Tuesday, September 30, 2008 | By: Zachary Bartels

Christians and Copyright

I mentioned in my last post just how much I hate it when Christians try to redeem culture by stealing other people's intellectual property and “Christianizing” it. I was talking about the unlicensed use of Calvin's (of Calvin and Hobbes fame) likeness in Christian bumper stickers, etc. Yeah, yeah, that's not supposed to be him; just some other kid with the same spiky hair and striped shirt. News flash: drawing it badly doesn't make it okay.

I don't often agree with Rob Bell (actually, to steal Ted Kluck's intellectual property, I suppose I often agree with Old Orthodox Rob Bell, but not New PoMo Rob Bell), but I vigorously concur with his contention that “Christian is a great noun, but a horrible adjective.” If you think that redeeming culture means to take a T-Shirt and turn it into a “Christian T-shirt” (or, for that matter, turn a toaster into a “Christian toaster”), then you might want to read a good book about the Metanarrative.

But lazy product design (that could arguably be called parody) is among the least of offenses when it comes to Christians violating copyright law for the Kingdom. Ever heard of www.biblecentre.net? You'll notice that the preceding URL is not a hyperlink, because I don't advise anyone to go there. It's a cheesy, “look-Mom-I-can-use-notepad” HTML job full of great resources: commentaries, Bible encyclopedias, systematic theologies, church histories, etc.—all of them full text, available for free, and 100% stolen.

Yep, the guy who runs the thing just scans books in, runs a little OCR software, and posts them on the web. Some of the books he hosts are published by major Christian houses (Baker, Zondervan, IVP, etc.) and some are self-published by authors and lecturers. What they all have in common, however, is that they were written and published by people for whom the sale of books is (at least partially) what puts food on their tables and clothes on their children’s backs.

I've e-mailed this...er...gentleman several times, trying to talk some sense into him. Like the scribe in Luke 10, he's very good at justifying himself. “Pastors in Third World countries can't afford expensive books,” he reasons, so he's just doing the Lord's work by making these works available to those down-trodden brothers. I have to wonder how he'd deal with the same argument if I cleaned out his cupboards and sent the food to hungry people in Afghanistan. And while I'm at it, I may as well take money from his savings account to buy medicine for orphans in Africa. He'd probably object that he can decide for himself how much of his own money he wants to donate to such causes. But why shouldn't authors and publishers be allowed to make the same choice?

The webmaster at biblecentre.net (not to be confused with www.biblecentre.org, a legitimate site), who goes by several names and who has been moving from off-shore server to off-shore server in an effort to avoid the long arm of the law, has also declared it “wrong” for authors to accept money for a book about God's Word. Really? It's wrong? And yet, for at least three years, he has been accepting donations to keep his illegal website afloat.

The strange thing about this brand of “Christian crime” is how self-deluded and self-righteous its perpetrators are. When I used to work for the Corporate Office of Family Christian Stores, an irate customer called in to our guest relations line, demanding to speak to our president. He was so irate (and Dave Brown, our president, was so down to earth), that he eventually did find himself on the phone with the head of our company.

This customer was seething about a new policy we had implemented and he wanted answers. His complaint: because of the wide popularity and availability of MP3 and CD duplication technology, our stores no longer accepted returns of opened CDs. This guy passionately explained that, for several months, he had been regularly buying CDs from a local FCS store, burning copies, returning the originals for a refund, and sending the copies to missionaries overseas. I understand that Mr. Brown tried for half an hour to reason with the guy, but could not. This crusader saw no problem in essentially stealing an album full of music while accusing our company of shameful and corrupt practices for not playing a willing accomplice to his caper. Here's a crazy idea, guy: if you want to send some Christian music to missionaries, buy some music and send it to missionaries!

But these are “victimless crime,” right? Christian crimes. In his book Loving God (which may or may not be available to read on www.biblecentre.net), Chuck Colson tells the story of Mickey Cohen, a Chicago gangster who committed his life to Christ at a Billy Graham crusade. People everywhere were anxious to see how he would change now that he was a disciple of Jesus. Cohen, however, continued living the same life of organized crime, parties, booze, and violence that he'd always led. When some Christians confronted him about this disconnect, he told them that he had no intention of giving up the gangster life. After all, there were Christian athletes, Christian actors, Christian musicians. Why couldn't he be a Christian gangster?

If “Christian” is an adjective, I suppose “Christian gangster” and “Christian crime” make sense. In that case, I suppose the webmaster of www.biblecentre.net is a “Christian data pirate.” But if a Christian is a sinner who's been justified by grace through faith and is being sanctified by grace through faith working itself out in love, then maybe there are some things that shouldn't—and can't—be “Christianized.”

Tuesday, September 23, 2008 | By: Zachary Bartels

Jesus Saves®

Remember those Taco Bell ads with the little chihuahua? I loved that little guy (although, I understand the actual dog was a female). He sure did want tacos, didn't he? As the series of commercials wore on, he was involved in more and more ridiculous misadventures in pursuit of his favorite mass-produced, Americanized Mexican food, at least once per commercial uttering his famous catch phrase, "Yo quiero Taco Bell" (accompanied by the extraneous and rather loose subtitled translation, "I want some Taco Bell.") What I loved about those commercials was that I could respect that chihuahua. Unlike the Trix Rabbit (who just reinforces for children the utter futility of chasing your dreams) and Lucky the Leprechaun (the unholy little sprite who uses dark arts to keep those poor kids from ever enjoying a single bowl of his precious cereal), that little unnamed dog was actually likable. I could see myself hanging out with him. He had some moxie and some attitude. While other chihuahuas spend their time languishing in heiresses' purses, this little guy had a goal and he pursued it relentlessly.

That little rat dog resonated with a lot of people. In fact, he was such a well-liked mascot that people actually paid money to buy T-shirts and backpacks and bumper stickers bearing his likeness. When you can actually get people to pay you money for the privilege of becoming a walking advertisement for your product, you're doing something right. Hurray for America.

But then America did something incredibly wrong; at least the American church did. Shortly after the Yo Quiero Taco Bell phenomenon had peaked with the rest of the populace, I started seeing Christians wearing T-shirts with a little chihuahua saying, "Yo quiero Jesus!" Riiiight. So what we're saying is that you can take out the name of a fast food restaurant whose only contribution to society is 435 ultra-fattening ways to eat the same six ingredients in slightly different configurations...and replace it with the Name Above All Names. Just pop out "Taco Bell" and pop in the Alpha and Omega, who was, and is, and is to come; the Living One, who was dead and behold he is alive for ever and ever and holds the keys of death and hades.


Now, if you had that T-shirt, I'm not trying to make you feel bad. The fact is that I've owned more Christian T-shirts than you. I had them all: Lord's Gym, His Pain-Our Gain, Jam for the Lamb, and, of course, the really graphic picture of Jesus being scourged that read, "Before you turn your back on Jesus, take a look at His!" Yeah, at one point, I could have probably gone three weeks wearing only Christian T-shirts and never repeating.

I was also the king of cheesy Christian bumper stickers. I used to drive a 1984 Grand Prix. I'll list its endless virtues in another post; at present we'll focus on the bumper (and trunk and back window), every inch of which was covered with Christian bumper stickers. To name just a few...

  • Jesus Is the Answer - But, wait. What if the question is ,"Who was the worst hypocrite to ever live?" Well, then Jesus isn't the answer. Someone didn't think that one through.
  • The Next Time You Think You're Perfect, Try Walking On Water - I suppose that's kind of clever, but... what's the point? Is there a big problem with drivers thinking they're perfect or something?
  • Got Jesus? - I suppose I could go off on another rant about copying the world and swapping a product name in for Jesus...but I've still got a soft spot in my heart for this one. I'm not sure why.
  • If You're Living Like There Is No God...You Better Be Right! - Black writing on white with flames in the background. I'm guessing hundreds of people saw this sticker and immediately repented. Thousands, maybe. Dozens?
  • Warning: In Case of Rapture, This Car Will Be Unmanned - Okay, even though I don't believe in a pre-tribulation "Rapture," I still find this to be a funny sticker. My beef is rather with the clumsy way in which corporate Christendom has to squeeze every penny out of every good idea. Case in point: there was a companion keychain you could buy that read, "Warning: In Case of Rapture, These Keys Will Be Unnecessary." Huh?? How is that a "warning?" Oh, no! Not [gasp!] unnecessary keys!!
  • A Jesus Fish Eating a Darwin Fish - Ya know, because if I decide that someone's scientific theory is at odds with Scripture, that means Jesus should eat that person. What??
I still have some bumper stickers, but I've decided to steer away from the Christian variety in recent years. Mostly, because they've gotten even worse than the above. A few that I've spotted lately include...

  • Get the Ultimate Search Engine: The Holy Spirit - The font on this one looks like the Google logo. Can someone explain this to me? How on earth is the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity like a search engine? As far as I'm concerned, this would make no less sense if it called the Holy Spirit the "ultimate fabric softener."
  • He Can Hear You Now: Hisonlyson - The last "word" there is stylized to look mildly like the "Verizon" logo (if you're not following, this is a play on those annoying Verizon wireless commercials that are all but extinct, in which a guy wanders the world, repeatedly asking some unlucky sap on the other end, "Can you hear me now?" and, as I understand it, greatly increasing his chance of developing a tumor. Why wouldn't he get a hands-free set if he talks on the phone all day?) Those commercials are bad enough, but "Hisonlyson?" That's the very definition of an idea that should have stayed scrawled on a napkin and never found its way into production. I'd call it about as clever as the "God and Moses" (trying to look like "Guns 'n' Roses") T-shirts or "A Bread Crumb and Fish" (think Abercrombie and Fitch. Yeah. I know.)
  • Honk If You Love Jesus - That way, if I cut you off and you honk at me, I can just assume you're honking because you love Jesus.
  • Try Jesus. If you Don't Like Him, the Devil Will Always Take You Back - If you don't understand why this reflects the worst possible theology, please schedule an appointment with me and I'll explain at length.
  • Too blessed to be Depressed - Because spiritual people never suffer from clinical depression. Yikes. We may as well make stickers that say "Too Blessed To Have a Broken Leg."
  • Calvin (the cartoon character) urinating on Satan or kneeling before a cross - What would Jesus do? Violate international copyright law, I guess.
  • HESCMNBCK - This one confuses me. It isn't decorated like a license plate, the colors and font don't suggest that it's making any reference to a license plate. So why are there so many letters missing? I don't get it...
  • jesUSAves - Of course, there's an American flag in the background. Church and state? Together? Aw, what's the worst that could happen?
Christian T-shirts haven't gotten any better since I practically lived in them, either. Some of the worst include "Jesus Got-R-Done" (yeah, why not compare Our Lord to a vulgar, racist comedian?), "Men fix everything with duct tape; Jesus used nails," and "Body Piercing Saved My Life." Then, of course, there are a whole slew of Christian T-shirts that re-define common acrostics and acronyms. These are so random and unmemorable that the only one I can bring to mind is "CSI: Christ Saves Individuals." Individuals? That's reaching. And what the world does it have to do with investigating crimes? Can't we come up with one unique idea with some merit instead of constantly creating cornier versions of the world's corniest offerings?

If you've got any of the junk I've described above, I'm not judging you (not much, anyway). But I truly do believe that we need to get away from bumper sticker Christianity. The depth and mystery of our holy faith could never be boiled down into a pithy saying or clever one-liner.

I don't care if you've got a fish on your car or your bumper reminds us that your treasure's in Heaven. I'm just saying 1.) Your driving better match the message on your bumper, lest you drive people away from the cross, 2.) We need to resist the modern urge to boil everything down to talking points, and 3.) How you live your life says infinitely more to the world about who you are and who Jesus is than the slogan on your T-shirt. It's easy to slap "Free Tibet," "Save the Whales," or "Jesus Loves You" under your left brake light. But that $2 investment is an empty, meaningless slogan if it doesn't point to a reality in your life.

Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Zach

(For more--yes, even more--on this topic, check out this sermon that I preached a few weeks ago).
Wednesday, September 10, 2008 | By: Zachary Bartels

Just doing my part...

Must be something about a 30-year-old man in a tie walking with a purpose. Anytime I run an errand during the day, someone assumes that I'm the manager of whatever business I'm currently patronizing.

If they ask, "Do you work here?" I usually just say, "No, I don't."

If I'm at Kroger and someone stomps up angrily and says, "You're all out of the cod fillets; shouldn't I get the same deal on the tilapia?!" I usually say, "I suppose so."

If I'm at Circuit City and someone hands me a cell phone charger and asks, "How much does this cost?" I look at the price tag and read to them the number I find there.

And if I'm at Family Christian Stores, stacking Bibles up into a tower because we're welcoming a bunch of new members next week and an old lady asks, "Where would I fin
d The Shack?" I answer, "I dunno, but I wouldn't waste my time reading it."

"Why is that?" she asked. I gave her the quick version of what follows. I know I should have just told her that I don't work there, but I
used to word for FCS (one year in the store and five at the corporate office) and during that time, I had to take part in selling everything from that Left Behind junk to Joel Osteen's Genie Jesus to people who had wandered into the store looking for some spiritual direction. It was easier being behind the scenes, but even then, we were downloading sale prices and sending out plan-o-grams highlighting the heretical for the consuming masses. In short, I think FCS owed me this little encounter. I had it coming.

Now, I really don't care if anyone reads (or even enjoys)
The Shack. I encourage my congregation to read with discernment any popular spiritual book that piques their interest (whether it's doctrinally sound or not) and then hold it up to Scripture like the Bereans, because it can stretch us and help us understand more of what we believe, what we don't believe, and why. However, I don't really find much of value in The Shack.

Apart from the very sloppy writing (in fairness, it was self-published and, therefore, lacking the services of an editor who could have tightened up some of the awkward prose), the doctrine presented in this book flirts with the heretical at every turn. It's got universalism (Jesus does not want to "make anyone a Christian"), Goddess worship (do some research into the names used for the female "deities"--most are rooted in paganism), and worst of all, the doctrine of the Trinity is way out of whack. God the "Father" (though he's a woman, so I guess it would be God the Mother) declares "I am truly human in Jesus" (this is a heresy called modalism--God the Father is not human). The relationship between the persons of the Trinity is presented as flippant, bizarre, and childish--if we read the Westminster Standards, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Formula of Concord, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or pretty much any Orthodox description of the Trinity based on SCRIPTURE, it bears almost no resemblance to the goofy god(s) in the Shack.

The book claims not to be theology, but then presents itself as such, all the while making light of sacred things. I'm afraid that people with little theological background are going to become very confused by this little volume.

Young wrote the book after realizing that he had spent years trying to earn God's approval and never feeling that he had quite succeeded. The book might serve as a helpful corrective to others struggling with the same issue, but the book of Romans would do a far better job in my opinion.

I asked the lady at the bookstore why she wanted to read The Shack. She said she was interested in really knowing God and a friend had recommended Young's book. I told her that J.I. Packer has a great book about Knowing God, but that God Himself had written the definitive work on the subject.

I'm not sure what she bought, but I am pretty sure that she saw me checking out before I left.
Monday, September 8, 2008 | By: Zachary Bartels

Switched at Birth?

I'll deliver the goods on Promise Keepers tomorrow.

In the meantime, I give you this:

It just...came to me this morning.

edit: I meant "separated at birth." "Switched at birth" doesn't really make any sense, does it? Oh, well...
Sunday, September 7, 2008 | By: Zachary Bartels

Pastor Zach the Menacing???

I think I'm a nice looking guy. And by that, I don't mean that I'm handsome. I mean that I look like a nice guy. If I ever hoped for good looks, they'd be "boyish," not "rugged." I've got a little (rather feeble) goatee, no visible tattoos (unlike most of the youth group kids at my church, I'm not in the habit of cutting the sleeves off T-shirts to show off my non-biceps, so my one tattoos remains unseen). And most of all, I try to remember to smile and greet everyone I encounter. That was a normal thing in Grand Rapids. Here, it just seems to confuse the average pedestrian. Also fun.

When I used to shave my head every summer, a lot of people warned me that it made me look frightening and intimidating. I don't see it, but I do admit that strangers seemed a little warier than normal around me when bald. So I don't shave my melon anymore.

But then tonight, I was walking my dog Sasha and enjoying a cigar. And on two different streets, two different people (both young men) eyed me suspiciously, as if I were your average hooligan/nogoodnik and gave me a wide berth. Sasha's a German Shepherd mix; not exactly intimidating. I wasn't brandishing a knife or muttering to myself. Was it the cigar? Was it my Boondock Saints T-shirt? Did I have some crazy look in my eye?

I don't know. But I do know that I really don't get it that some people want to be feared. I'd rather be judged, pitied, or even mocked. When I'm on the River Trail at dusk and a woman jogger approaches, one hand ready to pull out the pepper spray, it just reminds me that we live in a crappy world where everyone is afraid that everyone else is potentially looking to hurt them.

But I don't want to hurt anybody.


I'm a nice guy.

Tomorrow: My assessment of the Sept 5-6 Promise Keepers event.