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!

Thursday, July 06, 2006

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.

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6 Comments:

Anonymous Trazom said...

Actually, I've found this series extremely interesting. Here's what I'd like to know, though -- and you can take this as a request for future post(s), as if you were some blogger cocktail pianist.

When I first met you, up in Montreal, you were not yet an ex-evangelical. Yet to the naked eye, you were more or less the same happy, open-minded, un-anxious (well, no -- I guess you're still on the anxious side) person you are now. In other words, you seem to have escaped the structure you've very compellingly described, without much visible trauma to the psyche. Howdat?

7/07/2006 12:43 AM  
Blogger Brian Reeves said...

Dave,

Don't apologize.

I don't think you've said anything offensive here. You've clearly done a lot of work to explain your point of view, and not simply denigrated Christian/religious people. You have a right to your opinion, too, even if it constitutes something someone else doesn't like.

-B

7/07/2006 6:42 AM  
Blogger Angieb303 said...

Seriously, this is just further proof that we went not meant to be friends. Out of everyone who reads your post I’m the only one with a problem. Or maybe I’m just the only one who will say anything about it. Anyways, as it turns out, I don’t give a damn if we believe the same things. You are a nice guy and you have taught me a lot. You keep posting stuff I don’t like and I’ll keep letting you know. I guess it must be a “southern” thing. Okay, probably not.

7/07/2006 9:55 AM  
Blogger Cowboy Dave Dickerson said...

The answer is b.; you're the only one who posts objections. I happen to know my family reads this thing and I know they don't agree either. and there's more than a few ex-colleagues of mine in Tucson who do the same. So don't feel alone!

By the way, i think you know perfectly well why we're friends: because I admire religious people. Evangelical Christians, more than any other group i can think of, are on a mission to do and be good. And as a basically nice guy myself, i respect that. But also because it took me several years to realize there's an actual dangerous side to this worldview, I'm always tyring to point it out to other people and save some receptive soul somewhere a few years of painful homework.

I haven't gotten to blog about this yet, by the way, but after living in New York for---dang! six months now!---i think I know another reason there's so much conflict on this issue. New Yorkers who haven't been raised evangelicals are only likely to see really overtly religious people handing out tracts and preaching out loud in Times Square and other subway stations---and those guys are LUNATICS. So many well-meaning folks probably don't know anyone who a.) was raised an evangelical, and b.) turned out to be a decent human being worth talking to. they only see the tract-waving sign-holders. So I hope some of these posts will eventually work to bridging that gap of understanding as well.

7/07/2006 10:08 AM  
Blogger Angieb303 said...

You are right, that's why we are friends. You think I'm pretty damn cool and you are right. Well, after seeing the guys who would come to FSU and call girls hookers in the name of God (at the top of their lungs), I know what you mean when you say those people are lunatics. Those guys would make me so mad beacuse they were doing more harm than they could imagine. You can't save someone by calling them a hooker and them damning them to hell.

You are truly a good guy and that's why we are friends.

7/07/2006 11:23 PM  
Anonymous Mark Newhouse said...

OK Dave - you've called us out, so to speak, so here I go [I fall into the category of ex-colleague (old friend, really) from Tucson].

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. :)

As for responding to your comments, I think I've held back because it would be hard to respond without going point by point, which is not what I think you are after - particularly given the stated intent of this blog. You know we disagree, but we still love you so we read your posts and pray for you to come to your senses :) and then we move on.

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.

But you already know all this, Dave.

Second:

"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."

Not so sure the syllogism is obvious here. And I'd disagree that humans can't know right from wrong - we might not agree about the details, but there is general consensus about the "big ones" like murder and stealing. Where the confusion lies is in deciding what is the source of truth, and whether it is absolute. I'd argue that if there is no absolute truth, then I can pretty much do anything I want, if followed to the logical extreme. Then we end up with things like Saddam and Iraq (this is not tacit approval of George II's war, BTW).

And - gasp! - I don't pretend to believe that everything is black and white, either. There are gray areas, but I also believe that the Bible speaks to those areas, either directly or by giving us principles by which to live.. I find that comforting rather than depressing.

As I've mentioned to you in email, we could go round and round on this, so perhaps I'll just leave it at that.

The only regret I have about this exchange is that it seems to pit us against each other, when in reality I still like you an awful lot, and don't want to seem to be arguing with you. But then, you started it! :)

7/10/2006 4:19 PM  

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