Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Lin & Tebow & their inconceivable harmony

This blogger awakes from a Rip Van Winkle-like slumber to discover his blog untended and his beard down to his navel and a sky full of flying cars and a half-year's worth of awesome religion stuff already gone. Sheesh. A once-in-a-while poster is like someone using an i-Pad exclusively for reading PDFs.

But I hereby repent! And post for yr joy--yrs and mine.  Or maybe I'll give up posting for Lent, which starts tomorrow.

I know one thing I will not give up for Lent: Watching Jeremy Lin play basketball. Best story in sports right now, or maybe ever. Race and religion have been subtexts from the beginning. Lin's ex-spiritual adviser at Harvard just told the Boston Herald that Lin and Tebow have connected--in what way is not clear--about their shared faith in Christ and the challenges that come from being a born-again sports god.

Yep, there's some cognitive dissonance in those last four words.

David Brooks calls it "The Jeremy Lin Problem": "The moral ethos of sport," he writes, "is in tension with the moral ethos of faith." Lin, with Tebow before him, has become a symbol that somehow fuses Christian piety with the classical gladiator model. For the religious person, humility and selflessness are cardinal virtues; for the athlete, pride and competition. Brooks concludes that "the two moral universes are not reconcilable." In rhetorical terms, they seem incommensurable: there is no shared language between the two, and therefore each world is incomprehensible to the other.

Somehow, though, Lin keeps playing basketball and worshipping Jesus. Which makes me wonder whether Brooks' interpretation on this "creative contradiction" is an overly-abstract exercise that does not take into account the way we harmonize aspects of our lives that fall under various belief systems. I've thought about this in connection with last year's debate about evangelical Tea Party activists and their love of Ayn Rand. On the one hand, they embrace a religious belief system that preaches humility, self-abnegation, charity, and love of neighbor. On the other, they celebrate the virtue of selfishness and monomaniacal profit-seeking.

A contradiction? An inconceivable harmony? Okay, yeah: It seems to me that way. And yet these individuals have found significant enough overlap (or as Burke might have it, consubstantiation) between the two worlds to let them both work in a single identity. It's sloppy, but the human articulation machine makes it work, perhaps by not thinking much about the contradiction. I suppose you could say this isn't a very wise way to live, considering the classical edict to "Know Thyself." But I'm confident that Lin & Tebow, if forced, could articulate the connection between their religion and their athleticism in a way that makes sense, that has to make sense, in order to avoid the in + able words: irreconcilable, inconceivable, incommensurable, incompatible.       

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Mormons--the conservativest of the conservatives

According to this Gallup poll. Notice that those who do not attend regularly--the "lapsed"--identify themselves more frequently as liberals. Here's the chart:

As someone who believes that Mormon theology can inform various political ideologies, I'm perplexed at the endurance, intensity, and dominance of conservative politics in the faith, in spite of the official position that there is no official position. The rhetorical task of church leaders seems to be the (continued) surgical dissociation of political opinion from gospel principle, even though, as is evident by this poll, clearly there is an expectation in the culture that Mormonism leads not just to conservative opinions but to an obvious conservative identification.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Jesus--the perfect conservative?

With the surprise popularity of The Pizza Man Who Could Be President Who Isn't Mitt Romney, the media turns its big ol' fat ol' Sauron-like eye on Herman Cain's rhetorical archive, where recently this gem was exhumed from RedState by the folks at Religious News. Cain's Christmas message--that Christ is the world's "perfect conservative"--is another example of how historical figures are put to work for contemporary ideologies.

Here's the support Cain provides for considering Jesus a perfect conservative:
  • He never condemned what others believed – just sin, evil and corruption.
  • He helped the poor without one government program. He healed the sick without a government health care system. He feed the hungry without food stamps.
  • For three years He was unemployed, and never collected an unemployment check. Nevertheless, he completed all the work He needed to get done. He didn’t travel by private jet. 
  • The liberal court found Him guilty of false offences and sentenced Him to death, all because He changed the hearts and minds of men with an army of 12.
This is the first time I have seen Jesus's behavior and attitudes about the poor used by conservatives to promote politically-conservative values. It seems to be an attempt to challenge the other side's attempts to dress up Jesus as a liberal. (I'm thinking of Jim Wallis, these guys, and Stephen Colbert.)

These analogies--on both sides--end up sounding reductive, not because there is no relation between the teachings of the New Testament and contemporary political life but because they attempt to "own" God, exclusively, for a political ideology. Once God joins the ranks of your party, the other side ends up looking godless.

Friday, September 23, 2011


It was only a matter of time before someone--and that someone, in this case, is David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network--neologized the relationship between the Tea Party and the evangelical base. Michele Bachmann in this video identifies herself as a teavangelical, a politician who carries Milton Friedman in one hand and the Bible in the other. We've already seen here how hard it is for overtly-Christian politicians to explain how the latter supports the former, but at least now we are seeing how the ideology of the conservative base is constituting itself, identifying itself, in this election cycle.   

Friday, September 16, 2011

prophecy comin' atcha, frat boys!

A group of Christian ministers crashed a few tailgating parties at Vanderbilt recently. Check out the video.  I'm surprised the preachers didn't get the beat down from these flip-floppin' frat guys who came to heckle, paper cups in hand, tanking up for the big game. 

Prophetic rhetoric in the literature often trends left. I'm thinking here of Jim Wallis and Cornel West who emphasize a prophetic vision more in line with liberal-to-left ideologies about poverty, tolerance, and war. Isaiah, it is said, spoke truth to power, and the truth was that power was sinning by grinding the face of the powerless and grinding the plowshares into swords. This is one popular understanding of prophecy.

Another, though, would open the genre to any ideological critique, any calling on an audience to repent and return to God or the forgotten divine principle. In The Prophetic Tradition and Radical Rhetoric in America, James Darsey argues that prophecy brings crisis and judgment on a people who have lost a common faith. Prophetic rhetoric is not civil; it rudely interrupts the amnesiac reveling of the culture to throw down transcendent mandates. Though Darsey isn't concerned with religion in his book, his framework is completely appropriate for analyzing what's going on in that video clip of the Vanderbilt Isaiahs.

And of course this kind of bold repent-shouting happens all over College America. Every spring at the state university where I went to graduate school, Pastor Jim would blow into town from somewhere in Missouri and set up shop next to a large grassy hill to tell the undergrads how swiftly and surely they were truckin' to hell. The crowds gathered. He put on quite a show for the bemused students who saw him as an extraterrestrial circus, spouting passionately in a language they did not understand.

Prophecy is always a few short steps away from crazy. That's what gives it its power and also its inappropriateness--and I mean inappropriate in a rhetorical sense (te prepon): ill-fitting for the situation. The prophet refuses to play nicely with other children. No one wants their house party interrupted by a sermon. And yet the prophet is motivated by an intense concern for the souls he/she preaches to, or maybe we could say an intense concern for the collective soul. Frat boys included.    

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Jesus on facebook

And it's more popular than even that one singer who hatched herself from an egg at the Grammy's and wore a machine gun bra for Rolling Stone. (Nope, not Susan Boyle.)

FB's "Jesus Daily" page is the work of Aaron Tabor, a gene therapy researcher who, according to his own fb page, likes jet skiing and has been "Saved by the Blood." Several times a day he posts scriptures from the Bible or artwork featuring Jesus, doves, and cats wearing chain mail. (Really. Look in the photo section.) The outpouring on the post is pretty amazing--amazing enough to get picked up by the Old Gray Lady. "Likes" ranging between 30-200,000 and thousands of comments, some of them comprised of nothing more than a praise shout-out of "YES!". The comment threads cascade in a swell of testimony, prayer, and hallelujahs from all over the world, from people of all ages. It's fascinating to see how faith aggregates and magnifies itself online.

The comments aren't just comments but religious speech acts meant to express devotion, benediction, witnessing, amens, and direct petitions to God. Plenty of exclamation marks and all-caps. The stychomythia of online commenting has created a stream of language more like speech. Last month Juanita Bynum, the Pentacostal televangelist, busted out in spiritual exuberance on her facebook page in the middle of praying:

Surely we are waaaaaaay outside the realm of I Corinthians 14 on this one. The media have had their fun with Bynum (typing in tongues? typing in fingers? speaking in keystrokes?), but I think it's a fascinating example of what I call "rhetoric of the invisible"--when in addition to speaker, audience, and topic you have the assumption of invisible forces at work in the rhetoric, motivating, confirming, inspiring, and even (in the case of glossalalia or holy laughter) animating the participants.

Does Jesus Daily trivialize religious language (e.g., witnessing) by making it so abundant, so prosaic, and so easy?