Ask most people what God looks like and they'll immediately start thinking about Michelangelo, the Sistine Chapel and an old man with a white beard sitting on a cloud.
Eric Metaxas thinks that anyone who truly wants to understand the righteous and jealous God of the Bible should try meditating on a different image. Metaxas is thinking about Motown, rather than Vatican City.
"I admit that the Bible does not specifically mention Aretha Franklin," said Metaxas, a humor writer and speaker best known for his work with the Manhattan-based "Socrates in the City" lecture series. "But when it comes to thinking about God, most people's minds are full of all those familiar images and they just get stuck. ... So why not Aretha? She's big, she's bold and you're going to have to listen to what she's saying."
And everybody knows what the Queen of Soul is going to say: "What you want, baby I got it. What you need, do you know I got it? All I'm askin' is for a little respect when you come home (just a little bit). ? R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me."
Hold on to that image for a minute, because there is a method to his madness and it's at the heart of his quirky book "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About God (but were afraid to ask)." Metaxas is a friend of mine and the best way I can explain where he's coming from is to say that he's a former editor of The Record at Yale University, America's oldest college humor magazine, and he's written for thinkers as diverse as Chuck Colson of Watergate fame and Bob the Tomato of VeggieTales.
The key is that Metaxas (www.ericmetaxas.com) thinks humor is serious stuff and that most religious leaders haven't grasped this basic fact about modern life. He is convinced that Americans are not going to listen if theologians and clergy keep offering dense doctrinal arguments when making a case for a traditional faith. Instead of talking about how many angels can dance on a copy of the Summa Theologiae, modern missionaries and apologists need to consider the strategies they would use to talk to Comedy Central fans over a few beers and a bowl of mixed nuts.
Which brings us back to Aretha Franklin.
Many modern seekers, said Metaxas, are curious about God and they wish they could find some answers to their tough spiritual questions. But, at the same time, they have trouble accepting the traditional Christian belief that God is God and that there is only one way to find salvation. These claims sound petty and intolerant.
"Here's a comparison that might make sense," argues Metaxas, in a book chapter entitled "How Can Anyone Take the Bible Seriously?"
"If a guy is married and he tries to persuade his wife that he needs to have a few other women on the side, his wife will likely say, 'Sorry, Romeo, but that's not going to fly. If you want to be married to me, you have to forego those other women. Period.' It's just like that with God. He doesn't force us to pick him, but he does force us to choose between him and the others. We can't have both."
In other words, God demands R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
Metaxas has other skewed takes on big issues. He thinks that using sex for self-gratification makes as much sense as using Rembrandt paintings to line birdcages. He's interested in life's big questions, questions like how the universe -- including all those Chevy Camaros in Queens and Staten Island -- exploded out of something smaller than the period at the end of a sentence.
Is this theology? No, it isn't the way that intellectuals talk in cathedral pulpits and faculty clubs, said Metaxas. But it is the way that ordinary people talk on Friday nights while hanging out with their friends.
"At some point Christians are going to have to use humor and parody because that's the language of the culture," he said. "That's what people consider sharp and entertaining and real. ? You can keep serving up tea-and-crumpets moralism and logical arguments and it's not going to matter because people aren't going to listen.
"You may as well be speaking Ukrainian. That isn't going to work, unless you happen to be speaking to Ukrainians."