Joel Stein, Starbucks, and Heaven

Joel SteinIf you haven’t been here since Tuesday, you missed the final Bonhoeffer blog. You can page down to get it. I’m not waiting to post this until next Tuesday, both because it’ll be Christmas, and a LA Times column printed today prompted me to write this.

If you want something Christmas related, here are my answers to some questions about Christmas. And here’s the first article I ever wrote for publication, on the Christmas Shepherds. In the next blog, by New Years, I hope to show some family pics from 2007.

Now, the man in the picture is not a Christmas shepherd, but Joel Stein, a prominent columnist for The Los Angeles Times. He’s written features for Time magazine, and has impressive journalistic credentials. He says this of himself on the front page of his website: “I’m the guy who loves porn and hates America.” He’s known for his column where he said he not only opposes the war in Iraq, he opposes U.S. troops. Clearly he’s a man who says what he thinks.

So three days ago it got my attention when Joel Stein emailed me and asked to talk about the many responses he’s gotten to this quote of his on a Starbucks cup.

Joel Stein's coffee cupIn case you can’t read it in the photo, it says: “Heaven is totally overrated. It seems boring. Clouds, listening to people play the harp. It should be somewhere you can’t wait to go, like a luxury hotel. Maybe blue skies and soft music were enough to keep people in line in the 17th century, but heaven has to step it up a bit. They’re basically getting by because they only have to be better than hell.” Joel follows this quote in his column (link below) by saying, “It is, indeed, kind of disgusting that Starbucks sells coffee cups that big.”

Stein called me because “after reading the Starbucks cup, five people mailed me your book Heaven.” He found that fascinating and decided to write a column on it.

We spoke for fifty minutes, and had a pleasant discussion. True, I was acutely aware that many farm animals have heard the farmer speak pleasantly to them all the way to the slaughterhouse. Having seen how Joel has portrayed Christians in his columns, I realized he could cream me. I’ll let you decide whether he did. Here it is, in the Friday December 21 L. A. Times.

You may want to read his column now and come back to my blog later. To whet your appetite, Joel begins, “I have a bad habit of annoying Christians. Partly it’s because I don’t believe in Jesus, and partly it’s because Jesus keeps letting me write columns about how I don’t believe in Jesus.”

Someone just emailed to ask how I felt about the column. Good, actually. It could have been laced with sarcasm and ridicule, and accusations of intolerance. It wasn’t. Joel Stein may be misguided, but he is a likable guy, a great writer, articulate, witty and laugh-out-loud funny. Even when he slightly misquoted or took my words out of context to get a laugh, I enjoyed it.

Stein's column contained less misstatement than I expected based on many past experiences with journalists, secular and Christian. (No offense to journalists, but they tend to scrawl notes and later rely on faulty memories to fill in the gaps with their own words, which are sometimes remarkably different than what you actually said. Joel Stein, however, was mostly accurate in his citations.)

A dozen people have mentioned this Starbucks cup and several have given it to me. Joel asked me why so many of the Christians who’ve contacted him about his quote are so angry about it. I pointed out there are lots of angry people, and many of them aren’t Christians. And many Christians aren’t angry. I said yeah, some Christians are defensive and always picking fights and whining, but there are many Christians who are kind and gracious, not anger-driven. To his credit, Joel acknowledged that some Christians who’ve contacted him have been nice.

HeavenHe told me, “since your books are now in every room in my house I told my wife, maybe I’d better read it.” We had a good laugh. He wondered if I orchestrated sending the five books. I assured him I didn’t, and signed that one to him only at someone’s request. (That’s Shelly, who he talks about at the end of the column).

As much as I disagree with his worldview, I found Joel to be sharp, engaging and witty; the kind of person I’d enjoy having lunch with. (I might enjoy it more than he would.) I was friendly and unapologetic about my beliefs, and he was professional and considerate.

Joel said he’d read about eighty pages of the book and planned to read more. (Interesting that he doesn’t mention in the column how much he actually read.) If I were skeptical, I could think he was searching the book for judgmental, condemning and narrow statements. But apparently not, since if that were his goal he could have had a heyday with the fact that I believe what Scripture says about Hell being our default destination, and that we need to put our trust in Jesus as the only Way to salvation. I was grateful his reading included so much Scripture presenting the gospel, which I deliberately put early in the book for those who wouldn’t finish.Sure, the column contains minor inaccuracies and misquotes. I didn't suggest I thought the present heaven was boring; to die and be with Christ is "better by far," and I can't imagine boredom in his presence, even prior to the resurrection. But he correctly quoted me that "by our present standards" the present heaven doesn't sound exciting to us.I never said the Christians who showed me Joel's Starbucks’ cup were “outraged.” They weren’t. (Well, okay, one was, but I didn’t say that.) Most just wondered why Starbucks would feel obliged to send a negative message about Heaven. But their beef was with Starbucks, not Stein. I told them that though his picture of heaven was wrong, he was reciting the view we as Christians have helped foster, and done little to correct, even in our churches.

Stein writes, “When Alcorn pointed out that I could have conversations with Socrates and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in intermediate heaven, I was pretty sure that I’d get, at best, a book signing from those guys.”

Socrates and King never came up in our conversation, nor are they mentioned in the Heaven book, though I do speak of meeting many others. I think King, though flawed, was a true believer. I don’t assume that Socrates will be in Heaven, though God could certainly have done a work of grace in his life we know nothing about. I think we’ll be surprised at who we see there, not to mention the surprise others will have in seeing us.

“In the heaven in Alcorn’s book, he imagines we’ll be riding on the backs of brontosauruses and throwing baseballs with Andy Pettitte. This does not sound like it will be heaven for brontosauruses or Andy Pettitte.”

That was funny. Of course, I didn’t put it quite that way in the book. The context emphasizes Scripture’s promise, including in Romans 8, that God doesn’t give up on his new creation but redeems it. I didn’t say “we will be riding....” but said it’s possible we could, given the biblical teaching on the physical nature of the resurrection body and the New Earth, and peace between people and animals, and God’s promise to restore original creation rather than abandon it. Of extinct animals, I said, “Unless God made a mistake when he created them—and clearly he ­didn’t—why ­wouldn’t he include them when he makes ‘everything new?’”

Anyone reading those words, without a biblical framework to understand them, will think I’m crazy, which might have been Joel’s point. But in their original context, I stand by them. And let’s face it, as Christians we too are quick to find and use the silliest-sounding statements of an atheist or a cultist or fellow Christian with whom we disagree theologically or politically, sometimes taking them out of context. I’ve done it and I’ll bet you have.

Joel Stein didn’t go for the jugular. He even mentions by name four of my books on Heaven. I wonder if as a result a few dozen or a few hundred books will get into people’s hands and hearts. And one day some people may have Stein's column to thank for introducing them to Jesus and the biblical Heaven.The hero of this story is Shelly Migliaccio, who I only met last month. Joel said of Shelly, who sent him Heaven, “She used to go to Starbucks twice a week, but my quote made her so mad that she has boycotted it ever since.” When she came by our EPM office with her friend Geneva Torland, a great sister from my home church, Shelly didn’t strike me as at all angry, but genuinely concerned for Joel. And to Joel’s credit he says “Yet she sent me a nice note and an autographed book.”Sharon Misenhimer, our receptionist, and I both read Shelly’s note to Joel, and it was very gracious. In my inscription in the book I wished Joel the very best, as I did at the end of our conversation. Shelly sent him the signed book, and thanks to her loving action, Joel read many pages of Scripture about salvation in Christ, and about the biblical promise of Heaven for those who trust Him.

In one of his controversial 2007 columns, Stein told readers they were wasting their time by emailing him. He said, “I don’t want to talk to you; I want to talk at you. A column is not my attempt to engage in a conversation with you. I have more than enough people to converse with. And I don’t listen to them either.”

So you wouldn’t expect a sympathetic response to five Christians sending him the book and many others sending him letters. And yet…look at how he concludes his column. The key is the ending, because a writer always finishes with what he wants to leave most prominent in your mind. Here are Joel’s last two paragraphs:

“I was thinking it was sad that you looked at heaven that way. I wanted you to know about the heaven I know about and I look forward to go to,” she [Shelly] told me over the phone. “Life here on Earth can be so trying sometimes, and I just anticipate it.”

In Migliaccio’s heaven, the colors are more brilliant, we all have jobs we love, we are free of the lies and horrible stuff she sees on the news. And, at least for the little while we were on the phone, I believed in Migliaccio’s heaven too.

This is a remarkable sign-off for someone who started the column by saying “I don’t believe in Jesus” and “Jesus keeps letting me write columns about how I don’t believe in Jesus.”

Wouldn’t you expect Joel Stein, whose columns can be crass, cynical and extremely hostile to the Christian faith, would end this column differently? Notice he doesn’t just say for a little while he wanted to believe in Shelly’s view of heaven, but that he actually did. He may not realize it, but he saw Jesus in Shelly, and for a little while, believed, because cynicism melts in His presence.

Thanks to Joel, for showing restraint and a spiritual soft side in his column. Thanks to Shelly, and to the other four people (if you read this, please tell me who you are) who sent Heaven to Joel. Thanks for shining some light, and doing it with love and grace.

Joel Stein needs the Lord. So do I. So do you. So does everybody. With Christmas upon us, let’s pray that Christ would be Lord of our lives, that we would be filled with His Spirit, and with grace and truth. Let’s ask God to draw us—and Joel Stein also—to the foot of the cross.

And maybe someday, after the resurrection, when we’re enjoying God and each other on the New Earth, Joel and Shelly and I and Andy Pettitte, and maybe Jesus too, will reflect on this column as, wind blowing through our hair, we ride the back of a the glory of God.

Joel Stein photo by Mrmanhattanproject [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries