Sunday, 19 November 2017  
 
 
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  HOMILETICS INTERVIEW: John A.H. FUTTERMAN  
   
 

The Virtual Church of the Blind Chihuahua

If you think the Virtual Church of the Blind Chihuahua is just another lunatic Web site run by a half-cocked agnostic who takes pleasure at poking fun at Christians and the church, you'd be wrong.

Visit dogchurch.com and you won't find canned theology, but you will find links to the chapel, graveyard, scriptorium, restroom, gift shop and forum. You'll also find serious articles about everything from christology to the problem of clergy abuse. Actually, we misspoke. You can find canned theology at dogchurch.com, and the cans come in liberal, conservative and wacko flavors.

The demented but interesting mind behind this site is John FUTTERMAN, a forty-something physicist who toils for his daily bread in some defense labs at Livermore, California. We thought he'd make an informative and fascinating subject for a HOMILETICS interview, so after some initial conversations, we agreed to meet on the grounds of the Concannon Vineyards just outside of Livermore. John arrived without a blind Chihuahua, by the way, or any other dog, and after setting out a lunch of sandwiches and a bottle of Concannon's finest, we began.

HOMILETICS: The Virtual Church of the Blind Chihuahua? Are you serious?

FUTTERMAN: We're both serious and not serious. We're not particularly serious about ourselves. But we are serious about God, and we do take the gospel seriously. But, you know, we ourselves are somewhat comic — a part of the human condition.

HOMILETICS: Paul said something about being a fool for Christ. Are you trying to follow this apostolic tradition?

FUTTERMAN: Or the Greek tradition in which a person was called an idiot — that is, someone who was concerned only for themselves and their personal salvation and didn't care about the community around them and therefore did not uphold their religion which upheld the state.

HOMILETICS: You talk about having the "courage to be ridiculous before God."

FUTTERMAN: The human condition is often comic, and we savor that comic aspect in order to search for the grace to deal with all the other aspects of the human condition.

HOMILETICS: How is VCBC helpful? Or are you just trying to thumb your nose at God, Christians or established religion?

FUTTERMAN: Certainly not thumbing my nose at any of the above. What I'm trying to do is to shape some ideas about religion that come from a different perspective — one that's formed by science and mathematics and also one that's formed by my rather nonsectarian past. So I am trying to sort of lobby the culture for a more inclusive, tolerant Christianity, and a Christianity that is more open to some of the things that are going to happen in our culture in the next years or so, and deal with it more positively.

HOMILETICS: Was there any specific event that occurred that made you say to yourself, "I need to do this Web site."

FUTTERMAN: I wrote a book called Man Bites Dogma. I had the temerity to send it off to M. Scott Peck who liked it and gave it to his literary agent. I got some of the most well-written rejection letters you'd ever seen. And I learned a lot from each one. One editor really loved it and said he was going to recommend it to his editorial board. He did, and was subsequently fired. I don't know if there was a correlation, but I wouldn't be surprised if there was. I became convinced it wouldn't see print, so I thought, why not put it out in electronic form? So some of what is on the Web site is material from my book.

HOMILETICS: So why a dog? Why a Chihuahua? Where did that come from? From what dark, deep space in your head comes the concept of a blind Chihuahua?

FUTTERMAN: I met the dog. There was a real blind Chihuahua in Austin, Texas, in the late '70s and early '80s. It belonged to a student of mine.

I was visiting that student, and this old, blind Chihuahua waddled out, old and arthritic, and he would bark in your general direction. But he couldn't bark right at you because he couldn't see where you were, and he would bark so hard that he would tumble over backwards. He'd manage to get so much uumph out of the backward tumble that he could roll right back on his feet without bending his knees, which couldn't bend. And for some reason that struck me as a metaphor for the relationship between humans and God — which is really strange because at the time I was an atheist.

HOMILETICS: So why is it a metaphor? Because we find ourselves blind and barking at God or our circumstances and falling over in the process?

FUTTERMAN: Right. We're basically comic like that. We more or less bark in God's direction. Sometimes we get it, most of the time we don't. And you know, it seems to me there must exist some point of view —possibly a point of view that God enjoys —that is comic in our struggle to be the people of God. We try to get it right — it seems like we very seldom do, especially when we try to make heavens on earth and we end up making hells. It's the St. Paul thing: When I want to do nothing but good, evil is close at my side. So we tend go off on a lot of cockeyed crusades, usually crusades for some kind of moral purity, which at the heart of it was what 9/11 was all about. I'm not making a case for inaction, but I'm making the case that we should have the courage to think about who we are and what we're doing.

HOMILETICS: Well, the dog thing certainly opens up a host of sub-metaphors. For example, on the site, rather than referring to yourself as the webmaster, you call yourself the chief Pooper Scooper.

FUTTERMAN: If you maintain a site about dogs ... I maintain my own site where I live and own two dogs. I've calculated that I move about 1.2 tons of dog poop a year —

HOMILETICS: You've actually taken the time to calculate that?

FUTTERMAN: It's an easy calculation. Any large land carnivore eats about eight times its weight in food per year. E=MC2 says that not very much of that mass is going to wind up as energy or it would blow up the world. Which means that most of what goes in is going to come out. So I have about 200 pounds of dogs, and between the two of them that's about 1,600 pounds dry weight, probably close to a ton when you add the water.

HOMILETICS: So we're all pooper scoopers?

FUTTERMAN: No, I'm just saying I am. That also lets you know that you should never define who you are by what you do. You can get into deep spiritual trouble.

HOMILETICS: I thought you were going to use another word other than "trouble."

FUTTERMAN: Deep spiritual do-do.

HOMILETICS: You don't like dogma, but you yourself are dogmatic in the sense that you have a well-crafted sense of truth. But you say on the site, "Don't bring your dogma ..."

FUTTERMAN: You can bring your dogma only if it doesn't bite, as in hurt people, as in kill people spiritually. You have to take church dogmatics quite seriously because blood was spilt over every word of the creeds. People fought over this stuff, so you have to take it seriously, but not in a wooden, literal way. You have get behind the text to the subtext. Rabbi Heschel argues that dogma is like a window and we should leave the windows open. Eventually we're supposed to go through them to God. So we want to use dogma as a tool to guide our thought and action, but not as a Procrustean bed upon which to stretch or shrink people. We don't want to use dogma like that. Dogma is a tool to keep us from going astray, but you can go astray by abusing the dogma itself.

HOMILETICS: But at the risk of being regarded as intolerant, at some point we have to, like Luther, say "Here I stand."

FUTTERMAN: And at times Luther was intolerant. No one person can be right all the time. It follows no one person is wrong all the time either. Sometimes we're right, sometimes we're not. That's why spirituality is best done in community so that your brothers and sisters can correct you and you can be corrected. It's not one of these situations where you can go off and do your own religion, what Bellah in Habits of the Heart calls "Sheilaism." That's not going to help anyone. It certainly doesn't come back to society and add value to it and make this a better place to live.

HOMILETICS: When you sit in the pews or padded chairs and listen to the preacher, what are you hoping for?

FUTTERMAN: I'm hoping for the same thing I'm hoping for in my conversation with you, or with my colleagues as a Stephen minister, and that is I'm waiting for the Word of God to pop out of your mouth. And every now and then it does!

HOMILETICS: What can the preacher do to increase the odds of that happening.

FUTTERMAN: I hesitate to give a preacher advice since I'm not one. It seems to me that they're all doing the best they can. I think the thing to do is to be open to the experiences of the life in which we are set because the life in which we are situated is a sacred text — something for us to deal with just like the gospels. God's message to us comes from our life, from the whole scene in which we live, the world, as well as from the Bible, so we must open ourselves to the Word of God in terms of wherever that comes, including some surprising directions. Because God is a surprise. The ultimate surprise.

HOMILETICS: Jesus Christ is an even bigger surprise.

FUTTERMAN: Exactly.

HOMILETICS: On your Web site, when you are defining what Christianity is, you refer to Paul's comment about "knowing Christ and him crucified." You're pretty much right in the mainstream of historic Christianity.

FUTTERMAN: One person posted a note saying, "I believe everything that Christianity says to believe, but I don't believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus." And I wrote back saying, "Well, that is what I believe. And basically what you is believe is Christian as an adjective but not Christian as a noun." He said, "Why is that?" And I said, "Because to be Christian as a noun you have to keep faith with the religion that the apostles founded and that's what they believed." In the Forum posters, whom I consider to be the members, you find Christians, Jews, pagans and atheists. So this is a church that is big enough for everyone. I try to invite everyone in so that no one is really outside the walls.

HOMILETICS: But your goal isn't conversion?

FUTTERMAN: My goal is to present a way of looking at Christianity that is big enough to include those who have felt themselves excluded by the standard church. And I have had a number of people who have written in saying they would have left Christianity were it not for this site. They were saying that maybe my site was not "the Christianity" for them, but that it opened their eyes to the fact that Christianity was larger than what they had been taught.

HOMILETICS: I'm still not sure I trust you. You describe yourself as a Marxist.

FUTTERMAN: Not a Karl Marxist but a Groucho Marxist. The first Marxist had ideas that when implemented turned out to be a colossal failure. Groucho, however, was into comedy and humor and would sometimes say things, even unprintable things that couldn't possibly appear in HOMILETICS. I'm interested in humor — how we see ourselves religiously and politically. It's amazing how seriously people can take themselves.

HOMILETICS: How does your pastor put up with you?

FUTTERMAN: The pastors I talk to most frequently think I'm entertaining. They think that if the blind Chihuahua doesn't describe anyone else, it certainly describes me.

HOMILETICS: A favorite Bible story or passage that really speaks to you?

FUTTERMAN: I have many favorites. If forced to choose, I like the part in Corinthians where Paul talks about the dead being raised incorruptible. But another one is where Elijah confronts the prophets of Baal and verbally abuses these people when there are hundreds of them and one of him.

HOMILETICS: What about Jesus. Did he have a sense of humor?

FUTTERMAN: An astounding charismatic person you can't figure out, but you're not meant to figure out Jesus; you're meant to follow him. You can't "figure him out" by thinking, but by discipleship.

HOMILETICS: Is the Internet affecting the way we do church?

FUTTERMAN: I don't think it has done that — yet. A lot of churches have Web sites. And it remains to be seen whether and to what extent it will transform church as we know it. But it will never entirely transform it. The Rev. Jack Schieman asks "When was the last time a cathode ray tube gave you communion?" To the extent that the church exists in your head, you can do church in your head, you can do church on the Internet. But we're embodied selves. We're complete people. We don't live just in our heads. There is an aspect that involves personal encounter —sight, sound, touch — that you just don't get through the Web.

HOMILETICS: So VCBC is no threat to Bill Hybels and Willow Creek.

FUTTERMAN: Can't see how it would be.

HOMILETICS: Do you get any hate mail?

FUTTERMAN: I get roughly 100 e-mails a month and about four very negative e-mails a year that I keep in a little file in case I disappear. Whoever wants to find out what happened to me can go to that file to look for clues.

HOMILETICS: What do they say?

FUTTERMAN: They're upset because I don't adhere to their narrow dogmatic view of Scripture. I don't fit their particular narrow view of Scripture. And all I can say is "Amen. I don't"

HOMILETICS: I was thinking that your site might be the 21C version of the medieval monastic experience. Could you retreat into your cyber-cocoon and find all the contemplative resources you need, a place where you can get away from the business of life, because you talk about coming to VCBC, that here we are free to "choose the order of our religious experience unrestrained by the linear rush of time characteristic of other churches."

FUTTERMAN: The service at VCBC

doesn't need to end so that moms can get their kids to Little League. There is a time and place for solitary contemplation. That's also, in my opinion, a necessary part of religious experience or religious discipline. But I certainly don't look to VCBC as a sort of cyber-monastic experience. If you check out the Scriptorium where the writings are, almost everything I've written and the other contributors have written is about encounters in real space, not cyberspace. Encounters with real people. Encounters in the whole, as it were, rather than in the part.

HOMILETICS: Have you thought of going into ministry?

FUTTERMAN: In a sense, VCBC is my ministry. It's an outreach ministry to people who have been rejected, alienated or missed by the standard bricks-and-mortar church. So to the extent that VCBC is helpful to them, it is my ministry.

HOMILETICS: Is there anything going on in the church right now, besides your own Web site, that's really exciting to you?

FUTTERMAN: I've never thought of VCBC as exciting. [pauses to think]

HOMILETICS: If you can't think of a brilliant answer, we can move on.

FUTTERMAN: I don't have a brilliant answer, but I have an unbrilliant answer and a disturbing answer. If you look at the mainline Protestant church, the numbers, as you know, are in decline, and it's as if Christianity is leaking out through the walls of the church and showing up elsewhere. I think Christianity is alive and well, but the church is hurting.

HOMILETICS: You have a background in defense research. You work for the government in Livermore, California. I don't need to say more. Perhaps you have a perspective on the war on terrorism.

FUTTERMAN: Our leadership has a positive moral obligation, as defined by the U.S. Constitution, to "provide for the common defense and secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity," and the attack on 9/11 was an attack on liberty and on ourselves in an attempt to deny liberty to our posterity. So we have a positive moral obligation to respond by whatever means is necessary, and of course just war theory would say the "minimum" means necessary.

I dislike the term "just war theory" because I don't think of war as just; I think justice is what happens after war, because true justice demands reconciliation. But just war theory is very useful for keeping ourselves from making war more mindlessly brutal than it has to be.

But, given that statement, war is in this case a moral obligation on the part of our leadership — and a part of our followership. Still, we need to look at our relations with people of other faiths and not be warmongers.

It would probably be helpful for people to look at the Koran. I'd also like the people of Islam to take a fresh look at the Koran and maybe not so much search the Koran for the obscure as look at it for the real obvious. Every sura or chapter of the Koran, and there are 114 of them, starts the same way: [he recites the Arabic] which translated means, "In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful." Now if that's the first thing you see when you open the book and it's hitting you between the eyes 114 times, you would think there would be a message in that, in those words themselves, that you wouldn't gloss over them. You'd look at what was, in fact, staring you right in the face.

I think there is some common ground between Judaism — you can think of Judaism as the progenitor faith — Jesus was a Jew, all of his followers were Jewish, at one point in time there were no Christians who had not been Jews first — and Christianity and Islam, which was informed by both Judaism and Christianity. So these are the three faiths of ethical monotheism, the three Abrahamic faiths because all three claim descent from father Abraham. I think there is some common ground there. If we were to stop abjuring and abusing each other, and maybe take each other seriously, each of us doing our best to be people of God proceeding along parallel paths to our Lord, recognizing that perhaps in the geometry of God parallel lines do eventually meet in God.

HOMILETICS: Do you like cats?

FUTTERMAN: I like cats, but I don't speak cat. I can only speak dog.

 

 

John A.H. FUTTERMAN

 

 

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