Tag Archives: Christianity

Real Estate, Happy Hour and Weekly Worship

My neighborhood is what planners would call ‘older ring suburbs.’  We are close to the city limits (five miles), we have mixed-design housing, and there are actually large, mature trees.  While our house is probably the oldest and most modest in the neighborhood, you can be sure that the majority of our neighbors have granite counter-tops in their kitchens, unlike our c. 1940 pre-Formica.  One close neighbor tore down a 1960-ish two-story colonial and built a mini-mansion on top of it, well beyond the original footprint.  They have an uncharacteristically large yard in which their children seldom play and the hired help grooms.  This house appears to meet the needs of their ego, but I am unconvinced it is truly necessary for their family.  Not surprisingly, this same family needs two trash toters every week, unlike the one everyone else is allotted.

This neighborhood is in a school district where the public school is considered good.  I’m not sure if that perception refers to the quality of the education, the absence of violence, or the real estate.  The highly-paid administrators decided that the condition of the local high school was not becoming of their ego and launched a major expansion.  (The vote for this increase in property taxes took place during an off-peak primary when many retirees were wintering in Florida.)  A friend of mine who is a PhD went to one of the hearings and asked how new buildings would impact the student-teacher ratio and how the property enhancements would improve education.  There was no answer.  Before the final landscaping was completed, the same school claimed budget distress and started laying-off teachers.  Seriously, the grass had not grown next to the newly expanded parking lot when teachers lost their jobs, you know, the people who really do impact the quality of education.

With my local school and with churches, I would question how organizational mission and core activities correspond to theOpenHouseChurchSign real estate.  I have been taking a look at churches and places of weekly worship.  I first announced this research in a previous blog, “The Dying Church,” last March.

“The Dying Church”

According to ChurchPick.com there are about 15 churches or synagogues within two miles of our home.  I have been collecting data and taking notes on these visits.  (I haven’t been to mosques or synagogues yet, but I will begin those visits this fall.)  On my way to visiting 30 churches in 50 weeks, I am about halfway.  I have been to Baptist, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Quaker services.  I have nearly finished my Baptist visits which included a small church in a suburban town, a mega-church in the city, a large suburban church (near a strip mall, but not a neighborhood), and an urban, family congregation.

I am collecting measurable specifics in my data, and I am making observations whether these houses of worship are welcoming and/or friendly.  I define this by: 1) Friendly = was I greeted by anyone other than the usher (it’s their job); 2) Welcoming = was I invited to return? 

Most often I go alone, but sometimes my spouse joins.  Now he makes friends wherever he goes, so his presence tends to skew my data slightly.  Still, with or without him, I have been shocked to see how few churches invite me back.  Also, my experience has been that the larger churches didn’t have anyone greet me, beyond an usher handing out programs.  Every place I visited had some ritual toward visitors as part of their service, and many had a structured greeting of each other in the service.  Well, that doesn’t count folks.  If I were sincerely church shopping and not one person talked to me except at the required time, I would not return.  Period.  Once and done.

If I expand my ChurchPick.com search to five miles, I have more than 50 possibilities.  Naturally, folks would narrow their selection to the brand name of their liking, Methodist, Roman Catholic, etc. but there are still there are a lot of choices.  If you just need a brand name and a place to go, it’s a buyer’s market.  (I once told someone I didn’t like the town in which I worked because there were too many churches and not enough bars, which inevitably means long on judgment and short on fun.)

The former Episcopal bishop in Philadelphia said it takes 200 people for most churches to be financially self-supporting, but the average attendance of churches is under 100.  This simple math takes me back to real estate.  One church I visited has capacity of 200 and has an average attendance of 60.  There is another church I visited a couple years ago that has dealt with their declining participation by renting to the Christian Scientists on Saturday, the Korean Presbyterians early Sunday morning, then enjoying their own service late Sunday morning, with a part-time priest who participates little in the life of the church during the week and whom they share with another parish.  Kudos for welcoming the Koreans and Christian Scientists, but why do you continue to strap that real estate to your back?

All this finally takes me to Happy Hour.  My spouse and I have a favorite dive bar where you can get a half-pitcher of Yuengling Lager (America’s oldest brewery and a nice beer, thank you) for about $4, and it’s usually more than half-full.  We can either socialize, or sit in a booth and mind our own business.  It is a familiar and comforting setting.  Whether we go there with old friends or by ourselves and we feel welcome.  We are always greeted.  We are always invited back.

I have spent time with more than one seasoned member of the clergy who has reminded church committees that church is not entertainment.  Well, in its ideal state, perhaps not.  I remain unconvinced that church is different from Happy Hour for most people, if they are painfully honest with themselves.  It is an affordable place to go where they expect to meet like-minded people. 

Whether or not church is more than a Happy Hour experience, what kind of worship space do you really need?  How much of the group’s collective ego is attached to the real estate?  Is the building an expression of the church you wish you were?  In the absence of a building, how would you define church?  What I am finding in my visits as a barometer of church vitality is what John Dilulio (former faith czar for two presidents in two different parties) calls “non-member services.”  What are you doing for people other than yourselves?

Whether the Christians like it or not (and lots don’t) this is a pluralistic society.  Religious diversity is not just about denominations, but other religions.  When I think about real estate and religion, I have a dream of one building housing three Abrahamic religions (to start).  The Muslims can pray on Friday, the Jews can pray on Saturday and the Christians can pray on Sunday.  They can each have shared worship space and shared community space.  During the week their young people can use the community space for after-school programs where interfaith community is not just talked about, but lived.  The real estate becomes the metaphor for what each of them could tell you their God expects from them.  And perhaps they could work together to tackle social justice, because there is no end to the possibilities for service there

Let go of the building and redefine what weekly worship and church mean to you.  Find a way to distinguish yourself from Happy Hour.  By the way, Happy Hour is crowded – church, not so much. – J. B. Good

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The Dying Church

George Carlin has a great rant about golf, paraphrasing and skipping the enjoyable expletives, he said golf is an arrogant game taking up too much prime real estate for one little ball.

George Carlin on golf

I promise that I won’t extend the metaphor too far, but I want to ask folks to consider how much real estate they really need to do whatever it is they think they need to do in churches.  Most church property sits idle for most of the week.  I’m just asking: does that make sense?

This has led me to another thought, and that is to consider why people go to church.  It may seem obvious to some people, but it isStainedGlass_edited-1 no longer obvious to me.  For Christianity, this is Holy Week, the most significant week of the church year.  Many Christians believe in making some sacrifice for the Lenten season which precedes Easter Sunday.  I gave up church committees for Lent.  It has been my best Lent ever.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a study October 9, 2012 called, “‘Nones’ on the Rise: One-in-five Adults have no religious affiliation.”  (The online link follows.)  “Nones” is the category used by Pew and others to describe those with no affiliation to organized religion.  The category includes atheists, agnostics, those who describe themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious,’ and just ‘none’ in general.  While most organized religions in America have been in decline, this is one category that has been “on the rise.”  The Pew study reported an increase from 15 percent to 20 percent in just five years, with a current total of 46 million adults.

Pew Forum report

Duke religion scholar Mark Chaves has provided a great deal more depth and analysis in his new book American Religion: Contemporary Trends (2011 Princeton University Press).  If you want to read just one book about what’s really going on with religious trends in this country read this one.  Chaves showed that the trends in American religion are more generational than year-to-year (p.50).  In this context and citing two surveys, Chaves said that the changes in religious organizations reflect the changing demographics of society.  Demographics are their own story and I’m not going to tackle that here, except to share Chaves’ observation that the decline in religious involvement is the same as the overall decline in civic involvement and volunteerism in America (Chaves, Congregations in America, p.29).

Chaves’ primary measure for religious participation was attending services at any religious organization.  In 1965 it was 40 percent of Americans (not adjusted for people saying they go more than they do) and in 1993 it was 27 percent (p.44).  The current rate is 25 percent, which is still “high by world standards.”  The median number of Christians at worship weekly is less than 100 (p.61).

This takes me back to George Carlin and real estate.  How much building do you need for 75 people a week?  I have a friend who is a New Englander who told me that the two small, struggling Lutheran churches in his home town can’t combine because one is German and one is Swedish.  They have no difference in doctrine or practice, they just come from a different heritage.  This is no disrespect to Lutherans because I have all confidence I can find you a similar example with no difficulty whatsoever in any (using Chaves’ description p.52) “conventional mainstream American religion.”  Yet while religious practice and participation has been declining, the belief in God has not declined at the same rate.  It was 99 percent in the 1950s and 92 percent in 2008 (p.11).

I participate in a Christian service with some regularity.  I find myself looking around and wondering why folks are there.  What is it that keeps them coming?  There are those who would tell you that God expects or even requires them to participate regularly in some religious service or ritual.  Well, good for them.  First of all, I am skeptical of anyone who says God has spoken to them.  Very many weird and bad things have happened by people spouting that line.  Even so, the question remains: why is it that so many people who believe in God are not inclined to act on that belief by going to a service?

I want to suggest several issues for which I don’t have statistical evidence.  First of all, it doesn’t seem churches have clarity of mission.  (By mission, I mean organizational priority, not as in “missionary’ or proselytizing.)  Second, churches are greedy with their real estate.  I don’t see how they need all those buildings.  I do like a pretty church and I love stained glass, but it takes a lot of resources to support that property.  Third, many churches function as social clubs and carry with them the same dysfunction of any group of human beings, as well as the inevitability of committees.

It could be that the church is dying, certainly that is true for some congregations.  Maybe it’s not on life support, but in some cases, groups are struggling for survival and their real estate hasn’t adjusted to their reality.  Maybe it’s like the post-dot-com stock market changes.  It’s painful at first, but it’s just a correction and now we just have realign our attitude and assets accordingly.

Here’s my mission: 30 churches in 50 weeks.  I’m going to start with an ever-expanding circle from my home in suburban Philadelphia and just be the visitor to see if I can figure out why people are there.  Feel free to write me – here or at my e-mail address on the contact page.  Why do you go to church?  Why don’t you go to church?  It’s Easter this week for Christians, so I’ll start with my home church, and I’m going to count last week when I checked out the Presbyterians.

Before I go, let me add that I really miss George Carlin.  Maybe the world needs more George Carlins and fewer churches.  -J.B.

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The Funeral of Carlos

Carlos was in his late twenties and married for less than a year when he died.  I had worked with him for just over a year in an office of 64 where too many people took themselves too seriously.  I enjoyed having him around because he was really sarcastic.  He had a way of saying “That just stupid” which was hilarious.  I guess you’d have to hear him, but trust me.  He was funny.

Carlos enjoyed looking at shirtless men on the computer at his desk, for example, and had in the past been on more than one vacation with a male lover.  I would describe him as a portly African American with a taste for nice shoes.  When I met him he had just married a bi-sexual exotic female dancer and both of them were trying to be straight and monogamous.

His funeral was at an independent Christian church in North Philadelphia and there weren’t a lot of white folks there.  By way of description, and with respect, I would say the ceremony was a mix of Roman Catholic mass and New Orleans.

The funeral started late with a procession of at least 40 people into a full church of about 175-ish.  The gait of the procession was a mix of dancing and shuffling to the music, at least two or three people wide, in a jumble that couldn’t be called rows.  Their costumes and/or color of clothing had to do with their role in the church and the status that went with it.  The parade came from the back to where the casket was centered just in front of the stage, and then snaked to the right as they started filling pews in the front half of the right-hand side of the church.  All the while there was clapping, swaying and amen-ing all throughout the church.  I’m sure some of the white folks thought this was Baptist service, but I’ve been to numerous Baptist services and this service was different.

The final person in the procession was the officiant, dressed like a Catholic or Episcopalian bishop with a long robe and high hat.  I can see why Carlos was crushing on him.  He was truly gorgeous.  Creepy, but stunning.  He looked just like the guy who played the Mummy in the 1999 movie, only a little younger.  The “bishop” was preceded by a bevy of middle-aged women who were dressed in white nurse costumes, circa 1950.  They dispersed themselves around the room.  I was told they were poised to help anyone ‘overcome by the spirit.’  That never happened, but the presiding clergy did frequently lapse into ‘speaking in tongues.’

The service lasted about two hours.  I didn’t want it to end, but not because I was enjoying it.  I kept waiting for something to happen that actually gave Carlos his due – so little was said about who he was.  His bride was exalted like royalty and was seated on the dais, behind the podium where the “bishop” was speaking.  She frequently burst into dance (though she did keep her clothes on).  She was wearing a white suit, white shoes, and a huge white hat.  Carlos himself had on a long brown robe with a Nehru collar and buttons down the front, indicating he had some leadership status in the church.  I sincerely hope he had on nice shoes.

What I really believe killed Carlos was the impossibility of reconciling who he was with what his church required.  He loved being an active part of his church and holding a leadership position.  It is possible he loved the Mummy-Bishop more, but we’ll never know.  Nonetheless, cultural acceptance by the group to which he wanted to belong would not have been possible without pretending to be straight.

I’m not a shrink, but it seems to me there were a series of events that led to Carlos’ early demise.  He was only slightly overweight and not at all disciplined.  In spite of those two realities, he found some doctor to give him gastric bypass surgery.  Not surprisingly, it didn’t go well.  He had one complication after another until he eventually died.  If his church could have accepted him, maybe he wouldn’t have felt the need to make himself surgically thin and lovable.

The author in the CNN story linked below learned to stop trying to “pray away the gay.”  It seems that was not the experience for my friend Carlos.

http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/05/22/my-faith-how-i-learned-to-stop-praying-away-the-gay/?hpt=C2

In my way of thinking, Carlos died for his religion.  His was not the usual path of a martyr, to be sure.  Atheists would use this example to say why religion is bad.  The life and death of Carlos is not about what’s wrong with religion, but what’s wrong with people, especially when they are influenced by cultural paranoia.  There is no justification in Christianity for homophobia.

I have had a life-long interest in religion, so I understand what drew Carlos to commit himself to a community and a spiritual life.  This drive cost him the essence of who he was, and eventually his life.  It was irreconcilable.  This was the community in which he wanted to participate and their narrow view of ethics and Christianity made that a destructive path for Carlos.  For some people it is not as easy as just going to another church.  Where is the church that feels right?  Where is the  sense of belonging?  Sometimes the church where you feel you belong doesn’t want you.  In that we see that the Church is as flawed as every other human organization.  And that is the tragedy of the life and death of Carlos.  -J.B.

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Left Behind and Loving It

This column is my version of beach-read fantasy/fiction because the other day I was cut-off in traffic by a car with one of those Jesus-fish bumper stickers and I started thinking about what life would be like if there really was a rapture.  I imagined a world without those annoying, judgmental, Evangelical Christians.  I’m not quite as vindictive as they are because I’m not wishing they would be damned, like they wish on us.  For those who believe in a rapture of the righteous just before the end of the world, I do wish for them that they go to the happy place of their dreams.  For me, personally, it would mean much smaller family reunions with an open bar.

And then there could be life without Chick-fil-A.  I worked a banquet for those wing-nuts once.  The tips were puny and their idea of rewarding our exemplary service was to make a great fuss about providing a plastic travel mug with coupons.  (I don’t eat chicken.  I do use money.)  The “marketing director” gave a testimonial about how generous he was in a “tithe” he gave to his church.  His talk had absolutely nothing to do with chicken or marketing.  It was just a rambling self-aggrandizing tale that also said nothing about God and everything about the culture of the company.  Chick-fil-A closes on Sundays and has a reputation for considering marital status and religious beliefs in hiring (see link for 2011 story below).  It would be lovely if this entire company would be raptured.

http://newsfeed.time.com/2011/01/31/controversial-chicken-chick-fil-a-gay-rights-rumble/

I would also be thrilled if all televangelists would be raptured.  That would save money for the poor slobs that keep making donations.  Those people would be better off buying lottery tickets.  Without televangelists there would be additional cable channels for more “Law and Order” reruns – because we can never have too many of those.  Come to think of it, the odds of winning the lottery would be better because I don’t believe for a minute that those rapturees never bought lottery tickets.

Some of the rapture wannabes have a Web site to get all their documents in order and archived before the rapture with messages to be sent in their absence to those who will be, you know, left behind.  It’s only $14.95 a month.  (I’m not posting the link because I think they are serious and they creeped me out.)

There are two statistically smaller categories that I look forward to being raptured: KKK members and Pentecostal snake handlers.  I would give a lot to see the face of Klan folks when they get raptured and find black folks next to them.  As to those batshit crazy snake handlers – I know they are just getting freaky with each other, but I really don’t like snakes and I hope they take some along with them.  (I wrote about them on my Web site on 7/10/2012 at  http://allthingsreligiousonline.com/.)

If you are rusty on your Evangelical Christian theology I’ve blogged about the rapture before in two different columns with outside sources if you want to know more.  The links follow.

“Read before rapture”: https://allthingsreligious.wordpress.com/2011/05/19/read-before-rapture/

“The Sky is Falling”: https://allthingsreligious.wordpress.com/2012/04/19/the-sky-is-falling/

In preparing for this blog, I downloaded a free sample from the Left Behind series on my Kindle.  It is mean-spirited, juvenile pulp fiction and one giant “I’m right and you’re wrong” escapade.  Hey wait, if there’s a rapture, no more Left Behind books, movies, or Web sites.  Yipee.  Left behind and loving it.

Last week cable TV ran Bill Maher’s movie, “Religulous,” a must buy movie.  Of course, I’ve watched it several times before, but he makes me laugh every time.  What I envy is how comfortable he is asking very obvious questions regarding the ridiculous nature of many religious beliefs and practices, and he does not squirm one bit.  That is not at all easy for me.  I was aggressively force-fed fundamental Christianity my entire youth and it’s taken many more years to shake it off.  Every holiday I return to that culture and have to work to re-center myself as I return home.

But even when I am safely home, I admit I don’t really like going to the basement at night.  A Left Behind kind of religion is the ultimate boogeyman in the basement.  Confronting this kind of thinking is unsettling, but not because God is speaking to me.  It is unsettling because of how many people attempt to manipulate others with fear of the unknown – which they don’t really know either.  So, thanks Bill, for being fearless and making me laugh.  I don’t want a religion that needs a Boogeyman or a Rapture.  Life is hard enough, thank you very much.  Left behind or not. –J.B.

The Mean Streets of Capitalism

When I think about how many bad bosses I’ve had, I lose count.  One of the worst was a seemingly non-threatening short, middle-aged white female who was a cross between the Snapple Lady and Darth Vader.  She would interrupt me whenever I tried to speak in a meeting, though usually she just excluded me entirely.  She lied about me to her supervisor – and you can bet that it wasn’t flattering.  She routinely requested reports from the database with criteria that didn’t exist and when I miraculously pulled something together (after working late) she either didn’t read the report, or asked for endless modifications.  Of course she was pleasant to everyone else in the department, so they thought she was “sweet.”  While I worked there the organization had a hiring freeze that made it impossible for me to transfer out of her purgatory.  My husband was scheduled for life-threatening/saving surgery, so I could not do anything to jeopardize our health insurance.  It was at this point I begged my doctor to please schedule a colonoscopy so I could get two days out of work – better a camera than her foot.  And I believe there are many people out there with similar stories.

A 2010 study by MetLife (“Study of the American Dream,” April 2010, reported on MSNBC) reported that 55 percent of Americans were worried about losing their jobs.  At the time of that survey 9.5 percent of Americans were out of work.  The numbers are only slightly better now.  There are many Americans who feel they are permanently unemployed or painfully underemployed (which I think is a euphemism for a low-paying job that sucks).  There are also people who may not live in daily fear of job loss, but have awareness that it could go away at any time for no reason related to their own performance.  Then there are the hard-working folks who get an undeserved bad review so the organization doesn’t have to make good on a promised raise or bonus.  If you want to keep your job, check your conscience at the door and don’t question authority.  May I just say this is no way to run a country?

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/38417262/ns/business-personal_finance/t/many-fear-job-loss-have-no-savings-it/#.T8L3p1J0mSo

When corporations were originally established in the last century it was considered a “privilege.”  A worthwhile viewing on this is the 2004 documentary, “The Corporation.”  In it Richard Grossman of the “Program on Corporations” said, “In both law and culture the corporation was considered a supported entity that was a gift from the people in order to serve the public good.”  Ah, the common good.  Remember that notion from antiquity?  We don’t need Old Time Religion, we need Old Time Capitalism.  We need the kind of patriotic capitalism where corporate executives are ashamed of layoffs and see a diminished workforce as personal and organizational failure, not shrewd cost-cutting.

As entities, corporations are amoral.  In practice, situation ethics emerge as the elite of the organizations work to protect their own interests.  People without conscience are more valuable to these organizations, and exercising one’s conscience may mean demotion, alienation, or job loss.  Though some attention is paid to public perception (have you seen the new BP tourism ads for the Gulf Coast?), I believe that is to insure we are distracted from the ugly truth.  Corporations relentlessly pursue quarterly profits – even at their own long-term expense.  That pursuit is at the cost of jobs and the health and welfare of our country’s resources and the human beings who live here.  It’s just plain mean out there.

Many people make the mistaken assumption that morality comes from religion.  Religions are just one source for ethical guidance.  This is a secular country and we need a stronger common moral code to keep corrupt and unbridled capitalism from trampling us.  Even in a pluralistic society, that is not an impossible task.  The following are selected ethical suggestions I’ve extracted from several mainstream religions, with the helpful review of Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions.

  • Buddhism – The Eightfold Path: Right intent, Right conduct, Right livelihood
  • Islam – The Five Pillars: Guide us on the straight path
  • Judaism – The Ten Commandments: Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness
  • Christianity – The Greatest Commandments: Love your neighbor as yourself

The majority of people in this country believe in God and the majority of religions have a valuable moral code.  If we look to how we are alike rather than how we are different it should be possible to reinforce commonality and morality.

It’s just not too much to expect any corporation to serve the common good.  That is not Marxism or Socialism, it is common sense.  Real patriotism is about taking back the Mean Streets and remodeling this country so it is not only there in the future, but more fit for all of us today.  Ranting about abortion or gay marriage while the everyday work place is mean and immoral can’t possibly be what any God wants any of us doing.  Respect your own religion, or respect Secular Humanism, but going to work or finding a job should not be at the expense of our dignity or our soul.  -J.B.

Religion and democracy and blogging

Why does religion matter in a secular society?  First of all, I am thrilled this is a secular democracy, even when the democracy part isn’t working very well.  That means that there is not an official state religion and those governing are expected to separate their religious views from their governance.  In other words, clergy (of any religion) do not have the right to approve government action.

I don’t want a state religion because it will inevitably be a religion I don’t like; also, because it’s not fair.  Remember how we learned about what’s fair by either having siblings or getting to kindergarten?  Well, democracy should be fair.  It’s not fair to impose your religion on someone else.  I really think that is a kindergarten-simple value.

The vast majority of folks in these United States believe there is a God.  (Feel free to e-mail me if you want citations, I have several.)  We are increasingly a pluralistic society, with practitioners of many different religions in close proximity to each other (learn more in A New Religious America by Diana L. Eck).  The majority (over 70 percent) of religious people in this country claim to be part of some kind of Christianity.  That is the rub: how to manage undue influence by the majority religion.  That is a secular issue.  That is a subject that should matter to everyone, especially the non-religious and those in minority religions.  It matters to Christians who disagree with each other.  It matters in society and it matters in how religion is covered by the press.  And that, my friends, is why I write.

I have been writing this blog since April 2010 and the views are nearly at 3,000 now.  This particular column is intended to provide new readers with some general information on how and why these blogs are posted.  In high school, one of my favorite English teachers, Murphy, told me you can’t be a good writer if you’re not a good reader.  It was one of the smartest things he ever taught me.  I do not ever write a blog without research and some general reading.  Though I quite enjoy musing and an occasional rant, the actual writing is the result of research and reflection and is not just reactionary.  Honest.

I recently completed a master’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania.  In order to graduate from Penn I had to be able to read, write and be competent at doing primary research.  My master’s research was a content analysis of the Philadelphia Inquirer in contrast with the Wichita Eagle (Kansas) and Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly (public television).  Sparing you tedious (and perhaps sleep-inducing) findings in this column, I will summarize by saying that I entered the research with low expectations and was still amazed at how poorly religion is covered by most of the press.

The reason religion in the news matters is because even if you are not religious, most of your neighbors have some religious orientation that may influence how they vote, and how they vote has impact on your life.  Sadly, intelligence in not required for voting, so when politicians trot out religious-related rhetoric, most people are ill-prepared (or disinclined) to understand the real implications of that propaganda.  (See my April 1, 2011 column “Newt the Nightmare” for a specific example.)

If you read a number of my columns you may conclude I am more critical of Christianity than other religions.  That is intentional.  The majority religion takes looking after.  Constant reminders are required to challenge the influence of the majority religion and the interpretations by its practitioners.  I have appointed myself to this watch-dog role.

I have a favorite animal communicator, Anita Curtis, who does amazing work.  She said that most of our domestic animal family (my words, not hers) have a perception of what their role is, or what their “job” is.  My cat, Sunny, has appointed herself to watch birds.  (Unlike my other cat Zoey who stalks bugs.)  It is very important to her to be able to go from window to window keeping an eye on those rascals.  She is quite serious about this job and seems to find satisfaction in keeping watch on behalf of the household.  Well, I have appointed myself to be the watchdog of religious rascals, and perhaps to no greater end than my cat watching birds.  I hope you find some measure of interest in reading my blogs as I find in watching Sunny watch birds.  –J.B.

Read Before Rapture

This is going to have to be a quick blog since I only have another day before the rapture.  There is too much being said about the latest Doomsday Theology fad, but I am compelled to add a few thoughts that are not prominent in the stories I’ve read.  I will not, however, summarize the rapture fantasy.  You’ll have to Google that yourself, or read CNN or MSNBC.

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/43082513/ns/us_news-life/

http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/05/18/tick-tock-goes-the-doomsday-clock/

I have been doing research on how the secular press covers religion for my University of Pennsylvania master’s work.  Not surprisingly there isn’t much news about religion and it’s not usually covered well.  Since I started my studies at Penn in 2005, however, religion coverage has increased and CNN’s “belief.blog” is one example.  Still, both reporters and media consumers make assumptions about religion and the coverage of religion.  If I can do one thing with this blog, it is identify what is really religion, what is cultural, and what is just sensationalism.

When every single generation has had predictors of the world’s end, what is newsworthy about this latest claim?  Yesterday (5/18/2011) doomsday predictions were on CNN’s home page, but bumped to the third story on their “belief.bog” by 10:00 p.m.  This morning the story was back on the home page and the blog had over 5,000 comments.  The MSNBC story moved from a liner with a link on the home page to three pages into their Web site.  There have been billboards from the Doomsdayers and responses from the atheists.  I did check out “Post Rapture Looting” on Facebook, but it has fewer “friends” than this blog.

“This is how religion hurts people, one of the many ways religion hurts people,” American Atheists President David Silverman told CNN Oakland, California, affiliate KGO.  Now I am a fan of atheists because they have given religion some thought and taken a position.  I would disagree with Silverman about his assumption.  To paraphrase Forrest Gump’s mother, crazy is as crazy does.  The view of the “Family Radio” people is not embraced by the vast majority of Christians just like the vast majority of Muslims didn’t agree with Osama bin Laden.  In fact, I would say those rapture predictors are to Christianity what “Girls Gone Wild” is to a college education.  Probably the most appealing aspect of this story for the press and those Facebook links going viral, is hoping we get to laugh at them being wrong on May 21st.  Admit it – you do enjoy the chance to say ‘I told you so.’

The Oakland, California based “Family Radio” has been leading the cry on this one.  I do admire anyone willing to be viewed as a fool while honoring their convictions.  It is so sad that these convictions pertain to picturing the rest of us going to hell.  To understand this kind of misguided theology means considering the psychology of religion.  Some people just need a religion with a deadline.  And some people can’t imagine a religion without fear.  Perhaps this is what John Lennon was singing about.  Do not confuse the need of these individuals for drama and attention with divine inspiration.  These people need a scary primitive religion with a judgmental, angry God.  That doesn’t make them inspired.  Their god perception is just a reflection of what they are capable of imagining.

Still, just in case there is a rapture, I’m sure many of you will join me in hoping the rapturees provide for their pets during their eternal absence.  (Yes, I am expecting to be left behind with all the interesting people.)  I’m joining the rest of you in enjoying the Web site of New Hampshire atheist Bart Centre who is offering post-rapture pet care for those best friends that are left behind – of course for a fee.

http://eternal-earthbound-pets.com/

I really do hope he makes some good money on this one. But Bart, you better donate that money to a local shelter or we will all know why you’ve been left behind.

See you on the 21st! –J.B.

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 Match.com?

“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.

http://www.sojo.net/index.cfm

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.

Missionary Go Home – No Just Go Away

One of my favorite scenes from the “Sex and the City” TV series was when Charlotte wanted to convert to Judaism and the rabbi slammed the door on her.  That’s my kind of religious leader.  The Dalai Lama said, “You should be devoted to your own religion while nurturing a deep respect for other religions.”

I had a distant relative go to China on a “mission” to convert the heathens to Christianity.  This was organized by some group in the business of proselytizing on a regular basis.  The catch here was that they had to deceive the Chinese government into believing they were offering some social service.  I never heard what service that was.  Is there anyone reading this that also finds it ironic that these Christian missionaries were so willing to lie systematically about their intentions and activities in order to fulfill their “mission”?  From what I can tell, this did not for one moment create any ethical dilemma for those involved.  Deceit does not strike me as a Christian value.  Premeditated deceit is so much the worse.

Aversion to conversion is difficult for zealots to understand, but trying to impose your religion on someone else is just arrogance.  Working to convert people of other cultures is imperialism.  The other misguided and connected activity, which is necessary to support this scramble to convert, is the need for fund-raising.  Don’t kid yourself, being a missionary is profitable.  Since God doesn’t have a payroll for cash in this lifetime, the missionaries have to convince the faithful to support them financially.  They go to family, friends and churches to ask for money.  The faithful are happy to chip in because it’s all about God’s work, now, isn’t it?  I know of one church-going couple who spend more on missionaries every year than they ever spent on the education of their children in total.  These same folks are quick to judge the poor for being on welfare.

There is a difference when the faithful make a statement by taking action.  Public television’s Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly (“Season of Service,” 10/16/2009) had a story that demonstrated a mission of service that is indicative of compassion and respect.  I would say it is mission in action, and actions that are needed and welcomed.  More than 26,000 Christian volunteers cleaned schools, organized and operated dental and medical clinics, and offered many other services including free veterinary care.  Watch or read the story on the link below.  You’ll feel better about humanity – I promise.

http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/episodes/october-16-2009/season-of-service/4589/

This has been a news week when the raging controversy is whether or not there should be an Islamic community center near the World Trade Center site.  The Pew poll was also released indicating how many people think the president is Muslim.  On weeks like this, it seems the Stupids are winning.  It is sad that not only is the rumor about the president untrue, it shouldn’t matter.  This is not, by design, a Christian nation.  It is a secular country designed to allow the free practice of any, all, or no religion(s). We would be better off with no missionaries except the likes of the “Season of Service” or Habitat for Humanity.  Show me what you believe and just stop talking about it.  True Islam is about compassion, and Christianity is the same.  If you define a religion by the fanatics, then all religions look bad.

So, missionaries, go home and stay away from mine.  Unless you want to roll up your sleeves and really make a contribution, we just don’t need you.  There is already enough judgmental arrogance to go around.  And if you want to offer social services as an example of the best of your religion, then come on.  Whatever religion you are and wherever you want to be, there is not one single spot in this world that couldn’t benefit from more compassion – especially Ground Zero.

Jesus the Socialist

In a prior career, I was in advertising where I learned that seven words or less make the best billboard copy.  I always liked that method of getting to the point, but I would not confuse billboards with literature.  Not everyone would agree with me.

While I was sitting in a hospital waiting room the size of a walk-in closet, I had the unavoidable misfortune to overhear two local pundits discussing Obama as a Socialist.  I don’t want to sound like a snob, but I was pretty sure neither of these geniuses had ever heard of Friedrich Engels or Karl Marx, unless someone at their church had the same name.  I fixed one of those glares on them that my mother used to use on me and that was enough to provoke a response.  He said something brilliant like, “Looks like somebody doesn’t like what we saying.”  I simply replied, “It’s such a shame you don’t read much.”  That was less than I wanted to say because you see both of these inspired philosophers were carrying Bibles.  Then Intellectual Number One said, “I do read.  There is a billboard in Texas that says Obama is a Socialist.”  I’m not sure which was more disconcerting, that he considered reading a billboard really reading, or that he believed what he read on a billboard was absolute truth.

It’s a pretty safe bet that the intellectuals mentioned here can’t master a Google search, but I can dream that they have a dictionary.  A simple dictionary look-up offers a few manageable sentences to help understand the actual meaning of the word being tossed about.  Dictionary.com defines socialism as a system of community ownership.  Utopian socialism is even more interesting and is defined as, “an economic system based on the premise that if capital voluntarily surrendered its ownership of the means of production to the state or the workers, unemployment and poverty would be abolished,” (the same source).

From where I’m sitting, a system without unemployment and poverty deserves consideration.  Now, don’t overreact.  I’m not promoting socialism.  I’m just suggesting that unregulated capitalism has led to runaway greed, and as a result record unemployment.  In a capitalistic society, losing your job is economic cancer.  The social toxin more potent than racism is classism.  All races, more than anything else, don’t want live in poverty, and the lucky hope the poor did something to deserve it, so it doesn’t happen to them.

Since I outed myself in the last column as having more familiarity with Christianity than other religions, and since it is the majority religion in this country, I am comfortable addressing Jesus and socialism – a column topic recommended by my friend Kathleen.  Jesus was not a big proponent of social systems, though he was comfortable challenging them.  Challenging the status quo was something he had in common with Marx, Engels, and Max Weber.  He was also a big fan of the poor.  He spent most of his time with social outcasts.  In today’s world, I would suggest that to be AIDS patients (lepers), victims of domestic abuse (adulterous woman about to be stoned), blue collar neighborhoods (fishermen), and the like.

When most people today use the term “socialist,” it is to obtain emotional responses from the uninformed.  It is intended to evoke a similar reaction to the old Cold War era fear of communism.  Labeling Obama a socialist gives folks a way to name-call without being accused of racism.  You are free to criticize his policies or how they are implemented, but if caring about the poor, the unemployed and the uninsured is socialism, then we need some more of it.

Concern for the greater good and the welfare of millions of disadvantaged people is not socialism, it’s being a decent human being.  It’s about time some leader of this country tried to help those who cannot help themselves.  All the hunting in the world will not makes jobs available for everyone who needs one.  Obama is the one who told us in the campaign that we can’t expect folks to pick themselves up by their bootstraps if they don’t have shoes.  I don’t care if he has all the answers or perfect policies.  I am grateful that someone in leadership is even talking about helping others.  Jesus is the one that said if you do it for the least of these, you’re doing it for me.  Bring on the Socialist Jesus because this is one greedy, troubled country.  Hiding your racism behind inflammatory labels on the president does not help the disadvantaged.  If you carry a Christian Bible, then you are signing up to care about others.  Here’s my billboard: “If you’re racist, you’re not Christian. Choose.”  How about those seven words?