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

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

Top 10 Posts of 2011

2011 was a big year for this blog. Here are my 10 most popular posts by number of visits. Okay, technically eleven, since there was a two-way tie for the 10 slot.

10. 26 New and Improved Reasons I Love My Wife

Click here for the list

What can I say? Everyone loves my wife. So in honor of her 26th birthday, I listed a few of the many reasons I love her. Obviously the masses agreed.

10. The Black Swan Review

Click here for my review

One of the craziest films of 2010, but also a great retelling of the Garden of Eden story. If you’ve never seen an Aronofsky film, prepare yourself. If you have, you have some inkling of the sort of crazy you’re in for.

9. Erasing Hell by Francis Chan Review

Click here for my review

An awful, half-hearted response to Rob Bell’s Love Wins. It didn’t perform nearly as well for all kinds of reasons. My review was basically a call to save your money and skip this book.

8. The Fighter and The King’s Speech Reviews

Click here for my reviews

These two movies were basically the same exact story. What separated them out was the incredible acting from the entire casts. They transformed a standard underdog story into something pretty special.

7. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan Review

Click here for my review

One of the best books I’ve ever read, and one that really has its finger on the pulse of our collective consciousness right now. Absolutely outstanding writing, and well-deserving of the Pulitzer it won.

6. A Christian Response to Osama bin Laden’s Death

Click here for my take

The only piece of theological writing to crack my top 10, and again, not a big surprise. I was saddened by much of the celebrating I saw around bin Laden’s death. And while I understood it, I believe Christians are called to be better than that, especially when it comes to how we treat our enemies.

5. Why I Switched from a Nook to a Kindle

Click here for my analysis

A dated post since both Nook and Kindle have newer versions available. But I’m still sticking with my Kindle 3/Kindle Keyboard for the same reasons I listed in this post.

4. The Dark Knight Rises Previews

Click here for my take on the Prologue and the Trailer

No one is surprised that I’m pre-obsessed with this movie. But both of my write-ups on it so far have gotten more attention than most reviews I’ve done of movies that are already out.

3. The Dexter Season 6 Reviews

Click here to go to my review of episode one

Dexter took on God in Season 6, with some surprising results. Though I wasn’t wild about how they wrapped up all the themes they’d unpacked, the writers deserve some major kudos for this whole season. One of the best and most direct treatments of religion I’ve seen on secular television.

2. Love Wins by Rob Bell Review

Click here for my review

No surprise here – this was one of the most controversial books of the decade let alone last year. Dozens of times more ink has been spilt discussing this book than it took to write it. And one (relatively quick) read will show you why: Bell raises questions that need to be taken seriously.

1. 127 Hours Review

Click here for my review

I have no idea why my review of 127 Hours was by far my most viewed post. I did think it was the best film of 2010, and if you haven’t seen it yet, you really are missing out.

Love Wins by Rob Bell

Bell’s book is a lot to chew on; it’ll certainly reward several close readings. But it is well within the bounds of Orthodox Christianity, and asks some very good questions (it’s far outside the bounds of Orthodox New Calvinism, and some people mistake that for the whole of the Christian tradition, but rest assured they’re deluded). We need to be talking about Heaven, Hell and the picture of God that lies behind them. It’s a fun read and very accessible.

Continue reading

The First Church

This is the second installment of my reimagining of the Revelation to John.  The next few pieces will pull from Revelation 2-3, for each of the 7 churches.  These installments really helped me to see how provocative John’s letter would’ve been in its original context.  I’d love to know what you think.

To the angel of the Reformed churches write: These are the words of the one who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden pulpits:

“I know what you’re doing, how hard you work and your faithfulness. I know that you can’t stand false teachers; you have tested those who claim to represent God but don’t, and you’ve found them to be false. I also know that you’re working hard in my name, that you’re not giving up or getting tired. But I have this against you: you have abandoned the love you had at first. Look back and see where your system has tripped you up; repent and let what you do now look more like what you did at first. If you don’t, I will come to you and remove your pulpit from its place (unless you repent!). I’ll give you this: you hate the teachings of Universalists, which I also hate. Let anyone who has an ear hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.”

Jesus on Fire and Holy Prayer Grenades

Once I preached at a church on worship.  After my talk, we entered into a period of reflection and prayer, and a couple approached the altar.  The husband moved behind the pulpit, reached under it and pulled out a rock.  He placed it on the altar, then he and his wife knelt near it and prayed; they were quickly joined by other members of the congregation.

Needless to say, I was confused – what was the purpose of the stone?  I thought it was perhaps a sign that a person wanted prayer – put the stone out and it means ‘Come pray with me’; leave it hidden and it means ‘I want to pray alone’.

A good guess, perhaps, but incorrect.  After the gathering was finished, the man came up to me to explain that he was about to attend a prayer gathering at a nearby farm – the same farm from which he’d removed the rock.  He told me that he was going to return the rock “once it was good and prayed up.”  Apparently, the man envisioned the rock as some sort of Christian fetish – a religious term for a physical object believed to have spiritual power.

He believed that in some way the prayers with which he and his congregation had filled the rock would enhance the prayer gathering.

I was reminded of the prayer rock last Monday when we found out that the (in)famous “Touchdown Jesus” in Monroe, OH had been struck by lightning and burned to the ground (check out the YouTube footage of the conflagration in progress).


The statue was built in 2004 in front of the Solid Rock Church; it stands 62-feet tall and was made of plaster and styrofoam around a metal frame.

Reaction to the flames was mixed – in my circles we mostly laughed about it, but a lot of people apparently found the statue inspiring.  One guy even said, “I think it’s a sign of the end of the world.  If lightning is going to strike God, then there’s no hope.”  Probably the most common sentiment I heard is represented best by the guy who asked how God could strike down the Jesus statue while leaving the billboard advertising an adult bookstore that stood across the street standing.

Everyone wanted to know what God is saying by striking down Touchdown Jesus.  This thinking is still essentially fetish-ism.  Solid Rock Church built a 60-foot tall statue with a metal core.  Said metal core was struck by lightning, and since the material surrounding the  metal were flammable, it caught fire.  This is simple laws of physics.

What it is not is God taking a special interest in a five-year old giant Jesus.

My favorite reaction?  A person said, "Thor: 1.  Jesus: 0".

The Scriptures present God as transcendent – above creation and separate from it.  The second commandment (you know, in the big 10) is a prohibition against building idols.  But idols in the ancient world were not things people worship instead of God (the way we usually explain idolatry today) – that prohibition is covered in the first commandment, “I am YHWH your god… You shall have no other gods before me.”

Rather, idols were used to bind gods to physical spaces.  Thus, when the Israelites built the golden calf (Exodus 32), they were not worshiping the calf instead of God.  Rather, they were binding God to the calf – bulls were used as mounts for gods in many Ancient Near Eastern temples.  Thus, telling someone not to value his car more than God, or her romantic relationship more than God is not idolatry; it’s worship of the god of Consumerism or Romance (Mammon or Aphrodite, perhaps?)

God’s prohibition against idols is a command not to bind God to any created form, not to limit God by any physical space.

And in this way, I wonder if the prayer rock and Touchdown Jesus have become idols to some.  They are not essentially idols – we can use physical objects to help us focus or to draw us towards God in our worship.  But the prayer rock was not being charged with prayers to enhance our worship.  He wanted to ensure that God did more, that God was more present at the gathering because of the prayer rock.  The person who questions what message God is sending with a statue-destroying, porn-affirming bolt seems to think God has some sort of obligation to protect images of Godself (ironic, that) while destroying what the person in question considers obscene.

And that is idolatry.  God is not bound to prayer rocks or giant statues of the incarnation.  And God does not make a habit (at least in my knowledge) of breaking the laws of physics in order to protect our ill-advised mistakes.  I wonder, though, if this yearning to have a physical connection with our faith reflects the extent to which our faith has become interior and spiritual to the exclusion of any affirmation of our real world and real bodies.

What do you think?  Is the burning of Touchdown Jesus a sign?  Can you charge rocks up with prayer?  And what do these ideas say about contemporary Evangelical Christianity?  Most importantly, how should Christians engage in this discussion?

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.