Monday, August 1, 2005

What, you ask... a newly-minted doctor thinking about these days? Bill McKibben's lucid and thoughtful essay "The Christian Paradox" in this month's Harper's. In it, he underscores the relative homogeneity of American christianity*, and explores the troubling contradiction between Jesus's "radical" message of altruism and service (Do unto others...) and its particularly bizarre and selfish contemporary manifestation (God helps those who helps themselves). Along the way, he points out how "our" (meaning a generalized American majority) outspoken professions of "Christianity" are incompatible with our private and public behavior: more violence, divorce, poverty, and less charity than in nations that are less eager to claim for themselves a Christian self-righteousness:

Despite the Sixth Commandment, we are, of course, the most violent rich nation on earth, with a murder rate four or five times that of our European peers. We have prison populations greater by a factor of six or seven than other rich nations [. . . .] Having been told to turn the other cheek, we're the only Western democracy left that executes its citizens, mostly in those states where Christianity is theoretically strongest.

What McKibben wants to get at is why, as "a place saturated in Christian identity," America fails so spectacularly to get at what Christ actually taught:

Christ was pretty specific about what he had in mind for his followers. What if we chose some simple criterion—say, giving aid to the poorest people—as a reasonable proxy for Christian behavior? After all, in the days before his crucifixion, when Jesus summed up his message for his disciples, he said the way you could tell the righteous from the damned was by whether they'd fed the hungry, slaked the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, and visited the prisoner.

In 2004 [. . .] we ranked second to last [. . .] among developed countries in government foreign aid [. . . .] And it's not because we were giving to private charities for relief work instead. Such funding increases our average daily donation by just six pennies, to twenty-one cents. It's also not because Americans were too busy taking care of their own; nearly 18 percent of American children lived in poverty (compared with, say, 8 percent in Sweden). In fact, by pretty much any measure of caring for the least among us that you want to propose—childhood nutrition, infant mortality, access to preschool—we come in nearly last among the rich nations, and often by a wide margin. The point is not just that (as everyone already knows) the American nation trails badly in all these categories; it's that the overwhelmingly Christian American nation trails badly in all these categories, categories to which Jesus paid particular attention.

Notice that McKibben is not debating whether the nation should or should not be "Christian," but he is comparing us to the model "we" publicly set for ourselves.

His explanation has to do in part with the popularity of the "apocalyptic" arm of Christianity, a focus on "End Times" that he likens to trying to theorize the Constitution by focusing only on the 25th Amendment. And, of course, a focus on the world to come (and one's likeliness of being included therein) obviates concern with the problems of the immediate, material, physical world.

Oddly enough, this new brand of fundamentalism partakes in a logic that would be familiar to perhaps the best known American fundamentalists, the Puritans. The Puritans were equally, if not more obsessed with the life to come, but instead of dismissing the material world, they scrutinized it obsessively for signs of their standing in what they called the Invisible World of God's Kingdom.

But as McKibben notes, a Christian scrutiny of the world does not lead to a particular concern with doing good in that world. In fact, the obsession with the state of one's own soul leads too frequently to a disdain for the problems of those around us. And, in both its late Puritan and contemporary American incarnations, it manifests in a self-absorbed desire for material goods as the index of one's spiritual state.

Like McKibben, I fear even more the message of what he calls "the sprawling megachurches of the new exurbs": that is, those churches whose "spiritual" message is, in fact, disturbingly "conventional" in its emphasis on the self, the spiritual seeker as one more facet of the consumer. "The pastors focus relentlessly on you and your individual needs," McKibben writes. "Their goal is to service consumers—not communities but individuals [. . . .]"

Without that other-directedness that is the core of Christ's message, Christianity becomes a mere adjunct of American self-interest, a minor corollary to Franklin's self-made man. This kind of "soft-focus, comfortable, suburban faith" is, according to McKibben, "a perfect mirror of the [. . .] secular culture, with its American fixation on self-improvement, on self-esteem." These parallels, he argues, are what make the current pose of "persecution" by contemporary Christians ludicrous in the extreme. Or would, if they weren't being taken so seriously.

In contrast, McKibben offers Jesus's own description of what Christianity should be: "a call for nothing less than a radical, voluntary, and effective reordering of power relationships based on the principle of love":

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

That's it. Simple, clear, concise. Devilishly difficult to put into practice, of course. But then, Jesus himself is, whether you believe in his Divinity or not, a clear example of putting into practice what he preached. What if every self-identified Christian took a few days just to re-read what Jesus actually said? Considering the public assertion of the Bible as literal truth, shouldn't you all know what it says?

*To be fair, I, too, was surprised by the homogeneity he attributes to the U.S. As a secular liberal, I cling to the fantasy that this is a diverse, secular nation of many faiths and creeds. But his claim is not that all of us are Christians, but that so many Americans specifically identify themselves as Christians, and, especially in recent years, our national image is one of assertive (I'd say even aggressive) public Christianity.


At 8:31 PM , Anonymous ehj2 said...

Dear Doctor Dorcasina,

With this opening missive on “The Christian Paradox” (and I love that this grave matter is the subject of your first missive under “new management”), you’ve made it clear you’re not going to waste that doctorate “thingy” by considering it a euro’s worth of parchment that you can stick under a slab of glass and nail to a wall in your study.

I say “grand” ... I say “double grand” ...


“It’s hard to imagine a con much more audacious than making Christ the front man for a program of tax cuts for the rich or war in Iraq. If some modest part of the 85 percent of us who are Christians woke up to that fact, then the world might change.” Bill McKibben.

Here, you've touched a deep nerve and the basic cancer of America. I hope this will be a recurring theme here, explored periodically until this conversation is resolved in favor of the restoration of our country. But everything I read says this won’t happen soon or easily. The Catholic Church itself is extremely concerned about the rise of the “counter-reformative” southern evangelical churches and what this means for the shifting of power within the world church community. This is not just an American phenomenon, but a world phenomenon – now exploding in Africa and Latin America.


I had such incredible hopes for my generation, now in its fifties and basically in charge. We seem to have squandered our entire legacy. We were handed an America that was advancing human rights, women’s rights, minority rights, environmental rights -- that was working for a kind of spiritual intelligence informed and guided by reality based cognition.

In some sense, Osama bin Laden was right: we were rotten to the core or we wouldn’t have fallen so easily. He only succeeded in knocking down two buildings; it took our democratically elected governance to really savage the country. We’ve been fighting an imagined enemy in sand now for longer than it took the allies to win WWII after Pearl Harbor ... against a determined and brave foe in pajamas with $40 rifles and $200 rocket propelled grenade launchers.

Of late, I've begun to be embarrassed I’m an American because America has become such a broken caricature of both its self-proclaimed image (“Land of the Free and the Brave”) and its 18th century declarative documents (“We hold these truths self-evident ...”). We chose this undoing.

American Christians are not only hypocrites, they are dangerously mad – demanding the remarriage of church and state and, whether they realize it or not, a return to the middle ages and a world characterized by continuous war over imaginary (and invisible) issues. One was aptly named “The Hundred Years War.” Imagine being born during a war that had consumed your father and your grandfather.

I left the church when I was eleven and never returned. The still voice I heard within me was silent there and demanded I find another Temple ... one within.

For the past two decades, I have declared (when asked) I am not a Christian. For the same reason I am not a Jungian but a student on a path of individuation that includes Jungian and Christian guidance and wisdom. Jung would say that the time of sheep and shepherds is over – the time of “isms” is over. We are now responsible and accountable for pursuing our own direct experience, our own direct knowledge. This requires a greater reliance on internal integrity, not a lesser one.

Measuring one’s faith by one’s willingness to believe the world is flat, that the sun revolves around the earth, or the modern versions of these fantasies, “there is no evolution” and “women caused the fall” ... is as uselessly bereft of reason as the impulse that drives an insect to fly continually against a window pane in an effort to escape confinement. Faith and Prayer as employed by American Christians are the same manipulative efforts directed at God that “nice guys” attempt to use to manipulate women – and for the same reason: insecurity and fear. The bargain is a mad one: I will pretend my brain doesn’t work if a higher power will submit to my desire and save me. I’m saddened and frustrated that it is so easy to “sell” such a message.

To “believe” that God planted an archeological “record” to mislead the unfaithful about the age of the world declares God is a crook and a liar. Who but the sick would follow such a God? The truths derived from our slow explorations in math and physics and the earth sciences are so much more grand and sublime.

While I am not a Christian, I stand with Jesus and am confident He stands with me. We are on excellent speaking terms.

The truth I know is that Jesus was an Israelite who lived a perfect life as a perfect Jew. He came to fulfill a Truth -- as a Jew -- not as a Christian.

He spoke against power brokers, accumulations of wealth, liars, crooks, users, fixers, and rigid norms everywhere; the church, the family, the letter of the law.

Whatever good Christianity has done in the world under its various forms, Jesus is absent from the American version of Corporate Christianity.

Jesus would decline any invitation to be an American Christian.

I hope I’m not too candid here. But this is not a time for fuzzy abstractions or sitting on the fence, but a time for clarity and movement.

Thieves are in the temple and the children lament and wail. Money Changers run the world and darkness is close, so close.

And I find myself drawn more and more deeply to some form of active spiritual pacifism that I don’t yet have words for ...



At 12:29 AM , Blogger bbound said...

*To be fair, I, too, was surprised by the homogeneity he attributes to the U.S. As a secular liberal, I cling to the fantasy that this is a diverse, secular nation of many faiths and creeds. But his claim is not that all of us are Christians, but that so many Americans specifically identify themselves as Christians, and, especially in recent years, our national image is one of assertive (I'd say even aggressive) public Christianity.

That was a lovely essay. But don't sell yourself short on the fantasy of America being homogenous. I remember having an epiphany when The Passion of Christ was came out last year. It was such a huge success, staying at the top of the box office for weeks. What was weird, though, was that I did not not a single person who saw it. Here was this cultural movement that was apparently huge, and it completely passed my community by. It made me realize just how segregrated this country can be. I live in my pleasant urban leftie academic world, and the American-style christianity McKibben talks about completely passes me by.

But I think that's okay. Although things like national image, and national politics obviously affect my life, I think it is okay to valorize carving out a space for yourself where you can live by your own values to the best of your abilities. After all, the right apparently feels itself to be threatened as well, by the influence that we on the left (and as an academic who lives in Hollywood, they mean me!) have on national culture as well. It sounds horribly elitist, I know. But I think the reason someone like McKibben tries to construct this generalized American majority is because it is their fantasy, a country where everyone might someday be on the same page, albeit a more liberal one than it is now. I don't necessarily think that would be a good thing.

At 3:41 AM , Anonymous ehj2 said...

McKibben's point is not so much that America is homogenous, but that the 85% of the population who claim to be Christian don't know what the fundamental text of Christianity says or means; this originally "spiritual" movement has apparently reinvented itself and now embraces diametrically oppositional values (to its own text, the Bible) under the same name.

The challenge for reality-based civilization is not homogenity, but the "tipping point" where this movement may or may not rewrite world history. If it now directs the most powerful nation on earth, it is well positioned to do so.

Germany was not homogenous when it lost its way. But it was clearly a highly civilized nation, a fundamentally "Christian" nation, and a liberal democracy that embraced emotionally laden terms like "freedom" and "living space" and "rule of law."

McKibben's opening sentence declares his concern precisely: "Only 40 percent of Americans can name more than four of the Ten Commandments, and a scant half can cite any of the four authors of the Gospels."

This is worrisome. Afterall, the text is right there. Imagine if half of the physicists in the country weren't aware of quarks.

And I would suggest that it's very difficult to "know" that a movement has passed by one's community; tribes now live intermingled, connected via different media. If my neighbor only watches Fox and listens to right wing radio, he lives in a different world than me, fed from different sources.



At 3:55 AM , Anonymous ehj2 said...

A better analogy. Imagine that the preponderance of physicists in the country didn't speak of the periodic table of elements -- but instead endorsed the counter-reformative notion: there are four elements, and they are earth, air, fire, and water.

Speaking metaphorically, the original gold has been replaced with lead ... and the people accept it as gold.

At 11:01 AM , Anonymous drh said...

I found your discussion of this article very intriguing, although I haven't had the chance to read the original myself yet.

I brought it up with a friend over dinner - she is from Israel and we are both expats in a land far far away. She raised the point that it seemed that from my (more than likely inadequate) summary that 1)McKibben is locating and identifying an ideal and absolute Christianity and 2) not addressing what Christianity means on the level of discourse and at the individual level for those 85% of Americans who choose to identify them as such.

And also - has America ever been true to its self-proclaimed identity? I don't ask this to be pushy, but in the spirit of someone living abroad struggling to define what America and being an American means to me.

At 11:53 AM , Blogger Dorcasina said...

Intriguing thoughts, all, which I have too little time to do justice to. Philg, I think you are right that McKibben, like other liberal theorists (especially in this "conservative" moment) displays a sort of utopian/nostalgic yearning for a different kind of homogeneity--at least implicitly. Although I don't know whether, in practice, secular liberalism could ever aspire to the kind of homogeneity that seems essential to any religious faith. One thing that has always appealed to me in the ideal of secularism is the notion that man's *individual* choices can assume a greater role in his public life (again, I am talking theoretically, here--and am aware of how homogenously the Enlightenment thinkers conceived of "man.")
dr h, too, I agree that no country is ever actually as homogenous as my summary of McKibben suggests; I also agree that the US is no better at living up to its ideals than any other group of people--although I could make a case that we have always been guided--at least largely--by our *failures* to achieve a perfect equality, and have thus tended to move slowly in the right direction. I think that what I, like McKibben, am responding to is not the fact that (as philg says), America *is* suddenly and perfectly homogenous, but that the current administration and a whole lot of other people are unselfconsciously and even arrogantly announcing the US, in Washington and abroad, as a "Christian nation"--the other side in the current "holy war"--in just the way McKibben articulates. This scares the bejesus out of me. Especially given the misreading of Christ's message that he cites.

I think that what struck me about McKibben's essay (b/c much of the hypocrisy/self interest elements have been on my mind for a long time now) was his particular formulation of current *professed* Christianity as falling well within both contemporary and historical movements of self-interest and self-improvement (emphasis on "self"): linking Ben Franklin and the Krispy Kreme preachers in a way that makes perfect sense to me, and explains in some ways why America, with its lofty political *ideals*, is also so particularly vulnerable to this kind of arrogance, selfishness, and righteousness. I like the way he pulls the strains of American mythology (political ideals, capitalist praxis) together and uses them to explain the current climate of what we might call capitalist Christianity.

/e: as always, thank you. I was raised in one of those marginal Christian groups that currently "don't count" b/c we didn't identify Jesus as our personal buddy and social planner, and I share so much of your alienation and sorrow. As always, you've given me more to think about than I can possibly respond to at one sitting. And I do adore the quote you included in your first response.

At 2:32 PM , Blogger ABDmom said...

Thanks for a great post. I'll have to read the full article when I have more time; I'm getting ready to leave for my writing group at the moment.

Suffice it to say as someone who attended an evangelical Christian school for 12 looong years, I know very well the type of people McKibben writes about. And without trying to sound melodramatic, what I know is frightening. That particular group of Christians not only is uninterested in improving "this earth"--they actively attempt to do things that will bring about Armageddon and the return of Christ.

That is precisely why they support Dubya in such large numbers and why they advocate such a disastrous foreign policy. They want war. They want strife and conflict, particularly in the Middle East--or as they call it, the Holy Lands. They think that will bring about the return of Christ and then they'll all be raptured.

No, I'm not being cynical. I'm not a conspiracy theorist. I'm not insane. I'm tellng you, I know these people, and what I'm saying is very, very real.

And as Christian who isn't part of the "last days" movement, it makes me sick.

At 8:42 PM , Anonymous ehj2 said...

philG ... I think if I'd been more clear in my comments above we might conclude we're in substantive agreement.

First, I'll apologize for "arguing" from an unfair position. I am familiar with Bill McKibben's work (he's written a number of books on "environmental mindfulness and stewardship" from the standpoint of "concerned citizenship and moral duty") and know from a larger context than this single Harper's article that Bill is aware of the many divergent threads of religious and political life in the American tapestry. When a single thread becomes prominent enough to appear homogeneous, however, that very fact invites scrutiny and comprehension because something important is happening.

A number of threads in the national conversation have changed drastically in the past thirty years. These threads are simply our natural language and they go almost unexamined; even "seeing" them requires significant work.

The thread that Bill McKibben focuses on is corporatist (or capitalist) Christianity as it has become part of the national identity, like "freedom," "self-made" and "powerful." The image of the self-made Christian American living in a powerful country because of God's blessing is now iconic and mainstream -- and used to justify egregious actions in the world. If you don't accept this image, however, you are routinely and ubiquitously labelled "out of the mainstream," "elitist," and worse. As you probably know, labels are dangerous and once established they are replaced with progressively worse ones until they promote violence, and later, are cited as the very "reasons" that rationalize violence.

"Well, she invited it because she's a [pick your label]."

By way of example, I'm a member of the ACLU and have watched this process of mendacious labelling over the decades. It astounds me that an organization singularly dedicated to promoting and preserving the very part of the U.S. Constitution that most American cite as the most important -- is routinely and effectively disparaged as anti-work, anti-God, and anti-American. Being "Anti-ACLU" is now very mainstream and my ACLU bumper sticker earns me quite a few honks and "thumbs-down" signals. "Huh?" I want to ask. "You're AGAINST the Bill of Rights?"

Bill accurately observes: there is "an overwhelming connection between America and Christianity; what Jesus meant is the most deeply potent political, cultural, social question."

In my mind (and I agree strongly with Bill here), what Jesus "meant" wasn't ... this.


drh ... you're right. America has never had the strength of her convictions. (I hope you'll write again, your voice is important.) But in my mind, America's convictions always seemed a light that pulled us to do better. Even when we stumbled heavily as a nation, most of us knew it and didn't try to rationalize our shortcomings. Many of us have felt appropriate self-loathing and revulsion for our treatment of blacks, women, the environment, the world.

My horror of America today derives from the fact that we have garbed our worst impulses and darkest vices in the holiest of cloaks -- religious symbolism -- and now declare our execrable national shortcomings as behavior explicitly endorsed by Jesus and supported by God Herself.

We now turn a casual eye to genocide in Darfur, a blind eye to torture in our own military, and apparently no eye at all to the fact that we are the world danger we rail against -- we are a rogue state that ignores international treaties ("rule of law"), led by a fundamentalist, armed with weapons of mass destruction, that assumes the right of preemptive attack, and invades other countries without just cause.


ABDmom ... what interests me deeply is how you "escaped" your origins, and why. We are now using public funds to support fundamentalist propaganda and fundamentalist causes in America -- which to me is hypocritical in light of our revulsion of Saudi money supporting fundamentalist Islamic teachings. At least we know what result from this we can expect.


Doctor Dorcasina,

I do so wish you the greatest congratulations on your awesome achievement. Your life is filled with far more than I can imagine, and I can barely find words to express even a small part of my esteem for all you do and all you are.

We each are graced to have people in our lives who are living embodiments of what we can be when we stand in the light: you are one of mine.

I am personally delighted that I can now call you "Doctor D."

The Buddhist canon includes a notion that is appropriate here. "The only legitimate prayer is gratitude." It is clear that in knowing you, many are filled with prayer.

God Bless,


At 9:52 AM , Blogger ABDmom said...

"ABDmom ... what interests me deeply is how you 'escaped' your origins, and why."

Well, I escaped by graduating. And thankfully my family was never part of the whole fundie Christian movement; they sent me to the school for a lot of reasons I've blogged about, but they are too numerous to get into here in detail. I'll boil it down to the bare minimum:

1. We lived in a city
2. Public school I attended was having major problems (perverts hanging around the playground)
3. District began court ordered busing
4. Crazy Christian school had a lot of "discipline"--important to my blue collar family, esp since one of my older brothers barely graduated from high school and spent his days smoking pot.

Because my family was never part of that whole culture, I was able to reject a lot of what the school taught. Of course, the school had its effect, but not as bad as if all of it had been reinforced at home.

Finally and most importantly, I escaped by going to a college that taught me how to be a Christian without being part of the madness. The college I attended was affiliated with a denomnation that is known for its dedication to pacifism and social justice. I learned a lot there about faith. And that completed my escape.

While I still identify as a Christian, I don't attend church regularly; I want that to change, though. And I certainly don't mean that I am a Christian in the way Jerry Falwell et al is a Christian. And those types wouldn't see me as a Christian, either. Screw 'em.

"We are now using public funds to support fundamentalist propaganda and fundamentalist causes in America -- which to me is hypocritical in light of our revulsion of Saudi money supporting fundamentalist Islamic teachings. At least we know what result from this we can expect."

I couldn't agree more with these sentiments.

At 10:35 AM , Blogger Mike said...

Very nice essay.

The real question is why would a person of normal intelligence choose to walk that particular path; that is, how is it that Americans can take their religion so seriously while brushing theology aside as trivial?

More to the point: how can we engage in dialog with radically different world views. Dialog made more difficult by the unrecognized arrogance of the assertion that a world view is rooted in the one true religion.

Lewis Lapham, who once edited Harpers, wrote an essay that made the case that we can only tell each other that which we already know. Brilliant work, I wish I still had that one.

There is comfort in sharing our support of our viewpoint with each other. Jesus did not challenge us to be comfortable.

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