Archive for November, 2006

Note to self: Everyone believes, but not easily (My weekly column)

Tuesday, November 28th, 2006

I’ve been asked to write a book with my wife, Amy, on young adults, their relationship to spirituality and the institution of church. We created an online survey to gather the opinions of this broad group labeled as ‘young adults.’

I’ve tried to reach out to a number of groups with which I might not otherwise have much of a connection in an effort to diversify our results. I joined an online atheist and agnostic discussion group, engaged them about some matters of spirituality, and invited them to take part in our survey.

To say that it has been a learning experience would be an understatement.

I experienced some expected resistance and suspicion at first. They have a name for folks who inveigle their way into the group, only to push an agenda. They call them trolls. Eventually, I convinced a significant contingency that I was not a troll, and that I really wanted their opinion.

Within a week, more than 100 members of the group took the survey. Following the initial flood of respondents, I received several very critical e-mails, informing me of the inherent religious bias of my survey, and of the group’s decision to forgo any further involvement.

Me? Religiously biased? You guys don’t know who you’re talking about, I thought to myself. I’m the guy who takes it to the religious establishment more often than not. I’m not the one you’re really mad at, I wanted to explain.

Instead of running to my own defense, I tried to sit back and really understand the criticism. Some was politely thoughtful, some even moderately supportive of my efforts. Some was outright mean. But the point was basically the same: There were cases in which they felt like I didn’t give them a chance to answer in a way that reflected what they believed. It was very important to them that their beliefs were understood accurately, and that my perspective of them was appropriate.

I’ve begun to realize how incredibly outside the institution of church this group of folks really feels. There’s a sort of presumption that because someone is agnostic or atheist, there is an absence of belief, rather than an alternate presence of one. In fact, atheists comprise a wide scope of beliefs, from humanists to pagans and beyond. They’re actually as diverse in their world views as we, within the church, tend to be.

I also figured out pretty quickly who was interested in dialogue and who was posing questions more as verbal weapons. Interestingly, those falling into the second category made me feel much like I did in a recent encounter I had with a “churchy guy” who accosted me to discern my views on everything from baptism to the Trinity, once he learned I was a church leader.

The experience reminds me how easily we wear our beliefs as tools of exclusion, prejudice and ignorance. I realize I, too, am guilty of this, thanks to the atheist crowd who pointed this out. It reminds me of the words from a song called “Belief” by John Mayer:

“Belief is a beautiful armor, but makes for the heaviest sword. Like punching under water, you never can hit who you’re trying for. Everyone believes, from emptiness to everything. Everyone believes, and they’re not going easily.”

It’s in our nature to believe, even if it’s in emptiness. Ironically, that’s just as important to some people as my belief in God, this presence to which I cling, yet have never seen. I have a way to go to understand faith in the absence of something, but they have my attention.

There is no ‘I’ in ‘Prayer’

Monday, November 20th, 2006

There is No ‘I’ in ‘Prayer.’
By Christian Piatt

Originally printed in the Pueblo Chieftain newspaper

I was with my wife, Amy, in Mexico last week for vacation. She found a small store, sandwiched between a convenience market and a show shop, which sold more religious paraphernalia than I ever knew existed.

Amy was particularly drawn to the milagros (Spanish for ‘miracle’) which are little metal emblems, stamped in Italy – and I assume blessed by priests – with the images of various saints, scriptures and other religious icons. She enjoyed poring over the scores of glass jars, selecting just the right ‘miracle’ for friends and family back home.

When we went to the front to pay, I ducked to avoid a clothes line, hanging just over the counter. Although I am of average height in the states, I feel like an adolescent to big for his body in many Mexican structures. The line was covered in hundreds of rosaries, the small strings of prayer beads used in the Catholic tradition.

Right next to the rosaries were clothespins holding the most recent scratch-off lottery tickets for sale.

Now, that’s interesting product placement, I thought.

Although I’m sure the proximity of the prayer beads and lottery tickets was coincidental, it got me to thinking about the reasons we pray. Last year, Newsweek and an online service called Beliefnet joined together do conduct a prayer survey. When asked, “What do you think is the most important purpose of prayer?” The most popular answer at 27 percent was “to seek God’s guidance.”

Close behind that were along the lines of giving thanks and drawing closer to the Divine. Lagging far behind at an anemic nine percent was “To improve a person’s life.”

Call me a skeptic, but I think this survey reflects a lot more about what we think intellectually about prayer than what we actually do. At the risk of beating a dead horse, I feel the urge to revisit the Prosperity Gospel concept once more.

I’m not suggesting that we’re all praying to win the lottery, although it’s my guess that more than one in ten sends up a good word when the Powerball creeps up over $100 million. From personal experience, I like to think that I make prayer a regular discipline to help strengthen my spiritual connection, but often times, I find myself forgetting to make it such a regular habit: that is, until I need something.

The explosion of the popularity of what I call “self-help Jesus” spirituality, from the eighties and on into the new century, suggests I’m not the only one. Such teaching has many champions such as Joel Olsteen, Joyce Meyer and the Copelands.

It’s quite a system, really. The principal is that God want’s the world’s righteous to prosper (materially), and that one of the main ways you show your faithfulness, aside from praying for affluence, is to give significant amounts of money to these ministries. This comes in many forms, including outright gifts, as well as book sales, lecture admission fees and more. I don’t know if Joel Olsteen sells T-shirts at his gigantic rallies, but it would not shock me.

The effect is self-evident. If you’re not growing in material abundance, you’re not working the system right. Duh!

It’s easy to castigate such a distortion of the gospel that not only fits so easily into the greedy value system of modern America, but also makes its proponents incredibly rich.

It’s not wrong to ask God for things. The Lord’s Prayer teaches us as much. But Jesus asks only for daily bread, not the whole stinking factory. Also, the whole prayer is in ‘we’ language. Nowhere in his prayer is the first person ever introduced.

If Jesus was around today, what would our modern-day Prosperity Gospel mavens tell him about his life of poverty? They’d probably tell him to pray harder, or maybe say he just wasn’t giving enough.

Hope or Wishes? Joy or Happiness?

Wednesday, November 15th, 2006

Hope or wishes? Joy or happiness?


            Anyone who has watched the movie A Christmas Story understands the tenuous and fragile nature of wishes. From the beginning, young Ralphie is obsessed with getting his hands on a Red Rider bee bee gun, complete with a compass in the stock, for Christmas. Adults repeatedly warn him of the dangers of shooting his eye out, and scheme after scheme is foiled. Finally the blessed day arrives, and beneath the tree, he finds the object of his desire.

He dashes outside to give it a try and, with his first shot, shatters his glasses and narrowly misses shooting his eye out.

Pueblo falls victim to some of the same fantasies. Hardly a week goes by that I don’t open the paper to read about this rumor or that about a new business that promises to lift us from our economic sluggishness. Some of them work out, but often times, these stories dissolve into the ether, never to mature.

I too follow such starry-eyed longings. My friends know I’m a fan of Chipotle, the Mexican food restaurant, to the point of obsession. I got in the habit of eating there at least five times a week when I lived in Denver and Fort Worth. Now, at least once a week, I drive an hour each way just to chow down on a monster burrito at the nearest Chipotle in Colorado Springs.

For two years, I have heard rumors about a store opening in Pueblo. I was so convinced by the most recent anecdote that I drove by the prospective site to see how far along the construction was. Once again, my hopes were dashed as the signage for yet another payday loan store was being secured to the front.

The word “hope” as used above actually is misused. Ralphie, Pueblo and I all get focused sometimes on outcomes, over which we have less control than we would like. These outcome-based longings actually are wishes. Hope is something greater, and thank God, it transcends physical results as we assess them.

Hope is universal across the religious spectrum, but we generally confuse this with wish-fulfillment. Examples of this can be found in the “Prosperity Gospel” messages of religious hucksters, promising wealth if you get right with God, and also send them a monetary token of your commitment.

Whenever we pin our faith on outcomes, we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment, and we’re setting God up for what we perceive as failure. It presumes we know what we really need, and it also assumes God is more concerned with what’s going on around us than what we’re experiencing within.

Fulfillment of wishes does bring happiness, in some cases. However, this feeling generally is fleeting, as we realize we replace one want with another, or that the thing we expected to fill the void we carry around didn’t do the trick.

Beware of any religious leader who tells you God wants you to be happy. True, we’re called to joyfulness, but like the difference between wishes and hope, joy transcends the bumps, bruises and abuses of daily life.

Things around us don’t have to change for us to have hope. Our ever-growing wish list doesn’t have to be satisfied for us to understand joy.  In fact, the more we focus on wishes and happiness, the less hope and joy we’ll have. Real hope doesn’t ebb and flow with circumstances, and joy isn’t a mood: it’s a state of being, transcendent of any suffering, disappointment or unfulfilled expectations.

Now, that’s a gift that keeps on giving.

Faces of Death: Coffee to Halloween, we’re obsessed

Wednesday, November 15th, 2006

Faces of Death: Halloween to coffee, we’re obsessed

By Christian Piatt

            This Halloween was the first time my son, Mattias, truly enjoyed all of the excitement available. He insisted on dressing up as Dash from the movie, The Incredibles. I swallowed my disdain for children acting as walking media billboards and conceded. It made him happy, after all.

            I noticed that, the older the kids got, the gorier and more frightening their costumes became. Pumpkins and superheroes gave way to horror movie icons, dismembered zombies and other mavens of mayhem.

It’s all a thin façade. Even in moments when I feared Mattias would be scared by the ghouls, he plopped a handful of candy into their bag and proclaimed, “You’re not scary. You’re a nice monster.”

Across the city, there a are symbols of our morbid fascination with death.  Even in the front yard of Mattias’ day care center, they have mock graves, mounded up with fresh dirt, complete with skeletal hands, reaching for unsuspecting prey. Cartoon ghosts, makeshift graveyards and haunted houses reveal that we’re terrified of death, yet we have no idea how to talk about it.

Recently, I listened to the testimony of a cancer survivor who had undergone extensive chemotherapy. The most frequent question she received during her treatment had to do with her hair loss. Few had the nerve to ask about her physical suffering, he fears, the risk to her life, or even the more violent side-effects of the poison they pumped through her veins to annihilate the tumors.

After all, when your fighting for your life, she suggests, isn’t your cosmetic appearance a little farther down on the list?

An article on the anatomy of the human taste bud in The New Yorker explains what takes place in our brains when we experience flavors. Our gustatory system actually is a critical survival mechanism, attuned to telling us what is safe to eat and what is toxic. Those things that are sweet, savory and salty generally include nutrients our bodies crave.

Spicy and bitter foods, however, send immediate warnings to the brain that we may be ingesting something that can harm or kill us. The resultant chemical response is a rush of endorphins, similar to a “fight or flight” experience.

Though the initial prompt is to respond quickly – in this case, spit out the offending morsel – the following endorphin effect is quite pleasurable. This causes us ironically to crave spicy or bitter food, along with other adventurous and life-threatening activities.

We can even get a voyeuristic thrill out of watching others risk life and limb. If this wasn’t the case, the new “Jackass” movie that features sophomoric acts of self-abuse would not have grossed nearly $70 million.

We spend billions of dollars celebrating a holiday that glorifies death, and we flock to movies where alligators snip at the genitalia of deviants. We even crave the bitter nectar of our morning coffee, sipping our “cup of death” so-described by The New Yorker article, just to help us feel ironically more alive.  The caffeine doesn’t hurt either.

As innately mortal creatures, we long to understand our end in its many expressions. We make jokes about it, scare ourselves in safe doses and take curious pleasure in the suffering of others: as long as it’s not too real. The moment the shadow of death looms too closely, we retreat into a paralytic state. We avoid even saying the “D” word.

Churches often capitalize on this collective neurosis to make the transcendence of death the cornerstone of their ministry. Who hasn’t been approached with the age-old question, “if you died today, do you know where you would go?” The answer for all of us is “no,” and that’s scary.

We believe a number of things, but knowledge suggests a direct line into the mind of God. We’re better served when our churches provide opportunities to learn how to safely grieve, discuss loss and death, and to explore the mysteries of what exactly lies beyond.

The best we can hope for is a faith in the promise of something better, and a commitment to making the best of life, simply for the sake of life itself.

Young adult spirituality survey for new book

Saturday, November 4th, 2006

Hey folks:

My wife, Amy, and I have contracted with Chalice Press (the same publisher for my book on “Lost”) to write another book on young adults and spirituality/religion. The working title is “MySpace to Sacred Space: Young Adults in an Aging Church.” It’s due out in July or August of next year, and we’re in a heavy research phase right now.

We’ve created an online survey, and we’d love to have your opinion.  It’ll take about 15 minutes to complete, and the only qualifications for taking part are:
*You must be no younger than 18 and no older than 40
*You must identify yourself as Christian (Catholic or Protestant), Agnostic, Atheist, or “spiritual but not religious,” however you define that.

We’d really appreciate it if you could take a few minutes to participate and share your opinion.  We really, REALLY do want the opinions of those not involved with church, and we do want honest answers, not just nice, warm fuzzy ones.


Finally, please send this link along to any friends or family who also fulfill the two requirements.  We’ll be gathering data for about a month, or until we hit about 3,000 responses, whichever comes first.

Thanks and tell us what you think!!!