Archive for September, 2009

What IS Biblically Based Marriage, Really?

September 25, 2009

Betty Bowers of Landover Baptist Church explains why same-sex marriage is immoral. Click to view.

Drop-kicking Sinners into a Lake of Fire

September 24, 2009

Hell 2

Norma Bruns’ “metaphorical meditation” on eternal damnation (below, post of 9/18/09) inspired me to search out some notable sermons about hellfire. Here are snippets from two that I found–one from the 18th century and the other from our own day:

From a sermon by 18th-century theologian John Wesley:

Is it not common to say to a child, “Put your finger into that candle: Can you bear it even for one minute? How then will you bear hell-fire?” Surely it would be torment enough to have the flesh burnt off from only one finger. What then will it be, to have the whole body plunged into a lake of fire burning with brimstone!

From a sermon by Pastor Deacon Fred, of the Landover Baptist Church:

It is very upsetting to have someone laugh in your face when you are trying to explain to them that if they don’t return Christ’s love and accept Him as their personal savior that they are going to be tortured and have all of the flesh burnt off their body every day for all of eternity in a literal lake of fire. So upsetting in fact, that when witnessing to an unsaved Lutheran the other day, I responded to his laughter by saying, “I can’t wait to see you burn in Hell!” He was taken aback, and quite shocked. I used this opportunity to witness even more. … “I can’t wait to see the look of surprise on your face as Jesus drop-kicks you off the cliff of glory into the lake of fire!” I exclaimed.

Visit the Landover Baptist Church, here.

UPDATE: I have learned since posting this piece that the quotation from Pastor Deacon Fred is satire and that the Landover Baptist Church website is a spoof. What does it say about fundamentalism in modern America that the most extreme parodies of it are nearly indistinguishable from the real thing! (See my posting of 6/16/09, “Fred Phelps’s Humor Deficit.”)

Double Whammy: A Gay Atheist Sailor’s Dilemma

September 24, 2009


In the current issue of Free Inquiry (October-November 2009), a 22-year-old U.S. Navy sailor writing under the name of N. Bonaparte describes his encounter with military chaplains and psychologists after his homosexual identity was revealed to his superiors. Bonaparte was an outstanding sailor, had received a Navy Achievement Medal and other awards, and aspired to serve in public office after a successful tour of duty with the Navy. When his homosexuality was discovered, Bonaparte went into a deep depression and was referred to a chaplain—a fundamentalist Christian with no credentials in counseling who tried to force his religious beliefs about homosexuality on Bonaparte.   

Bonaparte was not only gay but atheist, and so his sessions with the chaplain were doubly inappropriate and left him even more depressed than before, even suicidal. He was eventually referred to a military psychologist, who helped him get back on track and deal confidently with the charges against him. But, writes Bonaparte, the military routinely stigmatizes soldiers who seek psychological counseling and thereby imposes an extra burden on those who, quite understandably, become depressed over their treatment under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.    

Bonaparte questions the military’s practice of referring troubled servicepersons to chaplains first, regardless of the serviceperson’s religious background. Often, chaplains are neither trained nor licensed as counselors and are ideologically ill-suited to dealing with non-believers or homosexuals. Bonaparte writes, “I don’t think someone who breaks with the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association by refusing to recognize homosexuality as nonpathological is qualified to assess, counsel, or treat someone for anything other than religious or spiritual problems.” 

Bonaparte blames the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy for creating a culture of secrecy, lies, and double lives, and he blames the pervasive “Christianization” of the military for filling the chaplaincy ranks with ministers from fundamentalist or evangelical traditions. 

“The policy of turning to chaplains first,” he concludes, “…fails desperately to meet the needs of members who are gay, nonreligious, or who may have serious mental health issues.” The predictable outcome of this misguided policy is that America’s armed forces regularly lose highly-trained personnel to suicides, psychological breakdowns, and premature withdrawals from duty.

A Mimetic Reading of Stanley Kubrick’s Film, “2001, A Space Odyssey”

September 19, 2009

Sun_Earth_Moon cropped

The following reading of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” is re-published by permission from its author, “Dean,” who submitted it recently for the enjoyment of bloggers on the Reflections on Faith and Culture site. Dean views the film’s story through the lens of René Girard’s mimetic theory.

In the famous Dawn of Man sequence an ape overcomes his fear and touches the monolith, which has suddenly appeared during the night, a sentinel planted by some unseen and vast intelligence. There is a sense of numinous awe in the film, as the mysterious black basaltic slab appears over and over again throughout the movie. This is the divine agency of the film–the burning bush. The ape in the initial scene then turns bones into tools. He learns how to use his new “tool” as a murder weapon against a rival tribe of apes, and although that was not the intention of the caretakers who imparted the knowledge, the rival apes at the business end of a jagged thigh bone may have thought differently.

A klaxon is sounded, as the sentinel telegraphs its message to the stars signaling the changed status of the apes.  From that point on, the monolith patiently stands as a silent beacon, through aeons of time, in different locations, awaiting the next visitation in the distant future when it will impart a new chapter of knowledge further along the evolutionary path as the unseen caretakers surveil our progress from behind the scenes. The tree in Genesis as well as the cross at Calvary and the Monolith in Space Odyssey are essentially the same: preparations for participation in a grand mystery. But the agency behind that mystery remains unseen, or seen only through a glass darkly, which is the central tension both of the film and of our lives. Each discovery emboldens us to go another step further on our personal and collective odyssey.


Eternal Damnation: A Metaphorical Meditation

September 18, 2009


by Norma Burns

Some fundamentalist Christians can give you very graphic descriptions of hell and will waste no opportunity to do so. More mainline or progressive Christians are typically embarrassed by “hell talk” and would prefer to background it. These are the truly kind and empathetic folks who cannot reconcile the idea of hell—still lingering in their religious traditions—with the omni-benevolent and all-merciful god they worship. The following meditation is for Christians of the latter variety—those whose theology hasn’t caught up with their progressive views about human worth and dignity.

This meditation invites you to imagine an eternity filled with the most extreme suffering and then to draw your own conclusions about a theology that could comfortably propagate such a concept. We’ll take the temporal concept of eternity and transpose it into the spatial dimension so that you can visualize it. And then we’ll ask you to try filling that space with the memory of the worst pain you ever suffered—a severe burn, a broken bone, an organ failure. WARNING: Do not continue this meditation if you begin to experience genuine psychological discomfort. It is not for the faint of heart.

Ready? Now, imagine you are standing in a desert at the summit of the highest dune around. You can see for miles around you, and all you see is more dunes under a canopy of sunlit sky.

You pick up a grain of sand and look at it closely. This grain of sand represents the span of your life on earth.

Now try to recall the worst pain you ever experienced, and imagine that your entire life, as represented by the grain of sand, was filled with such pain. 

Put the grain of sand back. Try to remember where you put it.

To grasp the concept of eternal suffering, you now have to imagine counting all the other grains of sand that exist, everywhere. Each of them is the equivalent of a new lifetime filled with pain.

Look around you and try to estimate the number of grains of sand you see. We’ll call that number “N.” For the moment, try to think of N as eternity, and try to imagine your worst experience of pain lasting that long.

But N isn’t eternity yet. You have to visualize more grains of sand. The ones that you see are only on the surface, and that the little section of desert you’re standing in is only a small part of the entire desert. Do the numbers, and don’t forget to factor in the pain.

And there are even more grains of sand elsewhere, in other deserts, on beaches, on the floor of the oceans, and on other planets in our solar system. Add these to the total. And don’t forget the pain. 

But that’s still not all the grains of sand. Scientists estimate there are hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe, each with its suns and its planets. Add in all those grains of sand that are on these planets and do the total. Imagine how many digits your new number N might have. If you wrote them out, do you think they might stretch from here to the Moon?

That’s still not eternity. Square N. The digits in N may now extend beyond the next galaxy. And don’t forget the pain. In fact, magnify the pain. Imagine something more horrific, like burning. Endless burning. End this meditation immediately if your anxiety levels become unbearable.

Now, quickly! Force your attention back to the grain of sand that you held in your hand and that you replaced on the ground. Can you find it? Again, it represents the span of your life, a life in which you did something that displeased…God.


That’s it. Metaforo finito. Grazie, signore e signori. You can do this meditation again at home, on the beach, or in the desert. Always follow the safety precautions as prescribed.

And now, before you leave, consider this: Untold billions of humans throughout history did not fulfil the requirements for admission to heaven. The Bible tells us that the majority of people will go to hell. This suggests three provocative questions: 

  1. Can a deity who punishes so many people so horribly and for so long be benevolent in any sense of the word?
  2. Why would anyone worship such a petty, unforgiving, and wrathful deity?
  3. If you were in heaven for eternity, how could you not spend every moment weeping for those spending eternity in hell? 

If you’re so inclined, you can have fun drawing out all kinds of other interesting questions and conclusions.   

My own conclusion: It’s amazing to me that theologians and preachers speak so glibly of eternal damnation, as if hell were just some cardboard cut-out in a medieval mystery play and the audience were illiterate peasants.

Abortion is not Genocide

September 16, 2009

by Cheryl Maslow

During the course of an extended blog discussion about a wide range of issues, including abortion (see comments following several posts on Gil Bailie’s blog log, Reflections on Faith and Culture, from July through September 2009), I noticed that several writers in the group were describing abortion as murder or as genocide. This is standard pro-life rhetoric, and it is hyperbolic. Both of these words have straightforward dictionary and legal definitions that make them unsuitable for describing abortion. Then, an exchange between two of the participants, Paul and Athos (following the post of 9/6/09), stirred up my thoughts about a book I read over a year ago: Carolyn Marvin’s “Blood Sacrifice and the Nation.” Marvin argues that collective victimage constructs American national identity, and she develops her ideas out of a reading of René Girard and Emil Durkheim. But I sensed that many of her insights have implications for the abortion issue and its weighting against other issues that we discussed on the blog, particularly climate change, income disparity, and health care. Because both Paul and Athos had read René Girard and understood the sacrificial mechanism he illuminates, I decided to spin out my thoughts about abortion as sacrifice and to challenge the notion that abortion is genocide. My motive was less to defend abortion than to develop my intuition that not all sacrifice involves scapegoating. The following paragraphs are a revised and expanded version of a three-part comment that I submitted. A basic familiarity with Girard’s mimetic theory is helpful in reading them.

Athos writes: “When a conventional culture begins to break down, it tries to surcharge its victimary mechanism by either increasing the prestige of its victims or number of victims: regicide or genocide. … We’re in the latter stage, and we’re sacrificing our unborn children.”

The word “genocide” seems misapplied when used to describe abortion. (Genocide is the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group, according to Merriam-Webster.) This is not just a quibble over definitions. We have a much better chance of understanding both abortion and genocide as sacrificial phenomena if we make careful distinctions.

Athos was of course correct in describing the pre-born as “defenseless, innocent, and voiceless.” I say “of course” because both the pre-born and infants are universally regarded in this way—squalling infants on buses excepted. This doesn’t prevent their being killed in abortions and wartime bombings or neglected to the point of starvation or disease-related death. I am not the first to point out that caring for the pre-born and the newly-born requires caring for the mothers that are carrying or nursing them, for the fathers that support these mothers financially and emotionally, and even for the broader society and ecology that sustains them all. This means that the abortion issue is also the health care issue and the income disparity issue and the environmental quality issue. And it is a part of a vast web of many other issues as well.

How many millions of the unborn or newly born have suffered and died in the Sahel because of water shortages resulting from mismanagement and over-exploitation of resources? These deaths could have been prevented, but tribes and sovereign nations decided that other matters were more important. This is sacrifice, but it’s not necessarily “victimage” in the Girardian sense. These deaths did not restore harmony to a community in crisis as the victimage mechanism does. Rather, the powerful (the state, multinational corporations, tribal leaders, warlords, etc.) decided that these individuals were expendable, and the cause-effect relationship went missing in time, space, and human memory.


A Quotation for our Times

September 15, 2009

November 12, 1936. Winston Churchill speaks to the House of Commons about Britain’s continuing failure to respond to the threat of German fascism:

The Government simply cannot make up their minds, or they cannot get the Prime Minister to make up his mind. So they go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent…. The era of procastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, or delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.

New Orientation, But Still Bent

September 11, 2009

I originally intended this blog to serve as a forum for discussion of gay and lesbian (or more broadly, GLBT) issues. Hence the name, “The Bent Angle.” I started a companion site as a container for discussion of secular humanist issues and called it “The Bright Angle.” The bright angle remained dim from lack of input from me, while this site lit up to a dull glow for a while.

And then it struck me that I have too many “angles” to create a separate blog container for each of them. They have a way of “triangulating” (or rectangulating, pentagulating, etc.) around events and issues that capture my interest. Since the mid-seventies, I’ve read widely in the mimetic theory of René Girard and, more recently, I’ve become interested in Richard Dawkins’s meme theory. And then there’s Ernest Becker, whose writings I came to know through friends at the Ernest Becker Foundation, which holds its annual conferences in my city. But these are just the “angles.” Then there are the events and issues themselves. Recent blog discussions with people whose views are radically different from my own have inspired me to read and think more deeply about climate change and the environment, reproductive rights, health care, human rights abuses, and the clash of cultures. These various strands of angles and issues have a way of becoming interwoven through everything that I write, and I’ve given up trying to keep them separate. Tapestries are more interesting than cloth of a single color.  

So, to abruptly switch metaphors, this site will henceforth be a salad. The ingredients will be fresh, I hope, and they will consist of whatever is in season. I intend to occasionally bring in other writers to vary the menu. Our first guest will be Cheryl Maslow, whose insightful comments I discovered on a blog site dedicated in part to discussions of mimetic theory.