A whip of cords


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A whip of cords
By Bobby Neal Winters

I made a trip with my family down to Tulsa recently. We’re small town folks, so, though Tulsa doesn’t impress people from large cities, it holds for us certain pleasures that can’t be found in our own town like fancy restaurants and large bookstores.

We live a two-and-a-half-hour drive from there, and my brother lives a similar distance on the opposite side, so it makes a logical midpoint for us to meet, visit, and sample the pleasures of a city.

We all gathered at a restaurant, ate, and afterward adjourned to a bookstore my brother wanted us to see. He’d mentioned it was a Christian bookstore, and when we entered, we saw this was the case because Christian merchandise was everywhere. Indeed, the wave of impressions I received when I went through the front door was something of a shock to the system because Jesus’ face was present in large numbers on every wall. His likeness graced t-shirts, coffee cups, posters. If there was a product his face could be put on, it had been put there and there was a price sticker by it.

I grew up in the fundamentalist, evangelical, dispensational milieu that is the State of Oklahoma, so I am well acquainted with the culture to which this store caters. From my viewpoint growing up, Catholics were as rare as whooping cranes, I’d never heard of the Orthodox, the Episcopals were those folks with the tiny stone churches, and the Methodists where the folks down the road in the small cinderblock building. These folks could go to heaven, we were taught, but it was harder for them because their churches didn’t give an invitation to walk the aisle.

So it is understandable if I see a certain irony in the ostentatious display of what some would call art. In that culture, many of the store’s customers would accuse the Catholics, the Orthodox, and company of idol worship because of the art in their churches and the veneration of icons. I suppose the difference is a matter of “doing it the right way.”

Having been abroad in the world a bit, I’ve found I like icons and religious art, so it was not the density of the images of Jesus that affected me per se. It wasn’t even the questionable taste of putting that holy image on consumer products. Not even icons are free. There was something else that disturbed me.

I have trouble putting a name to it, but let me describe one of the prints. It was of a painting of Jesus with two businessmen in a plush office high above the city. The men were clean, handsome, and prosperous. The surroundings were luxurious. The Jesus portrayed was basically in standard fashion in a long white robe. His hand was on the elbow of one of the businessmen in a friendly sort of way. They were clearly “buds.”

Maybe this shouldn’t bother me, but it does. I will have to try to explain my conflict, and perhaps in doing so, I will understand it better myself.
Before his crucifixion, Jesus consorted with publicans, and publicans are certainly businessmen. In fact he associated with crooked businessmen who’d cheated the people. They came to Jesus, and he offered them a way to redemption.

Yet the message I got from the picture was something different. It said, “There is no cost to following Jesus.”

I was reminded of the so-called “prosperity gospel” current among some that says Jesus will bring profits into your coffers. This message is more reminiscent of Satan’s words to Jesus in the wilderness, “All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me,” than of Jesus’ offer to his disciples, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.”

This particular aspect of the religious culture in that very “red” state is one that is new to me. Perhaps it hadn’t developed or perhaps I was simply in a economic stratum from which it wasn’t visible. However, one aspect of the culture hasn’t changed and that is the dispensational element.

In the church where I grew up, there were periods of time in which the world came to an end twice every Sunday and six additional times during the week if there was a revival going on. While the Apostle’s Creed does acknowledge that “Christ will come again to judge the quick and the dead,” it devotes about one-twelfth of the allotted space to that item. Furthermore, the details are left cloudy. While the eschatological element in the Bible is undeniable, it is discussed in symbolic language for the most part.

However, there are those who are not so timid as to stick merely to the ancient creeds and the scriptures. They seem to know in great detail about the Second Coming.

While the Second Coming goes back to the roots of the church, there is a teaching about an event called the Rapture wherein the Church will be whisked away before the time of great tribulation. This, too, was part of the environment in which I grew up, but now the tares have sprouted more broadly. The teaching is based on so-called Biblical evidence so scant that I won’t even take time to mention it.

However, there was an inch-thick book on one of the shelves containing within its title the words “what Christians believe.” Slightly before the middle of that book was a chapter on the aforementioned rapture, and the remainder of the book consisted of exploring nuances on that topic.

While growing up, I lived in terror of not being taken during the Rapture. If I was in the same room with someone, turned around, and then turned back to find them gone, I was terrified to the point of being able to hear my own heart.

As I’ve matured in my faith and moved to another tradition somewhere along the way, I’ve come to understand end-time prophecies are popular among the poor and during hard times, as they hold the promise that Jesus will come to save them in a concrete way. However, this store was geared to an up-market clientele and times are relatively prosperous.

To me, the whole impression left was one of unreality. Sugar-coated art, sugar-coated theology, capped-off with Rapture mythology. It represents a fundamentalism that has given up the living truth of the holy scriptures for an façade constructed to support a reading of the scriptures that is literal where it should be symbolic and symbolic where is should be literal.

The most uncomfortable thing about my looking at it was the realization that it was through that road I came to Christ. Somehow through all that was false, all that was superficial, all that was sugar-coated, Christ somehow managed to touch me and so many millions of others including my brother.

My eldest daughter came to me and whispered in my ear, “This place is creepy.”

I agreed, so we said our goodbyes to my brother left, each of us going home to follow Christ in our own way.