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The Failure of American Christianity in Two Pictures

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I was at my local bookstore recently and was struck by the juxtaposition above.  It is significant that even a book retailer knows that “Christian Life” and “Self-Transformation” are not the same sorts of activities.  But in how many of our pulpits is this distinction denied? How many churches are built on the bait-and-switch of marketing self-transformation while sneaking in Jesus?

The Christian life and “self-transformation” or “self-help” are not living from the same narrative or drawing from the same source of power.  To cite a few distinctions:

  • Christianity is about what God has done in Christ; self-transformation is about how I can better myself.
  • Following Jesus means denying ourselves, taking up a cross, so that we decrease and Christ increases within us; self-transformation is about determining on our own what our lives should look like.
  • The Christian life invites us to follow saints, apostles, martyrs, and monks; self-transformation is the clarion call of a thousand different spiritual hucksters, false prophets, seminar stars, and warmed-over pagan gurus.
  • Sanctification is the name we give to becoming more like God, through the power of God; self-transformation is the impoverished secular version of trying to become more without God. (See also: the Tower of Babel.)
  • The baptized life is lived in community and with a sacred canon compiled in the Bible, bequeathed to us by the Spirit and the Church; self-transformation is a lonely project in which progress is a marketing ploy and the only canon is the latest publisher’s list.
  • Living as Christians is made possible by the Eucharist (or Holy Communion, or the Lord’s Supper), a sacrament in which we feed on Christ by faith; self-transformation is a project enabled only by our own feeble resources.

The truly sad part?  American Christianity – Protestantism, in particular – has reached a place where we are unable to differentiate between Christian life and self-transformation.  As a pastor, many of the most “successful” preachers whom I’m expected to mimic constantly blur, if not explode, the distinction between Christian faith and self-help.  We have traded the gospel, God’s transformative, free gift of grace to the world, into just another way to make our lives better.

This is Caesar’s religion, not Christ’s.

The proof is in one other photo I took that happened to be at the end of the “Christian Life” aisle.  The tag line: Find inspiration to claim your destiny.

Egads.

There must be more to Christianity than “inspiration.”  Inspiration can come from anywhere: a Hallmark movie, a Nicholas Sparks novel, a Zen expression, a cup of coffee, or a shot of vodka.  To be fair, authors don’t always have control over how their work is marketed.  Still, it is difficult to see how this might be an inaccurate representation of Joel’s version of Christianity.  It’s no accident that there is no mention of Jesus or the Godhead.  The mild code language of “inspiration” gives one the impression that this is vaguely spiritual but not overly sectarian.  And, potential Calvinism aside, the talk of “destiny” offers the promise that this book will be a key to unlocking a hitherto secret future that a beneficent (but unnamed) universe is simply waiting to hand you.

But the Christian life is not something we find; Christ came to us while we were yet sinners.  The incarnation was God’s idea, not ours. It was a rescue mission for which we did not ask.

Followers of Jesus don’t claim a destiny, we are given a calling in our baptism.

The Christian life isn’t about bettering our life, it’s about the life of Jesus, who alone is the way, the truth and the life.  Why is it that a book retailer can get this but millions of Christians in America can’t see just how counter-gospel the self-help message is?

John Wesley once, famously, wrote that “sour godliness is the devil’s religion.” But Satan himself could conceive of no more pernicious, twisted version of the Christian life than this self-help thinly disguised as Christian wisdom.

We’ll let St. Paul have the last word. He seemed to know, in the 1st century, that the Joels of this world would sneak in, wolves in sheep’s clothing, to devour the flock:

 For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires,  and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. (2 Tim. 4:3-4)

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West, Dyson, & the Independent Prophet as False Prophet

by Drew 1 Comment
Cornel West in 2008, by Esther. Courtesy Flickr/Wikimedia Commons.

Cornel West in 2008, by Esther. Courtesy Flickr/Wikimedia Commons.

In a recent public drubbing of Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson laid into the Princeton public intellectual for a variety of reasons in what was both a stringent personal attack and a mournful elegy to a declining mentor.  One of Dyson’s most incisive critiques was that West’s claim to the prophet’s mantle rings hollow, lacking the nuance both of biblical exegesis and ecclesial experience.  Dyson, a Georgetown professor, raises some serious questions here not just of West but of all Christians who would blithely claim the prophetic role for themselves.  Consider the following excerpts (subheadings are my own):

Defining the Prophet

“To paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous definition of pornography, West may not seek to define a prophet, but he knows one when he sees one, and quite often, they sound just like him. This limp understanding of prophecy plays to his advantage because he can bless or dismiss prophets without answering how we determine who prophets are, who gets to say so, how they are different from social critics, to whom they answer, if they have standing in religious communities, or if God calls them.”

Prophecy Demands Institutional Accountability

“But ordained ministers, and especially pastors, must give account to the congregations or denominations that offer them institutional support and the legitimacy to prophesize. They may face severe consequences—including excommunication, censorship, being defrocked, or even expelled from their parishes—for their acts. The words and prophetic actions of these brave souls impact their ministerial standing and their vocation. West faces no such penalty for his pretense to Christian prophecy.”

“West might argue that not being ordained leaves him free to act on his prophetic instincts and even disagree with the church on social matters. Thus he avoids the negative consequences of ordination while remaining spiritually anchored. That’s fine if you’re a run-of-the-mill Christian, but there is, and should be, a higher standard for prophets. True prophets embrace religious authority and bravely stand up to it in the name of a higher power. The effort to escape responsibility should sound an alarm for those who hold West’s views about how prophets should behave.”

“As a freelancing, itinerant, nonordained, self-anointed prophet, West has only to answer to himself. That may symbolize a grand resistance to institutional authority, but it’s also a failure to acknowledge the institutional responsibilities that religious prophets bear. Most ministers are clerics attending to the needs of the local parish. Only a select few are cut from prophetic cloth. Yet nearly all the religious figures we recognize as prophets—Adam Clayton Powell Jr., King, Jackson, Sharpton—were ordained as ministers. Powell and King were pastors of local churches as well. To be sure, there are prophets who are not ministers or religious figures—especially women whose path to the ministry has been blocked by sexist theologies—but most of them have ties to organizations or institutions that hold them accountable.”

“Prophets, as a rule, don’t have tenure. West gets the benefits of the association with prophecy while bearing none of its burdens. By refusing to take up the cross he urges prophetic Christians to carry, West is preaching courage while seeking to avoid reprisal or suffering. Playing it safe means that West doesn’t qualify for the prophetic role he espouses.”

Is Anything Critical or Counter-Cultural Prophetic?

“What makes West a prophet? Is it his willingness to call out corporate elites and assail the purveyors of injustice and inequality? The actor Russell Brand does that in his book Revolution. Is he a prophet? Is it West’s self-identification with the poor? Tupac Shakur had that on lock. Should we deem him a prophet? Is it West’s self-styled resistance to police brutality, evidenced by his occasional willingness to get arrested in highly staged and camera-ready gestures of civil disobedience, such as in Ferguson last fall?”

Conclusion

Dyson raises crucial questions for any Christians who would blithely ascend to the prophetic office.  Most especially, he reminds us that true prophets are always close enough to the Christian community (by ordination and other relationships) to be held responsible, to be able to receive praise or blame for their actions.  The lone prophet has, by contrast, won his or her mantle cheaply, like a bitter child who buys a championship trophy at a pawn shop and then fancies himself All-State.

Let those with ears, hear.

 

P.S. Given what Dyson has said about prophets not having tenure, I wonder if it possible for United Methodist elders to be prophets in any real sense of the term?

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Like Midas’ Touch, But in Reverse: Further Reasons to Distrust the Rob Bell/Oprah Vortex

by Drew 4 Comments
Toasting their success (Dr. Oz and Midas/Oprah), courtesy Deadstate.

Toasting their success (Dr. Oz and Midas/Oprah), courtesy Deadstate.

The conversation around Rob Bell’s recent career move has been interesting.  Many are fascinated at what the Oprah Machine will turn out.  Some are skeptical, and others are quick to defend.  It seems that Bell has now been “claimed” by the progressive camp, and anyone who questions his sanctity  must be rooted out and destroyed, much like the Inquisition that the progressives (claim to) abhor.  Enter an article published by Relevant under the hysterical title, “What the Continued Crucifying of Rob Bell Says About Modern Christianity,” which defends the founder of Mars Hill thus:

“Bell is no fast food, arm-chair theologian, remember.

He’s a Bible geek whose experience with and understanding of the ancient Scriptures was one of the main reasons for his rise in the first place. This wasn’t a guy who skimmed the easy passages. This wasn’t someone who preached from the cozy confines of the Creation story, or the Psalms, or the Sermon on the Mount.”

He also charges that Bell’s critics now are the same as those before: those vile heresy-hunters are now coming out of the woodwork to crucify (side note: I despise these histrionics) Bell all over again.  But not so fast.

I’m a fan of Bell’s, as I established in my previous post.  I never called him a heretic. I still don’t think he is one.  But I seriously question his association with Oprah.  Why? Because she destroys those she touches.  Like Midas, the mythological king who turned what he touched to gold, Oprah turns those she touches to shit.

Consider Dr. Mehmet Oz. A legitimate surgeon before Oprah put her stamp on him, Dr. Oz has faced growing criticism for his seemingly un-scientific, medically-questionable claims.  He’s even had to go before Congress to defend himself.  A new study has found that more than half of his claims have no basis in medical science.  More than half! Just made up.

So it’s not that Bell is some heretic who should be thrown into the outer darkness. It’s that he’s associating with someone who corrupts, someone who brings commercial success at the price of dignity, integrity, and ultimately the truth.

And I, for one, appreciate Bell’s gifts too damn much to be okay with that.

I hope it doesn’t happen. I hope that Rob is able to resist lure of the limelight, the temptation to so popularize one’s message that all credibility is sacrificed.  As a New York doctor said (quoted in the Post article above),

“Mehmet is now an entertainer…And he’s great at it … [But] sometimes Mehmet will entertain wacky ideas — particularly if they are wacky and have entertainment value.”

Will Bell make the most of this opportunity, and use his platform to represent Christian wisdom and charity well, or will he sell out a-la Doctor Oz, dispensing theological prescriptions as corrupt and false as they are easily digestible?

Only time will tell.

Update: A friend passed on this clip from the Rob Bell Show, featured on the OWN website, which seems to indicate that, at least to a degree, Rob is not going to shy away completely from robust Christian themes.

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Painting with Warren Buffett

The following is one of my favorite excerpts from Susan Cain’s marvelous Quiet, which I cannot recommend enough (whether you are an introvert or extrovert).  Warren Buffett, the famously introverted and successful investor, was at an investing conference just prior to the burst of the 2000 dot-com bubble.  Present at the party was lots of “new money,” investors and venture capitalists who had recently become very wealthy.

“Buffett was decidedly not a part of this group.  He was an old-school investor who didn’t get caught up in speculative frenzy around companies with unclear earnings prospects.  Some dismissed him as a relic of the past.  But Buffett was still powerful enough to give the keynote address on the final day of the conference.”

Buffett saw that the bubble was about to burst, and told the happy crowd exactly what he thought.  They were not pleased with his remarks, and dismissed him as hopelessly backwards.  Next year, though, when the bubble did burst, Buffett was proven right:

“Buffett takes pride not only in his track record, but also in following his own ‘inner scorecard.’  He divides the world into people who focus on their own instincts and those who follow the herd.  ‘I feel like I’m on my back,’ says Buffett about his life as an investor, ‘and there’s the Sistine Chapel, and I’m painting away.  I like it when people say, Gee, that’s a pretty good-looking painting. But it’s my painting, and when somebody says, Why don’t you use more red instead of blue? Good-bye. It’s my painting.  And I don’t care what they sell it for.  The painting itself will never be finished.  That’s one of the great things about it.'” (177)

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Sports, Steroids, and Grace

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Lots of sad news in the world of sports (and sports entertainment) lately.  One of my favorite fighters, Chael Sonnen, may be getting more than the proverbial slap on the wrist from the California State Athletic Commission.  It’s been a rapid ascent and and even more rapid decline for the former No. 1 Contender for Anderson ‘The Spider’ Silva’s middleweight title.  After beating up Silva for all but 2 minutes of their five-round affair, Sonnen was submitted in the closing minutes.

Since then, things have just gotten worse.  The Cliff’s Notes version: he popped positive for banned substances after tests showed abnormal testosterone levels.  He claimed he had a doctor’s note, and that he had told other officials.  Some of these claims were disputed.  In the meantime, he was convicted in a real estate fraud case and lost his real estate license (which also forced him to stop his bid for Congress).

Initially, the CSAC was prepared to lift his suspension, but this week they took a mulligan at a special hearing and changed their minds.  Disagreements over the honesty of Sonnen’s statements – if anything, he is a talker – and other concerns caused them to vote 4-1 to suspend his license indefinitely.  The problem: not only does this shelve Sonnen in California until 2012, but because most athletic commissions honor such decisions across state lines, it is likely he could only get fights in states without such regulatory bodies.  Even with that, it is doubtful that the UFC, which is continually seeking to improve its image, would back a fighter against the wishes of a state commission.

In light of the wrist-slapping that goes on in virtually all other professional sports, Sonnen’s penalty seems unnecessarily harsh.  It seems like a personal vendetta more than a pragmatic penalty. “This will teach those fighters,” I hear them sneering in the boardroom, “to make public comments about officials and judges.”  Methinks Chael is being made and example of.

We give grace to our athletes all the time.  Yes, Sonnen broke the law, but he also owned up to it and faced the music.  He’s been punished.  Performance-enhancing drugs?  It’s an open secret that many, if not most, professional sports are rife with them.  Does it make it right? No.  But it should temper our righteous indignation when someone tests positive.  In Matthew 18 we find the following exchange:

 21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”  22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

Seventy-seven?  Surely we can find room for 2, or 3.  Jeff Sherwood over at Sherdog sums it up nicely:

We have to be honest with ourselves: PEDs exist in professional sports. Somewhere in the world, a curling sweeper is probably using steroids. It’s against the law, but so many athletes do it just to be able to compete in today’s sports. Pro athletes are pushed year after year to tackle harder, hit longer home runs, jump higher and knock more people out. Then, when they’re caught doing things that will help them perform to the standards set, everyone turns against them.

Most MMA fighters have a hard enough time buying food to feed their bodies properly with the money they make; being forced to sit out for a year is a huge blow. Four games to an NFL player is the equivalent of a parking ticket.

Look, I get it: these players have broken the rules. But commissioners, judges and referees in MMA — not to mention the millions working in or around the NBA, NFL, MLB and NHL — are able to feed their families because of what these professional athletes do. Let’s give them a little bit of love.

Update:  Apparently the CSAC made a mistake, and Sonnen is eligible to apply in CA and everywhere June 29 for licensure.  Time will tell, of course.  Perhaps if he doesn’t talk too much about it between now and then, the commissions will cease to unduly punish him.  The timing seems suspect to me; there has been a good deal of disappointment over the handling of this case.  Oh well.  Hope he gets back in the cage this year, especially if it is against Michael Bisping.

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Maddow, Moore, and blah blah blah

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Regardless of which side you take on the union issue in Wisconsin, calling this a “class war” and an attack on the “working people” is sheer nonsense.  State officials are working people.  State senators and congressional reps typically serve two jobs or more.  A good friend of mine is a state rep. and works very hard for not much money.  “Working people” elected fellow “working” citizens who are doing their jobs and trying to have a workable budget.  But for Michael Moore to rage against wealthy people is a bit silly.  He’ one of them.  But as for “working people”?  He’s not one of them.

As for subverting the democratic process…well, maybe you don’t like every aspect of this bill.  But subverting the process also includes not showing up to vote.  Brave.

See an epic meeting of blowhards here.

P.S. Unionized industries are the most inefficient and lackluster of any.  Think transportation, education, etc.  I’m going to go take a shower now.  I feel dirty.

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I call THAT real…

This is officially my new favorite country song.  And I haven’t listened to much country lately.  I used to listen almost exclusively to country, but more and more I find that it is only parroting the worst aspects of other popular forms of music like rock & hip-hop.  Being a big Johnny Cash fan, I know country has always had elements of drug use and sexuality.  I’m not sure if I’ve gotten more sensitive to this stuff or if it is more and more pervasive.  Either way, I just don’t have much patience for it anymore.  I think the music you listen to shapes you.  It’s not about “not being stained” or thinking that everything secular is dirty.  For me, I guess, it’s about what keeps me focused on God and the man God has called me to be.  It seems to me that country today is just as likely to celebrate very ungodly lifestyles as any other kind of music, and I just don’t need to fill my head with that on a regular basis.

But, James Wesley just gave me a reason to celebrate country music again.  Given all the reality TV on CMT (isn’t it owned by MTV, also a fine purveyor of “reality” trash?), it will be a miracle if this gets much air time.  But man we need to hear this message:

500 Channels and there ain’t much on tonight
But reality shows about some folks so called lives
A pretty girl cries cause she don’t get a rose
But she’ll find love next year on her own show
And they call that real

Real, is the hand you hold 57 years
Real, is a band of gold trembling with fear
And it’s the first long tear down an old man’s face
Watching his angel slipping away
His heart so broke, it’s never gonna heal
I call that real

Where I live, housewives don’t act like that
And the survivors are farmers in John Deere hats
Our Amazing race is beating the check
Praying that the bank ain’t ran it through yet

Real, like too much rain falling from the sky
Real, like the drought that came around here last July
It’s the damn old weevils and the market and the weeds
The prayer they prayed when they plant the seeds
And the chance they take to bring us our next meal
I call that real

Real, like a job you lose ‘cause it moves to Mexico
Like a momma and a baby with no safe place to go
Like a little dream house with a big old foreclosed sign
Like a flag draped coffin and a 21 gun goodbye
I call that real

This hit me especially this morning because Snooki visited nearby recently (on a Sunday! Surely there should be a law…) to a packed Barnes & Noble.  As a society, we are idolatrously glorifying the lives of people who literally contribute nothing to society.  Moreover, the  lifestyles celebrated in “reality” shows have nothing to do with how 99.9% of people actually live.

I serve a congregation of wonderful people.  None of us are perfect.  Some of us have lost children; some have had cancer; some of us have suffered from mental illness.  We’ve lost jobs.  We’ve raised good kids.  We’ve had arguments, but found healing.  We’ve worked hard, even for bad people, and continued to serve each other in retirement.  I love these people.  I love how real they are.

So please, media, stop trying to sell me something that is fundamentally sinful, wrong, malformed, and galactically unreal.  Thank you James Wesley (awesome last name BTW) for a country song I can celebrate once more.

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The Sad State of Journalism: NBC Sports Skewers Dana White and His “UFC Tree Fort”

by Drew 0 Comments

Just read an ::ahem:: “article” over on the NBC Sports site dubiously titled “Dana White Doesn’t Want Icky Girls In His UFC Tree Fort.” If you don’t know who Dana White is, well, you aren’t even a casual MMA fan.  The foul-mouthed Bostonian (are there any other kinds?) is President and part-owner of the UFC, and the man most responsible for turning around not only his corporation but the entire sport.  He’s not polished, but he is smart, and I like his product.  He has flaws.  These are readily viewable with a simple Google search.  But that is no excuse for this.  The author, Rick Chandler, concludes his short piece – based on a ONE WORD answer White gave to the ever-invasive cameras of TMZ – with the following scintillating analysis:

OK, I think we get the picture. We now take you to the scene of another 6-year-old mentality, via Calvin & Hobbes, already in progress:

Calvin: Our top-secret club, G.R.O.S.S.– Get Rid Of Slimy girlS!
Susie: Slimy girls?!
Calvin: I know that’s redundant, but otherwise it doesn’t spell anything.

Of course, the head of the UFC must be a misogynistic, immature dolt.  Many people, ignorant of the sport, would say the same about us fans.  But this is ridiculous.

The primary reason that the UFC does not have a women’s division (and likely won’t for quite some time) is a relatively low number of female fighters.  The UFC is the major-league, marquee MMA organization.  They will never have a women’s division until there are enough high-quality female fighters (in a particular weight class) to justify its creation in the top-shelf promotion.  This same logic applies to why there will not be (also for a long, long time) a super-heavyweight (265 lbs. +) division: very few – if any –  high-quality fighters in that bracket.

But I didn’t need to tell you all that.  Hopefully, all you needed to see was the title of this article to know that this was a pathetic excuse for sports journalism.  To run to the opposite extreme, where is Ariel Helwani when I need him?

P.S. Sue, if you read this, feel free to correct me!  Aside from college newspaper experience (ha!) I am no expert in this field.  But as a fan, I was offended by this hack piece.

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POTUS or President of the NCAA?

President Barack Obama sits courtside with VP Joe Biden as Georgetown battles Duke game at D.C.'s Verizon Center on Saturday afternoon.

Is the President of the United States – the leader of the free world;  the commander in chief of the most powerful military in the world (which is currently engaged in two wars); the man currently presiding over an economic downturn…

…providing color commentary for a college basketball game?

Benjamin Franklin, when asked what the Constitutional Convention had achieved in Philadelphia, responded:

“A republic, if you can keep it.”

Wave bye-bye.  Between the increasinly bureaucratic and centralized federal government, and the bastardization and trivialization of the Chief Executive, we most certainly are not keeping it.

This is preposterous.  Can you imagine Winston Churchill calling a cricket match?  George Washington sitting next to John Madden in the booth?  Abe Lincoln putting on headphones to talk about the Braves?

We got exactly what we you voted for.

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Oprah Retiring – Who Cares?

by Drew 0 Comments

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I don’t have much of a problem with Oprah, other than unwarranted admiration that the public has for her.  From what little I have seen of her shows, she is more a reflection of our culture than a shaper of it.  Her guests include anyone in the news, celebrities, or people with interesting, inspiring, or tragic stories.  She has spawned spin-off shows like Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, and Rachel Ray.  I respect her for being open about her challenges with weight loss.  I’m not sure why it should matter that she endorsed Barack Obama this past election cycle (other than showing what Hilary should have known: minority women would chose a minority man over a white woman).  I don’t like that people would pick up any book just because Oprah told them to; I dislike even more that Oprah could rediscover classics we all should have read in high school anyway.

But we do have strange sages these days.  That so many women find direction from Oprah is indicative of how deep and how desperate our search for wisdom, truth, and goodness (all of which come only from God) really is.  Our culture is in trouble precisely insofar as news of Oprah’s retirement is met with legitimate mourning.  Daytime TV is abysmal.  It is junk food geared towards a very specific demographic.

But perhaps I am being too hard.  I suspect Oprah is for a generation of women what Jon Stewart is for my own: the best source of wisdom, humor, and guidance they can find.

Oprah is not a bad person, but there is no reason she should be worth two billion dollars.  Why are we up in arms over corporate CEO’s making this kind of money, and not offended at Oprah’s wealth?  A double standard indeed.
Side note: Oprah’s name comes from a Biblical name, Orpah.  I wish her guidance were as biblical as her name suggests.  As it is, she is a real, live, American Idol.  Watch, these last two years, for worship.  It will not be unlike when Princess Di passed away: the sadness with which it is met will indicate just how much we are hurting for real meaning, wisdom, truth, and beauty.  These, however, are not to be found in our cultural icons.

This Sunday is Christ the King Sunday.  A more stark contrast to the Queen of daytime TV I could not imagine.

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