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

*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.



Blogger Angieb303 said...

Aw, you spent your only free time at work rewriting this because of me. How sweet?! Well, I feel a litte better after this post. This was clearer and a lot less offensive. It is true that there are very different types of christians and we believe very different things.

7/06/2006 4:00 PM  

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