Category Archives: Popular Culture

You Speak English So Well

Person A says to Person B – “You speak English so well.”

This sentence and what it communicates can be very different depending on A and B. In other words (Marshall McLuhan), “the medium is the message”.

If Person A is an exchange student learning English from an American voice actor, person B. Then the statement comes off with a true air of respect. The statement acknowledges the command of the language and the speaker’s ability to enunciate and form the various sounds of the English language with such fluidity and competence. It is an affirmation.

If A is a native speaker saying this to B, a student of the English language, it could be a recognition of the hard work that goes into learning English not just as written, but spoken language. It acknowledges  English is a difficult language to learn and that B speaks it very well – as a student? relative to a native speaker? compared to other students? as opposed to another language? You speak English better than I had expected? OK, there is some ambiguity here.

If A is a White American and B is a Asian American, then what does that communicate? Well, it could be that A assumed that B was not a native speaker. Or that A knew something about B that would beforehand that would have indicated  B perhaps had a problem that would inhibit an ability to speak English well. And I suppose with the various waves of immigration to this country, it is probably not so easy to discern an Asian from an Asian American. How would you know visually someone should or would speak English well? This is where the intent and purpose of the statement cannot help but be lost.

But the statement, again depending on who the speakers are, can convey an expectation that wasn’t met, even if pleasant. And that statement divulges something about the way we look at each other. And in some cases and in some uses, it shows how we look down or up to one another.

What about this one – Wow. You’re really good at basketball!

That’s the one Jeremy Lin is facing right now. The first Asian American in 60 years to play in the NBA is getting some major minutes while playing for the New York Knicks. And the surprise here, again, while pleasant, belies that sense of dismissal and what Tim Dalrymple reprises as “The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations.” The opening line of Dalrymple’s wonderful post, “Sometimes compliments are the worst insults.”

This is what gives people who challenge the stereotypes and media projections a chip on their shoulder. It’s what makes tokens tired and women resentful.

Here’s a lesson: Don’t assume the stereotype – Question it first. Remember that some compliments reveal that you think of yourself as the judge, not just an observer or participant.

What are We Really Fighting For?

In the popular hype of MMA fighting, crowds cheering and roaring over the cage fights in an octagon echo the days of the gladiatorial fights in the sand arenas.  The craze of seeing two people battle it out has not waned over the centuries.  What are the combatants fighting for?  Beyond the brutality and violence, what is the ultimate triumph the fighters are aiming for?  The trophy?  The money?  Fame?  Personal accomplishment?  I think what men fight for in the octagon is a metaphor of what we fight for in society.  Why we fight says a lot about who we are.  What do we fight for?

One of the films I enjoyed most last year was “Warrior,” a film that didn’t get a whole lot of attention but had a deep, moving story with incredible acting.  It depicts a crucial dynamic of relationships in our society that stems from the condition of our souls.  Why do we fight?  If we can uncover the answer to this question, it illuminates much of why relationships are the way they are and what our souls are really searching for.  I think the film illustrated the important factor that what people are fighting for is not always apparent.  Sometimes the fighters don’t even realize what they’re really fighting for.  But they fight.  And we fight.

Here comes the slight bit of spoiler, just to warn you in case you want to stop reading here.  The story showed that what we are often fighting for is forgiveness.  In all our hard bouts with people, self and society, forgiveness is the unseen prize that we’re trying to get to and often times don’t realize that is what we’re actually fighting for.  In the surprising and revealing twist of the film, we find that the end of the fight is about achieving reconciliation that can only come by forgiveness and letting go of the anger.  But forgiveness rarely ever comes easy for anyone.  And that’s why we have to fight to forgive.  The deeper the hurt and anger, the tougher the fight.  The external fights we face in life represents the internal fights in our souls.  We’re fighting to be free from our anger, hate and grudges.  We’re fighting our way to forgiveness that manifests in reconciliation.  The true and genuine Warrior then is the one who gets to a place where he or she no longer needs to keep fighting.  When forgiveness is achieved, the fight is done.  The Warrior has won.

How Do You Get Out of the Matrix?

The Matrix, particularly the first film of the trilogy, is one of my all-time favorite movies. It admittedly has all the ingredients of a great “guy” movie: martial arts, fantasy, incredible special effects, and lots and lots of guns. But more than your typical action film, it has really great dimensions of unique cinematography, legit fight choreography and wirework (straight out of the Hong Kong tradition), and a depth of philosophy that a grad student can really appreciate. The Wachowski brothers, producers and directors of the film trilogy, were steeped in philosophy before writing the film. And let me just say that the notion of the Matrix is real – meaning that it wasn’t just a great storyline, being born into chambers where we are fed intravenously and connected to the matrix of a false reality, when in fact our life force is powering an empire of robots which continue to mine the world for new power sources.

Liberation is two-part: one is an actual unplugging from the Matrix, a physical freedom from the chamber that we were born into and departure from the source of the false reality that has been pacifying us with meaning and “experience”. The second liberation is not just a matter of unplugging from the system – it’s a mental re-orientation about “the real”, what is truly “real.”

Christians found the metaphor meaningful and relevant for obvious reasons. Jesus is the original Neo. Society is the Matrix. Agent Smith is the Devil. You get the picture.

But there are some problems that I don’t think we’ve really thought about in applying this metaphor in our Christian witness. One problem is that the church, as an institution, has often been complicit in the work of the Matrix. You can really see it with missional language that uncovers a rather stagnant congregation. We were never really subversive or prophetic to the culture at large; we are in some ways, more concerned with profits than prophets. I think there is a growing consciousness that is helpful in critiquing the church’s lack of initiative in the face of the Matrix now. Second, I don’t think we’ve understood the act of liberation as a physical and mental re-orientation. We assume that the verbal message of the gospel is enough for people to grasp, but the mental, cognitive understanding doesn’t necessarily free them from the physical connection to the Matrix. It is both a physical unplugging and a mental change of orientation to the Matrix. Then, whenever we plug ourselves back into the Matrix, we need to understand the difference the reality that we construct and bend, and what is still “the real.”

Virtual reconciliation is not reconciliation. Compassion and justice is also incomplete by themselves. But so too is it problematic when people claim to live free from the Matrix, but don’t know how to re-engage. It’s a much more complicated task then it appears. It’s much more complicated than a red or blue pill. This is what we all have a hard time describing as Christians. We know that Pentecostals are on to something, but they’re kind of crazy, aren’t they? We love the power of the truth in the new Reformed movements and the adherence to a pure Gospel, but they also seem limited in their ability to speak outside their context. And we know that the new contemplatives and mystics strike a chord with our hearts as well, but we just don’t know how to separate ourselves from our “real” lives, right?

My friends, the work of reconciliation is one of the ways we bring in “the real”. We know there’s something wrong, something missing and that’s where it begins. Your discontent proves that there’s something else out there.

“You Isn’t Kind. You isn’t Smart. You Isn’t Important.”

The title is the inverse of a line from the movie, The Help. “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” These are the words spoken to the child cared for by an African American nanny, the last words even. Perhaps the most memorable words of the film, it instilled the question in my mind that perhaps this child would turn out to be kinder, smarter, and more important than her parents. Self-esteem is so important after all in a young child’s life. If the roles were reversed, reconciliation would have to start with self-esteem, right?

Recently, I was reading the books, Brain Rules for Babies and Nurture Shock, to get a better handle on this parenting thing. And both books spend a chapter or more each debunking the notion that telling a child that he or she is “smart” actually helps them perform better. Research shows that while telling children they are smart so that they feel better about themselves may feel intuitively right, but it actually may not help them learn. Children who were told they were smart actually makes them hesitant to do anything to disprove their existing “smartness” and thus, they don’t put in the requisite effort to learn.

On the other hand, when children were told, “You must have put a lot of work into that” at something the child had done, the child not only associated the result with effort, they were willing to put effort in other projects as well. And thus, learning became related to effort and being smart was a result of that effort put forth, rather than being a pedestal from which to fall.

What on earth does this have to do with reconciliation?

I wonder if it is more helpful to be heavy handed with critique regarding race, gender, class or whatever when I should probably be more focused on the effort we put in; and I also wonder what it means for us to understand our identities as simply “beloved” or “saved” as those feel like titles from which we can fall and not aspire. I understand the theological caution of not bringing back a works-based righteousness, but also want to say that Christians, particularly of the Evangelical stripe, aren’t known for our effort and action towards the reconciling of the world. Rather, we can exhibit the complacency and the fear associated with the static posture of the “saved” or if you will, the “kind, smart, and important.” Ah, and of course, for the true answer, I will definitely need some true “Help.”

What is the Relationship Between Sexuality and Spirituality?

Historically, Christians have an inherent tension with sexuality. Jesus wasn’t married, nor was Paul. And the Gospel writers are pretty silent on the topic. If you take that into the medieval monastic scholarship, the absence of the mention of sexuality leads to a prohibition of sorts. Just like certain orders prohibited laughter because while there is a mention of Jesus weeping in Scripture, there is none of him laughing. The thought process was that if it were mentioned at all, it was permissible. Anything unmentioned, we probably shouldn’t do. But the problem with applying that with sexuality is that if we don’t do that, we don’t really make it past one generation.

And so we behave strangely with regards that which is arguably most human, most carnal. Even when those of us ideologues know that gnosticism is a heresy, we don’t know how to fully engage a theology of incarnation when sexuality is such a bomb. And where we fear to tread, the world learns to dance and enjoys themselves. How then shall we live?

How would you answer this man’s question?

And if you don’t like Portuguese accents, here’s a transcription:

Sexuality and Spirituality. Why sexuality is a taboo for most religions? Why should we repress something that was given by God to us in the name of, we don’t know why? Our conversation this week is about how do you exercise your sexuality in a sacred way, and also to understand why society and religion tends to repress this important part of our lives.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

Is it just a matter of repression? Can the church speak about sexuality in a healthy way?

Here’s a video of someone who was raised Christian, but as she grows into her mid-20’s is starting to re-evaluate her faith in part because of the “allergic reaction” (my words, not hers) she observed and remembers from her Christian background. Now if you watch the video, you can really hear her honesty come through. You can criticize her for being young and naive and whatever. But let’s also listen carefully – what I admire about this young woman is the fact that she wants to “do her own math”, work out the problem herself. She doesn’t want to just look at the answer in the back of the book regarding sexuality, but my point is that she’s also not looking IN the book either. So how can Christians discuss sexuality in a way that is healthy and not phobic; authentic without being cliche; with gravitas and faithfulness?

We cannot simply be a people of the “no” when it comes to discussing matters of sexuality, we must be people who first wrestle with our idealism about sex, sexiness, intimacy, and purity. Our abstinence in the dialogue will not lead to sexual abstinence. Only our confession and our engagement will bring about what we want. And to point out the plank in our own eyes would be to look at the rate of divorce and sexual addiction among Christians, we have to get healthy enough and strong enough to have this discussion.


Looking In On Post-Blackness

Alvin reviewed Toure’s work on Post-Blackness recently. In short, the defining of Black America is no longer bound by traditional Black institutions and voices, the notion of FUBU is now expansive beyond a clothing line – meaning that Black identity is now in the rarified air of being malleable, ambiguous, and now free from the trappings of groupthink.

While I think that might spell some concern for Black churches, it’s probably a good thing as let’s be honest, White churches have been feeling some pressure recently as well — whether that be to be more diverse or more missional, sooner or later, Black churches are going to ask themselves interesting questions about what it means to worship as a church even as the emerging Post-Black generation begins to find they are somewhere between Black and White churches. Hopefully, we’ll get there.

As usual, the gap between here and there is first occupied by those individuals who can point out the absurdity of a static identity. By absurdity, I don’t mean hilarity, but the awkwardness and the lack of self-reflection in the process.

This next YouTube video is from The Oreo Experience where she answers the question, “Why I don’t date Black guys.” The video has garnered almost 300,000 views and over 7,000 comments. As a self-described “total whitey in a black chick’s body” Oreo Experience is a caricature that is more common than ever. The Asian equivalent is a Twinkie. I don’t know what the Latino analog would be. And I know that sometimes the identity is reciprocated from White people, because the endearing terms, “White Chocolate” and “Egg” exist as well. But these terms used to have an edge to them. Now, they’re mostly thought of as sweet, minus the egg.But what do you think? Post-blackness?

And this one is just as interesting, The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl [explicit language] by Issa Rae, a YouTube show that is really unique in its portrayal of well, the awkwardness. And that’s the opposite of being Black and proud, right? Or at least that broadens our palette that you could be Black and anything. Here’s a short peek:

One Day Every Knee Shall “Tebow”…

Merry Belated Christmas everyone!

Alright, you all already know that I can “hate” on stuff. But hear me out, I think I have a case to make.

Tim Tebow is a great leader, believer, and athlete. He’s a peculiar quarterback, but what I’m interested in is not who he is as a person or player, but Tebow as an aesthetic, a symbol. Not just as an Internet meme of “tebowing”, but in terms of representation.

I have long joked that football is America’s true religion and that our stadiums are houses of true worship on Sunday. Football fans inspire more passion, loyalty, excitement, and commentary than anything else that happens on a Sunday. The crowds are more diverse in age, ethnicity and race, and class than any church I’ve ever stepped foot in. And while I enjoy watching a good football game, I consider myself an agnostic when it comes to the American religion of the gridiron.

And while many professional athletes would claim Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, here comes this young man who puts his faith right on his sleeve, is not afraid to be mic’ed up during the game, and openly professes his belief in interviews. In the civil religion of football, Tebow honors a higher notion of God. Sure, he thanks God when he throws a touchdown pass, but he sings “Our God is an Awesome God” just before kickoff too. It’s rather unusual and therefore exciting. Here’s a Youtube clip of Tebow mic’ed up:

It’s attracting quite a bit of attention and this past weekend, Bill Maher, well-known atheist and political comedian took a jab on twitter (explicit language) after Tebow’s poor Xmas eve performance.  And of course SNL mocked Tebow’s zeal with this sketch:
What do you make of Tebow’s effective witness as a Christian?

I know fans will cite his integrity, his courage, and his wholesomeness. All great qualities. Even his critics have taken a tone of respect when it comes to understanding that Tebow is all about winning. But what does it mean for us to flaunt our faith? What is at stake?

Well, if we can learn anything from high-profile pastors, the first thing is: don’t screw up. There will be vultures waiting to pick at your every bit of flesh. Second, you must be excellent. As the critics point out, Tebow has flaws as an athlete and while he has shown an extraordinary capacity for hope and optimism going into 4th quarters, he will have to continue to show progress and win in order to be relevant at that stage. But here’s the irony…the irony is that when it comes to Christianity in America, I think Tebow’s effect will be miniscule.

Here’s why: Tebow functions within the rubric of American conservatism as much as he does being a Christ follower. And when you mix politics or sports with faith, what you get is politics or sports. Unless his faith informs either — which it doesn’t (sorry, tebowing doesn’t count), it will be relegated. His “legacy” remains compartmentalized to that sphere of evangelicalism. And while he attracts a great deal of attention from mass media, Tebow remains a known quantity in the eyes of skeptics. In other words, while he might keep some defensive coordinators guessing whether he will run or throw, social commentators know his script once he’s off the field. Tebow doesn’t subvert any sense of “Christian” in anyone’s mind, and while his outspokenness may serve as an inspiration to evangelical kids that they could play (and pray) in the NFL as well as any pagan, the real problem is that his Christian faith needs to inform him to advocate for more than things which would be on a conservative political agenda.

If Tebow began to speak up for immigration reform or even dropped a line about how feels Christians can be “straight but not narrow” then we would see a far more interesting person who might put a wrinkle in what non-Christians think of Christians. Or what if instead he began to decry the profits of the NFL for not giving back enough to their communities? What if he began to call out churches for not being as welcoming as the game of football? Of course, this would mean evangelicals would find him reproachable, but what is the point of a platform to begin with? Is it to guard the evangelical talking points? or to extend the witness and challenge of the gospel to those who would never enter into the doors of a church to begin with? If every knee will one day bow, why just seek to please the ones who already know how?

#OWS Now in Color!

Occupy Wall Street just got a taste of Colored People Time!

100 days after the movement started, Black churches just announced joining the Occupy Movement, calling it, “Occupy the Dream.” Over “1,000 concerned African American clergy, business owners, entertainers, and professional athletes have signed on to Occupy the Dream, the title of which referring back to MLK’s speech. So, does it take almost 3 months for this to become a priority for Blacks in America? Or do we just like to arrive casually late to the party?

While it’s true that I thought Occupy Wall Street was characterized by a predominantly White crowd, with the lowest poverty rates of any racial demographic, this is a welcome surprise. African American Christians do need to know that economic justice is not a complete justice. You can occupy all you want, but you do have to make sure  not to sell your soul to pay the bills.

So honestly, I’m just a little curious as to why now? Is there are game now? What is the full meaning if OWS begins to have diverse representation in its protesting body? And what does it mean that it’s the black church and not “other” churches? Do you think this will spread?

Help Me

I know I’m late to the party, but here are my thoughts on The Help.   For full disclosure you should know that typically movies like this make my skin crawl.  Hollywood has a tired formula of creating movies in which poor, pitiful black folk are “rescued” by good meaning white folk (Blind Side, Radio).  Drives me nuts!  One of the things I loved about Remember the Titans is for once they put the main black character in a position of authority and courageous leadership.

Anyways my wife and daughter both loved the book so their word is good enough for me.   I did see a lot of the tired Hollywood formula, however I did like the display of one authentic truth:  The most effective way to cross racial barriers is life experience.   When people take the time to truly get to know one another as humans it has a powerful effect.   However the other thing that drives me nuts is evangelicals then take this truth and set up an either/or proposition when it comes to race and faith.

Besides viewing race through an idealistic lens they also have tendency to immediately bring it down to the level of individualism, inadvertently giving a pass on societal sins.   The pattern goes something like this:  we can overcome the intentional, debilitating  societal affects of racialization by merely being good buddies or acquaintances.  You can find exhibit A in this blogpost.   In it Natasha Robinson says “The new movie demonstrates that racial reconciliation happens not primarily through speeches and diversity training but through everyday friendships.”

Sistah I hear ya and I am sure you mean well, but no need to set up either or scenarios concerning reconciliation in my opinion.  How about friendships and speeches and diversity trainings, along with other things that actively interrupt racism on both the individual and the institutional level?   After all wasn’t the entire background of The Help about how these women were trapped by their race and gender because of racialization?  That is the context of how the friendships develop.

I am sure they appreciated having some white friends, but the thing that moved them closer to having some options in life besides just being the help was what came out of the friendships, which was Skeeter writing the book and telling their story as an attempt to interrupt the stifling institutional racism of Mississippi.   More Christians need to follow this example, as you’re not truly my friend if you don’t do something to help improve the quality of my life.

Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s most recent estimate predicts that this year, for the first time, American farmers will harvest more corn for ethanol than for feed. In Europe some 50% of the rapeseed crop is going into biofuel production, according to Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe, while “world-wide about 18% of sugar is being used for biofuel today.
An excerpt from the WSJ article “Can the World Still Feed Itself?”  about the concern that in a starving world more and more food is being produced for energy instead of food production.  For us in the west it means we pay a little more for Corn Flakes.  But in other parts of the world the quality of life is dramatically affected.  Many forget the “Arab Spring” started as a food protest.   Let’s pray that the correlation between the energy and food markets does not get more skewed as that will go a long way to keeping the peace throughout the world.