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Vote for Backseat Writer as one of the Best Blogs in the Lehigh Valley!

12 Mar

Guess what?  Someone (I’m pretty sure it was my mom) nominated Backseat Writer as one of the best blogs in the Lehigh Valley (that’s where I live for you out-of-towners)!  But I need you to vote for me so I can win the prestigious title of being one of the best blogs in the Valley.

Backseat Writer is nominated in three categories:: Religion, Pop Culture, and Personal.  You can vote for the site daily in each of these categories now through March 27 at 11:59 PM EST.  If I win a category, I will be giving away a very special yet-to-be-determined prize (probably an Amazon gift card) on my blog . (Why shouldn’t we all celebrate?)

You must be a registered using of TheMorningCall.com to vote, so register if you love me!  I really appreciate your vote!  Thanks, gang!  Have a wonderful weekend. (You can click on that logo on top of this post or on the side of the blog [I’m sad that it looks so silly on my sidebar] to vote for me in the Religion category!)

Update: If we win, I’ll have a drawing for a $15 Amazon gift card everyone who comments on the post announcing the win.  More votes = more entries!  We all win!

Update 2: My new friend Jaime over at Save the Kales reports that many people are having trouble voting on the Morning Call website.  She suggests using the Safari or Google Chrome web browsers when you vote.  Thanks, Jaime!  While you’re voting for Backseat Writer, you should head over to the Food Category and vote for Save the Kales (or click this direct link!)  Jaime’s giving away a free head of lettuce if she wins.  No, she’s not.  I just made that up.

Hitchhiking with ASBO Jesus Founder Jon Birch

6 Sep

All cartoons are courtesy of ASBO Jesus’ Jon Birch.  Click on the image to view the cartoon in full, and check out all of Jon’s work at http://asbojesus.wordpress.com.

By Amy Sondova ASBO Jesus is a phenomenon not even founder Jon Birch saw coming.  His site speaks about controversial issues in the church such as female pastors, cutting, abuse, but Birch uses few words—he lets his cartoons tell the story.  And just because they’re animated doesn’t mean they’re so easily dismissed.  Millions flock to The Ongoing Adventures of ASBO Jesus each week to check out the latest cartoons, comment on social issues, and find encouragement in the community.  Jon, who lives across the pond (that is, in Great Britain) took time out of his work to do a Q&A via e-mail.

Not everyone is familiar with ASBO Jesus, what exactly is your site about?

It’s a blog where I put up cartoons on issues of faith and the church. Sometimes satirical, sometimes empathetic, sometimes ridiculous. Over time, quite a community has grown, so I’ve used the cartoons to stimulate discussion. The purpose of the site is to say things, or bring things up for debate or thought which are often thought yet seldom said (at least not in public) by people of faith. Having said that, the site is open to people who have lost faith, or are still working it all out (Aren’t we all?)

ASBO, itself, is a British term for “anti-social behavior disorder”–why use this term in conjunction with your cartoons?

It was my wife, Clare, who put the two words ‘ASBO’ and ‘Jesus’ together to make a title for the blog. It came out of an interesting conversation we were having about ‘if Jesus were alive today, in our culture, would He be given an ASBO’.  We concluded, rightly or wrongly, that He probably would. It seemed to us that He was killed for being what the religious authorities and others deemed ‘troublesome’, so at the very least He would be given an ASBO.

Also, in Britain, ASBO’s generally end up being given to those on the margins of society.  Jesus very much identified with those on the margins, so the name ‘ASBO Jesus’ seemed to me to fit the bill beautifully. It is quite possible that the intriguing, possibly controversial, name is one reason why the blog started to get a lot of hits. That is more of a happy accident than a pre-planned thing.

Where did you get the inspiration for the site?

I did cartoon # 1 just shortly after my mother died. Still shocked and beginning the process of coming to terms with a profound (and very sudden) loss, I started cartooning. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it was a welcome distraction, perhaps it was the need to try and say meaningful things.

I do know my mother understood the empathy I have for the marginalized and in the last conversation I had with her she encouraged me to carry on being myself, to carry on loving those who others might judge. These things are hard to put into words, but she told me of a wonderful gay doctor who had been very good with her.  She smiled and said, “You would have loved him.”  My mum was cool; I’d like my life to do her justice.

There are, of course, many inspirations for the cartoons I do.  Not least, these days, the conversations that go on at ASBO. Sometimes it is the conversation that sets the agenda for the next cartoon. I hope my site is a service.  I hope it is edifying and helpful. I also hope people find it funny… at least sometimes; I do.

How have your cartoons made a difference in how Christians think?

Wow… I don’t know for sure that they have. I do know that some cartoons have made people think though, because people have said as much on the blog. I would like to think that sometimes the cartoons enable people to think again about things that maybe they thought they knew. There are some subjects that some people have entrenched views on, but hopefully through the cartoons and through the ensuing conversations; there is a way for them to at least hear another view.

I’d like us all to think again really, about all sorts of things. We are, none of us, always right.  We are, all of us, sometimes wrong.  I am no expert and I don’t pretend to be. My own cartoons often lead me to ponder things that I otherwise might not.  I am often learning from the insights and experiences of people who contribute to the comments on the site. Without their input the cartoons would have dried up a while ago.

Why do you think your site has become so popular?

I think it is, in part, because from the start I tried to make sure I joined in with the conversation. To begin with, in the blog’s infancy, I would simply say ‘thank you’ if someone left a comment. Later, when people got brave and started offering views, I would try to engage. Essentially, I like people; and I hoped to make sure people who took time out to respond would feel appreciated.

As I said before, the name of the site has in some ways helped. Also, I have found that very often, people will use an ASBO cartoon on their own blog and link to my site; this has generated a lot of traffic. There are a few very well known bloggers who have referenced my work or used a cartoon; this has flagged the site up for people’s attention.

I also think that people return because they are interested in the comments left. Some of the conversations have been truly inspiring and involving. I am amazed at the willingness of some, to be honest and soul searching. Somehow, although the blog is open to anyone, it seems to have become a safe space to debate, try out arguments, empathize and also to have some fun. Long may it remain that way.

Sometimes though, I think that people enjoy a laugh in the day. ASBO sometimes provides that. Life is often intense and we all need some relief.

What cartoon has been the most controversial to date?

Cartoons on sexuality always stir things up. Sex sells, even in Christian circles. It is interesting that a cartoon which is controversial to one person isn’t at all controversial to another. The one that brought the most comments was a cartoon about gay partnership and marriage. This was too much for some. Although the cartoon was not prescriptive, it was done to elicit a response. However, I have to say, that the majority of the conversation was positive and fruitful. There are some lovely people in the ASBO community who I can trust to set the tone of the conversation. ASBO has become for me as much about their personalities as it is my own.

Christ was controversial. A cartoon site which searches for Christ is bound to be controversial. Some subjects are controversial simply because we are afraid to discuss them. I find this a little ridiculous and try to be open to bringing up anything which I think ought to have an airing. Some of the stronger (maybe not even funny) cartoons I have done are the ones I am most pleased with. A cartoon on self-harming, which I was prompted to do, is still my favourite. I did a lot of heart searching before I posted it, but again, the conversation that ensued told me that this was a subject that really needed to be out of the closet, I was pleased and amazed by the warmth and sensitivity of many of the comments.

When you raise a subject like this, you will probably be affecting those for whom this is an issue. I would only want to have a positive impact; I would want to help the situation, not worsen it. I hope that is what happened. I can only judge by what I read in the comments, but given the amazing variety of people who commented and the things they said, I think it was helpful. I am very pleased I managed to pluck up the courage to post it.

It seems that drawings can communicate a very real message in a less intimidating way, why is this?

Maybe ‘a picture paints a thousand words.’ Maybe they are a bit like parables. Maybe the simple characters are appealing in some way. Maybe it makes a refreshing change for people. Maybe it invites comment and response. I am not entirely sure. I do think though, that a simple picture can encapsulate a lot. Certainly in Britain, there is a strong tradition of cartoon satire; it is a well understood medium of communication. Also, even a simple cartoon can draw you into its world, so you get a different way in to thinking about the world we live in. these are just some thoughts; I don’t really know.

I’m sure there are some days when you get a ton of complaints and you just feel down, why do you keep going?

I’ve not had tons, but I’ve had a few. Complaints don’t really worry me, provided people are complaining about what I’ve said and not what they thought I said. I’m making comments on things, so I guess I’m fair game for those who disapprove. I’ve not censored any comments (except spam). Someone once wrote something like ‘why don’t you do something with your life, like kill yourself or die or something?’ I didn’t even censor that. It’s there still. That sort of silliness is very rare; you can’t let that sort of thing bother you. I do sometimes get down, but that’s me, it’s never anything to do with ABS Jesus. To be honest, I’m my biggest critic.

When you’re not making the ASBO Jesus cartoons, what else do you do?

I make a lot of animations, produce a lot of music and run proost.co.uk with my partner in Christian crime, Jonny Baker. I’m a trustee of a Christian youth charity in my home town. I’m about to start work on a graphic novel with a very good writer friend of mine. And I’m trying to get our home sorted out… it’s looking a little less like a building site than it was a while ago. I have a wonderful wife called Clare, a scruffy dog called Gromit, and am blessed with wonderful friends and family. Right now I’m finishing off a few animations and preparing stuff for Greenbelt (a big UK festival)… I have the Olympics on in the background as I work.

Print copy of interview.

Anything But Sunny

2 Sep

Oh, my blogger friends, does anything anger you more than regular comments from anonymous posters?  I’ve had one that’s been coming by for a few months known only as “Sunshine”.  One time when I tried to e-mail “Sunshine,” the e-mail bounced back.  It seems his or her e-mail address was a phony…surprise, surprise!

Sunshine’s comments are anything but sunny.  Rather, they are malicious, judgmental “messages” for me about how my depression/anxiety is a scam because I “seem” OK (yeah, try living with me), how I’m fooling everyone, how I’m a horrible Christian, and I’m pretty sure I’m the cause of global warming in this person’s eyes.

For a while, whenever I saw that I had a comment to be moderated, my stomach dropped because I didn’t want a electronic “slap in the face” again.  Who is this person?  Why is he or she sending me these messages?  Why does he or she even care?  By tracing this person’s IP address, I have discovered that he or she lives in Allentown, which makes me suspicious.  Could this be a a person who I’ve treated as a confidant in times of distress or simply someone who stumbled upon my blog because we reside in the same area?  I don’t know because “Sunshine” has kept his or her identity hidden.

Which makes me really question how seriously I can take his or her bile.  If this person really wanted to be bold, wouldn’t he or she use a real name and provide a real e-mail address?  Here I am laying my heart on the line with words about my very real struggles (hear that, Sunshine, real struggles) because I know that there are others out there who wrestle with all these things, too.  But I found that Sunshine’s comments changed the way I blogged for a while.  It’s freaky to think that someone’s out there just waiting for me to slip up so he or she can send me a message questioning the things that I wonder in the dark.

I’ve deleted all of Sunshine’s comments, but maybe that was my folly.  However, I don’t see how it helps the world to see them.  Perhaps that was Sunshine’s intention, to provide messages for my eyes only.  Obviously, all the comments I approve aren’t glowing testimonials; however, Sunshine’s hit below the belt, so to speak.

You know what, Sunshine, I’m sick of your comments.  They’re mean-spirited, unhelpful, and ignorant.  If you want to have a conversation with me, then man up (so to speak) and use a real name and a real e-mail address.  Here I am using my real name and my real identity for everyone to see, and far be it from me to let cowards like you prey upon my vulnerability by hiding behind a phony name.

Sadly, people like Sunshine aren’t just anonymous internet haters–they’re miserable people who can’t even reveal their true idenity in a scathing comment.  Ironically, the words themselves are indicators of the person’s heart, even if he or she is trying to hide behind a fake “pleasant-sounding” name.

If I wasn’t a writer, I would be…

17 Jun

If I lived 200 years ago, I could be the woman writing with the quill in this painting.

I was trying to think of some whimsical, light-hearted topic to share with the world, or maybe something insightful or amusing. Perhaps I’d go for a topic about God or the Bible to encourage everyone out there. Unfortunately, I’ve got nothing…not really.

But I thought, well, maybe I should blog anyway. Although the basis of writing a blog post is to actually say something, what if I say nothing of substance? While some may argue that none of my blog posts have substance, I can assure those of you in that camp that this post will lack more substance and focus than usual.

See, I like to have my thoughts well-ordered and organized before I present a topic to the world. Using keen words and stunning adjectives, I want to wow the world with my command of the English language or just my writing ability. It’s sad that sometimes the only thing I think I can do correctly is write, and even then, I still kick myself for the typos.

I’ve always been a writer and a storyteller. It’s as much a part of my identity as my freckles or my life as an only child. After I write an article, I get this feeling in my stomach, a sort of nausea, and this thought it in my head–“What if you never write anything after this? What if this is your opus?”

I’m not looking for compliments or assurances about my writing. I’m just sharing an irrational thought that swims through my brain. At times, it really scares me because if I’m not a writer, then what am I? If I can’t hide behind my skill, then I would have to be something else besides…a writer.

I wish I could say that I would be sustained by my identity in Christ; unfortunately, I can’t promise that. As much as I would like it to be true, I think my main struggle in life can be tied back to this simple truth–I struggle to know who I am in Christ and how God views me. It seems so much more important what single Christian guys or random strangers think about me than the King of the Universe…and I don’t know why that is. Rationally, I know God’s opinion is the one that matters, yet even as I type on this blog I wonder what some of you out there think of me. Not what I write, what you think of ME.

This is an area of my life I am praying about and asking God to change in me. Of course, He can’t just zap me with self-confidence (enough assurance to be confident, but not too much to be cocky. A shot of appropriately humble will do), but He actually takes me through experiences in which I come face-to-face with situations that stretch, mold, and bend me.

More than ever, I see my life as a construction zone. I want to tell people I meet now to come back in six months because you’re just seeing the framework of who I could be…I’ll be much more fantastic and interesting then…and then you’ll want to stay. Really, I am changing, but at the same time I’m still afraid that people will leave because I’m not enough. If I’m forthright about the process, does that mean I get a extension on your opinion of me?

I realize how stupid that sounds, but stupidity loves company. Almost every person has struggled with issues of identity, purpose, and spirituality. I guess I want to be real about my current battles because it helps keep things in perspective for me, may help someone else, and because I’m a writer and that’s what we writers do. We write about stuff that (hopefully) matters.

Stop Being a Jerk, Part 3 (Internet Edition)

4 Jan

We don’t just find them tailgating us on the Interstate or ramming their shopping carts into our legs at Target–jerks can lurk anywhere. The Internet is no exception. In fact, I believe the Internet is a breeding ground for jerky behavior. Because people can communicate anonymously with others through blog comments, IM conversations, and message boards, they somehow feel empowered to say and act in ways never possible in the “real world.” Even nice, normal people can be sucked into jerk-like behavior because they forget that behind the computer screen of their archnemesis is a person created in the image of God.

Yes, friends, it is far easier to be a jerk anonymously, which is exactly why today in “Stop Being a Jerk”, we’re going to tackle the Internet.

1. You are a jerk if you leave nasty blog comments for the sake of being nasty. It’s even worse if you do so anonymously. You have a right to disagree with me, but you do not have the right to insult me. My personhood is not based on your opinion, but firmly placed on who I am in God. Those who leave rude messages for me will continue to find these messages deleted. Leaving these comments anonymously is even worse–you can’t even own up to your insults.

2. You are being a jerk if you plaster your website all over the place. A little advertising never hurt anyone. You have a great website and you want to get it out there. I have no problem with that or even if you make a relevant comment on a post and then write, “Hey, check out my site.” But when you leave a comment solely to advertise your personal webspace, I have a problem with that. If your blog is good, they will come. If it’s not, do you really want people to look at it? My blog doesn’t exist for you to showcase your site; it exists for me to encourage, comment, and write about what I think. I have no problem with links or information, but if that’s your sole purpose for visiting my site I’d rather not have you upping my hit count. Self-promotion is something we all do, but if it’s the majority of what you do; you just may be a big jerk.

3. No, we don’t need an e-mail every single time you update your site or get published on the Internet. I’m really happy you spend time blogging and that you are finding venues for your writing, but I don’t need my inbox filled with messages about it. I’m subscribed to your site’s feed, so I can keep up with it myself…if I want to. The fact you are sending me these e-mails makes me less likely to read your blog or check out your website because you are annoying me.

4. And another thing, how did I get on your mailing list anyway? If I sign up for a mailing list, I’m more than happy to receive the information. However, don’t just add me to your list because we worked on a project together, because we exchanged e-mail, or because you like my blog. I’m flattered, really, but I’ll just unsubscribe. I get enough unwanted SPAM as it is, I don’t need more. Plus, important e-mails are sometimes overlooked because of junk mail.

5. No, it’s not OK to continually not answer your e-mail–that makes you a jerk. There are questions I need answered and if you don’t answer your e-mail for more than a month, I can’t get those questions answered. It really ends up hurting you. I know I am not always great about answering e-mail, but I try not to let more than a week go by without responding. When you don’t respond, it’s not only rude but it makes me feel like my e-mail isn’t important. We all overlook e-mails, but if it becomes a regular occurence it really makes you look like a jerk. If you’re not good at e-mail, find an alternate means of communication like your telephone. (I understand that just because an e-mail is sent does not mean it warrants a response. I am merely talking about e-mail that should be answered.)

6. Just because you’re separated by a computer screen and several thousand miles of wiring doesn’t make it alright for you to act like a jerk. I am tired of hearing about teenagers who “flame” each other online with their MySpace accounts, sending horrific IM’s, and using Photoshop to make otherwise normal photos look scandalous. The problem is that teenagers aren’t the only ones doing this–adults engage in the same time of adolescent behavior. Relatively nice people get heated over topics on a forum and go at it like two savage lions fighting over an antelope carcass. Being right really isn’t that important, especially if being right means insulting, demeaning, and harming others. It’s even worse if you then go blog about the “fight” you had on a forum. I mean, really, grow up!

7. Your jerk-like behavior in your virtual life will eventually take over your “real life”. Luke 6:45 says, “The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.” This is one of those verses I use to keep myself accountable on my own jerk-like tendencies. When I act like a jerk, I can look back and say, “Where did that come from? What have I been storing in my heart? What do I need to do about it?” It can lead to a great time of healing in my relationship with God, which leads to deeper healing in my relationships with others.

So, the real question is what are you storing up in your heart and is it coming out on the Internet? No, you can’t go yell at your boss (especially if he’s the senior pastor), but you can rip some poor person apart on a forum. Maybe no one cares what you think; posting inappropriate comments on a blog isn’t going to get you respect. You may think you’re only acting out as a character when you’re online, but be advised–what you do when no one else is looking also composes your character, your real character. Nothing you do is in secret; that’s the myth of “anonymity”.

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