America's not so Christian History, or Why Jesus Loves AP History

Co-published with Literati Press.

Oklahoma pastor and Republican state representative Dan Fisher introduced House Bill 1380 last week, a piece of legislation intended to defund AP History classes in order to protect the myth of American Exceptionalism. How a state representative who is so completely tone-deaf to truth manages even to get elected is not so easy to explain. Only 40.7 percent of registered voters in Oklahoma bothered to go to the polls in the last election, but to be fair, this is Oklahoma, so if 80 percent had gone, Fisher might still have been elected.


Fisher, for those who aren’t familiar with his history, is the pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Yukon. It is a relatively large church considering its location in Oklahoma City’s westernmost major suburb, a place that has been a haven for the white flight demographic over the past few decades. Yukon’s high school mascot is a miller, an unapologetically happy cracker in overalls whose job is to mill grain. Yukon used to be an agricultural town before Oklahoma City’s growth found its way to Yukon. White-flighters love “small town values,” and Yukon has exploded with cookie-cutter starter homes arrayed like brick soldiers in neat grids on what used to be wheat or corn or alfalfa fields.

Fisher managed to collect many of these white folks flocking to Yukon and, over the years, he has managed to be both a successful pastor of a growing church and a voice of unreason, tapping into the fears of conservative Christians who see the end of days in nearly every cultural shift with which they are uncomfortable. When he finally partnered with two of Oklahoma’s most vocal theocratic pastors—Steve Kern[1] and Paul Blair—the partnership helped solidify Trinity as a very non-Southern Baptist church.

Along with Kern and Blair, Fisher participated in Pulpit Freedom Sunday during President Obama’s first campaign for the presidency.[2] The three “pastors” defied IRS regulations concerning non-profits and political speech by endorsing John McCain over Barack Obama from their pulpits. They fancied themselves part of a historical fraternity of pastors known as the “Black Robe Regiment,” who spoke frankly about politics and helped shape the moral conscience of the young United States.

Whether or not this Black Robe Regiment managed to do much of anything other than pontificate from their pulpits is up for historical debate. Congregants rarely take their pastors very seriously when the pastors wander off the Biblical text into political speech. In fact, they rarely take them seriously any time the pastors say something with which the congregants disagree. Pastors are notoriously self-important when assessing how much their views shape the views of their congregants. People tend to join churches because they have friends in a congregation or for other complex reasons, not because their pastor speaks with moral or political authority. To believe otherwise is simply an exercise in ego masturbation on the part of the pastors.

Fisher parlayed his pastoral popularity into a run for state office. Whether or not that is something pastors ought to do is yet another area of potential dispute, but Fisher is not so much worried about spiritual care for a congregation as he is with helping dictate a “spiritual climate” of the state. He wrongly believes, as do many other conservative Christians, the false narrative of America as a Christian nation. That this concept actually means nothing outside a vague idea that Christians ought to be in charge is lost on Fisher and his tribe. Even among Christians of good conscience, it’s widely believed to an utter fiction. Real Christian scholars like Mark Noll and George Marsden have written about this myth of a Christian America, but it’s easier to believe a lie that prefers our tribe than accept a truth that offers equality to people outside the tribe. This is, of course, one of the great ironies of “Christian America” conservatives: a tribe ostensibly committed to the truth pursues a lie in spite of all evidence to the contrary.

This is the subtext to Fisher’s bill to ban AP History courses. He dislikes the College Board’s focus in the curriculum because it points out the country’s many, massive failings. How someone tells an honest history without mentioning the many ways in which the United States has failed is unimaginable. The problem for Fisher is that “Christian America” condoned slavery using the Bible; we marginalized minorities and women using the Bible; we justified the genocide of Native Americans using the doctrine of “Manifest Destiny”; and we invaded countries, exploited the poor and the weak, seized territory from sovereign nations like Mexico, denied rights to all kinds of demographics, including ethnic and religious minorities and LGBT citizens. To catalog all of America’s sins would take a document at least as long as the Bible. Rather than contend with this harsh and undeniable truth, Fisher would prefer that teachers not teach it. And why?

If America’s manifold sins are catalogued, most especially those sins for which the Bible was offered as justification, the Bible will be shown for what it is: a deeply schizophrenic set of narratives that can be molded to fit any context, and one that is singularly devoid of moral authority inasmuch as it has so often been used as an immoral authority. Secondly, America will be revealed to be what we actually are: an often great nation but also an often abusive and evil nation that relies not on the providence of the Christian God to lead us, but on our own base desires, prejudices, fears, and yes, sins to guide our actions—many of which found their justification in the Bible. Fisher’s Christian America falls apart in AP History class because it never existed, and that a man of faith pursues the establishment of a lie with such singular dishonesty while calling on God to witness his prophetic anointing speaks to the corruptive influence of religious narratives used to secure secular power.


[1] Kern is the husband of Sally Kern, a state legislator who is best known outside Oklahoma for insisting that “the gay agenda” is a greater threat to America than terrorism. Their marriage is the perfect union of paranoid and ignorant.

[2] They would do so again in his second campaign, and in spite of President Obama’s Christian confession, they chose the Mormon candidate Mitt Romney, ignoring a century of Baptist teaching that Mormons are a cult that preaches a false Christ. Political narratives are far more important that religious narratives for theocrats.

Christian Terrorists and the Assault on Islam, or When is a Muslim not a Muslim?

We had a beheading in Oklahoma. I am tempted to repeat that, because beheadings on Game of Thrones make perfect sense, and beheadings in countries thousands of miles from us have the feel of irrelevance in terms of our day to day lives, unless our loved one is serving in one of those countries, but even then, it's a distant echo of a fear compared to what people living in proximity to groups like ISIS must feel.

Our beheading was at a food distribution center in Moore, as if Moore hasn't had quite enough tragedy in the past few years. Alton Nolen, the murderer in question, was a recently-fired employee of the center, and he attacked two women. His brief rampage was cut short by an off-duty deputy who shot him.

Had this been a typical act of workplace violence (and how awful that the phrase is in our lexicon), people outside of Oklahoma would likely not have heard about it, as mass killings involving less than a half dozen victims rarely earn more than a cursory mention on national news anymore. A beheading, however, especially given the current international context, meant that it would absolutely make the news everywhere.

Nolen, it seems, recently converted to Islam, according to coworkers and his Facebook account, but the Muslim community in Oklahoma City was blissfully unaware of the newest member of their extended flock, and for good reason. Since the news was released that Nolen, who was released from prison in 2013, converted, locals assumed the beheading was related to Islam, and so when the FBI ruled the horrific murder an act of workplace violence and not a hate crime or domestic terrorism, conservatives howled about conspiracies and liberals and political correctness. Accuracy is always less important than ideology to a certain segment of American news consumers.

I would quote a few, select examples from local news sites, but I have found that reading comments on news websites makes me despair for humanity's future even as it encourages my desire to head up the American Committee on Eugenics. Never has a public square been more relentlessly and willfully ignorant. Truth is suffocating on the Internet from the crush of screeds and stupidity.

I would like to advance an idea that I have written about before and talked about at length with students. Unfortunately, Americans are enculturated in ways and in favor of presuppositions that make them resistant to this idea. Self-determination is built into the mythos of America, and while I am typically a proponent of the idea of letting fellow humans self-identify as to their metaphysical allegiances, we have reached a point both in this country and internationally where that is no longer a reasonable idea.

In other words, just because you call yourself something, it does not mean you are that thing. As a journalist, this is a difficult doctrine to sell, as we are supposed to report not judge, but journalists occasionally need to judge. As Americans, we are resistant to the idea of judging others' religious identification, so much so that a specific mantra is well-known and frequently invoked: "That's between her and God." Ah, yes, as if God is a ready witness in times of confusion.

Alas, gods are not available to verify your self-identification, thus the fourth commandment for Jews and Christians: you shall not take the Lord's name in vain. I know your mom told you that meant don't say, "Goddamn," or use "Jesus" like a swear word, but really, she was wrong about that. It means not to do things in the name of God that are contrary to the character of God, like underpay hookers, fail to tip your server, or behead people.

And so to the issue at hand—Mr. Nolen, the erstwhile Christian and convict turned Muslim, of a sort. Should he be allowed to call himself a Muslim, and should his act of unbelievable savagery be credited to his nascent Muslim faith? ISIS is beheading journalists much like Al Qaeda beheaded journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002. Somehow, beheading has become associated with "Muslim terrorists" or "militant Islam." Therefore, it makes perfect sense that Nolen, who recently converted to Islam, was only engaging in terrorist behavior based on his Islamic faith when he beheaded his victim, a woman he apparently did not know, but who was unfortunate enough to be near the front of the building. Nothing says "jihad" like random victims, because, really, how else do you advance the cause of your God but by choosing people who have done nothing to offend your or your God?

A pretty good analogy that compares Christianity to Islam in terms of a heinous crime would be sexual crimes versus beheading. The Catholic Church is deeply embroiled in a child sex abuse scandal. While there may be the occasional person who associates the priesthood with molesting children, there is only the rare, deranged cynic who assumes all Christians are child abusers, or that child rape is endemic to Christianity, this in spite of the remarkable numbers of pastors, priests, youth pastors, camp counselors, etc., who regularly abuse children and teens.

And what of Dennis Rader, the BTK killer, who tortured and murdered ten people, all while being a member in good standing of a Lutheran Church? Is he typical of Christianity? An absolute giveaway that people aren't practicing Christianity is the judging of one's tribe by one standard while judging an opposing tribe by a different standard. Please recall Silly Jesus and his words in Matthew 7: you will be judged with whatever measure you use to judge. If Muslims are guilty because a lunatic beheads a woman and calls himself Muslim, then Christians are guilty because a pervert molests a child while calling himself priest, or a psychopath tortures and kills people while calling himself a Lutheran. (I need not even mention Eric Rudolph.)

We are at the point where people need to demonstrate their affiliation with a faith. For Muslims, submission to Allah, which means not killing innocent people, and in the case of ISIS, not killing fellow Muslims. For Christians, loving their enemies, including their real enemies, and I'm pretty sure that love precludes using drones to bomb remote locations. There is a longer list, but you get the point. Self-identification is no longer tenable. It only confuses the categories and makes faith impossible to define.

I'm willing to let faiths define their core principles, but I insist that practitioners abide by them in order to identify as that tribe, not interpret verses in such a way that they betray their core principles. If you want to be a pragmatist, by all means, be a pragmatist, but please stop hijacking gods' voices to substantiate your pragmatism.

As for the terrorism angle. The Cleveland Count District Attorney made the announcement yesterday that there are no Oklahoma statutes specifically addressing terrorism. Other than the Murrah bombing, we haven't had an act of terrorism in this state within my lifetime, unless you count racial violence, which white conservatives are terribly reluctant to do. Remember when they insisted we didn't need hate crime legislation because "there are already statutes on the books to address assault and murder." That sounds strangely familiar, except they aren't saying that this time. They are insisting that this horrific murder be treated as an act of domestic terrorism.

Why? It is impossible to avoid the obvious issues here: he is African American and a recent convert to Islam. In Oklahoma, it is safe to assume that a white male who recently converted to Christianity and subsequently murdered someone while singing Lord, I Lift Your Name on High would be treated as an insane person, not a Christian terrorist. I cannot imagine a single evangelical or fundamentalist in this state even putting the two words together, but they do it very cavalierly for Muslim terrorist and see no disconnect.

This is largely because the presence of a so-called Muslim terrorist in Oklahoma, even a homegrown one who had converted, would validate a fear-based, political worldview that many conservatives espouse, and quite likely, really believe. This is not to say that they wanted this to happen, only to point out that a terrorist who is also Muslim in the heartland gives a face to all the non-specific fears, xenophobia, and latent racism contained in the anti-Obama narratives that still have currency in many sectors of conservatism, including in a state as deeply rooted in civil religion as Oklahoma. They need Nolen to be a terrorist because that would substantiate their "be afraid, be very afraid" mentality, while also providing material for the "Obama cannot keep us safe" narrative. They also need Nolen to be a terrorist because it reinforces their prejudice against a faith they have not even tried to understand, but one they have allowed the most egregiously dishonest of faux journalists to define, not the actual practitioners of the faith. Say what you want about the American tendency toward fair-mindedness, but it's in a PVS in the American Right.

That a Christian cannot be a terrorist in their minds but a Muslim can is a by-product of their misunderstanding (to be generous) or misrepresentation (to be less generous) of Islam. Also, it's a function of allowing people, even the most deranged and murderous among us, to self-identify with no regard to what the sacred texts and doctrines actually say. Calling the beheading an act of religious terrorism does as much disservice to a billion peaceful Muslims as calling Christianity a religion of child rape does to the two billion Christians (by their own self-identification) worldwide.

Non-Violent Unicorn Hunting, or Searching in Vain for Truth

How do you recognize the truth when you see it? This is the question I used to absolutely exhaust and frustrate a group of freshmen and sophomores this week in Modern Humanities. We were talking about Descartes, of course, and like most people who encounter Descartes for the first time, they were curious about this experiment in doubt. As usual, though, I was less interested in what they thought of Descartes's specific ideas and more what they thought about the extrapolations from those thoughts. Most of the philosophy folks I know believe Descartes made an error by locating the certainty of existence within the thought process, and I agree with them, but I still think it's an interesting extrapolation from his ideas to ask that troublesome question: How do you recognize the truth?

I am almost certain it's not a fair question, as I think the most honest answer is simply, "I don't know. I just choose to believe some things are true and others false." Not exactly the kind of statement that warms the heart of my fundamentalist and evangelical instructors, but I have no idea how to achieve certainty about things that matter.

Students typically talk about facts or things that can be proven, even sometimes conflating those two categories. It does not take long to show how those categories are not always related, but I will allow that certain facts and things that can be proven are truths of a sort. One of the more outspoken adult students in this particular class offered, "Experience," as an answer.

"What do you mean," I asked.

"You can experience truth," she said.

I didn't think she was talking about some rudimentary form of emotivism, so I took a chance. She is probably late 50s, African American, bright, extroverted, and like me, sometimes too outspoken.

"Can we make this about race?" I asked.

She laughed, and said, "Of course."

Here's a rough paraphrase of what I said. Minority communities are far, far better at recognizing large-scale cultural lies than hegemonic communities, and that is because they live an experience counter to the cultural lie. For example, if we talk about America as a land of freedom and opportunity for everyone, people in minority communities immediately recognize the myriad ways that truism is not quite true. Yes, it can be true in limited circumstances, but across the culture, minority communities see that they do not have the same kinds or amount of freedom as hegemonic communities. Their experience is one that is lived as a lie according to the hegemony, but their experience reveals that the cultural truth is in fact a cultural lie, and their experience is in fact more true than the large-scale cultural truth. In this way, experience can lead us to a form of the truth. Minority students in the class readily agreed, but some of my white students looked irritated.

Yet another student talked about the Bible and sacred speech. This one is tedious, but can easily be handled. We talked about pluralism and what the collision of different cultures and religions had done to certainty. If I line up the Qur'an, Bible, Tanakh, Vedas, Upanishads, Dianetics, New World Translation of Scripture, Book of Mormon, etc., what criteria can you offer that will show me that one is superior to all the others? Which rubric should I use to discover which book reveals the truth? It's relatively certain that they all reveal some truths, but to say one is more true than others requires massive assumptions that have more to do with preference than epistemology. Even if we eliminate the really bad books, like Dianetics, we are still left to sort through competing claims with zero meaningful criteria to determine which book reveals "the truth." This is the nature of metaphysics, of course, but typically people in communities of faith are not told this.

As for sacred speech, whether prophecies, sermons, etc., they suffer from the same problems as sacred texts, with the added problem of verifying the authority of the speaker. Honestly, sacred texts have authority because a community says so. There is nothing intrinsically authoritative about a book, even if, and this makes me shake my head every time I hear it, the books say so. But sermons suffer from yet another problem. The sermon functions in many communities of faith as an exposition of the authoritative texts, so the authority of the speaker is tied directly to the community's affirmation of the text's authority and their trust in the character and honesty of the speaker. What I discovered over the many years of preaching and teaching I did in churches was that confirmation bias, either overtly or subtly, was at work in the communication dynamic between speaker and congregation. If I said something they already agreed with, it was an immediate nod of the head or "amen," but if I said something they had not considered before that didn't seem to conflict with what they already believed, they were still content with what I said. It was only those times when I said something that made them uncomfortable that I was confronted after a sermon, and usually, the congregant disagreed kindly. The transformations came from reinforcing things that the people already believed, things that were in fact good, not useless (like belief in angels or Rapture), thereby encouraging them to walk out the "truth" in their own lives. There is no path to truth in the broadest sense in sacred speech either, it seems.

We are left to wonder how to recognize truth, and I still don't have a good answer. I still haven't heard a good answer. The axioms seems clear, at least at a pragmatic level (assuming we're not deceived by a demon or some other Cartesian nonsense), so A really is not non-A, and while that is important, the truths we can't know seem to be the ones we are most at odds about and the ones most likely to cause conflict and violence.

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.

Jesus in the New World, or Preference as Doctrine

We started talking about the Church of Jesus Christ of Later-Day Saints (the Mormons) in class last week. In the last unit of World Religions, after I've covered the Big Five (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism), I try to focus on new and emerging movements. Typically, I cover Wicca, LDS, Scientology (because Xenu, obviously), Afro-Caribbean religions, and Santa Muerte. Students are typically more interested in these faiths than the other five, at least partly because they are sensationalized in pop culture, but also because they have nearly zero relationships with people who actually practice any of them.

Mormons have helped move their faith from the fringe to the mainstream in the past decade—and as I'm typing, Brandon Flowers is overhead on Pandora at the bar—and because the faith is similar to traditional Christianity, certain sects of Christians respond quite negatively to points of Mormon doctrine if not to Mormons as people, and because the faith is growing rapidly, the fundangelical Christian response has been predictably bad.

Christian, the well-meaning youth group graduate whom I’ve quoted here before, isn’t sure which Christian narrative he believes—Baptist, neo-Reformed, Pentecostal, etc.—but, helpfully, they are all fundamentalist in character. I was talking about Mormon doctrines after tracing the development of the religion, beginning with Joseph Smith. After a brief overview of what the Book of Mormon teaches, I mentioned Jesus’ appearance to the Nephites in North America. It was more than Christian could endure.

“That’s ridiculous,” he offered.

“What is ridiculous?” I asked.

“It doesn’t even make sense.”

“How does it not?” I asked.

“That Jesus would show up in America and talk to people after the Resurrection. It makes no sense.”

He was absolutely convinced his point was obvious. This is one of those places where "makes sense" is learned phraseology and not an actual assessment of the words just uttered. Why would the Savior of the world come to North America to talk to a lost group of Israelites? It boggled the imagination. He has been taught that his story is correct and all other versions of absurd, so in comparison, his story seems plausible, even with talking snakes and donkeys, bears that maul children on God's command, the murder by flood of thousands of infants, people raised from the dead, and a god that becomes human so as to save humans. So, I asked him a couple questions.

“What you seem to be saying is that the traditional Christian story of God becoming a human and kicking it around Idumea and Judea in the first century C.E. and being crucified for the sins of the world and then resurrected is perfectly reasonable, but the resurrected Jesus appearing to people in another place is absolutely absurd. Is that your position?”

He already looked trapped, but he persisted. “They have no evidence of it, do they?” The question was not sincere or rhetorical; it was triumphant. Sigh. I’m not even going to mention again how Christian has been cheated in terms of Christian education, but please imagine a good youth group kid as a freshman in college arriving at that point in a conversation with me and ask yourself how that happened.

Pentecostals, Baptists, and other evangelizing denominations have developed a well-earned reputation for mustering arguments to deconstruct other faiths so that the superiority of Christianity can be demonstrated. (I realize Christians by definition should be proselytizers, but not all sects are as aggressive as the aforementioned.) The approach has suffered from three common errors, one an obvious blind spot, one a matter of misunderstanding praxis versus doctrine, and one a preference for one's own narrative.

The obvious blind spot is the idea that faiths don't have to answer to Christianity to demonstrate the truth of their own claims. Christianity has failed to demonstrate its own truth claims, so to insist that faiths that depart from the Christian narrative and metaphysics are somehow falling short of the truth is to give epistemological superiority to Christianity without even bothering to do the hard work of demonstrating its own claims. It's a lovely presumptive position, but it relies on cultural and political superiority, two factors that are fading in the post-Christendom era.

The second is the way Christians discuss doctrines of other faiths as if knowing doctrine is the same thing as practicing faith. This is largely due to the fact that fundangelical Christianity gives priority to belief over praxis in order to do away with the necessity of actually living out a faith. But people in faith traditions ignore particular stories, doctrines, commands, etc., all the time in order to practice a faith that integrates into their lives. The list of things Muslim, Christian, Mormon, and Jewish students don't know that they are supposed to know would fill volumes. In another religion class, a Turkish student was making note of the Arabic terms I was using to discuss Islam because she, a woman who speaks four languages, did not know the Arabic terms even though the only official Qur'an is in Arabic. They are practicing an enculturated and necessarily truncated version of a faith, not the fullness of the faith itself. No one, literally, can do that.

Finally, and this is best illustrated by the conversation with Christian, people of all faiths prefer their own narrative to other narratives. It's absolutely a matter of preference, not justification of belief or proof. I can find no coherent way to sort one faith from another in terms of their metaphysical claims. Why would I prefer Islam to Christianity or vice versa? Once the difficulty of justifying one faith over against another faith is realized, the task is finally and really understood to be pointless. The inability to see preference at work is one of the most poisonous things in religion because it asserts the superiority of one tribe's narrative over another's, but it does so without contending with its own absurdities, weaknesses, gaps, and errors. Offer me a way of demonstrating the truth of one narrative over another on a consistent basis, and I might be able to believe a faith again.

A Half Century Less One Day, or Some (un)Profound Thoughts on Turning 50

I turn 50 tomorrow. I'm not even worried about the number; I am amazed by it. Here's the good news for younger readers: I don't feel old. At all. No, I can't play basketball for seven straight hours like I could at 25, but I'm not exactly sedentary either. No tubes sticking out of my lungs or ass. No cancer. No heart disease. I have resisted the impulse to be one of those members of the aging masses who speaks incessantly about health and wellness and Medicare and the constant accumulation of minor aches and pains that become a chorus on cold or wet days. That is part of the process, and so I'm happy to say I feel fantastic. The Ritalin helps, and I believe everyone should have bubbles every day. They create an aesthetic and an orientation around a day and a mood, such that even the most mundane of days becomes a mini celebration, because today I'm alive and drinking wine.

I have zero understanding of what I'm supposed to know at 50. There are no secret societies passing out esoteric knowledge about the real meaning of life, but I fully expect mailers from AARP within the week. I am about to be part of the largest voting bloc in the country, and as such, I'm supposed to help add to the clamor about geriatric issues, and while I'm aware I'm going to keep aging and die, I just don't care about those things. Maybe because I work with 18- and 19-year olds every day.

Sitting down to reflect on a half century of being alive would take more time than I have available this week. That's because I have packed my week with friends and family and wine and food and everything that I love about my life at every age. I've never been a good intentional reflecter; it's just contrary to my nature. If someone asks me to comment or reflect, I can, but I don't do it as a habit of life. Suffice it to say I've caused more than my share of chaos, suffering, and shittiness in 50 years, but I like to think the last ten years of the first half century have been far better than the second decade, wherein I caused no small amount of consternation and shame and suffering for my family and friends. Things that make good stories aren't always good stories at the time; they are sources of pain and confusion and selfishness.

That sounds kind of profound, and I think that is what I believe 50 was suppposed to represent, a kind of hard-earned profundity, the kind that comes from a punch in the face, not knowing the rules. When I was a young pastor, not quite 30, my congregants would occasionally tell me how wise I was "for my age." Really, though, I wasn't. I just knew what to say. Having read the Bible through more than a dozen times in a five-year period, I was well-versed (ha!) in the vocabulary of the community of reference, and always having been outstanding at persuasion, people believed me because I knew the text and spoke authoritatively. That isn't wisdom; that's a skill in communication.

The same principle can be applied in the wine business, the writing about of which occupies a good bit of my time these days and for the past seven or so years. Know enough of the vocabulary, speak authoritatively enough, and you can convince people with less knowledge that they want what you say they want. They want the process to be demystified, to be made safer, to make them feel less ignorant, and the best way to go about it is by not being a dick about sharing information.

That may be the theme I have decided really matters after a half century. I tell my students that my theology (or atheology, Mr. Rollins) can be reduced to "don't be a dick." I like to believe that religion, if it should do anything at all, should prepare people to be redemptive in this life, and I don't give a single shit about the next life. So much of religion now is preparation for a reality that may or may not exist, and if it does, no one has a clue as to what it will be like. Practice redemption—not being a dick—for this life.

Teachers are teachers because we like a few things: attention, students, learning, a job with nearly zero physical labor, books, and the process of teaching. When we are honest, we say we want our students to change their minds about stuff when they are in our classes. Why wouldn't we? Why else teach? No, I don't want to create little mes, but I don't want racists and fundamentalists to leave my class with that toxic worldview intact either. I want them to be smarter, kinder, more open-minded, more interesting, to have been transformed even a little bit into better humans. I want them to give a shit, lots of shits about things that matter, things like other people, other people's feelings and narratives, justice, equality, race, gender, and a whole huge list of shit that only sounds sappy by its listing.

I am an idealist with a narcissitic streak. I have learned that. I like me. Other people should, too, and I'm confused when they don't. It took me decades not to take that personally, though, so now I spread the blame between my sometimes unfiltered intensity and mouth and their misunderstanding of how I use words, humor, laughter, and silence. The world is an unkind place for idealists, so we find ways to medicate ourselves, through booze or drugs or love or other people's admiration, or worst of all, a sort of poisonous orientation toward criticism and judgment that finds fault with those who don't share our idealism. (So many in the business of professional ministry suffer from this affliction.) It took me decades to temper that as well. Idealists are good at envisioning a world, but we suck at actually building it, so the judgment is equally directed at me, because I want to live in a world where there are no hungry people, but I also want other people to take care of it. I have just enough hypocrisy in me to accuse others of not working for justice while making the mistake that talking about justice is somehow working for justice.

All that to say I have learned in a half century that I'm just me, and some of the insecurities I had at 20 and 30 and 40 are still with me at 49 and 364 days. It's like the zit outbreak when you were 13—you remember the first time you woke in the morning with what looked like a massive wound on your face. Your body betrayed you. After several of those moments over the years, your parents said they would go away one day. But they don't, but knowing that at the time would have been a grievous wound on our developing psyches, so wise parents put off the truth until a zit wasn't such a source of despair. We believe we get better as we get older, and we do in some ways, but in others we are still the awkward kid at the dance or the one picked last or the one made fun of or the one who could've should've and didn't.

Friends help. Family helps (sometimes). We are constantly becoming and we are always the same, and in 50 years I'll be damned if I know who I'm supposed to become, but I kind of know who I am. That is a gift in itself. It is one of the motions of grace of aging. There are curses aplenty, but to know who you are, to be confident in your worth, to know your skills and your limitations—that is grace. To know that love is transient and friendship doesn't have to be—that, too, is grace. To understand that other people tell us who we are when they speak the truth...grace. To be content with all that is right and wrong with me so long as others aren't wounded in the wrongness, grace. I've been out of the faith for eight years, and I still love that concept. Religion is most practical when it's actually practiced without a worry for the metaphysical justifications, so I feel free to use words like sin and grace because they make sense in this life, and they make sense because they do what they are supposed to do: draw us close to others or fracture relationships.

When you turn 50, I thought when I was a youngish minister, you are supposed to say profound stuff all the time. Profundity is almost always accidental, though, so deciding to be profound is a sure path to learning the words and the rules and not actually being profound. Wisdom can be intentional, though, and a punch in the face is still more effective than memorizing the rules and possible consequences.

That's enough. Friends are implementing some secret plan to celebrate my birthday eve, and at this point in my life, nothing gives me more joy. I am alive because I have friends, and daughters, and wine, and a good life. I get to do the two things I always wanted to do, teach and write, and getting to do what you want with your life is grace, and when you can actually do those things well, it's a good, grace-filled life.

The Gods Like Virginity, but No One Seems to Know Why, or Education is Education

This is the drum I've been beating lately: religious education. The podcasts with Tripp Fuller clearly helped move the conversation along, but I teach world religions every summer, and every summer I encounter students for whom I feel genuinely concerned, not because they have the life struggles with which many students struggle, but because they are under-equipped to handle a religion class, and the looks on their faces as we work through the material are genuinely distressing to me as an instructor, because my task is never to break someone down. It's best to start with a fresh example.

We started covering Hinduism today, and I always use The Ramayana as one of the points of entry to the faith. It's a fantastic and awful story. If there is a national story of India, it's probably this story of Vishnu/Rama and Lakshmi/Sita, Sita's abduction, and subsequent purity tests. For good reasons, Hindu feminists have been pretty clear since the horrific gang rapes in the past two years in tying the story to the status of women in India/Hinduism, and they are saying that India need to find a new story.

Part of the story is Sita's capture at the hands of the rakshasa Ravana, basically an unrighteous spirit in human form, and her rescue with the help of Hanuman, the monkey god. After she is safe, she is forced to prove her purity by walking through fire. Like many ancient cultures, early Hindu culture had a test of female purity, but not a test for male purity. (See Numbers 5 for the Jewish/Christian version of this test, also for females only.) Sita passes the first test, and when Rama asks her to do it again much later, she says that her mother (earth) will take her if she innocent. In fact, the earth opens and takes her, testifying to her purity. 

In the context of Hinduism, dharma—sacred duty—is clearly the issue here, but to talk about this with a Western audience requires using different categories, the most important of which is purity. I asked a very simple question: why does purity matter? At this point, we can abandon (sort of) gender issues, because the Christian tradition considers purity important for men and women, and youth groups around America are subjected to an emphasis on remaining pure until marriage.

Before getting to student responses, it's important to point out that purity rules were always related to the exchange of females for money. Deliver a daughter with hymen intact, or you get no money. It's an ugly truth, but a truth nonetheless. Modern American evangelicals are long divorced from a tradition that makes these rules sensible (thankfully), but the rule remains in effect, at least as far as catechetical purposes are concerned. (In practice, all that is necessary is forgiveness for a transgression of the rule, but various traditions treat the psychological and relational fallout differently.)

The primary question is how to treat the rule in scriptures. The victory of conservatives in the rationalist/traditionalist debate in Islam and the literalist/progressive debate in Christianity has meant that the religions interpret sacred texts as the "words of God," not words mediated through culture and time. In other words, the rule is binding because God said it. God didn't say it to a culture where girls were marriageable at the onset of menstruation, which would make a no sex before marriage rule at least understandable; God said it for all time, and that means in a culture where women marry at 25, if they marry at all, the women are compelled to practice the rule.

This leads to the question I asked today: why does purity matter? I assume Christians and Muslims (and Hindus) aren't so cynical as to believe their god(s) cares about dowries or bride prices. Why, then, does purity matter? I'm going to insist you put aside physiological answers like disease and pregnancy. If those were the reasons purity mattered, they are easily addressed without such a strong prohibition, and, if those were the reasons, surely some mention in the text would have been helpful. Additionally, if those were the reasons, why not amend the rule as technology makes female sexual independence a reality? No, god(s) seems to care about purity.

The first student who answered has been referenced here before; he said he would give priority to the words of Jesus over Paul and Moses. For the record, only Anabaptists and those who have read the Anabaptists actually do that, and he ended up not being able to follow through with that promise. In honor of Bunyan, let's call him Christian. Christian offered that he had been taught that the first time should be special. Full stop.

Special. I can be a bit of a dick, and undefined, poorly defined, and hard to define words bring out the worst in me. My first time should be special. Will there be a marching band? If a guy is playing cymbals, will I be able to perform? What the hell does special mean? Not to make fun of Christian, as this is what he was told in youth group, but what does that word even mean? It clearly doesn't mean the sex will be good the first time, and it's not typically good the first time for people in and out of the faith, so what does special mean? The question completely flummoxed him. Completely, like head in hands, staring into space, don't know how to answer that question flummoxed. It's an awkward moment for students and professors, because he has just realized he's believed something for a long time that essentially has no real meaning. It's another of Zizek's empty signifiers, another affiliation creed, another boundary marker for his tribe, but it means nothing. He might as well have said it will be cooler the first time.

Jay Kelly read the first draft, and responded to "special." I'll quote him at length.

What I don't take you to mean is that his claim that the first time should be special was nonsensical simpliciter. He could have rolled out a fairly robust response about sex being intimate and that intimacy is typically intensified when the people experiencing the intimate moment are experiencing it for the first time. For example, U2 is my favorite band. I've seen them twice. The first time was otherworldly and nigh-unto-transcendent. The second was fantastic, but not as profound as the first. My dear friend Thomas has 6 kids. The first time his oldest walked, it was over the top amazing. The first time his sixth walked, he was disappointed because it meant there was now another feral animal who could cause trouble because of its newfound ambulatory capacity.

I agree with Jay about the nature of special here, but I find it hard to believe god(s) would tell us no sex before marriage just to ensure a special, in the experiential sense, moment. Purity must matter for a different reason. Christian wasn't the only student to offer an answer, though.

Here's the summary: not a single student who grew up in church could tell me why purity mattered. (I'm pretty sure it doesn't, but this was about The Ramayana so we had to talk about it.) Not a single student who believed purity mattered could explain it. One woman who is now LDS but grew up Pentecostal offered that Creflo Dollar said it was a blood covenant. First, the ick factor is really high there, but more importantly, many women don't arrive at their honeymoon with hymen intact. Is their blood covenant with the four-wheeler or gymnastics mat that "took their virginity?" It's bafflingly stupid and a clear indication that conservative Christians who are supposed to be leaders can't even answer the question. (Dear Christian minister friends, I am not comparing you to Creflo. Promise.) 

Back to Christian. He was raised in church. From birth to college, he's been in church. He's a good kid. He thinks he's analytical because he questions his pastor's sermons based on his own reading of the Bible. He's flirted with neo-Reformed theology, so he thinks he understands logic. He's the poster child for an evangelical youth group success story. He is getting killed in my class. Killed. As in confused, scared, and catatonic. His categories are failing; his answers, so well rehearsed before he ventured into the scary world of college, are getting gutted, and it's not just me doing it. A skeptic student gently asked several questions today. I was impressed with her tone. She asked good questions, and in a classroom where all sacred texts are on the table, he got killed. Because all sacred texts are on the table. He's not allowed to pretend his text is the best, most reliable source, unless he can offer good arguments. He can't. ("Fulfilled prophecies" are not a good argument, by the way.)

Again, this is a catastrophic failure of Christian education. Please understand that I don't mean that churches should teach apologetics courses to buttress their young people's faith; that's just lying of a different sort. They should just tell them the truth. The complex, multifaceted, polyvocal, faith-challenging, doubt-creating truth. There is no better way to prepare your students for college than by helping them understand that much of life and truth flies in the face of the faith they have constructed. They will be required to repeatedly face truths that destroy, or at least challenge, cherished beliefs and doctrines. My job as a professor is not to spare them those truths, so I refuse to take responsibility for the Church's failure to adequately equip their young people—not to defend their faith, but to contextualize truth in the context of their faith. I am not hostile to faith; I am hostile to a system that presents itself as "the truth" while it lies to students about the world, or worse, distracts them with entertainment out of fear that real religious education would drive them away.

Top 10 not so Surprising Things You Learn in Religion 101, Part 2: Podcast Edition

This is the second and final part of the conversation Tripp Fuller and I had about some issues related to teaching religion courses at state colleges, although, to be fair, it was different and in some ways worse teaching Bible at a private university. The idea here was that students show up in my class woefully unprepared for some stuff that is pretty basic if you study religion, which is to say, someone in their church should have told them these things before they turned 18 and wandered into my class. If you haven't listened to part one or if you're new here, you should know that these conversations aren't anti-religious or specifically anti-Christian. Honestly, I'm probably more irritated at the complete breakdown of education nationwide than at any religion, god, or spiritual person; it's private schools, public schools, and houses of worship all in this disaster together.

We hit on the final six topics here, including the non-maleness of god and how that language shapes ideas, the human element in the Bible and all sacred texts, what it actually means to do what Jesus did, American anti-intellectualism, and finally, whether or not Word of God actually means anything as used by evangelicals and fundamentalists.

The Language of Faith, or Why it's Impossible to Say Anything Clearly about Hobby Lobby

If you want to read about the Hobby Lobby decision, I'm going to suggest you go elsewhere. I have very little to say about it until the rhetorical, hyperbolic, slippery-slope-generating dust settles. I only need to talk about the Hobby Lobby details as illustrative of a larger problem within certain forms of theism, especially American evangelicalism and fundamentalism.

A few observers have noted that the entire Hobby Lobby case rests on the conflict between science and religion, specifically the tendency to distrust science as somehow antithetical or at least hostile to faith. That topic is best covered in a different post, and I, quite frankly, have no interest in writing one about it. It is clear that the mistrust of science led to some of the stronger rhetoric, and certainly in the triumphalism evident in some circles after the decision.

To be clear, the case rested on the Green family being allowed to define pregnancy in a way that is counter to how medical professionals define pregnancy. I have no idea why I should take the word of business owners who specialize in selling imported crap for display in middle class homes around evangelicaldom when the American Medical Association seems a far more reliable source of information about medicine, but it's America, and as my students regularly inform me with scalable—depending on their level of offense at my cultural blasphemy—levels of indignation, "Everyone has a right to their own opinion."

Indeed, even if those opinions are wrong. At least once in my career I have wished that a student would test scientific opinions with real world experiments, like the theory of gravitation from the roof of the library, or energy exchanges in collisions by standing in front of a speeding truck. It's not one of my better moments, but I can only be expected to explain "scientific theory" to college students so many times before I lose patience with the systems that work against science education in this country. (Science educators, I feel your pain, and I sincerely hope that you get your own shopping-mall-sized particle collider in science heaven.) More informed writers than I have lamented at length the ways in which science education is deficient in this country, and fundangelical Christianity bears a substantial portion of the blame for this unhappy circumstance. This, however, is also not the subject of this post.

The Hobby Lobby decision is a hydra-headed clusterfuck, and we'll be sorting out the implications for a long time. That the SCOTUS majority opinion specifically said the decision could not be used for precedential purposes related to blood transfusions and other medical realities about which different faith traditions have differing beliefs is a strong indication that they know this was a perilously bad decision. Either the principle applies or it doesn't, and in this case, they treated a comprehensive application of principle as an ad hoc application of principle, but the box is still open and the five justices in the majority will be living with their decision in the form of litigation for years to come.

As for how this relates to religion and public life, my favorite topic for you newbies, this is an excellent (for illustrative purposes, I mean) example of the tendency of confusing the purpose, nature, and object of faith with a clearer task of language and a more testable version of truth. Faith, at least in a theological framework, is likely best defined as trust. Like many terms related to metaphysics, the edges of the definition are blurry, so precising definitions are always necessary in discussions of faith. Trust, I think, comes closest in a comprehensive sense.

Trust in god is the proper application of faith, and the possible permutations of that phrase, while possibly hard to quantify, at least offer a hint about the purpose and object of faith. Faith is trust directed at god, and it relies on believing things that can't be known. This is contra Reformed theology, especially Calvin, which sees faith as "firm and certain knowledge" about particular revelations that come from God and that are testified to by the Holy Spirit, whose task is to reveal them to our minds and seal them on our hearts (ugh, useless metaphor there). This is metaphysical magic talk for "we know things that there is no way to actually know."

Since I think of Reformed and neo-Reformed theology (except Barth) as synonymous with logically consistent insanity, you will forgive me for saying Calvin is explaining a reality that he can only agree to if his god is THE god. Extend that definition to Hinduism or Santeria, and he would argue that reason is the means to prove the superiority of Christianity over those other religions, and not faith as a mode of knowledge. How, after all, do you argue for the superiority of one sacred text over another without using reason, especially when both religions rely on revelation as a means to knowledge of god?

So, to the issue at hand. Faith in god does not imply the ability to define non-theological terms, like pregnancy, so that they are consistent with a particular brand of theism. The object of faith is not definitions or meanings that are only tangentially related to words in a sacred text; the object of faith is god. This will necessitate that theists believe certain things are true or false, but extracting categories from the text and then insisting testable truths be understood in light of those categories is not helpful in communicating with members of various tribes who do not share those categories. Pregnant means, for all tribes, a fertilized egg is implanted in the wall of the uterus. To equate faith with the belief in definitions that are contrary to known scientific realities is to impose an anti-intellectual burden on believers that makes meaningful, intertribal communication impossible.