Sea Shell Sin

I saw an author’s self-written blurb on the back of a recent book of his, and was struck (read: aghast!) at what it said. Read it, then I’ll tell you why I’m writing this.

The author (a well-known Christian preacher/teacher) wrote:

I will tell you what a tragedy is. I will show you how to waste your life. Consider this story from the February 1998 Reader’s Digest: A couple ‘took early retirement from their jobs in the Northeast five years ago when he was 59 and she was 51. Now they live in Punta Gorda, Florida, where they cruise on their 30-foot trawler, play softball and collect shells..’ Picture them before Christ at the great day of judgment: ‘Look, Lord. See my shells.’ That is a tragedy.”

The author, a second generation preacher, continues:

This book will warn you not to get caught up in a life that counts for nothing. It will challenge you to live and die boasting in the cross of Christ and making the glory of God your singular passion. If you believe that to live is Christ and to die is gain, read this, learn to live for Christ, and don’t waste your life.”

To have the audacity to be able to claim what constitutes a life “that counts for nothing” reveals a very large ego. I personally find that the larger a person’s ego is, the greater the chances are that it is also misshapen. Perhaps that audacity arises from the fact that the author is a preacher, and that his dad also was a preacher is not insignificant. Many preachers believe they are role models for how people should live their lives (just don’t come poking around in the cupboard under the sink: you might find some shells there, or other things).

They believe and teach, just like the main speaker at any pyramid sales event, that “Everyone is a prospect! Everyone needs what you have! Walk the walk, don’t take ‘No’ for an answer.” To be a real Christian, a true Christian, an on-your-way-to-heaven Christian, according to those listen-to-me preachers, you’ve got to tell everyone about Jesus. Everyone! Don’t miss an opportunity anywhere – at the bus stop, the restaurant, on an airplane, or at home! Hand out tracts, carry your biggest Bible, and wear necklaces, tie-tacs, lapel pins, tattoos, bumper stickers, or t-shirts that will let the world know that-

You. Are. A. Christian.

Christianity, after all, is about words- spoken, written, and memorized- right? It’s about getting that person at the bus stop (if you’re way lucky) to say a prayer, your prayer, the one printed right here on this tract, repeat after me: The Sinner’s Prayer, “God, I am a piece of worthless trash…” Etc.

Once you’ve said The Sinner’s Prayer, you’re in! Now you’ve got to tell other people the Good News, and to find what the Good News is, go to a church, maybe even our church. And don’t collect shells. They are a waste of time. As is everything except the speaking, writing, and memorizing of Bible words.  Softball? End that nonsense, too! And a 30-foot trawler??? That needs to be sold, right now, and the money- a tithe at least- given to a church, maybe even our church, almost certainly our church! (We did get you into heaven, right? And away from that sordid shell addiction? Also, we’re upgrading the air-conditioning at the parsonage, too, so we could use some extra help. God will bless you for that, indeed he will).

Feeling obligated to “save” the soul of every person you see, to tell your version of God’s love as revealed in Jesus Christ, and to try to keep up with the people who are running from you or turning a deaf ear toward you, is an exhausting process. It’s exhausting because you either are doing it, or not doing it, and when you’re not doing it you feel guilty or ashamed because you think you should be doing it. People will burn in hell just because you wanted to watch the Mavericks and the Spurs on TV tonight!

Here’s my opinion about what is revealed in that back-page blurb above. And do be aware, in fairness, that the author is also very adept and anxious to point out who is going to hell and why; he would no doubt include me, with glee, in the great majority army who will burn, baby, burn. C’est la vie. Or, rather, c’est la mort.

The author believes in beliefs. He is not alone. Believing in beliefs it is a plague, particularly in the U.S. Belief in belief reduces the majesty, grandeur, and mystery of God to a series of codified rules which are enforced by spiritual superiors, uncritically swallowed because of the fear of not swallowing, and which completely deny the Truths taught and lived by Jesus the Christ.

Belief is about knowledge- what you know- what you read, write, listen to, and memorize. In belief, you learn what to think, how to say it properly, and then are able to consider yourself to be special (elected, chosen, better) for having learned, memorized, and regurgitated the right beliefs- the orthodoxies of others. Faith, the faith lived by Jesus, plays only a very small role.

Faith is about not-knowing. It is about moving forward without knowing the right words, or the consequences. It is about stepping into the Mystery of God, and looking around. The chances are excellent that when you do that, you will feel the desire to learn more about the depth and width and timelessness of that Mystery and that is when you will hear- or, more likely- feel the words, “Follow me.”

When that happens, you might be led to a Jesus-attending dinner party of tax-collectors and sinners, or to a wedding party with more wine than you’ve ever seen in one place. You may be led to break the religious laws again and again because they were turned into legalities by tight-lipped, judgmental preachers. If Jesus is your companion on this journey you will be a revolutionary for real, unearned and unqualified Love; you will fall in love with the revealed Grace and Love of God, and then you’ll realize that the God that fit inside of your imagination for so long wanted you to experience the explosion of God’s continuing Creation. You’ll realize that Truth, real Truth, always leads to more questions. You’ll see the idols that people can make of their beliefs, the forts they build around them, and the defenses they will use to mask their fears.

There’s nothing wrong with belief; but it must be ready to bend, even ready to be thrown out when it no longer is valid- when a newer “truer” Truth takes its place. We can believe in God or have faith in God. The former tends to make God small, while latter tends to make us larger. It may cause us to want to be part of a community which plays..oh, I don’t know..maybe, softball? Or it may cause us to bend over, in increasing awe and always-growing Mystery, and see God’s perfect, evolving and creating a seashell.

A Tiny Story about Oral Roberts

This really has little to do with Oral Roberts himself, who died today at the age of 91. The story has much more to do with my Grandpa who was a fan of Oral’s, and of my Grandma who (to my admiration) wasn’t.

My grandparents lived in rural Pennsylvania, on top of an Allegheny mountain. The context of this set of memories is the late 1950s, and the mountaintop is relevant because that meant black and white television signals from Dubois would make it weakly to the tinfoil-enhanced rabbit ear antenna on the brown Philco in my grandparent’s front room.

It was enough of a signal for Grandpa, in his early 70s and slowed down by a stroke, to have become a big fan of two made-for-the-new-television-medium phenomena: professional arena wrestling and televangelists. Dick the Bruiser and Gorgeous George shared grandpa’s imagination with the two earliest TV preachers, Rex Humbard and Oral Roberts.


I was about 8 or 9 when I became aware of Oral Roberts through grandpa’s receiving of Robert’s monthly magazine, which he received for sending money to the Roberts ministry. It was a magazine which, in my memory, more resembled a comic book. The one I remember specifically chronicled a miracle healing which occurred during one of the Oral Robert’s crusades. One panel depicted a man sitting in the audience while a healing was happening on the platform many rows in front of him. He was healed while someone else was being “HEALed” by Roberts. And you knew this had happened because yellow lightning was shown going into (or coming out of) the man’s knee!

I don’t know why this fascinated me, but it did. In fact, I think I can say this little Oral Robert’s comic book was the beginning of  a life-long fascination with the marketing of Jesus on television in America and my own attempts to follow Jesus in spite of that marketing. I don’t know for sure if that was the starting point or not, but I do know I was spooked/ fascinated/ curious as hell about those lightning bolts.

And so, apparently, was Grandpa in his own way. He would kneel in front of the TV with his hand on the screen when Roberts prayed. Sometimes, several cousins would sneak peeks around the corners of the room with me while this was happening. It was not an occasion for giggling, though- not at all! I really did wonder if we would see lightning bolts on grandpa, because I knew he was praying about his stroke-slowed body.  We didn’t see any lightning. Neither, I guess, did Grandpa.

But Grandpa continued to send Oral Roberts money. It wasn’t much, maybe 50 cents every couple months. I found this out years later from my mom and one of her sisters, though, that Grandma often intercepted this miracle money on the way to the mailbox and slipped it into her apron pocket! She had never had much extra money (in fact, NO extra money much of the time), and she just decided that those quarters would be as appreciated by her at least as much as they were appreciated by Oral. 

I love the example set by Grandpa. And I love the example set by Grandma, too. I appreciate the faith Grandpa lived, but- like Grandma was- I am no fan of those who stand between the faithful and God with promises of super-conductivity.


Dick the Bruiser

The Body of Christ, Redux

A response from Lyndon (here) to what I wrote a few days ago about Religion, caused me to go back and look at a piece of art and Christian history that I have loved: The Isenheim Altarpiece: 

111Jesus isenheim

Painted in about 1515 by Matthias Grunewald, the three part work sits on top of a painted altar. There is much to learn and understand about the painter and this  piece and Wikipedia is a far better place to begin more research than here. But, I want to look specifically at the middle section and even more specifically at the body of Christ, as Grunewald depicted it.


The Isenheim Altarpiece was to be placed in the chapel of a sanitarium where patients with skin diseases were hospitalized. Grunewald painted this Christ as a suffering, contorted being with terrible lesions all over his body. Here was a Christ with whom the people of Isenheim could relate. This was a Jesus who was like them, suffered like them, and- they believed- died for them.

This was a Jesus with scars. This was a Jesus who died alone, unappreciated, unloved, shunned. This was a Jesus who who screamed in pain before he died. And amazingly, John the Baptist was painted to the right of the cross, pointing to Jesus and saying, “He must increase: I must decrease.” This was a suffering Christ, but a Christ who, according to the Baptist, should, could, and must be emulated.

So who is looking for this sacrificing Jesus today? Who is following this injured,bleeding, lashed and slashed Jesus anywhere? I turn the TV on and hear preachers talking about gay marriage and supporting Israel’s onslaught of Palestine. I read sermons extolling the virtues of teenage abstinence, the necessity of keeping “God” on coins, and laments about some clerk at Walmart who says “Happy Holiday.”

I watch “Christians” fussing at each other over the age of the earth, and the importance of using the right language regarding abortion (while doing nothing about it). I see clean, unbruised, never scarred church goers tsk-tsking over Sally’s bare shoulders, Timmy’s cruddy-looking tennis shoes, and..”Have you seen Bob with that new friend of his-Bill?”

Meanwhile, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are being pummeled by Israel with nary a whisper of protest from American Christians. Most of the world’s children end each day hungry. There are more slaves in the world than at any time in history. We (US) are spending $12 billion a month to fight a war over..what? I’ve forgotten. The high school drop out rate is higher than ever. We are the most incarcerating country on earth. And we (Christians) actually send money- lots of it!- to scriptural pimps who promise if we send more money to them, we can have bigger houses, shinier cars, better clothes, no cancer, great kids, vacations on Christian cruise ships, to Christian hotels, near Christian theme parks, after stopping at the mall to buy Christian CDs, Christian knick-knacks, bumper stickers, and jewelry, so that atheists and Muslims and Democrats and lesbians will know- without a doubt!- where we stand on the issues!

Unless the church begins to bleed, it will die. He must increase; we, fat and healthy and happy and lazy, must decrease.

Michael Moore’s "Letter to God"

I’m not the fan of Michael Moore, the documentary film maker, that you might expect me to be. Egomania and sarcasm are simply not the mix that holds my attention for very long. And despite his great editing and data retrieval skills, Moore’s focus on himself soon becomes (for me) grating.

But he sometimes has a twisted way of revealing truth that is hard to ignore, and this prayer, published yesterday, is one such revelation:

Sunday, August 31st, 2008
An Open Letter to God, from Michael Moore

Dear God,

The other night, the Rev. James Dobson’s ministry asked all believers to pray for a storm on Thursday night so that the Obama acceptance speech outdoors in Denver would have to be canceled.

I see that You have answered Rev. Dobson’s prayers — except the storm You have sent to earth is not over Denver, but on its way to New Orleans! In fact, You have scheduled it to hit Louisiana at exactly the moment that George W. Bush is to deliver his speech at the Republican National Convention.

Now, heavenly Father, we all know You have a great sense of humor and impeccable timing. To send a hurricane on the third anniversary of the Katrina disaster AND right at the beginning of the Republican Convention was, at first blush, a stroke of divine irony. I don’t blame You, I know You’re angry that the Republicans tried to blame YOU for Katrina by calling it an “Act of God” — when the truth was that the hurricane itself caused few casualties in New Orleans. Over a thousand people died because of the mistakes and neglect caused by humans, not You.

Some of us tried to help after Katrina hit, while Bush ate cake with McCain and twiddled his thumbs. I closed my office in New York and sent my entire staff down to New Orleans to help. I asked people on my website to contribute to the relief effort I organized — and I ended up sending over two million dollars in donations, food, water, and supplies (collected from thousands of fans) to New Orleans while Bush’s FEMA ice trucks were still driving around Maine three weeks later.

But this past Thursday night, the Washington Post reported that the Republicans had begun making plans to possibly postpone the convention. The AP had reported that there were no shelters set up in New Orleans for this storm, and that the levee repairs have not been adequate. In other words, as the great Ronald Reagan would say, “There you go again!”

So the last thing John McCain and the Republicans needed was to have a split-screen on TVs across America: one side with Bush and McCain partying in St. Paul, and on the other side of the screen, live footage of their Republican administration screwing up once again while New Orleans drowns.

So, yes, You have scared the Jesus, Mary and Joseph out of them, and more than a few million of your followers tip their hats to You.

But now it appears that You haven’t been having just a little fun with Bush & Co. It appears that Hurricane Gustav is truly heading to New Orleans and the Gulf coast. We hear You, O Lord, loud and clear, just as we did when Rev. Falwell said You made 9/11 happen because of all those gays and abortions. We beseech You, O Merciful One, not to punish us again as Pat Robertson said You did by giving us Katrina because of America’s “wholesale slaughter of unborn children.” His sentiments were echoed by other Republicans in 2005.

So this is my plea to you: Don’t do this to Louisiana again. The Republicans got your message. They are scrambling and doing the best they can to get planes, trains and buses to New Orleans so that everyone can get out. They haven’t sent the entire Louisiana National Guard to Iraq this time — they are already patrolling the city streets. And, in a nod to I don’t know what, Bush’s head of FEMA has named a man to help manage the federal government’s response. His name is W. Michael Moore. I kid you not, heavenly Father. They have sent a man with both my name AND W’s to help save the Gulf Coast.

So please God, let the storm die out at sea. It’s done enough damage already. If you do this one favor for me, I promise not to invoke your name again. I’ll leave that to the followers of Rev. Dobson and to those gathering this week in St. Paul.

Your faithful servant and former seminarian,

Michael Moore

Baby Bible Bashers- Fear, in the name of Jesus

Wow! “Baby Bible Bashers,” produced by Firecracker Films, follows three child preachers. I’ve just watched all five Youtube segments and am depressed, angry, sad, and more committed than ever to speaking, writing, and living against this kind of foulness perpetuated in the name of Jesus.

These are little children being manipulated out of a childhood by zealous adults- adults who see their children as their own redemption from failure or- in the case of one daddy- an eternal meal ticket, along with the cars and homes appropriate to being the father of an empire-building “little man of God.” The kids have much more to say about hell than love, perhaps because that is what they know best.

Young Samuel, forced onto the streets of New York City while his daddy taunts homosexuals, is simply a heart-breaking figure. His parents have made him so afraid of “long worms in hell” that he must fight to be a little boy. And that, of course, is deemed to be rebellious and disobedient, which will no doubt earn him yet another spanking.

Honest to God, I feel right now like I need to vomit. Part 1 follows, Youtube will guide you to the other four segments:

The Rapture

Born in the bowels of early-19th Century religious fervor, the notion of imminent Rapture has diverted, and continues to divert the attention of many Christians from the presence of Jesus Right Now. A by-product of the Second Great Awakening in America, the Rapture cult is focused on what-is-about-to-happen, causing many to not only turn a blind eye to current events, but to even stand by anxiously, encouraging and applauding natural and human-caused catastrophes.

Rapture theology surfaced again this past week as one of the presidential candidates repudiated (or at least tempered) the endorsement of John Hagee, pastor of San Antonio’s Cornerstone Church and popular expositor of the Rapture and its meaning for the world. The whole Rapture theory is a complicated set of scriptural proof-texting and “special revelations” that Hagee is particularly and skillfully adept at translating into easily accessible, simplistic statements that bear the stamp of ancient authority.

In doing so, I believe Hagee also appeals to some of the worst instincts in human nature as well. I watched him several weeks ago. I took notes just after I heard him say the following because it epitomized everything that disgusts me about this Jesus-perverting teaching of Jesus’ soon-to-be arrival to rescue his beloved from the jaws of the Antichrist:

[After the Rapture] ..”we’ll have have front row seats as we watch the Valley of Armageddon fill with the blood of the enemy.”

Key words in that statement:”We” and “the enemy.”

The Rapture cult is all about ‘us’ and ‘them.’ That is one of the universal characteristics of ALL fundamentalist systems; i.e., there is an “us” on the inside, and a group of “them” outside the accepted orthodoxy, whatever brand of orthodoxy it is which is being espoused. This is something basic to the darker nature of humanity, it seems- the need to be counted among those who are saved and the ability to determine who is not saved. Sales organizations do it, some Muslim factions do it, many American Christian groups do it, and even towns do it during football games with their main rivals. Amway people are ready at a moment’s notice to point out the flawed ingredients used by Proctor and Gamble. Islamic Jihadists need “The Great Satan” in order to exist. And Springfield hates with a vengeance those cheaters from Smalltown who suck up to the the referees.

The need to identify an ‘us’ and a ‘them’ on the part of Hagee and the Rapture Ready cultists is an old and ancient tradition that has led to countless wars and much torture. The need for such separation among people does not arise from Christian impulses; it rises from the human ego- the need to be “better than” someone else. And the desire to see others- even the so-called ‘enemy’, swimming in their own blood- well, that comes from the most debased of human values.

All of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus have made the mistake from time to time of projecting our own personal characteristics onto the person of Jesus. It’s why Jesus is often unrecognizable when one tries to compare what they’ve learned about him with what the gospels say. Both capitalists and socialists can claim him as their own, just as slave-owners and abolitionists once did. Right now, it simply happens that many who are fearful of the modern world in which they find themselves, and who are having many old and traditional “truths” kicked out by science from underneath their clay feet, are retreating into the gnosis of the Rapture, as a means of ultimate escape.

So be it. They can be wrong with a host of others, beginning with the Apostle Paul, and extending now into the Rapture profiteers like Hagee and the Left Behind authors, and all the ancillary businesses that their mistaken beliefs have given rise to. They can keep their eyes aimed at future clouds in the East if they want to; I’m just afraid they might miss Jesus walking among them in the meantime. That’s the real tragedy of this dismal doctrine.

Here’s Hagee, explaining the Rapture as he sees it. Let me know if you hear anything about God’s grace during the presentation:

Fundamentalism: Jesus is "One of Us"

“Gooble gobble, gooble gobble, we accept her, we accept her, one of us, one of us!” (chant from closing scene of “Freaks”, the 1932 Ted Browning film)

Separation plays well in fundamentalist circles. The drawing of doctrinal lines in the shifting sands of culture, and the interpretation of those lines’ widths and exclusionary powers, makes the “them and us” game an especially appealing fundamentalist pastime.

Fundamentalist Characteristic #3: There is a “Them” and There is an “Us.”

I just read an article from last week’s Wall Street Journal about various Christian churches who have become re-involved with something they call “church discipline.” Church discipline involves privately confronting congregants with their perceived sinful behaviors, and then castigating, then shunning them publicly if they fail to repent. Sinful behavior, in the article, ranges from drunkenness to gossip about the pastor, with an emphasis, it seems, on the latter.

Unfortunately, local church separating practices only reflect larger, institutional blinders that are gleefully worn by those who know, without a doubt, that Jesus is on their side, and that they will have ringside seats in heaven when the bloodbath of Armageddon begins here on Earth.* It is so easy to hate others  from the center of the In Crowd, or to be absurdly defensive when one perceives the Out Crowd being discriminatory (Happy Holidays!).

It’s easy for US to declare war on Them. (irony noted) It’s easy to pass laws favoring US, protecting US, and institutionalizing US into a semi-permanence that cultural evolution would eventually destroy without the safeguards of law.

It makes those who are at the bottom of the economic and education barrel feel good to know that they are spiritually “better than” those high-falutin’, girl-getting, nice car-driving, good job-having, rich guys who are headed to hell in a handbasket! (heh, heh, heh, heh)

Listen to their selfish prayers for the Rapture to come quickly, even as they decry the millions of folks who are “unsaved.” What they are really saying with their “Come quickly, Lord Jesus” prayers is “the hell with them sinners. I’ve got mine; too bad you didn’t get yours!”

John 3:17 (from The Message, which I am purposely using because the fundies hate it!) “God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.”

That, of course- actually helping someone– involves a little work. It might even involve sharing money, time, and- OMG!- love. But that’s more difficult than circling the wagons and singing self-congratulatory songs about the sweet by and by. Bottom line: it’s easier to follow church rules and doctrines than it is to move around the edges of society where Jesus said he would be most easily found. (Matthew 25)

Out there at the edges, you know, where there’s a lot of gray areas and where the US’s and THEM’s are not so easily discerned.

*actual scenario, which I heard salivatingly prophesied by John Hagee, one of the primo experts on who is them, and who is us.