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!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Two Religious Essays For an Inspiring Lurker

I just got contacted by a longtime lurker and currently doubting Pentecostal (hope I got that right!) who asked me what I thought about miracles. Since it's been a while since I had a religious post here, I thought I'd reprint what I said. The Lurker (whose name I withhold in case she wants to continue lurking) said that the main thing she can't quite figure out is how people like me can discount miracles, since there are so many reports of them. Here's what I said:

There are two ways to look at this, I suppose. The first is to assert that all stories of miracles are just that: we see what we want to see, there's confirmation bias (only the answered prayers get noticed, which is sort of a heads-I-win-tails-don't-count phenomenon), and a lot of times the things we pray for weren't that implausible in the first place. (This is why people often find their prayers answered when they get a job they want, but never get their prayers answered when they ask for limbs to regrow. There's an entire website called God Hates Amputees dedicated to this rather silly question.) This would be the more dedicated materialist view: it's all hearsay, it's all in our heads, and there never were any miracles ever.

The other way to look at it--and the one I'm more cautiously in favor of, though I couldn't prove it in a lab--is that the world in general is suffused with miraculous energy. That God--if you will--is at work everywhere, and you don't need to be a member of any particular club to partake in his workings. The proof of this is ridiculously easy to find: any reasonably proselytizing religion (Islam, certain forms of Hinduism, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, etc.) will have websites dedicated to the miracles God is performing in the name of Joseph Smith or Mohammed or whatever guru you happen to flip to. These all tend to be about as plausible and well-attested as Christian miracles (which is to say, not strongly, but they're good stories), and there's no particular reason, outside of special pleading, to discount "other" miracle stories and still believe the Christian ones.

I actually believe something of a mix of these two. I'm staunchly materialist these days, but I'm also convinced that our own brains, with their hunger for narrative and constant searching for patterns and meaning, are capable of affecting the world in some subtle ways: optimists have good luck; pessimists look for a shitty world and find it. Whether God is at work behind the reasons why the hopeful tend to prosper and the untrusting don't is, I guess, a matter of what you're comfortable believing. But if you take a really hard look at the Christian reports of miracles, you'll find that they tend to vanish under scrutiny, just like reports of ESP and UFOs, and a brutally honest person will either believe it all or develop a general skepticism.

By the way, I went to my share of evangelical services, and I actually saw the usual miracle that they tend to trot out at such times: "Someone here has one leg shorter than the other." In retrospect, there's no miracle to "healings" that subtle: the people were walking fine before, they notice a difference in length when they're sitting down (i.e., when their hips are free to swivel and tile things unconsciously), and the heat and energy created by people laying on hands is exactly what you'd expect when ten people all lay hands on someone and really WILL something to happen. One person wiggles, another picks it up, and soon there's an amazing rocking motion that no one person is in control of. It's exactly the same phenomenon that powers the planchette on your average ouija board.

Another bubble: Although Pentecostals in particular are proud of speaking in tongues as a miraculous sign of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the fact is that speaking in tongues has existed throughout the world in a number of different religions--just look up "ecstatic utterance" or "glossolalia." No one has ever been proven to actually speak another language while engaging in glossolalia. Either they're all speaking the language of angels, or they're all making it up, whether intentionally or not.

The Lurker responded, in part, with the following comment:

I also wonder why it seems that the majority of really 'big" miracles you hear about seem to happen in developing countries, and I don't think it's necessarily because people are less educated or more susceptible to be conned. Perhaps some cultures tend to be more spiritually inclined or in-tune with 'miraculous energy'? Hm. Also thanks for the tip on glossololia. I used to spend large amounts of time worrying about why I could never speak in tongues, but also resented feeling like a second-class Christian :)

To which I replied as follows:

I'm just hardheaded enough to think that the reason miracles get reported in more "primitive" countries has less to do with their spirituality and more their lack of access to movie cameras and other testing technology. It's the same reason that UFOs only appear in the backwoods and not over New York City. If they appeared over New York City, either everyone would see them, or everyone would know the guy talking about them was lying. In the backwoods, you literally have one or two guys telling the story and that's all the proof anyone can reasonably expect. Even overseas, the big miracle stories (like pentecostal healing revivals) rarely occur in even so-called "second-world" metropolises like Mexico City or New Delhi, but (again) in some outlying area or in a controlled environment where no one skeptical even bothered to show up. In paranormal studies, this is sometimes called a "jealous phenomenon" ("I can't do my ESP if there are doubters in the room"), and it's always cause for suspicion.

By the way, your comment about "second-class" Christians is another thing that sort of drew me out of conservatism. If grace is available to all, and salvation is basically equal for everyone, every idea I was ever taught about some people having more joy in heaven than others (or more peace down here because of the gift of tongues or as a reward for saving souls) never made any sense to me. Either works matter or they don't, and it seems absolutely obvious to me that any model of salvation that actually saves people generously could possibly have any such thing as "levels" of salvation that might pit one believer as superior to another. The moment you posit that--that I'm sort of saved "better" than you--you're really exposing the ugly side of your faith: that perhaps its appeal is not that you get to save people, but that you get to be more holy than the unsaved. Which is why the real humble Christian churches--the ones that have gray borders and who let just anyone show up, no matter how foul or unreformed--have never been as popular as churches that have stricter standards. (Even though the former churches--which is what the house-church movement, at its best, is trying to be--is obviously closer to the spirit of Christ. I guess another way of putting it is that there's no way I can think of that a TRULY Christlike church--one that actually embraces the lepers regularly--will ever be popular enough to survive to a second generation. Instead, the idea of the returning-to-Christ church, the invite-everyone model, is one that has to constantly be reinvented as a sort of occasional subculture outside the existing church.)

I kind of want to add that, to my mind, the mainstream or evangelical Christian church is to mainstream representative fiction as the determinedly sacrificial and rather difficult church is to metafiction: weird storytelling tricks like you see in Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy and Vonnegut and Pynchon keep reappearing, but it never actually revolutionizes fiction; it's just a consistent crowd-pleaser for the subculture that cares more about thinking about fiction than normal people could be expected to. Your smart money will always be on representative fiction that doesn't pull any unusual stunts. In the same way, you'll always fill more pews by having a church that feels like what people think of as a church--not by challenging peoples' ideas of what a church should be. But there I think I'll stop. I've got a big writing day tomorrow.


Blogger Laura Toepfer said...

Hello, there! I've written a comment a time or two, though I don't know if you remember: I'm an Episcopal priest, recommended "off the map" as a source for publication.

At any rate, right now I'm doing a three-month stint in Kampala, Uganda where the headline news last week was of a woman who confessed she had claimed to be miraculously cured of AIDS when she had never had AIDS to begin with. Truly sad stories abound of people being told to give up their ARVs as a sign of their faith, just cruel, cruel behavior. "I demand that you experience a miracle, and if you don't, it's due to your own lack of faith." The Church and her followers have a LOT to answer for.

5/12/2008 7:11 AM  
Blogger Chad E Burns said...

heavy post--the kind you want to read more than once. I too am of a mixed mind--I am mostly the skeptic when it come sto miracles and answering prayer, but I do also believe in the untapped mental power and "aura" energy that exists.

On a side not about being more saved, I used to always worry about not "witnessing" enough, I would ask youthpastors, sunday school teachers, whatever about it, and whether it was required. The most consistent answer was "No, it is not required to gte into heaven; but you'll get a smaller crown" as somewhere we associated the :"jewels" in your heavenly crown with the number of people you touched. This was fine with me, because I didn't care to wear a crown in Heaven, and just wanted to make sure I wasn't going to Hell. I look back on these childish thoughts, now as an adult, and I wonder how many other little skeptics were just fine not witnesing and bringing friends to church, as long as they themselves didn't have to worry about being sent to HELL for it. :) I think I'll turn this comment into a post of this myself.

5/12/2008 10:07 AM  
Blogger Cowboy Dave Dickerson said...

Oh, the jewels in the crown thing! I'd forgotten about that! Though of course, what makes it more confusing is that it's not consistently taught, so while there's a general sense that you SHOULD be doing good deeds of various sorts, there's no consistent rationale for WHY--for exactly that reason: if heaven's perfect already, why nitpick about whose heavenly mansion is nicer? Wouldn't perfect Christians be beyond that sort of thing anyway?

And Laura--thanks for reminding me, because I've wanted to thank you for leading me to Off The Map, which really is a fearless and interesting website for those of us who are curious about what evangelicals do now and could do in the future. It's become a weekly stop for me, and I'm so happy they update it regularly. Big hugs! (And geez--good luck in Uganda! That's pretty high on my list of places I never want to travel to.)

5/12/2008 12:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like “inspiring lurker” even more than “evangelical in crisis”! For now I’m not entirely out-of-the-closet about all my questioning, so thanks for the title.

I do come from Pentecostal church though I’ve dabbled in Baptist and more recently evangelical covenant. I completely agree about how far most churches have come from the humble, ‘back to Christ’ spirit. But the conclusion that truly sacrificial religion is not appealing enough to survive more than one generation makes me think two things:

---Does the existence of one enable the rebirth of the other? Does that legitimize mainstream selling-out (or ‘adapting to be culturally relevant’, whatever)?

---You identified the main problem I and probably others struggle with.. in the face of contradictions and hypocrisy and twisted human interpretations, do we reject religion outright, delude ourselves into ignoring the warning signs, or try to salvage it for the thread of effectiveness or truth that remain? I feel like outright rejection or delusion are much easier than processing through the good and the ugly. For that I appreciate dialogs like your blog promotes.

Another note~ I like the house-church idea of trying to get “back to Christ,” and live as the early churches, but wouldn’t such an effort involve people turning bits of food into meals for thousands of people, or people dropping dead after lying about their tithing habits? It just seems that the even the most Christ-like Christians still selectively filter what parts of the bible they emphasize. I guess it’s impossible not to, at least somewhat..

Well, I’d better get back to lurking! Cheers,

5/12/2008 6:58 PM  
Blogger that atheist guy said...

Great post.

As I have said elsewhere, there is no supernatural, but the natural is super. (See Alan Watts)

On an unrelated note, you might be interested in this blog debate with Bart Ehrman:

(The first posts start at the bottom. If that link above appears cut off check the source. It should end as "is_our_pain_gods_problem/")

I found it through this blog which you might also be interested in:

5/13/2008 9:35 AM  
Blogger Judith said...

I had a great talk with the pastor of my (current) church this weekend. We were discussing how the faith community of this particular church (UCC, if that matters) is one in which relationships are more important than rules. We were also talking about how this is what the New Testament seems to be talking about (if you can actually find the original New Testament among all of the biased edits). Ultimately, a faith community based on relationships is much more difficult because a person has to be willing to be emotionally vulnerable, and has to determine how much he/she wants to open up to others. It means being accepting even when you find it irksome.

As for miracles, I go along with the collective energy concept, but mostly I believe that we are the ones who make miracles for one another. I do believe in the power of prayer as a means of sending positive energy to a person. And I always tell my mother (who is 86 and on O2 24/7) to remind God when she's praying her rosary that He'd damned well better listen up because soon enough she'll be up there to kick His ass. :) (Mom likes that one.)

5/18/2008 4:12 PM  

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