Friday, August 31, 2007

The Suburban Christian: A Review

I just came across this nice blog review and summary of my book.

Last winter, I was greatly anticipating the release of the Suburban Christian by Albert Hsu. Naturally, I grabbed the book at Urbana06 and finally finished reading it sometime this summer. I read one of Al’s earlier books (Singles at the Crossroads) and I liked his mix of biblical story and cultural analysis. In the Suburban Christian, he took it a step further by addressing the deep of issue of finding spiritual vitality in the land of the plenty.

First off, I have to say that the subject of the book is timely and much needed. The bizarre mix of suburban living and Christian faith tugged on my heartstrings… to the point where I felt compelled to preach on it a month ago. I have always felt uneasy in my local church as we are a mostly suburban lot commuting to an urban church. My uneasiness was based on our lack of involvement with the local community as well as the affluent economic and cultural practices demonstrated by church members in comparison to the local neighborhood. This led me to an even greater revelation that there must be something wrong with our very faith if the way we seek goods, services, and entertainment can be a cause of injustice to others. Could I be a Christian and still live amongst this cultural milieu? Or must I move to the ‘poor downtown-core’ in order to preserve my faith? Thankfully, this book was a breath of fresh air, and a sounding board for my thoughts.

After reading the first chapter of this book, I realized that Al had researched A LOT about suburban issues. He footnotes a ton and many are academic articles and books that brings credibility and nuanced social critique about suburbia. I loved it. In fact, I wish I could study more of the urban planning issues he mentioned (maybe I will go take a night course on this stuff). His cultural analysis also hit home: the need for shelter, security, and pursuit of individual homeownership led to this inevitable social phenomenon of suburbia. No one questions why we even need separate housing, it’s just assume that once you’ve graduated and married, you need a house for yourself. This particular socialization of the suburbs can also be seen by the need for a car, possessing certain material brands of clothing or gadgets/toys.

I loved how Al highlighted several issues to consider and offered alternative ways to still thrive as a Christian while living in the suburbs.

First, consider consuming in a Christian way. We can practice more simple living by not consuming as much (do we really need an iPod?). And if we do need to consume (ie. buy food), can we do so in a conscientious way – like buying locally produced foods or fair-trade coffee. Perhaps instead of consuming a cultural product like buying an mp3 and listening to the latest hit, we can instead be creators of culture and create our own music?

Second, consider moving into community. For some, this is as simple as spending less time in front of the TV and getting to know your neighbors. Perhaps this can lead to neighborhood potlucks or the sharing of resources. I personally feel the glorification of the self is perhaps the biggest suburban ideal that is so antithetical to Christ’s teachings. I would love to consider a real move into community by means of something like co-housing or living in a co-op.

Third, consider the church in the suburbs as incarnational and countercultural. The church must counter these cultural issues that have silently crept into the collective consciousness of all suburban Christians. This can be done through teaching and fellowship, but ultimately the church must live out this message by helping its members live out the life that is so much more fulfilling then a life in pursuit of a nice job, home, and hot wife/husband.

For myself personally, I have to confess that he challenged my desire/practice of consumption. I think I do pretty well in terms of consuming goods and services – I don’t shop for clothes and the newest toys/gadgets. Instead, Al shared his own desire to buy books… which is a similar passion for me! I think I have always rationalized my growing library as it being a resource (I do lend out a lot of books and I tend to go back to many of my past readings for reference). Yet, do I really need to own them myself? I think I have to take a deep look for my need to accumulate knowledge in this form and see if I change this practice. Maybe I’ll take up Al’s example one day and donate my books to the church and help catalogue/run the library there.

There is a lot more in this book and I would strongly recommend it to everyone. In fact, I may use part of it for Sunday school about social justice issues.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Pop vs. Soda (and Duck Duck . . . )

Okay, this is kind of random, but I just came across a Facebook group named "It's called pop . . . not soda!" which says, "You bake with soda, and you drink pop. Have you ever heard a can go 'soda' when you open it? Have you ever heard of a 'Sodasicle'? Yeah, me either."

That group led me to The Great Pop vs. Soda Controversy webpage, which tracks and maps responses on whether carbonated beverages should be called pop, soda, coke or something else. Data is plotted based on respondents' hometowns.

I'm fascinated by this because back in college I noticed that Minnesotans generally said "pop" while some Wisconsinites said "soda." Since I grew up in Minnesota and my girlfriend (later wife) grew up in a soda-speaking area of Wisconsin, controversy arose every time we went to the grocery store. I felt vindicated by pointing out that the aisles were usually marked as "pop," but she found some counterexamples. We occasionally saw them described as "soda pop," which seems to bridge both camps. But I would argue that the fact that it's never called "pop soda" indicates that "pop" is the noun and that "soda" is the adjective, meaning that "pop" is the primary term.

I notice that Wikipedia is noncommittal, with the main entry being "soft drink" with a parenthetical "more commonly known as soda, pop, or soda pop." Even more fascinating is the link to the article on "soft drink naming conventions," which tracks what fizzy drinks are called around the world. In Canada, "pop" is more common than "soda." The Arab world calls them mashroob ghasi, meaning literally "gas drinks." In South Africa they're "cool drinks." In many places "lemonade" refers to clear carbonated drinks like Sprite or 7UP.

Of course, while all of this is sociologically and linguistically fascinating (at least to geeks like me), it shouldn't obscure the fact that fizzy sugar water has little nutritional value and is one of the primary culprits behind childhood obesity, diabetes, tooth decay and the like. I'm glad to see that more and more school districts are banning pop machines from their schools, or are at least having incentives for alternatives (i.e., pricing water or juice more inexpensively than pop). So whatever you call it, it's best to avoid it.

At any rate, I was glad to see that "pop" seems to have triumphed over "soda." The Pop vs. Soda site concludes that people who call it "pop" are "much, much cooler."

(Don't even get me started on the game known as "Duck Duck ______." It appears that the majority of society has uncritically accepted the conventional "Duck Duck Goose." But as we Minnesotans know, the truly orthodox and educationally superior way to play it is "Duck Duck Gray Duck." As noted on Wikipedia:
Duck Duck Gray Duck is played in the north central part of the United States, specifically Southern Minnesota/Twin Cities and surrounding areas. Two versions of the regional rules exist. In the first, the 'picker' will describe the 'ducks' as different colors or adjectives — for example, 'blue duck', 'white duck', 'lazy duck'. It's more of an educational game than an alteration of the original, in that one not only recites colors, but also tries to say 'gray duck' as casually as possible, hoping to deceive the gray duck and gain time. The second version is played exactly as the original, with the picker saying 'gray duck' instead of 'goose. The adjectives add an element of psychological warfare amongst the children, because they can insult the circle, confuse the circle with 'May Duck' or 'Gray Puck'. All of these add depth and layers among the seemingly child-like game.
But to be fair, in our crosscultural Minnesotan-Wisconsinite-Illinoisan family, we play it both ways with our kids.)

Monday, August 27, 2007

Josiah goes to kindergarten

Josiah went to his first day of kindergarten today, and it sounds like he had fun. Last night we read The Night Before Kindergarten together, and I asked him how he was feeling about going to school. He said that he was fine, that he thought it would be fun. So I'm pleased to report that after class today he said that it was "great!"

In honor of our son, let me repost a recent blog entry by my wife about a recent Josiah incident:
Yesterday I took away Josiah's toy lightsaber. He was hitting things (including me) and when he refused to stop I took it away and put it on top of a high bookshelf. A few minutes later we had the following conversation:
Josiah (looking very sad): Mommy, you made me sad. You broke my heart.

Me: I did?

Josiah (drawing a heart in the air): Yes, my heart that is shaped like this. You broke it.

Me: How did I break your heart?

Josiah: You took my lightsaber away... (dramatic eyes, quivering lip)... If you give it back, my heart will be fixed.

Ellen: You can play with it tomorrow.

Josiah (on the verge of tears): If I have to wait until tomorrow my heart will be broken forever!
At this point I had to try very hard to hide my giggles. He seems to have the guilt trip thing down. When I refused to relent he resorted to threatening me with a ghost, vampire bats and a sheep dog. A sheep dog?! Where does he come up with this stuff?

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Acts 19 on economic (in)security

[This is an article I wrote for that was posted a few months ago.]

Business as Usual?

“Whistle while you work,” the classic Disney song proclaims. But in financially uncertain times, it can be hard to whistle when our work doesn’t necessarily provide the economic returns we hope for. It can be a challenge to enjoy our daily work when market forces and competition threaten our job security or our industry’s future. What do we do when our jobs and finances are not secure?

Acts 19 serves as a case study of two contrasting attitudes toward work and pay. The setting is the city of Ephesus, which at the time was commercially and politically the most important city in the Roman province of Asia (what is now Turkey). It was a religious center for the Roman emperor cult as well as for worship of the goddess Artemis. The Ephesian temple to Artemis was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and much of the local economy depended on the worship of Artemis. In fact, the temple also functioned as a bank.

One person who worked in Ephesus was the silversmith Demetrius. He made silver shrines of Artemis and generated business for many local workers, and we can envision him as a local union leader, organizing his fellow workers and aligning with other related trades to advocate for their industry. Demetrius was loyal to his workers and his industry, and he fiercely defended the economic interests of his trade against any threat.

Along comes the apostle Paul, whose Christian ministry is a direct challenge to the Artemis cult. Imagine if an influential person came to Seattle and began preaching the evils of coffee, directly threatening Starbucks’ business. Or if religious groups decided to lobby against the use of computers, or professional sports, or fast food. Very powerful special interest lobbies would exercise their clout to combat such threats.

That’s exactly what Demetrius does. He arranges some inter-guild meetings and warns his cohorts that this Christianity is bad for business. “You know, my friends, that we receive a good income from this business,” he says. “And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus.” His voice rises, his fists clench. “This Paul says that gods made by human hands—that’s our hands, folks, the work of your hands and mine—are no gods at all! There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited.” Appealing to fear, protectionism, and defensiveness, Demetrius ratchets up the rhetoric until an angry mob runs riot across town.

That’s one attitude we can have when our work isn’t going so well. Stock prices are falling, sales orders are decreasing, overseas competition is increasing—we panic. We fear for our jobs, our careers, our very lives.

Contrast this with another attitude we find a few paragraphs earlier in Acts 19. We read that “a number who had practiced sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly. When they calculated the value of the scrolls, the total came to fifty thousand drachmas” (Acts 19:19). A drachma was a silver coin worth about a day’s wages.

Think about how much money you make in a day. Now multiply that by fifty thousand. Do the math. That’s a lot of money. This is not some symbolic gesture that the former sorcerers and religious leaders made—they very directly repudiated their industry, at great financial cost. They got rid of their assets, their investments, their 401(k)s. They gave up their livelihood, their economic security. Why? Because they heard a higher calling.

On the one hand, Demetrius and his cohorts, fearing economic disaster, retrenched and responded with fear and defensiveness. On the other hand, the former scroll owners saw that the kingdom of God was blowing a new wind through their city, and they needed to give up their old ways of doing business as usual.

We have no idea what these former sorcerers did after burning their scrolls. Did they find other careers, other jobs, other callings? We simply don’t know. But we do know this—they judged that some things were more important than economic security. Their line of work had become an idol to them, but they surrendered it to the Way of Jesus.

We don’t know what winds of fortune may blow through our business. But we can have an attitude more like the sorcerers than the silversmiths. We too can have an attitude of trust, faith and confidence in God’s leading and provision for the future.

Monday, August 20, 2007

$100 project update: Final report

Last summer I participated in one of Calvin College's Seminars in Christian Scholarship about writing as Christian proclamation. We mistakenly thought that we each had $100 of funding to use however we decided. (Turns out that we had already used our allotted $100 for reimbursement of books for the seminar.) But we went ahead and decided to embark on a $100 project, in which each of us would do something creative and constructive with $100 and then write about it.

My $100 was "funded" by an interview article that I had worked on during my Calvin seminar, and I spent much of the following months wondering what to do with the money. Got some nice suggestions from commenters on this blog, with ideas for helping youth or elderly, sponsoring an essay writing contest, coffee for strangers, facilitating a community garage sale, environmental stewardship and the like. I definitely wanted to do something related to my suburban community, and I thought it would be appropriate to do something writing- or book-related, given the nature of our seminar.

I thought about ways to grow the money first. Something I do fairly routinely is sell used books on Amazon; I always get a kick out of finding a book at a thrift shop for a quarter that I can sell online for ten bucks. Last winter I was browsing a used book store and found a number of Anchor Bible Commentaries for six or seven bucks each. I sold some of them online for thirty and fifty dollars apiece. Should I calculate that into my $100 amount and declare that I had grown the money to $160 or so? But what about the inventory of books that I bought that haven't sold yet - do I need to deduct that from the balance? And shipping costs, etc.? After thinking through the accounting details, I concluded that I didn't want to mess with the potential entrepreneurial investment growth aspect of the project and would just keep it to a simple what-could-I-do-with-$100.

Something that occurred to me while reading The Kingdom Assignment is that people often used their $100 in ways consistent with their natural interests, gifts and opportunities. So I thought about the various community organizations and institutions that I interface with, and the obvious thought that came to mind was our local public library. We go to the library several times every week and always have dozens of items checked out and stacked up on our nightstands.

So I talked with folks at the library, explained the $100 project and asked if there were any ways I could use the money for some sort of special volunteer project or donation. I didn't want to just donate it to the friends of the library foundation or buy a brick on the sidewalk; I wanted to do something a little more personal and specific. I mentioned that I work at a book publisher and could purchase books to be donated. They talked it over at some meeting and got back to me, saying that they'd like the donation of books. So I gave them some current catalogs, and they looked through them and gave me a list of requested titles.

Because of my IVP employee discount, the $100 was able to purchase $250 worth of books (retail price), which in this case was 15 books, four of which I had worked on as project editor. And I was also able to donate another dozen or so overstock/slightly hurt books that were available for giveaway. The library carries numerous Christian books and even already had a few IVP titles (including my suburbs book), but I was glad to make more IVP books directly available to the collection.

So my $100 project flowed out of my work in Christian book publishing and benefited an institution in my local suburb that serves as a "third place" for the community and promotes literacy, reading and knowledge. I'm hopeful that random browsers will pick up these books on the new arrivals shelves and experience some degree of spiritual ministry through the content. I've always loved the fact that our books are like little missionaries that can go many places that we can't. I think it's theologically significant that Christians can work through existing community organizations (like public libraries) to be salt and light in our communities. We can work counterculturally through the church and other Christian organizations, but we can also work transformatively through society's own institutions.

So that's what I did with my $100. What did you do?

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Time in traffic and walkable communities

I just saw a poll on Facebook about "How much time do you spend in traffic a day?" One thousand Facebook members responded. Here are the results:
- More than 2 hours: 10%
- 1 to 2 hours: 31%
- 30 minutes to an hour: 28%
- Less than 30 minutes: 23%
- None: 9%
There are breakdowns by age and gender, but not by urban/suburban, etc. The only clue the poll gives of geography is that the "audience" was Los Angeles, CA. So that may skew the results in terms of applicability nationwide, but since LA is largely a suburban megalopolis, this may be a fairly good reflection of what suburban commuting patterns are like in major metropolitan areas. This is not a scientific survey, of course, but I think the results are telling.

I also just came across Walk Score (HT: Life Is Ministry - thanks, Matthew!). Walk Score is a site that calculates how walkable your neighborhood community is, based on how pedestrian-friendly the street layout is, the proximity to parks and public space, access to community institutions, etc. Go to Walk Score, plug in your address and see how your neighborhood does.

My neighborhood ranked as 54 out of 100, which is "Some Walkable Locations: Some stores and amenities are within walking distance, but many everyday trips still require a bike, public transportation, or car." Oddly enough, our previous home just two blocks away gets a score of 57. The apartment one suburb over where we lived when we first got married is 55. The neighborhood where I grew up in the suburbs of Minneapolis is 29. I remember walking quite a lot there, but that was primarily before I was old enough to drive. (Walk Score also lets you score some celebrity homes, like Bill Gates's house [6], the White House [91] and Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt's pre-breakup house [8]. One of the most iconic suburban homes, the Brady Bunch house, gets a very walkable 80.)

Here are Walk Score's comments about why walking matters:

Walkable neighborhoods offer surprising benefits to our health, the environment, and our communities.

Better health: A study in Washington State found that the average resident of a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood weighs 7 pounds less than someone who lives in a sprawling neighborhood1. Residents of walkable neighborhoods drive less and suffer fewer car accidents, a leading cause of death between the ages of 15 - 45.

Reduction in greenhouse gas: Cars are a leading cause of global warming. Your feet are zero pollution transportation machines.

More transportation options: Compact neighborhoods tend to have higher population density, which leads to more public transportation options and bicycle infrastructure. Not only is taking the bus cheaper than driving, but riding a bus is ten times safer than driving a car2!

Increased social capital: Walking increases social capital by promoting face-to-face interaction with your neighbors. Studies have shown that for each 10 minutes a person spends in a daily car commute, time spent in community activities falls by 10 percent3.

Stronger local businesses: Dense, walkable neighborhoods provide local businesses with the foot traffic they need to thrive. It's easier for pedestrians to shop at many stores on one trip, since they don't need to drive between destinations.

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Way Is Made by Walking

IVP just released a new book called The Way Is Made by Walking: A Pilgrimage Along the Camino de Santiago by Arthur Paul Boers. The author traces his month-long, 500-mile-long walk on a historic pilgrimage route in northwest Spain. (Cue the retro soundtrack: "I would walk five hundred miles, and I would walk five hundred more . . .") What's most intriguing to me about the book is that it blends spiritual formation with theologically astute cultural analysis. So here are some particularly insightful observations about the physical act of walking:
I also know that my watch moves more slowly when I am on foot. Walking affects not just space and distance but also time itself. In our high-speed way of living—which we intriguingly call “driven”—we miss many things. Christian faith calls us to a different pace of life, and walking is a vital way to achieve that.

In an essay titled “Time by Design,” Linda Breen Pierce argues that driving exposes us “to both faster speeds and greater stimulation” than walking. Consequently the brain must “work harder as you focus on safety and process all that you see.” It pressures us with “a rush of sensory perceptions.” Walking then is not just physically slower but mentally as well. There is less to take in, to process, to absorb. And we are able to deal with what faces us.

Technological culture—in spite of “labor saving” rhetoric and devices—actually makes us busier. Pauses, breaks and respites have disappeared. The norm of multitasking leaves us unaware of what goes on within or around us. But walking can move us into a different mode. Einstein showed that time is relative. Moving on our own two feet has its own pace; I call it the speed of life.

In our culture it is less trouble to drive than to walk, even if that choice is wasteful and unhealthy. Strolling is actually discouraged. . . . I could name dozens of people who drive an hour or two each day to and from work and think nothing of it. It is the price they pay for a job. But I know hardly anyone who walks thirty minutes for their commute, let alone an hour or two. How strange we would regard someone who did that, even though it is far healthier physically, emotionally, spiritually and environmentally.

Walking is an act of dissent; it is countercultural.

Indeed, walking is a demonstration, a demurral. Against flagrant expenditure of nonrenewable resources. In opposition to the noise of motor vehicles. Counter to the ugliness of cities and communities shaped to accommodate cars and discourage pedestrians. In opposition to all the burying of topsoil under asphalt. Mourning for how long one has to go before feet can touch the earth. In remonstration against the danger that cars pose. And on and on.

As I made my little declaration of dissent, I realized that I was not angry. I was joyful and sad, both at once. Gladdened by the opportunity to walk, and regretting that others did not know what they were missing.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Book discussion chapter 6: Finding community

I'm a little slow in posting this update, but L. L. Barkat and Charity Singleton have again blogged their thoughts about my book, this time about chapter 6, which is about the challenges of finding community in the suburbs. Here's a brief chapter summary: The meaning of "community" has shifted over the past century from a geographic sense of place (community = neighborhood) to a more affinity-based understanding (the arts community, the Christian community, the eBay community). The architecture and structures of suburbia tend to isolate us and distance us from our neighbors. Historically, television brought us indoors and air conditioning kept us there. But we all have this inherent yearning for reconnecting with our neighbors, whether through the public "third places" or personal gatherings like Tupperware parties, which I argue were one of the key historical forces in the mid-20th century that counteracted suburban isolationism.

And the best way for suburban Christians to build community is to recover the practice of hospitality. Charity notes, "Hospitality can be as traditional as inviting neighbors over for a meal, or as radical as creating new neighbors by inviting missionaries or a struggling family to temporarily share your home. Hsu also suggests things like sharing lawn equipment or transforming personal space, like garages, into community space for neighborhood gatherings. Mostly, I've heard that hospitality is creating space in my life to share with other people. When my home, my hands, and my heart are available, I can help build community."

And particularly eloquent, I thought, were Llama Momma's comments:
. . . And the single Mom on the corner who is too busy to care much where her kids are most afternoons. Letting her know that I care about her and her daughers; giving her my phone number and letting her know that one of her girls is at my house almost every day, so if she needs her back home, to call; and welcoming "one more" at our lunch table most afternoons. Filling her up with hugs and healthy snacks and a listening ear. This is community.

Watching the children play t-ball in the front yard with all of the neighborhood kids and Moms, realizing I'm almost out of milk and my husband's out of town. Asking the neighbor Mom to keep an eye on the boys while I run to the store. This is community.

And when a neighbor's husband comes home late and drunk, and domestic violence becomes a reality inside her "safe" space, she realizes she is not alone. She has community. So at midnight, her and her babies come knocking on my safe house. This is community.

Okay. I've gone on too much. I guess I am just so passionate about this because I am experiencing it in my neighborhood and it is powerful and wonderful. I have friends I wouldn't have had if I had stayed inside, and I am better for those friendships.
Here are links to previous posts on chapter 5 on branding and identity, chapter 4 on consumerism, chapter 3 on commuter culture, chapter 2 on housing, and chapter 1 and the introduction on suburbia in general.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Nehemiah, prayer and perseverance

[Last week I was pleased to see that reposted my last Harry Potter entry as the article "Spoiler Alert." Here's another article I wrote for that has been reposted at Christianity Today's site.]

Praying Through the Dark Times

Nehemiah is one of my favorite Old Testament characters. His story begins "in the month of Kislev in the 20th year" of the reign of King Artaxerxes (Neh. 1:1). That's when Nehemiah learns that Jerusalem's wall has been broken down and the gates burned. Nehemiah sits down and weeps. "For some days" (1:4) he mourns and fasts and prays before the Lord. He says that he is praying "day and night" (1:6) for the people of Israel.

How long did he pray? The next scene takes place "in the month of Nisan" (2:1), when he asks the king for permission to return to Jerusalem. The Hebrew month of Nisan is March/April by our calendar. The month of Kislev is November/December. Nehemiah has been praying four months! Day and night, for four months, Nehemiah has persevered in prayer before taking action to return to Jerusalem.

Once there, Nehemiah surveys Jerusalem and organizes the community to repair the wall. Along the way, they face opposition from outsiders as well as from within their own ranks. He battles political intrigue and handles dissension and disgruntled workers. All the while, they work "from the first light of dawn till the stars come out" (4:21). He organizes shifts so they "can serve us as guards by night and workmen by day" (4:22). They don't even change their clothes, so they will be ready to defend their work at a moment's notice.

With amazing speed, "the wall was completed on the twenty-fifth of Elul, in fifty-two days" (6:15). Elul is August/September. So Nehemiah and his team worked nonstop day and night, in hard outdoor labor, during some of the hottest months of the year. And they finished their colossal task in less than two months. No wonder their enemies from surrounding nations "were afraid and lost their self-confidence, because they realized that this work had been done with the help of God" (6:16). Nehemiah spent less time doing the actual work than he spent praying for and preparing for the work. Perhaps that's why the work went so well.

Nehemiah continued on as governor of Jerusalem until the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes (13:6), meaning that he governed for twelve years, longer than many of us stay in our jobs. Nehemiah persevered in his work, in both short-term projects as well as in long-term governance.

After his twelve-year administration, he returned to Babylon, presumably to serve the king there. "Some time later" (13:7), and we don't know how long, Nehemiah returns to Jerusalem. Perhaps he is an old man now, at an age when he should be taking it easy. But he sees the people ignoring some of the reforms that he instituted. So he takes action—and not merely to preserve his own legacy. He takes action to ensure that his people persevere in the mission, identity, and calling that God has given them. He reminds the Israelites: Do not forget your commitments to God.

We remember Nehemiah today as a model of organization and visionary leadership. We sometimes forget his perseverance as he worked to realize God's will for himself and his community. He was faithful throughout his life, persevering in faith and action to the very end. May God enable us to do likewise.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Harry Potter's narrative journey (and implications for the Christian story)

It’s always interesting when a cultural artifact becomes a cultural phenomenon. There was not a lot of initial promotion for the first Harry Potter book, and expectations were modest. But somehow word of mouth buzz moved the series past a tipping point and Harry Potter became something larger. No longer was J. K. Rowling an unknown author laboring in obscurity. Now she's an international media celebrity, wealthier than the Queen of England, with millions of fans around the world clamoring for every word and detail about Harry.

This makes me wonder – what would it look like if we saw comparable levels of Harry Potter mania directed to the Christian story? It’s not like crowds are awaiting the next Bibleman DVD, or staying up all night to read Miroslav Volf’s newest book. Or Isaiah or Jeremiah, for that matter. Can you imagine people packing the streets of Ephesus in eager anticipation of the publication of part 2 of Luke/Acts? Or release parties in Corinth celebrating the receipt of Paul’s second epistle to them? Dress up like your favorite super-apostle!

I wonder if there have been times in church history when the gospel narrative was this gripping a cultural phenomenon. People probably wouldn’t be this crazy about Harry Potter if they had all grown up in a context where they had heard the Harry Potter stories so much that they no longer seemed fresh. The challenge for us in a post-Christendom era is that people have become anesthetized to the Christian story. They’ve heard it already, or they think they’ve heard it already. And it doesn’t capture their imagination the way today’s imaginative narratives have. In a world of Harry Potter, Star Wars, 24 and Heroes, it’s hard for the Christian story to compete.

Those of us who have been reading the Harry Potter novels as they were being published were able to experience something special that future generations of readers won’t – the anticipation and suspense of waiting several years between each book. From now on, new readers can read all seven books straight through if they want to. But for the past decade, Harry Potter readers have been part of a global community that has experienced the dramatic tension of waiting for the next installment.

I wonder what it would look like for the gospel story to be more suspenseful. I think one of the most significant aspects about the experience of reading the final Harry Potter book is that we didn’t want to hear spoilers. We had come to know and love the characters so much that wanted to journey with Harry and his friends. We needed to experience and discover for ourselves what they were going through. We didn’t want to find out in chapter two of book one how it was all going to turn out. Instead we read seven books and thousands of pages, staying up into the wee hours of the morning, because the journey is every bit as important as the ending. Indeed, without experiencing the adventure of the journey, there wouldn't have been as much dynamic power to the ending.

Are Christian “gospel presentations” less like the adventure of a Harry Potter novel and more like spoilers that tell you what happened but take all the suspense and delight out of the journey? Maybe Christians have been so intent on getting to the point and bottom-lining things, for the sake of saving souls, that they’ve taken the mystery and surprise out of the narrative. We jump to the end. God loves you, Jesus died for you, pray this prayer, yada yada yada.

It’s well-intentioned but self-defeating. We don’t get to know the characters, and so we diminish the experience and the power of the biblical narrative. Often we are so concerned about getting people from here to there that they don’t experience the journey enough to really make the faith their own. We have short-circuited the narrative imagination. What a loss.

Harry Potter reminds us that it's not just what we say, but how we say it. We can recover the imagination, a sense of wonder at a world of mystery and discovery. We can invite people to join us on a long-term experiential journey that’s full of twists and turns but nevertheless infused with hope. And we can enjoy the community of friends and mentors that accompany us along the way.