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.