As I was strolling through the parking lot of the music building today on my way to my trumpet lesson I happened to notice a shiny new Jaguar parked in one of the prime parking places reserved for folks with either lots of service or lots of clout. It was a beautiful machine and I just had to wander over to admire it, though I was careful to stay far enough away to avoid setting off any alarms.
As I drew nearer, I noticed the license plate: 1GR8TFL, which I assume is supposed to mean something like "I [am] grateful". I suppose I would be, too, if I had the sort of job that would allow me to buy a car like that, pay the taxes on it, and keep it running. I'd be even more grateful if it came with a parking space like that, but I suppose you can't have everything. I've often wondered what I would do if I had that kind of money, because I'm the sort of person who is not very good at having a lot of money around--instead of feeling gr8tfl I just feel gilT, wondering how many starving children I could feed by sending this shiny new trumpet's worth of money to OxFam. You can't save the world, of course, but you're lying to yourself if you think you can't save one or two people here and there. The next time you think about buying a CD for yourself, think about the fact that OxFam could take your $15 and keep five children alive for three months with that money (OxFam is rather famous for having extremely low overhead).
As I was peering inside at the beautiful leather seats and what I assume was a real wood dash and not some plastic fake, I noticed a book lying in the back seat. Now I happen to think that you can learn a lot about folks from the sorts of books they leave lying around in their car. Once, after I was nearly killed by some crazy moron who decided to pass me on the right on a two-lane road, I found myself parking next to the guy at the local Kroger, so I went over to his car to give him a piece of my mind. He had already gone inside, but I noticed a copy of Al Franken's Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them lying on the passenger seat. What a surprise. Anyway, the book in the Jag was the Bible. Given the fact that I was already feeling substantial Christian angst about my seedy covetousness and selfish desire to have a car like that for myself, I found myself wondering what sort of a person owned the car. The presence of a Bible in the back seat of a Jaguar is a conjunction of facts that renders the possibility that the owner of the car is a professor logically impossible, so it had to be either an administrator or some kind or perhaps well-to-do minister or maybe a doctor or a lawyer. I don't know why a doctor or a lawyer would park at the music building (let alone have a Bible in the car--is it in case you forget your black bag, or the judge is feeling grumpy?), and since administrators don't work in offices anywhere near the music building, I drew the rather shaky inference that the car belonged to a minister.
OK, I realize that was a dumb inference; in my own defence I will say that I didn't really draw that inference, it just popped into my head that it might be a minister's car, because when I was living in North Carolina I was often astounded by the kinds of cars driven by evangelical clergy. It was as if they thought of the thing as somehow a part of their job, the way my brother-in-law, who is a real estate broker, always drove a black Lincoln town car on the grounds that it couldn't hurt his reputation with the clients. I imagined these guys (it's always guys who drive penis cars like this; guys and Ann Coulter) driving around town on their pastoral visits wanting folks to feel that, here comes a guy who's got his act together, I can trust him--look at the car he's driving! In North Carolina it was always a BMW, though, or a Porsche. I think I saw a Bentley once, too, in Raleigh. That's where the real money is--you're not going to see a car like that in Durham, even in the parking lot of an evangelical church.
All of this clergy-with-wheels experience came from North Carolina, though, where the desire to tool around town in style at least appeared to have benign motives of impressing little old ladies. But once I moved to Ohio I made a rather startling discovery by the name of Joel Osteen. I had never heard of the guy until I started channel surfing late one night when Lisa was away on business and I happened upon one of Osteen's shows. I was captivated by his pleasant speaking style, his warm and friendly manner, and his gnarly threads. I watched pretty much the whole damn show and I couldn't believe that I was actually finding him interesting to listen to. But something was a little weird about him, and I started to look into his ministry a little. You'll have to forgive me, because I've been a little wary of these TV ministers ever since I saw Dr. Gene "Kill a piss ant for Jesus" Scott sitting in a captain's chair on an otherwise empty stage, wearing a construction-worker's hat, smoking a huge cigar, and explaining "why it is that I hate my ex-wife--because she won't give money to my ministry!" So when I see these guys I usually just assume that they're all like Scott, and the slicker they are the less I trust them, and Joel Osteen is nothing if not slick.
And yet I found that I liked the guy. Don't get me wrong--he's not a Catholic, and so I assumed he would say something heretical eventually, but I never heard him say it, so I kept looking into his ministry to uncover the error that I knew had to be there. Eventually I hit pay dirt: he's one of the "prosperity" Christians, folks who believe that if you are right with God, God will reward you with material prosperity. If it's true, of course, you'd have to think that Joel Osteen is about as right with God as a person can get, since he seems to be prospering more than most. Personally, I don't think he's really in it for base motives, I think he really believes what he says and is a "faithful" Christian to the extent that someone so wrong about Christianity can be, but it may be that I'm just being swayed by his savory clothes--maybe he's a complete charlatan; I just don't think so.
I hadn't given ol' Joel much thought of late, until I was reminded of him simply by virtue of seeing a car in a parking lot and wondering whether it was owned by a minister. Earlier this week I had heard a story on NPR about "prosperity" Christians in Nigeria, of all places, and it occurred to me that this prosperity message is not merely wrong, it is sort of in-your-face-wrong, and it misleads a lot of people. "It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones."
Of course I have no idea whose car that was or what their beliefs are like. That such cars even exist is something of a scandal, since the money could certainly be better spent, but I suppose someone will argue that the existence of such things drives an economy that enables everyone to live just a little better than they would otherwise be able to live.
Don't forget about OxFam, now: it's a great way to avoid cluttering up your living room with more CDs than you really need.
He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.
He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.
Don't get sent away, Joel, or whoever you are: sell your car--sell everything!--and follow Him!