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.

 

Governor Fallin is George Wallace's Love Child, or Marriage Equality Comes to Oklahoma

"What I have said about segregation goes double this day...and what I have said to or about some federal judges goes TRIPLE this day…" George Wallace, 1963

"Today, this tyranny is imposed by the central government which claims the right to rule over our lives under sanction of the omnipotent black-robed despots who sit on the bench of the United States Supreme Court." George Wallace, 1964

"We come here today in deference to the memory of those stalwart patriots who on July 4, 1776, pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to establish and defend the proposition that governments are created by the people, empowered by the people, derive their just powers from the consent of the people, and must forever remain subservient to the will of the people." George Wallace, 1964

I could keep piling quotes on top of quotes from the segregationist governor of Alabama, but it seems a bit tedious. Just know that Wallace was defending segregation over against federal judges who ordered integration, and know that it was in the context of his famous "Segregation now, segregation forever" ideology, and also know that Oklahoma's governor, Ms. Mary Fallin, used similar language in her official statement today denouncing SCOTUS's decision not to hear Oklahoma's (and other states') appeal to federal judges' rulings that same-sex marriage bans are unconstititutional. 

Our governor said, "The people of Oklahoma have the right to determine how marriage is defined. In 2004, Oklahomans exercised that right, voting by a margin of 3-1 to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

“The will of the people has now been overridden by unelected federal justices, accountable to no one. That is both undemocratic and a violation of states' rights. Rather than allowing states to make their own policies that reflect the values and views of their residents, federal judges have inserted themselves into a state issue to pursue their own agendas.

“Today's decision has been cast by the media as a victory for gay rights. What has been ignored, however, is the right of Oklahomans – and Americans in every state – to write their own laws and govern themselves as they see fit. Those rights have once again been trampled by an arrogant, out-of -control federal government that wants to substitute Oklahoma values with Washington, D.C. values.”

One paragaraph at a time should be perfect. The governor will need to show where the people of a particular state have the "right" to define words as they see fit. Not sure Jefferson and Madison had this in mind, but it surely misses a larger point that the definition of words in legislation affects real people, not political abstractions. Also, I'm pretty sure the governor would find the demand that she justify "one man, one woman," rather onerous, if not impossible, given that polygamy has coexisted with monogamy for millenia. Likely, she would reference Genesis and Jesus, but she would surely not want to dig too deep into the text of either tradition, as the words of Jesus would expose her entire administration to charges of hostility toward Christian principles and ethics. That she lacks subltety and critical thinking skills does not surprise me. She is saying what she is told to say. How else to explain words that any intelligent person would recognize as utter nonsense?

The will of the people cannot be construed to mean that the people may pass any legislation they wish. Governor Wallace agreed with our governor on this point. It seemed tyrannical to him that federal judges would override the will of the people (and not all the people, obviously) to have segregation as the law of the land in Alabama. Now we have a governor in Oklahoma who would like prejudice and bigotry to be the law of the land, because 75 percent of Oklahomans believe they are somehow endowed by their creator to vote away rights of minority communities. The majority may not vote for unconstitutional laws. That is surely an axiom of representative government in the republican tradition (and please note the lower case r). The "agenda" of these federal judges seems to be justice for all, even people with whom our governor disagrees, and would someone kindly inform our governor that Governor Wallace also argued for "states' rights." All politicians who have pined for the days of Dixie have argued for states' rights. It is practically shorthand for racist propaganda meant to shore up white hegemony. Our governor is either ignorant of history or simply saying what she's told to say. Or both. (Pick C!)

No one in America has the right to govern themselves "as they see fit." Our governor is deeply dishonest, willfully ignorant, intellectually challenged, or just saying what she is told. Or all of the above. (You know which one to pick.) We must govern ourselves according to constitutional principles, and the U.S. Constitution takes precedence over the Oklahoma Constitution. The governor is playing to her base, and it is an aging, bigoted, willfully ignorant base, largely characterized by allegiance to gods who are unavailable to substantiate the claims of their followers, by persistent belief in the theocratic roots of America in spite of all evidence to the contrary, by fear of change and the other, and by privilege distress at the thought of the formerly outsiders being insiders. 

Governor Fallin's base has seen their heyday. Many of them are within days, weeks, months, scant years of dying. As they have been hostile to justice all along, I can't see this as a bad thing. Perhaps they will go meet Jesus or some other god they serve in peace. Perhaps, if there is a god, these people will finally understand that justice is for all, not just the ruling class or ruling race or ruling religion. One hopes that Governor Fallin has seen her political heyday, too.


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. 


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.


How to be White and Christian, or Story-Formed Ethics from a Damn German

When I was in grad school, our instructor forced us to slog through all 368 pages of Hans Frei's labyrinthine, grammatically-irritating study in hermeneutics called The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative. We had only a few days to read it, but a few weeks probably wouldn't have helped a whole lot. German philosophers and theologians can't write. At all. Surely there is a correlation between a language that just crams nouns together, not portmanteau style, but rather like compound words, and in such a way that there is no reasonable limit to how many nouns can be conjoined so as to form more complex or specific nouns and to a writing style that is so complex and circuitous related to the actual point that the reader is often left wondering if she took the wrong exit.

Frei's rather dense prose hid a very simple (to understand) thesis: Christians have not allowed the Biblical narrative to shape them because they have not inhabited the narrative. Instead, the narrative has been eclipsed by competing narratives, all vying for the designation of primary metanarrative. Yes, I'm going to unpack all this, and trust me, I just made Frei really simple. You're welcome.

Evangelicals are not likely to embrace Frei because his thesis does not require that the narrative be referentially true, but his thesis is the only hope for evangelicals and fundamentalists to embody a particular ethic, and that ethic is the only hope they have for witness. That right there is everything I learned in grad school distilled down to something pretty damn simple. That it is problematic only highlights Frei's thesis.

To inhabit a narrative, you have to believe that the narrative somehow has power to actually shape your life. For you non-theists, that is not magic talk. It simply means that to allow a narrative to shape your life only requires the embodiment of ideals extracted from the narrative, and by extension, the demand that hermeneutics be done with an eye toward ethical embodiment. The Bible itself presents competing narratives in the tradition of midrash, but Christians at least agree the narrative leads somewhere, such that there is a metanarrative contained within the text, somewhere, even as it is demonstrably clear, except to fundamentalists who hold to inerrancy, that the entire text cannot be the metanarrative.

The postliberal tradition offered the idea of a lens through which to view biblical hermeneutic. There are times when Jesus, Moses, Paul, and James cannot be right at the same time. In those moments, what lens do you use to decipher the text. That lens will determine your narrative arc, and ultimately, how and if the narrative shapes you. While this will, again, be problematic for fundamentalists and evangelicals, there really is no other way to read the Bible if coherence and logic actually matter and are not themselves eclipsed by an artificially literalist reading of the text. Frei did not mean that the inhabiting of the narrative would create an unreal world or necessitated the reader project literalist categories onto her experience of reality. Rather, the narrative is to shape people into a certain kind of person, specifically, those who are redeemed by God for the purpose of embodying an ethic that is contrary, not to reality, but to the principalities and powers that, for now, have power in the world, including racial, political, and religious hegemonies.

The eschatological reality of redemption is not deferred to the eschaton; rather, the redeemed live the eschatological reality of resurrection right now. The narrative informs the ethical imperatives, and, if Jesus is to be taken seriously, overcomes the fear of violence and death, because Jesus has overcome death on behalf of all with benefits that extend to all, such that an ethic that puts the believer at odds with the powers and principalities may lead to death, but death does not get the last word. This is the soteriological significance of the narrative, and while evangelicals may readily agree to the soteriological aspect, it is the political aspect shaped by the ethical imperatives that will be most troublesome.

The events in Ferguson offer a perfect panopticon of the weakness of current evangelical and fundamentalist narratives to shape ethical imperatives related to politics, not in the governmental sense, but according to a more expansive understanding of the term, to wit, that politics is the science of getting along with others in the world, and for people of moral conscience, the imperative to live redemptively. What I find to be universally true at times like this is that for many, many white, religio-political conservatives, the political narrative has eclipsed the religious narrative, and in such a way that the same group tries to read back their political narrative as non-religious, as if such a thing is even possible.

Religion, even Christianity, is political, but the politics of Jesus don't look like the politics of America's religio-political conservatives, and somehow, they have never noticed. You cannot promulgate a political narrative scrubbed of religious significance; such a thing does not exist if you are a person of faith. In the same fashion, you cannot promulgate a religious narrative that has no political implications; this thing, too, does not exist. The modern lie of conservative politics and conservative evangelicalism is that both are possible.

The narrative arc of the African American churches in the U.S. has been toward justice. Dr. King spoke eloquently of the arc of the universe bending toward justice; he would have preached similar themes and heard similar sermons many times growing up in church. The narrative was shaped by slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, ghettoization, segregation, and the manifold ways white culture reinforced their hegemony using police, legislation, terrorism, and the pulpit. The narrative arc of the white churches in the U.S. has tended toward morality, or a cynic might say, maintaining cultural control. This partially explains the inability of white evangelicals and fundamentalists to empathize with the protestors in Ferguson. Rather, they cling to whatever "news" emerges from white conservative blogs or FoxNews in hopes of discrediting a people they don't even pretend to try to understand. The narrative shapes us all, but our experience of the same place on earth can be radically different.

That the white churches have never noticed is related to the weakness of their narrative to shape ethical imperatives across a broad spectrum of human institutions, desires, and systems. Evangelical and fundamentalist narratives eclipse the biblical narrative by offering a competing narrative of culturally appropriate behavior (morality) or, quite possibly worse, a "gospel" of individual salvation. One need not disbelieve in individual salvation to agree that the atomistic approach to the Bible has resulted in the loss of a robust witness based on ethics, not on the sharing of testimonies or the "truth of the Gospel."

Somehow, the American evangelical church has come to believe that Jesus was deeply, profoundly wrong in his insistence that adherence to the gospel would lead to death. Rather than treat his words literally—the irony, too, is profound—they make of them a metaphor of discipleship, as if discipleship is something other than the possibility of death as a result of embodying an ethic that will stir up the principalities and powers. The new "cross," is the willful surrender of appetites or desires, or getting up early to read the Bible, or preserving virginity until marriage, or giving ten percent, or choosing unpopular cultural positions, or... The list is almost never-ending, but the cross is never the instrument of death that Jesus endured because of his brazen disregard for the principalities and powers. Rather, it is a construct that allows me to be Christian without risking anything other than disapproval or the loss of an orgasm or two, and it will apparently never lead me to empathize with brothers and sisters of a different race whose experience of this country is radically different than my own.

 

 


Where All the White Folks at? or, Church Planting for Fun and Profit

Edmond, Okla., is a suburb of Oklahoma City at the metro's northernmost limit. After Edmond, it's I35 North, and you start to hit increasingly smaller towns on the way to Kansas and Mssouri. The 2010 census counted just over 81,000 humans in Edmond, of whom 82 percent were white folks. The next largest demographic was African American, coming in at a whopping 5.5 percent. Mixed race, presumably some of whom are at least partly cracker, was over 4 percent of the population.

Why all the demographics about Edmond? You should know that the median household income in Edmond is a little more than $70k. Some of you from major American cities might not be all that impressed with that figure, but it's roughly 75 percent higher than Oklahoma City, and that kind of money goes a hell of a long way in Oklahoma's economy. Edmond is not the wealthiest community in the metro; that distinction goes to Nichols Hills, a small municipality just north of midtown where most of the city's old money lives. The nouveau riche live in and around Edmond in gated communities with names that sound like erstwhile sex tape-famous faux celebrities chose them in the midst of Cristal fugues: Gaillardia, Esperanta, Crackertown.

Why all this analysis of one of Oklahoma City's whitest, wealthiest areas? Many years ago when I was a staff pastor, our senior had deep roots in the Edmond community. He lived in Edmond and marveled that I did not choose to move "up there"—Jeffersons anyone? It would be north instead of east, though—but more on this later. At the time, OKC's northwest quadrant was experiencing tremendous Caucasian, upper middle class growth, but everyone knew that it would be far more sensible to move north than west, and that's where the development money went, facilitating a bizarre white flight in the late 90s and early 00s.

I say white flight, because OKC went through a strange period before downtown and midtown were gentrified. Prior to the improvements that came as a result of three downtown/midtown funding plans (called MAPS, for Metropolitan Area Projects), most of the white folk were escaping the rapid expansion of suburban sprawl by moving to bedroom communities north and west of the city, or they moved to new developments in west and north Edmond. The gentrification of downtown/midtown has created an interesting effect around town in that the formerly "important" communities where the wealthy whites congregated are now so far from the prosperous and rapidly-developing city center that they are basically marginalized. Nice businesses that rely on more than local traffic have no hope of surviving in those communities. The money and nightlife and food culture and the NBA and arts are all moving toward the center of the city or they are already there.

However, the property values in downtown, Midtown, Mesta Park, and other areas near the center are escalating rapidly and no one wants to issue a new permit for a church because there is no tax revenue in churches, even if they could afford the location. The bizarre anomaly of shifting regions of geographical importance has made Edmond important once again, and this time it's important specifically for churches. Because the property values in Edmond proper are nowhere near as expensive as comparable areas of the city's center, churches are making their way to Edmond to "reach the city."

Remember that senior pastor I mentioned. He was brazen enough to say, "Jesus loves rich people, too," aloud. After he nearly destroyed the church, he took a "core group"—the phrase still makes me slightly nauseous—north to start a church in Edmond. We had been meeting in the city's NW quadrant, and I pastored there for another two years before closing the church in an all too familiar and all too well-known personal/moral failure. That sort of brazenness is not likely to happen these days, though. Gone, almost, are the days when anyone took the prosperity gospel seriously, if we mean a statistically significant sample of people who call on the name of Jesus.

What is not gone is the idea that Edmond represents money, lots of it. A recent video announcing that an Acts 29 church will be planting their fourth Oklahoma campus in Edmond said that Edmond has good churches, but that the city needs more. According to ChurchFinder.com, there are 89 churches in this "city" of 80,000. I have no idea if that number is correct, but I assumed the number was close to 100. Either way, what that city does not need is another church. The only churches that thrive in that area are churches that practice what David Fitch calls cannibalistic practices. They take members from other churches, and the most egregious offender has been LifeChurch.tv. We now have four large churches with active plants in and around the Edmond area.

The newest LCTV plant is just a few miles south of Edmond on the main north/south corridor between OKC and Edmond in an area with scant residential property, and please don't even try to tell me if you're a local that they mean to reach the black community just east of Broadway Extension. That is laughably naive or just an outright lie. Crossings Community Church, already located in Edmond in a facility that cost more than 18 million dollars to build about 15 years ago, will be planting another church in Edmond. Yes, in the same town where they currently occupy a Six Flags Over Jesus-sized facility. At least one Methodist church has a plant going on in Edmond. Finally, Frontline, the Acts 29 church, has likely staked their financial future on an Edmond plant. There are likely other churches headed that way that just haven't hit my radar yet.

Frontline produced the video in which soon to be campus pastor David Adair opines that Edmond needs more churches. Edmond needs more churches like it needs more white people. These churches, especially LCTV, have done a fantastic job of planting churches in the most obviously white places around town: Norman, Mustang, Yukon, NW OKC, Shawnee (taking advantage of Oklahoma Baptist University's student population?). LCTV has specialized in planting in areas that are notoriously white, even planting near thriving congregations, some of which are little clones of LCTV, which is itself a weird hybrid of evangelical, fundamentalist, and revivalist traditions (Hybels, Warren, Graham, etc.).

Oklahoma already has one of the highest church attendance rates in the country, maybe the damn world. Outside of the former slave-holding states, we beat nearly every state, with more than half our citizens attending worship services at least once a month, and I think that’s a conservative estimate. That doesn't even come close to taking into account those who don't attend but call themselves Christian (a subset of the pesky nones). The idea that Oklahoma needs more churches is ludicrous. We have thriving churches, healthy churches, growing churches, churches that are nearly defunct, some with minimal attendance, some with bivocational pastors who can't scrape together a real salary, some in houses (who is counting those in these polls?), some in shopping centers, some borrowing space from another church, and some renting from a school. We have hundreds of churches, maybe more than a thousand. No way to really know. Those numbers aside, the idea that any church is going to plant in a wealthy, predominantly white area for the sake of evangelism is the worst sort of lie, especially when the numbers clearly indicate that they are growing, not through conversion growth, but through cannibalizing smaller, more traditional churches.

The next LCTV plant will be in Mustang, a 36,000 square foot facility that will only serve to pull white folks out of traditional churches in the Mustang and Tuttle area west and south of Oklahoma City. There is absolutely no reason to plant another church in Mustang. Mustang is so white that I lack the bona fides to be allowed into the city, and I’m the crackeriest cracker I know.

In the 2010 census, there were 17,000 people in Mustang, of whom 88 percent were white. The next largest demographic was two or more races at 4 percent. Again, some of those folks are presumably part white. Less than one percent of the population is African American. It also functions as a bedroom community for Oklahoma City, and it is the closest thing we have to a country-ass suburb. In fact, much of the town proper is country. ChurchFinder.com lists more than 20 churches in the area, and I know that number is way too small. Ask yourself a very simple questions: why the hell would a megachurch with more than 20 campuses in 5 states want to plant in a community of 17,000? If it was a standalone community thirty miles from OKC, would they plant there? The idea is absurd.

The primary reason these churches plant in these areas is to create a revenue stream. (It’s also entirely possible that the expansions meet some ego-driven need of the senior pastor and leadership team.) I don’t know how any reasonable person denies this. Dressing it up in the language of evangelism only serves to the make the lie respectable to the current membership, most of whom want to believe their church is doing great things. No one outside the particular tribe believes the bullshit.

Just once I’d like to see a pastor stand up and say, “We’re planting another church in the next year. We figured out where the upper middle class white folks are clustering, so we’re going to plant along one of their main commuting corridors. We’ll need some of you white folks to join us so that we can attract other white folks. However, we need the rest of you to stay here and keep giving while we create this new revenue stream. By the way, all programs, especially benevolence, will suffer during this expansion. We regret that. Well, not really, but we feel like we ought to say that. Amen.”


Rise Up Pussified Nation! or Acts 29 and Humpty Dumpty Methodology

It is impossible at this point to find a good guy in the Acts 29 dispute with Mark Driscoll. The organization has now separated from their founder and erstwhile rockstar preacher. The man who became an icon thanks to the dreadfully unoriginal Blue Like Jazz, has now become a parody of maleness, which is the final, hysterical irony since he thought to reimagine masculinity for this "pussified nation," a nation that included churches and pastors with whom he disagreed. "They will know you are my disciples by your love." Silly, Jesus. They'll know it because I write books about sex, all kinds of sex, and I yell at men for not having Mars Hill DNA, which is to say they must believe leadership is about having literal and metaphorical testicles.

Before proceeding, it's fair to inform readers that I am not criticizing from a pristine history. I was a staff pastor at a church in the 90s that was, by any definition, spiritually abusive. I, too, participated in behaviors I later regretted, primarily because I did substantial harm to some people who trusted the leadership of our church, a leadership team that included me. I have apologized to some, but not all; many of them I will probably never see again. This critique, then, comes not as a jeremiad, but as a lesson learned at the expense of others.

Driscoll has always been Driscoll. He did not suddenly become the abrasive, abusive, misogynist whom Acts 29 now conveniently repudiates. That his own board responded to the Acts 29 decision with the dubious claim that, "There is clear evidence that the attitudes and behaviors attributed to Mark in the charges are not a part and have not been a part of Mark’s life for some time now," only highlights how aware they were of the behaviors going back many years. Driscoll has been verbally abusing people in a multitude of ways, and according to charges filed by his own network of pastors, actively working to destroy lives and reputations for years.

Those are hideous charges against someone in any field, but for a pastor to engage in those behaviors only shows that he knows some perverse form of the message but ignores Jesus, "You read the Scriptures because in them you believe you have eternal life, but they testify about me." And it's painfully clear that Driscoll and many of his followers never met Jesus, and I say that as someone who believes the idea of relationship with Jesus is absurd, but I believe it's possible to be transformed by an ideal or a persistent belief in a relationship with a god, just as I believe a commitent to the 12 Steps can change an addict's life. The 12 Steps have to be followed, much like the Noble Eightfold Path in Buddhism, but Mars Hill and Driscoll seem to practice a Christianity devoid of actual practice. It's the most bizarrely cultural expression of faux Christianity I've seen. Liberal churches, which are often accused of being cultural compromisers, actually do something besides believe a 500 year old strain of European theology, one that is tainted with an American Psycho style masculinity and obsession with image. 

No one at this point should be surprised by Driscoll's long-overdue fall from rockstar status. There will be defenders; that is the nature of celebrity. Many will be compelled to defend this man for reasons we have discussed before, but the board of Mars Hill and the board of Acts 29 are both actors in bad faith in this situation, even as the board of Acts 29 put out an exasperated-sounding letter divorcing Driscoll and Mars Hill. They sought to seize the moral high ground, but it's been unavailable to leaders in Acts 29 since they signed on for Driscoll's methods and signed those idiotic, clearly-meant-to-hide-ugly-shit nondisclosure agreements. Seriously, how could they not see what was coming? A business has you sign a non-disclosure agreement to protect proprietary products, processes, recipes, etc., and parties in a lawsuit will sign them to protect plaintiff or defendant or both (and, yes, I know they can be sketchy, too), but why in hell would a church ask a minister to sign one? Why not just put an explanation at the top: "We do bizarrely bad shit here that is completely antithetical to the faith we claim, so sign this just in case you find your conscience; we'll help you find your balls."

The problem with Acts 29 is not going to be solved by removing Driscoll. His DNA is the grammar of Acts 29, as in his methods, his haranguing, his taunts, his mockery, his misogyny, his abusive tactics, his obvious sexual pathologies, all are built ino the system, and the DNA won't be removed by removing its creator. He's already replicated himself and his model hundreds of times in young men who wanted to be just like the "Cussing Pastor." He is obsessed with power and control, and why not? Acts 29 believes in a God who is equally obsessed; they simply give it a theological term, sovereignty, and then add it to "grace" to create one of the most untenable theological phrases of all time. The desire for power and control have been passed onto the leadership; indeed, the whole model attracted insecure males with power and control issues. All that was left was to convince the wives that they needed to open their uteruses and close their mouths, unless the latter was necessary for other things, and no, I don't know which chapter that was in How to Have Reformed Sex Like Your Favorite MMA Star, or whatever his book was called.

Two questions remain. First, why did Acts 29 wait so long to make this move? You don't get to pat yourself on the back for being patient and gracious with Driscoll if you knew all along he was hurting people. You don't help an abuser get better by working with him to be incrementally less abusive. That just allows the abuse to continue, and the ones who suffer are supposed to be the ones this message of grace is helping. It's perverse by any standard, and to call it graciousness is to get the Bible wrong yet again: "Woe to them who call evil good." Seriously, read the book. 

Second, is this smackdown of Driscoll because the others are tired of taking his shit and now want to be the ones who dispense it? I hear good things about some of the leadership of Acts 29, but I've also seen mini Driscolls right here in Oklahoma City. One local church is basically an homage to his methods. Clearly, several pastors in the Acts 29 network in Oklahoma City understood what Driscoll was saying. How is it not inevitable that this is true in every city? Acts 29 is not a church network; it's very bad, very destructive viral theology and praxis. Getting rid of Driscoll just cleared the way for mutations of this virus. 


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.