Saturday, April 12, 2014

Keeping It Real


Christians love a good story.
The typical sermon centers on a few specific verses, but reading those few verses would take all of four minutes. If the pastor or speaker adds a few personal thoughts on those verses, or gives some additional information about the history and culture of the time period, or whips out a word or two in Greek or Hebrew – maybe twenty minutes. What seems to flesh out a sermon (and more importantly grab the attention of the congregation), however, is the extra-biblical story, and I’ve never heard a sermon that didn’t include at least one or two.
These stories might be telling of a personal experience growing up, or of a news story from a couple of years ago, or even a humorous anecdote. There is certainly nothing wrong with telling stories, as even untrue stories can illustrate things that are true. In V for Vendetta (2005), Evey Hammond tells the masked vigilante known as “V” a bit about her parents:
“My father was a writer. You would’ve liked him. He used to say that artists use lies to tell the truth, while politicians use them to cover the truth up.”

Even Jesus, who describes himself in part as “the truth” in John 14:6, told many stories that not even the strictest Biblical literalists believe were actually true in themselves: stories about a man buying a field for hidden treasure, or a persistent widow pleading for justice, or a roadside mugging and a kind Samaritan. His audience (typically the disciples) understood the concept of a story intended to teach a principle rather than to relay factual events. The idea was that the listener was supposed to figure out the meaning behind the story rather than to defend the authenticity of the details within; fact checkers were not necessary because no one was claiming that the story was true or condemning skeptics who remained unconvinced that the events relayed literally happened.
Today’s stories are quite different. Even as a relative introvert, rarely does a week go by that I am not told some untrue story by a Christian friend or acquaintance. I have no problem with untrue stories in themselves – I personally have told an untrue story many times about a piece of string that walks into a bar – but the ones I hear or read on Facebook are almost always presented as factual, often leading off with “this is a true story” (causing the sender to literally bear false witness). While there is some overlap in a few cases, I've noticed that these widely-circulated tales fall into one of four categories.
Overstated Anecdote
Actual Homeless Guy - Not A Pastor
In my opinion, this is the most innocent of the falsehoods. It's really just a modern parable meant to point out some truth, and would be a great story if it wasn't so bent on being portrayed as real. A recent example would be the story of pastor Jeremiah Steepek, who allegedly disguises himself as a homeless man on the day he is to be introduced to his new megachurch congregation. It's a great story with a nice message, but portrayed as factual, it is easily discredited. Obviously, a megachurch would have an online presence by which the pastor could at least be verified as a real person. Additionally, the photo attached (reportedly of Steepek) had already been published and the man identified as an actual homeless man. Apparently after writing a nice little story, it was just too much work for the author to take a photo himself, rather than just typing "homeless guy" into the Flickr search. These stories simply aim for the "warm fuzzy" and are practically engineered to go viral in Christian circles, the equivalent of cute kitten pictures among pet lovers.
Proof of God (or the End of Days)
Yes, all state-college professors are angry atheists...
Such stories are basically the overstated anecdote on steroids, often based on urban legends. They are more aggressive, usually leaning on a stereotype (such as the angry intellectual atheist, or the violent Muslim) and yet maintaining the claim of being a true story.  The picture of actor Kevin Sorbo here is from the recent film God Is Not Dead, which does not claim to be non-fiction, but it also has striking similarities to the "true story of something that happened a few years ago at USC" involving dropped chalk as a proof of the existence of God. Not surprisingly, Snopes reached out to USC and was informed that nothing of the sort has ever happened there. Having attended a (secular) state college myself, I also find the idea of 300 students staying in their seats to hear one other student share his faith to be quite preposterous.
As a believer, these sorts of claims are very disturbing. For one thing, especially in the age of Google, these are easily discredited. But where finding out that Pastor Steepek may be fictional is of little consequence, these claims put the veracity of Christianity itself on the line. For example, if you claim that Noah's Ark has been located in Turkey and it is found to be completely false, does this not throw the entire biblical narrative of the flood into question?
Additionally, I wonder about the faith of those that rely on such legends and falsehoods. Not only are they spreading misinformation to others in direct opposition to one of the ten commandments, but they appear to need such stories as a type of evidence to support their faith, as if someone can't believe in a Christian eschatology without believing an urban legend about a red heifer or believe in even a literal interpretation of Joshua 10 without buying a story that NASA discovered evidence of a missing day. For my part, my religious beliefs do not hinge on tales of modern "proofs".
Political Nonsense
Yep...this was in Indiana.
To be very frank, these are perhaps the most pathetic falsehoods, and certainly among the most frequently shared. They are simply political attack ads, sometimes granted a sense of legitimacy by "Christian" organizations. The timing is always interesting, as some furor about an incumbent (most often President Barack Obama) always seems to be gaining momentum before a primary or national vote. For the record, Obama did not change the Oval Office to "look Muslim", he did not cancel the National Day of Prayer, and he was not born in Kenya. He did not make free speech a felony. I could go on and on, but there would be no point...All lies and jests, still a man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest.
To be fair, political falsehoods are not new, nor are they limited to just Democrats or Republicans. But regardless of political leanings, anyone of integrity (Christian or not) should refrain from spreading misinformation whether or not they agree with a person, or who they hope wins an election. Putting politics over ethics is certain to destroy one's credibility. Again, in the age of information, just about anyone can check your facts instantaneously - don't be a Liar for Jesus.
Playing the Victim 
Or maybe it was building code violations and fraud.
These are also quite frequent in the Facebook feed, often visible to me due to a "like" granted to a post by Focus on the Family, the American Center for Law and Justice, or other religious-political hybrid organization (that post often includes a request for donations to help the fight against an imaginary or overstated injustice).  Once recent outrage was over the arrest of Michael Salman, characterized by some religious groups as persecution by the state of Arizona against a Christian doing nothing more than holding a bible study in his home. The story was so misconstrued that the city of Phoenix had to defend itself with an official "fact sheet" detailing the city's actual complaints.
Many of these sorts of posts invoke the ACLU Boogeyman, like the claim that they are trying to remove crosses from cemeteries or to stop prayer within the United States Marine Corps. Others focus on (and some even authored by) Christian "celebrities" who claim they are being targeted: "liberals and atheists" are targeting Duck Dynasty, Facebook is trying to censor Kirk Cameron promoting his new film, and country stations are refusing to play a song by Diamond Rio entitled In God We Still Trust. Oddly enough, it has been my own personal experience that the people most hostile toward my beliefs are not governmental authorities, but Christians themselves.
Follow the Money
As a churchgoing teen in the late 1980s, I would often hear (and honestly enjoy) the routines of "Christian comedian" Mike Warnke. I couldn't have cared less about his many claims from some past life (which eventually were all exposed as complete fabrications); I just liked listening to this goofy guy with clean but genuinely funny jokes, many with religious overtones. It wasn't until he was off the radar that I learned that he rode to fame based on lies. Like several televangelists of the time, his gig was up once his lies were exposed; before that time, he was held up as a sort of living proof of the power of God to transform a life. His story was custom-made for the exact hopes and longings of a select group.

Yes, but is "Heaven is for Real" for real?
In just a few days, TriStar Pictures will release a movie version of the incredibly popular book Heaven is For Real, a story custom-made for the exact hopes and longings of a select group. There is no indication that this book/movie is a fraud, but I must confess that I would personally be more persuaded that the story was factual if the Burpo family had not profited financially (and greatly) from the book. I would caution those who strongly defend the tale as true, however, to acknowledge that just as there is no evidence that the book is a fraud, there is also no evidence that the story is true, no matter how much one would like it to be. Not only do the details of NDEs (near death experiences) vary, but I was once (no, twice) the parent of a four year old. Maybe a child wished to entertain or impress his father, or maybe the four-year-old never said anything he was reported to have said. Maybe the tales are completely true. The only thing that is certain is that it makes for a good milkshake - and Christians will drink it up.

Friday, April 4, 2014

No, We Can't All Get Along

Like most people, I can distinctly recall where I was when certain news events occurred. On the morning of September 11th, 2001, I was getting ready for work when I saw the second plane hit the towers on live television. On the day after my 12th birthday, I was home sick from school but wanted to watch the Challenger take off. And when the Rodney King verdict was delivered, sparking riots in Los Angeles, I was a freshman at the racially diverse University of Southern Mississippi.
While the Challenger explosion was tragic, it was largely without conflict in terms of public opinion, where the acquittal of four police officers seemed to put many communities on edge, including our campus. In the aftermath of that verdict, I was never in danger of being harmed, and I did not fear for my safety. What I did lament, however, was how the issue seemed to be driving a wedge between black and white students. Rodney King (in a broken tone) asked the open question, "Can we all just get along?" The answer, it appeared, would be "no".

Of course, divisive issues are not new; the history of the USA is really just one big argument. In the beginning, there were heated discussions about King George and independence. There were then passionate debates about blacks being property or people, resulting in the repulsive "three fifths compromise". Ongoing questions of slavery and varying interpretations of the tenth amendment actually tore the nation in half, resulting in a war between the states; the union was eventually restored, but with almost a million fewer men. After much yelling and marching we have survived the arguments about a women's right to vote and public school integration. More recently, there have been many other issues that have divided our country and communities, including hanging chads, shock and awe, defining marriage, and Obamacare.

And yet, thanks in large part to the internet and the ubiquitous reach of various groups skilled at working the public to a boil for their own monetary advantage, it appears we are developing a new front. In this field, the very compliance of thought is demanded by any means necessary, typically through economic threats. One recent example is that of the evangelical humanitarian organization World Vision.

For anyone not aware of the recent controversy, World Vision works with dozens of Christian denominations to organize support for humanitarian aid "in nearly 100 countries, serving all people, regardless of religion, race, ethnicity, or gender...motivated by our faith in Jesus Christ, we serve alongside the poor and oppressed as a demonstration of God’s unconditional love for all people." This is not an organization that primarily intends to convert people to some brand of Christianity (how could they, as converting a population to the teachings of the pentecostal Assemblies of God denomination would certainly be a concern for Southern Baptists) - but to simply meet the basic needs of "the least of these" from Matthew 25.

In the interest of focusing on this common mission rather than taking a position on a number of other controversial issues, the board announced on March 24th that they would allow homosexuals to work for World Vision. At the time of this announcement, president Richard Stearns told Christianity Today:
"It's easy to read a lot more into this decision than is really there. This is not an endorsement of same-sex marriage. We have decided we are not going to get into that debate. Nor is this a rejection of traditional marriage, which we affirm and support.  We're not caving to some kind of pressure. We're not on some slippery slope. There is no lawsuit threatening us. There is no employee group lobbying us. This is not us compromising. It is us deferring to the authority of churches and denominations on theological issues. We're an operational arm of the global church, we're not a theological arm of the church. This is simply a decision about whether or not you are eligible for employment at World Vision U.S. based on this single issue, and nothing more."
The backlash was immediate, as if Max had just decreed, "Let the wild rumpus start!" Within 48 hours the organization was forced to condemn its own action as "a mistake" after ten thousand children were financially abandoned by self-proclaimed Christians, their very lives considered acceptable collateral damage in the effort to punish the organization for their employment policies. Of course, not all groups responded in such a way; some denominations had themselves already accepted homosexual members (and some even clergy).

 It should not be surprising that most evangelical denominations would not agree with allowing gay staff members in the organization, but the scorched-earth retribution made as much logical sense as people destroying their own neighborhoods in Los Angeles or Detroit to protest a national news event. No, it is far worse: rioters and looters do not claim their efforts to destroy flow from their love of Jesus. To quote artist and blogger Matt Appling, "We have proven how many Bible verses we are willing to ignore to enforce what we believe about a few Bible verses."

Former CEO Brendan Eich
This demand for conformity is by no means limited to the religious right. Just yesterday, the CEO of Firefox maker Mozilla was dethroned after being in his position only eleven days. The reason was not embezzlement or incompetence (just think how many CEOs would be fired tomorrow if there were an actual standard on these issues alone), but that he dared to donate $1,000 six years ago supporting California's ban on gay marriage. The donation was personal (not done corporately) and he had not made any declarations on the matter as CEO; as an employer Mozilla supports same-sex marriage and provides benefits to same-sex spouses. So, the furor that eventually caused Mozilla to cast Brendan Eich overboard Jonah-style seemed unnecessary.

Every poll I see on the issue of "gay marriage" indicates that pubic opinion is solidly moving in the direction of acceptance, like it or not, so that battle is all but over. What someone said or did, especially years ago, has little bearing on one's competency in a corporate role, but again groups lined up to demand conformity. If your family is anything like mine, you may also have a grandfather (or uncle, or even mom or dad) that has made a comment here or there that is sexist or racist, but I have yet to oust my 90-year old grandfather for not conforming to the cultural norms of the 21st century. I can disagree with him about certain things and still accept him (maybe even love him) anyway. If he were the CEO of some large corporation, I wouldn't boycott or demand his head - the company would still operate by post-2000 norms even if the CEO still retained a small bit of 1950's bigotry.

While both of these recent stories revolved around positions on homosexuality, this is certainly not merely "a gay thing". There are other issues that have been as divisive (such as the role of church and state relative to the Affordable Care Act), I am just using a couple of recent examples where disagreements have translated into a demand for a certain result - or else.

I'm not saying there aren't issues of black and white. My wife is sometimes often frustrated by my own absolutism and "strong sense of justice". I am in no way suggesting that evangelicals should define their views on homosexuality by public opinion, that progressives should settle for "separate but equal" arrangements, or that you should accept racism because some relatives express it. What I am suggesting is that there is a difference between "black and white" and "all or nothing".

While actions can be black and white, people can't be classified in such a manner. No one is "bad" or "good". This does not mean that I accept some median gray where there is no absolute morality outside of personal perspective; a QR code may seem "gray" from a distance, but it is definitively black and white. How can society operate with groups that are willing to take such drastic measures because they can't accept a few pixels being the color opposite their preference? If the president of a group protesting another group has some personal belief that I don't agree with, do I now refuse to work with that group as well? Exactly how far down the rabbit hole are we willing to go?

This is exactly why we can't all get along.