Apr 30, 2012

The problem with the 'literal' defintion of evangelicals

Within about two minutes in any conversation about evangelicals, someone will say they're defined by the fact they read the Bible "literally."

This term is never unpacked, though. It's just accepted that it's simple. It's not, though.

There are other definitions of evangelicals out there, but this is the shorthand used almost universally. I heard Lisa McGirr, the Harvard history prof who wrote Suburban Warriors, talk the other week in Heidelberg, for example, and it was a good talk, but she used this definition. David Canon, a Fulbright Scholar and University of Wisconsin-Madison poli sci prof spoke last week in Tübingen, and he used "literal" too without pausing, even, to question it, qualify it, or explain even a little about what it means. My students, certainly, even when they know very little about evangelicals, know this idea that evangelicals are those who "take the Bible literally."

But what does that mean, to take a text literally?

There is an answer, and it does mean something, but the practice being named here is actually a sophisticated, complicated, problematically ambiguous, polemical, contested, constructed and on-going, open-ended practice.

One should not take the claim "I just read the Bible" at face value. The fact something can be presented and positioned as simple and natural does not mean it is those things. One should not simply accept "those people are literalists," without demanding a decent account of what that means in practice, since it is, after all, a practice. It's something they do. There's political value in dismissing the practice and the people thus defined as simple, stupid, silly, but whether or not it's a good way to read, it's really not any of those things. If you're going to use this idea, this name for a certain sort of anti-hermeneutics hermeneutics, for interpretation that intends itself to be interpretation-less, reading that wants to self-erase, you should be required to at least try to say how it's literal.

When Jesus says "I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit," what does it mean to read that literally?

If you can't answer that question, you shouldn't say that doing exactly that is what defines this group of people. If you can answer it, the answer itself will serve as evidence "literal" doesn't mean "simple," and to understand this idea, it has to be unpacked.

Apr 29, 2012

Monkey & Mona Lisa man

Apr 27, 2012

Apr 25, 2012

Man and cello and cell phone (at night)

Apr 24, 2012

Apr 23, 2012

Moments of complication in the life & legacy of Chuck Colson

Chuck Colson's life and work was complicated enough to prove at least a little problematic for easy assessments of his legacy.

He died Saturday, at the age of 80, following complications during brain surgery. His work is now being summed up, his legacy either lauded or lambasted. The interesting and apparently contradictory aspects of his legacy are, however, being ignored.

It's as if the only assessment possible can be whether he was good or bad, and those are the only options. As if the job of an assessment is to decide whether Colson belongs with the sheep or the goats, in the eternal judgement of history.

For some of Colson's fellow evangelicals, for example, his is a straightforward story of redemption, evidence of the "the transforming power of the Holy Spirit," for which "trumpets will be sounding on the other side."

Yet exactly how much he transformed has never really been clear. There were parts of that old, pre-redeemed life he never actually repudiated.

Apr 19, 2012

Pentecostal beginnings, and the myth of Azusa Street

In classic accounts -- and in popular accounts still -- Pentecostalism has a very distinct, very clear, very American birth place.

It began at 312 Azusa Street, in a $8-per-month shack that had been at different times a warehouse, a tombstone shop, and a stable, in what was then a black ghetto of Los Angeles.

In recent scholarship, this is called the "Azusa myth."

The myth includes a brief account of Charles Fox Parham's Bible school in Topeka, Kansas, and how they began to speak in tongues there on New Years Day, 1901, and then Parham's stint in Houston, where he briefly connected with and taught William J. Seymour, the "one-eyed black pastor from Louisiana, son of a slave," who "journeyed by train from Houston to Los Angeles, only to be locked out of the church that sent for him" and ended up opening the doors of the famed and fabled Azusa Street.

That's where things focus: That specific, strange and humble place. The incongruity of it all.

First hand accounts of the 1906 revival there contribute to the myth a bit by emphasizing and finding reason to mention Azusa Street's peculiarity. It's pretty typical to read about how the building still looked like a stable, still seemed like a stable, not like a church at all, bare and barely functional inside and out.

The story -- and this seems key to the myth, and how it works -- then skips from 1906 to a larger statement, a point about Pentecostalism today. There's Parham, then Syemour, then that building, an unexpected receptacle for the Holy Ghost, then Pentecostals and the supernatural power of God made manifest all over the world.

There are two simple problems with this, which the scholarship on the subject of the start of  Pentecostalism serve to fix.

Apr 18, 2012

'God wouldn't stand it any longer'

Transcript from the 1903 trial of Frank Sandford, founder and authoritarian leader of a proto-pentecostal sect in Maine, on charges of manslaughter, following the death of a child during a forced 36-hour fast, where adults, children, babies, sick people, and even animals were disallowed all food and water.

That same year, Sandford required followers to sign a scroll declaring him to be "the prophet-prince-priest who is to prepare the Kingdom for the Christ ... the man who as a prophet is called in the Bible 'Elijah,' and as a prince is called 'David,' and as a priest is called 'Tsemach,' or 'The Branch.'"

The jury could not reach a unanimous verdict on the charge of manslaughter. 

Prosecuting Attorney: Mr. Harriman. what is your full name?
Nathan Harriman: Nathan Harding Harriman.
Q. Where do you reside now?
A. Roxbury, Mass.
Q. Were you at one time associated with Mr. Sandford in the Shiloh movement?
A. I was.
Q. For how long a time?
A. Three years lacking exactly a month--perhaps a difference of one day. That is. I arrived at Shiloh the 22nd of June, 1900, and I left the party in Jerusalem the 2lst of May, 1903.
Q. Now during all that time were you connected with him in the management of the institution?
A. Well, I wouldn't say management. I was connected with him all that time as a member of the institution with the exception of two brief times.
Q. And what were those two times?
A. I was disfellowshipped by the school on one occasion for twenty-five hours, and some nearly a year later in Liverpool, England, Mr. Sandford disfellowshipped me from the school and the Church and the movement, and the Jerusalem party. With the exception of being restored to the school and the Church some fourteen or fifteen days later, I remained disfellowshipped to the end. That is to say, I was restored to the Jerusalem party in September of 1902, but I was never restored to the ministry.
Q. What was the length you say of this second period that you were disfellowshipped?
A. Well, I don't remember just what, but I think it was the first or second day of the period of fifteen days, most of which I fasted.
Q. What was the occasion of that?
A. Rebellion.

This vision of us we recognize, this love we know is love because we've seen it advertised

Apr 16, 2012

Tools we don't use anymore

Apr 15, 2012

Alle Heiden umgeben mich; 
aber im Namen des HERRN will ich sie zerhauen.
Sie umgeben mich allenthalben; 
aber im Namen des HERRN will ich sie zerhauen.
Sie umgeben mich wie Bienen; 
aber sie erlöschen wie Feuer in Dornen; 
im Namen des HERRN will ich sie zerhauen..

-- Psalm 118, Luther Bible, 1545

Apr 13, 2012

Apr 12, 2012

Social construction

Building a new man

Apr 11, 2012

To teach about the part of faith that's act & practice

In liturgical churches in America, it's not uncommon to hear people say the act of corporate worship is in some way more important than beliefs and doctrines. The Eastern Orthodox in America are partial to the phrase, "There is no Orthodoxy without Orthopraxy," meaning the traditional practices are logically prior, in a sense, to traditional beliefs. In the Anglican tradition, the Book of Common Prayer has served to bind the church together in ways that creeds and confessions never did. It's no accident that, in America, the Anglican tradition fragmented first in disputes about revisions to the prayer book, second over doctrinal matters such as whether women could be priests.

Nor is it just the liturgical churches.

As denominations have grown fainter in evangelicalism, and non-denominationalism has become the order of the day, so that even denominations now adopt the forms of non-denominationalism, styles of worship have been more prominent. Church member may not even know their church is, officially, Baptist, or any of the intricacies of what that means, but will know quite well the ins-and-outs of the church's corporate worship.

As important as that aspect of belief is, though, as much as it's the foreground of faith, I'm struggling to figure out how one would teach it.

Apr 10, 2012

Atheists don't have bodies!
And other objections to secularist rituals

"Atheists," Steve Martin once declared on David Letterman's show, "really have nothing."

"Until now," he said.

Waving a single sheet of paper, Martin announced he was holding the "entire atheist hymnal, right here," and then he and his music troupe launched into a harmonized, barbershop-quartet style song called "Atheists Don't Have No Songs."

It was a joke, obviously, but for some, the question of why atheists don't have songs, and, more specifically, why they don't sing together, has become very important. The question of whether they should have songs they sing together has actually divided atheists, revealing an interesting fault line among American atheists over what "atheism" is in practice.

And, more, over whether it can be a "practice" at all.

Apr 8, 2012

Apr 6, 2012

"Many people blew their horn, waved at us, gave us the thumbs-up sign."
-- Kevin Harrison, pastor of Victorious Life Church, outside of Waco, Texas, on the public's reaction to his church's reenactment of Christ's crucifixion.

Requiem aeternam deo

"The Way of the Cross," by Norman Adams
"'Where is God gone?' he called out. 'I mean to tell you! We have killed him, you and I! We are all his murderers! But how have we done it? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the whole horizon? What did we do when we loosened this earth from its sun? Whither does it now move? Whither do we move? Away from all suns? Do we not dash on unceasingly? Backwards, sideways, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an above and below? Do we not stray, as through infinite nothingness? Does not empty space breathe upon us? Has it not become colder? Does not night come on continually, darker and darker? Shall we not have to light lanterns in the morning? Do we not hear the noise of the grave-diggers who are burying God? Do we not smell the divine putrefaction? - for even Gods putrify! God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him!'

" ... the madman made his way into different churches on the same day, and there intoned his Requiem aeternam deo."
-- Friedrich Nietzsche

Apr 5, 2012

Evangelicalism's internal tension over social justice & 'choice'

Evangelicals have been engaged in social reform movements since the beginning. Evangelicals themselves point to those early evangelicals who were opposed to slavery as an example of this. Those critical of the Religious Right today point to evangelicals' involvement in the amendment of the U.S. Constitution to prohibit alcohol as a prime case.

A lesser known but maybe more useful/less fraught example is Southern evangelicals' campaigns to criminalize dueling. A more current example, which illuminates the same issue, is efforts among today's evangelical to combat sex trafficking.

What one finds, in these cases, is a significant restraint on -- a limit to -- some evangelicals' conception of how society works, and thus a restraint and limit to how they can imagine engendering social justice.

There's a conflict, internal to evangelical conceptions of society, dividing evangelicals against themselves, between the need for social reforms fixing societal problems, and an anthropology that identifies all problems as sin, and all sins and problems of individual choices.

Methodists, Baptists and others took a stand against the aristocratic Southern culture of chivalry and honor, before and after the Civil War, arguing the "code of honor" that required men to kill each other over (real or perceived) slights and insults was wrong. According to a Methodist periodical in 1881, duelers should be treated as murders. In an earlier proclamation by the (I think inter-denominational) publication American Missionary, the evangelical position was that:
"a Christian conscience will displace a false code of honor among the people as a rule of conduct, and methods more civilized than the pistol and the bowie-knife will be resorted to in adjusting misunderstandings among neighbors."
Note the tension, the conflict internal to the evangelical engagement with this social issue. On the one hand it's seen as a social issue, which should be changed by changing the system -- here the law. And yet, somehow, also, more than an issue of structure or system, it's supposed to be matter or individual morality.

Ultimately, it's not a problem of the system that supports and perpetuates this henious thing, that makes it possible and, for some, necessary, but a problem of bad people who could but don't or won't just "do better."


Apr 4, 2012

Spring bike market

Apr 3, 2012

New communions

"It started in the American heartland, in the twilight of the nineteenth century. First hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands of Baptists and Methodists, along with a smaller number of Quakers, Mennonites, and Presbyterians, left their natal fellowships to join one of the great religious migrations of modern times. Some pulled out and some were kicked out, but most just drifted away. However separated, all sought new communions more visibly filled with the New Testament church's supernatural power. These spiritual adventurers went by a variety of names -- including premillennialists, holiness folk and, from the lips of outsiders, holy rollers.
"[...] In the fire-baptized services of the late 1890s, one leader remembered, 'people screamed until you could hear them for three miles on a clear night, and until the blood vessels stood out like whip cords.'"
-- Grant Wacker, Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture.

Mt. Vernon Fire Baptized Pentecostal Holiness Church

"Mt. Vernon Fire Baptized Pentecostal Holiness Church," by Linda Anderson, a self-taught artist from North Georgia.

Apr 2, 2012

Enforcing the 'conflict' between science and religion

This is just depressing:

Christianity Today reports "Evangelical Evolutionists meet in New York." The distressing detail is that the "60 participants came [to the Biologos conference of evangelicals who accept evolution] by special invitation, with the proviso that their names would not be publicized without permission."

That open discussion can only happen with guarantees of anonymity says much about how the "conflict between science and religion" has hardened into a social reality and is vigorously maintained. Whether or not there's really a conflict between science as such and religion per se, that conflict sure is socially enforced.

Apparently, opposition to evolution has become a matter of orthodoxy, for some. And, for others, theistic interpretations of science and exercises in natural theology really are matters for proclamations of "anathema." There's apparently not a lot of freedom to disagree with the conflict between religion and science. Or even talk about disagreeing.

Except if you know no one will know you did it.

I don't begrudge those involved their privacy. I assume they really do have to be cautious about publicity, and there would be real-life consequences to having their names attached to this Biologos event. 

It's just sad that that's true.

There were some, at least, though, who felt they could attach their names to the conference. Among clergy and religious leaders: Tim Keller, N.T. WrightOs Guinness, and others. Among the scientists (which, if I read this correctly, made up about a third of attendees): Ian Hutchinson and Jennifer Wiseman.

Pentecostals & presumptions of sickness

In preparation for my class on American Pentecostalism, I’ve been trying to review the academic analyses of speaking in tongues, which ethnographers and psychologists seem to insist on calling “glossolalia” even though no one engaged in the practice calls it that.

My initial conclusion: A lot of it is crazy talk. 

Not the speaking in tongues -- the studies.

There’s a lot of confusion where the context of tongues (be it the sociological context of the pentecostals or the linguistic context of the speaking itself) is mistaken for the cause. There’s much built on the assumption the practice is abnormal. Which it may be. But the assumption stands in the place of any explication of how and why, only bolstered and reinforced by studies that reproduce the presumption, without any actual interrogation of how the studies and their methods lead to the conclusion that was never really in doubt.

To often,  it's as if the only interesting or viable question was thought to be "what's wrong with these people?"

There was a German study in Berlin in 1965, for example, which found glossalalists were “pre-schizophrenic” or had, at least, suffered psychotic breaks. A minor detail: the study was done in a suicide-prevention clinic.

The latter fact, one suspects, had something to do with the findings.

Apr 1, 2012

Wer ist derselbe König der Ehren? 
Es ist der HERR Zebaoth; 
er ist der König der Ehren.

-- Pslam 24,  Luther Bible, 1545