Dec 31, 2014

My most popular posts from 2014

1. Sam Hose's Christian America

It's one thing to say that America should be Christian. It's another thing to say it should be Christian like is was, like it used to be.

When it actually was like it used to be, there were no stores open to sell the kerosene to burn Sam Hose because businesses were closed on Sundays. But a shop keeper was found to give kerosene to the crowd at no cost.

When it actually was like it used to be, there was a Sunday in Georgia where Christians went to church in the morning and in the evening went to the public square to sell bits of Sam Hose's burned liver for 25 cents each.

2. When Bill Nye's wedding was performed by Rick Warren

The brief association between the two men, captured in this picture, isn't really significant in that narrative in any way that's obvious.

It's just a very odd, very peculiar moment in the recent history of American science and religion.

3. The 'Left Behind' audience

Among cultural critics, there's a tradition going back to the Frankfurt school of treating mass culture as manipulative, and seeing mass audiences as passive and stupid, easily molded by what they consume. It's a condescending view. It's also a view that also seems to only really be supported by its own snobbery. Even the briefest of investigations into actual cultural consumption shows the theory of manipulated masses is not a good one.

Nevertheless, whenever the audience is mainly women, you see this theory.

When the audience is young women, this is how they're treated. When it's people without a college education, or racial minorities, or cultural conservatives, or other groups critics apparently find it difficult to treat as three-dimensional humans, audiences are again taken to be milling, drooling sheep. Cultural condescension passes for critical analysis not infrequently.

It's not just Left Behind's audience that gets treated this way, but Left Behind has been a good example of this over the years.

4.  The Hobby Lobby ruling is actually pretty reasonable

The actual decision was pretty circumspect. It was only this:
  • The government does have an interest in providing health insurance plans that cover birth control to women who want it. 
  • Some individuals who own corporations have the right to their religious objections to some (or all) forms of birth control. 
  • Therefore, the easiest way to provide birth control is not through employer-provided health insurance. 
Politically, there is plenty of fuel there for a number of fires. From another perspective, the Hobby Lobby ruling is pretty reasonable.

5. How the atheist movement lost America's most famous scientist

Remaining unconvinced is not the same thing as being an atheist.

Dec 30, 2014


Winter woods, Schönbuch, Germany.

Dec 29, 2014

14 who died in 2014

A connect-the-dots portrait of a powerfully complicated American religious landscape, circa 2014:

Vincent Gordon Harding

Historian and theologian Vincent Gordon Harding died at 82. Harding founded Atlanta’s Mennonite House with his wife Rosemarie in 1961, a headquarters for consciences objectors and civil rights activists. He helped Martin Luther King, Jr. make the argument against Vietnam, drafting King's "Beyond Vietnam" speech in 1967, broadening the concern of the movement and alienating some moderate civil rights supporters. Author of numerous works on American-American religious history, including There Is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America and Martin Luther King: An Inconvenient Hero, Harding taught at Illiff School of Theology in Denver, Colo. for more than 20 years.

Nelson Bunker Hunt

A Texas billionaire remembered mostly for his business exploits, Nelson Bunker Hunt bankrolled the religious right. He underwrote many Campus Crusade’s projects, including the 1967 "Berkley Blitz," the $6 million Jesus film in 1979, and a $30 million campaign to evangelize the world by 1980. He gave $1 million to help start the Moral Majority and financed the founding of Tim LaHaye’s Council for National Policy in 1981. Hunt also tried to buy all the world's silver as a hedge against the financial collapse he believed the Bible predicted. He lost $1.7 billion and went bankrupt in 1989. He died at 88.

Read the fully essay at Religion Dispatches: Snake-Handlers, False Messiahs, and a Few Great Souls: 14 Who Died in 2014

Dec 27, 2014

A Jesuit astronomer finds he doesn't need to reconcile faith, science

Journalist Nick Tabor interviews Jesuit astronomer Guy Consolmagno, who has some interesting things to say about the relationship between science and religion:
In TV and radio appearances he's frequently called on to discuss an old subject: How does he reconcile his faith with science?

'It's a question that never actually arises in our lives -- ever,' he said during a recent interview with Religion Dispatches. 'It's sort of like asking, "How do you reconcile being a scientist and a Detroit Lions fan?"'
So why do so many feel the two do -- or should -- conflict? Consolmango tells Tabor it's caused by a seeing both science and religion as smaller than they really are.

In his experience, those who imagine a conflict between science and religion usually take a reductive view of both. 'They think religion is a book full of things, and science is a book full of things,' he told RD. 'And what happens if the things in one contradict the things in the other?'

... Religious belief doesn't start with blind belief, he says in Brother Astronomer, it begins with experience. In his case it's a sense, at the most basic level of perception, of divine presence. Given that his own experience closely resembles those of other people in different times, places, and cultures, he writes, 'Occam's Razor … cuts pretty clean here.' He repeats an analogy not uncommon in mystical literature: it's like hearing music and knowing it's more than just noise. 'Faith,' he says, 'is our reaction to that experience.'

In the same way, he argues, science doesn't begin with logic. It begins with insight, and it uses logic to 'support the intuition after the leap of insight has occurred' -- or to scrutinize insights and discard or refine them.

Dec 24, 2014

Nativity, Taize, France

Nativity, Taize, France.

Dec 23, 2014

It's a political life

In a final scene of the 1946 Christmas classic It's a Wonderful Life, George Bailey opens a Christmas present from his guardian angel. It's a copy of Tom Sawyer with the inscription, "Dear George, remember no man is a failure who has friends."

What are the politics of that sentiment?

Two friends debate the political leanings of It's a Wonderful Life at the group blog Mere Orthodoxy. Chris Schaefer argues that the movie is not as conservative as conservatives think it is. The movie is liberal-ish in its critique of capitalism and in its New Deal-era values, even if it's not explicitly politically left.

In the movie, for example, being moral means being bad at business.

Schaefer writes:
George improves the lives of his customers AND that he has a successful business full of entrepreneurial spirit. Is that really what is happening? As far as we know, his for-profit company never makes a profit, and his community spirit interferes with his entrepreneurial spirit at every turn. Think of his comment to the bank-examiner that 'between us, we're broke' or when the real estate agent points out to Potter that the Baileys 'don't make a dime' off of the houses they build. The Bailey Building and Loan isn't a successful business full of entrepreneurial vim; it's a community service center subsidizing people trying to live above their means.

Dec 19, 2014

When the left misunderstands evangelicals

Kim Bobo, founder of Interfaith Workers Justice, says workers' rights activists and other leftist groups have failed to connect to evangelicals because they misunderstand evangelicals:
One of the things that has not been smart has been to lump evangelicals and fundamentalists in with the conservative Christian Right. While a lot of people have been confused on things and connect with the Christian Right on stuff, to lump this huge group of people or write them off as not part of our [workers' rights] movement is dumb.

You see that right now on immigration reform. The evangelical world is completely solid on immigration reform. And at the local level, we see a lot of fundamentalists and evangelicals involved in the work.

We need to understand there are some very well-funded, concerted efforts by right-wing forces to continue to capture [evangelicals]. The Heritage Foundation published a small study guide entitled 'Seek Social Justice.' It argues that the best way to help poor people is to do it through your church, because we are closer to people, and thus the best way to get there is to cut taxes of rich people and give more money to the church. It also makes these wild statements like, 'If people aren't happy with their jobs, they can just go find another one.' Really? It is not a very sophisticated argument.

We should not assume [evangelical Christians] are a static group of people that is owned by the Right Wing. This is a set of folks that have a set of values of their faith that are being contested. I think that we need to be in there contesting for them. It's hard because the Right Wing understands the importance of the faith community in these issues. They put a lot of money into funding right-wing religious organizations; the progressive world doesn't.
It's not exactly what Bobo is talking about, but it's worth noting that even while the Religious Right has maintained its electoral strength -- about a quarter of voters were white evangelicals last election and nearly 80 percent voted Republican -- the minority of evangelicals on the political left has persisted too.

Dec 18, 2014

Stanley Hauerwas on evangelicals

"We are on the same side," Stanley Hauerwas says of evangelicals. What evangelicals lack, he says, is a good, robust ecclesiology:

Hauerwas speaks more on the church, and how it's not a "secondary reality," here

Dec 16, 2014

Published in a Moody Bible Institute magazine in Dec. 1925.

Dec 13, 2014

Hearing the truth in 'A Love Supreme'

John Coltrane's A Love Supreme turned 50 this week. S. Brent Plate writes about the spiritual side of the jazz masterpiece at Religion Dispatches:
Some people don't get it. But for those who do, the religious experience of it all is palpable. Some blend of harmonics and melodics, tradition and improv, mastery and experimentation, makes A Love Supreme one of the great religious movements in modern life. Recorded in a four-hour session on December 9, 1964, with Coltrane on alto saxophone, Jimmy Garrison on bass, McCoy Tyner on piano, and Elvin Jones on drums, the music does not discriminate, inspiring the secular and the spiritual alike.

... What is it about Coltrane, and in particular A Love Supreme, that gets some of us going spiritually? Coltrane was after truth, as one biographer put it, and not necessarily “pleasant listening.” I am attracted to this idea, that truth is difficult and can not easily be possessed. The corollary here is that there is no truth in Musak, and not much in the pop charts. In classical terms “truth” and “beauty” are not interchangeable.

Perhaps more importantly, truth is heard.
In a recent interview, Cornel West called Coltrane "a spiritual giant. He's a love warrior. He's a titan of the soul." West connected the art of A Love Supreme with the theological idea of kenosis, a Greek word the Apostle Paul used to describe how Jesus "made himself nothing." West said that's what Coltrane did too.
He mastered the craft. His technique is beyond description. But he's always speaking from who he is, his kenosis. He empties himself. He gives himself. He uses the gifts that he's honed to try to enable and empower others. And in Love Supreme it all comes together . . . His capacious imagination and his all-embracing sense of experimentation allowed him to listen to sounds everywhere . . . If you really look at the deep expression of humanity in it, Coltrane is a culminating moment.
The anniversary of the album is being celebrated around the country, including in a service at the St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church in San Francisco, this Sunday.

Dec 10, 2014


Stuttgart at night.

Dec 9, 2014

Thomas Kinkade bust stolen

A Thomas Kinkade sculpture valued at $7,500 has been stolen from an Indiana gallery.

The bronze head of Christ, one of a limited edition of 30, was stolen from the Thomas Kinkade store in Zionville, Indiana. The owner of the store says it was probably taken during the rush of shoppers on Small Business Saturday, on Thanksgiving Weekend. There is also a parade in Zionville that day, and the store was busy. The sculpture is over 11 inches tall and weighs about 20 pounds. The theft wasn't noted until the next week, according to the Indy Star.

"I walked in the room where the sculpture was, and there's an empty space," Rhonda Crawshaw, gallery manager, was quoted as saying.

When Kinkade sculpted this figure of Christ, he said the 
tilt of the head "seems to link him to heaven and earth."
Kinkade, an evangelical painter who trademarked himself "the Painter of Light," was beloved by fans and reviled by critics, who dismissed his work as kitsch. Kinkade promoted his work through retail outlets, bypassing the art world and its tastemakers and selling directly to middle America. The approach was profitable. At one point, the Kinkade Media Group was selling work at 4,500 outlets  and earning $128 million per year.

He told the Guardian that, despite being written off by critics, "My art is relevant because it's relevant to 10 million people. That makes me the most relevant artist in this culture."

He told the New York Times, "People who put my paintings on their walls are putting their values on their walls: faith, family, home, a simpler way of living, the beauty of nature, quiet, tranquillity, peace, joy, hope."

At the same time, New York Magazine critic Jerry Saltz used Kinkade as proof that art should not be judged democratically or by the market. "It isn't about the biggest market share," Saltz said. "If that were true then Thomas Kinkade would be the greatest artist who ever lived."

Financial didn't bring Kinkade professional respect. It did bring other problems. He was sued over his business practices, and lost one high-profile suit in 2006, which reportedly cost him $2.8 million. When he died in 2012 at the age of 54 from acute intoxication from alcohol and valium, his wife and girlfriend battled over the more than $60-million estate he left behind.

It also brought thieves: a month after Kinkade died, 40 Kinkade paintings worth an estimated $300,000 were stolen from an art dealer in Clovis, Calif. Police named a suspect in the case, and the man was arrested later that year, but the paintings do not appear to have been recovered.

In the Zionville, Ind., case police don't have any suspects. The best chance of recovering the stolen property might ultimately be Kinkade art dealers. The $7,500 art piece, titled "Prince of Peace," in marked No. 8 in the limited edition series.

Dec 8, 2014

Stealing baby Jesus

Baby Jesus thieves literally take the Christ out of Christmas. When they do, it becomes apparent that the sacred object is also a piece of property, protected by the law that protects property and this whole apparatus that defends Christmas: fences and lights, tracking devices and private security companies, patrolling police and the courts. The commercialization of Christmas is visible here in a way it might not be, otherwise. That's the power of the joke.

Stealing the baby Jesus can seen as a protest against the commercialization of Christmas, which is to say against Christmas, since the theft, as a theft, shows how indistinguishable the commercial and religious aspects of this American holiday really are.

Read the rest of the essay, Thieves Taking the Christ out of Christmas. Literally., at Religion Dispatches.

Taking literalism too literally

William Saletan looks at a detailed new poll on beliefs about human origins and finds, among other things, that biblical literalism doesn't mean what it's commonly thought to mean:
These people affirmed, in one form or another, that the Bible is God's word. A majority, 51 percent of the entire sample, picked one of the top two options. But only 21 percent agreed that everything in the Bible is literally true. Thirty percent chose the second statement: that the Bible is 'without errors' but that 'some parts are meant to be symbolic.' This isn't what secular people tend to think inerrancy means. But it is what a lot of Christians apparently believe.
Part of the issue, here, is the difference between official dogma and what lay people believe. As a LifeWay Research poll recently found, evangelical Christians do not always adhere to the orthodoxy that their churches teach. About 20 percent say God the Father is more divine than Jesus and more than half say the Holy Ghost is not a personal being, neither of which are ideas acceptable to Trinitarian churches, which would include all evangelical ones.

Evangelicals "in the pews" (so to speak, since they're not normally in pews) don't always have as strict an interpretation of biblical literalism as their conservative churches' officially teach or even as strict as one might hear "from the pulpit" (so to speak, since many evangelical churches don't actually have pulpits).

But that's only a small part of the issue. Even the most official and most dogmatic statement of biblical literalism allows for symbolism. The Chicago Statement, for example, is a landmark statement of official conservative evangelical belief in biblical inerrancy, but it doesn't describe it like that.

Article XVIII, for instance, says, "WE AFFIRM that the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis, taking account of its literary forms and devices, and that Scripture is to interpret Scripture."

This means, specifically, that everything isn't to be taken literally. Historical statements are to be taken as empirical statements of fact, but there's a lot of poetry in the Bible too, and that can be read differently. It's completely possible to believe that the first two chapters of Genesis are inerrant and to think they're not scientific or historical descriptions of what happened.

To quote Saletan again, "This isn't what secular people tend to think inerrancy means." But whose fault is that?

The phrase "literalism" itself is partly to blame. It is misleading. No biblical literalist, reading that Jesus said "I am the door," was ever confused about whether or not that was a metaphor. That just isn't what "literalism" means. It'd be worthwhile to stop using the word. "Inerrant" is better, though that has separate issues that have to be dealt with. As long as "literalism" is used, though, it will be necessary to insist and insist repeatedly that "literalism" shouldn't be understood too literally.

Dec 6, 2014

'We all gonna get it in due time'

Lord have mercy on the land of mine
We all gonna get it in due time
I don't belong here
I don't belong there
I've even stopped believing in prayer

Don't tell me
I'll tell you
Me and my people just about due
I've been there so I know
They keep on saying, 'go slow'

That's just the trouble, too slow

Dec 3, 2014

Apocalypse as an argument for engagement

Matthew Sutton:
Traditionally, people have believed that this expectation that Jesus is coming back would lead to indifference, that people would focus on the next world, they would invest very little in this world. In fact, they’ve done just the opposite. This is a central argument in the book.

D.L. Moody is often used to illustrate the idea of indifference. He famously said that the world is a sinking ship and God has given him a lifeboat and told him to save as many as he could. That’s the idea, that there’s not anything you can do but save those who are sinking. At the same time, Moody turned around and established what were later known at the Moody Church and the Moody Bible Institute, which were extremely active in reform movements during the progressive era. They were focused on issues of crime in Chicago, sanitation, temperance, and in all kinds of moral reform efforts.  
It's clear from Moody to Billy Sunday to Aimee Semple McPherson to Billy Graham to Jerry Falwell, that to believe that Jesus is coming at any moment does not make you less active or less involved in your culture. They say over and over and over again that this is not the case. We just haven’t heard them. Every generation of evangelicals and fundamentalists says it. 
Their apocalyptic theology makes them more active not less.
Read my full interview with Sutton at Religion Dispatches: "It's the Apocalypse, Stupid: Understanding Christian Opposition to Obamacare, Civil Rights, New Deal and More."

Dec 2, 2014

Dec 1, 2014

'The church understands the business'

Atheists shouldn't be involved in lynching, according to this July 1903 editorial note from Charles Chilton Moore's atheist newspaper, the Blue Grass Blade

A Kentucky native, Moore was opposed to the extra-legal aspect of lynching, not lynching per se. This was a fairly common moderate position at the time. He does not appear to have been bothered by the racial aspect of lynching or the legitimacy of the allegations and their dependance on racist tropes, but instead by the fact this "justice" was outside the law.

When he wrote about lynching, though, it was less to condemn the practice than it was to attack Christianity. 

Here Moore, who prefers the more aggressive term "infidel" over "atheist," uses lynching to argue against Christianity's claim to morality:

At the time, between 50 and 100 people were being lynched every year.

Nov 28, 2014

Goldwater vs. the religious right

Barry Goldwater did not much like religious conservatives.

Though he's often considered the first of the modern conservatives, playing John the Baptist to Ronald Reagan's Jesus Christ in the story of conservatism's electoral triumph, Goldwater was a libertarian with little interest in the social issues that would animate much of Reagan's base.

A 2006 documentary on Goldwater called Mr. Conservative looked at how Goldwater fought the religious right over the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Conner.

Religious right leaders such as Jerry Falwell sought to exercise their new-found power to keep O'Conner off the court. Goldwater said good Christians and good conservatives ought to repudiate the minister.

"This is not a conservative issue," he said. "Abortion is not a conservative issue."

As the 2016 election heats up, some of these same divisions can be seen in the Republican Party. It is hard to imagine any candidate, even the ones that don't particularly care about the religious right's social policy agenda, taking Goldwater's stance. How things change.

Nov 26, 2014

White evangelicals' changing perspective on the reality of racism

Russell Moore gets death threats.

This is perhaps not that surprising. Moore, after all, is president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He makes it his business to speak on abortion, homosexuality, gender roles, and the separation of church and state, arguing for the conservative Christian position on culturally controversial issues. Yet it's not those issues that bring out the most bile, the most vitriol from people, according to Moore.

It's racism.

"Nothing brings out more hate mail, nothing, than when I say that too many black kids are being shot in America," Moore wrote. "Often this hate mail is accompanied by the sort of neo-Confederate rhetoric that I would have thought would have died out, at least in its explicit form, a long, long time ago . . . . We have come a long way toward racial justice in this country, but we shouldn't be deceived."

The death threats that Moore receives might also serve as an indicator for how far white evangelicals have come on the issue of racism in America. In the wake of a grand jury's decision not to indict Darren Wilson, a Ferguson, Mo., police officer who shot and killed a young and unarmed black man, Michael Brown, white evangelical leaders like Moore have spoken out. They have condemned racism. They have said that those upset by the American justice system's apparent disregard for the lives of young black men are not wrong to be upset, and scared, and angry. They have encouraged white evangelicals to listen to non-white people talk about racism. They have insisted that racism is a real problem.

And that's been controversial.

Nov 24, 2014

A megachurch's mega finances

According to the Seattle P-I, controversial megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll was earning about $600,000 per year at Mars Hill, before he resigned, plus various benefits worth about $56,000 annually.

The details:
As of Oct. 1, 2011, Driscoll received a salary of $564,615, including a $200,000 a year housing allowance. The pastor’s previous compensation package had been $267,500.

The church also contributed $33,000 a year to Driscoll’s retirement, paid a $13,314 annual medical premium, put up $4,000 for the pastor’s cell phone and provided an “additional wellness stipend” of $6,000. Driscoll was also provided a team of assistants, including a research assistant.

Driscoll did have time for moonlighting. He was paid an average $17,000 for speeches to 'leadership conferences at other mega-churches,' Mars Hill reported. The leadership conferences were also an opportunity to sell books. (Blogger Warren) Throckmorton estimates that Driscoll received $400,000 book advances from Thomas Nelson, publisher of his book 'Real Marriage.'
About $200,000 of church money was also used in a marketing scheme to put Real Marriage on the New York Times bestseller list, which is the scandal that started Driscoll's recent troubles, which led to his resignation.

According to the Seattle P-I, Mars Hill had about 12,000 people regularly attending services at its peak and an annual revenue of $30 million.

The megachurch will dissolve at the end of this year.
Hegel manuscript

GFW Hegel's handwritten manuscript for Philosophe der Weltgeschichte, circa 1830.

Nov 21, 2014

Nov 20, 2014

Billy Sunday hawks Liberty Loans

An advertisement for government bonds to finance World War I, featuring evangelist Billy Sunday:

This full-page ad was run in the Washington Times on March 3, 1918, in the final edition. Sunday, arguably the most famous evangelical of the era, was an outspoken advocate of the war, as were most Protestant clergy at the time.

In the text of the ad, Sunday says praying for the soldiers is meaningless without material support. "Some old geezers are strong on prayers for 'the brave boys in the trenches and on the battleships,' but their names haven't appeared on any Liberty Bond subscription list yet," the ad states. "Prayer of that kind don't get as high as a gas jet."

Sunday also appeals to the aspirations of the reader. "The men who saved this country are going to fill every office from Justice of the Peace to President," it says. "Where will you be then if you're a shirker now?"

If Sunday's moral authority and the reader's self-interest are not convincing, the ad copy suggests another reason to buy Liberty Bonds: threat of violence.

"Life in America won't be worth living," the last paragraph says, "for the man or women who didn't buy U.S. Government bonds of the third Liberty Loan."

At the time, there were official and quasi-official bands of vigilantes enforcing American loyalty. One could become a target of violence by not buying the bonds that financed the war effort. Sunday's ad would have been read as a tacit endorsement of this enforcement.

Nov 18, 2014

Amy Grant and the tensions of 'mainstream'

In her memoir of growing up evangelical Addie Zierman writes that she learned the word "mainstream" the day Amy Grant's 1991 single "Baby Baby" came on the radio.
Baby, baby
I'm taken with the notion
To love you with the sweetest of devotion 
Baby, baby
My tender love will flow from
The bluest sky to the deepest ocean 
Stop for a minute
Baby, I'm so glad you're mine, yeah
You're mine
Listening to the song in the car, Zierman's mom "let it slip that the evangelicals were less than enthusiastic about the new album. It had to do with the shift in focus from sacred to secular, from praise to pop, from Christian to mainstream."

This was an interesting moment in recent history of evangelical cultural engagement. For Zierman and many like her, the controversy around Grant's popular success was a revelation about how invested evangelicals were in maintaining borders. It was experienced as a kind of warning. Crossing certain lines could be very consequential.

There is an "us." There is a "them." And you can fall over that line even without meaning too.

Nov 17, 2014

Eastern Orthodox inmate fights for religious recognition

An Eastern Orthodox prison inmate won a small but important victory in his legal fight to have the Indiana Department of Corrections recognize his religion. A federal district court has ruled that Dolen W. Glenn, a 52-year-old man from Valparaiso, Ind., can proceed with his case against the IDOC. Glenn is arguing his right to practice his religion has been substantially burdened because the prison system’s handbook of religion does not list Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

Read more at Religion Dispatches: "Christian Inmate Suing Indiana to Recognize Religion"

Nov 15, 2014

'And why not every man?'

The moon run down in a purple stream
The sun refuse to shine
Every star did disappear
Yes, freedom shall mine 
Didn't my Lord deliver Daniel
Deliver Daniel
Deliver Daniel
Didn't my Lord deliver Daniel
Deliver Daniel
And why not every man?
Albert J. Raboteau writes on the history of spirituals such as "Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel?" and the use of religious language among American slaves:
Slave preachers led the meetings of the 'invisible institution' and exercised a good deal of influence among the slaves in general. Although illiterate, their verbal artistry earned the slave preachers the respect of blacks and sometimes whites as well. The slave preachers had to be careful not to mention freedom or equality for black people in this life, but only in Heaven -- at least in the presence of whites. Preachers and their followers developed ingeniously indirect and veiled references to fool any whites who might be listening . . . . The flexible structures of the spirituals allowed the slaves to comment on the daily events of their lives, so that the community heard and shared the cares and burdens of the individual expressed through song.

Nov 14, 2014

Matthew Avery Sutton

Matthew Sutton, talking about the partnerships between missionaries and spies in World War II, with a picture of John Birch, a missionary/spy killed in China.

Nov 13, 2014

What is the Gospel?

Tim Keller:

Wade Davis, of Southern Theological Seminary:


Nov 11, 2014

What the religious right cares about

The religious right is defined by its issues. The "social issues": Abortion, the family, prayer in schools, traditional values, bringing America back to God, and so on.

And yet, maybe that's wrong.

Last week's election saw massive turnout from voters identified with the religious right. White evangelicals, other conservative Protestants and white Catholics arguably made up the most significant bloc of voters in the midterms. They decided the election decisively for the Republicans. The landslides were their landslides. The victories their victories.

However, there's very little in those victories that really seems to connect with the social values that are supposed to be the big concerns of the voters who voted in such numbers last week. If you look at how Republicans won, if you look at how the elections were defined, if you look at how the results are being understood, it's not in terms familiar to definitions of the religious right.

The group that was, according to the data, so critical, did not seem to care about the things that they are said to care about most of all.

There are several explanations of this: Possibly this is a problem of a bad narrative, where the religious right's issues don't fit the expectations of those telling the story of the election, and thus get de-emphasized or even ignored. Possibly the religious right gets hijacked into an agenda it doesn't share.

Another possibility, though, is that this bloc of voters has been misunderstood and mischaracterized. Perhaps the issues of this election were their issues.

Maybe the media's not wrong and the voters actually know what they're doing. If that's possible, then there is another alternative account of the midterm election that opens up, where the religious right was influential even as none of their signature issues were at play, because they have been misunderstood, defined too rigidly and also just wrongly.

Nov 10, 2014

Religious right continues to be a force in electoral politics

The religious right is still a powerful force in American politics.

Judging by the exit polls from last week's election, the credit for the Republican's decisive midterm victory looks like it should go to conservative Christians, who got out to vote and overwhelmingly went for Republicans.

White evangelicals made up 26 percent of Tuesday's voters -- more even than in 2004, when white evangelicals made up slightly less than a quarter of the electorate but were credited with giving George W. Bush a second term. Not all of the evangelicals voted Republican, then or now, but most of them did. Nearly 80 percent marked their ballots for GOP candidates on Tuesday.

White Catholics also made a strong showing at the polls and put their weight behind Republicans. Nineteen percent of Tuesday's voters were white Catholics and 60 percent of them voted GOP. This is slightly more than the 2010 election, the last midterms, where white Catholics made up 17 percent of voters and 59 percent of them voted Republican.

Together, white Catholics and white Protestants -- a category that includes evangelicals but also mainliners, Mormons, and non-evangelical conservatives -- make up nearly 60 percent of the vote and more than 60 percent of them voted Republican. This is a solid bloc, and shows the religious right is still dominant in American politics today.

The significance of this bloc is even more noticeable when it comes to specific states:
  • In Arkansas, where Republican Tom Cotton was running for senate against incumbent Mark Pryor, 51 percent of voters were white evangelicals or Catholics. A full 73 percent of them voted for Cotton (despite the fact that Pryor himself is an evangelical and ran campaign ads invoking the Bible).
  • In Kentucky, the percentage of evangelicals in the population has dropped to 32 percent, but they turned out to vote disproportionately. They made up more than half the voters on Tuesday, and 68 percent of them voted for Senator Mitch McConnell over his Democratic challenger, Alison Lundergan Grimes.
  • In North Carolina, white evangelicals made up 40 percent of the electorate and 78 percent of them voted for the Republican Thom Tillis to replace the Democratic Senator Kay Hagin. Tillis won by a tiny margin, with about 47,000 more votes than Hagin. If evangelical support had been down even by 5 percent, Tillis would have lost.
  • In Georgia, where there was another close race for senate, white evangelicals also made a difference. They made up 39 percent of voters and 61 percent of them went for the Republican David Purdue, versus just 12 percent who voted for the Democratic candidate, Michelle Nunn. 
As Sarah Posner wrote in Religion Dispatches, the "religious right spent decades building get-out-the-vote operations and candidate recruitment and training grounds," efforts that have long-term pay-off at the polls. The Faith and Freedom Coalition, run by Ralph Reed, reports it distributed 20 million voter guides to 117,000 churches ahead of this election, and made 10 million get-out-the-vote calls.

These numbers would seem to disprove the narrative about the declining importance of the religious right. Less attention has been given to this bloc as a bloc in recent years, but that doesn't mean it has gone away.

Nov 8, 2014

'Praise God and let's have a good time'

Claude Ely, pentecostal preacher and gospel singer, cries holy to the Lord:

The podcast Radio Diaries did an excellent story on Claude Ely, called "The Gospel Ranger":

Nov 4, 2014

On the slipperiness of slopes

Without any solid evidence, Francis Schaeffer was sure that infanticide was happening. It was going to be happening. It would happen very soon. The slope from legalized abortion to infanticide was just too slippery for it not to happen.

More than 30 years later, pro-life conservatives are still waiting for the slip down that slope. They expect it any day, and so unfounded rumors of a new acceptance of infanticide are greeted as outrageous, but also long expected. Thirty years later, however, it's still an urban legend.

Many people, it turns out, do not generally feel compelled by the argument that either life begins at conception or infanticide is acceptable. The typically rhetorical question, "But where do you draw the line?", is not impossible to answer. In their real lives, people draw these lines in many different places, often with a lot of nuance and careful consideration of the actual situations of human beings.

For more than 30 years, pro-life advocates have believed they understood pro-choice logic and they've warned about its inevitable conclusion. But as report after report of that conclusion turn out to be fakes mistaken for fact, it's hard not to think the pro-life people are just wrong: The slope isn't that slippery.

Read the full essay, "Infanticide Still Not a Growing Movement," at Religion Dispatches.

Nov 3, 2014

'Zip, we are outclassed'

Cartoon from the Atlanta Constitution, July 1, 1925. The cartoon depicts the view -- not uncommon -- that the famous Scopes trial, where a school teacher was put on trial for teaching evolution, was more of a publicity stunt for the town of Dayton, Tenn., than anything else.

Zip the Pinhead was a freak show character played by William Henry Johnson, an African-American man from New Jersey who had an oddly shaped head. P.T. Barnum billed him as one of a tribe of "missing links" discovered in Africa. He also advertised Zip as Zip the What Is It.

Zip the Pinhead illustrates how evolutionary ideas were linked, popularly, with a racist ideology.

Other cartoons from Southern newspapers depicting the trial can be found here, along with cartoons from Northern newspapersnational magazines and fundamentalist publications.

Nov 2, 2014

Marilynne Robinson goes to church

Marilynne Robinson, author of Lila, talking to Sarah Pulliam Bailey:
If you go to a church and stay there over time, you see babies baptized, and children confirmed, the middle-aged becoming the elders, becoming the much lamented. It actually configures your sense of things around the defined arc of human life I have lived in a college town, which can create the impression that everyone is 22, but in my little village I have a very different sense of people, which I value very much.

. . . Only religion fully realizes the arc of human life.

Oct 30, 2014

Jesus on the battlefield

Jesus Christ and the church on the battlefield in a WWI poster:

The poster was raising funds for the Red Cross by identifying the soldier on the field in France with Christ. This is not unusual. The image of Christ and the idea of sacrifices' sanctifying effects were commonly used by leading Christian ministers in America to advocate for the war. 

Three examples from Richard M. Gamble's excellent book, The War for Righteousness
  • A joint statement signed by mlore than 60 ministers during the presidential campaign of 1916, ranging from the social gospelers Lyman Abbott and Harry Emerson Fosdick to the evangelical Billy Sunday: "The just God, who withheld not his own Son from the cross, would not look with favor upon a people who put their fear of pain and death, their dread of surfing and loss, their concern for comfort and ease, above the holy claims of righteousness and justice and freedom and mercy and truth."
  • The Rev. Ernest Stires, of the Episcopal St. Thomas' Church on Fifth Ave. in New York: "If Christ so loves the world that He bids us to bear the sword of Justice to save it, tell Him to-day He will find us ready; that before this Altar we dedicate our country and ourselves to the Christ who died to save men . . . . America will be faithful to her high ideal, bearing her ross, cost what it will."
  • Harold Bell Wright, the first American author to sell more than 1 million copies of a novel and a Disciples of Christ minister: "Our army is the army of this nation, but is more: It is the army of the liberty-loving world. It's blood is the blood of humanity, the humanity of Jesus, the humanity for which Jesus lived and died . . . . A man may give his life for humanity in a bloody trench as truly as upon a bloody cross. The world may be saved somewhere in France as truly as in Palestine."
Congressman Claude Kitchin, a North Carolina representative who lead opposition to the war, noting that pro-war ministers had no trouble getting their views reported by the pro-war newspapers, griped that "big predatory interests . . . can always count upon plenty of support from both pulpit and press."

Oct 29, 2014

Johnny Lee Clary, 1959 - 2014

Johnny Lee Clary, a Ku Klux Klan leader who rejected racism and became a pentecostal evangelist in an African-American church, has died at the age of 55.

"Even secular people are saying, 'What changed you?'" Clary said after being ordained in the Church of God in Christ in 2009. "I tell them, 'the only thing that changed me was the Word of God . . . I had to get my mind renewed and that was through God's Word.'"

Clary's testimony was that he grew up in a racist family in Oklahoma. His father taught him to shout racial epithets at African Americans from passing cars and his uncle bragged about killing a black man in Georgia and getting away with it. Clary was sent to a Baptist Sunday School, but that stopped when he was taught to sing, "Jesus loves the little children / all the little children of the world / red, yellow, black and white / they are precious in his sight / Jesus loves the little children of the world."

When he was 11, Clary's father committed suicided and his mother abandoned him. He went to live with his older sister in Los Angeles, a situation he invariably described as abusive. In the racial tumult of that city in the early 1970s, Clary discovered David Duke, the white supremacist who at the time was attracting attention for founding a new, modernized Klan. Clary joined. He was 14.

"This was the first time that anybody had ever encouraged me," Clary recalled in a 2005 interview. "I was the kid that nobody wanted. I was that rotten kid that was gonna end up in jail. And then all of the sudden, here's this Klansman telling me I'm gonna be a part of a society that's gonna treat me as a family member. And, man, that really got my attention, so that's why I joined."

Clary was an eager devotee of Duke's message and soon was back in Oklahoma, working as a Klan representative. Clary would attempt to exacerbate racial tensions in the state and use them to recruit new members.

At the age of 21, he became the Grand Dragon of the state's KKK.

By the end of the 1980s, he was Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

Johnny Lee Clary was a rising Klan leader in the 1970s and '80s.

Oct 28, 2014

Heaven, hell and the crimes between

Belief in the hereafter, the argument goes, is really a means of social control.

As the old International Workers of the World song would have it, social unrest is suppressed by the belief that there will be "pie in the sky when you die." People are kept in line by the doctrines of eternal reward. 

Maybe the idea of heaven suppresses revolutions, but doesn't do anything to stop crime, according to a study by two American professors.

Azim F. Shariff, of the University of Oregon, Eugene, and Mijke Rhemtulla, of the University of Kansas, Lawrence, have charted the relationship between beliefs and crime statistics. They used international data sets that showed comparable numbers from places with high rates of crime, such as Columbia and South Africa, with low crime places such as Vietnam and Saudi Arabia. They also looked at values surveys from 67 countries around the world, which report rates of self-identified beliefs. Comparing these two data sets, in a peer-reviewed study published in Public Library of Science in 2012, they found that beliefs in heaven and hell were reliable predictors of how much the crime rate would deviate from the mean.

In fact, belief in the afterlife had a more significant correlation with crime rates than some more practical factors that are often thought to be the cause of crime, such as income inequality.

But the effects of the belief in the afterlife are a little more complicated than the IWW would have you think:
  • Where a societies have high rates of belief in heaven, crime is reliably higher
  • Where a societies have high rates of belief in hell, however, crime is reliably lower
That is to say, the study found that "rates of belief in heaven in hell had significant, unique, and opposing effects on crime rates."

This is at least a little weird, since heaven and hell are typically thought of together. Like peas and carrots, ying and yang, or the Lone Ranger and Tonto, there's a strong association between heaven and hell.

Not all religions teach symmetrical conceptions of the afterlife, though. And even when they do, it turns out that people are more likely to latch onto the idea of eternal rewards than infinite punishments.

As Shariff and Rhemtulla point out, in almost every contemporary society more people believe in heaven than hell. And the difference between the percentage of people who believe in heaven but not hell is the most reliable predictor of crime rates.

They write,
The degree to which a country's rate of belief in heaven outstrips its rate of belief in hell significantly predicts higher national crime rates. Statistically, this finding manifests in two independent effects: the strong negative effect of rates of belief in hell on crime, and the strong positive effect of rates of belief in heaven on crime.
As the Economist glossed the findings, "a little more preaching on the fiery furnace might be beneficial in this life, if not also in the next."

Oct 27, 2014

In the beginning, in film

The story of creation from "Noah," directed by Darren Aronofsky: 

The foundations of the earth from "Tree of Life," directed by Terrence Malick:

The dawn of humanity from "2001: A Space Odyssey," directed by Stanley Kubrick:

Oct 24, 2014

Nelson Bunker Hunt, 1926-2014

Nelson Bunker Hunt, a Texas billionaire oilman who financed evangelical Christian causes, has died at age 88.

While remembered mostly for his financial ventures -- especially an attempt to corner the market on silver -- Hunt was also the money behind numerous conservative Christian and rightwing political projects. Half hidden, larger than life, Nelson Bunker Hunt bankrolled the religious right.

He came from one of Texas' premier oil families. His father was H.L. Hunt, a wildcatter who became something of a legend, buying his first oil rights with poker winnings, laying claim to a lot of the East Texas oilfields and becoming the inspiration for the malevolent patriarch of the soap opera "Dallas." The second son, Bunker, who went by his middle name, discovered his first oil in Scurry County Texas while working for his father. He was 22. It was worth $7 million.

Shortly after, Hunt struck out on his own and made a fortune in his own right.

With financial backing from British Petroleum, Hunt discovered the Sarir oil deposit in Libya in 1961. The field is considered to be one of the largest in Africa. Hunt's half interest held about 5.5 billion barrels of crude oil, according to the Dallas Morning News, and brought Hunt about $30 million a year. The oil was nationalized by Moammar Gadhafi in 1973, but by then Hunt had divested, putting his money in everything for Greek coin collections to Mississippi farmland, from sugar beet processing plants to lots and lots of racehorses.

Time Magazine called him "a man who could play Monopoly with real money."

He then went bust in the 1980s when his attempt to corner the market on silver led to a crash in silver prices. By some estimates, Hunt and one of his younger brothers succeeded in buying half of the deliverable silver in the world. That was so much silver that, according to the New York Times, for every $1 increase in the price of an ounce of silver the Hunts made a $100 million profit. That demand for silver drove the market crazy, and the price soared to more than $50 an ounce, which caused government regulators to step in, the bubble to burst, and Hunt to go bust.

The brothers lost $1.7 billion in what has been called "Silver Thursday."

Hunt's droll comment, when called to testify before Congress, was that "A billion dollars ain't what it used to be."

By the end of the 1980s, however Hunt was bankrupt, owing five times more than the $100 million he then had to his name.

The attempt to corner the market on silver might have been motivated more by religion that money, though Hunt was clearly interested in money. According to journalist Harry L. Hurt III, who wrote a history of the tycoon family, Hunt wanted the silver because he thought the world's monetary systems would crash in the coming apocalypse.

"The guy was a fanatic," Hurt is quoted as saying by the Dallas Morning News. "He really believed that stuff."

Hunt was, by all accounts, a true believer.

Oct 23, 2014

'I want to give Jesus all the praise for bringing my chicken home'

Testimonial published in the Pentecostal Herald, an Assemblies of God paper from Chicago, in 1918. 

Oct 21, 2014

Committed to marriage, whatever that means

Donald and Evelyn Knapp believe in "traditional Christian marriages," though a lawsuit filed in federal court last week on their behalf calls into question whether that phrase holds any meaning beyond "not gay."

Both Pentecostal ministers ordained in the Foursquare Gospel church, the Knapps run a for-profit wedding chapel called the Hitching Post in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Standing across from the Kootenai County courthouse, the Hitching Post has been facilitating weddings for 95 years and is, according to one local reporter, something of a Coeur d'Alene institution, "right up there with the famous Hudson's Hamburgers."

... the case of the Knapps and the Hitching Post presents a good example of how the fight to defend marriage from "redefinition" can result in emptying the definition of most of its content. This is a fight about the meaning of marriage, after all. The Knapps themselves aren't interested in the finer points of corporate law or First Amendment jurisprudence. They're just committed to marriage. Specifically, the Knapps believe it’s their business to offer traditional Christian marriages for a fee.

Donald Knapp has consistently said this is his issue: "I cannot unite people in a way that I believe would conflict with what the Bible teaches."

Which means what? What is a traditional Christian marriage, as offered by the Hitching Post?

According to the company’s website there are two wedding packages, each of which includes a minister, music, a venue for the wedding, use of a changing room, and legal documentation. The whole thing costs under $90. Six to 10 digital photos cost $12 extra. The Hitching Post offers three venues for the wedding: a chapel, mostly free of religious symbols but adorned with flowers and foliage; a "Western Room," with cowboy-boot-and-gun decor; and a "Victorian Sitting Room," which also has flowers and foliage.

The ministers will also perform weddings at ski resorts and outdoor locations.

Read the entire essay, "Does Traditional Christian Marriage Just Mean 'Not Gay'?" at Religion Dispatches.

Oct 17, 2014

Atheism's metaphysical evidence problem

Gary Gutting, a philosophy professor from Notre Dame, notes that theists generally don't seem to have good responses to atheists' arguments, but that's because "few of them hold the positions the arguments refute."

Many contemporary atheists, on the other hand, have a problem where they hold a position their position refutes. As Gutting writes in the New York Times' philosophy blog:
The weakest intellectual aspect of current atheism is its naïve enchantment with pseudo-scientific biological and psychological explanations of why people believe. There are no doubt all sorts of disreputable sources for religious belief, and the same goes for rejections of religion. But it's just silly to say that there's solid scientific evidence that religious belief in general has causes that undermine its claims to truth . . .
I suspect that most atheists think scientific evidence -- evidence that ultimately appeals only to empirically observable facts -- is the only sort of evidence there is.
That may be their assumption, but how do they show that it's correct? It certainly isn't supported by scientific evidence, since that tells us about only what is empirically observable. The question is whether there is anything else.
That is to say, this species of atheism is a form of logical positivism.

Logical positivism holds that a statement is only meaningful if it can be verified empirically. By that standard, though, the statement "a statement is only meaningful if it can be verified empirically" is not meaningful, since it cannot itself be verified empirically. The verification standard can't be verified by its standard. There's no test that could be run, no observation one could make, no measuring that one could do that would show whether or not the statement about meaningful statements is a meaningful statement. This is a problem.

Logical positivism can be thought of as a kind of trick to rid the world of metaphysics. It appears to be quite effective, except that it is itself metaphysical.

Oct 16, 2014

Jesus on the battlefield in a WWI poster raising funds for the Presbyterian Church's "Victory Fund Campaign."

Oct 13, 2014

The fight behind the scenes of evangelical films

Five months before the big-budget Left Behind reboot hit theaters, evangelical movie producer Paul Lalonde was fighting with fans.

Lalonde was still editing the film. The score was still being written and foreign distribution deals negotiated. He had better things to do than take to Facebook and argue with Christians who had no clue about the business of movies but very, very firm ideas about how things should be done. Yet there he was, typing comments on an open thread on the film’s official Facebook page, pleading with people to give the movie a chance.

It was exasperating. He was getting testy.

Lalonde, who has been a believer in evangelical movies since he saw his first rapture movie as a kid in a church basement in the 1970s, was frustrated at accusations that the remake was just about money. He was exhausted by questions about whether Nicolas Cage could do a good job as an actor in an evangelical film, since he wasn't "covered in the blood of the lamb." He was exasperated at people telling him they liked the old Left Behind movies with Kirk Cameron and couldn’t see anything good coming out of Hollywood versions.

Had he even asked Kirk Cameron to be involved in these movies?

Why did Hollywood have to ruin everything?

"Your accusations are insulting and unnecessary," Lalonde finally wrote. "The reason for a remake, even though it may not be the answer you have pre-determined to be the right one, is to reach a wider audience . . . There is nothing wrong with ‘Hollywoodized’ if it means the same thing to you as it does to me. Christians deserve bigger movies too with great actors, and high production values."

This has been the debate about Left Behind.

Read the entire essay, "Are Evangelical Films Destined to Leave Secular Audiences Behind?" at Religion Dispatches.

Oct 11, 2014

'Comin for to carry me home'

Margie and Enoch Sullivan and the Sullivan Family Band perform "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot":

The Sullivan Family was dubbed the "first family of bluegrass" by Bill Monroe, the man who also dubbed bluegrass, "bluegrass."

"You know we started before it was named bluegrass music," says Margie Sullivan, in a public television documentary.

Enoch and Emmett Sullivan started performing at children with their father, the pentecostal preacher Arthur Sullivan (not to be confused with Sir Arthur Sullivan, the British hymn writer). The elder Sullivan experienced a miraculous healing in 1939, after two oneness pentecostal ministers walked five miles to his house in Washington County, Alabama, to pray for him. Sullivan dedicated his life to ministry, and was ordained in a oneness pentecostal church, the Assemblies of the Lord Jesus. He formed several of his family members into a band to accompany his preaching, a fact celebrated in a song written by his youngest brother Jerry in "Sing Daddy a Song."

The lead singer of the band was Enoch's wife, Margie. Margie Sullivan, ne Brewster, was also the child of pentecostal evangelist. He died when she was 13, however, and she travelled with a female evangelist named Hazel Chain until she met Enoch at a revival in 1949 and married him. Margie was 16 at the time, Enoch 18. They then formed the Sullivan Family band  and preformed together, along with family, until Enoch's death in 2011 at the age of 79.

They were "huge regional stars," popular among white Southerners, according Marty Stuart, a country music star who got his start touring with the Sullivans in the early 1970s. "They played pentecostal churches, they played camp meeting revivals, bluegrass festivals and George Wallace campaign rallies. How's that?"

Several members of the family are still performing.

Oct 8, 2014

Seeing Francis Schaeffer from a historical distance: 3 quotes

Think for a moment about what the Christian movement, especially its Evangelical wing, was like before Schaeffer came upon the scene in the Sixties. Most believers were unaware that there was such a thing as a 'Biblical World View.' They figured that, aside from Christians being a bit more honest and less immoral than the world and (for fundamentalists) abstaining from tobacco, alcohol, and movies, there did not need to be that much difference between them and non-believers in their whole approach to life. They did not think the intellectual, social, and cultural issues of the day anything they needed to be concerned with. And so they watched the Christian consensus they had come to take for granted evaporate to the point that our Supreme Court was able to legalize the mass murder of unborn children and, until it was too late, they had no idea that it was even happening.

It is hard today to remember how radical Francis Schaeffer was in the Sixties when his call for speaking historic Christianity into the Post-Christian world with intellectual integrity, his call for holistic world-view thinking, and his call for living out 'the lordship of Christ over the total culture' were first sounded.
-- Donald Williams, "True Truth: Francis Schaeffer's Enduring Legacy"
Schaeffer wanted evangelical Americans to become soldiers of history rather than careful students. He was one of the wave of gurus who, like generals of prophets and big personalities before them, offered evangelicals an alternative authority, a rubric of certainty at a time when the consensus on the Bible's status in American culture was shakier than ever. While he inspired some young evangelicals to get to the bottom of the stories he told in pursuing graduate degrees in history and philosophy, on a larger scale Schaeffer's ministry was a grand and clever exercise in anti-intellectualism. 
-- Molly Worthen, Apostles of Reason
Many Christian scholars today criticize Schaeffer, not only because of his reliance on modern rationalism, but even more because his interpretation of the course of western history, what he called 'the flow,' was problematic in its details . . .  
That said, Schaeffer's primary significance is not in a lasting critique of western thought, not in a reasoned apologetic that would necessarily be persuasive today. His arguments have not stood the test of time in terms of their historical veracity or philosophical soundness. He was not the scholar, philosopher, or great theologian that his publishers liked to claim on his book jackets. Rather, Schaeffer is significant primarily because when he came back to the United States in the mid-1960s most American evangelicals were still in the throes of fundamentalist separatism, in which Christian public identity manifested itself primarily in an attempt to shun the secular world. Schaeffer was the most popular and influential American evangelical of his time in reshaping evangelical attitudes toward culture, helping to move evangelicals from separatism to engagement.
-- Barry Hankins, Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America

Oct 7, 2014

A King-James-only tract, critiquing the New International Version.

Oct 6, 2014

Alcoholics anonymous and the definition of religion

David Foster Wallace had trouble with the religious parts of 12-step recovery programs. As his biographer D.T. Max notes, the author found the aphorisms ridiculous and the simple belief in a "higher power" to be wishful thinking.

But then, Wallace might have misunderstood the nature of religious parts of the program. As the "crocodiles," the gruff recovery veterans, say in Wallace's novel Infinite Jest, "It's not about whether or not you believe, asshole, it's about getting down and asking."

Federal Appeals Court Judge Thomas J. Osowik said more or less the same thing recently in a ruling in his Ohio courtroom. His language was more suited to a court room than an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, but the point was more or less the same.

The case: A man named Johnny Miller was convicted of robbery and sentenced to "community control" in lieu of five years in prison. Court documents show a condition of that alternative sentence was mandatory Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. About six months after his sentence, Miller was caught  forging attendance records by his parole officer. The courts extended Miller's sentence of "community control," and then he sued, claiming his First Amendment rights had been violated.

The government, Miller claimed, was supporting an establishment of religion by making him attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. "It is incontrovertible," the suit said, "that Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is fundamentally based on a religious concept of a higher power."

Osowick rejected the claim because AA is not about belief. It's about getting sober. That means, he said, it's not religious.

Oct 4, 2014

'Every day when I wake up'

In the grace of your love
You don't turn me away
In the grace of your love
There is no other way 
In the grace of your love
Every day when I wake up
In the grace of your love
In the grace of your love
Luke Jenner, frontman of the dancepunk group the Rapture, talks about his religious conversion in 2009:
For me it felt like I had tried everything else with this grieving process and I'd been to therapy, but I needed to put something to practice -- it was literally the closest spiritual place to my house. I learned how to pray just by hanging out with these grandmas and when I wouldn’t show up they were like 'hey where were you, we missed you.' That was really important to me, having that kind of energy around, old lady energy. 
Yeah just kind of nurturing, can't screw up, I just found that really powerful . . . I grew in an era of nihilism like gangster rap and Kurt Cobain and people killing themselves and mental illness and drug addiction. Having a son now, and with my mother taking her own life . . . I started looking for positive music and I wanted to make something joyful, that didn't avoid grief or pain but was transformative in nature. I joined a church choir for a while
Jenner says that for him, conversion was like escape from "this tunnel where I was trying to be cool."

The band broke up earlier this year.

Oct 3, 2014

The 'Left Behind' audience

Jackson Cuidon read the Left Behind books as a kid. He watched the movies that starred Kirk Cameron in 2000, 2002, and 2005. He knew he wanted to watch the remake starring Nicolas Cage, which comes out in 1,820 theaters today.

You might say Jackson Cuidon is a Left Behind fan.

Except one thing.

He hates Left Behind.

"I had so many feelings about the books -- strong ones," Cuidon writes in his Christianity Today review of the new "Left Behind" movie. "I was ready to be upset about this movie, is what I'm saying -- upset at a movie based on books that I felt totally mischaracterized my faith."

Cuidon wasn't as upset as he expected to be by the Nicolas Cage remake, in part because the film seems to him to be a straight action flick rather than, like the novels, an action flick pretending to be especially Christian. Not that he liked the movie. He pans it in his review, writing, "It has many, many faults, and almost no positives."

So Cuidon isn't a fan, even though he's consumed a lot of this cultural product over the years. His relationship with the series is complicated.

He's not the only one.

Left Behind was and is a mass culture phenomenon. It had and has a mass audience. That means the audience is diverse. Some people are fans in the simplest sense but other people -- many people -- consume this culture for other reasons, their own reasons, with their own varied and complicated responses.

Cultural critics too often treat mass audiences as if they were all the same. They assume a homogeneity. The audience is taken to be a simple, single-minded thing, which can be explained by explaining the culture being consumed. Popular culture is simplistically taken as evidence of how people think and what people think, based on the unsupported idea that people consume culture because they enjoy it, and that "enjoy it" means identify with it, agree with it, and accept it without thinking.

Audiences are more interesting than that, though.

Oct 1, 2014

"I write these things being absent"

A WWI and WWII monument in Pfäffingen, Germany:

The scripture reference would appear to be wrong, here. Possibly the monument-maker was using a Bible with an alternative numbering, but I can't a German Bible reflecting that. It seems there is a mistake. The words come from 2 Corinithians 13:11 not 13:10. 

In the Luther Bible, 2 Corinthians 13:10 says "Derhalben schreibe ich auch solches abwesend, auf daß ich nicht, wenn ich gegenwärtig bin, Schärfe brauchen müsse nach der Macht, welche mir der HERR, zu bessern und nicht zu verderben, gegeben hat." None of these words match the inscription of the monument.

The words inscribed in the monument in the small town near Tübingen come from the next verse, which reads in full: "Zuletzt, liebe Brüder, freuet euch, seid vollkommen, tröstet euch, habt einerlei Sinn, seid friedsam! so wird der Gott der Liebe und des Friedens mit euch sein."

In the King James English, 2 Corinthians 13:10 reads: "Therefore I write these things being absent, lest being present I should use sharpness, according to the power which the Lord hath given me to edification, and not to destruction." This seems an unlikely inscription for a war memorial.

The words in stone come from the verse after that are more suited to the purpose: "Finally, brethren, farewell. Be perfect, be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace shall be with you."

The abbreviated inscription can be translated, "Finally, dear brothers, have one mind, be in peace.

Pfäffingen had a population of about 400 at the time of the First World War. Nonetheless, 24 young men from the village were killed in the war. The first died the month the war started, on August 6, 1914. The last died a few days before the end, on November 7, 1918.

There are 32 names on the monument from young men killed in the Second World War, at the time the village still had a population under 500. Twenty-two of the 32 men died in the last two years of the war, 1944 and 1945.