Saturday, May 24, 2008


Late on Tuesday night, as the votes were counted from Kentucky to Oregon, we finally got some clarity on this thing… The pundits were proven wrong, some of them, but the voters had the power, not the media, and they made their choices.

As far as I am concerned this whole process has lasted way too long: the heated rhetoric, the disrespect back and forth, the confusion as to whether all the votes got cast and counted. There were conspiracy theories, behind-the-scenes dramas, advisers forced out of various camps because of their indefensible shenanigans, pretenders falling by the wayside one by one then trashing or endorsing their former competitors.

But finally it seems to be over, at least for this election cycle. I am talking, of course, not about the Democratic Party’s attempt to nominate a candidate before their national convention in August—not about the battle between Hillary and Obama—but about the battle between the Davids, Archuleta and Cook. I am describing the soap opera and spectacle known as “American Idol.”

Call it what you will, a big old-fashioned talent show, repackaged and promoted as something revolutionary and new—but it is not new at all: anyone remember Ed McMahon and “Star Search”? Same premise, but not nearly the same phenomena.

Even with this year’s ratings down somewhat, the national singing bee still grips the popular imagination, dominates water cooler conversations, overwhelms the entertainment media each spring. And, I must confess, the idolatry even seeped into parsonage. We would gather around the TV as if it were the Oracle of Delphi and we were awaiting the divine word.

I was pulling for Brooke White, the seemingly sweet and really leggy blonde who one night, memorably, forgot the lyrics to her song. “She’s a human!” I said. “Not a robot!” Jo was pulling for the younger David…Archuleta.

Jacob said it was a no-brainer the older David…Cook…would win. On Tuesday night over 97 million votes were cast, tying up phone lines and air waves from east to west. David Cook did in fact win, by 12 million votes, 56% to 44%—Jo and I called Jacob in Atlanta to offer our embittered congratulations—and if it had been a real election the national press would have been screaming, “Landslide! Mandate!”

That American Idol has played itself out against the backdrop of the parties’ nomination process—or has it been the other way around?—has seemed eerie to me in a way, a commentary on art as life and life as art, everyone smiling for the camera and hoping for the blessing of strangers, all the principals hoping one way or the other to be America’s Idols…

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Question

A couple of Saturday nights ago I heard a preacher put the question this way (and I am increasingly convinced it is in fact the question for all of us in United Methodism): When did we stop expecting transformation in our lives? When did we quit preaching for and expecting conversions? When did we give up the quest for holiness of heart and life?

I do not know when it was, quite frankly, but I think he is right. We have long-since abandoned that notion that church—which is to say worship, prayer, Bible study—is a means of personal and societal transformation. We have instead prayed to the “lesser” gods of therapy, education medicine and even Oprah to work the miracle. Despite the inarguable benefits of each (except maybe Oprah), all have proven woefully unequal to the task of real transformation. Meanwhile in the church we have ceased expecting anything like personal or (on account of it) societal transformation, perhaps because we do not see or feel in ourselves any need to repent (we sometimes see that others need to!), so that confession and testimony are lost languages among us, as much a relic as Mayan.

He said one evidence that we have lost our expectation for transformation is that we have no joy in our faith. Joy comes from knowing we are saved. Salvation accompanies the knowledge that we are indeed forgiven. But to know that we are forgiven suggests a prior knowledge: that we are sinners, that we are not what God wants us to be, that we fail to do what God wants us to do and instead often do what God prohibits. But somewhere along the line someone convinced us that we were not sinners at all—that we do not need change but instead only understanding, acceptance and affirmation. After all, “God loves us just as we are.” No wonder we have lost our expectation of transformation, our joy, our ability to speak of sin and salvation.

John Wesley would be aghast. He began his renewal movement in the conviction that the Church of England of his day was spiritually dead. One of his lay preachers put the matter succinctly: “In their services and prayers, members of the Church of England make ample use of the word “faith.” It is just that no one seems to know what the word means.”

Wesley called his people from a dead faith to a vital piety and social holiness—holiness of heart and life—and not one without the other. His followers met weekly for Bible study, for prayer and accountability. The goal was simple: transformation. The theological word is sanctification, which means the work of the Holy Spirit to make us more and better than we are—in short, to make us over into the image of Jesus.

That is to say, God may love us just as we are but God loves us too much to leave us there. “Just as I am,” may be the place we begin journey of faith but it is not where we are to end.