Category Archives: Faith and Culture

The Enduring Power of Hymns

Much ink has been spilled over the worrying statistical reality that millennials are leaving their parents’ churches, and a lot of them don’t make a return appearance. Mega-church strategists everywhere are no doubt feverishly putting their heads together to figure out how this can still be happening (even after they installed that sick light show and put all their youth pastors in skinny jeans!) Some of these discussions are probably revolving around worship music. Maybe (some of them are still wanly hoping), we can keep tweaking our music formula until it’s so cool our kids will never want to leave, cause they just gotta have their weekly dose of worship band.

Of course, you know and I know that if anything, the mega-church strategists’ fever dreams are part of the problem, not the solution. I propose that this is because with all their bumbling good intentions, they fail to see there’s something fundamentally transient about turning church into a product. They’re hoping to keep kids in church by breathlessly trying to keep up with the latest trends in pop music, culture, etc. But kids don’t need a fad. They need a foundation.

That foundation should take a number of different forms: doctrinal, apologetic, and even musical. One of the most shameful gaps in the foundation for many of our young people is a firm grounding in how to defend their own faith, but that’s a discussion topic for another day. Today, I want to talk about building a musical foundation for our young people. In particular, I want to focus on the enduring power of hymns. 

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A Few Thoughts on the Duggar Debacle

[05/29: Comments on this topic are closed.]

Well, I had determined not to say anything about this mess, but after I read one particular Patheos article about it, it did occur to me that I had something to say. I’ll try to limit this to the specific points I want to make, though I realize how tempting it is to render a verdict on the situation as a whole. I do have my opinions, and I suppose you can read between the lines and put together what I think. But my intention is not to open up a whole can of worms about abuse issues writ large.

(In case you’ve been living under a rock and don’t know what I’m referring to, the Duggar Family’s 19 Kids and Counting show may be canceled in the wake of the reveal that son Josh Duggar fondled his sisters inappropriately at the age of 14. As you can see on the right, Josh is now a grown man with his own wife and family.)

So, with that in mind, I want to come down really hard on a few points made in this response piece. Specifically, I want to focus on how the writer uses the Duggar case to criticize homeschooling in general. While she doesn’t come right out and gloat, “See, I knew you should just send your kids to school like everyone else!” it’s implicit in the whole thrust of the article. She makes these points in bold:

Good sex education is very important.

Sheltering children from the world doesn’t work.

Homeschooling can limit children’s ability to report abuse.

Okay. Let’s dismantle this piece by piece.

*cracks knuckles*

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Andy Stanley’s Disturbing Leftward Spiral

I’ve been catching myself up on Pastor Andy Stanley’s recent comments regarding the issue of homosexuality. They’ve created a little stir in liberal media circles, who are triumphantly running pieces that contrast Andy’s more relaxed approach with Stanley Sr.’s hard-line rhetoric. Andy Stanley has a wide following, particularly in the South, and so far he’s managed to tiptoe around hot-button social issues without saying something outright heretical that would alienate his fan-base. (This fan-base includes a number of relatively conservative Christians, including readers of this very site, and it clearly includes the same kind of people who attend Gaither events, since Gaither has invited him on their latest cruise.) While not all the remarks being quoted on leftist sites are taken from the same context, it’s not hard for us to look at the individual pieces and notice a leftward drift that should concern Christians who follow Stanley Jr.’s ministry. I’ve already mentioned his remarks in a USA Today piece dissing the Kansas religious freedom bill, where he said that he found it  “offensive that Christians would leverage faith to support the Kansas law” and continued, “Serving people we don’t see eye to eye with is the essence of Christianity. Jesus died for a world with which he didn’t see eye to eye. If a bakery doesn’t want to sell its products to a gay couple, it’s their business. Literally. But leave Jesus out of it.”

Most recently, he gave an address to young church leaders in April in which he set up a list of three things that he “wishes would change for the local church in our generation.”

1. The local church should be the safest place on the planet for students to talk about anything, including same-sex attraction.

2. The church must stop expecting outsiders to act like insiders while insiders act like outsiders.

3. The church must capture and keep the hearts and minds of students.

You can probably tell already that there are a lot of directions he could go with all of these points, and some of them are not good at all. And you’d be right.

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Christians in Entertainment: Denzel Washington

‘Tis the season for pretentious, overly long commencement speeches. But one commencement speech has been getting particular attention in the media recently: Oscar-winning actor Denzel Washington’s address to the graduates of Dillard University. Dillard is a small, private school for black students in New Orleans. When Washington stepped to the podium, he announced that he was going to “keep it short,” unlike his commencement speaker, who “went on forever, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah…” (Yes, this is pretty much spot-on. I speak from experience.)

Here is the short, simple message Washington wanted to convey: “Number one: Put. God. First. In everything you do, put God first. Put God first in everything you do. Everything you think you see in me, everything I’ve accomplished, everything you think I have (and I have a few things), everything that I have is by the grace of God.”

The speech has gone viral. There’s some unfortunate prosperity gospel business towards the end, but on the whole it’s pretty great, and you can read more quotes here, or watch it in full here if you don’t mind handheld video. The passion and conviction of Washington’s delivery is disarming, considering his stature in Hollywood. But then, Washington has never been one to shy away from talking about what he believes.

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Liberal Christian Converts are Not Our Allies

Some of you might recall when Daily Beast journalist Kirsten Powers first announced that she was a Christian. A lot of conservatives were very excited about it, but after reading her testimony, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, obviously I was glad to see a public figure making an open profession of faith. However, the way she did it rubbed me the wrong way, because she insisted on going on about how wonderful it was that she could reconcile most of her liberal politics with her faith (barring abortion). Since then, she has admitted that liberals can be intolerant and biased too, but she has still staked out her position clearly in favor of homosexual unions. I had some choice words for her non-contributions to that particular conversation here.

Well, it looks like yet another liberal Daily Beast contributor has made a profession of faith and is being met with the same overly optimistic reactions. Her name is Ana Marie Cox, and you can read her conversion testimony here. I came across it because I follow Professor Denny Burk’s cultural commentary blog regularly, and he referred enthusiastically to the piece. In it, Cox explains that she has been afraid to “come out” as a Christian not because she was worried about the reaction from atheist friends, but because she worried that her liberal politics wouldn’t be welcomed by other Christians. She has since written a follow-up piece saying how humbled she was by the outpouring of encouragement she received instead. But frankly, given the tone and the stance she adopts in her article, I’m not convinced that other Christians should have been so quick to set her mind at rest. Continue reading

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A New Christian Movie (That Might Actually Be Good!)

Rik Swartzwelder and Elizabeth Roberts in “Old Fashioned”

As a die-hard movie buff, I have to be candid and admit that I don’t typically walk away from a Christian film enthusing, “BEST MOVIE EVER!” It’s not that I look down my nose at people who aren’t cinephiles, it’s just who I am and what I like. The truth is, I could quite literally talk all day long about great movies (although it’s better when someone else is actually in the room listening!) I’m one of the only people I know who could watch a Tom Cruise action movie but only get really excited at the Robert Duvall cameo. And if you have no idea who I’m talking about, that’s totally fine. Moving on…

Nonetheless, I still observe the Christian movie industry with hope. And I try to give the trailers for coming Christian film attractions a fair shake. This past month, a little film came out that piqued my interest, and it may pique yours too. It was cleverly marketed as the “anti-Nifty Blades of Hay” (my fake name for the Cult Phenomenon Which Shall Not Be Named, on which you can read more of my thoughts here). The marketing trick worked, and the small film generated a lot more buzz than usual as a result. My question was, is it actually any good? While I have yet to see it myself, I am pleasantly surprised and hopeful based on a few clips and trailers. Continue reading

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Rethinking the Phrase “R. I. P.”

“Live long, and prosper.”

Leonard Nimoy (of Star Trek fame) passed away this past weekend. So naturally, the entire country is off and running on yet another one of those emotional orgies that we have to endure when yet another celebrity we didn’t really know happens to die.

Yes, I know, it sounds kind of mean. But honestly, much as I love classic Star Trek and the character of Spock, I still don’t get it. And when I read up a little on the crazy and sometimes downright sacrilegious stuff Nimoy was into, I really don’t get it, especially coming from Christians. (Some of you may recall that I had a similar reaction when Robin Williams committed suicide, but at least there the suicide element gave it some emotional weight, eventually inspiring my own reflective tribute.)

In particular, I notice that many people are reflexively saying “R. I. P. Leonard Nimoy,” or “R. I. P. Mr. Spock.” Now, I will confess that I have not always been scrupulous in avoiding this particular phrase for dead people whose salvation was questionable. But I think there’s a good case to be made for eliminating it from the Christian’s vocabulary in this context.

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Focus on the Family and Reviewing Bad Movies

This past weekend, Focus On the Family’s media outlet sent a representative to watch and review a wildly successful, wildly inappropriate movie. I shall henceforth refer to this movie as Nifty Blades of Hay (adapted from the wildly successful and inappropriate novel of the same name). If you have any idea what I’m talking about, you will understand exactly why I’m not even calling this toxic cult phenomenon by its real name. If you don’t, that’s just fine too. I really have no interest whatsoever in discussing this movie. I am interested in the fact that Focus On the Family chose to review it, and I’m interested in the considerable backlash from other Christians and Christian ministries that they’ve incurred as a result. Especially since the Christian film critic who wrote the review has become a friendly acquaintance of mine over the last few months.

Without going into any details, suffice it to say that this particular movie probably shouldn’t even have qualified for an “R” rating—by which I mean “R” is too soft. The abusive relationship that it chronicles is that vile and twisted. It may not be marketed and sold as “a p*rn film” in so many words, but that’s essentially what it is, in the guise of a Valentine’s Day blockbuster. So, naturally, some fans of Focus on the Family preemptively wrote and urged its “Plugged In” reviewers not to bother informing us that this movie is Bad. Even those of us who have striven mightily to avoid reading about it have managed to piece that much together. Wrote one concerned follower, “I’m fairly confident anyone who visits this website will not be interested in seeing the film, and I am troubled at the thought of sending one of your employees to go see it.”

But Plugged In disagreed. In a blog post written before the review went up, editor Paul Asay explained that he believed it was his duty to see and review this film. He begins with an uncomfortable but sobering fact: Not only are a lot of Christians very interested in reading about this thing, but some of them are even buying the tickets. Continue reading

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Questions and Answers: For the Streetlight People

For those of you who are new to the site or can’t remember the last time I wrote an installment in this series, “Questions and Answers” explores the space where the secular touches the sacred in popular songwriting (emphasis on popular–no weird, obscure stuff here!) It is designed to help Christians think deeply about some of the most thoughtful lyrics that writers on both sides of the divide have contributed to the eternal questions: Why are we here? Who are we? What is love? Do we need to be saved? Can we be saved?

My first entry paired up a Journey song with a Steven Curtis Chapman song. Now, it seems I’m coming full circle, with another Journey song (“Don’t Stop Believin’ “) and another SCC song (“More to This Life”).

I know what you’re probably thinking (at least, if you grew up in the 80s). “Journey? Thoughtful and deep? Seriously?” This song in particular might raise such skeptical eyebrows, given its nauseating ubiquity at graduations, class reunions, and such like. It’s a fixture of American pop culture. There is no escape. (Hey, see what I did there? Escape, escape… okay never mind.) But believe it or not, I am serious. A careful listen to the lyrics apart from its fist-pumping tag will make you wonder how it ever became the go-to feel-good song for teenage America:

Strangers waiting
Up and down the boulevard
Their shadows searching in the night
Streetlight people
Livin’ just to find emotion
Hidin’ somewhere in the night

Read the rest of it in full here, divorced from the music, and you’ll see that Steve Perry’s intended message was a much more tragic, more human one than the culture realized.

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Matt Chandler’s Powerful Pro-Life Statement

I greatly appreciate the fact that each year, around the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, Matt Chandler takes a morning to preach on the sin of abortion to his congregation. As John Piper has noted with concern, it’s a topic that many pastors of Chandler’s generation are afraid to touch with a 10-foot pole. Chandler tackles it head-on with conviction and grace. But apparently, even though he’s been doing this for a few years now, the rest of the world is only just recently learning about it. His latest abortion sermon has gone viral, and news outlets are picking it up with headlines like  “‘Abortion is Murder,’ Megachurch Pastor Tells Congregation in Sunday Sermon.” Or my favorite, from a liberal rag, “Anti-abortion Texas pastor shames rape victims as worse than Hitler.” Man, I just love out-of-context, deceptive quote-splicing, don’t you?

At any rate, I’ve embedded the whole sermon here and marked off the clip that most people are talking about. I could critique a few things about the sermon as a whole, including the predictably disappointing comparisons to the Civil Rights movement, but I’ll forgive it for the hard-hitting way he dealt with the abortion issue. I was also intrigued to see how he directly addressed those in the pews who had participated in this particular sin. You can read the transcript here.

“I need to, with all the boldness that the Holy Spirit will grant me, tell everyone in this room that abortion is murder... It is a brutal horrific, disgusting practice. And many of us are guilty. But most of us are indifferent.”

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