The “Serial” Podcast and God’s Heart for Justice

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Back in 2014, I started hearing a bunch of hubbub around a popular new podcast called “Serial.” In the 12-part series, a journalist from Chicago dives deep into a murder case in Baltimore from 1999. The true story includes crazy twists and turns, and much of her research seemed to point to a possible wrongful conviction of the man who was sentenced to life in prison.

The story was engaging, and each episode left me begging for more. “Serial” topped the iTunes podcast charts for weeks, and the first two seasons have amassed more than 340 million downloads to date — easily making it one of the most successful podcasts in the platform’s young history.

This story of a real-life murder captured the attention of millions, and it seemingly started a strange entertainment revolution.

Read the full post on Boundless here.

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Are We Entering a New Era of Christian Music?

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As I’ve written before, I have a weird relationship with “Christian” music.

There were seasons in my life where that was all I listened to, and I absolutely loved it. I bought every Michael W. Smith album (literally), waited in line to meet Nicole C. Mullen and was usually wearing a Hawk Nelson tshirt.

I was that kid.

However, as I got older, I branched out a bit and discovered that I really enjoyed what my friends were listening to. As great as Bebo Norman and Jaci Velasquez and Third Day were, I realized I also really liked Coldplay and Fallout Boy and John Mayer.

All that to say, I’m surprisingly hopeful and excited about some trends I’ve noticed in the music industry lately—specifically as it relates to faith. To break down these changes, let’s rewind and do a quick recap of where we’ve come from through the various eras of CCM (Contemporary Christian music):

The Trailblazers.

Along with scrunchies, mullets and skateboards, the 80s also brought us the careers of Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith and Steven Curtis Chapman. While there has always been music about God, these pioneers ushered in a new kind of Christian music. They were talented and young, and their music sounded similar to the pop hits on the radio. In fact, some of their songs even ended up “crossing over” on the charts, and they were forever immortalized as kings and queens of CCM. After we experienced “Lead Me On” and saddled up our horses, it seemed Christians had finally found their “place in this world” in popular music.

Good, Clean Fun. 

In the 90s and early 2000s, a wave of new artists hit the scene with a slightly different flavor of Christian music. After the early successes of the CCM trailblazers, Christian record companies jumped on the bandwagon and found ways to encourage “positive alternatives” to mainstream favorites. Many Christian artists in this era weren’t necessarily making bold statements about faith, but they were fun alternatives to mainstream pop. The Newsboys sang about Captain Crunch, Switchfoot mentioned Elvis’ mom, and Audio Adrenaline talked about heavenly football games. The content was safe, the melodies were catchy and Relient K taught us about mood rings.

Everyone Is Worshiping.

The mid-2000s were all about worship. I remember the first few times I heard “Here I Am to Worship” by Tim Hughes, and suddenly the music at my church and on the radio began to shift. Artists like Chris Tomlin, David Crowder and Hillsong led the charge, but eventually everyone was recording worship music. The music was definitely more centered on God, and it seemed to ignite a new passion in younger Christ-followers. As great as this was, the music also started to all sound very similar, and there was very little variety. Even edgier bands like Kutless and Seventh Day Slumber toned it down to release their own takes on modern worship classics. And if Hillsong or Desperation Band ever released a powerful song that wasn’t quite radio-friendly, you better believe our friends Phillips, Craig & Dean would swoop in and have it covered (literally).

This Is Different.

This leads us to today. Let’s review a few things that have happened just this past year:

  • Christian rapper NF landed a No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 chart. Not the Christian 200, the overall Billboard (and apparently Eminem noticed).
  • Lauren Daigle’s new album Look Up Child debuted on Billboard ahead of Drake, Ariana Grande, Post Malone and Niki Minaj.
  • Grammy-nominated Tori Kelley (not typically regarded as a “Christian” artist) just released a new album called Hiding Place where every song is full of Christian themes, including one centered around Psalm 42.
  • Kesha—yes, Kesha—had a chart-topping song called “Praying.”
  • Avil Lavigne—yes, Avril Lavigne—just released a new single that many are calling a worship song where she pleads with God to rescue her.
  • Mumford and Sons has a new song where they continue their trademark move of subtly (or not-so-subtly) wrestling with faith.
  • Justin Bieber recently posted Instagram videos of him singing the popular worship song “Reckless Love” by Cory Asbury.

New Normal?

Over the past few years, the line between sacred and secular music has blurred arguably more than ever before. Christian artists like NF and Daigle are gaining national attention for their original and impressive releases, while mainstream artists seem more and more comfortable addressing matters of faith.

A recent article in the New Yorker referenced this trend, noting “On Billboard’s list of the twenty most popular rock songs of 2017, fully half of them were by bands whose members have espoused the Christian faith.”

In my opinion, this is really good news. Not necessarily because “Christian” music is “successful,” but because more and more people are willing to talk about matters that were seemingly taboo even a few years ago. We should be ok with and even celebrate artists like Avril, Kesha and Mumford when they are vulnerable enough to publicly wrestle with faith. Yes, some of their songs also include cursing and themes not necessarily endorsed by the Bible, but I think it’s important for us to remember: We’re all on our own journeys, and it can be dangerous to judge and hypothesize about the faith of rock stars from afar.

I hope the trend continues where we get to experience really good music, regardless of how it got marketed. I hope Christian artists feel the freedom to explore topics other than the worship genre, like Daigle and others like Needtobreathe have done so masterfully. I also hope mainstream artists follow the lead of Bieber and even Chance the Rapper where dialogue about faith in Christ is scattered throughout their lyrics and their lifestyles—even if we don’t agree with everything they say.

In this case, I believe that blurry line between sacred and secular can lead to natural, interesting and helpful conversations about faith that may not arise otherwise. It’s true many of these mainstream artists have room to grow in their faith and no one knows their motive behind these faith-based songs, but as Paul wrote to the Philippians: “Whether out of false motives or true, Christ is proclaimed. And in this I rejoice” (Philippians 1:18).

Besides, as Larry Norman (another CCM trailblazer) famously sang in the 70s, “Why should the devil have all the good music?”

Answer? He shouldn’t.

What We Can Learn from Colin Kaepernick

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A few weeks have passed now since the media maelstrom surrounding the Nike/Colin Kaepernick controversy took over the Internet. This story has taken the predictable trajectory I’ve come to expect with things like this: Big news breaks, everyone overreacts and gets angry on Twitter, and eventually we settle down and make Dwight Schrute parody memes.

I’ve found that the parody meme season is a good time to talk about these touchy subjects.

Just in case you’ve been sleeping under a rock for a couple years, here’s the summary: Kaepernick was a popular NFL quarterback who started kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial injustice. He ended up getting cut from his team, and no other franchise has offered him a contract since then. Many people believe these teams are unwilling to sign Kaepernick because of the controversy and media attention they would likely receive every week along with his protests.

The assumption, then, is that Colin essentially sacrificed his dream to stand up for something he believed in. Nike noticed, paid him a ton of money and now Colin is the face (and voice) of Nike’s latest advertising campaign.

This is a very big and nuanced story. Around half of our country is applauding Kaepernick for taking this stance, while the other half is angrily burning their Nike shoes and cutting logos off their socks. Although Kaepernick’s protests have always been about racial equality and police brutality, some view his actions as unpatriotic and disrespectful to our flag and our military.

Wherever you stand on this controversy, I’m not here to change your mind. For the folks who are really passionate about this, I couldn’t write an argument you haven’t already considered. However, whether you love or hate Colin Kaepernick, I do think there are lessons we can all takeaway from this story if we’re able to look at it objectively—and even consider some biblical parallels.

Do the Hard Thing.

The Bible is full of stories of people who took big risks for what they believed in. Noah built a big boat before it started raining. Rack, Shack and Bennygot thrown into a fiery furnace for refusing to bow down to a chocolate bunny (or something like that), and their friend Daniel was tossed into to the lions’ den for rebelliously worshiping his God.

All of those flannel board stories we learn in Sunday school generally have the same narrative arch: One of our biblical heroes is confronted with a difficult choice. Usually they’re faced with a decision to either obey and worship God, or fit in with the culture around them and sacrifice their beliefs.

Noah, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, Daniel and several others all got rewarded for their loyalty. Instead of being killed or facing horrible consequences, these flannel board all stars live happily ever after and eventually get VHS videos featuring dancing vegetables made in their honor.

However, the stories don’t always end like that.

John the Baptist got beheaded.

Nearly all of Jesus’ disciples were martyred for their faith.

Paul spent five or six years in prison, and then was beheaded.

After living a perfect life and demonstrating unconditional love, our Savior and Lord—the Son of God—was brutally crucified.

For Bible characters, famous athletes and the rest of humanity, doing the right thing does not guarantee a happy ending.

Who Knew?

Here’s one thing I can’t get passed in this Kaepernick situation: When he started these protests in 2016, he had no idea how his story would end. The odds were pretty high that he wouldn’t get beheaded or thrown into a deadly fire, but I don’t think he had a clue he would receive this much attention.

In fact, he didn’t at first. Before the first two games of the 2016 NFL preseason, Kaepernick sat on the bench and did not stand with his teammates during the anthem.

And no one noticed.

It wasn’t until his third protest that the media took note and this whole thing began. He didn’t loudly announce his campaign in a high-profile interview. I doubt his jersey sales were at the front of his mind when he started sitting.

If you told Kaepernick in August 2016 that he would be paid millions and be featured in a high profile Nike ad for his actions two years later, I’m not sure he would believe you.

However, he likely also wouldn’t have believed you if you told him he would be cut from the 49ers and no one else would give him a chance to play football ever again.

No Matter What.

His story is obviously a unique outlier, but in a sense, we all face similar situations all the time. When we’re confronted with difficult decisions, we have no idea how the future will pan out. If we take a stand (or seat) for a controversial belief we have, in that moment we don’t know if we’ll be honored and applauded for our courage, or torn down and ridiculed for our convictions. Will you be called a hero, or a traitor? Will you earn a ton of money and spotlight, or lose your dream job—or both? Will anyone even care or notice that you’re standing (or sitting) at all?

Before any of this Kaepernick stuff ever started, the words of Nike’s new campaign really should be a slogan for Christianity, not shoes:

Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.

In the moment, we rarely know ahead of time if any given action will result in us “sacrificing everything”—but let’s say we did. If you knew for sure you would lose your job or miss an opportunity or even be killed for your convictions, would you still go through with it? What do you believe so strongly that you’d be willing to sacrifice everything? Is there anything?

The Christian life is hard. Jesus asks us to do all sorts of things that aren’t popular. Sometimes when we obey, we’re rewarded with safety and promotions and applause. But sometimes His commands leave us on the other end of the spectrum, and mature believers need to be ok with embracing either reality.

Regardless of outcome, we must stand for what we believe to be true. Instead of cutting out logos from your gym socks, this may be a good time for us to consider what convictions we have that are that strong, and maybe also reevaluate how we treat others who boldly speak out about their passions.

We live in a difficult and complicated time where the line between right and wrong (ironically) seems both more rigid and yet blurrier than ever before. I think it’s important for us to know and figure out what we believe and where we stand so we’re prepared when those big moments come.

No matter what you think of Colin Kaepernick, we would be wise to join the side of biblical heroes and historical icons who did whatever it took to stand up for their beliefs—regardless of the outcome.

You may never get a vegetable TV show or Dwight Schrute meme made in your honor, and you likely won’t be Nike’s next big spokesperson, but those should never be our primary motivators anyway. Live a life you’re proud of—modeled by Scripture—and the only Audience that really matters will certainly take note.

 

Is the Bible Worth Reading?

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This article originally appeared in the July/August issue of Christian Leader magazine. I co-wrote it with my Lead Pastor, Brent Warkentin.

Reading the Bible can be (very) hard. Even for seasoned believers, certain sections of Scripture can seem to have very little cultural relevance to our lives today. Other parts feel repetitive, and some verses are just flat-out difficult to understand. Virtually all believers would probably agree studying God’s word is “important,” but actually doing it—especially on a daily basis—can be a frustrating and discouraging battle.  

If you’ve ever felt that way or are currently facing some of those struggles, you are not alone. God’s Word is life-giving, but it is also certainly a challenging book. It isn’t necessarily meant to be casual “fun” reading, and certain books don’t work particularly well for your kids’ bedtime stories (“Mommy, why does Solomon keep talking about pomegranates?”). 

Our church family recently went through a teaching series where we took a deeper look at the Bible. Can we trust it? How do we know it’s accurate? Is there other historical evidence to back it up? Is it possible to really understand it? Is this book really even worth reading? 

The short answer? Yes. It is trustworthy and you can understand it. If you’ve never developed a habit of reading Scripture or are currently facing a reading slump, here is some info and tips that may be helpful to you.

You Can Trust the Bible.

A good first step for all of us would be to decide if we can even trust this thing in the first place. If the Bible is full of historical lies, we’re all wasting our time. However, if we can prove that these stories are true, we should take them seriously. Jesus and other biblical writers make some pretty bold claims about the purpose of human existence. If we can prove its accuracy and reliability, that should provide significant motivation to learn as much as we can.

You may be surprised to hear that there are no original copies of the Bible. We don’t have the entire Old Testament behind bulletproof glass in a museum somewhere. It’s impossible to take our text today and compare it word-by-word with the original copies of the Greek or Hebrew texts to confirm its accuracy. The words we read today are copies of copies of copies, passed down verbally and copied by hand for generations and generations throughout human history. 

If you’ve ever played the “telephone” game (where one person starts out with a message and whispers it to the person next to them, who whispers to the next person, and so on), you know messages can get jumbled. It’s true that the more times a story changes hands, the more likely it is to vary from the original intended message. With stories that are literally thousands of years old, many people point to that phenomenon to question the Bible’s accuracy. It seems almost impossible that the text we read today could be exactly the same as the original divinely-inspired word of God. 

The argument is reasonable, but it isn’t necessarily a detractor from the accuracy of Scripture. The truth is we don’t have original copies of any historical document. If you can’t trust the legitimacy of the Bible, then you also can’t trust any historical document. Does it take some faith to trust the Bible? Yes. But does it also take faith to trust Aristotle and Herodotus and even recent American history? 

Absolutely. 

Here’s the good news: The accuracy of the Bible is more trustworthy than most of the books you grew up reading in school, and here’s why:

Short Time Span.

If you have trouble trusting the words of Moses or Luke, then you really can’t trust the words of Plato or Caesar. Plato’s classic work The Republic was written in 380 B.C. Just like the Bible, we don’t have any original copies of Plato’s work. The earliest copy archaeologists and researchers have found is believed to be from 900 A.D. (1,280 years after it was written). In comparison, most of the New Testament was written between 50 – 100 A.D. The earliest copies we have records of today are less than 100 years old. Less than 100, compared to 1,280 years! It seems logical that the earlier the copies are, the more we can trust them. If that’s true, the Bible stacks up well against similar historical documents. 

Number of Manuscripts.

Along with the relatively “short” time span between the copies, we also have a high number of manuscripts of the original texts. To date, researches have discovered around 750 copies of the Old Testament and as many as 5,600 of the New Testament. Do you know how many copies of Plato’s Republic we have?

Two.

As in one, two. 

This many: _ _

Two, compared to 750.

When you have 750 copies of the same story, you are able to compare. Let’s say there’s a discrepancy between manuscripts, or maybe the scribe had horrible handwriting and you’re not totally sure if there were 500 soldiers in an army or 50,000. When you can compare between hundreds or thousands of copies—compared to two—you’re able to get a much clearer picture of what is most likely more accurate. Again, compared to other ancient texts, the Bible is remarkably trustworthy.

Scribal Process. 

This is the killer argument. In biblical times, people were hired as scribes to be “guardians of the text,” and they took pretty extreme measures to make sure these copies of the original text were as pinpoint accurate as possible. As the scribes were making copies, they read the words out loud as they wrote. When you speak out loud, your mind is much less likely to wander and make mistakes. 

Beyond that, the exact number of paragraphs, words, and letters of the copies of text had to match the original text exactly. So let’s say you spent days handwriting the book of Isaiah. There are 66 chapters and 1,291 verses in that book. After all that work of reading the words out loud and copying each verse by hand, let’s say you finish and somehow left out three letters. Not even a full word. Somehow your transcript was three letters short of the original. 

Guess what? You get to throw that sucker away and start over! 

And not only that—but the very middle sentence, word, and letter of each book had to match the original. Go ahead—take this article and find the very middle letter by counting each character by hand. Even better: Read it out loud as you make a copy, and then find the middle letter. 

Copying a 280-character tweet with this method would be enough to drive me insane, but this is how we got our copies of Scripture today. 

The Bible is miraculously trustworthy. If you can’t trust the Bible, you really can’t trust anything you’ve ever read. It still requires faith to study Scripture, but it’s a very reasonable faith. 

You Can Do It.

Even if you do believe in its accuracy, the Bible is still a difficult book to read. It’s long, certain stories don’t seem to make a lot of sense, and some of the theology is admittedly confusing. Remember this: Just because something is hard to understand doesn’t mean it’s not true. Algebra and chemistry and physics are all true, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy.

You may not have a lot of faith in yourself to understand these concepts and stories, but the biblical writers had some words of encouragement for those who would read their letters. Here’s what Paul said in his letter to the Romans: 

“I myself am convinced, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with knowledge and competent to instruct one another.” (Romans 15:14)

Or possibly even more encouraging:

“You have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth… The anointing you received from Him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you.” (1 John 2:20, 27)

God has anointed you. You are competent to learn and study on your own. It is true that God gives special teaching gifts to some leaders, and it is definitely wise to learn from others who study Scripture. But as you do that, remember that God will help you to understand His Word.

We live in a pretty incredible time where we have countless books and concordances and websites and DVDs and seminars. God has certainly given insight and teaching skills to many leaders in today’s church that we would be wise to utilize. 

However, remember the words from John and Paul above. You have what you need to do it on your own. You don’t have to hold hands with Beth Moore or Francis Chan or RightNow Media. You have the knowledge you need to understand the Bible, and—even better—you have the Holy Spirit inside of you guiding your thoughts and your mind. 

If you’re in a slump, try a new version. If you’re not much of a reader, find an audio version you can listen to in the car. If you haven’t already, download the free YouVersion app on whatever mobile devices you use. Choose a reading plan that takes you through a specific book or topic, and then tell a friend who can help keep you accountable.

One of the key things people can do to understand the Bible better is to read a shorter passage (just a few verses), slowly, several times (even out loud) and actually pause and think and pray to God for some insight. Ask God, “What are you trying to teach me? Are you reminding me of something I already know? What are You telling me to do? Is there a promise in these verses to trust? Is there a command to follow? Is there a sin to avoid?”

The Bible is a challenging book, but next time you find yourself struggling, remember three things: 

  • Out of all of human literature, you can trust the Bible. 
  • When studying difficult passages, it can be helpful to learn from scholars and teachers. BUT, be confident that the Holy Spirit is in you and He will help you understand His Word!
  • “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip His people to do every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17 NLT)

Dear Artists, We Need You

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I remember going to concerts all the time when I was in high school. Whether it was Switchfoot or Hawk Nelson or TobyMac or any of those bands that good little Christian teenagers are supposed to like, I fondly remember singing along and jumping around, soaking up the fun energy.

These days I seem to have considerably less time and disposable income (not to mention my dad-knees that probably don’t jump as effectively), so my concert outings are now few and far between.

Last weekend though, my wife and I got a babysitter so we could go see two of my favorite bands: Johnnyswim and Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors. The show itself was fantastic, but I had a few other takeaways I didn’t expect.

At one point in the show, one of the vocalists from Johnnyswim brought the music down to an acoustic strum, and he quietly but passionately repeated a handful of words (that weren’t in the original song) to an audience soaking up his every word…

Read the full post on Boundless here.

Thou Shalt Have Fun

thou-shalt-have-funI’m in the middle of a pretty busy season. I’m swamped at work these days, and it’s no small feat to care for (and keep alive) a babbling, hungry, fussy 9-month-old. Then there’s a few side projects, and I also do my best to find time to run and stay in shape.

I know I’m not alone in this. Our culture moves very fast, and everyone is busy. Many of us have more on our plates than we feel like we can handle, and it can be really easy to get stressed and overwhelmed with the weight of the many responsibilities we all have to juggle.

Read the full post on Boundless here.

Fighting the Imposter Syndrome

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Some days I feel really good about myself in my role as a husband and father and in my career. I love my growing little family. I like my job. I’ve been out of college about eight years, and married almost six.

I’m not rich or famous, but I have experienced some levels of success. I have some experience, and I think I have a good idea of what I’m supposed to do with my life. I think most of the people I encounter on a regular basis think I’ve got my act together and am on a pretty good trajectory.

But there’s a different story on the inside.

Read the full post on Boundless here.