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December 12, 2006

Filed under: culture»religion»books

The Godyssey

Infamous, crazed comic artist Rob Liefeld writes The Godyssey, a story of Jesus and his mad gong-fu skills against the Greek pantheon.

Suddenly Atwood's Penelopiad looks a lot more respectable.

October 20, 2006

Filed under: culture»religion»books

An Unholy Trinity

With David Kuo's new book, Tempting Faith, explaining how the Bush administration took advantage of religious conservatives for political gain (who could have thought they were capable?) and Mark Foley stretching the limits of tolerance in the Bible Values crowd, it's worth the effort to examine the phenomenon of Christian Nationalism. This trend, also known as dominionism, is something that I find myself increasingly worried about as I consider the American political scene. Perhaps living in Northern Virginia simply accentuates the trend--stay around Arlington, where I live, and it's as blue as can be, but travel 40 miles West and you'll find yourself in deeply Republican territory.

Having gone to high school out in that area, what degenerates like George Allen call "Real America," I figured I had a pretty good idea of the problem--and more seriously, the disconnect that (as far as I can tell) many Democratic leaders simply don't understand. These really are two Americas, although not in the simple economic sense that John Edwards means. They're two separate cultures, one grounded in Biblical fundamentalism, and the other in a kind of casual secularism. But to get a perspective on what this might mean in the long term if my theories are right, I've been doing some reading.

Kingdom Coming, by Michelle Goldberg

Goldberg subtitles her book "The Rise of Christian Nationalism," and it works best as a primer to the dominionist movement. It's organized by issues, with separate chapters for evolution, sex education, and homophobia in turn. It's not a terribly long book, and Goldberg is an unobtrusive writer, so it's a fairly quick read.

Kingdom Coming was apparently inspired after Goldberg had done a series of pieces for Salon about Christian and Far Right meetings. She apparently had a knack for getting into conferences and seminars, where she would deliver neutral-sounding but ultimately terrifyingly honest reports--the fanatical and apocalyptic language of extremists behind closed doors. After those articles, or perhaps because the Religious Right's rhetoric has become more open, Kingdom Coming is a little disappointing. It's a pretty high-level, wide-angle view of the movement.

Which is not to say that there aren't good insights here. Goldberg presents the dominionists as not just a movement, but a political machine, and links it together as a whole. Her solutions to this problem are sadly vague, perhaps because she herself has little hope for the future. "From what I've witnessed while researching this book, I'm convinced that Christian nationalist symbolism and ideology will increasingly pervade public life," Goldberg writes in her final chapter, titled "Exiles in Jesusland."

Righteous, by Lauren Sandler

If Kingdom Coming is the big picture, Righteous is a more personal view from the bottom of the movement up. Focused on a growing Evangelical youth culture, Sandler works more with interviews and events. Righteous also examines creationism and home-schooling, but not from the leaders of the movement, but from its footsoldiers. This gives it an entirely different feel--to me, it comes across as more urgent. It's easy to dismiss Kingdom Coming as cynical politics, but Righteous reminds us that there are real people behind the fundamentalist movement.

Sandler is also a Salon editor, although it could be argued that she's a more interesting writer than Goldberg. The book is filled with anecdotes that would be comical if they weren't a little chilling: Stephen Baldwin's rise as the face of hip youth Christianity, for example. A common theme throughout the events and communities Sandler visits is the "sneaky deep." That's the hook used to attract youth to Evangelical movements--hiding overt Jesus-freak appeals behind skateboarding videos, fake scientific language, and rock music. It's the idea that people come for the entertainment, but they stay for the Christianity.

The ability to weave pop culture into conservative Christian faith is not only attractive for new members, who don't have to give up "fun" when they join, but Sandler also points out that it tends to reinforce their most regressive tendencies. At the Mars Hill church community (read an excerpt at Salon), members may have a hip priest who quotes rappers and preaches to a background of rock music, but women are relegated to the roles of mobile womb and housewife only. The communities are fiercely anti-intellectual, and their "pop culture" is restricted to Christian facsimiles as soon as a religious version can be crafted.

Although it's been mentioned before, especially when that excerpt was published, it deserves to be noted again: these movements are not only a draw because they offer security in a changing world, but also because for the young men that invariably drive and lead them, they are not actually giving up very much for the Lord. Sandler's profiles are of Christians who can find Jesus and keep their music, their tattoos, and their skateboards. Women who join the movements, however, either because they're in a relationship with a convert or through evangelism, give up much more. They lose their freedom, their independence, and (to some extent) their futures. Female graduates of Patrick Henry College work for four years building contacts and learning deep political savvy, only to reject those abilities completely once they get their degree. Despite the surface appearance of modernity, the youth Christian culture is one that's deeply regressive, and blatantly aimed at preserving the power of white males.

The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins

After those two books, it's nice to kick back with Dawkins' unrelenting atheism. Anyone who's read his other books, such as The Blind Watchmaker or The Selfish Gene will be unsurprised by the clear prose and sly sense of humor in The God Delusion. In fact, it's a generally unsurprising book, which is not entirely a bad thing.

While Sagan's Demon-Haunted World and other pro-science writing have made a soft case for atheism, Dawkin's book is a lot more assertive. In fact, the closest comparison might be Sam Harris's End of Faith, which was refreshingly blunt but also disturbingly sidetracked into defenses of torture and ravings against the Islamic threat, as well as a bizarre defense of Buddhism and mysticism. Dawkins is more restrained: The God Delusion walks through the myth of a Christian America, disproves the belief of figures like Thomas Jefferson and Albert Einstein, and explains why religious claims shouldn't be protected from scientific criticism.

In the end, it's not really something that you couldn't read on a well-written atheist blog. But maybe I'm just thrilled to have a book explicitly written in support of atheism without resorting to the crazy extremes of The End of Faith. The God Delusion is a solid effort. On the other hand, current atheists might not have problems waiting for the paperback edition.

October 12, 2005

Filed under: culture»religion»books

Book Review: The End of Faith, by Sam Harris

If I didn't know any better, I'd say The End of Faith was a bad joke. This is the bestselling advocacy for atheism and screed against the evils of religion? The world's freethinkers deserve better than Harris. His basic thesis is that we can no longer accept fanaticism--and Harris defines all religion as fanaticism or enabling to fanaticism--because of the destructive potential technology has given us. That's all well and good. I think we can all agree that we're not terribly keen on nuclear annhilation or biological warfare, and there's an argument to be made about the conflict between science and those who would scorn it while they harness its destructive potential. Harris, however, is not the person to make that argument.

First of all, The End of Faith is riddled with logical errors and inconsistencies. For example, the author seems to think that it's very important to open with a commentary on beliefs, and how they define a world around us that is subjective. "No human being has ever experienced an objective world, or even a world at all" he writes, and implicitly endorses the "brain in a jar" thinking that every basic philosophy freshman briefly entertains. He also includes the dubious notation that there "seems to be a body of data attesting to the reality of psychic phenomena," even though in later chapters he relies heavily on the progress of science, objectivity, and Enlightenment thought. It's just very strange, and it makes his argument seem nonsensical at best. Similar logical faults, the kind that should have been caught by even the clumsiest editor (or indeed, the aforementioned freshman in philosophy), are entirely too common.

Second, Harris seems to take leave of his senses entirely halfway through The End of Faith and launches into a rabid, neoconservative anti-Islam crusade. Perhaps understandably, he seems to have taken September 11th as an example of religious extremism gone horribly awry. However, the hyperbole here comes off as hysterical, in a chapter titled "The Problem with Islam." "We are at war with Islam," he states, shortly after castigating the War on Terror as being a meaningless conflict against a large idea (another one of those pesky logical inconsistencies). He spends several pages pulling out violent and deadly quotes from the Koran, which is tedious and mean-spirited. It's also not a terribly convincing argument. Anyone can cherrypick scripture to suit their needs. Only because Harris explicitly defines religious moderates as enablers of fundamentalism can he even make the argument.

Look, I'm no fan of militant Islam--or militant anything, really (although in a bizarre detour, Harris also tries to prove the supreme immorality of pacifism). And religious moderates who make excuses for fundamentalists also bother me. But the insistence that they must all be converted to atheism or militarily destroyed just doesn't sit well with me as a rational option. For example, note Harris's strange justification of terror: having redefined all ethics as the awareness of the pain of others, he imagines a "torture pill" that would inflict pain while simultaneously blocking the external reaction of the subject. Even as a thought exercise and a loophole, it doesn't make any sense. Obviously, wouldn't the person applying the pill have to be conscious that it would cause discomfort? Unless it kills the subject (thus rendering it useless), wouldn't their subsequent confession break the ethical barrier? Harris doesn't even touch on the accuracy of the information from this torture. And he's the rational one?

Add in the elevation of Eastern mysticism, and what you have is a severely schizophrenic work. Harris wholeheartedly endorses Eastern philosophies as gentler, less violent, and more self-aware than those bad ol' Western religions. Nowhere in Taoism or Buddhism, he states, could we find anything as horrific as the Koran or the Bible. Allow me to say this as someone who has studied Chinese history, religion, and literature: balderdash. The argument is just pure orientalism, on par with The Last Samurai and businessmen praising The Art of War. Just as with his treatment of the Koran, Harris is cherry-picking in order to make a point. I personally doubt that those who died to build the Great Wall, who were killed in Qin Shi Huang's wars of conquest, who had their feet bound to fit a feminine ideal, or who joined in the codes of Kamikaze and Bushido, would agree with Harris's idolatry of the East.

Perhaps he has answers for these criticisms. But since the book is only 200-odd pages of actual text, followed by another couple hundred pages of endnotes, I can't honestly be bothered to read through his research material after such a nonsensical slog. It feels like padding for a weak argument. It feels juvenile.

The picture is simply more complex than The End of Faith is willing to admit. It pains me to see such a disjointed text representing atheism, and it pains me even more because the subject matter showed such promise. I'm always interested in advancing rationalism and fighting religious extremism--but I don't want Sam Harris on my side. If he's looking for fanatics, all he needs to do is glance into the closest reflective surface.

May 20, 2005

Filed under: culture»religion»books»leftbehind

Damned if you do

Every week, I look forward to Fred's Left Behind Friday over at Slacktivist. I enjoy it partly because it is always fun seeing horrible Christian apocaliterature torn apart by someone who knows the subculture and picks up on the little inhumanities, but mostly as sweet revenge. See, I've read the first couple books in the Left Behind series. I got bored one summer, grabbed them off of Gnutella (what were they doing on filesharing anyway? Isn't it a sin to steal books?) and churned my way through them. So I have first-hand experience with Jenkins and LaHaye, and I'm going to share what I found so that you don't have to satisfy your curiosity the same way.

Let's get it out of the way: the books are awful. Really, really terrible stuff. It's one thing to have an ideological viewpoint, and it's another to simply have no fictional writing ability in the slightest. Jerry Jenkins (the primary writer--Tim LaHaye is the "religious consultant," another travesty all together) combines these two flaws into a nexus of Suck unequalled through known history. I like to think of it as a tiny black hole that he keeps in his back yard, where it sucks up wandering pets and small children into its event horizon and in return generates page upon page of hysterical fascist prose.

It hurts me to say this, but Left Behind is honestly worse than Ayn Rand, who was previously my benchmark for terrible fiction. At least with Rand you can pick out a decent pulp story if you skip most of the dialogue and the misogynistic rape scenes. Her writing functions fairly well as a comic book or as a movie, where time and space restraints would carve out only the barest essentials. In contrast, Left Behind could never be improved in any medium. This is too bad, because the first book has potential. Oh, I know: if you read the Slacktivist's coverage of the book, you'll see where he's caught all kinds of psychosis just in the first 80 pages. But if you're not paying such close attention (perhaps because you're having so much trouble reading Jenkins's traffic jam prose), the Rapture scenario can hold your attention momentarily. You may start to anticipate where a better writer could take this material, someone like Garth Ennis (or Stephen King, who basically wrote the same book but without the holes in The Stand). Worse, you may hope that Jenkins's reach simply exceeds his grasp, and perhaps he plans to tell such a gripping story, but simply lacks the talent to make it run smoothly.

Ha! At that point you have fallen into his trap. As soon as Jenkins manages to bring the characters together, through a series of increasingly unlikely devices, the book goes from being an adventure story to a 300-page scripture lesson, and it never eases up for the remaining 11 books (and one prequel now). The characters simply become observers, plodding through the same simple plot structure over and over again:

  1. Read scripture and interpret it in tortorous Fundamentalist logic as a prophecy, usually involving the Antichrist,
  2. Observe the predicted events as they occur, without actually doing anything to alter the disastrous consequences,
  3. Mourn how the unbelieving hordes were cruelly slaughtered or abused because they would not listen,
  4. Go to step 1.
3600 PAGES OF THAT. The only subplot in the first book that didn't fit this progression, as far as I can remember, is the disturbing romance between Cameron "Buck" Williams (the Greatest Investigative Reporter In The World, as Fred calls him) and the college-age daughter of main character Rayford "Ray" Steele (yes, everyone in the book has an ultraphallic name. I don't even want to think about the significance.) Because this is the work of a sub-literate Evangelical hack, you can see it coming a mile away when "Buck" and the daughter (Chloe, a name I thought was only used in bodice-ripping romance--hm...) meet on an airplane and exchange extremely tame flirtation followed by Bible verses. Personally, I recoiled in horror and then continued reading with a sick fascination. You can't help but wonder: how are these uptight, conservative lunatics going to depict romance in their post-Rapture world? When you're a writer who ideologically opposes dancing, drinking, physical expressions of affection, and particularly premarital, sexual expressions of affection, how do you write a courtship plotline?

Not that I found out. After the first book, I tried to struggle through another, but it was just too much for me. Which, in a way, is too bad: did you know there's a whole genre of this stuff? I could have been set for new reading material for life. Rapture porn is one of the leading Christian subgenres, romance novels for the righteous. They're even taking over new genres now. One of Jerry Jenkins's pet projects (apart from his terrifying Left Behind for Kids books, coming soon to an rural elementary near you) is the trio Soon, Silenced, and Shaken, three science fiction novels that chronicle a double agent working undercover to save the Christian minority in a dystopian future. Christians in the minority? A rational, secular government that suppresses fundamentalists? Maybe to the intended audience that's a dystopia. After reading Left Behind and realizing that these books sell millions of copies, it's starting to sound pretty good to me.

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