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John D. Pierce | Blog


Blue laws, Swiss Cake Rolls and reasonable expectations

By John Pierce

Last Sunday I enjoyed talking with some church lay leaders about the changing cultural contexts in which congregations minister today. One of my points was that current ministers are often compared unfairly to beloved pastors of another era.

While we are grateful for those ministers who led our congregations and shaped our lives many years ago, it is important to acknowledge the uneven playing fields.

News about one of my favorite childhood snacks served as a reminder of a different time in American life when the church had less competition for our time and attention.

McKee Foods in Collegedale, Tenn., just celebrated 50 years of making Little Debbie Swiss Cake Rolls. It was about that long ago when my family began making occasional Sunday drives into this small town heavily populated by Seventh-day Adventists.

“Blue laws” limiting commerce on Sundays meant that most businesses in the Chattanooga area were closed. But a grocery store in Collegedale — featuring healthier options than we usually saw at Piggy Wiggly or Red Food Store — was open on Sunday after being closed on Saturday, which Seventh-day Adventists observe as the Sabbath.

Also, Little Debbies were sold for a nickel a piece on Sunday afternoon at the baking company. We would pull the individually wrapped goodies from barrels and fill grocery bags. While Oatmeal Crème Pies and other snack cakes were welcomed, my bag always leaned heavily toward Swiss Cake Rolls.

Blue laws have gone the way of leisurely Sunday drives and nickel snacks. They were improperly a government intrusion into religion.

Additionally, growing diversity and many other factors now impact church leadership in ways not faced by earlier generations. To name just a few: more weekend getaways, youth sports on Sundays, and high-tech megachurches.

So as we walk our church hallways with pictures of former pastors gracing the wall, let us remember fondly and gratefully those who ministered so effectively for a season. But let us support our current ministers who lead our congregations in a very different time.

And let us express our appreciation to them — at least with a smile, a word of thanks, and perhaps a Swiss Cake Roll every now and then.



Flushed with errors

By John Pierce

To err is human. To err in a headline is to end up on a bathroom wall in the Newseum.


Strategically located on Pennsylvania Ave., between the White House and the U.S. Capitol, the Newseum is a worthy destination for visitors to Washington, D.C. There is so much to see.



During my visit this week, however, I spent hours in a symposium on religious liberty and didn’t get the chance to browse the wonderful exhibits which are always informative and inspiring. However, I did visit the restroom on occasion.



The walls of the bathrooms throughout the Newseum have unique tiling. Scattered among the porcelain, chrome and lighting are tile recreations of bad newspaper headlines.


They are good for a laugh — and a reminder that humans are imperfect.



For those of us who write headlines and proof read articles again and again prior to publication, these “oops” may cause us to sharpen our eagle-eyed efforts.


But then, with the Newseum’s fascinating exhibits on everything from the Civil War’s impact on American journalism to Tim Russert’s office to Anchorman props, it might be enough for a journalist’s work to just end up on a bathroom wall.




House of Bacon

By John Pierce

The Gospel Train carries me to church on Sunday mornings via satellite radio. The good picking turns exclusively to praising on the Bluegrass Junction channel for a few hours each Lord’s Day.

My daughter Abigail was with me recently when the lyrics of these songs led me to offer some unrequested background information on the culture out of which this music was birthed and grew.

I pointed to the consistent themes of enduring hardship with a hopeful eye to the future, suffering in the present moment with the promise of eternal relief, and living with little now while awaiting great heavenly rewards. Similar themes, I noted, are found in Southern Gospel — which I call “mansion music” since the four-part harmony often rises in hopes of moving into some grand house in the by and by.

The reasons for such themes, I added — though Abigail had no follow-up questions, or in fact, no initial questioning — was that such music came out of a culture of poverty and struggle.

“Our understanding of God and the ways we interpret the Bible, and therefore the ways we practice our personal faith, are shaped by the social contexts in which we live,” I added. “That doesn’t mean they are not real in any way; it just helps to recognize how our cultural experiences impact our perceptions of God, life and eternity.”

I was on a roll.

“Since we live in a comfortable home, for example, we don’t really yearn for a heavenly mansion,” I continued. “But if, decades ago, you had grown up in a cabin in the Appalachians or in an old farmhouse that had ice on the inside walls in the winter and an outhouse several freezing steps down a path, the idea of a heavenly mansion would be appealing.”

It dawned on me that an introductory course in sociology of religion at Berry College is when I first begin to see how cultural settings impact our understanding and practice of faith. In more recent years I heard someone say insightfully: “Tell me what you fear and I’ll tell you your theology.”

Being captive to the front seat of my car, Abigail tolerated my lecture. Perhaps because it drowned out much of the morning music of my choosing.

After listening patiently, she finally added that she understood what I was saying. She recalled being at church as a child when the teacher asked each of them to draw a picture of what Heaven looks like.

“I really liked bacon back then,” she said. “So I drew a house made out of bacon.”

Yep, she got it. And said it so much more clearly and concisely than did I.


Have faith, and avoid being spoiled American Christians

By John Pierce

Caution: Those who stir up culture wars in the name of Jesus create the perception that American Christians are fearful and spoiled. Such overreactions, self-pity and doomsday gloom are not consistent with nor do they advance the Gospel in any way.

Many of us have never lived in a cultural context where our particular religious faith was not the majority influence — and, in many cases, overwhelmingly dominant. Our particular religious perspectives infiltrated civic life at every level — from Bible lessons in public schools to sectarian prayers at civic gathering to youth sports never being scheduled on Wednesday nights or Sundays.

Times and culture have changed, and they will continue to change. However, our best response is not to fight or fret. Such reactions are both unbecoming and unhelpful.

We have the growing opportunity, like so many Christians in other times and places, to embrace a clearer and surer faith that is undiluted — or at least less diluted — by a kind of nationalistic or civic-based religion that settles for allegiance to some vague “ceremonial deity” which resembles Uncle Sam as well as Moses.

Jesus calls individuals, not governments, to follow him. Authentic faith requires honest, personal confession. It is never the result of coercion.

When challenges to civil religion are seen as threats to our personal faith, something important is lost. That something is an appreciation for religious freedom that has weathered more than two centuries of struggles — and the willingness to live out the Christian faith without the “helping” and shaping hands of the broader culture. 

Never do American Christians look and sound more petty, fearful and insecure than when whining about the threats to one’s own religious liberty (meaning loss of cultural dominance) rather than defending the religious freedoms of minorities who lack political influence and may indeed experience forms of persecution.

There were some outcries and claims of victimization, for example, over the Air Force Academy’s recent decision to make optional the phrase “so help me God” at the end of the cadets’ Honor Oath.

But what benefit comes from forcing others to swear allegiance to One to whom they have no allegiance? Does doing so make their promises to not lie, steal or cheat more valid than West Point cadets who don’t include a reference to God in their oath?

Or the bigger question: Can we as followers of Christ live faithfully in a changing cultural setting where our beliefs may not be as widely shared as before — and where everyone is not required to affirm our favored civic references to God?

Many faithful Christians have done so through the centuries — even at high costs that most Americans can’t imagine.

Rather than fearing the loss of cultural dominance, we would do well to give fuller attention to what it means personally, and for our communities of faith, to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ — who calls us to lives of unconditional love and self-giving service, not seeking outside favors for ourselves and those like us.

And when we do so, the larger culture might give us a better hearing as well as the faith we profess.


Now, that’s familiar

By John Pierce

Recent Tea Party antics may have you thinking, “I’ve seen this show before.” If so, perhaps you recall the Fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention.

More than mere parallels can be observed. In some cases, the same persons are involved.

Last week, a Southern Baptist editor turned his editorial page into an open letter to President Obama that not only challenged policy matters. It questioned the president’s professed faith and expressed fear for his eternal security.

A friend wondered if such concern would have been expressed had the Mormon candidate in the last election made it into the Oval Office.

The editorial was the typical litany of right-wing political ideology, along with highly judgmental religiosity, masked as spiritual concern and true patriotism.

Such is the most distinctive parallel between Christian Fundamentalists and the Tea Party — while acknowledging that the two groups have great overlap and are in many ways the same group.

In both cases, these groups seek to capture certain descriptive terms exclusively for themselves. They, and they alone, are the true “conservatives” and unblemished “believers” in the Bible/Constitution.

Any challenge to these claims or refusals to align with their causes bring harsh dismissal and accusations of being less than true believers or faithful Christians/patriots. There is no room for “loyal critics” from within; you are either with them fully or on the evil side.

Anyone who questions their positions or tactics becomes the enemy who endangers “our way of life” — and therefore should be excluded.

That’s why the acronym “RINO” (Republican In Name Only) has been heard so much over the last couple of weeks. Even a former POW and long-serving Republican senator is charged by a fellow GOP legislator with aiding the enemy in the same way committed missionaries and professors were said to not trust the Bible.

So even insiders who walk out of step with the declared vision of truth or who question aggressive, unethical tactics will get enemy treatment.

Guilt by association is a favored weapon too. Cooperation is equated with capitulation. Staying “pure” (a word that literally defines a Pharisee) is required. 

Fear and a desire for more control drive the ever-tightening circle of inclusion until only self-congratulators remain. And the growing loss of relevance gets lost on them.

So excuse those of us who feel like we are watching a rerun. We know the script.

And the resulting carnage of Fundamentalism, whether political or religious or the always dangerous blending of the two, is not a pretty sight.

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