If the first talking snake had kept shtum, we wouldn't be here. Eve wouldn't have eaten the forbidden fruit. But she listened and was curious. So she fell into humanity, thank God. Good old snake, say I. I celebrate its independence of mind. Satan? Neh, that's a later interpretation. The snake was part of the divine purpose. God allowed it into the garden, aware of its linguistic abilities. He knew what would happen. Jesus commended dove-like innocence. AND the wisdom ... of the snake.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Suspending Jesus but not disbelief

Oberammergau might run its Passion Play every ten years: America runs its open-air equivalent for several months every summer, and to any ministers who might consider heading off to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, for the experience, a useful tip: provide some ID to prove you are ordained and they’ll let you in free, saving $23. Can’t be bad.

I’m sorry, I’ll write that again. Of course it can be bad, but let’s list some of the play’s admirable features before I get my knife out. The set is impressive, a good fifty yards across with an array of spaces representing the Temple, Herod’s palace, the Upper Room, Gethsemane, Calvary and many more playing areas. The actors mime to pre-recorded dialogue: I was prepared for this feature, which some commentators have complained about, but the sound always seemed to be coming from the right general area and after a few moments it ceased to distract. Sound and lighting are as excellent, as one would expect. The cast includes camels, horses, donkeys, a flock of sheep and a quantity of doves, released when Jesus cleanses the Temple.

So what was wrong with it? One or two secondary quibbles and a huge primary one. I didn’t much care for the entire action proceeding against a musical background: not that the music wasn’t pretty good, but it never relented and at times our relative closeness to Hollywood, as against Jerusalem, felt all too appropriate. Everything Jesus said had a heart-rending catch in the voice, fit to wring tears from a breezeblock. The script was patchy, taking huge liberties with the order of events in the Gospels, sometimes to quite good effect: thus the content of Jesus’ teaching was conveyed at some depth, whereas at other times I felt the strain. The consequence of having Jesus jump from Synoptic to Johannine discourse in the same breath was to make him sound more like the theology about him than a credible human being. The disciples came across as uninformly thick and one-dimensional, their dumb questions serving as no more than feeds for Jesus’ wisdom; Judas was greedy, stupid and implausible. The writer had much more fun developing the Pharisees as characters, developing Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea into heroic rebels in the ranks of otherwise scheming, unprincipled blackguards. The trial scenes were perhaps the most effective.

Inevitably, the crucifixion scene used all four Gospels for the last words, followed by an earthquake (although not, disappointingly, the tearing of the Temple veil). I was hoping to see the spirits rise from their graves and walk around but in a script that otherwise worked in every detail from Matthew this was unaccountably overlooked. I might send an e-mail to the producers and ask why.

Then my real problems began. Jesus was duly buried in his tomb and the stone rolled in front of it. Then the resurrection happened. Light gleamed behind the stone, dry ice puffed out into the night sky and caught the spotlights. Jesus announced Satan’s defeat as he had conquered death, although he was still waiting to get out. To his aid came a very Victorian-looking angel with slightly wobbly wings, his supernatural brilliance causing the soldiers to pass out, and he then rolled back the stone. Jesus appeared in a new costume, took a bow, and got a huge round of applause. Which was nice.

In cheerful disregard of the two resurrection appearance traditions, in Galilee and Jerusalem, our dramatist conflated most of them into a single narrative close to the empty tomb, and although we were spared Luke’s “here, I’ll show you this is physical, give me a piece of fish” what we had instead was worse: hugs all round, hi guys, I’m back from the dead, you see it wasn’t that bad, was it?

The final coup de theatre involved Jesus ascending. Literally of course, this is the Bible belt, suspended on a hoist which I’d seen earlier: I knew this was coming. As he vanished into the trees and the lights cut out, so the show ended.

I can only say this for now: if I didn’t already believe in the resurrection, this play would if anything have tended to make me believe in it less, not more. If I did believe in the ascension (recorded only by Luke, whose chronology has given him some problems that the other Gospel writers don’t have because to them resurrection and ascension were a single event - which I believe to be the Church’s original teaching) I certainly wouldn’t believe in it now. Portraying miraculous events in this literalistic, in-your-face way leads to them becoming not more credible but far less so.

I hope the Passion Play may have brought some to faith. I fear it may have driven some further away.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The civil war ended when?

Not in 1865! The battle continues, along cultural instead of territorial fault lines. The industrial, cosmopolitan North versus the rural South with its more static population. The European-influenced East Coast versus the patriotic heartlands of the South and the Midwest. The secular fleshpots of New York versus the puritanical strongholds of the Bible Belt. Higher criticism, which started in Germany, versus America’s very own Fundamentals; bad ol’ Darwin, my compatriot, versus America’s creation scientists: there is no British equivalent of Henry Morris. A culture war is raging and the country seems very badly polarised. The South is wary of Washington, of Ivy League intellectualism. The bookstores stock the conservative “110 people who are screwing America” - the number 1 enemy is Michael Moore, whose picture is printed with no further comment - and the liberal counterblast “100 people who are REALLY screwing America”, with I imagine G W Bush fairly high up the list. In the blue corner Al Franken, in the red corner the unspeakable Ann Coulter. I know these are headline generalisations but are they so wide of the mark?

Here’s polarisation: Brittany McComb strays from a previously vetted text at her high school graduation, mentions Jesus and they cut the mike on her. What on earth is that about, from both sides of the argument? I’d say the girl was being pig-headed, as teenagers often are, I’d say the school authorities were being legalistic and ham-fisted and for crying out loud we are talking about a speech of 750 words! In England she’d have got away with it, at least as many of those present would have thought she was a nutter as would have admired her faith, and then - no story, never mind national headlines. In America “liberals burn a witch”, according to Ann Coulter. That’s not the language of debate. There’s a war going on here.

Here’s polarisation: the American Family Association calls for a boycott of the Ford Motor Company because it’s been placing adverts in gay/lesbian publications that might well give offence - excuse my English spelling - to people not of that orientation. So .... how come the AFA saw them in the first place? Do they subscribe to magazines like that? Are they looking for a fight, or what? On the other hand, AFA showed the adverts to me and, yep, they’re offensive all right, obviously meant to be. So what is the Ford Motor Company playing at? They’re looking for a fight as well. Perhaps they reckon they can make AFA look like narrow-minded bigots, but what has that to do with selling cars? This is not advertising, this is culture warfare.

Fundamentalists don’t like abortion, but since when were liberals keen on it? Liberal Christians certainly have no business being so: pro-choice does not mean pro-abortion! Surely any decision to terminate a pregnancy is regrettable and often tragic, and all steps to bring the numbers down - better sex education, help with adoption and so on - should be supported by all Christians. But in America it’s the conservatives shouting pro-life and progressives hollering back pro-choice, it’s keep Roe vs Wade or rescind Roe vs Wade; the only people who stand to benefit from a change in the law would be lawyers, prosecuting and defending all the desperate women who had their terminations carried out illegally - isn’t America already notorious for its litigious tendencies?

In this context, there’s little chance of a fair hearing over the issue that I focus on: creationism vs evolution. In England the consensus among Christians is overwhelmingly for theistic evolution.

In the US my sense is less of enthusiasm for the extreme young-earth position, which seems to be on the wane now, as of deep hostility to everything that “Darwin” seems to represent. However, in the context of the culture war, there doesn’t seem to be much scope for the Right to acknowledge that evolution might be the best explanatory framework available to make sense of human origins; to admit this would be to concede a major victory to the despised liberals. I made a decision early on in my sabbatical not to get drawn into the ID debate, largely because it has yet to surface in Britain at all: I cannot name a single British enthusiast for the view. But here’s my perception of it in America: liberals won’t give ID advocates the benefit of the doubt as philosophers because of who they are all too visibly in bed with politically, and ID advocates don’t trust liberals to give them a fair hearing. I wonder why?

I think I would want to urge this: liberals and conservatives need to call it victory not when they score points off each other but when they find common ground. Conservatives hate pornography; but no decent liberal should defend it either, so let’s talk together tracing about its sources, exposing its promoters, explaining why it’s damaging and dehumanising. Let’s acknowledge that the homosexuality debate is so savagely polarised it might be best if we all walked away from it for a while and concentrated on pro-family policies where there’s a chance we might agree some priorities - encouraging adoption instead of abortion would be an obvious one in the UK context, I don’t know if that’s true here. And above all let’s get away from this situation whereby one side won’t touch an issue because it’s associated with the other side’s agenda - so fundamentalists (I’m told) steer away from environmental issues because they are what liberals get worked up about; and liberals don’t seem too worried about violence in the media because that’s a conservative preoccupation. Of course, I’m coming at all this from a British context where the Church as a whole is so weak that we can’t afford the cultural in-fighting in which Americans seem to revel. Plus, our civil war was much longer ago. But I would plead as a pastor for US Christians to spend more time peacemaking and much less crusading against their neighbours.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Thou shalt not bear false witness, Mr Ham

Consider the following statements:

All creationists are fundamentalist Christians
All creationists are stupid
Creationist institutions are secretly funded by the Communist Party

None of these are true. The first I mistakenly believed was so, until the existence of fundamentalist Moslems who also take a creationist position was pointed out to me. Substitute "most" for "all" and the generalisation holds: my point is that only religious people of a certain persuasion embrace "creation science", a fact which alone should make one wonder just how scientific it really is.

I don’t believe the third statement, which might best be categorised not so much as a mistake and hardly as a lie, more as a bizarre fantasy. I imagined it being defended along the lines of: it is the mission of Communism to destroy Christianity; creationism makes Christianity look ridiculous; therefore by funding creationist institutions and enabling them to raise their profile, communism may be hoping to hasten Christianity’s downfall. I doubt that any creationist faced by such a charge would bother to take it seriously. The accuser is condemned out of his own mouth.

The second statement is not only offensive but contradicted by evidence. While I hold creationism to be as utterly stupid an idea as ideas get, and while some of its supporters are none too bright - which could be said of any point of view - to claim that they are all deficient in the brain cell department is absurd. Creationists include in their ranks men of great intelligence; that they make such elementary howlers in approaching the book of Genesis, leading to such uproarious conclusions, is all the more extraordinary. One academic to whom I have spoken attributes much of creationism’s support to low levels of education; but that charge will not stick to the likes of Jonathan Sarfati and Douglas Kelly.

So: untruths can be mistakes, delusions, or lies. Which brings me to the case of Ken "Answersingenesis" Ham, whose book "The Lie of Evolution" I dipped into earlier today. Don’t worry, I have washed my hands thorougly since.

Men who call other people liars should be more than usually careful to speak nothing but the truth themselves. His chapter "The Root of the Problem" throws all such caution to the winds, reminding me of Elton John’s justification for pursuing an expensive libel case: "They can call me a fat ugly poof. They can say I can’t sing. But they mustn’t tell lies about me."

Ken Ham libels all non-fundamentalist Christians. His book perpetrates deeply offensive untruths about us, he obviously doesn’t care, and if I had the means and were so disposed I’d sue him to Kingdom come. But here’s the thing: I’m not sure he actually qualifies as a liar. Or even an idiot. He could simply be deluded. But he does not speak the truth any more than [he claims] evolutionsts do. He also claims to be a Christian, so that matters: but it’s abundantly clear that if he is one I am not, nor any other theistic evolutionist. He has mined any common ground there might have been between us. Nothing but all-out victory will satisfy him. And, I suppose, the same goes for me in reverse, I want to see creationism pack its bags and go home: the difference is I’m right, Jesus told me so. OK, that was flippant. Ken owes the Church an apology. That’s deadly serious.

I wonder if Ken would sue if I published that last paragraph? That might be fun.

His overall thesis goes: Christianity is under attack. Its values are threatened by enemies who wish to see it collapse; and foundational to their alternative belief system is a commitment to the theory of evolution; which God’s Word (= the Bible) flatly contradicts.

So far, so conventionally creationist; and so manifestly non-scientific. Where Ham raises the stakes is partly in his accusing evolutionsts, to the last man or woman, of practising a religion which gives them license to attack Christianity; partly in his insistence that the creationist view of scripture is the only one possible. This drives him to lump all creationism’s enemies together: Christian, agnostic, atheist, Moslem, Hindu, we’re all coming from the same place.

In his words

"Evolution is a religion which enables people to justify writing their own rules".

"The real battle is aligned with the fact that these people do not want to accept Christianity because they will not accept that there is a God to whom they are answerable."

These quotes deny the integrity of all who oppose creationism, a common move by its contemporary apologists: Henry Morris could be more gracious. If I believe in evolution it’s not because I have studied the evidence and found it persuasive. That cannot be, because Ken has read his Bible, therefore "knows" evolution cannot be true and doesn’t need to study the evidence: there isn’t any. So I must have some other reason for accepting Darwinism, and it’s not even that I have made the honest mistake of assuming that the overwhelming majority of scientists know what they’re talking about; no, it’s because I am looking for a religion with which in my fallen state I am more comfortable than with true, Bible-believing Christianity.

Besides being untrue, that is a gross insult, for which one might account in a number of ways:

Ignorance: Ken has actually never met, sat down with, read the works of, a scholarly theistic evolutionist and considered that, mistaken though such a person might be in his eyes, his views spring from real Christian commitment just as intense as his own.

Bafflement: Ken has done exactly this and still finds theistic evolution such a perplexing point of view, as crazy perhaps as I find his, that he needs to find some way of making sense of it and "evolution is an alternative religion" is his best shot.

Cocksure bigotry: Ken is a bruiser who likes dishing it out; he knows he’s going to offend any non-fundamentalist readers who trouble to pick up his polemical outpourings and just thinks tough, they won’t agree with me anyway so I might as well slag them off.

Blissful unwareness: Ken has no idea how much unjustifiable offence he is giving, because from within his bubble it simply stands to reason that he is on God’s side, so anyone who’s against him is against God.

None of which quite entitles me to call him a liar, although I do wonder who Ken is writing for: it feels very much like preaching to the converted. He certainly is not pitching to persuade Christians from the mainstream denominations that he has a case worth considering. You don’t make converts by insulting their present convictions.

Then we have

"If the Bible is not the infallible word of the One who knows everything, then we have exactly nothing."

"If evolution is not true the only alternative is creation."

These are attempts to marginalise firstly non-fundamentalists, secondly evolutionists of all religious convictions and none, by setting up absolute black and white alternatives.

My instinct is then to write: a moment’s thought should be enough for anyone to realise that both these are false dichotomies as crude as they come. What about: either Shakespeare is the greatest writer of all time, or he couldn’t even put a sentence together, which is it? or, if smoking does not cause lung cancer the only alternative is demon possession? There are many, many views of the Bible other than Ken Ham’s; if Darwinism collapses tomorrow it will be because a better scientific theory has taken its place, not because scientists have suddenly gone crackers and mistaken Genesis 1- 11 for a piece of history. But Ken has obviously given this a great deal more than a moment’s thought and still the penny hasn’t dropped ... or has it? Again, let’s consider.

Assuming, on the basis of circumstantial evidence, that he is not a complete moron, he can only be forcing the issue by way of these simplistic either/ors because

- he is sincerely convinced there are no in-between possibilities: there is no dimmer switch, the light’s either on or off

- he has an immature personality that prevents him recognising or coping with shades of grey; or

- he is telling whoppers: he knows the world is more complex than this and hopes his readers will forgive him a specious argument, it’s all in a "good" cause.

But others can force the issue too, Ken: so here’s my pitch.

I do not accept your description of the Bible. I was taught theology by liberals who loved their Scriptures, as I do and never could if I were still held captive by fundamentalism. Am I left with exactly nothing? Hardly. I have wonderful stories to ponder, whose historical truth does not matter to me and if it does to you that’s your problem; I have the Psalms to worship with [and set to music], prophetic poetry to expand my imagination. I have the teachings of Jesus to which I am committed as an ordained minister of the Church, I have Paul to lay the foundations of Christianity as a belief system, and I could go on. That is not even approximately nothing; you say that if I’m not a fundamentalist the Bible is worthless to me. I declare to you the opposite: fundamentalism devalues the Bible by idolising instead it of recognising it for what it is; a collection of writings drawn from one particular culture through which God speaks universally. That is my firm conviction as a mature and educated Christian which you would deny me the right to hold. Well, I deny your right to tell me I may not hold it. I say that your statement about the Bible is false because there is an infinite range of options between your two extremes: so are you mistaken, are you deluded, or are you lying about your brother in Christ? Will you confess your error?

Your call.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Worship in black and white

It will take me a long, long time to digest the three hours and more of worship at Golden Gate Church of Christ in New Albany and make real sense of it. My heart was lifted, my mind was blown, I want a shot of whatever that pastor was on, I need a whole new vocabulary here. Church isn’t like this. I’ve seen drearier carnivals, more buttoned-up discos, far less entertaining variety shows, than Sunday morning at Golden Gate. But if what thrilled and perplexed me this morning counts as a church service I feel I need another word for what I’ve been conducting most Sundays for the past thirty years. This was other; alien, although mostly in a very good way.

In New Albany, as elsewhere in Mississippi, there are black churches and white churches. It’s not that anyone’s excluded; just that they have dramatically different styles and they don’t mix like Stainer doesn’t mix with the blues. Earlier I had attended the First Baptist church, a curious experience in some ways but not one to challenge my preconceptions of what ought to happen in worship. Robed choir, printed order of service. Centre piece: this guy delivering a tightly structured sermon in polished sentences to which we listened in respectful silence: he had a meaty message requiring concentration. The most obvious link with what was to follow came in a solo just prior to the sermon, delivered over a pre-recorded backing track with expertise and flair by a young woman whose style was mainstream MOR pop, soulful sliding around, blue notes, vibrato shrieking on the high notes, all the usual tricks. If you’d heard it over the PA in Wall-mart it would NOT have screamed at you: this is a "Christian" song. You’d have thought - a typical contemporary ballad and, hey aren’t those Christian words? I’m saying: that solo fed off and straight back into the daily culture, it was in no way set apart from it, advertising itself as "sacred".

But this was still a white church and white folks conduct themselves with formal dignity while their doing their religion. They stand up and sit down when they’re supposed to. They remain quietly in their places through the preaching. The deal is they know roughly when the service ends and if it goes too long over the hour it’s like the contract has been broken.

Golden Gate is a black church and practically the only formal thing about it is the dress code. Sunday best means you wear what you would if you were expecting to meet royalty; which in a way you are. After an hour things are just nicely warmed up with the real fire still to come.

When I drove by earlier I was startled to find the morning service timed for 11.30; but that of course was to allow for two hours’ Sunday school earlier on. Sunday school for all ages, natch.

I’d had to slip out of First Baptist during the last hymn to make Golden Gate even approximately on time, but there were lots of approximate things about the place so that was no big deal. It seemed my arrival was, though. The usher greeted me, clocked my whiteness and led me to the best available seat .... right at the front. Good job I’m a hard man to embarrass, but it got better, though my wife - who is embarrassable - would say worse. Next thing I knew I was being shown to a seat on the platform, among the elders, right behind the main pastor. Talk about being put on show! Various people, deacons I assume or the equivalent, came and shook my hand and in greeting me registered my double novelty: not only am I white, I speak a different version of English which, if they had as much trouble understanding as I did in understanding theirs, makes me wonder if I really communicated with them when I had the chance.

The worship band was in full swing. Two keyboard players, one on a jazz organ who sounded like a real pro and unless my ears deceived me was laying down a bass groove with the pedals, another guy on electric keyboard; a guitarist and a drummer. Above them were singers who kept the flow going, but what was scarcely bearable in its intensity was the way all the musicians seemed to function as a unit, throwing tricksy rhythms and scrunchy harmonies from player to player like it was the most natural thing in the world. The classically trained musician in me says come on, you don’t get to be that good and spontaneous without years and years of first training and then practising together, but maybe for black instrumentalists raised in that Gospel tradition it IS the most natural thing in the world.

If this had been a club you’d have to say it was jumping. Everyone was clapping along, one woman in particular got up and danced like a newly-freed slave in the aisles, with others strutting their stuff alongside her, throwing their arms in the air ... Some of the older guys just sat and - I think! - enjoyed it, there was no compulsion to throw yourself into the proceedings, though it was better if you did. In my restrained white way I did my best, at least from the waist up. As anyone who knows me will confirm, I can feel dance, I can write dance, but I haven’t learned TO dance. On the dance floor I give a whole new meaning to the word gauche and there’s a time and a place to make an idiot of yourself.

Then the choir filed up onto the raised pews behind me, seeming at some points to outnumber the congregation, whose size varied as people drifted in and out: call of nature, restless children, they had to go and fix dinner, they’d already had dinner and were turning up an hour late? I’ll ask. Anyhow the choir - no scores needless to say, I saw neither printed music nor lyrics anywhere, black worship does not presume literacy and there could be historical reasons for that - produced a gleaming wall of sound which enveloped me in full stereo, built of that uniquely black combination of improvisation and musical discipline. The soloist called out in counterpoint with the other singers, sometimes musically, sometimes just shouting. The band went skilfully berserk, the fantastic organist as opposed to the ordinarily good one turning tricks on the electronic keyboard now. The choirmaster simultaneously kept time with his arms and broke into a dance that would have made John Travolta in his Night Fever days creep away forlornly to the bar. And just when you thought you’d heard just about enough of that song, the rhythm would change and another one would launch itself out of nowhere.

It was an experience to surpass the blues club at Clarksdale in the Delta three days earlier; here the musicianship was not quite as virtuoso in technique but the style and harmonic language were more complex and the sense of mutual dependence among the players so strong it was like a one-man band with eight arms and legs. There is another point to this comparison: the blues we heard at Clarksdale are part of the ordinary cultural scene, and so was the music at Golden Gate although serving a different purpose: it was black music first, sacred only in terms of lyrical content. The awful churchiness of most Christian music in Britain would be shamed by comparison.

I’m filling up as I replay the memory just as I did at the time. Difficult to wipe your eyes discreetly when you wear glasses but so what if anyone did see. Worship cannot be this liberated, this chaotic yet purposeful, this flamin’ loud, connecting not just with heart and mind but with feet and guts too, this much of a threat to the windows, floors, fire regulations, blood pressure and more besides, this much of a pharmaceutical-free high like you’ve won the lottery and topped the charts and got married all on the one day, and still be holy; yet God was in this or I haven’t encountered him yet. I would have to say something to explain my highly visible presence and I hoped I’d have collected myself sufficiently when I got the look.

I told them I’d been to the Baptist church first, then I’d died, gone to heaven and woken up at Golden Gate. Well, I thought that was a good line; so did they and I meant it. Then I said: it’s a pity there’s black churches and white churches, some of you black folks ought to get out there and teach white folks how to worship, and that went down well too; but again, I meant it at that point. We need to use music and dance the way they do, not be so scared to freak out, get lost in our exuberance.

These folks were treating me like royalty - they even offered to feed me as I was leaving, and hope it didn’t seem rude when I declined. But then came part 2 of the service, and here I struggled.

If part 1 had been collective, collaborative worship largely in the hands of the musicians, we were now to focus more on the pastor, who had disappeared for a while, to return in a striking cream gown to signify he had become the Preacher.

I knew I would not be in for a monologue to which the congregation would dutifully attend. I was ready for the question and response approach to preaching, cries of "Yes preacher!" and "Amen!", of significant phrases being echoed back to him, giving the impression of sermon construction by popular approval, each affirmation being checked with the congregation to make sure it had been understood and endorsed. I wondered how much scope this gives the pastor for feeding new ideas to the people, ones which they might have to ponder for a while. Perhaps that is the role of Sunday School; however, I was not prepared for the theatrical range of the preacher. In describing him I don’t want to condescend or make him sound like a madman, although out of context his behaviour might seem deranged: what proved it otherwise was the way he carried his congregation, working the jokes, scoring his points, making sense to them, feeding them as a shepherd should. But I did have one huge problem: his delivery was so fast and so strongly accented I reckon I picked up one word in twenty. I needed an interepreter.

The pastor/preacher rattled away, starting with a verse of scripture but then darting about as inspiration took him. Not only unscripted (I’d seen his notes, which were simply a list of Bible passages, and if he touched on half of them I’d be surprised), it was also unplanned; since I could not follow content, I observed the style.

He shouted, he whooped, he screamed, he pointed his finger, he worked up his congregation into a response and got it; then he’d hit on a word - usually "Father", his theme being the fatherhood of God as a model for human parenting - and sing it; then the band would pick up his pitch and riff on it, followed by some keyboard noodling underneath his next few sentences. Sometimes there’d be a HEY! Jesus!, spat out almost belligerently; he’d play for a laugh, he’d play for applause, he’d rise above the constant babble, then he’d blend in with it and pick up on phrases called out to him, sometimes accidentally on purpose forgetting a word and casting around for a prompt. It was the performance but of a man absolutely not on an ego trip, almost the opposite of that, a man riding pillion on some alternate form of consciousness careless of where it might take him. I had the feeling he no more knew what he was about to say/scream/sing next than the rest of us did. I felt no trace of exhibitionism, of attention-seeking: I might want to call it idiosyncratic but I’ve no basis for comparison; perhaps a lot of black preachers are like this.

In and amongst there would be sharings of concern about individuals, present and otherwise; this being Father’s day, all dads present were called forward and prayed over: I’m a dad so I went. The anointing, sensitively done by a big guy tipping olive oil from a bottle and pasting a little on each forehead, was a wonderful moment of challenge and affirmation. Visitor or not, white or not, I was a child of God along with all these black folks and if I had chosen to be among them for these hours who were they to say I didn’t belong? If ever I felt the truth of the old cliche about there being no strangers, just friends you haven’t met, I felt it at this service.

I’ve got some questions, inevitably: there was a strange emphasis on money, with people being asked to declare openly how much they were putting in the collection, to wave their tens and twenties aloft as their offerings were blessed; I want to know what was actually preached through all the histrionics. I think I heard "the rapture might come any moment", which worried me. Looking around I felt that some of the younger people who weren’t in the choir actually switched off during the preaching, didn’t take part in the exchanges; how much impact was the Gospel actually making on their lives, I wondered. In Britain there is a culture of disaffection among young black men, many of whom underachieve at school, fall into bad company and don’t stick around to raise any children they might beget - but this is rural, religious America so presumably it’s different ... or is it?

Questions for the pastor when I meet him, but for the record - and another cliche, sorry - if ever there was a time when I went to church as I was but didn’t come back the same as I went, then June 18 was that time. That’s when I dropped by at Golden Gate, they treated me like a king and anointed me along with their own. Glory!

Family Values in the Bible Belt

The Christian Right gets very steamed up about family values, and with Father’s Day coming up there was a natural peg on which to hang their concerns. I read newspapers, listened to some Christian radio and drew some conclusions which may not exactly correspond with those I was meant to.

First, to conservatives "family" = nuclear family. That’s interesting for a start, because it’s hardly a Biblical equation, any more than marriage now means what marriage meant back then. The unconscious use of a single word to denote very different institutions separated by continents and centuries of custom is typical of the fundamentalist denial of history.

Second there’s no question in my mind that fatherhood matters a lot; if I thought I’d failed as a father it would break my heart whatever else I might have achieved in my life. If I hear that it’s the father’s rather than the mother’s influence that conditions whether children continue to attend church in adult life, because American surveys have proved this, I simply wonder if there’s a British survey that confirms what I feel I already know. If I read a newspaper story about American prisoners eagerly pouncing on cards to send out on Mothers’ Day but leaving whole piles untouched on Fathers’ Day because they felt their dads had let them down, which is why they were where they were, that rings true.

But of course I would then go on to ask what sort of social policies might make it easier for men to be good dads; and as I see it the free market capitalism so beloved of the Christian as well as the political Right, insofar as these can be distinguished, sets economic above family values and always will. People are expendable, only profits matter. There can be no challenge to that from within the far-right mind-set; it’s going to come from a more liberal perspective, call it social democratic, Liberalism with a capital L, call it socialism. Here’s the truth; capitalism is the most efficient engine for generating wealth. Unbridled capitalism is the most efficient engine for generating economic, social and racial injustice. Ooh, and screwing up the environment. In its heyday the proof of that was the British Empire; today the proof is G W Bush. Government needs to be about providing the best bridles. Republicans think government should be hands off. The effect of that on family life can be brutal: give me the nanny state any day.

Third, the most widely talked about "challenge" to family life in the US right now is homosexual marriage. I think liberals have made this one unnecessarily difficult for themselves by using the m word; one gay minister I know sees his relationship as an alternative paradigm which can critique heterosexual marriage. To a straight guy like me it does seem ridiculous for two men to speak of getting married but not about their husband or wife. The language is wrong. In Britain we have civil parternships and only a few people fret about this, but it is a question of RIGHTS, and that seems to be getting overlooked in the American debate. But there is of course an elephant in the room. The geatest challenge to American family life is divorce, the rate over here being much higher than anywhere else in the world and precisely because it’s so widespread there is very little if any talk of bringing in restrictive legislation. And that again is surprising because here is what Jesus had to say about homosexuality

whereas he mentioned divorce more than once and wasn’t too happy about it. In fairness, one of the conservatives I have spoken with acknowledges the inconsistency of emphasis but he struck me as unusual.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Morris’ monster

Anyone who doubts that creationism’s battle is not with sensible science, nor even with informed Biblical scholarship, but with liberal ideology as defined by the American right, should ponder this troubling cartoon, reproduced from John Morris’ book "The Young Earth".

I’d guess that anyone presented with the graphic but without labels for the monster’s various heads would, knowing its source, be able to identify two straightaway: abortion and homosexuality. Yep, they would have to be there, wouldn’t they. These are the two great moral "evils" on which the Right incessantly campaigns and the link with evolutionism is too good to miss. The others need a little more thought.

[Incidentally, the Snake would distinguish utterly between a woman’s legal right to abortion and the morality of her making this choice, a much more complex question to which there is only one wise answer: it depends on the circumstances. Homosexual practices are not evil. Irresponsible, predatory and self-indulgent expressions of sexuality are immoral whether straight or gay. End of sermon.]

Racism? er, is it not a matter of history that America’s racial problems have been concentrated in the God-fearing, Bible-believing South? Did not the masters of apartheid appeal to allegedly Christian doctrines of a somewhat fundamentalist kind? Never mind that; what’s in Morris’ mind is the link between Darwin and the all too human monsters of the 20th century who plundered his theories to justify their racially driven slaughter. Certainly there is a line of twisted thinking that runs from Darwin through Nietzsche to Hitler and Stalin, but blaming Darwin for the Holocaust is like attributing Hiroshima to the horror fantasies of H G Wells. Now, Morris knows full well that liberals condemn racism as routinely as the Right condemns homosexuality, but he wants to say to them - the origin of that which you despise is to be found in your beloved Evolution.

Marxism has undoubtedly exploited Darwin for its own purposes, though it’s hard to imagine that the cause would have foundered had the bearded biologist died in his cot. Marx’s atheism owes far more to Feuerbach. Notice however the automatic identification of Marxism as an evil. It would not occur to Morris that for some Christians, especially in Latin America, Marx’s writings help us understand salvation in a new light, as liberation from the structures of oppression. As a critique of raw capitalism, for example of the kind embraced by the current generation of neocons running America, Marxism has a continuing relevance, however much it seems to have failed in practice. Other Marxists might say, as some Christians would of Christianity: it hasn’t failed - it hasn’t been tried, not the real thing.

So global capitalism is such an unqualified success? Its emphasis on competition might also be traced back to Darwin, but since the Market is sacred to the Right, we won’t be seeing its name on any of Morris’ monster-heads. As for lawlessness (whatever that means) and promiscuity, the most superficial acquaintance with world history ought to remind Morris that these phenomena have been around for centuries.

Morris’ monster illustrates his prejudices admirably. It’s easy enough to reply in kind by changing the labels, so the second cartoon now illustrates mine. Except, of course, that my prejudices are far better informed.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

An answer that speaks for itself, I think

I’ve been locking antlers with creationists through e-mail correspondence. Just before I left England I prepared a statement offering summary conclusions of my studies so far. I’m primarily after a response from mainstream evangelical outfits, but I thought I would send it to one of my more lucid creationist correspondents too, not that I expected him to like it very much. He feels I’m sarcastic and uncharitable; moi? of course I am, but towards creationISM, not towards its advocates, for whom – much as they annoy me – I also feel desperately sorry. Well, I try.

I append without further comment one of the propositions in my statement and his response.

A "conspiracy theory" is required to explain why mainstream science and much of mainstream theology condemns creationism, often emphatically. Creationists frequently suggest that their opponents have fallen prey to Satanic onslaught, and make no distinction between Christian and atheistic opposition to their views.

Comment: No conspiracy theory is necessary to explain why so many people prefer evolution. In part, this is due to human nature, and the desire to be independent and reject any idea of being answerable to a Supreme Being. Scientists who are committed to “naturalism” have already excluded the possibility of a Creator from their thinking, and must interpret everything within an evolutionary straight-jacket. There is no such person as an “unbiased scientist” — we all approach the evidence with a bias, whether evolutionist or creationist. Most Christians who accept evolution do so because they believe what the secular scientists tell them. However, personally, I do believe that evolution is a Satanic lie.

Gardening notes

There is an annoying plant in my garden. Looks as if it might be related to the stinging nettle and, like it, spreads by extending runners just below soil level. Its main growths are 18” spikes which bear rather drab, purply flowers at the height of summer. It has a strong, unpleasant smell and left to itself gets everywhere. Well behaved it is not. A weed? Not sure, but I treat it as one.

I don’t know its name. I am the only gardener in the household, so when I see it I grumble and do the necessary. I think “oh it’s that again”. There are other weeds in my garden and I don’t know their names either, but I know what to do with them.

My point is a simple one. In the absence of anyone else with whom I need to communicate, it is unnecessary for me to give names to things I encounter. Why then should Adam, at the time the only language-user in the garden of Eden, name the animals? I can give a perfectly good answer to this from my non-literalist perspective, but I wonder if a literalist can.

I can imagine some creationist or other stepping right into my elephant trap here: aha, he would say, but there was another language user: God!

What a foolish person that creationist would be, failing to realise that by so responding he would have committed the sin of anthropomorphism, that is to say, portraying God as just like a human being only bigger and better, using language in just the way we do. Come on now: when God speaks to you does he say “different from” (good English English) or “different than” (good American English)? Creationists: your God is too human. Mine is Other.

Creationism? Not among the academics in Philadelphia either

June 4, evening: I attended a lecture in Philadelphia, presented by a guy called John Haught, who was a star witness for the prosecution in the Dover trial, which a little while back ruled against Intelligent Design as authentic science. He was a Roman Catholic, raised on Thomism, immersed in Teilhard and process theology. The event was hosted by an interesting, seriously high-powered, academically reputable, organization called Metanexus of whose on-line work I have been aware for some time. Follow the link if you’re interested.

The lecture was critical of aspects of evolutionary theory and proposed an intellectually reputable attempt to do what ID failed to do: make a place for theism within a naturalistic approach to science. Not all were convinced, but we saw the value in what was attempted. The audience were academics with an interest in issues around science and religion; the consensus, as reflected in the plenary session would be theistic, old-earth, evolutionist. But creationism? yawn, so last century. An event such as this quickly nails the creationist lie/delusion that theistic evolutionists are uncritical of Darwin and bent on undermining the Gospel.

I was quite surprised how robust an apologia the speaker offered for a God of providence and design; it had echoes of that old time natural theology – but obviously, in this arena, took a relativistic view of sacred texts: it would have been inappropriate to prioritise the Christian scriptures, and indeed we spent some time in plenary looking at creation from a Buddhist perspective. Fascinating stuff. That’s an example of where the science and religion debate is in the US. It’s not looking at the creationists’ agenda, it’s moved on, which is why evolutionists get so annoyed at them.

Pitching for a laugh and getting one

June 4, morning: Preached at Glen Mar United Methodist Church, Maryland, an hour out of Washington DC. Large, successful growing: ethos - pluralist. Its senior pastor, my old friend Andy Lunt (now Rev Dr, and it’s a real doctorate too, from England’s as opposed to America’s Oxford) doesn’t have much, make that any, time for creationism. More surprisingly, he says there’s no debate in the United Methodist Church as a whole, at least here on the east coast.

It was Pentecost and I’d already decided to take “Are you talking my language” as my theme when it occurred to me that this gave me a chance to try out an American congregation’s reaction to some creationist writing. The point I was illustrating was this: if we come at Scripture with preconceived agendas, knowing in advance what it “must” say, we will fail to hear what it actually is saying, and be unable to communicate with each other. Instead, we need openness to the Spirit’s guiding. Here’s my text, more or less as I delivered it. I pitched for some of the laughs, others came when I wasn’t expecting them.

....let me illustrate my point about Christians failing to communicate in terms of a story from the Bible which takes me to my reasons for being in the US at this time. I am on sabbatical, and working on a project whose focus is the phenomenon of young earth creationism, which puzzles, intrigues and infuriates me in just about equal measure. (laughter) I want to contrast British and American perspectives on this.... My illustration is itself about language; it’s the story of how God asked Adam to give names to all the animals.

Question: given the number of animals there are, would he have had time to complete this task in a single day? For a writer like Hugh Ross, this seems unlikely – he would have to do it at a gabble, and besides some of the animals might have been difficult to track down, they’d have been shy and flown off again while he was thinking of a name. (laughter) So Hugh Ross reckons that Adam took his time over this; Ross wanting to make the point that when Genesis talks about the days of creation it does not necessarily mean day as in period of 24 hours. Ross is, I’m sorry to say this, an old-earther. He’s as Bible-believing as they come, or so he says, he certainly denies evolution as Bible believers do: but he is persuaded by evidence that suggests the earth is a lot more than 6,000 years old, so he goes down the line that the days of creation were actually more like hundreds of thousand of years long.

But for the young-earth scholar Jonathan Sarfati this is heresy. When Genesis talks about days it does mean days of 24 hour hours, and if the Bible says Adam named all the animals, from aardvarks to zebras in a day, then name them he did. How long would it have taken? Sarfati points out that Adam would not have needed to track all the animals down, God did that for him; that he would not have had to give names for the creeping things, insects or arachnids, because these are not mentioned, and fish don’t count. (laughter). He would have named only kinds, not species or varieties, and that leads Sarfati, making assumptions about how intelligent and linguistically skilled Adam was, to conclude that the task of naming the animals would have taken him four hours, allowing him a five minute break at the end of each hour. (huge laugh – that’s the one I wanted.)

My script now says: either this gets a laugh or it doesn’t. biggest laugh of the morning). If it does, say “I am glad that got a laugh”, if not “that would definitely have got a laugh in England, so the fact it didn’t get one here is telling me something”. (as you see, I’d built myself an exit strategy in case my dig at creationists prompted nothing but stony stares: but I didn’t need it..)

Notice two things here. First, Ross and Sarfati both have a prior agenda. For Ross the days of Genesis cannot be literal 24 hour days, so anything which the Bible says was done within in a day and which looks as if it might have taken longer, helps Ross’s cause. For Sarfati the days of Genesis must be literal 24 hour days, so any argument which seems to undermine that has to be dealt with somehow. Secondly, both men are assuming that it is OK to interpret Scripture in the light of modern knowledge about how many animals there actually are and a modern understanding of what language acquisition involves. The word for that is anachronism. It’s like: on the fourth day God created the stars. Some of them, we now know, are millions of light years away, so how come we can see them, if the world is only 6,000 years old? Creationists need to devise some cosmology to explain this; to me, it’s a question of saying – but whoever wrote Genesis didn’t know what a light year was, how big stars are, how far away they are, so it wasn’t an issue for him. Creationists say that the speed of light must have been a whole lot faster back then. (laughter).

If you don’t have those agendas, if you don’t burden yourself with assumptions, what you read in Genesis is a simple story with a challenging point. Men and women are given by God the freedom to shape their world by the use of language. Adam not only names but implicitly classifies, recognises differences and similarities. He sees a lion and gives it a name; then he sees a tiger maybe gives it a name that means “lion-like thing only with stripes”. (laughter) This is how we use language; to give order to our world. I once visited a school for the profoundly deaf, where children were taken from three up. Deaf children are always educationally disadvantaged at first for one obvious reason and for another one that wasn’t obvious to me, and I can still remember gulping as the head teacher told me this one: deaf children, he said, have to be taught that things have names. Once they’ve grasped that one, they can progress at the same rate as hearing children. If you forget everything else I say this morning, remember this. We use language to give things names: and by the names we choose, we shape the world. And it was God who gave and entrusted us with this awesome facility. That’s what Genesis is really saying.

Adam in his unfallen state did this without an agenda and with total clarity of perception. His world will have been perfectly ordered, conceptually speaking: this is what the story tells us. Contrast if you will the way we in our sinful state often order the world to reflect and reinforce an agenda which may be confused, riddled with hate, fear and aggression towards other world views and other kinds of people.

And when that happens, that’s when we stop talking each other’s language. We become imprisoned in our cultural fortresses and can only let each other know we are there by hurling miss – aisles, as I would say: mistles as you would! (laughter at the linguistic play, but appreciation of the theological point too)

My sermon text was overlong and I had to trim it to honour time, but it was very well received. I’d hate to think all those pleasant Americans were just being nice to me.

Creationism? Not in Washington, apparently

June 3: spent 3 hours at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, Washington DC. A national showcase and as huge and impressive as you would expect. Admission free.

Picture of a dinosaur skull at the museum entrance shows the visitor what to expect – note the highlighting I’ve put on the superimposed description. If you’re offended by the proposal that the earth is 4.6 billions years old and we know that, run away and play. Evolution confronts you from every display. The geologic column, divided into layers illustrating the aeons of earth’s history, forms a centre piece in one of the great halls. No suggestion anywhere this might be contentious, controversial, unproven. Darwinism is a given: but there’s no nasty naturalist agenda on view, no Satanic deception, no liberal conspiracy: just an excitement in discovery and an eagerness to present knowledge in an accessible way. One or two displays acknowledged that dating errors had been made previously, which better research had now been able to correct; in other words, dialogue between scientists had served to fine-tune evolutionist methodology; but it had not been thrown into confusion, as creationists are fond of alleging.

In the bookstore, could I find one volume making the case for a young earth? Only one or two giving ID short shrift, otherwise, there is no hint of what creationists insist is still a debate. The show is over. This is America, where creationism is relatively strong. And here in the nation’s capital prime science museum, creationism is invisible. There were school parties everywhere, getting excited by dinosaurs, lapping up old-earth chronology as they did so. Creationism is not even seen as something that is worth responding to. I really did think there might be, somewhere in the Smithsonian, some acknowledgement that not everyone thinks the world really is this old, some Americans hold other points of view, but not a whisper. The great (relatively) creationist institutions of America might as well not exist so far as the Smithsonian is concerned. In all this time they have made no impression.

I visited some general bookstores to find much the same thing. The “religion” sections are generally better stocked in terms of both quantity and quality than one typically finds in Waterstones, the principal chain of British bookshops – but creationism… nowhere. I’ll see if the US’ equivalent of SPCK stocks any more creationist titles than the approximately zero held in British stores: I’m guessing not. I’ll need to go to a Baptist bookshop to find some, roll on Mississippi!

Friday, June 02, 2006

Hi America, I’ve missed you. It’s been too long.

I flew from Manchester (high 50’s, rain) to Philadelphia (low 90’s, dry and humid). My carrier was US Airlines, a good start: the warm outgoing professionalism of the hostesses, not to mention the accents, put me in the mood, which was in no way dampened by having to trek for miles along airport corridors on arrival (couldn’t get a direct flight). Philly airport, like many in the States, is designed around the requirement for a separate terminal per airline; it was a ? ¾ mile trip by courtesy coach between terminals A & F, then another half mile walk to F22…all of which gave me orientation time. Advertisements for health care provision, baseball games, films that won’t be released in Britain for another six months, the various reminders of what’s different in this culture.

I provide my fingerprints for an American Homeland Security database, not to mention having my shoes checked for concealed explosives and the latptop on which I’m writing this examined in case it’s a detonator. The process is quick and I’m soon through customs, but you know what? If I were a terrorist I wouldn’t even think of flying into America now. I’d fly to Mexico then sneak in across the border into Texas, the way loads of illegal immigrants do who are currently the focus of a Dubya initiative to do something popular before the mid-term elections, at which the Republicans look set to take a pounding. Even this is threatening to backfire – where would the economy of Texas be without its illegals?

Andy, my wonderful host and old friend, takes me to a local American diner, “Ruby Tuesday”. I fancy a visit to its amazing salad bar (choice of 18 dressings); I order a veggie burger to go with it then wish I hadn’t because this is an American burger, 3 times the size of what you might get in England, tastes like it might be home made, interestingly herb-and-spicy. I leave most of my fries and I’ve still eaten too much. I wash it all down with a white chocolate/cold coffee smoothie. Don’t think you get those in England but hey, I’m going to check. Service quick and gracious, the waiter talks as though he really does, from the bottom of his heart, long that we both have a nice day and if there were anything else he could provide for us it would make his day. If anyone spoke like that to you in England you’d think he was a ham actor; in America it might still be the way he’s been trained, but it feels sincere. Weird.

Andy talks about his church in Ellicott City, Maryland, where he’s been pastor for well over twenty years. Talks of its mission teams going to help with relief work in Louisiana after the hurricanes; talks of the food store their folks support, and about the confirmation service this Sunday coming – about 45 confirmands. I mention creationism. He responds like it’s something other people were getting excited about at the time of the Dover judgement last fall, but not now, and not in the culture he knows, it’s just not an issue. He does some teaching at a Washington seminary, and it’s not an issue there either; what IS an issue is homosexuality, so no change there either side of the Atlantic, but the battle lines are drawn up just a little differently here from how I suspect they will be in the South.

Andy speaks about an ageing ministry – too many within a sniff of retirement – and reports some denominational decline. Of course, the fundies would say, that’s because his Church doesn’t preach the true Gospel. I think that’s a slur on one of the finest preachers I know but I guarantee there’ll be no true Gospel preaching this Sunday morning. That’s because the Snake’s preaching, and will I be having an incidental dig at creationists, just to illustrate a valid hermeneutical point of course? Can a duck swim. Besides, I genuinely want to gauge the reaction.

This is affluent East coast America, not wild about Bush, and not unduly concerned if at all with the number of dinosaurs that might have been accommodated on the Ark.