And I think my heart gets closer to God through obedience, not vice a versa.

Published in: on May 5, 2009 at 4:16 pm  Comments (2)  

The List – or – God, you’ve got some ‘splaining to do.

For the Lenten season of 2008, I decided that instead of giving something up, I would add something to my day: Bible reading.  This was something I knew I was supposed to do as a committed Christian, but had been really bad about throughout my life.  I never had a daily “devotional” with any regularity.  I would constantly lie about how often I read the Bible, sort of like I lie about how many times I usually exercise during a given week.

Anyway, I actually stuck with it throughout Lent and have stuck with it until the present day.  Honest.

The problem?  Well, the problem is that rather than read the Bible in happy, inspirational chunks, as most devotional guides encourage us to do, I decided to read the Bible as if it were actually like, well, a book.  And that meant slogging through it from page one.  Keep in mind that I only read a couple chapters per day so I’m still in 2 Chronicles.

Far from inspiration and a greater understanding of God, I have found my experience with the Bible thus far to be profoundly disturbing.

Now, we tend to skip around and not talk about the ugly bits of the Bible, but there is some really messed up stuff in there.  I usually feel bad bringing it up to people because nobody can really explain or justify it and I hate putting people on the spot like that.  Most people say that ultimately we just can’t understand God’s master plan.  They say it’s one of those things that we’ll understand when we get to heaven.

Well, I hope so, because I started a list.  I’m writing it right on one of those maps of Palestine and the Sinai peninsula that are at the end of some Bibles, actually.  The list is called, “Verses to ask God about when I get to heaven.”

Just this morning I came across this gem:  The army of Judah also captured ten thousand men alive, took them to the top of a cliff and threw them down so that all were dashed to pieces (2 Chronicles 25:12). Now I’m not a pacifist or someone who is disturbed more easily by violence than the average person.  I can understand that if two countries are at war, people are going to get killed.  But this is a clear example of sick, mindless slaughter, ostensibly under the blessing, if not the direction, of our God.  Could you imagine the outrage if the U.S. did something like this to insurgents in Iraq?  How is that we have a moral code that is greater than that of God’s chosen people when it comes to warfare?

Way to start the day, right?  I might as well be reading the Iliad every day before work.

Anyway, if you think that’s sick, check this out.  This is the passage that first inspired me to create this list. “Because of the suffering that your enemy will inflict on you during the siege, you will eat the fruit of the womb, the flesh of the sons and daughters the LORD your God has given you. 54 Even the most gentle and sensitive man among you will have no compassion on his own brother or the wife he loves or his surviving children, 55 and he will not give to one of them any of the flesh of his children that he is eating” (Deuteronomy 28:53). Seriously. What the hell?

It’s funny because as I’m writing this, only my second post, I’m wondering whether to include swear words or not in this supposedly ‘Christian’ blog.  Then I looked back at the passage with all the people eating their kids and I thought, hmm, swearing probably isn’t that big of a deal.

Okay here’s another one that is completely outrageous.  In Numbers 31, Israel really wallops the Midianites.  They kill all the men and capture the women and children.  Pretty extreme.  But wait, here comes Moses himself in verse 15, and he’s pissed.  “Have you allowed all the women to live?” he asked them. 16 “They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and were the means of turning the Israelites away from the LORD in what happened at Peor, so that a plague struck the LORD’s people. 17 Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, 18 but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.”

Of the slew of genocides carried out by the Israelites, this one takes the cake.  Whatever shred of human decency this army was clinging to by sparing the women and children is soon stamped out by the man closest of all to the Lord.  ‘No, actually, don’t spare the women and children.  Kill them all.  Oh, except for the young girls.  Them you can keep as sex slaves.  Yup.  Good work boys. Don’t forget to introduce your new virgin sex slaves to your wives when you get home.’

Well, I’d like to keep this post under 1000 words.  So if you want some more highlights, check out Joshua 7-8, Judges 20-21 (which begins with someone chopping up a dead concubine and mailing her pieces – and here i thought the mob came up with that move – and gets more and more baffling as it goes on), and 1 Kings 13:16-34.

Well, this is the point where a Donald Miller type would turn this all around to show how all this madness has some important, positive implication for our lives.  But I got nothing.  In these disturbing passages, God never expressly gives the order to carry out these grisly acts, but he is complicit in them at the very least.

So I’m thinking about being buried with this list in my jacket pocket.  And just in case that doesn’t work, I’ll commit the passages to memory.  And when I get to heaven I plan to demand a little face time with God, whip out this list and say, ‘God, you’ve got some serious ‘splaining to do.’

You might say that I’m not right to question God.  But I think you’re just making excuses. He gave me a sense of morality, a conscience which this stuff offends at the most basic level.  We have to be appalled at these passages.  No more dismissing them as too complicated.  No more saying they’re beyond our comprehension.  If anything like this happens today, there is a worldwide uproar. I’m using the rational mind and conscience that God gave to me and, like David in the Psalms, I’m gonna just be honest and say, ‘God… seriously… what gives?’

This I Believe – or – Does the Spirit Dwell in my Heart or my Spine?

My this I believe essay didn’t make it onto NPR so I’m sharing it here…

I believe music is proof that God exists.

As an adolescent evangelical, I once attended a massive Christian music festival out in Pennsylvania. In a moment while 70,000 of us were holding hands and singing worship songs, I suddenly got this tingling sensation up and down my spine. This, I thought, must be the Holy Spirit moving.

But just a few weeks later, riding in a friend’s car, Billy Joel came on the radio singing “Piano Man.” It was loud and I was listening intently when… uh-oh… God? I was getting that exact same tingle! This evoked a minor faith crisis.

Perhaps you’ve had the same sensation. It feels like someone has rigged electrical wiring throughout your vertebrae. And when Billy Joel belts, “It’s sad and it’s sweet and I knew it complete, when I wore a younger man’s clothes,” it’s like he flips a switch that sends a current down the wire that alternately makes you want to weep or hurl with a profound, simultaneous sense of crippling grief and rapturous joy.

I feel it during “Amazing Grace”, in the last verse when the organist instinctively slows down and the congregation booms, “When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun.”

I also feel it during Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” a song my pastor commonly denounced in his Sunday sermons as typical, wayward attitude of popular culture (we should be doing things God’s way, not our way). Sorry, Pastor Dave, but it’s still a great song.

I feel it during the Allman Brothers’ final choruses, when the vocals rest for a beat while the rhythm section pounds on, “like I been… TIED to the whipping post.”

I felt it when we sang “Great is Thy Faithfulness” in the campus chapel on September 11th.

The national anthem gets an honorable mention because I know people feel it in “O’er the land of the freeeee.” I don’t feel it here, maybe because I am trying to force it or maybe because I am always distracted with worry over whether the soloist will actually hit that high note.

Of course, not only great hymns and classic tunes hold this power. The oft-forgotten 90’s grunge band The Toadies have a song called “Tyler” that gets me every time with its creepy crescendo. And local Boston group, Big D’s “Take Another Look,” has this quiet, brooding build-up that culminates in a drop-off of everything but the horns, then a distorted pick-slide that brings the rhythm section back in full-force as the horns all hit this high note and the singer screams. It’s probably one of the most cathartic musical moments ever composed.

You might hear it, create it, or participate in it by singing along, but we all have the potential to create this physiological manifestation of emotion through the miracle of music – those seven notes and their slight variations that have been arranged into countless creations over thousands of years. There is no rational explanation for the fact of music, and certainly none for the way it makes us feel. And so I believe it is a gift from God, a sort of general revelation, accessible to all his people, to remind us of the beauty and sorrow of life and to make it all a little more bearable.