Monday, January 29, 2007

"Donnie Davies" parody video

I'm sure many of you have already seen the music video "God Hates Fags" that made the Internet rounds last week. But if you haven't here it is:

The fact that there was controversy about whether this was a parody or an actual Christian music video is itself a sad commentary on the public image of evangelicalism. We now know that "Donnie Davies" is really comedian Joel Oglesby (hat tip: Andrew Sullivan), but the discussion was interesting while it lasted.

When I first saw the video, I was taken aback by how polished and professional it looked. I could tell right away it was a parody, but I became concerned that people would think this was for real. Then the more I watched it, the funnier it seemed.

Pretty soon I began to think: Knowing it is a parody, should Christians be upset about it? Well, before you send Donnie Davies/Joel Oglesby a nasty email complaining about how he is "misrepresenting Christians," consider that for many years the Rev. Fred Phelps has been running an actual ministry in which he seriously promotes the message that "God hates fags." Now isn't Phelps' very public, dead-serious ministry a much more alarming misrepresentation of our Christian faith than Oglesby's poking-fun-at-us music video? We stand aside and let Phelps to do the damage he does, but are quick to get upset at the guy who's just making fun of us for allowing Phelps to get away with it. It raises the question of whether most evangelical Christians really do disapprove of Phelps, or whether some like to keep him around because he does their dirty work.

If the latter suggestion offends you as a Christian, then can you explain why hasn't there been a bigger outcry against Phelps' ministry in the evangelical church? I've never heard of an organized effort to oppose Phelps the way I've seen evangelicals organize vocal opposition to, say, Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, the gay marriage movement, or the appointment of "activist judges."

Maybe that's the point of Oglesby's video. It's brilliant when you think about it.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan debate

The debate these past two weeks between atheist Sam Harris and Catholic Andrew Sullivan on Beliefnet has been heating up lately. Excerpts from their most recent exchange:

You seem to have taken particular offense at my imputing self-deception and/or dishonesty to the faithful. I make no apologies for this. One of the greatest problems with religion is that it is built, to a remarkable degree, upon lies. Mommy claims to know that Granny went straight to heaven after she died. But Mommy doesn't actually know this. The truth is that, while Mommy may be rigorously honest on any other subject, in this instance she doesn't want to distinguish between what she really knows (i.e. what she has good reasons to believe) and 1) what she wants to be true, or 2) what will keep her children from grieving too much in Granny's absence. She is lying--either to herself or to her children--but we've all agreed not to talk about it. Rather than teach our children to grieve, we teach them to lie to themselves . . .

I believe I can offer an adequate response. It may not be adequate to you; but it is adequate to me, and to many, many others - in fact, to the vast majority of human beings who have ever lived. My response rests on an understanding of truth that is not exhausted by empiricism or materialism. I do not believe, in short, that all truth rests on scientific premises and can be 'proven' by empirical or scientific methods. I believe science is one, important, valuable and respectable mode of thinking about the whole. But there are truth questions it has not answered and cannot answer . . .

One thing I appreciate about atheists is how they force you to consider whether your faith is as silly as they make it seem, or whether it is based upon something more than just a fairy tale fancy. It is one thing to go out and do "apologetics" for the purpose of evangelism, sounding smart, or just saving face. It's another thing to ask, "Why do I believe?" privately and honestly within your own heart and mind.

Someday I will be lying on my death bed facing the great unknown beyond, if there is a great beyond. In that moment I will be alone with my faith, and none of the people I've wrapped my life around, whether family, friends or church, can help me through it. None of the things I've done to try to impress people with my knowledge or deeds or great Christian witness will count for anything once the finality of death draws near. The thought of death is a reality check for a Christian. And so are the criticisms of atheists who think that I've entrusted my soul (except that they don't believe in souls) to something akin to the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

I'm still trying to get caught up in reading the entire debate. If you want to read the whole thing, you can start from the beginning here.

Update: The morning I posted this I wrote to Andrew Sullivan and shared similar thoughts with him. On 1/27 he posted my email on his blog here.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Leave Shawn Hornbeck alone, please

Today's post is a little off the regular subject of this blog and has nothing to do with my usual topic of Christianity, homosexuality and the Bible. But I've decided to go ahead anyhow and say what's been on my mind this past week.

The public reaction to the kidnapping and safe return of fifteen year-old Shawn Hornbeck, in what is being called "the Missouri Miracle," has been bothering me. Nobody seems to understand why Hornbeck didn’t try to escape during his four year stay with his alleged abductor, Michael Devlin, even though he had access to the Internet and a cell phone while Devlin was gone at work. The implication that is maybe he didn't want to escape. It has been reported that while living with Devlin, he was even out late biking one night and was picked up and driven home by a police officer, yet he never said a word to the officer about his identity or situation.

Bill O’Reilly has even suggested that “there was an element here that this kid liked about this circumstances . . . The situation here for this kid looks to me to be a lot more fun than what he had under his old parents. He didn't have to go to school. He could run around and do whatever he wanted.”

Yesterday, Hornbeck told Oprah Winfrey off-camera that he was “terrified” of trying to contact his parents or seek help. He also told police officers that Devlin threatened to kill him and his entire family. He spent most of his time sleeping and playing video games--and praying he would be found.

The few words Shawn Hornbeck has spoken on the matter tell me everything I need to know. His behavior makes perfect sense to me.

It is not that hard for authority figures to control someone mentally and emotionally through fear. Abusive husbands do it to their wives. Abusive churches do it to their congregation members. Abusive bosses do it to their employees.

Now imagine being Shawn Hornbeck in his situation. You are abducted at gunpoint when you are eleven years old by a 300 pound stranger who threatens to kill you and your family if you should try to escape. He is an adult, he is bigger and stronger than you, and he possesses a gun. He’s the one who decides whether you eat or drink anything on any given day. He decides whether you get to watch television or play video games as opposed to say, being locked in a closet or chained to a bedpost all day. He decides whether he’s going to do his thing with you or leave you alone on any given night. He is the person that you, as an eleven year-old kid, have to negotiate with if you want to stay alive.

I can imagine how the rules were set up for Shawn Hornbeck by his abductor: Be a good kid and maybe I’ll get you a burger, let you watch a little TV, allow you some time to yourself in your room. Being a good kid means you play by the rules and don’t try to escape. Don’t try to talk to anyone or catch anyone’s eye, especially an adult or police officer. Give them the line about how you live with your dad, are homeschooled, are having a good time. Because if you don’t your family is dead.

Is it stupid for a kid to believe his abductor is capable of killing his entire family? Suppose the guy were to come home some days and say things like, “I saw your mom shopping at Target today.” Or suppose he tells you he stalked your sister to her school and describes to you what she was wearing. Do you think an eleven year-old kid, or even a fifteen year-old kid, wouldn’t get in line under threats like that? Michael Devlin would only have to have driven an hour to reach Shawn Hornbeck's home. If he did make such threats, they would have sounded real.

And if you were that kid, you can be sure that your abductor would have asked you questions if he saw you talking to anyone. He’d accuse you, threaten you, make you beg and plead and do your damnedest to convince him that you were good, you didn’t give the game away, you played by the rules, so that maybe he won’t beat you or starve you or rape you tonight. You learn that the only way you can negotiate with this bastard, win his trust and earn the small kindnesses you need from him to survive this ordeal, is to make sure that you have absolute integrity in the way you play by the rules. So when the police officer picks you up from biking and brings you back, you are able to hold your own when you are questioned and threatened and accused all night long about whether you said anything. You can insist, literally on your mother’s grave, that you did not give anything away. And you hope and pray that the officer doesn’t drop by the next day and make it look like you lied, because maybe then the guy will go off and make good on that promise about what he’d do to your family.

A person can feel pretty helpless and locked in after four years of living in that kind of terror. You wind up sleeping all day and playing video games, just to pass the time and get through each day. Every privilege you have is hard-earned, through years of making progress toward earning your captor's trust. Going out with friends or going to a sleepover is your reward, and these things make life bearable, so you sure as hell aren't going to jeopardize that because somebody joked about you looking like that missing kid Shawn Hornbeck. You watch people carefully now, and you can tell that they don't get it. If anything, jokes like that are dangerous and it's better to get people to shut up so that they don't end up getting you or someone you care about killed.

Well, I hope you get the picture. It really isn't that hard to understand why Shawn Hornbeck behaved as he did while in that situation. If you think about it, it happens on a smaller scale all the time to adults. People who won’t leave a bad situation--a marriage, a church, a job--but will in fact cover up for it because they are afraid of what might happen if they don’t. It’s really no different at all.

Let’s have a little more understanding, and leave the kid alone.

Update: Michael Reagan provides sane commentary, bravely sharing his own personal experience here.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Quote for the day

"Everything I did in my life that was worthwhile I caught hell for."

Earl Warren (1891-1974)

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Life lessons and homeschooling

I've been homeschooling our two older children largely because the local schools here in the L.A. school district are pretty dismal. Homeschooling isn't my preference, but when in 2003 I saw that only 39% of the students at the school my daughters would be attending qualified as proficient (yep, proficient) in reading according to national standards—well, that did a lot to convince my husband and me to look at other options.

The idea of homeschooling was never a big deal for me because for a long time I'd been surrounded by parents who already did it. At our former church every single family homeschooled except for one. But I learned that people have varying reasons for doing it. And if you become a member of the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), as I made the mistake of doing for a year, you realize from their newsletters and onslaught of email updates that HSLDA assumes all Christian homeschoolers are a right-wing voting bloc that they can exploit for their hyperventilated campaign against same-sex marriage. Pretty obnoxious. Did I mention what a mistake it was to join?

Our reasons for homeschooling have little to do with avoiding "government schools" that promote "the homosexual agenda" as HSLDA puts it. It is about good education, not the right politics. Ironically, even if you are homeschooling to avoid the politically charged atmosphere of a left-leaning school district, by joining a homeschooling group you are just entering into another politically charged atmosphere, quite often right-leaning. Since our focus is on old-fashioned academics, not training up future voters, we have been content to bypass both public schools and homeschooling organizations and forge ahead solo.

And it's funny how the right kind of "life education" takes place when you just let it come about naturally. I'm weak in science so I asked my friend Doug Taron, whom I came to know through my website, for advice on a science unit. Doug is a conservation biologist who specializes in restoring endangered butterfly species. Well, one thing led to another in our email exchanges and pretty soon he had us hooked onto the project of raising Painted Lady Butterflies. We started with the caterpillar stage and took it all the way through metamorphosis, the emergence of adult butterflies, mating, egg laying, and the hatching of several hundred larvae. The larvae died because of toxins from fungus in the cage (my mistake), but otherwise the girls went to town with the project and had a fantastic time. They took photographs, made sketches, observed the eggs and larvae under a microscope. Finally we put together a complete report, a copy of which we gave to Doug when he and his partner came over for dinner shortly afterward. It was by far the most memorable project we have done so far in our homeschooling adventures.

But there was an unexpected educational bonus that came out of that project. Our kids are approaching that age when they're asking questions about issues they overhear adults talk about. When they came to me asking what "gay" meant, not only was I comfortable explaining it to them, but better, I could point to a number of people they already knew that we've had over for dinner, one of whom was our friend Doug. Remember how he was the one who helped us with the butterfly project? Yes, of course they remembered. The butterfly net and butterfly calendar and butterfly educational DVD's they've asked for subsequent to doing that project attest to the fact that they remember him very well.

I feel much more comfortable with that kind of introduction than having them get their first exposure to "gay issues" by going to school and hearing whispers and gossip about whether some teacher or fellow student is gay. Then seeing their friends divided over whether it is or isn't a choice, is or isn't a sin, or should or shouldn't be considered a big deal. Or worse, getting a unit about it in the classroom and seeing parents fight teachers over what should or shouldn't be said. Sure, kids will have to see that stuff eventually. But it seems to me we'd all be better off if everyone's first exposure to this issue took place in a spirit of calm, after having already become acquainted with people who are actually gay.

My friend Doug, by the way, has a blog that is a balanced and interesting mixture of his professional and personal interests. If you like insects, nature, ecology and/or cooking, you can check it out here.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

A stem that scored the hand

I'm home from church this morning, sick. While tidying up my computer files I came across this poem that I had saved from someplace I can't remember. A satisfying mixture of pessimism, wisdom and hope.

“...Therefore, since the world has still
Much good, but much less good than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure
Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure,
I’d face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good.
’Tis true, the stuff I bring for sale
Is not so brisk a brew as ale:
Out of a stem that scored the hand
I wrung it in a weary land.
But take it: if the smack is sour,
The better for the embittered hour;
It should do good to heart and head
When your soul is in my soul’s stead;
And I will friend you, if I may,
In the dark and cloudy day...”

-A. E. Housman
A Shropshire Lad