Friday, April 30, 2010 | By: Zachary Bartels

On Writing, Frank Turk, and Big Boy

I had lunch with Frank Turk today. Yeah, I drop names like Osteen's preaching drops the ball. I'd like to elaborate on that, but can't because I have to tend to some ministerial functions here shortly before meeting up with famous author Ted Kluck to pick up our press passes for Acquire the Fire. Note: I know God is no respecter of persons, but when it comes to Ted and Frank, I'm barely a respecter of persons, either, so it's okay. (BTW, did I mention that the three of us are responsible for this book and that you can buy it here? I did? A whole bunch of times, you say? Okay, I won't bring it up again.) Also note: Ted and I are probably not going to be acquiring any fire. Just sayin'.

Anyway, Turk was passing through Michigan on his way from Amsterdam to his home state of Nunyabusiness and so we darted out to a nearby Big Boy for a quick lunch. The restaurant was...just as I remember Big Boy being. I swear time stands still inside Big Boy restaurants. The same lady is always sitting at the little lunch counter/bar with a four-inch ash on her cigarette (don't think for a minute that the Michigan smoking ban, which takes effect tomorrow, will change anything inside Big Boy--you're confusing categories if you do), the menu is the same, the smell is the same. But enough about Big Boy.

First of all, let me just squash Turk's aforementioned mysterio and say that, despite an online reputation which ranges from snarky, confrontational brawler to, in fact, being the devil himself, he's actually one of the most down-to-earth, friendly, and agreeable guys I've shared Big Boy with. Even paid for my lunch. (Sorry to blow your cover, Turk.)

But here's the thing: Turk's not pseudo-famous for being nice (or even for being snarky), but rather for his straight-forward way of saying something worth saying in a very succinct and direct way. That last sentence was a segue, by the way, because this post isn't really about Turk--it's about something he said. You see, I asked him straight-up how he become one of the most followed bloggers out there. He answered with two generations of life story (which were rather gripping and did involve Eastern Europe, gunshot wounds, homelessness, and Dayspring Greeting cards--although Frank himself was only involved in the last one), and capped it with an anecdote about a time he, Dan, and Phil did a panel about blogging at a conference, where someone asked what it takes to be a successful blogger.

Turk's answer then, as it is now, was that--first and foremost--you have to want to write. Then he clarified (and this is where the succinct brilliance comes into play), not that you want to want to write, but that you actually want to write. The profundity of this bit of wisdom--doled out between bites of Reuben (Turk's first non-airline American cuisine in like ten days)--didn't really hit me until I was halfway back to the capital city.

I know a lot of people who want to want to write. They like the idea of being someone who writes. They like having written. They like everything that kind of goes along with writing, but they don't actually want to write. Not at any given time. They put it off, they do other stuff, they have all these reasons why they can't write right now...because they don't really want to write. They just want to want to write.

The same thing is true of the guy who swears he has a novel inside of him, but never makes time to sit down and put it to paper and the teenager who wants to be a rockstar, but doesn't want to learn scales, modes, and chords. Forget practicing, forget hours of strumming and strumming away--he wants to skip right to adoring fans, video shoots, and snorting coke out of a supermodel's navel or something. You know what? That's not a rockstar. That's not even a musician.

Turk talked about the feeling that, if he didn't write, it would come shooting out his ears. It would back up in him--he'd be miserable. I'm finding myself more and more in the same boat. Less someone who wants to want to write and more someone who wants to write. And I think what moves someone from point A to point B is simply choosing to be someone who writes. When you see the two levels of "want to want to" between you and writing, you have to just decide to bypass both and write. Right now. Last night, I was up until what is really late for me (by the standards of a guy whose toddler is ready for world conquest at the crack of dawn each morning) re-working the end of a novel I've been working on for several years. A few years ago, I wanted to want to work on it. Last night (and last week, and last month), I wanted to. So I did.

I think my wife has a little notepad that says, "If you want to be a writer...write!" (If not, I have no idea where I saw that). That could be said of any activity-based identity, not just writing. I've got a basement full of tools and I want to want to work with wood, but I don't do it nearly as much as I wish I did.

I could go on with many more examples (a flaw of Baptist ministers), but I won't, because this is the kind of post where I'm trying to start a conversation. Seriously, pull up a chair to our imaginary Big Boy booth, and tell me...

1. Your thoughts on writing, on wanting to write, and on wanting to want to write, and
2. What other activities, habits, etc. (excluding eating right, exercising, getting a good night sleep, etc.) that you want to want to do, but clearly don't really want to do.

Does that make sense? Too bad.

Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Zach

UPDATE: If you linked here from facebook and want to comment, please do it here (not on facebook). You don't have to sign up for anything; if you don't have a google account, just choose "Name/URL" and you can weigh in on the comments section all the same...
Wednesday, April 28, 2010 | By: Zachary Bartels

Unwarranted Speculation and Self-Promotion

I imagine that, if an old man with a microphone were to walk up to two emergent-church-types and ask them, "Have you ever heard of Zach Bartels?" this is how the conversation would play out:

Emergent #1: Grrr... Zach Bartels. Isn't he thanked in the acknowledgements of Don't Stop Believing (Zondervan, 2008), which is a horrible, bounded-set book by Mike Wittmer?

Emergent #2: Yeah, I think he is. And, as if that's not enough, he's also cited in chapter 6, footnote 14 of the same book, if I'm not mistaken.

Emergent #1: I can't stand the way that book uses Scripture to refute many of our emergent leaders...

Emergent #2: And is this the same Zach Bartels featured on pp. 149-152 of Why We Love the Church (Moody, 2009) by Ted Kluck and Kevin DeYoung, another book that flies in the face of our emergent conventions?

Emergent #1: The very same...

[at this point, the old man drops the microphone and whips off his mask, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE-style, revealing that he's actually ME! ]

Zach!: I just blew your minds! I'm not an old man! And now, Ted and I have written a book satirizing the Emergent Church called Kinda Christianity (Gut Check Press, 2010). Buy it on Amazon today!

Emergent #2: Wait, you wrote a book satirizing the emergent church this year? You're a couple years too late. Don't you know it's pretty much dead?

Emergent #1: Dude! Shhhh!

Emergent #2: I'm just saying, who would buy such a book?

Zach!: [whipping a laptop out from under my trenchcoat and displaying the rankings page from] Only enough people to launch us to the #2 rank in the "Humor: Religion" category!

Emergent #1: Gasp! Did you displace Brian McLaren from the #2 spot?

Emergent #2: Is McLaren's book in the religious humor section?

Zach!: Should be, but it's not. So long, suckas. Ha-sha-sha!!

And with that, I shatter one of those expansive-gas-filled glass beads against the ground and disappear in the mist.

Emergent #1: [shakes head] First the footnotes, then the three pages, and now a book that isn't available in stores, save for by special order... How will postmodernism survive, Tad?

Emergent #2: I don't know, Randy... I don't know.


So, yeah, anyway, Ted and I wrote Kinda Christianity: A Generous, Fair, Organic, Free-Range Guide to Authentic Realness and it launched fairly successfully, thanks to some blog cover from my friend Frank Turk. Hopefully, upcoming blogs from Dr. Wittmer, Kevin DeYoung, and others will give it a couple more bounces before its plunge into literary obscurity.

The funny thing is that the one book we have yet to beat in the Books > Humor > Religion division is Stuff Christians Like by Jonathan Acuff. This is funny because I recently posted (and then half-recanted) a rather critical review of this book, after which I was accused of being "bitter" by someone named "Anonymous."

This charge didn't really make any sense to me. Why must I be bitter in order to not find this book all that funny? But now, retroactively, it makes perfect sense (anonymous and clairvoyant, this guy)--I'm kind of bitter that we, for a time, are ahead of the flying spaghetti monster, the Tao of Pooh, that guy who lived biblically for a year, and Garrison Keillor's Church People...but we never elbowed past Jonathan Acuff.

Not yet anyway.

Click here to read more about the book, or click here to buy it.
Wednesday, April 14, 2010 | By: Zachary Bartels

Different Eyes by Steve Chalke (a book review)

Book reviews aren't really the heartbeat of this blog, but I've been known to do them. More recently, I've taken part in some "blog tours," in which a bunch of bloggers review the same book on the same day. It's a clever little pyro marketing technique that Zondervan has used to their advantage. In fact, Zondervan has sent me a couple of free books for blog reviews. I, of course, praised to high heaven my mentor Dr. Michael Wittmer's book Don't Stop Believing. I also really appreciated a book called Busted that clears up false claims and urban legends about Scripture and Christianity.

So a few weeks ago, when I got an e-mail asking me to take part in another of these blog tours, I thought nothing of it. The book was called Different Eyes: The Art of Living Beautifully and was, apparently, about tackling tricky ethical issues from a Christian perspective. Sure, send the book. I'm in.

But when it arrived, the cover gave me pause. "By Steve Chalke + Alan Mann." Why did I know those names? Then it hit me: these are the guys who wrote The Lost Message of Jesus: A Heterodox Re-framing of the Christian Faith. (That's not really the sub-title, but it should have been). Apparently the fires of pyro-marketing are burning out of control and creating a lot of smoke. I mean, I don't expect Zondervan to be aware that I just co-wrote a minor little volume with Ted Kluck, or even that this blog is frequently about the business of refuting McLaren, Bell, et al. But I would expect them to keep their e-mail lists straight and know that bloggers who were geeked to promote Don't Stop Believing would be less than excited about Steve Chalke's latest work.

But, hey. They sent me the book so I read it, and my review follows:

First of all, the book was all over the place, subject-wise. Sure, it was all under the broad umbrella of ethics, but there was no progression, no real thread running through it. It seemed like a collection of essays or blog entries strung together. Maybe it was. If there was a single theme, it would be "playing fast and loose with the faith once for all handed down to the saints." Against a "rulebook" approach to Christianity, Chalke and Mann advocate a Christianity that is more like "jazz improvisation." Perhaps a more accurate description would be that, instead of creeds and confessions, they advocate jam sessions. This particular session is "Riffs on ethics." Sadly, their instruments are way out of tune.

It is noteworthy that the first page (which is really just 2/3 of a page of text) already contains two false statements about the Bible, most likely just stemming from a fading knowledge of the Bible's original languages. Chalke tells us that the Hebrew word El "translates into English, 'God of your fathers.'" Ummm, nope. And BDB or Koehler Baumgartner will confirm that. He then tells us that, when Moses asked what God's name was, God replied with the Hebrew word "Yahweh," which means "I am." Nope again. God said to Moses, "I am that I am" (אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה), not "Yahweh" (יְהוָה). You don't need to know Hebrew to see the difference.

Now, the Name Yahweh probably does come from the root "to be," but to equivocate these terms is misleading. Am I nitpicking here? No, I'm making a point. From page 1, Chalke and Mann present Holy Scripture as they wish it was, filling in the backgrounds and motivations at their own whims, in order to make Scripture agree with their own politics and ethics. We all have a tendency toward doing this, but most people don't have the capacity to do it on this level.

So this thing about God telling Moses "I am" (which God did say, in Exodus 3:14) becomes Chalke's foundation for what he will do in the rest of the book. Apparently, God chose this label because he "wanted to surprise us." "The name Yahweh is an invitation to discover, an enticement to an adventure of slow revelation." (p. 14)

Of course, this is true. The whole Old Testament is a slow unveiling of who God is, revealed at many times and in various ways. But in these last days, God has been revealed to us through His Son. Ignoring that distinction has become a common tactic in the past 100 years. I call it the Wineskin Fallacy. Show that Jesus was a continuing revelation of who God is, maybe quote His teaching about new wine needing new wineskins, then announce that you're bringing some more of the new wine, which requires more new wineskins. The problem with this, of course, is that Jesus is the finest wine available. There is no newer, better teacher, philosophy, or set of ethics to come after him. You can't improve on that Wine, and you can't apply the slow revelation of God in the Old Testament to the Church Age without recognizing the discontinuity.

Chalke (+ Mann, who gets a little plus sign and a smaller font) hang their suvery of Christian ethics on this re-casting of the metannarative. They appeal to "context" frequently and, when that doesn't get them the desired results, they zoom out further and claim that the “story” of Scripture is what backs their position. Context and metanarrative are essential to understanding Scripture, but Chalke so ignores context and twists the metanarrative that God's Law becomes an extra little bonus gift given to people whom he's already (somehow) redeemed. If you know anything about the distinction between Law and Gospel, you can see how this would make for one janky set of "biblical ethics."

For example, Chalke (+ Mann) writes "It is easy to make the mistake of thinking that biblical ethics are set in stone, when in fact, they are set within a story." (p. 18) Again, story is essential, but too often this is just an excuse to use "narrative theology" as a pair of pliers to yank out any of the teeth I don't like from God's Word. For a proper laying out of the Bible's meta-narrative and how it informs our reading of Scripture, see Dr. Michael Wittmer's excellent book, Heaven Is a Place On Earth (Zondervan, 2004).

The authors do acknowledge that our story is The Story, which at first is a bit refreshing. They even hint at the possibility of evangelization, but of course, this is accomplished by letting our ethics shine, and that's it (rather than letting our good works adorn the Gospel or Jesus Christ--more on this distinction later).

In addition to some faulty biblical data, Chalke really likes to employ his favorite logical fallacies: namely the Fallacy of Extension and False Disjunction (neither of which I made up, unlike the Wineskin Fallacy). The Extension Fallacy is when you take your opponent's argument to the furthest absurd extreme possible, and then break it off. (For examples of this, turn on right wing talk radio for five minutes). Along these lines, Chalke continually returns to the canonized "Christian Ethics 101" scenarios to show how silly God's Laws are if taken seriously. To read this book, one would think that Mr. Chalke lives in a world where murderers are continually asking him for the location of their next victim, where he daily has to chose between rescuing a child from a burning building and collaring fleeing criminals, and where he is expected by society to lug his elderly relatives up into the mountains to die on their eightieth birthdays. Basing rules on exceptions doesn't work, but of course Chalke (+ Mann) doesn't want any hard and fast rules, but rather ethics "set within a story."

Along the same fallacious lines, Chalke tells stories of people who are morally opposed to zippers and people who live on top of poles. Scenarios starring Monty Python, Mr. Bean, and the cast of The West Wing are presented in detail, highlighting ridiculous extremes in ethical thought, and then Chalke's view--which looks moderate and reasonable by comparison--is laid down as the only other alternative.

Another favorite tactic of Chalke's is to simply redefine everything. He has no problem, without logical, textual, or linguistic evidence, decarling that holiness is not so much about separateness as it is about "distinctive presence" (wha-?) This has become commonplace in Kinda Christianity; it's the most arrogant form of false humility that would declare Augustine (and the balance of the historic, orthodox Christian Church) completely off-base for having called the Lord's Supper a sacrament and having tied it to bread and wine shared regularly by local bodies of believers. But then again, that's a fairly minor assertion for two authors who have already labeled penal substitutionary atonement "cosmic child abuse."

When he does occasionally back up his raw assertions, it's almost always with quotes from (usually rather dubious) theologians. An aside: William Willimon (UMC bishop and rather solid theologian) is quoted at least once per page. I mean, it's distracting how often Chalke quotes Willimon. If I were Willimon, I'd demand half the royalties from this book. Scratch that; I'd demand that they re-issue the book with my name changed to "Alan Smithee."

As to the ethics themselves, the book very briefly lays out three possible models, landing on "virtue ethics." He may as well have called his system "virtual ethics." In fact, for Chalke, the term "ethics" is synonymous with "being human" and "[is] essentially about everyday life--our passions and perceptions--and the slow cultivation of good habits and moral skills." (p. 65). Guess what, Steve? Oprah, Dr. Phil, and Joel Osteen can give me that. Why do I need Jesus?

Again, Chalke--having no vicarious payment for his law-breaking (ya know, "cosmic child abuse," and all that) just goes the old liberal route of dumbing down and sweetening up the Law. This statement sums up his confusion:

"...when Jesus announced, 'If any of you want to be my must take up your cross each day and follow me' (Luke 9:23 CEV) was he really implying that each of his hearers should aim to follow an identical pathway to his through life? Of course not. What he was doing was suggesting that they adopt the same habits and attitudes -- those of service and sacrifice -- that he demonstrated on a daily basis, because in doing so, they would have the tools to do the right thing in any given situation." (pp. 147-148)

Yes, it's all about "good habits." Law, anyone? Anyone want to put on the crushing yoke of the Pharisees? No?? But it's the way to living beautifully! Look, I even painted flowers on the yoke! You might be thinking, "But this is an ethics book; of course it will deal primarily with imperatives, rather than with the Gospel." Granted, but for Christians, the imperatives must always grow out of the indicative of what God did for us in Christ, as they always do in the New Testament epistles.

When he started pontificating on the Sermon on the Mount, I almost quit, fearing I didn't have the stomach and the strength to grit my teeth through it. But I endured. Of course, the Sermon on the Mount is the best example of Jesus showing us what it looks like to fulfill the Law. It's as if He's saying, "You want to earn righteousness through the Law? I'll give you Lawⁿ! You've heard it said, no adultery? Check this out: no lusting!" But Chalke sees the Sermon on the Mount as Jesus offering up some tips for living, and another few inches of the unfolding story. He so thoroughly mangles the whole point, that the reader leaves with the impression that "Be perfect even as your heavenly father is perfect" is an attainable goal in the flesh (p. 75), rather than an uppercut and a shove toward the foot of the cross.

The bottom line is this: you can't tell the story when you don't know the story.When you miss the fact that the whole Bible—Old Testament and New—is about Jesus (and not just an "unfolding story about Yahweh's interaction with Israel"), you wind up missing the point at every turn. The near-sacrifice of Isaac becomes just a springboard for some long-term re-education program about child sacrifice and how (contrary to popular belief) it’s actually bad(Who knew?); and the parable of the foolish builder becomes a warning against living our lives "insisting [on] obedience to every detail" of God's Law.

Not surprisingly, Chalke continually models the use of our own human criteria to determine whether God is actually "virtuous." And when God doesn't make the cut, we just re-imagine Scripture again and again until He does. Horrifying to most Christians, yes, but then again, if the substitutionary atonement is a tale of "cosmic child abuse," then acknowledging the fall would leave us dead in our sins. And we can't have that.

Scripture is clear that, for a believer, our sanctification is the work of God in us. The old self died with Christ, we were raised with Him a new creation, and the Holy Spirit now indwells us. That's how we have any hope of living ethically. That's where the power comes from. But where does Chalke find the power?

"It is one thing to know the commands--'Do not kill', 'Do not commit adultery'...but where do we get the strength from to overpower our baser instincts? Only a different story -- a different set of values, practices and relationships -- can empower us to live differently" (p. 25)
WHAT? A "different set of values, practices, and relationships" empowers me to overcome the flesh and live a godly life? So a different law, law, and law? The saddest thing: it is a different story that empowers us to live godly lives, but Chalke never gets around to telling it. Because, ya know, it involves "cosmic child abuse."

I am not ashamed to tell that story, though. Jesus Christ, being God in the flesh (the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity), lived a perfect life, fulfilling the law (which was in fact written in stone). He did what we couldn't do--lived a perfect life, then he died on a cross, bearing God's wrath against our sin. On the third day, he rose from the grave, having conquered sin and death! By God's grace, through our belief, we are then declared perfectly righteous (with Christ's righteousness!) in God's sight. This also begins the process of sanctification, wherein our lives more and more reflect that perfect legal righteousness. Now, if that was the "story" on page one, we might have seen a worthwhile discussion of Christian ethics.

As it is, though, his book could have been marketed as the second in a series and been titled The Lost Message of the Bible: Law & Splenda. Remember, Chalke views the Law as something that God gave us to keep us happy, not to break us and drive us to the foot of the cross!

What I found endlessly frustrating is how Chalke kept flirting with the Gospel. He'd look like he was headed that way, then veer away at the last second. For example, the chapter called "Enlightened" started out promising, describing in a rather compelling way the problem of human autonomy. But, again, the answer was Law--sugar-coated Law, but Law nonetheless. Even when Christ's death, resurrection, and ascension are acknowledged as the center of history, it's only to back up the idea that Jesus is for us "an advanced course in moral formation, the key to living beautifully." (p.52-53)

According to Different Eyes, rather than raise us up, Christ came to lower the bar of the law so that we could make it over on our own, taking into account the situations and complications of our day, and cutting us a little slack. This is clear on page 70, when Chalke gives examples of goofy laws that remain on the books in the US and UK, despite being embarrassingly out of date. Is this how he views God's Law? What does he want to repeal (or re-invent)? The same old issues that theological liberals have been banging on for years. That pesky Bible just keeps getting in the way.

Different Eyes might be worth reading just to see what happens to Christianity (including its ethics) when the cross has been robbed of its power. Like Chalke, I oppose unyielding and unbiblical legalism. But the way from dead Phariseeism to a Living Christianity is not via dumbing down or re-imagining God's law--it's by accepting that we can never fulfill God's law, accepting the sacrifice of Christ in our stead, and being made into a new creation, sanctified in life and practice. But hey, if God's commandments aren't rules (?!), then we can't have broken them. If we're not lawbreakers, then we don't need the atonement.

[Another aside: while awkwardly scattered throughout, the point-counterpoint sections are interesting and might make fun conversation starters for small groups looking to introduce a little conflict to the mix...]

So, how does a book like this end? I was curious enough to read to the final page. The contextless block quotes get thicker and denser as the book sputters out, until you forget that you're not actually thumbing through Spencer Burke's scrapbook. Then you hit a case study about euthanasia, followed by the acknowledgments.

Then you read some Machen to get the taste out.
Sunday, April 11, 2010 | By: Zachary Bartels

Interview With Frank Turk

I am pleased (is "pleased" the right word?) to present to you the following interview with omnipresent reformed blogger, Frank Turk, in which we talk about his mysterioso, comics, and the fact that he is, indeed, mean. This interview is not as random as it seems; you see, my boy Ted Kluck used his not-unimpressive evangelical street cred to convince Turk to provide the foreword to our soon-to-be avaible book, Kinda Christianity. So, yeah, this is yet another grinding wheel in the hype machine that is now beginning to roll.

In the past, I've posted interviews in two parts, but it seems like part 2 always has about a third of the readers/commenters that part 1 has. So, this time, I am unfurling the entire thing in one rather lengthy piece.

A little background for the two people out there who are unfamilar with Frank Turk's work: he is probably best known for being one of the three twisted minds behind the Pyromaniacs weblog . He also posts at First Things,, and about a million other places. Oh, and he hates my blog template and seemingly won't rest until Dispatches is no longer "a brown mess."

ZB: Thanks for taking the time, Turk. I appreciate it. Let me just jump right in by stating the obvious: you are a man of mystery. You seem to run at least 65 well-known, well-trafficked blogs, you rub shoulders with the Reformed elites, and yet no one knows your whereabouts, your day job, or about your secret drinking. Are you, in fact, a legend? (Sub-question: do you regularly get from point A to point B on a horse?)

FT:Much of my persona is actually an urban myth. They say that Ashley Flores is living in my basement, that I'm about to disseminate all cell phone numbers to telemarketing firms in order to break the back of the wireless communication network globally, I've lauched a virus on Facebook and via Hallmark e-cards, I'm working for Michelle Obama, and I'm the one who forced Starbucks not to serve GIs who have been stationed in Iran and Afganistan. And I hate somebody this week -- I think it's Ingrid Schlueter.

Obviously, almost all of this is false.

I hate Starbucks (unless it's free, so that's the next Obamacare as far as I'm concerned), love GIs, I'm launching the new and improved this summer if I can get my software to work (and there will be no viruses, but maybe some cookies)(those lemony ones the Girl Scouts sell), I have never met Michelle Obama, I fear wireless communications even though I walk around with a Borg implant in my ear, I don't want your cell number, and I think "Ashley" is a stripper's name and I can't understand why you'd name your daughter after a stripper. Sounds to me like you have her future all laid out already -- and not for the better.

My horse is a Nissan Altima my kids call "the Silver Bullet". Local law enforcement officials usually call it 47 in a 35. Dang it.

ZB: Okay, it's obvious you live in some sort of underground bunker or perhaps the mansion headquarters of a cult that you started in the mid-'90s. We'll leave that alone. But here's the thing: on facebook, you'll occasionally relate the contents of the day to come with some level of work-related stress. Ted Kluck has always thought of you managing a giant (like four-story) book store, while I think of you sitting at a loom in an all-glass cubicle high above a factory floor, churning out tapestries (I also imagine you living on a boat, but that's neither here nor there). Just tell me this: who's closer, me or Ted?

FT:Up until Christmas 2008, I owned a Christian bookstore which served its community admirably (but not very profitably). Since then I have been the spider in the center of a web which, because it is full of nano-technology and pure spite, churns out giant industrial machines which are used in the renewable energy sector for something only an engineer can explain adequately. I'm an English major, so my explanation is that we make the part that goes round and round, and we believe most of them will not fall off or down.

So in this case, Ted does not win, and your odd, delusional interpretation of what I really do inspires me.

ZB: Am I right in assuming that, if I were to keep pushing for more details about your life, this interview might end with a walk-off a la Robert Schuler on the White Horse Inn? That would be epic and spoken of for YEARS.

FT:You couldn't make me walk off. Do your worst. Just don't ask about my many wives or the training my children are going through and why it involves high doses of radiation, Red Bull, and small packages from the orient with an archane symbol on them. Or why I own so many Doombots.

ZB: Fine then, let's switch gears. How did you get started on PyroManiacs? And did you know it would be as huge as it is?

FT:I had lunch with Phil Johnson and he asked me. Of course it was going to be huge -- it has me and Phil and Dan in it. you can't put the three of us into anything that's not actually "huge" because we are, each, individually, huge. And by "huge" I mean "pants sizes above 40 waist."

ZB: Where did you get the monicker centuri0n?

FT:Back in the day (like, 1994 -- you were like 7 back then, right?), nobody used their real name on the internet. And I had just gotten saved. So I had to come up with a user name for my Macintosh internet service (what did they call it back then? It was actually consumed by AOL ...) using my blazing-fast 28.8 modem, and I liked that guy in Luke who could command an army of soldiers but couldn;t save his own servant's life who told Jesus, "If you say the word, my servant will be healed -- because I understand authority, and you have it."

ZB: Actually, in 1994, I was sixteen and running a corny Christian BBS called "The Lamb."

FT: Oh, I didn't know you were like that. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

ZB: Hreh. Does the zero [in centuri0n] have some theological significance or was "centurion" already taken?

FT:The "ZERO" is a nod to the primative 1337-spellers.

ZB: Your many blogs (particularly your work on Pyro), have a reputation for gravitating toward what some call "discernment ministry" (i.e. warning Christians about subtle and not-so-subtle errors within the visible church and without). Was that an intentional decision, or just kind of a groove that you found?

FT: Eh. I don't see it that way at all. I think getting too focussed on bad people and why they're so bad, and they will make your children bad, and there's only one generation standing between us and raw, rank secular religion makes us forget that Jesus is good. I have this post out there someplace that talks about how the Gospel is not something that really needs to be protected so much as sort of fired like a missile into sin and death, and we shouldn't be living in a bunker hoping the Gospel somehow survives if we only defend it to our deaths.

Some people are wrong -- the internet is full of them, and many of those people are on "my team" theologically and politically. Making one's whole life about those people is a waste of time. I'm more concerned with the people who don't know better, or who are confused, or who are somehow being indoctrinated by all kinds of kooks. Maybe "discernment ministries" would be better off talking about what they believe and what the consequences of those things are rather than how many times Rob Bell sticks his foot in his mouth.

You know: we get it. Now what? What if everyone stopped going to Rob Bell's church, and stopped buying Ann Lamott (sorry: I meant Donald Miller) books, and took all their PDL/PDC books back for a refund. Now what?

You think that Detroit downsizing is bad, you can't imagine the carnage that would ensue if the apologetics blogosphere suddenly had nothing to talk about.

ZB: I'm thinking about things like "Redneck Atheism" and book reviews you've done. Maybe it's more along the lines of apologetical equipping of the saints than the usually "caution: heretics ahead" type blogging.

FT:Yeah, fair enough. I get itchy with the label "discernment blogging". It's either too broad or filled with people I'd rather not be compared to.

The "redneck Atheism" thing is an interesting touchstone for the question becuase I see that as talking to people who, frankly, have started the discussion with their own little apologetic nerdy zeal. Nobody's getting drawn out of Christianity by the nutty ideas in the atheist top-10 list, but plenty of people are trying to close the conversation with that stuff, and I see it as useful (as they say at Between Two Worlds) to say, "hey -- if your logic there was a pair of pants, you'd be wearing yours on your head backwards with the fly down like the turkey in the Boynton children's board book. Oops!"

ZB: Holy crap, I love that book. When that turkey jumps into the pool fully clothed at the always catches me off guard. And speaking of high art, who's repsonsible for all the cleverly photo-shopped stuff on TeamPyro?

FT:Phil is the king of teamPyro graphics, but I make one from time to time.

ZB: What about the art on Is that your work?

FT:Most of the stuff at centuri0n is scanned -- about 10% are my own work.

ZB: Of course, anyone who's been to your blog knows of your proclivity for comic book art. From whence did this interest spring, and what has been your level of involvement in that scene?

FT:You have no idea how chained-up to comics I am. When I was a kid, on sundays my parents would grocery shop, and next door to the grocer was this drug store -- I know, it's like 100 years ago when the grocer and the druge store were two different businesses. In the drug store there was this wire rack, and one day I guess my dad thought it would be fine for me to sit there and read comics. I remember clearly it was Avengers #158.

I bought is for 30 cents, can you imagine that? You can't buy an on-line greeting card for 30 cents. How did those guys eat?

Anyway, 35 years later I have this absurd stack of boxes in my garage full of comics, most of which I will not let my kids read because they are evil (the books, not the kids), but we make a monthly pilgrimage to the local comic book retailer (because fat guys with no lives and no chance of every having a girl friend gotta eat, too)(maybe they could lay off a donut or something, but you see what I'm sayin') and we indulge in the world of primary colors and narrative art and "WA-BAMM" and "POING!". My youngest actually coined a great phrase -- "I'll smack you to Ala-WaBAM-a!" So I'm very proud.

I actually wrote an unpublished comic with my youngest brother. I just wrote a description of it and deleted it because there's a good reason it's unpublished. Anyway, comics rock, and if more reformed people read comics they would probably implode because the nexus of geekery that would develop in their brains between theology and glossy pictures of genetic freaks with suggestive costumes would undoubtedly cause some kind of cerebral infarction.

ZB: I'm only in my 30s and I used to buy comics from a wire rack in a pharmacy. They were 75 cent then, though. (I too have hundreds of them--combined value of about $22). I am officially intrigued by your comic book. Would you re-consider letting us in on the synopsis?

FT:{sigh} It's a full-blown universe. I'm not sure I can summarize it without having your eyes roll up in your head. It's about corporate espionage, government corruption, libertarian values, hot rich girls, high-tech weapons, and family vendettas. The main character is Daniel Decker, AKA WildCard. His mentor in John Adams Calvin, billionaire industrialist. His sidekick is an AI andoid called "Shyster", and he works with a guy they call "the Grappler" who's an ex-pro wrestler with a PhD in philosophy.

I really can't say more without dimming the lights and running the projector.

ZB: I can tell you're getting uncomfortable, so let me stay on this subject... so, this is an actual, finished, drawn, inked, and lettered comic, sitting somewhere collecting dust?

FT:It's sort of a novella. I can draw most of the characters still. Don't make me pencil.

ZB: What is your opinion of Christian comics in general?

FT:There are Christian comics? You mean like Tomo? What's Christian about that? I love the Ninja raccoon thing, though. That's awesome.

Did you know that Brian Augustine is a Christian? Yeah -- met him at a CBA show years ago, and he was "promoting" (right next to the guy with 1000 flavors of annointing oil) a new line of high-quality Christian comics. I felt bad for him -- becuase I was the only one there impressed that they had gotten Brian Augustine -- the guy who made the Flash cool in the early 90's -- to do Christian comics. They had no idea what they were dealing with -- and the books showed it. He was obviously hemmed in by the CBA hacks who make everything holy and stupid and somehow soul-numbing -- it's like anti-presbyterianism. They baptize it and instantly it sucks right to hell.

So you can imagine what I think about Christian comics.

ZB: There are lots of "Christian titles" that have spanned about three issues before they go the way of all flesh (David's Mighty Men, Archangels, Dust, etc.). And who can overlook the Christian versions of Archie, Dennis the Menace, etc? And of course, the King Kong of Christian Comics: Jack Freaking Chick (yeah, I'm a big-time JFC collector).

FT:Meh. Somebody who's a decent writer and a Christian will get his hands on Captain America one day and THEN there will have been a truly-Christian comic. Until then, the rest of that stuff is embarassing.

ZB: Ouch. That's a good segue to my next topic: you're often accused of being mean, uncharitable, harsh, etc.

FT:I am mean. Like a snake-killing ferret.

ZB: Mmm. I bring this up not to rub salt in your wounds, but because my own blog (in which I don't pull punches when wolves come prowling) has brought on similar charges, and Kinda Christianity is sure to bring on even more (as you predicted in the foreword). How do you deal with the charge (either blasted at all three of you Pyro guys or at you individually) that you are not being Christian when you don't dance around the issue?

FT:I laugh. I like to laugh, so I laugh.

This complaint comes from people who are willing to call most Christians hard-hearted, who think those who take Scripture literally are ignorant, who see sex outside of marriage as OK in spite of things like the consequential illegitimacy rate and the real people that harms, and who are themselves somewhat smug and sarcastic.

So I laugh. No sense arguing with people who are that self-ignorant.

ZB: Makes sense. Let's talk about labels for a minute. Dan Phillips calls himself a "CalviDispieBaptoGelical." What labels do you wear? (Surely it would be too cliched for you to say "I'm not in to labels.")

FT:Christocentric, people-loving glutton for punishment who admires post-mil enthusiasm for the power of the Gospel and a-mil patience for holiness and church life.

ZB: Nice. Assuming you someday have "a legeacy," is that what you'd want to be remembered as? If not, what would be your ideal legacy?

FT:I believe the children are our future. teach them well and let them lead the way. Show them all the beauty they possess inside.

Seriously, though -- if we can be completely serious in this interview for about 30 seconds -- Piper did a talk at San Luis Abispo a couple of years ago, and the slogan for that talk was this:

The greatest cause in the world is joyfully rescuing people from hell, meeting their earthly needs, making them glad in God, and doing that with a kind and serious pleasure that makes CHRIST look like the treasure He is.
That'd be a pretty cool legacy.

ZB: I doubt we could end this interview on a better note than that.

FT:The only better ending would be if Rick Warren could somehow say the benediction and the Jonas Bros sing the recessional.

Thursday, April 1, 2010 | By: Zachary Bartels

Seinfeld and Solemnity

Tonight, we once again joined our Methodist and Episcopal brothers and sisters for a wonderful Maundy Thursday service at St. Paul's. Click here to read my post about last year's experience, when I was assigned the meditation in the memorial garden, in the shadow of the Capitol. Tonight I was assigned the meditation just before the foot washing.

This is what I said:

"Perhaps the least appropriate thing that I could bring up tonight would be a comedy routine. And yet, today, as I was meditating on this text in John 13, wherein Our Lord puts on the uniform of a lowly servant and does the work of a lowly servant, my mind drifted to a bit that Jerry Seinfeld used to do about 'dry cleaning.' He talked about how no one really knows what 'dry cleaning' is; we just know that we give them our clothes, they bring them out of sight somewhere, the clothes don't get wet, but they do get clean. And no one questions this because it's an ideal arrangment for us. We can have our cake and eat it too.

In this text, I see Peter wanting to have his cake and eat it too. He wants a relationship with Jesus, complete with all the benefits and glory that may come with it, but he doesn't want to let Jesus in on all his filth, his dirt; he doesn't want Jesus to take on the role of servant in their relationship--he doesn't want to get his feet wet. That night, Peter wanted dry cleaning.

But a dry-clean Lord is of no use to us, as Jesus pointed out. "Unless I wash you, you have no part with me." If our Lord does not take on the role of servant and wash us--if there is no sacrifice--then we are still separated from Him. If He is not our Savior, He is not our Lord. (We often remind ourselves of the opposite truth, but it is easy, like Peter, to withold ourselves from His washing, and still try to call Him Lord and Teacher).

There are several foot-washings in the New Testament; all involve great openness and great sacrifice, and none of them is a case of "dry cleaning."

  • While Jesus was eating at the home of Simon the Pharisee, a sinful woman came in and washed Jesus feet. There was nothing dry about it. She was heartbroken for repentance and the Greek literally tells us that she 'rained tears' onto Jesus' feet and dried them with her hair. The Pharisee who owned the place was horrified by this sloppy, open show of repentance and love. He thought to himself, 'If this man were really a prophet, he'd know that this woman is the town tramp.'
  • Mary (sister of Lazarus and Martha) similarly anointed Jesus' feet with incredibly expensive perfume. Judas was incensed (I resisted using the pun at the service), and cried out, 'Why this waste?!' He was keeping the books (and a cut for himself) and would have much preferred a more reasonable, dignified exchange with the Lord, and one that was a whole lot drier.
  • Likewise, when Jesus tied a towel around His waste and washed His disciples' feet, not only was he making a sacrifice by condescending to serve those he created; he was foreshadowing an infinitely greater sacrifice. His blood, which is pictured in the synoptics by the institution of the sacrament, is in John symbolized by this water, washing away the grime and dirt from his disciples.

In that sense, then, Peter was not just holding back his feet from his rabbi, by saying, 'Let's keep this professional,' he was, in a sense, trying to hold himself back from being washed in the blood of Jesus. Thank God he doesn't wait on us.

In this text, we see the normal progression that we see in the New Testament: Indicative (statement about what God has done for us), therefore Imperative (command that we should obey). 'Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.'

But if we try to see in Jesus' foot washing a sterile, gerneric, dry-clean act, it is useless to emulate. We need to see the sacrifice that he undertook and the sacrifice that he was foreshadowing. When we 'wash each other's feet,' we mustn't make the same mistake as Peter and go for the dry cleaning--without tears, without incense, without the blood of Christ. To truly follow His example requires true openness and true servanthood."

Soli Deo Gloria,

Pastor Zach