What if God just changes his mind about gay marriage. It wouldn’t be the first time, you know.
The marriage of Christ and anti-Christ
When Ted Cruz launched his presidential campaign at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University reaction on the left was predictable. Some suggested that Liberty students were only in their seats because attendance at chapel is mandatory at Liberty. Liberals don’t like Ted and the feeling is mutual.
Libertarian response was mixed. Ted’s political career is funded by billionaire libertarians Charles and David Koch, he despises Obamacare, and he wants to abolish the IRS.
Libertarians haven’t forgotten that Cruz’s famous filibuster speech against Obamacare was studded with Ayn Rand quotations.
Who could ask for anything more?
But hard core, “objectivist” libertarians are baffled by Ted’s fervent embrace of the religious right, in general, and his staunch opposition to abortion, in particular. Why, for instance, did a lifelong admirer of Ayn Rand announce his candidacy at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University?
Ayn Rand hated philosophical compromise as much as she hated Jesus; and she hated Jesus very, very much. Consider this oft-quoted line from her novel, The Fountainhead:
The man who attempts to live for others is a dependent. He is a parasite in motive and makes parasites of those he serves . . . this is the essence of altruism.
Jesus and Ayn share one quality: consistency.
Rand asserted that nothing beyond the demands of the detached and independent ego really matters. Altruism, living in response to the needs of others, was thus the worst kind of heresy. When we live in service to others, she taught, we become slaves.
Randian objectivists wish Ted would lose his religion so they wouldn’t have to qualify for their support. But everyone, even libertarians, appreciate that Ted’s career arc would plummet to earth if he trampled on the cross. In America, we are free to disagree with Jesus on every important point, so long as we’re singing “Oh How I Love Jesus”.
A cynic would assert that Ted Cruz embraces both Christ and anti-Christ because he is a pragmatic politician. But you can’t understand the Junior Senator from Texas apart from the culture that shaped him. Religious superstars from Dwight L. Moody to Billy Graham embraced Wall Street for the same reason Ted Cruz courts the Koch brothers–publicity is expensive.
The best way to impress the wealthy is to tell them how wonderful they are, and Ayn Rand made a comfortable living singing paeans to the powerful. They were the only people that mattered to her; everybody else she called ‘looters’, ‘moochers,’ and (when she was feeling kind) ‘parasites’.
Not all wealthy people enjoy praise and adulation, of course, but most of them do. Charles and David Koch love Ayn Rand and Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter because they speak rapturously of the wealthy and contemptuously of everyone else. No surprises there.
Ted Cruz grew up in a religious subculture in which Christianity and laissez-faire capitalism dovetailed neatly. Mainstream evangelical Christianity soft-pedals Jesus’ teaching on money, greed and solidarity with the poor because, while no one was watching, we became a wholly-owned subsidiary of corporate America. If you think this is overly-harsh, check out the Sermon on the Mount and you will see the problem.
But this marriage of Christ and anti-Christ goes deeper than political pragmatism and the lure of mammon. Ted Cruz isn’t just a conservative Southern Baptist who occasionally shows up at Second Baptist Church in Houston, Texas; he is also an enthusiastic Dominionist.
This stealth enterprise goes by a variety of names: the Reconstructionist Movement, Dominionism or, more recently, the New Apostolic Reformation (I have written extensively on this subject).
Dominionism is rooted in the “presuppositional” theology of Cornelius Van Til and the political-religious musings of Rousas John Rushdoony. (If you are unfamiliar with Cornelius and Rousas, this primer will come in handy.)
Think of it as the Reformed doctrine of election on steroids. Rushdoony put it like this:
“The purpose of Christ’s coming was in terms of the creation mandate… The redeemed are called to the original purpose of man, to exercise dominion under God, to be covenant-keepers, and to fulfill “the righteousness of the law” (Rom. 8:4) . . . Man is summoned to create the society God requires.”
The theological category of “election” makes the marriage of Christ and anti-Christ possible.
Both Randian objectivists and Christian dominionists contrast the glories of “us” with the depravity of “them”.
It’s an anti-Christian species of Calvinism. The wealthy and the powerful have the right to dictate to the poor and the powerless because, well, they’re so super. Dominionists associate this authority with God (from whom all blessings flow). For Randian objectivists it’s the law of the jungle: If the makers don’t rule the takers, the takers will rule the makers, and we can’t have that. Both conservative Christians and anti-Christ objectivists dream of that great day when the elect will triumph and the unworthy will get a richly-deserved comeuppance.
I am not suggesting that everyone associated with the religious right thinks this way. They don’t. But culture war logic ensures that conservative critics of this marriage of Christ and anti-Christ will be consigned to the outer darkness.
Liberals, for their part, don’t know enough about Ayn Rand or Christian Reconstructionism to discern the elephant in the room. Besides, it’s too easy to lampoon politicians like Ted Cruz if you’re working with a liberal audience. You can make jokes about Liberty University students compulsory attendance at the Cruz announcement speech in twenty quick seconds flat. Liberty students wearing Rand Paul T-shifts is a great five-second sight gag. So why do the hard work of answering hard questions that no one is asking?
Mainstream analysis, desperate to sustain the illusion of objectivity, eschews in-depth analysis of anything. Cruz kicked off his campaign at Liberty University in an attempt to court religious conservatives. End of story. The marriage of Christ and anti-Christ rarely gets a mention on CNN or CBS. It sounds mean-spirited and it smacks of liberal bias. We don’t want to lose more conservative viewers to FOX.
But our silence comes with a price. Ted Cruz holds this marriage of convenience together by pretending that neither Jesus nor Ayn Rand were serious.
They were; and they are.
Must we choose between belief-less Christianity and fundamentalism?
John Shuck is a Presbyterian pastor in good standing who doesn’t believe a single thing you learned in Sunday school. In a recent Patheos post, Reverend Shuck issued a list of six affirmations designed to boil the blood of every right-thinking American:
- Religion is a human construct
- The symbols of faith are products of human cultural evolution
- Jesus may have been an historical figure, but most of what we know about him is in the form of legend
- God is a symbol of myth-making and not credible as a supernatural being or force
- The Bible is a human product as opposed to special revelation from a divine being
- Human consciousness is the result of natural selection, so there’s no afterlife
You may be wondering why, having jettisoned God, Jesus, the Bible and heaven, Rev. Shuck still wants to play church. What’s the point? (more…)
We still can’t handle the truth: Chris Kyle and the religion of Empire
By Alan Bean
The jury didn’t buy Eddie Ray Routh’s insanity defense and the legal experts weren’t surprised. To win at trial, Routh’s attorneys had to prove that the ex-marine didn’t understand that shooting Chris Kyle and Chad Littlefield in the back was morally wrong.
It is difficult to know what was going on in Eddie Routh’s mind the day he gunned down two innocent men at an upscale firing range in suburban Dallas. Nicholas Schimdle’s “In the Crosshairs”, a carefully researched New Yorker piece written shortly after the murders, makes a strong case that Routh not only suffered from PTSD but was deeply depressed and delusional in the months leading up to the murders. But that wasn’t sufficient. As state witnesses repeatedly emphasized, a defendant can suffer from mental illness and still distinguish right from wrong.
It is likely, in fact, that Eddie Ray Routh killed Chris Kyle and Chad Littlefield because he had taken a fancy to Kyle’s spanking new Ford F-350. Would a sane individual believe he could get away with a crime this brazen? Probably not. But even if Routh was too detached from reality to appreciate the consequences of his action, that wasn’t enough to convince the jury.
Moments after his arrest, Routh undermined an insanity defense by answering affirmatively when a state trooper asked him if he knew what he did was wrong.
Chris Kyle is widely regarded as a war hero in Stephenville, Texas and several jurors had recently seen American Sniper a Clint Eastwood biopic featured in packed theaters as the trial unfolded. Kyle’s widow attended the Academy Awards (where American Sniper lost the best-picture competition to Birdman) short days before testifying in Routh’s trial. (more…)
Kyle or Kayla: who’s your hero?
There is Kayla Mueller’s America and there is Chris Kyle’s America and we can’t identify with both. There is Kayla Mueller’s Christianity and Chris Kyle’s Christianity and the two religions have little in common. Kyle or Kayla; who’s your hero?
Kayla Mueller was taken captive by ISIS militants while working with Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières) in a hospital dedicated to treating refugees from Syria’s civil war. This was how she lived out her faith. Earlier faith adventures took Mueller to India, Israel and Palestine.
Mueller traveled to Israel in 2010 to work with African immigrants but spent most of her time working with the pro-Palestinian International Solidarity Movement. Mueller later reflected on this experience in a blog post.
“I could tell a few stories about sleeping in front of half demolished buildings waiting for the one night when the bulldozers come to finish them off; fearing sleep because you don’t know what could wake you…. I could tell a few stories about walking children home from school because settlers next door are keen to throw stones, threaten and curse at them.”
“The smell and taste of tear gas has lodged itself in the pores of my throat and the skin around my nose, mouth and eyes. It still burns when I close them. It still hangs in the air like invisible fire burning the oxygen I breathe. When I cry tears for this land, my eyes still sting. This land that is beautiful as the poetry of the mystics. This land with the people whose hearts are more expansive than any wall that any man could ever build.”
In the eyes of many, Kayla Mueller’s sympathy for the Palestinian people defined her as anti-Israel and anti-American. Such conclusions make sense from the perspective of Chris Kyle Christianity.
I haven’t read Kyle’s book, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, nor have I seen Clint Eastwood’s movie. Chris Hedges read the book and watched the film and came away horrified.
Kyle was given the nickname “Legend.” He got a tattoo of a Crusader cross on his arm. “I wanted everyone to know I was a Christian. I had it put in red, for blood. I hated the damn savages I’d been fighting,” he wrote. “I always will.” Following a day of sniping, after killing perhaps as many as six people, he would go back to his barracks to spent his time smoking Cuban Romeo y Julieta No. 3 cigars and “playing video games, watching porn and working out.” On leave, something omitted in the movie, he was frequently arrested for drunken bar fights. He dismissed politicians, hated the press and disdained superior officers, exalting only the comradeship of warriors. His memoir glorifies white, “Christian” supremacy and war. It is an angry tirade directed against anyone who questions the military’s elite, professional killers.
“For some reason, a lot of people back home—not all people—didn’t accept that we were at war,” he wrote. “They didn’t accept that war means death, violent death, most times. A lot of people, not just politicians, wanted to impose ridiculous fantasies on us, hold us to some standard of behavior that no human being could maintain.”
Chris Kyle has a point. It is unrealistic to expose young men to pro-military propaganda, send them to boot camp, hand them a rifle, tell them to kill citizens of a demonized race, and then criticize them for joking about mass murder. War does mean “violent death”. And repeated exposure to violent death destroys the spirit. This is particularly true when you are personally responsible for the violence and death.
Military veterans deal with the spiritual damage of war in different ways. Some end up on the streets. Some, like the tormented vet who gunned Kyle down at a shooting range, veer into madness. Kyle dealt with the trauma of war by creating a version of Christianity featuring a mirror image denial of everything Jesus did and taught: a bizarre blend of white, middle class, hearth-and-home sentimentality and a Manichean dualism driven by hatred of the “other” and a joyful (and uniquely American) embrace of violence, pornography, machismo, hatred and death. (If you think I’m exaggerating here, please read Hedges’ review of American Sniper, book and movie.)
Kayla Mueller’s Christianity flowed from the gospel of the kingdom that sent Jesus to his cross. The oft-quoted words from her prison cell are twenty-first century Dietrich Bonhoeffer (you can read the hand-written letter in its entirety here):
“I remember mom always telling me that all in all in the end the only one you really have is God. I have come to a place in experience where, in every sense of the word, I have surrendered myself to our creator b/c literally there was no else … + by God + by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in freefall.”
Will Hollywood make a movie about Kayla Mueller? Don’t hold your breath. As the box office success of American Sniper shows, Chris Kyle Christianity enjoys mass appeal. By contrast, Kayla Mueller Christianity reminds us that “the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”
Kayla “tenderly cradled” the victims of violence; Kyle embodied the myth of redemptive violence. Kyle and Kayla can’t both be heroes; you’ve got to choose.
Beware the devil’s Jesus
The Christ child has been born of Mary, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid to rest in a manger. The angelic host has winged its way back to highest heaven. So, what do we do now?
The incarnation reveals a God who pitches his tent with the poor, the undocumented, the slave and the outcast. Infinite power takes up residence in a helpless child. And the child really is helpless. Minus the loving care of its parents, this spark of life would quickly succumb to cold, thirst and hunger. Perhaps this is why the parents-to-be were subjected to an extensive angelic interview. The risk of birth, demanded parents who could hold up their end of the bargain.
The Bible doesn’t dwell on the Messiah’s formative years. Mark and John introduce us to a fully grown Messiah, and Matthew and Luke restrict themselves to a few childhood glimpses. Matthew reveals the subtle dance between the magi and mad king Herod ending with the slaughter of the innocents and the flight into Egypt. Thanks to mad king Herod, the Christ-child retraces the steps of a slave people, living in Egypt as an undocumented immigrant.
Luke shows the most interest in Jesus’ childhood, but even he doesn’t tell us much. No one sees the newborn king but a band of scruffy shepherds–the most despised caste in Jewish society. Next, Jesus is presented at the temple in Jerusalem and an old man named Zechariah thanks God for allowing him to see the salvation of God in human form: “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
The old man grasped what no one else, even mother Mary, could grasp: still a nursing child, the claim of God was on the life of Jesus. Only God would decide what sort of Messiah this baby would become.
The next time we see Jesus, he is a remarkably precocious twelve year-old posing theological questions to the leading Rabbis of the day and weighing their answers with rapt interest. He is already wrestling with God’s claim on his life.
Luke and Matthew move swiftly from birth to baptism, then treat us to a blow-by-blow account of what we call “the wilderness temptations”. This is where Jesus decides what sort of Messiah God wants him to be.
The story reaches its dramatic high point when the devil takes Jesus to a high mountain and shows him all the kingdoms of the earth. All this can fall under Jesus’ power. The only catch is that the devil gets to decide what sort of Messiah Jesus will be. His plan doesn’t seem half bad. The devil desires a messiah who transforms the hard rock of suffering into the warm bread of blessing. Just give the people what they want, become the savior they desire, the devil says, and all will be well.
Most of us would take this deal–the devil is an excellent salesman–but Jesus says no. As we quickly learn, God is calling his Messiah to a very different vocation.
In Matthew, Jesus leaves the wilderness, calls his disciples, and climbs a mountain. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he says, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those hunger and thirst for justice.”
The shape of Luke’s narrative is a bit different, but the message is pretty much the same. After leaving the wilderness, Jesus reads the scroll of Isaiah in the very synagogue where he learned to read the Hebrew Scriptures as a young boy. It was here, in the synagogue, poring over the precious scrolls, that Jesus first realized God’s claim on his life. Having said no to the devil, Jesus says yes to the messianic role he learned from Isaiah the prophet:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
Because he has anointed me
To preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind.
To set the captive free,
To proclaim the jubilee year of the Lord.
The kingdom gospel of Jesus is good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, the kind of jubilee-liberation where all the slaves go free.
These themes were central to the life and preaching of the first generations of Christians, the people who gave us our New Testament. The church was an egalitarian community of slaves and free people, men and women, rich and poor, a rag-tag assemblage drawn from every tribe and kindred on the face of the earth. Their mission was to model the kingdom values that sent Jesus to a Roman cross: caring for the poor, welcoming the stranger, forgiving the enemy, breaking down the walls that fragment the human family.
Which brings us back to the child wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. The cute little tyke makes no demands. According to the song, he doesn’t even cry. He just lies there, cooing and looking adorable. O come, let us adore him . . . before he grows up and makes demands of us.
In the Ballad of Ricky Bobby, the successful NASCAR veteran prefers the little baby Jesus to the grown up variety, and since he wins all the races and brings home the bacon, he figures he can pray to whatever kind of Jesus he likes.
“Dear, 8-pound, 6-ounce, newborn infant Jesus, don’t even know a word yet, just a little infant and so cuddly, but still omnipotent, we just thank you for all the races I’ve won and the 21.2 million dollars– Whoo!”
Taking their lead from Ricky Bobby, the other guests choose their favorite kind of Jesus:
Cal: “I like to picture Jesus in a Tuxedo T-shirt because it says, like, ‘I wanna be formal. But I’m here to party too.’ ‘Cause I like to party, so I like my Jesus to party.”
Walker: “I like to picture Jesus as a ninja fighting off evil samurai.”
Cal: “I like to think of Jesus, like, with giant eagle’s wings. And singing lead vocal for Lynyrd Skynyrd with, like, a angel band. And I’m in the front row and I’m hammered drunk.”
Can we select the Jesus that suits our style, or are we stuck with the guy in the Bible who preached good news to the poor and release to the captives?
The devil would give us a Jesus who turns hard stones into the warm bread; but the God of Christmas trades the security of heaven for the pungent hay of a feed trough. In Matthew’s telling, incarnate God is hustled across the Egyptian border with the soldiers of a mad king baying at his heels. The God of Christmas identifies himself with the poverty of shepherds and the early chapters of the salvation story “when Israel was in Egypt-land; oppressed so hard he could not stand.”
The devil couldn’t buy a Messiah of his own choosing, and we can’t either.
Why (white) Millennials are leaving the church
More white Millennials identify as “nones” than as Christians according to a post originally published in On Faith.
“Nones”, you may remember, are those who check the “none” box when asked to state their religious affiliation.
But there is no mass exodus afoot in the non-white Millennial segment of the American Church. As a result, although people of color comprise only one-third of American Millennials, they represent over half of Millennial Christians.
By contrast, nearly 7 in 10 of older American Christians are white. The On Faith article highlights the conclusion of Mark Silk, professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, CT: “What you have in American religion today are the nonwhite Christians and the Nones.”
And it isn’t just the moderate-to-liberal Protestant mainline churches that are bleeding young people. According to the article:
Among Americans 65 and older, nearly 3 in 10 (29 percent) are evangelicals. That number drops to 1 in 10 for younger Americans.
So, why are white Christians, conservative and liberal, in such a panic to leave the church while religious fervor among young people of color remains strong?
This difference is particularly surprising when you realize that most African American and Latino Christians take the rough outline of their theology from white Christians. If you think non-white churches are bristling with liberation and civil rights theology you are mistaken.
There are three large tribes within white American Christianity: mainline Protestant, evangelical Protestant, and Roman Catholic, and all three are hemorrhaging young people.
Among white American evangelicals, Christianity largely overlaps with Republican political identification. Although it is rare to hear blatantly partisan political preaching in white evangelical churches, even in the American South, the association between Christianity and Republicanism is widely assumed.
American evangelicalism loves Jesus and can’t pay him enough metaphysical compliments: Son of God, Lord of Lords, Coming King, etc. But American evangelicals have a problem with the core teaching of Jesus recorded in the Gospels.
Jesus, to put it bluntly, makes liberal democrats look like Barry Goldwater. His gospel is “good news to the poor”.
Jesus proclaimed an upside-down kingdom in which “the first will be last, and the last will be first.”
Jesus told his disciples to love everyone without reservation, to demolish us-them distinctions, to honor the dishonorable.
Jesus loved and forgave his enemies, even while hanging in agony on the cross and, incredibly, insisted that his followers do the same.
It was once possible to ignore the content of Jesus’ teaching. It didn’t get a lot of attention in sermons and Sunday school lessons and evangelical pastors evolved clever ways of explaining why Jesus almost never really meant what he said.
That is changing. The radical shape of Jesus’ message is rapidly becoming public knowledge, forcing evangelical preachers and public theologians to ratchet up the machinery of denial. Older evangelicals can live with the disconnect between revelation and proclamation; but the cognitive dissonance is proving too much for “the information generation”.
So, how do we explain the mass exodus of young people from the Protestant mainline and Roman Catholic churches of America?
While American evangelicals are overwhelmingly conservative in political ideology, the nation’s white mainline and Roman Catholic churches are evenly divided between ideological conservatives and liberals, people who primarily disagree about money, poor people, and the proper response to the enemy and the “other”; precisely the stuff Jesus talks about in the Bible.
Churches can’t wrestle openly with the alarming tenets Jesus-based morality without pouring oil on the polemical fire sizzling restlessly just beneath the surface of congregational life, so they ignore this stuff as much as possible. Sure, you hear vague references to justice, caring for the poor and feeding the hungry in many white churches, but the systemic roots of injustice, poverty and hunger are rarely explored.
Here’s the big problem: You can’t apply the teaching of Jesus to the moral and public policy issues confronting American society without getting overtly political. But the politics of Jesus transcends the party programs of Democrats ad Republicans. The logic of Jesus-morality suggests a politics so radical and uncompromising that few elected officials in America would consider touching it.
As a consequence, the moral content of biblical Christianity, properly understood, is irrelevant to American politics.
Millennials love the Jesus portrayed in the Gospels and would love to learn more about them. But in the white Christian churches of America they are confronted with silence or bizarre misrepresentations of the Master’s intent.
Are Christians of color more open to Jesus than their white counterparts?
If your congregation is directly impacted by American immigration policy, the Bible takes on a surprising relevance. The Holy family was forced to live as refugees and illegal aliens. The Old Testament insists, repeatedly, that the sojourner and the resident alien must receive just and humane treatment. Jesus injunctions about “the least of these” take on a new relevance in a social context shaped by poverty and the constant threat of family separation, and this is true even if pulpit preaching is primarily about getting saved for heaven.
The same dynamic is alive in the Black church. Only a small minority of Black churches participated in the civil rights movement, but that bold legacy has assumed a normative status in the Black church, even in churches where the preaching presents a Jesus who wants to make you rich. The Black Church is overtly political because bad public policy has had a devastating impact in poor communities of color.
In short, there is just enough of the Jesus stuff in America’s Black and Latino churches to sustain the commitment of a restless Millennial generation. Many of these young people are frustrated by much of what they see and hear in church, but there is a dash of genuine Jesus-religion in the religious stew, and that keeps the young folks coming.
Meanwhile, white American Christianity has a Jesus problem and it’s getting worse with each passing year. The flight of the Millennials is primarily a white problem. There’s something horribly wrong with white American spirituality and its driving our children to the exits.
Jesus is our problem. Mercifully, Jesus is also the solution to our problem.
Is Jesus irrelevant to the immigration debate?
Christians are people who live as if the kingdom Jesus preached is a present reality.
Ayn Rand, the reluctant apostle of Christendom
The incalculable chasm fixed between Jesus and Ayn Rand comes into focus when we consider the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
Breaking the Silence: Introducing the kingdom Jesus had in mind
Breaking the Silence is a six-week study designed for existing Sunday school classes and study groups. The core conviction is simple: what was good news for Jesus should be good news for the church. Although Breaking the Silence can be taught in any Christian setting, … Continue reading Breaking the Silence: Introducing the kingdom Jesus had in mind