Oct 30, 2014

Jesus on the battlefield

Jesus Christ and the church on the battlefield in a WWI poster:


The poster was raising funds for the Red Cross by identifying the soldier on the field in France with Christ. This is not unusual. The image of Christ and the idea of sacrifices' sanctifying effects were commonly used by leading Christian ministers in America to advocate for the war. 

Three examples from Richard M. Gamble's excellent book, The War for Righteousness
  • A joint statement signed by mlore than 60 ministers during the presidential campaign of 1916, ranging from the social gospelers Lyman Abbott and Harry Emerson Fosdick to the evangelical Billy Sunday: "The just God, who withheld not his own Son from the cross, would not look with favor upon a people who put their fear of pain and death, their dread of surfing and loss, their concern for comfort and ease, above the holy claims of righteousness and justice and freedom and mercy and truth."
  • The Rev. Ernest Stires, of the Episcopal St. Thomas' Church on Fifth Ave. in New York: "If Christ so loves the world that He bids us to bear the sword of Justice to save it, tell Him to-day He will find us ready; that before this Altar we dedicate our country and ourselves to the Christ who died to save men . . . . America will be faithful to her high ideal, bearing her ross, cost what it will."
  • Harold Bell Wright, the first American author to sell more than 1 million copies of a novel and a Disciples of Christ minister: "Our army is the army of this nation, but is more: It is the army of the liberty-loving world. It's blood is the blood of humanity, the humanity of Jesus, the humanity for which Jesus lived and died . . . . A man may give his life for humanity in a bloody trench as truly as upon a bloody cross. The world may be saved somewhere in France as truly as in Palestine."
Congressman Claude Kitchin, a North Carolina representative who lead opposition to the war, noting that pro-war ministers had no trouble getting their views reported by the pro-war newspapers, griped that "big predatory interests . . . can always count upon plenty of support from both pulpit and press."

Oct 29, 2014

Johnny Lee Clary, 1959 - 2014

Johnny Lee Clary, a Ku Klux Klan leader who rejected racism and became a pentecostal evangelist in an African-American church, has died at the age of 55.

"Even secular people are saying, 'What changed you?'" Clary said after being ordained in the Church of God in Christ in 2009. "I tell them, 'the only thing that changed me was the Word of God . . . I had to get my mind renewed and that was through God's Word.'"

Clary's testimony was that he grew up in a racist family in Oklahoma. His father taught him to shout racial epithets at African Americans from passing cars and his uncle bragged about killing a black man in Georgia and getting away with it. Clary was sent to a Baptist Sunday School, but that stopped when he was taught to sing, "Jesus loves the little children / all the little children of the world / red, yellow, black and white / they are precious in his sight / Jesus loves the little children of the world."

When he was 11, Clary's father committed suicided and his mother abandoned him. He went to live with his older sister in Los Angeles, a situation he invariably described as abusive. In the racial tumult of that city in the early 1970s, Clary discovered David Duke, the white supremacist who at the time was attracting attention for founding a new, modernized Klan. Clary joined. He was 14.

"This was the first time that anybody had ever encouraged me," Clary recalled in a 2005 interview. "I was the kid that nobody wanted. I was that rotten kid that was gonna end up in jail. And then all of the sudden, here's this Klansman telling me I'm gonna be a part of a society that's gonna treat me as a family member. And, man, that really got my attention, so that's why I joined."

Clary was an eager devotee of Duke's message and soon was back in Oklahoma, working as a Klan representative. Clary would attempt to exacerbate racial tensions in the state and use them to recruit new members.

At the age of 21, he became the Grand Dragon of the state's KKK.

By the end of the 1980s, he was Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

Johnny Lee Clary was a rising Klan leader in the 1970s and '80s.

Oct 28, 2014

Heaven, hell and the crimes between

Belief in the hereafter, the argument goes, is really a means of social control.

As the old International Workers of the World song would have it, social unrest is suppressed by the belief that there will be "pie in the sky when you die." People are kept in line by the doctrines of eternal reward. 

Maybe the idea of heaven suppresses revolutions, but doesn't do anything to stop crime, according to a study by two American professors.

Azim F. Shariff, of the University of Oregon, Eugene, and Mijke Rhemtulla, of the University of Kansas, Lawrence, have charted the relationship between beliefs and crime statistics. They used international data sets that showed comparable numbers from places with high rates of crime, such as Columbia and South Africa, with low crime places such as Vietnam and Saudi Arabia. They also looked at values surveys from 67 countries around the world, which report rates of self-identified beliefs. Comparing these two data sets, in a peer-reviewed study published in Public Library of Science in 2012, they found that beliefs in heaven and hell were reliable predictors of how much the crime rate would deviate from the mean.

In fact, belief in the afterlife had a more significant correlation with crime rates than some more practical factors that are often thought to be the cause of crime, such as income inequality.

But the effects of the belief in the afterlife are a little more complicated than the IWW would have you think:
  • Where a societies have high rates of belief in heaven, crime is reliably higher
  • Where a societies have high rates of belief in hell, however, crime is reliably lower
That is to say, the study found that "rates of belief in heaven in hell had significant, unique, and opposing effects on crime rates."

This is at least a little weird, since heaven and hell are typically thought of together. Like peas and carrots, ying and yang, or the Lone Ranger and Tonto, there's a strong association between heaven and hell.

Not all religions teach symmetrical conceptions of the afterlife, though. And even when they do, it turns out that people are more likely to latch onto the idea of eternal rewards than infinite punishments.

As Shariff and Rhemtulla point out, in almost every contemporary society more people believe in heaven than hell. And the difference between the percentage of people who believe in heaven but not hell is the most reliable predictor of crime rates.

They write,
The degree to which a country's rate of belief in heaven outstrips its rate of belief in hell significantly predicts higher national crime rates. Statistically, this finding manifests in two independent effects: the strong negative effect of rates of belief in hell on crime, and the strong positive effect of rates of belief in heaven on crime.
As the Economist glossed the findings, "a little more preaching on the fiery furnace might be beneficial in this life, if not also in the next."

Oct 27, 2014

In the beginning, in film

The story of creation from "Noah," directed by Darren Aronofsky: 


The foundations of the earth from "Tree of Life," directed by Terrence Malick:


The dawn of humanity from "2001: A Space Odyssey," directed by Stanley Kubrick:

Oct 24, 2014

Nelson Bunker Hunt, 1926-2014

Nelson Bunker Hunt, a Texas billionaire oilman who financed evangelical Christian causes, has died at age 88.

While remembered mostly for his financial ventures -- especially an attempt to corner the market on silver -- Hunt was also the money behind numerous conservative Christian and rightwing political projects. Half hidden, larger than life, Nelson Bunker Hunt bankrolled the religious right.

He came from one of Texas' premier oil families. His father was H.L. Hunt, a wildcatter who became something of a legend, buying his first oil rights with poker winnings, laying claim to a lot of the East Texas oilfields and becoming the inspiration for the malevolent patriarch of the soap opera "Dallas." The second son, Bunker, who went by his middle name, discovered his first oil in Scurry County Texas while working for his father. He was 22. It was worth $7 million.

Shortly after, Hunt struck out on his own and made a fortune in his own right.

With financial backing from British Petroleum, Hunt discovered the Sarir oil deposit in Libya in 1961. The field is considered to be one of the largest in Africa. Hunt's half interest held about 5.5 billion barrels of crude oil, according to the Dallas Morning News, and brought Hunt about $30 million a year. The oil was nationalized by Moammar Gadhafi in 1973, but by then Hunt had divested, putting his money in everything for Greek coin collections to Mississippi farmland, from sugar beet processing plants to lots and lots of racehorses.

Time Magazine called him "a man who could play Monopoly with real money."

He then went bust in the 1980s when his attempt to corner the market on silver led to a crash in silver prices. By some estimates, Hunt and one of his younger brothers succeeded in buying half of the deliverable silver in the world. That was so much silver that, according to the New York Times, for every $1 increase in the price of an ounce of silver the Hunts made a $100 million profit. That demand for silver drove the market crazy, and the price soared to more than $50 an ounce, which caused government regulators to step in, the bubble to burst, and Hunt to go bust.

The brothers lost $1.7 billion in what has been called "Silver Thursday."

Hunt's droll comment, when called to testify before Congress, was that "A billion dollars ain't what it used to be."

By the end of the 1980s, however Hunt was bankrupt, owing five times more than the $100 million he then had to his name.

The attempt to corner the market on silver might have been motivated more by religion that money, though Hunt was clearly interested in money. According to journalist Harry L. Hurt III, who wrote a history of the tycoon family, Hunt wanted the silver because he thought the world's monetary systems would crash in the coming apocalypse.

"The guy was a fanatic," Hurt is quoted as saying by the Dallas Morning News. "He really believed that stuff."

Hunt was, by all accounts, a true believer.

Oct 21, 2014

Committed to marriage, whatever that means

Donald and Evelyn Knapp believe in "traditional Christian marriages," though a lawsuit filed in federal court last week on their behalf calls into question whether that phrase holds any meaning beyond "not gay."

Both Pentecostal ministers ordained in the Foursquare Gospel church, the Knapps run a for-profit wedding chapel called the Hitching Post in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Standing across from the Kootenai County courthouse, the Hitching Post has been facilitating weddings for 95 years and is, according to one local reporter, something of a Coeur d'Alene institution, "right up there with the famous Hudson's Hamburgers."

... the case of the Knapps and the Hitching Post presents a good example of how the fight to defend marriage from "redefinition" can result in emptying the definition of most of its content. This is a fight about the meaning of marriage, after all. The Knapps themselves aren't interested in the finer points of corporate law or First Amendment jurisprudence. They're just committed to marriage. Specifically, the Knapps believe it’s their business to offer traditional Christian marriages for a fee.

Donald Knapp has consistently said this is his issue: "I cannot unite people in a way that I believe would conflict with what the Bible teaches."

Which means what? What is a traditional Christian marriage, as offered by the Hitching Post?

According to the company’s website there are two wedding packages, each of which includes a minister, music, a venue for the wedding, use of a changing room, and legal documentation. The whole thing costs under $90. Six to 10 digital photos cost $12 extra. The Hitching Post offers three venues for the wedding: a chapel, mostly free of religious symbols but adorned with flowers and foliage; a "Western Room," with cowboy-boot-and-gun decor; and a "Victorian Sitting Room," which also has flowers and foliage.

The ministers will also perform weddings at ski resorts and outdoor locations.

Read the entire essay, "Does Traditional Christian Marriage Just Mean 'Not Gay'?" at Religion Dispatches.

Oct 17, 2014

Atheism's metaphysical evidence problem

Gary Gutting, a philosophy professor from Notre Dame, notes that theists generally don't seem to have good responses to atheists' arguments, but that's because "few of them hold the positions the arguments refute."

Many contemporary atheists, on the other hand, have a problem where they hold a position their position refutes. As Gutting writes in the New York Times' philosophy blog:
The weakest intellectual aspect of current atheism is its naïve enchantment with pseudo-scientific biological and psychological explanations of why people believe. There are no doubt all sorts of disreputable sources for religious belief, and the same goes for rejections of religion. But it's just silly to say that there's solid scientific evidence that religious belief in general has causes that undermine its claims to truth . . .
I suspect that most atheists think scientific evidence -- evidence that ultimately appeals only to empirically observable facts -- is the only sort of evidence there is.
That may be their assumption, but how do they show that it's correct? It certainly isn't supported by scientific evidence, since that tells us about only what is empirically observable. The question is whether there is anything else.
That is to say, this species of atheism is a form of logical positivism.

Logical positivism holds that a statement is only meaningful if it can be verified empirically. By that standard, though, the statement "a statement is only meaningful if it can be verified empirically" is not meaningful, since it cannot itself be verified empirically. The verification standard can't be verified by its standard. There's no test that could be run, no observation one could make, no measuring that one could do that would show whether or not the statement about meaningful statements is a meaningful statement. This is a problem.

Logical positivism can be thought of as a kind of trick to rid the world of metaphysics. It appears to be quite effective, except that it is itself metaphysical.

Oct 16, 2014


Jesus on the battlefield in a WWI poster raising funds for the Presbyterian Church's "Victory Fund Campaign."

Oct 13, 2014

The fight behind the scenes of evangelical films

Five months before the big-budget Left Behind reboot hit theaters, evangelical movie producer Paul Lalonde was fighting with fans.

Lalonde was still editing the film. The score was still being written and foreign distribution deals negotiated. He had better things to do than take to Facebook and argue with Christians who had no clue about the business of movies but very, very firm ideas about how things should be done. Yet there he was, typing comments on an open thread on the film’s official Facebook page, pleading with people to give the movie a chance.

It was exasperating. He was getting testy.

Lalonde, who has been a believer in evangelical movies since he saw his first rapture movie as a kid in a church basement in the 1970s, was frustrated at accusations that the remake was just about money. He was exhausted by questions about whether Nicolas Cage could do a good job as an actor in an evangelical film, since he wasn't "covered in the blood of the lamb." He was exasperated at people telling him they liked the old Left Behind movies with Kirk Cameron and couldn’t see anything good coming out of Hollywood versions.

Had he even asked Kirk Cameron to be involved in these movies?

Why did Hollywood have to ruin everything?

"Your accusations are insulting and unnecessary," Lalonde finally wrote. "The reason for a remake, even though it may not be the answer you have pre-determined to be the right one, is to reach a wider audience . . . There is nothing wrong with ‘Hollywoodized’ if it means the same thing to you as it does to me. Christians deserve bigger movies too with great actors, and high production values."

This has been the debate about Left Behind.

Read the entire essay, "Are Evangelical Films Destined to Leave Secular Audiences Behind?" at Religion Dispatches.

Oct 11, 2014

'Comin for to carry me home'

Margie and Enoch Sullivan and the Sullivan Family Band perform "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot":


The Sullivan Family was dubbed the "first family of bluegrass" by Bill Monroe, the man who also dubbed bluegrass, "bluegrass."

"You know we started before it was named bluegrass music," says Margie Sullivan, in a public television documentary.

Enoch and Emmett Sullivan started performing at children with their father, the pentecostal preacher Arthur Sullivan (not to be confused with Sir Arthur Sullivan, the British hymn writer). The elder Sullivan experienced a miraculous healing in 1939, after two oneness pentecostal ministers walked five miles to his house in Washington County, Alabama, to pray for him. Sullivan dedicated his life to ministry, and was ordained in a oneness pentecostal church, the Assemblies of the Lord Jesus. He formed several of his family members into a band to accompany his preaching, a fact celebrated in a song written by his youngest brother Jerry in "Sing Daddy a Song."

The lead singer of the band was Enoch's wife, Margie. Margie Sullivan, ne Brewster, was also the child of pentecostal evangelist. He died when she was 13, however, and she travelled with a female evangelist named Hazel Chain until she met Enoch at a revival in 1949 and married him. Margie was 16 at the time, Enoch 18. They then formed the Sullivan Family band  and preformed together, along with family, until Enoch's death in 2011 at the age of 79.

They were "huge regional stars," popular among white Southerners, according Marty Stuart, a country music star who got his start touring with the Sullivans in the early 1970s. "They played pentecostal churches, they played camp meeting revivals, bluegrass festivals and George Wallace campaign rallies. How's that?"

Several members of the family are still performing.

Oct 8, 2014

Seeing Francis Schaeffer from a historical distance: 3 quotes

Think for a moment about what the Christian movement, especially its Evangelical wing, was like before Schaeffer came upon the scene in the Sixties. Most believers were unaware that there was such a thing as a 'Biblical World View.' They figured that, aside from Christians being a bit more honest and less immoral than the world and (for fundamentalists) abstaining from tobacco, alcohol, and movies, there did not need to be that much difference between them and non-believers in their whole approach to life. They did not think the intellectual, social, and cultural issues of the day anything they needed to be concerned with. And so they watched the Christian consensus they had come to take for granted evaporate to the point that our Supreme Court was able to legalize the mass murder of unborn children and, until it was too late, they had no idea that it was even happening.

It is hard today to remember how radical Francis Schaeffer was in the Sixties when his call for speaking historic Christianity into the Post-Christian world with intellectual integrity, his call for holistic world-view thinking, and his call for living out 'the lordship of Christ over the total culture' were first sounded.
-- Donald Williams, "True Truth: Francis Schaeffer's Enduring Legacy"
Schaeffer wanted evangelical Americans to become soldiers of history rather than careful students. He was one of the wave of gurus who, like generals of prophets and big personalities before them, offered evangelicals an alternative authority, a rubric of certainty at a time when the consensus on the Bible's status in American culture was shakier than ever. While he inspired some young evangelicals to get to the bottom of the stories he told in pursuing graduate degrees in history and philosophy, on a larger scale Schaeffer's ministry was a grand and clever exercise in anti-intellectualism. 
-- Molly Worthen, Apostles of Reason
Many Christian scholars today criticize Schaeffer, not only because of his reliance on modern rationalism, but even more because his interpretation of the course of western history, what he called 'the flow,' was problematic in its details . . .  
That said, Schaeffer's primary significance is not in a lasting critique of western thought, not in a reasoned apologetic that would necessarily be persuasive today. His arguments have not stood the test of time in terms of their historical veracity or philosophical soundness. He was not the scholar, philosopher, or great theologian that his publishers liked to claim on his book jackets. Rather, Schaeffer is significant primarily because when he came back to the United States in the mid-1960s most American evangelicals were still in the throes of fundamentalist separatism, in which Christian public identity manifested itself primarily in an attempt to shun the secular world. Schaeffer was the most popular and influential American evangelical of his time in reshaping evangelical attitudes toward culture, helping to move evangelicals from separatism to engagement.
-- Barry Hankins, Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America