Mar 26, 2015


The Ku Klux Klan at church, circa 1922, probably in Portland, Oregon.

Mar 25, 2015

Mar 17, 2015

A classic B movie for Jesus



A Cuban Communist proves that Fidel Castro is better than Jesus in the 1971 film: If the Footmen Tire You What Will Horses Do? He does it with this little empirical test:
Let's see if your Jesus will bring some candy now and produce a miracle. I don't see any candy. I don't taste any candy. There is no candy. Your Jesus didn't bring us any candy. The reason why? Your Jesus Christ can't do it. 
But I can tell you who can do it. We will pray to our glorious leader Fidel Castro and our glorious Fidel will bring us all of the candy we can eat.
It's a curious moment of reverse apologetics. This is actually an evangelical B-movie meant to bring people to belief in Jesus. Though Jesus doesn't show up with candy, the portrayal of the swarthy communist's case against Christ is intended by the film's creators to be a case for Christ.

This is one of the stranger examples of evangelical movie-making, even for the 1970s.

Mar 14, 2015

What if it's love? Prince does Contemporary Christian Music

Prince's version of Nicole Nordeman's worship song, What if?
But what if you're wrong?
What if there's more?
What if there's hope
you never dreamed of hoping for?
What if you jump?
Just close your eyes?
What if the arms that catch you
catch you by surprise?
What if He's more than enough?
What if it's love?
The musician Prince has released a new single, surprising even industry insiders by covering a Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) song about faith overcoming doubt.

The original is by Nicole Nordeman, a Gospel Music Association Dove-winning artist with a long career behind her. Nordeman has recently gained some fame among evangelicals for writing and performing a song on a Bible concept album accompanying Zondervan's Bible-reading program, The Story, which has been used in many evangelical churches. Nordeman also wrote and performed the theme song for VeggieTales' 2010 production Sweetpea Beauty.

Nordeman's music is not widely known outside of evangelicalism, though, and wasn't seen an obvious choice for Prince.

"Sure, Prince has sang about God and religion for years," Billboard reports, "but he usually doesn't release studio versions of cover songs -- much less covers of songs by a VeggieTales vet."

Prince is a Jehovah's Witness, so the song about choosing faith in Jesus may have resonated for religious reasons. He is also known, more than anything, for surprising the music industry experts.

Mar 13, 2015

Courts excluding Christians from jury duty

A potential juror was dismissed from the case of a Colorado man accused of killing 12 and wounding 70 in a mass shooting. Because of the man's "beliefs as a Christian," he couldn't sit on the jury.

The man, described in news reports as a middle-aged white man wearing a T-shirt, is Catholic. He is opposed to the death penalty, even for accused mass-shooter James Holmes, if Holmes is found guilty. The church is officially against capital punishment, except when necessary for public safety, which the catechism says is very rare, even practically non-existant. Some have worried this will mean Catholics are systematically excluded from the juries of death penalty cases, establishing a judicial bias against Catholics.

The judge was careful, in this Colorado case, to say that potential jurors cannot be dismissed because of their religious beliefs. Even if those beliefs conflict with the law, they can serve on a jury -- so long as they commit to enforcing the law they think is wrong.

That caveat wasn't good enough for the unnamed potential juror, though.

Mar 9, 2015

Cotton Mather in the vaccination debate

Cotton Mather is being put to use in American culture, today, his name invoked as an advocate for vaccinations.

Marvin Olasky, editor of the conservative evangelical newsmagazine World, has recently turned his attention to the subject of vaccinations, encouraging conservative Christian parents to trust science and get their children inoculated. This is fairly controversial, in some circles, where science is considered a very suspect source of authority. Olasky, however, invokes Cotton Mather:
Let's start with modern science, which Christians largely invented, as Nancy Pearcey showed in The Soul of Science. Our Bible-believing forebears from Isaac Newton on saw how God rules nature with regularity that we can discern, without fear that Neptune stirs up the waves whenever he's mad.

Christians were strongly pro-science: Cotton Mather 300 years ago pioneered in promoting inoculation. But when scientists overreach by proclaiming, like Carl Sagan, that material existence 'is all that is or was or ever will be,' the credibility of science diminishes. Honest laboratory research deserves great respect.
Mather, for his part, was insistent that inoculation was a divine mercy. As he wrote in 1721, during a smallpox outbreak in Boston and the subsequent debate, "But let us beseech those that have call’d this Method -- the Work of the devil, or a going to the devil, no more to allow the cursed thought, or utter the horrid word, les they be found Blasphemous of a most merciful and wonderful Work of GOD."

Some Bostonians found this less than persuasive.

Olasky isn't the only one who has brought up Mather in this context, recently.

Mar 5, 2015

The Christian fiction market has a problem

Is Christian fiction in crisis?

For the first time since the late 1980s, the evangelical fiction market seems to be in real trouble. Religious novels did not sell well in 2014. After many years of robust growth, a number of publishers are pulling back from the market.

According to BookScan, which tracks sales volume, religious fiction sales declined 15 percent in 2014. Adult fiction in general didn't do well, with sales volume down 8 percent for the year. Even in a bad market for fiction, though, religious fiction did particularly poorly.

Given evangelical fiction's recent history, this downturn is notable. It wasn't that long ago that novels put out by evangelical publishers seemed to dominate the marketplace.

American evangelicals discovered they had a big appetite for fiction in late 1980s. Frank Peretti's spiritual warfare fiction and Janette Oke's prairie romances were so wildly popular they changed the Christian book market. By 1987, Oke's latest was outselling the most popular male authors at the Christian bookstore, James Dobson and Charles Swindoll. People were staying up all night to read Peretti's thriller, This Present Darkness, and then buying five copies to give away the next day.

At the time, the average Christian bookstore was doing about $200,000 per year, according to an official history of the Christian Booksellers Association. Over the next decade, religious publishing saw a 6.3 percent increase in sales. A lot of attention has been paid to evangelical's political activities, during this period, but for every dollar evangelicals spend on political organization, they spent another $13 at Christian bookstores.

Then at the end of the 1990s, evangelical publishing went mainstream.

Mar 2, 2015

What science says you can't talk about


Francis Collins on the limits of science:
"'Why are we all here?' 'Why is there something instead of nothing'? 'Is there a God?' Isn't it clear that those aren't scientific questions and that science doesn't have much to say about them? But you either have to say, well those are inappropriate questions and we can discuss them, or we need something besides science to pursue some of the things humans are curious about. To me that makes perfect sense."
Collins says he thinks most people are comfortable with both science and religion, but the extremists have occupied the public debate. "That harmony perspective doesn't get as much attention," he says. 

Feb 27, 2015

John C. Willke, 1925 - 2015


Credit: National Right to Life
John C. Willke in his National Right to Life office, circa 1982.
Willke's rhetoric could exhibit some of the more hysterical tendencies of the pro-life movement. In one letter to supporters, for example, he alleged that abortionists were harvesting and selling organs from fetuses. The information was based on an anecdote from one anonymous source, but Willke relayed it as verified truth.

"These are real baby parts," he wrote, "often from live born babies who have been delivered by Partial-Birth abortion … Now we know why the abortion industry has a vested interest in keeping partial birth abortions legal. They need this grisly procedure so they can get intact bodies in order to harvest and sell the body parts of babies they kill."

He hoped the horror of late-term abortions would spark moral outrage in those who would rather not think about the details of abortion.

Willke said this tactic had worked with the political issue of slavery in 1850s Ohio when the Fugitive Slave Act, which allowed slavers to re-capture escaped slaves in the North and then march them back to slavery, brought the horror of the practice into plain sight, and shocked many who had been content not knowing about it before.

"This rubbed it in the faces of good people," Willke said. "Not long after that, the whole thing exploded."

Read the whole obit for John C. "Jack" Willke, a doctor who led and shaped the pro-life movement, at Religion Dispatches.

Feb 25, 2015

What would Ishmael read?

Reading the scattered criticism of popular domestic novels led me to recognize -- though I am certainly not the first to have done so -- that the popularity of novels by women has been held against them almost as much as their preoccupation with with 'trivial' feminine concerns. And this led to the observation, again not original to me, that popular fiction in general, at least since the middle of the nineteenth century, has been rigorously excluded from the ranks of 'serious' literary works. That exclusion seems to me especially noteworthy in American literature, since the rhetoric of American criticism habitually invokes democratic values as a hallmark of greatness in American authors. When Melville calls upon that 'great democratic God' and celebrates 'meanest mariners, renegades and castaways,' it is cause for critical acclaim, but when the common man steps out of Moby-Dick or Song of Myself and walks into a bookstore, his taste in literature, or, as is more likely, hers, is held up for scorn.
-- Jane Tompkins, Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction 1790-1860.

Feb 24, 2015

Jonathan Edwards in Oklahoma

Jonathan Edwards didn't know of Oklahoma. The word wasn't even coined until 108 years after he was dead. But do Oklahomans know Jonathan Edwards?

The question is surprisingly controversial at the moment.

A Republican Oklahoma state representative named Dan Fisher, who is also pastor of a Baptist megachurch, has proposed a bill that would defund the teaching of Advanced Placement United States History courses in Oklahoma high schools. AP classes are taught to about 500,000 high school students every year in the US, putting them on the fast track to college education. The AP guidelines for teaching US history was revised in 2014 and Fisher, like many of conservatives, is critical of the new framework.

"Under the new framework, the emphasis of instruction is on America as a nation of oppressors and exploiters," Fisher said. "Now certainly we all know that we have our blemishes, and we wouldn't want to withhold those. But we don't want only our blemishes taught and not have a balanced approach."

Fisher says the biggest problem with the new curriculum is what is left out: "the heroes from American history are pretty much omitted."

One of those heroes, according to Oklahoma House Bill 1380, is Jonathan Edwards. Fisher is afraid Edward, along with others, is being kept out of the US history classroom. The legislation would require that Edwards' sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" be taught to advanced high school students, along with two other Puritan texts, John Winthrop's "A Model of Christian Charity" and the Mayflower compact.

Fisher's proposal was passed last week by the Oklahoma house's education committee with an 11-4 vote on party lines. The news was met with considerable scorn and outrage. Many on the left see this bill as an example of the American right's head-in-the-sand anti-intellectualism. Conservatives, it is alleged, can't handle the truth of American history. They want a of national ideology to overwrite the complexities of what actually happened.

Feb 23, 2015

The printing press and the slaves


Detail of a monument to Johannes Gutenberg, Strasbourg, France.

Feb 20, 2015

'So that never happened in church again'


A tract on spanking children at church, circa 1945-1948, from "The Kids Tract Club," in Winona Lake Ind., distributed by Talking Gospel Pictures in Spokane, Wash. The tracts were sold at $1.50 per 100. 

This was one of a series of five, called "The Tantrums of Lil' Bess," by a woman named Betty Russell. In one tract, a 2-year-old Bess is shown being disciplined with the statement, "God is up in heaven. He sees everything we do." In another, 3-year-old Bess learns that she does bad things because she's sinful. 

More of the Lil' Bess comics can be seen on Ethan Persoff's site. 

Feb 18, 2015

As honest as sin

David Carr was a recovering addict. He wrote a memoir of his recovery, called The Night of the Gun. The story is basically what one expects from the genre -- a colorful fall from grace, "bottom," then redemption. What set it apart was that Carr didn't want you to trust him. The Night of the Gun was re-reported, not just remembered. Carr dug up documents and did interviews and approached the story as a journalist. When he said he loved his children, he went and checked it out.

Really, the memoir started from the premise that memories are suspect.

"Even if I had amazing recall, and I don't, recollection is often just self-fashioning," he wrote early in the book. And then later: "When memory is called to answer, it often answers back with deception. How is it that almost every warm bar stool contains a hero, a star of his own epic, who is the sum of his amazing stories?"

It is a dogma of public confession that you can tell the truth and it will set you free. Carr insisted, however, that baked into that (as he would say) was the tendency to not tell the truth.

"If I said I was a fat thug who beat up women and sold bad coke, would you like my story?" he wrote. "As a member of a self-interpreting species, one that fights to keep disharmony at a remove, I'm inclined to mention my tenderhearted attentions as a single parent before I get around to the fact that I hit their mother when we were together."

This reflects a commitment to journalism. It also reflects a belief in sin.

Read the full essay at Religion Dispatches: "David Carr's secret to honesty: sin