Standing on the steps of a Roman Catholic Church in Red Bank NJ, Cardinal Glick prepares for a news conference. He has notified the press that he will be announcing the kick off a new campaign-"Catholicism - WOW." The Cardinal's purpose is to reverse the membership decline in the parishes. The campaign comes complete with a new breakfast cereal and (a wafer like Hosties) and the "Buddy Christ." A winking cartoon-like, smiling Jesus who replaces the Christ on the crucifix. In addition to these popular merchandizing gimmicks, at the heart of the campaign is the all-forgiving arch that removes all traces of sin for the wayward person who walks under it.
We never learn if Cardinal Glicks new campaign to attract new members and entice old Catholics to return to Church is successful. We do learn that the opportunity for plenary indulgence entices Loki and Barleby, two fallen angles, to embark on a pilgrimage to NJ. They have been banished from heaven for their misdeeds and confined to a place they find worse than hell-Wisconsin. They realize that the Cardinal's offer is a chance to gain forgiveness and re-enter heaven by the back door. The only problem is that if they succeed in doing this, the will of God will be thwarted and Creation will be undone. The entire history of civilization will come unraveled.
When the two outcasts set out for NJ, Metatron, God's faithful angel pursues them. He recruits a wavering and discouraged Catholic named Bethany. The symbolism of her name is striking. In Hebrew, it means "House of God." She is also a great niece of Jesus. Reluctantly, Bethany joins Metatron to ensure that God's salvation plan for history is not thwarted by two renegade angels. Along the way they team up with the 13th Apostle, a black man named Rufus who was left out of the Bible because it was written by a bunch of white guys.
While the Christian community has reacted quite negatively to the movie by protesting at various showings, the film does present a stinging and accurate satire of the state of the Church. Charles Henderson says this about the film:
[the director's} satire against the excess of organized religion is telling at points. For example, Cardinal Glick's Catholicism WOW with its "Buddy Christ," is devastating in pointing out the superficiality of a church which mimics secular marketing strategies in a misguided attempt to "succeed."1We substitute effectiveness and faithfulness with statistical numbers. A Florida pastor with seven-thousand-members expressed the fallacy well: "I must be doing right or things wouldn't be going so well."2 I suppose John the Baptist must have been doing something wrong for getting his head severed from his body.
The real tragedy is that we are willing to reduce the message to catchy jingles and cute merchandize to be successful. An advertising executive who designed marketing strategies for Coca-Cola Corporation and engineered the "I Found It" evangelistic campaign put it bluntly,
Back in Jerusalem where the church started, God performed a miracle there on the day of Pentecost. They didn't have the benefits of buttons and media, so God had to do a little supernatural work there. But today, with our technology, we have available to us the opportunity to create the same kind of interest in a secular society."3
I wonder if John the Baptist would have stayed out of prison if he had had a better marketing strategy.
The Church is called to bring people to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. She must adapt her message to appeal to people who suffer the pain of walking away from God. The Church must offer a message of love, forgiveness, and hope to this hurting world. However, the Church is also called to bring a message of justice and righteous that challenges worldly values and lifestyles.
The laws of God not only have a personal application but also a social, economic and political dimension. When a President lies under oath for whatever the reason the church must call him to repentance. When a corporation profits from the enslavement of the consumer through addictive substances, the Church has a responsibility to denounce their activities. When a gubernatorial candidate makes inflammatory statements that contradict the call for peacemaking, the Church cannot remain silent. Or, when a political party advocates that a state government renege on historical treaties made with Native Americans, the Church must assume the role of advocate. This is the call of the Church to be the Church. However, Mark issues a warning that when the Church rises up to be the Church, the world will rise up to be the world.
Mark's warning comes through his strategic positioning of the story about the execution of John the Baptist. He wedges it between the sending of the Twelve and their return. At first glance, the passage appears as filler material, sort of like killing time.
Thomas Long writes that when he was a boy the country church where he attended would elect officers by passing around the offering plates to collect paper ballots from the members. Then a few of the officers would take the ballots to a back room and count them. While the congregation would wait for the officers to return with the election results, the minister would lead everyone else in the singing of a few hymns. It did not matter which hymns they sang - any would do - they were just killing a little time waiting.4
This is not Mark's intent. The nephew of Peter has sandwiched the story between the sending and the returning of the Twelve for a particular reason. The two stories complement one another. In the first story, the disciples go throughout the various villages preaching, healing, and performing miracles. They were quite successful. People listened. Demons were cast out. People were healed. They returned filled with excitement, nearly boasting of all the things they did. But Mark balances their account for future disciples with the sobering report of John's death. The Baptist sought to heal. The Baptist sought to drive out the demons that raged in Herod but it cost him his life. When the Church rises up to be the Church, the world rises up to be the world.
This may sound rather strange for most of us. We have never had an experience in which we have been persecuted for our faith. Rather, we receive compliments. Churches are awarded plaques by mayors for their civic involvement. Elders and ministers are asked to join Kiwanis and Rotary. If any member from the congregation is involved in a "healing ministry" in the community, they will be invited to sit on the board of the hospital. This is the world's way of domesticating the Church. Herod put John into prison, the world assigns us to serve on a committee. I guess I would want to see the size of the rats in prison before I make any judgement as to which is the more severe penalty. Herod kept John in chains to protect him. In prison, John was safe from Herodias' venom. Herod could also talk with him about the law and not worry that he was organizing an insurrection. But, John would not change his message. He would not allow himself to be domesticated. His only weapon was his spoken word and that word threatened Herodias so she hatched a plot that culminated in John's execution.
A priest stood in a pulpit armed only with words. Listen to a sampling of those words:
In the gospel of Christ...one must not love oneself so much as to avoid getting involved in the risks of life that history demands of us...The experiences of a new earth must not weaken but rather stimulate our concern for this earth...May we give ourselves like Christ, not for self, but to give justice and peace to our people.5
Rather innocuous sounding words. They could have been preached in any church on any given Sunday. No one should be threatened by those words. But someone was. Just after the priest said "...to give justice and peace to our people....", a shot rung out in the sanctuary and Archbishop Romero of El Salvador lay dead on the altar. Mark wants us to know that when the church rises up to be the church, the world rises up to be the world.
LIFE BEYOND THE GRAVE
When John's disciples heard about it they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb. The apostles gathered around Jesus....
Mark connects the death of John to life of Jesus to tell us that when the world rises up to be the world, Jesus Christ rises from the dead. When Herod heard that the disciples were going around the countryside preaching, he probably threw a tirade. "I thought I had taken care of that religious radical. Has John risen from the grave?"
Mark subtly reminds us that John has not risen but Jesus has. Martin Luther put the thought into a great hymn,
The body they may killAfter his release from prison, a Korean pastor recounted his story for a group of American pastors. The police arrested him for preaching and teaching the kingdom of God. The conditions in prison were terrible. The authorities denied him visiting privileges. He did not see his wife or family members for months. He was under tremendous pressure to recant. He began to lose hope. He stopped praying and reading the Bible. Every few weeks the government would march him into a courtroom and demand that he renounce his "traitorous" views. Finally, he decided to relinquish. They brought him into court. When the judge called him before the bench, he wearily stood up and prepared himself to recant but just before he could speak his wife and children shouted "God is alive, God is alive." That was all they could say before they were removed by armed guards. But it was enough. The pastor's faith was strengthened and he stood resolute before the bench.6
1. Charles Henderson, About.com Online: http://christianity.about.com/religion/christianity/library/weekly/aa112999.htm
2. Os Guinness, "Sounding out the idols of the Church," No God But God: Breaking with the Idols of Our Age, Os Guinness and John Seel, eds. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1992), 159.
3. Guinness, "Sounding out the idols of the Church."
4. Thomas Long, "When the church rises to be the church," Pulpit Resource, William H. Willamon, ed., Vol. 28, No. 3.
5. Archbishop Romero quoted by Thomas Long, "When the church rises to be the church," from an unidentified source.
6. Thomas Long, "When the church rises to be the church."
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