Vail Daily columnist Jack Van Ens: Magical religion as popular as a Tebow comeback
Vail, CO, Colorado
When life cuts off options, don’t we yearn for a rescuer? Feeling squeezed into crimped corners, isn’t it natural to wish for someone to work his magic so that life feels OK?
“Act like quarterback Tim Tebow, God!” we demand. With seconds counting down, Tebow makes fans believe in magic. He engineers fantastic game-ending comebacks. Devout fans render homage by Tebowing on bended knee, either in adulation or mockery.
Just as magic lures football fans, it captures religious enthusiasts, too. Joel Osteen, the charismatic Houston-based TV preacher of the largest U.S. church, promotes magical religion. He tells listeners what they want to hear. Osteen believes God wants us to drive our lives on open highways where beautiful people steer their Cadillacs.
When asked why he refrains from entering life’s back alleys, where sin works its cruelty and unfair business practices mug poor victims, Osteen flashes his million-dollar smile. He claims his talents aren’t that of a dour prophet who excoriates sinners. Such sermons might get him in trouble because then he would be forced to preach on political issues and challenge listeners to take sides in social-morality debates.
Magic is especially appealing when people feel left out, down-trodden and perplexed. They try their best, but magic skips by.
Take biblical Jews, for example, to whom God promised that He would stand by His people. They played foreign powers off one another to save Israel. But such missteps backfired. Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia and Rome dominated Israel for centuries. Movers and shakers were deported, the grand Temple razed, Jerusalem occupied – no magic rescuer appeared.
Long before Jesus’ birth, a Jewish remnant believed in magic. They hoped God would make things right. He would send a rescuer – the Messiah – which in Hebrew means “the anointed one,” the magician of God’s special choosing. He’d work wonders. The Greek equivalent of “Messiah” is “the Christ.”
How and when would such magic to restore Jewish power occur? Some guessed the Messiah would storm Rome’s gates like King David, who conquered cities. Others surmised the Messiah would appear as a noteworthy priest like Melchizedeck or as a bombastic prophet like Elijah. An extra cup on Passover eve is placed on the table by contemporary Jews, just in case Elijah stops by to give good news that the Messiah has arrived. The door to the room where Passover is observed is left open so the Messiah can stride in.
That’s why the first Palm Sunday crowd cheered, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is coming! Hosanna in the highest!” (Mark 11:9-10)
The shout “Hosanna” means, “God save us!” That is, send us someone greater than King David to crush the wicked and magically lead Jews to first-class standing.
Ancient custom dictated that Roman warlords enter with a kind of New York Yankee swagger through main gates of conquered cities. In contrast, Jesus rode on a meek donkey into Jerusalem through a back gate. Religious officials understood that Jesus was sending a political message. As Messiah, his image exuded humility, not the expected military muscle.
Those in control on that first Palm Sunday had to rid themselves of Jesus because he didn’t deliver the magical touch they demanded. They believed Jesus, like most religious leaders, should think ethereal thoughts. He didn’t. Jesus roamed the back alleys where religion intersects politics, sex, racial inequities and wealth’s lure.
President Obama’s religious mentor Reinhold Niebuhr also rejected magical religion. Novelist Frederick Buechner, who studied at Manhattan’s Union Theological Seminary in the 1950s, shares in his memoir “Now and Then” how Professor Niebuhr influenced him. “It was the glittering breath of knowledge that I remember best, his gift for applying the insights of Christian faith to the whole spectrum of politics, economics and international affairs.”
Magical preachers, to stay popular, back off from these back alleys of controversy that Jesus faced.
Still, magic lures us in sports as well as religion. It pervades game day. We wear lucky jerseys boldly inscribed with our favorite players’ names. Our dashboard Jesus saves us from accidents. At the stadium, we avoid stepping on cracks in the concrete in order not to break our mother’s back or give the home team bad luck. It’s all fun and frivolous.
The true Messiah rejected magical religion, the kind that spares us controversy and promises days that are happy and nice.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.theliving
history.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.