Screen Time Is Time Well-Spent

Girl Reading - Charles Edward Peruigini - 1870

Girl Reading – Charles Edward Peruigini – 1870 (Source: Tumblr)

I’ve placed a bibliography on the value of computer games at the end of this article. I will continue to update it past the date of publication.

Yet another fear-mongering article about the brain-damaging effects of computer games is making the rounds of the Internet. The absurdity of its claims reminds me of the Victorian hand-wringing about masturbation – but that at least got us Graham Crackers.

Computer games – like other fun, engaging activities (including sports, sex, and solving jigsaw puzzles) – ping the pleasure centers of the brain, often in ways we do not fully understand. Consequently, most people keep engaging in those activities. Some people find those little dopamine hits addictive, so they cannot self-regulate their exposure to them.  This can be particularly true for some young people, regardless of what they obsess about (be it baseball stats or Torment: Numenera). Regardless of the pleasurable activity, good parenting is teaching your children how to recognize healthy and unhealthy behaviors, regardless of their preferred source of a dopamine fix.

The single fact that a particular activity provides that fix does not make it any more inherently dangerous than other, otherwise-safe activities. Why should throwing a baseball or reading a book be privileged over playing a computer game? I would bet that nearly all of my friends have, on more than one occasion, stayed up hours later than they should have because they wanted to finish a book. Yet we do not talk about the “dangerously addictive” nature of books.

The argument could be made that the substance and quality of books is, on average, better than that of computer games. Since, as I will note below, the caliber of art, storytelling and interactive experiences available through the best of interactive media is exceptional, arguments based on the content of computer games carry little weight. Nonetheless, even if that were not the case and all of the games out there were mindless brain candy, the issue would still be the poor choices consumers of the media make, not the inherent dangers of the medium itself.

For this reason, in our household, we did not limit our son’s “screen time” any more than we censored his books; which is to say, we did not regulate either activity. I did play the games he played, and engaged him in long, thoughtful discussions about their contents. I also read the books he read, and engaged with him in the same kinds of discussions. Many of the things he learned from games would not have come as easily through a different medium. In fact, I cannot imagine a better method than “screen time” for him to have explored many of the things he learned about the larger, adult world when he was a child.

As parents, we did not regulate those “screens” because we saw them as no more dangerous than books. We ignored the panic around the medium because it seemed, and still seems, no more justified than the expert admonitions from previous eras against letting young women read novels. The danger with novels, as with good books and good games of all kinds, is that your child’s curiosity will lead them to dangerous or disagreeable or unfamiliar ideas. Knowing your child’s strengths and limitations, and participating with them in, rather than banning them from, whatever media form they find the most engaging, allows a parent to work with their child to equip them with the skills to navigate those perilous waters.

Whether the topic is the content of the media, or the “addictive” nature of the medium itself, good parenting means knowing what a child needs and working with them within those limitations to help that child achieve the goals that they have set. That may mean teaching them to learn to regulate the pleasure they take in certain pastimes. It may mean recognizing the value of those pastimes, even if they may hold no interest for the parent. It almost certainly means sharing in the child’s own engagement, helping them to place it into a larger context, and helping them make the most of the experience.

Now that we are on the other side of that parenting stage, not only do I think that “screens” are no more “dangerously addictive” than books, I would go so far as to say that – in their potential to stimulate the brain, educate, and convey information – “screens” (PC’s and slates in particular) are better than print books. The issue is not the medium, or the activity; the issue is what content is consumed through that medium, and the degree to which involved parents discuss, analyze, and share in that content with their children.

Using a “screen” a young person can read a book above their reading level, or in another language, thanks to hyperlinked dictionaries. Using a “screen” a young person can learn about economics, politics, history, and military strategy by painstakingly shepherding their society through hours of Civilization (see it in action here). Using a “screen” a child can build a working aqueduct in Minecraft. Using a “screen” a young person can directly engage complex themes of bigotry, religious demagoguery, and political isolationism in the Bioshock series. Using a “screen” a young person can interact with one of the best novels I have ever read or played, Planescape: Torment. Using a “screen” a young person can adventure with their friends through a vast world of rich storytelling in Elder Scrolls Online, or they can travel alone through similarly artful and complex storytelling in the world of Dragon Age.

I’m young enough that – as a child – I engaged in earlier incarnations of all of these activities on a Commodore 64 for thousands of hours, so this generation is certainly not the first to have this opportunity. Nor was I any more adversely affected by those pursuits than my friends who spent hundreds of hours designing D&D campaigns or working on their fastball. I would argue that, to the contrary, the games I played on my PC and online through BBS’s enriched my knowledge base as well as the rigor of my thinking.

Until we have chips in our heads, screens are going to be how we share information and engage with interactive media. Parents would do well to quit obsessing about the perceived evils of the medium and instead learn to take full advantage of it.

 

For Further Reading

(This Penny Arcade comic is a handy glimpse of what happens when I bring up this topic at dinner parties. )

What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy (James Paul Gee – Amazon.com)

Good Video Games and Good Learning (James Paul Gee – Amazon.com)

Video Games and Learning (Kurt Squire – Amazon.com)

Reality is Broken (Jane McGonigal – Amazon.com)

Don’t Bother Me Mom, I’m Learning (Marc Prensky – Amazon.com)

Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology (Collins & Halverson – Amazon.com)

The Multiplayer Classroom (Lee Sheldon – Amazon.com)

Video Games and Learning: Teaching Particaptory Culture and the Digital Age (Kurt Squire – Amazon)

How to Do Things with Videogames (Ian Bogost – Amazon.com)

Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames (Ian Bogost – Amazon.com)

Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter (Tom Bissell – Amazon.com)

Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America (NEA)

To Read or Not To Read (NEA)

Orality and the Work of Walter Ong (Wikipedia)

Oral Tradition – Online Academic Journal

Funeral Homily for Sue Travis Villines, My Grandmother

Grandma Sue

Laura Sue Travis Villines – August 10, 1922 – March 12, 2001

My son John-Francis has learned to say “I Love You.” I’m tempted to say that he doesn’t understand what the phrase means; but at some level he does. He knows that it’s something you say to someone who is kind to you, to the person you run to when it hurts – the one who holds you and makes it better, to the person with whom you share the things you value – in his case toy trucks and chocolate candy.

On a Sunday afternoon a few weeks ago, John-Francis and I had both climbed into Grandma’s bed for a Sunday afternoon nap. I needed John Francis to take that nap far more than he wanted to, but he was more than happy to cuddle up next to his “G.G.” – which is what he and her other two great-grandchildren, Liam and Aidan, called her. After a few minutes of silence, during which I assumed Grandma had fallen asleep, John Francis turned to her, patted her on the arm, and said, “I love you G.G.” Without opening her eyes, including the ones that we all swear she had in the back of her head, Grandma found his tiny hand and covered it with her own. She smiled, and said with such confidence and strength in her voice, “I love you very much.”

It was a holy moment. John-Francis had meant what he said in as much as he understood its meaning, but never in his life will he meet anyone who more fully knows the commitment, the sacrifice, the work, and the depth of feeling that those often misused words imply. Like most of us, John-Francis was speaking as an amateur. Grandma was a professional.

There are no advanced degrees you can earn in loving people, there are no schools or universities that offer it as a major; but if you had to pick somewhere to learn it, Moore County Tennessee in the Depression wasn’t a bad place to go. Grandma was born there in 1922 to Elizabeth Gilmore Sanders Travis and Theodore Dale Travis. The youngest of five children, she worked alongside her two brothers and two sisters on the family farm. Grandma often talked about life on that farm, and how there were only seven of them in the immediate family, but even when times were at there toughest there were usually more than twenty people (including seven orphans) gathered around her mother’s dinner table. There was always enough to share, and always room for one more.

They also never threw anything away, a lesson which Grandma never forgot. In fact, one of our great challenges has been to find ways to throw things away when she wouldn’t catch us. If she did, which was most of the time, she would just shake her head and tell us one or two of the uses she could find for whatever we had in her hand. Some of you, incidentally, may still have some of the jars she used to give you pimento cheese. Keep them and use them again with her blessing. “Useless” was not a word Grandma believed in. She could find a purpose for anything or anyone.

Which may be why she married a boy from just north of Nashville who claimed to be from a farm but didn’t even know which side of a cow to sit on when you milk them. His name was Aubrey, and as she often reminded him at the time, she had other offers. But he had something the rest of them didn’t – her heart – and he never let go of it. Their lives were so intertwined, that it is impossible to tell her story without also telling some of his. He promised her he wasn’t going to go back into the Army, but the War came and she entered the first of many times when she would have to carry on with him overseas. Barbara, their first child, was born just as Grandpa returned from OCS. Grandma worked and raised their daughter, while he went on to serve in the Pacific theatre.

When the war was over, they lived in Nashville where Grandpa attended law school. Grandma hoped that the life of a lawyer would keep him by her side, but the Korean conflict came along not long after the birth of their second child Aubrey. Grandpa was back in the Army, and Grandma had two young troops of her own to manage. Not long after their third child John was born they made the decision to stay an Army family.

As a result, Grandma set up and maintained households on several continents and in several countries including Japan and Panama. With her husband gone for months and sometimes years at a time, Grandma was more than up to the task of raising three children, managing the family finances, and often working at the post or in town. She was a woman of such drive and skill, that in a time when women were often confined to the steno pool or the secretary’s desk, she was named the Vice President of McGhee Displays where she worked in several capacities. At the time, she was described in the largest trade magazine for that industry as “indispensable.”

She was, but they didn’t know the half of it. She was also tough, and fiercely protected her family. Once, returning home to find a strange woman standing in her kitchen eating tomato slices from right out of the refrigerator, Grandma grabbed a toy gun and pointed it at her telling her to leave. The woman said, “That’s a toy gun and I’m not going.” This proved the woman was crazy, because if she weren’t she would have known to be much more afraid of Grandma than whatever Grandma had in her hands. Grandma tossed aside the gun, picked up the woman, and to the amazement of her children and the gathered neighbors, pitched the lady into the back yard like a bale of hay. To this day, my father will not eat tomato slices out of the refrigerator. Of course, anyone who knew Grandma knows that that she would have gladly given that woman anything in the refrigerator if she had only asked. The mistake she made was in scaring Grandma’s family.

Retirement brought Grandma and Grandpa to Atlanta where Grandma worked as a bookkeeper and he worked for the Federal government. I say “bookkeeper” because that is what it said on her tax returns, but her full time occupation continued to be Mother with the additional title of Grandmother. Her children were grown and had left home – more or less. Her grandson William was born shortly before they came to Atlanta, and her granddaughter and namesake Laura was born shortly after. Juanita and I came along not much later, but Aubrey and Cheri kindly waited until we were well out of diapers to bring Zawn and Trey into the world.

At this point in the story, I’m no longer just passing on family folklore but my own memories as well. Over the past two days, I’ve been sorting those memories like an old shoe box full of pictures. Over and over again, there’s one place they take me back to – Grandma’s kitchen table. It’s not a large table or a large kitchen, but for thirty years it has been the center of our family and a safe haven for hundreds of friends who have become our family.

It didn’t matter why you came in, you were still invited to sit down and have a glass of sweet (and I do mean sweet) tea or a cold drink. And it wasn’t just company who sat down there. I still remember the plumber who came one day and Grandma thought he looked too skinny. Even though he billed by the hour, was on the clock, and she had never met him before; Grandma sat him down at that table and fed him. When he left, she sent him home with some homemade preserves and instructions to eat better. He’s here today as one of her pall bearers. His name is Austin, I don’t think he ever got around to billing her for the plumbing work and for close to twenty years he’s never called her anything but “Mom.”

He’s not the only one. Because it was conveniently located, many of us used Grandma’s house as a place to meet friends or co-workers. Gary, a friend who also works with my father, had stopped by Grandma’s to meet him. Gary is extremely polite, and simply sat out in the driveway waiting for my father to arrive. Grandma thought that was kind of silly, so she brought him in, sat him down at that same kitchen table, and fed him with good food and better conversation. Dad was worried about Grandma’s health, so when he got there he insisted to her that she was not obligated to entertain his coworkers. Gary has repeated her reply several times. “John,” she said, “you can just go away again. Gary and I were having a perfectly nice visit, and I’ll visit with whoever I want to.” Like many before him and since, Gary had been adopted into her family, and knew from then on he was welcome any time. To this day, Gary still calls her “Mom.” When I talked to him yesterday, he said that it truly felt like losing a mother when she died.

Then of course there’s Ann Rose, who came to spend the night and stayed for a couple months. Grandma should have known that something was up when Ann pulled in front of the house towing a small U-Haul trailer behind her. She needed a place to stay, and what she found was home. She certainly was not alone. If you are not someone who called her “Mom,” odds are the person next to you was. Whether or it was for a few moments, or a few years, Grandma offered you a home. A place to rest your body and your soul, a place at the table where there was always something good to eat, a sympathetic ear, and maybe, just maybe, an opinion or two.

There are so many clichés about the difference between a house and a home that it’s hard to find the words to explain how what Grandma provided was different – but it was. If there’s a recipe for it, I’m pretty sure two of the ingredients are iced tea and pimento cheese. For Grandma, though, the main ingredient was certainly faith.

And I mean the real thing. I don’t mean preachy faith that always tells people what they’re doing wrong; or showy faith that comes from always making sure you’re seen at the right church or with the right people – I mean the kind of rock solid faith that gave Grandma the strength to change the world around her and to carve out a safe haven where so many of us found a home.

Grandma has asked that the inscription on her tombstone read, “My Faith has found a resting place.” That is certainly true, and for the first time, because for seventy eight years Grandma’s faith never rested. For her, faith meant one thing: loving people as Jesus loved them. And love, for her, meant work and sacrifice. It meant action. Love meant getting out of a warm bed on a cold dark morning, as an almost eighty year old woman, to pick up a stranded child or grandchild who needed a ride. I’m not thinking of a specific story here because it happened so often.

Love meant having much less for herself, so her children and grandchildren could have much more. Love meant doing hard work and messy work, even when no one noticed, no matter how tired she was, just to make life easier for the people who came into her life. And always, for everyone, to Sue Travis Villines, love meant forgiveness. Over and over again, small wrongs or large, whether or not you apologized or asked for it – no matter what happened, the next time you sat down at that table you knew you were forgiven.

When I was ordained, Grandma placed her hands on my head and said, “You know how much I love you. God loves you more.” I’m not sure that’s true, but if I know anything about the love of God I learned it from her.

In our gospel reading today, Jesus gathers his closest friends, one of whom will betray him and have him killed, around a table. Over and over again he’s told them that to follow him they only have to do one thing, love everybody – and he means everybody. They didn’t really understand him then any more than we understand or do that now, but Jesus kept trying.

So when he gathered them for their last meal together, Jesus – God in the flesh – took a pitcher of clean water and a basin, and kneeling at each of them in turn washed the dirt and mud from their feet. Times weren’t that different then from today. This was a menial job, and not one that even a well-liked slave would be asked to do. It was dirty, time consuming, and profoundly kind. It’s just the sort of thing Grandma would have done.

All too soon, Jesus was gone and the very earth shook with grief. A part of me is surprised that the same thing did not happen last Monday. Such a great light, such a powerful force for love and hope has left us that it seems that the whole world should have come to a grinding halt. Nothing should ever be the same again. In the darkness that is left behind we have only our memories, and each other.

The home that she created for us is no more, and we are left with the homes that we make for one another. Where there was once so much laughter and no small amount of tears, there are now only echoes. The hands that served us, held us, knitted together in prayer for us, and blessed us are now at rest. She has gone home.

Grandma said that she did not want me to try to preach her into heaven, as if someone who labored so tirelessly to create heaven here for us would need any help finding the way. There is one promise at the heart of her faith, a faith which she passed on to us all. That promise is that a home – one as welcoming as the one she created for us here – was prepared and waiting for her as one is also prepared and waiting for us; and that the same scarred hands that washed the feet of his friends and betrayer alike, were waiting to gather her in and lead her home.

Grandma Sue and John Francis

Grandma Sue and John-Francis

Reflections on the Clinton Nomination

2016 DNC Logo

2016 DNC Logo (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

The nomination of Senator Hillary Clinton as our party’s candidate for President of the United States is one of those benchmark moments that gives us a hopeful glimpse into that just future, and reminds us how long it takes to get there.

The civil rights movement has grown to include important conversations about rights for persons of color, right for LGBT persons, rights for immigrants, and the concept of intersectionality. As those conversations continue, we must also remember that we have not completed the simple, obvious fight for equal rights for those people who are only set apart from the people in power by the fact that they still have ovaries instead of having had their ovaries turn into testicles in the womb.

At the 2016 Democratic Convention we finally saw a 102-year-old woman, whose life has spanned all three waves of feminism, declare her state’s delegates for a female candidate who is likely to be the next President of the United States. It has taken nearly the entire century since the Nineteenth Amendment has passed for her to see a major party nominate a woman for President.

I celebrate this milestone for what it represents about the progressive movement at its best – creating a world where prejudices, bigotries, and superstitions do not define people’s roles in society. I also view it as a cautionary reminder that, even on the most basic issues of equality, the work takes decades or even centuries, and the work is never done.

Even if we give lip service to the idea that we know the struggle for women’s rights in the West is an ongoing one, our practice as progressives undercuts the claim. We fight among each other as if the matter of equal rights – legally and culturally – for women were settled, scrabbling over minutiae and details and who the “real” feminists are. Meanwhile, it has taken a hundred years to go from women having the vote to a major political party putting forward a woman as their candidate.

Surely Jerry Emmett , and the other senior delegates, hoped it would happen in their lifetime and feared that it would never happen at all. I shared those hopes, and those fears. Hope, because it seemed like each generation was moving closer to the just future Dr. King spoke of in Montgomery. Fear, because – having gained some momentum and a seat at the table – whole segments of the feminist movement seemed to devour themselves and their allies.

I wonder how much harm we have done to basic progressive causes by attacking each other and fragmenting into tiny camps seeking to out-progressive our neighbors. I was born in the seventies, and saw – as a child – the victories of second wave feminism that made it possible for the leaders of third-wave feminism to have the freedom and social capital to attack each other for not being “real” TM feminists. I’ve watched people simultaneously defend gender and sex stereotypes when they found them personally affirming (and call that “feminism”) while simultaneously attacking gender and sex stereotypes when they found them offensive or counter-productive (and call that “feminism,” too).

All the while: female CEO’s, Senators, and Governors remain rare as hen’s teeth; disenfranchised men continue to vent their anger at successful women through threats of rape and other forms of violence online and in-person; and men who stay home to raise children, as well as women who go back to jobs outside their homes, face unfair stereotypes and expectations about their roles at home and in the workplace.

We turned on each other long before the fight was done, somehow thinking that our infighting would produce the final (as if there were such a thing) push into actual equality. Personally, I think we placed our energies in the wrong place, but equality means everyone should be equally free to fight for what matters to them, so I am glad that – at the very least – there is space for all of the competing voices of modern feminism to be heard. Nonetheless, the century it took to nominate a woman for President, fifty years after the Democratic party became the party of civil rights, reminds us that the original fight for basic equality of the sexes is far from over.

In this moment, then, I will celebrate this victory for what it is – a watershed moment in the long arc begun by the founding mothers of feminism when they fought back against the notion that women should have no say in how the world was run. There are people alive today who remember the era when denying even basic rights to women was “common sense,” and there are people alive today fighting to return to those good ol’ days and make America “great” again.

The nomination of Hillary Clinton stands as a beacon against the dark shadows of those days – past and yet to come. However convoluted and slow the path, we are nonetheless moving forward to a horizon that bends toward justice. My hope is that we will remember how hard-won this victory is, how long and difficult the road to that far horizon is, and that those of us to seek it will only get there if we overlook our factional differences and seek it together.

Consider the Lilies – The CBF & Homosexuality in 2016

Calling of the Apostles - Domenicio Ghirlandaio -1481

Calling of the Apostles – Domenicio Ghirlandaio -1481 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

At the turn of the millennium I was present when the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship voted to establish their now-infamous policy against hiring LGBTQ persons. I was there as part of the first class to graduate from the CBF’s flagship seminary, the McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University, located in the same building as the CBF headquarters. My studies at Mercer had taught me to hope for a future in which Baptists would be united with our fellow, mainline brothers and sisters in a commitment to social justice, progressive theology, ecumenism, and responsible biblical scholarship.

As I wrote at the time, the experiences of that CBF meeting significantly disabused me of those hopes. I listened as speaker after speaker expressed concerns that “good” churches, particularly from Texas, would refuse to join if the CBF set a precedent for inclusion. There was no discussion about the vibrant, thriving LGBTQ-inclusive congregations whose lives and work would have been validated and renewed if the policy were voted down. Instead, I watched as greyed head after greyed head nodded enthusiastically while old men who represented everything I had come to McAfee to escape played to their fears and prejudices.

When the vote was finally tallied, and I listened to the uncharitable comments directed at those of us who had argued for inclusiveness, I realized that the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship was not trying to make a complete break with fundamentalism. Instead, the CBF was destined to be a home for people whose far-right conservativism wasn’t quite fundamentalist enough for the fringe-right gatekeepers of the new Southern Baptist Convention, and who wanted to recreate as much as they could of their memories of the Leave-it-to-Beaver era of the old SBC.

In a concession to the common sense conclusions of the first part of the century that had already ended, they were open to the possibility of female clergy, as long as they did not become too prevalent. Nearly a generation later, the common sense of this century is also starting to intrude into CBF deliberations. Hundreds of people connected to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship signed a “Statement of Solidarity” with LGBTQ persons. (It is worth noting that this statement aligns closely with the position of the older but smaller Alliance of Baptists, which has ordained LGBTQ persons since its inception in 1987.)

In response, several CBF leaders have weighed in, with differing perspectives. Don Durham continues to preserve his prophetic voice, calling CBF to account for its sin of exclusion. He concludes, “I came to CBF over a decade ago with the unfortunate perspective that CBF was the most exclusive inclusive group I’d ever tried to be a part of. I’ve held on more or less faithfully for 25 years in hopes my tribe would prove me wrong.” Bob Setzer has written an excellent piece about why he has changed his view since his “Yes” vote of sixteen years ago. His recollection of the process that created the policy is far more charitable than mine, but I think his logic is sound that it is time to reverse this “increasingly damaging and disastrous personnel and funding policy”

Conversely, Robert Parham, Executive Director of the Baptist Center for Ethics, has written an opinion piece in which he resurrects the arguments from the meeting that closed the previous century. Subordinating the transcendent power of the gospel to the earthly priorities of denominational wealth and power, Dr. Parham asks, “Given what has happened with mainline Protestant churches, what evidence is there that such illumination will lead to church growth and expanded global mission efforts?” The answer, of course, is in Luke 12, when Jesus explains, “For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.”

Even more offensive than Dr. Parham’s prioritization of earthly institutional success – over the eternal priority of offering an inclusive gospel – is his understanding of the key social justice issue of this generation. His article completely ignores the heartbreaking consequences of the Church’s historic prejudice against LGBTQ persons. Instead, Dr. Parham primly dismisses an issue of justice and civil rights as an attempt to “validate [modern] culture’s sexual mores.”

Apparently the “moderate” Baptist movement’s top ethicist needs a primer on the difference between sexual orientation (which relates to either the biological sex or gender identity of one’s sexual partner) and sexual morality (which concerns itself with conditions under which it is ethical to have sex with one’s sexual partner(s)). It saddens me that, in 2016, any theological leader would write in a way that ignores this simple concept. In his defense, however, it is a distinction that would also have been completely lost on the authors of our Scriptures, whose understandings of sexuality were linked deeply to the patriarchal and misogynistic political systems that sought to control wealth and heredity, female sexual autonomy, and the commodification of women’s bodies.

Consequently, Scripture is as useful a guide on marriage and human sexuality as it is on slavery. Which is to say that our Bible has a wealth of valuable contributions to make in helping us to develop a healthy, Christian ethos on those and many other topics; but that contribution will not be found through replicating the worldview of the people who wrote and edited the Bible. We have found a Christian ethic of human rights and dignity that rejects slavery, despite Jesus telling stories that looked favorably on masters beating their slaves, and St. Paul’s instructions for slaves to obey their masters. Likewise, when it comes to human sexuality, we have to find a way to apply the principles of Christianity to our modern social setting in a way that is not compelled to carry forward the anachronistic superstitions and prejudices of the ancient world that birthed our tradition.

Failing to separate the core values of our faith from those prejudices is at the heart of the fundamentalism which “moderate” organizations like the Baptist Center for Ethics claim to oppose. This is what makes the myopia of Parham and those who share his views all-the-more dangerous. Rejecting biblical literalism about slavery and women, but preserving it on sexuality, also preserves the underlying logic that makes fundamentalism possible, even if it does not apply that logic universally.

“Moderate” opponents of an inclusive view of marriage and sexuality often argue that sex and marriage should be treated as a separate category from the other topics whose relevant passages they re-interpret or ignore. They are quick to point out that marriage is often a metaphor for the Church’s relationship with Christ, and therefore is “unique” among the ancient institutions described in Scripture. This approach, however, ignores the fact that we do not feel compelled to continue to farm using first-century methods, nor are we obliged to preserve the first-century pearl trade.

In fact, oppressing people over hyper-literal fidelity to a metaphor seems remarkably similar to the passionate conflicts of prior eras in which Protestants found themselves the minority group arguing against the literalism of transubstantiation. That argument turned out to be more about politics and regional/generational alliances than theology, something that I suspect is always the case when one group or another claims to simply be following their religion’s Scriptures.

If the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship wants to remain relevant into the next century, they need to move beyond a tentative, piecemeal denunciation of fundamentalism. Instead, they must reject fundamentalism of all stripes and in all its incarnations. Christianity survived learning that the universe is not geocentric, and that women and men are equals, and that some people cannot own others. Christianity will survive the gradual and eventual elimination of all vestiges of the bigotries and superstitions of the era that produced it. The question is, will the CBF?

The GOP and the Destruction of Christianity

The Baptism of Constantine - Gianfrancesco Penni (Wikimedia)

The Baptism of Constantine – Gianfrancesco Penni (Wikimedia)

I’ve been fascinated by the critiques of my recent essay on how abundantly clear the obligatory, Christian response to the Syrian refugee crisis is. Some critics noted that they were glad Jesus didn’t determine our governmental policies. Others noted that “times were different” in Jesus’ era, and we can’t take his words out of context in an attempt to apply them to a modern circumstance.

So, in other words, despite the plain teachings of Jesus (and of the Hebrew Bible, c.f. Exodus 22:21-27; Leviticus 19:33-34, and countless other texts about “widows and orphans”), we should ignore the consistent voice of the biblical writers and the tradition because: times are different now, it wouldn’t be safe/practical, and personal religious belief shouldn’t determine public policy. The hypocrisy here surely needs no clarification, but, just to be safe, here goes.

Let’s begin with the idea that times are different now. When the topic is homosexuality, prominent figures within the Republican Party are quick to point out that God’s Word and will are unchanging. Mike Huckabee explains that we have not been given permission to change “God’s standard.” Ben Carson writes that he is not willing, in the interest of “political correctness” to disagree with God’s description of homosexuality as an “abomination.” Marco Rubio, in agreement with the teachings of his Roman Catholic faith, answers directly that homosexuality is a sin. Ted Cruz, strident in his opposition to same-sex marriage, believes its legalization is a threat to religious liberty. Apparently, when it comes to homosexuality, the GOP leadership sees no room whatsoever for considering the possibility that changes in historical context require interpreting biblical texts with nuance.

These same candidates are equally clear when it comes to their view of the relationship between Christianity and the United States government. Mike Huckabee believes that it is essential that the United States function as a “God-centered nation that understands that our laws do not come from man, they come from God.” He also believes that the Supreme Court “cannot overrule God.” Ben Carson talks of a “war” against those trying to turn America away from what he believes is its heritage as a Christian nation. Marco Rubio actually makes the bizarre claim that – unlike other nations where rights come from government and laws – part of America’s uniqueness is that we believe “your rights come from your creator.” Ted Cruz launched his political campaign at a prominent, fundamentalist Christian university with language that makes his run for president sound like a crusade to reclaim the Holy Land. The leaders of the Republican party are not shy in their rhetoric about America as a Christian nation that is obligated to follow Christian principles.

They stay steadfast in their support of “Christian” political principles, right up to the point where those principles conflict with their right-wing ideology. Mike Huckabee, in what one hopes in not a demonstration of his pastoral understanding of Christian compassion, compares Syrian refugees to “tainted meat.” Ben Carson believes that our “big frontal lobes” should inform us that accepting Syrian refugees is not a good idea. Marco Rubio, demonstrating a significant lack of understanding of the refugee process, said simply that we can’t take more refugees. Ted Cruz actually wants to establish a religious test for potential refugees, accepting the Christians and sending the Muslims elsewhere.

Cruz might want to re-read his Bible. The biblical witness is abundantly and overwhelmingly clear that Christians have a moral obligation – even if it means personal risk – to help those who come to us in time of need, even if they do not share our faith. Yet, without irony, the political leaders who shout the loudest that “Christian values” should determine our government’s laws and policies are the same ones who are most eager to slam the door on the refugees hoping to find a safe haven on our shores. Apparently, the GOP leadership believes that we are a Christian nation, whose rights are derived from God’s will and benevolence; and, that we are expected to adhere completely to God’s stated laws as clearly expressed in the Bible; but, none of that applies when it comes to providing shelter for the weak and wounded who have been ravaged by war. How is it possible that the blatant and explicit hypocrisy of that set of beliefs is going unchallenged within the Republican party and among their political base?

The simple answer is that the GOP, along with their public relations arm Fox News, has so fully conscripted, prostituted, and re-invented “Christianity” that – in public perception, even among self-identified Christians – it is inseparable from the fringe-right ideology of the Republican political machine. Far too many people have come to assume, without critical reflection on the actual words of Scripture or the history of biblical interpretation, that whatever the right wing of American politics recommends must be the “Christian” approach. If there was ever any doubt that the “family values” movement was not about families, and that “Christian nation” policies are not about making sure our government acts in a Christian manner, the response of far-right politicians to the Syrian refugee crisis is the unequivocal proof.

Co-opting the Christian banner in this way is hardly surprising when political leaders do it, but the willingness of religious leaders and rank-and-file Christians to follow blindly along is deeply disturbing. The problem is not just that granting fringe-right politicians free reign with the label “Christian” allows them to advance their xenophobic and reactive agenda without scrutiny or critique, although that is certainly a grave threat. Of equal concern for those of us who love the Church is the possibility that the unique and transcendent identity of the gospel will be lost, as Christianity simply becomes a synonym for fundamentalism and right-wing ideology.

If Republican politicians have their way, that is the dark and terrible future of faith in America, one that is – ironically – not unlike the ways in which the Taliban and Daesh use religious rhetoric to gain support for their own regressive policies. The only way to prevent it is for individual citizens to refuse to accept the cognitive dissonance and blatant hypocrisy of politicians’ haphazard use of Scripture to justify whatever agenda serves their purposes. Simply put, when politicians claim they are advocating for “biblical truths” and a “Christian nation,” they are lying, and the responses to the Syrian refugee crisis is the inarguable evidence to that effect. As citizens concerned with the integrity of our political process, and as Christians concerned with the integrity of our faith, we cannot allow that to stand.