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The Ministry of Entertainment

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Northwestern University here in the Twin Cities operates a Christian radio station, KTIS, which, like all stations nowadays, promotes itself endlessly and shamelessly. I listen occasionally, partly because I am a Christian and these are my people, and partly because I get tired of the unrelentingly secular nature of secular radio stations, where prayer and reliance on God, despite being extremely widespread in the prevailing culture, are treated as oddities. KTIS plays an uneclectic mix of contemporary Christian music by such artists as MercyMe, Casting Crowns, Newsboys, For King and Country, and Lauren Daigle, sprinkled liberally with short feel-good stories, concert promotions, and station promotions. One of their catchphrases is, “a ministry of Northwestern University.” I got to wondering what that means.

“Ministry” is one of those words you hear frequently in Christian circles but much less often outside those circles. In Britain, what Americans call cabinet-level Departments—Department of Defense, Department of Health and Human Services, et al.—are called Ministries. Monty Python famously introduced a Ministry of Silly Walks to spoof the seriousness of British government agencies and their funding. However, especially among evangelicals, ministry almost always refers to a program of some church or parachurch organization intended to help people somehow. Presumably, therefore, Northwestern University sees KTIS as a means of doing good.

But I see it as little more than Christian entertainment.

When I try to discover what sets it apart from secular radio stations that make no bones about existing to entertain, I have a very hard time. One of their frequent taglines is “uplifting and encouraging,” and I have no doubt that for many listeners this accurately describes what they do. But, then, isn’t that what entertainment does? Helps you forget your troubles, cheers you up, or at least helps you feel that others have it far worse than you? It’s true that secular songs often include references to such morally reprehensible activities as drinking, dancing, and having sex, but it can’t be denied that people do those things because they are fun—at least in some degree—and listeners identify with them.

It might be argued that Christian music lifts up Jesus, something secular music hardly ever does. Indeed, there are songs that exhort the listener to trust God, imitate Jesus, and worship him. But there are also songs that sound an awful lot like spiritual self-help songs, where the hero is not Jesus but the singer, and by extension the listener. Occasionally, the station will play brief clips from listeners who call in to tell how a particular song has had an especially meaningful impact on their lives, but I’ve heard similar claims on secular stations. Artists are popular because their songs connect with people whether they are Christian or not.

Now, I have no objection to Christian entertainment apart from the objection I have to all entertainment: that too much of it distracts us from actually living life in our own bodies, but I do object to the faint air of spiritual superiority that pervades Christian entertainment, the slightly smug condescension with which we Christians tend to view secular music and art, as if to say that ours is superior for what it lacks: drinking, smoking, cussing, sex, drugs, and the less socially acceptable sins. When we call entertainment ministry, we imply that it’s better, that we are better. It’s not. We are not.

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Why Not Rather Be Wronged?

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This is something that is really hard for me to write about because it cuts so close to my own natural proclivities. My wife and my children know that I speak the truth when I confess that I am defensive. I easily bristle at slights, often even when they are meant as jokes or completely unintended. I know rationally that such defensiveness betrays insecurity and an ego that is easily wounded, that my guard goes up because I do not want to appear vulnerable, but despite my best efforts, I can’t seem to remain open and affable when berated or insulted. Nevertheless, I continue to strive against defensiveness.

Jesus was not defensive. In fact, it would be hard to find anyone more mild-mannered while facing his harshest critics. After Jesus accused his detractors of being children of the devil—harboring in their hearts the same antipathy toward life and truth that characterizes the devil—they said to him:

“Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?”

John 8:48

To understand the full impact of this insult, we need to put it in more contemporary terms. In calling Jesus a Samaritan, the Jewish leaders were questioning the legitimacy of his birth as well as his racial purity, something they regarded as very important. In effect, they were calling his mother a whore and claiming that he was not really Jewish. “You are a half-breed bastard,” we might say today.

Likewise, in calling him demon-possessed, the Jews were questioning his mental stability. They were calling him crazy, or, more politely, mentally ill.

Jesus carefully frames his response in a way that patiently answers their charges while preventing them saying he is self-aggrandizing. It is a very delicate matter to claim to be God’s unique son in a culture where such claims are regarded as blasphemous! Jesus defends himself without being defensive. Later, of course, he faces much worse: insults, blows, torture, and an ignominious death. He says nothing in his own defense but suffers cruelly and unjustly for a purpose greater than his own life.

His followers quickly gain a reputation for the same kind of attitude. When they are beaten, they rejoice (Acts 5:41). When they are put to death, they pray and forgive (Acts 7:59-60). When they are imprisoned, they sing (Acts 16:25).

It is in this context of a willingness to suffer rather than fight back that we must understand Paul’s frustration with the Corinthians in I Corinthians 6:1-11. The believers in Corinth were taking disputes to the civil courts instead of resolving them among themselves. In our litigious and rights-obsessed culture, this seems only fitting. Why shouldn’t we go to court and involve lawyers to resolve disputes? That’s how we avoid bruises and bloodshed. But Paul has no quarrel with the civilizing influence of the courts. His concern is for the unity of the church, and what he finds is a willingness to assert individual rights against that unity. The unity of believers is so paramount that it takes precedence over our own sense of injury. “Why not rather be wronged?” he asks. “Why not rather be cheated?”

This same impulse to privilege personal justice over collective unity has done great harm throughout Christendom. Where I see it most in the online world is in comments from Christians defending some supposed biblical point of view with all the condemnation and vituperation they can think of. Whose purposes does that kind of behavior serve? It is not loving toward the one with whom they disagree, nor is it attractive to those outside the faith. When we fight—for conflict is inevitable—let us do so with vigor but also with grace and love, as those who value the bonds of Christian intimacy above our own righteousness.

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How Harry Potter Teaches Trust in God

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My daughter posted the following to her Facebook account in 2008. I asked her for permission to repost it on my website because I liked it so much. With her approval I made some minor editorial changes. I also moved it from my website to my blog.

Many of you may know that I enjoy making sport of modern literary commentary and religious conservatives all at once by forming arguments for parallels between that king of the wizarding world, Harry Potter, and that King of kings, Jesus Christ. In general these assertions are all in jest, but lately as I have been reading the seventh book for the second (and much more attentive) time, I have caught glimpses into Harry’s tortured psyche: the jumble of regret over his lost life with his near perfect parents with anger at Dumbledore for dying and leaving him all alone—I realized I had a certain affinity with the angst-ridden teen.

Harry’s hand brushed the old snitch through the mokeskin and for a moment he had to fight the temptation to pull it out and throw it away. Impenetrable, unhelpful, useless like everything else Dumbledore had left behind—And his fury at Dumbledore broke over him now like lava, scorching him inside, wiping out every other feeling…Dumbledore had left them to grope in the darkness, to wrestle with unknown and undreamed of terrors, alone and unaided: Nothing was explained, nothing was given freely…”

Harry is upset to say the least. He cannot understand why Dumbledore had not given him the whole picture, explained to him exactly how he was to carry out his quest. Add to that the fact that Dumbledore avoided certain intimacies with Harry regarding his past, and you get a bitter and incensed adolescent trying to make sense of clues left him by a seemingly benevolent, wise-and-powerful-beyond-all-reason wizard. Sound familiar? Well it does to me. I can count on one hand the number of days it has been since I last raised a frustrated fist to heaven and demanded of that all powerful and unspeakably good God whom I serve that He explain to me what His plan is. I understand Harry’s frustration, and I relate it to my own. How many times have I looked at situations in my life and said, “Where is God?” And I think if life is supposed to be so hard and our quest for holiness so unattainable, why didn’t God give us more clear direction?

I have heard the bible described as a roadmap and been told that all you have to do is read it and you will be able to navigate safely through life. Well, I don’t know what translation those pastors and youth leaders had, but mine is certainly anything but. When I read the Bible, I find a series of confusing stories and poems accompanied by even more confusing and often conflicting teaching. That road map does not show me how to get from point A (our birth) to point B (our death). It shows me people’s lives and snippets of prophecies and commandments that I often struggle to apply to my daily life. They are like the clues Dumbledore left for Harry. They confuse and baffle me, and it is only through moments of seemingly divine revelation that I ever feel I understand anything about God or His plan for my life.

So it’s easy to get frustrated—to shout and grumble, grow bitter, and decide your own plans are better. Later in the book Harry decides he is better off seeking a powerful wand that will win any duel in which it is engaged. Since Harry knows he will one day have to face Lord Voldemort—only the most powerful dark wizard of all time—it doesn’t seem like the dumbest of ideas. He abandons the quest given him by Dumbledore and seeks only to satisfy his desire.

Here, again, I see Harry’s point. I want more than anything to effect change in the world. I know what I am passionate about: feeding the hungry; advocating for the oppressed; Africa—the list goes on. And I could easily form a very simple and clear plan that would allow me to act in those areas of passion. I could join the Peace Corp. Or I could drop out of school and become a full-time missionary. To be certain, there are days when I question God’s leading me to Iowa of all places. I feel like my precious time is being wasted as I study concepts, theory and theology. And I am tempted to strike out on my own, head for El Salvador, and live a brave and untamed life.

But in the end I must choose as Harry does. Harry, in a moment of clarity, decides wholeheartedly to follow Dumbleore’s instructions and his alone. Though he has the chance to both seize the wand and pursue the quest, Harry chooses only to seek Dumbledore’s quest—a move which, incidentally, could cost him his life. The decision that Harry makes is straightforward. It does not come out of a supernatural encounter with Dumbledore in which the dead man mystically appears before Harry bidding him to do only as he says. Rather, Harry makes this decision based purely on trust in that ever so wise and perceptive wizard.

Similarly, though I find myself longing to, I can not demand signs and wonders from God or even clear and precisely laid out directions. I must simply choose trust. I must choose to trust that God loves me even while, as Harry so often does, I doubt it. Because it is the trust and relationship that God wants of us—not blind obedience. He wants us to rely on him not just for direction but for life—for our very well-being. In doing this He has made Himself indispensable. So kudos to you, Harry Potter. Way to trust your benevolent powerful-and-wise-beyond-all-reason wizard. I will choose to trust mine.

©2008 Elizabeth Wasylik, all rights reserved.

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