Bourbon Cowboy

The adventures of an urbane bar-hopping transplant to New York.

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Location: New York, New York, United States

I'm a storyteller in the New York area who is a regular on NPR's "This American Life" and at shows around the city. Moved to New York in 2006 and am working on selling a memoir of my years as a greeting card writer, and (as a personal, noncommercial obsession) a nonfiction book called "How to Love God Without Being a Jerk." My agent is Adam Chromy at Artists and Artisans. If you came here after hearing about my book on "This American Life" and Googling my name, the "How to Love God" book itself isn't in print yet, and may not even see print in its current form (I'm focusing on humorous memoir), but here's a sample I've posted in case you're curious anyway: Sample How To Love God Introduction, Pt. 1 of 3. Or just look through the archives for September 18, 2007.) The book you should be expecting is the greeting card book, about which more information is pending. Keep checking back!

Monday, July 31, 2006

Q. Why For Dave No Write?

A. Because again I've got no Internet at home. The hell with you, Time Warner! I'd totally move to another provider if you didn't have a monopoly on cable service and I had money! Alas, we have to accept the world as it is. But that doesn't mean you don't suck.

Tonight I'm going to my first storytelling slam. I'll be back with as full a report as I can manage, given my diminished logging hours. I'm sure Time-Warner deeply regrets the inconvenience.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Girls Hoping to Get In To See Letterman

Taken around 57th at 11th Avenue. (And yes, this was during my protest.)

Tom Wilson Is Clearly Drunk

Wow. There's lame, and then there's unbelievably, incomprehensibly bad. See this Comics Curmudgeon post to watch Ziggy make a joke that's an entire decade out of date.

This is why every cartoonist should be forced to take a humor test every five years to avoid being exterminated. Mort Walker and Johnny Hart have never been funny enough to deserve multiple cartoons each; there's certainly no reason for their kids to inherit the sinecure. And now this. Yeesh.

Later: It's been pointed out that this is being billed as "Classic Ziggy." So I guess you're supposed to read this and say, with a touch of fondness, "Remember the time we all laughed at the O.J. trial?" I repeat: it's not funny, and someone was clearly asleep at the switch. Oy.

Bar Napkin Cartoon 6


Bar Napkin Cartoon 5

This is the best picture I could take, for some reason. Sorry for any eyestrain. Clicking on the picture should make it grow bigger. The next one's much easier to read.


Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Computer Printers Say The Most Self-Evident Things

Taken at work today, at 3:59 p.m.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Lunchtime Brief

Nothing to post today so far, because instead of writing I've been reading Karen Armstrong's The Spiral Staircase---her story about going from being a nun to being an atheist to becoming a popular religion writer. It's been utterly absorbing to me, which I guess should surprise no one. I may not post later tonight, either, because after work I'm going to a freelancer's meet-and-greet under false pretenses, because I think it's supposed to be for actual freelance writers, not freelance-and-in-house editors who want to be freelance writers. But I e-mailed that with my RSVP and they put me on the list anyway. Thank god The Atlantic is still good for a name-drop.

But just so I post something, I urge you to read this post on perceived media bias. Between this article and Armstrong's book---Armstrong, like me, has a loving relationship with her siblings, all of who turned out very different from her and had very different perceptions of their family growing up---I'm thinking a lot about the subjectivity of perception, and how to communicate through it. That's why you should read it. Plus if you don't, I'll poop in your mouth.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Trying Hard to Look Like Gary Cooper, That's Me

I'm out of here, and may not post until tomorrow because tonight there's a FREE showing of "High Noon" in Bryant Park, just ten blocks north of where I'm sitting. (By New York blockage, that's literally a five minute walk.) The catch: it's apparently really crowded, and people start saving seats at 5 p.m. for a show that goes on at sundown (between 8 and 9 tonight). I'm bringing a book and planning to hunker. If you hear from me later tonight, you know I got tired of waiting and thought, "Fuck it; I'll just buy the DVD." But I almost can't resist the idea of sticking it out. Who else is even gonna be wearing a cowboy hat? The genre deserves me to be there.

But since I'm leaving and it may be many hours before my next post, this is as good a time as any to note the following discovery: I ride the same bus every day, and it takes the same route every time, and you'd think I'd be accustomed to everything I see. But today I noticed something I hadn't noticed before, for some reason: At Lexington and 77th (too far, alas, for my camera to capture), there's a store called Pick-A-Bagel, and up above the store sign is a smaller sign announcing, "All baking done on promises."

I do that too. It's so much easier than baking based on results. And on that I leave you.

I'm Not Married, I Have Never Been to Latvia, and I'm Not Running For The U.S. Senate

I'm just saying.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Napkin Cartoon Caption Contest!

I drew this and it came out so beautifully that I was afraid to touch it further until I'd come up with a joke worthy of the drawing. So what do you folks think? He needs a thought balloon or a caption or something. Send a comment and let the riffing begin!

By the way, my own favorite idea for the cartoon would be to have a box above his head reading "Mike's Worst Enemies--" and then, underneath the picture in sort-of-typeset font: "Fig. 1 . Mike. " But I couldn't fit the header on the napkin, so it's blank for now.

Bar Napkin Cartoon 4


Bar Napkin Cartoon 3

I drew a lot of bar-napkin cartoons last night, and it struck me that if I'm going to post them all I should probably start numbering them so I don't just call them all "Yet Another Cartoon I Drew on a Bar Napkin." So here's number three. Number one is here and number two is here.


Saturday, July 22, 2006

Abandoned Dog

Doggie day spa, 9 p.m. On Hudson just south of 14th St.

Is This Meme On?

At least a third of Internet traffic these days---and two-thirds of MySpace---seems to be devoted to "memes," where someone will post a survey with a whole bunch of questions, answer them, and then pass them on in the hopes that you will answer them as well. It's allegedly a way for all your friends to get to know you, but the more of them I get, the more they look like timewasters for people who are in college. I predict another spike in this behavior in fifty years when everyone who's doing this now suddenly retires.

Normally I avoid participating in memes---for one thing, I really don't have time, and for another, they're rarely particularly informative ("6. What are you Wearing Right Now? A. Jeans and a t-shirt"). But the other day a friend of mind sent one out that looked really fun. The gimmick is this: You pick a band that you love and answer the questions only in titles from their songs. For example, my friend chose heavy-metal band Pantera, and in Question 3, "Describe yourself," she answered "Hellbound, Proud to Be Loud, Fucking Hostile," et al.

I couldn't resist, so I caved. Here's the first meme I believe I've ever responded to.

1. Choose a band / artist and answer ONLY in titles of their songs: I choose ? and the Mysterians, who rose to prominence in the early sixties with the great proto-garage anthem... (wait for it...)
2. Are you male or female: 96 Tears
3. Describe Yourself: 96 Tears
4. How do some people feel about you: 96 Tears
5. How do you feel about yourself: 96 Tears
6. How do you feel about ex boyfriends/girlfriends: 96 Tears
7. Describe current boyfriend/girlfriend/crush: 96 Tears
8. Describe where you want to be: 96 Tears
9. How do you feel about your friends: 96 Tears
10. Describe how you live: 96 Tears
11. Describe how you love: 96 Tears
12. What would you ask for if you had just one wish: 96 Tears
13. Share a few words of Wisdom: 96 Tears
14. Now say goodbye: 96 Tears (Extended Remix)

[Afternote: the friend in question---hi, metalchica!---said "I knew you were gonna do 96 Tears!" Which stunned me, because it took me a lot of figuring to get there. I actually really wanted to do some singer with only two real hits---someone like Eddy Grant ("Electric Avenue" and "Romancing the Stone") or Bonnie Tyler ("Total Eclipse of the Heart" and "It's a Heartache"), do the first one a dozen times, and end on the second one. (Or put the second one in the second-to-last position, for a better climax.) But all of these artists---and most one-hit wonders---really do have other songs in their catalog, and it would be disingenuous to pretend, let's say, that you're a Chris deBurgh fan and then answer everything with "Lady in Red" and "Don't Pay the Ferryman." For the integrity of the joke, I wanted someone who literally wrote and performed only two songs, both of which were famous. I couldn't think of any. So that left "96 Tears" the most famous song I'm aware of by a band that was created just to perform the song. Anyway, I'm thrilled to know that my friend knew me better than I know myself. Maybe these memes really do help spread knowledge!]

Friday, July 21, 2006

Direct Advertising

Sign on 40th Street and 8th Avenue.

I'm Back, Baby!

Eschewing yet another potentially flawed (and expensive) wireless adapter (which turns out to run around $60-75 if you want quality), I went the direct route, bought a $20 cord, and now I'm connected directly to our cable system---and at full speed, which never happened when I was connecting through my Cretaceous 1.1 USB port. When I got online I actually giggled and swung my legs. I had no idea how stressed out I'd been. I'll be smiling all evening. The long dark night has ended. Dawn is here, and it will continue shining until one of my roommates trips.

Free Dave's Strangled Muse!

Light blogging today because I'm going around the corner to Office Depot to purchase a new wireless adapter in the hopes that I can finally get online at home again. I was trying to fix my old one, but when I called Netgear, they said, "Your product is over 90 days old, so you can either go online and send us an e-mail service request, or you can get premium customer service for $31 a year." And I thought, "The goddamn adapter only cost $8 to begin with." So I'm splurging for a higher-end device---say, $31 or so?---and with any luck it'll actually work. In a worst-case scenario, I picture the problem being some Windows configuration error which will either be fixed/reset when I install the new adapter, or (in any event) fixable online since my new thing falls under warranty. If this happens, I guarantee a sudden, insane amount of posting, just because I can. And that's why I'm not blogging a lot today---I'd rather go out immediately to try to get back online than stay here at work and delay my release from cruel circumstance.

In the meantime, why not take a look at this article in Newsweek, where a regular religious columnist wonders, "Why are atheists so angry?" But your reading is not complete until you also read the responses from readers section that goes with it. I found it all really interesting. (And for my money, the short answer is, "If you think all atheists are angry, you're probably mostly talking to college students, who are the loudest, angriest atheists I know because they're still trying to piss off their parents. Either that, or you're talking to people like me and you're confusing weary, beleaguered impatience with anger. They're not quite the same thing.")

I'm off to purchase. Wish me luck!

Thursday, July 20, 2006

...And Now I'm Self-Conscious About Titles

Two weeks ago at my favorite dive bar in Manhattan (The Patriot, on Chambers at Church between the A and 1 lines), a bartender/actress/comedienne told me "Did you know there's a whole storytelling scene in New York? You'd probably like it." She gave me a number to call---a woman named Sherry, who hosts biweekly storytelling shows---and Sherry, in turn, invited me to see a sample show and then arrange for a tryout if I still wanted to perform.

I was hopeful, but nervous, because if you Google "storytelling"---or, for that matter, listen to too much NPR---you'd be justified in suspecting that storytellers are mostly itinerant hippies just a branch or two over from Renaissance Fair magicians in the Geek Family Tree. Every time I hear a storyteller on NPR (not on This American Life, but as a guest on Morning Edition or some such), they seem a little overeager, a little loud, and slightly too artful to be truly believed. It's clear from the usual mode of presentation that they're geared to winning over rather large crowds with highly structured, slightly corny stories in poorly miked venues. Since my work is more like a comic reading, this wasn't really what I was after, and I definitely never want to be billed alongside a guy retelling a Navajo creation myth who uses all the voices.

So I went to Brooklyn to see the show at a place called Night and Day. (This was, by the way, my first intentional trip out of Manhattan, since I'm not counting the time I hopped on the E going the wrong direction, then overcorrected and wound up just taking the F even further into what was either Brooklyn or Queens. It all looks the same if you never leave the tunnels.)

It was perfect. These were real people telling real, amusing and touching stories. And while they obviously cared about their craft, much of the craft also seemed to involve making it look artless, so there were no overdramatic sound effects or big eyes and show hands or any of that. As it happened, the two best stories were told by older men---who, I was later told, are the two best storytellers in Manhattan---who both turned out to be ex-hippies. But both of them used this as a springboard for irony: these were my ideals, and then the world surprised me. (I'd go into more detail, but I've only got ten minutes left on my lunch hour.) From talking to the performers afterward---and there were eight performers, and five of them were amazing, and no one was less than engaging---I learned that the center of the scene is an organization called The Moth, which divides its time between two venues, and which holds storytelling slams every two weeks. The next one's July 31st, and just try to stop me from going.

The downside, of course, is that there's simply no money in this---it's not like someone's gonna see me and offer me a show on Comedy Central. But having done comedy, and having seen this, I realize that that bartender was right about me: I'm much happier hanging around storytellers than I am comedians. Because, for one thing, to be a good storyteller---to tell a truly satisfying anecdote---you have to have some real human feeling, and a sense for what moves us to smile or wince. Comedians, by contrast, can often make entire careers out of neurotic, unexamined reaction formations. No one ever accused someone of using storytelling as a defense. For another thing, the crowds are much more attuned to my rhythm and my style. Whenever I was doing stand-up, I was artificially amping myself up to get an audience's attention, and I always felt, "If I do what I really want, it won't be commercial enough to attract the average bar crowd." I don't have that fear among this crowd, and I really can't wait to test my chops. It's too early to tell, of course, but this scene feels very, very tantalizingly like home.

Monday, July 17, 2006

What Happened This Weekend

Turns out my lack of online access is Time Warner's fault. Things should be fixed tonight or tomorrow. That's why I was unable to post this weekend. Sorry, y'all!

Friday, July 14, 2006

Oh no! Entertainment!

This contains the funniest review---well, let's call it an assessment---of Wordplay I've yet seen. And while I sort of understand the point of the site, I have to ask: are children really this sensitive to everything? How do any of them ever survive Story Time?

(Thanks to Trip, star of the movie, for pointing me to it via LiveJournal.)

Coming Soon...

I can't post it now, because work is about to start, but I have a new vocabulary poem which may be my favorite one of all. Check back at noonish.

Oh, and the boat ride yesterday was wonderful and hanging with my coworkers turned out to be one of the best nights I've had in New York. I'm really glad I went.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Two Other Small Things, Since It's Lunch

First, everyone who essayed an answer to my elevator puzzle got it right: The elevator is missing the L parts of the 8 in its digital floor display. Which means, I noticed last night, that I can't tell if the first floor is supposed to be a 1 or an L (for lobby). All I know is, it's blank.

Second, I have barely updated today because an agent has requested my manuscript (Travels With Ritalin) be mailed to him as a Word file, and I don't have Word. So I spent most of my lunch hour translating my WordPerfect document into Word, and then replacing all the weird symbols with quotes, dashes, italics, etc. Thank god for Find And Replace!


Don't have time to do much but check in today, since work starts in five minutes and after work, instead of blogging, I'll be going on some sort of DJ'ed cruise down the Hudson River with a few people from work. Might be fun, might suck. But it'll keep me out late.

In a way, this may be just as well, because I was alarmed to discover last night that my wrists were hurting and my fingers were tingling, which are signs of carpal tunnel. I know this, because I had carpal tunnel ten years ago and it took a long time to make it stop. Apparently between this new typing-intensive job and my own tireless blogging, the condition bids fair to return if I'm not careful. So a day off is probably in order anyway.

But I also want to point out, publicly, to Mark, a few things that need clarifying: 1.) You didn't hijack the blog; in fact, you raised exactly the kinds of questions I was hoping to have an excuse to address at exactly the time that I was interested in writing on the topic of evangelicalism. In many ways, I could not have asked for a better interlocutor, since you are both fiercely evangelical and fiercely intelligent. 2.) You didn't keep me late at work: I've been staying late at work because I don't have an Internet connection at home for the moment. If I had such a connection, I would have gone home and ... wrote on my blog for hours and hours! Where I do it from really doesn't matter. Every sentence i wrote last night contributed to the book I'm hoping to create out of all this. So 3.) Thanks! (and 4.) a capacity to apologize is a wonderful human trait, isn't it? Apology accepted.)

Finally---dang, how time flies!---i don't even have time to link to it, but Washington Monthly pointed out recently that the Supreme Court ruling in the Hamdai case---which, you'll recall, finally went against the Bush administration's desire to keep due process out of the hands of anyone they really hate---went specifically against the claims of the Bush administration that 1.) Congress implicitly gave Bush permission to prosecute the "war on terror" by any means necessary, and in any event 2.) doing what the President deems necessary is one of the powers granted to him in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. Which, as it happens, are the exact same two arguments that Bush is using to defend his wiretapping! So if it goes to trial, it looks like we can count of 5 of the Supreme Court justices to turn down this argument too, and restore our system of checks and balances. Thank God. Only took five goddamn years, but maybe I'm finally getting my country back in non-spying, non-torturing, basically non-illegal form. If things keep going this way, soon I might even travel without pretending to be Canadian.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Art, Homosexuality, and Silent Women: Another Response to Mark

I promised I was going to try to keep this religious conversation from running away with the site, and doggone it, I even managed a few lighthearted posts yesterday. But Mark wrote a long comment on my last post, and since I knew it was apt to offend people, I also knew I had to reply. Which is why I'm still at work at 6:30. (God, I need my computer fixed!)

I hope you'll forgive me, Mark, but I didn't quote everything because I didn't see a need to.

Quoth Mark:
I also appreciate your point about the lack of an understanding of art (and ambiguity) within evangelical circles. Too many are afraid to even step into an art museum - no wonder our most well known painter is Thomas Kinkade. John Grisham is looked down upon by many (most?) evangelicals because even though his works often point to God, they also contain words like "hell" and "damn" and maybe even worse swear words. Plus he's "sold out" to a non-christian publisher! But even Grisham's works aren't great literature, destined to become classics. If we want to impact our culture, we need to get involved in the arts again in a positive and constructive way, not just complain when something we don't like gets funded or called "important" in some way.

I wish I had your optimism, but honestly---I was a writer and an evangelical, and I finally came to the conclusion that the reason there’s no art in the evangelical church is that art 1.) reflects reality in hopefully uncompromising ways, and 2.) expresses itself through ambiguity, irony, and other hard-to-pin-down ways. You can't change the way evangelicals think. The only way to survive is to specialize in abstraction (musicians do quite well) or take your words and leave.

This brings us back to hell, actually. You said in an earlier post that you believe in gray areas. I believe you. No one who lives and adjusts their thinking to the world can fail to believe in gray areas. What I object to in your worldview is that you don’t believe in nearly enough gray areas, and the gray areas you (or evangelicals anyway) do believe in are usually ones that haven’t successfully been extinguished or are otherwise eternally obdurate. (i.e, anything the Bible doesn’t strictly or clearly address.) And that’s not an accident. If there is a hell, and God holds you accountable for your actions with a heaven-or-hell carrot and stick, then ambiguity is irrelevant and unhelpful. Ambiguity is, in fact, potentially dangerous. And celebrating ambiguity, or communicating with irony, is positively perverse, and why would any concerned Christian want to do that? So fuck art. How’s that going to help anything in the long run? Give me another of those John 3:16 hats, which might actually spread a message! The only people who are evangelicals and artists are the ones who haven’t taken hell seriously enough. (Or, possibly, put in a few hours of witnessing and then paint on the side to relax, as a form of prayer or meditation.) Or---and this is my repeated point---they’ve embraced art by allowing commonsense decency to override the clear demands of the Bible. Because the Bible really doesn't give a damn about it.

The classic example of this I can remember is when I was listening to the book-on-tape version of Left Behind. (Morbid fascination is why; no fair laughing!) And in the very beginning of the book, it’s clear that our hero, Rayford Steele, is a man with an unhappy marriage (because, you know, he’s too busy with work) who is tempted to have an affair with a flight attendant he works with. As it’s described, they’ve never slept together, they kissed once, and she’s trying to lead him to something further. And as the scene unfolds, she flirts with him … and it’s laughably unconvincing. At first I thought, Gosh, he's a bad writer. But then I realized that he was literally, morally compelled to write a shitty temptation scene. Because, of course, if you actually, successfully created a scene that caused sexual tension, you’d be inciting your readers to lust! That's a sin, Paul says not to cause people to stumble, I must write poorly: QED. This failure to want to experience the world not only hobbles its art, but also hinders the evangelical from really understanding other people. Because you can’t understand other people without risking being moved to change, and Finding An Unassailable Place Of Truth To Never Move From is the evangelical’s job number one. Because, you know, there’s hell.

Regarding homosexuality, I think you have come to the wrong conclusion about the Bible making you a bigot. [Much offensive material snipped, but read the original comment if you're curious.]

Actually, I’m dead right in my conclusion, and your post essentially proves it. By worrying about what is and isn’t sin, I discovered I was completely shutting myself off from how homosexuals might actually feel, and I was also blinding myself to the fact that, just possibly, my interpretation of the Bible might be a little off. (When I had enough of this jarring evidence that the Bible was leading me wrong, I eventually had to jettison the Bible altogether. But there are plenty of people who consider themselves devout and Bible believing who would disagree with you. It sounds impossible, I know, but I’ll give you a few tips in that direction after this next paragraph. But I have to lay some groundwork first.)

I’m composing a whole post about this for later, but let me say that your assertion that sexual sin is just like any other sin is completely disingenuous: I heard it for years, nodded along with it myself, and it’ll pass muster in a Sunday school. But it’s a empty piety that utterly fails in the face of reality, as you would know if you’d ever tried to, say, change your orientation by sheer force of will. Sex is not like other areas of sin. As C.S. Lewis points out, sexual sin is the only sin for which there is an actual healthy biological urge. I’m not naturally driven to murder anyone. Thievery is a learned skill, but I can live without it. Alcoholism may be genetic, but if you remove the alcohol from an alcoholic, they stop being an alcoholic. But someone who rejects sex is automatically removed from the gene pool. We’re all in the gene pool, so there’s millions of years of biological investment driving us, often with incredible intensity. And nothing stops us from being sexual beings, or allows us to turn our sex lives on and off. Even Jesus, if he was human, had morning wood and wet dreams. And sex is also central to our lives. (If heterosexuality were a sin, would you feel that "not practicing it" with a consenting adult really made you more lovable to God? "God loves you. Now never come anywhere close to doing what you want, and for that matter, try not to want what you want in the first place.")

Now, as for homosexuality in the Bible. The Bible doesn’t call homosexuality a sin. Paul calls homosexuality a sin. Paul also says women should keep their heads covered in church and if they have any questions about the service they should just shut up and ask their husbands when they get home. (Single women are just supposed to remain ignorant until marriage, one assumes.) As you yourself note, lots of evangelical churches ignore bits of Paul as a matter of course for a simple reason: some of his stuff is crazy bullshit that makes no sense nowadays. Of course women can talk in church! If the only reason you believe something is because Paul said it, you should look twice and cover your ass.

The Bible as a whole doesn’t call homosexuality anything at all, because there wasn’t really a word for it until around the time of Freud. In a way, you must know this, because trying to find verses about homosexuality in the Bible is really, really difficult. But when it is touched upon in the Old Testament, it’s generally regarded as an unclean pagan practice---this is why it’s not in the Ten Commandments, but it is listed in a series of “abominations” that render you unfit to go to Temple. (Alongside having sex with a woman who’s menstruating and wearing two different kinds of fabric.) It's not evil; it's just not something that we Jews do. (This was before Harvey Fierstein.)

Sodom and Gomorrah, weirdass story that it is, is ultimately about God cursing a town that violated the rules of hospitality. I heard that point parodied as “the dumb thing liberals believe” long ago and scoffed. (“Hospitality? What a weak-ass sin compared to gang rape!”) But then I did the research. In desert cultures, as you may know, the rule of hospitality requires that you take in anyone who needs shelter---even your enemy. Why? Because being left on your own in the desert is a death sentence, and a mutual awareness of this---the assurance that everyone can count on everyone else for at least food, water, and shelter---is essential to keeping the society going. Many of the early Old Testament stories are often lessons about hospitality---such as that bit in Judges where Jael kills the enemy king Sisera with a tent peg while he’s sleeping in her tent. We read that and say, “Hooray, Jael! And what the hell was Sisera thinking?” But we’re supposed to read it and think, “My god, the time of Judges was a time of moral chaos! We need a king like David!” So similarly the judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah was a judgment not so much on the exact nature of their sexual practices, but the fact that the town demanded that the host violate the rules of hospitality.

Again, I scoffed at this, but then it was pointed out to me that Jesus only mentions Sodom and Gomorrah once---and the context is hospitality. When the disciples are sent out to go spread the gospel, Jesus tells them, “if a city won’t receive you, shake the dust off your shoes and never return. I tell you, it’ll be better for Sodom and Gomorrah in that day than it will for the city that rejects my disciples.” (I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the sense.) It is clear from the context that Jesus seems to have understood the primary sin of Sodom and Gomorrah as one of making evil choices in accepting or rejecting wanderers---otherwise, why would he have used this example at all? (And the connection was presumably so clear to the disciples that it didn’t need to be underlined.) Jesus had plenty of opportunity to talk about sexual sin and he never mentioned Sodom and Gomorrah at all then.

This, by the way, is the kind of thing I kept finding out when I was reading “liberal” Bible scholars: they routinely came up with answers that actually explained the textual evidence better than what I wanted to believe going in. By comparison, my beliefs always seemed to raise questions that were usually answered more glibly than thoroughly.

And by the way, I’m not suggesting that the Bible says homosexuality is groovy. But I think that it’s very interesting to note that the Bible doesn’t hate homosexuality nearly as much, or anywhere near as often, as evangelicals want the Bible to hate it. That hatred (or intolerance or discomfort or whatever) comes from somewhere, and I’ll lay you odds it comes from the fact that an unrepentant homosexual is an ambiguity that it is essential to erase in the name of moral clarity. (To restate a point I’ve already made several times: evangelicals constantly hunger for more moral clarity than the Bible actually provides.)

Your latter assertions about working women are so bizarre to me that I can’t even bring myself to answer them in detail (you took a metaphor from Titus and turned it into a rule and a cornerstone?). So let me go somewhere very practical. About half of the readers of this blog, and most of my best friends, are gay. I’m sure that if I pressed you about whether you love homosexuals, you’d say the standard fundy boilerplate: “I love the sinner but hate the sin.” So look at those last few paragraphs you wrote and ask yourself; how loved do you think the gay readers of those paragraphs feel? How respected? How understood? If you’re reading like a real outsider, you’ll see that you come across as someone who might want to love gay people, but are far more concerned about the dangers of too much acceptance. Or that you might want to understand, but you’re afraid to move from the ground the Bible has cleared for you. Or that you’re seething with intolerance and can barely manage a few civil-sounding words couched in Bible-ese. But actual love doesn’t come across, and adult people aren’t stupid. We know acceptance when we feel it. My recommendation to you is that you not post on the subject of homosexuality again until you 1.) have made a gay friend and 2.) helped him or her through a romantic problem to a happy ending.

One more thing: Evangelicals have a terrible habit---as I think I’ve pointed out before---of saying, “This isn’t my opinion! This is just what the Bible compels me to believe!” That’s bullshit. It may be soothing to your conscience, but it’s bullshit. Do you demand women cover their heads in church? Do you demand silence from your wife until the drive home? I’m guessing not. I’m guessing that little things like common decency overrode your desire to take the Bible’s word on that, so you imported a little bit of context (“When Paul said women should be quiet, he was talking only about a single church in a specific region,” etc.) that the plain text doesn’t support, and sighed with relief over not having to believe that one weird thing, while simultaneously failing to import the same common decency to other passages that would help you be (from my perspective) a little more compassionate. Hell is a good example. 95% of the Bible’s verses on hell come from Matthew. You don’t have to believe Matthew’s dead wrong to say something like, “Matthew, like James, is a single book with a rather extreme viewpoint that isn’t found in other parts of scripture. Therefore anything he says about hell ought to be weighed against the rest of the Bible’s relative silence on the matter” (and Paul’s assertion in Ephesians, among other places, that all of creation is being saved).

Evangelicals have a terrible habit of choosing terrible beliefs and then pretending they haven’t chosen them; as if they emerged naturally out of the plain text of Scripture, when most of what they believe was never taught until the American and British revivals of the 1840s. This is a world of many religions, and even within Christianity, you have a host of options. So why have you chosen to live with an interpretation of the Bible that makes you say such weird things about women? What do you get out of it that’s worth more than common decency?


A Brief Dave Religion Timeline

In my last big Clearinghouse of replies to my comments on religion (and evangelicalism in particular), I neglected one friend's request, which was simply, "What happened?" Here's the timeline as I recall it. I'd probably interpret it differently on a different day.

age 8: I convert to evangelical Christianity by reading the Jack Chick tract classic, "This Was Your Life!", which someone left in the schoolyard. This conversion squares with other members of my family's own experiences (especially my father), and we start going to charismatic and Pentecostal churches.

age 8-early teens: I am introduced to the concept of using the Bible to solve problems and to correct errors, because dad quizzes us in the car after every church service: "Did you notice that the sermon today took Acts 5 out of context and mishandled Isaiah? What he said is almost directly contradicted by the book of James..."

age 19: I enter college, intending to major in Religious Studies and become a pastor---and, I feel sure, a great writer who will be the evangelical version of religious writers like Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Flannery O'Connor

In college, in no particular order:

* I start attending religious studies classes and discover that non-Christian religions teach things that I thought Christianity had a lock on (such as grace).

* I also discover that other religious traditions read the Bible very differently, and that in many cases, their arguments better explain the text.

*Ditto for liberal exegesis, which takes away the holy aura around the Bible, but definitely gives me a better understanding of how texts are dated, where certain errors lie, and why, when dealing with works from antiquity (religious or not), it's always best to be skeptical about claims of authorship.

* I discover that, in visiting the Catholic student center, that it's possible to worship every week with people whose politics are completely opposite of yours (in MY church, everyone was a Republican), to read the Bible unworshipfully and still get things out of it, and---most interestingly---to understand history, warts and all, without making excuses for your church's past behavior. (In MY church, when you brought up the Crusades, my people would always say, "Those people weren't really Christians like us." The Catholics tended to say, "We really fucked up that time. Christians do that.")

* I notice, with some suspicion, that the only things evangelicals have ever accomplished in literature is science fiction and fantasy---especially books for children. By contrast, almost every other major Christian tradition---especially Catholics, but the Russian Orthodox and Lutherans have good run---is capable of writing actual classics that people of all belief systems return to again and again. Why is it, I wonder, that evangelicals don't seem to understand or tolerate art and ambiguity?

*I begin dating a woman whose brother is gay. (And, I should add, a wonderful guy I don't feel right about judging.) A few months later, in a single February, three of my best friends in the world all come out of the closet. I do the research and discover that, while I've been TOLD that science has an anti-religion, pro-gay agenda, in reality scientists, like evangelicals, assumed that homosexuality was a mental disorder for years. Then someone asked them to test it, and damned if homosexuals didn't come out sane. I realize that, in a similar situation, I would have done the same tests and reached the same conclusion. In a suddenly chilling moment, I realize that the Bible has made me a bigot and is actually morally unreliable.

*In the midst of all this, I also discover that I have a major psychosexual hangup. Praying and obeying the Bible doesn't help. Modern psychology (and porn) does. Who'd a thunk?

*Then I have the Best Sunday School Lesson Ever, which pretty much seals my impression that, by wanting to be good, and joining other good-desiring people in the evangelical church, I have unintentionally wound up in the church of the Pharisees.

Those last two points beg to be expanded, and I will. But now my workday has started. Maybe I'll write more at lunch.


Housekeeping Warning

In light of the craziest comment I have ever received, I'm starting to think it might be a good idea to enable a feature of Blogger that permits me to personally okay every comment before it appears. Just to warn y'all---in the future, your comments might appear more slowly. For now, though, I'm just going to assume that was a fluke and hope the lunatics lost interest.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Tiny Michael Captured!

All hail the Internet! All hail Google! And all hail Mark Newhouse, who discovered video footage of the dwarf Michael Jackson impersonator I was talking about earlier!

This is taken from a different part of the subway, and he was wearing different clothes and dancing to a different tune. But somehow I suspect this is the same guy ...

An Elevator Puzzle From Real Life

In the elevator going up to my office, the floor is listed on a standard old-school digital display, where parts of an 8 light up. On one such elevator, several of the lights in the display are missing or burned out. So here are the following true facts, which I have turned into a puzzle:

1. When traveling from the lobby to my office, only twice does the display read an actual number. The first is 7. Three floors later, it reads 17.
2. My floor is next.

Question 1: What floor do I work on?
Question 2: At two points in this journey (including on the two floors between 7 and 17), the elevator rider is shown a pair of back-to-back non-number symbols that are exactly the same for two consecutive floors. What are those symbols?
Question 3: For that matter, which parts of the 8 are burned out?

A Little Sidebar, If I May Be So Shameless

Last night, in the subway station, I saw an unusually large crowd gathered to watch some performance or other. This was unusual not only because the crowd was really really big by Times Square standards---most performers get a polite ring; this one was three or four deep, crowded together---but also because it was in an unusual place: the hallway to the S train, where buskers rarely go. All I knew was, there was this huge crowd of people all standing in my way, craning their necks to see something, and "Thriller" was playing on some nearby boom box.

So I approached and discovered---how can I express this?---a midget dressed like Michael Jackson (from the early-white period of '91 or so; glove, hat, loose hair dangling on one side of his face). He was breakdancing, moonwalking, the whole shebang. And alas, the song ended as I got there, so he said, "Thank you, everybody, it's been an honor performing for you"---and then he started passing around a hat. (Not the dress-up hat; a crappy money container.) So I never got to see if he was also lip-synching.

And although I had my camera phone, I actually resisted taking the picture. It was a surprising reaction. Apparently, there are some freak shows even I feel guilty about watching.

Now I realize that the term "midget" is considered offensive, and they prefer the term "little people." Or so I am told. But of course the problem with "little person"---aside from the fact that it's a helluva lot less funny to say, which I'm sure is the point---is that it's maddeningly unspecific. When you say "A little person kicked this other guy's ass," you have to stop and think, "Do you mean a little-person little person, or just a smallish guy?" Polite is polite, but doggone it, all short people are not midgets, and they don't have a right to claim such a sweeping term.

So from now on I'm going with "dwarf." It seems to strike the proper balance between absurdity and technical accuracy. And of course you'd want to use the term "little person" for people with dwarfism whose difference you'd rather not call undue attention to (like the people on A&E's "Little People, Big World," which is a really fascinating show if y'all ain't watching). But goddamn it---if you're going to dress like a tiny Michael Jackson, aren't you kind of playing to the "midget" type? Wouldn't it be just as insulting to use "little person" to describe the dwarf minstrels on The Man Show or Mind of Mencia or---god help us---the movie Little Man, which opens this weekend and bids fair to ruin what remains of our standing in the world? In fact, hell with it, here's the way I'm gonna break down my usage:

Midget: a little person who's selling out for laughs
Dwarf: a general descriptor to emphasize the oddity of an encounter with a little person, or to avoid the awkwardness of "little person"'s general-sounding unhelpfulness
Little person: a dwarf I actually know, or whose dwarfism isn't the current point of discussion.

A dwarf Michael Jackson. Only in Vegas, I thought. But I guess I was wrong.

P.S. On another surprisingly current dwarf-related matter, this past weekend I saw a brief documentary on The Wizard of Oz, and was surprised to discover that---at least as of 2001, when the doc was made---at least five of the Munchkins were still around (and that's how they apparently like to be identified). They include (or included) the coroner who pronounces death on the witch ("she isn't only merely dead/ she's really quite sincerely dead") and one of the original Lollipop Guild members. And here's a fun fact: For most of the Munchkin's voices, what they did was record the dialogue in real time, but speaking very slowly, and then they sped up the tape to make their voices high-pitched and (to my ear) really, really grating. But there is one line of Munchkin dialog where the actor actually got to use his own voice: the fellow who says "We thank you very sweetly/You killed her so completely" and hands Dorothy the flowers. He's still alive too! And, if I remember the documentary correctly, has an incredibly thick German accent.

Monday, July 10, 2006

A Response to Mark

My friend Mark Newhouse left a long, polite response to one of my posts, and since it deserves more attention and wider readership, I've taken the liberty of reposting it here, where I can respond to its points. I hope I'm being fair, but I will admit in advance that one of the reasons I thought Mark's post useful is that he seems to exactly prove some of the points I'm trying to make. Mark opens by saying:

I feel that I may in some way be responsible for this short series on Christianity. After emailing you, and receiving an email in return where you suggested I read James Barr's treatise on escaping fundamentalism, the dam seems to have broken, and you wrote your posts.

So to Dave's regular readers - I'm sorry. :)

My response: Actually, Mark, there was an intermediate step, which is that I e-mailed you just as I was toying with the idea of finally writing a book I'd been planning for years and years, to be titled How To Love God and Be Brave. (A distinct P.R. improvement over the original, much funnier title, How To Love God And Not Be a Jerk. The point of which, by the way, was not to say that religious people are all jerks, but that the religious people who are the biggest jerks are often the most true to their texts.) I had long despaired of writing an entire book on a single such topic (you all know my attention span), but I had recently had a breakthrough where I realized that if I changed the title slightly---by adding And Other Essays on Religion, Faith, and Unbelief or some such---I could write about whatever came to my mind, and wrangle it into sensible book form later. Then Mark e-mailed me, I wrote back a quick response that turned into a sort of anti-evangelical harangue, and I thought, "Yup, it's time to get this out of my system."

So Mark, it's not your fault. You were merely the catalyst. The reaction was waiting in my elemental makeup.

Back to Mike:

But I'll bite and address two broad issues in the comments here.

First you say:

"In fact, I think if you could change just two elements of evangelical belief---the belief in hell and the belief in the absolute depravity of man ( i.e., humanity's inability to know what's "really" right and wrong)---you'd change evangelical Christianity instantly for the better of Christianity and the entire world."

To which I can only respond that you would no longer have evangelical Christianity. If there is no Hell, what need is there of a savior? And if man is not depraved, what need is there for objective moral truth (the Bible)? I think you have the definition of absolute depravity wrong. Adam and Eve did not just eat the wrong fruit - they disobeyed a clear edict from God. Big difference. That is where the depravity of man came from. We all know that there is right and wrong. Punch anyone in the nose who says otherwise and you'll find out if she really believes that. The Bible simply provides that objective truth for us to follow.

I'm glad you raised this point. This is akin to what James Barr eventually concludes at the end of Fundamentalism. He says, in essence, "Every so often someone will say, 'If only evangelical Christians could forget their arrogant ways and live with other liberal Christians in harmony and humility!' But evangelicals can never be humble or accepting of other viewpoints; being right is the whole point of evangelicalism. For an evangelical to change, he'd have to cease being an evangelical." He says it nicer than that though.

But I think I can prove you slightly wrong, in two ways. First, Catholics believe in hell, and they're not evangelicals. It's the combination of hell AND moral uncertainty that makes an evangelical an evangelical.

But more importantly, your answer betrays only one model of salvation---and it's pretty damned severe. Perhaps I can illustrate with a story. When I was a young evangelical studying Religious Studies, I took a class in Catholicism with Father Bob Burns. And at one point, Father Burns---who is clearly sympathetic to the liberal movements of the church---was describing the results of the modernist theological inquiries of Vatican II. (Which, for those who don't know, was a rethinking of all things Catholic in light of modern theology conducted in the early sixties; among other things, it's why the Mass isn't in Latin anymore, and why you're allowed to touch the wafer these days.) Among the non-binding documents of Vatican II was a statement on The Christian Church in Relation To Other Faiths. Its declaration: that all faiths can, when properly applied, lead to God, and that the Christian's duty is to encourage everyone in their own faith tradition, rather than trying to convert people.

Disagree with this if you like. (On certain basic principles I do; if my rants about evangelicalism say anything, it's that all religions are not equally healthy.) But that's not the point. The real thing I remember was reacting with shock and disgust, and thinking, "Well, what a stupid thing to say! After all, if all religions are okay, why am I even a Christian?" And then I thought, just as swiftly, "To avoid hell." And I thought, "No, that's silly. I love God, I've felt His power, my faith provides meaning, etc." But I suddenly realized that, while I had personally experienced spiritual aliveness, a taste of the ineffable, and so forth, that absolutely, far and away, the number one reason I was trying to convert anyone else was because of hell. I didn't have such a magnificent story to tell that I could guaranteed beat a Sufi mystic's. I wasn't really in the position of a person who's found a great restaurant or a fabulous girlfriend and wanted to talk about it. All of this was true---I was excited about my faith, and I did want to share it---but if you removed hell from the equation, I suddenly had a lot less to say, and a whole hell of a lot less urgency about saying it.

Because the fact is, Mark, that if hell doesn't exist, we still need salvation. We need to be saved from despair, from fear, from spiritual and physical poverty, from various kinds of oppression that we visit upon ourselves. These aren't as exciting or as dangerous as Hell as the evangelical imagines it, but this form of salvation has two distinct advantages over the evangelical model; First, the struggle is present in the now and is actually real; and second, it appeals to our better instincts and not our worst. What I'm trying to tell you---and evangelicals in general---is that you don't need hell to be religious. And the existence of hell has a terrible impact on the lives of evangelicals. It's not an accident that evangelicals have a horrible history of avoiding the types of social engagement that improve lives (as opposed to improving morals by banning various things): because if God's got the hellfire stoked, what the fuck difference does it make if someone's living in poverty for forty years, compared to the absolute infinity of suffering that awaits them in hell? When evangelicals engage in social work, it's either with a tract under their arm (the real point of the exercise), or they wind up essentially swimming against the normal evangelical current. As anyone who's ever tried to raise money for a mission trip knows, you have to save souls to justify feeding the poor. And as a result, evangelicals spend 95% of their time attending seminars about sharing their faith, and almost no time at all, say, helping the homeless without a sales pitch. It's an anemic way of relating to needy human beings, but it's absolutely consistent with evangelical theology. Evangelicals who essentially ignore social justice aren't being "bad" evangelicals; they're being good judges of cost benefit analysis. If you took hell away, evangelicals would redirect their very noble energies to actually improving people's lives instead of their conversion performance.

But there's a further objection I have to the model of salvation you describe. Well, two. The first is, if you read the Bible, you know perfectly well that the Four Spiritual Laws model of salvation that evangelicalism practices and believes in isn't even found in the Bible. But it's 7:00, and I've just been informed that I have to leave the building.

Let me just close, temporarily, with this: You say that you're constantly praying I'll change my mind. May I safely assume this is because a.) you think I'm in error, and b.) that the price for my error will be eternal damnation? And so you're praying that i change my mind before i get hit by a bus or some other calamity strikes me? if this is the case, let me ask: What part of that scenario isn't about fear?

More later. Back to my wireless house.


Some Catching Up On God Stuff

It is a cruel irony that my postings have generated a lot of response (by the modest standards of this site) at exactly the same time that I suddenly can't seem to post anymore. So let me stay late at work and answer a few things.

First, and most importantly, I want to point out that my statements about "evangelicals" are, necessarily, vague statements that can't possibly apply to all evangelicals. I mention this because I spoke to my twin brother the other day and he said that the evangelicalism I'm assailing in these pieces doesn't resemble anything he's ever believed. I would do him and many others a disservice if I didn't point this out.

I think to some extent this is a matter of language (for example, what I describe as "fear" is what many evangelicals experience as the everyday nature of the universe, so it feels different from actual terror and may escape their notice; I might even prove it later in this post). But the evangelical church really IS diverse, even though they all (well, 95%) vote consistently Republican and think abortion is the #1 moral issue of our time. You have "liberal" evangelicals like Ron Sider and Tony Campolo who adjure the faithful to live lives of social justice; you have folks in the "emergent church" movement who tend to be more accepting of, say, drinking, swearing, and homosexuals than your average Joe Bible Study. And on some issues, it's hard to find much consensus at all: on evolution, for example, although the party line is still pretty much Intelligent Design, you'll still find young-earth creationists worshiping right beside actual Genesis-is-a-myth evolutionists, and it's almost impossible to tell who sits where. As my brother pointed out to me, even James Dobson doesn't care much at all about the dangers of masturbation.

And since the evangelical church, like Islam, operates without a single overarching authority or imprimatur, I'm going to try to do two things in future posts: 1.) rely, when I have to generalize, on the literature I see. For example, I think it's safe to say that, if I go to a religious bookstore (as I did once in Tallahassee) and see TWO books listed as national bestsellers that both advise teenagers to avoid masturbation, I think it's safe to say that that's the mainstream party line. And then if I read James Dobson and his I-don't-care-about-masturbation teaching is hedge on all sides by worries that he may offend a lot of people---which it is---I'll assume I've correctly judged the evangelical temperament on this matter, since who would know this audience better? I'm aware that some books have been popular because they're controversial (for example, the technically bestselling I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which argues that dating the way the world does it is inherently unchristian, was probably hurled against thousands of Christian college dorm-room walls). But when the thoroughly pious The Purpose-Filled Life goes into its dozenth printing, I think that's a safe sourcebook for my observations. Ditto---with some caveats for age---for any of the perennial biggies in Christian publishing: Oswald Chambers' My Utmost For His Highest, C.S.Lewis's Mere Christianity, etc.

And then of course, sometimes I just have to rely on my own experience and memory. Because I think it's probably a given that most evangelical Christians believe that the book of Revelation is an actual prophecy that will be fulfilled sometime in the future near the end of time, when the world really will be imperiled by a literal Antichrist in charge of a one-world government. In my experience, no evangelical Christian could ever get away with doubting this interpretation of the scenario: the best a liberal could do is say it wouldn't happen for thousands of years, and argue for a radical, non-Scofield late-term rapture. But I can't point to any books on this topic; so occasionally you'll just have to trust me. And I hope if I make an ass of myself on some major topic, my friends like Angie and Mark will put me straight.

By the way, since some people have asked, Angie is a former A student of mine with a great sense of humor who I always enjoyed talking to after class, so we stayed friends. Brian, who urged me not to apologize, is a former roommate of mine and one of the only other people I know who identifies as an atheist. For what it's worth, Brian, I would never apologize for beliefs that I think are reasonable and carefully derived. I do, however, apologize for beliefs that are inelegantly or unhelpfully expressed. This is why sometimes, when I seem to have dug myself into a hole, I rarely get out of it---I simply stop digging and make the hole look nicer.

Okay. This post is long enough, so let me get to my next topic under a separate heading.


In A Word: AAARGH!

Sure enough, my Internet is not working, and looks like it'll be hard to fix for some stupid reason. In order to figure out what's going on, I was asked to plug a laptop directly into the LinkSys system. I couldn't even find a cord to do it with, and the guy said, "Then this is as far as i can go. You clearly have a signal. You just can't get an IP address." Which I already knew.

Anyway, I came in early to work so I could post this, and let everyone know what the problem is. Feel my pain.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Muzzled By Cruel Fate!

Woke up this morning and discovered that my connection was screwy, so I can't get online, post anything, or even so much as check my e-mail. (Except for here, from work.) If it isn't fixed by the time I get home, this could be a very dull weekend.

And I know: the obvious joke is something like, "See, Dave? God's punishing you for assigning a late date to the authorship of 2 Peter!" I just want to point out another thing, though, that may not have been clear: I was at my local store the other day and bought a fridge-pack of coke, and the price, after tax, came up $6.66. "Oh, wow!" said the cashier. "That must be some evil coke. I'd be nervous if I was you."

And it struck me then that catastrophizing superstition---and other things like anxiety and discomfort with sex---are not the exclusive property of evangelical Christians, and I didn't intend to suggest they were. Nor was I intending to imply that evangelical Christians are incapable of living without suffering psychological damage or couldn't mature into lovely human beings. What I was saying, which is not quite the same thing, is that if you want to get past our pan-cultural, universal human tendency to engage in catastrophic, superstitious thinking and binary obey-or-be-punished styles of morality, you can do it from anywhere. But evangelical Christians are, by the nature of their theology and worldview, going to have a slightly harder time than other people who aren't trapped by the evangelical's presuppositions. That's still something of a slam, but at least it's not a rabid one, and I think I can prove it. All I need is for my computer to work when I get home. If you don't hear from me, that's probably what's wrong.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Fun With Wordplay

The documentary Wordplay is now in theaters across the country, and you should absolutely see it. It's been lovingly reviewed almost everywhere, and you don't have to love crossword puzzles to enjoy it. As a longtime puzzle constructor, however, I had the weird experience of watching and realizing that, with the exception of the celebrity interviewees, I knew damn near every single person in every single shot.

Anyway, one of the stars of the movie is my friend Trip Payne, who also knows everyone in the film, and he's compiled a hilarious review of the film where he's pieced together every error anyone has made in all the reviews he's read. Maybe you should see the movie first, but trust me: if you know the film, these factual errors are hilarious.

That Funny Photo I Promised

This is one line from a poem that runs all the way down that very long hallway from Grand Central Station to Times Square. (Or something like that. It's all one big building from the inside. To give you an idea, this line is part six of eight parts, and eight is at the end.) I have to face it every Monday morning when I'm moving between subway trains. The poem, as a whole, has to be the most risibly dispiriting idea for public art I've ever seen, and it thrills me every day to discover it's still up. By the way, where those movie posters are over there on the right, there are now huge posters reading JEWS FOR JESUS. Every single one of them, all the way down.

Evangelicals and Christianity, Part 3: The Trouble With Biblical Authority

Okay. I'm back home now and may continue.

But before I launch into a statement about the Bible, I think I need to address bibliolatry. Much like Islam (which also has no priests, no religious hierarchy, and very little in the way of sacramental worship), evangelical Christians have to focus their piety pretty much on the Bible. They don't necessarily feel it this way---their focus is on Jesus, and the Bible is their tool to reach further to that connection---but from the outside, since the spirit world can neither be seen or proven, one can only conclude that evangelical Christians, for all practical purposes, worship the Bible. The Bible is constantly memorized; people choose 'life verses" to operate by; it's stitched on pillows and printed on pens in your local Christian bookstore; and most especially, it is dragged in to supply answers for every uncertainty an evangelical faces, no matter how irrelevant it is to the Bible’s original context.

A good case in point: Because of their understanding of the Bible, Evangelical Christians pride themselves on having a clear view of “family values,” as seen in things like James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, or the Rev. Wildmon’s Family Research Center, or Promise Keepers, or the plot of literally every Christian movie I have ever seen, which always involves some man who’s neglecting his family because of his work, and comes to realize the importance of his home after a run-in with The Man From Galilee. But anyone looking to the Bible for lots of information about how to have a happy family will find themselves, after a 66-book search, returning to maybe two little sections of Timothy and Corinthians. (And sometimes staring in bafflement at Song of Solomon.) And on this allegedly central issue, the big guys are especially no help at all: Jesus repudiated his entire family, and Paul thought you should marry only if you were disgustingly horny and couldn’t control yourself.

But let’s set that aside, because for all practical purposes, the Bible, because it serves as a kind of answer book, or proxy voice of god, could be said to be “about” whatever evangelical Christians are concerned about. (At the turn of the last century, fundamentalists asserted that the Bible was “about” the dangers of wine and beer; Charles Sheldon called it the chief moral crisis of the age, and he had millions in agreement.) What concerns me for the moment is not how the Bible is misread but with the nature of its authority. So let’s move to that.

In an evangelical's mind, the Bible is so true and so reliable that it gets first hearing on almost everything: about history, about cosmology, about marriage and family...and most especially about right and wrong, where what the Bible says overrules the individual evangelical Christian's own conscience. You hear this all the time from evangelical preachers---and especially from apologists: "We may not like the fact that Jesus is the only way to salvation, but that's what the Bible teaches, and who are we to judge the words of God?" Or words to that effect. There are scads of evangelical Christians who are, in their heart of hearts, deeply unhappy with certain aspects of the world as the Bible conceives it. But since the Bible Knows Best, they say things like, "I personally don't have a problem with homosexuals (or with female pastors, or with god sending decent Buddhists to hell), but the Bible's teaching is quite clear..." (It usually isn't, but that's a matter for another post perhaps.)

To be fair, this isn't always true. Goodness knows the Old Testament in particular is full of weird stories where God acts pretty horribly, and while some evangelicals make a career out of justifying some of God's crazier reported behavior, others are comfortable saying, "that part of Joshua is strange, but it's not really relevant to my life, so whatever.' But where it speaks in a more or less contemporary voice---particularly in the letters of Paul---the Bible is more valuable to an evangelical than common knowledge, and, all too often, common sense.

This isn't because evangelicals are stupid. It's because the Bible "teaches" (as evangelicals see it) that human beings are corrupt, that the world is corrupt and corrupting, and--in the Calvinist lens that evangelicals read through---that we can't even trust our own judgment in moral matters. This last point is absolutely key. In fact, I think if you could change just two elements of evangelical belief---the belief in hell and the belief in the absolute depravity of man ( i.e., humanity's inability to know what's "really" right and wrong)---you'd change evangelical Christianity instantly for the better of Christianity and the entire world. Because it is precisely for this reason---that evangelicals are morally anxious, wanting-to-do-good people who are taught that their own consciences are unreliable---that they are so dependent upon the Bible. Without it, they have literally lost the only sure truth there is. And any attempt to point out a crack in the inerrancy of the Bible is therefore an assault on the entire edifice. Evangelical Christians may want to believe differently, but they're trapped in a structure they really can't get out of, and this sometimes means they are obliged, as the price of membership, to believe some very unfortunate things.

I’ve mentioned two of those things already: hell and “absolute depravity.” (Or, as I like to think of it, mankind’s endless moral insecurity.) This leads to an obvious syllogism: 1.) Humans can’t know right from wrong. And 2.) if you make the wrong choice, you will be tortured in the afterlife forever and ever and ever. Put together, this leads to a third disastrous belief: catastrophism, a particularly depressing form of black and white thinking. To the evangelical, Adam and Eve, who literally existed, ate the wrong fruit and ruined everything for everyone in the entire human race. The Bible is full of stories of people doing innocent things and getting horribly punished: a guy touches the Ark of the Covenant to prevent it from falling off a cart, and he’s killed. A fig tree refuses to bear fruit out of season, and Jesus curses it and it dies. Ananias and Sapphira lie about how much they’ve tithed and they drop dead instantly. The pattern is clear: death is all around, and God is always ready and willing to open up some whup-ass. His mercy, as it is expressed in The Prophets and in Paul’s theology, consists primarily of God not killing people who don’t always know how richly they deserve it. And what enables God to lighten up? His own son volunteers to be killed instead.

You can’t live around a theology like this without it affecting your world view. (For example, I think it’s one of the reasons evangelicals are traditionally more likely to get upset about sex than they are about violence. And why they’re willing to have their rights infringed upon as long as the guy in charge is an evangelical who speaks fluent Old Testament.) And one of these effects is that it makes the evangelical tend to be rather ungenerous in listening to other points of view. This is what I meant back in my first post about evangelical Christians grabbing the football—when religion comes up in conversation, they stake their claim instantly and fiercely, and it’s not because they’re intending to be jerks; it’s the inevitable result of accommodating your mind and emotions to a very harsh theology. (And one of the things their theology teaches, by the way, is that you can't trust people; anyone who raises questions must be resisting God out of perversity or dangerous ignorance. Why should such people be allowed to talk?) For most people, spirituality is a mystery to explore: for evangelical Christians, it’s a deadly serious enterprise with potentially horrifying consequences. You literally can’t afford to make a mistake, and they love other people too much to allow those other people to make any. Evangelicals who’ve grown up in this environment eventually get used to it, and tend to socially normalize by putting hell out of their minds (pretty easy, since they’re saved so it’s not really their problem) or accentuating the positive. But their house is built on a premise of ever-imminent disaster for the morally unwary, and anxiety is never far from the surface. It is not a breeding ground that naturally lends itself to generous moral growth.

It’s getting late, and I have to get to sleep. But I feel I should close with a few meta-thoughts: First: To all you evangelicals reading this, I hope I’ve been more or less reasonable so far, but if I’m not, I hope you’ll let me know. Second: To all you non-evangelicals, I apologize if I’m belaboring something you care little about. I didn’t intend for this to suddenly become the I-Dislike-Religion Channel, but this is clearly something I’m passionate about, and once I’ve bitten down on it I have to worry it till it stops moving. Third and finally: Since the primary purpose of this site is to amuse and entertain my friends, I want to apologize for the rather serious and long-winded turn this has suddenly taken. I’ll post another funny picture right after this, I promise.


*Sigh*... Let's Try That Again, Without So Much Spittle (Christianity, Part 2)

Angie's comment on my last post underscored why I wasn't happy with it: it started out trying to be cautiously optimistic about the possibility for a religious renewal in the Democratic party, and wound up a fairly standard David screed against evangelicalism. Sorry! This may wind up like the Southern slander I failed to entirely take back a few months ago, and which ultimately pleased no one, but let me try again to clarify.

One of the things I was intending to convey is that the Democratic party---and religious liberals in general---can't really dialogue with evangelicals because they rarely even speak the same language. And in newspapers and other reportage, it's obvious that the reporters rarely get this difference. They see evangelical Christians as being sort of similar to mainstream Methodists: both going to church, both singing hymns, both attending Sunday School and having a more or less consistent set of beliefs based on their religious faith. And the reporters on such matters---most of whom are not religious, if the quality of their coverage is anything to go by---simply say "these are two different parts of the same church, and why can't they get along? We should sit down and have dialogue."

So let me make this clear: there is nothing more powerful, more intense, and more important, in my experience, than the evangelical's religious sense. To be an evangelical is to be constantly loved by a god who is not only always there, but always palpable; to have every move you make and every choice you face be a step in a cosmic drama with profound implications. Evangelicals care deeply about their walk with God and so take a constant moral temperature: did I have my quiet time? Have I attended Bible study? Who do I know who isn't saved, and have I prayed for them recently? Being away from god---which translates into being away from the evangelical forms of encounter with God: prayer, Bible reading, singing, and sometimes a few other less-frequently used tools like fasting or speaking in tongues---is felt like an almost physical loss. (The closest reaction like this that I have found in other religious traditions is the occasional Catholic who hates having to miss the daily Eucharist. I imagine any Muslim who missed one of her daily prayers would feel similarly spiritually robbed.)

It should be fairly clear, however, that there's a big difference between engaging in this kind of behavior and simply "being a Christian," which for most Christians is a much more relaxed sort of activity (for whom being a Christian is an assumed identity, not an activity; like being Irish, the average mainstream Christian always identifies as Christian, and feels it as central to his life, but can go for whole days without thinking about it directly). And so any evangelical Christian who attends, oh, let's say a mainstream Presbyterian service, is apt to feel robbed. Most of what they desire in a religious experience---let's call the main thing intensity---is entirely absent. Where's the call to study the Bible and be faithful in prayer?, the evangelical thinks, looking around. Where are the calls to the lost? And wouldn't they get more people in here if they played electric keyboards to songs that were fun and moving? And so they assume that Presbyterians have no comparable spiritual life at all (because if they did, wouldn't their services be more exciting? More challenging?), or that, if any Presbyterians have anything like an evangelical spiritual life, they must be smuggling it in on the side, somewhere out of view. Or, most likely of all, that if Presbyterians are spiritual, they must be starving themselves. If only those poor people knew how it could be!...

It's a powerful way to live. And people who experience evangelicalism after a life of something more stodgy frequently convert right away. But most evangelicals, I suspect, enjoy it so much that they don't realize it comes at a terrible price. Because you can't have intensity without being right. The evangelical Christian's own experience tells her that she is living a life of powerful engagement with God, and it sure looks like other people---including other Christians---aren't.

That came out a little confusing, so let me restate it another way. Precisely because evangelical Christianity is so bent on being more spiritual than average, more engaged than most, and of checking in with God at every opportunity, their experience is essentially grounded in spiritual anxiety. And the way to calm anxiety is with assurances of certitude. So the moment you meet someone who is deeply religious in a kind of constant-religious-activity sort of way, they're never far from clinging to the nearest sturdy object that offers them unassailable truth. So while evangelicals are inclined to dismiss mainstream Christian experience as being sort of in the right direction but weak, they are also inclined to dismiss other deeply spiritual people---the Dalai Lama, for example, or your local Sufi mystic---as being too vague, or having a faith that isn't grounded in reality.

Only evangelical Christianity offers these two things at once: an exciting, engaging, moment-by-moment spiritual life, coupled with claims that the truth being taught isn't merely personal or emotional but represents actual historical facts, actual physical reality, and demands specific action today (like praying for your friends so they don't go to hell).

(Side note 1: I mean this is the only such major offering in America. Obviously other places, like the Middle East, have similar claims and offers. In practice, any conservative or fundamentalist faith has the same feature, as Ruthven puts it in Fundamentalism: "all fundamentalists seek to literalize myth." Which is why there are even fundamentalist Buddhists and Hindus. If you've got any kind of historical religious text, you can try to claim it all actually happened the way it was written down, and feel very threatened by anyone who disagrees.) [Side note 2: This is why there are no fundamentalist Taoists; the entire document contains no stories about people or places. It's all theoretical.]

The problem is that, in evangelicalism, this life of purposeful faith is linked to obedience to, and reliance on, a Bible that is unchanging, and when read too naively can be frequently cruel. More on this later. I have to get back to work.


Obama 'n' Things

I'm going to some kind of post-work boat-around-Manhattan cruse tonight with a few of my fellow employees, so posting may be light.

But I had to say this: A few days ago, Barack Obama made a plea for Democrats to become more comfortable with religion (speaking to a gathering of religious liberals) and, alas, the left wing of the lefty blogosphere went nuts. But here are two smart, reasoned takes on the entire speech, from Kevin Drum and Amy Sullivan.

However, neither of these authors, fine as they are, address much of what motivates the stridently anti-religious left. (I think this is because Kevin's not religious and Amy's a liberal Christian; the evangelical point of view is so assumed it's not considered.) As a member of this group---and one who used to be more strident---the problem is that about a third of American Christians (the ones who call themselves evangelical) are divisive, sectarian, don't know jack about historical Christianity or biblical analysis, don't care, and don't see a downside to spreading the faith, even if they take evolution, sex education, and homosexuality back to the first century in the process. So the problem with raising the subject of religion---and the reason, I think, that liberals do it so tentatively and defensively---is that with evangelicals around, the whole conversastion is always this close to turning into a screaming defensive slugfest.

Evangelical Christians have an extremely acquisitive approach to religion: they must own it. If there were a truth-in-advertising law that demanded it, I'd want all "Christian music" to be labeled "conservative evangelical music", every "Christian bookstore" to be called a "conservative evangelical bookstore," every "non-denominational church" to be called a "sectarian, more-religious-than-the-Methodists church" and so on. (And while we're at it, it sure would be nice if "Christian foriegn policy" were relabeled "Politics from people who actually believe there's going to be a magical antichrist killing Christians with a one-world government.") But evangelical Christians would never stand for it. They demand---absolutely demand---ownership of the most-authentic brand of Christianity. It is essential to their identity. And the second you raise a "discussion" about what Christianity is, they'll grab the ball with a deathgrip and keep it in their end zone under heavy guard. You can't have a "discussion" with someone whose religious worldview is designed to eliminate doubt about everything that's truly important.

By the way, I'm not saying evangelicals never doubt; I am saying that the things they express doubt about---such as the Lord's mysterious ways---are not a matter of much concern or fascination to them. They know God wants them to save souls and end abortion, and their experience of religion is that God is continually present in their daily lives and actions, and as a result their moral choices matter more than they do for other, less-spiritually attentive churches. When they're faced with a less practical, more airy conundrum like "is there a hell?" and "was Jesus God or man?" they leap immediately to the most extreme and practical position so they don't have to think about it further: some Bible quotes say hell exists, others don't, so they go with hell rather than call any single bible verse an error; if Jesus was God and man, then they interpret that to mean Jesus was basically God in a form that got tired and needed to eat. The other implications of Jesus's humanity---like the fact that he might not have always known what he was doing, or that he may have changed his mind or made errors or had the occasional erection---strike an evangelical as either absurd at best (why would you even THINK that? How does THAT help you learn right from wrong?) or dangerous at worst. The next time an evangelical tells you that they don't use faith as a crutch, take a swing at the crutch and see how fiercely protected they keep it. Doubt cannot escape.

To put it a little more bluntly, the diehard religious wing of our country has no idea how ignorant they are, or (for that matter) how to even have a conversation with someone who would like to make them see. And the leftist wing of the country doesn't realize that religion isn't something you can discuss with conservatives (unless you're preparing to be converted), and the middle range of the country thinks conservative evangelicals are just another form of Christian because they don't know enough history to see how recent, strange, and naive their interpretations of the Bible really are. (They claim to represent the "true" wing of Christianity, but there isn't a single stage of Christianity where American evangelical beliefs represent what was actually taught: the early church fathers believed Mary was a virgin forever; Luther believed in infant baptism; Calvin believed...oh, what's the use?)

Geez. This started as a quick post and I've gotten into a rant that has made me late for work. Arrgh! Let me just say, as I've said before and will say again, that we can never have a sane conversation about religion in this country until we also have widespread religious education---so that people would know, for example, that Revelation is a historical document and that when Paul talks about "the Scriptures" he doesn't actually have the New Testament in front of him; and that the church argued for years about the nature of Jesus and it didn't tear anything apart---and in the process of this education we could maybe, just maybe, force some humility into this arrogant, ignorant mindset the conservative evangelicals have. Then they'll be free to focus on what they DO know and accomplish some actual good.

I'm not sure I've said what I wanted to say, and no doubt I've irritated people. But bills must be paid, and I'm late late late. Dang.


Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Dry Vandals In The Subway

Current Events Poem: Osama Unit Shuts Down


This doesn't mean he got away,
Say people at the CIA;
They'll just seek out Al-Qaeda more,
Bin Laden slightly less.

Besides, thanks to the thorough way
They've tapped us at the NSA,
We'll nail his ass the very day
He visits the US.

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Tuesday, July 04, 2006

And While I'm At It, Here's Another Napkin Cartoon


Desperate Planters

It's been a relatively busy Fourth of July Weekend (and it continues clean through till Wednesday!) but the most notable thing that's happened is that I finally seem to have figured out how to post pictures on this site without making an enormous timewasting procedure out of it. (Apparently, while you can import files by uploading photos to the web, finding their unique url, then going to Blogger and typing in the filename, there's also--ahem--a button you can click.)

As a result, you may see more pictures of stuff I've found amusing from around the city. And for this first such official post (the mailbox was unofficial), I think I'll try for a double post from the "desperate planter" genre of New York reading.

See, there are a gazillion planters in the naked city---little islands of greenery in the middle of sidewalks, mostly (I suspect) maintained by the city. But, as with subway stations, just because the city maintains them doesn't mean there aren't squatters, and often the locals try to grow their own flowers in these spaces. The problem, however, is that there are also a gazillion dogs in the city (any apartment complex contains a dozen or so, stacked nine stories high), and of course they'll piss on anything that dares to sit upright. So people put notices on their planters of the "Please Curb Your Dog" variety. And some of them are pretty funny.

Here are two. The first was taken at night not far from a northern-end-of-the-West-Village dog spa (which I'll post pics of later). As a result, it probably sees more than its fair share of action, and every time I read this sign I imagine it being spoken in a shaken, whispery voice that is threatening to burst to flinders under the stress of its hundred daily indignities:

The second is more straightforward. As a word guy, I'm always thrilled when I meet a new portmanteau:

Monday, July 03, 2006

Hilariously Erroneous Commercial Alert

I'm heading out now to hang with some puzzle/game friends, but before I go I just had to post this, because I just saw it and I can't believe such a huge company would make such a huge error.

It's a Kellogg's Special K commercial that features a businesswoman meeting her girlfriends for...oh, let's call it brunch, because it's clearly not morning but for some reason they all order cereal. (Not to give away the ending.) As she approaches, her friends comment, "Wow! She looks really good!" and when they ask, she says her secret is that she's started eating Special K. And then we get this badly-constructed voiceover:

ANNOUNCER: "Studies have shown that women who eat breakfast like the Special K breakfast weigh less."

And as soon as I heard it, I thought, "Wait a minute? If they like it way less, why the hell are they telling us this in the commercial?" I wasn't being snarky. I was actually confused.

Then I saw the bathroom scale on the screen and thought, Damn. That's a double entendre you do not want to get wrong. Watch for it---I'd try Lifetime---before someone wisely pulls it. This is the sort of thing you need to TiVo and send to the web.

Cartoon I Drew On a Napkin


Unimpressed Mailbox

Photo I took around 29th and Lexington.