The Culture Beat

March 9, 2011

The Continuing, and sometimes alarmng, C. S. Lewis Phenomenon

Filed under: Faith Issues,General Pop Culture,The Church,Uncategorized — Alex @ 2:43 am


American Christians, particularly conservative evangelicals, love C. S. Lewis. Last Friday, the New York Times published an article by Mark Oppenheimer recounting the ever growing impact of British writer and scholar C. S. Lewis, including a recent edition of the Bible with annotations of quotes by Lewis addressing topics and themes of biblical passages, and plans for a new institution of higher learning, C. S. Lewis College. Oh my.

I hold Lewis in the highest regard, having read many of his books over the years. As a young Christian, his writings kept me from becoming too immersed in an emotion-based, subjective form of Christianity. His uniquely lucid writing made the greatest idea and doctrines of the Christian faith accessible to my untrained mind. It grounded me in logical thinking and made my imagination soar in ways no other writing did. Lewis’ immersion in the great thinking of medieval Christianity and his ability to explain “mere Christianity,” the faith common to the church universal created a bridge for me and millions of others to the great treasures of Christian thought.

Because of the impoverished nature of 20th century evangelicalism regarding the life of the mind, Lewis’ books were doorways of discovery to our faith’s heritage and because of his singular gifts, and prolific work, it’s understandable that there would be such a continuing fascination with this giant of the faith. Lewis is that rare figure who transcends denominational categories–reading Lewis’ books engenders the sense that one has not only gained knowledge or insight about the book’s subject, but that one has also gotten to know its author in a way that inspires gratitude, and a sense of acquaintance, that few authors achieve.

Still I feel awkward reading of a Lewis annotated Bible, or a college founded on his work–surely Lewis himself would recoil from such hero worship. At what point does one’s appreciation for a great man slip into something like idolatry?

But the reason I felt most compelled to write this post was a passage in the article that clearly marked it as a New York Times piece:

In “Mere Christianity,” Lewis writes of Jesus: “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell.”

This famous passage does not, on a second read, make much sense. After all, could not a great moral teacher have messianic delusions? But on a first read, it is quite persuasive, and classic Lewis. It is clear, confident and a bit humorous, and it offers a stark choice as it firmly suggests the right answer.

Mr. Oppenheimer, in ostensibly reporting on the Lewis phenomenon, cannot resist this slide into patronizing commentary. It implies that anyone who found this, one of the most quoted of all Lewis’ writings, to be a convincing argument for the deity of Christ, obviously never read the passage again or they would have easily perceived how bogus it was, poor benighted minds, unlike Mr. Oppenheimer’s. No, most people who’ve thought it through this most offensive of the claims of Jesus, would find it hard to to accept that a great moral teacher who repeatedly claimed to be the Son of God, and whose followers, often accepted death rather than disbelieve this crucial point, was simply having delusions of grandeur.

What the article doesn’t include of that famous passage says it better than I could:

You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. – Mere Christianity, pages 40-41.

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April 26, 2010

St. Jack of the Lost Island?

Filed under: Faith Issues,Television,Uncategorized — Alex @ 11:23 pm

This week, there is no episode of Lost, so let’s take this moment to contemplate yet another way in which the singular series opens itself to interpretations resonant of a life of faith. Anyone who’s read much from discussion boards or blogs of the endlessly analyzed show knows that there are elements that plainly encourage ponderings of its religious and philosophical symbolism. Heck, every viewer knows of the faith (represented by John Locke) and science (represented by Dr. Jack Shepherd.) is one of the Lost‘s main oppositions. We’re not exactly sure what the faith is in, or toward except that Locke believed in the healing or redemptive power of the island (until he was murdered, that is) and that Jack was a thoroughgoing materialist.

But as the final season winds down, the poles have symbolically reversed. The smokey thing that has assumed Locke’s form rejects any belief in any special qualities of the island that has been his prison (“It’s just a damn island,” he declares as he strives to gain his escape. But Jack has also shifted his attitude profoundly. After spending most of four seasons striving to lead the castaways, then escape the island, he learns that he was wrong to leave and returns a different man, no longer sure of much of anything anymore, except that somehow, he was meant to be on the island. He allows others, like Sawyer last season, to take the lead until he became convinced that exploding Jughead, the nuclear warhead, would interact with the island’s strange electromagnetic power to somehow change everyone’s destiny and avoid years of pain.

Dr. Jack examining his reflection in the Sideways world.
But even that seemed uncertain as the new season began in February. The first episode began with Jack on Oceanic 815, as if nothing had happened to cause its crash. When he goes to the plane’s restroom though, he stares at his image in the mirror with a looks of confusion, as if something isn’t quite right. And so have others in what was soon known as the Sideways world of familiar characters who never crashed on the island, which alternates with the same characters continuing their captivity on the island. Which is real? Both? Neither?

Jack seems to have the most developed character arc as he now watches events transpire on the island and no longer tries to control them. When, in last week’s episode, after sensing that staying on the sailboat with the others on their way to Hydra island was repeating a mistake, he literally took a leap of faith and stepped off the boat to affirm that the island wasn’t finished with him and he must stay–even though he wound up back in the hands of the Fake Locke. (If you haven’t seen the series, then you must be totally confused by this and I recommend renting the first five seasons and the online sixth season eps before continuing.)

So to return to the applicability of the narrative to faith issues, I was reminded of a certain castaway while reading a passage from St. Augustine Confessions yesterday. See if you’re thinking what I’m thinking, Pinky.

Imagine a man in whom the tumult of the flesh goes silent, in whom the images of earth, of water, of air and of the skies cease to resound. His soul turns quiet and, self-reflecting no longer, it transcends itself. Dreams and visions end. So too does all speech and every gesture, everything in fact which comes to be only to pass away. All these things cry out: “We did not make ourselves. It is the Eternal One who made us.”

I don’t wish to overinterpret this, but I think of Jack when I read this. He has allowed his soul to stop striving to force things to happen. He knows he doesn’t know everything, in fact, he knows very little, but he does know that he’s on the island for a reason and needs to stay. This reminds me of the attitude of the writer of Psalm 131:2:

But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child is my soul within me.

If EW’s Lost commentator Jeff Jensen is correct (go here and scroll until he gets to where he tells us what he thinks Lost is about) that the show is about illustrating the crises that religious faith addresses, then there will be all sort of applications one can make of such parts of the series that will not definitive as to what is really going on, do provide compelling images of the struggles that people experience while going through dark nights of the soul and wrestling with angels. Well, that’s my two cents of how this fascinating show speaks to my inner pilgrim. We’ll see if Jack’s journey pays off and his faith is rewarded.

December 29, 2009

The Blind Side–Reel and Real

Filed under: Faith Issues,Movies — Alex @ 5:10 pm


I finally got to the theater with my wife last week to see The Blind Side, after wanting to for weeks. We caught a matinee and found the film just as good as I’d been told; The film, which had received mixed and generally unenthusiastic reviews but terrific box office was the kind of film that Hollywood rarely makes–aimed at the huge American flyover demographic (not just the usual targeted teens and young adults, but football-loving, church-going middle America of all ages) that rarely has films very knowing about their culture. The very smart production was directed by John Lee Hancock (The Rookie) who understands this audience, and starred perennial American sweetheart Sandra Bullock who again demonstrated her range as Leigh Anne Tuohy, an ubercompetent mom and interior decorator and a beardless, Stetson-less Tim McGraw as her businessman husband Sean. The lives of this Memphis power couple and their two children changed when, seeing a hulking black teen walking along the road one cold night, they take him home and make him one of their family. Michael Oher has huge educational deficits brought about by his non-existent family life, having been abandoned by his single mother as a child. Michael had previously slept on the sofa of another black couple and the husband had sought Michael’s welfare by placing him in the same all-white Christian school the Tuohy children attended, Leigh Anne, with Sean’s admiring support becomes Michael’s chief advocate. Michael is played by Quinton Aaron, who brings a moving understatement to the gentle giant’s gradual realization that this family loves him and that he has both academic and athletic potential ready to blossom.

Yes, this is another of the triumph-of-the-underdog sports genre that American audiences love, but the football scenes are relatively small compared to the human drama of this true story. The love and faith poured into Michael by the Tuohy’s and his teachers results in his being recruited by Ole Miss and then last year’s recruitment into the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens. As a film studies professor interested in all sorts of adaptations, I couldn’t help wondering which moments and incidents were real and what had necessarily been scripted to compress months of relationship development that Michael made with his adoptive family. That side of The Blind Side will be examined tonight, Jan. 29th on ABC’s 20/20 where the real-life family (pictured above) is interviewed. The show’s website features video and text apparently already available before tonight’s airing. I expect the show will confirm just how close the film was to this true-life tale of compassion and triumph.

April 19, 2009

Telling One Colbert From Another

Filed under: Faith Issues,Television — Alex @ 8:51 pm

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I doubt I’m the only one who has gone back and forth on what I think of Stephen Colbert, the brilliant political satirist and well-known star of The Colbert Report on Comedy Central. I assumed that, like The Daily Show, from which it was spun off in fall of 2005, it leaned toward politically liberal ideology as it’s host, playing a right-wing cable news show host (think Bill O’Reilly), and thus I had little interest in seeing my conservative positions regularly attacked.

However, the Report‘s huge success was hard to avoid. Colbert’s deeply witty schtick and sharp parody of politics and punditry created much buzz, and everyone could laugh at his coining of terms like “truthiness” to describe certain kinds of political rhetoric. Last year I decided to give in and give the show a try and was delighted when Colbert’s wide-ranging topics included gags drawing from pop culture and a deep sense of the ridiculous in politics and society generally. Yes, he used his faux-conservative persona to make ironic digs at Republicans and I was particularly appalled at his apparently vicious mocking of Pope Benedict and the Catholic church, since I’d heard he was himself Catholic. Assuming he was another bitter lapsed Catholic, I eventually had enough, despite the cleverness, and stopped watching.
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But this week, a friend sent out a link to a Holy Week show segment where Colbert had interviewed the episode’s guest liberal theologian Bart Ehrman. I had seen an earlier exchange between the two where Colbert had completely demolished Ehrman’s doubt-filled arguments while displaying an apparently unironic committment to orthodox Christian beliefs. The new segment (pictured left) similarly displayed Colbert’s knowledge of scripture and classical church teachings and again he eviscerated the liberal professor’s fatuous arguments against the divinity of Christ.

I had a crisis of confusion, a brain sprain of cognitive dissonance and eventually came to realize that Colbert was a playing at spoofing right-wing ranters, while sticking up for what mattered most, defense of the ancient faith. He’s treated enough priests, preachers and conservative pundits respectfully enough to see he has no brief against Christianity and traditional values, but you’ve got to see through his extremely dry schtick to recognize the balancing act. In fact, he’s an active member of a Catholic church where he teaches Sunday school. Here’s a link where he quickly and humorously affirms the faith while looking askance at those with vaguely stated beliefs. And it helps to have a thick skin politically when he does jab at Republican positions he disagrees with.

So, now I’ve put “Dr. Colbert” back on my DVR programming rotation and think I’m better prepared to detect the truth from truthiness on the Report.

April 12, 2009

Lost and Found

Filed under: Faith Issues,Television — Alex @ 8:43 pm

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It’s been said that media doesn’t tell us what to think but rather, what to think about. That is, it can be an agenda setter in the marketplace of ideas. I saw a good example of that today as we drove across Florida after attending the Easter service at our church. The Lakeland, FL, Ledger has a front page article, Searching for Answers, that starts with a description of (mandatory spoiler alert) a scene at the start of a March episode of Lost, where spiritual seeker John Locke, having been murdered and placed in a coffin, finds himself alive and back on the strange island (as illustrated by the before and after pictures above) at the center of mysterious forces. He is thought to have given his life to get six island escapees to return to face their true destinies and now, having died and returned to life, he is different–but what, the audience wonders, does it mean? The faith vs. science debate, perhaps the chief theme of the show, continues to play out and this article is but one example of how entertainment can raise the level of discourse in its audience. (Update: A Breakpoint article I wrote from a few years ago is related to this post.)

Happy Easter!

September 21, 2008

There’s a new mosque in town

Filed under: Faith Issues,General Pop Culture,Miscellaneous — Culture Beat @ 9:37 pm

Johnson City, Tenn., quietly crossed a threshold in July when the city’s first purpose-built Islamic center opened its doors, a 9,600-square-foot home for the small but growing Muslim Community of Northeast Tennessee.

A mosque – or to use the preferred Arabic term, a masjid (mahs-JEED’) – might have once seemed out of place in a medium-sized town in the old Bible Belt, but no more. With national trends and regional growth comes greater diversity, particularly with magnets such as the medical and health industries and East Tennessee State University. We’re all neighbors now.

The new building is located on Antioch Road, bordering Willow Springs Park on about three acres of land that the Muslim community bought 10 years ago. Construction started last year, after the members had saved enough money to pay for the half-million-dollar building outright. A loan was out of the question, since Islamic law forbids dealing with loan interest. (Strictly speaking, Jewish law and early Christian practice carried the same prohibition.)

A masjid is essentially a simple structure with simple purposes: It is a gathering place for worship, prayers and community events. Muslims do not “consecrate” or bless their buildings, although the members are considering a “grand opening” to invite the wider community.

“We believe all the world is a place for prayer,” explained MCNET leader Taneem Aziz.

The structure looks ordinary – the tan siding and deck could belong to any house or building – except for the large green dome on the roof.

The main prayer room, a carpeted rectangle about 30 feet by 75 feet (pictured here, before carpeting), is precisely aligned to face east, toward Mecca, as dictated by Muslim custom. The worship leader sits in a small alcove on the east wall, underneath a handcrafted panel with decorative Arabic script that calls people to prayer. No pews or chairs are here, since people normally stand, kneel and bow to the ground in Muslim services.

About 300 people can worship in that room – that is, about 300 men, since Muslim services are segregated by gender. The women’s area is separated by a wall with six large windows fitted with one-way glass, a clever feature that allows women to view the main room but, for the sake of modesty, prevents men from looking in.

The building also includes a kitchen and classrooms, and bathrooms truly meant for bathing, with areas for ritual washing of feet — short, tiled pillars as seats that face low shower heads over a draining area. The mirrors are bordered with intricate tile patterns.

The basement waits for the funds to be finished. Aziz said it will be used for gatherings, meals, recreation and other social events.

That would be called a fellowship hall in a lot of churches, I told him.

“A fellowship hall,” he repeated softly. “I like that. That’s a good term.”

It’s a long way from the first meetings of the Muslim Student Association at ETSU almost two decades ago, which gathered in the basement of a member’s home. The group grew large enough to buy and renovate a house on Division Street in 1994, which served as the community center until now. About 70 households are actively involved now, Aziz said.

Since the masjid opened, several people have become active members, including those who have come and gone in the past and local Muslims who never appeared until now. The modest growth is encouraging, and the members hope to call a full-time imam to lead worship and guide the community. No one knows when that might happen.

For now, they plan to steadily increase their activities – such as scheduling prayer gatherings five times a day, according to Muslim custom – confident that having the close proximity to the university and the medical center will permit many of their members to attend during the day.

Aziz said they also plan to organize public talks and other gatherings – both social and educational – and invite non-Muslims to visit.

“This is not only for our community, but also to let people know about Islam,” Aziz said. “The facility will give us the chance to invite other people for fellowship.”

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 20 Sept. 2008.

September 6, 2008

Thank God for evolution. Huh?

Filed under: Books,Faith Issues,Science — Culture Beat @ 4:12 pm

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“Nothing matters more at this time in history than what people think about evolution.”

We might expect that kind of universal claim to come from a passionate evangelist, and in a way that’s correct. Except that this preacher, Michael Dowd, says evolution is the good news.

Dowd, ordained in the United Church of Christ, and his wife of seven years, science writer Connie Barlow, travel the country full-time, preaching and teaching a surprising message: Rather than threaten or undermine faith, evolution can sustain, inform and even motivate religious belief.

“Both of us have this passion of telling the story of evolution in an inspiring way,” Dowd explained in a phone conversation this week. “We share the same purpose of communicating a science-based vision of the universe in a religious way.” (Dowd is pictured below. That guy caricatured above is a cartoon version of Charles Darwin — just in case you were sleeping through high school and college biology and the last 155 years.)

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They bring their message to Northeast Tennessee on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, speaking at Holston Valley Unitarian-Universalist Church and First Presbyterian Church in Elizabethton. (For details, contact the Rev. Jacqueline Luck at (423) 477-7661 or the Rev. John Shuck at (423) 543-7737.) Dowd published a 430-page book last fall with an eye-catching title: “Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World” (Viking). He also runs a Web site.

His missionary zeal for “evolutionary theology” comes from a conviction that evolution itself provides meaning to existence by creating – yes, creating – a “holy trajectory” from simplicity to ever-greater complexity.

“Humans are part of that process,” Dowd said. “The universe became complex enough so that it could be aware of itself. We’re not separate from nature. It’s nature becoming aware of itself.”

He believes that as religious traditions accept this understanding, “they’ll see their truths are more real, more visceral.” This view of the cosmos stands in contrast with evolutionary thinking that leaves little room for purpose or meaning.

“When I talk to conservative audiences,” Dowd said, “I tell them they’re right to reject evolution mostly as a chance, purposeless process. I present evolution in a God-glorifying, Christ-edifying, Scripture-honoring way.”

In his view, humans represent a high-water mark in evolutionary development: we are conscious of ourselves and seek relationships not only with other humans but with the “ultimate reality” itself. In Dowd’s vocabulary, the proper name we give that ultimate reality is God.

Language is another bridge linking science and religion, according to Dowd. When we understand how language developed, he said, “All concepts of God and religion make complete sense.”

All societies grow up with what he calls “night language … the language of dreams and metaphors that humans have used through their history to explain the world.

“These stories speak deep subjective truth,” he said. “The story of the fall in the Garden of Eden – that’s profoundly true in night language. Then science comes along … and puts down night language, speaks only in ‘day language,’ which is literal and fact-based. Myths are pushed aside. Of course the religionists react against that.”

But the two “languages” not only exist together. They help interpret each other.

“Science and religion cannot be only reconciled – that’s lame,” Dowd said. “There’s mutual enhancing. The scientific enterprise can’t avoid the question of meaning, or it goes off into destruction. The Nazis showed us that. Religion is enriched by being grounded in the world of day language and concepts.”

At first glance, this sounds like the old argument that science and religion operate in different spheres and answer different questions. But not really: Dowd wants to “marry” science and religion, not divorce them. To him, scientific study is a spiritual discipline and religious belief must be informed by science. (“Facts are God’s native tongue,” he likes to say.)

Thinking of evolution as the great purpose of existence, directing us to a God as “the ultimate reality,” doesn’t fit easily with long-held beliefs. Dowd’s most persistent criticism comes from “those who take their metaphors literally.” (His book includes about 120 endorsements from religious leaders, philosophers and scientists, including five Nobel laureates. Theologically conservative Christian, Jewish and Islamic scholars are notable by their absence.)

But look at the world through this lens, says Dowd, and we can see a 21st-century road to salvation.

“Evolution understood in a sacred, meaningful way is really good news,” Dowd said. “It bridges all those old divides between head and heart, between science and religion.”

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 6 Sept. 2008.

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September 3, 2008

Screenwriter sees the Light

Filed under: Faith Issues,Movies,Uncategorized — Alex @ 10:00 pm

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I wanted to share this wonderful true story about one of Hollywood’s bad boys gone good. Joe Eszterhas, who wrote the notorious screenplays for Basic Instinct, Showgirls and other films, was at one time one of the world’s highest paid scribes. Temperamental and profane, he and his wife wanted to get away from the cynicism and sordid atmosphere of L.A. by returning to the Cleveland, Ohio area to raise their children. Within weeks, Joe learned he had throat cancer with a bad prognosis. That’s when he–well, this article tells the surprising story of what happened next. After reading it, you’ll probably wonder what kinds of stories, Mr. Eszterhas might be telling next.

July 28, 2008

When ‘Muslim’ is a political smear word

Filed under: Faith Issues,Politics — Culture Beat @ 11:34 am

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It’s safe to say there are good reasons not to vote for Barack Obama as president. (That much could be said about any candidate.) Fair enough.

His being a Muslim should not be one of those reasons because – well, because he’s not a Muslim. He never has been. But that’s just one of the rumors that keep circulating among inattentive citizens, zealous bloggers and cynical talk-show hosts.

A Newsweek survey of registered voters this month found that more than half of them, 52 percent, believed at least one of four falsehoods about Obama’s connections to Islam. So many false rumors are flying around that his campaign launched a Web site just to combat them: www.fightthesmears.com.

In theory, Obama’s religion – or Republican candidate John McCain’s or anybody else’s – shouldn’t matter. The U.S. Constitution forbids using religion as a test for public office. In practice, it does matter. Polls consistently find that most Americans want a believer in the Oval Office, preferably some kind of Christian.

People spread rumors for a reason, and the Obama-as-Muslim lie isn’t meant as a compliment. It’s a smear.

But what if your beliefs were being used as a political slur? Taneem Aziz, leader of the Muslim Community of Northeast Tennessee, takes the insult philosophically.

“Given the current conditions in the country and the world, we’re kind of resigned to the fact that’s the way it is,” he said. “The mood of the country is very much anti-Muslim right now. I think everyone wants a hands-off policy as far as Muslims are concerned.”

Muslims in this region have always been treated with respect, Aziz said, even after the 2001 terrorist attacks. But they have noticed changes in the last six months.

For example, Aziz’s teenage daughter, who wears a traditional head scarf, a hijab, was shopping at J.C. Penney recently when a woman she didn’t know approached her. “You need to take that thing off,” she told the girl. When Aziz’s daughter replied that this is a free country, the woman brusquely turned and walked away. It was a brief but telling moment.

“People shout from cars,” Aziz reported. “It happened to me as I was coming out of Lowe’s one day: ‘Go back to Iraq!’ or something to that effect. For me it’s not a big thing. I’m just a person of color. But for women who wear the hijab, it’s more than that.”

Aziz, who was born in Bangladesh but has lived in the U.S. most of his life, said he doesn’t know where “that hate” is coming from. Maybe people are just nervous about the Middle East, he said – but he suspects political rhetoric is partly to blame.

“Some people think (all Muslims) are somehow involved in terrorism,” he said. “I can’t seem to say often enough that we condemned the 9/11 attacks and that targeting civilians is against Islamic law.”

The atmosphere is strained enough that when the New Yorker magazine tried to lampoon the Obama rumors with a satirical cartoon on its cover two weeks ago, the attempt backfired. (It portrayed him in traditional Muslim dress, and his wife, Michelle, as a 1960s black-power radical.) Both major presidential candidates criticized the magazine. Aziz said he was “disgusted.”

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The problem, he said, is that in a climate where people are eager to believe rumors, such images are easily misunderstood and exploited.

“You can get some people to vote based on fear,” Aziz said. “This makes me question where certain people in this country are heading. Their politics – these things you hear on the radio, spewing this hate, aimed toward a fear about Muslims – is troubling. I can’t put a finger on where that venom comes from or where it leads. Does it become hatred that permeates the whole society?”

Aziz tries to remain optimistic. He recalled how John F. Kennedy, running for president in 1960, faced bigotry about his Roman Catholicism.

“Kennedy overcame that, and I feel positive that we will, in time,” he said. “There are trying times now that we must go through.”

But a note of skepticism remains, understandably.

“We hear about bringing people together, about ‘the audacity of hope,’” Aziz said. “We kind of wonder if we’re included in that.”

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 26 July 2008.
Image from: tharwacommunity.typepad.com/…/index.html.

July 20, 2008

There’s no need to fear … Dave Ramsey is here!

Filed under: Faith Issues,General Pop Culture,Miscellaneous — Culture Beat @ 3:50 pm

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With oil prices hitting record highs and food prices not far behind, a headline-grabbing credit crisis, a weak dollar, bank failures and cascading home mortgage defaults and foreclosures, here’s the word from Dave Ramsey: Don’t panic.

Ramsey is an East Tennessee native (born in Maryville) who’s gone national with his plain-spoken and self-described “biblically based” financial advice, dispensed through seminars, books, video series and radio shows. Many people and institutions are in serious trouble, Ramsey says, but the sky isn’t falling. If people keep their wits and their discipline, they should be OK.

“There are pockets of the country that are really, really bad,” said Beth Tallent, a spokesperson for the Lampo Group, Ramsey’s Nashville-based organization. “But the situation isn’t as dramatic as the media make it out to be. Not everybody’s bank is going to fail.”

Ramsey’s advice for coping with high fuel prices comes down to “just good money management,” Tallent said this week. “You’ve got to do your budget so you know where your money goes. You will need to cut back on things you want so you can cover the things you need.”

A lot of Americans will take his words to heart. Ramsey, 47, oversees a multi-faceted and fast-growing financial advice service he started in 1988. That includes “The Dave Ramsey Show,” a daily three-hour call-in radio program on more than 350 stations, drawing about 3.5 million listeners a week.

Books with titles like “Your Total Money Makeover” and “Financial Peace” have climbed best-seller lists, and he takes his financial advice on the road throughout the country.

One of his cornerstone programs is Financial Peace University, a 13-week video workshop that has walked 650,000 people through his “baby steps” to financial security.

The secrets of his success: Get out of debt. Cut up the credit cards. Save for a rainy day and for big purchases. Pay cash. Embrace budgeting.

He knows this advice isn’t new. He’s just figured out how to package old wisdom in an era of high expectations for stuff and low thresholds for credit.

“The advice I give is God’s and Grandma’s ways of handling money,” he wrote in an e-mail. “It’s what I learned when I hit bottom and started working my way back.”

The bottom he hit was personal bankruptcy in the 1980s: He made millions in real estate, but lost it when hundreds of thousands of dollars in consumer debt caught up with him and his family. Forced into strict financial discipline, he worked in real estate to pay off debts, and then decided to offer people the tools that worked for him.

“The number one mistake people make is that they wander through life like Gomer Pyle on Valium,” Ramsey said, “and they wake up at retirement and wonder where all their money is. You have to be proactive. Tell your money what to do instead of wondering where it went. That means doing the dreaded B word – a budget.”

This is a spiritual matter for Ramsey. He presents his material in a way that any atheist could use, but he’s not afraid to talk about his faith.

“There are more than 800 scriptures in the Bible that relate to money,” he wrote. “Obviously God thought it was an important topic to talk about.”

Even his critics applaud his emphasis on getting out of debt and living within a budget, but some say his advice is too simplistic or that he emphasizes wealth too much for someone who follows Jesus. Ramsey rejects that charge.

“Money is not the root of all evil,” he replied. “The love of money is. Having money and making money is not a sin.”

To be fair, Ramsey frequently talks about good stewardship and generosity. The goal, he preaches, is be wise and generous with the money “that belongs to God anyway.”

The recent financial turmoil hasn’t increased the number of calls coming to Ramsey’s organization, but the questions are changing, according to Tallent.

“We’re getting more questions about foreclosures and adjustable mortgages,” she said. “We’ve been asked a lot about banks, whether to invest in gold or other options.”

Tallent isn’t sure if callers ask more about spiritual issues in these difficult times.

“That’s something to ponder,” she said. “But the current economy is getting people to wake up, and that’s a good thing.”

First pubished in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 19 July 2008.

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