BANNED QUESTION: Should a Biblical Hell be Taken Literally?

March 14th, 2011

The following is a passage from the book, BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE. Visit Chalice Press, order the BANNED QUESTIONS books online or by phone and use the promotional code “BANNEDMAR” for a 40% discount.

Hell, Sheol, Hades, Gehenna, and Tartarus are all labeled as “Hell.” By most Christians. Are they really the same? Are they all places of fiery torment? Are such things to be taken literally, metaphorically, or as myth?

David Lose:

These places aren’t all the same, but they’re similar enough that you can understand why people lump them together. In brief, Sheol and Hades represent the realm of the dead, the place where both good people and bad go after death. Gehenna and Tartarus, on the other hand, are reserved for wicked people and are places of punishment. Hell, a word that comes from Old English, has become a catch-all phrase for the others, but for the last two, especially.

On the whole, the Bible doesn’t talk a whole lot about any of these places, and so I’m a little leery of giving them much significance in our own theology. In fact, I get downright suspicious of folks that seem to like talking about eternal punishment, as that seems out of sync with Jesus’ emphasis on God’s love.

Too often in the Church’s history, hell has been used to scare people into doing what the church wants them to. For this reason, some people think we’ve outgrown the usefulness of concepts like hell and damnation. Others, however, would argue that we wouldn’t appreciate heaven without the threat of hell.

In so far as hell depicts ultimate separation from God, I tend to think that whether it’s an actual physical place or a metaphor, it’s a good place to avoid. On that score, I take hope from the Apostle Paul’s declaration that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). Sounds good to me.
Gary Peluso-Verdend:

No, the meaning of these words is not the same. Rather, we have different symbols from different symbol systems.
Sheol is a Hebrew word, found in the pre-6th century BCE portions of the Old Testament. Ancient Judaism did not conceive of human beings as part body and part soul. Rather, human beings were understood as flesh animated by the breath of God. Whatever existence a person has after death was thought to be in a place called Sheol, a place of shades, where there is no consciousness. Sheol contains neither pleasures nor torments.

During Israel’s captivity in Babylon, Jews were exposed to Zoroastrianism, a religion that includes a belief in resurrection and a two-place afterlife—the equivalent of heaven and hell. By New Testament times, belief in resurrection, heaven, and hell were widespread—albeit not universal—in Judaism.

Hell as a place of torment and stink became well developed many centuries after the Bible by the Christian writer Dante Alighieri, but sometimes the roots of a mythical or non-physical place are found in real places. Gehenna, as a place of torment for evil people, was associated with the Valley of Hinnom, south of Jerusalem, where the city dumped its garbage.

Very important beliefs are associated with hell, such as sin, judgment, consequence, resurrection. Christianity—or any other religion—is like a language; one must understand each symbol within a greater grammar.

Jason Boyett:

No, they are not the same. Four words—the Hebrew word sheol and the Greek words hades, gehenna, and tartaroo—have been translated as the English word hell. We think of hell as a fiery place of torment for sinners, but only gehenna fits that description.

Sheol was an all-purpose term referring to the shadowy realm of the dead (“the grave”), and earlier Old Testament books seem to indicate that everyone goes there—not just the wicked. In the New Testament, the Greek word hades is used interchangeably with sheol—it’s the place of the dead. Tartaroo appears only once in the Bible, in 2 Peter 2:4. It refers to Tartarus, the dungeon-like netherworld in Greek mythology filled with suffering and torment. The context indicates it is where demons reside.

The hell-as-torture-chamber idea comes from gehenna, which Jesus described as a destination for sinners. This word originates with a Hebrew name, Ge-Hinnom, which refers to the Hinnom Valley, a garbage dump outside Jerusalem. Trash, animal carcasses, and the bodies of criminals were dumped there, and the valley burned continuously—an evocative image of hell.
Do we take the idea of a burning hell literally? Jesus certainly spoke as if it were a real place. But keep in mind that the idea of a dualistic afterlife—a hell for sinners and heaven for the righteous—was a relatively new idea to Judaism, possibly due to the influence of Zoroastrianism during the Babylonian Exile. It was a theological departure from the ancient faith of the Jewish patriarchs.

Craig Detweiler:

While death is a certain fact, it is also prompts an air of mystery. What happens when our hearts stop beating?   Is there something on the other side of life?  Descriptions of hell (and heaven) are all rather speculative, more poetic than precise.

The Hebrew word, “Sheol,” describes the grave that awaits us all.  It is a shadowy place, something we’ve all glimpsed at a funeral, but never experienced from the inside. Our bodies are all bound for Sheol, irrespective of our beliefs or practices.   None escape physical death.

When the Hebrew scriptures were translated into the Greek language, the word “Hades” was chosen to describe the ground or pit our bodies are bound for.  The Greek notion of Hades was more of a shady, mythological place than a physical grave.

Within Greek mythology, Tartarus, is a place of judgment and torment, a pit much farther down than the more benign Hades. Only once does the word Tartarus appear in scripture.  In 2 Peter 2:4, God punishes sinful angels by throwing them into Tarturus, a dark pit reserved for judgment.

When the Bible was translated into English, Hades and Sheol were translated as Hell. Unfortunately, such a reference comes across as much more loaded than “the grave.” It had eternal associations rather than tangible, temporal or physical meaning.
The associations of hell with a fire, torment, and eternal anonymity start coming into play with a term like “Gehenna.”  It is a destination we would all want to avoid.   It is a place where people who lack family, resources, and significance are discarded.   No one wants to feel so unloved, unacknowledged, or unnoticed.

What does the Bible really say about homosexuality?

March 8th, 2011

From the upcoming book, BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE. Order sets of five copies at Chalice Press, enter the promotional code “BANNEDQ5″ at checkout and get 40% all five books. 

What does the Bible really say about homosexuality?

Christian Piatt:
Perhaps nothing sparks more heated debate over scripture than the Biblical position on homosexuality. First off, it should be pointed out that there is no reference whatsoever in any Biblical scripture about homosexuality; rather, it refers in some instances to homosexual acts. And depending on your understanding of sexual orientation, there can be a big difference between the two.

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is perhaps the most famous – or infamous, based on where you’re coming from – but it’s important to understand how homosexual behavior was used in the town from which “sodomy” was coined. When a town was conquered, one way that the victorious army would demonstrate their dominance was to rape the women of the village. Sometimes, to add further insult to the defeat, they would even rape the men.

Rather than an intimate act, this behavior actually was a military strategy, though brutal and repulsive, to break the spirits of the defeated culture.

Other references, including those by the apostle Paul, condemn men for lying with men as if they are women. Again, some context helps us understand that certain non-Christian religions of the time conducted ritual orgies as a tribute to their god or gods, and though it can be argued either way, it’s possible that Paul was referring to what he considered heathenous religious practice rather than consensual gay couples.

As for Jesus, he never spoke about homosexuality or homosexual acts, so for those who look principally for him for guidance, we’re left with our own consciences to guide us.

Kathy Escobar:
The passages that are commonly used as an argument against homosexuality are Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13.

However, like all the translations of the Bible, there are all kinds of different meanings from the original words that people use to prove their divergent points. In the 1 Corinthians 6 passage, for example, which is often used, the word for “homosexual offenders”– arsenokoitai–has a wide range of interpretations. In fact, every passage does.

That is one of the crazy parts about being more honest about Bible interpretation; it is subjective and always open for scrutiny if we respect our human limitations and inability to be 100% certain that this what God means. Regarding this issue, it is interesting to me that Jesus was never recorded in the gospels as mentioning homosexuality, yet clearly this has become one of the most significantly “Christian” issues of our time.

I come from a conservative evangelical tradition and have made great shifts in what I believe over the years as I began to realize that I primarily believed certain things because that is what people in power told me. As I started to do my own biblical research (and cultivate close relationship with gay and lesbian friends) my heart began to feel far less certain about what I had been taught. Because my church, The Refuge, is an inclusive community, sometimes people of a more conservative persuasion will ask me, “What we do about the gay people who are part of our community? Don’t we tell them the truth about what the Bible says?”

My answer has become so clear and freeing; I tell them “I know that you see the scriptures that way, and I understand there are some passages in the Bible that point to homosexual behavior as a sin, but it would be a good idea for you to know some other people who see those passages differently, who read the same exact words as you and have solid convictions – as solid as yours – that are completely different from your viewpoint. Maybe you can learn from each other in true community instead of argue over the teaching of biblical truth.”

Over time, I have come to the conclusion that I don’t really know, but I don’t really need to know. I don’t have a simple way to reconcile these passages or dismiss created design and the differences between male and female anatomy. Regardless, I can say all of the unknowns, various interpretations and perspectives do force me to keep turning to and relying on the bigger story, and the bigger story is about Jesus alive and at work, restoring, rebuilding, healing, challenging, moving people of all shapes, sizes, colors and sexual orientations.

Joshua Einsohn:
The Bible says a lot of pretty mean things about homosexuality: “You shall not lie with a man as with a woman; that is an abomination” (Leviticus 18:22). (I know that the Lord was speaking with Moses here, but the subtle sexism should be noted…it overlooks woman-on-woman action.)

Leviticus goes back for more: “If a man has intercourse with a man as with a woman, they both commit an abomination. They shall be put to death; their blood shall be on their own heads” (Leviticus 20:13).

And lest we forget the New Testament, Romans 1:26-27 says that men and women who have homosexual relations are considered “unnatural” and pretty much have it comin’ for their “perversion.” Nice to see that women were acknowledged here, though. Progress of a sort, I suppose.

However, there are many laws that aren’t followed today because they are considered antiquated or irrelevant. In Leviticus 19:20, it says that it’s ok to doink a slave-girl as long as she hasn’t been freed and that you feel pretty crappy about it afterwards. And there’s also: “When any man reviles his father and his mother, he shall be put to death” (Leviticus 20:9). I’m sure that the parents of many teenagers are game for that one, but modern law prohibits it and that’s probably a good idea. We see very few stonings these days that aren’t frowned upon, but it was quite the fad back then.

Many ancient laws, from keeping Kosher to circumcision, are considered up for interpretation. Pro-gay rights advocates claim that there have been mistranslations and inconsistent enforcement of laws. Many conservatives argue that these passages should be adhered to strictly.

All I know is that when I hear these words hurled at me and people that I care about, they hurt. A lot.

Jason Boyett:
The Bible explicitly condemns homosexuality, but these few passages leave room for interpretation. For example, Genesis 19—the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah—is traditionally thought to have been a punishment on the cities’ rampant homosexuality. After all, that’s were we got the term “sodomites.” But Ezekiel 16:49 says the sin of Sodom was arrogance, apathy, and neglect of the poor. So was God punishing Sodom for homosexuality in general? For something specific like rape or inhospitality? Or for something else?

Likewise, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 describe “[lying]with a man as one lies with a woman” as “detestable.” Seems pretty clear, right? But it also describes sex with a woman during her period as being detestable. These verses are part of a holiness code to separate the Israelites from neighboring cultures. Some scholars suggest it doesn’t condemn a homosexual lifestyle as much as it prohibits a specific pagan temple practice.

What about the New Testament? Romans 1:26-27 identifies homosexual activity as “indecent,” but the passage seems to address ritual behavior or pagan orgies. 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 denies God’s kingdom to “homosexual offenders,” based on a confusing Greek word that probably refers to older customers of young male prostitutes (pederasty).

What’s the point? The Bible condemns specific homosexual acts, but doesn’t address what we typically think of as homosexuality today—homosexual orientation or loving, committed homosexual relationships. This doesn’t mean the Bible approves of it, but only that it is silent on the subject.

José F. Morales, Jr.:
What does the Bible say about homosexuality as we understand it today? Homosexuality as orientation, not simply as choice? Nothing. Well, maybe something.

In the Levitical Code (Leviticus 17-26), homosexuality is called abomination, but so is eating shrimp and wearing mixed fabric. But we somehow don’t get our cotton-blend panties in a bunch whenever we go to Red Lobster. We highlight one verse about “homosexuality” and ignore the rest, and have wrongfully used it to discriminate against homosexuals. Interestingly, most scholars admit that these verses are some of the hardest to translate and understand.

Then comes Paul. Paul reduces homosexuality to pederasty (men using boys) and cultic male prostitution. He had no concept of faithful, monogamous, same-sex relationships, or of sexual orientation. Therefore the Bible says nothing homosexuality as we under…

But wait! Christian biologist Joan Roughgarden argues that we’re looking in the wrong place. She says we need to see how the Bible treats eunuchs, for the term “eunuch” also referred to “effeminate” men, men with both sets of genitals, and men with same-sex attraction. This last one comes closest to contemporary understanding. “For some are eunuchs because they were born that way…” (Matthew 19:12).

In the Law, eunuchs are condemned. But in Acts 8, a eunuch is baptized by Philip and portrayed in the text, and in later Ethiopian Church tradition, as a righteous leader in the Church.

And most powerfully, in Isaiah 56:4-5,8—
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose what pleases me…
to them I will give within my temple and its walls
a memorial and a name…
I will give them an everlasting name…
I will gather still others to them besides those already gathered.”

God is gathering the gays…awesome!

Love Wins: A God of grace for all

March 2nd, 2011

I was psyched when Jarrod McKenna, one of the contributors to the forthcoming BANNED QUESTIONS book series, told me her had an interview of Rob Bell appearing on ABC Australia’s news site about Rob’s new book, LOVE WINS: Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person who Ever Lived. My initial excitement had to do with Jarrod’s citation of a passage from BANNED QUESTIONS toward the end of the piece, but the central message of the interview, and apparently of the book, is far more significant than I expected.

Rather than paraphrase what Jarrod and Rob have already said so well, I’ll just quote Rob from his book:

Bell addresses one of the most controversial issues of faith – the afterlife – arguing that a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering. With searing insight, Bell puts hell on trial, and his message is decidedly optimistic – eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts right now. And ultimately, Love Wins.”

Did you hear that? It’s the sound of thousands of conservative evangelicals closing their mental doors on Rob Bell in unison.

For some within mainline Christian circles, the prospect of “universal salvation,” or the idea that God ultimately reconciles all of us into God’s presence, regardless of our worthiness of such grace, may not be a real shock. But even the suggestion of what I consider “Christian Universalism” within evangelical circles is sure to send seismic ripples throughout the church.

And his claim has done just that.

Neo-Calvinist John Piper led the charge, bidding farewell en masse to Bell and his message of non-exclusive salvation. What, after all, do many Christians have to offer the world if not the key to unlock the gates of hell from the inside?

While Jonathan Edwards showed us, with his “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon, that fear can galvanize a congregation, Bell’s message is that love – and more specifically God’s love – is bigger than the sum total of our fears, sins, and other shortcomings is a call in a growing chorus. This, in the truest sense of the word, is Gospel: Good News!

Chalice Press is offering a special promotion through ABC Australia of 40% off pre-orders of BANNED QUESTIONS books. Order in March through the Chalice Press site  and enter the code “BANNEDQ1” at checkout. 

The Flaws of biblically-based sex education

February 16th, 2011

The flaws of biblically-based sex education

(Originally published in PULP)

It’s no shock that teen pregnancy and other related issues are a big problem in this community. It’s been that way for a long time. Various people have offered ideas about why this is and what to do about it, but little ever changes. Children keep having babies, generation after generation raise little ones in poverty, grandparents step in as parents to grandkids and the nuclear family suffers because of it all.

Everyone seems to be on the same page about one thing: Our kids need some kind of education about anatomy, sex and sexuality. But as for when that should happen, how it should be accomplished and what should be included or kept out is incredibly divisive.

One of the biggest problems is the pressure to teach abstinence-only sex education. First off, that’s not sex education. It’s propaganda for a narrow social agenda that is in denial about reality. Generally, this approach goes hand-in-hand with conveying an aura of shame about one’s body and sexual urges, and suggesting that if you act contrary to the “just say no” ethos, you are a failure, and maybe a sinful one to boot.

I agree that it would be just swell if all of our young people waited for that one lifetime monogamous relationship to come along to have sex, but this ignores some basic truths about how our culture treats sex. While a health teacher or pastor is telling you not to do it, the rest of the culture obsesses about how awesome sex is. Somebody’s not being honest here.

Oh, and did I mention that comprehensive scientific studies have shown, with little room for ambiguity, that abstinence-only sex education hasn’t worked and continues not to work?

Many people claim the moral authority of the Bible for the basis of their argument for abstinence-only sex education. But let’s consider this in a little bit of a broader context.

For one, although women of the biblical eras were not allowed to have sex outside of marriage, there were lots of cases in which men had extramarital relations. So is it just girls we’re telling to say no? Do the boys get a free pass?

Also, the whole idea of no sex until marriage presumed a different way of life back when the Scriptures were written. Most young people were married off soon after they reached the age when they could reproduce. So the time between when most folks got the urge to procreate and when they had a chance to within the bond of marriage was not that long.

Nowadays, kids are not only are entering puberty at increasingly younger ages, but we’re also waiting longer and longer to get married, if at all. So whereas a young girl might have been matched up with a suitor within a year or so of being fertile in days of yore, now we often wait 10, 20 or more years to settle down.

So maybe the solution, if we’re so hung up on literal adherence to biblical rule, is to marry all of our kids off at age 13. Yeah, I didn’t think so.

It seems to me that if leaders in faith communities focused much more on the “Greatest Commandment,” not just rhetorically, but also in modeling how to conduct our lives as individuals and as community, we’d be much better off. For those who are unfamiliar, Jesus is asked (in an effort to frame him for blasphemy, mind you) which of the Judaic laws is the most important. His response: love God with all you have and all you are, and love your neighbor as you love yourself.

What Jesus lays out in this relatively simple statement is a blueprint for an entire way of living. If we remain focused on love for ourselves and for others, as fellow creatures of God, this daily practice of doing so will inform all of our moral decisions. We don’t have to worry so much about checking off an exhaustive list of rules if we simply treat everyone else as if they were a precious gift from God.

Unfortunately this is not something we can simply drop on kids in a few hours when they hit seventh grade and hope it changes their worldview. They must be taught what it means to love their own bodies, and to love others’ bodies, hearts, minds and spirits, from the time they can speak, let alone have sex. We have to get over the shame and self-loathing for our bodies that many mistakenly seem to think equals piety.

The arguments about how to conduct sex education points to a deeper neurosis we have as a society about our lack of control over our children. Nothing – no matter what the message – can make kids not have sex. Ultimately it’s their bodies and their choices. Focusing on love, and on the responsibility that loving self and others carries with it, puts us at least in a healthier frame of mind for those heavy and important discussions.

Finally, if the Bible teaches us anything, it’s that people err. From Genesis on, we’re told one thing and then do another. But God’s response inevitably is to lean in favor of grace over condemnation. We’d be well served to follow such an example.The

Banned Question #2: Aren’t Women Treataed Poorly in the Bible?

February 14th, 2011

I’ve added a new podcast related to the BANNED QUESTIONS book series. This podcast deals with the following question:

Aren’t women treated poorly throughout the bible? Why would any intelligent modern woman today even want to read the bible?

(CLICK HERE): Christian Piatt Author Podcast

You can still get the 40% “author” discount on pre-orders of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS by visiting, ordering before February 28th, 2011 and entering the promo code “BANNEDQB” at checkout.

BANNED Discount and BIG Endorsements

February 12th, 2011

Thanks much to everyone who has pre-ordered either/both of the BANNED QUESTIONS books. Sales are very good so far!

And just as a reminder, you can still get 40% off of unlimited copies of both books (same discount Chalice Press authors get) from now through February 28th. Just go to, search for the BANNED QUESTIONS books, and at checkout, enter the promo code “BANNEDQB” for your discount.

Also, some other good news: We have received outstanding endorsements from Brian McLaren, Scot McKnight and bestselling author AJ Jacobs. McLaren called the project “brilliance” and AJ Jacobs said the following:

“This book isn’t just entertaining and fascinating. It’s inspiring and potentially life-changing. Here’s my own question: Can you be curious and thoughtful about religion and NOT read this book? My answer: No. ”

Please pass this along to others who might enjoy the discount. It would be awesome if we could sell out of the first printing even before the book is published!


Christian Piatt
Author, Musician, Antagonist. God Nerd.

“Remove from Christianity its ability to shock and it is altogether destroyed. It then becomes a tiny superficial thing, capable neither of inflicting deep wounds nor of healing them.”
-Soren Kierkegaard

NEW PODCAST: Banned Question #1

January 25th, 2011

This podcast explores the first question presented in the forthcoming book, BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE: Can I be a Christian if I don’t believe the Bible is perfect, handed down directly from God to humanity without error?

To receive a 40% discount on pre-orders of both upcoming Banned Questions books, visit, keyword search “Banned Questions” and at checkout, enter the promotional code “BANNEDQB” when prompted.



My Lifelong Attraction to Magnet Schools

January 24th, 2011

My Lifelong Attraction to Magnet Schools
By Christian Piatt
(Originally published in PULP)

I grew up in Dallas, where the question, “where did you go to school?” meant something very different than it did in Pueblo. There was a sort of constant jockeying for positions on the status ladder, part of which was identified both by the grade school you attended (hopefully private, of course), and then by the caliber of school you went on to from there.

I was fortunate to have gone to one of the more prestigious schools in town. In addition to academic excellence, the school prepared you for life amid the tatsemakers of culture and power in the global community. But despite the fact that there were kids from all nationalities and faith backgrounds there, the socioeconomic sameness of the place was strangely stifling to me.

Halfway through my sophomore year in high school, I auditioned to get in to the arts and music magnet school in downtown Dallas. For those of you who have seen the movie or TV show Fame, yes. It was pretty much like you’d imagine it. Bohemians, gay teens and eccentrics of every stripe roamed the halls, generating an energy I had never known existed in private school.

What had once been an all-black school in the slums of Dallas had been reinvented into a community that developed an appeal and a bond that transcended all other differences: the love of creativity.

From then on I was sold on the idea that a magnet school, done properly, could not only transform students’ lives, but that they also had the potential for reinvigorating an entire community.

So when Fountain Elementary of Pueblo’s east side became a magnet school as part of East High School’s International Baccalaureate (IB) system, we jumped at the chance to enroll our son, Mattias. He had gone to two different private schools in town before that, neither of which provided the integrated learning and social experience we desired for him. But our experience at Fountain has been quite the opposite.

Yes, we drive by some dilapidated properties to get to his school, and there have been more than a few shootings nearby. I even once found an unspent bullet on the playground of the school. But once inside, Mattias enters into community with children whom he might never come into contact with, absent of the opportunity the IB magnet affords.

The concept of a magnet schools is fairly simple. It’s an entirely public school, run completely by the district, which is usually located in a racially and/or economically segregated part of the community. Aside from academic excellence and a unique curriculum of some kind, a magnet is established to do just what the name suggests; draw in people from other parts of town who would not otherwise be there. The concept first arose as efforts emerged to racially desegregate schools a couple of generations ago, and the model obviously still works today.

Our plan is to have Mattias stay in the magnet system throughout his primary and secondary school years, and for his sister, Zoe, who is almost two, to follow in his path. Every child should have such access to outstanding cultural, academic and social experiences. The good news is that kids in Pueblo do have such a choice.

BANNED QUESTIONS 40% pre-order discount and other stuff

January 19th, 2011

I’m happy to let you know that both BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS are available for pre-order on Chalice Press’ website. The BIBLE book will be shipped later next month, and the JESUS book in June.

Here’s a link to both books on the Chalice site:

You can also go to and search the keywords “Banned Questions” if the link doesn’t work.

If you order either or both books between now and the end of February, you can get 40% off of the cover price by entering the discount code “Banned QB” when prompted. It’s not until closer to the end of checkout that this pops up, so don’t worry if you don’t see it right away. There is no limit on the number of copies for which this discount applies, and you can share this code with other folks interested in pre-order.

Also, note that you will not be billed for the books until they ship, but you still get the discount for ordering in advance.

Next, I’m excited to let you know that, so far we have endorsements from both A.J. Jacobs and Brian McLaren! Very cool to have bestselling authors behind the project.

And finally, keep an eye out for an upcoming promotion that Chalice may be running to give away a few of these books prior to release date.

Thanks for your interest in, and support of, the BANNED QUESTIONS series. I can’t wait to hear what you all think of the books, and in the meantime, please help spread the word on your Facebook pages, blogs, podcasts, etc about this special promotion.

House of the Rising Stench

December 6th, 2010

NewSpin: House of the Rising Stench
Written by Christian Piatt (originally published in PULP)

December 2010

There’s a home down the street from us that’s affectionately known by neighbors – particularly those within smelling distance – as “The Toilet.” On warm days, the distinct smells of decaying garbage and slow-rotting feces waft through the air.

Gross, right? Try living by it.

The Toilet, which some might call a rental property, sits at 1724 N. Grand and is the bane of the block. In a neighborhood that has been designated “historic,” The Toilet stands alone as a monument to squalor. From the couch on the front porch to waist-high weeds and crumbling façade, the place looks like it should be condemned.

How can anyone live in such conditions? For most of the past decade no one has lived there, which is part of the problem.

The house, title to which is under the name of Robert P. Mourning, was consistently rented until mid-2003. After the last tenants moved out, the utilities were disconnected and the house sat vacant for the next six years. In the meantime, homeless people regularly broke in and made camp – bathroom included – inside the house, alongside wild animals that found shelter within the decaying walls.

For years, neighbors would occasionally mow the lawn and pick up trash left by homeless visitors in an effort to keep the place from looking even worse. The owner was nowhere to be found, and would not return messages.

When some renters finally moved in, the carpet, which by now was drenched in sewage from a backup in the lines, was tossed into the backyard along with animal excrement, garbage and other goodies. What wasn’t thrown into the yard or the garage was burned in the fireplace, creating a noxious stench that caused several neighbors to call everyone from the sheriff to the health department in an effort to get the place cleaned up.

Oh, and although the new family moved into the place, they did so without reconnecting any utilities, including water. So they used candles to light the space despite the many clear code violations. When regional building staff finally deemed the home uninhabitable until utilities were turned back on, the family simply tore down all warnings and camped inside until the sheriff’s department threatened them with serious consequences if they were found on the grounds except to clean it during the day.

More than a month later, the utilities were reinstated and the young family moved back in, along with at least eight cats and a dog. There seemed to be a revolving door on the house, with various newcomers crashing there from one night to the next. Meanwhile, the animal excrement was tossed into the backyard to mingle with the carpet and other garbage.

You get the picture.

A number of complaints were filed with the health department, and a few times Mr. Mourning was ticketed. But there were a couple of problems with the system. First, the fines cost significantly less than any of the repairs would have been to remedy the issue. Second, no one with any authority followed up to enforce the violations.

Instead, Mourning’s paid a few hundred dollars to satisfy citations over the past decade, and the festering heap of a house continues to decay before the community’s eyes and noses.

When challenged by neighbors of such properties about the relatively impotent code enforcement power the city and county seem to have in such cases, officials balked, saying that their hands are tied by state regulations. This, however, is false, since local communities can establish their own codes and consequences, so long as they are at least as strict as the state’s.

It would be bad enough if this was an isolated incident, but Mourning himself owns more than a dozen properties around town, many of which are in similar shape – or worse. If he were the only culprit, a handful of run-down homes wouldn’t be enough to create a larger negative perception of our city. But he’s not.

So, if slumlords have little incentive to change their ways, and our local officials hedge at giving more teeth or funding to the anemic code enforcement we currently have, what’s a resident to do? For one local citizen, the answer is to take the cause online.

Lori Winner started a Facebook page called Pueblo Houseofshame, inviting people to post photos of decrepit properties with the hope that community pressure would push owners and residents to clean up their act. One can also email photos taken from the street (please, no trespassing) to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , along with the address and details about the condition of the site, and Lori will post it for all to see. [See sidebar.]

We all know that Pueblo struggles with an image problem with many tourists and residents from the north. But until we become more proactive about making the change ourselves, and unless regional building officials and other code-enforcement bodies get serious about making it painful for owners to let blight continue, whom can we really blame for the bad rap we have, other than ourselves?

An Update

Over the weekend prior to publication, Lori Winner, moderator of the Pueblo Houseofshame page on Facebook, posted that she had received a “proverbial shot over the bough” and was considering shutting the page down.

In response to P.U.L.P.’s inquiry, Ms. Winner said she had received word from her husband – Jay Winner, Executive Director of the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District – that Pueblo police captain Troy Davenport wanted to speak to her. Though her husband gave Davenport her number, Ms. Winner claims he didn’t call her.

The week of November 20th, Ms. Winner wrote to me, stating, “[My husband] Jay’s board member told Jay on Tuesday that Davenport said that ‘police were laughing because they are going to drive by her houses.’ On Friday I [received] 3 citations on 3 different rental properties,” though she claims her properties all are “nice” and that, “The violations are ridiculous, and easily fixed at no cost.” She added, “however I am seeing this as a warning shot.”

Following her husband’s call to one of the board members who had heard the conversation noted above, Ms. Winner received a call from Capt. Davenport, who denied that her properties were being targeted in retaliation for her publicity against run-down properties and the lack of enforcement by local officials.

Davenport told P.U.L.P. that the reason he originally intended to call Ms. Winner was to invite her and her husband to observe how the code-enforcement process works in person. However, when seeking permission for this, other officials from the city told him the Winners already had been offered such an opportunity, so Davenport saw no point in calling her.

Davenport also said that he has no recollection of any such comments being made at any meeting where he was present. He also clarified that the three items issued to Ms Winner’s properties were notices of violation, and not citations, which means the property owner has ten days to remedy the violation without further action.

Davenport said that it is the policy of the code enforcement department to respond to any citizen complaint, including the cases involving Ms. Winner. He also noted that, since all complaints are allowed to remain anonymous, he had no way of knowing who had lodged the complains against Ms. Winner’s properties.