Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Case Against "I Believe"

by Lyndsey Graves 

We believe in one God, 
The Father, the Almighty, 
Maker of heaven and earth, 
Of all that is, seen and unseen.

“I think it would be terrible to have to lie in church like that.” A classmate shared an anecdote about a friend who wasn’t sure he could agree with everything in the Nicene Creed, and I felt confused. Does this guy really think that everyone in the room believes everything in the Nicene Creed?

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, 
The only Son of God, 
Eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light, 

True God from true God, 
Begotten, not made, 
Of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation 

He came down from heaven: 
By the power of the Holy Spirit 
He became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, 
And was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; 

He suffered death and was buried.

I, for one, am expecting a pretty mundane Holy Week; I’m not really feeling very holy. I’ve complained to everyone I know about my Lent fast, which I’m pretty sure is not its point, and besides that, I’m just too busy for Holy Week. I know you’re not supposed to say that, but I’m also too busy to guilt myself into fixing it or whatever, so it is what it is. Maybe this means I don’t really believe in Jesus; in fact, I’m pretty sure it does. I’m pretty sure if I believed, I’d do whatever it took to spend as much time as possible at least for this one week contemplating and celebrating these momentous events. But I’m probably not going to.

Go ahead and whisper that maybe I’ve gotten a little lukewarm if you wish. I don’t think I have. I know what I’ve gotten, actually - I’ve gotten burned out. After moving across the country to work at a church and then going to seminary, I’m quite done playing Christian, completely over doing things because I’ve decided that I “should,” and especially sick of what “I believe.” Various ones of my beliefs have been deconstructed block by block; some have been demolished in an instant. Others are buried and mourned; pushed, pulled, shoved and yanked, all without actually budging; nudged and finessed and nuanced into crystalline precision; and over-defended to within an inch of their opponents’ lives. My beliefs have been treated as if they were of utmost importance in the name of “orthodoxy” and “critical thinking” and lots of things about “context” and “epistemology.”

On the third day he rose again 
In accordance with the Scriptures; 
He ascended into heaven 
And is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, 

And his kingdom will have no end.

I’m not going to say that beliefs aren’t important. Our beliefs, stated and unstated, do change our actions; our theologies do affect our relationships to God. But my beliefs aren’t nearly as important as some teachers and pastors and denominational officials make them out to be. As one of my housemates said, “Some days you decide that Jesus didn’t actually do any miracles or rise from the dead. And you go on living your life for a day or two, and then things are fine again.”

We’re told, “You are going to be A Religious Leader. You must determine What You Believe.” We wrinkle our foreheads and Critically Think. We start to align ourselves with certain writers or systems and against certain enemies. But it all rings a little bit false.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, 
Who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.

People sometimes believe things based on what they’ve decided intellectually. But mostly, they believe whatever everyone else believes, because that’s the thing that the culture treats as reality. I know lots of churches say their creed this way – Credo. I believe. But there’s rarely any such thing as, “I believe.” There is mostly just “We do. We assume. We expect. We disbelieve. We censor. We remember. We are.”

We believe.

What’s important is that we are reminding one another what, in our moments of greatest fidelity to tradition, underlies the things we do, assume, expect, disbelieve. I don’t have to believe all of it before I can proclaim to my community what we believe. Nor do I even have to say it before I can belong to that “We.”

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

For long months of the darkest night of my still-young soul, I went to church and did nothing but stand. I dragged myself in as the sun set and watched the songs go by, feeling as lonely as ever, with a sort of numb wish to think the songs were true. Some days I silently raged through others’ prayers, prayers they clearly felt so deeply - What does this have to do with me? I used to pray like that. But you just wait till God leaves you, and then we’ll see how you pray. And then I would stand for the creed, say only the words, “We believe,” and cry helpless tears through the list of the things I didn’t believe. And in the midst of it all, the people of Emmanuel Fellowship bore me through that dark night on the raft of their imperfectly-faithful words, the repetition of the creed.

We look for the resurrection of the dead, 
And the life of the world to come.

Let Holy Week be for the doubter. Let Holy Week be for the lukewarm. Let Holy Week be for the burned-out, the sinner, the child, the angry, the bewildered, the bitter, the confused, and the liars. Say what you can; or say what someone else believes; or let the rest of us say it for you.

This is what we believe.

This is what we hope.


Lyndsey lives in Boston, MA where she is pursuing her Master's in Theological Studies at Boston University. She enjoys Community, Mad Men and Beauty and the Beast and her spirit animal is a sloth. She would like to know if this is some kind of interactive theater art piece. You can follow her on Twitter @lyndseygraves and you can find more of her writing at her blog To Be Honest. 

You can follow On Pop Theology on Twitter @OnPopTheology or like us on Facebook at If you'd like to support what we do, you can donate via the button on the right of the screen.

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Monday, April 14, 2014

On Pop Theology Podcast: Episode 57 - An Interview w/ Richard Beck

by Ben Howard

This week on the podcast I talk with blogger, author, and psychologist Richard Beck. They discuss the Church of Christ, the nature of psychology and theology, the label "progressive" and the importance of human experience. We'll also discuss Beck's new book The Slavery of Death, Eastern Orthodox theology and the concept of kenosis.

You can find Richard's books on Amazon and find more of his writing at Experimental Theology.

You can download the podcast by clicking here. Or you can subscribe to the podcast by searching "On Pop Theology" in the iTunes music store. If you like the show, please rate and review us on iTunes. It's the only way to prove to my mom that I have friends.

Finally, if you'd like to stream the podcast, you can do that here: 



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Friday, April 11, 2014

Go, Diego, Go (Away!)

by David Creech

Go, Diego, Go! is ruining the world.

Now, it may just be that I am cranky, having had to suffer eight years of the fatuous cartoon. Eight years of horribly forced animal sounds. Eight years of “Say it louder!” and “Everybody scream!” (Have the writers never been in a room with 2-4 year olds? They need no encouragement!) Eight years of painfully dumb questions that allow us to pretend that our children have learned something by the end of each show. After watching roughly three million incredibly educational episodes, my children can answer the following profoundly inane questions:

Does a sloth live in an igloo or a tree?
Can a bicycle float down a water slide?
To dive in the water, does a humpback whale use a diving board or arch its back?
Does a red eyed tree frog have red eyes or purple eyes?

Look out Mensa, here come America’s youth. (Yes, these are actual questions from the show. 1) Though I tried, I couldn’t make up that kind of stupid, so 2) I had to do some research late last night.)

But you know what? Our kids are learning something from the show. And that thing they are learning is deeply troubling on a number of levels.

Each episode follows the same hackneyed storyline: Some animal is in trouble. That animal is helpless and defenseless until Diego, Alicia, and Baby Jaguar fly to their rescue. The natural abilities and instincts of the animal are ignored as the animal rescuers swoop into action. Without the patronage of these benevolent saviors, those poor, helpless creatures would be S.O.L. Yes, in America we like to nurture our savior complex from a very early age.

And this is incredibly problematic if we truly want to address the great ills of our world.

Here’s the issue: this kind of thinking leads us to devalue others and ignore their individuality as we view ourselves as heroes, the ones with wisdom, skill, power, and generosity. We’re the good and noble philanthropists. This is what it looks like: there is a person living in poverty. We take a picture of her (‘she’ because women and girls are impacted disproportionately by poverty). We put it out there for all to see, a call to action, a reminder that “something must be done.” And suddenly, that girl becomes to us nothing more than her poverty. She has a myriad of capabilities—intellect, ingenuity, persistence, hope. But all we choose to see is her need. (For more on this, see this post on poverty porn).

We feel the urge to help her. We have no idea about her context or the ways in which our own manners of doing and being contribute to her marginalization. How we ourselves may play a role in causing her vulnerability. Instead, our savior complex kicks in and we come riding to the rescue, a knight on a white horse. Surely this person can do nothing on her own. Her only hope is me… her great Western hero.

Now, we all know that this is a lie. We know that human beings are so much more than their material circumstances; they are created in the image of God. And as such, they are creators alongside God; they have agency. This means that they bring important gifts to the table, that we must listen to them and trust that they know their circumstance better than you or I ever could. They do not need a great Western hope. They need us to get out of the way so they can flourish. What better approaches look like it is a topic for another post; for now, suffice it to say we often hinder their flourishing, even when we have the best of intent.

Now, maybe I have been too hard on Diego and his friends. The show is multicultural with nonwhite heroes. The work they do is, at a certain level, good. I mean, who wants to poo-poo rescuing cute little animals? And collaborating on a rescue mission sure beats marching off to wage violence against one’s enemies. But if the message is consumed by a Western culture accustomed to viewing itself as the great bastion of morality and heroism, we need more, especially from shows that are engaged in forming the next generation’s foundational values.

So there you have it, an overly technical deconstruction of Go, Diego, Go. Now you know the sound a PhD makes when he has three children between two and eleven. Say it louder! Everybody scream! 

David Creech is Assistant Professor of Religion at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. Before taking his teaching post up on the frozen tundra he worked for four years doing anti-hunger education and mobilization with ELCA World Hunger. When he is not herding cats (i.e., spending quality time with his three kids) he posts profound thoughts on Twitter @dyingsparrows.

You can follow On Pop Theology on Twitter @OnPopTheology or like us on Facebook at If you'd like to support what we do here, you can donate via the button on the right of the screen.

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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Dear Theology

by Lane Severson

Dear Theology,

I don't know what happened. I never thought I'd be writing this letter. But here I am, in the lobby of an enormous Hyatt resort in Orlando, Florida at a business conference, and I have to tell you that it is over.

Let's be honest, I think we both saw this coming. I was always trying to get you to do things you weren't comfortable with and you always ended up nagging me about things I just didn't care about. It wasn't fair to either of us.

We used to have a beautiful relationship back when I called myself a fledgling theologue and read everything you had to offer. And those three years together in graduate school were so passionate. But maybe it was too much too fast. I don't know.

After graduation we planned to keep studying together but I got a job. At first that was great. We both resented the job. It had come between us and gave us a mutual enemy. I kept meeting you in secret just to spite "The Man." (Remember when we planned to learn Latin together? We were so stupid.) The thing is, I had already stopped loving you then. I didn't love my work yet, not the way I do now, but I had started to resent you for the cruel, aloof way you carried yourself. You had so many important things to say but you never wanted to talk about my real life. That was too boring. Even when we went all ethical, you couldn't spend more than a few minutes on friendship, family, or work. And that's my whole life.

So you should have known when I didn't call that I was reading Batman comics and Rumi poetry. I can't explain why, but they connected with me in ways that you didn't anymore. I felt bad about us. But what could I do? I honestly couldn't take another discussion about any of your damnable "ologies."

Now, when friends ask how you are, I try to change the conversation. I had become a proxy between you and a lot of friends. But now, when they wonder what you would say about something, I just feel sick to my stomach. I want to shout, "Who cares? That poopy head doesn't care about anything."

That's the kicker isn't it? The empathy. Anytime you got some empathy you got all stupid-drunk hippy-dippy about the world and lost your substance. It was kindness without wisdom. And I couldn't handle that either.

You'll probably think this means I'm leaving "the faith." You are actually that vain. You would equate yourself with the faith. I'm shaking my head in disbelief as I write this. No I'm not leaving the faith, you pompous ass. I'm worshiping, training my children, celebrating Eucharist, and praying. But I'm leaving all the abstract meaningless questions to you. You can keep them. 

I'll be doing the work that God gave me and raising the children he blessed me with. And when I want to read something, it will have to do with either them or Batman.

Goodbye, Theology. I won't miss you. 

Lane Severson blogs at On Pop Theology and Out of Ur. He likes charismatic liturgy and listening to Kanye West or Jay Z with his wife and five children. Lane can be found at or on Twitter @_lxnx.

You can follow On Pop Theology on Twitter @OnPopTheology or like us on Facebook at If you'd like to support what we do, you can donate via the button on the right of the screen.

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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

On Pop Theology Podcast: Episode 56 - Jesus Is Better Than You Imagined w/ Jonathan Merritt

by Ben Howard

In this week's episode Ben chats with Jonathan Merritt, author of the new book Jesus Is Better Than You Imagined. Their conversation will cover topics such as the effects of growing up as a preacher's kid, the nature of religious commentary, and the need for mysticism in the church. They'll also talk about the importance of honesty and vulnerability in writing as well as the time he took a ride on Mel Gibson's jet.

You can find Jonathan's book on Amazon and in bookstores everywhere. You can follow him on Twitter @jonathanmerritt and find more of his writing at

You can download the podcast by clicking here. Or you can subscribe to the podcast by searching "On Pop Theology" in the iTunes music store. If you like the show, please rate and review us on iTunes. It's the first step in our secret mission to take over the world.

Finally, if you'd like to stream the podcast, you can do that here: 


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Monday, April 7, 2014

Unicorns With Body Image Issues and The Best Things You'll Read All Week

by Ben Howard

Reads of the Week

1) The Blue Period: An Origin Story by Ta-Nehisi Coats

"I don't think a human gets to see all of this before dying. But I want to see as much of it as I can. And here is the key thing--it thrills me to see it. I love seeing it. I love knowing. The knowing is its own reward. The ability to frame the question is it's own gift--even if you can't quite name the answer."

2) Where I Stand by Jen Hatmaker

"We don’t get to abandon the theology of love toward people; the end does not justify the means. That is not Christ-like and it is certainly not biblical. As a faith community, it is time we relearn what “speaking the truth in love” means. Something that actually feels like love is a start. If the beginning and end of love is simply pointing out sin, then we are doomed."

3) Humanity - Spirit of the Poor Link Up by Aaron Smith

"I am more than someone with bipolar, more than my stance on gender equality, even more than my faith and devotion to Jesus. I am fully human, and my humanity is complex. I am more than what shows in crisis, in passion, and in devotion. I am all of these things, and more. I am what is revealed in the normal moments, in the moments just before I fall asleep, in the mornings before coffee. This humanity of mine shows it’s self at work, at church, in the kitchen, when I am giving my son a bath, at the doctor’s office, riding public transit. Everywhere I am, there is my humanity."

4) On Broken Pastors and Golden Calves by Seth Haines

"We’re all looking for a lock-tight faith, one that allows escape from the clutches of the strangling sins common to men. We want to believe in the ideal, that we’ve been crucified with Christ, therefore we no longer live, but the sinless, perfect Christ lives in us. But fumble though we may, grope as we must, white-knuckle as we can, we still struggle with living an actualized, in-dwelt life."

5) The Psalms as Liberation Theology by Richard Beck

"The thing that strikes you about the psalms when you read them straight through is how oppressed and beleaguered is the psalmist. Enemies, hecklers, back-stabbers, two-faced friends, violent oppressors and economic exploiters abound. This goes to the source of lament in the psalms. Rarely is the lament about, say, the death of a loved one. The lament is generally about oppression, about the victory of the oppressor."

Honorable Mention

You Are Allowed Your Process by Jamie Wright

Disunity in Reading the Same Bible by Nate Pyle

The Splenda Level of Friendship by Megan Gahan

Tweets of the Week

"Fun first date idea: Force a connection because you're afraid to be alone." - @mdob11

"If I die unexpectedly can everyone just do the right thing and pretend I was a way better person than I am?" - @AnnaKendrick47

"'Religious liberty has never been more under attack,' said Ted Cruz while zero lions ate him." - @indecision

On Pop Theology Week in Review

On Pop Theology Podcast: Episode 55 - Villainous Villainy

"This week on the show Ben, Sebastian and Jesse tackle the topic of villains."

Ten Thoughts About the Noah Movie from Someone Who Has Been Resolutely Not Paying Attention by Lyndsey Graves

"I have not been paying attention to anything about the new Noah movie. Here are my thoughts about it."

A Theology of Filthy Rags by Charity Erickson

"The other day my mother brought a green suitcase to my house, full of random crap from my old bedroom."

Time is a Trap by Ben Howard

"Time is, in a very real sense, a trap."

Song of the Week

"The Book of Live" by Peter Gabriel


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Thursday, April 3, 2014

Time is a Trap

by Ben Howard

Time is, in a very real sense, a trap.

Contrary to constant proclamations and reminders about the need to stay “in the moment” or to “live in the present,” reality stubbornly presents us with no real alternative.

We are always here. We are always in the now and for good or ill there is no escape from this context.

In his book Eating the Dinosaur Chuck Klosterman includes an essay about time travel. As part of his exploration into this narrative conceit he discusses his own metaphor for the way time operates. He describes time as a train with one person hanging off the front and another hanging off the back. The person hanging off the front is constantly laying down the piece of track to be used in the next moment, while the person hanging off the back is picking up the track that's just been used.

Both past and future exist only as mental constructs. Presents gone and presents still to come.

And that constant movement, that constant shift from moment to moment, from now to now, it pulls a trick on us all.

If you ever want an object lesson on why predicting the future is a stupid endeavor just listen to political podcasts from two years ago. Or a year ago. Or even six months ago.

There is no hilarity like a full-throated and certain prediction of an impending Mitt Romney presidency.  Nor is there anything as cringe-worthy as a haughty assurance that Congress would never force a government shutdown or hearing it described as almost inevitable that President Obama will pass gun control legislation, or at the very least, immigration reform.

Of course it's not the fault of the pundits. They are working on a deadline and they get neither the aid of hindsight or enough time for reflection before they're asked to explain what all this “means” and tell a waiting public how everything will work out. It is their job to know the future before it happens. And it's a job that's beyond us all.

It's not fair to judge the words of the past in the reality of the present. Time is a trap.

Last week World Vision USA announced it would hire employees in same-sex marriages. Support flooded the internet, but outrage flooded it even more. Eventually money spoke and the decision was reversed. The narrative has been repeated ad nauseum.

Many people have written about the reasons for these decisions and what symbolic meaning we can take both from the policy change and its subsequent reversal. You should read them, they are interesting and instructive. This essay is not about those decisions or that symbolic meaning.

This essay is about why you will forget it.

They say time heals all wounds. This is true. This is true, sort of.

As time moves on, our memories blur. Hurts become less painful and joys become less pleasurable. And while we can say that time is healing these hurts, these cuts and bumps and bruises, it's not entirely accurate. It's rather that we assimilate them. They become a part of us and change us ever so slightly. The jagged edge of immediacy is smoothed out and we are left with a new configuration of ourselves, but one we have already become familiarized with during the slow healing process. We change, but we do not realize we are changing.

In one month, two months, six months, a year, no one will recall the World Vision controversy into which we've invested so much over the last two weeks. It will be little more than an anecdote, a footnote to the debate over gay marriage and the culture war raging within Christianity.

It will have entirely lost its symbolic place as either the death knell of evangelicalism (or its resurgence depending on your perspective). I invite you to revisit these blogs and tweets and Facebook posts a year from now; they will seem myopic and over-blown. It will feel like they exist in a different world.

This is not to say that it meant nothing. The fights were real and so was the hurt. The betrayal was true. But in time the wounds will no longer be as fresh, they may even “heal,” but they will leave slightly different people in their wake.

And this is the real trauma. It's not the death of a movement or the mass exodus of millennials. It's only slightly about gay marriage and equal rights.

The real trauma is that this will exist as one more jagged little paper cut. One more scarred-over battle-wound leaving us increasingly desensitized, increasingly prepared for combat, increasingly on the lookout for enemies from without and within.

In time, this will be yet another moment that affects us and changes us ever so slightly. So slightly that we don't even realize it as we become hard and cynical, as we begin once again to view “other” as synonymous with “enemy.”

Look out, it's a trap. 

Ben Howard is an accidental iconoclast and generally curious individual living in Nashville, Tennessee. He is also the editor-in-chief of On Pop Theology and an avid fan of waving at strangers for no reason. You can follow him on Twitter @BenHoward87. 

You can follow On Pop Theology on Twitter @OnPopTheology or like us on Facebook at If you'd like to support what we do, you can donate via the button on the right of the screen.

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