Friday, November 19, 2010

The Importance of Identity: Ministering to Generation Z

I have recently been re-reading some books by Dr. Mary Pipher; she is an important author who has brought a unique perspective to adolescent development and issues. Her work combines her training in both the fields of psychology and anthropology and her focus is how American culture affects the mental health of individuals and families. Her most famous work is Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, a book describing the contemporary challenges facing teenage girls. If you have a daughter, it is a must read.

One aspect that Pipher discusses at length is that more and more adolescents (girls in particular) are falling prey to depression, eating disorders, parental conflict, addictions, and suicidal tendencies. Pipher contends that there are some basic causes for this development. First, because we live in a culture that puts such a tremendous emphasis on appearance, adolescents are faced with the danger of what Pipher coined as "lookism.”  Lookism is evaluating others solely on the basis of one dimension--appearance. When society bases value on the way people look, dress, behave and present themselves, the implications will be that young people overtime will never be able to live up to those imposed standards of image and beauty. Essentially, Pipher says they will learn to grow up without a personal identity. Pipher asserts that before blaming adolescents or parents, we must first look to see where the culture misleads and puts pressure on adolescents and children to be thin, attractive, unintelligent, sexual, and popular. As she states, “Teenage girls live in a junk culture filled with inducements to consume, to be sexual, to be 'lookiest' and self-absorbed. They are pelted with media much worse than anything my generation experienced as girls.” As the book suggests, our teens today are being corralled in this herd mentality and losing the unique essence in how God made them to be.

Secondly, Pipher maintains that a danger for many adolescents at this point in their lives is that they move from the stability of their families into the broader cultural climate. They essentially let their friends and the media raise them in which they, and not their parents, model for them what they perceive to be right and good. By distancing themselves from their parents, sometimes these young adults sabotage the one place where they can find the aspects they yearn for—a sense of acceptance and constancy.  To remedy these harms, Pipher believes that those who work with adolescents must have a role in strengthening families by helping them relate to the culture at large. Because of the advent of dual-income families as well as other causes, families are broken and fragmented, and therefore someone who works with adolescents needs to focus on building into these relationships. 

Another solution is to focus on the adolescents themselves. Helping both young men and women focus on interests and hobbies, on volunteer work and their learning, rather than how they look or where they are in the chain of command at school, is a start in establishing a unique identity for themselves. By assuring adolescents that it's okay to not be popular and that in fact, it's actually better to not strive for this, can promote a sense of self that is healthy and distinct. She maintains, “One way to help is to praise girls for their talents, accomplishments and character, not their appearance. Another way to help is to be non-lookist oneself. Another way is to limit exposure to media and to process carefully all media the family consumes.”

Being the father of two teens myself, the world my sons are growing up in is vastly different than the one I did. With this, Pipher contends that this generation is being sold a false bill of goods; that they are being told it is okay to be sexualized, that being popular is what is most important and that image is everything. But this is what can be so difficult--when we are ministering to others, we are often doing it out of our own paradigm or experiences. We need to know our children and the culture they live in if we are ever to counter what is happening in that culture. How do we do that? Mainly, getting out of our own comfort zones and really engaging with the culture of our teens. One of the simpliest ways is just grabbing your son or daughter's iPod and listening to the music on it. By looking at what these musicians stand for and by listening to the lyrics that they are expounding, you can glean the message that is being spoken and propagated. By doing so, a parent can engage with their son or daughter and discuss with them the more subtle issues their teen is being presented, whether that is at school, at the movie theater or in your living room in front of the television set. By keeping these communication lines open, relationships such as these perhaps can then prompt this generation to reestablish their own unique perspective and regain control of who they should become--the unique individuals that God has made and called them to be.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

What Looking at a Painting Can Do

Many years ago, shortly after becoming a Christian, I came across a remarkable painting by Michelangelo Caravaggio entitled The Supper at Emmaus. I was at my school's library in downtown Chicago—Grant Park was right outside the window from where I sat. I was flipping through a bunch of books that I had grabbed off the shelves. I was just wasting time, waiting for a class to begin. That day when I caught sight of this painting, it began for me a new way of seeing Jesus. Immediately, the painting caught my eye, because it wasn’t your typical “religious” work. In fact, it was almost too non-descript, and at first, I didn’t realize that it was a painting depicting anything sacred or religious— it just looked like a painting of a few guys eating together. I’ve only seen this painting in art books, and one day, I hope to venture to the National Gallery in London and see it up close. I am sure it will then be even more significant then when I see it up-close.

Something was special about this painting, made up of nothing more than some oils placed with some thought on the canvas. As I stood staring at it, I realized why it held my attention and I recognized its uniqueness. It was how the characters looked. You know what caught my eye? Jesus looks real. Gone is the blond hair and blue eyes. He looks like a real Hebrew guy, olive skin and all. You see, the painter Caravaggio did something earth shattering in his time as an artist—he painted Jesus like a real person; amazingly, he looked human and real-to-life. In fact, very uncommon for his time, most of Caravaggio’s models were peasants from local villages. Instead of painting the noble and the wealthy as his models for John the Baptist or Jesus or any other biblical character, he was painting the cobblers, fishermen and maidens of his day, and therefore his paintings took on a look that was authentic. 

With this, in this painting of Caravaggio’s, Jesus looks like a person; someone you could know, the guy next door. He seems approachable. This is the operative word—Jesus in this painting comes off as a person. Before this, in the art world—for the artist, Jesus was never a person—He was just “God.” Most of the artists in this period were painting the “majestic Christ”—the unapproachable Jesus, the one on the throne, the one you needed to schedule by appointment. But this is only half the story because Jesus really is a person, a friend, a confidant. In contrast, with Caravaggio’s painting, you see this “friend” aspect come out onto the canvas. Jesus is just hanging out, eating a meal and shootin’ the breeze. When I saw this painting, this was in my early years in being a Christian and this was the Jesus I wanted to get to know. You could get close to him. This is what I wanted. Unlike other religious art I had seen up to that point, it captured Jesus as someone you would want to get to know. As a contrast, go look at some of the art work from this period and you will notice that the characters are oblong and uncomfortable. Let me illustrate some examples; you might have seen some art depicting Jesus like this:

•    Painting No. 1: Baby Jesus is white and his face looks like he’s 59 years old—wrinkled and balding. He wears a smirk, a baptismal gown and a bratty look.
•    Painting No. 2: Jesus has his kingly pose, no smile, wearied look and it looks as if he might want to think about getting a prescription for some Prozac.

Again, these portrayals of Jesus’ just don’t seem real. They don’t really tell the story. These painting are depicting Jesus as he is not. Caravaggio was getting into it, painting as if he was there, sitting at the very table, and showing you something sacred and important. 

For us, this is important, because how we see Jesus can be an important step in actually knowing him. If you imagine Jesus to be unapproachable or dour or aloof, this will obviously impact how you relate to him. The Bible calls this idolatry; when we attribute to God something that he is not. This is precisely why reading the Bible can be so important, because in essence, the Bible is over and over attempting to show us who God really is. Because of our culture, our upbringing, and what others tell us (be that our friends or the media), these aspects offer an "image" of God and this often does not line up to what the Scriptures say about him. The more and more we can imagine (i.e., to simply form a mental picture) the real Jesus, the better we can know him and how he relates to us in our daily lives. When that occurs, things can open up for us in knowing who God really is.

Here are a couple of verses from the Bible that you can read that perhaps can help you "re-imagine" who God really is:

He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters.
He rescued me from my powerful enemy, from my foes, who were too strong for me.
They confronted me in the day of my disaster, but the LORD was my support.
He brought me out into a spacious place;  he rescued me because he delighted in me.

Psalm 18:16-19

I'll make a list of God's gracious dealings, all the things God has done that need praising, All the generous bounties of God, his great goodness to the family of Israel— Compassion lavished, love extravagant.
He said, "Without question these are my people, children who would never betray me."So he became their Savior. In all their troubles, he was troubled, too. He didn't send someone else to help them. He did it himself, in person. Out of his own love and pity he redeemed them. He rescued them and carried them along for a long, long time.

Isaiah 63: 7-9 (The Message)

Friday, November 5, 2010

What I've Been Reading

Pablo Picasso was in a park when a woman approached him and asked him to draw a portrait of her.

Picasso agreed and he quickly created a sketch of her on some paper.

After handing the sketch to her, she was pleased with the likeness and asked how much she owed to him.

Picasso replied: "$5,000."

The woman exclaimed,
"But it took you only five minutes!"
Picasso replied, "No, madam, it took me all my life."