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Friday, February 19, 2010

Joel Osteen and Norman Mailer: Uncommon Common Ground

The other day I picked up Norman Mailer's "God: An Unusual Conversation," where, for the lack of a better term, Mailer becomes a believer. That is not to say he never believed before--I didn't know the man personally, despite the fact that I devoured all of his books one fateful summer of personal crankiness and foul contempt for the world (yes, Mailer would have been proud). This book, which actually was "composed" out of recorded conversation with his literary executor, Michael Lennon, is a beautifully, yet eccentric way of seeing spirituality. Sort of the "do-it-yourself" belief in God that the organized religions deplore so much. Mailer makes some very insightful comments here. For example, why does modern Christianity related social/economic success on God's blessing? Mailer being Mailer, he goes on a tour d'force against organized religion, debating, with great aplomb, the necessity and dependence the Church has on the financial offerings people give every Sunday, etc. I am sure people will jump and claim that to be an over-simplistic argument, a claim without a warrant. Well, I see his point, however, quite clearly being exercised in living color right before my eyes. The Catholic diocese covering the region where I live is closing down numerous churches and parishes, to the great alarm of people and family generations who have attended those closing churches for years, often times over 100 of serving the community. And the bottom line reason: finances. Lower parishioners mean lower gifts, donations. But instead of the Church officials going out there and knocking on doors and offering that same type of community and place of gathering that used to provide the financial means for the church, the Church administration has decided not to appeal to those who do not come to church, or perhaps come only in Easter and/or Christmas. I am not a Catholic, but Mailer's argument rings true to me. There's a hierarchy, or at least there seems to be one, whose sole purpose is the running of the church as a financial corporation. While I may not ascribed to all Mailer says, what he describes in this book is enough to make anyone sit down and ponder (which was what Virgin Mary did when she found out she was with child from God).

Joel Osteen's series of books celebrates the fact that those who are successful must have done something to please God, and it behooves them to continue to do it. I haven't read any of his books, but I have watched him intensively on the television. And it is true, very true that the connection between personal finances and faith have been blurred to the extent that one doesn't know what to think, or, in other cases, one doesn't think before offering to the church. I am not saying finances and the church shouldn't be mixed--it's a reality that he church needs our offerings to continue to function, and that there are many social programs that reach needy people by means of the church. But other issues are at stake here. Overseas ministering strikes me (and to some degree Mailer) as religious colonialism of the ancient kind. There are still missionaries (funded by members the church) rounding the globe with the purpose of converting indigenous peoples into the full knowledge of Jesus Christ. What pains me about this is that we do not learn from our mistakes--indigenous cultures are what they are, they don't need us to come in there and Topsy-Turvy their world, traditions and cultures to our liking, Jesus Christ notwithstanding.

What Mailer (and I think myself to a degree) opposes is the shift on priorities: Churches are not a place to worship, but a place to make a contribution in order to worship. Recently, a friend of mine invited me to a Christian/Protestant church and some of what the pastor was engaged in discussion had to deal with the church's finances. Handouts were passed out, and, to my surprise one of the explain, in full detail and with concordances to the Bible, exhorting those who are unemployed to still give to the church. Needless to say, that didn't sit well with my Mailersonian perspective of these issues after reading "On God: An Unusual Conversation."

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