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 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 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.