The Stealth Theology of Michele Bachmann

The media likes simple analogies.  That’s why when (rarely) the question of Michele Bachmann’s religious beliefs comes up, they immediately think Kennedy 1960–the Catholic thing.  Soon they will have the voting public believing that Michele Bachmann believes the same thing about religion and political life as JFK did: that they are oil and water, and must be kept strictly apart, as the Constitution decrees.  For her part, Bachmann doesn’t care what you believe as long as you don’t look too closely and permit her to win.

But she doesn’t believe in the wall of separation. Nope, not even a lace curtain.

Michele Bachmann believes that faith is a key element in politicial decision-making:  “I became a Christian when I was 16 years old,” she says. “I gave my heart to Jesus Christ. Since that time, I’ve been a person of prayer. And so when I pray, I pray believing that God will speak to me and give me an answer to that prayer.”

To be clear, we have moved in fifty years from Kennedy’s belief that  religious faith should not be an impediment to holding elective office to Bachmann’s eerily commonplace view that strong, active and directive  religious faith is an indispensable virtue in elected officials.

In addition to being a staunch defender of such evanglical idiocies as creation science and the hoax-theory of global warming, she has also heard voices: “That’s what a calling is — if I pray, a calling means that I feel like I have a sense from God. … It means that I have a sense of assurance about the direction I think that God is speaking into my heart that I should go.”

Bill Prendergast has called Bachmann a “stealth evangelical”– dangerous precisely because she is pretending to be something else, anything else. There is a word for this tactic: it’s called dissimulation, but because it is five syllables it’s above the SAT-level of most media analysts and probably won’t be used much.

Instead Bachmann will continue to deflect the more superficial charges of her “flakiness” when the real issue–the real challenge to her constitutional suitability–is her explicit denial of the purport of the First Amendment.

This is a woman who asks for Americanism tests for members of government, but like so many religious nutters has no idea that the Constitution was designed to protect the civil body politic from religious zealots like her.

She is already perfecting the shill: How can I be a flake when I have “a postdoctorate degree” from William and Mary in federal tax law.  (Translation: She has a degree beyond her basic law degree from Oral Roberts University, where she was a member of the final  graduating class of its failed law school. It got her a job with the IRS.  A cursory check of the William and Mary site shows that the LL.M. degree is no longer offered, except to foreign students.)

Her only other education is from Winona State University.  Except for her gig with the IRS, she has never practiced law.  Whatever the case about her meager accomplishments outside the church, get ready to hear a lot about her “postdoctorate” in the coming months.  It’s her surest protection against the charge that she is a screaming  fundamentalist loon with no education–a virtue she shares with sibling loonies like Sarah Palin, her rival for the Bible Knowledge award.

Bachmann and her husband Marcus, whom she met at WSU in the Christian Intervarsity Fellowship, run a Christian counseling service in Stillwater, Minnesota.  She is a vicious opponent of abortion rights and symbolizes her right to life philosophy by being the foster parent of 23 children.  For a decade, her home has been recognized as a “treatment house.”

Since 1988, when she became infatuated with the Christian exceptionalist theology of Francis Schaeffer, she has prayed outside clinics and provided counseling to girls and women seeking to end their pregnancies.

Prendergast writes that Bachmann’s threat is a life or death battle for American democracy. I agree.  Some of us believe that this battle may already be lost in the faith-sodden atmosphere of this perishing republic.  But insofar as some threats are more worthy of attention and response than others, consider this:

“It’s great to be a ‘stealth evangelical political movement politician’ when it comes to media news coverage. The state’s political media must help you out there by downplaying your ties to politicized religion, because if the voters at large pigeon-hole you as a Dobson puppet, you’d never get elected to anything. …If [Bachmann] ran openly as a candidate of the Christian conservative party (which she is), she’d take her ten thousand votes and get sent home on election night. But if the very same Christian conservative party candidate runs with the label ‘Republican,’ she takes all the Republican votes. It’s the branding, see? That’s why she (and plenty of other evangelical conservatives) run as local ‘stealth’ candidates, claiming to want to represent ‘all’ the voters in district–but actually moving in concert with this national politicized religious movement.”

In general, as everyone knows, the media doesn’t “do” religion well.  The only thing it does worse is science.  And it especially doesn’t like to be openly critical of the religious beliefs of political aspirants unless something really juicy–like the “anti-Americanism” of a Revd. Jeremiah Wright–rears its head.  Remember Obama’s rather pitiful and halting performance in the NBC-sponsored Faith Forum, hosted by evangelical teddy bear Rick Warren? –Now imagine Michele Bachmann in the same setting.  The larger question–why such a “forum” should have any bearing at all on the electoral process in a secular democracy–went virtually unasked.

Meanwhile, the stealth movement has learned a few lessons since the good old days of the Moral Majority and the explicit Christianism of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.  Political groups like Focus on the Family, the Council for National Policy and the Family Research Council have their teams and fundraisers at work in every state.

Since the stupidity-induced implosion of Sarah Palin on Bunker Hill (the irony should not escape us), the darling of the stealth-religious conservatives is Michele Bachmann. Yet one of the grievous flaws of the American media, as opposed to enlightened bloggers and observers like Michelle Goldberg,  is that big media frankly doesn’t know how to frame a story like this.  They still labor under the  assumption that equal time means that good and bad ideas, true and false ideas, should get a fair hearing.

That’s why the same media that’s often assumed to be liberal and lame has actually been complicit  in the survival of anti-science absurdities like the belief that global warming is a socialist conspiracy and that the cosmos is between 5700 and 10,000 years old rather than 15-billion years, the number generally accepted by scientists as “the point of infinite density”–the conditions for the Big Bang.

More and more people are recognizing that Bachmann’s struggle is not just political.  She believes she is engaged in spiritual warfare.  She is an angel of light fighting the powers of secular, atheistic liberal darkness.  Her view of every significant social and moral issue is largely framed in language that Francis Schaeffer (the son of the more famous Christian dominionist)  himself has termed “familiarly Evangelical.”  Look deeply into those sort of scary eyes and you will see Jesus.

She is able to signal her Christian followers by using language familiar to the born again, but totally strange to secular listeners and viewers.  Goldberg writes,

“On Monday [the first Presidential debate], Bachmann didn’t talk a lot about her religion. She didn’t have to—she knows how to signal it in ways that go right over secular heads. In criticizing Obama’s Libya policy, for example, she said, “We are the head and not the tail.” The phrase comes from Deuteronomy 28:13: “The Lord will make you the head and not the tail.” As Rachel Tabachnick has reported, it’s often used in theocratic circles to explain why Christians have an obligation to rule.” Voices.

This is a long way, brothers and sisters, from Kennedy’s pre-election assurances to suspicious protestants,

“Finally, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end; where all men and all churches are treated as equal; where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice; where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind; and where Catholics, Protestants and Jews, at both the lay and pastoral level, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.” (12 September 1960)

Just look at how far we haven’t come in fifty years.


Call me a Manichaen, after you look it up, but whatever I may think about God, my faith in the devil remains unshaken.  He’s my guy. He rocks and rules.

The Manichaens thrived in all parts of the Middle East and North Africa, and as far away as China and Europe, from the third century onward.  So popular were they that the church fathers tried to make people believe they were a Christian heresy. But their real roots are in the dualistic thinking of ancient Persia, stretching back to the prophet Zoroaster.

Their appeal was huge, however, and Mani’s culturally omnivorous followers availed themselves of all sorts of religious ideas (and possibly even Christian writings) in formulating their philosophy.  In turn, the Christian gnostic sects used it freely and imitatively, so much so that it’s sometimes difficult to sort out Manichaen and “purer” gnostic forms of teaching.

Not to mention that even the most “orthodox” Christian teaching got a heavy dose of Manichean ideas. The most famous of the early church writers, Saint Augustine, was a Manichean throughgout most of his formative period.  And some cynics have noted that he only converted to Christianity in 387–after the emperor Theodosius, worried about the influence of Manichaen thought on Christianity throughout the empire, issued an edict (382) ordering the death of Manichaens.  A coincidence, to be sure.

What I like about the Manichaens is that they based their teachings on the simple observation that there is more evil than good in the world, and that two eternally opposed powers of good and evil preside over everything from the cosmos to the individual soul or will.  Giving to charity and lying about your tax liability to the IRS are perfectly natural expressions of your humanity. So is patience with children and wanting to beat the crap out of the guy who just cut into your lane, missing your car by inches.  It keeps us in a constant state of stress and imbalance, and if this weren’t so the stars would fall out of the sky.

Good and evil are simply modes of the universal struggle and the impulses that govern the individual life. Since we live in a world governed by material things, the downward trend of our desire for pleasure, sex and riches is more or less guaranteed. Let’s not call it sin.  Let’s call it human nature.  Because when writers like Augustine get hold of the idea, they’ll equate the two and we’ll just feel sorry for ourselves.  Christianity is the great confusion of a much simpler, earlier dualism.

True, their myths are far more complicated than I’m letting on,  and the light and dark imagery and personages who populate their stories (like the quasi-gnostic Mandaens of Iraq) can be a bit obscure and exhausting–a bit like Hinduism.  There is also the problem of knowing which of the sources we possess, interspersed as they are with all kinds of religious teaching ranging from apocalyptic Judaism to Buddhism, are really representative of Manichean religious thought.  But that just makes them more interesting–in my humble opinion.

Manichaeism remained highly vaporous, dangerous, and a little sexy. Orthodox Christianity pinned everything down to definitions and ended up sounding like Daffy Duck.

The big advantage over orthodox Christianity is that for Manicheans there is no real problem of evil.  Evil (as Nietzsche and Richard Strauss saw, philosophically and musically) is just a mode of reality.  Good and evil are correlative forces creating the basic tension in the universe.  In the basic myth of the Manichees (there are many), God is not all powerful, so he couldn’t subdue evil if he wanted to, and humanity itself is a byproduct of the struggle–a mythological way of saying that our personalities are symptoms of eternal, unresolved swirl and restlessness. Like Jessica Rabbit, we’re not bad; we’re just drawn that way.

The Christians meantime taught that Satan was relatively puny, a tempter, slanderer (diabolos, devil), adversary (Satan), or lesser angel of light (Lucifer) who infiltrated creation, spoiled its primordial goodness, and then had to pay the price of his mischief through the coming of a “redeemer” who could satisfy the devil’s demand for the payment of a debt God had incurred in a game. God the almighty had lost the world in a wager when Adam “fell” from grace. History becomes the staging ground for getting it back.

No, I am not making this up: almost all the church fathers taught that Satan had won the world to his side in the Garden. Even the concept of original sin is developed in the light of this belief.  God is seen as a gambler who invents the stratagem of salvation: producing a god-man who belongs to the devil by right (all humans do, according to Christian theology) but not by nature, since he is “truly God,” and hence more powerful than a speeding devil.

Jesus harrows hell where the saints have been waiting patiently

The belief that between the crucifixion and resurrection Jesus paid a visit to hell and “caught” Satan by surprise (“with the bait of his humanity on the hook of his divinity,”  Irenaeus and Basil liked to say) is actually preserved in early christian creeds, like the one curiously called the Apostle’s Creed written late in the fourth century by Ambrose of Milan.

Slightly embarrassed by this highly mythological way of looking at why Jesus came into the world (bait? hook?), the church finally turned to philosophy, where it tried to make roads and ended up creating the system of potholes we call Christian theology.

In this system, the devil still exists but plays no real role in the drama, leaving God vulnerable to the all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing trilemma.  –The one the Manichaens never had to confront, as their divine powers were fairly equally matched, at least in this cycle of creation.

The theologians’ God (as distinct from the God of the Bible, lore, and early legend) had to account for the fact that the deity, being omniscient, must have known creation would turn out wrong (evil) and being all good must not have wanted it to turn out that way and being all powerful could have prevented it, yet didn’t. No matter how you de-horn this preposterous beast it’s still mighty ugly.  Every theologian from Augustine to Plantinga and Hick have had a try at solving the problem that James L.  Mackie saw as Christianity’s fatal intellectual flaw.  I recommend reading them only if you have ten years in solitary confinement to kill, and even then get plenty of exercise.  –No wonder that this branch of Christian theology, “theodicy,” is often misspelled “theidiocy.”

My real proof that the Manichaens are right however is not that orthodox Christianity looks wrong, it’s that the pure force of evil within the Church is plain as the nose on your face.

My guess is that for two thousand years the Church has been a kind of hothouse for evil.  The process reached a pre-climax in the Crusades and later in the Inquisition.  But only in our own time has the complete success of the evil forces been clear.

Still not convinced? I offer the following exhibits:

1.  Mother Teresa of Calcutta.  A woman so in love with poverty that she did everything in her earthly power to propagate it on a global level.    Especially successful was her campaign against family planning and HIV-AIDS education, calling abortion, in her 1979 Nobel Peace Prize address,”the greatest destroyer of peace in the world.”

2.  Pope John Paul II (Blessed John Paul II): The charismatic bishop of Rome and soon to be canonized supreme pontiff and successor of Peter (1978-2005) whose “Gospel of Life” and blind eye towards the moral decrepitude of thousands of priests was the Catholic church’s belated contribution to the sexual revolution.

3.  Pope Benedict XVI, right-hand man to John Paul, whose skill at delaying judicial proceedings against the criminal acts of priests and bishops revealed a level of technical proficiency seldom witnessed, even in ecclesiastical bureaucrats.

4.  Bernard Cardinal Law, archbishop of Boston, the first bishop shown to be actively involved in a cover up of the criminal acts of priests accused of child abuse, and duly rewarded for his service to his Church by John Paul II by being appointed to a lifetime sinecure in Rome and archpriest of Saint Mary Major basilica, one of Rome’s cushiest benefices.

6.  Father Paul Shanley, who managed to combine his pastoral work with street people in the 1980’s with plenty of downtime with adolescent boys (at least nine), and after being transferred to faraway San Bernadino, California, where the living and bishops were easy, co-owned a B&B for gay tourists with another priest in Palm Springs. A self-starter, Shanley used his rectorial experience to found the North American Man-Boy Love Association (NAMBLA).  Hymnal appropriately includes “I get high with a little love from my friends.”

6.  Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix, who rightfully stripped St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center of its Catholic status after insolent nun, Sister Margaret McBride, assented to a surgical procedure to save the life of a woman in her eleventh week of pregnancy, on doctors’ advice.  In the spirit of the Church’s robust defense of unborn life and its commitment to the spread of poverty, disease and infant mortality in the developing world (cf. the “Gospel of Life,” above), Bishop Olmsted also noted that Sister Margaret had incurred automatic excommunication for her intervention.

7.  Honorable mention.  With its aggressive media, it was almost tempting to think that only the American church had been overcome by devils.  Now we know that the spirit of evil is alive and flourishing in Canada, Belgium, and best of all, around Galway Bay, where Paddy can now be a nickname for Patrick–or something else.

Basically, wherever God thought he had won, there is plenty of proof that he lost–just like in Eden all those millennia ago.  As far as I’m concerned, the Manicheans had it right all along. What a craven poltroon, what a yellow-bellied dastard, what a sissy, a milquetoast, a Scaramouche.  He couldn’t even manage to wipe out the whole human race with the flood, and hasn’t had the cojones to follow through with his promise to do it again only this time for real.

Put your money on the devils.

‘Murikans ain’t got no songs…Sort of

I giggled a little at Steve Martin’s parody, “Atheists Ain’t Got No Songs,” the premise being that while church folks have a lot to sing about–the Rock of Ages, Amazing Grace, and Jesus, lover of their soul–atheists don’t.  That’s bullshit of course, though I would be in favour of expanding the repertoire slightly to include at least three songs other than Imagine and Both Sides Now.  My opinion, however, is that all music that isn’t about God is secular and that’s good enough.

But this isn’t really about atheists.  It’s about my annual bout of depression over the fact that Americans ain’t got no songs.  They sort of make their way through the Star Sprangled or Strangled Banner at ball games, a more bellicose than which national hymn has never been created.

–Though not the ugliest or most trivial. The night we “got” bin Laden, crowds of drunken college students from the DC area congregated outside the White House and repeatedly sang “God Bless America,” the unofficial anthem of the Republican party.  –Who knew that Irving Berlin stole it from a Yiddish review where the song was known as “When Mose with his Nose Leads the Band.”

That’s about it for American songs.  I’m not crazy about the Battle Hymn of the Republic.  I like America the Beautiful, but apparently it’s too green for the NASCAR and Second Amendment crowds, plus atheists choke on the “God shed his grace on thee”-part,” So it’s a non-starter–useful for high school graduations and various over-dramatized patriotic displays on the Washington Mall on 4th of July but not so good for community singalongs.  Besides, you can’t imagine singing either of those songs at a football game or frolicky evening.

A few years back I was sitting half-drunk and exquisitely satisfied at Hofbräuhaus in Munich.  Around 9.30, as the cycle of drinking and relieving onesself of the consequences was in full swing, the singing started spontaneously. It encompasssed everything from Schubert (lots of Schubert) to Haydn lieder to folk songs I’d never heard–to the Beatles. It went on for hours.  Everyone went home hoarse and happy.  I have repeated this dissolute and completely human event many times in British and Irish pubs and French cafes.  And listen dear American patriots to Heinrich Hoffmann’s words to the second stanza of Germany’s anthem, Deutschland Ueber Alles, the first few strains of which over a radio were considered terrifying enough to send Illinois farmers running for their shotguns:

German women, German brotherhood,
German wine and German song
Shall retain in the world
Their old beautiful chime
And inspire us to noble deeds
During all of our life.

Terrifying, yes?  Wine, women, song?  I know, we fought against fascism, but we could have used a little more of the Gemütlichkeit.

What, I wondered, has happened to our nation?  Is America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where Europeans came to lose their music?  Or is music as a social bond something like a tax we have to pay to the tuneless, hymn-singing puritan drones who founded the nation by keeping it all specific, generational, ethnic, uncollimated?

I recall as a kid that in my Grandmother’s piano bench there was a raggedy book called Best Loved Songs of the American People. An updated version of it–for reasons I cannot fathom–still exists for a modest $29.99.  On the cover Uncle Sam sits playing (what else?) a guitar.

The selections ranged from Civil War songs like “When Johnny Come Marching Home” to Irish heartthrobbers like “Danny Boy” (in its Ulster version, of course: “Would God I Were a Tender Apple Blossom,” to “Hail Columbia, Happy Land,” and a weird assortment of college novelty songs, rounds, and (just to show we’re not opposed to foreigners) “songs from other lands” and “Negro Spirituals.” Such diversity!

The contents seem to suggest that “the American people” liked songs from America and the British isles and simplistic ditties like “Bicycle Built for Two,” “Man on the Flying Trapeze,” “Buffalo Gals,” “Bird in a Guilded Cage,” “Shenandoah,” “On the Sidewalks of New York,” “In the Gloaming.”  Not immortal, and today even a relatively smart fifteen year old probably can’t make her way through any of them. Nor could her parents.  Best-loved is soon forgotten.

In fairness, we hadn’t yet produced our Schubert and when we did his music wasn’t for everybody–especially for God-fearers with hymnals.  (Sexy music was for Jews and Catholic bootleggers, after all, and mainly played and sung by them.)

George Gershwin

After a few rounds, “John Henry” or “Buffalo Gals”  might not sound so awful.  Except of course, in the America they came from, muscular, protestant and tea-total, most people weren’t doing rounds. They were meant to be sung on Saturday night around a piano with apple-bread and cider while your aunt Grace struggled with the chords.  No wonder that music didn’t endear itself to multicultural America when it arrived, or more precisely when it was acknowledged to exist.

It's ok to sing--in church--but no organ, and don't smile...

Speaking of your grandfather, if he was anything like mine, and not a Presbyterian, he knew a thousand songs, just like the guys at Hofbrauhaus.  My father knew even more than his father.  But (sad to say) put us all, along with my teenage daughter in a garden at a Miami beerfest (really?) and you’ll be lucky to get “Guantanamera” and “God Bless America” before it breaks down into intergenerational confusion.

It’s not exactly that we ain’t got no songs–America has been making music for two hundred years–it’s that we got no songs that reflect  a common cultural patrimony, a single national memory.  We got our soul, our rock, our country, our blues, our fusion, our sixties, our (yuck) seventies, our hip-hop, our jazz–oh, and your whatchacallit NPR stuff.  But nothing that would keep us drinking with each other as we traversed our common life in song. And no, I do not regard Karaoke as the contradiction of what I am saying; I think it’s more like electronically assisted memory for the culturally impaired.  A little like American Idol.

Why O Why America have you no voice to raise on high? Is it that you are too big, complicated, and diverse?  Or is it that you’re too fat, dumb, and indifferent?

Ask yourself that question the next time a thousand nineteen years olds sitting on each other’s shoulders, waving American flags, break out into a rousing chorus of “God Bless America.”

Update 22 June:  Some comments are too good to be comments and Jean Kazez’s is that kind of comment: “Jeez, I don’t feel that way [i.e. my way] at all. At all my drunken songfests, I have no trouble coming up with stuff to sing–This Land is Your Land; Bruce Springsteen songs like Born in the USA; Neil Young songs like Ohio; the wonderful Buffy St. Marie song Universal Soldier; Joni Mitchell songs like Blue; piles and piles of Bob Dylan. This is all music that takes you back, creates a feeling of solidarity, evokes stuff you love or hate about your country. On wait, you said “common cultural patrimony, a single national memory”… but do I really want to feel in synch with every American idiot? I think not (but please, don’t quote me on that).”  Amos aka Sam Wallerstein adds,  “As to music, I’m completely tone deaf, but from time to time, I find myself singing Bob Dylan songs to myself:The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, Chimes of Freedom, Like a Rolling Stone, Desolation Row, Visions of Johanna……”

So maybe the problem is that America’s got too many songs, and songs, like our politics “is” local. And that explains why in periods of great national elation we find our music chest empty of anything that reflects our sameness–except, of course, The Star Strangled Banner and God Bless America.  But don’t take my word for it: Listen to Christina Aguilera’s stunning attempt at getting it right.

The prize for cultural adaptation goes to the Brits however: what other country could take a schmaltzy American Rodgers and Hammerstein tune and turn into a football pep song?

Lament of a Soft-Shell Anti-American Atheist

I’ve been puzzling for a few months now why the discourse between hardshell and softshell atheists has taken such a nasty turn. Can’t crabs just learn to live together–scuttling from side to side without disturbing each other’s tranquility?

True, when I first detected the trend among the leading atheist commandos (variously Gnus, News, EZs and Full-frontals) I said they were behaving like jerks, which of course got me called worse names by their fans.  All of a sudden I felt as unwelcome among the Baptism-revokers as Garp did when he stumbled into a meeting of the Ellen Jamesians.

Think of me as the little engine that couldn’t, the Doubting Thomas who tanked. I guess if I had been among the apostles on the day after the resurrection and had been invited to place my fingers in Jesus’ wounds, I would just have said, “Naw, I’ll take your word for it.”

I am a soft-shell atheist, someone who periodically lapses into doubt about the premises and sincerity of his unbelief. I am an unbeliever with a soft spot for religion–that’s the truth of it. In darker moments, I sometimes entertain the suspicion that there may be some kind of god. Then I look at my online bank balance, or a Republican presidential debate, and realize how foolish I’ve been.

But I’m also one who feels that atheism has a job to do: protecting believers from themselves and the rest of humanity from absurd and extreme ideas.  Atheism has to be outwardly directed at religion, its historical opposite, and isn’t at its best when it begins to obsess about degrees, vintages, and levels of unbelief. Even though these exist.

At first the debate within was between so-called “accommodationists” and “confrontationists.” I think the terms are imbecilic, but apparently the former are those who think conversation between believers and non believers can be civil.  The latter follow a somewhat different model of discourse, as between an annoyed pet owner shouting at a dog who’s just peed on the chair leg again.

Some accommodationists think that atheists should engage in interfaith dialogue with believers of various brightnesses, as long as both parties to the discussion are unarmed and everyone agrees that Ben and Jerry’s “Cherry Garcia” is the best ice cream ever made and that Kristin Chenoweth’s version of “Taylor the Latte Boy” is awesome.  I’m not that extreme, of course–just a backslider who needs a little stained glass and Bach in his life now and again.

But confrontationists are tough.  They are the real deal. You can keep your ice cream and your god–and don’t even think about using the courtier’s reply when they call you out as a dick because they have that page in their Atheist Pride Handbook bookmarked, you conceited, theistic, knee-bending pillock.

All kinds of silly images come to mind when I read what the angriest of the atheist brood say, but the dominant one lately is a continually pissed off and ineffectual Yosemite Sam waving his pistols in the air and shouting “It’s time to stop pussyfootin’ around. You Bible-totin’ swamp cabbages and your lily-livered compadres better run for cover. Our day has come and it isn’t the rapture, varmint.”

Hard-shell Atheist in Uniform

The level of pure nastiness has now reached such comic proportions that the real danger faced by the hardshell atheists is the risk of appearing clownish and absurd without being especially funny.

That is a sad state to be in when you are supposed to be advocating for science and reason. So we have to ask why the “confrontationists” are in such a bad mood.  All we know is that ice cream won’t fix it.

I have a theory about this.  As often happens in the history of movements beginning with a-  they seem to be have learned how to behave from the movement they’re rebelling against. Hardshell atheists are behaving like craven theists.

One of the things that irritated ancient nations about the Jews was the CPT, the Chosen People Thing. Judaism at its peak was a tiny and exclusivist sect among the religions of the Middle East. Its purity codes and laws were famous for being as prickly and picky as their God was about who got to call him Father. Having conversations or social relations with non-Jews was not only not recommended, it was not tolerated. (It’s one of the charges against Jesus: a publican is a non Jew). Accommodation was not an option. The Egyptians hated it, then the Persians (a little less), the Babylonians and finally the Romans.  Later the medieval Europeans codified the hatred, and of course, the Germans decided to take matters into their own hands. The Final Solution is what happened when talking, compression, and eviction notices didn’t work.

The Christians got a version of the CPT by default when they canonized the Old Testament and proclaimed themselves the New Israel.  The Muslims had no choice but to follow suit: their religion is the end of prophecy and their way is the only straight way to God.

One of the things, I suspect, that most irritates atheists about the book religions is this sometimes implicit (and sometimes grating) ideology that you are either inside or outside the faith, and if you’re outside, forget you. But salvation was never about saving everybody.  In most denominations, God doesn’t want that.  He wants the ones who shine the brightest.

Odd, isn’t it, that the evangelical atheists have adopted a fairly toxic version of the same narrative toward members of their own tribe. Yet who can deny that their total commitment to the Non-existence of God is another outbreak of CPT.  They are behaving religiously, aping the worst features of the religious attitudes and behaviors they profess to condemn.

They–the hardshells–will call me wrong, of course, as well as seriously confused and (heh) accommodating.  They will say that I’m just being an idiot (again) for equating supernaturalism and superstition (= religion) with logic and science. Don’t I get why this analogy is so bad? It is so bad because this time the chosen have been self-selected by their ingenuity and intellectual excellence, not by some imaginary celestial power.

To which I have to say, in my defense, Don’t you get that the God who doesn’t exist now—the one you don’t believe in—didn’t exist then either?  The god of religious exclusivism is the god fabricated by people who already believed in the superiority of their ways, their laws, their customs, and their intrinsic value.  It’s the feeling right and thinking that because you are, you are also special and need not discuss your ideas with people who dramatically oppose you that leads to the mistrust, the suspicion, the animosity.  Atheists who wonder why they are mistrusted can begin with the anguish the Jews felt when the Romans began a centuries-long tradition of vituperation against the CPT.

But lackaday dee misery me.  This post will be greeted with the same disdain I have come to expect from atheists.  They will find a straw man in here somewhere and put a hat on him.  This will be called a screed or a diatribe.  I will be asked where my evidence is for saying these things. (Hint: everywhere)  I will be told that I don’t want dialogue, or that I’m coddling religionists, that this post is a troll in some endless private conversation among certified members about the evils of (all) religion or that I am arrogant (though arrogant prick is my favorite obloquy) or that I am an undercover agent for the Church of God. Actually, the last has not yet been suggested so feel free to use it.  And don’t let the fact that there are literally dozens of fairly intelligent people chiming in on this message to the atheist hordes; write it off to my envy at not being Richard Dawkins.  Damn.

Now for the best part. It may surprise you to learn that, for everything said here, I am not really a fan of dialogue with faith communities. As far as I am concerned ecumenism and interfaith dialogue are simply activities of groups that interact at a social level, without really getting into the nitty gritty of how they are different, or why they might be wrong. There are two kinds: the merely boring and the pissing contest, but both are ultimately ineffectual.

Atheism–just an opinion, mind you–has no clear place in such a discussion; to mean anything at all, it must be premised on some form of the proposal (a) that God does not exist (b) that this belief has social and moral consequences, especially in terms of human decision-making and (c) that the world we create through these decisions is accountable only to us—that we are the source and the end of our actions.  I personally agree with one of the most outspoken hard-shell atheist writers when she sees atheism as something that happens person to person and individual to individual.  This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t talk to people who are religious.  But do you really need a committee (or a community) to do it in?

But I am in favor of atheists, hard- and soft-shell, being concerned about language, self-image, the quality of their critique of religion, and their capacity to describe their life-stance in a positive form.  I am interested in narrative control and a literary style that corresponds in form to methods and aims that have often (think Sartre) been elegant. That makes me an elitist, not a cowboy, I know. But the funny thing about Yosemite Sam is that he’ll always shoot first and ask questions later. And people begin to wonder about people like that.

The Parable of the Dumb Lawyer

A few years ago I participated in a colloquium at UCLA that included, besides myself, two other academics who studied various aspects of the origins of Christianity, and a lawyer, somewhat unjustifiably famous for battling “religious theists” [sic].  The latter category he habitually referred to as “religion” or “supernaturalism,” which in his head amounted to the same thing.


With a kind of cocksureness that always comes naturally to the malinformed, he told me minutes before delivering his spiel that he welcomed the opportunity to “set these religion scholars straight.”  I muttered something agreeable about the nature of scholarship–always being a willingness to accept correction, though privately I have always thought that Jesus’ words about lawyers are among the wisest things he is ever reckoned to have said.

At the end of his discussion, the three of us sat quietly.  Carol Backhos, a UCLA professor of Judaic Studies, who had kept track of the number of times the speaker had equated religion and supernaturalism in his talk, asked him fairly pointedly what he thought the three of us did to earn a living. Her implication was that if our work corresponded to what he thought we did, we should not be permitted near the gates of a university.

Reuven Firestone, a leading expert on medieval Judaism and Islam, pressed him a bit further, asking whether he could make the distinction between “supernaturalism” as a view of the world that could only have become intelligible in modernity, especially through science, and a view of the world that would not have included it–indeed would have been unintelligible–even to educated people–prior to the “dawn” of science.  He asked especially about Spinoza’s view on the self-contradictoriness of miracles as proof of God, as an illustration.


As the hapless panel moderator, my final word was that he (the lawyer) should understand that “providentialim” and “supernaturalism” are useful to historians only in charting superficial descriptions in history, and that all serious historians share a methodological disbelief in ghosts, spirits, fate, kairos, gods and divinities causing anything to happen. Consider, I tamely said, that in Shakespeare’s great tragedy of the name Julius Caesar dies in Act III but is still considered causative  as a literary device until the end: “O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet!/ Thy spirit walks abroad, and turns our swords/ In our own proper entrails (5.3.94-96).”  (Most students of historiography know the problem as Caesar’s ghost–explaining something that really happens in terms of forces you know aren’t really there but may be in the minds of people with a different disposition towards cause and effect.) Supernaturalism, I said, is not a word that scholars often use as equivalent to religion in modern study and not even a likely descriptor that a religious person would use about himself.

For different reasons, mainly related to discussions of scientific naturalism as a term in need of an opposite, philosophers sometimes revert to it and an older generation of anthropologists used it “descriptively.” Historians, on the other hand, have been ferociously critical of its use.

E B Tylor: The Bogeyman theory of religion

The lawyer mumbled something unhelpful and sat down, plausibly thinking that the scholars had not learned much about religion from him.

Those of us who teach the study of religion at college level battle two assumptions: first, the assumption of many students that courses in religion are religious–hearkening back to an era of undertrained divinity school-trained lecturers who were very often protestant ministers themselves; and second, the often grotesque ignorance of our colleagues in the academy, and not just in the sciences, about what is actually studied in a religious studies curriculum.  Academic apartheid is another name for what universities call “disciplines.”

I have no statistic to prove the following point, but I would guess that courses bearing the “Religious Studies” label are probably among the least understood in the average college catalogue.  And it isn’t the fault of students or colleagues in other disciplines that this is the case.  Religious studies “professionals” are sometimes the worst spokesmen when it comes to explaining what they are doing in the classroom, inviting the suspicion that they are doing priestcraft and witchery and alchemy instead of more useful subjects. Or perhaps, though I hope not, this reluctance to explain, defend and inform comes from the esoteric nature of religion itself.

Beyond this, some of the best programs in the field, such as the longstanding one at the University of Chicago, share a common designation with the worst, such as the ones at self-described ‘Christian” universities like Liberty in Virginia or Oral Roberts in Oklahoma–and these, alas, are not the worst examples of Christian apologetics masquerading as serious academic study.  Einstein once said of the physics of his generation that “A perfection of means, and confusion of aims, seems to be our main problem.”  In religious studies both the means and the aims are often not made clear.

So who can blame our lawyer friend for being confused?  I sometimes like to say to advanced students taking methodology or historiography courses that religions are morphologically similar and anatomically different. They exhibit common structural features in widely divergent ways. Some have priesthoods, some have brotherhoods, others only monks or congregants, others only inquirers.  They meet in churches, mosques, tents, open fields, temples and not at all. They resound in highly structured public celebrations, ecstatic and emotional outbursts, and total silence. They base their practices on sacred books, private revelations, only conscience, believe in one God, thousands, and none, and produce codes ranging from axioms and laws to questions and puzzles. Some see a complete rift between the world of experience and the world in which a divine spirit suffuses reality.  Some believe these worlds are continuous or periodical.  Some see the natural world as the only world there is.

“In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befal me in life – no disgrace, no calamity (leaving me my eyes) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground – my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinte space, – all mean egoism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the universal Being circulate through me; I am a part or particle of God (R. W. Emerson, Nature)

There have been famous attempts to solidify structural points of similarity in religion, notably by scholars like Ninian Smart and anthropologist Clifford Geertz–both of whose contributions are indispensable reading for anyone who really wants to know about the nature of religion at a methodological level.  But the “essence” of religion is notoriously difficult to capture and even harder to describe. A lot of what we do in a first year religious studies course is giggle at definitions proposed by well-intentioned scholars a hundred years ago. Here, to save space, they will be nameless.

Smart thought that religions (“religion” is a less adequate collective noun) express themselves in seven more or less discrete ways which he labeled “dimensions”: experiential, emotional, pratical, ritual, legal, and mythic (or narrative) forms.  By this he simply meant that religions tell stories (myths) that either stem from or result in practices that satisfy an emotional need or moral situation.  In some cases, they claim that this story is rooted in history: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam do this.  In other cases, especially in the Asian traditions, the seminal stories may just be stories–myths whose meaning lay in their ability to form a cohesive community–a church, or some other institutional structure dedicated to propagating the values and teachings of a particular faith. A religion’s success or failure is the aggregate of the way in which the dimensions contribute to its survival.

Ninian Smart

Smart also believed that there were competing worldviews that were not strictly speaking religious but which satisfied the same objectives and exhibited many of the same dimensions.  These secular worldviews included nationalism with its myth of the history of a nation (often highly mythologized for politial purposes over centuries–Roma Aeterna, Mother Russia, Pioneer America, Albion.)  Political and economic philosophies, like Marxism and capitalism, also exhibited many of the same characteristics, especially with respect to the essentially conservative (i.e. tradition-preserving) nature of the institutions and legal systems such philosophies create.

Certain parts of Smart’s “seven-dimensions” seem a bit strained in the contemporary context, but they still represent a useful conceptual entry-level model for coping with the complex characteristics that “religion” exhibits.

Descriptively, the better models were proposed by Clifford Geertz (who died in 2006 at the age of eighty) and whose work on the etiology of culture has been priceless for all areas of the field of religious studies.  Focusing more on family resemblances and what he termed “thick descriptions” (comprehensive analysis of why people do what they do, rather than, as Smart, the fact that they do it), Geertz saw religion and ritual essentially as  “The drive to make sense out of experience, to give it form and order, [something] evidently as real and pressing as the more familiar biological needs…”


Any attempt to make sense of the term “religion” after Geertz that does not take the functionalist approach into account, even if it does not depend on it, is simply deficient.  The same would be true of the essential work of Michael Gilsenan (NYU) on Islam, and a former “superior” of mine at Heidelberg, Gerd Theissen on the sociology of early Christian communities. Theissen is especially interesting as an example of a scholar who sees his primary work as that of a theologian trying to grapple with the approaches sociology has imposed upon various inquiries into the beginnings of the Christian church.

I have often complained on this blog about the way in which otherwise well-spoken people such as my lawyer-friend use terms like “religion,” “superstition,” and “supernaturalism” as though the analysis of these terms reached a dead-end in the ninetenth century, when science dethroned theology and the Church seemed not to notice.  In fact religion only began to be understood in the nineteenth century, and science–or rather methods of investigation common to a scientific and skeptical outlook–helped us to do it.

What is less commonly understood is that much of what made the reign of science possible in the first place are theological programs of the eighteenth and nineteenth century (and habits of inquiry that go back much further in time) that cleaned the house of “supernaturalist” thinking in the interest of saving a ship that was sinking in the sea of modernity.  The names, ideas and work of the men and women who participated in that project are almost (but not quite) as deserving of mention as names like Darwin and Faraday.

F D Maurice

I can tell you that it is increasingly embarrassing to see that the ineffectiveness of people in my own field in explaining what they do for a living to people unacquainted with the basic Wissenschaft in religious studies has now resulted in a debate that would be far more interesting if people would update it from 1765 to 2011.  There is simply no excuse for dumb lawyers anymore.

Daumier: Two Lawyers

Jihad and Genocide

Richard Rubenstein’s After Auschwitz was the seminal work of theological reflection on the Holocaust in the 1960’s.  Imbued with the spirit of Rubenstein’s teacher Paul Tillich, it was also the book that turned my attention from philosophy and literary studies to religion after Rubenstein arrived at Florida State University from Harvard.  

After a half century of reflection on the situation of Israel, he paints a bleak picture for the prospects of a pan-Middle Eastern peace, associated with the persistent demand for jihad against the Jews among the youngest and strongest voices in the Islamic world.

...Shortly after 9/11, the late Daniel Barnard, Ambassador of France to the United Kingdom, declared at a private London gathering, that the current troubles in the world were all because of “that shitty little country Israel.”

What is seldom discussed publicly by the Western elites who see Israel’s demise as the solution to the problems of the Middle East is the likely fate of Israel’s Jews were the Muslim ever to achieve that objective. One reason for the reticence may be a pervasive amnesia concerning why so many Jews came to Israel in the first place. Starting in the eighteen-eighties, there was a direct correlation between the rise of European anti-Semitism and the decision of so many Jews to uproot themselves and migrate to Palestine.  Read on


Richard L. Rubenstein is President Emeritus and Distinguished Professor of Religion at the University of Bridgeport and Lawton Distinguished Professor of Religion Emeritus at Florida State University. He is the author of numerous books and articles on Jewish theology, the Holocaust and other issues including After Auschwitz: Radical Theology and Contemporary Judaism, The Cunning of History, My Brother Paul and Dissolving Alliance: The United States and the Future of Europe and Jihad and Genocide (2010).

π -ness Envy? The Irrelevance of Bayes’s Theorem

In a recent post responding to a blog review of Sources of the Jesus Tradition by atheist blogger Richard Carrier, I made the point that his own contribution to the book does not rise above the level of pedantic lecturing on a theorem of dubious value to engage the literary matter.

Carrier has claimed on a number of occasions that his approach is revolutionary, a tour de force and essentially over the heads of New Testament scholars.  Apart from the naivety of saying anything like this in a field littered with the corpses of dead theories and “discoveries,”  this is scarcely where you’d want a revolution to be fought.


There are numerous critical issues attached to using a theorem that is primarily about probability to assess material that isn’t.  It is, however, a common feature of forensic (i.e. controversialist) approaches to the Bible on both the fundamentalist side and the atheist side to engage the material on a literal level.  This is so because both sides have to meet on the field at that point where literal claims about the text are being made, if not with the claim that the texts themselves are designed to propose facts–though most biblical literalists would say that they are, and most of their opponents would say that they are defeasible at this level.

Accordingly, a particular way of reading the text has been the main source of “rationalistic” critiques of the Bible since the Enlightenment though many of those critiques were superficial and almost all have been improved by serious academic study in the last two and half centuries.

Reasonably speaking,  it is analytically impossible to assess claims of “factuality” without assessing the texts on which such claims are based, even if we begin with relative certainty or skepticism (for example) about the occurrence of miracles or the reliability of a written tradition. Despite the fact that the multiplication of “conditions” and “assumptions” violates the sensibility of most post-modernists who deplore looking at things like authorial intention, criticality, or audience (community) in discussing narrative,  the character of the text is the conditio sine qua non–the starting pointfor all discussion.  It is a condition a literalist believer, on the basis of his epistemological suppositions, tries to avoid since his prior assumption is that the text has a particular integrity, and the skeptic, guided by opposite beliefs, no less literal, is often able to ignore.

Modern New Testament scholarship emerged precisely in response to the impasse between credulity and skepticism, neither of which seemed a sufficient answer to the “problem of the text.” Forensically speaking, text is text.  Critically speaking, it isn’t.

Generally speaking, the biblical literalist feels he is under no  compulsion to defend his confidence in the text; he assumes he has warrants for his confidence.  He can invoke a number of interdependent subordinate claims to support his position–arguments from antiquity (the age of the text or its distance from the reported events), reliability (a kind of mock-psychological assessment of the trustworthiness of “reporters”), self-consistency (whether the text is basically coherent within itself and among variants, where they exist), inspiration and inerrancy  (the belief that the text is autonomous as a product of revelation and thus superior to any methods used in its evaluation). Most subordinate claims have been savaged by modern critical approaches that have grown organically out of the study of the gospels and cognate literature, though some are still of interest to historians.

A forensic approach to the Bible means that key debating points like the six-day creation story, the resurrection of Jesus and (perhaps) the existence of Jesus have to be treated as historical assertions to the same extent they are asumed to be true by the most literal readers.  This is a severe limitation to forensic approaches since they initiate discussion with the question of whether a text is vulnerable as a truth-claim, using a formula more suitable for modal logic than for history: Is something possible or probable?  Are events described in a text more likely to have happened or not to have happened?


Even the study of the text for both literalists and skeptics will be subordinated to the modality of claims.  Texts that assume propositional value for the literalist (even if that value has to be manufactured) are the very texts the skeptic needs to find defeasible.  Scholars have understandably winced at this level of discussion because it’s easily seen as a branch of apologetics rather than as a field of serious literary and cultural study. Its preoccupation is not with what the text has to tell us, but with whether you or your opponent is right or wrong about a relatively small number of events.


Debaters like Carrier have suggested that the critical methods developed for dealing with the Bible in the nineteenth and twentieth century are insufficiently rigorous. But that is simply not the case.  In fact, the methods grew in tandem with evolving perceptions of what the character of the text actually was, how it was formed, and what its creators thought about the world. In the language of an older school of criticism, what its “life situation” was. They continue to evolve and to adapt in an organic way.  Only if the sole question to be answered is whether the description of an event corresponds directly and generically to “what really happened” (if it were possible to answer that question, as it isn’t in many cases) would the modality of a forensic approach be useful, and its usefulness would still depend on prior questions.

“Conventional” and revisionist approaches remain central to academic study, however, if we assume that the New Testament is not making its case propositionally, event by event, but narratively.  If Genesis was not intended to teach astronomy, the New Testament was not intended to teach medicine. Neither of those statements tells us what the Bible was intended to do, yet such a determination would be essential for answering questions about how it fulfills its purposes.

Beyond the forensic approach, the question about the kind of literature the New Testament literature represents remains absolutely prior and absolutely crucial.  As an example, the amount of material that can be removed into the category of “myth” (a great deal, from most of Genesis to all of Revelation) can never be determined by modal assessment of the truth properties of a text, since analytically myth is not amenable to modal analysis and only a wrong definition of myth as a kind of rhetorical lie or pre-scientific error–a definition that flies in the face of modern anthropology–would make such analysis possible. The forensic approach does itself a huge disservice by paying insufficient attention to the history of criticism, where the general mythological character of much of the material is almost taken for granted, and focusing instead on a discounted view of myth as non-factuality.

What is true of myth, moreover, is true of the other “forms” (literary and historical genres) that exist within the Bible and the New Testament especially. So much of the Jesus story is myth, in the sense of μυθογραφία (writing of a fabulous story), that I have no objection to the phrase “the Jesus Myth.” –But a great deal to object to in the sentence “Jesus ‘was’ a myth,” implying absolute non-historicity and a method designed simply to document his irreality.  In Sources, this is the subject of two essays, one of which (“On Not Finding the Historical Jesus”) suggests that the gospel writers bore no interest in the “question” of the historical Jesus but had a profound interest in his reality.

For the forensicists, “Was the cosmos created or was it not created in six days”; “Did Jesus or did he not rise from the dead?”;  “What did he really say?” and “Did he exist?” are primary questions that should not be swept under the rug of literary analysis: they are questions of right and wrong.  The text exists primarily to settle these questions.

In my view, this is an impoverished way to approach the Bible since the book (taken as a kind of religious artifact rather than an accident of editorial history) was not construed to answer such questions and the methods that have been devised to explore it have been driven by different phenomena and concerns: what communities believed; how they understood society; how they manipulated history and politics religiously to provide social coherence; why ideas like salvation and redemption gained ascendancy in the first century and how they evolved to become something quite different in the second.  Put flatly: the questions asked by the forensic approach are not primary questions at all because they do not arise from the text.

Not unless you accept the prior assumption that the literature of the Bible puts itself forward as hard fact (and most scholars in the present century would say, it doesn’t) all operations on the material should derive naturally from what it is.  Certain techniques like hermeneutical suspicion, mutiple attestation, “dissimilarity,” and redaction, source (and various other) criticisms and linguistic distribution are simply code for ways of testing how the tradition developed and how the sources evolved over time.  If anything, the “factuality” or modal probability of events in using any of these methods is held in suspense in the same way Coleridge describes the willing suspension of disbelief (and for not altogether different reasons) in the Biographia Literaria.

Back to Bayesics?

I was reminded of the danger and potential irrelevance of imposing non-literary templates on the biblical material by a former student, whose comments on the use of Bayes’s theorem are significant because (a) he is not critiquing the use of this device as a New Testament scholar: he is a PhD candidate in mathematics and is properly reckoned a prodigy in pure mathematics; and  (b) he is not a Christian.

I personally find his comments devastating to the use of the theorem as an assist to the modal approach to the Bible.  But I’ll leave it to others to decide:

“Is this insistence [Carrier] of trying to invoke Bayes’ theorem in such contexts a manifestation of some sort of Math or Physics envy? Or is it due to the fact that forcing mathematics into one’s writings apparently confers on them some form of ‘scientific’ legitimacy?

The fact of the matter, as far as I know, and as I thought anyone would realize is that Bayes’ theorem is a theorem which follows from certain axioms. Its application to any real world situation depends upon how precisely the parmeters and values of our theoretical reconstruction of a real world approximate reality. At this stage, however, I find it difficult to see how the heavily feared ‘subjectivity’ can be avoided. Simply put, plug in different values into the theorem and you’ll get a different answer. How does one decide which value to plug in?

Secondly, is it compulsory to try to impose some sort of mathematically based methodological uniformity on all fields of rational inquiry? Do there exist good reasons to suppose the the methods commonly used in different areas that have grown over time are somehow fatally flawed if they are not currently open to some form of mathematization?

If this kind of paradigm does somehow manage to gain ascendency, I assume history books will end up being much more full of equations and mathematical assumptions etc. While that will certainly make it harder to read for most (even for someone like me, who is more trained in Mathematics than the average person) I doubt that it would have any real consequence beyond that.

The fatal flaw in Carrier’s misuse of the theorem therefore is that the “real world conditions” he finds described in the gospels are not real world conditions. Thus its application does not flow from axioms designed for its use.  The gospels are the complex record of the reactions of communities to conditions that are extremely difficult to assess.  Even though Carrier may know and accept this premise, he finds it unimportant to address its consequences.

It may be that in further work Carrier will lay the theoretical groundwork, justifying his use of Bayes as a cipher for understanding the gospels.  But even if his mission is not that–even if it’s just a game-playing exercise for debunking their historicity in front of believers–it seems to me that Ayez has raised a fatal objection:  Bayes is for apples and the gospels are oranges. And Carrier’s persistent defense that no one is really on the same page–or able to “get” the page he’s writing–is becoming increasingly difficult to swallow.

American Heroes

Trawling through old Newsweeks, I came across the May 2nd story (“Shattered Faith”) about the “fall” of Greg Mortenson.

Mortenson is the author of the bestselling book Three Cups of Tea (2006).  It’s a story about how he returned hospitality (when the villagers of Korphe, Pakistan, nursed him back to health following an abduction by the Taliban) with generosity (how he built a school and raised money for other schools across Pakistan and Afghanistan.)  Hampton Sides, the essayist, writes,

Anybody with a heart had to be inspired by the beautiful idea that one man could make such a profound difference in such a hard and desperate part of the world. I remember thinking that this was not only a book talk and charity fundraiser, it was something akin to a religious experience—a modern-day tent revival. People had not merely come to listen, they’d come to believe. Mortenson, a son of missionaries and a nurse by training who by then had been thrice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize (and whose books were required reading by the Pentagon), was a secular saint who’d seized upon a revolutionary notion that soared across conflicts and continents—the power of educating children, especially girls, in tribal societies racked by poverty and war.

It now turns out that Mortsenson made most of it up, including the bit about recuperating in Korphe.  He was never abducted by the Taliban, and the charity he founded never amounted to a hill of beans. Most of the “schools” are being used to store hay.

Pat Tillman

The thing that caught my eye however was not the meltdown of yet another American hero.  We’ve come to expect that, even to overlook it: Pat Tillman, football hero, silver star recipient, last full measure of his devotion and all that, killed by friendly fire and the object of a military cover-up of operational intelligence.  Martin Luther King, Jr.? Civil rights messiah, National Holiday. Don’t ask about why Boston University didn’t rescind his PhD when it was discovered he’d plagiarized chunks of his thesis.  The list of disappointments goes on and covers the full range of political, military and philanthropic opportunities for heroism and tragic falls from grace.  Did I mention John Edwards’s fight for the North Carolina little guy?  Or Eliot Spitzer’s renown as as a prosecutor of corporate crime, vice and corruption?

When you get down to it, heroism corresponds to America’s love for tall tales and fake history: like the idea we won our own Revolution, or how the west was won by prairie knights like Kit Carson.

I have to admit, I don’t understand heroism. I think the deficiency comes from my mother who was invited once to give a talk to a Catholic sodality and, at the end of her discussion was asked what saints she admired the most.  As Mother Theresa was not yet available, she said she was “sure they all had good points–except St Rose of Lima” (famous for being beautiful and disfiguring her face with lye to get over herself) “who was mad as a March hare.” She wasn’t invited back.

The irritaing thing about Sides’ little essay is the presumption that Americans, as Americans, need heroes.

We need our explorers, our sports icons, our Medal of Freedom winners, our Nobel laureates. We need our Greatest Generation warriors, our ‘Sully’ Sullenbergers, our Neil Armstrongs. On some level, we still subscribe to the myth of the man in the white hat. We yearn to believe not only in his good deeds but in his inherent goodness as a person. Perhaps it’s something rooted in our Puritan past, but we seem to have a monochromatic view of heroism.

But I see this need as basically religious. Is it any accident that the most religious industrialized country on earth (89% compared to Nigeria’s 92%) also throws the word hero around more casually than any other democracy?  John McCain, real American hero. First-responders, real American heroes. Our men in uniform, real American heroes. Tea Party Patriots, real American heroes.  The only thing close to military and athletic heroes are Hollywood actors and country singers who do good imitations of real American heroes.

Ted Nugent: Guns and Gi-tars

Despite what Sides says in his article, I seldom hear Nobel laureates described that way–or longsuffering classroom teachers holding the fort in failing inner city schools. Mainly, it is people who follow orders, kill other people for God and country, score touchdowns, or–like Seal Team 6–perform ritual assassinations in the name of Justice.

Sides theorizes that “[America’s] deep need for heroes is tied to the sheer size of our country and the myth of the frontier.” Maybe so, but if that is the case then we have done a pretty bad job of filling the landscape with worthy prototypes.  I don’t think legendary seven-foot-tall trekkers like Paul Bunyan, John Henry and Casey Jones fire the imagination of young Americans (even those who know their stories) any more than “real” ones like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett.  Compared to the rounder and more glorious heroes of islands like Britain and Greece, for example, our iconic plonkers just seem to typify the American obsession with guns and engines.  Brains, justice, “real” courage, and virtue–even chivalry and healthy sex lives,  are not things American heroes have time for.  –All those trees to clear and indigenous inhabitants to shoot.  Our heroes, and usually our presidents and legislators, have to reflect our infatuation with stubborn determination and short sentences.  The hero as a complicated, multidimensional, thoughtful and strategic player isn’t even especially good box office.  Just ask Disney. Or Marvel Comics.

Paul Bunyan

What Americans have the need for is the need to worship something uncomplicated, and their choice of heroes largely reflects the militaristic and violent disposition to which the American myth of “greatness” is attached. It’s biblical.  It’s about conquering and subduing the land with big men and oil rigs, violence against nature when we can’t execute it through our unheroic foreign policy by making other nations tremble before The World’s Only Superpower. U.S. is the perfect abbreviation for what we think we are in the world of thems. In America Nietzsche’s Übermensch isn’t an atheist intellectual, he’s an ass-kicking man of steel. Who flies.

Sides ends his article with a throwaway line, a kind of epitaph for his disappointment over the fate of Greg Mortenson, non-hero: “I for one still want to believe,” he says. “Americans have a yearning to believe not only in a hero’s deeds but in his goodness as a person.”

Well, I don’t. Belief in heroes and belief in the gods have been connected since the dawn of civilization.  America’s obsession with heroes is just another part of its social pathology, the other side of which is religious lunacy. I have no need to believe in heroes.  I can’t handle the disappointment.