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)

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)