Religion Feed

Criticizing Religion

Ari Ezra Waldman makes an important critical point about this week's Masterpiece Cake Shop ruling:

Third, the opinion includes troubling conclusions. As we discussed yesterday, the Court found that statements from Commissioners sitting on the Colorado Civil Rights Commission evidenced so much anti-religious bias that they denied the Christian baker a fair, impartial hearing. But those statements don’t really evidence bias. Here was the most offending statement:

I would also like to reiterate what we said in the hearing or the last meeting. Freedom of religion and religion has been used to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history, whether it be slavery, whether it be the Holocaust, whether it be—I mean, we—we can list hundreds of situations where freedom of religion has been used to justify discrimination. And to me it is one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use to—to use their religion to hurt others.

In reaction to this, the Court said, “To describe a man’s faith as ‘one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use’ is to disparage his religion in at least two distinct ways: by describing it as despicable, and also by characterizing it as merely rhetorical—something insubstantial and even insincere.”

But that is not at all what the Commissioner did. His comment called out using religion as a pretext for discrimination. And besides, the Commissioner is one hundred percent correct. Christianity justified the HolocaustReligion was used to justify slavery. Religion was used to justify Jim Crow, apartheid, and laws against interracial marriage.

This raises an important question. If saying something true, yet critical about religion as an institution is an example of expressing hostility toward religion, then is every comment critical of religion evidence of bias? Are we never allowed to say anything negative about the harms that can be wrought by fundamentalism? It’s now hard to imagine the forces of equality getting a fair hearing if no one can say anything negative about the forces of bigotry when they use religion to justify their hatred.

Granted, Masterpiece Cakeshop is neither a huge triumph for bigotry nor a devastating loss for equality. But it is not harmless. It allowed bigotry to win today and may have several dangerous effects.

It is actually a sign of taking an argument or idea seriously to engage it in critical public discourse.  Religion is not and should not be immune from criticism.  That is how religions improve and advance like anything else.

The Need for Contemplation

A good blog post at Patheos on the need for Christian's to be grounded in contemplation, now more than ever.  The occasion is the release of a new biography of Phyllis Tickle who did much to promote the mystical within the church.  The author contends that our fractured politics calls for more contemplation and that our activism must be rooted in spirituality.

O Sing Unto the Lord

O Sing unto the Lord: A History of English Church MusicO Sing unto the Lord: A History of English Church Music by Andrew Gant
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A delightfully witty and informative book on the history of English church music. Thanks to the book I've discovered some musical gems such as Wylkynson's 13 part harmony Jesus autem transiens

And Tallis's Spem in alium, a 40 voice motet.

I've been looking up the pieces he discusses on YouTube and creating a playlist, which I'm not finished with, but here's the link:

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The World Is Awake

The World Is Awake: A celebration of everyday blessingsThe World Is Awake: A celebration of everyday blessings by Linsey Davis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A beautiful book that does a good job of expressing our religious values. There is a focus on the beauty of nature, the diversity of creation, gratitude for God's blessings, farmer's market, reading, and prayer. The only drawback is the exclusively masculine language for God, but you can correct that while reading it to your child.

I have found it very difficult to locate children's book with Christian stories that uphold the values of mainline Christianity as opposed to more evangelical versions (we've read more Jewish, Buddhist, and Muslim books to Sebastian), so this was a refreshing discovery.

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Haroset 2

Growing up Southern Baptist in a small town in Oklahoma, our liturgical life was greatly lacking.  Which is one reason that in adolescence I was drawn to Episcopal worship for a richer, more spiritual experience.

My high school French teacher and Quiz Bowl coach Kay Boman was an Episcopalian who was beginning the process of becoming a Deacon, so on our long trips on the road we often discussed religion, and she invited me to come experience worship at All Saints.

One year my dearly beloved Sunday school teacher at First Baptist, Debi Durham, was invited by a friend of hers to attend All Saints's Maundy Thursday Seder and so she and I went together.

And that was an eye-opening experience into other ways to worship and to learn.  I had never before encountered food that was symbolic or eating as a worship experience.

And it was my first experience of footwashing and why that really should be one of the sacraments of the church.

A Christian Seder is an adaptation of a Jewish Passover meal through the lens of the stories of the Last Supper and the institution of communion.  The Episcopal worship at All Saints included the stripping of the altar after the meal with a return to the Parish Hall for the final toast.  A strange mix of the celebratory Jewish feast with more somber Christian elements.  Plus the Episcopal dinner included some distinctly English elements--mint sauce with the roast lamb.

While in grad school and living in Shawnee at the turn of the millennium, I would occasionally prepare a Seder Supper of my own for friends.  One year we did it on a Wednesday when an Oklahoma City bombing anniversary fell during Holy Week.  It was during these years that I learned to roast lamb, usually with parsley.  And I bought a cookbook of recipes for the various Jewish festivals and learned to make haroset--an apple nut mixture that is part of the symbolic foods for the dinner.

While I was serving at Royal Lane Baptist Church in Dallas I developed a Seder for use with my youth group.  That church had a weekly Wednesday night dinner and church, so we did the Maundy Thursday elements on Wednesday.  That church also had a big, choral Good Friday Tenebrae service, which I miss.

While living in Oklahoma City a few times I attended the Stonewall Seder that First Unitarian Church hosted every year during Pride month.  It was a meal of symbolic foods based upon the narrative of the Stonewall riots.

Yesterday Sebastian helped me make our haroset and seemed, at least at first, highly engaged in this different meal.  And we used it, as intended, for faith formation--telling him the ancient stories of our faith.  Especially important after we asked him, "What is Easter about?" And he answered "A bunny and Easter eggs."  

Haroset 1

The previous post in this series was about making chili.

The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary

The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical CommentaryThe Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary by Ben Witherington III
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

At the beginning Witherington quotes Reynolds Price claiming that Mark "is the most original narrative writer in history" and that the Gospel of Mark is "the most influential of human books."
But aside from an idea here or there, this commentary is rather bland, boring, and conventional lacking in any surprising insights that might open new eyes upon the text.

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Binding the Strong Man

Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's Story of JesusBinding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus by Ched Myers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a magnificent commentary on Mark. Myers has proposed a very provocative viewpoint on Jesus and the type of revolution Jesus is leading. In doing so, he contributes startlingly interesting claims about various texts and episodes.

Mark has long been my favourite Gospel and the commentaries I've read this time around have only contributed more layers to understanding this fascinating narrative.

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Trump & Evangelicals

Many authors have analyzed the puzzling alliance of Evangelicals with Donald Trump, who is antithetical to traditional Evangelical views.  Writing The Atlantic, Michael Gerson, himself an Evangelical and conservative Republican, gives one of the most insightful and perceptive contributions yet to this growing body of literature, including a good history of American Evangelicalism. He concludes, "It is the strangest story: how so many evangelicals lost their interest in decency, and how a religious tradition called by grace became defined by resentment. "

I appreciated his discussion of the social justice actions of Evangelicals in the 19th century and then how American Protestantism split into Liberal and Fundamentalist factions in the 20th century.

Here are some of the best excerpts:

The moral convictions of many evangelical leaders have become a function of their partisan identification. This is not mere gullibility; it is utter corruption. Blinded by political tribalism and hatred for their political opponents, these leaders can’t see how they are undermining the causes to which they once dedicated their lives. Little remains of a distinctly Christian public witness.

While detailing Evangelical history, he points out that long ago the Fundamentalists changed in ways that have led to Trump:

Fundamentalism embraced traditional religious views, but it did not propose a return to an older evangelicalism. Instead it responded to modernity in ways that cut it off from its own past. In reacting against higher criticism, it became simplistic and overliteral in its reading of scripture. In reacting against evolution, it became anti-scientific in its general orientation. In reacting against the Social Gospel, it came to regard the whole concept of social justice as a dangerous liberal idea. This last point constituted what some scholars have called the “Great Reversal,” which took place from about 1900 to 1930. “All progressive social concern,” Marsden writes, “whether political or private, became suspect among revivalist evangelicals and was relegated to a very minor role.”

In the late 20th century some Evangelicals (think Billy Graham) engaged successfully with the American mainstream culture, only for Evangelicals to then feel the culture slipping away after the changes of the 1960's and 70's.  He writes:

 As a result, the primary evangelical political narrative is adversarial, an angry tale about the aggression of evangelicalism’s cultural rivals. In a remarkably free country, many evangelicals view their rights as fragile, their institutions as threatened, and their dignity as assailed. The single largest religious demographic in the United States—representing about half the Republican political coalition—sees itself as a besieged and disrespected minority. In this way, evangelicals have become simultaneously more engaged and more alienated.

He identified a lack of intellectual engagement as the deepest flaw of contemporary Evangelicalism:

For a start, modern evangelicalism has an important intellectual piece missing. It lacks a model or ideal of political engagement—an organizing theory of social action. Over the same century from Blanchard to Falwell, Catholics developed a coherent, comprehensive tradition of social and political reflection. Catholic social thought includes a commitment to solidarity, whereby justice in a society is measured by the treatment of its weakest and most vulnerable members. And it incorporates the principle of subsidiarity—the idea that human needs are best met by small and local institutions (though higher-order institutions have a moral responsibility to intervene when local ones fail).

In practice, this acts as an “if, then” requirement for Catholics, splendidly complicating their politics: If you want to call yourself pro-life on abortion, then you have to oppose the dehumanization of migrants. If you criticize the devaluation of life by euthanasia, then you must criticize the devaluation of life by racism. If you want to be regarded as pro-family, then you have to support access to health care. And vice versa. The doctrinal whole requires a broad, consistent view of justice, which—when it is faithfully applied—cuts across the categories and clichés of American politics. Of course, American Catholics routinely ignore Catholic social thought. But at least they have it. Evangelicals lack a similar tradition of their own to disregard.

I found this comment insightful: "The evangelical political agenda, moreover, has been narrowed by its supremely reactive nature. Rather than choosing their own agendas, evangelicals have been pulled into a series of social and political debates started by others. "

One theological point Gerson importantly makes is how 19th century Evangelicals were mostly premillennialist who believed that the kingdom of God would arrive through human progress.  Evangelicals only became postmillennialist after the Civil War.  Postmillennialism believes in an apocalyptic end to human history when God will intervene with judgement.  He faults this apocalypticism for Evangelicals current political problems.

The difficulty with this approach to public life—other than its insanely pessimistic depiction of our flawed but wonderful country—is that it trivializes and undercuts the entire political enterprise. Politics in a democracy is essentially anti-apocalyptic, premised on the idea that an active citizenry is capable of improving the nation. But if we’re already mere minutes from the midnight hour, then what is the point? The normal avenues of political reform are useless. No amount of negotiation or compromise is going to matter much compared with the Second Coming.

He also points out historical mistakes that conservative Evangelicals made, such as opposing evolution, which has resulted in placing "an entirely superfluous stumbling block before their neighbors and children, encouraging every young person who loves science to reject Christianity."

Gerson believes that Trump stumbled upon a message that resonated with Evangelicals and their apocalyptic worldview.  And that the essence of his message was "Protecting Christianity, Trump essentially argues, is a job for a bully."

Near the end, Gerson passes harsh judgement upon Evangelical leaders:

It is remarkable to hear religious leaders defend profanity, ridicule, and cruelty as hallmarks of authenticity and dismiss decency as a dead language. Whatever Trump’s policy legacy ends up being, his presidency has been a disaster in the realm of norms. It has coarsened our culture, given permission for bullying, complicated the moral formation of children, undermined standards of public integrity, and encouraged cynicism about the political enterprise. Falwell, Graham, and others are providing religious cover for moral squalor—winking at trashy behavior and encouraging the unraveling of social restraints. Instead of defending their convictions, they are providing preemptive absolution for their political favorites. And this, even by purely political standards, undermines the causes they embrace. Turning a blind eye to the exploitation of women certainly doesn’t help in making pro-life arguments. It materially undermines the movement, which must ultimately change not only the composition of the courts but the views of the public. Having given politics pride of place, these evangelical leaders have ceased to be moral leaders in any meaningful sense.

He goes even farther in rebuking them for supporting Trump's racism. 

Americans who are wrong on this issue do not understand the nature of their country. Christians who are wrong on this issue do not understand the most-basic requirements of their faith.

Here is the uncomfortable reality: I do not believe that most evangelicals are racist. But every strong Trump supporter has decided that racism is not a moral disqualification in the president of the United States. And that is something more than a political compromise. It is a revelation of moral priorities.


For a package of political benefits, these evangelical leaders have associated the Christian faith with racism and nativism. They have associated the Christian faith with misogyny and the mocking of the disabled. They have associated the Christian faith with lawlessness, corruption, and routine deception. They have associated the Christian faith with moral confusion about the surpassing evils of white supremacy and neo-Nazism.

I appreciated his characterization of democracy:

Democracy is not merely a set of procedures. It has a moral structure. The values we celebrate or stigmatize eventually influence the character of our people and polity. Democracy does not insist on perfect virtue from its leaders. But there is a set of values that lends authority to power: empathy, honesty, integrity, and self-restraint. And the legitimation of cruelty, prejudice, falsehood, and corruption is the kind of thing, one would think, that religious people were born to oppose, not bless.

And his definition of faith: "At its best, faith is the overflow of gratitude, the attempt to live as if we are loved, the fragile hope for something better on the other side of pain and death."