A pre-IHOP Mike Bickle story from the 1970s
The United Methodists get this issue right -- finally

When Taylor Swift sings of faith, people listen

My taste in music is reasonably broad but my interest in hard rock and in whatever hot pop music is called these days is minimal.

Tswift-religionSo it may not surprise you to learn that, despite Taylor Swift's enormous popularity for some years now, the first time I ever heard (and read the lyrics to) a Swift song was a couple of months ago when teenagers were invited to take over the pulpit in my congregation for youth Sunday. They used some of Swift’s music to talk to us about the pressures teens are under these days because of social media and other factors.

I can’t tell you the name of the song I especially liked, but I told myself I should find time to hear more.

So far that hasn’t happened, though I did read this intriguing Religion News Service story that describes the way recent Swift offerings use lots of religious symbolism in various ways.

As the story notes, Swift in the past has described herself as a Christian, though now "Swift’s faith appears more fluid. Her religious references are as eclectic as a Brooklyn thrift shop — well-worn Christian metaphors sit alongside a more bohemian mishmash of witchcraft, divination and paganism. Her newest release, 'The Tortured Poets Department,' is a patchwork of religious allusions, from good Samaritans and Jehovah’s Witnesses to altar sacrifices and prophecies."

All of which can be good and instructive but also what theologians call syncretistic, which means not a tossed salad of interesting religious ideas but a mushy soup of them that results in religion that doesn't stand for much and that accepts everything from divinely inspired insights to destructive garbage.

I'm not in a good position to tell whether Swift's use of religious imagery is one or the other or something in between. But the story about this can serve as a caution to us as we decide whether this or that religious idea is worthy of study or even adoption.

Religious ideas can lead to destructive, dehumanizing behavior, a point I have made in various ways in my latest book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Hope and Resilience in an Age of Anxiety. The terrorists who murdered nearly 3,000 people on Sept. 11, 2001, including my own nephew, were driven by incoherent and execrable religious ideas that resulted in death and destruction.

Not all worthless religious thinking is that evil. Some of it is just silly. Nonetheless, all of us are called to be discerning about how the faith-based ideas to which we pledge allegiance work themselves out in real life. For instance, as I point out in this essay, the bogus notion that homosexuality is a sin has caused enormous damage to countless people. And any time a religious idea causes that kind of pain and dehumanization you can bet the idea needs to be trashed and replaced.

As the RNS story to which I've linked you above notes, Swift's use of a wide variety of religious symbolism reflects where a growing proportion of the American population is these days:

"Whatever her personal beliefs, the syncretism displayed in the sprawling 31-song double album — which racked up 300 million listens in 24 hours, making it Spotify’s most streamed album in one day — is emblematic of the religious mishmash of millennial and Generation Z religion writ large. These days, roughly 28% of U.S. adults identify as atheist, agnostic or 'nothing in particular,' and a 2021 survey from Springtide Research Institute showed that 51% of its sample population of 13- to 25-year-olds use tarot cards or engage in fortunetelling."

So Swift simply may be adopting the broad spiritual language her fans speak -- and I want to be clear that not all of that language reflects syncretistic nonsense. Some religious ideas found outside the mainstream of religion are not only useful but could help reinvigorate traditional religions. Still, theological and scriptural ignorance -- even within houses of worship -- is widespread these days. And it's up to each of us to test the spirits to see whether they are moving us in generative or destructive directions.

(The image of Swift here today came from this site.)

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A new documentary called "Bad Faith" about Christian Nationalism warns that its advocates are working hard to undercut American democracy and, in effect, create a theocracy, this Guardian article reports. The Guardian describes the documentary this way: "The film juxtaposes the decades-long roots of the movement with its evolving principles: that America was founded as a Christian nation, for and by Christians; that maintaining such a state is a divinely sanctioned, righteous fight; that anti-democratic or violent tactics should be employed in the name of God. And in recent years, that Donald Trump – a thrice-married, profligate cheater with too many character scandals to name – is, if not a true 'Christian', a divinely sanctioned 'King Cyrus' figure sent to disrupt the secular order." If you believe any of that nonsense, maybe you need better sources of information.

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P.S.: If you missed my latest Flatland column when it posted this past Sunday morning, you can find it here. It's about the wide variety of sacred structures in the KC area and the seemingly endless way they affect and change our landscape.

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ANOTHER P.S.: Last weekend, this post on my blog was about Mike Bickle, the founder and former head of the International House of Prayer (IHOP), a Kansas City area ministry that has been in turmoil for some time. I wrote about my encounter with Bickle at his ministry in Rosebud, Mo., as he cared for his brother Pat, who had become a quadriplegic via a high school football injury. But when I wrote the piece I could not locate the 1977 story that I had written about it. My former Kansas City Star colleague, Judy L. Thomas, who has been writing a lot about IHOP recently, did find that story and sent it to me. It started on the front page of the Sunday Star on April 10, 1977. I'm attaching a pdf of it here in two files in case you want to read it. It took some time for me to get a printout with big enough and dark enough type to make it all out, but it's there if you want to make the effort. Thanks again to Judy. Download The_Kansas_City_Star_Sun__Apr_10__1977_ and Download The_Kansas_City_Star_Sun__Apr_10__1977_ (1)


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