Sunday, October 16, 2011

Gold Dust and God the Magician

I don't believe in an interventionist God
But I know, darling, that you do
But if I did I would kneel down and ask Him
Not to intervene when it came to you
. (Nick Cave)

A recent video that's circulating social networks shows a rowdy charismatic worship service that supposedly ended with a 'supernatural' display of divine power: the appearance of a swirling cloud of gold dust that ended with people apparently walking away 'covered' in specks of gold.  I am fairly certain the video was shot at a church with which I am very familiar, due to my own background in charismatic/pentecostal circles.

Divine intervention...
I remember being at a similar event in high school where it was claimed that gold dust had appeared on people's hands.  Long story short, it all turned out to be fake and it was very embarrassing for some folks in attendance.  So naturally, I am very skeptical about this.  I spent the first 20 years of my life very much involved in such supernatural-obsessed versions of Christianity and saw nothing unambiguously supernatural.  I heard many wild stories about 'supernatural' signs and wonders, yes.  And on occasion, I heard an actually credible story that somebody ended up not having cancer after being diagnosed with it, or that someone's health recovery completely surprised the doctors.  This was often framed as a supernatural miracle, but I see no way of showing how this could be true.  Of course, I am sure God is involved in such events, as God is involved in every event in some measure.  But supernatural miracles through divine intervention is another thing entirely.

I did see people's lives turned around in the church - and these are the best kinds of miracles: drug addicts overcoming their addictions, marriages restored, former gang members getting off the streets.  I saw Christ-like generosity and service in action.  Sometimes, even amongst evangelicals, I saw Christians who genuinely cared about the poor and sought to go beyond charity.  They saw the injustice in the global economic system and actively opposed such systemic evils for the sake of the oppressed.  This kind of justice-oriented Christianity always impressed me because it actually sounded like Jesus.  On the other hand, supernatural-obsessed Christianity often disappointed: it promised so much and rarely amounted to anything more than spiritual masturbation - short-term thrills - and superstition.

Criss Angel vs. the 'gold dust' God
These kinds of 'supernatural' videos claiming to be showing actual signs and wonders pop up from time to time online, and then get sent to me by a well-meaning friend or acquaintance.  I sometimes chuckle, but more often I get frustrated, cynical...even depressed.  Particularly videos claiming to show signs and wonders that involve 'supernatural' stunts that the magician Criss Angel could have performed at least as well as the charismatic's interventionist God.  But seriously: who cares about gold dust, even if there was some sort of paranormal phenomenon going on there?  Yes, I'm aware of how this 'sign' is variously interpreted: divine royalty, glory, or perhaps as something to do with the imminence of the end times.  I remain unimpressed.  Surely a God with such unlimited power would do something more interesting.

Furthermore, an interventionist God like such a supernatural event would probably require makes the problem of evil impossible to deal with.  As a Christian, I believe in a God who acts in the world.  I'm no deist.  But with process theologians, I do not believe that God can do whatever God wants (incidentally, the biblical authors generally tend to agree with me).  God works persuasively, not coercively in the world.  If God ever intervened to "show off" God's power (as some who commented on this video disturbingly interpreted the stunt), God's love and goodness would be impossible to affirm.  Such an all-loving and all-powerful God is totally unbelievable if one actually takes evil and suffering in the world seriously.  Such a God would be arrogant, egotistical, selfish, cruel, and unjust. 

Jesus Christ Liberator
If you still believe in an interventionist God, show me a video of this God making food appear for the starving; show me a cripple getting up to walk for the first time; show me a blind person miraculously gaining their sight (actually, process theologians can make sense of some of these types of occurrences, but not through supernatural divine intervention).  These 'miracles' are far preferable to a random exercise of coercive divine power to make gold dust float through the air.  Better yet, show me a video of the church caring for the orphan and widow; show me a video of the church opposing war; show me a video of the church occupying Wall Street.  But please: don't waste any more of our time with gold dust magic shows.  This world needs justice not stunts, cheap thrills, illusions.  We don't need 'glittery glory' just to make us feel special and loved (another absurd interpretation of the video).  We need a God who suffers with us, a God of love and persuasion who does everything she can to keep us from evil and injustice.  Only such a persistent, consistent God of limited but real power is worthy of worship.

Jesus calls his followers to be "covered in the dust of their rabbi" - an earthy dust, not gold dust.  The Jesus worth following isn't a glitzy gold dust preacher, but a revolutionary rabbi on the side of the oppressed.  He's also the incarnation of a rather surprising God - one who isn't a magician who has to compete with pop-culture magicians for our attention.  S/he's a liberator who faithfully lures the world toward a better future and who suffers with all who suffer in the struggle of life

"Only a suffering God can help us." (Bonhoeffer) 

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