Christian Nation, Fitch, Non-Crackers, and the SBC 2011

There was quite a spirited debate on the floor of the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting in Phoenix today. A couple Baptist friends were disgusted enough that they turned off live streaming and ignored twitter feeds. The debate was about a resolution on immigration that contained the following verbiage:

That we ask our governing authorities to implement, with the borders secured, a just and compassionate path to legal status, with appropriate restitutionary measures, for those undocumented immigrants already living in our country.

You can imagine how well that went over with the largely Cracker messengers of the SBC. Ironically, the chair of the resolutions committee, non-ironically named Paul (like the apostle) Jimenez (like a Latino), replied that it wasn't about "amnesty," the concern of the angry cracker mob carrying; rather, it was a "realistic and biblical approach to immigration."

I could write forever on the complications of asserting what a biblical approach or perspective is to an issue that the Bible doesn't really touch on, but I won't here. Suffice it to say that even Jim Wallis, that lovable liberal of a Jesus freak, gets it wrong when he insists on applying the language of "alien and sojourner" to this debate. The Hebrew people did not have immigration policy at the national level, Jim, so let's leave the Bible out of this debate, unless you're using it to castigate angry Crackers, and then I'm with you, sort of.

This brings me to this week's installment of:


If you've not been following, it's best to read this and this first. If you don't want to, I understand, but don't say something stupid in the comments. Deal? Okay. Fitch's third master signifier is Christian Nation. Oh dear. I can't tell you the rage that phrase engenders when I hear it, either in class or from a politican. For the record, I'm not enraged at the students, just the adults who lied to them in the first place. For the prior two signifiers, decision for Christ and inerrant Bible, Fitch was on board. He seems to affirm both those signifiers as somehow accurate descriptions of a state of affairs. For this one though, I found no such affirmation. In fact, Fitch seems to agree with the negation of the obvious inference that "there is no such thing as a redeemed social entity (or corporation)." (Fitch, 117) Yet another reason to like the man. What Fitch points to with this signifier is relevant to the discussion in Phoenix today.

The result is a justice done at a distance (ed.--if at all). In this way, then, "the Christian Nation" shapes us corporately into a posture of dispassion toward the poor, the hurting, and the lost. As a result, we are a politic incompatible with the Gospel. (Fitch, 121).


The Southern Baptists aren't obligated to take a "biblical" position on immigration, but many will insist in some way that they are, whether it be a vacuous nod to "obey the governing authorities," or with Wallis, an appeal to "alien and stranger" language. Fitch rightly points out that both these are wrong-headed if they begin with the assumption that America is a Christian Nation or even a nation governed by Christian principles (empty signifiers abound in metaphysics, it seems). Fitch fairly, finally, and rightly calls out Wallis as one who "defended these political goals (within God's Politics) on arguably more theocratic and biblical grounds than anyone on the Christian right defended theirs." (Fitch, 110)

The problem with Christian Nation language, beyond its absurd existence as an oxymoron, is that it reveals that Christians who ought to know better believe: "We can enforce socially a personal morality that is possible (so we say) only by personal conversion." (Fitch, 111) There simply isn't a subset of beliefs called "Christian principles" upon which this nation was built. A cursory glance at the history of our laws, Constitution, and formation reveals what a howler of a lie the Christian Nation is. This is preaching to the choir, I'm sure, but Fitch finally deals this idiocy the death blow it deserves, because Christians refuse to read Noll, Hatch and Marsden. Given that it is a master signifier in certain fundangelical circles, it's not likely to go quietly, if at all, and with the loon-in-waiting Michele Bachmann uttering "we are the head and not the tail" mantras nationwide, things are looking bleak for this next election cycle. Nothing is more antithetical to Christianity than triumphalism, a reality I wish some Christians actually understood. And Christian Nation is triumphalism of an ugly variety.

The Christian Nation is also tenacious, and it is such because it's a good lie. Many of the Founding Fathers were Christians. God is mentioned in the Declaration of Independence—our national divorce decree—but not in the Constitution, our actual founding document. However, the ideal serves to "rally the troops," an indication of a genuine master signifier. What is left to do is parse the Good Book in hopes of extracting the genuine Christian Principles we must use to build a Christian Nation. I leave that to Ms. Bachmann and the scared Crackers in the SBC, who are trying to figure out how the non-Crackers are going to fit into their beloved denomination (committee, anyone?). It's a quixotic task, but with Sarah Palin as her Sancho Panza, it may be that the two can find a windmill to tilt, and if they do, there will be plenty of fundangelicals along for the ride, but not many brown ones.

Can I Decide Later?, or Why Evangelicals Aren't Really Saved

"I didn't cheat," my less than favorite Evangelical student told me.

"Really?" I asked. "Because you have entire paragraphs lifted from this website with no quotation marks, no citation, and no attribution."

"That's because I was so busy I forgot," she said.

"Let me see if I understand. You were so busy that you forgot to type in an open and close quote? Because that would at least have saved you from the zero I'm giving you."

"It's only a 3-week, class," she wailed. "I had so much to read and write."

"All of which you knew when you signed up."

"Can't I get credit for my hard work?"

I'll just let the irony hang there, if you don't mind. The point of the illustration is to introduce Chapter 4 of Fitch's book The End of Evangelicalism? This is part two of a multipart series that began here. If you haven't read it, some of this won't make sense.

Fitch introduces his second master (empty) signifier in chapter 4: the Decision for Christ. Most of us know what that means, or we think we do. Fitch again rightly points out that by its very nature a master signifier is empty of a denotative definition, although connotative ones seem to abound. This is certainly the case with tDfC (forgive me shortening it). After a pretty clear discussion of the history of the tDfC's development in evangelicalism, Fitch uses a few examples to illustrate that tDfC "calls us into a political existence with others who have made the very same decision, but means little for the actual shaping of Christian living," (Fitch, 88). 

You'll need to hear "political" the way Yoder and Hauerwas use it, not Richard (Dickie) Land. Politics is simply the science of getting along with others. That's as stripped down a denotative definition as I can manage. Via Yoder and Hauerwas, to live in a political existence with others implies certain responsibilities and ethics. Those are the obvious connotative definitions. Fitch's concern, and he's completely correct, is that tDfC has allowed Evangelicals to embrace justification in the forensic sense (I'm saved and forgiven), but to have no clue what it actually means for human bodies. It is Delmar's declaration from O, Brother, Where Art Thou?:

"Well that's it, boys. I've been redeemed. The preacher's done warshed away all my sins and transmissions. It's the straight and narrow from here on out, and heaven everlasting's my reward."


Unfortunately, Delmar has no idea how to stop sinning. Nor do Evangelicals. Fitch uses former Ms. California Carrie Prejean and Ted Haggard as examples of the Evangelical inability to recognize the folly of tDfC in terms of its ability to actually do anything in an actual human body. Prejean famously defended heterosexual marriage and traditional sexual ethics on national television, right before some scandalous material showed up from her own past. Fitch uses the illustration—a sexualized object in a bikini lecturing LGBT folks on traditional marriage with skeletons in her own closet—not to denigrate Ms. Prejean, but to show that Evangelicals are capable of amazing duplicity (as with Haggard). In the same manner, Christian colleges and denominations enact holiness/character/lifestyle codes for students, professors, and pastors because they lack confidence in the ability of tDfC to bring about any change at all. Evangelicals are:

"...caught up within the fantasy of 'the decision'—forced to believe it makes a difference and enacting a compensating structure to make sure it does," (Fitch, 91).

Haggard's case is an even better example, because Haggard famously told Larry King that reading the Bible, prayer, fasting, and all the other discipleship "tools" new "believers" are given didn't help him resist his desires in the least. Nor did tDfC. A caller phones the show and tells Haggard he's recently come out as a gay man and asks Haggard if he can still be a Christian in light of that. Haggard, with stunning aplomb, tells the young man to pray, read his Bible, and seek guidance from the Holy Spirit. With clear-eyed honesty, Fitch points out that these are exactly the techniques that did not work for Haggard himself (Fitch, 96-7). Part of the explanation is in Haggard's insistence that Christianity is "a belief system." (It's also the primary weakness of tDfC. It assumes salvation is cognitive in nature before it's ontologically realized. Right thinking equals salvation.)

"Haggard called evangelicalism a 'belief system' as he explained how he could both preach against it and 'enjoy' it perversely at the same time," (Fitch, 96).

Back to my student. The duplicity created by belief in tDfC has had startling implications for Christian ethics. Fitch talks about this early in the chapter:

"It allows for Christianities to emerge that remain complicit with social systems of self-fulfillment, consumerism, or for that matter excessive sexual desire. It becomes the means for Christians to bypass the malformation of their own desires and instead keep their existing desires under the banner of being a Christian," (Fitch, 85).
It is what allows a pastor to write a book about his "weird" lifestyle while making more money than 95% of his congregation, and living in a house large enough to house four families in an affluent neighborhood in a cracker wonderland (yeah, that's sooo countercultural). It allows a student to cheat on a paper, lie about it, and then ask forgiveness later (a reenactment of tDfC in current evangelicalism, an escape hatch, if you will). It allows evangelicals to practice pre-marital sex so long as they feel guilty about it, and so long as they can identify an "other" in the form of people who are worse and without guilt for their desires (LGBT community). It allows a pastor to speak out against gay sex from the pulpit, boast about the sexual appetites of his congregation, and enjoy gay sex anonymously, as long as he feels guilty about it.

The greatest flaw of tDfC is that it has prevented evangelicals from living a fully embodied Christianity. Christianity, if such a thing is real in any meaningful sense, must surely be located somewhere in a human body; it must cause or energize noticeable changes to be real at all. Fitch is right in identifying the duplicity as the current reason Christianity has fallen on hard times. Whatever the numbers they tout, things are not good. One million decisions does not equal one millions less douchebags, asshats, perverts, addicts, or Heat fans. And it certainly, according to this theological critique, doesn't equal one million Christians.

The End of Evangelicalism? No, but if that damn Inerrant word would go away, I could talk to Fundies again.

David Fitch has done something that about 50 people are going to thank him for, me included. In fact, millions of American Christians, especially church leaders should thank him, but I'm betting about 1% of them would actually be able to understand what the hell he's doing. This is no knock on Christianity; the numbers would extend into other tribes or communities of reference as well. For example, I can think of four people off the top of my head whom I call friends who could read this book and follow the argument: Leighton, Cheek, Jay, and JJ. (The Reverend already read it, and he's one of the pastors who actually understood it. What can I say? I have smart friends.) Fitch has written a book of theo-political philosophy. And, I just lost half of you.


Yeah, that's the book, and this is part one of a two- or three-part review for Viral Bloggers. In keeping with church, state, and federal laws, the copy was provided for free for review purposes. Nothing personal, Mr. Fitch, because I like your book, but it ain't like they're selling the shit outta this thing at Cascade Books, the publisher.

That has nothing to do with the quality of the book, the thinking, or the writing; although, I did find some egregious copy editing errors, so feel free to send me the galleys next time, and I'll make sure it doesn't happen again. Damned Oregonians are too high to proofread, or woozy from lack of dead animal flesh. The reason it's not going to sell all that well outside of grad school classes is because Fitch has brilliantly called upon the work of Slovenian political philosopher Slavoj Zizek to "read" the current state of the Evangelical Church in America. And there went another third of you. I'll try to interject more profanity to keep you reading.

Here's the shortest explanation you're likely to read about Fitch's method. Zizek's Master Signifiers, key concepts around which people rally or assert their loyalty, are being misused by the Church inasmuch as key phrases (inerrant Bible, decision for Christ) that ought to be deeply steeped in meaning are in fact empty signifiers, thereby causing Evangelicaldom to shape itself around empty ideals that contain the verbal simulacra of Christianity but none of the genuine practice. How's that?

If you're still with me, you're going to love this. I'd like to say a hearty fuck yeah at this point, because Fitch articulates clearly and Christianly what I've been saying for about a decade now: the idea of an inerrant Bible is an empty signifier. It gives the Church something to rally around, but in fact means nothing. I've used the term slippery to describe the language. I think Fitch's is much more accurate. No Evangelical truly believes the ideal of inerrant Bible is slippery, but as with many key phrases, Evangelicals live their lives never defining them. Fitch insists they can't define them. The very act of defining them reveals their absurdity and the contradictions which lie at the heart of them. This, of course, should be the task of seekers after truth, and it is what, thanks to Wittgenstein, I started doing with those signifiers; it created my exit from the faith. (Fitch either knowingly or unknowingly draws on Wittgenstein on a regular basis, and I confess to being ignorant of Fitch's academic pedigree to know if he read Wittgenstein.)

Fitch believes the Evangelical Church should exchange those empty signifiers for robust, life-giving ones. We'll part company here. I think his method is wonderful deconstructively. (Zizek is a Continental philosopher, after all. Those motherfuckers only speak deconstructively.) I think it is non-functional constructively. You can't replace an empty signifier with another empty signifier. For example, he speaks of the fullness of Christ. Great. What does that mean? To his credit, Fitch is aware of the precarious ground on which he theologizes, and he makes an effort at constructing a political theology in the final chapter (more on that later), but differences aside, his critique is brilliant. For example:

The belief in "the inerrant Bible" dares to promise certainty regarding truth about God independently of God. In other words, it dares to say we can know this truth objectively, through modern science and historiography, and we can prove it by these means! In its excess, it puts the true believer in the false position of making God and object of our own control—a truth we can know without knowing Him. pg. 63

No one in any church other than a few Anabaptist, Holiness and (real) Baptist congregations is going to thank him for that bit of wisdom, but he's painfully goddamn right. Fundamentalists and by extension their evangelical offspring have spent decades vacillating between faith and reason, calling upon one at the expense of the other when convenient, and insisting on one over against the questions of skeptics when convenient. They create an inerrant Bible (in the original autographs. Ha!), but they must know that no such thing exists if they believe in the methodology used by "liberals," and you simply have to read Fitch's explanation of how that group is "othered" (my word, not his; he uses a Zizekian term), but they borrow the methodology only to justify their persistent belief in an empty signifier. It leads to staggering moments of arrogance, and credit again to Fitch for calling them on it, including George W. Bush asserting that God told him to invade Afghanistan and Iraq.

This is where Fitch shines like an Anabaptist beacon. Yoder would be proud. If the signifiers are shaping a community to justify the creation of enemies, to behave arrogantly, to exchange faith in God for faith in an inerrant Bible, and to claim to have truth while steadfastly refusing to live into it, then the signifiers are empty and should be discarded. The measure of a community is how they love (crazy fuckin' idea. that silly Jesus), which is to say, how comfortably they hold to belief in the truth (love your enemies) and allow that truth to shape their praxis. The revelation that they have missed it is that they use the "absolute truth" as a master signifier for the purposes of assuaging their own uncertainty and deciding who the enemy is.

This is good stuff, folks. I sincerely hope seminaries are handing out copies of this book in theology, theological method, and ethics classes. I know it won't be happening in most, but a few, just a few, would give me hope for my Christian friends. A postscript here: Evangelicalism isn't going anywhere anytime soon, and Fitch knows that, but this inability to identify what is empty and what is robust has the potential to destroy the Evangelical Church. More than once I've asserted that it already has, inasmuch as fundamentalism seems to have won the battle already.

Fall to Grace (useless word)

Before I say anything else, let me say up front that I could not be happier that my Christian friends have someone like Jay Bakker speaking for the team. I reviewed Daniel Radosh's amazing Rapture Ready last summer, and didn't say much about Bakker's presence in the book. As a post-Christian, I managed to feel some relief that Radosh found someone sane to speak for Christians. That is no small task when writing a book about a movement that is anticipating an event like the Rapture. (It is Holy Week as I write, and on this Good Friday, I'm reminded of the Assembly of God church up the road from us that has a banner advertising their Easter sermon: Is this the Last Easter? The letters are all in black, a lovely Easter color.) 

Bakker comes off as sane in Radosh's book, just as he does in his own recent book FALL TO GRACE. Unfortunately, the trend of subtitles continues with this book: A REVOLUTION OF GOD, SELF, AND SOCIETY. Yes, the caps are on the cover.

Excursus: Dear Publishers, enough with the damn subtitles. I am not 7, nor a dimwit. If you have to hold my hand to get me to read the book, your packaging sucks. If I am so idiotic that I can't figure out what the book is about, you're probably not targeting me. If you suspect that the people you are trying to reach are incapable of reading context clues or are deficient in their pop culture lexicon, perhaps target a new demographic. Whatever you choose, please stop with the subtitles.

Fall to Grace sm.grid-4x2

The book was provided by Viral Bloggers, and I ordered it thinking it was more memoir than sermon. Alas, I was incorrect. That mistake is mine and has nothing to do with the quality of the book. Bakker does a good job of giving the reader a slice of his pain up front when he narrates in brief the events that led to the demise of PTL and the imprisonment of his father Jim Bakker. (He relates other vignettes throughout the book, but this is no memoir.) His is a story that those of us who grew up in church knew well and were exquisitely grateful was not our own. Bakker narrates the events to talk about a word. I used to think it was a good word; it had theological resonance. I have since changed my mind.

The title gives away the word, of course. Bakker talks about grace. The book is 80% theology and polemic, most of which is focused on the definition of grace, a Biblical justification for gracious theology, and the application of grace in certain real-life situations, most notably LGBT people and the Church. All this to say, it's kind of like what Philip Yancey and Tony Campolo have been doing for years, only with tattoos and piercings and a more horrifying story.

Like Radosh, I am more comfortable with the Jay Bakkers of evangelicaldom, but I sense a fundamental level of dishonesty in their application of Scripture. It is theology as wish fulfillment. Begin with an image of God you prefer, and then interpret freely around the difficult passages of Scripture. Insist words like grace and love be defined in the broadest terms possible, but be careful never to critique the consequences of both words being synonyms for acceptance or tolerance. Grace has become the most vacuous of Christian words, because it essentially means God loves me no matter what, but it begins with the assumption that he had reason to be pissed at me to begin with. He created a world in which I had to fail, and then got pissed when I did. Then he killed himself to forgive me. And now I can stop feeling bad if I'll just accept the reality of his self-sacrifice. What if I don't buy the first premise? Or the second? What if I don't feel bad about offending a thing called God? What if I'm more concerned about offending friends, family, neighbors, etc.? What if grace should only be applied to my life by flesh and blood creatures with whom I should actually try to get along, not from whom I should demand forgiveness and grace? What if we all agree that we're marginally to completely fucked up and then work out a way to live side by side?

This is easy for an outsider to say because I have scrapped the whole project. In the end, I stumbled on the authority of Scripture. I decided it had none. I actually decided that long ago, but the full import took a few years to arrive. Mr. Bakker has done the same thing, as have most who insist the Bible looks favorably upon things like LGBT issues and gender equality. Far easier to admit that its Bronze Age attitudes are related not to interpretational difficulty, but to it having been compiled in the Bronze Age. The whole bloody story (not British bloody, Passion of the Christ bloody) reflects an ethos and a cosmology that, had we not been raised in it, would seem utterly bizarre. Far easier to walk away than to make it make sense. If you want to believe God loves everyone no matter what, fine. I like that version of non-toxic theism better, but it isn't the one the Bible teaches, not if words are to have any meaning at all. Love equals hell as a possibility, and grace means god loves me and accepts me even though I screwed up in a system he created in which I had to screw up. You cannot make this stuff up, folks. Oh, wait...

Imaginary Jesus (deep sigh)

Matt Mikalatos, author of Imaginary Jesus, is probably a nice guy, and I hope, since he's a Christian who has apparently met the "real" Jesus, he'll forgive me for the tirade that follows. Not since Donald Miller's utterly innocuous Blue Like Jazz have I read a book that so egregiously pretends to be what it's not. (What Miller and Mikalatos have in common I'll get to.) Let me say up front that much of my reaction to the book was probably not Mikalatos's fault. The blurb sent to me from Viral Bloggers--and I sincerely hope my friend Michael didn't write it--said: 
What if Kurt Vonnegut wrote a novel (thinly disguised as memoir – or perhaps vice-versa) about a man’s interaction with hallucinations of Jesus? This is quite nearly what Matt Mikalatos accomplishes in Imaginary Jesus.

I'd like to answer that question. If he did, it would be equal parts hilarious, insightful, critical, cutting, redemptive, painful, and fucking awesome. I sincerely hope some publicist who never actually read Vonnegut wrote that, and I'll charitably assume Mikalatos lacks the necessary hubris to write that on his own. The second irritant was a blurb on the back of the book by Gary Thomas (yeah, I don't know him either):

Take the theological forcefulness of Bonhoeffer, combine it with the imaginative whimsy of C.S. Lewis and the wit of Charles Spurgeon, and you get Matt Mikalatos.

Again, putting aside the reality that Bonhoeffer's theological forcefulness was shaped inside a concentration camp and that Spurgeon never wrote anything very funny, you're still left with a hyperbolic blurb that attempts to turn one of the un-funniest things I've ever read into a brilliant, funny, whimsical, theological tour de force. And it's not. It's not even funny. It's painfully not funny. I wanted to quit reading after the second chapter. I persevered like a good Calvinist though, and found myself more bored and irritated than challenged or amused or pleasantly surprised.

The book is simply bad. I'd like to offer a serious, insightful critique that goes beyond that, and I will attempt some below, but it's easiest to sum it up as just plain bad writing. Mikalatos is self-referential throughout, and no quote is more telling than this one, addressed to an atheist who is of course on his way to being saved: "Wouldn't it be great if someone wrote a sort of semi-autobiographical novel comedy thing instead of a Sunday school lesson for once?" Indeed. Unfortunately, Mikalatos is not funny, and he can't resist placing sermons in the mouths of his fictional creatures, thereby crafting a sort of non-comedic, inane story that ends up being a Sunday school lesson. This is a consistent and grating flaw in Christian fiction.

A book that is only imaginarily funny about imaginary Jesus is only the first irony though. The second is that Mikalatos writes an entire book about the imaginary saviors who populate Western Christianity with the intent of leading the reader to the real Jesus. I won't spoil the ending (ha!), but suffice it to say that the means whereby Mikalatos meets this real Jesus are just as likely to lead to another imaginary Jesus. It all comes down to some sort of mystical, evangelical theologizing about knowing him when we meet him. Along the way the reader is treated to a talking donkey, the Apostles Peter and John, a cast of imaginary messiahs, and some of the absolute worst philosophical theology I've ever had the displeasure to read.

I was left to wonder if Western Seminary where Mikalatos did his graduate theological work uses C.S. Lewis and George Barna in theology classes. The book pretends to be a cutting edge deconstruction of what's wrong with evangelical, emergent, liberal, and fundamentalist Christian theology, but it never rises above the level of apologetics with Barna-like Christianity in mind. This is where the book parallels Donald Miller's awful apologetic; neither can eliminate the evangelical categories that give shape to their assumptions, so they end up re-visioning Christianity in ways that take them back to mystical evangelicalism. That's somehow an improvement?

Another instance of glaring sophistry has Mikalatos confronting Mormons and Islam. While he tries to be respectful, he finds some sort of epiphany in realizing the transmission of their sacred books is strangely similar. In this instance (and a few others throughout) Mikalatos seems blissfully unaware that the same criticisms can be turned against his own sacred text, which by the way, he proof-texts from liberally throughout. Yes, Muhammad and Joseph Smith received revelations from God that were then dictated, revelations meant to purify faith in God. Is he unaware that his own text has Abraham suddenly receiving a revelation that there is only one god? In a world of polytheists, Abraham changes the story. And why do people believe him? Oh yeah, because he's right. Mikalatos also can't believe that Muslims and Mormons believe that God sends a prophet every 600 years or so to clarify things, because he can't believe God isn't consistent in how he deals with people. This one was simply staggering. It's as if he missed the entire Tanakh. From Adam to Abraham to Moses to Nehemiah to Jonah and into the intertestamental period, the message changed frequently. Jesus doesn't show up to say, "keep killing them turtledoves y'all." It's the classic evangelical error of believing that the bible is univocal.

I could say more about Mikalatos's treatment of Open Theism, about his oversimplification of hermeneutics, about his complete inability to say anything other than "Jesus is talking; you need to shut out the noise and listen," and his writing style that assumes all Christians are in junior high youth group, but seriously, why? It's a bad book. Not funny. Not insightful. Not theologically or philosophically rigorous. Not helpful for true seekers, as he never says how to recognize the real Jesus--shocking as it may seem, real seekers don't have the Apostle Peter as a tour guide of the maze of saviors. Again, I hope he's nice and he forgives me if we ever talk, but only if he promises not to try to make the conversation funny.

Sex or Not: Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions

I am genuinely torn as to what to say about Dan Brennan's book Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions. I've heard it described as "groundbreaking," "daring," "controversial," and "a stick of dynamite." What can this book be about that it merits such hyperbolic adjectives? Sex. Sort of. Here's the "controversial" thesis: men and women, married or single, can have genuine, redemptive friendships without having sex. I know! Before I let the snark get out of control, I do want to commend Brennan for saying what others should have been saying all along. I'm sure he'll catch (has caught) a shit-ton of criticism, and my critique is not directed at him. Rather, it's directed at an institution that doesn't know what to do with naughty bits unless it can control their every function.

I ordered the book hoping he'd spend some time on sexual ethics directed at single women who now get married as late as 30, as opposed to 14 in the text in question, but he doesn't. That's not what the book is about, so it's my fault for ordering poorly, rather than his for not writing about what I hoped he was writing about. I do want to see a text from someone in the church, preferably an evangelical, who finally says, "We need to reexamine sexual ethics for single adults, as we no longer have 30 year old men marrying 14 year old girls." Crazy idea. End of editorial/plea.

Brennan is trying his best to convince the Church, and I really mean fundangelical conservatives, that men and women need not "do it" when in friendship with each other. That this is even necessary is a testament to how slightly deranged the Church is about human sexuality. Those of us outside the church, even those of us who used to be inside, can tell you that we don't want to f**k every single person of the opposite sex we meet (or same sex, depending upon orientation). I have longterm friendships with several women, and not one of those has ever had the slightest hint of sexual attraction. Is it possible that friendship turns into a sexual relationship? Of course. Need the Church establish rules to prevent this from happening? Ah. That's the question, isn't it?

What Brennan is working against is a centuries-old idea that has more to do with control and fear than with sex. Pick a sacred cow, any sacred cow. The ethical methodology for nearly every one looks the same: identify the potential abuses, erect fence at least one step out from potential abuse, forget that it was the potential abuse that was the primary concern, change focus to the fence, move fence back one more step for every century or so. If the ultimate goal is control, that's the perfect model. If the ultimate goal is fully-functioning, virtuous, moral creatures, that's idiotic.

I know of no single rule that is more regularly broken than the rule about sex between consenting adults. I teach college. My students talk about this rule in ethics classes and any other class that affords them the opportunity. They are deeply ambivalent about the rule, so they live with the contradiction that they can simultaneously believe something and do the opposite, a practice that leads to guilt and/or shame. This orientation to human sexuality is ubiquitous among church people: control or chaos. It's the theme Brennan picks up well, and he does a very good job of ending the dichotomy and offering an alternative: genuinely redemptive, passionate, non-sexual friendship. I can heartily recommend the book to my Christian friends, but many of my Christian friends already believe his thesis, primarily because I tried to hang out with sane people, and those sane people are still my friends.

But back to the issue at hand. The idea that men and women can't be friends at the intimate level without engaging in genital contact strikes non-Christians as bizarre, and it ought to strike Christians as equally bizarre. Here's a thought experiment: name as many of your friends as you'd love to have sex with. Hopefully, the list is short. Will there be one or two names? More than likely. Will all your opposite-sex friends make the list? Only if you're a freak. No one I know wants to have sex with every person in his life. Attraction doesn't work that way, and attraction is usually necessary for sex (although alcohol can diminish that requirement). What has to happen, and Brennan makes the point well, is that men and women have to trust and respect each other, and individuals have to take responsibility for their own character development. Refusing to place adults in situations where their character is tested does not lead to the development of virtuous people; it leads to a dehumanizing, stultifying set of behaviors that allows the believer to function at the level of a child while believing he's mature and virtuous when in fact he has allowed fear to drive a wedge between him and half of the creation. This is the new creation Jesus spoke of? Seriously? Wow. Not for the first and certainly not for the last time I do wish Christians actually knew what it is they are supposed to believe.

Thy Kingdom Connected

First, the subtitle: What the Church Can Learn from Facebook, the Internet, and Other Networks. You'll understand my interest in reading this when The Ooze Viral Bloggers listed it as a choice for review, because I'm fascinated with communications, especially religious communications. This is the second book I've reviewed with a subtitle that is slightly (completely) misleading. I thought I was going to get an assessment of how networks, especially Facebook, were affecting church, community, and communication. No. Not so much. I'm pretty sure Dwight J. Friesen mentions Facebook, but as for evaluating how it affects churches and Christians, even with an eye toward learning from it, there is no substantive assessment. Quick epistle: Dear publishers, quit lying in your subtitles. Thanks.

More annoying than the subtitle is Friesen's attempt to do what hundreds of religious writers working in the church leadership field have been doing since at least Augustine: develop a trendy model of the Church based upon a contemporary contextual phenomenon that is supposed to suddenly open the eyes of believers and pastors so that church can finally be what it's supposed to be, as if anyone actually has an idea of what church "should" look like. I fully confess to stealing this next set of analogies from Nicholas Fearn's excellent little book The Latest Answers to the Oldest Questions, which everyone should read instead of the book under review. In his chapter on Minds and Machines, Fearn talks about the tendency of philosophers to use current, cultural or scientific models to describe the relationship between mind and body or to simply illustrate how the mind works. If we only go back 150 years, we'll find the steam engine, the internal combustion engine, the telephone switchboard, and the currently dominant model, the computer. I can remember a half dozen analogies from books I read as a pastor or in college and grad school that were supposed to apply to the church: family, company, ranch, computer, Internet, and friendship. 

For Friesen, it comes down to networks, links, and nodes. As kindly as possible: I just don't care. No model, however thorough the analogy, is a group of human beings trying to live together. If I produce a dozen presentations illustrating how links and nodes work, and then explain how that applies to people in pews, they will be no closer to acting like Christians than they were when I insisted that they were the software running on the hardware that was the church driven by the CPU that was the Holy Spirit. How does that help? If your church members are so daft that they need to be told they're a node to actually do something charitable, you've failed as a pastor or they've failed as people. It matters little what the church is compared to analogously, nor does it matter what component of a network is analogous to a church member; this is not a football team, so knowing something about what kind of thing I am in the model of church helps very little. The instructions for everyone are pretty much the same: don't be a dick, and beyond that, love people. Feed them. Clothe them. Suffer for goodness. Pursue justice. Got it, nodes?

Friesen could have taken a crack at the decentralized nature of networks, the lack of hierarchy, and the freedom to be as committed to the network as a "node" wants to be. If we follow his analogy though, it quickly becomes apparent that a centralized location wherein worship services take place, people make salaries, and bills must be paid is not a necessary component in a network. Let's face it, this book is targeted at pastors and church leaders. No sense in saying to them, "hey, get a damn job," when they already have one, even when dismantling the structures and hierarchies makes complete sense within the framework of the analogy. The problem with analogies, even good ones, is that the limits of extension are hard to determine; I can extend them as far as I want to make my point, while avoiding the undesirable conclusions the model also suggests. I can insist that this observation applies to that application with no functional rubric, allowing me to say unilaterally which parts of the analogy are important and relevant, and which are just detritus. This is made worse when new words are created, because we don't have a mutually agreed upon definition of the word that was developed like every other piece of jargon--within the context and practices of a community of reference. Additionally, I can quickly move from analogy to allegory, which, in this case, is deadly for any idea of autonomy of action within a network. As soon as I'm told "this equals you," my role is set and I'm no longer free to move within the relative freedom of the network.

I'm a little weary of saying this, but any model brought from outside the church to define what the church is supposed to be or do brings with it a whole set of assumptions related to a different community of reference and a different language game. These cannot be imported without importing the assumptions that gave them birth, nor can the words be stripped of their original meaning, sanitized, and then employed for the sake of church. At that point, just make up words, because if the words are being re-interpreted, they aren't functioning as they were intended to function so the meaning is malleable to the point of ambiguity. What then is the point of importing them?

Enough for now. Next time, Christ-clusters and Friesen's redefinition of personal entity.

The Justice Project: A Response

I should have learned my lesson by now. Seriously. Don't post in haste. Re-read. Think about what I'm writing. I didn't on The Justice Project and Kevin Lum, a former SNU classmate and now worker of miracles at Sojo, caught me with my pants down, just like Noah and Ham (sorry, needed a random Bible reference). Here's what Kevin wrote:
I read your review of the Justice Project and was disappointed you completely failed to mention Elisa Padilla or...Ashley Bunting Seeber. Oklahoma is rubbing off on you; you simply overlook the women. Elisa’s voice is important not only because she’s a woman, but because she’s a Latina living in a poor neighborhood in Argentina. I know Brian is the big name on the cover, but it’s worth acknowledging the women who contributed to this book. I care for a couple of reasons, but especially because I know Elisa and have great respect for her. Elisa is the daughter of Rene Padilla and doing great work in her own right. She heads up the Kairos Foundation, prints a magazines, and publishes theology books in Spanish—all with a very small budget.

While I’ll agree with your critique, I think you also failed to mention the full diversity of the writers. There are Latinos, blacks, woman, and Native Americans. This is important, because we often only hear white men talk about justice. Even if the message is similar, it’s important to hear voices from other backgrounds.

And he's right. I like to think of myself as a feminist, and I believe in many ways I am, but I totally blew it on this one. I mentioned the men because I primarily wanted to talk about Tony Jones's chapter; I still think it's the best in the book by hundreds of cubits. However, it would have been a simple matter to talk about at least one chapter by a woman, and Kevin is right to call me on it. It does indicate that in spite of my best efforts I seem to take the voices of men more seriously than I do that of women, at least as far as theology is concerned. (I assure you I do a better job in the classroom.) Unintentional sexism is still sexism. As for the diversity, I pointed out that I included a quote from McLaren's blog where he mentions the diversity. Kevin, because he's honest, readily admitted that he skips excerpted quotes, a habit we both picked up reading theology, I bet.

The Justice Project

This is the latest entry for the Ooze Viral Bloggers: Justiceprojectcover

Brian McLaren is the main editor for this collection of "essays" for Baker Books, and as compilations go, this one is hit and miss. I admit up front to having a great deal of respect for Brian. He's one of the kindest, most sincere people I've met who happen to be professional ministers. He also has noble goals with this book. Here's an excerpt from his blog:

... so that more and more readers in the US and abroad could hear from Native American voices who are so often forgotten, Latino advocates and activists who pursue "mission integral," African Americans with their rich tradition of a justice-integrated gospel, people working among the poorest of the poor in urban slums and rural villages, people working to save ecosystems and the beautiful creatures who live in them. I wanted to be sure people got to know some of the amazing people in my circle of friends - thoughtful scholars and grass-roots practitioners, older and younger, homemakers and agitators, conservative and liberal and otherwise. So ... as you can imagine, this project has been a real joy for me.

He's the rare idealist in ministry who is not completely out of balance or completely burned out. All that to say that because Brian is involved and because justice is probably one of my primary orientations, especially when teaching, I wanted to like this collection. First, the good news. There are new voices here, voices people need to hear. Longtime blog friend Anthony Smith gets a chapter, and his is a voice that the white church needs to hear. There are also chapters from the usual suspects (i.e., Tony Jones and Doug Pagitt). The book's organization is clear, the chapters short (usually five pages or less), and the reading level light. Again, I think justice is important, and I'm glad Baker asked Brian to put this together. The church should care about justice. It ought to be axiomatic that Christian at least means "person who gives a shit about justice." The fact that a book is necessary probably indicates that Brian and his writers aren't convinced that the church cares. The Sojo crowd does. Some of Emergent does. Those two audiences are perfect for this book. Not sure it will get much of a reading outside those two circles.

Now for the quibbles. In his chapter Tony Jones stresses the importance of hearing others' stories. I don't necessarily disagree with that. My concern is that most people have no idea how to tell their stories in a way that is useful. They are not typically deeply reflective. Other than an exercise in ego-masturbation, most storytelling serves no redemptive purpose. Until the story has been been filtered through the lens of genuine reflection, it is typically a narcissistic exercise in having my voice heard. I suppose one could argue that allowing the voice to be heard is important, and again, I don't disagree. But the voices of disenfranchised people don't always sound like Anthony's. There is too much anger, too much frustration, too much unmediated rhetorical vomit for the story to be worthwhile. We don't so much need to hear their stories as enter into friendships so as to make sense of the stories. For every storyteller who has thought deeply about her narrative, there are hundreds who still need the collective benefit of a community who occasionally says, "There might be another way to see this." This is, I admit, a small quibble, but it's not unimportant. Anyone who has endured the unfiltered rhetoric of the narcissist will admit that humans are wonderful at self-deception and need to be led through the deconstruction of their narratives so as to find what is true about them.

Second, rather than pick on particular writers for their inability to add much of substance, I would like to say that much of the book is too thin to be very valuable. Several of the pieces, including at least one by someone who ought to be better at it, read like sermons or thinly disguised devotional pieces. Jones avoids that criticism by saying much that is meaningful, and he stands out from the rest of the writers as a man of genuine thought and reflection, as well as a damn good writer. As with any collection like this, there will be weak spots. The editors shouldn't be castigated too severely though, as the book largely does what it hopes to do: draw attention to justice around the world, as well as offer a few strategies for church participation.

This last bit really isn't a critique, just a point of curiosity. How is the book going to be used to reach those parts of the church that most need to hear it? My friends who are still Christians already care about justice. They don't need a primer. Emergent and Sojo don't need another book. I'm curious what the hope is to get this book into the hands of people who need to hear it. It's not like Jim Wallis hasn't spent his life preaching this message, and while Sojo continues to grow (I think), the movement is marginalized among the evangelical monsters who prefer to think of Sojo as a "liberal" group rather than a group dedicated to justice. It might be time for a book that brings in theistic and non-theistic voices, as I'm pretty sure justice need not be clothed in the language of soteriology.

The Diversity Culture, Again

I reviewed this book before it came out, breaking my rule of not criticizing things until I actually read them. However, the ad from Books & Culture was so bad that I simply couldn't resist. Now, however, I've read it, and I'm happy to say I was mostly right, and to be honest, partly wrong. Raley writes for evangelicals, but he does so at a level slightly more learned than the typical "this is how you talk to scary pagans" book I see at the local Christian kitsch store. The previous criticisms I had of the book's premise do apply. Learning to talk to pagans in order to get them saved is disingenuous. If you have an agenda going in, you're not a friend; you're a proselytizer. If you try to get your friend saved, then you're probably still a friend, but if you persist in offering me something I don't want, I will write you off as a sales rep for a company with merchandise I don't want. Raley likes to believe that he stands on solid ground with his arguments, even referring to people like me as inhabitants of a "bankrupt" form of life. Wow. Good thing the pagans aren't reading this themselves; they might be offended to know their chosen lives are bankrupt and in need of a savior. Although, most Christians are hard pressed to define salvation in non-eschatological terms (this does not apply to Anabaptists and their kin, nor to the friendly group at Sojo), so the offer of salvation is predicated on a gift I don't want and a reward they can't demonstrate.

Here are the problems with Raley's approach in no particular order, except for the first two because they reveal how flawed his methodology really is.

  • There is no such thing as the "diversity culture." It's a phrase Raley coined, and it's the same old Hybels-talk in newer, more postmodern clothes. You can't break Americans (Indians, Malians, etc.) into convenient subgroups so that you can target your advertising (err...I mean evangelistic) campaign. Raley uses the denizens of a coffee shop, Cafe Siddhartha (that's Buddha for you non-hipsters out there), to define the diversity culture. Umm, Pastor Raley, the entire culture is diverse, including your church in northern California. As for the postmodern stuff, please stop. You're ten years late for the diversity/relativism train. We're not all relativists; we just don't find anything all that compelling about your soteriological model.
  • Raley uses the "most emailed" section of the New York Times online edition to discover what the diversity culture finds important, including (deep sigh) transgendered toddlers. The methodology here is so absurd that any sociology or anthropology prof would tell Raley to resubmit his thesis with a better calculus as to how to evaluate culture. Do only pagans and the diversity culture read the NYT? Do Christians not read it? Does everyone that reads it email a link to an interesting story? What kind of sample group are you getting? What does your control group look like? This is straightforward marketing with a scattershot methodology that demonstrates people who read the NYT occasionally forward interesting pieces.
  • So, so, so tired of Jesus' conversation with the woman at the well used as a model for how to reach me. Pastor Raley, Jesus and the Samaritan woman shared some crucial assumptions, including a conviction that theism was the correct path. The woman at the well may help you talk to Muslims (and that's doubtful since all the monotheists have a successionist view of their beloved texts), but it won't help you with deists, atheists, skeptics, and monists.
  • This from my previous review: "...if Christians have grown up in a culture (church) that has so fundamentally misinformed them about what the world is like, that would be the fault of the church, and the cure is systemic, just like the problem. My suspicion, based on teaching college students every year, is that young people have absorbed their culture far better and are far more comfortable with being 'postmoderns' than crisis culture book writers realize. If you're trying to train people over 50 to communicate to the "postmodern culture," you're tilting windmills. They either live and breathe in that culture, or their best chance is just casual, polite acquaintances with denizens of that scary culture. Culture is (at least) language and semiotics, and only people who grow up in a particular culture or immerse themselves in it communicate correctly within it."
  • There is no such thing as a postmodernist. No such thing. No agreed upon set of criteria exists. No practices. No assumptions that can be generalized. Stop targeting us and just try to be a friend. People are different: different assumptions, desires, fears, hopes, beliefs. If postmodernity teaches us anything at all, it's that each person stands uniquely within their own frame of reference and that frame of reference can't be quantified into some sort of evangelistic algorithm. Stop. Please.