Church bulletin

So, I went to church last Sunday, and I’m almost glad that I did. It was a very entertaining service, which at least once tipped toward giggle loop territory.

First, my brother and I left for church after everyone else, neither of us really having any desire to go to Sunday School/Bible Study. I’m pretty sure he’s seen me in the closet, so to speak, mostly because I accidentally left my list of Podcasts open on iTunes the other night, and saw him looking at it. Curse you, “The Atheist Experience,” for coming so early in the alphabet! Anyway, after a fallout between him and my mother a few years back, I suspect he’s got about the same mindset. We listened to The Lonely Island on the way to church, and arrived just before the service started.

Things began with the teeny-tiny choir walking up to the stage from the back of the church, singing “Rejoice in the Lord Always” a capella. Now, maybe it’s just me, or maybe it’s some impulse from some forgotten passage in my youth when I was involved in a church chorus, but the song felt incomplete. I felt the difficult-to-resist urge to add in claps where they would be rhythmically appropriate, i.e.:

Rejoice in the Lord a-always, and again I say rejoice. (Clap clap)
Rejoice in the Lord a-always, and again I say rejoice. (Clap clap)
Rejoice, rejoice, and again I say rejoice. (Clap clap)
Rejoice, rejoice, and again I say rejoice. (Clap clap)

I don’t know, it was like taking the claps out of “Jack and Diane”–without them, there really wasn’t much to the song.

The first Hymn ended up reminding me of this passage in its layers of double-entendre. It wasn’t quite as hilarious, but with all its talk of “raising” and “stones” and “let the cry be heard across the land,” my gutter-mind was rapidly filling. When it got to the last bit, about “prais[ing] him with 10,000 tongues,” I shot a glance at my brother, and we both almost lost it.

Things were uneventful through the brief announcements and the offering and the special music and whatnot. Then the sermon started, and boy do I wish I’d had a tape recorder. It started with standard Easter clichés–it’s a beautiful morning, Jesus is risen, what a wonderful sacrifice, etc. But about two minutes in, it got fun. The pastor explained why Jesus died for everyone’s sins:

As Spock would say, “the good of the many outweighs the good of the few, or the one.”

It took me a second to realize that, yes, he actually said that. My brother groaned, and I just kind of sighed and shook my head. In the absurdity of the moment, I didn’t even realize that he messed up the quote (it’s the needs of the many).

Now, this might have been a moderately good segue into a sermon explaining Christian theology in terms of Star Trek. There are better openings for such a sermon, and I don’t think it would have been appropriate for Easter Sunday, and there’s the absurdity of using atheist Gene Roddenberry’s frequently anti-religious series to frame Christian beliefs, but such a sermon would have been interesting. This wasn’t that sermon; Spock would not be mentioned again.

  • After some more talk about how awesome Jesus’s sacrifice was, the pastor* said that he sometimes wondered what it would be like if Christ came today–then clarified that he meant the first coming, or what if Jesus had waited until the modern day to do his thing.

    Now, I’ve often thought about this very question myself, though obviously not from the same perspective. Given the lack of evidence for Jesus’s existence and the likelihood of much of the story of his life being exaggerated, mythologized, and fabricated, I don’t think there’d be a whole lot of difference, if any. But what if Christianity had never taken hold? What if, like all the other contemporary messianic Jewish spinoff cults, it had fizzled out or never even existed in the first place? What would the world be like?

    That’s usually about as far as I get. For one thing, I don’t have the requisite historical knowledge to be able to imagine that scenario with any kind of detail. For another, say what you will about the Christian church (and I do), but they have been fairly efficient at amassing power, prestige, wealth, and influence in the last 1700 years or so. Without Christianity, what religion would Constantine have chosen? Would that have filled the vacuum left in the absence of Christianity? Would some other religion be able to fill the same niches, spreading to and assimilating from other cultures with the same ceaseless alacrity? One of the key innovations of Christianity, which I credit for much of its success even today, was ease of conversion: all you have to do to become a Christian, as so many preachers will tell you, is hit your knees and accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior. Other religions require you to be born, married, or conquered into the fold, or ask you to go through lengthy, painful, or difficult conversion rituals. Christianity doesn’t even require you to remove your foreskin! Would the replacement religion of Rome have this same flexibility? Would a religion without that trait spread as easily?

    By the time I begin considering a Middle Ages without a Catholic church to fight the Crusades and fund the Universities, I realize that there’s very little chance that a world without Christianity would bear any resemblance to the world with it, except perhaps in those regions where Christianity never flourished.

    That would have made for an interesting sermon, and a far more interesting history lesson or book (in fact, if such a book exists, I’d like to read it). This was not the direction that the pastor chose to go on Sunday. Instead, he paused after that brief “what if” introduction (just long enough for someone to strum some harp strings and for the screen to go all wavy) and then began to read:

    Peter Pumpkinhead came to town,
    Spreading wisdom and cash around
    Fed the starving and housed the poor,
    Showed the Vatican what gold’s for.
    But he made too many enemies
    Of the people who would keep us on our knees.
    Hooray for Peter Pumpkinhead.

    I perked up after the first two words, far more shocked than I was at the Spock reference. Was a pastor, in a church–a Christian church–actually quoting XTC’s “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead”? He was. And he continued to do so.

    Peter Pumpkinhead pulled them all,
    Emptied churches and shopping malls.
    When he spoke, it would raise the roof:
    Peter Pumpkinhead told the truth.
    But he made too many enemies
    Of the people who would keep us on our knees
    Hooray for Peter Pumpkinhead

    At this point, under my breath, I said (quite incredulously) “Is he going to sing the whole song?”

    He was. He went through the whole song, more or less. He fouled up the last line of the third verse (saying “Any kind of law with love’s all right” as opposed to “Any kind of love is all all right”), and I realized after the service that he’d abbreviated the chorus (even when, at the end, he repeated “Hooray for Peter Pumpkin” twice, as it sort of does in the song). The actual lyric is “Hooray for Peter Pumpkin / Who’ll pray for Peter Pumpkinhead?”

    I like the song enough that I picked up the album it’s on (“Nonsuch”) at a used CD store a month or two ago. Here’s the video:

    After finishing the song and the citation, the pastor said something like “Is that what it would be like if Jesus came today? Would we miss the point like that?” Pastor, if your sermon is any indication, then we’d miss the point by a wide, wide margin.

    Now, perhaps I’m way off, but I don’t think “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead” is a pro-religious song. In fact, I read it as the story of a secular messiah, who “tells the truth” against religion, consumerism and probably government. He “empties churches” with his speeches, which makes enemies of “the people who would keep us on our knees”–i.e., religious leaders. I suppose tyrannical governments would fit in as well, but the line has always seemed to have the connotation of prayer to me. The Christ imagery is certainly intentional, and the video makes that even more explicit, but it reads to me more a criticism of the church message than a validation of it.

    Then again, my interpretation is also informed by one of XTC’s other well-known songs. Given “Dear God,” I kind of have an inkling as to what XTC’s thoughts on religion are. Furthermore, I have a hard time believing that anyone in the United States could be familiar with XTC’s version of “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead” (as opposed to the Crash Test Dummies version off the Dumb and Dumber soundtrack) without also being familiar with “Dear God,” which I’d think was the much more popular song. Similarly, I have a hard time believing that anyone would be familiar with either of those songs without knowing “Mayor of Simpleton,” much to my chagrin.

    It’d be like knowing The Beatles for “The Long and Winding Road” and not knowing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” or “Come Together.” Point being, I don’t know how you could pull a positive message about religion out of “Ballad” if you were at all familiar with the band’s other songs, and if you paid any attention to the lyrics, and if you had any sort of moderately orthodox religious views. Either this pastor is very oblivious, very dense, or very keen on irony, and I’m almost certain that the latter isn’t the case.

    So that was pretty entertaining. And while it would have been schizophrenic and borderline disrespectful to hear someone make a sermon out of such a (blatantly, from my perspective) atheistic, anti-religious song, the pastor didn’t follow through. After briefly touching on the meaning of the song (mostly just asking a couple of questions about whether or not it would be like that today) he shook his head and said something to the effect of “let’s get out of that nightmare.” Unfortunately for him, he’d done nothing to characterize his “what if” scenario as nightmarish. In fact, he’d really done nothing to characterize his “what if” scenario–all the characterization was original to the song, and there’s nothing really nightmarish about the story. I could see coming up with a nightmarish scenario where the congregation is made to consider how they would feel as the modern-day Pharisees and Pilates responsible for crucifying the modern-day messiah, but this wasn’t that sermon.

    After this, the pastor went on about various themes related to the day–we’ve all both succeeded and failed in life, we’ve all stepped off the path, and we gather together in part to help each other back onto said path, we all believe in God, we have to practice our faith–you get the idea. He had a tendency to lead down a path with a thematically repetitive series of phrases, culminating in some pithy, obviously telegraphed punchline, after which he would stop and smugly beam as though he’d said the most profound thing ever. The example that really sticks out is the “practice” thing, how we have to practice our faith, and the word “practice” came up so many times in the rambling sermon that it was the closest thing it had to an overarching theme, even though most of the sermon had nothing to do with it. But after one string of phrases about practicing, he said “and practice makes perfect,” and stopped, and grinned this smug grin. Okay, great, not only was it patently obvious that you were going there, but it seems like you’re suggesting that as long as we’re diligent in going to church and following the rules, we can be Jesus.

    I can’t really stress this point enough: in order to be an effective speaker, you really have to have some awareness of what message your audience is getting from your speech. This pastor didn’t have a clue, and it really showed. There were several occasions where I could tell that he expected the audience to be feeling some specific emotion or sensation, but he hadn’t done anything to make them feel that, and so the moment fell entirely flat.

    Anyway, somewhere along the line, he descended into something that I can only describe as the Glurge Gallop. He started telling a story about a pastor who told a story to a congregation–very meta.

    To digress a moment, I suspect that if Jon and I were to come up with a list of rules for bad movies and music to follow, based on our long and storied history of consuming bad media, one of them would be “Don’t make references to better movies/songs.” It pops up an awful lot, actually, where some terrible movie or terrible song will make a throwaway reference to some much better movie or song, either demonstrating that the artist thinks they’re really clever or that they think they’re actually as good as the object of the reference**. If the song or the film is good, then the reference serves whatever purpose is intended–satire, homage, jarring juxtaposition, etc. When the work is bad, the reference only serves as a reminder of how bad the work is. Moreover, it shows that the artist is familiar with better works, which means they don’t even have ignorance as an excuse for the poor quality.

    That’s what this meta-sermon did: by giving a sermon about another pastor giving a better sermon, the pastor really only underscored how bad his sermon was by comparison, and showed that he’d at least been exposed to better sermons, which should have given him some idea as to what makes for a compelling speech.

    This is not to say that the story he told was all that good. A quick Google search turned up many versions (as I’d expected) that have likely been forwarded around in e-mails with tags at the end exhorting believers to forward this message to everyone in their address book, an act for which they will be doubly blessed***. Here’s the closest version I could find with minimal effort. The jist of the first half of the story is that the pastor comes into church and sets an empty birdcage on the pulpit, then proceeds to tell the congregation the story of how he met a small child who had the cage full of birds. He asked what the kid planned to do, and the kid responded that he’d play with them, then when he got tired of them, he’d feed them to his cat. The pastor bought the birdcage from the boy (who named his own price–$2 in the version I heard) and set the birds free.

    On its own, that would have made for a decent start of a sermon, either from the pastor at the church or the one in the story. It’s a parable, and it would make for a decent sermon about how Jesus paid the price to set us free from sin. It would, that is, if not for the last half of the story. The probably-fictional pastor then goes on to tell the exact same story, except with Jesus and Satan in the roles of the pastor and child, and humans in the cage instead of birds. Now, it’s one thing to use a story as a metaphor for what you’re trying to teach, it’s quite another to belabor the point by telling a metaphorical story, then telling the same metaphorical story in a slightly different fashion so that the metaphor smacks you in the ass with its obviousness. The good sermonizer would take the parable of the caged birds and relate the various elements to the story of Christ’s sacrifice; the poor sermonizer writes bad fanfic about Jesus and Satan having a little chat.

    One of the more interesting features about that story was that it included a Jazz interlude of sorts, a place where different people telling the story could be creative and add their own touches to it, much like the chapters of “The Iliad” about the various sorts of boats in the fleet, or the vast majority of The Aristocrats. In this case, it’s the passage where Satan outlines his plans for the caged humans. I can’t recall exactly where the pastor went with this, though I definitely recall “divorce” being in there, and I seem to recall war-related stuff as well. The latter, I’d think, betrays a pretty staggering ignorance of all the places in the Bible where God orders war (and worse). The former just strikes me as odd–I have a hard time seeing divorce as a purely negative thing; certainly happily divorced couples are better than unhappily married ones, right? It seems like the real “devil’s work” there would be causing incompatible couples to fall in love with one another, or pressuring people to marry prematurely or for bad reasons.

    But there I go again, the bleeding-heart liberal godless atheist, wasting time on the reasons why people do “bad” things, rather than just attributing it all to sin and Satan.

    But despite how condescending, repetitive, ham-fisted, and sappy the full story ends up being, I suppose you could craft a decent sermon around it. I don’t know why you’d want to; it seems like the best option for that idea would be to cut out the last half and let the parable stand on its own. Such sermons can work very well; I quite liked the one about gossip in “Doubt,” where the priest told a story about another priest using a parable (though it was a little less meta) to teach a lesson. But again, that parable wasn’t immediately followed by a pedantic retelling where the meanings of all the symbols were made explicit. Regardless, none of these was the sermon that the pastor preached on Sunday.

    No, instead of tying this story into the apparent theme of “practice,” instead of really elaborating on the story, instead of making any connection to “Peter Pumpkinhead,” the pastor whipped out another glurge. This story starts with a dark night in Chicago****, where a homeless boy peddles newspapers on the street. I don’t know if it was the mumbling or just my lack of sleep, but when the pastor started, I thought he said “In ‘Dark Knight,’ in Chicago…” (since that’s where much of the movie was filmed). I thought it would be odd to pull a religious message out of The Dark Knight, but after Spock and XTC, nothing was going to surprise me. Rather than comparing Harvey Dent to Job, though, the pastor went on to relate the linked story, where a boy uses “John 3:16” as a secret password to get food, shelter, and comfort for the night. Go ahead and read the story, it’s sappier by far than the previous one, and this post is long enough without a recap. If you want, you can find it here on the Snopes forums, with some amusing comments.

    Back? Okay, so a small child gets hospitality and charity by citing a chapter and verse. Now, I understand what the point of the story is, but it still seems like the better verse would be Matthew 25:40 (“Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me”) or Matthew 19:14 (“But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven”) or Deuteronomy 15:11 (“Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy”) or any of a dozen other verses about charity, hospitality, and cute Dickensian ragamuffins, rather than just the summary verse of Christianity.

    I honestly don’t remember if the pastor did any follow-up on that story. I remember him saying something at some point about how we haven’t been able to eliminate war and hatred and blahdey blah in 2000 years, and for shame and so forth, but beyond that, the rest of the service is kind of a blur.

    So Spock, XTC, and the licorice whiplash of non sequitur glurges, all connected only by the fact that the same guy was saying them in the same place in the same block of time. I’m not exactly astounded that such a sermon could get made and presented–I’ve seen the same problems in college writing–but I’m a little astounded that a pastor could be complimented for the sermon afterward (admittedly, I don’t know how many people did that, but at least one did). To my parents’ credit, they found the sermon just as inane as I did, and suggested that a lack of self-awareness was a feature of that pastor’s character (“he thinks he can sing, too,” my dad said, or something along those lines). By any reasonable standards, this was a terrible speech, with no overall theme, no single point, just a bunch of half-formed unrelated ideas. At least it was entertainingly bad, I suppose.

    Look, far be it from me to tell Christians how to write their sermons; I’m not their intended audience (or, then again, maybe I am). All I know is that I’m not interested (or swayed) even the slightest bit in sitting on an uncomfortable pew for an hour having someone read me the e-mail forwards they’ve received in the past week. From my perspective, the vast majority of the justification for religion rests in emotion, and a large portion of apologetics arguments are appeals to pathos. I don’t expect sermons to be logically valid or based on sound evidence–then they’d just be lectures–but I do expect that a sermonizer have some awareness of emotional appeals. If you don’t have that, then there’s not a whole lot left–kind of like that song, sans clapping. There’s content, sure, but it’s repetitive and shallow, and there’s no way to get into it.


    *I’m reasonably certain that this church would use a different word. The concept is essentially the same though.

    **Good examples: Gwen Stefani mentions (and uses the bass line from) “Another One Bites the Dust” in “Hollaback Girl,” Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long” is about “Sweet Home Alabama” (and samples “Werewolves of London”), Rihanna’s “SOS” samples “Tainted Love” and name-drops several other ’80s songs, and so forth.

    ***Particularly if they happen to be barely seventeen and barely dressed.

    ****On the Dickensian London side of the city, apparently.

  • On moderate and liberal Christians

    Update: I’ve submitted this post to the Carnival of the Godless, partially in hopes of getting more feedback. I’ll be honest that I’m not entirely happy with how the post turned out (I don’t know that it fits the title, for instance, and I never really got to the point), but I also think it’s an honest examination of my somewhat-muddled and uninformed thought process on the matter. My point is that I’d like to get as many corrections, elaborations, and other responses as possible, so feel free (nay, encouraged) to leave comments.


    The comment thread on this post at the Atheist Experience blog got too long, too fast, for me to weigh in on the subject there. It’s something I’ve given some thought to (but not enough to keep this post from rambling, I’m afraid), so I’m going to write about it here.

    Conventional wisdom says that the fundamentalist, conservative, literalist Christians have the more legitimate claim to the label of Christianity–that they are more the “True Christians” than the liberals and moderates. Conversely, conventional wisdom says that the moderates are the more reasonable Christians, recognizing that the Bible is the product of humans at a particular time, and thus tailoring their beliefs to a changed (and changing) society.

    I don’t think either one of these is quite the case–at the very least, I don’t think that’s the whole story.

    First, there’s the conservatives’ claim to being the “True Christians,” interpreting the bible “literally” and trumpeting mantras like “God said it, I believe it” and so forth. This notion–like the notion that conservative Christians have a monopoly on “family values” and are “traditional”–is one that the fundamentalists have worked very hard to cultivate. The “tradition” of modern conservatism, though it clearly has earlier roots, is really only about a century old–kind of gives the lie to “True Christianity,” I would think. Wouldn’t the Catholics have the most legitimate claim to that? Or the Greek Orthodox church?

    As I mentioned before, there’s no such thing as a “literal” interpretation of any text. The nature of communication makes it damn near impossible. The truth is that fundamentalist Christians and moderate-to-liberal Christians both approach the Bible in basically the same way: picking and choosing passages to cite in order to prop up their pre-existing beliefs. That particular bit reminds me of that Anne Lamott quotation: “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” That applies on a broader level–each Christian has a different concept of God, based on some mish-mash combination of what they believe from (and about) the Bible, what they believe from their church and pulpits, what they believe from the culture, what they believe from personal experience, and what they think ought to be the case. Fundies tend to center on believing that God punishes the wicked, rewards the virtuous, and that the events and teachings in the Bible are more or less accurate–at least, the Old Testament, Revelation, Acts, and the bits written by Paul, anyway. Moderate and liberal Christians tend to seize more on the “loving God” motif, and believe that the “core” teachings of the Bible are valuable, even if some of the more specific bits are the products of outdated politics, dogma, and prejudice. This “core” is largely summed up in the Sermon on the Mount and some of the other red-letter bits, and such Christians use this to handwave away much of the Old Testament (except Psalms, Proverbs, and selected other bits) and some of the Pauline books (mostly the more misogynistic and homophobic parts).

    I don’t feel entirely informed enough to make this distinction, but I’m going to give it a try anyway. For the Dispensationalist Christian (like Tim LaHaye), it seems that the focal point of the Bible is Revelation, and the primary Gospel is Matthew–because it’s the one written to claim thatwhere Jesus fulfills all the Old Testament prophecies. Consequently (or perhaps the other way around), they read the Bible the way Nostradamus’s fans read his works–as a book of otherwise unrelated words and phrases that can be strung together to form accurate prophecies. If you haven’t read anything Fred Clark has to say about the Dispensationalist mindset, you should. They’ll twist, pull, cut, and reinterpret phrases from all over the Bible to create their Rapture/Antichrist/Armageddon narrative. In arguments, this type of Christian tends to pull out the “fulfilled and to-be-fulfilled prophecy” card, citing Jesus’s fulfillment of OT prophecy, prophecies in Isaiah which were said to have been fulfilled in Isaiah, and vague prophecies of the End Times, which have been coming “any day now” for at least a century (and in earlier configurations, two millennia). Things that don’t fit are ignored as applying to a future ‘dispensation,’ whereas things that other Christians would recognize as directed at specific people are almost always talking to the current generation, no matter when that current generation exists.

    For the general conservative fundamentalist, I’d think that the focal book might be Genesis or Exodus (insert snarky comment here about how they never got any farther), but it’s far more likely that their favorite book of the Bible is actually “The Case for Christ” or “Evidence that Demands a Verdict.” Their primary Gospel is John (of which they’ve really only read one passage). Alternately, the preferred Gospel might be Mark, since that’s the one that talks about all the miracles that believers can perform (or even post-Gospel Acts, with Pentecost and speaking in tongues), but again, it depends on the fundie flavor (which I imagine is a lot like Bertie Botts’ every-flavor beans, except without the good ones). These fundies more often in arguments pull out the standard cards–Pascal’s Wager, “look at the trees,” “your God is evolution,” and so forth. I’m pretty sure that these folks are the source of bumper-sticker Christianity–their beliefs are mostly easily summed up in pithy phrases, their arguments for those beliefs are equally pithy, and their knowledge of Christian dogma comes mostly secondhand, from preachers promoting a particular interpretation. They’re casual believers; they haven’t put much thought into why they believe what they believe, or even the details and conclusions that follow from what they believe, but they know that they believe it, and they do so passionately. They can tell you that abortion should be illegal, but not what should happen to mothers who get illegal abortions. They can tell you that homosexuality is a sin, but aren’t familiar with similar sins like shellfish-eating and wearing blended fabric. They’re prepared to defend their beliefs and spread the gospel, so long as they don’t have to answer any follow-up questions. Watch most Atheist Experience episodes to get a feel for this kind of Christian*.

    The moderate Christians tend to be the recipients of the “casual Christian” label, though they certainly aren’t the only ones who deserve it. The conservative fundamentalists generally have shallow, unexamined beliefs, but they believe them fervently; the moderates have similarly shallow, unexamined beliefs, but they are fairly apathetic about it. They might go to church occasionally, or go to a moderate church, and they’ll probably put up some kind of show of faith at Christmas and Easter. Their central Bible book is Psalms, or more likely, “Mere Christianity,” and their favorite Gospel is split between the bits of John that they know (3:16, probably 1:1) and the bits of Luke that they know (mostly the stuff from Luke 2:10-12, or more famously, from Linus in “A Charlie Brown Christmas”). In arguments, these folks often pull the same standard cards as the conservatives, at least to start–Pascal’s Wager, “look at the trees”–but usually end up going down the “well, you can’t know for sure” and “what’s the harm” path rather than the more threatening route of their conservative counterparts. They have their bumper stickers too, and billboards, but they’re more of the simple “God is love” sort of thing.

    I’m going to pause for a moment here to draw a bit more distinction between the conservative and moderate Christians. While I think both groups seize on the same common, popular Bible verses, I think they put different emphases on them. John 3:16, for instance; I’d say that conservatives read it as

    For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, so that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.

    Moderates and liberals, on the other hand, I think read it as

    For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.

    ** Incidentally, I think Catholics read it as

    For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.

    Those wacky Catholics and their guilt.

    The liberal Christians, as I said before, look primarily to the Sermon on the Mount as their focal point for the Bible. There’s a gospel-centeredness to this, which makes it difficult (with my limited knowledge) to speculate on the gospel of choice; my guess would be John, since it’s the pretty one, but it’s possible that (at least among the more historically-savvy ones) it’s Mark, the earliest. They look for what they see as the “core message” of the Bible, which involves as much (if not more) picking and choosing bits as the Dispensationalists, though the bits they pick and choose and twist and reinterpret, obviously, are different ones. The liberals tend to be more informed–directly or indirectly–about the thoughts of various church fathers, classic theologians, and religious philosophers. Or perhaps they’re just informed about different ones; I suppose the average Dispensationalist might know as much about Scofield and Paley as the liberal knows about Weber and Augustine. Liberals generally accept the conclusions of historians and scientists, and they generally adhere to the moral codes of the modern age. They seize onto Jesus’s message of love and acceptance, apply it as much as they can to the rest of the Bible, and handwave away the rest. For Dispensationalists, the stuff they disagree with applies to some other dispensation; for liberals, the stuff they disagree with was mortal flaws that made their way into the book, or matters that applied in another day and time, or just don’t fit with the core message of the Bible. They tend to be less ostentatious with their faith. This is in part because they go with the flow of society, and thus aren’t trying to hold back or turn back progress, so they aren’t constantly waging war on modernism; in part, this is because they actually read the bit where Jesus said not to pray as the hypocrites do, but in the closets, and so they live and let live; in part, this is because they follow some variation of the Protestant ethic, in that they recognize that the best way to glorify God and to win converts is to live well and be a good example for others. I have had very few arguments with such Christians, and I’ve found that they’re most likely to agree with you on most points; they may pull out some theological arguments that propose a Deist god (i.e., any Cosmological or Transcendental argument); they may tell you that the Fundamentalists aren’t “real Christians,” that they “follow Jesus, not the Bible,” and that the Bible was written by people, but they’re just as likely to quote G.K. Chesterton for some reason.

    I think it’s a mistake to think that any of these groups has any claim to the title “True Christian;” in fact, I’m not even sure what such a person would be. Jesus and the Biblical authors wrote so many conflicting things that it’s impossible to pull any coherent philosophy of life from the book without ignoring large swaths of it, and we’re only helping the fundamentalists if we don’t recognize that they’re ignoring just as much of the book as the liberals are. For every “it is an abomination” that the liberals ignore, there’s a “judge not” that the conservatives discard. They’re all “salad bar” Christians, they’re just on different sides of the bar, and the Liberals are willing to say “that cottage cheese has gone bad,” while the fundies will say “that cottage cheese is perfectly fine, but I’m going to let someone else try it.”

    Part of the problem, part of why this is so widespread (I think), is that we’ve gotten to the point where even the liberals and moderates seem tacitly to accept the fundamentalists’ claim to the term. Perhaps it’s just because the liberal position is more complicated and more difficult to communicate; when push comes to shove, the fundies can point to the passage in the Bible and say “God says it, I believe it, no more questions.” At that point, the liberal has to explain that the Bible isn’t meant to be taken ‘literally,’ or that Jesus said otherwise, or that they’re ignoring the context, or something, and I think to the casual viewer, that’s tantamount to them cutting off the branch they’re sitting on. I can see very few good ways for a liberal Christian to easily call into doubt the Fundamentalist positions on most things without undermining their own position and making them look like wishy-washy quasi-believers. There are some matters on which the liberal position is more clearly the correct one, dogmatically and textually–once again, see the Dispensationalist End Times narrative–but it’s hard to argue that the Levitican and Deuteronomian laws against homosexuality don’t apply in light of one verse in Galatians and Jesus’s general message of love. I think, to some degree, the liberals recognize this difficulty–and perhaps even internalize the fundamentalists’ claims to some degree, causing some measure of self-doubt and insecurity–and that combines with their general non-confrontational stance regarding their faith to prevent them from speaking out against the loud fundamentalists in large numbers.

    Which moves us on to the problem of which position is the more reasonable one. The conventional wisdom is that the liberal position has that claim, but I don’t know that I agree. I imagine the people who make this claim are the people who consider themselves most rational, and so we assume that “reasonable” means “generally comes to the same conclusions we’ve come to.” But we have to remember that reason can take you to any conclusion depending on what your premises are. Through one method or another, both the left and right wings of Christianity have come to*** the same basic premise: the God of the Bible exists, came to the Earth as Jesus Christ, then died on the cross for the sins of humanity, and promises Heaven for some and Hell for others****. Following from this premise, though, they end up at wildly different courses of action.

    The right-leaning Christians take this premise, realize that the Bible is their only source for what God thinks, what Jesus said, and what the secret password into Heaven is, and conclude that they ought to be following what’s in the Bible as closely as they can in order to avoid Hell. There are a number of different logical avenues which can lead from this point to the belief that the Bible is a true, accurate, and perfect representation of what God wants, but I think it boils down to the point that, since it’s the only source for what God says, they have to treat it as perfect even if it isn’t. Christians of this sort will sometimes admit (usually when condemning Christians of the more liberal variety) that if you treat any part of the Bible as metaphorical or symbolic or otherwise not-true, then you might as well toss out the whole thing: either it’s all true, or none of it is true. This is a fallacy, to be sure, but underlying it is a valid concern and criticism for their liberal brethren: if it’s not all true, then how do you know what parts of it are true? The fundamentalist (ostensibly) never needs to face this quandary, since they (ostensibly) accept all of the Bible as “literally” true.

    Their other traits follow from that conclusion. Knowing the threat of Hell, they work tirelessly to convince others that Hell is real and that they know how to avoid it. They’ve been saved from its fiery jaws, and they’re going to try to make sure that everyone else gets saved too (and the ones they can’t save–the ones working against them–are already in its grip and beyond their help). They dedicate as much of their lives as they can to praising and glorifying God with all the energy and volume of a castaway trying to signal a passing cargo plane, as though trying to draw the attention of the omnipotent and earn his approval. They’ve saturated their lives with worship and work to wedge it into everyone else’s lives, through sermons and tracts and street-corner preaching and legislation and education and media punditry and social mores and any other outlet they can find, in hopes that doing so will demonstrate their devotion, glorify their deity, increase their numbers, and protect them from annihilation and damnation should God decide that America looks an awful lot like Gomorrah.

    On the other hand, you have the liberal and moderate Christians. Again, they’ve arrived at the same basic premises as the conservatives with regard to God’s nature and existence, and the importance of Jesus. There’s a chicken-and-egg situation with the next bit, though, where I’m not sure what precedes what. Moderate and liberal Christians have somehow come to a largely different set of premises in addition to the ones they share with the fundies, the sort of premises that I imagine we’d consider average for people in the 21st century western world: they value freedom and equality, they think science and senses are generally reliable, they generally accept the morals of the society around them, and so forth. They also have a different take on the Bible; though it’s the only primary source that discusses (with any authority) the mind of God and the story of Jesus, they think that it’s only somewhat reliable and accurate–certainly not the icon of perfection that the fundamentalists elevate it to. They read the Bible for its ‘core message’ and justify or ignore the parts that don’t fit. In addition to the Bible, such Christians tend to accept another source for their beliefs: alternately called “faith” or “a personal relationship with God/Christ,” who typically speaks to them “in their heart.”

    Like I said, there’s a chicken/egg issue here: did the belief in the God relationship come first, allowing them to decide what parts of the Bible no longer apply and what God’s real opinions are, or did the acceptance of modern morals and science and such lead to the belief that such conclusions were the result of a personal connection to the divine? I can’t say, though I suspect it’s not a simple causal relationship.

    Anyway, this connection to God makes each liberal Christian his or her own Pope, able to update the canon and dogma as necessary, on a personal level. Each claims that their pronouncements have some divine weight behind them, though they may come to different conclusions, but that’s certainly not a problem faced by liberals alone. They are able, through their relationship with God, to determine what the “core message” of the Bible is, what that means for the other parts, and what God’s message for the modern age must be. God, apparently, is pretty cool with the trappings of modern society that the fundamentalists reject; he thinks that believers shouldn’t be ostentatious about their faith, he sees virtuous living and skillful craftsmanship in his followers’ vocations as glorification of him, and he might even accept other routes to Heaven than through Jesus. He puts some emphasis on works as a key to salvation, loves his creations, and encourages them above all things to love one another. Consequently, they generally adopt a live-and-let-live philosophy toward people of other faiths, rather than the obvious and constant proselytization of the conservatives. They don’t see the need to enact their beliefs into law, since religion is a personal thing, to be done in the closets and not out in the open as the hypocrites. God said “love thy neighbor,” not “force thy neighbor to act in accordance with thy beliefs.”

    Anyway, back to the main point of all this: who’s more reasonable? While the liberal position is the one most in line with what modern society would consider reasonable, I’m not sure how well it logically follows from their beliefs. It’s easy to see the logical progression of fundamentalism; if you believed in the sort of God that they do, you’d want to make sure that no one–particularly yourself–got on his bad side. The liberals have a more difficult progression, and I think it’s here that some of the fundamentalist criticisms hold water. The Bible is, for better or worse, the closest thing we have to a primary source on the life and teachings of Jesus. It is also the only generally-agreed-upon testimony of the morals, acts, and commandments of the Christian God. And yet, the liberals actively dismiss parts of it as metaphor or parable or mistake or outdated teaching, in favor of impressions and feelings they get internally, which they believe to be divine. This poses a problem: do they assert that the fundamentalists, conservatives, and others who come to different conclusions lack a personal rapport with the divine? By what right and authority can they make such a distinction? Wouldn’t such an argument boil down to diametrically-opposed shouts of “God told me I’m right”? Or do they recognize the legitimacy of the conservatives’ claim to personal relationships with God, but acknowledge that he’s telling them different things?

    Moreover, how do the liberals know that their relationship is with God at all? The fundamentalists are likely to say that any voice speaking in their hearts things that contradict the Bible must be the trickery of Satan; how do the liberals know that this voice which tells them things they want to hear but conflict with the Bible is the voice of the divine and not the damned?

    Those would be the criticisms from the fundamentalists, and I’m not entirely sure how the liberal Christian would respond to them, except to cite again the “core message” of the Bible. I don’t think that would convince the fundamentalists; their approaches to the Bible are vastly different, and any response about the “core message” is going to fall well outside of the fundamentalists’ framework. But I have another criticism, one which others (both atheists and theists) have leveled: if you have a personal relationship with God through which he shares his teachings and prescriptions, and if much of the Bible is flawed and outdated, then why do you need the Bible at all? Having God give you the straight scoop on his up-to-the-minute revised revelations makes the Bible an outdated edition, several generations removed from what’s currently available, and not even particularly useful for the end-of-chapter questions. Why would liberal Christians assign any significance to the Bible at all? Sentimentality? Why justify any part of it? Why use it as an authoritative reference? If you’re acknowledging that it was written and assembled and translated by flawed people, and if you’re asserting that your personal revelation trumps theirs, then why even consult it? Or at the very least, why give it any more prominence than the writings of the similarly-inspired theologians, poets, and other writers who inform your faith?

    Or, to unite this with the fundamentalist critique: if you don’t believe all of the Bible, why believe any of it?

    Now, lest we think that the fundamentalists have the monopoly on criticism here, their devotion to the Bible opens them up to a criticism from the liberals. The liberals accept the history of the Bible, the sordid tales of copyists and committees, of discarded books and dogmas past that are attested to by all the available evidence (not that that would be convincing for some). They accept–even assert–that the book is not perfect, that it was transcribed, copied, and translated by imperfect humans who may have even been imperfectly interpreting their divine inspiration. I think the liberal, in general, would be likely to say that no human’s interpretation of the divine is perfect, that no human work is perfect, and that their own apprehension of both divine and mundane may be imperfect. They’d be likely, I think, to say that only God is perfect, and that elevating the Bible (or anything else of this mortal world) to the status of perfection is idolatry. Were they particularly savvy, they might point out that even if the Bible were perfect, the people reading and interpreting it are not, and thus the fundamentalist is not merely asserting the Bible’s perfection, but their own as well. They are engaging in self-idolatry, declaring themselves perfectly able to sort out the will and mind of God from the imperfect writings of first-century preachers. I’m not sure, but I don’t think most liberal Christians pretend to the kind of certainty approaching personal infallibility that the fundamentalists so often do.

    And you’d think that the fundies would be all over this, what with their general acceptance (and promotion) of the idea that this Earth is fallen, tainted, imperfect, and potentially even ruled by Satan. Why is the Bible excepted from this assessment? Accepting its history should fit perfectly into their worldview. Instead, not only will they deny it, defend its unity, and proclaim its perfection, but in many cases they’ll claim that one particular arbitrary version is the only perfect one, above all others. They accomplish this through an amazing display of compartmentalization, denial, and Olympic-level quality gymnastics, when they’d only have to apply their worldview consistently to make the whole mess fit.

    So I think there are significant failures of reason on both sides, some more fundamental than others. Inasmuch as the beliefs and practices follow logically from the premises, I think the edge might indeed go to the conservatives, though I think both sides have some pretty distinct fallacies to deal with. Both, as far as I’m concerned, are dealing with unsound premises–and I think the unsound premises of the conservative position are far more fundamental–and the other problems spiral out of that. Either way, I know which group I’d rather associate with.

    I recognize that all of this is a mishmash of speculation, subjective experience, armchair psychology, barely-informed theology, and broad generalizing, but I think there may be something to all this. I won’t say that these categories are entirely distinct, accurately named, or all-inclusive. I’m drawing very vague lines here, between very large and overlapping categories, and if I’m making some obvious errors, feel free to correct me. But what I’ve tried to accomplish with this overlong screed is a fairly fine and simple response to the two common claims I mentioned above. To say that either the liberals or conservatives has a more legitimate claim to the term “True Christian” is problematic at best, and tends to fallaciously favor the fundamentalists. To say that either conservative or liberal Christianity is more “reasonable” entirely depends on whether you mean “reasonable” in a casual sense of “not crazy,” or “reasonable” in the more specific and accurate sense of “well-reasoned.” In that case, it really relies upon counting the fallacies leading from unsound premises to invalid conclusions, and I’d have to see a side-by-side array of the different specific arguments, with premises and conclusions laid out specifically, in order to make such a distinction (though my inclination is that the conservative position may follow more directly from the flawed premises).

    In other words, neither claim is accurate, and we (atheists and moderate/liberal theists alike) should consider being more careful with the assumptions we make and the assumptions our language betrays with regard to who are the real and reasonable Christians. To do less risks granting prestige and legitimacy to those who haven’t earned it.


    *I think the modern conservative Christians have a lot in common with the medieval Catholic laity and the 17th Century Protestant laity. In all three cases, the vast majority have read little, if any, of the Bible; the old Catholics weren’t allowed to, the early Protestants were largely illiterate, and the modern group is a little of both, with apathy, short attention span, and arrogant ignorance mixed in. Like those early protestants, the modern conservatives get their beliefs mostly from popular reinterpretations–four hundred years ago, if a family owned two books, they were the Bible and “Pilgrim’s Progress,” which uses tortuously obvious metaphor to turn the Christian experience into a narrative. Today, I suspect that “Evidence that Demands a Verdict,” “The Case for Christ,” “Mere Christianity,” and “Left Behind” (among other books) have supplanted Bunyan in most conservative Christians’ homes. Like those lay Catholics of the middle ages, conservative Christians tend to often look to God and the trappings of Christianity as a source of magic. This theme comes up repeatedly in Fred Clark’s analysis of “Left Behind,” particularly toward the end. Where the medieval laity would steal communion wafers and use corrupted versions of Latin phrases to try to conduct more-or-less Pagan magic rituals, the modern conservative seems to view prayer as something akin to calling upon a finicky genie, and being saved binds God to the believer, forming a magical shield which protects them against Chaotic Evil. As long as you say the right magic words, God will reveal himself to you and protect you, but only if you do it right (see also: the Sinner’s Prayer).

    And if the conservatives are modern-day Catholic or Protestant laity, then the Dispensationalists are modern-day Gnostics. I wrote a historically and theologically inept paper to that end in undergrad, but that thesis only becomes more and more apparent as I look into the blatant exclusivist Manicheanism practiced by the likes of Tim LaHaye.

    **It’s even more nuanced than this, I think–Dispensationalists and other End-Timers, with their fixation on the Rapture as an (otherwise indistinguishable) alternative to death, would put even more emphasis on the “shall not perish,” while the other conservatives (with similar fears but different fixations) would emphasize the “have everlasting life.”

    ***I say “come to” because these beliefs aren’t (necessarily) axiomatic. Some Christians of either bent may consider the premise that God exists and loves us to be foundational, axiomatic, transcendent, or something along those lines, but they still initially arrived at that premise through some other method–being told by parents, being convinced by arguments, etc. That method of first convincing had to follow some other path of reasoning, relying on other axioms–Mommy is always right, if a belief is comforting then I should believe it, if an argument is convincing then it must be true, etc.

    ****Of course, there are Christians with different takes on this–non-Trinitarians, universal salvationists, folks who deny that Hell is a real place, and so forth. I’m drawing broad generalizations again.

    Some election-related skepticism

    There have been a couple of memes going around since the end of the election that have my skeptical hackles raised and my bullshit detectors buzzing. I’ve seen some folks even in the atheoskeptisphere acknowledging these points as though they’re necessarily true, and so I figured I might briefly call attention to them.

    First, there’s the matter of Sarah Palin’s ignorance and emotional instability. Shortly after the results came in, Fox News Reporter Carl Cameron (among others) reported that Sarah Palin was unable to name the countries involved in NAFTA, thought Africa was a country rather than a continent, refused to prepare for her interviews with Katie Couric, and was prone to temper tantrums. On one hand, it’s easy to believe these things–as recently as a week or so before the election, Palin didn’t know what the job of the Vice President entailed. She couldn’t say what the Bush Doctrine was. She’s obviously not the most informed tool in the shed. The Africa thing parallels flubs made by the current President and his father’s running mate, so that’s not entirely unbelievable either. There’s nothing about the claims that are necessarily outrageous.

    However, I have to consider the source. If a Fox News reporter told me it was raining, I’d look up to check. The fact that these claims are coming out after the election is not entirely surprising, but it’s a bit suspect, especially since the Republicans suffered such a bitter loss. There are many in the party who (probably justifiably) blame Palin for the loss, especially after her Mavericky tendency in those last weeks to get off-message and “go rogue.” I think the potential motives here–finding an easy scapegoat for the losses, sinking her chances of a 2012 run–are enough to call the purported facts into question. It’s okay, though: Palin looks bad enough without them.

    The second point is one that I’ve heard all over the newsmedia, particularly from fundie godbots who are shocked–shocked!–that people would be protesting churches over Proposition 8. Why not protest the blacks/black churches, they ask, since 70% of blacks voted for Prop 8?

    Besides the fact that the Mormons and Catholics–who are absolute paragons of the sanctity of healthy heterosexual marriage, since the former still acknowledges the perfection of afterlife polygamy and the latter shuffles around pedophiles under the orders of a man in a dress–pumped millions of dollars into the campaign for Proposition 8, trying to legislate their religious morals into our secular government, there’s the simple problem of the math. According to various sources, the numbers simply don’t implicate the black community in the passage of Prop 8. If anything, the numbers implicate older people, since the youth vote came in fairly overwhelmingly against Prop 8. That seems to be the silver lining to this dark cloud: given a generation or so, this shouldn’t even be an issue.

    Anyway, I just thought I’d point that out. Food for doubt, you could say.

    Megaquestion

    I’ll probably look this up a little later, but I’ll pose this question to the few people who actually read my blog.

    So, we have these megachurches, which have their own little coffee shops, stores, food places and everything else inside. I wonder: do those shops, stores, and whatnot pay any taxes? After all, since they’re part of a church and churches aren’t taxed, it suggests to me that the shops and cafés in these godly mini-malls don’t pay sales tax, property tax, or the other taxes that businesses are subject to. Are taxes taken out of the paychecks of the employees of these megachurch-businesses?

    And if, in fact, this is all tax-free, then is there anything stopping megachurches from expanding a little, setting up residences, and becoming their own little mostly-sovereign mini-states within the country? I’m not saying it would happen, I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, I’m just wondering if it’s legally possible.