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 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.



Anonymous Mark Newhouse said...

Let me just close, temporarily, with this: You say that you're constantly praying I'll change my mind.

Actually I said, "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." The smiley is there because I can only speak for myself, and because I know that you have spent a lot of time coming to these conclusions, and so it would take a long time for you to swing back towards a more conservative view of Christianity.

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?

In a nutshell, yes*.

And so you're praying that i change my mind before i get hit by a bus or some other calamity strikes me?

Also, yes.

if this is the case, let me ask: What part of that scenario isn't about fear?

The part about how I (we) love you and care for you and your eternal prospects. If I really believe in Hell, and that God would actually send people there, then the people I care about most should be at the top of my prayer list for conversion, right? Despite my feeble attempt at humor below, I mean that with the utmost sincerity.

But I should also point out that fearing God is not a bad thing.


*Or maybe it's because we want you to stop ranting and start making us laugh again. :)

(I hope this comes across the way I intended it!)

7/11/2006 12:34 AM  

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