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PimpPocalypse, or How to Turn Tragedy into Comedy in the Name of God

It's time to fully exploit the tragedy of 9/11 for all its worth. After all, why let hapless sinners go to hell (or America down the toilet) if churches can use the 10th anniversary of this disaster to market themselves or their sermon series or themselves? Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, is using the upcoming anniversary to his new sermon series "Twilight's Last Gleaming." The Sunday evening series begins September 11, and they've created awesome graphics to advertise, including the Virgin Mary holding a torch.


That's the Virgin Mary, right? Because no way does a real Baptist mix civil religion and Christianity, right? Maybe the Holy Mother was paying tribute to her French cousin, Lady Liberty? Anyway, Jeffress, seen here looking like a cleaned up, gayer version of Dennis Kucinich, wants you to invite your friends and family so they can help save America. Actually, they can't save America, but more on that in a second. First the photo.


After his old time radio hour, I think Jeffress will be talking about..oh, wait. The ominous voiceover on the video gave me a list:

  • economic chaos
  • moral relativism
  • terrorist threats
  • global turmoil
Odd, except for the third, it sounds like Chuck Colson from anytime in the 1990s or Jerry Falwell in the 1980s or Francis Schaeffer across his entire life. After the list, the voice asks if we're witnessing America's last days. After exhorting believers "to rally" by showing up for the sermons, the scary voice answers the question for itself. You will discover why "America's collapse is inevitable." Oh, well, then fuck it. I'll stay home and watch free porn before they shut off my broadband connection post-apocalypse. However, there is another list.

In addition to learning of America's inevitable collapse, lucky believers will also learn

  • what Christians can do to delay America's eventual demise (I'm betting he says pray)
  • the relationship between abortion and America's fiscal crisis (wtf?!)
  • how to prepare for the coming persecution against Christians in America (shouldn't it be of Christians?)
  • and more (no explanation offered. perhaps tithing will be mentioned)

In case you're wondering how "leaders in America" feel about this series, there are blurbs. "I stand in awe of the clarity of his convictions." --Mike Huckabee. Awe? Really? Just because he's clear? There are three more: Cal Thomas, Erwin Lutzer, and James Robison. Who cares. You can watch the video for yourself.

More troubling than yet another sermon series about "the last days" or "the last days of America" is the tendency to exploit what ought rightly to be a solemn observance. Much has happened in the intervening ten years: the deposing of Saddam, two endless, pointless wars, the death of Osama bin Laden, a catastrophic foreign policy, a widening divide between rich and poor, a bailout of banks that systematically raped consumers, a mortgage crisis, unemployment, and the list goes on. It really is a sobering time, but it's not made better by calling attention to yourself as a man with answers when the day is not about you. Nor will answers from a Bronze Age book do much for me, especially when you're concerned with "moral relativism," as if the Church hasn't all along believed what was convenient and comfortable while pretending to believe everything in the Book. Moral relativists aren't just non-theists, Dr. Jeffress. And some non-theists are not moral relativists; we just happen to disagree about the constitution of morals and the Constitution.

Superhero Bible Verse of the Day, or Why Press Releases Suck

What do Martin Luther King, Jr., George W. Bush, and Captain America have in common? (I really wanted to start with "these three guys walk into a bar," but it doesn't work.) According to a Harris Poll conducted as part of a launch campaign for a new Bible—yeah, we need yet another special version—63% of Americans incorrectly attributed a Bible verse to one of the three. Shocking, right? Much will be made of this in some corners, corners laden with lamentations of creeping Biblical illiteracy, the dumbing down of America, and the increase in immorality. Some will say that it's a tragedy that Americans can't recognize their Founding Document (they're insane, but they'll say it). It's a hurricane in a hookah pipe though, I swear. I'm actually going to side with my illiterate countrymen on this one because they were tricked.

Before I get to the real rant, here's the trickery. 2572 adult Americans responded to an online poll in which they were asked to identify the origin of this quote:

We often suffer, but we are never crushed. Even when we don't know what to do, we never give up.
See, I'd have guessed Jim Valvano from his "Never Give Up" speech. It's because the language comes from the world famous Contemporary English Version, and all five people who have read it recognized the source. The rest of us would have no idea what to make of such impotent language when compared to this:
We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair...
That's the KJV, and it's the language poets and playwrights have used for centuries. It's the way most of us heard it growing up. Forgive me for never having been moved to tears by "never give up," except by Jimmy V, but he was dying of cancer for shit's sake. Include the whole verse in the KJV or NKJV, and I'm betting the numbers go up considerably.
We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed; Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body.
I'm guessing close to 100% would have gotten that one. But, if you're trying to sell Bibles, especially Bibles written in magically understandable shit prose, you need to market your product.

The American Bible Society decided to commission the Harris Poll as part of a campaign to commemorate the tenth anniversary of 9/11 with the release of the Freedom Bible. Fuck me in the face. Nothing like using the remembrance of a tragedy to sell a Bible with painfully anemic language, thereby increasing the tragedy. (There will be more of this as the day approaches...) To make matters worse, the marketing material equivocates on the meaning of freedom. What kind of freedom is meant? Read the web site and let me know because I'm a little lost. I was looking for a picture of Mel Gibson as William Wallace or as that badass dad from The Patriot, but what I got was a magical bird tree and a cityscape. Are those doves? Is that NYC sans WTC? Which tampon box artist did they hire to do that cover?

Lest you're concerned that the release of the Bible is poorly timed, the press release offers a bullet list of important factoids to justify their decision, the best of which is this:

Despite living in a predominantly Christian nation, 82 percent of Americans who have dealt with trauma rely most on sources other than the Bible to cope, including 6 percent of whom say they do not rely on anything.
Where to even start? 1. Not a Christian nation. Not even predominantly Christian. There are no Christian nations and no unicorns. Sorry to break it to you. 2. They rely on friends, clergy, family, counselors instead of the Bible? Shocking. I mean, why wouldn't they find comfort in this: "And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword." So strange. 3. The six percent are liars.

I really don't care if people read their Bibles or not. It would help some of my students when we read Randall Kenan and Alice Walker and Shakespeare, but they're not necessarily crippled by not having read it. A little honesty in press releases would be nice, though, especially from the theist camp.

Sneaking Achan into the White House, or Which Jesus did You Mean?

This may be the most interesting presidential campaign ever for Republicans, not just because they have a wingnut or two, but because the faith race appears to be a dead heat right now, with only Ron Paul (not really a Republican) and Jon Huntsman (a nominal Mormon—if such a thing exists) sounding somewhat sane about which metaphysical metanarrative they prefer. Expect to see entirely too much written about Dominionism, but be aware that most of what's written will be overly simple, inflammatory, misrepresented, or just plain wrong. There will be plenty of guilt by association fallacies as we saw with Obama and Jeremiah Wright, particularly where the name Francis Schaeffer is concerned. Already God has told three candidates to run, a "fact" that doesn't trouble me since it's conceivable within the logic and grammar of evangelicalism that God could ask a candidate to run knowing full well the candidate will lose. 

Bill Keller of the NYT has put together a questionnaire for candidates, and promises the NYT will run the answers if received. Pretty sure the answers are not going to be proffered, but if they are, I'm equally sure they will not be politically damaging enough to matter. I'm going to answer the questions first as concisely as possible. Over the next few posts, we'll work through them, plus the individualized questions Keller wrote for particular candidates.

1. Is it fair to question presidential candidates about details of their faith? 

Unequivocally, yes. Faith may be personal, but its implications aren't, especially when running for important offices.

2. Is it fair to question candidates about controversial remarks made by their pastors, mentors, close associates or thinkers whose books they recommend?

Yes, with the understanding that people who sit in pews will often disagree vehemently with their pastors, priests, imams, rabbis, etc., yet remain in the community for friendship, support, and a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with concordant theological positions. For the books they recommend, I'd simply like to ask which parts they agreed with and which parts they disagreed with and why. Just because someone recommends Mein Kampf doesn't mean she intends it as a philosophical inspiration. 

3. (a) Do you agree with those religious leaders who say that America is a “Christian nation” or “Judeo-Christian nation?” (b) What does that mean in  practice?

No. It means nothing in practice because it means nothing in reality. There is no such thing as a Christian or Judeo-Christian nation. If they believe this, they should probably be treated with wary contempt.

4. If you encounter a conflict between your faith and the Constitution and laws of the United States, how would you resolve it? Has that happened, in your experience?

Constitution wins. Period. It happens every day with gay marriage. It ought to be legal, Leviticus and Saint Paul be damned. 

5. (a) Would you have any hesitation about appointing a Muslim to the federal bench? (b) What about an atheist?

No. No. Nor a Christian, Jew, Wiccan, or Buddhist so long as number 4 is clearly understood.

6. Are Mormons Christians, in your view? Should the fact that Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman are Mormons influence how we think of them as candidates?

No. They are not within the historically orthodox community of Christians. Get over it. If I call myself a Mormon and worship Mary and Shiva, am I still a Mormon? This self-identification thing is getting out of hand. The Church has not historically referred to itself as Christian. Rather, they are the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. As to part 2 of the question, no, it shouldn't so long as they understand number 4.

7. What do you think of  the evangelical Christian movement known as Dominionism and the idea that Christians, and only Christians, should hold dominion over the secular institutions of the earth?

I think it's widely misunderstood and not nearly as important as the press and liberal opponents of certain candidates want it to seem. Dominionism is a broad term that can describe Christians from various traditions, all but about 100 of whom have no intention of "ruling the world." The movement and the corresponding silliness with the "7 Mountains" talk have never had a large influence on evangelicalism. Its proponents are rightly referred to as fundamentalists, and their numbers are far smaller than people realize. The final clause of the question reveals one of the primary misunderstandings of the overall movement. I was involved with the movement myself for a period of time in the 1990s and read only one book and met exactly zero people who understood Dominionism the way you describe it here. 

8. (a) What is your attitude toward the theory of evolution? (b) Do you believe it should be taught in public schools?

It's the most accurate and comprehensive explanatory model in biology and other critical science fields. It should be taught in public schools. Period. Creationism or ID should not. Period.

9. Do you believe it is proper for teachers to lead students in prayer in public schools?

No. Never.

Canadians aren't Saved, or Adam and Eve aren't Evangelical

What kind of Christian are you? Believe it or not, how you answer the Adam and Eve question is now considered by some to be an issue of your evangelical-ness. This will come as no surprise to those of you who are familiar with fundamentalist declarations emerging from allegedly evangelical mouths, but for those of you who don't think Adam and Eve had children who promptly incested it up to create the next generation, well, you might be surprised to find yourself outside the camp. 

The normally accurate NPR ran a story that in the words of one friend is further proof that the MSM doesn't understand religious categories. Clearly, Ms. Hagerty, the author, also fails to understand international boundaries. That's not all she gets wrong, though, beginning with which Genesis account Americans believe. According to the story, 4 in 10 Americans believe the Genesis 2 account of creation. As someone who teaches mythology and comparative religion, and who has taught Bible, I assure you 4 in 10 Americans don't know the difference between the two creation accounts in the Bible. (Four in ten Christians don't know the difference because 8 in 10 Christians haven't even bothered to read the entire Bible.) The Americans I talk to believe a conflated version of both, and this is made worse by "apologists" insisting against all good linguistic sense that Gen. 2 actually expands upon Gen. 1. Horseshit. They're competing narratives.

Here comes the evangelical mishmash, though, as Hagerty intends to explain the importance of the primordial couple: "It's a central tenet for much of conservative Christianity, from evangelicals to confessional churches such as the Christian Reformed Church."

First, if you're going to start with a "who it's important to" angle, maybe start with fundamentalists, because it's damned important to them, and not with evangelicals. Second, since when are all evangelicals "conservative," and what does conservative mean here? And if you're going to end with "confessional churches," why do you pick CRC? Pretty sure Lutheran and Presbyterian are better known, but that's a nitpick. Since when are evangelicals and confessing Christians on opposite ends of a continuum? Can't Reformed, Lutheran, and Southern Baptist be evangelical? Are the terms mutually exclusive? (Yes, friends, I'm counting the SBC as a confessional church. As long as they disfellowship churches for going against the Baptist Faith & Message, they're confessional. Get over it.) 

Time to make it worse:

But now some conservative scholars are saying publicly that they can no longer believe the Genesis account. Asked how likely it is that we all descended from Adam and Eve, Dennis Venema, a biologist at Trinity Western University, replies: "That would be against all the genomic evidence that we've assembled over the last 20 years, so not likely at all."

What kind of scholars? Oh, biologists. Shit, I thought you meant Bible scholars. Ok, so a Canadian biologist is publicly questioning the existence of a real Adam and Eve, and this is news for American evangelicals? Everyone knows Canadians aren't really saved, not in the American fundangelical sense. And what does it mean that he's conservative? I think Canadian conservatives are different than American evangelical conservatives? Did Ms. Hagerty not know about the border between the U.S. and Canada? It makes a theological as well as a political difference, honest. 

Hagerty does toss in one American "evangelical," but he taught at Calvin College, so does that make him confessional? John Schneider, professor of theology, said: " There was no historical Adam and Eve, no serpent, no apple, no fall that toppled man from a state of innocence." I think most people know that. Really, I do. Anyone who thinks about it, anyway. I know some Christian traditions are committed to it, but it's an untenable position, and not just because of the incest. But wait, scary science always brings out the Defenders of "Truth." 

The world famous apologist Fazale Rana (who the fuck is he? she?) has an opinion:

"From my viewpoint, a historical Adam and Eve is absolutely central to the truth claims of the Christian faith," says Fazale Rana, vice president of Reasons To Believe, an evangelical think tank that questions evolution.

A cursory examination of the website for Reasons to Believe will quickly inform you that we're not dealing with evangelicals here. Nope. Fundamentalists for sure. I'll just say it: creationist equals fundamentalist. Sorry. It's true. But there is a name we know...

Al Mohler! Fuck yeah! What's he going to say this time? "Without Adam, the work of Christ makes no sense whatsoever in Paul's description of the Gospel, which is the classic description of the Gospel we have in the New Testament," Mohler says.

Sigh. Without Homer Simpson, our understanding of how delicious donuts can be makes no sense. A metaphor, allegory, or analogy is still theologically useful, even without an historical referent. Why is that so damn difficult to grasp? And since when is Paul's description of the Gospel the "classic" description? What the hell does that even mean? Is James's not classic enough? Peter is out too? And if Paul's description is classic, did you mean Paul's or the Pauline school's? This is ridiculous oversimplification from someone who ought to know better.

The last three paragraphs are worth quoting in their entirety:

"This stuff is unavoidable," says Dan Harlow at Calvin College. "Evangelicals have to either face up to it or they have to stick their head in the sand. And if they do that, they will lose whatever intellectual currency or respectability they have."

"If so, that's simply the price we'll have to pay," says Southern Baptist seminary's Albert Mohler. "The moment you say 'We have to abandon this theology in order to have the respect of the world,' you end up with neither biblical orthodoxy nor the respect of the world."

Mohler and others say if other Protestants want to accommodate science, fine. But they shouldn't be surprised if their faith unravels.

It's not the respect of the world, you twit. It's believing things that are congruous with what science and math and history tell us about the world. If you're ignoring science and truth simply to keep alive a very narrow version of a faith, you're a fool. Christians everywhere, including the sciences, have found ways to integrate their faith with what science tells us about the world. Sorry, I'm not kicking biologists out of colleges so we can keep the primordial incestuous family alive. It's just...well, I was going to say silly, but this seems more egregious than that.

A Rose by Any Name Would Smell as Orthopraxic, or How to Label Christians, Part II

This is going to sound silly and naive, but I know no other way to say it. Christians should let other people label them. They should use the moniker "Christian" and let everyone try to figure out what they believe based on what they do. They should speak to the press as rarely as possible, and they should almost never send a press release. Ah, hell, never send a press release. Ever. Unless it's to your tribe, and then it's called a newsletter or announcement. 

In Comp II, we'd call that a thesis, and I'm prepared to defend it because no other method seems to make any sense at this point. I'm finally old enough (47) to have seen a dozen or more allegedly major movements come and go. Rarely did one stay for more than a decade, and most fizzled well before the decade mark, if by movement you mean a trans-traditional collection of doctrines and practices that is either reactionary or revolutionary. I take reactionary to mean against some set of doctrines and practices, as in Lutheranism contra Catholicism. I take revolutionary to mean innovative without being necessarily reactionary, as in the impulse is more new than angry. 

Last post, in addition to pillorying Tony Jones, I stated why I think some of the new candidates for Christian labels are insufficient, if not outright silly, redundant, vague, or painfully obscure. It's a clear case of trying too hard to come up with a cool label that sounds theological. Here I confess my own historical guilt. In two successive emergent communities, I chose the names AWE (alternative worship experience) and Kaleo (as in God calls). My hands are clearly not clean. Just sayin'. I mentioned the post to the hhdw, and she said, "This is just stupid. They should just go with 'Christian' and leave it at that." I initially attempted to explain why I thought that was short-sighted, especially in light of the journalism angle. After thinking about it for a day or so, and after asking myself what I would do as a journalist if someone said in response to a tribal question "I'm just a Christian," I've decided that she's right. Sometimes the simplest response is the best response. We theo-philosophy nerds can get our knickers bunched so tight that the circulation to our balls (brains) gets cut off.

For every new label a tribe chooses, they will be required to answer follow-up questions. Remember the consternation among the masses when people started calling themselves "emergent?" Remember the shitty journalism that followed? The kinds of stories that confused an aesthetic for a theological position? The kind that confused theological questions for heterodoxy? The intractable emergents who refused to offer denotative definitions for the term? Ah, good times. Those times will come again, and this time, for the love of all that's holy, just say Christian. At least that way a small collection of gatekeepers can't insist they know Christian (emergent) books from non-Christian (non-Emergent) books. Most of the shitty journalism could have been avoided had emergents followed a simple plan. They just talked too much and never really said anything. Everyone who writes for a living knows that you eventually have to say something, anything that makes sense, or you're just full of shit. Emergents never did make much sense, but they couldn't shut the hell up.

The follow-up question is usually a variation of "what tradition are you?" This is the point where journalists like myself attempt to understand all the subtexts. This is the point we hope to trap you into a confession, or worse, a juicy heresy. Just fuck us over. Say Christian, and then we'll have to do our jobs. We'll have to think of better questions or follow you around. For every question about what you believe (Bible, inspiration, Trinity, tongues, Eucharist, politics, etc.) just answer with a simple statement of what your faith leads you to do: feed the hungry, go to law school to fight injustice, move to Africa to build fresh water wells, work in battered women's shelters, write amazing novels, make music. Just don't say "I believe" unless it's followed by "God wants me to X" where X is an activity every human being can agree is non-douchey. 

Journalists, even religion journalists, aren't sufficiently schooled in religion to make up a label at that point. I'm schooled in religion, and I won't use a label unless I know what you believe or confess. If you say you're just trying to live redemptively, what label could I use? Redemptive Christian? That doesn't suck. If they're not schooled, and all goes well, worst case scenario is they call you activists or social justice Christians (depending on X, of course). Best case scenario is they write, "Christian A seems to defy categorization, but his life is dedicated to X." Wouldn't that be fuckin' refreshing...

A Rose by Any Name Would Smell as Kerygmatic, or How to Label Christians

What kind of Christian are you? Evangelical? Well, see, that really means literalist or fundamentalist these days. How 'bout progressive? That just means liberal. Emergent? Ha! Good luck with that one. After Tony Jones and his band of merry marketers finished sucking the blood out of that label (sorry, leaf logo), all of Christendom is trying to figure out what to call people who want to be Christians but don't want to be douches, or even lumped in with the douches. This topic has made its way around techno-Christendom of late, and I've even weighed in, mainly in response to a post on Tripp Fuller's site. I actually agreed with Tony that evangelical is only useful for politically and theologically conservative Christians; moderate to liberal evangelicals will need to find a new word. My agreement, it seems, ends there, especially in light of Tony's new post.

Dr. Jones (that's what his new book jacket says, so I'm going with it, even though most folks don't put their credentials in front of their names on book jackets...) has chosen five new labels to replace "progressive." He warns Christians that they can use labels like Christ-follower if they like, but they should be aware that journalists will choose a label for them beyond that quaint nomenclature.

Here's why I get to weigh in. I'm a journalist. I write about religion, among other things. Unlike most journalists, I have a degree in Biblical Studies and a graduate degree in Theology. That means I understand the language and labels a shad better than my colleagues. Jones is right that we will refer to you crazy Jesus lovers with labels. The old ones are Catholic, mainline, evangelical, liberal, and fundamentalist. There are others, but those cover a pretty good spectrum. Believe it or not, good journalism doesn't use fundamentalist unless the topic is reactionary Christianity ca. 1930. We try to be careful with labels. That's why it's critically important to choose the correct label. That was the beauty of emergent, until Jones and his ilk made it Emergent, and it's painfully ironic that he is now calling for the masses to come up with a new name. Perhaps he sees a new book deal in the future. Alas, not with these labels...

Jones has chosen a top 5 (and by top I mean he likes them, not that they are good ideas).

  • Open Christian
  • Trinitarian Christian
  • Kerygmatic Christian
  • Prophetic Christian
  • Incarnational Christian

Um. Wow. As a journalist, I feel compelled to ask, once a label like that is offered, "what the fuck are you talking about?" Labels are supposed to help clarify who a person is and what his tribe believes. Let's go through the list and see how well each candidate succeeds.

Open? As in Open Theism? As in open to LGBT persons? As in open to correction? All this label does is demand follow-up questions. And let's assume that it's a theological category (even though I don't think it is), it would only speak to a narrow set of theological conclusions about God's nature, knowledge, and activity, not a believer's politics, values, or habits.

Trinitarian. The worst of the list in terms of a vague redundancy. Did you mean Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Anabaptist, Methodist? You haven't narrowed anything down, except to exclude a few Black, Oneness, and Apostolic churches. I might as well call you an historically orthodox Christian.

Kerygmatic. The worst in terms of the "what the fuck does that mean" effect. Kerygma. Greek. Proclamation. Yeah, that's helpful. We're talking about journalists here, not your nerdy profs from grad school. The journalists write for the public, and as a rule, they know less than journalists. Try to avoid ancient languages when "clarifying" issues.

Prophetic. Sigh. Really? How is this helpful? The vaguest of the vague. Pentecostal? IHOP? Charismatic? Jewish? Messianic Jew? Given to annoying and tear-filled jeremiads? Making up shit you hear "God" say? Living eschatologically? Bitching about capitalism? Wearing a robe and Birkenstocks? Joining the local food co-op? This could mean nearly anything, except "I love whores and booze."

Incarnational. I thought about being incarnational, but then I decided I disliked my body, so only my spirit is Christian now. Ok, fair enough. This could actually mean someone who thinks it's important to live where she ministers. That would actually be refreshing, but again, Catholics have been doing this for 1800 years. How are you clarifying anything?

It's time for new words, I agree, but this top 5 list reeks of over-theologizing. Labels ought to be simple, and not associated with current movements/definitions is really helpful too. (Too bad you roundly fucked emergent, eh? An elegant, simple, little word sacrificed on the altar of Mammon. There is justice here, though. Jones's new book is about emergent ecclesiology...crickets...silence...awkward...can I get a rim shot?)

Will the Real Evangelicals Please Stand Up, Part II, or Lexical Peek-a-Boo

I begin nearly every religion course by asking a simple question: Should we allow people to self-identify as members of a particular faith community? Seems simple, right? If you say you're a Christian, you're a Christian. The American impulse toward individualism cringes at the idea of not allowing this simple exercise in self-determination, as if self-determination somehow trumps collective identity.

The question really arose from my journalism experience, because editors will occasionally ask questions about what the other perspective on a religion story is. Having read some inflammatory comments from a splinter group, one will ask, "What about this group of female Catholic priests?" I will patiently explain that there is no such thing as a female Catholic priest, and any group that claims to be ordaining women to the priesthood has placed itself outside the parameters of what is considered Catholicism. This is an easier taxonomic decision than broader terms like Christian and Muslim provide. Things get even more difficult when non-theological terms are used in the context of taxonomies in middle-tier Christian classification: progressive, liberal, conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist. I'll happily admit the latter two are, in order, sort of theological but really sociological, and theological as long as we're talking about the early 20th century Christian movement and its offspring. This confusion came to a head on Tripp Fuller's Homebrewed Christianity recently.

Tripp, long a friend of the parish, has a guest post entry that, although possibly not directly in response to a comment I left on his site, certainly refers to one of my positions, at least obliquely. The whole kerfuffle started because I took issue with evangelicals (yet undefined) attempting to co-opt C.S. Lewis yet again as a mascot in the "who's the best damn evangelical" game. Lewis, an Anglican, and in those days that actually meant Anglo-Catholic, at least theologically, was clearly not an evangelical by any definition I can think of, unless you choose to be so reductionistic in classification that JP II would also make the cut. Anyway, Deacon Bo (the author) and I exchanged friendly barbs, but I actually got too busy to get back to the conversation. One of the issues we had was over my weariness at the use of obscure terms like "progressive" and "missional." The former is a theological term according to Bo. As he defines it, it surely is, but he's one of about seven people who accept that definition. I tend to hear it used as a kinder, gentler euphemism for liberal, a position that Bo believes is a "flippant dismissal." He brings John Cobb into the fray for the sake of denotative definitions of the two terms.

Liberal simply means that one recognizes human experience as a valid location for the theological process. Progressive means that one takes seriously the critique provided by feminist, liberation, and post-colonial criticisms.

First things first. Why a process theologian gets to enter the fray over definitions discussed in the evangelical community is curious. I'll toss out a challenge that process is not equal to evangelical, not if you mean for the latter to actually have a definition that Bo believes is historically grounded. If we're letting Anglo-Catholics and Process theologians into the camp, your tent pegs might be a tad wide to maintain coherent definitions. This seems to be yet another case of evangelicals letting anyone in from whom they can borrow credibility, especially academic or theological credibility.

Second, I actually like Cobb's definitions. Too bad no one I know who uses the term Progressive means it like that. I suppose if you're smart enough to go to the American Academy of Religion's national meeting and actually understand what's being said, you might mean what Cobb says the word means. The funny thing about definitions though is that they aren't determined by some sort of authoritative book (dictionary) or person (theologian); they are determined by usage. In that sense, my comment remains intact. Since progressive is now largely within the domain of politics, and since it is typically used as a euphemism for liberal, you can't borrow the term without borrowing the grammar. Bo and Process friends can fight for the definition Cobb offers, and I happily predict they will be as successful as moderates who now fight for the term Evangelical. It's rare that I agree with Tony Jones, but in this case I do; the naming rights and definitional parameters of "evangelical" have been won by theological conservatives, and the rest of you might just as well move along. Find a new word.

Third, the definitions offered by Cobb seem to make more sense when Progressive is understood as a subset of Liberal. It seems clear to me that to take seriously the "critique provided by feminist, liberation, and post-colonial criticisms" at least means that you must take seriously the idea that human experience is "a valid location for the theological process." How else did theologians develop these criticisms if not within the domain of human experience? The definitions seem to be verging on a tautology, but there is enough nuance between them to prevent that, yet they are clearly a difference of degree, not kind.

I'm sympathetic to the Tripps and Bos and other friends I have who seek to be faithful to the Gospel while eschewing labels and associations that call into question their mission in the world. I'm pretty sure nothing is helped by the redefining of political terms, nor is the appropriation of nebulous labels (missional) all that helpful either. The obsession with naming has grown wearying in the past two decades, and terms like missional and emergent best illustrate the inability of what used to be centrist to left evangelicals to name themselves something that will help the rest of us, including journalists, know exactly who the hell they are and what the hell they believe. Their cause is not helped by marketing and fame whores who destroy the usefulness of the labels, and no one is more guilty of this than the Emergent leaders (notice the big E) and the publishers who sought to make money from the movement or to advance their voice/profile/name within the movement. Moneychangers, anyone?

Can You Believe Both Those Things at Once? Yes. But Can Both be True?

Intersessions are grueling. I try to teach one each time they are available for a couple reasons: 1. on the whole, a better quality of students (driven, motivated, prepared, less whiny), and 2. I get paid for an entire class at the end of the month, rather than four separate payments. At the end of day 4, the students will loathe the sound of my voice, and Friday is always miserable because I've completely exhausted them with questions they can't answer. The cycle begins over the second week, but it takes less time for them to hate me, as they're still in psychic shock from week one.

We finished day two today. I typically being Comp II by having them read Ethics, by Linda Pastan. We talk about ethics, and ultimately morality and its origin. By the end of hour two of the four hour day, their eyes are starting to get bloodshot, foreheads are resting against palms, and looks of irritation flash across their faces as I continue to insist they answer the question: where does morality come from? We deconstruct all the answers, refute all the trite aphorisms, quibble about the Bible versus other texts, shred God's law, navigate Moses, Hammurabi, and the Bill of Rights, finally settling for whatever answers the students started with: my mom, god, the Bible, internal moral compass, we make the shit up as we go, social contract, etc. The goal is not to deconstruct their faith, but to deconstruct their lazy thinking. It's exhausting, and that's day one.

Day two, today, is a recap of Randall Kenan's The Foundations of the Earth. In the past, I've bitched about students' inability to identify biblical allusions: Gabriel, Hezekiah, the damn title, Maggie's vision, gird up your loins like a man, etc. Today I realized I'm more disturbed that even with the biblial allusions explained, the story explicated, and the clear point that Kenan is making written on the boad, students were incapable of answering a simple question: why can we not assume homosexuality is a moral choice in light of Kenan's argument? (The three students who offered cogent counter arguments to Kenan's thesis were all self-described non-Christians, including two atheists.)

Here's his point: inasmuch as Christians prefer one text over another when texts clearly contradict, they implicitly admit to having a criteria by which they determine which text has more authority. It only takes about five minutes, or ten if they're stubborn, to show the foolishness of assuming a hermeneutical method can be consistently applied throughout the Bible. All Christians confer differing degrees of authority on texts, and the criteria they use is one of the hardest things to flesh out, hidden as it is under layers of preference and convenience and denial and piety. Kenan's argument leads the reader to conclude that the text about homosexuality in Leviticus has less authority than a commandment. Once you introduce the issue of graded authority, you're left holding a collection of texts that inevitably slam into each other, and the real world. Fundamentalists do not fare well in this environment.

One student anticipated where the conversation was headed vis-a-vis gay marriage and the Constitution, and asked why Christians think the law of God ought to be the law of a country. We briefly discussed moral, civil, and ceremonial law, the death of Jesus, the parsing of the Law, and how, if they wish to be consistent, the Law must be an extension or at least emblematic of God's character, not a list of arbitrary rules that we are obliged to follow but He is not "because He's god." Another student took issue. God can do what he wants, she insisted. Then you can't trust him, I replied. Why not? Because if he can do what he wants, he can lie to you and you may not be saved after all. He doesn't lie, she said. You said he can do whatever he wants. He can, but he doesn't lie. How can you know that? Because he says his word can be trusted. But you said he can do whatever he wants. She failed to realize the contradiction she'd wandered into. She insisted she wasn't contradicting herself. I finally asked the class to say whether she was or not. They agreed she was. I still don't think she believes it.

She is not alone in using language as explanation even when it explains nothing. She kept insisting that God can't lie because she'd always been told that. She even believes it, and she simultaneously believes he can do whatever he wants. So, does he not want to lie or can he not lie, and could he if he wanted to? This is problematic when assigning absolute truth values to texts that seem to say two different things: love your enemy versus hate your enemy kind of stuff. For the Christian who would then point to Jesus bringing a new law, I'll just sigh deeply and say, "I know. But are you obligated to keep the new law, or does he just say all that stuff so you'll despair and rely on grace?" The possible ways to parse texts and corresponding responsibilities in light of texts are dizzying, and I'm finding more and more that students have never been given the skills by their schools or churches to actually flesh out what it is that they're supposed to believe beyond "God likes me. Jesus died for me. I go to heaven." 

Clearly there are ways to make arguments in light of what I've written here and what Kenan argues, but not one person of faith made a good one. A couple atheists and a Science of Mind girl did, but not the Bible believers. Umm...y'all might want to rethink Christian education.