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Blog Archive/May 2005

May 27, 2005

The Anti-Purpose-Driven Life: SoMA’s New Series of Essays

Rick Warren’s bestseller, “The Purpose Driven Life,” has comforted millions with a message so simple and assuring that it even changed the heart of an alleged murderer during the tense conclusion of an Atlanta shooting spree in March. The book’s thesis is that there are no accidents in life, and that God has a specific plan for each of us—“he planned the days of your life in advance,” Warren writes, “he planned it all with great precision.”

That’s a message I’d certainly find appealing if I’d just gone off on a deadly rampage: Hey, God didn’t only know in advance I’d kill four people today; he planned the whole thing! Which makes me wonder what the shooting victims’ families think of Rick Warren’s book.

Needless to say, I think it’s a load of hooey. So you can imagine my excitement when a publisher recently sent me a new book described as “a counter-insurgency against ‘the purpose-driven life.’”

Written by the Rev. Dr. Lincoln Swain, an Episcopal priest and theologian, “Dare to Defy: Conquering Fear with Active Faith” is a gem of a book. It’s only 88-pages long and it’s a breeze to read, but this collection of unflinching and often personal meditations on life, fear, and faith packs a punch.

Though Swain never mentions “The Purpose-Driven Life,” his view of life is informed by an understanding of faith that’s diametrically opposed to Warren’s. In his intro, Swain says that the story of the Garden of Eden is about the free will God gave us to create our own purpose in life, without the benefit of a divine plan. Thus, Adam suffered the anxiety that theologian Soren Kierkegaard said preceded the original sin—the same terror we all experience when we stare into the gaping abyss of freedom.

Freedom, Swain says, is both our burden and our salvation: “We are the choices we make.”

“To see God as a celestial puppet master, benevolent or malevolent, sells the Lord very short,” he writes. “Some people prefer the idea of predestination because it offers the comfort of a self-aggrandizing innocence—God providing cradle-to-grave supervision of a life plan tailor-made for you. You just wait for the plot twists and then accept them as ‘the will of God.’”

Swain shares stories from his life and work as a pastor that urge us not to live in a rose-tinted world full of easy answers and wishful thinking. He calls us to face up to life’s realities—its uncertainties and pains, as well as its pleasures—in order to unmask and disarm fear, and to cultivate an authentic existence through “benevolent action.”

Over a three-week period, SoMA will publish a series of essays written by Lincoln Swain, starting today and continuing the next two Fridays.

Read "The Anti-Purpose-Driven Life" here.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

May 25, 2005

What Would Jesus Eat?

As Jesus increasingly becomes a 21st-century American evangelical Christian, after whom thousands of 21st-century American evangelicals are modeling their lives, it’s fitting to ask: What did Jesus eat? And how? Did he super-size it in his SUV on the way to a megachurch? The answer, based on extensive biblical and historical research, may come as a surprise to some: No, he did not.

In fact, there isn't a single mention of fast food, or even a drive-thru, anywhere in the New Testament.

It's more likely that Jesus, a peasant who lived in the Mediterranean at a time when food was scarce, often went hungry, and had to make do on locusts and crickets. Even so, the Lord ate a healthier diet than most Americans do.

Just ask Don Colbert, a Florida doctor and author of What Would Jesus Eat?: The Ultimate Program for Eating Well, Feeling Great, and Living Longer (Thomas Nelson, 2002. A pbk edition, Amazon says, releases in July). Intended for people who want to “lose weight, prevent disease, eat more balanced meals, attain vibrant health, or adopt a diet designed with biblical authority,” the book comes complete with recipes.

“If you truly want to follow Jesus in every area of your life,” Colbert said in a recent BBC News interview, “you cannot ignore your eating habits. The health of Americans is going down and it is largely due to our bad food choices.”

Dr. Colbert said that Jesus ate “primarily natural foods in their natural states—lots of vegetables, especially beans and lentils. He would have eaten white bread, a lot of fruit, drunk a lot of water and also red wine.”

Eric Eve, a New Testament scholar at Oxford University, told the BBC that bread would have been the staple of a peasant’s diet in Jesus’ day, and that most peasants “achieved only bare subsistence.”

Olives and grapes were harvested in Galilee, but more for “trade than for peasant consumption,” he said.

Jesus would not have been big on the Atkins diet. “He would only eat meat on special occasions, maybe once a month, just like the parable of the prodigal son who ate fatted calf,” Dr. Colbert said.

And because Jesus followed the Levitical laws, he didn’t eat forbidden meats: “He would not have eaten pigs and rabbits or fish that did not have scales, such as crabs and shrimp.”

Though he was born in a barn, Jesus didn’t eat like he’d been raised in one. People in biblical times “would eat for hours and take their time,” Dr. Colbert said. “The disciples would be lounging around and conversing while dining, not eating fast food on the go like we do.”   

So could “WWJE?” become the next South Beach diet?

“I can’t imagine many modern Americans taking enthusiastically to all the features of a ‘biblical’ diet,” Eve told the BBC. “For example, Leviticus 11:22 says, ‘Of them you may eat: the locust according to its kind, the bald locust according to its kind, the cricket according to its kind, and the grasshopper according to its kind.’”   

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

May 18, 2005

Holy Spirit Gives Benny Hinn a Bum Steer

Earlier this year, televangelist Benny Hinn’s website announced that the president of Nigeria had sent two official representatives to ask the mega-rich faith healer to hold a three-day televised crusade in Nigeria, to heal their nation.

The emissaries’ visit was unnecessary, however, because God himself had already instructed Hinn to go there.  “Unbeknownst to the representatives,” the Hinn Ministries’ announcement continued, “exactly at 6 PM of the day they arrived in Georgia to deliver the invitation Pastor Benny was preparing for [an] Atlanta service and the Holy Spirit said, ‘Go to Nigeria!’”

Understandably then, Hinn arrived in Africa on April 28 with high hopes. But apparently the Holy Spirit had given him a bum steer. According to Monday’s Daily Sun, a Nigerian newspaper, Hinn left the country in a fit of “holy anger.” It seems the turnout was nowhere near the six million Hinn expected, and his ministry lost millions in expenses, from hotel accommodations and transportation to costs related to “technical infrastructure.” The article doesn’t state how many people did attend, but says that Hinn blamed the organizers for a poor showing and accused them of financial “monkey business,” in the words of the paper.

“Four million dollars down drain!” Hinn was quoted saying during the crusade—“his voice cracking with emotion.” Hinn also said that his ministry would not pay the outstanding bills generated by the crusade, saying the offering collected on two of the three days should be used instead.

Now, you might think Hinn had a few choice words for the Holy Ghost, too. Like, “What the hell were you thinking, Casper?” But instead Hinn is taking the lemons God gave him and making lemonade. “I have just concluded three amazing days of ministry at our miracle crusade in Lagos, Nigeria,” he said in a report posted on his website Monday. “The Holy Spirit’s fire penetrated the hearts of millions as God’s presence descended upon the massive crowds. Precious saints who had traveled great distances praised the Lord with unbridled enthusiasm as miracles of salvation and healing took place all around."

There’s no mention of the missing $4 million, though Hinn does end his report with an appeal for money: “Please: plant your most generous seed today in expectation of a worldwide harvest of souls—and expect an outpouring of the Lord’s blessing in your life!”

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

May 14, 2005

Lauren Winner's "Real Sex"

ýHoney,ý I said, turning to my wife at the breakfast table this morning. ýDid you realize that in the eight years we lived together before getting married, none of the sex we had was real?ý

ýHuh?ý she said, lowering the New York Times, and shooting me a wary look that said, OK, whatýs the punch line, loser?

ýWell, according to Lauren Winner, none of it was real,ý I said. ýSays so right here in her new book, ýReal Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity.ý She writes that ýthe only real sex is the sex that happens in marriage; the faux sex that goes on outside marriage is not really sex at all.ý Itýs ýonly a distorted image of sex, as Walt Disney's Wilderness Lodge Resort is only a simulation of real wilderness.ý"

ýThatýs bullshit,ý my wife said. ýShe should try telling that to the two dogs we saw humping on the town green yesterday.ý

Or, for that matter, to any gay couple in a long-term committed relationship.

ýStill, itýs a good thing we held off from having kids until we got married,ý I said.

ýWhyýs that?ý my beloved asked.

ýOtherwise, we might now be the not-so-proud parents of two fake sons!ý

Deb and I may think Laurenýs depiction of sex is a little loopy, but if youýve read the glowing reviews her book is receiving, you might think we were the only ones. Publishers Weekly praises Winnerýs candor, noting that she ýhelpfully and perhaps even radically reframes both the Christian and cultural discussion of chastity and sexuality.ý The Dallas/Fort Worth Star-Telegram calls ýReal Sexý a ýdelightýýýcandid, strikingly insightful and, yes, entertaining.ý And in his AP review, Richard Ostling, a former religion writer for Time magazine, called Winnerýs book a ýcandid, commonsensical 21st-century manifesto.ý

And New York Times reporter Alex Williams was so taken by LaurenýýShe wears retro cat's-eye glasses, has four tattoos, weaves references to the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu into casual conversation and sips Cýtes du Rhýne over lunch"ýthat I wondered whether Williams didnýt want to engage in some steamy fake nooky with the young author right there in the Charlottesville restaurant where they met. (Which raises an interesting question: If only sex within marriage is real sex, and sex outside of marriage is a sin, then isnýt the latter actually a fake sin? And where was Lauren Winner when Bill Clinton claimed he didn't really have sex with Monica Lewisnky?)

SoMA is breaking from the pack and actually daring to offer some real criticism of ýReal Sex.ý SoMA contributor Astrid Storm is the only reviewer Iýve read who is willing to say thereýs something wrong with Lauren Winnerýs approach to sex. Among Laurenýs advice to young Christians is the suggestion that if their physical desires are great then they should marry for sex. Storm grew up as an evangelical Christian, and had to wrestle with this kind of outdated and harmful thinking. Fortunately, she didnýt succumb to it, but several of her friends did, and theyýve since divorced. Now, as an Episcopal priest, Storm finds herself having to help clean up the messes such proclamations on sex create.

Well, enough from me already. Read Stormýs engaging and insightful review here. 

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

May 11, 2005

Springtime for Dobson

When you hear the name “James Dobson,” do you think “antichrist”? When you read about “Justice Sunday,” the conservative Christian telecast that shamelessly portrayed Democrats as “against people of faith” for opposing President Bush’s judicial nominees, did the political tactics of a certain German party that rose to power shortly before World War II come to mind? If so, you’re not alone, as recent articles at The Revealer and in The Christian Century attest.

James Dobson played a big part in “Justice Sunday,” and the controversial event led to a war of words between Dobson and Colorado senator Ken Salazar, who called Dobson’s ministry and media empire, Focus on the Family, “the Anti-Christ of the world.”  Salazar later apologized for the remark, explaining that he intended to call Dobson’s tactics “un-Christian, meaning self-serving and selfish.” Which, unless you read scripture literally, is pretty much what the antichrist is, right?

In “Dobson Antichrist,” Revealer writer Kate Hawley does a nice job of explaining the history and meaning of the term. She notes that “religious and political leaders have been slinging antichrist invective since Jesus’ time,” and she suspects that Salazar, a former seminarian and a liberal Catholic, probably used the term thinking along the lines of Matthew 24’s reference to “false prophets” and “false Christs”—“a religious hypocrite,” she writes, “someone claiming to be a godly man but who is in fact bent on power and ill-will.”

Meanwhile, “Justice Sunday” reminded the editorial writers at The Christian Century of Nazi politics in pre-war Germany. In the May 17 issue, they write: “After listening to James Dobson and his evangelical colleagues talk about controlling the federal judiciary through the Republican majority in Congress—to the extent of punishing judges and defunding courts—one can’t help recalling the events in 1930s Germany. The National Socialists removed judges who didn’t go along with the party program. Law became what the party said it was.”

The piece quotes Dobson explaining on his radio show how political change should proceed. “The troublesome Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco could be abolished and then staffed by different judges immediately,” he said. “Congress has not had the political gumption to take any such action.” Tom DeLay has pushed this idea: “We set up the courts. We can unset the courts. We have the power of the purse.”

The Century criticizes Dobson and Co. for failing to realize that the very rule of law depends on an independent judiciary, and the magazine quotes none other than right-wing Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas on this: “If we are to be a nation of laws and not of men, judges must be impartial referees… By insulating judges from external retaliation and from internal temptations of ambition [by life appointment and irreducible salary], the framers hoped that the judiciary would be free of pressure not only from the government but also from the people.”

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

May 10, 2005

Religious Persecution: Jesus Christ, Denied a Driver’s License!

A man born as Peter Robert Phillips Jr. changed his name to Jesus Christ more than 15 years ago. He has a U.S. passport, a Social Security card, and a Washington driver’s license, all bearing the name he shares with the son of God. But it seems these documents aren’t good enough for the West Virginia DMV. They are refusing Christ a driver’s license because his Florida birth certificate has his original name on it, and because he hasn’t been able to change his name officially in Washington, the AP reported.

D.C. judge Tim Murphy denied Christ a legal name change because “taking the name of Jesus Christ may provoke a violent reaction or may significantly offend people.”

“This all started with him expressing his faith and respect and love for Jesus Christ,” Christ’s attorney told the AP. “Now he needs to document it for legal reasons.”

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

May 7, 2005

And Then Jesus Said, “Vote for Bush, or Rot in Hell!”

Pastor Chan Chandler of the East Waynesville Baptist Church apparently confuses devotion to the GOP with devotion to GOD. During the presidential election last fall, the preacher told his congregation that members who planned to vote for John Kerry should either repent or find themselves a new church, the AP reported. And he wasn’t kidding. Nine members who didn’t support Bush were voted out of his 400-member church last Monday.

“He’s the kind of pastor who says do it my way or get out,” Selma Morris, the former church secretary, told the AP. “He’s real negative all the time.” Just like Jesus.

Jerry Meek, head of the North Carolina Democratic Party, said that Chandler risks losing his church’s tax-free status by openly supporting a presidential candidate. “If these reports are true,” he said, “this minister is not only acting extremely inappropriately by injecting partisan politics into a house of worship, but he is also potentially breaking the law.”

Partisan politics? In a house of worship? Noooo!

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

May 6, 2005

To Creed, or Not to Creed

An Episcopal priest wrestles with the ancient words he recites Sunday after Sunday. [Read more here.]

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

May 4, 2005

A Tale of Religious Masochism

In Part I of SoMA’s “The Deborah Trilogy,” we met Mary Beth Crain's friend Deborah, a religious fanatic who performed a novena to St. Theresa “The Little Flower” for help in getting her perfect mate. According to novena protocol, if St. Theresa will grant your request, you will receive a rose during your nine days of prayer (Deborah’s novena was, for some unknown reason, a 21-day affair). When, on the final evening of the novena, Deborah still had not received a rose, she got so mad at St. Theresa that she flushed her novena card down the toilet. But instead of politely exiting into the sewer, St. Theresa came back up, staring pointedly at Deborah as she floated around in the bowl.

 Now, in the second installment of our trilogy, we find Deborah planning her dream trip to Italy, in search of holy affliction. [Read more here.]

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

May 2, 2005

Update from Colorado Springs

Well, today was the day that hundreds of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people and their friends and families had planned to visit Focus on the Family’s “Welcome Center” to distribute letters describing how James Dobson’s anti-gay rhetoric has hurt them. But Dobson and his organization, presumably doing what Jesus would have done, put the kibosh on that. They locked the doors.

“They actually shut down the public tours so that we could not enter the building,” Laura Montgomery Rutt told me by phone from Colorado Springs this afternoon. Rutt handles the p.r. for Soulforce, a national interfaith organization that supports gay rights. Soulforce coordinated the event, which was intended to follow a picnic and rally they held yesterday across the street from the Focus on the Family campus.

More than 900 people attended yesterday’s gathering, Rutt said, despite freezing temperatures and a light snow. “An AP report put the number at 500,” she noted, “but we counted 830 people who were still there at the end of the rally.”  

I called Focus on the Family (1-800-A-FAMILY) to learn the reason they're giving for the closure. “Because of a protest,” said the guy I spoke with. I was aware of the rally, I told him, but I still wasn’t sure why they were closed.

“For the safety of our visitors,” he explained.

Safety? Focus on the Family is worried about an organization modeled after Gandhi’s practice of nonviolent resistance?

“Apparently there are people who want to try to run the barricades and disrupt things,” he said.

Wow. He makes it sound as if the French Revolution is breaking out over there.
In a Soulforce press release issued today, Rev. Nori Rost, pastor of Pikes Peak Metropolitan Community Church, said: “We really were hoping that [James Dobson] would be willing to meet with us and look into the eyes of those who are hurt because he refuses to acknowledge the love and commitment apparent to all who get to know our families."

 “We believe that the ministry of Jesus was about opening doors for the marginalized and oppressed,” she added, “so it is ironic that Focus on the Family is slamming the doors on those very same people that Jesus would have welcomed with open arms.” 

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

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