A Theology of Grammar

It is possible that, taking one look at the word grammar, many people will skip reading this post, believing that I have chosen what is undoubtedly a “boring” subject. Having learned to perceive grammar as a system of mere rules, which are taught briefly (and often poorly) in Jr. High and High School, we are often unconscious of how much we rely on grammar to make meaning in communication.

In fact, most of us hardly pay attention to the choices that we make when we speak. Accustomed to our own vocabulary and speech patterns, as well as those of our family, peers, cliques, and communities, we become easily caught up in our own egocentric understanding of language. Our own dialects seem standard, while the dialects of others seem strange. It is at this intersection that having a theological approach to grammar comes in handy.

1) A Pharisaical vs. A Christ-like Approach to Grammar:

Every religion has its zealot; in academia they may include such individuals as “the grammar police,” who cannot resist the urge (or what they may see as the opportunity) to educate others on the use of proper grammar. “I think you mean centered on, not centered around.” “It’s not who did you ask, it’s whom did you ask.” To such individuals, all uses of language, whether formal or informal, can be divided into stark categories of correct and incorrect, however artificial these divisions may be.

I say artificial, because even style guides, the holy bibles of editing themselves, do not commit language to such rigidity. The preface to the 16th Edition of The Chicago Manual of Style has this to say about the rules that make up its contents:

“Once again, we have looked to what has become a maxim (from the first edition of the manual in 1906): ‘Rules and regulations such as these, in the nature of the case, cannot be endowed with the fixity of rock-ribbed law. They are meant for the average case, and must be applied with a certain degree of elasticity.'”

Inherent within this statement is an acceptance of the fact that language, especially the language of American English, is a living amalgam of many influences, a mix that has changed and continues to change over time. In the process, it has morphed many a word, including nice, which originally derived from the Latin nescius, meaning ignorant, and was used in Middle English to mean foolish and wanton, and now signifies that which is pleasing and agreeable,* or, possibly, in more recent times, that which is cliche and lacking a certain intensity of greatness.**

Amid this more progressive outlook on grammar, there is also a distinction between grammar that is prescriptive and grammar that is descriptive. While prescriptive grammar emphasizes that “some ideas should be written this way,” descriptive grammar emphasizes that “some ideas are said this way, without making any judgement” (Approaching English Grammar).

Thus, when discovering the differences in dialect that distinguish you from your neighbor, it might be wise to remember that language (especially from the perspective of a Christian) is not as much a matter of law as it is of grace. And while it is true that some selected principles of grammar actually do hold places of esteem in this world, they should never be honored to the detriment of Christian principles. For instance, if I speak with the grammar of men and of angels, but have not love. . .

For the purposes of education, such axioms should also be encouraged, and the teaching of language should look more like a discussion than an interchange of papers filled with marks made by red pens. I often remember a teacher of mine who used to ask, “Does that work in your dialect?” I think it is in junctures such as the classroom that the concept of discussing what is said or what works, rather than what should be said, becomes most practical.

Nevertheless, for anyone addressing the potential quagmires between the ways people speak and the conventions of a formal written language, it is important to remember that “a soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1, ESV). It is at this point that we discover yet another theological implication within grammar.

2) Grammar that Corrupts vs. Grammar that Builds Up: 

The choices we make when using language often set the tone of a conversation or, even, a relationship. And here, I am not just talking about the content of the language. While most of us are familiar with which words are polite and kind and which words are rude and hurtful, we are often unaware of the more subtle ways in which our language can become productive or destructive. For instance, using overly formal language in a casual social setting may do more to highlight the existence of political strati than it does to achieve effective communication or connection with others.

On such issues of communication, the Bible is not silent.  In Ephesians 4:29, we are warned: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (ESV).

Thus, as Christians, we need to be aware of our context before we speak. Using good judgement, we need to consider whether the words we are about to say and the speech pattern that we are about to use are respectful or offensive, inclusive or exclusive, inviting or dismissive.

In some cases, this includes embracing a healthy tension within language. For example, a language that is convoluted with “Christianese” will often confuse and exclude those on the fringes, but a language that drops all hint of religious bias will cease to point toward God.

Thus, as grammar scholars spend time considering possible, non-sexist replacements for certain pesky pronouns, Christians would do well to begin contemplating how they might use language in a way that brings glory and not shame to the faith, and how they might gain more control over that troublesome little muscle, known as the tongue.

“For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell” (James 3:2-10, ESV).

Thus, as has been a recurring theme of this blog, it is through our bodies that we live lives of service to Christ. Through bodies, being “lovely in limbs and eyes not ours,” and tongues, which are able to bless or curse, that we either display Christ’s image or mar his name.

*Taken from: http://www.merriam-webster.com

**Taken from: http://dictionary.reference.com

A Theology of Barnes & Noble

Barnes & Noble Booksellers is possibly America’s most comforting “third place” outside of Starbucks, or maybe even including Starbucks, given the 1993 deal that now allows Barnes & Noble to sell the exalted coffee and other Starbucks’ signature bakery items in its cafe.

The concept of a third place is attributed to Ray Oldenburg, who claimed in The Great Good Place that beyond the “first place” (the home) and the “second place” (the work environment) humans look to third places (coffeehouses, pubs, diners, parks, main streets, etc.) as community hubs for social interaction. In generations past, third places included social clubs such as lodges, country clubs, YMCA’s, etc., but in the current reign of Generation Y, these venues have faded from popularity.

Churches also seem to have lost some ground in their positions as anchors for membership. According to survey findings from The Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life, Millennials are less likely to identify with a specific religion, denomination, or even church (measured through church attendance), despite maintaining similarities to previous generations in what they actually believe. According to the report Millennial Generation Less Religiously Active than Older Americans“Millennials are significantly more unaffiliated than members of Generation X were at a comparable point in their life cycle and twice as unaffiliated as Baby Boomers were as young adults.”

While some individuals (even young individuals) may frequent their own church often, churches at large do not seem to be the main venue choice for third place activities. Furthermore, church buildings seem to be recognized less for their universal role as community centers and safe havens and more for their particularities of style and demographics.

That places like Starbucks and Barnes & Noble have attracted and drawn in so many people has to do with the fact that they are chain stores, inseparably linked in a business-like fashion.  And while the church should never be run like a business, I think it is reasonable to argue that churches, inseparably linked in Christian like-mindedness, should show some visible signs of similarity to the outside world, so that when asked to describe a church, an individual might use words such as “warm, comforting, and peaceful,”  instead of than “cold, sterile, boring, or anxiety-producing.”

According to the Barnes & Noble website, “If you ask a typical customer to describe the Barnes & Noble experience, words like “warm, comfortable and spacious come to mind.” To this list, I would also add the word giving, and it is this list that I think also serves as an excellent template for the church environment, if it is to reclaim its position as a first-choice third place.

1) Warm & Comfortable

When you enter a Barnes & Noble, you are greeted with warm shades of color, seemingly imported from Florence, and warm lighting that instantly evokes the feel of a personal study. If you visit their cafe, you are further enticed by the scent of bakery treats and a fresh pot of coffee, and if you stay there to study, you will most likely (if your B&N has been updated recently) be accosted by amplified icons, painted in a quasi-caricature fashion. These are the likes of Shelley, Whitman, Melville, etc., as featured in the picture below, and their presence in the cafe is exemplary and awe-inspiring, as if to motivate the humans below to equal heights of greatness.

Barnes & Noble Cafe Mural, taken from theopenend.com

On the other hand, when you walk into many churches, you are often met with a bleak and sterile shade of white, as well as disjointed decor that appears to have been collected over decades. The smells and tastes of many churches are equally negligible, and may consist of nothing more than a somewhat recently stirred pitcher of lemonade powder and a meager stack of Costco brownie bites, which have yet to be removed from their plastic container. Thoughts regarding the planning of lighting and temperature control appear to be lacking, if present at all.

*Of course, the few churches that do give thought to these sorts of things (namely megachurches) often do so to the extent that they run more like a business than a church, in which such things are done more for the purpose of attracting and maintaining members than for the purpose of caring for them.

Visually, many churches are flat and plain, giving the impression of a hotel rather than a home. Having been stripped down in iconoclast fashion (sometimes to the extreme point of even getting rid of the cross) most churches don’t even consider offering up religious portraits such as John Everett Millais’ Christ in the House of His Parents, but, instead, trade them in for shallowly-disguised copy-cats of the Live, Laugh, Love genre. For example, the interior walls might be basted in phrases such as “Let God Love Through You Today,” which are often painted in some kind of contemporary scroll-style font.

*Interestingly enough, this is also a flaw of Starbucks, which sometimes makes the the mistake of being too cliche. For instance, my local Starbucks could probably do without some of the cheesy poetry on the wall.

2) Spacious

The way that Barnes & Noble uses space is ingenious. Their bookshelves, organized in a maze-like fashion, encourage browsing, and yet, they are wide enough apart that one can dart in and out rather quickly if their schedule demands it. But for those who want to stay, all paths lead to the cafe, which is often in the very center of the building, and in some locations, elevated so that it looks over all the rest of the store.

And this use of space is not neutral. Instead, it actually orients the customer’s perception of the environment. For instance, while in the upper level of the cafe, the whole store becomes one’s personal library; the individuals below, an atmosphere of entertainment.

Outside of the cafe, and in between the mazes, one will often stumble upon an open, living room sort of area. Here, little tables are spaced out between comfy, movable, easy chairs. From my perspective, it is this use of space that first distinguishes Barnes & Noble from Starbucks in the search for a third place. For unlike Starbucks, even on a busy day, when no cafe or cozy chairs are available, Barnes & Noble boasts a seemingly endless amount of space, and one can easily cop a squat right on the floor, where they can read book-in-lap style.

Like the details of comfort above, many churches fail to give any attention to the way they use space. If they are the type of church that sets up chairs, they may make rows that are too narrow, or don’t have many ways to get in and get out when people come in late or need to leave early.  If the rows are too long, they might encourage people to sit on the edge (even when the middle has not been filled) in order to avoid being blocked in. If the church site is split into multiple rooms or buildings, the location of child care centers, fellowship/snack areas, and church offices may also be lacking in proper planning. For instance, if a church fellowship area is around the back of the building, where it is out of sight from the parking lot, relocation should probably be considered, or if this is not possible, proper navigational signs should be put in place.

*Often times, all that is needed to designate an area as a “hang out” or fellowship area is the strategic placement of tables and seating.  If your church is accessible by foot (especially in a well trafficked area), placing a few umbrella-covered tables in front of your building will probably attract quite a motley crew of passersby and members alike, and not just on Sundays either, but throughout the week.

*The “comfy” factor should also not be underestimated when considering what sort of furniture to put in a pastor’s office, youth room, lounge area, etc.  Even a shabby couch, if it is comfortable will encourage sitting more than a sad-looking fold out chair or an immaculate, extravagant chair.

If this consideration of church architecture and the use of space seems out of the ordinary to you, you can at least take comfort in the fact that it is not without precedent, and I am not just talking about elegance and lavishness of detail, the financial cost of which can easily turn against the grain of the Gospel itself. What I am referring to, are the ways in which churches of the past manipulated space in order to orient their members in certain ways. Pews were communal in nature, facing forward toward a central and dominating cross. The pulpit was off to the side of the stage, emphasizing that it was not the pastor that members should worship, but Christ.

Perhaps one of the more difficult to emulate uses of space in older churches, were the ceilings, which used arches and A-line frames to draw attention up toward the heavens. While such detailing should never be sought outside a policy of good financial stewardship, it it at least thought provoking to consider the amount of care and intention that was given to the crafting of space in times past, in comparison with our own negligence of it.

3) Giving

Finally, in addition to providing physical space, Barnes & Noble is generously open in allowing people to use their facilities to do their own thing. One piece of evidence for this statement, is the fact that the employees won’t stare you down as you mosey around their store, or even expect you to buy a book from them. In fact, the amount of people moving in and out of the place gives off a comfortable vibe, in which there is no pressure to even be conscious of yourself as a “customer.”

If you are looking for a nice date spot, meeting a study partner, or even just resting with your kids while shopping at the mall, Barnes & Noble (without any ado) provides a venue for you (and for your restless kids, if you count the children’s area/corner). Furthermore, Barnes & Noble generously provides resources and materials that you can browse, while you spend part of your day there. Of course, this comes with the expectation that you will eventually, and inevitably buy something from them, as you continue to frequent their store. But nevertheless, it is a type of giving and openness that people cannot help but respond to.

My husband and I often frequent Barnes & Noble in order to browse their magazines for free, magazines that we cannot afford to individually subscribe to. However, while we are there (and without any pressure to) we are more than happy to make a purchase from the bakery so that we can munch while we read.  Furthermore, when we find a book that we really enjoy reading, we may just buy it while we are there. Such practices would not occur if the environment of Barnes & Noble was different in any way from the way it is now. In fact, without Barnes & Noble’s giving spirit, we would probably not come at all.

In returning to the church, we sometimes find that generosity and giving are often preached, but not acted out, starting with extremely limited access to the facilities. Locking your building door if your church is located in a dangerous neighborhood is one thing, but if your church is locked often, or uses a gate and a no trespassing sign, you may be sending the wrong message to your community. By allowing people access to your church, you do invite some risk, but you also invite opportunities to interact with and love others.

This interaction shouldn’t be contrived or done out of hopes to “sell” the faith, but should overflow naturally from members who already interact this way with each other.  Like the employees at Barnes & Noble, church staff and members should be open, friendly, and willing to go to great lengths to help. However, they should also be accepting and gracious to individuals who are just meandering about the premises, using the outside tables to hang out with friends, or poking in to use the bathroom. By providing these simple creature comforts freely and without stipulation, churches are sure to stand out in a society that is often over-concerned with liability and protection.

Finally, as brothers and sisters in Christ, church members should be setting a living example of generosity.  As communities, church members should be providing for each other on a daily basis.  Are there extra veggies in your garden? Bring them to share at church. Is a family in your church moving across town? Put an announcement in the bulletin or an event message on Facebook soliciting help for them.

If your church is already on this path, you might consider taking generosity one step further, and engaging in the use of a “sharing network,” (best done on a craigslist-esque website) where members can borrow and share material goods such as tools, vehicles, utilities, books, etc. For instance, why on earth would every person within the same church need to have their own power drill?  Or why on earth would every member have to own a pickup truck, a double broiler, and the same commentary on Job?

*My husband is actually in the process of introducing such a network at our local church (more updates on this to follow).

Though this level of borrowing might sound “extreme” to a culture that treasures its material goods above all else, Christians should not be bound by such concerns. Though there are real snags that have to be worked out in order to make this type of community possible, they should not be too challenging for the church community that is willing to grow and learn together, and willing to take correction and give forgiveness. In embarking on this adventure, churches would not only become intriguing examples of people living in true community (assuming they don’t get accused of being a cult), but would also free up resources and wealth that can be stewarded into surrounding communities and the world at large.

Because there has been a lot up until this point, I will try to summarize a final plea. It may just be possible that churches could take a few cues from Barnes & Noble in relearning the spirit of hospitality (warmth and comfort), intentionality (use of space), and generosity (giving and sharing). Of course churches should never be businesses, and they should never attempt to honor these principles outside of or to the detriment of other Christian fruit. But if we find ourselves in a state of mind or society where places like Barnes & Noble and even Starbucks seem more welcoming and enticing than churches, we may just need to reconsider the status quo.

A Theology of Holidays

The poet Alexander Smith once wrote that “Christmas is the day that holds all time together.” Yet, I would argue, that it is not Christmas alone, but all holidays, religious or otherwise, that occupy this role, by both forming the constitution of time and informing our conscious awareness of it.  “How many days until Christmas is it again?” “Is it time for Halloween already?”

To put it simply, holidays help us make sense of our lives. Like seasons, they structure our year. Like weekdays and weekends, they separate the mundane from the sacred. And perhaps most importantly, they bestow upon us traditions, which provide not only comfort, but a sort of grounding that brings meaning to our daily existence.

The universal nature of holidays is probably a matter of common sense, but let’s explore it briefly anyway.  While each person’s life might be structured by a different collection of holidays (based on their religion, culture, family, etc.), it seems incredibly unlikely that any one person could escape holidays altogether.

Even the apathetic postgrad, who, having taken an Intro to Philosophy or Global Studies class, might smirk at the concept of a “holiday” and applaud himself for not “buying into” such “social constructs” meant only to serve the various agendas of religions, governments, consumerist economies, or even greeting card companies, cannot help but fall into his own pattern of holiday-like traditions, even if they are made up of no more than Thursday night Wilfred episodes, Weekend pot smoking with friends, and the Sundance Film Festival in January.

If I offended you with that particular example or with that overly-lengthy sentence, I apologize.  I only mean to make clear that we all structure our lives around “holidays” of sorts, and that there is something about doing so that is uniquely human. From Kindergarten to College, an individual’s holidays may consist of “Summer,” “Christmas Break,” and “Spring Break” or whatever the equivalent “school not in session” periods may be.  For married couples who work and have kids, holidays might consist of weekly or monthly “date nights” and “family vacations.” During my senior year of college, the weekly Wednesday night LOST party was a very well respected holiday.

Interestingly enough, it is these personal holidays, which we may not even recognize as holidays (such as those of our imaginary, apathetic existentialist), or may only label as “secular holidays” that best pinpoint the components that make up a holiday: the physical actions that constitute celebration. In this way, it is not so much the concept of a holiday, as it is the traditions that are ushered in by one that affect us.

Following this line of thought, and taking Christmas as a stand-in for holidays in general, we might ask: What then, is the Christmas Spirit? Is it some mindset within ourselves, or does it infect us from the outside in? Is it the hustle and bustle of “busy sidewalks” that Silver Bells proclaims? Or is it, according to It’s Beginning to Look a lot Like Christmas “the carol that you sing, right within your heart?” Is it the sharing of gifts and fudge with family that brings the holiday into existence? Or does the holiday only occur during those moments, when, as some pastors might confusingly say, “we make sure to take time to think about Jesus this year?”

Or, is it possible, that no such divisions exist? Could holiday traditions be inseperably intertwined with the concept of holiday and the holiday spirit itself? And further, is it possible, that the modern church just might have something to learn from secular culture when it comes to “doing holidays?” In order to answer these questions, we will first take a look at that which is often labeled “secular” within holidays, and see whether it is really secular after all.  Second, we will address the concept of liturgy, and discuss its important, though often hidden presence within both secular and Christian tradition.

1) What is it about those pesky holiday activities that seems so (gasp) “secular?”

To return to the confusing, yet commonly heard-while-in-church command to “take time to think about Jesus,” we see that there is a underlying, almost latently Gnostic sort of mentality in which the HOLY (aka: the sacred and divine and even conceptual) is viewed as distinctly separate from the SECULAR (aka: the physical, earthly, and material). I am sure I am not the only individual, who, as a young child, left church during the Christmas season, and contemplating this apparent divide between “doing” Christmas and “thinking about” Christmas, attempted to spend some time alone in my room trying really hard to focus on Christmas (only to come out five minutes later embarrassed by the fact that I had given God so little of my Christmas season).

Of course, I am in no way trying to advocate for a wholly unreflective mentality toward holidays.  What I am trying to say is that reflection on a holiday does not need to be separated from partaking in a holiday, and furthermore, the traditions we partake in are not secular, but are in fact an equally valid, and equally holy form of celebration. Thus, I am saying that singing carols, baking cookies, and giving gifts can be just much a form of worship as my childhood attempts to contemplate the Christ child in silence.

This makes sense to us in secular holidays, because we no longer experience pressure from a false dichotomy. We no longer fear that the sacred will be contaminated by the secular.  Thus, we partake freely of fireworks and hotdogs on the Fourth of July.  We gather with friends to watch the Superbowl and laugh at the new commercials.  We plan special date nights for Valentines day.

In these cases, it is the activities that are focused on: the gathering of family, the eating of food, the giving of gifts, etc. Furthermore, it may be helpful to note that a focus on activities during holidays is not without Biblical precedent. In the Jewish customs of the Old Testament, holidays are celebrated with traveling, feasting, the wearing of special and lavish garments, etc. And, whether or not we admit it, it is these same things that we anticipate within our celebration of Christian holidays, albeit with a large side dish of guilt that we are giving in to that which is “secular.”

“But what about that issue of reflection?” you ask, “If modern Christian holidays are supposed to learn from, or even regain a long-lost sense of celebration from these secular holidays…where does the reflection come in?”

2) What is a “liturgy” again? And are you sure it’s not just a boring church thing?

Enter in liturgy. Though many Christians perceive the concept of liturgy as nothing more than meaningless ritual practiced within the “Catholic church” or an “old people church,” the actual word refers to the format or structure of worship within a church, and defines not only what is done at the Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopal, or Presbyterian church down your street, but also what is done in your contemporary, non-denominational, even mega-church service. One church service might include hymnals, an organ, and the lighting of candles. Another church might include a rock band and a big screen.  In both contexts, a particular form of liturgy is followed in order to structure and direct worship.

To follow James K. A. Smith (Desiring the Kingdom), in somewhat more broadly defining liturgy as the daily, communal actions that (perhaps unconsciously) order our hearts, desires, and objects of worship, we see that holidays, when fully embraced and celebrated should naturally give way to daily reflection, and a never ceasing perspective of ourselves as incarnately grounded within the global church, aka: the body of Christ.

This means that reflection is not restricted to Christmas and Easter, and then forgotten for the rest of the year, but rather, reflection grows out of a lifestyle, where worship is daily and constant, and ever in anticipation of celebration through holidays. In much the same way, the Christian week does not consist of “holy time” on Sunday, and secular time throughout the rest of the week.  But rather, Sunday service is a time of celebration for a community of believers who are already doing life and worship together.

This concept of liturgy is, again, easy to perceive in the areas of our lives that we consider secular. Take for instance, the liturgy of a high school football team. In this analogy, the players worship daily through communal practices that orient their hearts, minds, and bodies toward a uniting purpose. Friday night games, thus, become holidays in which that unity is celebrated. Reflection is present, but nearly inseparable from their actions both in preparation for and during the holy game, and as they continue to participate in this culture of sports, they continue to become grounded in liturgy and worship.

Though it may seem like a new concept to the contemporary Christian, such practice is not without precedent in the history of the Christian church. It may be dusty, but the Liturgical calendar is alive and well, or, at least alive, in many churches throughout the world.

The reason I hesitate to fully acknowledge it as “alive and well” is simply because, like our modern way of practicing Christian holidays, the use of the liturgical calendar often fails to move past simply encouraging church members to “reflect” on the holiday.  If any action is done at all to commemorate the holiday, it may not be more than simply changing the color of banners and flowers that decorate the church building. Thus, if the church is to revive the tradition of liturgy, it might not hurt to start with reviving the liturgical calendar.

Though some churches have started experimenting with bringing back traditions such as Lent and Advent time, much focus still seems to be on the prelude to Christmas and Easter, and the rest of the year seems largely unaccounted for. For instance, why do Epiphany and Pentecost get little to no attention?  What about All Saints Day? And then, there is Ordinary Time, which is not so ordinary after all, but filled with several important feast days of its own.

Furthermore, I think that more can be done to actually celebrate these holidays. In keeping with the theme of this post, that it is the actions and traditions that affect us the most within holidays, I think it would do churches well to start brainstorming ways in which members can actively engage and participate in the celebration. And no, I am not talking about just responsive readings or themed hymns. I am talking about fasting during Advent, visiting graveyards on All Saint’s Day, laying on hands and commissioning members for ministry during Pentecost service.

Perhaps, in an effort to celebrate the traditional 12 days of Christmas, churches might encourage families to plan a special celebratory activity on each of the days, which end with Epiphany, the revelation of God’s incarnate nature, literally to the Magi, and symbolically to the Gentiles. Perhaps, in an effort to celebrate Ordinary Time, which bears the color green, and runs longest from spring to harvest, the church might encourage its members to participate in a church garden, or at home personal gardens, the fruit of which can be shared or given away to the community.

Such activities may do more for encouraging reflection than simply commanding it, and would certainly seem promising for promoting a lifestyle of liturgy where worship is not separate from daily life, but embedded in it.  It may just also help Christians regain a healthy sense of holidays: how they fit into the Christian life, how they inform our sense of time, how they encourage daily reflection, and how they affect the focus of our hearts, through our partaking in tradition and embracing of celebration.

A Theology of Smart Phones

On a recent camping trip, my husband awoke to find his beloved iPod touch unconscious in a pool of water that had somehow penetrated our tent.  Upon hearing his distress, I made a beeline for my duffle bag and began rummaging in search of my iPhone 3GS. Within seconds, I found it securely enclosed within my sweatshirt, where it had remained free of moisture throughout the night.

Although my husband’s device was significantly less costly than my own, the potential loss was distressing.  If you do not understand this particular concept of loss, you are probably not the owner of a smartphone.  After packing up, my husband turned to me in the car and said, “I probably wasn’t ready for one anyway.”

It was not hard to identify the source of guilt that this statement came from: the idea that technology, while not evil itself, provides an almost limitless playground for our immaturities and selfish interests to run free. An environment that humans may not yet nor ever be responsible enough to frolic in.

To this, there is some truth, as having a smart phone constantly handy brings temptations to the forefront of my life.  Everywhere I go I can avoid responsibilities by distracting myself with endless amounts of articles, games and social media outlets. I can flood the world with every thought and feeling that comes into my head (as if each one was actually valuable) and then proceed to constantly check if anyone has commented on how witty I am.

And yet, I do not believe that technology in and of itself is bad. Furthermore, despite the “disaster as punishment” philosophy that Pat Robertson preaches and John Piper sometimes hints at, I do not believe that my husband’s iPod touch mishap was the direct hand of God intervening in the “sin” of his smartphone use.

I do however believe that this particular incident (being forced to ponder life without a smartphone) gave me a chance to reflect on the ways in which smartphones can shape us and become not just phones but actual “lifestyles” and “philosophies,” the losses of which, are quite jolting.

Of course, the idea that the smartphone is capable of shaping us is not just a potential Christian debate, but a secular one as well.  In his NPR interview, Nicolas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, gives a somewhat technophobic answer to this question, stating that the plasticity of our brains allows them to adapt to the distracted and impatient modes of surfing and skimming that we practice online.  On the more positive side, tech-enthusiast Brian X. Chen, author of Always On: How the iPhone Unlocked the Anything-Anytime-Anywhere Future — and Locked Us In, argues that evidence of these changes is slim, and that given enough time, society will become more aware of the positive and negative effects of smartphone use and will be able to integrate them in a way that is socially acceptable. To shorten, the etiquette of the digital age is still being formed.

Nevertheless, amidst the “trending” period, the smartphone has become the predominant vehicle through which we live our lives.  We use its alarm to wake us up.  We then spend those extra five or ten snooze minutes awake in bed, checking our email.  We plug it in on the way to work or school in order to listen to the new album or podcast that we downloaded the night before.  We use it to answer any information question that comes up in a discussion. We reach for it every spare minute we have in order to check up on what other people are doing or to manage our own image, and finally, in those downtime hours at the end of the day, we slink back to the couch, where, with the tv playing in the background, we search for more entertainment and distraction.

Of course, as Christians, we recognize that the advent of the smartphone lifestyle allows us a chance to reflect not just on how the smart phone affects our brain and behaviors, but also on how such changes affect our soul, and our process of sanctification.  To begin what is surely a limitless discussion, I would like to address two ways that the smartphone can be used to aid Christians in their daily, soul-shaping activities.

1) The Smartphone Gives Us a Chance to Identify and Confront our Sins Head-On.

Do you want to know what your sins are?  Yes, there is an app for that. Or rather, there is a whole legion of apps, which, in conjunction with the data from your use of them, will proclaim to you very clearly what your issues are.  Given its individualist nature, the smartphone has become not only an extension of the self but an augmentation of the self, in which every proclivity is amplified. In other words, via the smartphone, I can travel much further in whichever direction I am already heading.

For instance, if I am already feeling bad about myself, constantly comparing myself to others on Facebook will allow me to wallow further in these feelings of inadequacy.  If I am already prone to being a control freak and being organized is of utmost importance to me, I can use my smartphone to make lists, sort through my inbox, and gain a sense of control over my digital world.  Such examples are endless.

So what do you struggle with? Are you self-absorbed?  Are you lazy? Do you place too much emphasis on efficiency? Just keeping track of your smartphone habits for one day will probably give you enough information for analysis.  For instance, how often do you go on your smartphone?  What modes or states of being precede these habits?  Is it when you are bored? stressed? feeling depressed, jealous, or unmotivated? What do you do when you go on your iphone? Do you play games? Do you read up on trendy things so that you will fit in? Do you Facebook stalk what other people are doing and compare yourself to them?

Chances are it won’t be too hard to pinpoint your exact weaknesses. And while simply being aware of them won’t prevent you from having to face their daily temptations, it can guide you in setting up physical boundaries.  Are their any apps that you need to delete?  (Ex: The baby monkey game is ridiculously adorable, but if playing it has become an obsession, you may need to delete it for a while.) Are there any alternative strategies that you can put in place for when you are feeling down? (Ex: For me, going for a walk, calling a friend, or creating new things through cooking or sewing does a great job of curing a bad mood.)

2) The Smartphone Gives Us a Chance to Order Our Priorities

Given the amount of time we spend on smatphones, it is not just our sins that will become transparent, but also our priorities.  For instance, though we are told as Christians to put God first by spending time with Him in prayer, in scripture and in reflection, we are probably not whipping our smartphone out of our pocket because we are eager to check that prayer list email or read the next chapter of Hebrews.

And yet, these are just the sorts of things that the smartphone makes possible, by allowing us to have on hands at all times, not only a copy of the Bible, but a bounty of lifelines that connect us to fellow Christians in both the local and global church.

Of course, our smartphones should in no way become the sole envoys through which we conduct our faith.  Interestingly enough, there are an increasing amount of Christian apps available for the smartphone, including iConfession (put out by the Catholic church for confession on the go) and and Chrisitian Cafe (the online Christian singles community) that make this very concept possible.  Take a look at the description for iChristian:

“Now your iPhone/iPod Touch is a missionary, preacher and the evangelist! The iPhone/iPod Touch application “iChristian” (“Become A Christian”) contains the minimum of required information to become a Christian. After the prayer of salvation, you may register as a Christian. If you would like, you may request a certificate of a Christian.”

While there is a large amount of commentary on the usefulness, ridiculousness, and even evil nature of these apps, I don’t think they give much cause for concern. For the majority of believers, I think the issues of when and how often are more important and more pattern-shaping than the issue of how. In other words, I think it is more likely for a Christian to make too few attempts (digital or otherwise) to spend time with God than for a Christian to become obsessed with utilizing an app such as iConfession every spare minute.

Finally, just to be clear, while smartphones do offer some great tools for making our faith a priority, sometimes the best way we can show commitment to God, our family, or anything else is by turning our smartphone off.  Just as we might designate a certain amount of time to checking in with email, correspondence and social networks online, it would do us well to designate some time to being unplugged. During meals, while hanging out with our kids, while in quiet meditation, etc.  Sometimes this means turning it off completely, sometimes this means momentarily turning off those pesky alert signals.  The important thing is to make sure you are not always connected to, and thus, always at the mercy of your smartphone.

As it turned out (to return to the incident at the beginning of this post) my husband’s iPod only gave us a good scare.  After flatlining for quite some time, and showing severe signs of water damage, we were able to resuscitate it with several rice treatments (if you do not know about this technique, I highly recommend that you check it out in preparation for future mishaps).  And while I do not wish on you the kind of scare that we had, I do hope that you will take a moment to reflect on your own smartphone habits and how they may shape your soul.

A Theology of Facebook

An introductory paragraph on the prevalence of Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites is most likely needless, and because of how often people frequent these spaces, it seems that we no longer think of them as places that we visit but rather extensions of our own community, home, or even self.  Having become so deeply ingrained in our daily habits, and thus, to borrow from one strain of theological thought, our souls, we no longer reflect on them as practices, much less question their very existence in our lives.

For instance, one’s daily ritual may be to get out of bed (or even remain in bed if he owns a smart phone) and check his social networking sites, along with his email, the weather report, the news headlines, the daily scripture reading, or any of those other seemingly trivial acts that make up engaging with the world.

But my question is this: if we believe that Christianity should at least enlighten if not imbue every part of our life, what are we to make of social networking sites and the implications they have for the church, aka: the body of Christ? Because social networking is an environment that provides space for so much of ourselves (image, thoughts, expression, family, friendship, achievements, history, etc.) the potential reflections become almost limitless. However, according to personal bias, I would like to focus on two aspects of this convergence that I find particularly intriguing: Facebook as Community and Facebook as Openness to God.

1) Facebook as Community:

Populist commentary and even scholarly literature on social networking sites seem to give much consideration to issues such as artificiality, perception, and privacy. For example, a study may explore how the self-constructed forms of these sites lead to egocentric behavior, the objectifying of individuals (including the self) and the ways in which we trade privacy (whether or not it is our “real” privacy) in exchange for a way of being perceived, or even the extent to which we become blind to the cost of our privacy, having fully bought in to the concept of anonymity that these sites suggest about themselves.  (For scholarly research on social networking see “Virtual Friendship and the New Narcissism,” “Facebook and Online Privacy”).

Nevertheless, there are some good arguments and research that exist, which seem to show ways in which Facebook, and other sites like it can supplement or even partially replace the means in which we function socially (See “The Benefits of Facebook Friends”).  Through these interpretations, Facebook becomes an equally “real” way in which to interact with other people. To connect with old friends with whom an out of the blue phone call might be awkward. To stay in touch with close family and friends who are far away.  To streamline communication between multiple people, an amount of communication that would otherwise take a good part of one’s day to achieve.

From a Christian perspective, social networks can also be seen as a way to encourage and support one another for the building up of saints, to ask for prayer when troubles strike, and to share parts of our lives with each other in a way that promotes community.

For the Church (both the global and the local body) this community-forming feature is especially relevant as a means of fellowship, communication (ex: spreading word about events and opportunities), and anchoring, that is grounding people within a body of faith that extends beyond their personal sphere.

It is also an opportunity for individuals to integrate their various “worlds” or the various networks of people with whom they interact.  In many ways, such subtle integration may prove more effective than overt evangelism, because it presents people with a more holistic image, ie: the Body of Christ as a living temple and an active and global community.

2) Facebook as Openness to God

Under this concept, it is argued that social networking sites provide us not only with opportunities to share our identities but also with opportunities to respond to the workings of God and the Spirit’s direction in our daily life. From scripture we know that when we are seeking God, He goes before us to make ready our paths. (Proverbs 3:6, Isaiah 43:19, Deuteronomy 31:8) *see endnotes.

Thus, as Christians, we are commanded to be attentive to God, in both obedience to His word and awareness of His movings. Within social networking sites, such attentiveness may manifest as general openness to ways in which God can lead and use our interactions with others by His grace and for His glory.  This may include:

Sharing Needs: “in search of a roommate,” “anyone know where I can find a good deal on tires?,” “please pray for my friend who just lost her son”

Meeting Needs: “we have too many tomatoes to eat…come and get some if you want, and hurry,” “Car for sale, willing to give good deal if it can help someone in need.”

Spreading Information and Resources: giving helpful advice (mostly when it is solicited), sharing personal material goods or helpful knowledge, connecting people to those who can help them (passing along the name of a friend for a job, re-tweeting a request).

Making Connections: learning from the thoughts of strangers, engaging in dialogue with strangers, or even going to the trouble of sharing with or making connections for strangers in order to bless them.

In this way, our attitude toward Facebook becomes an extension of the attitude that we already have (or should already have) toward the workings of God. That is, an attitude of diligent seeking after where God can use us and faithful expectancy that he will use us (or bless us) even in ways we might not predict or recognize right away.

Critique of a Counter Example: 

Somewhat of a counterargument to this idea of openness was found embedded in an online article from Christianity Today about “A Fishy Facebook Friend,” in which the author recalls a friendship request that turned out to be more of a business card for self-promotion. To this request, he responded:

“People have different expectations of Facebook. I try to use it to keep up with friends I’ve met in person or worked with extensively online—people who know me and like me for who I am, not for my ‘social capital.’ You sound like a guy I’d like to get to know in person—and when that happens, I’ll be happy to include you among my Facebook friends.”

Unfortunately, as much as I love Christianity Today, I can only half-agree with the line of thinking that gives way to this response.

First of all, the idea seems to promote two false dichotomies.  One, in which there are only two groups of people: those who “know me and like me for who I am” and those who “like me for my social capital.” However, as painful as it is to admit, our perceptions of people are almost always blurry and slightly political, and it is hard to distinguish a “person,” from their “value” or “utility” in relation to ourselves.

Perhaps equally oversimplified is the idea that one’s “person” is “good” and one’s “capital” is “bad.” While this might ring true in an individualistic society that so highly regards the “self,” it does not seem to fit comfortably within Christianity, where we receive positive value not just for our existence as a child of God, but also for our role in the body of Christ (where God uses our “capital” as well as our “lack of capital” for His glory according to His will).

Thus, while human interactions will never cease to be born out of mixed motivations, or possibly even wrongly prioritized forms of love (love of God, love of others, love of self, love of material things etc), and while wisdom and discretion are necessary in all of our interactions with people, we should not be too hasty in adopting a defensive, protection-driven attitude toward those around us. While there are perfectly good reasons for sheltering oneself from abuse, fraud, and all of the other risks that exist, we must also be careful not to insulate ourselves in a personal safe-haven, or harden our hearts to the places, people, or even mindsets that God may be calling us to.

Finally, it is important to note that it is not the intention of this post to exalt Facebook and other social networking sites to a place beyond reproach.  In fact, for Christians in the land of Facebook, there are just as many stumbling blocks as there are opportunities to do the will of God. Thus, we must check our hearts at the door or the computer screen, so to speak, and ask God to give us the desire to serve and glorify him in everything that we do.

*”In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (Proverbs 3:6).

*”See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland” (Isaiah 43:19).

*”The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged” (Deuteronomy 31:8).

A Theology of Coffee

For most Americans, coffee is not just consumed regularly, but is used and referenced as part of one’s personal identity.  On social networking sites, the act of drinking coffee is often found listed in the “About Me” section, and personal blogs are often lined with coffee-themed stock photos (I myself am still the technical owner of a myspace page that features a background full of coffee beans).

Then there is the plethora of coffee decor that is available outside of the “virtual” world, and of course, the actual coffee, which is not only bought for its “use value” as Marx would label it, but for it’s social value or “exchange value.”  For instance, I can drink coffee simply for its calories, taste, warmth, etc. (its use value), or I can drink coffee because it completes my outfit, image, or identity (the coffee is being exchanged for a perceived image of myself as a “coffee-drinker”). Thus, to borrow syntax from Browning, “the drinking of coffee is symbolical.”

To be clear though, the point of this post is not to weigh the pros and cons of “coffee as identity,” but rather, to accept its suffusion within society and contemplate the Christian response to this.

Outside of church trends that encourage the use of coffee houses for fellowship and potential evangelism, the topic of coffee within the church seems largely un-reflected upon.  Perhaps the most relevant article I stumbled upon in my research, came from belief.net, which is not an exclusively Christian site, but rather an interfaith community.  Entitled, “The Sipping Sacrament,” this article led with the claim that “coffee, dispensed in nearly every church in America, has become indispensible to American spirituality.”

Among the various historical and trivial interactions between church and coffee covered in the article was the prevalence of coffee drinking as a post-service tradition: “In most mainline Protestant and Catholic churches, parishioners gather immediately after services in the parish hall or church basement for kaffeeklatsches that often bear modest names like “fellowship hour” or “community hour,” (though an old Lutheran joke calls coffee hour the “third sacrament,” after baptism and communion).”

While I agree that coffee fellowship is a longstanding tradition in the church, it seems like its contributions are often thought of on a side note.  From the church that allows its creamer carafe to run dry to the one that puts in a “church coffee shop” that charges for coffee (unless such a shop is used as part of a temporary fund raiser), an attitude that views coffee as distinctly separate from rather than integrated within the Christian lifestyle may inadvertently hurt church community, ministry, and growth.

Conversely, when practiced right, coffee can benefit the church in many ways.

1) Coffee is a tradition that contributes to feelings of completeness and comfort.

For many people, coffee is a routine if not daily habit that provides the drinker with a sense of completeness (the perfect start or end of their day). In this way, coffee is an emotional comfort. (Of course, coffee is also a great physical comfort; thus, if you are a church that is located in a cold climate, do not underestimate the virtue of a warm drink). By providing coffee in a routine, dependable way, a church can help promote an environment where people find comfort and completeness, and hopefully, an environment to which they will return.

2) Coffee promotes social connection by being both a social lubricant and an equalizer.

Coffee is an impetus for gathering a crowd. Besides providing people with a reason for standing around a table, it also gives individuals something to do with their hands (in a non-distracting and non-complicated way) as well as something to talk about.  The fact that coffee does not seem to discriminate based on gender, generation, ethnicity, or social strata also makes it an easy common denominator for conversation and connection.

*The provision of other less caffeinated beverages (such as tea, hot chocolate, etc.) is also worthy of consideration, in order to include those individuals who do not care for coffee.

3) Coffee provides us with opportunities to be hospitable, to serve, and to be open to the movement of the Spirit.

Oftentimes, the first thing a host will do for a guest is ask him if he wants something to drink.  Water, perhaps a cup of tea, or, depending on the time of day, a pot of coffee.  In this small act, the host pauses (often from self-focus) in order to think of the guest and his needs.  In the environment of a church, coffee can be used as an opportunity for both welcoming and serving others as well as a training exercise in pausing from self-focus, opening up our day and schedule, and giving God the space to lead us to those he may want us to talk to.

Of course, I must make clear that coffee is in no way the sole factor in healthy church fellowship, and the occasional out-of-order coffee machine should never make or break a church.  Perhaps the only point that this post hopes to make is that how a church approaches little things like coffee is a microcosm of how that church approaches life and the call to infuse all aspects of our life with Christ-like behavior.

Therefore, brew and drink. Do so in service to the Lord.