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.


When is a Muslim not a Muslim, or Atheists Can be Dicks, Too

Co-published with Literati Press.

For those who prefer a particular narrative about what constitutes Islam, any reasonable words about the attack on Charlie Hebdo will be met with adamantine cynicism. For them, Islam is and has been a religion of violence. In spite of the widespread condemnation of the attack from Muslim leaders around the world, including the imam of the Great Mosque of Paris, they will aver that only a fool believes the claims of so-called peace-loving Muslims.

This group includes men and women who ought to know better, who have in fact spent much of their time fighting exactly the kind of irrationality generated by religious movements. Just one example among thousands ought to suffice. David Silverman, the president of American Atheists and (ironically) the chair of the Reason Rally, tweeted this amazing non sequitur today:

@MrAtheistPants: If you call yourself a Muslim, you legitimize all parts of Islam, including the terrorists.

Thinking like this would garner an F in nearly any logic class in the world, but in the superheated matrix of anger and confusion in the wake of the massacre, critical thinking is not considered a virtue. Simple counterexamples abound: If you call yourself a proud German, you legitimize all parts of German history, including the Holocaust. The form of the argument is so stupid, it is difficult to believe that an otherwise intelligent human adopted it, and that he did so with a hashtag #TrueStatement only compounds his unwillingness to think through what is actually being said.

The campaign against Islam from high profile celebrities like Bill Maher and Sam Harris has been all over the news recently, and even the brilliant and compelling Reza Aslan failed to crack Maher’s ignorance of the basic tenets of Islam. [1]  Maher, usually a champion of critical thinking, fails his own test of who should be able to speak about a subject: only the informed. He knows nothing of Islam beyond what is presented by violent factions of Islamists, and he seems not to know the difference between Islam and Islamism.

Isms are helpful when talking about religion because the suffix separates the actual religion from ideologies that use the religion to legitimize their agendas, as is the case with groups like Al Qaeda, ISIS, the Ku Klux Klan, Church of the Creator, Boko Haram, and other racist, reactionary, nationalist, or political extremists. When teaching classes on religion, I insist students know the difference between what Islam teaches and what Islamism teaches, just as they should know the difference between a Christian and an abortion clinic bomber (Christianist).

This is not to say that there are no legitimate concerns with Islam’s global growth, particularly in the areas of free speech, treatment and education of women, separation of church and state, and several other issues, but Islam has a long tradition of talking about these things with frank openness. It was Islamic scholars, after all, who preserved the manuscripts of Greek philosophy while the Catholic Church was destroying them, most notably when Crusaders burned the library at Constantinople in 1204 c.e.[2] The number of cultural treasures lost in that orgy of violence is incalculable. There would have been no Plato for Ficino to translate were it not for Muslim scholars. In fact, the contributions of Averroes and Avicenna to Aristotelian and Neoplatonic studies helped shape Western philosophy.

Discussing the development of Islam as if Al Qaeda is the inevitable evolution of Islamic political theory and without a proper understanding of the history of Islamic thought shows a still-extant colonialist mentality among white Westerners. Bill Maher knows less about Islam than he does about Christianity (not much), but it does not stop him from discussing it from a position of “expertise.” If this isn’t intellectual colonialism, I don’t know what it is.

One of the issues that journalists are concerned about is the support for free speech in Islam, but here, too, there is a lack of understanding. Shi’a Islam has no history of iconoclasm. Images of the Prophet abound in the Shi’a tradition. Sunni Islam has not always been hostile to depictions of the Prophet and his Companions either. The traditions have changed, and they will likely change again. There is more than one Hadith tradition in modern Islam.[3]

Islam is more than 500 years younger than Christianity. Year one on the Islamic calendar is 622 c.e. on our calendar, the year of Muhammad’s flight to Medina, the Hijra (flight). Five hundred years ago, Catholics and Protestants were busy killing each other all over Europe, and the Inquisition was already hundreds of years old.

Additionally, Muslims are painfully aware of how some of the constraints imposed upon them by the Ulama (a group of scholars who interpret the Hadith and Sharia) have kept them in a premodern phase of development. This, too, is likely to change. Islam in America holds great promise for the modernization of Islam. Alan Wolfe, the brilliant professor of religion at Boston College, noted in his wonderful book “The Transformation of American Religion,” that no religion comes to our country without being fundamentally changed. The forces of individualism, materialism, and consumerism create a tremendous pressure to conform to what the market demands. Christianity has clearly gone down that road. Islam will follow. The tradition of free speech in this country and the idea that “everyone has a right to her own opinion” will ultimately transform any faith that seeks to impose in absolutist fashion demands contrary to what Americans truly want.

In the meantime, Muslims who truly practice what their founding Prophet envisioned will have to work hard to fight the tendency of outsiders to define the parameters of what constitutes Islam, and they will have to identify those in their midst who seek to create an -ism of their faith, especially those who would use violence. Allowing lunatics to self-identify[4] as Muslim or Christian or Buddhist, etc., will only allow extremists and murderers to borrow their justification for violence from ancient faiths that were founded by people who envisioned a better world. I don’t practice any faith, but I am averse to allowing ignorant people, be they theist or atheist, to define the world’s great religions in self-serving or politically motivated ways. I have friends in those faiths, and they do not look like the murderers who attacked the great tradition of freedom of the press yesterday.

[1] The first thing Americans ought to do is read Reza Aslan’s excellent, readable history of the development of Islam, “No God but God.”

[2] c.e. = Common Era and b.c.e. = Before Common Era. These are the new designations preferred by scholars of various and no faiths who wish to designate a date without reference to “the year of our Lord” or making claims about whether or not Jesus was the Christ.

[3] The Hadith was originally to be a collection of the deeds and sayings of Prophet Muhammad, but as Aslan has effectively shown, the various Hadiths morphed into complex layers of justification for teachings contrary to the Qur’an, including the prohibition against images of the Prophet. There is no sura (chapter) in the Qur’an that prescribes iconoclasm beyond the reiteration of no images of Allah, similar to the Hebrew prohibition in the First (Catholic) or Second (Protestant) Commandment.

[4] The tendency as Americans to let people self-identify is a terrible idea. That is for another column, though.

 

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.


Pontius Pilate the Republican, or Why Mr. Obama Needs to Ignore the Bible

During his speech on immigration, President Obama referenced the Bible, and in doing so, he sounded like someone stammering through a foreign language with which he was only rudimentarily familiar. Always beware speeches that reference the King James text unless you are in a fundamentalist Baptist church. Speechwriters go for eloquence, and the KJV offers that in a Shakespearean sort of way, but it also gives away that the speaker is not familiar enough with the text to either paraphrase or use a modern version.

The verse the President cited was Exodus 23:9. He said, “Scripture tells us, we ‘shall not oppress a stranger, for [we] know the heart of a stranger.’ We were strangers once, too.” He paraphrased that last part. The text actually says, “…you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” In other words, the Jewish text reminds Israel to show empathy based on their own history; it does not articulate the underpinning of a public policy on immigration.

Just because a verse references something similar to what is at issue does not mean the text is meant to address that modern issue. In fact, it is far more likely that the text has nothing to do with the modern issue, as the Pentateuch, of which Exodus is a part, was likely finalized in the 6th century BCE. Even if that time frame is incorrect, theological conservatives argue that it was finalized much earlier, as if having a text written in the Bronze Age rather than the Iron Age makes it somehow more reliable for modern discussions of ethics and policy.

Briefly, the larger issue is why anyone needs to apply the Biblical text to political discussions in America today, since it can offer almost nothing substantive based on our current politics and context. It was written for different times and cultures, and however much conservatives may wish to believe it is timeless in its application, the text was not meant to apply to political issues in a 21st century democracy (of sorts). The issue of immigration needs to be resolved by a rational discussion of economics, human rights, and, as Obama mentioned in his speech, pragmatics.

Appeals to the Biblical text to solve this dispute are most often made by progressives, especially Jim Wallis of the evangelical-but-moderate organization Sojourners. The error, when made from the just left of center, is just as theoretically wrong-headed as when it is made from the far right of center. Absent a god who can be troubled to show up and tell us what He really thinks, we only take theists at their word about “thus sayeth the Lord”.

In fact, political conservatives likely want god out of this discussion, because most of the New Testament ethos is going to militate against the conservative position. It militates against almost all conservative positions, but conservatives only need Jesus to save them, not tell them how to live. They will likely cite Romans 13 about obeying the “law of the land,” but we should remember that they have supported deposing autocrats, torture, rendition, assassination, segregation, and the separation of families in the name of law and order, and in the case of wars, in direct violation of the laws of other lands we have invaded. Law, it seems, is more contextual than conservatives wish to admit.

In the case of immigration, they are ignoring Paul, who is normally the darling of the Right. I have no idea if Paul was the first to propound this idea, but his version is the best known: the spirit of the law matters far more than the letter of the law. It is possible to obey or enforce the letter of the law and miss the intent behind the law. Immigration provides a rich opportunity for conservatives to insist their more base emotions are really just respect for the law. They are not subtle (or overt) racists; they are law-abiding citizens. They are not xenophobes; they are Americans who want to protect the American way of life (whatever the hell that means). They are not beneficiaries of white privilege; they are champions of justice in the form of “get in line,” as if they ever stood in a seven, fifteen, or twenty-five year line.

More than anything else in this discussion, the ignorance of all sides about the causes of this crisis is distressing. Illegal immigration has not always been a problem on this scale. The Pew Center reported that illegal immigration was at about 130,000 per year throughout the 80′s, increasing to nearly half a million per year in the early 90s, and finally stabilizing at three-quarters of a million to one million per year following 1995. The North American Free Trade Agreement was signed in 1994, but that is surely just a coincidence. The crazy little Texan Ross Perot warned Americans that NAFTA would be bad for manufacturing, but nobody told Mexico and Latin America that, following decades of intentional destabilization by the U.S. (CIA, drug interdiction, support for fascists, assassinations, etc.), their countries’ economies would be eviscerated and their assets made available to greedy multinational corporations. That was just another unhappy side effect, and one that accelerated the rate of illegal immigration, or if you lived in those countries, necessary emigration in order to survive. I will be expanding into this failed immigration policy in a future post.

Americans, especially conservatives, wash their hands of the whole affair–and isn’t it odd how they increasingly take on the guise of all the Bible’s villains–and think the brown people just want to come to the “greatest country on earth.” I have often lamented the loss of Mr. Vonnegut. Were he here today, he could surely make of this a wonderful story line. After all, it’s rare that life parodies itself quite so effortlessly. Immigration reveals that all American politics has the form of satire, but the redemption normally provided by satire is absent, as is the self-awareness offered by the mirror held aloft by the humorist.

Co-published with Literati Press.


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?


Christian Terrorists and the Assault on Islam, or When is a Muslim not a Muslim?

We had a beheading in Oklahoma. I am tempted to repeat that, because beheadings on Game of Thrones make perfect sense, and beheadings in countries thousands of miles from us have the feel of irrelevance in terms of our day to day lives, unless our loved one is serving in one of those countries, but even then, it's a distant echo of a fear compared to what people living in proximity to groups like ISIS must feel.

Our beheading was at a food distribution center in Moore, as if Moore hasn't had quite enough tragedy in the past few years. Alton Nolen, the murderer in question, was a recently-fired employee of the center, and he attacked two women. His brief rampage was cut short by an off-duty deputy who shot him.

Had this been a typical act of workplace violence (and how awful that the phrase is in our lexicon), people outside of Oklahoma would likely not have heard about it, as mass killings involving less than a half dozen victims rarely earn more than a cursory mention on national news anymore. A beheading, however, especially given the current international context, meant that it would absolutely make the news everywhere.

Nolen, it seems, recently converted to Islam, according to coworkers and his Facebook account, but the Muslim community in Oklahoma City was blissfully unaware of the newest member of their extended flock, and for good reason. Since the news was released that Nolen, who was released from prison in 2013, converted, locals assumed the beheading was related to Islam, and so when the FBI ruled the horrific murder an act of workplace violence and not a hate crime or domestic terrorism, conservatives howled about conspiracies and liberals and political correctness. Accuracy is always less important than ideology to a certain segment of American news consumers.

I would quote a few, select examples from local news sites, but I have found that reading comments on news websites makes me despair for humanity's future even as it encourages my desire to head up the American Committee on Eugenics. Never has a public square been more relentlessly and willfully ignorant. Truth is suffocating on the Internet from the crush of screeds and stupidity.

I would like to advance an idea that I have written about before and talked about at length with students. Unfortunately, Americans are enculturated in ways and in favor of presuppositions that make them resistant to this idea. Self-determination is built into the mythos of America, and while I am typically a proponent of the idea of letting fellow humans self-identify as to their metaphysical allegiances, we have reached a point both in this country and internationally where that is no longer a reasonable idea.

In other words, just because you call yourself something, it does not mean you are that thing. As a journalist, this is a difficult doctrine to sell, as we are supposed to report not judge, but journalists occasionally need to judge. As Americans, we are resistant to the idea of judging others' religious identification, so much so that a specific mantra is well-known and frequently invoked: "That's between her and God." Ah, yes, as if God is a ready witness in times of confusion.

Alas, gods are not available to verify your self-identification, thus the fourth commandment for Jews and Christians: you shall not take the Lord's name in vain. I know your mom told you that meant don't say, "Goddamn," or use "Jesus" like a swear word, but really, she was wrong about that. It means not to do things in the name of God that are contrary to the character of God, like underpay hookers, fail to tip your server, or behead people.

And so to the issue at hand—Mr. Nolen, the erstwhile Christian and convict turned Muslim, of a sort. Should he be allowed to call himself a Muslim, and should his act of unbelievable savagery be credited to his nascent Muslim faith? ISIS is beheading journalists much like Al Qaeda beheaded journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002. Somehow, beheading has become associated with "Muslim terrorists" or "militant Islam." Therefore, it makes perfect sense that Nolen, who recently converted to Islam, was only engaging in terrorist behavior based on his Islamic faith when he beheaded his victim, a woman he apparently did not know, but who was unfortunate enough to be near the front of the building. Nothing says "jihad" like random victims, because, really, how else do you advance the cause of your God but by choosing people who have done nothing to offend your or your God?

A pretty good analogy that compares Christianity to Islam in terms of a heinous crime would be sexual crimes versus beheading. The Catholic Church is deeply embroiled in a child sex abuse scandal. While there may be the occasional person who associates the priesthood with molesting children, there is only the rare, deranged cynic who assumes all Christians are child abusers, or that child rape is endemic to Christianity, this in spite of the remarkable numbers of pastors, priests, youth pastors, camp counselors, etc., who regularly abuse children and teens.

And what of Dennis Rader, the BTK killer, who tortured and murdered ten people, all while being a member in good standing of a Lutheran Church? Is he typical of Christianity? An absolute giveaway that people aren't practicing Christianity is the judging of one's tribe by one standard while judging an opposing tribe by a different standard. Please recall Silly Jesus and his words in Matthew 7: you will be judged with whatever measure you use to judge. If Muslims are guilty because a lunatic beheads a woman and calls himself Muslim, then Christians are guilty because a pervert molests a child while calling himself priest, or a psychopath tortures and kills people while calling himself a Lutheran. (I need not even mention Eric Rudolph.)

We are at the point where people need to demonstrate their affiliation with a faith. For Muslims, submission to Allah, which means not killing innocent people, and in the case of ISIS, not killing fellow Muslims. For Christians, loving their enemies, including their real enemies, and I'm pretty sure that love precludes using drones to bomb remote locations. There is a longer list, but you get the point. Self-identification is no longer tenable. It only confuses the categories and makes faith impossible to define.

I'm willing to let faiths define their core principles, but I insist that practitioners abide by them in order to identify as that tribe, not interpret verses in such a way that they betray their core principles. If you want to be a pragmatist, by all means, be a pragmatist, but please stop hijacking gods' voices to substantiate your pragmatism.

As for the terrorism angle. The Cleveland Count District Attorney made the announcement yesterday that there are no Oklahoma statutes specifically addressing terrorism. Other than the Murrah bombing, we haven't had an act of terrorism in this state within my lifetime, unless you count racial violence, which white conservatives are terribly reluctant to do. Remember when they insisted we didn't need hate crime legislation because "there are already statutes on the books to address assault and murder." That sounds strangely familiar, except they aren't saying that this time. They are insisting that this horrific murder be treated as an act of domestic terrorism.

Why? It is impossible to avoid the obvious issues here: he is African American and a recent convert to Islam. In Oklahoma, it is safe to assume that a white male who recently converted to Christianity and subsequently murdered someone while singing Lord, I Lift Your Name on High would be treated as an insane person, not a Christian terrorist. I cannot imagine a single evangelical or fundamentalist in this state even putting the two words together, but they do it very cavalierly for Muslim terrorist and see no disconnect.

This is largely because the presence of a so-called Muslim terrorist in Oklahoma, even a homegrown one who had converted, would validate a fear-based, political worldview that many conservatives espouse, and quite likely, really believe. This is not to say that they wanted this to happen, only to point out that a terrorist who is also Muslim in the heartland gives a face to all the non-specific fears, xenophobia, and latent racism contained in the anti-Obama narratives that still have currency in many sectors of conservatism, including in a state as deeply rooted in civil religion as Oklahoma. They need Nolen to be a terrorist because that would substantiate their "be afraid, be very afraid" mentality, while also providing material for the "Obama cannot keep us safe" narrative. They also need Nolen to be a terrorist because it reinforces their prejudice against a faith they have not even tried to understand, but one they have allowed the most egregiously dishonest of faux journalists to define, not the actual practitioners of the faith. Say what you want about the American tendency toward fair-mindedness, but it's in a PVS in the American Right.

That a Christian cannot be a terrorist in their minds but a Muslim can is a by-product of their misunderstanding (to be generous) or misrepresentation (to be less generous) of Islam. Also, it's a function of allowing people, even the most deranged and murderous among us, to self-identify with no regard to what the sacred texts and doctrines actually say. Calling the beheading an act of religious terrorism does as much disservice to a billion peaceful Muslims as calling Christianity a religion of child rape does to the two billion Christians (by their own self-identification) worldwide.


When Satan Comes Sweeping Down the Plains, or Of Bread and Satanists

If the Satanist group that rented out a small theater at the Civic Center in Oklahoma City for a black mass recently is an indication of how pernicious evil is when it has a real face, we are all going to be just fine. To call it buffoonery might be a bit judgmental, but I am not sure what else to call a grown man in robes "casting out the Holy Spirit" in a "reverse exorcism." That hundreds of Christians arrayed in near-military looking ranks in front of the Civic Center to protest this melodramatic, low-comedy expression of one man's narcissism and anti-social personality disorder only shows that the conservative American church can't tell the difference between a bad Vincent Price impersonation and real evil.

First for the happenings inside, and then to the more interesting story outside. The press was herded into a foyer on the north side of the Civic Center. The entrance was where ticketed guests would enter when the doors opened, which is only a metaphor, as the only cop in the foyer insisted that the doors stay closed unless someone approached said doors. "All we need is one crazy to crash the doors, and we're all screwed," he said, clearly repeating lines from  his screen test for "tall, white, cop-looking guy" in season nine of Criminal Minds.

The traditional velvet rope was set up to stop us from wandering down the hall to see the theater prior to the arrival of Ahriman. So, quick side note here. The Satanist group that performed (officiated? held? presented? sponsored?) the rituals that night used Zoroastrian language. Go easy on yourself if you don't know much about it, but if you are a preacher, pastor, reverend, etc., do not go easy on yourself.

The modern concepts of hell and heaven are deeply indebted to the sixth century BCE version of Zoroastrian cosmogony. Zoroaster, a Persian prophet who influenced the Hebrew captives in Babylon after the Persian conquest, preached of a dualistic universe created by the good god Ahura Mazda, who was opposed by the evil demigod Ahriman, also known as Angra Mainyu. Jewish theology had no concept of heaven and hell prior to the Babylonian captivity, but the doctrines are adopted and integrated over the centuries between 539 BCE and the life of Jesus in the first four decades of the first century CE, thanks to Zoroaster.

All that to say that Adam Daniels, the leader (Dastur, according to his preference) of the Satanists, knows far more about the origins of "satan" than the Christians who were arrayed out front, and it is Ahriman he allegedly serves. Odd as it may sound, it's almost a complete waste of words to describe the rituals. Snippets can be found online to sate curiosity, but suffice it to say it was the sum of combining a desire to be blasphemous and contrary with a too-serious self-image and a bizarre respect for theatrical, religious language, costumes, and gestures.

If you have not seen the Nicholas Cage film 8mm, I recommend avoiding it, based on the axiom that what is seen cannot be unseen (barring amnesia), but there is a helpful scene near the end in which Cage finally confronts the man who has murdered a young woman as part of a snuff film. When the killer is unmasked, he looks like one of those fat, cherubic kids whose lives in middle school are a living hell, but he confronts Cage in a way that makes perfect, horrible sense: Did you expect a monster? His version of evil is real because it's visited on the innocent, and it has a this-worldly manifestation that is unavoidable.

Daniels could play that role, easily. But his form of evil is banal, not because he is incapable of evil, but because he worships yet another deity or demigod, but his version is maltheistic instead of whitebread theism. His god is evil, but still personal, still accessible, and still active in the world—if you believe the mythology. Which is to say, it's yet another god whose existence cannot be demonstrated and whose story stretches credulity.

One ritual genuinely involved casting out the Holy Spirit. The recipient of this "ministry" was a former Catholic. Apparently the Satanists don't understand Catholic theology all that well. Only someone who was raised in some Evangelical tradition that preaches "once saved, always saved" could believe that the Holy Spirit abides in apostates, but only a fool or a drunk or a grad student argues pneumatology with a Satanist. The other ritual was the much-billed Black Mass, basically, a blasphemous version of the Catholic Mass.

Originally, the finale was to involve stomping on a consecrated host, the wafer consumed by Catholics as part of the Eucharist, what Protestants call the Lord's Supper or communion. A consecrated version means that the wafer had already been blessed and was ready for Mass, and, according to the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, would become the actual body of Jesus at the appropriate time during the Mass. The implications of that for a Black Mass should be obvious.

Daniels managed to obtain a consecrated host through unknown means: stolen, contributed, delivered by an agent of Ahriman, or created in a clever fabrication. That the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City pursued legal remedies is a strong indication that it was a real, consecrated host. An Oklahoma judge ultimately ruled that Daniels had to return the host, and, as he told me in a phone interview, "I said, 'Fine. You can have your cracker back.'"

Losing the consecrated host meant that the Black Mass was less blasphemous, as the bread trod upon at the end of the ceremony was not the actual body of the Christ Pantokrator, but in a very non-metaphorical sense was bread, not John 6:35 bread, which is also a metaphor, unless you are Catholic, but real "you can eat it and not go to hell" bread.

Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian philosopher, has written at length about phrases like this taken to their linguistic/logical conclusion causing "irruptions of the real," which is a moment when the lexical meaning of the term is forced into the real world and shown to be absurd. This is clearly an example of that because we are talking about bread, not magic bread or Hansel and Gretel bread, just bread. The Catholics are uncharacteristically literalists on this point, as they manage to use the Magisterium to excuse every other non-literal interpretation of Jesus' words in the corpus of Catholic doctrine and dogma.

What all the good, Christian folk arrayed out front were saying by their presence and prayers and songs and sermons was that stomping on bread is a way of summoning evil. I realize that is a bit atomistic, but this is a case of metaphysical differences creating tribes. For people like me for whom the devil is childish nonsense or a poor externalization of mythical, Jungian archetypes, we are talking about portly Vincent Price trampling bread. For others, that tribe of theists who believe the world is magical, or at least believe that myths are referentially true stories, also called histories, the buffoon was summoning the actual devil.

Theism can exist quite nicely without a personification of evil. In fact, humans seem all too capable of hurting each other without inspiration from a smooth-talking, Miltonian fallen angel to guide our perversities. I left the ministry and the faith in 2006; I stopped believing in the devil a half dozen years before that. The concept is unnecessary and answers nothing. The entirety of Genesis 3 makes more sense as a mythological explanation (etiology) for the loss of innocence in a psychological sense, expressed as a universal reality, than as a talking snake (the devil) tempting primordial humans to forsake YHWH. In other words, Satanists have less credibility than Christians, Jews, or Muslims, primarily because the Satanists' god is superfluous. Everything he does, we do without his assistance, and without his love of verbosity.

Yet, there were 400-500 people gathered outside the Civic Center that evening, and all were convinced that portly Vincent Price was summoning God's principal enemy, as if free will needs a competitor in that regard. Milton's Lucifer was correct about at least one thing: God is a dictator, and the quest for free will runs contrary to ethical monotheism. The Christians—I saw no other tribe—were arrayed out front of the Civic Center, which faces east, in clans or families within the larger tribe.

Catholics were a full sixty percent of the crowd, including a group of approximately 300 members of TFP, a group that needs a bit of an introduction. The group was founded in Brazil in 1960 by Plinio Correa de Oliveira. The abbreviation stands for Tradition, Family, and Property, or, as I prefer to call it, the Holy Trinity of Missing the Point. You will spend many hours scouring the New Testament for Jesus' teachings on personal property. You will find a brief reference like this: "The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head..." Don't let that trouble you, though. Jesus was definitely a fan of John Locke, because he foreknew Locke's idea of life, liberty, and property, which was changed in our Constitution to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

TFP is the group that got the Black Mass canceled at Harvard, and so they bussed 300 of the faithful here to prevent the Oklahoma City version, even as our beloved governor, just like a broken clock, was right this time when she refused to stop the event, even though she tried to find a "legal" way to stop it. Let's be clear: conservatives are way more concerned about tradition than they are about law. However, the Black Mass went forward, even with 300 TFP members out front, dressed conservatively and sporting red sashes with a gold lion pin emblematic of, as one idealistic teenager told me, "Our Lord, the Lion of Judah." Jesus, it seems, is always available for protests, lawn parties, and political campaigns; one only needs the name to invoke the power, prestige, or theological justification for a claim that can be conveniently tied to an all too agreeable Savior. Perhaps in his zeal to save us all, he can't say no?

To their credit, the Catholics were occupied singing hymns or praying the Rosary. They did have a dizzying display of signage, including pleas to return America to "one nation under God," and they were singing God Bless America when I arrived (not a hymn, alas), so their agenda was clearly religious in the sense of civil religion, but, again, to their credit, they were the best behaved tribe of Christians on the east side of the Civic Center, an area that is a large plaza, composed of sidewalks, benches, public art, and occasional covered areas, and toward which the entrance faces. In other words, if you walk out the east side of the Civic Center, you are facing downtown Oklahoma City, and on this day, representatives of "the Lord's Army," arrayed, squadron-style, in denominations and traditions.

To quote Jay Kelly, the plaza was a Tilt-a-Whirl and an Indian taco stand away from being the State Fair of Religion. That's a fair assessment. The plaza was a rallying point for many different squadrons of the Lord's Army. Catholics made up at least sixty percent of the crowd, but other groups were noticeable for their volume (voice, not number).

I talked to an Apostolic minister from Sapulpa, Okla., who divided his time preaching hellfire for those who cooperated with Satan and speaking (yelling) in tongues. His name was Albert, and after I coaxed him down from his park bench-soapbox-pulpit, he was soft-spoken and kind. He was there to explain the error of the Satanists' ways; he simply thought loud and histrionic was more effective than kind and gentle. He immediately started yelling his sermon as soon as we stopped the interview.

A group of young, African American men, sporting combat boots and dressed in purple and gold vestments emblazoned with "Israel United in Christ," held down the southwest corner of the plaza, and posed back to back, as if they were fighting a last stand, a la Thermopylae, while they shouted Bible verses, the gist of which was that Jesus came to redeem Israel. Israel, according to their understanding and proclamation, was composed of people of color, I assume. Of course. History be damned. Real Jews are black. Everyone knows that.

A Pentecostal congregation squatted on the northwest corner of the plaza. Their pastor preached and prayed in a Thulsa Doom-worthy voice about the fate of Satanists and all who cooperated with Satan. The congregation, variously sitting, kneeling, and standing with hands raised, prayed in English and "tongues of angels."

They were perched next to the TFP Catholics who composed the middle of the phalanx, if we are to extend the military metaphor. Behind the phalanx were various other sub-tribes, including independent fundamentalists and evangelicals. Even farther back were singles and couples who were praying quietly in out-of-the-way places, much like Jesus would have commended, it seems.

Two circumstances made the night more remarkable than it would have been otherwise. The first was a growing realization amongst the fundamentalists that the majority of the protesters were Catholic. The fundamentalists had been directing their invective at the Satanists for most of the evening. A few intrepid evangelists camped at the edge of the police line on the north side of the building—the cops blocked the north street to allow press and Satanists to enter unmolested. The evangelists had bullhorns, and they used them to direct a constant flow of sermon, prayer, and mockery at the Satanists on the north side of the building. In fact, most of the group gathered on that side was composed of a metal band that Daniels had booked for the show and then subsequently ignored, even as the band pleaded for a brief audience with the Vicar of Ahriman.

The bullhorns broadcasted the evangelists' displeasure with the blasphemers in various ways, including, "Shame on you for sneaking in the back door! You hide from the truth! Cowards!" The police and staff at the Civic Center had developed the logistics to avoid a confrontation, but the fundamentalist ministers were not going to let reality impinge on their sermons, and yes, this is only one instantiation of that pattern. Once the bullhorn bearers realized that their words were wasted, they found a new target: Catholics.

Yes, the fundamentalists posted up in front of the TFP group and began to mock/proselytize the Catholics. One of the evangelists held forth on the differences between soteriology in the Catholic framework and the "correct" one, which is to say some version of Protestantism, especially faux-literalist, fundamentalist Baptist. Apparently, their failure to use imprecatory prayers to stop the Black Mass left them no recourse but to save the Papists from false salvation, which is to say, trusting in works as opposed to faith. I want to use the term shitshow, but it's not really a word, so I'll just mention that the worst offender directed his efforts at clean-cut Catholic teens, all of whom maintained their composure in the face of egregious douchebaggery. As Mark Twain said, "God is better than his reputation," and this preacher buttressed the truth of that assertion.

Finally, the gathered tribes were treated to one of God's signs shortly after the reverse exorcism began. It had rained just enough to soil clean cars right before the event, and because science is more consistent in its predictability than theism, a rainbow appeared above downtown Oklahoma City. People in the crowd sighed expansively and took pics of the amazing phenomenon. A rainbow! During a Black Mass! What could it mean? Albert, the heavenly polyglot, was near me when it appeared.

"Do you know what that means?" He yelled, undisguised joy in his expression.

I took the high road. "That's God's covenant with Noah," I said,

He slapped me on the back, and said, "That's right, brother!" He moved off toward the east, praying in tongues, hands and Bible aloft.

I would have received no reward for saying, "According to the text, it simply means YHWH won't flood the world again. There is no guarantee against destruction by fire, wind, virus, bacteria, rabid wombats, or the herp."

There is no cure for pareidolia, the tendency to see patterns in random stimuli. People find signs where and in ways that suit their narrative. The rainbow reassured the faithful army that God was there and on their side. The rainbow was located above downtown, though. It could have easily been a sign that God likes portly Vincent Price and his stab at being evil. It could also have been an effect based on light refracted through water, but who knows? God works in mysterious ways, his bread to transform.