Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Bob McElvaine's Grand Theft Jesus

Bob McElvaine's Grand Theft Jesus: The Hijacking of Religion in America (2008) is a polemic against the Christian Right and its version of Christianity. More than even his periodic columns and blog posts, this book displays the author's abundant humor and his fondness for word plays. And it's partly an autobiographical work in that it reflects his experiences in Mississippi with its many encounters with a truculent Christian fundamentalism.

Bob has been a professor of history at Millsaps College for around 35 years. Not a native Southerner, he has adapted well. Though he still manages to stand out in some ways. Not long after the publication of his 2001 book Eve's Seed: Biology, the Sexes, and the Course of History, I attended a day-long conference at Millsaps on the book which featured, among others, Betty Friedan not long before her death.

Frances Lucas, the college president, introduced the conference. She said that one of the duties of her position was to field telephone inquiries when one of Bob's columns appeared in the Jackson newspaper. She had become accustomed to receiving calls from concerned citizens who wanted to know if she was aware that one of her faculty members was writing columns criticizing great men of God such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and the like.

President Lucas has no doubt received a few calls and letters regarding Grand Theft Jesus. But those who can appreciate the sensible analysis and focused humor will find much of which to approve in the book.

Two of my favorite Mississippi-type quotes:

While on the topic of the [Christian] Lites' preference for what Christians call the Old Testament, most of which was written more than five hundred years before Jesus' birth, I should address the seeming paradox of self-identified Christians identifying themselves with the pre-Jesus part of the Bible. I marveled years ago when students would refer to Moses as "an early Christian." I thought they were just uninformed. But it turns out that many of the XL [Christianity Lite] churches actually teach that people in the Old Testament were Christians. The students were not uninformed; they were misinformed.
It is, of course, far too late to nip the vine of religious misogyny in the bud, but if we can at last uproot this pernicious plant, which has overgrown religion much as kudzu does trees in the South, we can revitalize our religions.
One of the distinctive aspects of Grand Theft Jesus is that it uses the sort of world plays and abundant pop culture references that are favored by the more literate fundamentalist minister. And he applies this verbal technique to skewering the hypocrisies of our contemporary American Christianists. Yes, that's a task not unlike the proverbial sport of shooting fish in a barrel. There are no shortage of targets.

But Grand Theft Jesus is not a compendium of village atheist "gotcha" points. Bob has a theological agenda to argue that Christian principles actually oppose the approach that the Christianists take on various hot-button issues. He's making arguments from what is coming to be called the "Christian left". But while the book is peppered with quotes from people identified in some way with that religious trend, notably Barack Obama and Jim Wallis, Bob does not indulge the Republican-friendly game of scolding the Democrats for allegedly being insufficiently respectful of "people of faith". Instead, he takes the stance of a committed Christian focused on preventing the Christian religion from being wrongly identified with the religious and political positions of the Republican Party's Christianists.

The book is organized to take the reader from current in-our-faces manifestations of the power and prejudices of the Christian nationalists into the alternative framework of more conventional and progressive Christian viewpoints. In the 7th chapter, he gives brief sketches of leading Christianists: the recently-departed Jerry Falwell; the also recently-departed James Kennedy; the outspoken anti-gay pastor Ted Haggard whose career was sidelined by his carrying on with a male prostitute; our Dear Leader George W. Bush; radical cleric Pat Robertson; radical psychologists James Dobson; apocalyptic novelist Tim LaHaye; prosperity evangelist Joel Osteen; Southern Baptists ethical leader Richard Land; baby-faced Ralph Reed; snarly-faced Tom "the Hammer" DeLay; radical cleric and McCain supporter Rod Parsley; and, Alabama politician Roy Moore.

My own marketing guess is that the skewering of Christian demagogues is what will most impress reviewers and many readers. But I was particularly impressed with the religious/theological framework from which he is working in this book.

Bob has a Big Concept about Christianity, which he elaborates at length in Eve's Seed. I'll summarize it in the context of Grand Theft Jesus as the argument that the Christian religion has been badly distorted by male dominance, which has manifested itself in both theology and practice. His theory also recognizes a contradictory trend, which is that much of the Christian religion aims at restraining some of the more dysfunctional aspects of characteristics particularly associated with men, such as physical aggressiveness that results in wars. (His Big Concept is much broader than that and involves some major assumptions in historical interpretation, but it isn't the primary aim of Grand Theft Jesus to argue those larger points.)

The Big Concept is very useful in describing what is a central point of Christian fundamentalism and its political manifestations in Republican Christianism, such as its focus on restricting the role and power of women. As he puts it in a paragraph that concludes with one of those preacher-style word plays:

Abortion. Embryonic stem-cell research. Cloning. Birth control. Homosexuality. Women in the clergy. Married priests. The plain fact is that a great many of the major issues—many of which have become political— facing us today involve the interplay of religion and sex. The intersection of religion and politics is, to a substantial degree, actually an intersexion.
He makes an important association of the "born again" concept that is emphasized in evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity in America with the rite-of-passage rituals that symbolically have young men be born a second time in conditions controlled by men, rather than by women who actually do give birth. The psychoanalyst Theodore Reik elaborated on this aspect of the Genesis creation story in Myth and Guilt: The Crime and Punishment of Mankind (1957).

The Genesis story of Eve being created from Adam's rib is an example of a role-reversal in which the man gives birth to a female, instead of what happens in real life. This is surely a major reason that Christian fundamentalists obsess so much about the Genesis story. I would argue that it's not only opposition to the power of women but attitudes toward sex itself - the sinfulness of which the fundis project onto women. But Bob's point about the association of Christianist politics with their desire to restrict women is correct and very important. I would say his determination to refute fundi interpretations of Genesis leads him to dismiss the creation story too easily; if the story isn't read through the Christian lens of Original Sin, Eve's role looks much less negative.

Another theological point he makes is directed against the crass materialism of the "prosperity gospel" as well as the willingness of Christianists to embrace militarism and war. He doesn't mention that it was a favorite text of Latin American liberation theology, but in refuting Christianist warmonger and materialism, he cites Mary's Magnificat from the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke:

He has shown strength with his arm,
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and exalted those of low degree;
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent empty away.
As he rightly point out, the Republicanized gospel of the Christianists on the issues of "wealth and war turns Jesus upside down in order to support thee worldly hierarchy and exalt the mighty".

One of the lines of argument running throughout the book relates to the notion of "once saved, always saved" to which Baptists adhere. The idea is that once a person is "saved" and "becomes a Christian", they will always be saved (entitled to go to Heaven) no matter what sins they later commit. It's kind of a backdoor predestination doctrine. Protestant churches that don't adhere to Calvinist ideas of predestination mostly hold that a person's acts and his relationship to the Church will affect whether one remains "saved" and one's soul bound for heaven.

Bob makes the challenging argument that the Christian Right in practice teaches a doctrine of release from personal responsibility, particularly in regard to protecting those in society who are vulnerable, weak and unjustly treated. He calls this type of argument Christianity Lite and "easy Jesus". But he also emphasizes that even in issues of personal morality, in practice this approach gives it adherents permission to sin, a permission denied those outside the charmed circle of the Christianists.

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