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God is for Real, Man

Author:Carl F. Burke

Date: 1966

Publisher: Association Press, New York

Discovered at: St. Vincent's Thrift, Long Beach

The Cover Promises: The tales of the bible retold for “some of God's bad-tempered angels with busted halos”

Representative Quotes:

“There was a gang called Philistines who were planning a rumble with a gang called Israelites.” (page 29)

“Jesus didn't tell them how stupid they were

Or call them retards –

He talked to them like they were real important-like.” (page 86)

Everyone knows that the best way to share God's unchanging, infallible word is to completely rewrite that word every chance you get. Evangelist Carl F. Burke figured this out in the 1960s, when he gathered “angels with busted halos” – that is, inner city kids — and gave them the Good News in the language they would understand: that of West Side Story.

In God is for Real, Man, Goliath wields a switchblade and zipgun, just like the Jets and Sharks. The parable of the lost sheep becomes “The One Used Car That Was Snitched” and the great flood chapter is titled “The Story of the Cool Cat Called Noah.” In “How Come You So Strong, Samson?” the Old Testament's strongest hero is steeped in 60s pop. He tells Delilah, “If you braid my Beatle hair, I'll lose all my strength.”

Elsewhere, he gives us:

While nowhere near as grand as the famous St. Vincet de Paul on N. Ave 21, the Long Beach branch does boast some estimable craziness.

While nowhere near as grand as the famous St. Vincet de Paul on N. Ave 21, the Long Beach branch does boast some estimable craziness.

“The Jews were getting ready to have a real big jive thing they have called Pentecost.”

Burke's great insight is that communicating with the youth of America's cities is exactly the same as communicating with any of the far-flung indigenous peoples favored by missionaries.

To ensure comprehension, he offers contemporary titles:

Still, Burke claims that it's the kids themesleves who actually came up with retellings like:

“One day Peter, who was one of Jesus' right-hand men, came up to ask a very important question. Maybe somebody had done him some real dirt and got him teed off, 'cause he was mad.

He says to Jesus, 'How many times do I have to forgive people when they are always buggin' me? I already did it seven times. Is it OK to take a punch at them now?”

This sounds like a white youth pastor's go at a Lou Rawls monologue.

(The actual question, from Matthew 18: “Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?'”)

As he explains, Burke shared bible stories with them, and then asked the kids to retell them. Burke took down their words from memory, well after the telling, which means that God is For Real, Man is mostly Burke's guess at kids' paraphrases of stories Burke himself had paraphrased.

Also at St. Vincent's: hot, corpse-ass action!

Also at St. Vincent's: hot, corpse-ass action!

In the history of the bible, this is business as usual.

But I have a hard time imagining the kids of '66 dropping a “Bingo!” into the story of Doubting Thomas (or “Touchin' is Believin'”):

“After Jesus boasted outa the grave

He met two of his gang on a road.

Man! Were they ever spooked and surprised.

. . .

Before they could even say much, bingo!

Jesus was there”

Some are more kid-like, such as this, from the chapter titled “Some Lunch, Huh?”

“One day Jesus saw a big gang of people, so he said to Philip, 'Oh boy! How we gonna feed them all?'”

Weirdly, this retelling of the old loves-and-fishes story leaves the wine out entirely.

Occasionally, Burke or the kids or whoever get downright nihilistic:

“This is more than feeling sorry for himself –

It's what the head shirkers call guilt, whatever that is.”

Yeah, Krup you, headshrinkers! Really, though, when a preacher like Burke learns that kids don't know what guilt is, doesn't he have a responsibility to explain?

But that's the way of simplified bible verses. Like Disney with fairy tales or Tea Partiers with the constitution, Burke strips all nuance and complexity from the original. Here, he tries applying the Proverbs to street life:

When he turns to the gospels, Burke works in a justification for his project. As you might recall, Jesus gives his disciples their great charge: spreading the gospel throughout the world and the ages.

Or, as Burke has it:

“He told them he wanted

Them to tell all the cats in the world

About it.

He wanted the squares and hoods,

The rocks and the squeaks and collegiate to know about that, too.”

And animal must-haves!

And animal must-haves!

Just not in those words!

Shocking Detail:

I especially enjoyed a proverb-inspired chapter titled “Listen to the Teach,” which I think is also the name of a Dangerous Minds reboot on the CW.

Here, Burke pairs up an italicized admonition with a busted-halo paraphrase:

If your enemy is hungry, give him some bread to eat

If one of the Black Hawks is hungry

Give him a hot dog”


Nailed to the cross, Jesus demonstrates the grace to forgive those who not what they do. He says,

“Don't be too hard on them, Father, they been led on by the crowd. They don't know what the scene is.”

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