Campus Crusaders Pt 8: Drop A Bomb

526x297-hyDA few months before I joined Campus Crusade, I started taking a drug called Felbatol for my epilepsy. In an ideal world, I would still be taking Felbatol. For me it was the much-coveted Happy Pill that our society has pined for. Yet if you skim its list of potential side effects, it’s the usual stuff: depression, drowsiness, rashes, etc. It doesn’t sound fun, does it? But there’s a little blurb at the top of the list that mentions “trouble sleeping.”  That’s a gigantic understatement.

I didn’t just have insomnia with Felbatol. I had Energy. And it wasn’t the hyper-caffienated energy you get with Red Bull or a listless “darn it I can’t sleep!” insomnia. It felt like an organic High On Life energy, like you just couldn’t wait to start your day. And it was like that all the time. Every day. No crashes, no nodding off, no lows. I stayed awake with my mind racing and my energy cranked at 10 for 24, 48 hours straight. For days on end. When I did sleep, it was never for more than an hour or two, and then I’d pop out of bed (and I always popped!), get something to eat, and find something to do. When I wasn’t painting a storm, I rearranged furniture, cleaned my house, jogged, shopped – all without a break. And I was Happy. All of the time, like the scene in Ruby Sparks (great movie, by the way) where Paul Dano makes Ruby so relentlessly upbeat that everyone gets annoyed by her.  I knew the drug was dangerous – after all, if you don’t sleep,  you go insane or die – but I was like Tyler Durden crossed with a Teletubby.

I felt like I could accomplish anything, and I got a hell of a lot done. I submitted dozens of applications for gallery exhibits, got in touch with old friends, and I also made a concerted effort to advertise my talents for potential clients who might want to commission me. That was an angle on my art career that I knew I needed to pursue, but for years I couldn’t get up the nerve or the motivation to make anything happen.

So first I made up a bunch of business cards. I got way more printed out than I could ever hope to use, but that was my unrelenting optimism at play. I could do anything! Surely I could find a few hundred people who’s want my business card! One of the other things I did to nudge things along was write to a few people in town I admired. Not only did I offer my wares, but I also heaped gushing praise upon them even though I only knew them by their reputation or their status as a public figure. I wasn’t dishonest with any of them; I only wrote to a handful of people, and I didn’t hold back in my enthusiasm for them.

Even though I knew Felbatol was probably slowly killing me, I didn’t want to quit it. I kept quiet about it as long as I could, hoping that I could stay on it as long as possible. I wasn’t normally the joyful extrovert I had become, so a lot people picked up on the change in me. But I kept the insomnia secret for a few weeks, until my mother noticed that I was not sleeping at all. She pressured me to go back to my doctor, and begrudgingly I did. It was the practical thing to do, but boy I still miss those days of unfettered happiness.

So months passed. Soon after my Felbatol saga, I was back on a crappy drug that left me drowsy, unmotivated, and it sent me back to the depression Felbatol had saved me from. January came and I joined the Campus Crusaders, and aside from getting a few paintings accepted for group exhibits at NYC, most of my career efforts were unsuccessful. No one wanted my business cards or responded to my letters until I received a call in late March of ’94.

I remember the day clearly. I was halfway through the new Pink Floyd cd, working on a painting as I  grabbed the phone. It was a woman. I vaguely recognized her voice, and she sounded a little nervous. Then she announced who she was, and my eyes bugged out. She was one of the people I wrote a letter to. I turned my stereo down to zero. Once we both got over our initial awkwardness, she thanked me for the kind letter and said she would like to meet me to talk more about painting her portrait. Holy Crap, I’m thinking. This is going to happen! We agreed to an April meeting at my studio. I  could barely contain myself. Not only was she was one of the public figures I had reached out to, but she was also the one I was really hoping to meet.

That night I met my Bible Study group at the local Christian coffee shop. It was a nice enough place and the owners were very pleasant people, so I didn’t mind supporting their business with my money. But the owners had an annoying habit of booking amateurish Christian musicians who’d sing well known rock songs with Christianized lyrics (like changing Nirvana’s All Apologies to: “What else can I say/Jesus really saves”). Ugh.

But that night I din’t mind the guy strumming his acoustic guitar in the corner and singing bad praise songs. I was knocked silly by the news I had to share, and I realized that my Felbatol-fueled energy had masked a full-blown crush on my soon-to-be client.

The Campus Crusaders only had one question for me: is she a Christian? I can’t say I was surprised by their reaction. That was the default question whenever anyone expressed interest in someone the Bible Study didn’t know. But I was dumbfounded by their decision to go straight to that question first. Even though I was as happy as I was the day I started Felbatol, I knew that my new client was just that: a client. I had no dreams or expectations of anything more than a brief but professional relationship. But it felt good to wallow in my exuberance, so their question barely fazed me. I answered honestly: I didn’t know, and it didn’t matter. She wasn’t a girlfriend or even a prospective girlfriend. Hell, she was probably married.

Jason appreciated my enthusiasm more than the others did. I was amazed that he still willingly hung out with the gang even though he despised Dwight and resented Kaitlyn’s rejection of him. But I admired the fact that he kept his resentment hidden from them. As he put it,  Kaitlyn clearly wasn’t in God’s Plan for him, so he had to get over his grudge.

Kaitlyn, on the other hand, had the most bizarre reaction of all. She insisted that I was wrong when I admitted that I was holding a candle for my new client. I had a crush on her, she insisted, and I was overjoyed because I was excited to see her at the coffehouse. Mind you, Kaitlyn always showed up  at our coffeehouse meetings. Aside from the fact that she was a little bit nicer to me than the other women and we both went to the Methodist church, we had a little in common. What’s amazing is she had this argument with me while Dwight – her new boyfriend- was sitting with us. Dwight never said a word, and Kaitlyn barely acknowledged him.

Now, I’m sure you’re thinking: duh! Kaitlyn wanted you! That thought ran through my mind, too. But I didn’t want to put her on the spot because of the whole drama about me using the Bible Study as a meat market. So in private Jason confronted her about it. She insisted that not only was she not attracted to me, she looked upon me as her Project. In other words, she had designated herself the person who would lead me to Jesus. Her proof that I liked her consisted of the following: I often talked to her one-on-one at church; I tended to make small talk with her at Bbiel Study when the guys were busy talking to other people; and, of course, the dozen roses I sent to her house the night I gave all of the women flowers.  But I didn’t feel like arguing with her. I found myself more amused by her insistence than anything. Besides, now I had someone to really pine for.

Campus Crusaders Pt 6: 1001 Reasons Why I Wasn’t Saved

Kurt Cobain picture I Hate Myself And I Wanna DieKurt Cobain saved my life.

Back during my days with Campus Crusade For Christ, I kept the above poster in my studio. People who saw it were always unnerved by the stark declaration under Kurt’s grinning face, and they’d worry about my mental health. The Christian line on a poster like this was that it was the devil’s influence, and I needed to get it out of my house asap. But that poster kept me sane. It was a constant reminder of the consequences of suicide: the horrible things people said about Cobain, the silencing of his voice, and the commodification of his death. Every day, I would see that poster and regain my incentive to live another day.

The Campus Crusaders had me pegged as unsaved long before they got an eyeful of that poster. Back in the 90’s young Christians were more concerned with pop culture than politics. What movies you watched and what music you listened to was a stronger gauge of your standing with God than your testimony or even your political beliefs. Being a liberal was a major red flag for them of course, but a true believer was supposed to purge themselves of any secular influences. The act of throwing out your old CD’s and movies and buying only Christian media was  supposed to be the first step on the path to ridding yourself of your old heathen ways. Anyone who was still listening to secular music ten years after getting saved hadn’t been truly saved.

To give you a sense of the comic proportions of this mentality,  my friend Jason was a metal head. He loved Metallica and 80’s hair bands. But when he became  a Christian he tossed his CD’s into the trash and got into Christian metal. But Jason didn’t like Christian metal. In fact, he found a lot of it painful to listen to. But they sang about Jesus, and that was more important to him than whether he actually liked the music. So he’d buy gobs of Christian CD’s by artists he didn’t really like because their sound was the closest he could get to the secular songs he was trying to avoid.

He wasn’t alone. The Christians I met were constantly trying to find Christian equivalents of the music I listened to. Everywhere I went, I’d see these charts that were sort of like Amazon Recommendation lists: if you like Led Zep, listen to Stryper instead. If you like Nirvana, then listen to DC Talk. I tried to appreciate their efforts, but the stuff I heard all sounded plastic and phony to me, and it bothered me that this wasn’t a case of sharing their favorite tunes with new friends. They wanted to convert me to the virtues of the Newsboys as much as they wanted to get me saved.

And even within their Christian rock conclave, they were constantly arguing over whether a given artist was a true Christian. Amy Grant was the Devil Incarnate to them because she dared to get a divorce and sign with a secular label. U2 gave them fits, and they could go deep into the night arguing whether Bono was saved. The case against him usually resided on two points; he never said Jesus’s name in his songs, and he dressed like Satan for their ZooTV tour. I quickly learned that it wasn’t enough to be a Christian artist. You had to include Jesus’s name in your lyrics, and the more didactic the lyrics were, the better. Ambiguity left room for wandering minds to go astray.

What Happened To The Culture Wars?

harry-potter-groupYesterday I came across an article about Russell Simmons on Salon’s website, and it occurred to me how dramatically the Culture Wars have changed in the past few years. For most of my life this type of missive against a sexually explicit video would have come from a conservative organization like Focus On The Family or the American Family Association. But if you peruse conservative websites, you won’t find Simmons’ video mentioned, aside from a brief blurb on Fox News.

I know that a lot of people will say that race changes the dynamic of the controversy, and that’s true. But it had me thinking: what happened to the constant barrage of conservative outrage against media that offends their sensibilities? Why are liberals nowadays so much more effective at communicating their outrage at the scandal of the week?

Think about it. One of the predominant narratives since the 50’s has been the tension between conservatives and media that they feel mocks and insults their worldview. The examples are countless: Elvis’s hips; The Beatles saying they were more popular than Jesus (rock music in general has been a constant source of consternation), as well as movies like The Last Temptation Of Christ and Dennis Franz’s scandalous butt shot on NYPD Blue. The last big cultural firestorm I can recall was the supernatural dangers of Harry Potter.

I’m sure that readers can think of much better examples that I’ve listed, and that’s the point: for decades, conservatives had a 24/7 outrage machine going. Liberal outrages tended to be more short-lived, and most of them could be neutralized with accusations of political correctness. Just to confirm my hunch, I checked out the above websites (as well as the Family Research Council and World Magazine). I couldn’t find any recent articles about an offending musician or TV show. That’s amazing!

I figured this puzzle warranted some thought, so here are my current theories:

1. For conservatives, the Culture Wars have shifted to more substantive terrain.

I know that sounds strange, but if you look at the websites above, you’ll see that (for the most part) they’ve moved beyond the trivial. They’re focused on questions that impact our lives at a deeper level: gay marriage, gay rights within the Boy Scouts, and religious expression. Even though I disagree with their position on these issues, they’re a big jump from warnings about which movies to avoid or whether the Dixie Chicks have betrayed America. 

2. The Wars have shifted because Conservatives no longer assume America shares its values.

I’ll admit I’m iffy on this one. Certainly conservatives still speak as if they do assume this. The Tea Party’s rhetoric is founded on it. But I think that Al Mohler’s post-election column hits closer to what’s really going on in the conservative psyche. It doesn’t seem as though they truly believe that that they have a Moral Majority anymore. As a result, their activism has been focused on a big-picture attempt to plead their case for a conservative worldview. Whereas it used to be enough to accuse TV shows of promoting the “homosexual agenda, ” nowadays support for gays is so widespread that they have to backtrack and try to justify their animosity towards gays. Focusing on the big stuff means letting the little battles go.

3. Big Media is more in tune with their values.

Back in the 2000’s I noticed that most of the flash points in pop culture revolved around the behavior of young women. The age of misbehaving rock stars was over, and it had been replaced by gossipy outrage over Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, and Lindsey Lohan. Even then the scale of controversy was trending down. Whereas conservatives used to worry about Led Zeppelin spreading Satanism, now they were worried about Paris Hilton’s blase materialism.

Perhaps it’s a temporary phase, but we seem to have arrived at an era of Domesticated Media: Rock is dead, rappers stopped singing about killing cops, and the biggest movies are superhero movies that affirm traditional story lines of masculine heroism, responsibility, and good vs evil.

When celebrities do get in trouble, it’s usually because of a poorly thought out tweet, and they always apologize profusely. Liberals scorn Anthony Weiner’s sexual misadventures as zealously as they do, if not moreso. Whereas drug addiction used to be glamorized, now shows like Celebrity Rehab show addiction in all its pathetic, camera-hungry glory.

4. Media fragmentation isn’t conducive to conservative outrage.

A few months ago a Facebook friend of mine posted a petition trying to get network TV to  clean up its prime time shows. It was the kind of thing conservatives used to love getting behind. Instead her fellow conservatives gently dismissed her efforts, pointing out that sex and violence are so widespread that getting four channels to fall in line meant nothing if a thousand more channels were broadcasting salacious fare at the same time.  The difference was that my friend was a homeschooling mom who never subscribed to cable. She’s still living in an Old Media world. Nowadays the audience for any one show is smaller, and the cultural influence of those shows is also smaller.

Same goes for music. Beyonce is probably the biggest star of the moment, but her influence pales in comparison to Madonna or Nirvana’s.

5. Media fragmentation makes it easier to ignore the unwanted noise.

Epistemic closure is a bane of our times. It’s a big reason why it’s so difficult for the Left to engage the Right; each side consumes its own news and entertainment, so a person can easily get by without ever being exposed to the ideas and values of the other side. Services like Netflix mean that my homeschooling friend has the capacity to just bring up the latest family-friendly offering for her kids any time she wants to. No one is stuck having to choose between the network options.

In terms of the culture wars, this means that conservatives are often only exposed to controversial media when a sympathetic news source writes an article about it.  The more organizations like Focus On The Family emphasize politics and advice columns, the less controversial media they are exposed to.

6. The scattershot nature of the web is much more conducive to liberal outrage.

To me the biggest contrast between liberal and conservative activism is their attention span. Liberals get revved up for presidential elections while conservatives keep their energy up for off-year elections, too. Liberals are prone for small-scale squabbles within their ranks, while conservatives find it easier to ignore shortcomings and close ranks for a common cause. Evangelicals ignore Glenn Beck’s Mormonism because he’s rallying the troops, so to say. They don’t care if he’s going to hell; he’s useful for their needs.

Liberals, on the other hand, parse whether Caitlin Moran is feminist enough, or whether the Newsroom communicates liberal ideas effectively. I’m not debating the merits of these dialogues. My point is that both of these were quick but testy discussions that garnered the desired results (i.e. apologies and promises to behave better and write more effectively). Then liberals are on to the next internal debate.

I think a lot of this happens because modern media is ADD by nature. Controversies rarely last more than four days, let alone a week, and celebrities are so conditioned to the “offend-apologize-pray for forgiveness cycle” that it’s an extremely effective means of getting your message out when you’re upset (provided your target self-identifies as liberal.) Conservatives don’t have this apology culture because they’re willing to forgive the most flagrant transgressions.

7. Conservatives have decided that it doesn’t matter  if they lose the Culture Wars.

Conservatives are predisposed in long term battles. They’re still fighting to shut down Obamacare; they’re still trying to turn the clock back against gay acceptance. They’re still fighting to get Roe V Wade overturned or gutted to the point where an abortion is impossible to acquire. They lose these internet scuffles or ignore them outright, so the liberal tendency towards the short-term infighting plays into their hands. Conservatives know they are faced with a demographic crisis, so they focus on redistricting to neutralize minority growth and having more kids so they can groom future true believers. Even though there are many passionate holdouts, many conservatives shifted their focus from fighting gay acceptance to persuading the faithful to stay strong.

From the conservative point of view, who cares what policies Obama advocates if they can stop them cold? Who cares about the growing minority population when they can rig state elections so they stay in power and make it harder for minorities to vote? Focus on the Family doesn’t need to heap scorn on Beyonce because they’re fighting a bigger fight. And while liberals fuss over whether Caitlin Moran is a true feminist, conservatives are learning that the Legislative Wars matter more than the Culture Wars.

Noisy Services

Mark Vernon has written a good post about the lack of silence in churches. It struck cord with me because it’s been of one of my gripes about church services, except I’m coming at it from a different angle. I’m addicted to noise. Silence makes me feel naked and self-conscious. I don’t know what to do with myself when I just have the voices in my head to listen to,  and my first instinct is to turn something on. For me the ideal way to spend an evening alone is listening to music, watching tv, talking on the phone with a good friend, and painting…all at the same time.

I thrive on the cacophony. I love the way the audial and visual stimuli mix and collide with each other, especially if they reflect different moods. In other words, listening to The Cure while watching Titanic is much more interesting to me than listening to them while watching The Crow. And if I can have an hour long conversation with a friend of mine while all of this is going on, then that’s perfection.

But i know that when it comes to my faith, all that noise isn’t good for me. The uncomfortable silences that I instinctively avoid are what one needs for prayer and focusing on God. So when I go to church, I feel as though church services should be there to help me get over my anxiety over silence. As many pastors and many worship leaders have said, we’re at church to focus on Him, not us. So it becomes extremely frustrating my when the prayer times -during and after communion especially – become time to play the piano or sing hymns. In other words, make sure the service doesn’t allow for silent moments.

What’s interesting is the conflicting answers I’ve received over this issue. There was a short while when I first started attending my evangelical church that they did have silence during prayers and communion. I admit that I wasn’t a stalwart of prayer and focus during those silent times, but I was hoping that practice would help. Then a new pastor came along and suddenly silence was a problem. He was concerned that the congregation was (ironically) getting bored and distracted during silent communions. He was willing to concede that my concerns made a lot of sense, but he went with the noisy communion on the grounds that the noise helped people focus on God.