Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Pope Talking about Jesus


Every so often, I try to link you to things that make me laugh. (I'm not all that funny myself, so I do this to try to compensate.)


This time, I'm sharing two, yes, two links! What's more, they share a common theme: the Pope and Jesus. Take a look:


1. Over at The Onion, they've reported that the Pope will ease up on Jesus talk: "I'd like to think I can be an infallible ecclesiastical authority without ramming it down people's throats," the pope said. "I'm starting to realize what a huge turn-off that is."


2. In this YouTube clip, Jim Gaffigan (one of my favorite comedians) wants to talk to you about Jesus:

Words

My life is filled with words. When I was training to be a minister, a close friend and mentor told me that ministry is done almost entirely through words: preaching, writing, reading, studying, and talking with people—these are the main things a pastor/priest does. Now, as an aspiring academic, I find the situation really isn't too different. Teaching, research, and writing all have to do with putting thoughts into verbal form.


What's more, as a teacher and scholar (and to a lesser degree, when I was in ministry), I'm utterly responsible for my words. Being in the humanities, people will frequently challenge my use of a particular word or phrase, and entire scholarly arguments can be built upon what a single word means. So, not without reason have I become a little anxious about what I write and say. 


The result is that I am extremely self-conscious about any sort of verbal communication I allow to get out from my mind to anyone else. It causes me no small anxiety to publish an essay, or read a paper at a conference, or give a lecture. 


It might surprise you, then, that I have a blog at all. If I get worked up about other people hearing my thoughts, then why, dear reader, would I want to let you read them?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Understanding Evangelical Culture from the Inside

The greatest obstacle to a open, free-thinking society in the U.S. is Evangelical culture as it currently is. Perhaps I'm over-privileging my past by making such a claim (having formerly been an Evangelical myself), but no other significantly populated group within Christianity reflects the same degree of homogeneity as the Evangelicals. Sure, there are growing numbers of moderate and liberal Evangelicals (see here and here), but the vast majority of Evangelicals remain both socially and politically conservative (and even "liberals" tend to be socially conservative). This homogeneity actually builds confidence in their own assertions of truth and rightness, and leads many to ignore voices that deviate from what they are so certain is true.


(More after the jump...)

Monday, June 27, 2011

Ellipsis Is Now on the Atheist Blogroll!

The Ellipsis Blog has been added to The Atheist Blogroll . You can see the blogroll in my sidebar. The Atheist blogroll is a community building service provided free of charge to Atheist bloggers from around the world. If you would like to join, visit Mojoey at Deep Thoughts for more information.


It's a great list of fellow-minded bloggers, and I'm happy to be in such good company!

The Word Is Out

Some people are surprised that I felt the need to tell my friends and family about my deconversion from Christianity. A few of my wife's friends, who happen to be de-facto or weak atheists, said something to the effect of, "It's not their business what you or your husband believe." At any rate, the ol' cat is out of the bag and the beans are spilt. I sent off an email to about 40 friends, family members, and colleagues, and there's no going back.


So far, about a half dozen folks have responded already, each of them offering support, concern, and (for many) prayers. I really don't mind it when people say they're praying for me; it's a sign that they care about me enough to talk to what they think is the highest being in the universe on my behalf. Are many of them praying that I change my mind? Yeah, but if there's anyone on the other end, I hope those prayers are answered; if not, then it doesn't do any measurable harm.


Strangely enough, this feels like a bizarro version of Christian baptism, the rite of initiation into the church. In baptism, a confession is made in which one publicly renounces the former way of life, etc., and embraces the peace that comes with new life in Christ. Plus, baptism often takes place on Easter Sunday. Oddly enough, I openly admitted to my wife on Easter Day that I was no longer a Christian (tough words to say at the time), and now, with this letter sent out to my loved ones, I've made my anti-baptismal confession in public. The one thing that is the same is the peace, though it is of a very different sort, unmingled with the dependence on someone else to bring it.  

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Monothetic and Synthetic Thinking

Recently, I read an essay by Wendell Berry entitled "The Two Minds" (in The Citizenship Papers, Counterpoint Publishers, 2004). In it, he describes two mindsets that exist in our world: the Rational Mind and the Sympathetic Mind. I won't rehearse the entirety of his argument here, but he essentially says two things:  First, the Rational Mind tries to break things down to simple problems and provides simple solutions that are widely applicable—and I think he means "simple" as "not many sided" more than "simplistic" or "facile." The Sympathetic Mind, on the other hand, recognizes complexity of systems in a particular place, and considers solutions that account for this complexity in that place, but which may not work elsewhere. The second thing he says is this: the Rational Mind is the dominant mind of politicians, businesspeople, and academics; the Sympathetic Mind is most fully realized in farmers and participants in local, regional economies.


The essay is, not unexpectedly, both jarring and encouraging. Berry characteristically points out many of the ways in which our culture continues hurtling toward its own demise, all for the sake of money or comfort or any other vice you can name. More importantly, he shows how the intellectual and social leaders of our society—and I, like Berry, am primarily talking about American society—continue to undermine the fabric and well-being of that society through their complicity in propagating the Rational Mind and its ill effects.


It should be clear that I have a great deal of respect for Berry. I take issue, however, with his choice of terms for the binary pair. While I certainly agree that rationality alone can't and won't adequately address problems either at a global or local scale, it is also true that sympathetic thinking can't tackle the issues, even at a local scale, without the aid of reason. In other words, we need a sympathetic rationality.


Let me step back a minute, though, and offer an alternative to Berry's terms (after the jump).

Monday, June 20, 2011

Heroes

No, not these Heroes (though the show had a fine first season). I'm referring to the universe(s) that inspired the show, i.e., the world(s) of superheroes created by Marvel, DC, Image, and a slew of other comic book publishers. I grew up on these books, was nurtured by their mythology, and found in the pages of comics stories about how individuals can be their best selves. 


Given the strong influence of such "graphic novels" on my childhood/early adolescence, it's no surprise that I'm a huge comic book movie fan. I haven't seen every comic book movie ever made—for example, the films Daredevil and The Watchmen haven't yet come up on my screen—but I've seen, and loved most of them. (Yes, some have been dreadful. I'm looking at you, Fantastic Four [they made a sequel?!] and the Hulk.) The reason they're so wonderful, in my estimation, is the same reason that I still love Greek and Roman mythology, as well as some portions of the Jewish and Christian scriptures.


Comic books, like the best stories from ancient myths, help us see both the darkest and noblest edges of our humanity. In the best of comic book movies, I think this aspect becomes even more amplified.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Disaster

Is the term "disaster" a bit of a hyperbole? Maybe. But it captures what things feel like right now.


In two separate instances, I royally failed to communicate with anything approaching clarity. The first was a post (that I've since deleted), filled with what I felt were only loosely connected ramblings. The good news is that I could just delete it, and only the people who read that god-awful post would know how horrible it really was.


The second—and far more abysmal—took place when I spoke to a mentor (a former pastor and friend) over the phone, telling him I was leaving the church. I was so scared and anxious about speaking with him that I didn't really say anything that I thought, and most of the things I said were muddled half-truths that utterly failed to say what I now believe about the world.


It was nothing short of embarrassing.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Traction?

Visits for the blog have now topped 250! So thanks for stopping by and checking out the blog. With any luck, we can keep up this momentum—and if not, at least I'm staying committed to posting and writing down my thoughts, which is what the darn blog is about to begin with.


Again, if you have any thoughts about the blog—especially if you've dropped by more than once—please leave a comment. I'd really like to hear your thoughts!

Funny If It Weren't So Damn True

A friend directed me to this link over at the Onion: "Middle- Class Suburbanites Fail to See Irony in Their Lives." Believe me, having grown up in middle-class middle-America, this piece of biting humor more accurately describes life for millions of Americans than any textbook.


Here's a nice couple of paragraphs:

Most striking was the middle class’s predominant self-definition as “socially liberal,” with regard to equal civil rights and fair treatment for society’s impoverished. This stood in marked contrast to the middle class’s recent trend toward gated, exclusive communities as well as voting for lower property taxes in high-income areas and higher taxes for those living in low-income communities with racially exclusive public schools. Of those polled, 100 percent saw no irony in this.
Similarly, the suburbanites were asked if the frequently cited justification of “wanting to provide my children with a better life” stood in contrast to working seven days a week to accumulate money. Despite the ever-widening gap between parents and children, and the skyrocketing divorce rate resultant from a lifestyle focused not on family but on careers, all those polled responded, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Though the piece is dated 1996, it's still pretty much true fifteen years later. Alas.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Melancholy

I realized something about myself yesterday afternoon: the mood that American culture tries so hard to suppress, the mood from which our endless sources entertainment distract us, that mood is what really puts a fire in my belly. For me, the best term for this mood is "melancholy." 


By "melancholy," I mean that sense that something isn't right, that something must change, and, what's more, that I can do something about it. It's the feeling I get when I hear a story that's waiting to be told, a song needing to be sung, a wrong needing to be made right, a woman needing to be loved, a child needing to be hugged, a difficult choice needing to be made. It's when I know that someone needs to speak up about injustice, and that I have such a voice for speaking!


Truth be told, it's not a "pleasant" feeling, at least not in the sense that it puts me at ease and puts a smile on my face. But it is a feeling of knowing that, to quote Albus Dumbledore, sometimes we have to choose between doing what is right and doing what is easy. Such an emotion—if that's even the best term—is ultimately what moves me to act, and to use whatever talents and resources I have to make this world better for as many people as I can.


In some ways, "melancholy" taps into my Messiah complex; but if I can realize that I can only do my best, come what may, then I think I become my best self. And, frankly, I'd rather be that than Messiah any day.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Letter to my friends and family

Here's a copy of the letter I'm planning on sending to most of my friends and nearly all of my family—the exceptions are my nearly 90-year-old grandparents, both of whom are devoutly religious, and for whom the news would come as a severe blow. Ignorance is bliss, right?
To my friends and family: 
This email is being written to you because I love and respect you, and want to let you know about a difficult and significant change that has taken place in my life, one that will, no doubt, come as something rather unexpected. Various issues, thoughts, and circumstances in my life have led me to the realization that I can no longer call myself a Christian. I find myself unable to continue to affirm its core beliefs and doctrines. In fact, I’ve come to a place where I seriously question the existence of any divine being, and if one exists, I think it probably isn’t the God of Christianity. I’ve only recently recognized the many jumps of logic I have allowed myself in order to continue in my beliefs, and I cannot in good conscience continue to ignore them. 
What caused this seemingly sudden change? It certainly wasn’t the outcome of a single issue, question, doubt, life issue, etc. Rather, it was the result of a long process stretching over several years, and I’ve struggled with coming to this decision. The core of it arises from my dissatisfaction with and eventual lack of belief in the “answers” given by Christianity on a range of issues, issues that I’ve only recently begun to face with intellectual honesty and integrity. 
Let me stress that this decision has nothing to do with the my denomination, or any local church, or anything like that. I still respect and love the people of the churches I’ve attended for their loyalty, friendship, and encouragement. I know that I couldn’t be who I am today without their support. What are the immediate results of this change? I’m still going to finish my PhD and try to pursue a career as a biblical scholar and a teacher, though this will certainly take a different shape than I had imagined up to now. I’m still focused on becoming a better, more integrated, and more thoughtful person. I’m still committed to many of the values I hold dear, such as concern for the earth, for the wellbeing of others, and belief in love, honesty, and personal responsibility. In short, I’m still the same person.
This has led to a period of profound clarity, and I feel at peace in this new perspective. I also feel I have a great deal more integrity of thought, no longer forcing the world around me to “fit” into my earlier preconceived view. In no way do I think I’ve got it all “figured out,” but I expect to continue to grow and mature. I’m sure this news will come as a shock to many of you, and may offend some. I’m truly sorry for that. Others might not have an opinion one way or another. Some may be excited and see this as a positive change in my life. Whatever your reaction to this news, I want to take this chance to express my thanks to you for your friendship, love, support, and guidance throughout my life, and I deeply hope to depend on your continued love and encouragement.
Many of you will likely have questions or responses to this letter, and will want to talk about these issues further. For my part, I would be happy to hear from you! Just know, though, that I’m interested in discussion rather than debate. I would hope the conversation would be respectful and open (rather than combative and closed). So, if you would like to talk further, just reply to this email, or send me a letter (my address is below) and I would be happy to chat. 
Sincerely,
Evan 

Thoughts?

Hilarity ensues.

Check out this story over at the Onion. Not too far from how I see a lot of devoutly religious yet intelligent people.

Countless images and names fly through my head of people who maintain religiosity in spite of—and yes, I do mean "in spite of"—their high levels of education. Frankly, the further I get from Christianity, the more I see how many jumps in logic my faith required.

Purpose



Recently, I've found myself struggling a good deal with my "purpose" and identity. In some ways, I'm finally realizing why so many people throughout history have pursued the question of the meaning of life. After all, when you've spent the better part of three decades having this issue sorted out because of your religious system, things get pretty fuzzy once you leave that system behind.


What on earth am I doing here? What do I want my legacy to be? (Is that even a legitimate question?) What sort of work do I want to do? What is the "good life," and how will I live it? 


These questions have begun, slowly, to haunt me. I thought I had things figured out, and that it wouldn't be too hard to de-Christianize some of my earlier motivations and presuppositions, and simply carry on with life as usual. Unfortunately, those foundations are too eroded, I think, for me to continue to build my life upon them. So what, then, am I to do?


I obviously don't have many answers to this; not yet, at least. When I was speaking to a friend a few days ago, the best thing I could come up with was this: I want to live in a way that promotes the thriving of humanity and of the earth. This is a huge commitment, with a lot of nuances and competing concerns, and I don't think this notion of "thriving" can carry the whole load of discerning my own purpose in life.


I suppose, too, that my wife would appreciate it—and, of course, I would too—if I oriented at least part of my purpose to love. In a lot of ways, these notions of thriving and love, one rather objectively determined and the other radically subjective, might offer a bit of balance to my life that either one alone couldn't. At any rate, they offer at least good starting points (though there's also the bit about figuring out what "love" means outside of a Christian worldview...).



Tuesday, June 7, 2011

On Post-Christian Biblical Scholarship

Many I've the posts I've written so far have been expressions of things I already think. This post is different, though, because I think I actually have to write it in order to understand better what in fact I do think. It's about the hard work of making hunches and intuitions into an articulation of coherent thought, a task easier said than done.


I'm struggling to figure out how exactly to continue to do biblical scholarship as an ex-, or rather, post-Christian. (I say "post" because, while I no longer remain a Christian, I'm very much aware of the ways in which I continue to be shaped by my Christian upbringing.) The struggle has to do primarily with a perceived (and possibly actual) lack of models. 


In my experience as a graduate student, I've seen basically three kinds of biblical scholars. The summaries of these three types, given after the jump, are not intended to be biting criticisms, but only to indicate some of my discomfort with each of them.

Friday, June 3, 2011

"Comments" Feature Now Available

As I mentioned in the previous post, the comments are now available. 


I'm really interested to hear what you, especially those who have come back more than once, have to say. Plus, I'm still tinkering with layout and design, and any feedback on that front would be gladly received.


And please tell me I'm not crazy about how I read my mom's email.

Seriously.

Right, so this post is just too fitting in light of the last one. I seriously received this email from my mom today, and I'm going to quote directly from it:
"As a Mom, I can't ignore your personal beliefs at this time. I will be careful not to send you too much 'preachy stuff' but I also will send an occasional statement that I feel is significant.  Your sister has reminded me that as hurt as Dad and I are, it is ultimately your decision, and we can't change what you say you believe.  However, as Mom, I will remind you that you are in my thoughts and prayers daily (please don't thank me for this...to me it seems sacrilegious on your part if you have no belief in my God).  [Note: I had thanked her for praying for me earlier, since I took it as a sign that she cared deeply about me.] I pray that my God will continue to use your Biblical studies to enlighten you.  I pray that God will use WHATEVER tools He needs to use to allow you and Jamie to see God again...even if that means extreme pain, suffering, hardships, to you, your wife, or even dad or I.  Up to now, you haven't had to experience too much suffering.  Are you willing for that to happen, if that is what it takes for you to remember God?  As great as our love is for you, it is small in comparison to God's love.  That's the sermonette for the day.  Many times I can express myself easier in writing than in talking.  And, not every e-mail and conversation will be a sermon, but I needed to let you know how we are handling things today.
I have been reading about David in both 2nd Samuel and in the Psalms and how he was 'a man committed to following God'...and how he frequently made poor choices.  However, God never gave up on him.  I know God will pursue you because He has a plan for the both of you, and you have been a man after God's heart."   
I had hoped to wait for a "views" milestone to open up comments, but this just seems too messed up not to allow people to comment.


I mean, at the end of the first paragraph here, she basically says: "I kind of hope God makes you suffer something horrible so you can remember how much he loves you. So come back to the church...or else." Yeah, that makes sense. So, would my wife getting cancer be a "sign" from God? Or would she have to die first? Even if that happened, how could I be sure it wasn't just a sign that this world was a place where shitty things like that happened all the time? Even to Christians!


Since leaving Christianity, I've seen more clearly what this kind of rhetoric is: an attempt, through shame or fear or threats, to make people conform. Never mind that this cuts against the Bible's central message of a god who would literally die for others rather than let them turn away. Somehow, I don't think, "Father, forgive them, they know not what they do," (Luke 23:35) matches well with "I hope you (or your loved ones) suffer so you'll be forced to run back to God."


Ugh.

How Do You Know?

One of the key problems that I now have with Christianity is what philosophers and theologians call "epistemology." Namely, I've grown increasingly uncomfortable with claims within Christianity (or any revealed religion) that certain people have come to possess knowledge of God and what God wants for humanity, while such knowledge remains inaccessible—in an immediate sense—to all others. A great example is the "conversion experience" of St. Paul on the Damascus Road (Acts 9:1-19), where Paul (then Saul) had a vision and heard a voice, and suddenly believed in the Christian message. Because of this experience, Christianity became for him an irrefutable truth. Were anyone to ask, "Paul, how do you know it's true?" He would simply have said, "Because I had a vision of Jesus. You can't argue with that, can you?" Thus, Paul held a religious trump card that, at the end of any argument, he could lay down to demonstrate his authority, his "rightness," or the veracity of his religious claims.


And this is what happens all the time. For example, when I was a Christian and came up against serious intellectual challenges to my faith, I could always fall back on that one stronghold: "Ok, there are some problems that aren't easily explained, but I know it's true because I've experienced X, Y, and Z!" Other Christians do this more frequently than I did, especially Christian fundamentalists who have more fronts to defend. Yet, for many non-Christians, such claims to certainty seem absurd, if not downright delusional.


So, I've now come to see this is a major problem, but I had no idea how close to home it would hit. 

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Eclectic Much?

Even though this blog is less than a month old, I already see that I don't have a clear focus for what it's "about," other than thoughts that cross my mind throughout the week. The labels for my post are all over the map, ranging from "civil rights" to "Grapes of Wrath" to "Harry Potter" to "Wendell Barry" to "leaving Christianity."


Frankly, I don't mind this. After all, it's a blog about my life and thoughts, and my thoughts tend toward the synthetic and eclectic. Think of my mind as a painter's palette (right), where there aren't clear demarcations between a lot of the colors. Sure, you can see where a green tint is and isn't, but the green and cream and red, etc., are all over the place, and they make new colors and interesting combinations. That, on my better days, is how I like to think of my mind: swirling around ideas and seeing what they do when they bump into each other. And sometimes, that yields a post where I can talk about leaving Christianity, Harry Potter, and death in a sorta-fluid way. Hopefully, such eclecticism is more interesting to readers than off-putting.