When I was preparing my “Disney Summer Drive-In” sermon series both last year and this year I found excellent resources at a “Christianity and popular culture” website called Mockingbird. From there I was introduced to the Mockingbird-affiliated podcast of Paul Zahl, a retired (I think) Episcopal pastor and theologian, and a former dean of a traditionalist-oriented seminary. (As best I can tell, he was on the losing side of his denomination’s culture war and was sent into exile.)
When I heard his podcast, I knew immediately we were simpatico. This happens to me fairly often: I sense that I’m on the same wavelength as a musician, author, filmmaker, pastor, or thinker I admire, and I feel a deep sympathy and connection with him or her. In fact, among my favorite musical artists, this is always the case. They speak my heart’s secret language.
I introduced a friend of mine to this podcast, however, and Zahl did not speak his heart’s language, so be forewarned.
The format of his podcast, called “PZ’s Podcast” (which you can find on iTunes) is unusual: Each begins and ends with a complete song, usually a popular one from the ’60s or ’70s—but, like me, his musical interests are wide-ranging. He’ll connect the song to the theme he’s exploring in that particular episode, which will usually relate to Christianity in some way. In one episode, for example, he connects the ABBA song “Take a Chance on Me” to the risky steps of faith we must take as disciples of Jesus. He also makes frequent references to obscure B-movies and second-tier novels and novelists. Like me, he takes pop culture very seriously.
He’s a great raconteur, like all successful radio or podcast hosts. He speaks quickly, with a stammer, as if his thoughts get away from him quickly, and he’s constantly running to catch up with them. He’s easy to listen to but difficult to transcribe—as I’ve done below.
Still, I hope it’s worth the effort.
In this most recent podcast, he wants to get down to what’s real. Because, in his experience, Christians of all theological stripes often fail to live as if their faith is real. As he says in this excerpt:
Coming from an experience as I think I’ve told you of attending just so many dead, desultory church services in the mainline of late—the Protestant mainline of my own denomination—in which either there’s no religion—it’s all social justice—and the entire purpose of the church as we hear the sermon and the announcements is to be a mission statement for various social concerns… It is assumed that there’s a religious basis for these works of social justice and causes but you never really get into it. Or if you get into it, it’s sort of implicit. There’s a tremendous sense of implicit.
I was hearing someone who was describing… a lovely priest in the Episcopal Church… was describing the nature of baptism and the new birth. And this priest said, “The Holy Spirit descends, as it were, through baptism.” And I was just struck by the expression “as it were.”
Does it or doesn’t it? Does she, does he, does it descend really in such a way that it could be considered a real and empirically verifiable, or ascertainable, or visible, observable experience, or is it as it were? Is it simply a form of words?
And so the character of fakery in the liberal mainstream, it’s a kind of cutting off or cutting short or just sort of assuming that. An ellipsis—that religion is true, but let’s get to the real meat of it: it’s what you do outside of religious concerns which you share with any number of cause-oriented people today in this world. And that strikes me as completely unhelpful to the needy suffering person who’s there to get some kind of stability in a chaotic, suffering, and often very negative world in which he or she is drowning.
And then, on the other hand, you get fakery in the whole world of the evangelicals, which is simply to say, “We talk as if we believe something real is happening. We talk as if it’s the real thing. But then when we actually encounter real life, well, you and I know it has nothing to do with real life, right?” I can talk about the Lord a million times, unless he has to do with something that actually matters, and then it’s a mile away…
He gives the example of one of his parishioners, an evangelical, whose faith was exposed as not real, despite the parishioner’s many words to the contrary. He continues with a recent example from the evangelical world, Billy Graham’s grandson, pastor Tullian Tchividjian, who resigned under pressure from his church after admitting to an affair.
Or the current situation with Tullian Tchividjian. Whatever we think about what Tullian says on Twitter, or what Tullian says on Facebook, or how he’s quoted in interviews today, the appalling, the outrageous compartmentalization of the way it was reported that his parish accepted his confession of wrongdoing! Unbelievable!
“God,” they’ll say, “he is with you at your deepest, worst distress. You cannot go far… so far from God. The worst you can do, he is still there, he is still… That’s where he is most present. Behold!”
But when you actually get there—when Tullian or anybody actually gets to that dark place? [God] is not there, let me tell you! From the standpoint of the people who are there, they do not see God there. Then the Law comes in, the laws of this world, self-protection, all the various things, and [makes exploding sound].
You sort of want to say to these people, “Then why did you say all that about what you said in those sermons and those talks and your acceptance that this is the great message of grace. Were you kidding? Because the actual way it came out—when push came to shove—is that there was not an iota of that message—not an iota!
So what this says is that it’s totally… it’s not the real thing. It never was the real thing…
Is your faith the real thing? Is mine? And if it is the real thing, why does it often seem as if it isn’t?
This thought creeps into my head when we, as a church—any church in my Baptist and Methodist experience in the Bible Belt of the U.S.—prays.
After all, we pray all the time in church—in worship services, in Sunday school classes, in Bible studies, in youth gatherings, in committee meetings, before every meal. But these prayers—let’s face it—often seem perfunctory. When we pray, do we really believe that God is going to do something in response to our prayers that God wouldn’t otherwise do if we didn’t pray? Or are we merely praying, as Zahl would say, as it were?
For example, for eleven years of ministry I’ve sat through one finance committee meeting after another in which we wring our hands—and I’m speaking of myself here, too—about the financial giving (or lack thereof) on the part of the congregation. “What can we do about it?” “What stewardship plan or program or initiative can we introduce to entice our members to greater faithfulness in this area of their lives?”
And we speak and behave as if the answer lies outside of ourselves: with the church down the street that followed this plan; with an expert who wrote this book; with the pastor who implemented this program.
I’m not against plans and books and programs. But our first priority must be God, right? Do we believe that God will provide for us all the money that we need, or don’t we? Is our faith in God as it were? Does God have so little connection with the “real things” of this world?
If not, why is prayer is often our last resort, after we’ve tried everything else?
Granted, better late than never, but still…
I’ve blogged about this before, but when I was in Kenya, the United Methodist pastors I met and ministered with there didn’t pray like that. They didn’t treat God like that! Watch this video, if you don’t believe me. There’s a holy desperation to their prayers! Perhaps it’s because when you have so little, materially speaking, you can’t afford the illusion of self-sufficiency. They know they can’t succeed or even survive without God, and they pray like it!
I feel like crying when I consider, by contrast, what a phony I often am! Am I the only one?
Recently, before getting on my knees to pray—because as often as I can, I now pray on my knees—I’ve told myself, “It’s time to change the world,” or at least my little corner of the world. I need this reminder—that my prayers will make a difference.
Otherwise, why bother? Otherwise, I’m asking God to do something as it were.
I’m done with those kinds of prayers. I hope!
What about you? When you pray, do you believe that through God’s grace, your prayers make a difference?