Archive for 95 Theses Friday

95 Theses Friday #4: Righteous Among the Nations

Posted in Religion with tags , on February 28, 2009 by bradellison

The thing about doing doing what I’m doing with 95 Theses Friday is that it is essentially negative.  Finding flaws, offering criticism, looking for error.  This is not a bad thing, for only thus can what is wrong be set right.  A broken tool will not be fixed until its state is recognized.

However, we are now at the start of the road that leads to Easter, that holiest of days, Spring is at hand in Texas, and in this past week I’ve seen prayers answered in what I would have to describe as a mighty way, so I don’t really feel like being negative.

Let us, instead, consider a positive example.  We do have a few to look towards.  Let us think on Corrie Ten Boom.

When Hitler’s madness was ascendant, when the Nazis had spread like plague across Europe and Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and other undesirables were being harvested for the ovens, one of the many who risked their lives to oppose the tide was a little old maid from Harlem.  Corrie, her sister Betsie, and their father Casper were watchmakers (indeed, Corrie was the first licensed female watchmaker in the Netherlands), and very devout Christians.  When the Nazis began requiring all Jews to wear the yellow Star of David, Casper Ten Boom insisted on wearing one as well.  And in 1942, when a Jewish woman arrived on their doorstep looking for sanctuary, he told her that in his household, God’s people were always welcome.

For two years, their house sheltered refugees, Jews and resistance fighters.  To protect others, they gambled their own lives, filling their house with the displaced enemies of the Reich and taking great risks to feed them.  They usually housed seven at a time, and helped create a network of other safehouses.  When the Gestapo finally came for them in February of 1944, they managed to conceal four Jews and two members of the underground.

In all, they saved perhaps eight hundred lives, perhaps more.

Their reward was imprisonment.  Casper Ten Boom died after ten days in Scheveningen. His daughters ended up in Ravensbruck. Betsie died in that evil place, but her sister lived to see the Third Reich crumple into dust.

At fifty-three years of age, having lost most of her family to the cruelty of the Nazis and having just herself emerged from a concentration camp, Corrie Ten Boom began her life’s work: preaching a message of love, hope, and above all forgiveness.  She traveled the world delivering this Gospel.  She did so with actions, not just words.  In 1947, she was reunited with one of the crueller guards from Ravensbruck, and in an open-hearted miracle I can’t even imagine duplicating, clasped his hands and forgave him his sins towards her.

This is what the true Gospel is.  Perfect faith in God, perfect love for your fellow men.  To do right regardless of consequence, to aid the downtrodden, to endure unflinching the hardships of the world, and to forgive those who have wronged you.  It is when we lose sight of these core principles that we go astray.

We who are rich, let us remember the Gospel of the poor and the hungry.  We who are free, let us remember the Gospel of the slave and the prisoner.  We who are proud, let us remember the Gospel of the humble and the broken.  We who are strong, let us remember the Gospel of the weak and the sick.


95 Theses Friday #3: As Gentle as Serpents, as Wise as Doves

Posted in Religion with tags , , , on February 21, 2009 by bradellison

Let us turn the Wayback Machine to the 80s.  This was the age of the Moral Majority.  The Religious Right had emerged as a serious political power.  TV preachers with bad suits and worse haircuts had genuine influence in Washington DC.  The Christian subculture was coming into its own as we learned that it was a lot easier to reject the world, with its sinful music and movies and paperback thrillers and t-shirts and such, when we had access to our own not-as-good-but-with-more-God-references versions of those things.  This gave rise to innumerable CCM albums and Christian novels that frankly would be better used as emergency construction materials than as entertainment, but when every mainstream musical act was known to consort with the Devil (in a very literal sense, in the case of the heavy metal guys; It was well-known that Ozzy held a full Black Mass before every concert in honor of his dark lord), you took what you could get, and what you could get was Stryper.  At best.

But I’m not here to talk about how much most Christian music sucks, or how disgustingly tacky “in case of rapture, you can have this shirt” t-shirts are, or how the financial success of the Left Behind series is an affront to God and man artistically and theologically.  Anyway, that last front is already covered.

I want to talk about why it was that, in a time when evangelical Christianity had a bigger head of steam than at any other time this century for good or for ill, we were acting like a persecuted minority.  And why, at this time when our theology emphasized God’s awesome power and His direct and immediate interest in the minutiae of our lives, we were so prone to cowering in fear of the Devil hiding under every bush and behind every bedroom closet door.

I also want to talk about it maybe being time to knock that sort of thing off.

Listen.  The Devil’s loose in the world.  That’s sound doctrine.  Saint Peter tells us he roams the Earth like a lion seeking prey.  There’s some theological debate about how literal the Devil is, especially since he’s something of a composite character combining the Serpent in the Creation story, the King of Babylon in Isaiah, God’s prosecuting attorney in Job, the Dragon in Saint John’s Revelation and a few other things, but even if there isn’t an according-to-Milton Lucifer working evil*, there is undeniably evil being worked on a nigh-universal scale, and the Devil’s as good a name for that as any.

Some people claim to worship the Devil.  Most of them are just teenage metalheads, anarchists who want cooler trappings for their philosophies, and guys who want to get laid (Aleister Crowley, I’m looking at you).

Some people get accused of worshipping the devil.  Now, as in centuries past, they’re mostly nature-worshipping pagans and hippies, and in some cases Episcopalians.

Some people claim to have worshipped the Devil in the past, only to have repented and seen the light just in time to warn you, their brothers and sisters in Christ, about the vast midnight conspiracy that is this close to running the world and wants to molest your kids and convert them to goat-sacrificing blood-drinking Satanism.  They are, to the last man, lying blaspheming con artists.

Mike Warnke, I am looking right.  At.  You.

There was a satanism hysteria going on in the eighties.  Geraldo was on about it all the time.  Satanic serial killers, satanic drug dealers (in fairness, there were one or two really nasty little left-hand-path cults running drugs on the border back in the day, but it wasn’t exactly an epidemic.  We’re talking like a dozen guys or so), satanists poisoning Halloween candy, satanic conspiracies seeking political power (unsurprisingly, there was a lot of crossover with hardcore conspiracy theorists back then, as accusing the Jews of being the secret puppet-masters of the world stage was no longer socially acceptable, and a new force for evil had to be adapted to fill the gap), and lots and lots and lots of satanic child molesters.  Their tools were rock and roll, Hollywood, Halloween, Dungeons & Dragons, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Star Wars, Proctor and Gamble and the Smurfs.  And also, you know, their vast magical powers.

It was all a heaping, steaming pile of crap, of course.  There were no satanist conspiracies.  No backwards-masking brainwashing.  There may have been one or two isolated incidents of lone nut jobs putting razor blades in candy apples for Halloween, but I know of lone nuts jobs who ate kids with no reference to satanism, so Occam’s Razor can be safely applied here.  The hypnotically retrieved memories of ritual satanic child abuse turned out to be bogus.  The scariest rock star on Earth at that time, Alice “I Love the Dead Before They’re Cold” Cooper is and apparently was a devout Christian (and Republican, and golf enthusiast) who just loved vaudeville and horror movies.  Proctor and Gamble was just the victim of a viral smear campaign started by a certain religiously-affiliated competitor in the soap business whose name rhymes with “scamway.”  The Care Bears were not a gateway that would lead to your children being lured into the depths of occult degradation.  I know, I’m as surprised as you are, but James Dobson was wrong about them.  Dungeons & Dragons?  One of the coolest Christians I know used to play with Gary Gygax himself.  The game draws heavily on Christian literature, Tolkien and Lewis and Le Chanson de Roland and Beowulf.  My D&D character right now is inspired by very Christian themes of redemption and faith (his redemption is still a work in progress, but he’s trying).

How did we get to a point, as a people, as a Church, when we were afraid of Care Bears?**

Why are so many of us still scared?

Harry Potter is still the guest of honor at the occasional book burning.  J.K. Rowling is a practicing member of the Church of Scotland, which means, I don’t know, we should be regarding Presbyterians in general with suspicion as potential witches?  Hm.  Actually, some Southern Baptists I’ve met may do this already.

But logic and facts, o my brothers, have little to do with irrational fear.

And that is where we come around to some part of the why and how of this thing.  Facts.  Facts, and the lack of them.

There’s a modest industry based around telling lies to Christians.  In some cases, the people working in this industry are themselves victims of it.  Jack Chick, for instance, that inescapable purveyor of comic strip tracts, seems to be a genuinely deluded crazy person rather than a liar.  But Alberto Rivera, the man who first told Chick that the Catholics were responsible for creating the KKK, the Nazis and the Holocaust and that the Jesuits habitually go around trying to destroy protestant ministers?  He’s a liar, and the truth is not in him.  Not misguided, nor misled, nor misinformed, but a flat-out liar whose profession is making up vile slanders of the Roman Catholic Church and telling them to gullible Protestants.


We were to be, He told us, gentle as doves but as cunning as snakes. He warned us that we were sheep surrounded by wolves.  It seems like we ought to know better than to swallow any tall tale told to use just because the teller’s standing behind a pulpit and invoking the Name a lot.

Listen.  The pulpits in those days were full of itinerant guest speakers with a personal testimony about redemption from Satan’s talons, or a line of patter about the horrible peril your kids were in.  And they lied all the time, whether because they were liars or because they’d been lied to.

And this is still happening.  Some of the same habitual liars and con-men are still telling the same lies.

“KISS?  The band’s name is an acronym for Knights In Satan’s Service.”

“The ‘peace symbol’ is an ancient Roman sign representing an inverted broken cross.”

“Listen to Led Zeppelin(/Twisted Sister/Black Sabbath/Alice Cooper/AC/DC/ABBA) records backwards, and you’ll discover the secret messages commanding your kids to worship Satan and take drugs!”

“I was a high priest of Satan for fifteen years, during which time I dealt drugs, ate human flesh, drank blood, participated in orgies beyond counting, wore waist-length white hair and long black nails, performed real magic that actually worked, and was groomed to become a member of the Illuminati’s high council.”

“Blah blah blah Halloween blah blah blah Druids blah blah blah human sacrifice blah blah blah satanists blah blah blah poison candy/molestation (there are a lot of ways to fill in the blanks there; Halloween and its evils was a popular theme in those days).”

“The Harry Potter books contain instructions for doing real magic!”

“Satanists love the Harry Potter books, because they’re effective recruitment tools! (this one is, in fact, derived from America’s parody newpaper of record, the Onion, which has also run such articles as “Disgruntled Ninja Silently Slays 12 Co-Workers).”

What do all of these things have in common?  They’re all bald-faced lies, for starters.  But in addition to being bald-faced lies, they were all also bald-faced lies told from the pulpit to Christian congregations.  Congregations full of people who believed those bald-faced lies, spread those bald-faced lies, and went out and did things based on the assumption that those bald-faced lies were true.

One of my favorites is the D&D Steam Tunnel Story immortalized in the Tom Hanks picture Mazes and Monsters.  The story was that Some Kid was playing a live-action version of the game in the steam tunnels under his college campus, got lost, and died.  None of this was true.  A very stressed and depressed kid who happened to play D&D went into some steam tunnels to attempt suicide, failed, and went and hid at a friend’s house.  None of this had anything to do with the game.  Of course, by the time he turned out to be not dead, the first sleazy paperback novel based on the incident had already been written, and before long it turned into the aforementioned Tom Hanks picture.  Even if it were true that he’d died LARPing in the tunnels, that’s just evidence that college kids do stupid things.  He could just as easily been playing hide and seek in those tunnels when he didn’t actually get lost and die.


Why are we so easy to trick?  Why are we so ready to believe lies?

We’re trusting, for one thing.  Faith is the belief in things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.  More blessed still are those who have not seen, but still believed.  And our Faith is a bond of brotherhood, eh?  And we want to trust our brothers.

But we share our fold with wolves in sheepskins.  If you believe all your brothers tell you uncritically, soon there will come men who are not your brothers, but claim to be, and they will have things to tell you.

That’s one.  Here’s two: Fear.

Fear makes you stupid.  Fear makes you gullible.  Fear makes you easy to manipulate, easy to control.

Friends ya got trouble!

Gentle reader, you will probably see that video again some time down the line, when I get to talking about Doctor Wertham and that little book of his.  Because listen, brother, when a man’s telling you to be afraid, take a good hard look at what he might be selling.  Ninety times and nine out of a hundred, he will be selling something.

Beware.  Be gentle, but be cunning.  For God hath not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of love, and of a sound mind. The Devil’s loose in the world, but God made the world.  God is stronger than the Devil.

*I personally believe there is an individual Devil of some sort.  Or rather, like Lewis says in the foreward to The Screwtape Letters, I believe in devils, and that one devil in particular is their chief.  I could be wrong.  Certainly, the Bible doesn’t tell us much about the Devil, or his demons, or the Angelic Hosts, which seems to me to imply that we should mind our own business and focus on dealing with human affairs.

**I am not kidding.  Care Bears, like pretty much every other kid’s franchise from the eighties, was regarded by some of the noisier fundamentalists, including Doctor James Dobson of Focus On the Family and the Family Research Council, as being a potentially dangerous hook by which the Devil could reel in your children.

95 Theses Friday #2: The subtle differences between classroom and closet

Posted in Religion with tags on February 13, 2009 by bradellison

One of the main issues that the Evangelicals first rallied around when we began to accumulate political power during the second half of the last century was prayer in schools.  The backlash from Abington V. Shempp was mighty, and mightily ugly.  And so, motivated by the fear that Madalyn Murray O’Hair was hiding under our beds, we mobilized.

45 years later, we’re still circulating emails and such about getting prayer back into our schools.  Apparently, we cannot abide a state of affairs in which all students in our public schools are not made to bow their heads for a prayer to the Christian God each morning.

I’m not quite clear on why this is.

I’ve been in public schools, as student and as substitute teacher.  In both roles, I freely prayed many times, and the Athiesm Police failed to haul me away.  You wouldn’t think it possible, to read some of the emails that have washed up in my inbox, which seem to imply that the godless liberal humanists lurk behind every corner and under every bush, sniffing out piety to destroy.  Near as I can tell, many of these emails are composed originally by people of an age that puts them long years away from acquaintance with schools, so that might explain why the school system they write about is one that mostly exists in their imaginations.  It doesnot explain why they have to write about these imaginary schoolsat all.

And this is the part that troubles me.  This was one of the first hills the Evangelical right chose to fight and die on.  In so doing, we were essentially claiming dominance by right over America’s educational system.  Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, athiests, Sikhs and Hindus, apparently, being subservient.  Although in theory non-Christians are American citizens the same as Christians, and pay the same taxes, it should be our prayers that their children must join in, in the schools their taxes pay for.

From a strictly legal standpoint, this is a claim we could not rightfully make.  But that’s not what I’m concerned with.

When has subjecting people to religion ever been a good thing?  What benefits have come to the Faith through forcing those outside it to observe its rituals?  What benefits come to them?

Are there insufficient opportunities in our churches and in our homes, that our children must be led in public prayer in their schools as well?

Why do we demand the right to have everyone silently bow their heads while we noisily talk to God?

Matthew 6

1Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.

2Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

3But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth:

4That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.

5And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

6But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.

We must think, long and hard, about what we really want, and why we want it.  Do we want our kids to be able to pray in school?  Because they can.  Or do we want to pray publicly, asserting our dominance of our faith, our scriptures, our rituals, over all others in the public square?

Why are we fighting for the right to put on our masks and platform shoes and pray on the street corners?

It’s still technically 95 Theses Friday #1: Joel Osteen Could Use a Good Thrashing

Posted in Religion with tags , on February 7, 2009 by bradellison

This is Joel Osteen:

It’s sort of beside the point, but may I note in passing that this man has a remarkably punchable face?  Something about that big white content-free smile, enhanced as it is by his expansive hand gestures and immaculate coiffure just seems to cry out for a sharp jab to the nose.  It’s a face that partakes of the same cheerful plastic artificiality as the face of Mitt Romney, or the faces of the early-model Terminators.

And it is a face admirably suited to the purposes of its owner.  Friendly, comfortable, and plastic (a word which, handily, can mean both “synthetic” and “protean”) are key elements of this man’s success.  He’s a master of talking at length without ever actually saying anything.  His key schtick is a religion stripped of its bloody specificities and hard-iron truths, watered down to the level of generic self-help pablum.  Which, let us weep o my brothers for the state of our species, may explain why his books sell so infernally well, and why the stadium he folksily babbles in every Sunday is so very full.  People like pre-chewed pulp.

There is a good deal to be said about this.  Saint Paul said some of it to the Corinthians. Saint John the Divine said some more to the Church of the Laodicians, at the behest of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God.  And I may return to it, by and by.  But today, my main interest lies elsewhere.

I believe that God’s dream is that we be successful in our careers, and that we be able to send our kids to college. I don’t mean that everyone is going to be rich, and I preach a lot on blooming where you’re planted. But I don’t have the mindset that money is a bad thing.

“[My views] may go against some of the older, traditional teachings. But I think we should have a mindset that God wants us to prosper in our relationships, our health, and our finances. God’s desire is that we excel. And we see business leaders who are good strong Christians running [big] companies.

Osteen is a proponent of what is called the prosperity gospel.  “Name it and claim it.”  The idea has its roots in Calvinism, and gave rise to the concept of the “Protestant Work Ethic” so beloved of Puritans, good members of the Victorian middle class, and most other people in Christendom who felt the need to justify their wealth by tying it into their status as people God approved of.  The idea is, God’s favor will come raining down on you if you’re one of the Elect, and your Heavenly rewards will be paralleled with Earthly ones.

Hear the word of the Lord God, o Israel:

“No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.”

“Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven.  And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”

“And he said unto them, Take nothing for your journey, neither staves, nor scrip, neither bread, neither money; neither have two coats apiece.”

“And it came to pass, that, as they went in the way, a certain man said unto him, Lord, I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest. And Jesus said unto him, Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.  And he said unto another, Follow me. But he said, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. Jesus said unto him, Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God. And another also said, Lord, I will follow thee; but let me first go bid them farewell, which are at home at my house.  And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”

“For where your treasure is, there will your heart be, also.”

Take heed.  Jesus does not much care whether your business prospers and your kids get sent to college.  Those are not things that have much to do with the Kingdom of Heaven.  He was also very, very clear about what kind of success His followers might expect: “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”

Consider Job.  It seems possible that they just didn’t cover this part of the Bible in any of the classes Osteen took in his two years at Oral Roberts “University.”  The central point of the book, for those who, Like Olsteen, have never read it, is this:

Horrible things can and will happen to you, no matter how good you are.  All you have, all you love, all you deserve in life may be swept away in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, leaving you alone and naked choking in the ashes and asking “why?”  And you will not get an answer.  Demand that God explain to you why he handed you over to his servant the Accuser to be broken one piece at a time, your children and servants murdered solely because they were your children and servants, and God’s answer to His faithful servant?  Sarcasm.

This poses some interesting problems in the field of Theodicy, but it’s sound Scripture and thus not to be discarded, and unlike the Prosperity Gospel, it matches up with what happens in reality.

Mark it well, True Believers: God is not a bottled djinn to grant wishes, your faith does not assure or entitle you to health nor wealth, and wishing does not make it so.  If you want a religion where praising/bribing the Divine results in temporal rewards, look elsewhere.