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Book Review: Howdy Pilgrim, a Review of Jesus and John Wayne

Okay, I couldn’t resist putting a John Wayneism in the title for my review of “Jesus and John Wayne”.

Please forgive me.

The book is 309 pages of text plus a lot more pages of notes, paperback, written by Kristin Kobes Du Mez. She has done good historical work, documented her sources, and covered the time period in a chronological way that I appreciate. There are sixteen chapters, and each chapter is thematic around a basic idea related to the rise of evangelicalism in the United States since the turn of the twentieth century.

Let me begin by addressing the salacious title. This book is not about Jesus. Actually, there is very little about Jesus in it. It is also not about John Wayne. There are a few scatterings about John Wayne and his politics and how it influenced his later movies, especially films like The Green Berets, but if you buy this book thinking there will be a lot of stories about The Duke in it and how he relates to Jesus, then you’ll be disappointed.

This book is about one thing, and one thing only — it seeks to describe and explain the emergence of toxic masculinity, or the patriarchy, within evangelicalism. The subtext of the book is that we are to believe the way evangelicals embraced former president Donald Trump in 2016 is a direct result of that toxic masculinity which had been carefully nurtured by key leaders for at least seventy years. If you want a book that is all about Donald Trump and his relationship with Christ-followers, this book is not that book, as he only occupies pages on the periphery, the beginning and the end. This book is more about the mindset of evangelicals rather than the politics of President Trump.

Du Mez believes evangelicals embraced Trump precisely because he was a testosterone-filled alpha male who put women and his enemies in their place, and that is what they had come to expect from strong leaders. As such, I think she comes up short of proving her argument en toto. She may be right, but I think she overplays the masculinity politics just a tad and underplays the genuine concern many Christians have about issues like abortion, the Supreme Court, and immigration. I don’t write this to defend those positions, but I don’t think it is just the issue of Trump filling the idealized image Christians have of a strong man. I admire her attempt though, because I have often struggled to understand exactly how a New Yorker who built an empire of casinos, had a penchant for pornography, was guilty of womanizing, said his favorite pastor was Norman Vincent Peale (a man evangelicals absolutely couldn’t stand), and cursed so much in public became the darling of Southern Christians. I am less than satisfied with her explanation, but I admire the attempt.

What I like about this book is the thoroughness. It is so thorough at times you feel like it is repetitive. Du Mez can sometimes belabor the point, but that is just good historical footwork. In doing this work she weaves a coherent narrative of evangelical thought from Billy Graham’s famous Los Angeles crusade to Bill Gothard to Phyllis Schlafly to Tim and Beverly LaHaye to Oliver North to John Piper to Mark Driscoll, covering all points in-between. She glosses over a lot of years and personalities, but the way she paints the picture it was one successive leader after another reenforcing gender stereotypes and tropes into the hearts and mental pictures of Christians.

If I were to say there is one particular target for Du Mez, it is not Donald Trump, but James Dobson. She spares no energy in attaching him and his organization, Focus On The Family, to every bad thought or bad idea or bad person. She really, really, really, really does not like him. Yet, it is hard to find anyone she is flattered with. The book is a virtual compendium on the agenda, style, and problems of key Christian leaders — and most of them are in my library — the ones mentioned above, plus folks like Wayne Grudem, Stu Weber, Bill Hybels, Rick Warren and Tim Keller.

Her critique is needed. There is much in the way of abuse, politics, agenda, and just plain-old-fashioned power grabs that have marred and scarred churches in America. This is an issue of repentance and of change. Do not read her book if you don’t want to argue with her a little bit, and do not read her book if you only read things that conform to your preconceived notions.

I agree with many of her assertions. For example, I think she is right when she highlights how complementarianism has been used by abusive personalities for their own gratification. As an egalitarian, I can completely join in on that perspective. However, not all complementarians are abusive, and the vast majority of them I know are good, honest, wonderful Christ-followers who are seeking to follow the Bible as they understand it. To paint them all with that broad brush of abuse or manipulation is going too far. Egalitarians can be just as guilty of abuse, as the sad situation with Hybels exemplifies.

But my criticism on this front is a minor issue because the church deserves this kind of evaluation from a skilled set of eyes willing to go through the actual historical record. She has the receipts, so to speak, on something I’ve said often but without the data, just more of a gut feeling — and that is this — when we look at what the last seventy years of church life has produced, biblically illiterate people who call themselves Christian, sex scandal after sex scandal, spiritually weak churches, church leaders obsessed with marketshare and media, and then put the cherry on top of a loss of credibility with just about everyone then I ask the honest question, why would we continue to follow any pattern in church life that has been handed down to us? If we are to have healthy Jesus-focused congregations in the future these congregations must break the paradigms that have produced so much poison. Taking away the power of celebrity pastors to set the agenda is one place to start. Another is to reject the idea that growing a big church is somehow the goal. Another is to reject power-players and bullies within local churches. And another, which this current volume aligns with, is the empowering of women to fully exercise ministry gifts. I mean, come on, men have made a pretty big mess of things. Maybe it will take godly women leaders to clean it up.

I recommend this book if for no other reason than we all need to be exposed to our own history.

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A Prayer For The First Day of School 2021

Dear Lord, the buses are running and the backpacks are filled, lunches are made and pencils are sharpened. In many ways it feels normal, and so I make the normal prayers.

I pray for children to learn, about words, worlds, bugs, and books but also learn about themselves and to grow as people. May kindergarteners make messes and laugh, and fifth graders run too fast and hard, and eight graders finds a way to not be awkward when their body shouts awkwardness, and may eleventh graders dream of changing the world.

Let these children make friends — good friends. Allow them to discover what their own passions are and what the right avenue of expression is. Let them make mistakes, then be gently corrected by a firm, but kind hand.

I pray for parents. Some are sending their children off for the first time, and some for the last time. Being a parent is the hardest work in the world, Lord, and I ask that you give these parents a special dispensation of grace.

We also pray for teachers — bless them for their heroic work. Let it be a fulfillment for them of their own true vocation. We ask that bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodians, and administration personnel all have years which are meaningful and significant, and that you will let their work be a blessing and not a frustration.

Our schools do so much more than teach, Lord, and as we have put this burden on that system, we ask that you help us to make it work. Allow the school to make certain every child has plenty of food to eat. If there are children who are being hurt or abused, allow justice to prevail. If a child needs special help with development or mental health, then let it be discovered and assessed in a helpful way.

So, Lord, these are the normal prayers. But we do not live in normal times. We live in COVID. This is our third year with this disease. I thank you for last year, that our school did a phenomenal job, but this year brings new fears, new variants, new rules. Protect our children and teachers, and Father I ask that soon a vaccine for children will emerge to take this pressure off, and to help us safeguard our most precious resource — the future.

There are other things we worry about, Father, and we bring these before you as well. Protect our children from bullets and evil people. Protect them from bad ideas, from the wolves who sneak in among the sheep and exploit trust and pervert innocence. Protect them from the poison that is seeping through our culture, poisons like division, politics, hate, and lies.

O Lord, we believe that you have given us children as a gift. We want to treat them that way, as a wonderful gift that confirms your blessing and that also teaches us about how we relate to you, as children who are always learning. Show each of us our part to play as parents, grandparents, neighbors, and friends.

May 2021, with all its challenges, be the greatest school year ever for our children and those who love them.

In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Pastoral Ministries And COVID-19

One of the aspects of pastoral ministries I take very seriously is the hospital visit. I know a lot of pastors do not do those any more, but I still think it is important. For most of my twenty five years of ministry, this has two phases. One phase is someone in a room, and in that room and it is just as you would expect, like a regular hospital visit. The biggest challenges in these situation are 1) getting them to turn the television down 2) finding a place to sit 3) not interfering with the medical folks coming and going. It is always important to remember, pastorally, you are on their turf when in the hospital and you must accommodate whatever they have going on.

The second phase of this, is what I think is the most important, and that is pre-op. I have never had any problem walking to the front desk, saying I am so-and so’s pastor, then calling down to get clearance from the patient, and then they walk me down — usually to the last stop before the patient goes in. It is in this setting that I read a little scripture, talk about eternal things, anoint them with oil, and then pray with them for a successful surgery, wisdom for the doctor, a speedy recovery, and no long term problems. The greatest challenges to this was 1) arriving at just the right time, 2) not staying too long, and 3) finding your way back out when finished because those places are a maze.

COVID-19 changed all of that.

I remember the visit I was trying to make the very day they changed the policies at one of our local hospitals and was denied access. I did leave behind a little “prayer bear” from one of our ministries that I take to patients in the hospital.

One of our little prayer bears

For over a year now, hospital visits have been prohibited across the board. In this in between time I have prayed on the phone with a lot of people and visited them in their yard the night before, all masked up and often wearing gloves. Sometimes people prefer to come by my study at church — it feels a little more official, I think for some folks.

Now, though, some hospitals are opening up, our local hospital is, for the Phase One kind of visit. I’ve been able to see people in their rooms the last three or four weeks and that is very nice. It feels almost normal.

The Phrase Two type, though, still seems out-of-reach. I was reminded of this yesterday when we called a hospital to find out if I would be able to do that and was told “You can pray in the lobby before the patient checks in.”

What I am wondering is, as a spiritual guide, if the hospitals will ever open this back up to us as a possibility. I feel like there is a good chance they will not, which is unfortunate. It deprives people of faith of a holistic approach to their well-being.

What I am working through is how this change will combine and steamroll with the rapidly increasing trend toward sending people home the same day of their procedure. More and more surgeries are ‘day surgeries’ or perhaps ‘overnight’ surgeries. The window of opportunity for seeing someone in the hospital has been shrinking steadily. When I first started pastoring in the mid-90s, if a woman had a hysterectomy she was often in the hospital fo a week. Now she is home that afternoon. Back surgeries were usually long stays, but now they schedule them at 6AM and have the patients out the for by four.

I am not complaining about this from a medical perspective — although we all know these rushed times are the result of insurance and not healthcare — but instead my concern is how do you do meaningful hospital ministry in these accelerated programs when COVID-19 protocols are in play? The answer will probably involve some kind of hybrid approach that involves the night before the surgery prayer in home, Sunday at church prayer, video-calling people in the hospital, and the incredibly rare opportunities to hold someones hadn’t, touch their forehead, and pray with them.

What I refuse to do is surrender the playing field, so to speak, and walk away from the sick, the hurting, and the afflicted. As things change, we who give pastoral care will have to work hard to stick our nosey little face in and ask the questions like, “If your surgery doesn’t work out the way we are hopeful it will, are you ready for eternity? Have you told the people you love all the things you need to tell them? What is your biggest fear going into this? How is your relationship with Jesus?” What is more, those we minister too will have to help us, because we’re navigating waters that are fresh and new to us and are contrary to both our training and our temperament.

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Baptism: Three Possible Futures

Not that baptism only has three futures, but I see three possibilities.

I’ve been thinking of this important Christian practice a lot lately as I’ve recently finished up a six weeks small group class that has covered the biblical material, origins, history, practice, and theology of baptism. In the last session I talked about contemporary issues, and among those was a speculation of where baptism may be heading in modern American culture. What I see is not all that great.

Future One–People Are Getting Baptize All The Time

Many Christian groups, particular those with an Arminian disposition, may have people who feel they’ve lost their way and come back to faith in Christ and want to celebrate this with getting baptized again. Other traditions, like my own Baptist heritage, has begun to view baptism as an almost expected double or triple experience. It is not uncommon for people to have been baptized as a child, then again as a teenager or in their 20s, and then finally when they join a new church that has a different practice. None of these things in itself might lead us to this new future of everyone getting baptized all the time, but combine it with the idea of using baptism to cleanse a conscience after a traumatic event or a startling life change, and it is not hard to see the idea of baptism as a symbol of renewal of Christian faith that might be repeated multiple times a year as Holy Communion is celebrated.

Future Two–No One Is Getting Baptized

Another variation is one in which the act of baptism has been ‘metaphored’ away into something that represents a decision to follow Jesus as Lord but the symbolic representation of the water has been removed as an artifact of a pre-enlightened world. This move would certainly be welcome to the large mega-church movement which are functionally non-denominational in their affinity appeal to ideology and style rather than theology or heritage. It is easier to move people without the trouble of water.

Before you object to this as an impossibility, consider this has already happened in most places with the concept of anointing with oil for prayer and healing. Whereas our foremothers and forefathers would have likely seen and participated in such moments of symbolic action, today’s Christ followers rarely if ever experience it.

Future Three–Everyone Is Getting Baptized

No, not because everyone is become a follower of Jesus, but because baptism has been secularized and no longer is rooted in faith in Jesus. In this concept, the world co-opts the baptismal font as a statement of cleansing or renewal in a psychological or emotional sense but no need to bother with faith or theology. The best example of this having already occurred is the cross. People adorn their bodies with a cross who have no faith in Jesus at all. Indeed, the government designates the cross as a secular symbol (click here for Greenbeans outstanding ‘The Cross Is Not A Secular Symbol’) that means death or cemetery. Can you see a future in which people are baptized after a bad day, a breakup with their boyfriend, or quit a job, or smoking? Sadly I can see backyard pool parties in which people promise to be loyal to themselves and to serve the better good as citizens of the world an some other bilge about the heart wants what the heart wants, then a good friend baptizes them and everyone sings a John Lennon song.

Each of these futures is horrific to me.