Book Review #5 – “Culture Jam: How to Reverse America’s Suicidal Consumer Binge – And Why We Must” by Kalle Lasn (HarperCollins: 1999)

30 10 2006

Kalle Lasn, founder of the Adbusters Media Foundation and Powershift Advertising Agency, is as counterculture as they come.  After reading this inspiring book, some might deem him anti-American, certainly anti-American-Dream, with the goal of moving America backward, not forward.  But his vision speaks directly to the heart of the ugly underbelly of American promise – the hidden costs of over-consumption.  Although in the end, I don’t think Lasn is arguing for backward movement at all (but rather a new kind of forward); perhaps a few steps back will save us from crashing to our demise in the future.


Culture Jammers, as Lasn describes them, are a diverse and “loose global network of media activists who see [themselves] as the advance shock troops of the most significant social movement of the next twenty years.  [Their] aim is to topple existing power structures and forge major adjustments to the way we will live in the twenty-first century.” (p. xi).  He develops his thesis on the following insights:

America is no longer a country.  It’s a multitrillion-dollar brand.

American culture is no longer created by the people.

A free, authentic life is no longer possible in America…we ourselves have been branded.

Our mass media dispense a kind of Huxleyan “soma” – a perverted sense of cool.

American cool is a global pandemic.

The Earth can no longer support the lifestyle of the coolhunting American-style consumer.

With these realizations, Lasn uses a metaphor of the seasons to flesh out the need to culture jam and some practical ways to do it.

Autumn: Lasn starts by assessing the current damages to the “ecology of our minds,” mental pollutants and information viruses we deal with daily: constant noise, media jolts that grab our attention, excessive violence and sexualization, corporate advertising, media fixation, the erosion of empathy, information overload, disinformation and loss of infodiversity.  Somewhat like the Manchurian Candidate, we are preprogrammed with corporate messages to satisfy our hunger with a Big Mac, our drowsiness with Starbucks, our depression with Prozac and our emptiness by turning on the TV (p. 41).

Winter: Next, Lasn roughs out the problem of extreme consumerism of America.  He takes a critical yet insightful look at the American Dream.  “Dreams,” he says, “by definition, are supposed to be unique and imaginative.  Yet the bulk of the population is dreaming the same dream.  It’s a dream of wealth, power, fame, plenty of sex and exciting recreational opportunities.  What does it mean when a whole culture dreams the same dream?” (p. 57).  Lasn then takes an even harder look at corporations, and still an even harder look at our broader economic system, arguing that our current expansionist growth policies are short-sighted and doomed to failure in our world of scarce resources.

Spring: Next, Lasn explores the possibilities for renewal.  Here he develops specific ideas for practical, actual impact.  Taking cues from the European Situationists of the 1950s, he draws on modern revolutionaries’ effective ways of breaking out of the mass-culture trance.  He then builds the components of those beginning movements into more detailed and risky actions: find leverage points in societal problems and apply pressure, “subvertise” prominent ad campaigns by purchasing airtime with opposite messages, jam the internet with virtual protests, sit-ins, petitions and gripe sites.  With an eye on future generations, Lasn urges his readers to “pinch” corporate industry from above (with hard-hitting media thrusts) and below (with grassroots organization).

Summer: Finally, Lasn shares his glimpse of what could happen if the American revolutionary impulse reignites.  He encourages the reader to reframe an issue so that the person, not the corporation, is the sovereign entity.  He calls for increased corporate accountability, but in novel ways – rewriting the rules of incorporation, for example, so that every shareholder assumes partial liability for collateral damage to bystanders or harms to the environment.  He calls for the “uncooling” of consumption, fast food, fashion, cars and the spectacle of it all.  Finally, and perhaps flowing like a current throughout, he calls us to question the “disturbing lack of democracy at the heart of our mass media” (p. 189).

I think Lasn’s is a book I will want to read again – when I need a good kick in the pants and a reminder that change is possible and is a reasonable goal.  Perhaps we are David against Goliath, but the fight against the extreme consumerism of our culture is a battle that needs to be fought; creatively, strategically, and consistently.  I had begun to question the underbelly of capitalism and corporate control, but my inquiries only ended in sighs of defeat as I headed the nearest Starbucks for a pick-me-up.  Lasn offers hope for the wary revolutionaries at heart.  He dares us to dream again and acts as a solid example of how we can subvert the message of corporate America while using their same methods, thus turning their strategy on its head.  I deeply appreciate his quantification of capitalism without limits, its true cost to our freedom and sustainability. Truly, “America, the great liberator, is in desperate need of being liberated from itself – from its own excesses and arrogance” (p. 61).  I, for one, am ready for a new season in American history.

Lord, save us from ourselves, and give us courage to live according to the Kingdom of God.


Black Jesus?

27 10 2006

Speaking of controversial…here’s a new movie that’s bound to turn some heads…I’d say they’re doing a little of what Jesus did, taking a traditional story and giving it a different interpretation. Pretty cool!

Tuesday Reflection – Week #5

27 10 2006

There is a lot of discussion these days about the relationship between church and politics. Can governments limit the freedom of churches? Can preachers talk politics from the pulpit? And still, many Christians today wonder if Jesus had anything relevant to say at all about the state of government. A Christian friend even once told me that Jesus only spoke to the individual moral self, and that he never once mentioned anything about government.

But i believe our current Western culture that categorizes everything into orderly (well, theoretically orderly) boxes prevents us from translating Jesus’ message fully to our society today. In reality, Jesus engaged the culture around Him in a very holistic way. He may not have specifically told people who to vote for (pretending for a moment the Israelites could vote), but He himself preached politics from the pulpit (see Luke 4 where Jesus announces His mission statement as tied to the political-economic practice of Jubilee), discussed taxes, and critiqued the infiltration of capitalism into the Temple (i’m vaguely recalling some turning over of tables).

The reality is that the culture Jesus entered into did not separate components of life like an iPod playlist. Religion was political and politics was economic and economics were social and society was religious. Power was concentrated in the Temple, and when he preached a message of repentence and not violent political revolution (the way they thought the Kingdom would come), He was speaking a very political message that related to all areas of culture.

And, i might add, it was not the message any of them wanted to hear.

“They are your best servants who long not to hear what they desire from You, but to desire what they hear from You.” – Augustine

Thursday Reflection – Week #4

25 10 2006

Thursday was a great day. We FINALLY moved off of our theoretical training wheels and hopped onto a discussion of redeeming the powers. We looked at Jesus and how He interacted with some of the powers of His day. We talked about the idea of restoration. It was magical, really.

Yes, Thursday was a great day…until the other half of my brain interfered (i’ve been trying to get it to stop doing that for years) and began to question everything. I fear this class is only the beginning fo me – the beginning of a very long journey back to the basics of how and why God created this world order. I think only then will i be able to move forward with any resemblance of confidence about my place in the mess.

The good news:

The Church is making progess in returning, perhaps, to its original intent (i guess that would be going backwards?). Where until the early 1950s, the Church considered herself the Kingdom of God, it now seeks to embody it, and we are searching for more concrete criteria to determine what that should look like besides: “…better than what we were doing.” The Church is beginning to call the powers back to the Kingdom of God. Jesus is our guidepost, and the Holy Spirit empowers us. Jesus’ primary task throughout His incarnation was to annouce the Kingdom of God breaking in. And the purpose of the Holy Spirit with us is to continue the mission of Jesus in the world.

The bad news (or, as i like to put it, the complexities that make me question the good news):

This discussion about redemption is wonderful. I think it exists in far too few places and i have craved it for many years now. Deep down, i believe the redemption of Christ extends beyond human persons and into the broken systems of cultural interaction we have developed.

But what does this redemption look like, really? Everything I’ve heard refers to restoring the systems and giving them back up to God in worship. ok….so what does that mean exactly? I feel like those dumb girls on Studio 60 last night who asked Matt what he did for the show. He replied he was the head writer and they responded by asking, “so what does that mean, exactly?”

Maybe the answer is simple and i am trying to make it too difficult. but i am just not fully on board yet (and you would think i would be since this has been my life’s rhetoric and passion for the last few years). We say we will “restore” the powers BACK to God…i don’t know about you, but i don’t recall ever getting much illustration of what they looked like when they were ever HIS. Mere moments after creation Eve and Adam ushered in “life after the fall,” and we have had to deal with the consequences ever since. I know God established an order for His people, but it was precisely that – an order for HIS PEOPLE. I never saw Him running around giving laws to the Babylonians. They were held accountable by the standard of God’s people. And i’d say modern-day America can relate more to Babylon than Israel. As much as the conservative right wants to believe, we are NOT a theocracy. How can we give something BACK to God that never submitted to His authority in the first place?

And then comes this quote in class: “In the Kingdom of God, domination ceases to exist. The rule and reign of God does not lead to political rule, it leads to the cross.”

The reign of God leads to the redemptive work of the cross. OK…now we’re getting somewhere. How can the broken systems of our world both die and raise to new life in this age? they cannot do it apart from Christ, who ushered in “life after the ressurection.” Nothing has new life apart from Him. But i still find myself yearning for concrete illustrations of what that redemption LOOKS like.

I feel so much like a prideful Pharisee or a dumb disciple who probably still wouldn’t have understood what Jesus said even if He used a flannel-graph himself. I am thinking it’s time for me to return to what He said about the Kingdom of God, to the parables He used to describe how it would break through. It wasn’t what the disciples wanted it to look like, and it probably isn’t what i want it to look like either. They wanted military power and earthly triumph, and i too, want something tangible and great for the world to see and say, “if only we’d thought of this all along…this is surely the better way. Let’s all follow Jesus!”

“As soon as He was alone, His followers, along with the twelve, began asking Him about the parables. And He was saying to them, “To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God, but those who are outside get everything in parables, so that while seeing, they may see and not perceive, and while hearing, they may hear and not understand, otherwise they might return and be forgiven.” – Mark 4:10-12

“He was saying, ‘What is the kingdom of God like, and to what shall I compare it? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and threw into his own garden; and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air nested in its branches.’ And again He said, ‘To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? It is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three pecks of flour until it was all leavened.'” – Luke 13:18-21

“The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John; since that time the gospel of the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it.” – Luke 16:16

“Now having been questioned by the Pharisees as to when the kingdom of God was coming, He answered them and said, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’ For behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst.” – Luke 17:20-21

Book Review #4 – “Fences and Windows: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the Globalization Debate” by Naomi Klein (Picador: 2002)

24 10 2006

Christian scholars seem to know a lot about God. Non-Christian scholars seem to know a lot about the world. Neither seems to know much about the other…and something seems wrong with this picture.

It was both refreshing and convicting to read this compilation of articles from Canadian journalist Naomi Klein who, at under 35 years of age, knows a good deal about some of the most complex systems in our world: the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the North American Free Trade Agreement, G8 Summits and the like. I don’t think Klein is a Christian, at least she doesn’t mention that she is, but I highly doubt most Christians now much about the WTO or its effects on global poverty, nor do many of them care. This is a gap that needs to be bridged.

On a strictly literary level, the book left me wanting a little more: more direction, more explanation, more help answering the question I had at the end, “Now what?” But in all fairness I don’t suspect that is what Klein set out to give. As a collection of articles from her experience with activism and protest, her stated aim is to give readers a “backstage pass” to the “global revolt against corporate power.”

Using the analogy of fences and windows, she presents a palette of thought regarding the domination and destructive nature of capitalism in its current form, the abuse and expansion of free trade, the role of terrorism in shaping trade policy, the momentum of the protest movement, the challenges of activists to reconcile their apparent diversity in light of their desire for a unified voice, and the need to shift the trade debate from generic, large-scale economic rhetoric to the terms of local governance and quality democracy.

To follow her extended metaphor, here are a few pickets in the fence, or panes in the window, if you will, of things I found thought provoking:

On Capitalism and Communism: “Many of the young Czechs I met this week say that their direct experience with communism and capitalism has taught them that the two systems have something in common: they both centralize power in the hands of a few, and they both treat people as if they are less than fully human. Where communism saw them only as potential producers, capitalism saw them only as potential consumers; where communism starved their beautiful capital, capitalism has overfed it, turning Prague into a Velvet Revolution theme park” (p. 35).

On September 11th: “Instead of asking why the attacks happened, our television networks simply play them over again. Just when Americans most need information about the outside world – and their country’s complicated and troubling place in it – they are only getting themselves reflected back, over and over, and over: Americans weeping, Americans recovering, Americans cheering, Americans praying. A media house of mirrors, when what we all need are more windows on the world” (p. 171).

Fences and Windows is a great glimpse of how the globalization debate, at least one side of it, has played out in real time. Klein doesn’t offer many tips for how to participate in the debate, but it is thought provoking and informative nonetheless, and a great book to pick up, put down…and pick up again.

Tuesday Reflection – Week #4

20 10 2006

I have recently been reading some of the Early Church Fathers for another class of mine, and you know, they said some ridiculous things.  Like, for example, the promotion of virginity and sexual abstinence so that, basically, the human race would die off and we would no longer have to perpetuate this fallen order of things – we could all just go live in heaven.  Which is fine reasoning until all the Christians realize they are dead while the rest of the Roman world, who didn’t subscribe to continence, lives on.  The fallen order still lives on, just now without any light or hope at all.

Now, as ridiculous as that line of thinking is, I couldn’t help but think it briefly in class on Tuesday, not regarding virginity, of course, but in regards to the Church.  We talked about some different ways to “do” church…the new emergent format, which is smaller, more organic, artsy, focused on hospitality, caring for the poor, and the kingdom of God, versus the Gen X model which develops within an existing boomer church and doesn’t really change the message – just the cultural presentation (more lights, candles, different music, etc.)

Sometimes i think, if one model is winning a ton of people to Christ, what kind of Christ are they coming to?  what kind of Christianity are we perpetuating?  we’re so concerned with numbers…but what if we’re just building churches full of people who don’t really know Jesus at all?

Great Article

18 10 2006

This is a link to a book excerpt from former White House Deputy Director of the Office of Faith Based Initiatives, David Kuo, as posted on  It’s a pretty clear example of how the perpetual power of a sytem or an elected seat of office can override clarity of judgment.  There are some profoundly truthful statements about how the Church is inadequate at holding the government accountable to do the things it says it will do.  Here it is: “Why a Christian in the White House Felt Betrayed.”,9171,1546580-1,00.html