Quality, Not Censorship

Its no secret that I was a comic book fanatic when I was a kid. Had I a bit more time on my hands now, I likely would be still. I was primarily a Marvel Comics collector: X-Men, more than any of the rest. DC characters seems a bit too…traditional….to me at the time. DC Comics, however, pioneered the first superheroes. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman…all were borne from the DC Universe. The only one of these that I ever gravitated toward, however, was Batman. 

I think the reason that I liked Batman so much at the time was the same reason I like James Bond so much: I’ve always been a sucker for cool technology, and both of these characters had plenty of that to go around. The current incarnation of Batman movies have returned the Dark Knight to his appropriately dark and menacing persona, nearly an anti-hero, and appeal to me a great deal. What occurs to me, though, is that I grew up with a post-television-series Batman, with memories of “pow!” and “bam!” and campy music still in the air, and so even Tim Burton’s Batman films were refreshingly dark for me. 
I watched the anime Batman: Gotham Knight last night, and it launched me into this research. Is it that we’ve made the characters darker in modern incarnations, or just that we’ve stopped running in fear from good storytelling and returned to the original character concepts? 
Actually, the latter is occurring (even the current James Bond is much closer to Ian Fleming’s original character than have been any previous film versions). You see, when I grew up snatching new issues of Marvel comics from the shelves on weekends, I was reading material approved by the Comics Code Authority (CCA). I remember very well the seal appearing prominently in the upper left corner. What I didn’t realize, however, was how much the CCA actually censored in the publications bearing their seal. 
It turns out that a psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham was to thank for this, as he was possibly the first to lead to the cultural panic that life imitates art. In his rush to assume that children’s minds could not stand to see life portrayed vividly with all of the junk accompanying it, he launched into a personal war against media in general, and comic books in specific, to prevent them from printing violence, gore, and any number of other story elements. 
Except that all of these things are just that: story elements. Are we to say that, because many writers and film-makers portray them gratuitously and in poor taste, that they are not useful for progressing the story? Scriptural narrative contains a significant amount of sex, violence, and other vices. Instead of attempting to with-hold them from story altogether (its amazing to me how the CCA managed to exist in a country valuing freedom of speech), we should concentrate on producing quality art, where the sex and violence and addiction necessary to move the story line is not presented gratuitously, or inserted where it is not necessary to move the story line. Perhaps artistic quality is what should be in question here, not the assumption that life imitates art. Because, even if it did, shouldn’t we want it to imitate quality art? 
I suppose, in retrospect, that I was shielded from a great deal of this, as Marvel Comics phased out of submitting their material for CCA approval, and because I gravitated toward other publishers who didn’t bother with approval in the first place. Knowing that I was unwittingly exposed to censorship, though, leaves me profoundly disappointed in many ways. 
Even more disappointing is realizing what I would have been effectively shielded from had artists focused on presenting “questionable subject matter” is artistically substantive ways, and those who refused to do so were not able to win over such an audience. That, of course, would involve the taste of American audiences leaning toward substance. 
Some days, I’m even optimistic enough to think that might happen.  

Always Looking for a Name

The meeting of popular culture and Christian faith baffles me. 

There seems to have been a wave for the last few years of identifying categories, into which we must all apparently fall as Christ-followers. I think it began innocently enough with the examination of the Scripture’s presentation of spiritual gifts. Scripture provides us with definite gifts that manifest in the Believer as deemed appropriate by the Holy Spirit. The marketing engine got its hands on this, however, and suddenly we were flooded with “spiritual gift inventories” and the like. It became the new language in which to speak: we identified each other by where we perceived our spiritual giftings to lie. 
Then came the spiritual disciplines. Suddenly, we had a new vernacular for things that the Scriptures encouraged us to do from the beginning. Except, now, we called them “solitude” and “submission,” etc. By applying new titles, we gave them new life in our minds. And, perhaps more importantly to many, we gave ourselves new Christian sub-culture slang expressions to use. “I’m going on a solitude retreat;” or “I practice simplicity as a lifestyle.” 
The latest of these semantic categorizations is the spiritual pathways. Roughly similar to Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences, these are supposedly the different manners in which all Believers “connect with God.” Now we have another way to label ourselves with new boxes! See, now, isn’t that fun??
Here’s my issue: let’s take the person who is extroverted, who loves being around people, and is gifted at building relationships with others (essentially, the exact opposite of me). They would identify themselves as having the “relational” pathway, so they spend all of their time around other people, thinking that they grow closer to God through “community.” Except, this hypothetical person doesn’t spend much time reflecting on Scripture. Because, after all, that’s for those with an “intellectual pathway.” 
At some point, this become a self-fulfilling prophecy. God has left the responsibility with all Believers to know His Scripture, to meditate on it, and to use it as a guide. However, if someone is introduced to faith being told that they have a “relational” or “nature” pathway, then they don’t see the point in spending time with Scripture, because its not their label. Worse, the person who becomes frustrated with the exercise of reading the Scripture in our largely illiterate culture now has an excuse for not spending time learning and reflecting on what it says (“I’m not that intellectual. Its not my pathway.”).
I think we’re doing a great deal of harm to ourselves in our rush to have ways to categorize and easily reference each other. Perhaps if we just accepted each other as the incredibly complex and different individuals that God created us to be, we would find life to be much simpler. 
Of course, that wouldn’t work for American Christianity. We wouldn’t know what to call it. 

To Vote or not to Vote? That is the Question…

I view politics as an intrusive necessity. Not that they are necessary for the world: I think we would do  better with significantly less politics. However, recognizing that, at some level, it is what it is right now, I recognize that I have to make the best of it. For me, that manifests as keeping abreast of debates, and researching each candidate with some level of thoroughness before casting my vote, because I feel it is my obligation, not only as an American but as a Believer, to cast the best informed vote that I can. 

Recently, ABC News ran this article discussing the recent surge in registering young voters at rock concerts, etc., and how America’s young voice is heard in a much larger way than it has been for some time. I think that’s outstanding, and I’ve always applauded efforts such as Rock the Vote. That being said, I think the controversial stance expressed in Stossel’s column that some voters are doing a better service by not voting is valid. 
There’s something to be learned from Spider-Man philosophy here: “With great power comes great responsibility.” We have a great power as American citizens that comes with living in a democracy (if we truly do…a debate for another day). That power is the ability to collectively elect our leadership. That power, however, comes with the responsibility to be informed. I don’t mean simply checking out a candidate’s website. I  mean we have a responsibility to carefully research all candidates, especially presidential ones, to determine where they stand, and how that matches with our worldview and value systems. That means going to multiple news sources, not just to stay up to date about the candidate’s present, but their past as well. It means researching their voting record, because that certainly can’t lie, and it means doing so by going to the original source. Votes of senators and representatives are matters of public record, and are available on the respective government websites (I included that link as an example). Again, there is some discipline involved in researching each item involved in that vote. If we aren’t willing to engage in that sort of discipline, then perhaps abstaining from voting is the better course of action. 
Of course, abstaining from anything in our cultural mindset of entitlement isn’t well received, but that doesn’t make it less true. Neither is the act of disciplined research, but we must do so in order to delve beyond what popular media feeds us, because, while objective and unbiased reporting is a key ethical component of journalism, there is precious little of that practiced in the U.S. today. 
So, by all means, vote. I think everyone should. But doing so, like academic endeavors, involves doing your homework. The difference is that, if you don’t, everyone gets a poor grade this time. 


There’s just too much. 

Too much of life, that is. Life itself is overwhelming, even without the extra complications that we add to it. If you’re like me and hyperventilate when you look at your schedule for tomorrow, and can hardly bear to venture a day or more beyond that, then you understand what I’m saying. When exactly did we get this busy? 
For me, the issue is that I tend to make hobbies out of tools that should make life run more smoothly. A computer, as I’ve recently discussed on here, is a tool. I don’t seem to be satisfied with this, though…I have to become a Mac enthusiast instead of simply a user, which means I’m now addicted to keeping up with the latest Mac news and being a bit of geek about the whole thing. In fact, I’m addicted to news  in general. Perhaps that comes from the fact that I used to do some journalism, I’m not sure. I just know that I must know what’s going on in the world! So, I use an RSS reader in order to be able to simply browse headlines, as well as the blogs I follow. Still, this takes time, and I regularly experience information overload. 
I love to read, and I always have a waiting list of books. I think, however, that there was something to the impulsive desiring of a book, determining to get it later, and then forgetting it before my next bookstore visit that used to mark the reading patterns of my youth. Now, of course, I have an Amazon wishlist, where I drop every book that even vaguely interests me in order to keep track of them, and even to hopefully receive them on special occasions. I keep track of what I read with a Visual Bookshelf application on my Facebook page. When I think about how many books I have to read, I get stressed. That really shouldn’t stress me, though, should it? 
Making a quiet, contemplative time in the morning to enjoy a couple of cups of coffee and meditate on the Scriptures is critical to me. But lately, I’ve found that I’m constantly looking at the clock. Typically because I’ve overslept, because I was up too late staying abreast of the latest presidential debate, because I have to be a good citizen, and now I have to take out the trash and arrange for the car to get fixed and keep up on my reading and do…ARGH! 
Even the things that I love to do stress me lately. The desire to write stresses me, because sitting down to generate this blog post was somehow diminished to one more thing on my to-do list for tonight. I have ideas in my head that are pacing like caged tigers to get out on paper, all of which have to bide their time because I’m too busy. Seriously, something has to be done here. 
Lest you think I’m digressing into whining, however…well, okay, I’m whining a little…I think this is a problem with our culture at large. I think we’re all stressed in this way, even the most quiet and contemplative among us. As media has become more accessible, and technology has enabled us to do more, suddenly we’re expected to be more productive, to accomplish more. Worse, we begin to expect this of ourselves, and also of our spouses and family and friends. Soon, we’re too stressed to enjoy anything. We can’t live because we’re too busy getting things done. Do you know how much time I spent choosing the right to-do list application for  my iPod? That’s an indication that I just might be too busy. 
There are many ways that I’m glad I’m busy. Certainly, I can’t stand to be bored, and I never could. Realistically, however, I don’t think I’m in any danger of that and could certainly stand to have some more free time on my hands right now. There something to being still and knowing that He is God. Actually, there’s just a lot to be said for being still. I think its something that we’ve stopped being able to do. I’m not sure I know how to be still any more, and my streamlining things doesn’t help because…well, because then there’s more to streamline. 
And I have to stop writing now, because there’s a hundred other things to do before I go to bed. Like finding a way to de-stress. Yeah, de-stress! That would be good… 

In The Rough

I’ve been rehearsing a lot lately. 

Actually, not just rehearsing, but painting a set, working on building costumes, directing, consulting, being frustrated, etc., etc. You know, all the great things that go along with theatre. Well, except for maybe the frustrated part, but I’ve never done theatre without that playing into it somewhere along the line. 
I love how seriously the community of faith in which I currently work takes theatre. I’m working with a group as passionate about it as any professionals I’ve worked with. We have a full stage and expensive lighting and sound equipment with which to design, a budget with which to build sets and costumes, and all the fun that goes along with it. 
I’ve been thinking lately, however, of other places I’ve done theatre. I’ve done it in places with bigger budgets (typically schools), with mediocre budgets (typically community theatres), and with absolutely no budget (typically churches). I’ve done it on stages, in sanctuaries, and on the street. I’ve done it with no equipment and with a lot of equipment.  But some of the most fun I’ve had has been when I’ve done it “in the rough,” like improvisational sketches with a youth group or street theatre on a missions trip. That’s when the proverbial rubber meets the road: are you dedicated enough to make it work, and do you have the creativity to take next to nothing (sometimes only the actors) and make the show happen? 
I’ve taken to calling it “theatre in the rough” in my mind…you know, like “roughing it” on a camping trip. I’ve had some amazing experiences in the rough; some frustrating, some no end of fun, but all growing me into a better actor or director or designer in the end. 
This concept of “in the rough” goes beyond theatre, though. I think of churches who have no building to call their own, that are forced to move in and out of a rented or donated gym or cafeteria on weekends, or to completely migrate across town on occasion. The church in which I do theatre now began like that. I can think of at least one other prominent community of faith that began in the same way. I think when that happens, the mindset is closer to the way the church is meant to function…the worldwide church, I mean. I think the focus in clearer, sort of how theatre’s purpose is clearer when you’re working with next to nothing but determined to make it happen anyway. You come out of those “foxhole experiences” loving your art so much more, being so much more dedicated to it. Similarly, I think communities of faith come out of those experiences with a similar dedication and perspective on God, and what He wants His church to do. 
Its completely counter-cultural to the “bodies, bucks, and buildings” concept that dominates church culture here in the Bible Belt. Somehow, everyone thinks that you need a building to be a church body. Certainly, God saw nothing wrong with ornate places of worship, just as theatre had its beginnings with basic sets and facilities. And while it is great to have these things, it is nowhere prescribed as necessary. 
Sometimes minimalism is the most educational experience we can have, whether in theatre, in faith, or in any number of other areas of our lives.