There’s part of me that wonders what happened in Oz after the Wizard was revealed to not be so great and powerful. Were they incredibly disillusioned? Did some just reject reality and hold on to the fantastical image that the middle aged man presented? I mean this was a guy that inspired people to burst out in song because of the wonderful things he did. To find out he was a fraud had to be crushing.
The situations are not quite as dramatic, but the last couple of weeks have been marked by reports that two hugely influential megachurches have been pulling levers to present a not-totally truthful image.
First there was a news story about a document on Elevation Church’s website about how to conduct mass “spontaneous baptisms.” This included planting 15 people to come forward when the invitation was extended and having them walk through the most visible places. This and other parts of the report are troubling for a variety of reasons that many other have covered.
Then yesterday there was the report that Mars Hill Church in Seattle paid a firm over $200,000 to get pastor Mark Driscoll’s book on the New York Times Bestseller List. This is not just a marketing firm, but the organization also buys thousands and thousands of books in select locations. While not illegal, the practice is frowned upon by the companies that publish bestseller lists.
Both of these Oz-ian methods were successful. Elevation’s spontaneous baptisms are known for their tidal wave of converts. Driscoll’s book spent a week on the New York Times Bestseller List which means “New York Times Bestselling Author” can proceed his name for whatever books he writes henceforth (or until print dies).
But the fact of the matter is both of these scenarios involve some sleight of hand, some misdirection. The fifteen people at the spontaneous baptisms are not responding to a decision to change their life by following Jesus. They’re part of a show to get things rolling. Driscoll may not have actually sold enough to get on a bestseller’s list. They just dropped two hundred grand on a company that has figured out how to work the system. Let’s be direct here: this is deception.
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I am finite
I am sinful
I am frail
I am fallen
"Remember you are dust
And to dust that you will return”
"The Kingdom of God is near
Repent and believe the good news”
Going back to square one
Dying, preparing, making room
To remember Christ: alive, dead, and again alive
I am finite
I am sinful
Yet because of that resurrected God-man
Out of the ash comes life
Jim and I were in the back corner of the yard playing this afternoon. One tree was his house. The tree next to it was his Uncle Matt’s house, but I was the new owner since Matt returned home to Nashville. Jim and I went fishing with sticks, went to a school located at another tree, and “ate” cereal that were actually leaves from the magnolia tree. Give a three and a half year old a backyard and the possibilities are endless.
I was there with Jim, but I wasn’t quite there. I interacted with my son but I was internally stewing. That morning I led a session of worship education with the kindergartners through third graders at our church. The lesson was about Lent. Never mind that the 40 day period which we are about to enter is a tough one to teach adults, I had talked myself into the fact that this lesson needed to be awesome.
Awesome it was not. It wasn’t bad. It just was. When you teach children, you need to be ready to make adjustments so I had to call a few audibles. Things did not go entirely to plan. Yet all things considered, the session probably went pretty well. Still, I could not stop overanalyzing the thing. This is what I do. It’s not healthy. I just get lost in my own head and…
"Daddy, let’s make a fountain."
Jim started to dig in the dirt. So I sat down on the ground beside him and watched him for a second as he scooped it into a mound. Thinking he was confused, I asked, “Are we making a mountain, buddy?”
"Nope, a fountain. A volcano."
I nodded; mainly to myself. Fountains and volcanoes actually are the same type of thing. I scooped up some soil and let it sift through my fingers onto our fountain. We sat there under the magnolia digging through the earth, finding snail shells, and chatting.
Scoop up dirt. Pour the dirt on the pile. Repeat. For about a hour. You would think that it would drive a person crazy. But in fact it was just the opposite. It was calming. My mind was not longer trying to go back and change things.
Jim stopped and admired the volcano.
"We’ve made a really big volcano. Didn’t we, buddy?"
"Uh-huh," he said with a smile.
Then he started kicking the whole thing over.
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There is a line towards the end of Arcade Fire’s “Reflektor” that grabs me each time I listen to the song. It could be that guest David Bowie’s Bowieness (Bowancy?) gives added weight to the line, but it still hits me like a ton of bricks when I see it in text:
Thought you were praying to the resurrector, turns out it was just a reflector
It’s a convicting line because it points a spotlight on a common temptation for people of faith: we project ourselves onto God.
I’ve been mulling over this line a good deal lately because ads for the Son of God movie are unavoidable. And I always get distracted by how white the movie Jesus is, which was not how the actual Jesus would have appeared.
Of course, pointing out that Jesus was not white is beating a dead horse at this point (I googled “Jesus is not white” and it yielded 421 million results). Anyone that has done a modicum of research knows that Jesus was a Palestinian Jew and not a caucasian whose chiseled good looks inspired the Twitter hashtag #HotJesus. Yet a white Jesus is what we have in the movies and I’d bet $10 it’ll happen again.
I don’t think this is malicious on the part of the movie’s producers. Yet it still presents a problem. Like I said earlier, we sometimes turn God into a reflection of ourselves. This Reflector Jesus may have a better physique and be morally perfect, but he looks the way we do. And if looks like us, then he probably thinks like us too.
When people think that Jesus or God thinks the same way that they do is when things get exponentially dangerous. Again, I’m veering into well trod territory. We all know that Jesus is not a white, middle class Republican as Derek Webb once sang. Nor is he embodied by any political party. The vast majority of us would readily agree with this observation. At least that’s what we know we’re supposed to say.
Yet thinking that God thinks how we do and wants what we want happens all the time in ways big and small:
It happens when someone uses the term “true Christians” on secondary and tertiary matters as in “true Christians always believe x" or "true Christians always do y.” As if in 2,000 years of a church that has splintered into in a myriad of directions, this group is the one that has got it figured out and is totally on the same page as God.
It happens whenever cable talking heads take a political hot topic and trump up an us versus them narrative in which God is 100% for “us.”
It happens when we see Christians who disagree with us and wonder to ourselves how those poor folks lost the plot so badly.
It happens when I think that what God wants for my life is exactly what I want.
It turns out we’re all praying to just a reflector.
The Resurrected Jesus pulls us out of this crap. He revives us from these us versus them narratives. He breaks the chains of sin. He saves us from the grave of arrogance. He helps us see that God is far bigger than we could imagine. As a result, our compassion and our love expands past the boundaries of ourselves and our tribes. The Resurrector brings life in a way that makes our head explode.
The Reflector God is safe. The Resurrector is challenging; calling us to die and live anew. The Reflector makes God just a better version of us. The Resurrector calls us to be more like God.
I am lucky that a flawless conception of God is not what leads to salvation. I would be in serious trouble. Yet I am called and we are called to seek God with our entire being. And if we stop assuming that we’re squarely on God’s side about everything, I can only hope that some those little reflectors will shatter. Not all of them of course, because none of us will have it completely figured out. But perhaps then we’ll find ourselves more fully praying to and following the Resurrector.
So…as Super Bowls go that wasn’t the most memorable one; at least for those of us outside of Colorado and the State of Washington. As the game turned into a depressing march of futility, I remembered that it was ten years ago when I experienced my most memorable Super Bowl.
My junior year at Furman, I was fortunate enough to go on a five week foreign study trip to Greece and Italy. A few days before I left, the Carolina Panthers won their divisional playoff game in double overtime over the St. Louis Rams. I’m personally more of a college football guy, but I pull for the Panthers by geographical default. After the game, I commented that of course the Panthers were going to go to the Super Bowl when I was out of the country. A week later in Greece, we discovered that they did just that when Carolina beat Philadelphia in the NFC Championship game.
Two weeks later, our group found ourselves in Venice, Italy on Super Bowl Sunday. Venice, as it is, conveys this gorgeous surreality: the canals, the buildings that are thousands of years old, the cobblestone streets, and pigeons that will sit on your head.
It was in this ancient beautiful city that a small gang of us decided we were going to try to watch the Panthers take on the Patriots. Trouble was it started after midnight local time and we were to be on the bus bound for our next location early the next morning.
So for the first time in my life, I went to a bar and we sat down and watched the game with a bunch of American expats. At some point that bar closed and we moved on to another one that was on the opposite side of the city from our hotel. So shortly before halftime we decided to risk seeing if the internet cafe near our hotel was still open and showing the game.
As the rest of the world was exposed to more of Janet Jackson than anyone anticipated, our small band was making our way across a darkened city that was over 1500 years old. We got the better end of that deal. I’ll never forget hustling through an abandoned St. Mark’s Square at something like 2 AM and being geeked out that I was getting to have this kind of adventure.
We arrived at the internet cafe and watched the rest of an incredibly entertaining Super Bowl amongst some Wake Forest students, a whole punch of people pulling for the Patriots in the back, and a few Italians. The Panthers eventually lost on a last minute field goal and I only got something like two hours of sleep once I got back to the room. But given the chance, I would do it all over again.
Yikes. Here’s hoping that I get back into the writing groove in February.
And the Logos became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
When we read that passage at church yesterday, my mind went back to something that N.T. Wright said about the Temple and about Jesus. The Temple was considered by the Jewish people to be the literal presence of God: where heaven and earth actually touched. Then Jesus shows up and begins to use Temple language about himself; like the time that he said they could destroy the temple and it would be raised in three days. The dwelling of God was now not a building, but a person.
The Logos became flesh and lived among us. Heaven and earth met in this man. What must that have meant for the presence of God not to be a building of brick and mortar (not what the Temple was made of, I know), this fixed point where only one person could enter the Holy of Holies once a year?
What must it have meant for the presence to be a living, breathing, moving human being who spoke heaven and released Gods presence with a touch?
For it to be someone that talked and dined and shared with people who would never be considered worthy to enter the Holy of Holies? Women, Gentiles, the maimed, the poor, the utterly sin-stained. Some of these people would not have been able to go to the Temple at all. Yet God’s love was coming to their town and opening the Holiest of Holies up for all to see.
It makes sense why comparing one’s self to a Temple would make people angry. For a man to compare himself to the Temple of God and then to live in the way that Jesus did among the people with whom he lived, there is no wonder it was scandalous. You can understand why such talk, why such a man would be seen as a danger.
Yet there God is: becoming one of us. There is much in Christianity that makes me uncertain. There are times that I feel lost or like an outsider. Yet I hold onto this: Jesus as God among us. And when we look at this walking, talking, loving Temple—the Logos made flesh—we can get a sense of what God is like.
1. A blizzard swamps the Northeast during Super Bowl XLVIII. Both the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks get a pair of early touchdowns before conditions worsen. In the 2nd overtime—with snowdrifts over a foot tall—the NFL makes the controversial decision to allow snowmen to be eligible receivers. The Broncos win when Peyton Manning finds his team’s Frosty in the end zone for the 20-14 victory. The snowman is named MVP, but tragically melts during his trip to Disney World.
2. Vladimir Putin is constantly in the news during the Winter Olympics. During the Opening Ceremony’s Parade of Nations, the Russian president carries his country’s flag while riding a large brown bear. He enters and wins the biathlon. Subsequently, he tries and fails to add shooting a gun to every other Olympic event. The massive media attention overshadows Joe Biden’s shocking silver medal victory in the Snowboarding Halfpipe.
3. The plot for the Man of Steel sequel is revealed to be a cross dimensional tale in which Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman travel to Earth-C to team up with Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew. The fan outrage surprisingly subsides when it is revealed that Ryan Gosling will be voicing the anthropomorphic rabbit superhero.
4. The selfie finds itself going out of style as many Instagram and Twitter accounts fill up with what the media dubs the introspelfie: Pictures of meticulous canvas paintings revealing the inner turmoil, hopes, dreams, and fears of the millennial generation. People still, however, take way too many photos of their food.
5. Jennifer Lawrence stars in approximately 200 movies to near universal acclaim. However, she begins to take her “J-Law” nickname a bit too seriously and begins to operate as a vigilante, menacing on criminals that prey on the weak. She uses her archery skills learned from The Hunger Games and displays a surprising proficiency in numerous martial arts. When asked where she learned to fight, Lawrence’s eyes narrow and says, “Batman taught me on the set of American Hustle.” Everyone is too afraid to tell her that Christian Bale isn’t actually Batman.
6. The nation is stunned when Miley Cyrus, on the heels of 2013 admissions that she was “playing a character” during her infamous VMA performance, is arrested by federal authorities for treason under the name Miloslava Serov. It is revealed that she and her father Billy Ray are actually Russian spies. In hindsight, “Achy Breaky Heart” makes much more sense as an attempt to destroy America from within.
7. Anticipation increases with the announcement that the title of Star Wars Episode VII will be revealed at San Diego Comic-Con. The excitement quickly turns to anger when it is announced to a packed ballroom that the title is Star Wars: Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Shia LeBeouf will be playing Han Solo’s son. Afterwards, J.J. Abrams tears off a mask revealing himself to actually be a maniacally laughing George Lucas.
8. After the thrilling end to the 2013 Iron Bowl in which Auburn returned a missed field goal attempt to defeat Alabama, the NCAA makes it legal to return any field goal from anywhere whether it is missed or made. This leads to numerous teams placing a player in the stands behind the goal posts. The rule is revoked at the end of the season, but not before a Central Michigan player returns a made field goal for a touchdown while holding a hot dog in his other hand.
9. Buzzfeed buys The New York Times towards the end of the year. The first issue upon purchase features articles such as “8 Ways Scandal Describes the Next Debt Crisis,” “32 Signs the Geopolitical Situation in the Middle East is Just Like 90s Cartoons,” and “11 Pictures of Potatoes that Look Just Like the Candidates for the FED.”
10. A quirk in voting machines nationwide leads to numerous puppies being elected to the House of Representatives. It is the cutest, happiest, and most productive Congress in a generation.