A draft, and some random anger

From Growing Up Goddy on January 2, 2008.  Written in the wake of BlogDad‘s departure from the Christian faith, and in the context of gathering storms on my own horizon.

Of all my writing from this era, this is the one in the most need of revisiting (and I kind of knew it at the time, hence the title).

This gets read by a different circle of people who normally see my thoughts, although I’m going to clue a couple of them in that this is out there to read. I’m after unbiased takes and feedback, instead of “Pearson there there you’re so awesome things will get better” and crap like that.

Jeff’s soul-searching post caught me a bit off-guard, but not much. If I said that some of his chief concerns – especially when it comes to the inerrancy of Scripture – weren’t bugging the tar out of me, I’d be lying. I would dearly love to have one set of answers for the big questions about scripture, but those answers simply won’t come when you read about the conquest of Israel, or prophets of Baal being slaughtered. Honestly, they won’t even come when you read about Jesus having come not to bring peace, but a sword.

At the end of the day, though, the key thing that forms the center of the faith is the person of Jesus Christ. I believe that Christ was exactly who he said he was, and that the resurrection did in fact happen. The moment I buy into that, there is a host of other stuff that dwindles in importance, and life becomes a question of how to live knowing that this great teacher who lived two thousand years ago and revolutionized how an entire culture looked at religionis still alive and, we expect, is going to make his impact on this world made again.

It takes a whole load of those other questions and makes them very, very tiny, in my eyes. And it takes a whole ‘nother set of questions and makes them absolutely critical. Questions of the “how then shall we live?” variety.

And here is where the anger sets in.

If Jeff’s sole complaint was the intellectual angle, the frustration at the inconsistency of scripture, I’d happily bicker with him over the intellectual implications. Frankly, we’d have fun with it. I have no illusions about anybody winning or losing that argument, honestly; those questions demand faith decisions that you either agree to set your life upon or you don’t, and at the end of the day, you are the only one who can make a faith decision for your life.

But it’s not his only complaint. The mere existence of this blog – the mocking of Christian fiction, the explanation of elements of the culture for people who would are outside of it, for crying out loud, the whole statement of purpose – it all points to the fact that there is so much about American Christianity that simply doesn’t make sense. There may be things that are part of this culture that were thought of with the best of intentions (and he says, near and dear to his heart, “why should the devil have all the good tunes?“), but we have taken those good intentions and bastardized them relentlessly. To steal from Dwight Ozard, we have spiritualized commodity and we have we have commodified spirituality.

I’m going to begin to construct the argument that there is much about American Christianity that distracts from the person of Jesus Christ, rather than points to it. I began to type this out expecting to eventually move to my anger of the moment towards hypocritical Christians, but really, what’s the point? I’m as much of a hypocrite as anybody around me anyway, and because we exalt an Americanized, individual-glorifying mutation of the Christian [1] rather than Jesus Christ himself, we should not be surprised when Christians turn out hypocritical. The American church breeds hypocritical Christians. We are far more interested in people looking and acting the part of the True Believer than we are in the challenge of the life Jesus called us to.

This has gone on long enough, so I’ll shut up. The bottom line is, I have a hard time giving anybody grief about not wanting to have anything to do with Christianity when this is the example we’ve given them. Jesus Christ? Another matter entirely. I need the message of Jesus Christ. He paved the path to God, and I need to walk it.

But I honestly can’t help but believe doing so will require walking away from the church.

[1] Yes, that was way too easy. If you want, you can substitute this dig instead: an Americanized, individual-glorifying mutation of the Christian.

Not Just Science and Christians in academia

From Growing Up Goddy on August 20, 2007. 

I believe it’s entirely meet and appropriate to post here and say “y’know what, life intervenes, sorry ’bout that.” And it does. I won’t get into my own excuses, but they’re pretty good.

But if I’m going to toss an oar in, I’d better have something to chew on.

We were at an outlet mall in Gaffney, South Carolina, this past weekend – for reasons that involve a four-hour journey to fetch a car (see, I told you, pretty good excuses). The book store in the outlet mall was a wonderful treasure trove of old and new Christian books, almost exclusively Zondervan-published. And my wife, who knows me and loves me and understands my hardcore geekiness, dug a tome entitled Not Just Science out of the pile.

And, of course, my first response was: Egads, if I had known Zondervan was publishing textbooks

It’s not a standard softball Christian book. This is meant to be used in an undergrad curriculum, and I’d honestly be scared to turn it loose on some of my freshmen. It hits history of science, philosophy, theology, and ethics early and often, and rather than just diving in to “oooh look at all the cool questions scientists answer” from word go it sets up the issues at the interface of all the natural sciences and religious faith in general (and, of course, Christianity in particular). I’m not even close to digging into it in depth yet.

Part of the goal of such a book, in my view, is to begin to dialogue about “authentic Christian science”, and decide what that phrase might actually mean. And that’s a question that Christian higher ed institutions might see a reason to answer, and the fact that I work for one such institution [1] means that I feel like I have some responsibility to work on answering that question my own self.

Why is it important to be a “real true Christian” doing science? Is it for the sake of the diversity in scientific thought? To save the souls of the unbelievers working alongside you? For the sake of worshiping God through the analytical bent of my mind? To help rescue the mind of science from the dangers of secular liberalism (or, possibly, secular conservatism)? All of the above? None of the above?

Why is it important to be a “real true Christian” in any vocation, for that matter?

I have my own small set of answers, and they seem to be different from everybody else’s. I don’t know whether that’s right or wrong. I am confident that there’s a reason for me to be here in this place and time, though.

(Nothing too coherent, but at least a placeholder until better thoughts come along.)

[1] despite the fact that I DO NOT SPEAK FOR MY EMPLOYER; I DON’T GUARANTEE ANYTHING; I AM NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR ANYTHING; I DON’T KNOW ANYTHING; I DON’T EVEN EXIST!

(Hat tip to my old postdoctoral lab. I always thought that line was hilarious. I don’t know why.)

Dispatch from the fringe of the culture

From Growing Up Goddy on August 20, 2007.  Links to the churches deleted, because of SERIOUS linkrot.

I honestly wonder if it’s fair to call me an “ex-pat” of Christian culture. But I know it’s fair to say I’m not in it.

I’m looking at a church-attending schedule consisting of attending a smallish United Methodist church on Sunday mornings, and a new non-denominational church-plant a county over on Sunday evenings. I feel embraced by the Methodist church, but I don’t entirely fit in, the denomination is slowly but surely aging and dying, and I don’t feel totally invested in it. I yearn and hunger for the spiritual reality I see among the people engaging in the plant, but that depth of feeling isn’t there.

And honestly, I’ve just told you the story of my walk with Christ. It’s a good thing I’m supposed to be an alien and a stranger in this world, and that there is a time in another place where all things will be made right and I will see the fullness of God, because every attempt I’ve made to fit in this world somewhere has fallen flat.

One of the things that the three of us regulars here have in common is education. (And Eaton, I don’t care that your formal schooling isn’t as far along as the other two of us; you’re still one of the smartest and best-read people that I know.) I think between the three of us, we cherish the life of the mind and looking at all things in our world intellectually, including the Christian faith.

And one of the things that’s marked American evangelical culture has been anti-intellectualism. Hey, Jeff, what was that you were saying earlier?

I mean, it can be funny when Fark generates faked up logos and movie posters, but they’re doing it for kicks. Somehow, we convinced ourselves that wearing a T-shirt with the Reeces Pieces logo (but with Jesus, instead of Reeces!) was a daring, culture-jamming act of evangelism. It felt dangerous. It felt cool. In retrospect it’s kind of embarrassing: with two thousand years of history, a heritage of philosophy and world-shaping culture, and an explicit responsibility to care for the poor, is Christianity really reduced to gotcha-marketing? I don’t think so, but heck if that stuff doesn’t sell…

When I claim the title “evangelical”, it implies that I think getting you to buy into the Christian faith is important. It means I really want you to buy in to this idea, however unbelievable, that a man walked 2000 years ago claiming to be God hisownself, offended the religious establishment to the point of getting himself executed – by physically being nailed to a cross – on trumped up charges, and then bodily came back to life three days later. That’s not exactly an easy thing to convince your standard intellectual skeptic of. That’s a hard idea to sell. I still don’t understand how we thought we were selling it with Tommy Hellfighter t-shirts, or for that matter, with Stryper concerts, God bless Oz Fox.

And I still don’t understand how so many churches think it’s getting across now. The old-time gospel sing is a wonderful tradition, but good luck with getting anybody under the age of 50 in the door; there are only a couple of us geeks around anymore who think that music is of any value, and it’s very near time for me to acknowledge that I’m outvoted. Never mind that, even if an outsider wanted to break into that world, those old-school churches are so chock full of country-club exclusivity, dressed up in the clothes of mock humility and proper language, that the breach is too great.

So we go to the rock band in front of the church, and we go to the worship by experience and emotion and hand-waving and, in the right place, even more spiritual mumbo-jumbo. (The discussion of tongue-speaking and prophecy is probably best left for another time and place.) If you’re especially young, it is VERY easy to get caught up in the waves and leave your sense of logic behind. But when you wake up, has anything really changed? Isn’t there the same sense of exclusivity, the same requirement to speak the right language, the same need to impress? Now, instead of impressing by your dress, you’re impressing by your degree of emotional sell-out over your love for Jesus. And if you don’t show exactly the right spiritual gifting, you can be headed for the door here too, stuck on the outside, never benefiting from the deep fellowship that the thing promises.

I guess this wandering ends with me standing with Bono. I really still haven’t found what I’m looking for. I do tend to think that there are people who want to take this person of Jesus seriously, take the implications of Jesus’ life seriously, and actually transform their lives to be something different and greater than what it was before they understood who Jesus was. And if somebody could help me find them, and if we could all agree to help one another get to that better place, that would be awesome. Because I’ve been looking for a long time, and a lot of people say they’d like to be that, but the follow-through leaves a lot to be desired.

Bob Jones University Press

Posted on the Moveable Type chuck-pearson.org blog, as well as on Growing Up Goddy, Jeff Eaton’s experiment dealing with Christian culture ex-pats, on August 15, 2007.  (I was seriously delighted that the second link Jeff featured was Brant Hansen’s old blog Kamp Krusty.) This was my first piece on the site.

Following up on Jeremy‘s post on theology (!) in mathematics curricula, I thought it only appropriate to post a Christian education publishing house’s website, and Bob Jones University Press absolutely fits the bill for being a flashpoint for those of us who grew up in the church.

Most people who would happen on a site entitled “Growing Up Goddy” would know the history of BJU, immortalized in the Steve Taylor classic “We Don’t Need No Colour Code” (“B.J. went and got a school/founded on caucasian rule/bumper sticker on his Ford/says ‘Honkies If You Love The Lord'”). While Bob Jones University no longer has a policy against interracial dating, many of its Fundamentalist distinctions remain (most notably for me as a science teacher, the efforts of the school to supportcreationist ideas). So you might be understandably nervous about their homeschooling press.

Surprisingly (depending on your choice of curricula), it’s not awful. I have actually taught out of BJU’s high school chemistry text. It does have a great deal of the language about understanding God’s nature from the chemical world that set Jeremy off, and it doesn’t do what I’d really like for a Christian text in the sciences to do – point out people of faith who made key contributions to chemistry. (Of course, if you did that, you’d have to mention Michael Faraday, and based on my loose understanding of the history, Faraday’s Sandemanian sect was no friend of the Baptists, and that might be a whole new can of worms.)

But much of the fundamental chemistry, the book does well, especially the descriptive stuff, such as the periodic law and the nature of chemical bonding and chemical structure. I actually had homeschooled high-school students deeper into VSEPR theory off of that book than I was able to get college students on a competing college textbook, despite the fact that I only met the homeschooled students once a week (as opposed to three times per week for college students).

And here’s where it’s BJU Press (and most other homeschool publishing houses) FTW: I defy you to find another high school chemistry text for $37. Anywhere. That was the single biggest reason the homeschool cooperative I worked with adopted the book in the first place.

As long as they pound the competition on cost-effectiveness and pay a measure of attention to standard curricula, hyper-conservative presses like Bob Jones are going to continue to dominate the homeschooling world.

(Now, if the only text you’d ever seen was the biology text, I might understand you having a slightly less accomodating view.)

Mike Warnke, revisited

Originally from the Moveable Type chuck-pearson.org blog, July 6, 2007; crossposted to Growing Up Goddy on August 17, 2007.  Linkrot fixed left and right.

Here’s my moment of oh-dear-God-I’m-getting-OLD of the day:

Fifteen years ago, Cornerstone Magazine published an expose’ on “Christian comedian” Mike Warnke.

That very possibly is not a big deal to you. It’s huge to me. As Davan MacIntire puts it (in a comic that I identify way too much with), “I didn’t have a lot of options when it came to entertainment during my ‘I Love Jesus So Much I Annoy My Christian Parents’ stage. It was basically Warnke or Carman, and Warnke was the one who didn’t sell $150 tour jackets.”

(Apparently, Carman still does good business.)

There’s a great deal I could write here for the uninitiated, but I think the best person to tell you about who Warnke was is a just-shy-of-21-year-old USENET poster from 1992, who went by the moniker “clueless chuck”:

Mike Warnke is/was a prominent Christian comedian who based his entire ministry on his assertion that he was at one point in time a high priest in a Satanic cult and he turned his life completely over to the Lord. He wrote a book over this “experience” called The Satan Seller (which became a prominent reference text in many circles on how Satanic cults operate) and gave his testimony in many locations over the last 20 or so years, winning many people for the Lord.

It would appear that Mike Warnke’s testimony is a lie.

In retrospect, I can totally see how I should have been skeptical of the joker from day one. Let this be known up front: the dude was FUNNY, and funny in ways you had to hear and see to get. He could DELIVER a punch line with perfect timing, tell a brilliant story to capture you, and then (and this is key, I’m finding) turn the story on a dime and go into full-on preach mode. When I was a college-radio DJ and VERY young in my Christian life, Mike Warnke skits and stories were a staple of my radio programs for a time, because they could make you laugh AND make you think. Or, perhaps, manipulate your thoughts.

I think part of why I didn’t see through Warnke’s act and start asking questions was because I was so young, though. I mean, you can see my youth in my first USENET post about Warnke; I talk about “one of my heroes, Mike Warnke, a Christian comedian who God has built an incredible ministry on over the past few years…” It’s so easy to take common American hero-worship and spin the Christianese on it to make it sound like something more profound and important than hero-worship. You can so easily get wrapped up in the larger-than-life preacher or comedian or artist and forget that he’s just this guy, and guys screw up. And in American celebrity – even celebrity in the Church – so much of the life they live is behind closed doors, and you have no way of knowing who’s straight-up and who’s screwed up.

As I think about it, Mike Warnke’s downfall was a defining moment in my early Christian walk. It took the dangers of celebrity and placed them front and center in a way I wasn’t expecting, and forced me to respond to them.

And it did something else – it put in front of me honest, thinking Christians who were willing to take time to talk to a 20-year-old punk explain to him, in words of one syllable, what exactly they were doing and why, in a way that has never ceased to amaze me.

One of the people who responded to my initial call-for-information on the rec.music.christian newsgroup was Eric Pement, who was at the time editor to Jon Trott and Mike Hertenstein, the authors of the original Cornerstone Magazine article. I immediately struck up an e-mail conversation with Eric, and explained (in very schoolboy ways) why I was skeptical – and he wrote back, and was very gracious in pointing me towards free access to the article, its sidebars, and other documents (and I’m still in awe of the 170 footnotes Cornerstone mag published with the article…the thing was a MASTERPIECE of documentation).

And what really hit me was when I wrote back, after doing all the reading and coming to the conclusion that the Cornerstone article was right, how Eric responded with RIDICULOUS humility. My recollection after 15 years might be bad (it’s a bit difficult to save e-mails for that long), but I got the sense that even with that weight of evidence, he’d gladly retract the story the next day if somebody would come forward with concrete evidence that Warnke really had led a coven of 1500, or been ANY level of decadent he’d claimed to be in The Satan Seller, instead of a standard late 60’s square.

He was just as much of a skeptic as a scientist was supposed to be, in other words; he had his hypothesis, and he sought out any way that it might be wrong. He was a brilliantly critical journalist. And he was far more theologically sound than anybody I had ever communicated with across the internets.

In retrospect, there’s a lot about the type of Christian I’ve become at this point in my life that was informed by those e-mails with Eric Pement, and I really owe the guy a measure of thanks. (I stumbled across Eric’s homepage while typing this up. It’s kind of cool for the geek in me.)

There are probably more stories to be told about my former life in USENET, but this has been on my mind all day and pretty much needed to get into words.