Thursday, December 26, 2013

Watching Reality Television like a Christian

I am out of touch with the American public. I know this because I did not know there was a reality television show named “Duck Dynasty” until the Robertson family patriarch was interviewed by GQ, and made all kinds of people upset.

I read the Washington Post blog by Dylan Matthews about the questions we have about A&E’s Duck Dynasty that we are too embarrassed to ask (read here). I learned that Mad Men is a flop in comparison to this show I hadn’t even heard of until the GQ incident (involving the following sentiments: black people were happy before civil rights, any religion not involving Jesus is prone to violence, vaginas are better than anuses, and I’m sure some other gems). Here's the link to the original interview, although I haven't read it (suffering is optional, I say).

(To be clear, I don’t think the brouhaha is real news. Also, is anyone really surprised that Phil Robertson holds these views? This isn’t the first time Phil Robertson said something homophobic. A&E knew what they were getting into.)

The buzz this whole thing generated, when compared to, say, the ongoing real persecution of Christians in certain countries, or the number of people the U.S. military drones have killed, I just wonder about how shallow we really are. But since we’re spending time talking about reality television, I have a few observations.

My first observation: I’m definitively an “out-of-touch coastal elite.” I was born in San Francisco, grew up in eastern (rural) Oregon and western Washington, then lived for a year in New York (the city), before going to seminary in Chicago (which involved a year in San Francisco). One of my reasons for even considering a seminary in Chicago was my awareness that I thought of the middle of the country as flyover land, and I thought I should get away from the coasts for once in my life. Now that I’ve left, I can’t seem to get back.

(There are a few other possible reasons for my ignorance…  I’m Asian American, and while I do not speak for Asian Americans, the other Asian American women I know do not watch this show. Oh, and given that I try to avoid shows that are exploitative or rely on stereotyping based on gender/region/class/race, I limit my reality television watching to the Food Network. I am out of touch in soooo many ways.)

My second observation is about what seemed to upset people. Most of the people on my social media newsfeed were upset about the racism (you know, that black people were totally cool with the Jim Crow era, and now that they have all their rights, they are unhappy freeloaders.), or about the homophobia (What is wrong with gay men that they prefer anuses to vaginas? Because sex and love are only about genitalia, apparently.), or about the anti-Shinto/anti-Muslim sentiments (Because religions lacking the Jesus connection are more prone to violence. No one told Mr. Robertson Muslims believe Jesus was born of a virgin and was a great prophet.). I wasn’t happy with his statements, but I think they were pretty standard coming from that particularly context. Plenty of churches and politicians hold these same views.

What upset some people was his suspension from the show. Many of the religious right have defended Robertson’s rights to his beliefs. They might have forgotten that cable television has almost nothing to do with the right to free speech (protection from government infringement for citizens), and everything to do with profit (gay people, people of color, and people who are religiously Muslim or Shinto have been discovered to have lots of capital). Robertson apologists are either ignoring the racist stuff he said, or they have melded their religious conservatism with contemporary political racism, and agree, at least implicitly, that black people were just fine before civil rights.

As a person in ministry to the wider church, I know I need to be “up” on what is of concern to the people. But I have to admit I might be drawing the line at reality television. I do not worry about my television ignorance. I grew up without television, thanks to my parents’ philosophy of childrearing (insert jab at coastal elites here).

Reality television is not really real. It is produced, scripted, manipulated to maximize viewership. Do you remember the original reality television? MTV’s Real World, the early seasons. I hear from friends that it was boring (cf. my lack of access to television as a young person). But it was honest. It was reality. Reality is not terribly outrageous. But the television version can take a family of college-educated country-club-wealthy white Southerners with a successful business and turn it into a spectacle that has the platform to exploit stereotypes about white southern people, and makes lots of money for both the network and the family.

Why do so many people love it?

Reality television is a means of escape. It’s nice, isn’t it, to get worked up about who is going to date a single rich man, or the packaging on a duck-hunting product. It’s a lot more fun than thinking about children who go hungry whenever school and school meal programs are on break, or about the devastating impact we have on our planet. Many of us work on or think about or experience real problems every day, and sometimes we want a brain break. We want fluff.

But every once in awhile, someone made famous by money, business, and reality television gets a lot of press for doing or saying something controversial or just stupid. And then we wrap ourselves into knots over a television show.

What is the responsibility of the church in speaking to this? What can the church say about what matters to us as Christians? And when is it ok to watch fluff?

I love some fluff, you know. But I also know that media has a huge impact on my perception of reality, and my viewership is quantifiable. Maybe being a Christian means I do not necessarily have a right to watch whatever I want.

Want to have a conversation about reality television in your community? Here’s a Thoughtful Christian downloadable study for adults. It’s older, but still a helpful guide for conversation.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

On Waiting.

Here's a reflection I gave at yesterday's chapel service at the Presbyterian Center. 

The Scripture passage is James 5:7-10. Click here to read it. 


I am ok with waiting. I’ll wait for good food. I’ll wait for the homemade limoncello to be ready. I’ll wait for the weather to change.

At the same time, I hate waiting. How long do we have to wait until this country comes up with a real answer to homelessness? How long do we have to wait until violence against women is no longer a fact of life? This waiting is, honestly, ridiculous. It’s all just so eschatological.

Wait, be patient, says the author of James, presumably to those experiencing misery at the time of this writing. Be patient until the coming of the Lord (God is definitely coming back, by the way, the people are assured). This passage, out of context, reminds me of the southern clergy who wrote to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, telling him that he and his colleagues just needed to be patient. Wait a little. This reminds me of the strategy of certain organizations working to eliminate G6.0106b, telling openly gay and lesbian candidates for ministry to wait. Be patient with the church. This reminds me of President Obama telling young undocumented immigrants to be patient, even as they risk arrest and deportation in order to remind him of the urgent need for immigration reform. Be patient. I’m trying to work with Congress.

This is a time of year when it seems like all we talk about is waiting. It was agony as a kid, wanting to tear into the gifts showered on me by overindulgent grandparents. What made this waiting ok for me was the lovely gift of the darkness. We in the U.S. often associate darkness with bad things. You know, racism. Or being surrounded by the unknown. We have plenty of narratives about things that jump out from the dark: thieves, murderers, aliens, zombies, spiders, demons.

But as a child, I loved being the first person up every morning in Advent. I loved going downstairs in the dark, plugging in the lights of the Christmas tree, and lying down underneath them, breathing in the scent of the tree, pagan symbol that it may be. The darkness was beautiful. For the farmer, the darkness is good. Seeds need a dark place to be nurtured until they put out shoots.

Advent is that space where good things are nurtured. We are waiting for a mini-version of the promise to which the author of James refers.

Be patient now. We’ll get through this Advent/Christmas season. Churches will start returning our calls again. We can escape horrible cheesy liturgically incorrect music everywhere we go.

And wait. There is so much wrong in the world, inside these walls, in our families, in our cities. While we wait for it to change, we strengthen our hearts. We do not grumble against each other. And we take our example from the prophets, who worked for change while they waited, day after day after day.


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Being a Christian During Christmas

I have referred to being “rage-y” before. Anyone who has ever talked with me knows this is a real thing.

A few things about Christmas make me rage-y.
  •  Calling Advent “Christmas.” IT ISN’T CHRISTMAS UNTIL DECEMBER 25TH.
  • Making Advent 24 days long. Whatevs. For my non-Christian-nerd readers, Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas, which means Advent varies in length.
  • Removing all Christmas d├ęcor a couple days after Christmas and way before Epiphany (January 6th), when it is still technically Christmas (12 days! Of Christmas!).
  • People who call that thing people do when they say “Happy Holidays” “the war on Christmas.” Could you please apply that energy to ending economic inequality? Or nuclear proliferation?
  • The emphasis on rampant consumerism, and self-gifting. I’m pretty sure a teenage girl didn’t get pregnant out of wedlock and give birth to the baby we know as God’s son to bring peace to all the world just so I could get that flat-screen TV for myself.
  • Secular Christmas music focusing on consumption, especially the songs that sexualize Santa Claus. GROSS.
  • Trying to enforce happiness on everyone. Seriously. Any therapist worth her or his $110/session fee will tell you that you can’t make other people happy. Any pastor or other professional involved in caring for people worth her or his salt will tell you the holidays aren’t happy for everyone. It has become an incredibly dishonest holiday. This is so blown out of proportion that churches have special services to help people grieve during Advent.
  • People with pious pro-life bumper stickers or “I love Jesus” vanity plates on their cars driving like, well, like a**holes through mall parking lots.

When I have blown off a little steam and am less rage-y, I remember there is more to Advent and Christmas than a list of “true” Christian behaviors and beliefs.

Celebrating Thanksgiving weekend through December 25th as Christmas happens in part because it has become cultural, not just religious. People who are not practicing Christians still find meaning in this holiday because of the emphasis on giving and family. There just aren’t many options for people who aren’t Christians to continue with their usual lives on December 24th and 25th, anyway. My dad’s secular Jewish family celebrated Christmas as well as Hanukkah. My Buddhist relatives celebrate Christmas, and some decorate a ficus tree because that is what Siddhartha Gautama (the Gautama Buddha) was sitting under when he achieved enlightenment.

My parents never let us get an Advent calendar involving chocolate. Ours were strictly Bible-verse-only. That way we were built up to anticipate not just Santa, but the day celebrating the birth of Jesus. That was a choice, and many parents will choose differently. Of course, the historical Jesus wasn’t likely born in December. Biblical scholars tell us that all the events in Luke or Matthew did not happen over the course of one or two nights, but a few years. But more important than the facts or the historicity of the claims is the sense of mystery and deep truth at the incredible gift that is Jesus to the world. God enfleshed as a baby. One came who would teach us the most faithful response to God’s love that the world has seen (according to Christians, that is).

There is being a Christian during Christmas the way I often practice it. I avoid malls at all costs, until that moment when I really do need to buy gifts for nieces and grandparents. I call Advent by its proper name. I keep decorations up through Epiphany, in part because it’s Christmas that whole time, and also because my household celebrates Three Kings Day. I refuse to listen to most secular Christmas music. I won’t listen to Christmas music until Advent begins. I denounce the consumer mentality, even while I purchase gifts.

I do not think my way is the best way, or even the most faithful.

Being a Christian during Christmas isn’t just a rigid adherence to the Christian-only traditions of Advent and Christmas. There is perhaps no such thing. Every culture has its own way of expressing these Christian traditions. Being a Christian during Christmas may be letting this be what it is. There is wonder and joy, whether it is about the baby Jesus, or about the ridiculous amount of stuff under the tree, or the parties we attend. There is plenty of pain, for those missing family and friends who are no longer with us, or those who have difficult family relationships, or those who can’t afford to have the shiny Christmas that television shows us is supposedly the norm. Our presence as Christians, realistic and hopeful, loving and generous, sometimes overeating and sometimes over-gifting, gracious and patient, working for a better world for all people, may be the best thing Christians can do. After all, what would baby Jesus do?

Resources for Advent:

A downloadable study for adults

A downloadable study for youth

Being Reformed curriculum

A lovely Christmas book of stories:
By Katherine Paterson, author of Bridge to Terabithia
Her husband is a Presbyterian minister, and she has written these stories for his congregations over the years.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Celebrating Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela

A lot happened last night. I don’t have cable, but I have whatever helps my television pick up network tv. I watched the news coverage of the death of Mandela, “The Sound of Music,” and “Scandal.” I’m still exhausted from all the drama, real and fictional.

I won’t remember that episode of “Scandal,” and hopefully I won’t remember that version of “The Sound of Music,” but I expect I will remember the death of Mandela just like I remember the deaths of Nixon and Princess Diana, or the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the events at Tiananmen Square, or the end of apartheid in South Africa. I’m not particularly close to Mandela. We never met. I never really studied him. I was in South Africa once. I, like everyone else, read “Long Walk to Freedom.” He was old, and I expected he would die just like the rest of us will.

I was most struck by the news reports of the South Africans gathered outside of Mandela’s home. Charlayne Hunter-Gault, interviewed by Brian Williams of NBC Nightly News, who told us that in South Africa, the people speak of transition, not of death and dying.

How Christian, I thought.

I might be wrong. Perhaps that is not necessarily or exclusively Christian, but it felt as though that is what we do. Death might feel so final. As Christians, we may still feel doubt about what lies beyond this life as we know it, but we get to think of death as merely a transition. Thomas Long and Thomas Lynch write in their book The Good Funeral that in the process of death and its attending rituals, “we are carrying a loved one to the edge of mystery, and people should be encouraged to stick around to the end” (p. 183).

I wonder if the U.S. news cycle will stick around to the end. Probably not. But I know most of us who have a sense of the great legacy left by Mandela will.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Hell, Who I Think Should Go There, Who Shouldn’t Go There, and Why I Love Quentin Tarantino Movies


Ah, hell. Like a good American Christian, I’ve been thinking about hell most of my life. I’ve never worried about it, however, because I tend to put far more trust into the mystery of God’s grace, forgiveness, and understanding than I do in God’s capacity to turn away from people forever. But hell can be a comforting theological concept for me.

I can be a little rage-y. Sometimes I joke that the only time I believe in hell is when I want other people to go there.

Who I Think Should Go There

Enter this section under the list of “Things That Make Me Sort of a Terrible Person” (total depravity, y’all).

The Hawaii legislator who took a sledgehammer to the shopping carts of homeless people. Being homeless is hard, ok? You have no safe place to sleep, nowhere to keep your belongings, things we take for granted like identification or extra clothes. In fact, many homeless people have neither identification nor extra clothes. Many don’t know where they will get their next meal, or have to plan really far in advance to ensure the next meal is a reality. That legislator could totally end up in hell and I wouldn’t lose a bit of sleep.

Another great candidate for hell comes from the fun fact that we have a detainee quota in the U.S. Yes, this administration has detained and deported record numbers of undocumented immigrants, most of whom have no criminal record, but that isn’t enough. There is legislation on the books mandating a minimum number of beds in detention center be filled every day. Since most of those detention centers are actually private for-profit prisons, I love the idea of those profiting off of these to go to hell. Check your 401(k) or 403(b), by the way. Many plans include investments in the private prison industry.

I flirted briefly with the hell thing after hearing more about how our patent laws are preventing people with lower incomes, or people in less prosperous countries, from gaining access to affordable treatment for HIV/AIDS. Yes, the need to protect profits by suing companies in other countries that can produce the same drugs for less, making these drugs more accessible, and potentially wiping out a disease, is more important than saving people’s lives.

Oh, how about the people who voted to cut SNAP benefits? Because I know how to solve this poverty problem. Increase hunger. Then we’ll have more hungry kids acting out in school and getting criminalized for it. Oh, great, maybe people will have to go without more meals and will lack the energy to find another job or perform well in the one they have. That’s a great idea! You know what helps makes people obese? Poverty. You know what contributes to rates of incarceration? Poverty. So this is a great idea! Obviously these folks should go to hell.

I mentioned I was working on this blog post, and several folks immediately offered to give me a few names of people who should go there. To hell, that is.

My Revenge Fantasy

Here’s the thing about hell.

Hell is my revenge fantasy. I’m not a particularly peaceful person. I get really, really mad about a lot of things, because I think those things go against why we are here as Christians. I thought we were here to be witnesses to the love and grace of God. Be aiding and abetting in life, not death.

One reason why I love Quentin Tarantino movies is because many of them are elaborate and funny revenge fantasies. Yes, his movies are historically inaccurate. Yes, his movies are violent and gratuitous. That is what makes them so very good. The violence is ridiculous. Comical. He never promised us history. The revenge fantasies of Kill Bill, Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds (sic) are so deeply satisfying, because I want a good escape where the bad guys get what’s coming to them. How we live and who we are as American Christians seems to result in some awful things (i.e. gun violence, totally preventable hunger, environmental destruction, homophobic legislation, rampant sexual violence against women and children), and when I start feeling rage-y about these things, I just want to go watch Quentin Tarantino, and fantasize about some karmic retribution. You know, like hell.

Reality Check

Here’s the thing about fantasies. However sweet and delicious and satisfying they are, they are not real.

Not real.

You may have picked up my capacity to dwell on sin and judgment. Yup. But I also know that hell in the popular imagination is more shaped by literature, legend, and politics, than by Scripture.

What Does Worry Me

I know that whatever I think about people going to hell doesn’t make it true. But at some level, hell gets used as a weapon against those who disagree with us. That can be damaging to individuals and to relationships alike.

There are parts of Christianity that hold themselves as the one true church; members of other churches are, by extension, not part of the true church, and are therefore not guaranteed salvation. This may not be the technical theological position of those churches, but it is a popular sentiment. Plenty of Christians suspect non-Christians are going to hell.

Too many worry those who die by suicide will go to hell. I saw a number of Facebook posts by colleagues about the misunderstanding around mental illness and death by suicide. So many Christians still do not understand the nature of mental illness, and many condemn those who die by suicide as weak, or sinful. I did a quick crowd-sourcing exercise, asking people why we in American popular culture think suicide victims go to hell. I got some great discussion on that thread, including the Roman Catholic theological position refuting the ticket to hell automatically generated by suicide. Others said: “because it’s a sin for which you cannot ask forgiveness,” or because “the author of life is God,” or because the focus on heaven in the Middle Ages resulted in many dying by suicide to get there faster, or as a deterrent to suicide. The conclusion: according to scripture or most theology dying by suicide doesn’t send you to hell, even though that theological message is present in pop theology and in many churches.


Here’s the thing. There is a lot of research out there on what the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament actually say about hell, and very little of what we think of as hell is actually biblical. Much of it comes from Dante’s Inferno, which is a rockin’ piece of literature, but not exactly theological fact. In college, one of my friends in the honors program with me, wrote a whole paper on hell. She got into the Greek and everything. We used to walk around shouting “Gehenna!” at each other.

In general though, I’m not so hung up on hell. I tend to think God gets upset but forgives easily, so with all that love and forgiveness, hell isn’t likely to be where people end up. Nothing separates us from the love of God. That’s in the Bible somewhere (Romans 8).

I’ve said this before, but like a good Reformed Christian, I believe God is sovereign. Nothing any one of us does or doesn’t do can supersede what God does. It’s a good thing I don’t decide anyone’s fate, what with my rage and such. But that means that you don’t get to decide anyone’s fate either. So those of us who find it mighty tempting to condemn anyone should give up that practice (side-eye at Pat Robertson). Consider the love of God, and what is likely to be the vast difference between our own values and the mind of God.

A couple resources on hell:

A book with a study guide at the back

A downloadable study