Tuesday, February 24, 2009

To Search for Truth, it's Best to be a Bit Agnostic

Recently, I have been reading Why I Became an Atheist by John Loftus. It's not a bad look at the topic, and, if you have never explored the arguments for atheism, it might be a good place to start. Be forewarned, however, that Loftus mostly aims his battles against Christianity as opposed to religion in general. This makes perfect sense, since Loftus was once an evangelical preacher with a ThM, earned under Wm. Lane Craig, at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Most of his arguments are pretty conventional ones, dealing with such issues as the reliability of miracle stories, the resurrection of Christ, the virgin birth, etc. As might be expected, he gives considerable space to the issue of theodicy-- as does Erhman in his God's Problem. All in all, the book is pretty conventional, but a good read.

His more original contribution is found in Chapter 4, "The Outsider Test of Faith." Here he makes a very good point, not often "caught" by many. It is simply this: If you are seeking truth in a religion (or better yet, if you are seeking the truth of religion) you need to do so as an "outsider." As Loftus points out, most of us embrace our particular faith by accident of birth. If one were born in Egypt, s/he would likely be a Sunni Muslim. Iran? A Shi'a. Thailand? Likely a Buddhist? The US? Probably a Christian.

All of this is significant because our religio/socio/cultural presuppositions will likely color any investigation we make of religion. In short, we will automatically be biased toward the mode of religion in which we were reared. It is hard to see outside of that "frame of reference."

Loftus points out that the only safe default position from which to investigate the truth claims of any religion is not that of another religion. It is not that of atheism. It is that of agnosticism. I agree. What he doesn't tell us, however, is whether anyone can actually so divest themselves of bias that they can achieve honest agnosticism. I am compelled to say that it takes much work and is only achieved by degrees.

Loftus thinks that anyone who goes down the road of the "outsiders test" will certainly end up an atheist. Although Loftus and I do share some concerns, we end up different places. You may read the first three chapters of my book to get a hint of the approach I take at The Recovering Fundmentalist.

If you have never explored the more traditional arguements for atheism, Loftus might offer a good starting point. However, just now atheism is a "hot topic," and there are many recent works from which to choose.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Problem with Fundamentalists and Israel

There is a problem with fundamentalists when it comes to Israel. On the surface, they seem to support all that Israel does without equivocation. The sad part is that it's really all part of the "Israel game." It is the whole "end-times fantasy" that ends with Israel being the focus of all the attentions of the earth (which it certainly is garnering a bunch now), and the "Antichrist" invading Israel. But, even though fundamentalists seem very "pro-Israel," in reality they are quite anti-Semitic. In their scheme all Jews end up as Christians or dead. Point is, in the end, all of the Jews are gone.

It's too bad their interest in Israel is so phony, because Israel really needs some friends just now. Paul Haven of the AP recently wrote of a poll taken in seven European nations. The results were sad. Nearly a third of Europeans think Jews are largely responsible for current financial meltdown. 74% of folk in Spain believed that Jews held too much power over global financial structures. In total, about 40% of those polled felt Jews had too much power in the business world. 44% believed Jews played the "holocaust card" far too much.

On a different note, there is wide anger over Israel's incursion into Gaza. Some Gaza protesters in Europe have began to apply Nazi imagery to ISRAEL. They have equated Israeli troops to German troops and Gaza to Auschwitz. The Star of David has been compared to the Nazi swastika.

Anti-Semitism is old and hard to understand. It is a philosophy of hate. To be completely fair, Israel's actions seem far less than just. And then there are the fundies-- fake friends. Just when Israel could use some real friends to tell her the truth about her own injustice and acts that can appear genocidal to some, the fundamentalists slap Israel on the back and lick their lips in anticipation of the end. Just when Jews need some real defense against growing anti-Semitism, fundamentalists play the "Israel game," not really giving a hoot about Israel but just wanting to hurry Armageddon along. What a mess!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Government, Faith-based Initiatives, and the Obama Administration

One thing is clear, Obama is NOT planning to get rid of the government's associations with faith-based initiatives. That's a good thing. Such initiatives have much to offer. But, THANK GOD, unlike the Bush administration, the Obama seems to be reticent to provide government funded evangelization. The director of the Office of Faith Based Initiatives under Obama is a former Pentecostal preacher. According to an article by AP's Eric Gorski, where much of the info for this post comes from, the administration wants to find ways to work with the faith community without blurring the line between church and state.

One stated goal of this administration as opposed to former Democratic administrations is to abortion reduction. As someone opposed to abortion and wishing to see much less abortions in our country, I find this much more realistic than the absolutist's attempts to outright ban abortion. As a member of the Office's Advisory Council frames it (former Southern Baptist Convention President, Frank Page), he will still still work to overturn Roe v. Wade. However, Page realized he "has to be a realist." He recognizes the reality is that abortions are legal and he "certainly desire[s] to see a reduction." This a policy that I think many can work with-- a place to start.

Activist Fred Davie, a representative of the gay community with a Yale divinity degree also sits on the Council. Noting that, in some respects, Obama is expanding the faith-based office, Davie noted the reality that many on the left "are realistic enough to know religion is... integral to American life." He feels that many on the left have come to see that religious institution have much help to offer to a needy country.

All-in-all, James Dunn, former head of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, an organization advocating church- state separation, believes that Obama is trying to find the "elusive" middle ground. As Joshua DuBois, the Pentecostal preacher leading Obama's faith based office put it, "We understand it is a fine line. But it's a line were comfortable walking." As an observer of the religious "nuttiness" of the former administration, I certainly hope that president Obama can indeed walk that line. It is about time that someone walked it and walked it well.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

How I Became a Fundamentalist and How I Quit Being One

The following is the introduction to my book.  Be sure and see the links at the conclusion of this post to read more chapters.   JCA
(By the way, I invite and encourage comments related to your analysis and opinion of this story.)


I was once a Christian absolutist. Sometimes, on lonely and hard days, I still feel the pull of certainty. You may wonder what I mean by the term “Christian absolutist.” Some might use the term “fundamentalist.” I do not really like that term because it carries with it quite a bit of baggage. Words evoke meanings and thoughts. I think Americans have many feelings, some of them pent-up anger, when they hear the word fundamentalist. Those so identified as fundamentalists in the Christian world once wore this label with a kind of militant pride at times.

Actually, the word has been through several incarnations in American history. It is of fairly recent usage. In the sense used here, it derives from a twelve-volume work commissioned in 1909 to combat the emergent voices of theological modernism. Its composers included a wide range of writers, including some that came from denominations now recognized as being rather liberal. The work, The Fundamentals, was a battle cry, a throwing down of the gauntlet in the face of higher criticism and modern scholarship. Still, in many circles, the work went largely unnoticed.

The name “fundamentalist” grew to be associated with many churches of the early twentieth century. Many were of the holiness tradition. It would be safe to say that few of these early fundamentalists had much direct knowledge of the original literature that lent its name to the movement.

Fundamentalism came to national attention largely through the Scopes Monkey Trial, which took place on July 10-25, 1925, in Dayton, Tennessee. The trial dealt with the teaching of evolution in Tennessee schools, which was illegal at the time. John Scopes, a substitute teacher was charged with violating the Butler Act. The prosecutor, William Jennings Bryan was a nationally known politician, local hero, and prominent fundamentalist. The trial made national headlines, but largely through Bryan’s own testimony (he ended up in the witness chair himself), the nation arrived at a view of fundamentalists as ignorant, intolerant, and fanatical. Fundamentalists more or less went into seclusion, avoiding contamination from the world as much as possible.

Several decades passed, and then rehabilitation of the title came through the emerging involvement of fundamentalists in politics, beginning in earnest in the 1970’s. To them, the world was “going to hell in a hand basket” and the time was ripe to begin the push to put “godly men” in positions of power. The term became a badge of honor for some, a source of irritation to many, part of an electoral strategy for more than a few, and the sound of political careers ending for yet others. Then came September 11, 2001, and the name acquired yet a different connotation.

Now, when some hear it, they think of planes flying into the World Trade Center on that fateful September day. Many folks associate the word fundamentalist with that event and pair it with the word “Islamic.” They see fundamentalism as something dealing with “them” and not “us.”
Of course, if one really thinks about it, s/he will soon recognize this is a misnomer. We face an equally extreme Christian or quasi-Christian variety of fundamentalism every bit a crazy as the Islamic variety. All we must do to see the truth of this statement is to activate recent memory. Remember the Branch Davidians? Recall the shootings and attempted shootings and bombings of abortion clinics and doctors? Remember the protests against gays carried out at the funerals of dead soldiers? The problem with many Americans is they will readily see the danger of the other person’s absolutism, but are slow to recognize the danger of their own. It is easy to say, “But my absolutism is based in the real truth. It is different from the garden variety of narrow-minded absolutism.” Fundamentalism carries with it the connotation of violence and hate-mongering. No one wants to own up to that. In addition, to be perfectly honest, I am not at all certain it applies to most varieties of American fundamentalism. As William James so long ago pointed out, there are many varieties of religious experience (James 2007). Likewise, there are many shades and varieties of Christian fundamentalism. I am leery of using the word fundamentalism as one point on the spectrum of Christian literalism to describe the common variety of absolute truth claims we encounter day-to day among our friends and neighbors.

There is a side to fundamentalism I prefer to call “absolutism.” Many of the comments referred to in this book refer to fundamentalism. That is because, in the minds of most researchers, the absolutist belief side of fundamentalism is inseparable from the more violence-approving, militant side of the movement. That is why I prefer the word absolutist. However, faithfulness to the language of many of the sources used will necessitate using the terms interchangeably at times. However, in general this text deals with the absolutist side of the fundamentalist milieu.
So… what do I mean by absolutism? By the term absolutism, I refer to the belief that certain individuals possess absolute, undeniable, indisputable truth. That truth is a court from which there is no appeal. It knows with complete certainty. Of course, technically speaking, absolutism is definitely part of the larger phenomenon of fundamentalism. In fact, it arguably forms the basis for the more brazen acts of fundamentalism. This conclusion appears inescapable. For that reason, it has been necessary in researching this book to make rather heavy use of literature dealing with fundamentalism.

That being said, I return to my earlier statement. I was a Christian absolutist. As a child, my parents made little provision for my religious training. I tended to be a rather unhappy child. I was overweight, not very sharp academically, and had many irritating mannerisms. I did not discover until I was nearly twenty-three that I suffered from Tourette’s Syndrome (I am fifty-one at this writing). My diagnosis was as if a miracle somehow occurred in my life. Medication all but cured me—at least if you do not count the rather annoying and frightening side effects.
However, as a kid, no one knew anything about Tourette’s Syndrome. I was just the fat kid who was always jerking his body and making all the weird noises. Being the poorest child in my class did not help much either. My parents tried; they really did. Life seemed to have kicked them—especially Dad—in the teeth, and we just could not seem to make any headway. Mom stayed home, and Dad seemed to go from dead-end job to dead-end job, until his physical disabilities ended his working career when I was around twelve years old. Then our economic lot in life, already dismal, deteriorated significantly.

A woman in our neighborhood ran a children’s Bible Club associated with Child Evangelism Fellowship. Going to Bible Club was the high point of my week. We heard Bible stories, sang songs, played games, and did crafts. However, there was a darker side to the Bible Club as well. It was a part that terrified me and gave me bad dreams at night—at least after I finally swallowed my fear enough to get to sleep. Each week I endured the evangelistic appeal with all of the hellfire and brimstone the Bible Club Lady could muster, and she could muster plenty!
As time went on, I found myself more and more in need of the friendship and acceptance the Bible Club and the Bible Club Lady offered and, yet, I grew more and more terrified of this God of rage. The message was simple enough, though I think, even as a child, it did not make much sense to me. God loved me. I had sinned. I had made God very angry. Because of my sin and God’s anger, I was going to hell to burn forever.
But wait! God still loved me! Yet, God had made up these rules, and the rules said I had to pay in eternal hell for every little wrong of which I was guilty. What could God do? Those were the rules. God thought about it and decided God’s son, Jesus, would take care of things. Jesus would come to earth, never sin, and die and suffer hell for me. He would take the rap. I would get off the hook if I would just agree to the whole deal and ask Jesus for his help. I knew this was true because the Bible Club Lady said she could show me the verses in the Bible, and God never lied.

As I stated, the story sounded convoluted, even to my little nine-year-old mind, but I was so scared of going to hell, I “worked at it” until it began to make sense. Later, my thoughts about the system I knew as a child were to change as the message became increasingly untenable and the old doubts returned. (I have written about my views of the atonement in an article entitled, “The Nonviolent Atonement and the Centrality of the Cross.” See Alexander 2005, 57-66.) Nevertheless, as a child, all I could see was a way out of eternal hell. When the Bible Club Lady made her altar call one day, I went up to “get saved.” “Just believe,” was all she said.
Then the Bible Club Lady took me to her church. I grew up in the poor part of Kansas City; this church was definitely in the high rent district. What a change in communities! This was a Regular Baptist Church. In those days, they readily and proudly identified themselves as fundamentalists. They lived up to it. They especially emphasized eternal damnation and the absolute inerrancy of the Bible. From Genesis to Revelation, it was all true.

When I hit my teen years, I found these people to be quite square and out-of-touch. The hippy movement was just making the scene in Kansas City. It appealed to me. At around age thirteen, I began to experiment with marijuana and LSD. I quit the entire church scene. Anyway, if they happened to be right, I was saved after all. I heard repeatedly that, once I had it, I could never lose it. It seemed as if I would be a winner either way. I began quitting school. In 9th grade, I only attended forty-seven days. At age fifteen, I had a terrible argument with my father and moved out of the house. I began to live by staying with friends and panhandling.

I have discovered absolutism dies a difficult death. Almost as soon as I met the hippies, I met the ex-hippy Jesus Freaks. Something began to call me back. They were every bit as absolutist as the Baptist Church, but they were more free-spirited and countercultural. Over the years, I began to sense I had found my way back home; yet, I did not have to go back to the old square ways I had rejected. They were lighter on the hell business and heavier on the “Jesus loves you” business. This led to my “second” conversion. I moved into the Christian commune right after I turned sixteen.

Now my days consisted of street witnessing and Bible reading. As our leaders explained the Bible to me, I found fewer objections. By pure power of choice, I became an absolutist. The Bible was right from cover to cover, and I was sure I had an inside track to understanding it.
The Jesus Freaks did help. They got me back in school (for which I am eternally grateful). They helped me grow up, saw to it I got a job, and sent me off to do the Lord’s work with their blessing.

I ended up in college of all places! Little did I know that, before all was said and done, I would earn graduate degrees in theology and reading education and, eventually, a Ph.D. and become a college professor! Yes, I owe them more than I can ever repay.
As time went on, I became more earnest in my absolutism. I met Irene, fellow absolutist—albeit a much gentler one—at the college. We were both elementary education majors. We married in 1977 and remain happily married today, thirty years later. After our marriage came teaching jobs, and babies, our first house, and leaving the Jesus Freaks. Why did we leave? Irene was not much for it. After all, we heard repeatedly we had it all right. Nevertheless, for some reason, from my early teens on, I always had a strong attraction to pacifism. By this time, the Jesus Freak church was strongly entrenched in the Moral Majority. Irene might not otherwise have left, except the Jesus Freak elders reminded her weekly to be obedient to her husband.

It is a long story, but in 1980, we ended up in a Mennonite church. Irene loved it. The heavy yoke of male authority was now gone. We began to grow in new ways. We discovered here questions are allowed and even encouraged. The first question I asked myself was about the story from Bible Club days that always troubled me. I began to wonder about the whole hellfire deal. Of all the parts of the story the Bible Club Lady told, this was the most troubling. There had to be another way of looking at things. I mused long and hard over it, beginning in earnest when I was in my first pastorate (See Alexander 1987, 25-32). I finally came to terms with it all some years later (See Alexander 2003, and 2005, 57-66). Little-by-little I began viewing the entire notion of eternal perdition in a completely new way.

One day I was discussing the Bible with our assistant pastor. He said, “You know, I just can’t believe every word of it is true.” I thought about that one for a minute.

“Neither do I,” I replied.

I half-expected lightning might come out of the sky and strike me. Strangely, though it had always given me a sense of stability, I realized at that moment that I was not an absolutist. I felt light, as if I were soaring to new heights of freedom. Somehow, though, I also felt uprooted. It seemed as if I were back in elementary school. I had betrayed a sacred trust. Again, I was alone and scared.

NOTE: The term “Jesus Freak” as used throughout this book, refers to a Christian movement that attracted mostly young people from what is often termed the “hippie counterculture.” The dates of this movement are approximately 1969-1975. Many of the Jesus Freak fellowships went on to become “regular churches” in the mid to late seventies. At least one group associated with the Jesus Freaks, Calvary Chapel, has become something resembling a small denomination. Jesus Freak is not used here as a pejorative term. It was in common usage during the time period indicated. Further, adherents of the movement often used the term in self-descriptive ways. To the extent that many of my years among the Jesus Freaks were happy and helpful years, I find it an endearing term. The other alternative, “Jesus Movement,” refers to a wide variety of historic movements and, therefore, lacks the specific descriptive character of the term Jesus Freak.


To read the story of my abandonment of fundamentalism and why I find it intellectually and morally bankrupt, visit my book web site: http://www.therecoveringfundamentalist.com/ and read other sample chapters from my book.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Fundamentalism and End of Life Decisions

I mentioned a few posts back about my foray into the highly convoluted world of Christian radio. I listened for several hours on the day previously discussed but eventually had to stop. I was just getting too angry by the whole conversation being played-out on the radio waves. It seemed impossible that anybody could really believe all of the c_ _ p that was going down that day.

Like I said previously, the main topic was why we SHOULD NOT have any type of national health care, as that was a socialist plot. But, intermixed with all of that were many comments concerning "end of life" decisions. The short story seemed to be that the fundies are opposed to ANY discontinuation of life-prolongation measures NO MATTER WHAT THE CASE. I found this especially odd, since such measures are typically quite expensive, and the fundie world opposes any type of national health insurance. Seemed to make more sense for them to agitate for womb-to-tomb care and demand that it include all extraordinary measure to prolong life that are currently possible.

Mostly though, I wondered about the basic idea that life support measures should NEVER be withdrawn. I tried to go at it from several angles. What if I was the recipient of said measures, or my sons, or my wife, or grandchildren? A sticky question, I must admit. Still, I don't think I can be as absolute as our fundamentalist friends are. There comes a point where, to the best of our knowledge, one is keeping a corpse alive.

The problem is twofold. First, our technology has out-distanced our wisdom. We can do things without really knowing exactly what we are doing. Second, our technology has out-distanced our ethical knowledge. Fundamentalists are so confused, I really don't think we can adopt their ethics. Society's ethical capacity simply falls short here. Such decisions didn't even face us 50 years ago.

In short, fundamentalists are too judgmental, know-it-ll, and self-righteous to be of much use in this debate. Until they begin to think rationally, they aren't going to be much help to the rest of us.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Christian Fundamentalism: When Spanking Becomes Abuse

In his article, Conservative Protestantism and the Corporal Punishment of Children, in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (JSSR), Ellison (2001) takes up the issue of Conservative Protestants and spanking. One point that he reiterates almost ad nauseam is that such conservative religious adherents are far more likely than the general public to support corporal punishment of children. A second theme repeatedly revisited is that it is not necessarily reasonable to call such behavior abusive. I must state from the start that this is not a dispassionate topic with me. I am an education professor and also a seminary graduate, a trained chaplain, and a minister. Further, my background traces its path though the Jesus Movement, which attracted many “refugees” from the “hippie days” of the late 60’s and early 70’s.

As a Jesus Freak, I was firmly fixed in the fundamentalist milieu from which the Jesus Movement grew. When I married my Jesus Freak sweetheart in the mid 70’s, we began working on a family. When children came, we followed the teachings of the fundamentalist Christian “gurus” and were quite strict with our children. I saw much of the same in our church associations—all young adults with kids, all towing the line in regards to child discipline. I have no doubt that what I saw and was rapidly accepting bordered on abuse—which was one of the reasons I repudiated fundamentalism when my sons were quite small.

My concern, simply put, is with children whose parents might be considering placing them in daycare at a fundamentalist church or school, or folks who read the books of conservative Christian “pro-family psychologists” offering advice on childrearing. I hope to show that fundamentalism naturally places children at danger and naturally tends to abusiveness. In due course, I shall take up the issue of whether “spanking” encouraged by fundamentalist Christian leaders amounts or leads to abuse and whether, therefore, it is wise for a parent to turn to such teachers for instruction in childrearing or entrust the care of their children to fundamentalist childcare and educational institutions.

First, however, it might be instructive to consider precisely why parents under the spell of fundamentalist tutors might adopt a program of corporal punishment. There are four predominant reasons indicated in the literature. First, there is the issue of biblical inerrancy. Fundamentalists believe and teach that the Bible is completely without error on any topic upon which it speaks. It is the “court of no appeals.” Second, fundamentalist writers, teachers, and preachers are well armed with many biblical proof texts demonstrating that “sparing the rod” is not the best approach. Thirdly, fundamentalists expound an extreme authoritarian, male dominated, and hierarchical view of family life. Lastly, the fundamentalist view of humanity is such that humans are viewed as sinful and hell-bound by nature. This rebellion must be addressed. The best way to save one’s child from hell is by “beating the hell out of him or her.”

In Grevens’ Spare the Rod: The Religious Roots of Punishment and the Psychological Impact of Physical Abuse (1991) the notion of using physical abuse to “break the child’s will” is explored. It is the parental responsibility to break the will so that the child will conform to the parent’s wishes, thereby learning obedience to God. How much force must be applied? Most fundamentalist commentators state that the parent must remain fairly emotionless and turn a deft ear to the protests of the child. The child must be struck repeatedly until s/he begins crying profusely, for that is the sign of a broken will—the objective of striking the child in the first place.

Grevens demonstrates through much anecdotal evidence that the whole notion is fraught with difficulties. Although there are several guidelines concerning the need to strike the child with an object and not the hand and to have a “cooling down period” before administering the punishment and, most importantly, to express in some physical way how much the child is loved after s/he has been beaten, it tends to backfire. Citing examples of well-known Christians reflecting on their childhood, a picture emerges of children waiting during the “cooling off” period, making deals with God, and pleading with God that they would not be beaten again. As for the love part, Ruth Wilkerson Harris (sister of evangelist David Wilkerson) in her book, It was Good Enough for the Father: The Story of the Wilkerson Family (1969), recounts how the Wilkerson childern, had to face the “humbling” of embracing their father after a beating and saying, “I love you Daddy. Forgive me for disobeying.”

Capps, in Religion and Child Abuse: Perfect Together (JSSR, 1992), points out that this mixture of anger, pain, beating, and love is very confusing to children. They likely come to view the ritual as a pain filled affair necessary to gain the parent’s love. They must surely long for a love that might, someday, be unconditional, with no beatings attached. They plead for God to deliver them. God doesn’t. As much anecdotal evidence indicates, as adults, such children do not thank God that they had a parent willing to inflict physical punishment on them and many grow up with a very confused image of God. They have been taught that God is all-powerful, yet God did not rescue them when they pleaded with God for mercy.

An interesting view of all of this emerges from BIOLA University’s Rosemead School of Psychology. The study in question is reported in BIOLA’s Journal of Psychology and Theology. It is important to remember that we have not at this point answered the question of whether spanking is abusive in any substantive sense. The BIOLA article, Religiosity and the Risk of Perpetrating Child Physical Abuse: An Empirical Investigation (2005), authored by Dyslyn and Thomsen agrees that Conservative Protestants (the denominational listing in the article lists denominations usually considered evangelical/fundamentalist) are more likely to engage in corporal punishment. However, the authors do not see spanking as abusive. Their study, while finding Conservative Protestants to have the highest score on a test of likely abusive behavior, states that the differences between the Conservatives, Mainline Protestants, Catholics, and unaffiliated are not statistically significant.

One might argue that there is some practical significance in Conservatives obtaining the highest score, but that would be shaky ground. Methodologically, there are problems in that the test used is attitudinal and was given mainly to college students without children. Also, the college environment from which the sample was taken is not described, so it is hard to generalize. In addition, the study flies in the face of considerable anecdotal evidence. Most importantly, BIOLA stands for the Bible Institute of Los Angeles. One might suspect some researcher bias.

So, we come full circle. Everyone seems to agree that fundamentalists, or those leaning that direction, are more likely than most to resort to corporal punishment. Further, the lion’s share of child developmentalists see spanking as a harmful thing—associated with undesirable child, adolescent, and adult outcomes (Ellison, 2001). The question then is, When is the line crossed? Is all spanking abusive? When I was part of the fundamentalist world, what I knew about and saw were some pretty stout spankings administered to children as young as six months old. I saw lots of spankings with paddles. [Remember, you were encouraged to use a “neutral(?)” object. The hands were used to give love. The notion was that the child would not associate the object with the parent.]

In answering the question about spanking, and abuse, I turn now to a fascinating study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The study, reported on the Medpage Today website (Heavy Spanking Predicts Overt Child Abuse, 2008), revealed the following results:

1. Parents who spanked were 2.7 times more likely to engage in overt abusive behavior than non-spankers.

2. Parents that spanked with a belt or paddle or another object as opposed to their hands had triple the odds of becoming abusers (remember the “neutral” object theory?).

3. For each additional spanking per year, there was a 3% increase in the likelihood of yet stronger punishments being used in the home. (When I was in the fundamentalist church, it was not unusual for children to receive two or three spankings a day.)

4. The report stated, “This is the first study to demonstrate that parents who report spanking children with an object and who frequently spank children are much more likely to report harsh punishment acts consistent with physical abuse.

All of these conclusions seem to have implications for children placed in a fundamentalist Christian environment.

Associated Content, in a May 2007 posting, The Effects of the “No Spanking Law” on Child Abuse in Sweden, discusses a law passed in Sweden in the 1970’s that made spanking a civil offense. Before the law, the family violence child death rate in 1970 was 18%. In recent years it has been 0%. By 1981, only 26% of Swedish parents supported spanking. Now it is less than 11%. In 1996, there were 57 reported cases of child abuse per 100,000 people. At the same time in the US that figure stood at 4,500/100,000. Clearly, spanking and child abuse are connected. It also seems clear that in their propensity to support corporal punishment, fundamentalism and fundamentalist environments could likely put children at risk for abuse. It is something concerned parents would do well to bear in mind. They must ask: Is it a risk I am willing to take?

Monday, February 9, 2009

Christian Fundamentalists & Paranoia

Fundamentalists are paranoid-- at least after a fashion. I don't know how anyone can deny that. They are conspiracy-minded and believe the world is plotting to "get them" in one way or another. Consider just a few examples:

I have heard fundamentalists rail for hours on how sex education in public schools is really just a ploy to get kids sexually active. Yet, research seems to indicate that sex eduction delays the age of sexual intercourse, reduces the incidence of unprotected sex, and reduces the number of teen pregnancies. In our age of rampant STD's. how foolish not to inform children of the facts. Still, fundamentalists fear that information will undeniably lead to action. In 2009? Who isn't informed? But, the question is, Do we want the information to be correct? Yet, our fundie friends believe it all a malevolent plot.

Take the case of health care. Fundamentalists (as mentioned in an earlier post) see universal health care as a socialist plot to bring in mandated euthanasia. Although many fundamentalists are relatively poor (certainly not all), the fundie leadership has managed to maneuver them into a position of fighting against their own self interest. Dobson, Robertson, etc. know all of the buttons to push. Who suffers? The needy ones they have blinded to reality.

Or... Israel. There is no doubt that Israel has overstepped the bounds of propriety in terms of any sort of just war criteria. These have long guided Christians (even those of us who reject them). Let me review them here:

A decision to go to war needs to be addressed from the vantage point of the eight dimensions Augustine calls us to investigate: Is there just cause? Is the intention right (upright)? Is this the last resort in dealing with evil? Is there no other way? Is the action taken personal, or is it declared by a competent (please note the word) authority? In view of the cost of suffering and death on all sides, is there a real probability of success? Are the goals proportional? In other words, is the goal pursued really worth the cost involved? Are the means proportional? Is massive destruction, the possible escalation to a nuclear exchange, acceptable now or ever? Does the action discriminate between combatants and noncombatants, or perhaps even between the innocent and the evil? Is someone from the enemy camp automatically evil? Is it that simple?

I think it is patently obvious that Israel's past, recent, and likely continuing actions violate much of this. Still, the faithful are told that any step towards peace is opposing God's end-times plan. So, they are suspect of any talk of peace.

In short, fundamentalism is conspiracy-minded and pathologically paranoid. It cannot be reformed. The only really hope is abandonment of the fundamentalist position.

To read the story of my abandonment of fundamentalism and why I find it intellectually and morally bankrupt, visit my book web site: http://www.therecoveringfundamentalist.com/ and read a sample chapter of my book.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Christian Talk Radio and Health care

The other day, I did something I haven't done in a long, long time:  I listened to a "Christian" radio station.  I found it pretty amazing.  Most of the talk shows and commentaries were aimed at shoring-up the faithful to "hold-on" through the difficult years to come (the Obama Presidency). Never mind the eight years of hell the nation has endured under the Bush regime.   Never mind the tens of thousands of American lives lost and the hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi lives lost dues to W's policies.  Was any of that mentioned?  What about the economic "gift" George left our nation to "enjoy?"  Was that a topic for discussion?  No.  None of that was the topic the day I was listening in.  Nope.  The topic was health care.

The fear was that Obama might actually be able to arrange something resembling universal coverage for all Americans.  The foolishness of it all was overwhelming.

First, the notion that there are tens of millions of uninsured Americans was thoroughly pooh-poohed.  A flat out lie of liberals.  Next, the "Christian" commentators went on-and-on about how this was all a liberal plot to bring in enforced euthanasia.  Really, the bleeding-heart liberals are wolves in sheep's clothes who want to use universal health care to give us a "culture of death."

Odd.  It seems to me that folks so concerned about LIFE would only welcome health care for all. It seems to me that they would work toward that end and become eager participants in the discussion.  Seems to me they would want to help the process move forward.

Fundamentalists seem to me to be among the most confused folks on earth.  They talk about salvation, love, and God non-stop.  What they never seem to really "grab," however, is how mixed-up their rhetoric really is.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Remembering Mom

I know that I have a few faithful readers of this blog.  You may all be wondering where I have been since about January 25.  I've been in Kansas City.  My mom got to the point that she could no longer live alone.  I moved her into a care facility and decided to stay a few days before returning to Kentucky.  However, she very soon became quite ill and passed away on January 31. The Hospice chaplain conducted her funeral service.  I wrote the sermon, which he read.  So, if you will indulge me, in honor of my mom, I offer that sermon.  Please take a few moments to read it.  Blessings!


Some Thoughts About Gracie

“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you I go to prepare a place for you?”

I have spent considerable time over the last couple of weeks reflecting on my mom. It’s strange how things you know full-well can so easily escape your attention as you go about day-by-day living. One thing that was very real to me over the last week of my mom’s life was how I tenderly touched her hands, her face, and her hair. It struck me that Mom was almost 88. She was very thin and had grown quite small- almost like a child. I had told Mom a million times that I loved her over the years, but rarely had we touched much. But, that final week, it was as if all reasons not to display love for Mom were suddenly gone. It’s amazing what touching someone you love can do to you.

One day, in the hospital, she reached up her arm.  She could no longer talk, and I didn’t know what she wanted.  I bent over her bed to try to get some notion of what she desired.  She touched me, looked at me in great earnest, and ran her hand over my beard and my hair.  She wanted to touch me.  She wanted me to know that which only touching can tell.  At first, I found it odd.  I said, “Mom, it’s all white now, no more blond left.  You know, I’m getting old.” 

I have reflected on what my Mom meant by that touch.  I wondered if she meant I needed to do more for her, or less, or what she was trying to say.  In the end, though, I think Katy had the right idea.  She was saying- “I appreciate you.  I know you are doing your best.  I know you wish me well.”  A touch can be healing.  Sometimes a touch can say more than words ever can. I am left wondering about all of us. Do we reach and touch enough?  Are we scared of each other?  Are we afraid a touch might show our vulnerability?  My mom’s touch made me cry-- right then and there.  Are we afraid of tears?  

As I touched my mom, the image in my mind was that of a rose. Somehow, in Mom’s case, the vines seemed too fragile for this world.  It seems that she was a rose most delicate.  All of her adult life- or at least all that all I know of- she was a rose vine exposed to the harshest elements.  Petals wilting, tendrils twisted by the winds of fate.  Often, her life was hard, and that does hurt, still.  But even then, I recall my rose had good moments.  After Dad died, she flew to see my sister and me in Colorado, California, and Kentucky.  My mom discovered she loved to fly.  She loved to visit with my sister and her family.  Once, when I was living in Arkansas, it turned out that I was living in Harrison, the town where she and Dad had gotten married.  So, she came back to the place of her marriage again. She marveled at the beauty of California, Colorado, and Northern Arkansas.  She had many years of good travel, good friends in her apartment building, and enjoying her grandchildren.  It seems that even a rose in the harsh desert still blooms.

As I touched her face, held her hands, and stroked her hair over the past week, I knew that her petals were always velvet soft-- even as they fell to the ground.  I realized they always were velvety softness for all who took the time to touch and discover.  A sweet fragrance in the midst of the ordinary.  I began to call her “my rose” while she was in the hospital.  I realized that she was beautiful, and precious, and beyond price. I always liked Mom.  Still, I had never known her beauty, or softness, or precious fragrance.  They were always there, but my eyes didn’t really see these things.

I have wondered, the past week or so, if we realize the beauty that lies in the heart of each other.  Do we stop and notice the fragrance?  Do we see the softness?  Do we see the brokenness and in that very brokenness see the hidden beauty?

One afternoon at Timberlake, Mom commented to dear Katy Raymond that I have wonderful friends.  True enough; she has always told me that.  Sometimes she used to list them- Kevin, Kate, Dor, Doug, Bruce, Annie- she knew many, some I hadn’t thought of in years. I will never forget that day some 30 years after my wedding.  Irene and I were leaving Kansas City to go back to Kentucky when Mom said, “Jim, you have a good wife,” and she held my hand a little longer and looked at me with intensity. She did love Irene; for Irene and I are so much in love.  She could identify a rose when she saw it.  She often spoke of Doug playing Smoke Gets in Your Eyes or some other oldie on his sax on our porch in the old neighborhood.  She often commented on the faithfulness of Bruce Carpenter and the kindness of Dorothy or Katy when she had been very ill.  She told Katy how wonderful it was that we had all stuck together since we were kids.  She thought we were all good for each other. 

My faithful Uncle... Where do I begin?  There are not words to describe the debt owed to you.  All of these years, faithfully, you have kept your eye on Mom.  She told me more than once that you were a wonderful brother.  You have proven that time and again.  She always loved you, you know.  And she knew you loved her.  Maybe you never spoke the words, but your actions say it loud and clear.

My sons never knew Mom as well as I might wish, but all of her grandchildren and great grandchildren were gifts to her.  I know each of you in this room could tell of a memory of my mom and some way you knew her to be special.  Now, I want to close with the thought I began with:

“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.  If it were not so, would I have told you I go to prepare a place for you?”

What is that place?  Where is it?  What’s it like?  I don’t think anyone can ever really say they know.  I certainly don’t.  I finished seminary many years ago.  I’ve been a minister for years.  I preached many a funeral; preached scores of folks into heaven- you might say- sometimes even folks I didn’t really know.   Sometimes their lives were a bit seedy.  It didn’t matter.  I am a firm believer that when someone passes, the world needs to take note that they have been here.  Mom didn’t want much.  She was clear about that.  But, Gracie, this one’s for you.  So I hope you are listening.

I don’t have the answers about all of these ultimate things.  Still, I rest in the hope of the Apostle,
Eye hasn’t seen, nor ear heard, nor have the minds of humans conceived, the good things God has prepared for those who love God.  Gracie, I know this, and I know it well:  You are a lover of God.  So in that hope, I let you go.  I also forgive myself for all of the wrong decisions I surely made, the mistakes I made, and I give you to God.  You would want nothing less.  Someday, I trust we will meet again.

So, in Gracie’s name, friends and loved ones, I bequeath this gift.  I give you all the gift of each other. Uncle Harvey and Aunt Delores, Doug R., Kevin, Irene, the grandkids, my sister, more folks than I can recite- all of us.   For her I promise to watch your back and look out for you.  And for her, I know we will always look out for each other.  And, someday, that which eye hasn’t seen or ear heard will belong to us all; all of us, flowers in the fragrant garden of God’s roses where all wounds are healed, all things made right, and all is forever and again full of love.

Mom, you live on with me yet.  Ever and always you will.  You will always live in my heart, My Dear One, My Precious Rose.