Monthly Archives: July 2005

What Makes a Good Magazine Article?

Being a magazine lover, I’ve had a fair amount of opportunity to ponder this one, and have come up with the following key idea: the article should tell you information about the subject that you cannot find out yourself. It’s a simple principle, but a true one, I think. Part of the draw of Time, Newsweek, or even Sports Illustrated is that one learns new things in reading the articles of these publications. The magazine that simply repackages biographical information or, as is more common, tells the reader what’s so great about the subject, is falling short of the magazine’s task. I suppose that the “bravo instinct,” as one could call it, relates to magazine sales; one features a famous person in whatever area and then proceeds to tell people why they’re so great. But I think that it’s the opposite tendency in magazines that makes their reporting sharp. I love learning about the different sides of folks. If I want a puff piece, I can log onto a fansite or read People or watch “Oprah” or some such nonsense.

While we’re at it, a second component of a good magazine article: words. Does that strike you as a strange quality? It shouldn’t. Seems like today the conventional magazine wisdom says that it’s optimal to splash pictures across most pages and leave intelligent print to a minimum. I recall observing this with the Christian music magazine, CCM. I subscribed to the periodical because it gave me info about artists I couldn’t find on a webpage. Soon, however, I was dismayed (and no longer a subscriber) because the magazine adopted a picture-heavy format. The change was strange because a) the strength of Christian music is not in the beauty of its subjects but in the music itself, and b) I could read the whole mag in about an hour. That stunk. Conventional wisdom must always be questioned, and magazines ought always to strive for freshness and to stick what got them where they are: words.

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Personal Trainers, Strange Creation of the 20th Century

Has anyone stopped to think for a moment about the role of the personal trainer in today’s society? It’s a rather fascinating occupation, if you ask me. It purports to serve a key purpose: to individually whip a customer into shape. Hiring a personal trainer certainly seems to increase one’s chances of becoming fit. Instead of bumbling through endless racks of dumbbells, countless machines resembling spacecraft prototypes, and the gauntlet of treadmills, one simply plunks down a chunk of change and–presto!–fitness comes to form. It’s a very personal transaction, one that reflects a culture seemingly unable to simply exercise at the same rate everyone else is. No, we’ve got to get there quicker than the rest, and so we hire the trainer to walk us to the endless dumbbell racks, onto the spacecraft exercise machines, and towards the treadmill with its foreboding digital designs promising “programs” of extreme physical ardor.

This all came to mind today when I observed a teenage boy, looking rather soft and quite well-kept, going through a number of exercises with a college-age female trainer. It was an interesting partnership to observe (observation being the most common weightroom activity, just ahead of exercising), as the boy seemed to require almost second-by-second direction from the young lady. While I soon found some reason to suspect the seeming hunger for instruction from the high schooler, I also ruminated on the absolute reorientation of physical exercise this country has undergone. Recreational activity has gone from being centered in practical tasks to the opposite pole. For example, much of the fitness I get each week has nothing to do with the enhancement of the performance of physical tasks. Furthermore, this idea that one would pay somebody to help one exercise is antithetical to fitness mindsets of past ages. I can imagine a person of yesteryear observing perfectly capable people, able to research proper fitness techniques at the drop of a hat, trailing some sleek specimen and scoffing. After all, the refrain might go, physical fitness is one of the few qualities one can attain for free–who in their right mind would pay for it? All of it seems to point to a society that is increasingly self-focused, spending-crazy, and, well, helpless. Here’s a good fitness program: situps, pushups, and 3 miles a day. There. Feel free to take my advice–and even hire me. My going rate is 40 bucks an hour, and if you want me to actually pay attention to you as you exercise, that’ll be an extra ten per hour on top of that. Happy exercising.

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Lost: Belief in Salvation

One thing has become alarmingly clear through my recent conversations with a number of non-Christians. Unlike those of the past, many people today perceive no need for salvation of any type in a spiritual sense. In place of some questing for wholeness, some search for forgiveness, one finds often vague notions about either 1) a naturalistic significance and termination to life or 2) an ethereal, one-size-fits-all, everybody and their labrador goes to heaven type of mentality. Though children are still raised to confess wrongs when committed and ask for forgiveness, this practice no longer foreshadows any greater accountability. It seems that “wrongs” are merely momentary impediments to another’s happiness, not actual infractions against the standard of deity. As such, they are to be confessed merely to restore harmony, not to signal any deeper acknowledgement of objective wrongdoing. Hand in hand with this loss of the significance of sin goes the idea of salvation. Redemption sits forgotten in the corner in this age, banished there as therapy and subjective experience have their damning say.

In speaking of the loss of a belief in salvation, I’m not talking simply of belief in the Christian understanding of the idea. I’m talking about any mass subscription to the concept. This was not so in centuries past. Certainly, your average peasant in the medieval period thought some kind of personal redemption was necessary for the afterlife, however fractured that conception may have been. Similarly, in the Islamic East, the general populace certainly saw a need to be saved from one’s personal sins, and saw oneself as the means to that end. Even in early post-Enlightenment Europe, which held loosely to a deistic worldview, individuals sought salvation from something, even if they located that something in man, not God, and found their means to salvation in themselves, not God. No, I think we’re in a unique time nowadays, one we entered into just a half century ago, in which a large part of the population, though claiming belief in God, finds no culpability for sin and thus no responsibility for salvation. The Christian witnessing to non-Christians today may well discover themselves to be in a position very different from the witnessing Christian of most any other time period. Where once common salvific belief existed, now the Christian stands alone in that theological territory. The task, then, is a very different one than that posed to us in most any other generation: we must convince people of the desperate need of all people for salvation. The age old question of evangelists, “if you were to die today, do you know where you would go?,” may give way to another: “did you know you need salvation?” The answer makes all the difference.

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Zoomed In On Sex, Losing Sight of Beauty

Came across a recent Rolling Stone article that profiled actors Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, stars of the recent film Wedding Crashers. Though both men are talented comically, and have led interesting lives, the piece focuses almost entirely on their pursuit of the opposite sex. Profiling two men are quite popular with women and so have numerous tales to share, RS is more than happy to be an eager audience and to peddle their escapades, a pattern the magazine perpetuates with seemingly every issue that hits newstands. The way in which the magazine so painstakingly and faithfully reports graphic sex tales of the rich and famous seems to me to reflect a decided, if twisted, morality. Yes, in much the same way that everyone has a worldview, or some explanation of the way things are, everyone has their own brand of morality, or the way one ought to live. It’s not simply Christians and cub scouts who believe in codes of conduct. From the freewheeling coed to the atheist grandfather, everyone operates by an ethical system of some sort.

For RS, that code of morals takes root in the belief that sex is king and that there are few boundaries to the search for it. In short, it just doesn’t get any better than copulation, particularly when it’s committed by famous people with lots of money. But in zooming in so close on sex, RS‘s moral system uproots itself from any attachment to beauty it once maintained. Outside of a sense of “separated togetherness,” astray from emotional connection, sex is simply an act to be done as often and with as many people as possible. Fast as you can have it, do it. But over time, this frenzied approach grinds the act into the dirt as an anything-goes morality abuses a beautiful gift. The headlong pursuit of physical pleasure, outside of a biblical ethic, leaves one dashing farther and farther from the unique brilliance of sex. Far from freeing people, the morality that seeks primarily satiation, not appreciation, imprisons them, leaving them with a bird’s eye view of the act but none of the greater significance of it. The loss of biblical morality necessarily involves the loss of biblical models of living, and with them go the biblical standard of beauty, pleasure, and satisfaction. If only Rolling Stone could see that now.

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On the Marriage of Friends

This past weekend afforded me the chance to celebrate marriage with numerous friends who gathered for the ceremony bonding my friend Adam with his bride. I was actually in the wedding party, the third time I’ve met that call, and I must say, I’m a sucker for romance. It’s a beautiful thing to see two begin their journey together. It’s also a slightly mystifying event. One day, you’re physically and emotionally constrained, still living separated lives, still going home at night to separate locations. The next day, those lives intertwine, and couples go home together, leaving friends to go home alone. It’s a bit sudden, all of it, kind of like a mid-sized earthquake. It strikes quickly, leaving things shaken, not crushed, altered, not demolished.

It’s the cessation of the sharing of life’s small processes that make the most impact, I think. After all, the living of life is mostly tucked away in odd moments here and there, with the brushing of teeth, the washing of dishes, the goofy hour of needed procrastination on the couch. It’s in watching silly movies with your buddies, eating slice-and-bake cookies almost too good to be true, sharing heartache when you really should be sleeping. Saturday night, standing in the communal bathroom, I thought of how I’d never again chat with my friend over toothpaste and water. My mind shifted to the kitchen, where we’ve had so many meaningful conversations while cooking yet another pasta-and-sauce meal. My tour continued to the room where we studied together for hour upon hour this past semester, sharing jokes, listening to Mat Kearney’s cd, and eventually getting a few Hebrew words memorized. It was in these moments, precious to me now, that a friendship was forged, and once forged, it was in such times that our friendship was strengthened.

As slowly as those moments passed then, they quickly come to mind now, pleasant if bittersweet. The room that contained great laughter, difficult conversation, and much discussion lies empty save for a lonely couch and a lamp without a shade. I went in there the other night and was reminded of the promise memories make to us, that though we may never hold them in substance, they pledge to linger on in heart. Sometimes, when brushing teeth, making pasta, or studying, they walk back into sight, perhaps a bit fuzzier, lacking details, maybe, but ever pleasant, ever sweet, always tinged with the sadness of a season passed and a chapter concluded.

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It’s Vacation Time for Consumed Staff

Yes, after extensive board meetings, very expensive, with only the finest catering, the Consumed staff has, at the advice of the trustees and board of directors, decided to take a weeklong vacation. Please check back for a new blog entry exactly one week from today. Next Monday morning the 25th you will see a new entry, and the stream will pick back up from there.

In the meantime, be pondering such fascinating future blog topics as these:

1) Magazine layouts–with their picture-intensive formats, do they really succeed in drawing the younger generation?
2) Online dating–what’s behind it? Pros and cons?
3) Church growth and why it’s a messy subject

Friends, these are but a sampling. Please do come back after the Consumed vacation.

We’ll tell the trustees you said hello! :)

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It’s Vacation Time for Consumed Staff

Yes, after extensive board meetings, very expensive, with only the finest catering, the Consumed staff has, at the advice of the trustees and board of directors, decided to take a weeklong vacation. Please check back for a new blog entry exactly one week from today. Next Monday morning the 25th you will see a new entry, and the stream will pick back up from there.

In the meantime, be pondering such fascinating future blog topics as these:

1) Magazine layouts–with their picture-intensive formats, do they really succeed in drawing the younger generation?
2) Online dating–what’s behind it? Pros and cons?
3) Church growth and why it’s a messy subject

Friends, these are but a sampling. Please do come back after the Consumed vacation.

We’ll tell the trustees you said hello! :)

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It’s Vacation Time for Consumed Staff

Yes, after extensive board meetings, very expensive, with only the finest catering, the Consumed staff has, at the advice of the trustees and board of directors, decided to take a weeklong vacation. Please check back for a new blog entry exactly one week from today. Next Monday morning the 25th you will see a new entry, and the stream will pick back up from there.

In the meantime, be pondering such fascinating future blog topics as these:

1) Magazine layouts–with their picture-intensive formats, do they really succeed in drawing the younger generation?
2) Online dating–what’s behind it? Pros and cons?
3) Church growth and why it’s a messy subject

Friends, these are but a sampling. Please do come back after the Consumed vacation.

We’ll tell the trustees you said hello! :)

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Coffeehouses: Church for Postmoderns

If you’ve visited a coffee shop lately (and living in any area with flora, fauna, and breathable air eminently qualifies your region for a Starbucks), you may have noticed an interesting trend. In an age when religion of the major denomination variety generally gasps in the dust, and in which personal spirituality thrives (meaning one can feel, not believe, anything they want–important distinction), something has to substitute for church. Feeling our inherent needs for fellowship, an appropriate setting, sharing of burdens, and enjoyment, many turn in full or in part to the coffee shop. It’s not much of a stretch to say that for a good mass of people, the coffee shop is the replacement church of the 21st century.

A quick run-through of what churches and coffee shops provide reveals an eerie similarity in potential attendee experience.

1) Fellowship-This is an easy one. In the same way that church members form and perpetuate friendships, people develop camaraderie through their repeated visits to a coffee shop. Over time, one gets to know the regular rotation of staff and builds a rapport with them. One also sights fellow repeat customers and begins to build bonds with them. What begins as an addiction to a strange brown liquid, then, begets affection of a strange but lasting variety.

2) An appropriate setting- In much the same way that people shop for a church, looking generally for a friendly local body offering the product they desire, so do they prospect for a coffee shop to call home. Before settling on a store, one will visit several, sometimes bringing friends, sometimes going alone, always evaluating the environment, tasting the treats, and importantly, checking out the chairs. As with those masses of polled churchgoers who say they highly value comfortable seating, so too do prospective coffee-drinkers prize nice chairs.

3) Sharing burdens- As church members confide in, console, and encourage one another, so too do coffee-shop patrons provide a deeper level of relationship for one another. This category goes beyond mere fellowship, transcending it and passing into the realm of disclosure and direction. Staff members of the shop, in particular, seem to form some of their deepest friendships through the shop, in a way unique to employment settings. With its capacity for conversation and pleasant atmosphere, the coffee shop, like the church, invites such intimacy.

4) Enjoyment- Many church members derive enjoyment from their participation in congregational life. In a familiar environment, pretensions are discarded; laughter is had with familiar friends; and the worship life of the church presents much opportunity for enjoyment through hearing edifying messages, singing moving songs, and praying heartfelt petitions. Interestingly, the coffee shop experience strikingly parallels that of the church. As friendships form, patrons discard pretense; as familiarity emerges, laughter happens; in reading the paper, hearing good music (often something avant garde–except all coffee shops play it, so it’s not avant garde anymore), one is encouraged and made happy. Coffee-shop mirrors church.

Those are some of the ways in which church can and has replaced the church experience for the postmodern. With such environments, the part of one’s being that senses the absence of something vital, namely, communal involvement, is sated. How appropriate that instead of the Rotary Club or the Masons, past attempts at societal replacement of church, postmoderns enter their community by the door of materialistic satisfaction. One not only gets friends at the coffee shop; one gets an exquisite Mint Mocha Chip Frappucino, with a small reduction of life included in the four dollar tab. Yearning for people mixes with yearning for pleasure in the twenty-first century version of “involvement.”

Despite all that has been noted here, none of this should be read in a tone of disdain. I can well understand why many people of today would place the coffee shop as their center of interaction. I myself frequently patronize coffee shops and have found some dear friends through them (in fact, Mom and Dad, I met this wonderful girl, and we’re getting marr–just kidding). It merely fascinates me that coffee shops seem to play such a central role in the lives of many postmoderns. On that note, it saddens me that they do, because though for many the store is merely a store, a nice place to go, for others it is more. This hypothesis, which lurked in my mind for a long time, was confirmed for me recently when I was told by a patron that the shop, close to the patron’s home, provided friendship, fun, and meaningful interaction. He had no church membership, no family, and few other places to go. The coffee shop truly was his place of community. Perhaps such stories will make one more sensitive to those patrons one regularly sees at the shop. In a place known for forming friendships, perhaps Christians can introduce others to a friend whose “product” of grace never runs out, whose fellowship does not cease, and whose covenant of love carries into endless ages uninhabited by the trees, the mountains, and yes, the Starbucks.

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This Adulthood Business is Tricky Stuff

In a life characterized by uncertainty, one thing is sure for me: the days of childhood and adolescence are dead and buried. Let me offer some proofs for that postulation.

1) I got a parking ticket yesterday for parking in a certain place, and there’s noone to complain to. As I approached my car after leaving the Y yesterday, a tingling horror halted my steady pace. There was something on my windshield, and it wasn’t animal excrement. No, friends, it was a 20 dollar ticket, and it came alone, with nary a shoulder to cry on. Given my financial state, I briefly contemplated a brief but plaintive wail, and then thought better of it. After all, 24 seems an age pretty far removed from wailing, much more so than 23, though I don’t know why.

2) My aging Accord won’t start, and there’s no passing off the buck to a gracious father figure. I’ve got to go out there and jump the lifeless vehicle myself. I’m tired, my feet hurt, and I need to review my Greek, but I’m about to troop outside and start the car. Don’t you just weep with me over my newfound call to responsibilty?

3) I’m going to bed at a decent hour, watching my daily saturated fat intake, and aching rather profoundly after exercise. None of these require elaboration, and each demonstrates a marked change in behavior. Add to that increased attention to one’s appearance, namely, hairline, and you’ve got yourself an excellent candidate for early middle-agedness. It’s enough to make me want to get a skateboard or something–only then I’ll ache with even greater intensity in muscles I didn’t even know I had. The situation, folks, is dire. :)

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