10 More Questions

10QuestionsI don’t watch television. This is not some moralizing, high-brow stance—it’s just the fact that it isn’t cost-effective with the little time I have for the tube. Growing up, however, television was at times my best friend. I see we’ve grown apart over the years. Who’s to blame? In this week’s Time magazine, the 10 Questions are directed to Mark Burnett, whom, prior to reading them, I couldn’t have identified with my TV Guide atop a Bible. Burnett is the mind behind the movie Son of God, originally a History Channel television show that managed to beat out even Game of Thrones. The laconic remarks left to Burnett reveal a man somewhat cagey about religion, but with a sense of mission nonetheless. What had never occurred to me is that even evangelists have corporate sponsors. According to Belinda Luscombe, Burnett said, “Do you remember what it was that launched Billy Graham? It was William Randolph Hearst. And Hearst Corporation put the first initial money into The Bible series and Son of God.” The first money into the son of God, Billy Graham, and the Bible. Who can match such a pedigree?

The public airing of faith lacks something without big money. The Crystal Cathedral, Lakewood Church, Heritage USA. Where would we be without the media moguls to lead us? There’s gold in them thar hills. All it takes is those willing to ask the gullible to mine it. Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also, n’est-ce pas? Seems like the Son of God raced past the Lego Movie on its opening weekend, but fell behind Non-Stop, although he’s still gaining. This is the sign of true divinity. Who will ultimately win? Does anybody have an ark?

Crystal Cathedral Ministries went bankrupt in 2010 and sold the Cathedral to the Catholics. Heritage USA lost a slug-out with Hurricane Hugo, as Jim Bakker was checking into a cell with Lyndon LaRouche. Can even the Son of God rock the critics with such a record? Mark Burnett is also credited with helping to create reality television. As we watch the rise and decline of the Duck empire, and the tearful admissions of personal failings from evangelists so rich that we have to admit a funny thing happened on the way to the Compaq Center, can there be any doubt where reality really lies? Who can really tell the difference between The Bible and The Game of Thrones?

Faith Falls

Niagara Falls, despite the crowds and commercialization and the diminished flow of the Niagara River to serve hydro-electric dreams, is nevertheless impressive. It is also one of those landmarks from my childhood since I had a great-aunt and cousins who lived in the town of Niagara Falls. That was back in the days when you could cross between the United States and Canada without a blink of a sleepy customs officer’s eye. Perhaps it is the nostalgia of a guy who’s not quite young any more, and maybe it is the sheer intensity of the negative ions released from all that falling water, but Niagara Falls remains one of my favorite places to visit. It is one of those places that you leave feeling like maybe you’ve been touched by something divine. At the office yesterday when talk turned to Nik Wallenda’s tightrope walk across the Falls last night, memories began to surge. I didn’t watch the live broadcast (I don’t have television service and with my commuting schedule I can’t stay awake past nine p.m. most days), but reading about the successful crossing this morning, I again found something divine.

When reporters asked Wallenda how he’d accomplished the feat he replied, “a lot of praying, that’s for sure.” Here’s where I had to stop and pause. Prayer is a common response to stress. Those moments when people face something that is beyond human capabilities—be it illness and loss in the family, financial ruin, or almost certain death—we often reach out for that which we hope will help us. When Wallenda stepped off that rope, his experience validated his assumptions that God helped him to do what is, in any rational universe, a very foolish thing. At the same time, he asked for divine aid in facing what must be, in that universe, a divine death-trap. Anyone who has stood close to Niagara Falls, or walked the wooded trail along the class five rapids of the Niagara River has come as close to the divine as humans are ever likely to get. To believe that prayer gets you through is to believe that God defies God.

Daredevils live for a thrill that transcends the comfort zone of most religious folk. I grew up during the days when Eval Knievel was a household name and his insane stunts drew millions to their televisions. Surrounded by television cameras, just nine months before his death he undertook his most dangerous stunt. He was baptized at the Crystal Cathedral, spawning hundreds of copycat baptismals. His death, it is generally acknowledged, resulted from complications of his many lifetime injuries. I remember his failed Snake River Canyon jump in 1974. Years later, staring out over the Snake River Canyon for the first time, I felt just a little of that transcendence that draws people to dramatic places. A friend tells me that whenever she goes to Niagara Falls she feels the urge to jump in. She is a very religious person. Hearing her remark about doing a Wallenda without a tightrope, I think she might be the most truly religious person I know.

Buying Salvation

October is upon us. The telltale signs are all there: trees just starting to turn, gray skies that hide an intangible menace, a coolness in the air, and Halloween stores sprouting like mushrooms. Halloween is a holiday with incredible sales appeal, I suspect, because people are still, at some level, very afraid. We evolved into who we are from a long history of being prey as well as predators. Fear governs many of our interactions in social settings, although we prefer to call it more abstract names such as “rule of law” or “peer pressure.” Deep down, we are afraid. Halloween allows us to wear that fear on our sleeves. And it isn’t just the Celts who made this confession; Día de los Muertos developed independently, giving us a different flavor of the same emotion. Savvy marketers know that where a human concern lies, there will be the purse-strings also.

Commercialization of religion—the fancy word is “commodification”—is as close to American religious experience as you can get. We live in a religious marketplace. Various religious groups offer their wares, sometimes obviously, sometimes subtly. Often the underlying motivation is fear—fear of displeasing deity, fear of eternal torment, fear of reincarnation. We are afraid and we don’t know what to do, so we try to buy our way out of it. Other times the Madison Avenue approach works. Consider the Crystal Cathedral, or even the great medieval cathedrals of Europe. These are tourist destinations, architectural marvels that draw us in. The message is still pretty much the same: the deity will get you unless you give back. How better to show respect (that is fear) than erecting a massive, complex, and very expensive edifice to the angry God?

It is simplistic to suggest that religion boils down to fear, but when all the water evaporates, fear is certainly evident among the residue. Next to the overtly commercial holiday of Christmas the most money can be coaxed out of Americans at Halloween. Or consider the appeal of horror movies. Love them or hate them, they will draw in big money at the box office. In a society that sublimates fear and tells its citizens that unimpeded growth is attainable, Halloween is the most parsimonious holiday. Perhaps the most honest, too. A full month before the creepy sight of naked trees and chill breezes that sound like screams whistling through their bare branches, the stores begin to appear. When Halloween is over they will be dormant for eleven months of the year, but like the undead they are never really gone. Only sleeping.

A parable.

The Power of Hope

My wife pointed out at article on MSNBC yesterday that stated Robert H. Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral is filing for bankruptcy. Internet reaction has been predictably hostile, clawing at the craven, money-driven industry of television ministry. There is no question that many television ministries quickly grow corrupt under the lure of immense wealth. The average American citizen is glad to part with some money if it can buy favor with the man upstairs. When a minister is able to construct such edifices as the Crystal Cathedral with the good-will offerings of the faithful, well, s/he’s an entrepreneur, the kind of people God likes, according to the Tea Party. Schuller was famous for his positive thinking and insistence that God will do great things for you. When recession hits, however, not even God remains solvent.

According to the article, various corporate sponsors of the Cathedral are having difficulty holding up their end of the contract. Positive thinking extends only as far as the goodwill of the banks. Is there any question who the real god is here? Americans love the non-biblical concept that God helps those who help themselves. Making more money than a humble clergy-person ought to make may improve the sense of optimism, but it loses touch with where the average citizen lives. It is easy to be optimistic when you have a heavenly bankroll on your side.

Yes, but can it keep birds from flying over your head?

Over the weekend my family looked at slides from our years in Europe. The great cathedrals, even if in ruins, convey a sense of stoic strength, genuine commitment. Built with the hard-won resources, if not the actual physical labor of the local populace, these cathedrals were made of stone. I recall standing in the nave of Salisbury Cathedral while the tour guide pointed out that the very stone pillars supporting its huge steeple were bowed under the weight of all that stone above. Some day it may collapse under its own pressure, but it will have always survived longer than the Crystal Cathedral. Religion, if I may use a metaphor, is more authentic when it deals with stone rather than glass. The religion that struggles with the intractable realities of daily life will inevitably last longer than the feel-good, glass-plated, Tea Party serving “religion” of feel-good Christianity. It is too bad about the Crystal Cathedral, but maybe the entrepreneurs should be asking serious questions right now about which god they truly serve.

Money Driven Life

An Associated Press story this weekend fetes Saddleback Church’s Rick Warren’s ability to raise 2.4 million dollars at his megachurch in an economy where many are suffering because of our national plague of greed. I find the story distressing not because people are willing to put out money for what they believe in — that is human nature — but because what they believe in is so shallow. Oral Roberts is not yet a month in the ground, and megachurches are again begging for money. Worse, they are getting money.

The greatest stumbling block to the humble message of the teachings of Jesus has always been the greed and concupiscence of the church. Whether it be the Vatican or some evangelical Crystal Cathedral, churches that stockpile wealth, although they may indeed distribute some to worthy causes, ultimately become a major part of the problems that create an unjust society. The concentration of wealth into the hands of any religious body will corrupt it. I have known clergy to purchase vestments costing hundreds of dollars per piece while their children were fed with food stamps. I have seen televangelists wearing suits that cost more than a month’s salary for many of their parishioners. I have heard them giving God the praise for their personal glorification.

Glory to God at what cost?

Once the glitz is removed, whether it be priceless Renaissance art or the supreme comfort of a Rocky Mountain resort or southern California ranch, the real purpose behind such driven lives becomes clear. No amount of prevaricating will make the working-class founder of the religion touted by wealthy clergy a friend of the rich as long as the poor continue to suffer.