Leonard Knight’s Salvation Mountain

From, The Great Wall of China and the Salton Sea,Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, Spring 2016

We drove east away from the Sea, through Niland’s marginally inhabited blocks, beyond the city limits deeper into the desert to Salvation Mountain. In 1984 Leonard Knight, a wanderer and a prophet stopped in the desert, like Abraham and Jacob before him, to build a monument to the Lord. On the bank of a dry riverbed, he mixed cement and paint and began his simple marker to proclaim to any who might find them selves on the eastern edge of the Colorado Desert, fifty miles from the nearest interstate on Beal Road, just this side of Slab City, the simple message that God is Love. Abraham set up his monument and then continued on to Egypt, Leonard continued building. When cement became too expensive he started using straw bales and mixing adobe. He used white and bright colors of latex house paint to tell the world that God is Love and God Loves You. Those words and hundreds of other wind around psychedelic flowers, birds, streams, hearts and angles—Bible Mark Mathew Luke John Jesus Love Jesus Fire Jesus I Am A Sinner Come On To My Body And Into My Heart Jesus Love GOD IS LOVE. Thirty years later Leonard had build a mountain 50 feet tall and 150 feet across, using over 100,000 gallons of paint. Leonard had not just built a mountain but so much good will, that all his paint, straw bales, all his materials are gifts. People just show up with them, making an offering at the altar to Love. Some look around for a while and say thank you, some stick around and help.

Jon Krakauer’s 1996 book, Into the Wild, tells the life story of Chris Mcandless, who set out after college to live simply. He left his privileged family and path to law school, gave away his money, burned his ID’s and hit the road. Before walking into the Alaskan wilderness to live off the land, he spent time around the Salton Sea, staying for a while with a couple at Slab City. In the 2007 film version directed by Sean Penn, Leonard Knight makes an appearance. Leonard gives Mcandless and a girl he has met at the Slabs, (played by Emile Hirsch and a pre-Twilight Kristen Stewart) a tour of his Salvation Mountain. In a beautiful blending of performance and reality or art and truth, the Mcandless character looking up and around clearly delighted and amazed, asks the actual Leonard Knight, “Where’d you get the [materials]?”

“Oh a lot of people in the Valley just really love me,” Leonard replies with humility and sincerity. He is tall and lean, weathered, deep sun darkened skin and his pure white hair, dishevel with long bangs falling across is forehead past his eyebrows like a teenage boy. And he has that kind of energy and conviction. “I think the whole world is starting to love me and I want to have the wisdom to love them back.” He steps back, grins broadly, kind of giggles, maybe at himself, “And that’s about it so…” he throws his fists up like an old timey strong man and pumps them quickly, “I really get excited.”

The Mcandless character asks, “So you really believe in love then?”

Leonard rocks forward, head cocked to the side, his expression switches from wide grin and playful eyes to absolute certainty and conviction. “Yeah,” his eyes deepen, “Totally.” He nods his head, coming down on certain words for emphasis. “And this is a love story that is staggering to everybody in the whole world, that God really loves us, a lot. A lot. Does that answer that?”

“Yeah,” the Mcandless character sort of laughs, nodding in response.

“Good,” Leonard says, his grin returning and his eye brightening.

The film cuts to the three standing on top, looking down the mountain, then out over to the Slabs and beyond to the desert. “I really love it here, I think the freedom of this place is so beautiful to me. For me I wouldn’t move for ten million dollars. Unless I had to,” Leonard says with a chuckle. “So I am contented here in the desert, and I’m livin’ where I wanna live, and I think good gets better.” [1]

Being content in the desert at the Salton Sea and believing that good gets better, is an astonishing sentiment in a place whose history is that of discontent and promises of The Best in the World turning to ruin. There is a thirteen decades old history of Men of Renown not content to let the desert be what it is, but of trying endlessly to make it something else, something that can benefit them, or something they can twist around just enough to sell to someone or promise to sell to someone or sell the promise to someone. Leonard built something, but he never tried to sell anything or manipulate anyone, he never tried to get anyone to do anything, never asked for anything, never tried to get anyone to believe anything, he just made this monumental work of art to tell anyone who might be interested that God loves them.

[1] Into the Wild. Paramount Pictures, 2008. Film.

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Irrigating the Desert or The Great Wall of China and the Salton Sea or Searching for Ourselves from Outer Space

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Salton Sea Beach

This book is an investigation. A search. It is born out of a couple of sentences that have been bouncing around in my head for more than twenty years and an unsettled feeling about who I really am and what my place is in relationship to God, other people, history and the created world, which has nibbled around my consciousness since adolescence.   There are only two man made objects you can see from outer space. One is the Great Wall of China. The other is the Salton Sea. One is the result of the work of hundreds of thousands of laborers over two thousand years, and the other is the result of a gigantic mistake. It is a statement and a poem and a koan. It is the beginning of a story. I will tell the story of these monumental creations as a way into the story of the search for ourselves.

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Irrigating the Desert

   

“There are only two man made objects you can see from outer space. One is the Great Wall of China the other is the Salton Sea. One is the result of the work of hundreds of thousands of laborers over two thousand years, and the other is the result of a gigantic mistake.”

—  Opening paragraph from (the working titled) Irrigating the Desert
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Publishers Weekly Calls it, “Terrifying!”

As the sometimes Russell Rathbun, I will be reading from my new book, Midrash on the Juanitos at the Virginia Street Church hosted by Common Good Books May 5th at 7:30pm–and I would really like it if you would come.

One part Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, one part Anchor Bible Commentary, Midrash on the Juanitos unravels the seductive, intoxicating power of reading the Bible. Mixing narrative and a playful reading of First, Second, and Third John, Russell Rathbun complicates and elucidates the text, while humorously causing us to rethink contemporary Christianity.
Advance Praise for Midrash on the Juanitos:

It begins with a lawyer and a pastor walking into a bar, almost like a self-conscious joke. But Rathbun’s newest novella is no comedy. Immediately, the plot warps itself, like the undulating barstools of the first chapter, into part horror, part theologizing, and part Alice in Wonderland story about an obsessive and mentally ill pastor’s search for a very particular answer in the Bible. The style of the novella is postmodern, recalling Thomas Pynchon’s disjointed realities as the unnamed protagonist, an unreliable narrator, is speaking lucidly at one moment about early Christian history and experiencing terrifying hallucinations the next. Ultimately, Rathbun’s narrator’s project is to provide a Midrash, a rabbinic-style commentary and interpretation, of the “Juanitos,” the three Epistles of John. Instead of coming away with a grounded understanding of the author’s biblical opinion, however, the novella elicits profound discomfort and fear, aided in no small measure by frighteningly deformed pencil-sketch illustrations accompanying the text. The search for absolute certainty and ultimate truth in scripture can be very taxing emotionally. But perhaps that is Rathbun’s point after all.
—Publishers Weekly

Rev. Lamblove rides again! It is as if one of Flannery O’Connor’s preachers has come to life, and and become manically melded into a character from Alice in Wonderland. Through this extraordinary creation, Russell Rathbun gives us an (I’m afraid) all too realistic portrayal of the obsession and paranoia necessary for preachers who engage in reading Bible texts, plunging into, and being carried off by, unexpected avenues of meaning.
—James Alison. Undergoing God

Praise for Rathbun’s Post Rapture Radio:
Søren Kierkegaard said that people held in the grip of an illusion cannot be directly reasoned with. One must assault them with appealing but apparently absurd stories and even contradictions in the desperate hope that indirect communication can accomplish what direct communication cannot. Russell Rathbun may be Kierkegaard’s great-grandson or something. If you have no illusions, you don’t need to read this. Otherwise . . .
—Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christian (anewkindofchristian.com)
Hilarious, passionate, infuriating, revealing, alarming, perplexing, illuminating. In short, apocalyptic. And definitely required reading for anyone seeking a faithful Christianity in the heart of the American Empire.
—Andy Crouch, Christianity Today

Once in a while a book reaches out from the page, grabs me by the scruff of the neck, and says something so pithy, so smart, and irreverently funny that I almost bust a gut laughing. That’s what Post-Rapture Radio did to me on several occasions. The fact is, sometimes satire is the best way for us to see our own foibles, and this book is a wonderful antidote to much that ails the church. It’s A Confederacy of Dunces for Christians.
—Tony Jones, The Sacred Way

Funny and thought-provoking. It challenges the way one thinks about the gospel of Jesus Christ and the church in his name.
—Gordon Gano, Violent Femmes

There are times when the tongue-in-cheek can become a light in the mind—when ‘off the wall’ becomes the plank of reality. Richard Lamblove was a driven crusader in his last-ditch stand against the shallowly fervent. I feel the fury in his futilely scribbling a final battle plan on the remnants of cereal boxes and scraps of cardboard. Alas, were it not for Russell Rathbun, we would not know of these lost writings nor feel the loss of great truth to the forces of evangelical glitz.
—Calvin Miller, A Hunger for the Holy and Loving God Closeup; professor, Beeson Divinity School

Cathedral Hill Press publishes creative non-fiction that slips between the cracks of rigidly categorized bookstore shelves. Established in 2002, we publish one book per year.
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Midrash on the Juanitos, a Didactic Novella

Cick on it and check it out

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Dog In A Raincoat and Destabilization Part II

Dog In A Raincoat

Why so stingy with the challenging, confronting and requiring some period of self-reflection?  Isn’t this what should go on every week?  How can anyone preach a sermon based on the Bible that is not challenging and confronting and requiring self-reflection?  If ones beliefs are re-enforced I don’t think the preacher could be reading the Bible very carefully.  That kind of Pastoral sermon can only come from running ones eyes over the selected text while inserting some vacuous long held interpretation first encountered in Sunday School (which by the way no one should have pleasant memories of—it should be a scary and exciting, amazingly alive and developmentally inappropriate—but not pleasant).

I sermon should always contain in it elements of destabilization.  Any truth claim made should contain the seeds of that which will deconstruct its self.  After all this is God we are talking about—any understanding we may come to will eventually be undone.

I do not think I am alone in wanting to be destabilized, undone and overturned by the One who comes, who loves and with the assurance that I am liked by that One even as I am fully known.

Why would someone want to have his or her beliefs reinforced?  That is only pretending to want to know God.  It ceases to be anything like God that one continues to preach about or believe in.

Why does a dog need a raincoat?  A dog has this amazing fur that has adapted over eons that actually protect it and keeps it just fine in the rain.  Someone who puts a rain coat on a dog obviously invests a lot emotionally in that dog, but doesn’t seem to know that much about dogs—our understanding of God must be destabilized by the text, by the sermon or else we are just leading god around by a leash looking silly with an outfit that matches ours.  Maybe it is best for that dog to bite the fool.

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Dog In A Raincoat and Destabilization Part I

Destabilization

As I was peering out the front window from behind the living room curtain (something I do more times a day than I want to admit—you never know who could be around—and that white panel van is still parked across the street three houses down) I saw a man, thin, thinning hair swept back but falling, 50’s in a rain coat.  It was raining, so this is not remarkable, but he was walking his dog (presumably his), a medium size whitish one (no knower of dog breeds me) and the dog was wearing a matching rain coat.

This, of course, made me think of destabilization as it relates to preaching.  Reading the text and preaching.  I remember a preaching professor, in seminary (or was it an instructional DVD Our Senior Pastor insistently suggested I watch?) laying out a sort of formula for how often one should preach a Prophetic and as apposed to a Pastoral sermon.  I think the ratio was at the most 1 in 12.  One Prophetic sermon for every twelve Pastoral sermon.  I think this pro fessor defined a Prophetic sermon as one that, “challenges, confronts and requires of the congregation, some period of self examination.”  A Pastor sermons, “encourages, comforts and reinforces deeply held beliefs.”

Encourages what?  What does the 48 weeks out of a year sermon encourage?  In what way and for what reason does it comfort?  And, truly, most disturbingly, what are the deeply held beliefs does it reinforce?

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Precluding Conclusion

In conclusion, is only the conclusion of the rants that I have collected over the years, written on various book covers and cast off materials.  I haven’t felt free to write in such an obsessive way for a while.  I have been trying to be less rant-y and more “emotionally and spiritually healthy.”

I have been under a doctor’s care.  Well, it says doctor on his door and business card and the skin on the wall, but he is a physiologist.  He does, however, seem to have the power to prescribe some medications…so.  Anyway this was all part of the terms of my returning to work at the church—my re-employment (it does seem like a ploy).  Before I re-entered (re-mount, re-turn to) the pulpit I had to under go a month long inpatient program and participate in weekly sessions with Dr. Percy.  As a result I have been convinced of the necessity of actually accepting the world as it is and making a healthy choice to participate in it with out critique, to embrace it and its ways.  “Because, after all,” Dr. Percy is fond of saying, “If the rest of the world needs to change for you to feel O.K. your chances don’t look good—easier to just change yourself.”

Yes.  Easier?  Well, I have been working at it.  I have developed a strategy.  Whenever I start to feel disconnected from this culture, when I look around and vacuous ness is all I see—I find the nearest line I can get in to buy something.  Whether Cinnabon or powerball, Joel Osteen or Hot Pockets, what ever is closet, what ever line I see first.  By the time I am done with the transaction, I feel a little better.  At least I am reminded of what it means to be a part of something bigger than me.

Lately, however, this has not been working as well.  My posting all those old rantings about preaching is, I think, a symptom of a gradual slipping, slippage, sliddage….

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In Conclusion: Don’t Tell People What to Do

How to Preach Real, Relevant, Relational and Revolutionary Sermons

In Conclusion: Don’t Tell People What to Do

Don’t tell people what to do.  Tell people what the Gospel says.  Tell People that God loves them.  God likes them.  Point to Jesus.
Preach the Good News you find in the text that fate has handed you by the way of the Lectionary.  Preach the questions you have found in the text, whether you have found the answers or not.  Embody the text.  Use everything in your bag of tricks to communicate the Good News in a way that requires people to listen.  Preach for Wednesday.  It doesn’t matter if people leave the church on Sunday wonder what the hell you are talking about—it is better then them not remembering anything you said.  Preach so it sticks in their mind, heart, craw, gizzard, liver, spleen.  That way their liver keeps working it out until on Wednesday out of the blue some epiphany pushes it’s way into the conscious self and ah ha can happen.  Wednesday is a good day for ah ha.
What ever you do, do not apply it to people’s lives.  Let them do that.  They are as smart as you are.  God some how was able to reveal God’s self to you.  You were some how able to hear that God loved you in such a profound way that you were filled with a desire to love God back.  If God could do this with you, chances are God can do this with other people.  If you could hear the great revelation of God’s Good News, chances are other people will be able to.
When you preach create the space for revelation.  Strive to create the possibility of epiphany.  Preaching is an act of worship.  Worship is not a set of instructions given to the people by the preacher.
Don’t tell the people what to do.  Let them figure it out.
Preach grace.  Let them apply it to their lives.  Grace stays with people longer than instructions do.

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Cultural Relevance vs. Cultural Literacy

How to Preach Real, Relevant, Relational and Revolutionary Sermons

Cultural Relevance vs. Cultural Literacy

There is a great fear in the Contemporary Christian Culture (well, the whole culture is based on fear. So this is one of the great fears) of not being relevant. The term relevant is always used but what is meant more specifically is not being culturally relevant.
Every body wants to be culturally relevant. Relevant worship, relevant preaching, relevant music. The consultants say that if you are not culturally relevant then you will not be able to reach the “young people.” Reaching the “young people” is what every Contemporary Christian Culture Church is obsessed with. The “young people” are generally understood to be anyone under sixty.
There is this embarrassment about just how old our faith is. It is, like so old, like thousands of years old. And the Christian church is so old. The buildings are so old; the songs are so old. And old is bad. Old is irrelevant.
So, the preacher gets an ear pierced and grows a goatee.
This my friend is a very hip and culturally relevant thing to do—cutting edge even—in 1985. This is the problem with making cultural relevance a priority. To speak to the “young people” on the cutting edge of popular culture, by imitating them is like chasing a wave on a bicycle. It keeps moving and then disappears and you are left trying to ride a bike underwater.
The “edge” keeps moving. The now is the then by the time you ever hear about it.
When applied to preaching the result is truly silly. I have actually read in Contemporary Christian Culture leadership magazines vocabulary lists of the current slang, with suggestions on how to use the terms in a sermon. You know, so you can relate to the “young people.”
I heard a sermon by a preacher that, I think, had just recently taken off his tie and bought a cordless mic., who I am sure read the same article. He held the Mic up to his mouth like and upside down ice cream cone and shouted into it, “What’s up Holmes boy!” A forty year old white guy. It was not a moment of cultural relevance. I thought he was shouting a greeting from Dr. Watson.
Karl Barth says a preacher should aim beyond the hills of relevance. You see our faith is old but it is also timeless. If a preacher preaches for the now, she limits the truth, makes it tiny and insignificant. Preach about Jesus.
Saying that, if Jesus returned today he would be in some warehouse with a pacifier in his mouth, a glow stick around his neck and dancing ‘til four a.m. downing energy drinks is not preaching about Jesus.
If you don’t even know what I am talking about, then you know what I have been talking about, and if you do then you know that it is a very cutting edge reference as I write this sometime before the end of the third millennium.
You should, maybe, know what I am talking about.
There is a difference between cultural relevance and cultural literacy. It is a good thing to understand popular culture. It is not such a good thing to imitate popular culture as a way to sell Jesus to people. Because, you know, that is how everyone sells every thing. The more you use the methods of Madison Avenue to position Jesus in the culture market, the more people come to see Jesus as just another culture product. And they take Jesus as seriously as they do any other product. People don’t usually give their lives to products. Products hardly ever reconcile the world to God and usher in the age of Jubilee.
Being culturally literate is just a part of being aware of the world you live in. It doesn’t mean you have to imitate it. To understand popular culture is helpful in understanding the context in which the Good News is being heard. In the same way understanding first century Palestinian culture is helpful for understand the context in which the Good News was first proclaimed by the apostles.
If you are a twenty-year-old urban hipster and happen to be a preacher, fine. Be you. If you are a forty-year-old suburbanite and happen to be a preacher, fine be you. If you are a rural Iowan just off the farm, beautiful. Be you. You are not bad and stupid and irrelevant. You are good. God likes you.

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