Celebrating the King James Bible @NJShorePatch

Museum of Biblical Art in New York hosts exhibit celebrating translation’s 400th anniversary.

1611 King James Bible at MOBIAWhile there are plenty of places to celebrate a special anniversary right here at the Jersey Shore, for one as monumental as the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, a trip into New York City to see On Eagles’ Wings at the Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA) is just the thing.

The exhibit features a number of historic manuscripts, including a 1611 first folio edition of the bible and a 1440 New Testament. It also includes a collection of breathtaking paintings (my photos don’t do them justice) that contemporary artist Makoto Fujimura created to illustrate a Crossway Books commemorative edition of The Four Holy Gospels.  …

For a full picture of this wonderful celebration, go to Manasquan Patch.

How Far Should Forgiveness Go?

“Forgiving love is a possibility only for those who know that they are not good, who feel themselves in need of divine mercy, who live in a dimension deeper and higher than that of moral idealism, feel themselves as well as their fellow men convicted of sin by a holy God and know that the differences between the good man and the bad man are insignificant in his sight.”
—Reinhold Niebuhr, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics

I wish I could believe every one of these words from Reinhold Niebuhr. Instinctually, I don’t, wishing instead for Dante’s hell for certain kinds of sinners—like corrupt pastors who egregiously violate their calling and never repent. In my unregenerate opinion, I believe these types of sinners should be relegated to the eighth and ninth circles of Dante’s Inferno.

I’ve read numerous books on forgiveness. Some of them lead me to conclude that the authors have never known the kind of spiritual betrayal some Christians, including myself, have known. If they did, they could never write the pabulum they are selling.

A diverse collection of books—L. Gregory Jones’s Embodying Forgiveness, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower, Miroslav Volf’s Free of Charge, and Desmund Tutu’s No Future Without Forgiveness—offer honest help for my unforgiving heart. These writers grapple with the call to forgive in the face of real evil. They understand that pop psychology and cheap theology are no match for it. The murderous societies under which most of them suffered find their Christian complement in churches that, for example, allow or ignore the sexual abuse of children and punish those who call the abusers to account.

I’m certainly not unique in having a long history with clergy misconduct (“Sorrow But No Regrets,” Christianity Today, July 2007). Perhaps I have the distinction of having walked with a sex-abuse survivor and her family in their quest for justice in a famous mega-church whose leaders vilified them for their decision to prosecute—and of having faced similar treatment for reporting a suspected pedophile in this church (“Day of Reckoning,” CT, March 2007).

Two years after my husband resigned his pastoral position there due to systemic corruption, our firstborn child died by suicide (“In the Valley of the Shadow of Suicide,” CT, April 2009). I hold certain church leaders responsible for a multiplicity of sins, beginning with false advertising and ending with causing many little ones—including my own—to stumble.

Niebuhr’s moral equivalency statement asks me to place my sins on par with those of sexual abusers and their accomplices. I instinctively don’t believe it. Nor do I believe that the difference between the sins of “the good man and the bad man” is insignificant in God’s eyes.

One only needs to read the parable of the Prodigal Son to see that God acknowledges a difference. When the obedient older brother asks his father why he had never slain “even a young goat” (Luke 15:29) on the son’s behalf, the father explains that his younger son was dead, but is now alive, was lost, but is now found. That’s a significant demarcation—one that describes not only the father’s love but also the sinner’s repentance.

In Matthew 18:1-10, Jesus teaches a familiar lesson that contrasts unbridled ambition with undefiled faith. It includes a dire list of consequences for those who harm the undefiled. “[W]hoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me,” he says. “But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” That’s strong language. Jesus continues by admonishing the guilty to mutilate body parts that cause them to sin rather than have their bodies and souls thrown into hell. “See that you do not look down on one of these little ones,” the gentle Savior warns. “For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.”

But wait. Luke the Evangelist adds something in his telling (17:1-6). Jesus ends his lesson with a far different warning: “Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and seven times a day returns to you, saying ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him.”

To this, Jesus’ disciples understandably reply, “Increase our faith.” And then the Lord promises that if they have faith as small as a mustard seed, it is more than enough.

Gracious Condemnation

I have seen ministry leaders rebuked not once but seventy times seven, and not one of them openly repented or was reconciled to the communities their actions destroyed. The young woman I mentioned wanted two things: change in a church that stubbornly resisted it, and an apology for the punishment she and her family received in the years following the abuse. She didn’t get either. Instead, attorneys negotiated the price of an apology, and she received a cash settlement in exchange for her silence.

What is a Christian to make of that?

In Life Together, Bonhoeffer writes the following:

The first service one owes to others in community involves listening to them. Just as our love for God begins with listening to God’s Word, the beginning of love for other Christians is learning to listen to them …. Christians who can no longer listen to one another will soon no longer be listening to God either; they will always be talking even in the presence of God. The death of the spiritual life starts here, and in the end there is nothing left but empty spiritual chatter and clerical condescension which chokes on pious words.

In The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness, Wiesenthal, an Austrian Jewish Holocaust survivor, writes that for a time, the world could not believe the Nazi atrocities were really happening because it couldn’t comprehend the systematic extermination of a people. But before long, “priests, philanthropists, and philosophers implored the world to forgive the Nazis.” Bitterly, Wiesenthal concludes, “Most of these altruists had probably never even had their ears boxed, but nevertheless found compassion for the murderers of innocent millions.”

In contrast, Anglican Archbishop Tutu’s 2000 memoir, No Future Without Forgiveness, describes the liberating power of public testimony and confession in paving the way to freedom for post-apartheid South Africans. Tutu commends a decision made before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings to grant amnesty to all who confessed, regardless of whether or not they expressed remorse, because true repentance is too difficult to evaluate in a moment.

So how do we forgive the spiritual leaders who betray us in the absence of confession and observable repentance?

In Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace, Yale theologian Miroslav Volf says, “Condemnation is not the heart of forgiveness. It’s the indispensable presupposition of it.” Forgiveness that does not take seriously the offense against an injured party is fraudulent and cheap. Authentic forgiveness, writes Volf—whose family suffered under communism and whose brother died in a preventable accident—”cuts the tie of equivalence between the offense and the way we treat the offender. I don’t demand that the one who has taken my eye lose his eye or that the one who has killed my child by negligence be killed. In fact, I don’t demand that he lose anything. I forgo all retribution. In forgiving, I absorb the injury—the way I may absorb, say, the financial impact of a bad business transaction.”

Don’t misread Volf: In his view, discipline is consistent with forgiveness. Criminals should go to jail. Clergymen who violate church teaching (or the law) should be defrocked. Our laws rightly prohibit murder, not anger, even though Jesus said the source of both is the human heart. “Forgiveness,” Volf writes, “places us on a boundary between enmity and friendship, between exclusion and embrace. It tears down the wall of hostility that wrongdoing erects, but it doesn’t take us into the territory of friendship.”

“Often,” he concedes, “that’s all we can muster the strength to do, and all that offenders will allow us. Yet at its best, forgiveness hopes for more.”

Hoping Against Hope

It hopes for more, and very often doesn’t get it. After my husband and I left the mega-church, we joined an Anglican church that was being sued by the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles over a property dispute. Six months later, the rector who had led our congregation out of the Episcopal Church was forced to resign over alleged inappropriate conduct toward another staff member. He moved to another state and quickly took up ministry in a sister church. The reformer refused to be reformed.

Meanwhile, the assistant priest—who had written his master’s thesis on restoring fallen clergy—handled the crisis with considerable care. There was no question that the rector would step down, or that the recipient of his unwanted advances would be protected. Public meetings were held where congregants could express feelings of betrayal and ask questions. We were shown a diagram of possible outcomes, and were challenged not to allow ourselves to be crippled by the priest’s failure.

The vestry enlisted outside support from various sources. This included a healing service for the women of the church. A licensed therapist led us through an exercise of releasing our former pastor. I hadn’t been there long enough to have an emotional investment in his betrayal, so I invited the sex-abuse survivor’s mother to the service, and together we applied the exercises to our situation.

Because this new faith community handled the crisis with integrity, it facilitated my spiritual restoration from the previous one. My husband and I were asked to write a letter to our bishops describing the consequences we had witnessed when clergy misconduct goes habitually unchecked. Church leaders—who themselves had been willing to pay a high price for following their consciences—heard and affirmed us. Not only that, every Sunday, we confessed our sins corporately and asked the Lord to forgive us as we forgave those who trespassed against us.

For two years, many of my prayers of confession were related to actions I had taken in regard to the megachurch. No matter how just a cause, when one chooses to act against friends and spiritual leaders, even in communities where Jesus’ command to forgive is used to manipulate, and where accusations of vengefulness are thrown in anyone’s direction who confronts wrongdoing, one struggles with guilt. Yet week after week, I was comforted by the post-Communion prayer “assuring us in these holy mysteries” that through the body and blood of Christ, we all were forgiven.

The Fellowship of Human Guilt

At the time he was involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler, Bonhoeffer wrote: “If it is responsible action, if it is action which is concerned solely and entirely with the other man, if it arises from selfless love for the real man who is our brother, then precisely because this is so, it cannot wish to shun the fellowship of human guilt.” To this, he adds, “Before other men the man of free responsibility is justified by necessity; before himself he is acquitted by his conscience, but before God he hopes only for mercy” (Ethics).

The righteousness of Bonhoeffer’s actions is still debated by theologians, if not by descendents of some Holocaust victims. So are the actions of sex-abuse survivors who sue their former churches for negligence. In my mind, there is no question about the righteousness of either cause in the face of complicit silence from the people of God.

And yet, I cannot seriously wish hell upon corrupt spiritual leaders while clinging to my faith in the mercy of God for my son and for myself. Suicide casts on those left in its wake unanswerable questions and a pall of guilt for sins both real and imagined. Thus the distance has closed in my mind between myself and all the clergymen I would so easily condemn. I yield ground in my resistance to cheap grace, because my unforgiving heart is broken, and because the sinner I am most concerned about is my son.

The prologue to Niebuhr’s statement about forgiveness is this: “There is no deeper pathos in the spiritual life of man than the cruelty of righteous people. If any one idea dominates the teachings of Jesus, it is his opposition to the self-righteousness of the righteous. The parable spoken unto ‘certain which trusted in themselves that they are righteous, and despised others’ made the most morally disciplined group of the day, his Pharisees, the object of his criticism …. They were proud in the sight of God and they were merciless and unforgiving to their fellow-men. Their pride is the basis of their lack of mercy. The unmerciful servant, in Jesus’ parable, is unforgiving to his fellow-servant in spite of the mercy which he had received from his master.”

Who am I to say I won’t forgive, when I know forgiveness does not mean to condone their actions or to absolve them—since God alone can absolve? I am no better than the apostles who rightly understood the challenge that was before them. With them, I can only reply, “Increase my faith, dear Lord.”

Mercifully, there are Christian men and women who are gifted to guide stubborn disciples like me. In his magnificent Embodying Forgiveness, Gregory Jones, former dean of Duke Divinity School, offers a definition of forgiveness that is adequate to a world full of evil and ambiguity:

Forgiveness is not so much a word spoken, an action performed, or a feeling felt as it is an embodied way of life in an ever-deepening friendship with the triune God and with others. As such, a Christian account of forgiveness ought not to simply or even primarily be focused on an absolution of guilt; rather, it ought to be focused on the reconciliation of brokenness, the restoration of communion—with God, with one another, and with the whole Creation. Indeed, because of the pervasiveness of sin and evil, Christian forgiveness must be at once an expression of commitment to a way of life, the cruciform life of holiness in which we seek to “unlearn” sin and learn the ways of God, and a means of seeking reconciliation in the midst of particular sins, specific instances of brokenness.

Each of us lives in the midst of particular sins and specific instances of brokenness. And each of us must choose how we will respond. Living a life of holiness and learning the ways of God sometimes mean letting go of our need for justice and instead embracing a world that groans in anticipation of the day when it, and we, will be redeemed.

It means accepting with humility that God alone is good.

This article was originally published in the October 2010 issue of Christianity Today.

One.Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow

Scot McKnight is the Karl A. Olsson Professor in Religious Studies at North Park University in Chicago, Illinois, but I know him as a prolific blogger and internet friend.

What I love about Scot is that he has a unique ability to successfully bridge the divide between theologically conservative evangelicals and more progressive ones. When they get busy fighting, he gets busy trying to get them to listen better to one another, or at least to treat each other with more respect.

Scot isn’t uncritical of either group, but his critiques are always rooted in a graciousness that stems from his commitment to what he calls The Jesus Creed, but what others know as Jesus’ summary of the Law and the Prophets from Mark 12:28-33, which says, in essence: love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. I value his contribution because I think he helps to shake conservatives free of their unbiblical sacred cows and reminds those who have left the fold not to despise the breasts that nursed them.

Another thing I love about Scot is his heart for young people. He’s a serious academic, but he’s first and foremost a teacher. This comes through in his blog and his many books, the latest of which is One.Life: Jesus Calls We Follow.

He writes in the afterward that the book was written for “people who really do think a Christian is someone who follows Jesus,” but I read it as a love letter to his students, especially those who may be floundering as they try to figure out what to do with their lives.

In chapters with names like Kingdom.Life, Love.Life, Peace.Life, Sex.Life, Vocation.Life, and Eternity.Life, his approach both stylistically and narratively seems geared toward a youthful audience. He tells stories about his students and then proceeds to answer the questions these stories pose or advocate the big living they demonstrate.

In the chapter called Justice.Life, he writes: “When I hear Christians describe the Christian life as little more than soul development and personal intimacy with God … I have to wonder if Christians even read their Bibles.” And in the promotional material, McKnight says, “Jesus offers to us a kingdom dream that transforms us to the very core of our being. His vision is so big we are called to give our entire life to it. His vision is so big it swallows up our dreams.”

One.Life exhorts readers to live up to their Christian calling.

There’s a section in the chapter on Vocation.Life that is classic McKnight. He quotes from two members of evangelical tribe who don’t exactly represent consensus in a way that makes a beautiful point about our interdependence while subtly reminding evangelical readers that our diverse members all belong the same spiritual family. He writes:

“When Rob Bell and John Piper, two famous pastors, speak of sex as ‘this is that,’ meaning sexuality points us toward spirituality (Bell) or ‘the mystery of Christ and the Church’ (Piper) they are tapping into the deepest mystery of life by connecting what we get to do—marriage and sex and love—to who God is. This deep mystery of life reveals that life itself is personal. The deepest dimension of the kingdom dream and of life itself is that we are persons who dwell with other persons, and only in loving others do we tap into the core of that mystery. When we do, we know it.”

So while John Piper unhelpfully tweets “Farewell Rob Bell.” in response to promotional videos for Bell’s latest book and Bell ignores him and other critics, McKnight takes the high road that defines his work and that faithful Christian living requires.

On the topic of hell that is at the center of Piper’s disagreement with Bell, McKnight writes,

“I believe in heaven. I believe in heaven because Jesus did and I hope I believe in heaven as Jesus did. I believe in heaven because I believe in justice, in peace, and in love. …I don’t, however, believe ‘heaven’ is forever and ever. I believe that what is forever and ever is called the New Heavens and the New Earth, the time and the place where heaven comes down to earth. The New Heavens and the New Earth will be the fullness of flourishing.

But belief in the New Heavens and the New Earth also means I believe in hell. I believe in hell because Jesus did. And I hope I believe in hell as Jesus believed in hell. I believe in hell because I believe in justice, in peace, and in love. But I don’t believe hell is a gassy furnace where humans are scorched forever and ever and ever and ever. …I don’t believe in Dante’s hell or in God as the grand torturer. Hell will be the end of flourishing.”

To find out more about what McKnight thinks the afterlike will be like and what it means to live the One.Life you’ve been given as God intended, you’ll have to read his book for yourself. He does say this, however: “I’ve aged enough to wonder what’s on the other side and I’ve come to this conclusion: ‘If you’ve got One.Life and if there is a life after death, and if that life is ‘forever and ever,’ then I want to live now in light of the longer stretch of life.”

Me too Scot. Me too.

Training Elite Athletes with a Jersey Shore Ethos @NJShorePatch

How performance coach Todd Durkin uses hometown lessons to lead elite athletes to victory:

The first time I met superstar performance coach Todd Durkin he was on his bike, slinging a newspaper across my family’s front lawn. Then his sister and I married a couple of Bricktown brothers and we became family. Last week, for the second time in two years, one of Durkin’s clients led a team to victory in the Superbowl.

In an interview with Yahoo! Sports this week, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers talked about what a tough and effective trainer Durkin is. In the forward to Durkin’s new book,The Impact! Body Plan, last year’s winning quarterback Drew Brees credits the trainer with helping him grasp the elusive trophy. While Durkin expresses gratitude to these and other professional athletes for helping to make him a success, it’s his family and legendary Brick Dragons football coach Warren Wolf who get top billing in the acknowledgements. …

Read the whole thing here. …

Lessons from Elite Leaders: Mentors, Money, & Personal Devlopment, Part 2 of 8 @TheHighCalling

In part 2 of my series on lessons from elite leaders, I take on the thorny topic of leveraging relationships to one’s own advantage. Here’s a peek:

If you want to be an elite leader, you’ll need mentors, money, and personal development. Building upon research reported in his Pulitzer Prize nominated book, Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite, Laity Leadership Institute Senior Fellow and Rice University sociologist D. Michael Lindsay mined this startling new data about the factors that help elite leaders advance in their careers. In his new PLATINUM Study (PLATINUM stands for Public Leaders in America Today the Inquiry into their Networks, Upbringing, and Motivations), Lindsay reports that mentors, money, and personal development are vital to career growth. …

Find out how at The High Calling. Part 1 on limts, accountability, and marriage is here. Be sure to peruse the comments; there’s some good discussion going on.

Lessons from Elite Leaders: Limits, Accountability & Marriage @TheHighCalling

D. Michael Lindsay is a Senior Fellow at Laity Leadership Institute. He is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Rice University and author of the Pulitzer Prize nominated Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite. For this eight part series of lessons from elite leaders, I talked to Lindsay about his new Platinum Study, for which he has interviewed 500 elite leaders. Here’s how the first article begins:

Setting limits on ambition, being accountable to peers, and getting married don’t seem like the keys to career success. But these are three surprising longevity factors that Laity Leadership Senior Fellow D. Michael Lindsay found in his latest research on elite leaders. The Rice University sociologist has interviewed 500 leaders to date, including two former Presidents of the United States, cabinet secretaries, senior White House staff, Fortune 500 executives, and professionals from entertainment, non-profit, and media. He talked with leaders in each area about the personal, moral, and social factors that have sustained them over the course of their careers. …

Read the rest here, and look for the rest of the series on Monday afternoons at The High Calling.

Seeing ‘The Invisible’ @UrbanFaith

If the poor will always be with us, as Jesus said, then why don’t we always see them? Learning from “the least of these” with author and urban ministry leader Arloa Sutter.

Two stories stand out in Arloa Sutter’s new book, The Invisible: What the Church Can Do to Find and Serve the Least of These. The first is about a man named Irving Wasserman, who was a recipient and giver of grace at Breakthrough Urban Ministries, the organization that Sutter founded to serve homeless men, women, and children in Chicago. Wasserman was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a young man. He looked and acted like the kind of homeless person many of us would avoid: dirty, profane, volatile. But Sutter invited him into Breakthrough’s community center one day for a cup of coffee and gradually learned that he wasn’t homeless, just very much alone and extremely frugal. …
Sutter’s frozen lamb metaphor is a memorable one; you can read about it and more here.

Connoisseur for Christ: Roberta Green Ahmanson @Christianity Today

Roberta in her office

Roberta Ahmanson in her office, which is in one of three Ahmanson homes that I visited.


In its 2005 list of the 25 most influential U.S. evangelicals, Time magazine described former religion reporter Roberta Green Ahmanson and husband Howard simply as “The Financiers.” Indeed, that is what they are. But these are no ordinary philanthropists. Roberta, 61, and Howard, 60, are among a rare breed of donor who invests as much intellectual and emotional capital in the projects they support as their Fieldstead and Company philanthropy does vast sums of money. (One source who declined to be identified estimates Fieldstead’s annual giving in the low eight figures based on its projects and staff size.) While Howard’s name is at the fore of their notoriety, as heir to his father’s H. F. Ahmanson & Co. savings and loan fortune, Roberta’s passion and intellect have shaped a good deal of their giving in the
quarter century they’ve been married.

Consider Fieldstead’s $20 million investment into Roberta’s hometown of Perry, Iowa. It was Roberta’s vision that led to an elaborate restoration of the historic Hotel Pattee and the installation of an iconic downtown gateway by acclaimed sculptor Albert Paley. So too did Roberta’s vision secure Paley gates at the Orange County Rescue Mission’s Village of Hope in Tustin, California— and at the Ahmansons’ meticulously designed beachfront home in Corona del Mar. Orange County Register sources valued the home at $30–$35 million last January.

The Ahmansons’ critics focus on their support for conservative causes like Proposition 8 (their donations totaled approximately $1.4 million in 2007–2008), and for conservative thinkers like the late and much reviled Christian Reconstructionist Rousas John Rushdoony. The secular media especially have made and repeated these criticisms over the past decade.

For example, in a scathing 2004 Salon profile of Howard, “Avenging Angel of the Religious Right,” Max Blumenthal took pains to show that the Ahmansons’ ultimate goals are theocratic, a charge that has been widely disseminated. Roberta at once denies and defends the claim: “I never was, and I don’t know if Howard ever was either. I’m afraid to say this, but also, what would be so bad about it?”

Blumenthal wrote, “[Howard’s] money has made possible some of the most pivotal conservative movements in America’s recent history, including the 1994 gop takeover of the California Assembly, a ban on gay marriage and affirmative action in California, and the mounting nationwide campaign to prove Darwin wrong about evolution. . . . And besides contributing cash to George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign, Ahmanson has played an important role in driving Bush’s domestic agenda by financing the career of Marvin Olasky, a conservative intellectual whose ideas inspired the creation of the new White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.”

Meanwhile, Blumenthal described Roberta as a “warm refreshingly humorous . . . spokesperson and indefatigable guardian” of her husband. But he failed to either understand or to communicate the depth of her contribution to their work.

Howard, who has Tourette syndrome, rejects Blumenthal’s portrayal of his marriage. So do numerous sources who know the Ahmansons well and describe them as equals. “Sometimes [Roberta] has to confront me when I have Tourette-related issues,” said Howard, “but she is not really a ‘caretaker.’ ” Roberta added that the Salon profile was “full of lies” and won numerous corrections.

Furthermore, critics and supporters alike may be surprised to learn that Ahmanson is not opposed to domestic partnership rights for homosexuals. She said, “Marriage is something that has had a long definition in history. . . . The thing I’m most concerned about is that religious institutions maintain their freedom of association and their freedom of religious practice. The Catholic Church, for example, should not have to perform same-sex marriages.” After Proposition 8 was overturned, she said, “Everyone knew how the judge would rule. It’s headed for the Supreme Court. Always was.”

In 2005, The Guardian ran a sensational article titled, “Anti-Gay Millionaire Bankrolls Caravaggio Spectacular,” covering an exhibit sponsored by the Ahmansons at London’s National Gallery. The writer repeated many of Blumenthal’s charges and likewise failed to communicate Roberta’s primary role in the project, not to mention her deep commitment to the arts.

DISCOVERING REALITY

I became familiar with the Ahmanson name not through Time or Salon but at St. James Anglican Church in Newport Beach, where the couple was lauded for investing in the church’s legal dispute with the Episcopal Church. Howard and Roberta were members for a dozen years before joining Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, and although Roberta is currently between churches, she describes former St. James rector David Anderson, president and ceo of the American Anglican Council, as her pastor.

Meeting Roberta for the first time last winter, when she was in New York speaking at the International Arts Movement’s Encounter conference, I too found her to be a warm and generous conversationalist. Our discussion quickly turned from art and philanthropy, topics she covered in her conference talk, to mutual friends to the bipolar diagnosis that she and a member of my family share.

The interview led to a three-day stay at the Ahmanson guesthouse, where conservative luminaries like Anderson, Olasky, Thomas Oden, and Terry Mattingly had stayed before me. The well-appointed, art-filled home is located around the corner from the main residence and across the street from another that houses their private offices and Roberta’s extensive dish collection. On the weekend of my visit, Howard was driving Roberta’s red Range Rover to Hillsdale College in Michigan to collect their son David, who was completing his freshman year after a tutor-led primary education. Roberta stayed behind to host a lecture by Dallas Willard at their home. Afterward, she would meet her family in Michigan to begin a classic cross-country road trip before flying to Rome, where she would speak at a conference on Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand’s philosophy of love. Next, they would return home and host a week-long celebration of the completion of their elaborate three-year home reconstruction, the subject of The Orange County Register’s interest.

To say Ahmanson’s passion for art permeates every space she inhabits is to underestimate her commitment. As we toured the main house, her running commentary on its extensive collection rivaled anything an art historian might offer. Although she was fighting a cold during frenzied preparations, she picked me up in Howard’s Toyota sedan to tour the Village of Hope, a traditional housing program whose Paley gates, sculpture, and stained glass showcase her artistic vision.

Ahmanson chairs the board of the five-year-old Museum of Biblical Art (mobia) in nyc and belongs to the Collectors Committee at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. She began arranging furniture and pictures when she was a young child and fell in love with painting in eighth grade, but love of art is not what drives her. Her life’s primary animating force was found in her strict Regular Baptist upbringing: her desire“to know if there was a God and if it mattered.”

She found the answer “painfully” at Calvin College, from which she graduated in 1972 before earning an M.A. in English at the University of Michigan in 1974. “When I was 21, I admitted that there was a God and that I believed Christianity was true, that it was the best description of reality. That’s how I think of it, and if there were a better description of reality, I hope, with C. S. Lewis, that I would embrace it. But it keeps proving itself to fit.

“Once you start on that path, you want to understand the world. It connects to my journalism, because what we believe shapes what we do. It shapes the art we create, the buildings we create, the institutions we create, the governments we create. All those things grow out of what we believe to be the nature of reality. So it’s the biggest question.”

Ahmanson taught (unsuccessfully, she says) in Canada before moving to California to pursue journalism. At Calvin, she had become aware of the biblical theme that we become what we worship. “We worship dead things, we become dead. We worship the living God, we become alive,” she says.
“And one of the attributes of that living God is beauty. Beauty leads us to him. We really cannot live without it.”

A mutual friend introduced her to Howard in 1984, when she was working at The Orange County Register. They married two years later. Conversations with people who minister to the poor taught her that beauty can inspire the downtrodden to improve their lives. Additionally, she says, “We live in an increasingly visual age, one in which art museums have become the new temples, art an alternative to religion. Art can serve God or be an idol. Given who God made me, it seemed that I had a responsibility to get involved in the work and the larger conversation.”

main house chapel

Stained glass window in the courtyard chapel of the Ahmanson’s oceanfront home.

This is not to say that the art she supports is saccharine or safe. Quite the contrary. The Caravaggio exhibit featured work from the 16th-century painter’s final years, after he had murdered an associate. The same newspaper that vilified its sponsors published an admiring review that said, “There is a frisson of the transgressive about Caravaggio’s art, a morbidity as much spiritual as it is—to modern eyes—sexual and social.”

Dawson Carr, the exhibit’s curator, researched online about the Ahmansons after they had approached the museum to fund Christian exhibits. The art historian was apprehensive about what he found. “I got all of the ins and outs and ups and downs and vitriol and the like, and I just thought to myself, Oh my goodness, what is this going to be like?” He discovered that the couple “may be doctrinally conservative, but in point of fact these are not ignorant, mean-spirited, nasty people the way they’re often portrayed.”

Carr also says their sponsorship of Christian art is vital and that they never tried to influence the content or presentation of the show. mobia director Ena Heller echoes Carr’s sentiments. “I have learned, sometimes the hard way, that when it comes to religion, people get very personal, very defensive, and slightly illogical, and I have never seen that with Roberta.”

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN VISION

Early in their marriage, the Ahmansons befriended Methodist theologian Tom Oden. Some 20 years ago, as they were sitting on their front porch overlooking the Pacific, Roberta asked Oden a question that would lead to one of their most significant projects: “What do you want to do with the
rest of your life?” He was taken aback, but had been thinking for several years about a major scholarly project on the ancient church fathers’ Bible commentary. He recalls, “Right quickly I said, ‘Well, this is the project that if I really could do it, I would feel I’d been most useful.’ ”

InterVarsity Press publisher Robert Fry- ling describes the resulting 29-volume Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series,co-funded by Fieldstead, as “the most significant publishing project in the history of InterVarsity Press.” He says it has been acclaimed by evangelical, mainline Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic leaders, including two popes. “This extraordinary series would not have been possible without Howard and Roberta.” Meanwhile, the Ahmansons are funding another Oden project, the Center for Early African Christianity, whose mission is “to educate African leadership in the depth of African intellectual literary achievements, especially those from the Christian tradition of the first millennium.”

Roberta’s passion for journalism began when she was in high school and has continued throughout her life. She co- authored Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion, and Fieldstead funds two projects that relate to this interest and involve Roberta’s longtime friend Mattingly: the GetReligion blog of the Media Project and the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities’ Washington Journalism Center, which Mattingly directs.

Mattingly, for one, doesn’t think Roberta was fundamentally changed by marrying into great wealth. “The lady still reads like a tornado. She’s obsessed with the same kind of artistic and cultural and political and religious stuff. The same person that I knew as a reporter, chasing people around asking questions about all that, is frankly the same person that I know today.”

Roberta at Village of Hope in front of sculpture she commissioned

Roberta Ahmanson at The Village of Hope in Tustin, California, where she and Howard donated art and other ammenities.

When pressed, Ahmanson describes herself as a “Reformed Anglo-Catholic” and a philosophical realist. Two-thirds of the way through 2010, she had already read 74 books in the categories Mattingly mentioned, among them William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain: A Journey among the Christians of the Middle East; Willard’s Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge; volumes in the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series; James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World; several books on the arts; several by Pope Benedict XVI; and the fiction of Frank Tallis, Jaqueline Winspear, and Henning Mankell.

Like Mattingly, Olasky knew Ahmanson before she married Howard. When they met, he was an associate journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin working on an article for Eternity magazine. Fieldstead solicited Olasky’s help editing the Turning Point Christian Worldview Series, a 16-book collection that was co-published with Crossway Books. The Ahmansons went on to help finance (to various degrees) Olasky’s summer writing sabbaticals, international research trips, a James Madison Fellowship at Princeton University, and World Magazine, of which Olasky is editor in chief.

The second of the Turning Point books, on international poverty, emerged from a series of meetings that Fieldstead sponsored in Villars, Switzerland, and then at their California home. The meetings, Olasky says, also informed his thinking about domestic poverty and led to his influential book The Tragedy of American Compassion. Newt Gingrich commended the book in his 1995 inaugural address as Speaker of the House of Representatives, and former President George W. Bush, in the foreword to Olasky’s Compassionate Conservatism (2000), described him as “Compassionate Conservatism’s leading thinker.”

As Blumenthal noted, Howard and Roberta also have strong ties to intelligent design, which purports that life on earth is best explained by reference to a creator. “We are probably the single largest supporter of the intelligent design movement, and have been since the beginning,” said Roberta. Her perspective on theistic evolution is unflinching: She rejects it because it “legit-imates naturalism as the mode of understanding reality.” Even so, she is not a seven-day creationist, and Fieldstead funds projects at institutions that promote evolution (see “Where Does Their Money Go?” sidebar).

Ahmanson is equally un-flinching in her defense of Rushdoony, controversial in part for his belief that the Levitical laws should be applied in modern society. Roberta claims he wasn’t “the ogre” he was made out to be and explains his theodicy as a response to his family’s flight from the Armenian genocide in Turkey. “His whole life project was to try to figure out what could protect you. In the end, he came down to the only thing that is solid is God’s law. Well, you say the word law in the 20th or 21st century, and people break out in a rash.”

Peb Jackson, the principal of Jackson Consulting Group, has known the Ahmansons throughout their marriage. When I asked him about their connection with Rushdoony, he said he hadn’t thought about it in years, but, upon reflection, said, “I think they were perhaps a little bit zealous in reference to their powerful support for Rushdoony in that effort. It’s really a reflection of the passion that they bring to wanting to focus on the forces in culture and society and faith, and wanting to use their God-given resources to influence those forces.”

When asked if it bothers her that their philanthropy is often overshadowed by criticism of their activism, Ahmanson said, “It used to bother me. My husband, for one thing, became a Democrat [in 2009], and he’s much more complicated than this kind of cardboard figure that they try to create. Even The Guardian must have figured it out, because they didn’t do any scare kind of stories about ‘The Sacred Made Real’ exhibit we sponsored at the same museum [in 2010]. They just left it alone, and the show got nothing but rave reviews, including one in The Guardian.”

Fred Smith, founder of the Christian philanthropy group The Gathering, says the Ahmansons are generally ten years ahead of their peers in Christian philanthropy. He mentions their foundational support of the pro-life movement in the 1980s, as well as their art patronage and interest in the early church. Smith thinks people don’t realize how much Roberta has changed. When he first met her, he says, “She would get angry and just kind of stomp out of the room figuratively and say, ‘You guys are never going to get it.’ I think over the years, she’s learned to temper that a great deal.”

Smith attributes some of Roberta’s early frustration to the transition from religion reporter to wealthy patron. “In some ways, she responded by saying, ‘Now I have a bully pulpit,’ and then went through some of the painful experiences of finding out that you can burn some bridges with this new bully pulpit until you get comfortable with it.” He adds, “I think everybody assumes that wealth brings perfection and omniscience. Sometimes the wealthy foster that myth as much as anybody. She’s had to grow up and stumbled around some in that, but I think she’s growing up. She’s not against things as much as she’s now for things. I think that’s made a big difference.”

Roberta Ahmanson is a force of nature. She brings intelligence, passion, conviction, and energy to the projects she pursues, and yet, she is defined even here in terms of Howard; with characteristic mirth, she declares she is amused by this fact. “Well, I am his wife and it’s a very important part of my life,” she offers. But she is so much more.


Where Does Their Money Go?

Roberta Ahmanson identified her and her  husband’s most significant beneficiaries:

• The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture
• The Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture
• The Center for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia
• Orange County Rescue Mission’s Village of Hope
• Perry, Iowa (Roberta’s hometown)
• The Museum of Biblical Art
• Faculty development grants at Biola University
• The Center for Early African Christianity at Eastern University
• The Pacific Symphony’s Class Act Program
• The National Endowment for the Arts intern sponsorship in the chairman’s office
• The Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project
• The Christian Community Development Association
• Food for the Hungry

Recent 990 tax forms for the Ahmanson Charitable Community Trust and Fieldstead and Company include donations to:

• Pepperdine University
• Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation
• International Arts Movement
• Association for Community Education
• Breast Cancer Awareness Foundation
• World Food Prize Foundation
• Heartland Film Festival
• map International
• Trinity Christian Community (New Orleans)
• The Media Project


*This article first appeared in the January 2011 issue of Christianity Today.

The High Calling of Journalism: A Candid Interview with Philip Yancey @The High Calling

Philip Yancey is the author of 20 books that have sold more than 15 million copies in 35 languages. Thirteen of his books have won Gold Medallion awards from the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA) and two, The Jesus I Never Knew and What’s So Amazing About Grace? were selected as ECPA Book of the Year. Yancey worked as a journalist for 20 years. He was editor and eventually publisher of Campus Life magazine. For many years, he wrote a monthly column for Christianity Today and still serves the magazine as Editor at Large. Yancey lives with his wife in Colorado, but travels internationally in search of compelling faith stories. The High Calling interviewed him about his vocational calling and his latest book, What Good Is God? Here’s a bit of the interview:

Christine SchellerWhat Good Is God? seems like a different book to me than your previous books.  I don’t recall you ever doing a collection of speeches with commentary before.

Philip Yancey:  I couldn’t find a model of a book that had combined journalism and related speeches in context.  So, it may be a different book, period.

Christine Scheller:  How did you come up with the idea?

Philip Yancey:  It came about after my wife Janet and I were involved in the Mumbai situation that I wrote about in the last chapter.  I was scheduled to speak downtown the night of the terrorist attacks in which 175 people died.  Our meeting was canceled, of course.  Instead, a smaller group of people spontaneously came together in a church and asked me to speak to them.  I looked out over that shocked and grieving audience—what could I say?

It was such a traumatic experience. When we left, I realized that I’ve been in all sorts of interesting situations.  It actually reflects what has happened to my career apart from my desires.  I feel most comfortable as a journalist taking notes, interviewing people and writing. I’ve done it for so long and have had so many books published that people started seeing me as a content person, as someone who could guide them. This was an identity crisis for me about ten years ago.  One way I resolved it was to accept overseas assignments, because I just don’t like the celebrity culture in the United States. Internationally, people are very grateful to have someone come and speak.  Because of the conditions in the places I visit, I generally don’t feel like I’m being pampered. So, it seemed like a healthier way to handle the success I’ve found in writing. …

Read the whole thing here.

Prosperity Gospel: Will Jesus Buy Me a Double Wide or What? @TheHuffingtonPost

I had a great time interviewing Karen Zacharias for this article. She’s not only a wonderful storyteller who writes about things that matter, she’s also feisty, generous, and smart. You should read her book; it’s engaging and thoughtful. I’m following it up with her memoir: After the Flag Has Been Folded: A Daughter Remembers the Father She Lost to War—and the Mother Who Held Her Family Together. Here we are, two incredulous faith-filled women, taking on the prosperity preachers:

In her new book, Will Jesus Buy Me A Double-Wide? (‘Cause I Need More Room For My Plasma TV), veteran journalist Karen Spears Zacharias takes on prosperity gospel hucksters. What began as a humorous look at a troubling phenomenon took a serious turn when the U.S. economy tanked in 2008, and another when Zacharias lost her job. Prosperity preaching wasn’t just something to report on; it was a personal attack on her faith.

I know what that’s like. After Janet Jackson scandalized U.S. audiences by exposing her breast at the 2004 Superbowl, I wrote an essay on the indecency of Christian television. In it, I critiqued a married televangelist couple’s shows. A producer from one of those shows invited me to be a guest for what she thought would be a “lively discussion.” I politely declined. The host e-mailed me directly. She took me to task, saying my article was misleading and that I was pompous. Never mind that she had claimed gold was literally raining down in her studio in one of the episodes I examined. She wrote, “The bottom line is that you have a small theological box that you live in and it wouldn’t matter what I said because until you open your mind and heart to the supernatural things of God, you will be quite content writing your cynical judgmental articles and watching your public television station,” which her network was suing to purchase against its wishes.

In her trumped up thinking, the fourth estate is spiritually bankrupt. I don’t see that any more than I saw the gold on my TV screen. Instead, I see prosperity theology as truncated, deceptive and dangerous, as do many Christians and as does Zacharias. In the introduction to her collection of stories about how people view the relationship between God and money, she writes, “It’s a terrible theology for the poor and downtrodden. When hard times hit, it must mean that God is put out with us. We’ve been unfaithful or otherwise not measured up.” Her scope is broader than any particular denomination, however. “We Americans,” she writes, “want to believe that God loves us best of all and that all of our nation’s riches are the result of our faithfulness to God. … Entitlement theology may very well be the bastard-child born from the mating of Calvinism’s strong work ethic with Capitalism’s get-all-the-goods-you-can mentality.” Ouch!

Zacharias is a braver woman than I am. She did a 700 Club interview about her book with Pat Robertson’s son Gordon. As the interview unfolded, Robertson said, “In reading your book, I notice that you don’t particularly like TV preachers and I was trying hard not to take it personal, but you’re really starting to skewer some of my friends in here.” To which Zacharias retorted, “Some of your friends in there deserve to be skewered.” A friendly debate about Joel Osteen ensued and Zacharias concluded, “When you go before the masses and tell them that their ‘best life now‘ is tied up into the things that they own, the size of their garage or anything materially oriented, I think you’re missing it.” In the book, she says, “If there’s a secret to living your best life now, it’s this: Stop imagining all the ways in which the universe can serve you and start figuring out how you can serve others.”

I talked to Zacharias as she was preparing to travel from her home in Oregon to Washington D.C. for board meetings of the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial Fund and the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Foundation. She serves both organizations for good reason: her father was killed in Vietnam when she was just a girl. (She tells that story in her memoir, After the Flag Has Been Folded: A Daughter Remembers the Father She Lost to War — and the Mother Who Held Her Family Together.)

She said, “The thing I’m trying to address here is not just about money. It’s about saying to the 14-year-old girl whose father died in Vietnam that I didn’t measure up, that I wasn’t enough or that my mother wasn’t. [There is in prosperity theology] no taking into account that the Vietnam War had more to do with capitalism than it had to do with Christianity.”

She continued, “The problem with the whole formula of God’s faithfulness plus my obedience equals untold riches is that it’s a great formula as long as life’s going your way. …The moment it all comes crashing down, you don’t have a faith because that God doesn’t exist anymore.”

One of the many compelling stories Zacharias tells in Will Jesus Buy Me A Double-Wide? is about a friend of hers who she calls “the Redhead.” After the Redhead was diagnosed with cancer, her husband lost his job. She cleaned houses so they could afford to attend their child’s wedding in Australia. Zacharias grew up in a single-wide trailer and yet couldn’t imagine herself cleaning other people’s toilets, much less envision her elegant friend doing it. The Redhead told her that she prayed for her clients as she did her work. “It’s a kingdom choice to live with a grateful heart in the midst of all this,” she said. Zacharias reflects, “That’s not the power of positive thinking; it’s saying, ‘No matter what, I trust You.’ …That seems to me to be what faith is about.”

I’ve always thought that if I could have faith in light of other people’s suffering, then I best not second guess it in the face of my own. Zacharias and I have this in common. The television host and me, not so much; she closed her e-mail by saying she was content to let God judge between us and hold us accountable for our sins. I’m pretty sure that was a prayer for God to rain judgment down on me.

Check out what Huffington Post readers are saying here.



How Far Should Forgiveness Go? @ChristianityToday

Corona Del Mar Baptism

My Christianity Today essay on forgiving corrupt clergy is now available online. It begins like this:

“Forgiving love is a possibility only for those who know that they are not good, who feel themselves in need of divine mercy, who live in a dimension deeper and higher than that of moral idealism, feel themselves as well as their fellow men convicted of sin by a holy God and know that the differences between the good man and the bad man are insignificant in his sight.” —Reinhold Niebuhr, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics

I wish I could believe every one of these words from Reinhold Niebuhr. Instinctually, I don’t, wishing instead for Dante’s hell for certain kinds of sinners—like corrupt pastors who egregiously violate their calling and never repent. In my unregenerate opinion, I believe these types of sinners should be relegated to the eighth and ninth circles of Dante’s Inferno.

I’ve read numerous books on forgiveness. Some of them lead me to conclude that the authors have never known the kind of spiritual betrayal some Christians, including myself, have known. If they did, they could never write the pabulum they are selling.

Read the rest here.

I did an email interview with Michael Newnham, host of The Phoenix Preacher in conjunction with the article. Here’s an important clip:

Phoenix Preacher: There is a point in the article where you suggest that the spiritual betrayal your family experienced may have been a factor in your son taking his own life. Could you address that and also address why such betrayal is so devastating to its victims?

Christine Scheller: There is a difference between triggers and causes of suicide. Triggers are the immediate circumstances to which suicidal people react. I am not saying that spiritual betrayal was a trigger for Gabe’s suicide. It was, however, a significant factor that contributed to the erosion of the spiritual foundations that had once sustained him. There were many other causes, too, including a neurological disease called Neurofibromatosis that is associated with depression and a higher suicide rate, a serious head injury after which he began saying he didn’t feel like himself, an asthma drug that the FDA concluded in 2009 has a definitive link to suicidal ideation, isolation from family and friends after a cross-country move and a very problematic relationship with a girl that was, in fact, the final trigger.

As to the spiritual element, the backlash we experienced at the mega-church after we had to report another staff member for inappropriate behavior with a child was only the most egregious in a long line of betrayals that I wrote about in another article for Christianity Today called “Sorrow, But No Regrets.” The reason such betrayal was so devastating to my son goes back to my first answer. His trust was violated so many times by people claiming to represent God that he eventually shut himself off from Christian community. Even at the end, though, he kept trying to reconnect. The last time was a month or so before he died, when he visited a church and talked to a pastor who proceeded to disparage his parents’ decision to become Anglicans. That was the end of that.

The one thing that still makes me angry is the fact that the situation at the mega-church exhausted and distracted my husband and me to the degree that we were not there for our son to in the way that he needed us to be. We had moved cross-country to train for and enter vocational ministry and, over a three-and-a-half year period, gradually realized that we had sold our home and the apartment building that would fund our retirement, left professional opportunities and dragged our willing kids across the country to be a part of a system that was utterly putrid.

Now, Gabriel died two years after we left the church, but there was media attention and legal action as well as relationships that continued to keep us tied to the church for a couple years. The awful irony is that these situations had finally resolved and I thought we were all beginning to recover, when, in fact the worst was yet to come. I actually view my son’s suicide as the horrific ending to the whole sorry mess.

The whole interview can be found here.

Special thanks to Scot McKnight for recommending Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower: On the Limits and Possibilities of Forgiveness and L. Gregory Jones’ Embodying Forgiveness: A Theological Analysis, both of which I cite in this essay. He also recommended his own book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others, but I regrettably only just dug it out of my storage shed.

[Note: The photo above is of Jeff and another pastor preparing to baptize a new Christian when Jeff was on staff at Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa.]

On Quitting the Circus & Coming Home to the Jersey Shore @HuffingtonPost

A while back I was invited to blog for The Huffington Post Religion channel. I had a nice conversation with an editor who I’d met in 2008 at a professional event. I sent a couple emails in reply and heard nothing back. I submitted the post below last week and heard nothing back. I called and left a message for the PR guy who emailed me when the channel went live and heard nothing back. So I’m posting my introductory The Huffington Post post here. Perhaps someone at The Huffington Post will discover it and get in touch, either to tell me that they want it and/or me or that they don’t. Either way, this lighthearted, but very serious post reflects my current spiritual convictions and my current state of mind, which is contentedly and resolutely conflict averse. So,  if you’re reading, just pretend you are at the swarming open-source site being introduced to me for the very first time. Here’s what I’d have to say:

I was sitting on the front porch of the aluminum-sided duplex I rent from my mama and daddy, talking to my chickens and looking through the rusty old chain link fence, past a neighbor’s immovable pile of junk and the port-o-potty that’s taken root in the yard of a newly manufactured home like it’s a perverse old local pine, at a kid in a hunter green pick-up truck squealing out of the neighborhood and I thought to myself, “This is why people call this town Bricktucky.” It’s an insult that I’ve only recently been introduced to, though I’ve lived here at the Jersey Shore nearly all my life.

Never mind that it’s a short two mile jog from my neighborhood to some of the most expensive beach front real estate in New Jersey and nine miles southeast to the party town where American television is creating the same kind of distorted image of the Jersey Shore and Italian Americans that Neil Postman said it does of everything that matters. There’s a Moose Lodge between me and the summering glitterati and the most prominent Italian American influence that I observe here besides the dominant culinary one is the Roman Catholic Church.

It startled me, for example, after a six year sojourn in Orange County, California, to come home and find the local Gannett affiliate reporting on Ash Wednesday services as if they were a matter for serious consideration. In the land of the mega-church, the impartation of ashes was an opportunity to be identified with him who was despised and rejected, or at least with him who was a religious sideshow oddity.

Speaking of the circus, there is the carnival that is summer at the Jersey Shore and then there is a bucolic day-in, day-out life that nourishes those who live it. The same could be said of American Christianity. The abundant life resides in a parallel universe from the carnival performances of pseudo-celebrities and culture warriors left and right. Sometimes the universes intersect. Often they collide.

I didn’t always know this. I had my favorite Christian authors and radio preachers. I heard a particularly insightful one speak at a conference once. He was getting close to retirement and sprinkled his talk with appeals to buy his books so that he could enjoy his golden years. Another one, whose radio broadcasts nourished my budding faith in the early 1980s, was, twenty-five years later, the only mega-church pastor in an affiliation of them to publicly stand by my husband and me after we publicly confronted his spiritual mentor’s corruption.

You can be assured of one thing only when it comes to successful preachers and authors: they are compelling communicators. They’ve no doubt worked hard to get that book or sermon written while you’ve been lounging at the pool (or, in my case, the coop), but I’ve met and/or interviewed enough authors and speakers to assure you that prominence and godliness don’t go together like Guidos and Guidettes. Your grandma is more likely to be an accurate reflection of the risen Christ than anyone who’s sought and endured the limelight, including me.

You need to know this if you want to live the abundant life our savior promises rather than aspiring to the fun house mirror distortion. Becky Garrison gets this and writes about it in her new book, Jesus Died for This? A Satirist’s Search for the Risen Christ. Garrison is the daughter of an eccentric Episcopalian priest. Although her father preached civil rights in the south when that was a dangerous thing to do, he also reportedly dropped acid with Timothy Leary. She writes, “Dad overloaded his sermons with countercultural slogans that were full of tolerance but light on theology. Without the power of the risen Christ, Dad’s civil rights activism that drew him to the priesthood was reduced to Sesame Street sing-alongs.” About her progressive peers, she says, “When peaceful progressives downplay the life-transforming power of the resurrection, they reduce the words of ‘social justice’ Jesus to just another prophetic voice calling people to repent.” And about herself, she reflects, “I can very easily get caught up in critiquing emergent exercises, progressive power plays, and other ungodly games that I forget to follow the living Christ.”

Garrison’s hyperbolic take on American Christianity reminds me of John Hurwitz’s and Hayden Schlossberg’s take on South Jersey in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. You remember when the main characters get lost in the Pine Barrens and battle it out with deer and peculiar country bumpkins? When I wasn’t cringing at their crudity, I was laughing myself silly at the duo’s depiction of my sacred soil, because it was so obviously rooted in a wry love of home. (Hurwitz and Schlossberg are natives of semi-rural Randolph, New Jersey). Likewise, Garrison’s skewering of the religious carnival is rooted in her love for the real thing and the bitter experience of seeing the spotlight shine so brightly on the center ring.

So, just remember, next time you’re reading that new spiritual memoir (or any post of mine): if the message doesn’t turn you back to your own life and its local sources of nourishment, turn your back on it.

Now I gotta’ go pickle those beets I picked yesterday with my mama. She taught me most of what I know about loving God and living the Christian life. That’s why I quit the circus and came home to her.

Thanks for reading.

Update 8/19/2010: The Huffington Post published an earlier version of the post. Thanks HuffPo!