Saturday, November 29, 2008

This is My Truth, Tell Me Yours, Part 3

Oooh, give me something to believe So many down on their knees It baffles me, baffles me Oooh, give me something to believe So many down on their knees It baffles me, baffles me --Lucky Boys Confusion, "Something to Believe" It happened about two years ago. I was finishing my last semester up at Western and spending just about every other weekend back at home, mostly because of Her. I'd pick up an Emergent-style Sunday night service at my church, then head back, usually pretty late, again because of Her. The night in question the church was doing a special Sunday night service. Bill Hybels, the founder of Willow Creek, Chicago's own Six Flags Over Jesus, was doing an interview with Bono that was being simulcast at churches all over the country. It was during the height of the One campaign and Bono was trying to drum up support from the sleeping giant of social movements: the evangelical/fundamentalist church. After the simulcast we had a conversation about how crazy it was that Bono was putting so much effort in to positioning himself as an evangelical Christian. We both knew he wasn't one, we both knew that what he was saying was probably a damn good idea and there wasn't anything that should keep a Christian from getting behind it. But we both knew that he had to play that card to drum up the necessary support. It was sad, we decided. Bono was basically manipulating evangelical Christians in to doing their Christian duty to help others. Fast forward a couple years. I was asking the wife of a Lutheran pastor what they were doing for Thanksgiving. She told me they were taking Thanksgiving to the convalescent center where her mother-in-law lives, which was good because it allowed them to share dinner with some of the residents who don't have family. "You're just too disgustingly good, you know that?" I asked. "You're making the rest of us look bad." "Oh, no, we're not that good." "You don't understand. I came from the evangelical tradition, where everyone is totally focused on making sure that they look like they're good and never actually get around to doing good." "Well we know we're bad, so we just go and do what we're supposed to do." That night I got an email. It was a mass email update I get on a regular basis from an itinerant evanglist I knew out in the western extremes of the state. I'd love to stop getting the emails, but I have a perverse fascination with reading them, email no longer has that helpful "block sender" feature, and this is the last guy to whom I want to explain why I don't want to get his emails anymore. I don't want to be evangelized to in general, and definitely not from him specifically. Anyway, the email was a desperate plea for help. He knew a guy who liked a different kind of church than his wife and didn't know what to tell the guy, so he aired the dude's laundry out to a lot of people on the internet in a mass mailing. My response was, "So the fuck what," especially since it was pretty clear from the email that it wasn't, like, tearing the marriage apart or anything. These three stories form the backbone of an idea that I never really got around to articulating in this post. Tayi was absolutely right to point out in this comment and blog post that we can survive just fine as a culture without a strong Christian component, thank you very much. We don't need a temple of Zeus down the street to appreciate The Illiad, after all. The same thing probably goes for a church and Craig Ferguson's Between the Bridge and the River. Pop culture, too, is doing just fine without Over the Rhine, Eric Peters, and The Elms. And, to be perfectly honest, given a choice between making sure everyone has a chance to get rocked out by The Elms in the workman-like fashion one would expect of a band from Indiana and removing the entire concept of Nickelback from rock music history, I'd probably choose the latter. It's the mathematics of addition by subtraction working against the lads of The Elms. Culture as a whole, however, suffers from the walls surrounding evangelical Christianity. Think of how much time was wasted last Christmastime with the breathless reports from the front lines of the "War on Christmas." Think of all the people who voted yes on Prop 8 because they've been told that a prime component of Christianity requires a belief that homosexuality is a sin against god. And if you think that the separation of pop culture and the larger culture isn't intertwined, I've got bad news. The One campaign was an absolute no-brainer for Christians to get behind. It's right there in the Bible. The early Christians sold what they had and gave to others according to their need (gasp! Communism! Except not really, but I don't really feel like going in to the nuances of communal living as depicted in Acts 2 v. Communism just now). There's also a strong flavor of the Old Testament in evangelical Christianity, but very little mention of the Year of Jubilee, the commandment of the Lord to return all land to its original owner every fifty years, which came at the end of a cycle of seven periods wherein all debts were to be forgiven on the seventh year. And, for that matter, one doesn't even need to go back to the Old Testament to get the Year of Jubilee. The passage given most often as the official start of Jesus' ministry on Earth was when he walked in to a synagogue and read from the scrolls. Which passage did he read? The one that claimed release of the captives and the Year of the Lord's Favor, i.e. the Year of Jubilee. What is Bono's One campaign, exactly? Third World debt-relief. It might not come on a seven- or fifty-year cycle, but that sure as hell sounds like a Year of Jubilee to me. So why did Bono have to sit down with a celebrity pastor and talk the evangelical talk to try to sell the Year of Jubilee to people who are supposedly Jesus's representatives on Earth? Because evangelical Christian culture is dedicated to some of the most pointless navel-gazing possible. Many, if not most, in that world will not do anything unless it's an idea properly vetted by an appropriate authority, like, say, celebrity megachurch pastor Bill Hybels. Then, of course, there was the farce of the McCain/Obama forum at Saddleback Church during the election. Rick Warren never openly supported either candidate, but the questions he asked were the evangelical talking points, on which Obama delivered thoughtful answers (save the whole, "That's above my pay grade," one on abortion, for which he later expressed regret) that didn't satisfy the crowd, while McCain gave the appropriate talking point responses as if reading from a teleprompter and looking like he was trying to summon the words in a poorly learned, non-native language and got rousing applause. Rick Warren was fortunate I had no respect for him to begin with, because that little stunt would have lost me forever. You don't get to be unbiased just because you say you are, Ricky-boy. Technically speaking, pop culture might not be diminished by the exclusion of Christian pop culture. Hell, in the case of PlusOne it's probably made slightly better (then again, I saw the Jonas Brothers for the first time during the halftime show of the Cowboys/Seahawks game. That's five minutes of my life I'll never get back). But that split on seemingly pointless grounds is indicative of a much larger and more worrisome split. It's like, for instance, someone wasting their time worrying that some guy is going to Hell because he goes to a different church than his wife or some such. Oh, and the root of the problem wasn't theology, but worship style. Like it or not, Christians are here and will be here for the foreseeable future. The strongest representatives we have of Christianity, though, are the jackasses and con artists. That's mostly because the people we should be looking towards as Christian examples are too busy making Thanksgiving dinner for people who don't have family to rant and rave on television or write self-serving books about how to be the "right kind" of Christian. And, for the record, this is an exact mirror of the problem with Islam at the moment. Osama Bin Laden does not represent Islam any more than Fred Phelps represents Christianity. There was a recent incident where a bunch of guys who were probably paid by Al Qaeda threw acid on girls going to school in Pakistan. The attackers were captured and will probably be killed and a Pakistani official said, in reference to the attack, "This is not Islam." It might be more horrific than any stories we have in the United States right now, but there are a lot of Christians who would say the exact same thing about their religion while shaking their heads at Fred Phelps and his God Hates Fags campaign. Yet a lot of those same Christians out in California voted yes on Prop 8 back a couple weeks ago. If asked, they would probably say something to the effect of, "I don't have anything against gays, but I don't think they should be allowed to get married." I've got news for you. If you're going to construct a sentence with, "I don't have anything against [these people], but I just don't think they should be allowed [this right]," then you have something against them. Change it to, "I don't have anything against black people, but I don't think they should be allowed to vote," and you're a bigoted jackass. You're not allowed to not be a bigoted jackass just because the civil rights in question don't have to do with the color of another guy's skin or because you think it's a totally gross when two dudes get it on. Gay marriage is a civil issue. Marriage, as far as it is attached to the law code of the United States, has nothing to do with marriage within the church. It's the same word, but with two different meanings, much like I could say "cool" and be referring to temperature or popularity and you would know of what I speak due to context. So when I say "marriage" as a civil union issue, I'm talking about rights and discrimination. The fact is, too, that for a while I was one of those, "Well call them civil unions and let's get on with our lives," people. I'm not anymore. Call them marriages. First of all, again, it's an issue of semantics. Second, this falls under Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board and that whole thorny "separate but equal" thing. And we have to talk about this as a civil rights issue. We have to talk about it as a societal issue. It's not just about sex or the shape of genitalia. It's about next of kin rights and hospital visitations and insurance coverage. Adam's work is legally obligated to allow him to cover Eve under his insurance policy, but wouldn't be if it were Steve. If Adam dies without a will, Eve is the default recipient of his estate. Steve isn't. These aren't small things. These aren't to be taken lightly. As long as we're building a wall between Christian and non-Christian in America we will not be able to move forward as a society. The pop culture divide allows Christians to build their own parallel world where they have their own rock music and book stores and movies and websites and everything else. It also allows them to have their own panicked discourse about how they will be forced to let their kids learn that homosexuality is okay in their schools or be horrified by the words "Happy Holidays" at the mall. It allows them to think there's something subversive in believing in Jesus. The worst part about it is, though, that those on the other side of the wall won't be able to have discourse with them. Schools should be teaching that homosexuality is okay. It's not going to turn a straight kid gay, but it might well help that straight kid decide not to beat up the gay kid. Isn't that a good thing? Should I even have to ask? Since they are quite powerful, both politically and monetarily, it also forces someone like Bono to pander to them to get them to sign on with the One campaign. Even if the One campaign is the sort of thing that should have been started in a church, not forced through the doors by a pop star with an English-Christianese dictionary.

11 comments:

jessa said...

Yes, yes, yes; a thousand times over. For this post and many others. (And apologies for never getting around to writing you back yet.)

I've been having the whole, "just because 'marriage' is the word used in both church and legal contexts doesn't make it the same thing" conversation with come evangelical friends. I like them. They are nice people. They are smart people. Usually. But when it comes to challenging their pastors, even on such a straightforward issue of being semantically wrong, they suddenly turn into lemmings. If their church has made no official comment on an issue, they can continue being smart. Maddening.

Also: I am now eager to read Rapture Ready on account of your review of it. Part out of the guilty pleasure of seeing others tear evangelicals to shreds. But also for the same reason I keep coming back to read the blog of someone I knew several years ago but spoke very little to: because it makes me feel relatively normal. Much of the critiques you and I have for evangelicals are similar to the critiques I make of the mental health care industry. But, I am finding others, like you, who share my views on evangelical culture and not finding many others who share my views on mental health care. Sure, there are many who hate it, but most critique the big things, like professionals raping patients and forced electroshock, rather than the, apparently, more subtle things like the way professionals relate interpersonally with patients. Here, you aren't letting the huge problems in Christianity, i.e. the Crusades, slide, but you are focusing elsewhere, on the more maddenly unrecognized-by-insiders problems.

(I apologize if my comparison of critiques made no sense. I can try again if you like. Also, I don't mean to shove mental health care on you as a problem to consider, just to say that you are giving me solidarity in both my critique of evangelicals, for obvious reasons, and of mental health care, because your critique of evangelicism is similar, I have no one else offering solidarity, and because I think that if you had experience mental health care you would find similar problems.)

Geds said...

Don't feel bad. If I had a nickel for every time I forgot to email someone back I'd have a shitload of nickels...

Also, I don't remember where that line came from, but I love it.

I can't presume to tell you much of anything about the mental health profession, but I do have one story. Which I may or may not have told already somewhere around here, but it totally fits.

I went on a date once with someone who was just finishing up her Ph.D in psychology. She told me she was a "radical behaviorist," which basically meant that she came from a field that said every human behavior is the result of training (y'know, Pavlov's dogs and all). After about five minutes of conversation on the topic all I could think was, "Holy crap, I'm listening to a fundamentalist."

I (intentionally) tried discussing dreams and she responded by dismissing the concept and basically telling me I was an idiot for using words like "subconscious," because the subconscious doesn't exist. So I asked where thought comes from and she said that they're an extremely complex behavior because of [insert hand wave here]. As I recall, she used the word "thought" to define thought as behavior, which was pretty funny to me. Later on she told me that right after she chose her discipline she read that it was dying out. I said, "Gee, I wonder why."

Long story short, if I'm reading your comment right, I can totally understand why you (with you being both "jessa" and the editorial you) would see a problem. I can also totally see where there would be a massive problem. From a scientific perspective our knowledge of the human mind is mostly telling us that there's a hell of a lot we don't know yet. Yet the various schools of psychology have a tendency to behave in ways similar to religions. They have their holy books, i.e. the texts written by Freud or Skinner or Bandura, none of whom knew everything on the topic, especially as we move back a hundred years or so. By the time they've gotten to the point where they can set up a practice, they've given a lot of time and money to their education and are kind of invested in the whole thing. Add to that the general human tendency to say, "You believe something different than me. You're wrong and I'm right," and you've got a recipe for disaster.

I would like to think that your average psychologist is only interested in helping people, but I would not be surprised to learn that some (many, most?) are even more interested in proving themselves right and delivering papers at conferences...

Fiat Lex said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Fiat Lex said...

*pouncewhee!* Geds is back! I heard you had been crazybusy of late, so I'd stopped checking for a day or two, alas for me. Good to see your excellent words again!

(Also, in case no one else had told you, Dave's phone is working as of Saturday. We really must arrange to visit you sometime!)

Aye, Christian congregations I've been in have contented themselves with sending out representatives on "missions trips" to suitably exotic locations. Or paying charitable organizations with slick Powerpoint presentations to help people for them.

But then our very own flutterheaded Paula, at whose hippie views my relatives will sigh and frown and shake their heads, spent her T-Day volunteering at a place that gives away classy, restaurant style T-Day feasts to needy families. And bugging me and her son to go with her next year, despite his *coughcough* great love of socializing with strangers and my equally great love of doing things which closely resemble working at a restaurant.

But it's the thought that counts. At least when encouraging others to participate in one's current favorite form of admirable charitable action.

I'm actually surprised Bono was able and willing to jump through all the necessary hoops, and equally surprised that the Six Flag Over Jesus crowd was able and willing to let him. I hadn't realized U2 had evangelical street cred. Have no churchy people ever heard "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me"?

Though I suppose there are enough Xtians who recognize the AIDS epidemic in Africa, at least, as a real epidemic whose victims need real help, rather than a "punishment from God" sort of epidemic. While there are few people who would come right out and say that people who gets AIDS are being divinely punished for promiscuity, many more suspect it silently in their hearts. And are less likely to donate to AIDS-related charities because of it.

And props for an efficient and cogent summary of the case for gay marriage. Marriage is primarily an economic institution! Whatever else it may be depends upon the beliefs espoused by the spouses! Why do people not get that this is a classic separation of church and state controversy?

Saw something over on Pharyngula that might amuse you, by the by. Crazy guy who thinks that because TV broadcasts have monitors visible to persons on set, those monitors are of course displaying him, the viewer.

Emails PZ wishes he didn't get

All that's really necessary to become that paranoid is to confuse the "things you fear" with "things that can actually hurt you." Puts one strongly in mind of the sort of people who will say, "Because these people behave and believe differently than me, their behaviors and beliefs constitute an attack on me and my beliefs."

Once you make the mental shift, it's all only a matter of degree.

Geds said...

Yeah, evangelicals have adopted Bono as one of their own, apparently without bothering to actually listen to any of U2's lyrics. It's just a given that he's Christian or something.

My favorite story was the time I was watching some video the international parachurch organization I used to work with put out to convince people to go to some seminar or retreat or something. All of the sudden I thought, "Wait, am I listening to 'Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For?'" I was about seven months away from losing all respect for that group, but overlaying that song with stuff about going deeper in to faith didn't really help...

And I don't know how "back" I am just yet. I'm still pretty busy, but the whole need to write thing is staying pretty itchy, so, yeah.

Anonymous said...

I saw the Jonas Brothers too, for the first time on thxgvg. thanks to dvr's fast forwarding, that was 5 minutes I got back almost immediately.

I disagree with your stance on gay marriage. I don't want to lay out all my arguments, but I believe it's perfectly alright to not give a shit about gay marriage if you aren't looking to get one. I also think this is a big exploitation of liberal guilt, and I'm not into manipulation.

Geds said...

Um, way to dismiss the topic out of hand. You're perfectly allowed to not give a shit, but there's a vast gulf between, "I don't care," and, "I'm actively opposing your right to participate in this aspect of our society." And saying that it's just an attempt to assuage my liberal guilt isn't going to get you anywhere.

This isn't about liberal guilt. It's about liberalism. Liberal guilt is simply the thing that rose up to explain why people don't read the Bible, but still feel that there are things they are supposed to do, yet are not doing them. What I'm talking about here is classic liberalism in the sense of the Enlightenment.

Civil Rights are an ever marching issue that are constantly balanced between the need to give as many people as possible the right to do as much as possible and the need to defend from the tyranny of the majority. I've already argued that sex is the least of the concerns with gay marriage, and that from a societal perspective it is important to give partners of both same and opposite sexes the same rights in time of crisis and that to do so in any way other than granting marriage would be a violation of the ruling in Brown v. Board and, therefore, should be struck down by the SCOTUS. This is a purely logical argument reached without any sense of guilt whatsoever. Gay marriage neither breaks my leg nor picks my pocket and a lack of gay marriages unnecessarily removes important civil rights from some citizens of the United States who have committed no crime (well, except for Sodomy Laws, which have now been ruled un-Constitutional).

Meanwhile, look at the groups who voted for and backed Prop 8 the most. They were largely (only?) religious organizations and mostly the fundamentalist spectrum thereof. This is a tyranny of the majority situation and exactly the sort of thing the Enlightenment wanted to fight against, especially since the anti-gay marriage arguments were built on lies and fear-mongering. There is no logical reason why allowing gay marriage will devalue existing marriages or cause otherwise not-gay people to suddenly become gay. Yet we're supposed to believe that will magically happen. Simply having the right doesn't mean people are going to run right out and do it. I mean, by that logic I should be married right now...

Tayi said...

"As long as we're building a wall between Christian and non-Christian in America we will not be able to move forward as a society."

I think I may agree with you. At least, I agree about the end goal. Reducing the social and political influence of the religious nuts would do a great deal to make the world a better place. Maybe the best way to do that is to expose the church to the world outside; I was reading, somewhere, that the single best way to cure someone of homophobia is to reveal that one of their close family members or friends is gay, so I suppose it might work out. But, I still worry that exposing crazy ideas to the mainstream will just make crazy mainstream.

When it comes to abortion, for example, you have your crazy pro-life fringe that wants to ban birth control, but then there's the middle, people who like the idea of babies but are willing to let other people make their own decisions. The middle is the decisive voting block, and if the pro-life fringe successfully frames the debate as about cute little babies instead of about women's power to control their own bodies, abortion rights could go out the window.

So would breaking down the barriers between pop culture and church culture act more like finding out your brother is gay, or like putting up billboards with pictures of babies and anti-abortion messages? That's the key question for me, but I don't know the answer.

Sniffnoy said...


I went on a date once with someone who was just finishing up her Ph.D in psychology. She told me she was a "radical behaviorist," which basically meant that she came from a field that said every human behavior is the result of training (y'know, Pavlov's dogs and all). After about five minutes of conversation on the topic all I could think was, "Holy crap, I'm listening to a fundamentalist."

I (intentionally) tried discussing dreams and she responded by dismissing the concept and basically telling me I was an idiot for using words like "subconscious," because the subconscious doesn't exist. So I asked where thought comes from and she said that they're an extremely complex behavior because of [insert hand wave here]. As I recall, she used the word "thought" to define thought as behavior, which was pretty funny to me. Later on she told me that right after she chose her discipline she read that it was dying out. I said, "Gee, I wonder why."


To go a bit off topic, this really bugs me. I mean, she was at some actual school, yes? Where, you know, they actually study these things? And she wasn't just some undergrad, she was doing her PhD. Meaning she was actually doing research on this.

So how can you be doing all that, and end up, as, well, any sort of "-ist"? (In the sense the suffix is used in "radical behaviorist", not in the sense it's used in "psychologist"). Psychology is a science. Maybe not one with much theory behind it yet, but a science. One where people care about experimental design. One where they do experiments on, y'know, real people.

Even if you yourself don't intend to honestly study psychology, how can you be completing a PhD, at a school, where there are actual psychologists, who know their stuff, and how to design experiments, and not only end up with a conclusion that is obviously wrong, regarding not a field you're unfamiliar with but one you're completing your PhD in, but also sound so certain of it? Hell, a classic problem scientists have in speaking to the public is that even things they are certain of, to many people they don't sound certain of, because of all the qualifiers they use to make sure they're being sufficiently precise.

This just shouldn't be happening. It makes no sense. Maybe in a department that is less "studying real things" and more "making shit up because there's nobody to contradict us", but psychology's supposed to have gotten past that by now.

Or, in short, in any science, "-ist" should always be "one who studies", not "one who follows" or "one who espouses". (Although admittedly it gets a bit fuzzy at, say, "string theorist", where because there's so little to back up the theory, you're probably only going to be studying it if you expect it to be right. But that's still not even close to what's going on with that "radical behaviorist". Also, awful math pun: Algebraic geometers are radical idealists!)

Anonymous said...

Prop 8 was Christian based, yes, but it went through in FLA because of the Cubans, and in CAL because of the blacks. My theory on that is cause a kid in a school in South/East L.A. or Little Havana with 2 daddies is getting the shit kicked out of him. And it's justifiable for people who live in those neighborhoods not to want that. That's my reasoning. Not fear-mongering, "I might turn out gay just because it's now legal for me to marry Peter Gammons" (We'll move to Singapore if we have to to get that done), not "All these same sex marriages have ruined the value of my opposite sex marriage." (Opposite sex marriages have done a fine job of devaluing themselves, TYVM.) It's all about what happens next.

Jessica said...

the "shitload of nickels" line is from Baseketball Not the world's greatest movie, but hey, I've seen worse.