Muslim Monsters

Before 9/11, Islam was just another weird world religion that the vast majority of American Evangelical Christians didn’t really think about – in the same category as Hinduism and Buddhism. But in the wake of 9/11, we realized that over a billion people in the world are Muslim. And many of the countries most hostile to America are mostly Muslim.

For the last decade, we’ve demonized Muslims. But using Dr. Scott Poole’s methodology, we know that our monsters say more about us than about those we monsterize.

What does the Monster look like?

Is this representative of all Muslims?
Is this representative of all Muslims?

The picture of Monstrous Muslims we have in our collective Evangelical imagination looks roughly like this:

Muslims are hell-bent on conquering the world. They’ve established a beachead in Detroit and are going to kill or convert every person in America to Sharia law. They hate women and freedom. They embody a particularly insidious brand of religious fundamentalism. And this isn’t just fringe Muslims. This violent fundamentalism is woven into the very fabric of the Islamic faith.

That some Muslims believe these things is certain. The question is whether those beliefs are representative of all Muslims.Continue reading

Obama the Muslim, Romney the Christian: Why Can’t We Vote for Someone Who’s Not Like Us?

As election day inches closer, the campaign rhetoric continues to heat up. And as in previous years, religion is at the forefront. This year, however, Evangelicals are faced with a dilemma we’ve never faced, at least not in our lifetime.

Most Evangelicals have traditionally voted Republican (74% voted for McCain in the last election), and every Republican candidate in the last 50 years has been at least Protestant if not Evangelical.

Republican candidate Mitt Romney is not an Evangelical. He’s not Protestant. He’s not Christian. Mitt Romney is a practicing Mormon.

And Barack Obama is a practicing Christian, a long-time member of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.

But primarily because of Obama’s views on Abortion (he’s pro-choice) and Gay Marriage (he favors it), Evangelicals as a whole – and especially Evangelical leaders – have been unwilling to support Obama despite his Christian faith.

In the last election, between two Christians, this wasn’t a problem for Evangelicals because McCain was a Christian. This election is totally different.

Because Mitt Romney is not a Christian, Evangelicals must choose either to vote for a Christian candidate whose politics they disagree with, or a non-Christian candidate whose policies they affirm.

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

America, Israel and Palestine – Lynne Hybles

Few Evangelical Christians are active peacemakers. Why?

Lynne HyblesSome Christians see Israel’s modern state as the fulfillment of prophecy. Others feel the opposite. Both sides caricature the other. Far from Peacemaking, many Christians only fuel the conflict.

Lynne spent much time with both Palestinian & Israel; communities. She learned that,

We disagree on some points of theology, but we agree on the basic human dignity of all peoples in the Holy Land.Continue reading

Guest Post: Thriving (Not Just Surviving) Married with Children by Tiffany Malloy

Tiffany and her husband Jake are some of my oldest friends. Not only do they have an awesome marriage, but they are two of the best parents I’ve ever met. Tiffany blogs about books and spirituality at her blog and also co-runs the parenting blog Play. Eat. Grow. Check ’em both out, and follow her on Twitter.

Tiffany and Jake on a date day
Tiffany and Jake on a date day

When Jake and I first got married, there was no such thing as our own space. We didn’t want our own space; instead, we were one of those nauseating couples who simply wanted to be together every single minute.

But as we dreamed about a future family, I started to imagine daily “me” times, weekly date nights, weekend  “family times” and regular one-on-one times with each of my children. All planned out at the beginning of the week, posted on our perfectly accurate family calendar (wahahaha).

What we learned as we started having kids, however, is that “life” often threatens to get in the way of the spaces we so desire to create for ourselves and for each other.Continue reading

Guest Post: Cupcakes and Candlelight and the Truth about Marriage by Nicole Unice

Click here to visit Nicole's blog
Click here to visit Nicole’s blog

It was supposed to be a long, lingering dinner, one where Dave and I grow more in love with one another as we pass on sage words to the newlywed couple invited to our home. We would smile knowingly and touch hands as we listened to them talk about the adjustment to married life. And when they would finally head home, more in love then when they arrived, Dave and I would cuddle and stare into one another’s eyes and reaffirm our deep love for one another, fifteen years into wedded bliss.

Except I forgot that I don’t live in a movie scene.Continue reading

My Wife Married the Wrong Person

Destructive to marriage is the self-fulfillment ethic that assumes marriage and the family are primarily institutions of personal fulfillment, necessary for us to become “whole” and happy. The assumption is that there is someone just right for us to marry and that if we look closely enough we will find the right person. This moral assumption overlooks a crucial aspect to marriage. It fails to appreciate the fact that we always marry the wrong person. We never know whom we marry; we just think we do. Or even if we first marry the right person, just give it a while and he or she will change. For marriage, being [the enormous thing it is] means we are not the same person after we have entered it. The primary problem is . . . learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.
— Stanley Hauerwas, quoted in The Meaning of Marriage (emphasis mine)

The day we both married the wrong person. Good Decision!
The day we both married the wrong person.
Good Decision!

Yesterday, we talked about what it means to marry the stranger, how marriage sanctifies us, and what it means that we always marry the wrong person. So I had to write about my own marriage, and the glorious truth that my wife married the wrong person.

For everything my wife Amanda and I have in common, we are pretty different people. I’m an attention hog who loves the spotlight and has a tendency to run over people. She’s a behind-the-scenes servant who puts herself last no matter what. I always have to have a plan; she’s go-with-the-flow. I squeeze the toothpaste from the bottom, she squeezes from the middle.

But what we fight about most, ironically, is fighting. Amanda and I have very different conflict-resolution strategies.Continue reading

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.

Older than Dirt

The Beard Goes Home is an ongoing chronicle of my trip to Jerusalem, 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 a picture, just click on it!

A wide shot from the bottom of Giza Plateau in which you can see the Sphinx and all three of the pyramids

Saturday, November 6 was our day to take on the Great Pyramids of Giza.  The Great Pyramids are one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (and the only wonders still standing).  They were built 4500 years ago by three Pharaohs in succession.  Each pyramid is made up of some 2.5 million identical blocks that weigh thousands of tons each.  They are burial plots (and the largest of over 70 similar structures all over Egypt).  They’re destroyed in nearly every disaster movie.  They’re shrouded in mystery and UFOlogists have all sorts of theories about extra-terrestrial involvement in their construction.

Me standing at the base of the Great Pyramid (and some other tourists). This begins to convey the sheer magnitude of the pyramids. They truly are awe-inspiring.I knew all of this – like you probably do – because these are some of the most famous landmarks (monuments, tourist attractions, wonders) in the entire world.  So I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect when we arrived at the Giza Plateau above Cairo and Cheops’ Pyramid emerged out of the clouds (smog?).

These things are HUGE.

I know that probably sounds trite or redundant, but I was taken aback by the physical presence of these things.  Until I stood at their base and looked up, I couldn’t grasp how monstrous they truly are.  I had always thought you could run up the stones, but each block is over five feet tall.  Experienced climbers have died trying to scale them (Mark Antony actually did it, and it’s illegal nowadays).

Looking down as we descend from the burial chamber. Cameras weren't allowed, but they didn't mention iPhones :)Thomas and I paid the extra to enter the Great Pyramid and clime into the burial chamber.  The experience was spooky – and we had the benefit of built-in stairs and lights; I can’t imagine doing it with maybe a rope and torch.  The burial chamber itself was relatively (to the entire structure) small – still big enough to accommodate 20-30 tourists easily.

We then walked around the Pyramids, exploring the ruins of the administrative complex, the smaller tombs of the Pharaohs’ wives and mothers and the pits from which they’d excavated the royal boats with which the Pharaohs had been buried, making our way down towards the Sphinx.

And these things are so ancient.  These were built over 500 years before Abraham was born.  We are closer to Jesus than Jesus was to these pyramids.  They’re OLD.  And HUGE.  It’s easy to feel that there must be something otherworldly about them.

I have to admit, it IS cute that the camel is also smiling.The most shocking aspect of the Giza Plateau was the selling.  We couldn’t walk more than a few steps without someone grabbing us and trying to force money out of our hands.  One man came up and grabbed my camera out of my hand, then tried to get me up on his camel (once you’re up, you have to pay to get down).  I refused, but he still dressed me like an Egyptian (with a headdress and scarf) and took my pictures.  Then he tried to get money from me; I grabbed my camera and resolutely refused, and marched off (managing to give him his gear back and reacquire my hat).  This pattern persisted – acknowledge that these guys exist in any way (even eye contact!) and you’d better run.  Apparently the government has cracked down pretty substantially on this practice – Mark Twain wrote that it ruined his trip to Egypt.

You ever been mooned by a Sphinx? Well NOW YOU HAVE!Thomas and I trying to take a nice picture and getting harassed. Moments before the shot was snapped, the man with the camel stuck that hat on my head. Then tried to sell it to me. Along with his camel.(In fact, these were not the cleverest of the scams – quite a few men wore very official looking outfits and would stand on the way to a pyramid or sphinx and demand you go buy a ticket, then try to direct you to a co-schemer who would gladly take money you don’t actually have to pay.  If you simply walk past them, they start shouting at someone else.)

The second pyramid looks bigger because it's on a higher plateau. It's actually smaller but built to the same dimensions as the Great Pyramid. The top of this pyramid still has the white limestone cap. Originally, all three pyramids were covered in the smooth, white rock. Ancient commentators claimed they gleamed like diamonds in the sun. The limestone was removed by various groups to build palaces and monuments. If the pyramids were still covered, they'd likely be in as good condition today as they were when they were finished!Surprisingly, the con-artists thinned out down by the Sphinx and we were able to enjoy a (relatively) unadulterated view of this crazy statue.  I didn’t realize that the Sphinx has a full body; I’d always assumed it was just a bust.  But in fact it has hind paws, a tail and a butt, or sphincter as Anthony Mako wanted me to point out.

After Giza, we enjoyed a trip down the Nile in a felucca, which was peaceful and relaxing (a nice chance from the insanity at Giza!)


Sunday we headed out to the Egyptian Museum, which was built around 1908.  King Tut’s tomb – whose riches now take up about 1/4 of all the museum’s space wasn’t discovered until the 1920s, so you can imagine how crowded it is.  It’s also very old school – not laid out well, not well-lit (apparently, they’re getting a whole new museum ‘one day’ so they’re just waiting for that to fix everything).

Egyptian Stiehl that is the only reference in Egyptian artefacts to Israel. It's in a long list of a Pharaoh's achievements (from around the time of the Judges), who claims to have utterly destroyed the Israelites. We're pretty sure the part near the bottom that's a bit smudged is that piece.I loved seeing all the artifacts in here – wood, paper, flesh (you know, on the mummies), all of it 3,000-4,500 years old.  To see the remains of such an old and totally foreign civilization, to know that they’ve been gone from the Earth longer than I can even imagine was hard to get my brain around.

Behold the mighty Egyptian chariot! A few of these are lying at the bottom of the Red Sea... or the Sea of Reeds... or... somewhere...To see their chariots, and know that – as silly as they look now – that technological breakthrough made Egypt an unquestioned military power for hundreds of years.  To see the statutes and monuments and models and on and on and on.

Ancient Egyptian religion also fascinates me – the gods with animal heads.  As a kid, I always thought it was so bizarre (and shout-out to Stargate, loved their reinterpretation of the whole thing).  But looking through the museum, I could see so many similarities to the ancient Israelites’ religion.  King Tut’s tomb even contained an Ark of Anubis that is clearly similar in structure (we don’t know exactly what it was for) to the Ark of the Covenant (even though Tut was a Pharaoh of the Middle Kingdom, which means he ruled long after the Exodus).

The Ark of Anubis, which looks a lot like the Ark of the Covenant would've. I wish I knew what this puppy was for.The Giza Plateau and Egyptian Museum only confirmed how far I am from home, how strange and alien the world of the Ancient Egyptians would have been to me.  And yet the ancient Hebrews would’ve had much more in common with Egypt.  Abraham, Jacob, Gideon, certainly Moses and even Jesus would’ve felt much more comfortable in Egypt than in my home.

This was a great reminder that I am the stranger to the Bible.  I can’t assume I know what it means from a cursory reading, or that ‘what it says’ is necessarily what it means.

Because it was written by some people that I would’ve found very strange indeed.