Making Sense: Faith & Ethics in a Culture of Confusion

One of the things I appreciate about being able to teach at Columbia Bible College is the connection between studying theology to how we experience faith in "real life." Additionally, we are committed to extending this integrative educational experience beyond our student body, inviting individuals and churches to join us at different points throughout the year through our Continuing Education program.

That said, I'm making my first foray instructing one our upcoming Continuing Ed. courses. If you're in the area, feel free to join us!

David Warkentin, Instructor
Wednesdays | 6:30pm - 8:00pm | No class March 18
$70 (+GST)

Do you ever wonder what Christianity has to do with much of the culture around you? From your workplace, to politics, to pop culture, to local and global violence, to sexuality, how does following Jesus relate to our complex culture? This course will explore the integration of faith and these important topics within North American culture.

04 Making Sense of Culture
11 Making Sense of Public Faith
18 No class
25 Making Sense of Pop Culture
01 Making Sense of Violence
08 Making Sense of Sexuality

To register, go here.

Super Bowl Ads: Commercializing Goodness

Being in Canada for the Super Bowl means limited exposure to what has become one of the central aspects of the event: Super Bowl commercials. But I did get to see a few. Nothing was overly memorable or amazing. I did, however, encounter a trend with a few ads that gave me pause for reflection:

With both ads, my initial response was one of intrigue and appreciation - what an encouraging message to young women and what an inspiring commentary on the development of the human palette. The optimist in me was celebrating the obvious goodness of our society and the presence of positive voices amidst so much “blah blah blah” that accompanies events such as the Super Bowl. These ads were a welcome change of tone and message. And if it means corporations, in this case Always and President's Choice, adding their voice to the mix, well, no big deal. It’s the message that matters, right!?!

But...I do have a pessimist take on TV commercials in general, I’ll admit. These examples are no exception. My concern is this: when we rely on corporations to mass communicate important moral or aesthetic values in our society, does the very fact of who is doing the communicating somehow change - cheapen even - the good and important message? These companies benefit from developing a good reputation. For example, creativity and the human story of food is an attractive topic, far more so than big box stores and the injuring of local economies often associated with a brand like President’s Choice. In these ads, goodness has a motive: selling more stuff. Goodness is commodified and as a result, I think it is cheapened. Self-esteem and culinary exploration go from cultural values to cultural commodities.

This is nothing new. In the 1960’s, communications commentator, Marshall McLuhan, coined his famous phrase, “The medium is the message.” I’m not sure he could have anticipated the level at which his comment would be true in an event like the Super Bowl, but clearly the reality exists. How we communicate is just as important as what we communicate. And when it comes to our deepest values as people and society, yes, I can celebrate the positive messages sprinkled here and there as these two commercials illustrate. But I also need the reminder that whatever trends and commercials tell us, the depth of our goodness must go beyond, and in many cases despite, our commercialization of goodness.

"Practice Ambivalence" - Life Direction with Amy Poehler

Having made several major life and work transitions in recent years and now working with young adults in that oh-so-fun time of figuring out the future, I often find myself thinking about helpful ways to approach our future as individuals.

A common attitude that guides many is summed up in phrases like, “The world is at your fingertips.” Or, “If you put your mind to it, you can do anything you want.” Essentially, we tell ourselves that if we make just the right choices at just the right times, life will work out perfectly and all will be well. Success, when it comes to down to it, is all about determination. Hard work wins.

Christians, while committed in belief to trust God in all things, including life direction, in practice often twist the comfort, “Do not worry,” into a motivational warning that if we don’t get our act together and make good choices, we’ll be left unhappy. “Blessed are the determined” is our paraphrase of the beatitude, “Blessed are those who persevere.” All the while we neglect the two simple words that are about facing difficulty (“under trial”), not determining to avoid it. When it comes to life direction, we risk believing determination can help us avoid any hardship. Let's be honest; this just isn't true.

Celebrities always have good advice in areas of life direction, right? Okay, maybe not. But I’ve been reading Amy Poehler’s Yes Please and was struck by her overall transparency in telling her story, and in particular, some wisdom she’s learned on her road to success:

“Too often we are told to visualize what we want and cut out pictures of it and repeat it like a mantra over and over again. Books and magazines tell us to create vision boards. Late-night commercials remind us that ‘anything is possible.’” Positive affirmations are written on our tea bags. I am introducing a new idea. Try to care less. Practice ambivalence. Learn to let go of wanting it…

Ambivalence is key.

You have to care about your work but not about the result. You have to care about how good you are and how good you feel, but not about how good people think you are or how good people think you look....

You will never climb Career Mountain and get to the top and shout, “I made it!” You will rarely feel done or complete or even successful. Most people I know struggle with that complicated soup of feeling slighted on one hand and like a total fraud on the other. Our ego is a monster that loves to sit at the head of the table, and I have learned that my ego is just as rude and loud and hungry as everyone’s else’s. It doesn’t matter how much you get; you are left wanting more” (Amy Poehler, Yes Please,  222-225).

As I continue to process my own life transitions, goals, hopes and dreams, as well as support and encourage others in doing the same, Poehler’s reflection is timely. Life isn’t a formula. Hard work doesn’t always win. To practice ambivalence, on the contrary, suggests a posture of openness and reliance on others, that while uncomfortable and unpredictable at times, allows us to let go of our striving and live into a healthy sense of self both today and for the future.

Beyond a Fear of Difference

A significant part of my work with young adults is encouraging them to pay attention to the world around us. And then as Christians in particular, to notice and reflect on the ways in which our lives as followers of Jesus relate to this world we participate in.

Inevitably, as most committed Christians will encounter, we bump up against topics that create angst or uncertainty.Whether it's approaches to injustice that involve troubling forms of violence, or exorbitant amounts of money spent on seemingly trivial matters, or the presence of vastly differing beliefs around issues of personal morality, much in the world creates tension for the follower of Jesus, let alone a young adult in general. And really, it should (the whole New Testament is about navigating such tension after all).

But how Christians respond to the differences of our world is no simple matter. And this isn't just an issue Christians face. Society in general, for all our talk about tolerance, struggles to exist in the presence of difference. Judgementalism, violence, exclusion, and alienation are just a few of the symptoms of a cultural problem many people, Christians included, cannot seem to shake: a fear of difference. Whether it's Christians ignoring God's call, or humanity ignoring the call for tolerance in general, we end up like Jonah in the Old Testament. We see "them" and we self-righteously run the other way. We accept a posture of fear and ignore the very thing our world needs: presence.

It's often assumed by both Christians and non-Christians that the Bible is one long narrative (or rule book) about not getting too close to "them." And yes, there are warnings - e.g. intermarrying in ancient times or adopting pagan rituals in Roman times - but we risk equating these warnings with a complete disengagement and lack of presence with those who are different. We forget where Jonah's fear got him.

A fear of difference wasn't the way of Jesus. He was known as a friend of sinners for a reason - he was actually their friend. Literally. We hear the word "pagan" or encounter people who are different and feel discomfort or even fear towards "them." Perhaps we even feel justified in our judgment and avoidance, forgetting all the while that the label "pagan" is preceded by the encouragement to "live such good lives among the pagans" (1 Pt. 2:12). Among=presence.

The tension between the way of Jesus and the way of world cannot be easily navigated or reconciled, I'll admit. But fear cannot be our response to difference either. Like Jonah, we are sent into the places of difference to be a presence - friends - with those we differ from. And like Jonah, we cannot refuse this call. This is the way of Jesus. This is the way we are sent beyond a fear of difference:

I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. (John 17:14-18 NIV).

"Fierce urgency of now"

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the United States.

A group of us at the college watched his famous "I Have A Dream" speech over lunch and I was struck by the ongoing relevance of his message as I pondered conflict, violence, oppression, and various forms of segregation still prevalent around the world.

We still live in a world where there is a "fierce urgency of now." Let's not stop dreaming.

Beyond Grasping - A Posture for a New Year

When it comes to the transition from one year to the next, we get inundated with talk of looking back and looking ahead, oftentimes with the unspoken - but ever present - reality of measuring our lives. "You can do better!" frames our remembering and resolving. But much of this exercise ends up with an approach to life based on grasping or striving for something that is usually far more complex than just setting our mind to it. And we risk allowing our failures or disappointments to define us. As a result, striving itself becomes our identity, not the actual goals to which we aspire. As a famous poet has said, we end up "chasing after the wind."

Taken on my visit to Pender Island (May 2014)
As I look back to 2014 and anticipate 2015, I'm hoping for a better posture to life than the frantic striving that so easily consumes. I want to get beyond grasping.

This passage was important to me in 2014, and I anticipate it will be once more in 2015:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Mt. 11:28-30 The Message)

Happy New Year!

"light shines in the darkness"

Merry Christmas!

"In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." (John 1:4-5)

"I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." (John 8:12)