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Thursday, January 22, 2015

What Dance Moms gets wrong about God - and religion

More than a million Americans tuned in to watch Dance Moms Season 5 Episode 3 this week, just a few thousand more than came to church last week to hear my sermon ...

So when the Lifetime reality show starring over-the-top teacher Abby Lee Miller decided to do a group dance about religion, complete with a nun costume as well as a dancer dressed as a Saudi Muslim woman (black head scarf, full black cloak, and black face veil leaving only the eyes and nose exposed) - this Pastor took notice.

The song was Something to Believe In, an instrumental piece by Robin Loxley and Oliver Jackson. The dance version adds spoken words:

Believe. Believe because you are free and you can.
Believe in your own god. Believe in yourself. Believe in your possibilities.
Believe in others who believe. Believe in our differences. Believe in our future.
Believe. Believe in something.

It was, I believe, a 38-word synopsis of American practical atheism, or worse: self-worship.

In a world where religious extremists hate and kill in Paris, Syria, Jerusalem and even the United States - American popular religion has become so watered down that this 38-word synopsis sounds acceptable and even familiar to American ears.

We think it innocuous. Pleasant. Tolerant.

As a Christian, it is unacceptable.

Believe in your own god.

Wandering in the desert, just weeks after the Israelites received the 10 Commandments, they made their own gods. Their religious coach, Moses, had gone up the mountain to pray - and as their faith faded, they begged his assistant, Aaron, to make them gods.

He melted down their gold jewelry and produced a calf. They worshiped it.

God's heart was broken, but after Moses prayed and begged God to be merciful, God did not destroy God's people.

Thousands of years later, 2,000 years after Jesus rose from the dead, Americans make our own gods - and our pop culture heroes tell us to believe in our own gods!

We went to Steve Jobs and Apple and said: make us a god!
We went to the plastic surgeons and the Photoshop experts and the engineers and said: make us a god!
To the politicians and the teachers and architects and the personal trainers: make us gods.

They did: beautiful, intelligent, almost perfect gods.

And we worshiped them.

Under the guise of tolerance, we've made ourselves our own gods. We've made ourselves into gods.

Because you are free and you can ... Believe in your own god.

Except our freedom is an illusion, as we learn every time another family member dies, another friend falls into the swirling whirlpool of addiction, another doctor reads "cancer" off a chart ...

We believe not because we are free but we believe so that we might be free.

"Because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!' So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God," Galatians 4:6-7.

We have so domesticated God that the god of Dance Moms sounds almost like a pet. My own god. I take him out for a walk and I wear his name and put his picture on my wall so that everyone can see my own god. He was created for me. I made him.

But the God of the Bible cannot be constructed by human beings.
God constructs us.
He is not a bumper sticker or a catch phrase but a God.

We have forgotten what God is, besides ourselves. Or money or power.
It is not ironic that the Dance Moms piece immediately moves from believing in God to believing in ourselves. The line has become so fragile - so thin - that to believe in God today is almost synonymous to believing in yourself - so that we have become God.

Of course it all collapses in the alleyway, on the highway, in the hospital room, in the marriage counselor's office. We have become God and yet when we realize our own mortality the god we have constructed becomes mortal as well and our own death brings about the death of god when god lives only within ourselves.

Believe in others who believe. Believe in our differences. Believe in our future.
Believe. Believe in something.

See what has become important in American popular religion is not the object of our belief but the action of our belief. We tell our children simply to believe - and we forget to witness what we might believe in.

In the absence of other options, we choose ourselves.

The fear of God has become unpopular, for we think that fearing God must look like the radical Muslims who burst into Charlie Hebdo in Paris this month and killed 12 people.

They too believed in themselves more than they believed in God.

Their God was so small - such a pet - that He must be avenged by human blood.
Their God too was bound - by hatred, by fear, by sectarianism - rather than being unbound, free, to exercise His power in forgiveness.

We tell ourselves that we are free to believe but rather it is only our believing in a free God that sets us free.

We tell ourselves that it is the action of our belief that saves us.

It is not.

It is the object of our belief that saves us: a God who became man, died, and rose again - a free God who chose to love us.

Believe in something?

Dance Moms is wrong.

What saves us is not that we believe in God but that God believes in us.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Charlie Hebdo, Truth, and Jesus

A week after 12 people were killed in a violent Islamist attack at Charlie Hebdo newspaper in Paris, dividing lines are being drawn.

Je Suis Charlie.
Charlie provoked this.

As a Lutheran Pastor and former journalist, I see it happen among my friends.

The journalists are brave, even brash, and yet the murders hit that place deep inside of them - a deep pit of fear and maybe even faith - which compels them to leave their homes and travel to Egypt to interview protesters at Tahrir Square, to risk their lives on top of a freight train in Mexico and huddle with heroin addicts in New York City.

Some may argue that journalists are the cynics of all cynics - iconoclasts - those for whom nothing holds any sacred meaning. Those muckrakers who would tear down institutions if only for a headline; those who would dare expose scandal in the Church and rip down any sense of "decency."

This may be true - and yet among journalists I know, it would be grossly false to say that we - even the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo - hold nothing sacred.

What most journalists hold sacred - the overriding value that cost the lives of cartoonists Charb, Cadu, Honore, Tignous and Wolinski, among others, last week in Paris - is Truth.

At Charlie Hebdo, the cartoonists and editors believed in Truth - believed optimistically in the ability of human beings to read and learn and discover for themselves the best and the worst of humankind. Likely they would not have called themselves religious, and yet their stubborn belief in the best of humanity: that people would read, laugh, and learn to overcome the hatred and death and self-seeking drive to power that many of their cartoons mocked.

As a freshman journalism student at the University of Missouri - Columbia, I sat in Principles of American Journalism and listened to Prof. Charles Davis tell us about the muckrakers and Watergate and the times the free press saved America from deception, fraud and corruption.

I looked around the room and although a few of us would end up in advertising, at that moment more than 100 shining upturned faces were staring at Prof. Davis and thinking; "This is why I am here."

You see, journalists - especially gritty political print journalists like the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, don't go into this for the money or the glory. They don't go into it for the stability, in an age where publications close by the day and freelancers are considered lucky to be paid.

They write, and draw cartoons and take photos in conflict-ridden countries all over the world - they don suffocating protective suits and take photos of children stricken with Ebola - because ultimately even in their cold, alcohol-drenched, cigarette butt-covered hearts - journalists are believers. They believe in the Truth - that in the end, Truth will win, and love will overcome fear.

That's why Charlie Hebdo's first cover cartoon following last week's attacks is so poignant.

Mohammad stands there, a tear rolling down his cheek: "Je suis Charlie," he says. 
Above his head, a title: "All is Forgiven."

Even in the wake of violent death, a religiously motivated attack that goes against a God of Love who created human beings out of love - Charlie Hebdo is hopeful. Forgiveness wins. Love wins.

Says Luz, the cartoonist who drew it: "Of course everything is forgiven, my man Mohammad. We can overcome, because I managed to draw you."


Of everything I've read in the past week about Charlie Hebdo - from the Pope to fellow pastors to fellow journalists - Luz's comment sounds the most like Jesus.

Charlie Hebdo would hate this, of course. Some former washed-up journalist turned Lutheran Pastor imposing upon it Jesus Christ when the only God Charlie believes in is freedom of expression.

That's fine. See Jesus is a surprising guy. And in the past week, as he watches the world turn on its head over Islam and Christianity and satire and cartoons and world leaders - I believe Jesus is saying: "Je suis Charlie."

I can already hear you asking. How could he?! How dare he? Jesus was a pious man, the Son of God who followed the Law to every jot and tittle. He did not mock God. 

But Jesus, at his best, was a satirist. Like journalists, like Charlie, he stood on the sidelines of power and used his rhetoric to tear down hypocrisy, false piety, and corruption.

He mocked the Pharisees in Matthew 23, using satire to describe how their hypocrisy had torn apart the Jewish faith, paying attention to ritual and ignoring the plight of brothers and sisters. Jesus goes on and on, in outsized almost cartoonish fashion.

"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth."

Jesus himself was an agitator - a disruption to religious folk who would point out the speck in their brother's eye but ignore the log in their own eye.

Jesus was unafraid to point out where power and religion had led people astray - had lifted up death rather than life. Ultimately Jesus paid with his life. And then he said, as God he said: "Tout est pardonne."


What has scared me the most in the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo is not the profane cartoons, or the retweets praising the attacks, or the link to Al Qaeda in Yemen. What has scared me the most are the Christians who are making remarks to the effect of: "They asked for it."

Even the liberal Pope Francis joined in, telling journalists on a flight to the Philippines: "One cannot make fun of faith."

Pope Francis suggested that there is a limit to freedom of expression, comparing the attacks to someone swearing about his mother - and then receiving a punch in the face.

But God says Vengeance is mine. Not yours.

Many decry the lack of attention paid when Muslim children are killed around the world, or perhaps when a drone kills civilians.

These are terrible tragedies, and yet I am reminded of what happened when Judas scorned Jesus for allowing Mary, the sister of Lazarus, to bathe his feet with expensive perfume.

"Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?"

"You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me," Jesus replied.

Jesus says that there will always be a need for charity, a need to lift up the loss of innocent lives, a need to respond to needless killing - but if no one is free to report, to call to task the murderers - then no stories of death will be reported at all.

Sometimes God calls us to protect the storytellers so that we might hear the stories. 

The freedom of expression, of satire - the need of a free press unrestrained by censure - as practiced by Charlie Hebdo represented something greater than the sum total of lives lost in the attack in Paris. It represented freedom and a search for truth, even if sometimes that search led down profane or offensive roads. 

I think Jesus can handle it: "Tout est pardonne."


The Pope (and other Christians') rhetoric of "asking for it" - saying Charlie Hebdo provoked the attacks - is particularly troubling, because this sort of language is used to justify all sorts of murders and violence in our world today, especially murders and violence against the disenfranchised and oppressed.

A woman was raped -- but she was wearing a short skirt and acting flirtatious, so she was "asking for it."

A black man was killed -- but he was dating a white woman and speaking too loudly, so he was "asking for it."

There is not a single instance in Scripture of Jesus responding to punish someone in this way. Jesus never once said that someone was "asking for it." Jesus' arithmetic doesn't work like that. Stepping out of line does not equal punishment: an eye for an eye - rather Jesus encouraged stepping out of line, especially when the line, the group, the society, the religion had been tarnished by corruption.

The type of society envisioned by Jesus on the Sermon on the Mount is one that is slow to judge and quick to forgive; one that seeks grace in the midst of heartache, and one that does not put religious codes above eternal Truth.

The prohibition in Islam against portrayals of the Prophet is a religious law. We Christians too have many religious laws. As followers of Jesus or Mohammad, we must constantly ask ourselves whether our religious laws live up to the God we claim to worship.

I would ask Muslims: what kind of God do you worship, one who would kill artists seeking truth simply for a human drawing that will fade? 

I would ask Christians: what kind of God do we worship, one who is punitive and determined by Law, one who would kill those who "ask for it" in order to keep the rest of us in line? Or a God who is making all things new - a God who encourages the restlessness of political protest and the acceptance of those who think differently than us?

A God who is secure enough not to demand retributive killing.

The God we worship - or not - determines the kind of human beings we strive to be.