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The Winner Takes it All: American Christian Greed

Do you remember that there was a time when Conservative Christian Politicians and preachers actually supported working people and the poor? There was a period where this was true, but with the economic affluence and the political influence that we have enjoyed since the end of the Second World War we have left those days far behind.

I mean really, there was a time when preachers were not just lobbying for tax cuts for the rich in the name of the “Prosperity Gospel” or and extolling the wealthy “job creators” over the people who actually produce or serve products. Late last night I had an interaction on Facebook that was discouraging, wealthy preachers defended the most opulent and extravagant excesses of mega-church pastors. It was disheartening, especially one attacked a man who I went to war with, and who since has endured more trying medical issues than most of us will experience in our lives when he challenged the Episcopal Priest. What I read broke my heart.

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My Church History professor at Southwestern Baptist seminary back in 1988 and 1989 Christian attitudes then that is even more appropriate today. He noted that a:

“reason that many Christians are not servants is more honest: it is that we just don’t want to be servants. We live today in a “winner” society. We value the winners, whether it be in sports, business, or wars….The American Dream is success, climbing to the top of the ladder, making it, winning…. In most metro areas, on most weekends, you can go to a conference in some church where a person (for a fee) will tell you how God wants you rich….This obsession with success, money, and power is the American dream carried to its logical conclusion. It is middle-class Americanism, pure and simple. It is more motivated by greed, selfishness, and pride than by Christ. And in the churches, we have bought it. We want to be “at the top”,” not “at the bottom.”…..We coat our Americanism with a thin veneer of Christianity in an attempt to make it more palatable, but God will not have it. Let’s call this version of the American Dream what it is: selfishness, self-righteousness, and sin.” (Young, Doyle L New Life for Your Church Baker Book House, Grand Rapids Michigan 1989 pp.55-56)

I heard Dr. Young speak about this in class. I was a young Army officer, who had just left active duty to go to seminary. We were in the process of a financial meltdown brought about by the Texas oil bust of the late 1980s and my wife’s illness. We were learning what it was like to be poor. We lost almost everything but ourselves and our dogs during that time. We went to churches where the opulence was over the top, where the pastor drove a Porsche, and not a bottom end or used one. We struggled through seminary and made it, with me working two jobs and being in the National Guard. Most of the time we wondered where the money to get the next meal, tank of gas, prescription medicine, tuition payment or books. When I called the TBN prayer line just for prayer during the darkest days I was told be a “prayer warrior” that “it was obvious that I was not in God’s will because otherwise God would be blessing me.” That angered me and hardened my resolve to get through seminary. There were a good number of people who helped us, some because they felt that god wanted them to help us, others just because they  were compassionate souls. This made me very sensitive to social justice and wary of those who get rich off of God’s people.

It wasn’t always this way.

William Jennings Bryan was one of the most influential politicians of his era. He served as Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson, he was a Senator and three time Presidential Candidate. He was also a very conservative Fundamentalist Christian perhaps most famous, or perhaps infamous now as one of the prosecuting attorneys at the Scopes “Monkey” Trial of 1925. In fact I can find that Bryan’s handling of that case played to the basest religious and social hatred of his day and though “defending” “Biblical” ideas ended up making Christians look but small minded, intolerant and hateful. The movie Inherit the Wind, though a fictional account of that trial show how decent Christians can become consumed with hatred in the name of righteousness, little different than other “sincere believers” that are willing to kill in the name of God.

Whether one agrees on certain points of religious doctrine regarding the creation of the earth or the manner of how God created the earth that he espoused one has to admit that of pre-Great Depression politicians he was quite amazing. This was especially true in how he saw through the Godlessness of unbridled Capitalism.  He saw how workers by were devalued by those who saw them as nothing more than a way to increase their wealth. As an American and a Christian look at the body of work and life of a man. Though I find much fault in Bryan and his supporters in the Scopes Trial, I do not throw out the good things that he did and got right.

I think the apex of Bryan’s political thought is encapsulated in his speech at the Democratic National Convention of 1896, what is now called the Cross of Gold Speech.

When one looks at it now it really is timeless. Bryan saw through the charade that was being played out by politicians and the big money Wall Street types that they represented with great verve. It was a speech that one might have heard come from a prophet in the Old Testament.

I am just going to quote a couple of pertinent sections from the speech to trigger your thoughts, for you will not hear this in the vast majority of conservative Christian churches of all denominations which have been infected with the so called “Prosperity Gospel.”  These churches have thrown their support behind ideas that are nothing more than unvarnished, crude materialism of the worst kind. In fact I believe that it is nothing more than the “baptism” of such thought by Christians are among the biggest reasons for the exodus of people from the churches and the rise of the “Nones,” or those with no religious preference.

Bryan said:

“We say to you that you have made the definition of a business man too limited in its application. The man who is employed for wages is as much a business man as his employer; the attorney in a country town is as much a business man as the corporation counsel in a great metropolis; the merchant at the cross-roads store is as much a business man as the merchant of New York; the farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day, who begins in spring and toils all summer, and who by the application of brain and muscle to the natural resources of the country creates wealth, is as much a business man as the man who goes upon the Board of Trade and bets upon the price of grain; the miners who go down a thousand feet into the earth, or climb two thousand feet upon the cliffs, and bring forth from their hiding places the precious metals to be poured into the channels of trade are as much business men as the few financial magnates who, in a back room, corner the money of the world. We come to speak of this broader class of business men.” 

His words are striking in their directness and honesty. They are not only Christian but they are deeply American. He called his Party, which had been as bad as the Republicans during the age of the unregulated Robber Barons who used the Gold Standard to manipulate the markets and eliminate silver as currency to their benefit to be different:

“Upon which side will the Democratic Party fight; upon the side of “the idle holders of idle capital” or upon the side of “the struggling masses”? That is the question which the party must answer first, and then it must be answered by each individual hereafter. The sympathies of the Democratic Party, as shown by the platform, are on the side of the struggling masses, who have ever been the foundation of the Democratic Party.”

He talked about two ideas of government and economics:

“There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that, if you will only legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea, however, has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous, their prosperity will find its way up through every class which rests upon them.”

He concluded his speech with this statement.

“Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests, and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

When I hear the Unholy Trinity of Politicians, Pundits and Preachers who extol the virtue of Capital over labor and the worship of wealth as the highest good I wish that there would be some that would remember that the people who actually make things, grow things, fix things and maintain things are not just human capital, but people.

That’s enough for today. Expect some more on this and similar topics soon.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Jousting at Windmills: The Quixotesque Life of Padre Steve

I believe that I have reached a rather Quixotesque stage in my life.  I have in my passion for moderation decided to be fair and balanced and with a rather unexpected result. I now joust with windmills. Some of my fellow Christians have gotten upset at me for doing so as they rather seem to like those windmills. It seems that in the current political climate for a Christian to offer criticism of other Christians or for that matter the conservative political movement is something akin to denying the Deity of Christ or worse.

I have been taken to task for a number of things such as defending the rights of Moslems, women’s ordination, the rights of homosexuals, criticizing conservative talk show hosts (I criticize liberals too but seldom get attacked for that), criticizing the almost incestuous relationship between the “Christian right” with the Republican Party and even more conservative political groups and ideologies and the equation of nearly all things American with the Christian faith by some.

This attitude starts at the top of the Church; Pope Benedict gives a great example to follow when he censured Cardinal Chrisoph Schoenborn of Vienna for criticizing the retired Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Soldano for his handling of and interference in the discipline of clergy in the sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church. The Pope censured Schoenborn, not Soldano and made the pronouncement that only he could criticize a Cardinal.  Not long afterward the Vatican released a document that supposedly makes it easier for the Church to go after the sexual predators in the Church while at the same time declaring women’s ordination to be a “major crime against the church” which I think is what pedophilia is.  Others have determined that since the world seems to be attacking Jesus, the Christian faith and the Church that criticism of Christian leaders by other Christians is off limits.

I commented recently on the case of Shirley Sherrod an official in the Agriculture Department that was smeared by conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart and made to look like the very face of racism in America.  A number of hosts on the Fox News Channel ran with the story before checking it out only having to recant a day later, a day after Sherrod had been forced to resign by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilseck and the White House.  It turned out that she was the victim and a story from her life of redemption and reconciliation presented as her being a racist by crafty editing of the video of a 45 minute long speech.  My comment that no matter whether it was Dan Rather using faked documents to try to damage then President George W Bush or Brietbart and his action against Mrs. Sherrod that these actions were both dishonorable.  A now former Facebook friend (she dropped me) and lay member of my denomination took issue with me and in what turned into a rather personal and harsh exchange I was called a number of names and accused of comparing me to her mother and stepfather like them having a “distortion of reality.” This individual chose not to deal with what my comments were but to take my posting as an attack on her conservative views, which they were most certainly not.  I tried to keep on point but this woman would have none of it.  I found the exchange as fascinating as one would a car wreck.  Now to be fair this woman was the only person that acted this way but her passion was to defend the actions of Breitbart and Fox News because “the country was hell bent on socialism” and that she was going to “do whatever she could to make people aware of it.” It was clear to me that she was so tied to her ideology that she could not be objective and I finally left the conversation. Now I know some liberals that are the same way to be sure, but for Christians to somehow almost equate a political and economic philosophy with the faith is somehow rather un-Jesus like.

Obviously in the interest of the truth I was looking for this confrontation, if not with her with someone else because I know that with some people and it does not matter whether they are conservatives or liberals there is no reasoning, no room for differing opinions.  In the religion and politics of 2010 there are no longer opponents but enemies, yea verily mortal enemies who with their repugnant ideologies must be crushed and in fact those close to them that deviate are even worse for they have betrayed the respective orthodoxy of the zealots of the left or the right.  In my rather brief public life writing on this site I have found the nastiest to be the religious conservatives that take issue with what I write.  The attitude reminds me of the Moslem extremists, militant Ultra-Orthodox Jews, and Hindu Fundamentalists, all of whom have no tolerance for those different than them and often bent on enforcing their beliefs on those that do not follow their religion often violently.   Please know that I am only comparing attitudes not results as with the exception of a few people American Christians have not resorted to violence to achieve their ends though I would posit that the more radical and politically committed conservative or Fundamentalist Christians that have become with more extreme right wing groups have this potential.

Now as far as matter of criticizing big name Christian leaders which I did last week with the knowledge that some would be upset with me and I confess that I am guilty as charged.  I decided to joust with this windmill by posting a link to an article in that bastion of truth and moral turpitude the National Enquirer which showed the incredibly popular televangelist and faith healer Benny Hinn cavorting in Rome under an assumed name with the rather sultry female televangelist and pastor Paula White. Now White is divorced and Hinn’s wife has filed for divorce but it is not final. In old fashioned fundament talk this is called adultery.  Add to the mix that both are under investigation by a Senate Committee for financial dealings in their ministries.

Now I have a rather unique take on this as I worked for a television ministry the last couple of years of seminary and while waiting to enter into a Clinical Pastoral Education.  While the ministry that I worked with was definitely above board we occasionally had other televangelists including the previously mentioned Benny Hinn visit our studios and basically act like they were better than the people that worked there.  At conferences that our ministry hosted which included many of the top preachers of the day there were some speakers that acted the same way but thankfully some that exuded grace and kindness.  One of the things that I noticed was the vast amount of money involved in Christian Television and some of the rather cutthroat programming and financial practices of the largest network, the Terrible Blond Network.

Since the late 1980s and early 1990s scandals, financial, sexual and sometimes criminal have engulfed many of the largest names in the television ministry and mega-church world.  Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Larry Lee, Bob Tilton, Peter Popoff, Ted Haggard, Earl Paulk, Todd Bentley and others now including Reverend Hinn and Reverend White.  Others have become involved in politics up to their ears or have made incredibly thoughtless and asinine statements on events like the 9-11 attack and Hurricane Katrina. Still others organize book burnings of various types or other thoughtless and even un-Christian displays of hatred and ignorance.  Now this is a pretty impressive list by anyone’s standards and it does not include the host of lesser known others that have had affairs, financial and even violent encounters.  No wonder the name of Jesus is reviled by so many and that the church is held in such low esteem. We bring it on ourselves because we have forgotten the “Big 2,” you know the commandments that if you do them fulfill all the rest, love God and love your neighbor. I think that it was Jesus that suggested that this was important.

I was criticized for posting a link about the Hinn and White story by three ministers and I do not entirely disagree with then nor think that they were out of line to criticize me.  The biggest concern of all three was that with the Church under attack from many quarters as well as attacks on Jesus and Christian beliefs and values that I should not do it especially because of the source of the story, the National Enquirer. Now mind you that that Enquirer is actually, despite its rater sleazy reputation actually breaking stories that the big media initially missed such as the John Edwards affair and the current investigation into possible sexual assaults by former Vice President Al Gore one of which as of yesterday was closed by the State of Oregon but there are other investigations.  However that was not the point of posting the story. You see I figure that if the Church and its leaders did a better job of conducting itself in a Christian manner then there would be a little more love for it and also Jesus. I believe that much of what we call persecution is in large part due to how badly we as Christians have behaved and treated those in our care before the watching world.  I believe that it is better for Christians to police themselves so that their conduct may be seen as something to emulate, in fact I think that is what the early church did. They had no power, no money and no social status but in spite of real persecution that usually ended in death by crucifixion, being crushed to death by heavy stones, being burned at the stake, shot through with arrows, having their heads whacked off, getting flogged to death, drowned until dead and even tickled to death.   While this was taking place they were commended by Roman leaders as model citizens because of their behavior.  They were known by their love, not just for one another but for their non-Christian neighbors, the very ones that persecuted them.

That is not an isolated example, when I was in Iraq I had Moslem Iraqi Army Officers tell me of their respect for Christians because Christians were seen to be more trustworthy and caring than their Moslem brethren, and by the way Iraqi Christians often face persecution and death.  I was told by one officer that the Iraqi Army needed Christian Priests to take care of their soldiers and families, like the Americans have because they did not get this from their Imams.  In spite of persecution which includes the real possibility of being killed by Moslem extremists most Moslems see Christians as good citizens that they can trust their lives, families and property to.  This is not the case in our country despite the fact that there are a lot of really good Christians who still follow the “Big 2.”

But now in this country we seem to be more concerned with our power and social status and despite all the scandals willing to give these folks a pass on their actions and pony up more money to feed their ministries, usually money that comes from some of the poorest people in the country while many live in luxury.  I think that this is something that the Reformers had against the Catholic Church during the Reformation. May be we need a new Reformation to make things right again, after all only 56% of Americans rank the ethics and trust of clergy as very high. Honestly, we should do better than that and if the world exposes our leaders for compromising themselves and the Gospel then more power to them, we should take care of it ourselves ending our support for such “ministers” and “ministries.”

My church was torn apart a few years back by the actions of bishops who had made unwanted sexual advances another that bilked the church nearly bankrupting it through his financial wheeling and dealing and by others that exploited the chaos in a most un-Christian manner.  The Church is slowly recovering and those that were the primary culprits are no longer in the church.  Many were haughty and arrogant and it came back to bite them and it nearly destroyed the church.

So I will continue to joust at windmills knowing that like the legendary Don Quixote that nothing will really change.  The windmills of religious and political machines will continue to turn and more than likely result in people sending me hate mail for saying what I say and unfortunately the vast majority will be my fellow Christians thinking that they are defending the faith.

There have been others like me that have done some good. I do think that Martin Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans Kung rank up there so what can I say? Wait I know…Here I stand, I can do no other. So help me God. Amen.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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A War Crime Denier, an American Terrorist in Karachi, a Christian Bully and thoughts on Grace and Reconciliation on a Lenten Sunday

Molly Checking My Facts

Well sports fans I sit up with my little Papillion-Dachshund mix Molly musing tonight after watch a replay of a pre-season baseball game.  Today of course I have been dealing with the pain caused by Adolf my large and well dug in kidney stone who evidently will resist until the end and have to be blasted by a laser on Tuesday.  I didn’t sleep well last night and woke up in pain this morning and look to be doing the same tonight, hopefully the pain and sleep meds will kick in and I will get some sleep.  As I wait I shall write as Bucky Katt once said “you can wordify anything if you just verb it.” So tonight I shall spend some time with a war crime denier, an American traitor, an allegedly “Christian” political pundit and muse on grace and reconciliation, which are key themes in my Lenten journey this year.

So anyway….today was a weird day.  I had an irate Japanese “Rape of Nanking” denier comment on my article about that subject.  Sorry, the truth hurts war crimes and atrocities committed against civilians by any nation are immoral and to defend the indefensible or try to deflect criticism by referring to other nations that have done similar acts is simply being an accomplice to evil.  That goes for any nation including the United States and unfortunately our history is not always as pristine as some would make it out to be.

Moving on… there are conflicting reports that one of the great traitors in modern United States history, Adam Gadahn the chief spokesman for Al Qaeda was apprehended by Pakistani security forces in Karachi yesterday. A day after Gadahn urged Moslems in the US to emulate the Fort Hood terrorist Major Malik Hasan and attack high value targets in the United States Pakistani officials announced that he had been captured. However later reports that the Al Qaeda member captured may not be him after all.  This guy is a slime bag of the biggest order and I hope that if we didn’t get him this time that he will catch a Hellfire missile between his eyes so he can be the martyr that he urges others to be.  Lead by example Adam, its called leadership but then it is always easier to urge people that you don’t know or care about to do the dying for you.  Don’t worry someday you will get your 70 Virginians and they will kick your sorry ass for eternity.  If the Hellfire doesn’t get you Adam I hope that you get captured and sent to prison here in the US with the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN or the Terrible Blond Network) piped into your jail cell 24/7, an unending supply of Chick tracts and Gordon Klingenschmitt as your Chaplain, a fate worse than a fate worse than death.

While the aforementioned idiots are simply idiotic at least they don’t attempt to rationalize illegal or dishonorable activity by citing scripture and invoking Jesus like Townhall.com columnist Doug Giles did on Sunday.  Giles likes to fancy himself a defender of American and Christian values but is simply a bully whose imbecilic theological rants are about as Christian as those of Adam Gadahn, the American born Al Qaeda spokesman.  Giles prostitutes the Christian faith and wraps it around the flag so that the Gospel is indistinguishable from right wing politics.  The fact that he uses Jesus and says that Jesus would approve of such behavior is blasphemous and the fact that he has a degree from a seminary puts him on the same level as religious leaders of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard clerics in camouflage.  I do believe that Christians should not divorce their faith from politics and that faith can inform and guide a Christian in life and even in politics but Giles and his radicalized followers are dangerous and will be the death of the Evangelical church.  His justification of the use of methods including deception and violence that in times past would have been denounced by the church are simply heretical and not a part of the Christian faith, even if he can “proof text” by citing disjointed and unrelated scriptural texts and by drawing false analogies to justify or prove his point.  While he as a conservative pundit may well oppose and even rightly criticize his political opponents it is wrong to use God or Scripture to justify unseemly and dirty politics even if one is tackling equally unseemly opponents.  I think this is why so many theologians, pastors and church leaders throughout history going back the Apostles and early Church Fathers distained politics and felt that Christians and their faith could only be corrupted by involvement in political movements.  The actions and words of Giles and his fellow travelers may make them feel better but only undermine their witness as Christians as they prostitute the faith for short term political advantage.

Though I did not get to Church today because of not sleeping and being in pain I was able to celebrate Eucharist at home with the Abbess.  If you have read my Lenten meditations you might notice the theme of reconciliation.  Such was the case in the lectionary readings for today, the Gospel being the parable of the Prodigal Son out of Luke Chapter 15 and the New Testament lesson being 2 Corinthians 5: 17-21, the latter which has been a major part of my theological journey since my return from Iraq.  I post the passage below because it speaks volumes about the ontological change that should be part of the Christian life imparted in the waters of Baptism and how that change should be a major part of how we relate to others in the world.  I think it stands in stark contrast to those of any political party who use Scripture and the faith for political gain and power.

“17So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself,* not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (NRSV)

As Karl Barth said “Grace must find expression in life, otherwise it is not grace.” I dare say that Giles and other “Christian” radicals have forgotten the grace of God or somehow do not think that applies to their opponents.  In their zeal they misuse Scripture and justify hatred forgetting the great commandments to love God and love our neighbor and the witness of Christians who lived in truly evil times like Dietrich Bonhoeffer who said Our enemies are those who harbor hostility against us, not those against whom we cherish hostility… As a Christian I am called to treat my enemy as a brother and to meet hostility with love. My behavior is thus determined not by the way others treat me, but by the treatment I receive from Jesus.”

And so to you my friends I wish you a good night.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Love Poverty and War…Suffering and Death… Christian Theology meets Reality in the Intersections of Life

“An antique saying has it that a man’s life is incomplete unless or until he has tasted love, poverty, and war.”  Christopher Hitchens

“You have not done Christian Theology until you have dealt with suffering and death” Yandall Woodfin

I deal with life in the intersection where theology has to deal with uncomfortable and often troubling questions.  When I first heard my Philosophy of Religion Professor at Southwestern Baptist make the statement that “you have not done Christian Theology until you have dealt with suffering and death” I was somewhat offended.  This was back in 1989 when I was still somewhat idealistic and believed what really popular preachers on radio and mega-churches said.  Now I can never say that I was completely in agreement with the “name it claim it, grab it stab it, God owes me and will bless me because I did…” pop-theology of the theological lightweights masquerading as teachers, preachers and prophets.  While I did not espouse it the view was prevalent in the churches that I was part of, in fact I choose Southwestern Baptist as a school because it did not tow that party line.  I just never expected my professors across the board in the School of Theology to be as nuanced and balanced as Dr. Woodfin and the others who helped give me my theological formation.

In seminary I developed a very good theological understanding and life hermeneutic that was far closer to Anglicanism or the reformers of the Second Vatican Council.  In fact it was theologians like Hans Kung, Yves Congar and Alistair McGrath as well as Jurgen Moltmann and Wolfhart Pannenberg who helped me in that.  Additionally the writings of Dietrich Bonheoffer, Emil Brunner and Henri Nouwen were influential as I developed my theological and spiritual life.  I was also thrust into the world of the Ante-Nicene Fathers of the Church, spending a semester of Systematic Theology studying and writing about Polycarp of Smyrna.  It was studying these contemporary theologians as well as the Church Fathers that I discovered Christian Theology at the intersection and it was Dr. Woodfin’s remark that caused me to really question the modern “theologians of glory.”  It is plainly obvious that this was in the day before the Baptist Taliban under Mullah Paige Patterson took the place over.  That was the time when it was a world class seminary and not just a pretty good Bible school.

It was the fact that even though I was in seminary life was really sucky.  Nothing went right.  Instead of the obvious “blessing of God” it seemed that we were cursed.  We had lost our home, cars, and were destitute.  I was working two and three jobs while Judy was sick and unable to work.  We lived in a hell hole on the east side of Fort Worth Texas, frequently featured on the TV show COPS.   One night in desperation I called the Terrible Blonde Network (TBN) for prayer.  For my trouble I was told that it was obvious that God was not calling me to ministry otherwise he would be blessing us.  That was a watershed experience and I rejected that idea on the spot.  It made me mad as hell that a well meaning but ignorant volunteer prayer partner would judge me in such a way.  When I went to work later at a TV ministry doing counseling, especially to broken pastors I never forgot that experience.  I realized that what the lady said and what many people that I knew espoused was God-babble bullshit.  The pastors that I talked to every week were suffering, often at the hands of the alleged people of God and even other ministers.  It was obscene.

So anyway, back to the subject of this article…yes I chased a rabbit there and it was intentional.  I had a New Testament Professor whose “rabbits” were often pastoral and theological gems.  That may not be a gem but it was a rabbit worth chasing.

Hitchens, a pretty strident atheist has some pretty good observations about how some religious people including modern Christian icons have been pretty poor examples.  Now he can be biased but his bias is balanced by the Orthodoxy espoused by his brother Peter.  Hitchens’ comment based on the writings of antiquity is quite true.  Until a man or for that matter a woman has experience love, poverty and war their life experience is incomplete.  As a personal testimony, I can say “AMEN!” I know this to be true.  I am married to the love of my life and our marriage has endured suffering, sickness, death, poverty and war.  We have in baseball terminology “hit for the cycle.”  While I have understood this I had never seen it in writing until I saw Hitchens’ book.  The theme of love, poverty and war is rich in ancient writings including the Bible.  It is also thematic in many cultural rituals around the world.  The warrior who loves his family endures poverty; usually famine or plague induced and then goes out to fight invaders.  If they win they come home to their loved ones victors who have protected home and hearth.  It is much like the movie Braveheart where William Wallace leads a campaign against the English who have invaded Scotland.  If they lose, there is the strong possibility that they will be slaughtered and their families enslaved.  The annals of the Punic Wars are rich in this theme as is the life of King David who knows love, poverty based on being a fugitive on more than one occasion and his life as a warrior.

I think this is true in the modern era as well.  Western culture based on consumerism and material wealth has been insulated from the depths of abject poverty, one only need place a poverty and famine stricken resident of almost any third world country who is deposited in a poor American city or town and ask him if he sees poverty.  If he does it will not be material poverty but one where love and community are missing.  If he goes up the street to the well off part of town he may be dazzled by the opulence but appalled by the loneliness of many people.  Western nations following the end of the Second World War and the recovery from it have not known the depths of poverty.  This may be changing now unless we can pull our economy out of the abyss that it seems perched upon, but even still at least so far the last couple of generations in the west have not known poverty as a whole.

Likewise the question of the experience of war for the modern person is one that is not experiential.  War in the west is now fought largely by military professionals while most of the nation’s population lives in the shadow and protection of their military prowess.  At one time with the draft war was experienced by all parts of the population in the west.  Today it is not and with that lack of experience there is a void, men and women have not discovered either how to live for something or die for something bigger than themselves.  One of the things that chafes my hide is when I hear ministers who have never served a day in uniform don a set of BDUs or Dessert Camouflage and preach a sermon on spiritual warfare. Sorry, that is a sham and the big TV guys who have done this should apologize to men and women who have been in combat and in harm’s way.  I once had a bishop in my church, who is no longer in his communion do an article about spiritual warfare trying to apply “principles” of Carl Von Clausewitz about war without ever really reading or understanding Clausewitz.  The treasure of Clausewitz is in his “principles” but in his understanding of the human condition brought about by his Lutheran faith, the Enlightenment and his experience of Prussia’s defeat and occupation by Napoleon followed by her recovery.  I was appalled by what my ex-bishop wrote and embarrassed for the church should any real soldier or military leader pick it up and read it.  Things like these show how little many religious leaders, or for that matter political leaders understand the human condition, life, love and war.

Dr. Woodfin was more right right than about anyone I have ever heard when he that we have not done Christian Theology until we have dealt with suffering and death. When you see innocents killed, children suffering from famine, war and disease.  When you have seen the bodies of young men and women who have died senseless deaths and when you have looked at a mother who has lost a child you begin to understand.  You begin to see the Cross.  An innocent man executed, a guilty man go free.  When you see friends and companions abandon their teacher and friend, a governor who knows a man is innocent be put to a brutal and agonizing death,  and a mother looking up at a cross where her son hangs and cries “My God my God, why have you forsaken me?” When you see these things you have to deal with the reality of where the Christian faith intersects the cold reality of our world.  It is as Alistair McGrath calls it, “life under the cross.”

I dare any of our modern digital era “theologians of glory” to enter this world, but most will not.  In fact they will continue to sell the sad sack of theological excrement that they call the Gospel to adoring crowds who will eventually discover that they have been sold a lie.  Many leave the faith while others take their place looking for “their” promised miracle, “their” blessing and their health, wealth and fortune.  Like the Catholic indulgence sellers of Martin Luther’s era, such “ministers” are blight on the Christian faith and for all of their “success” power and popularity have done more harm to the faith than benefit.  John Tetzel, Luther’s protagonist would tell people when collecting indulgences “A penny in the coffer rings, a soul from Purgatory springs.”  Today’s modern peddlers of pious poop promise “your prosperity grows when into our ministry you sow” or a “vow you make today God is bound to repay.”

Having seen this in real life when people buy the lie and end up devastated when “God” doesn’t come through for them, or when a well meaning but ignorant person tells them some horse shit about how God is not blessing them because….I want to scream.  I once had a pastor in a large evangelical and charismatic church which believed in “signs and wonders” tell the congregation about a conversation that he had with a parishioner who had been in the hospital and not been visited by him or the staff.  The parishioner, who gave a sizable amount of money to the church asked” “How sick do I have to be to get a hospital visit from you?”  The pastor, a nice guy laughed as he recounted his response.  “You don’t want to be that sick.”  The congregation laughed and I about cried as I was immersed in daily tragedy and trauma and Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas.  I knew too many people be abandoned by their pastors in a city consumed with powerful pastors as churches to believe that they were a priority for those suffering.

The truth is that many pastors and for that matter many people want to avoid dealing with suffering and death at any cost. Whole industries are built around the worship of youth and beauty and a culture, including the churches lift their heads to the sky for God’s blessing while avoiding the suffering around them.  There are pastors and parishioners who by the boatload have been thrown from the “Barque of the Church” because they either failed or did not have enough “faith”

Such is not the Gospel nor is it Christian in any way shape or form.  It is no wonder that so many have abandoned the faith when all they see on TV are the modern digital theologians of glory who bask in fame and fortune while adding to the rejection, alienation and despair of those who believed them to actually be telling the truth.

Love, poverty and war, suffering and death, where the Christian faith meets these in the intersection is where new life can begin for it is only through the agony of the Cross that we know the resurrection.

Peace, Steve+

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I like Jesus very much, but He no help with Curveball

pedrocerrano

“Ahh, Jesus, I like him very much, but He no help with curveball.” – Serrano (Denis Major League)

Note:  This is one of those particularly passionate posts brought about by hearing about the abuse of a friend by his church and remembering things that happened to me and other friends at the hands of supposedly Christian leaders, ministries and organizations.  So I probably hit a little harder than usual. Please excuse this, it is an old wound that got opened up again this week as I saw good Christian people lose a baby and a friend be maligned by ministers in his church.

I think I agree with Serrano in Major League.  I like Jesus very much but He no help with curveball. I believe that God loves and cares for us but I do not believe that God servers at our command.  I also strongly believe that Jesus died to redeem us and that we need to have some kind of walk with God.  I know that I am too much of a screw up to get by without the grace of God and God’s mercy.   Hopefully we  follow as best we can God’s will for our lives and obey the commands to “love God and love our neighbor.”  Patently, while not Rocket Surgery, this can be surprisingly difficult as all of us to some degree or another.  I and I’m sure most who read this complicate the matter by narcissistically assuming that if we ask God something for any reason that God owes us.  We  are often taught that is we pray the right prayer, serve on the right boards in church, figure out what miraculous spiritual gifts that we assume the Holy Spirit has given to us, gave a certain amount of money, vote for the right political candidate, support the right cause, ad infinitum, ad nauseum that God is obligated to do what we want. The mandatory and obligatory tithe from the Old Testament Law is frequently used by Christians as a means to determine how much we have earned God’s blessing, by our obedience of course, among other things.  There are plenty of other means by which Christians are held in bondage but this is common and unfortunately too often there is no accountabilty by ministers and minstries across the ecclesiastical spectrum for the sums that they recieve from those who support them.

What I find fascinating is how much many people assume that God is involved in the minute to minute details of their lives.  It is as if some supercalifragilisticexpialidocious narcissistic form of hyper-Calvinism, baptized in Pentecostal fires has overtaken the faith. In fact I believe that we in the west, particularly the United States have gone to ludicrous speed in pursuit of self absorbed faith in which we use God as a cosmic vending machine of individual blessing.  Evidence of this belief abounds in what is blatantly misidentified as ”worship” songs in which our needs, our desires and our love for God are magnified above God’s Holiness and condescension to become incarnate of the Virgin Mary and become Man.  Somehow I think that we have the paradigm upside down.  Do I believe that God loves us?  I patently do.  I know for a fact that I can never love God or serve God as much as God loves and cares for me, but I base this on God becoming incarnate in Jesus, the Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate was crucified, died and buried, descended to the dead, who rose again on the third day, ascended into heaven and will come to judge the living and the dead, whose kingdom has no end.  So yes, indeed, even to death I will believe this.  However, this does not mean that I believe that if I do the right stuff that God is obligated to do things for me.  Likewise I do not believe that God really cares a whit if I ever hit a curveball. He speaks to me through baseball but only through hard work and the coaching of my dad was I a decent utility player.  When I told my dad when I visited him in the nursing home that he didn’t teach me how to hit, he told me that “you have to have the natural ability, lots of people can’t hit.”  Despite his advanced Alzheimer’s disease dad understood that no amount of instruction or even prayer was going to make me a good hitter.

Unfortunately this is often the faith as marketed by alleged Christian “ministries,” churches and retail establishments.  All you do is have to go down to whatever “Christian” bookstore chain has a outlet in your town.  I remember a day when actual Bible studies that dealt with God and not us were available in Christian bookstores.  Now if you actually like me, have walked around one of these places of edification you will fill racks upon racks of “Christian” fiction, often romance novels without any hint of sex or sensuality, which is a shame since the Bible doesn’t leave it out;  variations on the theme of what happens to the poor suckers who  forget to pray the prayer to get saved in time before the rapture when the slick Anti-Christ comes after them.  Likewise they are filled with all manner of “Jesus junk” usually made in China because the alleged Christians running the company care more about the almighty dollar than they do caring for workers in their own country.  Allegedly Christian television networks and ministries consume hundreds of millions of dollars in money, given by people who actually believe that the people running them are actually hearing from God, This money could actually be used to plant churches, do mission work, care for the poor and sick  and also pay Christian workers a living wage.  I have lost count of the number of friends who have sacrificed everything including their lives to support ministries which threw them away when they were spent.  I have seen workers in Christian ministries have to rely on charity because they were not paid enough while the “Christian leaders” that they worked for lived in luxury on the donations which came from the toil, labor and love of people who trusted them.  The litany of the names some of these people reads like a sorry story out of Inside Edition.  Peter Popoff, Creflo Dollar, Larry Lea, Bob Tilton, Benny Hinn, yes Benny, while others have turned themselves into almost purely political power players.  I could go on, but to what purpose?  My point is that many ministries, and not just the big ones, will hold their workers in near servitude and attempt to manipulate intimate details of their lives.

I find the message of many of these alleged “ministries” or ministers to be in absolute contradiction to the Gospel, which if I recall was to set us free from the bondage of sin, death and the Law.  In fact if I recall Jesus didn’t go beating on politicians, tax collectors, prostitutes, and a host of other undesirables, but instead went after judgmental, legalistic and self serving religious leaders who abused their power and position.  I have seen in person such people curry the favor of the rich and neglect the poor. I have seen people, including faithful Christian workers be ostracized and abandoned when they experienced circumstances and tragedy that do not fit the narcissistic prosperity gospel theology of their churches or ministries. Even worse is what happens when one of the lesser people falls into “sin.” Especially sexual sins while things like greed, gluttony, dishonest business dealings and a host of other things are ignored.  It is onerous when the Church refuses to take care of its own.  To save embarrassment of people who might read this I will not go into specifics only to say I have seen this happen and even experienced it myself.

The unfortunate underside of this is the effect that the theology has on the people who buy it hook line and sinker.  Such people are victims of predators dressed as ministers.  I’m sure that even if the ministries that they serve do not honor or care for them that God will still honor their work and sacrifice, if not in this life the next.  Yet, it is criminal for church leaders, ministers and heads of supposedly “Christian” organizations and ministries” to leave faithful servants of God in the lurch when things don’t fit their theology.  When we were in absolute crisis in 1989, wife sick, house and car lost, and all coming apart while in my second year of seminary I hit the wall.  I decided to call the prayer line of the Terrible Blonde Network.  I was desperate and hurting as I saw all I had sacrificed for going down the toilet.  When I told the female “prayer partner” my story and asked for prayer she said something that I will ever forget.  It is etched in my mind to this day.  In a sickening sweet voice, this woman who did not know me from Tommy Lasorda, or Adam for that manner said: “Well it’s obvious that God can’t be calling you into ministry otherwise he would be blessing you.”  I was stunned, but something rose up in my heart that said that she and those who thought like her espoused a theology from the pit of Hell.  I told her that I didn’t need her prayer and that I would be content to suffer as the saints before me.

Now do I believe that God cares about details?  Yes. Do I believe that God loves each of us with an undying and everlasting faithful love?  Yes.  Do I believe that he is obligated to do anything for me other than the gracious love that he bestows every day? No. Do I think or presume that God must do things my way because I have somehow got the formula of some preacher’s personal interpretation of a few Bible verses right?  No way.  It is unscriptural, is not supported by the testimony of 2000 years of the church and is nothing more than the deception and abuse of good people who really want to serve God.

I pray and trust that someday Christian leaders and churches will have the integrity and character to care for people, especially those that serve in subordinate positions.

Do I think that Jesus needs to help me hit a curve ball?  I think so, but I think that this might be unreasonable on my part, and so far he hasn’t.  Thus, if I want to hit the curve ball, I’ll have to do it myself.

Peace, Steve+

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The Wacky World of Televangelists Part One: The Networks

Author’s Note: This post is in jest…I’m tired and feeling somewhat silly after a pretty tiring week. The views here are not meant to offend anyone, although I know that they will, maybe someone will honor me with a virtual effigy.  At least I will not be nasty, just sort-of witty.  I worked for a TV ministry in seminary, and as far as these types of ministries go I think that the man does some good.  The job exposed me to a lot of good people.  The evangelist had an outreach to many pastors who had been destroyed by their churches and I ended caring for these folks for about two and a half years. The ministry helped my seminary tuition and proved badly needed medical insurance.  I did not get rich by any means, the pay was not great, but the hours and their flexibility to meet my full time school needs were incredibly gracious.  I also saw how some people suck up to people in powerful ministries, learned a bit about the policies of a couple of major Christian TV networks as well as how some of the  most popular TV preachers treat common people, not well.  The guy I worked for was decent to regular folks, he went to the church that I went to and didn’t force himself there.  However I wonder about the wisdom of proliferating TV ministries which use up vast sums of money in an incredibly expensive medium. My little hair brained view is that this money might be used by real in the flesh type missionaries, churches trying to build to meet their congregation and community ministry needs and for social ministries of all forms that care for the least, the lost and the lonely. Please know that I do not oppose TV ministries on principle, for some people, especially those too isolated or physically inable to attend their churches these are a good thing and some good programing that on occasion is actually theologically okay.  So in good fun I present “The Wacky World of Televangelists Part One: The Networks.”

This for me is my version of Mr.Blackwell’s list.  TV ministers are a fascinating breed.  Hair styles, clothes, manner of speech, facial expressions and elaborate sets make them fun to watch.  On the rare occasion I cannot find a ball game, Seinfeld, The Simpsons, MASH, House, Monk, Family Guy or a good WBC-MMA match they can be an interesting diversion from the bad news pumped out by CNN, MSNBC and FOX News.  I guess that doesn’t leave much time to watch them. However, on those rare occasions that I do watch I can be strangely transfixed by what I see. This of course is an experience made more enjoyable after a few beers.  It’s like getting caught in Dracula’s gaze, once there it can be hard to escape, thank God I keep a ready supply of Holy Water nearby.

Today I deal with the big networks.  First is the Trinity Broadcasting Network, TBN, or as I affectionately refer to it as the Terrible Blond Network.  This is the largest and most powerful of the networks.  Spanning the globe TBN promotes a ministry heavily weighted to ministers of Charismatic and Pentecostal backgrounds.  However it also airs programs of mainline Evangelicals, popular African American ministers, Messianic groups and odds and ends of others including Billy Graham classics.  Sometimes they show some really old classic religious movies.  The most remarkable thing about TBN is the set decoration, which for the flagship program can best be described as an Ecclesiastical Bordello look. It is kind of a blend of overdone Louis the XIV palace and whorehouse.  Ornate gold furnishings, elaborate decor and a host wearing what appears to be a velor smoking jacket, sometimes a purple one. emblazoned with the ministry crest, which looks like European Royalty. The Dallas network branch was built to look like the White House. When I commuted to Dallas for my residency I would drive by it every day.  It is not far from Texas Stadium where Cowboys fans believe that God herself resides. Those were the days of President Bill Clinton and I was tempted to get one of the Clinton cardboard life size cut out and have my my picture taken outside of it.  Maybe now I should have Judy photo shop a picture of me and President Obama in front of it.  Getting back to style, the hair of women guests is big and often blond, when not blond, big   Make up and mascara mix with tears a la Tammy Faye as praise reports and Financial gifts are announced.   The founder, Paul Crouch and his wife Jan have been on the air about 85 years I think, they were pioneers in this medium. This is an eclectic network where a diversity of different points of view co-exist, even when they are diametrically opposed to one another. Score one for tolerance.   However, the appeals for monetary donations are pretty heavy especially every few months when they run the Praise-a-Thon for about two weeks.  This is an over-the-top fund raising show, kind of like the NPR fund raising on major league steroids.  Gifts for donations can be really fun, like a picture of Jesus returning that looked like it was out of a Sci-Fi magazine, fire coming from his eyes like something in a horror movie.  It could have been a little to literal for me, if I had my choice I would be like Ricky Bobby and deal with Baby Jesus. Back in my day in the TV ministry our programs had to be edited during the Praise-a-Thon for TBN so our appeals would not detract from their efforts.

Other major networks include the Christian Broadcasting Network, CBN founded by Pat Robertson, Baptist minister with Charismatic leanings and former Presidential candidate.  Pat’s sets are very tasteful in comparison to those of TBN. They are like a living room and a lot less pretentious.  It seems that he and his co-hosts on the 700 Club try to appeal to people like regular people.  The network is associated with Regent University which though very conservative are a pretty well ranked and regionally accredited school.  It has an undergrad school as well as Schools of Theology, Law and Communications.  CBN is connected with our sponsors conservative political, social and humanitarian outreaches such as Operation Blessing which provides humarian aid around the world.  It’s monetary appeals tend to be more suave than TBN. The most remarkable thing about the program are Pat’s facial expression when he prays and his yearly predictions from God.  This year’s prediction warmed the hearts of Democrats and chaffed Republicans, he said that God said that President Obama’s policies would help a turn economy around in the second half of the year.  Unlike other guys Pat wasn’t prophesying the end of the world as we know it or that the Cubs would win the Worlds Series. As all baseball fans know this would bring about Jesus’ return.  This of course is Padre Steve’s eschatology and patently breathed by the lips of the Deity Herself.

Another network which is both more Charismatic and Pentecostal is the Inspiration Network or INSP. It was  founded by Pentecostal evangelist Morris Cerello and continued by his son.  This network in style tends to be a bit less high-falutin than TBN and often includes visits to local church venues.  The preaching and music on this network seek to overcome obstacle of quality with noise and light.  I wish sometimes that there was no verse about making a joyful noise in the Bible.  These people take that command far to literally.   The appeal for money is always there and pretty in your face.  The Cerello’s are like from New York or Jersey or something and they kind of look like Bible Thumping Mafia hit men, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

In my effort to be inclusive and ecumenical I do have to mention the Roman Catholic entry to the field, the Eternal Word Television Network, or EWTN. I haven’t came up for a cute name for this network yet but give me time.  The network was founded by Mother Angelica, a nun and based out of Alabama. I understand that her ministry complex in some respects resembles Vatican City with BBQ and Wings on the side. I hear that it is a pilgrimage site for Traditionalists. Although they are in Alabama there are no NASCAR ads on EWTN, too bad, they really should combine the two.  I think it would be way cool to have the Nuns sponsor a NASCAR race car maybe in conjunction with Hooters, you can’t get any more traditional than that.  This network is a lot more subdued than its Charismatic and Evangelical kin.  This is so because the theological leanings are to the right of Pope Pius X, the Patron of the Society of Saint Pius X, an ultra conservative group that broke from Rome and whoese excommunicated Bishops were rehabilitated by Pope Benedict XVI this year.  They are traditionalist to the hilt.  They are exceptionally evangelical in regard to their programing. There are programs on Catholic theology, spirituality and apologetics.  Guests are often conservative Catholic academics, so you can actually learn something from these guys. EWTN hosts the Coming Home Network which is designed to convince Protestants to come to Rome.  While I am a proponent of the Catholic Faith, this is in some respects akin to sheep-stealing, especially in their appeal to search Protestant, especially Evangelical Protestant pastors. These men are often enticed with the possibility of becoming Roman Catholic Priests; a lofty goal that few ever attain.  Most leave their Protestant ministries and never it make it through the Catholic formation process.  They end up as laymen, sometimes doing work in the church, but often left with nothing in comparison to the ordained ministries that they left.  The few that do make it are not permitted to be parish pastors by Canon Law and remain in education or some other supporting ministry, sometimes as an associate pastor.  There is one who became a Priest and serves as an Army Chaplain.  He is an outstanding priest and excellent chaplain and a poster boy for this group.  However he is the exception.  Back to the Network.  The decor is a throwback to more traditional times, Mother Angelica and her nuns wear an old fashioned full habit and daily Mass is shown.  The appeals for money are similar to other networks but obviously must be vetted through the local diocesan bishop.

That’s it for the Networks.  Part Two will include some funy observations, mostly of style and presentation of various popular TV evangelists.

In all good humor, Peace Steve+

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