Let’s All Go to the Movies … or Not

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Speaking of decline, fewer people are going to the movies than in years past. Some people blame this on the quality of movies produced (“Nothing but sequels and remakes! Doesn’t Hollywood have any original ideas?”). This may be a factor, but if you look back at Hollywood’s glory years, you’ll find that they produced some pretty lousy movies back then, too.

And they still produce some good ones now. I don’t usually agree with the Awards voters, but the fact that those voters selected this movie and I preferred that movie just tells me there are still movies out there that appeal to people.

A large part of Hollywood’s problem is just culture. Those pictures they love to show us of a movie theater crowd from the 1940s where all the men are in suits and ties and all the women in dresses and the theater is full, what else did those people have to do on a Saturday or Sunday night after it got dark? No TV, maybe some high school sports or a dance, or sit at home and listen to the radio. Plus, there weren’t that many theaters in town, so everyone who wanted to go to the movies was crammed into one or two theaters instead of being distributed over two 16 theater multiplexes (making it easier to take a picture of a crowded theater).

Personally, though, I think Hollywood’s biggest problem with declining theater attendance is all about TV.

And I don’t mean the quality of the TV programming. If the movies Hollywood turns out are a swamp (and I don’t think it is; as stated earlier I think there are still some good movies coming out), TV is the stagnant, vermin-infested cesspool the swamp drains into. 200 channels and, at any given time, it’s nigh-impossible to find something you want to watch.

No, the problem Hollywood is having with TV is with the units themselves. I have a family of four, so if we want to go to a movie—even a matinee—we’re out at least $25. Evening movie it’s almost $40, and if we want to see something in IMAX or some other fancy format like that, we’re talking $60 before popcorn. Throw in popcorn and a drink, and we’re closing in on $100.

Or …

We can wait three months (sometimes less) and check out the BluRay copy of the movie for less than three dollars, watch it from our comfortable couch on a large, HD-TV, and we don’t have to worry about unclean restrooms or (you may have seen this news story in your town) bed bugs. Now, personally, I hate pausing movies for a restroom or snack break, but sometimes I give in to popular demand and do so, in which case we can pick up right where we left off. At the theater, if you gotta go, you gotta miss something.

Don’t get me wrong: I love going to the movie theater. It’s an event. A two-story screen has advantages over even a 62 inch HD-UD-UpYours-Whatever, but the cost has led me (and my family) to ask of every movie that comes out that we are at all intrigued by, “Will this lose anything on the ‘small’ screen?” And the truth is, even with the movies I have really enjoyed, the large screen spectacle is rarely enough to make me feel like a $25 outlay is worth it for something I’ll see in a couple months for $3.

Political Debates are Lousy Theater

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Watching the political debates, what little I could stomach, anyway, made me think about what I knew was coming:

– Everyone who already supported him was going to say he won.

– Everyone who already supported her would say she won.

– Almost no minds would be changed.

– The media would spin it the way they were going to spin it no matter what happened within the debate itself.

It’s interesting to be a Tuesday morning reader of this stuff, especially to read comments or headlines like, “Trump unquestionably won” or “Clinton the undeniable victor” … sometimes on the same front page of the same newspaper (do they still print those) or web site.

Not like sports.

We may argue that the referee blew the call and the ball was definitely in the air before the buzzer, or that the umpire should have called that ball a homerun, but the outcome is what it is. This team won and that team lost.

In the real sports, I mean, not those genned-up, fake ones, like pro wrestling or the NFL.

Somewhere, there is probably someone who has created a metric that tells who won a debate, but it hasn’t caught on, and probably won’t. Our debates aren’t even debates. Whoever you thought won the most recent presidential debate (and I’m thinking it was probably Jill Stein, for getting kicked off campus before it even started), neither one of the participants would have even qualified for a high F in a debate class.

It’s theatre. It’s Show. It’s a chance to pretend that the candidates are knowledgeable, acceptable potential leaders of the country. It’s a chance for the media to act like they care about both sides of the issue(s).

It is, in this most recent case, anyway, a ratings bonanza.

God said, “No.”

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I had always wanted to be a writer, practically from the first time I learned that one could take those letters we were being taught and shape them into words, which could be gathered together into sentences with which to create stories someone would want to read.

So I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. And I read and I read and I studied how those who wrote the things I liked to read wrote. Why does this sentence work? Why was this detail revealed here and not elsewhere? Besides teachers and profs, my instructors were L’Amour and Lewis, Christie and Faulkner, Hillerman and Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Tolkien, and hundreds more.

And I prayed.

I prayed for over 40 years that God would use my writings for his glory and the support of my family. And God said, “No.”

With my last work, “The Last Valley” trilogy, I prayed and researched and wrote my best work, each sentence carefully chosen to advance the story and convey the message that I thought God had given me. I worked to pour layer after layer of heart and metaphor into the tale in hopes that I had finally written what the best thing I had ever written.

God said, “No.”

I put out fleece and the answer God gave me was, “No.”

There was a time when–one month of March and one month only–I sold over 200 copies of my books. I prayed that was the start I had been praying for, but it was a sales height never reached again, apparently a fluke. Two years later, after constant prayer that I would be the writer that I was supposed to be and that my books would “take off”, I was selling 3-5 books a month. I advertised, I used social media, I even tried eschewing those things and “leaving it in God’s hands”.

So I put out fleece. I prayed from the beginning of the year that during March I would sell 100 books. If I didn’t, I would accept that God did not want me to be a writer.

Boy, did God say, “No!”

In March, I sold 4 books. Not 100. Not 10. 4.

I am no longer a writer. Maybe I never was. Not a good one, anyway. I wanted to be a writer, a novelist. Maybe I was good but …

But God said, “No.”

Real Life Volcanic Eruption Kills Everyone – Details at 11

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The San Andreas fault. Mount St. Helens. The entirety of the Pacific Rim. You don’t have to look very far to see stories of pending alarm about forthcoming earthquakes and/or volcanos. Heck, even Oklahoma is being beset by earthquakes (which may or may not be related to fracking, depending on who is telling the tale).

Some of these stories are clearly being told by kooks. If their avatar isn’t wearing a tin-foil hat, it’s a picture of either Scully or Mulder.

Others, though, are quite serious. Something is going on beneath the crust of the earth. You can find no shortage of scientists ready to quickly point out that something is always going on beneath the surface of the earth, but there are experts a-plenty, with smart initials tagging along behind their names, who are trying to tell anyone who is listening/reading that our “doom is impending!”

While I have a late uncle who was head of the geology department at the University of Houston, I rarely understood what he was talking about if the subject strayed away from guns other than the one time he told me there was no such thing as a dead volcano, only a dormant one. So I don’t claim to have special knowledge about what might or might not be coming, but I do wonder about the aftermath if it does come.

If you want something to be nervous about, all you need to do is Google the words “Yellowstone volcano”. You’ll find thousands of articles, from kooks on the fringe to PhD’s on the faculty, which will tell you about the cauldron that is bubbling between one of our beloved national parks. Some will tell you that it’s been bubbling for a long time, and will keep bubbling for a longer time, and there’s nothing to be alarmed about.

Some will tell you—some really intelligent people, even—that, if the Yellowstone volcano were to erupt, that would be the end of North America. The shocks and aftershocks would be terrifying, but the ash cloud would cover the entire continent, choking out all life from Mexico north.

And there’s nothing we can do about it.

My family, sitting on the edge of a dormant volcano (Capulin, NM)

So even if they’re right, there’s no need to panic or “take steps” beyond any religious needs you feel you need to meet, because if it goes, we go, too. Even if you’re reading this from Capetown [yeah, right, sure you are], the resultant ash cloud will disrupt the entire world to the point that life will not be the same for anyone who survives.

Will anyone survive? Within some of those writings by writers—I won’t call them kooks to their faces but I might think it behind my hand—one can find the idea that the Yellowstone volcano is how God will choose to bring about the apocalypse. I guess they could be right.

I believe in God, the God of the Bible, and I believe in the end of the world. I just don’t know when it’s coming (and neither does anyone else on this planet). I am confident, though, that if the Yellowstone volcano erupts, and if God still has plans for mankind, he will provide a way for some or all of the inhabitants of this blue ball to go on.

“The Last Valley”, my trilogy of novels that is available on Kindle and Nook and in paperback, postulates what life might be like under just such a scenario.

In “Ashes to Ashes”, the volcano has blown, the ash has covered the continent. In a little valley just off the Continental Divide, the capricious winds have allowed life to be livable for the three score people who were in that valley when the ash hit. They are cut off from the outside world and, indeed, have no idea if the outside world even exists anymore. While many of the survivors think that they are, at best, engaged in a holding action as they await their demise, 18 year old Josh and his younger sister Claire are determined to carve a life out of the ash.

“Crazy on the Mountain” finds Josh and Claire leading the village of Overstreet into a fairly hopeful future, but still with no contact from the outside. Until, that is, Deanna Pembleton shows up. Bedragged and clearly wrestling with some demons, Deanna tells them of another town where people survive but are in need of help. So Josh and his bride set out to help Deanna, in spite of everything that would seem like better sense.

Finally, in “Book of Tales”, we find the story of Jerry and what is going on in what’s left of the outside world. War, famine, plague … it’s not pretty. But there are a few people with hope, still. Hope for a future that involves more than just ash.

Find them all, along with handy links for ordering them (and 24 other novels), at www.garisonfitch.com!

Why I Prefer the Prequels to Episode 7

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OK, I know my title is already causing some readers to object and/or question my sanity. I realized that when I wrote it. I didn’t want to write some cutesy blog where-in I bury the lead somewhere near the bottom. So, just in case there’s some doubt, let me assure you that: 

–yes, I really do prefer the prequels to episode 7; and

–yes, I am talking about the “Star Wars” movies.

In our culture, saying you like something over something else—especially when discussing anything even vaguely art-related like movies, books, paintings or music—far too many people assume that what’s really being said is, “I like that one and hate this one.” So no, I didn’t hate Star Wars 7 (sometimes called “The Force Awakens”). I even saw it in the theater three times and I liked it more each time. Overall, though, I think my opinion of it is best summed-up by someone I overheard while exiting the theater following my second viewing, “Well, that was the seventh-best Star Wars movie I’ve ever seen.”

I am not here to bury or praise Caesar, or SW7, for that matter. I might get to what I liked and didn’t like about it—depending on how I’m feeling in a few minutes—but my first focus is to give some basic reasons why I liked the prequels. [Notice: there’s an assumption here that the original trilogy is almost universally liked. Of course, some people don’t like it at all but, among us die-hard StarWarsians, the original trilogy is very well thought of. I find this interesting because, from about 1984-1998 I frequently read articles by people who didn’t like “Return of the Jedi”. Then, they had something else to throw aspersions at, so “Jedi” fell into good graces and poor Richard Marquand finally got to rest easy in his grave.]

But I liked the prequels. I even (this will make some more heads explode and I don’t really care because I doubt their loss will negatively affect the gene pool in any way) liked Jar-Jar Binks. I didn’t want more of him, but I thought he did what he was supposed to do: provide some slap-stick and comic relief for the kids. I remember when my children first saw The Phantom Menace. They were enthralled with all of it, but got a special kick out of this goofy, gangly, funny-talking Gungan. Was he Shakesperean? Of course not. But for my money, he was far less annoying than C3PO is in any given appearance of the golden droid.

Which isn’t to say I ever wanted to do bodily damage to good ol’ 3PO. He’s funny, he’s occasionally helpful, but he is always rather prissy, like an upbeat Marvin. R2D2 is cool, of course, and I think it’s clear that the movies generally hold him back. (Was this the real reason he has such a limited role in 7? The fear that he would take over?)

People complain about the politics of the prequels; namely: there’s too much politics in the prequels. I never have shared that complaint. Were the debates in the Senate as interesting as, say, watching Darth Maul get de-lowerhalfatated? No, but they weren’t supposed to be. George Lucas had created this grand saga about a whole galaxy and the politics of that galaxy informed the action. Back when Governor Tarkin said the Emperor had dissolved the Senate, we all wondered what the Senate was—how did it operate? if it existed at all, how does a ruler disperse with it and still keep things together? didn’t those who were disbanded object? And then, when we saw the Emperor in “Jedi” (and glimpsed his hologram in “Empire”), we wondered, “How’d that creepy-looking freak get to be in charge?!” We’d heard rumors about Obi-Wan fighting Darth Vader on the edge of a volcano, but what happened to that old dude?

And, as I watch through the prequels (and read the books about George’s early drafts of all of the 6 original movies), I see an overarching story, with themes that rhyme (Eps 5&2 rhyme, then 6&1, then 3&4 tie up the poem) and the decades-long story of a galaxy’s change-everything war told through the eyes of a single family (and their droids).

I even like the dialogue in the prequels. Where some people complain—to the point of seemingly giving themselves bowel problems—about the dialogue between Anakin and Padme, I am impressed as a writer with what Lucas attempted. It’s just the typical story of the girl from the right side of the tracks who’s falling for the bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks/galaxy. Do people really talk like that? No, but that’s the point: this isn’t southern California. These are a royal and a knight on a far off world. They’re not supposed to talk like the people you live next to! Did Lucas perfectly capture what he was going for there? Maybe not fully, but that brings me to a point where I have to mention 7.

Some of the things I have just mentioned that I liked in the prequels, I find missing in 7. Now, maybe, when 8 & 9 are out I’ll look back at 7 and see that it wasn’t just the world’s longest trailer, but was actually a quality launch-point for an inventive and well-told trilogy. Right now, though, I’m looking back at the prequels and seeing that Lucas tried (and, for me, succeeded) in both filling in a back-story and staying true to an incredible vision and I compare that to 7, which strikes me as the best …

I keep thinking back to a friend I had back in elementary school who lived down the street. He came from a rough home (pretty sure there was some abuse there) and loved to find solace by escaping into Star Trek, Space 1999, etc. When Star Wars came out, it became his world for several years. We both had a few action figures (which would be worth nothing now because we played with them ‘til they fell apart) and he had this idea of taking an 8mm movie camera and making a stop-motion version of “Star Wars” with our figures. Not a new story. He was mapping out how to create every scene from what would later be called “A New Hope”. It was going to be nothing more than a remake, a tribute, with no originality at all—at least as far as story went.

We went our separate ways in junior high, but it dawned on me while watching 7 that maybe my friend finally got his wish because someone went and made the best fan-boy copy-movie ever. With millions of dollars and the world’s best special effects guys (apparently), they went out and created a really beautiful tribute to (mostly) “A New Hope” with nods to “Empire” and “Jedi” thrown in. Even the official magazines of the movie tell of how the director and co-writer of the movie walked around NYC and Paris, talking about the movie and I picture one of them saying, “Remember that scene with the mynoks in ‘Empire’?” and then the other guy says, “Yeah! Let’s make the mynock bigger and put it on the front of the ship!” And on and on they went until they had created a visually stunning but creatively rehashed movie. Instead of continuing the poetry, if I may mix metaphors, it seems more like they’re just a really good cover band that just can’t quite capture the magic of the original song.

It’s making millions of dollars. Billions, even. People love it. “Rey” will probably jump up to the top 10 of names for little girls and “Finn” will be in the top 20 for boys and the percentage of people naming their sons “Poe” will jump from .000001 to .000002 overnight.

But I still like the prequels better than 7. When Obi-Wan says that what they’re going to do with the obvious trap is spring it (right after what gets my vote for the best space-battle ever filmed), I get a smile just thinking about it. As the pod-race goes on a little too long, I still crank up the sound to feel that thump-thump-thump noise in my chest. As the Jedi prove to be far more vulnerable than we had thought on Geonosis, I wonder why we’re surprised when Obi-Wan told us long ago that the Jedi were all but extinct—they had to have lost somewhere along the line and lost big.

I think it comes down to the fact that George Lucas’s vision caught my imagination, through all six movies but, to re-use my metaphor from earlier, the work of this cover band is good for a cover band, but it’s not really the way I want to hear the song.

In case you’re curious—and I can’t imagine why you would be, but since you’ve read this far—the “Star Wars” movies arranged in order of my preference would be 4-5-3-2-6-1-7. The order I usually watch them is still 4-5-6-1-2-3 (and then 4-5-6 again) though there’s something to be said for the idea of watching them 4-5-1-2-3-6, as if 1-2-3 are Anakin flashing back to what led him to that moment where he hacked off his son’s hand.

Can There Be “Christian Science Fiction”?

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The old trope says there’s no such thing as a dumb question, but obviously that’s not true.  Questions like the above and “Will government intervention actually lower the cost of college (or anything)?” are patently stupid questions.

Yet, we ask them often, mainly in the hopes of starting an argument.  I mean, that has to be the answer, right?  Because to pretend the answer to our dumb question is not self-evident is to be even dumber than our question.

For starters, let’s look at the last word in our headline question: “fiction”.  What is fiction?  According to Merriam-Webster, fiction is defined as “written stories about people and events that are not real, literature that tells stories which are imagined by the writer, or something that is not true.”  Examples of fiction might include “Gone with the Wind”, “Catcher in the Rye” or the Affordable Care Act.

Fiction, then, can be set in any world, in any world-view.  Want to write a story set in the mythical world of Candy Land?  Go ahead.  Want to envision a world where the sky is plaid with floating cans of aerosol cheese the only sentient life?  You can do that, too.

The thing is, there really are no rules for fiction, per se.  There are rules for writing … sort of.  If you want to write something and have it graded for school, it needs to conform to the grammar and spelling rules your school subscribes to.  If you want to write something for publication in a magazine, check with that magazine to find out what rules they enforce.  Even if you were to try and write sports articles for the website SB Nation—where there are no rules concerning grammar, spelling or coherence—there are vague guidelines (I assume without evidence) stating the article needs to be about sports.

Now, in front of the word “fiction” we (mankind) often attach like a spavined horse unwillingly dragging a rattletrap wagon loaded with carcasses to the butcher (where the horse, too, will be executed) certain qualifying words.  “Western” fiction, “romantic” fiction, “pulp” fiction and, yes, “science fiction.”

These words rarely mean what any rational person would think they mean.  While “western fiction” conjures up in the mind images of cowboys, Indians and log forts in lands where there are no trees, it is often interchangeable with “frontier fiction” and can be set in the forests of Maine or on the beaches of Barbados.

The term “science fiction” might lead one to think that writings falling under that general heading are based in science.  Oh how innocent you are, little blacksmith!  Among the aficionados of science fiction, one of the favorite pastimes is the casting of aspersions on anyone who deviates from orthodoxy in the slightest way.

What is the orthodoxy from which people stray?  Each aficionado has their own definition.

See, for most of us, “science fiction” describes a wide variety of “fiction”.  (Remembering, of course, that the word “fiction” means “they made it up.”)  Most of us luddites consider science fiction to contain Stars Trek, War and Gate, as well as Captain Midnight, the works of Poul Anderson, and that episode of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” where they dream about the walnuts.

Not the aficionado.  The thing the science fiction aficionado loves best about science fiction is arguing what’s in and what’s out.  One aficionado considers “Star Wars” to be science fiction because they hold a very broad definition which includes “anything in space” while another considers “Star Wars” to be space opera and most definitely not science fiction because there’s no scientific basis for X-wing fighters to make a sound in the vacuum of space.  Still another likes to argue that “The X-Files” was science fiction because they pretended to use science even though they never went to space.

However, I have tried to argue that the greatest science fiction show ever on television was “Quincy, M.E.” because it was “fiction” that used and highlighted “science” and have found that his idea generally makes the aficionados collective heads explode.  (In fact, the only person I have ever unfriended on Facebook was this knucklehead who’s only apparent joy in life was belittling everyone who didn’t subscribe to his exact take on what did or not constitute science fiction and I’m pretty sure he would have physically accosted me over my Quincy take had we not been in separate states. [I was in Texas, he was in Denial.])

This all being said—for no easily discernible reason—of course there can be Christian science fiction.  Fiction is a story someone made up.  To be at all palatable, it has to be set in some sort of setting.  That could be the above-referenced plaid-sky planet, a world where there are no deities or a world (or universe) where there is a deity.  Christian science fiction would, therefore, simply be a science fiction story that—in some way—subscribed to Christian tenets.

The funny (as in the sense of “ironic” rather than “ha-ha”) thing is that those who argue most vociferously against Christian science fiction are often the same people who will argue that the point of science fiction is to explore the possible and impossible, to speculate on what is or might be or never was.  In other words, they want limitless creativity … with limits.

Some will argue Christian science fiction is possible, there’s just never been any good Christian science fiction.  I’ll not deny that there has been bad Christian science fiction—by someone’s rubric—just as there has been bad agnostic or atheistic science fiction.  When I hear this argument being made (or that there are no more good westerns, romances, or military thrillers) I generally tune out because the speaker has already revealed their bias and their willingness to be dissuaded is not worth my effort.

What Was the “Reason for the Season”, Again?

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Fill in the blank, “__________ is the reason for the season.”
We’ve been conditioned by lapel pins, T-shirts and bumper stickers to say that “Jesus is the reason for the season.” But what if that’s wrong?
Now, it came about because people who celebrate Christmas as the birth of Christ perceived that the holiday was getting drowned out by all the trappings: gift-giving, shopping, eating, decorations, Santa, etc. So they wanted to remind themselves, and everyone else, that the reason Christians celebrate Christmas is because we’re celebrating the birth of the Son of God.
Leaving aside arguments about whether Jesus were born on December 25th or not (my response: who cares?), I’d like to think that we Christians can come together in joy over the fact that the Son of God was born. Born, lived, died, rose again … that’s big stuff!
Still, we’ve got this holiday—a whole holiday season—during which we celebrate that birth and it is annoying to see someone proclaim that “Christmas is about giving” or even “Christmas is about family” in such a way that they never even mention the Son of God. So we rebel against the commercialism or take down all decorations that don’t have the nativity depicted in/on them and tell people that Jesus—as opposed to gifts, shopping, eating or anything else—is the reason for the season.
But then again, maybe he’s not.
Recall with me, if you will, one of the greatest of all Christmas stories. Jesus is traveling through Jericho, great crowds have gathered to see him, but one guy who desires to see the Lord can’t because of his height. So Little Z climbs up in a sycamore to get a look at the Master and what does Jesus do? Rather than just trying to avoid eye contact with the nut (ha!) in the tree, he stops and says, “Zacchaeus, you come down. I want to eat at your house today!”
Being such a well-known Christmas story, you probably remember what happened next. Zacchaeus takes Jesus home, they eat lunch (or, as it’s called in some cultures, “lunch”), and Little Z is so struck by the Lord and overwhelmed with love for him, that he vows to pay back everyone he has cheated.
Isn’t that a great Christmas story? What? You didn’t know it was a Christmas story? Well, let me point you to the verse where Jesus tells Little Z not just why he came to his house, but why he came to earth:
Luke 19:10
For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (NIV)
You see, Jesus isn’t the reason for the season: you are! He didn’t come because he had a cool song he wanted Isaac Watts to write (“Joy to the World”), he came because he wanted to find you! So, this Christmas, I encourage you not to focus on a little baby in a manger, but the full-grown Son of God who came to find and save you!
Merry (late) Christmas!

If Your Church Went Away

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I have gotten in the past an advertisement that begins with a question like, “What if your church went away, would anyone notice?”  The implication is that my church is so inconsequential that no one would.  Therefore, I need to buy their product (or program or whatever) which will revitalize my church so that my city would notice it (if it went away).

Leaving aside the value of the offered program, I have been thinking about that question of, “If my church went away, would anyone notice?”

I think the answer is: it depends on how it goes away.

First off, are we just referring to the building?  If my church(building) [hereafter referred to as the CB] were to go away because someone torched it, that would probably be noticed because there are people living nearby.  It might even make the news, especially if it could be proven to have been a “hate crime”.  But the news would soon fade away, except that the local news might come back later and run a paragraph and a picture about the grand re-opening.  Otherwise, the story would soon fade from the collective consciousness.

The same might be said by other, more mundane methods of losing a CB: faulty wiring leading to fire, drunk plows his car into the building, neighborhood rezoned and plot of land turned into a Quick Quack (car wash or emergency care center).

Now, if the CB were taken out by something that was clearly an act of God—like a fireball from heaven plowing into the building leaving said CB as nothing but a smoldering hole in the ground while the rest of the neighborhood stays intact—that might be noticed a little more.  Might even make the national news—especially if there were people (hopefully not me, personally) inside at the time.  But, soon, it would disappear from the news and the minds of everyone except for those people who run those “end times” conspiracy websites*.

These scenarios aren’t really what the ads were talking about, though.  The church they are talking about going away is actually the group of people who meet in the CB.

Where did they go?  And did anyone see them leave?

The implication is that the answer to the second question is “no” which makes the answer to the first question, “Who cares?”

According to the fliers—either implied or stated outright—we churches have lost influence in our neighborhoods/communities and, if we go away, we won’t leave a hole there, physically or spiritually and I don’t argue with that assessment.

With one caveat: are we talking about one church going away at a time?  This does happen from time to time and this is what the flier-writer knows and is trying hedge against (make a profit off of).  Second Church of the Lower East Side used to be quite a going concern, with a choir and a youth group and all but, over the years, it shrunk numerically.  Maybe the neighborhood demographics changed, maybe the whole town changed, or whatever, but it grew smaller and smaller until—like those grotesque and cheaply produced puppet aliens at the end of the Star Trek episode “Catspaw”—it just dried up and blew away.  No one—or almost no one—noticed because the influence was long since gone.  Some people may remember that church fondly and kind of wish it were still around, but a] it’s not a big deal to them and 2] there are lots of other churches around now.

Which may be a big part of the story of Lower East Side.  When first founded, it was not only the only church in that part of town, it was the only thing going at all in that part of town.  In the years since, several other churches have moved in and—in addition—the focus of the people of the neighborhood has been pulled away by their kids’ athletics, cable & satellite TV, the Rubik’s Cube and a general desire to sleep in on Sunday mornings.

The flier wants to provide a remedy (often at some expense) to this malady and show me how to “double my Sunday school in six weeks” or “create a rockin’ worship experience” or whatever.  Some of them even have ground-breaking—nay, even revolutionary!—ideas, like returning to the concept of the sufficiency of Scripture.

Without getting into the value or validity of their offers (in this blog, anyway), I’m still wrestling with that question of, “If the church goes away, would anyone notice?”  [The astute reader will notice this isn’t exactly the question as written earlier in the blog.]

Again, how is it going away?  A collection of fireballs that wipe out each individual church member (we’re not talking CBs here!)?  The rapture (as some envision it)?  I’m going to answer this question by saying that either yes, they would notice because this is a large portion of the world’s population suddenly turning up missing or no, because the non-millenialists were right and this was the end of the world, in which case there’s no one or no thing left to do the noticing.

If I’m “doing church” to be noticed, or if I judge the efficacy of my church (or CB) by the metric of being noticed, I am probably doing it for the wrong reason.  Like the guy Jesus talks about whose prayers are lifted up so he may be noticed by men and his reward is on earth (and, by implication, not in heaven), having my church noticed on earth is at best a side-benefit but likely a hindrance to what should be my goal (pleasing God).

Should I worry about the church going away?  No.  God’s pretty clear on that: there will always be at least a remnant on this planet until he sends his son to come and get us.

Should I worry about my church going away?  Again, that may be the wrong focus because 1] we’re specifically told not to worry and b] my focus should be on God and serving him.  If I am doing that, it will probably strengthen my local body.

 

* Which are kind of fun to visit and read, though they often have a grasp of scripture somewhere south of Joel Osteen (but still ahead of Rob Bell).

Hymns vs. Choruses

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            (or, how about a good old-fashioned Gregorian chant?)

 

“For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

            ~Sir Isaac Newton

 

Or, possibly, Sir Fig Newton.  Or maybe Jimmy Neutron.

Anyway, someone said it and life since then tells us they were either very right or highly quotable.

Since the beginning of the Christian faith, believers have gathered together and sung.  (See Matthew 26:30, Mark 14:26 and Acts 16:25 among other verses.)  In the early days, I’m guessing they sang the Jewish songs they had grown up with, but shortly after that, I’m sure they began writing their own hymns.  Some people have even suggested that certain parts of the books of Paul may be him quoting early hymns.

And, I’m relatively sure, that when the first Christian songwriter wrote the first Christian hymn and presented it to the loving fellowship he worshiped with, the loving members of his fellowship beat him to an ever-loving pulp and excommunicated him.

Eventually, his song caught on and other people wrote similar songs in a similar style and they were for the most part well-received.  The problem arose when someone wrote another song that was just as theologically sound, and the loving members of his (or her) church family shouted epithets at him (or her) until they broke down crying and agreed to only write songs in the way songs had always been written because that was the way God wanted songs written!

Flash forward a couple thousand years, with the knowledge that this cycle has been repeated throughout church history for the entire time of the church’s existence, and we come to “modern times” where we have become so sophisticated that we no longer excommunicate or beat anyone for music we don’t like, we just write blogs like this and articles for “Christianity Tomorrow” about “Why My Music Makes Me Holier Than Your Music, Which Will Undoubtedly Land You in the Screaming Infant Section of Hell”.

Lately, the articles I have been reading are about these wonderfully enlightened “worship leaders” (some of whom are so enlightened they’ve gone back to calling themselves “song-leaders”—just like Paul probably referred to his leader of songs back when he was conducting those brush-arbor revivals in Troas, Iconium and the southern section of Macedonia) who have been leading their congregations in praise choruses for several years* before coming to the surprise knowledge that, “Hey, some of those old hymns aren’t so bad!”

So they lead their congregations in hymns and write blogs about what “diadem” and “Ebenezer” mean and how much better and “richer” and “fuller” is the lyrical content of the old hymns, forgetting that some old hymns have all the theological and/or spiritual depth of an old Burger King jingle.  I’m looking at you, “Church in the Wildwood”.

Meanwhile, they feel a need to denigrate the modern “worship choruses”, lumping them all into a “too repetitive and emotion-only” bag that is remarkably similar to the bag they used to lump all the old hymns into.  In other words, for every action (in this case, a swing toward choruses), there is an equal and opposite reaction (back to hymns).

I’m not going to make one of those “can’t we all agree that … “ pleas, because that would be like trying to get all Americans to agree on and vote for the “sane” party.  However, if I were going to try and build a consensus it would be that we all admit that not all hymns are great and not all choruses are bad.  If I had to put an intellectual and well-written hymn, for instance, against a repetitive chorus that quotes Scripture … well, what if I like them both, for different reasons and for different uses?  Maybe my spiritual diet would be best served with portions of both emotion and intellect.

This might well be delivered by a single leading voice, a choir, a worship team, a person on guitar, twelve people on guitars, a keyboardist or someone with limited rhythm playing the drums.  (I just don’t understand the need for all church drummers these days to be surrounded by enormous spit guards.  If they’re worried about loogies from the teens, that’s what the moving guitar players are there for: interference.)

I think the real reason we like arguing hymns versus choruses is a] because we want to validate our personal preferences and 2] a well-presented argument on the subject makes us feel superior.  That being said, maybe we’d all do well now and then to participate (participate, not just sit and listen) in a worship service that takes us wildly out of our comfort zone.

 

 

*There are some churches who have been singing the same chorus over and over for all those years, because apparently no one knows how “Pass it On” is supposed to end.

Is the Church Relevant

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The little churches are declining.  The big churches are, often, getting bigger.  Now, in the little churches, we often complain that we’re getting smaller because the big churches are getting bigger.

But I’ve looked at the numbers—at least in our town and other towns I’ve been in—and the statement doesn’t hold true.  Yes, the little churches are getting smaller, and the bigger churches are getting bigger, but there’s not a direct correlation.  If I were to estimate (and why not? It’s my blog, right?), I would say that for every 100 people who have left the little churches, less than 25 are being added to the big churches.

I look at the people that we, as a small church, have lost over the 7 years I have been here and I can only think of one couple that went to a bigger church.  Some died, some are chronic church-hoppers and we knew from the beginning we didn’t have them for long … and some have just stopped going to church.

This is a small town.  I still see these people around town and I talk to them.  I’m friendly, they’re friendly, and they usually tell me something like, “Yeah, I need to get back into church, but … “  For the sake of this blog, there’s no need to go into the specifics of the second half of that sentence.

See, they don’t hate the church; they would never in a million years tell me they hate God; they just don’t have room for either in their lives right now.

So, what has the church usually done to try and address this problem?  Newer, hipper music.  Video screens.  Youth programs.  Gymnasiums.  Let me stress: there is nothing wrong with any of these things.  I see no evidence that any of these things is anti-God in any way.  And sometimes, they even help (though that’s not a guarantee, either).

Travel back in time with me for a moment.  A time when Sunday morning service involved hymns, sung from hymnals, and the sermons were generally expository (and long).  What did people used to call the Wednesday night service back then?  “Prayer meetin’.”  And you know what?  The church was a vital part of the community and the churches were growing and every denomination was planting and growing new congregations and—

Wait, this isn’t a call to go back to hymns, unpadded pews, women’s hats and men’s ties.  While I’m a big fan of expository preaching (or “ex-poz”, as we pronounce it in the biz), I don’t know that it is the answer over topical sermons.

But I’m thinking that one thing we need to stop trying to do is “be relevant”.  Because the more we try to be “relevant”, the less impact we seem to be having on our culture.  The more user-friendly we’ve tried to make the church, the less users we’ve had in the church.  We lost the culture a long time ago and I don’t think we can recapture it.

At least, not on culture’s terms.  I’m glad there’s Christian music and Christian movies and I’ve even tried to do my part to add to the library of Christian novels and all these things may have a place, but I don’t think they are the answer (because, for the most part, they are encouraging the faithful but having little effect on the unsaved).

For one thing, let’s travel back in that time machine again.  Back when the churches played a much larger part in the life of the average American, was life perfect?  Nope.  Not only did they not have satellite TV, they also had crime and poverty and all the vices we do today.  Divorce may not have been as prevalent but there were still plenty of loveless, Godless (but I repeat myself) marriages.

C.S. Lewis said that he noticed that chapel attendance at college decreased when it stopped being mandatory.  While there has never been a country-wide command to be in church here inAmerica, there used to be some societal assumptions and pressures to get in a church when one came to a town.  At some point, though, that ethos ceased to be passed down to the next generation.  Church went from “something you better be a part of” to “something that’s a good idea to be a part of” to, now, “something I can’t understand why anyone would be a part of.”  Those of us who go to church are thought of as harsh and judgmental and uncaring and … and you know what?  The facts have no impact on this argument.

We can blame that on the media or the past transgressions of the church, but the real reason is that the god of this age has blinded people to the truth.  And then he’s convinced them that he doesn’t exist and the one, true God is either a fable or a doddering old man, a vestige of a bygone, unsophisticated age.

What do I think needs to happen?  I think we need to stop worrying about being relevant.  I don’t think the style of music matters nearly so much as what is sung* or the length of the sermon is as important as what is said.  (The Apostle Paul preached so long a dude fell asleep and died—and then, after raising the fellow—Paul went and finished the sermon!  But Jesus’s entire Sermon on the Mount can be read out loud in about 12 minutes, 20 if you’re in the south.)

Ultimately, I think what’s going to save the church is to take the focus off the church and put it on our every-day-lives.  See, I’m convinced that all those people who have drifted away from the church didn’t leave because of doctrinal issues or even the church’s stance on alcohol, drugs, homosexuality, gambling, or whatever.

I think they left because they looked at the people who stayed and didn’t see that church really made any difference.  They heard the Lord works in people but saw no evidence of it other than a few happy bromides, which they could achieve on their own by bailing out on church, sleeping late on Sunday, and getting tweets from Joyce Meyers*.

I think—nay, I’m convinced—that the only way to save the church is to take the emphasis off the church and have Christians living—every day, out in the world—as Christians.

 

* For those people who are always going on about how much better the old hymns are because of the lyrical intricacies and harmonies and such, I think some of the worship choruses surpass the hymns for the simple reason that they are just scripture set to music.  While I, personally, am not big on all the repetition some of the new songs slip into, over all I would have to say that a direct quote from the Apostle Paul trumps the poetry of Isaac Watts (but that’s just me).

* No offence to Joyce Meyers.  She sends out good tweets, which is why she was the first one to come to mind.  There are also great tweets from CS Lewis, Billy Graham, Max Lucado, Timothy Keller, Matt Chandler and many more.