The way of faith for Alice Cooper

By Steve Beard

Back in 2002, MTV announced that the biggest hit in its history was a program called “The Osbournes.” The half-hour show — complete with constant bleeping from excessive foul language — was a curiously fascinating docu-comedy starring the members of Ozzy Osbourne’s family — wife and two teenage siblings (the eldest child bowed out of the show). Ozzy, of course, is the British rock singer acclaimed for his ghoulish heavy metal performances.

CooperThe Osbournes had just moved into a new Beverly Hills mansion where they promptly bemoaned the loss of their former neighbor, Pat Boone. Ozzy dottered and mumbled around the house trying to figure out the TV remote control, his wife hired a pet therapist to get the dogs to stop pottying in the living room, and the kids screamed and chased one another around the Osbourne compound.

Truth be told, I found the show captivating in a strange way. Others, justifiably, hated it. The television networks were scrambling to tap into the newly minted genre of “reality” television. At that time, I recommended that the next MTV show should feature Alice Cooper’s family. That’s right, the spooky granddaddy of shock rock who festooned his stage with guillotines, electric chairs, and boa constrictors.

Imagine watching the reactions of parents as they take their sons to their very first Little League baseball practice only to discover that Alice Cooper is going to be the coach. Or where he tries to organize a carpool to his daughter’s ballet lessons (he had three kids ranging from 10 years old to 20). Or what about when he gets thrown into an unsuspecting golf foursome at the country club. It would be a hoot.

Today, Alice Cooper (born Vincent Furnier) still tours around the world doing his theatrical rock and roll show about three or four months out of the year. He still watches kung-fu movies before his performances and downs Quarter Pounders with cheese afterward. This zany character even shows up regularly at Alice Cooper’stown, his sports-n-rock themed restaurant in Phoenix, Arizona, where he serves Mom’s Tuna Casserole and Megadeth Meatloaf.

At the height of his worldwide fame, Cooper drank a bottle of whiskey a day. But the bottle almost destroyed his marriage to Sheryl, his wife of 37 years. He started heading off to church with her and felt as if God was speaking to him every Sunday. Even at the pinnacle of his ghoulish career (which he believed was no more provocative than a horror movie musical) he still believed in God. The son and grandson of preachers, Cooper’s faith was crippled by the weight of fame and the toxicity of alcoholism.

He experienced every pleasure that money could buy but found it did not satisfy. “I was the prodigal son. I left the house, achieved fame and fortune, and found out that that was not what I wanted,” he told HM magazine. “Now I read the Bible every day, I pray every day. That’s really what I’m about.” He continues: “I was one thing at one time, and I’m something new. I’m a new creature now. Don’t judge Alice by what he used to be. Praise God for what I am now.”

Cooper has taken the opportunity to speak to curious fellow musicians about the reality of the devil and the change in his life. “I have talked to some big stars about this, some really horrific characters…and you’d be surprised,” he says. “The ones that you would think are the farthest gone, are the ones that are the most apt to listen.”

Although Cooper’s shows still explore the haunting and ghastly aspects of human nature, its message carries a different twist. “It might sound absolutely insane coming from me, but what the world needs is a good shot of morality,” he said. Several of his albums have been dramatic interpretations of what the world would be like without the grace of God. The horror is there, but the message is profoundly different — redeemed. His alter ego is a theatrical prophet of doom, or a rock and roll version of a character pulled from C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters.

As for the lifestyle found in some quarters of the rock world, Cooper says, “Drinking beer is easy. Trashing your hotel room is easy. But being a Christian, that’s a tough call. That’s real rebellion,” he once told the London Sunday Times Magazine.

In describing the importance of his Christian faith, he says, “It’s everything. It’s what I live for. If you gave me a choice between rock and roll and my faith, I’d take my faith,” Cooper told The Observer in Australia. “Rock and roll is fun — it’s what I do for a living. But it’s not what I live on. I believe in classic Christianity. I’ve given my whole life to the Lord. But I don’t think that means you can’t be a rock and roller.”

After all, as Cooper said when his kids were young, “I must be the only father that bangs on the bedroom door and says, ‘Turn that music up!’”

I still think that would be a fun show to watch.

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.

Wrestling disquietly with the Bible

By Steve Beard

“My new Bible study is really testing me. I have never studied the Bible or read my Bible and I really have no idea how to do it,” confessed my friend Tiffany on Facebook. “The language is still confusing and I feel like I’m not really getting the messages.”

grantfalsani_disquiettime_hc-2-1The 24-year-old roller derby girl, saleswoman, and mother recently began attending a new church with her husband and she joined a women’s Bible study. “No matter how you word it, the Bible still has very confusing parts. I promise you it is not the version I’m using that is the problem. It is that I am just new with this whole studying the Bible thing. I feel like a freshman that just finished basic math and got thrown into senior calculus.”

As you can imagine, there was no shortage of responses to her post. Tiffany’s Facebook confession was made on the same day I received Disquiet Time: Rants and Reflections on the Good Book by the Skeptical, the Faithful, and a Few Scoundrels, edited by Jennifer Grant and Cathleen Falsani (Jericho Books). In their introduction, the two editors describe the contributors as nonconformists and oddballs, comparing them to the characters on the Island of Misfit Toys from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Do you remember the cowboy who rides the ostrich or the toy train thunking along the track with a square wheel on its caboose? The imagery is strangely fitting for this collection of ruminations on the Bible from a wide variety of faith traditions.

With nearly 50 different contributors, this isn’t an authoritative text on biblical interpretation. Instead, it is more like a funky theological jam session – no sheet music, brother riffing off of sister, guitar solos, tooting of the horns, banging of the drums, thumping of the bass – testifying about both estrangement and enduring love for the Bible.

As I delved into the book, faces popped into my mind of people in my life who could relate to certain chapters. My son and nephews would howl at the offbeat but serious treatment of the use of “dung” in the Scripture. My mom would probably choose to skip over that chapter.

In all honesty, there is much beauty and brokenness and vulnerability in Disquiet Time. The easy endeavor would be to collect testimonies of those who’ve left the faith because of disillusionment with the Bible, hypocrisy at church, and unanswered prayers from an invisible God who is often difficult to understand. Instead, Disquiet Time lassoed up writers in the throes of wrestling with the challenges that thoughtful faith provokes. Many of them lay out their struggles with great honesty.

Anna Broadway

Anna Broadway

Describing a crisis of faith while on a Christian retreat, Anna Broadway confesses to changing lines to songs they were singing “(such as ‘I’m so grateful’) to something that felt more honest (such as ‘I’m so confused’). When I sang the more truthful refrain, I almost wept.”

Jennifer Grant flatly admits that she feels more “at home with the doubters and the skeptics than with those people who march through life with unblinking certainty, whatever their faith practices, convictions, or ideology may be.”

“What used to seem so clear cut and focused now feels murky and muddled,” writes Bill Motz. “It’s like being in a love-hate relationship with a dear old friend: some parts of the text fill me with joy and an overwhelming sense of truth, others anger me and make me feel that there’s no way God could ever have intended them to be included. Though I try to keep the discipline of daily study alive, I’ll admit to more than a little trepidation when I reach for my Bible.”

At different points in my life, those could be my words.

Susan Isaacs

Susan Isaacs

For other contributors, it seemed as though the Bible was standing between their faith and their calling in life. “I am grateful that I grew up in a church that revered the Scriptures; but sometimes it created a wall between God and me,” writes Susan E. Isaacs. “I’m a comedienne: I’ve always seen life through the skewed lens of humor, but there was no room for levity in my church. My mom suggested I write Bible skits. Seriously?” As to be expected, she delivers a hilarious and insightful chapter.

For the Rev. Sarah Heath, a United Methodist clergywoman, the issue was slightly different. When she felt the divine nudge to becoming an ordained minister, it was one of her friends from a Bible study group that said, “But you’re a girl. And that’s not okay.” Heath’s chapter on dealing with her ordination pursuit is the kind of wrestling with Scripture that is so magnificently redemptive.

“The ongoing ‘disquiet’ I’ve felt when reading about Saint Paul’s admonition that ‘women should be silent’ has been vital to my faith,” she writes. “It causes me to question, look deeper, and not just glaze over what I read. Study is a deep form of worship, and even when I question God I am drawing closer to God. My faith is growing and being stretched. In the great rabbinic tradition of midrashic reading, asking questions – even the toughest, thorniest, most disquieting ones – deepens my faith. And for that, I am thankful to Saint Paul.”

IMG_2087One of the most engaging chapters springboards off the text in Genesis 1:2: “And the spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” David Vanderveen interlaces his journey of faith with sailing and surfing. You can almost taste the salt water as he makes the point that it is deep and powerful experiences that transform our theology.

“Riding a wave fueled by an energy you cannot see, except for its effects, can be compared to Saint Peter stepping out of the boat and walking across the water to Jesus,” he writes. “You know it should drown you, as it does so many, but if you put your faith in the power of the universe and align yourself with its demands, miracles happen as tangibly as if Christ were standing next to you in human form, making the blind see and the lame walk.”

Another contributor, the Rev. Kenneth Tanner, is an old college buddy of mine. Many years ago, he gave me a small peculiar icon that has been replicated from one hanging in the chapel of Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt. It is believed to have been given in the mid-sixth century by the Byzantine emperor Justinian. The uniqueness of the icon is that the right and left sides of Christ’s face are noticeably different, and one eyeball is larger than the other.

christpantocrator-sinai“The more time I spent in prayer looking at this unique image of Jesus – the Pantocrator [“Almighty”] – the more the asymmetry of the eyes troubled me,” Tanner writes. “I pondered why the artist would paint Jesus with a physical ‘imperfection.’ Eventually I realized this was not a problem with the artist or the image but rather a limitation of my imagination, a failure to see everything there is to see in Christ. After all, the word became flesh in Jesus (John 1:4) and was made like us in every respect (Hebrews 2:17).”

My icon is kept next to my computer so that I might remember to try to see everything there is to see in Christ.

“God wants to be in a relationship with us, and in order to do that, we have to keep talking,” writes Cathleen Falsani. “The Bible is one of the ways the dialogue continues. And unlike dining etiquette, polite conversation with God puts no topics off limits. Go ahead and put your elbows on the table. Use the wrong fork. It’s okay. (Who are you trying to impress?)” God knows you, after all. There are no veiled secrets before the Almighty. “God loves us,” Falsani concludes. “Madly. Just as we are.”

In the midst of all my questions and gripes about the complexity of the Bible, I was taught to find the redemption in the midst of the chaos and disarray and mystery.

“It’s true that if you haven’t stood before God and been confused, you’re probably not standing before the real God,” observes theologian Steve Brown. “But it is also true – and far more important – to realize that if you haven’t stood before God and been loved unconditionally and without reservation, you’re not standing before the real God, either.”

Cathleen Falsani

Cathleen Falsani

Make no mistake about it, not everyone in Disquiet Time is where I am – or where you are – on the theological continuum. With such a wide array of perspectives, that should be no surprise. Part of my faith is respecting the authentic testimonies, biblical insights, questions, and doubts of those who are also trying to reach the other side of the river Jordan.

We need to welcome the challenge of roller derby girls like my friend Tiffany when they venture into the sanctuary. Questions must be taken seriously, guidance needs to be offered with grace, and flashlights should be made available during dark nights of the soul.

Tiffany got a lot of feedback from friends on Facebook. Some of it was trite, but some of it was helpful. “I am so glad to hear you are muddling through it,” wrote one. “That’s pretty much what we all do, and believe it or not, the fact that you have to work at it is actually what makes those nuggets that reach your heart priceless.” I wouldn’t argue with that.

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News. 

East of Eden

2000__largeBy Steve Beard

Every morning I see a poster hanging in my home for a Triple Crown surf contest in Hawaii. During the last 25 years, I have been to several of the islands, but the small town of Haleiwa on the North Shore of Oahu has been my vision of paradise. We all envision paradise differently: The Mall of America, Fenway Park, Disneyland, Pike’s Peak, the Amazon rainforest. Mine just happens to include shave ice, pineapples, macadamia nuts, and crashing surf.

Several months ago, my family gathered in Maui to celebrate my mom and dad’s 50th wedding anniversary. Before renewing their vows in a beautiful United Methodist sanctuary, I was invited to preach the sermon at the morning service before a congregation of Tongans, tourists, and my extended family.

Because of all the sights, sounds, and smells that surrounded us, I took the opportunity to ask if it was easier or more difficult to find God in paradise. I take great comfort in knowing that the human story told in the Bible begins and ends in the gardens of paradise. The environment surrounding the Tree of Life bookends both Genesis (2:8-9) and The Book of Revelation (2:7).

I love knowing that God cared about creating “trees that were pleasing to the eye” in Eden and that it was his first choice, his first plan, and his heart’s desire. Our search for paradise is God-crafted. There are more than two dozen cities in the United States called Paradise. Why? Because the everlasting soul craves an eternal kingdom.

Choices have been set before us in life and you are free to choose according to your desires. Scripture tells us that Adam and Eve made a choice and the trajectory of history was changed forever. There are consequences to the choices we make, but – as the Bible makes clear – they are neither unforgivable nor unredeemable.

Whether you are at the entrance gate of adulthood or the exit gate of this earthly life, the Tree of Life and the garden of paradise plays a huge part in our highs and lows. Our finest moments of victory and our lowest hours of defeat can be found in the lush gardens of our lives. For Jesus, it was in a garden that he sweat drops of blood. It was in a garden that he experienced his greatest agony, his greatest suffering, his most profound loneliness, his greatest betrayal. We cannot be deceived by the beauty of our surroundings. Sometimes the garden is the anti-paradise.

But more often than not, gardens are reminders of hope. The woman who first saw the risen Christ mistook him for a gardener – in a garden. Resurrection – the literal defeat of death – was proclaimed in a garden.

Three days prior, dangling half naked from a tree, it was Jesus who proclaimed to a thief that he would be with him in paradise. Imagine that. He merely asked to be remembered. Covered in blood and spit and humiliation, the thief knew his place. He knew his heart, he needed no sermon. Jesus responded to the humbled heart: Paradise awaits!

Corrie Ten Boom said it so clearly, “You may never know that Jesus is all you need, until Jesus is all you have!”

Several years ago, the band U2 released an album, All That You Can’t Leave Behind. The very title was an interesting concept about the spiritual life. After all, you can leave behind your Cadillac and your condo and your cash. And, you will! Your soul, however, is different. On the song “Walk On,” Bono sings, “You’re packing a suitcase for a place none of us has been / A place that has to be believed, to be seen.” This is what Jesus was saying to the thief. This is what Jesus whispers to you and me.

Our vantage point must change to perceive this alternative reality. To map the heavens, we turn to the telescope. To diagnose what is happening inside the human body, we depend upon the X-ray machine. To surmise what is coursing through your veins, we utilize a microscope. To visualize the unseen Kingdom of Heaven, we must embrace a vision of faith.

St. Paul writes, “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.” From a different angle, Voltaire observed, “Paradise was made for tender hearts; hell, for loveless hearts.”

In 1967, Elvis Presley recorded a song called “In the Garden.” We used to sing it in my United Methodist church as I was growing up.

“I come to the garden alone / While the dew is still on the roses  / And the voice I hear falling on my ear / The Son of God discloses / And He walks with me, and He talks with me / And He tells me I am His own / And the joy we share as we tarry there / None other has ever known.

“He speaks, and the sound of His voice / Is so sweet the birds hush their singing / And the melody that He gave to me / Within my heart is ringing / I’d stay in the garden with Him / Though the night around me be falling / But He bids me go; through the voice of woe / His voice to me is calling.”

That beloved hymn was written by Charles Austin Miles in 1912. It speaks of such intimacy, vividness, and beauty. According to his great-granddaughter, the song, however, was written “in a cold, dreary and leaky basement in New Jersey that didn’t even have a window in it, let alone a view of a garden.”

That should not startle us. For the Kingdom of God is both already and not yet. And it is something to believe in, in order to be seen. And yet, it is something that can be experienced without eyesight. Counter intuitively, we can walk through the garden of paradise while sitting in a windowless basement.

St. Paul reminds us that, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”

And that, my friends, will be true paradise.

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.