scientific mythologies: are aliens invading your religion?

An MHP Interview with James Herrick
Are there windows in the sky? If you listen to late night radio, the windows are flung wide open. The earthen sky to these true believers (or avid conspirators) is steaming with alien touchdowns and close calls. Are they good, evil, past morality, or even there at all? Most people land at the latter. But there is a growing population that rallies behind the idea of extraterrestrials - people who don't stomp on couches and who aren't necessarily waiting for the mother ship.

In reading James Herrick's new book Scientific Mythologies: How Science and Science Fiction Forge New Religious Beliefs it's clear that the aliens that populate our imagination have a growing role to play in religion. Certainly we know of Scientology given the goofs of Cruise and Travolta. Less known is the Jedi faith (based in Star Wars) but it's numbers will surprise - 400,000 in a 2000 census in Britain alone.

Herrick starts early with the surprising history of science fiction beginning with BCE speculators like Thales, Democratis and Lucretius who thought earth was one of many worlds. He spends the majority of the book in the last 150 years, where the idea of our world interacting with visitors from other worlds has spurred on both fear and hope. If aliens are bad, maybe they will destroy us. If they're good, perhaps they will advance us into their dimension.

I recently asked Herrick about his book and subjects that span from the newest Indiana Jones film to Jacob's ladder to CERN to where heaven might be physically located.

MHP: First, what is your interpretation of the newest Indiana Jones film in light of your study of this field? Were you able to read the piece that someone wrote in Books & Culture comparing this film that includes aliens with the other films that have religious symbols in the center of the action? The author was not too keen on this latest installment. I wonder what your take is on the film especially in light of the evidences that you bring to light about the Soviet Union's work to find aliens and learn from them - and the idea that this pursuit doesn't seem far off the mark of true spirituality, perhaps...

James Herrick:
I came away from the latest Indiana Jones film feeling that audiences would not have been able to make sense of the story were it not for the propagation over the past fifty years or so of what I term the myth of paleo-contact. This is the narrative argument that early human civilizations were contacted by extraterrestrials who shaped human thought and practice about religion, law, social arrangements, technology, and art. Erich von Daniken’s books such as Chariots of the Gods famously developed the idea in the 1960s and 70s, and it has had its proponents in more recent science fiction such as the various iterations of Star Gate.

My other reaction was that this is the latest Spielberg-Lucas effort to tap the public’s fascination with the spiritual possibilities inherent in the idea of the alien-other, a fascination cultivated by a large number of members of the science and science fiction communities, including, importantly and not surprisingly, Spielberg and Lucas.

Finally, the movie reflects a gnostic impulse at work when it presents “knowledge” as the real treasure of these mysterious extra-dimensional beings. This is one version of our new spiritual hope.

MHP: Paul says to be kind to the stranger because they may be angels unaware. Jesus escapes the earth by way of a cloudy craft and Elijah on a descending and ascending fiery chariot. We see the sky ripped open for fire to drop down, food to be lowered, and brighter lights to hang loose and guide the wise or blind (like Paul on the Damascus Road). This interchange with the heavens appears active in the Jewish and Christian narratives (as you talk about in chapter nine to some degree).

1. A few questions: Could it be that angels are the cause of these sightings that the contemporary world reports? (Thinking here, perhaps, of Jacob's dream.)

2. It appears that Christianity especially has to reconcile the mobility that we hold to with our beliefs and the possibilities that galaxy may brim with life... because God is working from heaven—somewhere outside the bounds of our gravitation. Is this migration similar to the sci-fi hope or need to transcend this world (or planet) and into another?

3. Jesus leaves on a cloud. What is your take on that "magic ship?"

JH: I tend to think that the situation is the other way around. The contemporary reports gain some credibility because of their tendency to imitate supernatural events described in the Bible and elsewhere. Angelic messages and other supernatural manifestations in the Bible tend to occur as part of a meaningful narrative, and not as random events. Moreover, the messages they convey or reinforce are consistent with other messages conveyed by less spectacular means. They are not, in other words, random and indecipherable. Most such contemporary events are both random and indecipherable.

Much of the appeal of science fiction and speculative science, with their continuous reference to outer space and the alien other, reflects the human desire for transcendence. The cosmos that naturalism presents us is devoid of enchantment, of the supernatural, of magic. Much, though certainly not all, science fiction offers a version of transcendence and enchantment, but without God. That, of course, is an important difference from the biblical narratives.

I think this is a way of expressing what Jesus’ ascension looked like to the witnesses present on the scene. It may be the best the gospel writers could provide by way of an analogy—whatever occurred reminded them of a cloud. Any importation of a vehicle is an addition made by modern imaginations prepared by much later narratives to see “ships” in various unlikely places.

MHP: Where is heaven? Is it on a planet somewhere?

JH: I don’t think heaven is located on a planet, though the idea of a transformed earth as playing an important role in the eternal order of things is prominent in the Bible.

I appreciate the context you create for the current fascination with the aliens—that there is a history of thinkers and writers who have wondered what's up there and why the earth is on such a stage. You spend some time explaining why there has been an influx of interest in the skies and various kinds of alien races. If you would, could you summarize your view about why aliens and why now?

JH: A great deal of modern alien fascination, which begins at least as early as the seventeenth century, is due to the desire to find an other-worldly substitute for the God and angels of the Bible who were being forced off the scene by popular English, French, German and Dutch biblical criticism beginning around 1680. The fascination has gained important impetus in the past century or so from visualizations in both written and cinematic science fiction (we started to “see” them), as well as in some speculative science. Alien abduction accounts have also played a role, and these begin in earnest around the time that nuclear weapons, jet flight, and talk of rocket flight to space are beginning. A number of developments, that is, lent plausibility to an idea that was already shaping our corporate imagination. Recent cinema and written fiction have made the extraterrestrial alien as familiar as other exotica such as the frogs of the Amazon rain forest. The fact that the former has never actually been observed is sometimes forgotten.

MHP: Building from the previous question, how does the Shavian Superman of modernity and the omnipresent convergent world of today's post-modernity play into and of out of these ideas of something out there... and ultimately something in us? Do you see some similarities and differences?

JH: The superman of Shaw, Nietzsche, and science fiction writers such as Philip Wylie in his seminal novel Gladiator (1931) is an important character in our dreams of the future, particular as these dreams are about ourselves. Of course, in our own familiar Superman the ideas begin to blend. The Man of Steel is, in fact, a “superior” alien. But, because he is also much like us, he holds out the possibility of a post-human future. This was Wylie’s idea in the first real superman narrative, the one that likely gave rise to the more familiar Clark Kent version. Wylie’s superman—Hugo Danner—was the result of an experiment (by Hugo’s father) in chemical eugenics. Earlier fictional supermen, such as those of Bulwer-Lytton (Coming Race) and Wells (Food of the Gods), are also dreams of a possible human future. Unfortunately, these dreams seldom embrace anything like racial diversity.

MHP: Do you believe in an active God who not only acts inside our planet's history but shapes it for its end? It seems that this hunt for alien life is digging too far in the caves as Tolkien's dwarfs do or building too high a structure like the Babel story of the Bible. Do you feel that these questions are poking out into a galaxy (or the heavens) and demonstrating our godlike behavior in conceited ways (stemmed from the Garden tree)?

JH: I do believe that the God revealed in the Bible was and is sovereign over human history. The biblical narrative is redemptive in nature—God is working for the redemption of humanity as well as of the rest of creation. We have forgotten God, but still hope for redemption. That search has taken a large number of post-Christian artists and scientists into territories that suggest more about human hubris in the absence of Godly restraint than they do about the human future or our capacity to save ourselves. Eden and Babel are very much with us, though now enhanced by digital imagery and spectacular laboratories.

MHP: What are your thoughts on the CERN experiments? Are these products, at least in part, to the sci-fi hunt toward something more scientific?

JH: Christians are not opposed to science. In fact, it was the Christian worldview that made science as we know it possible. CERN is just among the latest and biggest scientific efforts. What is more revealing is the popular discourse about what we might discover via CERN and other technologies. Our guiding narratives always tell the more interesting story, so to speak.

MHP: And on a lighter note... What are your top five best sci-fi films? Books?

JH: Films - The Day the Earth Stood Still, 2001, Close Encounters, Contact, The Matrix. Books - The Coming Race (1871), Childhood’s End, VALIS, Dune, Out of the Silent Planet.

(November 2008 | For more information about Scientific Mythologies: How Science and Science Fiction Forge New Religious Beliefs by James Herrick visit InterVarsity Press. Interview and opening comments by Zach Kincaid)

subverting global myths

An MHP Interview with Vinoth Ramachandra
There are six that need subverting, according to author Vinoth Ramachandra: terrorism, religious violence, human rights, multiculturalism, science, and postcolonialism. In his new book, Subverting Global Myths, Ramachandra cuts through the notions (preconceived and postconceived) of our well manicured Western ideals and in so doing subverts another myth: that Christian authors can write these sorts of challenging books on a Christian press.

The categories Ramachandra helps redefine are often check-offs for socially conscious people who don't want spoon-fed media or liquid faith or chatty politics. But in every movement the book offers fresh insight to connect the dots of history, politics, religion and, in many cases, the thieves that Americanism hangs out with.

I talked with Vinoth Ramachandra about his new book recently.

MHP: The title of your book, Subverting Global Myths, what do you mean by this since most will quickly equate myth with stories that may be untrue but have some point to gain or lose. Is this how you're defining myth?

Vinoth Ramachandra: I take myths in the sense of large-scale public stories that a culture, institution or wider society tells about itself. They give its members a sense of meaning and identity, making them feel good about themselves. They often contain some grains of truth, but these are usually blown out of all proportion and counter-truths are suppressed. For instance, think of the way that many American Christians have been brought up to think of the USA’s prosperity as having been founded on the “Protestant work ethic” and “free markets”.

MHP: So the book tackles six major myths. For the readers who may not know, these myths are terrorism, religious violence, human rights, multiculturalism, science, and postcolonialism. If you would, briefly expound on a couple of these to give a picture of how you see these as standing out as points of deceitfulness. I'm particularly interested in briefs on the myths of postcolonialism and multiculturalism.

VR: These six concepts are not myths in themselves. They are rather areas in which myths are generated, either intentionally or unintentionally. For instance, the discourse of postcolonialism itself challenges widespread myths about the neutrality of anthropological research, the voiceless colonial subject, the contrast between a “Western mind” and the “Eastern mind”, and so on. But it is blind to myths that it, in turn, generates in the academy, such as the identification of Christianity with the colonial project, the irrelevance of religion to social emancipation, or the objectivity of its own readings of postcolonial globalization. “Multiculturalism”, likewise, has come to mean different things in different contexts. One common myth is that cultures are the prime source of identity for all people, another that cultures occupy self-enclosed spaces that never overlap or interact with others.

MHP: Your opening chapter seems to make the United States a terrorist among a world of terrorists, ignorant and arrogant at the same time. Did I read that right?

If so, what is the call to the church in the United States?

VR: I live in a country where the state uses methods of terror against people it calls “terrorists”. I can be imprisoned under draconian anti-terrorist legislation for simply making this comment, or if my book got into the hands of some people in the government. Now, if I can take such personal risks in writing about my own country in this way, I don’t understand why Americans, and especially American Christians who confess every Sunday that it is Jesus who is Lord and not the President or Congress, cannot do the same: namely, take a long hard look at your history over, say, the past 50 years, and decide where on the spectrum of “terrorism” your own government lies.

It is only Americans who seem to think that voting Republican or Democratic makes a real difference to what the US does in the world. The rest of the world, at least those of us who have read recent history, do not think so. The Bush-Cheney administration has become the whipping boy of the Democratic left who endorsed policies under previous administrations which were not so different to what we have seen in the past eight years. So the call to the church is: wake up and think as members of a global community and not as Americans. Behind the challenge of terrorism lies an even bigger one: will the new US administration continue America’s “exceptionalism”, or will they bring their nation under the rule of international law and of internationally-agreed treaties that seek the global common good?

MHP: The words of Jesus came to mind as I read through your book. He said on several occasions, "You have heard it said... but I tell you..." How do you stay critical and not make that criticism that stomps throughout this text into something cynical?

VR: I am very surprised that you only see criticism in this book. The bulk of it is a dialogue with complex issues. My arguments are usually nuanced, and in several places I suggest what I think are constructive ways forward.

MHP: Let me rephrase because certainly I see that your arguments are not only critical and I agree that you point to several ways forward. My intent in the question was more general than your text alone. I think it is easy for the Church global to become cynical and not talk through the complicated issues before them and in their criticism (or worse, their cynicism) they don't always point to the exits as to ways forward. Rather, the majority of congregants take a blind eye to the larger issues. So, my question is: what do you see are the guiding principles or disciplines that you deem helpful to see into these issues and hopefully participate in their redemption?

VR: There are sections of the global church that have been prophetically responsive to these issues for a long time. For instance, the World Council of Churches and the Vatican have often been way ahead of secular voices critiquing the ideology of economic growth and speaking out on environmental degradation and justice for the poor. Sadly, the majority of Christians-like the rest of society- only wake up to issues when they themselves suffer the consequences. Good examples are severe climate changes caused by global warming and the corruption and absurdities of the global financial system. I point out in my book that Christians have to stop thinking the way their political leaders want them to think, i.e in terms of 'national interest' or 'we, the American people' and start thinking as citizens first of God's universal kingdom. This would mean that, on every issue, we ask not 'how will this affect me or my nation?', but instead questions such as 'how will this affect the poorest of the world's people'?, 'how will this promote the global common good?', ' who are the most vulnerable groups and how will this enhance or reduce protection for them?', and so on. That is part of what it means to think with the mind of Christ.

MHP: You bring to light this idea of Juergensmeyer's about "email ethnicities." How do we act in a world that is quickly becoming borderless? Do we fight for no side? Is everything leveled and no claims of justice able to be made... even if tainted?

VR: It is a myth that the world is borderless. Only the rich (with rich nation’s passports and foreign bank accounts) see it that way. But, in any case, Christian identity is never defined by borders. Christians need to discipline themselves to read history not from the perspective of their ethnic or national communities but, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, “from the underside” (that is, the victims of both nationalism and globalization). That is not easy, but it is easier now than in our grandparents’ day because the Church is now truly global and can correct our narrow perspectives. Also, access to information is faster.

MHP: Why does it matter to know that the pizza was first made in Egypt and that rice came from Arab hands and chocolate was born out of South America?

VR: It might make us less ethnocentric. We have all learned and borrowed from each other over history, not just food but ideas and technologies, which makes talk of an inevitable “clash of civilizations” very silly.

MHP: You state that no pagan writer has raised the question whether human beings have inherent value irrespective of social value or any other label. In contrast, you state that Christianity does see this equalization and base it on a Jewish idea of the imago dei. How does that work, when on the street it appears the Judaism and Christianity have a severe lacking in working this idea out. Also, many of your references in the human rights chapter point out the Old Testament and little of the New, other than Jesus saying to love one's enemies, a command that comes much earlier by way of Confucius, at least. I guess, my question is what does it matter if in theory the Jews/Christians have pointed to this imago dei (which seems to be in other creation myths as well) if in fact it has not really been practiced?

VR: Frankly, I don’t know any non-biblical creation story that gives such a high view of humankind as does the Genesis story. I would like you to show me one. Anyway, I mention not only the imago dei but also the Christian doctrines of incarnation and resurrection as what have inspired people down the centuries to defend the value and equality of those human beings whom others considered worthless. I give some examples in my book, as well as confronting the failure of the Church in many periods of its history to live up to what its own foundational doctrines taught. The disobedience of the Church does not mean that we should “rubbish” all its history. Rather we continue to recover the Church’s contribution to what many secular thinkers take for granted today (until they step into societies untouched by the Christian gospel).

MHP: Agreed about the intensity of the Genesis story related to the "high view of humankind"... but I question whether it begins here, meaning that there seems to be ancient cultures that respect a high view of humankind as it defines itself by way of the divine. However, I concede that the Genesis narrative satisfies this need inside humanity in ways that pagan faiths are a far paler reflection.

Moving on to eugenics that you talk through in your chapter on science. I was curious if you were familiar with Chesterton's rant against eugenics in 1922. In Eugenics and Other Evils, he says a number of things that can have wide application (a typical Chesterton trait) and one is this: "The modern world is insane, not so much because it admits the abnormal as because it cannot recover the normal." Is this applicable to your thesis?

VR: I am not familiar with this book, but the quote sounds typically Chestertonian. I am unclear how it relates to my arguments.

MHP: Eugenics like so many modern ideas, value individuals not for their own sake but for their productivity - their functionality or usefulness. Certainly this is not in modernity alone. You write, "...not only does genetic selection undermine human solidarity, but it also blatantly violates the moral principle that affirms the equal worth of dignity of each human being." In a similar vein, Chesterton argues early last century that it is the normal that we've neglected and in so doing we've desensitized ourselves to the true value of human life.

Admittedly, your text is dense. At times I found myself wandering a bit as I read it simply due to the stacked criticism and explanation of world events and historical trajectories. What do you say about a common family, and thankfully there are more than a few of these birds in many corners of the world, who are quite naive about the plot that landed goods at their door or created enough peace or a deluge of peace that allows them to earn and keep a living? Are we to endlessly second guess and presume that what is in front of our noses hosts closets of skeletons behind it?

VR: I don’t know what “common family” you have in mind but most of my readers in the US will be college-educated or college students. They all have access to the internet, to libraries and to people from other nations and cultures not too far from where they live or work. In other words, they have access to sources of knowledge that are denied the “common family” in the country where I am living. So what’s the excuse for their continuing to be ignorant about the world? Laziness? Apathy? Fear? Surely it is the essence of citizenship in a democracy to hold accountable those who exercise power. How can we do this if we don’t question the stories they tell us? Moreover, Christian conversion- if genuine- always leads to a questioning of the status quo, a willingness to be rid of our “blinkers” and to learn how we profit through the exploitation of others, how our “peace” is secured by the torture of others, and so on.

MHP: You end with "The task of theology is to train... people who can improvise the gospel of Jesus Christ." Address this idea of improvisation.

VR: I am quoting from the theologians Tom Wright and Kevin Vanhoozer who both use the metaphor of musical improvisation to describe how we communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ in a changing world. Bach and Jazz virtuosos are the best exponents of this- music can better express some theological ideas than words. To improvise on a theme in music combines two thoughts: faithfulness to the original, and also (instead of mere repetition) a creative exploration of fresh expressions of the original. For instance, exploring the planetary aspects of Christ’s redemption in an age facing environmental catastrophe would constitute an improvisation rather than a revision of the original score of the gospel.

For more information about Subverting Cultural Myths: Theology and the Public Issues Shaping Our World by Vinoth Ramachandra visit href=" Interview and opening comments by Zach Kincaid.

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?


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:

(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)

if a man has two wives...

An MHP Interview with David Petersen
As early as Lamech in Genesis 4 and making a sideline appearance in the law code with Deuteronomy 21:15’s “If a man has two wives, and he loves one but not the other”, the idea of “one man, one woman” seems suspicious. The heritage that we know with Jacob and his two women on through the kings of Israel makes this idea of monogamy at least something to be questioned.

Is it the cultural mores that suggest one over the other? Did it revolve an early need to procreate quickly as St. Augustine notes, a need that is no longer exceptional? Could it be reduced to an economic argument? Or perhaps it simply makes little sense romantically and we might be surprised that Paul knew this and espoused it - “husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself” (Ephesians 5:28). Maybe it’s a spiritual concern - “A deacon must be the husband of but one wife” (I Timothy 3:12).

But, as with other issues there is not an absolute clarity on a theological basis with regards to polygamy. Rather, we must get at our conclusion of monogamy by marrying together various traditional and spiritual overtones.

I asked David Petersen, professor of Old Testament at Emory University to answer a few questions.

MHP: The creation account of Genesis seems to order the universe. And, in so doing the idea of one man and one woman as a unit appears to be "the order." Is that reading to much into the account? Because discounting something supernatural or untold, procreation occurred in unspecified ways. Maybe? Is there a wide interpretation on these points?

David Petersen: The accounts of creation in Genesis accomplish many purposes. Among them are several depictions of what it means to be human. Diversity in gender is one hallmark of the priestly account (Gen 1:27) whereas the notion of “the man and his wife” feature in the non-priestly account (Gen 2:25). The latter text is surely an etiology for marriage, but not a legal text. The issue of procreation is mentioned in the priestly account, but the command “to be fruitful and multiply” is not explicitly linked to marriage (Gen 1:28).

Polygamy does not appear to be a directive from God nor one put down in the Levitical code (like Islam with the allowance of four if treated equally). So, if that's the case, was it an adoption of the wider culture? When did it happen. For example, it appears the Noah and his sons only had one wife each and Abraham had only Sarah by law. Law?

DP: Anthropologists have developed various terms to describe patterns of human marriage. Several of these terms work well for characterizing marriages in the book of Genesis. The family of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar represents polycoity, a family in which one male has sexual access to several females, only one of whom is the primary wife. The family of Jacob, Leah, and Rachel involves sororal polygyny, a marriage in which one male has several wives, all of whom are sisters. These two forms of marriage are consistent with the kinship structure present in Gen 12-36, namely, patrilineal endogamy.

MHP: Did God ever disdain the taking of multiple wives? Jacob had two in that sordid tale that looks like a likely "gotcha" story given his deceit. We know David had several, but the judgement is the immoral taking of Bathsheba. And Solomon, it seems, is more about the secular influence of kowtowing to their gods.

DP: Any number of texts in the Hebrew Bible attest to polygyny (one man with multiple wives), though none to polyandry (one woman with multiple husbands). Genesis includes the names of four women who were married to Esau (Gen 28:9; 36:2-3). Elkanah had two wives who apparently had, in principle, equal status (1 Sam 1:2). Several Judahite kings were remembered as having many wives. The reasons for this are probably multiple. The deuteronomistic history reports that one of Solomon’s marriages symbolized a treaty relationship (Pharoah’s daughter, 1 Kings 3:1). One of David’s wives clearly helped him achieve legitimacy in his dynastic struggle with the Saulides (Michal, 1 Sam 18:27-28). Solomon’s marriages received bad press, not because of the number of his wives, but because they led him to venerate deities other than Yahweh (1 Kings 11:1-8). No such comment is made about David and his wives. Finally, a law in the book of Deuteronomy clearly presupposes a case in which one man had two wives (Deut 21:15).

There does seem to be a move away from polygyny in the Persian and Greco-Roman periods. Economic factors were no doubt important. It is hard to imagine two wives of a sort described in Prov 31:10-31, a text that probably dates to the Persian period, in one household. Extra-biblical evidence for Jewish family practice, e.g., the texts from Elephantine, need to be integrated into this discussion.

MHP: So, is polygamy sinful?

DP: The Hebrew Bible does not condemn, i.e., construe as sin, the diverse patterns of family life attested in its pages.

Interview and opening comments by Zach Kincaid.

gods and mini-gods

by Zach Kincaid
Who started looking up anyhow? If gods are to be found, wouldn’t they be closer in? Sustenance makes leveled sense. Survival is intimate with what the winds bring in or what they keep away. And who moves these winds? Who strings up the clouds and thickens their skins to hold in the sun’s greed? Is the sky’s vastness reason for our inferiority? Is it reason to poke it with questions about our measured dirt? Given the beasts that hunt and hike our concrete spaces, the sky seems a more predictable giant.

And maybe that’s why. The gods up there, somewhere, must be avoiding the messy entanglements that gravity brings. Throw down seasons and let the trees and gales conspire together to empty themselves on the heads and dwellings of the two-legged mini-gods.

“They walk here and there with an air of confidence,” said the wind as she circled her husky friend.

“As if their roads anchor them to some definition of place,” answered the aged tree. “No doubts, their land is magical. It raises high my arms and its contours and curves gives you back those old songs.”

“But those two-leggers carry disease and redemption. I am muzzled and you turn barren each year because they’re avarice took what it did not own, the mysteries of naivety,” said the wind. “Now they romp and rape each other and the countryside they claim as home for they need to know - want to know - what makes things tick.”

The old tree knew what was coming next. The wind took a needed breath. “And, they are slow to realize that no tick exists except the one deep inside their balmy souls.”

And then the two pushed out. The trees played charades in the light of a full moon and the wind whipped through vinyled houses. Inside the mini-gods watched through cancerous peek holes - between their manicured shrubs - fearing the footsteps of a giant they once knew.


Collisions between the firmament and the prickles of rooted beings frequently occur. Fog, for example, is simply a cloud that a pine tree has amusingly popped for sinking too far below the equinoctial line in another one of its celestial games of covering up the sun.

And it works the other way too. With spears rocketed at the moon, we invade the earth’s upper skin and create a new word: moonmen. Why? Because the origins are original somewhere, and with ingenuity we can find what has never been found before.(?) The search continues.


But people who knew nothing of modernity (and modernity knows nothing of them since it’s defined by the emptying out all the unreasonables gone before it) and the solidity of rationalism, thought it possible to meet the gods. They put it deep within their histories.

Mesopotamia spoke of clay humans turning into flesh by way of a god, killed for that purpose. The blood of the slain god dripped into the humans to bring forth life where there was none. And so a piece of god was sewn into every person. But when life passed into death, the breath extinguished into a threat. Mesopotamia believed that if afterlife’s door did not remain locked and secured, the dead may very well return and eat the living.

Egypt created pageantry in the desert with its afterlife spells and mummified cities. Those great points that aim to hit the sky have wide footprints soaking up the underworld, where Osiris, judge and redeemer, waited to take the grain-soul, planted and cocooned, and bring it into a new harvest.

China tried to harmonize yins and yangs with philosophies and rules. Confucius kept his head far from the clouds and said humanity could fix its problems with moral codes. Even so, death was a mystery that interrupted the tangible. Emperors were secretly buried with every suspected provision for the afterlife, including the entombment of thousands of grave builders (and likely military personnel) while still alive.

India fashioned the god Agni who acted as an intermediary, delivering the sacred fires and aromas of burnt offerings to the halls of the gods. Casted securely, the heavens only opened when the Brahman priests made proper appeals. But slowly, faith developed a new set of wheels. Karma, samsara, moksha. Reincarnate, reincarnate, reincarnate again. Until a person became good enough to fall off the wheel (or becomes tired of standing on their head and finds a new religion), they were stuck in a cycle of sacrifice and re-sacrifice, birth and death, again and again.

Sacrifices link most cultures to the gods. They ask the heavens to name the name of the deity who keeps throwing down fishing lines in hopes to catch these tasty feasts.

The Greeks made insipid every earthly aroma, cutting off the gods’ noses and gifting humanity with logical devotion instead. Years later, even as Rome captures this platonic fire and funnels it through bureaucracy, they don't win. Vesta’s fire was soon baptized out.

Unbeknownst to Tiberius, Rome wedges a certain Jesus into the criminal punishment shoot. Sold out by his friends and countrymen, Jesus identifies himself as a lamb led to the slaughter, the son of god, god himself. As a bludgeoned sacrifice he is the conclusion of all the gestures that tried to elevate humanity into a knowledge of god.

The difference, this time, is that God has struck himself dead for the sake of his creation... to give safe passage to the netherworld. He becomes the pyramids of Egypt and the butchered Chinese grave slaves. He is the reincarnation wheel spun off into settled karma. He is the hemlock that stopped Socrates short of answering his questions. He carries tribal totems on his back and gets nailed into them. Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin; without God dying, there is no resurrection. For, what you sow does not come to life until it dies.

Jesus clears the way. He breathes in life where there was none, makes a way where there was none. He pastes immortality around the fickle frame of mere mortals. He completes the quest and brings God down from starry skies, off of lofty mountains, away from priestly pockets, and into the rebel hearts of humanity, just as you are... just as I am.

8 March 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)

the messiah formerly known as jesus

An MHP Interview with Tom Breen
“Today’s Christianity is first and foremost dynamic,” writes Tom Breen in the new book The Messiah Formerly Known as Jesus. “It is not merely something people are guilted into doing on Sundays by their nagging, churchy spouses.” No, Christianity has put a the mask of cool on top its ancient head (often with a goatee and ear mic as additional props) with the success of multi-million dollar businesses and megaplex churches.

So how does a 2000-year-old religion keep up with the contemporary world? Tom Breen suggests a few things in a Stephen Colbert-ish vein.

First, segmentation. The Reformation gave birth to the denominational mall that is today the consumer friendly church like the Emerging Church - “white people in their twenties and thirties who have at least one tattoo or body piercing.”

Second, scripture. Breen rightly identifies that the need is not only for translation into new languages but new dialects. "You see, the Bible is not a fixed document menacing us with its canonicity," he says, "rather, it’s a fluid work waiting to be shaped by each age as it sees fit. The Bible can be repackaged, retranslated, and even redacted, and still remain the Bible." If you’re lost on the word “canonicity,” Breen defines it a few pages earlier as a “popularity contest,” naming three criteria: “(1) Was this written by a big shot famous apostle? (2) Is this the kind of thing the Gnostics will be able to twist easily to support their nonsense? (3) Would this make a good film? Potentially starring Harrison Ford as Paul?”

Third, Christian music and business. “Why is that only Christianity has spawned an industry raking in millions of dollars by basing faith-centric lyrics on the conventions of popular songs? Where are the Jewish rappers? The Muslim heavy metal bands? How many Zoroastrian bands are there?” (The footnote says one: Queen.)

Fourth, Jesus building. This circles us back to the first. Breen offers a “Field Guide to the Major North American Jesuses.” He charts out several famous ones including “Extreme Jesus”, “Christ Among the NPR Listeners”, “President Jesus”, “Jesus H. Buddha”, “Big Bank Jesus”, and “Pop Historic Jesus.”

I talked with Tom Breen on the day his book released on Baylor Press (Yes, that’s a seemingly odd match, a university press, especially given Breen’s warning to stuffy professor types.)

MHP: Explain the title The Messiah Formerly Known as Jesus.

Tom Breen: That was actually the suggestion of the publisher. It does reflect the overall thrust of Jesus and Christianity inside pop culture where the real meaning often times gets lost. It’s not straight-faced.

MHP: So, what is it that you do and what motivated you to write a book like this?

TB: I’m a reporter for the Associated Press. I write about healthcare. But, when I was in Connecticut (I’m now in West Virginia) working for a newspaper, I had a blog called The Medicine Box which had a similar tone to the book. When The Christian Century reprinted one of the entries, I received a call from Baylor Press. They asked me if I ever thought about writing a book. I hadn’t.

MHP: So, I guess you hadn’t thought of selling your book with a “Build-your-Own-Jesus” kit in line with the Build-A-Bear craze?

TB: No, I hadn’t but that’s an idea. You should copyright that.

MHP: Thanks for the suggestion. Now to your methods. You advocate skimming the results of Google searches and filling in the blanks with speculation. Is that the norm today? You later state as a credo, “Facts Can’t Stand in the Way When Truth Doesn’t Matter.” Can you elaborate?

TB: Nothing matters more than the easiest possible research. It makes you an instant expert and as long as you are not seduced by cranks, it’s pretty easy. My credo is from Reagan who said “Facts are stupid things.” The big picture is impressing people with assumed knowledge, right? It really doesn’t mean getting it right; an arguably correct fact will work.

MHP: In your discussion of the Bible as best seller, you present ways to cut down what is unneeded and use Leviticus as an example. You summarize, “God gives Mo’ the 411 on snacking.” Are there other books you've researched?

TB: Yes. Let’s take Exodus. You can narrow it down to a single admonition: “Bring a map.”

MHP: How about a New Testament example?

TB: James: “Be nice to panhandlers.”

[Breen also gives the example of John 3:5-7 in text message shorthand language -

JCMSIAH316: POS what r u doing LOL!

We encourage you to add your text message shorthand examples in a reply to this article.]

MHP: Good. Now, talk about the making of translations and “The Word of God for the Parents of Today’s Cool Christian Teens.”

To make a translation yourself, there are several things to consider. The most important in translating the Word of God comes from Athanasius who said, “Identify a market segment.” Remember that in today’s market micro is better than macro. Think about Martin Luther. His target was way too broad. All Germany? No, maybe just concentrate on professional women. That idea of segmentation is key. Like the text message Bible version. That has a market.

The second is to pick your title. It can’t be “Bible.” That’s used up and will put people to sleep. Maybe something like “A User’s Guide to Bars in New Orleans.” Think also about your market. Do rap songs work?

The third is celebrity endorsement. If Bono approves, it’s bono-fied. [The Message, for example.]

The last point is about text. It’s an afterthought. It doesn’t matter as long as the consumer buys it. That means the word has been passed along. Job complete.

I don’t know if producing these Bible products creates a need or not. Are people unwilling or so impatient to read that the Bible has to be couched in bite-sized verbiage to be successful? It goes back to times when people didn’t read the Bible.

MHP: The Emerging Church… you tackle this in a paragraph. Can you explain why they like candles so much?

TB: I actually wish I dealt with the Emerging Church in more detail. The ideal emergent liturgy appears to be a mix-match of new and old. There is a nostalgia and a longing for those things Catholic and Orthodox but they seem unwilling to take steps into those churches. Young people do like retro things for the timelessness. Again, it’s American; it’s make your own religion.

MHP: How about the sections about The Angry Part of God and the Happy Part of God, the two sections of the Bible that you repackage in those terms.

TB: Well, the Happy Part of God is most popular. Titling it that way fits into the prevailing mood of the culture which wants a fuzzy, glib message where Happy God becomes Hugh Beaumont from Leave it to Beaver, always understanding. Because, you know, there is a high percentage of people who believe in Hell, but there is a low percentage of those who think they’ll be going to such a place.

For me, in all seriousness, faith is wrapped up in history, in the Church councils, in definite answers. Christianity is not dependent on culture. It is not available to accommodate yourself in it. There are right answers.

MHP: You site a few examples of where this love affair of Christianity and popular culture has come from at the beginning of the book and where it might go in the age to come. Is it your belief that this has been and will always be the Christian thorny side - appeal versus manipulation, honesty versus skirting it for the sake of rock and roll, etc.

TB: Yes. I think there will always be the danger that the presentation of Christianity will obscure or distort the content of Christianity if people aren't vigilant in making sure that doesn't happen. Christianity has the challenge of being intended for as large an audience as possible, but at the same time being complex and sophisticated. Even something as seemingly elementary as translating the Bible is fraught with risk; the goal is to produce a version that will engage whatever culture it's aimed at, but at the same time you don't want to find yourself turning the psalms into gangsta rap anthems (or maybe you do, depending on your chosen niche market; I'm just saying that's a difficult task). That tension, though, can be creative and ultimately helpful; I don't think it's something Christians should seek to avoid.

MHP: How does one develop Christian taste?

TB: Wow, what an excellent question. My starting point is a thinker who was certainly not Christian: the German philosopher Walter Benjamin. He once wrote that an aesthetic work can only be politically correct if it's first aesthetically correct. The same holds true of Christian culture: if a work of art - a song, a movie, a novel, whatever - doesn't satisfy as art, then it won't satisfy as Christian witness either. There's a lot more evangelism in Bach or Mahalia Jackson or "The Power & the Glory" than in a thousand well-meaning sermons and tracts. Once you accept that _ the notion that the terms of art and Christianity aren't mutually exclusive _ you're already developing Christian taste.

MHP: You have charts detailing different Jesuses. I didn't see BeJesus or GayJesus or even SheJesus. Any reason? Also, can I have my own Jesus or does it have to identify with a group?

TB: The field guide was a way of gently satirizing some of the more popular variations on Jesus that have sprung up in American culture, with the goal of having readers get the sense of "I recognize that!" in at least some of the instances. I'm not familiar with a widespread popularization of the Jesuses you mention, but the charts in the book certainly weren't intended to be definitive. I suppose you could probably fill an entire book with different American interpretations of Jesus (possible title: Kung-Fu Jesus and a Nation of Messiahs). As for the second part of the question, I think one powerful tendency in American Christianity is certainly to create a custom-made, individual Jesus for every believer. That's certainly one possible outcome of the theology that demands a personal relationship with the Savior.

MHP: So, I listen to Christian radio, go to a Christian university, hang out with Christian friends, and critique movies and TV in relation to my Christian conviction. What do you say to me?

TB: Godspeed and best wishes. Seriously, I don't have a problem with any of that. My only caution would be that it's probably unwise to mistake that stuff for Christianity itself. Christianity existed long before Christian radio, Christian universities and Christian TV shows. While there's always been Christian art, there's also always been a recognition that Christianity is more than passive consumption of culture, that it actually requires believers to believe and do specific things. To the extent you can do that and hang out with Christian friends at Christian concerts, more power to you. But if you can name 10 Christian heavy metal bands without blinking but are a little shaky about what this whole "Trinity" thing is, maybe it's time to hit the Christian books and attend some Christian church services.

Interview and opening comments by Zach Kincaid.

wonder & imagination: chesterton

by Zach Kincaid
Chesterton was a journalist at the turn of the century and a prolific fiction writer. Whereas Heschel, the person discussed in part two, approached wonder and imagination with theology as his profession, Chesterton sees these in a more literary landscape.

Chesterton’s entire persona envokes elfland. Elfland, or fairyland, is the common way Chesterton refers to wonder and imagination - the unseen within the seen; the stuff that matters above and beyond the stuff that we know. He is also referring to those ancient tales that never change – “fairy-tales are as normal as milk or bread. Civilisation changes; but fairy-tales never change… Fiction and modern fantasy and all that wild world… can be described in one phrase. Their philosophy means ordinary things as seen by extraordinary. The fairy-tale means extraordinary things as seen by ordinary people.”

“He is like a visitor from some fairy tale, a legend in the flesh,” Gardner, a contemporary of Chesterton, said. “He is a wayfarer from the ages, stopping at the inn of life, warming himself at the fire and making the rafters sing with his jolly laughter.” Chesterton’s regular wardrobe included a black cape and walking cane, and with his heavy stature he gave the expression of a man living in a magical place, where “trees are giants waving their arms,” where each new day is a fresh discovery.

In Tremendous Trifles, a book of short stories, Chesterton tells the tale of two boys, Peter and Paul. One day, a magical milkman comes by and asks each boy to wish one thing. Paul wishes to become a giant so he can hop around the world and see everything. Peter wishes to become very small so everything would have an adventure. Paul sets out to see the world. He becomes bored at the size of all the things he sees, and eventually a woodsman chops off his head. As for Peter, he finds that each blade of grass possesses a different challenge.

Peter finds the world more enchanted when he begins to understand its overwhelming opportunity in comparison to what he knew before. Paul has the opposite experience when he sees the world in miniature and already conquered. Chesterton says, “The man standing in his own kitchen-garden, with fairyland opening at the gate, is the man with large ideas. His mind creates distance.”

In other words, to see the world the way Peter sees it, we needs a certain method to analyze our experiences. Then, even in our own garden the world becomes enchanted.

Christian theology is supernatural. That’s its definition. And it re-enchants the world because it speaks into it and points outside it. Like Peter who became small, Christian theology rightly positions us in reference to the Creator and the world – small and insignificant in the scope of all its moving parts, its nooks and crannies, its beeps, and buzzes, and whirls. In opposition, like Paul who becomes a tower of a man – a superman, to use George Bernard Shaw’s term –Chesterton believes modern humanity thinks itself in larger fashion than it should, outside the appeal that Christian theology offers.

We need to begin with Orthodoxy.

In 1908, Chesterton writes Orthodoxy. It’s central to his entire corpus. A key chapter is “Ethics of Elfland.” He says that true knowledge exists not in the mind but in fairyland, where the natural world is explained in terms of magic and miracle rather than reason and science. And because of it, even the tree becomes a mystery.

In other words, when the scientific person looks at the leaves on a tree, chlorophyll is discussed, whereas the person from fairyland believes the tree must have decided to produce leaves and not golden candles. Likewise, the rational person might reference the good soil and strong roots that keep the tree standing tall and healthy, while the fairyland believer knows that the ground has received a magic touch from the God who made the whole world.

The ethics of elfland is not what we might think. It’s not foremost rules of conduct, as much as what lies behind those rules. For example, to believe in miracles we need to be open to the idea that we can’t explain everything by reason alone. All of a sudden, the rocks may really cry out or have bellies of water ready to burst in wilderness lands. The trees might exchange limbs for hands and clap in worship. No longer is there a devalue of the stuff inside our world, but rather everything has the touch of divinity – everything is immortal.

The world does not need to change to be enchanted, rather, our perception marks even the mundane as bearing enchantment. It’s gaining a certain satisfaction with the romance and mystery before us – not how we can use a thing to our advantage. Chesterton says that fairytales “make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.” Now, the ordinary river is in every measure as thrilling as if it were to run with wine.

Chesterton does not view nature as a set of laws, but rather as a set of sentimentalities. He further argues that the modern scientist who says she believes in nature’s laws, really doesn’t. He says that eggs becoming birds a magical occurrence because no connection suggests eggs should take that course. The scientist only connects eggs with birds because of an historic association or sentimentality--eggs have always produced birds. The scientist “feels as if there must be some dreamy, tender connection between the two ideas, whereas there are none.” Nature is a series of “charms” or “spells.” So when the fairytales talk about golden apples it is “only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green.” Likewise, when water is parted open by Moses and Joshua or Elijah and Elisha, and then Jesus comes on the scene and walks out and calms those waters, maybe the nature of water is not tied up in what it is as much as whose it is. The laws are kept by the lawgiver. He is above and outside the laws. As we saw with Heschel, this is what makes the Sabbath holy and enables Jesus to re-enchant that day as he heals and feeds the hungry.

We should talk like the old nurses used to instruct children, not of the grass “but about the fairies that dance on the grass; and the Greeks could not see the trees for the dryads.” Here, on the edge of the miraculous, five does not become six – it doesn’t change the obvious – but if someone has five beans that person may be able to grow a beanstalk that reaches to the sky. That person may be called Jack and there may be a giant who lives in the clouds. At the same time, Chesterton believes that eggs turning to birds have the same miraculous qualities of the mice turning to horses in Cinderella’s story. “We must answer that it is magic,” says Chesterton. “They are not a one-for-one.”

"I am much more disposed now to fancy that an apple-tree in the moonlight is some sort of ghost or grey nymph; or to see the furniture fantastically changing and crawling at twilight, as in some story of Poe or Hawthorne. But when I was a child I had a sort of confident astonishment in contemplating the apple-tree as an apple-tree. I was sure of it, and also sure of the surprise of it… The apples might be as little as I was; but they were solid and so was I."

Chesterton argues that when the world is properly seen, life is at once “precious” and “puzzling.” It’s the “if” or the “veto.” One may stay in the garden if one does not eat of that tree, for example. He says, “The vision always hangs upon a veto. All the dizzy and colossal things conceded depend upon one small thing withheld. All the wild and whirling things that are let loose depend upon one thing that is forbidden.” It is discipline that keeps a person a fair distance from the “forbidden,” and it is faith that allows a person to remain content despite what may not be understandable. It is the glass that can break but which also can remain for many years. It is about limits.

"It is plain on the face of the facts that a child is positively in love with limits. He uses his imagination to invent imaginary limits. The nurse and the governess have never told him that it is his moral duty to step on alternate paving-stones. He deliberately deprives this world of half its paving-stones, in order to exult in a challenge that he has offered himself… The charm of Robinson Crusoe is not in the fact that he could find his way to a remote island; but in the fact that he could not find any way of getting away from it… And the eternal interest of the Noah’s Ark, considered as a toy, consists in its complete suggestion of compactness and isolation; of creatures so comically remote and fantastic being all locked up in one box; as if Noah had been told to pack up the sun and moon with his luggage. In other words, it is exactly the same game that I have played myself, by piling all the things I wanted on a sofa, and imagining that the carpet around me was the surrounding sea."

It is also like the sun. Modern thought says when the sun rises each day it is simply working according to the laws of nature. Chesterton says that God must be similar to a child, for each day she may say to the sun and moon, “Do it again.” And, “It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike,” Chesterton suggests. “It may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them.” In other words, modern thought gives no room for the enchanted possibility that sun and moon and all creation continue to act not because of some evolutionary instinct but because of some mysterious, wild desire to begin again each day as if it were an adventure. Take up your cross daily and walk with me, as Jesus says.

I want to take several of his fictional works to provide a quick frame.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill begins in London in 1984, and despite the passing of time, London exists as it did in 1904, 80 years earlier. The cause for this similarity despite the time lapse is a result of a whole city losing faith in the idea of revolution, says Chesterton.

In 1984, on a foggy, dull London street, we are introduced to three government officials, two tall men and a short one. Each day, they walk together to their offices in a “mechanical” fashion. But, on this particular day, the short official comes out of his apartment later than usual and follows behind the other two. He sees something in the coat-tales of the gentlemen in front of him. He imagines the coat-tales turn into dragons, the buttons, eyes, and the slits, mouths. “If you look at a thing nine hundred and ninety-nine times, you are perfectly safe,” says the narrator, “if you look at it a thousandth time, you are in frightful danger of seeing it for the first time.” The Napoleon of Notting Hill ventures into a London seen afresh that thousandth time. Through this lens everything changes. A no-name person becomes king and sets up laws that are comical until one person, Adam Wayne, take them to heart. Wayne is forced to defend the historic Pump Street he is charged over so the king won’t demolish it for the sake of progress. In a remarkable set of events, Wayne wins and wards off the Royal Army.

Chesterton explains that Notting Hill is a divine place because Wayne is a poet. He says Wayne makes “violet roofs and lemon lamps” items of praise simply because they represent shadow and color. Wayne is a “natural mystic, one of those who live on the border of fairyland.” And because Wayne possesses such childlike beliefs, he realizes the city often encroaches onto fairyland as it did on Pump Street, where its “gas lights thronged and melted into each other like an orchard of fiery trees, the beginning of the woods of elf-land.” He had a certain passion in even the stone streets and railed-in gardens of Pump Street as if they were “things as ancient as the sky.”

After the battle, London returns to some semblance of normalcy for twenty years. Adam Wayne began a revolution and has, as King Quin says, provided romance for the whole world. In a tour through Notting Hill, Quin visits the grocer, Mr. Mead, who says he thought Wayne had odd ideas twenty years ago, but now he feels his own ideas are the odd ones. “I thought nothing of being a grocer then,” says Mr. Mead. “I thought nothing of all the wonderful places that my goods come from, and the wonderful way they are made.” The King responds, “Is this his victory, that he, my incomparable Wayne, is now only one in a world of Waynes? Has he conquered and become by conquest commonplace?”

Thus, London returns to certain normalcy. Yet, it is normalcy more aware of enchantment, for the “idealism of Notting Hill” has infiltrated London to form what Chesterton says is a “new world.” Adam Wayne describes Notting Hill as a new Athens and a new Nazareth, for like them Notting Hill has perpetuated an idea. Wayne explains that neither the popularizing of wearing chlamys or turbans happened as the respective result of Athens’ and Nazareth’s effect on the world. Rather, “the soul of Athens went forth and made men drink hemlock,” Adam Wayne says, “and the soul of Nazareth went forth and made men consent to be crucified. So has the soul of Notting Hill gone forth and made men realise what it is to live in a city.” In other words, the idea of Notting Hill should invigorate us with a renewed enchantment that city and citizenship outweigh the empire of England with its dull, dreary idea that no one believes in any change.

The Man Who Was Thursday begins in Saffron Park, a suburb of London. Here, two men meet: Lucian Gregory, an anarchic poet, and Gabriel Syme, a poet of order, under the auspices of a “strange sunset.” “It looked like the end of the world,” Chesterton says. The action centers on the debate between Gregory and Syme. Gregory says that the railway clerks are always bored because they know where the trains are going. Syme objects. “Man is a magician,” he says, “and his whole magic is in this, that he does say Victoria, and lo! It is Victoria.”

Syme and Gregory appear harmless enough, just two philosophers discussing their thoughts on the world. But, the story descends into a tale where truths are actually challenged.

It is important to note that The Man Who Was Thursday is autobiographical. Chesterton subtitles the work “a nightmare” because it represents segments of his own nightmare through a barrage of pessimism at a young age before ending up in a similar place to where he began, a place of Christian vision. “It was meant to begin with the picture of the world at its worst, and to work towards the suggestion that the picture was not so black as it was already painted,” says Chesterton in reference to the story. “I was trying vaguely to found a new optimism, not on the maximum but the minimum of good.”

The story turns everything on its head. The anarchical council that is named after the days of the week is really seven detectives in disguise, and the seventh, Sunday, is chief among them. As the story develops the detectives think the entire world has fallen to anarchy and is chasing after them. The mob encircles Syme and his friends, and the ethics he knew at the novel’s start are hardly worth quoting. Syme quotes them anyway as he claims with certainty that the “Christian lantern” will endure and he discovers again that it holds great strength.

Finally, the detectives find Sunday in a garden. Before entering in, someone at the gate asks each of them to put on a costume that reflects each day of Genesis’s account of creation. Chesterton is creating the image of a masquerade “as absurd as Alice and Wonderland, yet as grave and kind as a love story.”

In other words, the seven days have entered again into the Garden of Eden with all its order, enchantment, and mystery. Sunday reveals himself as the detective that inaugurated the Anarchist Council and the entire chase. The detectives still do not understand. They struggle to know Sunday’s identity and understand the reasons for his actions. Sunday is God in some fashion. Syme says his soul and heart are happy but his “reason is still crying out” for answers. Syme realizes that he can have every measure of faith in the Christian vision and have experienced even the extreme nightmare of a nearly collapsed faith, and he will remain an amateur in knowing the ways of Sunday and his person.

In other words, the Christian vision may set certain boundaries on how nature works and how miracle responds to the normal and supernatural realms, but the Christian vision is caught in a paradox: its boundaries follow a God that knows no bounds.
Sunday tells Syme, “Grab in the roots of those trees,” and “Stare at those morning clouds… you will have found out the truth of the last tree and the topmost cloud before the truth about me.”

Sunday continues: “Since the beginning of the world all men have hunted me like a wolf – kings and sages, and poets and lawgivers, all the churches, and all the philosophers. But I have never been caught yet.” Sunday says he was the man in the darkroom who made Syme and his friends detectives. They discover he produced the nightmarish adventure to help define anew the Christian vision, one that is born out of struggle, angst, wonder. And the struggle tosses Syme out on pier with no other security besides his belief in God. Here, Syme is forced to have “the glory and isolation of the anarchist,” the “tears and torture,” so he can say he has suffered and, “You lie.” In other words, the anarchist and the modern skeptic both carry out the same lie. The lie demands a universe with the absence of God’s laws; the lie suggests a world without law would possess more freedom. But Sunday rebuts this brings Syme and the detectives to a place of knowing that God is involved, but not knowing all the answers or even the questions.

At the end of the novel when Sunday asks Syme, “Can ye drink the cup that I drink of?” The question is riddled with mystery and supported by only a tinge of hope. Why did Sunday lead him down this journey and why by his own hands would he also relieve him? Can Sunday be trusted? The nightmare concludes with a fuller faith not a fuller understanding.

G. K. Chesterton wrote “Magic” in 1913 at the urging of his friend, the playwright George Bernard Shaw. “Magic” was the only play produced while Chesterton was alive.

The play opened in London with great success. It ran for more than 100 performances. In all, Chesterton wrote only a handful of plays. “Magic” was his first play, and “The Surprise” marked his last. Although “The Surprise” was written in 1932, it was not published until 1952, 16 years after Chesterton died and after his long-time secretary Masie Ward found it among some other papers.

Like The Napoleon of Notting Hill and The Man Who Was Thursday, “Magic” works out a renewed wonder and an invitation to imagination.

“Magic” is about belief: the Conjurer who performs believable tricks, a girl who believes in fairyland, a doctor who doesn’t believe in churches, a preacher who doesn’t believe in miracles, a man newly back from America who believes in progress, and an aristocrat who compromises to the point of believing nothing.

The play opens with Patricia in her garden encountering a stranger who she thinks is a wizard. He turns out later to be the hired entertainment - a conjurer - for the evening to celebrate the return of Patricia’s brother Morris from America. Inside the house, a doctor and preacher are joined by an aristocrat and Morris. It’s the natural up against the concrete lines of modernity.

And when Patricia comes inside, she announces she has met a wizard who has told her “very many true things” and talked “the language of the elves.” What does the Doctor say?

"We old buffers won’t be too strict with you if your view of things sometimes gets a bit-–mixed up, shall we say? If the stars get loose about the grass by mistake; or if, once or twice, the sunset gets into the east. We should only say “Dream as much as you like . . . But don’t forget the difference . . . between the things that are beautiful and the things that are there. That red lamp over my door isn’t beautiful; but it’s there."

Essentially, the doctor says that If you believes in magic, you’re cautioned that beliefs are, in the end, superstitions. In contrast, physical objects like lampposts are facts. You can’t dismiss them.

The conjuror starts his routine. He does a few tricks - slights-of-hand, easily explainable tricks. Morris says, "I guess I wish we had all the old apparatus of all the old Priests and Prophets since the beginning of the world. I guess most of the old miracles and that were a matter of just panels and wires... I just want that old apparatus that turned rods into snakes. I want those smart appliances, sir, that brought water out of a rock when old man Moses chose to hit it... I guess it’s a pity we’ve lost the machinery." Then the conjurer does something that no one expects. He changes the red light to a blue one with no strings attached. In the end, the conjurer has to lie to Morris in an effort to keep him sane. The preacher says rightly, “The child who doubts about Santa Claus has insomnia. The child who believes has a good night’s rest.”

“Magic” begins with the contrast between those who believe in the supernatural and those who do not. The contrast, as it develops through the play, demonstrates the failing of modern thought because it does not believe in the supernatural, an issue of boundary’s legitimacy. When the light changes color with no natural explanation, Chesterton has forced the reader to make a decision to accept the supernatural element or develop logical reasons for the light to suddenly change. This point of decision is one that centers on the main point of this thesis, whether Christian theology will inform the reader’s perception of the light or whether it will be ignored for something less mysterious. As with Patricia and the Conjurer, if the reader chooses Christian theology, true imagination begins.

(January 2008 | Part 3 of 3)

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.


I should have gone to seminary.

(January 2008)

xmas exchange

by Zach Kincaid

I read curiously the exchange below. It was posted on the faculty/staff sale list at the state university where I work.


Just in time for Xmas. 2003 XR 50 Motorcycle. Excellent condition. Pictures Available. Great Starter bike. Reduced to $600.00


Hey Folks, Just a Friendly Reminder. There is no Xmas. X is a Cross...Crossmas? No. Let us not forget the REASON for the SEASON, CHRIST...A gift FREEly given...CHRISTMAS! Please accept this with the love that it is given!


Since this is a list at a public university, I feel it should be pointed out that there is an historically valid reason for using the term "x-mas." The OED (Oxford English Dictionary) explains (as do many other sources) that in Greek (the language of the New Testament), the letter chi (X) is the first letter of Christ's name. The letter X was used as an abbreviation for Christ by most learned people beginning in the 16th century.

So, "X-mas" as an abbreviation for Christmas is a scholarly convention of learned Christians -- not a modern convention meant to demean the holiday. There is nothing sacrilegious about "X-mas" -- though there are many who don't understand this history but prefer the term because it seems more inclusive.

Also, the assumption that Christ is the "reason for the season" is biased and historically limited. Most evidence suggests that the winter solstice has been celebrated by people all over Europe (and elsewhere) since before Christ's time. In fact, many people believe that the date we choose to celebrate Christ's birth is borrowed from pagan times. There is no conclusive Biblical or historical evidence for Christ's actual birth date, but many believe the evidence that can be gleaned would put the likely date in late summer or early fall. The late December date had previously been celebrated as the birth date of Mithras and was a major Roman holiday known as Saturnalia, as well as being a solstice celebration elsewhere in Europe. It was not until the 4th century of the Common Era (C.E.) that the Church set an official date to celebrate Christ's birth on Dec. 25, and many parts of Europe did not adopt this date and celebration until much later -- around 800 - 1,000 years ago. Many of the symbols and practices associated with the holiday show pagan origins (e.g. holly, ivy, mistletoe, yule logs, the giving of gifts, decorated evergreen trees, magical reindeer, etc.). It was also a practice of the Church (and even decreed as policy by some popes) to allow pagan practices and holidays to continue being practiced (because it made it easier to convert people), as long as they were reconsecrated as Christian.


The quality of my faith demands that I use the word "Christmas" and for me, Christ is the reason for the season. I have many friends all over the US of different spiritual/religious beliefs - including Wiccan. They allow me to believe as I choose and I return the same pruivilege to them. Knock it off. This is not the proper forum for this anyway.


The list is for selling things and if happens that I type too fast, misuse a letter, or misspell a word I don't want to fear that my character is being judged by other listers. And worse yet, I might not sell my item! Lord knows to a miser and curmudgeon such as me, that would be true misery.


Mary is absolutely right, linguistically speaking. The 'x' is not to shorten the word 'Christ', but was in fact the first origination of the sound and letter symbol of the first sound of the word. It wasn't pronounced 'eks', but sounded more like what one does when starting to vomit, which is impossible to put in our current Present-Day English alphabet. If you're familiar with the International Phonetic Alphabet, (the IPA) you can find a symbol which represent(s)(ed) this sound. This also explains why the work 'knight' is spelled like it is. The Monty Python guys were correct in their pronunciation of the word, which, again, is impossible to create here. The language has changed and we've lost be it. We've also gained things like 'like' (used in every other word of my students' conversations).



On a similar note, I began brainstorming with a colleague about some holiday traditions that might be helpful. How about incorporating a Kwanzaa Claus at your tree’s top? That would give a tinge of diversity and the sweetness of a 1960s made up holiday and an ancient one. Or, consider celebrating Muhammadas (maybe it’s Allahmas... the “all” might work to our advantage). Maybe Universal Unknownamas for a neutral look upward toward a higher being. I still like “Festivas for the rest of us” or the idea that Hanukkah Harry may fill in for Santa if he’s under the weather.

It’s returns us to the divisiveness of Christ. I wonder sometimes if it’s actually his story or the church’s story that causes the scandal. Perhaps it’s both. I’d like to think it’s his story and the church is caught up in it, but it’s likely something less sincere and more greedy.

(December 2007)

toast me a little jesus

by Zach Kincaid

There’s a Nigerian myth about the sky. Once, it knelt close enough for anyone to reach up and touch it, take a piece and eat it like you and I pick an apple from an orchard. The sky became the sustenance for villages far and wide. There was no hunger, for just above your nose loomed a great blue dome of bounty. But this nearness to the heavens did not last. Soon, villagers took for granted the blessings of their blue neighbor and became greedy and gluttonous. They pealed off more than they needed and threw away the excess. Seeing the wasteful behavior, the great sky gave warning to take only in need and not a nimiety of its gifts. But the consumption continued until finally the sky said it must move away. It did, to where it sits today, buckled between dirt and the outer spaces.

When the sky let through Jesus, it dipped down in a vulnerable procession of lyric angels and bated stars. Jesus carried the torch of God and found needy people - outlaws, drunks, cripples, whores, robbers, zealots, and would-be preachers - hungry and desperate. People flocked from all over to hear him and perhaps receive his touch that would dispel their sickness or abnormality. You know the story. He consumed all of our calamity in an effort to move us back into the presence of God... to a place where the sky is close enough to procure our lives... the manna from old, now redeeming new wilds of soul and city. Right? Do not worry about what you eat or drink or wear. Your father in heaven knows you need it and he’ll keep you. And tomorrow? No worries. Today is enough to think about.

As Jesus ended his week of passion, he solicited an invitation to his disciples. Take and eat. This is my body that I’ve broken for you. Take and drink. This is my blood that I’ve spilled out from my side for you. It bids us to consume him rightly. For he has knelt close and has suspended himself between that dirt and those outer spaces in a horrowshow that beckons relationship with the divine and an uneasy sincerity about what can happen when heavenly stars get tangled up in the earthen gardens.

Consuming Jesus is the title of Paul Louis Metzger’s new book. It asks us to reevaluate how we build community and what it might mean to genuinely follow Christ in a society that commodifies everything. For many in America, Jesus is a name that wields a gavel and a voting box and fishy auto bling and Colorado Springs pilgrimages to prepare for Sunday justice with a psychiatrist-turned-radio-jock. And, if followed rightly, prosperity will be dropped in the form of material blessings and happier living... to make you a better you (jumping to Houston). Many churches, with their coffee bars and branded, survey tested worship styles, bring market values to measure rates of success and viability. One clear way to count your blessings in church today is attendance figures... and even more, identifying and targeting what population segment you’re attracting. The result is a consumerized model of church building, planting, and maintaining, and one that segments people and communities based on race, class, age, and everything in between.

“The church must rediscover its own story and its sacramental means of sustenance in order to reconfigure the structures to defeat consumerism,” says Metzger. “The consumer-driven church culture fosters homogeneity and upward mobility, not transforming harmony and downward mobility of the triune God that is realized in the cross and resurrection.” Given the premise of a church gone mad with consumerists principles, how does Metzger propose a rediscovery of the story?

He first clarifies. Fundamentalism. It has robbed the evangelical church of intellectual pursuit, social consciousness, and the idea that God’s kingdom is here and now (and not solely in the bye and bye). To the first count, in a movement against modernity, Darwinism, and humanism, it starved the universities of its presence by moving out and starting its own schools in the early twentieth century. To the second, one of the architects of the movement, Dwight L. Moody, noticeably shifted from feeding the poor with bread to feeding them with the Gospel alone, in part as a reaction to the social Gospel movement that linked up less and less the cause and call for work among the disenfranchised. This began a strident move to conversion-centered or conversion-only ministry. And, to the last, prominent startup schools like Wheaton College in Illinois exchanged the idea of a transformation of culture to a separation from it... because God’s kingdom is in heaven... because the true believers will be raptured up and meet their Lord in the sky.

With these three tenants as parts of its platform, Fundamentalism usurped the work of earlier abolitionists and underground railroad organizers and helped turn the idea of a church in culture to a church in contention with culture. Said a different way, the neighbor became the other and the other had to be battled against - Hollywood is evil, Sundays must be free of commerce, the consumption of alcohol is a sin, evolution should have no allowance. Later, gambling, prayer in public schools, segregation, and, more recently, the need for a marriage amendment due to homosexual threats all make up a look outward at the vices of the other as set apart from us. Meanwhile, race and class division, Metzger says, fail to be subjects of concern either inside the church or in the culture at large, which ripple out other oppressors from homogenous neighborhoods to healthcare access, from availability to education and technology to sheer income standards. Metzger -

"The fundamentalist reconfiguration of the church from a retreating fortress to a political battle camp to a homogenous unit is a faulty order that plays into this consumer cultural vision of social relations. Many evangelical leaders give the appearance of going to battle to maintain a certain morality or a certain standard of living and way of life - even a Kinkadian-like utopian vision of upward mobility and homogeneity... Moreover, the individualistic and otherwordly orientation of many evangelicals today involves a lack of awareness of the social context and structures that we inhabit and a lack of concern about overcoming the problems in the here and now. Focusing on getting people saved, especially those like us, and setting them apart as a righteous remnant that will someday rule with Christ, can lead to the unwitting quest for political power for our special-interest groups, coupled with market-driven church growth."

As a result, big-box churches deliver everything to its consumer parishioners, from worship to fitness to education to entertainment. With jumbotrons broadcasting palpable messages for a thousand Pavloff tongues (to sing), one begins to wonder what’s the point? What’s the point in a model that transforms worship into entertainment and preaching into motivational speaking?

It’s the consumer church mindset.

"Whether the evangelical subculture is conscious of it or not" Metzger says, "the consumer spirit is deeply entrenched in its soul: that is, in many ways its soul is but a reflection of the larger culture’s own narcissistic spirit. The consumer-church mindset, which offers self-gratification and fulfillment to the individual, is not redemptive. Rather, this mindset is violent: it enslaves and violates those who have bought into it, causing them to spiral further inward and downward in to the bottomless pit of their insatiable desires. The church must awaken and see itself as a peculiar people with a particular politics, a people whose mission includes shaping each other’s lives through conversion and participation in the crucified body of the risen Christ. This call for upside-down living flows from an inside-out heart in which heaven dwells. Hell, on the other hand, is in hearts and lives that are turned inward and upward (as in upwardly mobile), which we can observe in some evangelical gatherings today."

Ironically, Paul Metzger’s Consuming Jesus released within a few weeks of Joel Osteen’s Become a Better You, which invites you to "...embark on a remarkable journey... that will help you break free from the past and realize your full potential as a spouse, parent, or friend. Whether you realize it or not, miracles are happening all around you. I'm confident that reading this book will lead you to accept the gift of who you were meant to be and live a life filled with more hope, joy, and victory." This type of theological masturbation is exactly the opposite of Christ’s call. One look at the website of a prominent Christian bookstore chain, Family Christian Stores, provides additional fodder on this fire of Christian drivel. Titles on their homepage include: The Seven Pillars of Health, The Ten Second Prayer Principle, 8 Steps to Create the Life You Want.

In addition, highlighted titles that appeal to building up the family feed “diabolical” and “idolatrous” behavior seen in the church today, writes Metzger. The constant chatter about family this and family that misplaces our focus inward, securing our own kingdoms and legacies. “Given such a family-oriented religion,” he says, “perhaps there is not much difference in the end between evangelicalism and Mormonism, where focusing on the family culminates in the deification of the family.”

It is in “our DNA” as the organization Focus on the Family says on their website, “to encourage and strengthen families worldwide.” But, what’s the motivation? “We're on the front-lines,” they say, “wherever legislation threatens to harm the family.” Certainly, FoF’s mission is broader, but much of their work further isolates Christians into a “gospel of privatized affections” as they insulate and protect families from outside threats.

It is this way of thinking about society - as an outside threat - that we tolerate divisiveness and tailor our communities around our comforts and likes. But Metzger argues that the church is mobile, like the Ark of the Covenant - on mission to rebind, reconcile and redeem. And, he says, Christ teaches this himself. In the eucharist, Jesus “enters into concrete local space and transforms it, meaning that, as we partake of the Lord’s Supper - engaging Christ in our union with him - Christ takes us to where he is in the world.”

I recently spoke with Paul Metzger about Consuming Jesus, and he made special emphasis on the hope that it would be a constructive text, positive and reformatory instead of cynical and snide. This is certainly true in the two closing chapters of the book, “Reordering the Church’s Outreach” and “A Nobler Vision of Patchwork Quilts and Church Potlucks.” In the first, he centers on reconciling the church with the world in ways that redistribute resources, blame, ownership, and glory in ways that frame the church as sacrificial and not self-seeking or empire building. In the second, Metzger defines the Perkinsonian quilt as one that pieces together a variety of missional work including soup kitchens and car shops and medical clinics. It would also break down the megachuch palaces and distribute the abundance with impoverished faith communities. Metzger cites particular “patches” that help color the work of the church into something that is shared and not homogenous, one yet different. This American quilt weaves in the worn out and downtrodden and lets loose the golden threads that have kept captivated a church consumed by its own naveled gaze and not being consumed by the jesuses that Matthew identifies in the wide reflection on a dying society, of which the church is a member.

Maybe then the sky will hang down a little closer as it once did.

(December 2007)

wonder & imagination

by Zach Kincaid

We had an activity at church that involved asking the question, “What is the one thing about God that you want to pass on to your children?” Answers included love and grace – that God’s much nicer than men and women – slow to anger, etc. All good answers. However, I think the one thing I want to pass along is that you can’t catch God. He’s always just off the pier or peeking over the crowds. I want my kids to always be looking, searching out, knowing that they’ll never get close enough but curious as to where to climb up Sinai.

There’s a saying when someone dies. People say, “She’s gone to the nearer presence of God.” I like it because it doesn’t presume that our soul outweighs our creaturely pull – that even across the Jordan there is a separation between what we understand in relation to the mind of God. He could pull the carpet out from under us. Our confidence is stored up in him alone and not in our own stockpiles of faith statements.


We could go on here and ask about why God got caught in cloud and a pillar in the olds days and only found feet in the person of Jesus or why those same clouds carried Jesus off and we’re left with a comforter that brings fire a little closer – to heads at Pentecost – for a moment – and is said to enter the depths of a person. God can’t be caught, yet we are invited to chase him. Abraham Joshua Heschel says, "I have sworn: to let the pupils of my eyes be mirror to each sunset, my heart never sealed my eyes never locked."

When Christians think of the Old Testament, we label it as just that - “old.” We need to remember what Jesus says about not making the journey to earth with a sheerer in hand ready to abolish everything that happened prior to his entry. Rather, his mission is one of fulfillment. So, lest we think, in an almost automatic way, of Elisha calling on the bears to mull the naughty children or the Psalmist hearkening the glories of war by bashing baby heads as wrongheaded, we should consider the strong thread about God not changing; he is constant. It makes me wonder if all the measures for grace were already counted before Jesus ever touched down in our world and in our hearts.

In a slight contrast, from our purview, perhaps God does seem to change.

Abraham Joshua Heschel talks through wonder and imagination in almost everything he writes including God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judiasm, Man Is Not Alone, The Prophets, A Passion for Truth, and The Sabbath. Also mentioned below is his sermon “What We Might Do Together” in a collection titled American Sermons: The Pilgrims to Martin Luther King., Jr.

To start, if we are to muster up any response to God, we need to be asking the right questions. “Religion,” Heschel says, “is an answer to man’s ultimate questions.” It is when religion takes on a kinship with human oppression, dullness, and irrelevance that its answers don’t permeate the soul, the psyche, the alleyways. But, religion always carries with it mystery that outlives the questions. Religion is bigger. In philosophy, answers are simply disguised questions shifting in sandy minds and at the end of those questions are just more questions. There is no end, and there is possibly no movement outside our own heads given philosophical questions alone. That’s what marks religion as dangerous and different to mere philosophy. It is about you and me trying to stab at God. We can’t wiggle out of it and simply talk around it; it demands a response.

Part of that response is creedal – the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedon Creed are good Christian examples. Yet, a creed doesn’t surmise the situation- the how as much as nailing down given dogmas, or, the what. In contrast, awe and wonder express how we respond to God.

Wonder goes beyond knowledge. We do not doubt that we doubt, but we are amazed at our ability to doubt, amazed at our ability to wonder. He who is sluggish will berate doubt; he who is blind will berate wonder. Doubt may come to an end, wonder lasts forever. Wonder is a state of mind in which we do not look at reality through the latticework of our memorized knowledge. Inquire of your soul what does it know, what does it take for granted. It will tell you only no-thing I taken for granted; each thing is a surprise, being is unbelievable. We are amazed at seeing anything at all..."

Experience is also part of an intangible how that begins to fill the belly of your soul. Heschel says,

Ideas of faith must not be studied in total separation from the moments of faith. If a plant is uprooted from its soil, removed from its native winds, sun-rays and terrestrial environment, and kept in a hothouse – will observations made of such a plant disclose its primordial nature? The growing inwardness of man that reaches and curves toward the light of God can hardly be transplanted into the shallowness of mere reflection… Religion is, indeed, little more than a desiccated remnant of a once living reality when reduced to terms and definitions, to codes and catechisms. It can only be studied in its natural habitat of faith and piety, in a soul where the divine is within reach of all thoughts.

Heschel is not asking questions in order to arrive at answers that are measured by something reasonable or proved by a scientific rationale. He says, “The Bible, like Aristotle… contains more than a sum of doctrines; it represents a way of thinking…” It points us to God and deals with our being in the reality of creature and creator. “The end of science,” he says, “is to explore the facts and processes of nature; the end of religion is to understand nature in relation to the will of God.”

In other words, we own science; we cannot own religion.

Science is about man; religion is about God… a God that no one has seen, yet one who has sought after his creation – with a sprint to find the cancer inflicting the first couple; with an obedient dove at the do-over of Noah, with his fiery dance between Abram’s animal halves, as a violent shadow to Jacob, with a magic, talking bush to Moses, as a patient whisperer to young Samuel, as a robber to the soul of Saul.

God is dynamic, says Heschel. He is dynamic in his attentiveness to humankind and the Bible reveals this sort of interaction, our wrestling match with God, and he with us – "What do we and the people of the Bible have in common? The anxieties and joys of living; the sense of wonder and the resistance to it; the awareness of the hiding God and moments of longing to find him." He writes in a poem –

"God follows me everywhere—

spins a net of glances around me,

shines upon my sightless back like a sun.

God follows me like a forest everywhere.

My lips, always amazed, are truly numb, dumb,

like a child who blunders upon an ancient holy place."

So, the first thing we need to be is a searching people. Wonder and compassion do not occur without a craving that extends beyond our gratification for doctrinal correctness and moral astuteness. For, even these are rightly placed in God’s hands and not in the harbor built by our own hands and in our own soul. We may find them there, but they are foreign vessels. They are planted in us by the heavens and not by the fires of human passion.


God is sublime. He lives in eternity. We live inside time. He runs the universe. We run down the street. He is everywhere. We are here… and now. Heschel asks the question: “How do we lift up our eyes to see a little higher than ourselves? How does we who are part of the world have a relationship with Him who is greater than it? In essence, how do we free ourselves from our own perspectives of ego, community, earth, and age?”

Nature is one way. We can see its power, beauty, and grandness. Heschel says our relation to nature is set in three categories: exploitation, enjoyment, or standing in awe of it. Historically, these layer on each other and get contextualized depending on our surroundings, upbringing, and the demands placed on us. Today, in America, we can surmise that the bulk of nature is used as a tool to resource us. We use it to satisfy our own person and our own needs and wants. “To the modern man,” Heschel says, “everything seems calculable; everything reducible to a figure. He has supreme faith in statistics and abhors the idea of a mystery. Obstinately he ignores the fact that we are all surrounded by things which we apprehend but cannot comprehend; that even reason is a mystery to itself.”

Evidences of God are all around us. But we don’t seem to care. We don’t see the need for faith. Here’s how Heschel frames it from his context of Berlin and the rising flag of Nazism – “I had forgotten God – I had forgotten Sinai – I had forgotten that sunset is my business – that my task is to ‘restore the world to the kingship of the Lord.’” This is what is amazing about God – he expects us to summon down his creative hand through prayer and prayerful lives. That’s his will. And, as Heschel says, “There is something which is far greater than my will to believe. Namely, God’s will that I believe.”

Nature is testimony to God. It calls out his mystery and in so doing, it calls out to look beyond it and not necessarily to document it, chart it, and weigh it. The biblical casting of Nature is far more than beauty. It is about grandeur; it’s about the sublime.

"It is that which our words, our forms, our categories, can never reach. This is why the sense of the sublime must be regarded as the root of man’s creative activities in art, thought, and noble living. Just as no flora has ever fully displayed the hidden vitality of the earth, so has no art, no system of philosophy, no theory of science, ever brought to expression the depth o meaning, the sublimity of reality in the sight of which the souls of saints, artists, and philosophers live."

Wonder is our response to the sublime – whether it is a grain of sand or a whole beachfront. It is marveling at the hand of God in both the simple and expansive. It is about astonishment. It is about recognizing who God is – how mighty and unapproachable – yet seen through the context of his creation and allowing… desiring our response of wonder that captivates us and springs us into worship of him.


Heschel talks of two sorts of wonder. One is a rational, the idea that I look at something and wonder – try to find “an approximate cause” for whatever dilemma I’m attempting to figure out. Then, once it’s done, I move on. This kind of wonder precludes knowledge. Plato says, “Wonder is the special affection of a philosopher; for philosophy has no other starting point than this.” And Aristotle says, “For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize.”

However, there is another type of wonder. “To the prophets,” says Heschel, “wonder is a form of thinking. It is not the beginning of knowledge but an act that goes beyond knowledge; it does not come to an end when knowledge is acquired; it is an attitude that never ceases. There is no answer in the world to man’s radical amazement.” Job 37:14-22 -

"Listen to this, Job;

stop and consider God's wonders.

Do you know how God controls the clouds

and makes his lightning flash?

Do you know how the clouds hang poised,

those wonders of him who is perfect in knowledge?

You who swelter in your clothes

when the land lies hushed under the south wind,

can you join him in spreading out the skies,

hard as a mirror of cast bronze?

Tell us what we should say to him;

we cannot draw up our case because of our darkness.

Should he be told that I want to speak?

Would anyone ask to be swallowed up?

Now no one can look at the sun,

bright as it is in the skies

after the wind has swept them clean.

Out of the north he comes in golden splendor;

God comes in awesome majesty."

Wonder must be kept alive in our rising up and laying down. “No routine of the social, physical, or physiological order must dull our sense of surprise…[we need] to experience commonplace deeds as spiritual adventures, to feel the hidden love and wisdom in all things,” says Heschel.


“Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens? Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket, or weighed the mountains on the scales and the hills in a balance?” (Is. 40:12)

“Surely I am only a brute, not a man; I do not have human understanding. I have not learned wisdom, nor have I attained to the knowledge of the Holy One. Who has gone up to heaven and come down? Whose hands have gathered up the wind? Who has wrapped up the waters in a cloak? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is his name, and what is the name of his son? Surely you know!” (Prov. 30:2-4)

“No fact in the world is detached from universal context,” Heschel says. “Nothing here is final. The mystery is not only beyond and away from us. We are involved in it.” Yet, it is sealed to us. Consider The mysteries belong to God. (Deut. 29:28)

- God is in heaven and you’re on earth; so let your words be few. (Ecc. 5:1)

- For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts (Is. 55:8-9)

- God is great and beyond our knowledge. (Job 36:26)

Enter: a loaf of bread. It is the product of climate, soil, and the work of a farmer, merchant, and baker. If we were to identify everything we see in the process we would have to praise the sun and rain, the soil and the intelligence of man. Yet we pray something different when we eat. “It is not important to dwell each time on what bread is empirically, namely, ‘an article of food made of the flour of grain, mixed with water, to which yeast is commonly added to produce the fermentation, the mixture being kneaded and baked in loaves.’ It is important to dwell each time on what bread is ultimately.”

Within mystery, God is not. He may chose to dwell in darkness and not reveal but only his back, but he sees and engages. Mystery is not what we worship. We worship God who gave is his commands, his will, his guidance, his words, his earth to break through the mystery.

Heschel identifies three attitudes to mystery. The fatalist says mystery controls reality and thus the world is irrational, blind, and void of justice or purpose. Doom awaits the world and we must be resigned to it. The positivist says that mystery does not exist. We may not know some things now, but we will know them later. If there is anything set outside our understanding, it is not meaningful to search it out; it is not important. Everything that is important has an answer. The biblical attitude to mystery is that it is not ultimate. God stands in it and behind it and by way of a covenant with it, and he invites us into experience with him as father and as creator.


If we put on the biblical attitude, we stand inside creation and yet on the borderland of heaven. Our understanding has shifted into an awe for the world around us because it transcends what our eyes can see. The human being in front of us is made in the likeness of God. The commonplace is now spiked with something ultimate, something divine in, above, and below the physical. “Biblical man is not enchanted by the given,” says Heschel. “He realizes the alternative, namely the annihilation of the given. He is not enchanted by the order, because he has a vision of a new order. He is not lost to the here and now, nor to the beyond. He senses the non-given with the given, the past and future with the present. He is taught that ‘the mountains may depart, the hills be removed, but my kindness shall not depart from thee.’

“Man is not alone in celebrating God. To praise Him is to join all things in their song to Him. Our kinship with nature is a kinship of praise. All beings praise God. We live in a community of praise.”

Without the connection through God to the things we see, inanimate objects and critiques of them are dead and reality is fragmented. This is true as we assess our own thoughts. No longer is the question, “What is good?” The question now is, “What does God require of me?” Heschel says that biblical Hebrew has no word for doubt. “Doubt,” he says, “is an act in which the mind inspects its own ideas; wonder is an act in which the mind confronts the universe. Radical skepticism is the outgrowth of subtle conceit and self-reliance.”


But this still does not answer the question about our certainty of God. Science is not effective. We cannot prove the ineffable. “Goodness” and “fact” surpass the limits of any definition and God lies beyond the words we use to talk about him. It is this: “The best part of beauty is that which a picture cannot express” (Bacon).

Again: “Faced with the mind-surpassing grandeur of the universe, we cannot but admit that there is meaning which is greater than man.”

If this sense of mystery and wonder and awe is true, and we stake our lives on it in decisions we make, how do we move from it to a posture of worship and action? Religion is a result of what we do with wonder, moments of awe, and our sense of mystery. But wonder here is not excitement. It’s being on a search and likewise being searched out by God. Heschel says that a soul without faith is just a stump. It is faith in the God beyond and outside our understanding that is both the paradox and the answer to our paradox.

How can we get out of our own subjective minds? “God is not a pearl at the bottom of the ocean, the discovery of which depends upon the skill and intelligence of man.” God must move and we are asked to respond. But he is not at our disposal. We cannot hold him at bay until convenience is at the front of the queue. There are times he hides in the shadows and times when he makes brilliant his face. “Sinai,” Heschel says, “does not happen every day, and prophecy is not a perpetual process.” Likewise, we are moving, evolving, changing. We are not the same at all times. We do love now and again and we at times see our place in this vast landscape of earth. These moments go beyond scientific thinking – when we are aware of the grandeur of God and “can grasp but are unable to convey… (these) moments in which we abandon the pretense of being acquainted with the world.” Heschel says that in these moments we see that beyond all this there is someone who cares.

Religion has no script that we can post somewhere or put on a marquee like the old revivals that bait God to enter there and enrapture souls to repentance. The question of God to Adam and Eve – “Where are you?” still weaves onto our streets today but his voice is often alien to us. The biblical text is given to us to discover what God requires of us – to perceive more clearly that we are meaningless without God “and any attempt to establish a system of values on the basis of the dogma of man’s self-sufficiency,” says Heschel, “is doomed to failure.”

Yes, we are meaningless and the world around us is fruitless without the fingers of God conducting the rising of the sun and its destruction everyday. Nature tells us the story of the divine exchange. And it is here, with the pull of gravity and the race of concessive moments in time that God works.


We cannot talk about Heschel or his views of how God enters our landscape without talking about the Sabbath and its significance in the act of holy living and sanctification. For with Heschel, Sabbath is created by a sense of longing, not us for a day of rest but the day for our marriage to it – our marriage to God. It is on this seventh day that God gave the world a soul and so to the other six grow from it and not the other way round.

“Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space” says Heschel, “becomes our sole concern.” And it is space and things in our spaces of life that consume most of our time and most of our senses and perceptions. We cannot escape, it appears, from time collapsing in on the years of life we keep counting and counting so we counter the count with things – we fill in the spaces with tangible objects and tangible knowledge, items we can control and relax around.

“The higher goal of spiritual living,” says Heschel, “is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments.” It is not a denial of those things that were designated as “good”, but a plea against the unconditional surrender of things and a void of any sublime definition to time, to history, to the moving parts within a context and generation.

Sabbath reorders us. In Hebrew, qadosh means holy. And holy is “representative of the mystery and majesty of the divine.” The seventh day is declared holy and it’s the first usage of such a word. It’s time that he designates as holy, not a place. And this holiness is transferred into the lives of people when at Sinai God says that Israel will be a holy people.

“To observe the Sabbath is to celebrate the coronation of a day in the spiritual wonderland of time…” and “The soul cannot celebrate alone, so the body must be invited to partake in the rejoicing of the Sabbath.”

That’s why things come to a stand-still, not to break from the days of work but to give definition to the grandness of space. Heschel retells an allegory about Adam being so enthralled, its greatness and glory, that he wrote a song to the Sabbath Day. God questioned him why he wrote to the Sabbath and not to him who made it. At which time, the Sabbath knelt prostrate before God and all nature sung to God... “Angels have six wings, one for each day of the week, with which they chant their song; but they remain silent on the Sabbath, for it is the Sabbath which then chants a hymn to God.”

Once the garden was boarded up, we had to work with outcomes that met demands – of safety, of sustenance, of home. All of these were qualified inside the garden so work was an ordinance of a different quality. Once the frame – the place – of the garden was removed, communion with God and nature changed and the necessities of the Sabbath were altered. The tools, advances, and weapons that make us more beast than immortal (because our dependence is given over to some thing and not God) are removed the Sabbath recalls resting in the dependence on God and praising him.


Mystery stands between God and humanity. But the biblical narrative takes us to Sinai. And “the Lord came down upon Mount Sinai,” Scripture says. I remember reading a creation myth sometime ago about the gods being angry and heaping dirt upon dirt to form a mountainous escape. God seems to do the opposite. He closed up the garden and perhaps he threw it every direction to form the mountains. Here he brings Noah and Abram with Isaac and Moses and Elijah, etc. He uses the mountain as a stepping off from heaven into earth – a place of revelation – a place where God can seek us. Heschel says that revelation is both an event to God and an event to us (194). And it is God who has sought and seeks us.

"The Lord looks down from heaven upon the children of man, To see if there are any that act wisely, that seek after God. They have all gone astray, they are all alike corrupt; There is none that does good, no, not one." (Ps 14:2-3)

As he did with Adam and Eve peering through the branches of a bush he does with Moses in a fiery one. As he danced through Abram’s torn open animals he did with Elijah’s Baaled priests. As he redeemed Samson’s blindness he likewise stopped by Bartimaeus’ way. As he tempered Sarah’s laughter, he shut down the mouths of Daniel’s lions and silenced Zechariah’s doubty tongue. As he wrestled Jacob to a limp he also struck down the pride of Saul on the Damascus Road. As he made wet the mouths of Israel by way of the Horeb stone he spoke to Aramethea’s with the raspy whisper of a thirsty traveler. As he commanded Moses to lift high the staffed serpent so he stitched into the messianic sky ruptured fruit that dangled on the threads of ligament and bone, bleeding and wanting.

"This indeed is our situation in regard to a statement such as “God spoke,” Heschel says. "It refers to an idea that is not at home in the mind, and the only way to understand its meaning is by responding to it. We must adapt our minds to a meaning unheard of before. The word is but a clue; the real burden of understanding is upon the mind and soul of the reader. The incidents recorded in the Bible to the discerning eye are episodes of one great drama: the quest of God for man; His search for man, and man’s flight from Him."


"Israel’s religion originated in the initiative of God rather than in the efforts of man. It was not an invention of man but a creation of God; not a product of civilization, but a realm of its own… The mystic experience is man’s turning toward God; the prophetic act is God’s turning toward man. The former is first of all an event in the life of man, contingent on the aspiration and initiative of man; the latter is first of all an event in the life of God, contingent on the pathos and initiative of God."


We move inside time and so we must experience God in this realm. As mentioned earlier, we are not left on our own in this pursuit. Nature is a companion as we’ve seen. People are as well and alongside them are those moments of shared experiences – the spaces that we celebrate the providence of history and hope of future. We have yet to specifically talk about prophecy. It is with the prophetic that the mystery and awe of God is bundled with his concern for us and, likewise, our relevance to him. And the prophetic revolves around what we do with God’s concern for us, for the world.

Heschel tiers it like this: “God’s presence is my first thought; His unity and transcendence, my second; His concern and involvement (justice and compassion), my third.” And “Upon deeper reflection,” he says, “[we] will realize that all three thoughts are one. God’s presence in the world is, in essence, His concern for the world.”

Prophets remind us that the world will pass away and civilization will close down. They remind us that “this world is real, but not absolute; the world’s reality is contingent upon compatibility with God. While others are intoxicated with the here and now, the prophet has a vision of an end.”

“The universe is done. The greater masterpiece still undone, still in the process of being created, is history.” God needs us to help. We are his instruments created for good works. “The world is full of iniquity, of injustice and idolatry. The people offer animals; the priests offer incense. But God needs mercy, righteousness; His needs cannot be satisfied in the temples, in space, but only in history, in time.”

Ours is a prophetic faith. It looks outward in the future and desires to communicate that vision to the present. Yet we must guard ourselves here. One of the first thoughts you might have when thinking of prophecy is justice – doling out what someone has coming to them – a bloody nose or a wordy rebuke. But justice dies when it’s dehumanized and it dies when it’s exaggerated above God’s compassion. Likewise, God’s justice is not equal justice. Heschel says, Justice is a “bias in favor of the poor. Justice [has] always leaned toward mercy for the widows and orphans.”

We are called to the prophetic – to be right and to find truth. We are called to share in the prophet’s landscape to see beyond mask of life and see the face of death. “To us,” Heschel says, “the moral state of society, for all its stains and spots, seems fair and trim; to the prophet, it is dreadful. So many deeds of charity are done, so much decency radiates day and night; yet to the prophet satiety of the conscience is prudery and flight from responsibility. Our standards are modest; our sense of injustice tolerable, timid; our moral indignation impermanent; yet human violence is interminable, unbearable, permanent. To us life is often serene, in the prophet’s eye the world reels in confusion. The prophet makes no concession to man’s capacity… The prophet’s ear perceives the silent sigh.”

So what do we do with this? Heschel stages the prophet in a long succession of individuals being tapped by God with a message that was not their own, yet they agreed to the call. “Here am I,” beckons Isaiah, “send me.” And what does God say

He said, "Go and tell this people:

You will be ever hearing, but never understanding;

you will be ever seeing, but never perceiving.'

This people's heart has become calloused;

they hardly hear with their ears,

and they have closed their eyes

Otherwise they might see with their eyes,

hear with their ears,

understand with their hearts,

and turn and be healed.

Then [Isaiah] said, "For how long, Lord?"

And [God] answered:

"Until the cities lie ruined

and without inhabitant,

until the houses are left deserted

and the fields ruined and ravaged…

The message is not our own. As the prophet, our primary responsibility is to reconcile humanity to God. “Why do the two need reconciliation?” asks Heschel. “Perhaps it is due to [our] false sense of sovereignty, [our] abuse of freedom, [our] aggressive, sprawling pride, resenting God’s involvement in history.”

Perhaps this is why the wonder and awe of God spills over into compassion for others. We see what’s at risk and the current abuses that, if left unchecked or unchanged, will lead to further self-reliance and heaven might retreat another step or two into the darkness.

It is not easy. “This is an age I which our common sense is tainted with commercialism and expediency,” says Heschel in a collection of sermons celebrating MLK.

"…To recover sensitivity to the divine, we must develop uncommon sense, rebel against seemingly relevant, against conventional validity; to unthink many thoughts, to abandon many habits, to sacrifice many pretensions. The temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed. All that is left is a wailing wall. A stone wall stands between God and man. Is there a way of piercing the wall? Is there a way of surmounting the wall? What is the substance, of which the wall is made? Is it, as the prophets maintain, man’s heart of stone? Or is it, as Isaiah also claims, the hiding of God? The darkening of his presence? Perhaps this is the chief vocation of man: to scale the wall, to sense what is revealed wherever he is concealed, to realize that even a wall cannot separate man from God, that the darkness is but a challenge and a passageway."

In the same sermon, Heschel marks out a path where humankind must work together and live compassion out in ways of mutual care and deep respect. And this must come out of an awe and fear of God despite the creeds we keep.

"We suffer from the fact that our understanding of religion today has been reduced to ritual, doctrine, institution, symbol, theology… God is not a concept produced by deliberation. God is an outcry wrung from heart and mind; God is never an explanation, it’s always a challenge. It can only be uttered in astonishment. Religious existence is a pilgrimage rather than an arrival. Its teaching – a challenge rather than an intellectual establishment [or] an encyclopedia of ready-made answers. Perhaps the grave error in theology is the claim to finality, to absolute truth, as if all of God’s wisdom were revealed to us completely and once and for all, as if God had nothing more to say."

He has more to say, more to do. That’s why time has not stopped. The sun and moon still have the same assignment. The trees and grass still carry “green” as a label. The winds still bring out the same stirring of seasons. The oceans still pulsate in rhythm. And we still are on pilgrimage, to find God, to love each other, and to till the ground until he redeems it.

(December 2007 | Part 2 of 3)

wonder & imagination: part 1

by Zach Kincaid
Wonder and Imagination. What do these have to do with the Christian narrative, and how do these work into a life of compassion? The two authors I want to look to are maybe not the first picked out in a line up. C.S. Lewis, Kazantzakis, Dickens, MacDonald, Tolkien, Carroll might be candidates. Maybe not. But most of us would not turn to Abraham Joshua Heschel and Gilbert Keith Chesterton. My hope is that we’ll discover them a little bit over the course of several articles and that their works might guide us to a place of wonder about an almighty God and his call into our lives.

Wonder is not often talked about as a concrete idea. It’s a little out there… I wonder what would happen if… or, I wonder why, or who, or what… or it’s a wonder why I don’t… Hymns sometimes register this idea of wonder in a way that is helpful for our discussion.

O wonder amazing! At earth’s midnight hour
The ages are gazing in awe at its power;
The great secret telling, how anguish is stilled,
The evil dispelling: The Word is fulfilled.
(O Wonder Amazing, Frank Sewell, 1837-1915)

Father, how wide Thy glories shine!
How high Thy wonders rise!
Known through the earth by thousand signs,
By thousand through the skies.
O may I bear some humble part
In that immortal song!
Wonder and joy shall tune my heart,
And love command my tongue.
(Father How Wide Thy Glories Shine, Issac Watts, 1706)
This wonder struck the world amazed,
It shook the starry frame;
Squadrons of spirits stood and gazed,
Then down in troops they came.
("Behold the Great Creator", Thomas Pestel, 1639)

It’s wonder that is attached to awe and it is awe that is attached to faith and these are all wrapped up in hope – that this masked bandit that we know as God who plays hard to get so many of the times, will one day reveal himself ultimately. It is the hope that what we do and what we think and what we think about doing all find a place in the ear of the Almighty. It is the hope that we can pick up and rebuild small and large pieces of this fallen landscape like Nehemiah’s wall so that God’s kingdom can indeed breathe a little easier among the rot of sin and abuse. It’s this kind of wonder.

We first see wonder in the Scriptures referenced to Egypt and the plagues. God says to Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you the power to do... [and] Pharaoh will refuse to listen to you—so that my wonders may be multiplied in Egypt.” (Exodus 4:21; 11:9) Then Job reminds us, “He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed, miracles that cannot be counted.” (5:9) And, “Do you know how the clouds hang poised, those wonders of him who is perfect in knowledge?” (37:16) The Psalms turn it into praise: “Show me the wonders of your great love, you who save by your right hand those who take refuge in you from their foes.” (17:7) “Many, LORD my God, are the wonders you have done, the things you planned for us. None can compare with you; were I to speak and tell of your deeds, they would be too many to declare. (40:5) “The whole earth is filled with awe at your wonders; where morning dawns, where evening fades, you call forth songs of joy.” (65:8) As the New Testament starts, Mary wonders about the angel’s news, the people wonder if the Baptizer is the Messiah, and at the tomb, the women and Peter all wondered about the missing Jesus. Acts presents wonder as well. Take for example the prayer of Peter and John while in Jerusalem – “Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus." (4:29) Stephen is said to have performed such wonders. Paul and Barnabas are given credit in a similar way.

So to wonder about God, to be in wonder for God and to perform wonders are all given to us. It is this idea of being in wonder for God that is our focus and as a consequence a certain wonder surrounding the deeds that we do – the compassion we show – that fire from heaven given through the hands of we, his followers. Jesus said they will know us by what we do. Why do anything outside of self-gain or that may damage our own self worth or image or lifestyle if there is not eternity pulsing through the tides of our temporal awareness? Wonder moves us into a search for God and is ever-present as we express it through our worship and the works of our hands.

And this, I think, is where compassion is its rightful companion. Wonder is that vertical arm to the heavens and compassion is the horizontal one that reaches to human beings in their suffering and delusion, both physically and mentally. “What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss to bear the dreadful curse for my soul.” It’s love your neighbor, feed, clothe, befriend the hurting. Give your life and all its ambition to, not only God, but to that vulnerable gap that Jesus fell into and died.

There is a lot to read from both of Chesterton and Heschel - about 35 volumes of Chesterton’s work recently brought together and re-published by Ignatius Press and 7 book length works of Heschel’s and many articles.

I want to use this article as an introductory of their works and then move into Heschel and Chesterton individually in upcoming months. Each have a different style. Heschel is a philosopher formally and much more detailed and ordered; Chesterton is a journalist, fiction writer, and cartoonist and so too he’s less organized. Nevertheless, they are both stabbing at the same thing.

G.K. Chesterton
Born in 1874, Chesterton grew up in late Victorian England, which meant he was caught inside the expansive building of the British Empire fueled by the benefits of the Industrial Revolution and a growing humanism. Chesterton was the first of two sons. Both he and his brother Cecil ended up being journalists on Fleet Street, the London street where the press operated. Chesterton went to the Slade School of Art, but he dropped out to work for a publisher. In 1901, he married Francis (they never had children). During that same time, he started writing an opinion column for the Daily News. With few hiatuses, Chesterton delivered a regular column for about 30 years through employment at several papers.

He arrives on the literary scene about fifteen years prior to the Great War and around the start of a lesser-known conflict, the Boer War, which began in 1899 and lasted until 1902. The premise of the Boer War: the British decide to attack the tip of Africa; some say for gold mines and greed; some say for progress and to plant civilization in new soil. The war’s result: after only eight months, the British take possession of key cities and name the war over. The Boers don’t buy it. Through guerilla tactics, the Boers fight their invaders for two exhausting years until the final Boer militant leaves the bush in humility. This idea of imperial power and the rights of people and small countries – this idea of place and a certain abhorrence when it is misused or conquered is prevalent in much of Chesterton’s work and political theory.

G.K. Chesterton seemed to move backwards in time. From his stylized Victorian-like appearance of cape and swordstick to his longing to rekindle the romance in life and rid it of the preciseness of science, Chesterton was no modernist, that is to say, he was not one who believed in humanity’s ability to progress left to its own virtues and vices. In fact, he awards such belief with a confidence that it will land a person in a lunatic asylum with all the Napoleons and Caesars who likewise believed in themselves.

He was not afraid to let his contemporaries know his critique of modernity and his opinion of them. Heretics is entirely about just that – pointing out who and why their ideas are a fallacy. It was published in 1905. He explains that the world had changed –

"The word ‘heresy’ not only means no longer being wrong; it practically means being clear-headed and courageous. The word ‘orthodoxy’ not only no longer means being right; it practically means being wrong. All this can mean one thing, and one thing only. It means that people care less for whether they are philosophically right. For obviously a man ought to confess himself crazy before he confesses himself heretical. The Bohemian, with a red tie, ought to pique himself on his orthodoxy. The dynamiter, laying a bomb, ought to feel that, whatever else he is, at least he is orthodox." (40)

Modern thought rapes morality and replaces any convictions with a non-committal individualism, which suffers no dogma and accepts no mystery that cannot be answered within the natural world. It’s erasing God from the page and all the instrumentation that lies just behind what’s visible. He had choice words for these heretics.

One critic of Chesterton said that he would only worry about his own philosophy when Chesterton worried about his. In 1908, Orthodoxy became his response. It outlines why he had “come to believe.” “I wish to set forth my faith,” Chesterton says, “as particularly answering this double need, the need for that mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar which Christendom has rightly named romance.”

Other important books included The Man Who Was Thursday, a novel, the Father Brown short stories, Everlasting Man which was the book that inspired Lewis to faith, several plays, and several additional commentary on Catholicism, what is wrong with America, and about the works of writers like Stevenson and Dickens.

Chesterton is not only a valuable voice because of the amount of work he produced, but even more because his voice was counter to the trend in the West during the turn of the century.

World War I was 1914-1918 and as you may know it was hoped to be the war to end all wars. It was optimism, yes, but it was optimism that stemmed out of the claims of evolutionary progress (remember that Darwin’s earth shattering Origin of the Species was published in 1859 and he was on the scene until 1882.) And this sense of progress spun out modernism, which at its core is a dismissal of the traditional for the sake of the new updated version or philosophy. So, Chesterton enters the scene emptying out all the old crusted things pre-Victorian, pre-modern, pre-evolution with the candor and wit of a old time preacher, a political poet, and a beat journalist with the makeup of someone jutted forward in history- from the medieval times.

Politically, he walked the center in a theory that he constructed with his brother Cecil and good friend Hallaire Belloc. The theory was called distributism. It kept the greed of capitalism and the power of socialism at bay by allowing every person to own property – what he believed was a central mark of democracy. “Property,” he says, “is merely the art of democracy. It means that every man should have something that he can shape in his own image, as he is shaped in the image of heaven.”

So, his defiance to accept the materialistic outlook of an overly confident modernity, his refusal to support the outward movements of the British Empire as a giant treading in small countries, and his political theories that center on property ownership are all layered into and connected to the strings of Christianity that pull and prod at these emphases in a way that worked out his salvation and hopefully will at least salivate our spiritual hunt.

Abraham Joseph Heschel
Abraham Heschel is Jewish and a philosopher by discipline. Reinhold Neiburh predicted Heschel would be an authoritative voice on Jewish theology but even wider, on religion in America. His voice began to be heard by many in the 1960s alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and the turmoil of race and morality.

God's tears lie on the cheeks
of shamed, weak people.
Let me wipe away His lament.

Heschel was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1907. He died in America in 1972. Born into a rabbinic family, he studied to carry on the tradition as one of the most influential families in the Hasidic world. He went to study at the University of Berlin and then at Higher Institute of Jewish Studies, also in Berlin.

He was named after his grandfather, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel – the Apter Rav – the last great rabbi of Mezbizh and he spent a good amount of time in Mezbizh growing up. Heschel says it is here that he became “enchanted” and where his “childhood imagination went on many journeys.” It was in Mezbizh that Heschel wrestled with two great Rabbis and their writings. One, Reb Menahem Mendl challenged him to never forfeit authenticity. The other, the Baal Shem, wrote of compassion through love and the mystery. Of the two, Heschel writes –

"Honesty, authenticity, integrity without love may lead to the ruin of others, of oneself, or both. On the other hand, love, fervor, or exaltation alone may seduce us into living in a Fool’s Paradise – a wise man’s hell." (A Passion for Truth, xv)

It was 1933 when he received his doctorate in prophetic consciousness. On January 30 of that year, Hitler became chancellor. On February 27 the Reichstag, where Parliament resided was burnt. The Nazi regime was in place by July 1933.

On October 28, 1938, Heschel was expelled from Germany with 18 thousand other Jews holding Polish passports. He then came to Cincinnati, to Hebrew Union College, arriving in 1940. He would say later, “I am a brand plucked from the fire in which my people was burned to death. I am a brand plucked from the fire of an altar to Satan on which millions of human lives were exterminated to evil’s greater glory.”

Heschel’s voice is prophetic. It is gargled in the blood of loss, grief, and strife and it looks from the other side of it and into the face of compassion. But it doesn’t spit back. Rather, it tells compassion to not focus on Jewish life as victim and lost in episodes of the past, but rather an active force to make right the world and, more importantly, formulate a path to God. “There is a war to wage,” he says, “against the vulgar, against the glorification of the absurd, a war that is incessant, universal… we may be able to make it clear that man is more than man, that in doing the finite he may perceive the infinite.”

By 1951, Heschel became an established name with the releases of The Sabbath and Man is Not Alone.

"The stirring in our hearts when watching the star-studded sky is something no language can declare. What smites us with unquenchable amazement is not that which we grasp and are able to convey but that which lies within our reach but beyond our grasp; not the quantitative aspect of nature but something qualitative; not what is beyond our range in time and space but the true meaning, source and end of being, in other words, the ineffable." (Man is Not Alone, 4-5)

He became a lightening rod in the Jewish faith and later outside it due to criticisms like this: “I have been in the United States of America for 13 years. I have not discovered America, but I have discovered something in America. It is possible to be a rabbi and not believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

He was most aware of the need to return to the halakhic way of life, which was not absorbed by law yet absorbed the Torah and the entire law. The halakhic way is translated as the way to go.

What creed is in relation to faith, the Halacha is in relation to piety. As faith cannot exist without creed, piety cannot subsist without a pattern of deeds; as intelligence cannot be separated from training, religion cannot be divorced from conduct… How [do we] live in a world pestered with lies and remain un polluted, how not to be stricken with despair, not to flee but to fight and succeed in keeping the soul unsoiled and even aid in purifying the world?" (Man is Not Alone, 176,179)

(September 2007 | Part 1 of 3)

lbgt for jc? aka gays and the church

A MHP Interview with Scott Jones
The gap between “us” and “them” is steadily widening as modernity and post-modernity do not simply call out for reasoned conclusions, but they want conclusions that center on “me.” We are each our own world. And theology is suffering today from the spite for dusty thoughts that do not bother being shaped by progress, but rather by what is true.

What is true? It’s today’s four-letter word – an expletive that derails tolerance and liberty and every pursuit toward happiness. Certainly, at times that’s what happens because truth hangs out with the likes of Jesus, and his grace and patience make him a vulnerable to misguided interpretation. Often systems of greed and debauchery use him to satisfy their definitions and elevate personal preferences into a level of dogma. Often Jesus is commodified into three take-home points to help you live a more fulfilled life. Others suggest a blanket retreat from the world that creates a subculture that does not allow honest interaction with those outside; instead all relationships are manipulated to create ripe moments for conversion.

How do we identify what is true and step outside what we might craft as truth in our own making?

First, we know some things, but we don’t know everything. Truth needs to find a marriage with mystery and humility. The question above is impossible at times; it is at times a veil that we see through dimly. The reason modernity can never rest at home in the heart of the church is because the church stands on hints and prophecies, whereas science roots itself in only what is rational. For example, the church talks of a virgin bearing forth God; science deduces the impossibilities of that claim and asks religion to stand in fair distance away in own defined corner.

Second, personal preference should be overthrown by historical reflection (Hebrews calls this the great cloud of witnesses), by scriptural devotion, by prayer, and by a community of believers here and now. When our opinions fall shallow and God’s word strikes deep, then we are likely on a path to find out what is true.

Third, God is sincerely interested in people, who are more than the sum of their ideals and not less than members and participants in his creation. Every person has a soul enveloped inside skin and bones; every person is intrinsically valuable to God.

Fourth, God is supremely about love and he teaches us to have the same virtue. This is not to say that God is not a judge that calls out the righteous from the unrighteous, the sheep from the goats.

Why find out the truth? What’s the point? This is the one that bites us back quickly, and asks, “Who set you up to judge? Did you plot out the skies or do you have any hand in the sun’s daily course?”

What is our motivation to find out truthful answers about cultural dilemmas? Are we comfortable if absolutes are not nailed down? Does success occur when knowledge is collected in an effort to prod us to hatred and anger? We know that most often anger is not the response we should follow, since Jesus loved often and only acted out his anger once.

Are we seeking to identify a group of people as the “other” so we can rail insults at them and hurl blame at them as the cause for unexplained catastrophes?

Why we should seek out truth circles back to how we identify it.

Scripture says that truth will set us free. It comes from God and is not in a batch of learning that humanity can whip up. This is evident in Jesus’ Gospel refrain, “I tell you the truth,” “I tell you the truth.”

Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place."

"You are a king, then!" said Pilate.

Jesus answered, "You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me."

"What is truth?" Pilate asked. With this he went out again to the Jews and said, "I find no basis for a charge against him. (John 18:36-38)

Truth is part of the Gospel. It is not an accessory that can be taken off and applied at will. No doubt that history has displayed some sordid characters who present ideas that are not in keeping with the trajectory we see in Scripture and church doctrine… so if we look closely, this hunt for truth is not always the most clearly scoped out.

Today, cherry picking truth and adding it to theories that help us maintain gluttonous lifestyles is almost normalized in the West and particularly in the United States.

I have thought recently about truth and how it may or may not apply to the homosexual person. Let’s make that more specific – a homosexual person who lives in a monogamous relationship and espouses that his/her faith does not motivate any kind change regarding sexual preference. In our society, it is one of the premier cases of “us” and “them.”

One of the objectives at Matthew’s House is to open up honest discussion.

Scott Jones is pastor of Oklahoma City’s Cathedral of Hope, a church I visited several years ago just after Scott had come out about his homosexuality and visiting the church in view of a call. Cathedral of Hope is a church that began in Dallas in 1970. Under the mission to change the perception of Christianity as an inclusive faith rather than exclusive religion, the church has grown both on its main Dallas campus and now in its new Oklahoma City location.

I recently asked Scott a few questions.

MHP: Explain a little about Cathedral of Hope, its denominational or creedal stances.

Scott Jones: The Cathedral of Hope recently joined the United Church of Christ. We were attracted to it because of its long history of progressive stands on peace and justice issues and the great diversity of the church.

MHP: Several months ago, you were arrested with several other peaceful demonstrators at Oklahoma Baptist University, your alma mater. What happened and what's your assessment as to why it happened?

SJ: Actually, I was not arrested. I agonized about the decision not to be arrested afterward, wondering whether I should have. I ultimately, after much reflection, came to support my decision made in the moment not to be arrested.

Your question is the question I think. I don’t think I can give a simple, straightforward answer to it. OBU would say they arrested the Equality Riders because OBU had made it clear prior to their visit that any presence on campus would lead to arrest. I believe OBU made that decision because they felt the Equality Ride was not operating in good faith and OBU wanted to send a signal. “We didn’t want the Equality Ride coming back every year.”

The Equality Ride would say they took actions to get arrested in order to draw attention to OBU’s discrimination against LGBT students. Other colleges had welcomed the Equality Ride on campus and entered into dialogue, which OBU was unwilling to do. Therefore, the Equality Ride followed the practices of non-violent direct action and took symbolic steps of civil disobedience that drew attention to OBU’s discriminatory practices.

My answer is that OBU participates in a structure of sin of which it is merely a part and that includes the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma and all its churches, the Shawnee community, and Christian Fundamentalism overall. As with structures of sin, the individual people are often good people, but the institutional evil overcomes individual intention causing people to take actions that otherwise they would not. So an otherwise fair and compassionate OBU administrator can order the arrest of a group of young people attempting to go to worship in the university’s chapel. To me the only thing that explains that is sin. Sin must be confronted with the cross, in this case that was the willingness of the Equality Riders to offer their bodies for arrest.

In an attempt to provide space for healing and reconciliation, I offered a prayer vigil and communion. But only one person, my boyfriend, participated in the prayer vigil (the Equality Riders were prevented by police and OBU security) and no one took communion. That the practices of the church were ineffective in fulfilling their purpose in this situation was further evidence that what was being faced was sin.

MHP: Why do you think most Christian churches see homosexuality as a problem? This is a bit of a leading question. Let me explain my thoughts. I know that proof-texting homosexuality is problematic when one is hunting for a definitive answer. For example, Jesus never brings it to light and Paul only lightly talks about it in the beginning of Romans and perhaps in I Corinthians. Eden does seem to suggest God's ordination of things as does the repeat in the New with the church as bride and Christ as bridegroom reflected in the female and male roles. Church history seems to point a particular way although that's sometimes tangled. So, I wanted your thoughts on these matters as a philosopher, a minister, a gay man.

SJ: Well, this could be a very lengthy and complex answer. Since you invite me to answer as philosopher as well as minister and gay man, I’m going to give my most complex answer to this question.

There seems to be a common practice of humans to define themselves and those like themselves as “one” and those unlike themselves as “other.” Simone de Beauvoir and others have analyzed this human trait. Once we define a group as “other,” we then, usually, treat them differently than we do those we define as “one.” Examples include racism, sexism, classism, etc.

The contemporary, aggressive (sometimes violent), and outspoken prejudice against LGBT people by conservative Christians is an interesting cultural phenomenon. We know that it is culturally conditioned because there are and have been human cultures that do not have this bias. We also know that Christian history has been multi-vocal on this issue.

There seem to be a number of factors conspiring together in recent decades.

One is that the LGBT community has itself become more outspoken, demanding full civil and human rights. It is a complicated and not fully understood history how LGBT identity issues have changed because of cultural factors over the last two centuries. Whatever the process, the result was an actual LGBT community that seems to be a relatively new phenomenon in human history. Though throughout history people have lived openly in same-sex relationships or transgressing gender boundaries, the formation of a community advocating for human and civil rights seems to be relatively recent. The movement really began in the late 19th century and suffered setbacks in England with the Wilde trial and in Germany with the election of the Nazis. Throughout the twentieth century these communities grew and became more visible throughout the United States, often isolating in “gay ghettos” and cosmopolitan cities. This community has progressively become more visible and as it has there has been a twofold reaction – greater acceptance by some and greater (and more violent) opposition by others.

Another factor is the series of dramatic cultural changes of the last two centuries and the backlash toward those. Racial categories and gender categories have undergone dramatic changes. Marriage has become a relationship based upon free choice and love where both partners are generally considered equal. Divorce is widespread. Victorian views of sex have given way to greater openness about sex and increased promiscuity. There is less respect for traditional authorities. And there is greater religious pluralism. I think some people are very uncomfortable with all or most of those cultural changes and so far the easiest bias to continue to hold and talk about in public discourse is the prejudice against LGBT people.

A third factor is that the religious and political right seems to have intentionally chosen opposition to LGBT equality as a rallying cry. Historians and political and religious commentators have written about how the leaders of the Right chose, in the 1970’s, to make this an issue because it was easy for fundraising and to rally people. I feel that this choice was made at precisely the moment when it was realized that race baiting was becoming unacceptable.

Finally, I think the major factor has to do with gender categories and stereotypes. The “traditional” views of male and female were that a male is superior in intellect, physical strength, political and economic power, and the female is the opposite of each of those. Over the last two centuries, those categories have been assaulted on a number of fronts. But the LGBT community is perceived to be the extreme transgressors. Gay men are evidence that “maleness” is much broader than the traditional view. Lesbians are evidence that “femaleness” is much broader than the traditional view. And transgender people are evidence that the gender binary itself is a myth. Those with bias against LGBT people are insecure about their own identity and transfer that insecurity into prejudice.

MHP: Why is this issue so divisive on the political level, i.e. the marriage act, but so indifferent when it relates to befriending and loving people for people?

SJ: Because anytime you know someone personally, it is more difficult to view them as “other.”

From the political view I think people are voting to support their own special-ness. If LGBT people can do all the same things, work in all the same places, live safely and comfortably in all the same places, and raise their families in the same way, then those who are biased against LGBT people lose one aspect of how they view themselves to be special.

MHP: That does bring up the genetic question. I don't think the studies are conclusive, but what are your thoughts and what is your experience?

SJ: The overwhelming evidence (as even Al Mohler acknowledges) is for a genetic trait. However, it is only interesting as an intellectual issue but irrelevant when the issue is whether you treat someone with compassion and support their human and civil rights. A white supremacist knows that black people are born that way, a sexist man knows that women are born that way, etc.

Concluding Remarks

MHP: Jesus said nothing about the homosexual lifestyle and it is not directly called out in many instances elsewhere in the Scripture. There are debates about its prevalence in history and whether it was ever accepted inside portions of orthodox Christianity. But there are clear pronouncements.

The Catholic Catechism
Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstance can they be approved.

The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. [They do not choose their homosexual condition; for most of them it is a trial.] This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.

Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection. (2357-59).

The Orthodox Church
The position of the Orthodox Church toward homosexuality has been expressed by synodical canons and Patristic pronouncements beginning with the very first centuries of Orthodox ecclesiastical life.

Thus, the Orthodox Church condemns unreservedly all expressions of personal sexual experience which prove contrary to the definite and unalterable function ascribed to sex by God's ordinance and expressed in man's experience as a law of nature.
Thus the function of the sexual organs of a man and a woman and their bio-chemical generating forces in glands and glandular secretions are ordained by nature to serve one particular purpose, the procreation of the human kind.

However, the human sexual apparatus appears to have been designed not only as the medium by which the necessary physical contact for the purpose of sex is affected, but as the generator as well and the center of a highly complex system of feelings which all together are known by the name eros, love between husband and wife.

Therefore, any and all uses of the human sex organs for purposes other than those ordained by creation, runs contrary to the nature of things as decreed by God and produces the following wrongs…

The statement concludes: “In full confidentiality, the Orthodox Church cares and provides pastorally for homosexuals in the belief that no sinner who has failed himself and God should be allowed to deteriorate morally and spiritually.”

Pair these with a denomination like the United Church of Christ which has clearly shifted its statements from a 1969 simple Christian call for compassion to a 1985 request for open church employment, and then a 1991 resolution of affirmation of the LGBT lifestyles and ministries. (For more visit

The Orthodox and Catholic systems share a history that leads back to the early centuries of Christianity. The statements above are contemporary and follow a pattern of reflection by the Church, both East and West. And while the Church’s condemnation is clear, their compassion is spelled out with similarly clear directives.

We believe God knows the end, and those he will call “righteous” and “unrighteous.” I am not sure what this apocalyptic vision means for church polity and discipline here and now. I don’t believe the safeguarding of sinful priests is appropriate, nor do I think the way evangelical churches and organizations cast out LGBT people (and anyone else that is different) is a Gospel response. However, I’m not convinced that ordained leadership should be open to lifestyle choices that are not clearly spelled out in Scripture and supported through the ages in Church councils and statements. Yes, church history occasionally sordid and Scripture is vulnerable to contemporary interpretations, but the Church is God’s bride and the body tasked with relating heaven to earth.

I don’t know where that leaves us exactly or where truth has wiggled in or quickly exited out the back door. I do know that we are called to love without harboring hatred. And that is the truth.

Interview and opening comments by Zach Kincaid.