Jul 29, 2014

The faith of serious fiction

Christopher Beha, author of the new novel Arts & Entertainment, on the presence of religion in literature:
The majority of people in this country (and on this earth) have sincerely held religious beliefs that they've integrated into their thoroughly modern lives. A quarter of the U.S. population -- and 40 percent of the population of New York, where my novel is set -- self-identify as Catholic. One of the most striking features of the city is that there are churches everywhere, from one of the world's largest cathedrals to hundreds of storefront churches. And a bit of investigation will reveal that those churches fill up every Sunday. Not to mention the fact that there are more Jews in New York than in any other city in the world. But for some reason the publishing industry in this city tends to view the introduction of religion into contemporary realist novels as a willful act that must have some strong rhetorical justification. From where I stand, the exclusion of religion is the willful act. Novelists never get asked why they don't include religion in their books, or why the religion they do include -- often just a species of madness -- bears so little resemblance to religion as it is practiced by the majority of Americans. If they were asked, I suspect, most of these writers would not have a very good answer. It simply doesn't occur to them. Whatever one's beliefs, this seems like a basic failure of verisimilitude. Reality includes religion; realism should, too.
The English poet Matthew Arnold once imagined that literature would replace religion. This was a not-implausible idea, when it seemed societies secularized in a straightforward way. Now, though, it sometimes seems as if literature has replaced religion, but only in its own pages. 

Jul 24, 2014

A sinner's aesthetic

Trying to describe "Christian art," a number of evangelical novelists have offered the definition that it is art "from a Christian world view."

That definition might not be as helpful as it appears. There's some ambiguity about whether fiction written "from a Christian world view" entails just the faith commitment of the author or means there is a requirement for certain representational rules. It can be taken as a rejection of the idea that evangelical fiction has to have an explicit gospel message, the novel functioning in some ways like a tract. But it can be also be taken as an insistence on a particular message, the art required to stage certain themes and issues.

It's problematic from the perspective of cultural history because it's normative. It's not a description of a certain category of art as much as, in practice, it's an imperative. The definition is not helpful in identifying what counts as Christian fiction. It's more of a mission statement.

Taken as a mission statement, though, as an imperative for Christian art, the definition raises a question about aesthetics. What aesthetic values are connected to that Christian view of the world?

Alissa Wilkinson, the chief film critic for Christianity Today, argues that good Christian art -- art that's good at being Christian and good as art too -- is art that flows from the Christian recognition of sin. Christian cinema, she says, should have an aesthetic that starts from the sense that all have sinned, all are broken or messed up sin. It should be moved by that to empathy.

Wilkinson is calling for what could be thought of as sinners' cinema.

She writes,
Maybe you're not a recovering alcoholic; maybe you've never been unfaithful to spouse or friends or whatever; maybe you've never murdered anyone or cheated on a test; maybe you have lived a pretty clean life. But if you are a Christian . . . then you know you're a mess, one that has to not just lean but grasp, wildly, for something greater than you or you'll come apart at the seams. And if you're an artist, you don't start from ideas -- you start there.  
I guess what I'm trying to say is this: the best Christians, the best artists (and critics and parents and pastors) -- the ones who make things that actually change lives -- are ones who know they are miserable sinners.
This is an aesthetic value I identify with a lot, personally.

I am not in the business of making Christian art. I am also not in the business of judging the quality or value of the evangelical fiction I'm studying. It occurs to me, though, that what bothers Wilkinson about many, many works of Christian art is the same thing that bothers me about many popular critiques of those same works. There's a fundamental lack of empathy. The characters aren't human, but just flat. Their motivations aren't taken to be complicated and conflicted, but simple and dismissible.

Jul 22, 2014

What A.J. Tomlinson first had in mind

Interviewer: "Back in 1903, A.J. Tomlinson, did you have in mind that you would stir up a religious movement? Did you have anything like that in mind."

A.J. Tomlinson: "No, I didn't have anything of that kind in mind. I thought I'd do pretty well if I stirred up the neighborhood."

This interview was done in 1943. Tomlinson died in October of that year. Tomlinson was the first General Overseer of the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee). Under his leadership, a collection of Southern holiness churches were organized and then, later, accepted the Pentecostal teaching that speaking in tongues was evidence of sanctification, the doctrine which was coming out of Azusa Street revival.

In 1923, the church split over the question of Tomlinson's management. Those who followed Tomlinson separated and formed the Church of God of Prophecy. Today the Church of God reports 6 million members in 170 countries. The Church of God of Prophecy reports 1.5 million members in 130 countries. Both are headquartered in Cleveland, Tennessee.

Jul 19, 2014

'If the wind doesn't sing her song'

The first track off of John Mark McMillan's most recent album:

Who are we sometimes I wonder
Mercenaries or lovers
On this side of the thunder
It can be awful hard to know

Sell our love for the paycheck
Spend the night on the freight deck
For all the dues that we collect
Our hearts can be overdrawn

Dead in the water
Like lamb to the slaughter
If the wind doesn't sing her song
And I'm speaking in tongues
Cause I need a Holy Ghost
McMillan is best known for his song, How He Loves Us. His recent album, Borderland, was crowdfunded. More than 1,500 people contributed about $70,000 to make the record, which was released in January.

Jul 18, 2014

'I want you to see them. Just a little.'

'What?' I shout.
'Nothing,' he says. He jogs back. 'Just wait.'
A long stream of prayers comes from his mouth. The streets are wide and sleek and black like rivers. A moaning rises from the distance. The wind is coming, coming down from across the agricultural fields sour with the smells of opossum and corn rot.
'What's happening?' I say.
I have the sensation that we're lying down, or that the world is moving and we're standing still. Bits of trash scrape the asphalt and gather by the tracks. A gathering of cups and soda cans swirls and rises like a tower.
One by one the streetlights darken.
I lean toward the dark.
'Power outage?'
'They're here.' He drums his hands on the table.
'The whole fucking army is here.' He reaches his arms above his head and opens them like a ballerina.
'What does that mean?'
He describes something from a war movie I've never seen, a movie where horses die and men are blown apart in trenches and the air is full of screaming.
A figure darts between bushes across the street.
'Wait,' he says. 'You see them, don't you? That's what I asked,' he says. 'That's what I prayed. I want you to see them. Just a little.'
'It's just a person,' I say.
'I can see you now in the spirit realm,' he says. 'I can see you right now. It's amazing. You now who you are? You're fucking Jon of Arc.' He talks like a general who's already imagined the slaughter and the victory.
'You need to hold my hand,' he says. 'The only way to defeat this army is to do it together. You can't do this alone. I can't either.'
His hand is there, calling to me, dark from the sun in Afghanistan.
-- Jennifer Percy, Demon Camp

Jul 16, 2014

Sam Hose's Christian America

Sam Hose was burned to death in Georgia on a Sunday.

First he was chained to a pine tree at a place called Old Troutman Field, outside the city of Newnan, which is about 40 miles southwest of Atlanta. Then his ears were cut off. Then he was stabbed several times, blood spurting to cheers from the gathered crowd. Then his fingers were cut off, severed at the joints.

Sam Hose's death was reported throughout the country.
His genitals were also cut off.

Then he was set on fire.

"Now he was twisting around the tree," wrote one man who was there. "Now biting at the bark of the pine, jumping and springing and twisting and fighting for every inch of his life."

The local paper reported that Hose tried to pull himself up out of the fire with his fingerless hands. The chain that held him snapped, and he fell to the ground. His body was again hacked at with knives, but he wasn't dead, so Sam Hose was pushed back into the fire.

Some more kerosene was poured on.

He died after about 20 minutes. It was 2:50 p.m. on April 23, 1899. It was a Sunday.

Sam Hose was one of 27 people lynched in Georgia that year. His lynching was one of the 458 that occurred in the state between the end of Reconstruction and 1930.

His last words, as reported by a local paper at the time, were, "Oh, my God. Oh, Jesus!" because this was America, a Christian country.

Because this was America, a Christian country, the Sunday crowd that killed Sam Hose was coming from church. More than 500 came from nearby Newnan. Hundreds came from Palmetto, a city slightly to the north. Word of the in-progress lynching reached Atlanta right as people were leaving their morning worship services. According to historian Philip Dray, the news sparked "a mad rush of worshippers to the train station seeking the swiftest possible passage" to the lynching.

The railroad company was so overwhelmed by the demand it arranged an unscheduled run on the Atlanta to West Point line, with six passenger cars at 1 p.m. The seats were all immediately filled. People who had just come from church were so desperate to get on board they climbed through the windows and clung to the sides of the train. The company arranged for a second train, this one with 10 cars. Those were completely filled too.

"Both trains," writes Dray, "sped south at full throttle."

Jul 15, 2014

When a war hero found Jesus

Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner and World War II prisoner of war, found Jesus at a Billy Graham crusade in 1949. His life was a wreck after the war. It was changed in that encounter.

"I went forward in that meeting and asked God to forgive me, " Zamperini said. "I acknowledged to God that I was a sinner. I asked the Lord Jesus Christ to come into my heart and save me, and of course he did."

Graham brought Zamperini to another crusade, almost a decade later, to talk about his conversion. Facing criticism that those who came forward at his crusades didn't become faithful Christians, that his evangelistic work was ineffective, Graham used Zamperini as an example of the power of the gospel.

"I know that there are thousands of others that do last," Graham said in San Francisco in 1958. "And this room tonight is filled with hundred of people that have found Christ in the last few days, and you're carrying your Bibles. You've already identified yourself with a church, or you've renewed your church vow and dedication, and now your life is completely transformed."

There is video of that meeting in '58:

The year after his conversion, Zamperini returned to Japan to meet with his former captors, telling them he forgave them and giving them Gideon Bibles.

Zamperini died earlier this month at the age of 97.

Jul 14, 2014

Half of Americans think church is important

American's are almost exactly divided on the importance of church, according to a new Barna study. They split down the middle. Slightly more than half say going to a religious service regularly is not too important or not at all important, while slightly less than half say it is somewhat or very important to them.

Barna, which is an evangelical organization, sees this as a sign of secularization. The polling group claims that "church involvement was once a cornerstone of American life," but "while tens of millions of Americans attend church each weekend, the practice has declined in recent years."

There may not really be much a decline, though. E. Brooks Holified, author of Theology in America and an emeritus professor of church history at Emory University's Candler School of Theology, has surveyed reports of church attendance. Speaking at the University of Heidelberg in 2011, Holifield said that reports of regular church attendance were pretty consistent throughout the 20th century.

Americans seem to have thought church was less important in the 1920s. They seem to have thought it was most important in the 1950s. Generally, though, about half of Americans have thought the practice of going to church was important.

Holifield found that between 1935 and 1985, between 40 and 49 percent of Americans said they attended a religious service regularly.

Self-reported church attendance is not a reliable indicator of church attendance, of course. It is, however, a pretty good indicator of the percentage of the population that thinks church attendance is important. If people are lying about being in church, it's because they want people to think they are the kind of people who go to church. Barna's study doesn't show that there's been a significant change in that sentiment.

This isn't secularization.

It is true -- as has been widely discussed -- that the percentage of Americans saying they have no religious affiliation has spiked dramatically since pollsters started asking that question. The "rise of the nones," though, doesn't seem to be at all connected with this other statistic, which has remained steady for most of the 20th century.

Celebrations in Tübingen tonight

The crowd chants "Super Deutschland!" and "Mario Götze!":

Wir hat gewonnen!

The crowd chants, "Mario Götze! Mario Götze!"

Jul 12, 2014

'And if I find forgiveness'

"The Devil is All Around," the first song off of Shovels & Rope's forthcoming sophomore album, Swimmin' Time:

So I'ma gonna be a good man
Gonna do the best that I can
Though I'ma shell of the man
That I once was
And if I find forgiveness
In the eyes of God
It'll be our one, I assure you 
When the devil is all around
Got you crawling' on the ground
On your hands and your knees
With an apple in your mouth
You will know
How far you'll go
To make your peace with God
Yeah, you will know
How far you'll go
To make your peace with God
The album will be released in the end of August.

Jul 10, 2014

Megachurch repossessed by lending company

One of the most famous churches in Florida has been sold at a foreclosure auction. The pentecostal megachurch, which was once pastored by televangelist Benny Hinn and then taken over by gospel artist Clint Brown, defaulted on its mortgage last year.

It was sold at auction for a fraction of the outstanding debt on Tuesday,  according to Jeff Weiner, a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel. One of the creditors, a Christian mortgage company, bought the building.

Clint Brown purchased the church from Hinn in 2000 for $9.9 million. His congregation merged with Hinn's, forming a 4,000-member megachurch named Faith World. Faith World grew to 6,000 members by 2012, despite some struggles, including Brown's contentious divorce in 2005.

When the church defaulted in 2013, however, it owed $9.7 million on the 27-acre and five buildings. The county tax assessors estimated it wasn't even worth what was owed, valuing the property at  about $7.8 million. There were also about $250,000 owed in back taxes, according to an Orlando TV news station, and other debts, including a $89,000 in recent car loans.

The place was purchased by a California credit union for $1.85 million at auction on Tuesday.

Clint Brown has spoken of the financial troubles and the foreclosure in sermons he preached at a temporary location, a nearby high school, Weiner reports. He has described the situation as the result of persecution.

"We've been abused," Brown said in one sermon. "We have been lied to. We have been taken advantage of."

In another sermon, preached the same day, Brown said, "The enemy, the enemy tried to stop us, tried to hurt us."

A recent study of churches in financial trouble found that the common denominator was bad leadership. A key factor for religious groups filing for bankruptcy was that they were organized around a charismatic leader who was subject to little or no oversight. In times of financial crisis, the study found, the leadership almost always cited external pressures, including the economy and natural disaster. Internal organizational issues were more directly to blame, however.

Brown -- who preaches the prosperity gospel -- has been extensively criticized for his personal finances.

Jul 8, 2014

Charity: the numbers

Facts about charity in America:
  • American charitable giving equals 2 percent of the Gross Domestic Product
  • 72 percent of all giving is by individuals
  • Americans give about $1,016 per person per year
  • 5 percent of all giving is by corporations
  • Corporate giving equals 0.8 percent of pre-tax profits
  • Total giving has increased by $34.6 billion since 2003 (inflation adjusted)
  • More was given in 2007 than in any other year
  • Giving in 2007 equaled 2.1 percent of the GDP
  • Giving in 2013 totaled $335.17 billion
  • The largest segment of giving was to religious organizations
  • $103.9 billion was given to religious organizations in 2013
Information from: Giving USA.

Nixon against cultural decay

Richard Nixon critiques the glorification of homosexuality on the 1970s sitcom "All in the Family," which starred Carroll O'Conner as Archie Bunker:

According to Nixon, homosexuality was being promoted by Communists and left-wingers in order to destroy America. It could destroy America, he thought, like it had brought down the empires of the Greeks and the Romans, respectively.

"You know what happened to the Greeks. Homosexuality destroyed them. Sure, Aristotle was a homo. We all know that. So was Socrates."
White House counsel John Ehrlichman:
"But he never had the influence that television had."

Jul 7, 2014

A minister's suicide for social justice

Charles Robert Moore, a 79-year-old Methodist minister, left a note on his car in the parking lot of a Dollar General in Grand Saline, Texas:

He then set himself on fire.

According to the Tyler Morning Telegraph, there was also a longer letter in the car, titled, "O GRAND SALINE, REPENT OF YOUR SINS." Moore, who is white, wrote that "America, and Grand Saline … have never really repented for the atrocities of slavery and its aftermath. What my hometown needs to do is open its heart and its doors to black people as a sign of the rejection of past sins."

The minister had a long history of advocating for social justice causes. He worked to desegregate churches in Texas in the 1950s, went on a hunger strike to protest the Methodist church's position on homosexuality in 1995, and helped to organize the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

The fire was put out by people from a nearby hair salon. Moore died later that same day, June 23.

Jul 5, 2014

'I'm a mess and so are you'

The title track from Francesca Battistelli's latest album, If We're Honest:

I'm a mess and so are you
We've build walls nobody can get through
Yeah, it may be hard
But the best thing we could ever do, ever do
Bring your brokenness and I'll bring mine
'Cause love can heal what hurt divides
And mercy's waiting on the other side
If we're honest
If we're honest
Christianity Today named Battistelli one of the "33 Under 33" who are "shaping the next germination of our faith." Battistelli is the first woman to win a Dove Award for Artist of the Year since Amy Grant.

Jul 4, 2014

Christian Realism for the Fourth of July

Moralists who have observed and animadverted upon the hypocrisy of nations have usually assumed that a more perfect social intelligence, which could penetrate and analyze these evasions and deceptions, would make them ultimately impossible. But here again they are counting on moral and rational resources which will never be fully available. What was not possible in 1914-1918, when the world was submerged in dishonesties and hypocrisies . . . will hardly become possible in a decade or in a century, or in many centuries.
-- Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society
It must be understood that the children of light are foolish not merely because they underestimate the power of self-interest among the children of darkness. They underestimate this power among themselves. 
 -- Reinhold Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness
Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; there we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.
-- Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History

Jul 3, 2014

Jul 2, 2014

The Hobby Lobby ruling is actually pretty reasonable

The politics of the Supreme Court's decision in the Hobby Lobby case are explosive. Birth control! Religious liberty! Health care! Women's rights/bodies/health! These are things said with exclamation points in American culture today.

The legal issues in the Hobby Lobby decision are not explosive.

Knowledgable voices who prefer explanations over arguments are saying that the Supreme Court's ruling in the Hobby Lobby case is not radical, not transformative. Religious liberty has not been dramatically changed. Corporations' powers have not been dramatically expanded. Women's access to birth control will probably be the same as it was, or maybe eventually better. The ruling is sharply limited, actually. Against the advocates on all sides of this issue, careful legal observers are saying the decision is more subtle, more measured, than is being claimed.

David Masci, writing for Pew, says the ruling expands religious liberty, but not by much. The court took pains to prevent over extension of the ruling.

Masci writes:
The Hobby Lobby decision does not represent a radical change in religious-liberty law -- even as it applies to for-profit businesses. The fact that the ruling is limited to closely held companies, and that the majority specifically warns against the future use of religious-liberty claims by businesses to justify discrimination, means that the decision could have a limited impact in future cases involving businesses and questions of religious rights.
At Religious Clause, Howard Friedman writes that this decision actually avoids the more interesting and more controversial question that was at the heart of the case.

He says,
One of the most widely discussed questions raised by Hobby Lobby has been: Can corporations exercise religion? Justice Alito avoids many of the difficulties posed by this question through adopting the 'nexus of contracts' view of corporations put forward by 'law and economics' scholars during the past 40 years . . . This approach avoids both the question of whether an 'artificial person' can exercise religion, and whether traditional 'piercing-the-corporate-veil' notions need to be invoked.
Friedman quotes Alito's ruling, which says that corporations are people only in the sense that they are organizations made up of and representing people. Rights have to be granted to those corporations when and where "the purpose is to protect the rights of these people" who formed the corporation.

The legal precedent for this was established in the 19th century. The decision about corporations' religious rights is not dramatic. The court, if anything, chose the least dramatic choice on this issue.

It should be noted that, in an important way, this case was not about whether or not corporations had religious rights. The lawyers representing the government always said that some corporations do. Churches are corporations. There are religious non-profits, which everyone agrees are religious. It has never been the case that only individuals have religious rights and organized groups of individuals do not. Hobby Lobby wanted to argue that some for-profit corporations can be religious too, in the same way that some non-profits are.

If there was a serious legal argument for why corporations can't be religious and for-profit, I am unaware of it. It has never been clear to me what the argument is for that line.

The actual decision was pretty circumspect, though. 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.

This is not a time of moderation and consensus, but if it were, one could imagine some consensus on these points.