Mandela Dies. God Laughs. Merry Christmas!

Some of the strongest cultural statements of the 1960’s about religion came not from theologians but from the pages of Playboy magazine. Publisher Hugh Hefner wrote essays to boldly proclaim changes in moral attitudes about everything from sex to faith. (A program host on a television show I produced at WBBM-TV was the Methodist pastor of a church Hefner’s mother attended in Chicago’s north suburbs. Her attitude about her son’s endeavors were quietly disapproving, he reported.)

One of the truly provocative statements in Playboy, now largely forgotten, came in the form of an illustration, a drawing, that accompanied an article by Harvey Cox of the Harvard Divinity School. It was a full page portrait of Jesus, laughing. Not just a smile, but a full throated laugh. When you weigh it against centuries of art, it was truly shocking. When have you ever seen such a sight? From Giotto to Dali and beyond, it is impossible to find an equivalent.

I think the shock has much to do with how messages are mediated. For centuries, portraiture gave us serious people looking at us through the frame of a painting. The countenance was the same on three dimensional sculptures. Capturing images in these forms was serious business and expensively so. There were breakthroughs from these static depictions, though. Think of Goya’s The Third of May, an image that anticipates the mediation of the motion picture.

The Playboy image of Jesus is a derivative of the motion picture culture. It is an action image. It depicts an act in a single frame, yes, but it connects with us because we know the images that came before and after in our imaginations. In the long centuries of artistic expression, the motion picture occupies only a small percentage of the last one hundred twenty years or so. Movies have changed our expectations about images. I think it impossible for a medieval monk to comprehend the laughing Jesus without knowing that images can be made to move, to play out over time.

Does this Playboy depiction change what we know about Jesus? I think it does. I think it gives us a new clarity about understanding the very human dimension of God breaking into history. Jesus walked about in a narrow geography with his disciples. Surely, as he ate and drank with them and others he encountered he shared our human appreciation for the humor we find in life, the fellowship of pleasure in eating, drinking and talking.

But there’s a larger question provoked by a laughing Jesus. Does God laugh?

Here it is important to avoid the all too human tendency to anthropomorphize God. The nature of God might be the less than almighty God John D. Caputo imagines in his book, The Weakness of God: a Theology of the Event. Leaving aside the complexities of his philosophical approach, Caputo tells us God may be seen in events.

What sorts of events? Consider Nelson Mandela. Here is a man we recently commemorated with gratitude for a long life, and a deep appreciation for how he changed his nation. Here is a man who was deeply committed to Communism and acts of violence for which he served twenty-seven years as a dangerous prisoner, so accused by a profoundly evil racist government. Surprise! Look how things turned out. Mandela walked out of prison and redeemed South Africa from its apartheid past. Is that not enough for all-knowing laughter to peal across the infinite vault of heaven? Is not a twist of fate, a liberating act, a happy ending not an occasion for the laughter of angels?

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” What force assures the truth of this statement? Is it a God who laughs and who trusts human servants to attend to justice in the long arc of history?

I think God laughs at us foolish mortals, laughs with us when we enjoy God’s great gifts, and laughs for us when we lose our way in the intractable problems we encounter in life. So, Merry Christmas. With great emphasis on the modifier. Making merry is what Christmas is about and we shouldn’t lose sight of that or we do lose our way. It is the moment of our year when we are challenged to take stock of all that is good, our families, our friends, the food on the table, the wine in our glasses, and the promise of life with a happy ending.

My dear friend, Chicago Fat Phil, used to say, “God has a special place in hell for those who refuse to enjoy God’s great gifts.” Merry Christmas. Indeed!

Copyright (c) Gary R. Rowe, Inc. 2013. All Rights Reserved.

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What Price Success?

What really matters in life? What is success? What is winning? And what price would one pay for success?

Another Faust – book discussion guides youth or young adult groups to discuss how we answer these questions every day and how those answers have huge consequences for life.

The discussion guide is available as a quick download at  Sister and brother duo, Dina and Daniel Nayeri, wrote Another Faust for teenage readers. Playing off the classic Faust story, an evil governess persuades five children to trade their souls for what they so desperately want: beauty, success, athletic prowess, the ability to reverse time, and the ability to stop time.

In the classic Faust legend, a highly successful and eminent scholar finds himself unhappy and unsatisfied: he wants to know more and to have more pleasure in life. While Faust longs for satisfaction in his life, the Devil appears and offers a bargain: superhuman knowledge and worldly pleasure in exchange for Faust’s soul. Obsessed with his needs, Faust strikes the deal: for knowledge and pleasure, he will give his soul.

Generation after generation, the story begs readers to ponder: Is there anything, anything at all, for which I would exchange my soul? In everyday life, what does it mean to lose my soul? Can I find redemption? What really matters? What is real success and what does it cost?

It’s a story that meshes well with the angst of teens and the budding maturity of young adults.

Here’s a description of Another Faust from its Facebook page:

On a single night, five children suddenly vanish from their homes in Paris, Glasgow, Rome, and London. Years later, five enigmatic teenagers make an impressive entrance at an exclusive New York holiday party with their strange but beautiful governess, Madame Vileroy. Rumor and intrigue follow the Faust children to the elite Manhattan Marlowe School, where their very presence brings unexplainable misfortune.

Using “gifts” given to them by Madame Vileroy, these mysterious teenagers rise to suspicious heights at Marlowe. Though at first their abilities seem almost childlike in their simplicity, they soon learn that their newfound talents for cheating, stealing, hiding, and lying are far more potent than they had ever imagined — and far more addictive.

Ignoring the side effects of pursuing their individual obsessions, bargaining with the very devil in their midst as they claw their way to the top, these five ambitious teens draw ever nearer to their goals … until two of them uncover a secret even more shocking than their own most unforgivable sins. Dialing up the ancient dilemma of indulgence versus redemption, this modern-day retelling of the Faustian bargain story, set in twenty-first-century Manhattan, provides a look into the cutthroat world of high-school competition that is both bitingly funny and scorchingly wicked.

And, here are discussion questions suggested by reviewer Debra Bogart at Common Sense Media:

1. Families can talk about the classic story this book is so loosely based on. What made that story a classic?

2. What made each of the main characters strike a bargain with the devil? Did they realize she was the devil or were they innocent in intent? Could they have known what they were doing when they were 10 years old?

3. The authors seem to imply that in each family, it was the parents who made the kids what they were. What did Bella’s parents do to make her want only beauty?

4. Do you think life at the Marlowe School was realistic? Do the very rich live in a different world, with different rules, than everyone else?

Another Faust tells the story of five teenagers who have traded their souls for what they desire. It raises many questions: what things are important in life, who governs our lives, how does redemption occur.  The downloadable discussion guide at includes an overview of the book, a list of discussion questions for teen and young adult Bible studies, and possible ways to implement the resource in a small group setting.The book itself is well written, easy to read, and a natural discussion starter for sixteen-to-twenty-year olds.

Whether group members read the book, or the group leader simply tells the story, Another Faust – book discussion raises important questions for teens and young adults.


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