CNN and the Belief Blog: One Year On

Dan Gilgoff, editor of CNN’s Belief Blog, wrote a “top ten” list of things he has learned in the  first year of covering religious news.  I have paid scant attention to CNN’s Belief Blog, mostly because it is fairly main stream and covers stories I am not particularly interested in.  Still, Gilgoff reports that they have posted 1840 stories over the year, generating more than 450,000 comments.  Here are some highlights from his list.

“Most Americans are religiously illiterate.”   This item was fourth on the list, I would have bumped this to the first spot since it is the source of problem behind many of his other top ten items.  This is part of the general “dumbing down” of America.  Put any other topic into that sentence and it still works (historically illiterate, scientifically illiterate, etc.)   I have found that most Americans have a thin knowledge of the Bible.  Obviously a decline in church attendance has a great deal to do with this decline since the Church used to be where people learned what to believe theologically (catechisms) but also the basic story of the Bible.  How may people, Christian or not, can tell the “big story” of the Bible?

A second reason for this illiteracy is the source of religious and biblical knowledge for most Americans – the faux “history” documentaries on the History Channel.  Since people are not going to Church but are still interested in religion, they turn to TV as a source of knowledge.  But like everything else, religious documentary programs are overly dramatic, light on facts, and generally skewed.  Usually these shows are used as filled around religious holidays and purport to disclose the “Secret Mysteries of the Bible” or Jesus’ secret affair with Mary Magdalene.  Most of the scholars used on these shows are on the left side of the spectrum (Crossan is hardly the mainstream of scholarship!)

Numbers 6 and 7 go together, “ Regardless of where they fit on the spectrum, people want others to understand what they believe.” and “Americans still have an uneasy relationship with Islam.”  I suppose if we are generally ignorant the we would be curious about other beliefs.  Religious books still sell well enough to support dozens of publishers and Bible book stores.  Books on the “cults” are always popular and there is always interest in what “that other church” does on Sunday morning.  Some Christians are seriously about flirting with “all things Jewish” and there has always been a trickle of Protestants returning to the Roman Catholic or Orthodox traditions.

With respect to Islam, most people never really thought too much about it until the “war on terror” brought Islam to the headlines on a daily basis.  Lost in this discussion is the fact that a hundred years ago, people knew virtually nothing about Islam!  Thanks to Google books, I am currently reading a guide book for touring the Holy Lands written at the turn of the 20th century.  What strikes me about this professional guidebook is the total lack of understanding of Islam and the people of the Middle East a mere hundred years ago.  Part of that might be a British colonial attitude, but the fact remains that people in the west knew very little indeed about Islam until recently, and most of what the get is from talk radio.

Finally, the number two item on Gilgoff’s list:  “Atheists are the most fervent commenters on matters religious.”  He gives a few comments from atheists, which are witty, but also rather emotional.  I am certain that the number of atheist comments is disproportional to their numbers because they tend to be technically inclined and already reading news on CNN, while most fundamentalists are scared the Beast is tracking their movements on the intertubes and would not go to CNN’s website for fear of catching liberalism like a virus.  Educated, vocal minorities always make for great comments on blogs.  I think that Gilgoff’s observations are correct, “atheists are coming out of the closet to trumpet their disbelief, argue with the faithful and evangelize their godlessness.”  Interesting choice of words, “the good news of godlessness” strikes me as sadly ironic.

The fact that CNN has devoted time and money to a website for the discussion of religion is a sign that people are intensely religious and genuinely have questions about God and their relationship with him.  I am not sure there are answers on CNN’s BeliefBlog, but there is a discussion, which is a good first step.

Bob Dylan and My Spiritual Life

Most people who know me are well aware that Bob Dylan has been the background soundtrack of my life since my early teens.  Blood on the Tracks and Street Legal were the first albums I remember, although it was Slow Train Coming which really influenced me.  I was raised in a Christian home and went to a Christian high school, but I never was attracted to the Christian Music which was coming out at that time.  To be honest, it was really bad. With the exception of Larry Norman and the very young Randy Stonehill and Phil Keaggy, there was not much to draw my attention.  Then came Slow Train.  I got a copy on 8-track tape and wore it out.  (Alright, wearing out an 8-track is not that big of a deal, but I did listen to it over and over!).  Dylan followed that up with Saved, some of the most honest gospel music every written.  There was no doubt in my mind that Bob Dylan was (as is) a brother in Christ. But then came Shot of Love and Infidels, albums which made people doubt he was “really saved.”  What kind of a  Christian writes songs about Lenny Bruce?  What could “Dark Eyes”mean?

I have seen video concerts from the Gospel years in which Dylan tells the crowd that the end times are coming and even asks for prayer requests.  He refused to play the old songs, considering them the Devil’s music.  His 1981 shows integrated more of his “hits” but still included healthy doses of Gospel songs.  But like most good things, Evangelical Christians failed to understand Dylan’s conversion and subsequent lack of Christian commitment.  What did they expect, Bob Dylan covering Sandi Patti songs?  (He actually did cover a Dallas Holm song, but that was an exception!)  Dylan has always been his own man, and he would not be co-opted by anyone (he does not work on Maggie’s Farm, ever).  I am not sure Evangelicals were well-equipped mentally to deal with what it means for a secular Jewish Rock Star to convert to Christianity.  So much was going on in his life, spiritually and emotionally, that it is remarkable he was able to emerge from those years and produce some of the best music of his career.

But for me, Dylan remained a spiritual beacon light.  While not overtly Christian (like Saved), his lyrics continued to be spiritually motivated.  Every “Grain of Sand” is one of his best songs, and probably his best “spiritual” song.  “The Groom’s Still Waiting” has an apocalyptic worldview worthy of Revelation.  He has never really stopped playing songs from the Gospel Years in concert, opening his controversial China concerts with “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking,” a highlight from Slow Train.  As I get older with Bob, I hear much more Christianity and Judaism in his lyrics than ever before, and I amazed at how much I missed when I was younger.  Maybe I am hearing him through my Christian lens, but with only a few exceptions, his resonate with the important questions of life and my ear hears echoes of eternity in them.

So here’s a happy birthday wish to Bob Dylan, may you continue to walk the paths of victory.

On to Bethlehem – Easter 2011

I have had the opportunity to preach Easter sermons on a few occasions.  I usually tried to use the sermon as an opportunity to think deeply about the incarnation, especially why Jesus came “in the flesh.”  Sometimes this meant that I would use text which is more associated with Christmas than with Easter, to shake up the listener who was expecting the “normal” Easter sermon.  Bill Mallonee wrote the song “On to Bethlehem” a few years back as a Christmas song, but it strikes me as appropriate for Easter as well.   He just released a live acoustic album on Bandcamp with a nice version of the song, so the lyrics have been on my mind the last few days.

God wraps Himself up in human skin for those who want to touch. And God let them drive the nails in, for those of us who know way too muchYou come bearing all our burdens, and take Your lovers for a ride. But we stay holed up in our cages, fashioned by our own design.

I find these lines a remarkably clear presentation of the Gospel, but also a frank description of the human condition.  In the incarnation, God did in fact “wrap himself in flesh,” but he did so in order to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).   I think that people get overly excited about the torment of the Cross, distracting them from the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus.  That is easy to do with recent films like Passion of the Christ, and no doubt it was a bloody torturous death.  But the point is that Jesus becomes our sin-bearer, the one who is willing and able to make atonement.

We have opportunity to really know God, to be “in Christ” as a new creation.  “But we stay holed up in our cages, fashioned by our own design.” Cages are prisons, in this case without bars.  As a culture we silence the gospel by playing Easter games, celebrating with eggs and candy and the like.  That sort of a diversion from the truth is obvious when you know the truth, but to most people the Easter Story is a fantasy of happy bunnies and spring sales, nothing to do with “God wrapping himself in flesh.”

As a Church, we build a cages made of false expectations of what it means to live a Christian life, as if we have to pay back Jesus for becoming our sin-bearer.  Rather than realizing we are “in Christ,” dearly loved children adopted into the family of God, we measure ourselves against other Christians and pronounce ourselves “spiritual.”  Rather than “being in Christ” we try to out-do each other.  The essence of Grace is that we receive this adoption purely by God’s love, without merit in our own goodness, nor do we keep it by our own good works.   Grace means that we simply be “in Christ.”

This Easter, it is time to see the cage for what it is, and step out into the fresh light of the Gospel of the Grace of God.

John Piper has Crossed the Line

I could take it when he went postal on N. T. Wright, I can roll with the punches when he attacked Rob Bell.  But now John Piper has re-written lyrics to a Bob Dylan song.  There is something just sort of wrong about that.  Although I do appreciate the fact that he quotes Paul, Jesus, and Bob in that order. In the interest of full disclosure, I am a huge Dylan fan, often describing myself as Bobsessive.  So this “remix” comes as a shock to the system.

Piper writes:

You may be emergent now and worship on a rug,
You may think that doctrine is a bourgeois drug,
You may call yourself Reformed, with a torn pair of jeans,
You may specialize in church for cool libertines.

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody . . . .

Words fail me… I Guess it could be worse.  Piper could have remixed Rainy Day Women #12 & 35:  “Everyone Must Get Reformed!”

2010 in review

The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A helper monkey made this abstract painting, inspired by your stats.

The average container ship can carry about 4,500 containers. This blog was viewed about 24,000 times in 2010. If each view were a shipping container, your blog would have filled about 5 fully loaded ships.

In 2010, there were 127 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 238 posts. There were 14 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 403kb. That’s about a picture per month.

The busiest day of the year was November 21st with 410 views. The most popular post that day was ETS Atlanta – Thomas Schreiner .

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were facebook.com, Google Reader, ntweblog.blogspot.com, en.wordpress.com, and bibleexposition.net.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for who were the judaizers, reading acts, esv bible atlas review, esv bible atlas, and nt wright election.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

1

ETS Atlanta – Thomas Schreiner November 2010
5 comments

2

About Reading Acts September 2008
10 comments

3

The Purpose of the Book of Hebrews January 2010
15 comments

4

Acts 15 – Who were the Judaizers? September 2009
15 comments

5

The Roman Cult of Emperor Worship April 2010
11 comments