Posts Tagged 'culture'

Solidarity, Resistance, and Liberation: Why Christians Should Occupy

This article was originally written for the Et Cetera, the newspaper of the Christian graduate school I attend here in Vancouver, Regent College. I was responding to an article entitled “Why I Will Not Occupy Vancouver” written by a friend of mine, where her concerns about the movement were outlined: the protesters are costing taxpayers too much money, the movement is too complex and confusing, and those involved should do something more useful like “occupy a job” and/or volunteer at a soup kitchen or teach literacy to kids. This is my response.

I would like to begin by thanking my friend BJ Bruder for her article last week that outlined why she would not Occupy Vancouver. On one level, I can identify with her frustration that the movement seems to be so complex and confusing that it is hard to pinpoint the purpose and “effectiveness” of the protest. I can also understand her suspicion that some of the protesters seem to be members of a privileged class who have the luxury of not having to work in order to camp out downtown for days at a time. How would it be justifiable that a student of privilege would protest the economic system that benefited his or her own wealthy family? This is a good question worth considering.

Her article presents an opportunity to consider an answer to this and other good questions. What exactly is this movement about? What is the purpose of a Continue reading ‘Solidarity, Resistance, and Liberation: Why Christians Should Occupy’

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Searching For Don Knows What: Former Hippie Sells Out

At the risk of sounding like a hipster, I liked Donald Miller before he was famous, and now––thanks to my friend Amy––I fear he’s selling out.

First, my true-blue-fan cred: I met him 3 years before Blue Like Jazz was published. Great guy. He came to speak at a Summit College reunion at my childhood camp in Huntsville, Ontario (Summit was a one year outdoor adventure/Bible/leadership program that I did after high school). I liked his talk so much––about how we carry around needless baggage like giant rocks in our hiking packs (a talk well suited for us outdoorsy folk)––that I bought his first book called Prayer and the Art of Volkswagen Maintenance (later released as Through Painted Deserts). As I read though this journal about his road trip from Texas to Oregon in a broken-down VW van, I remember thinking this guy is wonderful. He had such a unique, laugh-out-loud funny, comforting voice, and told so many great stories, that I was sad when it was finished. I later I lent it to a boy I liked, trying to impress him with the fact that I read cool stuff, and never got it back. Which sucks because in addition to being a great story, that first cover was way better than the re-published one.

I was ecstatic when Blue Like Jazz came out 3 years later and gobbled down every delicious, witty, insightful morsel. Continue reading ‘Searching For Don Knows What: Former Hippie Sells Out’

The Empire is Among Us (and Jesus is Luke Skywalker?)


“What the hell is ‘The Empire’?” I kept asking myself and my friends, bewildered after every Theology of Culture class with Brian Walsh this past September. He mentioned it in nearly every class, saying it had “captivated the West’s imaginations” and we all needed to “subvert” it. I was incredibly confused. After making the same “Like does he think it will strike back??”  lame attempt at a joke with each friend, we’d then get into a passionate discussion, trying to decipher what he meant. It’s “the Man” that is begging to be damned, it’s “the Machine” that is to be raged against, it’s “the Matrix” that is to be decoded and exposed. Or as my roommate Rob (who has worked with B. Walsh for years) would say with a half smirk, “hehehe, good question. I don’t even think he knows anymore.” While I knew intrinsically that I would be inspired if I could sort out in my brain all that I was learning about this new (to me) approach to interpreting the Scriptures, I was too afraid to ask such a simple question to my professor. He seemed to assume we all knew just what he meant when referring to this culturally packed word. After sheepishly gathering up the tiniest amount of courage, I asked him what it was, and received a rather brilliant, enlightening explanation. All which made perfect sense for a whole 3 hours, until I fell asleep, thinking giddily to myself “Jen, you should totally write this down! You get it!” The next morning, when I tried to explain to my counselor that I’d had a breakdown-turned-breakthrough, all I could enthusiastically spurt out was some mumble jumble about “the powers that be” and “not flying away to heaven.” Feeling somewhat defeated, yet utterly resolved to sort this out for my own personal sanity, I spent several hours on the website Empire Remixed, which, for the purpose of this assignment [for B. Walsh], I’ve decided to review as a cultural product.  Hopefully, by the end of this paper, and yet another frantic phone call to my classmate Dave Krause (who has been claiming repeatedly than B. Walsh is his best friend), I will have this all figured out.

According to Andy Crouch in his book Culture Making, a good way to learn about a culture (like ours, circa 2009) is to ask five questions of a cultural product it creates (such as Empire Remixed). The first question is, “What does this cultural product assume about the way the world is?” First, the website Empire Remixed assumes by its very medium that there’s a certain demographic of people, largely located in the West, that seek information through a networking of computers called the “internet.” People pay for access to this pool of information and are able thereafter freely post and respond to ideas. By the content of the ideas on Empire Remixed, one would assume that its creators believe that there’s an empire that is currently in power, that it’s distorting reality and controlling the masses, and that it needs to be rethought, reverted, and ultimately redeemed. The creators of the website are thus warning others who are reading their ideas about the dangers of this empire and are posing an alternative to being subject to it. However, freedom of speech is very present in this culture, even though it is supposedly under the rule of some evil empire! So what exactly is the nature of “The Empire”?

Well, an empire is, according to Wikipedia (another internet-based information source – obviously revealing the fact that I’m currently writing within the same culture), “a strong, centrally-controlled nation-state” but it can also refer to “a large-scale business enterprise (i.e. a transnational corporation) and a political organization of either national-, regional-, or city scale, controlled either by a person (a political boss) or a group authority (political bosses).” So, “The Empire” is essentially made up of several power systems and structures (political, economic, cultural and/or social) that are dominant in our world today. This would include (but is not be limited to), Western-style capitalism that creates all sorts of global injustice, the ideology of consumerism, the politics of greed, corruption and power, the destruction of the environment, and the media that portrays these systems as natural, woman as objects, and sex as merely a commodity.

According to the creators of Empire Remixed, the nature and ways of The Empire are diametrically opposed to the nature and ways of God, the Creator of the World. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Israelites, God’s chosen people, are taken captive several times, and live in exile under the rule of either the Babylonian, Syrian, or Roman Empires (or others). The Israelites, commanded by God to live a distinct life that would separate them from the surrounding peoples, lived in exile under the control of the Babylonians, Syrians, or Romans (plus others). All empires not only had political and economic control over the Israelites, but they influenced their way of thinking, worshiping, and essentially their very identity. They became idolatrous, greedy, and conformed to the destructive mindsets and practices of their captors. They became people of the empire. The prophets, over and over throughout the centuries, came to call the Israelites to repent for taking on the idols and practices of the empires, and to remind them of their true identity, that they are the people of God.  According to Brian Walsh, when Jesus came, his entire life was lived in subversion to the Roman Empire, pointing the Israelites to reclaim their true identity and place in the Kingdom of God. This Kingdom turns the power structure of the empire on its head, by proclaiming that those who want to be first must be a servant of all, and that love, mercy, and justice should take the place of idolatry, greed, and oppression. By dying on a cross, the execution style used to maintain pax Romana, Jesus humbly surrendered his life to the violence of the Empire. But through his resurrection, he ultimately defeated the power of the Empire, ushering in a new era of everlasting peace and rule of a new empire – the Kingdom of God. He thus opened up possibilities for all to out their true identities, as the reconciled people of God, devoted to Kingdom principles.

According to Empire Remixed, there are many parallels that can be made between the Israelites who lived in exile, struggling to live as the People of God while under the powerful influence of the Empire, and modern Christians who currently live in a society that is controlled by the unjust practices and destructive, identity-distorting messages of globalized capitalism. During an interview with Empire Remixed in May 2006, N.T. Wright said that, “the Western economic structures, mostly located in, or based in, or at least in cahoots with the United States, have actually achieved without territorial conquest the same kind of hegemony over the rest of the world that in past days people achieved through precisely territorial conquest.” This is a rule that depends on greed, cut-throat competition, and oppression of the poor in order to maintain power that is held by a miniscule minority. Its rule depends on its subjects to buy into consumerism, the myth of progress, and selfish individualism in order to preserve pax Americana. It’s a rule pervades every area of people’s lives, threatening to steal their loyalties away from the one true Lord of the World, Jesus, and the one rightful empire – The Kingdom of God. As Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Matthew 6:24)

Thus, The Empire needs to be “remixed.” Andy Crouch’s second question to ask of a cultural product is, “What does it assume about the way the world should be?” First, the website assumes that Christ-followers should have an alternative to blindly following the ways of The Empire. There is a better way, and it starts by “remixing” the elements of the old way. In choosing the word “remixed”, the creators of the website also assume that it’s readers will understand the reference to the widely practiced technique of remixing music. To remix music is to change up the different elements of a song – to hear it again with a totally different perspective, a sought after “new and improved” version of the old. So, “remixing” the Empire is taking its elements, its distorted and dehumanizing mindsets and practices, and turning them on their heads. How does this look, practically speaking? A litany written by creators of Empire Remixed called “Amidst the Powers – A Benediction,” beautifully suggests that we should “dethrone the powers by redeeming them.” What does this look like in everyday life? The litany goes on:

If the powers render you homeless, build homes.
If the powers reduce sexuality to a commodity, enter into faithful covenant.
If the powers rob you of your children, then take them back.
If the powers create domination, then embrace sacrifice.
If the powers despoil creation, then plant a garden.
If the powers take away your wealth, then give away freely.
All of this is ‘kicking at the darkness until it bleeds daylight.’

Thus, Christians should be continually subverting the Empire by starting with an element it throws at them, “remixing it,” and redeeming it by living out it’s intended Kingdom purpose. To remix the element of homelessness, therefore, is to build homes. To remix the destruction of creation is to plant a garden. To remix greed is to be generous, to remix consumerism is to live simply, to remix selfish individualism is to love and serve your neighbor. All of this is, “kicking at the darkness until it bleeds daylight,” a reference to the lyrics of Bruce Cockburn. In referring to the musician, the website also assumes that prophetic voices can be heard through modern musicians. Thus, God is still speaking today – giving the same old message, granted – but using contemporary artists as a medium to reach a new generation.

The third question to ask of a cultural product is, “What does it make possible?” Empire Remixed makes it possible for thousands of people, in 94 countries across the world (as of Oct. 11, 2009), to have access to (what it’s creators believe) is an alternative, prophetic vision of the world as it should be, as lived under the authority of Jesus. The subtitle of the website is “rethinking everything,” and that it attempts to do. The website contains articles written by several different contributors that journal their struggle to understand how to think about and live out the Kingdom of God in their current cultural context. There are many personal entries about the writers’ thoughts on conducting relevant ministry, Christianity and homosexuality, speaking the truth, the gender of God, depression and suicide, the economy, simple living, social justice, current issues in the news, and the modern prophetic voices of various musicians, authors, and artists, just to name a few topics. But there aren’t only articles. The creators of Empire Remixed have hosted events that have given flesh to their ideas and conversations. Author and theologian N.T. Wright was invited to speak, play music, and dance with (maybe?) all who were willing to crowd into a Toronto nightclub for the opportunity to be inspired by his ideas and engage him in conversation. Activist and author Shane Claiborne, founder of the Simple Way, was also invited to speak about what it means to radically live out the Kingdom of God among the least of these in our society. Other musicians and, including Martyn Joseph and Marva Dawn, have all been invited to play and speak, all contributing to the ongoing discussion about how exactly to “remix the Empire.”

The fourth question to be asked of a cultural product is, “What does it make impossible (or difficult)?” First, Empire Remixed makes it difficult for the uneducated in the ways of “empire talk” to understand what they mean by “The Empire!” No where on the site is there a clear and concise definition or explanation, and any reference to empire is extremely, extremely vague. While writing this paper, I asked several people who know of the site what they thought the definition of “empire” was, and I got very different answers (see the first paragraph again). Even Dave Krause, one of the contributors to the site, couldn’t explain it without going on for an hour! (I finally gave him a pen and told him to write it down in 5 minutes or less, and he still took 15!) For a group of people that are concerned about the majority of political and economic power being held by the top 1%, it is ironic that one must have access to a certain small number of books and theories (mostly written in English and published in academic circles) in order to be enlightened enough to be able to understand the true nature of the world’s invisible exile.

Granted, essentially the idea of empire is as old as the scriptures, but in the circles I grew up in, we were talking about it using different language. I’ve been hearing all my life to “love not the world, nor the things in the world. For if any man loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” (1 John 2:15). “The world” was always explained to me as the mindsets, practices, and ideologies that set itself up against the Kingdom of God. I was taught to thus not be selfish, jealous, or unkind, but instead to have the “love of the Father in me” which would mean being selfless, content with what I had, and caring to my neighbors. However, the language of “the world” has lost its meaning to me in the last few years, and to a culture that is also sick of clichéd religious jargon, a new spin (a remix, if you will) on an old concept might not be a bad idea. Thus, Empire Remixed makes it difficult for religious folk to use the same old language without become irrelevant to the culture around them.

The last question to be asked of a cultural product is, “What new forms of culture are created in response to it?” Empire Remixed has sparked many discussions, both on and off the Internet, about how exactly a Christian is to think, live, and follow Jesus in our current cultural context. There have been discussions surrounding the nature of The Empire (like this paper, for instance), negative impacts it has had on the world, and how exactly we are to go on, worshiping the Redeemer and actively participating in the redemption of all creation. The events hosted by Empire Remixed that has included lectures, discussions, music, art, and food, all in the context of a community, have also been created in response to it, all as attempts to “kick at the darkness until it bleeds daylight.”

Empire Remixed is definitely a product of our times. In a prophetic voice and through the accessible medium of the internet, the contributors describe reality as they see it (we are living in an age where the complex web of power structures have captured our imaginations and distorted our very identity), warn all of the dangers and distortions of this reality (consumerism, individualism, injustice and the commodification of sex, etc., will destroy you and the world) and offer a hopeful alternatives as followers of Jesus (Remix the Empire! Live redemptively. Know that your identity rests in being people of God). The website opens up possibilities of “rethinking everything” and allowing thousands of people from across the globe access to the discussion. Although its precise explanations of empire are vague, the ideas it publishes are refreshing, enlightening, and just plain inspiring. Which is a heck of a lot more than I can say for the fifth episode of Star Wars.

(This was my first assignment for my *Theology of Culture* class, written last September. It’s funny to look back now, I’ve learned so much and have taken two more classes with the same prof, Brian Walsh. Hands down the man is brilliant, and continues to inspire, confuse, and challenge me to this day. Oh – and I got an A!)

What’s the Opposite of Writer’s Block?

Cuz I think I have it. Normally if I were to complain about anything to do with writing, it would be that the words just aren’t coming, that I don’t know what to write about, or that my Muse has gotten bored with me, rolled over, and gone to sleep. Or I would whine that I feel as though I have nothing new to say to a world that has an over-abundance of books, articles, magazines, and journals, and who the hell am I, anyways? Do I really have that different of a perspective, that fresh of insight, that exotic of word choice combinations that can turn on the lights for someone in a way no one else’s can?

But now the problem is – if someone who is aspiring to be a writer can call it a problem – I feel as though I have too much to say and not enough time to get it all down. Not to mean that all of the ideas that having been flashing around in my brain – for books I want to write, or articles or essays or stories – not to say that any of these are incredibly fresh or insightful, it’s just that I’m being compelled to write them all down, by something, or Someone – outside of me. In other words, for the first time in my life, I’m completely convinced that I am actually going insane.

Now I’ve always felt somewhat insane before, when I’ve been depressed or over-dramatic or OCD about this or that or whatnot. But lately, well, I’ve been getting flashes of words, sentences, images, ideas, and I feel like I must write them down as quick as possible before I lose them. For instance, I keep getting rather witty chapters titles for a book I’m writing on LOST (which I had written here originally but a smart friend told me to take ’em out so no one could steal them -blogs aren’t copyrighted). I also want to write an essay on my pilgrimage to India last year, about beautiful experience of getting joy etched into the flesh in my back forever, about my brother who listens to Christian rap while programing software for para-church fundraising campaigns, about my compulsion to spew venemous hate at anyone who disagrees with my political-economic leanings (why do I do this?), and so on and so on. I want to write about it ALL. But I don’t have time. So I write nothing. Except for the illegible scribblings of a madwoman in her journal.

It all started on that fateful day when I decided to not take the one-week intensive course that was required for my program in International Development, and go instead to the 4-day Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College this past April. I remember seeing the online ad that my friend Justin had sent me – Justin who I taught English with in Korea with for 2 years. He knew I loved writing so he sent me the link to the Festival’s website. But he didn’t know how much the thought of writing secretly terrified me. Being a writer means sure rejection, I thought. Who’s gonna want to read anything I write? I have nothing new to say. But the website was pretty – with various shades of calming, pale greens and budding vines and fancy calligraphy spelling out The Festival of Faith and Writing – and it totally got my heart beating, like jungle drums. And then it beckoned me saying, You must come.

So naturally, I did what anyone else would do who thought they were hearing voices. I went outside on my back porch and smoked a clove. (Now I know smoking is terribly, terribly bad for your health, but these cigarettes are light brown, like cigars – and taste like Christmas – cinnamon, cloves, sugar and spice and everything nice – so I justify one every once and a while.) This little ritual is always a way for me to calm the eff down, think, and pray. I thought about the keynote speaker – Eugene Peterson – whose poetic and fresh translation of the Scriptures I’ve read for years that basically saved my salvation. And I thought about my favourite author Anne Lamott who told me in her book Bird by Bird that in the case of writing and life, I must always be milantly on my own side. For I’ll always have more than enough critics, and I don’t need to be one of them. I’ve got enough problems as it is without adding to them by my own hand.

I thought about my school program, a Masters of Theology in International Development, and how while I loved the poor and wanted to always help them, I had a deeper passion that had been in me for far too long, and I could no longer suppress it. By going to this Festival of Faith and Writing, this mammoth conference with over 500 writers and poets and literary agents and publishers from around the globe, and over 2000 visitors each year, by choosing this over the required course for my program, I was saying no to this International-Development-as-a-career-choice  and yes to my true first love – writing.

Terrifying shit, huh? Well at least for me. It was a decision of epic proportions, because it would also mean that I was naturally going to have to change schools, and go to my first love in terms of graduate schools – Regent College in Vancouver, for its program in Christianity and Culture, which would be so up my alley if I wanted to write – especially about the intersection of faith and culture, which kind of lights me up inside. This decision would mean that I would be moving away from the community that I had grown to love in Toronto, and that was a painful thing, since I had felt like I had begun to get to know people on a deep, relaxing, can-just-be-myself sort of level. But I knew that it must be done, cuz who wants to say no to a creepy but authoritative voice that you hear in your head? What if it knows how to use a shotgun?

So I signed up, and asked several of my friends to come, but naturally everyone was busy so I went alone – took a 13 hour bus ride to Grand Rapids, which was only 6 hours away, but I like bus rides way better than driving.  Besides lessening my ecological footprint, they allow me to look out the window and listen to Sufjan Stevens while day-dreaming about my latest boy drama situation and how everything would just turn out great if he would only realize that I was the most beautiful, wonderful woman on the planet and he could not live without me.

Arriving at the Festival in sunny Grand Rapids, the spring birds were chirping, the tulips were waking up, and it was warm enough for sandels and I was mad I didn’t bring any (the last time I was in Grand Rapids for the overwhelmingly-depressing Faith and International Development Conference, it was blizzardy, and so this time I came over-prepared for cold weather). But regardless, I was convinced it was the first day of the rest of my life. Even though I was surrounded by strangers, I knew from the first session that I was home. I had found my people, and there is not enough words in the English language to describe how or why I felt this – I just did. Every single session was inspiring and intellectually stimulating, I used up like 4-5 pages of my journal taking notes on each one. The people were all artsy and scholarly and funny – just like me! I made at least a dozen new friends. The creative juices flowing in the air, the people longing  to wrap their ponderings and sufferings in prose, those who loved to be swept away by a good story, those who loved to be the ones offering that human connection, that communion – it was stunningly beautiful – and my heart did not stop pounding all weekend.

As I came to learn, the problem with my old way of thinking about writing was this: I felt like I needed be an really really incredibly wise or knowledgable about something in order to write about it. I felt like everything I wrote had to have a message, or offer hope, or offer redemption or deliver some wise eternal spiritual truth. But as so many wise, seasoned writers reiterated throughout the Festival, to write well you must follow this one essential rule: Write the things which you have seen. True writing is not necessarily about teaching something you already know, it is about observing, with utmost precision, life as you have experienced it, and then describing what you see back to the world the best as you know how.  It is about telling your story as honestly as you possibly can, and learning more about what is buried deep within you the more you write. It is about honoring the human experience by recording  your take of it as accurately as you are able. It is writing about moments or ideas or feelings in a way that simply rings true. We must not write in order to heal, to teach, or bring redemption. We must instead write as truly and honestly and passionately as we know how, and because it is real, it may end up bring healing, provide inspiration for others, or offer redemption. (But it may not, and that has got to be ok too.) But if we try to write with healing, teaching, and redemption as our primary goal, it may come out forced – and that is not writing, that’s typing.

This one rule, this line, Write the things with you have seen, literally opened the floodgates for me. I might not be an expert on anything, or feel like have a “fresh perspective” or whatnot, but I have lived. And I because there is no one else in the history of humanity that is exactly like me, nor will there ever be, I do have a unique story to tell: my story. The story of my childhood schoolyard traumas or down-the-ravine adventures, or why peeled bananas make me feel exposed, the story of abandonment and isolation I felt while teaching in Korea or how volunteering in Kolkata brought me back to joy, the story of how the sweeping epic narrative that is LOST makes me want to give God (and Desmond) a big polar-bear hug. I have a story to tell because I am part of the larger story that belongs to all of us, we who get to live this wondrous, confusing, painful, ridiculously baffling, and beautiful thing we call life.

So in the midst of all of my newly found and beloved insanity, won’t you join me on the journey?

—-

(Stay tuned for more writing to come)


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