The Parish stepchild (youngest daughter) graduated today. Several of us who contributed to this glorious outcome sat in the too-stuffy sanctuary of The Gate Church—formerly Cathedral of Praise World Outreach Center back in the 90s when hubris related to global outreach dominated Pentecostal/Charismatic ministries—and endured sixteen speeches. The Reverend Brunet was in town from one of those liberal, eastern states, so watching her enjoy her first small-town graduation in Oklahoma was fantastic.
Two young ladies gave the invocation, which was the first time Jesus' name was invoked this day. By day's end, he was curled up at the right hand of the Father with his hands over his ears telling his beloved children his ears needed a rest. They didn't listen. Dani looked mildly appalled that the prayer ended "In Jesus name," but, well, it's Oklahoma, and we know how to do civil religion like no one else. (Apologies to Texas and South Carolina; I actually think they're the best.) The National Anthem followed, which, thanks to a wise music teacher, proceeded at a brisk pace. This would be followed by a speech from the class president and then finally sixteen speeches: 15 valedictorians and one salutatorian—worst second place finish ever!
First things first, I suppose, before getting to Jesus. Why the hell are there 15 valedictorians? And who told these kids that a valedictory address was about their accomplishments and their friends and their shout-outs and all the attendant narcissism that results when you tell 17-year olds that they're special? There were sixteen speeches today; from that list, I assure you, the representatives of Piedmont High School have three very special students out of sixteen. There were others, I'm sure, scattered throughout the class, but they didn't take "valedictorian track" classes to earn the right to masturbate their egos in front of classmates, family, friends, and the Lord on High (Jesus).
Fifteen valedictorians. The purpose of a valedictory address is to say goodbye. A representative from the class, normally chosen based on academic performance, is selected to say goodbye to the school, administration, teachers, coaches, lunch ladies, etc., and to offer a bit of encouragement going forward. The task of the commencement address is to offer wisdom, insight and encouragement, and it is normally offered by a distinguished guest. PHS apparently has confused the two, allowing sixteen different people to say goodbye and offer their own 18-year old wisdom. This is a bad idea for many reasons. Of the sixteen speeches, three students showed any wisdom at all beyond "hard work pays off," and "I wouldn't be here if it weren't for my family." Three students distinguished themselves because they understood the context, and because they have contextualized personal suffering and tragedy, thereby gaining wisdom that their classmates lack.
One young lady was painfully aware of the plight of her classmates, the ones not wearing the white robes (and isn't that ironically symbolic in a church?). Many of those students have limped to graduation. They have been victimized, abused, neglected, assaulted, bullied, ignored, and despised. Graduation is not a celebration for them; it is salvation. They are not the right kinds of kids. They did not have the same advantages as the almost uniformly anglo valedictorians (two girls were of mixed race, I believe). Hard work did not pay off for them. Their parents might not have been involved. God did not show up when He was supposed to, so this young woman told the truth; in beautifully lyric language she spoke of internal resolve, hidden pain, the fear of failure, and the conviction that what we need is within us.
Dani and I were tempted to cheer, but the room was discomforted by her words. Why didn't she, like one of her fellow valedictorians, aver that she would be "nothing without Jesus?" (Really, nothing? Like a vapor or really nothing?) She didn't shout-out to God or Jesus or any deity. She told the truth. The strength to endure high school is not found in prayer or church or gods who don't come when needed; rather, it's found in discovering deep wells of resolve, sometimes cutting or drinking or smoking or fucking or anything that makes you feel alive and important, anything that makes it possible to endure the hallways yet one more day and watch the most upside down hierarchy of all time finally come to its well-deserved end. Students crossed the stage, accompanied by a very simple judgment, the most sincere calculus of all time: applause, screeches, shouts, their name aloud and all the other noise their friends and family could make. Many crossed to polite applause, shuffling, wanting it to be over, for the longer-than-fuck stage to be shortened by half. Many were clearly superior athletes, cheerleaders, beautiful people, and the cacophony was a hymn to the beauty, arrogance, and foolishness of youth. They are on top of this weird hierarchy now, but for many of them, that all changes next week, or tomorrow.
As another young woman read an original poem about the foolishness of a system that encourages meaningless content and substandard instruction while ignoring passion and creativity, the air in the room got dense with concern. Would she go too far? The collective will was for everything to go without a hitch, to listen to the platitudes, to cheer for the particular student/child who is passing this increasingly dubious landmark. What for? She asked repeatedly. Why? Why did we do all of this? If she had it to do over again, she said, she would study less, believe the bullshit less, and really live. She is wise enough to realize that, like a trophy after a sporting event or state championship banner, many of the prizes conferred in high school (hell, life) are no prize at all, but a carrot to motivate us to conformity. How did she get so wise so fast?
There were three other students who refused to call on God. One young man lost a father. One young woman a home and possessions to an F5 in 2010. Another seemed to have no significant loss, but seemed to agree with the young man who'd lost his father: we are our own guardian angels. It was a courageous thing to do in a church, surrounded by the good Christian folk of Piedmont. I'm sure the youth pastors of the other eleven told them they'd done well, had stood up for their faith, had shown courage. The young women who'd invoked the name of Jesus took a bold stand for the Lord. Or some such bullshit. It is not an act of courage to call on Jesus in a church surrounded by Christians and affirming peers and parents. That is an act of conformity, one that upholds the status quo. It gives credit to God, while the "children of the lesser gods" nurse their scars, hide from their memories and worry over the babies growing inside them, just wishing this final act was over. One final ritual and then salvation, in a church of all places.
I left Christianity begrudgingly. I fought for every remaining tenet of the faith, strove to keep some faint object of faith alive, and ultimately succumbed to the myriad questions that traditional theism couldn't answer without resorting to tautologies, circular reasoning, or incoherent wish fulfillment. It was a difficult period, made worse by the fact that I worked in professional ministry. Many times I replayed the hose and push-up scene from An Officer and a Gentelman, wherein Lou Gosset, Jr. (Foley), demands of Richard Gere that he (Mayo) quit. Mayo continues to do push-ups while Foley wonders aloud why he doesn't quit. "I got nowhere else to go!" Mayo sputters. It was a poignant moment in the film, and I felt Mayo's confusion and fear as I faced my exit from the faith. What the fuck would I do if I didn't do ministry?
One of the last things I read that actually made an impact on me as I lost my faith was Paul Holmer's The Grammar of Faith. Holmer was a professor of theology at Yale (of course he was) and an expert on Wittgenstein, my philosophical idol. Holmer's thesis in the book was very simple: theology, rather than making us smart, ought to make us holy. It was a revolutionary concept in a grad school full of people who were painfully smart, people who ended up bruised and broken by the Church because they asked difficult questions or didn't settle for the same banal answers that passed for apologetics in church circles. My mentor, Dr. Steve Green, offered us Holmer because, I think, he thought Holmer could help heal us, and for a time, he did. But Holmer's ideas were viral in the best and worst way; the more you thought about them, the more they infected your thinking, and the more they infected your thinking, the more you applied them to church-thought like a template. How does this particular instantiation of church-thought measure up to Holmer's thesis?
Here's a random truth about me: I hurt when I see suffering. Really hurt. In most of my classes we begin the period with story time. Students are required to tell stories, but they must be about sadness or tragedy or arrests or unplanned pregnancies. I want to hear their stories about suffering because the sharing of suffering brings a class together. I'm not sure they ever figure that out, by the way. They just love story time without knowing why. One rule is no stories of animal suffering. I can't abide stories about tragedies that befall animals. This seems strange to my students, but the explanation is simple. Humans are rational creatures, and so we attempt to make sense of our suffering. Animals don't share that quality, and so their suffering, at least by my reckoning, is a moment of unredeemed pain. It's just shitty, inexplicable pain foisted on a creature that deserves better. It's why I change the channel when Sarah McLaughlin and abused pets appear. I hurt for the animals that have been wounded by people who are too stupid and barbaric to have a basic level of empathy for non-rational creatures.
If theology should make us holy, it should absolutely make us empathetic. Alas, that seems not to be the case. As Holmer says in The Grammar of Faith, "Theology is, then, an interpretation" (9). This, I'm sure, is a Barthian assessment. God revealed in Jesus is primary revelation. The testimony of the disciples is secondary revelation, including the Bible. Theology is tertiary revelation, at best. If all theology is interpretation, and it is, then theology is not "Word of God." Yeah, Barth, again. However, secondary revelation is not "Word of God," either. This is the theological problem with the discussions about same-sex marriage. Too many Christians treat a handful of verses as the "Word of God," but they understand the phrase as a description of the text, not an event, ala Barth and Tillich.
I'm not even going to discuss the Constitutional issues around which this conversation should actually be formed, as I'm almost certain there is no credible response from a non-religious perspective that could militate against gay marriage in a republic or democracy. Equal protection seems to need very little parsing, as equal is a zero-tolerance designator when it comes to rights afforded to citizens who are both of age and have legal standing.
Christianity has failed to make Christians holy, and it has clearly failed to make them empathetic. This should be a catastrophic failure of what they believe, but they have insulated themselves against reality shattering their theologies by insisting that God makes them holy by virtue of killing Jesus. No work is necessary. No attempt to understand a suffering world. No reason to reach out to "the other" with compassion. No actual laboring for a genuinely holy life. No. Only a triumphalist assertion of holiness that the recipient of grace has done nothing to earn. Indeed, this dependence is seen as a virtue. This redefinition of holiness is disastrous for those who are viewed as enemies of the tribe.
For gays and lesbians, who according to a narrow theological reading of an ancient text are "others," the redefinition of holiness allows for a subset of Christians to view them as "abominations" even as that same subset views themselves as "saved by grace," even as they work to ensure the suffering and marginalizaton of their "brothers and sisters" who are also "created in the image of God." The law, which the Apostle Paul clearly says must be accepted in totality if one is to follow it, is directed against these "others," even as the legalists, by practice if not self-definition, excuse themselves from the penalty of the law by appeals to a slaughtered Savior's death. It's a theology that is self-justifying even as it condemns the marginalized to injustice, said injustice being excused by appeals to an ancient law. The whole thing is so painfully bizarre, self-refuting, and hypocritical, that I'm befuddled that Christians don't repent of their own hypocrisy and beg their gay and lesbian neighbors for forgiveness. Instead, though, they will justify their beliefs by appeals to a holy God while they excuse themselves from the hard work of holiness.
Matt Mikalatos has tried his hand at juvenile (in the good sense) fantasy with The Sword of Six Worlds. He sent me a free copy to review, which shows tremendous courage on his part. I crucified his first book Imaginary Jesus, but he read the review patiently, extracted the good criticism, and forgave me for the histrionics. Thus began our unlikely online friendship. I was far more generous with Night of the Living Dead Christian, partly because it's pretty funny and insightful, and partly because I got to kill off an entire species when I helped Matt edit the draft. RIP, molemen.
The Sword of Six Worlds is written for kids. I won't guess a precise age, but I know Matt has small children (indeed, the book is dedicated to his three children), and based on the sketched out characters, I'm going with kids who aren't ready for Hunger Games or even the deeper themes of Narnia. Matt writes the story like a man who is comfortable telling stories to kids. His tone is never condescending and always filled with a whimsical wonder. One of the areas where Matt and I have differed substantially is in his kind of humor. In his books for adults, I find the humor too silly, a kind of literary slapstick. However, in Sword it works perfectly. Even in naming his fierce rock creature, Mikalatos understands that children will get the irony of changing Deathbringer's name to Pookie. It didn't work for me (even as I admit I might have smiled a bit), but kids will love it.
The story is of Validus, a girl who hates her name (It's from the Latin...), who must team up with otherworldly creatures and her best friend, Alex, a boy, to save several worlds from the forces of The Blight. It's swashbuckling fantasy for kids, and it's told with enthusiasm and a genuine love for the genre. The spiritual themes are woven in, not tacked on, so the book never feels preachy. I hope he can keep that tone throughout the upcoming books. Chapters are short and punchy, many with cliffhangers, making this perfect bedtime story material for parents with kids who are young enough to enjoy bedtime stories. The violence, such as it is, is never fatal, nor is it graphic, but Mikalatos includes it because this is a story about battle and swords and such. To avoid it would be false to the genre. Both lead characters are strong, making it good, fun reading for boys and girls, which is not to say that boys wouldn't identify with Validus, because I think they will. She's a strong, vulnerable lead female character, and that Matt has daughters for whom he has high hopes shows up in her character.
I need to apologize to some of my Christian friends for what they are about to read. I seldom work with binaries, as I find them less than useful, and more often than not, I find them to be false dichotomies. However, I think the tenor of a certain debate has reached a point that I'm weary of not saying something directly. This post started as a response to an article (or yet another damn article) in the NYT about the (insert ominous all-cap font) decline of evangelical America. John S. Dickerson, legitimate award-winning journalist, author, and evangelical pastor, wrote the piece as a thubmnail assessment of the paralysis currently suffered by American evangelicalism. His assessment about the symptoms is very accurate. He is, after all, an investigative journalist, and like many of his kind, he is able to look at information without flinching.
In short paragraphs he chronicles the shrinking political influence, the shrinking donations, the loss of young evangelicals, and the inability of evangelicals to "adapt to rapid shifts in the culture," especially same-sex marriage. After talking about a couple healthy signs, including inexplicably megachurches in most large cities (that is surely a sign of cancer, sir), he moves to his main concern:
But all this machinery distracts from the historical vital signs of evangelicalism: to make converts and point to Jesus Christ. By those measures this former juggernaut is coasting, at best, if not stalled or in reverse.
What is unexpected is Dickerson's lack of concern about this malaise. He thinks it a good thing. That is the subject of a future post, and one that I will probably not write until I read his forthcoming book. Dickerson then makes three statements that I want to combine before I get to the main point here.
We evangelicals must accept that our beliefs are now in conflict with the mainstream culture. We cannot change ancient doctrines to adapt to the currents of the day. But we can, and must, adapt the way we hold our beliefs — with grace and humility instead of superior hostility...I believe the cultural backlash against evangelical Christianity has less to do with our views — many observant Muslims and Jews, for example, also view homosexual sex as wrong, while Catholics have been at the vanguard of the movement to protect the lives of the unborn — and more to do with our posture...This does not mean we whitewash unpopular doctrines like the belief that we are all sinners but that we re-emphasize the free forgiveness available to all who believe in Jesus Christ.
Notice that he never says explicitly that gay marriage is wrong. That has to be inferred from the entire piece. What he says is that even if you do think it's wrong, you have to hold that belief with grace and humility. Sigh. I'm so weary of this diagnosis. I will happily grant that encouraging fellow evangelicals to avoid being truculent assholes festooned with douchebag awards is a noble cause and even a good idea. It misses the entire point, though. You can be nice and still support injustice. You can be kind and still be painfully wrong. You can be polite and still be a bigot.
This will sound crazy to some people, but the Bible gets some stuff wrong. Way wrong. I won't trot out the list of silliness from Leviticus here. Most of you familiar with this debate are familiar with the list. Let's apply Dickerson's thinking to just one historical example: slavery. Imagine a pastor in 1850 saying, "We can't whitewash unpopular doctrines. Slavery is mandated by Scripture. It is God's natural order. What we must do is hold that belief with grace and humility." That's reductio ad absurdum, folks. The method is nonsensical. What matters here is that evangelicals come to the point where they can say they are wrong. Many have. Many try for a middle ground of tolerance and outward love, but believe that it is grievous sin. Many believe they must "speak the truth in love," and how much damage has been done under that fuckin' banner?
Marcus Borg once offered a sensible rationale for assessing what is and isn't a moral law, especially when wanting to import ostensibly moral laws from the Tanakh. He said that trangression of the law would need to cause obvious harm to individuals or the community in order for it to be considered a moral law (excepting those that are direct offenses against the invisible Being, like blasphemy, I suppose). Those opposed to homosexuality and same-sex marriage are incapable of showing what actual harm would derive from the acceptance of homsexuality as normative within a framework that doesn't see sexuality as a simple binary. If the Bible is treated as a document that requires justification for its claims, and it should be, what is the justification for prohibiting same-sex marriage or homosexual sex? Even if you believe in an invisible being who dispenses divine laws, you must at least ask yourself the rationale for prohibitions. This one seems to have none. Absent a tenable answer for that question, please just admit you're wrong. It's way better than holding outdated, discriminatory beliefs with "grace and humility." Admitting you're wrong is a sign of true humility, in fact.
Anthony Spenser, the protagonist of Cross Roads, in addition to being one of the worst two-dimensional caricatures of a pre-redemption Gordon Gecko ever penned, is also in a coma in chapter 4. Spenser was in the coma when he met C.S. Lewis, a fact I forgot to mention last post, not that anything is helped by mentioning it. Now he has met the creepy Jesus who holds him through the night (ewwww), but Jesus is now cutting wood and running a rundown farm or ranch, thus lumberjack/ranch foreman Jesus (can't you just see the Brawny guy?). This is supposed to be a novel, but I assure you, it reads like a sermon with colorful illustrations. I had just gotten used to Young referring to a certain rundown house in Spenser's coma-world as a "habitation" (If you're not a Christian, google Ephesians 2:22. Make sure to read the King James version.) when I happened upon this torturous bit of nonsense. It's lumberjack/ranch foreman Jesus talking:
"We are only able," Jesus continued, "to move at the speed and in the direction the land itself allows. One must relate to it with honor and reverence and let the land speak its own heart. Then, out of respect we must choose to submit to its idea of 'real' and still remain ones who love it toward the true, without faltering, regardless of the cost. To not live for the land in this way is to join all its aggressors, ravagers, users, and benefactors, and then all hope for its healing would be lost." --pg. 60
What we have here is a series of metaphors, right? Even Spencer notices, because he tells Jesus that he's losing the thread of the conversation in trying to keep up with the metaphors. At this point, lumberjack/ranch foreman Jesus utters this howler: "I have not used a metaphor once, while you have done so many times. Because you continue to inhabit and believe your metaphors, you cannot see what is true."
This has to be the worst application of Plato's Allegory of the Cave I have ever come across. First, lumberjack Jesus is wrong. Calling a human a habitation is certainly a metaphor. You might think it's an accurate one, and you'd be left to "prove" it based on Bible verses, but you have to admit it's a metaphor. Referring to humans as land that must be worked? Definitely a metaphor. And that list of naughty people at the end? Metaphors. Clearly ranchhand/lumberjack Jesus slept through English and literature classes. (Or Young did.) What makes it worse, in addition to making Jesus look ignorant of basic definitions, is the way Young once again makes those who doubt his thesis appear to be at fault, or at least blind and stupid.
May I ask who doesn't inhabit metaphors? Everyone does. It's the nature of language. Much of what we discuss can only be done so metaphorically or analogously. The entire field of religion is based on extended metaphors. That Young misses this is either a function of dishonesty, arrogance, ignorance, or misunderstanding. He believes he is conveying truths about things that can't be known, proven, or seen without the use of metaphors. This is a remarkable feat. Even the authors of the Bible couldn't quite pull that off. Even God, when speaking to the authors of the Bible, couldn't pull that off. It's amazing what a runaway bestseller does to your confidence as a writer.
Young surely means that Spenser inhabits the wrong set of metaphors. That is the most charitable way to see this section. Even allowing that this is a distinct possibility (and I believe it is), we are left to discern which set of metaphors is superior. Plato talked of the light outside the cave that would reveal the world as it is, and there is a metaphorical application to Plato's allegory as well that transcends the merely physical; however, Young would have us leave behind a set of metaphors for an undefined set, and to do so, he asks us to believe the voice of God, but what we seem to have at work here is the voice of Young, and it's terribly confused, even about basic definitions.
Next time. Young knows things are true because he experiences them. Sigh.
C.S. Lewis is the paper doll of Christianity. He has been dressed in more sets of theological clothing than I thought possible when I started reading him in 1985. Since that time, I think I read everything by him in print, as well as many things about him. What I discovered is well known in evangelical circles; Lewis is not an evangelical. Not even close. A very honest read of The Last Battle or The Great Divorce should be enough to convince any evangelical that Lewis is a member of a different tribe. Yet...yet...Even as evangelicals are writing love letters and homages to and for him on the event of the 60th anniversary of Mere Christianity, a book that was not "merely" anything, Paul Young has resurrected the corpse of the irrascible anglo-Catholic to phil0sophize in Young's new book Cross Roads.
The publisher sent me a free copy for review, and since I met and interviewed Young about this book not so long ago, I am happy to oblige. However, within the first few pages, I realized that I was not going to read the whole thing and then review it. Rather, I'm going to stop every time something threatens to give me an embolism and review that section. Thus, C.S. Lewis opening this post. I should say I did a series of reviews on The Shack as well. The first is here. I hated the book. Can't express how much I hated it. I read it at a time when my now defunct faith was defuncting, and like the utterly awful Blue Like Jazz, I recognized in The Shack that tendency to create new metaphors for the faith, but the metaphors were only meant to deconstruct wrong thinking about the faith as conferred in stories, not deconstruct the stories or faith themselves. In other words, both those books were attempts to make evangelical Christianity more palatable to readers widely assumed to be suffering some sort of postmodern relativistic epistemological meltdown. The cure, apparently, was a shitty set of new metaphors that did nothing but make an already inscrutable faith less scrutable.
During the interview linked above, I asked Young why he didn't deconstruct the grammar of the faith and not just the old set of metaphors. It seems to me that once you begin the game of creating new metaphors, you've already begun to play with the possibility that we aren't understanding something clearly, and if we're not understanding it clearly, it's very possible that the story is wrong to begin with and not just the metaphors meant to convey the story. If the metaphors are breaking down, it just might be because the story is non-functional or contradictory or simply false. This isn't a fun thought for Christians, and typically they hide their uncertainty or inability to answer the question in mysticism. Mysticism allows them to believe anything. Anything. More on mysticism later.
Young told me that the new book would begin to deconstruct the grammar of the faith. I think he meant it would deconstruct how we thought about the grammar, not the grammar itself. I suspect that when I finish this book, I will discover that Young does not abandon his faith in the end. I was prepared for the beginning of the deconstruction, but I got C.S. Lewis instead. It is literally impossible for C.S. Lewis (Jack to his friends and in this book) to believe everything that's been attributed to him by evangelicals and post-evangelicals. He would have to be the most confused man in the world, and unlike contemporary evangelicals (as a tribe, not all individually), Lewis could discern a good argument from a bad one, at least within the context of his metaphysical assumptions.
Jack shows up in Cross Roads to explain the difference between real and true. Yes, that this is necessary is befuddling to me, but it does make a certain perverse sense if you're going to say tons of shit that can't be verified but want readers to believe it is real and true. Myticism needs some sort of justification. Normally, that justification has been a reference to Scripture. Mystics can intuit all sorts of things, but if they get too far afield, the external authority known as the Bible can be brought to bear on their intuited knowledge. (This is, of course, the difference between mystics and transcendentalists; the latter had no governing authority over their pantheistic intuitions.) Young's mysticism is of a different variety, though. He's going after the grammar, allegedly, and therefore, he'll need to do some work outside the purview of Scriptural authority. You can't go after the grammar without assuming some parts of the Bible are just plain wrong. (You also can't use mysticism or intuition as a mode of knowledge unless you want to run completely off the rails. Just ask the International House of Prayer how that's working for them this month...)
Enter C.S. Lewis, or Jack. Young brings the authority of this exhausted old Irishman to his philosophical trick. Lewis sounds smart. That is different than actually being smart, but that's not important. Lewis was brilliant and plainly wrong about many things, but he has a reputation as smart and philosophical. Adding him to the critical juncture of the book as a sort of baritone voice of reason, a James Earl Jones narrating how reasonable this shit is, and you avoid the hard work of actually deconstructing what is clearly a poor move philosophically and theologically. That he does this at the first critical juncture of the book leads me to believe the rest will be fundamentally dishonest, but not in an intentional way. Young suffers from that peculiar and noble affliction of wanting to explain how God is not as big a dick as God's followers and an honest read of the Bible have led people to believe. You see, it doesn't matter if something is real and true if you can't demonstrate it, not in the realm of metaphysics.
Young asserts that we have created a sense of separation from God because we do not believe God's Word, whatever the hell that means. We refuse to believe the truth because we have created a false sense of the real. Wow! The move is dishonest because it assumes the fault lies with us. Mystics talk a great deal about God's presence, as if it is obvious enough to be noticed if we of little faith would tighten up our belt of truth, lay aside our proud questions, and just allow Jesus to hold us. (Yes, that's in the book. Jesus holds the protagonist. Can I just say that if I found out tomorrow there is a Jesus, I still wouldn't want him to hold me? It's just weird.) The problem, of course, is that many of us tried and tried and tried, and there was no holding or answering going on. The question that no one ever answers, and maybe someone will finally try, is that if God wants so much to be in relationship with us, why not make godself much more apparent? I don't tell friends I want a relationship with them and then insist on some sort of cosmic fucking scavenger hunt. What friend would put up with that? How would you even call that a friendship?
I learned yesterday in this excellent piece from Slate that The Book of Mormon exists in first edition form. That is stupefying. Imagine a first edition Tanakh or New Testament. Imagine how many questions could be answered about textual accuracy and canonicity. In the Mormon piece, the subject, a Mormon historian named Quinn, found six substantial changes in the text of The Book of Mormon between the first edition and the current edition. There were many more changes, but he believed six were critical in terms of Mormon theology. This is what makes the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints such a rare opportunity in the study of religion. They are a modern faith. Their origin, history, and documents are all available to us. Imagine if Jesus had lived a mere 150 years ago. Imagine the possibility that John, James, Peter, and Paul built the Church at the turn of the 20th century. That's what we're dealing with when we look at the history of Mormonism.
Quinn realized that the "revelation" Smith allegedly received was not as infallible as he had been led to believe. The text had been emended, and not with slight emendations. This is no surprise to someone outside the faith of Mormonism. Smith's laughably anachronistic references to the cultures of Meso-America and North America are well documented. What Quinn discovered in his quest for the truth, though, was that Mormon leadership didn't care if the origin of their sacred text didn't square with the official story. One member of the leadership even muses aloud that "truth is not always helpful." I agree with that sentiment in the narrow sense. If someone is fat, I don't need to point it out. The truth in that sense is not helpful. I think of it as the emphasis Buddhists put on right speech. All truth-telling is not right speech, so the Mormon leadership and I agree, sort of.
Truth is very helpful, however, if I'm trying to decided whether a set of religious teachings and practices is based on truth or falsehood. The election in two days has brought about an amazing Mormon moment in the country. Evangelicals are rushing to embrace Romney, and because they cannot embrace a member of a "cult" as POTUS, they are quick to call Mormonism a legitimate faith. (In all honesty, some are being far more consistent and calling it a cult, including Franklin "I Make Shit Up and Sign My Dad's Name To It" Graham.) Exactly what constitutes a legitimate faith is a cipher. Of the world's many religions, the five we know the most about are Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. The first is practiced by relatively few believers, especially when compared to the other four, all of which have adherents in the billions. What we know about these five faiths is a matter of history, conjecture, mythology, half truths, legends, obfuscation, sanitized narratives, and occasionally, truly true stories. We don't have access to the records as we do with the history of Mormonism.
This is a crucial difference because it allows the veneer of legitimacy to adhere to ancient faiths, but faiths that are constructed in the modern age will be revealed to be the false belief systems they are. Except that Mormonism is one of the fastest growing faiths in the world. We know Joseph Smith's life story: con man, criminal, philanderer, etc. We know the sacred text has been changed. We know the convenience with which "new revelations" have allowed Mormonism to adapt to the changing American culture. Want to be a state? Well, all you need is God to reveal that polygamy isn't okay anymore. How do you feel about the Civil Rights Act and its subsequent impact on America's racial topography? Oh, really, your Church says what?! Um, never mind. New revelation in. We're now cool with black folks. Whew. We know the sacred text is riddled with so many errors that only the willfully deceived can believe it reports anything that could be called sacred history. We know nearly every falsehood associated with the growth of this faith, and yet no one who practices it seems to mind. Now people are prepared to vote for a man who believes in an utter falsehood because they can't stand his opponent. I get it. Lesser of two evils and all that, but this goes to the heart of how we construct our lives around some kind of tangible truth.
Why shouldn't people be free to practice whatever faith they choose even if the faith seems silly, so long as it's not harmful? Agree. Agree. Agree. However, two points. Why the hell would someone want to align his life with a false system, by which I mean a system known to be false? The older faith systems may be false; I'm almost sure they are, but they are removed from our current context so much that proving their falseness is a virtual impossibility. They are widely thought to be reasonable articulations of metaphysical questions and answers. I think they're nonsense, but they have the benefit of being too old to fully deconstruct. However, with Mormonism, we have a fully deconstructed set of claims. They're not true. They don't add up. The history says Joseph Smith made it all up. In our lucid moments, we know this to be the case, but we're so polite about religion that we dare not say it for fear of offending someone. People are allowed to have their own faith. It's their right. Agreed, again. However, it's one thing to respond in faith to things that can't be known. Responding in faith to things known to be false is not faith; it's lunacy.
Secondly, within the Christian tradition there is a notion that because the church grew and thrived following the death of Jesus, "something" must have happened. By "something" they mean resurrection, but they pretend to be objective by not mentioning the actual word. It's a semantic way of throwing up the hands and saying, "We're not calling it resurrection, but something happened." The notion has been popularized by C.S. Lewis and Josh McDowell, among others. N.T. Wright tried to give it a more scholarly treatment, but it still boiled down to Lewis's idea that the church could not have grown based on a lie. Paraphrasing, Lewis said that men will die for a lie if they don't know it's a lie, but no one will die for a lie they know to be a lie.
The history of Mormonism shows that not to be the case. Smith's followers knew who he was. They knew what he was. They witnessed it. Historians have shown us the falsity of his claims and his book, but early Mormons accepted martyrdom, believed the lie, and grew their church. They continue to grow the church, even in the face of "unhelpful truths." As we've learned with Mormonism, belief is way more complicated than just showing someone a truth or a lie. People believe what they want based on very complicated reasons, not just epistemological courage. In fact, it's more rare to find people who disbelieve things simply because those things aren't true. In fact, the more committed someone is to a system of belief, the more unlikely he believes contrary evidence, even if the evidence is irrefutable.
What is distressing to me about this Mormon moment is that Americans are acting as if the truth doesn't matter. It shouldn't have surprised me, but it did. We can't always know the truth, but when we do, it might be a good idea to shape our lives around it, not around what we prefer to be true.