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Posts from the ‘(un)belief’ Category

death by love wins (a tale of two pastors)

death by love wins

“Death by love,” I repeated.  “The author’s name is Mark Driscoll.  D-R-I-S-C-O-L-L.”

The thin, wiry librarian sitting in front of me leaned slowly forward.  She nodded and began delicately clacking at the keyboard in front of her, using only her two index fingers.  As I waited, I considered pulling out my phone, just to pretend I had something else to do.

“No, I’m sorry.  There’s no book here by that name,” she breathed.  “We do have the other books you asked for, though.  John Piper and Tim Keller, correct?”

“Yes, thank you,” I replied, glancing up from my cell phone’s screen, annoyed.  How could they not carry this Death by Love book here?  It had been recommended to me by many friends.  This Driscoll guy is supposed to be famous, and the book is supposed to be really powerful.

“Those other books are in the religious studies/Christianity aisle,” she said.  “Section AB 120-132.  Would you like me to write that down for you?”

“No thank you,” I smiled with thin lips.  I had no intention of waiting so patiently for another four minutes.

* * * * *

“Ooh,” Mary Ann* said, shaking her head, “you don’t want to read that book.”

We were walking around the second floor of the library, wandering through my favorite aisle, when she stopped, almost as if ordered, and pointed towards a book on the shelf.

“Why not?” I asked, gripping its pleasant red spine and lifting it to my face.

“Be careful with that,” Mary Ann intoned, unconsciously taking a step back.  “That book was written by this pastor who used to be a Real Christian…but then he started questioning everything and now he’s written this book that says hell doesn’t even exist and that no one goes there,” she explained.  “He used to be not bad at all but now, he’s a liberal.”  Her voice deepened to a whisper: “He’s a heretic.”

The book immediately took on an otherworldly weight in my hand.  I was at once filled with an inexplicable dread and the burning urge to stop touching the thing.  I laid it back on the shelf as gingerly as I could, as if it were a sleeping infant who would transform into a tyrant upon being aroused from sleep.  We continued walking down the aisle and talking about the ways our faith had been challenged by Christians who stopped believing in the clear words of the Bible.

A week later, I came back to the library alone.  I picked up the book and carefully read the inside flap.  I considered opening to an actual page, but found myself lacking the courage to do so without an invisibility cloak.  I placed the book back on the shelf and quickly scurried out the door.  None of my ministry friends from Joyous Jihad for Jesus* could ever know about this.

* * * * *

Weeks later, I finally got around to ordering “Death by God” on Amazon.  I plopped down on my bed night after night and tried reading it, but I was so bothered by the author’s aggression, by the way this pastor was speaking about his manliness and wanting to hurt people…about how God also wanted to hurt people…that I couldn’t read more than a few chapters.  I replaced the book on my shelf above my computer and wrote in my journal that night: “I’m not spiritually ready enough for this book.  Pray and read the Bible more then come back when I have more maturity.”

I eventually stole a copy of Love Wins and breezed through it in days.  Rob Bell said that maybe there’s another way to think about heaven and hell, and it didn’t infuriate me as much as I was told it should.  After all, these were the same things I’d been reading my hero C.S. Lewis say for a while now.  I discreetly passed the copy on to several of my close friends.  I felt doubly guilty afterwards, for now I was both a thief and a heretic.

Surely they would crucify me if they ever found out.

3 ways the Church is failing young people

take me to church

As brilliant and beautiful as our grace-filled church can be when our congregations are at their very best – whenever the body is healing, building, and actively serving those most in need  – there are also several places where Western Christianity has fallen phenomenally short.  In many ways, rather than impress upon nonadherents the good things that our religion has to offer, our churches have especially impacted and scarred my generation’s spiritual landscape.  Here I’ve compiled a list of three of the ways in which United States church culture often fails its young people:

1.  Deifying the Nuclear Family Unit

The idea of the nuclear family as the core, most essential unit of all stable societies was the facile invention of a rapidly booming postwar America, a thoroughly modern idea that our country’s churches latched onto and branded “scriptural” all too quickly.  As a result, Christian culture is saturated with “dating devotionals,” Singles fellowships designed for matchmaking, and the steady assurance that “God’s plan for your life” probably means a fast-tracked marriage, mediocre sex, and middle-class suburban comfort.

In a society where so many come from nontraditional families, the Church’s insistence on the centrality of a Father/Mother, 2.5 child, White Picket Fence model strikes out at many with chords of particular pain.  So few of us can fit into that mold.  Sitting in the pews of far too many churches, I hear only praise of “intact” families, see only their faces lifted up.  I’m left staring at faces and families that don’t look like mine, wondering where in the world that leaves me: the multiracial (half-siblinged?) child of a gay parent, the product of a divorced and splintered home.  Where have you set a place for us?

I rarely hear sufficient pastoral emphasis on the kind of family that Jesus spoke of when he rejected worldly notions of kinship, insisting instead that “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”  If the Church wants to be able to speak comfort and truth into the lives of modern families, it must break its addiction to extra-biblical conceptions of what family means in the first place.  We need to re-center our perspective on the all-inclusive family of God.  We then can begin to reimagine practiced community, not isolated familial fiefdoms, as society’s most crucial building block for forming healthy individuals and relationships.  Hey, it takes a village.

2.  Asking us to Choose Between our Intellect and the Bible

When I first arrived at the University of Illinois, I took several classes to fulfill my college’s history/culture gen-ed requirements.  One of my favorite courses was called Greek and Roman Mythology, taught by this great old beardy-looking European who, looking back, might have been Zeus.  I was challenged but intrigued when he asked us to read Ancient Near Eastern creation stories alongside the poem that opens the Bible (in Genesis 1 + 2).  Later, I took a religious studies class where under the tutelage of an experienced Bible and Early Church scholar, my classmates and I critically studied the epistolary and gospel texts that informed the lives of the early Christians – writings that eventually came to be known as the New Testament.

When my campus ministry-assigned “spiritual discipler” heard that I was taking these courses, he staged an intervention, ordering me not to take more such classes, lest my high view of the Bible be diminished.  When I approached another Bible study leader, an engineer, with questions about evolution and the origins of the earth, he told me that while our planet looked billions upon billions of years in the making, it was really only 6,000 years old – God had made it like this intentionally, to trick unbelievers, to test our faith!

In many circles of North American Christianity, biblical literalism and creationism are so bread and butter to popular articulations of faith that even considering an alternative to these fallacies is inherently heretical.  (This is how a guy like me can end up getting called “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”)  Yet any body that truly believes our Creator intentionally deceives, lies, or declares that humanity’s God-given mental faculties must be rejected is much more Satan-ic than Christ-ian.  If the Church wants to recapture the intellectual imagination of its young people – to revitalize a real sense of love and respect for the Bible – our leaders must begin by ending this cognitive dissonance, rejoining our minds and hearts through authentic attempts to synchronize science and scripture.

3.  Refusing to Name Abuse

Any case of emotional, spiritual, or sexual abuse that takes place in a faith environment makes an already despicable crime particularly heinous.  Scripture itself teaches that not many of us should become leaders, because those who do will be judged much more strictly.  Combine this directive with Jesus’ harrowing threat in Mark’s Gospel – “if anyone causes one of these little ones – those who believe in me – to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea” – and right here you’ve got yourself a damn good reason to make sure your church is a safe place.

While the Roman Catholic church has been visibly rocked by a plethora sexual abuse, in the past year we have also seen stunning revelations of similar evils in Protestant congregations.  Two recent examples of this are emerging survivors’ stories of the rampant sexual violence at Bob Jones University and Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM).  Findings like these are what led renowned sexual abuse investigator (Billy Graham’s grandson) Boz Tchividijian to remark that the current plague of sexual abuse faced by evangelical churches is likely far worse than ongoing  abuse in Catholic parishes.

There is no excuse for our collective failure to confront the abusive, patriarchal culture that infects our churches.  Yet in a world of celebrity pastors – where individualism, staunch hierarchy, and strict submission are prize virtues – it’s not hard to imagine how sadistic behavior might remain unchecked.  We venerate these leaders to a status all but beyond criticism, then gape when pastor after pastor is indicted for spiritually, sexually, emotionally abusive practices.

Among the family of God is perhaps where one should feel most safe; yet for many in our body, the company of Christian spiritual leaders brings not comfort but abject horror.  Whenever we as a Church try to wash our hands of responsibility for currents of abuse that persist in our ranks, we are playing the role of Pontius Pilate, working to sever ourselves from whoever the powerful deem crucifiable.  But we remain, as one of the great prophets put it, bound up “in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”  Advocating for victims of individual and systemic abuse has to be core to Christian praxis.  One would think that a faith tradition begun by sex workers, stone-ers, slaves, and scapegoats would understand that.

* * * * *

My hope is that this post won’t be received as unwarranted attack against the Church, but as constructive criticism, coming from one of our faith’s fiercest advocates.  This tradition continues to be an uplifting and growing and wonderfully inclusive spiritual practice, in so many ways.  If the next generation of believers wishes to continue these positive trends, they must speak up and name sin wherever it is crouching – even if it’s right at our doorstep.

What was missing from this list?  Anything you would add?


You fatefully step out of air-conditioned bliss and into the middle of some desert.  Your trip’s chaperones have driven you and your fellow students three hours north of Los Angeles to visit the former site of a domestic concentration camp named Manzanar.

Outside, after an impossible brightness relents from your eyes, the landscape’s natural colors begin to materialize around you.  Actually, colors is a strong word.  Black, brown, gray, ailing yellow, and occasional tufts of green are the full expanse of the local shades (with the notable exception of the pregnant ocean hanging above your head).

You look down and are horrified to find that your skin – your proud, Hawaiian, Japanese, well-pigmented skin – seems to be sizzling helplessly in the sun.  Woefully, you brought with you neither shades nor sunscreen.  (You greatly underestimated the strength of that word, desert.)  As you walk towards the narrow copse of trees ahead of you, you breathe in the taste of dry, dusty air.  The wind is whipping itself hard against your lips, which immediately begin to crack.


Your group is taking a couple of minutes to explore one of Manzanar’s few remaining preserved sites: a small stone and wooded area, once a sort of desert oasis.  A nearby placard indicates that this dead space formerly housed a vibrant garden, designed and constructed by some of the most creative and resilient women and men who were incarcerated here.

Later, in the museum, you will see photographs, glimpses of what this place was.  In these pictures, prisoners and staff alike linger here, spending a few moments together in the sacred peace of blue and green,  koi and cactus and cool stone.

Yet bitter irony screams out from these quiet images, as this sad, bizarre juxtaposition abounds.  In this desert garden, in this concentrated safe space, enemies and friends gathered together in peace in the midst of inescapable violence.  It is truly the eye of a hurricane.

There isn’t much life left here.  The fish have died, the guards gone, the plants dulled, their colors masked by thin, cloaking layers of sand.  Only the harshest flora and fauna have survived the death of this place.  (There are perhaps a few prickly, aggressive-looking bushes left.  And tumbleweeds.  Scorpions.  Real rattlesnakes.)  The riverbed itself, which once drank deeply of water pumped in through local irrigation fields, is just as extinct.  Thin cracks jet across its concrete floor, reaching center and spiraling out again from long-dried depths.

In recent years, archaeologists sponsored by the national parks service have unearthed (and subsequently restored) many of these garden spaces.  These constant and complicated excavations are necessary because after the Supreme Court finally decided against the legality of the mass incarceration, the federal government undertook a desperate surge to erase the evidence of this crime.

Bulldozers were ordered to promptly demolish rows of barracks and homes, strip down fences and guard towers, fill in handmade gardens and ponds with cement and dirt.  This project was not an act of contrition, but one of obfuscation.  Your country’s military and political leaders did not want people to find out what really happened here, so they summarily dismantled the existing testimony.  (This was also certainly the reason why all “sad-looking” photographs depicting life inside Manzanar were ordered to be destroyed before the camp closed.)

Not much other than what was already dead survived this purge.  Out of respect, or perhaps a sense of shame, Manzanar’s cemetery was not destroyed by this fleet of censure.  To this day, the modest piece of land stands strong and silent on the edge of camp.  Formerly imprisoned Buddhist and Christian leaders have made pilgrimages to the site each year since the camp’s closing, to perform traditional remembrance ceremonies.  Aside from this, no one was allowed to return to this twisted Eden.

The burial ground is your next destination.

Your group hops back into the soothing atmosphere of the vehicle, and you drive off.

Inside the van, the desert has already started to seep in; water is in short supply.  Both of your bottles are nearly gone.  You were sure one wouldn’t be enough, so you brought two, and that wasn’t enough either.  The seals crack open and you can barely feel the water flowing across your lips.  Before you know it there’s nothing left.

Outside again, and the world is hot and stale.  You breathe in big sips of desert air, but through your nose, in order to keep your mouth from drying any further.  Marching towards the desert graves, you actually feel heavier, as if gravity itself has been cranked to eleven, working harder than ever to press you back into (the) dust.

As you near the graveyard, you stop in your tracks when you notice it – it is dead silent.  No casual, ambient noises fill your ears – no cars zooming along gravel roads, no music blaring, no cell phones chirping, no more beating wind.  You close your eyes, and picture yourself standing inside a tiny, soundproof room.  This tremendous void is nothing like the Los Angeles you arrived from, nothing like the Los Angeles many of Manzanar’s own residents were forced to “evacuate.”  The silence itself is a form of oppression.

The same year that your government began to illegally incarcerate its Japanese American residents and citizens, your country’s number one song happened to be a popular little tune called “Don’t Fence Me In.”  (Here is a cover performed by your favorite band.)  The song plays a lot like that old anthem home, home on the range, where the deer and the antelope play – it’s about a renegade, no-nonsense cowboy who’s making a living on the Western frontier, where life is good because he’s free to do as he pleases:

Oh give me the land, lots of land
Under starry skies above
Don’t fence me in
Let me ride through the wide open
Country that I love
Don’t fence me in
Let me be by myself in the evening breeze
Listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees
Send me off forever but I ask you please
Don’t fence me in

Even as Manzanar’s artists and architects labored to create stunning stone and wood gardens, its musicians came together to form camp bands, informal groups of vocalists, brass, and string-playing Japanese Americans who were given permission to perform at dances and other public events.  The music these women and men made here, like the camp’s flowered gardens, was a popular addition to camp life, celebrated among staff and incarceree alike.  However, one tune was explicitly forbidden from being played.  And your nation’s most popular song never pierced the desert silence.


the grave of a child who died here, trapped in Manzanar

Over one hundred and fifty people died in this humble Californian concentration camp.  Some passed away from natural illness or old age, others from disease and preventable infection, which often spread like wildfire from barrack to barrack.  A few of those incarcerated here simply lost the will to live.  Others, including two teenage boys, were even shot and killed.

Their thin marble gravestones fleck the barren landscape.  Some headstones are small, marking the burial of infants and children.  Of all those interred here, all but six families ultimately sent for the remains of their loved ones to be transferred elsewhere, or to be cremated in traditional Japanese fashion.  Even the dead don’t deserve to be trapped in this forgotten wasteland.

You instinctually raise your right hand to make the sign of the cross, father, son, holy spirit.  Amen.  But you do it quickly, making sure no one else sees.  Though you’ve taken comfort in this gesture a million times before, somehow it feels out of place… disrespectful even, to be doing it here.  You are, after all, standing on hallowed ground, in a Buddhist graveyard, in a former ghetto on American soil.  It’s one of those moments where you feel split in two.

In the sky, off to the east, it’s almost prophetic.  You recognize the shape of (not a bird! or a plane! but) a rainbow, hovering boldly above a craggy peak.  You snap a simple photo that does not nearly do the moment justice.

arco iris

Although rainbows have certainly come to mean something more to you in recent years, your mind first flickers back to what you learned in Sunday school: that this meteorological phenomenon actually represents God’s covenantal promise to protect and bless his people.

But you’re looking around, and you can’t see this God anywhere.  This God who declared that he would lift his people out of oppression and slavery, this God who promised to break every chain and to give his people a land of their own.  All you see are graves.

Dry, hot tears start to run down your face, creasing into little rivers as they’re pulled away from your eyes.  Where is this God, who, as the great story goes, was himself illegally imprisoned and executed by the government, whose very own body was swept aside and stashed away in a garden tomb?

You remember the great stories your great uncle used to tell you, how he volunteered out of one of these camps to join a segregated military unit which fought in France, Italy, and Germany during the second world war.  You remember the story of Daniel Inouye (who went on to become your country’s most senior senator), who lost his arm and was awarded numerous medals for his bravery in the war, only to return home, in uniform, and be candidly refused service in a San Francisco barbershop – “we don’t serve Japs here.”

Manzanar is absolutely swollen with great stories such as these, pregnant with the ghosts of gardeners, musicians, and soldiers who cultivated careful life, bred music, and went off to bleed and die for a country that kept their mothers and children behind barbed wire.

Yet if there’s one thing you’ve learned today, it’s that only Manzanar’s bleached skeleton remains.  This is not a prison anymore.  It’s not even a graveyard.  It’s just a capital wasteland, a national park eternally illuminated by the inescapable memories of those who lived and died here.  Really, it’s just a shell now.  Just sand and tumbleweed and a few arid landmarks.  There’s not a lot to see for those without the eyes to see it.  But for anyone who has a little bit of empathy, or imagination, for anyone who likes ghost stories, this place is inextinguishable, unlimited.

You really don’t know where this God of salvation and promise is.  The only thing you know right now is that this God of the forgotten is somehow here, in the graves, with the crucified and the restless dead.

You once heard a great king ask his friend the question “what can men do against such reckless hate?”

First, we weep.  And then we close our eyes, and whisper that tired old prayer, father, forgive them, for they know not what they do…

And then we rage.