Monday, January 23, 2012

Curiously Long Ramblings about a YouTube Video

It didn't take too long in 2012 for Christians in social media to find a topic that stirs them into a frenzy. And, no, this time it isn't Rob Bell. A young man named Jefferson Bethke wrote & performed a poem. It was artfully produced, uploaded to YouTube, and went viral:

I can't count the number of reactions I've seen or responses I've read. I asked my good friend, Matt Dabbs, to address it on his blog, and he did ( But then I began to see a host of responses. Written responses on blogs; video productions on YouTube. Pithy quotes on Twitter that either agreed with or shot down the ideas Bethke promoted. Reactions from Christians who loved it; reactions from Ministers who hated it. One minister even mimicked Bethke's delivery by writing & performing a poem of his own in praise of religion.

There were even reactions from atheists who, in the spirit of Richard Dawkins or Bill Maher, employed profanity & demagoguery in an effort to lampoon believers. One thing you can count on: if there is faith-related issue that inflames passions, neo-atheists will be right there in the center ring of the circus stoking the fire.<!-- mixed metaphor-->But I'm not interested in either praising or picking apart Bethke's video. And thus adding even more volume to the world wide echo chamber. I'm more interested in what our reactions say about us. Because I think it says a lot that's worth thinking about.

For one thing- isn't it strange how some of us write our thoughts down in our notebooks about this man's YouTube video and, one click later, the whole world has access to see what we think about him? This is a far cry from Priscilla & Aquila's model of correcting someone else's doctrine. Insofar as that is our model, praise to Kevin DeYoung for engaging Jeff one-on-one regarding his YouTube video. But it is strange that we write & critique other people on the internet. And the more well-known the subject (person) is, the more free it appears we are to write about them.

"The Social Network" touched briefly on this phenomenon:

Erica Albright: You called me a b---- on the Internet, Mark.
Mark Zuckerberg: That's why I wanted to talk to you.
Erica Albright: On the Internet.
Mark Zuckerberg: That's why I came over.
Erica Albright: Comparing women to farm animals.
Mark Zuckerberg: I didn't end up doing that.
Erica Albright: It didn't stop you from writing it. As if every thought that tumbles through your head was so clever it would be a crime for it not to be shared. The Internet's not written in pencil, Mark, it's written in ink. And you published that Erica Albright was a b----, right before you made some ignorant crack about my family's name, my bra size, and then rated women based on their hotness.

You write your snide bulls--t from a dark room because that's what the angry do nowadays.

At this point I should note a couple of things. First, I do not make this observation with the intention of openly criticizing my friends for writing blog entries about Jeff Bethke's video. That'd be ironic: me criticizing on a blog the fact that others criticized on their blogs. For the most part I'm pointing out how odd it is that this is socially acceptable nowadays. Second, I've written here on this blog about famous people in the past -- most notably (in my own mind) are blog entries about Jennifer Knapp. But even in one of those entries I wrote the following:

I want it to be well-attested here that what comes next comes from a place of love. And, in that sense, a complicated love. Because I've never actually met Jennifer Knapp personally. I don't know her, and she doesn't know me. Which makes it difficult to even address this issue.

I think we all would do well to acknowledge, at the least, the awkwardness of offering criticism on others that we don't know personally in a forum that any person can access. It's a simple act of humility that is imperative. Otherwise, it's difficult to move beyond the hubris of this whole blogging exercise.

Another thing I wonder about is our own motives. What moves & arouses our passions? What causes some to re-post a link to this video with an endorsement in all caps? What compels others to seek to temper that enthusiasm? Or to post several links on the subject, each with some rebuke as a preface?

I suspect both polls are passionately defensive for a reason: they have something to defend. I confess that what comes next is pure conjecture & speculation, but I think it's worth considering. What both sides are defending is likely an insecurity.

The sentiment that Jefferson Bethke spelled out in that video is not new & not unique; it has been expressed & experienced many times before. For the people who viewed it & exclaimed "YES!!" they had stumbled across a message and messenger that gave voice to their discomfort with contemporary expressions of faith. They've very likely tried Church or had it forced upon them. And despite the fact that they admire Jesus & the story he represents, they probably found His Church(es) disagreeable or had an even worse experience.

Maybe some of those folks aren't going to Church as regular anymore. Maybe some of those folks feel like square pegs trying to fit into the round holes that they hear from pulpits that they're supposed to fit into. Maybe they've stopped looking for answers in the buildings where our faith is expressed each Sunday. And maybe they feel guilty about that. If that's the case, Jefferson Bethke helped alleviate some of that guilt.

For the record: I'm not sure that's such a great thing. Perhaps some are drawn back to faith. But for others I suspect the video is an excuse to go on feeling resentful over a bad experience with religion. And maybe those folks still need a dose of godly sorrow.

And for the many ministers who viewed the video & balked I can imagine a number of reasons why. Mainly because I processed many of these sentiments myself. Maybe some of us are jealous: THIS guy is gaining notoriety (over 16 million views on YouTube at the time of this writing) while our message(s) haven't ever gained such a wide & respected hearing. Maybe some of us want to prove how much smarter we are than that guy. Or everyone else for that matter.

Maybe some of us feel threatened. Perhaps the reason we are involved in ministry is because we are the round pegs that always did fit pretty well in the round hole. And being in ministry we represent religion. We operate within it and help orchestrate it. So it stands to reason that we wouldn't take kindly to being painted with the broad brush with which Jefferson Bethke makes his strokes.

And let's be honest: maybe some of us are too critical. Whether by nature or by nurture (Seminary has a way of doing this to us...), we pick things apart. Does that mean that Bethke's video isn't an easy target? Surely not. There's a host of issues I have with it. But that doesn't mean we have to circle 'round like vultures until we pick him clean.

In fact, there's a strong case to be made that Bethke's message is quite Biblical. James wrote some challenging words to those who speak of the importance of religion but lack some of the basic characteristics that make religion worthwhile. The book of Hosea contains the famous words "I desire mercy, not sacrifice" -- a quotation that Jesus referenced at least twice (Matt. 9:13, 12:7).

Why can't we fixate on the strength of that message rather than diagramming the ways that Bethke imprecisely expressed X, Y, and Z? What moves us to offer corrections in this way?

What if, instead, we studied Bethke's video like a playbook? Obviously this guy connected with the deep aches of young people. Rather than carp over all the things we find troublesome, I wonder if we would be more wise to temper our own urgings to rebuke & incorporate what’s working into our own teaching.

I credit Jeff Bethke for getting us to talk about this. On one of his web sites, Jeff says his aim is "to offer posts that will be convicting, challenging, and cause you to deeply consider your faith." Judging by that I'd say that Jeff did exactly what he set out to do. To that end: job well done, Jeff.

Now- about those false dichotomies...

Monday, January 16, 2012

What Am I Rooting For?

I'm going to remember January 9th, 2012 as a great day. I'll remember it as the day that I enjoyed watching my team win the National Championship in New Orleans with my sister & other friends. The nervous anticipation all day of not knowing what Alabama and LSU would deliver that night. The maelstrom of complete joy that hit the French Quarter as running back Trent Richardson broke a run outside -- reaching the endzone & sealing victory. The scene on Bourbon Street minutes later as people wearing crimson filled the street.

That moment probably is what I'll remember most. I can't describe to you the joy of chanting at the top of my lungs, "L-S-WHO! L-S-WHO! L-S-WHO!" All the hugging and high-fiving was like a scene straight out of "Band of Brothers" after the 101st had liberated yet another European town. And, in a way, we all did feel liberated: we were unashamedly proud of our team & the social norms of the moment gave us permission to not hold it in anymore.

Nevertheless, despite the total satisfaction of rooting for a Championship football team, something in the back of my mind haunts me.

I remember back to college where I'd sit around with a group of intelligent friends and we, with the benefit of hindsight & the already well-formed judgment of history, would try to figure out why society could have such a hard time with common sense issues.

"How could Southern Caucasian Churches have struggled so mightily with the Civil Rights movement? Why were they so slow to adapt? Why weren't they at the cutting edge LEADING the cause for justice? What were they thinking?"

Inevitably, someone would ask the question, "What are we slow to act on today? What will be the blight of our generation?"

I honestly think it's this question that causes so many within Evangelical circles to push so mightily for same-sex rights. But I digress.

I wonder if I'm wrestling with an issue like that right now.

Kevin Turner was one tough son of a gun. A fullback at Alabama 20 years ago, Turner graduated to the NFL where he played nearly a decade with the Patriots and the Eagles. He'd deliver crushing hit after crushing hit as the lead blocker for ball-carriers. Turner didn't play a glamor position. If he got his picture in the paper it was probably an accident -- the happenstance of being in the same frame as the star running back. Young, powerful, tough -- Kevin Turner was the picture of a young warrior in professional football.

Today Kevin Turner can't even hold a telephone to his ear. ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease) has taken his strength away.

"I never dreamed that my brain would be destroyed after a period of time," said Kevin Turner, 42.

While he still can, Turner is educating the public about head trauma, which he believes contributed to his ALS.


Three months after Turner's diagnosis in May 2010, some Boston researchers reported a link between an ALS-type illness and the repetitive head trauma suffered by some athletes. Turner is now involved in research about the degenerative disease, which is called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

It's believed to be caused by repetitive blows to the head, including concussions. CTE has been linked to depression, erratic behavior and early dementia in a number of former pro athletes.

"We've always known boxers could become punch drunk," Chris Nowinski said. "We never thought it could exist in other sports -- hockey, wrestling, soccer, football. The brain doesn't care what's hitting it. The brain is far more fragile than what we thought."

Then- Kevin Turner was a proud warrior on the gridiron. Today- Kevin Turner finds simple tasks like holding the hand of one of his children more & more challenging each day.

The tough thing right now is that there isn't enough evidence yet to prove that ALS can be brought on by head trauma. It is an exciting loose association, but in the world of medical science it is a loose association at best. Chris Nowinski, President of the Sports Legacy Institute & one of the leading researchers connecting head trauma with neurological diseases, says they need more money (from a Bill Simmons podcast on 03/08/11). But mainly they need more brains.

Dave Duerson's brain was one of them last year. Duerson was a retired defensive back -- most famous for his role on the legendary 1985 Chicago Bears defense. But after a myriad of personal, physical, and financial problems had taken their toll, Duerson decided to end his life. He suspected he had CTE, but didn't know for sure. Duerson knew that the concussions he had suffered in his football-playing career were affecting him, but he couldn't cope with the problems anymore. So instead of shooting himself in the head, Duerson texted his family instructing them to donate his brain to science. And then he shot himself in the chest.

Did you know that Lou Gehrig may not have even had Lou Gehrig's disease? He may have simply had CTE. Gehrig had numerous concussions from his high school football-playing days -- back when they strapped on leather helmets. He even played Major League Baseball before they wore batting helmets. They'd just wear the caps they wore in the field up to the plate. In an exhibition game in 1934, one pitch came up & in too fast for Gehrig to dive out of the way. It hit him in the forehead, knocking him unconscious. Who knows how many concussions he had in total.

Perhaps I shouldn't feel responsible for this. These men chose their path in life. Some of them capitalized handsomely as a result of it.

But, in a way, I think we're all responsible. The more that we make football a religion -- and it's heroes our idols -- the more young kids we're sending out to the field to prove their own manhood. And that's where the real danger lies: all those fragile teenage brains that are laid on the line under the Friday night lights.

As Jonah Lehrer wrote:

Rollinson (a high school football coach) then leans forward in his chair, as if he's about to tell me a secret. "Look, most of my players aren't going to play ball for a living," he says. "I know they don't want to hear that, but it's the truth. So there's really no reason they should risk messing up their brain."

If the sport of football ever dies, it will die from the outside in. The only question now is whether the death has begun.

I know that if there are any young Mama's who ask me for advice, I'm going to tell them to push their boys toward basketball, or baseball, or golf. Almost anything but football.

And if I believe that, then why do I continue to jump up & holler when the boys representing my tribe of choice make a big play? Am I wrestling with the "Civil Rights"-like issue of my day? Will this be the blight of our generation? If rooting on players on the field of battle only makes them to go harder, potentially destroying their brains, then what am I rooting for?