Wither Walter White?
How the morality tale of a cancer-stricken chemistry teacher who transforms himself (first by desperation and then through sheer hubris) into a cold-blooded, Machiavellian drug kingpin will end is what legions of fans of AMC’s Emmy-winning Breaking Bad want to know.
But after the first episode of the series’ final season aired on Aug. 11, the answer to what happens to Walter White (Bryan Cranston) remains a mystery — at least for another seven weeks.
Since its debut in January 2008, Breaking Bad has taken its audience on a spiritual journey — following Walt’s soul on a slow, steady descent into a hell of his own creation.
“Fleeting moments of possible restoration for Walter occur throughout the series,” Blake Atwood writes in the new book The Gospel According to Breaking Bad, which was released as an e-book to coincide with the season premiere.
I just got back a few days ago from a campsite outside of Asheville, N.C., the site of the third annual Wild Goose Festival. For those who are unfamiliar with the event, imagine and old-fashioned days-long outdoor revival, combined with Bonaroo and a traveling circus. For several days, authors, activists, artisans, musicians, and seekers converge to engage in spontaneous community, share ideas and to inspire one another.
It's not every day that you can walk by a makeshift tent and listen to Phyllis Tickle succinctly summarize the history of Christendom in 45 minutes, and then wander over and pick up a vegetarian pita sandwich while on your way to hear the Indigo Girls perform. Impassioned conversations emerge all on your walk about everything from child trafficking to the state of the institutional church in the 21st century. And you're only momentarily distracted by the guy on stilts, wearing a hat covered in goose feathers who wanders by for no apparent reason.
Welcome to Wild Goose.
NEW YORK — I sat with my gospel choir colleagues, in a pew, while the host choir at Park Avenue Synagogue rehearsed a lovely Psalm setting in Hebrew.
Some sang the Hebrew text with ease, some with difficulty — a reminder that faith generally means learning a language other than one’s own.
After the synagogue choir sang in their other-language, we joined them to sing in our other-language: swaying to the beat, getting one’s body into the praise. They responded gladly, as our combined choirs rehearsed Richard Smallwood’s epic “Total Praise,” a setting of Psalm 121, which Christians and Jews share.
When two choirs from Park Avenue Christian Church and two choirs from Park Avenue Synagogue, plus some jazz musicians, performed Sunday, at a Psalms festival, we disrupted 2,000 years of animus between Christians and Jews. In the eyes of the creator God who made us all, we said, we are more alike than different, more connected than separated, more eager for shared faith than for separate and superior faith.
Most songwriters in Nashville want to get their songs on the radio. Keith and Kristyn Getty hope their songs end up in dusty old hymnbooks.
The Gettys, originally from Belfast, Ireland, hope to revive the art of hymn writing at a time when the most popular new church songs are written for rock bands rather than choirs.
They’ve had surprising success.
One of the first songs that Keith co-wrote, called “In Christ Alone,” has been among the top 20 songs sung in newer churches in the United States for the past five years, according to Christian Copyright Licensing International. It is also a favorite in more traditional venues — including the recent enthronement service for Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby.
Hearing that hymn sung by a boys’ choir with a brass ensemble and thousands of worshippers was a thrill for Keith Getty, a self-described classical nerd.
The commons was the name for the public space shared by all in New England towns. It is the root of commonwealth, a nice term for an entire civic entity, like a state, in which every citizen is viewed as a stake-holder. Its values are the opposite of those decried in the lament “private wealth and public squalor.” The commons are the opposite of gated communities.
Today, there are two crises of the commons — one on the right and one on the left. One is indifference to the commons, even starving the commons. This means the demise of “social capital” (the sum total of all social networks and human investments in a community or polity) and civic values shared by all, and their surrender to utilitarian individualism and the dominance of the market. The other is the argument over what discourse style is appropriate to the commons — what language should be spoken and what subjects allowed in public life. Hint: lucid rationality is in, religion is out.
During this time of Lent I’ve been meditating anew what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Interestingly, the only Gospel to contain the word ekklesia — church — is the Gospel of Matthew. Also in Matthew is an interesting take on the call of the disciples. Matthew 10 begins with the premise that as disciples we are all are potentially homeless in a world that has radically different values. Immediately after Jesus calls the 12 disciples, he warns them that they will be misunderstood, mistreated, and often on the road. Then Jesus gives a particular imperative for discipleship. I call it the “cup of cold water” discipleship test. Part of the discipleship marker is hospitality. A cup of cold water is a reprieve, a welcome, a new start.
A cup of cold water is the minimal requirement for what the Scripture calls hospitality or in the original language, xenophilia — love of the stranger. Jesus says that whoever gives a cup of cold water to these nomadic disciples will not fail to receive their reward. Hospitality is a Christian virtue. The writer of the book of Hebrews reminds us, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers for some have entertained angels unaware.”
On the road, listening to NPR's Terry Gross interview Lawrence Wright, author of Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief, and having recently spent two hours at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum seeing the Nazis photographed, not in the usual black and white, but in the full colors of the natural world, it occurred that the human impulse to be part of an exclusive group has deep, powerful roots in religion.
People join "true churches" for this same impulse, a motivation that could not be further from the intention of the Gospel, which, at the heart of its mission, contains the abolition of exclusivity of any kind.
Christ following is not about joining the best club, but about following where Christ leads, straight into the company of every person, no matter their situation or circumstances, in order to be a servant to them, one who lays down his or her life, like Jesus, for the life of the world.
We were made for Communion with God and our neighbor, who Jesus tells us is every person.
Scientology, National Socialism, and other cults, past or present, religious or tribal, are modern forms of Gnosticism. They say, in varying ways, "We have something (usually 'knowledge') not publicly available to everyone and you must join us, submit to us, to participate in our secret." It's important to recognize that this is also an offer of power.
For many centuries Christmas Day worshippers have been hearing these words as their New Testament reading: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all” (Titus 2:11). Grace, everyone used to know, is foundational to the Christian Gospel.
But this Christmas I’m noticing the surprising version of grace in Les Miserables, already seen by 60 million people as a musical and now as a film. Victor Hugo’s novel may be seen as a story of grace transforming in the life of the common man Jean Valjean and grace rejected in the life of the rigid functionary Javert.
As the story begins, Jean Valjean is being released from 19 winters of imprisonment for having stolen some bread to save his sister’s son from starving. But in the eyes of Javert, Valjean will always be a thief, which is his nature, because he has not learned the meaning of the law. Crushed under this ideological overlay, Valjean sees himself as a slave of the law — in a way remarkably similar to that of St. Paul, who makes grace and law antithetical. The chorus confirms it: “Look down, you will always be a slave.”
In his first job after prison, Valjean is deliberately underpaid. When he objects, the boss says: “Why should you get the same as honest men like me?” (Jesus once told a parable about laborers in a vineyard to open people’s eyes to grace.) Valjean concludes that society has closed every door to him. When he is refused lodging, the innkeeper says: “We’re law-abiding people here. Thanks be to God.” The conservative identification with the law is commonly made in alliance with God, while Victor Hugo seems to understand that the Christian vision identifies grace, not law, with God.
“The prevailing view in much of contemporary Christianity is more subjective. It tends to be far more focused on the happiness and moral performance of the Christian than the object of faith, Christ Himself.” –Tullian Tchvidjian
Personally I tend to always focus more on my problems when I am going through trials. I am sure that some of you reading can relate to this. It seems normal to focus on ourselves during seasons of suffering. When I look back at the most difficult time of my life, I realize how self-absorbed I was with everything that I was going through. I felt that no one could understand or relate. I felt alone and isolated. My focus was on trying to figure out a way that I could fix myself.
The days and weeks passed by and eventually my suffering faded away with time. But when I look back and remember those days it amazes me how internally focused I was! The reality that strikes me still today is the fact that there was nothing within myself that could make my suffering go away. I read my Bible and read some self-help books, but nothing could alleviate my pain. Was I doing something wrong? Did I not have enough faith? Was God punishing me for my sins? It angered me that I did not have the power within myself to just “make life all better”. I was helpless and hopeless during that season of life. There was nothing that I could do. I was a sinner in need of a Savior (1 Timothy 1:15).
Were I one for object lessons I’d have brought a nice sharp axe with me into the pulpit today. Because it’s only once in awhile that we get to hear Jesus talk about brutal self-mutilation as a sign of discipleship.
Growing up I was terrified of those verses in Mark’s Gospel that we just heard – the ones where Jesus suggests that if your hand causes you to sin cut it off, and if your foot causes you to sin hack that off too, and if your eye causes you to sin gauge the sucker out. I remember the summer I was 11 years old when I stole candy from KMart and then hid it in the heat duct in my room. And I remember hearing this passage soon after that and thinking how my hand had indeed caused me to sin. And then and there I decided to never steal again lest Jesus insist I hack off my own limbs.
The problem, of course, is that my hand has never caused a darn thing. My eye doesn’t cause me to sin. My foot can’t be held accountable for my missteps. If you want to find the culprit behind my sin don’t look at my hand. Look at my heart. My poor feet just do what they’re told.
PORTLAND, Ore. — Hip-hop's all the rage at universities and seminaries these days.
Scholars parse its angry and often violent language. They sift out refrains of religious redemption or clever critiques of modern culture. In some traditionally African-American divinity schools, the rise and fall of response and call, old-school black preaching, is giving way to intricately rhyming rap.
Dozens of pop culture books have been written about using hip-hop to evangelize young people, to relate to their lives and bring them into the organized church. But Monica R. Miller, a visiting professor of religion and popular culture at Lewis & Clark College, warns that looking for religion in hip-hop is a risky proposition.
"Seeing isn't believing," she says. Listeners who point to religious words in lyrics and assume their meaning, or those who spend hours trying to discern some artist's systematic theology, may be wasting their time and effort.
Her new book, Religion and Hip Hop, argues that shared vocabulary doesn't equal shared meaning, and religious language sometimes sells rather than saves. In an interview, Miller talks about religion, hip-hop, and whether and how they overlap.
The recently revealed video of Gov. Mitt Romney at a fundraising event last May is changing the election conversation. I hope it does, but at an even deeper level than the responses so far.
There are certainly politics there, some necessary factual corrections, and some very deep ironies. But underneath it all is a fundamental question of what our spiritual obligations to one another and, for me, what Jesus' ethic of how to treat our neighbors means for the common good.
Many are speaking to the political implications of Romney's comments, his response, and what electoral implications all this might have. As a religious leader of a non-profit faith-based organization, I will leave election talk to others.
Why did Jesus have to die? Was it to appease a wrathful God's demand for punishment? Does that mean Jesus died to save us from God? How could someone ever truly love or trust a God like that? How can that ever be called "Good News?"
It's questions like these that make so many people want to have nothing to do with Christianity.
Countless people filling our pews have adopted this hurtful view of God and themselves. It has led many to internalize feelings of shame and self-loathing, thinking this is what God desires. Others have lost their faith entirely because of it, unable to worship a God who seems to them to be a moral monster. Faith motivated by fear, threat, and feelings of worthlessness. How could things have gone so wrong?
When did the good news become bad news?
I was watching this recent video where Tim Keller (along with Don Carson and John Piper) addresses why The Gospel Coalition is explicitly complementarian (a nice way to say that they don't believe in gender equality). Why do they see this as something that a group that is supposed to be focused on the Gospel would need to stress?
Keller begins by saying that he does not think the issue of gender roles are directly part of the Gospel, and acknowledges that bringing it up in the context of answering a person's questions of what it would mean to be a Christian could "certainly muddy the waters."
So why the focus then? He says it has to do with how we read Scripture.
At Wild Goose, I was humbled to be among justice-seeking Christians seeking to follow in the footsteps of Jesus.
I see a deep connection between the personal practice of simple living and activism for social change. While I struggle to live justly, particularly in my everyday purchasing decisions (as Julie Clawson advises!), I often don’t live as simply as I could. Sometimes I take shortcuts, going out for lunch, driving my car to work, or buying something to solve a problem that actually requires time I lack because of overcommitment.
As Mark Scandrette points out, for many of us, our slavery to time and money is a choice. We could cut much from our lives and live more simply. We are the global 1 percent.
It’s this voluntary reconsideration of wealth and rediscovery of our Christian justice tradition that made Wild Goose such an amazing experience.
On the road?
Under the weather?
O could you just not get yourself together to make it to church this weekend?
Bless your heart. We've got you covered.
Here for you edification and instruction, are three good lessons in video and audio form, from pastors Tripp Hudgins, Jeff Tacklind and Grace Imathiu ... inside the blog.
“Oh, a dolphin.”
The speaker, dressed in khaki jeans, a blue t-shirt and flip-flops, interrupts his train of thought about spiral dynamics and the church when some movement in the ocean a few hundred yards away on the other side of the beach house’s open briefly catches his attention.
The audience of 50 — mostly 30- and 40-something-year-old pastors, the vast majority of them men, but with at least a few young clergywomen too (a refreshing change from most evangelical gatherings of this kind) — laughs heartily and more than a few attendees crane their necks to try to catch a glimpse of a dorsal fin in the distance.
The sounds of the Pacific crashing on the shore mix with a reggae tune playing on the outdoor stereo of the bar next door as the speaker, a 41-year-old former pastor and bestselling author, resumes his riff on categories of consciousness and the spiritual practice of meeting people exactly where they are.
Rob Bell isn’t in Kansas … I mean Michigan … any more.