Winter/Spring 2018 Pop Culture Roundup

Beginning this month, I'll be engaging pop culture in a different way on the blog. These Roundups will no longer appear monthly, but instead three times a year near the end of each season: Winter/Spring, Summer, and Year-End. They will be a cumulative look at media enjoyed during each designated span of time. In the meantime, I hope to increase writing longer pieces about specific books, movies, shows, and albums and how they intersect with issues of faith and life. Today's Roundup is a beta test for what future installments will look like.

Previously: January 2018, February 2018, March 2018, April 2018


The past few months I've become interested in the Enneagram, a personality test that boasts of its scientific roots and accuracy. Through a series of questions, this test determines which of nine basic types you are, each identified by a number. Many resources not only provide a test to determine your type, but tips and analysis regarding what it means and how you can live into the best of who you are; even transcending your tendencies. I eventually discovered that I'm a 6, but leading up to that I had to read as much about it as I could to make sure, which is what 6s apparently do.

Anyway. Here are the Enneagram-related books that I read:

The Essential Enneagram by David Daniels and Virginia Price - This provides a barebones introduction to each type, including a simple test at the beginning and a section on what each can do to address its growing edges.
The Road Back to You by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile - A more in-depth look at each number than Daniels/Price, but no self-administered test and a little too hyperbolic in its type descriptions at times.
The Sacred Enneagram by Christopher Heuertz - A look at the enneagram from a more spiritual perspective. Again, no test, but some thorough explanation that would help any reader identify their type.

I recently read What I Am Living For, a new collection of essays inspired by the life and writing of Thomas Merton. Covering various aspects of Merton's favorite topics and most notable experiences, these essays explore a man who was both centered and flawed, devoted and conflicted. The contributors often cover similar topics, sometimes from different angles, which help reinforce what was most influential to Merton and what from his catalogue is most influential to others. It's fascinating to get a fresh glimpse into how Merton continues to be a force in modern contemplative spirituality.

I also read Transforming: The Bible and the Lives of Transgender Christians by Austen Hartke. Hartke provides theological insight into an area of Christian faith that is still more on the fringes and misunderstood from what most might consider a "mainstream" perspective. The reader is given some much-needed depth of understanding into what being a part of church, reading the Bible, and serving in ministry are like for transgender Christians, who often have to deal with so much stigma, stereotyping, and ignorance. I certainly needed a resource like this, and would recommend it far and wide to anyone needing to understand this often-overlooked demographic.

This month I read and reviewed Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again by Rachel Held Evans. You can find my review here.

I also read and reviewed God, Improv, and the Art of Living by MaryAnn McKibben Dana for The Englewood Review of Books Easter 2018 issue. Subscribe to get your copy here.


I watched Battle of the Sexes, which recounts the famous tennis match between Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell). The film tries to give equal time to both sides, including fleshing out their lives and what they're going through leading up to the match, but King definitely gets a more well-rounded treatment. It portrays King's relationship changes, self-discovery, and struggle to get equal pay for women in her sport, while for Riggs we mostly see his problems with gambling and some brief snippets of his personal life with minimal sympathy. I liked it but it had an uneven quality.

We saw Avengers: Infinity War on opening weekend, which brings together almost every notable character from ten years' worth of Marvel Cinematic Universe movies to battle Thanos, the most formidable villain introduced in that span. Thanos' big goal is to collect the six Infinity Stones and wipe out half of all life in the belief that those who remain will enjoy greater prosperity and resources. Our heroes team up in various configurations that bring some fun interactions, but the movie always leaves hope just beyond the viewer's reach, with a cliffhanger both surprising and gutwrenching. Thanos is one of the most well-developed villains the MCU has had, and I can't wait until next May to see this story's resolution.

I watched Please Stand By, starring Dakota Fanning as Wendy, a young woman with autism who lives in a group home. The person who runs the home has her on a schedule, she keeps a job at Cinnabon, her sister regularly checks in on her, and she loves Star Trek. When she realizes that the only way she can enter an original script in a Star Trek fan contest is by traveling to Los Angeles by herself, she sets off on a road trip that takes many twists and turns. Fanning is such a versatile and talented actress, and she balances the tension, resolve, and innocence of her character very well.

I also watched Come Sunday, a Netflix original movie starring Chiwetel Ejiofor as Bishop Carleton Pearson, a pastor of a prominent megachurch who comes to a realization that he no longer believes in hell. When he starts exploring this newfound belief in his preaching, his church and ministry begins to unravel. There's a lot to unpack in this movie, from theological issues to denominational politics to some racial undertones. Ejiofor is amazing in everything he does, and this is a well-told story of how quickly people can turn on you when you explore new ideas that make them uncomfortable.

We went to see Deadpool 2 on opening weekend, where Ryan Reynolds' title character has settled into a life of living with his longtime girlfriend while working as an international-level assassin. But after things take a tragic turn, he finds himself without direction or purpose until a teenage mutant boy needs his help, and he faces a new threat in the form of time-traveling half-cyborg supersoldier Cable. While the movie has a lot of the same irreverent humor and fourth wall-breaking as the first, there's a certain weight and heart to this movie that the first one didn't have.

TV Shows

Earlier this month I binged through the new Youtube Red series Cobra Kai, which revisits the lives of Daniel and Johnny from the Karate Kid movies. Each has traveled a very different path, with Daniel becoming a very successful car dealer while Johnny is trying to live day to day in between beers. Johnny stumbles upon a teen in need of guidance and confidence, he decides to open a new dojo under the same name and philosophy, which in turn reignites his old rivalry with Daniel. The series is able to hold in tension each side's motivations such that there is no clear good guy or bad guy, with many of the characters going through times of seeking clarity and direction, going through misunderstanding and growth. It also recalls a lot from the movies without dwelling on them or degenerating into a pure nostalgia trip.

I've been making my way through all episodes of Black Mirror on Netflix. This show is an heir-apparent of The Twilight Zone, with every episode featuring situations for its characters that at least begin positively or strangely, but by the end have twisted into something dark or unexpected. The stories often center on some form of technology that has somehow dictated how the characters live but present or lead to damaging consequences either personally or relationally. With very few exceptions, I've enjoyed what is a well-written, thought-provoking series, and I'm often left pondering each episode for days afterward.


It finally dawned on me that what I love the most about the movie The Greatest Showman is its soundtrack. Even if one doesn't care for the story or gets hung up on its historical inaccuracies, I don't think one can deny the power of its music. "This Is Me" was nominated for an Oscar for good reason. So I've been enjoying having the songs on in the background while I do other things. Here's "This Is Me" from The Greatest Showman Soundtrack:

In recent years, Marian Hill has become one of my favorite bands. They have a sound that is slinky and smooth, and their newest, Unusual, is no different. Here's their first single, "Differently:"

I recently heard about a French-Vietnamese pop artist named Mai Lan, and her single "Vampire" is addictive, which has led me to enjoy her entire debut album Autopilote. Here's the song that's been stuck in my head the past few weeks:

I've also been enjoying the new album from Courtney Barnett, Tell Me How You Really Feel. There's an earthy, grungy feel to Barnett's music as she sings about love, loss, striking out on her own, and resigning herself to what she can do in the face of imperfect circumstances. Here's her song, "Nameless, Faceless:"

A Prayer for Discernment

based on Isaiah 6:1-8

Faithful God, we pause on a weekend of solemn remembrance to reflect on your call to each of us. For some, such a claim on one's life is unmistakable: the combination of circumstance, skill, and passion combine to drive us toward a clear goal where not pursuing it would feel like betrayal to you and to ourselves. For others, we may be choosing between several options that each seem reasonable and that could be fulfilling to us and to the world we know. And for still others, we are wandering through fields of tall grass, trying to find our way, wishing for a voice to speak purpose into our souls.

But the first part of finding our call is showing up, and so we come to sanctuary or wander beside streams or throw our hands up on street corners saying, "Here I am." We require neither soaring angels or shaking pillars; we just want to know where we can direct our time and energy to ease others' burdens and know for ourselves that we are being sent in the right direction. We await your Spirit's guiding, ready to serve but also with a wariness of our ability to do what will be asked of us.

O God, we don't yet know what "send me" means, but with your assurance that you will be with us as we go, we will trust that you know the way. As we serve, may our mouths and motives be cleansed, and may others find hope and life through the work you will do in us. Amen.

(Image via Flickr)

I'm Trying an Author Newsletter Again

There are maybe four of you out there who remember that I once tried to start an author newsletter. This attempt only lasted a few days because there was something about it that I had second thoughts about.

But now that Wonder and Whiskey is about to come into the world, I figure that I should take another shot at doing it.

I anticipate this being a monthly-ish email to provide updates on what's happening with books, the blog, speaking gigs, and other relevant happenings. Subscribers will always be the first to get news before it's posted on the blog or social media, and will receive other exclusive content.

So, for example, when the Wonder and Whiskey cover finally drops? Newsletter folks will see it first. How's that for incentive?

Still not convinced? I'm working on some pieces of writing that only subscribers will see. It will never be posted on the blog or be made available elsewhere.

Here's the form for your subscribing pleasure. You'll hear from me soon.

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(Image via Blue Diamond Gallery)

Wonder and Whiskey is Available for Pre-Order

Friends, things are getting close.

They're so close, in fact, that I can share that Wonder and Whiskey is available for pre-order and will officially release on August 19th!

This book certainly has been a different kind of experience. First off, as I've mentioned before, I didn't even expect that I'd get to write it. I thought the idea was dead not too long after I pitched it. So I'm amazed and thankful that I was wrong about that.

But now I'm a few months away from holding a book in my hands that I wrote, based on the music of one of my all-time favorite bands. It's incredible, and I hope I did both the art and theology justice.

At this point I get to sit back and wait.

Except, hold on, I have work to do on a third book already.

But more about that some other time.

Wonder and Whiskey: Insights on Faith from the Music of Dave Matthews Band is coming from Wipf and Stock on August 19th.


Summer Reading

Now that we are nearing the warmest part of the year and thoughts turn to vacations and relaxed schedules, I've been compiling a new reading list. I finished my winter/spring list with ease, and have been making plans for the next leg of the year.

Here's what I have planned:
  • I'm Still Here by Austin Channing Brown
  • Wildwood Emperium by Colin Meloy
  • Cold Steel by Kate Elliot
  • Goliath by Scott Westerfield
  • Stuff I've Been Feeling Lately by Alicia Cook
  • Hammer is the Prayer by Christian Wiman
  • Natural Enemies by John Kryk
  • Christ on the Psych Ward by David Finnegan-Hosey
  • Denial is My Spiritual Practice by Martha Spong and Rachel Hackenberg
  • Furnishing Eternity by David Giffels
A few regular novels, a couple memoirs, some poetry, a sports book, and a few churchy books. A pretty diverse list, which is always my goal.

What are you reading this summer?

Here's one you could add to your list.

(Image via Wikimedia Commons)

What is Confession?

Previously: What is the Examen?, What is Lectio Divina?, What is Fasting?, What is the Labyrinth?, What is the Liturgical Calendar?, What are Prayer Beads?, What is Body Prayer?

The concept of confession has fallen out of style in certain strands of Christianity. Some of this is more to do with church tradition: some decry it as "too Catholic," as if that's enough of a reason to avoid doing anything facing that charge. Others would rather the church experience, particularly on Sunday morning, focus more on what lifts people up and improves their sense of self-worth. Many have had negative--perhaps too mild a term--experiences with Christians who have weaponized this practice in some way.

Whether confession may be redeemed in the eyes of some is an open question. Nevertheless, we take time to understand what it means context-free, with the hope that it may be used faithfully rather than abusively.

To talk about confession, we should talk about sin. This word has plenty of baggage of its own. In its purest sense, we use the word "sin" to talk about thoughts and actions that go against what God has set out to accomplish for the world, or what God intended the world itself to accomplish as God's beloved creation. We may think about sin either in personal terms or social terms: actions such as murder, idolatry, and prejudice in all its forms are often committed by individuals. Just the same, they may also be committed by societal or cultural systems, as laws and governmental decisions give favor to certain groups over others or, alternatively, restrict the freedoms of some while privileging or expanding those of others.

We may use the word "sin" to give name to the grim nature of the offense. Proposed alternatives like "selfishness," "mistake," and "miscalculation" have their place, but sometimes we need a word that more pointedly describes the ugliness of what a person or system has done. Serious actions invite a serious descriptor, and "sin" does that just fine.

But not only is "sin" still a useful word, the practice of confession can be as well.

As Richard Foster notes in his classic work Celebration of Discipline, there are three necessary elements of confession (p. 151):
  1. An examination of conscience - From time to time, we may make it a point to intentionally step back and look at our actions and attitudes toward others and toward ourselves. What honors God and others, and what does not? What shows love to God's creation, and what demeans, dehumanizes, or exploits it?
  2. Sorrow - After realizing those pieces of ourselves that are destructive, it may be natural to fall into a time of despair over the harm we have caused. This is the precursor to the third point.
  3. A determination to avoid sin - After we have named and recognized the wrong we have done for what it is, we may take steps to turn away from those things and reorient our lives back toward what is productive, life-giving, loving, and God-honoring. This may include making amends for what has already happened, but also developing new habits more in line with how we are meant to live.
Often, confession needs a companion. We may do this work on our own, but the accountability and support of another often makes this easier. For Catholic believers, this may be one's priest. For others, it may be a spiritual director, pastor, or trusted friend who can help with this.

Here's a sample exercise for the practice of confession:
  1. Take time to think about actions of the past day or week, including important relationships. You may want to use the Examen as a tool. What in particular might you need to apologize for or make right? What actions that you have taken cause you sorrow?
  2. Approach a spiritual companion with these concerns, perhaps taking time to write down and organize your thoughts beforehand. Again, this may be a clergyperson, spiritual director, or friend. Share with them what you have done that you want to change. Open with prayer, and make clear the understanding that this conversation is confidential.
  3. Confer with your companion about possibilities going forward. How might you mend what is broken with others? How might you take steps to realign parts of your life with what God wants?
  4. Conclude in prayer and journal about your experience, including what you resolve to do next. Check in with your companion on a regular basis to keep yourself on task.
(Image via Pixabay)

Book Review: Inspired by Rachel Held Evans

A book about the Bible by a memoirist may seem like an odd undertaking, but anyone who has loved the Bible as much as I, and who has lost it and found it again, knows how a relationship with the Bible can be as real and as complicated as a relationship with a family member or close friend. For better or worse, my story is inextricably tethered to the stories of Scripture, right down to my first name. Rather than attempting to rend the threads of my life from those of the sacred text, I hope to better understand their interconnectedness, and perhaps, to step back far enough to see a tapestry emerge. - Rachel Held Evans, Inspired

I clearly remember the time--the first time, that is--when my faith began to fall apart. I was in my second semester of college as a Religion major and was enrolled in several Biblical Studies courses that spring, including one that dealt heavily with the concept of the "historical Jesus," a scholarly attempt to get behind the faith claims of the Gospels and see what definite things one could say about the real life person who lived in 1st Century Galilee.

I had a much more conservative-minded approach to scripture in those days, and largely was able to brush off most of what I'd been reading and learning. I believed not only in the truth of the Bible, but that it presented factual accounts not just about Jesus but about other characters as well: Adam and Eve, Abraham, Noah, Moses, Jonah, the Apostles, and so on.

But on one fateful Tuesday evening during Bible study, it all seemed to crumble down at once. The claims of my classroom studies were causing more and more friction with the claims of the night's discussion, until finally near the end of our time together I thought to myself, "I don't know if I believe this any more."

The next few months--and really, the rest of my life so far--would feature a deep and abiding wrestling not just with the Bible's contents, but with what the Bible itself was to me. Is it a closed canon handed down and divinely dictated whole cloth for eternally-relevant application, or does its origins, gradual collection, authorial diversity of experience, and occasional historical, scientific, and literary dubiousness make it something still capable of communicating truth about God, life, and faith, yet in ways more nuanced than before?

This is one of the questions at the heart of Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again by Rachel Held Evans. Evans' journey has also been one of beginning steeped in a subculture that approached the Bible in a certain way, and when the questions and contradictions that came with her own study became too big to ignore, she began a transition to a different way of nurturing faith and discipleship and of reading the Bible.

Evans recounts this journey more thoroughly in her previous works, particularly Faith Unraveled, and in fact a read through that book may serve as a helpful background to some of what she shares here. But her self-identifying as a memoirist is appropriate, as she shares personal anecdotes in nearly every chapter to help flesh out some of her own experiences that led her to revisit her view of scripture and its meaning for her now.

However, her own story is far from the only element at work here. Evans pulls from a variety of trusted scholars both past and present. She was intentionally diverse in choosing the voices that helped inform her approach, pulling thoughts from thinkers such as Walter Brueggemann, William Barber, Peter Enns, Nyasha Junior, and Amy-Jill Levine, among many others, as she delves into the stories of the Bible and the stories behind the Bible.

Evans' basic approach is to separate the Bible into the unique genres that make up its pages, and her natural inclination toward telling, sharing, and examining stories provide the framework and lens through which she examines them. She looks at stories of origins such as the early chapters of Genesis, stories of liberation such as Exodus and some of the prophets, stories of war such as in Joshua, stories of wisdom such as Job and the Psalms, and stories of Jesus and the early church, among others. She treats each as part of an expression of a larger narrative the people behind its pages are trying to make sense of for themselves, but also connects those stories to modern life through her own experiences and parallels to contemporary events and issues.

As an additional aid to her overall presentation, each chapter is accompanied by a retelling of each scriptural portion, including first-person accounts from Hagar and the Samaritan woman at the well, a short play of Job and his friends, and the story of Peter stepping out of the boat to meet Jesus on the water cast as a Choose Your Own Adventure story. These are often cleverly done and help set the stage for the analysis to come. Evans' writing has always had a certain light touch even when exploring serious issues, and these preludes help present the scholarship to follow in accessible ways that many readers will appreciate.

Evans' awareness of how difficult questions related to the Bible can be serves her very well, and many will benefit from her sensitivity, her attentiveness to scholarship, and her ability to connect it to present-day experience. Whether one is nearing their own Tuesday evening crisis of faith or just wants to make better sense of how this strange collection of stories relates to a modern understanding of faith, Inspired provides an easy on-ramp to that conversation.

Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again releases on June 12, 2018.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)

I'm on Pulpit Fiction This Week

I have contributed the "Voice in the Wilderness" segment to this week's edition of the Pulpit Fiction podcast, which takes a look at the Revised Common Lectionary texts each week leading to the coming Sunday.

This time around, my assignment was 1 John 5:9-13. You can listen at their website or on iTunes.

Thanks to the guys for another chance to contribute.

Small Sips Won't Fit In the Box

Does belonging matter? Jan Edmiston asks whether belonging to a faith community makes any kind of a difference any more:
Some people join churches to gain a wedding/baptism/funeral venue. And some join because it eases entry into a good preschool. Or maybe we actually join in hopes of truly belonging to a community of people who love us no matter what and who remind us that God loves us no matter what.  
Loneliness is a killer. John Cacioppo, who died last month, studied the effects of loneliness and said, “Chronic loneliness increases the odds of an early death by 20 percent which is about the same effect as obesity, though obesity does not make you as miserable as loneliness.” I often ask congregations, “What breaks God’s heart in your neighborhood?” and more than one church has answered with one word: isolation.  
We are an isolated people in terms of truly belonging. Although we might have hundreds of social media friends, how many of us have 3 people we could call in the middle of the night to come over because we are a wreck?
This question isn't unique to churches by any means, but in an age where people are either looking for a particular kind of church experience that caters to individual needs and comforts or insisting they don't need church participation at all, it bears reflecting on what is beneficial about belonging.

Among such benefits are mutual encouragement and learning regarding faith-related things, but as noted above there are also sociological benefits. We're not as connected as we used to be, to our own detriment. The church, insofar as it is intentional about community building, can be one such place of connection that nurtures our emotional health as well as our spiritual health.

For example. Aaron Smith grieves not being part of a church any more. But he has good reasons for leaving, too:
I find myself in the process of grieving church these days. These days, the wound has been reopened, and the flood of emotions is back. I miss church. I’m angry at the church. I’m depressed at the lack of church community I have in life. I accept that things will never be the same again. I grieve over the church and the life, maybe even the faith I once had.  
Sometimes I think I can bargain, can find a way to go back to the way things were. I imagine leading worship again, delivering sermons, expounding on scripture. Then reality comes crashing into my daydream with another sex scandal, abuse accusation, and always the manifestation of marginalizing. As long as people that I love aren’t allowed to sit with me in the pews without judgment over their identity, gender, sexual orientation, and life choices, there will be a thorn in my side that prevents me from becoming rooted again. I grieve this.  
I grieve what we have done to people, how the abusers are welcomed back to the pulpit with open arms while the victim, the survivor is pushed to the side and told that they must forgive. In other words, they must act like it never happened. Is it a wonder the abused and tattered don’t stay? When we force them to live in “harmony” with their abusers (who still hold power and authority), we force them to acknowledge that their pain doesn’t really matter to us.  
I grieve.
Along with the many people who have left churches in the name of some form of individualism, there are many who have left because they wanted connection to community, but actions and attitudes both conscious and unconscious told them they couldn't belong. That indeed is something to grieve.

Speaking more of connection. David Lindsey analyzes what kind of difference the United Church of Christ makes:
As a pastor in the United Church of Christ, I believe that the UCC makes a real difference in the world. But what difference, exactly, is that? And how do I (or any of us) know that?  
For nonprofits (including the church), one way to describe the difference that you make comes from statistics. And last month, congregations across the UCC shared some basic statistics with the wider denomination. Our churches filled out annual reports about average attendance for worship last year, how many new members we received, how many children participated in faith formation, what our income and expenses were, etc.  
This exercise is common to most denominations, but it’s capacity to give meaningful information about the health of a church or a denomination has been questioned in recent years. In 2010, Stephen Sterner, former Executive for the UCC’s Local Church Ministries, said, “We’re not looking at church membership as much as we used to as an indicator of vitality.” Pastor Carey Nieuwhof writes, “Having been in church leadership most of my adult life, tracking numbers has done a number on me too, both positively and negatively.” More recently, the UCC’s Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi published an article based on extensive research which revealed that size, growth, and numbers do not equal church vitality.  
Are categories like “attendance” and “income” the right things to be counting? In addition to these categories, might the wider church also want to count numbers related to mission activities (e.g. how many meals did your church serve at a local homeless shelter last year)? And is counting this stuff even the best way to assess what difference the UCC (or any denomination) makes?
This question and approach has been around for quite a while. There are other ways to measure vitality of a church besides attendance and money. Pastor and church consultant Michael Piazza also favors this approach, suggesting that churches measure out the cost and hours and human energy invested into things like Christian education programs and service projects to help people see how far stewardship can go. Asking this at denominational levels can help us see the effectiveness (or non-effectiveness) of attempts to connect and resource entire congregations as well.

Yep. David Hayward, aka the "Naked Pastor," shares this cartoon. It's not an original idea, but that it still needs to be said shows that the idea is still warranted.

Misc. At McSweeney's, Wendi Aarons is going to close a business deal using words she's heard corporate dudes in airports yell into their phones. Timothy Brown has his own take on what is causing clergy shortages. Amy Frykholm on how pastors are healthier than we've been led to believe. Juhem Navarro-Rivera on the "Nones" helping cause the decline in white evangelical demographics.

(Top image via PxHere)