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.


Satan: Mind Control Expert, or Atheists Make Bad Presidents

I'm tempted to just dictate the conversation as it occurred in class last night, but I can't resist editorializing a bit, so I'm going to do both, but first this set-up. I love when we're in the middle of a class discussion and one member of a group manages to embarrass the whole group by saying something that the group sort of believe but none would say out loud. That happened last semester when one young intrepid redneck admitted that he wouldn't date outside his race because he doesn't like "black girls. I'm not a racist. I just like white women." The entire "I won't date outside my race" group was squirming at that point. Something similar happened last night.

Once again, the conservative Christians (by this I mean they claim to believe the Bible is true, they are saved, and they at least make a pretense of being good Christians) were trying to convince me that there are good reasons they wouldn't vote for an otherwise qualified atheist to be POTUS. (For the record, there are no rational reasons, and I should point out that this was NOT at a Christian school.) One young woman insisted that she could only vote for someone who believed in a higher power to which the POTUS was subject. Clearly, the Constitution isn't sufficient; one must also swear allegiance to Ahura Mazda, YHWH, Jesus, or Allah as well. (They likely wouldn't vote for a Zoroastrian, though, and I know most wouldn't vote for a Muslim.) Another young woman admitted that she wouldn't vote for an atheist, but that she has no problem with them. "They're the ones going to hell, not me," she explained. After this rather depressing opening salvo, the class's oldest student--likely in his early 60s--weighed in. Dictation to follow. Enjoy.

Old Guy: I'll tell you why I wouldn't vote for him, because you need to believe in God. I can't vote for someone who doesn't believe in God.

Me: So a Hindu would be good. Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma. As long as it's a god?

Old Guy: There is only one God.

Me: So you couldn't vote for a Muslim?

Old Guy: No. I couldn't. My problem is that they don't accept Jesus as the Messiah.

Me: So a Jew is out, too.

Old Guy: No. I could vote for a Jew.

Me: But they don't accept Jesus is the Messiah.

Old Guy: But they believe in the One God. 

Me: Then by that reasoning a Muslim must be ok.

Old Guy: I guess that's true.

Me: So atheists are out because they don't believe in any god, but especially because they don't believe in the One God.

Old Guy: There is only one God. And I couldn't vote for an atheist because Satan could just come in and take up his mind. 

Me: Just staring.

Old Guy: He wouldn't know how to resist Satan. Satan could control him. That's what I believe.

Me: So, those are your beliefs, ok. But what you're saying is that an otherwise qualified candidate should be excluded because he or she believes the wrong thing? (I was tired of the sexist assumption by this point.)

Old Guy: The Bible says that when the Antichrist is revealed, he will be very competent, a leader even. Leadership isn't enough.

Me: Half the Christians in the world believe the Antichrist was already revealed.

Old Guy: I don't know which Christians you know...

Me: Catholics, Presbyterians, Orthodox, Lutheran, more than half the Christians in the world don't read the Bible the way you do.

Old Guy: Catholics? They're led. They don't even read the Bible.

It just got more depressing. When he dropped the Satan line, you could feel the fight go out of the Christians. Based on the way many of them read the Bible they're sort of obligated to believe in the old nefarious one, but it sure sounds bad in a discussion that is supposed to be about American politics and values. I can't vote for you because Satan will control your mind. Yeah, that sound perfectly reasonable. I'm sure the Catholics were thrilled to know that they're sheep, but he's not, too. It only takes two questiosn to divide a tribe against itself, it seems. Nice way to disguise your prejudices behind theology, and bad theology at that. 

I'm more troubled by the implications of the entire group rejecting a qualified atheist based on theological assumptions, though. What about belief uniquely qualifies someone to lead and disqualifies another? It's clear that this is a matter of preference and tribalism. None of them was truly comfortable with more than one degree of difference theologically. In other words, many could vote for a Jewish candidate because they've been taught the Jews are God's chosen people, and according to their theology, the Jews will all come around some day, so, hell, they're practically half-siblings. Muslims have to be included, but the Christians are uncomfortable with it. Once you leave behind the Big Three, they have no problem saying they won't vote for that kind of believer. 

When forced to explain why, they are typically at a loss. One student once offered that they needed to know the President was a praying person. Why? What could God possibly say to a President that any sane person wouldn't want verified? What decision should a President make that isn't first vetted by advisors, experts, the American public? What does God have to do with the Oval Office? It's so bizarre and unsettling that I find students react very negatively to the growing realization that their entire preference is a mere prejudice.

Secondary to that was a line the Old Guy used. He's African American, by the way, and that point is finally relevant here. He referred back to the Christian foundations of America. For a black man to make that statement shows the degree to which humans can hold two contradictory truths and even utter them with perfect comfort. That a nation founded with slavery written into its Constitution and built on the back of slave labor is somehow construed to be "Christian" by a descendant of those slaves is a complete categorical breakdown. The selective way Christian is defined to buttress his narrow position vis-a-vis POTUS qualifications would never work if those same Christians were once again discussing the Biblical warrants for race-based slavery. 

Next week we're looking at Pascal's wager. Here's hoping Satan doesn't control my mind during that discussion.


Moving Forward on a Lie, or The Mormon Moment

I learned yesterday in this excellent piece from Slate that The Book of Mormon exists in first edition form. That is stupefying. Imagine a first edition Tanakh or New Testament. Imagine how many questions could be answered about textual accuracy and canonicity. In the Mormon piece, the subject, a Mormon historian named Quinn, found six substantial changes in the text of The Book of Mormon between the first edition and the current edition. There were many more changes, but he believed six were critical in terms of Mormon theology. This is what makes the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints such a rare opportunity in the study of religion. They are a modern faith. Their origin, history, and documents are all available to us. Imagine if Jesus had lived a mere 150 years ago. Imagine the possibility that John, James, Peter, and Paul built the Church at the turn of the 20th century. That's what we're dealing with when we look at the history of Mormonism.

Quinn realized that the "revelation" Smith allegedly received was not as infallible as he had been led to believe. The text had been emended, and not with slight emendations. This is no surprise to someone outside the faith of Mormonism. Smith's laughably anachronistic references to the cultures of Meso-America and North America are well documented. What Quinn discovered in his quest for the truth, though, was that Mormon leadership didn't care if the origin of their sacred text didn't square with the official story. One member of the leadership even muses aloud that "truth is not always helpful." I agree with that sentiment in the narrow sense. If someone is fat, I don't need to point it out. The truth in that sense is not helpful. I think of it as the emphasis Buddhists put on right speech. All truth-telling is not right speech, so the Mormon leadership and I agree, sort of. 

Truth is very helpful, however, if I'm trying to decided whether a set of religious teachings and practices is based on truth or falsehood. The election in two days has brought about an amazing Mormon moment in the country. Evangelicals are rushing to embrace Romney, and because they cannot embrace a member of a "cult" as POTUS, they are quick to call Mormonism a legitimate faith. (In all honesty, some are being far more consistent and calling it a cult, including Franklin "I Make Shit Up and Sign My Dad's Name To It" Graham.) Exactly what constitutes a legitimate faith is a cipher. Of the world's many religions, the five we know the most about are Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. The first is practiced by relatively few believers, especially when compared to the other four, all of which have adherents in the billions. What we know about these five faiths is a matter of history, conjecture, mythology, half truths, legends, obfuscation, sanitized narratives, and occasionally, truly true stories. We don't have access to the records as we do with the history of Mormonism.

This is a crucial difference because it allows the veneer of legitimacy to adhere to ancient faiths, but faiths that are constructed in the modern age will be revealed to be the false belief systems they are. Except that Mormonism is one of the fastest growing faiths in the world. We know Joseph Smith's life story: con man, criminal, philanderer, etc. We know the sacred text has been changed. We know the convenience with which "new revelations" have allowed Mormonism to adapt to the changing American culture. Want to be a state? Well, all you need is God to reveal that polygamy isn't okay anymore. How do you feel about the Civil Rights Act and its subsequent impact on America's racial topography? Oh, really, your Church says what?! Um, never mind. New revelation in. We're now cool with black folks. Whew. We know the sacred text is riddled with so many errors that only the willfully deceived can believe it reports anything that could be called sacred history. We know nearly every falsehood associated with the growth of this faith, and yet no one who practices it seems to mind. Now people are prepared to vote for a man who believes in an utter falsehood  because they can't stand his opponent. I get it. Lesser of two evils and all that, but this goes to the heart of how we construct our lives around some kind of tangible truth.

Why shouldn't people be free to practice whatever faith they choose even if the faith seems silly, so long as it's not harmful? Agree. Agree. Agree. However, two points. Why the hell would someone want to align his life with a false system, by which I mean a system known to be false? The older faith systems may be false; I'm almost sure they are, but they are removed from our current context so much that proving their falseness is a virtual impossibility. They are widely thought to be reasonable articulations of metaphysical questions and answers. I think they're nonsense, but they have the benefit of being too old to fully deconstruct. However, with Mormonism, we have a fully deconstructed set of claims. They're not true. They don't add up. The history says Joseph Smith made it all up. In our lucid moments, we know this to be the case, but we're so polite about religion that we dare not say it for fear of offending someone. People are allowed to have their own faith. It's their right. Agreed, again. However, it's one thing to respond in faith to things that can't be known. Responding in faith to things known to be false is not faith; it's lunacy. 

Secondly, within the Christian tradition there is a notion that because the church grew and thrived following the death of Jesus, "something" must have happened. By "something" they mean resurrection, but they pretend to be objective by not mentioning the actual word. It's a semantic way of throwing up the hands and saying, "We're not calling it resurrection, but something happened." The notion has been popularized by C.S. Lewis and Josh McDowell, among others. N.T. Wright tried to give it a more scholarly treatment, but it still boiled down to Lewis's idea that the church could not have grown based on a lie. Paraphrasing, Lewis said that men will die for a lie if they don't know it's a lie, but no one will die for a lie they know to be a lie.

The history of Mormonism shows that not to be the case. Smith's followers knew who he was. They knew what he was. They witnessed it. Historians have shown us the falsity of his claims and his book, but early Mormons accepted martyrdom, believed the lie, and grew their church. They continue to grow the church, even in the face of "unhelpful truths." As we've learned with Mormonism, belief is way more complicated than just showing someone a truth or a lie. People believe what they want based on very complicated reasons, not just epistemological courage. In fact, it's more rare to find people who disbelieve things simply because those things aren't true. In fact, the more committed someone is to a system of belief, the more unlikely he believes contrary evidence, even if the evidence is irrefutable. 

What is distressing to me about this Mormon moment is that Americans are acting as if the truth doesn't matter. It shouldn't have surprised me, but it did. We can't always know the truth, but when we do, it might be a good idea to shape our lives around it, not around what we prefer to be true.


Billy Graham, John Shelby Spong, and the Politics of Sexuality

Billy Graham is opposed to gay marriage. Raise your hands if you're shocked. The man who did more to redefine "gospel" as an empty signifier is now 93, and not surprisingly, like most nonagenarians, he doesn't want gay people in North Carolina to be able to marry or have a civil union. He laments that we are having to define marriage when it's so clearly defined in the Bible (except that it's not). He encourages Christians to vote in favor of NC's anti-gay marriage amendment. He's not as bad as this guy (sorry, Baptist friends), but Graham probably still has enough influence left to influence the votes in his state. In reading through his comments and the comments following the story on some news sites, I was reminded of my recent conversation with retired Bishop John Shelby Spong.

For those of you who don't know, Spong is the former Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, NJ. He's been a longtime supporter of gay rights, as well as a prolific author. I interviewed him in conjunction with an appearance at a UCC church in Norman, OK, a few weeks ago. I'm going to type up my interview notes, focus on the issue of sexuality, and then comment at the end. 

"What do you consider your primary task as a speaker and a writer?

What I try to do all the time is help people get past the explanations of antiquity for what is an internal experience. The Bible uses first century language and concepts to explain the Jesus event. This is a people who also believed in demons, terracentrism, and knew nothing about how diseases were caused. I'm trying to help people separate the explanation from the experience, to translate the experience into the language of the 21st century.

How do you do this?

Education has created problems for people when it comes to the Bible. We can't literalize the text and explain it to people who are educated. They don't believe it. The text has to be explained outside of the model of the three-tiered universe. I'm sure people here in Oklahoma are used to a Sooner football player pointing upward to God after scoring against Texas. The idea is that God is up there. That doesn't work in a post-Copernican age. It also relies on a model of God, call it the manipulative God, that is very popular with people. We try to define God, which is very arrogant. I think we need to define our experience of God, not God, and that requires I admit I might be delusional. I don't know the experience is objectively real. I'm trying to understand the experience outside the context of the tribal deities of the past.

The God who sends plagues, stops the sun to allow his people to kill even more people, and who orders genocide cannot be identical with the god who said, "Love your enemy." In all fairness, it was the prophets of the Hebrew tradition who helped change the perspective on God. People have to be given a way to view the experience with an understanding that our perception causes us to view the world in different ways. We need to talk about God in terms of today's perception of reality.

How do we talk about it in those terms?

Even the language we speak causes us to frame the experience differently. Desmond Tutu pointed out that English assumes male and whiteness. It makes it very difficult to write inclusively, because, as Tutu said, as a black man, he can neve be "tickled pink." All god talk is highly subjective, and we have to admit that up front. It's hard to get people who believe there is an external, objective, revealed standard of ethics to listen, though. I've been to Oklahoma a few times. It's hard to find Christians there who aren't fundamentalist or influenced by fundamentalism. It's very difficult to talk to someone who begins with truth as this fixed, external reality.***

There is more, but I'll post is later. As you can see, most raw interviews rely on comments that are all over the place. When you got 10 minutes and a focused story, there is little time to fill in ancillary gaps. I asked him about the Catholic Church and the birth control/insurance debate that was raging at the time. A poll indicated that the overwhelming majority of American Catholics ignore the Church on this point of doctrine. His response: "I'm not surprised by the numbers. The disparity has been there for a long time. What strikes me is that the Roman Catholic Church is attempting to get the federal government to get their parishioners to follow the doctrines of the RCC."

That's money, folks. And now back to Graham and all the other people of faith (yeah, you Mormons, too) who are trying to do the exact same thing. It's insufficient for these folks to have their own faith-based beliefs about marriage and the freedom to marry as they choose. No, they need the government to help them codify into law their religious belief about marriage, denying fellow citizens the right to marry based on a religious assumption. The North Carolina bill is the worst yet, because it attacks the idea of civil unions, thereby revealing that this is not about religion at all. It's about political power, more specifically the desire of ideologues to shape the nation's politics in ways which comport with their preferences about what America should look like. If you don't believe their religious assumptions, these freedom-loving, American Christians will use the ballot box to enforce adherence, if not actual belief.


Editing the Godhead, or A Lesson for Young Writers

I started my writing career in the most bizarre of ways. I first sold a biker story to a now defunct biker magazine. I've never been on a Harley, but I do like boobs, and the story's ironic twist (kind of a pornified O. Henry conceit) centered on boobs and a snake tattoo. Yeah, glad that's off my chest... That was 1990. A year later, I sold a story about a homeless guy who organized a street church service to David C. Cook publishing because they thought it was non-fiction. Yes, it's often better to be lucky than good. I then struggled for years trying to get something else published. It was incredibly frustrating. This was due in large part to my penchant for preaching; I've always struggled with fiction because I tend to be more concrete than abstract, a fact that will surprise some of you, I'm sure.

I was also a Christian at the time, but had grown up on Mad and Cracked, so satire was one of my primary languages. I finally discovered The Door in the late 90s. Thanks in large part to Harry Potter and Left Behind, I was able to convince the editors that a piece called Harry Potter gets Left Behind was a brilliant idea. I wrote a dozen or so pieces for them before they folded.That was right about the time I started writing regularly for the Oklahoma Gazette. Journalism is a joyless form, necessarily so. I've been at it for nearly 10 years now, and I've often felt my brain lurch when I try to shift writing styles. This blog has helped keep me from becoming completely entrenched, but I do find the journalism world frustrating and rewarding in almost equal parts. 

This week is about frustration and resignation. I've written a few pieces over the years for the Gazette's satirical column Chicken Fried News. These are actual news stories with snark and satire added as commentary. I've had fun with churches giving away Harleys for Easter, SBC issues, and a host of other insanities. This last week was one of the best I've written. I just read the edited version that went to print. I never do this! Never. I shouldn't have, but I had to this time to be sure I wanted to link it on fb. They are non-byline pieces, and on many, the whole writing and editing staff contribute so that what is left is often better than when it started. Occasionally, it's worse.

Religion is hard to write about, especially satirically if you don't want to alienate everyone. Anyone can write satire that mocks believers, but the task, and it's one which The Door got right, is to satirize for the sake of redemption. In religious satire, as in blowjobs, the appropriate amount of teeth is crucial. I'm posting the piece as it appeared in the Gazette, followed by the original. You tell me what you think. I'm used to being edited. Any writer who thinks he is above editing is a beginner or an asshole. However, I don't like being defanged, and I think this is exactly what happened. Note: The reference to Mary Fallin is about a recent Lost Ogle story about our governor spending thousands in tax dollars to get her hot tub and pool temperatures correct.

Gazette:

In a move that’s sure to confuse almost everyone, the Oklahoma House last week approved a measure creating an official state motto. Authored by Rep. Danny Morgan, House Concurrent Resolution 1024 would make “Oklahoma — In God We Trust!” the official state motto. Morgan told The Christian Post that research and review of the Oklahoma Constitution revealed that the state has no motto. As to the “Labor Omnia Vincit” (Labor Conquers All) on the state seal, Morgan explained that was only in the Constitution as a description of the seal.

Although the U.S. and Florida both use the phrase, The Christian Post reported that the exclamation point and the state name makes the new motto totally legal. Morgan, a Democrat who is former mayor of Prague — home of the National Shrine of the Infant Jesus of Prague — said no church or religious group had supported or endorsed the proposal. Presumably, the measure has the endorsement of God. At least we trust that’s the case.

Original:

In a move that is sure to confuse almost everyone, the Oklahoma House of Representatives approved HCR 1024 in March. The resolution, authored by Rep. Danny Morgan (D-Prague), would make “Oklahoma -- In God We Trust!” the official state motto. 

Morgan gave The Christian Post an interview after the fact, wherein he informed the online publication that research and review of the Oklahoma Constitution revealed that Oklahoma has no motto. As to the “Labor Omnia Vincit” (Labor Conquers All) on the state seal, Morgan explained that was only in the constitution as a description of the seal. Clearly, then, it would seem the seal’s designers were only looking for a cool Latin phrase as opposed to an actual motto.

Although the United States and Florida both use the phrase, the Christian Post reported that our use of an exclamation point and the state name makes the new motto totally legal. That’s sure to be a relief to some, but what of all the gods that will be lining up to be the object of our trust?

Morgan, the former mayor of Prague, home of the National Shrine of the Infant Jesus of Prague, said no church or religious group had supported or endorsed the proposal. No word on whether that list includes the infant Jesus of Prague himself.

The truly good news is that now that God is getting a shout out from Oklahomans, it’s possible our governor can get her pool fixed gratis. We hear that Jesus guy is awesome around water.



Please Smoke Pot in the Name of Jesus, or The Fungibility of Biblical Authority

Yes, Pat Robertson is for the legalization of marijuana. He said it in a New York Times piece, and it was confirmed by his publicist for the Washington Post. There is no reason to take him seriously, but at least this time he's saying something sane. His reasons for being in favor of legalization have nothing to do with his desire to smoke it; rather, it's a pragmatic position based on the impact on the family and our nation's budget of the idiotic War on Drugs.

Robertson is better known as an erstwhile presidential candidate, jeremiad-spinning weather interpreter, and election predicter. (I guess it isn't really a prediction if God told him.) What is unique to this latest statement, though, is that it will likely cost him dearly in terms of viewers and support, assuming he has any of either left. What is "second verse, same as the first" about this is that yet another Christian celebrity feels very comfortable opining on what ought to be. Robertson's previous forays into Ezekiel-like fever dreams have been standard schlock among Pentecostal and Charismatic "prophets" since the days of David Wilkerson's The Vision: A Terrifying Prophecy of Doomsday that is Starting to Happen Now scared the shit out of this Pentecostal kid in 1977. I was unaware of Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth at the time, although it came out in 1970. I wasn't reading scary prophecy books when I was 6, but I sure as hell was at 13.  

Wilkerson's book wasn't particularly special, as there was nothing new about "interpreting the signs," but it did go farther than most inasmuch as he claimed to have a special revelation from God about what was to come. Most satisfied themselves with interpreting what had just happened—fire, flood, tornado, drought,etc.—only offering the occasional general prediction of more wrath to come. The Pentecostal movement produced a slew of Sister Sharon Falconers and Elmer Gantrys (Kathryn Kuhlman, Aimee Semple McPherson, Oral Roberts, William Branham, etc.), each equipped with some sort of tin cans and string contraption connecting them to God. The midwest has always been a perfect place to read weather signs, as tornados appear obediently every year like the fingers of Marduk scraping the sin off the Wheat Belt. 

I am probably too young to remember how political some of the sign reading was in those days. I'm sure some evangelist somewhere thought Goldwater or Humphrey was the antichrist. They certainly perceived the feminist movement as evil. The recent election cycle is likely to take sign reading to a new level. While Romney has largely stayed out of the faith wars (with good reason...Kolob, anyone?), Santorum has gone after Obama's "phony theology" with glee. When his speech at Ave Maria University in 2008 wherein he said, "Satan has his sights set on America," made the Drudge Report, Santorum quickly explained that the comments weren't relevant to this election. Um, of course not. That you believe in a diabolical creature with nearly unlimited power to thwart god's plan on the earth, and that you can interpret various political realities as part of Old Scratch's nefarious scheme to undermine America's virtue, and that you can do it while ignoring your own theological tradition simply to appeal to evangelical and fundamentalist voters has nothing to do with your fitness for the office of POTUS. Nope. Nothing at all.

I could toss in Mark Driscoll's freewheeling sexual exegetical method here, too, but that would be tedious. You get the point. The beauty of biblical authority is that it begins with a text that is assumed to be accurate. That sounds lovely. Here is the book; here is what it says; now we know the truth. Unfortunately, hermeneutics doesn't work that way. The words have to be interpreted as to what is actually meant. When an event occurs in the Bible, the immediate question is how to apply that to a current context. Is the passage descriptive, prescriptive, or proscriptive? Even if you assume the text to be accurate, which I typically don't, the true believer is left to answer the question of "is that something god does now?" If massacring an entire nation is a "god thing," why be opposed to genocide now? Does god no longer operate that way? Or are we just waiting for him to tell us which nation is next? And if he allegedly does, how will we test his words? What two or three witnesses will establish this as the kol YHWH?

Less inflammatory but still important, which ethical behaviors are important and how are they to be understood? Take "biblical marriage" for example. Santorum and the evangelicals he wants to reach use the term as if its meaning is clear. To substantiate the claim that biblical marriage is one man and one woman forever faithful, they cite Jesus and Genesis. How convenient. They ignore polygamy and concubinage. They even ignore Paul who will later say "husband of one wife," a passage that likely means polygamous Christians, not divorcees. When discussing war or capital punishment, they cite Genesis, Joshua, and Paul. Hmmm. Who is missing in that line-up? Oh yeah, the One who said "love your enemies."

Fungibility is the quality of exchangeability. If I can sub one Bible verse for another, then authority is established, because, well, it's still the Bible. Never mind that an exegetical and hermeneutical method ought to be consistent. Absent a consistent rubric, I'm free to interpret signs and passages as I see fit, which is to say, in concert with my own desires or preferences. Call it what you want, but I'm still going with idolatry, and I don't even practice the faith.


Black Robe Regiment, or Do Only Wizards and Patriots Wear Robes?

The Black Robe Regiment is growing in Oklahoma! When I first did a story on the group in summer 2009, there were only a few in the metro. Now, according to a story in the Oklahoman, the group has seven members. Seven. Truthfully, there are probably more, but I'm too lazy to look them up on the national database. If you've never heard of this group, it's probably because you don't attend a fundamentalist Baptist church, frequent Christian nation message boards, give a shit about Glen Beck and David Barton, or identify yourself as one of the other fringees who think every conservative is attempting to create a theocracy. 

The group believes they are resurrecting a practice of speaking about politics from the pulpit as pastors did in the lead-up to the Revolutionary War. The group is silly. Not Dr. Seuss silly—that shit is redemptive—but "this ought to be satire but it's real" silly. More on the Oklahoman article and the utterly awful reporting in a moment. For now, here's what Paul Blair, current candidate for state senate from Edmond, Okla., and senior pastor of Fairview Baptist Church, said in my article:

"...a great revival that began in the pulpits was responsible for the birth of this nation, (and) I believe that another revival is necessary for America to continue as a free country, governed by 'We the people,' where we have personal liberty and personal responsibility."

Huh? The revival led to the American Revolution and the founding of this country? See, I thought it was the thinking and writing of Locke, Paine, Jefferson, the Philosophes, and others who weren't, um, speaking from pulpits. It's the kind of revisionist history that sees God's activity behind every event, so that the actual causes of the Revolution become only proximate causes subsequent to God's will as ultimate cause. This is, of course, a Biblical position that goes all the way back to "go into the land and kill everything," but it's not terribly heartening in the context of a national political debate. It's not difficult to see how patriot pastors can read providential tea leaves to confer the imprimatur of God's will on the causes they most support. How then would we tell them God says otherwise? Who would be right? How could we know?

Speaking of patriot pastors, Carla Hinton, the "journalist" who wrote the Oklahoman piece, has always been a really bad reporter. Really bad. We go way back. We once had a discussion via email about how a lack of any cynical impulse makes her inadequate as a reporter. You can't report on anything, most especially religion and politics, if you believe everyone is telling you the truth. That seems axiomatic to the reporting job. Hinton sees herself as some sort of PR person for good religion, but in doing the job that way, she consistently misses the real story. For example, note the use of "biblical patriotism" in the lede. What the hell is biblical patriotism? Where does the concept patriotism occur in the Bible? Is the message of the gospel the promise of a moral nation on this earth, or the promise of a kingdom and city which cannot be shaken—surely metaphors for a nation of justice in "the world to come," not a Proverbial promise of shit running properly now as long as we "choose blessing and not cursing."

Alas, this isn't the worst of it. The group is responsible for the silliest ideas. First, how many preachers wore black robes in the 18th century? Wanna guess? Yeah, most. Ever see the pictures of Spurgeon in his black robe? Was he too a patriot pastor from his pulpit at Metropolitan Tabernacle in London? What of John Wesley in his black robe? Was he too a patriot pastor in the fields and mines of England, or when he worked with the Moravians? How little they knew of the real significance of their clerical garb! Clearly these pastors are so ensconced in a low church tradition that they see black robes as somehow more historically important than the minister's who actually wore them as part of an ecclesiastical tradition, irrespective of their being Tory or Whig.

Here's the silliest idea, though. They believe that they are somehow qualified to speak to these issues, and that their congregants want them to speak to these issues. They believe the first even as they listen to Glen Beck and David Barton twist history and distort the truth. They believe the second even though they've experienced the reality of losing congregants over pastoral hubris. They see this not as hubris, of course, but as the consequences of faithfulness. It's clearly hubris.

Scot McKnight asked John Fea, a real historian, to write on his blog back in September '10. I'll let you read it, but this quote, with which I'll close, stood out:

Historians concerned with the integrity of the past and the integrity of their work must also note that John Adams rejected the doctrine of the Trinity.  They should mention that George Washington deliberately avoided taking communion.  They must also tell the whole truth about the so-called “Black Regiment.” Most of these clergymen were blatantly anti-Catholic.  Others blurred Biblical teachings on freedom (from sin) with political teachings on freedom (from George III). These Christian America pundits tell just one side of the story because the so-called “rest of the story” does not suit their political needs in the present.

Mark Driscoll's Penis (Tangentially); or, Wherefore art Thou, Moral Authority?

With apologies to the great bard...

The task for half of my freshmen this past two weeks is to explain the system of moral authority in their lives. The question is fairly simple: are you what you do, what you believe, or a combination of the two? By what you do I mean actions in the world, not a job. For the record, I'm pretty sure there's not a great answer to this question, but the point of the question isn't to find the solution; it's to track the decision making process, including moral justification, when confronted with a moral dilemma.

I started thinking along this track when reading through Driscoll's sex freak book (real title Real Marriage). In it, Driscoll uses the Bible to help his penis, and yours if you're a boy, find its way around the female form: hands, mouth, vagina, and rectum. And if you think I'm being needlessly crude, read Driscoll on oral sex based on Song of Songs. Driscoll's discussion of dangling fruit reminds me of Patton Oswalt's G-Rated Filth (and that is not for the faint of heart, folks. watch only if extremely graphic language gets you aroused...er...doesn't offend you). Driscoll uses the Bible as a moral authority by which he assesses the rightness and wrongness of particular sex acts, which is quite frankly hysterical, given that he thinks it's ok to bugger his wife but not to spank his aforementioned penis, neither of which the Bible mentions. This is, of course, as I said in the previous post, an exegetical model based on personal preference. I'll go ahead and say it now; all exegetical models are based at least partly on personal preference. That Mark Driscoll is a psychotic narcissist only makes his percentage of personal preference higher than someone who at least attempts to be honest about the complexities of interpreting an ancient and often ambiguous (if not silent on an issue) text.

Moral authority is always complex at the conceptual level. When I ask students the question about how they decide what is right and wrong, inevitably they give the standard answers: parents, pastors, peers, God. The first is easiest to dispense with; most humans have willfully disobeyed parents when the desire outweighed the fear of reprisal, or when they simply stopped believing as parents did. In the first case, did they really believe what they were doing was wrong, or did what they want to do really constitute what they believed about the action? Parse at your leisure. Pastors and peers we can ignore for now, as the first is seldom really heard and the latter work more as justification or consolation than character formation. The real problem is God.

When people say God is their moral authority, I'm absolutely certain they don't understand what they're saying. First, God is not immediately available to talk to them, and as for those (like one student) who said a relationship with Jesus was key to understanding the Bible, I simply ask why you have so many denominations and traditions if that relationship steers you the right direction. It's simply a way of avoiding the dilemma. God is not your authority because God is not telling you what to do. A book is. The authority people believe is resident in God is mediated through a text, and that text must be interpreted; God, over against Elijah's assertions, is not readily available to answer questions. That leaves a community, or in most cases, an individual to ascertain which portions of the Bible function as moral authority. All this to say, if an individual is making the assessment about particular texts, then the locus of moral authority is the individual's conscience and desires, not God and not the text. The text may give shape to the parameters, but it certainly doesn't dictate particular choices. 

An example. If I read that a man may not lie with another man as with a woman, and I take it as a moral command, then I create an exegetical model that dictates that all such plainly worded commands must be interpreted consistently throughout the text. There is a problem, though. When I turn over to Matthew 5-7, Jesus gives many plainly worded commands (Don't resist an evil person.) that Christians plainly ignore. The calculus seems to be how difficult the command actually is to carry out. If I don't want to have sex with a man, then that command is easy and can easily be read literally. If a man has broken into my home, the second command becomes radically difficult and must therefore be parsed. The parsing happens inside my own complex assemblage of emotion, desire, preference, will, and honesty. My personal preference becomes the moral authority. Over against the one I call Lord, I make a decision that is contrary to what he says, and to do that, I must justify it in such a way that I'm allowed to remain part of the group called Christian. At this point, I point out (hypocritically) the competing verses in the text, especially the ones about violence, to justify my decision. Hypocritical because if challenged on other issues, I'm likely to insist there is no conflict; gays can't have gay sex. Period.

The further complicating factor is the issue of forgiveness. That I am able to make decisions that allegedly go against what I actually believe is largely a function of the practice of so-called repentance. I can believe premarital sex is wrong and still engage in it as long as I make a show of saying I'm sorry to God. This, of course, allows me to do whatever it is I actually desire to do while making a feeble nod to God with faint promises of "trying harder." Once again, my own preference is the moral authority since it is what gives shape to what I actually do. That Christians have watered down the ideals of forgiveness and repentance has in fact made it harder for them to make disciples, and it has contributed a great degree to the dualism inherent in modern evangelicalism.

An example. I said, "Let's say I do everything Jesus tells me to do. I feed the poor, clothe the naked, visit the prisoners, obey the commandmentes, sell my goods and donate to homeless shelters, live generously, forgive easily, love sacrficially, all because I'm crazy about this Jesus guy.  I then tell you I don't believe in God. Am I a Christian?" At this point it's clear that it's a trap. Whatever they've said previously about how important actions are, it's clear now that they will disqualify all my actions based on one "false" belief. This is the heart of the problem. Belief, functionally, is the determining factor in moral authority. As long as I believe it's the authority, it doesn't matter what I do; I believe the right things. (The soteriological dilemma should be obvious here, too.) My belief insulates me from the demands of ethics and allows me to remain part of the group even as I behave in ways that are contrary to what the group says is vital to group identity. 

Back to Driscoll. Reverend Sex Freak begins with a desire: I would like to insert my penis into my wife's x. I now need moral authority to do so. I parse the Bible. Oh, how convenient--here's a verse about a woman sitting in front of low hanging fruit (ironically, the description is an apt one of Real Marriage). Clearly God wants my wife to pleasure my fruit. Where the Bible is clearly silent, as if it wasn't on that issue, Driscoll finds authority in different places. That's all fine, except that this is hermeneutics in reverse. I start with my desires and then find their justification--metaphorical, implied, or explicit--in the text. This makes the text functionally worthless, and it's not just worthless for people who misuse it as egregiously as Driscoll. Without a consistent rubric to direct the exegetical process, how do you avoid exegesis based on personal preference? No one will believe you if you don't do the hard stuff, and they shouldn't. Even if you do though, how can I know that your rubric isn't arbitrary?


Reverend Sex Freak, or Why Mark Driscoll is a Sign of the Eschaton

The beginning of the end of my tenure as pastor probably began the day I invited two of my staff members to play the "whom would I have sex with" game at the end of a staff meeting. We took out the church roster and went through it name by name. It was hands-down the stupidest thing I ever did intentionally as a pastor. Some (all) bells cannot be unrung. You see, I was playing with two women, and we came to the point where we had to answer the question about each other. Yeah. Stupid, right? 

I offer that for two reasons. One, nearly everyone I know likes sex in some form, especially if porn and strip clubs are a form. Second, I'm about to criticize Mark Driscoll for being a complete freak. I made fun of him a while back for writing this:

Masturbation can be a form of homosexuality because it is a sexual act that does not involve a woman. If a man were to masturbate while engaged in other forms of sexual intimacy with his wife then he would not be doing so in a homosexual way. However, any man who does so without his wife in the room is bordering on homosexuality activity, particularly if he's watching himself in a mirror and being turned on by his own male body.

Not only is this one of the most idiotic things a pastor has ever said, it's potentially destructive in terms of young men internalizing this horseshit and the accompanying guilt. (For more on Driscoll as non sex expert, read the amazingly insightful take by Rachel Held Evans. For an equally good assessment on Driscoll as the real reason people are buying an otherwise ordinary book, read Susan Wise Bauer.) However, what struck me as the most obvious problem with the quote is the way Driscoll approaches sex. It occurs to me that if I'd been writing about whether or not masturbation is a gay sex act (clearly it's not), I would never have put that last qualifier in. Who the hell gets turned on by his own body? Who the hell masturbates in front of a mirror in order to get turned on by his own body? These are the ideas deep inside the murky, freaky mind of Reverend Driscoll, aka Reverend Sex Freak. No idea if the twitter account is available, but if you get it before I do, give me a brief shout out.

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I made the mistake of thinking that joking about sex with staff members would make me "more real" or would at least give me the opportunity to engage in some fantasies about one of them. Driscoll makes a similar mistake every day, it seems, but he's not learning from them. His arrogance is so huge right now that he conflates Biblical authority and his words in the intro to the book, encouraging readers not to ignore his "godly wisdom" in the form of an otherwise uninteresting piece of misogynistic nonsense. Bauer nails it in her assessment:

What Real Marriage has going for it, in the end, is the only thing it doesn't share with scores of other marriage books: Mark Driscoll. Driscoll has preached the book's content, he tells us, in "England, Ireland, Scotland, South Africa, Australia, India, and Turkey" and has talked personally to "hundreds of thousands of couples." The author's bio reminds us that he is "one of the world's most downloaded and quoted pastors." He pastors the "2nd most-innovative church in America." The hype in the press release isn't, ultimately, about Real Marriage; it's about Mark Driscoll.

The scandalous chapter 10, the one in which "real parishioners" are allowed to ask, "Hey, Pastor Mark, can we _______?" is where things get weird. First, let me say that if you're a grown up and are in a relationship with a consenting adult and you need to ask your pastor if you can bugger your wife, you might have bigger issues than sex will fix. Second, and Held Evans is so right about this, pastors are not sex experts. Third, trying to justify certain sex acts exegetically from a Hebrew text is so fucking weird and narcissistic that I can't wrap my head around why someone needs the Song of Songs to provide him the justification for liking a blow job. Know why people like 'em, Mark? 'Cause they feel good when done right. Absent the ability to find "thou shalt not suck pole" in Leviticus, a grown up should feel content being sucker or suckee if both are consenting. Pretty sure your concept of god doesn't really care who gets a hummer as long as no one gets hurt.

What's even more bizarre about this book is not our fascination with sex, and yes, people in church like sex too, even those who say they don't; the most "shaking my head not believing this shit" issue with the book is that Driscoll thinks he's qualified to write it. "Hey, I'm Mark Driscoll. I fucked my wife. Wanna read about it? What's that? Doggie style? Hell yeah, bro. Nailed it!" He's a frat boy in charge of one of the largest churches in the world, and he's so drunk on his own celebrity that he regularly excoriates other Christians for being too effeminate or too weak or too female. He has become the authority behind the exegesis in Mars Hill church and in the thousands of Mars Hill clones springing up everywhere that are pastored by equally grating erstwhile frat boys who can't believe God will only let them fuck one woman for the rest of their lives. Well, if that's the case, she might as well be my flexible gumby whore. I'll need some biblical justification for the anal, but hey, I am a man. This would be high satire if people weren't taking this freak seriously.

The problem with Driscoll is that his exegesis is based on Driscoll. It's the ultimate reading the Bible through the lens of my desires and preferences, and he's just smart enough not to see it but to sell others on it not being the case. Driscoll has become a sucking black hole of narcissism and in an irony of comedic proportion the men around him have been brow-beaten into submission by the man they're all afraid will call them fags or women. This is Christianity post-reasonableness with a big dose of machismo, celebrity worship, pop sex psychology, and misogyny. This is what happens when all those pro-male verses are read literally and then added to the aggressive nature of Western male misogynistic sex fantasies. I used to think megachurches were destroying the church; now I'm pretty sure it's the egos behind the megachurches that are doing the most damage, and in all Christendom the spirit of discernment is getting the shit kicked out of it MMA style.