Blinded by the Light: The Boss, and What it Means to be Human

I just finished watching the movie: Blinded by the Light in our local theater. It is based on the real life story of a young Pakistani in Great Britain who is inspired to achieve something other than the pedestrian ambitions of his conservative father. I walked away uplifted and strangely spiritually moved. A Pakistani, and a Muslim at that, and yet I felt more in common with him than my own conservative Christian background.

At movie’s end, Javid comes to realize that the Springsteen lyrics “blinded by the light” were not referring to a love affair, or something solely personal, but referred  to how blinded we become to our shared humanity, our shared struggles as humans, how we are family. No matter how far we roam, we are still family, both literally and figuratively.

Javid’s journey in many ways, mirrors my own. No, not that my father was unsupportive or that my parents weren’t proud of me, but that we all belong to non biological families that we are “born into.” The family I am referring to, that I was born into, was American conservative Christianity.

The movie, set in the 1980s, shows a Britain in turmoil. Loss of jobs, a slumping economy and severe racial tensions. Javid is caught between two worlds, the world of White GB and his Pakistani heritage. His father’s stern warnings about becoming “British” instead of Pakistani, reminds me of dozens of sermons I’ve hear over the years in church. In listening to The Boss, Javid is suddenly aware that someone who doesn’t look like him, with an entirely different culture than his Pakistani one…understands!

In his 1980s GB, the culture wars are in full swing, White Nationalism and the inevitable clash between working class whites and working class immigrants. Sound familiar? Both traditions strove to separate themselves from each other, to concentrate on their differences rather than commonalities. Javid is exasperated when his father refuses to confront racism and ignorance, but instead states Pakistanis must keep their heads down and not draw attention to themselves. Like the way blacks were expected to behave in America for so many years.

And this is where it started to hit home for me. Conservative Christianity, like the practice of Javid’s father’s Muslim heritage, is divisive. At core, religion done badly points to the faults of others and creates an “us vs them” mentality. It was this realization, some half dozen years ago, that started me down the road of deconstructing my Christian heritage. Christians like James Dobson, Jerry Falwell and Franklin Graham, to name a few, didn’t sound like Christ.

At first, I thought it was mainly their tone that was unlike Christ. As though there was a polite way to tell gays they were living in sin and going to hell! The problem was, the church offered no way to simultaneously “witness” in a loving fashion, without completely invalidating another’s existence. And this hits at the heart of the evangelical “problem,” they say they love others with the love of Christ, but their actions say otherwise. This is not to say that all individual conservative Christians fall into this category, but rather, the system is rigged to be judgmental and exclusive. There is a great, big “IF’ attached to the so-called, unmerited love of God. God loves you IF you’re not gay, God loves you IF you’re not a Muslim, God loves you IF you believe the Bible is inerrant, there are myriads of “ifs” attached.

The biggest “if” is attached to being white and conservative. And of course, Republican. This is a shoe-in for being on God’s “good side.” A rather slip-shod and shallow reading of the New Testament gives the conservative church a platform to build a narrow, divisive and somewhat paranoid version of Christianity that leads to a church that no longer feels itself a part of the human race, the vast majority of whom “are not lovers of truth,” and are “going to hell.” While hell-fire preaching has fallen out of vogue among evangelicals, the animus is still lying just below the surface. It comes out, rather, in the way conservative Christians wage the “culture wars.” The way they throw their support and hopes onto someone who represents everything Christ is NOT about. Abortion is a diversion from the ugliness that so much the church in America has come to represent. And please, this is not politics I am talking about. Rather, it hits at the core of not only what kind of America do we wish to be, but what kind of Christian do we wish to be.

In conclusion, the movie helped me see that I am a human first, and share that bond with the entire human race. If I strive to be anything, it is to be a better human, or as Jesus said, a better “neighbor.” It’s not about being a better “Christian,” although that should logically follow if one seeks the first. This is backwards, from most sermons I have heard, I know, but I think if the church started behaving more human, they’d end up being more Christ-like.

White Nationalism: The Republican New Normal

“Go back to where you came from” appears to be the new rally cry for Republicans, a more honest, yet ugly slogan than the previous MAGA one. Yet the two are intrinsically linked as their meaning is clear: “America is for White people. If you don’t like that, you can leave.” Republicanism is no longer a “big tent” party, but is has increasingly allowed itself to be distracted by White Nationalism. In doing so it has become clear that Republicans under the leadership of the current occupant of the White House, have given up on appealing to a wide swath of Americans. Instead, they have realized that increasingly they are at odds with the majority of Western Democracies and the progressive gains in them, and so have decided to appeal to a smaller constituency: White Racists.

The adage “you can’t please everyone” may be part of the strategy the White House is employing here. Democrats may fail in trying to be “all things to all people,” while Republicans will, perhaps, have greater success by appealing to a smaller group: their base. It is far easier to appeal to a small group rather than a larger, disparate group. There is no concerted effort, it would seem, to appeal to people of color, women, sexual minorities, non-Christians, in short the Republican appeal seems to be directed straight at middle class Whites with 2 years or less of college education. As this is a shrinking demographic, we may be witnessing the “beginning of the end” for the Grand Old Party.

The Two Party system itself may be partially to blame here, as in other countries xenophobic populism is more confined to minority parties. Here in the US it has no choice to do so but has become the “mainstream” alternative to a broader centrist party: the Democratic.

“The difference is that in Europe, far-right populist parties are often an alternative to the mainstream. In the United States, the Republican Party is the mainstream.”

“That’s the tragedy of the American two-party system,” Mr. Greven said. In a multiparty government, white working-class populists might have been shunted into a smaller faction, and the Republicans might have continued as a “big tent” conservative party. Instead, the Republican Party has allowed its more extreme elements to dominate. “Nowhere in Europe do you have that phenomenon.” 1

Thomas Greven is a political scientist at the Free University of Berlin who has studied right-wing populism. He goes on to say that “The Democrats fall closer to mainstream left and center-left parties in other countries, like the Social Democratic Party in Germany and Britain’s Labour Party, according to their manifestos’ scores.

And the United States’ political center of gravity is to the right of other countries’, partly because of the lack of a serious left-wing party. Between 2000 and 2012, the Democratic manifestos were to the right of the median party platform. The party has moved left but is still much closer to the center than the Republicans.” 2

One of the arguments used on both sides is the “no true Scotsman” fallacy. You hear it constantly. Those women “hate America!” They are “unAmerican,” or “antiAmerican.” To be fair, the Democrats, in turn, return the jib: Trump is “unAmerican.” Let me be perfectly clear, this is not a contest to determine who is the most patriotic or nationalistic candidate to run our country, but, what kind of America do we wish to be!

You see, America was not always welcoming, inclusive and color-blind. We quickly forget our past history with our First Nation peoples, slavery and Jim Crow. We forget the arrogant assumptions of Western European imperialism. We prefer to gloat over a false narrative of American exceptionalism, and pat ourselves on the back over our Constitution, one that claimed universal “truths” yet denied those privileges to a large swath of people. So when the current White House occupant-in-Chief says, “Make America Great Again,” he is talking about returning to that America, the narrow, small minded one. Those who don’t like that can leave.

Trump is Saying What Many Christians Think

The latest racist tweet from Mr. Trump is the most overtly racist yet. It is reminiscent of America in the 1950s, when people felt emboldened or entitled enough to directly jeer, mock and criticize others based on the color of there skin. The sad part is, many Christians will still support this moral midget. In a segregated South, Christians were openly hostile towards Blacks and other people of color, and didn’t apologize for it, nor see the conflict between being Christian and being a racist. This holds true for many people of faith still today.

Telling others to “go back to where they came from,” is the cry of White Nationalism, the bedrock belief that only people of White, European descent should have a say in the governance of our country. That people of color, who have traditionally not had the same benefits or opportunity as Whites, do not have the right to criticize social injustices, and should meekly accept what ever scraps fall of the White man’s table.

Yet, those who have bought into the “Pro-Life” narrative cleverly devised by the Republican-Religious Right two-headed monster, will still support this bigot because he is “Pro-Life.” Yet, he reeks of the stench of bigotry and all that is ungodly!

But I would posit that this has less to do with his Pro-Life stance among evangelicals, than with his bigotry, which is the real reason for overwhelming White evangelical support. He is viewed as a beleaguered and much maligned outsider in the same manner as many White evangelicals view themselves. It is the same disgusting and narcissistic twisting of real social injustices—where the oppressor paints themself as the one actually wronged.

Yesterday, we sat through yet again, another awkward sermon at my mother’s evangelical church. The associate pastor admonished us to “respect” the “authority” of “those God puts in power.” The usual cherry-picked Bible verses were thrown out on “obeying the rulers,” and “rendering unto Caesar.” And, after the latest racist tweet as well. Odd, but that sermon would never have been preached during the Obama administration!

Hypocrites! I am so disgusted with all of it!

The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of a Dying Church

One of the noticeable trends in Christendom over the last few decades has been ever decreasing church attendance. While it could be argued that the death of Christendom has been a long time coming, perhaps even already realized in Europe, American evangelicals have always pretended they never received the memo.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal discuses the possible political and social ramifications of declining church attendance in America. I think the greatest tragedy or failure of American Evangelicalism is its inability to change and its resistance to change. In short, like the words: “diversity, inclusion, social justice”—change is seen as a “bad” word. It is something the “world” does, but not the church. The perception of holding on to the Truth, once delivered to the apostles and prophets of yore, creates a powerful deterrent to improvement.

While the world steadily marches toward social justice, greater inclusion and diversity, the American church seems to be marching the other direction. The problem is further complicated by the history of racism within fundamentalism, the well-spring from which the evangelical movement sprang. As such, the evangelical movement, especially on the Southern reformed side, is solidly a movement of White privilege and superiority. The affects of “the Southern way of life,” cannot be overlooked when trying to understand why the church is in the position today of fighting against so many different attempts by society for greater social justice.

The Wall Street Journal article links the declining birth rate and decrease in church attendance as two factors that are putting tremendous pressure on conservatism:

“Together, these trend lines suggest significant changes in the shape of society in years to come. Some will be comfortable with them as simply signs of the natural evolution in ever-changing American society. On the other hand, such trends tend to alarm and motivate supporters of President Trump, who essentially promises a return to an America of yore. Either way, they are worthy of discussion in the 2020 campaign.”

This may be true, but I don’t think conservative Christians are in a position to deal with the issue in a healthy manner. Yes, they, for the most part, are aware of the decline in church attendance, but their understanding of the “why” is misplaced. Dispensationalism and a 150 years of “end times” hand wrenching has provided an answer for them: it is inevitable that before Christ returns there will be a “falling away” from the Faith. There you have it: “it’s not our problem, it’s yours.” As America becomes younger and far less White, the fear among many evangelicals will only deepen and provide further “proof” that they are right, while all others are wrong.

For someone who grew up in the evangelical faith it is a bit like watching a train wreck in slow motion. While I long to see reform come to evangelicalism in America, reformers such as Beth Moore seem like such a long shot. The powers behind the evangelical movement are too firmly entrenched in their control, too white and too male. Make no mistake, it is a control and power issue. The old hard-liners within evangelicalism represented by groups such as the Gospel Coalition have thoroughly bought into the dispensational, end times scenario, because it keeps them on top of the power curve. The influx of immigrants and undocumented aliens, the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements, feminism and even abortion rights all attack the belief that white men are in charge. The erosion of power can be seen in real time and has produced a frantic, panicky response from many of these men. The recent response of SBC men to Beth Moore’s request to allow women to fully express the gifts of the Holy Spirit within that body was immediate and almost comical. They went on full panic attack. What is it about a tiny blond Southern Baptist woman that creates so much fear among these men?

My wife who is evangelical, keeps admonishing me to see the good in evangelicalism and not concentrate so much on the faults. I do try, and find encouragement in the efforts of men like Scott McKnight, Roger E. Olson or Beth Moore, but they are fighting an uphill battle and time is not on their side. Society is changing too rapidly, I believe, for evangelicalism to catch up.

As for myself, I find the atmosphere on the other side of the fence much healthier and liberating than the evangelical side. As I have pointed out in a past post, Western society seems to be, at least for now, acting more Christlike than the conservative church in America. This is undoubtably, because conservatism is given a higher priority than Christ-likeness among many American Christians. There are a number of scenarios I can see play out here. There is a strong possibility that conservatism will win out and evangelicalism will become more insular and removed from society, which would best fit the self-fulfilling prophetic vision of dispensationalism. A slightly less likely possibility is that the church realizes it is headed in the wrong direction, and with glacial speediness, changes over the next couple decades, and actually starts practicing true Christian charity—but only after the tremendous loss of influence over society and the sad realization that much of the damage they’ve done cannot be undone. A third highly unlikely option is that evangelicals suddenly wake up, repent and once again become powerhouses for change in society.

If history is any indicator, I think the second option the most likely. What do you think?

An Easter Service That Missed the Mark

So, Easter 2019 has come and gone, and it couldn’t have been more awkward or spiritually depressing. I was too disturbed emotionally to post an uplifting Easter message on my blog, so I shared one from another blog: Letters to the Next Generation which I had found inspiring. My wife and I take my 94 year old mother to her Assemblies of God church, the denomination I had been raised in, every Sunday. As I have “deconstructed” my belief system over the past half dozen years I have come to realize that my faith has become at odds with that tribe’s belief system and have been looking for a “graceful” way to transition to a more open, affirming church, but in the meantime…we are kind of stuck with things the way they are.

As usual, the worship portion of the service was vibrant and uplifting, as is befitting a Pentecostal service. Unfortunately, the sermon was anything but. The pastor is a good man and means well. He has all the pieces of the puzzle, as do many evangelicals, but doesn’t seem to realize how the pieces are supposed to fit. He follows the same tired pattern of fitting the pieces together that Bible School has taught him, ignoring the solutions that don’t fit the evangelical dispensational narrative and forcing pieces together that don’t quite fit.

He started with some humorous antidotes and pictures from his recent trip to the Holy Land, a sort of Mecca for evangelicals. He remarked on the serine beauty and foliage surrounding the purported tomb of Jesus and pointed out the emptiness of the tomb and the promise of life rather than death it and the surroundings denoted. So far so good… Then the sermon took a turn: he started comparing other religions to Christianity. He tried to spin things so that it appeared he was taking, not about Christianity as a religion, but a relationship, but in evangelicalism “relationship with Jesus” ALWAYS means “religion,” belief in certain orthodox doctrines. So his attempts at painting other religions as man’s attempts to reach God, and Christianity as true “relationship,” sounded hollow.

Then he expounded on a frequent hot button issue recently, and a big factor in the Religious Rights war on society: inclusivity. In describing salvation he likened other religions and those outside traditional Christianity to Little League players who receive “participation trophies.” In his mind’s eye there should only be winners and losers. Participation trophies are for losers. As in all evangelical churches I’ve come across, evangelicals are the winning team of course, while all else earn a place in hell, no matter how good their intentions or how sincere the effort. This obsession with declaring who the losers are permeates much of evangelical teaching and in my opinion weakens the atonement and declares the Cross a failure.

In building his argument he used the usual scripture: “no man comes to the Father but by me,” John 14:6, to be interpreted as exclusive rather than a declaration of what God has done through Christ for ALL. Oddly, he quoted Jesus’ words from the Cross: “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing,” Luke 23:34, as showing what great love God has for us, yet didn’t see the correlation between the two different verses. This is what I mean by evangelicals have all the pieces to the puzzle, but don’t know how to fit them together. How can Jesus’ request to the Father be sincere if God’s love is conditional? Did God then say, “sorry Son, I know you mean well, but only a few will be forgiven?” The request becomes entirely rhetorical and utterly meaningless in evangelical teaching. And, of course, it puts Jesus at odds with the Father, another problem altogether.

Without getting into the early church teaching on Universal Reconciliation, which was the default for almost 500 years, I will say that Jesus IS the means by which all will be saved, and it is ONLY through Him that the Father has accomplished that, and that ALL will eventually declare Him Lord, and every knee shall bow Philippians 2:10-11. This is not a forced obeisance, a powerful overlord demanding worship from the vanquished, as some evangelicals believe, but the accomplishment of the fruition of the Coming Age, when YHWH is declared Lord of all. The evangelical God is too petty, too vindictive and to tribal to be Lord of All.

So in conclusion, a missed opportunity, a service that did not provide hope and was more bad news than Good News. A sermon that predictably followed the usual confirmation biases and settled for “alternate facts,” having the pieces but not following the picture on the box cover. So close, yet so far.

Ps. I don’t think I have stressed strongly enough the implications the pastor was suggesting in his attack or critique of “inclusivity.” In the “culture war” that the Religious Right has been waging, a war that has its roots in the antebellum South, the resistance to inclusivity has strong racial and sexual overtones. Although the sermon weaponized the Bible against people who fell outside evangelical conventions, historically evangelical exclusivity has been used to exclude, not just those of other religions, but women, minorities, entire races (other than Whites), and people of non-binary sexual inclinations. It is a White, patriarchal dog-whistle that divides, rather than unites people.

While I am sure that the good pastor was not intentionally implying those exclusions: most White evangelicals are oblivious to their subconscious biases, it was there, nonetheless. The problem with the whole winner-loser approach of evangelicalism is that it totally misses the point of Jesus’ interactions with women, Samaritans, sinners, outsiders and the Romans themselves. Jesus was very inclusive…it disturbed the leadership of Second Temple Judaism deeply, and like the frustrations of evangelicals with inclusivity today, brought Jesus into direct conflict with the religious leadership of Jesus’ day.

A point I hear raised repeatedly by evangelicals I interact with online, is the belief that Jesus was religiously conservative. I firmly believe, had he been so, he would have fit in nicely with the Pharisees and Sadducees of his day. He would have sided with one on some topics and the other on other topics. He would have simply been just another rabbi arguing the finer points of the Law of Moses. But he was not. His teaching was a shot across the bow of Second Temple Judaism, a call for religious conservatives to repent. I wish evangelicals could see the Pharisee within their ranks.