Archive for the ‘television’ Category

Legalism. We hate the word and all it conjures. Jesus hated it, saving some of his harshest criticism for the Pharisees and their fanatical attention to the law while ignoring the heart.

I grew up knowing Christians who would burn records, condemn certain books and never be seen at R-rated movies, yet who were horribly racist, or gluttonous, or indifferent to the poor. The church is experiencing a backlash against this sort of selective legalism, and that’s been a good and God-honoring thing.

I wonder sometimes, though, if disillusioned Christians (me included) have become so resistant to legalism that we also shun the ideas of personal holiness and intentional living.

If, for instance, I park myself in front of the TV some evening, scroll through a hundred channels and eventually land on some mindless reality show and veg for an hour, I’m probably not honoring God with my use of that time.

On the other hand, if I intentionally engage the same show, with an eye toward the spiritual state of our culture, and pop culture, then I probably am honoring God with that time. I’m engaging my brain and I’m letting the Holy Spirit, in effect, sit there next to me and have a conversation that I later can share with someone else.

In Philippians 4:8-9, Paul writes:

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.  Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing. Then the God of peace will be with you.

T.J. Addington, in his book and blog, “Leading From the Sandbox,” writes about intentional living — which he boils down to mean, “Does my schedule reflect my personal priorities?”

Take that thought further: Do my entertainment choices – even when no one else is looking — reflect my personal priorities? Or, more precisely, do they reflect what I would like for my priorities to be?

Maybe the more-common question is: Is it worthwhile for Christians just to spend time being entertained, with no higher purpose? Just a little time to rest and recharge?

I think it depends on whether that entertainment moves me closer to God, or further away from God. As Paul would ask: Where am I fixing my thoughts?

If I watch a movie or TV show with a lot of extra-marital sex, or drunken debauchery, I notice something about my spiritual condition. It has sunk. Not because I want to emulate the people on the screen, but because I’m letting myself be entertained by watching depictions of sin. And then if I’m going to keep watching, I have to shut the door on God’s voice – like the end of the “Godfather” movies where Michael Corleone shuts the door in his wife’s face so the men can discuss the evil business they do.

And even in that little example I open the door to a “What’s appropriate for Christians?” conversation that makes people uncomfortable. I can watch the Godfather movies as a profound commentary on America, family and hypocrisy … or I can watch them as brutally violent gangster movies. I can watch “American Beauty” and be struck by its message about the spiritual emptiness of affluent suburbia, or I can watch it because it has a lot of sex and nudity. Where am I fixing my thoughts?

Can entertainment be spiritually neutral? Sure. If I watch a few innings of a Cubs game, my relationship with God doesn’t change much. Then again, I may get either angry or depressed about the sorry state of my team. Being a Cub fan does make one very cynical.

If I watch “30 Rock,” or reruns of “Seinfeld,” can I appreciate those shows’ great writing and wit, and get past their very unbiblical worldview and content? Again, I think it depends on my spiritual state of engagement and where my thoughts are fixed.

And can I watch “Caddyshack” and appreciate the … oh never mind.

The bottom line is, this conversation leaves more than one spiritually solid place to land. That makes legalists uncomfortable.  At the other end of the spectrum, it touches nerves. But our entertainment choices do affect our spiritual condition. Let’s not avoid the conversation because we’re afraid of lapsing into legalism.


Bill Nye, the Helpless Guy

Posted: November 18, 2010 by Jim Killam in pop culture, television
Tags: , ,

One of my former students called this to my attention this morning: Bill Nye the Science Guy collapsed on stage Tuesday night at USC. He’s apparently OK, but here’s the creepy part: No one approached to help him. Yet, hundreds of students immediately updated their Facebook and Twitter statuses with the news that he had collapsed in front of them. Here’s one account.

On one hand, I’m afraid sometimes that we’re becoming so detached, so entertainment-driven, so wrapped up in our own silos, that life is a reality TV show not to interact with, but just to gawk at.
But then, in other situations, people act heroically to help someone they’ve never met, and it helps restore my faith. I think as Christians, this is where we can make a huge impact on a detached culture that wouldn’t know the Good Samaritan from greater Samoa.
And from a journalism perspective, I think we can help make the world a better place by calling attention to both kinds of incidents.

I heard a podcast speaker the other day brag about how his church was one of the first to have a bookstore within its building. The not-so-bad idea was to conveniently get Bibles and Christian books into people’s hands.

Lateral Jesus

That was then. Lots of churches now have bookstores where you can buy not only books, but a whole lot of Jesus junk, including the regrettable “Sunday School Musical” DVD, Jesus action figures or Jesus adhesive bandages (free toy inside!).

Sometimes I wonder if someone put on a robe and sandals, went into one of those church stores and started turning over tables and shelves, if anyone would have a justifiable reason to stop him.

The Christian bookstore, whether at church or at the mall, is kind of like that TV show “American Pickers.” You can find some valuable stuff, but you have to sift through a whole lot of crap. A Christian will write a great book that captures the attention of the culture at large and sells millions of copies. And then, before long, we have book-themed day planners, cup holders and framed slogans, and the whole thing looks … well, whorish. Instead of asking, “What Would Jesus Do?” we in effect ask, “What Would Christians Buy?”

WWJD first got cultural traction with Charles M. Sheldon’s 1897 book, “In His Steps.” It’s a terrific way to think. What reveals Christ? Do that. Be that. Unfortunately, a century later WWJD became just another Christian marketing campaign. WWJD showed up on buttons, T-shirts, baseball caps, necklaces, coffee mugs, key chains, bracelets, barbecue aprons and, of course, dog T-shirts.

Then came the smart-aleck response merchandise and campaigns: “What would Jesus drink?” “Who would Jesus bomb?” “What would Jesus drive?” Who would Jesus deny healthcare?” “What would Jesus do for a Klondike Bar?” “What would Brian Boitano do?” and even “Who wants jelly doughnuts?”

To a skeptical world, faith looks cheesy when proclaimed on a dog’s T-shirt. If we were busier actually doing what Jesus would do, T-shirts would seem a pretty stupid distraction. 

An uncomfortable thought occurs: We Christians spend so much attention and effort showing people our Christ-likeness that we fail to show them Christ. We have become so self-righteously concerned with “What would Jesus do?” that our goofy evangelical subculture has obscured who Jesus is. And if I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that I’ve been part of that obstacle. I spent much energy as a young adult trying to set myself and my family apart: sincerely trying to be like Christ, and then “humbly” putting that on display as a way to say, “See how different I am than all of you?”

Bookstores full of junk were a pretty accurate, outward sign.

Is not wisdom found among the aged?  Does not long life bring understanding? – Job 12:12

Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity. – 1 Tim 4:12

Seems to me the Bible is pretty clear that different generations have a lot to offer each other. Most churches would outwardly agree. But the way they operate may say something else.

There’s more to being a multigenerational church than simply having three or four generations gather in the same building on weekends. As commenter Bob mentioned the other day, the tendency still is for everyone to huddle with their own little group. For years, my wife and I were part of a large church that split – and I do mean split – into “adult communities.” That’s a dressed-up way to say adult Sunday school classes. Most were classified by age and marital status.

On occasions when the pastors would try to work against this Sunday school tribalism by holding combined classes, or elective classes by topic, attendance would plummet.

This is not much different than the larger American culture, where social and generational gaps seem wider than ever.

Linc wrote yesterday about how easy it is to isolate ourselves with technology.  Even if we don’t go completely solo, much of our lives are set up to limit whom we come into contact with. Knowingly or not, left unchecked we screen our contacts on the basis of age, economics, race, background, intelligence, religious belief, how fast our Internet connection is, and the entertainment we consume.

How much more important is it, then, for the church to offer something different … something forgotten and sorely needed? If we can’t even learn to coexist with different people in our own churches, how will we ever be relevant to different people outside those walls?

It’s not easy, nor does it feel natural at first. We all tend to default to the familiar, the comfortable. That is, unless we constantly remind ourselves how far that is from the kingdom of heaven.

The SyFy Channel recently re-ran the 1994 miniseries “The Stand,” based on Stephen King’s novel. It’s about what happens after a plague wipes out most of humanity. The remaining few, immune to the sickness, form two tribes: one good, one evil. Most of the story centers on the good side and its struggle against a Satan character named Randall Flagg. It’s good science fiction that I’ve seen several times. The thing that struck me this time, though, was how young and old people from all walks of life came together and formed a community based on a simple idea: survival. Comfort? Not part of the conversation.

Churches gather around a simple idea, too:  eternal survival. Reconciliation with God through grace. Sharing that with as many people as we can, at all cost.

The desire for comfort and convenience can quickly obscure those ideas.

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Here’s the trailer for “The Stand,” which is worth renting if you haven’t seen it.

I was thinking the other day about how consumerism has really screwed up the dynamics of local churches.

It’s kind of like going to Menards instead of going to a hardware store like my grandpa owned in Rippey, Iowa – an old coal-mining town whose population today stands at 319 and fading. The hardware store was dark, dusty and a hub of activity – not so much for the stuff sold there, but for the community created there. It was a place to shoot the bull with your neighbors as you shoveled a scoopful of nails onto the hanging scale. On a Saturday morning, you could see three or four generations under the same roof, talking about the weather, the corn crop and … well that might be about it.

There’s not much sense of community at Menards. It’s huge, and they have everything. You can choose from 47 kinds of hammers, or come away with a Snuggie, a wood chipper and a barrel of cheese balls. You go, get whatever you want and leave, often without ever talking to anyone.

Hank Hill is a hardware-store kind of guy. Here’s a conversation from a “King of the Hill” cartoon episode, between Hank and his wife Peggy …

Peggy: Maybe, we should try the new megachurch.

Hank: I don’t wanna change churches. Besides, that place is too big. What’s it got – 5,000 some-odd members?

Peggy: Yes! And it pampers all of them. They’ve got their very own coffee shop, florist, mini-mart, bank, and a dry cleaner that accepts all competitors’ coupons.

Hank: If I wanted to go that route, I could just walk around the mall and think about Jesus.


Megachurches are only one end of the spectrum. To its credit, the evangelical church has adapted its methods in an effort to reach a rapidly changing culture. It’s usually five to 10 years behind the curve on that, but it’s trying. If you want a church that worships to rock music and laser light shows, you can find that. If you want organ music , hymns and choir robes, you can find those. If you want candlelight and artists on stage painting abstracts during the sermon … hey, that’s available, too.

And none of that stuff is bad. The problem is, while reaching the culture is our stated reason, too often what we really want in a church is comfort. We tend to find that with people who look and act like us … who like the same kinds of music and have similar life experiences.

What’s tougher to find any more is a church with three or four generations under one roof, and where all of those generations set aside comfort for the sake of uniting to reach a community. In a consumer culture, that kind of a church can feel foreign.

Here’s what we lose when we all run to our own little silos:  When a church lacks young adults, it can lack energy, passion and idealism. When a church lacks older adults, it can lack wisdom, perspective and mentorship. I think God intended for all of those qualities to part of a local church, but in many cases we have willingly forfeited half of them and left ourselves an incomplete Body of Christ,  for the sake of … what, exactly?

More about this in Thursday’s post.

Decades before Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye wrote their “Left Behind” series, there was “A Thief in the Night.” (Enjoy this batch of clips.)  The film series from Mark IV Pictures featured cheap production values, cheesy acting and some of the worst haircuts ever captured on film. It was designed to scare the hell out of those crazy 1970s teenagers with their flowered shirts and their rock music.

“A Thief in the Night,” “A Distant Thunder,” “Image of the Beast” and “Prodigal Planet” followed the tales of people, um, left behind by the Rapture.

The scene above is from “Image of the Beast,” when the antichrist is revealed to be a 60-something, big-headed dude in an ill-fitting polyester suit. He sits on a throne that, come to think of it, looks a lot like the sets on one of those awful TBN programs.

So anyway, this week’s question is: What’s your most memorable scare-them-to-Jesus product that years later only unleashes a plague of ridicule? Comic books? Novels? Videos? Church dramas? Something else? What makes you cringe when thinking back on it?

My name is Jim, and I am a Chicago Cubs fan. (clap clap clap clap clap)

This has not been an enjoyable summer, as far as baseball goes. The Cubs stink. Maybe you’ve heard. They have a real chance to be mathematically eliminated from the pennant race by the end of August – pathetic even by Cubs standards. They have a player allegedly named “Darwin Barney.” Their manager has retired and gone home to Florida. 

None of this represents much progress in my nearly 40 years of Cub fandom. As a kid, I spent many summer afternoons watching Chicago Cubs baseball games on WGN-TV. In the 1970s, the Cubs (then as now) ranged from mediocre to awful. Yet, play-by-play announcer Jack Brickhouse made every game sound like the fate of the world depended on its outcome. The last-place Cubs could be behind 12-0 in the ninth inning, but a wind-blown home run by Joe “Tarzan” Wallis still would elicit an enthusiastic  “Hey-Hey!” from Brickhouse.


Cub fans’ blind optimism never stopped all of the better National League teams from regularly beating the snot out of our team. But it was hypnotic. Watching the same team day after day, and never having known anything different, I was totally comfortable with the Cubs’ level of bad baseball. They’d win a game just often enough to keep me watching. They had their own heroes, unbeknownst to fans of the good teams: Jose Cardenal … Champ Summers … Carmen Fanzone … Pete LaCock.

ESPN hadn’t been invented yet. So, other than an occasional Saturday Game of the Week on NBC, the Cubs were the only baseball I ever watched. We couldn’t get cable, either, so at our farmhouse 90 miles from Chicago, barely-in-range Channel 9 delivered a fuzzy picture at best. For all I knew, Cubs games were played in snowstorms and there was no ball.

Then October would roll around, and NBC would broadcast the playoffs and World Series … on channels where we could see the ball and tell that the plastic grass was green. In that era, postseason games usually involved the Oakland A’s, Cincinnati Reds or, later, the New York Yankees. It was like watching a whole different sport. These players were faster, stronger, better hitters and pitchers, and they hardly ever made errors.

The point is, I was so wrapped up in the Cubs that I had no clue about the rest of the baseball world. Sure, the Cubs would engage those other teams and players sometimes, but never in a game that mattered to anyone else. You’d never see Cub players in Sports Illustrated, or on the cover of Street and Smith’s Official Baseball Yearbook. They were completely off the sports radar. Yet, today I could name just about any Cubs player from the 1970s, or quote their random, meaningless statistics, and you would nervously shuffle away from me.

I thought about this in the context of a lunch conversation recently with some older Christians. They talked about a conference that people in their church had attended in another city.  “While they were walking around downtown, they saw a group of gays and transvestites, and they witnessed to them,” one guy said proudly.

I’m sure those “gays and transvestites” sprinted to the nearest church and turned to Jesus, once the strangers from out of town had set them straight within 45 seconds.

I mention this story not to criticize my lunch companions. They truly love God and they love other people. Our conversation did bug me, but it bugged me because it uncomfortably held a mirror to my own life in the church. We’ve isolated ourselves within the Fortress, poking our heads out just often enough to score points in the sight of other Christians. Everything in life revolved around some activity at, or related to, church. We’ve had our own bookstores, our own music, our own TV channels, even our own Painters of Light.

We have been as irrelevant as 1970s Cub fans. The broader culture, the one other people experience – the Yankees and the Reds – happened on channels that we didn’t ever watch.

In the past several seasons, Cub fans have quickly lost patience as our team has fallen short, and now has deteriorated into a bad semi-pro team. It’s not working any more, this act of being just good enough to keep the fans loyal. The isolated baseball world I grew up in doesn’t exist anymore. We know how bad the Cubs are.

The isolated church world doesn’t exist anymore, either. A more culturally savvy group of Christ followers is less and less willing to settle for the Fortress approach. It’s not that we’re defecting en masse to other religions, though some do. Most end up choosing one of two paths. One, they lose enthusiasm, then lose interest altogether, after experiencing too many of those “What am I doing here?” moments; or two, they discover each other and begin reforming their churches or forming new churches that look a whole lot more like the New Testament.

In both baseball and church, there will always be a percentage that supports the team regardless of its ineptitude. They will quickly fade to cultural irrelevancy. As a Cub fan, I guess I can live with that. As a Christian, I had better not.