The Bible is True Cause It Says So, or Sacred Texts for a Secular World

Kurt Eichenwald, Pulitzer Prize nominee and Vanity Fair writer, created a bit of a shitstorm in fundamentalist and evangelical Christian circles last week with his Newsweek cover story “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin.” For anyone who has had more than one Bible class at a legitimate private or public university, what Eichenwald says is not new, even for those who disagree with Eichenwald’s conclusions. I read the whole piece and recognized material I learned as an undergrad. For grad school, our professors would have simply assumed we were familiar with the material. It is that underwhelming and not newsworthy. Except that it is.

The majority of the criticism was for Eichenwald’s portrayal of fundamentalists and some evangelicals as biblical illiterates (He is correct about that, except that it’s most Christians, period.) who treat the Bible like a cafeteria serving line where certain verses can be cherry-picked to support specific ideological positions, especially LGBT issues. Reading through his piece, it is difficult to find where what he writes misses the mark. He opens with this:

“They wave their Bibles at passersby, screaming their condemnations of homosexuals. They fall on their knees, worshipping at the base of granite monuments to the Ten Commandments while demanding prayer in school. They appeal to God to save America from their political opponents, mostly Democrats. They gather in football stadiums by the thousands to pray for the country’s salvation.”


Bearing in mind that he never describes all Christians thus, where is the false note? Most of us have met the people he describes, especially those of us in Oklahoma. Until Satan inspired a motorist to smash into our Ten Commandments monument, we too had an idol on the capitol grounds. Ever driven by the “preachers” near Windsor Hills Baptist Church? Young men on street corners screaming condemnation for a “perverse and adulterous generation” were likely not what St. Francis of Assisi had in mind when he said to preach with words only when necessary. How long ago was it that Governor Perry of the great state of Texas spoke at a prayer rally in front of thousands? These people exist, numbering in the millions, and one need not tune into Fox News or Trinity Broadcasting to find them. They are in our stores, schools, little league teams, social clubs, and neighborhood associations.

Given that he fairly describes a subset of modern American Christendom—and that is without contradiction—what about his take on the Bible? His critique is very simple and widely accepted in most non-conservative Christian universities. The text that we see today is nothing like what the Bible, if it existed in an ideal form, would actually read like. There have been omissions, emendations, intentional additions, politicized interpretations, and all manner of shenanigans that ensure that the biblical text is anything but what it is believed to be by evangelicals and conservatives who fetishize it even as they don’t read it. It is a totem more than a sacred text for that demographic.

Albert Mohler is the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ken., and he regularly comments on social and political issues; the Eichenwald piece was no exception. Mohler’s primary complaint about the piece—other than it being a “hit piece”—is that Eichenwald does not interview Christians with a “traditional understanding of the Bible.” I assume that Mohler means Protestants in his own conservative Baptist tradition rather than Catholics, whose Bible is considerably longer with the addition of the Apocrypha, or even Jews—you know, the people from which the Old Testament (Tanakh) actually emerged. (Mohler seems to have no trouble treating the Jewish text as if it’s a Christian document, so apparently his critique of Eichenwald is a bit self-serving and possessed of a massive blind spot.)

The issue here is that Mohler sincerely believes that his tribe ought to be able to rightly interpret the Bible over against all other claimants, especially those he deems to be from the “far, far left” of biblical studies, which is to say, men and women who don’t typically hold to a supernatural understanding of the text. In other words, the great lengths that Eichenwald goes to in order to demonstrate that it is clearly not a supernatural text are lost on Mohler and other evangelicals and fundamentalists of his tribe because they have already decided that the text is supernatural, and so no amount of evidence can be mustered to undermine that position because all evidence must support, not refute, the position else it is false. This is the grandest case of theological confirmation bias and cherry-picking imaginable.

This is the same sort of thinking that led to the famous Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy in 1978. A bunch of really smart people got together to declare the Bible inerrant and infallible in the “original autographs,” a fancy phrase for the original documents. The problem with that? There is no such thing as an original Tanakh. Much of it was oral tradition. When it was finally written down, the manuscripts were copied when they became worn, and the old copies were destroyed so as to avoid corruption of the text.
As for the New Testament, the original letters of Paul probably are real things, but we don’t have them, and the Gospels were cobbled together decades after the death of Jesus from oral tradition and alleged eyewitness accounts. So, because the group in Chicago believed the Bible was inerrant, they agreed that it was, but they can clearly see it is not in its present form, and so they created a document—original autographs—that none of them had seen because it doesn’t exist. This is called theological conservatism, I suppose. Professors would call it dishonest at best, but it passes for critical thinking in certain evangelical and fundamentalist circles. Again, what did Eichenwald get wrong?
Finally, the obsession with some liberals over redeeming the biblical text leads to a quixotic task. They are attempting to demonstrate to true believers that the warrant for their true belief is not something upon which the biblical “literalists” should base their belief, at least not in an absolutist sense. (Incidentally, they are correct. In theology, the proper object of faith is God, not the Bible, but bibliolatry is fashionable among the tribe Eichenwald targets.) The liberals expect people who believe that the text is supernaturally given to apply the lessons of literary criticism and anthropology and other utterly useful tools to a task—Bible interpretation—that is far easier when practiced as repeating what they have been told rather than doing the hard work of reading critically. They believe the Bible to be the “Word of God,” because they have been taught that it is and, quite frankly, they prefer to believe it, but they believe without bothering to parse what “Word of God” means.

This comes down to an issue of authority in the sense of “does the Bible possess any authority in my life, and more importantly, should it?” Can I or should I trust that the Bible explains or commands authoritatively, which is to say, is it worth listening to (Is it accurate?), and does it contain commands from God? I understand the desire among liberals to shore up their theology with reference to the Bible, but do we really expect to find solid sexual ethics, political ideologies, or social conventions in a text that dates to the Bronze and Iron Ages? Better to stop looking for signs of God’s blessing on gay marriage in a book not written by God. Better to stop arguing with people who fetishize the Bible without reading or understanding it about what percentage of an ancient text is trustworthy or authoritative. It serves to buttress their faith and their politics, not shape their practices; that much is clear. Old books are awesome when treated like old books. After all, nobody is killing anybody over Marcus Aurelius or Herodotus. Take what is good; reject what is bad. There is wisdom in that.

How to Write Your Own Definitions, or Pot, Meet Kettle

This is the first column I'm jointly publishing here and with Literati Press. I like what Charles Martin is doing there, and I approached him about religion writing. We agreed that it was a nice match. Give them some love, please.

If you need something that is demonstrably true not to be true, you are left with limited options. Among them is the hope that you will be speaking to a collection of ideologues who will believe you even if your words don’t cohere with reality because they want to believe you. This tactic seems to be the hope of conservatives who wish not to be seen as anti-First Amendment vis-a-vis religion and free speech where Islam is concerned.

What do you do if the second largest religion in the world creates massive problems for your PR campaign because nearly every single one of the more than one billion adherents insists on acting as agents of good conscience? How do you discredit a religion without seeming to be an opponent of the First Amendment? Conservatives are bizarrely committed to seeing Islam as a global threat, when it would be far simpler to see a few thousand criminals who falsely call themselves Muslims as a global threat. Since they are wed to this commitment, conservatives are left to explain how they can demonize an Abrahamic faith without being intolerant of religion.

One of our Oklahoma representatives made national news recently when he came up with the solution to conservatives’ PR needs, and now that solution is being widely distributed by Oklahoma’s largest conservative PAC. (I was almost certain that it wasn’t really his original idea, and it turns out that I’m correct.) John Bennett, an Oklahoma legislator, called Islam a “social, political system that uses a deity to advance its agenda of global conquest.”

Bennett somehow made the national news by advancing ideas that noted Islamophobe and former Florida legislator Allen West made popular in 2012 when he called Islam a “totalitarian theocratic political ideology.” In short, conservatives have decided that they get to define what is and is not a religion, and so conveniently, the conservative definition of religion excludes Islam.

The basis of the exclusion is that Islam is not a religion, but a political ideology, and in their minds, those are mutually exclusive categories. The Oklahoma Conservative Political Action Committee, referenced earlier, included Bennett’s comments in their most recent email newsletter to members, and in the same email was a link to Reclaiming America for Christ, yet another example of conservatives being tone deaf to irony.

OCPAC dismissed Islam as a political ideology, even as they registered their support for a form of Christianity that would “reclaim the culture” for “Christian values.” The idea is that America was founded on Christian principles and was therefore governmentally an expression of Biblical values, but conservatives fail to see that as an endorsement for a “theocratic political ideology.”

The blindness on their part is not due to explicit hypocrisy, and it pains me to say that. It really is based on a preferential epistemology which views their religion as true and all others as false. For my liberal friends, this really is not hypocrisy, no more than if you assumed someone was wrong for disagreeing with your liberal worldview. Reality is the water in which we swim growing up, and it’s not as if we are able to parse what we are taught; we simply accept it as reality. It is not until much later, perhaps on the verge of adulthood, that we parse the important stuff.

For most American political conservatives, Christianity is simply true, not a construct superimposed on reality to force life to cohere to a set of assumptions. That Muslims believe the exact same thing never occurs to the conservative religio-political tribe we refer to as the Christian Right. To engage in comparative religion would only weaken the force of the CR’s claims. They must be singularly true, otherwise they are simply competing metanarratives, so Christians believe the truth, and Muslims are deceived, even as their religions look much the same to outsiders.

As for the claims from conservatives, here is how Charlie Meadows, an OCPAC spokesperson, summed them up:

In my opinion, The Oklahoman and Tulsa World as well as some of the local broadcast media are far too politically correct and practice EXCESSIVE tolerance to ever know or tell the truth about the “religion” of Islam. What they have become is [sic] useful idiots for the agenda of the Religion [sic] of Islam which really isn’t a religion but more of a political and governmental system that uses a deity to advance their agenda.

This is the heart of the conservatives’ claim: Islam is not a religion. Rather, it simply uses a “deity to advance their agenda.” I’ll resist the urge to say, “pot, meet kettle,” but only barely. All theistic faiths use a deity to advance their agenda, but OCPAC and other faux religious conservatives assume that they are not using the deity; instead, they see themselves as advancing the agenda of the deity they serve, an agenda they happily ignore is not substantiated by an appearance of their deity to confirm any particular claims. All other faiths must provide evidence; theirs is simply true, and so political extrapolations become axioms.

It would be comically bad philosophy were it not for the insistence that legislation be based on this deity’s desires, said deity still not available to substantiate those claims. Fret not, though; there is a book. Never mind that Muslims also have a book. Only the Christian Bible is correct, and the JewishTanakh can only be interpreted in reverse, by filtering it through the New Testament and myriad extra-Biblical assertions.

All this aside, the question remains. Is Islam a religion or a political ideology? I’ll allow that Christians can be tone deaf to the obvious false dichotomy here. Ninian Smart came up with a complex matrix of categories that helped define religion, since the word is required to do entirely too much in general usage. How can “religion” describe feeding the poor and killing infidels, caring for the sick and torturing heretics, blessing babies and burning witches while still maintaining any coherence? The term itself is already asked to do too much, and it’s clear that many things the conservatives object to are part of that impossible list.

Smart’s categories were ritual, mythical, experiential, social, ethical, doctrinal, and material. Critics of Islam would be hard-pressed to find one of those categories that was not represented by Islam. Here is a very brief breakdown of correspondence:

    • Ritual:  Hajj (pilgrimage)
    • Mythical: Qur’an, obviously
    • Experiential: prayer, giving, fasting
    • Social: Jumah, Eid al Fitr, fastbreaking, etc.
    • Ethical: Shariah, obviously
    • Doctrinal: Hadith
    • Material: prayer rug, ka’aba, etc.

In other words, Islam is a religion. Of course it is. Conservatives want to deny it the status of religion to suit their own ends and to avoid being categorized as anti-religion or anti-First Amendment. It is an argument from preference, not principle.


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.

When Satan Comes Sweeping Down the Plains, or Of Bread and Satanists

If the Satanist group that rented out a small theater at the Civic Center in Oklahoma City for a black mass recently is an indication of how pernicious evil is when it has a real face, we are all going to be just fine. To call it buffoonery might be a bit judgmental, but I am not sure what else to call a grown man in robes "casting out the Holy Spirit" in a "reverse exorcism." That hundreds of Christians arrayed in near-military looking ranks in front of the Civic Center to protest this melodramatic, low-comedy expression of one man's narcissism and anti-social personality disorder only shows that the conservative American church can't tell the difference between a bad Vincent Price impersonation and real evil.

First for the happenings inside, and then to the more interesting story outside. The press was herded into a foyer on the north side of the Civic Center. The entrance was where ticketed guests would enter when the doors opened, which is only a metaphor, as the only cop in the foyer insisted that the doors stay closed unless someone approached said doors. "All we need is one crazy to crash the doors, and we're all screwed," he said, clearly repeating lines from  his screen test for "tall, white, cop-looking guy" in season nine of Criminal Minds.

The traditional velvet rope was set up to stop us from wandering down the hall to see the theater prior to the arrival of Ahriman. So, quick side note here. The Satanist group that performed (officiated? held? presented? sponsored?) the rituals that night used Zoroastrian language. Go easy on yourself if you don't know much about it, but if you are a preacher, pastor, reverend, etc., do not go easy on yourself.

The modern concepts of hell and heaven are deeply indebted to the sixth century BCE version of Zoroastrian cosmogony. Zoroaster, a Persian prophet who influenced the Hebrew captives in Babylon after the Persian conquest, preached of a dualistic universe created by the good god Ahura Mazda, who was opposed by the evil demigod Ahriman, also known as Angra Mainyu. Jewish theology had no concept of heaven and hell prior to the Babylonian captivity, but the doctrines are adopted and integrated over the centuries between 539 BCE and the life of Jesus in the first four decades of the first century CE, thanks to Zoroaster.

All that to say that Adam Daniels, the leader (Dastur, according to his preference) of the Satanists, knows far more about the origins of "satan" than the Christians who were arrayed out front, and it is Ahriman he allegedly serves. Odd as it may sound, it's almost a complete waste of words to describe the rituals. Snippets can be found online to sate curiosity, but suffice it to say it was the sum of combining a desire to be blasphemous and contrary with a too-serious self-image and a bizarre respect for theatrical, religious language, costumes, and gestures.

If you have not seen the Nicholas Cage film 8mm, I recommend avoiding it, based on the axiom that what is seen cannot be unseen (barring amnesia), but there is a helpful scene near the end in which Cage finally confronts the man who has murdered a young woman as part of a snuff film. When the killer is unmasked, he looks like one of those fat, cherubic kids whose lives in middle school are a living hell, but he confronts Cage in a way that makes perfect, horrible sense: Did you expect a monster? His version of evil is real because it's visited on the innocent, and it has a this-worldly manifestation that is unavoidable.

Daniels could play that role, easily. But his form of evil is banal, not because he is incapable of evil, but because he worships yet another deity or demigod, but his version is maltheistic instead of whitebread theism. His god is evil, but still personal, still accessible, and still active in the world—if you believe the mythology. Which is to say, it's yet another god whose existence cannot be demonstrated and whose story stretches credulity.

One ritual genuinely involved casting out the Holy Spirit. The recipient of this "ministry" was a former Catholic. Apparently the Satanists don't understand Catholic theology all that well. Only someone who was raised in some Evangelical tradition that preaches "once saved, always saved" could believe that the Holy Spirit abides in apostates, but only a fool or a drunk or a grad student argues pneumatology with a Satanist. The other ritual was the much-billed Black Mass, basically, a blasphemous version of the Catholic Mass.

Originally, the finale was to involve stomping on a consecrated host, the wafer consumed by Catholics as part of the Eucharist, what Protestants call the Lord's Supper or communion. A consecrated version means that the wafer had already been blessed and was ready for Mass, and, according to the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, would become the actual body of Jesus at the appropriate time during the Mass. The implications of that for a Black Mass should be obvious.

Daniels managed to obtain a consecrated host through unknown means: stolen, contributed, delivered by an agent of Ahriman, or created in a clever fabrication. That the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City pursued legal remedies is a strong indication that it was a real, consecrated host. An Oklahoma judge ultimately ruled that Daniels had to return the host, and, as he told me in a phone interview, "I said, 'Fine. You can have your cracker back.'"

Losing the consecrated host meant that the Black Mass was less blasphemous, as the bread trod upon at the end of the ceremony was not the actual body of the Christ Pantokrator, but in a very non-metaphorical sense was bread, not John 6:35 bread, which is also a metaphor, unless you are Catholic, but real "you can eat it and not go to hell" bread.

Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian philosopher, has written at length about phrases like this taken to their linguistic/logical conclusion causing "irruptions of the real," which is a moment when the lexical meaning of the term is forced into the real world and shown to be absurd. This is clearly an example of that because we are talking about bread, not magic bread or Hansel and Gretel bread, just bread. The Catholics are uncharacteristically literalists on this point, as they manage to use the Magisterium to excuse every other non-literal interpretation of Jesus' words in the corpus of Catholic doctrine and dogma.

What all the good, Christian folk arrayed out front were saying by their presence and prayers and songs and sermons was that stomping on bread is a way of summoning evil. I realize that is a bit atomistic, but this is a case of metaphysical differences creating tribes. For people like me for whom the devil is childish nonsense or a poor externalization of mythical, Jungian archetypes, we are talking about portly Vincent Price trampling bread. For others, that tribe of theists who believe the world is magical, or at least believe that myths are referentially true stories, also called histories, the buffoon was summoning the actual devil.

Theism can exist quite nicely without a personification of evil. In fact, humans seem all too capable of hurting each other without inspiration from a smooth-talking, Miltonian fallen angel to guide our perversities. I left the ministry and the faith in 2006; I stopped believing in the devil a half dozen years before that. The concept is unnecessary and answers nothing. The entirety of Genesis 3 makes more sense as a mythological explanation (etiology) for the loss of innocence in a psychological sense, expressed as a universal reality, than as a talking snake (the devil) tempting primordial humans to forsake YHWH. In other words, Satanists have less credibility than Christians, Jews, or Muslims, primarily because the Satanists' god is superfluous. Everything he does, we do without his assistance, and without his love of verbosity.

Yet, there were 400-500 people gathered outside the Civic Center that evening, and all were convinced that portly Vincent Price was summoning God's principal enemy, as if free will needs a competitor in that regard. Milton's Lucifer was correct about at least one thing: God is a dictator, and the quest for free will runs contrary to ethical monotheism. The Christians—I saw no other tribe—were arrayed out front of the Civic Center, which faces east, in clans or families within the larger tribe.

Catholics were a full sixty percent of the crowd, including a group of approximately 300 members of TFP, a group that needs a bit of an introduction. The group was founded in Brazil in 1960 by Plinio Correa de Oliveira. The abbreviation stands for Tradition, Family, and Property, or, as I prefer to call it, the Holy Trinity of Missing the Point. You will spend many hours scouring the New Testament for Jesus' teachings on personal property. You will find a brief reference like this: "The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head..." Don't let that trouble you, though. Jesus was definitely a fan of John Locke, because he foreknew Locke's idea of life, liberty, and property, which was changed in our Constitution to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

TFP is the group that got the Black Mass canceled at Harvard, and so they bussed 300 of the faithful here to prevent the Oklahoma City version, even as our beloved governor, just like a broken clock, was right this time when she refused to stop the event, even though she tried to find a "legal" way to stop it. Let's be clear: conservatives are way more concerned about tradition than they are about law. However, the Black Mass went forward, even with 300 TFP members out front, dressed conservatively and sporting red sashes with a gold lion pin emblematic of, as one idealistic teenager told me, "Our Lord, the Lion of Judah." Jesus, it seems, is always available for protests, lawn parties, and political campaigns; one only needs the name to invoke the power, prestige, or theological justification for a claim that can be conveniently tied to an all too agreeable Savior. Perhaps in his zeal to save us all, he can't say no?

To their credit, the Catholics were occupied singing hymns or praying the Rosary. They did have a dizzying display of signage, including pleas to return America to "one nation under God," and they were singing God Bless America when I arrived (not a hymn, alas), so their agenda was clearly religious in the sense of civil religion, but, again, to their credit, they were the best behaved tribe of Christians on the east side of the Civic Center, an area that is a large plaza, composed of sidewalks, benches, public art, and occasional covered areas, and toward which the entrance faces. In other words, if you walk out the east side of the Civic Center, you are facing downtown Oklahoma City, and on this day, representatives of "the Lord's Army," arrayed, squadron-style, in denominations and traditions.

To quote Jay Kelly, the plaza was a Tilt-a-Whirl and an Indian taco stand away from being the State Fair of Religion. That's a fair assessment. The plaza was a rallying point for many different squadrons of the Lord's Army. Catholics made up at least sixty percent of the crowd, but other groups were noticeable for their volume (voice, not number).

I talked to an Apostolic minister from Sapulpa, Okla., who divided his time preaching hellfire for those who cooperated with Satan and speaking (yelling) in tongues. His name was Albert, and after I coaxed him down from his park bench-soapbox-pulpit, he was soft-spoken and kind. He was there to explain the error of the Satanists' ways; he simply thought loud and histrionic was more effective than kind and gentle. He immediately started yelling his sermon as soon as we stopped the interview.

A group of young, African American men, sporting combat boots and dressed in purple and gold vestments emblazoned with "Israel United in Christ," held down the southwest corner of the plaza, and posed back to back, as if they were fighting a last stand, a la Thermopylae, while they shouted Bible verses, the gist of which was that Jesus came to redeem Israel. Israel, according to their understanding and proclamation, was composed of people of color, I assume. Of course. History be damned. Real Jews are black. Everyone knows that.

A Pentecostal congregation squatted on the northwest corner of the plaza. Their pastor preached and prayed in a Thulsa Doom-worthy voice about the fate of Satanists and all who cooperated with Satan. The congregation, variously sitting, kneeling, and standing with hands raised, prayed in English and "tongues of angels."

They were perched next to the TFP Catholics who composed the middle of the phalanx, if we are to extend the military metaphor. Behind the phalanx were various other sub-tribes, including independent fundamentalists and evangelicals. Even farther back were singles and couples who were praying quietly in out-of-the-way places, much like Jesus would have commended, it seems.

Two circumstances made the night more remarkable than it would have been otherwise. The first was a growing realization amongst the fundamentalists that the majority of the protesters were Catholic. The fundamentalists had been directing their invective at the Satanists for most of the evening. A few intrepid evangelists camped at the edge of the police line on the north side of the building—the cops blocked the north street to allow press and Satanists to enter unmolested. The evangelists had bullhorns, and they used them to direct a constant flow of sermon, prayer, and mockery at the Satanists on the north side of the building. In fact, most of the group gathered on that side was composed of a metal band that Daniels had booked for the show and then subsequently ignored, even as the band pleaded for a brief audience with the Vicar of Ahriman.

The bullhorns broadcasted the evangelists' displeasure with the blasphemers in various ways, including, "Shame on you for sneaking in the back door! You hide from the truth! Cowards!" The police and staff at the Civic Center had developed the logistics to avoid a confrontation, but the fundamentalist ministers were not going to let reality impinge on their sermons, and yes, this is only one instantiation of that pattern. Once the bullhorn bearers realized that their words were wasted, they found a new target: Catholics.

Yes, the fundamentalists posted up in front of the TFP group and began to mock/proselytize the Catholics. One of the evangelists held forth on the differences between soteriology in the Catholic framework and the "correct" one, which is to say some version of Protestantism, especially faux-literalist, fundamentalist Baptist. Apparently, their failure to use imprecatory prayers to stop the Black Mass left them no recourse but to save the Papists from false salvation, which is to say, trusting in works as opposed to faith. I want to use the term shitshow, but it's not really a word, so I'll just mention that the worst offender directed his efforts at clean-cut Catholic teens, all of whom maintained their composure in the face of egregious douchebaggery. As Mark Twain said, "God is better than his reputation," and this preacher buttressed the truth of that assertion.

Finally, the gathered tribes were treated to one of God's signs shortly after the reverse exorcism began. It had rained just enough to soil clean cars right before the event, and because science is more consistent in its predictability than theism, a rainbow appeared above downtown Oklahoma City. People in the crowd sighed expansively and took pics of the amazing phenomenon. A rainbow! During a Black Mass! What could it mean? Albert, the heavenly polyglot, was near me when it appeared.

"Do you know what that means?" He yelled, undisguised joy in his expression.

I took the high road. "That's God's covenant with Noah," I said,

He slapped me on the back, and said, "That's right, brother!" He moved off toward the east, praying in tongues, hands and Bible aloft.

I would have received no reward for saying, "According to the text, it simply means YHWH won't flood the world again. There is no guarantee against destruction by fire, wind, virus, bacteria, rabid wombats, or the herp."

There is no cure for pareidolia, the tendency to see patterns in random stimuli. People find signs where and in ways that suit their narrative. The rainbow reassured the faithful army that God was there and on their side. The rainbow was located above downtown, though. It could have easily been a sign that God likes portly Vincent Price and his stab at being evil. It could also have been an effect based on light refracted through water, but who knows? God works in mysterious ways, his bread to transform. 

Blood-Washed Hobbies, or Russell Moore Reinterprets Jesus

Hobby Lobby made the "news" yet again when Jonathan Merritt, former SBC wunderkind and now RNS columnist and exceptional commentator, took them to task for calling themselves a "Christian company" while purchasing products from China. It's an old discussion around Oklahoma, where the behemoth is headquartered, and due in large part to the company's influence here, they tend to get a pass on buying products to sell "on sale" that were likely produced by children and/or slave labor, including people of faith who have been imprisoned for their refusal to register their churches.

The piece wasn't news per se; it was a commentary, and to his credit, Merritt asked for a critical response from Russell Moore, executive director of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Moore took over last year from the serial plagiarist Richard Land, and as is the case with the highest echelons of SBC leadership, Moore is a politician more than a minister. That orientation could not be more clear from his response to Merritt. Before we get to that, though, a few words on Merritt's piece.

Just reading the comments on the RNS piece is enough to induce despair in the most happy go lucky of philosophy professors, and it reveals with a high degree of clarity that conservative fundangelicalism has reached a new low in critical engagement. Setting aside the folks who could not disengage their own biases from Merritt's piece and who gleefully indulged in ad hominem, strawman, bandwagon, and red herring fallacies, we are still left to wonder why Merritt's piece creates such controversy.

Companies are not Christian. Surely the most elementary definition of "christian" makes this clear. If we begin with the notion that a Christian is a person, we are left to marvel that anyone thinks a company possesses the necessary soulishness or imago dei to be saved by grace (or by grace and works, Catholic friends). The designation is unfortunate, and, quite frankly, sloppy. What is likely meant is that a company's owner has the right to create the value system, within the law, that the owner deems most in line with the owner's values, such that a Christian owner can make conditions of employment and human resource-related policies consistent with the owner's religious convictions.

This seems like a good idea initially. After all, the employer assumes the risks of starting and running a business, and this is America, damnit, and so she should be able to run her company the way she sees fit as long as the laws are followed. However, mixing the grammar (and vocabulary) of Christianity with the grammar (and vocabulary) of business is a horrible idea if you mean to be a Christian in any meaningful way. If you mean to be an American or a capitalist first, by all means, mix away.

What is most troubling in this part of the discussion is the idea that a "Christian company" should be treated like a religious charity or church, where non-discrimination laws are waived for very good reason (e.g., a church should not be penalized for refusing to hire a Muslim organist, etc.). A for-profit business should not receive the same protections as a religious charity or organization, primarily because they exist to make a profit, which is to say that they should not be given preferential treatment or protections just because the owner is of a particular religious persuasion. The employees of a for-profit company should be able to reasonably expect that their Constitutional rights will be respected, and that their employer will follow all applicable local, state, and federal laws. No employee should be expected to accept employment with the condition that certain provisions of the Constitution or applicable laws don't apply to them.

Additionally, the idea that companies have certain rights typically afforded to individuals is at the heart of the utterly awful Citizens United decision. That a company receives First Amendment protections related to freedom of speech in terms of political donations almost guarantees that SCOTUS will be consistent and grant that companies have protections related to the other clause: freedom of religion. For reasons that Citizens United makes obvious, this is a dangerous trend for actual individual liberties, and that people of faith are supporting rights related to the second clause while protesting the same rights related to the first only shows the shallow nature of reflection amongst certain tribes of theists. Rarely is self-interest in ethics so obvious.

So, speaking of ethics, we turn to Russell Moore and his response to Merritt. First things first: Merritt is not guilty of a red herring line of questioning. Moore only assumes so because Moore has mixed his categories. Merritt is talking about Christianity; Moore is talking about U.S. economic policy. Again, the leadership of the SBC is primarily political, not ministerial. That Moore cannot address this issue without first insisting that capitalism is the best way to handle the China problem is a key indicator that he means to defend capitalism first, followed by Christianity filtered through the lens of free market capitalism. That America has a long history of enriching tyrants and dictators at the expense of the poor and the marginalized—you know, Jesus' favorite people—is happily ignored by Moore, primarily because he is shaped by Reagan (and contextually, Nixon) more than Jesus. Call that ad hominem if you wish, but I think he condemns himself with his own response far more thoroughly than I do.

At this point, it's easy to skip a huge chunk of his response because much of it is dedicated to talking about the best way to change the politico-economic climate of China rather than addressing Merritt's actual points. Moore treats Merritt like a naive reactionary rather than like a thoughtful commentator who wonders how allegiance to Jesus ought to influence a so-called Christian company's treatment of the poor. Moore's answer: give the manufacturers and politicians more money so they'll treat laborers and peasants more equitably. Did he mean to be a textbook example of the sort of douchebaggery Marx and Engels were writing about?

Finally, Moore helpfully points out that the Christian moral tradition—you know, the singular one that he apparently inherited, not the polyvocal one that actually exists—has always distinguished between direct involvement in sin and "living in a world in which sin exists." Uh, yeah, nice, but that's not the issue, Mr. False Dichotomy. Indirect involvement in sin is a third way here, and Moore ignores it because he's too obtuse to see it or too political to be honest. (Guess which one I believe.) What Moore is saying here is that his experience of the Christian moral tradition ignores all input from the Anabaptists, Catholic social justice practitioners, African American activist/theologians like Dr. King and James Cone, and post-liberal geniuses like Walter Wink. Good to know that the Christian moral tradition is most embodied in Southern, conservative, evangelical crackers.

Finally, for the second time, is Moore aware that Baptists have historically been concerned about individuals created in the image of God? A defense of China and of companies that purchase from Chinese slaves that takes the "long view" is not a defense in the spirit of Jesus, nor is it in the Baptist tradition. Some of those individuals will be dead before (if) policies are changed. They will live and die in squalor, poverty, and slavery, and their souls will know no rest. He is defending a company that makes profits off the very people the prophets said God loves, and he is defending American economic policy that treats systems as more important than people—a sort of theological breaking eggs to make an omelette argument. Exactly which Baptist tradition is Moore speaking in defense of? 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. 

Believing Without Doing, or Lessons from the Southern Baptist Convention

Any religion without intentional practices that lead to identity development and without at least a rudimentary ethic is nothing more than a system of justification that benefits the believer primarily in the area of assurance or mental health. I was reminded of this idea at lunch today with the Reverend. We were talking about youth ministry in particular, but recent developments in Southern Baptist membership and lack of growth, as well.

The idea occurred to me during another interminable conversation about what constitutes a reasonable definition of "Christian" with students. The conversation usually begins with a discussion about self-identification, and this is what triggered the memory today. The SBC is considering altering their constitution to narrow the definition of what kinds of churches qualify as cooperating churches. In short, deviations from the Baptist Faith & Message could possibly be addressed by disfellowshipping, including issues like women's roles and sexuality (no surprise there).

The Executive Committee of the SBC wants to clarify what it means to self-identify as a Southern Baptist church. That is not a bad idea, quite frankly, but more on that in a bit. What I find somewhat amusing is that the venerable old Baptist traditions of church autonomy and the priesthood of the believer are being abrogated by what is clearly an attempt to establish orthodoxy by means of creedalism (the BF&M is a creed, folks) and what amounts to a Baptist interdict--the ancient papal tool of excommunication of an entire population.

This is, of course, a terrible way to engender identity formation, but since the fundamentalist usurpation of SBC leadership--now more than 30 years ago--coercion has been the primary means of crowd control and enforce orthodoxy in the SBC. Mohler and Patterson may not like each other, but they are shockingly similar creatures with similar methods; they just happen to be arguing for different versions of orthodoxy on a Reformed versus Baptist axis, both of which do in fact qualify as a version of traditional Christianity.

So, a point of agreement referenced earlier. Self-identification is most often a terrible idea, but we chafe at the idea of not allowing it. The American gospel for sure includes the doctrine that all people are endowed with the right of self-determination. I won't disagree with that, but I will say that self-determination is most decidedly not the same thing as self-identification. As a journalist I'm often force to allow an interviewee to tell me what faith she practices, from bacon sandwich-eating Muslims, to flag-waving Christians, to sabbath-ignoring Jews, if a person says he is something, he is that thing. That's how Americans do self-identification.

This is problematic precisely because it allows each individual to determine for herself the content of a particular faith. Why even practice the faith if you have no intention of actually practicing the faith? Why construct a new religion and simply borrow the vocabulary of a traditional faith? Why not join the millions of others who have simply walked away and taken up residence in a metaphysical cafeteria of options where new, individualized faiths can be tailored, much like a playlist or vacation itinerary?

I have no issue with the SBC wanting to clarify what it means to be Baptist, but in truth, they abandoned actual Baptist principals a long time ago. The leadership and the overwhelming majority of the pastors should simply stop calling themselves Baptist; it's laughable that they attach their movement to John Smyth and Roger Williams, but that is certainly their right. No one can enforce historical orthodoxy, and conservatives have been taking the Lord's name in vain for a long time when it comes to truth telling.

My larger concern in the conversation was about youth ministry, though, especially as it relates to identity formation. I asked the Reverend how it was possible for an entire industry to get something so utterly wrong. How does evangelical Christianity have a methodology of youth ministry that is guaranteed to fail, but that can support entire ancillary ministries: magazines, conferences, M.Div. programs, books, mission trips, music and musicians? How do they not understand that unless you actually encourage identity formation those kids will leave within a year or two of leaving home?

I get them in my classes all the time, and they don't even know what they are supposed to believe, such that the self-identification question leads inexorably to Christian students realizing that the answers they have been given are insufficient to actually answer hard, hostile questions. They have no idea how to sketch the parameters of Christianity and Christian belief in such a way that Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestantism in all its riot of diversity all qualify in a big tent way as Christian. They have learned the most anemic form of revivalist dogma, such that Christianity is individual salvation, and ethics, if mentioned at all, are only meant to reveal how desperately bad we humans are, and how awesome Jesus is for saving us. Never mind actually following Jesus. Don't let anything inside your vagina until you're married and don't be gay, and you have parsed the entirety of youth ministry Christian ethics.

Identity formation is difficult. It takes years, and it takes modeling and mentoring. It takes a commitment to a way of being in the world that is antithetical to rapid growth and feel-good revivalism. (If evangelicals understood how much they are shaped by revivalism, they would change their tactics, at least I hope they would.) The entire methodology of youth ministry right now, which seems to consist of inane worship times where individualism and bloody Jesus are front and center, bad apologetics where answers for questions that will never be asked are given, proselytizing where the Billy Sunday/Hybels/Warren/Bright models dominate, and the elevation of social/sexual issues to the pinnacle of theological importance, is guaranteed to create not people whose identity is formed as Christian, but people whose identity is formed as nominally Christian, and only in terms of soteriology. All the rest is a matter of how I, as a Christian, define Christianity. Absent a robust understanding of faith, and more importantly, actual practice of the faith, these kids will not survive college with their faith intact, and if they do, they will not learn what they ought in college, as they will spend a good percentage of class time trying to gather the tattered remnants of a faith that answers nothing except, "Where will you go when you die?"

Doris Burke Does What Many of Us Want to Do, or God Has No Jumper

So Doris Burke upset some folks the other night when she interviewed future MVP Kevin Durant after another of his amazing performances, this one over the Miami Heat. You can view the 28-second clip here. You can see how some of my fellow Okies felt about her "disrespect" here in a nice twitter thread. This is an old discussion in some ways, but Burke finally did what many of us do in the privacy of our homes: we laugh when athletes credit God in their postgame interviews or post-touchdown rituals. Oddly enough, many believers feel the exact same way as we skeptics; it's absurd to attribute a particular performance or play or game to God's providence, as if God somehow accounts for human agency in sports contests. One can only imagine a blood-spattered God ringside at an MMA event as he gives one pseud0-gladiator the victory over another, or God in flippers swimming dolphin-like amongst water polo players, trying to avoid genitalia (uncleanness and whatnot) so as to give one side the victory. 

Burke's sin was in laughing at KD when he said his performance was because of God/Jesus Christ. First, it's impossible to know what she was thinking. She might simply be a nervous laugher; it does happen. Second, she might have been just as surprised as I was to hear KD speak so explicitly about Jesus. I'm not sure he's done it in a postgame interview before, but it was certainly the first time I heard it. I would have been just as flabbergasted as Burke seemed to be. Her question, like it or not, is a fair one. "You didn't have anything to do with it?" Of course he did. He shot, he distributed the ball, he led the Thunder to a big win over Miami. Finally, I suppose if we parse this, we might get some general agreements, or at least, I'll concede that if certain things are possible, then he wasn't completely nonsensical in his assertion. If God created KD with all these amazing abilities, then it's possible that God was indeed involved in KD's amazing performance. Of course, his parents would then also be partly responsible for KD's amazing abilities. Either way, within that framework, KD's comment doesn't sound completely nonsensical. 

I'm assuming Burke wasn't laughing to mock KD or his faith. She's a professional, and I've listened to her interview athletes hundreds of times. I've never seen her behave disrespectfully to any declaration of the Lord's agency in victory, however dubious the claim might have been. Seriously, consider some of the athletes who have a cozy relationship with God. Say what you want about the Tebows of the world; he at least has integrity in his faith declarations, as his off the field behavior seems above reproach. He's a walking lifestyle covenant. Put the "I'd like to thank my savior" in someone else's mouth (fill in the blank with whatever athletic douchebag first comes to mind), and it's a first-order miracle that Burke hasn't laughed before. KD, too, though, is an upstanding citizen, so it's incredibly unlikely that Burke meant to offend or mock. 

People of faith would do well to take this as a lesson. Sometimes the words you use have zero coherence when juxtaposed with the reality you purport to describe. When I watch KD put up 30+ points, I don't think, "Man, that Jesus can play some fuckin' basketball." When he then gives the credit to Jesus, I laugh and shake my head, and I still think he's an amazing player; I just think he doesn't really understand human agency all that well. 

By the way, yes, I'm back for now. We'll see how this goes for a while. The break was good for me. I still don't know why I want to comment on these things. You'd think teaching college would be sufficient stimulation, but I still find myself wondering some of this shit aloud, and it's really not fair to put students through that grinder. 

Because I Want to Talk About Race, not Trayvon, or My Answer for Trever

I had no intention of wading into the murky waters of this national conversation, but Trever asked a question of me, and well, I tend to run long on my answers. Quite frankly, I wish more Americans would run long on their answers; at least then I'd know whether they understood the complexity of the problems about which they opine or if they just love the sound of their own words exiting their mouths. Trever offered a variation of "the jury had to do what it had to do," and I completely agree, but it's way more complicated than that. This isn't a debate about whether or not America has a race problem; anyone attempting to argue that America doesn't is either an idiot or so entrenched in privilege they can't see the world through non-White eyes. This isn't a protracted discussion about liberal gun laws and Stand Your Ground laws. No sane society can long maintain civility in a country where Stand Your Ground is the rule of law. If you want to read more about that, my friend Scott Jones talks about Locke and Kant and self-defense in reference to the Trayvon Martin case here. It goes without saying that I agree with his assessment. So, the very next sentence is the beginning of my rather lengthy answer.

I tend to agree with the legal issues here. Unfortunately, juries can't convict on intuition. I'll say this again. The problem is the Stand Your Ground law. It's stupid and dangerous. Remove that law from Florida's books and GZ is guilty of manslaughter at a minimum. The jury and the judge have to follow the rule of law, and in this case, the rule of law failed a teenager. I wish we could make a very simple connection here, and I believe my friend Scott Jones is right when he says that an armed man shooting a teenager after the armed man initiated a conflict is the exact inverse of self-defense. The only one with a right to self-defense here was Trayvon Martin. However, the jury can't convict on the grounds that John Locke is right, and that sucks. Hard. The racial component, though seemingly central, was an unfortunate complicating factor to the real central question, which is about self-defense and liberal gun laws, but that complicating factor caused the African American community no small amount of consternation, with good reason.

It's possible that if the roles were reversed, a jury could easily be swayed by the racial element to ignore the rule of law. It's only happened like 9 billion times in the former slaveholding states when people of color were convicted by juries of all white male "peers," or when white men were acquitted for raping or murdering people of color despite all evidence for their guilt. The failure to understand this dynamic is because Cracker America (really White America overall) doesn't have to care. We have been conditioned as people of privilege to discount claims to historical abuse, segregation, and injustice. We fail to understand that the experience of non-White America has been one of always trying to get an even playing field, all the while we blithely widened or narrowed the field depending upon what was best for us. One of the ways in which minority communities establish identity and unity is through racial (cultural) memory; this also serves as a means of character and identity formation. Think of the Black mother explaining to her sons what the rules are when they are pulled over late at night by a White cop. 

The problem with White, really Cracker (there is a difference), America is that we have no racial memory, no cultural history that informs our understanding of context. The context does not need to be filtered, because as people of privlege, the context serves us, and in most cases, it serves us because the privileged class create the context. When white people are furious that OJ "got away with it," we engage in faux rage because the context, which is always present for Black Americans and filtered through the lens of cultural memory, betrayed us this one time. This would be amusing if it weren't nearly always at the expense of a minority. For every one time the context betrayed White America, minorities have been betrayed countless times. Where was all this outrage when young black men were being falsely imprisoned? Where is it now with discrepancies in racialized drug laws? Where is it when judges work with corporate prisons to lock up poor minorities for minor offenses? Where was it when Jim Crow and segregation were the "natural order?" A famous black man gets away with murder and suddenly the phenomenon of "privilege distress" eats at Cracker America's innards.

Now, take that racial memory into court where a teenage boy who was racially profiled and unarmed is dead. Do you suppose the outcome is somewhat more important to African Americans than Whites? Do you suppose they are hoping for some form of justice? Black America has long-since learned there will not be justice, or if there is, it's based on money, or fame, or some capricious dispensing of sheer fucking luck. Justice is not what happens at the end of a trial; it's a real standard that exists irrespective of the results of a trial. Justice in this instance should have been GZ in prison. It can't be, though, because the very rule of law that ought to protect Trayvon's rights are the same which guarantee GZ's right to a particular set of procedures and rules of evidence. I'm not going to make that speech to Black America, though, as they have every right to ask when we'll stop talking all this legalese bullshit and make sure teenagers aren't shot in the street by cowards with guns. The only possible justice at this point is two-fold: GZ loses a civil trial and pays for the rest of his life for the life he took, and legisltures everywhere realize Stand Your Ground is a stupid, dangerous law, that when applied, cannot be applied without the complicating factors of race and class and age and gender and fear.