Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Sign of the Cross

Josh Hearne and I have recently corresponded regarding the saying of the Night Office, "Compline." In getting down to the "nitty gritty" of the how and why of saying the offices, It occurs to me that many Christians don't have a clear idea of why so many other Christians "cross themselves" during prayer and worship. So here you go.

In both private prayer and public worship, Christians have for many centuries (since the early third) "blessed themselves" with the sign of the cross. In public, you might see folks doing this at the beginning of prayers and at the Gloria ("Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit..."). This has been part of my devotional practice for the last three years or so, and I can enumerate perhaps three reasons why.
  • Worship is physical as well as intellectual and emotional (we want to think holistically, remember?) and this is a physical remembrance that I am sealed by the Holy Spirit into the action and benefits of Christ's atonement. All the benefits of Christ's passion and death have been granted me, and in my life with him, I continue to appropriate and await the full benefit of his resurrection.
  • One ancient and helpful way of understanding the Trinity is the metaphor of divine dance: the divine persons indwell and encircle each other (Gk. "perichoresis") as different but united personalities. The Holy Spirit catches us up into this dance, and enables our participation in the life of this divine community. Among many other things, our prayers, and concretely this action, comprise our "steps" in the dance. Therefore, as my life is caught up in the eternal dance of the Holy Trinity, making the sign of the cross as acknowledgement of who I am and to whom I belong is one of the steps I make as we dance together.
  • Should I be in a Pentecostal exorcist kind of mood, it reminds me and any nearby demons that I am marked as Christ's own forever. But in all seriousness, in addition to bearing witness to my life in Christ, it is an invocation of the Holy Spirit, the ruach Yahweh, the very creating power and breath of God who sweeps in to re-create and renew the people of God. If I may be unnuanced, it's about summoning the power of God to bear upon one's own life.
So what do you make of that?

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Proposed Treatment: Doctrine, Context and Practice

I'm giving this one a test run:

'We who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread':

A Theological Evaluation of Eucharistic Ecclesiology and the Practice of Community in Early Churches as expressed in Catechetical Content and Practice between AD 100-400, and its Lessons for the Contemporary Church.

In surveying the content and practice of instruction offered to new Christian converts, c.100-400, I will examine catechists' ecclesiology and prescriptions for the Church's common life with particular focus on community identity in the context of the Eucharist. From both the conceptual and "practical" teachings regarding the community's shared life, I hope to identify how early Christians understood the ways in which the disciplined practice of community life guided spiritual formation. Finally, I will discuss the challenges those values and practices present to contemporary churches in their own programs of catechesis and basic Christian formation.

I enjoy some long titles.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Michaelmas, 8th Week

Monday, 1 Advent

This was a very nice weekend. On Friday I finished most of the conceptual work done for my essay in the "Doctrine, Context and Pratice" module, so I'm excited about getting more focussed reading and writing done during the next week and over the break. I might elaborate about it a bit in this space should you and I both be bored enough.

Nobody said anything utterly ridiculous in seminar on Friday. You know what that means; it must have been me...

It's hard to believe that I'll be on Kentucky bluegrass again in 7 days. I'm expecting a parade.

Nobody bothered to plan a bop for Friday, so after dinner and coffee in the SCR, I joined some of the undergraduates to watch Return of the King in the JCR. I worked hard this week, and wasn't in the mood for anything extremely social. On Saturday morning I wandered out at the crack of 9am with Jen and James to collect for Kashmir Earthquake relief on the street under the auspices of Christian Aid ("We Believe in Life Before Death") and spend a couple of hours having coffee with them in the MCR. They're wonderful people: they laugh at my stories.

I spent most of the afternoon and evening at the Bevins' flat on Saturday cooking and eating Thanksgiving dinner. I roasted the turkey (I used a fresh garlic, salt, rosemary and basil rub) and made a dressing and a large dish of Sweet Potato Puree with Bananas and Roasted Pecans. It was beautiful, and fortunately I didn't have to say so myself (wink). And lets not forget, some 37 pounds of mashed potatoes. It was a potluck, but as usual, I got a little carried away. I think perhaps 18-20 of us came. One of the guys (Captain Sulu's nephew!) helped me out with a good deal of it, which made things a lot easier. It was a great time, with good company.

Last night one of the girls had a birthday party, so I went into college to spend time with those folks. Somehow I ended up in the JRC afterwards watching "BASEketball" followed by "Mean Girls" until 3am.

I also have a new place to live when January comes around; I'm pretty excited about it.

The washing machine is still broken.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Advent: Eschatological Expectation

Simply put, during the season of Advent, the Church prepares for the commemoration of the Incarnation (Christmas) by anticipating the Second Coming of the Christ as Judge.

Before I go too far with that word, "judgment" or "judge," let's clarify what that means. Metaphors from human legal systems start to break down pretty quickly when dealing with Yahweh and his creation. His justice is restorative. The anticipation of judgment is not a simple picture of faithful people being rewarded while the unfaithful and faithless recieve punishment (most of us have a very thin, medieval idea of this, anyway) but one of the Judge of all the earth showing up on center state to "put things to rights."

In his return, God's Viceroy will consummate the restoration of humanity that was begun at the Incarnation and continues now in his Church.

Living in anticipation of this is not a matter of simple excitement or holy dread, but continuing to cooperate and welcome his healing as it flows from the future into the present. It means naming the dark places of our lives in the fellowship of the Church, and allowing our confessions of brokenness to be taken up into our sacramental life while the Spirit rushes in to fill the voids and re-create what has been destroyed.

This is the whole point, dear friends; this is what justice of God means. It is the complete restoration of all human life, in all aspects, to its fullness.

I offer a previous reflection, "The Advent Hope." Peter White reminds us that the dating of Christmas isn't just about supplanting a pagan festival, but maintains a marked theological agenda: "This is the day the tide turns." Finally, while + Alan isn't dealing with Advent specifically in this, he offers us some good reflections from Karl Rahner on sanctifying time.

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Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Vocation: I am really awfully Right and Reverend

The "physician of souls" is concerned with "the diagnosis and cure of our habits, passions, lives, wills, and whatever else is within us, by banishing from our [body and soul] everything brutal and fierce, and introducing and establishing in their stead what is gentle and dear to God."
- Gregory Nazianzus, Second Oration, 2.16, 18.

I had a recent conversation with Josh about vocation and ordination, so I thought I'd share some of my musings. An excerpt:
Josh: I'm having some difficulty with the title "reverend"
Kyle: Why's that?
Josh: It just seems so...
Kyle: ... I think it suits me
Josh: ... pretentious
Kyle: Like I said
I believe that I have a vocation to the presbyterate. This is something I’ve discerned in and with my community, in the context of a shared life, over the course of several years. I should note that by “my community,” I don’t just mean the Vine and Branches, but also the people who have shared the “Jesus journey” with me over the course of my short life. I very strongly suspect that our Trinitarian god is forming me as a pastor and priest, and has gifted me with the requisite charisms: prophecy, teaching, and “shepherding.” I look after people, and I seek to shape the way my friends look after one another.

I’ve been reading what some of the ancients have to say about such a calling, and I’m batting around the metaphor of “physical therapist in the care of souls.” I might unpack it later, but right now I’m just kind of “tasting” the idea.

Now here’s where it gets really challenging. Let’s say that I do have an honest-to-goodness vocation to the presbyterate, the office of “elder” that’s described in the (English) New Testament. Out there in the world, lots of people who hire and fire people called pastors (despite the rebukes of 1 Clement!) have ideas in their head (shall we call them “job descriptions”?) that are less than spiritual, or biblical, or any good thing you might want them to be. Aspects of this job can include getting bigger temples built, mastering the art of the technologically slick liturgy, making sure everybody’s found “purpose,” and getting more and more strangers to attend to the worship of the community. Never mind the upward mobility inherent to the position for those pastors who are appropriately skilled at it!

This conception, which is at best a poor relation of the “shepherd of the flock of God,” certainly seems ubiquitous in American Christianity. But that doesn’t mean that it is. The pastors who are really religious CEOs or therapists are plentiful, and their sycophantic followers never in short supply. I do, however, have anecdotal evidence for Christian communities that are Christian communities, rather than modernist monstrosities, and for pastors who really are pastors. They make think I could be one. They make me think we really could do this Jesus thing together, and that it really could be redemptive. That this really is what the New Testament is getting at when it keeps accusing Jesus of saving the world.

I’ve faced two temptations regarding this promise.
  • The first has been considered fairly respectable. It would be to say, “All of these random Christians that I don’t even know (and too many that I do) say that being a pastor means xyz, and since I cannot be and do xyz, I am not fitted for nor called to the pastoral office, so I will flee to the academy (because I am called to be a theologian!) and try to live in the orbit of some group of Christians who “get it.” They are out there, after all.
  • The second is patently bizarre, and stems from my affinity for Anglicanism and also accounts for some of the occasional non-comprehension of my friends. I decide that in the midst of post-modern, (sub)urban North America, I can be the parish priest in some rural village, or the noble presbyter of a beleaguered Christian congregation in a city of the 3rd century Roman Empire. This isn’t as ridiculous as it may sound. Think about it: this eschatological community plucks people out of the superstition, materialism, and injustice of the society at large, and lives together as a sign of God’s peace and rule under the shadow of the cross. Schism is taken seriously, biblical and theological literacy are of unquestioned value, and dividing lines are clear. There are shades of their world in ours, and a number of similarities that I find frankly haunting.
These are unsatisfying alternatives:
  • The first option would be honorable, and fulfilling in its way. The problem is that I don’t see it as my call. In the midst of my community, in the life I live with Jesus, the call I sense seems to be different. My passion is rather to learn and teach together with the people of God, but to do this in the context of shaping our common life according to our ongoing discovery of the truth. Teaching at a college or university, or doing this as a layperson in a typical (?) congregation seems just a step removed from where I think I am being formed to stand. There’s something about effectual nature of teaching and guiding in an office that has authority to do those things. And no, I’m not afraid of that word. But still, being a teacher is not to have the cure of souls as such.
  • Second, I live here and now. The challenges are the same, and they are different. The identity of the Christian Church is the same (happily, such things are not decided democratically) and the challenges are very much the same, because – lets be honest – the dividing lines were not so crisp on the other side of the world seventeen hundred years ago, and the things I’d like to imagine were settled, really weren’t. I didn’t train as an historian for nothing.
So what am I going to do? I suppose the same thing that I do now. I’m going to try to be faithful. Maybe I am called to the “platonic form” of the Christian pastorate. And the religious CEO will never be a real pastor. And to be a religious therapist is to be just that. And just because millions of Christians on that silly continent think otherwise, doesn’t make anybody right.

Presbyters are presbyters in the Christian community. People aren’t meant to be priested for kicks, and then left to their own devices. Careerism is no better. Christians need to read theology. They need to know history. They perhaps even should read the Bible, provided that they’re careful with it. Any community to which I joined myself (especially in that capacity) would have to a pretty similar ethos about our life together as the Church. We used to have denominations to put hedges around folk so one could make some basic theological identifications before jumping in. We don’t have that anymore.

But do you know what? Any community that’s being formed together in the likeness of Christ as that sign and foretaste of the reign of God just might have some pretty healthy ideas and practices going on. So I’m going to keep on with the journey, and we’re all going to keep learning to talk about our vocations (“professionally religious” or otherwise) in the context of our reading of scripture, history, and our healthy, healing experiences of Christian community.

Speaking of Right and Reverend, check this out.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Rowan Williams: Unity and Exclusion

Last week, the Archbishop of Canterbury addressed the bishops present at the Global South to South Encounter in Cairo on the "One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church." Out of the various insightful things he did say, one of the news reports that came forth was that his Grace apologized that the export of Hymns Ancient and Modern into the mission field was an act of "making cultural captives." Some fools promptly construed this as an apology for mission. Those folks are probably the type that think that the only real Christians speak English, and are over the age of 40.

So just for fun, I read the speech, and thought I'd share the best bits with you. The full text can be found at +Rowan Cantuar's site here. And I won't defend the "cultural captives" thing, because that's a Missiology 101 issue that would make sense if read in the context of the speech. I'll get to that later.

On Unity
We are part of a body whose failures are our common failures. It is always a temptation to say ‘We are the true church, they have abandoned us’ and yet even as we make necessary disjunctions and separations, there is a point at which we must remember in our prayer, this is our suffering; this is our loss, we are together in sin as well as in grace.
I've probably spoken before about the salutary effects of excommunication, and my advocacy of same as a responsible and necessary pastoral practice. It comes from really meaning business about the salvation of another, and willing to take drastic measures for their restoration. Here are some examples of offense I would think worthy of excommunication:
  • harrassment and harmful behavior towards brothers and sisters in the community
  • hate crimes
  • being Jerry Falwell
  • gossip and talebearing
  • parents who throw out a daughter upon learning of her abortion
People like to talk about "church discipline" these days; it's very popular. This is why Williams' comment caught my eye: the only way such discipline can be healthy rather than destructive, and godly rather than authoritarian, is if we really do take our baptism this seriously, knowing ourselves to be "together in sin as well as grace."

We must be prepared to affirm by our lives that our companions' pain and joy is our own, and that we are indeed our brother's keeper. I am his, and he is mine. If my sister grieves, I grieve, and if my brother stumbles, I take a skinned knee as well.

If that isn't the case, don't bother getting all up in somebody's face to tell them what they should and should not do, and what is and is not holy.

See also:

Excommunication and Redemption
The Minimum

Saturday, November 19, 2005


+ Athanasius of Alexandria

Peter and I have been reading some good stuff lately.

Sapience is
engaged knowledge that emotionally connects the knower to the known.
[. . .]
Sapiential truth is unintelligible to the modern secularized construal of truth. Modern epistemology not only fragmented truth itself, privileging correct information over beauty and goodness, it relocated truth in facts and ideas. The search for truth in the modern scientific sense is a cognitive enterprise that seeks correct information useful to the improvement of human comfort and efficiency rather than in intellectual activity employed for spiritual growth. Knowing the truth no longer implied loving it, wanting it, and being transformed by it, because the truth no longer brings the knower to God but to use information to subdue nature. Knowing became limited to being informed about things, not as these are things of God but as they stand (or totter) on their own feet. The classical notion that truth leads us to God simply ceased to be intelligible and came to be viewed with suspicion.

From Ellen T. Charry, By the Renewing of Your Minds: The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine, pp. 4, 236.
I agree with Charry's assessment. May God save us from reading the Bible so that we merely believe right things.

Friday, November 18, 2005

VBCC: On Being a Diaspora Christian

I was charged with writing a bit for the community letter this month. I was pretty pleased with it, so I decided to expand the ideas a little.


In the ancient church, communities called one another "resident aliens" as they wrote to encourage, correct, and share stories. As in, "the Colony of Resident Aliens, God's people sojourning at Corinth, to the Colony at Philippi," that sort of thing. Diogenetes wrote about how even while Christians do obey local laws and follow local customs, they have a different citizenship -- they find their self-identity not in their political circumstances, but in their allegiance to Jesus. Colonies in the Roman world existed as outposts of imperial power and civilization in "barbarious" lands. The appearance of a colony (just as in the Americas) meant that the imperial power was moving in to take ownership, and soon enough would remake the place according to its own will.

There is a certain irony, then, that Christians considered themselves to be colonists for the Kingdom of God in the Roman Empire. These communities understood that Jesus was Lord and Caesar was not. The emperor would find this out soon enough, but in the meantime, converts to Jesus would no longer treat the State or any earthly citizenship as being a meaningful catagory. They would of course pay dearly for this refusal to participate in the imperial cult.

(I could go on, but many of you know where this would go. If you'd like to see me chase it, see the articles under Patriotism: Before the Altar of Caesar on the right sidebar.)

I try to keep these ideas before me, and it helps that in Britain I am a stranger twice over, and I remember this every time I misunderstand an accent or eat a funny meal. Make no mistake, I enjoy the hospitality and friendship of many people, and consider myself to participate fully in the life of the college, but I am a stranger.

I'm not British. But then, in terms of the things that make me me, I'm not really American, either. In the Church of Jesus Christ, and in light of the coming Kingdom, it's simply not a meaningful ontological catagory.

I belong, therefore, in the context of the Church, and the world that God is colonizing. But this affirmation also runs counter to the gospel of modern religion, which has told me that I am an individual, autonomous self, who makes decisions with myself as a primary reference point. That's just not true.

I am baptized into Christ, and a member of the Church catholic. I share this life with the Vine and Branches in the Eucharist, common prayer and hospitality. We do not live together as a community because we have the same hobbies, or because we agree in our theologies down to the last detail. Hell, I'm not even on the same continent! We are a community because God has called us together as such, to bear the life of the Risen Christ together in the world around us. Our choice to love one another - to struggle with that and to learn what it means - is our response to God's gracious call.

Even on the other side of the world, I am supported by the love and care of God's new community, both within and outside of that particular fellowship. I am bound to my friends, my brothers and sisters in Christ, by our baptism, shared allegiance to Jesus, and in prayer. This is not mystical and abstract, but mystical and concrete. This reality has lots of faces and voices. They speak in unity a promise from God that I do not stand or fall on my own, and I never will.

Sunday, November 13, 2005


It's been a nice weekend, but I'm afraid I've come down with a cold again. My body aches. I think I'm going to sleep quite a bit tomorrow. It's a shame, too, as I've just started to do a bit of jogging.

It's been a pretty rough week; I was quite struck this morning when I glanced at an icon of the Emmaus encounter, and realized with deeper comprehension the grace of the God who comes to us in Word and Sacrament. Luke 24 presents to us a mystical theology of the early Christian communities: the God who made himself known to us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth now makes himself known to us in hearing the Scriptures and sharing at the Table. By the words of God we were created, and by the one Word of God we are recreated, and offered the "medicine of immortality."

In the midst of everything, whatever that might be, we who claim the sign of the cross are caught up in the life of the trinitarian god. We are given a safe place to mourn, and a place to receive healing and restoration in ways we might not expect. Over and over again, thanks be to God.

Yesterday I did quite a bit of reading, and in the evening I joined some of the students at the college chaplain's house for dinner. I heart fish pie. Who'd have thought? The lot of us ate very well and had a good time, discussing ethnic differences (the poor, poor Welsh!), politics, the idiosyncrasies of American religion, and of course college gossip. Oops. But I learned more about the college in 2 hours than I have in five weeks...!

The illustrious guests included a German astrophysicist, so I got to learn some details about the life span of a star (of white dwarfs, red giants, planetary nebulae and the like) and than naturally a bit of science fiction. Big ol' nerds. But not as nerdy as the people in the JCR right now who are talking about the Lord of the Rings with greater interest than their viewing of the actual film. I thought I was bad for talking through movies...!

Did I mention going to a debate last week? I think the title really was "Evangelical and Liberal Anglican Vicars Go Head-To-Head." It was fairly bland, until Richard Dawkins got up and embarrassed the evangelical; he wanted to know, "Is there any room for doubt in your understanding?" Apparently not. Or at least, he prefers to keep such things private, which is quite sad. I disagreed with both vicars, what does that say? I'm all like, "guys, you're just a couple of modernists anyway. It doesn't really matter." My favorite question from the audience: "My husband doesn't attend church, but he's a really moral man. Will he go to heaven, or does he need to go to church?" The response: "Madam, I fear dreadfully for your husband on the day of judgment."

And I'm all like, "Way to go, Captain Bring-Down."

I got to visit my friend Holly and her (relatively) new husband today; we'd not seen each other for over three years, so that was a lot of fun. I enjoyed their hospitality. And got to see duckies! And seagulls, I didn't like the seagulls so much.

"Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke with us on the road?"

Thursday, November 10, 2005


Dear People of God

It was only a matter of time before I had to admit that I have more anathemas to issue than I have time to write. If not for my other studies, I could keep up, but that's just not tenable at the moment. So I have prepared a form letter threatening excommunication. You may be getting one soon, with all the appropriate selections highlighted, but if you evidence humility and eager submission by contacting me with a confession beforehand (thereby saving me trouble and possibly international postage), restitution will be accordingly light.

My dear (choose one)
  • unrepentant sinner
  • flaming heretic
  • erring sister/brother,
As you are doubtless aware, it is the solemn and rightful duty of a bishop, as a gentle shepherd, to guide and sustain the Church of God in its sojourn as it awaits the return of its Lord and the inauguration of his Kingdom. Though presently in exile, I still claim this office as the Bishop of the Georgetown See of the Free Catholic Church.

It well said by John Gauden in his Slight Healings of Publique Hurts (1660), that the Church of God should be overseen
"not by the dominion and the pomp, luxury and tyranny of bishops, nor yet by the factious as refractory humours of presbyters, much less by the schismatic sauciness of people, who cast off both bishop and presbyters; but by the fatherly gravity, prudence and eminence of godly and reverend bishops; by the brotherly assistance, and son-like subordination of suber and orderly presbyters, by the service and obsequiousness of humble and diligent deacons; and by the meek submission of Christian people to the care, monition, counsel, and respective superiority of every order; as sheep to their chief shepherd, and their assistants."
Bound up in this vocation is the responsibility to correct erring persons, to quench the destructive flames of heresy, and enjoy regular pay raises.

It is a matter of no small concern to me that you have recently (choose any that apply):
  • taken up the false and vile doctrines of the Campbellites
  • given hospitality and/or been polite to Mormons
  • suffered the odious practice of popish devotions
  • oppressed the poor in spirit, particularly ____________.
  • taught heterodox or unduly harsh ideas regarding sexuality
  • repeatedly trounced his Lordship in Halo
  • propagated the doctrine of double predestination
  • officiated at or participated in a patriotic church service
  • dissing Georgetown College
  • Other: ______________________________
These actions are like stench rising from the earth into the nostrils of the Most High God, and in addition have had the effect of (choose any that apply):
  • irritating his Lordship
  • inflaming the local peasantry to riot
  • scandalizing the nobility
  • offending the piety and consciences of the faithful people of God
  • stirring up undue guilt in the parishes outside of stewardship season
  • decreasing diocesan revenues
You are hereby given notice of your responsibility to acknowledge and repent this/these error(s), and offer suitable penance on pain of excommunication and anathema. Appropriate penance will include (choose one):
  • purchase of a new crozier for his Lordship
  • public renunciation of said errors
  • a reconcilation offering of $___ or £___
  • making dinner for his Lordship, with a nice cheesecake for dessert
  • submitting to be offered by the Church to its merciful and loving God through the medium of being burned alive at the stake until dead, at which point your ashes will be scattered on unconsecrated ground.
You have (choose one): 10 30 60 days to respond to this letter before the appropriate sentences of excommunication and anathema are issued.

Love and kisses,

+ Kyle Georgetowniensis

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The Historical Jesus

Last night after dinner I joined some friends for a debate on the Historical Jesus at the Catholic Chaplaincy, starring Henry Wansbrough and Geza Vermes. I agreed with one more than the other, but not a great deal with either!

I remain convinced that Jesus' temple action just before the Passover was not a cleansing, but rather a judgment enacted against it. The argument runs that the presence of money changers and sellers in the temple courts was normal, and the work of the temple was dependant upon people being able to change their money and buy animals for sacrifice. Jesus was not angered at that state of affairs specifically, but rather sought to symbolically halt the action of the temple.

The difference is significant because if it was indeed a judgment against the temple, it puts Jesus more in the light as an apocalyptic prophet who believed he acted with the authority of Yahweh rather than a mere reformer. To judge the temple of course implies that kind of authority, which only Yahweh had.

If I did a short series of posts on "issues in historical Jesus research," would anybody find that interesting? "Blogworthy," as it were?

Afterwards we drank tea and talked for a few hours, covering subjects as diverse as fundamentalism, contraception, marriage, church and state separation, and exorcisms.

I do love me some exorcisms.

I'm going to a lecture now on Theology in the Church of England. As I always say, it sounds quite optimistic: supposing there was some. So far the English "reformers" are working in terms of political theology and theories of (royal) sovreignty rather than anything remotely "biblical" in its concerns.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005


Have I ever told you about Potter's first rule of evangelistic practices?

It states that no matter how theologically bankrupt and pastorally retarded a particular "evangelistic" practice might be, as soon as I speak up to criticize it, there will be in the room at least one person who supposes they (or they momma) "got saved" by its influence.

The Independent's Andrew Gumbel took a tour of a Hell House in Texas, and shares with us his observations:
It's called Hell House, which sounds ordinary enough. What makes it peculiar is that it is run by a right-wing evangelical church, and its aim is, quite literally, to scare the bejesus out of impressionable teenagers and shock them into signing up for a life in the service of Christ.
My favorite line:

Some of my fellow Hell Housers lose it completely. "Get me out of here! Get me out of here!" screams a girl a couple of coffins down.

"Don't worry, Sarah," one of her friends shouts above the din. "We're Christians, we're going to heaven!"
And of course one must "seal the deal:"

Thoroughly shaken, we were taken to one last room where a pastor called Larry invited us to choose between two doors - one plain one marked "Exit" leading straight to the night-time air, and another leading into a "prayer room" where Hell Housers could sign up for the church and talk, if they wished, with a counsellor.

"The question is, if you were to die tonight, where are you going to go?" Larry asked. At least three of the teenagers trembled visibly. "The devil is trying to stop you going through the prayer door," he asserted. And, he told us, calling yourself a Christian was not enough protection from eternal hellfire. "Who does the devil want most? Those close to him, or those who got away?" he asked. The teenagers murmured: "Those who got away." Larry thundered back: "And what are those who got away called? That's right, Christians!" Every single member of my party went through the prayer door. Some of them rushed through.

The whole thing was crude and manipulative, of course. Hell Houses have attracted plenty of criticism - not just from homosexual rights and feminist groups, but also from less extreme evangelical churches who feel it is entirely inappropriate to inspire religious feelings through blank fear.

The most lasting impression, though, was not the insidious way in which the usual Christian right talking-points on abortion, homosexuality and extramarital sex were hammered home so much as the kind of world constructed by Hell House and the way it spoke to its target audience - young, impressionable church-goers from lower-middle class communities.

It was hard to shake the feeling that the drugs, alcoholism, pornography, child molestation, rape and gun violence depicted in the show were a real part of everyday experience in this part of the world, whatever one thought of the way the issues were interpreted and twisted to fit the distinctly unforgiving Christian message.

Note that last bit closely. Here we have a group of would-be Christians who think they understand what the world is like: evil is afoot. What kind of hope do they believe in? What hope do they presume to offer the rest of us? Do they join with Christ and his Church in the suffering, healing and redemption of God's world? Do they throw their lot in with people who struggle under the weight of these things?

No. This is the message they have for a world God loves: that if only you do the right things, and pray the right prayers to the right gods, many of these things somehow will never happen. And if they do, it's all just fine, because Jesus will transmit you to some pie-in-the-sky, mythical land called heaven.

Neither of these things is true as such. A religious attitude that insists to people that they need to clean up their lives to avoid the supposed vindictiveness of one's deity puts a lie to the Gospel.

This is the good news that the Church bears: that all the things that separate people from God have been taken up in the Cross, and that as Lord of the World, he is bringing healing and restoration to the entire Creation. The Church is a sign and sacrament of that redemption, and a community that bears it to the world.

That means that the Church cannot be an outside observer to any pain and brokenness to the human condition, that in all of these scenes of sin and death where people would suffer alone, the Church makes its habitation, just as Jesus did and does. The identity of Christians is bound up in continuing the Incarnation, and bringing love to bear in every situation we can find.

Is "sin" harmful? Of course it is. But that's not the point, that's not our business. Judgment is God's business. Restoration is ours.

Waiter Rant offers a related story, of his godfather's speech at an anti-abortion rally. The old man knew something about the Incarnational character of the Church:
…..and shuffling into the pulpit, resplendent in his Byzantine vestments, my godfather looks over the top of his glasses upon the congregation.

“I have heard many of you talking today about God’s punishment, His wrath. How you’re good Christians because you hate abortion. But, after listening to the people gathered here, I can’t help but notice that some of you harbor a vituperative attitude towards the very women you want to help.”

People start shifting in their seats uncomfortably.

“I know many of you, like me, are here because you want to defend the unborn. Some of you are motivated by the deepest conviction.”

Another pause.

“But some of you are here because you love to hate.”

Shocked silence.

“Are you here because you really want to help the unborn?” my godfather asks. “Have you taken an unwed mother into your home? Feed her? Cared for her baby? Or are you here because this is where your friends are? Are you here to indulge in a comforting sense of moral superiority? Smug in your certitude you’re not going to hell?”

Everyone is listening now.

“Let me tell you about something about Hell,” my godfather says, “We know there’s a hell because Jesus said there’s one. But we don’t know if anyone’s actually in it.”

My godfather lets that thought sink in.

“What’s more,” he says, “Jesus never liked hypocrites. He once said, ‘They do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on people’s shoulders, but will they lift a finger to move them? No! Every thing they do is done to attract attention!”

Now some of the congregants look angry.

“Let me ask you something. Are you relieving these women of their burdens? Or are you adding to them with your self righteousness? Are you helping or hurting? Because if all of your fervor is directed towards feeling good about yourself, if it’s about getting attention, if its about how you’re better than someone else - YOU ARE WASTING GOD’S TIME!”

Amen, Amen.

"Welcome to Hell" - Andrew Gumbel in the Independent
"All Hallows Eve" - Waiter Rant