Thursday, January 25, 2007

"The Sinner's Guide to the Evangelical Right" Review

When I received The Sinner's Guide to the Evangelical Right as a gift for my birthday, I thought the book would be a good-natured parody of what today's American church has become, using edgy humor to point out where today's self-help, wealth-and-prosperity ideology doesn't necessarily line up with the scriptures Christians claim to hold as sacred. But what I started with enthusiasm I struggled to finish. The jokes were funny at first, especially when aimed at pastors and fringe evangelical leaders I disapprove of, but after over a hundred pages of caustic criticism of my belief system, I could only hold out hope that by the end the author would turn a corner and at least attempt to understand those he was bashing.

Robert Lanham does have some experience with Christianity, but unfortunately, he's been jaded since youth. According to the author's notes, Lanham grew up in a "strict Southern Baptist church" where "rock music was considered the devil's music" and his parents spoke in tongues. Now living in New York City, far removed from his Bible-belt hometown, he has an overtly liberal vendetta against anything "evangelical." His arrogant tone takes the reader's agreement for granted as he condemns traditional Christianity and draws shameful caricatures of prominent figures in American Christianity today. His biting rhetoric and relentless disrespect for for people and their practices show that he's just as intolerant as the Christians he condemns.

But the fact that Christians give him so much ammunition is what worries me. Lanham cites a number of disturbing statistics and quotes heresies from some of the most consipicuous evangelicals of today. Of course, in Lanham's mind, the more liberal someone is, the better. So we can't use his standard to judge someone's faithfulness. But we can examine--and cringe at--some of these telling statistics.
Joel Osteen is one of my favorite health and wealth guys. His motto (at least according to his bestselling book) is that since we're children of the King, God wants life to be easy for us, and people will go out of their way to help us. If I had 30,000 people listening to my sermons every week and a bestselling book, I might be able to embrace this philosophy without feeling my stomach turn, but I think Joel would have a hard time selling this to Paul and other apostles, and especially to Jesus. Here's what Lanham has to say about Osteen's church (p31):

-Lakewood meets in the Compaq center, the former home of the Houston Rockets, and the church spent $92 million renovating the place.
-Has two working waterfalls, a state-of-the-art hydraulic stage, an internet cafe, and 300 employees.
-Features an adjacent five-story building with its own restaurant and a view of downtown Houston.

And here's one that Lanham somehow missed. Like most churches, Lakewood has a building fund and is making a push to raise extra money to pay off their debt more quickly. Church members pledged to up the ante and pay an additional $4o million (over regular tithes and offerings) by the end of last month. Any member who forked over more than 2500 bucks was promised to have their name added to the Wall of Champions, which is apparently an actual physical structure that commemorates the "sacrifices" of those who contributed to the Lord's work. So much for not letting your right hand know what the left hand is doing.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not picking on Lakewood because it's the only church that makes us wonder whether we've forgotten what it means to be salt and light. But you can hardly turn on the TV without seeing Osteen's cheerful grin, and I can only foresee his church membership and influence increasing. This scares me, because even though I think waterfalls are kind of nifty, I don't think they're necessary for the ministry of the word of God.

Lanham goes on to bash many more evangelical leaders in the book, some of whom I believe are legitimate men of God, others who I think are wolves in sheep's clothing. Keep in mind that the main premise of the book is to give those whom Lanham calls "sinners" (outsiders and non-Christians) an insider's look at the celebrities of the evangelical movement.

And what we see is chilling. Lanham's perspective, although sometimes lewd and always skewed to the left, says that Christians in the U.S. need the same kind of gimmicks and indulgences at church as they get in the fast-food line. Though this book is not for the faint of heart, I'd recommend it for a thick-skinned believer who wants to see the sad truth of how Americans have moved toward corporate Christianity. Lanham's book reminds us that when megachurches become the mainstream, we have to ask ourselves if we're preaching the true gospel. May we never forget our Savior's words: "Broad is the path to destruction, but narrow is the road that leads to life, and few find it."

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Waiting for a Ticket

Desperate times call for heroes desperate to do God's will. Corrie ten Boom and her family were such people. These brave Christians hid hundreds of Jews in their home in the Netherlands as the Nazis expanded into western Europe. But their faithfulness carried with it drastic consequences. Nazi forces heard about their little club from an informant, and her entire family was arrested and sent to concentration camps. Corrie was the only one to survive, released on a clerical error days before the rest of the women in her camp were slaughtered.

Corrie did not squander the second chance God granted her. She has been a staunch advocate of offering forgiveness to former Nazi oppressors. Also, she has written numerous books about God's faithfulness to her family during the dark days of World War II-era Europe. "Faithful" hardly seems an adequate word to describe a God who would call a family to a risky course of action, only to reward them with an undignified death at the hands of their enemies. But somehow, through the ghastly persecution she faced, Corrie realized that it was not her job to question God's plan. She was to walk with him daily.

In a recent conversation, a friend shared with me an anecdote from Corrie's book, The Hiding Place, which helped me understand how the family remained obedient to God throughout such a perilous ordeal. Corrie remembered going to the train station with her family as a young child. She was always ignorant of the destination until they arrived. Then, her father would pull the tickets out of his jacket pocket and distribute them to the family. Corrie saw this as an allegory to her family's situation. They didn't know where their faithfulness would lead them or what it would cost, but they trusted that their heavenly father would dole out tickets when the time was right. As my friend said, if we always knew the destination, we might be afraid to get on the train.

For those of you who don't know, I'm graduating from the University of Georgia this semester. I will have two degrees and a certificate, but I still have no clue where I'll be living, working, or ministering after my May graduation date. I'm engaged to be married to Katy, my wonderful fiancee, sometime this summer. The days whoosh by quickly in a blur, like scenery out the window of a moving car. The pressures of the impending real world grow on the horizon as I near my life's next milestones. But through this time of uncertainty, I'm learning that I don't have to crane my neck to look out the front windshield. I'm content riding this college train as it slowly rumbles to a halt. I'm waiting for a ticket, and my father will give it to me when my train chugs into the station.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Radical Frustration

Chinese is a difficult language to learn, but usually I feel like its intricacies make it all the more intriguing. I have studied it for going on six semesters, and every time I hear the language, it sends a jolt of nostalgia to my heart. You see, I've been to the Middle Country four times, and I've made lots of Chinese friends. My goal is to become fluent in the ancient language, not only to bolster my chances of getting a job, but so I can speak with the 800 million Mandarin speakers in China on their terms.

But sometimes, I must admit, I feel like I've bit off more than I can chew. I'm double-majoring at the University of Georgia in journalism and religion, and last year I added Chinese as a minor. Maybe if I never wrote anything again or never cracked a religion textbook, I'd be at least conversational, but as it is at the beginning of this semester, I've arrived in advanced Chinese class having not spoken the language in about a month, surrounded by native speakers who are sure to heighten the difficulty level of the class. To make matters worse, the syllabus for the course is written in scholarly Chinese. I can't even read what's going to be required of me in this class.

Now, you may think, "What's the big deal if you don't know a few words on the syllabus? Just look 'em up." Ah, if it were only that easy. Some computer programs allow you to draw the character in a small box on a touch screen, which then gives you the definition of the word and its pronunciation. Sadly, I'm too poor to afford that technology. Let me walk you through the steps I have to take in order to look up just ONE character in Chinese.

Chinese characters have different parts, the most basic of which is called the radical. In the character pictured here, which is said to be the most complex in the Chinese writing system, the radical is the leftmost part, consisting of the dot and the squiggly line that swooshes underneath the rest of the strokes. The first step in looking up a character is finding this radical. After you've located it, you have to count the number of strokes. This one has two (or three, depending on whether or not you write it correctly. I forgot to tell you that before you even begin, you must have some base of knowledge in stroke order, length, and number).

After you've found the stroke number, the next step is to find that radical in the special dictionary section for looking up Chinese words. Next to the radical, under the two-stroke radicals column, there will be another number. This number sends you to a column a few pages over that lists all the characters containing this radical. This list is also broken into stroke number. So, when you get there, you must count the number of strokes in the remaining part of the character, find that section, and scroll down, searching for the character.

When you find it, it's not over. The dictionary gives you a romanized spelling to the right, which you can then use to look it up in the Chinese-English section. Once you're there, you finally reach the English meaning of the word. But sometimes, there is more than one meaning, and its obscured by the context or by a grammatical structure you don't understand. If so, the process begins again with the next character. You can imagination how annoying this becomes when you have something as involved as a syllabus to translate.

If I'm going to continue studying this language, I must somehow get over--or learn to live with--this radical frustration. That said, please start prayin'.