LE Blog General

Crass Cartoon as a Capital Offense? Not in my classroom.


At least twelve people are dead in Paris because two brothers (maybe others as well) were so offended at a crass cartoon, lampooning their religion, that they decided execute some of their fellow countrymen.

Reactions from politicians and pundits alike have been swift, and responses will continue to trickle in in the coming days and weeks as suspects are apprehended, motivations and institutional ties are queried, and responses are considered.

I usually deal with lighter fare at Le Blog, but as we at LiberalEvangelical.org are a group dedicated to the open discussion of religious differences, especially among Evangelicals of a progressive bent, I thought I should weigh in. But I have absolutely nothing to say that others with more access and better credentials aren’t already saying about the situation in France. So I’ll relay a simple anecdote about something that happened in one of my World Religions classes a few years ago. All I want to do here is tell the story; I won’t offer much by way of commentary. I think the story speaks for itself. I’ll use only initials so as to protect the anonymity of my students. Suffice it to say that I wish the ethos of my classroom that day were a more common phenomenon throughout the world.

Several years ago (I believe it was the Winter term of the 2011-2012 school year.) in my Introduction to World Religions class, I experienced one of those classroom moments that will stick with me for the rest of my life. The thing is, it passed almost without notice and I’d be shocked if many of the forty or so students in that classroom that day even recall the incident. I used to end the first half of our semester with three days of student presentations on specific liturgical or ritual practices in the three Abrahamic faiths. This meant that groups of two to three students each had about fifteen minutes to do a short presentation on Sukkot or Purim, Pentecost or Lent, the Hajj or Ramadan. As is usually the case, the presentations were of mixed quality and I had to interject corrections or additions at times. I have since stopped using this assignment because it proved too ungainly as the class expanded to include Chinese traditions.

My 2015 New Year’s Resignations: random thoughts at this busy time of year

It’s the holiday season and New Year’s Resolutions take too much work (resolve) both to write and to enact. So for a few laughs and as an occasion for reflection I offer up the following 15 New Year’s Resignations for 2015. Feel free to join me LEs or ignore me and get back to celebrating with your family. You know you can turn this internet thing off, right?

1. Stop Presidential Primary Watching

Jeb Bush is in! I can’t help it. As a bit of a political junkie who usually lands somewhere in the middle of the two parties, I love it when both parties have primaries. But good grief!!! It sure seems early for this. So not this year! I won’t change the channel if it comes on, but no primary coverage binges for me in 2015. There will be plenty of time for wackiness in 2016.

 2. Stopping Abusing the Snooze

I don’t feel so bad about my 5:50 snooze to get up and start the coffee and turn up the heat, nor do I feel bad about the snooze that I use to wake our son. But the next two just make my wife angry. So here’s your new year’s present dear…two snoozes only during the week and maybe three on weekends.

 3. Stop Using the Penultimate Hymn as a Bathroom Break

With their colorful history you’d expect the Scots to have a more lively musical tradition, but alas. The Presbyterian hymnal is really fit only for funerals. Maybe it’s my Pentecostal upbringing raising its head, but I just can’t deal with four of those hymns per service. I usually manage to duck out for at least one, and blame it on a final cup of coffee. So this year, I shall stay in my pew and use the third hymn as an opportunity to fill out my check and tithe envelope instead.

 4. Stop Counting Hits and Wondering Why This Blog has so Many.

It’s been read 28492 times at last count, exponentially more than most of my posts. WHY? I’ve tried to figure it out, but can’t. It’s kept me up nights. And I still have no idea. So in 2015 I’m just going to let it go. So good-bye Josiah Bartlett, we miss your steady hand at the rudder of the ship of state.

 5. Stop the White Hairs.

Enough already. The “distinguished looking” stage should be sufficient.

6. Stop Plugging the Books.

What books you ask? Good Question! Lost in the Middle? Claiming an Inclusive Faith for Christians Who Are Both Liberal and Evangelical and Found in the Middle! Theology and Ethics for Christians Who Are Both Liberal and Evangelical, both by Wesley Wildman and Stephen Chapin Garner. They’re great reads and the impetus behind the website. Christmas or New Year’s presents?

7. Stop Pretending that I’ll Actually Do #6.

Ain’t gonna happen #6, so perhaps #7.

8. Stop the “us” Language in Regards to Euro/Western History and Culture.

This is the big one. Back when I was a youth minister in Needham, MA I challenged my Seniors not to give up something, but to change something for Lent. I’ll never forget what one of my kids, his name was Aaron, decided to try. For Lent, we decided to work on changing his language, specifically to stop using “gay” as a synonym for lame or stupid or boring. That Aaron was a profound seventeen year old. Language matters, perhaps more than we think, and I have some sloppy linguistic habits of my own that need breaking in 2015. One of the things that I habitually do when I lecture on World Religions is unreflectively use the first person plural family of pronouns (we, us, our, nos, notre, nous) when talking about Western religions and philosophical traditions. This is no longer a defensible verbal habit and it actually works to undo some of the lessons that I’m working to teach in that class by reinforcing boundaries that a good class in World Religions ought to tear down.

I do, however, reserve the right to use first person pronouns (I, me, mine, je, me, ma, mes) when talking about all things Southern. Ya’ll better just get used to it.

Liberal Evangelicals and Secularism

In Memoriam

The Political Career of Pauline Marois


 OK, so I’m not above a bit of shadenfreude. But did she ever deserve to lose! Even now, more than five months after her defeat, Montrealers are still giddy. “The air even feels different,” a former student told me when I ran into him at the IGA. What finally did in Marois was her insistence on a bigoted “Charter of Values” that would forbid government employees—and here in Quebec that means all teachers from Kindergarten through University—from wearing head scarves, yarmulkes, turbans and crucifixes. People have the right to know, her party argued, when receiving government services that they will not be discriminated against for religious reasons. In other words, she was trying to protect her largely rural, formerly catholic, and provincial population from ever having to encounter difference at the hospital, the university, the SAAQ or the courthouse. Secularism, as defined by Marois and her ilk, meant a robust freedom from religious difference. We are so lucky to be rid of her party’s particular form of bigotry and secularism…for now. But can we LEs do any better?

Secularism is coming to a small town and rural village near you, and no number of plastic 10 Commandments signs on the front lawn can stop it. The question is not whether secularism is coming—IT IS—but rather, what form will it take? My basic argument to you dear reader is that not only is secularism practically inevitable, but some forms of secularism are almost exactly in line with the larger aims of Liberal Evangelicals. The particular brand of secularism that I have in mind I call “Agnostic Secularism” and we should mobilize in our churches and voting booths to advance this variety of secularism. But perhaps more importantly, we should move beyond seeing secularism as a mere pragmatic necessity. Agnostic secularism is a great moral good, and LEs should be singing its praises far and wide. Allow me to go all Old Testament on you for a moment.

Liberal Evangelicals and the Realities of Ubiquitous Social Connectivity

We all know the general narrative that is spun around social connectivity; as the world becomes more socially connected we expect social barriers to fall. As activists around the world use twitter and youtube to break free from state sanctioned media and connect us to the common woman on the street, our local enclaves will melt away and we’ll all become one big Internet family. I can tweet a shout out to my blog followers on Monday, share a picture of my garden on Tuesday, help topple a corrupt regime on Wednesday, and work with my strange sister-n-law to post her dating profile on Thursday. What a world we live in. But I fear that this happy narrative is a lie. Allow me to share an extended anecdote. 

Twenty years ago this past summer I graduated from Ryle High School in Union, KY and prepared to head off to Transylvania University. My parents read LE blog and believe me, they are fighting tears because of that last sentence. I loved, ABSOLUTELY LOVED, my time at Transy. I sang in the choir, I played intermural sports, poorly. I joined a fraternity (no stories worth mentioning). I even managed to do some studying. It was the best four-year stretch of my life. But not everyone at Transy had the same experience. I had a girlfriend back home during part of that first year, and I wrote her occasionally and even drove home to visit every few weeks until she dumped me after her prom (wisest decision of your life S.N.). Despite the fact that I lived only an hour south of my parents and high school friends, I didn’t spend much time looking back. 99% of my thought and energy went into my new social and educational situation, but many of the people surrounding me didn’t break free. In 1994-1995 the Internet was just becoming a big thing. It wasn’t available in our dorm rooms until I was a sophomore, but we could e-mail and even have primitive chats in the computer labs. And these labs were frequently full of freshmen that would not or could not break free of friends and family back home. They lived and studied at Transy Monday through Friday but they went home whenever they had the chance. For many intents and purposes, they never really came to college. Their bodies were at Universities, their hearts and minds never left Harlan or Hazard or Dry Ridge.

Urbanization and Liberal Evangelicalism

No, it has nothing to do with Keith Urban. (Will the jokes be this bad all season?) It has to do with a seemingly irreversible trend in human history toward larger and larger social units. Data is spotty before 1950, but the evidence does seem to point toward some interesting trends. For millennia after human beings first left Africa and began to spread around the globe onto all of the continents save Antarctica, human population density may have fallen. The math is fairly easy to understand. As we spread out to inhabit more territory, our geographic reach outran our biological fecundity and our species may have lost ground in terms of population density; not that it mattered much at the time. For millennia after that, as our ancestors did the practical research that located good spots for finding 

Mr. Nicole Kidmann himselfgame and gathering food, we likely lived in small tribes as we spread out to exploit diverse niches around the planet. Population density likely stabilized for a long period. Then something unique happened in and around the alluvial flood plains of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Indus river, the Yellow and Yangtze rivers and the Nile river; in the geographical blink of an eye, we learned to stop chasing after our food (hunting and gathering) and learned how to make the food grow where we wanted it (agriculture and animal domestication). Not all ground is fertile, so populations living on farmed products tended to increase around fertile fields and lush grazing lands. The first permanent settlements were established as we dug in (literally) to make the soil give us bread (and beer!) The first cities were born. Recorded history covers only this short and recent period of relatively settled life and it seems that urbanization and written language go hand in hand, so it is in some sense fair to note that history as a human practice is in fact an urban phenomenon.

Fall Series 2014: The Future and Liberal Evangelicalism

Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, reintroduced a generation of Evangelicals to apocalyptic and eschatological themes that had been present in Evangelical movements from the beginning.  That book made a mark on the culture largely because it took current events, ripped them right off the front pages of the newspapers and overlaid them on the older venerable narrative of Dispensational theology. Evangelicals, since we are marked in part by a desire to keep our traditions vibrant and relevant, often find helpful this act of reading with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. (This turn of phrase has been attributed to Karl Barth, but an actual citation is difficult to nail down.) But of course it can lead us astray, as when Conservative Evangelicals pretend to be able to read current events as definitely with or against God’s will. That is exactly what Lindsey did in his book, read the events of Nixon’s America directly into the biblical narrative. The future, it seems, is a kind of blank canvas up which we are eager to paint our hopes, desires and fears, and Evangelicals have embraced this task with uncommon zeal.  Here in LE Blog, however, we’re going to do something a little different over the next few weeks and months. Here we’re going to try to look at the future with an honest and critical eye. Our goal is not so much prediction for the sake of prediction—we’re not wagering on sports after all—but rather self-criticism.  

Where are we headed and what can we expect the future to hold for Liberal Evangelicals? 

As a young man during the first Gulf War, I remember sitting on my bed talking to Jennifer George (my first major crush) on the telephone as we poured over Revelation together looking for clues that Saddam Hussein might be the antichrist. That was more than a bit silly. Here we will not be scouring Revelation for clues as to coming events. Instead, we will learn from the approach of social psychology and look to the future without recourse to naïve supernaturalism or special revelation. Our method will involve 1) using what we know about how people think and act in groups, 2) examining current social and technological trends and 3) hypothetically extrapolating from 1 and 2 in order to predict what the future might hold for us. Our goal is not so much to “get it right” but rather to use the exercise as an occasion for critical self-examination.  

My proposal: Over the coming weeks and months we’ll examine four separate social trends to which LiberalEvangelicals will have to respond, hopefully with wisdom and grace. None of these trends are unambiguously “good or bad” though some may portend well for Liberal Evangelicals and others may not. The important point is that these trends are likely here to stay, and we will have to respond and adapt as best we can without any guarantees of success.

A Separatist Peace?

A Timely Repost: Scotland Rejects Independence from the UK

Liberals of all kinds are in a tough spot at the moment. This is what happens when our moral intuitions get crossed up and our ethical instincts conflict with one another. The situation I have in mind involves separatism, and wherever you look it seems like separatism is in the air.

I’m an exceptional case here and I know it. I’m an Anglo-American living in Quebec (for the moment a province of Canada) with a best friend who’s an Anglo-American living in Catalonia (for the moment a province of Spain). So my ears are hyper-attuned to questions of separatism and independence, especially when these separatist movements are taking place in democratic societies. I hear talk of separation referendums in Scotland, Catalonia, Quebec, Crimea (Now apparently a done deal!), and yes even TEXAS, though the later is largely a joke. And just to confuse the issue a bit more, you should know that I’m American by birth, but Southern by the grace of God. In undergrad at Transylvania University I lived in a dormitory named after Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy and in high school I was for two years a proud Boone County High Rebel…and yes we flew the battle flag of the Confederacy at football games. So I know a thing or two about separatism and its potential costs.

The challenge for Liberals, is that we are almost always of two minds about separatism. The challenge for LiberalEvangelicals is that we are inextricably linked to a Gospel that challenges us to forgo our desire to be surrounded by folks of a similar mind and of similar ways in favor of a much more radical vision of Christian community, a vision of community in which difference is not abolished through separation, but transcended through common cause.

Absurdity and the Poultry Party

Break is over and it’s back to the grind here in the frozen north. Classes are beginning, the ice remains, and the relative absurdity of so much of evangelical culture in the U.S of A. persists…especially when viewed from another country. I’m writing, of course, about the newest poultry themed conservative evangelical obsession: the Chick-Fil-A day in support of Duck Dynasty.  Now frankly the story is just too absurd even for me, and this is coming from someone who revels in obscure Micheal Keaton references, so I recommend that you look quickly at the following story from the folks at NPR. Check back with me when you’ve gotten the gist and no cheating... 

…So there we have it, the end of Western Civilization must be nigh. But the silliness hides a serious issue, and it is that more serious issue that I want to address from a Liberal Evangelical perspective: the very idea of free speech and free religion and the all to common, though not entirely new, strategy of justifying bigotry and hate under the guise of free speech. So let’s state the matter clearly up front and then take the time to unpack the relevant issues.

The New Atheist Churches: Three readings

The Phenomenon 

No, it’s not a contradiction in terms. Church for Atheists is a growing movement, primarily in the Anglo world, but with the potential to spread rapidly especially in the West. I first heard about these folks in a Canadian edition of the Presbyterian Record where they earned a short note in Rev. Brad Child’s “Much to Learn” column. I’ve never been to one of their meetings, but I’m eager to go. I’ve only been able to get to know them through their website sundayassembly.com

Their motto is catchy: live better, help often, wonder more. And as a teacher of world religions I cannot help but ponder the deep congruencies between this motto and the basic precepts of so many of the world’s great religious traditions.  At their best, non-Fundamentalist versions of most of the major religions could support this simple call to self-cultivation, social responsibility, and existential and intellectual curiosity. Why then does this new phenomenon strike so many of us as odd? Is it just the notion of a non-religious religion that catches us off guard or is something else going on here?

Below I offer several divergent readings of this new movement; perhaps we can gain from considering them from several different perspectives.


A Refreshing Conversation

The other night, when my parents were visiting from Kentucky, we all sat around the table doing as Evangelicals do…talking about the Bible. Now in our house this is rarely your run of the mill conversation since my wife is a biblical scholar, teaches Greek, Latin and Coptic and knows Hebrew and German as well. But as we drank wine and sipped coffee after diner we got on the topic of our favorite and least favorite books of the Bible. 

Now let me be clear here about something. The very fact that all of us felt ok admitting that we have least favorite books of the Bible is not something that many Evangelical families would feel fine doing.  In fact, that talk around our table would never have happened if other members of our extended family had been present. Many Evangelicals simply feel strange admitting to having a least favorite book.  This is a bit odd since confessing to having a favorite biblical book is just the logical flipside of admitting that you have others that you like less, and therefore one or several that you like least.  Nevertheless, something feels almost dirty or a bit off for many Evangelicals when it comes to openly criticizing the Christian tradition or admitting that there are parts that we would rather see disappear. Why these nagging feelings? What holds us back?     

Christmas for Cynics

I’ve never been entirely comfortable with Christmas theologically. It’s a bit saccharine for my tastes. I prefer the parables and the passion narratives for their twists and unexpected inversions. And I’ve always liked the Moses and David cycles in the Hebrew Bible for their frank depictions of human foibles and failings. The Christmas stories in the Gospels just left me uninspired. Baby Jesus is too quiet, too cuddly, and too likable. (Frankly Mary and Joseph shouldn’t count as real parents if what the song says is true…”no crying he makes!”) Where is the existential angst, the challenge to received wisdom, and the startling reversals that make the mature Jesus such a pain in the side of the authorities? I’ve had a hard time over the years finding enough meat in the Christmas stories to sink my teeth into. Well, not this year, and my redemption came from an unexpected place: the Bishop of Rome.