Book: Fuse by Julianna Baggott

Click to see Fuse by Julianna Baggott on Amazon!
Click to see Fuse
on Amazon!

Fuse is the second installment in Julianna Baggott’s Pure trilogy, and like any good second installment, the world expands, the stakes get higher and the characters sink to depths that make us fearful for them. In my review of Pure, I highlighted the religious overtones of the book. In Fuse, Baggott continues to weave reflections on faith, fundamentalism and our future into a story where these elements are an organic part of the world.

Fuse isn’t a morality tale about the dangers of religion, but we’d do well to heed its warnings.

As Bradwell comes to understand the Fundamentalist character of Willux’ worldview, he reflects on the nature of our world – his ‘Before’.

During the Before, the box we stored God in kept getting smaller and smaller. On the one hand there was science. And with all that science, Willux thought he could play God. And then on the other hand, there was the church invented for their own purposes— where the rich knew they were blessed because they were rich. Once one person’s better than another, it lets people get away with all kinds of cruelty.

Bradwell’s words ring true as a prophetic description of the Modern world.

As Science pushes God further and further out of the public discourse, humans can more easily play God.Continue reading

Christian Monsters

Check out Monsters in America by Scott Poole on Amazon!
Check out Monsters in America on Amazon!

Why does every culture tell monster stories? It’s a fascinating question. An excellent book I’ve been reading lately by Scott Poole suggests that monsters are a safe way for us to talk about those aspects of our culture we’re not particularly proud of.

As Scott says:

Master narratives are, by definition, lies and untruths. This is why we need to study monsters. They are the things hiding in history’s dark places, the silences that scream if you listen closely enough. Cultural critic Greil Marcus writes that “parts of history, because they don’t fit the story a people wants to tell itself, survive only as haunts and fairy tales, accessible only as specters and spooks.”

It's everyone's favorite spiritual dysfunctions!
Everyone’s favorite spiritual dysfunctions!

Scott works wonders with this methodology in his book (which you should absolutely check out if you’re a horror movie junkie at all!

You might also recognize this approach to monsters from Matt Mikalatos’ excellent book Night of the Living Dead Christian. Matt uses traditional monster movie tropes to explore issues of spiritual formation. I’ve already written at length about how hilarious and awesome NotLDC is. In fact, I liked it so much, we ripped it off for our current sermon series.

So for the next few weeks, rather than retread ground that’s already been covered to such great effect, I’m going to follow Scott’s approach more closely. Scott says,

Seeing America through its monsters offers a new perspective on old questions. It allows us to look into the shadows, to rifle through those trunks in the attic we have been warned to leave alone. Not all of our myths will make it out of here alive.

In this series of posts, I’m going to explore some of the monsters Evangelical Christianity has created. We’ll look at how the persons (and people groups) have been mythologized and misrepresented. We’ll also ask why: what do we gain by projecting our fears onto these “monsters”?Continue reading

Opening the Front Door, Closing the Back Door – Herbert Cooper

Seven keys to Opening the Front Door

Herbert Cooper1. Use weekend worship gatherings

Remember that every Sunday is someone’s first Sunday. The regular attendee’s perspective changes when they invite someone to a gathering.

Focus on relevant + practical teaching.

Ensure that your programming is excellent. Excellence eliminates distractions.

2. Get your people fired up to reach their friends & family

In everything you do, build trust with attendees.

Honest evaluations are vital. Every church suffers from “Insiderness“. A church’s natural gravitational pull is inward.

One of my # 1 jobs is to keep the church’s focus outward.

3. Kids and Student Ministry can be front doors

Invest in these key ministries with money and quality volunteers

4. Build a Front Door Team

This can be either Staff or Volunteers.

Focus on the Front Door before Back Door. Create some chaos, then figure out how to manage it.

5. Facilities can open the Front Door.

Facilities can facilitate momentum (Not create. If you don’t already have some momentum, a new facility will be a burden, not a boon.)

6. Adding Gatherings can open the Front Door

New gatherings create growth, excitement and momentum. Starting new gatherings on-site has huge advantages over starting a new site.

  1. Serve 1, worship 1: Multiple gatherings = opportunities serve. At People’s Church, those who worship in one gathering volunteer in Kids Church during another gathering.
  2. More gatherings means more opportunities to serve means people commit and take ownership.
  3. Financially it’s possibly more responsible to maximize what you already have.

7. Eliminate Excuses and Lead

Our job as leaders is to take them where they NEED to go moth here they WANT to go.

Don’t say, “Our people won’t _________.” The truth is, we as leaders haven’t led them to ______. One of our greatest weaknesses is that we don’t take our responsibility.

Shutting the Back Door

Catalyst Make1. Follow Up.

Follow Up starts on Sunday. It starts in the parking lot. Most people decide if they teaming back within the first 5-10 minutes of their visit.

2. Make the Next step clear

Do we know what our Next Step is?

Do our visitors know what the Next Step is?

People need to be needed & known (in other words, get new persons Serving and connected in a Small Group).

YOUR TURN: What are your church’s areas of greatest need? What can you do next?

Week 2 – The Seven Churches of Revelation

JR. Forasteros - September 12, 2012

Week 2 - The Seven Churches

Week 2 - The Seven Churches

We explore Jesus' messages to the Seven Churches in Asia. This lesson covers Revelation chapters 2-3.

From Series: "Revelation to John"

Week 2 Notesheet     Week 2 PowerPoint

More From "Revelation to John"

Powered by Series Engine

This week we explore the seven letters to the Seven Churches of Revelation. We’ll see that each Church faced the pressure from the dominant Roman culture differently, and Jesus’ message speaks directly to each church.

Jesus’ message to the Seven Churches of Revelation is just as urgent for the Church today.

You can subscribe the the podcast right here: SUBSCRIBE IN ITUNES (and rate it if you like it!)

YOUR TURN: Which of the Churches do you most connect to? How did chapters 2-3 treat you overall?

I Must Be Crazy

This is the final installment of The Beard Goes Home, a chronicle of my trip to Israel, Cairo and Rome from November 3-18.  If you want more information on a picture, hover your mouse over it for a pop-up caption.  If you want to see a bigger version of the picture, click on it.

A Canaanite worship site dating to around 3000 BCE, uncovered on Mt. Megiddo.Over the course of this trip, I have traveled to three continents, engaged three major world religions and more interacted in at least a half-dozen cultures.  I’ve been further outside my comfort zone than ever before in my life, and all in the name of following Jesus.  Of walking where he walked and seeing the things he saw, as much as possible.

Thomas and I at the pyramids at Giza, which were built about 2500 BCE.I was certainly without most of the comforts of home – I was much less connected to the Internet than I’m accustomed to, and between that and the 6-7 hour time difference, I felt very disconnected from my wife and community in the US.  I met new persons every day, and all of them were in some way the Other.  I learned that two weeks is more than long enough to spend adrift and apart, with no place to put down roots.  I understand now why we create colonies, little islands of our own culture, when we go to a new place.

The old Jebusite wall of the oldest part of the city of Jerusalme, fortified by later Judean kings. Dates around 1000-800 BCE.I learned that I’m a lot more xenophobic than I thought I was.  I spent the whole trip as the consummate outsider.  Even Thomas was at home among his Dominican brothers; each of our rest stops offered something familiar for him, a place he understood and knew how to function in.  Initially I only felt a sense of shame at my suspicion towards the Arabs or my indignation at the disgust I felt from the Jews.  My fear of being alone in Rome.

Ruins of the Temple to Saturn in the Roman Forum from the first century BCEBut the longer I’ve been gone, the more I’m trying to cherish these uncomfortable moments.  I am learning in a way I never have before what it means to be a Stranger, an Alien.  Amanda and I chose ‘Forasteros’ as our last name because it is the Spanish word for this very idea.  Because we both want to be that and to learn the art of hospitality, of welcoming strangers and aliens.

Ruins of the first century synagogue at Capernaum, where Jesus taught, healed and cast out demons in the late 20s CEIn Middle Eastern cultures (Jewish, Muslim OR Christian), there are two categories of person (as I was just discussing with one of my new Dominican friends): Family and Enemy.  The Arabic phrase for ‘Welcome’ roughly translates as ‘I make smooth the path for you to come into my family’.  If you’re not a part of my family, then you’re my enemy, and I have full freedom (and possibly even an obligation) to cheat you.  I certainly don’t have to welcome you.

This makes the Biblical mandate to welcome the stranger even more powerful.   As the Israelites were preparing to enter into the Promised Land, Moses reminded them:

Heading down the Mt. of Olives towards Jerusalem, as Jesus would have durind Passover week around 30 CE.

For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.  You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. – Deuteronomy 10:17-19

The altar over the slab on which Jesus' body was laid and from which he was resurrected around 30 CE.This would be a radical teaching in the Holy Land today.  It was at least as radical then.  If we’re honest with ourselves, it’s radical in the good ole’ U.S. of A. too.  We’re not much better at making strangers feel welcomed in our country, let alone our homes.  Especially if they don’t speak our language or look like us.

But welcoming the stranger is fundamentally what it means to follow Jesus.  His Incarnation is the ultimate sojourn.  God became human.  He took on flesh and moved into our neighborhood.  And we killed him for it.  Which only goes to show that God’s commands to God’s people didn’t take hold very well.

Vatican Square, including St. Peter's, renovated in the 1600s.

A plea for peace on the wall the Israelis built around Palastine, using mostly concrete from Palestinian suppliers just a few years ago.And we who follow Jesus today aren’t any better.  We still play favorites.  We still stick close to our families (whatever we decide those look like) and we do little to step outside our comfort zones.  We usually actively avoid it.  Intentionally becoming a stranger is difficult.  It’s not a vacation (which is why we build resorts that have all the comforts of home but still let us feel exotic).

And yet again and again the New Testament appropriates the metaphor of stranger/alien/sojourner to describe the Christian life.  We are on a journey in a foreign land.

About to enter into Armageddon (Mt. Megiddo), the site of John the Revelator's apocalyptic final battle.All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.  If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return.  But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them. – Hebrews 11:13-16

Here’s the end of my story: I took a trip and it turned my world upside down.  You should try it sometime.  If you want a tour guide, let me know.  It helps to travel with friends.

Rome Alone

The Beard Goes Home is an ongoing chronicle of my trip to Israel, Cairo and Rome from November 3-18.  If you want more information on a picture, hover your mouse over it for a pop-up caption.  If you want to see a bigger version of the picture, click on it.

The Roman Forum. From left to right: the Temple of Vespasian (3 columns), the Temple of Saturn (8 columns), the Arch of Septimus Severus (behind), the Column of Phocas (single column), Temple of Antonius and Faustina (columns in front of Church), Temple of Julius Caesar (small set of three columns), Temple of Castor and Pollux (taller set of three columns), Arch of Titus (behind and right of Castor/Pollux)

Thomas and I landed in Rome on Monday, November 15.  We made it to the Angelicum, a Dominican school where we’d be staying, and settled in for the night.  Just after I’d gone to bed, Thomas came The statue of St. Bartholomew at St. John Lateran. According to tradition, Bartholomew was skinned alive, so in his iconography, he's alwasy holding HIS OWN SKIN. That's messed my room to tell me that a family emergency had come up and he would have to fly home ASAP.  The earliest he could arrange was Wednesday morning, so on Tuesday we met up with a group from his parish in Columbia as originally planned and took a whirlwind tour of the city.

I confess that I was very nervous about Thomas leaving.  I’d never been to Rome and didn’t know my way around; I was also feeling very ready to get back to Dayton.  All of these emotions were strange to me – I’m usually much more adventurous, so I spent some time in prayer and reflection and determined to make the most of my time.

St. Peter's Square. These marble columns all used to be a part of the Coliseum. Jerks.

Rome turned out to be a city where it’s easy to get lost in the trees, but the forest is (relatively) easy to navigate.  Once I’d gotten a good sense of how the famous Seven Hills are laid out, I could figure out how to get back to the general area of the Angelicum.

Seriously. I know THE Michaelangelo designed those uniforms, but those Swiss Guards look RIDICULOUS.We managed to see a good many sites for as little time as we had, though since the rest of my group was Catholic, it mostly revolved around art and the 17 billion or so churches in Rome.  We took in St. John’s of Lateran (the Pope’s actual church), St. Peter’s (including the Vatican Museum, St. Peter’s bones and the Sistine Chapel) and several Caravaggio’s.

Yes, that's the Pope-mobile. And yes, they actually call it that.One of the highlights of the trip was our Wednesday audience with Pope Benedict XVI, with about 20,000 people from all over the world.  He addressed us in a half-dozen languages – the same five-minute homily to each group.  After being in Israel, I was shocked at how lax the security surrounding the whole Vatican was (unless those goofy Swiss guard uniforms grant secret superpowers).

The easiest way to get stabbed to death in Rome - mess with a dude dressed as a Roman guard.For me, though, the Roman ruins were definitely what I was most excited to see – especially anything pre-Constantinian (315-330 CE).  This was a lot tougher than I thought it would be because Rome has been Christian for so long.  It turns out that we’ve done a great job of Christian-izing pretty much everything in Rome.  Even the red-granite Egyptian obelisks that are all over the city all have crosses or statues of Peter and Paul on top of them.  All those marble columns that surround Vatican square?  Their marble used to cover the Coliseum.  The grand Circus Maxims, that made Herod’s circus in Caesarea Maritima look like a little league stadium?  It’s basically a big strip of grass with some stairs cut into it.  The Pantheon, a temple built to all the Roman gods is now a church dedicated to all the Christian martyrs.

Approaching the Coliseum, which truly is a ruin compared to its former state.As a person of faith, I get it.  Rome was the capitol of the Roman Empire (I’m sure this is not a news flash).  The monuments to the pagan gods were just as widespread in the city as Christian churches and monuments are now.  But the history nerd in me weeps over the artifacts and monuments that have been lost (or destroyed).  The church (and the Empire) found it expedient to recycle – to tear down old monuments to men and gods long dead in order to build new monuments to the new kings and new God of Rome.  It was cheaper and it erased from history the records of the Other cultures.

The last remains of the Temple to Saturn, one of the oldest pieces of Rome we've uncovered.This is something I’ve seen over and over in this trip – the new cultures and religions cannot abide the old, so they destroy and replace.  Caesarea Maritima was a great example of this – it changed rulers five times before it was abandoned, and each army destroyed what was there and built their own monuments.  Mt. Megiddo was the same.  Not to mention the city of Jerusalem (::cough:: Temple Mount ::cough::).

And, of course, Rome.

But I wonder if we could try something different.  What if, instead of looking at these structures and monuments as Other, we instead celebrated the good in them.

All that's left of the once awesome Circus Maximus.The ancient Temples are beautiful in their way, and they’re certainly marvels of architecture.  I can confess that without praising Roman gods (or Muslim or Canaanite or whatever).  I can wonder at the ingenuity and power of the human spirit that is, after all, created in God’s image without worrying or feeling threatened.  That creative drive that led to the construction of Cairo’s ubiquitous mosques and Rome’s obelisks, columns, arches and temples is the same creative drive that spawned the enormity of St. Peter’s and the beautiful churches that mark all the sacred sites in the Holy Land.  It’s the creative drive that we have been given by our Creator, and I believe that we can celebrate it in a way that honors the Gospel without compromising it.

The Coliseum, with a part of the arena floor restored. If you look closely, on the right side you can see a cross that marks the Emperors box (obviously added after Constantine). This marked where the (Christian) Emperor would sit and cheer as men murdered each other.

Bringing Sexy Back?

I want to wrap up this series by reflecting on the conversation PETA has started with these ads, and what we might learn from them.

PETA’s work is important, and worth our attention.

While I don’t agree with all of PETA’s values or methods, I believe their message and voice are important.  Our culture has made the exploitation of creation for our own convenience and pleasure the rule of the day.  We seldom give second thought to what we eat, wear or drive and how it affects the world around us.

Christians do have a responsibility to Creation, and we would get a lot further by partnering with organizations like PETA.  We don’t have to agree with everything they do, but instead of condemning them, we can offer a helpful voice of critique.  And if we listened a little bit more closely to what they’re saying we can learn something as well.

PETA’s ads raise several important questions we must take seriously.

1. When did you last give thought to where the products you use originated?

If you’re like me, the answer is: a long time ago.  I use animal products – I eat meat, I wear leather, etc.  And I’m not against killing animals as a rule.

But take a look at this horrifying video of a fur farm (if you have the stomach for it).  I don’t wear fur, but this video gave me pause because in watching it, I realized that I need to be more conscious of what I consume.  The way we treat creation says a lot about our picture of the creator, and I believe we can treat animals more humanely than they’re usually treated in our mass-production mills.  (Another great resource to get you thinking is the film Food, Inc.  You can get it on Netflix OnDemand if you’re a subscriber!)

2. What are we doing to live out our convictions?

A lot of the power of PETAs ads comes from the status of the persons they feature.  Each of these persons (allegedly) has some sort of influence over a number of other persons and they choose to leverage that influence to support a cause in which they believe.

PETA works very hard to change your mind.  They work so hard because they’re passionate about their message.  They’ll stop at nothing to save animals from unethical treatment.

I have an important message to communicate.  I’m passionate about it as well.  I bet you are too.  I want to go to the next-next level.  I want you to walk away from an encounter with my message unable to get it out of your head.  I want you to find it compelling.  I want you to mull it over for the next week (or more!).  PETA has encouraged me to step up my game.

3. Why are PETA’s ads so effective?

These ads are brilliant.  They’re smart and sexy (and for the record, I don’t think sexy has to be bad).  They communicate the same message on multiple levels and they have generated an enormous amount of attention.  I haven’t seen anyone in the Church do this effectively in a long time.

Which brings me to…

We would do well to learn from PETA’s communication techniques.

PETA is not the devil; they’re doing some good, and they’re working harder and more creatively than most faith-based organizations I’ve encountered.  They’re using the resources they have at their disposal and they’re using them well.  For me, they call to mind Jesus’ parable of the shrewd manager (Luke 16:1-12).

Listen to what PETA had to say in defense of their ad campaigns: “As for the sexy women in our ads, the silly costumes, the street tableaux and the tofu sandwich give-aways, in a world where people want to smile, can’t resist looking at an attractive image and are up for a free meal, if such harmless antics will allow one individual to reconsider their own role in exploiting animals, how can it be faulted? Yes, Peta could restrict its activities to scientific work, but how often do you read of that in the papers? It could just hand out lengthy tracts about ethics, but how many people would stop and take one, let alone read it? Any peaceful action that opens eyes, hearts and minds should be commended, not condemned.

I would debate whether the ads truly are peaceful – there’s a violence in pornography and in misappropriation – but that (important) debate aside, notice what PETA is doing: they recognize that just talking at people doesn’t effect change, that facts and figures (and, I would add, casually quoted Bible verses) don’t move us to alter our lifestyles.  So they appeal beyond our reason, to our emotions and to our identities.

HERO-JESUS-T-Shirt-Front-Design-M I wish that within the Church our communication was more creative and intention in the ways we communicate.  I don’t think that everything PETA did in these campaigns was right, but they are effective, original and creative – three words we can seldom apply to anything coming out of the Church.

PETA’s ads make me ask, “Am I using all my creativity to generate compelling and original incarnations of the Gospel?  Am I working at what I’m communicating, or am I stuck in a rut, talking at instead of talking with?”

What we need is a better picture of healthy sexuality.

The short takeaway from this for me is: Until we as Christians develop a healthy picture of sexuality that is indebted more to thoughtful exegesis of Scripture than it is to traditional (read: Western, post-industrial revolution) gender roles and unreasonable, culturally-formed sexual expectations, we’ll never be able to do anything more than stomp our feet and throw a temper-tantrum when we discover cultural texts such as the PETA ads.  To borrow a line from Andy Crouch, our posture will always be one of condemnation, never one of critique and certainly not one of creativity.

And we desperately need creative and clever pictures of healthy sexuality in our culture right now.  If this study has taught me nothing else, it’s how broken we all are, how fully our culture screws up our picture of what it means to be sexually healthy.  I don’t have much of an idea of what this looks like yet, but it’s something I’m exploring pretty heavily for an upcoming series of posts.

For now, though, I’d really like to hear your thoughts about what constitutes a healthy sexuality.  Pretty please?

Coda: Better Late than Never?

One last note – one of PETA’s more recent campaigns is “Ink not Mink”, which features various tattoo-bearing celeb in an anti-fur message.  And best of all, most of them are male – from R&B artist Mario and rocker Tommy Lee to “Miami Ink”’s Ami James and “Jackass” star Steve-O.  And, of course, Dennis Rodman.  The ads are no less pornographic (with the possible exception of Steve-O, who is just absurd), but at least including men in the ads is more… balanced?

And in case any of you are unsure, these pictures are great examples are what NOT to do.