Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Passion of Pete Seeger

What Pete Seeger's views about organized religion can teach believers, today on Religion Dispatches. I notice GodSpam has received quite a few visitors in the recent weeks, so first of all, hi there. Second, I have some exciting news to share very shortly, which will hopefully reward some of you for your patience with this neglected site. And third, I'm going back to GodSpam being one word. Try to use it in a sentence today!

Friday, June 28, 2013

Casting Stones at Paula Deen

Did you guys see that Today Show interview with Paula Deen? The one where she looks directly into the camera and urges us to throw a big stone at her head and kill her? Yeah. I think we need to talk about that.
Let he who is without butter cast the first biscuit. (Photo credit)
Here's what Deen, who is hemorrhaging money in the face of revelations that she's kind of a big racist, actually said. "If there's anyone out there that have never said something that they wish they could take back. If you're out there please pick up that stone and throw it so hard at my head that it kills me. Please, I want to meet you. I is what I is, and I'm not changing."

The celebrity chef is a Baptist, and she's quoting (sort of) John 8:7. This is the story in which Jesus tells an angry mob to stop stoning a woman to death for committing adultery. Except he doesn't tell them to stop. What he says is, "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." And one by one, they walk away.

There are quite a few interesting things going on with this passage. First of all, it should be noted that many scholars don't believe it was part of John's original text. There's decent evidence on both sides. It's possible, though, that this story was apocryphal, taken from another source and applied to Jesus. It's a pretty tidy anecdote with a good punchline. You can almost picture it popping up on the ancient Middle Eastern version of Snopes.

Nevertheless, it's one of the most-quoted things Jesus ever said. The phrase "cast the first stone" is still in common usage, alongside with its secular descendent, "people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones." 

I say it's one of the most-quoted things Jesus ever said. I should clarify: we actually don't know everything that Jesus said in John 8.

Before and after he says the thing about stones, Jesus is writing on the ground. In fact, that's his immediate reaction to the situation: he bends down and starts writing with his finger in the sand. The men then start "questioning" him, according to John. Eventually, Jesus stands -- or just looks up, depending on your translation -- and questions whether they should be throwing stones. Then he goes back to writing, and the dudes decide to leave the poor woman alone.

What was Jesus writing? Nobody knows! This is the only time in the Bible we see it happen. Some scholars believe he is drawing, not writing, since a peasant from Nazareth would probably not have known how to read. (Depends how much time you believe he spent in the temple, I guess.)  Often it's suggested that it's the act of writing that's important, not the content; it denotes divine authority, much like God inscribing the Ten Commandments. Another popular theory: he was re-writing the words of a prophecy, specifically Jeremiah 17:3. The obvious theory, perhaps, is that he was writing down the sins of the men with the stones. Or the sins of the woman, in order to forgive her. Or both. 

(Another important bit of context: we're told that this situation Jesus finds himself in, is a "test" from the Pharisees who are seeking an excuse to lock him up. It was a Catch-22: if he said that the woman should be killed, he would be undermining the authority of the Roman government, because Jews didn't have the right to enforce this penalty. If he objected, he'd be in violation of the Hebrew law -- the law of Moses -- which ordered adulterers to be stoned. But Jesus did something they couldn't have predicted: neither.)

With her plea to the Today Show audience, Paula Deen is casting herself in the role of the woman. (Forgot to mention that this woman is often interpreted as being the prostitute Mary Magdalene. There's no concrete textual evidence for that, though. Back to you, Matt Lauer!) Deen is saying, "I made a mistake. I said something I shouldn't have. If you've never done it, you can cast the first stone." She is begging for mercy. And yet she concludes her statement by saying, "I is what I is and I'm not changing."

What makes me uncomfortable is how heavily Deen is playing the victim card.  In our modern eyes, Jesus stopped the stone-throwers from delivering an outsized punishment, and a judgement that only God could pass down. Paula Deen lost a sausage endorsement after years of racist behavior. Doesn't seem like the most over-the-top punishment to me. 

Also, she didn't seem at all apologetic about using the N-word until she started losing money over it. She still doesn't seem especially sorry for her actions, or aware of why people were hurt by them. There's no forgiveness without repentance. Maybe that's why her apologies all ring hollow.

In another sense, though, the moral of John 8 applies. Jesus is saying that people have no right to judge what only God can judge. As a culture, we are so quick to condemn celebrities who are accused of wrongdoing, and for the most part, we do not forgive. I'm sure Paula Deen is experiencing a fan backlash that's wildly disproportionate to the crime, because that's the norm these days. "I'll never buy a Paula Deen cookbook again" is a reasonable fan response. Tweeting "Paula Deen needs to die" is not. No wonder she's feeling persecuted.

So WWJD about Paula Deen? In the story, he tells the adulteress that he doesn't condemn her, saying, "go, and sin no more." If I were Paula Deen's shoes, I'd take that as a cue to cut my losses (go) and rethink the way I treat other people (sin no more). But I'm not a diabetic Southern chef, and that's why I don't plan on picking up any stones.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

How to Explain Crucifixion to Your Kids (And How Not To)

Today, I have a post up on Mom.me about the challenges of explaining the Easter story to kids.  While I was researching ideas for teaching the Passion, the Crucifixion, and all that fun, I came across a couple truly terrible suggestions from Christian parenting bloggers and teaching sites. Here are some of the most memorable (with links omitted to protect the innocent):

1. Parading around the backyard with your family, reciting prayers while taking turns carrying a giant wooden cross. Not included in the post: suggestions for where to buy a giant wooden cross.

2. Have the parents pretend to be Jesus and Pilate, respectively, while the kids yell "Crucify him!" No mention of the 39 lashes, thank goodness.

3. Make a "Stations of the Cross" coloring book. Okay fine, I'll link to this one.

For God Spam-approved talking points, go to Mom.me. Happy Resurrection!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

How Popes Get Elected (In Movies & TV)

In honor of the election of Pope Francis I, I've written a post for Vulture about conclave conspiracy theories in pop culture. Check it out here.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Is That Funny Christian Video Real? Here's How to Tell

"Rappin' for Jesus" is a hoax, everybody. Yes, I know it's hilarious to watch middle-aged white Republicans use hip-hop slang. But the rapping pastor dropping n-bombs in Dubuque is not a real person, even if approximately 1.4 million viewers say otherwise. (Watch the video below, but be warned, it's offensive.)

It's a very well-executed hoax, complete with a phony out-of-date church website. Here are the four dead giveaways that it's fake:

1. There's no internet record of an Iowa pastor by the name of James Colerick, outside of this video. That's an immediate red flag.

2. An actual Dubuque pastor has confirmed the nonexistence of the church to The Christian Post.

3. That supposedly defunct-since-2004 site was updated in January. (The YouTube video was uploaded in February.)

4. As The Daily Dot smartly observes, the word "swag" wasn't in common use in hip-hop until after 2010. Do your parents even know how to use it in a sentence? What are the odds that this guy, were he a real person, would have said it before 2004?

Those are the facts. But for me, the biggest tip-off is that it has no real message. This is the most reliable test of a Christian viral hoax: would an actual Christian have a good reason to make this? Does it tell people how to get saved? Does it reference the Bible? Or does it just make Christians look like idiots for no apparent purpose?

For comparison, here's a legit Christian rap from the Georgia megachurch 12Stone. It's about tithing.

Here's another one, uploaded in 2008 by a guy named Matthew Fisher. It tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, and there are self-mocking elements, I'll stake my reputation on this one being the real deal.

You'll notice that the fake video got a lot more views than either of the real ones. Not surprising: people (seemingly) making idiots of themselves attract more attention than people trying to do something from the heart. If you associate Christianity with the kind of clueless, culturally tone-deaf ignorance displayed in "Rappin' for Jesus," then you probably didn't question its authenticity. That's what makes it an effective parody -- it strikes a chord, and one that should make mainline Christians very uncomfortable.

Incidentally, if you want to see what the more over-the-top Evangelicals were actually teaching their youth groups 2005, the documentary Jesus Camp is worth a look.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Why Is Chuck Norris Predicting A Thousand Years of Darkness?

Now there's a headline I never thought I'd write.
Image source:greatwhatsit.com
As you no doubt know, 72-year-old former action star Chuck Norris has filmed his own unique endorsement for Mitt Romney, in which he and his wife urge Conservative Evangelical Christians to vote against the coming Obamapocalypse. If Christians do nothing, warns Norris, this great nation is facing "a thousand years of darkness." Watch it below, or look at the transcript here.

Man, that "thousand years of darkness" sure sounds bad. Also, very specific. Where in the Bible, you might wonder, is it prophesied that free health care will switch off the lights for a full millennium?

Here's the funny thing: nowhere in the Bible is there a reference to "a thousand years of darkness." It sounds just like something from the Book of Revelation. But it's not.

So if Chuck Norris isn't spouting Biblical prophecy, what the hell is he talking about?
First, it's important to note that Chuck and his wife aren't using their own words in this part of the ad; they're actually quoting Ronald Reagan. Reagan's "thousand years of darkness" rhetoric originates with a speech he gave at the Republican Convention in 1964, before he was President, before he was even Governor of California. Here's the full quote:

You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we will sentence them to take the first step into a thousand years of darkness. If we fail, at least let our children and our children’s children say of us we justified our brief moment here. We did all that could be done.

What's Reagan talking about here? He's talking about Barry Goldwater defeating Lyndon B. Johnson, for one. To some extent, he's warning against government programs like Medicaid, which Johnson would sign into law the following year. What he's mostly referring to, though, is Communism. This speech was delivered at the height of the Cold War, when those atheist, Socialist Russians seemed to pose a serious threat to American values. If one believes that Obama is ushering in a new age of Socialism, as Norris apparently does, then the parallel makes sense. ("Makes sense" being a relative term these days.)

But that still doesn't explain where Reagan got his thousand-years calculation. We know it's not from the Bible. Why does it sound so familiar?

Here's the irony. The phrase "a thousand years of darkness"  was originally used in the 14th century to describe the European Middle Ages, a period when science and learning were in decline, war and famine were rampant, but the church was thriving. It wasn't Christianity's finest hour -- the church was divided, corrupt, and with the exception of some noteworthy individuals, generally a mess -- but it still managed to exercise a tremendous amount of power over people's minds, hearts and wallets.  Sounds like Chuck Norris's personal Disneyland to me.

In continuing with the "irony" theme, agnostic astrophysicist Carl Sagan adapted the phrase for his 1980 miniseries Cosmos. For Sagan, "a thousand years of darkness" described the period following the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, the ancient world's great archive of knowledge. He was using this as an example of the dangers of fundamentalism, or in his words, "submission to national, religious or ethnic identifications."

Back to Walker, Texas Ranger.


It's a safe bet that Chuck Norris didn't spend a whole morning Googling "thousand years of darkness" (ahem) in order to put Reagan's words in context.  He chose to use the speech; it resonated with him. And it resonated because it really, honestly sounds like something from the Book of Revelation. Norris is talking about the End Times here.

And that said, most of what Christians believe about the Apocalypse doesn't actually appear in the Bible at all. There are a thousand different "timelines" of the events of Revelation (a decidedly non-linear piece of writing) that one could pick and choose from. Most agree that Christ will reign for a thousand years of harmony prior to the Final Judgement. Perhaps there are some who believe that the anti-Christ will also reign for a thousand years? For symmetry?

Anyhow, if Lyndon B. Johnson did usher in a thousand years of darkness when he was elected, then we are currently in Year 48. Only 952 to go!

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Last Supper, This Time With More Grenades

Welcome back everyone! It's been a while since we've God Spam'd together, and there's so very much to catch up on. Chick-Fil-A. Hollywood Bible movies. The first Mormon Presidential candidate and the first Mormon-themed Broadway musical! It's all a little much to jump into at once, so let's start with something simple.

This movie poster. (Larger version here.)

This is the new promo image for The Expendables 2, modeled after Leonardo Da Vinci's The Last Supper. Interesting choice, seeing as there's no food at this table; just semi-automatic weapons, bottles of booze, and artfully arranged platters of grenades. On the other hand, there are twelve action stars flanking Sylvester Stallone, just as twelve Disciples surrounded Jesus in the original artwork. (It's far too early in the morning to address the Sly-Stallone-as-Jesus issue.) Which makes the arrangement seem kind of inevitable. You can just imagine the art department at Lionsgate scratching their heads, going, How do we fit 13 stars equally into one eye-catching image? And really, no one has come up with a better composition than Leo did 500 years ago.

The weapons thing is disturbing, though. Maybe I'm just extra-squeamish after the Dark Knight shooting, but adding Uzis and machetes into the Last Supper (a moment in which Jesus chose self-sacrifice over violent retaliation) feels so very wrong. Then again, it also demonstrates how far removed that Da Vinci image has become from the Biblical context. Last Supper homages have become so common that they're more like parodies of one another than references to the original work. A few of the better ones:

The Sopranos, Vanity Fair photo shoot

Battlestar Galactica, promo art
The Simpsons, screengrab

In contrast, here's the very first Last Supper parody in pop culture history (as far as I know), from Luis Bunuel's 1961 film Viridiana. The film, a satire of Catholic hypocrisy, was banned outright in Spain, with this scene being the most controversial. It's clear that Bunuel chose this particular scene for a reason -- not just because he had thirteen actors who needed to be aesthetically arranged.