The real war on Christmas

Thanksgiving ended Thursday night, and at midnight the nation launched the official celebration of Jesus’ birthday with the most holy of holy events: Black Friday. That’s right, before the dinner table is cleared of the remaining leftovers, families began the Christmas holidays with their annual pilgrimage to the gilded cathedrals and the world’s largest houses of worship.I mean the malls, of course. Not to mention Walmart, K-Mart and Target who have announced the newest dispensation to worshippers in the form of layaway. You no longer have to use credit to buy things for Christmas. On the other hand, what do you think all those businesses expect to happen on Christmas eve when people discover they still can’t afford to remove those items from layaway in time for Christmas?Credit cards out, layaway redeemed.What better way to end a day devoted to thanking God for his blessings than by gorging on consumer crap? What better way to set aside a day to think about God and the gift of his son than by wading through seas of shoppers in aisle after aisle crammed with stuff we will most likely shelve or regift—or even toss—before the next Thanksgiving holiday?Thanksgiving also marks the beginning of the season of declaring yet another war on Christmas. The Christian right will begin to lament the fact that

  • We can’t make Arab, Hindu, Native American, Asian Black and Hispanic children celebrate the way Protestants do, and, at the same time
  • We can’t forbid children from other cultures exposing our own kids to their beliefs.

According to the Christmas warriors, even the phrases “Happy Holidays” and “Seasons Greetings” are subliminal secular propaganda designed to rob us of our faith. The rationale being, I assume, that true faith is far too fragile to risk exposure to the devil’s distractions.The real war on Christmas begins on Black Friday. At least, Black Friday may well be the equivalent of the season’s Normandy invasion. I can think of nothing so likely to tempt us away from a Gospel of salvation, service and love than the false gospels of greed and consumption.I spotted a book, “Christmas is Not Your Birthday” by Mike Slaughter advertised in the latest issue of Sojourners. The book challenges Christians to remember that we should recall that Christmas is not about going deeper into financial debt, but recalling that Jesus wrote all of our debts off the books. It’s hard to take a stand against rampant consumerism, because the main target in the war is our children. It’s tough to tell children that Christmas is about something greater than toys, because every television show, every Christmas special and every TV ad says, “Christmas means more stuff.” The Christmas classic Polar Express is little more than an exposition of the glory of toys.Nor is it enough to buy one or two presents, and help our children make presents or work hard to earn money to buy a few. As soon as they turn on the TV or rush over to see their friends, they will feel cheated and deprived. Stressing the spirituality of Christmas makes them feel robbed of something greater, something far more tangible (something which, in reality, is valueless).We can lay the blame directly at the feet of the culture warriors, who try to distract us from the real war on Christmas with accusations against a secular society, a society that cannot be expected to preserve Christian, Jewish, Amish, Mormon, Adventist, Moslem or Buddhist values except as cultural traditions which make our society richer as a whole.We can safely lay the blame at culture warriors, because they chose to climb into bed with the corporate interests who reap massive profits off of conspicuous Christmas overconsumption. Anyone contributing to a campaign to stop the wars on Christmas is building the political war chest of the very interests who undermine everything truly Christian in our society.I’ve recently labelled this the Corporate Christian Complex, but that’s another post altogether. I understand that the gift giving tradition at Christmas can be justified (very thinly) by the story of the Magi in the Gospel of Matthew. The Magi bought gifts to Christ on his birthday. But if we are to truly honor that scripture, shouldn’t we be giving gifts to Jesus by feeding and clothing those in need as he would have done? Jesus got the gifts, not his parents and siblings.1We should also remember that Jesus rarely became angry, except when commercial interests tried to profit off worship at the temple. I can think of no greater analogy to the merchants in the temple than the merchants who steal the sacredness of Christmas from our children. I don’t mean the shopkeepers who want to make children happy in order to feed their families. I mean the corporate, media and advertising executives who place children in the front line of battle.We can’t fix our family Christmas overnight any more than we can fix our economy. I do think we can start to make some changes. We can still give gifts, but limit the number of gifts. We might say one per family member. Period. We could insist that before they expect a present from Uncle Phillip and Aunt Carol the nieces and nephews should find or make a present for them. We can explain to our children that they may get only six gifts, unlike their friends, but other children get none.Limit stocking stuffer items to fruit and books (real books, not comic books). Trade one or two presents for events (or tickets to those events) our children enjoy so that they can appreciate an experience and not the disposable plastic.We could ask the children to select a gift for Blue or Brown Santa. We could ask our children to pick one of their unopened gifts to take with them to church to give to needier family members. We could encourage children to perform other family members’ household chores as Christmas gifts.Instead of a Christmas eve service, why not sponsor a soup line for the poor? After the soup line closes we could invite the servers and those we served to a service. We could end the service by washing feet instead of lighting candles. Church families could agree to ceilings on their Christmas budgets, and make sure to involve their children in the decision. Families with more to give could have their children bring an envelope to the Christmas service containing a check to help families too poor to reach those ceilings.If the Corporate Christian Complex intends to declare war on Christmas through our children, then we need to fight back by teaching our children that they should be giving at Christmas and not drowning in wrapping paper. One of the ways the can give is by expecting less.

How to send the wrong message

One of the things I loved most about growing up Baptist Preacher’s Kid (BPK) was that I learned so many things I wasn’t supposed to learn.

Lots of kids learn things they aren’t supposed to learn. For instance, I learned things in fifth grade from Delbert Thrash that fifth grade boys shouldn’t learn. I learned why dogs sometimes climb onto the backs of other dogs, and I learned deaf signs for words I wasn’t supposed to know.

Of course, I also learned a lot of things from my uncle Phil, who, I now realize, learned them exactly the same way I did. He learned them because his BPF members told him he really shouldn’t know these things.

For instance, one time we were playing with cars and trucks and pretending to build a road. I said, “Let’s put a dam here.”

Phil, who was four years older than me, and who knew damn well “dam” was a perfectly good word, said, “You can’t say ‘damn.’ It’s a bad word.”

I said, “No, it isn’t. It’s a perfectly good word.” And I proceeded to say it over and over again. “Dam, dam, dam, dam, dam.” Phil, warned me that he was going to tell on me, but I just kept right on damning myself. “Dam. Dam. Dam. Dam. Dam.”

He warned me that I was going to get the switch. The switch, I should point out, was a huge branch cut from a mesquite tree which my grandfather kept hanging over the closet door as a reminder of what would happen if errant children crossed one line too many.


Let me segue at this moment, because many of my liberal friends and readers (and liberalism, I should point out, is far too conservative for my tastes) would be horrified by the image of my grandfather switching children with a mesquite branch—which can have thorns as long as two inches.

Those readers clearly don’t understand the theory of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) which was prevalent in American politics in the fifties when I grew up (as, I might point out, were TLAs or Three Letter Acronyms). The grandfather variation of MAD was that a child threatened with a mesquite switch would immediately cease to misbehave once warned that a switching was imminent.

And, for the most part, this was true. But I should point out that, when pushed to the test, my grandfather was very good at sleight of hand. He would replace the mesquite switch with a normal one which, since we couldn’t see behind us, still felt as though we had been switched with thorns.

Even this image would horrify some readers, but I survived. And while I would never advocate switching myself, and certainly would never advocate indiscriminate punishment, sometimes time outs and kinder/gentler punishment simply doesn’t work with children determined to push the limits.

Ask my mother.

I should also point out to conservative readers, who feel vindicated that I just gave what they perceive to be a blanket endorsement to corporal punishment, that in my experience to children who believe the rewards of misdeeds outweigh any possible punishment, no punishment is effective.

Ask my mother.

And now back to the story.


Thinking he had me dead to rights, Phil went to my parents and grandparents to tell them about my cursing spree. I knew he was ratting me out, but I had nothing to hide. So I picked up a truck and drove it back and forth across my new building block dam while still saying proudly “dam, dam, dam, dam.”

To my surprise, both parents and grandparents were horrified when they entered the room and heard me saying “dam, dam, dam….” And that’s when I discovered that I was not as immune to judgement as I had believed.

“Phillip,” my mother cried, “what are you saying? At your grandparents’ house?”

So I asked what was wrong with the word “dam.” Didn’t we, in fact, travel to Hoover Dam on one summer vacation?1

That was when I learned there was a bad word, “damn,” spelled with a silent “n.” But were it not for everyone’s overreaction, I would never have known about the word and I would never have spent the rest of our trip silently practicing the ways I could say “damn” when I was out of hearing range. (Damn it, damn you, damn, damn, damn.)

At least not until I met Delbert in the fifth grade. But that’s an altogether different story.

You see, BPFs have to make sure to bring to children’s attention every inappropriate thing that would otherwise pass right over their heads. Sometimes they tell you outright. Some stranger will let a word slip in conversation, or make an inappropriate gesture and they will tell you that, under no circumstances, should you ever do that.

Soon, however, body language is all you need to tip you off that something deliciously forbidden is transpiring. Parents tense up, cast each other meaningful glances, and sometimes even steer you quickly out of the room.

My mother continued these practices with my own son and nieces. If we watched a movie where something inappropriate occurred, she would be sure to rush to the VCR and turn it off, or put her hands over their ears. As a consequence, as soon as she left the room they would rewind to the exact spot to see what had disturbed her.

In this way I learned from my family that “a bun in the oven” is not being served for dinner, that 69 is not just a number, “playing doctor” was not about thermometers, and that there was something bad about looking at girl’s bodies (especially girls in shorts or swim suits). As a consequence, I began to examine girls’ bodies long before I would have otherwise because I needed to see what I shouldn’t be seeing.

I would have discovered this all on my own, mind you. But I did learn them well in advance of peers whose parents simply went about their business without calling these things to their children’s attention.

I also learned things that were completely false. For instance my parents assured me, as I approached my teens, that I should’t hang out with Catholic girls because they were “fast” or “loose.”2 Needless to say, once I understood why that was important, I dated every Catholic girl who would go out with me.

And, you know what? Mom and Dad were wrong. The Jesuits could put the fear of God into Catholic girls in ways that Baptist preachers never dreamed of.

Try as hard as we can, we can’t lock morality onto our families like chastity belts, as hard as we may wish to. And often, pointing out the sources of temptation, will actually show the paths to temptation that the innocent might never have seen before. This is something the Christian Right misses in their determination to bring everyone’s sins into the light but their own.

When Christian groups protested The Last Temptation of Christ, they drummed up audiences who would not have gone otherwise. Banning books makes people want to read them to find out why they’re banned.

Then, when people discovered the terrible evil isn’t so terrible, those same Christians are perceived as children crying wolf. They end up preaching to the saved, who don’t need their warnings.

We even end up burying ourselves in triviality and contradiction. I was told that the phrase “god damn it” when stubbing your toe was evil because it took the Lord’s name in vain. And, yes, it does. But doesn’t saying “God bless you” when someone sneezes also take the Lord’s name in vain? Both invoke the name of God with no real thought or intent to damn or bless.

Maybe we need to remind ourselves, as Paul did, that many things are sinful only because we perceive them to be so. This means we should not do them, not that we should correct others when they do. Or tempt people to try them out by telling them over and over again how deliciously evil they are.


1This last detail is pure fabrication. My family never visited Hoover Dam, or any other dam that I can recall, although we may well have driven over Mansfield Dam or Canyon Dam (if they had, in fact, been built by then). But I certainly wouldn’t have known their names.
This fabrication is merely included as a poetic device to truncate a needlessly complex explanation of what I really said (and cannot actually recall) in an already complex story. I am, however, making full disclosure here.back

2Notice that I didn’t make a big deal explaining “fast” or “loose.” I simply tossed them off casually so that you’re child, should they be reading this blog when you aren’t looking, won’t even be aware the words have double meanings.back


First stop President, next stop Messiah

Not more than a day after the Republican Presidential debate improved Rick Perry’s chances without him having uttered a word, he fell to the occasion by claiming he was Jesus.

Perry’s exact words? “I say that a prophet is generally not loved in their hometown. That’s both Biblical and practical.” Not to mention completely ungrammatical. But what can you expect of someone who graduated from one of the nation’s poorest performing states in education?

You can find the statement just about anywhere on the web. I’m citing 1
Rick Connelly in the Houston Press.

His remark came in answer to a question about his unpopularity in Texas. And he is unpopular. I don’t know anyone who likes him. But that doesn’t matter because the only person Texans hate more than Rick Perry is any Democrat who opposes him. Especially now that Obama has tainted the purity of the Democratic bloodlines.

Rick Perry’s new official self-portrait, commissioned after his “prophet without honor” press conference.

All Perry had to say was, “If I’m that unpopular, why have they reelected me so damn many times?” Admittedly, this is a question that puzzles me as well. But he didn’t provide it. He chose to imply that he’s unpopular because he’s a prophet.

Not just any prophet, mind you. He took the words right out of Jesus’ mouth. So even though he didn’t technically refer to himself as Jesus, it’s hard to avoid drawing the conclusion. Either way, if you believe Hal Lindsay and Rapture theologians, this claim would qualify him as the AntiChrist, or the prophet of the AntiChrist.

If he actually becomes President.

If he loses, he would just become another delusional heretic like David Koresh or Jim Jones, leading his Texas flock to metaphorical suicide (which is pretty much the way things are going down here).

But here’s the thing, Rick. A prophet is without honor in his own country, but so are fools, liars and panderers. Jesus was held in contempt because his friends and family members remembered him before he began his mission. This was their first encounter with him after he felt the call.

People hold you in contempt after you’ve actually completed several turns as governor. Nobody remembers you before your election; we know the man in office. Texans might argue that you are without honor in your own country because you’ve proved time and time again that you have no honor personally.

Ironically, Perry won’t suffer from his comment at all. Why? Because Republicans will forgive him just about anything since you can’t be Republican and not also be an Ambassador of Christ. Democrats already think he’s little more than George Bush’s Mini Me.

I find this ironic because Republicans howled at Obama’s use of messianic language (e.g., “bringing people together,” and, even worse, “I’m asking you to believe.”) The World Net Daily went so far as to suggest Democrats would coronate him Messiah based on reports of an Obama painting.2

To me, Perry’s statement is little more than another indication of how easily people use their faith to put blinders on their politics (and vice versa).

When I turned 18, a member of the first class of 18-year-olds to vote, I supported George McGovern. The pastor of my church and most of the elders told me I shouldn’t support McGovern, not just because he was against Jesus but because Christians shouldn’t get involved in politics. Never mind the fact that McGovern was a devout Methodist and former president of Wesleyan University.

Eight years later, those same Christians would join the religious right and vote born again Christian Jimmy Carter out of office, to replace him with a man who would never profess Christianity personally, but only admit that he “believed in a higher power” and didn’t attend church because he didn’t want people to be endangered by assassins trying to kill him. 3

I didn’t understand why so many evangelicals hated McGovern, because at the time I thought Methodists were partners in the Alliance of Light (Methodists, Baptists and Congregationalists—maybe Presbyterians) against the spiritual Axis of Evil (Catholics, Communists and Counter Culturalists). In retrospect, I can see the handwriting was on the wall. Methodists were so close to the center they would inevitably be lumped in with Episcopalians.

The Christian Right doesn’t want to separate faith from politics because it allows them to divert the faithful from the truth. There is big money in corporate politics, Republican campaigns and mega-church evangelism. Not all mega-churches are evil, but sooner or later growth becomes the bottom line in faith as well as business. More souls saved means bigger churches, more influence politically and more money raised.

The early church was about the nurturing and care of Christians as much as it was about evangelism. If the church didn’t continue to serve the physical and social needs of new believers (most of them poor), they would drift way.

In the book of Acts, the twelve Apostles in Jerusalem did not evangelize, they spent their time in prayer. They appointed deacons to physically serve the needs of the fellowship. Unfortunately, as always, the evangelists got the glory.

Even Paul’s work as a tent maker, while he spent months supporting himself to build churches and make sure the money went to the poorer members (and to support the church in Jerusalem), gets lost in the tales of adventure and evangelism.

The Christian Right is a profitable enterprise, and you can bet Rick Perry will capitalize on the brand to promote a political ideology that has impoverished Texans, Christian and non-Christian alike.

When Carol first read about Perry’s claim, she posted on Facebook: “I know Jesus, and Rick Perry isn’t Jesus.”

None of these guys are, so maybe we should put aside the filter of faith when listening to politicians. We want to elect politicians whose policies show care and concern for the least of us, as did Jesus. We don’t want politicians who turn faith into another corporate brand.


1If you’re not sure why the passage isn’t grammatical, you probably graduated from a Texas school just like Rick Perry’s. So move to a state with good schools while you can, because Perry and his cronies in the Legislature are determined to even reduce universities to football powers and academic wastelands.
Pro analysts complained that UT national champion and quarterback Vince Young could barely read the playbook. By the time the current cuts are finished, he would qualify for Texas MENSA (which handicaps applicants from Texas by adding 80 points to their IQs).

2 If you read the article, it’s clear that the painting that provokes the messianic coronation article was never intended to deify Obama. The article includes the obligatory artist’s comment without actually stopping to think what he’s actually saying.

“More than a presidential portrait,” writes D’Antuono on a website touting the painting, “‘The Truth’ is a politically, religiously and socially-charged statement on our nation’s current political climate and deep partisan divide that is sure to create a dialogue.”back

It reminds me of the “Jesus (heart) George and Osama” bumper sticker I wanted to make before Carol convinced me some asshole would trash our car in a fit of Christian charity.

3He made the statement in a Presidential debate against Mondale.back


Innocence of children, not ignorance of dolts

When I visited my grandparents, my grandfather would always share with us how important is was to possess the wisdom of Solomon. He usually told these stories to explain how he had caught my uncle and me in yet another fool proof scheme to commit mischief and mayhem.

The wisdom of Solomon helped him ferret out where we stashed the cigarettes (in the tool shed with the deck of cards), who kidnapped my sister’s and cousin’s Barbie dolls and who dressed them in my GI Joe combat outfits (after they had dressed them up in finest princess style so they could give a Barbie fashion show for the entire family).1

He figured out who used the oven door for a pea shooter target (more about this in a later post),who hid the switch that he kept above the coat closet door as a warning to children who planning pranks and misdeeds, who ate the pumpkin pie the night before thanksgiving and who told my sister and cousin that the home made grape juice they just drank had fermented into wine.2

When I started teaching kids for the Texas corrections system, they were just as astonished at how I knew they had been smoking dope in the alley, gone to the convenience store for beer when they swore they were going to the library, and every time they came to class hungover. I could attribute this to the wisdom of Solomon (and he does deserve his due) but the honest truth is that I had long ago figured out how my grandfather became so wise.

Not only did he have his own childhood misdeeds to draw upon, but those of his children and grandchildren as well. And truthfully, I knew how what those kids were up to because I had figured out ways to do the same things. Without getting caught. And, I must confess, the few times I was caught, I figured out how to be such a smart ass they almost wished they hadn’t caught me.

But Solomon wasn’t just a wise ruler, he was a learned ruler as well—his “wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and breadth of mind like the sand on the seashore.” (1 Kings 4:29) He was an incredible biologist and an accomplished writer and poet. (32) These don’t come with “common sense,” but were gifts of learning and discernment.

I mention this because of Sarah Palin’s recent blunder over Paul Revere. I’m not bothered by the fact that she could only place him at the time of the American Revolution, but didn’t know exactly what he did. Many students couldn’t do that much.3 I’m bothered by the fact that, according to the news reports, she had just finished viewing a presentation on Paul Revere.

Sarah, it seems, holds learning in such disregard that she couldn’t even be bothered to pay attention to the presentation she attended to promote her non-Presidential campaign. (Do I need to italicize this? No, I’ll just repeat it. Sarah Palin holds learning in such disregard that she couldn’t even pay attention to a presentation she attended to promote her campaign.)

Now I’m saying it a third time, only in the caption. Forgetting who Paul Revere was isn’t a crime, half of Americans probably have, including some Democrats and Episcopalians like me. But Sarah Palin holds learning in such disregard that she couldn’t even pay attention to a presentation (a presentation explaining who Paul Revere was) that she attended to promote her campaign.

Source: public domain

I’m hardly surprised, since I grew up in a culture that holds secular learning in contempt. It’s part of being raised as a Baptist Preacher’s Kid (BPK). Just about every Christian I knew assured me that they didn’t need “book learning.” They only needed their Bibles and common sense.

In this model, Solomon’s wisdom could not have been the work of study and effort (and exposing himself to the wisdom of other cultures). God just shoved that wisdom in his head by the power of the Holy Spirit. The fact that his knowledge included the physical sciences of the time doesn’t seem to enter the picture. But, if we are to believe the book of Kings, he was as learned as Aristotle and by today’s standards we would want to say, “even Einstein marveled at his grasp of the laws of the universe.”

Solomon wouldn’t have ignored Darwin and the theory of relativity, or even quantum mechanics. In spite of his faith, he would have been conversant.

Instead, many evangelical and fundamentalist Christians want to shield children from such knowledge (and without knowledge, there can be little wisdom). They pull them from public schools and home school them or send them to private schools. And, thanks to laws like “No Child Left Behind,” home schooled students and students of small Christian schools don’t have to take the standardized tests to graduate.

Our kids have to suffer through training for tests at the expense of real learning, while fundamentalists can shield their kids from any such learning and graduate without taking the tests. (And then politicians like Sarah Palin can complain about how unfairly Christians are treated.)

For some reason, many Christians equate ignorance with faith. I know it’s an old joke but I have, in reality, heard evangelists say (with all seriousness) that the King James is the Bible the Apostle Paul carried with him on his missionary journeys. Southern Baptist ministers are expected to attend seminary, but I have met many ministers in small, independent churches who were proud they never made it past high school (if that far).

I would never say education is a cornerstone of faith. Many of Jesus’ disciples were uneducated. But not all of them were. Luke, the author of a Gospel and the book of Acts, was a physician. Paul, who wrote most of the original letters contained in the New Testament, was educated as a Pharisee and quite literate. The authors of John’s Gospel, and the books of Revelation and Hebrews, were aware of Greek and Roman literary traditions.

Nor does scripture ever frown on literacy and knowledge. We owe the origins of American public education to Christian evangelists such as John Wesley and Robert May. Christians needed to be educated to read the Bible, and Shakespeare was as much a part of their vocabulary as scripture. Many even read Whitman, who proudly wrote of his homosexuality.

The sad truth for Christians is, the more we read the more we can detect bull shit, and we get so much of it from liberals, conservatives and Christians that we need our bull shit detectors finely honed. Christians can get upset when I accuse them of bull shit, but that’s exactly how they feel about the teachings of Christians who disagree with them.

Or worse, if it isn’t bull shit, it comes directly from the devil. And if that’s the case, we need to hone those detectors even more. And it can’t just be reading the Bible, because the same verse in the Bible is often used to justify three entirely different beliefs about faith (e.g., “This is my blood.” Real blood, spiritually infused blood, or merely symbolic?4).

If you read only one book that claims to be true, you have no way of knowing if it is, in fact, true. And if all the books you read are by writers who read and cite the same writers, you have no way of knowing whether or not they actually know what they’re talking about.

And if you’re ignorant of history, you might never know how many Christians contributed to modern scientific knowledge (and continue to do so) and who continue to be Christians, even if they don’t believe in either creation or intelligent design. You might never know that the Catholic Church embraced the Big Bang theory (only to back away when some scientists objected).

If I hadn’t read many of the original fundamentalist documents, I wouldn’t know that many fundamentalist writers had no problems with evolution even in the first couple of decades of the 20th century.

Evangelical Mark Noll made a similar case in his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians devalue learning, to their detriment. This didn’t seem to deter his evangelical leanings or his faith. Evangelicals like Jim Wallace embrace the writings of educated writers, and even much of modern science, without experiencing any crisis of faith.

I think Christians equate education with learning about Santa Claus. Many Baptists believe it’s wrong to teach children about Santa Claus because once they learn Santa isn’t real, they might doubt Jesus too. They also believed swimming, dancing and cards were of the devil. And when swimming became acceptable, mixed swimming (boys and girls in the same pool at the same time) took its place on the list.

Similarly, they think learning something in school (like evolution) will lead children to throwing out Jesus. They act as though faith is built on a fragile chain, and losing one link will break it all. Faith is more like a web, or woven cloth. Breaking a thread doesn’t bring down the structure. It allows it to be repaired and even made more sturdy in the process.

Do people reject God and Jesus because they discover evolution is credible? Yes, but much of that is because Christians insist (with many scientists and atheists) that evolution is the link that breaks the chain. They believe that if every word in Genesis isn’t literally true, then the entire Bible is a lie. So naturally, if you believe the chain is broken, you abandon it.

Faith is built on personal experience. It is the ultimate form of empirical knowledge. We believe in the power of Jesus because we’ve experienced the power of Jesus. Just as empiricism is the basis of science, it’s also the foundation of faith.

Does that mean all experiences of faith are authentic, and that all accounts are reliable? No, only the test of time and experience will prove that. The proof of faith is like the proof of an experiment. It must be repeated over time.

Will others’ results differ? Absolutely, just as scientists discover new conditions which call older experiments and theories into question. But that doesn’t make either faith or science invalid. Or the pursuit of philosophy in examining questions of faith (e.g., the book of Hebrews, and many of Paul’s reflections). Or the pursuit of history in discovering how faith has led people astray and also renewed the kindling of the spirit into revival.

I studied Catholicism because my first wife wanted our marriage annulled so that my son Bryan could be embraced by the church. Catholics believe (or at least the ones who taught me believed) God speaks to Christians not just through the Bible, but through people, through nature, through history and many other media as well.

I have no reason to doubt them. This is exactly how God spoke to his followers in the stories of scripture.

Sometimes, he speaks to us directly. Sometimes, we fail to get the message or get it wrong entirely. That’s why we judge each message with all of the tools at our disposal. In short, we need as many bull shit detectors as we can because we can easily confuse the voice of God with our own (or someone else’s) crap.

The problem with politicians like Sarah Palin isn’t that she’s ignorant of facts but that, as a public figure (and, even more disturbingly, an apparent role model for Christians), she shows so much disdain for learning. She isn’t wrapping herself in faith, but a cocoon to protect her from realizing she might be wrong. And when you can’t possibly be wrong, you can’t hear God telling you just how wrong you might be.


1There is a pretty obvious clue here in case you’re wondering exactly how he did it. It wasn’t so obvious to me, however, and I remained in awe of that one at least until I was in high school.back

2By the end of the evening, after drinking a couple of glasses, both Beth and Debbie went to grandmother and confessed how drunk they were. According to Debbie, “I can really feel it.”back

3Primarily because the standardized tests are now so complex and the state mandated curriculum requirements so incredibly micro-detailed that high-school aged students can’t possibly be expected to master them. I know this because I was a consultant on both the Texas standardized texts, and helped to catalogue the curriculum requirements for a dozen states for textbook publishers. In my own field, English, several of the requirements were at a level my professors didn’t cover until graduate school.back

2Another small irony. Have you noticed that fundamentalists, who insist every word of the Bible is literally true, insist that “This is my blood” is merely symbolic? I suspect that’s because the Catholics, who believe much of the Bible is symbolic or allegorical, already claimed that verse as “literal.” Except for this bizarre historical accident, Baptists would have come up with the doctrine of transubstantiation.back


Graduation prayer: learning the wrong lessons

Being raised Baptist Preacher’s Kid (BPK) means being raised with a set of stories all Baptists share. Each of these stories illustrates an important principle of faith that we must hold close to our heart. We never question these stories because they are written into scripture and therefore they usher forth directly from the mouth of God.

Famous bible stories

One of those stories came from the book of Daniel1, the story of Hananiah (חֲנַנְיָה), Mishael (מִישָׁאֵל) and Azariah (עֲזַרְיָה). Most Baptists won’t recognize these three because Baptists call them by their Chaldean slave names Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

Gustave Dore’s rendition of the triumphal salvation of Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. Most Baptists won’t recognize those names even though we learned about them in countless Sunday Schools.

I find this ironic because the story is about cultural oppression and forcing people to submit to the cultural expectations of society at large. Somehow we overlook this and still refer to these Hebrew heroes by their slave names.

In the story, our three heroes are ordered to follow the religious practices and cultural customs of the empire. But they don’t. They don’t eat spiced meat (aka steak with salt and pepper or A1 sauce) or drink spiced wine. But the worst atrocity was forcing our heroes to pray to the Chaldean Gods.

These guys could have done the safe thing and simply bowed their heads when the Chaldeans prayed, and pretended to go along with the show. But real Hebrews didn’t do that, and they chose to be burned to death rather than appearing to pray to Babylonian gods. The Hebrew God saves them, of course, but that isn’t the point of the story.

And the moral to the story is….

The point of the story is that the faithful are willing to die rather than bow their heads in prayer to a God (or god) they don’t worship. And sorry, Christians, but I have to include Jews as the faithful because the story was about them and not us. We’re just an afterthought to scripture.2

Baptists always took a second, subtextual lesson from the story. In a Christian society (i.e., America) we shouldn’t be forced to pray to other gods.

But I think we should see an additional, parallel lesson. Imagine how American Christians would feel if we were forced to participate in meetings where the speakers led us in prayers to Allah. We would be furious, and rightly so.

How dare they?

American Christians would be equally distressed if we were asked to bow our heads and experience the wonder of a universe without a god, but driven by natural forces and laws. We would blow our stacks if the speaker lead the audience in thanking the randomness of nature for the probabilities that came to pass that allowed us all to gather in this place in this time.

I know this because as an arts and political activist I’ve had to work with groups who expected me to participate in shamanistic prayer and drum ceremonies, visualize the spirit of Gaia working on the world around us, thank the goddess for her feminine blessings and allowing us to reject our masculine nature, or channel whatever spiritual being was in vogue that year.

Once I even had to sit through a session where the facilitators consulted the I Ching to resolve a disagreement. Ironically, the I Ching said we should do what I had been saying all along. But now it was a message from the universe itself and not just my opinion. So I got no credit at all.

Each time I thought: This is bull shit. This meeting isn’t about spreading the universal consciousness, it’s about arts funding or organizing an action against the city council or developers. Still, I did it out of respect, not for the vision of the month club, but for the work we needed to do and my partners in the work.

After all, I was raised BPK and remembered how many times Christians made people sit through prayers at civic meetings, or my family expected Jewish friends to say the blessing at dinner.

Had my school, or university, or the City of Detroit or Austin made the participants rise and chant to Seth, however, I would have been the first to say, “Excuse me, but this has no place in a government sponsored forum.”

I’m not talking about a school sponsored seminar on New Age religions or a city sponsored round table of religious leaders concerned about policy. This is America and everyone has the right to say, “I’m Christian and I believe evolution is wrong,” and every one else has the right to say, “You’ve got to be kidding me. Did God ask you to cut out the left side of your brain while you were thinking about it?”

I’m referring to a speaker asking everyone in the audience at a graduation ceremony to stand up and join in a prayer to Allah, or the Divine Spirit, or the random and godless universe. Who would be the first to piss and moan and call out the lawyers and Republican legislators before the diplomas were even handed out?

Christians. And Rick Perry and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott.

So why is it that when a Texas court says Christians can openly avow their faith, but they can’t tell an audience to participate in the rituals of our faith, those same Christians and Texas politicians are the first to howl at the moon as though we had all been publicly circumcised without anesthetic?

The prayer wars erupt in Texas

This week a San Antonio court ruled that valedictorian Angela Hildenbrand couldn’t lead the audience in a prayer during her graduation speech. Now, in Angela’s defense, she claims she just wanted to pray while delivering her speech, but that means we all pray with her.

I somehow doubt Angela wanted to say, “As Christians we pray things like, ‘Dear God help us be all the Christian we can be.'” She wanted to pray a real prayer, not an example prayer, and Christian protocol dictates that when one of us prays publicly we all pray publicly.

By Thursday evening the Austin local news was reporting that Angela was even receiving death threats for her virtuous stand. I’ll confess that it’s possible someone called and said, “I hope you die, bitch,” but I couldn’t find any record of these death threats in the reporting online (and our local newscasters are often given to exaggeration and hyperbole).

According to Reuters, even though the court ruled that affirmative religious statements were permissible, Gregg Abbott retaliated with the following: “This is part of an ongoing attempt to purge God from the public setting, while at the same time demanding from the court increased yielding to all things agnostic and atheistic….”

The article reported that Abbott believed the “ruling would allow a student to ‘bend over in honor of Mecca,’ but not lead a prayer to the Christian God.” Sorry, Gregg, but the judge said nothing about Mecca, and the ruling covered all state-sanctioned religion, including Islam.

Forget the courts, WWJS?

So let’s review three emphatic teachings of Jesus that may shed light on the situation:

  • Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
  • Don’t pray in public. Pray in private where only God can hear you.3
  • Don’t judge others or God will judge you as harshly.

I take this to mean the following:

  • If you don’t want to be asked to publicly to pray to gods you don’t accept, don’t lead audiences at civic forums (whose members might not be Christian) in public prayer to Jesus. That’s what church is for.
  • You shouldn’t be praying in public anyway. That’s just showing off your piety, which, ironically, isn’t piety when you’re showing off.
  • Don’t judge others for not wanting to participate in your public prayers, especially since you would be offended if they expected you to participate publicly in theirs.

Angela, God bless you. If your faith is part of your life you should be proud to say so in your speech. But if you think you have the right to tell me I should be Christian and expect me to pray just because I came to see my nephew graduate, then ask yourself what you would do if I asked you to bend over toward Mecca in my valedictory speech.

Or used my valedictory speech to tell you that Christians who don’t believe in evolution aren’t Christians, they’re morons. Or told my audience why Episcopalians are better Christians than Baptists or Catholics.4

Are you beginning to see how Corwin Schultz might feel when he has to listen to you telling him what a loser he is for being agnostic? Especially when he has to listen before he can get his diploma? With the school’s sanction no less, which in essence is the local government saying “We endorse Angela’s message that you’re an agnostic loser who doesn’t deserve to get his diploma without being reminded of that?”

Personally, I’m immune. I heard that stuff all my life. I get it, my Jesus isn’t as good as your Jesus. I’ve got it all wrong and I’m going to suffer for it, and they only tell me this because they love me and it’s for my own good.

And, fortunately, I’m an adult so I don’t have to sit and listen to it anymore. I get to choose who I respect enough to be expose myself again—whether they be Christians, Wiccans or Bill Maher. Or my Baptist Preacher’s Family.

It may not be over

It’s my understanding that the higher court merely lifted the injunction against prayer at the graduation ceremony, they didn’t dismiss the suit. So it’s quite possible that the Schultz family will win the suit and this furor will start all over again.

Jesus never forced anyone to pray, nor did he demand it or even expect it. He preached from hillsides, and people were free to leave at any time. He never spoke during a state sponsored assembly where audiences were compelled to listen. And if his audiences didn’t want to listen, he just moved on to another town.

He knew there would always be someone who wanted the good news. There was no need to force it on those who didn’t.


1A designation that probably proves I have lapsed beyond redemption (although technically that can never happen to Baptists). A true member of the Baptist faithful would never type book of Daniel even as a typo. It’s Book of Daniel.back

2This thought may upset a few Christians even more, but New Testament writers did not consider their writing scripture. And Jesus certainly didn’t. To them our guide was the Law and the prophets. Nowhere did they invoke the new believers to study “our writing” or give their correspondence any special status.back

3I’m not going to cite chapter and verse. You know damn well he said it.back

2We aren’t, I just can’t help but thinking that being Episcopalian is like eating at a four star restaurant instead of MacDonalds. Or reading War and Peace instead of the Cliff Notes. Or drinking a fine Shiraz instead of Annie Green Springs. Or watching Doctor Zhivago instead of Dumb and Dumber.
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The beginning of this blog and end of the world

Read this post now because we won’t be here tomorrow, at least that’s what Harold Camping of Family Radio Worldwide has persuaded a good many Christians. Jesus will return sometime before midnight, and faithful Christians will join him in the air. Everyone else is in for six months of hard times (we’re talking an apocalypse of Ghostbusters proportions) and then God will wrap it all up in October.

This tattoo expresses the bearer’s faith that he or she will be lifted into the skies to be with Jesus, maybe even sometime today.

Photo and tattoo by Veracious Rey (courtesy of Wikipedia)

It’s tempting to make fun of May 21 predictions. It’s not only tempting, I already have,1 as have David Letterman, Joy Behar and Bill Maher (although I should point out I was making jokes first).

A number of Christians have called Campbell an outright heretic and others have laughed him off as a lunatic. On the other hand, many of Campbell’s followers are no doubt certain that they will comprise the bulk of the saved taken at Rapture. If a Christian doesn’t believe in the Rapture, how can he really be a Christian?

In other words, it’s business as usual for Christians in America. There is an infectious paranoia that seems to run through mainstream Christianity on both sides of the liberal divide. Conservative Christians threaten to rob us of our civil liberties, liberal Christians threaten the survival of the faith.

Conservative Christians tend to be slightly more vocal with their concerns (the wave of “culture war” books started from their side), convinced that if they don’t cry wolf on broadcast television and radio, they will lose the culture war and be driven to extinction. This runs counter to the whole theme of Rapture since it doesn’t matter how the secular world treats us, Jesus is taking us away from the real catastrophe. But that’s how paranoia works.

It doesn’t matter that no one in America can be forced to pray to a God they don’t worship in public meetings and schools. Christians are being persecuted because they can’t force other people and their kids to pray to Jesus. This seems odd, because I grew up with stories lamenting the fact that Hebrews and Christians were forced by foreign empires to pray to Babylonian and pagan Gods.

The lesson was that the faithful should be willing to prove their faith rather than bow to persecution to conform to secular agendas, not that they should impose their faith agendas on others.

The faithful should never bow to pressure to pray to other gods. But the beauty of America is that public schools and institutions can’t force Christians to pray to Allah, or Rama Krishna or God sans Christ. Protestants don’t have to observe Catholic ritual, and Catholics don’t have to observe Protestant ritual.2

No one can legally force Christians to practice safe, premarital sex, oral sex or even watch sexual acts in performance. No one can force Christians to take drugs, profess communism or vote for Democrats. No one can force Christians to swear allegiance to America (although Christians are the first to frown should someone else decline), as believers were forced to do by empires in the Bible.

Personally, I thank God whenever I think about it that I live in a country where Baptists don’t have to behave like Episcopalians and vice-versa. How many other countries do that? Can you imagine being Shia in a Sunni country, or a Palestinian in Israel? Remember what it was like for Moslems under the Taliban in Afghanistan?

How great do we have it? We can carry Bibles in public, and testify to our faith in college classes. This is where the paranoia creeps in, however, because that’s not good enough. As long as another classmate can say being Christian is stupid, we’re being persecuted.

Christians will only truly be free when the debate and culture are one-sided. America won’t be truly Christian until Christians can tell their classmates they’re going to hell and force everybody to pray in class, but their classmates can’t say Christianity is stupid or that they don’t want to pray. I’m not going to mention the Golden Rule here, but….

Oh, I just did.

Too many Christians have declared their righteous indignation. They are appalled that the America that treated them so well treats atheists, agnostics, Moslems and liberals just as well.

Jesus told a parable about laborers who were hired to work his vineyard for the same amount of money even though some started work later (Matthew 20). The employees who worked the longest felt they’d been treated unfairly. The employer had to remind them that he paid them what they agreed to work for. It wasn’t unfair for him to reward others as he saw fit.

It seems to me that what Christians are really suffering is righteous indigestion. God has graced us with more blessings than believers in any other country, but we don’t want to benefit from the fruits of our faith if people who believe differently benefit as well. We forget that many of the revolutionaries and soldiers who fought to earn and maintain those rights weren’t Christians. They deserve those rights as much as we do.

The weird thing is, I get it. I get it because I grew up as a Baptist Preacher’s Kid (BPK). In a Baptist Preacher’s Family (BPF) you have to make sure everyone is behaving just like you because you don’t want your parents, siblings or children to go to hell. So you don’t even give your BPF the choice. You remind them daily that they’re going to hell if they don’t behave and believe just like you.

Atheists, agnostics, liberals, leftists and even Moslems fought and fight today to secure our rights, but we can’t let them enjoy those rights because it isn’t in their best interest. They need to find the grace of God as we did. We can’t just thank them for our freedom to worship and express our faith, we have to deny them those rights and force them to find salvation.

There’s also the verse to consider, “one bad apple spoils the whole barrel.” If you let a few things slide, let a few people slack off from praying in public, then you’re opening the door for everybody to backslide. Of course, it isn’t a verse, at least not in the Bible, but there are one or two verses that can be made to sound like it.

And that’s where the paranoia returns. These agnostics and atheists may have fought to secure our freedoms, but the freedom they enjoy to not worship God could tempt us to follow suit. If we allow them the right to disbelieve, or watch porn, or vote for Obama, we could be seduced into the same lifestyle. And if not us, our children.

We can’t have that.

It shouldn’t surprise us to realize that belief in the Rapture spread as the the fear of Communism rose. It might have been okay for Christians to believe in a millennium of peace before Christ’s return before the French Revolution and the rise of labor and communism, but not after. Violent public action left people with fears of apocalypse, and suddenly Jesus needed to get here first.

After all, he had already shed his blood. Why should we shed ours?

Christians couldn’t be expected to survive a world where atheist secular powers could rob them of their religious freedoms (freedoms they never had in the time of Christ and the apostles). Once they had a taste of Christian empire, they could not be expected to go back to persecution. And as long as Christians remained in the world they faced the threat of extermination, or worse, co-option.

What better deus ex machina than The Rapture? Before it gets really bad, we opt out.

It’s time for another illustration, whether we need one or not. This is a vision of Jesus rescuing souls from hell on earth.

(courtesy of wikimedia/public domain)

Sooner or later Christians need to realize that we will always face difficulties, even when we have it as good as we do in America. Christians are supposed to suffer. Suffering encourages us to refocus on our faith, and through the practice of our faith we learn to escape suffering. How do we practice our faith? By serving others rather than demanding they cater to us—even if those others don’t believe as we do, and think we are fools to do so.

In short, we don’t need to be Raptured to be at peace with the Lord or in the world. No matter how bad it gets.

And members of the religious right who are so desperate to be Raptured should remember that they will survive eight years of Obama the way they survived eight years of Clinton. The way my friends and fellow believers survived twelve years of Reagan/Bush and another eight, under another Bush, that were even worse.

Maranatha


1Mainly in my reviews of the Crossway ESV Bibleback and Just 1 Wordonline Bibles for iPad Envy. If it strikes you that this footnote is little more than a shameless attempt at self promotion, you might be right. But I also didn’t want to simply copy and paste the jokes into this post without giving credit to whom credit is due. Even if it’s me.

2Many Americans don’t even know that Christians were killed on both sides in wars between Catholic and Protestant political powers prior to the enlightenment and in Ireland as late as the last century. Even during the nineteenth century Protestant missionaries were killed in Mexico, including (my Baptist grandparents never failed to remind me) members of my own family.back