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Jesus' Elevator Speech
Or was it his inaugural address? There's a difference.
The Sunday after President Obama delivered his second inaugural address, my pastor preached on Luke 4:14–21, the story of Jesus' reading from the Isaiah scroll in his hometown synagogue. After reading about God anointing a prophet to preach good news to the poor, bring release to the captives, and sight to the blind, Jesus applies the text to himself: "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing."
This, my pastor said, was "Jesus' inaugural address"; framing it that way seemed natural. Just as the President had used his inaugural to outline the ways he would work over the next four years to make America better, Jesus used Isaiah 61 to outline his kingdom agenda.
I was relieved when my pastor didn't launch into a sermon on civil religion, the subject of his postinaugural Facebook posts. Instead, he focused on how Jesus' agenda dovetailed with our congregation's mission statement. When I mentioned "Jesus' inaugural" to a coworker, he said that his pastor had labeled Jesus' use of Isaiah 61 differently. The passage was, he said, Jesus' elevator speech.
Elevator speech is a term from the 1990s. In the early days of Web development, aspiring innovators prepared themselves for brief encounters with venture capitalists. If they could present their vision in the short span of an elevator ride, they might get the capital needed to bring vision to reality.
At first, I reacted negatively to labeling Jesus' announcement an "elevator speech." Because of the term's marketing overtones, it called to mind one of the worst books ever written about Jesus. In his 1925 bestsellerThe Man Nobody Knows, advertising pioneer Bruce Barton cast Jesus in ...Tue, 21 May 2013 07:04:00 PDT
Two Urban Manifestos for Evangelical Christians
Two new books locate Christians' presence in cities, but only one of them actually engages the city.
"The city," says Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, "is humanity's greatest invention."
Not everybody agrees with Glaeser's glowing assessment, but judging by recent population trends, most do. Every day 180,000 people move into cities, and in 2011, for the first time in world history, the majority of the world's population became urban. It's estimated that in 2050, 86.2 percent of the population of developed countries will reside in cities. As magnets for talent, engines of innovation, and centers of culture, cities have eclipsed the nation-state as the primary sculptors of modern life.
Following tightly on the heels of urbanologists like Edward Glaeser, Richard Florida, and Joel Kotkin, evangelicals have recognized a golden opportunity. Two new books—Stephen T. Um and Justin Buzzard's Why Cities Matter: To God, the Culture, and the Church (Crossway) and Jon M. Dennis's Christ and City: Why the Greatest Need of the City Is the Greatest News of All (Crossway)—herald both the unprecedented importance and unmistakable biblical significance of the city. But only Why Cities Matter strikes the right balance between social analysis and ministry focus, encouraging readers not just to live in the city but also to engage its people and culture with the gospel.
An Unlikely Duo
Um and Buzzard are an unlikely duo. Though both are pastors, one (Um) is an academic from Boston, the other (Buzzard) a church planter from Silicon Valley. Um is Asian, in his 40s, and wears suits; Buzzard is white, in his 30s, and wears T-shirts. But perhaps it is just such a diverse relationship—a theme they explore in the book under the heading "connective diversity"—that ...Tue, 21 May 2013 04:27:00 PDT
Suburbia Needs Jesus, Too
A woman's take on the New Radicals.
In college, my philosophy professor used to talk with affection about how his wife "schooled" him when they were first married. After hearing a Christian speaker on campus, he came home inspired and shared with his wife the speaker's message: that life was all about big moments, and all the in-between stuff was just leading up to those climactic, world-changing events.
After he finished downloading, she looked at him with an eyebrow raised and said, "Sounds like a man. Men love to talk about 'quality time' and 'high moments,' but when you get up at 2 a.m. to change the sheets because our daughter threw up in bed, that's living. When you have to change diapers for the 1,000th time, that's living. All our time is 'living.'"
I have the same response to the New Radical movement, led by David Platt and other pastors, which rallies western Christians to leave behind the ease of 21st-century living and return to the iconoclast vision of the early church. (See Christianity Today's Here Come the Radicals). The New Radicals mean no harm. In fact, they mean great good. They want justice. They want change. They want complacent Christians pushed out of their comfort zones and into the slums of a suffering world. What's wrong with that?
Here's what: Their vision has the potential to leave suburban moms looking like lazy Christians. It's driven by a stereotypically male way of thinking that often values the dramatic over the mundane and loses sight of people who engage the greater good through the invisible monotony of home-making, childrearing, and other unseen acts of service. Men and women alike pine to make an impact—it's human nature at its ...Tue, 21 May 2013 06:55:00 PDT
Whatever your addiction, God's grace is the only hope for a way out.
When Heather Kopp arrived at rehab, she didn't fear the physical agony of withdrawal or the chance that she would relapse. Rather, she worried she wouldn't fit in. A 40-something mom of two and a veteran of Christian publishing, Kopp had never been in jail or on the streets. Her husband drove her from their comfortable Colorado Springs home to a group facility where the other patients, she feared, would look down on her for not having fallen quite as far. She'd simply let a nightly glass of wine turn into two, which turned into a bottle, which eventually led to additional mini bottles hidden and secretly chugged in the bathroom. Soon enough, every moment of her life revolved around her next chance to sneak away for a drink. It was a bad situation, but it wasn't exactly the kind of flashy rock-bottom story that, say, sells memoirs.
But Sober Mercies: How Love Caught Up With a Christian Drunk (Jericho Books) proves just how wrong she was to minimize the depths of her descent. Kopp's highly readable account draws the reader in, opening up a window into the mind of a burgeoning alcoholic. But as it moves through her rehab and recovery phases into her struggle to understand God's presence amid her alcoholism, the book grounds everything in a universal truth: Substance abuse is a physical manifestation of a spiritual addiction to sin. And everyone, it turns out, is an addict.
It takes only a few days at rehab before Kopp realizes that trying to come across as "relatable" to the other patients means she is positioning herself above them. The only reason any of them are there at all, she realizes, is a physical dependence on alcohol they have tried and failed to shake on their own. Through her ...Mon, 20 May 2013 06:38:00 PDT
Auditing America's Political Integrity
The IRS scandal, Benghazi incidents, and the disappointment of dishonorable leadership.
The recent scandals swirling inside the beltway seem to have come one after another—Benghazi, the AP records seizure, the IRS audits. While investigations continue about the details of each, the incidents have been enough to raise bigger, broader questions of responsibility, moral integrity, and creditability of those in power.
This kind of questioning is more signficant than just cynicism. After all, public faith in governance is key to a democracy like ours. Once that faith has been lost, how can it be restored? Or, as Publilius Syrus, a 1st-century Roman-slave-turned-Latin-writer, asked, "What is left when honor is lost?"
It's a concept that has thundered down through the centuries: Moral integrity is foundational for truly successful leaders. Socrates advised, "Let the man who would move the world first move himself." Confucius asked, "If he cannot put himself aright, how can he hope to succeed in putting others aright?" From beginning to end, what matters the most about leaders is who they are, not simply what they do. And right now, there appears to be significant flaws in the characters of our government officials and politicians.
Take the case of the Islamist attack on U.S. diplomats in Benghazi back in September, where we're left with conflicting reports over whether the assault was spontaneous or, as critics argued, a premeditated act of terrorism. While it's worth investigating whether such an incident could have been avoided, the bigger question in America's minds is one of integrity, of whether people in power deliberately covered up the facts. We cannot expect our leaders to foresee and prevent every tragedy, but we can—and should—expect ...Mon, 20 May 2013 07:10:00 PDT
Angelina Jolie's Breasts and the Bravery of Letting Go
Refusing to let beauty become a trap.
I heard the news of Angelina Jolie's mastectomy on NPR last Tuesday as I was driving to work. Several co-workers stopped by my office that morning to ask I what I thought about her decision to remove both her breasts to prevent her from getting breast cancer.
"I think she's brave," I said. "I think she's very brave."
Angelina Jolie's mom had died of ovarian cancer in her 50s, and genetic testing showed that Angelina was positive for the BRCA-1 gene mutation, which not only raised her risk of ovarian cancer, but also meant she had an 87 percent chance of developing breast cancer in her life.
I tried to concentrate on work that morning, but my mind kept drifting to my own experience with breast cancer. I was diagnosed with it when I was 27, and went through a bilateral mastectomy, four more surgeries, chemo, and radiation. And now I'm on medicine for the next decade to keep it from coming back.
On Tuesday afternoon, I went for a walk and I remembered. I remembered waking up from the mastectomy with bandages wrapped around my chest to cover the massive incisions that marked the place my breasts used to be. I remembered my hair falling out in clumps when I was going through chemo, until I was completely bald. I remembered losing so much weight during chemo that my clothes hung from my thin frame.
And I remembered standing in front of the mirror for hours, staring at myself, trying to find even a glimpse of the girl I used to be, but I couldn't find her anywhere. I had lost the hair and breasts and curves that had identified me as a woman.
"I look like a 12-year-old boy," I cried to my mom one afternoon. As I laid in bed that night I cried some more, thinking ...Mon, 20 May 2013 09:00:00 PDT
God Behind the Veil
His ways are hidden from ordinary eyes, but not from the eyes of faith.
I was sitting expectantly in the doctor's office, waiting for the results of some tests. I had convinced myself that there was nothing wrong. At worst, it was a hernia; at best, a pulled muscle. The doctor finally entered, and he gave me the news: "I am sorry to tell you, we have found a large mass by your right kidney, and it looks cancerous."
My stomach sank, my world spun, and I cried out to Jesus. Some further tests determined that I had a rare and deadly cancer for which there is no known treatment.
As a husband, a father of two young children, and a theologian, the news confronted me with the fact that life would change drastically. What would it be like for my kids to grow up without their dad? How would my wife handle all of this? Why would God allow this to happen to me, and where was God in the midst of this turmoil? As Christians, we all feel the gravity of life bearing down, and we all meet with trying circumstances that force such questions upon us.
Questions about God's presence—and apparent absence—hearken back to what Christians have traditionally called God's transcendence and immanence. Or, to use more biblical language, his apparent "veiled-ness" and "unveiled-ness."
Theologian G. R. Lewis writes of God's transcendence and immanence this way:
As transcendent, God is uniquely other than everything in creation. God's distinctness from the being of the world has been implied in . . . discussions of God's attributes metaphysically, intellectually, ethically, emotionally, and existentially. God is "hidden" relationally because [he is] so great in all these other ways. God's being is eternal, the world's temporal. God's ...Mon, 20 May 2013 09:00:00 PDT
Home Improvement Meets the Gospel
How two co-founders of the home-supply store TreeHouse infuse their business with environmentally sound faith.
Austin, Texas—with its "Keep Austin Weird" motto emblazoned on locals' t-shirts and bumper stickers—is ground zero for a green-building revolution, due in no small part to nearby University of Texas, hipster culture, and a booming technology startup scene. The self-proclaimed "live music capitol of the world" will also be the second U.S. city to get Google Fiber, an Internet-cable plan that Google promises to be 100 times faster than today's standard broadband.
The culturally liberal enclave in a vast red state might not be the first city that comes to mind when you imagine the future of Christianity. But when you're trying to figure out what God is up to, "weird" is a good place to look. And maybe the weirdest thing about Austin is not the Google Fiber streaming in its front door, but rather the treehouse in its backyard.
Just off of U.S. highway 290 in South Austin sits TreeHouse, a home improvement supply store for "smart building and better living," specializing in environmentally conscious installations that save energy.
Since opening in 2011 and seeing $3 million in sales so far, TreeHouse is one indicator that providing homeowners with more energy-efficient and sustainable products may be a business model as economical as it is ecological.
TreeHouse began in 2007 in Frisco, Colorado, as Evan Loomis and Jason Ballard, two of the original five co-founders of TreeHouse, found themselves sitting in a micro-brewery instead of skiing, hatching a plan to create the Whole Foods of Home Depot.
Loomis and Ballard had been looking for something like TreeHouse ever since their days at Texas A&M University, when they became close friends ...Tue, 14 May 2013 14:27:00 PDT
Stay Sexy or Else? Well, Please Forgive These Mommy Hips
When the joy of sex gets replaced by the fear of not being sexy enough.
Some Christian marriage conferences and self-help books tell us it's up to the wife to stay looking great and try new things in the bedroom, to keep her husband satisfied and her marriage strong.
Mary DeMuth recently critiqued the popular "smoking hot wife" line, pointing out that for the many Christian wives recovering from experiences of sexual abuse, this kind of imperative makes the difficult path towards healthy intimacy even harder. For a woman trying to find a way to lower defenses, shake off memories, and find true, godly communion with a spouse, being told to act the part of the sexy wife is 11 steps in the wrong direction.
But the real problem with all this evangelical sex talk is even bigger than that. Any woman trying to live intimately with her husband gets damaged by these sorts of claims, not just those who are recovering from abuse. It's antithetical to the Christian view of marriage altogether.
As we remind Christian couples to "stay in shape and try new things," we can play into a broader cultural premise on sex—that it's all right to leave a spouse once the spark of sexual excitement and attraction has dissipated, that couples who don't find sex exciting anymore don't, won't, or even shouldn't, stay together. An adventurous sex life becomes the unspoken requirement for lifelong monogamy.
Once that idea gets in a woman's head, it's hard to shake it. In the back of her mind, she knows the choice to have children also means changing her body forever. Her shape will become different. The sex will be different. Amid the vulnerability of pregnancy and childbirth, women face the fear of becoming less attractive to their husbands, who are ...Fri, 17 May 2013 06:59:00 PDT
Review: Star Trek Into Darkness
Lots of explosions but not much heart makes this a film that will please most but might leave fans disappointed.
mpaa rating:PG-13Genre:Science FictionDirected By: J.J. Abrams Run Time: 2 hours 12 minutes Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Benedict Cumberbatch Theatre Release:May 17, 2013 by Paramount Pictures
The most brilliant marketing move in J. J. Abrams's wildly popular 2009 reboot of the Star Trek franchise might have been skipping any attempts at continuity that might hamstring the ability to alternately reference and revise Federation history—whatever was most convenient in any particular scene. More impressively, it did it while managing to not alienate its fan base. Trekkies are famously so rabid, so steeped in the minutiae of each Star Trek franchise, that they were once mocked by William Shatner in a Saturday Night Live skit in which he told rabid conventioneers to "get a life."
The 2009 reboot's plot twist let Leonard Nimoy make a cameo, and it set up the new series' parameters: Spock and the audience retain all memory of past movies, but Federation history, as recorded in those films, is no longer unalterable. Things can now happen differently than they did before. It was like an Etch A Sketch got wiped clean.
This erasure seemed like a high price to pay just to give Abrams and company a bit more narrative freedom. The destruction of Vulcan aside, the first movie also didn't seem as troubled by the theological implications of changing history as was, say, the last season of Abrams's television series Felicity.
But the public wants what the public wants. And it wants old and new Spock in the same movie, and looks to J. J. Abrams to "make it so."
The greatest remaining continuity link between the previous films and the new ones is the inclusion of plenty of Easter eggs to make the initiated feel—in this order—smart ("lose the red shirts") and nostalgic ("the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few"). Beyond that, these are ...Fri, 17 May 2013 07:24:00 PDT
Review: Frances Ha
Noah Baumbach's best film yet is an elegant pairing of serious and funny, as its name implies.
mpaa rating:RGenre:ComedyDirected By: Noah Baumbach Run Time: 1 hour 26 minutes Cast: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Adam Driver, Michael Zegen Theatre Release:June 19, 2013 by IFC Films
For 85 and a half of Frances Ha's 86-minute runtime, we only know Frances (Greta Gerwig) by first name. Which is fitting, because as endearingly eccentric and memorable as Frances may be, she's still just another face in the crowd—one of hordes of 27-year-olds trying to make their mark in the big city.
But Frances is not one to buy into her supposed insignificance. Like many in her generation, she's convinced that her dreams are within reach (for her, to be part of a prestigious dance company), and she will not let anything convince her otherwise.
Directed by Noah Baumbach (The Squid & the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, Greenberg), a director who likes stories about awkward people who flounder on the margins, Frances Ha is at first glance a 90-minute ode to a charmingly hapless exemplar of the "failure to launch" phenomenon. Small in scale and (deceivingly) in scope, Frances Ha nevertheless presents something bigger than itself. Co-written by and starring the very talented Gerwig — ingénue of the "mumblecore" movement—Frances Ha is one of those inadvertently generation-defining films that riffs on the zeitgeist in enlightening ways.
Ostensibly the story of one young woman's painful/funny exploits in contemporary New York (HBO's Girls is in some ways a raunchier cousin), Frances Ha hones in perfectly on the "quarterlife crisis" phenomenon of well-educated college graduates. They flail around in that awkward, unsettled place where liberal arts fantasyland collides messily with the realities—jobs, rent, bills—of surviving adulthood. It's that time in life when daydreaming about reading Proust in a Parisian café while ...Wed, 15 May 2013 11:23:00 PDT
Long before I knew the true God, he helped me release my hatred.
I was 8 years old when the turmoil that fueled the Iranian Revolution of 1979 first started. From that time until I was 16, the government killed eight of my brothers and sisters. I witnessed this. Even my sister-in-law, who was two months pregnant, was murdered, even though Islamic law expressly forbids killing a pregnant woman. My mother and another sister were imprisoned. From age 16 to 19, I was left as the sole caregiver to my father, who was suffering from Alzheimer's disease. During this time Iran and Iraq were at war (1980-1988), and I lost many friends as well.
Everyone I loved—every person I cared about—died or was killed or taken to prison. I could not understand this. And I became very angry. Forgiveness seemed out of the question.
I was born in Tehran, Iran, in the late 1960s, the youngest member of a large and well-known Muslim family. My father was a respected teacher and senior official in the government, serving in the Iranian senate under the shah and then as a leader in both houses of parliament for the transition government after the revolution.
Vision in the Valley
After the revolution ended in December 1979, I was invited to participate in many political activities because of my family name. But I didn't join them. Instead, I argued with all of them in my mind—the government, other people, my own cousins. I was too young to make sense of things, and I hated all of them. I hated without knowing. I was not aware of how much I hated; it was just the way I was. There were so many questions I could not answer.
I was filled with rage because I saw everyone as responsible for my family's death—the shah, the new leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the revolutionaries, ...Thu, 16 May 2013 07:12:00 PDT
We Have to Touch the Problem
Discomfort is the price of making a difference in the world.
I had talked about doing it for a few weeks. Finally, I got off the couch and moved. I opened the door of the kitchen cabinet under the sink and took out two big black trash bags. I walked out through our front door, down the driveway, and began. . . .
There was nothing glamorous about the work, but I reminded myself that sometimes it is important to work for your community even when it doesn't feel like you are doing much. I leaned over, and with just two fingers I gingerly picked up a cup and straw from a fine fast-food establishment called Checkers down the street. I tried not to think about what germs might be multiplying on this nasty cup and made a mental note to buy a pair of gloves for next time. I moved on down the street and picked up pieces from a broken pot on the sidewalk. I picked up candy-bar wrappers. A few liquor bottles. Beer cans. Coke bottles. Empty bags of chips. Glass fragments. A plastic bag. A syringe. (Oh, God, protect me!) Gum wrappers. On and on. It didn't stop. . . .
A homeless guy I had never seen in my life yelled at me across the street. "Hey, I think you missed a few," he shouted. "Over there in the bushes, you missed a few." Thanks (I think . . . ), I thought.
I picked up the trash in the bushes and realized my two bags were full, so I turned around and started walking home. As I walked back just four blocks, I saw more and more trash littering the streets and parking lots that I hadn't even touched and didn't have enough space for in my two measly trash bags. I put the trash out in our green trash bin and walked back in the front door. Done, but not done at all.
As I slumped down on the couch, trying to feel good about what I had done, I realized ...Thu, 16 May 2013 06:54:00 PDT
'The Office' Shows Even TV Romance Isn't Picture-Perfect
How Jim and Pam's struggling marriage saved the show's final season.
For me, it wasn't love at first sight. The first time I ever watched The Office, the scenes felt awkward and the staff of Dunder Mifflin seemed weird. But it didn't take long before I fell for those quirky characters, and I've been watching ever since.
Sure, The Office has been through its ups and downs (most notably, the departure of Steve Carrell as Michael Scott), but in its ninth and final season the show has gained momentum by way of two characters whose relationship hooked us from the very beginning: Jim Halpert and Pam Beesly.
Ever since the two exchanged witty flirtations during Season 1, viewers have been rooting for them. We watched as the two fell in love, married, and had children together. Then in this final season, we got a rare look at the strains placed on a marriage by shifting life circumstances.
Although Jim and Pam have a beautiful love story, it is their endurance that sets them apart. In today's pop culture, we don't typically see the "ever after" of a fictional couple's story. Once two lovers overcome adversity and finally unite, we are left to assume that the rest will just work itself out. Nevermind that their relationship was founded on deception (as in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Hitch, or Failure to Launch), nevermind that he was once a serial philanderer (Two Weeks Notice, What Women Want, and Crazy, Stupid Love), and nevermind that neither he nor she has a clue about healthy communication (The Proposal, The Ugly Truth, and Sweet Home Alabama). If they get together before the credits hit, we easily forget the complicating factors and celebrate the happy ending.
In this regard, TV doesn't fare much better than movies. Series finales often end ...Thu, 16 May 2013 07:35:00 PDT
Desperate for Their MRS. Degrees
Pressure to put a ring on it can distract from other pursuits and callings.
In the mid-90s, at 18 years old, it never occurred to me that a woman would go to college for the primary purpose of securing a spouse. Even attending a conservative Christian college, I never heard the term "MRS. degree" until many years later, when I lived on campus as a resident director of a dorm with 150-plus women.
Something changed between when I went to college as an undergrad and when I returned to work on campus. Maybe it was just a lack of awareness on my part about what others were discussing; after all, this was before social media. We weren't constantly connected by cell phones and Facebook (now the prime destination for "relationship status" updates and engagement pictures). Maybe it had to do with my personality, friends, and interests. Back then, girls and guys talked philosophy, theology, and music. Sure, my friends and I all wanted to get married, but we weren't obsessed with it. Now, the pressure of college matchmaking has become palpable. I can't even count the number of times I've heard, "My mom and dad told me that if I don't find a husband now when there are so many to choose from, then chances are slim that I'll find one after college."
They feel the need to make the most out of every opportunity, out of every chance encounter with a guy, to prove they are marriage material. Even though guys too have told me that male-female relationships become about sizing up marriage prospects, ladies feel like the onus to snag a husband is on them. Guys, they say, have their pick because on our campus, the women outnumber the men. Just a few weeks ago, several female nursing students told me, "Now that it is spring, it seems like all of our friends ...Thu, 16 May 2013 08:15:00 PDT