Feb 28, 2014

Taking up snakes at a snake-handler funeral

A detail from the mourning of a dead snake handler:
Three days after pastor Jamie Coots died from a rattlesnake bite at church, mourners leaving the funeral went to the church to handle snakes ... 
At church service on Saturday, a week after Coots died, both Cody Coots and his mother handled the rattler that killed his father.
Ralph Hood, who co-wrote a key book on snake-handling Pentecostals, said the message of the snake handling is the same one that was articulated at Coots' funeral:

"What everybody recognized and accepted," Hood said, "is that he died obedient to God and that his salvation is assured."

Coots, who was 42 at the time of his death, had been pastor of the Kentucky church his grandfather started for 20 years. He was adamant that, for him, the spiritual risks of not handling snakes far outweighed the legal risks, or even the physical ones. For him, it was a matter of salvation.

For his son, it would appear, the same seems true.

Feb 26, 2014

'If I did not believe God loved the blackest Negro girl':
Responses to American racism among early white Pentecostals

When W. F. Carothers travelled across Texas and the South in the early days of the 20th century, he saw the Holy Spirit at work. People were being healed. People were speaking in tongues. Souls were being saved and sanctified. And racial segregation was being strengthened.

Carothers denied he was, himself, racially prejudiced. He was, he said, "a native Southerner, who through the sanctifying grace of Jesus Christ is incapable of prejudice."

 He believed blacks could be Christians as well as whites. He acknowledged the value of their souls and recognized they too received the Pentecostal sign of sanctification and were filled with the Spirit and speaking in tongues.

That didn't have anything to do with the rightness of segregation, though.

In fact, this early Pentecostal leader, who played a role in the beginnings of the Assemblies of God, saw sanctification as an aid to segregation. Where Northern do-gooders might meddle with the laws enforcing the natural order that divided the races, the Holy Spirit was working on human hearts to preserve those divisions.

Reflecting on talk of racial integration, Carouthers' wrote,
Now to meet this unnatural, unheard of condition, God has resorted to the next best expedient, and through his Spirit has intensified the racial impulses between the white and black man as the only remaining possible barrier to the miscegenation of their respective races ... in truth it is the work of God.
Carother's was not the only racist among the early Pentecostals.

As the General Superintendent of the Assemblies of God, George O. Wood, said this month, it was an "epoch in America where the church caved in to to the culture rather than transforming the culture."

W.F. Carothers
The Assemblies of God has recently called attention to that past as it has pursued racial reconciliation. One of the largest Pentecostal denomination in the US, the Assemblies is increasingly racially diverse, in contrast to most of American Protestantism, evangelical and mainline. Currently, about 40 percent of US members are non-white. The church's racial make-up very closely mirrors America's. In the process of the once all-white church's transformation, leaders have been open, too, to recalling and condemning the racism of early leaders such as Carothers.

It is worth noting, though, that Carothers' position was not the only option. There were some white ministers empowered by the Holy Spirit, as they saw it, to reject racism, reject segregation, and defy other white Pentecostal's opinions. They flouted the law, cultural norms, good taste, and what was held by most whites to be the natural order.

The story of racism among white Pentecostals in the early days of the movement is complicated by opposite extremes. There were ministers like Carouthers, and then there those like William B. Holt and James Logan Delk.

Feb 20, 2014

Marketing the 'Son of God'

The forthcoming film about the life of Christ, Son of God, is closely following the business script written by Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ a decade ago.

20th Century Films passed on the option to distribute Gibson's movie. Now, releasing Son of God, the companying is copying the commercial strategy that made Gibson's film a financial success.

Son is opening the week before Lent. The Passion opened on Ash Wednesday, 2004.

Son will be released on 3,000 screens. The Passion was shown on 3,043 screens its opening weekend.

The Passion had an advertising budget estimated at only $10 million, and depended on formal and informal networks of Christians for promotion. Son also has an advertising budget of only about $10 million. And according to Mark Burnett, who co-produced the movie with his wife, Roma Downey, Son's commercial success will largely depend on religious groups' promotional efforts.

"The only chance we've got is the church community spreading the word," Burnett said. "It's now a great time for people to bring groups and bring people with them who need this message."

A number of megachurches, including Rick Warren's Sattleback, are renting out whole theaters for premiere showings of Son. A number of churches, including Warren's, did the same thing for Mel Gibson's movie in 2004. Warren, further, developed and marketed Christian small-group curricula to tie in to The Passion, and has now developed and marketed Christian small-group curricula to tie in to Son.

The question, now, is whether this cinematic depiction of Christ will produce the same results as that one.

Feb 18, 2014

Pat Robertson believes the dinosaur bones

Pat Robertson is many things: a religious leader; a media mogul; a former presidential candidate. He's also, apparently, a bit of a dinosaur fossil geek: 


That might be overstating things slightly. He knows a little about geology, though, and the age of dinosaur fossils, and comes out strongly in support of that science. This is in response to the big debate at the Answers in Genesis' Creation Museum this month.

There are those, like Ham, who say that one can only truly be a Bible-believing Christian if one rejects evolution and affirms that the earth is only about 6,000 years old. Pat Robertson scoffs at that. And he dismisses Young Earth Creationism. He also specifically dismisses Ken Ham and Bishop James Usher, who calculated the date of creation using the genealogies of the Bible.

Robertson doesn't prevaricate, either:

"To say that it all came about in 6,000 years is just nonsense. And I think the time we come off of that stuff ... You can't just totally deny the geological formations that are out there. The rock formations and all the things that go on over the world. Especially the bones."

This is not a new position for Robertson. Dinosaur bones and rock formations are quite compelling evidence for him, and he wants Bible-believing evangelicals to separate the Bible from bad geology. He holds that evolution does not challenge Christian theism or doctrines of providence.

Robertson further argues that creationism is hurting those who believe the gospel.

The last time Robertson spoke against Creationism, he said he expected flack for his position from other evangelicals, but that the cost of creationism was too high to pay.

"If you fight science," Robertson says, "your going to lose your children."

Feb 17, 2014

Jamie Coots, 1971 - 2014

Gregory James "Jamie" Coots, a third-generation signs-following pentecostal who handled venomous snakes in worship, died Saturday after being bitten and refusing medical treatment. He was 42.

Pastor of church of about 30 members in Middlesboro, Kentucky, the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name, Coots gave his life trying to maintain the faith of his father and grandfather. He worked for nearly 20 years to encourage the faithful, disciple new converts who did not grow up in snake-handling churches, and defend his tradition's beliefs and practices to a condescending public.

Unlike some snake handlers who are media-shy, Coots gave interviews and spoke publicly about his religion in recent years. He participated in multiple documentaries, including, most recently, the National Geographic reality show, "Snake Salvation." Coots believed outsiders tended to misunderstand snake handlers, and should be given the chance to see them as regular Christian believers, struggling day to day to do what they thought was right. He defended his church's more esoteric practices as biblical, but argued that even if they weren't, they should be protected under the First Amendment.

"Practicing my faith remains a crime across the country," Coots wrote last year in the Wall Street Journal. "While the risk of arrest hasn't weakened my religious conviction, it has forced me to question America's commitment to religious liberty."

Coots clashed with the law in the mid '90s and again in the late 2000s, when authorities seized 74 snakes from his home. When he died, Coots was nearing the end of a sentence of one year's probation for the misdemeanor of transporting venomous snakes across Tennessee. He knew the legal risks he was taking.

He knew the physical risks too.

Before he picked up that final snake on Saturday night, Coots had been bitten nine times. He was bitten once on the top of his head. He lost half of the middle finger of his right hand to venom. He was there, too, when his best friend's wife died after being bitten by a handled snake in 1995, and when his best friend died the same way in 1998.

Nevertheless, Coots believed the spiritual risks of not handling snake were, for him, more dangerous still. He told a documentary film maker in 2012 that he did not believe he had a real choice.

"If I quit taking up serpents I would die and go to hell," Coots said. "God revealed that to me. I'd never tell anyone you have to handle snakes to go to heaven. It's in the word of God, you have to believe it. If God never moves on you to do it, let it alone."

Feb 13, 2014

An anti-anti-theist argument

Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga has developed an argument against an argument against the existence of God. This isn't a positive argument for God, but an explanation of the limitations of one common atheist claim. I don't find Plantinga's positive arguments particularly compelling, but his counterarguments, anti-anti-theist arguments, are sometimes really interesting.

In the New York Times, he responds to the critique of the "God of the gaps." The case that God, because God isn't a good scientific theory, must not exist, doesn't hold up very well.

Plantinga says:
Some atheists seem to think that a sufficient reason for atheism is the fact (as they say) that we no longer need God to explain natural phenomena -- lightning and thunder for example. We now have science. As a justification of atheism, this is pretty lame.  
We no longer need the moon to explain or account for lunacy; it hardly follows that belief in the nonexistence of the moon (a-moonism?) is justified. A-moonism on this ground would be sensible only if the sole ground for belief in the existence of the moon was its explanatory power with respect to lunacy . . . The same thing goes with belief in God: Atheism on this sort of basis would be justified only if the explanatory power of theism were the only reason for belief in God. 
Plantinga thinks there are several dozen "pretty good theistic arguments," none of which are conclusive but which he thinks can be, nonetheless, persuasive.

One caveat: "I don't think arguments are needed for rational belief in God. In this regard belief in God is like belief in other minds, or belief in the past."

Feb 11, 2014

Considering creationist belief

There may be fewer creationists in America than people think.

Jonathan Hill, a sociology professor at Calvin College, has looked at the most commonly cited survey, which says nearly half of Americans believe God "created humans pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so." He finds reasons to question that number.

In Christianity Today, he writes:
As a social scientist, I am skeptical about these findings for two reasons. First, the way in which these questions about human origins are written restricts complex or conflicted responses. Surveys like the Gallup poll tend to represent the various views we might label Atheistic Evolution, Theistic Evolution, Intelligent Design, or Young Earth Creationism with position statements that force respondents to select the one that comes closest to their beliefs.

The trouble is that these various views contain multiple beliefs about common descent, natural selection, divine involvement, and historical timeframe. The survey questions conflate these underlying beliefs in particular ways and force individuals to select from prepackaged sets of ideas. This is simply a practical necessity given the limited amount of space on general public surveys.

Second, these polls give us no description of the manner in which people hold to these beliefs. Are respondents confident that their position is correct? Is it important to them personally to have the right beliefs about human origins? If large segments of the public are uncertain about their position, or if their beliefs are unimportant to them, then the idea of an intensely polarized public is misleading.
The second point connects to some of my thinking about the problem of "belief." In most public conversations, belief is taken to be something quite simple and straightforward. It's assumed, for the most part, that there's a common, clear understanding of what it means to say "I believe."

But what does it mean to believe in creationism?

In actual practice, it means a whole variety of things.

Feb 6, 2014

'If she's gonna run off with another man, why not Jesus, huh?'

A clip from the forthcoming remake of Left Behind, starring Nicholas Cage:

Feb 4, 2014

Debates and dichotomies

When Bill Nye (the science guy) and Ken Ham (of Answers in Genesis) debate tonight, they will likely stake out dichotomous positions. That, after all, is how debates work. One is either/or, for or against, pro or con.

That can have the advantage of clarifying issues and what's at stake.

It can have the disadvantage of masking the diversity of possible positions on an issue, all the variations and variegations that happen when humans grapple with complex sets of ideas.

It's worth remembering how artificial those dichotomies are.

According to a 2012 Barna survey of Protestant clergy, about 54 percent hold the position Ken Ham claims all Christians have to hold. Only 19 percent say they're certain. The other 46 percent hold a variety of other positions, ranging from agnosticism to "progressive creationism" to versions of evolution.

A similar diversity can be found among scientists. Many may take the position one would expect, if one only listened to the dichotomies of debates, but that's not the whole story. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, perhaps America's most popular promoter of science today, pointed this out several years ago. "The notion that if you're a scientist you're an atheist, or if you're religious you're not a scientist," he said, "that's just empirically false."

Oversimplified models of the universe can be helpful. It's important to remember that they're models, though.

The debate will be live-streamed for free at 7 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, here.

Feb 3, 2014

Calvinist Bedtime Stories

The cartoon on James K.A. Smith's office door:


Who said Calvinists don't have a sense of humor?