Must we choose between belief-less Christianity and fundamentalism?


John Shuck is a Presbyterian pastor in good standing who doesn’t believe a single thing you learned in Sunday school.  In a recent Patheos post, Reverend Shuck issued a list of six affirmations designed to boil the blood of every right-thinking American:

  • Religion is a human construct
  • The symbols of faith are products of human cultural evolution
  • Jesus may have been an historical figure, but most of what we know about him is in the form of legend
  • God is a symbol of myth-making and not credible as a supernatural being or force
  • The Bible is a human product as opposed to special revelation from a divine being
  • Human consciousness is the result of natural selection, so there’s no afterlife

You may be wondering why, having jettisoned God, Jesus, the Bible and heaven, Rev. Shuck still wants to play church.  What’s the point? Continue reading

Why the American church can’t talk about war (and why that needs to change)

fallows pictureBy Alan Bean

“The country thinks too rarely, and too highly, of the 1 percent under fire in our name.”  James Fallows

If we hope to think more deeply and more honestly about the American military, we must find the courage to think morally.  In his thoughtful essay in The Atlantic, Fallows notes that public confidence in the American military soared after 9-11 and has remained strong every since.  And this while confidence in all the other institutions of society was plummeting.

In 1975, 68% of Americans reported “a great deal or quite a lot” of confidence in organized religion; in the latest Gallup survey, only 45% felt the same way–a drop of of 23 percentage points.  During the same interval, public confidence in the military moved from a low of 50% in 1981 to a high of 85% at the time of the Gulf War in 1991.  After spending most of the 1990s hovering between 65 and 68%, confidence in the military soared to 82% with the invasion of Iraq and remained strong despite the utter failure of the Iraq mission.

Fallows wonders why Americans are so willing to celebrate the military regardless of its embarrassing failures, why we are willing to spend limitless sums on high tech armaments and why we find it so easy to ignore the human cost of our military misadventures.

Fallows asks a nuanced question: Why the best soldiers in the world keep losing so badly?  He is impressed with the training, professionalism, dedication and performance of our armed forces.

Ours is the best-equipped fighting force in history, and it is incomparably the most expensive.  By all measures, today’s professionalized military is also better trained, motivated, and disciplined than during the draft-army years.  No decent person who is exposed to today’s troops can be anything but respectful of them and grateful for what they do.

Fallows is certainly right.  Soldiers are physically fit, responsible, highly disciplined, dedicated, courageous and passionately loyal to their comrades.  Charles J. Dunlap Jr., a retired Air Force major general, told Fallows that “the military constitutes “a better society than the one it serves.”

Dunlap points out that, in contrast to the World War II generation, very few Americans have a personal stake in the armed forces.  While grateful for “our brave fighting men and women” and eager to “support the troops” Fallows thinks most of us are indifferent to the plight of an increasingly insular military class.

People within that military tribe can feel both above and below the messy civilian reality of America.  Below, in the burdens placed upon them, and in the inattention to the lives, limbs, and opportunities they have lost.  Above, in being able to withstand hardships that would break their hipster or slacker contemporaries.

And yet everything the American military touches turns to dust.  Soldiers return from combat dripping with broken bodies and shattered souls.  Continue reading

We still can’t handle the truth: Chris Kyle and the religion of Empire

By Alan Bean

25KYLE-sub-articleLargeThe jury didn’t buy Eddie Ray Routh’s insanity defense and the legal experts weren’t surprised.  To win at trial, Routh’s attorneys had to prove that the ex-marine didn’t understand that shooting Chris Kyle and Chad Littlefield in the back was morally wrong.

It is difficult to know what was going on in Eddie Routh’s mind the day he gunned down two innocent men at an upscale firing range in suburban Dallas.  Nicholas Schimdle’s “In the Crosshairs”, a carefully researched New Yorker  piece written shortly after the murders, makes a strong case that Routh not only suffered from PTSD but was deeply depressed and delusional in the months leading up to the murders.  But that wasn’t sufficient.  As state witnesses repeatedly emphasized, a defendant can suffer from mental illness and still distinguish right from wrong.

It is likely, in fact, that Eddie Ray Routh killed Chris Kyle and Chad Littlefield because he had taken a fancy to Kyle’s spanking new Ford F-350.  Would a sane individual believe he could get away with a crime this brazen? Probably not.  But even if Routh was too detached from reality to appreciate the consequences of his action, that wasn’t enough to convince the jury.

Moments after his arrest, Routh undermined an insanity defense by answering affirmatively when a state trooper asked him if he knew what he did was wrong.

american-sniper_612x380_1Chris Kyle is widely regarded as a war hero in Stephenville, Texas and several jurors had recently seen American Sniper a Clint Eastwood biopic featured in packed theaters as the trial unfolded.  Kyle’s widow attended the Academy Awards (where American Sniper lost the best-picture competition to Birdman) short days before testifying in Routh’s trial. Continue reading

What the prayer breakfast flap is really about


By Alan Bean

President Obama’s comments at the annual prayer breakfast sparked a tsunami of protest from conservative politicians and opinion leaders, but it’s not clear why.  The president’s remarks were measured and carefully calibrated to the point of being banal.  But two weeks after the speech, Rudy Giuliani is using Obama’s remarks as evidence that the president “doesn’t love America.”

Bobby Jindal, the increasingly cantankerous governor of Louisiana, was so thrilled with Giuliani’s tirade that he called the former New York mayor to congratulate him.

Mike Huckabee spoke for many when he claimed that Obama favors Islam over both Christianity and Judaism.

Here’s the sound bite that really bothers conservative Christians:

Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.

His critics maintain that Obama was creating a moral equivalence between contemporary Christians and the ISIS thugs who burned a Jordanian pilot to death.  Christians may have done some bad stuff back in the day, the argument goes, but that was before the Protestant Reformation when a lot of bad stuff was going down.

The reference to slavery and Jim Crow really got folks riled.  “He also brought in Jim Crow laws,” Huckabee said, “as if it was Christians who were responsible for racism in America.”

Well, actually, Christians were responsible for just about all the evil perpetrated by American citizens over the centuries.  Historically, the vast majority of American decision makers have been practicing Christians.  There is a good reason why southern evangelicalism focuses so intently on personal sanctity and the afterlife while ignoring the social relevance of the gospel.  The southern “gospel” was designed to make Christianity compatible with racial oppression.  Once you have signed off on slavery, how much gospel have you still got?

The flimsy inaccuracy of the criticisms directed at the president’s prayer breakfast address suggest that something deeper is in the works.  A simple history lesson isn’t going to satisfy these people.  Either they don’t want to know their own religious, national and religious history or they know and simply don’t care.  This isn’t about that.

Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann

In 1997, four years before 9-11, an Old Testament scholar named Walter Brueggemann published his Theology of the Old TestamentIn the opening chapters he offered a pencil sketch of “the economic-political crisis” driving contemporary scholarship. The big reality of the late twentieth century, Brueggemann said, was “the decentering of the long-established privilege of Euro-American Christendom.”

One sign of that “decentering” is “the relentless rise of Islam as a challenge to Christian domination.”  The tension between a dying Christendom and a resurgent Islam created “a situation of revolutionary struggle that will not abate any time soon.”

Prophetic words, as it turns out.  And it is precisely this “decentering of the long-established privilege of Euro-American Christendom” that energizes Obama’s critics.  Christianity is a spent force in Western Europe, Canada and Australia, and her demise is increasingly apparent in the coastal United States.  There are plenty of Christians living in these regions, of course, but, with few exceptions, they have become politically irrelevant.  In the West, with few exceptions, it is axiomatic that religion and politics don’t mix.

Conservative Christians in evangelical America look out on a sea of social problems and dream of a Christian America.  The last bastion of Western Christendom is in the heartland and southern states of the United States, and this is where the president’s harshest critics live.

When president Obama is chastised for “not loving America”, it is the America where Christendom is still a thing that folks are talking about.  Obama wasn’t saying that Muslims are more lovable or praiseworthy than Christians and Jews; but he was arguing that all religions should enjoy an equal footing in America.

atlantic-cover-isisObama also realizes that non-Muslims must be careful about commenting about inter-Muslim affairs.  As Graeme Wood argues in his excellent Atlantic essay, “Non-Muslims cannot tell Muslims how to practice their religion properly.”  The people with the best chance of undermining ISIS, Wood says, aren’t westerners who have no idea what’s happening or secularized Muslims who ignore Islamic teaching they find inconvenient.  Not only does ISIS not speak for Islam, Wood says, it doesn’t even speak for the vast majority of ultra-conservative Muslims who interpret the Quran literally and dream of living in a purified Islamic state.

All three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, have been shaped by warfare and tragedy.  Most of the literature found in what Christians call the Old Testament was either inspired by the Babylonian catastrophe of the 6th century BCE or reworked in response to that unspeakable tragedy.  This helps explain the curious mix of beauty and rage we find in the text.  In Psalm 137, for instance:

By the waters of Babylon–there we sat down and wept
when we remembered Zion.

gives way to

O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!

The author of these lines isn’t a monster; he had simply seen too many vulnerable children die in precisely this manner.

Similarly, the seer of Revelation almost certainly lived through the destruction of Jerusalem in CE in 70 CE, a debacle that claimed over 1 million people lives.  His desire to see the smoke rising from Babylon (a code name for Rome) was palpable.  As a result, the beauty of Revelation is frequently engulfed by the fires of hell.

People who want to submit completely to a religious tradition in times of great upheaval will often seize on the most violent aspects of that legacy.

leadThe young men flocking to the banner of ISIS aren’t subhuman animals; they are normal human beings who have been overshadowed, stressed and manipulated by western hegemony for so long that the desire for revenge has become all-consuming.

I cannot grasp, for the life of me, how a video depicting the immolation of a helpless man can spark dreams of glory. ISIS videos are of a piece with the postcards Southerners once distributed to commemorate the lynching (often over an open fire) of a poor Black man.  Both cultural artifacts fill me with dismay and incomprehension.

Those fighting for the survival of American Christendom can’t see the ISIS fighters as human beings; instead they are regarded as pure evil, a subhuman manifestation of the demonic.  The evil driving ISIS is undeniable; but it is a sadly human species of evil.  In fact, it’s precisely the brand of evil that has marred the American story.

Those fighting a last ditch battle to preserve American Christendom have good reason for concern.  But Western Christendom, like Babylon and Rome before it, is a doomed enterprise.  The patient is on life support; the kind response is to pull the plug and let her go.  Then we can start considering comes next.

A religious consensus grounded in a myopic Southern evangelicalism isn’t sustainable, nor should it deserve to be sustained.  Young people are not inspired by the old, old story us old-timers took in with our mother’s milk.  Millennials are asking hard questions and the guardians of American Christendom have no answers.  None at all.

The only choice is to go back to the beginning.  For Christians, that means returning to the majesty of Jesus and hearing him speak to us as if for the first time.

Lincoln_O-62_by_Gardner,_1862-cropBut president Obama is right to insist that neither Christianity nor any other religion should claim special privilege in America.  We can still be “the last, best hope of earth,” but not by clinging to privilege.  Lincoln’s “last, best hope of earth” reference dovetailed with an appeal for new dreams.  “The dogmas of the quiet past,” Lincoln insisted in 1862, “are inadequate to the stormy present.”

Lincoln was right.  We live in a revolutionary time. You see it in the Muslim world, and you see it in the peculiar religious politics in our America.  The old verities and compromises cannot stand; the center will not hold. New light is needed.

This means that Christians, Muslims, Jews and representatives of all the great religions of the world must bring their wisdom to the table.  In times of religious strife secularism looks mighty tempting.  For some it may be right.  We need the calm voice of reason.   But excluding religious wisdom from the world of politics is neither practical nor desirable.

If we have the courage to realize that “the dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present,” we might still become the last, best hope of earth.

Kyle or Kayla: who’s your hero?

abc_gma_vega_130206_wgBy Alan Bean

There is Kayla Mueller’s America and there is Chris Kyle’s America and we can’t identify with both.  There is Kayla Mueller’s Christianity and Chris Kyle’s Christianity and the two religions have little in common.  Kyle or Kayla; who’s your hero?

Kayla Mueller was taken captive by ISIS militants while working with Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières) in a hospital dedicated to treating refugees from Syria’s civil war.  This was how she lived out her faith.  Earlier faith adventures took Mueller to India, Israel and Palestine.

Kayla-Mueller-YouTubeMueller traveled to Israel in 2010 to work with African immigrants but spent most of her time working with the pro-Palestinian International Solidarity Movement.  Mueller later reflected on this experience in a blog post.

“I could tell a few stories about sleeping in front of half demolished buildings waiting for the one night when the bulldozers come to finish them off; fearing sleep because you don’t know what could wake you…. I could tell a few stories about walking children home from school because settlers next door are keen to throw stones, threaten and curse at them.”

“The smell and taste of tear gas has lodged itself in the pores of my throat and the skin around my nose, mouth and eyes. It still burns when I close them. It still hangs in the air like invisible fire burning the oxygen I breathe. When I cry tears for this land, my eyes still sting. This land that is beautiful as the poetry of the mystics. This land with the people whose hearts are more expansive than any wall that any man could ever build.”

In the eyes of many, Kayla Mueller’s sympathy for the Palestinian people defined her as anti-Israel and anti-American.  Such conclusions make sense from the perspective of Chris Kyle Christianity.

I haven’t read Kyle’s book, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, nor have I seen Clint Eastwood’s movie.  Chris Hedges read the book and watched the film and came away horrified.

Kyle was given the nickname “Legend.” He got a tattoo of a Crusader cross on his arm. “I wanted everyone to know I was a Christian. I had it put in red, for blood. I hated the damn savages I’d been fighting,” he wrote. “I always will.” Following a day of sniping, after killing perhaps as many as six people, he would go back to his barracks to spent his time smoking Cuban Romeo y Julieta No. 3 cigars and “playing video games, watching porn and working out.” On leave, something omitted in the movie, he was frequently arrested for drunken bar fights. He dismissed politicians, hated the press and disdained superior officers, exalting only the comradeship of warriors. His memoir glorifies white, “Christian” supremacy and war. It is an angry tirade directed against anyone who questions the military’s elite, professional killers.

“For some reason, a lot of people back home—not all people—didn’t accept that we were at war,” he wrote. “They didn’t accept that war means death, violent death, most times. A lot of people, not just politicians, wanted to impose ridiculous fantasies on us, hold us to some standard of behavior that no human being could maintain.”

Chris Kyle has a point.  It is unrealistic to expose young men to pro-military propaganda, send them to boot camp, hand them a rifle, tell them to kill citizens of a demonized race, and then criticize them for joking about mass murder.  War does mean “violent death”.  And repeated exposure to violent death destroys the spirit.  This is particularly true when you are personally responsible for the violence and death.

Military veterans deal with the spiritual damage of war in different ways.  Some end up on the streets.  Some, like the tormented vet who gunned Kyle down at a shooting range, veer into madness.  Kyle dealt with the trauma of war by creating a version of Christianity featuring a mirror image denial of everything Jesus did and taught: a bizarre blend of white, middle class, hearth-and-home sentimentality and a Manichean dualism driven by hatred of the “other” and a joyful (and uniquely American) embrace of violence, pornography, machismo, hatred and death.  (If you think I’m exaggerating here, please read Hedges’ review of American Sniper, book and movie.)

Kayla Mueller’s Christianity flowed from the gospel of the kingdom that sent Jesus to his cross.  The oft-quoted words from her prison cell are twenty-first century Dietrich Bonhoeffer (you can read the hand-written letter in its entirety here):

“I remember mom always telling me that all in all in the end the only one you really have is God. I have come to a place in experience where, in every sense of the word, I have surrendered myself to our creator b/c literally there was no else … + by God + by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in freefall.”

Will Hollywood make a movie about Kayla Mueller?  Don’t hold your breath.  As the box office success of American Sniper shows, Chris Kyle Christianity enjoys mass appeal. By contrast, Kayla Mueller Christianity reminds us that “the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

Kayla “tenderly cradled” the victims of violence; Kyle embodied the myth of redemptive violence.  Kyle and Kayla can’t both be heroes; you’ve got to choose.

Brian Williams is the latest victim of a can-you-top-this culture

635587423561543077-XXX-20070305-NUP-106070-0039-APS-162-70579995According to one survey, 80% of American viewers think Brian Williams should lose his anchor seat for repeating, and gradually enhancing, a self-aggrandizing war story.  Is this a case of false memory, or did Williams know what he was doing?

The same question can be asked of Hillary Clinton.  Was her campaign story about scurrying across a Bosnian tarmac under sniper fire spun from whole cloth to win votes, or was that the way she actually remembered the incident?  Confronted with video footage showing her striding confidently with a smile on her face and a song in her heart, Clinton immediately backed away from her dramatic account.

False memory is a genuine phenomenon.  Common sense suggests that actual events lodge themselves in memory much more vividly than imagined scenarios and should therefore be retained more faithfully, but it ain’t so.  In their ground-breaking The Science of False Memory, C.J. Brainerd and V.F. Reyna demonstrate that “false-memory report can be quite stable over time, and . . . can be more stable than true-memory reports.”

Moreover, confidence in false-memory reports tends to grow over time, while confidence in true-memory accounts gradually fade.

False-memory bedevils the criminal justice system (as the growing number of DNA exonerations demonstrates) partly because, as Brainerd and Reyna explain, “memory suggestions may be accompanied by threats of punishment if interviewees do not accede to the suggestions or by promises of reward if they do.”

This element of reward and punishment helps explain the odd memory lapses experienced by Williams and Clinton, public figures who should have known their recollections would be subjected to empirical verification.

Brian Williams’ and the NBC Nightly News have been locked in a tight viewership race with ABC World News, with ABC making strong gains within the highly-prized 18-49 demographic.  Anything an anchor can do to enhance his credibility and charisma will be done.

Hillary Clinton crossing the Bosnian tarmac under sniper fire.

Hillary Clinton crossing the Bosnian tarmac under sniper fire.

Hillary Clinton conjured mythical Bosnian snipers in the midst of a tightly contested primary race with Barack Obama.  Deadly peril in Bosnia boosted her credentials as a foreign policy expert.

Neither Clinton nor Williams created false memories out of whole cloth.  Both public figures have brushed up against the chaos and calamity of war; they have witnessed wounded soldiers, burned out buildings and the rattle of sniper fire.  In an environment that pays big dividends for striking personal accounts of near-death experiences, public figures “remember” things that didn’t happen but which, given the circumstances, could have happened.

Once these personal accounts are shared publicly they seem much more real to the storyteller and this effect grows with each subsequent iteration.  So, when Brian Williams retold, and enhanced, his helicopter-hit-by-RPG-fire story on the David Letterman show, it didn’t feel like a lie.  It felt like the truth.  Almost.

Only when conflicting accounts pile up does the bold facade of false-memory begin to crack. Faced with overwhelming evidence that he got it horribly wrong, Brian Williams doesn’t want to say “I lied to make myself look like a hero, and I’m sorry.” That’s not the way things feel from his perspective.  Unfortunately, anything less than this kind of mea culpa sounds really lame to the viewer who doesn’t understand the dynamics of false memory.

But there is something more sinister than false-memory at work here.  Brian Williams and Hillary Clinton are both cogs in the machinery of American empire.  Americans disagree about everything but the need to continually stoke the military machine that protects our lives and makes the world safe for democracy.  Americans don’t do much for the soldiers who return, broken and bewildered, from our military misadventures, but while they’re in the line of fire we can’t praise “our men and women in arms” too highly.  Clinton and Williams wanted to associate themselves with armed conflict because Americans are unfailingly impressed by that sort of thing.

Unlike the politicians and news anchors of an earlier generations, Williams and Clinton lack actual military experience.  Consider this snippet from Walter Cronkite’s Wikipedia page:

Cronkite was one of eight journalists selected by the United States Army Air Forces to fly bombing raids over Germany in a B-17 Flying Fortress part of group called the Writing 69th, and during a mission fired a machine gun at a German fighter.  He also landed in a glider with the 101st Airborne in Operation Market-Garden and covered the Battle of the Bulge.

How can Brian Williams, or his current competitors, compete with that?  How can Hillary compete with JFK’s PT-109 hagiography?  They can’t.  So they make the most of what they’ve got, and when it doesn’t sound quite good enough, false-memories emerge to fill the resume gap.  That’s the way the mind, and modern America, works.

Before I get too high and mighty, let me share my own painful admission. My wife and I have been working our way through six seasons of Sons of Anarchy, an over-the-top (but brilliantly produced) cable drama about a California motorcycle gang.  It’s actually a morality play; a cautionary tale about living and dying with the sword.  Like The Sopranos, the show forces us to love deeply flawed characters.  But impressive production values and high moral purpose aren’t enough to stay ahead of the competition, so we have been exposed to oceans of sleaze and genuinely shocking violence.

The other night, when the boys were riddled by drive-by machine gun fire for the 47th time this season, I found myself laughing out loud.  Verisimilitude had vanished.  It was too much. But the producers obviously think that if they don’t keep the mayhem coming they can’t hold the viewers.  The bar, in the world of American popular entertainment, is constantly rising.

katy-perry-2-800In a similar vein, I watched Katy Perry’s half-time show at this years Superbowl.  My interest was largely piqued by an idiot preacher predicting pure, unmitigated evil from the ex-Christian singer.  Was Katy going to be flashing satanic signs while bathing in the blood of seven virgins?

Not so much.  We didn’t even get a wardrobe malfunction.  Instead, Katy rode into the stadium perched atop an enormous mechanical tiger while belting out her biggest hit, Eye of the Tiger (get it?)  Somebody invested months of labor on that tiger and it probably cost several million dollars to perfect, but, one verse and the chorus later, Katy was on to the next special effect.  Fans roared (why, I wasn’t quite sure) as Ms. Perry jiggled and gyrated through a series of hits backed by a cast of thousands.

And whoever headlines next year’s halftime show will have to top that.

Rarely has so much sound and fury signified so little.  I wasn’t shocked by Perry’s performance, I was bored.  If you have never seen fireworks, a good display can be mesmerizing.  But when fireworks are a constant feature of life, they get irritating.  Maybe that’s why Perry appeals to young girls who, blessedly, haven’t been jaded, and numbed, by pop culture.

Brian Williams and Hillary Clinton live with the temptations that come with a can-you-top-this world.  They succumbed.  We all succumb (I am still watching Sons of Anarchy after all).

This year’s Superbowl is a case in point.  No one could celebrate the gritty play of the Seattle Seahawks because they passed when they should have run. One of the most spectacular, and improbable, catches in the history of NFL play was quickly forgotten because, moments later, an anonymous defense back jumped a route and wrecked the plot.

The Seahawks had to win or they were just another bunch of losers.  In America, as Vince Lombardi put it, winning is the only thing.

There can be no grace in a culture shaped by competence, success and control.   Subconsciously,Brian and Hillary knew that.

Nobody is allowed to critique the fundamental premise under-girding our shock-and-awe society: the notion that success, peace and prosperity demand an unending round of heroic, and unavoidably violent, exploits.

Winners rock; losers just lose.

Here’s the thing, our can-you-top-this culture is the perfect antithesis of the gospel Jesus is perpetually sponsoring in our world.  It’s okay if Brian’s helicopter didn’t sustain RPG fire.  It’s okay if Hillary wasn’t subjected to sniper fire.  Get off the mechanical tiger, Katy, and sing us a real song from the heart.  Let’s be grateful to the Seahawks and the Patriots for putting on an amazing show.

We can’t all be winners, but we can all be real, right?

Hillary, Brian, and Katy would suggest otherwise.  In America, under the prevailing rules, you’ve got to fake it to make it.  When losing isn’t an option, the truth is for losers.  America becomes an interminable unreality show where winners are celebrated and we all lose.

Fred Clark picks a fight with Mark Noll over the origins of “America’s Biblical Civilization”

Am_I_not_a_manFred Clark has done an audacious thing.  He has picked a fight with Mark Noll, perhaps the most celebrated church historian in America.  You will have to read Fred’s essay yourself, but here is the conclusion:

Of course slavery was “biblical” and of course opposition to slavery was “unbiblical.” That was what those words mean. That was the whole point of declaring that American Christians should think of themselves as a biblical civilization rather than a Christian one.

All of which is why the dominant narrative in historical and theological discussion of pre-1865 American Christian “debates” about slavery get the whole thing backwards and upside-down. I love Mark Noll’s The Civil War as Theological Crisis. You should read it. It’s a terrific, incisive, engaging book full of profound questions and insights. But it also gets the core of its argument backwards and upside-down.

The perverse part of that argument and that narrative is this: It asserts that pre-1865 “biblical” Christians approved of slavery because of the way they read their Bibles. That’s not true. That’s the opposite of what is true. Pre-1865 “biblical” Christians read their Bibles the way they did because they approved of slavery.

Read Clark’s essay, listen to Noll’s lecture, and tell us what you think.  I think Clark’s right, and, considering that Noll is a leading authority on American religious history, that is surprising.  But Clark cut his scholarly teeth in an age when questions of self-interest, power and money bulked large in American scholarship while Knoll is the product of an age in which it was still assumed that the folks who shaped American civilization, though sometimes short-sighted, were well-intentioned Christians.

Here’s the thing.  Christianity, and the prophetic Judaism from which it sprang, emerged in a context of oppression.  The word, whether from Isaiah, Jeremiah or Jesus, was preached to a people on the losing side of the power equation.  If the folks who controlled the money, the politics, and the weaponry were resisted openly (whether we are talking about the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Greeks or the Romans) they would always win.  And yet, miraculously, the God who created heaven and earth was on the side of the oppressed, not the oppressor.

This simple assumption lies at the heart of Jesus’ teaching, which is why people who identify with power (white Americans, for instance) have a hard time making any sense of Jesus’ teaching.  So we claim Jesus as savior while trying to cover up the fact that we disagree with virtually every thing he said.

“The Twilight of the American Enlightenment”: George Marsden’s recipe for genuine pluralism

xmarsdenq1332359620-pagespeed-ic-k8uxm06umhBy Alan Bean

George Marsden is an evangelical Christian who is deeply troubled by the current state of American evangelicalism.  But in The Twilight of the American Enlightenment the celebrated historian turns his attention to the failed quest for an American religious consensus in the 1950s, the halcyon days of liberal American Protestantism.

Marsden came of age in the 1950s, emerging from the womb of conservative evangelicalism, graduating from ultra-conservative Westminster Theological Seminary in the 1960s, then studying church history at an aggressively secular Yale university.  This cultural trajectory allows Marsden to consider American religion from both sides of the culture war.  He is telling his own story.

Marsden calls himself an “Augustinian Christian” and freely admits that this identity shapes his perspective.  He longs for an America where his own tradition has a place at the public policy table without excluding other voices, religious and secular.

Marsden-Twilight-Book-187x300The American liberal establishment appeared to be thriving in the late 1950s, Marsden reminds us, but within a decade the churches of the old American Protestant mainline were in utter disarray.  In his extensive introduction, Marsden lays out the skeleton of his thesis:

My argument, in brief, is that the culture wars broke out and persisted in part because the dominant principles of the American heritage did not adequately provide for how to deal with substantive religious differences as they relate to the public domain.  The American paradigm for relating religion to public life was an unusual blend of enlightenment and Protestant ideals.  In some ways it was the model of inclusivism and religious freedom.  But because it also fostered an informal Protestant establishment, or privileges for mainstream Protestants in public life, there were always those who were less privileged, who were excluded or discriminated against–such as Catholics, Jews, people of other world faiths, or those in smaller sectarian groups . . . My contribution is to point to an alternative paradigm for thinking about the varieties of religious outlooks in the public sphere and the roles they play within that sphere.

From the beginning, Marsden believes, America has been “shaped by an alliance between enlightenment rationality and Protestant religion.”  Religion, though socially prominent, has played a secondary or supplemental role “even as most of the business, politics, learning, literature, and arts of the nation were conducted on essentially secular grounds.”

In other words, when you flipped through the New York Times, listened to the NBC nightly news on the radio (or, increasingly, on television), or took in a movie in 1950s America, religion, if mentioned at all, appeared as a footnote to an essentially secular narrative. Continue reading

Pope Francis sparks outrage on the left

Getty_011315_CharlieHebdoBy Alan Bean

Pope Francis is catching flak for his unguarded commentary on the Charlie Hebdo massacre.  While insisting that violence in the name of religion is “an aberration”, Francis used Dr. Alberto Gasbarri, his event planner, to illustrate his beef with unrestrained religious satire.

“If my good friend Dr. Gasbarri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch.”

To illustrate, the Pope tossed a playful hay-maker at his companion.

“It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.  There are so many people who speak badly about religions or other religions, who make fun of them, who make a game out of the religions of others.  They are provocateurs. And what happens to them is what would happen to Dr. Gasbarri if he says a curse word against my mother. There is a limit.”

The response from the left was immediate.  Bill Maher, as per normal, could hardly contain himself.  “F**k the Pope,” he bellowed with his characteristic sneer.  Then this:

“Well, George Bush said it: you’re either with us or against us.  Apparently the pope is not with us because he came down on the side of the bad guys.”

“The bad guys,” one assumes, are conservatives, much as, in Anne Coulter’s world, the bad guys are liberals.  Coulter and Maher understand one another; they both trade in outrage and grotesque overstatement.  It’s funny if you agree, and offensive if you don’t.

Writing in The Guardian, Polly Toynbee took issue with the Pope’s insistence that “you cannot make fun of the faith of others.”

Oh yes, you can. You may not choose to. It may not be wise or polite or kind – but you can . . . No, it’s not normal to punch someone who insults you; the pope’s Christ certainly didn’t think so. Verbal provocation is never an excuse for violence – that’s the wife-beater’s defence.

Actually, Jesus didn’t think non-violence came naturally, that’s why he talked about it so much.  If an insult against her mother doesn’t evoke a physical reaction from Ms. Toynbee it may be because, unlike the Pope, she has never worked as a bouncer in Argentina.

Similarly, if western liberals think Muslims should join the fun when a non-Muslim reduces their Prophet to the level of farce it’s because liberals in the west generally see religion as a silly business that calls for ridicule.  If you believe that Allah is the just and benevolent creator and judge of all things you take a slightly different view.  It is precisely this inability to honor the devotion of someone unlike yourself that sparked the Pope’s ire.  That’s why he resorted to a street analogy that would certainly make sense to anyone who came up in the barrio, the ghetto, or any working class neighborhood in Britain.

Was the Pope speaking as the Vicar of Christ (as a Christian speaking primarily to other Christians), or was he simply remarking on the real-life consequences of unguarded rhetoric in common sense terms that anyone, Christian, Muslim or atheist, could understand?  I suspect, the latter.

Bill Maher loves to point out the gaping gulf between the facile bilge spouted by Christ’s pious defenders and the historical Jesus himself, and this time was no exception:

“I think it’s in Galatians 13 when Jesus said: Turn the other cheek… Into my fist you f***king mook.”

Maher has a point.  If the Pope was speaking for Jesus, he could have used a more felicitous illustration, but his conclusion would have been pretty much the same.  Jesus says we are flirting with hell-fire when we call our neighbor a fool.  More to the point, Jesus counsels forgiveness and words of love for the enemy who insults, beats and abuses us.

That ain’t natural, whatever Polly Toynbee might say.  The natural response, as Francis suggests, is to lash out at those who insult us.  If Christians hurl insults at our opponents, we shouldn’t be surprised if we get a swift knee to the groin. That is natural.

Jesus told his disciples to transcend the natural response to injury and insult for two reasons.  First, we serve an infinitely merciful God (on that point, Christians, Jews, and Muslims are in full accord).  Second, most of the provocation in first century Palestine came from powerful figures who enjoyed the backing of Roman legions.  (They called it “Roman privilege” back in the day.)  Lashing back at a Roman official was a recipe for instant death.

The civil rights movement changed America because leaders like Martin Luther King understood the counterproductive futility of armed rebellion and the wisdom of following the advice of Jesus in the manner of Mahatma Gandhi.  Powerless people win by letting exposing the moral bankruptcy of the oppressor; there is no other path to victory.

If you think Jesus’ counsel to turn the other cheek sounds has a utopian ring, you are, perhaps without realizing it, working from a position of power.

How does all of this relate to the Charlie Hebdo atrocity and the legitimacy of religious satire?

If the Pope was speaking as one Catholic Christian to other Catholic Christians, he was simply reminding his flock that they they couldn’t follow Jesus and mock non-Christian religions.  Christians, if they are true to their calling, eschew mockery.  It isn’t just that we shouldn’t; we can’t, not without denying the one we have chosen as our Savior.

Satire isn’t funny when it flows from power.  A slaver mocking his slave isn’t engaging in satire, he’s being sadistic.  A slave mocking the slaver, behind the slaver’s back of course, understands the healing balm of genuine satire.

Muslims living in France, though much more numerous than a decade ago, subsist as a tiny island surrounded by a non-Islamic ocean.  Dozens of mosques have been vandalized since the Charlie Hebdo outrage, and French Muslims fear the worst has yet to come.  Secular Europe may feel intimidated by “radical Islam”, but if the power equation is viewed objectively, Muslims have more to fear from French secularists than French secularists have to fear from them.

What about freedom of speech?  Is it an absolute right or, as Pope Francis suggests, are their limits to free speech?

Folks like Polly Toynbee and Bill Maher now realize that Francis is neither a liberal nor a conservative; he is a Christian.

The distinction is important.  Freedom of speech can be viewed as an absolute right if we see the full flowering of the autonomous individual as the highest good.  But if the ultimate goal is achieving a measure of equilibrium in a radically diverse world, freedom of speech will always live in tension with mutual respect.

Secularists who have given up on the god-thing knew the new Pope would trample their toes sooner or later.  Francis believes that God was incarnate in Jesus Christ.  That places him on the side of the poor and oppressed, the side of radical compassion and the side of universal love.  That might sound like bleeding heart liberalism at first glance, but the resemblance is only skin-deep.

God, not the autonomous self, is at the heart of the Pope’s concern.  At times this will make him sound like a liberal; at other times, from the secular liberal perspective, he may sound downright reactionary.  He is neither.  He’s a God person.

Gone are the days when any one philosophy, religious or secular, can wield hegemonic influence.  Each of the major religions has splintered into hundreds of competing sects.  My take on Christianity, for instance, differs from that of the Pope.  But I have more in common with Francis than, say, Dr. Albert Mohler, a fellow Baptist.  We’re not going to agree all the time, or even most of the time.

Neither Christians, Hindus, Muslims nor Buddhists can expect to dominate the religious world and the secular worldview, though growing in strength, will never gain majority status.  The moral impulse is a vestige of religion; scientific empiricism (the only philosophy that retains universal credence in the liberal camp) is morally neutral. Our moral sensibilities flow from religion or they are entirely arbitrary. Either way, we must all agree to disagree.

To me, Jesus’ teaching on non-violence, his advocacy for the poor, and his call to universal love sound like a common sense recipe for human survival.  That’s because I live and breath in a Christian context.  To many secularists (I am thinking particularly of the new atheists), all religions are equally ridiculous.  Non-Muslims will never understand why mockery of the Prophet evokes such a visceral response from some Muslims.  We will never understand each other; but we can live together in peace, and that demands a species of mutual respect that transcends mockery.

A Prophetic Convergence: The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. & The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

Guest Post by the Rev. Dr. Jeff Hood


On April 19, 1961, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a stirring sermon in a most unlikely place. Though not his most famous address, Dr. King’s words to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary or simply Southern Seminary pushed the audience to do more to accomplish racial justice. Delivered to the flagship theological institution of the flagship denomination of Southern Culture, Dr. King would never again give another address like this.

The Southern Baptist Convention originated from a desire amongst Southern Baptists to keep their slaves and Jesus too. For many of the early years, Southern Seminary reflected the staunch racist and segregationist attitudes of Southern Baptists. After many years of secret and segregated courses, Garland Offutt became the first African-American graduate of Southern Seminary in 1943. By 1947, Southern Seminary was fully integrated. To put this in perspective, Duke Divinity School did not integrate until 1961 and Candler School of Theology at Emory University did not integrate until 1965. Who would have thought that the flagship seminary of Southern Baptists led the way amongst major theological institutions in the South on race?

In December of 1960, Dr. Henlee Barnett secured an invitation for Dr. King to deliver the Julian Brown Gay Lecture from the Guest Lectureship Committee. Knowing that the invitation would be controversial, Southern Seminary President Duke McCall told the committee, “Boys, it is your call, but you do realize you are going to cost us hundreds of thousands dollars if you proceed.” Dr. Barnette replied, “If so, it will be money well spent.” Dr. King accepted the invitation and responded with a title, “The Church on the Frontier of Racial Tensions.” By the time April arrived, there were security concerns and controversy brewing throughout the Southern Baptist Convention.

Arriving with a full police escort, Dr. King was greeted by professors Henlee Barnett, Nolan P. Howington, Willis Bennett, Wayne Ward and James Leo Garrett. Dr. Ward remembered Dr. King being deeply reflective. The group stopped to take a picture that still hangs on the wall of my office. When Dr. King climbed into the pulpit, an overflow crowd of 1500 people greeted him. Former student Rev. Charles Worthy remembered, “The mood was absolutely electrifying.”

The Dr. King that is heard at the beginning of his address to Southern Seminary is not the same Dr. King that was later remembered as one of the greatest orators ever. Stumbling over his words, Dr. King is clearly nervous. However, once he got in the flow, Dr. King never turned back. Speaking about the role of the church, Dr. King pushed the gathered to “…develop a world perspective.” Speaking about race relations, Dr. King declared that racial injustice is “…diametrically opposed to the underlying philosophy of Christianity.” Speaking about economic injustice, Dr. King declared that people must, “…learn to live like Jesus.” Pushing the congregation out the door, Dr. King declared, the gathered must be “…maladjusted to the evils of this age.” The only African-American seminary student in attendance at the time, Dr. Emmanuel McCall remembered, “It was powerful…I felt like the direction of many lives were altered that day.” Though controversy did cause Southern Seminary to lose money, I have to agree with Dr. Barnette that it was money well spent.

In 2008, close to fifty years after Dr. King’s sermon, I was a student struggling at a radically different Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Following denominational conflict, Southern Seminary became one of the most fundamentalist theological institutions in the nation. Due to some radical changes I experienced, I dramatically changed my perspective on a number of issues of social justice. When I was searching for direction and didn’t have many places to go, I discovered the story of Dr. King’s sermon. Realizing that there was a way to follow Jesus beyond the narrowness and bigotry I had known, I started following the advice contained in Dr. King’s sermon and began working to develop a world perspective that equipped me to fight against injustice and be maladjusted to the evils of this age. Presently, I work as the Minister of Social Justice for the social justice ministry of the Cathedral of Hope United Church of Christ, the largest LGBT church in the world. Without the courage of the earlier professors from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the witness of Dr. King, I doubt I would be here. I pray that maladjustment to injustice continues to spread.