A (Not So) Wild Story

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on June 8.]

On the one hand, Wild Wild Country (six parts, on Netflix) is about as strange a religious story as there is in the United States. On the other hand, it’s not very strange at all. The divisive nature of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (a name I would be okay never hearing again), the completely opposite stories told by the Rajneeshees and everyone else, and the weird, magnetic pull of the Bhagwan’s personality make this a compelling story. It’s salacious, with the (accurate) rumors of a sort of sex cult, but it doesn’t seem that the Bhagwan was all that involved in the sexual aspect of his commune, as you might expect a sex cult leader to be!

But even though the free-love aspect of the Rajneeshees seems to attract the attention, that’s only a side story to this documentary. The people interviewed are limited to four major people on either side of the controversy in Antelope, Oregon, in addition to law enforcement and legal participants. While normally I might want more breadth and more input from various people, the limited number of main players actually works well in a six-part series. You actually begin to get a pretty good feel for where they’re coming from and their individual personalities.

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Not Quite Holy

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on June 1.]

I can’t believe that I’ve been writing these for a year! Thanks to The Jagged Word for the opportunity to watch more movies and write down whatever I think about when I watch them. I don’t know if any of it is worth anything but, at the very least, I hope you’ve discovered some good movies.

In spite of some controversy stirred up by this film, I had never heard of Holy Air until I came across it randomly on Amazon (free for Prime users). The synopsis begins, “Adam and Lamia are a Christian Arab couple from Nazareth – members of a vanishing minority in the Holy Land.” and I was in. But if you go by the synopsis, you might, like me, start to wonder after 15 minutes or so what you’re actually watching. Adam and Lamia are not what you’d call observant Christians. In this, they parallel many (most?) American Christians who are in their 20s or 30s and children of observant Christians. Adam’s discussion with his parents at the Christmas dinner table probably sounds a lot like many conversations around holiday dinner tables in the United States.

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Holy Ghost Hypocrisy

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on January 5.]

There are more prominent hucksters in American religion, but perhaps none as honest as Marjoe Gortner. “Charlatan” is a word custom-made for him. I’m not sure why I hadn’t come across the 1972 Academy Award-winning documentary Marjoe before I found it on Sundance Now (you can also see the full film on YouTube here). After watching it, I was all the more surprised I hadn’t seen it—until I found this fascinating interview with the director, Sarah Kernochan, who says it was all but lost until 2002, when she came across an original negative of the film. (Another essay by her is here [although her misspelling of “Pentecostal” and her facile connections make me grimace].) Even so, maybe because he was before my time, I’d never even heard of Hugh Marjoe Ross Gortner.

Marjoe is the real-life Elmer Gantry, though perhaps more restrained in his pursuit of the pleasures of the flesh. He’s the embodiment of everything skeptics assume to be true about old-time-relijun, revivalistic, faith-healing Pentecostalism. And he is, in the most literal sense, a hypocrite.

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Why Sports?

This probably isn’t the best time to have this discussion.  Indictments, criminal and otherwise, are floating around in the smoggy sports air.  Some people, who probably didn’t like sports — especially football — much at all, are using the current troubles to crow their triumphant and smug “I-told-you-sos.”  Others are commenting and opining because it’s their job.  Still others are commenting because it’s what you do on your computer, even though you have no more knowledge of the situation than anyone else does.  And still others are just sitting down in front of their TVs on Sunday afternoon and watching/shouting/cheering/crying when their teams win or lose.

I acknowledge all of that, and I agree that it’s easy to get a little (or a lot) cynical.  It seeps into the college game, and it seeps into youth programs where parents who yell at their pro teams (who can’t hear them) start to yell at their kids or their kids’ coaches (who can hear them).  It’s all a little disgusting.  But sports endure.  More rules, maybe.  More “safeguards” put in place.  More agreements and bargaining and limits on what can and cannot be done by athletes.  But people, even in spite of themselves, still watch.  They still pay to see the games live.  They still buy the jerseys and the hats and the other paraphernalia.  Why?  Why do sports (and for me, it’s primarily football) continue to compel our attention, even when we’re annoyed or disturbed (and sometimes, it still happens, inspired) by the lives of athletes off the field?

I don’t have a full answer to that question, but I do wonder if part of the current problem is that both fans and athletes take sports too seriously.  These are games, after all.  Some people view that to be an argument against pro sports.  I think it is actually the opposite: we enjoy watching sports precisely because they are not serious — not serious, at least, in the same way Christ and family and literature are serious.  Sports are, in fact, like all good things: problematic when they leave their proper realm.

Chesterton once wrote on politics:

Males, like females, in the course of that old fight between the public and private house, had indulged in overstatement and extravagance, feeling that they must keep up their end of the see-saw. We told our wives that Parliament had sat late on most essential business; but it never crossed our minds that our wives would believe it. We said that everyone must have a vote in the country; similarly our wives said that no one must have a pipe in the drawing room. In both cases the idea was the same. “It does not matter much, but if you let those things slide there is chaos.” We said that Lord Huggins or Mr. Buggins was absolutely necessary to the country. We knew quite well that nothing is necessary to the country except that the men should be men and the women women. We knew this; we thought the women knew it even more clearly; and we thought the women would say it. Suddenly, without warning, the women have begun to say all the nonsense that we ourselves hardly believed when we said it. The solemnity of politics; the necessity of votes; the necessity of Huggins; the necessity of Buggins; all these flow in a pellucid stream from the lips of all the suffragette speakers. I suppose in every fight, however old, one has a vague aspiration to conquer; but we never wanted to conquer women so completely as this. We only expected that they might leave us a little more margin for our nonsense; we never expected that they would accept it seriously as sense. [What’s Wrong with the World, Part 3, VII]

Now, whatever you want to make of his arguments against female suffrage, I feel like something similar has happened with sports; not necessarily between men and women (although something of Chesterton’s description comes through), but in the argument about whether sports matter.  Certain people (male or female) might act, discuss, argue as if sports really mattered to the world, as much as Huggins or Buggins mattered to the world.  We never expected to be taken seriously.  Suddenly, people have begun to say all the nonsense that we sports fans hardly believed when we said it.  It was always a diversion.  It was always something declaimed as serious and important when it was nothing of the sort.

But now people take it seriously.  I don’t know if the athletes themselves always did.  But sports has, in many ways, become too serious for its own good, as all idols eventually do.  It is no idol to cheer for a team, to find oneself in a community of like-minded individuals celebrating or commiserating together.  It is no idol to care what the team’s record is or whether they make the playoffs.  It becomes an idol when it leaves the realm of the sport and enters the realm of the serious.  It is an idol when it begins to matter in the same way your religion or, to a lesser degree, your family matter.  From the Christian perspective, sport (which, I venture to suggest, has been around since the beginning of creation) is simply one more good thing in the creation.  It is not The Good.  And it would be good if we could remember that again.


David Bazan and the Hidden God

If you’re read this blog before, you might have noticed that I’ve commented on things Bazan before.  (Here and here, and in another place which I’ve made private, because I think I did not represent what I was saying well enough to have people understand.)  I don’t know if I can explain my fascination, but it certainly has something to do with how hard it is to get his songs out of my head.  The combination of serious, even terrifying, lyrics with the upbeat, cheerful melodies makes it dangerous to sing along, because you almost forget what you’re saying.  (Exhibit #1: “Rapture” from Control–which I would love to hear live.)

I had the chance to see Bazan in one of his living room shows this past week, and he was good as usual.  A small show in an apartment is a unique experience, and he essentially had open conversations with the people: “Any questions at this point in the show?”  He is clear that he does not believe in the God he thinks is revealed in the Bible, but nearly all the songs on Curse Your Branches are responses to his upbringing and early work as Pedro the Lion.  Strange Negotiations (which I think is better and more mature, both musically and lyrically) returns to other topics, but underneath runs almost continually the theme of God and those who believe in Him.

But what kind of God is it that Bazan is singing about?  (I have never had this conversation with him–although it would be great over a beer–and I don’t know the specifics of his church growing up, so I am using only the data of his songs.)  What kind of God has he rejected?  It may well be the God of the Bible, along with everything else that Christians believe–although defining “what Christians believe” based on the panoply of American religion is a murky proposition at best.

I think the answer to that question, whether Bazan would agree with this characterization or not, is that he has rejected a God who has not revealed Himself, instead of the God who has.  In other words, Bazan is questioning, doubting, disbelieving God as He is, off in some concealed heaven, and not God as He has revealed Himself.  Lutherans call this “the hidden God” and “the revealed God,” but what the distinction is called is not important.  What is important is that we are bound to reject the hidden God.  The hidden God is the God of Job, to whom Bazan directs the lines in “In Stitches”: “When Job asked You the question/You responded, ‘Who are you/to challenge Your Creator?’/Well, if that one part is true/it makes You sound defensive/like You had not thought it through/enough to have an answer/or You might have bit off more than You could chew.”  I suppose that’s one way to take the book of Job, although it’s rather simplistic and superficial.  Or, could it be that, if that one part is true, that it’s Job who’s bitten off more than he can chew?  That certainly seems to be Job’s take on it in the end.

Talking about God as Creator in Genesis, Bazan also criticizes this hidden God: “When You set the table/when You chose the scale/did You write a riddle/that You knew they would fail?  Did You make them tremble,/so they would tell the tale?/Did You push us when we fell?”  And: “You knew what would happen/and made us just the same/and You, my Lord, can take the blame.”  Notice that the questions are not answered by the text, and God apparently wanted it that way.  But Bazan has hit on the most terrifying thing about God when He comes into contact with humans: His absoluteness.  His uncontrollableness.  The fact that He may have set things up a certain way–and what if we even grant the premise according to Bazan’s reading of Genesis, that He pushed us when we fell?–and that we have absolutely no control over it at all.  As Gerhard Forde put it,

God is absolute, free.  That is the systematic problem.  We cannot get on with such a God, with an absolute who is “absolved” from all charge, free, disengaged, independent, and all such.  An absolute God is the “end” of us.  Such a God leaves us no room, no freedom, destroys us.  We see this particularly, I suppose, when we come up against the concepts of divine, that is, absolute, predestination and election.  If the absolutely free, disengaged, unlimited one predestines and elects, what room, what freedom does that leave us?  As long as we try to tangle with the absolute directly, to wrestle with God in the abstract, or, as Luther put it, try to peer into the things of the deus absconditus [God hidden], it leaves us with absolutely nothing, no freedom, apparently, nowhere to move.  If God is absolute, that is, determined in himself, then we are, it would seem, likewise simply determined.  To the degree that God is free, we are unfree.  So we tell ourselves.  And so we must turn against the absolute God.  We simply cannot take such a God.  We will not take such a God.  … We are bound to say no to the absolute.  We can and will do no other.  That is to say, we are bound to say no to the hidden God, the abstract God, who is, of course, the only God we know apart from Christ. [“Absolution: Systematic Considerations,”Justification Is For Preaching (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 177, 178]

The sort of God preached in many parts of Christianity is exactly this hidden God: God loves you, God accepts you just as you are; God would never want that to happen; He certainly didn’t cause it; God lets us choose for ourselves; we have free will toward God.  Most of that is exactly opposite to the witness of the Scriptures, as the atheists enjoy pointing out.  And that’s the problem Bazan seems to have: his church taught (I am generalizing based on stereotypes) a God that mostly wanted you to believe that the Flood happened, and that Genesis was a true record, and that Adam and Eve were real people.  And those things could be proven with evidence, using the scientific method.  He was taught a God who wanted you to believe that all of that was true, simply because the Bible was God’s Word (if you can’t see it, just believe it).  And, oh yeah, Jesus died for your sins so that you will go to heaven.  But how much of the preaching that Bazan heard, or that we hear, for that matter, was about God, minus Jesus?  And if it’s about Jesus, how much of it is “be like Jesus” or “this is what Jesus wants you to do”?

This hidden God will damn you and kill you.  And there’s nothing you can do about it.  It is an endless cycle that will end either in hypocrisy or, as seems to be in Bazan’s case, unbelief, and along with it, a sense of freedom.  But it is only a sense of freedom.  The unavoidable, the undeniable, the swift, horrible, and uncontrollable fact is that we are not in control, and death proves it.  The only refuge from the dark and hidden terror of the unknown and hidden God, who might do anything to anyone at any time, is the bright and revealed God who chooses sinners for Himself in Jesus.  This Man is the only God we can know; and if we reject Him we are left only with a god of our own making, usually “my self,” and that god is just as demanding and unrelenting as any we meet in the Old Testament.  The god within will drive you to your death as surely as the God without.  Neither will save you; you cannot save yourself.

Because Bazan has rejected Christ (however badly preached) in the Scriptures, he is only left with a lot of ultimately hollow moralizing about how to be “a decent human being.”  Those lyrics only work on people who already know that they ought to be good and nice.  But why should I be nice and decent if I am not held accountable in some way, by something or someone higher than myself?  All we’re left with is, well, because it’s nice to be nice, and everyone knows religious people ought to be nice.  That way is not really any different from most preaching in most churches in America: be good, and here are ten steps or principles to help you do so.  Bazan may not have liked the rules in his church, but he has only replaced those rules with others he thinks are more important.  They’re all rules, and they all make hypocrites or suicides.

God does not want to be known in the way Job or his friends want Him to be known.  He wants to be known only in Jesus, only on the cross, only for you in foolish words and water and bread and wine.  Otherwise, the only thing to do is to say no to God.  As Bazan and others have proven, we simply are not able to have Him stay hidden; the weight of the present Absence is too much for us.


“Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”

I’m finally getting around to reading the book from which that characterization comes, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton.  It is about the single most helpful description of both religious youth and adults in this country (though, as the title indicates, the book is about the religion of youth in the United States).  If you haven’t read it (yet!), here’s the salient section, so far:

We advance our thesis somewhat tentatively as less than a conclusive fact but more than mere conjecture: we suggest that the de facto dominant religion among contemporary U.S. teenagers is what we might well call “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”  The creed of this religion, as codified from what emerged from our interviews, sounds like this:

  1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

First, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is about inculcating a moralistic approach to life.  It teaches that central to living a good and happy life is being a good, moral person.  That means being nice, kind, pleasant, respectful, responsible, at work on self-improvement, taking care of one’s health, and doing one’s best to be successful. … Such a moral vision is inclusive of most religions, which are presumed to stand for equivalent moral views. …  Feeling good about oneself is thus an essential aspect of living a moral life, according to this dominant de fact teenage religious faith.  Which leads to our next point.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is, second, about providing therapeutic benefits to its adherents.  This is not a religion of repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living as a servant of a divine sovereign, of steadfastly saying one’s prayers, of faithfully observing high holy days, of building character through suffering, of basking in God’s love and grace, of spending oneself in gratitude and love for the cause of social justice, etcetera.  Rather, what appears to be the actual dominant religion among U.S. teenagers is centrally about feeling good, happy, secure, at peace. … It is thus no wonder that so many religious and nonreligious teenagers are so positive about religion, for the faith many of them have in mind effectively helps to achieve a primary life goal: to feel good and happy about oneself and one’s life.  It is also no wonder that most teens are so religiously inarticulate.  As long as one is happy, why bother with being able to talk about the belief content of one’s faith?

Finally, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is about belief in a particular kind of God: one who exists, created the world, and defines our general moral order, but not one who is particularly involved in one’s affairs–especially affairs in which one would prefer not to have God involved.  Most of the time, the God of this faith keeps a safe distance. … This God is not demanding.  He actually can’t be, because his job is to solve our problems and make people feel good.  In short, God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he is always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process. [pp. 162-165]

If you don’t recognize the members of our congregations in this picture, you aren’t looking hard enough.  And if you don’t see a problem in this description, well, that’s a problem.  I don’t claim to have the answer, but it clearly involves being specific, not general, in preaching; teaching parents, who are the primary educators of their children; and destroying the god of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.  We should all probably take a long, hard look at our teaching and listen more closely to both the adults and the teenagers in our congregations for symptoms of this disease.  Something has to be done to inoculate people against this as much as possible.  The culture certainly is not helping, and often is actively inculcating this very religion in our people.

[Still to read: Souls in Transition and Lost in Transition]


Minnesota DFL Ad

This ad was sent out by the Minnesotat Democratic-Farm-Labor Party (DFL).  I saw it here at the National Catholic Register online.  I e-mailed the head of the Minnesota DFL with this:

Mr. [Brian] Melendez [chairman of the Minnesota DFL],
I saw a postcard that your organization sent out (noted here), and though I am not Roman Catholic, I was surprised at the vitriol and the ignorance it displayed.  Please reconsider that postcard and perhaps issue an appropriate apology to Roman Catholics and, by extension, all Christians who work and care for the poor.  Surely, with a degree from a Divinity School with a concentration in ethics, you could not yourself have approved that ad?

And this is the response I got:

The ad is part of a two-piece mailing that highlights and criticizes the policy views of Dan Hall, a preacher who is the Republican candidate for the Minnesota Senate. I enclose both sides of both pieces. I understand that some Republican bloggers have taken one image from the first piece, and claimed that the mail is somehow anti-Catholic. But the text explicitly criticizes Preacher Hall for distancing himself from policy views that have been taken by the Catholic Archdiocese, by the [Evangelical] Lutheran Synod, and other leaders in Minnesota’s faith community. Dan Hall is willing to enlist God and religion in his campaign when it helps him — but in fact, his views hurt the poorest and sickest among us, and this mailing holds him accountable for those views.

Donald McFarland
Communications Director
Minnesota DFL Party

Here are the other parts of the ad, sent to me by Mr. McFarland: Mail_piece_2, Mail-Piece_3.

I’ve never heard of Dan Hall (though I found his website here, as well as this and this, and this is the map of the district he’s running to represent; looks to be south of the Twin Cities?), so I don’t know his views on the poor.  But “views” don’t hurt people, poor, sick, or otherwise.  Obviously, the implementation of certain views can hurt people, but I doubt Dan Hall is explicitly trying to hurt the poor.  The DFL may disagree, and I understand the nature of politics as we approach Nov. 2, but the part of the ad I saw first clearly does not differentiate between Dan Hall and those the DFL say they are not criticizing, such as the Roman Catholic Archdiocese (of where?).  And why the clerical collar?  Does Hall wear a collar?  (Not in any pictures on his website.) 

If Hall is promoting Republicans from his pulpit, he’s wrong.  If he’s preaching particular policies from the pulpit, he’s misguided, but not immoral.  And I think it’s strange for pastors to run for office.  I disagree with preachers promoting partisan politics, but I also disagree with the DFL making policy positions into absolute moral imperatives.  So much for democratic discourse.