Archive for April, 2019

Sixty-one percent of Americans have seen at least one “Harry Potter” film. Given that just 45% of us [Millennials] — and a barely higher 50% of American Christians — can name all four Gospels, it’s no stretch to say that Gryffindo and Slytherin… are better known than Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.”

— TARA ISABELLA BURTON, PhD, millennial Christian scholar

Is the Harry Potter series an entire theology? (Photo by Lozikiki/Creative Commons)

Imagine that Christianity has finally been declared dead due to lack of believers.

Imagine that most churches and cathedrals have become Harry Potter Centers, where “Potters” go for fellowship and study.

Tall-steeple Christian sanctuaries have become museums. Copies of Bibles, which the people known as Christians used to study and live by, are displayed as relics of yesteryear.

In the future, these Potters who worship at the altar of Harry will drop off their little Potters every day for two weeks in June — for Vacation Potter School.

The deification of J.K. Rowling’s answer to Jesus will be complete. Dress up in your finest costumes and come worship with us any Saturday, Potters. No baptism required.

The irony of Potter Theology is, clergy draw on the books for sermons every Sunday.

Now, you may say I’m a wildly imaginative dreamer, but I’m not the only one.

Tara Isabella Burton, a millennial who holds a PhD in theology from Oxford, makes a strong case in the online Religion News Service that millennials and Gen Zs use the Harry Potter books as sacred texts.

Burton notes that “Harry Potter” isn’t the first 20th-century cultural property to have doubled as a quasi-religion:

    “As early as the 1970s, ‘Star Trek’ — among the first ‘fandoms’ in history — offered its devoted fans a vision of morality and the human condition rooted in the humanist, positivist secularism of its creator, Gene Roddenberry.

    “Likewise, in the 1990s hundreds of thousands of nones identified themselves as Jedi, the priestly class of space samurai in the ‘Star Wars; movies, on national censuses in the U.K., Wales and Australia.”

The 1990s in America — I remember them well. Stars Wars was all the rage, but so was the church in America.

In the wake of the Christian-friendly Reagan years, many Christians even in mainline churches felt there was a new Reformation sweeping the God-blessed USA. One only had to look at all those pious people highlighting their Bibles in the popular megachurches.

It was by no means only conservative Christianity. The progressive brand was on the rise as well; Jim Wallis and his Sojourners magazine and bestselling books were all the rage.

In the future, churches will be “Potter Centers.”

Christianity in America ain’t dead yet, even if it’s been terribly Balkanized — and bastardized by a president who undoubtedly could not name even one of the four Gospels. (See my definition of Trumpianity here.)

But the future of Christianity is looking like something we can’t imagine. The enormous irony being that Rowling’s books are like theological magic dust for preachers and priests: they will be preaching sermons based on Harry Potter characters and stories this Sunday and every Sunday till our Lord sets things right. (As we aging true believers in the traditional God believe.)

Read TARA ISABELLA BURTON’s take on where the worship of Potter is headed, here, and let me know what you think.

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“Let us go through the open door” and stand without embarrassment with the resurrected Christ, John Updike wrote in his gorgeous Easter poem.

The late John Updike’s famous poem “Seven Stanzas at Easter” gets right to the heart of his belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ in the first few striking lines:

    Make no mistake: if he rose at all

    It was as His body;

    If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,

    The amino acids rekindle,

    The Church will fall.

Wow. Take that, you liberal, sophisticated churchy globs of molecule-and-amino-acids who want to take the reality out of the empty tomb.

Before I explore the great Easter poem further, I want to share some of Updike’s background with readers who may vaguely know the name John Updike, but know nothing about his amazing body of work.

I mentioned in yesterday’s posting about Karl Barth that Updike, the sophisticated, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for literature, was among Barth’s greatest admirers.

Known for some of his novels that explored sex in famously raw and graphic but non-gratuitous ways, Updike, who died in 2009 at age 76, was a devout Christian and regular churchgoer, Episcopalian Div. He wrote three great American novels about a regular American guy known (and lost soul) named Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. Rabbit was a high school basketball star who peaked early and went downhill in life fast.

Updike wrote three popular novels about a lost soul, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, who peaked in high school as a hoops star and went downhill fast. We’ve all known those guys.

The influence of Karl Barth’s Christian theology is obvious in all 61 of Updike’s books, which included novels, short stories, poetry, essays and criticism, all of it sharply eloquent. Updike’s enthusiasms included golf (a sport he played and wrote eloquently about), literature, God, the church and Karl Barth and Barth’s theology, not necessarily in that order.

His “Seven Stanzas at Easter” challenges the church and its believers to let go of any shame or embarrassment we have about Christianity’s defining event.

Own your faith or take a nice Sunday hike, the poem says.

Updike suggests that if we reduce the whole thing to a metaphor or analogy and “sidestep the transcendence,” we mock God. The many implications of that are obvious, the fall of the church being one (and it’s falling fast).

And anyway, if we don’t believe what we purport to believe, why are we wasting so much of our limited lifetime practicing dreary old worn-out rituals and rites?

Why do we even pray in the name of a Jesus Christ who (seriously?) came back from the dead in an event that defies the correctives to miracles and superstitions and primitive thinking that we embraced with the Enlightenment and science so long time ago?

We could be playing golf on Sundays or drinking Bloody Marys at Brunch or taking our kids to soccer games on Sunday mornings, in Paul’s words, eating, drinking and being merry.

All of which, you may have noticed, we increasingly do, while we proclaim to be Christian because we are baptized and because we do church every Christmas and Easter, faithfully.

Updike, hardly one to buy into mindless, superstitious thought, challenged Christians with his typically gorgeous words to “walk through the open door” of the tomb and stand tall in the glowing light of church life with the resurrected Christ, without shame or embarrassment.

With these challenging words…

Make no mistake: if he rose at all

It was as His body;

If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,

The amino acids rekindle,

The Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,

Each soft spring recurrent;

It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the

Eleven apostles;

It was as His flesh; ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes

The same valved heart

That—pierced—died, withered, paused, and then regathered

Out of enduring Might

New strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,

Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,

Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded

Credulity of earlier ages:

Let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,

Not a stone in a story,

But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of

Time will eclipse for each of us

The wide light of day.

And if we have an angel at the tomb,

Make it a real angel,

Weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in

The dawn light, robed in real linen

Spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,

For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,

Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed

By the miracle,

And crushed by remonstrance.

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On this day in 1962, Karl Barth — a Swiss theologian and preacher who famously resisted Hitler and the rise of the Nazism — was featured on the cover of TIME magazine.

That tells you everything you need to know about what an influential man of God that Barth was and will always be.

Lately I’ve been revisiting some of the Lenten and Easter sermons and other prolific writings of Barth. He churned out theology books by the volumes–his Dogmatics was an astounding 6 million words!

But I had forgotten what a heart he had for the poor and vulnerable, like the inmates he routinely preached and ministered to at the prison in his hometown Basel, Switzerland.

In fact, one of his many books, Deliverance to the Captives, contains 17 of his Sunday sermons to prisoners. It was endorsed by one of his greatest American admirers, the novelist and all-around man of Letters John Updike.*

Barth, incidentally, was a lifelong socialist. Even as a young parish minister he was known as the “Red Pastor” of Safenwil (Switzerland).

But I hasten to add that even though he regarded Jesus and the gospel as inherently political (as do I), he had no truck with those who wanted to reduce the gospel and theology to political ideology (same here).

Barth (like me) was all for government assistance, but believed that, at the end of the day, it was the duty of Christians and the church to … well … be the church, to be Christians … and not abdicate Christian duty to government with all its cold bureaucracy.

He wrote:

    “Christ was born into poverty in the stable at Bethlehem, and He died in extreme poverty, nailed naked to the Cross.

    “He is, then, the companion, not of the rich men of this world, but of the poor of this world. For that reason He called the poor blessed, and not the rich.

    “For that reason He is here and now always to be found in the company of the hungry, the homeless, the naked, the sick, the prisoners.”

Among the many religious leaders of many denominations he met, Karl Barth met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who admired him (as did the great sophisticate and novelist John Updike).

God only knows how Barth–who made a much ballyhooed trip to America where he met, among other people, Dr. King and Billy Graham (whose preaching style turned him off) would feel about the ways the hungry, homeless, naked, sick and imprisoned are detested and scapegoated for all of America’s woes today.

Barth was on his extended American tour when TIME interviewed him for the cover story. He was shocked at the awful conditions in American jails and prisons and the treatment of the have-nots in general.

Mind you, all in all, Barth loved and admired America. But his pointed criticisms of her obviously did not sit well with everybody. In a letter to a friend, the great wit and Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor cracked:

“I distrust folks who have ugly things to say about Karl Barth. I like old Barth. He throws the furniture around.”

I leave you with what this great man of God said about the Church with the question: how is your church doing in this regard?

    “The Church is witness of the fact that the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost.

    “And this implies that … the Church must concentrate first on the lower and lowest levels of human society. The poor, the socially and economically weak and threatened, will always be the object of its primary and particular concern.”

Come back to the blog tomorrow, Easter Sunday, for something fascinating that the late Mr. Updike — a “man of the mind” if ever there was one — had to say about the bodily resurrection.

Karl Barth: He wrote volumes upon more volumes of great theology (6 million words) –and yet was a down-home preacher and pastor who loved the poor and vulnerable that Jesus loved.

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In 2015, I spoke about “the fourth word” of “the seven last words of Christ” at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church here in San Ignacio, BZ. Here’s what I said about these famous, agonizing words from Mark 15:34.

    “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?”

Christian Mostaert, “Christ, Man of Sorrows”

Contrary to what some folks might think, Jesus did not speak English. Jesus didn’t even speak Spanish, or Kriol or even Mayan, obviously.

He spoke an old, pretty much now-dead language called Aramaic.

But I want you to imagine, just for the purposes of this reflection, that Jesus DID speak English even from the cross. We know that he said from the cross, in the ENGLISH translation, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?”

But we can only guess exactly HOW he would have cried out those words in English. We can only guess the kind of emotion he was expressing because we can’t possibly know. We can only guess at the word or words he emphasized in that outcry.

1. Maybe he said like this:

“My GOD! … My GOD! WHY have you forsaken me?”
Maybe he was just screaming out in his agony the way WE sometimes commonly shout out “My GOD!”

That’s almost an automatic reaction when we experience pain or something terribly shocking to us, isn’t it?

If we’re in prolonged pain we might reflexively scream out, “My GOD! I can’t take this pain anymore!”

Have you ever reacted to physical or emotional pain by crying out something like,

“My GOD! I can’t TAKE it anymore!”

I sure have.


2. But MAYBE Jesus said it like this.

“My God! My God! Why have you forsaken ME?” As if to say, “ME! OF ALL PEOPLE! How could you do this to ME! Your own SON!”

Raise your hand if you’ve ever cried out to God, “My God! Why ME! Why am I suffering like this! I’m one of the good guys!”

I’ve had many of those “Why me?” moments.


3. It’s entirely possible, I think, that Jesus was steaming mad when he said those last words.

“With those precious hands nailed to a tree, he couldn’t shake his fist at God–-he couldn’t shake a fist at his Father, that is. But maybe he WANTED to in that agonizing moment.

I’ve always said that I picked great parents, that my parents loved me and did everything they could to ensure that I would have a better life than they had growing up.

That said, family members inevitably have conflicts sometimes, and the conflicts between a parent and teenager, who is a young know-it-all, can get really heated, right? I had my share of conflicts with my old man. But that’s not to say that I didn’t get so angry or put out with the him that I didn’t want to shake a fist at him sometimes.

Whatever fights we had were forgiven and forgotten because we truly, deeply loved each other–at least until the next conflict that passed and was forgiven and forgotten.

I served for a considerable number of years as a hospital chaplain, ministering to people laid really, really low by illness and injury and impending death, and giving pastoral care to their families and loved ones as well.

I also served two full years as a chaplain in hospice care. Hospice is pain-management care given to people who are dying–-people who have no chance of living more than two years or maybe only two months. It was common in my experience with sick and dying people or their families to say to me, “I know I’m not supposed to get mad at God, but…”

And many times, I would stop them right there and say, “Whoa! Wait a minute. Where in the Bible is it written that we can’t get angry as all get-out with God? Where is it written that we aren’t supposed to question God?”

My friends, the Bible is full of people wracked by some kind of pain who ain’t at all happy with God.

The Psalms, most of all, are full of what we call Psalms of Lament, or Psalms of Complaint, where the Psalmist is sort of shaking his fist at God in anger or utter frustration with God, who seems to have grown cold or abandoned even the most faithful of believers.

And, in fact, when Jesus said, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me!”–-when Jesus had that moment in which he obviously felt God had abandoned even him-–he was quoting from a Psalm.

Can someone tell me which Psalm that was so I can find it and read it????

Yes, Psalm 22–-and I want to read some of it to you, starting with the very first verse, which is–-what do you know?”—-“My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?”

That line didn’t just come to Jesus’s tormented mind in the moment, but rather was a direct quote from Psalm 22, a Lament Psalm.

So here is some more from Psalm 22, and please, think about Jesus on the cross as you hear these words from Mark:

    1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
    Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
    2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
    and by night, but find no rest.

    3 Yet you are holy,
    enthroned on the praises of Israel.
    4 In you our ancestors trusted;
    they trusted, and you delivered them.
    5 To you they cried, and were saved;
    in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.

    6 But I am a worm, and not human;
    scorned by others, and despised by the people.
    7 All who see me mock at me;
    they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;
    8 ‘Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver—
    let him rescue the one in whom he delights!’

    9 Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
    you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
    10 On you I was cast from my birth,
    and since my mother bore me you have been my God.
    11 Do not be far from me,
    for trouble is near
    and there is no one to help.

Now, notice that as depressed as the Psalmist is, and as much as he feels abandoned by a seemingly deaf God who seems to refuse to hear his cries, he turns right around and says to that same God:

“Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.”

And if you read the rest of the Psalm, you will notice that the poor guy, who feels lower than a worm, for gosh sakes, hasn’t abandoned his faith and hope in God!

That’s how lament Psalms and stories end up in the Bible: we see people complaining to God, but not losing faith-–they remain in CONTACT with the father because they know deep down that God is too good and trustworthy and loving to actually abandon or go cold on us.

So my whole point is—-it’s OK for us to be angry or frustrated or doubtful about God in EXTREME situations of pain or grief or suffering. And we will have duress in life–-the rain falls on the evil and the good no matter how devout the good guys are.

But Jesus himself CERTAINLY understands our pain and doubt and anger. He and the Father know good and well how excruciating our pain can be in life.

While it’s all right to be most unhappy with God, the WRONG thing to do be to stay STUCK in anger or frustration and doubt about God.

God is a big boy–-God can take our complaints, and will hear them in a merciful and understanding way.

But our forsaking–-abandoning God-–that’s another matter.

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The Christian response to refugees seeking asylum at the border is a far cry from the U.S. government response. (Art by Bro. Mickey McGrath, an Oblate of St. Francis De Sales, artist, author, and speaker. More on him at http://www.bromickeymcgrath.com and http://www.embracedbygod.org)

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

~ Hebrews 13:3

Today is Maundy or Holy Thursday, the day in Holy Week when the Jesus of Radical Love washed the feet of his disciples in a radical act of loving hospitality.

Back when Jesus walked, washing the feet of a guest in a home — even a stranger — was far from being a glamorous task. But somebody had to do it. And that somebody was usually the house servant.

Cleaning feet was an act of hospitality and hospitality was, and will always be, a powerful motif in Judaism, Christianity and Islam — the Abrahamic religions.

The theology of hospitality stems from the story of Abraham responding to three strangers outside his tent and his running around at a frantic pace to serve them as if they were three kings.

They turned out to be God in the form of three angels.

April-May is the peak time of the (very) hot-dry season in Belize. The feet of the poor folks do get dirty and dry and cracked. (They get caked with mud in the rainy season.) I had lived in Belize a short time when I became acutely aware of just how dirty — and bone weary — the sandled feet must get in the Holy Land clime.

Show dogs and rescued pets get treated with more care and dignity than human beings at our borders.

I can’t imagine how weary and sore the feet of desperate migrant get in their journeys of thousands of miles.

I certainly can’t imagine the Jesus of radical love and hospitality sanctioning the treatment of those desperate people by the United States government these days.

I can’t imagine it because no one can possibly believe that the Jesus of radical love supports the demonization of people fleeing poverty and violence to such an extent as to brand them as “animals.”

No one can possibly believe that Jesus who died on the cross for the sake of all people in all times would bless United States government policies that treat human beings with far less care and dignity than pet owners in the United States of America treat their rescue animals and show dogs.

Nobody can possibly deny that the Jesus who humbled himself all the way to the cross is a far bigger and better Jesus than that.

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Being the holy superstar that he was, Jesus was couldn’t go anywhere without drawing a crowd. In the last days of his life, he attracted three especially significant throngs:

Sometimes an encouraging word is like salt, not salve, on a wound.

1. The festive crowd that celebrated his entry on a little foal into Jerusalem for the Passover holiday.

The people in that crowd were overjoyed, at least for a short time, because they snapped to the fact that the prophet Zechariah had proclaimed that their savior/king would ride into town on a donkey.

2. Then there was the mob, comprising some of those same people who had laid palms in Jesus’ path and boogied in the streets with joy over him. Now they wanted Pontius Pilate to go all Mel Gibson on him.

3. The third crowd — many mourning women among them — were those who followed Jesus as he bore his cross (with a little help from a good-hearted African). It was those women, God bless em, who gave Jesus what we all need when we’re at our lowest, most painful points in life.

They gave him the gift of their presence.

Image: Antonio Ciseri’s 1871 depiction of Pontius Pilate presenting a scourged Christ to one of the 3 crowds.

And therein lies a pastoral-care lesson in Luke’s gripping account of the Passion. Even when they followed him at a distance, Jesus knew the women were there for him. In all his anguish, he could feel their loving presence.

It’s a wonderfully pleasant thing to be with someone we love on a happy, festive occasion like a wedding or birthday or Christmas bash. Not so easy simply to be there when someone is laid low by grief. We want to speak platitudes at them in futile attempts to make them feel better.

Really, it is not that hard to simply say to someone who is in pain, “I cannot imagine how you are feeling, but I’m here for you.”

If you really love and care deeply about someone, allow them to feel and express their inescapable pain.

Allow them to say what they want to say to get their pain off their chest without jumping in with an encouraging word or two or 50.

Because, ironically, an encouraging word has the potential to salt the wound rather than salve it. (“He’s in a better place and he wouldn’t want you to be so sad and remember that this will make you stronger in the end and God has some good reason for this, you know.”)

Like those women in mourning who followed Jesus all the way to the cross — and let him do what little, meaningful talking he did to them without talking back — just be there to share the pain.

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