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My Science Textbooks, the Demagogue, and God's Missing Body (1)


My Science Textbooks, the Demagogue, and God's Missing Body (1)

Part 1 of a 4-part post. Here are parts 2, 3, and 4.

A demagogue rises to power in my country and begins to quash freedom of the press, and all I can think about is how my science textbooks told me global warming was a myth.

An odd patch of memory on which to fixate. I have other, more pleasant (or at least more interesting) memories of my science education: the warm, enthused faces of my science teachers (moms and dads from my homeschool group), the unnerving dissection of a frog, the thrill of doing research and experiments for a biology project on smell and emotional memory.

Global warming. Our textbooks–I can't remember if they were put out by Bob Jones University Press or A Beka–took great pains to remind us of a fact we already knew: global warming was a myth. Like evolution, there was no real science to back it up, it was nothing but a meaningless speculation. The fact that there was consensus among most scientists about the reality of global warming meant nothing: most scientists did not know God.

There is nothing–I surmise in retrospect–inherently contradictory about these two statements:

  1. God is real.

  2. Global warming is real.

Nor is there any innate philosophical tension between these:

  1. God created the world.

  2. The world was created through the process of evolution.

The first is a statement of origins, the second is one of process. They are not mutually exclusive.

And yet global warming and evolution were both seen as threats to Christian faith by the evangelical community of my youth. If embraced, they would poke holes in a very intricate, locked system of how we read the Bible. Because we equated true faith with adherence to that system, if the system fell, faith would, too.

So we bunkered down and waited for the apocalypse. For some, apocalypse was quite literally imminent, and they literally bunkered down. For others, the bunkering mentality manifested itself as a refusal to engage with any ideas or people outside our circle unless it was for the express purpose of "witnessing" to them to convert them and bring them into the fold. And that kind of interaction isn't real engagement, isn’t a posture of turning, seeing, and knowing–it's a posture of control.

Accepting global warming was dangerous–a concession to the atheist scientists who crafted their godless theories of evolution to prove that God was dead.

I write about these memories knowing that people and movements are complex, and North American evangelicalism is no different in that respect.  But it's the very complexity, and the ease with which we all became subsumed into the monolith of ideas that makes me angry. We can perpetuate lies simply by inhabiting systems and never challenging them. 

Anger at institutions–religious, political, collegiate or otherwise–is a tangled mess to unravel because you know there are individuals within this broader body who both represent the body and at the same time rail against it. Their very presence within the body is like new wine in old wine skins. They threaten to make the whole thing burst, collapse.

I know many thoughtful evangelicals, both leaders and lay folks, who speak out and prophesy against untruth and injustice. People who denounce the demagogue and urge those who worship him to turn their eyes from this idol.

And I know that even some of the less thoughtful folks are more than this terrifying spectacle.

But the problem of the monolith remains: the great mass that was instrumental in Trump's ascent.

I am livid. White-hot rage. Blood-spitting anger.

I don’t know why people are surprised by evangelical support of Trump’s ascent. "We threw a bunch of gold in the fire, and out came this graven image!"

No, Trump didn’t come out of nowhere. Trump was waiting to happen. It was only a matter of time before a god of glittering gold arose, a god we shaped to look like us, to embody our values, to show our true hand.

A friend asks me why I am still a Christian. This question leads to so many more. What is a Christian? And whatever that is, am I still that? If it means inhabiting a corporate religious body, can I justify being a Christian?

What is a Christian?

The catechetical answer to what is a Christian might go something like this: anyone baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is part of the covenant community of the church. (The Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches might view the other major branches of Christendom as “brothers in error,” but still kin in the faith.) Most Christian traditions have a public affirmation following baptism when a person comes to a certain age, something that expresses that person’s willing commitment to continue participating in the covenant community into which they were initiated through baptism.

In liturgical traditions, this is called “confirmation,” a sealing of the covenant that was created in holy baptism. In anti-liturgical traditions like the ones I grew up in, the public affirmation is often the baptism itself (“believers’ baptism”), sometimes accompanied by a verbal testimony of how the believer came to faith.

These practices recognize and try to remedy an inherent tension in any body, be it social, religious or political (or a mix–it’s always a mix, isn’t it?): the individual’s participation in (and conflict with) the larger structure. We live and move in relation to social bodies, but also exist as individuals, distinct persons, and cannot be reduced to the bodies we inhabit. Individuals participate in systems, but are not always true to them (I’ll talk a little more about what being “true” means below). Confirmation and other public affirmations of the faith attempt to express the individual’s willingness to try to be true to the communal body which they have entered, whether that entry was by choice (believer’s baptism) or by the choice of your family (infant baptism).

This tension between the individual and the larger frame of the corporate body was present even in the evangelical tradition in which I was raised. We railed against the externals of the Catholics (who we believed were trying to work their way to God), but at the same time had our own sets of external motions that were needed to verify and legitimize “true faith.” We all knew individuals, Christians who “talked the talk” without “walking the walk,” and viewed this as a divergence from true faith as defined by the values of the corporate body. One side of our rhetoric denied the necessity of individual action, while another side of our rhetoric created its own web of moral hoops through which to jump to achieve true faith. You didn’t need to dress a certain way, refrain from using curse words or watching certain movies to please God–God would accept you. But if you wanted the church body to accept you, you most certainly did.

God was weirdly wed to his body and estranged from it all at once. We could create our own body and rules for it without explicitly pinning its creation on God, but still wield the rules as divine authority since it was through us–in our communal body–that God was to be found in the world. God would still love you if you were outside the body, but if you wanted to encounter God, you had to get past us, jump through all our hoops. If you wanted to experience God, you needed to go to the True Body, and to get there, you had to be true to that body.

This was the conundrum of God’s body. I couldn’t meet with God apart from his body. But I’ve always been at a loss as to where exactly God’s body is to be found.


Donald Trump, Apocalyptic Theology, and Evangelicalism


Donald Trump, Apocalyptic Theology, and Evangelicalism

After watching this video by John Oliver on the RNC, it made me think again about why Trump appeals widely to white evangelicals in America.

Trump's appeal is not so surprising when you think about how American evangelicalism was shaped by the Great Awakenings, its emphasis on salvation as an individual decision or moment (read: emotional experience), and its focus on personal piety/inward purity as taking precedent over social justice issues or outward works/actions.

I remember experiencing a lot of angst as a teenager about God's disposition toward me because mainstream evangelicalism is all about being inwardly pure and having devotional feeling towards God. I knew that I was a sinner (y'know, stuff like pride, getting mad at my siblings not sharing my stuff), but I had no dramatic testimony and so I was at a loss as to know what I should be *doing* other than trying to feel right towards God and cut down on the pride and not annoy my little sister.

I had essentially no framework to do or be good because I knew from a tender age that it was all about what Jesus did on the cross, and I couldn't add anything to that. And since the whole point was Jesus saving my individual soul, the only "good" thing I could even do was evangelize to people so that Jesus could whisk them out of the world, too. I felt I had no power to affect change in the world, nor any sense that "saving the world" meant anything more than God redeeming peoples' hearts. It was all very apocalyptic in a narrow sense.

It's this apocalyptic theology that Donald Trump appeals to. His message is: "America was once great, but now it's not (because of all the Muslims, Mexicans, woman, and black people), so let's take back America by kicking out folks who don't belong." His message is completely antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ that began in Genesis. 

I know many people have said this before, but we need to begin our Gospel story in Genesis 1 and see it through to the present day and beyond. The story begins with God creating the heavens and the earth and filling it with all forms of life. After forming each aspect of the world, God declares it good--and by the end of it, he sits back in his throne, looks at it all and declares it "very good"--exceedingly, overwhelming good. He creates the humans in his image (in the ancient Near East, a regal role--the humans are monarchs of the earth, appointed to manage, tend, and care for the earth and its creatures). He gives the humans and animals food to eat.

The humans have but two tasks: eat and cultivate the earth (so that all may eat). God blesses them and the other animals to multiple throughout the earth, and as they do, they are to eat and tend. But then a serpent draws the humans' attention to the one fruit that God had told them not to eat. They began to believe that God was withholding something good from them, that he was not to be trusted, that in fact eating the forbidden fruit would make them like gods (ironically, they are already like gods by virtue of their status as God's images).

Instead of eating the good food of their creator and basking in the delights of the garden, they fixate on this other fruit and end up breaking their creator's trust. And when the humans began to distrust the goodness of the world their creator had made, they actually started to live that way. They could not trust God. They could not trust each other. And people have been warring with each other ever since, and the whole earth has felt its effects. Because we believed the world was evil, we actually began to make it evil.

But since then, God has been calling human beings to start listening again to his voice and making the earth good again--not by ridding the land of people we perceive as threatening, but by loving the world, caring for it, and feeding it. And indeed, much of the earth's goodness still remains, though we still have much to do. In Jesus, we know what it looks like for a human to believe in God and work this out--not just a pious feeling, but embodied action. God becoming human in the person of Jesus is the affirmation of this good creation. If we are in need of an apocalypse, we have it right there: Jesus dying the death of the world and then rising from the dead to show that even the earth in its broken state can't keep humans and God from partnering together to fix it, to make it yield life.

Trump does not believe the earth is good. He doesn't believe it is worth saving. His message is not salvation, but purging. In Trump's world, only certain kinds of humans deserve to eat. The gospel of Trump is not "cultivate and keep," but stockpile and batten down the hatches. And Trump may try to convince people that he's got great food that will make us like gods, but don't be fooled: that fruit's rotten to the core.