Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Live Strong

A woman recently asked me if we had any “Christian knock-offs” of the Lance Armstrong Live Strong bracelets. When I informed her we did not, she said, “That’s funny, we [Christians] usually have some cheap knock-off on the streets in a matter of weeks. I wonder what’s taking so long?”

This woman was at once my most refreshing customer and my most perplexing. Here was a person unafraid to admit the tendency for “Christian knock-offs.” Finally, an honest person was in my store.

What was perplexing was how this lack of creativity seemed to affect her. While she readily admitted most of the “Jesus Junk” was nothing more than a cheap knock-off, she was more than willing to buy it.

Is this my worst fear? Is this a sign that American Christianity has become content to exist as a mere imitation of popular culture?

I suppose you could easily make that argument based on some of the music, books and merchandise we sell. The majority of our church services create some diluted version of pop culture offerings in the name of being “seeker sensitive.” Why must we be content to exist as a cheaper, less creative version of the rest of the world? Why can’t Christians push the cultural landscape?

This sounds very similar to the discussion taking place in the comments section of my “Jay Jay” post. Some theorized that retail is a method by which we express our identity. Therefore, if some Christians are comfortable expressing themselves as cheap knock-offs of pop culture, they should have every right to do so.

The people who argued this point missed the larger question. This is not about retail existing as a means of expressing one’s identity. This is not even about retail. This is about the church becoming comfortable as an institution catering to the complacency of its congregation. Christianity should not exist solely as a place for people looking for spiritual comfort. Christianity should exist as a tool of social and cultural change.

The church is not meant to be a reflection of culture with a God twist. The church is meant to be a reflection of God in a world drowning in sin. We don’t offer that anymore. We sold the high ground in the name of “evangelism,” and it will kill us yet.

Friday, December 3, 2004

Don't Eat the Vegetables

One Yuletide constant in the bookstore is the overabundance of nativity sets. We literally have them piled up in the front of store. We are out of shelf space. Who knew there were so many takes on the Holy Family sitting in a barn?

Into this fray enters the VeggieTales Nativity Play Set.

I should mention how much I love VeggieTales. I find their videos to be funny, intelligent and great for parents and kids alike. For that, I can look past the unsettling nature of talking vegetables.

Just an aside: What do the VeggieTales characters eat? They can’t be vegetarians. That would make them cannibals. For once the vegetarians would be the cruel ones. I’m guessing its some sort of bread-based high carb diet.

Anyway, despite my love for VeggieTales, I do have to wonder if they’ve gone too far depicting baby Jesus as a baby carrot. I usually dip baby carrots in ranch dressing. For some reason, I feel uncomfortable with the idea of baby Jesus smothered in salad dressing or any other condiment for that matter. It just doesn’t seem orthodox.

Surely, nativity sets are supposed to inspire contemplative thoughts of the lowly conditions surrounding the birth of Christ. The only thing the VeggieTales Nativity Play Set makes me think is, “Boy, a salad sure does sound good right about now.”

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Melting My Faith

Nothing says “Christmas cheer” quite like stuffed snowmen. Though not usually considered to be religious in nature, we still have a large number to choose from. My favorite is the one with “Jesus Warms My Heart” tattooed on its bell. Apparently, this qualifies as religious content and thus guarantees a spot in a Christian bookstore.

“Jesus Warms My Heart.” Stop to think about that from the perspective of a snowman. If Jesus truly warms your heart, then any decision of faith turns into a matter of life or death. The warming of a snowman’s heart brings about his inevitable melting. Accepting Jesus will kill him. This is worse than Frosty the Snowman having to go into the greenhouse.

So, if he accepts eternal salvation, he looses his life. If he rejects eternal salvation, he keeps his life but spends eternity rotting in hell. Talk about an existential dilemma. Screw the martyrs in China, this is the ultimate youth group sermon illustration about the “hard life of following Christ.”

In a moment of honesty, would any of us actually say we would accept Christ if it required melting? I probably wouldn’t, but I hate getting my socks wet.

It’s a humbling experience to realize a snowman has greater faith than you do. Damn you, Cuddly Plush Snowman!

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

California Here We Come

I was recently struck by the abundance of books declaring “The Gospel According to…” Apparently, the gospel has been told by Peanuts, The Simpsons, Disney, Tolkien, Dr. Seuss, Harry Potter, and Tony Soprano, to name a few.

I believe television, film, books, comics, etc. are all high forms of art. I appreciate any attempt to discuss possible themes and/or artistic visions of the creator(s). Somehow I don’t believe that explains this glut of “Gospel According To…” books. Call me a cynic, but I suspect it has more to do with the Christian desire to claim everything for us so we don’t have to feel guilty watching this.

How many people were initially scared to tell their church friends they were fans of The Simpsons, The Sopranos, Sex and the City, or NPR? We are always afraid of being judged as worldly sinners whose minds were being brainwashed by the liberal media intent on stealing our money and killing our children. If we can pull out a book declaring the Simpsons are a Christian family because they pray, then we’re in the clear. No hell for me, baby.

With that in mind, I want someone to write a book called, The Gospel According to the O.C. I know it’s a trashy show that doesn’t even approach the label of art, but it’s so damn addictive. It’s my new guilty pleasure. I’ve even come up with an outline for all you writers out there. I just ask for a cut of the profits.

Chapter 1: The Cultural Church as Represented in Orange County
The characters on the O.C. are a bunch of narcissistic, spoiled rich kids from the suburbs. Sounds like a mega church to me.

Chapter 2: Ryan Atwood and Spiritual Adoption
No matter how screwed up we are, God still invites us into his dysfunctional church family just like the Cohen’s invited troubled youth, Ryan, to join their dysfunctional suburban paradise.

Chapter 3: Seek and You Shall Find – The Give and Take of Our Relationship With God as Represented by the Relationship of Seth and Summer
Seth wants Summer, but he doesn’t know how to get her. He reaches out to her, and she comes. Everyone else in the world knows that Seth will never be loved like he is by Summer. Despite this, he continues to push her away. In the same way, no one will ever love us like God loves us. Despite this, we still constantly push Him away.

Chapter 4: Sandy Cohen – God Does Not Forsake Us
His father-in-law’s a drunken thief; his wife never appreciates him; his kids get in fights with the water polo team; and they all come to Sandy when they need help. In the same way, we often ignore God until our troubles are beyond our control. At this point we reach out to God, who never lets us down.

Chapter 5: Marissa Cooper – Spiritual Warfare or Mental Illness?
She throws furniture in swimming pools, drinks like an unemployed Irishman on St. Patrick’s Day, sleeps with the yard guy, and spends time in a mental hospital. The church has spent years inappropriately labeling mental illness as spiritual warfare. Why stop now?

Chapter 6: Luke Ward – Sin Has Consequences
He slept with his ex-girlfriend’s mother. I hope it was fun while it lasted, because he nearly died in a car accident. In the same way, promiscuous sex and rampant drug use may be fun in youth group, but eventually, God will punish you in a fit of melodramatic rage.

The rest of the book can fill itself in. Someone should really consider writing this thing. I would volunteer, but I’m too busy on my new project: The Spiritual Journey of Clay Aiken.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

The New Album From Jesus

FYI: Jesus has a new album. I’m kidding, but our computer database does list the artist for this album as “Jesus.” I do find it interesting that Jesus recorded an album covering all the overplayed, tired worship songs you used to love but now secretly hate. Then he commissioned a companion book to generate a few extra profits.

On a whim, I decided to take our computer database at face value. What if Jesus really had recorded an album? Here is an excerpt from an interview that would have appeared in [insert your favorite music publication].
After a 2000 year hiatus, Jesus has returned to the recording studio. He has remained largely absent from the music scene ever since his band Jesus and the Fishers of Men All-Stars broke up. For the first time in 2000 years, we sat down with Jesus to get his thoughts on the state of music, the possibility of a reunion tour, his new album, and the genius of Ringo Starr.

[Music Magazine]: So why did you wait 2000 years to record a new album.

[Jesus Christ]: I felt like the time was right. I was tired of this religious revival with all these people claiming to understand the impact of my music and then butchering it. It’s like The Strokes; they desperately want to be The Ramones, but they don’t have the talent, the attitude or the life experience to capture that raw energy. Music today is full of posers. I’m here to bring the old school flavor back.

[MM]: There has to be someone you like in today’s music industry?

[JC]: Kanye West, but he did write a song about me. After Bono lost his god complex, I really began to like U2. Johnny Cash and I were really tight. That man was more punk than Blink 182.

[MM]: Who do you think represents what is wrong with the music industry?

[JC]: Kelly Clarkson. She is all that is soulless and wrong. Nickelback really sucks too.

[MM]: In this election year we’ve been reintroduced to musicians making political statements. Your music always seemed to capture the political and social issues of your day so well.

[JC]: How so?

[MM]: Well, you were always looking out for the poor, the oppressed, and the children, among others. You always seemed to want justice. Your music provided the blueprint for socially conscious artists.

[JC]: Those aren’t political issues. That was the major point of my music. These were spiritual issues. They could only be changed by the power of God channeled through His people. I always tried to avoid politics. The issue of taxes was the only exception. If you look at my entire catalogue, I didn’t try to change the world through political action. I tried to change people’s hearts. When these issues are co-opted by political campaigns, they are inevitably distorted, watered down and done a disservice.

[MM]: Many of your fans have tried to claim their political action was motivated by your music. Were they wrong?

[JC]: Here’s the thing about fans, and it’s true of any fan of any major artist: they always get the facts wrong. They all become instant experts. They take one aspect of your music and blow it out of proportion. They end up completely misrepresenting your talent, your message and your catalogue.

The Beatles are the perfect example. Lennon and McCartney were a great songwriting team. People go on and on about that. Those guys were good, but they weren’t that good. The fans also try to say Ringo was the luckiest man in the world; a talentless hack who got lucky. But they overlook the sheer genius of the minimalist drumming on tracks like “In My Life.”

[MM]: So are the fans just dumb?

[JC]: That’s not what I’m saying. You have to remember, that when my music first began to emerge from the underground scene in Nazareth, the cultural climate was a hotbed of unrest. People wanted a revolution. They wanted “Street Fighting Man” by the Rolling Stones. I didn’t give them that. So they ignored the vast majority of what I was saying. They took what was popular and ran with it. But the music lives on, and if you return to that you’ll understand what I’m saying.

[MM]: Let’s get to the question on everyone’s mind, is there going to be a reunion?

[JC]: Nothing has been confirmed, but I will say the boys and I met for a week in Key West and discussed our future over key lime pie and margaritas. We had a great time, and I think the creative tension is still there. We’ve started talking to producers, and I’d say there is a very good chance of an album by the end of next year.

[MM]: Can you give us any kind of taste of the artistic direction of this album?

[JC]: Well, we were hoping for a world music kind of feel. Not Paul Simon in Africa kind of stuff but more of a sampling of music of the disenfranchised. We already have some guests stars lined up, people like Chuck D from Public Enemy, Bono from U2, Moby and Justin Timberlake.

[MM]: Justin Timberlake sings music of the disenfranchised?

[JC]: No, but our record label wanted at least one radio single. It was either Justin Timberlake or Clay Aiken. Pick your poison. I tell you, those accountants are ruining the art form.

Tuesday, November 9, 2004

Librarians Rock

I just found one of my new favorite blogs: Dispatches From a Public Librarian.

Thanks to my friend Kate for the link.

Wednesday, November 3, 2004

Indianapolis Art Show

For any of you in the general vicinity of Indianapolis, my friend, Kyle Ragsdale, is having an art show November 5 that I highly reccomend. "Honey I'm Home" sounds like it has great potential to create discussion about community, the church, etc. I'm a big believer in the power of the arts to bring about social change in the world. I also am a big fan of Kyle's paintings and am the proud owner of a couple of them.

I think the format for the gallery show sounds original. It should be a wonderful experience. Plus, you get free food. You can't beat that.

Friday, October 29, 2004

Smitty Keeps on Rockin' in the Free World

In case anyone cared, Michael W. Smith just released his first studio album in a number of years. His middle-aged fan base is eating it up. I'm tired of soccer moms telling me how many sleepless nights they've had anticipating this new artistic milestone. Just buy the album and keep your Smitty fantasies to yourself.

In their description of the album, Family Christian Bookstore says Smith, "...stands as a pillar in the Christian community and beyond." And beyond? Since when does anyone else care who the hell Michael W. Smith is? Most Christians under the age of 30 don't even care who he is.

My disgust for Michael W. Smith stems from two things: 1)his horrendous song "Cross of Gold" (audio sample is at the bottom of the page) and 2) the cover of his 1984 album Michael W. Smith 2. Although "Go West Young Man" still kicks ass in a kitschy nostalgic sort of way.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Jesus Is In Our Meatloaf

If I ever write a book about the Christian subculture, I’m going to call it Jesus Is In Our Meatloaf, a line I stole from my wife.

Here’s a little background:

My friend, Jim, recently broke his arm. It was a very bad break requiring surgery to fix. (Just an aside: If there are any attractive, single women in the Twin Cities area who would like to help care for Jim, let me know. Please include a picture with your resume.)

Anyway, in an effort to help out, everyone at church decided to take him food, offer to do household chores, etc. I took Jim some soup the day after his surgery. Here I was, good little Christian boy [stop laughing] taking my ailing friend some soup. When I arrived at his apartment, I was greeted by the presence of some of his non-Christian coworkers. (I should note that I do not in fact know the religious feelings of these people. They could very well be very devout Christians. I’m just assuming their lack of Christianity to make a point.)

I was joking with my wife, Nikki, that there is a tendency to want to “out love” non-Christians in situations like that. We want to prove that Christians are better at “helping a brother out” than our well intentioned “rivals.”

At that point, my wife chimed in, [add sarcasm] “Yeah, Jesus is in our meatloaf.”

God, I love that woman.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Jay Jay the Jet Plane & Looking For Mars Hill

I never thought Jay Jay the Jet Plane could provide the foundation for an in-depth discussion on the nature of Christian retail. Boy was I wrong. My coworker, “Don” (not his real name) and I were labeling new Jay Jay videos to put out for sale.

Out of nowhere, Don remarks, “I don’t think a Christian bookstore should be selling Jay Jay the Jet Plane videos. I’ve watched parts of them, and they’re not overtly Christian. They’re probably very moral in what they teach, but I just don’t think it’s right for a Christian bookstore to sell items that are not overtly Christian.”

I should note I am opposed to Jay Jay for purely stylistic reasons. I hate children’s videos that showcase machinery with human faces. It’s just not right. It begs the question, “Why does Jay Jay, a plane, have a big smiley face like a person?” I have come to one of two possible conclusions. 1) He is some weird, demonic plane-human hybrid or 2) Somebody had a bad acid trip and decided to make a kid’s video out of it. Either way I don’t like it.

But I digress.

Don raises an interesting point. His complaint is based on a particular assumption about the nature of Christian retail. I don’t necessarily agree with him, but it did lead to a great dialogue about the question, “What should a Christian bookstore look like.”

I know some people feel Christian bookstores are a waste of space and should be burned to the ground as some sort of physical act of worship. Others believe it is the only place for certain artists, writers and musicians to exist without either “selling out to the world” or being ignored by nonreligious venues. You could also define a third group that may not question the idea of Christian bookstores, but they would question the practical application of that idea.

Depending on a number of factors including how much coffee I’ve had, how many evil customers have entered the store or how many pieces of “art” I’ve sold, I could fit into any one of these categories. After talking to Don, I wonder if I have too easily written off Christian bookstores? Let’s be honest, I have an entire blog devoted to mocking the very thing that helps pay my rent. That’s not a very grateful thing to do. Maybe there is something there.

I tend to believe that Christian bookstores provide a place for Christians to hide from the real world. We have created this infrastructure of marginally well-produced literature, music, film and “art” that seems to sustain us. We have no need to engage with the greater culture, unless we’re picketing to stop gay marriage or to let teenage girls seeking abortions know they’re going to burn in hell with Hitler, Osama and Clinton.

I wonder if I dismissed the idea of Christian bookstores because the vast majority of them are exactly what I described: a safe haven for Christians who forget the parts of the Bible that call us to be active participants in the world around us. Maybe there is hope for a Christian bookstore that seeks to be countercultural instead of anti-culture?

We should seek to engage culture instead of running from it. Carry books that have Christian themes but are not overtly Christian (or are too well written to be described as “Christian fiction.”) Have film discussion nights about films like Magnolia or Big Fish. Have art shows featuring local artists with no religious agenda but exist merely to showcase good local art and to build relationships. Carry music by bands who are Christ-haunted (a phrase I stole from Linford Detweiler of Over the Rhine). Have debates about Christian responses to social injustice in the area. The list could go on.

Maybe the Christian bookstore I envision looks more like the Apostle Paul on Mars Hill instead of Bob Jones University. I’m just throwing things out there. I’m not even sure how to bring about such a store. Some would argue that it sounds like your average independent bookstore that is quickly being driven to extinction. Maybe it is. All I know is that as I spent a long October day putting price stickers on Jay Jay the Jet Plane and the Jump 5 Christmas album, I had to ask myself, “Why are we doing this? Why is this the path we have chosen?”

Friday, October 8, 2004

Christmas Spirit

Best line of the day: my manager looked at our "Wall of Christmas Cheer" and said, "It looks like Santa puked."

It does indeed.

Wednesday, October 6, 2004

Away In A Manger

We currently have a few hundreds varieties of nativity sets for sale, each of which is displayed in as obnoxious a way as possible. I tried switching the babies from the African American set and the Norwegian/Aryan race set. I thought the imagery of Joseph, deprived of sex, looking at the Black son born to his painfully white wife would be funny. Granted, it would be a bit sacrilegious, but it would be funny. Somebody switched them back.

But I digress.

With so many displays, where is one to put the price tags so as not to detract from the kitsch value of 150 nativity sets crammed together? I was informed that we always put the price tag on the bottom of Baby Jesus. Anyone else find that a bit ironic, seeing as how we are making a ton of money off the poor kid's birthday?

Friday, October 1, 2004

Tis The Season

It's October, and in the retail industry that means Christmas. My store is no exception. We have been buried in an avalanche of Christmas merchandise. The vast majority of this stuff is poor at best. I'm telling you, the sweatshops just don't have the quality control they used to.

In honor of the season, I will be regularly detailing various Christmas items we sell. Or, as I like to call it -- what my friends can expect in their stockings.

Today's bundle of Christmas joy is the "Christmas Fiber Optic Wand." This handheld device is dark blue with white snowmen and snowflakes. Amidst this winter wonderland is the phrase "Jesus Loves You Snow Much." There are a bunch of fiber optics coming out the end that display pretty colors. I guess they're popular at Christian raves where people are "rollin' on Jesus."

Monday, September 27, 2004

Eyes To See

Another sign of the impending apocalypse: we now sell reading glasses. Spiritual Eyes Reading Glasses (yes, that's the real name) recently made their debut at our store. I can't help but be reminded of Joseph Smith and his "magical spectacles" that allowed him to translate the tablets that later became the book of Mormon. I doubt that's a comparison welcomed by most Evangelicals.

We placed the glasses next to the WWJD bracelets. Hopefully, people will have "eyes to see" that Jesus wouldn't wear any of this crap. (Sorry, I couldn't resist the pun.)

Between the reading glasses and the Precious Moments calendars, I might have to start drinking at work.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Have A Blessed Day

My coworkers and I are thinking about writing a book. We'll call it, How I Almost Lost My Faith and Committed Murder Working At a Christian Bookstore.

Chapter 1: Don't Make Me Take Your Oxygen Tank

As the Christmas season approaches (it begins in September for retailers) a variety of Christmas related charities come to the forefront. An endeavor my store supports is Operation Christmas Child, which is run by Samaritan's Purse. Basically, you fill a bunch of shoe boxes with items geared toward a specific type of child (such as a boy age 5-8). These boxes are wrapped and given to needy children around the world so they can have a gift at Christmas.

You can use your own shoe boxes, or you can use some of the pre-decorated boxes provided by Samaritan Purse. My store agreed to be a distribution point for these boxes. We were given 3000 on Saturday morning, and they were all gone by noon even though there was a limit of 300 for each individual/church.

One of my regular customers, a mean woman we shall call "Bonnie" called when we opened to see how many boxes we had. She was told 3000. She first became enraged when we told her we could not hold any for her. It was first come first serve as per our agreement with Samaritan Purse. She was amazed we couldn't hold any for her, "an old, frail woman who was one of our best customers."

Bonnie, you're an old, obese former chain-smoker with an oxygen tank and a grudge against the world. You are not one of our best customers. When you enter the store, we assume we are being punished by God. Nothing is ever good enough for you. You are verbally and emotionally abusive to the staff, but you assume a nice, "It's not you're fault," at the end of a tirade will make everything better. People leave the church because of jerks like you.

Anyway, she comes into the store around 2:30 and demands shoe boxes. I politely inform her we are completely out. The floodgates of hatred opened up. It would have been more fun to run naked through the Mall of America the day after Thanksgiving than to listen to Bonnie tell me what a miserable shit I was.

I stood there and smiled while she went on and on. I can take verbal abuse; I played Little League. What frustrated me were the sadistic fantasies I had about tormenting Bonnie. At one point she asked me what I was going to do to fix the situation. "I don't know, slap you with a Bible," I wondered to myself. Then she wanted to know what she was supposed to do. "Go play in traffic."

I'm really not a violent person. More than anything I was furious at myself for the hatred toward Bonnie boiling over in my soul. I wish I could say is she the only cranky customer I ever have. The truth is, most of my day I spend trying to massage the egos of condescending suburbanites who spit on my very existence. It's enough to make a man an athiest.

And we wonder why people think religion is a tool of oppression and hatred. We treat our dogs better than our own Christian brothers and sisters. Glory glory hallelujah.

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

How Long Have You Been Stoned?

I was given a tract yesterday at work. For the uninitiated, a tract is a small booklet certain Christians give to non-Christians in hopes this small booklet will lead the non-Christian to Christ. I am categorically opposed to any and all tracts, but that's another discussion.

So, I was ringing up this woman's order. She seemed a bit crazy, and by crazy I mean stoned off her ass. Now, I'm not implying she was smokin' the ganja before buying ridiculously bad and uninspired Christian art (though I wish more people could use that excuse). All I know is that the way she was acting made me want to sing "Shiny Happy People" by REM.

After she pays, she hands me a tract and says, "I want to share this with you." This particular piece was entitled "You're Special." I'm special, and you're a wack job.

I WORK IN A CHRISTIAN BOOKSTORE! I don't need salvation. I might need a drink, but I don't need salvation. Salvation I've got, a sane and normal workplace I don't.

It is truly sad when you have become so ingrained in a mind-set that dictates the world will be changed by a small piece of paper with no sacrifice or commitment on your part that you start trying to evangelize the people who on your "side." I pray to God this woman was stoned, because at least then she has the excuse that she willingly hindered her decision making ability. If she was sober, she serves as an example of why people declare religion a "crutch for the weak-minded", a "mental disorder," etc.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

"We live in a political world, where courage is a thing of the past ..." - Bob Dylan, "Political World"

I hate discussing politics, but I've been drowning in so many political discussions recently, that it's the only thing on my mind. So here are some random thoughts about my recent conversations along with a nod to some underrepresented voices in the Christian world.

As can be expected, the majority of my coworkers are diehard Republicans. My manager even has a life-size cutout of President Bush in his office. I try to avoid discussing politics with them, mostly because I, unlike my coworkers, don't think Christians can honestly say either party accurately represents a biblical worldview. That, and I'm tired of being told G.W. Bush has a hotline to God, kind of like the police chief in Batman.

On a lark, I told a coworker that the Holy Spirit had appeared to me in a vision and instructed me to vote for John Kerry. I was kidding, but the look she gave me would have you believe I just said Satan and I went out for a beer to catch-up on the old days.

Many of my coworkers are upset because Garrison Keillor will be appearing at the Minnesota State Fair. They love his work on NPR but are mad because he is an outspoken Democrat. They feel his appearance violates equal time laws. They have a decent point, assuming Keillor talks about politics. However, people in glass houses should not walk around naked. A quick survey of our store showed a variety of Republican themed books and memorabilia, but nothing with an opposing view.

So, in recognition of the variety of political views present in Christianity, I have listed a few links to groups you will not see mentioned in your local Christian bookstore. Their mention here does not necessarily imply an endorsement. I am merely trying to recognize our brothers and sisters in Christ who are not part of the Christian Right. (I stole some of these from other people, but who really cares):

Christians for Cannabis (As the name implies, they want to reform U.S. drug policy)
Christians Against Bush (Pretty straightforward)
Speech by Jim Wallace, Editor of Sojourners, calling on Christians to vote Democrat (we don't carry Sojourners at my store, probably for its left-leaning politics)
Christian Anarchy (interestingly enough, not considered an oxymoron by its supporters)
For more thought provoking discussion on anarchy, visit David Reynolds' Blog
Christian Socialist Movement (The people will rise-up)

Here are some social justice groups whose causes do not get enough mention in Christian circles:
Jubilee Research
International Justice Mission
Fair Trade Federation
M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence

Monday, August 23, 2004

Today's Moment of Melodramatic Introspection

sometimes i feel so all alone
here in this city i call my home
they say, 'hey, you're one of us'
funny, i should feel so anonymous
Over the Rhine - Nobody Number One

Is it just me, or does church feel like that sometimes? Everyone loves you and feels like you belong, but you don’t feel it. I don’t necessarily mean that as an indictment of church. I’m not really sure who I’m trying to indict – probably myself.

I belong to a great church with people who care about me. And yet there are still times I feel like a stranger.

I don’t know, maybe I’m the only one with a variety of spiritual connection disorders.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

"If you have a bobblehead, it means you're somebody."

One of my worst nightmares has come true -- my store actually sells Christian bobblehead dolls. You can buy Moses, Noah or Samson. I'm reminded of a Chandler Bing quote from Friends, "Too...many...punchlines."

If you want to learn more about the history of the company, Isaac Bros. Bible Bobbleheads, you can check out a feature from the May 23, 2003, issue of the Louisville Courier Journal.

The discovery of such items led me to do some exploring. If secondary characters like Moses, Noah and Samson have their own bobbleheads, surely Jesus, the Son of God, would have his own. I found the:
I think I know what I'm buying people on my Christmas list.

Monday, August 16, 2004

We Are Not Alone

This was mentioned in the comments section for one of my posts, but I thought I would mention it here for all to see. Apparently, there is a wonderful site called Arts & Faith. It's a message board covering all forms of art from film to music to literature and so on. I've only briefly glanced through it, but I can tell I'll be spending a lot of time over there. I might even post every once in awhile.

It's a great site, and you should check it out.

Friday, August 13, 2004

More Passion Talk

Ouch. Check out the less than flattering review of the Passion of the Christ DVD by Rollingstone’s Rob Sheffield. (Warning: This review is not suitable for Christians with an extremely thin skin.) Sheffield’s comments about “The Passion [being] slow and pompous with too much blood,” do raise an interesting question: Do Christians like this movie because it is good art, or do they like it simply because it is about Jesus?

As is usually the case, I am not the first to ask this question. For an interesting discussion of this issue, check out the article “Overcome with Passion,” in the March 2004 issue of Catapult Magazine, written by my old college friend, Kate Bowman. I recently came across it, and though the article is about five months old, I think the issues are still very relevant, especially within the context of the film being released on DVD later this month.

Kate raises some excellent points about Christian views of art, film and culture in general – issues that are near and dear to my heart and my academic pursuits. Plus, whenever anyone mentions the film Magnolia in a positive light, I perk my ears up and listen.

Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect $200

Yesterday, I discovered Left Behind-The Movie TM Board Game (yes, that’s the official title). I especially enjoy the flames of hell that appear at one corner of the board. I wonder if the loser misses out on the rapture and is forced to spend eternity on a post-apocalyptic earth (insert your own joke about New Jersey).

How do you market a game like that? Imagine being in the marketing meeting trying to come up with slogans for the game.

  • “You’re not just playing to win, you’re playing for your life.”
  • “Buy the board game or Kirk Cameron will make a sequel. Go ahead; test us.”
  • “The most important board game – ever.”
  • “The board game that will save your friends from hell.”
I wonder if they have Left Behind lunchboxes?

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

This Has To Be A Bad Joke

The Christian apparel industry never ceases to amaze me. My store is currently running a sale on Kerusso t-shirts. The one that caught my eye is bright red and with the phrase "Heavy Drinker" in large letters. The biblical reference John 7:3 appears in smaller type below the uplifting message. The back of the shirt displays the verse as a quote credited to Jesus: "If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink."

Many will recognize that Jesus is speaking in a spiritual context. Whether or not you believe he is correct, is a debate for another time. My question is why would a Christian t-shirt have the phrase "Heavy Drinker" on the front? I don't know about you, but when I see a bright red shirt that says "Heavy Drinker," I think drunken frat boy not spiritual enlightenment. While there are many things about the Christian culture that make me wish I was a heavy drinker (including this t-shirt), I'm not going to declare it on my chest. (And please don't use the argument that Christians are trying to co-opt a phrase with negative connotations and turn it into a label of empowerment. This is not African-Americans using the n-word. This is Christians aligning themselves with the frat boys on MTV's Spring Break.)

This t-shirt is an embarrassment to anyone who takes their Christian faith seriously. I cannot believe a company with the motto, "Change your shirt; change the world," would actually release this shirt into the public. I have a feeling some cynical intern came up with the idea as a joke, but the powers-that-be loved it and made a t-shirt out of it.

Hey, Kerusso! You're making baby Jesus cry. Stop it! What's next? Are you going to release a t-shirt that tries to declare all Christians are brainwashed?

Wednesday, August 4, 2004

Hit & Run

We sell these bumper stickers that say, "Angels protect this car."

I'm probably evil for thinking this, but if I ever see a car with that bumper sticker, I want to run it off the road. Then I'd ask them, "Where were your angels? On their cigarette break?"

Like I said, I'm evil.

Tuesday, August 3, 2004

A Little Kick-Ass Beauty Before We Die

I just received the new Over the Rhine live album, Changes Come, and I can't stop playing it. This self described "Christ-haunted" band has a large cult following and is one of my favorites currently making music. They'll probably never be sold in my Christian bookstore because they're on a secular label (Virgin Backporch), they don't say, "Jesus loves you" in every song, and they play in bars. That's a shame because I think it's beautiful music.

Changes Come was recorded live during their Fall 2003 tour to promote their critically acclaimed album Ohio. Seeing Over the Rhine in concert is always a highlight of my life, and this album comes the closest to capturing the feelings of those concerts. After I saw them last fall, I wrote in my journal, "Seeing Over the Rhine play is like going out for a couple of beers and a smoke with your best friend. You spend the night talking about everything and nothing at the same time. And for that moment, in that bar, on that corner, life makes sense." (I believe now would be an appropriate time to quote the musical Rent, "That's poetic; that's pathetic.")

But seriously, those of you who are fans know what my melodramatic prose are attempting to say. In a world where sub-par singers like Ashlee Simpson sell 398,000 albums in their debut week, bands like Over the Rhine are a message from God reminding us that the entire music industry has not gone to hell.

You can only order Changes Come through the band's website, where you can also pick up Ohio or other Over the Rhine projects (Good Dog, Bad Dog is another personal favorite).

Sunday, August 1, 2004

Since When Do Cartoons Have Eternal Souls?

Today, whenever I was in the music section I kept hearing the Chris Rice song, "Cartoons." For those of you unfamiliar with the song, let me fill you in. The premise is simple: what if cartoons got saved and became Christians? Chris Rice then sings "hallelujah" in a variety of rather decent cartoon voices. Check out the lyrics. Apparently, it's supposed to illustrate that Christians can have fun too.

Is it just me, or does it seem sacrilegious to have Astro from The Jetsons sing hallelujah (ra-ra-ru-jah, to be exact)? I thought worship was about reverence toward God. I just dislike the entire thing. I'm even more disgusted with the cult following surrounding this song. I don't usually advocate censorship, but if someone wanted to organize a CD burning party for this song, I'd bring the beer.

That all sounds very harsh. I know some people love the song and think it's just a clean, fun song that Christians can listen too. I just wonder when turning faith in God into a nursery rhyme was ever healthy for anyone involved.

That's one of my major concerns with the Christian subculture. All we do is pander to the lowest common denominator. We never push forward. We never ask real questions. Maybe I should be thanking Chris Rice. Maybe he's showed us that constantly pandering does not edify the church but in fact forces us to devolve until we're speaking in cartoon voices. It's like Mr. Rodgers on an acid trip - it might seem fun, but do we really want to go there?

I don't want to speak ill of Chris Rice, a man I have never met. I just wish to point out one of the many reasons I believe Christian music is irrelevant and in many cases detrimental.

P.S. If you're really brave, listen to a sample of the song (Track 17 on the playlist). Press play at your own risk.

Den of Thieves

I had to work today. If you'll notice the time/date stamp at the bottom of this entry you'll notice it's Sunday. A Christian bookstore open on Sundays. I think the world is going to end. I haven't watched Left Behind in a while, so someone let me know if this is a sign of the impending apocalypse.

We're only open from 1-5pm on Sundays, because they want to give us time to go to church. Well, my church service didn't get over until 12:00 pm. So I had to skip the opportunity to fellowship (Christian code for talk) to my friends so I could get to work by 12:30 to open the store. Is that really the church life we want to promote? Especially for a couple hundred bucks worth of business.

Saturday, July 31, 2004

How Much Money Can We Make Off Christ's Death - And Does He Want a Cut of the Profits?

Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ just won't go away. For those of you completely out of touch with reality, The Passion is the film that is supposed to save humanity from itself and turn us into anti-Semite. I like to call it the film that made Protestants realize Catholics might in fact be Christians.

Well, the DVD of the film is coming out on August 31, so our store is rolling out the merchandise in eager anticipation. This means the reincarnation of The Passion of the Christ jewelry. My favorite is the Nail Lapel Pin. It's a solid pewter pin fashioned like a nail with the biblical reference Isaiah 53:5 carved into it.

You should really see all these officially licensed products. It's one of the most frightening things I've ever seen. Who comes up with all this? And will a lapel pin really make someone become a Christian? If you ask me, it will just make people more cynical. Heck, I'm cynical about this, and I'm a Christian.

Luckily, many of my coworkers feel the same way. We decided to come up with more appropriate uses of these pins. There's the obvious golf tee. I thought it would be a cool nose ring. It would seem reminiscent of the bones you see in the noses of various National Geographic centerfolds. One person suggested using them to make a studded belt, but that idea seemed a little too labor intensive.

Now, if I could only figure out a better use for my Left Behind trading cards.

Sunday, July 18, 2004

Going on Vacation

I'm going "Up North," as the natives in Minnesota call it. I'll be in the middle of the woods with my in-laws for a week. Hilarity will ensue. With no access to the world of Christian retail, there will be no new posts for about a week.

Christian Books I Don't Mind Selling

As my first week in the world of Christian retail comes to a close, I feel I should at least try to put a positive spin on the industry. While those who love me call me a cynic, especially when it concerns all things related to the Christian subculture, I do believe there are authors, musicians, artists, etc. within this subculture who are doing some good things. Instead of always bashing the pathetic aspects of the culture, I think I'll try highlighting some things I like. (Note: I'll keep bashing the bad things of Christian retail. It's just way too fun.)

I recently read a book by Donald Miller called Blue Like Jazz. I actually loved it. The book is a very easy read. It is very much a stream-of-consciousness account of the author's spiritual journey. It's not a perfect book, but I found myself unwilling to put it down. It was just too honest, and I have to respect that. This book won't change the world, but it could make you realize there are Christians who care about the world. I would recommend it for high school or college students who grew up in the stereotypical whitebread Christian youth group.

Saturday, July 17, 2004

It's [Really] All About the Benjamins

We got a large shipment of books in the other day. Opening a box I noticed it was a book entitled The Signature of Jesus by Brennan Manning (who is probably most famous for his book The Ragamuffin Gospel.) I asked my supervisor if this was a new book by Manning.
"No, it's an old book. They just put a new cover on it, and the sad thing is that a lot of people will see the new cover, think it's a book of Manning's they haven't read and buy it."
"That sounds a little sneaky for the Christian publishing world," I countered.
She laughed. And she kept laughing. Eventually, she stopped. "So young and so naive," she said.
This is what makes me mad about Christian publishing - they are all a bunch of liars. They claim to be about something bigger than themselves (or as Manning's publisher says, "That's why we're here -- to change lives for the glory of His kingdom."), and yet they are all about the money. They even stoop to re-covering books so the idiot public will buy them a second time.
I'm not saying being in business to make money is wrong. But when you represent yourself as someone working for the glory of God, using underhanded tactics to turn a buck seems highly inappropriate. It's not like they're televangelists.

Living in Fear

This crazy customer got me thinking earlier this week. She was an old woman with a hokey Minnesota accent. She came into the store looking for a children's Bible to give to her new grandson. She had no idea what the name of this particular Bible was, and of course, every Bible I showed her was completely the wrong. She would try to describe it. "It has a white cover." That does me a lot of good. And she kept saying, "You know what I'm talking about." No, lady, I don't have any clue what you're talking about. In fact, I'm beginning to wonder if somebody didn't take their medicine this morning and wandered away from the home.
But I digress.
After about half an hour of looking, she finally finds a Bible - with a yellow cover. We go up front to check-out. While waiting to pay, our friend discovers the wall of wood planks with inscriptions. These have Bible verses, patriotic sayings, etc. She finds one that quotes Psalm 33:12a, "Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord." (NIV) She proceeds to read the inscription out loud followed by a desperate exclamation of, "Yes, we are so blessed; we are so blessed, Lord. Please don't leave us, Lord. Please don't leave us. Don't leave us."
It was the way she said it as she looked at the wall. There was genuine fear in both her voice and the way she looked. It was actually very sad. And I wondered, how often do we do things out of fear? Maybe it's fear that God will leave us or that a spouse will stop loving us, but we do or don't do things motivated simply by fear.
I don't want to sound like a pastor giving a sermon, but it was just all very sad. And I can't seem to forget her or the way she almost cried at the thought of God retreating. A thought that was all too tangible for her. And I soon realized there wasn't a whole lot separating me from her at that moment. And that's the really sad part.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

The First Day

The first day of work is always fun. You learn the lay of the land, meet new people and try to figure out if you've just made the biggest mistake of your life. All of my co-workers seem like very nice, very cool people. They all seem to enjoy gently mocking certain items in our inventory. Take my surpervisor as an example. On my tour of the store we stopped in the gift section (think Hallmark figurines with a Bible verse). She told me, "If you happen to break any of the ugly things in this section, oh well -- we can't sell them. Not that I'm advocating randomly breaking store merchandise, but some of this stuff is ugly as sin."

I think my favorite thing of the day was a kids t-shirt. Imagine the Mt. Dew logo, but instead mentioning soda it reads, "Jesus: He Died For You." Do you get it? It sounds like "Do the Dew." Oh my freaking gosh, that is so cool. Move over Billy Graham; this t-shirt will save millions of angry suburban teens from their sins. Honestly, this shirt did not make me want to repent. It did make me want a Mt. Dew slushy. Of course, I would have probably gotten a brain freeze as some sort of cosmic punishment for mocking this divinely inspired cotton billboard for Christ.

What have I gotten myself into?