Christianity’s Continual Fade Into Irrelevance?
May 13, 2011

The powers that be within the bubble that is Christendom continually amaze me. …At their ability to increasingly banish themselves and the religion further into irrelevancy.

It used to be that only the most blatantly arrogant talking heads sullied the religion’s image in the eyes of “the World.” Those like Pat Robertson or possibly James Dobson. Ultra-conservative Christians who happened to have significant influence in politics while having little or no positive effect on Joe the Sinner. Or even the more obscure-yet-somehow-heard examples like Fred Phelps and Terry Jones. All those were easy targets for the rest of the world to quickly dismiss as right-wing lunatics.

But it seems recently things are reaching a new low. Now we’ve got bastions of liberal/progressive Christianity coming clean about how they may not care quite so much about the rejected, as many thought, as much as they care about their own reputation. I don’t know all the details, but when people like Jim Wallis of Sojourners reject an ad promoting gay inclusion in churches, regardless of the details, it sends a disheartening (but not surprising) message: Those who the Empire has rejected, who, in liberal Christianity, once had a place to turn for hope and shelter from the onslaught of prejudice from “Christian” bigotry, now must find a new home.

Because that home they once had has been sold out from under them to the influence of the Empire itself. Or if they haven’t completely sold out, at least they’re being leased to pay someone’s image-enhancement bills. But that’s just my theory. …Perhaps ask someone like Sojourners contributor Becky Garrison or others on what they think of it. (On a related note, my favorite is when Dan Savage writes, “If progressive Christians can’t unite behind the concept of ‘welcome’ then, gee, what the fuck good are they?” )

So the Few with Influence, whether they’re on the right or left, seem to be continuing a trend that’s gone on for ages. Creating a world of their own design that caters more to the whims of power for power’s sake, for comfort and safety, and progressively less to the cries of a hurting public. They are painting themselves into a corner that, while perhaps increasingly comfortable, grows increasingly smaller and isolated. While the rest of the world moves on, they’re trying to maintain and polish their little bubble, with all its mirrors and finery.

We used to think there was something different, something refreshing, about the establishment of liberal/progressive Christianity. But we’re starting to realize that it’s all just the same as that stuffy old box of religion as we’ve come to know it.

Yes, people like Pat Robertson and Jim Wallis (I’m saddened that I now must lump them all together) have great influence in the world…correction, in the Empire. But even with enormous power, individuals and institutions can become irrelevant. I think even of Barack Obama. The most powerful man in the world. And how even he is powerless against the Empire of greed. How great plans for Change devolve into stale taglines under the blinding lights of power and popularity.

Ironically, all this reminds me of the ancient times when Christianity challenged the Empire instead of sleeping with it. When even cruel emperors like Nero, who strung up Christians and burned them for light for his evening walks in his garden, were powerless against the tide of revolutionaries who stood for a Better Way. But then, somehow, those revolutionaries gained more and more power, with the likes of Constantine and such. And then Christianity became the Empire it once stood against. Then Christians, sadly, became the ones who did the burning of those in opposition to their power. And today, while not many literal burnings at the stake occur, the Church has executed many good ideas and people who don’t outrightly prop up their platform.

But again, it’s strange to me how a person or an institution can seem so influential, while in reality they’re nothing more than figureheads of a bygone era. The era of institutions itself is fading because the world has come to realize that they just don’t work. They don’t work because you can’t trust them. You can’t trust them because they don’t feel. When someone feels, they can relate to vulnerability and loneliness and powerlessness. But something sad happens when priorities migrate from relating with the stories of others to building a platform for one’s own story. And life becomes nothing more than a haze of people trying to grow their own bubbles. And we become less relevant to each other for the sake of trying to become significant.

And that’s what I’ve seen happening within Christianity. As it tries to hold onto its own reputation, it is losing it.

***

So here’s a quick open letter to the religion and the figureheads, on the left and right, who maintain the status quo within it:

Face it. People just don’t care about you anymore. You’re too high-maintenance. You’re a nag. And you expect everyone to want to ride in your car–that ’84 TransAm that you can finally afford–just because you’ve got the loudest stereo on the block. The trouble is, you’re still playing Stryper like it’s cutting-edge. You’re balding. And your beer gut is hanging over your spandex pants. Yes, the ones you’ve stuffed with a cucumber. You need to go home, to the holy House you still share with your Mom, and look at yourself in the mirror. You are living in your own fantasy world. You have been sliding into irrelevance since the moment you started thinking you were cool.

So here’s my advice: You need a good cry. Move out of your Holy Mother’s house. Get a ratty apartment in the bad part of town. Hang out in the Home Depot parking lot and hail a job with some day laborers. Then–and this may be more difficult than working with the migrants (it seems to be the cliff over which only the true revolutionaries dare to explore)–go to a gay support group. Listen to their stories. Let them hug you. Hug them. Listen to their cries. Don’t give them advice. Just listen. Just keep your damn mouth shut and listen.

Maybe there’s still hope. I don’t know. But one thing’s for sure. As long as you, Christianity, try to hold on to your reputation with power, you will continue to fade. As one unpopular rabble-rouser from a tiny, backwater Jewish town once said, “As long as you try to save your soul, you will lose it.” …Or is it already lost?

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That Little Splinter
December 11, 2010

I’ve posted several short videos of my time in Haiti, with all of them simply showing some of the things I experienced. Like helping paint a school. Visiting a jungle market. “Suffering” on one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen. Visiting a nursing home. A sampling of lovely Haitian singing. But until now I just haven’t wanted to wade through my Port au Prince footage.

You’re probably tired of hearing of my trip to Haiti, but this one little part has been holding me back from really continuing with other non-related posts. It just seemed so trite to post my thoughts on what I feel is wrong or right with religion, or what’s hard in my life, when issues of survival plague much of the rest of the world.

And especially since beautiful, precious people just a short flight away are gasping for life amidst a sea of destruction, poverty, and preventable disease. It’s just hard to continue life as usual with my petty philosophical complaints. At least I have a relatively safe, comfortable home in which to ponder such things, and basic resources that make it possible for me to spend time on things other than survival, and technology that keeps me in touch with the rest of the world.

But anyway, I’ve finally managed to put something together that sort of communicates the frustration I still feel with the whole Haitian situation. The sadness, confusion, and anger I felt when returning back to the states. And this video says it far more concisely than I could in text. Enjoy…  (You’ll have to click “Watch on YouTube” because of copyright issues, but it’ll play.)

One of the reasons this issue has held me back in recent months is because my footage from Port au Prince was quite different than the other footage. Port was our welcome sign to Haiti. It was the very first punch in the gut that sent my soul spinning, and it’s been spinning until now.

You see, my time in the remote jungle was in some barely perceptible way (and I say this carefully) cushioned by certain things. Even though the people of the remote parts of Haiti have even less materially in many ways than those in the big city of Port au Prince — at least Port has electricity, for instance, and stores and such, while the villages have absolutely none of that — I experienced an element of friendship that I developed with the locals and the wonderful missionary couple who care so deeply for the people. I was able to share in the joys of language-inhibited conversation, when universal nonverbal messages, like smiles, are perfectly understood. So there was that social element that helped me sink into the life there instead of just reflecting on it.

And then there was the scenery of the jungle. Even though nearly all wildlife is extinct in Haiti, at least there were pretty trees and green mountains to appreciate. They helped soften the hardness of the life there. Seeing people hand-plow a meadow surrounded by banana trees , flanked by a river and guarded by mountains, gave me some sort of relative peace.

But there are no trees in Port au Prince. Not many anyway. There are no emerald mountains or plantations. Almost all have been raped and everything is brown. Or gray. Mostly gray because of the cement everywhere. Crumbled cement. Dust. And smoke from burning trash. Diesel smoke from trucks and bulldozers with their near-futile attempts at cleaning up debris. Gray with spots of blue and white all over the place. The tents. And except for the neon colors of brightly painted walls (the ones that are still standing), which reflect the still-vibrant spirit of indestructible Haitian culture, everything else is gray or brown.

And so it has taken me months to gain the distance I needed to approach my scant Port au Prince footage with some semblance of objectivity. I believe my emotions still come across in the video I created, but believe me, what’s there is FAR more tame than the thoughts I would have expressed earlier.

With that in mind, I hope you’ll forgive me for posting yet another reflection on my time in Haiti. I just had to detour once more from my usual postings to address what has been a splinter under my existential fingernail. I’ve just not had the emotional or intellectual capacity to post on other things, so that’s one reason why my posts have been sparse in recent months. Thank you for understanding.

And if you would, please take a brief pause to send positive vibes toward our brothers and sisters in Haiti. They could use it right now.

What is Jesus?
July 30, 2010



Forgive me while I flesh out my thoughts here:

When someone says “Turn to Jesus,” what do they really mean? Or, “All you need is Jesus.” Or even, “I have a personal relationship with Jesus.”

Responding with a blank look of incredulity, some Christians might say, “C’mon. You know what we mean by that.” Because such sayings are so ingrained in the collective Christian psyche that it’s assumed that everyone, including the rest of the world outside of Christendom, knows exactly what is meant by…well, Jesus.

The fact is, I’m not sure that people, including Christians and non-, know what Jesus really is. Sure, we know who he was, but what is he, in the present tense?

(By the way, when searching for a “Jesus” image for this post, there were nearly 32 million image results… Which one is right? I think I picked the right one. 😉

Of course, theologically speaking, this is answered with explanations of his divinity and such, and even treatises on his resurrection. And the question of the nature of Jesus, in relation to God, has left theologians bantering for millennia. But those are just theological statements. What I want to know is what exactly does one think of, or what ideas or images are conjured up, when someone is referencing “Jesus” in a way that attempts to relate to everyday life. What, for example, does Carrie Underwood really mean by the word “Jesus” when she says, “Jesus take the wheel…”?

My hunch is that for many (not all) Christians, “Jesus” is a concept, an idea, like God. Even for those who adamantly assert and believe that Jesus is a real, live person who interacts with humanity today, he is a concept. Now, before we get all huffy, let me explain:

People use the name “Jesus” usually when things are beyond them. Just like when non-Christians speak of “God,” perhaps when the bills aren’t getting paid or when grandma dies. But for me, in this sense, “God” is easy to imagine as a placeholder for my longings. When I think of “God,” that word/name serves as a bucket for all things beyond me. Because I do feel that I have some sort of connection with a higher being, “God” is that bucket into which I toss all my hopes, dreams, desires, etc. (some call those things “prayers.”)  But if I were to say, “All you need is a relationship with Jesus,” my mind gets a bit muddled with conflicting ideas:

Yes, my teaching tells me that Jesus is God, so I can just substitute all my thoughts about God with the word Jesus. Synonymous, right? But then I was also taught that Jesus was—or is—a real human. Of course, history teaches us, including sources outside the Bible, that Jesus of Nazareth was a real, live person who lived and died in the first century CE. So it’s easy for me to imagine with the name Jesus, a man, a rabbi, a prophet, even some mysterious, hard-to-explain person who had an uncommon link with the divine. But he was a person. Then he died.

If someone says they have a “personal relationship” with Jesus, what does that mean, and what does that relationship look like? It’s a relationship with someone who died 2,000 years ago. Many Christians would say, “Well, I talk to him and he talks to me.” How? “Well, I pray. And he speaks to me  through the Bible, and he speaks to my heart.” Okay…so you pray and read the Bible and listen to your heart. So in essence you are doing what you have been told being a Christian is…it’s the Christian way of life. Is that really what you mean when you say, “It’s not a religion; it’s a relationship?” But how is that a personal relationship? “But Jesus is alive.”

Then come all the theories associated with whatever happened after his death. So millions of people believe that Jesus is alive today. And for many he really is “on this earth, now” alive and is acting in the world. But there is absolutely no evidence that this first-century person called Jesus of Nazareth is in fact alive, now, in flesh and blood, on this earth, anywhere. So what do Christians really mean when singing, “Alive, alive, Jesus is alive!” Is it just habitual re-chanting of an assertion of resurrection? Or a claim of something else?

So we must be brutally honest with ourselves when we say “Jesus is alive.” We must admit that Christians use the term “alive” very, very loosely. Symbolically. And it confuses things. And in that way it just makes Christians look stupid. So next time you try to convert an atheist with the argument that “Jesus is the only prophet who is not dead,” check yourself.

And in the same way that Christians use the term “alive” loosely when speaking of Jesus, Christians also use the specific name “Jesus” just as loosely. And I think that when those of us with a Christian mindset say “Jesus” we really mean “our conception of God.” Jesus is that bucket into which we cast all our hopes, dream, desires, prayers, etc. But let’s get it clear that Jesus is not literally a real, living human. …At least that’s the way I figure it. (Sorry.)

So I contend that when we say, “Turn to Jesus,” we really mean, “Convert to my particular conception of God.” And it’s in that sense that Jesus is a what, not a who.

By stripping the historical reality of the person of Jesus of Nazareth and replacing him with an imperialized concept of God, we really have stripped the message of Jesus of its real relevance. We have replaced the literal meaning of “Love your enemies” with the Pauline concept of “Love is deserved based on how someone treats my ideas of God, and when I say ‘God is Love’ what I really mean is that God, in his justice with respect to Hebraic covenant laws,  is tough love for those who don’t worship my God.” We have replaced the literal meaning of “Turn the other cheek” with a Constantinian-American concept of “We must not let non-Christians have more power than we have.” We have replaced the literal meaning of “If someone asks you for your shirt, also give him your coat,” with the truly American concept of “I might need this coat for the Christmas party at church, but you can have my spare granola bar, because you can’t spend that on alcohol.”

By replacing the historical words of the historical person of Jesus–the who–with our own handed-down concepts of the nature of God and the Trinity and such, we have made Jesus into a what that we really don’t know anything about other than that it somehow represents our notions of God, or the bucket of our longings–our “faith.” And so Jesus really represents our longings. For many, many people, Jesus is simply an abstract reflection of our hopes. And that reflection has taken the form of Hebrew and Greek words from middle-eastern scrolls, and from patriarchal, imperial texts, and from sermons, and from rants, and from political platforms.

For some, however, they themselves try to embody Jesus. For them, while they may see Jesus as a historical person, they believe that his teachings live through them. Some of these people are Christians and some are not. And regardless of what they believe about doctrines associated with Jesus, they try to live out what they understand as the literal meaning of his words. They take care of the “widows and orphans” among them. They “seek justice and walk humbly.”

Some visualize “Jesus” as everyone around them. He is the crack whore. He is the business man. The suicidal teen. The President, Obama and Bush. The unemployed mechanic and the unemployed graphic designer. The pedophile priest and the abused altar boy. He is Pat Robertson and Richard Dawkins. Bill O-Reilly and Stephen Colbert. Marilyn Manson and DC Talk. Perez Hilton and Ted Haggard.  He is the starving Haitian child and the little blond darling in the Baby Bjorn. He is ‘The Situation’ and Mother Teresa. The illegal alien and the Arizona lawmakers. He’s the person behind the ‘Jesus’ Twitter handle. He is you and me.

For those, he is a person, and yes, maybe he is a set of teachings too, but teachings that have become more than a concept because they are lived out, made alive in those who see everyone around them as the one who said, “When you did it to them, you did it to me.”

It’s a concept embodied rather than imposed.  And so “Jesus” becomes synonymous not with a “longing” but with everyday living, when we live intentionally, regardless of what we believe.

I’m trying to rediscover, and stutteringly live out, the teachings of that person in spite of the concept, in spite of the beliefs swirling around him. And to see that person in everyone around me. And in that sense one can’t “Turn to Jesus,” because if we really believed his teachings, they are “Jesus.” Not his concept, but maybe his spirit or something, just as we all are part of each other. At least we share the same elements, if nothing else. We are all star dust. And so was/is Jesus.

But maybe that is in itself nothing more than an idealistic concept.  And so maybe this is all one big logical fallacy, a bunch of bullshit not worth writing about.

***

I know this was a long one, and even with all these words I still don’t think I’ve expressed exactly what I’m trying to get at. I ended up preaching more than posing the right questions. So it’s a source of frustration. But if nothing else, perhaps this will at least stir up others’ thoughts to help me. You got anything?

Conquerers for Christ
February 28, 2010

“[The natives] are so naive and so free with their possessions… [I can get you] as much gold as [you] need and as many slaves as [you] ask. …Thus the eternal God, our Lord, gives victory to those who follow His way…”

— Christopher Columbus, circa 1492

(In a fundraising letter to Spanish royalty, as quoted in A People’s History of the United States.)

Constantine's Dream

I could go on with examples like this of conquests in the name of God. And this is the Christian tradition that founded the Americas, though many Americans may never have heard such words about Columbus, that “great hero.” From Constantine to Columbus, from Gideon to George W., and from Pizarro to Pat Robertson, the list is long. The line of such religious tirades dates back to ancient times and unfortunately that tradition has carried on through today, with determined Christians using the actions of Moses, Gideon, and David to justify their thinking, just as medieval Catholics, like the inquisitors and conquistadors, did. And another thing that both ancient and modern conquests have in common: deep ties to political and economic interests, but that’s another story.

Of course, even the most hardcore fundamentalist crusaders of today would probably not go so far as to dash gentile infants against the rocks and rip open pregnant women, as the Old Testament encourages, but the same principle is at work : Take the land for (our version of) God. And today’s Godly crusaders have focused more specifically on taking over on behalf of Jesus, a cause which, interestingly enough, most direct descendants of Moses, Gideon, and David (Jews) detest.

Haven’t Christians learned anything from the thousands of years of bad reputation that religious conquests have given the church? Why do Christians still take the Great Commission to a level where it was never intended? Why must Christians still adhere to the imperialist tradition of Constantine? Why do Christians still feel a need to vehemently defend their way of life, when so many others in the rest of the world wish simply to be left alone? And why does that defense so often manifest in the form of preemptive strike? Maybe today’s “Christianity” is in fact under attack on some level, but I contend that’s because Christianity has attacked the rest of the world and is merely getting a taste of its own medicine.

Yes, Christianity deserves credit for some of the most precious advances in humanity, including hospitals, the Red Cross, and the preservation of some history and science (as long as it was approved). And apologies have been made for such atrocities as the inquisitions and crusades. But why have today’s Christians just turned from physically violent crusades to philosophically violent crusades? Could Christians ever really take to heart the message that so often gets forgotten…the message that actually gives Christianity a good name that doesn’t need defending:

“Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world.” (James 1:27)

Some Christians might jump to use that last phrase to justify a defensive position, “…guard against corruption from the godless world.” But I contend that, especially considering the context, the corruption being mentioned there meant the typical way of doing things for that society, especially the way the Romans did things during the time when this letter was written: Imperialism. Greed. Fear of insurrection. Hunger for power. Arrogance.

(By the way, remember that group of people that the Old Testament talked about and suggested killing their children and ripping open their pregnant women? It was the exact same people group Jesus later threw in the face of the religious establishment and used as an example of true religion…the Good Samaritan. He knew the Jewish religion abhorred this people group because the Jewish holy book talked negatively of them, like they were a threat to God.)

The entire message of Jesus was anti-imperialist. That’s why he was killed. He wasn’t killed because he kept himself sinless or because he never cussed or never listened to secular music. He was crucified because he suggested that there was a different “empire,” a kingdom that didn’t need defending. A way of living that spoke for itself.

And I’m guessing a kingdom that speaks for itself probably does not need recruiters like this:

To Pat Robertson: On Haiti, the Devil, and the Problem with Answers
January 14, 2010

To Pat Robertson, anyone else at CBN, and other Christians who might be reading:

I felt a mixture of deep sadness and white-hot anger when seeing this…

I watched Sanjay Gupta interview the president of Haiti (watch from 0:50), and one line that struck me was when Sanjay asked President Preval why he was staying at the Port Au Prince aiport, to which he simply replied, “My palace collapsed.”

It’s powerful to see the contrast between a proud man prognosticating in front of a camera in his ivory tower and a broken leader not knowing what to do with hard facts.

Why do we humans, the religious especially, feel compelled to have an answer for everything?

Never mind the fact that the facts to which you (Pat Robertson) referred are debatable. The reference to Hatian leaders making a pact with the devil  centuries ago has been improperly used for years by some Christians to support whatever claims to authority they feel they have. Apparently this information has been passed from religious leader to religious leader without anyone thinking to re-check the facts. Several years ago, a Haitian-born minister (and PhD ) discussed his own research of the related facts on his blog, so there’s no need for me to go in depth here. But I must say, from the perspective of someone familiar with ministry, that ministers have a terrible habit of latching on to things they read or heard from other preachers who heard it from other ministers who possibly heard it from someone else who either adjusted the facts to fit their message or even made it all up. Besides this, you also might want to realize that there are also many Christians in Haiti…some of which might even watch and donate to CBN. Were they cursed too? …But that’s another story.

My primary issue is not about the validity of your facts, it’s about why you said them in the first place. I just want to strongly recommend that you step out from in front of the camera and keep quiet for a few years at least. Take a cue from people like Franklin Graham in this situation. Your words are heard by millions, so you must choose your words wisely. If you have a hard time with that, just please keep your mouth shut, or at least just keep your opinions off-camera. This is for your own good. I know you are surrounded by an inner circle of yes-men and yes-women, so they probably haven’t told you this, but you have lost your credibility. Most of the world thinks you’re crazy. Sure, you can argue against that on the basis of your Bible or what you think your God has told you or that you think what you say will save people. But, just so you know, and I say this as a recovering Christian who is trying to maintain balance in his perception of preachers like you … YOU’RE NOT HELPING!

If God is anything like the picture you paint of him — a god who is bound by some sick sense of justice; an “almighty” god who would somehow be bothered if a small group of slaves at one point were willing to do anything to have their own land and freedom back; a god who would hold that against the people of that nation for centuries; a god who didn’t have the power to overrule some pact with a devil to offer grace and help to suffering islanders; a god who, apparently still bound by old-covenant law rather than the love his new-testament son gave away freely, thought it better to destroy thousands of poor people than to urge a wealthy Christian TV mogul to shut his fucking mouth and go get his hands dirty helping people — if that is the case, your god must die, because no one in their right mind needs another god like that. The actions of Al Qaeda have proven that already.

So please wake up. You do not have divine right to this world. And you do not have all the answers. Even if you think you do, we do not want them. The fact that you seem to have a difficult time with is that most answers are conjecture. Answers are not truth.

But perhaps there is the possibility of truth. Perhaps there’s one answer that might wake you up. And that’s the day when you realize that you are only human and when the world asks you for your perspective, your answer will be simple: “My palace collapsed.”

[Now, I apologize for writing in such an angry tone. For a far better, more mature reaction to Pat Robertson’s comments, check out Donald Miller’s blogpost about it.]