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.

Kern

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

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.


Jesus the Executioner, or How to Create a Home for Your Own Personal Jesus

With apologies to Depeche Mode...

The world is composed of words, and the words possess a multiplicity of meanings, leading to a multiplicity of worlds. Living in Oklahoma is its own special reward and punishment, and the week that just passed offered much of what it means to live in a different world than your neighbor. The execution of a child murderer in the state this week gave Oklahomans an opportunity to choose which world they inhabited, and many sided against their own god. But first, the opening statement deserves some parsing.

Paul-fryer-pieta-jesus-electric-chair

My experience of the world is shaped by the words offered me as I grow up in whatever corner of the world is my home.[1]This is not as axiomatic as you would think. People honestly believe they are growing up in a world that is shaped by an objective understanding of truth, largely because their parents, the first humans to offer them vocabulary, believe the same thing. One example should suffice.

If I grew up in Augusta, Ga., and my parents sent me off to church camp as a child or teen, the preparation for the event would already have occurred at the level of language. Likely I would have been raised in church, but even if I hadn’t, the preparation would have taken place. Religious experience for a young, white, middle class kid in the South would involve words like Jesus, church, sin, salvation, heaven, and hell. (I realize the world is changing, but the way we explain experience via words is lagging behind our experience of the world.) 

One night, in the middle of an altar call at this youth camp, I might respond to the throbbing guilt the speaker has created in my conscience. I move to the front where a “counselor” or volunteer is waiting for me. After a brief chat, I say the words I have been instructed to say: “Dear Jesus, I’m a sinner. Please forgive me of my sins. I want you to come live in my heart and be my Lord and Savior. Amen.” Some variation of that, which evangelicals and fundamentalists call the Sinner’s Prayer, would be the recommended response to the existential angst I am feeling. I would be declared “saved” at that moment, and if the counselor is conscientious, I’ll be told what to expect in the coming weeks.

Imagine that scenario playing out in India or Saudi Arabia or Tel Aviv or Bangkok. The words, the gods, the experience, the expectations—all would be different. My experience of the world would be shaped, not by a literal Jesus showing up to forgive my sins, but by an interpretation of what I’m feeling offered by people who believe they understand the world, both at the level of language and at the level of objective reality. This is, of course, a fiction; it’s merely a construct based on a preference or a tradition to which the participants subscribe. 

Place those understandings and lexicons side by side, and we arrive at the current state of our world: a multiplicity of worlds existing contiguously. Is there a “real” world that we are attempting to understand and that we can possibly come to experience? Science offers us some insight into that “real” world, but science, as poet Stephen Dunn reminds us, makes for a poor story at times: “You can’t say, ‘Evolution loves you,’ to your child.”[2] This is not to deny that science can be a remarkable story, but myth shapes us far more than science. Make of that whatever you wish: praise or lament.

So we arrive at the week past in Oklahoma. For the first time since the state botched an execution badly, an execution was scheduled. A very divided Supreme Court refused to halt the execution, and so it went forward. The Associated Press reported that Charles Warner said, “My body is on fire,” after the first of three drugs was administered. We should be clear. Warner raped and murdered an 11-month old child. An act that heinous defies our ability to imagine much worse, unless the crime was multiplied to include other children. By any standard of human behavior, Warner failed to even measure up to a minimal definition of human. I’ll side with Pico della Mirandola here, and say that our behavior has the potential to make us less than human. His frame of reference was the Great Chain of Being—an absurd idea—but his conclusion is solid. Warner was a beast in that choice, or worse than a beast, in fact. His actions are indefensible, and it is difficult to feel pity for him, even if his body did feel like it was on fire.

Still, the responses have been illustrative of the multiple worlds we inhabit. I watched with fascination as a friend attempted to be reasonable on Facebook as he called on the officials in our state to give up capital punishment. He referred to the circumstances surrounding the execution as shameful. No one, after all, should have to die in torment. One lovely woman offered that it would be a shame not to execute such a person, and, she continued, she hoped he was raped while in prison. This is such a common refrain in ethics class, I brace myself each semester for it. Good Christian students advocating proxy rape.

How does the crucified savior worshiped by Christians lead to Christians advocating execution and proxy rape? What world do they inhabit? Surely it isn’t the same as Jesus. He offered salvation to all, if the story is to be believed, so what causes people who allegedly believe the story to abandon hope for redemption and demand execution? If their understanding of the world is shaped by words like forgiveness, restoration, and redemption, how do they become cheerleaders for a system of execution? Should they not lobby for life in prison, hoping and praying that the offender comes to receive grace? 

It seems their world has been compartmentalized into areas of salvation and politics. The former is guaranteed them by virtue of their confession of being a sinner via the Sinner’s Prayer, but it is clearly not available to all, at least not pragmatically speaking. While heaven is open to all, according to the mythology, there seems to be a grammar of preference into who actually makes the cut. Salvation, it seems, is not free to all who ask. The political narrative is constructed to order their world according to their preference. Of course Jesus hates baby killers. He didn’t die for everyone, only the ones who sin within a comfortable set of parameters. The great irony is that they view outsiders as an enemy of the truth, but it is they who have reduced their Lord to one who can only save the practitioners of pedestrian sins. 

1 This is an idea that I’m pretty sure I got from reading Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of my philosophy heroes, but it’s possible I only inferred it from conversations in classes about Wittgenstein in grad school. Whatever the case, I’m convinced it describes our experience accurately. 

 2 At the Smithville Methodist Church, Stephen Dunn. New and Selected Poems (1974-1994) W.W. Norton

 

Co-published with Literati Press

The painting if from Paul Fryer

 

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

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

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

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

Bible

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

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

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

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

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

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


Interpreting the Bible Gayly, Part 2, or How to Righteously Ignore the Bible

In Part One, I mentioned the intransigence of fundamentalists and evangelicals in terms of how they interpret Scripture, especially in the context of same-sex marriage. The thesis of Part Two is that fundangelicals will use the Bible to oppose same-sex marriage, but their interpretive method (hermeneutic) is deeply flawed or deeply dishonest, and as I write that, it occurs to me that oblivious is an option, too.

The fundamental issue is that Christians, by and large, do not read the Bible, not in its entirety, and not to understand it. Much reading is devotional, wherein readers look for God to address them via the text. Imagine a person struggling with an issue and coming across a passage in Proverbs that says “Lean not on your own understanding, but in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct your path.” That likely feels like the words are written just for their particular situation: “I’m relying too much on my own judgment. I should trust God.”

Unfortunately, “Trust God” is often a shorthand way of saying, “I won’t make a decision.” Worse, it’s an opportunity to ask someone what “God’s Word” says. This is where things can really run off the rails. Interpreting the Bible is not simply a matter of reading the text and accepting the clear meaning, partly because the meaning is not always clear, and partly because the text was written or compiled somewhere between 1600 and 4000 years ago, depending on the passage. Even if the words are clear, it is possible that the text is obscure. There is a passage in the Tanakh (the Jewish Bible, called Old Testament by Christians) about a man who must marry the woman he rapes. It’s a horrific thought for us, but in the economy of ancient Israel, a non-virginal, unmarried woman would have very limited options, like begging or prostitution, so if a rapist took her virginity (yes, I hate that phrase, too), he was financially responsible for her.

For hermeneutics, then, the context matters immensely, but that is not even the biggest problem with applying Biblical texts to contemporary issues. I feel very comfortable saying to women that they should ignore Biblical sexual ethics about virginity because the passages were written when girls married upon menstruation. Most folks can keep their virginity that long, and the issue was women as property, not sexual ethics. That much of the Bible was written for a different context, both culturally and developmentally, is clear, but fundangelicals insist that much of it still applies, including sexual ethics. Mind you, most would say that victims should not marry their rapists, nor should people own people, let alone have sex with slaves, but they are hard-pressed to let go of same-sex prohibitions. They cannot seem to recognize that interpretation is largely preferential, not exegetically consistent (the process of extracting meaning from a text). Once exegetical consistency is applied, the whole book falls apart if you insist on reading it as authoritative, but that is not a point that can be acknowledged if you wish to remain securely fundangelical.

For example, applying exegetical consistency to the issue of women in ministry yields a wide range of Biblical opinions, but fundangelicals of various tribes choose the verses they prefer to shape their church polity (church governance). The texts are in clear conflict, so only preference or appeal to a particular tradition can yield a path forward. This is not the same thing as “thus sayeth the Lord,” obviously. That all of them appeal to different and equally dubious or equally reasonable ways of understanding “God’s Word” is lost on them, because they sincerely believe they are understanding it properly (rightly dividing the word of truth, in the jargon of Scripture) while the other tribes are missing a key point.

Another example. On the issue of care for the poor, there are hundreds of verses that address care for the poor, so many in fact that it was possible for liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez to preach that God has a preference for the poor. The difficulty in using such texts to support government-provided welfare is related to the text’s silence about the responsibility of the government. The individual is clearly instructed to do so, as is the church, but nowhere is the care of the poor seen as a governmental responsibility. It’s possible to argue that God literally expects individuals to care for the poor, but an inference is required to say God expects the government to do the same. Alas, not all inferences are created equal.

On matters of interpretation related to the life of the individual, the fundangelical impulse has been toward a mixture of allegorical, literal, and metaphorical interpretation. When God promises Jeremiah that God knew him from the moment of his conception, the statement has often been appropriated by individuals to assert that God cares about and knows every individual intimately, and so the subsequent promise that God had a plan for Jeremiah’s life is then applied to the life of other individuals. The text nowhere says this, and so a literal promise to one person is applied via inference to all individuals. (It creeps into the abortion debate, too, as a way of buttressing arguments from “life begins at conception,” thereby attempting to use it politically.) Allegorically, Jeremiah is all of us, and so the inference is based on the most tenuous of interpretive models.

But what of verses that seem to indicate God’s law or rule about specific actions or beliefs? Those would seem to be less open to interpretation, and this is where the intransigence makes itself most obvious. The Bible nowhere addresses same-sex marriage, but it does address same-sex sex. The prohibition against same-sex sexual contact is then extended to cover same-sex marriage. As such, the extension of the principle is completely reasonable, by which I mean it is logically and exegetically consistent, even as it might be completely false. And here is the problem. It is not what the text actually says or even what it means; the issue is what believers choose to do with the text, including ignore it, as in the case of slavery, divorce, and killing people who use magic.

The intransigence is based on a willful denial of how the Bible has been handled in the past, especially in areas where it speaks clearly and forcefully about an issue. In Part One, the issue of slavery was used by way of illustration. It works here, too. Any honest reader of the Bible is forced to conclude that God either approves of or tolerates the practice of slavery. That the Mosaic law contains regulations about appropriate sex with a slave is a hideous reminder that we are dealing with a Bronze Age text, and not a book with modern sensibility woven into its words. How do fundamentalists and evangelicals deal with the question of slavery?

The most obnoxious of them insists that God is fine with slavery so long as it is not race-based. Quite frankly, this is a very, very small minority and it pains me to even call them “Christians." Most just say that the “old law” has passed away, and in doing so, they ignore that the Apostle Paul gave instructions to slaves and masters after the “resurrection” of Jesus, and so Paul treated slavery as an acceptable practice after that “old law” had passed away. This is not terribly helpful for fundangelicals who wish to pretend that God is horrified by slavery. So horrified that God gave instructions on when and under what circumstances you could bang your slave.

It is clear that the Bible approves of slavery and condemns divorce, and it’s equally clear that fundangelicals ignore both these realities and insist that the text is consistent and authoritative even as they condemn slavery and allow for divorce. I’ve now used 1300+ words to say what is obvious; interpretation is always based on cultural contexts and tribal preference, and very, very rarely on exegetical consistency. In other words, as the culture goes, so goes the Church’s teaching on same-sex marriage…eventually.

 Co-published at Literati Press as Slavery, Divorce, and Same-Sex Marriage: Interpreting the Bible Gayly, Part 2


Interpreting the Bible Gayly, or The Holiness of Segregation

This is part one in a three-part series for Literati Press.

One of the most important pastoral decisions in the next year will be how a particular congregation or denomination will respond to same-sex marriage. Opponents of marriage equality have been right about exactly one thing; the granting of rights to lesbian and gay couples to marry has happened at a dizzying speed. It’s genuinely unparalleled in world history. Even if we begin at the Stonewall riots in 1969, gay marriage is now legal in the majority of the States within 45 years. Realistically, the energy behind the movement began less than twenty years ago, especially among the heterosexual population.

Only the most simplistic assessment of pop culture would locate the transitional moment inWill & Graceno TV program has that much transformational energy—but only the willfully oblivious could miss that Will & Grace was the most palatable and popular example of a cultural shift that had already begun to change the orientation of America toward LGBT persons, and by extension, same-sex marriage.

The demographics of opposition to same-sex marriage tell the whole story at this point: fundamentalists and evangelicals (fundangelicals) tend to be opposed, as do Muslims, political conservatives, and old people. Combine three categories to find the most resistant and largest demographic: fundamentalist or evangelical political conservatives over 50. It is demonstrably true that acceptance for same-sex marriage lags in traditionalist and ethnic demographics as well, and I use ethnic, not minority, because support for same-sex marriage is very low in Latin America and Africa, not just among Hispanic Americans and African-Americans. Nonetheless, the group with the most political clout in terms of this issue remains old and really old fundangelical Christians who also happen to be politically conservative.

Those demographics matter for pastors and denominational leadership, because older, more committed members tend to be the best givers and the most reliable members in the congregation in terms of attendance and volunteerism. Only the most bizarrely fortunate minister in America has not been in a conflict with an older member of the congregation over something heard, seen, or read on conservative talk radio, cable news, or the Internet. As same-sex marriage obtains legal status in all the States—a foregone conclusion now—pastoral decisions will affect membership status particularly in respect to older and younger members.

In thinking through potential pastoral responses, it has become very clear that the American Church is facing a period of hostile reorganization, due in large part to a lack of thoughtful dialogue and theologizing based on the speed at which same-sex marriage has become the law at the same time that it has become more widely accepted. Their intransigence about hermeneutics (Biblical interpretation) on this issue has not helped either, but more on that next time. This is in part the fault of congregations and denominations who refused to believe the day would come, either because they trusted too much in the promises of fringe Right politicians or because they chose to be in willful denial about what was obviously coming. Clearly, there is another large group who believed that the Church would simply preach the message of “the Gospel” and let the consequences play out without having to reassess their view of the matrix of Scripture, Church, and Culture.

In other words, this latter group believed they could ignore how cultural shifts affect hermeneutics far more often than the interpretations shape culture. The most obvious examples are radical reconfigurations of church politics and preaching concerning slavery, and in my lifetime, the widespread cultural acceptance of divorce. For those younger than me (under 50), the idea that divorce ever caused widespread consternation in churches, except Catholic churches, is almost beyond belief, but there was a time when churches fought vigorously over the issue of what to do about divorced people, both in terms of membership and vocational ministry. In spite of Jesus’ stern words about adultery and divorce being deeply entwined, churches simply ignored Jesus and opted for a position of grace and restoration.

The pastoral response to same-sex marriage is likely to take the very same tack. Given that the demographics indicate that most opposition to same-sex marriage will be dead within 40 years, or less, churches that opt to resist the cultural shift will occupy increasingly less cultural space and will make of themselves a new species of fundamentalism. Just as any church that preached a gospel of segregation would be viewed with equal parts horror, contempt, and humor today, so too will these churches make of themselves a parody.

To borrow a Biblical metaphor, the coming storm will force pastors, congregations, and denominations to align themselves on one side or the other of this cultural shift. There will be those pastors and denominational leaders who will attempt to navigate a middle path through this, but within twenty years, that will make as much sense as a church in the current context attempting to navigate a middle path between Civil Rights and segregation. Those who opt for the middle path might just as well join the resistance, because like the churches that attempted to remain neutral during the Civil Rights struggle, they will simply be seen as the same sort of compromisers. Not taking a stand on issues of justice will always be seen as moral weakness once the dust clears, and followers of Jesus are trained to expect crucifixion, right?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.