We lost our dog in Africa
I yelled that name dozens of times last Sunday afternoon; each time my voice trailing off with a measure of embarrassment.
You see, Sierra is our new puppy that we lost less than 24hrs after we got her. She was given to us by a friend who knew we were looking for a new dog to help control the neighboring chickens that were eating all the crops on the farm of our community centre in rural Uganda. She is a beautiful puppy – a mutt that resembles a German Pinscher with short dark hair and light brown colouring on her belly, legs, and face – but she is also a nervous puppy – having been abused when she was younger.
So when a neighbor rode close by on their bike, Sierra panicked. Still terrified of new people, specifically new African people, she took off having little idea of where she was going or how to get back to where she was. After she failed to return to us immediately, we got that sinking feeling that she may not be coming back.
So, we started to search and holler for this puppy for the next 5 hours amongst huts and homes in the countryside. We tried to explain to our confused neighbors that we were searching for our pet dog but I think our intentions were lost in translation because people here don’t keep dogs as pets. We also tried to explain in broken Lugandan that she was wearing a collar, but since dogs here don’t wear collars most people thought we were looking for a necklace – which might as well have been looking for a necklace since finding this terrified dog in the long grass of the expansive Ugandan countryside was very much like looking for a needle in a haystack.
And for many of the locals, it would have made more sense if we actually were looking for a necklace. Here, dogs don’t wear collars and people don’t go around yelling for a lost dog. There is too much else to worry about. Last week, for example, 5 children in the village lost their father to an illness that seemed entirely preventable if the right medical attention were available. He was only 41 years old. Such are the worries of life in a village. Such are the worries of life in Africa. This is why many of our neighbors must have thought we were crazy spending as much energy as we did walking, biking, and shouting in an effort to find our dog Sierra.
We searched for hours on end – we have the sunburns to prove it – with no luck. Eventually we regrouped for some food and water. My wife mused that if we lose a dog within 24hrs, how are we ever going to be responsible enough to have kids? And so, with that newfound motivation, we launched one last search party – but this time we brought along the centre’s older dog, Cujo, for moral support if nothing else.
As we neared the place where we lost Sierra I thought I might as well give Cujo something of Sierra’s to smell so that she might clue in to what we were doing. Then a funny thing happened: Cujo darted into the long grass with purpose. I followed, not yet making the connection that it had anything to do with Sierra. I struggled to keep up as we made our way through waist deep grass and shoulder deep bushes, but then I heard a whimper come from the bushes not far ahead of me – Cujo had found Sierra. It was difficult to settle Sierra down in her excitement after she spent 5 hours in the heat of the day hiding in one spot, too terrified to move. We were elated to find Sierra, and our neighbors were relieved that we had stopped yelling for her.
Having moved to rural Uganda from Vancouver, I am able to see first hand the differences in how people from different cultures treat dogs. In the West, dogs are a source of companionship; they are man’s best friend. There are hotels and gyms and spas for dogs. People even buy outfits for their dogs.
In the West, dogs are members of a community, but in Africa, they are protectors of a community. People in rural Africa rarely have the resources to treat dogs as another member of the family, and as a result, dogs end up serving a practical rather than relational purpose. They become guard dogs if they haven’t already become a nuisance – which is exactly what most dogs here are.
Having had a few hours to think about the purpose of dogs when we were searching for Sierra, I think the truth about dogs is somewhere in between Africa and the West. We should not value dogs so much that we put their needs before people, which happens too often in the West, but we should not value dogs so little that abuse becomes normative, which happens too often in Africa.
My point here, however, is not to paint Africa in a negative light. There are many people in Africa who do not mistreat their dogs just as there are many people in the West who do not overindulge their dogs. My point is this: we must determine how to appropriately care for all things in creation – dogs, animals, people, and plants alike. If we reduce creation to raw material it will become a tool for use to use and abuse, and if we elevate creation into a deity it will become an object of worship. The truth about creation, like the truth about dogs, is somewhere in between.
Q&A with Jesus Culture Director Banning Liebscher
Banning Liebscher at a Jesus Culture conference
This July, Jesus Culture — a worship driven ministry that is gaining a reputation as sort of the Hillsongs of America — is putting on a conference in LA. We got to chat with Jesus Culture director Banning Liebscher about the origins of JC, the conference, and what it means to be a “revivalist”
Tell us about yourself, Banning:
Hi! Well my title is director, and I’m the founder of Jesus Culture. I was a youth pastor at Bethel (a church located in Redding, California) in ’97, and in ’99 we had our first youth conference, and called it Jesus Culture … the band came out of what we were doing there. So Chris Quilala was with us when he was like 14, and he’s 30 now. And Kim, she’s 31, she’s been with us since 18. We had a youth group, did the youth conferences, and from those conferences we were experiencing incredible moments of worship. So in 2005 we said, “let’s just record an album, so other people can experience what we’re experiencing.” So that started taking off, then it got on Youtube and ‘How He Loves’ blew up, then we started taking conferences out, and working with leaders, and so on
A lot of people are familiar with the music of JC, but what is there to it besides the music?
Well Jesus Culture is a ministry: it consists of lots of different parts, though music is the most well known. But we’re doing conferences and events, and you’ll never see the JC band apart from the message. When we’re on this tour, I’m preaching, we’re doing ministry, they’re doing worship … ultimately the band is part of a bigger movement who’s heart is to raise up revivalists in the nations and leaders to transform the nations.
What of this rumor you might be leaving Bethel to start a church in Sacramento?
Yea, Bethel is going to send us to plant a church and move JC headquarters to Sacramento, and plant a church there in 2014. I’ll be the pastor, and the (worship) team is going too. We felt like the Lord wanted us to have a local expression of what’s on our heart nationally and internationally… Our heart is to serve the local church and see cities impacted… to build a local community about what God’s shown us.
Tell us a little about the upcoming conference in LA
Our conferences are about raising up revivalists. We use the word revivalist, a word that has lots of different meanings in different circles, but our heart is to raise up a generation that’s fully awakened to the love of God, that’s encountered the power of God, that’s given themselves fully to the cause of Christ on the earth. To see nations transformed, cities saved, campuses impacted. So the conferences have been the heart and soul of who we are, where we can come together for three days and seek the Lord and be trained and equipped in the supernatural, in leadership … so we went to LA last year, and had a really incredible time, seeing some of the signs and wonders that happened, the worship times … we just have a really big heart to see young adults come in, encounter God and be sent back to their cities and campuses to see impact happen.
Some people might wonder how you would compare JC to Hillsong?
The call and mandate on Hillsong is to write songs, but we mostly do covers … people ask us why we mostly do covers, and we answer because that’s the song we’re encountering the Lord in. Those are the songs that are touching us as a group and conference, and that’s our main goal: to encounter the Lord. There’s been a lot of pressure from people saying, now that you’re at the level you are, you gotta not do covers, but I think whatever we encounter the Lord in, that’s all I want people to do. If it’s through our song, or somebody else’s song, whatever helps people’s hearts to be lifted up.
JC also does schools and training — what options are available for young people?
The first thing we have is a worship school, during the summer, which is a short term thing, a really great experience. Everything else is more like nine months. We have the School of Ministry, where you can do one or two or even three years, where you do lots of classroom stuff. It’s a pretty profound experience, and we have people from all over the world coming in. If you can’t make it to Bethel (for that long), you can come for week long, periodic schools that are happening all year long, there’s schools on everything. There’s also the Leadership development program as well.
What would you say to someone who’s gone to events like these before, and felt like the impact doesn’t last very long?
Well you gotta be about the long term. If you come to one of our events, and it doesn’t ignite within you a passion to get to the secret place, and a passion to get in the word, then I don’t feel like I’ve done my job. So on one level, I feel like my job is just to get you to Jesus.
10 weird foods you should try abroad
From stinky fruit to crunchy bugs to heart attack inducing burgers, these odd edibles come from far and wide and if you’re in the area, swallow your fears (literally!), and check them out!
Here’s our list of 10 weird foods you should try abroad:
Southeast Asia Known as Asia’s stinkiest fruit, if you get past the smell, it’s pretty tasty!
Iceland Hakarl: the sound your stomach makes as it sends the fermented fish right back onto the dish from whence it came. If there are party platters in hell, this is on the menu.
Japan As if plain soybeans weren’t bad enough, try ‘em after letting them ferment for a few days! Mmm, the fresh smell of rotting moldy cheese stuffed in an old wet gym sock.
Korea Peanuts? No, but how ’bout some steamed silkworm pupae to go with that Red Bull!
United Kingdom If you ever tried to turn your dad’s old leather shoes into a jam, it might taste something like this.
6. Worm Soup
China Whether you come across these fish paste noodles or actual worms, the same comes to mind. To quote Timon and Pumbaa, “slimey yet satisfying.” Hakuna Mattata!
7. Quadruple Bypass Burger
Las Vegas, USA Has your friend ever said, “I’m so hungry I could eat a cow!?” Now you can make him prove it.
8. Beluga whale
Yukon, Canada Raffi would not be impressed. “Baby-beluga, in the deep blue sea … GET IN MY BELLY!”
Africa In rural Africa, this is a major source of protein! Just make sure they’re dead before you eat them.
Philippines No, not the bear. More like the ugly duckling, only you eat it before it gets the chance to prove everybody wrong.
If you’re brave enough, here’s the real deal.
Why you should travel young
Photo by Geoff Heith
As I write this, I’m flying. It’s an incredible concept: to be suspended in the air, moving at two hundred miles an hour — while I read a magazine. Amazing, isn’t it?
I woke up at three a.m. this morning. Long before the sun rose, thirty people loaded up three conversion vans and drove two hours to the San Juan airport. Our trip was finished. It was time to go home. But we were changed.
As I sit, waiting for the flight attendant to bring my ginger ale, I’m left wondering why I travel at all. The other night, I was reminded why I do it — why I believe this discipline of travel is worth all the hassle.
I was leading a missions trip in Puerto Rico. After a day of work, as we were driving back to the church where we were staying, one of the young women brought up a question.
“Do you think I should go to graduate school or move to Africa?”
I don’t think she was talking to me. In fact, I’m pretty sure she wasn’t. But that didn’t stop me from offering my opinion.
I told her to travel. Hands down. No excuses. Just go.
She sighed, nodding. “Yeah, but…”
I had heard this excuse before, and I didn’t buy it. I knew the “yeah-but” intimately. I had uttered it many times before. The words seem innocuous enough, but are actually quite fatal.
Yeah, but …
… what about debt?
… what about my job?
… what about my boyfriend?
This phrase is lethal. It makes it sound like we have the best of intentions, when really we are just too scared to do what we should. It allows us to be cowards while sounding noble.
Most people I know who waited to travel the world never did it. Conversely, plenty of people who waited for grad school or a steady job still did those things after they traveled.
It reminded me of Dr. Eisenhautz and the men’s locker room.
Dr. Eisenhautz was a German professor at my college. I didn’t study German, but I was a foreign language student so we knew each other. This explains why he felt the need to strike up a conversation with me at six o’clock one morning.
I was about to start working out, and he had just finished. We were both getting dressed in the locker room. It was, to say the least, a little awkward — two grown men shooting the breeze while taking off their clothes.
“You come here often?” he asked. I could have laughed.
“Um, yeah, I guess,” I said, still wiping the crusted pieces of whatever out of my eyes.
“That’s great,” he said. “Just great.”
I nodded, not really paying attention. He had already had his adrenaline shot; I was still waiting for mine. I somehow uttered that a friend and I had been coming to the gym for a few weeks now, about three times a week.
“Great,” Dr. Eisenhautz repeated. He paused as if to reflect on what he would say next. Then, he just blurted it out. The most profound thing I had heard in my life.
“The habits you form here will be with you for the rest of your life.”
Photos by Geoff Heith
My head jerked up, my eyes got big, and I stared at him, letting the words soak into my half-conscious mind. He nodded, said a gruff goodbye, and left. I was dumbfounded.
The words reverberated in my mind for the rest of the day. Years later, they still haunt me. It’s true — the habits you form early in life will, most likely, be with you for the rest of your existence.
I have seen this fact proven repeatedly. My friends who drank a lot in college drink in larger quantities today. Back then, we called it “partying.” Now, it has a less glamorous name: alcoholism. There are other examples. The guys and girls who slept around back then now have babies and unfaithful marriages. Those with no ambition then are still working the same dead end jobs.
“We are what we repeatedly do,” Aristotle once said. While I don’t want to sound all gloom-and-doom, and I believe your life can turn around at any moment, there is an important lesson here: life is a result of intentional habits. So I decided to do the things that were most important to me first, not last.
After graduating college, I joined a band and traveled across North America for nine months. With six of my peers, I performed at schools, churches, and prisons. We even spent a month in Taiwan on our overseas tour. (We were huge in Taiwan.)
As part of our low-cost travel budget, we usually stayed in people’s homes. Over dinner or in conversation later in the evening, it would almost always come up — the statement I dreaded. As we were conversing about life on the road — the challenges of long days, being cooped up in a van, and always being on the move — some well-intentioned adult would say, “It’s great that you’re doing this … while you’re still young.”
Ouch. Those last words — while you’re still young — stung like a squirt of lemon juice in the eye (a sensation with which I am well acquainted). They reeked of vicarious longing and mid-life regret. I hated hearing that phrase.
I wanted to shout back,
“No, this is NOT great while I’m still young! It’s great for the rest of my life! You don’t understand. This is not just a thing I’m doing to kill time. This is my calling! My life! I don’t want what you have. I will always be an adventurer.”
In a year, I will turn thirty. Now I realize how wrong I was. Regardless of the intent of those words, there was wisdom in them.
As we get older, life can just sort of happen to us. Whatever we end up doing, we often end up with more responsibilities, more burdens, more obligations. This is not always bad. In fact, in many cases it is really good. It means you’re influencing people, leaving a legacy.
Youth is a time of total empowerment. You get to do what you want. As you mature and gain new responsibilities, you have to be very intentional about making sure you don’t lose sight of what’s important. The best way to do that is to make investments in your life so that you can have an effect on who you are in your later years.
I did this by traveling. Not for the sake of being a tourist, but to discover the beauty of life — to remember that I am not complete.
There is nothing like riding a bicycle across the Golden Gate Bridge or seeing the Coliseum at sunset. I wish I could paint a picture for you of how incredible the Guatemalan mountains are or what a rush it is to appear on Italian TV. Even the amazing photographs I have of Niagara Falls and the American Midwest countryside do not do these experiences justice. I can’t tell you how beautiful southern Spain is from the vantage point of a train; you have to experience it yourself. The only way you can relate is by seeing them.
While you’re young, you should travel. You should take the time to see the world and taste the fullness of life. Spend an afternoon sitting in front of the Michelangelo. Walk the streets of Paris. Climb Kilimanjaro. Hike the Appalachian trail. See the Great Wall of China. Get your heart broken by the “killing fields” of Cambodia. Swim through the Great Barrier Reef. These are the moments that define the rest of your life; they’re the experiences that stick with you forever.
Traveling will change you like little else can. It will put you in places that will force you to care for issues that are bigger than you. You will begin to understand that the world is both very large and very small. You will have a newfound respect for pain and suffering, having seen that two-thirds of humanity struggle to simply get a meal each day.
While you’re still young, get cultured. Get to know the world and the magnificent people that fill it. The world is a stunning place, full of outstanding works of art. See it.
You won’t always be young. And life won’t always be just about you. So travel, young person. Experience the world for all it’s worth. Become a person of culture, adventure, and compassion. While you still can.
Do not squander this time. You will never have it again. You have a crucial opportunity to invest in the next season of your life now. Whatever you sow, you will eventually reap. The habits you form in this season will stick with you for the rest of your life. So choose those habits wisely.
And if you’re not as young as you’d like (few of us are), travel anyway. It may not be easy or practical, but it’s worth it. Traveling allows you to feel more connected to your fellow human beings in a deep and lasting way, like little else can. In other words, it makes you more human.
That’s what it did for me, anyway.
Photos by Geoff Heith
The case for faery tales [Snow White and the Huntsman]
Snow White and the Huntsman is a film peopled by actors not quite known for their portrayal of strong characters — swoony vampire crushes, roaring Norse gods, and alien monsters all come to mind. As one might expect, the acting in this film is not memorable — or so I am told — I myself am not a good judge of these things. Nonetheless, or maybe even for these very reasons, this is a film you should see.
It is a film you should see because these aspects and others enable it to “get” the world of faery that it is trying to represent. If you think of the faery tales you know, you will find that not many of the characters from them are remarkable; Prince Charming is generally fairly charming, and not much different from the other Prince Charmings in other stories. Likewise, we can call her what we like — Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, or even Princess Peach for those of us so inclined — but these characters all point to a type rather than distinct characters. The art of the faery tale, like the art of iconography, is not designed to bear the burden of modern realism — it consists in types and gestures alluding to something else. In fact, probably the primary reason many of us (post)moderns don’t care for original faery tales (and represent them poorly on film) is because of a genre mistake — we look for realism and find that the letter kills — and then wonder what to do with the corpses of stories we have killed.
In any case, the great moments and themes in this film are the ones that refuse to explain themselves in (post)modern terms. We are not given a complex psychological reason for, or even a strong dramatic performance of, the uniqueness of Snow White that gives her potential to overthrow the dark queen; she is special because she is the king’s daughter and has (we are told) beauty in her heart, but we are meant for the most part to simply believe this rather than see it. Various miraculous and magical events occur throughout the film without explanation; we are reminded of that wonderful Biblical moment in which Jesus writes in the sand and we are never told what exactly he wrote — real truth and beauty tease us with mystery. We do not ask ourselves how it is that Snow White, who has apparently lived in the tower since childhood, wears a relatively pristine dress modeled after Walt Disney’s original conception, nor do we ask how after all those years in a tower she has the remarkable physical strength to escape and become a sexy warrior queen (though we suspect it is because she has just come off the set of Twilight). Neither we nor the film ask these questions because they are too leaden for the lightness of faeryland.
To be sure, this film does suffer from some of the problems we might expect. Given the film’s general maintenance of the spirit of faery, I do not consider the changes to the story particularly damaging, and the genre in any case allows for a certain degree of narrative plasticity. However, the filmmakers would have done better to revel in the great beauty and artistry of the film and omit much of the fighting, clearly thrown in to please a certain demographic of viewers expecting a re-enactment of Peter Jackson’s battle of Helm’s Deep. Also, in spite of the film’s general avoidance of explanatory back-stories, it falters when it comes to Ravenna (the dark queen), who is explained (albeit very briefly) in terms of a traumatic childhood event. The huntsman too has a back-story, but that is because he is an intentional anomaly.
He is an intentional anomaly in that he is in fact dramatized in a way that the other type-bound characters aren’t; this is because he is the stand-in for the average (post)modern viewer. He would rather sneak off into the woods than get involved with overarching power clashes. He is the sort of person who refrains from speaking truth to power largely because he would prefer not to speak with power at all. But there are loyalties that lie deeper than his surface cynicism, and these loyalties are eventually and somewhat inexplicably awakened by Snow White. Through his perspective, we are confronted with the image of our own (post)modern selves as they try to make sense of the faery tale they encounter – do we give in to beauty and wonder, or is it all a cruel lie?
Since you already know the plot, I do not think I will be giving much away in describing the final scene in the film, which crystalizes this symbolism. In a scene of the utmost regal seriousness – we might here think of the set though not the dialogue of Monty Python’s Quest for the Holy Grail – Snow White is crowned in the name of “all that is just and right,” or something to that effect. With the huntsman, we gaze upon the scene and walk out of the hall. Justice? Righteousness? Who believes in those abstractions anymore? But if the faery tale has done its work, something inexplicable may have been awakened in us, and we just might return later to hear further on this matter.
Can Christians Cuss?
Great Uncle Leroy
My great-uncle Leroy is a man of no uncertain force. After serving in World War II, he came home from the Navy with an imposing anchor tattoo on his forearm. He went from near illiteracy to being a high-school English teacher in only a couple of years. And he loved to box; he routinely challenged anyone at the dinner table to go a couple rounds after the meal. (Including my mom’s then-serious boyfriend, who wisely refrained and lived to become my dad.) He’s spent the last 50 years as a traveling minister and radio preacher, coaching people to spend more time with God in prayer. (His signature move is a sharp finger-snap and the words, “Now listen up!”)
He’s undoubtedly one of those men we’d describe with a certain compound word. You know the one. It starts with “bad” and rhymes with “mad as.” It pays tribute to more than just his age or number of academic degrees. It means you’d better not get between Great-Uncle Leroy and his business. It’s a term of respect.
But if he heard me say it, about him or anyone else, he’d probably wash my mouth out with soap.
(Which kind of makes him even more… that word. You know?)
Uncle Leroy is the best kind of Bible-beating fundamentalist: the kind who would spend a week praying with you (or for you, if you can’t do it yourself), but who also would reprove you for saying “golly” or “doggone.”
“I’m very hesitant to say this,” he told me on the phone recently, “But of course that’s a euphemism for… God… damn… it.” Even in explanation, saying these words cost him an effort. “We should use our tongue for the righteousness of God, not for vulgar slang expressions.”
Wherever he travels, Uncle Leroy calculates the number of prayer hours that could be “going to the throne” if each person in his audience spent just 15 minutes a day talking to God. I imagine the idea of wasting our words on social vulgarities, when we could be using them to pray, is for him not so much a moral outrage as a woeful inefficiency.
Ever since I got over my own self-righteous reflex against profanity (living in New York City will do that to you), I’ve been wondering whether if what I was made to consider was right. I’ve heard plenty of Christians use plenty of profanity. Some I look down on for it — the ones who seem like they’re trying to be a big deal. Some I admire for it — the impassioned ones, who resemble my uncle Leroy in everything but their vocabulary.
Fundamentally, I admire and appreciate honesty. Even (maybe more so) when it comes out ugly. But I’ve been wondering whether there are, even in our most authentic moments, words that Christians must not say.
In asking this question, I quickly learned one thing. If you’re going to challenge people’s freedoms, keep your chin down and your hands up. Among the many defensive responses I encountered, the most articulate went like this: “I feel like you’re taking this conversation in a direction that I don’t want it to go.”
I was talking to Curt Gibson about his mentoring program for at-risk youth in southern California. He calls it an “incarnational ministry,” wherein he models to his students a way of life that they’ve never before encountered. Part of that includes using, in his words, an “elevated vocabulary.”
That seems a fair enough approach to take with the urban underprivileged. But I wanted him to specify which words ought never to be spoken among mature Christians.
Whether we keep them or break them, we all crave rules as means of self-identification. That may be why Christians indulge in some grey areas as if they were still black-and-white. It’s not the activities so much that give us pleasure, as the force with which we propound our opinions about them.
There’s a self-evident answer to the question “Do Christians cuss?” We’ve heard it from preachers of the Mark Driscoll/Tony Campolo stripe, whose strategic use of profanity was hailed by Patrol Magazine as “the new fire-and-brimstone.” We’ve heard it from those of gentler manners but equal passion, such as John Piper, who was admonished after the Passion 2007 conference for the use of a mid-level profanity. It’s now fairly common practice among the church’s rank-and-file. Profanity helps us fit in, puts others at ease, and relieves our emotions.
Should Christians cuss?” is problematic. Salty-mouthed preachers and laymen alike cite Philippians 3:8 as a precedent, where Paul uses what might be the Greek equivalent of “shit.” (The bolder derive the principle from Jesus calling the Pharisees “fools” in Matthew 23.) They say that they are “redeeming language” by calling a bad thing a bad name, using the vulgar in service of the holy.
These words are more complicated when it comes to their expletive use. Can we (or do we) ever express love with spontaneous profanity? Is it harmless to cuss out a stalling car or a malfunctioning phone, if we believe that these things are provided by God? Whom are we addressing when we say, “damn” in surprise, even in appreciation? (Though this use of the word is probably ironic, there’s still an implied object being wished to hell.)
Intimacy to obscenity
And though a word for sexual intercourse might seem inoffensive in the face of misfortune, or as a mere intensifier of another word, the vulgar implications could degrade how we regard sex, misfortune, and the world at large. Ludwig Wittgenstein, the linguistic philosopher, examined how our perception is shaped by the words we use to describe what we perceive. He said, “The harmony between thought and reality is to be found in the grammar of the language.”
Lovers and pedants alike lament that English offers only one word for a wide spectrum of emotional affinities: love. This one word has caused many to prematurely declare themselves “in love,” when they only feel toward a person the way they have felt toward a product.
D.H. Lawrence marveled in his incendiary novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover that a word for a precious intimacy has become one of the vernacular’s most intense obscenities. But according to University of Ottawa linguistics professor Andre Lapierre, that’s precisely the point: “You swear about things that are taboo.”
In its essence, profanity is a means of fighting back, of exerting violence linguistically, rather than physically. This is where the “should” part of the question becomes thorny. Maybe spiritually renewed hearts “shouldn’t” feel such violent anger, but they do.
Force of emotion
For both sides, then, “Can Christians cuss?” is the simplest question to address, which is why I pressed Mr. Gibson and everyone else for the one or two words they won’t, on any account, say. Some balked at the use of “damn,” as being too denotatively harsh for even colloquial use. Most stopped short of the F-word, on the grounds of cultural offensiveness. And everyone seemed to agree that the third commandment proscribes any profanity referencing God. But the prevailing attitude is well summed up by one pastor’s wife: “I don’t swear vocally very much… anymore.”
There was one apologetic for profanity that seemed tenable to me. (Maybe because it’s been my own excuse.) As one friend put it, “Sometimes there is no other word that fully expresses the force and brevity of an emotion.” Besides, the virtue of self-control can function as a blind for passions that we’d rather not confront. Michael B. Allen, co-producer of the popular documentary Beware of Christians, is familiar with the religious habit of avoiding the acknowledgement of evil along with the appearance. “It’s not that hard to resist saying those eight bad words,” he says. “It doesn’t require the power of the Holy Spirit to [not do] things that aren’t culturally acceptable. We should understand that there are many more offensive things in our hearts and in our minds to God than the language we use.” By way of contrast, he told me about a friend of his, a 60-year-old Christian man who spends his days on the street with the homeless. “He loves God. He loves people. And he cusses like a sailor.”
Battle with flesh
Receiving the hand-slap for his verbal indiscretion, John Piper wrote: “I am sitting here trying to figure out why I say things like that every now and then. I think it is the desire to make the battle with Satan and my flesh feel gutsy and real and not middle-class pious… I don’t like fanning the flames of those who think it is hip and cool to swear for Jesus. On the other hand, I want those hip people to listen to all I say and write.”
Language is a strange matter for a writer, much as morality is for a Christian. It wavers between being a tool and a liability. I’m intrigued by it. I want to have a natural grace with it. But at times, nothing it offers seems to fit.
Photo via (cc) Flickr user debaird
This article was originally printed in Converge March-April issue.
You may find this related article about Mark Driscoll interesting…
Christ and culture…and zombies
Move over Edward; vampires are so yesterday.
It’s the zombies who are lumbering their way to the forefront of popular culture now, dragging bloody limbs and collectively moaning their one demand: “Brains!” Well, from the looks of it, they may be after a chance at stardom as well. Who would have thought? The walking dead — generally a standoffish bunch — aren’t that shy when it comes to the spotlight. In the past few years, they’ve managed to stumble out of obscurity and claw their way into blockbusters, best-seller lists, and prime-time television spots.
Now I’m not all that savvy when it comes to pop culture, but I can tell you the moment the reality of this burgeoning zombie revolution hit me. I was sitting on my friends’ couch, half paying attention to the screen in front of us while we talked and they played some recently-released first-person shooter. “Wait, what’s going on?” I said, interrupting our conversation, a little startled by what I saw. “Oh, those are Nazi zombies,” my friend replied nonchalantly, as if that combination of words was as natural as “macaroni and cheese.” I didn’t really know what to say, but kept watching, until, you guessed it, we were transported to the moon in order to fling bullets at Nazi zombies . . . in space.
I did a little research, and it turns out it wasn’t just video games. The zombie has become a gory fixture in pretty much every niche of contemporary media. We’ve rewritten Victorian classics, playfully amending Pride and Prejudice with the addition of the undead, making high school English class a little less dull and a little more bloody as result. The Walking Dead, first a comic book and now a network television series, is already in its third season, with a growing fan base. Brad Pitt (bear in mind this is Brad Pitt we’re talking about here, not some no-name, first-appearance actor) is set to star in the upcoming zombie flick, World War Z, and, if you drop by your local bookstore, you’ll be able to find, among other zombie titles, It’s Beginning to Look at Lot Like Zombies: A Book of Zombie Christmas Carols.
Perhaps most startling is the zombie’s move beyond the comic book and the big screen towards a participatory symbol. Back in 2003, six horror film enthusiasts donned tattered clothes and fake blood then wandered about the streets of Toronto. The zombie walk was birthed. Over the next decade the concept would end up growing into a global phenomenon, where there are now annual zombie walks held all over the world. Just a few months ago, the world record was again broken, when, in Mexico City, more than 10,000 men and women gathered to participate in the city’s zombie walk.
It’s enough to make one consider stockpiling for the “zombie apocalypse,” the tongue-in-cheek end of the world scenario zombie enthusiasts often warn about (with varying levels of seriousness). While you are stacking up your canned goods and spare candles, you might want to consider enrolling in one of several boot camps intended to train individuals for survival should a zombie revolution take place.
All joking aside though, what exactly is it about the undead that has got us so excited? Why is it that our generation has so enthusiastically latched onto these rotting figures and bought into what the film executives and marketing geniuses down the street have fed us?
Our faith does not celebrate death, not even ironically, and we ought to take seriously even what is meant to be entertaining or humourous.
It might help to take a step back and look at the surprising history of our beloved zombie. You see, he didn’t always look the way he does now. Like so many cultural symbols, the modern living dead bear little resemblance to their earliest ancestors. Unlike other iconic symbols of Western horror narratives, which are generally either products of natural cause or human design (think werewolf and Frankenstein), the zombie has spiritual origins. Influenced by West African folklore and mythology, the zombie first emerged in Haitian voodoo practices. Witch doctors would perform “resurrections,” animating otherwise lifeless corpses.
The zombie was first made known to the western world largely through the English language writings that came as reports from visits to Haiti, most notably William Seabrook’s The Magic Island, written in 1929. The first major film appearance of the zombie was in Victor Halperini’s White Zombie in 1932. This still largely Haitian portrayal (which included the witch doctor and his incantations) made several minor appearances in decades following, but its undisputed Hollywood debut was in George Romero’s 1968 cult classic, Night of the Living Dead.
Romero removed the witch doctor, added the element of cannibalism, and relocated the moaning menace to an American landscape. He later filmed several follow-ups to Night of the Living Dead, further portraying the modern zombie, allowing it increased exposure to Western culture and solidifying its place as horror cult classic. The zombie continued to have a place in film, especially horror, seeing a resurgence of interest in the early 2000s, with films such as 28 Days Later, I am Legend, and Resident Evil.
The zombie has now outgrown not only its cult status, it has moved beyond the horror genre altogether (consider the film Shaun of the Dead — essentially a zombie romantic comedy, a zom-rom-com, if you will, and pardon the wordplay) and become a sort of cultural obsession — an increasingly present figure in film, music, video games, television and fiction.
So what is it about this modern zombie that we’ve come to love? Is it a way of dealing with the seriousness of death and mortality without really having to be confronted with it? Is it a playful engagement of actual fears we might have regarding how the world might end? Or is it just plain fun, and if so, why has such an unlikely (and frankly kind of terrifying, when you think about it) symbol come to be celebrated? I’m not sure. If anything, it’s probably a combination of all of these things, and then some others.
Do you and I make up Generation Zombie as some have suggested? Does our culture mimic the symbol we have come to love? The transience, restlessness, and the lack of purposes of our generation have many cultural critics suggesting the image fits. Not because teenagers today mill about with decaying limbs, nibbling on brains, but because, perhaps more than generations previous, we are living and yet we are something less than alive. While the generalization definitely isn’t true across the board (I know a lot of respectable adults who seem to love zombies as much as their unemployed, uninspired teenage counterparts do), there is something there worth paying attention to.
I for one can’t stand the sight of blood, real or fake, without getting more than a little faint. Hanging out with a bunch of folks who look like they ought to be in the nearest emergency room, no matter how friendly a group of zombies they may or may not prove to be, doesn’t really appeal to me. But apparently some people can’t get enough of it. And the gore? I get nauseous seeing people get flu shots, so when it comes to the likes of severed limbs, I’ll pass, thank you.
It does beg the question, though, of what we are to do with all of this as Christians? Is it caution to the wind and wide-armed embrace of our undead brothers and sisters, or do we keep our distance for the sake of our personal safety and spiritual conviction? Is it cool to mix faith and fake blood? Well, those are complex questions, and probably require discernment specific to each situation, depending on whether that means participating in a zombie walk, watching the latest horror flick or killing Nazi zombies in space. Like most cultural phenomena, the wisest approach often lies somewhere between the two extremes (of complete rejection or whole-hearted embrace), while still involving spiritually-informed decisions one way or the other (buy the game or let it sit on the shelf; watch the movie or opt for another choice). What I will say, however, is this: our faith does not celebrate death, not even ironically, and we ought to take seriously even what is meant to be entertaining or humourous.
In the event of a zombie apocalypse, I will be sorely unprepared. Apologies to any enthusiasts out there, but I’ve got better things to worry about. I will, however, be watching this growing zombie revolution because I find it fascinating, and because it shows a lot about who we are as a culture. It’s hard to say what will come next. Will our fascination with the living dead peak or find new cultural expressions? Will the spiritual nature of the creature be rediscovered? Will the zombie evolve into some new pop culture incarnation? We will just have to wait and see.
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