Makers and Mystics Live Podcast Recording Event

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You might know my friend Stephen Roach from his band Songs of Water. Or from his work with The Breath & The Clay. Or perhaps from his podcast Makers & Mystics, “the podcast for the art-driven, spiritually adventurous seekers of truth and lovers of life.”

Stephen often incorporates live events into the podcast recordings. The fine folks over at Axiom Church are hosting a live Makers & Mystics recording Saturday, September 14, 6:00pm. The theme will be “Art as Hospitality” and I hope to share a bit about how the Habañero Collective House Show Series accomplished just that, and how we tried incorporating art into the Gathered Worship time of Church of the Cross (now Missio Dei Peoria). Browse the lineup here.

  • Visit the official Makers and Mystics official website.

  • Visit Axiom Church’s website.

  • Purchase tickets at Eventbrite.

Why "Christian" Music Is Often So Bad

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If you know me at all, or even if you’ve just barely browsed this site, you know that I love music. Music of all kinds. Music from all places. Music for all faces.

And I am a Christian.

But, generally speaking, I do not love “Christian” music. I do not even like most “Christian” music. First of all, “Christian” is not a genre. Slapping a religious moniker in front of any word does not make the content any more religious, any more meaningful, or necessarily mean that it’s good.

Flip through the radio stations in just about any city in the US and you can immediately spot the “Christian” station even before the lyrics. You know it as soon as the music comes on. There’s just something about the sheen. It all seems to be produced in the same shiny music factory. But I’m already digressing and I’ve barely just begun.

But, many well-intentioned Christians just don’t seem to be too concerned with the quality of the music that bears their name. Or maybe they think it’s actually good. After all, they have their own awards shows, right? Who would give an award to something that’s not good, right?! But again I digress.

We could talk about the protectionism embedded in much of American Christianity. We are taught to fear the surrounding culture and withdraw by replacing things with their “Christian” equivalent. But, I think there are a couple of more immediate reasons why so I am disappointed by so much of what claims to be “Christian” music.

Point Of Purchase Discernment

One of the biggest reasons that so much “Christian” music is not that good is that many Christians are not good at discernment. By and large, in most American churches, we have not been trained in how to apply biblical wisdom to our own lives so that we become transformed by God’s grace. Much less do people feel comfortable examining an artist’s lyrics in detail to discern a worldview, because we’re not all that sure we can clarify ours other than believing people need to get saved. In short, many “American Christians” are simply not good at discernment.

As a result, the entire “discernment” process of supporting an art like music becomes outsourced. It becomes a “point of purchase” decision. Many people simply believe that if you buy something at a “Christian” store, that means that it’s good for your Christianity. For many, it doesn’t even matter if it is good or not, just that it’s “Christian.” That way, we know it supports our faith. And it’s a much easier approach than trying to process the worldview of a musician we don’t know. Why go through all that trouble when I can just go to the “Christian” store and buy something safe.

We just want to protect our kids from the evils of the “Secular World,” and we can’t listen to everything they do and analyze it and talk about it with them to help them develop their own discernment. It’s just safer (and easier) to buy them music approved by the “Christian” bookstore gatekeepers.

I’m not going to spend time debunking this point. If you don’t see the problem, then the rest of this post probably isn’t for you anyway.

Pragmatic/Utilitarian Understanding of Art

In addition, many American Christians have inadvertently adopted a Pragmatic/Utilitarian Understanding of Art in which something music is meant to serve a purpose. It’s not enough that something exist as art for art’s sake. It’s not enough that a musician wrote a moving piece of music because they themselves had been moved. What purpose does that serve? How does that accomplish the salvation of souls or the glorification of God?

Many well-intentioned Christians have come to believe that music exists for one of two primary purposes: to be evangelistic or praise and worship. Art, including music, is meant to serve one of these two purposes.

If evangelism is the primary driving consideration, then it’s the message that matters most, which is the lyrics, and then we have to find out the best way to get our message out, so let’s find out what the “other kids” are listening to, and then mimic the music, replace the lyrics and make sure they get our message?! In other words, we look to the “secular culture” to see what music is popular, we recreate it without the sincerity, replace the lyrics and then try to feed it back to the culture and can’t understand why no one likes our music. It must be persecution. And then there’s “praise and worship” music is fine since it’s already accepted our evangelism.

So, “Christian” bookstores stock themselves with bands that sound like popular bands but with a better message, or music already meant only for Christian use as praise and worship. Of course there are other factors here beyond a utilitarian understanding of art in general and music in particular. For example, many Christians believe that the “salvation of souls” trumps everything else, which only feeds the utilitarian approach. And, for some odd reason many well-intentioned Christians often believe that seeking pleasure for pleasure’s sake is somehow sinful. So of course art can’t exist just for art’s sake. Tie all of this in with corporations that exploit well-intentioned Christians for profit and here we find ourselves.

Believe it or not, there was once a time when Christians were at the vanguard of the arts. It’s time to regain that perspective and practice and demand more. Demand more not just of our artists but of ourselves. The breadth and depth of human experience is sure worth more than a comparison chart. Shouldn’t we be encouraging the greatest art because we have the least to lose?

Americans: Stop Confusing Your Personal Cultural Values With Christianity

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America has often been less than clear about its relationship with Christianity. On one hand, we claim to be a “Christian” nation. Yet, on the other hand, American culture itself, with an emphasis on individualism, self-reliance, self-sufficiency, and the pursuit of comfort, is often antithetical to Christianity.

It seems that the two are often at battle with one another and, as Alan Wolfe argues in The Transformation of American Religion, it’s not always clear that Christianity wins: “In every aspect of the religious life, American faith has met American culture - and American culture has triumphed.” And just in case he hasn’t been clear enough, he argues that: “the faithful in the United States are remarkably like everyone else.”

While America has certainly benefitted from Christians and claims to adopt general Judeo-Christian worldviews, it is sadly the case that Christianity in American often ends up looking more like America than making America resemble Christianity. What happens with many is that American Values/Patriotism become so enmeshed with their Christianity that they cannot tell the difference. We see this in such such silly things as states mandating schools emblazon “In God We Trust” across school walls. That is not Christianity, it’s authoritarian civic religion but frankly, many people can’t seem to tell the difference.

Many people have a certain set of cultural values that they confuse with Christianity. They engage in a culture war believing that they are fighting for Christianity when they are not. We’ve seen this most recently with Ted Cruz and others who argue that the Second Amendment is a “god-given right.” Ted Cruz and Alyssa Milano will soon be meeting to discuss this very idea (Shane Claiborne weighed in on Facebook). American culture is weird, man.

In 2018, “pastor” Robert Jeffress put this faulty understanding on display when he defended president Trump to NPR. Rachel Martin asks Jeffress to explain why/how Jeffress believes that Christians in America are actually persecuted. Read the exchange here:

JEFFRESS: Well, I think there are certainly ways in which they have been marginalized. And I mean, here's the question you have to ask yourself. I mean, why is it that, for the first 150 years of our nation's history, prayer in schools, reading the Bible, Nativity displays - all of those things were not only allowed but they were welcomed? But then suddenly, 70 years ago, the Supreme Court decides these things are unconstitutional. I ask liberals all the time, what changed suddenly?

MARTIN: It became more religiously diverse, the country.

JEFFRESS: What did - but did the Constitution change? No. The establishment clause of the First Amendment simply says Congress cannot establish a state religion. That's what it says. But somehow, that has been perverted and twisted into outlawing prayer and Bible-reading. That's what I'm talking about. That's the marginalization of Christianity. And I believe that's why evangelicals are rallying around this president who recognizes that marginalization.

Jeffress doesn’t specifically mention cashiers saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” or Starbucks cups, but he might as well. His explanation of why he believes that Christians are marginalized is that prayer and bible reading are not mandated in schools, and public Nativity scenes have been challenged. In other words, what Jeffress laments is not an attack on Christianity but on its preferred cultural position. Jeffress laments that Christianity is no longer the de facto cultural position of America. He doesn’t mention anything of substance and nothing he mentions is persecution or even marginalization. But he frames it in fear and as an attack on his beliefs.

He has confused his personal cultural preferences with Christianity. And he is not alone. Being a “Christian” country does not mean that we demand that everyone act the way we think and subscribe to what we call “traditional values.” Christians lay down their rights for the good of others. Yet, Cruz, Jeffress and their ilk do the exact opposite. They warn us that Muslims want to enforce Sharia Law while not seeing the log in their own eyes.

If these people really wanted people to think that America is a “Christian” nation, wouldn’t it be powerful if they were known for their love (John 13:35)? for clothing and feeding the poor (Matthew 25:31-46), caring for widows and orphans (James 1:27), for seeking to better our cities (Jeremiah 29), for bringing light and flavor to our communities (Matthew 5:13-16), for being Peacemakers (Matthew 5:9), who had no one remaining needy in the communities we built (Acts 4:34) and just generally tried to live at peace with everyone we could (Romans 12:18)?

In the meantime, we are facing vital times. If anything the tie of the Religious Right to Trumpism helps us understand who is pushing for Christianity and who just wants to keep a certain cultural position.

The Religious "Nones" Learned It From Somewhere

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Much has been made regarding the increase of the “Religious Nones” in recent cultural surveys. Houses of worship are being repurposed as congregations shrink, Religion News reports: “‘Nones’ now as big as evangelicals, Catholics in the US.” and the Los Angeles Times wonders in an Op-Ed about how: “Religiously unaffiliated ‘nones’ are pursuing spirituality, but not community.”

As Jack Jenkins summarizes for Religion News:

“In a shift that stands to impact both religion and politics, survey data suggests that the percentage of Americans who don’t affiliate with any specific religious tradition is now roughly the same as those who identify as evangelical or Catholic.”

Though there are theories about what has caused this shift, one constant is that many people are placing a sharper distinction between spirituality and religion. We explored this idea as it applies to prayer, but just to summarize again:

Spirituality is the pursuit of higher meaning in life. It involves questions of identity, security, belonging and purpose.

Religion is the external form of spirituality. Church. Books. Rituals. Religion seeks to put spirituality in order. It seeks to define spirituality and religion uses boundaries and often identifies itself by excluding others. Many religions claim that their particular approach to spirituality alone holds exclusive truth.

In other words, Spirituality is the pursuit of higher meaning and Religion is the form that pursuit takes.

What interests me here is that most of the focus of consideration has been young people. In 2017, Vox considered a Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) survey, saying:

The survey, which profiled about 2,000 American adults in the early months of 2017, found that 18 percent of Americans identify as spiritual but not religious. (By contrast, 31 percent of Americans identify as neither spiritual nor religious.) They tend to skew younger and more educated than religious Americans, with 40 percent holding at least a four-year college degree and 17 percent having some form of postgraduate education. They’re also far more politically liberal than their religious counterparts: 40 percent identify as liberal, compared to 24 percent of the population overall and 27 percent of Americans that are neither spiritual nor religious.

All of this may be true. The shift of focus from religion to spirituality resulting in outwardly declaring “No religious affiliation” might be centered in younger people, but they learned it somewhere. As a Hospice Chaplain, I deal daily with these people’s parents and grandparents as they near end of life.

I have been continually surprised by how many older people welcome Chaplain visits “as long as we don’t talk about religion.” I’ve only served in this role for three years and my evidence is only my subjective experience but, at least here in the Phoenix area, it is more common for my visits to be limited to visits, life reviews, communication techniques and things like that. The older people I meet decline religious services at a rate that would surprise many people. But this shouldn’t surprise us. After all, all these young “Religious Nones” learned it from somewhere.

I have come to think that there is a significant portion of the Boomer generation that has driven the cultural move from religion to spirituality. My thoughts on why we should focus not only on the younger “Nones” by the older ones are based on what I have heard from my patients and their families about why they are not interested in religion even at end of life. Here’s what I’m hearing and it begins with two different threads that seem to wind their way together:

First: After the horrors of World War II, the country set itself on providing a better life for the next generation. But in doing so, the “American Dream” was further fused with consumerism. Suburbia exploded and flourished and comfort became the goal of life. Advertisers bred discontent and our Supermarkets overwhelm us with choices. And church became a commodity that was so interested in just getting you in the doors that it required very little, so after a while, what’s the point of going to church when religion just seems aimed at making me happy? There are lots of other ways to be happy. Yes, I care about my soul and “spirituality,” but

Second: I was raised in a strict religious upbringing that emphasized my behaviors and didn’t seem to care about the resentment building up in my heart.

Couple each of these paths with the inordinate cultural influence of groups like The Family (which I discuss here) that emphasizes an approach to Christianity that seems more interested in cultural influence than actual changed lives: just get a confession: get someone to say they believe in Jesus. Get them into heaven and what matters here and now is cultural power. Therefore we have people living in fear of losing their particular sense of privileged cultural identity and claiming that their struggle to force culture into their mold is “Christianity.” It is not. And people know it is not.

The constant that I do hear; whether from shallow, meaningless consumeristic churches or rigid, grace-less religion is a failure of discipleship and the removal of repentance and faith from Christianity. What’s the point of following a system that just seems to want to make me happy or one that just seems to want to beat me up all of the time? Of course, neither is actual Christianity, but many people have been told otherwise for so long that they’d just assume stay away from the talk altogether.

Most of these people have plenty of religious experience but very little spiritual experience. They certainly have not encountered the Grace of the Crucified and Risen Savior or been wrapped in the love of a community that wants to be more like Jesus. I am reminded of Kurt Vonnegut’s quote from Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage:

“What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.”

We have sowed years being careless with God’s Bride, the Church and we are now reaping people who don’t want anything to do with it. And, can we blame them? A church that doesn’t require any change in your life isn’t worth attending. Nor is one that wants to beat everyone’s external behaviors into submission to some preferred cultural identity.

We’ve created a culture in which many claim to be “Christian” because of the radio station they listen to, the movies they don’t see, the lifestyles they oppose, the flag they pledge, and the political party they support. We’ve robbed Christianity of its defining characteristics and replaced them with a weirdly patriotic sense of morality and cultural norms. If this is religion, if this is Christianity, no wonder people aren’t interested.

If we want people to identify with Christianity as a religion, if the rise in “Nones” plagues our hearts, then the solution is right in front of us: wouldn’t it be powerful if Christians were known for their love (John 13:35)? for clothing and feeding the poor (Matthew 25:31-46), caring for widows and orphans (James 1:27), for seeking to better our cities (Jeremiah 29), for bringing light and flavor to our communities (Matthew 5:13-16), for being Peacemakers (Matthew 5:9), who had no one remaining needy in the communities we built (Acts 4:34) and just generally tried to live at peace with everyone we could (Romans 12:18)?

It breaks my heart to encounter so many people tell me that they don’t want to identify with Christianity when I’m fairly certainly they’ve never actually encountered Christianity.

There is much more to be said here but I just wanted to start getting some of these thoughts in order. I would love to hear your perspective. Are you hearing what I’m hearing? What is the solution // Does there need to be a solution?

Good Omens, Everyday Life, and Romans 7

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I just finished watching the Amazon Prime original Good Omens. Based on the novel by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pritchard, the miniseries (can we still call them that?) tells the tale of Mankind. Angels. Demons. The antichrist. Choice. Nature. Nurture. Identity.

Like the best of all tales, no one seems quite sure who they’re supposed to be.

In Gaiman and Pratchad’s tale of humanity, no one is quite sure they want to play the prescribed role. No one seems quite sure who they’re supposed to be. No one seems quite sure who they want to be. And that’s the beauty. The good and the bad wrestle. Sometimes it seems like the good is winning. But not always. It’s reminiscent of Paul’s lament in Romans 7 when he groans:

“I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”

In Good Omens, Angels are willing to bend the rules. Demons are willing to help. And the AntiChrist decides he doesn’t want to usher in total annihilation.

It’s a tale for the ages. And it’s a tale about all of us. It’s like Lemony Snicket says in The Grim Grotto:

“People aren't either wicked or noble. They're like chef's salads, with good things and bad things chopped and mixed together in a vinaigrette of confusion and conflict.”

We may not have the ability to perform miracles. Or usher in Armageddon. But we can help determine what kind of world we want to live in. We can decide what kind of person we want to be. How will we treat those around us? What story will those left behind tell of us? What happens when we question the side we’ve chosen? To what are we predestined and of what is free will and does it really matter where the difference might be?

Good Omens forces us to consider that human nature is more complicated that many well-intentioned theologians would have us believe. People aren’t all bad or good and sometimes it takes quite a sorting-through. That’s the process of sanctification. That’s the process of discovering what it means to be truly human; made in the image of God.

Watch the trailer here:

Distilling Prayer

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Part of my role as a Hospice Chaplain is to help people distinguish between spirituality and religion. I know there is lots of debate about the topic and the point of this post is not really to mine that can of worms, but in order to proceed, here’s my working understanding of the terms:

Spirituality is the pursuit of higher meaning in life. It involves questions of identity, security, belonging and purpose.

Religion is the external form of spirituality. Church. Books. Rituals. Religion seeks to put spirituality in order. It seeks to define spirituality and religion uses boundaries and often identifies itself by excluding others. Many religions claim that their particular approach to spirituality alone holds exclusive truth.

In other words, Spirituality is the pursuit of higher meaning and Religion is the form that pursuit takes.

I say all of this to give you a little understanding as to what I deal with in my role helping patients and their loved ones face end of life. I don’t know that it’s like where you live culturally, but here in Arizona, a lot of my hospice patients and their families will accept Chaplain visits only if I agree to not proselytize. I know younger people often get the blame for the whole “spirituality vs. religion” conversation, but in my experience, this issue began with the Boomer Generation. I can’t tell you how many older people I talk with who are jaded by growing up in the Midwest or the South and want nothing to do with “religion.”

Enter the Chaplain.

Hospice care neither hastens nor hinders death and we strive to provide people with the best possible quality of life for whatever time remains. Part of this means finding spiritual balance, whatever your existing belief structure. One of the most common conversations I have is when I encourage people to pray, or assure them that I will be praying for them. The most common response is something like: Thank you, but I’m not a religious person.

This is where the distinction between spirituality and religion becomes important. If spirituality is the pursuit of higher meaning and religion is the form that pursuit takes, then it is possible for even people who do not consider themselves to be religious to pray. I am a Christian. That is my religion. But when I encourage my patients and their families to pray, I’m not necessarily saying that they must adopt my understanding of religion or prayer.

Prayer is one of those spiritual exercises that transcends religious boundaries. Nearly every religion advocates some form of prayer. Prayer transcends religion. What then, is prayer? Before we can answer that question, let’s back up a minute and consider the idea that, as Indian philospher Krishnamurti says: Attention is the most basic form of love.

The deliberate act of paying attention on something/someone means that we are narrowing our thoughts to them/that alone. It shows that we care. It is an act of love.

At its fundamental nature, prayer is taking that act of love (focusing our attention) and throwing it out into the universe, often accompanied by the cryptic note in the bottle HELP ME! Prayer is simply the recognition that we need help and that there is something beyond ourselves. Because I love, I focus my attention and admit that I am not ultimately in control and that there must be meaning to whatever is happening. Understood from this vantage point, it doesn’t seem to me to be a stretch to say that everyone prays. After all, isn’t this just the summary of the first two steps of the famous 12 Steps?

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.

  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

This sounds like prayer to me. We need help and somehow, some way, somewhere out there, there is Someone or Something that can help me. This helps us place ourselves in the care of humility and guards us from arrogance. This also helps us pursue meaning in suffering and comfort in distress.

Prayer transcends religion but finds its fullness within it. I believe that Prayer is strongest when the Someone or Something are defined, but that that is not necessary to pray. When explained this way, many people who initially rejected my offers of prayer have suddenly found themselves on their knees. If “prayer” seems intimidating or off-putting to you, I want to encourage you to free the practice from the bonds of religion and to get on your knees.

Pray continually” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).

Is The Family the Most Powerful (And Dangerous) Group You've Never Heard Of?

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I am a Christian.

I am probably what you consider an Evangelical.

But I am not part of the “Evangelicals” that remain Donald Trump and the GOP’s most ardent supporters.

In fact, I deeply oppose the Trump Administration and just about everything it stands for. Which has not only left me heartbroken but flummoxed. When I read the Bible, I cannot, for the life of me understand how some people come away supporting an administration that claims to be a “Christian” nation who has caged the refugees and outlawed the Good Samaritan. An administration that, in my mind embodies the spirit of antiChrist. I keep wondering: If the recent ICE raids are really about forcing people to obey the law at extreme penalty; why aren't we arresting the corporate leaders who recruited and hired the people now being punished?

Otherwise, what is this really about?

I can't think of a humane reason. Can you?

I certainly can’t think of a Christian reason. But many people I know and love and care about seem to believe that supporting this administration can be in line with following the Prince of Peace and the God who is Love and commands compassion and outright love of enemies.

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Enter the Netflix documentary The Family. While there are layers of reasons why so many well-intentioned Christians have found themselves supporting a president who has made a life of trouncing our values, understanding the unique “Evangelical” worldview of the Family helps us understand how people can claim to follow the Prince of Peace while supporting an abusive administration.

Based on Jeff Sharlet’s books The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power and C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy, the 5-part series chronicles the rise to power and secretive tentacles of a Christian conservative group known as “The Family,” or “The Fellowship.” Founded in 1935 by Abraham Vereide. The stated purpose of the Fellowship is to provide a fellowship forum for decision makers to share in Bible studies, prayer meetings, worship experiences, and to experience spiritual affirmation and support. Ever wonder who puts on the National Prayer Breakfast? The Family.

The Family is a secretive organization with inordinate influence among world governments, which claims to just want people to know Jesus. But they do in a particular way: Go after the powerful and fight for what’s “right” (their perceived cultural version of “Christianity” most often visualized when old White people talk about how great the 1950’s used to be. Women know their place. Gays stay in the closet. And we all just pretend that Jesus wanted an Authoritarian government. Oh, and some are just predestine for power. And they often utilize sitting government officials on “missionary” trips.

Combining a weird Machismo Jesus with the notion that, to really get things done, you don’t bother with the “little people,” you go after the leaders. You meet with kings. You sit with Presidents. And because it’s “Just about Jesus,” you’ll meet with anyone. You’re not there to interfere in politics, so of course you’ll meet with dictators. But when you confuse trying to influence cultural norms with Christianity, you will soon find yourselves partnering with people who share your outward goals but most likely not your inner motive.

The problem is that fascists and the Authoritarian Right Wing are all too happy to support your “traditional family values,” so you cooperate together “for the good of the culture” (as you see fit). The result is that there is a faction of Christianity dedicated, not to loving all people but to making sure that a particular way of life is protected. They want to feel safe. They want everyone to look like them. And that is not Christianity. We may share some of the same language. But we do not share the same Love.

Another problem with this approach is that it seems to assume that Christians are called to protect certain cultural “norms,” even through legislation, and, if need, be, violence. Christians are to be Salt and Light (Matthew 5:13-16). We have always been blessed to be a blessing (Genesis 12, etc.). This does not mean forcing everyone to live by a certain set of moral principles and then calling ourselves a “Christian nation.” But the Family believes in power. This is why so many “Christians” are fine pushing for laws that privilege Christianity while trampling on other types of faith. They want to push their expression of Christianity as the cultural norm and are perfectly willing to use legislation and dishonest people (often at the same time) to accomplish their purposes.

White Christians have enjoyed immense privilege and safety in our country. There is a lot to be thankful for. But we are not called to hang on to that privilege and safety. We are called to lay it down for the sake of others. Yet there is clearly a subset of American Christianity who is clawing to that place of cultural privilege with every dying breath. Why else would you be offended if your cashier says “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas?” That’s not an attack on Christ. It’s treating people equally. But this notion of confusing certain cultural values with Christianity is exactly why we find ourselves in the place of so many Christians supporting an antiChrist administration . . . in the name of Jesus?

The Family shows us how people can be sincere in their belief that they are following Jesus while walking in the opposite direction. You might call sitting U.S. Senators flying to foreign countries to talk to kings “off the record” about Jesus being wise as serpents. I call it collusion of church and state and as a Christian, I believe it is wrong. Using your place of power to gain entry to foreign leaders and then saying: “I’m a senator, but I’m not here as a senator, I’m just here to talk about Jesus . . .” is dishonest.

The Family has continually worked to undermine the distinction between Church and State and we see this in such silly things as states mandating schools emblazon “In God We Trust” across school walls. That is not Christianity, it’s authoritarian civic religion. But it sure looks good for any candidate claiming to support “traditional values.”

If Christianity can be translated into forcing laws through that appeal to Christians at any cost, then of course it makes sense that they would continue to support Trump, regardless of . . . well, apparently, just about anything other than taking the Lord’s name in vain. Because, it’s about power. It’s about gaining the ability to enforce our agenda (which is “Jesus Plus Nothing except “traditional family values,” opposing Unionized Labor, opposing LGBT rights, etc.). If you claim to be grabbing power for the sake of Jesus and the “greater good,” you soon find yourself losing sight of Jesus.

The Family helps us understand how: If you believe that you are fighting “God’s war” and that part of that means protecting certain ways of life (equated with “being a Christian”) and you believe in a Machismo Jesus, your movement was founded on violent suppression of Unionized Labor, you care about power; then of course you can justify supporting the Trump Administration and not only see no conflict with your faith but believe you support Trump because you support Jesus. I just don’t share this vision.

If you, like me, feel politically homeless as a Christian and struggle to understand just how we got to a place where so many of our brothers and sisters would support something so out of character for Global Christianity, I recommend watching The Family.

The Netflix subtitle tells you their interpretation of all of this: “It's Not About Faith, It's About Power”. What do you think?

Watch the Netflix trailer: “The Family: It's Not About Faith, It's About Power”

  • Purchase Jeff Sharlet’s books at Amazon.

  • Read the Wikipedia entry on The Fellowship.

  • Read as Salon wonders: “How separate are church and state? "The Family" examines secretive Christian power brokers.”

  • Read Vice’s piece: “Netflix's 'The Family' Unmasks the Political Power of Christian Fundamentalists.”

For Such A Time As This: East of Eden and Steinbeck's America

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John Steinbeck’s East of Eden was originally published in September, 1952. The sprawling story centers on two families, the Hamiltons and the Trasks, and their cultivation of California and the human soul, but it also chronicles America’s tentative steps in to World War I. It asks fundamental questions about who we are as people and as a country.

Steinbeck uses the biblical story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4) and the idea that we are all descendants of Cain to probe the human condition. Are we destined to be good or evil or can we choose? What makes some choose good and others evil and what will/can we do about it other than choose for ourselves?

The question centers around what God says to Cain before he murders his brother. The NIV translates Genesis 4:7 as: “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” But, as Samuel in the book urges us to consider: the Hebrew word Timshel (as with most languages) has a range of meanings, among which is “Thou Mayest.” In other words: “sin is crouching at your door; it’s desire is to have you but you may (might?) rule over it.”

Steinbeck’s story hangs on the question of what his characters will do in their own fights against sin. Timshel: “Thou mayest rule over sin.” But then again, “Thou mayest not.” Lee explains in one of the book’s central passages (Pardon me for quoting such a long section.):

“Do you remember when you read us the sixteen verses of the fourth chapter of Genesis and we argued about them?”

“I do indeed. And that’s a long time ago.”

“Ten years nearly,” said Lee. “Well, the story bit deeply into me and I went into it word for word. The more I thought about the story, the more profound it became to me. Then I compared the translations we have—and they were fairly close. There was only one place that bothered me. The King James version says this—it is when Jehovah has asked Cain why he is angry. Jehovah says, ‘If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.’ It was the ‘thou shalt’ that struck me, because it was a promise that Cain would conquer sin.”

Samuel nodded. “And his children didn’t do it entirely,” he said.

Lee sipped his coffee. “Then I got a copy of the American Standard Bible. It was very new then. And it was different in this passage. It says, ‘Do thou rule over him.’ Now this is very different. This is not a promise, it is an order. And I began to stew about it. I wondered what the original word of the original writer had been that these very different translations could be made.”

Samuel put his palms down on the table and leaned forward and the old young light came into his eyes. “Lee,” he said, “don’t tell me you studied Hebrew!”

Lee said, “I’m going to tell you. And it’s a fairly long story. Will you have a touch of ng-ka-py?”

“You mean the drink that tastes of good rotten apples?”

“Yes. I can talk better with it.”

“Maybe I can listen better,” said Samuel.

While Lee went to the kitchen Samuel asked, “Adam, did you know about this?”

“No,” said Adam. “He didn’t tell me. Maybe I wasn’t listening.”

Lee came back with his stone bottle and three little porcelain cups so thin and delicate that the light shone through them. “Dlinkee Chinee fashion,” he said and poured the almost black liquor. “There’s a lot of wormwood in this. It’s quite a drink,” he said. “Has about the same effect as absinthe if you drink enough of it.”

Samuel sipped the drink. “I want to know why you were so interested,” he said.

“Well, it seemed to me that the man who could conceive this great story would know exactly what he wanted to say and there would be no confusion in his statement.”

“You say ‘the man.’ Do you then not think this is a divine book written by the inky finger of God?”

“I think the mind that could think this story was a curiously divine mind. We have had a few such minds in China too.”

“I just wanted to know,” said Samuel. “You’re not a Presbyterian after all.”

“I told you I was getting more Chinese. Well, to go on, I went to San Francisco to the headquarters of our family association. Do you know about them? Our great families have centers where any member can get help or give it. The Lee family is very large. It takes care of its own.”

“I have heard of them,” said Samuel.

“You mean Chinee hatchet man fightee Tong war over slave girl?”

“I guess so.”

“It’s a little different from that, really,” said Lee. “I went there because in our family there are a number of ancient reverend gentlemen who are great scholars. They are thinkers in exactness. A man may spend many years pondering a sentence of the scholar you call Confucius. I thought there might be experts in meaning who could advise me.

“They are fine old men. They smoke their two pipes of opium in the afternoon and it rests and sharpens them, and they sit through the night and their minds are wonderful. I guess no other people have been able to use opium well.”

Lee dampened his tongue in the black brew. “I respectfully submitted my problem to one of these sages, read him the story, and told him what I understood from it. The next night four of them met and called me in. We discussed the story all night long.”

Lee laughed. “I guess it’s funny,” he said. “I know I wouldn’t dare tell it to many people. Can you imagine four old gentlemen, the youngest is over ninety now, taking on the study of Hebrew? They engaged a learned rabbi. They took to the study as though they were children. Exercise books, grammar, vocabulary, simple sentences. You should see Hebrew written in Chinese ink with a brush! The right to left didn’t bother them as much as it would you, since we write up to down. Oh, they were perfectionists! They went to the root of the matter.”

“And you?” said Samuel.

“I went along with them, marveling at the beauty of their proud clean brains. I began to love my race, and for the first time I wanted to be Chinese. Every two weeks I went to a meeting with them, and in my room here I covered pages with writing. I bought every known Hebrew dictionary. But the old gentlemen were always ahead of me. It wasn’t long before they were ahead of our rabbi; he brought a colleague in. Mr. Hamilton, you should have sat through some of those nights of argument and discussion. The questions, the inspection, oh, the lovely thinking—the beautiful thinking.

“After two years we felt that we could approach your sixteen verses of the fourth chapter of Genesis. My old gentlemen felt that these words were very important too—‘Thou shalt’ and ‘Do thou.’ And this was the gold from our mining: ‘Thou mayest.’ ‘Thou mayest rule over sin.’ The old gentlemen smiled and nodded and felt the years were well spent. It brought them out of their Chinese shells too, and right now they are studying Greek.”

Samuel said, “It’s a fantastic story. And I’ve tried to follow and maybe I’ve missed somewhere. Why is this word so important?”

Lee’s hand shook as he filled the delicate cups. He drank his down in one gulp. “Don’t you see?” he cried. “The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?”

“Yes, I see. I do see. But you do not believe this is divine law. Why do you feel its importance?”

“Ah!” said Lee. “I’ve wanted to tell you this for a long time. I even anticipated your questions and I am well prepared. Any writing which has influenced the thinking and the lives of innumerable people is important. Now, there are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.” Lee’s voice was a chant of triumph.

Adam said, “Do you believe that, Lee?”

“Yes, I do. Yes, I do. It is easy out of laziness, out of weakness, to throw oneself into the lap of deity, saying, ‘I couldn’t help it; the way was set.’ But think of the glory of the choice! That makes a man a man. A cat has no choice, a bee must make honey. There’s no godliness there. And do you know, those old gentlemen who were sliding gently down to death are too interested to die now?”

Adam said, “Do you mean these Chinese men believe the Old Testament?”

Lee said, “These old men believe a true story, and they know a true story when they hear it. They are critics of truth. They know that these sixteen verses are a history of humankind in any age or culture or race. They do not believe a man writes fifteen and three-quarter verses of truth and tells a lie with one verb. Confucius tells men how they should live to have good and successful lives. But this—this is a ladder to climb to the stars.” Lee’s eyes shone. “You can never lose that. It cuts the feet from under weakness and cowardliness and laziness.”

Adam said, “I don’t see how you could cook and raise the boys and take care of me and still do all this.”

“Neither do I,” said Lee. “But I take my two pipes in the afternoon, no more and no less, like the elders. And I feel that I am a man. And I feel that a man is a very important thing—maybe more important than a star. This is not theology. I have no bent toward gods. But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed— because ‘Thou mayest.’”

The book closes with Adams dying breath Timshel! and leaves us to wonder what we will do with the challenge. Steinbeck’s characters were wrestling with questions of greed, motivation, hatred, industry, war and morality. As Solomon once said: “There is nothing new under the sun.” Though the names and characters have changed, the questions about the human condition and what kind of country we want to be remain thunder-clouded overhead.

We claim to be a “Christian” nation that has caged the refugees and outlawed the Good Samaritan. Current immigration officials have suggested that we edit Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus” to read "give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet, and who will not become a public charge."

Timshel!

What we will do with the choices before us? What kind of country to we want to be?

Timshel!

“His eyes closed and he slept.”

  • Read the study notes for East of Eden.

  • Browse Oprah’s “Interesting Facts About Steinbeck's East of Eden.”

  • Purchase the book at Amazon.

  • Read as Todd Smidt argues: “Timshel: The most important word in the world.”