Jun 29, 2014

'It felt like religious kitsch'

The first time she'd heard about the Rapture, she was a freshman in college, taking a class called Intro to World Religions. The phenomenon the professor described seemed like a joke to her, hordes of Christians floating out of their clothes, rising up through the roofs of their houses and cars to meet Jesus in the sky, everyone else standing around with their mouths hanging open, wondering where all the good people had gone. The theology remained murky to her, even after she read the section on 'Premillennial Dispensationalism' in her textbook, all that mumbo jumbo about Armageddon and the Antichrist and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. It felt like religious kitsch, as tacky as black velvet painting, the kind of fantasy that appealed to people who ate too much fired food, spanked their kids, and had no problem with the theory that their loving God invented AIDS to punish the gays. Every once a while, in the years that followed, she'd spot someone reading one of the Left Behind books in an airport or on a train, and feel a twinge of pity, and even a little bit of tenderness, for the poor sucker who had nothing better to read, and nothing else to do, except sit around dreaming about the end of the world.

And then it happened. The biblical prophecy came true, or at least partly true. People disappeared, millions of them at the same time, all over the world. This wasn't some ancient rumor -- a dead man coming back to life during the Roman Empire -- or a dusty homegrown legend, Joseph Smith unearthing golden tablets in upstate New York, conversing with an angel. This was real.
-- Tom Perrotta, The Leftovers.

The pilot episode of the TV adaption of the novel, which is a secular and literary re-telling of Left Behind, airs on HBO tonight.

Jun 28, 2014

If you ain't on the side of God / You his enemy

Christian rapper B., of the group GoGettaz For God, has released a single calling for Americans to pledge themselves to Jesus. The track mixes American patriotic references with scripture verses and descriptions of Jesus' death, urging Americans to realize that "In God we trust / ain't the quote it's the antidote."

The Pledge:

One nation under God
One principle, indivisible
We stand like one individual
All individually taking the invisible
And live it out visibly
Truth, Justice, Liberty
If you ain't on the side of God
You his enemy
If you offsides
You better cross sides
And thank God for the cross
Now all rise
I said all rise
And thank God for the cross now
All rise
I said all rise and thank God for the cross now
The sacralized politics and politicized religion has not brought any special attention to the song. However, the brief appearance of Justin Bieber talking about Jesus' death at the end of the music video certainly has.

Jun 25, 2014

The very very shortest, simplest statement of deconstruction

Expectations of ends

"Dr. LeHaye 'll be 81 this month. He'd like to have it happen in his lifetime, which means it has to be soon."

-- Jerry Jenkins on Tim LeHaye's imminent expectation of the rapture, circa April 2007, when the final book in the Left Behind series, Kingdom Come, was published.

Jun 24, 2014

Laurie Maffly-Kipp

Christian theism isn't lost in space

Modern cosmology has made some religious ideas impossible, according to Tim Maudlin, a professor of philosophy at New York University and the author of Philosophy of Physics: Space and Time. Knowing what we now know, for example, the idea that human life is central to the meaning or purpose of the universe is incredibly implausible.

We now have precise knowledge of the distribution of galaxies and know that ours is nowhere near the center of the universe, just as we know that our planetary system has no privileged place among the billions of such systems in our galaxy and that Earth is not even at the center of our planetary system. We also know that the Big Bang, the beginning of our universe, occurred about 13.7 billion years ago, whereas Earth didn’t even exist until about 10 billion years later.

No one looking at the vast extent of the universe and the completely random location of homo sapiens within it (in both space and time) could seriously maintain that the whole thing was intentionally created for us. This realization began with Galileo, and has only intensified ever since.
For Maudlin, this is important because theism, "as religious people typically hold it," entails the idea that the universe is meaningful, but specifically meaningful to humans. They think "that the universe was created specifically with humans in mind," he says.

It is true that many versions of theism do entail anthropocentrism. It is not as integral to theism as Maudlin imagines, however.

Jun 23, 2014

More pentecostals speaking in tongues

More pentecostals are speaking in tongues in church, according to a recently released report from the Assemblies of God.

This major pentecostal denomination is notable on the American religious landscape for significant growth. Many churches have seen membership numbers slump in recent years, but the Assemblies has consistently grown.

"While mainline denominations have been declining for decades, in the past few years some evangelical groups, such as the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), have also begun to decline," writes Darrin Rodgers, pentecostal historian and director of the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center. "This demographic decline has caused some pundits to predict the slow death of evangelicalism. Robust growth of Pentecostal churches, including the Assemblies of God, shows a different story."

Part of that different story has seemed, however, to include the de-emphasis of pentecostalism's distinguishing religious practice, speaking in tongues. The denomination' statistics show that the reported rates of "spirit baptisms," where pentecostals believe they receive the gift of a prayer language from the Holy Spirit, have not kept pace with the denomination's growth.

Now, after years of decline, there is a reported uptick in spirit baptisms in the Assemblies churches.

In the most recent statistics, compiled from 2013 and released this month, spirit baptisms increased by 2.9 percent. That's not a lot, but it's notable, given a long downward trend.

The largest groups of spirit baptisms, numerically, occurred in Peninsular Florida (6,253), Northern California/Nevada (4,677), Arizona, (4,490) and North Texas (4,159). These are areas where pentecostalism has been strong, historically.

The largest statistical increase was in North Dakota, where an oil boom has brought job hunters from across the country. Spirit baptisms have gone up in that state by 170 percent in the last five years. In 2013, there were 592 North Dakotans who began speaking in tongues in Assemblies churches.

Reflecting the denomination's diversity, the Assemblies also saw an increase of spirit baptisms in Spanish-speaking churches. In the West, there was a 8.9-point rise in spirit baptisms in Spanish-speaking Assemblies in the last decade. In the East, Spanish-speaking Assemblies have seen spirit baptisms go up by 14.4 percent since 2003.

In Korean-, Slavic- and German-language churches, spirit baptisms have been steady. There were 38 people who began to speak in tongues in German-language Assemblies in the United States last year. This is down from a high of 85 in 2008, but similar to the number from a decade ago.

The Assemblies greeted the statistics as good news.

"Truly, the Holy Spirit is at work in our day," said George O. Wood, the denomination's general overseer, in a press release.

Jun 19, 2014


Lost in his performance piece of Jesus

David Di Sabatino, director of the documentary of Christian rock pioneer Larry Norman, Fallen Angel,' describes the creation of Norman's stage persona:
It is after that last mainstream album fails that he turns his attention towards the fledgling Christian youth culture where he had found steady work playing church youth group gatherings and Christian coffeehouses.

And in that subculture, Larry Norman made a genius move, filling in that hole between the two cultures by actually becoming the interstitial character that joined the mainstream pop world with the fledgling evangelical youth culture. He basically took the best of the rock world -- borrowing heavily from David Bowie but also other rock heroes like Jagger, Lennon and Dylan -- and created a character-based performance piece where he embodied the essence of the Christian faith in the persona he enveloped and projected for his fans.

I would very much make the case that just as David Bowie creates this alien space being named Ziggy Stardust who comes to earth as a messenger sent by extraterrestrials, Larry Norman became the Hollywood Street Jesus evangelist sent on a mission from God to be a singing troubadour to the Christian teen generation. The long blond hair, the denim outfit, the black leather jacket, the One-Way sign, all of it encapsulated a messianic representation for the music performances that carried such a direct Christian message. If you could have been a fly on the wall in the room where Larry and his then manager Philip Mangano cobbled together and honed Larry's image, I think the conversation would have been, 'What do these young Christian kids want to see? They want to see Jesus. Then let's give them Jesus.' And that is what Larry Norman was doing, a performance piece modeling Jesus for these young Christians. 
... Part of the Larry Norman story that needs to be understood is that not unlike Alice Cooper, who will testify that at some point he didn’t realize where Alice Cooper ended and Vince Furnier (his real name) began. I think Larry Norman got lost in his performance piece of Jesus.
The full, two-part interview is at Christian Nightmares. Di Sabato is also the director of a documentary on Lonnie Frisbee, who was influential in the Jesus People movement.

Jun 18, 2014

Church and state should be separate for children, court decides

The Supreme Court has decided not to hear the case of Elmbrook School District vs. Doe. The means the court agrees with a lower court that it is unconstitutional to hold a school graduation in a church.

The lower court ruled that religious symbols present at the secular, public ceremony amounted to a coercive imposition of religion onto the children of the Wisconsin school.

The Supreme Court recently ruled that sectarian prayers to start town council meetings are allowed, as those official prayers do not force citizens to pray and do not amount to establishing religion. This decision would seem to indicate that the court thinks there's more of a need to serrate church and state when it comes to children.

According to Lyle Denniston of Scotusblog.com, this is "a fairly clear signal" from the Supreme Court that depite "its new willingness to allow more religion in public life probably does not mean it will allow children to be exposed to more such symbolism when they don't have a choice about it."

Justice Anton Scalia, who holds a very strict view of what counts as religious "coercion," objected to the court's decision. He said the court has inverted the purpose of the First Amendment of the Constitution, allowing those who don't like religion to banish it from public space.

Scalia, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, writes:
Some there are -- many, perhaps -- who are offended by public displays of religion. Religion, they believe, is a personal matter; if it must be given external manifestation, that should not occur in public places where others may be offended. I can understand that attitude: It parallels my own toward the playing in public of rock music or Stravinsky. And I too am especially annoyed when the intrusion upon my inner peace occurs while I am part of a captive audience, as on a municipal bus or in the waiting room of a public agency.

My own aversion cannot be imposed by law because of the First Amendment . . . Certain of this Court's cases, however, have allowed the aversion to religious displays to be enforced directly through the First Amendment, at least in public facilities and with respect to public ceremonies -- this despite the fact that the First Amendment explicitly favors religion and is, so to speak, agnostic about music.
The conservative justices' comparison would seem to reduce religion to a matter of aesthetic preference. This is consistent with other arguments from conservative legal theorists. The conservative point-of-view seems to be that those who insist on the importance of separating church and state simply overestimate the importance of religion and the power of religious symbols.

Jun 17, 2014

When churches cover up allegations of sexual abuse

In my time as a newspaper reporter, I reported on ministers accused of abusing children about once or twice a year. There were other crimes that were more common, but this same story happened often enough in the course of my five or so years as a journalist to indicate that this is an issue. There are ministers who sexually abuse children.

This is a thing that happens.

Allegations of abuse are always horrific. Just reading through the details that make up the probable cause for an arrest can leave you feeling filthy and angry. What was more disturbing, though, was that the churches where these ministers had worked, worshiped, and hunted children always always always responded by trying to cover up the crime.

Every time.

This happened with Catholic churches, Baptist churches, and non-denominational evangelical churches.

What I mean by cover-up is this: they did what they could to stop the newspaper from reporting on the arrest. If they couldn't stop the news from being reported (they couldn't stop the news from being reported), they would distance themselves from the accused child predator. Often they did this by making an official statement that the person did not work at the church. The official statement of distancing would always bend the truth, saying the person did not work at the church but not clarifying that that meant the accused was a volunteer, or saying that the person did not work at the church, but not clarifying that that meant "any more."

In no case that I reported on did a church ever make a good faith effort to tell parents that a minister had been arrested on charges of sexually abusing children.

In no case that I reported on did a church ever contact police.

In several cases, the churches did attack me and my reporting. They told their congregations that news about a minister being arrested were lies designed to hurt the church. They wouldn't tell the people about a person who was hurting children, but they would decry the newspaper reports hurting their reputation.

Once or twice a year, I saw churches confronted with this situation where someone they had given authority and access to children was arrested and charged with horribly hurting those children. I stopped being disappointed with these churches' responses only because I stopped expecting them to be more concerned with protecting children than protecting their reputations.

This seems like maybe this is changing. It's agonizingly slow, but at least now there are voices in evangelicalism, for example, that will acknowledge the problem of sexual abuse in the church, and there are public platforms for those voices.

Jun 16, 2014

Watching the World Cup

The Germany-Portugal game, shown on a big flatscreen mounted in the back of a VW bus in front of a Tübingen bar.

Jun 13, 2014

Mich. town puts religion in oath of office

One Michigan town has added a divine invocation to the oath of office for elected officials.

Ursula Watson at the Detroit News reports:
Shelby Township Clerk Stanley Grot won approval from the board of trustees to give officeholders the option of ending their sworn oath with 'so help me God.'

Supporters say the move is a return to Judeo-Christian principals that conservatives like Grot say the country was built upon. But opponents say it needs to be clear to those taking an oath that includes phrases invoking guidance from a religious being is optional. Making it mandatory would cross the line separating church and state.

Grot said the phrase is a common conclusion to oaths such as the Oath of Enlistment for the military and presidential inaugurations. And 'In God We Trust' appears on U.S. currency, so why not evoke God’s name during a local oath of office?

'I think we need to bring God back to what we are doing,' Grot said. 'Invoking His name is helpful, in my opinion.'
Grot said he was inspired to make the change to the town's oath after the Supreme Court's recent ruling allowing sectarian prayers at the state of town council meetings.

Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution forbids any religious test for office. In 1961, the Supreme Court held that that applies to states, too. Michigan's constitution also forbids religious tests and specifically forbids requiring religious oaths.

Individuals -- including presidents -- are normally allowed to append religious invocations to their otherwise secular oaths.

Grot, who is running for statewide office, has said that the Shelby Township oath's invocation of God is still optional, despite being an official part of the oath. It is part of the oath, and he will read it during the swearing-in ceremony, but the elected representative can choose not to repeat the phrase.

It seems likely that the town will face a lawsuit.

Jun 11, 2014

Today I am 32.

Jun 10, 2014

A tough guy for the gospel

Robert Brown liked to think of himself as a tough guy. He was an Irish-born cop-turned-preacher in 1930s New York, and as he saw it, he wasn't supposed to be gentle.

"I don't put any sugar coating on my pills," he said in 1936. An ordained Assemblies of God minister, by this time he had been preaching in holiness and pentecostal circles for two decades. "I preach the gospel," he said. "Some people get mad and others receive it."

This stance is common to conservative Christians, especially 20th century evangelicals and pentecostals. Manliness is understood as something aggressive. Toughness is coded as honesty and fidelity. It's constructed as toughness with a purpose, toughness for the sake of -- and justified by -- the truth of the gospel.

To be a man is conceived, above all, as not caring about how others respond to your manly determination. While also still finding it important to let people know how tough you are.

There are some cultural politics in here. There is an attempt to reclaim or claim Christianity from over-refinement and middle class sentimentality -- from "over civilization." In Victorian-era America and after you see some economic transformations leaving people unsettled. Things that once seemed solid had transmogrified. Many men felt the need to declaim their manliness in the uncertainly of what exactly that meant in a changing world. Manliness and activity and virility were valued in how they were emphasized, encouraged. Besides that, as a counter-cultural movement, pentecostals had always used rhetoric that turned opposition into confirmation, taking the antagonism of the status quo, the condescension of their "betters," and rejection after rejection as evidence of their radical message. You had to be doing something right. They despised Jesus too. The "tough guy" stance just so happened to mirror that rhetoric of opposition. The two fit together easily, so that made it easy for pentecostals to take that stance.

Brown was not unique in imagining himself a tough guy, and describing his preaching as hyper-masculine. There are many examples of this rhetoric from then and now. Brown is one good one.

A newspaper article about a camp meeting where Brown preached described him as "taking his gloves off." People who belonged to his church, Glad Tidings Tabernacle on West 33rd Street, which was for many years the largest Assemblies of God church in America, remembered him as a tough guy too, especially in the pulpit.

One recalled that "Brown Brown used the hammer when he preached."

The aggressive approach was balanced somewhat by the fact he co-ministered with his wife, Marie Burgess Brown.

Jun 9, 2014

What 'religious liberty' means to Americans

A majority of Americans believe that religious liberty is being threatened, a new poll shows, but they also believe that religiously affiliated institutions and small businesses with religious owners should be required to provide birth control for their employees.

Americans care about religious liberty. But they don't believe corporations have religious rights.

The Supreme Court is currently considering a ruling on whether or not closely held corporations with religious owners and articles of incorporation that name a religious mission has religious rights, legally, which the law should protect. The craft store Hobby Lobby has become the face of this argument, after its owners refused to comply with an Obamacare mandate that employee health care coverage include birth control. Hobby Lobby's owners object to some forms of birth control. They claim it is a violation of their religious beliefs to assist someone in getting access to that birth control.

The legal battle has attracted some attention. Religious conservatives have rallied around the cause of religious liberty.

Russell D. Moore, president of the Southern Baptists' Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, called for prayer when the Supreme Court heard the case, which he said was not just about one craft supply store. Moore said that behind the legal battle "is the larger question of what it means for the Constitution to guarantee the free exercise of religion. And behind that is the even larger question of soul freedom for all."

George O. Wood, head of the Assemblies of God, recently said the Hobby Lobby was probably the "single most important case on religious liberty that we'll experience in a lifetime."

There's some reason to think that the court's ruling will actually be fairly narrow and limited. It might not be the landmark case that people were thinking it would be. Regardless, it has brought this issue of religious liberty and the question of what that means to the fore of the culture wars. Hobby Lobby has made "religious liberty" a buzz word. It's something that people, especially religious conservatives, are talking about and concerned about.

In fact: a Public Religion Research Institute poll done last month found that 54 percent of Americans believe that the rights of religious liberty are being threatened today.

But it also found that when they say that, they're not talking about Hobby Lobby. The majority of Americans would decide against the craft store, the poll found.

Jun 7, 2014

I was born sick

The title track from Hozier's 2013 EP, "Take Me to Church":

Every Sunday's getting more bleak.
A fresh poison each week.
'We were born sick,' you heard them say it.
My church offers no absolution.
She tells me 'worship in the bedroom.'
The only heaven I'll be sent to
Is when I'm alone with you.
I was born sick, but I love it.
Command me to be well.
Amen. Amen. Amen.

Jun 4, 2014

Critiquing the cult of manliness and/or misogyny

Sam Rocha critiques the cult of manliness that can be found among many conservative Christians in America:
I grew up in the sort of Catholic circles where 'being a man' was, and still is, a really big deal . . .

I especially remember priests that were really big into manhood and 'being a man.' They seemed to exude the sort of butt-kicking persona that I eventually began to read as personal insecurity. By my college years, I always suspected that Fr. Badass, giving his talk about being a real man in today's world of wussies, was really projecting, saying something psychoanalytic rather than pastoral . . .  
A lot of the manhood stuff, then and now, had less to do with being a man and more to do with not being a gay man. There were the always-awkward vocations retreat talks where Fr. Macho would talk about how much he still likes to look at women, as if to prove a point. Then we'd play touch football.
Ross Douthat, himself a Catholic, was also thinking about masculinity, recently. He makes the interesting argument that some factions of the left and right should be able to find some common ground in the critique of misogyny:
It should be possible, in these debates, for the right to offer a nuanced analysis of cultural liberalism's contradictions -- pointing out, for instance, that certain expressions of the male grotesque are just what the left's longed-for liberation actually looks like -- without denying that when it passes judgment on particular grotesqueries, a 'strident' and 'scolding' feminism is often straightforwardly correct. And it should be possible, too, for cultural conservatives to qualify and critique certain left-wing conceits without denying their partial validity. I'm thinking, for instance, of a phrase like 'rape culture,' which when applied to the entirety of American society does, indeed, risk, becoming an impossibly broad indictment that minimizes the evil of actual rapists … but which if applied more narrowly, to particular institutions and atmospheres, starts to look like an idea that conservatives should actively embrace.
One question: the qualifications and nuances that Douthat suggests can be conservatives' contribution to the analysis of the grotesqueries of misogyny -- do they serve to undermine the cult of manliness that Rocha describes, or reenforce it?

See also: The evangelical masculinity of ... Allen Ginsberg?

Jun 3, 2014

Soteriology of spiders

A soteriology of spiders.

Faith and science struggle on TV

The underlying human crisis of "The Leftovers" -- a new HBO series where something like the Left-Behind rapture, but not quite like the Left-Behind rapture, has happened -- is a crisis of ambiguity.

What do you do when you don't know what to do?

For the show's co-creator, this is also the struggle between science and faith. Damon Lindelof tried to get at this theme when he was writing the TV sensation-turned-disaster, "Lost," and he returns to them now, in a show about life in the aftermath of ambiguously natural/superatual event.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner writes in the New York Times:
'The Leftovers,' like 'Lost,' is filled with recognizably Lindelofian characters: people conflicted by the tension between faith and science and burdened with a desire to do good in a world that doesn't make doing good all that easy. Lindelof himself exists as a kind of Lindelofian character, too: a boy born into a home that is ultimately destroyed by the struggle between faith and pragmatism. His father, who never told him he was special, departs, and the boy moves into the space he once occupied. The father, who has remained distant, dies, and the man is torn between his mother's faith and his father's lack of faith, so much so that he creates a TV show about it. It stars a doctor who is cast away on an island and asked to lead a group of people, struggles, but eventually learns that he was built specifically for just this challenge.  
But Lindelof doesn't live in a Damon Lindelof world; he lives in this one. And in this world, there's no way to stop people from reminding you of all the ways you've failed them, even when the perceived failure is long past.
The pilot episode of "The Leftovers" airs June 29.

Jun 2, 2014

Nicolas Cage is Left Behind's double-mind

The cliché is, "know your audience." And Jerry Jenkins knew audiences.

When he was first approached about writing a novel dramatizing the theology of the Rapture and Tribulation, Jenkins had a six-figure income as an evangelical writer. That didn't come from not knowing readers and what they wanted. He wrote with an eye to the market. He wasn't about to start a big project if everyone wasn't clear on its commercial prospects, and who the audience was that was going to buy this book. When he sat down with Tim LeHaye to discuss what would become their co-authored mammoth-best-selling series, Left Behind, this was his big question.

The two men met in a hotel near Chicago's O'Hare airport with their mutual book agent, Rick Christian. Jenkins recalled the moment in his 2006 writing-advice book, Writing For The Soul:
'If I were to attempt this,' I said, 'who would be my target audience? People who agree with us and would be encouraged by this, or the uninitiated we would be trying to persuade?' 
'Both,' he said, beaming. 
Charming, but not literarily sound. 'A double-minded book is unstable in all its ways,' I said, parodying a Bible verse that says the same about a double-minded person. I had always written to a single audience at a time. 
Jenkins ultimately wrote the book, despite his reservations. The book was successful on the evangelical market, earning a $50,000 advance and then selling all 35,000 copies of the first printing in Christian bookstores in 1995. Then, in 1999, the fifth installment of the series, Apollyon, broke-through to the secular market, and was stocked in 300 Wal-Mart stores across American. It was successful in that market too.

Today the series has sold 65 million copies. Its mass audience cannot really be easily homogenized, though many critics have imagined that most those 65 million book buyers were basically the same. As Amy Frykholm reported in Rapture Culture, even the readers one expects to read these novels read in more diverse and more creative ways than they are given credit for.

Left Behind has been a cultural phenomenon for nearly two decades, now. With a forthcoming re-boot of the film series starring Nicolas Cage, its cultural presence continues.

The problem that Jenkins pointed out at the very conception of the project has not gone away, though. It was never resolved. The double-mindedness persists.

The first teaser trailer for the forthcoming film was released on Saturday. The problem of the two audiences can be seen even here: