columns

emancipate the propaganda

by Zach Kincaid
We plastered Obama's hope and Biden's squint when we paper mached the Times this weekend. Flour and water knit by a wire underbelly will make for fine knight helmets. It's something useful at least.

I saw four opportunists, Irish rockers (who like Escape Club no doubt), get on their boots a few days ago, doing their Salome in front of a gloomy, Georgian marbled Lincoln in the background (maybe the only "ancient" monument not made by slaves, CNN tells me).

Emancipate the propaganda, I say. These stars stutter around the first family in some royalty revolution, Oprah Usher-ing in the boss with his mainstream grit. Serenade the commander and chief, the U.S. king whose rhetoric grew big pockets during the campaign and who is likely to toy with Congress from his executive order haven that Bush Jr. set up.

Hey boss, when grit gets greased there's little to hang on to. Lyndon B. snowed us just as bad as Reagan forgot and Clinton hid girls under his desk and the Bushes rustled mid-easterly under Cheney's scowl (and Carter had a peanut-sized you-know-what against hostage takers).

Today... this hour... the presidency is more princely than ever with the populace frenzied on the media's opinions and the marketing engines smokescreening true choice. Democracy is hamstrung by pithiness and short-ordered history. But oh how itching ears want the delights of oratory, with or without backbone.

Don't misinterpret. McCain had nothing to stand on as he implored the people while deplorably killing the maverick inside. But you have to do it, right? Our capitol is really about capital, and to raise it you need waxed banter. You also need privilege, taken through elaborate misfortune turned into the proper Harvard right-of-passage or have your papa's name. The Carters of history are more rare, especially from the South.

It's all frightfully dismal - American democracy - even with arena-sized crowds that flow out the streets to see a messiah who, for all they know, is touting blessed be cheese makers (actually, he might be in this economy). Heed the warnings of old - take the civil battles that led into Cromwell's "cruel necessity" of Charles I, or, later, the economic episodes that offered up ultimatums to southern states and forced subservience as far back as the three-fifths compromise. Not that I'm opposed to the winning side; it's simply realizing what is and what is not occurring and finding those things hidden in Blitzer's beard or Hannity's loudness. Maybe it's behind John King's magic screen!

If I miss the inauguration today, I'm sure this Youtubed White House will reach into my computer screen and send a nice message... make me feel part... of this charade. Oh, oh, what am I? Yeah, that's for another column - the American identity crisis - paper mache pulp, unfortunately.

obama is not that color

by Zach Kincaid
There’s a road that stretches from Kenya to Kansas, through Indonesia on its way to Illinois, where we find Barack Hussein Obama, its sole traveler. He arrives in Chicago from an Ivy League perch to mingle with common folk (yous and mes), as much to identify with them as to find an identity for himself. His is an illusion with a no-place disease so he tries to ground the myth in street cred - in the African American experience. However, he’s not African American in the traditional sense of ancestry.

In fact, it’s because he’s not Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton (or maybe even MLK or Malcolm X) in style and experience that his appeal spreads more widely. It’s an exoticism that attracts us to him. Who is Barack Obama? He seems to stand on stilts, heads taller than former cracker white presidents with bigotry down their pockets and a snub on their nose. Let’s face it. All of our presidents were born and bred in the United States. Obama represents a departure.

Perhaps we know more about who he isn’t than who he is. And that makes him intriguing, mysterious and perhaps enough on-the-edge to revive interest in our democracy. He’s the pin-up president who rivals Hollywood for attention and represents a changing world - viral and borderless. He’ll text message and YouTube you, buy whole cable channels and likely hologram himself into CNN’s Anderson (I hate that guy) Cooper. In an age of techno tricks and reality TV, Obama fits the bill (and may wind up on one someday).

We are the generation of Reagan and the tearing down of walls. We are products of the legacy hunter in Clinton who looked at the next eight years before his first day was done. We’ve stuttered around with Bush II, making up words that filled in for stagnation and freedom by force.

We want a legend and we’ll paint him in Romantic terms. Obama’s election is historic. His blood carries Africa’s heritage and promotes a color that American history enslaves, ghettoizes, crows JIM, and makes invisible. But his pigment allows the deceit (much better than Steve Martin, aka The Jerk) of a close affiliation to a marginalized group.

I don’t think the election says one thing about how whites feel about the race issue, as pundits keep pontificating. (I wish it did.) Obama hardly spoke of race during the campaign, and used more inclusive language instead. He certainly influenced black voters to vote by simply representing the idea of “deliverance,” as one black commentator noted. But, of what or whom have they been delivered? Is Ralph Ellison now void? Has Obama produced a new context?

Yes we can... do what? Change is on the way... to who’s benefit? We can get there... where abouts is “there?” True, this rhetoric invites hope and hope is the commodity America is built on. For that renewal, I am grateful. However, if it means another march around the Great Society’s May Pole (think FDR and LBJ), I’m afraid BHO will become a good-for-nothing BEAU, tooled by others and not finding new tools.

Have we seen a rendezvous with destiny? Maybe, but I don’t think it’s related to blackness or whiteness. Obama is both - half white and half African. The news channels would like us to think he’s African American because it suggests a radical step into post-racism - where ethnicity, nationality, wealth and religion live in ignorant unity because there is no “other.”

But will Obama’s presidency simply enhance a global identity run amuck. We are thin on the whys that define us and our shrinking world demands ever increasing pounds of flesh. Inside, we remain a divided country that can’t get free from the past nor promote change or exchange between inner-city and suburban strongholds. Perhaps a leader that sits outside our historic norms is the dose we need - to help maneuver America past its divisiveness.

I want Obama to find a measure of success. I also want to be honest about what he represents and what he doesn’t because I believe we’re still a long way off from being one America. To get there we need more than props and three-word chants.

the world's a boomerang

by Zach Kincaid
Haven't you heard that the very world is a boomerang?* From where it starts, it also returns. Go west and you'll be in the east eventually. The pursuit of happiness works itself into a prison because liberation at some point punches violation.

And this is the reality of America. Pockets of its citizenry really believe that the pursuit of happiness and the rights of liberty for all nullifies commonplace morality. Much of Europe has already experienced this perpetual whine from niche groups who need to express themselves without fear of taboos. And Europe fixed the legal codes to scratch their itching ears. Now America is on the same drug.

What can be said? An American believes in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Right? And this serves as a protective blanket for the homosexual when marriage is desired, since a marriage certificate is served up by the state. But the question is also defining marriage. Dictionaries will tell you that it's a social contract between a man and woman who decide to live as husband and wife. So, does the government adjust the definition to allow for social contracts that don't fit "marriage" but fulfill the primary ethic of the American culture? It depends on whether America is wants to abide by a legal code that is lined with Judeo-Christian morality or one that pillages this link.

Marriage is an interesting institution to test this on because it's one of the only contracts that is traditionally found inside a church or performed by a religious leader before it is "ratified" by the state. (The other ceremony might be funerals where it works in opposite fashion - the state says you're dead and then the church buries you.)

It is a gradual secularization of life and an isolation of Christianity (especially) to a designated corner, where its effect can be pomp and circumstance, but nothing more.

Why? Because Christianity holds a deep well of moral codes. Behavior carries a label. It can be wrong. And so, in a society that is growing more and more restless under the hold of rights and wrongs, Christianity becomes Piggy, thrown off the cliff to leave everyone else alone. It boils down to this: We want to do what we want to do. You have no right to tell us we can't.

And they have a point. What right does the Christian Church have to tell the American public it can't abort babies or homosexually can't define marriage or it's bad to legalize drugs or move pornography to the mainstream or to euthanize the elderly or make stem cells nothing more than science or anything else under sun? The old pat response is that Christians in America are also Americans. Are they? This was something that bothered the Romans early on. If Christians are loyal to Jesus, that means their ultimate loyalty is not to the Empire. Correct? Correct. And that meant for Rome, that the Christians could not be trusted as allies. When this rogue religion kept increasing, Rome regrouped around it for strategic political and societal advantages. In essence, Christianity became a tool and it was whored in Europe with the onset of Holy Roman Emperors, titled by the Pope and charged with protecting the papacy and the Church's parishes.

Sure, America had different beginnings. Many of the colonies were established under the hope of religion not tangled with the state. The New World offered a point of departure both from central religious leadership and a powerful monarchy. The budding country connected "of," "for," and "by" to "people," leveling its citizens by granting them freedoms stemmed from a Christian ideal, at least, that we are all equal.

However, history recalls some problems. For one, Indians, slaves, and women were not included in this leveled playing field. So, how Christian was the set-up of America from the get-go? Not very. In fact, I would argue that the usury of religion mimicked the ways it's been used in the past - to pad a government's justifications and provide a mandate to do as it pleases. Individuals with little theology sparred for their political and social gains to the detriment of Christian ethics.

In the end, my assessment is that Christianity has never worked as a system that enables a country effectively. It can assist in ways that may make sense to the government in power, but it must not align itself with anyone. If America is overrun by a foreign power, the church will still remain - not as an institution dedicated to democracy but as a people that serve a king who holds a kingdom elsewhere.

Even if the church buries itself in catacombs, Christianity will not perish.

The trigger for this article is the homosexual marriage debate in California. What we know as Christians is that homosexuality is wrong and homosexual marriage should never be pronounced inside the walls of a Christian church. The Scripture is not weak on defining normal relations of female to male, wife and husband. Anyone who haphazardly says that Jesus never addressed it, and, therefore it must not be critical, is not seeing the whole of Scripture or the moral weights carried inside the tradition.

What to do?

Centrally, the Christian concern is the call for homosexuality to be normalized in the church. But so many of us have been felt up by tolerance's groping hands that we begin to unbuckle the moral codes that accompany holy lives.

America was never a Christian nation, only a nation dense with too often dense Christian people.

America is boomeranging. And I'm not advocating ignorance or inactivity or pie-in-the-sky waiting, but I am advocating that enforcing a Christian code in a foreign land will miserably fail. You can't juryrig it - or, as I like to say, jimmyrig it (think Jim Dobson and Jim Wallis at two extreme extremes).

You can't fix the morality of a messed up world. The problem is rooted in the heart. The church carries a prophetic echo of God on earth and we know the end of the arguments but until then, let's pray with Bono -

Take this city
A city should be shining on a hill
Take this city
If it be your will
What no man can own, no man can take
Take this heart
Take this heart
Take this heart
And make it break**


------------
*G.K. Chesterton, "The Rhetoric of Pacifism," The Illustrated London News, March 24, 1917.
** U2, "Yaweh," HTDAAB, 2004.

a rant on tolerance

by Zach Kincaid
Tolerance is king today. Coexist. Harmonize your habitat. Shake it, shake it, Salome... but not too much. We want to avoid filling platters with our own necks. And to avoid such ends, we exchange statements from "I know" to "I think I know." Why? Because the arch enemy of tolerance is arrogance, and who wants to be a bastard child to that cold word?

The triune manifesto of grace, love, and truth binds itself in divisive knots while tolerance alone forms enough space between apathy and indifference to string together a code. The code is a subjective attitude that is disguised in objectivity. Your world is yours and mine is mine, but I'll be objective about your subjectivity and you pass along the same to me... because we are all products of our own upbringings and our opinions stem from controls that are not our own, until we define them in our own circumference. Once they stick to your person, who am I to say my ideas are better than yours... that your ideas stick like disposed gum underneath some forgotten table waiting for a vulnerable hand to discover. Juicy Fruit. Yuck. Who am I to say that your dogma cannot hold a rightness that makes sense in your own head. Am I judge? Can I call down some mandate from heaven and proclaim that what is making me is not something or someone I made up with demands that you need to follow as well?

It doesn't help my criticism in being a member of a university and attending a church that sometimes mistakes piety as academic prowess and kisses tolerance with great affection. There is nothing "higher" about higher education these days because they've leveled everything like the snow in Withering Heights which makes a certain sameness to all the contours that once made landscape scape. And churches, like the one I attend, often soften Jesus to be something less than a bleeding Messiah who spoke into the world - all our worlds - with the very truths of God.

Churches have a variety of ways they get around the absolutes that Jesus speaks about. These are not new and the first of them is a plain lie spoken by a forked tongue of some three-points-to-happiness asshole pastor who mixes truth with some digestible batter that is only banter - drivel from the likes of Andy Stanley church malls.

Other ways are of a more reserved critique, the kind that forces a thinking cap to cover one's head (male and female alike). The Gospels get ripped apart and dissected like some frog in the hands of that bully in your junior high school biology class. The creature is hardly recognizable in the end and you're likely wearing his guts on your shoulder the rest of the day. Evangelism that calls for conversion is also taken to task either with words that make it less abrasive or chucking it altogether. And then, there's the Apostle Paul. He's liked less and less by academic Christian types - those who build out an NPR Jesus. Paul concludes too many issues as black and white, and everybody knows that tolerance has a favorite color in gray. Old and New Testaments often get a divorce. This is done by ways of making the Old speak to the New in metaphors alone or dismissing it wholesale in delivering any intrinsic value to one's faith. There are a great number of sensitivities, you see, that the Old Testament skips over for the sake of and in the defense of God's chosen people. Chosen? What do you mean? Chosen above and outside of other civilizations and peoples? That cannot be tolerated.

I should admit that I'm no ideologue for a narrow view of Scripture or God. That is to say, I don't set up camp with fundamentalists or even evangelicals exclusively. It may sound like that's the road I'm navigating toward, but it's not. (Not that there's anything wrong with that, right?) I grew up with some of that fare and I'm not a fan of it, at least not the ways it's developed - Southern Baptist making Scripture the fourth rung of the Trinity or Falwell's disciples embellishing politics with particular calls for morality or Dobson's whines for social behavior to mimic a strict code. I don't see much salvation in such maneuvering.

Rather, my latest beef is with a theological slack that is not a companion with traditional Christianity. It is a child of humanism and modernity gone post(al). It wants to love everyone to the point of stripping Jesus of not only his flesh and blood, but his bones as well. It sees Jesus as a dividing personality and someone it invites into its closet as a skeleton of old. Dead? Maybe, but not for remission of sins because how can we qualify sin? Risen? No, bury it. We'll have to explain magic clouds and the brouhaha of afterlife myths and that alarming idea of... HELL. It's not good. Instead, tack up general hope and talk about fixing the ills of society. Now that helps the, "if you have eyes, see; if ears, hear" message. It's solid and identifiable. We can set goals and meet them. We can see heaven as a place on earth (with or without Belinda Carlisle... preferably without).

A week or so ago, our church hosted a Muslim Fullbright scholar from Egypt. She was visiting the Mercer campus and the chaplain set up an interview to replace the normal "prayer meeting" that normally follows Wednesday night supper. I think shriveled up fried fish and broccoli casserole made the menu that night so Ramadan fasting felt just right. (I passed on the meal.)

Now, I love Muhammad. I especially like the tale of the big spider's web that hid him from all those cats that thought he went loony with his monotheism invasion of the giant black alien rock in Mecca. My other favorite is Joseph Smith, which is seemingly way out of order with Muhammad given his name and the Wild West gun fights and such, but they each had delightful revelations from God and his angels... one allowed for four wives and the other as many as your afterlife planet and contemporary wallet could afford. And neither carry that frivolous arrogance about Jesus as Son of God, only way, zeusified, all that baggage. There's not that distinction from other prophets so you are free and open to wander and have revelations that place you (and your penis, no doubt) at the center of the world, inside the cavities of the earth, where you uncover new ways to reach the heavens and experience God. It's so open and grace-filled compared to that ol' backwards Jesus who put on all the antics - supposedly even rising from the dead - to demonstrate some special status and make him the only get-up to the divine. Foolishness. Especially, as I've said, in today's world where tolerance is seen as the highest form of love, and love by way of truth is defamed as sinister and divisive... the stuff of knights with spandex and swords aimed at Jews and Muslims. That's the image of truth-wearing love -- code words for crusade times... And best yet, you don't have to make all these martyring plans if you strip Jesus down to the bone and tolerate everyone for the sake of this new Sinai... no objectivity, no subjection of death by what you believe, no love of one's neighbor the way Philip went about it. Screw Isaiah and conversion. Love ought not to attach itself to anything other than my soul to yours. No strings into the heavens and no strings to bounce back earth-filled blessings. It's a great thing. Imagine it... no heaven... no earth... all the people... harmony.

Hell? Bastard. You would bring that up. Satan? Damn it. Sin? Now what are you fishing for? That I need a particular something outside of my own psyche to fulfill the common guilt that humanity has always experienced? That I need some sacrifice like all peoples everywhere have performed since the onset of humanity - an aroma that beckons divinity to enter our space and enact some redemptive peace by way of flood control or harvest or clothing our nakedness? And on top of that, are you suggesting that there may be a right above and beyond my ideas of right that I can embrace as a guide to afterlife provisions and correct living as preparation for what will come? If you are Christian the last question is answered with a emphatic, YES.

So, that makes Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Mormonism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Unitarian-Universalism, Judaism, Sikhism, and all those systems in between, insufficient means to rally the divine. That's code for wrongness. Here's the couch: that doesn't mean that they aren't reflective of getting at the need for purity and hope, for peace and love. However, in the end, they are wrong and that's the thing that makes Christianity stick out like a sore thumb and the reason some of the intellectual-cats have cut off the thumb entirely.

In a world where tolerance of king, Christianity will increase its martyr count if we are honest with the means and ends of our faith - through a virgin comes the breath of God himself - fleshed out- to seek and save that which is lost. He invites all to lean in and hear the riddles of God and decide if they are true or simply tricks to help us cope or cross the ultimate bridge if we answer them correctly. Lewis says that Jesus is either a liar, lunatic, or lord. Christianity must proclaim him as lord and call out he alone as begotten of the father for the love of the world and for our salvation - the only way, truth, and life.

Selah.

why did people invent war?

by Zach Kincaid
No wonder Jesus liked children. Their naivety allows questions that carry no inhibition.

I was telling our children the story about David finding Saul in a cave and he...

“Pulls out his big sword and slices his head off...” interrupted our seven-year-old.

“No, no,” I responded. “Do you know what happens?” I asked with no response. “Most of us would take advantage of the moment especially because Saul was chasing David so he could kill him. But David doesn’t do that. He only cuts off a piece of the king’s cloak and leaves him to his dreaming.”

We talked about Samuel and God’s anointing of Saul as well as David a little bit later. I mentioned too how Saul hopelessly died in the end by falling on his sword in battle. They seemed satisfied with this demise and modeled it with their light sabers.

Then I shifted to Jesus.

“If someone knocks your eye out or breaks a few teeth, Jesus says we should let the person have our other eye and a few more teeth.”

“No way,” said Micah.

“Yes,” I said. “Just like David cutting Saul’s robe and not his head.”

“Why?” Caleb asked.

I kept the why dangling. I sang some songs and scratched their backs as is our custom to attempt to charm them to sleep. All three share the same room so the charm usually doesn’t work right away.

I started to close the door. Most nights, that’s when our five-year-old has a question.

“Daddy?”

“Yes, Caleb,” I said with a small amount of patience.

“Why did people invent war? All they do is kill each other. Is it so the bad guys don’t come to our house?”

Oh boy. This ranked with several of their other questions like, If God loves everyone - even the bad people - does that mean the bad people go to hell? and, Why did Jesus have to die?

I thought about the story of the piece of rice that fell from the Great Khan’s plate. The insect tries to carry it off. A lizard eats the insect. A mouse eats the lizard. A cat eats the mouse. A dog chases the cat. The dog owner runs after his pet. The cat owner runs into the dog owner. There’s a tizzy between the two. Then their families get involved. Soon there’s a war between both clans and no one remembers the dog and cat.

The question of inventing war sounds childish. Perhaps no one invented war; it just happens because of a grain of rice or a lot of land or pieces of silver and gold. Khan-sized egos rub against like minds, and a kingdom can’t contain them both.

Why did people invent war? Maybe it’s a default because certainly the biblical narrative suggests love runs deeper. Could the Hebrews take possession of the land without fighting. The Egypt getaway makes a place for signs that hold to the "vengeance is mine" premise. And the Nile red mimics the crumbling walls of Jericho. No one lifted a hand, like the later episode with Gideon’s jars and torches (skipping over the violent stake-in-the-eye treachery... no doubt).

Then Israel clamors for a king. And a king demands a kingdom and kingdoms need defenders and defenders need weapons and weapons need victims and victims need conquerors.

We invented war to nullify help from the divine. Sure, we want the Constantine cross to manipulate our victory and rightness as much as the Olympian gods bouncing down to defend a side in Grecian battles. But, when a deity says he owns the land no matter the kingdom that sits on its top, then what? We are not satisfied to get milk and honey alone. We want blood. For, like Cain, we crave dominance in some falsely placed sacrificial way, turning inward the letting as our own reward.

We invented war to carry our wishes outside the bounds of love. It is built off the paranoia of the other. Perhaps the other will show up at my door, so it’s better to kill him on the battlefield and stage safety in the shire. Right? And then we can beat our chests, enter caves with shadows dancing by and pretend that there are no windows in the sky.

In the end, I told our boy I didn't know... that it sounds like a bad invention... and tucked him tighter in his warm, safe bed.

papal aliens

by Zach Kincaid
Where does the Earth sit in light of itself and in the scheme of what we think of the skies? The biblical narrative threw sand to the stars as it compared them to Abraham's projected prodigy. The Greeks bent the heavens to birth their gods and eternally connected struggle with heroism. Early shipmen routed themselves with starry nights to place what water wet where in concordance with both vessel and the shores they hoped to find again. (We know too of the star that stumbled over some rocky cloud and sunk low, marking out the old place for the wise to aim: god on foot.)

So, does the Earth run around the Sun or the Sun the Earth? It’s an ancient question that traipses back to Archimedes (Eureka!). The response is huge - or was - because the first claims the Earth as center of the cosmos and the second suffers it to one of several planets hinged onto the sun's blessings and curses. When these new hypotheses entered the discussion, they hurled expletives on Aristotelean tradition. What did the Church do? She didn't move. “Damn both Copernicus and Galileo as they pay lip service to ignorant popes and then roll around in the heather of their high science.”

How deadly it was to anchor the Sun and free the Earth. And along with it, to free the Scripture from being strapped down like some Shellifed beast trying to give life where it never intended.

But Joshua made the Sun stand still? Doesn't it say that the Lord's name will be praised from the rising to the setting of the Sun? How can these things be if the Sun is the superstar and not the Earth?

Nevertheless, with the help of Kepler, Galileo threw physics into the heavens and made it stick as truth. Now, there was not only a shift in planetary motion but even in religion, as Kepler held Jesus at heaven's gates four years longer than originally thought (he corrected the calendar). Meanwhile, the pope and his newly founded Jesuit order concerned themselves with retrieving what Martin Luther unwound. And whether you reform or counter the reform, it has always been the work of the Church to look into starry mountains and war-torn valleys and redeem everything she touches to God's side. Worship rots when rationality debunks mystery.

So, tripping onto a dispute with Galileo proved a lesson to the Church: she cannot strong-arm her god into scientific realms by pontifical decree or arguments concerning biblical accuracy. Yes, the papalized man was slow to stoop down in contrition, but Pope John Paul II in the latter part of last century sent apologies to kneel at Galileo's memory:

"Another lesson which we can draw is that the different branches of knowledge call for different methods. Thanks to his intuition as a brilliant physicist and by relying on different arguments, Galileo, who practically invented the experimental method, understood why only the sun could function as the centre of the world, as it was then known, that is to say, as a planetary system. The error of the theologians of the time, when they maintained the centrality of the earth, was to think that our understanding of the physical world's structure was, in some way, imposed by the literal sense of Sacred Scripture. ...In fact, the Bible does not concern itself with the details of the physical world, the understanding of which is the competence of human experience and reasoning. There exist two realms of knowledge, one which has its source in Revelation and one which reason can discover by its own power. To the latter belong especially the experimental sciences and philosophy. The distinction between the two realms of knowledge ought not to be understood as opposition. The two realms are not altogether foreign to each other, they have points of contact. The methodologies proper to each make it possible to bring out different aspects of reality."

These episodes are based in reason and facts. Should Scripture mark out the skies and its laws? In their enlightened state, could mathematicians chart out planetary rotations and distances? Can hypotheses reach conclusions with sheer evidences divorced from any faith? Does that make the Church hunter-gatherer, not of divinity but of tangible remains and proofs to substantiate their faith?

Today, most everyone trusts science to call the shots on planets and comets and trips to the Moon. Most of us frequent the doctor and take in diagnoses much easier than church discipline... if that even exists anymore. We fertilize, filterize, and standardize based on the scientific measures and warnings of chemists and biologists or medics or pharmacists. Some would even give up the fight for or against Evolution. And many more are holding their cell phones far from their heads given the recent FDA report. None of these things are necessarily wrong, but the effects might ripple into errors. Because in general religion gets robbed of its mythology while science injects every step we take and every flame-retardant pillow we lay our heads on.

To some degree, the Church works against qualifying every answer with the gravity of reason. She hosts feasts for dead saints and makes the body and blood of Jesus substantive to the flesh and spirit of her congregants. Monastic communities do nothing else but pray for the world (and brew beer). Her parishes are decorated to alarm the senses to what's beyond and above. She believes in the devil and his angels and the unseen fight that rages with Gabriels and Michaels right in front of our noses. And, centrally, she believes in the bodily resurrection of Jesus who was born of a virgin and held magic in his hands.

Now, the Church believes in the possibility of aliens. (What! Startled?) It seems far-fetched considering the suspicious proof in the science community and the fact that nothing is supported in the Scriptures for life forms set in other planets. In fact, no mainstream discussion has ever occurred in the Church on the subject. The Scriptures talk about a new Heaven and a new Earth, but there is no accounting for new stars. The sun does go black and the moon turns red at some point and the stars do drop to earth like figs in a strong wind (they may also be hit by a dragon's tail), but all that is a little desperate to site.

But we know that galaxies upon galaxies sit just beyond the visible stars. Were they made only for humanity to play under and send rovers to explore? Is an aftereffect of Galileo dislodging the Earth the knowledge that maybe humans fight wars and find love in a more finite space than once perceived?

Perhaps.

And Reverend José Gabriel Funes, head of the Vatican Observatory, has given us more to think about. "How can we exclude that life has developed elsewhere," he said in a recent interview. Even further, these potential space creatures may be more powerful than humans according to Funes.

"Just as there is a multiplicity of creatures on earth, there can be other beings, even intelligent, created by God. This is not in contrast with our faith because we can't put limits on God's creative freedom," he said.

I guess if a Wells-like invasion materializes, the Pope will cross himself while wearing his big hat and bless his extraterrestrial brothers. Maybe... yes, possibly... he even received that gauntlet as an abduction gift and... his task is to seed the world for the coming of the mother craft!

Whatever the reasoning for inviting aliens into the Christian imagination we can be sure that it's more about the belief of God as creator. Perhaps he has never stopped his six days on-one day off routine. The Church holds to an omnipotent Lord and King of all creation, both what we see and what we don't, both what we know and what we can only imagine in a galaxy far, far away.

(I just hope these aliens don't wear red shoes.)


(To read the article and Funes and extraterrestrials go to: www.iht.com/articles/2008/05/14/news/vat.php)


(June 2008)

horton meets stein

by Zach Kincaid
An animated elephant and a foil named Ben Stein. One finds a spec, the other play on hype. Both get ridiculed but only one holds a truth worth dying for and that’s Horton... who hears a Who.

I’ll get to Horton after we weed out the intelligently designed garden that Stein advocates.

According to Stein, the universe is ordered and purposed, aka a creator made it. But there’s a problem. A standing army of white intelligentsia has sent this idea and its carefully boxed god over the cliff to rot with Gadarene pigs. What to do... what to do. I’ve got it! Let’s demonstrate the flaws in their stalemate hypotheses about the origin of life and the makeup of the universe. What better way than a documentary film that proves the scientific world can be unjust to naysayers even with the “greats” saying things like this (from Einstein) - "The harmony of natural law... reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection."

You go Einstein... and since you’re not around, we’ll listen to Stein. Expelled tries to support god-in-code-language in a realm that outthought him (God, that is) years ago. Why? Because what’s the point? Science and religion aren’t after the same ends. One seeks to develop a vocabulary and premise that keeps the heavens where they currently sit - the upper atmosphere of the earth and beyond, held there by mutual gravitation. The other holds that the heavens have dropped down and continue to stoop in order to give us a story, not a set of facts. The former will never invite the latter to supper and the latter should not prove its saltiness by identifying salt as a crystalline compound, sodium chloride, NaCl, for example. The proofs fall by the waysides of faith. Salt is a non sequitur with light as much as God is to any proofs fashioned by warrants. So, in the end, Stein’s hunt is lost because it’s never found and hardly founded.

In contrast, Horton Hears a Who tells the story of a civilization in peril that needs rescuing. Horton, a crazed elephant, happens upon this small world which he discovers on a spec when he hears faint voices. Despite the ridicule, Horton is convinced of this silly conclusion, and he is compelled to believe and protect the spec from the dangers all around it... dangers that only Horton knows completely. Rejected in his newfound belief and subsequent mission, Horton could easily stomp out the world and be done with the humiliation, but a person’s a person no matter how small, you see? That’s the whisper of the work. Finally with the chant, “We are here, we are here” performed by every Who down in Whoville (even the “Smallest of all”), there is a breakthrough. The kangaroos and monkeys believe. “‘How true! Yes, how true,’ said the big kangaroo. ‘From now on, I’m going to protect them with you.’”

Intentionally putting aside political interpretations of the 1954 story for the wider frame of the 2008 film adaptation, it’s interesting what we can glean from Horton. We have a world that exists yet it’s origins are unknown. One day the mayor of Whoville hears Horton through a broken drainpipe. He learns about the insignificant size of his world, the cause for several disastrous tremors, and what might be a dreadful end if Horton is unsuccessful. What can the mayor do? Without only inferences, he must convince the Whos to look into the sky and sing. He must tell them about his conversations with an elephant, about the minuscule size of everything they hold familiar. In the end, it is only hearing the voice of Horton in the drainpipe that motivates the town to action.

Here’s what we believe. God is the Almighty maker of heaven and earth. Jesus, the only begotten, was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin Mary. He became man and was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried, and rose again on the third day. Now he sits on God’s right hand. We believe in the Holy Spirit and one holy catholic church, and one baptism for remission of our sins. We look forward to the resurrection of the dead and life in the age to come.

Guess what? We believe that belief makes us who we are. We didn’t make it but it’s making and remaking us. Ask about conclusions built from evidences and you achieve a faith harnessed by validation and not scandal. Try proving the world was crafted by an intelligent designer and you shrink that designer to an artificial need of a post-Enlightenment age that wants facts and ration, not faith and miracle.

God is the grand magician and one of his tricks is to hide. Set the Sabbath and make a check list, think to know the mysteries of why the skies are wired shut and the ground can't seem to jump, search under every watered-down hole in your soul and you will never get out of the shallow end. Science can’t assess the who, only the what. It is imagination that establishes curiosity and curiosity faith. If we start with the hypothesis that God can be found we will be looking wrongheadedly. However, if we give up the hunt and reconcile God mysterious who completes all earthly myths through his son, we will not need reason as a guide but rather a support in our efforts to evaluate the visible and invisible, the spec in hand and the galaxies above.


(May 2008)

new bodies

by Zach Kincaid
The nineteenth century stomped into the the twentieth with full guns ablaze, ready to roll out the marching orders of greedy capitalists and domineering socialists. They had set their philosophical stages to make possible the most brutal century in human history, rightly predicted by G.K. Chesterton: “Men will more and more realise that there is no meaning in democracy if there is no meaning in anything; and that there is no meaning in anything if the universe has not a centre of significance and an authority that is the author of our rights.” The century on-hand will likely offer violence that invades the territories of people much more than maps, guising technology in usefulness and medicine in necessity. Natural human functions will not provide stimuli enough for you to either live comfortably nor accomplish the demands wrought by society.

Take, for example, a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Be Everywhere Now.” It addresses the omnipresence of students. The author explains that students are nearly always in seven places at once and never any place wholly. With buds in their ears atmosphere gets textured into a Hollywood movie. Glued to laptops, screen layers flatten the world to a pancake. Language is econofied through phones and hand-held devices while blue teeth attached to ears enables the talking to fruit or wind commonplace.

Competitive sports demonstrates a similar effect. Physical ability is hardly the way to accomplish untouched success nowadays. Superheroes are what sell tickets and break records. Like our machines, we want greater performances, faster action, and new legacies. Who cares about that fat-ass Babe Ruth, anyway? We now have conditioning by pyramiding science and talent, gym candy and ability.

The doctor’s office may tackle transfiguration next. Did you see the CBS story on regenerative medicine that aired Easter Sunday? (Here’s a link.) It reported on a man who, after losing the tip of his finger in a work accident, sprinkled on the wound a powdery substance made from pig intestines. The finger grew back in four weeks. The scientists think they can trick the body to repair itself instead of nubbing off serious injury. Who’s behind the research? The military. Think eugenics... backwards. They hope the technology can reproduce skin cells and whole limbs, blood vessels and complete organs. Wearing out may be optional in the future.

Even better, maybe you can download your memory and knowledge onto a hard-drive in the future and upload yourself into another body.

Why not? Isn’t it true that the body is a mere shell served by the soul for a handful of years and then discarded? Aren’t we jars of clay made in our mother’s womb and pushed out into air? True, our soul is weaved into the hair of our head (for God says he knows the count), but is it dependent on it? (The bald would say no.) Aren’t we immortals with eternity carved into carnality?

It proves that humanity never forgot the serpent’s promise: “You will be like gods.” Cut off the flesh and affix to an eternal source... Epistasis!? No. Upostasis!? You no longer need to be caught between skies and gravity.

Death, where is your sting? Where, O death are your plagues? And grave, where is your destruction?

Here’s the catch: it’s all softly spoken and wears the mask of innocence.

Why not grow back your limb or down a pill to make your world normal? It avoids both lengthy hospital stays and check-ins at the asylum.

Why not artificially inseminate your womb? It beats suffering through prayers like Hannah and Elizabeth even if it’s necessary to thievishly pry open a window in heaven?

“Because Heaven should know better; God should too. Doesn’t he know what we're all suffering down here?”

Isn’t that what you’re really asking? Can the Unknowable really understand the knowable? Can the Maker of souls tap your interworkings or did he simply set your course? Can the timeless dip into time for you and me?

But there are other questions. A prominent one begins with “God gifted the hands of the surgeon and equipped her/him with knowledge to do this, so...” I only buy this to a point. It hinges on what your qualifying or justifying. Surgeons are equipped to give sex changes but that doesn’t make it right. Does it? How about breast enhancements? Or grandma on an oxygen machine? Are these okay? Maybe, maybe not.

If science is able to alleviate death, does the church have a role in society? Chances are, the promise given in Eden will circle back and science will figure on a way to make new habitats for memory and knowledge. Where is the soul? The Hebrews thought the liver, earlier Christians said the heart, and today we name the head. Science supports the contemporary theory: all veins lead to it and all functions, including the conscience, extend from it.

Yet, I wonder if the soul can fit inside the brain. Perhaps, if it is purely essence it doesn’t matter. The soul inhabits the big toe as much as the pancreas as much as the ear lobe. Certainly this is true to a point. There is no spare room on the soul’s house; you can’t compartmentalize it out. But, perhaps here is where transubstantiation - that act of bread and wine turning to Christ body and blood by a priest’s invitation - serves a powerful conclusion. God inhabits soul and flesh. You are mini-christ not only because of what you believe but who you are down to the cartilage. Remember that Jesus ascended in the flesh with all the scars of his earthly experience. And Scripture says your soul will reunite with your body when “day” loses its hooks. This is principally why Christians have disdained cremation. (Naive? Or are we more gnostic?)

Modernity put on the clothes of Nietzsche’s superman and our era is supplying flesh and bone. What we do with these new technologies matter. Jesus says he came to give life more abundantly. Science is preaching the same message. Jesus’ abundant life ends in death; there is no avoidance. Each day we die and at the end of our lives we die again. That’s the only way victory is afforded by the divine. Science hands out a different scenario. It loves life so much that it seeks to protect it at all costs. And one day it may shut up that gapping flaw in life’s structure: temporalness. The temptation is the same as Eden. Just remember that if you find your life you will lose it; give it up and find it again.


(April 2008)

sexfest at church

by Zach Kincaid
Sexfest at church. Why not? God said he’d supply our needs in great abundance. And besides, these marriage conferences are as dry as dirt. But, sexfest? That’s the stuff of mud wrestling.

So my mind fills up with all kinds of images. Our church has a fair amount of 30-somethings but the majority of our membership are older than the hills. That’s one image. Lots of wrinkles. Another image is historical - the temple prostitution circuit of Rome and Greece. I guess the pagans figured out the simple logic of making promiscuity a religious pursuit - a sacrifice to the gods. And now we have jumbo-trons to enhance the focus even more. All eyes on the stage.

I also imagine the scowl on Augustine’s face. And Martin Luther surely regrets his rebel-rousing.

What is happening? Relevant Church in Tampa, Florida is challenging their members to participate in something they call the 30-Day Sex Challenge. The premise is for married couples to have sex every day for 30 days. From their site - “People are not having enough sex. An epidemic of breakups proves the needs that lead to a great sex life are being overlooked. Dirty dishes, frumpy clothes, and a lack of authentic connections are killing the romance. A great sex life is a challenge and takes focus, determination, and planning. Some say it’s an unrealistic goal, but we disagree. We believe you can have a great sex life, in fact we believe God wants you to have a great sex life.”

Okay, so it’s a little more purified than the prostitutes in pagan temples. But the focus on sexual appetite is the same. The challenge comes with a calendar that I suspect you sticker with shiny gold stars. They also supply readings from Song of Songs primarily - “Take me away with you - hurry! Let the king bring me into his chambers.” Maybe this helps if you need to roll play.

The challenge sounds very chauvinistic to me. As ABC commentator Harry Smith said in an interview with the Pastor Paul Wirth, “I’m trying to think what the downside could possibly be to trying it...” I bet my wife could name a few things; I could as well. It puts both people in an awkward place by demanding a sexual performance because of a church commitment. I may be flying solo here, but I don’t want the church anywhere close to my bedroom (missionary position or not).

All of this focus on your family and now sacramental screwing is bothersome. The Bible seems to stand somewhat removed from both subjects. Yes, procreation was a command in the garden and there are references to sex all through Scripture. It is usually about sexual infidelity tagged with other issues. Abraham lacked faith, David - humility, Solomon - satisfaction. When we get to Jesus, he directs adultery inward, but there is no direct references to marriage let alone sex in that relationship. He changes water to wine at a marriage feast (which might encourage drunkenness with sexual activity), and he mentions bridegrooms in parables. And Paul has little to say (he might ask women to cover their heads) while Peter sees marriage as the representation of Christ and his church. It’s as if marriage and marriage sex is assumed and not hyped up.

It’s really just another gimmick along the Purpose Driven Life push and Debunking The Da Vinci Code nonsense. But we shouldn’t be surprised. One of the core values of Relevant Church is “to be as current as today’s newspapers.” And Relevant Church is launching this during the holiest days on the church calendar. Isn’t Lent more about abstaining from indulgent behaviors rather than erecting additional ones?

Maybe Relevant Church has figured out that you can add “under the sheets” to rock-n-roll Christian chorus music too. Maybe they even sell KY lubricant and WWJD thongs in their church coffee shop. I hope not.

(March 2008)

Carter Baptists

by Zach Kincaid
The week bumped up against the start of Lent. We began our road trip to Atlanta which sits a few hours north of us. The air felt crisp and expecting. Uneventful, we drove to the outskirts, parked the car, and tracked in by way of MARTA. The heart of the city. The air now carried a whip. We walked headlong in between goliath-sized buildings and into the sprawl of convention center land. The Georgia World Congress Center.

We were an odd threesome: a short widow, a tall preacher, and an average 30 something.

Carolyn’s feet don’t reach the floor when she sits down so she carries a wooden briefcase to prop them up. She had it with her on our trip. I never saw what was inside, but I imagined the notes and pins and reading materials had a certain wizardry about them.

Bob felt at home in the land of tall buildings since his scalp nearly scraped the tops of doors. He is 50-ish with a full head of hair and a faux leather notebook that gives that familiar appearance of studious note taking. He never opened it.

I followed this stilted man and shrunken woman, charmed to be part of a canterbury pilgrimage sharing our tales with each other on the way.

Oh, me? I’m a forgetful character in my five-eleven, thinning hair, and Scottish nose way. I carried a camera to make an attempt at capturing the throngs of people or document one of the celebrity encounters. Both would help justify taking a full day off from work. I wanted something tangible, visible, noticeable. Like Bob’s notebook, I left with no real photos.

In the guts of this giant beast of a building more than 15,000 Baptists roamed. This, I thought, would be a sight to behold. I had always taken Baptist exposures with trepidation and only in small doses. Overdue it, I said to myself, and you might become one of them. Yes. One of them -- one of those strange creatures that roam my childhood, going door-to-door and asking neighbors what they’d say to Jesus if death swallowed them up that very night -- one of those absurd dancing preachers that wouldn’t shut up until the Holy Ghost prompted some young schmuck to walk up front and be born again -- one of those double speakers who doled out friendship as a way of winning souls. One of those. But now, just before the penitent season, I faced a golden horde of Baptist faithful in a winding labyrinth that placed exit doors far out of my reach. I was stuck.

The simple history of Baptists is categorized by hatred - of them and by them. If you trace back to the Anabaptist movement, it infuriated papists, Lutherans, and Calvinists alike as John Leyden’s gang ripped through rituals and sacraments. If you don’t carry their history to that age, even as an anti-establishment movement against state sanctioned churches in England in the 1600s, the Baptist roots are divisive. In America, they have served as instigators of abolition and promoters of slavery, members of the suffragette movement and staunch supporters of women as a second class, pro-wine and pro-tea. As you may know, the Southern Baptists broke ranks with the Triennial Baptists in 1845 in a ardent decision to support slavery. Since then, the Southern Baptist Convention has grown to nearly 20 million. And, I should say that since those early years of wrong decisions about slavery, the SBC has contributed to a wide amount of good. For example, they promoted high levels of missionary work around the world and created one of the printing operations to circulate Bible study curriculum.

The noted controversy that leads to my recent excursion to Atlanta is the Fundamentalists takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1980s. What were their fundamentals? What triggered a battle of control and qin-styled absolutism? Here are some reasons. First, they were appalled to hear that creation may not have happened in seven days and evolution carried some noteworthy possibilities. They didn’t appreciate the Bible being held in the hands of higher critics in an effort, as they saw it, to defame the truth. They hated those pious professors in Baptist seminaries that wouldn’t stop exploring the nature of God and questioning the practices of the church and qualifying a place for science. So Paige Patterson, W.A. Criswell and Adrian Rogers started working the system to ring out those watery liberals from their group. They did. They fired the professors who liked Socrates. They bound women in Pauline servitude to men. They birthed a fourth rung of the Triune God by placing the Bible as Inerrant Plus. And they told homosexuals to go f--k themselves and enjoy it now because hellfire draweth nigh. And, as a further isolationist tactic, they pulled out of the Baptist World Alliance because it leaned too liberal for their taste. Now the Southern Baptist Convention lives in a house all by themselves where they play their own games with their very own version of Jesus.

This separation grieved many people including Jimmy Carter. For more than a decade, he has encouraged dialogue and resolve, not in a push to make cookie cutter churches and congregants, but with the desire to find commonality and, centrally, love for each other. So, Carter instigated the Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant that would invite all Baptists in North America to a large meeting in Atlanta, January 30 - February 1, 2008. The meeting would carry no set agenda aside from a general hope to prompt unity, dialogue, and love among Baptists. The discussions: obligations to peace and care for the world’s disenfranchised. The list of attenders would include more than 30 Baptist organizations. However, the effort paid to officially invite the Southern Baptists would fall on common rhetoric.

“I will not be part of any smokescreen left-wing liberal agenda that seeks to deny the greatest need in our world, that being that the lost be shown the way to eternal life through Jesus Christ, our Lord,” shouted SBC President Frank Page in a May 30, 2007 press release.

Cut back to inside our Atlanta labyrinth, the short widow, tall preacher, and average joe weaved in and out of sessions and exhibitions that intensely presented the Gospel of Jesus and all its layers. One layer that seemed to fade into a promising rainbow was the color of skin. In a mix that felt natural and not paraded, black, brown, and white worshipped and celebrated the unity and diversity that are hallmarks of the Christian faith from its earliest days.

Celebrities didn’t make appearances but they made appeals to love more than respect, unite more than critique, and serve Christ more than politics. On Thursday (the day of our experience), we heard author John Grisham share perspectives from his childhood in a narrow-minded Southern Baptist church as opposed to his church today that counters that history in important ways. We also heard pastor Julie Pennington-Russell about the need for honesty and something more than simply respect. There were many other notable sermons and presentations over the three day event. ...Bill Clinton talked about withholding judgement of others because we only know in part, quoting St. Paul. Tony Campolo and Marian Wright Eldeman advocated that poverty can be eliminated as we work out the love of Jesus. Al Gore pointed to our stewardship of the earth as a keen priority and responsibility. Jimmy Carter and Bill Shaw brought home the ideals of peace with justice. The list goes on.

By the time we left, Carolyn looked a few inches taller. “This is the way it used to be,” she said, “Like family. Everyone like family.” Bob took Carolyn’s wooden case and politely gestured a b-line to the door, sideways through the throngs of people. I think he realized the late hour and remembered he had to preach on Sunday, both at the same time. It had started to rain so we walked briskly to the MARTA stop rethinking what we had heard, seen, and now knew in a more profound way... that is, what it means to claim an identity with Baptists.

I still wondered what magic spells and stories filled Carolyn’s little wooden case. Perhaps it held the secrets to bring together the Lutheran Missouri Synod with Evangelical Lutherans, United Methodists with African Methodists, and even the Orthodox with Catholics.


(February 2008)

god finds the best parking spaces

by Zach Kincaid
[Now that Christmas is packed away into the commerce clog of Claus and his elfin cronies, I turned the TV on the other night to catch up on some missed news. What I watched was likely a holiday rehash of Larry King. Joel and Victoria Osteen were his guests.

Finally, some sense of it all. At last, a set of smiles and a suave of success that seeks the good in me, the positive, the promising. I stayed tuned for the complete hour. Larry talked with Joel (I think he’d oblige the informality) about his new book Becoming a Better You, about his mega-church in Houston, and about his stardom. Becoming a Better You hit book suppliers three million copies strong, making it one of the largest first printing runs and the largest in that publisher’s history (Free Press). Numbing numbers, ay? What do you do with that? Maybe listen. So, I did -]

LARRY KING: What's the concept behind the new book?

JOEL OSTEEN: The concept is that God never wants us to get in a rut no matter where we are, how successful or how low we are. We should be growing. We should be learning. We should get better in our attitude, in our relationships. And so it's really just simple things that we probably all know, but it just reminds us to -- to don't get stuck in a rut. Don't get stuck, you know, with a health issue and think, well, I'll never get over this. Or even in a marriage -- don't get stuck at a certain level. We can all be kinder. We can be happier. We can, you know, grow in our relationship with God.

LK: Yes, but when you say God now, do you think that there is a God looking down on Joel right now...

JO: I do.

LK: ...saying I'm going to give Joel a good day?

JO: I do. I believe God's concerned about every part of our life. People kind of give me a hard time because I say, “You know what? God wants you to help you find a good parking spot or help you to, you know, have a good day.” But I believe God will be involved in as much of our lives as we allow him to.

LK: How can he do that with all the people in the world?

JO: Well, because he's God. He's so much bigger than us. I mean, our minds are, you know, are nothing compared to his. But, you know, the scripture talks about it -- if you believe the Bible -- that God knows the number of hairs on our heads. He knows our thoughts before we speak them. And, you know, we comprehend that. And I know in the natural world, it doesn't make sense. But that's what faith is all about.

[Not bad. Already, we learn that God wants us to grow (to jump “levels”), that he knows all our parts and parking places, and that, according to the Bible, God knows our hairs and our thoughts, each and every one. But Larry probes further.]

LK: This looks like -- and if you read the chapters -- a self-help book. Lots of advice for improving life. Major emphasis on positive thinking. That is not new. But is it new the way you express it?

JO: I think it just comes out of each person different. I don't think, like you said, a lot of the principles are not new. But somehow God makes us all individually, even though there's been billions of people that have lived. And I think it comes out a different way. I present the same Bible truths that my dad did and many other people down to the generations. But, again, I think God uses our personality and, you know, maybe the youth -- and just different things and different ways to express it.

LK: But he [God] isn't mentioned on the cover.

JO: Yes.

LK: And it doesn't even say you're a pastor.

JO: No, it doesn't. But you know what? My goal is to get outside the church walls.

[Larry King brings out a good point. Does getting “outside the church walls” mean you leave out divisive theology, or, as it appears by Joel’s comments, divorce yourself from theology altogether? Is that what “comes out” of Osteen? If so, perhaps Jesus is so far removed as to lose his messianic title. Take Advent. Advent forces us to pause between peace and love and remember that joy always has suffering in its hip pocket, that true contentment is not substantiated by feeling good about ourselves or accomplishing marked out goals. Rather, joy gains ground when aspirations and prosperity are surrendered and abandoned. It’s a joy that pertains to a salvific message and that means it is sacrificial (and may not smile all the time). Paul, give us a little dirge -

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

But, hold on. Maybe Joel is just talking about fulfillment and that God makes that idea a richer experience. Maybe he is simply trying to extract the nuggets of truth so people can take God and apply his Word in their everyday lives. Let’s cut back to the show.]

JO: [I want] to reach people that normally wouldn't go to church or normally wouldn't think about God. Or, hey, I'm not a religious person. And that's about half the mail we get. It starts with Joel...

LK: Really?

JO: Yes, "Joel, I never watch a TV preacher, almost, and I've never been to church". Or maybe, "I went to church 20 years ago, but, you know, I just -- I fell away." So, no, I don't think you have to shove it down people's throat. You have to just present it to them. Just, you know what? The Bible is full of common sense that can help us in our everyday lives.

LK: Victoria, when Joel is criticized for not being the pastor who hangs the cross behind him, how do you react?

VICTORIA OSTEEN: Well, I just look at all the fruit and all the people's lives that are being changed and are being touched. And that's what we really focus on, because we hear -- every day we get mail, we visit with people and their lives are being changed. And I just think, you know, if they would come in, they'd hear our message; they'd see what's going on. I just believe that they wouldn't have that criticism.

LK: Could an atheist be changed?

JO: I think so. I think...

LK: Without having to believe in God?

JO: Well, I think there's a void in every person that only God can fill -- that only God can fill. I think that's how you can really be fulfilled, truly. So I would think an atheist can be changed and their attitude in certain things. But I think if you come to a belief that there's something bigger than yourself, you're going to be more fulfilled.

[Okay. About now, these shiny happy people were driving me nuts. Jesus never said we’d be fulfilled or accomplished. He never promised or even encouraged it, not in terms of personal gain. Rather, he required the opposite. In the same breath Jesus talks about abundant life (John 10), he addresses his own brutal death. And, if you find your life, guess what? You lose it. Try to save it? Lose it. Worry about it? You got it... you lose it.

Jesus’ “end” is crucifixion and he promises that those who follow him will likewise be hated. This doesn’t sell books. It doesn’t even sell “christianized caffeine” (likely not fairly traded) before a worship romp. It’s not positive in practical terms. And it was never meant to produce anything, least of all mega-churches and mega-pastors who hock their wears and celebrity status. Jesus is disruptive and he demands unpleasant and against-the-grain change. As a result, Christianity is a hunt, a pilgrimage, a restlessness.

Joel and Victoria seem so content that perhaps they’ve forgotten (or neglected... or skipped over) examples like Abraham’s bartering over Sodom, Jacob’s wrestling match, Elijah’s Broom tree fears, David’s anxiety, Job’s doubts, Zechariah’s shutting up, old man Simeon’s long wait, Zacheus’s tall climb, Arimathea’s crossed burden, etc, etc. History is stockpiled with stories of Christian “weakness” - peace that passes understanding, inheritance of the meek, riches for the poor, the last butting line to be first rank in the afterlife.]

LK: Why did you want it so big?

JO: Well, we never really did, Larry. We started -- my father's auditorium held 8,000 people and it started filling up. There was no room to put more people in. Our whole belief -- and I think a lot of people's -- is that you're not supposed to turn people away from the church. And so there wasn't any more room. We never said oh, let's go build a big church so people will think we're successful. It's not about that. It's just for helping more people. And so when the Compaq Center opened up, it was just a natural fit.

LK: That's -- it was the former home of the Houston Rockets.

JO: Yes, that's correct.

LK: So you're a basketball star... in a sense, I mean?

JO: I'm a fan, anyway.

LK: Where do all of the people come from? I mean they can't just be Houstonians.

JO: Well, they're all -- they come from all walks of life. They come from all over. Every weekend people fly in from all over the world. I met somebody there that flew in just from Korea Sunday to be in the service.

And I said, “Why did you come?” He said, “We just wanted to see you.” It's sort of, you know, I say this humbly, it's sort of a phenomenon to see 15,000 people come together in worship. And it's exciting and so...

LK: And it's seen in 100 countries, right?

JO: It's seen all over the world. Yes, sir.

LK: How do you react to the critics who call your message theology lite?

JO: Well, I've heard that before. It's interesting, Larry, every week in our services we deal with people that are -- have children that have cancer, people that have a husband or a wife that left them. We deal with the real issues of life. I talk about forgiveness and how to have faith when bad things happen and, you know, how to overcome and, you know, love your enemies and things like that.

So when they say it's Gospel lite, I think, you know, we're helping people where the rubber meets the road.
I mean last Sunday, there was a little girl there. She was 2- years-old. She has cancer. She's at our MD Anderson Cancer Hospital. And you know what? We give them hope. We pray for them. We say, “God's going to give you strength.” I mean we don't know exactly what the outcome is going to be. We hope she'll live. But, you know, how can that be gospel lite to me? That's why I come back to saying I'm helping people.

[He’s just helping people, right? Perhaps. But, he’s certainly not pointing down the narrow way and talking in Petrine terms about endurance and holy revolution inside people. My wife and I tried to convey to our three boys about the significance of true devotion last season and why the Advent wreath had a duller candle compared to the others. I asked them about those who followed Jesus... what they thought happened to them as a result of their devotion. “All but one were killed,” I said. “And not in normal ways.” (Their eyes grew.) “Crucifixion upside down, beheadings, and even the one who escaped to an island did so because he would not die in the hot cauldron of oil designed to kill him.” About this time, my wife nudges me and says, “Okay, that’s enough.”

What’s the point? Following Jesus is not simple and it’s not easy. You can’t cherry-pick out your three chords of truth and ignore the rest. And those who choose to believe need to be aware of the costs involved. That’s where the Osteen aura turns to shadows. Jesus did not touch down on earth to be our best friend or a charm that sends us blessings. He never promises that struggle will cease or we will “get our due” in this lifetime. He said he knows our needs and anxiety is his to bear. He said our burden is to take up a cross, to live in a way that is poor in spirit, merciful, pure in heart, meek - a way that is not understandable, that is paradoxical to the common order. It is here where the martyrdom of Stephen makes sense and the thorny side of Paul breathes easier. But, let’s give Joel the last word -]

LK: Do you think there's too much emphasis on me in the church, you know, what some call the prosperity gospel? And you're -- you're going to make money. You're going to be well. You're going to do good.

JO: Well, I think there needs to be a balance. I think there has been and there can be. But I think the whole prosperity thing is, you know, if somebody asks do I believe God wants you to be well and happy and whole and have good relationships and have beautiful children, my answer would be yes. Because I'm a father and I want the best for my children. I don't want to spoil them. And I'm not talking about, you know, all this money. But I want them to have a good life.

Well, God is our heavenly father. And I do think some people take it -- you know, some people can blow anything out of proportion. It's not all about money. I mean we all know people who have all the money in the world but can't sleep at night. So it's about -- I do believe God wants you to be blessed and he wants you to increase. He wants you to be successful in your career. God never wanted us to drag through life.

LK: According to the Bible, Jesus said, "It's hard for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven." How do you square that with your lifestyle? Do you think you may not get in because you're doing too well?

JO: No, I don't think so. I think you have to take...

LK: I'm only quoting Jesus.

JO: I know. No, no. I think you have to take the whole context. When he's quoting that, I believe that man's focus was all about the money. But it depends on where your heart is. I mean the scripture says it's the love of money that's the root of all evil. We didn't do this for money. And I don't think that you can say, if somebody is wealthy, boy, then, you know, they're not going to heaven or God must not love them.

Abraham -- way back where Christianity was started, it said he was the wealthiest man in all the East. And I think David left the equivalent of a billion dollars to his son since -- Solomon -- to build the temple. I almost didn't know it.

(LAUGHTER)

I should have gone to seminary.

(January 2008)

ghosts

by Zach Kincaid
I like the Orthodox. They have ghosts. Catholics do too. They roam about and remind the living that death is not conclusive. Many also say that ghosts revenge the deeds not done while dragging skin and bone around. But, when Protestants entered, they killed off the haunts by theologizing souls springing to heaven, a presumptuous and boring end. Then, blend western enlightenment’s take on memory and subconscious behavior and psychology gets slapped sticky atop the church to seal the graves secure. There seems to be no threats to the life of the mind save one’s own world and the context of one’s own experiences.

“It’s a result of pain, of loss, of something within a person,” they say. “A dislodged spirit, a homeless soul. Nonsense. That’s not reasonable and is jumping off a psychotic’s ledge.”

I suppose the result is a society more educated and less inclined to believe spirits are around them, in dark corners and behind curtains, and even that individuals each have a soul hiding inside them, leaping out at the time of death.

It’s hard to define soul. It dwells on the edges of morose thought and most people avoid discussions about their body breaking from their soul. But at the end of a person’s days, something leaves and the flesh locks out any hint of blinking again.

If there is a soul does it see and hear what happens at the exit?

“Mom, Dad. It’s time. The cancer got me. Finally. I love you.”
Last breath. Tears. “Oh, Jim. He’s finally passed on. He did it so peaceful like.”

“No! Don’t shoot.” Gunfire. Death. Footsteps. “Rot in hell, bastard.”

“Hold on. I didn’t see the t-u-r-n...”
Crash. Blood. Sirens. “What happened here? These kids were drinking. I know they were. This is not good; this is not good at all.”

If matter is not destroyed, then perhaps the stuff which makes fingers move and the mind to reason and legs to run and the heart to love, carries some substantive form and cannot be discarded. And perhaps it’s the part that doesn’t expire- the garden touch of God receded into a person’s innards only to remember its affinity with a higher image at the very moment it needs fresh air.

But what happens next?

Reason gets lost. But, reason is a heavy anchor that must be cut in the end. Christianity does not promise that intellect will find peace in a devotion to the divine. Now free, mystery finds stability and things solid begin to pale as foreign shapes from some other land, some other time.

Looking down, feet dangle in a jump that never lands, suspended between the heavens and the earth with no where to go and no directions to follow.

What do you do? Try out a conversation with one of those moving shapes that seem to trip on gravity. “You, yes you. Do you know where I am? Can you see me?” There is no reply. You feel hungry, empty in some undefinable way. Then you see other suspended beings and they appear less blurred, more real. You approach hesitantly. They motion you to the clouds that have dipped down to arm’s reach. You go and discover the limits of science. The cumulous puffs in fact hold mountain ranges more grand than any of the fallen surfaces below. You see hundreds of beings that look happy and full yet waiting and wanting all at once. You remember that God guided Israel on a cloud and Jesus exited in the same mode. And nature itself claims the cloudy mystery as ethereal bellies carry buckets of water to keep the heavens as gardner of the earth. You are now part of that mystery and tangled up with the immortality always inside during your fleshy wanderings.

- - - - - -

Where are the borders of heaven? How does one’s soul find passage to it? Does heaven exist at all? Or are we spinning on some wheel that cannot be reprieved until some brahman moment? Jesus’ entry and exit stops such ideas of spinning and changes measurements to discount self-perpetuated goodness as rubble. There is some finality with death - winning the race to receive the prize, as Paul puts it. However, can we bind the afterlife so tightly that all its holes are plugged up and no Hebraic crowd watches? Will Elijah and Moses not get out to comfort the dying Son of God? Can no chariots fall in fiery dashes?

I’ haven’t seen a ghost nor an angel outright. Yet, the narrative of Scripture demonstrates the sky is closer than it lets on. Things drop down and get called up again in a dance that has not ceased since God declared the world below as good. May we have eyes to see what others don’t, ears to hear the hums from beyond, as close as our next breath.


(September 2007)