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An Asian-American Missioner in the Appalachians

by Br. Thomas Nguyen, G.H.M.

Roan Mountain, Tennessee. Image by Daniel Martin via Wikimedia Commons

Br. Thomas is a brother of The Glenmary Home Missionaries, a community that ministers to rural populations in the United States. He is a second-year Pastoral Ministry Masters student at the University of Dayton. His studies, his missionary experience, and his lived experience as a Vietnamese-American Catholic form his views. As he says, “my missionary bent makes me more sensitive to those who are marginalized in our society. The attacks on Asians during COVID have re-invigorated my zeal to fight for justice, especially racial justice. My goal is to help all people see the fullness of the scriptures which have social and spiritual impact. In order to restore justice and peace at times we have to ‘bust the wall of ignorance.’”

Wow!!! Asian cultural appreciation month, what a month! In the big cities, I see and hear about all the food festivals going on from one town to another. Doesn’t your mouth just water thinking of a hot boiling bowl of ramen where the noodle is chewy and soft? The broth is so rich and nutritious, your sinuses clear just taking a good sniff! As you scoop up that egg, the warm, hot, flavorful yoke just drips into your bowl making the already flavorful bowl of ramen become even more irresistible. Ummm….yum!!! It makes me wish I had a bowl of ramen right here and right now!

You must be wondering why in the world I am making you salivate by describing a yummy bowl of ramen? There is a reason! I sometimes think that in the eyes of some white Americans Asians are seen as only being good for their food and services. 

Think about it. Why is it an Asian food fest and not an Asian cultural festival? I am not complaining, but I am wondering if there is a better way for Asians to help others understand and appreciate our deep/complex culture. And it seems like white Americans are still very ignorant about Asian culture. Because of such ignorance, we have recently had a series of violent offenses against Asian Americans. It seems when Asians perform a service (nail salons, physicians, I.T. service, etc.) – assuming they have done their job well – they are praised and tolerated. But when something goes wrong, when something like COVID is blamed on Asians, “Su Chung” automatically gets blamed for something they did not do. Does that make any sense?

As a Catholic missionary, I am obligated by Canon law to have a novitiate year (basically a spiritual year.) During this spiritual year, I was assigned to one of Gelnmary’s rural missions for five months. I was assigned in a county that was located in the Central Southern part of the Tennessee. One of the ministries I was involved with included helping at a Food Bank. For the most part, my work there was good; I was liked by many of the locals and they appreciated my work. However, there were moments when some of the people I served spewed racially prejudicial things at me. I want to make it very clear before I explore some of these stories that they are racially prejudicial (as I perceived) and not racist, as “racist” – strictly speaking – pertains to when people see their race as superior to another person’s race. I am making this distinction because though I fight against racism I don’t think it is helpful to lump everything racial into the category of racism. I believe this lumping creates a certain oversensitivity that does more harm than good in the fight against racism. 

Let me give an example of the racial prejudice that I experienced. As a policy, the food bank tells all its volunteers that they are to give families only one portion of food that the coordinators had determined to be fitting for one family. Of course, sometimes we made exceptions, but this is a general policy to make sure everyone had their proper portion. Anyway, on this one occasion there was a big Caucasian man who wore a cowboy hat, who walked with a solid, brown, wooden cane, and who asked for a second portion to bring home to someone else. The policy at the food bank is that, unless the other person is with them, we cannot give them a second portion. I tried to explain this to the man; when he was not satisfied, I went inside to talk to one of the managers of the food bank about how to resolve the situation. As I came back one of the volunteers reported that the man said, “What is that little Asian boy doing, acting like he is the boss?” I won’t get into how I reacted, but I will just say I just shook it off.

What I want to look at here is what the man said. What if I was the boss? Was there anything stopping me from being the boss of the food bank? What I am looking at here is the obvious prejudice that he was letting out in his question. Prejudice is by definition pre-judgment; when we form a judgment about someone before fully knowing. In and of itself the pre-judgment is not wrong, it is just by definition immature and not fully developed. However, the man made a pre-judgment that I could not have been the boss there, but was acting in a boss-like manner, giving orders and all. And the “little Asian boy” part was rather dismissive as well, as it suggested that he saw me as a kid (I was 26 at the time). 

I wonder if beneath all this was a sense of resentment because it was a man of a minority race telling him the rules of the place (which was my job). I wonder if things would have been different if a young Caucasian male came and talked to him instead of me. Unfortunately, resentment by other races is something Asians experience a lot. Though many Asians are apparently treated well, thanks in good part to their practice of “lying low,” I argue that there is in fact a sense of resentment. One can see this when we look at how some major universities treat Asians, what some politicians have said about Asians, and the treatment of Asians post-COVID. All of this points to a deep sense of resentment that lies under the nice looking surface.

Asian Americans are not seen as equals, no matter how much they have achieved, no matter what contributions they have made to American society. Ask yourself during Asian cultural appreciation month: what are the contributions that the Asian community has made to American society? Are they visible or are they invisible? At the end of the day I am not writing these words for Asian Americans alone, but for all humans, so that they may be seen and respected as they should. As I truly do believe that everyone is created in “the image and likeness of God,” this means in a literal sense we should be treated like deities. This is not a call for false worship or idolatry but for a profound respect for the “Godness” that exists in every human person!

Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy: An Interview with Rodney Kennedy

by William Trollinger

Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. He pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years, after which he served as interim pastor of ABC USA churches in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Kansas. He is currently interim pastor of Emmanuel Friedens Federated Church, Schenectady, NY. His sixth book The Immaculate Mistake: How Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump – has recently been published. His seventh book, Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy, is the focus of this interview. And book #8, Dancing with Metaphors in the Pulpit, will appear soon. 

Book cover for Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy by Rodney Kennedy. Image via Cascade Books (2023).

1. Having just written and published The Immaculate Mistake: How Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump, what prompted you to write Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy?=

Stanley Hauerwas, in the preface to Working with Words, says, “The world probably does not need another book by me.” Those words made me ponder whether the world needs another book about Donald Trump. My answer, as this work makes obvious, was yes. My reasons for writing about Trump are many. Trump is still a danger, a menace to democracy. I am convinced that Trump remains an important subject for evaluation because he has created a certain spirit in our political environment, and I believe it is toxic. Most of all, I write because I am a dissident, a dissident in the description offered by Vaclav Havel: “You do not become a ”dissident” just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career. You are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You are cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well and ends with being branded an enemy of society.”

2. Befitting your Ph.D. in rhetoric and your lifetime as a Baptist minister, in this book you make great use of current rhetorical scholarship as well as Plato, Proverbs, and the Psalms. Could you say a little about your research methodology?

I write more as a preacher than as a scholar because I have been writing sermons for sixty years. I find it impossible to write without incorporating biblical texts. When I read biblical narratives, I read them metaphorically. I am not locked into a reduced literalism. This enlivens my biblical imagination, a technique that I learned first from African American preachers like Gardner Taylor.

For example, the story of Paul preaching to the philosophers in Athens amazes me. On the one hand, there is the astounding boldness of St. Paul to take on the embedded wisdom of a long-standing pagan philosophical tradition. Then there is the analogical reality that we now find ourselves in the same place. We too are attempting to speak to a generation of “philosophers” who mock and deride the Christian faith. I find it fascinating to consider the epistemological possibilities that are presented to Christians preaching in a secular age. Here I combine the study of Charles Taylor, especially his A Secular Age, and the work of philosopher James K. A. Smith, How (Not) to Be Secular. They raise the question of how we are to witness in a secular age, an age that considers all talk about God as “babbling.” In fact, I just preached a sermon on this very idea:

“The word seems a perfect fit for the old story of the tower of Babel. It’s a story explaining how people came to speak so many languages, but as a metaphor it rings true. We are babblers and the towers we have constructed; towers of grandness, wealth, and power are falling. We have not been the same since 9/11 when the Twin Towers – symbol of our financial wealth, were destroyed by war criminals. Now, we are scared that the economy will tank, and another Great Depression is around the corner. And, out of fear, we babble. That’s what some scared people do – they talk incessantly and with a serious dose of paranoia.

“Charles Taylor claims that our world is a world suspended between the enchantment of transcendence – a default setting of believing in God – and the malaise of immanence, a flat space where there is no God. If we don’t pay attention to the swelling numbers of the exclusive humanists, there is not going to be a church. Immanence is destroying transcendence. If some people in the house of God don’t sacrifice some time, some intellectual sweat, some thoughtful effort to communicate with this Age, this house is going to be destroyed. Some people are going to have to step up and say, ‘There is still God in this house.’ And the God in this house loves gays, transgenders, women, minorities, immigrants, and the whole world of human flesh. It’s that simple. That puts the ball in our court. In the minds, mouths, and lives of believers – which is exactly where it belongs.”

3. I found this statement particularly striking: “To describe Trump as a demagogue, a psycho, or a fascist retreats to a rhetorical safe zone. To assert as I do that Donald Trump is evil, the incarnation of evil, is to say something about the ethos of an actual human being” (87). What do you mean by “rhetorical safe zone,” why have scholars and other observers stayed in that safe zone, and what has caused you to leave the safe zone?

There has always been a sort of unwritten rule in rhetorical studies not to use the criticism of a person’s ethos as a critique of the “person.” In psychology this is called the “Goldwater Rule”: It is unprofessional and unethical to psychoanalyze public figures whom you have not analyzed personally. Rhetorical scholars have exercised a similar caution. In my research I discovered that rhetorical scholars were of one mind in asserting the dangers of Donald Trump. They have found him to be a demagogue, a charlatan, a bully, a deranged populist, a rhetorical pervert, a demolition machine. But then I realized that the rhetorical scholars had not gone as far as necessary. It dawned on me that Trump was the definition of embodied evil. He was too dangerous not to expose. Safety was ignored and I started writing Good and Evil out of a sense of necessity. The book became an example of the biblical concept of parrhesia – the fearless speaking of the truth to the powers, in the process taking personal and professional risks in order to do one’s duty. 

4. Speaking of escaping the rhetorical safe zone, you devote a chapter to comparing Donald Trump with Adolf Hitler. And while you repeatedly note that you are not claiming Trump equals Hitler, this is indeed a daring comparison. Why go there, and what do we learn from such a comparison?

I struggled with my conclusions surrounding Trump, but I was convinced that Kenneth Burke, in his brilliant “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle,” offered a challenge I could not avoid. The words startled me: “Let us try to discover what kind of ‘medicine’ this medicine-man has concocted, that we may know, with greater accuracy, exactly what to guard against, if we are to forestall the concocting of similar medicine in America.”

Even more convincing was Burke’s argument that Hitler’s appeals relied upon “a bastardization of fundamentally religious patterns of thought.” My head was spinning from my previous work on the “total identification” of Trump and the Evangelicals.

I was completely convinced that my line of thought was necessary when I read these words from Burke: “Our job is to find all the ways of making the Hitlerite distortions of religion apparent, in order that politicians of his kind in America be unable to perform a similar swindle.” 

For me the die was cast. Trump had to face the judgment that he is a “medicine man” selling a “fake salvation.”

There was, in retrospect, some deliberate rhetorical satire involved on my part. Trump’s favorite rhetorical trope is paralipsis: “I’m not saying, but I’m just saying.” Trump is a master at this rhetorical strategy. Using Trump’s brand of paralipsis: I’m not saying Trump is Hitler. I’m just saying that he talks like Hitler, thinks like Hitler, and uses Hitler’s rhetorical techniques in ways that make Burke’s warning about such a politician gaining power in America became very real.

5. Again and again in the book you make reference to a central question regarding the Trump phenomenon, i.e., how is it that so many Christians, particularly evangelicals, have given themselves over to this evil man? How do you answer this question, and what does this say about the state of Christianity in 21st century America?

My deepest heartbreak is the selling of the evangelical soul to Trump. I detest evangelical teachings on evolution, creation, the rapture, the end of the world, and the origin of America. I detest their anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-science, anti-history, anti-global warming rants. But I find all of this relatively harmless when compared to accepting the political power offered by Donald Trump.

I am convinced that the evangelicals accepted the gifts of the Devil that Jesus rejected in the temptation narrative. Look at Luke’s words about the temptation of Jesus. “Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’” 

Don’t you see? The devil tells Jesus that political power has been given to him and he can give it to anyone he pleases. I believe the Devil has given that power — that Jesus refused — to evangelicals. In return, they are worshiping him while claiming to worship Jesus. How else can people waving Jesus flags take part in the January 6 invasion of our nation’s capital?

In short, evangelicals have not so much given themselves over to Trump as they have surrendered everything to the Evil One. Trump is simply their instrument of gaining power and control over absolutely everything and everyone.

6. You conclude your book with two chapters, “The Rhetorical Good: Vaclev Havel” and “Singing for Democracy” (which focuses a lot on Walt Whitman), that suggest the possibility of a democratic, inclusive, and empathetic rhetoric. Could you elaborate a little on this, and are you hopeful that such a rhetoric could take the place of Trumpian rhetoric?

Thanks for asking this question. The concluding chapters are the heart of my argument. I have a deep respect for the work of Havel – the dissident poet. He is the political embodiment of St. Paul’s “rhetoric of folly.” I have written about this previously with my rhetorical colleague Kenneth Zagacki.

My trust in the gospel of Jesus remains rock solid. In my first book, The Creative Power of Metaphor, I offered a new rhetoric for preachers – inclusive, empathetic, and democratic. It is the heart of my own theology of preaching. In my research on Walt Whitman, I had the pleasure of reading In Walt We Trust by John Marsh. The subtitle of the book puts it exactly right for me: How A Queer Socialist Poet Can Save America from Itself. I am adamant that the church has no choice but to dissent vigorously from the anti-gay agenda of evangelicals. My hope is that we will have the boldness to preach the gospel of hospitality, the church as the place that makes a space for God and all the people God created to feel at home.

7. Hard on the heels of Good and Evil will soon appear yet another book: Dancing with Metaphors in the Pulpit. Could you tell us a little about this book, and how it connects with your previous books? And what is the projected publication date?

Dancing with Metaphors in the Pulpit is now in the editorial process. I think that the publication date will be December 2023. This book is my life’s work – a preaching book. Here I have attempted to be the generalist I have always been, and I appeal to preachers to read well and read deeply from the novelists, the poets, the philosophers, and the rhetoricians. I am convinced that the ancient line of poet/philosopher/rhetorical preachers — which originated with St. Paul – dominated the church until at least the 18th century. Today, it competes with a populist version of preaching that doesn’t have the same respect for the intellectual traditions of the church. Dancing with Metaphors attempts to give the preacher the necessary cross-disciplinary tools she needs to confront a secular world. 

8. Between books, articles for various outlets (including monthly posts for rightingamerica), and sermons – and I am sure I am leaving something out! – you seem to be writing constantly. How do you explain your incredible productivity? Do you ever have a day off?

I have been practicing the art of writing for more than 60 years. A sermon a week for 60 years equals about 3,000 sermons of 1700 words per sermon. That’s 85,000 words per year or the equivalent of a book a year for 60 years. That’s more than 5 million words.

I am not aware that I am that productive. I find myself feeling rather “slothful” at times. Writing is so hard, and it requires all my attention. My mind has been trained over all these decades to be prepared for any idea or subject that might cross my mind. There are mornings when I awake and there’s an article waiting for me. I sit at the computer and try to type fast enough to keep up with the words tumbling from my mind. I am grateful. Focus and passion and mental toughness, according to David L. Cook, are requirements for what I do. By the time I’m 140 I think I will have come close to perfecting these ideals.

At the moment, I have a number of possible book ideas floating around in my head. I plan to publish some of my previously published essays later this year. I think it is important to produce material from the left wing of the church. I played baseball for about 20 years of my life, and I was a left-handed pitcher. I write left-handed and I write from the progressive left-wing of the church. I love the arguments. People think I’m angry, but I’m not. I am delighted to be engaged in ongoing arguments.

In particular, I am preparing a book that takes on the evangelical attacks on American history/historians and scientists. I believe that progressive pastors need to say more about our fellow truth-seekers – the historians and scientists – and I intend to say it.

I am currently engaged in watching the sermons of the pastors of the 100 largest churches in America. It is a fascinating experience to observe the most successful preachers in the world using preaching techniques that bring into question everything I have thought to be true about preaching. I anticipate publishing the results of this research in two years. The book is tentatively called, On Preaching: Twenty-Five Lessons from the Last Twenty-Five Years. 

As I have reached the age when I am too old to serve as a full-time pastor, I have turned  to writing. I write to know what I think. Writing has become my therapist for feeling useless. I want to be involved in the future of the church because church matters and church has a future. And it may not be dominated by the evangelicals. As a sacramentalist, I think the Episcopalians, the Catholics, and the new United Methodist Church  (disencumbered by the moralistic conservatives who are rushing to join the Global (?) Methodist Church) will have a lot to say about the shape and vitality of the church.

I write furiously. I think that it may be my unconscious desire to think I can ward off the approach of death, but that discussion would require therapy. When I was young I   expressed my desire to die in the pulpit preaching a sermon. I now think no congregation should have to go through that in order for me to satisfy a selfish dream. So I will keep writing and concentrate on how I’m living.

Thank you for this opportunity.

Banning Books to Protect Fragile White Students

by William Trollinger

Photograph from the 1930 Lynching in Marion, Indiana.

White fragility is really a thing.

When pressed, Taylor University’s provost, Jewerl Maxwell, explained to writing professor Julie Moore that the specific reason she was being fired had to do with the historian Jemar Tisby. Moore had not assigned any of his terrific writings, but she had included this Tisby quote on her syllabus

The refusal to act in the midst of injustice is itself an act of injustice. Indifference to oppression perpetuates oppression. History and Scripture teach us that there can be no reconciliation without repentance. There can be no repentance without confession. And there can be no confession without truth.

Yikes. Can’t have those fragile white evangelical students seeing the truth of America’s racist past and present . . . and, especially, can’t have their fragile white evangelical parents realizing that their children are learning the truth about America’s racist past and present.

Taylor’s decision to fire Julie Moore is appalling, especially when one takes into account that Marion – the Indiana city just 14 miles from Taylor – was the site of the particularly horrific 1930 lynching of two African Americans, Thomas Shipps and Abram Smith. In response to Moore’s firing, the Marion Community Remembrance Project Coalition – dedicated to remembering this awful event and its victims – has expressed its unhappiness with the university, asserting that

We stand wholeheartedly with the BIPOC students of Taylor University who are impacted by this decision. We reject the implications of Provost Maxwell’s actions: that their voices, stories, and experiences are not valid or worthwhile in a post-secondary educational setting.

Yes, Taylor’s decision to fire Julie Moore is appalling. Unfortunately, it turns out that the “voices, stories, and experiences” of BIPOC students are also not valid or worthwhile in many K-12 educational settings. This is particularly obvious when one looks at the escalating campaign to ban books from classrooms and school libraries. 

PEN America is an organization that “works to ensure that people everywhere have the freedom to create literature, to convey information and ideas, to express their views, and to access the views, ideas, and literatures of others.” So it makes sense that PEN America is working overtime to keep track of these book bans. 

The organization has identified four types of book bans:

  • Banned in school libraries and classrooms.
  • Banned in school libraries.
  • Banned in classrooms.
  • Banned pending investigation (which can last months or even years).

Here are the key findings from PEN America’s most recent report:

  • “During the first half of the 2022-23 school year [there were] 1,477 instances of individual books banned, affecting 874 unique titles, an increase of 28 percent compared to the prior six months.” 
  • “The full impact of the book ban movement is greater than can be counted, as ‘wholesale bans’ . . . in which entire classrooms and school libraries have been suspended, closed, or emptied of books . . . are restricting access to untold numbers of books.”
  • “This school year, instances of book bans are most prevalent in Texas, Florida, Missouri, Utah, and South Carolina.”
  • “Overwhelmingly, book banners continue to target stories by and about people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals. In this six-month period, 30% of the unique titles banned are about race, racism, or feature characters of color. Meanwhile, 26% of unique titles banned have LGBTQ+ characters or themes.”

From PEN America’s list of books that were banned this past fall, here are 42 of the banned books that deal with race and racism. 

White fragility is really a thing.

Fragile White Evangelicals: Taylor University and the Firing of Julie Moore

by William Trollinger

Entry to Taylor University in Upland, Indiana. Image via Star 106.9.

As one who taught for eight years at a “moderate” evangelical university, I speak from personal experience when I say that the gap between so-called moderate evangelical schools and hardline fundamentalist schools is not very large. 

And that is because evangelical and fundamentalist schools appeal to the same conservative constituency, the same conservative donors and parents. The difference is that hardline fundamentalist schools – think Bob Jones University and, now, Cedarville University – can simply be up front about who they are. But the so-called moderate evangelical schools are much more invested in appearing academically respectable, while at the same time always looking over the “right shoulder” to make sure its very conservative constituency is content.

As a result, and as I experienced first-hand, evangelical schools will occasionally find it necessary to “purge” faculty members who may suggest to their conservative constituency that the school is not “safe.” A very recent example? Taylor University and Julie Moore. 

A well-published poet and teacher of writing, Moore was at Cedarville as the school made its hard right turn (in the process firing dozens of faculty and staff and hiring a known sexual predator). She has written about her experience here at rightingamerica.

In 2017 she escaped to a more “moderate” evangelical school, Taylor University. 

But now she has been fired at Taylor. And this is because, according to the provost, there were student complaints about readings she assigned that had to do with racial justice (readings that included Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Letter to My Son” and Martin Luther King, Jr’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”).

In her conversation with the provost (Jewerl Maxwell) – there’s a recording of this meeting! – the flabbergasted Moore pressed him for specifics. Maxwell’s response? “Jemar Tisby is the main focus.” 

Tisby is a public historian and popular speaker who has written terrific works such as The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism. But he has become persona non grata in certain conservative white evangelical circles because, well, he tells the truth about the American church’s complicity in racism.

But here’s the thing (and remember, there’s a recording).  Moore responded to Provost Maxwell that 

while she quoted from Tisby – whom she said she admires – in her syllabus, she’d not assigned any writings by him to students. Her protest went unheeded as Maxwell told her he did not want to debate specifics.

What? That’s the response? You don’t want to “debate” the “specific” reason you just offered up to Moore as to why she was being fired? Are you kidding? 

Then there’s President Michael Lindsay’s response, which he emailed to the Taylor community:

We understand and empathize with a faculty member’s disappointment when a contract decision does not go as they hoped. Multiple personnel factors are considered when the University decides not to renew a contract, as was the case here. We strongly disagree with what has been asserted [but are not able to elaborate].

What? Disagree with what? Are you kidding? Did I mention that there is a recording?

Yes, indeed, these comments from the top administrators at Taylor University are (to understate the case) lame. But here’s the thing. They can get away with such responses because, in firing Julie Moore, they are signaling that Taylor will never be “woke,” Taylor will be a “safe” school for fragile white students, Taylor – the school that in 2019 brought in Mike Pence as commencement speaker – will continue to cater to their right-wing constituency.

That is, firing a writing teacher who has her students deal with racial justice, well, that sells.

But of course, there’s a human being paying the price. The gifted Julie Moore, who is out of a job . . . although, to be fair, Provost Maxwell is praying about it. (What exactly he is praying is not clear.)

A gofundme site has been set up for Moore and her family. Please consider contributing.

Greedy for Certainty: The Strange Fruit of Literalism 

by Rodney Kennedy

Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. He pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years, after which he served as interim pastor of ABC USA churches in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Kansas. He is currently interim pastor of Emmanuel Friedens Federated Church, Schenectady, NY. His sixth book The Immaculate Mistake: How Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump – has recently been published by Wipf and Stock (Cascades). And his newest book, Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy, has just been published (a Q/A with the author is forthcoming).

Image via Canary Pete Cartoons.

Harold Bloom may seem an odd spokesperson when the subject is literalism. Yet Bloom’s primary contribution is his insistence that metaphor produces a new kind of knowledge as a defense against death-dealing literal meaning: “Literal meaning and the powerful presence of a precursors’ meaning are equivalent to death in that they prevent the impulse to communicate further.” 

Why does a literal reading of the Bible hold such attraction for Christians? More to the point: How has belief in literalism led to “Christian nationalism,” to such awful ideas about how immigrants should be treated, to discrimination against women and minorities, to an insistence that women can’t be ordained as pastors, to screams about “wokeness,” “Critical Race Theory,” “replacement theory,” White supremacy, climate denial, and an anti-vaxx movement? 

Why are literalists so determined to be free from everything, even truth itself?

Perhaps we can think of literalism as an attempt at providing epistemological comfort for believers. More than this, literalists, not content with a literal Bible, grant their preachers an authority to speak literally about issues that never occur in the Bible. A climate change denier can make fun of the science of climate change and speak like a literalist to his congregation. The congregational consciousness automatically confers the authority of biblical literalism on every word that proceeds from their pastor’s mouth. We have the literal transference of literal belief in a literal Bible. Now, the pastor has literal authority on subjects he may not even understand. He boldly refutes history, psychology, and science. In the face of overwhelming evidence for God taking her sweet time to create the universe, the literalist attacks the theory of evolution as if it were invented by the devil.

This reaches the heart of the issue and might explain the truly tragic spectacle of someone like Robert Jeffress – a prominent Southern Baptist pastor and Fox News commentator who made his name as a hardline advocate of a literal Bible – arguing that Jesus will [literally] return to earth and rapture believers within the lifetime of Jeffress. His epistemological love of literalism has crashed right into and up against a limit: his unfettered pursuit of Mammon and his right to – the freedom to – having his own opinion carved in the stone of biblical literalism. A presumed lover of truth and reason, he is driven to deny the most crucial truth in the world today (as pollution and climate change are on the verge of destroying our planet). His literalizing of everything important to him and his tribe is a tragic spectacle. Or perhaps more accurately: farcical.

The remarkable irony here is that Baptists especially are allegedly congenitally against political correctness and authoritarianism, and yet they have themselves become the most staunch defenders of a kind of biblical correctness and authoritarianism. I believe that this has to do with an insecurity about not being able to see, actually see God. I think that the ambiguity, contingency, and uncertainty of having faith in God, is more than a literalist can tolerate. They are greedy for certainty. They possess a longing to maintain a Cartesian sense of certainty about everything.

Most of all, they have substituted a literal Bible for God. Since God can’t be seen out in public, they have replaced God with words about God. A literal Bible is a replacement god. Biblical literalism is the ultimate bastard child of Descartes.

The obsession of evangelicals with literalism crowds out the value of truth. In the end, their attempt to impose the scientific method on Scripture ends up being the attempt to drive a square peg into a circular hole. Not wishing to live with uncertainty, tension, insecurity, and not knowing, they have attempted to foist literalism on all of Christianity.

Hebrew scholar Richard Elliott Friedman has written a book called The Disappearance of God, in which he maps divine recession in the Hebrew Bible. Friedman shows God receding from the scene, leaving the responsibilities of just and holy living to actual human beings. God seems to step back, not intervene, so that human beings have room to take responsibility. This flies in the face of literalism which portrays God as a coercive presence and a God constantly intervening to get God’s way. The literalist doctrine of creation insists on divine intervention rather than divine persuasion. Somehow literalism always circles back to creation.

After the debacle at Babel, no human ever visibly saw God again. Once Moses saw God’s backside on Mt. Sinai, the period of visible encounters with God came to an end. God assumed a lower profile, working miracles for smaller and smaller audiences. Even angels got scarce: there is no evidence they tended to anyone after Elijah. Barbara Brown Taylor says, 

Gradually, the prophetic experience of God became one of visions and dreams. From Hezekiah on, the world described in the Hebrew Bible was one from which God had largely retired, leaving humans to interact with other humans. The acts of God were over. The remembered words of God took their place. The world was no longer a place where seas split and snakes talked, but one in which human relationship to the divine was largely a matter of personal belief. 

The evangelicals are not happy with God disappearing from the scene. They need God to thunder from Sinai. They insist that God show the world who is boss, and if God will not take charge, then the evangelicals will do it for God. They tell us that they have the Word – the literal Bible, the Sword – that now speaks what God would speak if God were to show up one morning in Washington, D. C. The literalists shout, “You may not need a literal Bible, but we do.”

The literalists are taking the same approach John Calvin took in his argument with the Roman Catholics over miracles. Calvin insisted that our confidence should rest on the Word of God and not on signs and wonders. Miracles were not only fraudulent and diabolical, but they were also unnecessary. Calvin argued vigorously for a limited age of miracles and the subservience of miracles to the scriptures themselves. God never allowed true miracles to overshadow the sacred text. I Cor. 13 listed temporary gifts that long ago passed away. Calvin called them counterfeit miracles. Christians didn’t need miracles because they had the Word of God.  Literalism not only offers us a physical, material idol – the Bible – but it also ignores the reality that all language about God is tentative, contestable, and often combatable. People find themselves disagreeing with one another about texts, meanings, and interpretations. The result has often been strife, schism, and war.

Literalists, by and large, seem unwilling to admit the natural order of theological language: it is, in fact, composed of arguments. The word “argument” implies at least two possible interpretations, and as David Cunningham note, “this, in turn, implies multiplicity and contingency.” Rather than face the reality of such a world, evangelicals created their own archetypal metaphor: literalism. What remarkable irony to discover that “literalism” is a metaphor.

Like a crying baby that can only be comforted with a pacifier, evangelicals require a literal Bible to be comforted that they are right, certain, and possessors of the entire truth about, well, everything. When you hear David Barton pontificating a horde of misinformation and false claims about the founding fathers of America, you are face to face with a literalist who has read American history badly. When you hear Ken Ham insist that he is actually the scientist and that biblical literalism is the true science of creation, you are witnessing a literalist who knows neither the word of God nor science.

Take a deep breath. Relax. God is alive and well on planet earth. We are not required to embrace certainty. It is perfectly acceptable to live within the uncertainties of a risky universe and do so with faith. After all, our faith is in God. Our most ancient creed, The Apostle’s, never mentions the Bible. Instead, it boldly professes, “I believe in God, maker of heaven and earth.”

From the Archives: Mirror Images: The Jefferson Bible and The Fundamentalist Bible

by William Trollinger

Today we revisit a post from November 8, 2021 in which we examine the use of “creative editing” of the Bible that is done at the Creation Museum, especially when it comes to the representation of Jesus.

Teachings of Jesus placard on display at the Creation Museum. Photo by Susan L. Trollinger (2021).

I taught for eight years at Messiah University (PA), which is – as the name might indicate – an evangelical school. 

(Side note: At my campus interview I suggested – in what I thought was a brilliant moment of levity – that the athletic teams should have as their nickname “Messiah Complex.” Except for me, no one laughed.)

While Messiah is a moderate evangelical school (e.g., biblical inerrancy is not part of the faith statement), it attracted (and, I presume, attracts) a good number of fundamentalist students, many of whom had been homeschooled or had attended fundamentalist high schools. 

One day in my U.S. history survey class, when I was talking about the American Revolution, I said in passing that the author of the Declaration of Independence was something akin to a deist. After class three distressed young women confronted me, letting me know that I was completely wrong about Thomas Jefferson’s religious beliefs, as they had learned in high school that he was an evangelical.

I happened to know that the library had a copy of the The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (more commonly known as The Jefferson Bible). Jefferson created this work by literally taking a razor to a KJV Bible, cutting out certain Gospel passages and gluing them together as a summary of Jesus’ teachings, in the process removing all supernatural references (including the Resurrection and other miracles). 

So I suggested to these students that they go to the library and take a look at what Jefferson had produced. And so they did. And at the next class the same three young women approached me. And again they were quite agitated, but not for the same reason; as one of them blurted: “I was lied to: Jefferson was no evangelical – I don’t think he was even a Christian!”

But then, there’s the Fundamentalist Bible. And one way to think of the Fundamentalist Bible is to understand it as the mirror image of The Jefferson Bible. The supernatural is all there, but many or most or all biblical references to social justice have been cut out by way of a virtual razor.

Take, for example, what one finds in the Jesus exhibit at the Creation Museum. As we noted in Righting America (48), when the Museum opened in 2007 there was almost no Jesus in the place. Not only was there just one Jesus statue tucked away in a corner (which was moved to the main foyer for the holidays), and almost no quotes from Jesus on the ubiquitous placards. 

Then, ten years later, the museum opened a three-room Jesus exhibit. The Jesus here is, to quote Susan Trollinger, a “powerful, authoritative, God-approved, superhero Jesus” who performed miracles, rose from the dead, and will be returning to Earth soon to annihilate his enemies. 

The Creation Museum’s vindictive-superhero Jesus is definitely not the Jesus of The Jefferson Bible. This becomes even clearer when one realizes that there is only half of one placard devoted to Jesus’ “Instructions” (the other half of the placard is devoted to “Rebukes,” which is telling in itself.) Not only is there so little on Jesus’ teachings, but what is included on this placard has been so severely edited that museum visitors will not come away from the exhibit with any notion that Jesus had anything to say about social justice. 

Take, for example, the snippet from Matthew 6:24: “No one can serve two masters.” What exactly does that mean? Well, here is the full verse:

No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

This is not a subtle editing job. Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis (AiG) have taken the razor blade to Matthew 6:24, and the result is that Creation Museum visitors do not have to wonder if there’s anything about capitalism and the accumulation of riches that might be at odds with the Gospel.

But then look at “Rebukes” on the right side of the placard. One of these rebukes comes from Matthew 25:41: “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

There is no question that this verse is supposed to be an example of, as noted at the top of the placard, “the consequences of rejecting Him.” Conveniently enough, the folks at AiG have failed to include the following five verses:

“For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

Talk about an unsubtle editing job! In truth, “editing job” is quite the euphemism for what the folks at the Creation Museum have done to the Bible. A few judicious slashes with the virtual razor blade, and voila, we have a superhero Jesus who is poised to condemn sinners and neglect those who, like him, suffer. 

But what about fundamentalist study Bibles, where editors cannot – unlike Jefferson and unlike AiG – simply excise passages that they do not like? 

Well, when it comes to Matthew 25: 31-46, these Bibles have done the next best thing. That is, they say that Jesus’ words do not apply to us today. Instead, as one learns from The King James Study Bible: Reference Edition (p. 1036), The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Matthew 24-28 (pp. 122, 124-125)and The Henry Morris Study Bible (p. 1445), these words apply to the seven-year Tribulation at the end of history. The test will be whether or not one helps the refugees – apparently those who convert after Jesus has taken up the “true Christians” in the Rapture – fleeing the forces of the Antichrist. According to Morris, those who turn “the refugees away, and perhaps even reporting them to the authorities, will be sent away into everlasting judgment.”

In other words, what these study Bibles proffer is an interpretive razor blade, an extraordinarily esoteric explanation of a passage whose meaning is (unlike so many passages in the Bible that are a challenge to interpret) pretty plain and obvious. What’s not to get? If you want to call yourself a Christian, Jesus says, then get busy about easing the suffering of the poor, the oppressed, the imprisoned. This reading, by contrast, is not rooted at all in the biblical text. Instead, it successfully excises unwelcome suggestions that Jesus and the Bible have anything to say to us today about working for social justice.

The Jefferson Bible and the Fundamentalist Bible. Mirror images.

Thinking Revivals: One Way to Understand What Happened at Asbury

By Rodney Kennedy

Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. He pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years, after which he served as interim pastor of ABC USA churches in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Kansas. He is currently interim pastor of Emmanuel Friedens Federated Church, Schenectady, NY. His sixth book The Immaculate Mistake: How Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump – has recently been published by Wipf and Stock (Cascades). And his newest book, Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy, will appear by the end of April.

Image of the revival at Ashbury University. Via The Post from Enduring Word.

“The kingdom of God is at hand: repent and believe the good news!” To repent is not to feel bad but to think differently. In its concern for helping every individual to make his own authentic choice in full awareness and sincerity, Protestantism (especially evangelical Protestantism) is in constant danger of confusing the kingdom itself with the benefits of the kingdom. 

If the revival at Asbury has helped students make their own authentic choice to follow Jesus in full awareness and sincerity, then God bless that revival. But if the revival confuses the kingdom of God with the benefits of the kingdom, we have a problem. 

John Howard Yoder says, “If anyone repents, if anyone turns around to follow Jesus in his new way of life, this will do something for the aimlessness of his life. It will do something for his loneliness by giving him fellowship. It will do something for his anxiety and guilt by giving him a good conscience.” So the students at Asbury, whose “revival” is to proclaim a closer walk with Jesus and liberation from anxiety and guilt, are not wrong. Repentance, after all, as a “change of mind” is a good thing.  As Yoder notes, if anyone repents, it will do something for his intellectual confusion by giving them doctrinal meat to digest, a heritage to appreciate, and conscience about telling it all as it is. If students repent it will do something for their moral weakness by giving them the focus for wholesome self-discipline, it will keep them from immorality, it will get them to work on time. So, revivals have their place. 

But all this is not the Gospel.

Turning to a rhetorical critique of the Asbury revival, I submit that it sounds more like a movement of melancholy – a sense of loss of an old way of life. Barbara Biesecker, in “No Time for Mourning: The Rhetorical Production of the Melancholic Citizen-Subject in the War on Terror,” says Slavoj Zizek’s definition of the melancholic’s so-called lost object is “nothing but the positivization of a void or lack, a purely anamorphic entity that does not exist in itself.” Evangelicals, caught in the fantasy of a lost time – a lost glory of when America was truly righteous, Christians were truly Christians, and men were truly men – are, in this sense, melancholic. While there has never been a time in our history when America was holy and righteous, evangelicals long for the imagined “good old days,” and they are trying to repair the breaks in the imagined dome of American piety and recover the age of enchantment. 

The Asbury revival – and the related revivals at other evangelical schools – then turns out to be the equivalent to American’s post-9/11 patriotism. Instead of a bona fide collective conversion, Americans flocked back to churches for a few Sundays and then reverted back to the old habits of neglecting the gathering together. The only thing left was the commitment to hyper-patriotism and continued outbreaks of anger, resentment, and revenge against a secular world. 

Such a critique of a student revival may sound harsh, but such critiques have always shown up in evaluations of revivals in American religion. Jonathan Edwards, a thorough-going and thoughtful Calvinist, the reluctant leader of the First Great Awakening, and perhaps America’s greatest theologian, critiqued his own revival and argued that there were differences between genuine revivals and fake revivals. I can’t think of any preacher who has ever given as much attention to the nature of revival as Edwards. His works on revival include Faithful Narrative of Surprising Conversions, Thoughts on the Revival of Religion in New England, Treatise on Religious Affections and Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God. From the latter work, Edwards reflected on the nature of revival: 

Is the revival genuine, or is it a mere outburst of superficial emotion? Do we find empty enthusiasm backed by nothing of substance, or does the enthusiasm itself signal a major work of God? In every recorded revival in church history, the signs that follow it are mixed. The gold is always mixed with dross. Every revival has its counterfeits. 

When Billy Sunday dominated the “sawdust trail” as America’s most famous revivalist, he faced waves of criticism. For example, a liberal Congregationalist minister in Oak Park, Illinois, William E. Barton (1861-1930), attacked Sunday’s pulpit manner:  

We wish he would stop his profanity….damned stinking something-or-other, ‘To hell with’ something or somebody…. We wish he were a gentleman….He is a harsh, unjust, bad-tempered man…a very defective Christian. 

From Jonathan Edwards – scholar, Calvinist, and quiet preacher – to Billy Sunday –  athletic, populist, rude talking, ill-mannered, and emotional – America has run the gamut of revivalists. Criticism of revivalists has varied from excessive prejudice to thoughtful reflection, but criticism of revival is as relevant now as it ever was. 

From the perspective of this critic, I would say that the revival at Asbury is genuine. There is no doubt that the students are very sincere. I think the revival exemplifies the moving of the Holy Spirit in individual lives. I believe that the students were deeply moved and many of them transformed. The experiences in this revival suggest students being born again to a stronger Christian commitment. 

My concern is that the revival didn’t go far enough. It didn’t demonstrate a genuine “change of mind” – the literal rendering of repentance. As Stanley Hauerwas makes clear, 

The gospel is the proclamation of a new age begun through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That gospel, moreover, has a form, a political form. It is embodied in a church that is required to be always ready to give hospitality to the stranger. 

A revival in a bastion of evangelical exclusion, a revival that re-intensifies anti-gay, anti-diversity, anti-science, and anti-history, is not deserving of the name revival. 

A revival should focus on the “lack” rather than the perceived mythological “loss.” Future-oriented revival opens the door to new interpretations of how people who are different are to be treated. Revival would offer a counter to the severe rationalism of evangelical faith that no longer rely on universal principles chiseled in stone in a literal Bible. Instead, it will be fluid and deal with particular circumstances, changing circumstances, including the advance of ethical consciousness as a new way of interpreting the Bible. 

I want to suggest that the Jewish approach to the interpretation of Scripture offers a better way of approaching the possibility of genuine revival. The Hebrew word “peshat” means “straight” and refers primarily to the surface of literal meaning of the text. This is the plain, simple, and often decontextualized interpretation of the text. The second method of Jewish exegesis, the “drash,” refers to how the text is to be lived and applied. Here is the seedbed for revival. 

On this reading, revival is not God doing something in our hearts. This is the kind of sequestered revival that offers meaning and purpose to the individual, but has little to do with the production of practices that will save us from a lack of showing hospitality to strangers. 

A revival has to be more than immediate, individual, and narcissistic. Instead, true revival leads to concrete, physical, bodily practices for the benefit of Others. 

True revival would involve the Hebrew definition of repentance: “to turn” or “to return to the paths of justice and righteousness. The Jewish sense of justice (Tsedek) calls for those who are “revived” to be compassionate and caring. Built into the notion of Tsedek is a natural tension between the dictates of equity and mercy. There is a blending of love and justice, truth and peace. Ultimately, revival produces actual, material, physical changes in the lives of Others, especially the “least of these.” Justice cannot be achieved by the affects of personal revival. 

My prayer would be that the student revival at Asbury move beyond a grasping for the old orientation – the imagined idyllic world of a pious and righteous America – and instead create a reorientation in favor of justice and mercy. If this revival moves in this direction, then the students may bring about the conversion of their older leaders who are so wedded to secular politics and MAGA philosophy. If this revival moves in this direction, then we may have a true Methodist revival of social concern and “catholic” faith, and a true Baptist insistence on “Jesus as Lord” as opposed to the powers and principalities. 

May it be so.

Biblical Marriage Isn’t Biblical

by Paul Braterman

Paul Braterman is Professor Emeritus in Chemistry, University of North Texas, and Honorary Research Fellow (formerly Reader) at the University of Glasgow. His research has involved topics related to the early Earth and the origins of life, and received support from NSF, NASA, Sandia National Labs, and Scripps Institution of Oceanography. He is now interested in sharing scientific ideas with the widest possible audience, and was involved in successful campaigns to persuade both the English and the Scottish Governments to keep creationism out of the science classroom. He is a regular contributor to 3 Quarks Daily, and blogs at Primate’s Progress, paulbraterman.wordpress.com.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on Monday, March 20, 2023 at 3 Quarks Daily. We are pleased to share it here with permission from the author.

Ark Encounter under construction, showing timber cross frames and wooden cladding panels, from Architect magazine. Fair use claimed.

There are two possible attitudes towards Scripture. One is to regard it as the direct and infallible word of God. This leads to certain problems. The other one, equally compatible with devotion, is to regard it as the recorded writings of men (it almost always is men), however inspired, writing at a specific time and place and constrained by the knowledge and concerns of that time. This invites deeper study of what was at stake for the writers, the unravelling of different narrative strands and voices, and discussion of whatever message the Scriptures may have for our own times. I expect that most readers here will adopt the second approach, while those who adopt the first are not to be dissuaded by mere rational argument, so why am I even discussing it?

Because we need to expose the hypocrisy of those powerful false prophets who, while claiming to be guided exclusively by Scripture, systematically misapply, distort, and even completely misquote the sacred text. That exactly is what Answers in Genesis, like other creationist organisations, does in its online writings, and in its Creation Museum and Ark Encounter.

I have come across four specific areas that concern me (no doubt there are many others):

  • Climate change
  • Abortion
  • Entry into the Ark, and subsequent dispersal
  • Biblical marriage

I have written here before about the lengths to which all the major creationists organisations will go, acting in concert, to downplay the significance of human-caused global warming. Here I want to draw attention to just one of their regular arguments, most recently presented as a refutation of Greta Thunberg’s compilation The Climate Book.

The argument is that God’s promise in Genesis 8:22 should reassure us, so there is no need to be alarmed. Here is what the verse actually says:

As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.

We are told that whatever is happening can’t really be all that serious, because of this promise. But if you look at the actual text, it merely says that there will not again be a total disaster on the scale of the Flood. This is a very limited commitment, as spelt out more fully over several verses later on in Genesis 9:9ff [1]. Nothing here to preclude widespread famine (a recurrent theme in the post-Flood world of Genesis), or indeed any degree of devastation, short of total annihilation.

Next, abortion. What does the Bible say about abortion? Absolutely nothing! The creationist organisations cite references to children in the womb and conclude that abortion is murder, from the moment of fertilisation onwards; see e.g. Creation.com’s articleAbortion: The answer’s in Genesis.

No it isn’t. Various verses are used by creationists to establish that the Bible regards the fetus as a person, but line by line examination of the verses cited shows that they say no such thing. In support of its claim that abortion is murder, with no exceptions for irrelevant details like rape or incest, Answers in Genesis cites a passage, Exodus 21:22-25, that refers to an accidentally induced miscarriage. This is the only place where the Bible says anything at all relevant to abortion. However, the actual text shows the very opposite of what is claimed; causing someone’s wife to miscarry is a mere civil matter, to be settled by paying damages, and this is explicitly contrasted with bodily harm to an actual person, to be punished with an eye for an eye in retaliation. I give the messy details in a footnote [2], for the benefit of those readers interested in such matters.

You may have felt sorry for all those unfortunate people drowned in Noah’s Flood. According to the Creation Museum, you don’t need to, because they’d been told what was coming but didn’t pay attention. Genesis tells us that Noah was a righteous man in his generation, and 2Peter describes him as a preacher of righteousness . Working from this basis, the museum tells us that Noah tried to warn all those wicked people, but they refused to listen. There is even an animatronic Methuselah, whose lifespan overlapped Noah’s, telling visitors about this.

Except the Bible actually tells us the exact opposite. There is no reference whatsoever to Noah warning anyone except, of course, his immediate family. 2Peter does indeed tell us that he was a preacher (I was wrong about that detail in my earlier article), but we are not told what he preached about, or to whom. And quite explicitly, in Matthew 24:38-39 (emphasis added),

For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they did not know until the flood came and swept them all away

It seems that Noah, like his Babylonian counterpart Utnapishtim, kept his explosive knowledge to himself.

The Ark Encounter in Williamstown, Kentucky, offers visitors the experience of visiting Noah’s Ark, with every impression of authenticity, down to scuff marks on the decks. So that’s how he did it!

It’s a fraud. All the Bible tells us is that the Ark was 300 cubits long by fifty cubits wide by thirty cubits high. Answers in Genesis argues that these overall dimensions do not imply that it was actually shaped like a pencil box. On this narrow point I would agree with them, but on little else. The method of construction, keel and frame, was not developed until around 500 A.D., while Architect magazine says of the actual structure  “From a technical standpoint, of course, the ark is still more a building than a boat. Besides being up on concrete piers, it wouldn’t fare any better in a flood than a typical museum building.” According to Irving Finkel of the British Museum, in his scholarly The Ark before Noah, the proportions of the Ark are based on a boat type used on the Euphrates as late as the nineteenth century. These are built upwards from a platform of woven branches, while the Ark Encounter incorporates over 90 tonnes of steel plating, while its cross-beams are 4 ft diameter spruce logs, which required custom built 21st Century machinery.

One final detail regarding the Ark story. In Genesis. it is immediately followed by a table of genealogies, and then the Tower of Babel episode, starting with the statement (Genesis 11:2) that

And as men migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar [Mesopotamia] and settled there.

But if they had been migrating away from the mountains of Ararat, where the Ark rested, towards Shinar, they would have been coming from the west! The Creation Museum has a simple solution to this problem; truncate the verse displayed to read

It came to pass that they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.

and, in the accompanying video, change it further to read “They moved down from the mountains of Ararat.” Problem solved.

Regarding marriage, the Answers in Genesis position has been directly carried over from that of Henry Morris, co-author of The Genesis Flood, foundational text of the 20th to 21st  Century creationist movement, in his 1989 The Long War Against God. As Genesis shows us, man and woman were originally one flesh; therefore marriage is between one man and one woman, polygamy is wrong, and same-sex marriage a violation of God’s law.

Moreover, according to AiG echoing Henry Morris, the women’s liberation movement is misguided because

The God-given relationship between man and woman is expressed most clearly in the comparison with the relationship between Christ and the Church (Eph. 5:24–25):

Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her .

Ephesians 5 is thought to be a genuine Pauline epistle, so if you really think that Paul was expressing the unchanging will of God, that must be the way God wants it. It is clearly the way that Henry Morris and AiG want it.

Genesis, however, is something else again.

I will stick with the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, since they presumably represent the pinnacle of virtue. Abraham and Sarah (at this point still known as Abram and Sarai) are childless after many years, so Sarai tells Abram to sleep with her Egyptian slave girl, Hagar, which he does, begetting a son later called Ishmael. At this point, Abram is 86 years old, while Sarai is 10 years younger. Hagar gets uppity, so Sarai complains to Abram, who tells her to deal with Hagar as she sees fit. Hagar runs away, but the Lord tells her to go back again. In due course Abram and Sarai become Abraham and Sarah, and God grants them a child, to be called Isaac. Hagar and Ishmael now get booted out, but Abraham puts in a good word for Ishmael, and God promises look after him. By now Abraham is a hundred years old. In due course, Sarah dies, and Abraham (now aged 137) takes a third wife, Keturah, who bears him six sons. There is also reference (Genesis 25:6) to the children of his concubines, but whether these are in addition to those already mentioned is not clear.

Between Sarah’s death, and Abraham’s marriage to Keturah, he arranges for his son Isaac (40 years old at the time) to marry a relative, to be brought from Abraham’s birthplace in Mesopotamia, and entrusts the matter to his senior servant, Eliezer. The whole thing was arranged without bride or groom ever having seen each other, though the bride (Rebecca) did give her agreement. Rebecca seems to have called the shots in that marriage, but apart from that there was nothing that Answers in Genesis could take exception to. It was Rebecca who tricked Isaac into giving his major blessing to Jacob, rather than to his marginally older twin brother Esau.

Rebecca realises that Jacob had better stay out of Esau’s way for a while, and manipulates Isaac into telling him to visit his uncle Laban back in Haran in Mesopotamia, and marry one of his daughters. We all know what happens next. Jacob sees Rachel, it’s a love match, but Laban makes Jacob work tending his flocks for seven years, as bride price. When the seven years are up, Laban does a bait and switch, and Jacob finds himself in bed with Rachael’s older sister, Leah. Paying off the bride price for Rachel takes another seven years, before he can have her, at which point he is married to both.

Both Rachel (when she initially had difficulty conceiving) and Leah (when she was past childbearing) gave their handmaids, originally provided to them by their father Laban, for Jacob to sleep with. No moral problems here of course, since the handmaids were the wives’ property, legitimately acquired. Adding together the handmaids and his wives, Jacob ended up with twelve sons, roughly [3] corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel, Israel being a synonym for Jacob. So now we can add, once again, the forced concubinage of female slaves to our concept of Biblical marriage, along with bigamy.

So, to date, biblical marriage includes bigamy, fathers selling their daughters, and female slaves being impregnated in accord with their owners’ wishes.

There is yet more to come, again involving Jacob’s immediate family, casting further light on woman’s biblical role. If a married man were to die childless, according to biblical rules it would then become the duty of his nearest adult male relative to sleep with the widow, the offspring to be considered as children of the man who had died, in order to keep his inheritance alive. This was, after all, the woman’s function. If the relative refuses to do his duty, the widow then publicly shames him in open court by untying his shoelaces, before she is free to remarry according to her wishes. This (the shoelace ceremony, though not the rest of it) is still embodied in Jewish family law. The practice, known as levirate (brother-in-law) marriage, is behind the life-and-death drama of Genesis 38 (where Jacob’s son Judah is tricked into doing his duty and impregnating Tamar) as well as the idyll of the Book of Ruth, set ten generations later, in which Ruth seduces her late husband’s kinsman. The male relative’s duty, and the shaming ceremony, are specified in detail in Deuteronomy, so you can’t get much more biblical than that.

Happily, our morality is not biblical. Fathers do not have the right to sell their daughters. Monogamy is almost universal. Wives do not have slave girls who can be ordered to get impregnated on their behalf. We do not poke people’s eyes out as punishment. And most of us (I hope) do not really think that wives are duty bound to “submit to their husbands,” let alone “in everything.”

There is, however, one bit of biblical morality that I would strongly advocate. The bit in Exodus, and again in Deuteronomy, where it tells you not to bear false witness. And that’s one bit that Answers in Genesis and the like violate shamelessly. So next time you come across any of the creationist organisations quoting Scripture, check out what the text actually says, because whether or not you trust Scripture, you certainly can’t trust their use of it.

I thank Emma Frances Bloomfield, John Crooks, the Rev. Michael Roberts, and Susan and William Trollinger for helpful discussions.

1] An example of the repeated near-duplications in the Flood narrative, now almost universally regarded by biblical scholars as the merging of two separate accounts.

2] The article I cited is by Jonathan Sarfati, among the most erudite and logical proponents of creationism. He refers to Psalm 139:13–16, a beautiful passage. In Sarfati’s chosen translation:

For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.

My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.

Here we have a celebration of the process by which a person comes into being within the womb. The very opposite of the claim that the fertilised egg is already the equivalent of a person.

Next, like other creationist antiabortionists, he cites Jeremiah 1:5:

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.

Similar language is used about special individuals throughout the Bible. But again, this celebrates the process of formation of the person, and God’s knowledge of his future role. No help here for the anti-abortionist.

Central to Sarfati’s argument is Genesis 25:21–22, where the word ben, meaning “child” or “son,” is applied to the fetus. From this, he claims that the fetus should be as fully protected as a fully formed person. However, there is a direct biblical refutation of such an interpretation, in the case considered in Exodus 21:22-25:

When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

I’m not sure how many would agree with such penalties, but that’s not the issue here. The miscarried fetus is described as “her children”, using the word yeled that describes a child after birth. The point is that despite the use of this word a clear distinction is made between merely causing a miscarriage (settled by paying compensation), and bodily harm or killing.

3] Only roughly, because the descendants of one son (Levi) did not have lands of their own, while Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, were both granted their own territory.

Charles Darwin was Responsible for the Vietnam War?

by William Trollinger

Photo taken by United States Army photographer Ronald L. Haeberle on March 16, 1968 in the aftermath of the My Lai massacre showing mostly women and children dead on a road. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

For young Earth creationists, Charles Darwin is the eternal bogeyman. Interestingly, it is not just or even primarily because evolution is at odds with the biblical account of creation. As Carl Weinberg (author of Red Dynamite) has pointed out, for 

George McCready Price, the godfather of young-Earth creationism . . . and those who followed him, the main problem with evolution was NOT that its claims lacked scientific evidence or even that it contradicted the Book of Genesis. Rather, evolution was bad because it made people who believed in it do bad things. It made us behave in an immoral, “beastly” or “animalistic” way. 

To make this case, young Earth creationists have engaged in “creative” historical work. For example, Ken Ham has produced (along with many other writings making the same point) Darwin’s Plantation, a book whose title could easily lead the historically unaware reader to believe that Darwinism was responsible for American slavery . . . even though Origin of Species appeared in 1859, just four years before the Emancipation Proclamation. And it is not just the title: the cover of Ham’s book cover has a photo of African American slaves working the fields.

Of course, to suggest that Darwinism is responsible for slavery in the United States is a very convenient way to elide the fact that

In antebellum America millions of white Christians . . . stood on their literal reading of the Word of God to issue forth a raft of proslavery polemics and to deliver an almost-infinite number of proslavery sermons; in the South, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene Genovese observed, “evangelicals, having cited chapter and verse, successfully enlisted the Bible to unify the overwhelming majority  of slaveholders and nonslaveholders in defense of slavery as ordained of God.” These white Christians argued that opponents of slavery . . . were undermining the authority of the Bible with their unbiblical antislavery arguments that depended more on Christian experience, humanitarianism, and morality than on the “literal” meaning of the text. (Righting America, 186)

By the way, the aforementioned cover photo on Ham’s book fades into the photo of a Nazi concentration camp. Ham asserts in Darwin’s Plantation that “perhaps the most infamous application of evolution to justify racism was Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime” (92). The Darwin-to-Hitler trope is commonplace among young Earth creationists. As Henry Morris asserted in The Long War against God, “Hitler became the supreme evolutionist, and Nazism the ultimate fruit of the evolutionary tree” (75).

Many scholars have convincingly argued that the Darwin-to-Hitler conceit is absurdly simplistic, and of course leaves Christianity and Christians off the hook:

The Anti-Defamation League has vigorously critiqued the Darwin-to-Hitler trope, pointing out that such an argument, usually “offered by those who wish to score political points in the debate over the teaching of intelligent design,” neatly erases the multiple factors that led to the Holocaust, including a Christian anti-Semitism that long preceded Charles Darwin. Focus on Darwin-to-Hitler, and the slaughter of German Jews by eleventh-century crusaders, the Spanish Inquisition and its persecution of Jewish converts, and the history of Church teachings versus the Jews conveniently disappear. By focusing on the role of evolution in leading to the horrors of Nazi Germany, one does not have to consider the historical import of Martin Luther’s venomous words in “On the Jews and Their Lies”: 

‘Set fire to their synagogues or schools . . . Their houses should [also] be razed and destroyed . . . They are a heavy burden, a plague, a pestilence, a sheer misfortune for our country.’” (Righting America, 183-184)

One of the most prolific promoters of the young Earth creationist Darwin-to-Hitler trope is Genesis Apologetics’ spokesman Jerry Bergman, with books such as Hitler and the Nazi Darwinian Worldview: How the Nazi Eugenic Crusade for a Superior Race Caused the Greatest Holocaust in World History (2012) and The Dark Side of Charles Darwin: A Critical Analysis of an Icon of Science (2011). With his Ph.D. in measurement and evaluation from Wayne State University and his Ph.D. in biology from Columbia Pacific University (an unaccredited correspondence school that lured students with the possibility of a doctorate in less than twelve months), Bergman has now turned his “historical expertise” to the Vietnam War, with an article in the 2023 volume of Answers Research Journal (ARJ).

First, a little context regarding ARJ. This AiG online publication advertises itself as a “professional, peer-reviewed technical journal” that produces “cutting-edge creation research.” The titles of articles that appear in the ARJ make clear that this is not a typical scholarly publication, e.g., “Ruminating on Created Kinds and Ark Kinds,” “Jesus’ Resurrection: An Archaeological Analysis,” “To the Ark and Back Again? Using the Marsupial Fossil Record to Investigate the Post-Flood Boundary.”

Even more striking is the fact that just a few individuals write the bulk of the articles. And recently Bergman leads the pack. In the past four years 61 articles have appeared in ARJ, and he has written 20 of these articles (most of which are anti-Darwin diatribes). This comes to approximately 33% of all ARJ articles published since 2020. One could easily think of ARJ as Jerry Bergman’s vanity press.

And now we come to his most recent offering: “The Central Role of Darwinism in the Vietnam War.” I confess that, as an American historian, I find this piece almost unreadable. But here are some main points, as I can make them out:

  • While Confucian peace philosophy was important in Vietnamese society, thus producing an orderly and nonviolent culture, the embrace of “Darwinism’s survival-of-the-fittest ideology” by Vietnamese intellectuals was “one key factor in the events that led up to the Vietnam-American War” (126).
  • “French Catholicism did not spread past the coastal wealthy urban populations into the Buddhist rural areas . . . Had the church aggressively opposed communism and supported the power of the Scriptures, perhaps the awful results of Darwinism, secularism, and modernity could have been mitigated” (127).
  • Conclusion: “Darwinism had a major, but complex, influence on the development of communism which, in turn, had a profound influence of the Vietnamese people that resulted in the Vietnamese-American War” (128), the result being up to 3 million dead.

A few comments:

  • Bergman’s Darwin-to-Vietnam trope is even more simplistic and even more distorted than the Darwin-to-Hitler trope. In this telling, Darwinism destroyed the Confucian paradise that was Vietnam, and the result was three million dead. 
  • There is absolutely nothing here about the injustices perpetrated on the Vietnamese by the French colonial rulers. Not one thing. And this is very much in keeping with the dreadful history textbooks used in fundamentalist schools, books in which it is claimed that “colonialism was a benign and humane institution that benefitted the indigenous peoples of Asia and Africa.”
  • Also in keeping with the fundamentalist history textbooks, this telling of the story preserves American innocence. Here there is no anti-Asian racism, no carpet bombing, no napalm. Here there is no My Lai, with its mass rape and its slaughter of hundreds of children, women, and the elderly. Here there is no reference to Bible-believing evangelicals who – I grew up in such a church – wanted to bomb the hell out of the Vietnamese. 

It is not in the least surprising that Bergman’s list of references contains virtually nothing from the best and most substantive work on the Vietnam War. When you have your eternal bogeyman, in-depth scholarly research is beside the point. Instead, and as we suggest in Righting America, for the folks at AiG the past and present of human history can be reduced to a binary. On one side it is a literal Genesis 1-11, young Earth, capitalism, and heaven. On the other side it is reason, old Earth, Darwinian evolution, socialism, and hell. 

It’s all so simple.

Sam—Our Family’s Greatest Gift

by Julie Nichols

Julie  is a practicing Catholic, native Texan, wife of 28 years, and a mother of young adults (including a daughter-in-law). She is an Academic Language Therapist who serves children and adolescents with developmental, learning, and cognitive disabilities.  She is also an advocate for disabled, Neurodiverse, and LBGTQ+ youth and their families, Julie loves modern-day theological challenges, time with her family, attending Mass/Church, her pet birds, and eating Mexican food on the San Antonio Riverwalk with her friends and family. Julie’s articles have appeared in New Ways Ministry, Outreach, Fortunate Families, Faith-on-View, and Catholic New Zealand, as well as in medical, educational, and secular LGBTQ+ publications like Therapist.News, Zipe Education, MarkPShea, and Gay News Today (Science section).

The Nichols Family. Image courtesy of Julie Nichols.

In August of 2000, our third child Sam was born as a premature baby into a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Beaumont, TX.  My husband and I knew that our lives would never be the same, although an inner peace accompanied the unknown.  As Sam developed through his infant and toddler years, his behaviors and development were certainly different and distinct from those of his older brother and sister who were 16 months and three years older. 

By the time Sam reached the age of 2, an extended family member at a reunion told me that she thought our son was autistic.  Since she was raising a daughter with Autism, I suspected that her instincts might be correct. After taking Sam to several local doctors in San Antonio, one of them referred me to a new local developmental pediatrician in town.  Right before Sam’s third birthday, he received a diagnosis of High-Functioning Autism. With the help of this brilliant Catholic developmental pediatrician, Dr. Patricia Harkins, Sam started a very intensive intervention prescriptive plan.  He received 20-25 hours a week of Applied Behavioral Analysis, and another 4 to 6 hours a week of Speech and Occupational Therapies.  The interventions worked so well that Sam was ready for a regular first grade classroom at age seven.

As the years went on, Sam continued with researched-based therapies, but to a lesser intensity.  And my career shifted from general education to special education, which grew into graduate work and educational therapy as Sam and his siblings grew older.  Sam’s after-school activities were therapies and tutors until he started altar service in the Church at age thirteen and the Boy Scouts at age fourteen.  In middle school, my husband and I moved Sam to a small private Christian school that accommodated children with disabilities, which is where I established a private practice. We were both there for 6 years until Sam graduated from high school.

With my husband’s assistance, Sam completed his Eagle Scout Honor, graduated with a regular high school diploma, and left for college at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.  During his studies in Huntsville, he became a licensed pharmacy technician at a local pharmacy after two years of on-the-job training.  During COVID, Sam returned home to finish his college career and work.  Although he still lives at home now at age 22, he is living a full and productive life and eventually wants to get married and leave home.

Parents of neurodivergent children, it is possible to raise well-adjusted, productive, autistic adults. In our case, it wasn’t easy, but parenting in general isn’t easy. In retrospect, our family would not be who we are, nor would I be serving in the field of educational therapy, if it were not for Sam.  Sam not only shaped me as a professional, he instilled compassion, love, humility, and sensitivity into our family.  God formed our family through Sam, who is truly our greatest gift.

With this background of our family’s story as one piece of many, I am planning to write a book about various specific personal experiences and broader professional experiences, which will also tie into current faith, political, and cultural conflicts (including my own first-hand encounters).  While this plan for the book is in its infancy stage, I have published many articles about these intersectionalities. 

And in this book I hope that my own experiences, tied to broader social issues, will bring hope and healing to a world that needs love, light, compassion, and the Real Jesus, not the GOP Jesus.

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