DUDERANCH IS MY FAVORITE WORD March 20, 2015

Isn't that two words? I'll let Aaron Belz explain that on our podcast. Meanwhile, here's my review of our evening with him:

Mr. Belz reprised his role as literary funny guy at The Row House Forum on January 8th. Part of the Trust Performing Arts Center's "Conversations" series, Belz's gig in downtown Lancaster was part stand-up comedy, part poetic transcendence.

That's what we expect from our old friend.

My greatest satisfaction was meeting several parties representing the emergent literary scene in Lancaster. Tylor Barton of The Triangle, for instance, had conducted an interview with Belz prior to the reading, and showed signs of enjoying himself, as did a writer from Lancaster Newspapers who also got to chat with him.

Once again, I was grateful for the partnership Rob Bigley has pioneered for us at The Trust. We had a full house, around 70 people.  We also gained a lot of publicity thanks to their marketing machine that resembles a 2015 Audi A4. (The Row House machine looks more like a one-owner '98 Jetta, gently used). 

In the week prior to the event, Aaron and I were reflecting on the phone about the beauty and crapola of this life. I forget the exact topic. Off-handedly said he shared that he carries on each day, hopeful that all reality is coming to a point..."in the resurrection." Spoken like a true Donne, one of his heroes.

The only pity of the evening was that we didn't get to see much of this personal side of The Glitter Bomb man. 

For some reason, the Q&A barely veered into his worldview and life experiences, but it certainly could have. We at The Row House forum make no bones about our centeredness in the narrative of Jesus our Lord, yet...

We don't push the Story on our audiences.  As it emerges naturally, so be it. In Belz' case, a lot of spiritual depth lay dormant, which was really fine for some in our audience who were there primarily for the art.

Drawing on Thomas Aquinas' Theologiae Summa,  Flannery O'Connor described the artist as "the realist of distances." So, whether Belz is training his light on the resurrection or pulling back to describe those lame emails that make him hate his life, he's helping us see what matters most. 

We need poets like him to "bring the urgencies of the eschatological realm into the mundane world of the here and now." * 

But if you know me, you know I have to say this too: We need to laugh. Thanks, Aaron, for meeting both needs. 

As mentioned at the top, I did record the Q&A, and it's pretty profound and hilarious.  Stay tuned for a second installment wherein Mr. Belz and I drink coffee and discuss the undercurrents of his art and worldview. 

*Gregory Wolf,  Intruding Upon the Timeless: Meditations on Art, Faith and History, Square Halo Books, 2003, page 87. 

CLEANING UP OUR STREAMS

Streams naturally seek bedrock. I'm told by a conservationist friend of mine that most creeks in Lancaster County are banked with hundreds of years of silt due to damming. To restore them to their natural health, their banks should be removed, not replanted. Doing so allows the stream to spread out and regenerate life.

In his lecture at The Trust Performing Arts Center here in Lancaster this November, Makoto Fujimura showed a slide of his upcoming book, Culture Care. It shows a black river descending over a white background. He said that during the Industrial Revolution, it was in vogue for map makers to draw the Hudson River as black. Why? Because the real river had turned black from massive factory activity. Black rivers meant progress!

Makoto is on a mission to champion "generative culture" in the black river of the arts. He, along with us at The Row House Forum, want to encourage Christians to create good, beautiful, and true culture everywhere they can: in homes, on streets, at jobs, in ideas, through the Church, and "for the life of the world," to quote an outstanding video series of the same name.

When introducing Makoto at our most recent event, Rob Bigley, Executive Director of The Trust, told the crowd he was inspired by The Row House Forum to bring top notch Christian speakers into a public arena.  He assures me he's not exaggerating. He's been encouraged by our work, and his partnership encourages me. 

The Trust partnership downtown is emblematic of the kind of culture care I set out to do when I started The Row House, Inc. four years ago. As time goes on, our purpose becomes clearer and our effectiveness a bit more measurable.

Not only will we be co-hosting two more national speakers in the spring, we will also bring back our "cozy" forums to my house with a host of local culture-cultivators.

You may notice in our graphics and web site that we've focused our vision so that all that we do serves our forums, which serve you. So, please plan to visit us in the coming year. Bring a friend. Keep up with us online.

You can also make a tax-deductible donation toward our operating budget which is currently  $27,000. Only 2/3 of that is secured by pledges. Let us know if you want to make a regular contribution, and we'll be grateful.

Cheers,

Tom Becker, Founder & Director of The Row House, Inc, Curator of The Row House Forum

SOCIAL MEDIA BOOSTER SHOT

Last Saturday we hosted our first social media workshop featuring Ken Mueller of Inkling Media and Adam Grim of YDOP Marketing. On every front, a massive success.

The Square Halo Gallery on Market Street is a perfect spot, one we'll revisit for future forums.

And $25 for three hours of expert consultation? Fuggitaboutit. That's a bargain.

The overall impression from the participants was that we need to do more of these, so stay tuned.

Our guests ranged from three 20-somethings involved with T-shirt marketing to a college professor in Communications to several non-profit leaders to a journalist. Each one, like myself, needed a boost to make the most of the tools that often feel overwhelming.

Folks appreciated the smart yet very personal presentations by our two experts as well as the ample time for interaction.

Ken encouraged us to notuse social media merely as a platform for billboarding but as an interactive marketplaces of ideas. He calls this adopting a "social media mindset."

In so doing, we can crowd-source excellence and become participants in the growing collaborative economy.

Both presenters kept going back to the most powerful human tool we have, though, in building our enterprises: Word-of-Mouth.

The Row House relies heavily on the personal touch AND on the tools we have in social media to drive people to our events. It's an exciting time to be innovative, collaborative and human!

Thanks, Ken and Adam!

THE PRINCETON REVIEW

Over the Ides of March, I spoke for Manna Christian Fellowship's Spring retreat up near The Delaware Water Gap. I was reminded of my Bucknell days working with students.

Oddly enough, turning the corner in the lush dining room of Tuscarora retreat center, I was accosted by Suzanne Priestaf, a former BU student. She happened to be breakfasting with her husband Chris who is a pastor down the road.

The Priestafs had been student leaders in two different campus groups in the 90's, and I've always respected them. They looked exactly the same as when I left them in Lewisburg.  I'm sure I looked the same to them (!).

Manna's retreat consisted of about 80 Princeton students, 10 alumni and four staff. A large portion of their fellowship is a diverse mixture of Asian students.

My host, and the one who is to blame for presenting me to his peers, was Jeremy Chen. He's been working with Manna since graduating from Princeton in 2012.

He and Joel, the Executive Director, prepped me well for the group: They are earnest, gracious and ready to learn from a speaker such as me who is cut from a different kind of cloth.

How different? Well, I sat in on one of their break-out sharing times made up of recent alumni and staff. I noted, as they went around the circle, the kinds of jobs these men and women have...already:

  • Programmer at Google
  • Investment firm consultant in NYC financial district
  • Staff with The World Health Organization in DC
  • Medical research at Princeton in preparation for med school
  • Master of Divinity student at Westminster Seminary
  • Manna Fellowship intern heading to med school
  • on and on

Folks shared fears and challenges, and others prayed. Most were in that state of euphoria of having landed that first great job, and praises to God were in order.

A different cloth, indeed, from my upbringing and education, but it didn't get in the way of some good communication. Thanks to Jeremy's encouragement, I simply spoke as directly, winsomely and "Tomly" as I could. And the students responded well to that.

For instance in my first talk, I introduced the topic: Wired for Glory: How Ecclesiastes Calls us to Re-humanize our Spirituality.  My talk was 20 minutes long in which I reflected on the need for wisdom in navigating three campus idols: Partying, Friending and Winning. And I showed how Ecclesiastes commends all of these, in the context of a loving Creator.

Except for my Friending talk that I have to completely revise, the others seemed to touch a nerve. In the final talk about "winning," I wanted to uncover that basic human urge to win, to compete, to achieve, to succeed.

Is the urge to win inherently evil or a perversion of a God-wiring in us? I argued for the latter, just as I did in the other two talks. But with this one, I knew that my fabric for understanding achievement presented a cultural dissonance.

To avoid appearing self-righteousness(pointing fingers at all those privileged Ivy Leaguers!), I chose to openly share my own frustrations and achievements across the broad palette of my life. 

I spoke of marriage, household, friends and civic life as critical arenas for pursuing success. That is, life is more than jobs.

I also led that session with a lot of questions, allowing them to interact over the relative merits of the ever-present competitive bug at Princeton.

I found they're working through the same stuff I've been wrestling with for decades. I found them able to reflect critically on their campus culture and internal motivations. I found them delightful to interact with, and I credit a lot of that to Jeremy and the other leaders of Manna who have pursued a course human flourishing in Jesus' Good News.

I also had some great conversations with a few undergrads that surprised me:

  • Awoman who was very impressed with my apparent encouragement of my five kids' gifts, particularly in music. What for me is obvious (you encourage your kids in the line of work they delight in), was abnormal to her. She was raised to aspire to a short list of acceptable vocations at which she could aspire. For her, she demurred, becoming a doctor didn't bring her angst. Since she was a little girl, she always wanted to be a doctor. How convenient for her parents! Still, she was impressed by my embrace of music as a viable vocation for a Christian.
  • It surprised me that one graduate, working in downtown Chicago, aspired to create a library in his apartment for friends to enjoy. He admitted he only had a dozen or so books and that his knowledge of classic literature was very weak. So, not every Ivy League graduate has imbibed a truly Liberal Arts education!
  • One other woman allowed me into a family secret: She found out in her teens that her Grandfather had lived a separate life in a country that turned communist. When the curtain dropped, he fled to the democratic side and started a new family of which she belongs. During her childhood she was told he had died. The shame of his re-set life was hidden from her by her Christian parents "out of love". She seems to have reckoned with her disappointment, but the pain remains.

I was struck by the normalcy of it all. These high-achieving folk were coming off a draining week of mid-terms and worries over getting into internships in their summer. One student admitted that all his options were actually pretty fantastic. Still, a person frets.

Persons are persons everywhere.  Even as Christians, we can make a big deal out of cultural differences in a way that leads to prejudice, judgement and suspicion. But we are all image bearers. And in Christ, we are all animated by one Spirit.

As I gazed out at the Delaware River running by the retreat center, I mused that God's Spirit runs deep, deeper than the skin of our cultures, as God-given as they are.

BILL DAWSON ON FINANCIAL FEUDALISM

If you weren't able to make it to our October forum, here is the text Bill Dawson wrote for his talk. Enjoy!

Financial Feudalism and Collapsing Democracy Part I

By William S. Dawson

The current Great Recession is beginning to expose a process that has been in the works for over 30 years— the evolution of our economic system into a feudal system based on finance. Largely unregulated private financiers and large corporations driven solely by financial considerations now dominate society to such an extent that the rest of us have become financial serfs and peasants. Our debt patterns and job possibilities are at the mercy of casino capitalism created by finance lords whose exclusive goal is MORE. In the process, the lords have co-opted the government through the expedients of election financing and lobbying power, facilitated by a Supreme Court that states large corporations are legally constituted “persons.” Money has become equivalent to free speech. Has this feudal system eclipsed true democracy?

CONSCIOUSNESS RAISING 

Somewhere in his vast writings St Augustine likens human awareness to that of an ant walking across the vast mosaic floor of a great cathedral, eyes down and attentive only to the immediate steps in front of it, oblivious to the spectacular and awesome design of the mosaic. As Jesus said, “seeing they don’t see, and hearing they don’t hear.” The following presumes to be a token exercise in “seeing” or what the 60s and 70s called “consciousness raising”. 

THE FEUDAL MODEL

Vivid but vague conceptions of the medieval world, drawn from history classes, movies or video games float around in our brains. Aside from chivalric fantasies about knights and damsels in distress, most of us have a hazy but unmistakable feeling that we don’t want to go BACK THERE, that life was relatively brutish, unfair and, well, feudal. These feelings in their broad outlines are no doubt legitimate. 

One percent of the population, nobles (lords) and wealthy bishops, owned and ran things. Another few percent--- courtiers, knights, mayors, lawyers --- serviced the nobles as well-paid hired guns. The rest were peasants and serfs (worker bees and cannon fodder for the lords) . This feudal system was based on the owning and expropriation of land, the key to power and wealth. If you controlled large swaths of land you were a Noble, and everyone else on your land worked to further enrich you by 1) growing crops or raising livestock, and 2) fighting to take more land from other nobles or defending your land. In return you would promise to protect your peasants from attack and let them eat some crops and cattle they tended. You hired knights and clever lawyers to increase your stake in land by force or guile. 

The one percent noble families, while encouraging unwavering and patriotic peasant loyalty to lord and king, waged a never ending international competition among themselves for land and power, using force, legal and religious manipulations, and marriage alliances. While peasants often cared deeply about being English or French or Castilian, ethnic or national identities were unimportant or irrelevant to nobles, who played an international power game among themselves across the European continent. Famously King Richard the Lionhearted lived no more than a couple of his adult years in his native England, favoring the plundering life on the continent after making his reputation in the Third Crusade. In a retrospectively comical game of musical chairs, Spanish princesses became English queens, English churchmen became French bishops, Danish nobles claimed the English throne, English kings claimed the French throne, Italian princes obtained German kingdoms, and German nobles became Russian royalty.

Outside of fantasy fiction and RPGs, where our love for medieval motifs knows no bounds, we are grateful to have relegated the medieval system to the mists of history. Throwing off the yoke of nobles once and for all in the American Revolution we never looked back, creating a democracy that is the envy of the world. Feudalism is a distant memory, thank God…. Or is it?

EVOLUTION OF FINANCIAL FEUDALISM

You might recall how a frog will sit in a pan of water slowly heated-up until he boils to death. For the past 30 years we have been, like the frog in the pan, largely unaware of our economic system’s increasingly feudal aspects, based NOT on estates of land but on massive piles of private money. Beginning in the late 70s, American society began to undergo a series of deep shifts in reaction to novel international competition, OPEC oil embargoes, and 60s social changes. In the name of “freedom” and in reaction to critiques of what President Eisenhower had called the military-industrial complex,  corporate and financial leaders promoted the “liberation of business” from perceived anti-competitive regulations as the way to get America “back on top” and restore her wounded pride. Aggressive “free-market” policies advocated by the Milton Friedman led Chicago school of neoclassical economic theory resulted in accelerating corporate deregulation, the end of antitrust enforcement, a shareholder revolution claiming “investors” to be the only legitimate stakeholders in businesses and corporations, complete deregulation of global capital flows (movement of private money) and aggressive promotion of finance as the key American industry. These policies, enhanced by accelerating technological changes, resulted in relentless industry and financial concentration reminiscent of the social Darwinism of the “robber baron” age. 

Money, unlike land, is an idea and it has no place. We have decided in our infinite wisdom that the movement of large amounts of it through cyber-space should NOT be regulated. Consequently, the global reach of international finance is now beyond the control of national governments, a global game NOT of THRONES, but of the endless pursuit of MORE MONEY through financial and market manipulation. Of the 150 largest economies in the world over 60% are multi-national corporations that, unlike nations, have no responsibility to provide for, or protect their citizens. In our current system financial corporations (i.e. big banks, hedge funds, etc.) dictate priorities for all other multi-national corporations.

The focus being money, money inevitably played an increasingly larger and more corrupting role in politics. Money is the blood of our economy’s circulatory system. It must circulate and be well distributed in order for the economic body to be healthy. As our system redirected more and more money to the wealthy, the rest of the American body started to feel the ill health effects. The result: though we were the “richest country” in the world, we fell behind other industrial nations in education, infrastructure, and the performance of our real economy industries, which were starved for funding as capital followed the “hot money” into Wall Street in order to maximize short term profits. The US marketed its “free-market” financial scheme around the world (the so-called “Washington Consensus”), leading the drive toward economic globalization and forcing other countries in the global economy to enact the same policies favoring finance and multi-national corporate shareholders over all other stakeholders in the economy. The scheme sought to “financialize” real economy assets through Wall Street’s conversion of existing and potential cash flows from worldwide economic activity into raw material for the manufacture of new financial “products” which drove Wall Street’s rise to economic dominance.  

These often fiendishly complex financial products are called “derivatives” because their economic value is “derived from” real assets like mortgages and car loans. The purpose of derivatives, besides creating huge fees for Wall Street, is to feed the growing demand for ever more profitable short term “investments” and trading opportunities for the large piles of money (trillions of dollars) floating around the globe relentlessly seeking higher “returns” (think large pension and mutual funds, private equity funds, and corporate and government sovereign wealth funds).  The result has been catastrophic: increasingly severe economic boom and bust cycles driven by Wall Street “pump and dump” strategies, where everybody BUT the winners in the financial casino suffer; stunning increases in economic inequality; and the degeneration of our democracy into a de facto plutocracy (rule by the rich).  

As modern finance solidifies its vice-like grip on the real economy we have become the servants of financial lords; what these lords do in their financial competitions with each other directly impacts our peasant lives, from our debt load, to whether our modest lifetime savings will survive or be wiped out, to whether small businesses can be financed, to whether there are enough living wage jobs to go around, to whether we can obtain reasonable health care.  As Wall Street co-opted Main Street, the middle-class has been gutted, the working poor grow disproportionately, and we all become the debt-serfs of international banks and hedge funds. Meanwhile the US Supreme Court solidifies the power of finance and leads us into the final phase of democracy’s degeneration into plutocracy by ruling in 2010 that Wall Street and multi-national Corporations are legal “persons” who have a constitutional “right” to steer unlimited amounts of money to politicians and political causes.

THESE NUMBERS DON’T LIE: THE EXTREME WEALTH GAP

Let’s look at some basic stats to get a feel for where we are. In 2010 the average income of the Top Ten Hedge Fund managers was $1.75 BILLION, which comes to about $840,000 AN HOUR. At a $45,800 annual income the average American family would need to work 18 ½ years to make what the Hedge Fund manager made in an hour. The Hedge Fund manager produces nothing of real value, but moves large piles of money making massive market bets in the financial casino run by the modern lords of finance.  

According to Forbes magazine, in 1970 the ratio of the top 100 US CEO salaries to average worker annual earnings was 45 to 1. (That’s CEO SALARIES mind you, not including stock options where the real money is). By 1980 the ratio had more than doubled. By 1990 the ratio was 321 to 1. By 2006 it was an astounding 1,723 to 1. If we take the average salaries of ALL US CEOs in 2012 (over $12 million per CEO) compared to the average employee salary of $34,645 the ratio is 354 to 1, more than triple the ratio in all other industrialized countries in the world. (Is that Europe I hear snickering over self-righteous democratic America creating the new global nobility?) In the same time frame executive pay sky-rocketed (1980 to the present) employee real income stagnated then turned downward, even as employee productivity accelerated and steadily rose. From 1947 to 1980 employee wages and productivity tracked upward together. Then came the great divergence beginning around 1980 as productivity continued rising while incomes went nowhere. In the exact same manner and time frame, compensation in the economy’s financial sector and nonfinancial sectors tracked upward together from 1947 to around 1980, then diverged steadily from 1980 to the present. In 2010 US financial sector yearly compensation more than DOUBLED aggregate non-financial sector compensation.  Not surprisingly, the ratio of household debt to income more than doubled during this same time period (from 56% in 1975 to 127% by 2006) as the middle class tried to hang on to their accustomed lifestyle through credit cards and mortgage re-financings. 

These statistics about income do not even include wealth, of which income is only a percentage. But they do indicate why we currently have the largest and most extreme wealth gap in our history. Charts of US income distribution in the last hundred years are shaped like the letter “U”. In the heyday of the “free-market” globalization binge of the 1920s the top 1% took home a 24% share of income. The Great Depression and responses to it slowly lowered this percentage during the 30s. With the Depression still in mind, post-war America established a regulated financial system that stabilized income distribution at reasonable levels while avoiding any boom and bust market cycles, and from 1949 to 1982 the top one percent took home between 9 and 11 % of US income. Then financial deregulation seriously kicked in and by 2007 the top one percent was back up to 24% with no signs of changing to date.  From 1947 to 1980 the various family income levels in the US, whether 95th percentile, 50th percentile or 20th percentile grew together, tracking at the same relative growth rates. Again, after 1980 comes the great divergence. The higher the percentile the greater the divergence. By 2007 the top tenth percent got % of income and controlled % percent of all wealth. The top 1% got 23% of income and owned 35% of wealth. The next 9% got 26% of income and owned 39% of all wealth. The bottom 90% got 51% of income and owned 27% of all wealth. 

PILLARS OF FINANCIAL FEUDALISM

Like Islam, our financial feudalism is based on five pillars:  “free-market” or laissez-faire ideology, corporate institutions, financialization, plutocracy, and sociopathic incentives. These give the financial lords the tools to redirect circulating money from the real economy into the global financial casino, from where it ends up in the pockets of the winning lords. The casino is funded on the backs of streams of peasant debt from credit cards, mortgages, student loans, car loans, loan loans etc. (Like medieval peasants, we are working most of our hours to pay-off the lords. In an updated version of the old company store-company town concept, no matter how hard or how much we work, the system assures the cost to meet our needs will exceed our income purchasing power.) 

The financial casino extracts money for the lords by a mechanism Wall Street calls “pump and dump”: the lords strenuously pump up bubbles of overpriced assets profiting on the way up, then bet against the assets anticipating the bubble’s inevitable collapse, profiting on the way down. This game is driven by the system’s single, solitary goal—maximization of short term profits. It is impossible to MAXIMIZE short term profit without pumping up bubbles which inevitably burst. Savvy-- and lucky-- lords, like “the house” at the casino, win big while the vast majority of outside investors and peasants lose much or even all of their savings and investments through this process. Massive peasant job losses ensue in the real economy as the lords left holding the money severely restrict its circulation until they are sure the cycle can begin again. 

This system is so concentrated and incestuous that complete collapse of the financial system is often threatened when the lords temporarily horde their huge gains and seize up monetary circulation. The finance lords threaten government and taxpayers with Armageddon, capitulation is inevitable, and the peasants refinance the Financial Lord’s casino games. The pump and dump cycle begins again with the next hot asset. With each turn of the cycle, the peasants become more indebted, the lords more enriched, as the wealth gap between the few lords and the many peasants widens. 

PILLAR ONE—FREE MARKET IDEOLOGY, OFFICIALLY CALLED NEOCLASSICAL ECONOMIC THEORY

The modern free-market ideology is a comprehensive way of thinking about the world. For decades now economists have been insisting that the best way to ensure prosperity is to substantially reduce or eliminate government involvement in the economy and let private sector “competition” take over. By late in the Carter administration, the original oil crisis, monetary inflation, foreign competition and reaction to the sixties revolution conspired to catapult this ideology into power. The victory of the ideology was secured by the Reagan election. 

As with any popular ideology, there are elements of truth wrapped up inside the free-market myth. Properly functioning markets CAN reward hard work, innovation, and the provision of well-made, affordable products; they can punish firms and workers who supply overpriced or shoddy goods. This carrot-and-stick mechanism can direct resources to productive uses, and can create efficiencies in a dynamic economy. But unregulated or badly regulated markets do not have the necessary discipline and boundaries that permit markets to function properly, because inherent in the free market ideology are glaring contradictions which make self-destruction inevitable absent such boundaries and disciplines. The most obvious contradiction is that between two fundamental system requirements; competition and maximization of profits. To keep prices reasonable the system relies on continuous competition. But the only way businesses can maximize profits is to AVOID competition; either by destroying, or entering into anti-competitive arrangements with, competitors. As Adam Smith wrote in Wealth of Nations “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”  The very creation of our modern consolidated industries and multi-national companies was predicated on destroying competition. (Incidentally, unlike neoclassical theory which simply ignores the contradiction, Smith attempted to solve it in his nascent version of the free-market, by eliminating the requirement for profit maximization. In fact he insisted on low profits so that workers could be paid higher wages. Smith said this was in society’s interest because the vast majority of people are workers. This part of his theory is heretical today and rarely cited.)

Furthermore, while the two system requirements of competition and profit maximization attempt to address the needs of businesses and customers, the system completely fails to address the needs of everyone else; that is those who are not directly involved in the business transaction-- the community and the larger society. The theory is built on the Robinson Crusoe view of the world; that we are all isolated individuals or businesses who ONLY affect one another when we have a direct business exchange or monetary transaction, a patently absurd and unreal notion, yet one that dominates all economic analysis and decision making. There is no complete cost accounting or accountability in the system. For example if BIC Corporation decides it can increase profits by manufacturing and marketing disposable plastic shavers, and consumers decide (or are convinced by BIC’s marketing) that they will pay less by buying disposable shavers, the system analysis is complete and the shavers will be made and sold. The social and environmental costs involved in disposal of so much plastic and in the cultivation of a “throw away” material culture are born by society and completely unaccounted for in modern business accounting methods. This narrow Robinson Crusoe theory quietly justifies the prevailing strategy of all big business today: socialize costs and privatize profits. 

 The crash of 2008 resulted from Wall Street banks deciding they could maximize profits by manufacturing and marketing derivatives made out of mortgage backed securities, and customers like pension and mutual funds thinking they could get something for nothing (i.e. higher than normal interest rates on AAA rated bonds). There was neither incentive nor any mechanism for the system to account for the real social and economic costs of risk to both banks and customers inherent in the scheme, nor the inevitable costs of the bubble bursting and threatening the entire financial system as well as destroying millions of jobs, retirement and savings accounts. “Too big to fail” banks automatically socialize these costs (trillions and trillions of dollars), pushing them onto the taxpayer and society, while the winning banks in the casino walk away with the privatized profits. 

PILLAR TWO—THE CORPORATE INSTITUTION 

The modern corporate structure was the product of western governments who wanted to pool private capital and direct it to very specific public ends. Early America was wary of the corporate idea, having experienced the monopoly power of the British East India Company which forced the colonies to pay a tea tax that caused the first anti-corporate act in America, the Boston Tea Party.   (The modern “tea party” is an ironic parody of the original since it was founded and is funded by Koch Industries, the 16th largest US based multinational company, and second largest privately held US company with 2013 revenue of $113 Billion. It is 84% owned by two Koch brothers who are ideological right wing activists. Tea party politicians spearheaded the recent government shut-down. But I digress.) 

Thomas Jefferson said in 1816 “I hope that we crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.” In the early 1800s state governments chartered only a few corporations for limited time periods and specific public purposes, like the Erie Canal and early turnpikes and railroads. The corporate charters specified the duration of the corporation and exactly what business it could legally enter. Early corporations could not own other corporations and had only the explicit rights granted in their government charter—any desired changes had to be approved by the government. They could not lobby, donate money to political campaigns or claim any constitutional rights. They justified by their orientation toward serving the society first and shareholders secondarily. 

With the advent of early modern corporations during and after the Civil War things began to change. Shortly before his assassination Abraham Lincoln wrote to Col William Elkins “I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of our country.  As a result of the war, corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands, and the Republic is destroyed.  I feel at this moment more anxiety for the safety of my country than ever before, even in the midst of war.” As states began to compete for large corporations they loosened corporate laws to the point where anyone could start a corporation with no restrictions and for unlimited duration so long as they filled out the paperwork and paid the fees. State courts bent over backwards to support corporate business. Corporations could own other corporations in any combinations corporate and tax lawyers dreamed up to avoid taxes and regulations and increase the shareholder take.  Corporations became a legal vehicle for accumulating wealth and avoiding risk and responsibility. Perversely utilizing the 14th Amendment (freeing the slaves) business lawyers got the Supreme Court to pronounce that corporations would be considered “natural persons” before the law. (Sadly, of the 307 14th Amendment cases brought before the Supreme Court between 1890 and 1910, 19 were brought on behalf of African Americans while 288 were brought by corporations seeking rights.)       

The social problems caused by the first huge corporations in oil and steel led to attempts to curb corporate power in the early 20th century, but none were really successful until the Great Depression came along. This great tragedy instilled the political willpower to regulate corporations and banks in ways necessary to prevent the huge boom and bust cycles and put boundaries on corporate power. In an uneasy truce with the government, corporations had to look after multiple stakeholders in making their decisions, including employees, the local community where they worked, and society at large, as well as shareholders. Large corporations and corporate finance continued to be regulated into the post-war years, and there were no major boom-and-bust occurrences through the 1970s. 

Beginning in the late 70s the neoclassical economic doctrines of deregulation and shareholder value kicked in and reversed the post-war regulatory truce; and corporate power grew exponentially. The shareholder value doctrine turned corporations themselves into commodities, to be bought and sold, stripped of assets, reassembled, taken public, privatized in leveraged buy-outs again, all for the sole purpose of extracting short term financial gain by continually selling assets or pumping up stock price. 

By the 80s corporations had gained through the courts all the legal rights of “natural persons”. Most egregiously courts held that corporate advertising was protected “free speech” and subsequently that giving money to political parties and candidates was also protected “free speech”.  The final nail in the coffin of legitimate democracy came in the 2010 Supreme Court case called Citizens United , a 5-4 decision that not only upheld the legal fiction of corporate personhood but explicitly barred regulation of corporate political donations as an unconstitutional violation of corporations’ free speech rights. The private money power of large corporations is now fully leveraged by the “rights” of corporate persons, and elections can no longer be won without corporate money; a long way from the days when corporations were forbidden from financing or getting involved in politics. 

PILLAR THREE--FINANCIALIZATION 

The keystone pillar of Financial Feudalization is the financialization of the economy. Financialization is the process by which finance, traditionally a servant of the real world economy, becomes instead the master of the real world economy. Financialization is a tail wagging the dog story. Instead of Wall Street serving Main Street, Main Street ends up serving Wall Street.  In the 70s the finance industry represented less than 10% of US Gross Domestic Product (GDP). By the 2000s finance was over 40% of US GDP, and growing. Our best and brightest were steered from engineering and entrepreneurship in the real economy to Wall Street finance firms, where income was twice that of the real economy. For example top physics PhDs were hired by Wall Street to create sophisticated algorithms for pricing complex derivatives and making billion dollar bets on everything from corn futures to currency plays. Financial Feudalism is ultimately built on casino style finance. 

In medieval feudalism the lords competed against each other for territory through violence and legal maneuvering. Lord’s would wage war and consolidate land holdings and power through noble marriage mergers. Their ability to expand and consolidate power was based on how much land they could control. Their power and control was built on the backs of peasants, who provided the military manpower and the real economy labor that made their land actually productive and valuable. The peasants were tied to the land by law and the political power of the lords. The lords were “rentiers”, making their wealth by controlling the value created by peasant labor. They leveraged peasant productivity on the land to finance the acquisition of more land, and so on.

Modern financial feudal lords compete against each other for money through financial product trading and manipulation of financial markets. Financial lords wage financial trading and corporate control wars, and consolidate power through corporate mergers. Their ability to expand and consolidate power is based on how many dollars and markets they control. Their power and control is built on the backs of middle and working class peasants, who create the real economy assets from which the lords’ financial products (called “derivatives”) derive their value and upon which the lords conjure more debt to wage bigger financial battles. The middle and working class peasants are tied to the debt economy by law and the political power of the lords.  Like their medieval counterparts, these lords are rentiers, making their wealth by controlling and trading on the value created by middle and working peasant labor. They leverage peasant productivity and debt (i.e. mortgages, student loans, car loans etc.) to finance trading and corporate acquisitions to control yet more money, and so on.  

The financial lords can leverage assets to a far greater extent than medieval lords ever could because it is far easier to leverage assets in a sophisticated monetized economy than a land based economy. In the financial casino that is modern “free-market” finance, financial lords routinely leverage their assets at ratios of 30 to 1 and more (30 dollars of other people’s money to one dollar of their own) in seeking huge short term profits while risking relatively little of their own assets. The derivatives financial casino is now TWENTY TIMES LARGER than the real economy itself. In 2012 the dollar amount of financial derivative transactions was twenty times the GLOBAL Gross Domestic Product. In other words there are $20 of financial bets placed on everything from mortgage backed securities (like the notorious CDOs of Great Recession fame) to oil futures in the financial casino for every SINGLE dollar of actual real economy activity. Imagine the real economy is the NFL, and the finance industry is Fantasy Football. Fantasy Football piggy-backs on the NFL, since without the real football league games there can be no Fantasy Football. Now imagine that the Fantasy Leagues keep making more and more money compared to the real NFL, until Fantasy Football makes 20 times the money that the NFL makes. The parasite takes over the host, sucking more and more money out of the NFL into the Fantasy Leagues, until the NFL is dependent on the Fantasy Leagues to finance them. If the Fantasy Leagues crash, many of the real football players are out of work and the NFL severely suffers. If this inversion continues for long enough, the weakened NFL will eventually collapse, along with the Fantasy Leagues built on top of it. Because the only incentive in the whole system is short term profit, making a quick killing trumps any consideration of the long term health of football—or the economy. That is the insanity of modern fantasy finance in a nutshell.

PILLAR FOUR—PLUTOCRACY

Plutocracy simply means government by the wealthy; basically an oligarchy of the rich. That is the effective state of the Government of the United States at the moment. Some analysts reckon it a Corpocracy because so much of the wealth is held by corporate vehicles, which as legal persons have the advantage over real people in that they can’t be put in jail and they are eternal—they never die. Obviously as the economic might of the financial lords grew vis-a-vis the peasants so did their political muscle. The feedback loop between money, politics, and ideas is both cause and consequence of the rise of financial feudalism. Plutocrats rarely govern directly. Financial lords prefer financing front men of both parties rather than actually holding office, since their only governmental interest is to protect and enhance their profit making. They care little about most day to day governing activities, and well paid lobbyists take care of any loose ends that could affect their profits. What the lords DO care about is the general atmosphere of government, and the appropriate responses to occasional critical legislation.

Since the 90s the power of the lords has insulated bankers and financiers not only from effective regulation but also from criminal legal repercussions. Like their medieval counterparts, the lords are above the law; or rather they ARE the de facto law. This does NOT mean some lesser lords are not occasionally “thrown under the bus” as scapegoats to protect the plutocracy, since such token sacrifices give the illusory impression of cleansing the system, thus diverting attention from the deeper need for serious systemic change. 

PILLAR FIVE—SOCIOPATHIC INCENTIVES

According to the American Psychological Association, the key traits of sociopathic behavior, along with the ability to charm and manipulate people, are self-absorption, an overly elevated sense of self-worth, and an almost complete disregard for the well-being of others. These traits also define the nature of the incentive structure of financial feudalism: single-minded focus on the holy grail of maximum short-term profit which creates an elevated sense of self or institutional worth, and a complete disregard of third parties unless such disregard threatens maximization of short-term profit.

Financial feudalism assumes that those institutions and individuals who participate in the economic system are as single-minded in their pursuit of maximum short-term personal profit as the system itself, so the system links the pursuit of personal profit to the system pursuit of maximum profit.  The more and faster you can directly increase the bottom line of your corporate entity, the more your personal bottom line will increase. This applies to all personnel, not just sales and marketing. The human resources, legal, accounting and other “support” functions are NOT recognized as having legitimate goals other than profit making, and are disincentivized by low pay and long hours (and ideally outsourced or done away with if at all possible) UNLESS they can contribute DIRECTLY to the bottom line by manipulating laws and accounting rules to increase and protect profit. The system also assumes that its individual and corporate participants, like the system itself, are voracious in their desire for more. IT IS NEVER OK TO BE SATISFIED. No one ever has enough, and therefore no one can take their eye off the ball of profits to consider other goals. To the system such an attitude is treasonous since it dares to challenge the monotheistic goal of profit with other considerations. Hence such an attitude is dealt with severely through the avenues of pay disincentives or out-right job losses. 

These five pillars hold up financial feudalism. Until they are knocked down financial feudalism will reign. The real challenge is figuring out how we as a society can rest control of our future from our new feudal lords and restore our once prosperous, relatively fair, and well-educated nation. If we do not, the increasing concentration of wealth and power of the lords will worsen and we will face not only the end of any semblance of democracy but also correspondingly the increasing bondage of peasantry. 

HOW DO WE RESPOND TO FINANCIAL FEUDALISM?

Admittedly, the above diagnosis is not cheerful, unless you are one of the feudal lords. However we should take heart because this is a time of opportunity as well as peril, an exciting time of transition. Because it doesn’t correspond to reality, financial feudalism cannot be sustained over time: even if we are irresponsible in our reaction to it, it will implode in on itself. The continuing Great Recession and its fallout have driven many people to start rethinking what they assumed: about economics, about what is life for, about society. This is very encouraging. Additionally, there are even some feudal lords who are unhappy with the system, challenging it in word, if not in deed. The first step in change is awareness, in seeing when we see and hearing when we hear. In Part II of Financial Feudalism and Collapsing Democracy, we will look at ways to positively respond to financial feudalism. Stay tuned.

BOLOGNA, DENTISTS & ARTISTS

CHENANIAH, LEADER OF THE LEVITES IN MUSIC, SHOULD DIRECT THE MUSIC, FOR HE UNDERSTOOD IT.

-I CHRONICLES 15:22

 

This obscure passage from the Old Testament fell on me as I was reflecting lately on the role of art, music in particular, as a kind of language. 

"We gave this movie to friends; they watched it; then they tore it apart."

The young woman who made this comment bore grief in her voice. Because the film conveyed positive content, she sincerely wanted her friends to enjoy it for what it was.

Sadly, this is what it was: Mediocre.

Her comments came amid a discussion I was leading about the role of art and artists in the church, and her experience is something we all can relate to. 

Another participant bemoaned TV shows like The Voice and American Idol, not for their content, but their very purpose: To exalt the excellent and eliminate the mediocre. 

I suggested, gingerly, that we need more excellence in our culture, not less, when it comes to the arts. 

I realized in that moment that in my circle, the Presbyterian Church in America, hardly anyone knows we have a big steel box in our theological basement labelled Tools for Creating Excellent Things for All the World to the Glory of God. 

Arts and artists get weird treatment in our churches. Other kinds of vocations do not.

We'd never expect our dentist to use her dentistry as a platform for propaganda. We'd know intuitively that her preaching at us while our gums are saturated with gauze is a bit inappropriate. 

No, we expect her to fix teeth well, or she wouldn't deserve to the License to Drill.  Nor could we say she's "glorifying God" by conducting a shoddy practice. 

But with the arts, the popular ones especially, mediocrity is endured so long as a "good message" or some good intentions are apparent.   

I recently attended an evening of music with three acts that progressed from flatness to brilliance. The first  was earnest yet uncreative; the second more creative but lacking passion; the third blew the other bands out of the water with passion, energy, vocal range and a special something that got the audience to its feet. 

This is not to say the earlier bands don't have a tune to play or a story to tell. But the third group seemed to understand the music, themselves and the moment in a way that was compelling. Excellence in music begins with language proficiency in music.

At least, that's what Matt Monticchio tells me, and he's a composer. Me? I ain't no musician. But I love music like I love a native speaker's ease of delivery. 

Even in a shallow genre like pop music, excellence is better than mediocrity and we know it intuitively. We reward it with our wallets. Christian artists take note: No amount of good intention or desired outcome will transform mediocrity into something God-glorifying. 

At the lunch discussion, between gobbles of Lebanon Bologna and apple juice, I recommended that perhaps Christians who do art should first and foremost strive for excellence in their craft. How they then use their creations to live or speak the Christian faith is up to them, but in order for their work to really glorify God, it should at least be recognizably excellent. 

I was surprised at how novel the notion was to most the group.

Where's that tool box? 

MONTY PYTHON’S HOLY COW

I write tag-lines for a living, it seems. My daughter Katie pointed out a reverse look at one my best ones in an article by David Fee in The Atlantic, Jan. 2, 2013.

We say, Nothing is Not Sacred, which is to say all of life is sacred because God created it all lovingly, purposefully and carefully.

We also love to laugh. We, at least my household and I, dig Monty Python’s Flying Circus (all the episodes, mind you, not just the oft-quoted Holy Grail).

Here’s Mr. Free’s take after a lengthy explanation of The Pythons’ brilliant and bawdy sense of humor:

Along with its language, England’s sense of humor is its finest export, and Python is English humor’s apotheosis. “Life’s a piece of shit / When you look at it.” True, but it’s hard to feel that way while watching Python. The troupe behaved as if nothing was sacred and everything was ridiculous. It is a deeply subversive attitude—and a deeply liberating one.

Liberating? I suppose so. Despair offers that side-effect. I’d prefer hope instead, to be honest.

All of life is infected with vanity and fallen-ness. That’s a serious condition and not all that funny. But it must be that reality, at its core, IS sacred. Why else, then, would need some comedic distance from it?

SEX, DRUGS AND CALVIN COLLEGE

Chuck Klosterman admitted to a fair amount of nervousness in addressing the crowd at Calvin’s Festival of Faith & Music.

Being a “nothing” religiously, so he says, he guessed that his remarks on pop culture would touch a nerve. They did. He also guessed that the audience, made up of imports like me, mostly adult, and undergrads from the campus, would fall into three categories according to where they would be spiritually in 20 years:

1. Some would be galvanized in their faith tradition. 2. Some would be long gone from their religion (looking back on this fest as naive and embarrassing). 3. Some would still be unsure about the big questions of life.

His “take away” point from his entertaining lecture was that he implored us to be those in category 3: Lifelong questioners.

Can I claim two categories, please, please, Chuck?

I am more devoted than ever to the story of Jesus in the Scriptures. I’m neither ashamed nor flamboyant in my testimony: I love Jesus. And yet I still ponder, learn and question the dominant paradigms foisted on me by my culture and especially the evangelical culture in America.

He illustrated a very fascinating tension in American pop culture. Using religious iconography of any kind in art produces a bifurcation in audience response. That is, people either assume the an artist is either pushing or bashing religion by including  religious notions in his/her art.

We want evangelism, or we want blood. We aren’t comfortable with the wheat and the tares. He used the example of Spring Breakers, a new film in which the Selena Gomez character represents a Christian college girl who does not spiral in decadence after a brief stint in the gutter.

He called this kind of anti-climax unusual in a culture that has to dis or preach and can’t just live and be human and act nice.

Klosterman himself appears awkward about his own life. Having grown up deeply Roman Catholic, and having tossed that tradition off, he still tends to see the world in terms of goodness and badness (he used that language often). Characters are good or bad. Some kinds of behavior or attitude are good or bad.

I don’t have that baggage, being raised a Happy Heathen. So I guess I was trained to tolerate more ambiguity. I’ve always assumed we humans were capable of good deeds and bad crap. I just needed the Scriptures and the Gospel of Jesus Christ to codify what I saw all around me. And I needed a savior to pluck me from the fire and get me moving toward the good, something I couldn’t arrive on my own.

No matter how many questions I will ever ask, sometimes answers are really welcome.

LIKE A HURRICANE

Hurricane Sandy was unpredictable. One minute she dumped rain, the next she beguiled us with calm. Though I’m relieved my in-laws in NJ came through unscathed, I have to admit to a bit of disappointment up here in Lancaster. After all, my candles and nifty oil lamps saw no action.

My speaking engagement schedule reminds me of Sandy. It’s either boring, brewing and bashing me with opportunities. There is no pattern. Gigs had been slim pickins for a few months, but November will be a lot busier.

I’m excited about speaking for a retreat, lecturing at our forums, preaching twice and even giving a dorm talk at Gordon College near Boston. Here’s my updated schedule for those who wish to plot my path.

Another encouraging development was the invitation to read and review Margie Haack’s memoir, The Exact Place. That review will be showing up in the Canadian ‘zine, Comment.


Unlike the destructive habits of a hurricane, this storm of activity will prove to be very constructive for us. Thanks to all of you who have been watching our progress.And this just in: Our Board approved our first Intern who will arrive in January. Chloe Rudman of Texas is a family friend, fresh out of Baylor University, who will be helping us with events, living in community with us and helping us set the DNA for future Residents of The Row House.

UP IN SMOKE OR TO TOKE OR NOT TO TOKE?

I’m getting an education in marijuana on my trip through the West, especially from California and Colorado.

Considered a felony by the federal government, cannabis use for medical purposes is allowed (and heavily regulated) in these two states.

It’s weird to pick up one of those free, independent newspapers and find an entire supplement dedicated to the “dispensaries” and to weed in general.

Our host in Colorado Springs was very kind to offer us good stuff as we relaxed on her deck overlooking the mountains, the very mountains that were up in smoke a couple weeks ago.

I say offered because neither Becky nor I partook. Getting high has never appealed to us. To be honest, though, it was much harder to resist a similar offer from a dude during a U2 concert.

For Becky’s part, it might have been the first time anyone ever offered her weed, being the All-American, conservative gal. The scenario still cracks me up.

Speaking of conservatives, our host, whom I’ll call June, made it known she thinks James Dobson is “out of his mind.”

I didn’t press why, but being a part of the very strong progressive underground of Colorado Springs, I assume she meant his penchant for melding Christian conviction with Republicanism.

The Republicans, of course, according to her, simply want the pot issue “to go away.” Hence, the continuous shifting floor of regulations on sales and use. The Democrats, I’m guessing, are the party of Big Rock Doobie Mountain.

I spent a couple hours chatting with June, mostly asking questions and responding to hers, thus avoiding political talk and my often-maligned vocation as pastor. I also cleared up my distance from many things evangelical by sticking to the person of Jesus when she asked me about my faith, etc.

So, I didn’t have the heart to tell her that a big part of our pilgrimage to Colorado Springs was Focus on the Family’s headquarters to visit the Radio Drama division, (Odyssey, Whit’s End, etc.)!

She told me just about anyone can get a “prescription” for pot. She found the drug a godsend during three months of chemotherapy a few years back. I have to say, I’m grateful for her sake for that mercy.

But the fact is, most marijuana smokers just like to get high. I know that much from sitting at the feet of Cheech & Chong in the 70’s.

I mean, really: Apart from the conservative and liberal voting bloc wars, vilifications and judgments of fellow human beings, what good is marijuana?

I tried to light-up a conversation with June about such a topic, but it dissipated. She, being an obvious toker, wouldn’t entertain any negative effects from pot.

She reminded me that most Americans are pretty good at destroying themselves through crappy food, alcohol and couch dwelling. Uh, yea. She’s right.

Pot people do tend to be outdoors-y, in tune with health and socially conscientious. If there is research demonstrating a wasting of brain cells from pot, June isn’t having any of it.

The cynic in me says, OK, greatThe more other people smoke pot, the more I can be productive in the wake of their diminished abilities.

But that’s not necessarily true or kind of me to say. It’s the kind of things anti-pot people say because they can’t abide the thought of others enjoying a buzz.

Christians can not condemn the use of pot simply because it’s illegal or because it’s “not conservative.” And we can’t judge people who use it who feel the need to get mellow because they don’t know the calming presence of the Holy Spirit.

I need to think about what’s best in light of God’s creation and his redemption of the world through Jesus Christ. He came to give humankind abundant life. He came to lead us to love God and neighbor.

If pressed, I couldn’t tell you what I think is the best policy about pot. Yea, my sense is its use makes people dopey and can’t possibly be a good habit.

And yet, in PA, casino gambling is “acceptable,” as is pornography and gluttony and addictive tobacco.  We live in a culture of many “rights” that are simply self-destructive and family destructive.

Is marijuana the worst thing out there? I kind of doubt it. At the same time, it seems like a royal waste of time, money and human ingenuity.

This was a ramble on my part. Sorry. The uncontrolled substance of caffeine is barely doing its job. Give me some feedback, people.

ME AT THE INTERSECTION OF CHRIST AND AMERICA

In Bakersfield, CA a few days ago, I met up with a pastor who was eager to hear about The Row House. I had contacted Randy Martin before our trip to simply scope out a possible floor to crash on and any chance of connecting with like-minded people over cultural engagement. Turns out, he found us a sweet family of four to stay with and an opportunity to describe what we’re up to on the East Coast.

I was impressed by this man’s transformation from a “cultural warrior” in the 80′s to a broken man who now is trying to help his church build bridges to neighbors. I can’t wait to get his story in print for our journal.

In a nutshell: His pastoral ministry had been curtailed by family upheaval. Then he found himself starting over, working among normal people like most of us do without a clerical apparatus to hide behind.

What he found at the end of this season was that he no longer feared non-Christians. The atmosphere of “us VS them” that fueled his early days of co-belligernnce in social causes fell from him like a skin that no longer fit.

Now, each week at least, he’s leading a small group of men in his church to discuss how the Gospel impacts various areas of life that are matter most. He calls it “Intersect.”

I can’t tell you how amazing it’s been to network with a lot more people than Randy on this trip.

In Oklahoma City we had a few hours to do laundry. Wanting legit coffee, I posted a note on City Church’s Facebook page that I’d be downtown at Elemental Coffee, and Hey, if anyone wants talk about reaching people through cultural discussion, text me.


I met Jim Tudor at Cornerstone Festival (a fellow speaker). He is starting a community-based, film discussion in St. Louis called Zekefilm.A fool’s errand, right? Not exactly. Bobby Griffith, who works with my old seminary pal Doug Serven at City Pres, contacted me! We had some great conversation. He and some church members are conducting a forum called “Intersection” which mirrors our forums in PA.

Tomorrow I have lunch with a San Luis Obispo (CA) pastor whose church conducts a regular men’s pub gathering. He has a L’Abri background as we do, and it will be a joy to make contact with him.

Of course, our family spent a couple nights at Ithaka Fellowship near Normal, IL on the way to Cornerstone. I serve Duane & Julie Otto’s board. They run an agrarian version of The Row House.

 

The more I travel and look around, the more I am inspired by a rich diversity of thoughtful Christians doing their best to follow the Lord in His world where nothing is not sacred. 

I’ll be home soon to tell more tales.

BLUE LIKE JAZZ...MOVIE?

A movie based on a popular memoir that doesn’t read like a movie? Why, yes, if you have the mind of Steve Taylor, Director.

Honestly, I’ve never read the book by Don Miller. I heard that it touched millions of eager readers. I was too busy traipsing through Miller’s other book which prominently featured a VW Microbus. Now, that’ll get my attention.

No offense to Don, but I’m really interested in Steve. Becky and I viewed their film at a Premiere last week at Eastern University. It’s a solid film, one I am proud of, considering Steve Taylor has been one of my heroes  since the days of his jestering as a New Wave rocker in the mid-80′s.

During a photo opp beside their Blue Like Jazz promotional box truck, I met Steve as he was handing out Twizzlers to the crowd. Of course! I thanked him for his work and handed him a worn copy of The Wittenburg Door, a satire magazine which featured him on the cover. He signed it in Sharpie right next to his image bearing his signature lankiness and squinty smile.

Back to the film: Super well shot by Director of Photography and long-time collaborator of Steve’s, Ben Pearson. Look, a film HAS to lookgreat no matter the story, the dialogue or the acting. Christians working in this art rarely get this right. Steve and Ben nail it.

Being set on the campus of Reed College  in Portland, they had a lot of visuals to play with:  A condom-distributing Pope pushing a grocery cart and a wild rave on the quad, just to name two. But more than that, the dialogue is mature, cogent and hilarious. It’s funny as in Napoleon Dynamite funny.

It’s basically the story of a fundamentalist Texan who gets pissed off at the goofiness and hypocrisy he encounters in the name of Christianity and then heads of to Secular University. There, among Lesbians and Malaysian Cocktail-sipping tennis players, he runs as far from God as possible.

The film, according to Steve Taylor in his introduction to the audience, “earned its PG-13 rating.” What he said next was even better. I’m quoting loosely here:

We decided to take a biblical approach to our story telling. For that reason, the film is not really family-friendly. If you’ve read the Bible lately, you’ll know what we mean by that.

I will promote this film and ask each of you to get out to see it on the weekend of 4/13. If you do, and it sells out, there’s a chance it’ll stay in the theaters longer and make it to smaller markets like Lancaster.

Though made by Christians, Blue Like Jazz stands on its own merits as a film, not as a propaganda  piece for evangelicalism. What a relief!

I have to say, however, that I fear the film has a fundamental weakness, with all due respect to Taylor, his crew and his backers: Only a sliver of the American public will relate to its worldview. The creators are counting on the readers of the book to be the core responders who will bring their friends. They’ll succeed at that, but the broader American audience is less apt to identify with a damaged Baptist from Texas.

It’s certainly not my story. I left for college as an unchurched, moral, North Eastern, shallow hedonist and was blindsided by Christ a month later.

At it’s core BLZ is still a movie about someone’s relationship to God. Skillfully done with imagination and integrity, yes, but about spirituality in the full frontal sense. The sub-plots are artfully done, but they play in the background: Don’s relationship with Penny, his loss of integrity, and his whacko youth pastor who shags his Mom. Unfortunately, these are the very narratives most emerging adults will relate to the most.

Taylor’s previous film, Second Chance, suffered from the same weakness: An overtly Christian story about a prosperity preacher (played by Michael W. Smith) and his fall from grace. Did that film strike a nerve with many outside the Christian bubble? Probably not.

With Blue Like Jazz, Steve Taylor delivers a great piece of popular art. He’s getting closer to a more subversive, and perhaps more explosive, telling of the Christian story. Hopefully, he’ll earn enough bread to springboard further into the mainstream of movie-making where that story is welcome, if done artfully. He can do it. Let’s cheer him on.