Teaching Religion as a Skeptic, or How to Defend God

I teach religion. That someone who no longer practices religion teaches it seems an irony at one level, and more than a few students have been confused when I tell them I’m a skeptic.

“Why would you teach something you don’t believe?” One asked.

“If I was a Christian, should I let someone else teach the sections on Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and the others?”

blessed

They readily agree that the system would make no sense, and I wish every adventure in missing the point ended so easily. What follows is an explanation of pedagogy in the context of a religion class. I tell them I’m going to tell the story the way adherents tell it, and then we’ll look at it critically. Was Muhammad truly illiterate? Was Jesus born of a virgin? How does culture impact hermeneutics? The big one: what answers have you been taught that actually don’t answer the question?

An example. Nearly every horrifying punishment for sin detailed in the Tanakh will be “explained” away by Christians who are content that those words emerge from a construct known as “the old law” or “the old covenant.” We are now under grace, they say, with a self-satisfied smile. This is a college class, so the next question is meant to unsettle them, and quite frankly, someone in their church should have forced them to confront the question years ago, but that assumes someone in their church has actually wrestled with the question, a likely false assumption.

“So God used to be okay with stoning rape victims to death, but then Jesus died on the cross, and God is now against it?”

Usually, they didn’t know that was in the Bible, and after showing them the relevant passage, they freeze up. Completely. What do you say, after all? No one prepared you for this moment, and the tendency not to read the whole Bible, or to suffer through it only once, means that there are dozens of stories like this of which students are blissfully ignorant.

Depending on the context, we can substitute slavery, killing LGBT people, or killing witches. The impact is generally the same, and while some have said the question is too abrupt, the rupture is what I’m looking to cause. It’s a general education class about religion, not an in-depth look at hermeneutics, canonicity, canonical criticism, etc. If their pastors haven’t bothered to mention that the words “God’s Word” indicate that God has some answering to do—the blowhard speech in Job notwithstanding—then their pastors have not been honest.

More simply, someone should have introduced them to these difficult passages along with a conversation about inspiration and authority. That never happens. Never. Not until college. I have not yet encountered a student aged 18 to 65 (my oldest so far) who has been taught to craft a hermeneutical lens that admits to some textual problems. It is clearly not their fault that their system of religious education is badly flawed, if not broken outright, but that is also not my problem. My concern is to teach the material, and having presented it, to make them interact with it in ways that are often challenging, even infuriating.

What a college class with diverse perspectives cannot allow is permission for students to avoid a glaring contradiction in their own ethical constructs, especially when the contradiction grants a pernicious permission. Truthfully, no Sunday School class should allow that either, nor should a pulpit minister, but that requires a commitment to treating the text differently than as the totem it has become in American churches. It binds a community together, but it does not shape them. It grants them salvation, but it does not require more of them than a prayer for forgiveness. It tells them who the “other” is, but it does not require they love them. Jesus has made the only sacrifice that matters, and now American Christians, by and large, are borrowing Jesus’ merit, but they are never asked to repay the loan—to make their own sacrifices. The only demand seems to be a guiltless quest for their own self-actualization with appropriate gratitude directed toward God. #blessed

The wrestling does not happen because ethical formation is not required. Even the Sermon on the Mount—the longest, clearest discourse of Jesus in the New Testament—is interpreted as a means for God to show humans that they require His grace because it is simply too hard for mere mortals to obey, as if “don’t divorce your wife” and “love your enemy” are at the same difficulty level.

Yet, for those of us outside, there remains a singular problem. I make this argument regularly in class, and, yes, I’m defending the honor of a God they claim to follow, because if there is such a being, he or she ought not be morally repugnant. And so I insist that some things are always wrong. I argue for at least a few universal moral principles.

God cannot order the murder of rape victims and be morally blameless. That is nonsensical all the way down—and evil. (The Calvinist who offers that God can do whatever God wills is a juvenile in his thinking. Of course God can in their construct, but why use the word “good” at that point? In other classes, I simply have students read Twain’s Letters from the Earth to deal with that issue.) If God did not order it, then a new model of hermeneutics and new vision of the character of God are required. As I like to put it: “The kind of God you believe in determines the kind of person you are allowed to become.”

Trump isn’t the first guy who knows more than Jesus.

This was supposed to be shocking:

The quote comes near the end of the clip, and the interviewer takes it as hyperbole. I probably would have done the same thing, but it’s worth noting that viewers on both sides of the ideological divide (belief vs non-belief) have commented on it as if the words, taken at face value, are revelatory of a primary axiom of Trumpvangelicals: some version of “In Trump We Trust.”

Clearly, it’s possible the guy could have been at least partly serious, but if he was 100% serious, it would simply mean he’s just like the overwhelming majority of evangelicals and fundamentalists in American Christianity. They don’t believe Jesus either. They haven’t in a very long time, if ever.

Every semester, students in my world religion class are forced to endure my reflections on this guy named Silly Jesus. He is the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount, the one who tells his followers to love their enemies, not to resist evil, not to get divorced, not to worry about their lives, not to swear oaths or pray in public, etc. I tend to refer to him as Silly Jesus, because, with the exception of the Anabaptists, I don’t know a single Christian who takes the longest collection of Jesus’ words seriously, at all.

Christian ethics have not been formed by the words of Jesus. In fundangelical circles, Christian ethics are formed by exegetical magic tricks that combine Moses, David, Isaiah, non-red-letter portions of the Gospels, and Paul, but mostly Moses and Paul. In fact, the typical approach to Christian ethics, especially in those areas where Jesus seems to speak clearly, is a dialectical exercise wherein Jesus is pitted against one or both of the Bible’s architects. Jesus always loses. Always.

Consequently, Jesus exists for evangelicals and fundamentalists as a savior, not an anthropological model. They are supposed to be grateful for the work he did on the cross, and then ignore him like they would a conspiracy theorist uncle at a Thanksgiving dinner.

Silly Jesus. Didn’t he know he came to die for me, and then remain silent (stfu)? All those words and deeds prior to the crucifixion? Who knows? It’s so hard. My pastor said the Sermon on the Mount is there to show us our need for grace. I mean, who could possibly do all those things? I’m not perfect. What’s that? Jesus said to be perfect? Silly Jesus. Eat your turkey and stfu.

So you see, that nice Trump voter wasn’t being scandalous, after all. He was simply applying one component of evangelical Christianity to this emerging religious category I’m calling Trumpvangelical for now. It’s clearly a syncretistic category that combines components of evangelicalism, fundamentalism and civil religion, so if evangelicals are upset about his assertion that he’d trust Trump ahead of Jesus, they’re going to need to be upset with their own ethics, hermeneutics and Christology first.

Roy Moore is not an Evangelical

The title is more straightforward than my normal parallelisms, and that’s because I’m still tired of words. The current POTUS uses too many of them (mostly nonsensical or outrageous), and the machine tasked with defending, explaining, condemning and following him uses exponentially more. I said early on in this administration that I was going to say less out of fear of adding to the glut of words, especially given that I think the surfeit of commentary from the entire spectrum of Right to Left (or vice versa) is making words even less meaningful.

When Jason Micheli of Tamed Cynic invited me on his podcast, I wasn’t sure what the topic would be. Shortly after, I tweeted the following:

Jason messaged me to say we had found the topic. I recorded the interview this morning, and we did manage to talk about the definitional issue I have with the way the two words are being used. But because Jason is curious by nature, it seems, and a good interviewer, we meandered through several subjects, much like a real conversation. I decided to use the podcast as motivation to get this done, both for myself and for anyone who wanders here after Jason posts the new episode.

A few days ago, a longtime reader of the old Parish blog blocked me on Facebook because I wasn’t satisfied with his less-than-nuanced definition of “evangelical.” I’ve tried to explain what I think the best definition of the word is in the current context, and if you want to ask who I am that I get to set definitions, I’ll need to respond at length at some point, but for now, just know that I’m not making up definitions. What I am trying to do is apply 20+ years of writing about religion (professionally and on a blog), 10 years of teaching religion at the college level, and 30 years of reading and researching the nexus of religion, politics and culture to understand what “evangelical” means. I told Jason this morning that I’m really trying to defend the good guys in this endeavor, both because I still have friends in professional, evangelical ministry, and because I would never have wanted to be sullied by association with Roy Moore or Donald Trump when I was an evangelical pastor.

I will end up modifying the thinking that contributed to that first tweet, because I don’t think either category–fundamentalist or evangelical–is thorough enough to describe what is happening in our political climate after Trump’s victory in the general election. In fact, I’m pretty sure that Roy Moore represents a toxic combination of fundamentalism and civil religion, a benign form of which has been present in many Southern Baptist and Pentecostal/Charismatic churches for a long time, like this shot from Dallas First Baptist in July of this year.fbc dallas

For now, I’m convinced there is a difference because three key markers of fundamentalism are not present in evangelicalism. I’m working with a definition of evangelical that does take into account the three streams that Mark Noll wrote about more than 10 years ago: small group Anglicanism, Calvinist theology (especially soteriology), and European pietism. However, the American form of this changes dramatically after the rise of the new evangelicals, as embodied by Carl F. H. Henry and Billy Graham, and even more so after Barna and Warren. It becomes far more enculturated, much more American, much more responsive to market forces and cultural shifts.

That last bit is the beginning of the key differences in the markers. Fundamentalism is adversarial to culture; evangelicalism is not, for the most part. Fundamentalism is separatist in orientation; evangelicalism is not. Fundamentalism is painfully, inconsistently literalist in hermeneutic, bordering on bibliolatry (e.g., inerrant, infallible talk); evangelicals have settled on a nebulous definition of “inspired” or “God’s Word”  that borders on being an empty signifier, often keeping the “infallible” category but losing “inerrant,” recognizing the latter category as nonsensical or not helpful.

To be fair, both movements have contributed to the degradation of Christian witness, and while fundamentalists engage in self-deceit, cover ups, and outright lies, modern evangelicals tend toward a more permissive soteriology that makes for good consumers, if not good Christians. Taken as a whole, though, I’d far rather spend time with the latter, and the kind of faux Christian piety we see bubbling to the surface among supporters of Roy Moore is far less likely to be present in evangelicals. Still, as I already said, we are going to need a new taxonomy to take into account Christianized hypocrisy and the redefinition of holiness in Trumpvangelical America.

Not Gonna Bow to Your Idol

Continuing the PRRI information, I was very curious about the “Unaffiliated” category in American religion, which is second only to the aggregate White Christian sectors: Evangelical (17%); Mainline Protestant (13%), and; Catholic (11%). Unaffiliated now accounts for 24% of the population, but what exactly does the word mean? When “nones” first started showing up on American polls, we were fairly certain that it was a response to institutionalized religion, which is to say these were mostly the oft-demonized millennials who were “spiritual but not religious.” Turns out that category is less than 20% of the Unaffiliated demographic.

unaffiliated

The chart is great at pointing out that the explicitly religious are a sizable percentage of the Unaffiliated, but it’s less clear how people mean the words “secular” or “agnostic.” I know many Baptists who are also secularists, and many in the Americans United movement are outspoken secularists because they are strong proponents of church/state separation, but some are also Christian. My experience teaching religion class is that most of my agnostic students are simply people struggling to keep believing. It’s entirely possible that they will come back to faith, but that metaphysical inertia can last for years. The category is likely going to be hopelessly muddy until pollsters separate it into more meaningful segments and clearly define the terms.

Still, the numbers indicate a powerful and profound shift in American metaphysical claims, and as the position becomes more common and less marginalized, we can expect to see a much more robust and less aggressive form of atheism emerge, one that is not a reactionary position and therefore less zealous and angry.

As a side note, I still teach the term “agnostic,” but I tell students that it’s not of much use anymore. The classic term “skeptic” is far more accurate.

Y’all Need More Babies

Been trying to get to this for a while. PRRI released their American Values Report from 2016 recently, and I’ll have a few observations to make. For now, though, since the new semester is still kicking my ass, I thought I’d start with one of their most fascinating charts. This one details the percentage of each sect based on age group. If you look at white Protestants, it’s easy to see their future is bleak. Given that there really is no conversion growth in the U.S., combined with the impossible to determine future attrition rate of the youngest demographics, white Protestants are aging themselves out of relevance, if not existence. It’s worth asking, and I will in a later post, how the political posturing, the Trump support, and the Nashville Statement are helping to bring those numbers down.

chart

Monuments to Whiteness?

James Woods, the actor who was once a well-respected if creepy addition to many films and television programs, has helped me figure out how to talk about “white culture,” or as the fascists and crypto-fascists would have it, White European heritage. As Charlottesville has dominated the news cycle—rightly so—one component of it was lost for a minute but is now likely to be the rallying point for neo-Dixie movements like those who assembled in Virginia.

Why neo-Dixie? The monuments of the Civil War and Confederacy are going to be the totems of the loosely affiliated white power movements more than ever before. The attempt to remove a Confederate statue in Charlottesville was the proximate cause of the Unite the Right rally and seemingly inevitable violence. Already I’m seeing Cracker Twitter eaten up with discussions of monuments and statues and landmark names, and if you’re not familiar with the American South or even historically racist enclaves in Oklahoma (Tulsa), you should know that Southern whites have a strong affinity for the “heroes” of the Confederacy, especially when it comes to naming public schools. In fact, post Charlottesville, a group in Tulsa is circulating a petition to rename Lee Elementary.

lee

I should say that my experiences with these movements goes all the way back to 1988, when I spent some time with two members of the The Covenant, The Sword, and the Arm of the Lord. I was in Muskogee, Okla., and two of their number were being held at the federal detention center at the Muskogee County Jail while their codefendants stood trial for sedition in federal court in Arkansas. (They were acquitted.) I think the feds thought it best to keep the group scattered, as they were a particularly scary iteration of white power movements, having murdered at least one state trooper in Missouri, and if the gentlemen were to be believed, members of the LGBT community in North Carolina. The two members I interviewed over a two-week period were both former U.S. military officers with combat experience, or at least they said they were, and as the son of a career U.S. Army enlisted man, their talk had all the hallmarks of authenticity to me. They were also part of the Christian Identity Movement, and so their hatred for “ZOG” (the so-called Zionist Occupation Government) was combined with a religious zeal that was physically exhausting to be around for more than a few minutes at a time.

The neo-Dixie movements are going to avoid the worst religious components of Christian Identity going forward. You might convince average white folks that it’s okay to “love white culture, too,” but you’re not going to convince members of most Evangelical churches that Jews are actually fake Jews who are thoroughly evil and that the white race is the “real Israel.” Religion will be treated as part of our culture, part of our heritage, and indeed, it will be treated as a personal matter, but one on which most should at least agree that God is totally cool with all races but that all races should get to “celebrate” their heritage. God is, of course, totally cool with that, too.

The coded language has been around for a while, but as neo-Dixie movements achieve mainstream platforms, they will use the coded language far more regularly and eschew the nastier verbiage of their private thoughts and not-so-private meetings. Charlottesville has also had the effect of opening wider the Overton Window, such that terminology that has not been mainstreamed is suddenly crucial to understanding what the hell is happening. Many observers of the far Right believed that was Bannon’s intention all along, and it’s hard to find fault with their reasoning at this point.

But to James Woods…the tweet above has been rightly mocked on Twitter since Woods posted it yesterday. The idea that reasonable people cannot understand the difference between WWII soldiers engaged in a just war and the actions of treasonous Confederate troops is laughably stupid, except that in the current context in which all “truth” is a function of power and politics, such that competing claims are not measured on truth value but pragmatic value, the tweet seems reasonable and accurate to some on the far and not-so-far Right.

This will be the point of contention going forward: the totems of the Confederacy will be defined as monuments to “white heritage” or “white culture,” but that is nonsense, of course. Did no whites fight on the side of the Union? Did only whites fight the Civil War? Is there such a thing as “white heritage” (in the positive sense of the word; there is clearly a negative sense)? The monuments of the Confederacy are simply reminders that once upon a time a group of racist traitors engaged the legitimate government of the U.S. in a war of sedition. The rebellion was quashed, the Union remained intact, and the South immediately began trying to revive Dixie. The monuments need to go. It makes no good sense to keep monuments of the rebellion on public display. It ought to be offensive to all of us, not just African Americans. If, as the neo-Dixie spokespersons say, we ought to keep them around for historical value, then a museum is the perfect place for them, and they ought to be sources of shame for the South, not pride, a reminder that the myth of white supremacy once led people to rebel for the sake of the evil institution of slavery.

Finally, the monuments of our whiteness are everywhere. Our institutions favor whiteness, most of our schools favor whiteness, our statues and monuments celebrate whiteness and white people, our holidays (save one) commemorate whiteness, our entertainment industry is eaten up with whiteness; it is literally the foundation of the country, government, and culture. Only those who don’t think it’s not yet white enough, which is to say only white, will be daft enough to believe that the totems of the Confederacy are ought but the relics of hateful, violent, oppressive whiteness.

It’s the Noise

I wrote this after the inauguration, when it became clear that part of Trump’s strategy was to destroy any referential meaning of language. Not that I think it was his actual strategy at the level of cognitive awareness, as I’m certain at this point that he’s not smart enough to understand how language works.

Everything he does is intended to make it harder to know what is true and what is false, so there doesn’t have to be a pattern. A lie is as useful as the truth, but he will not prefer one to the other. The objective is confusion for the sake of power, not clarity. In this context, words are made powerful by making them meaningless, so repeating what he says, posting what he says, reporting what he says all contribute to the overall degradation of language and meaning.

That was January or February. I don’t want to scroll back through Facebook’s impossibly clunky navigation to find the specific date. At the time, it seemed clear that journalists were going to have to take a different tactic. I finished the above quote with this: “If he says something, report the truth without the lie.” I still think that’s important, but I didn’t count on one factor, and it’s the reason I’ve barely gotten anything written this month.

It’s the noise. Even good words get lost in this much noise. I know, because I’m trying to read good stuff, too, but the temptation is to say too much about what is happening, because thanks to his twitter and the circus that is his communications team, there is always something to say, and it’s not normal, day-to-day shit that needs to be said; it’s commentary on the absurd or the shocking or the vile or the bigoted. When the knob is always set to high, all language is functioning under too much pressure; we recoil from so much absurdity, and language that attempts to draw us back toward the truth is perceived as too much, overstated, exaggerated. We have already watched the degradation of truth in the context of Church and politics, such that now conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists can’t be bothered to challenge any pronouncement, any executive order, any outrage because Trump is their guy—is God’s guy.

What happens now is the competing truth claims will be stripped of the necessity of being truthful, and in the place of truthiness, we will embrace an agenda of linguistic pragmatism. If the words get what I want done done, then they are “the truth.” I have no idea how long we’ll cling to notions of truth, as we no longer have even the simulacra of truthfulness in political discourse, and now that evangelicals are abandoning truth in religious discourse, we are going to inherit a strange, strange world where the “will to power” will trump truth (sorry). It’s the dark half of Nietzsche’s vision of a world devoid of gods, and in answer to the madman’s question of what we will put in God’s place, the answer, as Nietzsche knew, was power. I’m certain he wouldn’t even be surprised that the Church was leading the charge toward its own corruption, nor would Dostoevsky, who knew a Church joined to a state apparatus no longer needs a Christ. Power fills the vacuum left by an absent Messiah, but the noise comes first.

Pastoral Conversion

First thing this morning, I saw Jonathan Merritt’s interview with Eugene Peterson, the headline of which was subtle:

Eugene Peterson on changing his mind about same-sex issues and marriage

No idea where that story is headed…

For the uninitiated, Eugene Peterson has been the rock-solid, boring, erudite, committed, faithful pastor that many pastors aspired to be. He founded a Presbyterian church in Maryland, and then pastored it for 29 years before retiring. He’s been a prolific writer, too, especially in the genre of pastoral literature.

I have to admit something embarrassing before proceeding, though. When I was a Christian, I read a ton of C.S. Lewis. I even took an undergrad class that focused on all the Narnia books, as well as his space trilogy. (The class was awesome; the space trilogy is terrible, especially when it devolves into lurid Arthurian nonsense in book three. Book two is sort of worth reading.)

     
For pastors, reading is both a survival mechanism—there are damn few people you can really talk to, after all—and an inspiration. All those sermon ideas have to come from somewhere, and books and movies are a good place to mine ideas. Lewis wrote “theology” so that people could feel smart and satisfied about choosing Christianity. They typically fall into the category of apologetics. Peterson’s books are in a different category, though, and I say this with respect: they are not the sort of books most church folks care to read. Peterson writes so that people act like Christians, a lost art form, for sure. That one of them is titled A Long Obedience in the Same Direction should tell you all you need to know about Peterson’s methodology vis-a-vis Christian behavior.

Eugene Peterson is the tortoise to the hare, and that is sort of what people should want in a pastor. Unfortunately, the world has not gone that way, and Peterson has rightly spoken out against “pastorpreneurs,” and how fucking great is that portmanteau? If you’re not a consumer of evangelical twitter, you probably missed the firestorm today. Peterson’s famous, easy-to-read translation of the Bible, called The Message, has been adopted by churches all over the U.S. and Canada, primarily because it is faithful to the message of the Bible without getting bogged down in Elizabethan English or religious constructions that are more faithful to ideology than a life lived. In what will come as a surprise to no one who is familiar with conservative evangelicals, Peterson has been disowned by notable church leaders, and Lifeway, the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, may stop selling The Message, according to a story in Christianity Today.

This is all so pitifully predictable, and while I will unhappily track the progress of this story, the main point here has naught to do with Eugene Peterson, except that he walked into a revelatory moment in American evangelicalism. Why is it such a huge deal that a retired pastor has finally said that homosexuality is not that big of a deal, and that if he were a pastor today, he’d marry a gay couple? What is the obsession with human sexuality that makes the conservative evangelical church an angry, bitter witness in the world? Why is a pastor who has served faithfully and written with care and integrity such an enemy when he changed his mind? And how in the hell is anyone served by removing a solid, modern translation of the Bible from the shelf of a bookstore because the writer believes things that he did not put in the text? What breeds this form of herd lunacy?

The answer is simple, really. Having abandoned all biblical admonitions that would impinge on their lives, this sect of evangelicals has chosen two tribal markers to signify their faith: human sexuality and abortion. They have long since abandoned the Ten Commandments, even as they lobby to have stone monuments placed on government property with the erstwhile ethical guidelines to serve as a totem, despite it being bereft of power and authority. They do not keep the Sabbath. They take the Lord’s name in vain regularly—a commandment that has to do with actions done in the “name of the Lord,” not using naughty language.

They covet, divorce with impunity, kill “the enemy” regularly, bear false witness on political talk shows and from pulpits, and make idols of all manner of power, wealth, status and racial privilege.

In short, they need something to prove that they are faithful children of God. Alas, the commandments are too great a burden, so they choose things that don’t touch their lives. Until they do. And then, some of those who have been affected by a pregnant teen or gay child undergo a second conversion, or deconversion, if you will. Those who remain demand adherence to the two rules that matter: thou shalt not be gay, and thou shalt not terminate a pregnancy. It’s a sad, truncated message of grace, and their own sacred text warns them against themselves in words attributed to St. Paul: “Having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof: from such, turn away.”

Sycophant-in-Chief

As a former pastor, I still have visceral responses to pastors who behave in ways that make it impossible for them to exercise moral or pastoral authority. Robert Jeffress has been the most egregious offender lately. The senior pastor of First Baptist Dallas went fanboy yesterday in the Oval Office. I just don’t think obsequious and fawning should ever describe a minister of any faith. He’s clearly as unfit as his hero to carry out his tasks. Even the Southern Baptist Convention deserves better.

More problematic, though, is the admonition to ignore the “fake news media.” Who exactly comprises the fake news media? Does he include the outlets currently reporting on Donald Trump, Jr.’s meeting with a Russian attorney? The sloppy and partisan use of vague language comes far closer to electioneering and pandering than it does to using words of wise counsel for his congregants. He might just as well put on the jester hat, except jesters were prophets of a sort. Jeffress seems unable to find the truth he claims to represent, and it’s clear he’s guilty of violating the third commandment.