Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Happy Birthday, Billy

One month ago a movie about Billy Graham opened in theaters across the country: Billy, the Early Years. It told the squeaky clean story of the earnest and charismatic college student struggling to find his way in the world. Neither the early years nor the later years of his journey to stardom contain the sort of material that makes for compelling theater: scandal, tragedy, failure, conflict, crisis, and the like.

No wonder the movie flopped; which is ironic because the world witnessed no larger success than the globe-trotting, Bible-thumping, gospel-preaching career of Billy Graham. He is a best-selling author, an advisor to ten presidents, and the proclaimer of the gospel to perhaps a billion people. Who can measure his influence?

He is ninety years old today, still sturdy of mind but shaky of step. His birthday comes three days after the country elected its first African-American president. Billy would like this, irrespective of party affiliation. After all, Billy caused quite a stir early in his ministry when he insisted that all of his evangelistic crusades—even those in the segregated South—be fully integrated.

He would appreciate the new president for another reason—he shares with Billy the mesmerizing power of public rhetoric. For fifty years Billy held enthralled stadiums full of people—the rich and the poor, the powerful and the helpless, the religious and the seeker. There was that wonderful mixture of verbal technique and spiritual authenticity that makes the orator such a powerful person.

I fell under the sway of that voice and that vision just as I was entering the gospel ministry as a teenager. My first prepared address at a high school speech tournament was taken—almost word for word, I now confess—from Billy’s book, World Aflame. In those days all us young guns wanted to be just like Billy.

My dad took me to hear him in Louisville; and a generation later, I packed my two young sons into the minivan and drove from Pittsburgh to Washington, D. C. to hear Billy preach. I remember the sermon as if it were yesterday. The text was Psalm 102 verse 6: “I am like an owl in the wilderness.” His theme was loneliness. “Loneliness is the number one problem in the United States,” he said, “among the elderly as well as among the young.” 

I honor Billy Graham. He has been a remarkable representative of Jesus Christ: winsome, genuine, capable, eloquent. He has lived with integrity; he will die with dignity; he will receive all the superlatives that the human race can gather. I will not wait until that unknown day. He has been to me a hero and a role model. The world is a better place because of him, and heaven more crowded.


Don’t Bring Your Guns to Town

Not two weeks ago a father took his eight year old son to a gun show in Westfield Massachusetts. While there and with the boy’s father giving his approval a vendor handed to the boy a fully–loaded Uzi submachine gun. The boy wanted to test fire the weapon. The Uzi was too much for the little boy to handle; he lost control of the weapon while it was firing and shot himself in the head. He died.

Of course, we were all grieved by this tragic accident but am I the only one who was astounded at the facts of this case: that an eight year old boy can attend a gun show, that the weapons at gun shows are loaded, that little boys are permitted to fire weapons, and that it is legal for a gun dealer to hand a loaded Uzi to an eight year old boy?

Good God! I am more than astounded. I have no word strong enough to express my shock and outrage. Yet I read not a single editorial, column, or letter-to-the-editor in protest of this death.

Then there was the episode in Texas. A man saw two men crawling out the windows of a neighbor’s house. He called authorities and told the dispatcher he was going to kill the men; which he proceeded to do, shooting both of them in the back. A local grand jury refused to indict him for any crime.

I imagine a similar scenario on own street in Lexington. What would I do if I saw two men crawling out of the window of the house next door? Certainly I would lock my doors and call the police. But when does burglary, even if I could assume that is what was happening—after all, my own boys have climbed in and out of my house on numerous occasions—justify capital punishment? A burglar found guilty might get five to ten years—but not death.

So how is that people can grab a shotgun and gun people down?

According to the National Education Association, between 1979 and 2001 gunfire killed 90,000 children and teens in America. In one year more children and teens died from gunfire than from cancer, pneumonia, influenza, Asthma, and HIV/AIDS combined. The rate of firearm deaths among kids under age 15 is almost 12 times higher in the United States than in 25 other industrialized countries combined.

Yet during the past decade the resistance to the gun culture in America has been muted; maybe suppressed is a better word. I am one citizen that supports stronger regulations on the gun industry. Like the warning of the mother to her young adult son in the Johnny Cash song, “Don’t Bring Your Guns to Town.”

The recent election may give us cause for hope. The cowboy Bush is being replaced by the urban Obama. On the range, guns are used to shoot targets and vermin, mostly; but in the cities, these weapons kill people. This difference in culture will bring a new attitude toward guns into the governing class. I can only hope.

Another Listen to Limbaugh

My column yesterday—“Now a Word from Rush Limbaugh” (right)—drew more response than anything I have written on this blog site. Some of the responses are printed in the “Comments” section attached to the column and I encourage you to read them.

But there is more; and I here post a number of these other messages, some pro and some con. I appreciate them all; I honor the free exchange of ideas and opinions that is both a fundamental freedom of our society and a wonderful part of the World Wide Web.

First, one friend wrote from out-of-state: “Your pattern and patois are perfect.” I had to look up the word “patois”—it means “any pleasant or provincial form of speech” and is pronounced pa-twa (French, of course). I couldn’t tell: was this a compliment?

Another friend wrote from in-state: “Preacher, I do believe you are for Obama. I am a McCain man, so therefore I would listen to some of those guys, but you are still my friend.” I wrote him back: “You are my friend for life. Keep a place at the table set for me. I am coming down there soon.” And he replied: “You got it!”

Second, a regular reader sent this message: “I read all of your blogs on the first page there, and in my opinion you are the most dogmatic writer I have ever read. Your mind is made up, and you are not going to let in one scrap of goodness or truth about any of those people you are criticizing. Some of those people are born-again Christians….Because of you, I am spending more time on my knees.”

Third, one friend wrote this response: “I’ve voted Republican every presidential election since Nixon….I’ll probably vote Republican again in the future, but not this year. Why? One big reason is the appalling, disgusting content of right wing radio jocks…. Once I discerned the deception they were spinning, and saw their goals of instilling partisan fear and hatred that will endure well beyond the election, I knew a closer look at Obama, unfiltered or interpreted by them, was merited. I really like what I discovered. Obama all the way! He’s got my vote.”

But after he wrote this “Comment” and before I had approved it—according to the standard blogging protocol—he got cold feet; he called to say: “Don’t post my response on your blog site.” Of course, I didn’t.

But my friend’s on-and-off comment addressed the issue of public rhetoric, though, and that brought to mind the article written by Evangelical leader James Dobson of “Focus on the Family.” His web site posted an article entitled “Letter from 2012 in Obama’s America.” It is a fictional letter describing social conditions that some think might develop if Obama is President.

Fear is the primary emotion flowing into and out of this letter, something pointed out by numerous responders, including Jim Wallis, on his Sojourner’s web site. Both the Dobson piece and the Wallis response are worth reading; they provide a wonderful window into opposite ends of the Evangelical world.

Finally, one friend who supports McCain and can not understand why I will vote for Obama sent a link to this article. It is an African American man explaining why he cannot vote for Obama. He reasoning revolves around two predicable issues: abortion and homosexuality—in my judgment, a very narrow moral spectrum.

This same McCain friend also thinks the large media networks are all biased in favor of Obama so she sent this cartoon. I smiled when I saw it and so can you.

Pied Piper from Chicago

Pied Piper from Chicago

Now a Word from Rush Limbaugh

It will be a miracle if Barak Obama wins the election.


I know he has the entire Democratic Party on his side, most of the ethnic communities, and much of the mainstream media—not to mention the whole world and quite possibly the almighty and everlasting God. That is quite a coalition.


But blocking the Obama Express is a great host of right wing advocates known as radio talk show hosts. They are, as the book of Revelation says of another gathering, “an exceedingly great multitude which no man can number.”


Three of them talked their way into my irritation as I drove to Cincinnati this week, and I am telling you again, it will be a miracle if Osama Obama, as one of their listeners tagged him, garners even a third of the ballots casts. My, it was nasty.


First it was Leland Conway. He is on Lexington station 630am WLAP. I know Leland; in a former life he shared a microphone with me on my public radio program, The Meetinghouse: Conversations on Religion and American Life. Now, he shares the time and space with very few, except those who think Obama is a Muslim, a Communist, a Liar, a Terrorist, a Deceiver, or the Devil himself. His rant is loud, reckless, and ruthless; more than once I wanted to place a call and challenge some off-the-wall assertion.


Leland is followed by the incomparable Rush Limbaugh, the godfather of self-absorbed gab holding forth on a bazillion stations across the fruit plains. What used to be considered rude, crude, and socially unacceptable he says with arrogant glee—and, of course, with economic success. His program was non-stop ridicule of Barak Obama—a toxic paradigm for every public square; I wonder what this style of communication would do if it came to dominate conversation in schools, churches, communities, and city councils.


Finally, I drove into the listening area of Bill Cunningham, sounding out from WLW, the 50-000 clear channel station in Cincinnati. It was more of the same. At least Mo could be distinguished from Larry and Curley by what did or did not sprout on the top of his head. Not these stooges. They were all alike: overly emotional, obsessed with disgust for Obama, fuming with righteous indignation, posturing like proverbial prophets crying in the wilderness.


Redistribution of wealth was the subject de jour. All three went straight from wealth redistribution to Communism, pretending they had never heard of food stamps, disability, social security, the GI bill, or even public schools—just a few of the many ways in which money is taken from those who have it to assist those who do not. But insinuation is more marketable than sanity, and facts are no match for the twenty-four-seven fantasy spewing forth from the mouths of these airwave authorities.


With that much airtime devoted to his destruction, it is amazing that Obama is even competitive in this political contest. These radio voices complain about the mainstream media; but I know of no public media—print, radio, network, cable, or even the web—as arrogant and irrational as the men who monopolize the daytime airwaves up and down Interstate 75.

Divorce: Very Public and Very Messy

For three decades the Moral Majority has been married to the Republican Party. Many thought it was a marriage made in heaven. It looked good and sounded good, but from the beginning the spouses were incompatible; and now disillusionment has set in and divorce is right around the corner.

The Moral Majority—or what we sometimes call the Religious Right—tapped into the growing cultural clout of Protestant Evangelicals. They found common cause—especially on the issue of abortion—with many Roman Catholics. So a coalition was born: Christian people who desired to introduce legislation to outlaw abortion, limit homosexual rights, promote private schools, and keep the symbols of Christianity in public places.

Plus the unfettered right to own and use guns—but that is another matter, really.

The Republican Party came courting, thinking—like medieval European monarchs—a royal marriage might expand their political base and bring them political power. Which it did: but all the promises the Party made to the believers—well, few of them ever materialized.

So now, the marriage is on the rocks.

That is the meaning of the defeat that is sure to overtake the Republicans in eight days.

McCain represents the classic Republican tradition: limited government, low taxes, strong military, and a hardnosed response to crime—and a careful neutrality toward religion. Palin represents the new cultural Republicans: religious rhetoric, right to life, traditional families, and a vision of a Christian nation.

Not only are they going to get beat on Election Day, I mean really beat—there is going to be a falling out. McCain and his people will blame the Palinites; Palin and her people will blame McCainsies. And during and after the blame game, a mighty struggle for the political assets. You know: who gets the house, the retirement account, the pedigreed pets, even the pottery collection. It is going to be a messy divorce: very public and very ugly.

Like all divorces, it is sad. Hopes dashed, dreams spent, plans gone awry. And many people will be saying, “I told you not to marry that woman, that man. You wouldn’t listen.”

It will happen again—some other Religious vision, some other Political ambition, convinced that a strategic partnership can usher in the Kingdom. Perhaps somewhere out of the limelight such suitors are already courting, whispering sweet nothings, planning marriage and mortgages and large families. There is nothing we can do to prevent it, really.

But life in the churches is not much better, and that also is depressing. It is hard to keep hope alive.