Beyoncé & Great Art

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of watching Lemonade, Beyoncé’s latest visual album. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. Since its release on April 23rd, it’s stirred up plenty of gossip, memes, articles, and mild controversy. What fun! I’ll try not to be more of the same here. By the way, if you haven’t already, definitely try to find the time to watch the album and read some of the media’s commentary.

Maybe a few minutes into Lemonade, I got that feeling that you have when you know that you’re about to witness something particularly profound. On one hand, this is an extremely well-executed work: the cinematography, lighting, settings, costumes, hair!, poetry, allusions to myth and folklore, tradition and politics. And of course, Beyoncé’s stellar voice and startling lyrics. It’s all very thoughtful and captivating. Art that entertains us, and that looks nice, and is technically impressive is good. There’s a place for that in our society and our lives. That’s the role that Beyoncé’s previous albums have filled, and that’s totally fine. But Lemonade is great. I suspect that this is a piece that could last, that our grandkids could hear about, see, and be moved by. Continue reading →

God is For Cities

My church is in the midst of an initiative that we’re calling For the City – an effort to pray and raise funds for the renovation of the historic building that we recently purchased. The name of this initiative is based on our motto “a church for the city,” and (bias aside) I love it. My interest in urbanism and place-making has been pretty clear on this blog. This is something that has developed in me over the past few years, which is why it’s important for me to be a part of a church that aims to be for its city. These interests of mine are in part just dorky and academic. But ultimately they are rooted in something much more substantial: God is for cities, so I (and the church) should be too.

This might be a strange concept for mainstream contemporary Christianity (especially evangelicalism). We know that God is for individual people and for churches. God is for the poor and for the broken. “God loves you, Alyssa.” “For God so loved the world…etc.” But growing up, I never really heard much about God being for cities or places. So let’s unpack this a little bit. Continue reading →

On Belonging in the Kitchen

Someone recently told me that I belong in the kitchen.

This saying – “you belong in the kitchen” – is now used in one of two ways:

1. Seriously: Women are lesser than men, and thus they “belong in the kitchen.”
2. Jokingly: LOL. Women and men are obviously equal, so neither “belong in the kitchen” but it’s kind of funny to mock misogyny.

(I was jokingly told that I “belong in the kitchen”).

Even when women come out on top/equal, this saying doesn’t regard kitchens very highly. So now I’m wondering why it is demeaning to tell someone that they “belong in the kitchen.” What’s so bad about kitchens?

For the vast majority of human history, people have been extremely occupied with their food, spending hours gathering, preserving, and preparing it. Cultures (a term derived from “agriculture”) began to develop only after humans figured out how to plant and irrigate food, and societies were built around rich soil. We measure history by looking at old dishware and mark human achievements around food-related technologies. But at some point very recently, it became really easy to procure, store, and prepare food. I guess when that happened, our society started to think of the activities related to food as simple and even demeaning. It was work given to people who couldn’t be responsible for stuff outside of the home and kitchen (minorities, mostly, but that’s another issue altogether). That’s probably when “belonging in the kitchen” became a derogatory concept.

But before there was Wall Street or the White House, there were kitchens. And in order for there to be a Wall Street or a White House, people need to eat.

In his massive text A Pattern Language, architect Christopher Alexander calls for a more dignified view of cooking and the kitchen, and suggests an architectural model that reflects this. He says that

The isolated kitchen, separate from the family and considered as an efficient but unpleasant factory for food is a hangover from the days of servants; and from the more recent days when women willingly took over the servants’ role…(but historically) even when cooking was entirely in the hands of women, the work of cooking was still thought of as a primal, communal function; and the “hearth,” the place where food was made and eaten, was the heart of family life. (662)

Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 5.23.20 PM

Christopher Alexander’s blueprint for the ideal kitchen, which includes “a comfortable old chair in the corner where someone could sleep.”

He goes on to suggest that architects use not the contemporary open-floor plan, which opens the kitchen to the living space, but the old-school farmhouse floor plan, where the kitchen is the living space. (He even includes a little hand drawn diagram of what this looks like).

The point of this design and the mentality behind it is to acknowledge that cooking is as exceptionally human as eating, and as such it should be incorporated into the rhythm of daily life. Even if we can’t redesign our kitchens, we can change our attitudes toward them, first and foremost by banishing all use of the degrading or jokingly degrading phrase “you belong in the kitchen.”

Our society is starting to think more about our food – where it comes from and what it’s made of. This is a really good thing because hopefully it means that we’ll start having fewer heart attacks. It’s also good because even though it’s still really easy to obtain food, we’re becoming more conscious of the process that leads up to it entering our bellies. At some point, I suspect that we’ll subconsciously begin to see the kitchen not as a chamber for the least of these, but as the essential part of the household and society that it always has been. Someday, I hope an old person jokingly tells my future child that she belongs in the kitchen, and I hope that she’s extremely confused by the saying.

And by the way, I do belong in the kitchen. Two or three times a day. I am a woman and a productive member of society, and in order for me to be both of these things (or anything else), I need to eat.

Reading Writing for Men

I recently enjoyed a long, relaxing weekend down the shore. At some point over the course of that weekend, I exhausted my supply of reading materials, and turned to our household’s collection of magazines. After reading through all of the People Real Simples, I found myself perusing a stack of Men’s Journals. I swear, I was reading them just for the articles – most of which weren’t particularly relevant to me. However, I did enjoy the recipes and a riveting and helpful article about riptides.

What I found most interesting during this trip into a subculture of which I am not a part was the style of writing. In general, it was very macho, even brutal (barbaric?). The articles largely had to do with body image and other ways to live up to a certain kind of masculinity. At times, I was left a little stunned and offended.

What a guy.

What a guy. (The July 2014 issue is available on newsstands!)

For the most part, the media that I consume, even if it is geared toward a particular gender demographic, is not so blunt. The articles, blogs, magazines, and TV shows that I enjoy hardly ever talk about what it means to be a “real man” or “real woman.” To the contrary, it seems that most media created by and for millennials seeks to ignore or even undermine traditional gender roles. So it was a little jarring for me to encounter something that claimed to be for “men,” but was clearly meant for those who had a very specific set of interests (mainly meat, dark liquor, and working out – all of which are fine pastimes for all who wish to enjoy them, male or female).

And to open up a can of gender-worms (ew, what?), it was helpful for me to think about the modern conception of masculinity. Our society talks a lot about gender roles as they apply to women, in an effort to empower us, I think. We think and talk about what women can and can’t do, where women do and do not belong, what true beauty looks like, etc. That’s all fine and good, and I largely appreciate it. But as much as we talk about femininity, what about masculinity? Reading through that Men’s Journal, I thought about the guys I know and how most of them probably wouldn’t find most those articles very interesting. That doesn’t make them less masculine or more feminine or whatever, it just means that their interests lie beyond meat, dark liquor, and working out.

What does it mean to be a man in this day and age? What does it mean to be a woman? I don’t know, and I don’t think there is, or should be, a clear answer here. I think our culture is realizing that it’s much more interesting and important to think about what it means to be a (good) person, and that’s encouraging.

It’s totally fine for media agencies to produce content for specific demographics (obviously). But maybe we could take those really general terms out of the titles. Rename it Meat Journal, perhaps.

Learning to Love the World’s Favorite Pastime


This was the moment that I realized soccer players are basically superhuman.

Last week Ann Coulter wrote a grotesque and loosely humorous column bashing soccer (not going to hyperlink it because I don’t want to associate with her more than necessary. Google it if you want). I read it over once or twice, and realized that, if her reasons were rephrased a little bit and with a better and very different attitude, her column could actually serve as an argument in favor of soccer. And after watching snippets of a few World Cup games – including our unfortunate loss to Belgium yesterday – I’ve come to appreciate the sport quite a bit. So, I thought I’d try to rewrite Ms. Coulter’s essay, and reflect on why America is joining the rest of the world in being obsessed with the sport.

Here we go:

1. Soccer is communal. It’s a team sport where players are constantly aware of everyone on the field. One of the things that I’ve been really impressed and intrigued by while watching the World Cup is how teammates relate to one another and their opponents during the game. These guys are able to pass the ball back and forth to one another across a field, while avoiding opponents, without looking – all in the course of literally a second or two. During gameplay, it’s like team is operating under some sort of collective over-mind. And, rightly so, teams rise and fall together. During those 90+ minutes, it’s not about any individual’s career of failures, but the team’s.

2. Everyone plays soccer. To play, all you need is a ball, some land, and something to mark the goal posts. For the billions of people in the world that don’t have access to lacrosse sticks, football pads, baseball gloves, swimming pools, and other various athletic paraphernalia, it’s the ideal sport. I assume this is why soccer is so wildly popular abroad, and why it has managed to transcend so many borders (geographic, socioeconomic, racial, etc.). I can’t think of any other cultural phenomenon that gets so many different people as riled up as soccer does, and it’s amazing to see them come together in recognition of this diversity.

3. Soccer is fast-paced and exciting to watch. Even in a low scoring or tie game, the ball hardly stops moving. And unlike in football or baseball, the clock rarely stops. Players don’t really pause between plays and regroup, they just keep going. Once a game gains momentum, it just keeps building.

4. America lost. In the Olympics, the economy, and most wars, it’s typically assumed that the U.S. is going to come out on top. Not so in the World Cup. It’s nice to be the underdog for a little bit, in part because it’s fun to root for the underdog, and also because it’s good to be reminded that despite our confidence and patriotism, we’re not actually the best.

5. Players can’t use their hands, which means that they need to engage the rest of their bodies in ways that I find astounding. The level of coordination and bodily awareness that these guys have is incredible, and their ability to make split-second decisions is something that you don’t see very often in any other sport, industry, etc. (at least not to this extent).

I’m looking forward to continuing to catch snippets of World Cup games over the next couple of weeks, and I’m even more excited to cheer on Team USA again in 2018. In the meantime, I hope that America’s enthusiasm for soccer outlives the hype of the World Cup. Caring about this sport brings us into the rest of the world, keeps us humble, and enables us to encounter a truly amazing kind of athleticism.

Reflektor & The Present Age

Arcade Fire’s latest album, Reflektor, dropped in October 2013 – yes, it’s a little late in the game to be writing a commentary on it. Sorry. But I ended up at one of their concerts a while back and I’ve been thinking about this album a lot since then.

On our way home from that concert, my brother informed me that Reflektor has been called something along the lines of “a love story in the digital age.” Intriguing, yes, but I think that there’s actually a little more going on here than just that. The particular lyric behind all this speculation, and the album’s name, is “we fell in love in the reflective age” (from the title track, “Reflektor,” emphasis mine). This phrase felt familiar, and that’s because Arcade Fire didn’t coin it – nineteenth century Christian existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard did.

In his essay/book review Two Ages, Kierkegaard contrasts what he calls “The Age of Revolution” and “The Present Age.” Compared to the action-packed age of revolution, Kierkegaard laments the present age’s excessive introspection and lack of passion, calling it “a sensible, reflecting age, devoid of passion, flaring up in superficial, short-lived enthusiasm and prudentially relaxing in indolence” (68). People in the present age are constantly – possibly cyclically – reflecting, calculating, critiquing, and deciding, but rarely doing. “Everyone is well informed,” he says, “we all know everything, every course to take and the alternative courses, but no one is willing to take it” (104).

In the present age, public life is largely superficial. Fearing silence, people gossip and analyze, and individuals avoid standing out as to not become the subject of reflection and chatter. No longer a part of the public, the individual intentionally becomes a “nobody.” Kierkegaard considers the ways that the present age affects the individual, society, truth, and knowledge in a way that is profound and prophetic.

But Kierkegaard doesn’t say much about love. As interesting as his commentary is, I wonder what he would say about interpersonal romantic relationships in the present age. This is where Arcade Fire comes in, because I think Reflektor touches upon this in an important way. The problematic patterns that Kierkegaard originally described have only intensified in the centuries since he wrote Two Ages. Technology allows us to spend less time attending to meeting basic needs, freeing us up to be more reflective than ever before (24-hour news cycles, social media, personal blogs, and the like are simultaneously catalysts for and products of this reflection). This is why I find Reflektor so compelling and important.

So what is it to be in love in the reflective age? Throughout this album, we encounter two lovers who are just trying to hold on. But will they? Can they?

Questions pierce the quiet moments of the present age, resulting in uncertainty and instability. The two lovers are unsure about who they are and where they stand, and their questions speak to this.

Oh, when love is gone, Where does it go?

Will I see you on the other side?

She said, “Well how do I know, When I know, When I know?” You already know.
“You Already Know”

They are extremely conscious of themselves and their relationship, and how unstable it really is.

Our song escapes on little silver discs,
Our love is plastic, we’ll break it to bits.


We know there’s a price to pay for love in a reflective age,
I met you up upon a stage, our love in a reflective age, 

“Awful Sound”

The album culminates with a duet of songs – “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” and “It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)” – which retell a tragic myth in the present age. Like the mythical Orpheus and Eurydice, these reflective lovers are now anxiously and desperately trying to restore what they had.

He says to her:

 You were born in the little town
Before the awful sound started coming down
There’s so much inside you that you won’t let me see
You fly away from me, but it’s an awful sound when you hit the ground
It’s an awful sound when you hit the ground.
“Awful Sound”

And assures him:

We’ll wait until it’s over
Wait until it’s through
You say it’s not me, it’s you
“It’s Never Over”

And then together, we hear them descend into a cyclical conversation of assurance and uncertainty, assuring each other that “you will get over,” even though “it’s never over.” Ultimately, they reminisce and lament:

We stood beside
A frozen sea
I saw you out
In front of me
Reflected light
A hollow moon
Oh Orpheus, Eurydice
Its over too soon.
“It’s Never Over”

The remainder of the album, “Afterlife” and “Supersymmetry,” shows them trying to work things out, but ultimately wondering about what happens when love is lost wonders about what happens when love is lost. The album ends with the chilling lyrics:

It’s been a while since I’ve been to see you
I don’t know where, but you’re not with me
Heard a voice, like an echo
But it came from you.

I’m not sure that Reflektor is trying to teach us how to maintain or restore love in the present age. Instead, it gives us a glimpse of that reflective anxiety and how it affects individuals and those closest to them. We see what happens when love is simply abstract and breakable, and insecurity is consuming. It’s tragic, and it’s over too soon.

The Bubble

A few days after graduating college, some friends and I sat down with some guys from the American Bible Society and had an extended conversation about Christianity and culture. The conversation kept coming back to one central theme – “the bubble” – or, the idea that we were living and working in a particular realm of society, namely, Christian academia (in the Main Line suburbs, specifically), and that this particularity gives us a unique but limited relationship with our culture. There was a general sense that while this bubble itself was fine and good, the somewhat alienating nature of being a part of a sheltered subculture was problematic. (If anyone who participated in that conversation is reading this and would like to elaborate, disagree, etc., please do). It was a helpful and meaningful thing to reflect on, because most of us were preparing to leave this bubble, or at least shift our placement within it.

About a week later, I did just that – I left this bubble that had cared for me so well for four years. I moved to South Philly and started working at a growing church in Center City. For a little while, I stumbled around in this new life. During those first few months, things would regularly happen to me that heightened my awareness of how out of place I was. Mostly humorous stuff. But alas, that’s what life is like outside of the bubble.

Except it’s not. I never actually left a bubble, but simply transitioned into a new bubble, or perhaps, set of bubbles. I realized this after chatting with neighbors and becoming acclimated to my new neighborhood – South Philly is vibrant, nuanced, culturally robust, and, a surprisingly insular city-within-a-city, a subculture of its own. Church world (which I consider quite distinct from Christian academia) is also its own strange and unique subculture, one that’s trying very hard to engage with the society around it, which is just another interesting aspect of this bubble. So, I left one bubble for another, and it’s tempting to think of this as a failure of sorts.

But I’m going to suggest otherwise, and not just for the sake of my own pride given my life decisions. People in our generation and culture are really compelled by the concept of leaving one’s “bubble” or “comfort zone.” Intolerance and ignorance are considered deeply offensive, but even innocent sheltered-ness is widely frowned upon. The respectable, cosmopolitan person has experienced and is knowledgeable about communities other than their own, and is uncomfortable with the idea of settling into one particular niche. To me, this is an ironically limited understanding of the good life.

On one hand, I think the desire for a cosmopolitan and bubble-free life is futile. If we settle anywhere, even just temporarily, we’re settling into a particular niche. It could even be argued that unsettled cosmopolitanism – whatever that looks like – is its own bubble, a community with shared practices, ideals, and ends.

More importantly, I’m not convinced that it is possible to flourish outside of a bubble. Political theorist Mark Mitchell argues this as well. In his recently published essay, “Making Places: The Cosmopolitan Temptation,” Mitchell argues that psychologically, we simply aren’t capable of growing or loving outside of a particular realm of society:

A particular language, a particular cuisine, a particular geography, climate, manners, stories, songs, metaphors – these all serve to make me who and how I am. While I can imagine my abstracted self as a global citizen or as a brother to all humanity, such an extension requires significant effort and is as unlivable as it is unnatural. The limits of my belonging are determined by the limit of my love – and love, not an abstracted feeling of goodwill, has limits.

He goes on to claim that we need these limits and long-term commitments in order to flourish, and that “a life given to assiduously keeping one’s options open will, in the process of avoiding commitments, miss out on the very best kinds of human goods that are found in the wake of commitment.”

This isn’t an argument in favor of ignorance or intolerance, but simply a call to recognize that it’s okay to be comfortable in a particular place and/or subculture, and to prefer one’s own bubble to all others. This doesn’t mean hating all other (sub)cultures or anything, but simply loving one’s own more thoroughly.

There’s a sense that it’s good and challenging to leave one’s comfort zone, and we admire people who do this – who go abroad, spend time with people who look or speak different. This notion of leaving one’s comfort zone has always struck me as compelling, but not particularly challenging. It’s easy to leave, but it’s much harder to stay, to accept limits, make deep commitments, and invest selflessly in a particular people and place. I’m not always good at this, but I’m definitely trying to get better.

And I’ll start by admitting that I am in a bubble, a comfort zone. I’m proud of this, and I’m here to stay.

10,000 Children

In the outcry over World Vision’s hiring policy amendment, 10,000 child sponsorships have been dropped. Until a few days ago, these 10,000 children were being fed, clothed, and educated in the name of Jesus. And now they’re not, in the name of…what? Jesus? Scripture? Theology? A culture war?World Vision

In the midst of this mess, I feel bad for World Vision. They found themselves in a lose-lose situation and now people on both sides of the same sex marriage debate are angry with them, they’re losing donors, and board members are resigning. I also feel bad for World Vision’s married homosexual employees or prospective employees, who love Jesus and simply want to help World Vision care for needy people across the planet. And I pity evangelicalism, a movement that is losing followers by the second and drifting closer toward becoming obsolete.

But all of these people and institutions will ultimately be okay, because they exist in the developed world, where our water is clean, our education is free and mandatory, and our battles take place in cyberspace. Right now, I’m really worried about those 10,000 children. Maybe their lives are stable enough to go on just fine without their sponsors’ support, or maybe they’ll get new sponsors or be picked up by another organization. But what if that doesn’t happen? Will they just stop going to school next year? Will their food just run out or something? What about their next round of vaccinations? And how will their parents explain to them that their lives are about to change significantly because 10,000 adults in America got mad about a corporate policy? Will they be confused?

And to those 10,000 ex-sponsors: what did you do with the picture of your former child, the one that World Vision sent you when you decided, in the name of Jesus, to sponsor a child? Is it still hanging on your fridge or sitting on your dresser, watching you go about your day, disgruntled but otherwise comfortable? Or did you just throw it out?

Note: Right after I wrote this, I did some research and learned, to my relief, that World Vision’s child sponsorship program is modeled in such a way that no individual child will actually be significantly impacted by this scandal. Still, I’m deeply disturbed by the mindset of those 10,000 ex-sponsors, who more or less used these children as leverage in a culture war. In a lot of ways it’s kind of barbaric, and is definitely not Christ-like.

Technology is Killing Me

Okay, that’s dramatic. Aside from some recently discovered cavities, my health is fine. Still, something feels…off. If I was more of a dualist, I’d write about my soul being damaged or something but 1) I don’t even know who is reading this, so I’m not about to start talking to them about my soul and 2) I don’t even know what a soul is.

This rant is about my personhood, and that of those around me. It’s about how technology is making me a little bit less human.

I spend a good bit of each day interacting with data – gathering it, manipulating it, and analyzing it. This data is almost exclusively related to individual people, and I think the things I’m using it for are ultimately good. However, in the meantime, those people are, in my mind, reduced to facts and statistics. They are stored in lists and charts. I know where they live, but not who they are. I have goals for them and their data – Read this email! Like this Facebook post! Donate money! Participate in this community! – and when those goals are met, it is an accomplishment. These people have been reduced to projects, which is a terrible thing for people to become.

Until this season, I was always more interested in questions and truth. I preferred conversations that were left open-ended. Now, I’m more focused on goals and benchmarks that can be quantifiably tracked. These things are more instantly gratifying, but they pale in comparison to the humanizing qualities of the unanswered question.

I still read a lot, but now most of it is on a screen. That’s because a lot of what I read doesn’t come in a hard copy, or if it does, it costs a lot more than what I can download. I don’t remember the last time that I underlined in a book. The other day, I was playing around with the Kindle app on my phone, and discovered this feature that, based on your page-turning speed, estimates how long it will take you to finish that book. This is really helpful, if reading is something that’s scheduled and books are to be marked off some check list. But what about wasting time slowly digesting paper pages?

I used to care more about useless things like art, and play, and God. Now I care more about tools, and that which helps me reach my goals.

Sometimes I try to make an argument to myself that all of this is okay. That it’s okay that  my backpack usually contains three devices that can connect me to the internet. That it’s okay when I see people as fodder for a numerical benchmark. That it’s okay when I invest more energy into what can be accomplished instead of unanswered. But this argument is always utilitarian, and really thin compared to the robust beauty of wonder and uselessness.

I don’t know how to fix any of this.

Post Script – I originally scribbled this into a notebook about a week ago, in a moment of over-exaggerated crisis. Since then, I’ve been more mindful of my relationship with the various devices in my life. I’ve been trying to keep my phone turned off for at least 10 hours per day and keeping it off my person when it’s unneeded. I’ve been writing stuff on paper, and reading actual books. These aren’t significant or inconvenient lifestyle shifts, because it turns out that I don’t actually need to be constantly connected to live comfortably. And I feel just a little bit more attentive, and whole.

What do these two have in common?

Barbie + Doryphorus

Barbie and her Greek friend.

One is a renowned piece of ancient art, the other, an increasingly controversial children’s toy.

First released in 1959 by Mattel Inc., the Barbie doll is now a ubiquitous part of American culture. Available in over 2,000 different editions, over one billion Barbie dolls have been sold in 150 countries. The Barbie is typically made of synthetic plastic, and is primarily found on the shelves of toy stores and in little girls’ playrooms.

Around 440 BC, the Greek sculptor Polyclitus crafted Doryphorus (“spear carrier”). The original sculpture has since been destroyed; the one pictured above is a Roman copy. Originally made of bronze, this ancient copy is in marble. It is on display in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples.

Coming from opposite ends of history, these artifacts share one central value – they are depicting the ideal human body.

Polyclitus was an expert in human proportion, however, this work was (intentionally) disproportional. He probably was not depicting a particular spear carrier that he knew. Instead, he was imagining what the body of the perfect spear carrier might look like – the best shoulder width, height, arm length, and (for aesthetic reasons) head size. Everything about Doryphorus is a bit off, on purpose, and consequently we see a very handsome man. He looks capable. But if you look closely, you’ll notice that the left arm and leg are being held up by extraneous bits on marble – the limbs don’t support the weight of the rest of the body.

The Barbie doll’s inaccurate proportions has been a great source of criticism for the toy. The dolls certainly don’t stand on their own, and, if she were a full-grown living person, her slender extremities would not support her long torso and oversized head. She would also be dangerously – perhaps, fatally – underweight, given her above-average height.

People care a lot about how Barbie dolls can and do negatively affect young girls‘ perception of themselves and their body image – this is a really good thing. And it’s a really good thing that our society is having this conversation now.

However, I’m really fascinated by the fact that basically as long as we as a human race have been portraying ourselves, we have been portraying ourselves inaccurately and ideally. It makes me wonder if, just like little American girls might wish they had blonde hair and blue eyes, little Greek boys wished that they had bigger heads and longer legs. Furthermore, it makes me think that no matter how much we criticize Barbie, or how many average-looking dolls we buy, the human race will still always portray ourselves as “better” than what we ever can actually be. Maybe it’s in our nature.

What do you think? Is the desire to see ourselves as something we’re not just in our DNA? If so, is fighting it a losing battle?