A Semester At Liberty University

Cover of "The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner...

Cover via Amazon

Would you take a semester off from an Ivy League college to attend Jerry Falwell‘s bastion of conservative education and politics? Kevin Roose did and he wrote about it in detail in his book Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University. I wish I could go into detail right now about all the things he gets right about being submerged in the Christian subculture, but I can only say right now is that is it very fair and not at all that different from belonging to an evangelical church. He describes people who are blindingly obtuse and those that are open and loving. As with anyone who subscribes to religious or political ideologies as the whole truth, there are good people and not so good people encamped therein.

Roose’s assessment never hits a false note and his complete openness to the experiment is a credit to his Quaker parents and Episcopalian grandparents. Although they “feared for his life” down there in the bowels of Jerry Falwell’s hell (to hear them tell it), Roose intelligently and compassionately tried his best to experience everything as a new student and newcomer to Christianity. And while he may not have been converted, he came away with a new respect for folks that, while demonized in the press, are not so different as those students he attended Brown with. All of them struggled. There were bigots as well, just as in his circle of friends who wished Falwell dead for his statements about 9/11.  No, liberals can also be as un-compassionate as their evangelical counterparts. Sometimes rabidly so. Neither side holds the final majority on compassion.

I’m glad I read this book. The people he describes can be found in any evangelical church in America. I recognized some of my friends in those students. It also gave me hope that those much younger than me are taking openness more seriously than my generation is; that he’s willing to open up a dialogue with those that others have assumed are strange and probably sprouting horns of some kind.  My generation has sadly become entrenched and committed to warfare. This book is a very easy and pleasant read and one I’d recommend to Christians and atheists alike who keep an open mind. I admire Roose’s effort to get more constructive dialogue going rather than just rehash all the demonizing and tired old arguments that get us nowhere. We need to start with people not dogma.


Dreaming the Chaos

Last night I dreamed I was in a circus. But it was a very bizarre circus. I came into a public place and confronted a man whom I know was an evil man who took people for all their money. He was sitting on the back of a chair counting it in envelopes. I grabbed an envelope and said, “I’ll take that thank you very much” and he looked at me in wonder. Inside the envelope were several wads of bills and $1000 bills. I explained that he could do whatever he liked, but he would regret it if he did and I was keeping this cash. I then called in my circus as back up. There were tiny elephants and people no bigger than knee high. There were wooden soldiers and a whole host of Cirque de Soleil type people that did strange things and acrobatic feats. There was a marching band that came in in very tight formation playing their music, but as they processed, they grew smaller and smaller until they were very tiny on the floor and huddled together as one entity. The whole implication, though, was that they could hurt you and would if I gave my say so. The room was duly subdued. I then switched to a dream where my boss was in a casual setting like a bar with a lot of other people and me. He was friendly and approachable and nothing like he is in real life.  Why we were all there and what we were doing I don’t remember.

Dreams fascinate me because they say so much about what happens in our unconscious. But for Pete’s sake, what does this circus dream imply? My life has been chaotic of late; divorce, health insurance woes (lack of at work), my youngest son left Tuesday for Iraq (he’ll be there a year), my boss, a pastor, is not doing something that seems to me to be a no brainer in the ethics department, the business manager quit because of it, my friend at work had a bad mammogram yesterday and is very worried, and all manner of other things it seems. The circus makes sense in a way, but the bizarre characters don’t. Any thoughts?

A Sermon in Books on Sunday Morning

This weekend, I had every intention of going to church. After a lonnnnnng weekend of 4th of July activities, fried Walleye fish sandwiches and cheese fries (did I say I’ve been off my “heart healthy” diet?), and rearranging the bedroom, I was ready for a leisurely Sunday. Being both Catholic and Baptist (no it’s not redundant or an oxymoron) I intended to go to Mass on Saturday and Baptist worship on Sunday. Well, we got lazy and watched a movie on Saturday instead. Ooops. If I were more scrupulous, I’d write that down for confession next weekend, but I’ve outgrown the scrupulosity I had when I first became Catholic. Still, I felt a small twinge of guilt.

Yesterday my husband and I rearranged our bedroom. It’s a long room and rearranging is not easy. I can’t help very much either since I have a bad back. But I gave it a go and was aching all over by day’s end on Saturday. We also had gotten a new mattress last week (an ordinary Bemco) because I could no longer sleep on the $1500 mistake of a latex foam mattress we bought last year. I would arise every morning since we bought the thing with what felt like severe arthritis. I could barely move around. It was so odd. This mattress was always billed as great for your back. Uh-no!! But this morning, after a day of heavy lifting and an Aleve cocktail, I got up freshly feng shue-d and rested in our rearranged bedroom and new mattress and got ready for church. Sunday school is always first up for Baptists who only have one worship service on Sunday. In this church, Sunday school was at 9:00 a.m. so, off I went with my bible and lesson book. I got there just in time for pre-Sunday school announcements. I chit-chatted with the ladies for a while and then sat through a good 25 minutes of prayer requests, which is really nothing but the women sitting around trading stories about who was sick and who was sicker. I’m all for prayer concerns, but this was silly. It’s akin to gossip and playing catch-up for the week. After that we finally got to the lesson about hospitality or something. The “proof” text was Job 31. The American Baptist curriculum we use is ok, but it’s by no means in-depth bible study. Most of it is lecture in written form. Of recent years the curriculum is spouting “ermergent-ese.” You know what I mean; where every word discussing the “new church model” ends in “al:” missional, intentional, relational, etc. Ugh.

Well, after the bell was rung for church (literally a little bell like those kept on hotel concierge desks), I started to go into the sanctuary with everyone else, but I fell back. I just couldn’t sit through another bland, Baptist worship service where the same hymns were sung and the same sermons preached. I felt a longing for something deeper, something more true; something to connect with that great Undercurrent of Life. It was communion Sunday (the first Sunday of the month) and I couldn’t face that either. Little bits of bread and little cups of grape juice passed around the pews did not in any way signify to me the deepest mysteries of the Eucharist. I felt that to take it would be a betrayal somehow. So, I packed up my gear (purse, book bag, bag of lettuce from Helen’s garden) and left while everyone filed into the sanctuary. I drove home and found my husband cleaning out the garage. There was a light summer breeze blowing through the trees and after dropping my bags on the kitchen chair, I headed out to our patio with a book. I opened up Brother Odd by Dean Koontz. Odd Thomas, the character of this series of Koontz’s, sees dead people. These dead people usually want him to solve their murders. In this novel, Odd is taking a long-needed retreat in a monastery in the mountains of California after having prevented a larger massacre at a shopping mall. His purpose is to retreat from his ordinary duties to the dead and heal his own soul. As I read partway into the chapter, I found this:

The world beyond this mountain retreat was largely barbarian, a condition it had been striving toward for perhaps a century and a half. A once glorious civilization was now only a pretense; a mask allowing barbarians to commit ever greater cruelties in the name of virtues that a truly civilized world would have recognized as evils. Having fled that barbaric disorder I was reluctant to admit that no place was safe, no retreat beyond the reach of anarchy… (page 64-65)

That’s how I feel most of the time right now. I feel that barbarians have been allowed to take charge of the hen-house and our only hope is a “chicken-run.” Many people, I’m sure, feel this way nowadays. Each thinks they are right in feeling this way and want to blame others, but regardless of who is “right” or who should be blamed, I feel as if the world has hurtled toward some barbarism much faster than anticipated and that words no longer mean the same things any longer. We’ve come to a war of ideas and dogmas. It’s the era of Big Brother speak in which the signifiers no longer signify long held beliefs but are being used against the definers of traditions in ways that bring confusion and anarchy. I also feel today, that I had learned far more sitting in my breezeway reading fiction than I could have listening to one sermon in a long line of spiritless sermons.

My retreat lately feels just like Odd Thomas’ retreat. It’s a falling back; a regrouping. It is a choice to choose non-action in a world that does nothing but mindlessly act merely because it feels good to our self-esteem to act. At what point is our character development more important than activism for activism’s sake? I wonder if anyone really knows why they argue endlessly for the beliefs that they do? I wonder what is solid and real and what is mere show and bluster; bread and circuses? I am also beginning to think that I’m an unfortunate product of my time (70s), my education (university) and my lack or conscience formation. I can soak up vast amounts of knowledge and “education” but I cannot honestly come up with a consistent ethic of my own. I have simply bought into the empty rhetoric of poststructuralism where there are no norms and where consistency is lacking. I had given up trying. I fall back on the argument that there is no use trying because there is no foundation on which to base concrete beliefs.

Increasingly, in my self imposed exile from belief, I’ve found that despite what Emerson said about consistency, there is a deep, deep truth to foundational thinking. Emerson did not say that consistency was the problem; foolish consistency was. We are living in an age, I think, of foolish consistency. One of the books that set me permanently on the road to Roman Catholicism is John A. Hardon’s The Catholic Catechism. It is beautifully written and far easier to read than the modern Catechism the church put out in recent years. Hardon writes at the beginning of the book about the age in which we live,

The world in which one lives keeps asking for evidence, it wants to be shown that what the believer believes is not mere illusion but objectively true. This same world protests that all human knowledge is unstable, that what people know today others will know better and more accurately tomorrow. So the man of faith must defend himself against the charge of dogmatism, as though what he believes now has always been true and will remain essentially unchanged in a universe whose only apparent constant is change. It would be tempting to try to respond immediately to both levels of criticism in our day. More effective is to look at ourselves and ask what too many Christians have taken for granted: What do we believe, and why? This will lead us into pastures that few Catholics, who may be severely orthodox, have ever visited. We are discovering that orthodoxy is no guarantee of perseverance and still less of living up to what the faith demands. Self knowledge as believers will deepen our loyalty and help evoke generosity, and in the process the commonplace objections will also be satisfactorily answered. (pages 29-30)

I suppose Hardon is saying that in discovering the reasons for our own belief we will answer the questions of our age. Ours is a time of surface thinking and surface solutions. We want change for change’s sake as if we are going to come up with anything new. There is nothing new under the sun, yet no one born form the 60s onward wants to believe that. Our churches, especially Protestant ones, are not asking us to deeply examine our beliefs. They are only asking us to enforce a prideful dogmatism and certainty about doctrine. They are only asking us to accept change just as the world wants to accept change. There is no substance in it. We are not asked to examine, test, and practice. I’m tired of wasting time on ineffective methods or theories that are merely the pet projects of mega-pastors and gospel shills. I want to get to the kernel, the very heart of ethics, the tried and true, the deep foundations, not just learn to spout what others have said because it sounds pleasant. I feel like I’m close to discovering something…. I’m still striving for I’m not sure what, but I’ll let you know if I get there.


Why I Keep Coming Back to Faith and Religion

Because there’s nothing else more interesting to talk about, that’s why. Politics you say?

Politics is boring and means nothing in the long run. Obama will win the presidency and things will go on as they always have; the rich get richer, the middle class will still exist from paycheck to paycheck, while the poor in this country will starve as millions of dollars go overseas to enhance the coffers of corrupt regimes.But HEY, we can “dialogue” with those corrupt regimes and all will be swell. What’s so new about that? We have no part in this process and to paraphrase Obama, the reason I turn to religion is because there ‘ain’t nothing else to take my ‘flustrations’ out on, ‘ya know?’ Well, I agree. Without my religious studies, I’ve become downright BORING!! Without scriptures to study, I have no interest in studying ANYTHING! At what point do you stop fighting and go with the flow?

But seriously, I don’t think losing one’s religion is all that exciting. In fact, my struggles to define my faith have provided some of the juiciest moments in my life. My struggles with people in church has been the most rewarding. It occurred to me that, while I have been making a show of looking for another job, I have long forgotten why I took my present job to begin with. I was sick of academia, sick of politics inside the university, sick of the state system that sucks you dry and leaves you with nothing. I took the job I am in now because it’s freedom personified. This church taught me that there is freedom to believe, freedom of movement, freedom of thought and leisure time outside of work. Yes, and freedom to believe the way I want to. I don’t have to pretend that I believe the party line. I also realized that I am far from a humble person. My chief sin in life is pride. I take so much pride in myself sometimes that I can’t see what a shitty job I’m actually doing at my workplace. I feed off the office gossip. I revel in talking about people needlessly. Let’s face it, there are always some people that we work with or that we know that make us worse persons not better ones. I am also touchy about being acknowledged for my accomplishments, whatever those may be. I have an inflated sense of self-importance and for some reason, and I’m always thinking that moving elsewhere will take care of all that. Says who? I will just take my shitty attitude with me somewhere else. How long before I start moaning over there?

On another point, I’m not sure who commented here on the blog about the fact that my dreaming about my former pastor is perhaps a step toward nudging me to reconciliation. What keeps us (read: me) from taking those steps? Pride of course. Insistence that I was completely right and she was completely wrong. Insistence that I knew better than she did about church matters. Pride in my importance and in my perceived role in the church. It’s the mistaken notion that I was a valued member when really, I was probably the patsy to bring the axe down. I actually wrote the pastor an email this morning acknowledging my complicity in the church ganging up on her at the Pastoral Relations meeting fiasco that started it all. I could lay the blame at the church’s feet because they did spur me on, but afterwards I felt about 1/2 inch tall. Who was I to be spokesperson and “correct” others? Yet, I spent hours on the phone listening to complaints so that I could exercise that spirit of correction on their behalf. So, why do I feel so shitty about it? I also actually miss her company, even though she had some things to repent of as well. But you know what? I’m not good at reconciliation. I’m only good for breaking off what doesn’t work for me.

So, I think I will refocus, with a new and improved lens, my study of religion and my nurturing of my own spirituality in whatever form that comes in. If it’s in the bible, great. If it’s in the Upanishads, who cares? I’m done fighting the unwinnable fight about dogma and doctrine and truth claims that can never be proven. Dogma’s neither here nor there anyway. It’s all about how we allow grace to flow through our relationships isn’t it? I need to learn to keep the tap of grace flowing through me and not allow it to stop with me. I’m spiritually clogged. If I want to keep the bible as my spiritual Drane-O then who does it hurt? 🙂 Blessings!

Melancholy Baby

I’ve been particularly touchy and pensive lately. Nothing interests me but reading books, watching television, or playing Bookworm. Well, other things have interested me, but that only takes 10 minutes max and even my husband is getting tired of it! 🙂 I’ve finished the latest Stephen King novel. Ho-Hum. The only thing of interest is that I started the first Dresden Files novel by Jim Butcher called Storm Front. Now that’s gotten interesting! I foresee long nights ahead reading his novels. (clapping) Still, I’m feeling pretty underestimated at work and pretty disgusted at our political system and media. So what else is new? Rather than rant on and on about the latest bullshit coming out of election candidates or the latest “I hate America” crap we see constantly, I’ve turned them all off for the time being. And people wonder why we watch TV shows too much. DUH!

As I’ve said before, I work at a large (not huge) church. It’s no mega-church or anything but some prominent (i.e. rich) people go there. So as Administrative Assistant to a few pastors, I get paid a decent wage for what I do. Hell, if you worked for the state (the largest employer here) I wouldn’t be making as much and the atmosphere would be even worse. So why bitch about it? Because I feel dry on the vine, underestimated, and my self esteem is withering away. In academia, it’s pretty much standard that you will be called brilliant every time you submit a question, let alone a paper of some length. It’s pretty heady to work in a field where you can toss around ideas and hob-nob with professors. I miss writing, researching, and presenting papers at conferences. Yet, I couldn’t stand the politics and the lack of balance found there. Despite what people think, academia is pretty narrow in their political beliefs.

Where I work now, I have just as a high if not higher educational degree as anyone here but the head pastor (he has a doctorate) and it pretty much means nothing to anyone. Is it supposed to? Maybe. At least that’s what bill of goods we are sold when we sign on to get one. But I went mainly for the research and reading part of it, not the end product. At any rate, it’s from the pastor that I’m constantly running across problems. He’s a 70s Princeton Theological Seminary graduate whose wife typed all of his papers while in school and whose assistant (me) now does. He’s not good with computers and doesn’t know how to find things on the Internet. Simple stuff for me seems unreachable to him. Yet, he is a perfectionist who has to have EVERYTHING a certain way and after it’s been modified twenty times, there is still always something wrong with it which he has to tell me about even after it’s too late to fix it. Every year, my review is the same. I meet or exceed all expectations and he has no problem with any of my “work.” What’s also true every year is that he never says I’ve done a good job unless I find some tidbit on the Internet that he thinks is “unfindable.” My co-workers have the same attitude. For them, I’m nothing special. They might hate it that they’d have to do my job if I left, but I am not under the delusion that I can’t be replaced. ANYONE can be replaced pretty easily.

I’ve looked for other jobs, but there isn’t much out there right now. I’ve long been out of the academic world and trying to get back in isn’t quite so easy. Soon the contacts dry up and the networking needs reworked, but after a certain time, you’re forgotten. I suppose I’m wondering if perhaps I’ve missed my shot. Sure, I can stay here until I retire. It’s an easy job with an easy-going work environment. All I have to do is mindlessly go through the church cycle year after year for the next 18 years. Sure, I don’t hate my job. Sure, I have some lively conversations at work. But, lately, I’ve just been feeling blah. I don’t write anything interesting anymore and can’t drum up the energy to blog. I have nothing to say that isn’t a rant against something and, I suppose, like all women approaching 50, feel pretty much useless and past my expiration date. So, do I keep looking for another job or stay and count my blessings? Any cure for the doldrums out there?

Anne Hutchinson, Spiritual Foremother

From the trial of Anne Hutchinson (1637). Excerpted from the book The Puritans in America: A Narrative Anthology, pages 154-163):

Mr. Winthrop, governor: Mrs. Hutchinson, you are called here as one of those that have troubled the peace of the commonwealth and the churches here; you are known to be a woman that hath had a great share in the promoting and divulging of those opinions that are causes of this trouble…you have maintained a meeting and an assembly in your house that hath been condemned by the general assembly as a thing not tolerable nor comely in the sight of God nor fitting for your sex, and notwithstanding that was cried down you have continued the same. Therefore we have thought good to send for you to understand how things are, that if you be in an erroneous way we may reduce you that so you may become a profitable member here among us, otherwise if you be obstinate in your course that then the court may take such course that you may trouble us no further. Therefore I would intreat you to express whether you do not hold and assent in practice to those opinions and factions that have been handled in court already, that is to say, whether you do not justify Mr. Wheelwright’s sermon and petition.

Mrs. Hutchinson: I am called here to answer before you but I hear no things laid to my charge.

Gov. I have told you some already and more I can tell you.

Mrs. Hutchinson: Name one Sir.

Gov. Have I not named some already?

Mrs. Hutchinson: What have I said or done?

Gov. Why for your doings, this you did harbor and countenance those that are parties in this faction that you have heard of.

Mrs. H. That’s matter of conscience, Sir.

Gov. Your conscience you must keep or it must be kept for you.


Gov. Let us state the case and then we may know what to do. That which is laid to Mrs. Hutchinson’s charge is this, that she had traduced the magistrates and ministers of this jurisdiction, that she hath said the ministers preached a covenant of works and Mr. Cotton a covenant of grace, and that they were not able ministers of the gospel, and she excuses it that she made it a private conference and with a promise of secrecy, &c. Now this is charged upon her, and they therefore sent for her seeing she made it her table talk, and then she said the fear of man was a snare and therefore she would not be affeared of them.

Mrs. H. This that yourself hath spoken, I desire that they may take their oaths upon.

Gov. That that we should put the reverend elders unto is this, that they would deliver upon oath that which they can remember themselves.

Mr. Shepherd: I know no reason of the oath but the importunity of this gentlewoman.


Here other witnesses, including Mr. Cotton testify to Mrs. Hutchinson’s speech and beliefs spoken in their presence.

Gov. They affirm that Mrs. Hutchinson did say they were not able ministers of the new testament.

Mr. Cotton: I do not remember it.

Mrs. H. If you please to give me leave I shall give you the ground of what I know to be true….I bless the Lord, he hath let me see which was the clear ministry and which the wrong. Since that time I confess I have been more choice and he hath let me to distinguish between the voice of my beloved and the voice of Moses, the voice of John Baptist and the voice of antichrist, for all those voices are spoken of in scripture. Now if you do condemn me for speaking what in my conscience I know to be truth I must commit myself unto the Lord.

Mr. Nowell: How do you know that that was the spirit?

Mrs. H. How did Abraham know that it was God that bid him offer his son, being a breach of the sixth commandment?

Dep. Gov. By an immediate voice.

Mrs. H. So to me by an immediate revelation.

Dep. Gov. How! an immediate revelation.

Mrs. H. By the voice of his own spirit to my soul. I will give you another scripture, Jeremiah 46:17-28–out of which the Lord showed me what he would do for me and the rest of his servants. –But after he was pleased to reveal himself to me I did presently like Abraham run to Hagar. And after that he did let me see the atheism of my own heart, for which I begged of the Lord that it might not remain in my heart, and being thus, he did shew me this (a twelvemonth after) which I told you of before. Ever since that time I have been confident of what he hath revealed unto me…

Dep. Gov. I desire Mr. Cotton to tell us whether you do approve of Mrs. Hutchinson’s revelations as she hath laid them down.

Mr. Cotton: I know not whether I do understand her, but this I say, if she doth expect a deliverance in a way of providence–then I cannot deny it.

In later testimony, Cotton and other ministers concede their unwillingness to support Mrs. Hutchinson against the other ministers whom she did not support.

Anne Hutchinson, daughter of a minister, had come to Massachusetts Bay with her husband to follow the deposed Church of England minister, John Cotton. The Hutchinsons settled into the new community where Anne visited the ill and payed calls on women during childbirth. Like those at the infamous Salem colony, she began holding meetings in her own home in which people discussed their spiritual experiences and their interpretations of scripture and soon “a murmur of discontent began to be heard concerning the spiritual guardians of the community” (“The Examination of Anne Hutchinson). Anne spoke out against the clergy in her community out of a sense that the established clergy had grown spiritually cold and was far removed from the laity. She believed in grace, not works, and let all know it. She claimed to interpret the scriptures for herself, which in that time was akin to being labeled a prophetess. During an era when only a few men claimed that right, heresy was the usual charge. After she was forced to admit in court that God had revealed himself to her by “an immediate voice,” the court declared her delusional and heretical. Even Cotton, the minister she supported and followed from Boston, refused to come to her defense at the crucial moment. She was expelled from her community and sent to Rhode Island where she was eventually killed by Indians during the Dutch-Indian war.

I find it fascinating that in America, where many religious people fled to begin new communities which promoted spiritual freedom, that that right was still not afforded to women. Not only were they enjoined to learn through their husbands alone, but they were doubly condemned to never interpret the scriptures for themselves. God would never deign to speak to a woman it was believed (the Quakers were the one group that always allowed women rights in their community from their beginning). I cannot believe that after nearly 370 years, nothing much has changed for women in fundamentalist churches. Thank God for Anne Hutchinson and other progressive Christians who actually listen to Spirit when it moves and aren’t afraid to say so.