A Good Rule for Christians: Don\’t Be Jerks

About a fifth of us don’t have much use for religion, according to The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. That’s a pretty sizable chunk of us—the most ever since Pew’s been keeping track of such things.
Now, the numbers are a little misleading. Very few folks—about 6 percent—describe themselves as atheist (they’re sure God doesn’t exist) or agnostic (they’re pretty sure, but they’d probably not bet their summer home on it). In fact, more than two-thirds of these religiously unaffiliated respondents, called the “nones,” say they believe in God. And 21 percent of them say they pray every day.
But there’s still plenty here to take note of. More than two-thirds of those nones believe religion is too rules-based and too political. Seven out of every 10 think that religious people are “too concerned with money and power.” And 88 percent aren’t actively looking to find a religion or get closer to God: Disinterest is working for them just fine, thank you very much.
Now, for those of us who try to take our faith seriously, that’s a bummer. I think most of us would say that our faith is a pretty nifty part of our lives. We might even say that our relationship with God is what, in the end, makes life worth living. For this and loads of other reasons, we kinda like to share our faith—perhaps a little shyly or clumsily at times, but still, we know it’s worthwhile: Just like that Mexican food place downtown or the burger joint around the block, we want to get people to try our faith. Once they get a taste, we figure, they’ll be back.
And so this afternoon while driving to the gym, I found myself thinking about what we Christians might do better to help better convey the beauty of Christianity to those who have trouble seeing it.
And then, in the parking lot, it hit me. Or rather, I almost hit it.
There, taking up four parking spots—count ‘em, four—was a compact truck. And he wasn’t just largely in one spot and eking into the other three: He had park almost smack in the middle of all of them. If it wasn’t so rude, I might’ve been tempted to be impressed. After all, it took some effort to be that inconsiderate.
As I eased my car beside the truck, a bumper sticker on it caught my eye.
“God Bless America”
it said, splashed across a red, white and blue background. And underneath that one, another read,
“Faith, hope, love.”
Now, I know that none of us is perfect. Our whole faith is really based on that simple truth. As another bumper sticker says, “Not perfect, just forgiven.”
But hey, maybe we shouldn’t abuse that license, you know? Just because God may not keep a manila folder full of our jerkish parking moments, that doesn’t mean we should should take advantage of that fact.
I know that there are many complicated reasons why the United States seems to be growing more secular. There are thousands of theories on how to best bring people to Christ and how we can be most effective as the faith’s ambassadors. An official rulebook of evangelism would be a thick and controversial book indeed.
But I think that we could get past the first page without too much controversy. It might contain just one rule: Don’t be a jerk.
Don’t swear at the underpaid drive-thru worker at Taco Bell. Don’t cut in line. And for goodness’ sakes, don’t take up four parking spots when one will do. After all, Christianity’s supposed to change us from the inside out. Let’s show that it has. 

Musings on \’The Maker\’

Where did people go to watch short, clever, animated movies before YouTube came along? I\’m sure creative people have been making them for decades, but really–who had opportunity to watch them? How many works of genius went unnoticed? Works like this?
  Beautiful. Clever. Funny. Even a little profound.

 I\’ve been accused of perhaps reading too much into things at times. As Sigmund Freud supposedly said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar–not (as I might say) a rumination of deep, powerful spiritual truths, wherein the ashes represent our all-too brief life, and the rising smoke is our daily offering to heaven, and the label is–well, you get the idea.

I think the makers of \”The Maker\” mainly wanted to tell a poignant story about a pair of weird, stitched up rabbits in need of some orthodontia. But even so, the story gives us an insight into the paradox of creation.

These rabbits, if you watch, are made of clay and fabric and glass eyes. And yet, there is something more in them, too. There is music. And music, in my way of thinking, is perhaps one of the most powerful and true symbols of spirit, of soul, that I can think of. Nothing can make us smile or cry so readily as a song. Nothing can better help us remember a time gone by or a day that, sadly, never came.

And it mirrors the paradox of our own creation. Science tells us what we\’re made of–the organs and cells and chemicals we\’re built from. Science tells us we are indeed marvels of evolutionary engineering. And yet, most of us believe there is something more to us than that–more than clay animated by electricity and chance. There is music in us.

\”The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being,\” Genesis tells us. It gets to the heart of creation, how we are both science and spirit. When I run and bother to think about how it is that I\’m running, it\’s pretty astounding how muscles and sinews and bones and brain impulses operate with such mechanical efficiency to keep me on my feet and moving forward. And yet I believe it\’s that God-given breath in me, that music, that truly sets me in motion.

The end of The Maker is a little beautiful, a little heartbreaking. And our lives often are, too. So it is with music. But I will never wish the song to be silenced.

The Un-Orthodox G.K. Chesterton

I’m a man of strange, impossibly geeky ambitions. I’d like to visit all the national parks someday. I’d like to own a vampire repellant kit. And someday, I’d like to compile a list of the “must read” Christian writers–the best, most influential Christian scribblers since Paul (Not Paul me … the original guy). It’d be a list of authors and books that have helped articulate the faith throughout the centuries and who still have something to tell us today.
As such, I was particularly excited when I ran across this short article—\”5 Great Christian Authors Who Aren’t C.S. Lewis\”–from Eric Tippin at Relevant.com.  And he started his list with one of my all-time faves, G.K. Chesterton. I love his description:
“He had an extremely unique combination of genius and humor and used it fully. He argued for Christian morality in unexpected ways. There is pure spontaneity in his writing, a disorganization that is charming. He is like C.S. Lewis with messy hair.”
Author Philip Yancey introduced me to Chesterton in his book Soul Survivor: How Thirteen Unlikely Mentors Helped My Faith Survive the Church. He actually mentioned Chesterton in conjunction with C.S. Lewis, as I recall, and at the time, my knowledge of contemporary Christian authors began and ended with Lewis. If Chesterton was anything like Lewis, I figured, he’d be my type of guy.
He exceeded expectations.
Chesterton and Lewis read somewhat alike at times. They’re both laymen who have an uncanny ability to thwack deep, theological truths into understandable pieces. Both were frighteningly smart and, often, quite funny. Lewis was deeply influenced by Chesterton, who was about 20 years older.
But in some respects, Chesterton feels more contemporary.  
Lewis was primarily writing to believers and non-believers who were ensconced in a deeply modernist worldview: The main threats to faith were science and skepticism, and thus apologists required a reasoned, rational series of theses as to why they believed as they did. Mere Christianity is Lewis’ best-known and best-loved apologetic book—a marvel that walks readers through the rationality of faith. Cruise through the Lewis canon, and you’ll find loads of books along those lines.
Chesterton can reason quite well himself. But in many ways, his voice has almost a postmodern feel to it. He embraces the crazy paradoxes inherent in Christianity and lovingly goads (to use the phrase of the sorta Chesterton-esque comic Stephen Colbert) the “truthiness” of his (and our) age. There was never a worldview that Chesterton did not poke a little. He is breathtakingly quotable: Like Kurt Vonnegut, he can leave you reeling in a sentence. He’ll toss out a quip that holds more power than many books do. For example:

The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.

Or

The word \”good\” has many meanings. For example, if a man were to shoot his grandmother at a range of five hundred yards, I should call him a good shot, but not necessarily a good man.

Or

There is the great lesson of \’Beauty and the Beast,\’ that a thing must be loved before it is lovable.

Now, Chesterton doesn’t always work for me. There are times when his logic or conclusions don’t quite make sense—perhaps a symptom of the “messy hair” mentioned by Tippin. But that’s pretty rare, really. And when he works, there might not be anyone better. And even though he spent most of his writing life gently mocking some of the learned men and ideals of his day, he did it with such honesty and good humor that he seems a hard man to dislike—even for those who disagreed with him.
When I think about the type of Christian I’d like to be—and how to live and engage in this increasingly secular culture—Chesterton’s something of a role model. He never apologized for his beliefs, but he was so completely secure in his faith that he greeted every intellectual challenge with a wink. He had an ability to find truth in unexpected places and humor everywhere. He knew that ideals were important, but he insisted that beauty and laughter and goodwill held a powerful wisdom of their own. His attitude recalls another Chesterton quote: “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”
Of the other people in Tippin’s list, the only other person I’ve had the opportunity to read is Dorothy Sayers: Tippin is right that Sayers’ language can be thick at times in her non-fiction work, but she’s a heckuva mystery writer. As for the others on the list … well, it looks as if I have some reading to do. 

Yeah, I\’d See This

So, The Dark Knight Rises is still picking up a few dollars at the theater here and there, but its box-office story–at least monetarily–has been told. Domestically, it\’s earned north of $444 million, which makes it the second biggest movie of the year (behind Marvel\’s The Avengers, of course), and it now ranks seventh on the all-time earnings list. Of course, that\’s a misleading stat if ever there was one, considering inflation and all. According to Box Office Mojo\’s inflation-adjusted figures, Rises ranks 77th, about $1.2 billion behind Gone With the Wind.

From what I hear from my publishers, my book did not do quite that well.
But be that as it may, you cannot stop either Batman or I from bestowing our own curious, somewhat twisted views on ethical behavior onto an unsuspecting world–and it would seem that others are catching onto the spiritual power of our favorite caped-and-cowled superhero. Why, take a look at the following trailer–Christopher Nolan\’s next powerhouse project, no doubt.  

Hard Times

The worst kind of pain is that which seems to have no point.
That’s what my pastor told me. Well, me and hundreds of other mourners who gathered at Woodmen Valley Chapel in Colorado Springs today to say goodbye to a dear friend.
It seems like it’s been a theme over the last few days over at the church—fitting, I suppose, given the central place that pain unfortunately takes in most of our walks of faith. Nothing can shake us more than pointless pain, nothing can rip us apart more than senseless tragedy. It’s easier to believe in a kind, loving God when the world treats us as it should—or rather, as we want it to. It’s harder to feel that love when it feels as though we’ve been kicked in the teeth.
But perhaps there’s no better place to process that pain than in a place where we go to contemplate and worship God Himself. That’s what I’ve had the opportunity to do in the last few days, and I wanted to share just a bit of that with you.
Pierce O’Farrill stopped by to chat with the congregation during our regular Saturday worship service (he was there Sunday, too). O’Farrill, in case the name doesn’t sound familiar, was one of the people who was wounded when John Holmes allegedly opened fire at an Aurora movie theater in July. A dozen people died that dark night, and O’Farrill was nearly one of them. He was shot three times: twice in the foot and once in the arm, an arm still held together by pins and rods sticking out of his skin. He could see the blood pooling around his head, and he knew Holmes was standing just inches away from him—pausing perhaps to reload. He remembers thinking, “I trust you, Lord. If this is it, I’m ready to go home.”
It wasn’t “it.” Holmes, according to O’Farrill, stopped firing and just walked out of the theater—waiting (O’Farrill says) to be arrested. The 28-year-old moviegoer survived. Now, he’s telling the world about that miracle—and how he forgives John Holmes. He calls him a “lost, tortured soul who was swallowed up by the darkness.”
It was a very different gathering I went to today—a memorial service for someone whose time on this earth was up. My friend, like O’Farrill, was ready to go home. But for those gathered in the church sanctuary, it felt all too soon.
He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at the age of 49. And, fighting a disease that claims most of its victims within a year, he survived for almost four. He left behind a wife and three fantastic kids. He was the sort of person who bought Subway gift cards and handed them out to the homeless, who volunteered anywhere and everywhere, who would always tell you exactly what he thought in the nicest possible way. He wasn’t just a good man; he was a great man—a guy you could always depend on to do the right thing every day, every hour. He loved his family, his friends and his life.
As I said, hundreds of people came together this afternoon to say goodbye. I can’t say that I knew him as well as many of those who were there. Our sons played soccer together for many years, and that’s where we talked—about our team and the other team, about work and vacations and sometimes about God. We saw each other on Saturday afternoons, sometimes shivering against the spring wind or, in the autumn, watching the leaves practically turn colors in front of us.
It was during one of those countless, casual talks that he invited me to church. At the time of his invitation, I hadn’t been a regular churchgoer for a decade. It wasn’t as if I had lost my faith in that fallow time: I had just stopped thinking about it—or, at least, thinking about it with any sort of seriousness. And he caught me in a moment where I’d determined to start thinking about it again.
I went that Sunday. And from there, much of my spiritual life followed as naturally as water downhill—a soft stream pushing through a child’s mud dam. It’s been a long and complicated journey, of course—few walks of faith ever seem to follow a set path—but I can trace much of who I am and what I do to that invitation.
In that moment, my friend changed my life forever.
I thought about that as I sat in the sanctuary and looked at the people there. Some perhaps knew him less than I did. Many knew him far better. But we were all touched by him—and, I’d wager, touched deeply. Even in the pit of his disease, he still ministered to people. It was never about him. It was always about the people around him.
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.”
That verse, 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, was one my friend sometimes quoted. He believed it and lived it.
When I consider the pain he suffered over the last four years, it’s hard for me to accept or understand it. When I consider the tragedy in Aurora that scarred so many people, it’s hard for me to figure how it could all be part of a master plan.
And maybe we’re not meant to. We can’t comprehend how God works—what He does or doesn’t do and why.
But while I don’t know where God might be in the causes of our pain, I do believe God can work through it. He can do incredible things in the midst of the darkness. As O’Farrill said, “there’s light everywhere.”
This weekend, I was convicted in the best of ways. I watched O’Farrill use his horrific experience to help others. I watched as a sanctuary full of people celebrated a life well lived. And I realized that, comparatively, I haven’t done that much with my pretty easy life. I’ve not cared for others as I should, loved others as I’ve been called to do. It’s so easy for me to get caught up in the day-to-day detritus of life and forget that, at it’s core, life is a sacred gift: a gift to enjoy, a gift to use wisely, a gift to, as best as we can, give to others.
Pain sucks, no question. But pain need never be pointless. We can learn from it, grow from it, even if sometimes others suffer to teach you the lessons you should’ve learned—that I should’ve learned—long, long ago. 

Some Thoughts on Clay Morgan\’s \’Undead\’

I’ve always been a bit fascinated with the story of Lazarus. You know, the guy who Jesus brought back to life after he (Lazarus) spent a good four days in a tomb—in a very hot climate, I might add.
The miracle itself is pretty amazing, though it’s not the first or last time someone in the Bible was raised from the dead. But I sometimes wonder what Lazarus’ life was like after the miracle. How did his life change? What did he do with the second chance he’d been given? Did his presence freak out the neighbors?
Clay Morgan discusses Lazarus and lots of other newly risen from the Bible in his new book Undead: Revived, Resuscitated, Reborn, available now through Abingdon Press. And while Clay can’t provide any insight into how Lazarus made use of his extra time, he tells us readers what we can learn from him and the many other “living dead” that stalk the pages of the New Testament.
Let me offer an important disclosure up front: Clay interviewed me when my own book came out, and I had a fantastic time talking with him. We’re both history geeks (though he teaches history for a living—I just read a lot), and we both have, I think, a slightly off-kilter way of looking at our faith. I don’t know Clay that well, but after reading his book, it almost feels as though we’re friends.
But maybe that’s the charm of Clay’s writing: He lets you into his life. In the midst of some impressive scholarship he packs his book with, he also offers you his own thoughts and feelings and even hints at his own past failings—all to illustrate that all of us have a chance to rise from the metaphorical dead and live again … live as Jesus meant for us to live.  And he perpetually interjects odd bits of humor here and there to keep the whole thing rolling smoothly along.
Clay gives us insight into how the folks in ancient Judea would’ve grappled with the miracles in their midst—apart from the zombie and vampire folklore our own culture has built around the “living dead.” He talks about how scandalous it would’ve been for Jews 2,000 years ago to hear words we take for granted now: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.” And frankly, I love the way he holds up the infamously nicknamed \”Doubting Thomas\” not as a cautionary tale, but as an example of how perhaps we should wrestle with our own doubts. He writes:

Thomas did not accept hearsay when others told him what they had experienced. It\’s simply not enough. We can\’t put our faith into how other people think or feel, either. Thomas wanted to examine the evidence for himself and have his own personal encounter with the risen savior. Peter and the other disicples had the same response. When the women said Jesus was alive, the disciples thought the story was nonsense, yet we never beat them up for a lack of faith. 

It’s an enjoyable, interesting read from cover to cover. Clay examines and embraces Christianity as, I think, it must be embraced in this cynical century we live in: With heart and mind both fully engaged. 

Faith and Film: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

As The Dark Knight Risesslowly recedes from public consciousness, and as I begin to suspect that anyone who might be thinking about reading my (totally awesome) book God on the Streets of Gotham has either bought and/or stolen one by now, it’s about time for this blog to turn its attention to other things—other books, television shows, movies and anything else in the culture that contains a hint of God’s fingerprints.
But admittedly, those fingerprints are easier to see in some places than in others.
About a month ago, I decided to sit down and watch all the 100 films listed by the American Film Institute as history’s “best” (the list was most recently updated in 2007). I’ve seen most of them, but there are a number that I never had a chance to catch, and one of those landed at No. 33 on the list: 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—winner of five Academy Awards, including for Best Picture, Best Actress (Louise Fletcher as the steely Nurse Ratched) and Best Actor—Jack Nicholson at his best as Randle McMurphy.
(By the way, I’m assuming that folks reading this far have already seen Cuckoo’s Nest—and if they haven’t, they should probably stop reading now … don’t want to spoil anything.)
For as long as I can remember, I’ve heard Nicholson’s McMurphy described as a (perhaps the) prototypical antihero and Nurse Ratched as one of moviedom’s greatest baddies. Indeed, Ratched is No. 5 on AFI’s list of worst villains—a notch below the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz and a notch above Mr. Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life. Fearsome company.
But after watching the film for the first time, McMurphy and Ratched don’t seem quite as clear cut as they may to other folks.
Oh, sure, Ratched is a bit of a soft-spoken ogre, manipulating and intimidating her patients (many of whom don’t actually need to be there) to the point where they seem to have no free will at all. She’s a bully, bent on retaining control.
And McMurphy is indeed a catalyst for freedom in those oppressive hospital confines. He longs to push these mental patients to embrace their liberty—to become the men they canbe, rather than the cattle that Ratched seems to make of them.
But things get a little messy when we look at the film from a spiritual, particularly Christian, point of view.
When you look at Ratched and the way she bullies, her primary cudgel is that of shame. She shames her charges into doing what she thinks they “should” be doing.
Shame has that sort of power over us, too. When we’re shamed and guilty, we feel it—and we feel it deeply. We beat ourselves up over it. We, in many respects, check ourselves in to deep, dank emotional places and lock ourselves away, so we can mourn and wallow in our own failings. We put ourselves at the mercy of our own guilt. And since we’ve fallen short, we feel as though we should punish ourselves, and severely.
McMurphy tells us that we don’t have to be cowed by that shame or guilt. We can escape it. He offers the sort of freedom that the world (without God) can provide–unfettered freedom, unchecked by any rule, any law.
He loves the world’s freedom. We hear he’s been thrown in the clink for assault and convicted of statutory rape—an act he brags about. He encourages his friends in the mental ward to escape and go fishing with him and, later, to partake in a wild, booze-soaked party wherein most everyone passes out and Billy, a young patient in the ward, loses his virginity.
In the movie’s ethos, Billy’s act is almost heroic—a sign that the young man is shaking off his own shame and guilt and becoming a real adult, free from the rules of the likes of Nurse Ratched. He is free.
But then Ratched lays a guilt trip on Billy, invoking the name of his mother: “What would your mother say?” she tells him. Billy, again full of shame and terrified of his mother, commits suicide—slashing his throat with a piece of broken glass.
I think most folks blame Ratched for Billy’s death. We know McMurphy does, flying into a rage and nearly choking the life out of the nurse. But for me it’s not so simple. Yes, Nurse Ratched and the controlling power of shame she represents were at fault. But doesn’t McMurphy bear some guilt himself? He, after all, created the circumstances in which that shame could take root—ushering in two willing women and a truckload of booze into, we must remember, a mental institution … not the best forum to unload gallons of potentially mind-altering wares.
The world alone, it seems, gives us two choices for how to live our lives. We can either A) adhere to the arbitrary rules we make and live in shame when we break them, or B) we can pretend there are no rules at all and potentially destroy ourselves in the process. And despite Chief’s escape in the end, we see how damaging both Nurse Ratched’s and Randle McMurphy’s worldviews can be.
But in God, there seems to be a third way—a way the film never acknowledges.
Jesus really came into the world as a sort of McMurphy character, in a way: He brought a sense of freedom like McMurphy did—freedom from the sin and shame that had plagued mankind for so long. He encouraged us not to worry (Matthew 6:31-34) and not to judge each other (Matthew 7:1-5). He’s definitely not Nurse Ratched’s type of guy.
But here’s the thing: Jesus wasn’t all about freedom for freedom’s sake. “The truth will set you free,” He tells us, and that truth begins and ends with God. And with God being perfect and all, He has some ideas on what we should be doing with our lives—none of which (I’m guessing) include getting hammered and sleeping with (ahem) women of questionable discernment in an insane asylum.
It’s one of Christianity’s grand, puzzling and profound paradoxes. As Christians, we’re held to higher ethical guidelines than Nurse Ratched could ever dream—and yet we live in perfect freedom, too, that makes McMurphy’s version seem cautious by comparison. When we follow Christ, we aren’t good because we have to be: We’re good because we know God wants us to be, and we want to please him.
I don’t know if Nurse Ratched or Randle McMurphy could ever truly understand that paradox. Hey, I’m still puzzling it out. But I believe the paradox to be true.

A Messy Faith

I was reading RelevantMagazine yesterday and ran across a Q&A with Mark Ruffalo—you know, the indie film actor turned Hulk in The Avengers. He’s directed this new, gritty, faith-themed film called Sympathy for Delicious (don’t know anything more about it so far than the title, so don’t write me angry letters if it’s a horrible movie—the screenings haven’t made it to Colorado Springs yet), and he had something really interesting to say about faith and film … and why the two sometimes mesh about as well as Dracula and a tanning booth.
He said:

To have a really honest conversation about faith today is taboo in a way. You want to clear a room quickly? Start talking about God. For better or for worse, it’s a taboo conversation. There’s a lot of hangups, and people, I think, have a lot of negative connotations that are attached to it … We’re in a market- driven culture. I think they’re afraid that there is no market in these kind of stories.

Part of what Ruffalo says goes back to the old cliché … when you’re at a party, never talk politics or religion. You’re bound to make someone mad. Folks who make movies can’t afford to make anyone mad, if they can help it—not if they want to make money—so most stay well clear of the topic.
But there’s something else Ruffalo said that caught my attention: It’s not just having a conversation about faith that’s difficult; it’s about having a “really honest conversation.” Some people are leery of discussing religion and spirituality. But there are others who long to talk about it but can’t quite hack through all the weirdness that’s grown around it. Ruffalo might’ve been talking about some of the standard stuff we Christians—particularly we evangelical Christians—get accused of … how political religion seems to be these days, or how judgmental we can be or whatnot. But when it comes to telling a good story, I think one of the biggest drawbacks isn’t so much how “unattractive” we sometimes can be, but rather the opposite. We try so hard to make our faith look as attractive as possible that we forget to tell them what that faith actually looks like, day by day. We brush over our own doubts and struggles and stick with the good stuff. We tell them that Christianity can change their lives (which it can) without mentioning that, in some ways, it makes it harder. We sell it as a cure-all tonic when it’s more of an exercise plan.
There are a lot of nice Christians out there making nice Christian movies, and I think most of them can be great and wonderful in their own way. But many of them sorta steer clear of the inherent messiness of faith. It’s completely understandable, because that messiness can kinda mess up the story they want to, and feel they should, tell. But it can leave the story just half told.
But God, as perfect as He is, never shies away from the mess. After all, the Bible is a pretty messy book. It’s filled with paradox and tension and conflict and mystery. Someone with a bent for book editing might well look at the thing and rip out verses and chapters and maybe half the Old Testament to make the core story—that of God’s boundless love for us—a bit neater, a bit cleaner. And if we’re really honest, we’d have to admit that we sorta edit the Bible already—plucking the “best” stories to read to our kids, the “best” verses to stitch into our throw pillows.
And there’s nothing really wrong with that: We don’t need to explain to first graders what a “harlot” is and why Sampson wanted to visit one. We don’t need to feel guilty that Leviticus doesn’t resonate with us as much as Romans.
But  sometimes, I think we can forget how inherently messy this walk of faith was from the very beginning—how mysterious and confusing and, ultimately, paradoxically profound it can be. And so we end up not just telling half-told stories, but believing that’s all there is. And when we realize that our own walks of faith don’t feel quite so neat and tidy as we’ve come to believe Christianity is, it can freak us out a little. It can even shake our faith.
I wonder sometimes whether people would find it easier to embrace Christianity if we Christians were a bit more honest about the own messes in our lives—our problems and frustrations and failings. I know that, throughout my own strange, meandering journey to and through Christianity, I’ve always had an easier time trusting “messy” Christians than those who always seem to say and do the right things.
But maybe I’m in the minority. As Ruffalo says, we’re in a market-driven culture. Mess, I imagine, doesn’t sell very well.

And Now For Something (Almost) Completely Different

For most of my life, I fantasized about what it would look like to write and publish a book. Most of my fantasies wound up with me chatting with Oprah and signing books for throngs of adoring fans and, of course, depositing large royalty checks into my savings accou– er, my church\’s collection plate. Which just shows how little I really knew about the world of publishing. 

Also, I had always thought that the hard work came with the writing of the book. Turns out, the real work comes later, when you\’re trying to publicize the thing. I feel kinda bad for the first media outlets that tried to interview me: All my years as a journalist asking questions didn\’t prepare me at all for answering them. Witty? Intelligent? Ha! I was lucky to sound halfway coherent. During one interview, I found myself hurriedly thumbing through my book to see what I had said about utility belts. You\’d think I\’d know.
But I got better (I think) and had more fun as time went on, and while I still have no clue how many people have actually picked up a copy of the book, I know that the whole experience has been quite rewarding so far. I learned how to Skype, for one thing. I was able to write a bit for the Washington Post, or another. I met some really interesting people during my interviews–a few of them fellow writers and pop-culture geeks who sound quite normal and bright during interviews. Hopefully, if I publish another book one day, they\’ll give me some pointers. 
And while I\’m still waiting for \”God on the Streets of Gotham\” to show up on The New York Times bestseller list, I knew I had \”made it\” (or, at least, made something) when my daughter-in-law, Christy, showed me a YouTube clip of someone (who goes by the name \”Skeletroy\”) gently lampooning my book. Online mockery! Yay! 
Truth is, it\’s pretty funny–or at least most of it is. Skeletroy\’s No. 1 point suggests he might need a Sunday School refresher course, but hey. I\’ll take what I can get. That said, it might be wise to read the maker\’s warning before clicking the link:
If you\’re a very religious person and/or have no sense of humor, please watch something else. If you\’re offended, blame Paul Asay. If he hadn\’t written the book \”God on the Streets of Gotham\”, I wouldn\’t have seen the ad or made this video.

God on the Streets of Gotham, addendum 2: The Clean Slate

“A girl’s gotta eat.”
So says Selina Kyle—a.k.a. Catwoman—in The Dark Knight Rises. We never hear much about Kyle’s background in the film—not explicitly—but this one line really tells us all we need to know.
Kyle says it with both a hint of purr and growl—at once a flirty joke and horrible confession. The line holds true to the traditional Catwoman we see throughout her 70-plus years in the Batman mythos, the amoral Catwoman I talked about in God on the Streets of Gotham. The line suggests complex character who embraces each morally questionable action with a throwaway excuse. But it also hints at Kyle’s rough-hewn past: The choices, perhaps, she felt like she had to make in order to survive.
A girl’s gotta eat.
In The Dark Knight Rises, Catwoman’s getting her chow from Bane and the rest of Gotham’s current bad-boy clan—working with them to bankrupt poor ol’ Bruce Wayne and put Batman out of commission. She succeeds at both, and as a reward, she hopes to be given the illusive “Clean Slate”—a program that’ll wipe out her criminal record and digital history (no mean feat these days) and give her the fresh start she longs for.
I think the first time I ever came across the phrase “clean slate” was when I was a little kid reading a Christian Archie comic book. Jesus (the comic told me) wipes our slate clean. We’re given a fresh beginning, free from sin and regret.
Never mind that I had no idea what a “slate” was when I read the thing (my parents later explained that it was a little like a chalkboard); the meaning was pretty clear. A chalky mess gets wiped away. I’ve heard the phrase “clean slate” mentioned roughly a gazillion times since—almost always in relation to having your sins forgiven by God.
The whole “clean slate” phrase is so familiar in Christian circles that I wonder whether Nolan used it, in part, for that very reason. After all, Kyle was looking, in a way, to wipe away her sins—not just her criminal record, but also any misstep that ever found its way online. We don’t know what a Google search would turn up exactly on Kyle, and we don’t need to: Kyle is hyper-aware of what it says—just like we’re all hyper-aware of our own rather spotty record. We know the bad stuff we’ve done in our lives. We know when we could and should’ve been better. Frankly, I think we all have a really hard time forgiving ourselves for some of what we’ve done (I’ve wasted waaaaay too much of my time kicking myself), so when we hear Kyle long for a clean slate, we understand—because we need it, too.
And again like us sometimes, Selina looks for her Clean Slate in all the wrong places. She sells out to the bad guys who can’t or won’t give what she asks for. We hear that the whole concept of a clean slate is a myth—too good to be true.
Funny. My pastor often says that being forgiven for our sins seems to good to be true, too. “That’s why they call it the Gospel,” he says.
Last week, I talked about how Batman really grows into a Messiah metaphor in The Dark Knight Rises, and never is this transformation more clear or, I think, more powerful, than in his interaction with Kyle/Catwoman. Consider:
After pretending to be Batman’s frenemy throughout the first chunk of the movie, Catwoman turns all bad and betrays Batman to Bane in Gotham’s sewers: It’s a bitter betrayal, one that leads (I’ve argued) to Batman’s metaphorical death at Bane’s hands. In Catwoman, we see an echo of Judas, naturally … but I think it goes well beyond that. In a lot of respects, she resembles us. We all, in a way, bear the guilt of Jesus’ death. We’ve all done God wrong. It was for our sins that Jesus had to die in the first place. At least, that’s what we’ve been taught as Christians.
If this was just a straight crime-caper without any theological overtones, you’d think that Catwoman would be the last person Batman would trust when he comes back—from the dead, as it were. And yet he turns to her for help. Then, at a critical juncture, he hands her what she’s been looking for the entire movie—the “Clean Slate” program. Her sins can be wiped away with the push of a button. But when he hands the program to her, Batman gives her a choice: Take your Clean Slate and run … or stay. It’s almost as if he’s asking, “follow me.”
From a theological standpoint, I think this is the most powerful scene in the movie. Batman gives Catwoman the chance at a fresh start, just as Jesus gives us a slate wiped clean. But it’s a gift—a gift given out of grace—that comes with no strings, no attachments, no quid-pro-quo promises of future service. Batman doesn’t require Catwoman to help him get rid of Bane in exchange for the program. Nor does Jesus forgive us our sins on the condition that we’ll be perfect from here on out and give to the church and vote like a good Christian would (whatever that means). Once we take Jesus into our heart and ask Him to forgive our sins, those sins are forgiven: It’s a gift, not a contract.
But here’s the thing about this gift freely given: The gift changes us. It doesn’t force us to change—we change because we want to. We change in gratitude, in love. And Catwoman changes, too. Instead of getting the heck out of Gotham (as she was most inclined to do), she sticks it out. She becomes—at least at the end of Dark Knight Rises—a good guy. She follows Batman, just as Christians follow Christ, for one simple reason: She wants to.
I have no idea whether director Christopher Nolan intended any of this. But for me, the Batman/Catwoman arc illustrates the interplay between Jesus and us as well as I’ve ever seen in a secular movie.
Biblical authors often use the symbol of man and wife, groom and bride, as metaphors for Jesus and his Church. And as such, I found one of the last scenes in the movie all the more touching: Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle, sharing lunch together in a far off locale as if on an eternal honeymoon.