Life Lessons from “Flappy Bird”

I’m not usually one to get hooked on the latest phone game crazes. I never even played Candy Crush, Minecraft, or Plants vs. Zombies. But if I’m honest, I’ll have to admit that I’m somewhat addicted to the latest big game, Flappy Bird.

Setting aside the irony that the #1 game in the iOS App Store looks like it could have just as easily been released for Nintendo in the mid-’80s, Flappy Bird is addictive because it’s so simple. A game lasts only a matter of seconds, and it only requires one action – tapping. No complicated swipes or tilts – it’s just all about timing. If you’re one of the 20 million or so people who have tried it, you know what I’m talking about.

At first, I was absolutely terrible at the game. I could hardly get the bird to go between the first two pipes. My scores oscillated between 0 and 1, with an occasional 2 (which normally left me feeling very accomplished).

A couple of days later, however, I started to get the hang of it. I got 5 .Then 7. And before I knew it, I was rewarded with a bronze medal for scoring double digits.

My scores continued to ascend. 15. 17. 20. Silver medal! 25. 31. Gold!

I began to wonder what could possibly happen next. If 10 got bronze, 20 silver, and 30 gold, there was no room left for improvement. I was already on top of the world. The game should be playing the national anthem.

The next day, my score jumped to 45. I couldn’t believe it. I got what I can only assume is a platinum medal, although it looks white in its 8-bit glory. It was my crowning achievement. Surely I had conquered the game in hero-like fashion. After all, I had done so well they had to invent a new medal better than gold!

What once seemed impossible was now very routine. Earlier today when taking a break from work, I scored over 40 twice. I had become a master of Flappy Bird.

So I thought, anyway. Then I discovered the button that would change anything. With a simple tap, my perception of dominance would instantly be changed.

On the game’s main menu, two buttons adorn the bottom of the screen: “start” and “score.” I pressed the “score” button and discovered instant disappointment.

This button displays the Flappy Bird leaderboard. Somehow, 45 isn’t the top score on Flappy Bird. It’s not even close. In fact, my score ranks as #1,489,335. I’m not even in the top million. As it turns out, I’m far from the only person who has received a platinum/white/whatever color medal. My superhuman score is in fact quite ordinary. It’s only a fraction of the top score, as the leaderboard is clogged with those who have scored exactly 9,999.

Silly as it might sound at first, my Flappy Bird experience is a lot like many of our life experiences. We overcome great obstacles, we excel to the point where impossible becomes ordinary, and then we discover our biggest achievements are considered rubbish to the outside world. Losing 5 pounds seems like nothing when Jared Fogle lost almost 100 eating sub sandwiches. Buying a new-to-you used car isn’t very exciting when a Facebook friend just brought home a brand new ride with shiny rims. Whatever it is you’ve worked hard to accomplish, someone else will almost instantly one-up you.

But just like Flappy Bird, there’s a major flaw in this logic. As I said earlier, somehow the entire leaderboard is filled with the score 9,999, which just so happens to be the largest four-digit number. I have a feeling this is the maximum score the game allows. You can also be sure that these scores are fake.

Flappy Bird allows you to earn points at a rate of about one per second. With this in mind, it would take almost three hours of perfectly-timed tapping to break the five-digit score mark. Is it theoretically possible? Absolutely. Did someone actually do it? I can almost guarantee it never happened. More than likely, the top scores on the leaderboard (and probably many others that aren’t shown) were all not the work of meticulous tapping but of hackers. Does this mean that 45 really is the best score in the universe? Probably not. But it’s definitely much better than it looks.

Life is that way too. The media is filled with Photoshopped models, auto-tuned musicians, and steroid-pumped athletes. The reality is that even celebrities don’t measure up when they compare their real selves to their own computer-generated public personas.

Even regular people always put their best foot forward. They only showcase their finest moments on social media. Many don’t even share their less-than-perfect moments with others off the grid. Comparing yourself with others is rarely a healthy endeavor, but online comparisons are sure to make you feel about three feet tall.

So instead of beating yourself up because your real life doesn’t stack up against fake competition, celebrate all victories, no matter how small. Understand that you don’t have to be the best to be great. And wear that platinum-whitish colored metal with pride.

The Truth About “Tolerance”

Phil Robertson

I believe “tolerance” is one of the least understood words in the English language.

Dictionary.com defines tolerance as “a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc. differ from one’s own; freedom from bigotry.”

If you rely on the media for a definition, however, things would be quite different.

You’ve probably heard the recent news about Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson. A&E, the network that airs the show, has suspended him indefinitely for voicing his controversial opinion on homosexuality. Why would they do such a thing? Well, if you ask A&E, he was being intolerant.

At first glance, it’s easy to see how such a conclusion could be drawn. He doesn’t agree with homosexuality, a practice different from his own, to use wording from the definition above. He said he “would never treat anyone with disrespect” for their differences, but because he disagrees with homosexuality, he has been removed from his show.

Which, if you think about it, is a very intolerant thing for A&E to do.

If A&E were truly tolerant, they would have a “permissive attitude” toward Phil’s beliefs. If they were equally intolerant, they would have simply released a statement that they disagree with his beliefs, and that would have been it.

Ironically, A&E is more intolerant than Phil, because they actually acted on their narrow-minded beliefs and removed him from the show. At least Phil said he would treat homosexuals with respect. A&E couldn’t even do that – they saw fit to remove him for a simple expression of a belief.

You see, the problem here isn’t that someone stated their beliefs. The problem isn’t even that someone was censored for doing so. The real problem lies in the fact that even the dictionary definition of “tolerance” is flawed, but this flawed definition has so penetrated society that it has severely hampered our ability to agree to disagree.

In common usage, “tolerance” simply means to “put up with” something. A truly tolerant person treats those who believe differently with respect. And that’s it. You can disagree with someone and still be a tolerant person. You just can’t treat them badly for having a different opinion.

And by that definition, Phil Robertson did nothing wrong. Sure, his views are a little more extreme than even the average Christian. It’s understandable why someone could be offended by his beliefs. But if we’re honest, few TV shows out there are free from anything that would offend anyone. Lots of shows even feature homosexual characters. That could easily offend someone who doesn’t agree with homosexuality. By definition, those shows should be considered intolerant as well. But I don’t see networks shutting those shows down.

The media has successfully constructed a one-sided view of tolerance. You can’t have any quibbles about what someone believes – unless they don’t believe that you can’t have any quibbles about what someone believes. In that case, fire away. It doesn’t make any sense, but somehow this flawed definition has come to be widely accepted.

So what needs to happen? The whole “intolerance” conversation needs to go away. After all, it’s based on circular logic anyway. As soon as someone says “Hey, you’re being intolerant!” and indicates that they have a problem with it, that person is being equally intolerant.

I don’t agree with everything Phil Robertson said, but I do believe he has the right to voice his opinion, no matter if it is sensible, senseless, agreeable, disagreeable, normal, or extreme. Christians are being portrayed in the media as “intolerant” by people who are equally intolerant – of Christians. It’s insanely stupid, and it needs to stop.

Update: the full text of the article is available here (warning: the author uses obscene language). Also, the Governor of Louisiana has shared comments on the matter that are well worth reading.

Who Owns Your Work?

Today, Jon Acuff – one of my favorite bloggers and authors – suddenly resigned from him position with Dave Ramsey. As of the time of this writing, his blog, filled with thousands of posts (many of them written before he started with Ramsey), forwards to a page on the Ramsey website informing would-be readers of his resignation.

Setting aside my shock in learning from this decision, an important question comes to mind. As a creative myself and friends with many others, it’s important to establish the owner of any creative works you may produce.

Jon Acuff has been blogging for several years, and it appears that his entire site became property of the Lampo Group (Ramsey’s company) upon his employment there. Hopefully this is incorrect and his site will again return to life, but even if that happens, the point remains. Because Jon (possibly) let his employer take ownership of his work, it is (possibly) no longer his. Years of hard labor are, for the time being at least, gone.

If you are a musician, do you know who owns your songs? Many labels or publishing companies seek to gain ownership of intellectual property rights of artists they sign. You may have to give up copyrights to get the deal you’ve always wanted, but you at least need to know what’s going on. Sometimes, even an act’s name becomes property of a label. Don’t believe me? That’s why Prince changed his name to a symbol and Snoop Dogg now goes by Snoop Lion. These artists circumvented the ownership problem with a name change, but it would be dreadful for a lesser-known act to lose all name recognition.

If you are a pastor, do you own your sermons or does the church? Oftentimes ownership is implied as belonging to the speaker, but a church could easily claim that such works are commissioned (as a part of a pastor’s salary) and therefore owned by the church. In most cases this won’t matter, but technically a pastor could lose the right to freely distribute his or her own sermons after leaving a church where they were delivered. It’s important to get an agreement in writing.

The same goes for photographers, motivational speakers, and other creatives. If you produce a work, you need to know if it’s yours or if it belongs to the entity for which you created it. It’s a difficult discussion to have, but unless you want to potentially end up with a vanished website or a work you created that you can no longer share, it’s a discussion worth having.

Update: Jon posted an update to his Facebook page which, among other things, indicated that his “Stuff Christians Like” blog will return. While I’m certainly glad to hear that, it doesn’t reduce the importance of the issue, knowing what was hypothetical for Jon could be reality for others.

When Winning Is Everything

Today is an exciting day for me. As a huge football fan, I’ve been waiting for this day for months: the first Saturday of college football is here!

While today is the first game for my favorite team, the season actually started on Thursday. I had some obligations on Thursday night, but managed to watch part of a couple of games. Mississippi vs. Vanderbilt was especially exciting, as the Rebels won on a late go-ahead touchdown.

Jordan Matthews

Vanderbilt receiver Jordan Matthews (Photo Credit: Deadspin)


One thing about the game in particular caught my attention. Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt’s star player, took a gruesome hit late in the fourth quarter. His head slammed into the turf as he was brought to the ground. After the play, he signaled to the coach that he needed to leave the game, but seemed to be too disoriented to get off the field in time. After the following play, he collapsed on the field and… well let’s just say he lost his lunch. It was an awful sight.

Trainers came to his aid and the game was stopped for several minutes. Matt Millen, one of ESPN’s commentators and a former NFL head coach, pointed out that vomiting after taking a big hit is a “telltale sign of a concussion.” He eventually made his way off the field, but surprisingly returned to the game only a few moments later. While tweets commending his courage subsequently propelled his name to a Twitter trending topic, I couldn’t help but cringe. “There’s no way they had time to run baseline tests for a concussion,” Millen remarked.

Legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi famously remarked, “Winning is not a sometime thing; it’s an all the time thing. You don’t win once in a while; you don’t do things right once in a while; you do them right all of the time. Winning is a habit.” Unfortunately, sometimes doing things “right” and winning are mutually exclusive. Later in the Vanderbilt game, Jordan Matthews made a great catch that helped Vanderbilt take the lead late in the game. Had it not been for a huge play for Mississippi afterward, leaving Matthews in the game would have been a winning decision. But it’s hard to say it was doing the “right” thing. Research and testing has shown that a repeated blow to the head following a concussion escalates the long-term damage significantly. Coach James Franklin’s decision to leave his star player in the game almost won the game for his team, but could have easily had long-term consequences for Matthews.

Sadly, the competition involved in sports has led to dire consequences on multiple occasions. Ironically, the same day as the Matthews injury, the NFL agreed to an almost $800 million dollar settlement with former players due to injuries sustained for concussions. The “man up and get out there” attitude dominated football for far too long. And it’s not just coaches who take things too far; fans have been known to do the same thing. Fights frequently break out between opposing fans, even leading to severe injury in some cases.

So as the football season returns, I hope all you football fans out the enjoy the competition. Wear your favorite team’s colors today (I’m sporting my orange and white – Go Vols!). Have a cookout with your friends. Cheer loud and be excited.

But also remember that winning isn’t everything. Treat others with respect, no matter which team they root for. When your favorite player is taken out of the game after an injury, applaud the coach for taking care of him rather than questioning his logic. Football is a wonderful game, but it’s just a game.

An Apology

George Zimmerman

George Zimmerman


It’s well after midnight on a Saturday night. I’m lying in bed. I should be sleeping. But I can’t. Instead, my thoughts are keeping me awake.

You don’t have to be a die-hard news junkie to have heard of the story currently sweeping the headlines (apologies to Tim Lincecum). The verdict has arrived in the Trayvon Martin case, and as expected, public opinion is harshly divided.

I wasn’t in the courtroom, and I haven’t heard every word that was uttered there. From what I’ve gathered through the news, the prosecution had a less than stellar case with an inconsistent key witness. Perhaps justice was served today in the strictest legal sense; I’m honestly not sure. But I believe, especially in the eyes of the public, there’s much more to the case than whether or not George Zimmerman had a legal right to pull the trigger.

I have many friends who can relate to the verdict much more closely than I ever can. I’ve read your Facebook posts and tweets. I’ve heard your cries. Tonight the black community is in anguish, and for that I am truly sorry.

I’m sorry that I am part of the demographic perceived as the problem. I’m sorry for the racist remarks others have made during and after the trial. I’m sorry for the robust celebrations people have publicly posted, only adding salt to wounds. I’m sorry that this decision leads many to believe that racism is alive and well, that people of color inherently invoke fear. I’m sorry for the fear this brings to others, fear that they could have been Trayvon or fear that they could be in the future.

I understand that I am but one person and that these words may go largely unrecognized, but I’d like to offer a few challenges to those who have happened to lay eyes on my thoughts.

First, if you agree with the decision, please do not brag or gloat about it on social media. Understand that what might seem innocuous to you could deeply injure another. This is a very delicate situation that can inflict deep wounds and should be treated thusly. The verdict has inadvertently produced a fear of being killed because of race alone, and as a white male I can’t relate to this horrible condition. Be careful not add to it with an unwise tweet or status update.

Second, pray for the Martin family. Verdict aside, the grieving process truly begins for them now. They have lost their son, and whether he deserved to die or not, no parent should ever have to bury a child. I cannot imagine the pain that they feel.

Third, let’s be part of the solution. Whether the jury was right or wrong, whether Zimmerman’s actions were justified or not, a young person whose life had yet to be fully lived is dead. Regardless of your political leanings, race, or views on gun control and the “stand your ground” law, this is a tragedy. So let’s all do our part to fight prejudice, violence, and injustice. Music, television, and movies demeaning women and promoting violence must not be tolerated, and might I add that rappers using the “N word” and “making it rain” promote the very cause they mourn tonight. If we believe all people are equal, let’s promote a culture that reflects that.

I hope that one day racism and violence will only be present in our history books, but unfortunately that day is still far away. In the mean time, I sympathize with those who are hurting and long for the day that their cries will no longer be in vain. Until then, I can only pledge to never be a part of the problem, and I urge you, the reader, to do the same.

Living Wage: Legislating Against Greed

Living wage: It’s quite the loaded term, implying several things at once. According to its supporters, many companies (especially large retail corporations) pay employees less than they need to buy basic necessities – food, rent payment, etc. The solution, according to proponents of the idea, is to raise the minimum wage to an acceptable level (about 50% higher than the current rate).

It’s an idea that has caught on, especially among younger Americans more likely to be living at the poverty line. I’m all about taking care of people, but I’m also thoroughly convinced that the idea won’t work. Presently, Washington D.C. is considering the idea, leaving concerns that many businesses will leave the area.

When one small area adopts the plan, businesses may close down or avoid building there. When adopted on a national scale, here’s what happens when the minimum wage is raised:

  • Companies’ expenses rise due to higher wages.
  • Companies raise prices to compensate for the extra expense.
  • Higher expenses drive up inflation, devaluing the dollar.
  • Workers making minimum wage effectively make the same amount of money as before (income compared to expenses), and everyone else ends up making less money (as their wages remain the same but expenses rise.

What living wage supporters fail to recognize is that the root problem isn’t the structure of American laws but greed. Greed is the ugly side of capitalism. A controlled market (socialism) will ultimately fail or at best leave most people in poverty, as currently seen in Cuba and previously demonstrated in the Soviet Union. Capitalism solves this problem as it rewards those who work hard, but it also opens itself up to greed. CEOs and others at the top of the corporate food chain make six or seven figures while low-level employees scrape by.

Just over a century ago, Walter Rauschenbusch and others began a push to change the shift Christianity’s emphasis on individual sin to “social sins.” His was a push against social corruption, institutionalized evil, mob actions, and so forth. He saw the problem of evil as one not rooted in individual hearts but in “suprapersonal entities” – namely socio-economic and political entities. Specifically, he named four “major loci” of evil: militarism, individualism, capitalism and nationalism. Finding capitalism to be inherently evil and pushing for socialism as an alternative, he found the working conditions Americans faced to be deplorable and unacceptable. To better understand the time period about which he was writing, consider that Upton Sinclair published The Jungle in 1906; Rauschenbusch released Christianity and the Social Crisis in 1907. Rauschenbusch fought for changes to working conditions, including a fair minimum wage.

It’s honestly not fair to compare the conditions of 100 years ago with those of today, but it’s fair to assume Rauschenbusch would likely be pleased with progress that has been made but still dissatisfied with the “social evil” that still exists today.

I’m convinced that the push for a “living wage,” if successful, will end up creating more problems than it solves; raising minimum wage has a proven recent track record of ineffectiveness (although I’d be the first to agree that it was necessary during Rauschenbusch’s time). I’m also convinced that corporate greed is at an all-time high and something must be done. I don’t claim to have all the answers, and I’d be curious to hear your answers in the comments below.

What should be done to help those with low-income jobs? What is the Christian response to corporate greed? I’m excited to hear your answers.

No Cavities

Last week, I went to the dentist for my regular cleaning and checkup. I don’t dread the dentist like many people do, but it’s not exactly my favorite way to spend an hour of my time. I really like my dentist, but the main reason I don’t mind it so much is because I’ve never had a cavity. Good news always makes things better, so hearing him tell me “No cavities!” always puts a smile on my face as I wrap up my appointment. This time was slightly different, however. My hygienist warned me that my gums weren’t doing so well. She taught me a new way to angle my brush so as to do a better job brushing my gums. Interestingly, she told me that there’s a pretty strong correlation between the health of my teeth and the problems I was having with my gums. Apparently, people like me who rarely get cavities are much more prone to gingivitis or gum disease. It’s as if one or the other is a weakness for most people; some have strong teeth but weak gums, while others are prone to cavities but their gums are strong.

I think this idea applies to other areas of life as well, and by that I mean that while different people are weak in different areas, we all have struggles and weaknesses. Most people think of cavities as a telltale sign of dental issues when in reality gingivitis is just as troubling. Similarly, I’ve noticed that people – and Christians in particular – like to focus on certain issues more than others. It’s been awhile since I blogged last, but it seems as though the “hot topic” in the news hasn’t changed. Homosexuality has been an easy target for Christians for years, and while much of the recent attention brought to it is due to the Supreme Court’s ruling, I believe the root issues are much deeper than a legal decision.

Getting back to my dental history, I could brag to my friends that I’ve never had a cavity, but it’s much more difficult to argue that I have a better dental history or even “better teeth” than anyone else. As I mentioned, I don’t have the healthiest gums. Even more than that, though, I have a knack for growing extra teeth. I had six wisdom teeth (instead of four like most people) and I also had three “tooth buds” (miniature teeth that grow inside gums). In total, I’ve had nine teeth removed. The tooth buds would have caused my teeth to shift and would have eventually tried to come in behind my normal teeth, and would have been a terrible mess had I not done something about them. After having braces twice as a kid to correct my misaligned teeth, that’s the last thing I would want.

While I’m not gay myself and I don’t condone homosexual activity (and it’s important to distinguish between homosexual temptations and homosexual activity), I believe many Christian leaders and groups target homosexuality because they know it’s not something they struggle with. Just like “I’ve never had a cavity” is accurate but doesn’t really tell the true story of my dental history, many Christians can self-righteously boast in their straightness while ignoring a myriad of other issues in their own lives. There’s no reason to believe that homosexual activity is any worse (or even any different) than an unmarried man and woman living together, but Christians don’t talk about that too much. It’s certainly not worse than sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, or wild parties, especially since these are specifically listed in Galatians 5 as “desires of your sinful nature” (I quoted directly from the NLT translation of Galatians 5:19-21, for reference).

So why don’t we hear more about these “desires of your sinful nature” instead of things like homosexuality? Probably because they hit closer to home. They’re things that trip up the so-called “good people” – the people staging protests and holding up picket signs. But isn’t that the point?

Protestin’ Mor Chikin

I never thought the day would come when eating a chicken sandwich would be a polarizing political statement.

Obviously, though, I was wrong. On Wednesday, crowds flooded Chick-fil-A at Mike Huckabee’s request to show support for founder Truett Cathy’s statements on gay marriage. Today, in response, members of the gay and lesbian community have staged a “Same-Sex Kiss-In” at various Chick-fil-A locations to let their opinion on the matter be known.

Honestly, this whole idea of expressing a political statement through chicken is amusing to me. In a few months, I’m expecting life in the chicken business to return to normal. The battle over gay marriage will carry on, but I don’t see Chick-fil-A being at the forefront of it much longer (and my assumption, based on their company statements, is that they would prefer not to be immersed in this battle).

Much has been written on these two days of political expression, so I see no need to express a further opinion on it. If you’re looking for something more to read, especially on the Christian perspective of things, I’d recommend this article by Matthew Paul Turner.

Instead, I’d like to focus on another aspect of the story that hasn’t gotten as much attention. The mayors of Chicago and Boston have each made interesting statements on this issue, essentially stating that they wish to ban Chick-fil-A from their respective cities. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Boston Mayor Tom Menino said the following: “Chick-fil-A doesn’t belong in Boston. You can’t have a business in the city of Boston that discriminates against a population. We’re an open city, we’re a city that’s at the forefront of inclusion.” Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel expressed similar thoughts.

Many who oppose Chick-fil-A have expressed support for Emanuel and Menino. Essentially what they’re saying is this:

  1. Chick-fil-A’s owner wants to ban something with which he disagrees.
  2. Because we tolerate all viewpoints, we won’t tolerate this.
  3. Therefore, because we disagree with them, we should ban Chick-fil-A.

See the inconsistency there? I’m certainly not saying that Christians have handled everything perfectly, but I think there are issues on both sides here. I’m definitely bothered by Christians who make homosexuality out to be the primary problem with our society. I don’t agree with gay marriage or homosexuality in general, but I don’t see it as worse than any of a million other wrongs that go ignored in today’s society. The fixation that some Christians have with homosexuality is out of control and it’s problematic. However, those on the other side of the spectrum that are fixated with hating those who hate really aren’t any better. What if, instead of Chick-fil-A, a mayor wished to ban something else? A gay bar? A Muslim temple? If any politician even so much as thought about saying something like that, the media onslaught would be tremendous. Why, then, is Chick-fil-A different? Why are Christians okay to hate?

I think both sides of the issue have something to learn here. For Christians, we need to focus on love. Honestly, it’s nice to see Christians being for something rather than against something for a change. I’ll admit it’s being for something that’s against something, but reading headlines involving the words “Christian” and “appreciation day” is still a nice change. Growing up, Christians often made the news for the things they were thought to hate: homosexuality, alcohol, Disney, etc. Instead, Christians should be known for our love. It’s only then that we reflect Jesus, who gave his life for us out of love. Showing hate accomplishes nothing except turning people off from Christianity for no good reason.

For those who are against Christians, Chick-fil-A, and “intolerance” in general, it’s time to see your inconsistency. You want everyone to be treated equally, even homosexuals? Treat everyone equally, even those who disagree with you (and even those who don’t treat everyone equally!).

I truly believe if people from both sides of this debate could cooperate despite their differences, progress would be made. Unfortunately, both sides still have lots of work to do. Maybe this starts with simply recognizing that neither is doing things “right.”

Sacred vs. Secular

Today, I received an invitation on Facebook to a friend’s “Holy Hip-Hop” concert. I noticed one of the comments on the event page echoing a line of thought I’ve heard before, essentially arguing that there is no place in the Christian community for hip-hop music, that these “worldly hip-hop beats” (the commenter’s words) are incompatible with a Christian message.

As a former worship pastor, I’ve heard many an argument made for a biblically preferential worship style. I’ve been told that “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10) cannot take place when drums are present (it’s important to note that the context of this verse has nothing to do with worship). I’ve been told that being “in the world and not of the world” means listening to and singing music that is stylistically different from music on the radio. I’ve heard that certain types of music are “hypnotic” and can “put you in a trance.” I was once even told (when working at a bookstore in high school) that the Switchfoot CD we were playing contained the “devil’s beat.” I’ve heard it all. And I’m here to tell you it’s all nonsense.

The truth is, instruments are neither sacred nor secular. There’s no such thing as a “sacred instrument” or a “secular instrument.” A pipe organ is no more holy than a kick drum. By the same token, instrumental music is neither sacred nor secular. Music without lyrics gives glory to nothing and no one, regardless of whether it’s a string quartet or techno CD. While we may recognize certain tunes and associate them with certain sacred or secular lyrics, it is the text of a song that determines its meaning.

What is interesting about this whole argument is that many of those who believe God somehow prefers some styles of music to others actually personally prefer tunes that were originally secular. Several hymn tunes began as secular songs and were later adapted as sacred songs. Luther was especially known for doing this; some tunes he used were pub songs. One theory is that he used them because of their familiarity; he knew worshippers would be more easily able to learn songs they already knew. Those tunes are now the very songs to which many “musical purists” now cling. It all goes to show that whether a song “sounds sacred” or not is simply an opinion and often subject to culture.

The same argument made against using pop, rock, hip-hop, or other current music styles in worship (or as Christian music in general) could have been applied against many hymns. However, as previously mentioned, the familiarity of the tunes made them good selections for worship. Even though these tunes may have first been secular, they were still able to be made sacred. Some have made the argument that certain musical styles or beats have pagan roots to them. However, as Christians, we believe in a God who is Redeemer. Every day, God makes beauty from ashes. He turns “hearts of stone” to flesh (Ezekiel 36:26). If God can redeem any person, no matter how broken, why believe a song or even a musical style is beyond God’s redemptive power?

The reality is, for many, that it’s just a weak argument in favor of a preference. Oftentimes someone who prefers hymns played on an organ to rock music played on a guitar or rap music performed to a beat will try to find biblical support for such preferences. The only problem is it’s just not there. What the Bible does tell us is that we should worship in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). We can worship with trumpet, harp, lyre, or cymbals (Psalm 150:3,5). It is not the style that matters but the authenticity. And some percussion doesn’t hurt either!

When Christians Are Embarrassing

One of my favorite books is Donald Miller‘s Blue Like Jazz. While I’ll admit that it’s been awhile since I last read it, I still clearly remember the impact it had on me. In short, Don shares his account of his early adulthood – a struggle to make sense of his childhood Baptist upbringing in light of real-world experiences that seem so incredibly different. While it could be considered simply one person’s story, it is easily relatable for many. Don tells his story with authenticity and candor.

This past weekend, Blue Like Jazz made it to the big screen. Friday night, I had the joy of seeing it on opening weekend. While quite different from the book (or at least what I remember of it), the film version of the story retained the elements that made the book so successful. Struggle. Doubt. Honesty, though at times quite brutal. What makes Blue Like Jazz so popular, I think, is that Don Miller’s story resonates so well with the stories of so many others.

Most of the negative press I’ve heard about the movie (and, for what it’s worth, I’ve heard far more positive than negative) is that it isn’t “Christian” enough (take Christianity Today‘s review, for example). It seems to me that CT simply wants Blue Like Jazz to be like every other Christian movie out there. The problem is, I think that’s the point. In Blue Like Jazz, Miller ultimately realizes that his “typical” evangelical upbringing has failed him. At first, it causes him to reject the church entirely, but he ultimately realizes that while he can run from his past, he can’t run from God. While his childhood has turned out to be filled with deception and even lies, God is still Truth. What I love so much about the story is that Don doesn’t become an atheist or something like that; despite his pain and disappointment, he concludes that God is still real and true despite it all.

As we left the theater on Friday, we encountered at least two separate groups of what I like to call “Bible thumpers” on our way out. In case you don’t know what I mean, they were the typical fundamentalist Christians: waving Bibles, telling people to repent, and so on. My encounter with them went something like this.

I shook my head and looked at the ground, audibly mumbling, “Please stop.”
They asked: “Are you a believer?”
“Yes,” I replied, “and you are embarrassing me.”
“You’re embarrassing me,” one of them said. “Preach the word!”

We quickly walked away. Seeing another couple about our age by the parking garage elevator and not knowing which movie they came to see, my wife sheepishly said, “Christians aren’t all like those street preachers, you know.” As it turns out, they were also Christians who came to see Blue Like Jazz and could also relate to Don’s story. We were relieved.

It’s sad – pathetic really – that we felt relieved to know this. What is so ironic is that those trying to “take a stand for Christ” (or so I would assume, by their comments to me) were the very ones for whom Don felt compelled to apologize in the movie.

I just don’t get it. Why do some Christians feel the need to do more harm than good? Why are so many Christians, for lack of a better term, so embarrassing?

Recently, I’ve read about several people who have had struggles with the church. Just yesterday I read the story of Kim Van Brunt and her decision to leave the church. Perhaps the most unfortunate part is the bashing she received in the comments section of the page. While some of the comments were positive, most were chiding her for her decision and warning her of the consequences to come. While I’m sure they were well-intended, they likely inflicted additional hurt onto an existing wound and reinforced her decision.

Here’s the thing. The church is the bride of Christ. If I’ve learned anything from my just-short-of-a-year of married life, it’s this: a marriage works the best when the husband and wife are on the same page. The times Lindsay and I have found ourselves at odds are all rooted in some sort of disagreement. Sometimes we’ve had different ideas about how to do something, and other times one of us made a mistake. Either way, though, the root of the problem was some sort of fundamental difference about something. And if the church is to be the bride of Christ, that means that the church needs to be on the same page as Jesus. Stories like Don’s and Kim’s are examples of times when this isn’t the case.

There’s one difference between Christ’s relationship with the church and all other marriages, however. It’s this: the church has a spouse that doesn’t mess up. So when the church isn’t on the same page as Christ, it’s the church that’s in the wrong. Though I still (hopefully) still have much of my life ahead of me, I’ve already seen far too many examples of this firsthand in my short past. I was the youth pastor at a church where most of the youth left before worship because they didn’t feel like they were welcome. I’ve been a worship pastor at a church immersed in a war over musical style. I’ve heard a guest speaker come and preach a “sermon” that was really more of a fundamentalist treatise on who to hate and why. I’ve visited churches whose pastors regularly spew out a misconstrued “gospel” that is in fact more of an arrogant brag on why they have been chosen as elect while most others in the world have not. I’ve experienced the cheesy Christian subculture – the awful bumper stickers, the copycat t-shirts, the zombified music detectable within milliseconds (justified in its existence for its “family-friendly” benefits). As a child, I even once visited a church in which a girl pointed at my sister and me and exclaimed, “Who are those people?” as if our mere presence in the room deserved explanation.

It’s easy for me to see why so many feel the need to give up on church completely. It’s not necessarily because there’s something wrong with those who are leaving; it’s because, more often than not, the church looks nothing like the bride it’s intended to be. It’s because, far too often, the church is driven by selfishness, greed, control, and fear of change. I’m so thankful that I’m currently a part of a church that appears to be none of these things. I have a feeling that Donald Miller and Kim Van Brunt might really like my church. I’m absolutely sure that my church is trying to be the church that people like Don and Kim are looking for. But for all the other churches out there, maybe they can take a hint from Don and Kim: instead of badgering others to conform to what you think church ought to be, try actually being the bride of Christ that we’re called to be. I think (non-zombified) Christian songwriter Shaun Groves says it best: “This world is not what’s wrong with me / I’m what’s wrong with this world.” I truly believe the biblical model for church is far more appealing than what we’ve made it out to be, but we must change our ways and stop the bleeding before we can truly advance the Kingdom of God.