Monday, July 18, 2011

Branded by the Light...

My nephew has been staying at my house quite a bit lately.  He is pretty picky about what he eats.  It is not just the types of food--chicken nuggets, pizza, chips, cookies.  He is very particular about the brand he wants--Chick-fil-a, Mellow Mushroom, Pringles in the green can, and Chips Ahoy chocolate chips (in the blue bag--hard, not chewy).  He knows what he wants, and isn't yet willing to try things to eat that are different.  Thank goodness, he doesn't whine or complain if we are out of those particular items; he just decides not to eat.

He is four.

My nephew is not the only one who is loyal to his favorite brands.  Apparently, many people make purchasing decisions, to some extent, on the brand.  There are many reasons for this--habit, perceived value, and MARKETING.  Just a couple of courses in college pointed out the philosophy and techniques that marketers use for all kinds of things.  I remember having conversations with some of my friends at the time about how churches do the same thing.  A few didn't believe me, saying that marketing was a secular concept.  I took the position that of course churches used marketing techniques.  The terms might be slightly different (outreach coordinator instead of marketer, for example), but the idea was the same.

That was quite a few years ago, and I haven't thought about church/Christianity in those terms per se very much.  However, I have remained very interested in church movements, and why some churches grow, and why seeker-sensitive churches are now trending toward being postmodern.  You know, marketing type stuff. So, I was very intrigued when I heard about the book Branded, written by Tim Sinclair.  It is a short book (141 pages), but is CHOCK FULL of information that is laugh-out-loud funny and convicting at the same time.  The back cover of the book describes it this way:

We sport 'Jesus Saves' bumper stickers on our cars and 'WWJD' bracelets on our wrists.  We post Bible verses on our Facebook profiles and Tweet profound quotes from Christian thought leaders.  But when it comes to sharing our faith verbally, we become tongue-tied.

What would life look like if we stopped mass-marketing Jesus and started marketing our faith by sharing relationally, from person to person?  Using examples from our consumer culture, Tim Sinclair shows Christians that sharing Jesus has nothing to do with our trinkets or our T-shirts.  It has everything to do with being personally branded by Christ.  With being forever changed by Jesus.  With being permanently marked by our Saviour.

Ouch.  And how true.  I am convinced that it is crucial that folks hunkered down in their churches and their religious safety nets have GOT to get a clue, and quickly, or the Church (not Jesus, though) as we know it will lose all relevance and influence.  I can not stress enough how impressive and needed this book is in not only articulating the problem, but in providing some solutions and techniques for follow-up.

And, as a side note, Branded is full of popular culture references and applications.  I love that stuff!

You can find out more information about Branded here.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Books Versus Movies (Yes, Harry Potter again)

I went to see the midnight premiere of the final Harry Potter movie last night/this morning.  I may hit a wall later, but for now I'm functioning OK.  I'm not a glutton for punishment.  I realize that the exact same movie will be showing in an hour or so, and I could have waited to see it then without the insane hours I just spent.  Normally, this is exactly what I would do.  So, what was the big deal?  For me it goes something like this:

--This was a MOMENT, an event.  As a teacher and observer of pop culture, I am fascinated by what motivates and captivates people these days, particularly children and teenagers.  Harry Potter is THE defining movie/book series of many in this generation, and I wanted to have a front row seat to the action  (Not literally front row, that would have been too uncomfortable).  That, combined with having two of my own children to experience it with, made the sleep deprivation worth it.  Maybe--time will tell on that one.

--I personally like the Harry Potter series, and have been patiently awaiting this installment.  Not so much the second Twilight movie, though.  I won tickets to that premiere (also at midnight--not worth those lost hours of sleep) and was more disturbed than anything about the masses of middle-aged women who were obsessed with the whole thing.  Yelling out at the shirtless werewolf and/or glittery vampire scenes and swooning like old footage of Elvis and those teeny boppers.  Strange.  Which is probably how the non-HP world views people like me last night.

--I remain fascinated with the vast numbers of people who 'love' HP, but only because of the movies.  They have never picked up the books.  This makes me sad, because the movies offer a very narrow interpretation of the amazing stories, sometimes deleting key points or altering events and personalities.  I understand creative license and all, so I know to expect that from most any movie adapted from a book.  But for those who only know the story from the movies, what rich stories and applications are lost.  With HP in particular, the kids generally come across as rule breaking whiners that don't obey the teachers they don't like or agree with.  The motivations of Snape and Draco and Cedric and Petunia and Tom Riddle, among others, are lost.  This last movie, while tying up loose ends, was a pretty shallow interpretation and doesn't begin to touch the richness of the books.  The same could be said for other epic stories like Lord of the Rings and Narnia.

--These are not movies for children.  I think I really need to repeat that--these are not kid movies.  It is a rite of passage story covering several years and eventually in a war setting.  Wars are ugly and scary, and involve big issues of good and evil.  Kids should be sheltered from this until they are developmentally ready for them.   I think this is most important because of the visual/movie aspect of it all.  The movies are very visual and interesting, but in the overall scheme of things, they are kind of shallow and definitely incomplete.  I continue to be amazed at the cluelessness of some caregivers in this respect.  Keeping your kids safe means more than making sure they don't run into a busy street.

I guess the bottom line is that I am concerned that people no longer read anymore. Big, epic, thought-provoking stories.  Or even little ones that involve actually turning pages and not just touching a screen, for that matter.  I think there are significant implications for any culture that is entertained to death, yet doesn't have the critical thinking and problem solving skills that being mature requires.  Reading the HP series isn't a panacea.  Many people have serious, legitimate reservations about HP, or just aren't interested in them for various reasons.  I get that.  I just wish more people, young and old, could experience and appreciate the thrill of getting immersed in a good book; any good book.

A conversation with a teenage girl after the movie last night really brought this point home for me.  She is a self-described 'huge Harry Potter fan'.  She admitted that even though she 'likes to read every now and then', she hasn't read any of the HP books.  She said she wants to if she ever gets enough money to buy them.  I mentioned that the library has numerous copies of all the books, and would even deliver them to the branch that is within walking distance of her house.  She looked shocked, saying she had never thought of that.  SHE HAS NEVER BEEN TO THE LIBRARY, AND ONLY THOUGHT THEY HAD 'ENCYCLOPEDIA BOOKS AND STUFF LIKE THAT'.  OK, just Avada Kedavra me now.

I don't think this was the kind of freedom Benjamin Franklin had in mind.

Maybe the issue isn't books versus movies, but something bigger altogether.  Maybe Albus Serverus will be the one to help us all with that one.  If not, I'm sure there will be plenty of folks around that can tell me how that movie turns out.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Coming out of the Harry Potter closet

Tonight is the night.  Or maybe I should say tomorrow is the morning.  Either way, it is time for the final installment of the Harry Potter movie franchise--ten years after the release of the first movie.  I asked another mom last night if she would going with the rest of her family to the midnight premiere.  She glanced around the church parking lot and kind of whispered that she wouldn't be able to attend with her kids, adding that she was trying to remain a 'closeted Harry Potter fan'.  I nodded sympathetically, because I know just where she is coming from.

My introduction to Harry Potter was a couple of years before the first movie was made, when fans were anxiously awaiting the release of book #5.  My sister asked me what I thought of the series, since her then 10 year old son was showing some interest in reading the books, and she had been hearing a lot of negative things on Christian radio about the series.  Did I think the whole magic element was that big of a concern?  All I knew is what I had heard of the same radio station, so I decided to read the first book myself.  As a teacher, I try to stay current with what my students are obsessed with anyway, so it just made sense to check it out and see if the truth matched the hype.

Well, I read that first book quickly, and was intrigued with the way J. K. Rowling was able to create characters and settings and stories that were so well written and intriguing.  I kept waiting for there to be all this seductive evil sorcery stuff, but did not find it.  I assumed that was more developed in the other books (it wasn't).  I told my sister I was more concerned about the lack of respect the kids showed to some teachers and the tendency to break the rules that not only had few consequences, but were at times rewarded (I was reading as a mother at that point).

So, I kept on reading, keeping my mommy hat on, but also an interested reader.  And I was very interested.  It became increasingly clear to me that this was quite possibly one of the best fictional portrayals of good vs. evil, love, sacrifice, friendship and epic journey that I had ever read.  Then, to top it all off, I heard a radio interview on NPR featuring Rowling and her inspiration for the series.  She proceeded to tell the most interesting story of a morning train commute where she was struck by the absolute evil of racism.  So, as a follower of Christ (her words), she wrote this story to serve as an allegory about the pure evil of racism (in Harry Potter language, that would be Muggles vs. pure bloods).

As enlightening as that interview was, it also made me sad.  I'm not sure how the whole 'evil, mind-warping Harry Potter' campaign got started, but its damage in many circles has been intense and nearly all-encompassing.  I'm sad that a series (and those who read/watch it) has been vilified by some who have never taken the time to even read any of the books.  I'm sad that so many good kids have been banned from the series.  I'm sad that so many homeschooling families in particular seem to fear anyone who likes the series, as if the mere mention of his name (no, not Voldemort) will cause the hearer to become tainted and will lead to immediate immersion into the occult.  And I'm sad that otherwise well read, discerning, protective parents feel the need to hide their appreciation of the lessons learned from HP and friends.  I mean, come on.  Those end of the book discussions that Dumbledore always has with Harry?  Man, that'll preach!

As for me?  Well, I've always been an outspoken fan.  Midnight premieres and all that stuff.  My kids have gradually been introduced to the movies and then the books at age appropriate times.  My youngest (7) hasn't seen the movies and won't for a while.  There are scary images in them.  (Don't get me started on those families who take their pre-schoolers to see any of the movies.  Hello, parents...that basilisk is scary.  Very scary.  You have every right/responsibility to get up and leave the theater with your kid.  So what if they get mad--its good training for when they become a teenager.  Couldn't get a babysitter?  Then maybe you should grow up and be the parent for a while.  I know, I know, I guess I have my own people issues to work through...).

So, tonight I'll be one of the masses who are out and out (from under the stairs--another HP reference) fans.  And for those of you who aren't--here's a spoiler.  In the whole good vs. evil thing, good wins.  Kind of neat, huh?

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Vacation tips from Caroline Ingalls

It is that time again.  Summertime.  Which, for many, means vacation time.  Interestingly enough, it also seems to correspond with several of my Facebook friends deciding to disable their accounts each year.  It turns out that reading all the posts and seeing the vacation photos just serves to drive them into a funk.  Call it weariness, or envy, or sadness—whatever the emotion—sometimes it is just too much of a reminder that their circumstances aren’t ‘as good’ as other people.  They know that more than likely their kids will never have an end of the summer, Disney/cruise/lion taming story to share with their friends.

I wish I could help them see that contrary to conventional wisdom, their kids aren’t doomed to a life of woe-is-me inadequacies.  A lot of that depends on the parent’s response and attitude.  For some (many?), money will always be tight and extravagant vacations will never be an option.  Work, bills, over-extendedness—these things can be an endless barrier.  Going to Disney World isn’t a rite of passage that guarantees well rounded, fully functioning adults.  When I am feeling the funky mindset coming on about this, all it takes is a couple of episodes of ‘Little House on the Prairie’ to straighten me up.  Forget Jamaica.  At least I don’t have to worry about hail destroying my crops and scarlet fever.  Not to mention that mean old Nellie.

Don’t get me wrong.  I am thrilled for every one of my friends that get to take their families ANY where, but especially the fun places.  I love seeing their pictures and hearing their stories, even the ones who are fortunate enough to go every year.  And, believe me, if I ever get to the place where everything is paid off and money isn’t an option, we are on the first plane out of here.  (First stop—Universal Studios/Harry Potter World). I guess I’m just lucky to have grown up in a time and place where vacations were rare, and simple, and weren’t an indicator of social status or self esteem.  Hopefully, I am passing that on to my kids, seeing as how their vacations have been simple at best.  I’ll keep telling myself that, at least until they are old enough to pay their own therapy bills.

Our vacation this year?  A combination trip to see a medical specialist and then on to a cut rate room that requires attendance at one of those time-share pitch meetings.  And, get this.  The two youngest boys are not even going to get to come.  I gave them plenty of notice that if they didn’t tone down their arguing, then they were staying home.  Guess what?  They are staying home.  Do I feel guilty about this?  Not even a little.  I would have done the same thing even if we were going to Disney for the first time.  Does that make me a mean momma?  Maybe.  But their character development is more important to me than their momentary happiness.

And if not—well, I guess that therapist will have plenty of material to work with one day.