gospel

Walter White and the Gospel According to ‘Breaking Bad’

Breaking Bad cast at its July 2013 premiere, s_bukley / Shutterstock.com
Breaking Bad cast at its July 2013 premiere, s_bukley / Shutterstock.com

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.

Why Wild Goose Matters

Photo by Nate Baker-Lutz, used by permission of InterVarsity Press
Photo via Wild Goose Festival Facebook page, Photo by Nate Baker-Lutz, used by permission of InterVarsity Press

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.

Loving Like Christ

Gordon Cosby, photo by Ed Spivey Jr.

GORDON COSBY was perhaps the most Christian human being I have known. But he would always be the first to raise serious questions about what it meant to be a “Christian” and lived a different life than many of his fellow pastors and church leaders who call themselves Christian. Gordon was happier just calling himself a follower of Jesus. He always told people who wanted to call him “reverend” to just say “Gordon.”

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Creating Connections by Erasing Boundaries

discpicture / Shutterstock
Paper chain surrounding the globe. discpicture / Shutterstock

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.

Modern Hymn Writers Revive a Lost Musical Art

Hymnals at a church, Alexander A.Trofimov / Shutterstock.com
Hymnals at a church, Alexander A.Trofimov / Shutterstock.com

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 Cost of Being 'Christian'

Richard Twiss teaching on indigenous worship. Photo by the International Worship Institute.

ALL EYES WERE fixed on Richard Twiss, the Lakota/Sioux co-founder and president of Wiconi International, who stood center stage at the 2011 Christian Community Development Association conference.

Twiss pulled no punches as he told the truth about the church's role in colonization: The global genocide of indigenous peoples and the eradication of indigenous cultures by requiring people to cut their hair, leave their families, forsake their languages, and forswear their drums. Coaxed to convert or be damned, indigenous people exchanged their own culture for guitars and mission schools in order to be "Christian."

On Feb. 9, 2013, Richard Twiss passed to the other side of life. For many he was a key voice for indigenous people finding a way to reclaim their culture while keeping hold of Christ. While Twiss was a primary voice of the movement, he was also a member of a larger circle of indigenous leaders, each of whom has played his or her part to establish and spread the good news of cultural reconciliation after "500 years of bad haircuts," as Twiss liked to put it.

Twiss had enormous impact on the indigenous "contextual ministry" movement. "Contextualization means to present the good news of the shalom kingdom of Jesus Christ in a way that people can understand and relate to in their own cultural context," explained Randy Woodley (Keetoowah Cherokee), distinguished associate professor of faith and culture at George Fox Evangelical Seminary.

From the time the Europeans hit Plymouth Rock, Woodley said, there have always been individuals who did not require indigenous peoples to forsake their culture in order to be Christian, but for centuries they were in the minority.

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Reclaiming the Commons

Soho Square, London, pablo / Shutterstock.com
Soho Square, London, pablo / Shutterstock.com

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.

Discipleship and Strangers: A Cup of Cold Water

Cup of cold water, Gunnar Pippel / Shutterstock.com
Cup of cold water, Gunnar Pippel / Shutterstock.com

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.”

A Gospel for the Common Good

OUR LIFE TOGETHER can be better. Ours is a shallow and selfish age, and we are in need of conversion—from looking out just for ourselves to also looking out for one another. It's time to hear and heed a call to a different way of life, to reclaim a very old idea called the common good. Jesus issued that call and announced the kingdom of God—a new order of living in sharp contrast to all the political and religious kingdoms of the world. That better way of life was meant to benefit not only his followers but everybody else too. And that is the point of it.

Christianity is not a religion that gives some people a ticket to heaven and makes them judgmental of all others. Rather, it's a call to a relationship that changes all our other relationships. Jesus told us a new relationship with God also brings us into a new relationship with our neighbor, especially with the most vulnerable of this world, and even with our enemies. But we don't always hear that from the churches. This call to love our neighbor is the foundation for reestablishing and reclaiming the common good, which has fallen into cultural and political—and even religious—neglect.

Judaism, of course, agrees that our relationship with God is supposed to change all our other relationships, and Jesus' recitation of the law's great commandments to love God and your neighbor flows right out of the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus (see Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18). Islam also connects the love of Allah with love and responsibility to our neighbors. In fact, virtually all the world's major religions say that you cannot separate your love for God from your love for your neighbor, your brothers and sisters. Even the nonreligious will affirm the idea of "the Golden Rule": "Do to others as you would have them do to you" (Luke 6:31).

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Christianity Is Not a Club

Red carpet image, disfera/ Shutterstock.com
Red carpet image, disfera/ Shutterstock.com

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.

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