Ungay Me, Lord, or The Bible as Bludgeon

Co-published with Literati Press.

Sally Kern has managed to land Oklahoma in national news once again for all the wrong reasons. Her legislation to protect practitioners of “conversion therapy” is meant to allow pastors, parents, and “ministries” like Oklahoma City-based First Stone to ungay teenagers. If adult persons decide they cannot endure their sexual selves and seek out conversion therapy, that is within their rights, however wrong-headed it may be. But to force teenagers to convert from gay to straight makes this a different sort of issue, one that opponents to conversion are calling “child abuse.”

The virtual and real-world conversations that have emerged remind me of one of my favorite scenes in a very under-appreciated movie, 2004’s Saved! The Jena Malone/Mandy Moore vehicle was writer-director Brian Dannelly’s jab at private Christian schools and “degayification” ministries. For people raised around fundamentalists and evangelicals, the characters in Saved! might have been drawn slightly larger than likely, but the spirit and dialogue ring very true.

At a crucial point in the movie, Mary (intentionally named, I’m sure) played by Malone has discovered that her uber-perfect Christian boyfriend Dean is likely gay. It is Dean, played by Chad Faust, who will be sent off to degayification therapy. Mary is approached by an overzealous girl who has long-resented the perfect Christian couple.

“Hey, Mary, sorry to hear about Dean’s faggotry,” Tia says without a hint of sympathy.

The scene highlights the social depths to which homosexuality has traditionally pushed Christians who happen to be gay and in communities where homosexuality is considered an affliction to be endured at best. The less charitable communities call it a choice or an abomination or some other Bible word they’ve been taught to use sans context.


As I am watching the conversation controversy unfold, I’m once again mystified that people on both sides do not know how to talk to each other. Full disclosure: I am opposed to conversion therapy, and I think Sally Kern is trying to solidify her legacy as a legislator by writing or championing fundamentalist-inspired legislation that she will use later to dress up her resume as a speaker and writer. She is in her final term due to Oklahoma’s term limit rule. Most of the legislation did not even make it out of committee, but it will preach well when she is addressing a room full of fundamentalists.

People who did not grow up in these communities or who have not bothered to try to understand what words mean in different contexts cannot begin to fathom why any Christians would support conversion therapy. Conversion therapy is based on a couple false assumptions:

1. Gayness is a sinful choice or an unfortunate affliction, but either way it must be resisted;

2. Our true identity is “hid with Christ in God,” which is to say we have all sorts of imperfections, but we need to understand who we are “in Christ” to truly know who we are. This entails being reminded that we are lovely, straight, whole, and made for holiness. That is the heart of conversion therapy.

Most evangelicals and fundamentalists believe some version of these assumptions, and many of them even hold non-toxic versions of these beliefs. Who, after all, doesn’t want to believe that a relationship with God can heal their hurts, or that God sees who they are deep down, or that religious friendship and Bible reading can give us strength to overcome the weaknesses with which we all are beset? The difference, of course, is what to do with human sexuality.

Unfortunately, the worst practitioners of conversion therapy will insist that childhood traumas–molestation, abuse, rape, abandonment–create aberrant sexuality. While this can certainly be true to an extent, they wrongly assume homosexuality is not a naturally occurring variation in human sexuality but a perversion of God’s intended design. At this point, young people are regularly subjected to counseling by unqualified persons who believe the Bible holds the key to mental health. Many are deeply distrustful of psychology and medicine, and while I can agree that we all ought occasionally to be distrustful of those things, a perfunctory reading of the Bible is enough to convince an honest reader that it has damn little to say about mental health–that being a category with which ancient people were largely unfamiliar.

The least toxic practitioners will tell people that God may not change their desires, but will give them strength to persevere as celibates. This is one of the more unintentionally perverse ideas in so-called Biblical counseling.

Please note that you are not gay but you will continue to have same-sex desires.

“So, God will change me?”

No. You’ll need to be celibate, but God and your church will be here for you.

“So I’ll remain gay?”

You’re not gay. You are a child of God who is healed and whole, but you have to grow into that reality.

“So when I do, I’ll be straight?”

Not necessarily. You may have these desires the rest of your life.

Why not just call it what it is? The person is gay. That admission would undermine the entire rubric by which these people read the Bible, though. How, after all, do you acknowledge that God got something so obviously wrong? (Never mind that they have moved on with the whole slavery thing…) They would be forced to admit that whoever wrote the text got it wrong, not God, which would lead to a brand new hermeneutic (the ways people interpret the Bible and other sacred texts), and one that does not support their deeply-held convictions.

The battles over the Bible and culture are not just about the issues over which the Sally Kerns of the world write legislation and make idiotic pronouncements. At a very fundamental level, the battles are about what to do with a very old book and what authority its believers have to describe how the world does and ought to function. All of us are guilty of wanting the world to be as we prefer it, and our assumptions and convictions about what it ought to look like must be defended with more than just a “Thus sayeth the Lord,” especially when the lord of this particular book is so clearly wrong.


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

Co-published with Literati Press.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The Romance of Bigotry, or Judicial Adventures in Missing the Point

Right in the middle of my effusive joy about living in a country where my gay and lesbian friends can marry, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals decided that the worst aspects of democracy, rather than the Constitution, ought to dictate what seems to be a clear-cut Constitutional issue. Judge Jeffrey Sutton, a George W. Bush appointee, wrote for the 2-judge majority:

When the courts do not let the people resolve new social issues like this one, they perpetuate the idea that the heroes in these change events are judges and lawyers.”

I’m not sure it’s possible to write a worse sentence when the civil rights of citizens are at stake. First, the idea that it’s a new social issue is laughably false. One need only read the Satyricon, a Roman satire about a gay former gladiator, which was written sometime in the first century CE (most likely), to know that same-sex relationships are not new social issues. Most egregiously, however, Sutton would have us believe that a war novel or hero’s journey is playing out in front of us rather than a real-life tragedy wherein a hegemony that is decreasing in power and influence expresses their fear of their own demise by being petty and bigoted to the very end. Aside from a preference for a particular strain of theism, there is simply no compelling reason left to resist same-sex marriage. All other avenues of argument are vacuous or bigoted. Sutton continues:

“Better in this instance, we think, to allow change through the customary political processes, in which the people, gay and straight alike, become the heroes of their own stories by meeting each other not as adversaries in a court system but as fellow citizens seeking to resolve a new social issue in a fair-minded way.”

More on that nonsense below, but first, in all fairness to the 6th Circuit, the dissenting opinion, written by Judge Daughtrey, begins with two of the most accurately scathing lines in the history of jurisprudence:

“The author of the majority opinion has drafted what would make an engrossing TED Talk or, possibly, an introductory lecture in Political Philosophy. But as an appellate court decision, it wholly fails to grapple with the relevant constitutional question in this appeal: whether a state’s constitutional prohibition of same-sex marriage violates equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment.”

In short, “the people” ought not be allowed to vote for an unconstitutional law, and as gay marriage bans seem to violate the 14th Amendment, it matters little what “the people” think. The process of categorizing a law or provision of a law as constitutional or unconstitutional is the responsibility of the judiciary, not “the people.” Judge Sutton’s idiotic romanticism vis-a-vis citizens resolving social issues in a “fair-minded” way ignores the reality that citizens have regularly voted for and supported injustice with respect to social issues. Judge Sutton is apparently unaware of Jim Crow, poll taxesDred Scott, the Fugitive Slave Act, Japanese internment camps, sundown towns, and a whole host of other social issues in which the hegemony, even in the guise of SCOTUS, decided against the best interests of entire classes of citizens.

The conservative myth of “activist judges” has become a common trope, but it coheres poorly with reality, and the worst decision in recent memory was made by activist justices who allowed corporate money to affect elections against the best interests of “the people.” There are times when judges must decide the constitutionality of a law without reference to the will of the people. The will of the people is never sovereign in a culture committed to laws based on justice. It is axiomatic that the will of the people is often nothing more than tyranny and prejudice masquerading as righteousness or tradition or respect for the law. Laws based on injustice ought not to be obeyed. In the American experience, this is clearly the lesson we were supposed to learn from Thoreau, Anthony, Stanton, Chavez, King, and others.

Now the 6th Circuit has officially made this an issue SCOTUS must consider. Their reasoning is, in the words of Judge Daughtrey, an appeal to vox populi, or a wait-and-see approach. That needs to be unpacked a bit. The voice of the people (vox populi) can often decide that a situation is not so urgent that it must be addressed immediately. According to the conservative worldview, social change should not come quickly; rather, it should be deliberate and well thought out, such that it becomes a wait-and-see approach in the sense that time and talk will fix things. Dr. King addressed the wait-and-see approach in his Letter from Birmingham Jail:

“For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’”

Only those who are comfortable within the system can possibly think that “wait-and-see” is a good idea. Imagine telling the victims of slavery that we will wait until citizens work out this social issue in a fair-minded way. What if fair-minded ends up being the perpetuation of slavery?  Why would the slave not want to be free today? Is it not fair because a judge with good sense calls injustice by its name? Is it only fair if “the people” get to decide whether or not to support the Constitution? And if they do not, then are we compelled to call it Democracy or the rule of law, however loathsome it may be? It is certain that the Founding Fathers–and, oh, the capitalization there–did not envision that the will of the people should enshrine injustice, and unless someone can tell me why gays and lesbians ought not be able to marry in a culture where all adult citizens share equal rights, how is it aught but injustice?

At this point, many will interject objections based on the will of God, but it will be the god they prefer. They will not say “my God” or “the God of (X Faith).” Rather, they will simply assert that it is God who is offended, as if it is an axiom that there is only one god or that god can be offended. Even assuming the axioms to be correct, they will then insist that their singular deity is the deity of record, such that the monotheists of other tribes are heretics or fools, and only the children of the deity of record, according to their own reckoning, have a proper understanding of the way of God. It is a powerful delusion or an arrogant fiction, but they will not recognize it as such.

And even if we allow that their tribe possesses the truth and their tribal deity is the sovereign lord of the universe, they will not be able to explain why even intra-tribally they cannot agree as to the actual words of God, nor the proper interpretation of those words. It is a preference for the “world as they wish it to be” dressed up as Truth, and the arbiters of this version of the truth see it as absolute and feel no obligation to justify the truthiness of their words; rather, they accept their version as gospel and believe the rest of us are blinded by sin, in the grasp of the devil, in rebellion against God, or willfully ignorant to the truth that is so obvious to them. Even as they can’t agree amongst themselves.

Setting aside that brief excursus, the matter at hand is what will happen when SCOTUS is forced to decide. A 5-4 split is the most likely outcome with Justice Anthony Kennedy as the swing vote. The utter disaster will be a 5-4 decision against marriage as a fundamental right and a deferring to the states to decide who among law-abiding, tax-paying citizens may marry. This will lead to a balkanization of American states into affirming and non-affirming areas, and the very Constitution that is meant to guarantee equal treatment for citizens from state to state will be abrogated where it most matters: equal rights for all citizens.

The sane decision would be 9-0 in favor of the 14th Amendment and the dignity of all people, but Scalia, Thomas, and Alito have seldom been concerned about such lofty matters. Rather, they amuse themselves by upholding the letter of the law and ignoring its spirit. They strain out gnats and swallow camels in their zeal to show that they understand the meaning of words in the narrowest sense, but manage to ignore the “weightier matters of the law,” like love, justice, and mercy. Honestly, we live in a country where the most conservative imagine they live in a country dedicated to Christian principles, even as they don’t recognize obvious opportunities to implement Christian principles, and, it’s fair to argue, they don’t know which principles are actually Christian. They are practitioners of civil religion, and like Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, they would not recognize their Lord were He to make an appearance in their day-to-day lives.

Finally, we must address one final argument against same-sex marriage, and it comes from those often self-identified “Libertarians” who assert that marriage is not the proper purview of government. While it is easy to agree that the government should not be involved in marriage, the simple fact is that the government is currently involved in marriage. The entanglements are manifold, including insurance, survivor benefits, hospital visitation, income taxes, etc. Unless and until all heterosexual couples are willing to divest themselves of the benefits attendant with marriage, including tax breaks, this is simply an argument of avoidance, which is to say, it avoids the larger questions in favor of a gigantic, convenient red herring.

--Co-published with Literati Press.

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.


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.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus in the New World, or Preference as Doctrine

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

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

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

“That’s ridiculous,” he offered.

“What is ridiculous?” I asked.

“It doesn’t even make sense.”

“How does it not?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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