The Divine Conspiracy Continued, or How to Repair the World?

I had lunch with another reverend today, not the Reverend of record, mind you, but another remarkably bright pastor committed to a tradition and a place, in this case a Holiness tradition that I'll leave unnamed for now. We were discussing the idea of a non-material Christianity, which is to say, the ability for people like myself to practice redeeming the world without being beholden to a particular narrative. Four and a half years ago, I wrote this little parable because I was frustrated at the lack of cooperation between theists and non-theists, primarily from the resistance generated by theists. Many seemed more concerned with a form of theism tied to a particular narrative than in actually repairing the world. 

I understand that much of fundangelical theology is not concerned with repairing the world; instead, they opt for a wait until the end approach to eschatology that is borderline triumphalist and despondent at the same time. "We can't fix it, but Jesus will really fix it when He comes back." It is this sort of despondency that gets a full critique in Dallas Willard's Divine Conspiracy, and now, even more so, in the continuation of that work, co-authored after Willard's death by Gary Black, Jr., The Divine Conspiracy Continued: Fullfilling God's Kingdom on Earth

I read Willard "religiously" as a young minister, but it wasn't the theology that attracted me to him. Rather, it was his role as professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California, an unapologeticaly secular school, that helped me choose to pursue my love of philosophy. Willard's thesis in the first Divine Conspiracy was that "God's 'divine conspiracy' is to overcome the human kingdoms of this world with love, justice, and truth." It's clearly more detailed than that, and for my non-theist friends, it is not a theocratic call to arms. Willard was no theocrat, and though I have zero experience of Black, I assume if he and Willard were friends, he is no theocrat either.

The thesis behind the new work is that this divine conspiracy must be carried out by (unfortunately) Christian leaders. I say unfortunately because the task of healing the world need not be limited to one sect of theists, but I don't fault the authors for extending their own narrative into additional arenas of life, specifically "government, education, business or commerce, the professions, and ethics." The authors flesh out the thesis a little on the same page (34):

When leaders, spokespersons, and professionals...become organized with the critical institutions of our society to most positively influence contemporary life for the common good, blessing, goodness, and grace will flow over the land as the waters fill the seas (Hab. 2:14).

Much of the book is concerned with delineating these professions and their attendant responsibilities to help bring about God's divine conspiracy in the world, but not before the authors touch on something that the reverend and I discussed today: moral authority. Willard and Black rightly point out that leaders without moral authority cannot lead; unfortunately, the Church as a whole is flagging in the area of moral authority. Witness the recent plagiarism scandals that caused the celebrity pastors' congregations to simply shrug their shoulders. How does an institution founded on the importance of ethical witness not call leaders to account in those situations? 

When the Church has been the de facto hegemony for generations in this country, identity formation ceases to be important. In fact, only the churches that work with minorities and the marginalized will develop a solid Christian identity, and as segregation and slavery taught us in the South, that identity will often be necessary in the face of the hegemonic forces of cultural Christianity so as not to be robbed of moral authority or effective witness. In short, identity formation in fundangelical circles, especially the predominantly white church, will not take place because their identity as the dominant culture combined with their inability to recognize privilege will carry them wherever they want to go, and it's a very short step to relegating ethics to textbooks so that the insitution can survive even as its witness dies a gasping, wheezing, powerless death. 

Willard is at his best when discussing ethics, and the chapters on authority are worth the price of the book, especially for leaders in any field. Black mentions that Willard's class on business and professional ethics was always popular and full at USC, and that is a credit to his clarity and honesty when dicussing ethics. If the narrative you are shaping your life around does not produce practices consistent with that narrative, what use is the narrative?

On the other side of that, though, is the idea that if the narrative leads you to focus on the narrative as important above praxis, as in you insist on basic beliefs before repairing the world, then you might just as well put your narrative on a pole like the bronze serpent and worship it. Repairing the world is the task of all, not just theists, and it is at particularly this point that I have to disagree with Willard and Black. I don't care about the theological justification for tikkun olam, I care about the repairing of what is broken. The creation was good, is good, and can be good, and that requires the work of all of us.

Progressives get no pass here, either. It's no good to fashion new progressive theologies while deconstructing the text when it's convenient, and then quoting the text when useful from the other side of the coin of convenience. You are constructing a theology in midair. Why hold onto the narrative at all?

The narrative, if it's to be useful at all, must generate practices based on a particular identity, and in this case, Willard and Black at least understand that Christian narrative ought to form Christian character. That is more than the multicampus purveyors of spiritual McReligion understand, and the authors rightly call them out near the end, especially those who run their churches like a business. The "kingdom of God" is not a business, and one will look long and hard to find Jesus making any such reference to it in his parables. But if the narrative creates a special class of leaders whose task it is to bring about the kingdom, then it will miss the larger possibility that a non-material form of the same desire, which is to say those of us outside the narrative who care about redemption, can be an effective ally in the task of tikkun olam. 

Flannery O'Connor in the Real World, or Somebody Save Me (Apologies to Cinderella, the Hair Band)

A friend recently started reading about Flannery O'Connor, and she asked me for a recommendation. She is a Christian, at least in terms of belief, and so, being a bit perverse, I recommended Wise Blood. Honestly, with O'Connor, it's a toss-up in terms of which of her two novels to recommend to the uninitiated: Wise Blood or The Violent Bear it Away.

O'Connor was a savant in the area of the grotesque (the literary form, not just gross), so Christians who read her without proper orientation or explanation are often lost as to how to categorize her writing. O'Connor was unapologetically Catholic, but being from early 20th century Georgia meant she encountered the worst of Southern Christianity in its postbellum varieties.

For students, I have assigned O'Connor's brilliant and timeless short story A Good Man is Hard to Find since I started teaching English, even in high school. She's a darkly witty, insightful writer whose imminent death from lupus only added to the biting nature of her wisdom. In an American evangelical Christianity eaten up with therapeutic notions of God's preference for their own happiness, O'Connor is a much-needed tonic that adds a requisite bitterness and somber tone to an otherwise Pollyanna evangelical soteriology: God likes me and wants me to be happy, here and in Heaven.

If you haven't read Wise Blood, just know that it's one of the most bizarrely dark comic novels of all time, and it's not comedy in the Classical sense of the term. The comedy is hard to spot if you're too close to the narrative of salvation, and I'm sure what I'm about to write would be widely contested by Catholic and Protestant fans of O'Connor, but the whole narrative is based on an assumption I find to be fairly common for practitioners of theistic faiths.

O'Connor's protagonist, and I use the term loosely, Hazel Motes, ultimately tries in vain to redeem himself. The plot is an extension of the idea that those of us who have given up on theism will find alternate roads to redemption since the quest for redemption is hard-wired into the human condition. It's a more sophisticated version of the "god-shaped hole" trope, but it's not really sophisticated. The position asserts a preference that is related to enculturation and indoctrination, not a state that actually exists outside of a particular tribe.

Having grown up in church, I was taught that we all yearn for salvation, but that particular yearning is often hard to identify outside of a community that makes clear the point of our dissatisfaction. In other words, the human tendency to be dissatisfied or bored with the familiar is defined as a desire for salvation, even if the person lacks the proper vocabulary to explain her angst. Post-salvation, angst is explained as an inability to understand who I am "in Christ," or as a struggle with the spirit/flesh dichotomy. Honestly, there are a dozen different explanations, but all fail to take into account the simplest explanation: we are easily dissatisfied, with no metaphysical reason. The human condition is imperfect, so angst and ennui are part of it, as are joy and hate and love and lust.

This assumption that we all crave redemption is actually inculcated from the very earliest age in church circles. This is a particularly Christian idea since other theistic faiths don't posit some state of fallenness from which God must save us. More than a few sects of Christianity, including the Orthodox, depart from this Catholic/Protestant doctrine, too, by the way. Basically, we who grew up in church were taught that we desire salvation, and then we're taught that outside of church, any unfulfilled longing we have will be a result of not embracing salvation that is only available through Jesus.

Imagine teaching young people that they are fine just like they are, but that they need to work on certain character deficincies like selfishness, vanity, gluttony, cruelty, etc. They don't have a metaphysical problem that can only be solved by the most dubious of actions (God dies to propitiate God); rather, they have character issues that are solved by working hard on being better people. Those young people would not have a "god-shaped hole." They would have an understanding that virtue must be practiced, and that the angst or ennui or dissatisfaction they feel is part of being human, and those are best combatted with friendship, purpose, discipline, and a realistic sensibility of what it is to be human.

The need for salvation is taught; it's not a default condition that all humans recognize. The inability of faith communities to recognize how language shapes our experience of reality is frustrating, and the tendency to accept communicated traditions without deconstructing those traditions has led to no small amount of human suffering. O'Connor's novel worked for Christian audiences because the pathos generated by Hazel Motes as he suffered for his own redemption was a metaphorical reinforcement of a preferred dogma. It worked for outsiders because the grotesque managed to reveal the absurdity of believing dogmas that had no shred of proof in the world, especially in a world so reflexively crude, violent, cruel, and stupid. O'Connor got that part very right; she lived in the South, after all. Believe in salvation if you must, but let's not pretend it's yet made the world a better place. and Plagiarism: Doubling Down, or Groeschel Still Oblivious to Definition of Plagiarism

The amazing Sarah Pulliam Bailey was tasked with writing the article I referenced in the previous post about pastor Craig Groeschel's plagiarism, as well as that of UFC Pastor Marc Driscoll. First, my quibble with her vocabulary: Murphy, who emailed me after the previous post, did not "suggest" that Groeschel had plagiarized. He gave incontrovertible evidence that Groeschel had plagiarized. In fact, it's pointless to use the word suggested, as the evidence given by Murphy makes this such an obvious case that Groeschel would fail a college comp class and be referred to the VP of Academic Affairs for such an egregious example of plagiarism. Turns out, has less thoroughgoing ethics than the average community college. Good to know the state of the kingdom, eh? Quibble number two, which authors are never responsible for: the title. The internet is not responsible for an increase in plagiarism; pastors are responsible for plagiarizing. That the internet makes it easier, if less easy to get away with, is an easily observable fact, but the fault lies not with technology, which is always morally neutral, but with the men and women who plagiarize because they are lazy or dishonest. 

The reasons offered for the plagiarizing are so bad it's hard to take them seriously. That professors and theologians and pastors don't know the difference between public domain material like Dr. King's I Have a Dream speech and published material not in the public domain is astonishing. That the Church doesn't insist on a higher standard of ethical behavior is equally astonishing. That Groeschel won't simply admit he plagiarized ought to disqualify him from the pulpit, but that's not the way celebrity Christianity works. What matters is not the Sermon on the Mount; rather, it's how an individual congregant feels about his pastor. The irony of a religion based on ethical monotheism ignoring ethics will be lost on the average congregant, as evangelicalism long ago transitioned to some form of moralistic, therapeutic deism (that's Christian Smith, by the way--see how easy attribution is to pull off), but it's not lost on outsiders who judge the faith and the faith's practitioners by what they actually do, not believe. 

Duke has always been one of my favorite theological centers, but if Richard Lischer is representative of the sort of thinking going on there now, they should either shut down or fire someone who rattles off this sort of nonsense: “It’s the nature of preaching. It’s like singing a song. You don’t just sing it once to never sing it again,” Lischer said. “It’s not so much cheating as it’s demonstrating a continuity with people who came before.”

Professor Lischer should teach Comp I or II. I'd love to see his face when a student says, "I didn't plagiarize The Economist. I was singing a song. You know, demonstrating continuity with those who came before." The Church, which pretends to be a moral beacon in this world, might want to actually try being a moral beacon on issues like plagiarism, intellectual property, and honesty. Jesus died so lazy pastors could use crib notes. That's a fitting epitaph for modern evangelicalism, I suppose. and Plagiarism, or Legally Borrowing Thoughts on Celebrity Christianity

Early last week I received word from two editors that they would not be pursuing a story about plagiarism by Craig Groeschel, senior pastor (lead pastor, vision caster, whatever the hell it's called these days) of If you don't know, is based in Edmond, OK, the OKC metro's northernmost suburb. There are two campuses in Edmond, and a total of 19 campuses in 5 states. I have no idea what the actual attendance is, but seven years ago it was over 20,000. There were only 12 campuses then, so the math probably means about 30,000 "members." doesn't use the word member in terms of church membership, so let's just call them 30K attenders who are, in the parlance of the Warrenite theology teaches, attempting to become "fully devoted followers of Christ." (If anyone knows the origin of that phrase in church mission statements, please let me know.) Back in my faith days, the days when I had a dog in the fight, I went to great lengths to critique the theology of LCTV and Groeschel, but I've left that alone for the most part since I left the faith in 2006. However, during that time, I always defended Craig, someone I've known since about 1997 or 1998, as a man of principle and a pretty upstanding guy.

The last conversation I had with him was a phone call he made after a particularly testy exchange on this blog under the old "Size Matters, I Think" posts. I defended his character to someone who was accusing him of all manner of awfulness. Craig simply called to say thanks. "It means a lot to me that my most vocal critic defends my character," he said. Back in the day, we were almost friends, and I'll always be grateful for the support he provided after my divorce and church closing in 1999.

When a local station ran a story about pastor houses in the metro and was unable to find Groeschel's house, a friend found it hidden in a trust, not owned outright in Groeschel's name. It wasn't exactly modest, but it didn't rise to the level of absurdity that some did. I thought at the time that Groeschel was allowing his lifestyle to determine his salary rather than vice versa, but it didn't really rise to the level of egregious (unless you ignore all those things Jesus said about wealth and ministry, but evangelicals have been doing that since the Billy Graham approach was deemed too poverty-minded).

I'm a big fan of Warren Throckmorton's blog on Patheos. He does a solid job of tracking certain trends and douchery in American Christianity. A couple weeks ago, he posted the story of Groeschel's plagiarizing of Danny Murphy, a writer who sold a piece to The Door Magazine back in 2000. The whole thing is detailed via the links on Throckmorton's site.

Suffice it to say, it's clear it was plagiarism. The book in which Murphy's parody article was plagiarized went out of print and was reissued in 2011 under a different title: Love, Sex, and Happily Ever After: Preparing for a Marriage That Goes the Distance. When Murphy pressed the plagiarism issue and showed Multnomah the side-by-side comparison of his work and Groeschel's words, Multnomah reprinted the book with a footnote giving Murphy credit early this year in record time. Good for them for taking it seriously and being responsive, by the way.

From what I have seen, Groeschel has never admitted it was plagiarism. I was doing preliminary interviews for the story, which I assumed some editor would be interested in (silly me), so I contacted LCTV. Not sure you've ever tried to talk to a megachurch pastor, but these days, only their families, executive assistants, sound check guy, worship pastor, friends, and leadership team talks to them. Why are they still called pastors? No idea, but more on that in a bit.

Lori Bailey, LCTV's director of communications (yes, you can import a vocabulary without importing a grammar, right?), responded after I accidentally reached LCTV's staff attorney. You read that right. A church with a staff attorney. Just what Jesus had in mind, I'm sure. Anyway, Bailey was very helpful and gracious, as she always has been, and she sent me a reply from Groeschel. Yes, pastors issue statements via communications professionals now, because they aren't communications professionals themselves? Before you read Groeschel's reply, you really need to see the excerpts that Groeschel used from Murphy's work next to Murphy's work. Scroll down to the image of Vows of Cohabitation and start reading. Simply no way that one isn't lifted from the other. So here is what Groeschel "said" through his communications director, and really, who the hell knows who actually writes this stuff.

"I feel strongly about giving credit and have done so over and over again in sermons and books. We first used this idea in a sermon illustration video, which I sincerely thought was an original concept developed before the author’s article. To be above reproach, I asked my publisher to give this author credit, which is already reflected in the most recent reprinting of the book where this illustration is used."

Note there is no confession of guilt, no I’m sorry, no repentance, just an affirmation of how “above reproach” he is. I've been writing for money since 1990. I know when my words are my words, and I know when I'm not dealing with an original concept. In church business and theology, we all borrow ideas from our idols or we mock those ideas with which we disagree. However, if I developed an "original" idea that was identical word for word for hundreds of words with a piece of writing that predated mine, I would have to be seriously deluded to pretend it was anything other than plagiarism. Or just lying. You simply can't reproduce ideas with the sort of one to one correspondence seen in Groeschel's theft of Murphy's work. And as far as above reproach, that ship sailed. From what Murphy said, it's unclear whether Groeschel or the publisher insisted on the reprint with attribution. If that's incorrect, I'll apologize once I see the communication between Groeschel and Multnomah.

One editor said they might roll the Groeschel plagiarism into a longer piece that included Driscoll and others who have been caught recently. Another said Groeschel didn't do it often enough to worry about it. Yes, an editor said one clearly egregious case of plagiarism from the senior pastor of our state's largest church didn't warrant a story. An editor. Of a newspaper. I'm still befuddled by that response. It is unfortunately true that we soon become accustomed to things that are not as they ought to be, especially when those who commit the offenses are celebrities, and it's clear that celebrity plagiarism is no big deal.

Watch this. I'm about to give credit to someone for an idea that I know isn't mine, but I read and agreed with it and so have incorporated it into my way of understanding how the world functions. Zach Hoag and I don't know each other. I only know of him through Stephanie Drury's zany, painfully sane twitter account (@StuffCCLikes). However, I followed a link to his blog one day and read his thoughts on celebrity in the Church. He identified a few characteristics, but two have stuck with me because they so accurately describe my experience of talking to Christians about their celebrity pastor/writer heroes.

Hoag said celebrity culture created in us a false sense of relationship with the celebrity. Because of this faux relationship, people who don't know the celebrity will defend the celebrity for even the most egregious offenses rather than hold them accountable for their behavior. Really, really insightful stuff, and I even included a link to Mr. Hoag, so you can read his stuff for yourself. That's the opposite of plagiarism, and it's what I teach my students to do. One of the editors asked how I thought LCTV would respond to Groeschel's plagiarism. I don't remember my answer, but it should have been that they would defend him even when he said something as patently absurd as he thought it was an original idea. They are invested in this man who purports to be a pastor, but is, in fact, a celebrity. Pastors actually pastor people; they don't project their heads to large screens around the country where the adoring masses make celebrities of them and defend what is clearly indefensible. And they don't make statements through communication professionals. They, like Jesus, want their yes to be yes, and their no to be no, and if posible, actually their words. All else is dishonesty. 

The Bible and Gayness, or The Myth of Biblical Authority

That someone who attended Patrick Henry College does not like Matthew Vines, author of God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships, makes it highly probable that I would like Mr. Vines. The response to Vines's book has been predictable and predictably bad from the theological left and right. Vines attempts to use the Bible to show that same-sex relationships are not incompatible with the Christian life. While his hermeneutical passion is admirable, I think he makes the same mistake as his theological opponents: he takes the Bible too seriously

As a professor, I am often forced to wade into the murky waters of religion, religious practice, and religious justifications for ethics and public policy. I typically enjoy the conversations, but I am frequently confronted with students whose exegetical and hermeneutical skills are less than ideal, yet they have been taught a particular way of using their texts without ever understanding why their text should matter in conversations beyond their tribe. I have lengthy conversations about the Bible, the Tanakh, and the Qur'an, but most students (and pastors) have no idea why their text should be preferred over another, except that theirs is the one God wrote or helped write. As a former believer, I have a difficult relationship with the Bible and with sacred texts in general.

While I appreciate what these books are, I'm troubled by the persistent insistence that we use them to shape policy and ethics. Of the three main Westernish ones, the Qur'an, the latest, was compiled in written form in 650 CE. We can charitably assume the Tanakh takes its nearly final form in the fifth century BCE, and the Christian Bible is complete by the fourth century CE. Well, sort of. The Council of Trent (1546 CE) decided the Apocryphal books were canonical, but the Protestant church mostly disagreed, thanks in large part to Luther, who also didn't care much for Esther. All that to say, the big monotheistic faiths can't agree which text(s) is authoritative.

Sacred texts are not sacred because god(s) wrote them; they are sacred because a particular community of faith declares them sacred. The same community declares them authoritative. As to whether god(s) actually wrote one of them, that is a question that can only be answered honestly with, "I don't know." That the Bible says it is inspired is perhaps the worst case of begging the question in print. If a book says it's trustworthy, it's trustworthy because it says so?

I'm not sure many believers hold to the notion that god(s) wrote their book. Islam, which has always maintained that the words of the Qur'an are the actual words of Allah, found a way to subvert the words of Allah by means of the Hadith tradition. An oral tradition with its chain of authorities manages to make the authoritative text moot by means of questionable chains of transmission. Christians by and large do not believe God literally dictated the Bible, and even when really smart people say something really dumb, as in Chicago once upon a time, that only shows that really smart people can say really dumb things especially when they do so in a group whose sole purpose is to protect the group's identity and sacred totems.

Chicago was where the definitive statement on the Bible's inerrancy was written, but with the caveat that it only applied to the original autographs. You know, the original written version of texts like the Pentateuch that were oral tradition for centuries. Those autographs are guarded by a unicorn in the Garden of Eden or the ruins of Atlantis, I suppose. Not to worry, though, as these folks knew that God intended His "word" to be preserved, therefore, it makes total sense that He protected it. Begging the question seems to be endemic to certain strains of theism. Inerrancy was to be a short cut to answering the question of authority. Why should I trust the Bible? "Because it's without error. Well, not your version. Manuscript zero was, but we no longer have that, but you should totally make this an article of faith. Trust us." All claims to authority are based on the power, influence, and prestige of the individual making the claim, not the text itself.

The problem here is that once you admit God(s) didn't author the text, you are left with the difficult task of explaining why anyone should take it seriously, especially when you are using it to enforce particular behaviors or prohibitions. (If you believe God wrote the text, I have no idea what to say to you.) Fundamentalists in the Christian tribe have long opted for "fulfilled prophecies" and proof texts attesting to the Bible's authority, and other such nonsense, while more moderate evangelicals have believed in authority without being able to clearly articulate what the word actually means, other than some generic idea like, "I ought to believe the Bible because it's God's Word," never bothering to parse that idea either. So, authority functions as a warrantless warrant. In other words, if I need you to believe something, I'm going to give you a good reason to believe it (a warrant); in the absence of a good reason, I need something to stand in for that good reason, a warrantless warrant in this case—a good reason that is neither good nor an acceptable reason. Unfortunately, unless the mechanism for authority can be explained in a meaningful way, why would anyone embrace the idea that this concept somehow makes unbelievable things or unprovable things more believable?

For that reason, authority is an ambiguous concept in every case where it's applied to a sacred text. Authority, I think, is supposed to mean that the text by virtue of what it is gets to define in a particular or occasionally general way who a community is (ontology), how they interact as individuals and a group (ethics), what they ought to believe (doctrine), and how they ought to minister in the world (praxis and worship). However, rather than be able to clearly define the mechanism by which authority governs the community's identity, belief, and practices, the concept of authority is used in often ad hoc ways, making it clearly subject to the demon of context. It's like a trump card, pulled out when necessary but in a game that doesn't involve trumps, or a statistic you make up in the middle of an argument you're losing, not really substantive, but damn useful if your opponent accepts it.

To say that authority is used in an ad hoc way is not to say that there are no things that have been decided for a long time, as there clearly are, but the truth of the application of authority is that those things that have been decided stay that way until they are no longer decided (e.g., slavery, sexuality, women in ministry, etc.). It's also true that some things that have been decided aren't all that important in human life or theological belief. Once something becomes undecided due to new information, social change, better exegesis, or new leadership (you know it's happened), the argument from authority is applied, and it's done so in a way that feels coercive or abusive or prejudicial or simply preferential, because, as I've already stated, there is no sensible way to explain how Biblical authority actually works. That's because all sacred texts are authoritative because a particular community says so. That's it. The Council of Trent said the Apocrypha was authoritative. The Protestant churches disagreed. Who sorts this out? Any argument from tradition only admits that tradition trumps Biblical authority. It's amusing at this point that conservative evangelicals are making arguments from tradition that sound just like a Catholic arguing for the authority of the Magisterium. You can change the word, but you can't change the grammar, folks. All Protestants are ultimately Catholics inasmuch as they read the Bible and believe it authoritative; it wasn't Protestants who selected those 66 books. 

And so we arrive at Mr. Vines attempting to convince the Church that the Bible, read correctly, makes room for same-sex relationships. While I admire his attempt, and let's be honest, I do so because I think same-sex relationships are fine for people who are attracted to the same sex, I think it's a mistake to play the hermeneutics game. What you need is not a new interpretation grounded in Paul or Greek or the Church Fathers, but a community that confers authority on your understanding of the grammar of Christianity. Justifications always follow beliefs. Get enough people to believe something, and you can find a chain of authorities in the form of verses or voices that will establish your beliefs. Doctrine becomes doctrine because enough people agree that it is so. Example? Sure.

In the early 1970s, my Pentecostal mother thought the world was coming to an end because the U.S. was normalizing "no-fault divorce." Some of you are too young to remember this tectonic shift in U.S. culture. For those of us who lived through it, even if some of us weren't in churches at the time, we remember the sort of unhinged feeling our parents and grandparents displayed at the time. How could America toy with divorce that was easy, affordable, and without scarlet letters? Still, we did it. The issue passed, and no-fault divorce—ironically, $69 for divorces without property or custody issues—became the norm. The churches had to respond. It took some time to sort it out, but something amazing happened, and it's happening again with the LGBT debate; people started getting divorced, whether from abuse, neglect, dissatisfaction, incompatibility, or other less specific reasons, people started doing what they wanted to do: end bad marriages. (Yes, we can debate for a long time the cultural effects of divorce, but the problem is likely a commitment to traditional ideas of marriage rather than divorce itself. That's another discussion for another time.)

The churches had to respond. Slowly, almost glacially in terms of human lifespan, but in a blink in the lifespan of Christianity, churches decided to allow divorced people into full fellowship. And, if like me you're a religion nerd, you remember when Charles Stanley stayed in the pulpit following his divorce. It's hard not to put that in all caps. A conservative Baptist minister stayed the senior pastor of his congregation subsequent to his divorce, and it was less than one generation after no-fault divorce became legal. Doctrines didn't change first; interpretations didn't change first; exegesis didn't reveal something new first. As is most often the case, theology followed culture. Yes, there are attempts to reconcile Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount with the culture of divorce in the Church, but all fall hopelessly flat. The Church just usually decides Jesus is wrong, and then they act accordingly. It will be the same with this debate, Mr. Vines. All that to say, you don't need to prove to conservatives that the Bible supports your position. I understand that within the tribe that's an important issue, but once you try to bring the issue outside the tribe, you discover that no one cares, it's pointless anyway, and people wonder why you care what a Bronze Age book has to do with 21st century ethics. Rally the tribe. That's where the authority really is; use the Bible after you gather the tribe. That's the way it's always been.

Best of All Possible Worlds, or Don't Speak on These Things

Some of you probably recognize the first phrase in the title. It's Leibniz from his Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man, and the Origin of Evil. The phrase itself, along with a few other themes, is the primary target of Voltaire's withering satire in Candide. It's a work we must discuss in Modern Humanities every semester, and it's a piece of writing that leads to no small amount of consternation in certain students, and no, I don't mean Christian students. Many theist students do quite well with the conversation, some because they don't understand the implications, and others because they're content that the question doesn't point out a fatal flaw in evangelical, Catholic, or moderate theologies. 

Without going into too much detail (sparknote it if you must), Voltaire sets up a tragic farce that juxtaposes Leibniz's phrase with all sorts of horrific realities: poverty, flogging, rape, massacre, sexual slavery, religious hypocrisy, and systemic corruption. The story really is funny, and we in the contemporary world are jaded enough by Scorsese and Tarantino that we are probably ready for a movie version (Please, no Aronofsky, though. Stylized theological bullshit doesn't really interest me, no matter how lovely the cinematography.).

The story is supposed to highlight two questions, one of which I grappled with early in my theological training, and one that helped usher me out of the faith. The first is a false dichotomy. Is God powerful enough to do something about evil but not caring enough to intervene, or does He care about intervening but lack the power to do so in a way that would end the evil? It was readily apparent to me that there is a third way here, even if an unsatsifactory one given traditional, non-Reformed definitions of "god." The Reformed answer is some perverse version of "Whatever God wills is good, so suck it earth people." The non-Reformed wants to keep alive definitions of good and god that are independent of the mistaken assertion that god's actions are the definition of goodness. Rather, they prefer to say that God does the good because it's good.  I worked this one out a while back to my own satisfaction, but none of the answers, quite frankly, are all that great. You're still left wondering why the hell God doesn't do certain things.

The second question is far more difficult, and I ask students a stripped down version of a very complex metaphysical problem: Do we live in the best of all possible worlds, or could you design a better one, or at least improve this one? I don't mean for them to pretend to take on all the questions and complexities that result in changing variables in an oftentimes chaotic system, but I do expect them to think through what the possibilities are in terms of minor adjustments. My favorite example, and yes, I'm aware there are category differences, and I'm likely equivocating on the definition of "design," but it works as a thought experiment to get their brains working.

It's clear humans can't do whatever they want to do. Assuming a theist creation framework, I'm designed to do some things and designed to be unable to do others. For example, I can't flap my arms fast enough to fly, although I can clearly see that flight is possible for some creatures. The idea of flight is pleasing to me, but I am unable to do it. This is not considered an unjust design decision, just a limitation in the form itself. Why not create humans who are incapable of desiring children? Why design that as an option in the form? Given that idea of form limitations, why not eliminate it categorically, and spare the children of the world you're designing the horrors of molestation? 

In just that way, I invite students to improve the design. Most of the answers are straightforward: cancer, rape, poverty, etc. Nothing that will surprise you, because with just a little prodding, we can imagine a better world, a much better world. (We eventually get to the problem of natural evil, but that's not even necessary at this juncture.) Yesterday, one student refused to answer. He simply said he wasn't going to talk about these things. I'm guessing that in his mind we were being blasphemous, or at least arrogant to a sacrilegious degree. I never force the issue at this point; it does more harm than good to insist students trangress a boundary they hold as sacrosanct, even in classes concerned with boundary crossing. 

Inevitably, someone offers one of two possibilities: the by-and-by solution or the higher thoughts solution. We can't understand it now, but we will when it's all over. I like to point out that the answers of this variety rely on a false sense of certainty that there will be a by-and-by, as well as a false sense of certainty that there will be a plausible explanation for all the bullshit. This is the point at which I would like to hand students a copy of The Brothers Karamazov and invite them to read Ivan's exchange with Alyosha, the substance of which is that no answer will explain or atone for the suffering of a child. It's Dostoevsky at his best, but Russian novels are dense ,and well, there's YouTube, so what the fuck...

The higher thoughts solution is silly, too. We can't understand because God's thoughts are higher than ours. One wonders where we obtain reason and logic in such a framework, but it's best not to ask systemic questions when the particular ones are so befuddling to the hearers. I like to point out at this point that the prophet Isaiah is speaking specifically of God's forgiveness of the wicked in this passage, not about the coherence of thought processes and the necessity of logical axioms. In short, God is challenging Isaiah's readers to do the counterintuitive: forgive those who don't seem to deserve forgiveness. 

This feels like the spot for a conclusion, but I can't think of a good one. A call to action? A provocative question? A summary of what's above? I guess the question is the good solution: if God could have designed a better world, and it seems God could have, why didn't sHe? 

The Sword of Six Worlds: A Review, Sort of

Matt Mikalatos has tried his hand at juvenile (in the good sense) fantasy with The Sword of Six Worlds.  He sent me a free copy to review, which shows tremendous courage on his part. I crucified his first book Imaginary Jesus, but he read the review patiently, extracted the good criticism, and forgave me for the histrionics. Thus began our unlikely online friendship. I was far more generous with Night of the Living Dead Christian, partly because it's pretty funny and insightful, and partly because I got to kill off an entire species when I helped Matt edit the draft. RIP, molemen. 

Sword of six worlds

The Sword of Six Worlds is written for kids. I won't guess a precise age, but I know Matt has small children (indeed, the book is dedicated to his three children), and based on the sketched out characters, I'm going with kids who aren't ready for Hunger Games or even the deeper themes of Narnia. Matt writes the story like a man who is comfortable telling stories to kids. His tone is never condescending and always filled with a whimsical wonder. One of the areas where Matt and I have differed substantially is in his kind of humor. In his books for adults, I find the humor too silly, a kind of literary slapstick. However, in Sword it works perfectly. Even in naming his fierce rock creature, Mikalatos understands that children will get the irony of changing Deathbringer's name to Pookie. It didn't work for me (even as I admit I might have smiled a bit), but kids will love it. 

The story is of Validus, a girl who hates her name (It's from the Latin...), who must team up with otherworldly creatures and her best friend, Alex, a boy, to save several worlds from the forces of The Blight. It's swashbuckling fantasy for kids, and it's told with enthusiasm and a genuine love for the genre. The spiritual themes are woven in, not tacked on, so the book never feels preachy. I hope he can keep that tone throughout the upcoming books. Chapters are short and punchy, many with cliffhangers, making this perfect bedtime story material for parents with kids who are young enough to enjoy bedtime stories. The violence, such as it is, is never fatal, nor is it graphic, but Mikalatos includes it because this is a story about battle and swords and such. To avoid it would be false to the genre. Both lead characters are strong, making it good, fun reading for boys and girls, which is not to say that boys wouldn't identify with Validus, because I think they will. She's a strong, vulnerable lead female character, and that Matt has daughters for whom he has high hopes shows up in her character.

How to Talk to Gay People, or Just Admit You're Wrong

I need to apologize to some of my Christian friends for what they are about to read. I seldom work with binaries, as I find them less than useful, and more often than not, I find them to be false dichotomies. However, I think the tenor of a certain debate has reached a point that I'm weary of not saying something directly. This post started as a response to an article (or yet another damn article) in the NYT about the (insert ominous all-cap font) decline of evangelical America. John S. Dickerson, legitimate award-winning journalist, author, and evangelical pastor, wrote the piece as a thubmnail assessment of the paralysis currently suffered by American evangelicalism. His assessment about the symptoms is very accurate. He is, after all, an investigative journalist, and like many of his kind, he is able to look at information without flinching.

In short paragraphs he chronicles the shrinking political influence, the shrinking donations, the loss of young evangelicals, and the inability of evangelicals to "adapt to rapid shifts in the culture," especially same-sex marriage. After talking about a couple healthy signs, including inexplicably megachurches in most large cities (that is surely a sign of cancer, sir), he moves to his main concern:

But all this machinery distracts from the historical vital signs of evangelicalism: to make converts and point to Jesus Christ. By those measures this former juggernaut is coasting, at best, if not stalled or in reverse.

What is unexpected is Dickerson's lack of concern about this malaise. He thinks it a good thing. That is the subject of a future post, and one that I will probably not write until I read his forthcoming book. Dickerson then makes three statements that I want to combine before I get to the main point here.

We evangelicals must accept that our beliefs are now in conflict with the mainstream culture. We cannot change ancient doctrines to adapt to the currents of the day. But we can, and must, adapt the way we hold our beliefs — with grace and humility instead of superior hostility...I believe the cultural backlash against evangelical Christianity has less to do with our views — many observant Muslims and Jews, for example, also view homosexual sex as wrong, while Catholics have been at the vanguard of the movement to protect the lives of the unborn — and more to do with our posture...This does not mean we whitewash unpopular doctrines like the belief that we are all sinners but that we re-emphasize the free forgiveness available to all who believe in Jesus Christ.

Notice that he never says explicitly that gay marriage is wrong. That has to be inferred from the entire piece. What he says is that even if you do think it's wrong, you have to hold that belief with grace and humility. Sigh. I'm so weary of this diagnosis. I will happily grant that encouraging fellow evangelicals to avoid being truculent assholes festooned with douchebag awards is a noble cause and even a good idea. It misses the entire point, though. You can be nice and still support injustice. You can be kind and still be painfully wrong. You can be polite and still be a bigot. 

This will sound crazy to some people, but the Bible gets some stuff wrong. Way wrong. I won't trot out the list of silliness from Leviticus here. Most of you familiar with this debate are familiar with the list. Let's apply Dickerson's thinking to just one historical example: slavery. Imagine a pastor in 1850 saying, "We can't whitewash unpopular doctrines. Slavery is mandated by Scripture. It is God's natural order. What we must do is hold that belief with grace and humility." That's reductio ad absurdum, folks. The method is nonsensical. What matters here is that evangelicals come to the point where they can say they are wrong. Many have. Many try for a middle ground of tolerance and outward love, but believe that it is grievous sin. Many believe they must "speak the truth in love," and how much damage has been done under that fuckin' banner? 

Marcus Borg once offered a sensible rationale for assessing what is and isn't a moral law, especially when wanting to import ostensibly moral laws from the Tanakh. He said that trangression of the law would need to cause obvious harm to individuals or the community in order for it to be considered a moral law (excepting those that are direct offenses against the invisible Being, like blasphemy, I suppose). Those opposed to homosexuality and same-sex marriage are incapable of showing what actual harm would derive from the acceptance of homsexuality as normative within a framework that doesn't see sexuality as a simple binary. If the Bible is treated as a document that requires justification for its claims, and it should be, what is the justification for prohibiting same-sex marriage or homosexual sex? Even if you believe in an invisible being who dispenses divine laws, you must at least ask yourself the rationale for prohibitions. This one seems to have none. Absent a tenable answer for that question, please just admit you're wrong. It's way better than holding outdated, discriminatory beliefs with "grace and humility." Admitting you're wrong is a sign of true humility, in fact.

Cross Roads, Part 2, When is a Metaphor not a Metaphor?

Anthony Spenser, the protagonist of Cross Roads, in addition to being one of the worst two-dimensional caricatures of a pre-redemption Gordon Gecko ever penned, is also in a coma in chapter 4. Spenser was in the coma when he met C.S. Lewis, a fact I forgot to mention last post, not that anything is helped by mentioning it. Now he has met the creepy Jesus who holds him through the night (ewwww), but Jesus is now cutting wood and running a rundown farm or ranch, thus lumberjack/ranch foreman Jesus (can't you just see the Brawny guy?). This is supposed to be a novel, but I assure you, it reads like a sermon with colorful illustrations. I had just gotten used to Young referring to a certain rundown house in Spenser's coma-world as a "habitation" (If you're not a Christian, google Ephesians 2:22. Make sure to read the King James version.) when I happened upon this torturous bit of nonsense. It's lumberjack/ranch foreman Jesus talking:

"We are only able," Jesus continued, "to move at the speed and in the direction the land itself allows. One must relate to it with honor and reverence and let the land speak its own heart. Then, out of respect we must choose to submit to its idea of 'real' and still remain ones who love it toward the true, without faltering, regardless of the cost. To not live for the land in this way is to join all its aggressors, ravagers, users, and benefactors, and then all hope for its healing would be lost." --pg. 60

What we have here is a series of metaphors, right? Even Spencer notices, because he tells Jesus that he's losing the thread of the conversation in trying to keep up with the metaphors. At this point, lumberjack/ranch foreman Jesus utters this howler: "I have not used a metaphor once, while you have done so many times. Because you continue to inhabit and believe your metaphors, you cannot see what is true."

This has to be the worst application of Plato's Allegory of the Cave I have ever come across. First, lumberjack Jesus is wrong. Calling a human a habitation is certainly a metaphor. You might think it's an accurate one, and you'd be left to "prove" it based on Bible verses, but you have to admit it's a metaphor. Referring to humans as land that must be worked? Definitely a metaphor. And that list of naughty people at the end? Metaphors. Clearly ranchhand/lumberjack Jesus slept through English and literature classes. (Or Young did.) What makes it worse, in addition to making Jesus look ignorant of basic definitions, is the way Young once again makes those who doubt his thesis appear to be at fault, or at least blind and stupid. 

May I ask who doesn't inhabit metaphors? Everyone does. It's the nature of language. Much of what we discuss can only be done so metaphorically or analogously. The entire field of religion is based on extended metaphors. That Young misses this is either a function of dishonesty, arrogance, ignorance, or misunderstanding. He believes he is conveying truths about things that can't be known, proven, or seen without the use of metaphors. This is a remarkable feat. Even the authors of the Bible couldn't quite pull that off. Even God, when speaking to the authors of the Bible, couldn't pull that off. It's amazing what a runaway bestseller does to your confidence as a writer.

Young surely means that Spenser inhabits the wrong set of metaphors. That is the most charitable way to see this section. Even allowing that this is a distinct possibility (and I believe it is), we are left to discern which set of metaphors is superior. Plato talked of the light outside the cave that would reveal the world as it is, and there is a metaphorical application to Plato's allegory as well that transcends the merely physical; however, Young would have us leave behind a set of metaphors for an undefined set, and to do so, he asks us to believe the voice of God, but what we seem to have at work here is the voice of Young, and it's terribly confused, even about basic definitions.

Next time. Young knows things are true because he experiences them. Sigh.

Cross Roads, Part 1, or How C.S. Lewis Got Worked into Another Set of Theological Clothes

C.S. Lewis is the paper doll of Christianity. He has been dressed in more sets of theological clothing than I thought possible when I started reading him in 1985. Since that time, I think I read everything by him in print, as well as many things about him. What I discovered is well known in evangelical circles; Lewis is not an evangelical. Not even close. A very honest read of The Last Battle or The Great Divorce should be enough to convince any evangelical that Lewis is a member of a different tribe. Yet...yet...Even as evangelicals are writing love letters and homages to and for him on the event of the 60th anniversary of Mere Christianity, a book that was not "merely" anything, Paul Young has resurrected the corpse of the irrascible anglo-Catholic to phil0sophize in Young's new book Cross Roads.


The publisher sent me a free copy for review, and since I met and interviewed Young about this book not so long ago, I am happy to oblige. However, within the first few pages, I realized that I was not going to read the whole thing and then review it. Rather, I'm going to stop every time something threatens to give me an embolism and review that section. Thus, C.S. Lewis opening this post. I should say I did a series of reviews on The Shack as well. The first is here. I hated the book. Can't express how much I hated it. I read it at a time when my now defunct faith was defuncting, and like the utterly awful Blue Like Jazz, I recognized in The Shack that tendency to create new metaphors for the faith, but the metaphors were only meant to deconstruct wrong thinking about the faith as conferred in stories, not deconstruct the stories or faith themselves. In other words, both those books were attempts to make evangelical Christianity more palatable to readers widely assumed to be suffering some sort of postmodern relativistic epistemological meltdown. The cure, apparently, was a shitty set of new metaphors that did nothing but make an already inscrutable faith less scrutable.

During the interview linked above, I asked Young why he didn't deconstruct the grammar of the faith and not just the old set of metaphors. It seems to me that once you begin the game of creating new metaphors, you've already begun to play with the possibility that we aren't understanding something clearly, and if we're not understanding it clearly, it's very possible that the story is wrong to begin with and not just the metaphors meant to convey the story. If the metaphors are breaking down, it just might be because the story is non-functional or contradictory or simply false. This isn't a fun thought for Christians, and typically they hide their uncertainty or inability to answer the question in mysticism. Mysticism allows them to believe anything. Anything. More on mysticism later.

Young told me that the new book would begin to deconstruct the grammar of the faith. I think he meant it would deconstruct how we thought about the grammar, not the grammar itself. I suspect that when I finish this book, I will discover that Young does not abandon his faith in the end. I was prepared for the beginning of the deconstruction, but I got C.S. Lewis instead. It is literally impossible for C.S. Lewis (Jack to his friends and in this book) to believe everything that's been attributed to him by evangelicals and post-evangelicals. He would have to be the most confused man in the world, and unlike contemporary evangelicals (as a tribe, not all individually), Lewis could discern a good argument from a bad one, at least within the context of his metaphysical assumptions.

Jack shows up in Cross Roads to explain the difference between real and true. Yes, that this is necessary is befuddling to me, but it does make a certain perverse sense if you're going to say tons of shit that can't be verified but want readers to believe it is real and true. Myticism needs some sort of justification. Normally, that justification has been a reference to Scripture. Mystics can intuit all sorts of things, but if they get too far afield, the external authority known as the Bible can be brought to bear on their intuited knowledge. (This is, of course, the difference between mystics and transcendentalists; the latter had no governing authority over their pantheistic intuitions.) Young's mysticism is of a different variety, though. He's going after the grammar, allegedly, and therefore, he'll need to do some work outside the purview of Scriptural authority. You can't go after the grammar without assuming some parts of the Bible are just plain wrong. (You also can't use mysticism or intuition as a mode of knowledge unless you want to run completely off the rails. Just ask the International House of Prayer how that's working for them this month...)

Enter C.S. Lewis, or Jack. Young brings the authority of this exhausted old Irishman to his philosophical trick. Lewis sounds smart. That is different than actually being smart, but that's not important. Lewis was brilliant and plainly wrong about many things, but he has a reputation as smart and philosophical. Adding him to the critical juncture of the book as a sort of baritone voice of reason, a James Earl Jones narrating how reasonable this shit is, and you avoid the hard work of actually deconstructing what is clearly a poor move philosophically and theologically. That he does this at the first critical juncture of the book leads me to believe the rest will be fundamentally dishonest, but not in an intentional way. Young suffers from that peculiar and noble affliction of wanting to explain how God is not as big a dick as God's followers and an honest read of the Bible have led people to believe. You see, it doesn't matter if something is real and true if you can't demonstrate it, not in the realm of metaphysics.

Young asserts that we have created a sense of separation from God because we do not believe God's Word, whatever the hell that means. We refuse to believe the truth because we have created a false sense of the real. Wow! The move is dishonest because it assumes the fault lies with us. Mystics talk a great deal about God's presence, as if it is obvious enough to be noticed if we of little faith would tighten up our belt of truth, lay aside our proud questions, and just allow Jesus to hold us. (Yes, that's in the book. Jesus holds the protagonist. Can I just say that if I found out tomorrow there is a Jesus, I still wouldn't want him to hold me? It's just weird.) The problem, of course, is that many of us tried and tried and tried, and there was no holding or answering going on. The question that no one ever answers, and maybe someone will finally try, is that if God wants so much to be in relationship with us, why not make godself much more apparent? I don't tell friends I want a relationship with them and then insist on some sort of cosmic fucking scavenger hunt. What friend would put up with that? How would you even call that a friendship?