Before The Babylon Bee, there was The Wittenburg Door, a satirical Christian journal with some serious humor–a cartoon called “Dogs Who Know the Lord”, fake news headlines, a Theologian of the Year (with winners like Xena Warrior Princess and Mister T)–all pointed in cornball fashion at the Church and its bizarre inner- and outer-workings. Our mentor and spirit-guide Robert Farrar Capon was, in fact, a “Keeper of the Door”–he started a column series he called “Pietro and Madeleine,” a theological love story (of sorts). But The Door, as it later became known, also did some very serious interviews. In these interviews, they were both just playing…
During a 1995 interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, Pat Conroy related a story about his father, Don, that epitomized the patriarch’s delusional view of identity. The two men were discussing why Pat’s mother left Don when the elder Conroy broke down sobbing. Thinking that Don had finally realized the error of the ways, Pat quoted the ensuing conversation to Gross: “‘Dad, do you understand what you did wrong?’ And Dad said, ‘Yes.’ And I said, ‘What is it, Dad? What did you do wrong?’ And my father said, ‘I was too good. I didn’t crack down hard enough. I was…
I’ve been meaning to post some quotes from Jack Miles’ interview with The Sun for a while now, but somehow it’s gotten lost in the shuffle. It’s from the March issue on religion. Miles, a Pulitzer Prize winning writer and ex-Jesuit, discussed the current fear of commitment in America (of which he, as a vow-breaker himself, is admittedly a part).
When asked about the recent Pew Research results, which show that young people are turning away from religion, and which we’ve blogged about at length, Miles says:
Yes, I’ve seen those numbers. Some claim that religion has faded because its dogma is contradicted…
With the Church Issue out the door and hitting mailboxes this week, we thought it might be prudent to post a teaser edition of our amazing interview with religious historian and New York Times contributor Molly Worthen.
If you want to order the Church Issue or subscribe, this is the place to do it.
In the introduction to her 2014 book, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism, historian and journalist Molly Worthen sets out to reappraise the term “evangelical”—both what it has meant and what it continues to mean today. She discusses the inherent distrust of American evangelical culture in the wider public sphere, where evangelicals on the whole are typecasted as hostile or anachronistic, too blinded by an authoritarian faith to confront the discoveries of science and reason. Yet Worthen argues that this characterization misrepresents wide swaths of evangelicals, that, on the whole, evangelicals are far more thoughtful and diverse than most critics realize. Worthen argues that evangelicals have been further from ‘authoritarian’ than the intellectual spheres that so readily spurn them:
The central source of anti-intellectualism in evangelical life is the antithesis of “authoritarianism.” It is evangelicals’ ongoing crisis of authority—their struggle to reconcile reason with revelation, heart with head, and private piety with the public square—that best explains their anxiety and animosity toward intellectual life. Thinkers in the democratic West celebrate their freedom of thought but practice a certain kind of unwavering obedience—bowing to the Enlightenment before all other gods—that allows modern intellectual life to function. Evangelicals, by contrast, are torn between sovereign powers that each claim supremacy.
In a way, this tension has been the story of the Church universal, perpetually buffeted between the unique revelation of truth in Jesus Christ, and the world of independent thought that also demands their everyday consideration. The Church, for better or worse, tends to operate in tandem with these powers, which has always led to tricky (and often, precarious) outcomes.
Worthen argues that evangelicals today are still searching for firm footing. As a journalist, the current moments of discord seem of particular interest to her. Her articles in the New York Times often engage the tension between the doctrines of tolerance given us by secular liberalism, and the exclusive truth claims made by the many we would call “evangelicals.” As a Professor at the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill), she is also interested in how secular thought and identity politics on American campuses have tended to provoke similar kinds of exclusive truth claims on its students, though to a different end. As you will see in our interview, for Molly Worthen, evangelicals are a group of believers who have found it necessary to reconcile the constraints of the public sphere and the demands of their own personal belief.
Worthen spoke to us from Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Are there contemporary issues today within the Church that are simply rehashings of an old issue from centuries ago?
Sure, I’m often aware of continuities, and I try to stress them to my students. I teach a course on North American religion since European contact, and one of the themes is the way Christians have always struggled with the paradoxes that define their faith. These paradoxes are what give Christianity its majesty and brilliance, but they’re also what cause great frustration among believers. It has seemed to me that, over the millennia, people who are deemed heretics by defenders of orthodoxy are Christians who sought to resolve one or more of the key paradoxes of Christianity—whether it was to try to separate Christ’s human and divine nature or to try to rationalize the mystery of the Trinity or to push apart the paradox of free will and divine sovereignty.
And then there are the less Trinitarian paradoxes that continue to pop up in contemporary religion, that deal with culture—the paradox of the Christian calling to be ‘in the world but not of it’—that dilemma frames so many issues for Christians today.
The paradox whereby Paul calls Christians to be always alert to the way in which culture can become confused with the Gospel, and worldly identities blended with identity in Christ—that one is so apparent in the current presidential election. It certainly illuminates the appeal of Donald Trump’s xenophobic, nativist, essentially white supremacist language. Some evangelical leaders I’ve asked about this insist that evangelicals who support Trump are not real evangelicals because many of them don’t go to church, but the fact is that “evangelical” has become a kind of cultural identity that churches do not control.
One trend I’ve been following is the way in which more and more evangelical leaders are calling for American Christians to think of themselves as a “moral minority,” a Christian counterculture, to recognize that the ship has sailed on marriage equality and that they can no longer aspire to “take the country back.” And yet, at the same time, we have the evangelical grassroots rallying for a presidential candidate who is resurrecting the rhetoric of Jerry Falwell, speaking about how the “silent majority” is back to reclaim the country. I mean, this is what Trump says! So there’s a widening gap between the strategies and desires of many evangelical leaders, and what seem to be the sentiments of their constituents.
College students are certainly up against a lot, especially if they’re professing a faith that has exclusive truth claims. Your recent article in the New York Times, “Hallelujah College,” talked a little bit about that too, about the Christian student in a world of trigger warnings and what Jonathan Haidt called, “emotional coddling.” Can you share your thoughts there?
I think that the general paradigm on most secular campuses is that of New Left identity politics, in which we all claim a certain set of identities based on our life experiences. We have authority to speak from those identities because of our experiences, and we must grant all respect and sovereignty to other people’s identity claims and adopt a posture of openness, but never confrontation or judgment. My students, even those who come from conservative Christian backgrounds, have been steeped in that culture for long enough that they obey its rules without really thinking about them. On one hand, pragmatically, it works. It produces a fairly civil conversation. Most of the time, it allows people with very different perspectives to coexist.
But the fact is that traditional Christianity has a different way of conceiving of human nature and truth claims than do modern secular liberals. I think that modern secular liberals have not worked through some of the inconsistencies in their own ideologies when it comes to the accommodation of traditional religions, Christian or otherwise. You know, this problem is really coming to the fore in Western Europe, as these secular European liberal democracies try to accommodate and acculturate huge numbers of conservative Muslim immigrants. For the secular liberal, it’s the old problem of, “How do you tolerate the intolerant?” What boundaries do you enforce?
It’s a conversation that liberals have been exempt from having for a long time, at least in this country, and what I find interesting is the way conservative Christian students are trying to compel that conversation. Although both sides sometimes fall prey to a sense of moral superiority, and the rigidity of their own assumptions can prevent them from totally hearing the other side, I think liberals have a lot to learn from the way religious conservatives have learned to articulate their presuppositions and understand the intellectual framework of their own worldview. I think liberals, especially at universities, where they do enjoy cultural dominance, have not always had to come to terms with the logic of their own ideas.
In September 2009, after being fired by Air America for the third time, comedian Marc Maron began the WTF podcast. It was born of necessity. Maron was 45 years old with a mediocre comedy career behind him and nothing on the horizon. But he knew a bunch of other comedians, so he sat down with them and recorded hour-long conversations, hoping that people would listen. Since then, Maron has recorded almost 700 such conversations, starting with comedians but expanding to writers, actors, directors, and, last year, the President of the United States. With a technique honed in therapy and a series…
A couple of brand-new bonus recordings to which to draw your attention on this Tuesday afternoon:
- Scott Jones and Bill Borrer interviewing Paul Zahl about “The Essence of Christianity” for their stellar New Persuasive Words podcast (which you can subscribe to here). You might think of it as a preview of the in-person conversation they’re going to have in April:
- Steve Brown and co interviewing DZ about Mbird’s two most recent publications, Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints) and Mockingbird at the Movies for their radio program, Steve Brown Etc.
Sometimes these things don’t turn out as well as you’d hope. But sometimes they do, which seems to have been the case here. Or so we’ve been told, thank God.
A teaser edition of our interview with Nicholas Carr, the entirety of which can be read in the Technology Issue! You can subscribe to our magazine here.
In his book, The Shallows, which was a 2011 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Nicholas Carr talks about the internet’s re-wiring of the human mind. Like a number of well-regarded tech skeptics (Marshall McLuhan, Neil Postman, Sherry Turkle), Carr argues that the way the internet presents information to us is changing the way we think everywhere else—in our jobs, in our free time, in our inner lives. Towards the end of his book, he…
Below find the Table of Contents and Opener of our forthcoming (sixth!) issue, which will be heading to mailboxes by month’s end. You can either subscribe directly, or sign up to be a monthly giver to Mbird, which includes a complimentary subscription to the magazine. The issue will be available individually soon.
What if your entire life was recorded? Like instant-replay on Monday Night Football, what if you had playback for every minute of every day? And what if everybody else did, too? Think of all the problems that would suddenly disappear: forgotten names now remembered, favorite stories always accessible, mysterious crimes…
As a kid I always had a hard time understanding why we went to church. I didn’t grow up in the classic Mississippi religious household. There was no family Bible that got cracked open for weekly devotional time. My parents didn’t quote scripture as a means of parenting us. And I never saw a single cross hung on a wall. By all accounts, we looked fairly agnostic.
But we went to church at 8am every single Sunday morning. I remember being around my friend’s mothers who would talk about salvation or the virtue of growing into Godly womanhood and it felt…
Anne Lamott, bestselling author of Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace, posted a video in late August during which a couple of “sweet, wild” Jesuits interviewed her and her good friend Father Tom Weston. They discussed the value of humor and exhaustion, Match.com, and the Pope. It’s 45 minutes, and definitely worth the watch, but I’ve pulled some quotes in case you’re a skimmer and not a listener.
In the beginning, she shares some of her own spiritual story, explaining that despite growing up with atheist parents and actively resisting Christianity (4:35):
“I always felt the presence of God. I always felt…
September is always a great month for books and music, and this one is no exception. Among the many releases to be excited about is Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir. In celebration, I had planned to reference her 2009 interview with The Paris Review in a weekender, but then I (re-)read it, and Bam. Simply too many sections jumped out, both one-liners and extended exchanges with Amanda Fortini, the interviewer. They talk about writing, family, memory, addiction, God – what more could you ask for? Since she was working on the new book when their conversation took place (not…
For this fifth issue of the magazine, we had the privilege of talking to author and journalist Philip Yancey about the message of grace in today’s churches. We also got a chance to re-print a small sample of his most recent book Vanishing Grace: What Ever Happened to the Good News?.
To order a copy of The Forgiveness Issue, look no further than here. There’s more where this comes from.
In May of 2015, the Pew Research Center released its latest findings on the “changing religious landscape” of the United States. According to the survey, 70% of Americans identified as Christian in 2014,…