Dear GQ (and Fellow Christians): The Bible Is Not a Book

Image result for the bible gq
Wrong Bible?

The latest front in the seemingly unending culture wars is Bible-believing Christians versus GQ.

In case you are blessedly ignorant of what’s been happening, allow me to ruin your day.

First, GQ decided to publish a snarky, irreverent piece essentially saying: “These 21 books are almost universally considered great. They actually suck. Read these other 21 thematically similar books instead.”

Now, obviously, the goal of a listicle like this is clicks. Fans of the dissed books will express their outrage, whether feigned or genuine, GQ will reap the ad-revenue and brand-expansion benefits, and the world spins on.

End of story, right? Well, no.

12. The Bible

The Holy Bible is rated very highly by all the people who supposedly live by it but who in actuality have not read it. Those who have read it know there are some good parts, but overall it is certainly not the finest thing that man has ever produced. It is repetitive, self-contradictory, sententious, foolish, and even at times ill-intentioned.

The takes, they were hot.

Continue reading Dear GQ (and Fellow Christians): The Bible Is Not a Book

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Quarterly Book Update: Tolstoy, Levine, du Bois, Etc.

Book listFor the past few years, I’ve been posting quarterly updates of what I’ve been reading on Facebook with little two- or three-sentence reviews of what I thought. And now I transliterate it here, so that the five people who read me on my Facebook page can see the same post on my blog! It’s called cross-promotion or something. Deal with it. (Links go to my typically more in-depth Goodreads reviews.)

1. Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis (1956) – This retelling of the myth of Psyche and Cupid is quite good. It gave me a whole new respect for Lewis as a writer of more than “just” children’s fantasy and Christian apologetics. If you liked Gaiman’s Norse Mythology, you should give this a read because it’s better. *ducks*

2. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (2017) – Easily one of the best novels of 2017, if not the entire decade, if not this generation. Everyone should read it. Everyone.

Continue reading Quarterly Book Update: Tolstoy, Levine, du Bois, Etc.

Hello Again

So it’s been a while.

I started this blog way back in 2011, primarily because I was starting graduate school, and I wanted to chronicle my exploration of what I was learning and how that affected my beliefs. Somehow, I managed to get up and write several mornings every week – posts that summarized class lectures or textbooks, others that provided more political musings and eventually a few big series that explored topics separate from my education but to which my studies had pointed me.

By happy coincidence, our three children were either too young for school or being homeschooled, so I could write all the way until I had to go to work without much interruption – no lunches to make, hair to brush, teeth to double-check, screaming matches to referee. But as the kids got older, they needed more help in the mornings, and so it became harder and harder to keep this up. I could feel it drifting away, and although I don’t recall a specific decision to stop publishing, essentially that’s the choice I made.

I wish I’d kept it up.

A lot has happened since 2013, when I last posted regularly – most of it in 2015 and 2016, when I took a new job and moved several hundred miles away, and graduated with my M.A. in modern and American Christianity.

When I was last blogging actively, I hesitated to provide too many details about myself because I worked where I went to school, and I wasn’t sure how my employers would react to my ruminations. That was probably an excess of caution, but I worked in the fundraising arm of the university while openly questioning things like the virgin birth. If the wrong donor found the wrong post, it’s not hard to see how that could get awkward.

But that’s not really a concern anymore. So I don’t mind saying now that I earned that degree from Abilene Christian University, a fairly small liberal-arts school in West Texas affiliated with a cappella Churches of Christ.

We moved from Abilene to the Central Texas Hill Country in 2015, and I graduated a year later. Around the same time, we started attending our local Episcopal Church, which we love. How we joined the long line of former evangelicals to become Episcopalians is probably worth its own post.

Not only do I wish I’d kept blogging to better keep track of my thoughts as I wrapped up my degree, which included some work I’m really proud of regarding mid-century Churches of Christ and their responses to evolution and the civil rights movement, but I wrote a lot of words on Facebook about the 2016 election whose reach was necessarily limited to my friends. I’ll try to fill in the gaps with some flashback posts.

Finally, I wish I’d kept it up because, let’s be honest, this thing was doing pretty well. I’d had some success with Rachel Held Evans and Andrew Sullivan linking to the blog, with Fred Clark throwing some bones. Traffic seemed to be pretty steady, and there was some fairly consistent commentary back and forth from regular visitors. When you stop maintaining a site for five whole years, that pretty much all goes away. It’s probably not born from the highest and purest motives, but I hate the idea of starting from scratch.

But here I am, looking at starting over anyway. Why?

Because I need to write. And while I’ve had some papers published and continue to work on academic publishing and freelance writing, blogging allows almost infinite flexibility in what I choose to say and how I choose to say it.

In this blog’s very first post, somehow written almost seven years ago, I said:

Join me, won’t you? For perhaps the first time in my life, I can’t promise any answers, but I hope we can have some stimulating discussion and share in some amazing revelations as God reveals more and more about his nature to this student.

Let’s become disoriented together and see how God reorients our lives.

A new job, a master’s degree and hundreds of blog posts later, it’s more of a struggle to embrace the humility of that initial post. My brain has always tended toward figuring out and then disseminating the answers. It’s the old journalism background, I guess.

But one thing I have learned over the past seven years is that the life of faith is one of constant disorientation and reorientation. So I re-extend the invitation: Join me, won’t you? Let’s embrace the questions, the doubts, the struggles and see what God turns them into.

Billy Graham’s Faltering Legacy

When Billy Graham was born in 1918, American Christianity was engaged in something of a civil war between Fundamentalists and modernists.

As Christians, mainly in colleges and big-city churches, increasingly accepted scientific explanations for the origins of life and accordingly changed the way they viewed the creation and transmission of the Bible, they were subjected by conservatives within their denominations to heresy trials, sometimes successfully ousted from positions of leadership.

That division was memorably described by Harry Emerson Fosdick, the famed pastor of First Presbyterian Church in New York City, who in 1922 – when Graham was a toddler – delivered his sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”

“Their apparent intention,” Fosdick declared, “is to drive out of the evangelical churches men and women of liberal opinions.”

Continue reading Billy Graham’s Faltering Legacy

The Power of Fear in Politics

The other night, I went to a local candidate forum organized by the various Republican Party groups in the county where I live. It featured people running for offices from justice of the peace all the way up to U.S. senator.

Where I live in Central Texas, the Republican primary functions as the general election for local races. Even this year, in what seems to be shaping up as a big election for Democrats, the chances are minuscule that any of the small handful of Democrats running for county-level races will win any of them.

The ideological hegemony here is smothering. In November 2016, the least-supported Republican in any race on the ballot received 63 percent of the vote. Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton here by 50 points.

Meanwhile, the county sits within various districts that also are overwhelmingly Republican. In the Texas Legislature, it’s part of the 73rd House District, where no Democrats were on the ballot in 2016, and the 25th Senate District, where the incumbent, a hard-core Tea Party conservative, won re-election in 2014 with more than 76 percent of the vote. On the federal level, infamous climate-change denier Lamar Smith has represented the bulk of the county for three decades, defeating his Democratic challenger in the county by 60 points.

The point is: This is a conservative county in a conservative state. Republicans have nothing to fear here.

Which is pretty much the opposite of the message several hundred attendees heard at this forum.

Instead, they were told they should in fact be quite afraid.

Continue reading The Power of Fear in Politics

Book Review: The Friendship of God

933721I finished 2017 by reading Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in Religious Language by Sallie McFague. That title is terrible; it obscures and deadens what is easily one of the most compelling and thought-provoking theological works I’ve read in a long time.

I probably used up most of a highlighter on this book’s 194 pages. Published in 1982, it feels as relevant as ever. Here are some highlights:

  • McFague starts by exploring the importance of metaphors for human learning. We tend to think of metaphors as poetic and rhetorical – “your eyes are deep pools” – when in fact they are essential building blocks in the creation of our respective worlds.
  • She uses the intentionally absurd example of a chair. How do you know a chair is a chair? Because it has the same characteristics as things you identify as chairs. That’s a metaphorical move. Just as you use “deep pools” as the reference for describing “eyes,” you use “chairs” as the reference for this new object you’ve never seen before. This new object is both like and unlike “chair.”
  • Thus metaphors are inherently relational: They forge connections and enhance learning by describing relationships between understood concepts and new ones.
  • Metaphors are also inherently uncertain and filled with tension: They are incomplete and even inaccurate to some degree. Eyes are not actually deep pools. This chair is not identical to previous chair examples. God is not actually our father.

Oops. I gave it away. McFague uses this argument about the essentiality of metaphors to build what she calls a metaphorical theology – a way of talking about God that understands and relies on the importance and tension inherent in metaphors. Continue reading Book Review: The Friendship of God

Alabama and the Power of the Vote

Capture

Sixty million years ago, what is now south-central Alabama was the shore of an ocean. Over time, the continents shifted, sea levels receded, and the nutrient-rich mud deposited by those waves eventually became nutrient-rich black dirt perfect for planting crops like cotton.

Two hundred years ago, the Industrial Revolution and the rise of textile manufacturing made cotton an increasingly vital part of the Southern – and the American – economy. The children and grandchildren of enslaved Africans, kidnapped and brought over the ocean to harvest tobacco in Maryland, Virginia and the Carolinas, were torn from their families, chained together and marched southwest to Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi to expend their bodies scooping bowls of cotton from thousands upon thousands of plants growing in that ancient shoreline. The modern American economy, from which some of us benefit more than others, was built on their backs.

War. Emancipation. Reconstruction. Segregation. The well worn story, still somehow not told often enough or understood well enough. When I visited Alabama to do thesis research two years ago, I was struck by the extent to which the history of those slaves and their descendants has simply been ignored. Jefferson Davis, traitor to his country, has his statue on the grounds of the State Capitol in Montgomery. Down the street, where men and women and children were chained and sold like animals – where their descendants were beaten and brutalized and ghettoized – no marker stands.

At the risk of generalizing too much, Alabama seems to have a knack for ignoring. Forty years after KKK members bombed a Baptist church, killing four black girls, it took a prosecutor named Doug Jones to finally bring them to justice; their identities had long been known to authorities. They were just … ignored. That bombing, in Birmingham in 1963, occurred as the South convulsed with marches and demands. Martin Luther King Jr., a young preacher in the first capital of the Confederacy who every Sunday delivered sermons extolling the need for equality almost literally in the shadow of the statue of the man who led a war to deny that equality to men like King. By 1965, King led a march for voting rights up the same steps where Davis had delivered his inaugural address as president of the nation founded explicitly on the denial of humanity to dark-skinned people.

For decades, the descendants of the enslaved had been denied their voice. In a nation that preaches the power of the vote and the principle of democracy, black men and women had been stripped of that power, and with it their place as true citizens of a country they had been forced to inhabit. Even after the march from Selma to Montgomery left bloodstains in the 60-million-year-old dirt, African Americans found themselves struggling to make themselves heard. Restrictions on voting for convicted felons. Voter ID laws. No early voting. No online registration. Police intimidation at polling places. Voting, the one measure of power granted to every person born in the United States, the primary tool of self-governance, was granted only reluctantly to those who arguably needed it most desperately.

Ignore it or dismiss it how you will, history is always there. That long chain of events leads directly to yesterday’s election of a new senator from Alabama. Yesterday, people of color – many of them residents of that “Black Belt” of south-central Alabama that once was a seashore – overcame obstacles, waited in line for hours and cast provisional ballots after being wrongly classified as “inactive voters.” They did so because, for the first time, the established power structures of the state – which for so long had domineered and silenced them – were vulnerable. That power structure long had said they were unfit to vote because they were black, or because they were female, or both. Today, they told the power structure it was unfit to represent them on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

Against a candidate who embodied everything wrong about the current American political moment – a likely serial sexual abuser of teen girls who, according to his spokesman, “probably” believes homosexuality should be illegal and rejects the rights of Muslims to hold political office, who just this week pined for the days of slavery – people of color, and especially women of color, rose up. As they have been doing for the past year. As they have been doing for generations.

They rose up to take one of the most powerful actions any person in our society can take – an action so consequential its potential use by African Americans sparked dread among white Alabamians for more than a century: They voted. And in so doing, they pulled down a bastion of power that said they should stay in their place, the place carved out for them as women, as people of color.

By all accounts, it wasn’t easy. Progress never is. It takes a long time for that sea to deposit its grains on the beach, imperceptibly building a fertile land in which freedom and equality can eventually take root, even if only after violence and oppression trample it first. It takes persistence, against long odds, against a bloody history too often whitewashed and denied. It takes being assaulted and insulted and gaslighted by monsters who claim the backing of God and sing “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” while you dismantle their corrupt edifices.

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends – with difficulty – toward justice. Nevertheless, they persisted.