Apr 29, 2015

What church stood for in 1949

There's not a lot of religion in "Unkept Promises," a prohibitionist comic book published in 1949 by a group calling itself the Legion of Truth. 

A lot the energy behind anti-alcohol campaigns in America have come, traditionally, from Protestant groups trying to make society a better place. Yet, in this very late prohibitionist tract, any references to Protestantism or even religion more generally are almost entirely absent. 

There are not even any ministers shown preaching against alcohol -- instead it's secular authorities. The narrator is a social worker. There are two judges, one handling criminal cases and another civil, and they both speak to the social affects of alcohol. There's the director of a women's prison and a representative from the state's "safety council," but no ministers.

There's one notable depiction of religion, though. Before the protagonist's life is ruined by drink, there is a single wordless panel depicting a church:

The church is associated with the American dream of home ownership, that mid-century dream of car ownership, and the middle class family ritual of the family portrait. The church is a white edifice with a steeple and stained glass, with big, broad stairs at the end of a curving walk way under leafy trees.

It is, in this 1949 comic, a bare symbol of middle class respectability.

Culturally, here, the church doesn't stand for a solution to a social problem. It certainly doesn't communicate any particulars of believing. Instead, it's a symbol of belonging -- specifically class belonging. It represents an aspiration, something one can obtain. If you're good enough, the message goes, you can have this. If you have the strength of character, you can earn this good life.

"---AND HAPPINESS," as the comic says.

Is this fact unrelated? In 1949, more than 60 percent of Americans told pollsters they attended church or synagogue every week.

Apr 27, 2015

Where religious arguments against same-sex marriage are secular

Many religious groups worry that secular arguments undercut their ability to participate in public debate, telling the court that their arguments actually are religious. It is, in fact, important to them that their arguments are religious. If the court excludes religious rationales, deeming theological motivations irrational, then religious people cannot speak on the moral, social issues they care about so deeply.

One brief, filed by five Christian conservative groups, including the North Carolina Values Coalition and the Christian Family Coalition, warns that the “American judicial system is becoming allergic to religious expression or influence in the public square.”

The groups say that laws defining marriage are always based on people’s religious beliefs — as are all laws. “Every law has a moral foundation and many are based on ‘moral disapproval,’ ” they tell the court. “The question is whose morality will prevail.”

A similar case is made in a brief filed jointly by the National Association of Evangelicals, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist, more than a dozen conservative Protestant denominations and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. These groups argue that their beliefs about marriage are both religious and practical.

“These beliefs,” they say, “are rooted in our theologies and in centuries of one-to-one counseling and personal experience with intact and broken families, functionally fatherless children, and single mothers.”

The line between religious and secular is not so neat for evangelicals in particular. They reject same-sex marriage because they believe that’s what the Bible says. But they also believe the Bible offers the best and most practical guide to human flourishing, so if the Bible condemns homosexuality it is because it is bad for people and society.

Read the full essay at the Washington Post: Supreme Court briefs reveal religious groups don’t agree on how to oppose same-sex marriage

Apr 24, 2015

Apr 21, 2015

YOU are spiritual but not religious

The decision comes on page 8. The sound of screaming is coming from behind a locked door in a warehouse. You have to do something. What do you do?

If you try to break the door down, you turn to page 20.

If you run to get the warehouse manager, you turn to page 33.

Eighteen years after it was first announced, and 17 years after the original series concluded, a new Choose Your Own Adventure book has found its way to print. The manuscript for Escape from the Haunted Warehouse, which was found in the CYOA archival library, was reworked by the son of one of the series’ creators and released last week, on April 15. Like the classic books loved by children of the 1980s and ’90s, the story starts with a disclaimer: "BEWARE and WARNING," it says. "You and YOU ALONE are in charge of what happens in this story."

And like those classics, the story is built on a key idea of the American mode of spirituality known as "spiritual but not religious."

Read the full essay at Religion Dispatches: YOU are Spiritual but Not Religious: The secret spiritual history of the Choose Your Own Adventure books

St. Konrad of Parzahm

St. Konrad of Parzham

Apr 20, 2015

Billy Ray Hearn, 1929 - 2015

Billy Ray Hearn, a giant of the Contemporary Christian Music business, has died at 85.

Hearn did more than perhaps anyone to make evangelical music into an industry. The business of producing and selling Christian culture has been controversial, though. There was (and is) ongoing tension between the mission of spreading the gospel and the mission of making money. That tension was Hearn's life work.

Hearn believed it was important business to spread the message of Jesus, but for him it was still a business.

Raised Southern Baptist in Texas, Hearn first took his faith seriously, by his own account, while serving in the Navy. He went to Baylor after his discharge in 1948, married his wife Joan and majored in Church Music.

His goal, then, was to be a great choir director. He as a music director for 15 years, ministering in big Baptist churches in Southern California, Texas and Georgia, before going to work for the evangelical publisher Word, Inc., located in Waco, Texas, in 1968. The company hired Hearn to promote music. At that time, that meant children's musicals.

The musicals were designed to be evangelistic. Churches would put on the performance and invite neighborhood children and their families to come, then presenting them with the message of Jesus. One of the first productions Hearn sold was "Tell It Like It Is," a folk-sounding gospel musical, which sold more than 500,000 copies. For many evangelical congregations, it was the first time popular music styles were allowed in church.

It was not the last time Hearn would push evangelicals in this direction.

Steve Curtis Chapman, who got his first record deal with Hearn, said Hearn's importance to Contemporary Christian Music could not be over stated. "I don't think there's a single person who's more responsible for the existence of the form of gospel music I'm a part of," he said.

Apr 14, 2015

Will evangelicals love Hillary Clinton in 2016?

Evangelicals didn't respond to Hillary Clinton with much warmth during her first presidential campaign.

According to Christianity Today in 2008:
From all sides of the political spectrum, evangelicals respond with a surprising amount of disgust upon hearing Hillary's name.  
Clinton, like every big-name political figure, has admittedly said and done things that have polarized, offended, and simply gotten under our skin. Her public persona, a brand of East Coast liberalism with roots in '60s radical politics, strikes many Americans as uppity and unapproachable. Open talk about her personal faith in recent years strikes some as politically convenient.
Will it be different this time?

Clinton and her team have put a lot of energy into appearing more relatable, approachable, and human. Going into the 2016 campaign, there's a major effort to humanize Clinton's image.

"Operatives who have been building her second presidential campaign," Ruby Cramer and Megan Apper report at Buzzfeed, "have conjured up words like 'intimate' and 'informal' to describe the 'tone' of the 'first 100 days.' They talk about retail politicking, the hardworking, old-fashioned way."

Part of what that means, apparently, is news stories about Clinton doing something normal, like eating a burrito in Maumee, Ohio, and not getting noticed. And then getting noticed for not getting noticed.

Another part of that project is showing Clinton as a person of faith, but a faith that is relatable for its quiet everydayness. The suggestion is that if she doesn't talk frequently or openly about her religious commitments, that's because -- exactly like evangelicals and middle class Americans more generally -- she is uncomfortable politicizing it. Faith, she feels, shouldn't be so strategic.

It's a tricky political strategy.

These efforts to emphasize the normalizes of a candidate can have the unintended effect of calling attention to how the "natural" persona is so carefully and politically crafted.

But if Clinton will struggle with the dehumanizing side effects of attempting to hold up and value her basic humanness, she's not the only one. It was evangelicals' commitment to valuing human life that allowed them to think of Clinton an not-really-human. The contradiction there was perhaps best captured in the fortune cookies passed out by the Family Research Council at a Republican convention. The political message inside said, "#1 reason to ban human cloning: Hillary Clinton."

For the editors of Christianity Today, the 2008 Clinton campaign was a moment of evangelical shame:
While pundits see candidates as punching bags, evangelicals are supposed to see candidates as, well, people. As we ponder how candidates are 'fearfully and wonderfully made,' we may haltingly come to realize that the most bold and courageous thing we each could do this election season, no matter who we vote for, is this: Love Hillary.
Will that happen in 2016? Probably not, but time will tell.

Apr 10, 2015

'Left Behind' seeks support from evangelical fans

You can get a speaking role in the next “Left Behind” movie for $7,500. You can name a character for $5,000, or appear as an extra in the background as the heroes figure out End Times prophecy for $2,500.

You can get these movie perks if you join the crowdfunding campaign for the sequel to the 2014 “Left Behind” film starring Nicolas Cage. Producer Paul Lalonde began a campaign on Indiegogo with a goal of raising $500,000 to finance the film.

“I’m asking you to be more than a fan,” Lalonde says in the promotional video explaining the campaign. “I’m asking you to be a partner in this vision.”

More than 130 people contributed in the first three days, giving nearly $40,000.

Read the full piece at the Washington Post: ‘Left Behind’ — which received 2 percent on Rotten Tomatoes — seeks crowdfunding for a sequel 

Apr 8, 2015

A dirty evangelical sock puppet takes Broadway

A dark and raw comedy about an evangelical sock puppet is a big hit in New York:

The New York Times has written about Hand to God at least seven times since it first premiered off-off Broadway in 2011, when critic Charles Isherwood said the show had a "naughty but lively tone" that "almost curdles into something more disturbing."

Now Hand to God is opening on Broadway, and the New York Times critic loves it even more. It's a "black comedy about the divided human soul," Isherwood writes, a Broadway "misfit both merry and scary, and very welcome."

As he put it in yet another piece on the play,
All of us play unhappy host to a demon or two roosting in our brains, urging us on to bad behavior now and then: a cutting remark, a catty tweet. But after watching the terrific, scary-funny play 'Hand to God,' by Robert Askins, I am very glad I don't own a hand puppet.
Other critics liked it too.

Apr 6, 2015

'Stay tuned: We have good news for you today'

The very first episode of the Hour of Power, one of the most successful televangelist programs in America:

Robert H. Schuller, who thought the gospel was best expressed to modern Americans in terms of self esteem and "possibility thinking," died last week at 88.

Apr 5, 2015

The monstrosity

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.
-- John Updike, Seven Stanzas at Easter 

Apr 4, 2015

For since by a man came death

Corpus Chrisit (Salamanca, Spain)

For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ's at His coming, then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be abolished is death. 
 -- 1 Corinthians 15:21-26

Apr 3, 2015

Robert H. Schuller, 1926 - 2015

Robert H. Schuller, who preached a theology of self-esteem in an effort to communicate the Christian message to modern Americans, has died at 88.

Schuller was pastor of the Crystal Cathedral, a glittering, all-glass monument of a megachurch. Schuller was one of the country's most successful televangelists, with his show Hour of Power broadcast to millions weekly. While some conservative Christians were skeptical of Schuller's upbeat message of positive affirmations, he insisted the theology of self-esteem was evangelical.

"Something is terribly wrong in the area of theology today, because people aren't responding to the gospel as they should," Schuller told Christianity Today in the mid 1980s. "If they're dying, and they are; and going to hell, and they are; and we have the best thing in the world, and it's free; then why aren't they flocking in?"

The problem, according to Schuller, was communication. Americans were emotionally hungry, but didn't respond to insensitive condemnations or huffy proclamations about sin. Traditional formulations of the Christian message weren't effective.

Schuller, on the other hand, had a congregation of 10,000 in the mid-1980s and a viewership estimated at 2.7 million. If he was anything, he was an effective communicator.

He was famous for his motivational slogans, self-help quips that critics found crass but inspired "possibility thinking" in his followers:
  • "Turn your scars into stars"
  • "What you can conceive, you can achieve"
  • "Inch by inch, anything's a cinch" 
  • "It takes guts to leave the ruts" 
  • "Beginning is halfway there" 
  • "Don't take care, take charge"
  • "Tough times don't last, tough people do"
"Our job," Schuller said, "is to figure out how to present the living Christ in a way that people will effectively meet him."

Jesus wird zum tode verurteilt

Jesus wird zum tode verurteilt (Jesus is condemned to death).