IVP - Strangely Dim - Stuff About Culture Archives

September 24, 2012

Snubbed Again: Who Are You Reading?

By David A. Zimmerman

Last night was the Emmys, and this year might be thought of alternately as "The Year of Homeland and Modern Family" or, more cynically, "The Year of the Snub." Perennial favorites such as Jon Hamm, Bryan Cranston and Parks & Recreation went home empty-handed in their respective categories. (Parks & Rec wasn't even nominated for best comedy, which may be part of a communist plot; no disrespect to Modern Family and the other nominees, but Give. Me. A. Break.)

Speaking of snubs, once again Strangely Dim (not to mention my personal blog, Loud Time) was left off the list of the "Top 200 Church Blogs." This annual list showcases "today's most influential church leaders, journalists, theologians, and Christ followers," based on traffic, page ranks, subscriptions and other indicators. The compilers of the list obviously didn't ask my mom which "church blogs" she reads religiously.

I'm not bitter, really I'm not. I do find myself wondering, though, what blogs didn't make the list that should. Ed Stetzer makes three quick observations about the list: (1) the dominance of Calvinist perspectives; (2) the decline of emergence perspectives; and (3) the absence of women's perspectives. I might dispute (2) a bit--I see a decent showing of people on the list who lean Emergent, especially given Stetzer's observation (1)--but the dominance of Calvinists and the dearth of women are hard to argue.

ct women to watch.jpg

Stetzer's observation about women bloggers comes almost simultaneously to Christianity Today's cover issue on "Women to Watch." Ironic, isn't it, that we are being advised to watch these women, but precious few of us are actually reading them.

Here at IVP we're doing our part to close the gap between watching and reading women. In the spring, we're launching a line of books that showcases women authors. More to come on that, believe me. But in the meantime, we're always on the lookout for interesting people with interesting perspectives, and while we want to elevate the voices of leading women, we are also happy to hear from men with something important to say. So here's your chance: Who are you reading, and why should we be reading them too?

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 3:19 PM | Comments (1) are closed

October 4, 2011

Hospitality: It's Not Just for Dinner Parties Anymore

October is hospitality month--at least here at Strangely Dim. In various posts (including a guest blogger or two) we'll be exploring the notion of hospitality from all angles.


When I think about hospitality, what usually comes to mind is a dinner party at someone else's house, where I benefit from another person's generosity by enjoying their delicious food and company. They do all the work. I reap all the benefits. Or I think of friends in Kenya who, despite meager resources, treated me and my friends like family when we visited, in part by giving us delicious food to eat. I think we can all agree that this is a pretty selfish, minimalist understanding of hospitality.

Many spiritual gift and personality assessments tend to assume that hospitality is the particular gift of a special class of people. The sad result of seeing hospitality as something that only some people possess as a divinely bestowed character trait is the polarizing of our understanding of it: some people have hospitality, others receive it. If one is not naturally inclined to be hospitable, then there's no reason to pretend, because "that's not how God made me."

Perhaps like many others, then, I have only rarely thought of hospitality as anything like a discipline, a verb, a gift from one person to another, a Christian duty--all of which are categories under which hospitality should fall. I think we can all see the striking difference here: one understanding of hospitality is selfish; the others are markedly less so. The beautiful thing about hospitality as a discipline, when all of the polarization is done away with, is that it starts to look a lot less like an obligation, compulsion, mandate or opportunism, and begins to look much more like love.

For me, the most astounding biblical example of hospitality is that of Christ's incarnation. Not only did this gift require the hospitality of Mary and Joseph as they welcomed Jesus into their home as part of their family, but it opened the door for all of humanity to draw near to God in renewed relationship to him. God, in his love, graciously gave his most precious gift to humankind so that we could know him better, draw near to him and enjoy his presence. Sacrifice, hospitality, love--all together.

If hospitality is like love, then every encounter with another person is an opportunity to give it
and receive it. This means that our own kitchen, the grocery store, and yes, even in traffic--in all the places we love to be, and in all the occasions which try our patience, we have the opportunity to be utterly hospitable to one another.

Examples of unhospitality:

  • A person in a hurry berates an employee new at his job for seeming slow to process an order.
  •  Crew members of an airline make fun of passengers struggling to stow their belongings in overhead compartments, even pantomiming them and threatening to delay the flight.
  • A visitor to a church is ignored and not invited to join in conversation with regular attendees.
  • In an effort to evangelize, a person is aggressive, condescending and rude, unwilling to hear others' perspectives.

Examples of hospitality:

  • A person in line at the grocery store at the end of a long and frustrating day is pleasant to other customers and to store personnel.
  • In a road construction zone, someone lets you merge into traffic when it would be very easy to ignore your attempt to merge in front of them.
  •  In a theological discussion between members of different religions, each person considerately hears the other's thoughts, comments and arguments, and relates their own in a respectful manner.

I think most of us can relate to these examples, because if we're honest, we've been at the receiving and giving end of at least some of them. In fact, all of these examples are from actual events that I've either observed or been directly involved in. I'm not saying practicing hospitality is easy. In fact, it's sometimes the last thing that crosses my mind (in a traffic jam, when I'm late for work . . . as an example). But it's something to shoot for as we all navigate this world together. Thankfully, we have an expert in hospitality to help us along the way. I think he might simply say, "Go, and do likewise."


Posted by Christa Countryman at 11:47 AM | Comments (1) are closed | TrackBack (0)

September 30, 2011

Sex Trafficking at the 7-Eleven

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine wrote a novel about sex trafficking that was set in the southern United States. I remember reading the rough draft and struggling to digest the idea of sexual slavery in America. In fact, I thought it might be a bit of a stretch.

Global sex trafficking . . . now that's a more likely story. Villages with dirt roads, one-room shanties with tin roofs, girls who have been orphaned by HIV/AIDS, corrupted government officials with black-stained teeth who slip foreign money between the robes of their donkeys--seemingly more compatible images with terms as atrocious as "human trafficking" and "modern-day slavery."

It's funny how comfortably we think of America as a "global super power" yet how troublesome it is to think of it as a "participant in global sex trafficking." But there's no getting around it.

Between 2001 and 2005 there were an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 sex slaves in the United States (according to the Department of Justice)--a significant percentage of the nearly two million children exploited in the global commercial sex trade each year (UNICEF).

Sadly, the global sex trade, a 32 billion dollar a year industry, is thriving in the same country that officially ended slavery almost 150 years ago. In a Huffington Post article, Dan Rather diagnosed this pervasive inability to imagine sexual slavery in the United States with one word: denial.

It's a hard concept to get our minds wrapped around.

Last week I was at the Religious Newswriters' Association conference--a gathering of journalists who were some of the most culturally aware folks I'd ever been around--when a gentleman from a national research firm asked me what I was working on. I gave him my elevator pitch for our recently released book God in a Brothel by Daniel Walker: "It's the story of an undercover investigator who spent four years rescuing victims of sex trafficking all over the world," I said. Then I added, "including within the United States."

god in a brothel.jpg

"Huh. In the United States?" he said, nodding. Then, after a slightly awkward pause. "Really? The U.S.? Is that right? Huh."

And so I told him about the image I can't get out of my head, the one from the book where Daniel poses as an interested customer, gets picked up by a Lexus-driving pimp at a 7-Eleven and is escorted only a few blocks to a modern single-story home where he purchases a young Asian girl. I told him I think about it every time I pass my local 7-Eleven, the one that sits just a few blocks from my house, where hundreds of meaningless and impulsive transactions take place every day.

Then I told him about the recent Chicago Sun Times article following an eighteen-month investigation that led to a major bust right here in Chicago. The girls who were rescued weren't from Central America or Southeast Asia; they were from Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana, in some cases trafficked from the city bus stop or their local grocery store.

Even with organizations like International Justice Mission and The Polaris Project increasing their platforms, with campaigns like End Slavery Now and Stop Human Trafficking gaining momentum, with stories of arrests and rescues in major cities splashed across the news, and, yes, even with celebrities like Demi and Ashton getting involved, conversations like the one above and the ones inside my own head, remind me that we still have a long way to go. Fortunately, one of the privileges of working in publishing is that we get to nudge people just a little further down the road.

This fall (October 20-November 10) Daniel Walker will be traveling to the United States from New Zealand where he serves on the local police force. He'll be speaking at churches and college campuses from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., in partnership with Compassion International and Hagar International to raise awareness about the global sex trade.

If you're close, stop by. If not, share this post. Or pick up a copy of the book and continue to learn. And when you tell your friend or your colleague or your pastor or your aunt what you're reading and they say, "Sex trafficking? In this country? Really?" Tell them that America is as global as they come.

Posted by Suanne Camfield at 8:43 AM | Comments (3) are closed

February 11, 2011

You Will Know Us by the Trail of Editors

A friend of mine read an article in USA Today about self-publishing, and because he's worried about me (since conventional publishing, as we all know, is on its deathbed), he asked me if there's an untapped market for freelance editors. Here's my response:

There's certainly a need for editors; whether there's a perceived need among self-publishing authors (it's more painfully obvious to the readers of self-publishing) is a separate question.

An enterprising freelance editor could, I suppose, pitch "second editions" to already self-published authors. The trick is justifying their fee, which would likely have to come with some guarantee of improved sales, which likely means the editor would have to function more as agent than as mere editor, and would need to take on some marketing/publicity efforts as well. I've been trying to do that for my friend Tony (in addition to my doing a quick edit of his book, see my interview with him here and my review of his book here), but it's a lot easier to to do that for free than to get paid for it, particularly if an author has already accomplished their major goal: getting published. Sometimes the money is not the main motivator.

I actually think self-publishing is the way to go for a lot of people. A conventional publisher necessarily filters the types of books (and authors) for its existing audience and along the lines of its existing channels. Anything that goes off the grid of traditional publishing, to any extent whatsoever, increases the risk considerably to the publisher, which has its own context into which it comfortably publishes, its own bills to pay, its own sanity to protect. An author with direct access to a ready audience that's not easily accessible to a conventional publisher isn't just afforded a second-best option in self-publishing; in some cases the author is actually better off.

Nevertheless, by self-publishing an author is in fact going off grid, with all the challenges and limitations that going off grid entails. Some self-published books do break through to become blockbusters, but they are still wild exceptions, and their exceptionalism likely indicates that there's more to the story than comes across in how the story is reported. It's not simply this woman's "aggressive self-promotion" that led to her success, but also who she aggressively promoted herself to, who else aggressively promoted her, and who was willing to be aggressively promoted to by someone out of left field. It's not exactly alchemy, although it resembles alchemy; it's just the logic that applies to all effective networking.

 It's worth noting, incidentally, that the vast majority of the "20 million people" who "read e-books last year" weren't reading self-published books but rather bestsellers they could get on Kindle for $10 instead of $22. The article sort of obscures that notion, and Amazon's VP of Kindle Content certainly (and fairly, I suppose) capitalizes on the mythology that any one person is just one lucky break away from being the next great American novelist. (That mythology is part of the alchemy of the "culture of narcissism" I write about in Deliver Us from Me-Ville, what inspires the odd auditions on American Idol, among other things.)

For the record, I do sometimes recommend self-publishing to prospective authors, not as a critique of their ideas or their writing but because for them it's a more viable path than conventional publishing. It's roughly equivalent to my directing an author to a different conventional publisher whose program fits the author better than ours. Sometimes, of course, it's because the writing and ideas aren't particularly good, and the person is merely infatuated with the idea of publishing. I had an unusual experience recently where I was the only editor at a gathering of writers, and one of them very intentionally pursued self-publishing rather than the possibility of publishing with a publisher like us. You can read a bit of his rationale here. Good on Jimmy for having a plan and sticking to it.

Feel free to push back on my characterization of conventional and/or self-publishing, my interpretation of the article and its profiled author's experience, or whatever. The self-published, the conventionally published and the blogging editor have this in common: we love to have people interact with what we've written.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 7:46 AM

October 26, 2009

What Genesis Has Made Us

Of all the books in the Bible, I'd say that Genesis has the most capacity to capture the imagination. Genesis features countless stories that get stuck in little kids' heads--Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Ark, Abraham and Sarah, Lot and Sodom, Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Esau, Jacob and Laban, Joseph and his brothers, Joseph and Pharaoh. All these stories are on every short list for inclusion in every picture Bible ever approved for publication.

But Genesis has proven that it's not just for kids. It's Genesis that keeps the debate raging over whether we emerged out of a primordial soup or were formed by God from the dust of the earth, and whether our planet is thousands or billions of years old. It's Genesis that keeps literary critics interested in the Bible, as they trace back contemporary gender, ethnic and power dynamics to this constitutional epic. Journalists, comedians, artists, musicians, poets, scientists and politicians alike look to Genesis to stimulate their imagination. We are, in a sense, what Genesis has made us.

Of course, all this appropriation of Genesis doesn't mean that everyone reads it the same way; there are seemingly infinite interpretations and biases that Genesis can support. One of the most recent is Robert Crumb's graphic treatment, The Book of Genesis Illustrated. Crumb, an early innovator in underground comix who made his mark with irreverent humor and bodacious body parts (including the notorious Fritz the Cat), has shown his genius in later works both autobiographical and philosophical. R. Crumb's graphic Genesis is generating buzz from the New Yorker to UCLA's Hammer Museum as a shockingly comprehensive and sophisticated interpretation of the first book of the Scriptures.

Crumb grew up a practicing Catholic but left the faith at age sixteen. His participation in the drug culture of the 1960s and 1970s is a reflection of his broader appropriation of the Zeitgeist; his art from that era was cutely anarchic and hedonistic, displaying a sort of existentialism that is more fully acknowledged in his later illustrated introduction to Franz Kafka. His 1978 marriage to Aline Kominsky led to a more focused exploration of Jewish spirituality and worldview, which comes through in Genesis Illustrated.

Crumb is a man of his time, and his interpretation of Genesis is a reflection of that reality. For him, Genesis's God is an angry old man, committing deicide against polytheistic traditions even as he's portrayed creating the world in six days. Genesis is a chronicle of women nurturing the divine feminine in secret while men rule and wreck the world. Genesis is a statement on the way the world works, and a call to humility that's given expression fully and finally in Joseph's merciful treatment of his brothers at the moment of their reconciliation. For all its declarations of the origin of humankind and its Creator, Crumb's Genesis is a treatise on how to live well after God.

Crumb is entitled to his opinion, of course, and while orthodox Christians may find his work unpalatable, his interpretation will take its place at the table with other serious considerations of what Genesis means. That's a good thing: a book as ambitious as Genesis, with as much capacity to capture and shape our imagination, rewards multiple readings and broad conversation. One might argue that God himself invites us to look beyond the God of Genesis. After all, there's plenty more Bible where that came from, and to live well we would benefit from looking similarly toward the God of the exodus, the exile, the incarnation, the crucifixion, the resurrection, the Pentecost, the kingdom come.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 9:22 AM

July 16, 2009

Onward and Upward

Sometimes, I've found, work just gets in the way of things. We didn't know what to get four siblings--ages eight to sixteen--for their birthdays, for example, so we decided to take them all to see Up, this summer's 3-D animated motion picture from Pixar. Nice sentiment, yes? Now all we had to do was figure out a time all four of them--not to mention my wife and I--would be available.

(Incidentally, "my wife and I" is a good indication that this Strangely Dim post was written by Dave, not by fellow contributors Lisa or Christa.)

Turns out that the only time we could come up with was middle of the day Wednesday. Turns out that would be OK, since my boss is out of the office and will never find out I played hooky because he doesn't read this blog and NONE OF MY READERS OR FELLOW CONTRIBUTORS WOULD EVER RAT ME OUT.

So Wednesday I escaped the IVP offices and drove out to Wheaton to pick up the kids, then to Downers Grove to see Up at the Tivoli Theater, a restored "classic" cinema with free refills on popcorn and drinks. On the weekends they precede shows with an old-fashioned organist (not one of those crazy futuristic organists like at other theaters), but this was a Wednesday noon show, which, it turns out, doesn't draw a lot of people. The six of us plopped down in the dead center of the theater, donned our 3-D glasses, slurped our drinks, gobbled our popcorn and enjoyed the show.

Up has, as is typical of Pixar films, an outlandish premise: an old man becomes fed up with the cold press of industrialization all around him and decides to escape to the South American rainforest via thousands of helium balloons attached to his house. A boy scout with an emotionally distant dad inadvertently stows away, and they become unlikely partners, house in tow, on a wild adventure. Like I said, outlandish.

Movies, it turns out, are escapist only when they don't deal with themes that you have a hard time dealing with. I, for example, have a hard time dealing with aging and death. Spend any amount of time rooting around in the Strangely Dim archives and that will become self-evident. So here I was, sitting in the middle of a theater in the middle of the day in the midst of four kids I've known since they were born, watching what was supposed to be a silly distraction from an otherwise burdensome day. And here I was, confronted with aging and death. Some kids' movie this was.

It really was quite a good movie, though. Pixar is well-practiced at telling very grown-up stories in a format suitable for children: from Toy Story to Wall-E and beyond, Pixar makes kids laugh and adults stroke their beards while laughing. Helium is a good medium for Up, because we're carried gently, quietly, almost imperceptibly along from seeing old age as a sad ending--a story of nothing but increasing loss and disappointment and marginalization--to seeing old age as just another chapter in the story that is being written with us as ink.

Up doesn't deny the age (and corresponding limitations) of its hero any more than it denies the sadness of his sidekick's homelife. And yet in true outlandish fashion we see this very old man haul a house across continents, we see him turn his walker into a weapon, we see him let go of his disappointments and embrace the next passage of his destiny. Outlandish? Yes. Effective? Yes.

I'm pretty sure I'm still closer in age to Up's sidekick than to its hero, and yet this question of aging still regularly nags at me. But, as I learned from Up and countless other life lessons, facing your fears, your disillusionments and even painful realities like aging and death often results in new adventures, new courage and, sometimes, whole new chapters in the story of your life. Not bad for a kids' cartoon.


Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 5:06 AM | Comments (1) are closed

June 18, 2009

The Summer of Our Discontent

Remember when we were kids and each year followed a familiar, structured rhythm? School would start in September, we would get a few weeks of winter break, more school, and then summer! The end of the school year meant one thing: summer vacation! Freedom! Every year I would look forward to nearly three months of sleeping in, watching morning cartoons and reading. 


The memory I have of this transition from school to "not-school" is that it registered only as the beginning of summer rather than an end to classes. There was such relief. I liked school reasonably well, but I always felt as though the break from all the expectations of classes, of sports schedules, of navigating the tumultuous waters of the schoolroom social hierarchy, was a well-earned respite. I planned each year to revel in it. And I did--for about two weeks, at which point I was generally ready to go back.


Of course, there came a point when summer was less about respite and more about stresses: summer school, summer jobs, the uncertainty of whether or not I could see family, year-round employment with limited time off. Summer vacation, which had always seemed like a given--almost a right--became at times merely a hope, often limited more by financial concerns than by time constraints. Summer, it sometimes seemed, was not so much an opportunity for rejuvenation but rather a season of discontent.


I don't think I've been alone in this. The summer vacation event seems to be part of the fabric of the season. As with Christmas (when we ask when coworkers or friends might depart to visit far-off relatives), come May and June we begin asking what everyone's summer vacation plans are. It's exciting to hear about other people's plans to far-off places. On the other hand, things can get awkward when no destination trip is in the works. More than simply an event, the summer vacation is a cultural norm, a goal, a symbol of social status or financial standing. People who take lavish vacations are envied; those unable to take them are pitied.


But more, even, than this, I wonder if the idea of a summer vacation has taken on some of the symptoms of a greater cultural phenomenon: escapism--not just "getting away" but actually "tuning out." Given the cultural trend toward embracing new technologies that allow us to escape in some form from the immediacy of our surroundings or circumstances (such as television, video games, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) this wouldn't be at all surprising. Especially since so many other forms of escapism are designed to be taken with us wherever we go--including on vacation.

As an example, consider the pervasive presence of television sets (one of many cultural artifacts that suggest that we are, collectively, addicted to the "elsewhere"). They can be found just about anywhere: in supermarkets, at gas stations, in cars, on planes, on our phones and in our homes, with online streaming readily available for shows we missed. We've found a way to be anywhere but where we are at any time of the day or night.

Whether we're boarding a plane or packing the car for a road trip, the one thing that summer vacations have in common with gaming, watching T.V. and spending hours on Facebook or Twitter, on cell phones or with music blaring through our headphones, is perhaps a sense of separation from the "real world," of going to a "neutral" location where the cares and concerns of work or family or future are suspended while we disconnect, or engage something that exists differently. It's easy to forget that, no matter how far we travel--virtually or literally--we can't actually leave it all behind.

Don't get me wrong--everyone needs a break from the daily grind, a time to reset and to get fresh perspective. Vacations eventually come to an end; a return to work or school or family is in general an inevitability. And perhaps, in the end, vacations, with all other forms of escapism, are just one symptom of humanity's collective discontent, for which there is only one cure.

Continue reading "The Summer of Our Discontent"
Posted by Christa Countryman at 7:25 AM | Comments (1) are closed | TrackBack (0)

May 29, 2009

The Church's One Foundation

This year--appropriately on Pentecost--marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Barmen Declaration, a document drafted by theologian Karl Barth and adopted by the Confessing Churches of Germany in 1934 as a confrontation of accommodationist religion and totalitarian government in fledgling Nazi Germany. The document is short and inextricably linked to the details of the day, but it's nonetheless been embraced worldwide as a historic confessional statement, rightly establishing where the church's source of strength solely lies and the boundaries that God has ordained for human government. Here's an excerpt of this brief statement:

The Church of pardoned sinners . . . has to testify in the midst of a sinful world, with its faith as with its obedience, with its message as with its order, that it is solely his property, and that it lives and wants to live solely from his comfort and from his direction in the expectation of his appearance.

To a government and cultural movement that desired to be as totalizing in its worldview as it was in its claims to power, the confessing churches of Germany appropriately shouted "Nein!" We are not the property of governments even of our own making; we are children of the God who made us, and we're to live and move and have our being as such. It begs the question, Who needs to hear this from me today? Where do I need to testify this today?

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 7:16 AM

May 27, 2009

Echoes in the Sound of Static

Over Memorial Day weekend I helped staff a retreat for the high school students at my church. I've gotten to know several of them over the years, helping at junior high retreats or serving as a confirmation sponsor, that sort of thing. This retreat was somewhat accidental--for the youth director, a last-minute need for an extra adult male (and I am nothing if not extra adult), and for me, a weekend with no fixed plans. So Friday evening I found myself driving four teenagers from the western suburbs of Chicago to southwestern Illinois, with a front-seat view of cultural shifts happening right under our ears.

There was a time--I remember it--when part of the adventure of a road trip was finding something to listen to. You'd rock out to your favorite radio station till you got too far from home, then you'd scan frequencies, listening for something good. Along the way you'd learn bits and pieces about the region you were driving through: radio stations along the Canadian border report weather conditions in degrees Celsius, not Fahrenheit; the deep South has lots and lots of radio preachers; Iowa likes classic rock; and so on and so forth. Of course, you might have thought ahead and brought along your favorite CDs or cassettes or 8-tracks, but those were often last resorts. You were on a trek, both literally and sonically.

That time has come and gone. Having embraced the insights of Andy Crouch's <a href="Culture'>http://www.ivpress.com/cgi-ivpress/book.pl/code=3394">Culture Making,</a> I often look at an iPod and see a cultural artifact. Among the many things that the shift in music culture from physical product to data file management makes impossible, or at least more difficult, is the end of the aural pilgrimage--that parallel auditory tourism described above that accompanied road trips of yesteryear. There was a time (I remember it) when a carload of travelers would scan the airwaves, looking for a coherent frequency broadcasting something intelligible to sing along to or be edified by. That time has come and gone. Now we hit the road searching for static.

We search for static because with supplemental technology the iPod can broadcast onto unused airwaves. Even this technology is slightly outdated, actually; my carload of kids was devastated to learn that I didn't have a USB port to plug their All American Rejects/Nickelback/Anberlin/Black Eyed Peas playlists directly into my car's sound system. Fortunately for them, one kid was used to such archaisms as a 2002 Hyundai Elantra GT; he had brought a port with him, which we plugged into the cigarette lighter. A quick scan for sufficient static, and all of a sudden: "Boom Boom Pow."

I am--how can I put this?--not a Black Eyed Peas fan, and one of the kids in my car failed his weekend challenge to convince me that Nickelback has talent. I, incidentally, had a carful of my own CDs, and it was my car, after all; but after playing one song from my archives I was unceremoniously evicted from the DJ's seat.

I suspect there's something developmental about musical taste; some day far into the future one or more of these kids will probably be muttering under their breath about the cookie-cutter noise that the adolescents in their lives are making them suffer through, about how these audio androids could stand a little exposure to the artistry of songs like "Peanut Butter Jelly Time." I think about that and laugh a little. But I hope I'm wrong; not about their musical comeuppance but about the death of the road trip listening tour. You don't necessarily find great rewards as you search unfamiliar airwaves, but there's reward in the searching, I think. And in any case, there's something sort of pathetically postmodern about searching for static. I'll bet a radio preacher somewhere in the South is yelling about it right now.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 7:47 AM

May 13, 2009

I'm Not Overreacting!!?!!

The swine flu--pardon me, H1N1 flu--buzz reminded me of a tendency we seem to have in America: overreaction. In other words, it doesn't take much for panic to set in. Now I realize that people did die from swine flu, and I'm not in any way making light of that. My heart goes out to families who lost loved ones to the infection. However, the very, very large majority of the America public was never in danger of dying from it. Every day on the news for about a week or a week-and-a-half, though, swine flu was the top story, with new statistics, updates about school closings and reopenings, and opinions from medical doctors who didn't know any more about it than anyone else did. Mostly, they just told us to wash our hands.

That did not do much to assuage people's fear or stop our sometimes hypochondriatic imaginations, however. If I cough twice, we wonder, should I go to the emergency room? No, the "experts" would say. Watch for multiple flu symptoms--and wash your hands. Should we stop eating eggs, in case there were also pigs on the farm where the chickens were raised? Well, no, that's most likely not necessary. Just wash your hands. Should I disinfect my whole house every day when my child gets home from school? You can--but you don't need to. Just wash their hands, and yours.

It's not just illnesses, though; we overreact to plenty of other things as well. A report comes out that pomegranates are good for us, for example, so we put them in everything: salad dressing, tea, juice, yogurt, body wash (in case our skin cells can absorb their goodness). We don't like how we're treated, so we sue. Our sports team loses--or even wins--the championship game, and we riot.

I don't mean to blame America. To some extent, overreaction might just be part of being human. It's certainly been happening for a long time. Jesus' disciples, for one, were not immune to it. Case in point: When a Samaritan town didn't welcome Jesus, James and John ask, "Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?" (Luke 9:54). Luke writes that Jesus "turned and rebuked them," and then they all moved on to another town. I was thinking of this passage during the swine flu hysteria, and feeling grateful that people couldn't just call down fire from heaven. If we could, there would perhaps be no pigs left on earth--and maybe just a big ashy crater where Mexico used to be.

In any situation, there are multiple ways to respond. Luke's story about James and John gives us a sharp picture of that: Jesus is unfazed by the Samaritans' response to him, but James and John want to call down fire from heaven and destroy them. Would they have, if Jesus hadn't been there to stop them? We don't know. But it's likely that, at some point--probably while the village was still smoldering--they would have realized they chose the wrong response. Oops.

Responding well to something is hard; it takes discernment. It doesn't mean we never react strongly to things, of course. Jesus did that often. The difference was that he knew when strong reactions were appropriate and necessary; he knew who to react strongly to, and when the timing was right to do it. Take the Pharisees, for example. He called them some pretty strong names. But he wasn't overreacting, because his reaction was appropriate to the situation. Knowing their hearts, he called out their hypocrisy, their pride, their refusal to do justice. He was confronting in them what tears his kingdom down instead of builds it up.

He reacted strongly to positive things as well. In Matthew 8, a centurion's faith in Jesus' power to heal his servant from a distance leaves Jesus "astonished." He also praises a widow for offering her last two coins at the temple, and a sinful woman for anointing him with expensive perfume.

It seems to me that Jesus reacted strongly to two types of things: what destroyed his kingdom and what built it up--to pride and dishonesty and injustice on the one hand, and faith, justice and sacrifice on the other. His responses, then, can help us know what's most important--what's worthy of a strong reaction. I think overreaction comes when we react strongly to something that isn't worthy of a strong response. Like, perhaps, swine flu. Should we take precautions? Absolutely. Wash your hands. But should we fear for our lives? Probably not. Dwelling on it too much will most likely only increase our fear and tempt us to try to take control of the situation somehow, instead of focusing our energy and thoughts on trusting God more deeply in the situation.

As Jesus' followers, we look to him to show us what's worthy of our response. Sin--other people's and our own--is one thing worthy of a reaction; it's serious, and deserves a serious response. Though we can't judge hearts and are not to condemn people, it's entirely appropriate to express anger over injustices like sex-trafficking and to weep and wail over death caused by gang violence, or over our own hardheartedness that has kept us from reconciling with a family member. Jesus confronted the Pharisees directly; we take our anger at sin to him, trusting him to one day make things right, knowing he hates sin too, and listening for how he wants us to respond. In this way, we react strongly yet appropriately, without overreacting. Moreover, when we do feel led to confront someone else's sin, we're able to do so with humility and grace and truth, as a friend angry at how the sin is hurting the other person and as a guide who can point the person back to the abundant life that's free from sin's grip.

And then, on the flip side, we're to celebrate and point out examples of deep faith, love, compassion and justice. These are the things should make our eyes light up, the things that are to astonish us, more than new technology or high scores in video games or incredible plot twists in our favorite television series.

I suspect that, when we focus on the truly important things, pomegranates--while still good and healthy and wholesome--will lessen in significance. I also suspect that, as others see us following Jesus' model in what we respond strongly to, they'll notice. And Christ's kingdom will spread.

And pigs everywhere will thank you.
Posted by Lisa Rieck at 2:03 PM | Comments (1) are closed

April 8, 2009

The Truth About Taxes

Congratulate me. Last year, I earned not $5, not $2, not $1 in interest, but 84 cents. You can almost hear it jingle in your pocket, can't you? That's enough for three gumballs, with a little change left to spare.

Why do I taunt you with my wealth? While Christa is thinking about Holy Week, I'm thinking about a not so spiritual but oh so necessary topic: tax season, of course, and only six days left to file for all of you who work best under last-minute pressure. (For the sake of the people who have to stand outside tax service businesses dressed like the Statue of Liberty, waving, I feel relieved there are only six days left. As if the Statue of Liberty can wave. Sheesh.)

Usually, like (I'm assuming) most of you, doing my taxes does not make it onto my Top Ten Favorite Moments of the Year list. In fact, once March and April roll around, I start thinking of all the things that sound more fun . . . like scrubbing scuff marks off my kitchen floor with a toothbrush. Or even scrubbing scuff marks off your kitchen floor with my toothbrush.

I'm not sure why I hate doing taxes so much. Really, mine are relatively simple. I think some of it is that I feel toyed with; the formulas, though no doubt arrived at after excruciatingly minute debates and calculations, feel so arbitrary: Subtract 3,500 from line 36a if line 36a is less than $25,000 but more than what your father made in 1936. Multiply line 17 by 3 percent (and don't forget, you non-math majors, that's .03). If line 4 is over $120,000, skip to line 11. If you can stand on your head and sing "The Star Spangled Banner" backwards at the same time--heck, just write that in and forget about the rest; we'll call it even. By the time I get to the end of my state tax form, I'm not feeling so inclined to give to the homeless or wildlife preservation, noble causes though they be. In fact, I'm feeling more inclined to go recklessly spend my 84 cents on the aforementioned three gumballs and chew them all at once, to relieve a little stress.

It's not just the numbers that get to me, though. It's the categories. Single? Yes. Thanks for the reminder. Don't get me wrong; the single life has many merits. But I'm reminded of the fact that, if I were married, I might not have to do my taxes at all, since there would be two of us to share the household duties. I could, for instance, offer to scrub the kitchen floor while he does the taxes. And then there are the eligible deductions. Are you a student? No. Thanks for the reminder. Maybe in two years I'll finally start grad school. If they're still offering student loans then. First-time homebuyer credit? No. Thanks for the reminder that I will most likely never be able to afford to buy a house in these suburbs . . .

And if all of those downers aren't enough, this year, of course, had the potential to be even more depressing with the current state of the economy and investments. Not to mention the fact that the day I did my taxes--this past Sunday--it snowed here, as Christa mentioned. Snow in April is the second most cited cause of bitterness for people here (after taxes).*

For some odd reason, though, this year I worked on my taxes with relatively little moaning and bitterness, which pleased me. It pleased me because it indicates to me that, for how self-absorbed my life feels, something must be sinking in and taking root to give me a change in perspective. Something like the IVP book I'm reading, Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate by Matthew Soerens and Jenny Hwang, that makes me mindful of all the undocumented immigrants in the United States who are working--and therefore paying taxes and paying into Social Security--but who will never receive any of the benefits their money is going toward. Contrary to popular belief, statistics cited by the authors say that each year the government collects $6 to $7 billion in "no-match Social Security contributions" (contributions from people using a false Social Security number), and that the majority of that money comes from unauthorized immigrants. Another statistic says those without valid Social Security numbers contributed about $5 billion in taxes in 2005. (Not convinced? Or want to know more specifics? Read the book. It's very eye-opening.)

And something like effects of the sputtering economy. I feel extraordinarily grateful to have an income to fill in on my tax forms, and particularly grateful to be in a job I enjoy so much at a company whose values and vision I love. Even something like taking food to church Sunday morning for a food drive, and being reminded later as I ate my lunch of the extraordinary privilege of having money to buy the food I like to eat. In these hard financial times, I'm learning to not take what I have for granted--but I also don't want to just keep it to myself. I want to share it with others in need.

And, okay, even something as frivolous as rewatching Stranger Than Fiction a few weekends ago. It's just hard not to like Harold Crick in the movie, which, even though it's not real, influences my view of the IRS in general. They're probably nice people, like Harold and Dave, just trying to do their jobs and dreaming about learning to play the guitar or going to space camp.

So, taxes? Still not my favorite thing. But I am grateful for how my tax forms revealed my slightly changed, not-so-self-absorbed, more-compassionate-and-aware-of-the-world-around-me perspective. And perspective is a very powerful thing when it's rooted in truth. Oh--and if you're raising money for the homeless, call me next week, and we can chat. I might have a little spare change.

*This is based solely on my own experience and opinion, and not on any poll, official or unofficial.

Posted by Lisa Rieck at 9:34 AM | Comments (1) are closed

March 16, 2009

Women's History Month

So, it is nearly the middle of March, a month which, like February, has nearly sprung away without mention of some important remembrances which these months are specially designated to honor. Since March is Women's History Month, we'd like to take some time to pay attention to some of the women whose lives have influenced us personally, culturally and spiritually.

We here at Strangely Dim will take turns highlighting some of the female historical figures who have especially caught our eye. We invite you, too, to take time to reflect on those who have gone before.
Posted by Christa Countryman at 12:22 PM | TrackBack (0)

March 3, 2009

To Regret or Not to Regret

OK. Here's my Chocolat dilemma. How do I manage to maintain my fleeting sense of relevance while writing a post about The Bachelor? That's right; I watched the ultimate guilty pleasure among the panoply of reality television. At least, I watched the very special episode, "After the Final Rose," which made my wife exceedingly happy, thank you very much. I share this with you not to invite the widespread ridicule that I fully expect to receive but to address what I think is a pressing problem in contemporary culture: a pandemic of life without regrets.

The Bachelor(TM), in case you don't read Us Weekly, dumped one woman on the season finale in favor of another, then--in the very special epilogue--dumped his chosen one for the woman he had previously dumped. He was appropriately contrite; I will grant him that. He acknowledged that both women had the right to be mad at him, and he admitted that what he was doing was awful, truly awful, particularly to the woman he had chosen, particularly because this rejection could have taken place off camera but instead was broadcast to millions. The only thing, really, that distinguished this very special episode of The Bachelor from every single episode of Jerry Springer is the absence of a live studio audience. Some extraterrestrial intelligent being, several light years from now, will catch "After the Final Rose" in its satellite dish and mutter, "What a jerk."

Nevertheless, the Bachelor(TM) said with great conviction that he has no regrets. Moreover, he said that the worst thing a person can do is to live with regrets. Just so we're clear: according to this logic, it's better to humiliate two women in front of millions of people than to wish that he hadn't.

I don't think the Bachelor(TM) has thought this worldview through. Participants in reality shows such as this one are often forced on the spot to offer philosophical rationale for decisions that were typically made with little philosophical reflection. They stammer and struggle until they find a rhythm of coolness, until they latch on to some proverb their life coach or their enabling grandparents or their childhood celebrity hero once told them: learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all. Or something like that. Then they get their confidence back and state with great conviction "I'm OK, You're OK"--or something like that.

I happen to think that it's good to regret things that are regrettable. If we are finite--if, as the priest tells us as he adorns our head with ashes at the beginning of Lent, we are but dust, and to dust we will return--then we simply cannot make decisions or take actions that are guaranteed to be right. We will, eventually, inevitably, be wrong. And if we are fallen--if, as the prophet Hosea tells us, we have broken our covenant with God in ways similar to Adam's original breach of the covenant--then we have wronged more than one another. In a cosmic sense, we have offended the universe and its Creator. That sounds like something that merits a little regret.

Regret is a concept foreign to a culture of achievement. Regret kills momentum and creates self-doubt, both of which are sins against the push to excel. The only thing to regret, according to the culture of achievement, is regret itself. Regret is the tortoise, and we are the hares. The only thing is, the tortoise always catches up to us, and then we have to deal with it.

Lent deals with regret in a different way from the Bachelor(TM). Where the Bachelor(TM) eschews regret, burying it and denying it ever existed, Lent gives it time and space, an atmosphere to do the formative work that regret can do: regret can mature us if we let it.

Regret can also destroy us if we let it, which is likely the great fear of the Bachelor(TM) and all his ilk. Thank God that our regrets are taken to the cross with Christ, where he puts them to death and then rises again to lead us forward--into maturity, into health, into wholeness, into newness of life. We worry that regret will end us, but in truth regret will end, and by God's grace we will go on. Or something like that.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 7:27 AM | Comments (2) are closed

November 17, 2008

How Can I Keep from Singing?

What'd you do this weekend? I ran the gamut of contemporary singalong culture. Thursday night I sang along with people at church, mostly songs that are in rotation on Christian radio. Friday night I sang along with my friends and coworkers in the audience at a concert that featured Christian music legend Mike Roe and unbelievably brilliant cult favorite Over the Rhine. (By "cult," incidentally, I mean loyal fan base, not heterodox brainwashers.) Saturday night I served as MC for "patriotic karaoke night" at my local library, something I still can't quite believe I did. And Sunday morning and evening I sang contemporary praise music with folks from my church. I did all these things while suffering from bronchitis; my apologies to the people who stood in front of me.

This weekend reminded me of an essay by Don Saliers in the book Practicing Our Faith. He observes that, by and large, people don't sing together anymore. Oh, we'll sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" if we're actually at a ballgame, and we'll sing in the shower, if we're by ourselves. We'll sometimes even sing when directed to do so by our pastor or our president or our boss. But spontaneous, voluntary group singing is pretty much reduced to road trips, and only then with the right song, after being cooped up in a car has made the group sufficiently loopy.

Each of my singalong experiences this weekend--from the coerced to the impulsive--was surprisingly enjoyable. The most surprising for me was "patriotic karaoke night." I was nominated for this gig by folks from my church who didn't even show up. But I'm not bitter. It was technically not karaoke; it was a singalong, using a karaoke machine for the lyrics. About twelve people showed up, including one woman from the Ukraine. Not bad for 7:00 on a Saturday night. Most in attendance were well into their retirement years, though there were a few in their thirties. No kids, interestingly enough. We sang about twelve songs together over coffee and cookies, and people shared stories about their history with the songs.

These songs, I came to learn, function as a sort of archive of American culture. There's an explicit connection between the lyrics and the historical moment in which they were written. There's a clear mashup of nationalism and spirituality, from the ubiquitous references to God, on the one hand, to the fact that some of them were composed by seminarians, on the other. There's a nearly universal celebration of liberty as a central ideal, a demonstrated fondness for the American landscape and an outspoken pluckiness that insinuates, among other things, that to be American is to be indominatable--materially, emotionally, spiritually.

In the 1930s and 1940s two songs were championed as replacement songs for the national anthem--"God Bless America" and "This Land Is Your Land." Woody Guthrie, in fact, wrote the latter because he was sick of hearing Kate Smith belt out the former on the radio. The group stood in honor of "God Bless America," at the suggestion of one woman, but "This Land Is Your Land" was the only song we sang twice, at the suggestion of the man who sat right behind her. "God Bless America" might actually make for a good anthem for the red states, and "This Land Is Your Land" befits the blue, but keeping them both in the rotation perhaps best reflects the spirit of the purple.

I'm not a very good nationalist, I freely confess, but patriotic karaoke night was good for me. I was surrounded by people of various ages and life experience, singing songs we all recognized and had somehow assimilated into our subconscious. I came away with a better understanding of the context out of which I sing songs of worship each week with a couple hundred other people, the context that shaped how the songwriters I'm most drawn to put music to their own particular worldviews. I left each event feeling somehow connected to the people I had sung with, and in most cases I continued singing or whistling or humming as I made my way home. You can get a lot out of singing together, it turns out. It's a wonder we don't do it more often.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 11:15 AM | Comments (2) are closed

November 3, 2008

Lord, Have Mercy

A dispatch from Lisa, who is currently holed up in an undisclosed location.

I know we're all sick of political commercials; signs in yards with names and positions in big red, white and blue letters; phone calls and junk mail from candidates; newspaper and magazine articles on the candidates' past sins, present mistakes and whereabouts, and future vacation plans; the latest political poll; and so on. So I'll keep this short.

Conversations with friends and Paul's words about praying for leaders in 1 Timothy 2, as well as wise commentary from N. T. Wright on that same passage, have reminded me, in the midst of all the hullabaloo, that we're called to pray for our leaders. So, whether or not you voted early at the mall, are going to vote on Tuesday and ask for extra stickers to wear throughout the day so that everyone will know you voted, or aren't going to vote at all and didn't even know there was a presidential election this year--start praying.

I admit, it feels like such a small thing to do for an election that will affect nearly every other country in the world. Voting sometimes feels that way. (As a friend recently expressed, in a broken system can my one vote really make any practical difference for people in need? Will broken, sinful people in power really act out of the best interests of others?) But prayer can feel even a step further removed from Washington, D.C., than voting: If I throw up this prayer for our leaders, will God really hear? Will my prayers for our president and other leaders really bring about change in them, in this country?

Many days, if I'm honest, it doesn't feel like a prayer will affect national and global affairs. But as I talked with friends about the election, it struck me what a dangerous position president of the United States is: in our post-Fall world, few men or women can handle that much power and not fall into sin or greed as a result. So even when we feel like our prayers won't make a difference, I'm convinced we must pray for our leaders.

We're commanded to, for one thing. And prayer moves our focus away from the little power we have to the power of the One we pray to: the only true God, the only all-powerful One who really does hold the kingdoms of the world in his hands. If Paul can exhort others to pray for their leaders while imprisoned by members of his own government, surely we can put his words into action.

Here a few suggestions for prayers you can pray for our leaders, whoever they are:

* Pray for grace to handle the power of their position and wisdom to use that power for the best interests of others, particularly the poor and oppressed.

* Pray for the wisdom and humility to surround themselves with wise people who will help them handle the power.

* Pray that they will be good listeners.

* Pray for their family life.

* Pray for a heart that is compassionate, that longs to see justice done.

* Pray for godly vision.

* Pray for protection from those who would harm them and their families, whether physically or emotionally.

Who knows? As we pray, God may move and empower us to act in some of these areas, to make a difference not for our country or our glory, but for his kingdom and glory.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 3:38 PM | Comments (3) are closed

August 22, 2008

This Month's Donkey Congress: The Shack

Yesterday a group of us associated with Likewise Books met over lunch in our bimonthly Donkey Congress to discuss the runaway bestselling novel/theological treatise The Shack. We didn't publish it, but we read it anyway, because we're not particularly provincial. Anyway, I could write a summary of the nature and tone of our discussion, but I don't have to, because my friend Al Hsu already did. You can read his very thoughtful post over at his blog.

The thing about group discussions is that every one is different, even if they all involve the same book. I actually attended another discussion about The Shack earlier this week populated not by publishing professionals such as myself but by people involved in lay or vocational ministry. The conversation was slightly different and perhaps less critical theologically than the in-office Donkey Congress, but again people saw great potential in a book that Eugene Peterson called this generation's Pilgrim's Progress, Al Hsu called this generation's Disappointment with God and I'll call, I guess, this millennium's Confessions. Or this month's The Secret. Take your pick.

Our next Donkey Congress will be in late October, where we'll discuss the forthcoming book by Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers. If you're interested in hosting a Donkey Congress in your very own time zone, give us a shout.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:30 AM | Comments (1) are closed

June 6, 2008

The Quality of Change

Forty years ago today Bobby Kennedy died of a gunshot wound in California, marking the abrupt and unsettling end of a surprisingly hopeful kind of era. In its e-newsletter today, Sojourners quotes Kennedy's speech in Capetown, South Africa, two years to the day before his death. His words offer a fitting kick-off to all our weekends:

Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality of those who seek to change a world which yields most painfully to change.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:32 AM

June 2, 2008

Where Have You Gone, Bo Diddley?

Rock legend Bo Diddley has died. You can read of his passing here.

My high-school band, Little Queenie, covered Bo Diddley's song "Who Do You Love?" which is a quintessential example of his signature style: "Shave and a Haircut" rhythm; aggressive, raunchy guitar; embittered, defiant lyrics:

I got a tombstone hand and a graveyard mind,
I lived long enough and I ain't scared of dying.

That lyric is emblematic of a particular strain of the blues, one that leans into the emotional navigation of a difficult life. Diddley came of age musically at a time when recording artists were routinely exploited by their labels, and so his career is as littered with bitter reflections on the industry as it is with great music: "I am owed. I've never got paid. . . . A dude with a pencil is worse than a cat with a machine gun."

Speaking as a dude with a pencil, I offer my regrets for the bitterness that Bo Diddley carried with him. I hope for a day when we can all put our pain to rest, when our best art will be created not out of anger but out of joy.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 1:04 PM

May 14, 2008

Keeping in Touch

When some of you saw the title "Keeping in Touch," I imagine your sweet hearts leapt with hope that this post is my firm, telling-the-world, turning-over-a-new-leaf resolution to finally be better about staying in contact with all of you. Unfortunately, I've tried the firm resolution route before and failed every time. Which is why you still don't hear from me.

But. You do, after all, have Strangely Dim to let you know I'm still alive and to give you a peek at what I'm thinking about. And here's the latest thing I'm ruminating on: keeping in touch with the world. I know--that sounds a little ambitious for someone who couldn't even keep a penpal growing up because I didn't write back often enough. But a number of events recently--both personal and global--have impressed on me anew the importance of learning about other people's reality. I'm scared by how easy it is--particularly, it seems to me, in the suburbs where I live--for me to go through a day thinking largely about myself--my own needs, my own schedule, the details of my day. Some of this, of course, is necessary; I need to pay my bills and do my job and show up for my commitments. As a follower of Christ, though, I'm seeing more and more how essential it is to be connected in some way to the reality of others--whether it's praying for people and situations all over the world through International Justice Mission's prayer-request lists, or reading a book like Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea that gives me a picture of the hardships and hope of people in Pakistan or Afghanistan, or attending a benefit for an organization like World Relief that helps resettle refugees who've experienced deep trauma in their home countries, or keeping up with the news out of China and Myanmar.

These are small attempts, granted. Even with them I still get quickly and easily consumed by my own worries and concerns. Some days I wonder (like you might be wondering now), what's the point? How does a thought for others--my own little glimpse into their reality--help them out?

Well, maybe it doesn't. Maybe I am fighting a pointless battle or even just playing a game to make myself feel more spiritual. When I hear of the suffering of others, I do often feel the uselessness of my far-away compassion and thoughts. But what's the alternative? To turn a deaf ear? To be "ever hearing but never understanding; . . . ever seeing but never perceiving," as Jesus described the crowds to the disciples in Matthew 13? Jesus could never be accused of that--and as his follower, called to be like him, I don't want it to be true of me either.

The fact is, self-absorption is too natural for my sinful self that, if I'm not intentionally looking for ways to learn about or be reminded of someone else's reality, I'll start to believe (with help from our culture and advertising) that my life and reality are what matters most, and what most people experience--when really nothing could be further from the truth. Ironically, one reason I need to remember others is for me--to keep me from the self-centeredness that is tantalizingly easy to slip into. My small attempts are, in part, my way of keeping perspective on the world--both God's view of it and my place and role in it.

Furthermore, caring about--even when I can't actually care for--others is teaching me more and more about the heart of God that beats so compassionately and lovingly for the refugees, the children forced into slavery and prostitution, the homeless in Myanmar and Chicago. My glimpses of these people's realities give me a deeper glimpse into the heart of God.

Once we start looking, there are hundreds of ways and places to learn about the reality of others who live an extraordinarily different life than we do. It's something we can help each other do as followers of Christ, called to be like him. Post your comments about who you're mindful of and trying to learn more about. Are there books, movies, websites, organizations that help you get outside of yourself and learn about another person's life? Share them with us. (Then we'll feel like we're in touch again!!)

Let me add a caveat: It's certainly not only the thought that counts. Taking action in the ways we can in the places we're called to is essential. But for all the places we can't, thoughts and prayers really do matter in keeping us in touch with who God is, what his kingdom is like and who we're called to be as his people.

Posted by Lisa Rieck at 10:53 AM

May 1, 2008

The Books of 2Pac

Have I mentioned that I love Very Short List? I learn of so many cool things on the Internet via VSL, the most recent of which is the "I See Dead People's Books" section of librarything.com. Here I get to see what books, for example, Tupac Shakur found compelling enough to buy and bring home and read.

I'm into Tupac lately, based on conversations I've been having with a relatively new friend. Tupac confronts the mainstream image of hip hop as thuggish; though his lyrics are unvarnished and harshly reflective of street life, he is, as his library shows and his biographers attest, deeply thoughtful and culturally important. Two of our authors go so far as to declare him a type of prophet--"not exactly Elijah or Isaiah. But . . . an appropriate word for a given situation. The connections run deeper than you think. It all depends on what you hear."

I'm comfortable with "prophet" being a category not restricted to people in the Bible or even people in the church--although, as with any salutary term, it can be doled out too loosely. But in general I think the world could use more prophetic-minded people, people willing to offer an appropriate word for a given situation. I quote no less a prophet than Moses, no less a prophet than Joel:

"Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the LORD's people were prophets and that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!"

"And afterward,
       I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
       Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
       your old men will dream dreams,
       your young men will see visions.

 Even on my servants, both men and women,
       I will pour out my Spirit in those days."

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 10:25 AM

March 27, 2008

If You're Sad and You Know It, Find a Robot?

A story on the news last week struck me as extraordinarily ironic. A conference in Amsterdam featured robots--all made from Lego robotics sets--created for a contest to "show how humans can live better with robots," as reporter Jeremy Hubbard stated it. Many of the robots were centered around the idea of emotions; one in particular has, among other features, movable eyebrows and is supposed to help children learn to express and deal with fears.

I didn't need a robot to help me express what I felt after seeing the story: namely, sadness and even some fear. While I realize not everyone is able to express their emotions easily or in healthy ways, are we really at a place where we need robots--machines incapable of actually feeling anything--to teach us and our children how to do it? I hope the only way these emotion-portraying robots help us is to perhaps highlight the places we're failing at human connection and authenticity, and spur us to action.

Posted by Lisa Rieck at 2:10 PM | Comments (2) are closed

January 31, 2008

The Triumph of Evel?

I was flipping through the February 2008 issue of Christianity Today (which, incidentally, features the first of several guest columns by longtime friend of Strangely Dim, Al Hsu--check it out, yo!) and came across the "Passages" sidebar, which reports on momentous events in the church and the culture. Included among such momentous events are notable deaths, and included in this month's "Passages" were the deaths of theologian T. F. Torrance and thrill-seeker Evel Knievel. And, considering that word count and column space are premiums in periodical publishing, it appears that February 2007 marks the triumph of Evel in Christianity Today.

I suppose you could chalk it up to alphabetical order or chronology (Knievel died two days before Torrance), but beyond the order of the list is the troubling question of word count and thumbnail image. Staring me in the face at the top of the "Passages" sidebar is a picture of a man "known for his death-defying motorcycle stunts," decked out in his collared jumpsuit. Ninety-five words about Las Vegas and a late-in-life conversion to Christianity later, we move on to the unpictured Thomas F. Torrance, whose ninety-four-year life (compared to sixty-nine for Evel) included a stint as grand poobah of the Church of Scotland and whose widespread influence on a generation of theologians (including a few of my colleagues at InterVarsity Press), was summarized in a mere seventy-two words.

I mean no disrespect to Christianity Today. I just find it funny, the death of two icons of their generations notwithstanding. It's long been my contention that "evil [or, in this case, Evel] is definitely sexier than good [in this case, scientific theology]." The "Passages" sidebar reminds me that generally, in the eyes of the general public, pop culture is sexier than the work of the church.

This doesn't have to be the case, however. I mean really, if we grant that all of life is under the lordship of Christ and thus legitimately subject to theological exploration, shouldn't the church have a say as to what's sexy? I refer you to the recent thoughts of our colleague at IVP Academic and fellow blogger, Dan Reid, as he puts thrill-seeking in its proper context over at Addenda & Errata.

When you put it that way, Torrance will always come out on top.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 9:13 AM | Comments (1) are closed

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Behind the Strangeness

Lisa Rieck is a reader and writer who likes to discuss good ideas over hot drinks and gets inspired by the sky. She takes in all kinds of good ideas as a proofreader for InterVarsity Press.

David A. Zimmerman is an editor for Likewise Books and a columnist for Burnside Writers Collective. He's written three books, most recently The Parable of the Unexpected Guest. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/unexpguest. Find his personal blog at loud-time.com.

Suanne Camfield is a publicist for InterVarsity Press and a freelance writer. She floats ungracefully between work, parenting and writing, and (much to her dismay) finds it impossible to read on a treadmill. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and blogs at The Rough Cut.

Likewise Books from InterVarsity Press explore a thoughtful, active faith lived out in real time in the midst of an emerging culture.

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