​To Believe Or Not To Believe? That Is The Question
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​To Believe Or Not To Believe? That Is The Question

A lesson in faith from the business of the faithful

​To Believe Or Not To Believe? That Is The Question

"To believe or not to believe? That is the question," said Roberto. The tour guide was congenial, a older man with a warm smile and hugs that rivaled any grandfather you had met. Earlier, he had christened me his "niece" as we puddle jumped to each of Rome's basilicas for the better part of an afternoon.

My mom, rarely a skeptic, had asked him how anyone knew that the relics in the churches were authentic-- the nail from Jesus’ cross or the teeth of Saint Joachim or the wood for the manger? For obvious reasons, Roberto's answer reminded me of Yoda in Star Wars Episode Five: “Do or do not. There is no try.”

We were on what was called a Christian Tour of Rome-- a bus that went to basilicas, the Forum, the Circus Maximus—where they actually killed many Christians (not the Coliseum)—and the catacombs. Roberto was deeply devout. Reverence in hushed tones hung in the Medieval air as he spoke; it was clear that these were the places he loved and that he loved the God who inhabited these places.

If you have any semblance of Christian faith, Rome is a tourist trap. The Holy is sectioned off by a wall, and just inside of that wall, beside St. Peter's, kiosks and hucksters and buskers line the wall. Do you want Pope Bobbleheads? We got ‘em. How about postcards of the Pieta? Yup. Collectible coins, crosses, and other keepsakes. There are souvenir carts, and stores and a couple pizzerias and gelaterias for good measure. All of them encircle and entrap the most important structure in Western religion.

Near the Coliseum, where they did not execute many Christians, there is a museum dedicated to the life of gladiators and the death of Christians. You use a “time machine,” an elevator, and to step into the Coliseum from the pits down below. Actually, you watch a 3D movie about gladiatorial training. After the movie, you go directly to the gift shop where there are thousands of books and trinkets related vaguely to how to be killed in the Coliseum.

If you spend too much time strolling the streets of Rome or spend five minutes in Ile de la Cite near Notre Dame or turn on the TV to TBN or listen to Focus on the Family, you understand that religion is business. It is easy to make money off of the faithful. Think Elmer Gantry. Think Amy Semple MacPhearson. Think Joel Osteen. There's a joke my friend and I make where he says that he could make so much money as a televangelist if only he had no moral compass. Not too long ago, the aptly named televangelist Creflo Dollar started a capital campaign, which including his television congregation, to raise money for a brand new private jet, so he can “spread the gospel.” To preach at other congregations he charges $100,000, a fee that he claims pays for jet fuel. The man also has a multi-million dollar mansion and several luxury cars for him and his wife. My mom is skeptical of Creflo Dollar, too. And by skeptical, I mean she’s angry at Creflo Dollar for taking advantage of his authority to get another private jet.

Thinking back on standing in Basilica Santa Maria de Maggiore while my mom felt she was defending the bank accounts of the faithful, I cannot bring myself to question the relics. Some Medieval dentist/barber may have sold teeth as St. Joachim's teeth. They still may bring the people closer to God. The business of faith may be very lucrative and even corrupt, but faithfulness can come from anywhere. Biblically, God used a talking donkey, and unless it is voiced by Eddie Murphy, there is no problem with that.

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