Sep 2, 2014

Aimee Semple McPherson: sources

"It's almost dangerous to say in the same (sentence) as 'Pentecostals,'" historian Anthea Butler said of Aimee Semple McPherson, "but I'll go ahead and say it: there's something sexy about her."

Semple McPherson, the pioneering pentecostal evangelist who used technology, media, and theatrics to spread the gospel, died 70 years ago this month. In her day, she reportedly drew larger crowds than Harry Houdini or P.T. Barnum.

"American Experience," the Public Broadcasting Service program, produced a documentary on Semple McPherson's life in 2007. It is now available on Youtube:

Anyone interested in a full treatment of Semple McPherson's life and her place in the history of American Christianity should check out Matthew Sutton's biography, Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America. (Sutton, incidentally, will be teaching at the University of Heidelberg this coming semester).

Pentecostal historians Anthea Butler and Arlene Sánchez-Walsh spoke about Semple McPherson on the public radio program, "On Being" in 2011, offering an excellent introduction to the evangelist.

Digital of Semple McPherson's magazine, Bridal Call, from 1917 and 1918, have been made available by the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center.

Aug 24, 2014

Taize prayers, Taize silence

I've gone to Taizé for a week. Regular blogging will resume in September.

Aug 20, 2014

The ringing of the kaiser-bell: German-American Reformed in WWI

When the bell rang at St. Paul's Evangelical Church in Duluth, Minnesota, in the spring of 1917, it rang with undertones of treason.

Midwestern church bells are not typically taken to signal a threat to America. This bell was different, though. It was a relic of German imperialism, mounted in a tower in a German-speaking church, ringing even as America declared war with Germany. This bell had been a gift of Kaiser Wilhelm I, the monarch who established the empire that was now, under the leadership of his grandson Kaiser Wilhelm II, carrying the world to war. The bell itself was a war trophy: it had been cast from a brass cannon captured from the French in the Franco-Prussian war.

This hadn't seemed so outrageous in 1872, when the pastor of St. Paul's wrote to the kaiser asking for a bell.

Then, the audacious thing was just that he asked. But the pastor, J. Lueder, wanted a bell for his German Reformed church and he thought the elderly emperor might be generously inclined towards the spiritual needs of the immigrants in faraway Minnesota. As historian Paul N. Crusius writes, Lueder sent off an "eloquent plea for the simple gift of metal to cast a bell whose tones would be, as it were, a voice from over the water summoning the people to worship God in the manner of their fathers."

Two years later, the church received a brass cannon from the kaiser.

The metal was melted down and re-cast into a bell. It was just a normal bell until war broke out in Europe the Summer of 1914 and America got involved in the war in 1917. Then, the bell was a symbol of German immigrants' connection to a country that was now the enemy.

It rang as a question about loyalty.

Women of Duluth, Minnesota sew in support of the war effort, circa 1918. Americans on the
"home front" were urged to see themselves as part of the war effort, part of beating Germany. 

Aug 18, 2014

Bible in America: statistics

50 percent of Americans say they have read the Bible privately in the last year.
8.5 percent say they read the Bible daily.
15 percent of those who do not read the Bible say it is the inerrant word of God.
55 percent of Bible readers use the King James Version.
19 percent use the New International Version.
48 percent of African Americans have memorized a Bible verse in the last year.
18 percent of Americans say they read the Bible for health and healing. 
17.5 percent of Americans say they read the Bible to know the future.
About 25 percent of Americans said their favorite verse is Psalm 23.
11 percent of American have asked clergy for help in understanding the Bible in the last year.

Source: The Bible in American Life report by The Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

Aug 16, 2014

'He just says, Trust me, man. Trust me.'

John Rydgren, an ordained Lutheran minister and radio DJ, connects experimental music with the promises of Jesus:

In 1966, Rydgren started America's only Psychedelic Christian radio show in a Lutheran church basement in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The Jesus People movement, which would combine hippie aesthetics with an evangelical message, was only just beginning, at the time. It hadn't yet spread from San Francisco to the rest of the country. It would be another five or six years before the youth pastors of middle America figured out, as Larry Eskridge puts it in his history of the Jesus People, how to "negotiate a truce between the demands of their own religious heritage and the allure of secular youth culture."

The 34-year-old minister was breaking new ground with his radio show, Silhouette.

Rydgren was director of the TV, Radio and Film department of the American Lutheran Church, a left-leaning denomination that later merged with other Lutheran groups to form the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. His show mostly played popular rock music, including the Rolling Stones and the Monkees, but it also featured Rydgren's own strange and memorable spoken-word tracks.

Between songs, Rydgran played short, psychedelic homilies: "Search It Out," "Rinky Dink," "Music to Watch Girls Walk By," "Hippie Version of Creation," "Groovin on a Saturday Night."

The show was syndicated, playing in New York, on FM stations across the country, and even on American Armed Forces Radio, broadcast to soldiers fighting in Vietnam.

"What's it all about?," Rydgren asked, in one spoken-word piece. "It's about where it's at -- with life, people, God, Christ, you know?"

Aug 15, 2014

The 'nones' paradox

Courtney E. Martin identifies herself as a "none" at the same time that she rejects the label.

Martin says the label applies to her. She is willing to represent the category and even speak as a representative of the label that has been used now for several years to name the religiously unaffiliated. At the same time, she represents the nones by critiquing the category.

"The texture of my spiritual life may not fit into labels that pollsters or politicians understand, but I'm not not religious," she writes in a column for On Being.

This seems to be a key problem with the label. To identify with the label is to reject it; to reject it is, conversely, to identify with it.

The name "none" attempts to name those who are not a part of a group, but in that, it makes them into a group, but a group of those who are not in a group. This is problematic.

Aug 13, 2014

Christian persecution in America

In U.S. history, the only real persecution of Christians was done by other Christians. Black Christians by white Christians. And that happened for about 250 years. That's the only Christian persecution in U.S. history.
-- Mark Noll, during the Q&A following his plenary address, "The Bible: Then and Now," at the Bible in American Life conference, in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Aug 12, 2014

Court: Homeschooling not an absolute right

A Texas court has rejected the Home School Legal Defense Association's attempt to expand the legal rights to homeschooling. The El Paso appeals court handed down a decision last week, ruling that while parents have the right to educate their children at home, that education can still be regulated by the state.

"No parents have ever prevailed," Judge Ann Crawford McClure wrote, "in any reported case on a theory that they have an absolute constitutional right to educate their children in the home, completely free of any state supervision, regulation, or requirements."

The case involves Michael and Laura McIntyre and their children, five of whom are still educated at home. The family believes its their responsibility to educate their children. They believe the government is trying to take that from them, overstepping its rightful bounds. Texas law allows homeschooling as long as there is a written curriculum, and instruction in five subjects: reading, spelling, grammar, math, and good citizenship. The state doesn't approve home schools nor test home school students. It does, under current law, require assurance of these minimal standards. Though the homeschool advocacy group, HSLDA, has held up Texas as a model state, it sought to use the McIntyre's case to role back that last bit of regulation.

The HSLDA sought to use the McIntyre case to argue that not only do parents have the right to educate their children at home, they have the right to do that free from any government oversight.

The court found no legal precedent for that expansive claim.

Aug 5, 2014

Cane Ridge pulpit

Cane Ridge Pulpit

The pulpit at Cane Ridge, a landmark of the Second Great Awakening and the start of the Stone-Campbell Restorationist movement. Barton Stone preached here in one of the key revivals of the Second Great Awakening. Cane Ridge is preserved as a private museum, today, near Paris, Kentucky.

Aug 1, 2014

Bringing together Ayn Rand and Jesus

Ayn Rand was once asked if capitalism and Christianity didn't go together. She didn't like the idea.

"Nothing more derogatory to capitalism could ever be alleged," she said.

Rand was a self-declared enemy of religion, and of Christianity in particular. Combining atheism and capitalism in a philosophy she called Objectivism, Rand championed selfishness as the highest virtue. Altruism, for her, was evil. She found Christianity particularly offensive, as it valorizes sacrifice. Sacrifice is antithetical to the self-interest at the heart of capitalism. Rand said Christianity's central tenet was "sacrifice of the ideal to the non-ideal . . . or virtue to vice."

The thought of that was horrific to Rand.

In her most famous novel, Atlas Shrugged, Rand's heroes reject the symbol of the cross, which is the symbol of this sacrifice, and instead rally around the dollar sign.

There have nonetheless been regular attempts to recuperate Rand for a God-and-markets style American conservatism. People want to reconcile her and Christianity. In America, in particular, where many conservatives understand doctrines of free market economics and loving your neighbor as yourself to be mutually supporting, where they understand laizze-faire capitalism and for-God-so-loved-the-world Christianity to each be the necessary condition of the other, there are people who want to bring Rand's selfishness and Jesus' selflessness into harmony.

The latest example of this is the forthcoming film, Atlas Shrugged: Who is John Galt?

This is the third in a series of film adaptations of Rand's most famous book. It was originally scheduled for release on July 4, but has been pushed back for a Fall release. The first two films in this series were not commercially successful. The man behind the films, John Aglialoro, is pushing ahead with the third film anyway.

He's pushing ahead because he believes it's important.

One reason: He believes "our troubled times require an alliance between champions of reasons and free market capitalism and conservative religious practitioners, for without such an alliance both causes will be lost," according to Bill Frezza, a venture capitalist writing about the forthcoming film for Forbes.

Making the film, John Aglialoro has added a small scene to the film that was not in the book, for the purpose of depicting a sympathetic interaction between Rand's ideas and Chrisitainty.

Jul 29, 2014

The faith of serious fiction

Christopher Beha, author of the new novel Arts & Entertainment, on the presence of religion in literature:
The majority of people in this country (and on this earth) have sincerely held religious beliefs that they've integrated into their thoroughly modern lives. A quarter of the U.S. population -- and 40 percent of the population of New York, where my novel is set -- self-identify as Catholic. One of the most striking features of the city is that there are churches everywhere, from one of the world's largest cathedrals to hundreds of storefront churches. And a bit of investigation will reveal that those churches fill up every Sunday. Not to mention the fact that there are more Jews in New York than in any other city in the world. But for some reason the publishing industry in this city tends to view the introduction of religion into contemporary realist novels as a willful act that must have some strong rhetorical justification. From where I stand, the exclusion of religion is the willful act. Novelists never get asked why they don't include religion in their books, or why the religion they do include -- often just a species of madness -- bears so little resemblance to religion as it is practiced by the majority of Americans. If they were asked, I suspect, most of these writers would not have a very good answer. It simply doesn't occur to them. Whatever one's beliefs, this seems like a basic failure of verisimilitude. Reality includes religion; realism should, too.
The English poet Matthew Arnold once imagined that literature would replace religion. This was a not-implausible idea, when it seemed societies secularized in a straightforward way. Now, though, it sometimes seems as if literature has replaced religion, but only in its own pages. 

Jul 24, 2014

A sinner's aesthetic

Trying to describe "Christian art," a number of evangelical novelists have offered the definition that it is art "from a Christian world view."

That definition might not be as helpful as it appears. There's some ambiguity about whether fiction written "from a Christian world view" entails just the faith commitment of the author or means there is a requirement for certain representational rules. It can be taken as a rejection of the idea that evangelical fiction has to have an explicit gospel message, the novel functioning in some ways like a tract. But it can be also be taken as an insistence on a particular message, the art required to stage certain themes and issues.

It's problematic from the perspective of cultural history because it's normative. It's not a description of a certain category of art as much as, in practice, it's an imperative. The definition is not helpful in identifying what counts as Christian fiction. It's more of a mission statement.

Taken as a mission statement, though, as an imperative for Christian art, the definition raises a question about aesthetics. What aesthetic values are connected to that Christian view of the world?

Alissa Wilkinson, the chief film critic for Christianity Today, argues that good Christian art -- art that's good at being Christian and good as art too -- is art that flows from the Christian recognition of sin. Christian cinema, she says, should have an aesthetic that starts from the sense that all have sinned, all are broken or messed up sin. It should be moved by that to empathy.

Wilkinson is calling for what could be thought of as sinners' cinema.

She writes,
Maybe you're not a recovering alcoholic; maybe you've never been unfaithful to spouse or friends or whatever; maybe you've never murdered anyone or cheated on a test; maybe you have lived a pretty clean life. But if you are a Christian . . . then you know you're a mess, one that has to not just lean but grasp, wildly, for something greater than you or you'll come apart at the seams. And if you're an artist, you don't start from ideas -- you start there.  
I guess what I'm trying to say is this: the best Christians, the best artists (and critics and parents and pastors) -- the ones who make things that actually change lives -- are ones who know they are miserable sinners.
This is an aesthetic value I identify with a lot, personally.

I am not in the business of making Christian art. I am also not in the business of judging the quality or value of the evangelical fiction I'm studying. It occurs to me, though, that what bothers Wilkinson about many, many works of Christian art is the same thing that bothers me about many popular critiques of those same works. There's a fundamental lack of empathy. The characters aren't human, but just flat. Their motivations aren't taken to be complicated and conflicted, but simple and dismissible.