Thoughts upon Rush Limbaugh’s passing

Rush Limbaugh passed away today at age 70.

I spent countless hours listening to his radio show as a pre-teen, teenager, and into early adulthood, largely absorbing both his Republican political views and his cruel, snarky attitude toward those who disagreed with him. I tried calling in to the show on multiple occasions. (I remember getting through to the call screener once, but never got on the air.) I recorded some of the political spoof songs he played and memorized the lyrics because I thought they were funny. (The spoof of “Bette Davis Eyes” as “Billy Clinton Thighs” to commemorate the jogging President’s short shorts is still in my head today.) I laughed as he called people names and ridiculed people who weren’t like him: Democrats, environmentalists, feminists, immigrants, LTBTQIA people…

Rush made it easy to dismiss people who disagreed with you, and made sure you knew who those people were. I carried those views and attitudes well into adulthood. If you search back far enough you will find posts on my blog here that reflect that sort of snarky and uncaring attitude toward political opponents. I’ve spent the last decade or more regretting and repenting of those words, actions, and attitudes.

Rush caused a lot of people a lot of pain over his lifetime in talk radio. I am glad that his passing means he will stop causing people more pain. Sadly, the effects will linger far longer than his voice did on the radio waves. He had a massive amount of talent and opportunity to do a lot of good for a lot of people. It’s sad that he chose not to.

I’ve seen a lot of understandable pain and bitterness on Twitter this afternoon as people react to Rush’s passing. I don’t want to criticize those reactions. Pain has to be acknowledged to be worked through. I’ve seen a lot of comments about Rush now in eternity finding out how wrong he was and some sense of justice that he might be in hell. I get it. I do.

But I can’t gloat in his passing, and I can’t hope for his eternal torment. Rush was a human created in God’s image the same as everyone else, and he deserves that respect even if he refused it to others.

I’m hopeful of some sort of universal reconciliation through Christ. I know you can interpret the Bible to say otherwise, but after a decade of reading on the topic that’s where I land today. Does my sense of justice think Rush deserves punishment? Yep. But if I can hope for something more beautiful, it’s for a bitter old man with a lifetime of hate coming to sorrowful repentance and being eternally reconciled to Democrats, feminists, immigrants, gays, lesbians, transsexuals, and everyone else he hurt through the transforming love of God.

It feels wrong somehow to say “rest in peace” for a guy who caused so much discord. Maybe instead I can wish that he will rest in a discomfort that will lead to repentance and eternal reconciliation. Then I can pray for and work toward healing for those he hurt.

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

2 Corinthians 5:18-20, NRSV

Richard Beck: Political detox for evangelicals

Richard Beck has a wonderful post up today, describing American evangelicalism as “addicted to politics”, with a need to detox. He lists “three simple steps” to get free and sober of the addiction.

1. Do not vote in an election for the next ten years, or even ever again.

Basically, go cold turkey. An evangelical who stops voting is like an addict flushing pills down the toilet or emptying bottles down the sink. Break the connection between God and country. 

2. Abstain from or delete social media, cable TV and talk radio.

Stop going to the drug dealers. Avoid the street corners where they are pushing their pills. 

3. Invest in an apolitical local ministry that cares for the hurting or marginalized.

Sobriety requires a new lifestyle. So stop haunting the crack houses. Find a service, organization, or ministry in your town that cares for hurting or marginalized people. Invest all the hours you used to spend on social media into looking some hurting person directly in the face. Keep doing that until you know her or his name. And keep going until the names become your friends. 

Beck notes that these same steps would be appropriate for politically-addicted progressives, too. I dunno if I’d call them “easy”, but it’s helpful to think about the kind of radical steps that would show the problem were being taken seriously.

Love hopes all things, but I’m still hitting the ‘Unfriend’ button

Over the past month or two I have been making a renewed effort to engage in good faith political discussions my Facebook friends. I had been hoping that since the election was over and there are a handful of key points that are very obviously matters of fact, maybe I could reason with my friends through those topics.

1 Corinthians says that love hopes all things, and my rationale went along these lines: I love these people, and I hope that eventually their eyes could be opened to the truth rather than the lies they’ve been chasing. My engaging and speaking truth could be a pathway toward that realization for them. After all, if everybody who disagrees with them just gives up and disengages, the echo chambers just get worse, right?

It’s been an exhausting month. Maybe I’m just really bad at this. Maybe people are far more entrenched in lies than I wanted to believe. Maybe Facebook is really not a good platform for those conversations. But whatever the case, I got nowhere with my arguments, got called a bunch of names, and my stress level went through the roof every time I was inexorably drawn to tap the Facebook app icon.

So last night enough was enough. I went through Facebook and unfriended a bunch of people who aren’t really in-person friends, and unfollowed a whole bunch of people who I do know in person. I still love these people and pray and hope that their eyes would be opened, but this can’t be the way. At least I hope that if they someday reach a point where they see things differently and want someone to talk to about it, they’ll remember me as someone who’s willing to talk.

My current side project

One of my favorite 2020 discoveries (which, ok, only came out in 2020, so I was on it from the beginning) is the Young Adult Movie Ministry Podcast. A production of Sam Thielman and Alissa Wilkinson, two journalists and movie critics, YAMMPOD approaches movies from a sort of post-evangelical perspective. In Episode 1 of the podcast, Alissa notes that she was homeschooled through her youth, and then says that when asked about being homeschooled, her usual response is that she was very homeschooled. I resemble that remark.

The podcast moves quickly and is rife with references to other movies, books, and other cultural artifacts. The podcast show notes are perfunctory but not particularly detailed. Hmmmm, I thought, I know how to fill that gap.

Enter YAMMPOD.info, where I’m creating a post per episode to itemize all the movies and references that the hosts and guests drop. 28 episodes in, this is kinda fun.

If I were to recommend one particularly meaningful episode, I’d go to Episode 21, “Bread Alone”, with guest Jeffrey Overstreet discussing Babette’s Feast. Other standouts are Episode 6, “Sullied by Monotheism”, with the hilarious Lyz Lenz discussing The Story of Ruth and Episode 12, “Noir 101”, with guest Jamelle Bouie addressing not just The Maltese Falcon but the whole noir genre.

Head over to YAMMPOD.info to check out my project, then go visit YAMMPOD itself to listen and subscribe!

Psalm 126

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
    we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
    and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
    “The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
    and we rejoiced.

Psalm 126 has been chasing me around this past year. I read it shortly after the COVID shutdowns started in March 2020. Our church had just stopped meeting in person on Sundays. I was the music ministry leader, and I made a mental note to remember this passage for when we started meeting again. Once things got back to normal, I thought, that first Sunday back would indeed feel like a dream, with good cause to rejoice.

Three months later our church’s insistence on a mask-optional reopening was the last straw in a multi-year struggle over whether to stay. I resigned from my music ministry duties and let the pastor know we’d be looking for a new church once things reopened.

It’s now January 2021 and we’re still waiting.

Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
    like the watercourses in the Negeb.
May those who sow in tears
    reap with shouts of joy.

This past summer a friend invited us to join their church group’s Zoom meetings. They’ve been a godsend this year — a regular time of discussion, prayer, and Bible study with some likeminded people. It’s not the same as a local in-person meeting, but I’m already anticipating the loss when they start meeting in person again and the Zoom is no longer available to us.

2020 was hard for lots of reasons, in lots of ways; some of them public, some personal. One Monday last month during Advent, the pastor of our online group had us read this psalm. It felt different. There’s still a lot of going out weeping, a lot of sowing tears. We’re still in verses 4 and 5. Searching for hope, praying for joy on the other side of all this sadness. It’s January. The days are short and cold. I always feel fragile in January; this year even more so.

At this point in a post like this there are traditionally some words of hope, something about spring coming and things getting better. But I don’t really have those words in my heart today.

I’m thankful there’s still a verse left in the psalm.

Those who go out weeping,
    bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
    carrying their sheaves.

2020 Reading in Review

Another year, another review of my annual reading. The mess that was 2020 definitely affected my reading – there were a couple months in there where I simply didn’t have the mental energy for anything challenging. Nevertheless, I completed 60+ books, logged as usual over on Goodreads.

Last year in my roundup I said I should try to read some more engaging fiction in 2020. I wasn’t very successful there – only 23 novels (out of 64 books) this year. I did read a few very good ones, though, so I guess that’s something. I only read 13 female authors all year… I could get more rounded there.

Fiction

Some of my favorite fiction of the year:

  • Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jemsyn Ward
  • A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet
  • Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Non-Fiction

  • Caste: The Origin of our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
  • Jesus and John Wayne by Kristen Kobes Du Mez
  • The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power
  • The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Horst

It’s not lost on me as I list these out that many of my favorites of the year were written by women. That could be a clue to me that a well-rounded reading list will also be an engaging reading list.

Really Long Books

It’s entirely possible my book count would’ve gone up if I’d not read some really long books… but then I would’ve also missed some really good books. Notable really long books this year:

  • A Secular Age by Charles Taylor (896 pages)
  • Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West (1181 pages)
  • The New Testament in its World by. N. T. Wright and Michael F. Bird (992 pages)
  • Crucifixion of the Warrior God by Gregory Boyd (1492 pages)
  • Dominion by Tom Holland (a paltry 624 pages)

Maybe my goal for 2021 should be some shorter books…

Bullet Points, Special Edition: Unpopular Opinions

I’m feeling particularly crusty today. In the spirit of efficiency, I expect I can write a bunch of bullets here such that everyone can find something that they disagree with.

On politics:

  • Donald Trump’s ongoing efforts to subvert our legitimate election results are traitorous, and the Republican politicians unwilling to call him out on it are spineless opportunists who aren’t worthy to be described as leaders.
  • The Democratic Party’s insistence on making “any abortion, any time” table stakes for being a Democratic candidate is holding the party back from majority rule for the next 50 years.
  • The Trump administration’s failure to govern with any priorities other than “what’s best for Trump” makes it the worst presidential administration in the history of the Republic.
  • If the Democrats want to claim any sort of moral high ground, they’re going to have to get their own house in order. It’s time to stop trotting out Bill Clinton, even if he is a southern Democrat who gives a good speech.

On the evangelical church:

  • I won’t claim to be an evangelical any more, but I’m clearly still working through a bunch of stuff.
  • The evangelical church’s focus on patriarchy (dressed up as “complementary gender roles”) has deprived the church of more than half its voice.
  • The church’s continued trouble with tolerating and covering up sexual abuse would be significantly lessened if women were afforded the same church leadership roles as men.
  • The huge emphasis on the LGBTQ discussion within the evangelical church is the result of fundamentalist leaders desperately clinging to the same magisterial authority of Scripture interpretation that the Reformation protested against 500 years ago. Once the commoners realize the Holy Spirit enables them to understand the Scripture on their own and they’re not automatically going to hell if they disagree with the church’s teaching, the power is broken.
  • 8 months of not attending worship services (thanks, pandemic) has made it clear how important being able to attend worship services is.

On moral issues:

  • Most “pro-life” people don’t really, at a core level, believe that an early-term abortion is the same, morally, as killing an infant after birth. If they really did, they would take stronger action.
  • Nobody wants to get a late-term abortion. The ones that tragically may be needed are worked out in painful circumstances that won’t benefit from laws that would force jumping through a lot of hoops.
  • Everyone should want the number of abortions to go down. This would happen with better access to contraceptives, better sex education, and better support for pregnant women and young parents.
  • LGBTQ people deserve the same rights, protections, and affirmations as anyone else. Including in the church. Yes, I’ve read all the verses and heard all the arguments. But I’ve met LGBTQ brothers and sisters who clearly love Jesus and have the Holy Spirit working in their lives. And then I go to Peter’s words in Acts 11 after preaching to <gasp> the Gentiles.

As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit’. If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?

Acts 11:15-17, NRSV

The arguments can be complicated. As Robert Capon says in Between Noon and Three, if God is a bastard, we’re all in trouble. So in the end, I’m going to rely on the hope that God is loving and gracious and he can sort it out.

Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me.

Richard Beck on finding Common Cause

Richard Beck has a fantastic post out today reflecting on a passage from Barack Obama’s recent memoir and how materialism affects our ability to find common cause across ideological boundaries. Here’s the Obama quote:

T]emperamentally I am sympathetic to a certain strain of conservatism in the sense that I’m not just a materialist. I’m not an economic determinist. I think it’s important, but I think there are things other than stuff and money and income—the religious critique of modern society, that we’ve lost that sense of community.

Here’s my optimistic view. This gives me some hope that it’s possible to make common cause with a certain strand of evangelical or conservative who essentially wants to restore a sense of meaning and purpose and spirituality…a person who believes in notions like stewardship and caring for the least of these: They share this with those on the left who have those same nonmaterialistic impulses but express themselves through a nonreligious prism.

Barack Obama, from A Promised Land

Beck contrasts Obama’s Christian non-materialistic optimism with the atheistic, materialistic pessimism of Ta-Nehisi Coates. Hope, and a pragmatic politics, says Beck, are rooted in a non-materialistic view of reality.

I have leaned politically left in the past decade but been frustrated by the inability of much of the progressive left to share a hopeful view. Beck’s paragraph here turned a light bulb on for me:

…Obama is correct, there are shared values between the materialists and the non-materialists. And those shared values lead us to think we can share “common cause.” We want to. And we try. All the time. But that “common cause” is perpetually undermined as these values are embedded within two very different metaphysical worldviews. In the non-materialist worldview, grace and hope season hate toward political enemies and impatience with the lack of progress in our lifetimes. Non-materialists can play the long game, graciously and hopefully, because they believe in a long game. By contrast, non-materialists [sic, Beck clearly means ‘materialists’ here], since there is no long game and the winners write the history books, will be driven to hate those who oppose them and become violently impatient in the face of conversation, compromise, and incrementalism. Given the pressing urgency of the Revolution hope and grace are moral failures, each dampening the passions needed to change the world. 

This is as good an explanation as I’ve seen for the tension between those two groups on the left. Count me among the hopeful non-materialists.

If you go read Beck’s whole post (which you should), you’ll find he also has a couple rather (to borrow a word from my friend Dan) spicy things to say about conservative evangelicals. While I feel his frustration, I wish he would’ve spelled out his reasoning a little bit more to justify such strong words. It would be fascinating to explore why conservative evangelicals, non-materialists in Beck’s schema, seem to so frequently use the materialist’s political playbook. Of course as frequently as Dr. Beck blogs, that piece may already be on its way.

Recommended Reading: Jesus and John Wayne by Kristin Kobes Du Mez

How could the vast majority of white evangelicals support Donald Trump in 2016 and again in 2020? To understand it as Dr. Kristin Kolbes Du Mez tells it, there’s a clear, direct line to trace between the muscular revivalism of Billy Sunday, the virile energy of Billy Graham crusades, the Religious Right’s embrace of the American military in the 1980s, and the eventual election of the 45th president.

In Jesus and John Wayne, Dr. Du Mez (a professor of history at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan) details American evangelicalism’s attraction to the rugged manliness epitomized by the actor of classic westerns and the corresponding clearly delineated male and female gender roles. Whether manifest in Phyllis Schlafly’s fight against the ERA, the ascendancy of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, the religious right’s embrace of Iran-Contra conspirator Oliver North, or the later “Biblical manhood” emphasis of John Eldridge and Mark Driscoll, a common emphasis on manly men and submissive women threaded through it all.

Dr. Du Mez traces through politics, theology, and also education. While men like Bill Gothard and Doug Phillips are less well known outside of conservative evangelical circles than, say, Jerry Falwell or Tim LaHaye, Du Mez makes a case for their estimable influence. This embrace of patriarchy then makes its way to popular TV like Duck Dynasty and the Duggar family’s 19 Kids and Counting.

I grew up in evangelicalism. The picture Dr. Du Mez paints of the late 1980s and 1990s is very familiar to me. The details she fills in provided some “aha” moments, too. The devastating penultimate chapter details how so many of these champions of Christian manhood and patriarchal gender roles ended up in personal disgrace. Jimmy Swaggart. Jim Bakker. Ted Haggard. Paige Patterson. Mark Driscoll. C. J. Mahaney. Bill Gothard. Jack Hyles. Jack Schaap. Doug Phillips. Whether it’s fair or not, it seems almost impossible to avoid the conclusion that the message these men taught about manhood and gender was frequently cover for deep, unaddressed sin.

Where evangelicals go from here is an open question. Just this week pastor Andy Stanley said in an interview with The Atlantic that the Trump era of evangelical history will all fade “into a bad dream” within “a year or two”. After reading Jesus and John Wayne, I’m skeptical. The plant that sprouted Trump’s presidency has hundred-year-old roots. It’ll take more than a year or two of faded memories to banish it, if American evangelicals even take up the task. I’m thankful, though, for historians like Dr. Du Mez who at least tell the story.

Michael F. Bird on Social Justice as Christian Love

Don’t buy into the lie that all social justice is driven by Marxist ideology. It is not! It is what the prophets commanded, what Jesus expects of his followers, what the church has accepted as normal, and what constitutional democracies with a Christian heritage should aspire to, not in spite of, but precisely because of their Christian heritage.

Let me be clear, love of neighbour requires you to be concerned for the just treatment of your neighbour, whether they are Black, Hispanic, First Peoples, LGBT, migrant, Muslim, working-class, or even Baptist. Any derogation of a Christian’s duty to be concerned about the welfare and just-treatment of their neighbour is an attack on the biblical love command itself.

Michael F. Bird, from “The Fundamentalist War on Wokeness is a War on Christian Love

Yes, yes, all of this.