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A Climate for Hope? (Updated)

Erratum: An incomplete version of this piece was posted on Friday, January 10, 2020. The corrected version was updated on Sunday, January 12, 2020. We apologize to the author for the error.

by Kelsey Lahr

Kelsey Lahr is a communication professor at Los Angeles Pacific University. Her scholarly interests include climate change communication and environmental rhetorics. She also works summers as a seasonal Ranger in Yosemite National Park. Her writing about life in Yosemite has appeared in The Cresset, Gold Man Review, Green Briar Review, Saint Katherine’s Review, and elsewhere. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize as well as inclusion in America’s Best Science and Nature Writing series. You can find links to her published work at https://kelseylahr.wordpress.com/.

A fire rages in Bobin, 350km north of Sydney on November 9, 2019. Image by Peter Parks, Agence France-Press via Getty Images.

There were a few weeks this fall when everything seemed pretty hopeless to people who care about the environment. Greta Thunberg was showing the world what climate rage looks like. Perhaps as a response, climate despair got a lot of coverage around the same time. On September 7, 2019, NPR’s Scott Simon delivered an on-air op-ed about mass extinction. The following day, The New Yorker published an essay by novelist Jonathan Franzen titled “What if We Stopped Pretending?”,  which asked readers to reconsider what it means to have hope, given that the “climate apocalypse” can no longer be averted. On September 19, the New York Times published an op-ed exploring whether or not it is ethical to have children in the era of climate change. 

At bottom, each of these pieces asked the same question: Where can we find hope for a future that will be devastated by climate change? Scott Simon, in particular, hit on a theme that appears again and again in environmental discourse—the idea that the earth will endure, and will thrive once again, when humans eventually go extinct. “…Earth endures,” Simon says. “It’s us, all the living things that inhabit it for a while, who are fragile…” 

Here we find a perverse but very rational sort of hope, bound up with the notion of human extinction. It is a brand of hope that says that humans are irredeemable. We will trash the earth for as long as we inhabit it. Then, once we bring about our own demise, the earth will have the last laugh. It is hope by way of despair. I identify with this kind of despair, but I’ve also been thinking lately about other sources of hope in the face of climate change. Where you get your hope, if you get it anywhere, depends a lot on your politics, your understanding of science, and if you’re a Christian, your understanding of Scripture.    

I recently published an essay at The Cresset that indulged in environmental despair. I wrote about environmental degradation, and the fact that we know that our behavior is causing mass extinction, yet we don’t do anything about it. I wrote about my own grief at all we are losing, all we have already lost.

I was also, I admit, writing about eschatology, the branch of theology concerned with the end of all things, the ultimate fate of the human soul and the world. By my lights, the Bible is not particularly clear on the topic, but several passages indicate that this earth will be burned up, and replaced by a new heaven and a new earth in which there will be no night and no cold (Zechariah 14: 6-8; 2 Peter 3:7; Revelation 21). This is not an eternity I want, I confessed in the essay, and in fact the description of “Heaven” is pretty apt for our current world, where artificial lights have not only gotten rid of darkness, but also blocked our view of the stars, while an ever warming climate is rapidly abolishing cold. 

And I personally would not consider our current world to be anything akin to paradise, but actually fairly hellish. “This earth, the one that Revelation and Second Peter say will pass away, is already well on its way to being a place of one continuous summer afternoon,” I wrote in the essay. “Electric lights instead of dark night. Warmer and warmer days, sunshine and drought instead of cold and snow. As we reshape the climate and the very boundaries of day and night, we are already creating the new earth. But instead of the glory of God as the source of light and warmth, it is us and our machines. Either way, I want the old earth, the one with daily and seasonal shifts, the play of light and shadow, a cold wind… If God is going to burn it all up, then he can burn me up with it, because I want no part of any eternity that doesn’t have stars.”

Some of my theologically-minded acquaintances reached out to offer some hope by correcting my eschatology. 

“There are lots of faith traditions that don’t believe we’ll lose any of this good and beautiful earth when God moves all creation to new creation, that it will in fact be this very earth but all put to right by God’s reign of light and love and peace and justice,” commented my friend Alicia, a pastor, on the link to the essay I had posted on Facebook. 

“I happened to read your recent essay in The Cresset…” said a kind former colleague in an email. “There is always the possibility, to which I cling, that the world-consuming fire in 2 Peter 3:7 is a fire of cleansing and purification, not of outright destruction, a word applied in the verse to ‘the godless,’ not to the earth itself.” 

Even my grandmother responded, elevating terse email to an art form: “Having read your pieces on Facebook, I’d like to comment on your quotes about no darkness or night in heaven. I think those words are synonymous with sin and evil. Therefore, no sin and/evil in heaven. I think heaven will have everything we love about nature, only magnified. So, no need to be concerned about no stars in heaven. Love, Gram”

To be honest, I was being intentionally provocative in that essay. Truthfully, I don’t spend that much time thinking about the end of all things, because I don’t see much point in it, and because the Bible says about a million different and often contradictory things about the end and I don’t know what to make of any of it. I was struck, though, by these responses from my acquaintances, two of whom are avid nature-lovers and one of whom is an old woman who probably misses a lot of things that are gone now. Those responses got me thinking about the unique situation of Christian environmentalists, who, like most other environmentalists, feel grief and rage at species loss and the degradation of the earth, while also possessing a rare and genuine hope that is perhaps denied to irreligious environmentalists. Not hope that the earth will endure and re-evolve intelligent life and beautiful biodiversity once we go extinct, but hope that the earth’s old glory, the glory we’ve destroyed, will be restored in the hereafter. 

Maybe because of my, um, shaky eschatology, I find it difficult to land on one kind of hope or another—either the hope of restoration shared by Christian environmentalists, or hope via despair, à la Scott Simon. I’m generally leery of Christian thought as it relates to the environment; at this point it’s a cliché to note that Judeo-Christian ideologies of human dominion over the earth did a great deal to bring about the current mess. The idea that God will burn up the Earth has led many evangelicals to treat it like a giant garbage dump. At the fundamentalist Baptist church where I grew up, I often heard, “It’s all gonna burn anyway.” Conservative Evangelical publications like The Christian Post still regularly publish op-eds calling mainstream climate science into question. In response to September’s global climate strike, The Christian Post’s Michael Brown wrote,

It’s true that this world will not endure forever. One day, Jesus will return and make a new heaven and earth. So, live your life here with passion, in expectation of His return, making every moment count. That way, whether you live to be 100 or if He comes back in 10 years, your life will be full and blessed. I challenge a climate change religionist to come up with a better message than that.”

From this perspective, protecting the environment is obviously not a high priority. 

Of course, this is most definitely not the perspective advocated by Alicia or my former colleague, and probably not by my Gram either. There are many, many Christians who love the Earth precisely because it is God’s creation, and all God’s creation deserves nothing less than our utmost respect and care. (I suspect they also love the Earth for its own sake, as I do, because it is beautiful and vast and incomprehensibly complex.) For them, I think, restoration is the answer to their grief at all we are losing. How beautiful it must be to say to oneself, “Someday I’ll get to see Carolina parakeets! And passenger pigeons! And Tasmanian tigers! In the next world, the Great Barrier Reef will still be vibrant!” 

I want to believe this. But, like I said, I don’t know what to believe about the next world, if there even is one. (Christian orthodoxy obviously says that there is one. But I never claimed to be good at faith, or particularly orthodox.) And I also find myself questioning if hope for a restored Earth is really all that different, in practice, from the It’s-All-Gonna-Burn-Anyway school of thought. Ultimately, both of lines of thinking let us off the hook for the long-term fate of the earth. God will burn it all up, or God will put it all right eventually. Either way, why worry about it? 

Some Christians respond by focusing on the human toll of climate change here and now. For example, Galen Carey, the National Association of Evangelicals’ vice president of government relations, told Christianity Today,

Christians should be at the forefront of efforts to reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions because we know that this is our Father’s world. We also know that these efforts will particularly benefit our most vulnerable neighbors, those whose health and livelihoods most directly depend on clean air and a stable climate.

This is a response I appreciate, because it strives to hold Christians accountable for our treatment of the Earth, while recognizing that human wellbeing is inextricably tied to the health of the environment. I myself am uncomfortable with this level of anthropocentrism; I care deeply about the millions of species that are threatened or have already been wiped out by human activity, and I care about the integrity of ecosystems for their own sake, not only as they relate to human wellbeing. But I also recognize, even if I’m not sure I buy it personally, that Christian orthodoxy gives humans a special place among all creation because we alone are said to bear the image of God. So for Christians to care about the environment because the environment matters for humanity—it’s a perspective I understand and respect. And if that perspective leads to environmental advocacy and sustainable action on the part of Christians, I don’t much care what kind of theology underlies it.   

So where does that leave me? I don’t exactly know. I want to believe that God will eventually restore the Earth to the beauty and complexity and diversity that we have largely destroyed. I want to believe a lot of things. In the end, I’m left with the knowledge that action is required, and it is the right thing, no matter where I find my hope for the future. Maybe the earth will persist long after humans have passed from the scene, and something unimaginable and complex and pristine will spring up in our absence. Maybe in the next world, God will restore all we have lost. Maybe something else entirely. In the meantime, humans and countless other creatures depend on us to get our act together and reverse as much environmental devastation as we can. I am reminded of the words of Kyle Van Houtan, chief scientist at the Monterrey Bay Aquarium who also studied theology at Duke Divinity School. He told Christianity Today that it is “important for Christians to understand the long game and do something that we’re called to do because it’s good, independent of the results and effectiveness that we may observe ourselves.” To that I can only say, God help us, amen.  

Looking Back at 2019

by William Trollinger

2019 was another very good year for the rightingamerica blog, both in the number of visitors/viewers, and the variety of authors’ voices and topics featured. This past year has made clear that we are a community of engaged scholars who seek to understand evangelicalism, young Earth creationism, and Christian Right politics. We hope for even more authors and even a wider range of topics in 2020. We invite you to write a post or posts for the site – if you are interested, please be in touch.

Below are the year’s ten most popular posts – enjoy reading or rereading! 

10. Dear Evangelicals: How Much Leviticus Do You Really Want?, by Rodney Kennedy (November 01, 2019)

“I must ask if anti-gay Christians are going to accept Leviticus 25, which says that every 50 years is a Jubilee to the Lord . . . [in which] all debts are forgiven . . . Are evangelicals – many of whom are raising hell about food stamps and welfare – willing to take Leviticus 25 as seriously as they take Leviticus 18:22?”

9. Mr. Rogers Wasn’t Pro-Family (and That’s a Good Thing), by Margaret Bendroth (December 10, 2019)

“Mr. Rogers . . . was not ‘pro-family’ in the narrow evangelical culture-wars sense of the word, where the family is a stand-in for American moral decline. He loved and respected children, and modeled an ethic of care that extended beyond their immediate families to the world they would one day inherit.”

8. Funding Ark Encounter: The Rest of the Story, by William Trollinger (January 31, 2019)

“Even while he blasts journalists for their secular bias and their unwillingness to tell the truth about Christian ministries, Ken Ham refuses to tell the whole story about how . . . Ark Encounter is being subsidized in a major way by the town of Williamstown . . . Will Ken Ham ever come clean?”

7. Science and Religion: The Casualties of an Unnecessary War, by Frederick Schmidt (June 11, 2019)

For atheists, the religion-science “warfare image serves as leverage, discrediting the church in particular and religion in general . . . . [for fundamentalists,]  the assumption that scientists are ‘out to get’ the church strengthens the hand of [folks] like Ken Ham, galvanizing audiences and advancing their financial goals.”

6. A Black Evangelical Has Schooled Ken Ham on Race and Racism . . . and Ken is Not Pleased, by William Trollinger (October 22, 2019)

“As [Larry] Smith pointed out, while at the conference ‘Ham was generally dispassionate regarding racism . . . he ‘came alive’ when railing against the social issues that bedevil white evangelicals (e.g., abortion, homosexuality, and gender identity).’ This is precisely how it plays out on Ham’s blog.”

5. Ken Ham Misleads Again, by William Trollinger (July 31, 2019)

“Now – with the deal done, with the Ark built, with millions of dollars of property taxes lost to the town for decades into the future – Ham is telling Williamstown that the town itself is to blame for its economic misery, as it is too far from the interstate to get Ark visitors.”

4. Ken Ham’s Christmas Letter, by William Trollinger (December 24, 2019)

“Given the occasional tensions between the folks at the Ark and local government officials, this holiday is the perfect opportunity for Ark Encounter CEO Ken Ham to send . . . a Christmas letter . . . I drafted a letter that I think could work quite nicely. Ken, you are free to cut and paste as you see fit.”

3. White Jesus at Westmont College: The Controversy, by William Trollinger (March 30, 2019)

“Evangelical colleges are forever trying to thread the needle, moving to become more progressive (or, better put, more Gospel-oriented) while at the same time not alienating their fundamentalist constituency. Will there be an evangelical college that simply decides to quit ‘looking over the right shoulder?’”

2. Every Child is a Gift . . . Except When They Aren’t, by Emily McGowin (July 09, 2019)

“When children do not seem to be like ‘us,’ when children are causing ‘us’ discomfort . . . when children are challenging our ideologies — most evangelicals have had enough. The children of ‘others’ – political, religious, or ethnic – are not worthy of sacrifice and activism.”

1.Wayne Grudem on Divorce: The Right Conclusion for the Wrong Reason, by Emily McGowin (December 03, 2019)

“The fact that he couldn’t see the problem with his position before now testifies to serious weaknesses in his theological method: a lack of attention to the social and cultural context of biblical teaching . . . a lack of attention to the detrimental effects of his teaching, and a lack of interaction with women’s experience.”

Finally, An Evangelical Defense of Donald Trump Worth Responding To (It’s Still Terrible, but There It Is)

by Rodney Kennedy

Evangelical Leaders Pray over Donald Trump. November, 2019. White House Photo.

Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. The pastor of 7 Southern Baptist churches over the course of 20 years, he pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years. He is currently professor of homiletics at Palmer Theological Seminary. He is also putting the finishing touches on his sixth book: The Immaculate Mistake: How Southern Baptists and Other Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump.

Jack Graham, senior pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church, Plano, Texas, has penned a robust defense of President Trump,  “Why It Is Wise for Christians to Support President Trump.”  Here, at last, is an actual defense of the president worthy of a critical response. After four years of evangelical defenses of President Trump that came straight out of the crazy land of “make the Bible say whatever you want it to say,” a Southern Baptist preacher has taken the time to lay out his reasons for defending President Trump. 

Rev. Graham is responding to the editorial in Christianity Today that calls for the impeachment of President Trump. Evangelicals usually resist such public displays of disagreement, given their commitments to homogeneity, but this is a fight well worth watching, and I think, in my usual pugilistic way, a fight worth engaging. Perhaps the fact that evangelicals are arguing about President Trump represents a small tremor beneath the foundations of the Tower of Babel. 

Graham’s opening gambit is well known among preachers of the South. He sets himself up as a poor preacher insulted by those who think he and his fellow tribe members are “foolish and gullible” (while actually he is quite certain that he is “wise as a serpent”). The idea that evangelicals are gullible and not that bright is mostly a misunderstanding fostered by media elites who fail to grasp how the evangelical mind works. It is a mistake to treat evangelicals as if they are not-very-smart-Christians who have been duped by the great and powerful Wiz, i.e., President Donald Trump. 

Instead of dummies, evangelicals are the ultimate pragmatists. Whatever it takes to win is the evangelical credo. The evangelicals are the organ grinder; Donald Trump is their monkey. In fact, President Trump is more the culmination of decades of evangelical dreams than he is the providence of God. The smoldering fires of “residual resentment” have been smoking since the Scopes Trial in 1925. As Jerry Falwell, Jr. put it, Donald Trump is “our dream candidate.” 

Rev. Graham represents evangelical pastors who know exactly what they want and how to get it. And he repeats what has become a mantra for the defenders of the president in the evangelical circle of power, the people historian John Fea identifies as “court evangelicals”: “Our critics seem to have a theology with so little grace and they fail to recognize that someone with an unrighteous past can still make righteous decisions on behalf of those they lead.” Accusing liberals of lacking grace would be laughable if Rev. Graham weren’t so sincere in his false charge. Jerry Falwell, Jr. has made this same argument by saying that Trump is like King David, who in Falwell’s words was “an adulterer and a murderer,” but was still used in mighty ways for God. 

It used to be that evangelicals would proclaim that true repentance was required for a person who committed sin. But President Trump has publicly announced that he has never done anything that requires repentance, and so he sees no need to repent. David, on the other hand, cries out to God, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin” (Psalm 51:1). 

Perhaps the most incredible claim Graham makes is that Christians in the United States are oppressed and persecuted. When you have a successful, wealthy, and influential evangelical preacher claiming that Christians are oppressed in the US, you know you have a problem. Preachers making hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary, building multi-million-dollar facilities, and jetting around the country in private jets are not a persecuted clan. More than this, no one has taken away their ability to spew forth their vile rhetoric.

The most disturbing argument that Rev. Graham makes comes under the guise of “religious liberty.” Rev. Graham gushes,

“When it comes to the United States’ role in advocating for religious liberty around the world, the facts are incontrovertible.  Just take into account the State Department’s Ministerial on International Religious Freedom, which represented the largest human rights event of any kind in State Department history.” 

The appeal to “religious liberty” sounds like a liberty bell whose clapper is broken. The evangelicals have been at the forefront of the attempts to oppress women, gays, immigrants, people of other faiths, and liberals. Graham and company use their religious liberty argument to build the false claim that they are the persecuted ones. The religious liberty that Rev. Graham wants is the liberty – once again – to oppress others and stick a Bible in their faces. It’s like Queen Mary claiming her “religious liberty” to behead dissenting Protestants had been taken from her. 

Rev. Graham also insists that Trump’s election is proof positive of the “providential hand of God.” My opposition to this statement has nothing to do with God’s providence, but with the preacher’s arrogant assertion. How easy it is to survey what happens in our nation, and then blithely ascribe it to God’s “providential hand.” David Bentley Hart, in The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsumami?,  notes that whenever events that defy cause and effect occur, it is the strident atheists and unrelenting Christian preachers who show up with loud, certain, absolute proofs of cause and effect. 

These are the same arguments we get when evangelicals say God sends hurricanes to punish gay-friendly cities. These are the same preachers who “read the signs” and insist that the Rapture will occur in the next few years. These are the same arguments advanced by preachers when they push the idea that God gave us the various geological strata in the rocks to test our faith. To manipulate God like this is to drag God into the political mess we have all created, and then announce, on the basis of nothing at all, that somehow this is all God’s will. I think God is embarrassed with how his name gets bandied about as supporting this or that cause. 

All of this is in keeping with what Rowan Williams describes as “bad religion.” God’s mysterious ways are appealed to when we want history to work out according to our dreams and aspirations. Bad religion is about manipulating God, stamping God’s signature on the goals and policies of conservative evangelicals. These preachers would really struggle with the theological assertion that Jesus never promises us success within history. 

What does puzzle me here is how these evangelical preachers, who are deeply committed dispensational premillennialists, seem to have jettisoned premillennialism — with its rhetoric of doom, fear, and declension — in favor of what had been a discredited postmillennialism. Instead of wanting Jesus to hurry up and come back, they apparently want Jesus to wait, at least until they have gone about the business of straightening out the country and undoing all the terrible policies enacted by President Obama. They are the organ grinders, and President Trump is delighted to dance to this odious tune.

But in keeping with other evangelical preachers, Graham reverts to premillennialism when it suits his argument. So it is that Graham argues that President Trump’s moving of the United States embassy to Jerusalem is proof-positive that he is a strong supporter of Israel. The hypocrisy of this support for Israel is hard to grasp since it is based on a steadfast belief that a new Temple will be built in Jerusalem, Jesus will return to Jerusalem, the church will be raptured, and the unbelievers will be destroyed. This, of course, would include most Jews. David Sofian, rabbi emeritus at Temple Israel in Dayton, Ohio said to me, “Of course, we are aware of how evangelical support of Israel is rooted in their awful theology, but we will take their money now and leave it to you liberals to take care of this mess.” 

Rev. Graham attempts to restore some historic and traditional evangelical faith in his arguments. He speaks of President Trump’s efforts at prison reform and feeding the hungry. This is commendable, but again it is not standard operating practice among evangelicals, whose efforts in these critical social areas are often undone by their opposition to the government programs designed to help the hungry, the poor, and the prisoners. But for the good that they do in these areas, I offer commendation and thanks.  

But as a review of any presidential rally will show, it is obvious that all that applause and laughter is not engendered by Trump’s support of feeding the hungry, setting the prisoners free, and caring for the poor. Graham demonstrates this reality, by rapidly shifting his argument from humanitarian efforts to a scathing condemnation of the evangelical enemy du jour: socialism. Using populist misunderstandings of socialism, and painting all aspects of social concern as demonic, Graham insists that President Trump has been the “strongman” holding back the threatening tsunami of socialism, i.e.,  “the dangerous and destructive ideology” that has “resulted in massive religious persecution for the past century and the death of millions.” 

I am not calling into question Rev. Graham’s sincerity because I have no doubt of his sincerity. I am sure he is a very serious and sincere Christian. What I don’t recognize is the Christianity he represents. I am convinced that the Christianity represented by the evangelical defenders of President Trump is in fact not Christian. It is not shaped by the gospel but by the secular political philosophy of evangelical leaders. It is an “Americanized” faith that has faith in the USA, in “Make America Great Again,” in a false patriotism that excludes dissenters, in a greed-infested idolatry of wealth, in an ignoring of the teachings of the prophets and especially of Jesus. 

This version of Christianity no longer knows how to recognize idolatry. It exists in an atmosphere of fear, nostalgia, and a deep-seated desire to have the power to control others (John Fea, Believe Me). Pulling no punches, Stanley Hauerwas concludes that churches identified with the “church growth movement” are nothing more than paganism in disguise” (In Good Company: The Church as Polis, Kindle ed., 4). 

What Rev. Graham defends is not historic evangelical faith, but a Trump evangelical understanding rooted in secular political power and wealth. Graham’s argument in behalf of President Trump represents just another example of the church and her preachers failing to take the radical good news of Jesus to heart and apply it to all of life.

Ken Ham’s Christmas Letter

by William Trollinger

Ark Encounter, photo (c) 2018 by Susan Trollinger

It is the season for Christmas letters. Some of these letters provide much-needed information from friends whom you have not heard from recently. Some of these letters are extended and exhausting lists of spectacular achievements, from Chelsea’s third-place finish in cross-country regionals to Johnny’s perfect attendance as a second-grader at Mark Twain Elementary School. Some of these letters are simply a creative fail, as in using the pet hamster to recount the family activities over the past year.

But Christmas letters can also provide the opportunity for letter writers to issue mea culpas, to make amends, and to begin the process of restoring broken relationships. I thought of this when I received from the intrepid Dan Phelps – thank you, Dan – a month-by-month breakdown of Ark Encounter attendance numbers over the past 2½ years. (It’s his numbers I use below.) Given these numbers, and given the occasional tensions between folks at the Ark and local government officials, this holiday is the perfect opportunity for Ark Encounter CEO Ken Ham to send Williamstown Mayor Rick Skinner and the members of the Williamstown city council a Christmas letter that will put their relationship on solid footing heading into 2020.

I drafted a letter that I think could work quite nicely. Ken, you are free to cut and paste as you see fit.

December 24, 2019

Dear Rick, Amanda, Bob, Greg, and Kim:

Merry Christmas from the Ark! While we are just on the other side of I-75 from you in Williamstown, it feels as if we never see you. Maybe over the holidays you could have a City Council excursion to the Ark. At $48 apiece ($38 if you are over 60!) it’s quite the bargain, made even better because you don’t also have to rent hotel rooms (which is a good thing, because, as you can see from our website, there aren’t any Williamstown hotels to recommend!

I fear that, in my obsession with the overwhelming dangers posed by the LGBTQ menace, I have failed to adequately express my gratitude for all the gifts you gave to the Ark. My bad! Our big boat does not get built without you floating $62m in high-risk municipal bonds (I will NOT call them junk bonds — they are not junk!) in our behalf. But this is not all. There’s the gift of $175,000 from Grant County. There’s the sale of 100 acres to us for only $1. It goes on and on — so many gifts from government!  Thank you, thank you, thank you!

And the repayment scheme – wow! Pure genius: over the next 30 years, 75% of what we would have had to pay in property taxes will instead go to paying off our loan, It doesn’t get much sweeter than that – thank you so much!

Of course, much of that lost property tax revenue would have gone to local schools. But let’s face it, that’s no great loss for the children of Williamstown. Public schools are havens of atheism! Home schooling is a much better alternative – it is a great way to make American Christian again – and it just so happens that parents can get fabulous creationist curricula at the Ark gift shop (and the Creation Museum bookstore), including the famous 23 foot Adams historical timeline that begins when God created the Earth in 4004 BCE. Moreover, Mom (and Mom should be in charge of homeschooling, as it is best for her to be in the home) can bring the kids to the Ark for science field trips ($25 apiece for ages 11-17, and only $15 apiece for ages 5-10!)

So, once again, thank you, and my apologies again if I have not been clear as to how grateful we in the Ark Encounter family are for your remarkable generosity! 

Speaking of your remarkable generosity, I have to bring up what could be – I hope not! – a touchy subject. And that is the 2013 Ark Encounter Feasibility Report. You remember, the report we provided you as you were considering whether or not to float the $62m worth of bonds for our big boat project. I know that in our report we stated that our first year attendance would be between 1.2 and 2 million, with the likelihood that it would be closer to 2 million. More than this, the report asserted that there would be 4% attendance growth annually. More than this – and this is where the we got crazily optimistic – the report claims that there will be 10% annual growth after years 3, 5, 7, 9, and 10. (These are the years in which we promised major improvements to the theme park, like the Tower of Babel and the Ten Plagues Ride and the Walled City). 

According to our formula, our projected minimum attendance for the Ark’s year #4 (the year we are now in) was 1,427,712. Whups!! In 2018 our attendance was 827,591; in 2019 our attendance through November is 859,319. Maybe we will get to 900,000. That’s better, but it is a long way from 1.4 million . . . and our October and November 2019 attendance was below our October and November 2018 attendance. Hmm. 

We can’t even get to our projected minimum first-year attendance in year #4, much less get the attendance growth that we told you we would have. Now, I am sure you have heard me say that the attendance numbers would be much higher if we counted children under 5, and if we counted the free tickets given to lifetime members. But between us, we know that this is ridiculous. Who counts infants and toddlers? And, really, who is dopey enough to believe that we actually have enough lifetime members to make up this year’s attendance shortfall of 500,000 (or more)? 

If the Feasibility Report is what led you to float the bonds, I am sorry. Truly sorry. And I confess, as I re-read the report I am amazed at some of the claims that were made. The proposed “Ten Plagues Ride” – described in the report as including “special effects depicting the ‘Ten Plagues’ in a fun way [to] help make the story memorable” – would draw in the crowds? Really? What could possibly be entertaining about watching people covered with gnats and flies and locusts and boils?

Trust me, I am not blaming you for believing what we said – that’s an easy mistake to make! In fact, let’s just forget what we said in the feasibility report! Let’s just let bygones be bygones! Merry Christmas from all of us here at Ark Encounter. And remember, for a paltry $48 you can visit the Ark and learn why God found it necessary to drown twenty billion people. It’s the perfect way to get into the holiday spirit!

Ken

We All Could Use a Little Mercy Now

by William Trollinger


On December 18, 2019, United States House of Representatives votes to adopt the articles of impeachment, accusing Donald Trump of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. Source: House Floorcast – Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Here it is, two days after the House of Representatives impeached Donald Trump for abuse of power, and I cannot get Mary Gauthier’s “Mercy Now” out of my head.

In 2018,  National Public Radio (NPR) ranked this song #158 in a list of the 200 greatest songs by a female or nonbinary artist in the 21st century. According to NPR:

Trump was impeached despite the lockstep opposition of the GOP representatives, who seemed (for individuals charged with upholding the Constitution) remarkably determined not to even consider the evidence at hand; instead, Georgia’s Barry Loudermilk portrayed Donald Trump as perhaps the greatest victim in history: “Pontius Pilate afforded more rights to Jesus than the Democrats have afforded the president in this process.” Gauthier’s words seem right on point:

People in power, well
They’ll do anything to keep their crown
I love life, and life itself could use some mercy now.

Of course, these Republican representatives would respond differently if their base evinced concern that the president abused his office for his personal political benefit. But instead, Franklin Graham – urged on by fellow Trump-lover Eric Metaxas – claimed that “it’s almost a demonic power” that is fueling the impeachment hearings, while evangelical leaders Samuel Rodriguez and Johnnie Moore have proclaimed that the Democrats have actually “impeached millions of God-fearing, family-loving and patriotic Americans.” 

The message here is not terribly subtle. Rodriguez and Moore are making it quite clear that evangelicals would most certainly make Republican representatives and senators pay if they actually did their constitutional duty. Again, “Mercy Now” seems the perfectly appropriate anthem for this moment in American history:

My church and my country could use a little mercy now
As they sink into a poisoned pit
That’s going to take forever to climb out
They carry the weight of the faithful
Who follow them down
I love my church and country
And they could use some mercy now.

Adding to all of this, many evangelical leaders and institutions are taking a pass on the issue: the National Association of Evangelicals has not said a word, while Christianity Today – the best-known evangelical periodical – has managed to produce nary an editorial on the topic. Perhaps their silence is evidence that they also fear their white evangelical base. Whatever the reason, their unwillingness to engage the issues simply turns the floor over to the Trump-loving firebrands. 

So, you can see where this post was headed. It was written Thursday afternoon, and ready to go for Friday morning. But after dinner Thursday evening, my daughter Anna – a sophomore English, History, and Religious Studies triple major here at the University of Dayton – told me,  “Dad, Christianity Today has just published an editorial calling for Trump’s removal.”

This is a big deal. I congratulate Mark Galli and his colleagues at Christianity Today (CT) for saying what has so long needed to be said. This President does not share the faith or the values that evangelicals have claimed to profess for decades. And as the editorial makes clear, the result of evangelical obeisance to Trump is a tarnishing of the Gospel itself.

I am a historian, and – as the CT editorial makes abundantly clear – history is contingent. I have no idea where this story is headed, and those making predictions don’t know, either. What I can say is that we are all in this together. What is happening affects all of us. As Mary Gauthier concludes:

Yeah, we all could use a little mercy now
I know we don’t deserve it
But we need it anyhow
We hang in the balance
Dangle ‘tween hell and hallowed ground
Every single one of us could use some mercy now
Every single one of us could use some mercy now

Amen and amen.
Listen to the song for yourself:

Scared into Subservience by a Very Angry Evangelical God

by William Trollinger

Carl Ludwig BeutlerTorments of Hell, Circa 1669, Yale University Art Gallery

In the first half of his brilliant and disturbing book, A Gentler God: Breaking free of the Almighty in the company of the human Jesus, Doug Frank draws upon his own upbringing and on a lifetime of conversations with fellow evangelicals to make the point that, while “God’s tender love is often proclaimed” in evangelical churches, “God’s wrath is alive and well behind the scenes” (53). This God so “loves you that he graciously offers you eternal life,” but this very same God is so “angry with you that he will punish you forever and ever if you refuse his gracious offer” (41). As Frank powerfully observes, the evangelical God

Is willing to give us a lifetime to comply with his requirements, but then he says “Time’s up!” If we haven’t accepted his Son as our Savior, he abandons us forever. He turns toward his “good” children, with whom he enjoys eternal bliss, while he torments his “bad” children eternally in hell. In apparent contradiction to the Bible’s portrait of God, his mercy is strictly circumscribed, while the consequences of his anger go on forever (161).

This is the God of the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter. According to these tourist sites, God was so furious with humanity at the time of the Flood that he had no trouble drowning up to twenty billion human beings (including those with disabilities, children, infants, and the unborn), while preserving all of eight individuals in a luxuriously appointed Ark, individuals who apparently had no concern whatsoever for the slaughter occurring outside. 

And as the Flood was a watery precursor of the end of history – a point that is made very clear at both the museum and ark – God is even now preparing to impose a second divine genocide. Billions will be slaughtered and sent on to the eternal fires of Hell, while some minority of humans will be transported to a blissful existence in Heaven (where they will not hear or concern themselves with the screams and sufferings of their former friends and neighbors).

Why would anyone worship such a God? Doug Frank notes that

When I confess, in conversation, that I have encountered a God who actually likes human beings, who is infinitely forgiving, and who will journey with every last human being to the farthest corners of hell itself . . . until we are softened to God’s love . . . a devout evangelical will respond by saying, “Then why should I bother to be good?” or “Why should I get saved, if we’re all going to get to heaven someday? . . . Their response reveals their deep ambivalence about Christian faith. It has not been truly good news for this life – only for the next. Beneath all the talk of God’s love for them and their love for God lies their true motive for being good: they are afraid of a tyrannical God (169).

There is no question that the fear of a tyrannical God is what is being sold at the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter. Not the loving embrace of Jesus. Not the good news of the Gospel. Not God’s mercy and love. Fear. Fear of being included in the divine genocide to come. 

As Doug Frank says, “Hell remains the silent linchpin of evangelical belief. Its implications for genuine trust in a loving God are palpable, but rarely acknowledged” (54).

Amen.

Mr. Rogers Wasn’t Pro-Family (and That’s a Good Thing)

by Margaret Bendroth

Two images from the Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood archive at the University of Pittsburgh, as featured in Library Video Magazine (vol. 2, no. 1) and the December 1987 issue of American Libraries. The image on the left is from Mr. Rogers’ first show. via American Libraries on Flickr

Margaret Bendroth is executive director of the Congregational Library and Archives in Boston, and a historian of American religion. Her books include Fundamentalism and Gender, 1875 to the Present (Yale 1993)Women and Twentieth-Century Protestantism (Illinois 2003), co-edited with Virginia Brereton; and, The Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past (UNC 2015).

Who doesn’t like Mr. Rogers?  Anything less than adulation is almost unseemly these days, as we’re in the thick of movies, documentaries, and articles about this legendarily kind and simple man, beloved by children and parents alike.

Well, most parents. I admit, I am a Mr. Rogers heretic, one of the unholy few who did not enjoy his television program and actively discouraged my children from watching it. My bad attitude wasn’t personal. I didn’t like “Sesame Street” all that much either. Let’s just say I have an active horror of catchy jingles, especially those pertaining to numbers, alphabets, and feelings. In the case of Mr. Rogers, it was probably his puppet sidekick Henrietta Pussycat who put me over the edge. That whiny meow-meow-meow. I didn’t want it in my head.

Yet I deeply appreciate Mr. Rogers, perhaps not as a parent with a low tolerance for sing-songy music, but definitely as a historian. This is by way of Growing Up Protestant: Parents, Children, and Mainline Churches, a book I wrote now nearly twenty years ago. This non-best-seller was a heavily-footnoted narrative of a century and a half of religious advice literature to liberal parents, starting with Congregational theologian Horace Bushnell and his landmark book Christian Nurture (1847). Bushnell was one of the first to construct a practical theology of childrearing, based on the principle that children learn to love God through the example of loving parents in a Christian home. 

That fairly benign idea ran directly counter to the reigning assumptions of Bushnell’s day, the belief that children were either too innocent or too desperately evil for a genuine Christian faith. According to the reigning evangelical paradigm, the best that godly parents could do was keep them in a holding pattern until they were old enough for an intelligent conversion, the mysterious “age of accountability.” To Bushnell this was sanctified child abuse. He insisted that faith has no age limits, that even a very young child can have an authentic, though age appropriate, encounter with God. Just like the physical body, he said, the soul developed by “imperceptible gradations” toward maturity.

Mr. Rogers, like generations of mainline Protestants, was an heir of Bushnell. His quiet, focused demeanor was not just a personality trait—it was a theological statement, demonstrating an instinctive respect for children as full human beings in their own right, not simply miniature adults-in-waiting. Even the careful explorations of his “neighborhood” drew from Bushnell’s belief that Christian parenting involved far more than walling children off from evil.  Christian nurture required a community that made moral sense. It meant caring about other people’s children, not just one’s own.

Of course, the mainline ethic got silly and sappy sometimes, especially when religious professionals started turning it into (useless) advice literature. “Christian nurture” easily lent itself to guilt-tripping—no parent can or should be a stand-in for God—and it elevated niceness into an ersatz spiritual virtue. Moreover, as many of us discover along the way, the power of the silent example is not enough: children need, want, and deserve some dogma, even if only to facilitate a healthy rebellion. 

I was working on Growing Up Protestant in the 1990s, at about the same time evangelicals were staking their claim to be “pro-family.” The historical irony was hard to swallow. Up until James Dobson came on the scene, evangelicals had little of substance to say about family, much less a theology of Christian child-rearing. They were the heirs of fundamentalists like John R. Rice and Bill Gothard, who insisted that children were sinful, the world was a looming danger, and individual conversion the only way to safety.  

Yet as I researched my way through books like  God, The Rod, and Your Child’s Bodit struck me that me that despite the hairy authoritarian advice about “daring to discipline,” evangelical child-rearing advice literature was more Bushnellian than not. Even God, The Rod, and Your Child’s Bod was really an argument for the primacy of the “Christian home,” a place “where parents live the Christian life and so practice the presence of Christ that children grow up to naturally accept God as the most important fact in life.” Evangelicals were in effect cannibalizing mainline ideas (possibly in part because the mainline was departing from this tradition in the 1970s and 1980s), and recirculating them with a moralistic, fortress-mentality gloss.

Perhaps that’s why Mr. Rogers traveled under the radar for so long. He was not “pro-family” in the narrow evangelical culture-wars sense of the word, where the family is a stand-in for American moral decline. He loved and respected children, and modeled an ethic of care that extended beyond their immediate families to the world they would one day inherit—which is about as “pro-family” as you can get. On that, as my good friend Henrietta Pussycat would say, the two of us could not meow-meow-meow-agree-meow more.

Wayne Grudem on Divorce: The Right Conclusion for the Wrong Reason

by Emily Hunter McGowin

Today’s post is from Emily Hunter McGowin, who  is Associate Lecturer of Theology at Wheaton College. She is the author of  Quivering Families: The Quiverfull Movement and Evangelical Theology of the Family. She holds a PhD in theology from the University of Dayton and MDiv from Truett Seminary. Her research is at the intersection of religion, theology, and ethnography. She is also a priest and Canon Theologian in the Anglican diocese of Churches for the Sake of Others (C4SO).

According to Christianity Today,  Relevant, and a number of other online publications, evangelical theologian Wayne Grudem no longer thinks women married to abusive husbands are required by the Bible to stay married to them. 

For those who do not know Wayne Grudem, he is Research Professor of Theology and Biblical Studies at Phoenix Seminary (Phoenix, AZ). He is a past president of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) and a co-founder and past president of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW). He has published over twenty books, including Systematic Theology and Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (co-edited with John Piper). The last time he was in the news was in 2016, when he offered vocal support for the newly nominated presidential candidate, Donald Trump. 

Grudem announced his change of position during a presentation at ETS, which met in San Diego the week before Thanksgiving. You can read the outline of his presentation in full  at his website. 

Some reacted to this news with joy: “Finally, a leading evangelical theologian offers support for women to leave abusive marriages! This is great news for evangelical women!” Some reacted with a shrug: “Who cares? Are people really still listening to conservatives like Wayne Grudem?” (Yes, in fact, they are.) Some reacted with anger: “Why wasn’t his change of mind accompanied by repentance? Doesn’t he know how much harm his teaching has done? A simple announcement isn’t good enough!” 

I can identify somewhat with each of these reactions. But, as a theologian in an evangelical institution, I can’t help but be troubled by something else. Certainly, it’s good that Grudem has changed his mind and abandoned a harmful interpretation and application of scripture. Yet, his change of mind still reflects deeply flawed hermeneutics. 

For the past few decades, Grudem has taught that the Bible only permits divorce in two instances: adultery and desertion by an unbeliever. This perspective was based upon his interpretation of Matt. 19:9 and 1 Cor. 7:15, and spelled out in his 2018 Christian Ethics. So, as long as an abusive spouse falls into neither of these categories, Grudem said the church should provide protection, enact church discipline, potentially support temporary separation, but never condone divorce. 

During 2018-2019, though, Grudem says he had “increasing conviction of need for re-examination of divorces for self-protection from abuse.” The reason? He credits “awareness of several horrible real-life situations” of abuse, which led him to think, “This cannot be the kind of life that God intends for his children when there is an alternative available.” Thus, Grudem returned to 1 Cor. 7:15 and found within it what he believes to be biblical justification for divorce in instances of abuse. 

In 1 Cor. 7, the Apostle Paul condones divorce among believers in the case of abandonment by an unbelieving spouse. Verse 15 says, “But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such cases; God has called us to live in peace.” Based upon a word study of the phrase “in such cases” in extra-biblical literature, and comparisons to similar phrases in the New Testament, Grudem has concluded that “in such cases” should be understood to mean “any cases that similarly destroy a marriage”. His new paraphrase of 1 Cor. 7:15 is as follows: “But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In this and other similarly destructive cases, the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace.” 

I agree with Grudem that instances of abuse “destroy a marriage” and spouses undergoing such treatment are not required to remain there for the sake of the union. So, what’s my problem then? 

Put simply, the question of divorce cannot—indeed, should not—be answered with a word study. Yes, Grudem has changed his mind. But it’s for the wrong reasons. 

A careful reading of Jesus’ teaching on divorce reveals that the welfare of women (and, by extension, their children) was of central concern. When the Pharisees asked Jesus in Matt. 19:3, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”, they were asking him to weigh in on a longstanding debate among Jewish teachers. And they posed their question precisely as men seeking to preserve male prerogative in a patriarchal society. In essence, they were asking, “Do we have the right to put aside our wives whenever we want, for any reason?” 

One need not think very long about this to realize the serious problem with men thinking they are free to abandon their dependent wives for any reason. Such a scenario puts already vulnerable women and children in an even worse situation—literally one of life and death.

As usual, Jesus knows the motivations of his interlocutors, which is why his response to them is so firm: “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery” (vv. 8-9). No, Jesus says. You cannot set aside your wife any time, for any reason. Adultery is the only reason for which you are excused in abandoning your God-given obligations to your wife. 

We see here that the protection of the vulnerable party in the relationship—in this case, the wife—is Jesus’ primary focus. And that focus drives his instructions to the Pharisees regarding divorce. 

Of course, the protection of the vulnerable is not a principle isolated to the teachings of Jesus. The biblical canon as a whole testifies to God’s partiality for the weak and defenseless. The Mosaic Law, the Prophets, the Psalms, the Gospels, and the apostolic epistles—all testify to the centrality of protecting the vulnerable in the reign of God. The Law required husbands to provide food, clothing, and marital rights to their wives, even if they take another wife. The Mosaic requirement of giving wives divorce certificates was itself a form of protection, enabling divorced women to prove their legal status and, therefore, freeing them to marry again. 

Even the (in)famous quote from Mal. 2:16, “For I hate divorce, says the Lord,” is in reference to men of Israel “dealing treacherously” with their wives. “The man who does not love his wife but divorces her,” says the prophet, “covers his garment with violence” (Mal. 2:14-16). This passage is directly aimed at preventing violence against women. Again, the protection of wives is central. And the instances of New Testament writers advocating for the care of widows and orphans are too numerous to detail here. 

What’s my point? The case for divorce in the instance of an abusive spouse did not need to be made by a word study and reinterpretation of 1 Cor. 7:15. A reading of the whole canon should have led Grudem (and others) to the same conclusion long ago. Even though specific, word-for-word instruction about what to do in the case of abusive spouses is not found in the Bible, the relevant principles are there for anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear. 

And that leads to the final problem with Grudem’s change of mind. He says he came to reconsider his position because of recent “awareness of several horrible real-life situations.” For many of us, the idea that Grudem has just now become aware of such stories seems truly incredible.

What this tells me, among other things, is that Grudem has been thoroughly insulated from the experiences of women. The truth is that intimate partner violence is so common among women that it is simply impossible to have genuine relationships with women, either as friends or colleagues, and not know at least one who has either survived abuse or is dealing with abuse right now. 

Based upon the most recent statistics, one in four women and one in nine men experience severe physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner. One in three women and one in four men have experienced some form of physical violence by an intimate partner. (This includes a range of behaviors, including slapping, shoving, pushing, etc.) And one in ten women have been raped by an intimate partner.

For a teacher of his stature and influence to be ignorant of these realities is truly staggering. It should not be extraordinary for pastors, teachers, and theologians to be interacting with situations of abuse. Just in the short time that I’ve been serving in churches and Christian organizations, I have encountered these “real-life situations” over and over again.

I have photographed a friend’s bruises after her drunken husband beat her up yet again, and then watched her return to him because she’d been told so many times “God hates divorce.”

I have listened to another friend detail the psychological abuse she endured at the hands of her mentally disturbed husband, resulting in repeated hospitalization for traumatic stress. And yet she kept returning because she felt she had no other option.

I have listened in disbelief as another friend told me that when she finally got up the nerve to tell her pastor, “I think my husband is abusing me,” his response was to say, “Are you sure? I mean, isn’t everyone a little abusive?” 

I have watched another friend struggle for years with shame over her divorce—a divorce that saved her life—because family members remind her regularly that she’s the one who filed for divorce; therefore, the “sin” is hers, and hers alone. 

And, just recently, I have listened to another friend as she told me through tears that her family refuses to speak to her because she divorced a husband who regularly assaulted and raped her. 

I have only been serving in Christian churches and institutions for 16 years. But somehow, Wayne Grudem, after almost 40 years as a leading evangelical theologian, whose works are read in countless college and seminary classrooms, whose words are repeated in pulpits all over the country, has just now, in 2019, finally realized there are “real-life situations” where divorce might be the most loving, life-giving course of action. It would be impossible to believe if he hadn’t admitted it himself. 

Now, none of the above addresses the problematic qualifications Grudem places on his new teaching regarding divorce for abused spouses. Grudem seems to give significant authority to pastors and elders in these situations, saying pastors and elders “need wisdom to assess the degree of actual harm in each case” and “must first hear both sides.” Also, Grudem says, “Pastors…should first try to restore the marriage through counseling, temporary separation, and, if the abusing spouse is a professing Christian, church discipline.” 

I don’t have time to go into all of the potential problems with this approach. For now, I’ll simply ask: How well are these pastors and elders trained in recognizing abuse and assessing harm? Holding the position of pastor or elder does not immediately qualify someone to evaluate and advise in these situations. Indeed, the fact that this subject is already known to be a major blind-spot among most evangelical pastors makes me very suspicious about their involvement in adjudicating such matters. And this is one reason why it is so troubling that nowhere in Grudem’s paper does he mention the involvement of law enforcement, or the fact that physical abuse is a criminal offense. 

In closing, I want to be clear: Grudem’s change of mind is most welcome. I am glad he is no longer teaching that women (or men) in abusive marriages must remain married to their abusers. But the fact that he couldn’t see the problem with his position before now testifies to serious weaknesses in his theological method: a lack of attention to the social and cultural context of biblical teaching on divorce, a lack of engagement with canonical interpretation on the subject, a lack of attention to the detrimental effects of his teaching, and a lack of interaction with women’s experience. 

All of these are glaring oversights within any theologian, let alone one so prominent and well-respected in evangelical circles. And it raises serious concerns about the state of evangelical theology and ethics as a whole. We can, and must, do better.

Slaughtering 200 Million Unborn (Among Others): The Angry God of Young Earth Creationism

by Susan Trollinger

“Cemetery of the Innocents” by cindy47452 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

Susan Trollinger is Professor of English at the University of Dayton (UD), where she teaches courses in visual rhetoric, religious rhetoric, and writing. Her books include Selling the Amish: The Tourism of Nostalgia and, most recently, Righting America at the Creation Museum (with William V. Trollinger, Jr.), which was selected as a 2016 Times Higher Education (UK) Book of the Week. In 2016, she received the Faculty Excellence Award for Research from the Southwestern Ohio Council of Higher Education; in 2017she received the Outstanding Scholarship Award from UD’s College of Arts and Sciences. Susan also writes reflections for Ite Missa Est, the online Faith Formation Ministry of Dayton’s Immaculate Conception Church. This post is adapted from her Thanksgiving reflection.

A lot of Christianity right now has a bad name. And a lot of folks are fleeing it as a result. That is why a  a recent survey by the Pew Charitable Trust reveals that while the majority of Americans identify themselves as Christians (of one sort or another), the fastest growing (and increasingly large) group in the US is the “nones”—that is the “non-religious,” or people who don’t identify with any particular faith or organized religion. 

Why does Christianity have such a bad name? And why are especially young people fleeing from it? The answer is pretty simple. These days too much of Christianity (certainly among Protestants, but Catholics too) is just downright mean. 

There are plenty of examples of this phenomenon within Christianity. I’ll talk about just one that is especially popular these days. As readers of this blog know, Bill and I write on the Creation Museum (Petersburg, KY) and Ark Encounter (Williamstown, KY). These two very popular sites (together they have attracted millions of visitors over the last twelve years) tell a certain story about God. It’s a simple story according to which God issues clear rules (like the Ten Commandments), human beings willfully violate those rules (as Adam and Eve did in the Garden), and then (because God—to be God—must be “just”) God slaughters them. Or almost all of them. By the count of the folks who created these two sites, God slaughtered as many as twenty billion human beings when he sent his global flood. And saved all of eight. 

Just to be clear, we are talking twenty billion people including the elderly, the mentally ill, people with significant mental and other disabilities, those who never had the benefit of hearing the Gospel, teens, toddlers, infants, and newborns. 

And the unborn. It is estimated that at any one time 2% of women in the general population are pregnant. So if, according to the folks at Answers in Genesis, there were perhaps ten billion women on the earth at the time of the global flood, that means that 200,000,000 women were pregnant. That is, 200,000,000 unborn killed in a matter of days. 

That makes the alleged 60,000,000 abortions in the 46 years since Roe v. Wade – which Ken Ham talks so much about – pale in comparison.

All twenty billion people (plus 200,000,000 unborn) were drowned because God was so angry about their sin that he just had to kill them—all of them. This is the God that the creators of the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter (and millions of other Christians who visit these sites and otherwise hold to similar views) worship. He is one mean, angry, and violent God.

Oh, and God will do it all again because God is getting madder by the minute at all the disobedience that God witnesses among human beings. It’s only a matter of time before the next genocide begins.

If this is the Christian God, no wonder so many people are fleeing the faith. 

But what does Jesus say? After all, he is the word made flesh. If ever we are unsure of the word that someone is preaching about God, we need only look to Jesus as the true word.

In the Gospel reading before us today (Luke 17:11-19), Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. Along the way, he is approached by ten lepers who ask him to heal them. Now, we all know very well that in those days lepers were considered profoundly unclean. People, and especially religious leaders who could not afford to be made unclean, didn’t want to get anywhere near them. And they worked really hard to avoid them. 

Not Jesus. He heals them right then and there. And prior to doing so, he doesn’t grill them on their theology or who they think God is or whether they’ve followed all God’s commandments or how badly they’ve sinned recently. He doesn’t do any of that because he knows they’re sinners. He knows they’ve come up short in all kinds of ways. And he heals them anyway. It’s called grace. 

That said, Jesus does ask a question of the one who saw that he was healed, shouted glory to God, and fell at Jesus’s feet in gratitude. Jesus wants to know where the other nine are. Why aren’t they also proclaiming God’s excessive grace and kissing Jesus’s feet? 

For Jesus, it’s not about whether we are sinners (he knows we are) or whether we are obedient to all God’s rules (he knows we aren’t). It’s about gratitude. We don’t deserve God’s grace, but God gives it to us anyway. We are healed. The challenge to us is whether we can live in gratitude. The challenge is for us to proclaim God’s ridiculous and excessive and undeserved grace for us sinners and thank God for it every day.

On this Thanksgiving, may we wholeheartedly thank God for his grace and may we commit ourselves to living as Jesus calls us to—not in fear and anticipation of God’s wrath but, instead, and in keeping with his word, in gratitude for his grace that heals. 

John Hagee and the Evolving Basis for Christian Zionism

by Daniel G. Hummel

Daniel G. Hummel works at Upper House, a Christian study center on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and is an honorary research fellow at UW-Madison. He is the author of Covenant Brothers: Evangelicals, Jews, and U.S.-Israeli Relations (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).

WASHINGTON, DC, UNITED STATES – 2018/07/23: Pastor John Hagee, CUFI founder and Chairman, speaking at the (CUFI) Christians United for Israel’s 2018 Washington Summit held at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. (Photo by Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Why do so many evangelicals support Israel? The question has been asked and answered so many times that we can offer at least a few generalized explanations. Dispensational theology is one common answer, with its peculiar emphasis on God’s covenants with “Abraham’s seed” and literal readings of biblical prophecy. A second related explanation is that Christian support for Israel is linked to missionary efforts to convert Jews to Christianity. By befriending Jews, this explanation goes, opportunities for conversion multiply. These two answers often dovetail in the details of most dispensational end-times scenarios that require the mass conversion of the Jewish people as part of prophecy fulfillment. Other scholars point to a form of religio-nationalism that is uniquely American and Protestant in origin, while still others highlight Islamophobia or American-Israeli cultural affinity.

In my recent book on the subject, Covenant Brothers: Evangelicals, Jews, and U.S.-Israeli Relations (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019), I make the case that the answer to “why do so many evangelicals support Israel?” has to always be qualified with the follow-up: “when and who are you talking about?” Not only are there multiple roads to Christian Zionism, but there has been a definite historical progression in Christian Zionist motives. In my book, I focus on the past 70 years (since 1948) and almost exclusively on white, North American evangelicals (a category that comes to include, by the end of the twentieth century, fundamentalists, Pentecostals, and charismatics, in addition to self-identified evangelicals). I have found at least three distinct generations of Christian Zionism, with three related but distinct sets of motives.

It would take too long to describe here the entire arc of this argument. Instead, I want to illustrate how, within a single individual, the motives for Christian Zionism can change over time. I will take the example of John Hagee, currently the most prominent and influential Christian Zionist in the United States. Hagee is the founder and president of Christians United for Israel, a lobbying group that now claims more than 7 million members. In recent years, CUFI’s annual Washington D.C. summit has attracted keynote speakers such as Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, and Nikki Haley. Hagee’s personal arc helps illustrate a larger development in Christian Zionism over the last 30 years: a trajectory originating in dispensational theology, but which is now based in a type of “blessing theology” that has no necessary linkage to dispensationalism.

Hagee’s history with Christian Zionism stretches back to the early 1980s. Born and raised in southeast Texas, Hagee comes from a long line of Methodist preachers steeped in dispensationalism. At the age of 8, he wrote, his father told him that the day Israel declared its independence was “the most important day of the twentieth century. God’s promise to bring the Jewish people back to Israel is being fulfilled before our eyes.” Hagee completed his theological training at Southwestern Assemblies of God University, and founded his first church in 1966. He later founded the non-denominational Church on Castle Hills (later Cornerstone Church), which soon grew into a megachurch complex with thousands of weekly attendees.

Visiting Israel with his second wife, Diana, in 1978, Hagee had an awakening: “We went as tourists but came home as Zionists.” Hagee ordered “$150 of books” on Jerusalem, and in the remainder of the trip he read Catholic priest Edward Flannery’s The Anguish of the Jews (1965) and Jewish philosopher Dagobert Runes’ The War Against the Jew  (1968), both documenting the church’s history of anti-Judaism and indicting it for the rise of racial antisemitism. These books, he recounted, “became the intellectual foundation of my life’s work from that moment forward.” By the time he was once again flying over the Atlantic, Hagee was “jotting down notes on what I could do to bring Christians and Jews together—without starting a riot.”

In response to news reports speculating that the U.S. might “abandon” Israel after it bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor in June 1981, Hagee organized an interreligious “Night to Honor Israel” at his San Antonio church. No mere worship service, the event was a blend of American and Israeli nationalism. A color guard presented both national flags while the crowd sang the Star-Spangled Banner and Hatikva, Israel’s national anthem. Interspersed between speeches were slots for “U.S. Patriotic and Israeli music,” as well as an offering collection for the Israel Emergency Fund, which sent $10,000 to Israeli hospitals. 

“A Night to Honor Israel” was Hagee’s ticket into the wider world of Christian Zionism. Saul Silverman, the Jewish national director of the events, praised the Israeli government for being “beautifully related” to Hagee by sending diplomats and lending official support. Hagee also befriended a diverse set of rabbis, from Reform rabbi Ron Kronish, founder of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, to Rabbi Aryeh Scheinberg of the Congregation Rodfei Shalom, an Orthodox synagogue in San Antonio. A frequent speaker at early events was Hagee’s high school football coach, Herman Goldberg, who typified for the Pentecostal preacher the best of Judeo-Christian values.

In the 1990s, Hagee published a trilogy of prophecy books in the 1990s — The Beginning of the End (1996),  Final Dawn Over Jerusalem (1998), and From Daniel to Doomsday: The Countdown Has Begun  (1999) — which landed him on The New York Times Best Seller List. In the same mold as dispensationalists before him, Hagee used prophecy to warn Americans that God would soon be sending his judgment on a secularizing America. Previous prophecy-oriented Zionists like Hagee found almost no political success in the Christian Zionist movement. Hagee, however, possessed the allies—and the longevity—that gave him a prominent role in Christian Zionist circles.

By the early 2000s, Hagee was part of a distinctly Pentecostal wing in the Christian Right, along with Rod Parsley, pastor of World Harvest Church, Christian Broadcasting Network executive Michael Little, and Bishop Keith A. Butler, founder of Word of Faith Christian Center in Michigan. Each developed an understanding of Israel’s role in prophecy that included elements of dispensationalism. But just as crucially, the note of prosperity preaching that had been part of Hagee’s more general ministry in San Antonio became more pronounced. He preached a politically conservative Christianity that combined a Pentecostal emphasis on the gifts of the Holy Spirit with the teachings of the prosperity gospel, promising God’s followers wealth and happiness in return for faith. Christian Zionists before Hagee had combined this basic theme of God blessing those who blessed Israel into their rationale for support. But previous leaders like Jerry Falwell rejected prosperity gospel teachings as “bad doctrine” and regarded it as crass materialism. Hagee, more than any Christian Zionist before him, began to bind prosperity theology and Genesis 12:3 together and placed them at the center of his thinking about Israel.

This prosperity-oriented understanding of Israel was deeply tied to Hagee’s broader shift in ministry. In the years leading up to his founding of Christians United for Israel in 2006, Hagee published a slew of prosperity books: Mastering Your Money (2003); The Seven Secrets: Uncovering Genuine Greatness  (2004), The Life Plan Study Bible: God’s Keys to Personal Success (2004); and Life Lessons to Live By: 52 Weeks of God’s Keys to Personal Success  (2005). Hagee sought to unite Christians around a program to unleash God’s blessings by fulfilling the covenantal commands of scripture. With individual and national keys to success, as decoded from the Bible, the American people and the church would find unprecedented material and spiritual flourishing.

Hagee defined more precisely than any other Christian Zionist the calculus of blessing—the measurable balance of God’s material, physical, and financial blessings that followers would accrue through prayer and right living—that was at work in Christian support for Israel. The economy of blessings was laid out in Genesis 12:3, when God tells Abram “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse, and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” Hagee elaborated on this passage in his annotated study bible, asserting that this verse was “the one purpose of God for humans in to which all of God’s programs and works fit.” Hagee approached the Abrahamic covenant, and the duties it entailed, from the calculus of the prosperity gospel, arguing that support for Israel was crucial for the United States and individual Americans to accrue God’s favor. “God is going to judge us on how we treat Israel and the Jewish people,” Hagee warned in a sermon series on Israel. “Are you listening Washington? Are you listening Senators? Are you listening Congressmen? There’s a God who’s watching you! Pay Attention!” Hagee tracked the rise and fall of nations in relation to “God’s Mandate to Bless Israel.” The early church, he insisted, found success in relation to its treatment of the Jewish people. “Several combined scriptures verify that prosperity (Genesis 12:3; Psalm 122:6), divine healing (Luke 7:1–5), and salvation and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Acts 10) came first to Gentiles who blessed the Jewish people and the nation of Israel in a practical manner,” he wrote in 2007.

Combining prophecy and prosperity, Hagee expanded his influence beyond the evangelical Christian Right and into Pentecostal and charismatic circles. Hagee speculated about the prophetic significance of current events, but his political activism operated with all of the transactional logic of the Genesis 12:3 mandate: “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” 

This was no vague or generalized promise for good things to happen to those who were good to Israel, but a well-defined process to curry God’s favor. Writing in his study bible, Hagee declared “God’s policy of anti-Semitism is established beyond all doubt in these verses [Genesis 12:1-3]. He has promised to pour out His blessings on those who bless the Jewish people and Israel, and He has promised to curse those who are anti-Semitic.” 

Hagee culled the Bible and history for case studies: Laban, who employed the patriarch Jacob and declared “the LORD has blessed me for your sake (Genesis 30:27); Joseph, whose captivity in Egypt allowed “The Gentile world [to be] spared from starvation because of one Jewish slave who became prime minister [sic]”; George Washington, who accepted funds from Jewish banker Hyam Solomon and turned the tide of the Revolutionary War. It was up to Christians to prompt God’s blessings, and the Bible explained the process clearly. 

By 2006, Hagee’s case for Christian Zionism was overwhelmingly framed in terms of blessings and curses. This placed him directly in the mainstream of global Pentecostalism, too, which contains a significant Christian Zionist movement that also focuses on blessings and curses in the context of prosperity teachings. 

What does Hagee’s evolving theology on Israel tell us? First, Hagee has never ditched his dispensational framework, so we cannot speak of a drastic change, as if he dropped one rationale in order to pick up another. Yet the two arguments do not entirely cohere, which is perhaps a reminder that people are rarely completely consistent in their thinking. The same is true for Christian Zionists. That said, his evolution on Israel was part of a larger evolution in his ministry to more explicitly preach a prosperity gospel. Israel is never an issue that evangelicals treat in isolation. 

Second, and more importantly for historians, explanations of Christian Zionism fall short unless they pay close attention to the theological, political, and social contexts of the specific Christian Zionists in question. Writings of dispensational theologians (from John Nelson Darby to Hal Lindsey) do hardly any work on their own to explain Hagee’s current relationship to Israel. The same is true of Jerry Falwell’s views, a contemporary of Hagee’s but hardly a Pentecostal. Instead, qualifying any discussion of Christian Zionism with the follow-up of “when and who are we talking about?” is the first step to painting a more accurate picture of Christian Zionism, and thus a more enlightening history of American religion and politics.

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