Monthly Archives: February 2006

"The Office" & You–Instant Friends

For those who have not heard of this show, I recommend (albeit with a cautionary word) the NBC television show “The Office.” Simply put, the show is the most intelligent comedy you can find on the box these days. With the retirement of “Seinfeld” several years ago, I failed to find a show that made me laugh on a consistent basis. The drought ended with “The Office.”

The show portrays the office work world that so many of us inhabit on a daily basis. It exposes the unproductivity, cynicism, and awkwardness that characterizes so much of office life. It satirizes the boss-worker relationship by anchoring the show in Michael, a character played by Steve Carrell, who lives off the fumes of his power trips. Michael essentially makes life very difficult for the rest of the workers in his office yet is completely unaware of the flaws in his person. Because Carrell plays the role with a touch of humanity and innocence, the show is quite insane and endlessly amusing. One should note that the show’s humor is not scored by a laugh track or a bevy of one-liners. It specializes in weird exchanges, heavy silences, and the tension of concealed frustration to make its points, and its humor, felt.

This is not to say that “The Office” is without inappropriateness. Like much entertainment from the secular world, there is occasionally some objectionable content that I do not support. Additionally, I do not encourage Christians to adopt the worldview behind the show, namely, that office employment is pointless and absurd. As I wrote recently on this very blog, all work is honorable to God and should be done with reverence and joy. With those caveats stated, one can certainly appreciate the way “The Office” points out with subtleness, awkward silences, and excellent dialogue the nuances and hilarities of office life. It’s a show worth any number of TP47 reports to see, I promise. Just make sure you show up a few minutes early–it’s only proper.

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A Review to Peruse: 9Marks.org

The beauty about a blog is that you can do whatever you want to do with it. Tomorrow, I’ll try to bring you some sort of mildly thoughtful cultural engagement. Today, however, I bring you a bit of material I like to call “shameless self-promotion.” So here’s the scoop: go to www.9marks.org (the man to the right, Matt Schmucker, runs 9Marks and is an awesome man). Check under “What’s New” on the left of the homepage, and you’ll see a review by me. I reviewed a book called Membership Matters for the site. It’s by a Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professor named Chuck Lawless. Lawless is a great guy and a thoughtful ecclesiologist (theologian of the church), and my review details some of the strengths and weaknesses of his work.

Here is an excerpt: “The very focus of Membership Matters is excellent. Lawless understands the importance of church membership and makes it his business to advocate for it. From the beginning, he rightly diagnoses the culture of feckless disinterest that surrounds the church. He tenders a clear and compelling argument for its dissimulation. Put concisely, the biblical call to join the church must be heeded for the church if it is to gain health. Far from offering an innovative spin, a new pastoral trick, or a quick-and-easy philosophy, Lawless points church leaders to realize that the Bible already has the solution to stultified church life. It is membership—active, involved, committed membership. In an age when calling for personal investment of most any kind is unpopular, Lawless beckons his fellow evangelicals back to biblical polity in which individuals together esteem the church body through attendance and service. By drawing on the biblical ideal of membership, not the self-spun ideology of pragmatism, Lawless takes a bold stance. His courage and his polity are commendable.”

You can check out the whole review at 9Marks or simply re-read the above paragraph for enjoyment.

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Are You Over-Spiritual or Under?

I’ve had a fair amount of evangelical interaction in my life. Over the course of it, I’ve noticed that evangelicals often end up in one of two groups: they’re either over-spiritual, meaning they overemphasize the role of God in their lives, or under-spiritual, meaning they underemphasize the role of God in their lives. Today we look at what it means to belong to each group.

We all know people from both groups. In fact, if you’re reading this blog through evangelical eyes, you’re probably in one of these groups. You might be over-spiritual if: you talk about everything in the past as if it happened via the direct and perceptible guidance of God. Now, before I raise more hackles than I need to, know that all Christians recognize (and should recognize, absolutely) the providence, or sovereign direction, of God in their lives. This is a key part of the evangelical worldview. Life is not a collage of random moments, but a guided tour of the goodness of God through mystery lands. However, there is such a thing as over-reading providence, as seeing every single event of one’s life as the only possible event that could have occurred. When you’re telling people that your sandwich meat was divinely chosen, that you perceived divine guidance on what shirt size to get, that you felt special power to turn on your car this morning, you’re in over-spiritual territory. Ease off just a bit. Yes, everything happens under God’s providence. But we can acknowledge that, we can know that, without representing everything that we do as if little rays of light broke through the clouds and told us what hair gel to buy.

On the other hand, we ought to avoid being unspiritual, or underspiritual, as I’ve termed it. You might be underspiritual if you never read providence into things, if you think of life as a set of Spirit-less choices you make. If the over-spiritualist overemphasizes God’s immanence, or nearness to us and our decisions, then the underspiritualist overemphasizes God’s transcendence, and becomes a bit of a practical deist, if not a theoretical one. The underspiritualist, when thinking about life and life decisions, will tend not to see enough of God’s hand in things. He’ll simply assume that things will go as logic would have it and leave little to no room for the intervention of God in the mechanisms of life. So the next time you hear an overspiritualist say, for example, that no people of such and such a social group will come to the outreach event, correct them with gentleness. Remind them of the immanent activity of God in our world.

Both groups err in different ways. Which way do you go? Or are you the perfectly balanced evangelical?

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Spiritual Warfare is Subtle, I Think

I am not one to emphasize spiritual warfare. Spiritual warfare refers to the conflict raging in the spiritual realm between the forces of God, being angels, and the forces of Satan, being demons. I certainly believe in spiritual warfare. The Bible speaks of both angels and demons as real beings. Therefore, I believe in them. However, the Bible does not speak much of angels and demons. We get snapshots, not films; details, not discourses. We learn from Job, from the gospels, from Hebrews, that there is great spiritual conflict unfolding all around us, but out of eyesight, past our senses. It is real, but it is not easily spotted. Therefore, it cannot be strongly emphasized.

That said, I do know that there is a battle for my soul, and your soul. This conflict is intense, far more intense than the conflict we do see, and it plays out every second we live. Contrary to much popular thinking, though, I don’t think that demons try only to have ladders fall on our heads. I think that demons seek to draw us away from God any way that they can. Their activity is always subversive, always polemical, always aimed at the destruction of our souls. For many, this destruction is not accomplished through mass-scale events. Most people lose their souls through the small things. I think that’s where much spiritual warfare is concentrated. The battle may well reach a pitch in the cubicle, not the war-torn landscape. The struggle behind light and dark waxes furious in the late-hours of the night as a man struggles with whether he will view pornography or not. His wife, asleep, knows not that her marriage hangs in the balance. At this moment, spiritual warfare roars.

Spiritual warfare occurs every time we’re tempted to gossip about another Christian. It hits us when we are tempted to spend work time to check our email. It hits us when we ignore the person sitting near us in church instead of talking to them. Little battles are fought all the time around us, and we don’t even realize it. Lose the little battles, enough of them, and soon you’ll lose the greater battle for your soul. How comforting it is to know, then, that all this warfare occurs under the absolute sovereignty of the Lord. Nothing happens outside of God’s will and watch. We can take comfort in remembering that. However, knowing that truth must not leave us numb to the spiritual conflict that surrounds and threatens to engulf us if we let it. Though you don’t see it, you are in it. Fight, and win those small battles. Then, you and I will not lose the ultimate conflict that soon approaches.

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Stoicism Revived: Acceptance & Commitment Theory

Time magazine has an interesting article in the February 13, 2006 edition on “Acceptance and Commitment Theory.” This new model of psychotherapy, popularized by psychologist Steven Hayes, posits that the solution to the difficulty of life is to detach oneself from our negative experiences. When we feel badly, and think negatively about ourselves, we are not to interrogate that experience and question why we are going through it. Instead, we are to detach ourselves from the experience, to square with it, and focus not on our sadness or pain but on our response to what is causing us sadness and pain.

Does this sound familiar? It would if you lived hundreds of years ago and hung out with the group of philosophers known as the “Stoics.” Stoicism was practiced most famously by the Spartans, who used the philosophy to withstand terrible hardship and conquer impossible odds. When faced with opposition from others, for example, the Stoics would say, “It is not they who control me. I control myself, and their attacks have no effect on me.” How fascinating that this mindset receives resuscitation in ACT. For example, here is what patients undergoing ACT are told to say to themselves when they are depressed: not “I’m depressed,” but “I’m having the thought that I’m depressed.” You can’t miss the Stoicism in such a statement. The patient focuses not on their circumstance, but on their reaction to the circumstance. This is an interesting shift toward the ancient, and it’s a good thing for a discipline that has lost itself gazing into a reflecting pool of its own making.

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Suburban Rebellion, the Popular Form of Sin

There is a form of sinfulness that is muted and not often talked about. At least, it’s not often talked about in terms of its comprehensiveness. There is a lifestyle of sin that is very different from those we typically think of–the rebellious teenager, the irresponsible twentysomething, the money-hungry middle ager. This lifestyle is quiet and subtle, yet it is no less dishonoring or terrible than any other. It is a lifestyle I will call “suburban rebellion.”

Suburban rebellion manifests itself all around you. You’ve seen it a great deal, but might not have connected it all together. Suburban rebellion is most often practiced, I think, by the discontented middle class of America. The group that missed the promotion, can’t afford the big stuff, and is mired in unhappiness. The marriage isn’t necessarily strained but certainly isn’t blooming. The kids are generally unappreciative. The bills pile up, and the job is unsatisfying, and there’s no real solace in sight. All there is this. No cascading high, no numbing low, just a dull roar.

The rebellion that comes from this is widespread and varied. Drivers flex their anger through a horn and a yell at the windshield. Workers subvert their bosses by endless Internet surfing and game playing. Fathers and mothers neglect their children, choosing the glow of the tv over the cultivation of the child. Anger surfaces, sometimes, but not enough to be a huge problem. Everywhere is disgruntlement, discontent, frustration, and the outworkings of such states. Complaining, badmouthing, and bellyaching fill the day, and what could have been overwhelms what might be before it ever has a chance. Think I’m crazy to suggest all this? Take a look around you. The world is displeased. Look close, and you’ll see suburban rebellion all around you. It may be hard to spot, but it’s still ugly as sin.

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Romance Has Died

Christianity is not prudery. On the other hand, it is not untempered revelry. Rather, it is a celebration. The people of the way celebrate all the Creator’s gifts. Included in those gifts is a little exeriential jewel we like to call romance. Romance is the cultivation and expression of love with a person of the opposite sex. It is made for marriage but is felt before it. In romance, God allows us to experience a taste of the love He showers upon us. Indeed, his love is not only transactional, given on the cross, but is communicated over time and through the duration of life. Christians both taste the love of the divine and give pieces of it to another.

Christians should celebrate romance. We should prize it, and be teachers to the culture of its beauty. We should not simply go about our business, but should be evangelists for romance. Men should, in their own way, be romantics. They should treat their wives with thoughtful sweetness. Flowers, notes, phone calls, dates—all this is the responsibility of a romance advocate. Romance is not optional. It is a mandate, albeit a joy-laden one. When one invests in one’s spouse through kindness and passion, one honors God and fulfills the duties of a man, who is responsible to love his wife as his own flesh. Women should have the same mindset and prize the romance given them. They ought also to live to awaken such an instinct in those they love. Both parties are to revel in the commitment they have made, the transactional act of love, and the daily expression of that commitment, seen in all kinds of small acts of love.

The current generation especially needs to see the beauty of romance. It has grown up with filthy movies and explicit songs and racy novels that together cut romance right out of the equation. Listen to top 40 radio some time. Go ahead, it won’t kill you. You’ll find a picture of “love” that has never met romance. Sex is all there is. Raw, raunchy, unattached to true love. Men don’t woo anymore. Women don’t “flirt” anymore. Romance is merely transactional. The world of twentysomethings, where transactions take place in steamy clubs and overheated dorm rooms, knows nothing of the pursuit of passion, the joy of relational buildup. We must see this reality and work to change it. Let us work to restore beauty in all of life. Let the sacred light return, and the culture understand. We are its teachers.

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The Death of Romance

Most people are aware of the culture’s fascination with sex. Particularly in the younger generation, sex is the measure of all romantic engagement, the essence of all others-directed passion. That’s well documented. What isn’t often talked about is the death of romance. I am here to say firsthand as a member of Generation Z or Y or whatever it is currently called that the culture has stamped out the fire of romance for my generation. Because sex is so accessible, so prevalent, romance has become an awkward bystander in the cafe of life. Everywhere are couples taken up with sex. Nowhere are couples who hold sex in a sacred light and who esteem romance.

If you have wondered whether this is true for twentysomethings, it is. Romance has not suffered in the current age. It has died. For many, it is an intrusion, a bore, a yawn-inducing precursor to the main event: sex. Romance is antiquarian and amusing to my peers, much like those archaic reruns of “Father Knows Best” and “The Three Stooges.” Funny, different, and ridiculous. Those of my generation who do engage in romance are considered somewhat strange, as if they belong to some extremist political group. Why would send flowers? Why would one take long walks? Why would one write love letters? Just get her number, go to the club, and indulge your appetites. Then, next weekend, do it all over again, albeit with a new girl. You’re getting what you want with this process, so why change it?

The reason to change it is that romance is a key part of God’s design for men and women. It is celebrated vividly in the Bible, particularly in The Song of Solomon. God has given us a great gift in romance. Love is not meant to be a sprint to sex. It is meant to be a joyous celebration, a gradual and thoughtful walk through sacred lands. It is not meant to be excessive, but appreciated. It is designed to be sweet, not schizophrenic. Romance is not a bore or an intrusion. It is a privilege given to all the creation and a means for all mankind to experience a joy that does not easily pass. The culture has lost sight of this, and it is to all our detriment. Let us work to situate romance in its proper context, marriage. Let us work to bring it back into the sacred light.

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Overcoming Adversity Through Sports

It is an excellent thing to learn to overcome adversity. One of the best places to learn this lesson is in the context of an athletic team. Sports teams inevitably have their ups and downs. It is natural to fail often in sports. So it is frequently necessary to pick oneself up after failure and soldier on. When others depend on you, voluntary failure is much tougher to come by.

The child who plays a sport on an athletic team learns this lesson. He can sit at school or at home all day and never have to overcome much hardship. He does his homework, and watches some tv, and grumbles through some chores, but he rarely looks failure in the eye. Sure, he lets his parents down, but that doesn’t really bother him. Put him on a field, though, and place some dependency from teammates on his shoulders, and he faces a whole new ballgame (literally). He will naturally encounter some difficult situations in this setting. His feelings will be hurt, his weaknesses will be exposed, and he will be forced to spur himself on through adversity. He will learn endurance and tenacity in these situations, and grow as a person. In later life, when school or work or family life grows difficult, he will have a reserve to draw on and experience to remember. Team sports teaches many valuable lessons, but few are more valuable than the need to persevere through difficulty.

I can look back at my own life and attest to the great value of adversity faced and conquered. Moments of struggle come quickly to the mind. Getting cut from the varsity squad, losing in the playoffs, being injured, coming back from a huge deficit–all these experiences involved adversity. All of them taught me hugely valuable lessons. I learned that I could not let emotion trump principle. As badly as I may have felt at a certain time, I was forced to press on and seek some recovery of dignity or measure of achievement. The lessons learned in such times were not easy at the moment. Many were quite painful. But today, as I face a busy schedule, challenges with coworkers and acquaintances, and my own sin, I have a reserve to draw from. That result was built by adversity faced and overcome. Children, and all of us, need that, and for that reason, we need team sports.

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Teamwork and its Benefits

Sports gives the modern man the opportunity to learn lessons he would have learned on an entirely different field. Though the stakes are drastically reduced, one can still learn the value of teamwork on the athletic field. There are numerous reasons athletic teamwork is quite valuable.

The first is that one steps out of one’s individuality in being part of a team. We are naturally individualistic, pursuing our own, disdaining others for our good. In team sports, it is entirely possible to be selfish, but the task is harder. We have a coach to bench us, teammates to rebuke us, fans to boo us. We thus have a built-in antidote to selfishness: the team. Its very presence works against our natural desire for self-refracting glory. When we acquire team experience, we set a good course for ourselves for (as heightened as this may sound) the rest of our lives. Don’t believe me? Try it. Play team sports for twelve years, with all the difficulties of prejudiced coaches, bad circumstances, jealous teammates, and you can’t help but take a hit to the ego. You learn a certain brutal humility at the hands of team athletics that is necessary and good.

The second great benefit of team sports is that we must learn to appreciate the contributions of others. Teamwork is a great thing for the formation of character. It teaches you not simply to avoid individualism and self-reliance, but to actually be thankful for the work of others. Even the most vainglorious of athletes slaps hands with his teammate who makes the shot. You see, there is a restraining impulse built into team sports. That impulse forces those who would only value themselves to appreciate others. This disposition is crucial for later life. Everyone knows an office all-star who thinks he is the fulcrum point of everything in the company. That guy, whose type we’ve all encountered, was part of the minority report from the world of team sports. Team sports take many such a boy who would become such a man and molds them into more of an “appreciater.” That is no small thing when one considers the great value of appreciating others in later life. In the family, the office, and the church, one must perform as a part of a team. Having others beside oneself restrains us and calls us out of self-appreciation. That, friends, is never a bad thing, and it’s found on a field near you.

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