I've been thinking about a lot of things lately, and I have a little running list of things to write about over the next few weeks. :) Foremost in my mind currently is at question brought up by a Christian growth program my church is doing for it's college-aged and young adult members. They spend the summer living all together--they work or do whatever classes during the day, but they take meals together and worship together every night, and have lessons and a variety of programs, but most particularly, they abstain from a variety of things for the whole summer--most notably, perhaps, music and movies.
Something the leaders have been impressing on everyone in church in preparation for this summer's program is cutting out not only things that would be "idolatrous"--which for any readers not fluent in Christianese means, "anything that you love or worship above God,"--but also just cutting out anything that is a distraction from focusing wholly on God, and seeking instead to do things that bring you closer. This summer is sort of an extreme form of fasting; but not a traditional food fast. It's a fast from culture, from entertainment, even from words.
This is just setting up the item I want to discuss--stick with me. Before I continue I want to impress on everyone that these people and this church are not crazy extremist weirdos that, on the street, you would see and avoid for their obvious counter-cultural qualities. These people do not stand out awkwardly in a university, in the workspace, in the public square. Not to say they aren't different--for their willingness to commit to a summer like this shows that they are--but the difference is not that uncomfortable difference you get from, say, a door-to-door vacuum salesman, or a guy who stands on a box in a park and yells out a speech to the World At Large. (These are antiquated methods of communicated difference, and we americans like our modernity, no?)
The point of my telling you all this, is to bring up the question that The Philosopher here at church spoke on last weekend. He talked about how this summer program intended to not only cut out evil, but also to cut out things that are merely worthless. He discussed what worthless looked like--and this made me think.
What is worthless? What does it look like? As my husband asked, is it worthless to spend time with his buddies playing poker and drinking a beer (nothing crazy or irresponsible--just one or two.) Is it worthless for he and I to play Scrabble like we did last weekend; is it worthless to watch The Bourne Ultimatum or to play with my niece or to write a love letter or read Dorothy Sayers novels? The Philosopher pointed out that often we spend two or three hours surfing YouTube--often watching no more than 20 seconds of any individual video, and in that amount of time we could have made significant inroads into War and Peace or working in our yard.
But what makes yard work or "great literature" of more "worth" than current pop entertainment or "trivial" pursuits such as the options listed above?
I would argue that there are things in pop culture that are totally worthless (Love Game by Lady Gaga, would be my own personal example) but I also think there are aspects of much of pop culture that are worthwhile. The word that comes to mind is redeemable. One of my sister's favorite phrases is to discuss "redeeming qualities" of things.
I have to admit, as The Philosopher went through his list of "worthless" activities in which many of us engage, I found myself not identifying. I rarely surf YouTube, and I do not skim blogs, and I do not watch TV. Part of that is due to my current financial situation resulting in a decrease of the amenities required for these pastimes, but part of it is the way I was raised.
When I was little, and now into my adult years, I did not just "gel" during movies. Relax, yes. Turn off my mind? No. In fact, there was no aspect of life where my moral compass was allowed to go on vacation, and there was no activity that did not require my attention to A) the people around me, and B) the content of whatever I was doing. My parents would enquire what I thought of everything, and we had lively discussions about everything. If there was something they weren't paying attention to, my sister and I would talk about it (we were a very talk-y family.) And yet words weren't cheap either.
My dad always said I have the power to encourage people by what I say, or to drag them down. He said that regardless of whether or not I knew what people were feeling, I had the power to change it. I could create a better day for someone, the same way I could destroy their day. How? With words, of course.
In fact, every product of life, whether it's some creative endeavor, or a conversation, or a cup of coffee, or a meal or financial transaction or driving down the road...everything will impact someone (perhaps only myself) somehow. And I am capable--no, I am required to use that power well. In this way, anything--a movie, a game, a conversation, a relationship...all of it is either worthless or worthwhile.
There are people who are genuinely evil, and who do things for the express purpose of their own pleasure and/or someone else's pain. These people are probably more prevalent than I realize. But I do think the vast majority of people aren't seeking to be evil, they just also aren't seeking to be good. If you allow your mind and heart to switch off and just "gel," then frankly, there is no endeavor that IS worthwhile--for even if I can "speak in the tongues of men and of angels...have the gift of prophecy and fathom all mysteries and all knowledge...have a faith that can move mountains...give all I possess to the poor..." (excerpts from I Corinthians 13, NIV) but if I don't love, it is all worthless. Worthless!
But what is worthwhile?
"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." (Philippians 4:8, NIV)
But, frankly, we live in a fallen world. Nothing is completely pure, good, true, noble, right, etc. (even my niece!) except God. But that's where redeemable qualities come in. Playing poker and drinking beer may be somewhat worthless, but forging a friendship is worthwhile. The Bourne Ultimatum may not be a great work of film art (though that is debatable) but seeking truth, which is the point of the story, is. Writing a love letter in and of itself may be a trivial pursuit, as is playing Scrabble, but growing closer to my husband and becoming more Christlike in our love and unity is GOOD.
Now, to conclude. I am not saying that cutting out any of these things (even, perhaps, great literature!) is wrong, in fact, quite the contrary. Even good things can be eliminated for a time to focus our concentration elsewhere. That is the entire point of a fast, and it is quite effective. But when we are still letting these things have their place in our lives, remember to keep your mind engaged, to not "gel," and to seek the redeeming qualities. Because it's surprising how many things DO have redeeming qualities...and how many do not.
Finally, friends, whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, praiseworthy, good, REDEEMABLE...focus on these things. This, I would argue, is how we can find things that are worthwhile.