Monthly Archives: September 2010

The Religion of Me, Part Two: The Mega-Church

There is a seventy-something woman I know well whose father was a pedophile.  I asked her if she was abused by her father and her response was that she doesn’t remember details of her childhood.  I’m told by my social work friend that her memory-blocking is a symptom of abuse.  In any case, I don’t see how it is possible that she could have had a healthy, happy childhood.  Whether or not her father abused her, he and his in-denial wife established a dysfunction household way beyond the everyday grousing most of us do about our families.  That is what takes me to Eddie Long.  As the “bishop” of a 25,000-member Georgia “mega-church” there were symptoms of corruption and impropriety (at best) that 24,999 people chose to overlook.  That was one giant dysfunctional social club.

First of all, the words “mega” and “church,” in my view, are mutually exclusive.  The discussion of religious topics or the word ‘god’ being tossed about about does not a church make.  Political rallies talk about god, Klan rallies talk about god, Masonic ceremonies talk about god.  Even stadium revivals may have a religious theme or inspire spiritual transformation, but these events do not constitute a church.  I’m not going to tackle the definition of church here, today, but I do want to make the distinction of what about this story raises religious questions.  Granted, this is a sensational story on many levels, but not many aspects are really about religion.

An MSNBC morning anchor interviewed a commentator who described Long as running a “ministry of prosperity.”  First of all, there is no such thing.  That is not a “ministry.”  It is religious-themed theatre where a motivational speaker tells folks what they want to hear.  It is not for the common good or the good of the disadvantaged.  It is established and maintained to promote the personal comfort of the leader and the members of his club.

There’s a terrific story CNN story by John Blake on Long (the best mainstream secular reporter covering religion today);  the link follows.

On the other hand, if you’re just sick of the nonsense, then I’ll give you a short-cut check list.  Here is my top ten list: Top 10 reasons to suspect your clergy has his hands in the wrong place.  Here are some things that a few of those 24,999 folks should have noticed.

10.  He’s has to hold a news conference to defend himself.  If he is a man of God, then news stories are irrelevant, aren’t they?  He is fighting for his image and income, not to protect a real ministry.

9. He’s wearing more bling than the little old ladies on the front row or gangster rappers.  In fact, the bling on his finger is the size of a Super Bowl ring.

8.  He doesn’t travel with his wife.  C’mon folks.  This is a little something girls in bars learned about traveling salesmen and lounge lizards a long time ago.  Did not one of you 24,999 folks find a married (allegedly straight) guy traveling around the world with young men slightly hinkey?

7.  Is your clergy driving a better car than you?  He’s not just driving a better car than congregants, it’s a $350,000 Bentley for crying out loud.  With this lousy economy and his millions couldn’t he find domestic luxury to his satisfaction?  How about a nice Towne Car?

6.  Your clergy is sending photos of himself in spandex taken on his cell phone in his bathroom.  (That one really doesn’t require any other comment, does it?)

5.  He’s running a charity to help the poor but lives in a $1.4 million dollar estate and pays himself $1 million a year salary.

4.  There are more pictures of him around the “church” than any religious icons and he tells you questioning him is the same as doubting God.  This is the “Religion of Me” personified.

3.  The use of personal pronouns in his sermons and sound bites.  As I said in my previous column, personal pronouns are a big red flag.

2.  He has sound bites.

1. A ministry of hate.  If anyone in any pulpit is teaching hate messages, it is the sign of a personal or political agenda.  Remember when Southern Christians found justification for slavery in the Bible?  One key to Eddie Long’s prominence is his condemnation of homosexuality.  While it now seems obvious that was some kind of self-loathing, he was engaged in a ministry of hate.

Of all the sordid details in this ever-unfolding story, there were two comments from Long I found especially disturbing.  In speaking to a minister of a smaller church, Long said with envy, “I may have the numbers but you have the love.”  If you are running a church so people love you, then it really isn’t a ministry, is it?  That’s Cult 101.  He justified his lavish lifestyle by describing himself as a CEO.  Again, this is using religion for big business and personal gain not working to help the poor or support the spiritual growth of congregants.  The behavior I found the most disturbing was how he cultivated young men for several years, but didn’t start traveling with them until the legal age of consent (17 in Georgia).  That’s not an accident.  That’s premeditated, calculated manipulation.  Again, what were the 24,999 other church members thinking while this was going on?

Writing about such a lurid story may seem like I’m grabbing low-hanging fruit.  I challenge you to get a ladder and look for the rotten apple still on the tree.  There are smaller examples of clergy in every religion using their position to promote themselves and their own agenda.  As long as the folks listening accept whatever they are told without question or challenge, then these same dynamics will continue to hurt the untold many.  I blame the 24,999 folks sending Eddie checks and Sunday morning amens because he was telling them what they wanted to hear not what they needed to hear, and they were averting their eyes from some obviously creepy behavior.  Wake up and smell the spandex chafing.

The Religion of ME

In the course of helping someone out, I was an observer at the wedding of a middle-aged bride and groom who insisted on emphasizing their ‘born again’ status at every contrived opportunity.  There was no alcohol at this event, though they did consider themselves a dancing crowd.  (Watching that spectacle led me to believe that it might indeed be true that white folks can’t dance.)  But before that non-stop fun, there was a microphone and time for toasting.  It’s nice that there were good wishes for the happy couple, but toasting in a group that doesn’t drink falls as flat as the lack of an effervescent beverage in their glasses.

What struck me most was how many times these folks used personal pronouns, you know – me, me, me. While I recognize that many people take a great deal of comfort in a believing in a personal God, after listening to speech after speech, it just struck me as narcissistic.  Some paraphrased/name-changed examples follow.

“I prayed to God and asked him to send me an angel, and that’s when I met Cindy.  He picked the right person just for me.”

What I wanted to say (but didn’t): Have you heard of

“I told God I would give up the thing I love most, and stopped watching sports for 10 days to prove my devotion.”

What I wanted to say: That’s every bit as important as what Mother Theresa did with her life.  Thank you for your impressive contribution to humanity.

“After Jim accepted Jesus as his personal savior, we met once a week at Dunkin Donuts to talk about our faith.”

What I wanted to say: At least while you’re listening to this guy talk about himself you can get a Boston Crème donut because they rock.

“I just pray that I will do God’s will for my life.”

What I wanted to say: That way you don’t have to ever do anything and nothing is ever your fault.  Just abdicate personal responsibility and let God do the heavy lifting.

This had me wondering if maybe God wouldn’t appreciate it if these folks would just shut up.  For all their use of the word god, what I heard was people saying was what he could do for them.  What they viewed as personal sacrifices to demonstrate their devotion seemed utterly silly to me.  Even for those who believe in a personal God, what is your role?  It seems to me that if everything is ‘God’s will,’ then you just don’t have to accept any responsibility at all.  Where does free will fit into this perspective?

Now I have read the Christian Bible.  Yes, the whole thing.  I have read the New Testament several times, and the Gospels countless times.  I believe that Christianity could be summarized in Jesus’ teaching in the Beatitudes, where among other values, Jesus talks about humility.  Talking about what God does for you is not humility, it’s just showing off.

I am standing by my pledge to be more accepting of my born again relatives, but I can tell you it’s not reciprocal.  When every sentence has god in it (and please conclude that my use of upper and lower case in this blog is intentional) I do not hear it as a testimony to someone’s devotion, but their desire to actually separate themselves from me (the sinner) and make sure I know that they’re going to heaven and I’m not.  Like many exclusive social clubs, they have developed their own jargon for speaking in a way that isolates them from non-members.

As to the born again bride and groom, they were cheap, tacky and demanding.  That was their real testimony to the heathens serving them.  I once read a bumper sticker that said, “The way you treat people is the way you treat God.”  This group of folks sent a clear message about their real religion that evening, but it wasn’t what they think it was.  Here’s the message I got: “I’m going to heaven and you’re not, and since the rapture is right around the corner, I don’t have to tip the wait-staff.”

Though it would not be difficult to find a down side to the Protestant Reformation, one enduring benefit was that the laity be allowed to read Holy Scriptures for themselves.  Over time, the Roman Catholic Church also adopted this view.  So, whether they like it or not, I consider myself authorized to read and interpret (though of course I would do it anyway).  My interpretation of the Gospel of Jesus is a doctrine of compassion, service to humanity, and humility.  I’m not alone.  More traditional and devout folks than me have a similar perspective, for example, take a look at Jim Wallis’ web site, Sojourner.

Here is Matthew 5:3-10 (NIV), the “Beatitudes,” which I consider the cornerstone of Christianity.

 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

I don’t imagine these folks using quite as many personal pronouns.  What do you think?  -J.B.

Islam, My Cousin

For some, religion and families are so intertwined there’s no separating them.  I have a number of relatives who describe themselves as “born again” who insist on hosting family reunions in church basements.  I have the damndest time finding a cocktail there, so I don’t go.  I have too many bad memories of being forced to attend Sunday School in church basements where I was beat over the intellect by ‘teachers’ who had barely graduated from high school, nonetheless they were telling me how to interpret the Bible.

On this anniversary of September 11, a few Bible stories come to mind.  Right after the whole “creation” story there’s Cain and Abel, the first sons of Adam and Eve.  Cain is the greedy brother who is envious of Abel so he kills him and takes his stuff.  And the game is afoot.  Fast forward to Abraham.  Everyone thinks (including Abraham and his wife) his wife is too old to have kids so he shtups the black maid to assure progeny.  Why?  Well, because he can, is my thought.  And from that point on the family feud ensues.  Abraham and his wife eventually have a son and he becomes the father of Judaism, which eventually gives birth to Jesus and Christianity.  Abraham’s other son, Ishmael, eventually produces Mohammed, and then Islam.

I consider Judaism and Islam my religious relatives.  Islam is the younger half-sibling of Christianity.  All three of these traditions claim one God and earthly heritage in Abraham.  So why can’t we all just get along already?  That takes us back to Cain and Abel.  There’s always someone envious trying to knock someone good over the head.  It is as much a part of the human condition as is, I hope, compassion.

At work, I have a friend who has the nickname Swig.  His Muslim name is Ayyub, which he tells me can be translated to Job.  I am pleased to say he calls me “Cuz,” as in Cousin.  (I have his permission to mention him, and I thank him for getting me thinking about this cousin thing.)

This week I have been honoring the anniversary of September 11th by getting to know my Islam cousin better; not Swig/Ayyub, but my religious cousin, the faith and history of Islam.  My University of Pennsylvania professors would want me to make clear that this study has been not been exhaustive.  So noted.  In particular, I have enjoyed the way that two Western academics have been explaining things to me: Karen Armstrong’s Islam: A Short History, and Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions.  I have read parts of the Koran (the word a translation of “Quran,” the version I have is translated by N.J. Dawood).  There is no way I can do it justice on my first readings, so I will rely on Armstrong and Smith.

To start, Islam is the religion and practitioners are Muslims. (I always found that confusing.)  Islam grew up in the dessert when polytheism was the standard.  There weren’t enough resources for everyone so it was just good business, and survival, to raid your neighbors and take their stuff.  Mohammed changed all that.  He insisted on justice and worked politically to facilitate peaceful relations with neighboring tribes and clans, including – by the way – Jewish tribes.  (Anti-Semitism is a Christian invention.)

Foreign Policy magazine listed Islam as the fastest growing religion in the world at 1.84 percent, with Christianity trailing at 1.38 percent (“The List: The World’s Fastest Growing Religions,” 5/14/2007).  Is Cain envious of Abel’s success?  Smith translates the word Islam as, ‘the peace that comes when one’s life is surrendered to God,’ (p.222).  How can you hate that?

Muhammad (the name given to more male children than any other in the world – Smith p.224) was never a god or even “divine figure” (Armstrong p. 24).  Muhammad believed God spoke to him, just as Abraham before him and Saint Paul after Jesus.  But there is a significant difference in how Muslims view the Koran from how Christians view their Bible.  The Bible tells stories about God and has some quotes from God the Father and Jesus, however, the Koran is all actual quotes right from God.  That makes burning the Koran more like taking a Bible, stacking on the Eucharist, or communion host for you Protestants – then lighting the fire on Christmas Eve, because Saturday the 11th is the last day of Ramadan.  Even Cain didn’t go that far.

I’m relieved to say that there is a Facebook page rallying opposition to the (now formerly) scheduled burning of the Koran by the not-so-Christian clergyman in Florida.  At the time of this writing more than 39,000 Facebook people gave this page a thumbs-up.

So I honor September 11th by getting to know my religion cousin, Islam, a little better.  The most respectful response to the innocent who died is to refuse to become like the hate-mongers who killed them.  I won’t even curse that crazy Florida guy.  (Believe me, I want to.  Even though he retracted his appalling threat, I am convinced he actually enjoyed his notoriety.)  This week, and especially the 11th, I will celebrate tolerance, including tolerance for the beliefs of my born-again cousins, which I admit is very difficult for me.

I beg the indulgence of my Muslim “cousins” and close with this quote from “The Exordium” of their very holy scriptures, with as much respect as possible from an outsider:

“…Guide us to the straight path,

The path of those whom You have favored,

Not of those who have incurred Your wrath,

Nor of those who have gone astray.”

Peace to you, friends and cousins alike. –J.B. Good

Uncommon Courtesy

There was a TV show called “Designing Women” about a group of four very different Southern women who were interior decorators.  My favorite line was, “The only thing worse than being poor is having bad manners.”  What we used to call ‘common courtesy’ has not only vanished, it seems people have gotten meaner.  (By “mean,” I am not including profane language.  That actually amuses me.)  By rude and mean I would include aggressive drivers, sullen retail clerks, cyber bullies, people on mobile phones in public, and almost anyone standing in line for anything.

Here’s a story about the worst of anonymous online slander, especially among young people.  Betty Rollins reports on “Gossip.” It is about seven minutes and is both shocking and encouraging.

I also found a web site “Islam for Today” with a page “The Great Importance of Good Manners by Muslims.”

I don’t know the reputation of the web site, I’m just grateful for any religious people who care about good manners.

Among the mean-spirited words and actions, we have to include liars.  Let’s face it, no matter how much integrity you think you have, we all resort to deceit on occasion for a variety of reasons.  The familiar reason for an acceptable lie is to keep from hurting someone’s feelings.  Pragmatically speaking, there’s lying and there’s lying.  One distinction I recommend it to try and ascertain intentions and habits.  If someone has a pattern of deceit there’s a problem.  Most of us would consider this an ethical problem, but it is also a social problem.  And I don’t mean Paris Hilton saying she mistook cocaine for chewing gum.

That takes me to two public figures who love to talk about God but have an ongoing pattern of mean-spirited verbal attacks on anyone who disagrees with them combined with just plain making things up to support their nastiness, with an intention to mislead people.  If “liar, liar, pants on fire” was true, neither of these two could ever sit down.  On a good day, it is quite easy for me to dismiss Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck.  What astounds me is how popular they are.  Are their fans the same people cutting me off in traffic?  If they are the same folks self-righteously marching to church on Sunday morning, then something is amiss.

Hijacking any religion because of politics or ego, does not make those actions or the individual genuinely religious.  It is deceit.  It’s mean.  It’s bad manners.  I want more kind religions.  The Dalai Lama said, “My religion is simple.  My religion is kindness.”  If you can only accept instruction from Jesus, then I offer you John 13:35: “By this all men will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another,” (NIV).

I just started reading a terrific book, Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin.  I leave you with this quote from the back panel:  “Here (in Pakistan and Afghanistan), we drink three cups of tea to do business; the first you are a stranger, the second you become a friend, and the third you join our family, and for our family we are prepared to do anything – even die.”

BLOGGER’S POSTSCRIPT:  As of this posting, “All Things Religious” will be surpassing 1,000 hits since its April 2010 creation.  Thank you so much for reading.  Though not many readers have been comfortable posting public comments, I have received numerous e-mails and I have responded to all of them.  Thanks, everyone.  -J.B.