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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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How to Die

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My brother, Mark, died with grace and aplomb. His deaths were always flawless. Whether he was shot by Indians, stabbed by a pirate, or murdered by the Mob, he always died with such finesse.

Of course, we all took turns dying. The barn was the perfect place for it. There were stacked bales of hay with a pile of loose hay just below to cushion your fall. One by one we would climb to the top bale, clutch the wound where the bullet entered, and pitch headlong into the hay below. Yet Mark always made it seem so realistic.

One time he seemed not to notice he had been shot. He put his hand to his chest as if he had an itch. Then he pulled it away, staring with surprise at the warm, red blood on his hand. His eyes glazed over, and he fell face first and spread-eagle into the hay. Another time, the impact of the bullet knocked him into a half-turn. His arms went up as if he expected to by picked up by a gentle deity. Then he fell backward into the hay like a rag doll. Once dead, he also would linger longer in his final pose; it lent a greater air of verisimilitude to his death to see him lying there unmoving, not even breathing, for what seemed much too long for play.

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Mom

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My mom died last night. She left in peace surrounded by her family. I think she was actually looking forward to going. I arrived too late to talk with her; she had already slipped into a sleep from which she never fully awakened. Before I left Minnesota, though, I spoke to her on the phone.

“They’re disconnecting the machines,” she said.

“Are you going home?” I asked.

“No,” she said and then with a certain lilt in her voice, “Yes. I’m going home.”

“I’m coming to say goodbye. I hope you won’t go until I get there.”

“I don’t know,” she said.

“I know.”

The family gathered around her. We read bible passages that spoke of our hope of a resurrection or of the glory awaiting those who remain faithful to God’s son. We sang and prayed and gave glory to God. I am very grateful for my family and for their faith and faithfulness.

When I was little, I regarded my mom as the gold standard for all moms. She was large and soft, and I pitied other children with skinny, bony moms whose hugs could not be so comforting as hugs from my mom. She was the best mom. As I got bigger, my opinion changed little. I know, of course, that she was not faultless. But I can’t seem to remember her faults well enough to describe them. She was and always will be my mom.

She was always very alive. She discouraged self-pity of every kind and sometimes seemed judgmental because she held us to such high standards. Though she never finished high school, she also never stopped learning. Her mind was active and alive even when her body was weak or unresponsive. She read constantly. She believed that the only excuse for ignorance was youth. If you were old enough to read and understand, you were old enough to know what you ought to know, and if you were old enough to know, you were old enough to do what was right. I’m thankful for her high standards; I have the same high standards for my own kids.

But she was also gracious and compassionate. She took in strangers and befriended outcasts. She cooked for everyone and offered unstinting hospitality to all who came to her home. My friends, even when I was in college, loved the homey feel of our home where you didn’t have to worry about sitting in the wrong place and there was always something home cooked to eat. She was never afraid of ideas. She could hold her own in conversation with anyone, and she spoke with such unconscious authority that she was often puzzled at finding her opinions respected even by those who sharply disagreed with her.

Mom was fun. I didn’t realize it growing up. In fact, it sometimes seemed to me that other families had more fun than ours. Other families were certainly better off. But I doubt that any other family we knew had as much fun as our family. We all liked one another, and Mom never allowed any fighting or even name-calling. She insisted that we all loved one another, and, whether she really bent us all to her will or we were just naturally compliant, we did. We loved one another; we had fun together. We had picnics in the back yard. We played games; we went on long walks in nearby parks, the younger kids racing ahead and running back while Mom and Dad strolled along behind. Mom had a knack for making our free time fun without gratifying our whims. It was years before I knew we were poor. We were rich in fun.

Now she is gone. As I write, my sisters are sorting through photos looking for pictures of Mom to include at her funeral. We’re not very sad. There has already been a lot of laughter and a few tears. I’m sure there will be more of both. But I am confident that the laughter will outweigh the tears. Mom would want it that way. She wouldn’t want us to have a funeral without any fun in it.

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