Monday, June 30, 2008

Life After Church

I'm back home now after speaking at a weekend retreat in Maryland for a church from Virginia. It was a good weekend, though a little draining. I gave a brief introduction and devotion Friday night, and three talks on suburban stuff (Saturday morning, Saturday evening, Sunday morning). Focused a bit on consumerism and materialism, since this church happens to be in the wealthiest county in the U.S., and we talked about ways that Christians can be good neighbors, seek the welfare of their suburbs and be a gift to their community. Plus I did a Saturday afternoon seminar on relationships/dating/singleness/marriage, and we had a separate impromptu open mike Q&A session. So I was pretty worn out by the end. But it was a good time, and I enjoyed getting to know folks. And I was amused that the retreat center had a coffeeshop called HeBrews.

A few months ago I read Life After Church: God’s Call to Disillusioned Christians by Brian Sanders, and I meant to post some quotes from it but didn't get around to it earlier. Most of us at some point have situations where we wonder, "Should I stay or should I go?" Sanders's book is a good resource for helping sort all that out. Here are some nice quotes:
“There are only two healthy choices when it comes to our relationships with a church or ministry. One, we stay in that ministry, fully engaged in its vision and loving everyone involved. Two, we leave to find a place where we can be fully engaged in the mission and vision and love everyone involved. Either choice is good. But too many of us believe there are also choices three and four. Three, we stay but hate it, constantly complaining and feeling unhappy with the vision (or lack of vision) of the leaders and even ourselves in that context. Or four, we leave angry, only to isolate ourselves and actually become less committed to God in the leaving.

“I advocate staying and leaving. Stay if you can do it in a joyful, hopeful way. Stay if you can fully support the ministry and its leaders. If not, leave. But don’t leave God or community or mission. These things make us who we are. They should be a part of our lives because they are rivers of living water and tributaries of God’s grace for us.” (p. 121)

“[A]nother staff supervisor was listening to me talk about how this thing or that thing needed to change. He said, ‘Brian, you may be right in what you’re saying, but you are not right. It’s okay to tip over the apple cart from time to time, but a real follower of Jesus would stick around and help pick up the apples.’” (p. 146)

Thursday, June 26, 2008

High gas prices and a return to local parishes

Several folks pointed me to this article on how high gas prices are affecting suburban life. Here are some snippets:
But life on the distant fringes of suburbia is beginning to feel untenable. Boyle and his wife must drive nearly an hour to their jobs in the high-tech corridor of southern Denver. With gasoline at more than $4 a gallon, Boyle recently paid $121 to fill his pickup truck with diesel. The price of propane to heat their spacious house has more than doubled in recent years.

Though Boyle finds city life unappealing, it's now up for reconsideration.

"Living closer in, in a smaller space, where you don't have that commute," he said. "It's definitely something we talk about. Before it was, 'We spend too much time driving.' Now, it's, 'We spend too much time and money driving."'

...In 2003, the average suburban household spent $1,422 a year on gasoline, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By April of this year - when gas prices were about $3.60 a gallon - the same household was buying gas at a rate of $3,196 a year, more than doubling consumption in dollar terms in less than five years.

In March, Americans drove 11 billion fewer miles on public roads than in the same month the previous year, a 4.3 percent decrease. It was the sharpest one-month drop since the Federal Highway Administration began keeping records in 1942.

Suburbia was designed around commuter culture. That's how the geographic land-use patterns are generally laid out; neighborhoods presuppose that residents are going to drive, not walk. And commuter culture fragments us across various communities, where we live in one suburb and work in another and go to church in a third. Most commuting is not from suburb to city; it's from suburb to suburb. Suburbia was built in part on the premise of cheap oil, and most of us in suburbia are commuters by default. But high gas prices are challenging that commuter lifestyle.

I'm hopeful that all of this is going to push suburbanites toward a new localism. For Christians, it's a recovery of the parish concept, where we live, work, shop and worship all in the same community instead of driving all over the place. Many folks are finding that driving an hour or more to work is ultimately unsustainable. It eats up too much time, it costs too much gas money, it's bad for the environment.

So not only are people driving less this summer, I think we're also seeing people make larger lifestyle choices. Some, like this article mentions, are relocating to walkable urban communities. Some are moving closer to where they work, whether that's in urban, suburban or exurban areas. Others are finding work closer to home, or are telecommuting from home. As I mention in the commuting chapter of my book, no matter where we live, we can all do our best to reel our lives back in and focus more on our local neighborhoods. Instead of driving twenty or thirty miles to stuff, we can try to live our lives within a ten mile radius, or five miles, or whatever makes sense for our context. I pretty much live the majority of my life within a five-to-seven mile grid, though a few things take me out of that region. For the most part, I stay in my parish and invest my energy and commitments there.

Update: I just came across an article, Will soaring gas prices bring the death of suburbs? that links to a whole slew of other related articles. It summarizes:
What the commentators said
Americans got away with treating “smart growth” as an academic exercise for years, said the Hartford Courant in an editorial. No more. “The prospect of gas going to $5 a gallon and beyond" should force everybody, especially state and local governments, to say no to the sprawl that makes commuters waste fuel getting to work. It's time to “embrace a smart growth policy that encourages workers and companies to move to sites in town centers or on transit lines.”

The market will drive people out of suburbs if nothing else does, said Michael Corkery, Sui-Lee Wee and Nick Timiraos in The Wall Street Journal. Home prices have finally fallen enough to make them affordable again, but $4-a-gallon gas adds hundreds of dollars a year to commuting costs for people in far-flung suburbs. And if gas prices stay this high for a long time, property in some outlying areas will become, in the words of Deutsche Bank analyst Nishu Sood, “effectively worthless.”

The coming death of the suburb is shocking news for baby boomers, said Will Bunch in The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Attywood blog. “We grew up taught to think that suburbs were like a part of human evolution. I never thought the American Suburb would be the one to go first.”

The exodus from the suburb to cities is no sure thing, said Chermelle D. Edwards and Prashant Gopal in Cities came roaring back during the real-estate boom, but urban redevelopment came to a screeching halt in many places when prices stopped soaring. And downtown areas still have violent crime and other problems that the well-to-do moved to the suburbs to escape, so not everybody is ready to move back.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The ambiguity of Hello Kitty

Random item from the book Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are by Rob Walker. There's a section on Hello Kitty, the billion-dollar brand of the cute little cat with no mouth. There are thousands upon thousands of Hello Kitty licensed products available on the market, from toys and clothing to golf bags and appliances and even a $30,000 diamond-encrusted Hello Kitty wristwatch. Hello Kitty was originally thought to appeal only to young girls, but market research found that a third of Hello Kitty customers were over eighteen and shopping for themselves. So they started producing Hello Kitty lingerie and jewelry.

What's most interesting about Hello Kitty's brand identity is that there's no narrative or backstory behind it. Unlike characters like Snoopy or Mickey Mouse, there are no cartoon stories that give any hint about Hello Kitty's personality. And apparently this is entirely intentional. Hello Kitty stands for nothing, but this also means that Hello Kitty can also stand for anything the consumer wants it to be about.

Walker cites cultural scholar Brian McVeigh, who says that Hello Kitty is about "projectability." Hello Kitty's blank "cryptic" simplicity is "waiting to be interpreted." Hello Kitty could appeal to someone because it suggests nostalgia, or it could seem campy, or it could seem subversive. It could be anything.

The designer didn't know what to do for Hello Kitty's mouth and decided to just go without it. And that may well be the secret to Hello Kitty's success. A spokesman for Hello Kitty's corporate owners, Sanrio, says, "Without the mouth, it is easier for the person looking at Hello Kitty to project their feelings onto the character. The person can be happy or sad together with Hello Kitty." Other commentators observe that Hello Kitty is "an icon that allows viewers to assign whatever meaning to her that they want."

So Hello Kitty is not merely a corporate brand being foisted upon unthinking masses. Hello Kitty is an example of how consumers actually invest meaning into a cultural symbol. So we don't consume just to acquire stuff. And we don't consume merely to buy into a pre-existing brand identity. As we consume, we invest meaning into the corporate brands that we consume and appropriate them for our own purpose and use. We manufacture our own meaning. Consumption can thus be interpreted as a way that we construct our identity and make sense of the world.

Weird. Especially when I just did a quick Google image search for Hello Kitty and came up with:

Hello Kitty Ferrari

Hello Kitty exhaust pipe

Hello Kitty corset

Hello Kitty car seat

Hello Kitty motorcycle

Darth Kitty

Friday, June 20, 2008

Memed: 7 things about me

Jenell Paris tagged me with this meme.
Here are the rules:
1. Link to your tagger and post these rules on your blog.
2. Share 7 facts about yourself on your blog, some random, some weird.
3. Tag 7 people at the end of your post by leaving their names as well as links to their blogs.
4. Let them know they are tagged by leaving a comment on their blog.

(There was a fifth item, but she and her predecessor both ignored it, so I will as well. Like the telephone game.) Okay. I never know what to say on these things, but here goes:

1. I am a genetic mutant, because I have never had wisdom teeth and will never get any. Dentists have X-rayed my head and have confirmed that I am sorely lacking in wisdom.

2. When I was a kid, during a snowball fight I hit a kid in the nose with the front edge of a snow shovel, and it sliced into his nose and broke the cartilage. I still remember the eruption of blood, his screams of agony, him rushing home and to the hospital. I think this may be the worst thing I've ever done to someone else.

3. One of my favorite childhood books was The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. It's a Newbery-winning puzzle mystery that is amazingly well-crafted and satisfying. Complex but accessible, with a diverse cast of well-developed characters. A modern classic, with humor, suspense, plot twists and surprises. Loved it, loved it, loved it. If you've not read it, pick it up. (And I just realized now that the author's name was Ellen. Maybe the book planted a subliminal thing in me to marry someone named Ellen.)

4. I read comic books. Collected them as a kid, and recently got back into the habit. I blame my colleague Dave Zimmerman for getting me back into them a few years ago when he wrote his book Comic Book Character. I was his editor, so I had to start reading comics again. Y'know, for research and fact-checking. And actually, the comics I enjoy most are the team-ups, like the classic The Brave and the Bold and DC Comics Presents, or the Justice League of America and the Teen Titans, or World's Finest and Superman/Batman. In some ways team-up comics reflect my ecclesiology that we are better together than on our own.

5. Ellen asked me out on our first date. I had seen Aladdin five times in the theatre and told her that it was a great movie. When it came to our college town's second-run theatre, I mentioned to Ellen that it was playing there. She responded, "So when are you going to take me?"

6. I like Hondas. My first car was a white Honda Civic wagon that looked like a rollerskate. But I got in an accident because I was reading a book while driving and totaled it. My next car was a white Honda Accord. After we had Josiah, we got a white Honda Odyssey minivan.

7. I'm starting PhD work at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School this fall. I was accepted several months ago, but I don't think I've mentioned it on this blog yet. It's a PhD in educational studies, and I'm hoping to do some sociology of religion and theology of culture through it. Classes in this particular program are modular, two weeks at a time, and about half of the people in the program are working professionals, some of whom fly in for each course. So I'll be able to stay on at IVP - I'll likely be working on the program slowly. We'll see what's manageable. I was looking into various other options, like Edinburgh's program in media and theology, but I couldn't just uproot my family to head off to Scotland, so I pretty much limited my choices to the Chicagoland area. Peter Cha was my mentor for a leadership development program, and he encouraged me to look into this program at TEDS. I got in, so here I go!

People to tag. Let's see . . . how about:

1. My wife, Ellen, at Team Hsu
2. Fellow IVP editor Dave Zimmerman at Loud Time
3. Another IVP colleague, Lisa Rieck, at Strangely Dim
4. Yet another colleague, Jeff Reimer, at Mode of Expression
5. Publishing industry friend Jana Riess at The Review Revolution
6. Ashleigh the IVP super-fan at Being Redefined
7. Caryn Rivadeneira at Mama's Got a Fake ID

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Kingdom Sightings: Grace and Peace

Christianity Today just posted my latest column from the June issue. Here are the opening paragraphs:

Grace and Peace
How a simple salutation points us toward a new society.

I'm a book geek, so one of my hobbies is collecting autographed books. Some I acquire through my work in book publishing; others I find at bookshops. I now have more than 500 signed volumes, comprising authors from Sue Grafton and Walter Wangerin to Anne Lamott and John Stott.

Authors sign their books in myriad ways. Jimmy Carter's signature is a modest "J Carter." Max Lucado's is barely recognizable—what might be an "ML__." Calvin Miller used calligraphy. Eugene Peterson signed off with "the peace of the Lord." J. I. Packer rotated through Bible verses, from 2 Timothy 3:14–17 for a book about Scripture to Psalm 46 for Knowing God. Chuck Colson chose Romans 12:2, but more baffling was his inscription, which looked vaguely like "Burm gd."

I especially treasure signatures from those who are no longer with us. My former Wheaton professor Bob Webber signed several books to me with Dominus Vobiscum ("the Lord be with you"). Spencer Perkins wrote, "In the hope of racial healing." Rich Mullins autographed CDs with "Be God's!" Stanley Grenz inscribed a theology text with "May our Lord guide your steps." And one of my most memorable dedications came from Madeleine L'Engle, who signed my copy of A Wrinkle in Time with "Tesser well."

But my favorite phrase was inscribed by Michael Card, who borrowed the apostle Paul's signature expression: "Grace and peace." This greeting is found in some form at the opening of all of Paul's epistles, most commonly, "Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ."

[The full article is available here. I've also created a parking space for my columns here.]

The urbanization of suburbia

My friend Helen Lee tipped me off to this article about the changing face of suburbia. Suburbia is urbanizing, and the urban poor are becoming the suburban poor as people are priced out of gentrified urban neighborhoods. And suburban neighborhoods are seeing decay and decline because of foreclosures and the weak economy.

Here's a significant sign of the times: "some homeowners not only cut their own grass but also trim the yards of vacant homes on their streets, hoping to deter gangs and criminals from moving in."

Also very interesting is how individualistic suburban single-family housing is being repurposed in light of changing economic realities:
. . . Nelson also estimates that in 2025 there will be a surplus of 22 million large-lot homes that will not be left vacant in a suburban wasteland but instead occupied by lower classes who have been driven out of their once affordable inner-city apartments and houses.

The so-called McMansion, he said, will become the new multi-family home for the poor.

"What is going to happen is lower and lower-middle income families squeezed out of downtown and glamorous suburban locations are going to be pushed economically into these McMansions at the suburban fringe," said Nelson. "There will probably be 10 people living in one house."

In Shaun Yandell's neighborhood, this has already started to happen. Houses once filled with single families are now rented out by low-income tenants. Yandell speculates that they're coming from nearby Sacramento, where the downtown is undergoing substantial gentrification, or perhaps from some other area where prices have gotten too high.

Monday, June 16, 2008

So many books, so little time

This past weekend, I took Josiah with me to an annual used book sale and we picked up a box of books. And then we went to the library and checked out a bunch more. And then we stopped at a comic book shop for some comics. And the next day, a Barnes & Noble, and another used book shop. That's my idea of a great weekend.

Now that it's summer, I'm ignoring my piles of serious non-fiction books and catching up on some fiction. I just read Gregory Maguire's Wicked, which was pretty dark and not nearly as fun as the musical version (I just got the soundtrack for Father's Day). I skimmed through For One More Day by Mitch Albom - I expected it to be kind of fluffy but it was surprisingly moving. I read through Stephenie Meyer's sci-fi novel The Host, about human survivors of an alien invasion. The aliens, called "souls," physically implant themselves into human hosts, but sometimes the human's consciousness isn't completely erased, leading to interesting situations of two beings inhabiting the same body (and all sorts of potential for unusual love triangles and quadrilaterals). I've read Meyer's Twilight series of vampire novels, which are not my usual cup of tea but came highly recommended by a friend, so I got into them. And I just cracked David Guterson's new novel The Other. He's best known for his Snow Falling on Cedars, and I've continued to follow his work.

Of the making of books there is no end. Since it's summer and I'm lazy, the following is a repost from IVP's Behind the Books blog from a few weeks ago.

The June 2 issue of Publishers Weekly reports that the number of new books has shot up to over 400,000 a year, but a quarter of these, well over 100,000 of them, are print-on-demand titles, most of which are self-published. The stats:

In 2002:
Traditionally published books: 215,138
Print-on-demand books: 32,639
Total: 247,777

2007 (projected):
Traditional: 276,649
POD: 134,773
Total: 411,422

And if you look at religion books in particular, it's grown from 12,253 new religion titles in 2002 to 18,956 in 2007. (Perhaps 6000 or so of these are from specifically evangelical Christian publishers.) No wonder none of us can keep up with all the new books out there.

The same issue of PW also reports the following on what influences people's book purchases:

60% are swayed by recommendations by friends or family
52% are swayed by cover art
49% are swayed by reviews
35% are swayed by a blurb/endorsement on the cover

Also, 43% of people go into bookstores looking for a specific book, and 77% make additional purchases while looking for a specific book.

This is interesting to me because I've been wondering how many people care about endorsements. I can only think of one instance when I've bought a book because of an endorsement on the back (a blurb by Anne Lamott on the book Expecting Adam by Martha Beck). But I've picked up countless books because I saw them mentioned on people's blogs (which could count as either friends' recommendations or reviews). What makes you buy a book? Do blurbs matter?

Friday, June 13, 2008

A Native American understanding of the Christian story

One of the other presenters on my panel at Envision was Randy Woodley. I worked with Randy on the IVP edition of his book Living in Color: Embracing God's Passion for Ethnic Diversity. He's currently finishing up a PhD at Asbury Seminary, and he's part of the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies, working to develop and mentor Native North American Christians. Randy talked about how American Christianity has been historically colonialist and imperialist, often obliterating Native cultures in the name of Christian mission. But Randy is part of a new movement working to recontextualize Christianity in thoroughly indigenous ways, to the benefit of both Native and non-Native communities.

For example, Randy notes that the typical Western evangelical understanding of the Christian faith usually goes something like this:
I believe in God because I am a Christian. I read my Bible and help build God's kingdom as a missionary, sharing the gospel of salvation with the heathen. I tell them to repent from their sins and to be born again because of God's great love for them.

Randy points out that each of those bold-faced words is loaded with all sorts of baggage and connotations that are a barrier for many (Native and not). But here's an indigenous, contextualized version of the Christian narrative:
I believe in the Great Mystery because I am a follower of Jesus. I read the scriptures and help build the community of the Creator as an ambassador, sharing the good news of healing to the unversed. I tell them they can turn around from failing and to follow Jesus because of Creator's great love for them.

Some folks might think that this version isn't the gospel. Well, it might not be the Christian story they're familiar with, but I'd much rather have people hear version #2 and follow Jesus as a result instead of rejecting Jesus because they only heard version #1! I'm glad that Randy and others are doing this kind of work. All of us work in particular contexts, and every context demands fresh thinking and approaches.

[BTW, I connected with Todd Hiestand while at Envision, and we chatted a bit about our upcoming suburban church seminar in Philadelphia in August. He also has some notes about Envision here.]

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

At Envision 08: "us for all of us"

After a cancelled flight on Sunday, I finally made it to Princeton on Monday afternoon for the Envision 08 conference. I was bummed about missing some of the opening sessions, but it's been great to be here. I've been catching up with people I know and meeting new folks that I've heard of but had not yet met in person.

Last night's plenary consisted of five presenters in something of a "preach-off." One of the speakers was Soong-Chan Rah, professor at North Park Theological Seminary, and he gave a preview of his forthcoming book The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity (releasing spring 09). He talked about how the church in Acts 15 was shifting from a culturally Jewish church to a majority Gentile church, and that the North American church today is likewise transitioning from a predominantly white context into an increasingly diverse, multiethnic world. Just as Philip Jenkins has chronicled in The Next Christendom that the future of the church is in the global south of Africa, Asia and Latin America, so to is globalization and immigration transforming the face of North American Christianity.

Soong-Chan used to be a pastor in the Boston area, and people would ask him about how spiritually dead things were there. He'd respond that the church was thriving in Boston - the number of churches there had doubled in the last three decades. But much of that growth was from immigrant congregations, many of which worshipped in languages other than English. So it's not that the church is declining - it's just that the face of American evangelicalism is changing away from a predominantly white culture.

A recurring theme here has been that the gospel must be good news for both the individual and for society. Presenters have talked a lot about shalom theology and seeking the welfare of everybody, especially the marginalized and alienated. We've unpacked what it looks like to seek justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly with God. It's not enough to have a theology of personal salvation; we must also live out a commitment to care for the neighbor, the stranger, the enemy.

This afternoon I was on a panel about the future of the church. Eight of us presented in a pecha-kucha format where we showed twenty slides for twenty seconds each. I've never prepped so much for a six-minute, forty-second talk. It's much harder to put together than the usual PowerPoint presentation; it's really more of a performance art form where image and word go together in a very disciplined, structured format. My presentation was on the missional suburban church, and others talked about different corners of the church, whether overseas or in the cities or the Native American experience or the emergent church.

A common theme was the importance of understanding our context. Several of us talked about needing to understand our history, the legacy of empire and colonialism, and while all of us face challenges, there were signs of hope in every case. So it was tremendously encouraging to hear these reports from other corners of contemporary Christianity and hear how communities are working together to be heralds of the love of God and the peace of Jesus Christ to the world.

During the Q&A, I plugged Andy Crouch's Culture Making and cited something that Andy said about how in today's society, almost all of us are like immigrants, and all of us are missionaries. And I extended that and said that all of us also need to be cultural anthropologists. We need to study and explore the context that we've been called to inhabit and minister to.

Later on another speaker observed that one of the major shifts that the church needs to make is to stop thinking in terms of "us vs. them" and to think more in terms of "us for all of us," that we can partner and collaborate with our neighbors and fellow citizens for the sake of the common good. It's a recovery of our Christian tradition of charity and social justice, like our 19th-century heritage of abolition, hospitals, schools and human rights. We can likewise advocate for justice, health care and education, work to alleviate global poverty, fight sex trafficking and build bridges for reconciliation in our own generation.

Tonight's closing service honored activist John Perkins for a lifetime of work for civil rights and justice, community development and racial reconciliation. Conference co-director Lisa Harper also cited Andy Crouch, who said of John Perkins, "It is funny how little known his name is, but in terms of shaping American evangelicalism as it comes into the twenty-first century, he is right up there with Billy Graham." (Lisa has a new book, Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican or Democrat, coming out soon that references this.) The conference named a new award in his name, and Perkins then gave some remarks. He said that he was very encouraged by Envision, that this generation of motivated and mobilized Christians is in some ways the fulfillment of the legacy that he was working for back in the '60s.

This was the first Envision conference, and the conference organizers told me that they hope to hold it again every two years or so. I was honored to be a part of this inaugural one, and I wish them the best as they plan for the future.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Economist: Suburbs are the new cities

Adam Graber tipped me off to a good article in The Economist about how American suburbs are becoming more like city centers, for good and for bad. Population trends continue to highlight the new importance of suburbia. Since 1990, the city of Chicago itself grew by about 50,000 people, while the surrounding suburbs grew by over a million. Suburbs are new centers of industry and commerce, and they are reflecting greater ethnic and economic diversity. Some excerpts:
As they swell, the suburbs are changing. Perhaps none ever quite resembled the colourless domestic enclaves popularised by 1970s television programmes such as “The Brady Bunch”; now, they look nothing at all like them. America's suburbs are ethnically and demographically mixed—sometimes more so than its cities. Many are less dormitories than economic powerhouses.

According to William Frey, a demographer, the white population of big-city suburbs grew by 7% between 2000 and 2006. In the same period the suburban Asian population grew by 16%, the black population by 24% and the Hispanic population by an astonishing 60%. Many immigrants to America now move directly to the suburbs without passing through established urban ghettos. Having conquered suburbia, ethnic-minority groups are now swiftly infiltrating the more distant “exurbs”.

The most important reason people are moving to the suburbs is economic: that is where the jobs are. . . . In a forthcoming report, Alan Berube of the Brookings Institution, a think-tank, calculates that 45% of the jobs in America's 100 biggest metropolitan areas are found more than ten miles from the downtown core. Between 1998 and 2004 fully three-quarters of all new jobs emerged in this area. Many of these new positions were filled by local people, who were delighted to drop their long commutes to traditional city centres. But more and more Americans wake up in one suburb and go to work in another. Others, including many of Google's Bay Area employees, wake up in a city and go to work in a suburb.

But as new suburbs become new cities, old suburbs become old cities, with worries and problems of aging infrastructure and increasing crime. Those of us who would seek the welfare of the suburbs (and the whole metropolis) can see suburbia as heralding new opportunities for ministry and outreach as well as greater complexities and challenges.

Next week I'll be at the Envision 08 conference in Princeton on "Gospel, Politics and the Future," and I'm speaking in one of the plenary sessions as part of a panel discussion on the future of the church. I'm going to talk briefly about the missional suburban church and how suburban Christians are grappling with changing realities. Should be a good conference. If you'll be there, say hi!

Monday, June 02, 2008

What Christians can learn from Broadway musicals

This past weekend for our anniversary, Ellen and I saw the musical Wicked, which was very well done. It was a fascinating homage to The Wizard of Oz, doing a bit of postmodern deconstruction of the traditional story but also reconstructing the narrative in such a way that created a great cultural artifact of its own. Ellen and I love musical theatre - we've seen Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon, Joseph, The Lion King and others. Below is an article I wrote for a denominational magazine some years ago about what Christians can learn from Broadway musicals, especially in terms of worship.

What Christians Can Learn from Broadway

by Albert Hsu

Balcony seating, third row. For three hours I sat transfixed as the stage before me was transformed into 19th century France. The set itself seemed alive as the actors personified Victor Hugo’s grand themes: poverty, revolution, law, mercy, faith, hope, love, life and afterlife. At the finale, the company sang a prophetic chorus with eschatological imagery anticipating the day that “They will live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord / They will walk behind the plowshare / They will put away the sword.”

This was no mere musical. For me, Les Misérables was a worship experience and perhaps even a divine encounter.

I exited the theatre exhilarated in emotion and stirred in my spirit. I was convinced that God had met me in a powerful way during the show. What was it about this musical that brought tears to my eyes? Was it the bishop’s forgiveness of a desperate criminal? Fantine’s sacrificial love for her daughter? Eponine’s tragic, unrequited love for Marius? Valjean’s perseverance and commitment to truth and justice? Was it the epic story, the magnificent music, the fabulous set or the rotating stage?

Certainly the content of the show was in many ways theologically sound. The God depicted in Les Misérables is the God who redeems that which seems worthless in the world’s eyes, a God who accepts repentance, forgives sins and answers prayer. On one level, Les Miz can be construed as a worship event in that its content was largely orthodox and instilled in me a greater sense of gratitude to our Savior. I feel no qualms about calling “worshipful” a production that called me to a deeper praise of God.

But what of those musicals with seemingly flawed or incomplete depictions of God? What are we to make of Jesus Christ Superstar, for instance, or Godspell? While Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat does an admirable job of following the Genesis narrative, it neglects to mention God as the author of Joseph’s dreams. Is it then deficient and unworthy of Christian appreciation? Or what of dramas without an explicitly Christian or spiritual theme—Phantom of the Opera, for instance, or Evita or Miss Saigon?

Some Christian theatre aficionados may spiritualize these plays by emphasizing songs like Miss Saigon’s “Why God Why” as an attempt to make sense of the Vietnam War. Perhaps Eva Peron can be envisioned as a Christ figure, laying down her life for Argentina. Such rationalization seems like a stretch.

But we need not hunt too far to justify a Broadway musical as a worship experience. It is my contention that the medium of musical theatre itself points us to the worship of God.

The Power of Drama

Live stage is one of the few arenas left in society where a drama may be actually experienced and not just viewed. To see a drama enacted on stage brings the story to life in a way far more compelling than watching a movie. At a movie, we are only voyeurs of mere images spliced together on a silver screen, separated from the actors by both time and space. But on stage, those are real live people before us! They breathe the same auditorium air that we do. They hear the same orchestra that we hear. We share the same time and space as the actors, so in a very real way, we participate with them in the drama of the moment.

Thus, live theatre provides a greater sense of authenticity in performance than film or television. There are no retakes on stage. If you make a mistake, it’s there for all to see and you have no choice but to play on. When I saw Joseph, in one scene the narrator began singing the wrong verse. She actually said, “Oops!” and her hand flew to her mouth to cover an embarrassed grin.

When the narrator broke character, the audience saw her not just as an actress on stage, but a real person like any of us. We chuckled with her and shared her momentary discomfiture and chagrin. Such an occasion resonates with our experience and validates our humanity. It reminds us that all are fallen, no matter how polished a facade we might wish to project. While we may not like being reminded of our faults, we can take comfort in the fact that we are not alone in the human condition.

And so it is in real life, that we don’t have the luxury of reshooting scenes or editing out mistakes. That’s why all the world’s a stage—including our worship. Not only in the sense that what goes on in the context of a worship community is “rehearsed” and “performed,” but also that both worship leaders and worshippers are authentic, real-life people who bring our human foibles and propensity to err to the worship experience.

Furthermore, live theatre invokes the senses in ways a movie or TV show cannot. After all, life is not merely visual and auditory, but tactile and olfactory as well. We not only see real smoke and mist waft across the stage—we sniff the air and rub our noses. We feel the wind of a helicopter’s rotors. We draw back when a chandelier plummets from the ceiling and recoil when fireworks are detonated on stage, afraid that the heat will singe our eyebrows.

All this points to the poverty of our worship when our senses are not fully engaged. We do not experience life in one dimension, but three. We are to love God with both minds and bodies. How sad it is, then, that the worship we offer our God rarely involves anything other than what is mouthed or seen.

The Drama of Worship

Many strands of post-Reformation Christianity largely eliminated the use of the senses in worship. Zwingli whitewashed the walls of the churches, believing the artistic imagery of frescoes and paintings to be unbiblical, even demonic. The burning of incense and the lighting of candles were thrown out as Catholic superstition.

But it was not always so with worship. Think of the pageantry of the Old Testament, where God’s people would rehearse God’s salvific acts at feasts and festivals. They would re-create the Passover and reenact the Exodus in a drama that involved the whole community. They sang and danced to the songs of Moses and Miriam in celebration with harp, lyre and cymbals. No dry Scripture reading, this; the Israelites physically re-experienced God’s salvation anew with each dramatized remembrance.

The passion plays of the Middle Ages similarly enfleshed God’s historic activity in contemporary incarnation. Through actors’ mime and drama, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus took on new life. In this way, Jesus walked not only Nazareth and Jerusalem, but London and Paris as well.

This is something else appealing about live drama—the possibility of interaction. Joseph’s Pharaoh can toss a scarf to a fan in the front row. Hamlet may leave the stage and wander up and down the aisles. This dynamic may explain the popularity of Renaissance fairs, where modern suburbanites mingle with medieval minstrels and troubadours. We are somehow fascinated by the opportunity to be insulted by a twelfth-century peasant.

Similarly, live drama can re-create for us the experience of being with Jesus. Our worship is impoverished when we think of worship as merely singing a few songs or reading a few verses. It can instead be a living encounter with the Word who became flesh, not merely a voice.

We must remember that Jesus was a true human, whose physical hands touched leprous flesh. Healing and restoration came through his spittle on blind eyes. Life returned to Lazarus when his dead ears heard Jesus call him forth. This Jesus activated his followers’ taste buds by feeding them loaves and fishes, bread and wine. He taught us to taste and see that the Lord is good.

The elements of the Lord’s Supper are by their very nature dramatic and sensory. We do not merely have an intellectual remembrance of Jesus’ work, but somehow, through tasting the bread and drinking the cup, we enter into the experience of those who ate and drank with Jesus.

I once saw a musical version of the book of Acts. (I regret that I was only able to watch a video instead of experience the live performance.) One significant element was that a jacuzzi-type basin of water was placed at the front of the stage. At every juncture of the book of Acts where a baptism occurred, the actors went right into the water and baptized one another. Those at Pentecost, the Ethiopian eunuch, Saul of Tarsus, Cornelius and his household, the Philippian jailer—all came out of the musical dripping wet! I can only imagine what it was like for those sitting in the front row, to catch some of the spray and to experience in some small way the baptismal joy of the early church.

Perhaps such an appreciation for drama can be rediscovered and applied in the local church in ways more creative than just the occasional skit. Indeed, worship could be as colorful as Joseph’s coat and as profoundly moving as the music of the night.

At a church I once attended, a worship service took place where a person walked around the sanctuary wearing a sign that read “GOD”. The congregation stared in hushed awe; even children stopped fidgeting. All had a heightened awareness that God was in their midst.

This symbolization of the physical presence of God during worship could not have been communicated by mere text or song; it required a dramatic representation. If Broadway has anything to teach Christians, it is that God longs to encounter us in drama, as authentic persons, through all our senses.

And Les Miz points us to a day where somewhere beyond the barricade lies a world we long to see—a world where the lion lies down with the lamb, where every tear is wiped away, where we will experience the incomparable drama of all creation praising our triune God, crying “Holy, holy, holy.”

I, for one, want a front row seat.