Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Tribute To A Giant

Last night, in a touching and tearful ceremony, the Miami Heat retired Alonzo Mourning's #33 jersey--the first retired number in franchise history. It reminded me of another touching and tearful Alonzo Mourning story that I recounted here a few years ago that I'd like to offer up again in tribute to 'Zo as the accolades and benedictions roll in:

When I worked at KFNS sports radio in St. Louis in the early 90's, we producers were looking to get some guests on the air. One of the ways we frequently did this was by "ambushing" (as we called it). "Ambushing" was simply calling a sports team's hotel, asking for the room of a player, and when he answered (the majority of them, suprisingly enough, register under their own names) asking him if he'd come on the air with us for a few minutes. It wasn't a fun job because many players understandably didn't care to be bothered in their rooms and could be a bit terse. Occasionally, however, there were some really nice ones, even among the stars. I recall Greg Maddux, Curt Schilling, Chipper Jones, and Andy Benes as being particularly friendly and accomodating. And NHL players were uniformly wonderful.

Anyway, ambushing wasn't the most fun in the world, so we'd get interns to do it when we could. One day, probably in '94 or '95, I asked one of our interns to try Alonzo Mourning in his room during a Heat road trip. The intern dutifully looked up the hotel number in the NBA media guide, got Mourning on the phone, and asked him if he'd be willing to come on the air with us for a couple of minutes.

"What's your name again?" Alonzo asked.

"Tim Brinks," repeated the intern.

"And where are you guys at?" inquired Mourning.

"St. Louis," said Tim.

"Well I'm going to come up there and find you, and I'm going to #&$@^!& kill you!" quipped 'Zo before slamming down the phone.

Good times.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Aslan Isn't Safe--But He's Good

From Heaven is not My Home by Paul Marshall:

If we are ever going to change this trend and become a vital part of our world, we must begin to demonstrate that there is something vital and life-changing about Christianity. So much of Christian faith today is "nice." Cautious. Pleasant. Cheerful. Often if we are interesting to non-Christians at all, it is not because of our faith, but in spite of it. Christianity puts most people (often including ourselves) to sleep.

We have only to look at the example of our Lord to know that this is not the way our faith is to be lived. Whatever else Jesus was, and he was many things, he was never, ever "nice." (The term nice originally meant silly or stupid.) And he certainly wasn't boring. As Dorothy Sayers said:
The people who hanged Christ never, to do them justice, accused Him of being a bore; on the contrary, they thought Him too dynamic to be safe. It has been for later generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround Him with an atomosphere of tedium. We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified Him "meek and mild," and recommended Him as a fitting household pate for pale curates and pious old ladies.

To those who knew Him, however, He in no way suggested a milk-and-water person; they objected to Him as a dangerous firebrand. True, He was tender to the unfortunate, patient with honest inquirers, and humble before Heaven; but He insulted respectable clergyment by calling them hypocrites; He referred to King Herod as "that fox"; He went to parties in disreputable company and was looked upon as a "gluttonous man and a wine-bibber, a friend of publicans and sinners"; He assaulted indignant tradesmen and threw them and their belongings out of the Temple; He drove a coach-and-horses through a number of sacrosanct and hoary regulations; He cured diseases by any means that came handy, with a shocking casualness in the manner of other people's pigs and property; He showed no proper deference for wealth or social position.
[Dorothy Sayers quote from Creed or Chaos?]

Monday, March 09, 2009

A Weekend With Nadab And Abihu

Because of some unusual plans, I had the misfortune of surveying the current state of Christian television this past weekend. Actually, worse than that, I surveyed the condition of American churches through television. I'm not merely talking about the spiritual bankruptcy of much of the name-it-and-claim it dreck that normally appears on TBN, for instance. Even most evangelicals are able to recognize that for what it is these days. Rather, what I witnessed were a number of sermons that had recently been preached (and recorded) in evangelical mega-churches that then happened to be televised. These weren't just spectacles taking place in Christian TV studios with gold chairs and velvet chandeliers and leopard-skin footrests; these were worship services taking place in churches on Sunday mornings. David Wells once wrote, "God now comes to rest lightly and inconsequentially upon the Church." After this weekend, I've never been more convinced of that.

Among my discoveries:

The first thing that jumps out is the amazing cultural conformity. The scenario was invariable. Instead of a pulpit (even a Plexiglas one), there was a tall table like one would find at a coffee shop or a bar. There'd be a tall stool next to the table that the pastor would occasionally sit in. More often than not, there was a studiously placed Starbucks coffee cup placed just so on the table to show that, hey, the pastor is a normal guy just like you and me who needed to stop to get some coffee before he got here. (Occasionally, the coffee can be replaced by a conspicuous can of Diet Coke. Just look at this official picture of one megachurch pastor and think for a moment about how much thought had to go into placing that soda in that photo. And then think further about how utterly cynical that is.)

Jackets and ties are now verboten. Instead, the pastor must wear an untucked shirt over jeans or casual slacks. Puka shell necklace (or some other medallion) is optional but frequent. Hair must be mussed in the currently fashionable way, even if the pastor is embarrassingly past the age when such styles are recommended.

The messages are tied into whatever fad is hot this week. One guy had keyed a series of messages to the TV show "24." (A few years ago it was all "Matrix" stuff.) Just on a hunch I Googled "American Idol sermon series." To my absolute non-surprise, it returned 22,100 results. I guess at least some of those series are presumably addressing the issue of idolotry, meaning there could even be a little bit of biblical content there. Not so with "24.") It almost becomes fun. Google anything that's popular-- including something you think nobody would be foolish enough to turn into a sermon series--plus the phrase "sermon series." You'll never be disappointed. (Or, rather, you'll always be disappointed if you love God and the Bible.) "Sex in the City" plus "sermon series"? This guy did it. "Desperate Housewives"? You bet.

Props are ubiquitous. One pastor had a couple of doors up on stage. Another had a car battery recharger stand. Beds are increasingly common as these hip pastors all give that (same) racy message on sex--you know, the one the local TV news station did a story on and that they bought billboards for all over town. Watching some of these "services," I was waiting for someone to finally put the sheets of visqueen on the first few rows of pews and do Gallagher's old act. (That sounds outlandish, but upon asking around, I've discovered that the "24" guy actually did that too a couple of years ago. As part of a sermon illustration they put down plastic and smashed watermelons with mallets. No kidding.)

The messages I watched were all mildly comedic, "relevant" (in the evangelical conception of that word, which generally means "only two or three years behind the curve") and remarkably Jesus-free. One of the messages--being presented in a Sunday morning Christian worship service--was called (and I wish I were kidding about this), "Priceless Poop." The website address was flashed frequently so you could be sure to get a copy of this message for home. A visit to the website reveals that an earlier message in this same series was entitled...ahem..."Booty Calls." Another church had recently done the series, "My Naked Pastor." Then other messages I saw were more tame. One was a very sensible sermon on debt-reduction. Another was on health and fitness. All contained moderately helpful life tips, and all were wholly beside the point for a Sunday morning worship service.

The old, hidebound, non-relevant Apostle Paul once wrote to one of his churches, "And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified." Well, I guess Paul didn't get the memo that that stuff doesn't fly anymore. You've got to give them stuff they can use these days. You need to give them life hints. Tips for better living, interwoven with humorous asides. Not all this bloody-cross, dead-and-risen savior stuff.

On none of the programs did I hear the good news. Rarely did I even hear the name of Jesus. Instead, it was all "life principles" from "God's instruction manual" about what to do. And even then, the treatment was superficial. Debt, for example, was treated as an error in judgment rather than what it really is--an idolatry problem. As the prophet Jeremiah said, "They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace." Light healing is the order of the day. The messages I saw all had one clear idea in common: God is the way to get what you really want. Your goal in life is less stress, a stronger marriage, better relationships, and satisfaction at work. And God is the means toward helping you attain your idol...er...goal.

I'm far from the first to recognize that modern American Christianity has largely capitulated to the spirit of the age. Nor is this the first time even I've noticed it. But it took a solid day of sermon-watching to remind me how bad it's really gotten. Rather than sinners in need of a savior, modern mega-church Christianity presents us as merely unsatisfied people in need of satisfaction--or even more to the point, audiences in need of entertainment. In the meanwhile, our lampstand is in the process of being removed, and whatever light is left will only be here for a short time longer unless there is real repentance of this feathery, consumeristic nonsense in the American church.

But I'm not holding my breath.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Short Takes

Hey, we've all got lives, right? (Except, of course, the hardy souls who've been keeping things going in the combox of the last post.) It's been a while, but here are a few quick hits while I've got a minute:

  • It turns out the Mr. Genius, the epitome of articulateness (such a supposedly welcome relief after the sub-simian blunderings of our last president) can't actually put two sentences together without a teleprompter:
    Obama’s reliance on the teleprompter is unusual – not only because he is famous for his oratory, but because no other president has used one so consistently and at so many events large and small.

    ...Obama has relied on a teleprompter through even the shortest announcements and when repeating the same lines on his economic stimulus plan that he's been saying for months – whereas past presidents have mostly worked off of notes on the podium except during major speeches, such as the State of the Union.
  • Here's an amazing article on global warm...er...climate change from the Discovery Channel:
    …according to a new study in Geophysical Research Letters, global warming may have hit a speed bump and could go into hiding for decades.

    Earth's climate continues to confound scientists. Following a 30-year trend of warming, global temperatures have flatlined since 2001 despite rising greenhouse gas concentrations, and a heat surplus that should have cranked up the planetary thermostat.
    I love the “should have” there. They’re mystified. But of course that won’t deter the alarmists:
    "It is possible that a fraction of the most recent rapid warming since the 1970s was due to a free variation in climate," Isaac Held of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Princeton, New Jersey wrote in an email to Discovery News. "Suggesting that the warming might possibly slow down or even stagnate for a few years before rapid warming commences again."
    In other words, it will stop happening. And then it will start happening again. Or maybe not. Where I come from, we call this "weather." (HT: Centuri0n)
  • Bob Greene has an absolutely wonderful commentary at CNN.com on the death of Paul Harvey. As I mentioned back in the very early days of this blog, I loved the fact that Paul Harvey was always still there doing what he was doing.
  • Speaking of the early days of this blog, Saturday will be the 6th blogoversary of Rabe Ramblings. It started out on March 7, 2003. And I pretty much ran out of stuff to write on March 10, 2003. To give you an idea of how long we've been around, in just the third post here, I mention "the possible war in Iraq." And Janeane Garofolo! She was merely irrelevant then. Now you couldn't pick her out of a lineup.
  • I read two books about the Supreme Court last month. The first, Battle for Justice by Ethan Bronner, chronicles the fight over the Robert Bork nomination to the Supreme Court in 1987. Though the author's liberal bent peeks through in a couple of places, he really makes a commendable effort to be fair to all sides, and I found myself unable to put it down. Far less commendable was Jeffrey Toobin's The Nine. It's a great read packed with fascinating anecdotes about the current (and recently former) justices, but huge chunks of the book are just laughably tendentious, while others are demonstrably wrong. Toobin is writing a novel using real people as characters, and he won't allow any facts contrary to his storyline get through the grid. Well-written and entertaining, yet not worth your time except as a case study on how ridiculously biased people keep winding up as "analysts" on major networks.
So there you have it. Let's plan to meet back here again on the next anniversary,