Monday, February 26, 2007

Cameron's Cash-Grab

A storm is on the horizon. My trick knee is acting up and it’s telling me that this one is going to be ugly.

“Titanic” director James Cameron is planning to release a documentary that alleges that ossuaries (boxes in which people’s bones were placed after their bodies had decayed) that were excavated in Israel in the 1980s are those of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and the children they had together. (The idea being that if Jesus' body was discovered it would somehow "prove" that he was not crucified, resurrected, and ascended to heaven.) This film will premier just before Easter. Coincidence? I think not.

From a purely historical standpoint the fact that he’s doing this is quite silly. The inscriptions on the ossuaries were very faint and took archeologists years to decipher, and there is still no consensus on what the names really are. Even if the name “Jesus” is inscribed on the box, what does it prove? “Jesus” was a very common name at the time. Its English equivalent is “Josh”.

The real issue here is the fact that James Cameron is being highly opportunistic. He saw all the fuss over “The DaVinci Code” (which, by the way, was a work of fiction that claimed no theological or historical basis) and realized that stirring up a bit of religious controversy gets you lots of free publicity. It’s a good way to make a whole lot of money.

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that James Cameron doesn’t care whether Jesus was resurrected or not. He’s gladly exploiting the fact that the Christian right will get up in arms and give him tons of free publicity. He knows that mega-churches will have multipart sermon series that dispute his claims and offer “proof” that the resurrection is a historical fact. He knows that televangelists will call for boycotts and a few people may even burn effigies of him. And the more they call him a heretic the more he gets paid. He’s laughing all the way to the bank, and the Christian right is playing into his hands.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Pastoral Pressure

According to one of the pastors that is part of Ted Haggard’s counseling team, the former mega-church pastor now says he is “completely heterosexual”. (That comment would seem to suggest that one could be only partially heterosexual, an idea with which I would think most evangelical Christians would disagree, but I digress.) Regardless of whether or not this is actually true, what else would Haggard say? He and all those in his social and professional circles believe that homosexuality is a horrible sin, and for him to come out and say that he is gay would mean being even more ostracized than he currently is.

Haggard’s sexuality, whatever it may be, whatever percentages he may have, is between him and his wife, and frankly is no one else’s business. But I do believe there is an element of Haggard’s tragic “fall from grace” that does concern all of us. We have to ask ourselves to what extent we are all responsible for what happened.

Let me be clear about what I’m saying. I’m not trying to absolve Haggard of responsibility for what he did. No one held a gun to his head and made him do drugs and cheat on his wife. But neither did he just wake up one day and decide to do it.

As the pastor of one of the country’s largest churches, Haggard became well known all over the country. As a pastor he felt the obligation to embody the values he preached, and as a public figure he felt the pressure to maintain a carefully crafted public persona.

The problem was that this public persona was incredibly unrealistic. He was expected not only to model basic Christian values, but also to never waver in his theological positions, never have doubts, and never experience temptations. In other words, Haggard was expected to live up to a standard of perfection that nobody can live up to. Haggard certainly participated in the cultivation of this public image and promoted these ridiculous expectations, but he was not alone. Others promoted these expectations because they, too, wanted to believe that their leaders were “perfect”.

In the eighteenth century John Wesley published a treatise called “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection”. He wanted to correct the popular misunderstandings of his theological position on perfection. What Wesley meant by “perfection” was not that one never had doubts, never made mistakes, or never experienced temptation. The kind of perfection Wesley had in mind was a perfection of intention. This perfection required intense self examination and a thorough knowledge of one’s own strengths and weaknesses. Somewhat ironically, the one who was most perfected, according to Wesley, was the one who was most aware of their need to constantly confess their sins.

Pastors are people, too. We have doubts, we have fears, we have desires and experience temptations. We get mad. We have good days and bad days. We even have days where we’re not too sure God even exists! But most of us are afraid to admit this, even to ourselves because we think people want to see us project an image of confidence, unwavering conviction, and complete sinlessness. If we admit to problems in our lives, it’s almost always in the past tense. We would never admit that we’re currently going through a rough patch.

The problem is that when we ignore these doubts, fears, and desires, they don’t simply go away. We bury them somewhere deep inside ourselves, and eventually they pile up and boil over. Sometimes people just burn out and leave the ministry. Sometimes they seek comfort through substance abuse. Others like Haggard act out sexually because they just can’t take it any more. Ted Haggard should not have done what he did, but just like all of us he played a part in setting up a system of expectations that ultimately wore him down and led him to act out in an extreme way.

When I admit to people that I struggle every day with clinical depression and anxiety I get a variety of reactions. Some people are comforted, some people are shocked, but all too often I hear surprise because people think that to be a pastor you’re supposed to have moved past struggles like that.

Let’s all collectively take a deep breath and admit that none of us are “perfect”. We all have our doubts and struggles, and we always will. The values we proclaim are ideals toward which we strive, not things we will ever fully embody. And that’s OK. Our leaders should feel safe enough to be vulnerable and admit that they don’t always know what to do. May God grant us the strength and courage to be real with one another.

Thursday, February 01, 2007


Stop! Before you read my post check out this LA Times article about this organization called “God-Men”, and their website, if you’re so inclined.

My reactions to this were many, as you might imagine, so I’ll try to keep them brief and coherent.

First of all, this seems to be the latest and greatest (or worstest, depending on how you use the terms) example of Christian ghetto-ism: where evangelical Christians will take something from the “secular” (I don’t like that word, but that’s the subject of another post) culture and make a supposedly Christianized version of it. Left Behind is the Christian Steven King. Bible Man is the Christian Power Rangers. I even heard a band recently that sounded like they wanted to be the Christian U2, as if Bono and company weren’t already model Christians. So here we have God-Men: the Christian Man Show.

Interestingly enough, the guy who is the face of God-Men is a comedian named Brad Stein, who apparently wants to be the Christian Dennis Leary. (Interesting aside- he’s featured in Alexandra Pelosi’s documentary, “Friends of God”- I highly recommend checking it out, and I’ll probably review it sometime soon) He’s aggressive in his style, he’s not afraid to curse (for which I whole-heartedly applaud him), and he’s not afraid to express opinions that not everyone will agree with. That’s fine. I don’t take issue with him personally or his style as an entertainer. Nor do I take issue with the fact that evangelical Christians are saying it’s OK to embody stereotypical manliness. My wife will tell you that I like fart jokes, football, and beer as much as the next guy. What I do take issue with is the extent to which the God-Men take this particular type of “manliness” and claim that it has it’s own ontology that is written into the DNA of every male.

Case in point is the example of the 26 year old construction worker who takes off to go camping with his friends and leaves his wife at home with their infant, despite her protests that she needs his help around the house. His justification: "I am supposed to be the leader of the family." Yes, you are supposed to be the leader of the family. You know what leaders do? They put the needs of those they lead over their own personal desires. You kicking off to go camping when your wife needs your help is not you being a man or a leader. It’s you being a spoiled little kid who does what he wants, gets bored, and expects mommy to clean up the mess. The only way you’re being a leader in this situation is if you say, “I need a weekend away, and I know you do, too. So I’ve booked you a few days at the spa next weekend and I’ll stay home with the baby then. That way we can both recharge.” Something tells me he this was not his course of action.

While God-Men may serve a good purpose and may very well be helpful to a lot of people, it seems that the extremes to which they go in promoting immature manliness will have as much, if not more destructive effect than any positives they may achieve. If I may lay my liberal cards on the table (if you haven’t already guessed this then you haven’t been reading me very closely), what God-Men really represents is the ideological extreme of what George W. Bush has brought to America. It’s the “I’m the leader (or decider, if you will), I have all the power, therefore I’m always right and if you tell me otherwise you’re helping the terrorists/devil/Al Franken/whoever” mentality. Not that W. created this mentality, of course, but he does epitomize it. It's time we moved beyond the "Man Show" mentality, even the Christianized version of it, and realized that leadership is more about responsibility than the use of power.