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Blog Archive/October 2005

October 28, 2005

The New Jesus: Seducer of Washington, Hollywood, Starbucks, and Anne Rice

Back when Jesus ran the ministry that later adopted his name, the call to faith was demanding—and a little nuts. You had to give everything you owned to the poor, and you had to say goodbye to your family for good, and follow him. You had to be able to look at the homeless and see not only yourself, but the kingdom of God. Fortunately for Christians today, that Jesus left the pulpit long ago, taking with him his quasi-communistic principles and wacky restrictions (a turnstile at heaven the size of an eye of a needle? Cuckoo!).

The Jesus now in charge, thank God, doesn’t glorify weakness and poverty. Instead, this uberdude embraces wealth and power, swaying national elections, undermining science education, and, ever since his multi-hundred-million-dollar success with “The Passion of the Christ,” making Hollywood beg at his feet. He fills megachurches throughout the land every Sunday and is the driving force behind a $7-billion-dollar-a-year Christian book, music, and trinket industry. He even helped nominate for the Supreme Court a woefully inadequate evangelical whose religion, Christopher Hitchens noted, was the only thing her supporters could find worth mentioning on her behalf.

No longer a pesky outsider, the new Jesus is the ultimate insider, and anybody who wants a piece of the action is eager either to follow him or to step out of his path so as not to get crushed.

Take Starbucks. The Seattle-based coffee giant will soon quote the Rev. Rick Warren, author of the bestselling “Purpose Driven Life,” on its coffee cups. "You were made by God and for God,” the line will read, “and until you understand that, life will never make sense."

When did Starbucks get all evangelical? Not long after it was attacked by evangelical Christian groups last summer for quoting writer Armistead Maupin on its cups, saying, “My only regret about being gay is that I repressed it for so long.” The conservative Culture and Family Institute was one group that was quick to bitch slap the coffee company for leaning left. “Starbucks has long served up a New Age secular worldview," said CFI director Robert H. Knight. "It's about time that they acknowledged that 90 percent of Americans believe in God and that millions of them are Christian." (In last Sunday's New York Times, Starbucks denied it was trying to placate evangelicals with the Warren quote, but was rather “trying to show a diversity of thought and opinion." Whatever.)

And when St. Peter screens those millions of Christians at the pearly gates, he’d better admit author Anne Rice. In this week’s Newsweek, “the queen of the occult” says she’s found Jesus and finally turned her back on vampires. Next month, Knopf publishes Rice’s “Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt,” the story of Jesus narrated by Christ himself as a seven-year-old boy. It’s Rice’s first novel in two years, and it’s her first in a projected series about the Son of God. “I promised that from now on I would write only for the Lord,” she told the magazine.
And what, pray tell, brought Anne Rice to Jesus? Actually, she has returned to Jesus—and the Catholic Church, which she left after suffering a “total breakdown of faith” when she was 18. Decades of spiritual confusion ensued. Rice says she “was in despair” when she wrote “Interview with a Vampire” and her 24 other gothic novels, which have sold 136 million copies. After a recent health scare, she decided to “return to the banquet table”—faith.

Earlier this year she sold her home in New Orleans and moved to sunny California, where she now devotes herself to Jesus in an $8-million, 12,000-square-foot Tuscan-style villa. “Sometimes Anne Rice won’t leave her bedroom for days on end—and neither would you,” writes Newsweek. “Glass doors open onto a terrace that looks over the red-tiled roofs of La Jolla, Calif., to the Pacific Ocean. A live-in staffer brings meals to the table at the foot of her ornately carved wooden bed, which faces an ornately carved stone fireplace. She exercises in a huge bike-in closet.”

Hoping to grow closer to the Lord, Rice delved into Scripture, as well as historical and biblical scholarship, and “she also watched every Biblical movie she could find, from ‘The Robe’ to ‘The Passion of the Christ’ (‘I loved it’). And she dipped into previous novels, from ‘Quo Vadis’ to Norman Mailer’s ‘The Gospel According to the Son’ to Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’s apocalyptic Left Behind.’” Pretty damn good market research.

Some say Rice risks alienating fans devoted to her otherworldly characters by dropping it all to write a series about Jesus, but there should be little concern that she doesn’t know what she’s doing. Newsweek notes that in the afterword to “Christ the Lord,” Rice calls Jesus “the ultimate supernatural hero…the ultimate immortal of them all.” But not too demanding of us mortals, I’m sure. 

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

October 24, 2005

Dying Well

On the day before Lois died, I arrived to find all 70 pounds of her emaciated frame contorted in a final, desperate protest against death. Her trembling hands were clutching the rails of her hospital bed, bracing for a struggle, her frail, matchstick legs thrashing against an invisible foe; and, while, by this point in her decline, Lois could not talk, she frantically peered out at me from between a pair of sunken cheeks. All of the cues suggested that Lois was about to die, but not without a fight. Over the last few weeks, Lois had stopped eating and begun to recoil into her own little world, and with each visit, I had found her progressively more pale and feeble, a gaunt shadow of her former self.

That day I held Lois’ hand, spoke words of comfort, and prayed for her. After all, that was my job. I am a hospice chaplain: my clientele are those who have been told by a doctor that they have one to six months to live because of some incurable terminal illness or, in the case of old age, sheer “failure to thrive.” In short, I help these persons to die. [Read more of "The Good Death," by Kristina Robb-Dover, here.]

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

October 20, 2005

Barbershop God-Talk

The old-fashioned barbershop, it seems, is becoming a thing of the past, unable to compete with chains like Supercuts. Fading into memory are the twirling red-and-white pole and big leather chairs, the clouds of talc powder and the smell of Vitalis and Aqua Velva. It’s a fate that the Nobel prize-winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda perhaps envisioned when, in 1948, he wrote, “The smell of barbershops makes me break out sobbing.”  Or maybe he’d been molested by a barber.

Many will miss the barber’s chitchat, the homespun wisdom and discourses on sports and politics that come with an eight-dollar haircut. But this is where I part with my fellow mourners. Barbershop banter never did anything for me. In fact, I always found the ranting and haranguing a big turnoff. True, one person’s bigotry and ignorance may be another person’s wit and wisdom, but after decades of sitting in barbers’ chairs I cannot recall hearing a single bona fide bon mot while getting a haircut. Poorly delivered jokes about a man from Nantucket, yes.

But at least I never had a barber who yapped about religion. A couple years ago I read about a barber in Texas who witnesses to all his clients. His shop window features Scripture verses in 18-inch-high letters, yet this does not turn away everyone but evangelical Christians because he undercharges for haircuts—only six dollars a chop. "I set it at that price so people will come in and I can share Jesus Christ with them," the guy told the Baptist Standard. "If they sit in my chair, they are going to hear about Jesus."

He also admitted, however, that not all customers take kindly to his sermonizing. One guy walked out of his shop saying that he “came for a haircut, not a discussion of religion.”

"I told him I didn't want to talk about religion either; I wanted to tell him about Jesus," the born-again barber told the paper.

SoMA contributor Jason Byassee recently got an earful about God from his barber. But Jason, perhaps because he’d also recently defended a dissertation on religion at Duke, and can thus hold his own in a gloves-off theological slugfest, decided to give his barber an earful back, rather than walk out. To read his blow-by-blow report, click here. 

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

October 14, 2005

Cell-Phone Spirituality

Is instant communication making us more connected, or less, actually hindering human interaction? Don’t ask me. I have a cell phone but rarely use it, much to the frustration of my wife. It took her years to convince me to bring my phone with me when I leave the house. And it will take her several more years to convince me to turn it on, and by then either I’ll have lost my phone, or we’ll all have communications chips embedded in our heads and it won’t matter.

But if pressed, I’d say cell phones bring us closer together, often much closer than we’d like to be. Let me tell you a little story.

For years I commuted to New York City from the Connecticut 'burbs on the Metro-North train. Day after day I saw the same faces, but we never spoke. It’s almost a rule: Do whatever you want on the train—finish some paper work, take a nap, eat a bucket of wings—just don’t ever chat up the person sitting next to you. Throwing up on them would be a lesser social offense.

Still, I managed to feel a deep connection to many of my fellow commuters. In some cases, I knew their personal and professional lives better than I did my own friends’—all thanks to the cell phone! Overhearing loud, one-way conversations, I learned who was going to St. Barth’s on vacation. I learned what people wanted for dinner, and sometimes didn’t want for dinner (“no more goddamn Italian!”). I discovered whose kids were medicated, and whose kids needed to be. One commuter, I’d learned, had forgotten to pick up an expensive coat for his wife’s birthday that night; rather than face hell’s fury at home, he barked into his cell, he was going to get off at the next stop and catch a train back into the city. “So, I’ll check into a hotel and meet you at Cipriani at, say, 10,” he said. [Read more here.]

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

October 14, 2005

The Wireless Soul

I read recently that some airlines are already providing their passengers with wireless in-flight service. Soon no manager will have any excuse for not returning calls or e-mail, and the last escape hatch from digital tyranny will slam shut.

To be unavailable, to be willfully disconnected takes a certain amount of courage. Our culture suggests with relentless belligerence that only losers aren’t hooked up and juiced in. Bureaucracies, both private and public, provide their employees with all the newfangled shackles. Palm Pilots, Blackberries, camera phones, video phones, satellite phones. When the warden rattles the chain, you’re there at the ready. Big Brother is not only watching, he’s calling in. And you’d better answer, or else.

The mobile phone has taken the place of human interaction, and even companionship. We hold it as tightly to our ears as we would a lover to our breast. We have become a race of cell phone extensions. We think we’re communicating. But as the scholar John Durham Peters suggests, the authentic signal is elusive indeed. Peters contends that much of modern technology creates the illusion of communication, which, ironically, fosters only more anxiety about authenticity. What we assume are bridges more often reveal gaps, or worse, impose them. The dropped call is no call at all. Can you hear me now? Frankly, no. [Read more of "The Wireless Soul," by Lincoln Swain, here.]

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

October 7, 2005

The Day of the Kipper

To us Jews, Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year, period. The “Day of Atonement,” the “Day of Awe,” the day when you have to give up fun in all its forms to face God in all His towering righteousness and tell how bad you’ve been, and how good you promise to be.

You know Yom Kippur is serious when you can’t eat or drink anything for 24 hours. To the Jews, not eating is the equivalent of not breathing. In fact, there’s an old saying: “At a wedding, the Catholics drink and the Jews eat,” to which I’d add “and the Protestants watch.”

Our house was always well-stocked with rich foods and tasty desserts. My father, who was a difficult, tyrannical man, only knew how to show us love by bringing us seven-layer mocha cream tortes and butter cookies from the Israel Bakery. My mother always had milk and cupcakes waiting for us when we got home from school. And whenever I spent the weekend at my grandparents’ house, my dear Nana Annie, bless her soul, considered it her duty to ply me with breakfasts that consisted of six pieces of fresh challah toast lathered with Breakstone’s Whipped Sweet Cream Butter, just because I happened to be a skinny kid.

“A mouse!” she’d wail. “Look at her! No bigger than a mouse! Eat, darling! Do you want to go out and faint in the street?”

Pastrami, Jerry Lewis observed, killed more Jews than the Holocaust.

So, you better believe the Jews mean business on Yom Kippur. It’s the perfect penance for a food-oriented culture. Not only are you forced to confront the past year’s worth of transgressions, you have to do it on an empty stomach. [Read more of "Yum--Kippers!" by Mary Beth Crain, here.]

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

October 6, 2005

Harriet Miers: Too Much Faith?

Here’s a reason to worry about Harriet Miers: She thinks George Bush is one of the most brilliant people she’s ever met. That’s what she once told David Frum, Bush’s former speechwriter. Now, we can assume Miers has met some smart cookies in her day. She went to a good school, Southern Methodist University. And she was a corporate lawyer. She’s even worked at the White House, which is said to be full of really smart people.
So either Harriet is a horrible judge of intellect, or she’s a major suck-up who could just as shamelessly declare Dick Cheney to be the fittest athlete she’s ever met.

Of course, that won’t stop Pat Robertson from falling all over her. At his website, Robertson calls Miers a “superb pick” and gives her his “enthusiastic support.” Though both conservative and liberal critics are concerned that Miers is not a judge, insisting that it’s important for one to have some judicial experience before sitting on the highest court of the land and ruling on the hottest issues of the day, Robertson sees her lack of credentials as a plus. “She does not come to the court with theories gained from an ivory tower, either in academia or lengthy experience on the bench,” he writes.

The important thing for Robertson, no doubt, is that Miers is a born-again Christian. Yesterday’s New York Times said that Miers belongs to the Valley View Christian Church in Dallas, “where antiabortion literature is sometimes distributed and tapes from the conservative group Focus on the Family are sometimes screened.” She also joined her church’s missions committee, “which opposed legalized abortion.” (Valley View Christian Church describes itself as “well within the boundaries of evangelical theology,” declaring the Bible to be “the only infallible, inspired, authoritative Word of God.”)

Indeed, there’s an excess of faith involved in Miers’ nomination. As Maureen Dowd puts it:

“W. is asking for a triple leap of faith. He has faith in Ms. Miers as his lawyer and as a woman who shares his faith. And we’re expected to have faith in his faith and her faith, and her opinions that derive from her faith that could change the balance of the court and affect women’s rights for the next generation.

“That’s a little bit too much faith, isn’t it?”

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

October 3, 2005

Judgment Day

While standing here waiting for my United flight out of O'Hare, I browse the passenger line, jumping from head to head. Out of perhaps 20 people in front of me, my eyes land on the snow-white, ecclesiastical tonsure of an old man.

Hey, I know that guy! I would recognize that halo haircut anywhere.

That's Brother Leopold. Jesus H. Christ, do I ever know that guy.

And after all this time, payback day is today?

Thirty-five years ago, at my dark and gloomy Catholic monastery school in Kentucky, that innocent-looking bastard in the black suit with the Roman collar was a teaching brother who loved to beat the hell out of his students.... [Read more Roger Cox's "Oh, Brother!" here.]

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

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