Which Victims Do You Believe?

Yet another mainstream figure bites the dust — Matt Lauer of morning news fame whose performance only matter to mmmeeeEEE when he interviewed Larry David; I just can’t figure out any of the appeal of morning network news. Once again, women have come forward to accuse Lauer of inappropriate sexual behavior. NBC executives believed the women. And so Lauer loses his job.

What I can’t understand is the willingness of business, political, and journalistic authorities to believe what is generally one person’s word against another. This is not an opinion based on male privilege. It’s a legal reality hammered home by the Netflix series, The Keepers, in which Baltimore prosecutors and Roman Catholic Archdiocese officials were unwilling to believe the testimony of women who came forward almost 30 years later to accuse a specific priest of molesting them (and setting up meetings for other priests and police). No priest lost his standing (though a trip outside the country swept the controversy under the proverbial rug for a time). The reason as one of Baltimore’s States Attorneys explained was that the testimony of one person — even if memories were credible — was insufficient to start the engine of prosecution. (Of course, what is liable to prosecution in a court of law is not the same as public opinion or the rules of private employers.)

So what happened only six months after The Keepers was gaining some attention from video streamers?

And imagine writing today what one author did about the documentary series when it appeared:

How can anyone believe this?

The central thesis of The Keepers is that an alleged abusive priest, the now-deceased Rev. Joseph Maskell, can be tied to the disappearance and murder of Sr. Cathy. However, some of the central accusers in all of this, who claim that Maskell sexually abused them when they were young girls, have quite a bit of explaining to do.

For example, in 1995, a woman named Jean Wehner – whose claims play a central role in The Keepers – filed a civil lawsuit against Maskell under the name Jane Doe. What was uncovered in the course of her suit can only described as disturbing. It turns out that all of Wehner’s claims of abuse surfaced through the dangerous and discredited practice of “repressed memory therapy.”

It turns out that, according to court documents, Wehner has not just claimed that Rev. Maskell abused her in her life. Wehner has also claimed that she has somehow also been abused by:

four additional priests; three or four religious brothers; three lay teachers; a police officer; a local politician; an uncle; and two nuns.

Good grief. Really, Jean?

For a fuller account of the Archdiocese’s responses, see here.

Is it I or does it seem that Roman Catholics have been a little shy about weighing in on the current spate of revelations if only because of the church’s recent scandal-ridden past? Never to be intimidated, though, is Father Dwight:

What does this new and unexpected social phenomenon mean?

I think it indicates that a new generation of women don’t give two hoots about the old feminist agenda. The main objectives for women have been pretty much obtained-fair pay and fair treatment in the workplace. Now a new generation of women is saying, “We don’t have to put up with the harassment and objectification that still continues.

Hands off!

This is very interesting because, whether they like it or not, the modern women who take this view are echoing a very traditional set of values–ones which their great grandmothers would have recognized.

Its called modesty. In the past women were expected to draw the line, slap the man’s hand away and refuse a kiss until he was worthy.

The woman was the one who was supposed to be pure and unsullied and the keep the horny man at bay.

Father Dwight does realize, doesn’t he, that this “just-say-no” approach did not apparently work for the girls in The Keepers.

Meanwhile, some think the new found disgust with male appetites is not so much a recovery of virtue as an acquisition of power:

…what puzzles many of us is why the definition of deviance varies so dramatically over time. We cannot always predict who will become defined as deviant, and when the definitions will change. We do know that power plays the most important role in identifying who gets to define deviant behavior.

Until recently, allegations of sexual harassment and abuse by powerful men were not taken seriously—they were not viewed as deviant because the acts were perpetrated by powerful men on less powerful women. Now, the power to define sexual deviance has shifted to women—those who have collaborated with the media to bring attention to the issue and reform how such behavior is perceived and dealt with by society.

Until recently indeed — only 4 months ago.

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Expiration Date Passed

Apparently Ta-Nehisi Coates’ magic has worn off. Several writers have recently taken issue with his ideas about race relations and whiteness (and white superiority). Thomas Chatterton Williams, who was one of the first black authors to take Coates on, returns for another at bat under with the approval of editors at the New York Times (not the New York Post or the Washington Times). This must be serious.

At the Atlantic though, where Coates writes regularly and achieved some of his fame, his editors still think Coates is brilliant and that they bask in the brilliance by publishing and endorsing his ideas. For instance, on a recent podcast about Charlottesville and the Confederate Monuments, Jeffrey Goldberg described President Trump’s reaction, in which he wondered if taking down Robert E. Lee leads to Jefferson and Washington, in cataclysmic terms:

It is an amazing moment when the president of the United States can’t delineate the difference between the Civil War and the Revolutionary War. I think this is a breakpoint in modern American history.

Hasn’t Goldberg read Coates? Someone well before Trump showed a lack of nuance in describing white supremacy in U.S. history:

For the men who needed to believe themselves white, the bodies were the key to ta social club, and the right to break the bodies was the mark of civilization. “The two great division of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black,” said the great South Carolina senator John C. Calhoun. “And all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.” And there it is — the right to break the black body as the meaning of their sacred equality. And that right has always given them meaning, has always meant that there was someone down in the valley because a mountain is not a mountain if there is nothing below.

You and I, my son, are that “below.” That was true in 1776. It is true today. (Coates, Between the World and Me, 104-105).

So what do the editors at the Atlantic think of a staff writer who cannot tell the difference between the Civil War and Revolutionary War?

Professional Historians Don’t Do Religion

That is one way to explain why the editors of the American Historical Review, the flagship journal for professional historians in the United States published by the American Historical Association, let Randall Balmer, a long time student of American evangelicalism, open his book review of Darren E. Grem, The Blessings of Business — when will this sentence end!?! — this way:

On the face of it, the evangelical embrace of capitalism and free enterprise should be a tough sell. Jesus himself warned that rich men face long odds against entering the kingdom of heaven and that it is impossible to serve both God and Mammon. First-century Christians, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, held goods in common, a nascent form of socialism. So how is it that many contemporary evangelicals who trumpet their fidelity to the Bible have become such ardent evangelists for affluence and free-market capitalism? How could Jerry Falwell plausibly argue that “God is in favor of freedom, property, diligence, work, and acquisition”? (AHR, June 2017)

Does this mean that the AHA favors socialism even though it requires members to pay upwards of $200 to attend annual conferences where hotel rooms often go for at least $150 per night? Are we supposed to believe that in a socialist world the workers would unite to underwrite historians gathering annually to hear and present papers, meet with editors, and wine and dine with old colleagues?

Or could it be that Balmer thinks the Bible, which talks about the sin of stealing in pretty big letters, favors “a nascent form of socialism,” one without Gulags or walled cities?

And how is it that Balmer, historian of the United States, is such an expert about religion and society in first-century Palestine? “On the face of it” is not the kind of intellectual muscle needed to master the kinds of research techniques that antiquity requires.

And does Balmer actually believe that Jesus is opposed to property but favors freedom, especially liberty for consenting adults to experience sexual pleasure?

My sense is that the editors understood they had no dog in this hunt — the evangelical left versus the evangelical right — and let Balmer take his swipes.

I do wonder though how Balmer gets up in the morning and goes to lecture in classrooms at Dartmouth College, an institution which boasts an endowment of $4.5 BILLION (according to Google). That, my friends, is a lot of property that resulted from a lot of acquisition. Does Balmer ever trumpet Jesus’ teaching about rich men and serving Mammon with Dartmouth’s administration?

My Podcast Ministry

Just when you thought you heard enough from mmmmeeeeEEEEE, along comes another interview. Adam Holland of The Daily Brew was kind enough to invite me to chat about The Lost Soul of American Protestantism under the heading of pietism and revivalism. I think I showed restraint.

The main reason for engaging in such self-promotion is that I did tell Adam I would mention the podcast here at Old Life. Not to worry, I won’t be heading down the trail of weekly lists of the ten most popular posts.

Enough.

Who Paved the Way for Trump?

It was not Jerry Falwell (or his son).

It was the gatekeepers who decided gates were simply mental constructions and who celebrated those who ran with the new freedom.

Want to know where fake news came from? Looks like it was Harvard not Liberty University (thanks to one of our many southern correspondents):

Trump’s playbook should be familiar to any student of critical theory and philosophy. It often feels like Trump has stolen our ideas and weaponized them.

For decades, critical social scientists and humanists have chipped away at the idea of truth. We’ve deconstructed facts, insisted that knowledge is situated and denied the existence of objectivity. The bedrock claim of critical philosophy, going back to Kant, is simple: We can never have certain knowledge about the world in its entirety. Claiming to know the truth is therefore a kind of assertion of power.

These ideas animate the work of influential thinkers like Nietzsche, Foucault and Derrida, and they’ve become axiomatic for many scholars in literary studies, cultural anthropology and sociology.

From these premises, philosophers and theorists have derived a number of related insights. One is that facts are socially constructed. People who produce facts — scientists, reporters, witnesses — do so from a particular social position (maybe they’re white, male and live in America) that influences how they perceive, interpret and judge the world. They rely on non-neutral methods (microscopes, cameras, eyeballs) and use non-neutral symbols (words, numbers, images) to communicate facts to people who receive, interpret and deploy them from their own social positions.

Call it what you want: relativism, constructivism, deconstruction, postmodernism, critique. The idea is the same: Truth is not found, but made, and making truth means exercising power.

Casey Williams argues that the populist right has abused postmodernism.

The reductive version is simpler and easier to abuse: Fact is fiction, and anything goes. It’s this version of critical social theory that the populist right has seized on and that Trump has made into a powerful weapon.

One might object that Trump’s disregard for the truth is nothing new. American presidents have always twisted facts to fit their agenda and have always dismissed truths that threatened to sink them. Even George Washington’s great claim to honesty — that he ’fessed up to felling a cherry tree — was a deception. One could also argue that Trump is more Machiavellian than Foucauldian and that he doesn’t actually believe what he says: He propagates misinformation strategically, to excite his base and smear his opponents.

Not to be missed is what happens when other celebrities flout conventions. Then it becomes art and poignant. And so Lena Dunham is prescient (while Trump is so ordinary when he is not despicable):

The romance between this newspaper and the HBO show “Girls” is somewhat legendary. Between its debut in 2012 and its finale last Sunday, according to some exhaustive data journalism from The Awl, The New York Times published 37 articles about the show, its fans, its creator and star, Lena Dunham, plus her co-stars’ clothes and paintings and workout routines and exotic pets.

Except, fact-check: I made up the exotic pets, and The Awl’s list unaccountably failed to include my own contribution to The Times’s Dunham-mania, a love letter to the show’s flirtations with cultural reaction.

Was some of this coverage excessive? Well, let’s concede that the ratio of thinkpieces (all over the web, not just in this newspaper) to actual viewers was considerably higher for “Girls” than for, say, “Game of Thrones.” Let’s concede that the media loved to talk about the show in part because it was set among young white people in Brooklyn, a demographic just possibly overrepresented among the people who write about pop culture for a living. Let’s concede that Dunham’s peculiar role in electoral politics, as one of the most visible and, um, creative millennial-generation surrogates for Barack Obama and then Hillary Clinton, played some role in the press’s fascination with her show.

But now that we have the show in full, I think the scale of coverage actually holds up quite well — my own small part in it very much included. Indeed, I suspect that “Girls” will be remembered as the most interesting and important television show of the years in which it ran, to which cultural critics will inevitably return when they argue about art and society in the now-vanished era of Obama.

I know it’s hard to seem to be upholding the status quo. Baby boomers would rather have an edge, be a little deviant, and resist being part of the establishment.

But at some point you grow up, or you find no rationale for opposing a man (now president) who has been simply floating along with the decline of standards.

Real or Fake Spin

Sarah Pulliam Bailey reports that hipster-urban church planting may be responsible for Donald Trump:

In recent decades, white evangelical leaders made the American city their mission field. If you wanted to change hearts and minds, you had to go to cultural centers of power, such as New York City or Washington, where the population was growing. Now some evangelicals are wondering if that shift has caused them to overlook the needs and concerns of their counterparts in rural America.

Donald Trump’s victory put the spotlight on white, rural voters, many of them evangelicals, who were drawn to his “Make America Great Again” message. Even as exit polls suggested that 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump, some evangelicals in urban and suburban areas said they didn’t personally know other evangelicals who vocally supported the president-elect. Although three-quarters of evangelicals are white and lean heavily Republican, they are a huge and diverse group, accounting for a close to a quarter of all Americans, with Latinos making up the fastest-growing segment.

Trump carried nearly 93 percent of rural, mostly white evangelical counties, according to political scientist Ryan Burge.

So does she interview the guru of The City Company of Pastors, aka Tim Keller? You bet:

Ahead of the election, Keller, who leads Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, said that, aside from best-selling author Eric Metaxas, he did not know one evangelical openly supporting Trump.

Keller made his own shift from a rural church to eventually lead one in the country’s largest city and a global church-planting network called City to City.

“Cities have a cool factor, a starry-eyed cool factor,” he said. “Young evangelicals are not motivated to go to places that are not very desirable places to live.”

Keller said young pastors could learn quite a bit by starting at a small-town church in rural America. Pastors at larger churches in big cities tend to specialize in areas such as ministries to women or children, while rural pastors usually do a little bit of everything, he said.

So now Keller has even more credibility because he started as a country pastor? Why are religion reporters so naive?

Why are readers more discerning that religion reporters?

I like Keller, but his thoughts in this are completely self-serving. How is the church failing rural parts of America? Simple: millennials.

No mention that he has spent the better part of a decade saying that we need to focus on cities, that cities are where you change the world, that cities are the fulcrums of culture, that cities are where you find the most people and get the best harvest, that God wants you to love cities, that God is asking, ‘Why aren’t you moving there?’

Does Ms. Bailey think Keller won’t return her calls if she writes a critical story? Surely, a pastor would not be that vindictive. Or perhaps sanctified celebrity carries the same afflictions as unredeemed celebrity.

The Trump Will Set You Free

Free to criticize that is.

In 2014 when Charles Marsh’s highly acclaimed biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer came out, the author avoided taking on Eric Metaxas. In an interview with John Fea, this is the worst he could do:

I’m pleased that Eric Metaxas has inspired such a spirited and intense conversation on Bonhoeffer’s life and legacy. Nevertheless, I wanted to tell the story anew by relying primarily on a treasure of recent archival and scholarly discoveries, on letters, journals, and other documents, as well as my own interviews. I spent a lovely afternoon in the home of Eberhard Bethge, shortly before his death, talking candidly about aspects of Bonhoeffer’s character that had been largely ignored. Metaxas’s book also offered me a cautionary tale on the political misuses of biographical writing; had I not been able to see what havoc his own heavy-handed political agenda wreaked on the telling of Bonhoeffer’s life I might have been inclined to tweak it in the direction of my partisan biases.

In his review of Marsh’s book for the Wall Street Journal, Christian Wiman even faults Marsh for failing to correct Eric Metaxas’ popular biography of Bonhoeffer:

Mr. Marsh does not even mention the Metaxas book or the enormous attention it brought to Bonhoeffer. He is a scholar, and Mr. Metaxas is a popular biographer, and it’s possible that Mr. Marsh found no new information in the Metaxas book that he needed for “Strange Glory.” Still, though Mr. Marsh deals quite well with the intractable contradictions of Bonhoeffer’s beliefs and actions, he misses the chance to situate the theologian and his ideas more clearly within the contemporary context. A simple preface would have helped.

That is why Marsh’s recent post about Metaxas was a surprise:

WRITTEN WITH BUT the slightest familiarity with German theology and history, Metaxas’s best-selling Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy was published by Thomas Nelson in the spring of 2010 and launched at the Young Republicans Club of New York City. Christians in the United States needed to learn some very important lessons from Bonhoeffer’s story, and Eric Metaxas, who some followers call “the American Bonhoeffer,” had been called by God to deliver these lessons in our own hour of decision: It is not the role of the state to take care of people. America is the greatest nation in the world. People can take care of themselves; small government is the best government. Germans turned to Hitler to do the things that other people ought to be doing, and we in America are in danger of the same mistake. People who like big government don’t believe in God; they’re secularists and can be compared to the Nazis. We need Bonhoeffer’s voice today—Metaxas told an interviewer—“especially in view of the big government ethos of the Obama administration.”

With a literary background that includes a popular biography of the abolitionist William Wilberforce and the VeggieTales children’s series, Metaxas said that his purpose in writing the book was to save Bonhoeffer from the liberals, from the globalists, the humanists, and the pacifists. His Bonhoeffer was a born-again Christian who espoused traditional family values.

This is complete nonsense.

What explains the change? Metaxas has endorsed Trump and Marsh disapproves. The Trump will set you free.

But the editors at Religion & Politics and Dr. Fea should remember that just because Marsh is agreeable about Trump, it doesn’t make him right about Bonhoeffer. In fact, both Marsh and Metaxas may reflect their own “American” perspective. Ferdinand Schlingensiepen, a German biographer of Bonhoeffer, sure thought so:

Marsh and Metaxas have dragged Bonhoeffer into cultural and political disputes that belong in a U.S. context. The issues did not present themselves in the same way in Germany in Bonhoeffer’s time, and the way they are debated in Germany today differs greatly from that in the States. Metaxas has focused on the fight between right and left in the United States and has made Bonhoeffer into a likeable arch-conservative without theological insights and convictions of his own; Marsh concentrates on the conflict between the Conservatives and the gay rights’ movement. Both approaches are equally misguided and are used to make Bonhoeffer interesting and relevant to American society. Bonhoeffer does not need this and it certainly distorts the facts.

Years ago Charles Marsh described his Bonhoeffer biography project. This reviewer remembers a passage about him wanting to approach the topic in a more ‘writerly’ way than Bethge, using a talent for storytelling for which the Southern States are famous. It is true that his book surpasses that of Bethge in terms of writerly skill, but is has become ‘A Life of Bonhoeffer’ that never existed in this form. A number of mistakes found in Marsh’s book have been referred to above. There are more, but I have deliberately concentrated on those that do most to distort the picture of Bonhoeffer.

I have no doubt that Schlingensiepen would disapprove of Trump. I do doubt he would let his view of Trump inform his understanding of the past.

How the World Might Have Changed if the Apostles Had Religious Liberty

I don’t want to deny that it’s a tough world out there for believers. Have to worry about the flesh, the devil, and the world. So having also to keep an eye on California state legislators can make Christian piety a real challenge.

Still, the U.S. Christian tendency to play the persecution card doesn’t make sense of the greatness of American society (no need for Trump). In case Old Life readers did not know, the California legislature was proposing to expand the rights of LBGT students in ways that would have compromised restrictions that Christian institutions placed on their students, faculty, and staff.

And now the good great news. Enough people in California and elsewhere lobbied the California legislature to remove the controversial provisions of the bill:

Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) is removing a provision of his bill that sought to take away the exemption of religious schools to anti-discrimination laws. Instead, he will press forward with the amended bill that would still require such schools to disclose if they have an exemption and report to the state when students are expelled for violating morality codes.

“The goal for me has always been to shed the light on the appalling and unacceptable discrimination against LGBT students at these private religious institutions throughout California,” Lara said.

“I don’t want to just rush a bill that’s going to have unintended consequences so I want to take a break to really study this issue further,” the senator said. He said the requirement for schools to report expulsions based on morality codes to the state Commission on Student Aid will give him information on how common such cases are.

The senator said he will pursue other legislation next year, possibly including the provision dropped Wednesday.

Lara’s decision came after a half-dozen universities formed a new committee called the Assn. of Faith Based Institutions and contributed $350,000.

The group has flooded the districts of members of the Assembly Appropriations Committee, including Chairwoman Lorena S. Gonzalez (D-San Diego), with mailers saying the bill violates religious freedoms and urging voters to contact their Assembly person.

“Stop state control of private education,” says one mailer to Gonzalez’s constituents. Her committee is scheduled to vote on the bill Thursday.

The institutions include Azusa Pacific University, Point Loma Nazarene University and William Jessup University.

After Lara’s announcement, the universities released a letter to the Senator that said “Pending review of this new language, we are pleased to change our position on this legislation from “oppose unless amended” to `support.’ “

What makes democracy great is that it can reverse falling sky.

If It's Obvious It Can't Be True

So what is up with the Trumpophobia? This post made me think about posting about Donald Trump. Lots of people are trying to figure out how serious Christians who self-identify as evangelical could support a politician as raucous, impolitic, and self-important as Trump. I too sometimes wonder about it.

But when you connect Trump to Calvinism you’ve gone a bridge too far:

In the mind of the populist Calvinist, then, Trump is one of God’s “elect,” a billionaire because he is one of God’s great men on earth.

You’ll find echoes of this idea in the theology of the group known as “The Family” or “The Fellowship,” which sponsors the annual National Prayer Breakfast, and supports some of the most corrupt dictators on the planet. (Jeff Sharlet’s outstanding reporting exposed the group’s influence on Capitol Hill.)

For the record, let me say that the Pentecostal tradition to which Palin belongs is antithetical in many ways to traditional Calvinism. Yet, through the influence of the philosophy of Christian Reconstructionism (which theologized both capitalism and segregation along Calvinist thought lines) throughout the religious right, it’s fair to say that Calvin’s big-man theory of redemption holds sway in that religious universe.

Add to that the veneration of patriarchy and the strains of authoritarianism that characterize the religious right, and it begins to dawn on one just why Trump so appeals to the self-appointed guardians of the so-called “real America.”

Since when did American politics become so all darned polite, virtuous, and civil? Maybe it should be those things. But ever since we went down the road of partisanship (read two parties), politicians have splattered a lot of mud. Don’t forget that democracy itself is no picnic.

Democracy is that system of government under which people, having 60,000,000 native-born adults to choose from, including thousands who are handsome and many who are wise, pick out a Coolidge to be head of state. It is as if a hungry man, set before a banquet prepared by master cooks and covering a table an acre in area, should turn his back upon the feast and stay his stomach by catching and eating flies. (H. L. Mencken)

It’s as if everyone following politics has turned into classical music snobs and considers Trump the equivalent of Sinatra compared to Pavarotti or Enrico Caruso when in fact we are all used to casting our votes for Jay Z or Lil Wayne. Just yesterday I heard a quotation from Hillary Clinton where she described the options for the United States as among going backward, maintaining the status quo, and moving forward. Guess which one she is. Seriously?

I’m not opposed to making arguments against Trump. I have some myself. I simply wish that all the opposition didn’t begin with “yuck.” That so reminds me of the girls from junior high.

Does Anyone Remember Claudette Colvin?

That’s Colvin, not Calvin.

She was the fifteen-year old African-American girl who could have been Rosa Parks.

Other African-Americans had previously refused to give their seats to white passengers, says Hoose. “What was without precedent, though, is Colvin wanted to get a lawyer and she wanted to fight,” he says.

The lawyer she chose was Fred Gray, one of two African-American lawyers in Montgomery at the time. After speaking with Colvin, Gray says, he was prepared to file a civil rights lawsuit to contest segregation on buses in Montgomery. But after discussing Colvin’s incident with other local African-American community leaders, the community decided to wait, he says.

Colvin was just 15 and did not have civil rights training. Gray says the community was not quite prepared for Colvin’s situation.

“Later I had a child born out of wedlock; I became pregnant when I was 16,” Colvin says. “And I didn’t fit the image either, of, you know, someone they would want to show off.”

Nine months later, Rosa Parks did the exact same thing as Colvin. She was 42 years old, a professional and an officer in the NAACP. Hoose says Parks was the symbol that civil rights leaders were looking for.

The reason for bringing Colvin up is to calm the outrage over stories about the press’ coverage of Kim Davis, the Rowan County clerk in Kentucky who was refusing to give marriage licenses to gay couples. Now it comes out that she herself in addition to being a Christian is a three-time divorcee and so not necessarily the poster woman for religious freedom among the sanctified defenders of hetero marriage. Molly Hemingway does note in her wonderfully contrarian way that Davis’ conversion to Christian came after her prior divorces. So she is a little upset with the press’ slut shaming. Others have other thoughts about the matter.

Still, why don’t religious conservatives fighting the culture wars worry about style points? Why don’t they pick victims that are more squeaky clean than others? Why not understand that hypocrisy comes with the territory of headlines? If civil rights attorneys had to pick the right person to be the emblem of their cause, why don’t Christians have to make the same calculation?

It’s not like this is a problem that only believers face.