Writer’s Log: Stardate 16-2-12
I have just finished my second extended discussion with Christian scholars of The Anointed. The first was at Seattle Pacific University two days ago; the second was a luncheon discussion with the faculty at Northwest Nazarene University today. An SPU historian, Mike Hamilton, responded at their event. I liked the response so much that, with his permission, I have reproduced it below. The text is great, but Mike was also a great presenter and it was even better “live.”
I was encouraged that almost 100% of the Christian faculty in these discussions seemed to share my concern that right wing fundamentalists with loud voices were getting way too much attention. At NNU in particular there was extended discussion of how the Church of the Nazarene is slowly “losing its mind” as fundamentalists drive away moderates. We talked about the tragic case of Richard Colling, a long time—and very successful—professor at Olivet Nazarene University, who was forced out by loud fundies. Pete Enns of Westminster Theological Seminary, Howard Van Til and John Schneider of Calvin College, Bruce Waltke of Reformed Theological Seminary and many others have met similar fates. And yet there are no cases of fundies being forced out by moderates. The trajectory of this asymmetry is obvious, discouraging, and not changing.
Anyway, the discussion was lively and without rancor. Here is Mike Hamilton’s great response:
“Evangelicals and the Challenge of Secular Knowledge” (Michael Hamilton, February 14, 2012)
In 1952 an unknown bohemian eccentric named Harry Smith assembled a six-LP record collection that he called Anthology of American Folk Music. It consisted of 84 songs, all recorded in the late 1920s and early 1930s and sold by commercial record labels. These forgotten songs were a revelation to musicians in the 1950s, and Smith’s Anthology sparked the folk music revival that helped shape rock music in the 1960s.
Music historian Greil Marcus describes Smith’s Anthology as an artifact of “Old, Weird America.” In this America birds talk, frogs marry mice, the dry bones of a skeleton can get up and walk. Ordinary people are bullied by the police, jailed by corrupt judges, tossed out into the street by dishonest landlords, not paid by their bosses, thrown out of work by technology, and killed en masse when technology fails. Women and men long for love, then rue the day they found it. Many take to drink—one man gets so drunk he mistakes his wife’s lover for a cabbage. Others rise up in passion and kill their bosses, their lovers, and themselves. Still others are lured to destruction by Satan, come in the guise of a former lover. Heaven is real, but the only way in, is death.
If the Anthology of American Folk Music is a guidebook to “Old, Weird America,” Karl Giberson’s The Anointed is a wonderful guidebook to “New Weird America.” In this America, an actual man and woman named Adam and Eve are the biological parents of the entire human race. Their offspring hunted dinosaurs. This America has been chosen by God to be the agent of his eternal purposes. Its Constitution was given by the hand of God just as the Decalogue was given to Moses on Sinai. The fortunes of this America follow the ebb and flow of God’s favor, which can be called forth through public rituals of piety, by printing religious incantations on money, by organizing ourselves into nuclear families with strictly-disciplined children, and by forswearing non-marital sex. In New Weird America, the Bible tells us that the world is on the road to destruction, and it gives us a coded list of mileposts we’ll pass along the way. Those schooled in the arcana of biblical prophecy tell us, for example, that when the Bible says “the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also” that this refers to an inevitable nuclear holocaust. And yet New Weird America also reads in the Bible a countervailing message. The earth may be destroyed, but the agents of that destruction are God’s enemies. Therefore if the godly rise up and oppose God’s enemies, perhaps global destruction can be averted. Or not.
There’s one big difference between the two Weird Americas. In Old Weird America, ordinary people are powerless against superior forces, natural and supernatural. Individual rebellion is possible, and sometimes consequences can be escaped, but the strong remain strong, and the weak remain weak. However, in New Weird America the weak can organize to fight and defeat the forces of evil, both natural and supernatural. What changed?
This shift traces back to the birth years of the Republic. The musical sources of Old Weird America included lower class ballads from European feudal society, and work and gospel songs of enslaved African-Americans. This was the music of the powerless. But in the American colonies, mid-18th century, the forces of change were summoned up by George Whitefield. The First Great Awakening taught ordinary Americans that all people are equal in the sight of God—all are born in sin; all are in need of New Birth. The American Revolution taught ordinary Americans that their new birthright was not slavery but liberty. These two radical ideas—equality and liberty—convinced ordinary people that traditional social elites would be their masters no more. America of the 1790s witnessed full-blown class warfare, as ordinary people organized to protest, resist, and circumvent traditional authority and elite control in every area of social life—politics, law, medicine, communication and religion.
This social revolution of the 1790s—really, a Second American Revolution—is the wellspring of New Weird America. Throughout The Anointed, Giberson and Stephens note, with wondering puzzlement, that New Weird America rejects the science and the history and the psychology and the Bible scholarship of credentialed experts. But in light of the social revolution of the 1790s it makes perfect sense. Ken Ham and David Barton and James Dobson and Tim LaHaye aren’t anti-intellectual, they’re opposed to rule by elites. In New Weird America, the people are sovereign, so they decide what’s true and false. Authority comes not from credentials or institutions or God but from the people. The audience is sovereign, which means The Anointed is a perfect double entendre of a title. The people of New Weird America believe that their leaders are anointed by God, but in fact these “leaders” have been anointed by the people themselves. In New Weird America, the people believe that they should rule not only on Election Day, but every day; not only in politics, but in science and history and psychology and Bible interpretation. New Weird America isn’t the product of some mystical force called anti-intellectualism; it’s the product of the Second American Revolution. It’s popular sovereignty, reductio ad absurdum.
After the Civil War Americans decided that popular sovereignty in some areas of life is not such a good idea. So we restricted its reach in politics, law and medicine, and we use the coercive power of the state to enforce the boundaries. By far the most laissez faire area of American life is religion, and more than any other American religion, evangelicalism has adopted popular sovereignty as its central organizing principle. No wonder, then, that evangelicalism is an ideal Petrie dish for growing exotic ideas like flood geology, Christian survivalism, and dispensational premillennialism.
What, then, are evangelical intellectuals to do? Is the Anti-Christ, cloaked in the mantle of the people, setting the abomination of desolation among us? Is it time to flee to the hills?
I’d like to suggest that there’s a less apocalyptic way to look at the phenomenon Giberson describes so well. One historical study of the 1950s concluded that religion and science were engaged in a democratic conversation with each other. Religion, largely controlled by the people, was determined to have a say in the direction of science. Science, largely controlled by credentialed bureaucratic elites, was determined to have a say in religion. Here another American principle, that of mixed government, is a helpful guide. Elites left to their own devices would be jack-booted fascists. Ordinary people, drunk on visions of popular control, are by nature howling mobs. America probably functions best when the elites and the people are subject to each other’s oversight. For American intellectuals, this means we have an obligation to speak in the language of the people, be cognizant of their concerns, and recognize the legitimate spheres of their authority. Fail to do this and we will reap the whirlwind of the blasphemies that litter the pages of Giberson’s book, like The American Patriot’s Bible.
As I said earlier, the evangelicals of New Weird America want to organize ordinary people to take back America from the elites. In the throes of this desire they yielded to the seduction of the Republican Party, which locked the two of them in a most unholy embrace. Not surprisingly, the culture-wars alliance between evangelicalism and the GOP has corrupted both. Evangelicalism has given the conservative wing of the GOP a no-compromise, no-quarter holy righteousness that has all but destroyed the party’s ability to govern. And the Republican Party has given evangelicalism a Darwinian hard-heartedness in which strength is worshiped and weakness despised.
This highlights a final important difference between the New Weird America and the Old. Toward the end of The Anointed there’s a four-page section on how evangelicals believe in Satan. Now, I don’t know if there’s a personal satanic being, but I do believe that evil is real. It’s not hard to believe this when you live in a city where a nice looking well-spoken young man just killed his wife, dumped her body, proclaimed himself a loving parent, hatchet-whipped his two sons, then burned them and himself alive in a house fire.
As The Anointed shows so well, in New Weird America, Satan has gotten hold of them—our enemies—those pornographers, gay activists, secular humanists, big-government socialists. But in Old Weird America, Satan has gotten hold of us. Sin is everywhere, outside and inside the church. Yes, the elites in authority are likely to be corrupt and heartless. But we are just as likely to luxuriate in vainglory, crush a colleague, sleep with our best friend’s spouse, or murder our parents, all the while deceiving ourselves about our true nature. The world I live in looks an awful lot like the one that Old Weird America saw. Kind of makes me wish that New Weird America would turn off the Contemporary Christian Music and listen to Sister Mary Nelson:
Well, all you hypocrite members / You wasting your time away
My God’s calling for workers / And you had better obey
Better get ready for judgment! / My God is coming down!