Friday, April 29, 2005

the opposite of faith

"The opposite of faith is not doubt:" Anne Lamott wrote in this week -- "It is certainty. It is madness. You can tell you have created God in your own image when it turns out that he or she hates all the same people you do. The first holy truth in God 101 is that men and women of true faith have always had to accept the mystery of God's identity and love and ways. I hate that, but it's the truth."

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

a ringing in the ears

So I have this odd connection to people whose organizations are dedicated to the notion of Christian evangelism. I say "the notion of Christian evangelism" because I've somehow become a source to a few people who see that the assumptions they've been working under seem to be crumbling and their missions failing -- or at least not succeeding much beyond the appearance of Christian evangelism. In practical terms I suppose that may mean they are able show enough activity to continue raising money from people who have yet to question the assumptions of modern(ist) American evangelical evangelism. But these people who find me from time to time seem to believe that's not good enough to be sustainable and I believe they're right about that.

Yesterday I took a call from a videomaker working on a project for one of these folks. It was obviously an obligatory call because the videomaker made it clear he was trying to finish shooting the project in the next couple of days and his client said he should call me for direction on some things he should steer around in the "Gospel presentation" that is to be included on the DVD. The videomaker let me know he had a guy coming in to "present the Gospel" and the client wanted him to avoid language that would turn people off -- words like 'sin,' you know, because people don't like to be told they're sinners.

My ears were ringing the least bit as I listened to the nice videomaker do his duty and make the call he was asked to make -- reminding me several times that he needed to get this finished up in the next couple of days. I may have made his ears ring when I said none of my friends like being called sinners because they don't particularly believe they are sinners, but they're convinced right to the soles of their feet that they are fucked up.

"Excuse me?" he said from the other end, "did you say messed up?"

"I said, fucked up," I replied.

"Oh, f'd up," he said with a nervous chuckle. "Well, we probably won't go that low."

The ringing in my ears got louder and I said, "No, we wouldn't want to go as low as Jesus would go."

I don't know what was going on at his end of the line. He asked if he could give my number to the guy who was coming in to "give the Gospel."

"Look," I said, "yes; you can give him my number, but I don't have enough context to even know what i'm voting on. In general I think it's a bad idea to try to 'close the deal' on a DVD."

At this point he cut me off: "Yeh, everybody has their opinion about that," and reminded me he was trying to get this project wrapped up in the next couple of days.

I ended the conversation and promised to get back to him. Then I left a terse message on the voice mail of the guy who made the poor videomaker call me.

Turns out they've already had two other guys "give the Gospel," including a reputedly postmodern guy from northern California who turned out to be no less offensive than whoever it was who struck out the first time. Now they've lined up an ethnic guy to deliver the goods and really feel the need to get it right this time because who can afford to just keep shooting and shooting?

The ringing in my ears is driving me out of my mind.

"Which gospel is he going to deliver?" I asked. "The gospel of the kingdom of heaven Jesus came preaching? I doubt it."

"I know," my friend said. "I respect your thinking on that." And he does. But he has a job to do and he doesn't work for me.

I cherry-picked this from an interview with Os Guinness this morning:

"Suffering is uniquely individual, so there are no recipe answers. The first part of reaching out in love is to listen and try to discern where and why the person is hurting, and only then to bring the reassurance that the gospel brings to that particular hurt. We must never forget that listening is love, that comforting someone with an embrace without words is love, and that if we do not know why someone is suffering, to pretend that we do and say what God is doing in his or her life can be insensitive, cruel, and dead wrong—as Job's comforters were. That said, evil can torture the mind just as it can torture the body, and it is wonderful to be able to bring specific, comforting truths of the gospel to bear on specific points of anguish and see them make a difference. For example, I have seen more people helped by coming to appreciate the outrage of Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus—and its significance for the notion that "the world should have been otherwise"—than by a hundred worthy expositions of the Fall."

Even if we reduce the Gospel to individualized cognitive event -- there's that ringing again -- it's still individualized.

I have another friend from another American evangelistic collective with whom I've been hashing this dilemma for a whole decade. He was training the staff of his organization to put the Gospel in terms he could relate to. I pushed him hard on the biblical context of all that and after a series of heated exchanges he went off to do some field research. Everywhere he went for several weeks, he asked self-described Christians what it was that persuaded them to consider the possibility that Jesus was the answer to their most pressing questions.

He came home with a pattern of nine categories including the one that proved persuasive to him. All of a sudden he moves from one reason to believe to nine possible reasons. So how does he teach his organization to choose the appropriate contextualization for the person seated across from them in a given moment? He teaches them to listen. To ask really good questions. To pay attention as if it really mattered because, of course, it really does.

The reason I think it's a bad idea trying to close the deal on a DVD is because I think it's a bad idea trying to close the deal period. There is no deal. That's an unworthy metaphor for an exchange between two human being talking about the unlikely possibility that the good news about God might be even better than the bad news that they are both fucked to hell and back.

The problem is, that particular telling of the Gospel is completely unacceptable to everyone but those who are convinced that what they're doing isn't working. Would Jesus stoop so low? Are you kidding? Go read the stories again and get back to me on that.

Monday, April 25, 2005

the hunger + the thirst

The Los Angeles Times' Janet Kinosian asked legendary cartoonist Stan Lee the big question: If you could have a superpower yourself, what would it be?

Lee was behind the best years of Marvel Comics as the creator of the Incredible Hulk, Spider Man and the X-Men. "If you could have a superpower yourself," Kinosian asked, "what would it be?"

"Immortality;" Lee replied, "I'd hate to think this will end."


Saturday, April 09, 2005


Sao Paulo Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns reports that every time he visited John Paul II, the pope had three questions for him:

Are you taking care of the poor?
Are you taking care of the workers?
Are you taking care of the youth?

These are not bad questions for people who wonder how we're doing…

Monday, April 04, 2005

enough already

Enough of this ungodly preoccupation with the Ten Commandments.

Anybody as fixated on the Ten Commandments as your run of the mill American Evangelical can't possibly have read the whole book…or Kurt Vonnegut.

" For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes. But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course that’s Moses, not Jesus. I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere.

“'Blessed are the merciful' in a courtroom? 'Blessed are the peacemakers' in the Pentagon? Give me a break!"+

OK, that hurt a little.

And then some clown says to find out what the Bible says about the Ten Commandments -- as distinct from just reading the list -- I'd have to read the whole thing. Seriously? Are you kidding? I haven't even read the Left Behind books! Enough already!

+ Kurt Vonnegut, "Cold Turkey," May 10, 2004, In These Times.