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.