Smallfoot: Too “Liberal” for Evangelicals?

Last week I saw a delightful little cartoon, “Smallfoot” in the theater. I expected a silly kid’s cartoon but was surprised at the postmodern message. I found it had a much deeper message than I expected. And of course, was curious to see the evangelical response as the movie’s agenda was to reassure kids that it was ok to question dogma, that it was not bad to question authority.

I won’t go into the details of the storyline but it involved a society of yetis whose culture revolved around the sayings/rules written on small stones and worn as a robe by the spiritual leader of the yeti clan. The stones were unquestionably excepted as propositional truth. Sound familiar? In short, the stones were devised by the “stonekeepers” to protect the yeti clan from the dangers “out there” beneath the clouds, i.e., humans.

The parallels to modern evangelicalism were not lost on the evangelical gatekeepers: the Gospel Coalition. The response was, swift and negative. First off, the author, Bret McCracken uses a typical evangelical response by reversing a fundamentalist principal and applying it as a negative to liberals:

“If one stone is wrong, then others could be as well,” one yeti says, voicing an argument that is suspiciously similar to liberal claims that any seeming inconsistency or scientifically implausible thing in the Bible means the whole thing is up for grabs.”

This is odd, because it is not actually a liberal statement, but one fundamentalists use constantly as a reason for the inerrancy of scripture. The Bible as a whole must be entirely inerrant or it cannot be trusted at all. It is the “house of cards” analogy that fundamentalist like James Orr (1844-1913) rejected outright as “a most suicidal position for any defender of revelation to take up.” I had a rather lengthy and unproductive dialogue with an inerrantist on my blog last year, Inerrancy At any rate, this is an entirely misleading and dishonest assessment of progressive thought on the inspiration of scripture.

McCracken goes on to state “Smallfoot joins films like M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village and Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (among many others) in showing how seeking truth can be disruptive and dangerous, but ultimately freeing. These films also show how safe, utopian communities, insulated from the dangers outside (whether in different people or different ideas), never work if they are sustained by deception and fear-based control.”

I wonder if Mr. McCracken actually understands how evangelicalism works? He goes on to declare that the above is not the problem but seeing knowledge as “power” is: “This sort of faith is about fear and control, suppressing knowledge in order to preserve power. And thus the flipside is also about power. Knowledge, curiosity, facts, discovery—these are framed in the film as tools of empowerment. Taking down the man. Breaking free from systems of control. Putting power in new hands. Getting woke.”

If only the religious right was not about power, but it is naive to think otherwise and this is where The Gospel Coalition’s blindside resides: the inability to see that the Religious Right is ALL about power. By nature, authoritarian structures are not question based, but based on the few in power who establish the rules of governance. I will address whether or not evangelicalism is a threat to a free democratic society in a future post.

”Taking down the man,” is the real fear here. Who is the “man?” Well, white evangelical men is the obvious answer. The framers of the Democratic experiment known as the United States…all white men. In American fundamentalist Protestant circles, yep, all white men. And what else is the doctrine of eternal torment and hell for unbelievers about if it isn’t about “fear-based control?” American culture has been framed almost exclusively from the perspective of white male privilege, including conservative Christianity.

Evangelicalism as a whole is based on “if-then” propositions. Only, the ifs are not really ifs but self-evident “truths” that are excepted unquestionably, and that my friend is what the movie is getting at. Roger E Moore is one evangelical who “gets” this and has written why this propositional approach among evangelicals prevents true reforms within the movement. The stones in the movie are accepted as “facts,” even though they are not. This is a problem when we approach religions based on doctrinal “facts,” especially when the truths are not self-evident and at times contradictory.

McCracken goes on to say, “The film’s obsession with power is certainly of a piece with the 2018 zeitgeist, where gender, race, politics, class, even the NFL, are partisan, bitter battlefields over power. To our shame, many evangelicals have indeed become more known for our desperate grip on power than our Christ-like, gospel-shaped lives. And grievously, science, knowledge, and “facts” have also become pawns in the great power battles of our time.

Smallfoot mirrors this dysfunctional world and sadly encourages the next generation to follow suit. It shrinks knowledge into a power play wherein we get woke and the old order gets gets exposed.”

In this McCracken unwittingly betrays the problem with evangelicalism and its interaction with the non-evangelical: it views itself in a cosmic power struggle with society, “gender, race, politics, class, even the NFL.” Rather than seeking ways to work WITH society to achieve a better world, the world’s attempts are suspect and to be avoided. Unfortunately, this puts most evangelicals and certainly their leadership actually working against a better, more loving and exclusive society.

The movie ends on a happy note with the barrier between humans and yetis torn down and the beginnings of a diverse cooperative society. But this does not fit the evangelical narrative at all. First of all, it removes the “us vs them” mentality that shapes much of evangelicalism. Authoritarian structures need inferiors in order to maintain their superior status. The Romans had the Christians, Hitler had the Jews. Fundamentalism has had numerous inferior people groups in the past: Jews, Catholics, Liberals and black athletes who dare suggest there is a race problem in America.

Secondly, authoritarian structures like evangelicalism and fundamentalism function on the premise that there is unity in conformity. Conformity plays a big part in the movie. The yeti clan moves along smoothly because no one is allowed to rock the boat. Let me be very clear about this, evangelicalism does not entertain much diversity. Authoritarian structures are not set up for diversity. They crumble under non conformity. Conformity was the strength of the Roman Catholic Church for a millennia. Because Protestants could not agree on the “stones” to follow, but still had to have absolute conformity, they split into numerous denominations, and at numerous times actually killed each other. So it is not the search for answers that is the danger here, but denial of that search in favor of a “hive mentality.” In fact, those in yeti society that are nonconformists are forced to meet in secret to avoid being astracized. Christians should do well to remember that once they had to meet secretly in the catacombs because they did not fit into an authoritarian society.

Perhaps a more balanced assessment can be found Here 

“One of the characters in “Smallfoot” says something like this: “Truth is complicated and can be scary, but it’s better than believing a lie.” Truth is what we should always seek. We should blindly accept nothing, and our Lord does not ask us to do so. He has given us a world which showcases His creativity and declares His glory. He has given us His Word which resounds with truth and reason. Its claims can be answered. Its Author can be trusted. Its Savior can be called upon. Faith is not blindly accepting the flawed traditions of men… it is trusting completely in the One who made us and sustains us. And when we do so, we see that empty traditions, the world’s lies and the secular teachings of mere man that we may have once believed now ring false.”

“Much of the allegory will be far above the heads of very young children but should provide lots to think about for preteens through adults. Can a lie be a “good” lie? Should we ever be willing to deny the truth in order to protect others? Is it okay to question what we have always been taught? I am actually thankful for a film which presents a platform for such thought… or better yet, discussion. Even if this film may have been intended to cause viewers to doubt religious teachings, it is always good to examine why we believe what we believe.”

And with that I agree. It is always good to examine what we believe.

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https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/smallfoot-saying-faith-science/

https://christiananswers.net/spotlight/movies/2018/smallfoot2018.html

Libertarian or Socialist: What’s a Christian to do?

Faith in action is, by nature, political. In other words, Christians and those of other faiths, when acting out their beliefs publicly, will, inevitably have political consequences. While I tend towards Anabaptist theology and world views, I tend towards political action, hopefully in a bipartisan fashion, rather than eschew political involvement. I do respect many within the Anabaptist fold’s decision to be “above the fray,” but personally feel a responsibility to vote and hold political leaders accountable. To be fair, Anabaptist’s teach that voting is a personal choice, and not a binding rule.

Something I have noted in the past year or so, is that there is a growing margin to the far left and far right politically. On the left in we have Bernie Sanders and Democratic Socialists of America. On the right we have Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and an increasing amount of Christians who distrust “Big Government” on social issues. Republican politicians relish the socialist swing in the Democratic Party, as they can equate it to communism and its failures. On the other hand, Democrats can point to the callousness of libertarian ideals and its social Darwinism. Although libertarianism was on the upswing among conservatives before the Trump fiasco, aspects of it still find favor among evangelicals.

Simply put, evangelicals find the libertarian resistance to big government appealing when it comes to social issues like states rights, abortion, gay marriage, and freedom of religion, but reject its aversion to military spending. Also shared is the evangelical general belief that taxes are too high. It is an odd combination of smaller government, support for big business, a rejection of government mandating social reforms at the expense of personal liberties, combined with a willingness for the government to limit the personal freedoms of those who don’t share their evangelical worldview.

While I am not a fan of Ayn Rand’s survival of the fittest, I understand the appeal of “individual freedom through lower taxes and reducing the size and scope of government,” which a few years ago, was the view of 40% of Republicans polled. (1) No one likes to be told they have support financially, things they don’t believe in. However, as a Christian who is concerned about society, there are things that spiritually just don’t line up.

Conflicts invariably arise when Americans define the role of government. Although not strictly libertarian, evangelicals have remained fairly consistent in their criticism that the government spends far too much on social issues that would best be left to churches and private charities. The fact that those non profit organizations cannot possibly meet the needs of so many needy is of little consequence to them. I often hear “those that don’t work, don’t eat,” and the belief that the homeless and those on welfare are lazy and are part of a systemic jobless environment. In other words, only those they deem worthy should receive charity.

On the other hand, the lean towards socialism amongst Democrats raises fears among the Religious Right that they will be forced to tolerate or even support groups of people they mistrust or are in disagreement with. It is no secret that the reforms of the last 100 years are not viewed favorably among evangelicals, who see them as proof that America is sliding towards perdition. And socialism directly affects the pocketbook of Americans.

One should not discount the strong appeal that finances have on the libertarian impulse among evangelicals. It is costly to run social programs and subsidize non profits, especially if one does not agree with the aims of those programs. Hence the appeal of trickle down economics among evangelicals, which, ironically, has had little effect over the long haul on the typical American pocketbook, favoring mainly the upper 1% (2), or for community services like Planned Parenthood. The result of the evangelical love affair with a libertarian small government is an evangelicalism that sides with the wealthiest 1% and eschews government social reforms for some of the neediest and most marginalized in our society. This is totally backwards to the Kingdom principals put forth by the Messiah they are supposed to be following.

While quick to describe what they feel is NOT the role of government, they are eager to give power to the government to enact laws favorable towards evangelicals and unfavorable to non-evangelicals. This is where things get scary, and I think departs furthest from libertarianism. True libertarianism wishes to limit, as much as possible governmental control over the individual citizen. Evangelicals wish this for THEMSELVES but not for others. Pure and simple, this is a longing for a return to Christendom, a time when western governments supported and promulgated a form of Christianity that merged with government. A period that covered most of church history, both Catholic and Protestant.

While I am in support of the teachings of Jesus underlying our laws in principal, I am not in support of the church as institution validating our government. This has been an abject failure historically for society. Repeating the same mistakes of the past expecting a different result this time, is insanity.

So what about socialism? Well, despite the fact that it more closely aligns with Kingdom principals of “doing unto the least of these,” it promotes almost everything evangelicalism has rejected. The problem is that the Religious Right aligns more with a totalitarian, authoritarian view of the Kingdom, than a merciful one. Law and order (affecting non-whites mainly) and the freedom to discriminate freely against those who are “others,” has replaced tolerance and caring for one’s neighbor. The Religious Right has opted for a Kingdom that only they will feel at home in.

A few closing thoughts. We have, I believe, entered an ugly time in America. The conservative church has basically shot itself in the foot with its obvious callousness, selfishness and disregard for the needs of the “others” in society. There are and will be consequences. Civility in discourse, especially in disagreements, has died. While not the reason for the mess, Trump feeds off of and encourages the discord. He has tapped into a very ugly side of America, and the church has done little to dissuade him, and in most instances, sided with him. Where will evangelicalism be a decade from now? It will be far smaller for sure. It will be reforming and repenting, as the current leaders die off, are accused of sexual misconduct or are replaced by younger more inclusive individuals. But Christianity will never be the same again in America. And that, I believe, is a good thing.

1 https://www.politico.com/story/2013/09/poll-republicans-libertarian-096576

2 https://www.cnbc.com/2018/01/04/warren-buffett-on-the-failure-of-trickle-down-economics.html

God, Country and Guns

This article on Sojourners got me thinking.  What we think about guns…While there is a definite “God, Country and guns” crowd, the dialogue needs, IMO, to center around how we as a society have historically seen violence as the best means of resolving conflict. America was founded on this principal. “Freedom” for men fleeing tyrannical political and religious systems in Europe meant coming to the New World and achieving freedom by taking freedom from those here before us. And how did we achieve that “freedom,” violently, by using guns.

As Americans we have a nostalgia for the simplistic “good old days,” when America was great and conflict could be resolved, not through a lengthy discussion, but quickly, and decisively by consulting Smith and Wesson. It was and is the ultimate male fantasy. We have seen, in the “heroic” portrayals of the dime store novels of the 19th century, to the propagandistic movies of war in the 40’s and in today’s video games, violence as a conflict solver is pushed on society from every corner. Think about movies you’ve recently seen. How many start with the good guy trying to reason with the “bad guy,” which inevitably fails and the bad guy has to be killed by movies end? There are some remarkable exceptions, see Gran Torino for example, but the trend is otherwise.

So some of the problem comes from our entertainment industry that perpetuates the myth that guns solve problems. The industry needs to be more responsible and less concerned with their bottom line. The other angle involves taking a realistic look at other democratic societies that have reduced gun violence. Ironically, you will find that they are some of the most progressive, secular and non-religious democratic countries, again underlying the fact that when conservatism and fundamentalism combine, the result is more gun violence. No doubt having less to do with being religious than seeing issues totally as binary, without nuance.

The current stalemate with the NRA is troubling. It is difficult to resolve because there is no financial incentive for the organization becoming more responsible. Nor an incentive for politicians on the right to resist the $$ coming from the NRA. We are talking a large amount of money! And of course, the gun industry profits from gun violence. So we need to go around them. One way to do so is through education. While right wing adults may be largely unpersuadable, children are more easily swayed. We need school curriculum to counter 200 years of gun culture. This will take time, but children are our future.

Parents too, have a responsibility. When I was growing up their was Bonanza, Combat and a few other gun centered shows. I played “cowboys and Indians” with the neighbor boys, but there wasn’t a constant barrage of violence on TV, video games and smart phones. I have seen these things become surrogate “parents” for our children and grandchildren. Parents, monitor your children’s digital recreation. A constant input of violence for entertainment is not healthy!

In the end, while we need to look at realistic and fair legal enactment, lasting results will best be achieved through better parenting, a responsible, more balanced entertainment industry and education in our schools.

White House Correspondents Dinner: Is Civility in America Dead?

The White House Correspondents’ Dinners are usually a time of good natured fun at the expense of a current White House administration, with a tastefully concealed political barb or two thrown in the mix. Last night’s 2018 dinner was much more than that. Comedian Michelle Wolf’s comedy routine went far beyond a simple roast of the current Trump administration and ended up being a vicious character assassination of individuals in the White House who were in attendance at the dinner. If Ms. Wolf’s intentions were to garner ill feelings toward the Trump administration, I think she failed miserably. In fact, if anything she strengthened, among conservatives, the image that the mainstream news media is hopelessly elitist and liberally slanted. The mean spiritedness shown merely feeds into the Right’s sense of paranoia and sense of victimhood.

This morning’s ABC “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” guest hosted by Johnathan Karl and the ensuing “round table discussion,” confirmed my belief. The general opinion, with the exception of one panelist, was that the comedy was a low blow and not funny. The one who did not agree with the overall sentiment, defended her view by referring to the Trump administration’s hurtful actions and comments as an invitation to return bad behavior in kind. What happened to the liberal mime of “when they go low, we go high?” Out the window, it would seem.

I suspect a fair number of liberals found Wolf’s attack on Sarah Sanders’ eye makeup (as the result of her burning the truth and applying the ash of lies to her eyes) was something she got coming to her, as well as Wolf’s wishing a tree would fall on Kellyanne Conway, but these attacks only widen the rift between conservatives and liberals. Wolf’s routine was not an attempt to be funny nor to foster a feeling of accomplishment amongst the correspondents, but with Conway and Sanders sitting mere feet away from her, she had a captive audience to bully and belittle. It was embarrassing and humiliating beyond pale. She had an agenda of hate and self-promotion. 

Well, she may not have been a well known comedian before last night, but these things have a way of backfiring as we saw last year with Kathy Griffins beheaded Trump joke. People usually know the difference between humor and vitriol.

What concerns me most, and was the subject of a small survey of people on the Stephanopoulos show, was the growing anger and divide between Americans in the last decade or so, that divides friends and family. As Americans we have gotten to a point where we don’t listen at all to others, but only shout each other down. And we often do it in the most belittling and hateful ways. Technology and social media has enabled instant character assassination and the easy button to spam hateful rhetoric. I have family members who left Facebook because it just got too much. Family get togethers became increasingly more and more awkward as far politics was concerned, to the point that after last Thanksgiving we quietly requested that politics no longer be a subject of conversation at family gatherings. When strong and angry political views are present, dialogue and understanding is impossible.

And this is where we, as a nation, have arrived. One can look at a number of contributing events, and fingers can be pointed, but without a “time out,” and some introspection, it’s all just “wind and fury.” There is a lack of civility on all sides that acts as a rip-current, sucking everyone in its path out to sea. I know, because I too have been caught up in the current. As a Christian, leaning considerably to the left of many friends and family members, I have too often succumbed to a feeling of desperately trying to head off what I perceive to be the wrong direction they are heading, and end up sounding shrill or attacking. On line, in the forums, it is too easy to get caught up in the negativity and sarcastic remarks. I recognize I need to do better. 

As the church we, both liberal and conservative, have taken on the ways of the “kingdom of this world” rather than the “Kingdom of God.” Rather than speaking love and truth we end up sloganeering and jeering the “other” side. This is not Christlike. It has to stop. “Speaking the truth in love,” Ephesians 4:15, does not involve anger, bitterness, sarcasm or bullying. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” Ephesians 4:29-32.

God help us all.