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Care and Keeping of the Snark

Someone asked me on Twitter yesterday what the virtue of snark was. I’m not sure what the basis of this question was–there’s been a great amount to snark at recently: the Oscars, the papal election, Lent Madness, and ever-present politics. And just to read Twitter or any Internet outlet is to immerse yourself in the waters of Snark.

But I’ve been pondering the role of snark as of late, and here’s what I’ve come up with. (Expanded greatly from 140 characters.)

Snark: (def) the art of mocking the powerful, the strong, the mighty, and Ideally, also any institution with power, of which you are associated, or a member.

Snark, like the Magnificat, can cast down the mighty and lift up the lowly. It is a way of calling to account something or some one which is acting hypocritically and out of step with its authentic self.

True snark, good snark, always comes from a place of love. Snark is not cynical. Because it’s tough to work up a head of steam to mock something you don’t care about.

And snark never punches down. To wit: people who practice good snark always either mock things they themselves do, or are, or things imbued with more power than they. (Herein lies the distinction between plain denigrating and snarking. And I do think there is a distinction.)

And I have this theory that the current prevalence of snarkiness comes from two places:

1. Snark is a filter. When you can make a joke about something, you are communicating that a.) you understand it on a deeper-than-superficial level and b.) you understand that the phenomenon cannot be taken just at face value.
This is why I agree with those (like genius smart-person Meredith Gould) who say that snark is a generational marker. For those of us who have grown up on the Information Superhighway, information overload is a way of life. You grow up in a world where you are plugged in to every event, every moment of every day. Not only does your phone tell you instantaneously every move Kim Kardashian makes, you also get to know what every news analyst thinks about said development. Brave New World, folks.
So to filter out what to take at face value, what to trust, and what you can’t trust (I.e., most things) snark has become a fall back. It’s a shibboleth, a password indicating that we recognize that we’re watching a performance, an agenda of some sort. So the primary targets of snark are those who somehow aren’t being authentic– the powerful of all stripes: celebrities, politicians, the news, poseurs….and in many cases, the Church. (We should work on this. Separate blog post.)
So for this reason, young people today are highly snarky. Not out of disrespect, but because it helps filter the world.

2. But also, snark creates intellectual distance. I said before that I don’t think snark is cynical, for the most part. Call me crazy (I’ll wait….) but snark actually forestalls cynicism. YES! It’s true.
I shall give an example:
This year, the Oscars made some confounding directorial decisions (hiring Seth McFarland to host was but one of their many missteps). At one point, Quentin Tarantino won an Oscar for Best Screenplay for “Django Unchained.” Which: awesome! I really liked that movie, and the script was brilliant. I could write a dozen treatises on race relations in that movie, and his use of soundtrack alone.
But they played him off to what song?

“Tara’s Theme,” from Gone with the Wind.

Jesus God.

Now, I could take to this here blog, and write a thesis on race relations in Hollywood, and the travesty behind the making of GWTW, and how it simultaneously was a step forward and like, 3 back for Black Hollywood, and how Hattie McDaniels wasn’t even allowed to attend the premiere, and she couldn’t even write her own Oscar acceptance speech, and how that movie came to crystalize EVERYTHING that we believe, falsely, the antebellum slavery experience to be, which is why, in part, movies like Django are so needed, and so controversial when they do come out, and really, did they REALLY want to dredge all of that up again and undermine his award with a song clip in a mere 30 seconds, and MAKE MY HEAD EXPLODE WITH IRONY?!?!.

But then, I’d sound like a ranting lunatic.
So I posted something VERY snarky on Twitter. (And man, did it ever get retweeted.)

You can’t fight all the battles, with a serious memo and letter to the editor. You cannot lead a marching protest every single time some company doesn’t live up to their promises. You can’t call out all the craziness, or the irony, or the hypocrisy, and it piles up and piles up, especially right now. You can’t. It will suck all the fire out of you, and you will end up rocking gently back and forth in the corner, singing “I’m a Little Teapot.”

In order to fight some of the battles, and fight them well, you have to learn to preserve your fire, and your drive, and to do that, you have to keep some distance. Make some jokes. Mock

The gospel according to Nike

In the these two weeks, I will have gone all over the state of Arizona, on the never-ending Begging Tour of 2013 (theme: “Don’t let college students be homeless!”)
Sunday, I was in Prescott, where I’ve been before, many times. St Luke’s is a lovely parish, gorgeous campus, right by the airport. This prompted my board president to offer to buzz the church in his plane, and drop brochures from 5,000 feet. (“It would be different!”)

Here’s what I said.

Note: some of this was partially inspired by what Nouwen wrote on the use of power, but I went in a different direction, and spun it very differently– at least differently from the way I’ve heard Nouwen’s on Christian Leadership interpreted.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan
February 17, 2013
Lent 1, Year C
Luke 4:1-13

Nike is very good at marketing. These ads that Nike makes, they are iconic. Usually a close up on the athete’s face with their voice playing in the background, talking about their triumph over adversity, and their achievement of some great sports goal. And it works because Nike is good at picking the best athletes of their day: people like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Mark McGuire. We get to watch these ads and think about how perfect and magical these people are, and thus, how probably Nike products helped make them that way, so we should probably buy Nike things. These are really effective ads.

Or they are, right up until the athlete in question gets caught doing something that they shouldn’t, and the ad becomes really uncomfortable to watch. Like Lance Armstrong–whose Nike ad had him talking about how the only ‘thing’ he was on was his bike! And lots of hard work! And that’s why he was the best! Til of course, it turned out that he was on a heck of a lot more than that.

Or, this week, when Oscar Pistorius, the South African runner, who was arrested for murder after shooting his girlfriend. His Nike VoiceOver included him saying “I’m a bullet in a loaded gun.” Whoops.

The thing that make these ads so powerful is the same thing that makes them so problematic–each of them constructs a single arc out of the superstar athlete’s life. They struggle, they overcome, they win, and all through lots of determination and will (and really super-expensive running shoes), but it’s all them. It’s all Lance Armstrong, and it’s all Michael Jordan, or it’s all Tiger Woods. There’s no mention of anyone else coaching, or any teammates, or a random caddy. It’s all about them.

What an extraordinary amount of power for one person to have.

No wonder they keep falling short of what we expect them to be.

Power is a difficult thing for us humans to deal with– those of us who have a little and those of us who have a lot. And all of us have some power. You get up in the morning, you decide to get out of bed– that’s power. You decide what to eat for breakfast, or not to eat breakfast at all– power again. Anytime you make a decision, you’re exercising some amount of power. Now, sometimes, the spectrum of the decision is wider than at other times; when I leave here this afternoon, and I decide where to eat lunch, I will decide between local restaurants, and not decide to fly to California. My power does not extend that far. But for some, it does.

And power is complicated, because these decisions we make come with consequences. They ripple out, Iike throwing a rock into a pond, in ways big and small. So the power we wield is never just affecting us; it always affects the people around us too.

And that’s what makes power difficult and oh so tempting. You can use the power you have to just make your life easier, better, less complicated. If you’re a world-famous cyclist, yes, you can take performance enhancing drugs and win all the races, and avoid the shame of losing. But that decision, each decision will affect more people than just yourself, all the coaches, the other competitors, the people who looked up to you, the charities. When Lance Armstrong fell, it nearly killed his cancer charity too. And see, we forget all that, when we get tempted by the dark side of power. All we see are the benefits to ourselves.

That’s what the devil is on about when he’s tempting Jesus in the wilderness. The devil shows up as Jesus is fasting out in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights, which is biblespeak for “he was out there a good long while”. So poor Jesus is in quite a state by the time the devil shows up.

In succession, the devil gives Jesus three very tempting opportunities to use his considerable power. First, he asks him to magic up some food for himself. Failing that, he wants Jesus to worship the devil and thus get all the glory and authority over all the nations for himself. When that doesn’t work, he suggests that Jesus throw himself off of the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem, and make God send his angels to catch him.

Jesus doesn’t give in to any of these. But what’s notable about these temptations of the devil is that they’re all about the use of power. They’re all about choice.

Jesus will do miracles multiplying bread– this is something he has no objection to doing, but he won’t do it here, even though he’s hungry, because it’s for himself alone. It’s using his power to fulfill his own needs alone.

He’s clearly fine with crowds listening to him preach and coming to him for healing and waving palms for him, that’s something we see from him later on– but again, he won’t accept glory and honor here, because it would be for himself alone.

And we will even see him walk on water later, rather than climb into the boat with the disciples. But here, he doesn’t elect to jump off the temple, because it would be choosing to use who he was, all his power, for its own sake.

In each case, when the devil asks Jesus to make a choice to use the power he has for himself, Jesus says no. Jesus chooses to use his power differently, radically differently. He could have, but he didn’t.

At every point in his life, Jesus chose to use his power not for himself, but he chose to use his power for others. And in fact, right after he leaves the wilderness, Jesus heads to Nazareth and announces just how he intends to lead his life. “The Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, sight to the blind, release to the captives, to declare the day of the Lord’s favor.”

For the rest of his life, Jesus would use all the power he had only, ONLY, in the service of others, and not for his own needs alone.

And so God calls us. Because we all have power too. And we are all called to use it– did you notice that at no point during that Scriptural shouting match in the desert did Jesus just say to Satan “well, I just can’t do that.” We all have power, to some degree. The question is, how will we use it?

What choices will we make? Will we make choices guided primarily by our own needs, by what serves us best, unconcerned about what the consequences are for others? But from the Garden of Eden on, making choices based on selfishness has never ended well.

Or will we follow Jesus’s example, and use our power to serve others, and build them up? Will we be mindful of how the choice we make today ripples out and affects those who surround us and those who come after us?

God has enabled each one of us with gifts and talents and then God has empowered us with the power to choose. We can choose what we do with what we have been so freely given.
Will we be tempted to live for ourselves alone, even when we know the destruction that ultimately causes?

Or will we follow in the path of Jesus, and try to use what we have, every choice we make, to the glory of God and for the good of God’s creation?

This power is ours. The choice is ours. God gives it to us. The only question is, what will we do with it?

Amen.

Guns and Christianity, Part 2: Some trust in chariots, some in assault weapons

Part 2: Some Trust in Chariots, Some in Horses, Some in Semi-Automatics.

Right now, there is approximately 1 gun to every man, woman and child in America. That is an astounding number. We are a remarkably well-armed nation.*
That’s especially impressive/confusing when you consider that we are also the richest nation in the world. We have the best trained military and police force in the world. We have roads, bridges and sewers. We have telephones and an emergency response service. Our police force is civilian-based, and not known worldwide for corruption, nor is our justice system. We haven’t been invaded in quite a while, nor have we had a recent civil war.
In fact, we haven’t had a military action on our soil in quite a while, nor have we had a significant breakdown in infrastructure that led to widespread looting and chaos, and deployment of troops against civilians.
It is actually fairly boring here right now, civil unrest-wise; even the murder rate has been dropping for the past several years.

Also, according to many reputable sources, Red Dawn was made up.

And all of this leads to the question– when you buy a gun, when you buy an AR-15, the best selling weapon in the nation, that can shoot 6 rounds a second, what, precisely, are you afraid of? When you take a gun into a Starbucks, into a bar, into a church, into a school, when you insist that you need to keep guns around small children because that’s the only way they can be safe, what is it that are you afraid of?**

It is this question of fear that is theologically central. Because we are people who believe in God, a God who repeats over and over that there is one God, and no other, and believing in God means restricting yourself to that one particular god, and putting all your faith, trust, and eggs in that particular divine basket. (See Exodus 20:2, for starters). You don’t get to hedge your bets. You don’t get backups. Trust is trust.

When Moses is talking to God at the Red Sea, and sees the Egyptians approaching, he does not shrewdly arm the Israelites “just in case” the whole parting the Sea thing fails. He does not assemble them into a fighting force. (I doubt it would have worked, anyway.) He tells them “Do not be afraid. Stand firm, and see the deliverance of the Lord. For the Egyptians that you see today, you will never see again. The Lord your God will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.” (Exodus 14:13-14).
Trust! Don’t be afraid! God is with you, and God is enough.

When Jesus is sending forth the seventy apostles to preach, teach and heal, he doesn’t sugar-coat the danger to the volunteers. Many people won’t like you, he offers. You will annoy many whom you speak to. (Jesus! Unrecognized master of the understatement.) In fact, he continues, some of you will be dragged before courts and killed because of me. (Excellent at recruiting speeches, also, was Jesus.)
And so, for this journey, for this riskiest of ventures, you should pack…. nothing. No protection, no extra tunic, no additional money. No weapon. They are to preach to everyone, be kind to everyone, spread the gospel to everyone, and not to worry about those who won’t receive it, only wipe off their dust (Luke 9,10). Rely exclusively on the kindness of strangers, and the grace of God.

Trust in God. God is with you, and whatever happens, that is enough.

Again and again. Throughout the scriptures, this is what we hear. Trust in God and God alone, and that will be enough. Now, at no point is the danger of the world whitewashed either– the Bible is very violent, and lots of people die in lots of horrible ways. But over and over we hear that the best way, the only faithful way to deal with the unfathomable nature of this world, is to trust in God alone for ultimate security. And nothing else. (“He who lives by the sword” and all that.)

So it says something quite profound and disturbing about us if we, on the one hand, profess faith in the Christ who taught us to carry nothing on our journey, save a trust in the grace of God, and at the same time, function in the world as if nothing but a trusty gun will save us.

Either we trust in God or we don’t.

Either we have decided to live by the sword (and take the consequences thereof) or we have decided to trust in God.

And if we are people of faith, then we should put our living where our professing is.

* This according to gunpolicy.org, a nonpartisan site from the University of Australia. There are roughly 88.8 guns owned privately per 100 people in the US, as of 2007. Not counting military weapons. (According to all evidence, firearm sales skyrocketed in the years since 2007, so consider this ratio increased.)

**Related to this, but not, is the issue of the crisis of an increasingly insane definition of masculinity. And if you’ve seen the ads that Bushmaster ran to advertise the AR-15, you’ll understand. We need to have a discussion allowing men to be men, in ways that don’t revolve around violence, subjugation, and killing stuff. I’m not sure I feel called to take this on at the moment, but it’s a discussion that needs having.

Guns and Christianity, part 1

A day or two after the shootings in Newtown, Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention, was interviewed on NPR. Robert Siegel asked him, “What is the New Testament justification for owning a gun?”
There was a lengthy pause, and then, in the cadence of a question, Land replied, “Do unto others as you would have them do to you?” He went on to say that in his view, Christians had a duty to defend their neighbors from attacks, dealing out lethal force, if necessary. For this reason, owning guns was justified. The better to do unto others.

I’m going to set aside the fact that there are several holes in this theological framework. (Jesus, for one, rather glaring, example. And who, exactly are “the others” in that phrase, for another.)

Rather, it’s become clear to me that as the nation increasingly coalesces around the idea of controlling its supply of guns, we need some theology for this. Is there some theology we can construct around this, other than reciting lines from the West Wing? Because as people of faith who are not Richard Land, we need to give reasons for what we are doing.*

At least, I’d like to hammer out a theology behind this. So for my edification, I’ve written a multi-part theology of why we might want to have gun control in America. This is part 1. Part 2 will come later this week.

First, let’s start with the place of honor guns hold in America. One of the arguments that has been circulating for a while now is that guns are untouchable, because of culture! And History! Particularly in the South and in the West, and in places where people hunt, and places where there is lots of sport, and in places where are men… So that’s pretty much all of the US right there.

Guns are an important part of America, quoth this line of thought. Citizen militias are how we defeated the British, and how we won the frontier, and manifested our destiny all over the place. They are enshrined in the Constitution in their very own amendment. They represent our freedom as much as the flag. And for these reasons, even as we might want to restrict guns, it’s pointless! Because they are too ingrained.

Now, ignoring the really problematic reading of American, and judicial, history that crops up here, let’s attack this with theology.
Just because a thing is American, does not make it Christian. Just because a thing is in the Constitution, does not make it Christian. (In fact, the suggestion of very much of an overlap would probably make the Founders roll in their graves, deists as they mostly were.)
As an example, recall the Constitutional procedure for calculating the representation in the House as it originally was: “the whole number of free persons, plus those bound to service for a period of years, …and 3/5ths the number of all other persons.” (Article I, Section 2)

Now, just who do you suppose they were talking about, with that “all other persons” stuff? We enshrined slavery in the Constitution until after the Civil War. We enshrined male-only suffrage until the 1920s. Neither one of those things represents the values espoused by Jesus.

The Constitution remains a document in progress. This country and its culture, and the world itself, remain a work in progress, and hopefully God will give us enough sense so we can keep learning from our mistakes.

More importantly, though. As Christians, we’re called to live in the ” already/not yet”, as outposts of the reign of God. It’s a bad idea to enshrine any status quo as God’s reign arrived, because, unless I missed something major on Dec 21, Jesus hasn’t shown back up yet. It is perfectly all right to question the culture.

In fact, as resident aliens, that’s our job. We are supposed to question things, and kick the tires of this world a bit. We are supposed to recognize that this world is broken, and in a state of ongoing messy redemption. And our call is to see the messiness, the brokenness for what it is, and to try to help heal it as Christ’s hands in the world. Not just stamp everything with a cross and call it good.

Next time: In what do you trust, and why does it matter?

*Cribbed Sorkin dialogue works great in most, if not all, circumstances. But in this case, let’s face it, we need more.

Attack of the Spin

A few weeks ago, I attended the Donohoe Ecumenical Forum in Phoenix. This is a gathering held every year that is meant to get at some of the more controversial issues in Christianity, that aren’t normally addressed in ecumenical circles. (Normally, we have a great time talking about Mary with the Romans, and freedom and grace with the Lutherans, and never really get into the sticky stuff, for we do so love to place nice.) So a noble goal, from the Donohoe Forum.

This year’s speaker was David Kinnamon, from the Barna Institute, whom I had heard of before! (I thus awarded myself 10 points. I won another 25 on Megan’s Scale of Relevancy when I got there and realized I was one of 3 people there under the age of 55. This will become important.)

The Barna Institute has been engaged in polling young adults (judged here as 18-35 year olds) to determine how they see modern Christianity. The results of this, and Kinnamon’s analysis, are published in his book, entitled (spoiler alert) You Lost Me.

Essentially, it boils down to this– young adults (and from hearing him speak, he largely means evangelical Protestants here) have left the church, not because they have become atheists. They are leaving because they have questions that the churches they encounter either don’t answer, or answer without any satisfying nuance.

Dinosaurs! Gender equality! Same sex marriage! Dealing with divorce! The torrent of consumerism, marketing and advertising! Growing awareness of pluralism! A realistic ethical framework for sexuality when this generation isn’t getting married at age 19!

The old pat answers don’t work any more, and churches aren’t set up to allow the room for questioning or they don’t mirror the same complexity that exists in the rest of the world. So while young adults really (by huge percentages) like the teachings of Jesus, they find the church to be majorly out of step with its founder.

Basically, according to the research, young people do not find the church to be very Christ-like.

What was fascinating, and odd, to me, however, was listening to the conversation around these surveys.
Kinnamon comes out of an evangelical culture, which became evident the more he talked. (As a side note: I am not as AngloCatholic as some people, but I never feel quite so catholic when I am listening to evangelical Protestants speak. I suddenly want to whip out a rosary and ring the Angelus. It’s a problem.)
Anyway, Kinnamon used the analogy of Babylon, where the faithful were being purified by being set in the midst of a chaotic society that was not conducive to Godly faith, but the Jews persevered, and God made them stronger, and used them to convert the Babylonians.** He pointed out that the numbers reflect a deep divide in those who had left the church, especially around social issues like science:(global warming, evolution,) gay rights, and gender equality, and pluralism. Generally, the numbers showed, across the board, that those who left found the church way too closed on evolution, gay rights, and gender equality. Kinnamon gave the example of his friend (a pastor in a mega church) talking to his pre-teen daughter, who disclosed to him that she thought she might be called to the ministry, but if that were the case, then they’d have to switch churches, because women aren’t allowed to teach in theirs. Kinnamon laughed and said, “We have to do a better job of explaining our message so it’s more palatable.”

Hmm.
There is a fundamental difference between messaging, and truth. (Advertising has, yes, muddied the waters on this, but it does not change the fact.)

You can message all you want, but if you don’t allow women to teach men, eventually the word will get out. You can spin all you want, but if you are consistently anti-science, and squash reasoned debate and questioning, eventually the wheels will come off that wagon, too. You can come up with the nicest, sweetest advertising campaign in history, but if you preach against gay marriage than eventually that will come out. (Ha.)

The problem that the church at large is currently encountering is that, for a while now, we’ve allowed ourselves to act unChristlike at times. We got entranced with being powerful and popular, the stamp of approval for what was permitted in good society. It was fun! (I understand there was sherry.) But much of it wasn’t very Jesus-y.

But now, here comes a generation who has access to unfettered information, who has done its research, and has decided that they aren’t buying anything other than the real Thing. They would like to see Jesus, please, and they don’t care what Good People do, or what is Cool. (There is literally a whole lifestyle devoted to ignoring what is Cool.) They want Christ.

So our problem (and it’s been a while since we’ve had this particular one) is to be seen as more Christlike.

And no amount of spin, or better advertising, or messaging, or fancier churches will fix this. We can’t lead with any of that.

If we want to be seen as more JesusLike, then we actually have to act more JesusLike. We actually need to do it. We actually need to care and advocate for the sick and the poor. We actually need to take the Sermon on the Mount seriously. We actually need to act like every person and creature on earth is worth God’s saving and redeeming love in equal measure.

We can do this. We have the resources, the inner guidance, the attentiveness to the Spirit. Every so often, and without a lot of run-up, the greater Episcopal Church takes great, jerking steps in this direction, and it tends to throw the unaware pew-sitter into a panic.

But this problem won’t be solved by the larger church structures. It will be tackled only by the smaller groups– parishes, small groups, ministries, start-ups.

How can you, in your local context, become more Christlike?

**I am still on the fence about this analogy. Comparing our situation to being in the Babylonian captivity feels like introducing an element of serious oppression where none currently exists. The Jews didn’t slowly get absorbed into Babylonian society; they were invaded, conquered and pillaged. Jerusalem was sacked. A Lamentations acrostic was written, for God’s sake! None of that has happened to us. We are fine. (See also: Christmas, Fictitious War on)
I like better the analogy of Acts, and reclaiming the idea of being in the mission field again. And here’s my Anglo-Catholic showing, I have an ingrown aversion to adopting this evangelical dualism with regards to culture vs. Christendom. The incarnation abolished this dualism. God won, let’s move on, shall we?