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, October 22, 2007

How To Love God, Chapter 2 (part 1 of 2)


(NOTE: Chapter 1/Introduction is in three parts and begins here.)

Almost every book or article on evangelicalism starts with statistics describing who they are and how many percent they amount to. And that’s about as far as they go in their description, which leaves all sorts of questions unanswered, like, “Why are they so hostile to evolution?,” “Why do they believe in the virgin birth when the alternative seems more plausible?” and so forth. (And even here I’m being generous and presuming that the sociologists are asking the right questions in the first place. Unless you’ve been there, it’s easy to screw up. ) Then the reporters go on to talk about their tremendous growth and influence, and they interview a few converts, and what you get is the impression is that evangelical Christianity is like one option much like others on the Christian Religion Menu that these particular adherents consciously opted for—which, as I will show, is rarely the case. All I know is, when I was an evangelical, and in the years since, I’ve rarely seen a study or article that felt accurate.

It’s important to get this right because evangelicalism is the most common form of Christianity in the U.S., and often has an important impact on the practical policy issues of the day, from stem cell research to abortion to evolution to homosexuality to our treatment of Israel. In fact, I would be inclined to say that evangelicalism in many ways owns the word “Christian” in these areas—and not by accident, as we shall see. And yet evangelicalism itself is poorly understood, even by the evangelicals themselves (who are not, after all, inclined to look at their faith at a critical distance.). Because these beliefs are both common and misunderstood, they get adopted by others as well—which is why statistics don’t help that much.

For example, a 2004 Barna study says that evangelicals make up only six to seven percent of the population. This might seem right to an actual evangelical (as we’ll see, evangelicals continually see themselves as an oppressed minority), but it seems strange to outside observers like me who see the stuff everywhere. But here’s why: Barna classifies evangelicals as a subset of “born-agains.” Born-agains are people who have accepted Christ as their savior, made a personal commitment to him, and believe they will go to heaven because they have confessed their sins. To become an evangelical in the Barna study, you have to also subscribe strongly to all of the following beliefs: Faith is very important to my life, I have a personal responsibility to share my faith with others, Satan exists, salvation is only possible through grace and not works, Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth, God is all-knowing and all-powerful, and the Bible is totally accurate in all its teachings.

That’s a pretty high hurdle! I know, because if I’d been asked this same survey when I was an evangelical, I wouldn’t have counted as one! I would not have believed that the Bible was “totally accurate” in all its teachings (any evangelical should be familiar with the problems that come from taking the Bible literally or without context; I would have heartily accepted “totally trustworthy when properly interpreted,” however.) And the concept of whether Satan literally existed was hardly relevant to my faith. That there were evil spiritual forces at work was clear; that there was one particular spirit named Satan was pretty irrelevant; you can read the Bible cover to cover and pretty comfortably see Satan as a metaphor for evil spiritual activity in general. I was attending three services a week at the First Evangelical Free Church in Tucson, was active in both Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship and Campus Crusade for Christ, I was manning an open-air discussion table and going out on campus to strike up random conversations with people in the hopes of converting them, and I was a religious studies major studying apologetics and intending to become an evangelical theologian—and yet, to hear George Barna tell it, I never counted.

Be that as it may, even if we take Barna’s word for this, the influence of evangelical ideas is still entrenched enough across the nation to be worth looking at. For example, this same 2004 Barna study found attitudes that have held pretty consistently since the early 1990s, and most of which have only changed very recently: 89% of Americans believe in God, and 69% believe he is a benevolent, all-powerful Creator who intervenes in human affairs. 52% of all adults believe that it is important to share their faith, and 60% believe that the Bible is “totally accurate in all its teachings.” 56% believe that Jesus never committed a sin while on earth, and 60% believe that Satan is literally real. (The only really big change is that the 89% believing in God is down to about 85%.)

I don’t have Barna’s raw data here, but I suspect that if the requirements for “evangelical” were eased to “must be born again and agree with five out of seven of the following beliefs,” we’d be back up to thirty percent in no time. One reason I suspect this: one of the Barna findings is that 28% of the respondents “strongly disagreed” with the concept of salvation by good deeds. Since salvation by good deeds is pretty much a part of every major religion, denying it would seem to suggest that these particular people have had specific counter-training—evangelical counter-training. So even if “true” evangelicals are only about six percent of the population (let’s call these folks hardline evangelicals), most of their beliefs are shared by at least thirty percent of the population. Even if you live in some Babylon like San Francisco or New York City, you probably know someone who’s an evangelical. They’re more numerous than homosexuals, and you probably know at least one of those as well. (Although I imagine if you know a lot of the one, you might not know any of the other.)

But what does “evangelical” mean—especially to evangelicals? A sociologist is hampered in this respect by seeing the world through surveys and checked-off boxes, and this is one reason that evangelicals themselves distrust the studies the moment they’re announced. The evangelical faith is overtly committed to focusing on one’s spiritual life—the real, internal conversion and commitment—and as a result, evangelicals themselves continue to point out how varied the community actually is, how difficult it is to pin any one definition down.

As an actual evangelical once myself, I know how tricky the label can be: just when you think you’re hanging out with a thoroughly orthodox evangelical, she’ll go to the kitchen for a beer or something. (There are plenty of evangelicals who drink beer, but it still raises a consistent eyebrow.) But fortunately, evangelicals themselves, for reasons I will shortly explain, need to find each other. What I remember, having lived it, is that the real difference between evangelical Christians—the people I considered “real, committed Christians”—and the nominal Christians all around us were hard to pin down: someone can say they’re really committed, but how do you really know if someone has a nominal faith or not? Since we’re not supposed to judge by works per se, I remember that every time I met someone, I would check them out against a loose series of shibboleths that suggested, not that a fellow Christian’s soul was pure (who can say that?) but that they spoke the same language and understood the Bible in the same way. The list was something like this:

· Does she talk about her “walk with the Lord”(evangelical) or her “spiritual evolution” (liberal)?

· Does he call the Bible “the word”?

· Does she have “quiet times?” Does he go to “Bible studies?” (Either one of these is a pretty good mark all by itself.)

· Does she swear, smoke, or drink? Does he think evolution might have happened? (Both of these are bad, but not necessarily damning.)

· Does he know Christian music? (This is very useful, because only sectarian Christians have any real reason to listen to Christian music as a genre.)

· Has she ever had sex outside of marriage and been unrepentant about it? (A very strong black mark as well, but not a dealbreaker, since we’re all at different points in our spiritual maturity.)

· Is he open-minded about gay marriage or stem-cell research? (Again, another bad sign; one or two more of these and you’re just a liberal in disguise.)

· Do they go to a megachurch, or a church that calls itself “non-denominational?” Those are good churches; others good ones include Baptist, conservative Lutheran (i.e., Missouri and Wisconsin Synod only), Church of Christ, and Assembly of God. Charismatics and Pentecostals—those Christians who raise their hands, speak in tongues, dance in the aisles and so forth—are often weird, but you can count on them to accept most of the evangelical basics. Bad churches: Any mainstream version of a mainstream church—Presbyterian, Lutheran, and especially Episcopalian. And don’t even talk about Unitarians or the “cults” (Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, etc.)

There are a bunch of these, and of course they vary from person to person, but the idea is to let them collect until you get a general sense of whether or not the person fits the evangelical mold. Note also that although the evangelical is dismissive of “cults” (actually sects) like Mormonism, the fact is that almost every sect of Christianity is also evangelical in most of their thinking and behavior: witnessing to others, having Bible studies, voting Republican[2] [FOOTNOTE: Black evangelicals excepted.], et cetera.
Having said that, let me explain what I mean by “evangelical,” and where I get off claiming to know it for sure.




Blogger Joe said...

This part - "even if “true” evangelicals are only about six percent of the population (let’s call these folks hardline evangelicals)"

'hardline' is pretty good, but would 'fundamentalist' be better?

too strong?

10/22/2007 6:37 PM  
Anonymous aroodig said...

I realize it's a bit late, but does anyone, from any stance on the subject, have an accurate idea of how many homosexuals there are? Since it's a contentious subject, it reads a bit odd that you glide right over it without even stating the number you believe it to be.

And a bit off topic, what would an evangelical regard as homosexual? Someone who practiced it, or someone who just thought about it?

6/15/2008 12:36 PM  
Blogger Cowboy Dave Dickerson said...

So far as I know, the "1 in 10" figure bandied about in a lot of the popular literature is more propaganda than science, and both Dan Savage and Andrew Sullivan have embraced studies that place the number at 3%. That, in my experience, feels awfully low. So I go with 1 in 20, or 5%, which is half of one, almost double the other.

Thanks for pointing out that I should have stopped to discuss this. I think you've just inspired a footnote.

And a traditional old-school evangelical would probably presume that someone is gay only if they PRACTICED a gay sex act. To a diehard evangelical, homosexuality as a "lifestyle" doesn't exist (because the Bible implies it does not), and even dignifying a stray lustful thought as "homosexuality" gives the gay agenda more credit than it deserves.

Younger evangelicals (30 and under) are more comfortable with the idea that people might "be" homosexual without engaging in an actual act, since the science is more widely accepted in that group and rejecting this belief carries a greater social cost. Since they still tend to disapprove of homosexuality (the Bible is, alas, quite clear), I'm not sure what advantage this might afford a homosexual with an evangelical friend--although I guess there's some merit to having at least part of your story believed.

6/15/2008 1:22 PM  
Anonymous aroodig said...

Thanks for your response. Yeah, no matter what number you think is right, there's still the problem of mentioning it at all without some sort of asterisk. Glad to help.

The bible also mentions clothing restrictions for men and women, at least in the old testament if I remember right. Do people tend to just lump those that push gender expectations in with homosexuals, because of the old taboo? People like that aren't always even homosexuals in THOUGHT, so I wonder how the evangelical culture looks at them.

This isn't really directly addressing your work above, though.

6/17/2008 8:19 AM  
Blogger The Poor Blogger said...

A couple of comments:

1. I have noticed that Southern, Evangelical Christians will often ask, "Are you Christian or Catholic?" They usually don't know about Orthodoxy.

2. A friend from Catalonia says it's the opposite there (and in Spain). They ask if you're Christian or Protestant.

3. It might be interesting to see how the more Catholic Northern U.S. would ask the question.

Aside from that, this book seems fascinating! I was raised Evangelical, by all your definitions, and remained so until after marriage. I'm not sure what you'd call me now. An Orthodox friend once called me an "ecumaniac."

I will add one thing. I think that, as hard as you're trying to address both Evangelicals and ... the other guys ... I think that they, by your own definition, wouldn't read such a book. One part of being an Evangelical is a singular lack of doubt which precludes such difficult questions as, "Am I a jerk?"

8/08/2008 1:29 AM  
Blogger Joe said...

I found your website after listening to your NPR segment on the spirit of David. Interesting stuff. I found your story really interesting (partly because mine is so similar, and also you're a great story teller). The chapters you've posted sound more like sermons though than stories. I'll be interested to pick up your book if it makes it through to the bookstore.

9/17/2008 9:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is great work so far. I found your site through Tomato Nation; don't know how I could have missed you on NPR, as I'm a public radio junkie. I quibble with one thing you wrote, however:
"Since salvation by good deeds is pretty much a part of every major religion, denying it would seem to suggest that these particular people have had specific counter-training—evangelical counter-training."
If by major religion you meant the non-Christian ones, perhaps you are right -- I don't know enough about any of those faiths to speak with authority. But when I first read this, I made the common mistake of conflating "religion" with "Christian denomination". The rejection of salvation by good deeds is at the root of the Protestant Reformation. My (Methodist) Sunday School teacher (a theology professor) recently pointed out that Martin Luther was so carried away by his rejection of "salvation by works" that he mis-translated "justified by faith" as "justified by faith *alone*". This is the same error as your teacher's example of Adam making God's law harsher by making it narrower and easier to understand and follow. So I'd say the 28% of survey respondents who rejected salvation by good deeds were reflecting Protestant training, rather than specifically evangelical training.

2/08/2009 8:56 AM  

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