Monthly Archives: November 2009

“Did I do that?” By Jim Bennett

In Our Next Issue: Are Baptists Responsible for Climate Change? Lengthy Sermons Produce Greenhouse Gases.

            I recently found myself at a newsstand, staring in disbelief at a magazine.  I initially thought it was some kind of parody, but it wasn’t “The Onion,” it was “The Atlantic.”  Yes, the venerable “Atlantic,” founded by such literary luminaries as Emerson, Longfellow, and Harriet Beecher Stowe.  On the cover of the December 2009 issue is a photograph of a Christian cross bedecked with signs reading “Foreclosure” and “For Sale,” along with this headline:  “Did Christianity Cause The Crash?  How Preachers Are Spreading a Gospel of Debt.” 

Yes, I did. I did do that.

           For a moment I pictured myself dressed as Urkel, standing in the smoking rubble of a demolished US Treasury Building, pointing at the mess and sheepishly, nasally intoning, “Did I do that?”        
            In all fairness, the article does refer specifically to the chicanery of the name-it-and-claim-it prosperity frauds.   I have long been disturbed by cashier-clergymen like Peter Popoff and Benny Hinn, though my objections are mainly theological in character.  But to blame bad doctrine, heretical though it may be, for the global economic collapse is absurd.  (Unless, of course, Barney Frank and Christopher Dodd have been ordained and are now co-hosting a new “PTL Club” television program.) 

I'm so glad I'm a part of the family of Dodd.

 
            The article aside, however, the cover draws no distinction between health-and-wealth con men and legitimate, sincere, biblical believers.  Call me paranoid, but I wonder if this isn’t an early and mild precursor to persecution.     
            I use the phrase “early and mild precursor” advisedly.  In Islamic regions, in parts of India, and in communist nations like China and North Korea, persecution simply comes with being a Christ-follower; here in the States, on the other hand, the church has it relatively soft and cushy right now.  But could magazine covers like this one be a foretaste of the near future?   
            If so, the first requirement would be a real or ginned-up crisis – the kind that inspires mob mentality and fear.  After that, the scapegoating can begin in earnest.  History bears this out:  When Emperor Nero wanted to initiate his own campaign of anti-Christian persecution, he did it by pinning a disaster on them.  In 64 A.D., a fire destroyed 10 of the 14 wards of Rome.  The citizens suspected Nero was behind the fire.  In his Annals of Imperial Rome (XV.44), the Roman historian Tacitus wrote an account of Nero’s response:
            “Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called ‘Christians’ by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus…Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted.”        
            Nero killed two birds with one stone.  He coerced confessions to dodge the blame, and he finally had a viable rationalization for persecuting Christians.
            Maybe you’re saying, “Well, O Paranoid One, this magazine cover does hit on Christianity, but other faiths take a beating in the media too.”  Hm.  Let’s contrast the Atlantic cover against one recent incident:  The Fort Hood Massacre. 
            The Culture and Media Institute is a conservative group that monitors media trends for signs of liberal bias.  They recently published a study entitled, “PC News: Networks Downplay Terrorism, Muslim Connection in Ft. Hood Attack.”  Some highlights: 
            “85 percent of the broadcast stories didn’t mention the word ‘terror.’ ABC, CBS, and NBC evening news

ABC News reports that the gunman was not shouting "Allahu Akbar," but was, in fact, just singing "Rock the Casbah."

referenced terrorism connections to the Fort Hood attack just seven times in 48 reports.”  
            Only “twenty-nine percent of evening news reports mentioned that Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan was a Muslim.  Of those, half (7 out of 14) defended the religion or included experts to do so.”
            Remember the slaying of abortionist George Tiller?  It seemed like every news outlet in America was describing it as “domestic terrorism,” and many in the media didn’t even wait for the capture of a suspect before connecting Pro-Life Christian teachings and rhetoric to the murder. So, while the cover of “The Atlantic” whispers that Christianity caused the recession, it seems the major news networks would have us believe that Islamic jihadist teachings and terrorism played no role in the Fort Hood Massacre. 
            Am I paranoid?  I can only paraphrase Joseph Heller or Kurt Cobain or the anonymous bumper sticker sloganeer who first observed, “I may be paranoid, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that ‘they’ aren’t out to get me.”  (Insert eerie Theremin solo here!)     
            So watch and pray, believers, but most of all, trust, because “God hath not given us the spirit of fear.”  And we can be sure this hasn’t taken our Savior by surprise:  In Matthew 10:22, Jesus said, “And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake: but he that endureth to the end shall be saved.”

          
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“Back From Graceland” By Jim Bennett

The only thing missing was the aroma of Brut.

 A few weeks ago I gleefully announced that the Mrs. had arranged for me to fulfill a lifelong dream:  We would visit Graceland, home of the late, great King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Mr. Elvis Aaron Presley.
            My joyful anticipation prompted many who had already made the trip – including the Mrs. herself – to warn me not to get my hopes up about what I might see there.  “It’s not what you think,” they all said. 
            But I wasn’t disappointed.  Not in the least.  In fact, every expectation I had was thoroughly exceeded.
            Memphis is rich in character, color, and legacy; there are breathtaking antebellum mansions, magnificent restaurants and galleries, and there is the musical carnival that is Beale Street. 

Kinda like Bourbon St. in Nawlins, except with older tourists, less profanity, no nudity, and fewer con men.

 But the cultural hues of the city, vibrant though they may be, have simply been overwhelmed by the imposing shadow of Graceland.   Like Elvis himself, his famous home has eclipsed and influenced everything (and everyone) around her.  It’s as if the entire city has become little more than a glorified yard for that one mansion.  And the nearer one draws to the King’s castle, the more boldly this phenomenon presents itself. 

I have reason to believe we all will be received at Graceland.

Virtually every native we met inquired, “Have you been to Elvis’s house yet?”  (I got into the spirit of things, naturally:  Each time a friendly local asked where we were staying, I would reply, “In the ghetto.”  Eventually, the Mrs.explained that I was the only one who actually found this amusing.)         
            By the time we finally reached Elvis Presley Boulevard, I didn’t see a single business that didn’t have some kind of Elvis pun in its name.  I expected the “Hound Dog Veterinary Hospital,” of course, and “Jailhouse Rock Bail Bonds” was no surprise.  But I was a little shocked by the “Suspicious Minds Psychiatric Clinic,” and I still question the propriety of the “Return to Sender Funeral Home.”
            Nonetheless, it all made sense once we walked through the front door.  The house was quiet, despite being packed with people.  Part of the hush is due to the elimination of human guides.  The tour is now self-guided; visitors are given headphones and a digital audio device programmed to play a pre-recorded spiel about each room.  For normal people, this approach provokes silence, giving the tour its tone of reverent awe.  For the pathologically chatty visitor like me, however, this method just means that I will forget that I’m surrounded by people and end up making a lot of embarrassing verbal declarations at the top of my lungs that I would normally keep to myself, like these gems:
            “Wow!  Now THAT’S a long couch!  I could take two naps at the same time on that sucker!”           

            “Maybe I could bribe security to let me upstairs. Why, if I could get a photo of that porcelain throne that the King rode into eternity, I could sell it to the National Enquirer and recoup whatever it costs me to grease the guard.”
            “How ironic that a man who hated televisions enough to hunt them down and shoot them for sport would also love them enough to watch three sets at once.”
            It was all there, and I savored every bit of it:  The “Lisa Marie” jet; the rhinestone-spangled jumpsuits and the ’68 Comeback leather ensemble; the gold records; and all those fabulous cars.
            What was unsettling for me, though, was concluding the tour at Elvis’s graveside.  I had just stepped out of a house which, during his life, was considered the ultimate in extravagance.  Now I was faced with his grave, a bleak, tacit reminder that all the wealth, adoration, and achievement in the world can’t delay that one inevitable appointment.
            It reminded me of “Citizen Kane,” and that Coleridge quote at the beginning:  “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure-dome decree…”  Like the film’s titular character, Elvis came from nothing, yet he ascended to the highest heights of human materialistic desire.  For both Kane and the King, even everything wasn’t enough; their self-destructive appetites first embittered them, and then consumed them.      
            In Ecclesiastes 5:10, Solomon declared, “He that loveth silver shall not be satisfied with silver; nor he that loveth abundance with increase: this is also vanity.” 
            There’s a statue of Christ and the cross near the grave.  Elvis had decreed a stately pleasure-dome indeed, but it is Jesus alone who prepares our eternal, heavenly mansions. And they aren’t for sale – they’re free.  Whether any of us takes up residence will not be decided by our bank accounts or our achievements.  It will all come down to whether or not we have turned to Jesus in repentance of our sins and trusted in him alone for forgiveness and salvation. 
            Elvis’s Graceland may sit high atop a hill, but in the land of the grace of Christ, his shed blood makes the ground perfectly level for all of us.

“‘Dear Jimmy’ – A New Advice Column” By Jim Bennett

            One of the benefits of writing this column is the mail I receive from readers.  I’ve been surprised, however, by a recent spate of missives from folks seeking my counsel in their personal affairs.  After all, I’m not an advice columnist.
            Or am I?  
            As I see it, there are really just three requirements for an advice column:  (1) Space in a newspaper.  Check!  (2) Questions from people seeking guidance.  Check!  (3) A self-righteous, didactic crackpot to answer those questions.  Check and double check!  Let’s light this candle!
 
            Dear Jimmy,
            I’m a 38-year-old man.  While I was at the SciFi Expo last year, I met the Padmé to my Anakin.  But recently, she made the jump to hyperspace and is hinting hard about marriage.  The thought of moving out of the Jedi Temple (Mom’s basement) gives me tummy bubbles.  The walls of this relationship are closing in like the garbage compactor in a Death Star detention block.  Help!  –Jittery Jedi
 
            Dear Jittery,
            Help you I can, yes.  A sewing room in her basement your mother desires, but in her way your bed with Ewok sheets is.  Always in motion is the future.  Of doing your laundry, tired is she.  Adulthood and marriage, fear them not, and a momma’s boy, be no longer.  Choice of you by girl I will understand never, but die alone you will, with action figures as only companions, if this one chance you miss.
                    
Dear Jimmy,
            Please settle an ongoing dispute my wife and I are having over the upbringing of our only child.   We both love our son “Roger” very much, but we have vastly differing ideas about how he should be raised.  I want him to try out for football and engage in other manly pursuits like mixed martial arts cage matches, ding-dong-ditch, the Sun Dance ritual, and belching the alphabet.  My wife, however, is adamant that Roger must spend all his free time doing nothing but scherenschnitte, collecting Hummel figurines, and perfecting his Trout Almondine recipe for the state fair.  He recently refused to watch “True Grit” with me because the Bravo Network was airing a “Project Runway” marathon.  His classmates have started calling him “Baron Dainty Von Prancengiggle.”  Now, I don’t know what that means, but I’m certain it’s not a compliment.  I’m scared.  Am I too late to raise him into swarthy, high-fiving, NASCAR manhood?  Is there anything I can do?   –Desperate Dad
 
Dear Desperate,
            You’re too late.  There’s nothing you can do.  Sorry.
 
Dear Jimmy,
            After a whirlwind courtship, I recently became engaged to the man of my dreams.  The problem is that my parents despise him.  Whenever I try to emphasize my fiancé’s good qualities, they only point out his flaws.  For example, when I describe him as a courageous man of action, Dad mocks him for his fear of flying.  When I praise him for serving our country as a member of a crack commando unit, my mother condemns him for being sent to prison by a military court.  “But it was for a crime he didn’t commit!” I’ll say, only to have Daddy immediately remind me, for the millionth time, how my future husband and his three friends promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground, how they’re still wanted by the government, how they survive as soldiers of fortune, blah, blah, blah… 
            All the conflict is stressing me out, and my fiancé is growing tired of all this jibba-jabba.  How can I persuade my folks to give this marriage their blessing? –Wanna-Be Mrs. T
 
Dear Wanna-Be,
            Simply arrange to have your parents abducted by a band of ruthless Bolivian drug smugglers (check Craigslist.com) or a bizarre mind-control cult (check Scientology.org) and instruct the kidnappers to hold Mom and Dad hostage in a heavily-guarded desert bunker.  Then have your fiancé and his friends infiltrate the compound by posing as renegade arms dealers with military-grade weaponry for sale.  After the enigmatic, sinister leader of the cult/cartel sees through the ruse, his army of henchmen will chase your Mr. Right and his three confederates to an abandoned mine nearby.  Once barricaded inside, they can use a rusted mining cart, some pipes, and a crate full of discarded dynamite to construct a crude tank.  Blasting their way back into the villains’ lair, they free your parents and bring them home.  Having won your parents’ blessing, you and their now-beloved son-in-law-to-be jump in the van and go get on the bridal registry at Pier 1 Imports.  Your mother prepares a baked custard with a layer of caramelized sugar on the bottom to give to her rescuers as a thank you gift.  This is sure to delight their cigar-chomping leader; he loves it when a flan comes together.
            Next week’s column:  Jim’s Graceland diary!

On Dobson’s Retirement by Jim Bennett

     Dr. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family ministries and host of its radio program, is leaving the airwaves. For three decades, he has been the scourge of liberals and a trusted resource for conservative Christians; indeed, it seems people view him as either one extreme or the other. I’m that rare case who is ambivalent about him, so if you’re hoping to read either a hagiography or a broadside, you’re about to be disappointed.

     1.5 million people listen to Dr. Dobson’s program every weekday, and most Christian stations broadcast it. I cut my ministry teeth on Christian radio and I never worked anywhere that didn’t carry the show. Even a decade ago, when I was just starting, Dobson’s influence could not be overestimated. He has come to be viewed as something of a “kingmaker,” and politicians vie for a nod from him on his program; such a gesture could translate into hundreds of thousands of votes. Because he’s so respected by his listeners, he can marshal that enormous audience to bombard Congress with letters and phone calls. And he can organize a boycott quicker than an ACORN staffer can cook the books for a bordello.

     I and my fellow social conservatives owe a great debt to this man. We who grieve over the American holocaust of abortion have a great friend in Jim Dobson. We who view marriage as God’s sacred union of one man and one woman for life – a picture of Christ and the church – have a valued and effective ally in him. We who choose to educate our children at home rather than in public or private schools have found him to be one of our staunchest defenders against NEA propagandists and the paternalistic, intrusive regulatory presence of bureaucratic busybodies.

     Other groups would be quick to thank him as well: For example, those who struggle with unwanted same-sex attractions are given no hope from establishment psychiatry, and homosexual activists only tell them that the change they seek is mythical; however, Focus’s Love Won Out conferences have helped thousands see that “myth” become a reality. And he has been an outspoken advocate for parents who feel that ADHD diagnoses and mood-altering medications are being foisted on their sons, boys who were guilty of nothing more than the sometimes-inconvenient-but-altogether-normal behaviors of boyhood.

     But just like the rest of us, Dobson has his problems too, one of which is his skin: It’s just far too thin for the path he has chosen. His response to criticism is usually pouty, petty defensiveness. Not a good look for a man in his seventies. I’m just sayin’.

     And there’s something disturbing about his tendency to be star-struck by any celebrity remotely connected to Christianity. When Mel Gibson was plugging The Passion of the Christ, Dobson brought him on and practically canonized him as the apostle to Hollywood. Not long after, Gibson was caught driving drunk and during his arrest, he delivered his now-infamous anti-Semitic conspiracy rant.

     Just this year, Dobson gave 2009 Miss USA 1st runner-up Carrie Prejean the same treatment: To her credit, she had spoken out against same-sex marriage during the pageant, yet she seemed to have no moral dilemma when it came to posing for some prurient photographs. Dobson praised her for the former and had little to say about the latter, holding her out as a fine example of Christian womanhood who had been martyred by the media. I was still program director at a Christian station at that time, and we were given a choice between airing the Prejean interview or using an alternate show. We aired the alternate, and I’m glad.

     But my deepest conflict is over the times that, in my estimation, his patriotic fervor and his ardor for conservative political activism – which are both fine ideals in my book – have appeared almost to rival his zeal for the Gospel. This should never be, and I don’t think it helps the cause of Christ or the cause of conservatism.  My few complaints aside, however, James Dobson has advanced both causes in lots of other ways.

     Over the past few months, the mainstream media types haven’t hidden their celebratory glee over indications that evangelicals, especially Dobson, are becoming less politically and culturally influential. I personally feel that the celebration is premature; I believe this “trend” that they’re celebrating probably results from the combination of their own wishful thinking and their lack of connection to the America that exists outside of N.Y., L.A., and D.C.

     Nevertheless, the celebration is going to continue. Big-time scribblers and talking heads won’t allow reality to interfere with their conclusions. Certainly, the announcement that Dobson will step down in February of 2010 has made the gala even more festive for them, but one thing is for sure: Come March, the media party is going to need a new piñata.

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