Satirist’s confession of faith

The satirist P. J. O’Rourke, usually a wild man, learned that he has cancer. He has written a remarkable column in the L. A. Times, reflecting in a humorous yet thoughtful way on death, morphing into a confession of faith in Christ. Read it all, while realizing he is a satirist and no theologian. Here is a sample:

I looked death in the face. All right, I didn’t. I glimpsed him in a crowd. I’ve been diagnosed with cancer, of a very treatable kind. I’m told I have a 95% chance of survival. Come to think of it — as a drinking, smoking, saturated-fat hound — my chance of survival has been improved by cancer.

I still cursed God, as we all do when we get bad news and pain. Not even the most faith-impaired among us shouts: “Damn quantum mechanics!” “Damn organic chemistry!” “Damn chaos and coincidence!”

I believe in God. God created the world. Obviously pain had to be included in God’s plan. Otherwise we’d never learn that our actions have consequences. Our cave-person ancestors, finding fire warm, would conclude that curling up to sleep in the middle of the flames would be even warmer. Cave bears would dine on roast ancestor, and we’d never get any bad news and pain because we wouldn’t be here. . . .

No doubt death is one of those mysterious ways in which God famously works. Except, on consideration, death isn’t mysterious. Do we really want everyone to be around forever? I’m thinking about my own family, specifically a certain stepfather I had as a kid. Sayonara, you s.o.b.

Napoleon was doubtless a great man in his time — at least the French think so. But do we want even Napoleon extant in perpetuity? Do we want him always escaping from island exiles, raising fanatically loyal troops of soldiers, invading Russia and burning Moscow? . . .

Death is so important that God visited death upon his own son, thereby helping us learn right from wrong well enough that we may escape death forever and live eternally in God’s grace. (Although this option is not usually open to reporters.)

HT: First Things

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  • FW

    that last paragraph is pretty straight up roman catholic/penticostal (their core theologies are identical) theology.

    Great to read his article. Humor has a very important place in christian witness.

  • WebMonk

    FW, there are probably some erroneous basic issues that the two have in common, but that is a far cry from having identical core theologies.

    Anyway, back on topic, I loved his approach to the topic and his general mindset that even death is something that is for our good. God works all things….

    I don’t quite go along with his how/why death has worth, but that God uses even death to teach us is something that bears some “serious” thoughts, even when wrapped in humor.

  • CRB

    “Death is so important that God visited death upon his own son, thereby helping us learn right from wrong well enough that we may escape death forever and live eternally in God’s grace.”
    This gives me pause to ask the Lutheran question:
    “What does this mean?”!!

  • Thanks for sharing this. I probably wouldn’t have seen it otherwise. It’s cool to see people coming out about their faith. Who knows how God will use it…

  • Joe

    CRB – I read that and understood it as:

    Death is not only important it is necessary becuase of the fall. “The wages of sin is death …” Romans 6:23. And “ . . . without shedding of blood is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22).

    Of course the rest of his statement jumps into works rightousness and reduces Christ’s death to less than full payment.

  • CRB

    Yes, that’s what I though, too. Sounds like a confusion or confounding of Law and Gospel, but it’s hard to tell where he’s at on this.

  • Bruce

    For an excellent primer on the federal gummint and how to fix it, read O’Rourke’s PARLIAMENT OF WHORES. Funny, but also sobering.

    The lead quote in the book: “Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenaged boys.”

    Don’t we know it.

    He also had a chapter on balancing the budget. It began something like this: “I balanced the entire federal budget. It took me all morning, but I did it!”

    And, he is surprisingly sympathetic to Senators and Representatives. Hence the title–the whores end up being….US.

  • Arfies

    What a fine piece, indeed! I certainly have reservations about the last paragraph—it wasn’t just for teaching that God sent his Son—but Mr. O’Rourke seems to stand with George Carlin, Mark Twain, and many others to remind us that the best humor comes from people who do much serious thinking to lay the foundation for our laughter.

  • kerner

    For a great primer on economics, try “Eat the Rich”. He wrote it in 1996, I think, so it’s a little dated. But the fundamentals are great.

  • FW

    Here is an excellent Lutheran sermon on death. One of the best I have ever seen. The author is William Cwirla, an LCMS pastor in california.


    the basic “core” theology I am referring to my valued brother, is the idea of “sanitive justification”. The idea here is that Jesus made salvation for us possible by dying on the cross. Once the holy spirit has worked faith in our hearts in Jesus, what is also necessary is to become “spirit filled” and , in cooperation with the holy spirit, become actually and increasingly and at the end wholy sanctified. The christian life then should be expected to be one in which we increasingly become saint and lesser and lesser sinner. At the end of one´s life, one quite possible passes through periods without sinning. This is core “Holiness” theology, which started in methodism seeded by the wesley brothers, and passed to penticostalism which sprang in part, from methodism. This is seen to be an essential part of the christian life and experience, and makes our inner sanctification a part of our justfication in practice and practical theology it does seem. They call this teaching “entire sanctification”.

    In fairness, most penticostals do not frame their theology in a systematic or precise way. It is just not their approach, so I have an open mind on how far most penticostals would make entire sanctification a part of actual justification. It does seem fair however to note that it is not unusual to encounter statements by penticostals that would certainly rather strongly imply this idea at the very least.

    We all, including us Lutherans, are graced with inconsistencies in our personal theologies that save us from becoming rank heretics. Thank God that none of us are saved by the purity of our personal doctrine, but rather are saved by The Pure Doctrine.

    Someone else here could better articulate for you more succinctly the actual theology and ramifications. My descrition for you is not as precise or accurate as I would like and might contain some inaccuracies.

    Roman Catholicism uses different terms, but teaches basically the same thing. In fact, the idea of purgatory exists to allow those who have not completed the process of “entire sanctification” (a penticostal term that neatly describes the roman catholic idea) to do so after death.

  • WebMonk

    I’m pretty familiar with Pentecostal theology and history from classes and good discussions and friendships with AG pastors. You stated your doctrines well, but assigned them to a wrong group of people.

    There certainly are offshoots of Pentecostals that say being spirit-filled (usually marked by speaking in tongues) is a requirement of salvation. You’ve quite ably described all that, and there are groups that have developed just what you talk about, a holiness theology, but they’re offshoots with whom the larger bodies of Pents disagree at foundational levels.

    Pentecostals do put a strong emphasis on evidence of faith shown by obedience to God, and if there is error with that type of emphasis it will error toward holiness and legalism. For example, in the 70’s (I think) the AG denom gave a public repentance for practicing legalism. From what I can tell though, they have recovered well from those practices.

    Considering the differences in language usage, connotations, and assumptions I can see where Luths may assume Pents to all be holiness theology. (especially when some actually do practice it) But to say holiness theology is core to the Pent set of beliefs is stretching it beyond accuracy.

  • That was delightful. Thank you, gracious host.

    And I hope that Mr. O’Rourke will forgive me for this, but I think that he got the perfect cancer to have, if he indeed must have cancer. Who could make fun of that like him?

  • FW

    #11 webmonk

    The fastest growing penticostal denom for some reason is not on most folks raydar. it is COGIC a large black denomination based in Memphis. I get most of my practical and actual exposure to penticostalism from this group because my best friend was raised in one of the most promiment families in that denomination. His family is full of COGIC pastors and female evangelists and very interconnected to other influential families and pastors in that group.

    He says and I have directly observed that the group is very very based in holiness theology. When pushed they won’t say that the second blessing and entire sanctification are necessary for salvation. So on the one hand is is fair to say that they do not in fact believe this. On the other hand, with what they say in church services and in private, the logical conclusion is excruciatingly hard to escape that they do NOT believe this in fact.

    So I just assume they are sorta fuzzy in their theological categories and that that really doesn´t bother them.

    We Lutherans, along with calvinists who are historically tied to a formal set of creeds and systematic theologies tend to look for other groups to place importance on clearly defined theology. We read their literature and assume that what they write is in fact what they consistently believe and actually put into practice.

    This is probably not a valid approach to understanding these groups and what they believe.

    I am often asked by Penticostals and Roman Catholics (nothing implied as linkage here specifically_ what I personally believe. When I point them to the public confessions of my church they respond as though I did not understand their question and repeat their question. I gather from this that they feel that having a personal theology distinct from the publicly declared positions of their church is not only normal but also more authentic and therefore better.

    I guess I am saying webmonk, that it is hard to argue for any sort of monolithic “pentecostal” theology, but it does seem that the historic roots are a mixture of baptist and holiness and it is never a surprise to find some variant of that combination hold major sway in a particular group. Along with word/faith and sometimes even a “new age/oprah” sorta flavor thrown in.

    Still webmonk, it would be hard to imagine how penticostal theology in general could hold together without the idea of “entire sanctification” and an idea of “sanitive justification”. I have yet to meet a penticostal (unlike charismatic christians) who do not hold to some form of this.

    I am wondering now if and how the black pentecostal experience is different somehow from the AG white one. I understand that COGIC and AG started as one group and peacably split back when…

    I know a few people well in Jack Hayfords church which is foursquare. they seem similarly holiness in their theology…

    Tell me more webmonk.

  • WebMonk

    *warning, this comment got away from me and it turned into a monster. honestly, I really did mean this to be brief! RAYOR*

    “tell me more.” You want a major dissertation on the history of the Pentecostal movement and its major current expressions? It’ll be easier to go find a book than put a umpteen-page comment. I’m not dodging the question, but REALLY suggesting that a comment isn’t a place to rewrite a major history paper or a book.

    Part of the results of Azusa was a general working together of most everyone who was “Pentecostal”, and over the next decade the movement separated into its subsets, AG being far and away the largest denom at 57 million. So, the general linking of Pentecostals together as one big group is sort of like some of my RC friends who refer to “Protestants” as a monolithic whole.

    Yes, COGIC is a fast-growing church, but it is also fairly newly growing; the 60s or 70s was when they started really growing. Before that they were a splinter. Originally I think they separated because the disagreed with the holiness doctrines of the rest of the group they associated with in the beginning. (I don’t remember details off hand.) A little later the and the AG separated. I’m not familiar with their current doctrine and I guess it’s possible that they’ve started down a holiness sort of doctrine in practice. I hope not.

    The Foursquare church is a bit of an odd duck in several different ways, part of which is that I think it started out as an out-and-out cult started by some lady who’s name escapes me at the moment. It moved away from that and I would call them a Christian denomination now, but from the one Foursquare church I went to for a bit, I know there are a few pieces of their history that aren’t listed in their official doctrines, but still flavor their practical doctrines. I think the Holiness is part of that – not technically an official doctrine, but still bits of it floating around from its beginning. I usually think of Foursquare as more “Emergent” than “Pentecostal”, though they do hold a couple Pentecostal distinctives.

    “I have yet to meet a penticostal (sic) who do not hold some form of this.”

    It depends on the groups you’ve run into. If they’re all COGIC, it could be that they have a Holiness influence. Like I said too, there’s a definite difference between the meanings many Pents put into words and phrases and the meanings Luths put into those phrases. Combine that with the emphasis on a James-style faith that shows evidence, and there’s certainly going to be some crossed connections in conversations between Pents and Luths. Maybe they were Holiness; I have no idea.

    It’s sort of like my first exposure to Luths – it unfortunately happened to be one who was very definitely “Baptism saves a person”. He would baptize any homeless person he saw passed out on the street and was convinced that they were then Christians bound for heaven, no matter what. That flavored my perception of Lutherans, and when discussions of Baptism come up, I still have that playing in my head. The rough part is that I periodically run across Luths online that agree with him. Most use very similar/identical language, but disagree. It doesn’t help my comprehension that Luths use some words to mean something very foreign to what I typically understand the words to mean.

    Actually this blog (back when it was still on WorldNetDaily) was my epiphany of “Oh! That’s what they mean when they say that!!!”

    On creeds, part of the difference is the emphasis on how “inclusive” or “exclusive” denoms want to be. It can be seen in the differentiation of their doctrines – core doctrines and other doctrines. Generally (very, very broad brush here), newer denoms (and changing denoms) will stress a relatively limited set of doctrines that must be adhered to for membership, and then “secondary” doctrines that they hold but are still willing to accept people in who may disagree with them. That approach tends to obscure the creeds which the churches hold.

    Probably one of the reasons you get odd looks when you just hold up the BoC or SC as your beliefs is that many different Lutheran bodies claim the same thing and have split over their differences. It’s just slightly less broad than holding up the Bible. People are probably wondering which flavor you go with.

    Oh shoot. Now I’ve written more than I planned. Apologies to everyone. I enjoy my history. I’ll put a warning at the beginning and go away now. This is wildly off topic as it is.

  • Michael the little boot


    The Foursquare Church was started by Aimee Semple McPherson. In case anyone’s still wondering. 🙂

  • The key seems to be biblical inerrancy. Lutherans Churches that hold to biblical inerrancy tend to understand the BOC or SC pretty much the same. Those who reject Biblical inerrancy also (with a few exceptions) take the BOC in a very loose way.