I Was Sick And You Looked After Me

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Glenn Beck Attacks Social Justice - James Martin
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Mary Matalin
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The thing that confuses me the most about some conservative pundits' recent attacks on the concept of social justice is the way they're framing it as a dangerous offshoot of a perverted faith. I was born and raised in the church and still believe in the primacy of the teachings of Christ, which is why it's bizarre to see talk show hosts like Glenn Beck now attacking the most basic underpinnings of those teachings. Political debates over religious topics like abortion are nothing new, but I had no idea so many people could get so upset over something as simple as the concept of charity. It's a terrible thing to do, both politically and morally. The political problems are easy to see. One of the reasons there's so much fuel for the fire when it comes to the abortion debate is the lack of canonical or scriptural writing on the subject. The word isn't mentioned in the Bible, and that gives partisans on both sides free reign to interpret that silence to their own needs. But Jesus talks about the poor more than anything else, and uses countless parables and teaching moments to drive home the fact that he has come to save the destitute, to feed the hungry, to treat the sick, and to illustrate the truth of what it means to be fully human. For modern news hosts to act as if these passages don't exist, or as if they mean different things — in the second clip above, Mary Matalin says Jesus' instructions were along the lines of, "If you don't work, you don't eat," which Stephen Colbert interjected were actually, "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven" — is just blindingly stupid. These words are written, and they've been a guiding force for people for centuries. That's why it's also morally dangerous for commentators to advocate an isolationist position when it comes to helping the poor, or to act as if the phrase "social justice" is a coded phrase for something other than helping out those who were born less fortunate. That's not what faith — and humanity — is about. Those railing against charity seem to be committing the mistake made by the disciples in the gospel of John, who, encountering a blind man, asked Jesus whether the condition was caused by the blind man's sin or that of his parents. He replied, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life." Poor people aren't poor because they've made a mistake; they don't exist as a reminder of some curse brought down on their heads by a vengeful creator. Rather, their presence is a chance for those more blessed to extend help, to allow the grace and comfort shown to them to be spread to those in need. In the words of Deuteronomy, "There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land." What possible excuse could there be for withholding help from those in need?

Certain Of What We Do Not See

fakecert.jpgThe fake birth certificate pictured above is at the heart of what's come to be called the "birther" movement, peopled by a loose collection of extremists who dispute President Obama's citizenship and, thus, the credence of his presidency. It doesn't matter how many times the idea is proven to be a pointless controversy; adherents of the movement refuse to budge on their claims that Obama is not a natural-born citizen. From a political standpoint, it's bewildering; from a human standpoint, it's inane; but viewed as an outgrowth of fundamentalist Christianity, it makes perfect sense. Fundamentalists have a strong respect for standing your ground and for placing your hope and reasoning in a higher and often unseen calling; that's the essence of faith, and left unsullied by the world, it can be a very good thing. This is why so many evangelicals flocked to George W. Bush and stood by him through the sub-Nixonian end; political orientation aside, when a guy says the most influential figure in his life has been Jesus Christ and speaks loftily of a return to forgotten family values, these people will stick by him out of respect for his faith and out of the belief that he's a good man regardless of demonstrable successes. More than that: Faith calls followers to trust in the unseen, meaning Bush could be a public failure but still be considered a spiritual success because of the immeasurable and unmeasurable ways in which he has adhered to the cause. It doesn't matter that a man who campaigned on his submission to Christ's teachings would eventually organize and sanction the torture and execution of other souls that messiah died to save, or even that Bush's followers never called him on the dichotomy. In a sick twist on the writings of James, these people demanded only faith, not its attendant works. That's why the existence of the birthers, especially among more extreme-right groups that tend to be more fundamentalist or evangelical, makes perfect sense. They don't want evidence of Obama's citizenship, which is why they've ignored it every time it's given to them. They are committed to a cause not out of politics — at least, that's what they'll tell themselves — but out of a slavish devotion to a cause whose persecution by the unwashed and reliance on things not seen becomes a dark parallel of their Christian faith. They have created what they believe to be the truth, and nothing will dissuade them from it. That makes them deluded, yes, but also the worst kind of dangerous. They cannot be talked down, and they will not be reasoned out of their position. They wouldn't even see it as reason, but misleading propaganda. For a more pointed political perspective on the birthers, here's Bill Maher. He's usually way too smug for his own good — he seems to have forgotten that reason and intellect are better suited to a balanced tone than condescending scorn — but he blasts the birthers in this clip and discusses the dangers of letting such groups get away with too much. I agree with him:

Things That I Am Giving Up For Lent

• Sleeping until 1 p.m. when 12:30 p.m. is perfectly acceptable. Be more proactive!• Drinking three nights a week. Come on, you never want to be hungover for work. Two nights a week won't kill me. (Be strong on this one!) • Using my turn signal when there's no one there. It wastes electricity, and I think we should be good stewards of our environmental resources. • Washing underwear more than once a month. Again, this goes back to wastefulness, which is something I think we can all do our part to help reduce. Together we can do it guys! • Paying attention when people talk to me. I need to do more for myself or I'll never feel like I'm centered, you know? • Reading the news. It changes every day, and people tend to tell me when something happens that affects my life. Plus this will give me more time for reading for pleasure (currently on the nightstand: Shopaholic Takes Manhattan NO SPOILERS PLZ!!). • Dogmatic Catholicism.

The Damning Effects Of The Masculinity Movement

[What can I say, I'm on a religion kick today.]I read Wild at Heart in college. Everyone did, or at least, a lot of the guys did. I could spend weeks discussing abstract principles and specific examples of how memes tend to crop up and sweep through Southern evangelical circles like fire. It's the same way fashion and music trends appear seemingly out of nowhere and consume high schoolers or twentysomethings or any given age group, only the church patterns carry more weight because there's an inherent and unspoken perception that the thing you're participating in isn't just new or popular but also Important and Meaningful and Connected to the Fate of Your Immortal Soul. It's why everyone my age from that background still knows the words to "Flood"; sometimes, these things just happen. In college, what happened was John Eldredge's Wild at Heart. It wasn't just Eldredge's writing style that put me off, or the fact that the book seemed to have been hastily cobbled together and not edited at all. I like to think I have a healthy respect for accuracy and language, and reading about "Jerry McGuire" didn't exactly inspire confidence, since if the author couldn't bother to fact-check his pop culture references, what assurance did I have that he wasn't on theologically shaky ground as well? But my biggest problem with the book was the manner of the responsibility it seemed to be calling me to, and the fact that years of not inconsiderable education and thought, not to mention a set of loving and God-fearing parents, hadn't taught me what Eldredge and others in the burgeoning masculinity movement said was my real purpose. Apparently, while I'd been learning and trying to be a good person, I was supposed to be preparing myself for some kind of epic battle for the heart of a woman and possibly the fate of all mankind. The Christian camps I attended in the summers of my youth had never skimped on the Braveheart parallels, but while they used Mel Gibson's movie mainly as a terrifying example of sacrifice for a cause, it wasn't until the masculinity movement kicked off that writers and preachers began to see a whole new side of William Wallace for modern Christian men to mimic. Eldredge wrote that most Christian men believe God wants them to be "nice guys," and there's apparently an inherent failure in this that I never really saw. Most of Jesus' teachings and the epistles of the New Testament did seem to be about being, you know, nice. But Eldredge is just a misguided man of passion next to Marc Driscoll, who through the Mars Hill Church in Seattle is apparently doing his damnedest to ruin my religion. Driscoll has said that the modern church has turned out "a bunch of nice, soft, tender, chickified church boys." And just in case you're wondering if Driscoll is the kind of person who uses words like "dudes" and "chicks" ironically, he isn't: "Sixty percent of Christians are chicks, and the forty percent that are dudes are still sort of chicks." Driscoll's other quotes are equally enlightening: "Jesus was not a long-haired, effeminate-looking dude," but a man with "big biceps." Real men are "dudes: heterosexual, win-a-fight, punch-you-in-the-nose dudes." There's also a terrifying group called GodMen, all one word. The most worrisome part of this noxious promotional video is the moment at around 2:40 when one of the men in the crowd at the gathering said that he's preparing to be a pastor and as such has thought he needed to be more meek and humble, but he's now had a change of heart. That's right: This man who had been contemplating entering the ministry and pursuing Jesusian qualities that are actually cited in the Beatitudes has decided not to do that because he's been misled by a part of the masculinity movement. There are two main problems with this whole thing, namely, that the movement creates a false definition for masculinity and then says that it must be pursued. But this is such a dangerous, damning road to walk. It's a divisive tactic born of branding and the desire to sell books, and to mistake the movement's sectarian call for segregation among believers damages the men at its center and would seem to ignore the God they claim to follow. Yet it's also easy to see why the movement has such a foothold in the souls of men my age: It promises power and revolution, and talks about swords and being valiant. We are a generation scattered further afield than our parents; we search for answers and yearn for something like guidance, but this isn't it. This is wrong, and mean, and small-minded, and it plays into an idea of stereotypical maleness that has nothing to do with manhood.

Probably The Most Spiritually Graphic (And Disturbing, And Probably Offensive) Image I Have Ever Created

A few weeks ago, I was hanging out with some old friends from college and discussing our common experiences, including a week-long course in human sexuality that a few of us had taken. Taking a class like that at a school like mine basically meant you were in for four straight days of therapy, since most of us were repressed white kids from middle- to upper-middle-class churches in the South. You've met a million of us. One of the things we got to talking about was the quasi-spiritual language employed by some of our classmates in the context of the course as an excuse to sound educated or advanced or just generally better than everyone else. Below, an excerpt of the beer-fueled rant into which I heartily threw myself:"He said he was 'convicted' that masturbation was a sin. Well, I was 'convicted' that I was a college student and that it's a great stress reliever. Plus I never know what anyone means when they say they were 'convicted' about it. I get this image of him rubbing one out while holding a Bible, his tears falling down onto the thin pages, crying out, 'I'm doing it wrong! I'm doing it wrong!'"

The Quality Of Mercy At 1,729 Ft.

acu.jpgSometimes I don't quite know what to say to people when they ask where I went to school. No one has ever really heard of Abilene, Texas, much less Abilene Christian University, and explaining the ideological background in which I was raised — as well as how that changed, and how I evolved to the point where I was really kind of frustrated and heartbroken at the way the school and its students sometimes handled themselves — always takes too much time. (I will never even attempt to explain Sing Song.) That's not to say I was ever particularly ashamed of my degree; I earned a B.S. in journalism from some respectable instructors, and my two years on the staff of the campus paper were solid ones, considering we only published twice weekly and came from a Division II school. So it's only out of deference to the teachers whose work helped me gain the skills to find a good job, and to some fading memory of the good time I had there, that I'm holding back from ripping the campus newspaper to rightful shreds. (I have a feeling I will not be able to do keep my word, though.) I'm trying to be understanding, I really am. I haven't even kept up with the campus paper since I was a recent graduate. But an editorial published in their increasingly shallow pages the other day has stirred up the feelings of bitter disappointment I felt by the time I'd reached the end of my days at ACU. The editorial ran under the headline, "Golden Compass not so golden for Christians." ...I should probably take a moment to explain briefly the paper's mindset. It's a campus paper published at a private Christian university in Texas, which means most editorials (and a terrifying number of news stories) are going to necessarily seek out the God angle. The paper is even called The Optimist, and among the regular letters we received in my time were queries as to why we didn't publish more upbeat stories and "live up to our name." To be clear: We were often asked by unhinged alumni and current students to slant the news in a happy way. As the Arts Editor, I often received angry letters from alumni whenever I gave positive reviews to R-rated films. One such man, writing in the Lucado-esque doublespeak that passes for spiritual depth among some believers, told me that ACU had "broken covenant" with him by allowing me to write positive reviews of films that "do not measure up to Christian standards." Can you understand now, to some small degree, what that place is like? It's as if the institution and its alumni are practically daring you to drop your chosen major of journalism and pick something like youth and family ministry (which from a real-world marketplace standard has to be even more useless than a generic speech/communications degree). There are some genuine, earnest, progressive believers at the school, but they are always shouted down by the spiteful and controlling. Anyway. The editorial board at the Optimist, once a topic is decided upon, farms out the writing to one of the students on the board. This also often overlaps with the Opinion Writing class, whose members spend the semester under the firm guidance of a professor who takes particular delight in excising the passive voice from your columns until you go blind at all the red ink he's spilled on your page. (The final exam was just to write another column, but the professor would dock you a letter grade for each instance of passive voice. Yeah.) So it's not like I don't understand or remember what it was like to feel pressured and stressed and up against the wall to get a column out on deadline. But the editorial in question must've been written by a student so hard up for ideas and so clearly resigned to turning in a below-average piece that they felt there was naturally nothing else to do but write a lazy, inflammatory, and downright irresponsible column. The editorial, which can be read in its pathetic entirety by clicking here, starts out with a slanted lede: "Controversy continues to swirl around the movie The Golden Compass, due in theaters Dec. 7." Wait a minute. You can't just throw that out there. Is the controversy because of the books' inherent religious stance, whatever that might be? It's foolish to think that (a) the reader knows all about these supposed controversies, or that (b) you don't have to back this up with evidence. Obviously, an editorial is going to take a side, but is it necessary to start out so declamatory? I really am curious. The editorial states that the film's plot comes from Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. Actually, I'm wrong; it simply names the series without crediting the author. This isn't just shoddy reporting, but almost criminally stupid in an editorial that's apparently (given the headline) going to build some kind of case against the movie based on the books. Why is the author not mentioned? What did the author have to say about the film adaptation of his works, or the way controversy is apparently continuing to swirl? Does no one have a Lexis-Nexis account? Could no one be bothered to look this up? The film is also directed by Chris Weitz, but New Line removed him for a while and replaced him with Anand Tucker, only to eventually boot Tucker and bring Weitz back on board. Does this have anything to do with the delicate task of transferring the books' religious views (again, whatever those actually are) into a four-quadrant tentpole that's supposed to start a new film franchise? Reading on, it's apparent that the author only has one source for the editorial: An article about the film published on that revolves around the angry protests of Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, and his attacks on the movie. (Actually, the editorial spells it "Bill Donahue," but I'm going to assume they mean Donohue.) Donohue is the only source quoted in the editorial. Again, I know that editorials are meant to build an argument and take a stand, but wouldn't it make more sense to include both points of view before presenting the paper's opinion? Even if that opinion opposes Donohue, it still looks terribly weak to only have his words as a source. Another major problem with the editorial is its insidious use of "many," "more," and "controversy" when talking about movies that apparently generated protests from Christians over their religious content. Take this sentence: "Christians worldwide continue to protest the release of the movie because of its atheistic views." Really? Christians worldwide? Where? Who? When? They surely weren't protesting at any movie theaters; the film bows Dec. 7, and this editorial ran on Nov. 7. Where are all these protesting Christians? Are they sending angry letters or emails? If so, are they organized or acting on their own? Are the protests physical? Have their protests been reported somewhere? If so, where, and what were the details of the protest? If not, why write the sentence? It's as if the author had no idea how hazardous and just plain stupid it is to invent facts. Later on, the author writes, "Many other movies, including The Da Vinci Code, have caused controversy in the Christian sphere and led Christian groups to boycott the movies." Again, you can't just say this stuff and refuse to back it up. The Da Vinci Code wasn't that long ago; who protested it, if any, and why? Where were the alleged protests? Did they accomplish anything? The editorial then drops any pretense of effort or respectability and loses all energy, sputtering to a nonsensical ending by quoting John Milton in what's both a clear attempt to fulfill the number of sources required by the Opinion Writing professor and another sign of lazy research: The quote about truth and falsehood grappling in the marketplace of ideas from Milton's Areopagitica is emblazoned in the Comm Law syllabus and bandied about often in that class. The quote was staring the author in the face, and they used it, regardless of its inaccuracy. Read and weep:

The Optimist believes that while the concerns of the Christian groups have validity, trying to stop the movie's release cripples the marketplace of ideas. John Milton wrote in Areopagitica that when truth and falsehood grapple, truth eventually wins. If Christians believe in their religion and its truthfulness, they shouldn't feel threatened by ideas that counteract their beliefs. Truth will win in the end, and by disproving differing opinions, that truth of Christianity remains stronger.

Even the Opinion Writing professor thinks that part of the column is weak. (I have no idea how he stetted the rest of the piece; he's clearly grown more forgiving since I took his course.) He wrote a letter to the editor of the school's paper stating that he found the author's invocation of the marketplace of ideas "illogical. The marketplace of ideas comes down on the side of releasing the movie and permits people to oppose the release of the movie. The ideas are grappling in the marketplace. No one is going to stop the film. And no one is going to stop people from trying to stop the film. That's the way the marketplace of ideas (works)." He even calls out the author by relaying the excuse they gave when they refused to do rewrites: "We've all looked over it and think it's okay. I don't have time to fix it because I have an obligation to the Reporter-News in 45 minutes." The author, apparently eager to take their poor work ethic and sloppy journalistic habits and infect an actual newspaper, didn't think it was worth it to take the time and fix just one of the many glaring errors in the editorial. I can't say that bodes well for my alma mater. While I personally disagree with the editorial — I think any Christian who gets really upset at The Golden Compass should probably spend more time worrying about widows and orphans and clothing the naked and feeding the hungry, and less time panicking about the non-apocalypse — my main beefs here are with the awful structure and embarrassing lack of insight. The piece pays lip service to a kind of calm strength Christians should take in their faith while also loudly doing everything it can to reinforce a cultural divide between the conservative Christians and the big spooky evil that is Hollywood. The entire editorial is lazy and uncaring, and that makes it dangerous. This is why it takes so long to tell people where I went to school. When I do, they'll assume that I'm a Christian and that I'm proud of where I came from. They're only half right.

You Can Come By Any Time You Want

I've got another Jesus, Etc. column over at Pajiba.P.S. Somebody in the comment section asked why I didn't mention Kathy Griffin's "Suck it, Jesus" speech from Saturday's Creative Arts Emmys. The answer: I think Kathy Griffin is unfunny and annoying. Sure, I agree that a lot of artists can cheapen religion when thanking God while accepting an award, and I've seen plenty of weird acceptance speeches in my day. (But you haven't lived until you've heard a tearful Siggie thank God for guiding them to Sing Song victory, which come on, if I was God, I wouldn't care about that at all. At all.) But like I said, Griffin is the polar opposite of humor and intellect, and is only slightly less annoying than being punched in the head, so I didn't want to give her a spot in the column.

C. of C.'s, CCM, And A Whole Lotta NCMO: The Youth Group Flashback — 4

york1.jpgIt seems that many, if not most, of my youth group memories involve a trip of some kind, usually to one of the weeklong summer camps that are so prevalent throughout the South and Midwest. They're often held on the campuses of Christian colleges/universities, presumably because even a secular campus can have corrosive effects on the spiritual development of impressionable teenagers, but the location is often secondary to the fact that anywhere you put young men and women together and lecture them about moral propriety as the girls idly pick at the frayed hems of their summer shorts and the boys stare at the girls' legs and try not to fall over dead in wonder — well, the situation takes on a life of its own. My youth group attended several camps each summer, but the main attraction was a camp in a tiny town in Nebraska, which took a usually brutal 15-hour ride in one of those big white Ford passenger vans to reach. (Regular readers of this feature will remember that this series actually started with my fuzzy memories of one of my youth group colleagues regaling a small group of us guys with the sketchy details of the brief fellatio he'd received on the van, but since apparently he was lying a little back then or my memory was way off [and it's probably a combination of the two], I should here point out that no one went down on anyone, at least on that particular trip up to Nebraska. Besides, the logistics are mind-boggling; those benches are close together.) But though the van trips were often fun, they were mostly filled with dead time, and we usually entertained ourselves by playing cards, reading, or listening to music. One summer toward the end of my time in the youth group, the youth minister, operating under the same kind of misguided hypocrisy that had previously led him to swear off R-rated movies but continue to view them on his own, declared that while we the teens would still be allowed to bring our personal CD players on the trip1, we would be prohibited from listening to any artists that weren't Christian. I had a big problem with this, as the only Christian artist I enjoyed at that time was Caedmon's Call, since they had the honesty to sing about doubt and boredom. But at 17, I was a painfully big fan of Dave Matthews Band, and the thought of sitting in a van for 15 hours without being able to listen to "Rapunzel" whenever I wanted to was intolerable. The youth minister even checked our luggage as we set off on the trip. I'd like to believe that the vague anti-authoritarian stance and general dickheadedness, as well as a desire to flaunt this man's stupid rules, that defined my personality at that age meant that I managed to sneak a wallet or two of my secular, hellbound music onto the van, and I really think that's a possibility. But the truth is I don't even remember. The youth intern was responsible for enforcing the rules, too; he was a frenetic, almost jolly kid of 21 who had already gotten on the youth minister's bad side by (a) befriending me, since the youth minister didn't like me all that much, and (b) organizing the night when some of us TP'd the youth minister's house and scattered pickle chunks in his garden, the smell of which did not sit well with his pregnant and occasionally bitchy wife. The intern inspected one young girl's music and told her that the James Taylor CD she was packing was unacceptable; when he refused to yield, the girl complained to the youth minister, who then told the intern that the JT was fine. "I don't care if it's not Christian, I just don't want the loud stuff," he told the intern. That guy. You know? Just ... man. The camps themselves were sweaty, confusing affairs built around spending a week in a group of 25 or so kids, most of whom were from other churches or other states, so you could experience all your emotional growth and breakdowns in front of total strangers. The Nebraska camp had a lot of ups and downs, especially when it came to sex. Most teens are already boiling in their own confusion when it comes to relationships — or at any rate, the guys are — but church camp adds another level of guilt by adding the fate of your immortal soul to the mix; touch that girl, and you could be lost forever. So of course, in an environment that scolds its young for expressing the frightening changes they're going through, you wind up playing a lot of sexually charged (for kids, at least) games, the most notorious of which was Kiss and Tackle. Everyone stands in a circle and is assigned either a number or letter by gender, and the ensuing game is a mashup of Duck Duck Goose that gives kids an excuse to run around after each other and attempt to kiss someone. This is intimidating for any geek worth his salt at age 15, but against the women of Grapevine it could be downright terrifying. It was as if every horrible dream you never admitted to yourself you had was being acted out before you in a grassy field in the Nebraska sun, and was condoned by grownups. That's what the camps were: A heady amalgamation of sexual wonderings and spiritual longing, where genuine change went hand in hand with the desire to score, or at least get some NCMO. Getting the non-commitment makeout, a mugging session with no strings attached, was the holy grail of these trips; my roommate got some all the time, so I guess wearing those Rollerblades everywhere really worked for him. One year, returning from camp, riding in a Suburban that had been brought for luggage, I held forth on the girl with whom I'd crossed the magical Rubicon, a brunette with long hair and a nice smile from somewhere I can't remember. My NCMO story was total bullshit, since all I'd done was hold her hand and walk her back to her dorm, but I felt somehow obliged to confess something big, as if we'd been busted by the youth ministers while she was giving me a lapdance or something. I don't even remember her name now, or what she looked like, just the shape of her shadow on the concrete. Those camps were something else.
1. Ah, life before the iPod. 2. She was a classic '90s Kojie: Kind of hot, wicked mean streak.

"Studio 60": The Occasionally Smug Piety Of The Righteous And The Faith Of Nonbelievers

• It's a little weird trying to objectively write about "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," which has been cancelled and will end its life after only one year on the air. It wasn't a great show, and most of the time it was only decent, but I think a large part of this is that Aaron Sorkin spent so many years writing White House dramas that were only peppered with jokes that he forgot what it was to write a comedy-drama set in a newsroom. "Studio 60" isn't even a comedy at all, as the endless series of bad sketches and awful fake-news segments make abundantly clear; but it is a passable workplace romantic drama, albeit one whose moments of emotional truth are hampered by Sorkin's self-indulgent nature and willingness to let his personal battles play out on screen.• Matt and Harriet argued in a recent episode, "K&R: Part I," about (I think) the existence of God. The nature of their argument wasn't very clear, but they seemed to go back and forth throughout the episode about whether or not faith was rationally acceptable, and there was a montage at the end that traced them having the same fight constantly through the various stages of their on-off relationship. But they will never stop fighting, for two reasons (well, three, if you count the fact that they're fictional and that their conflict has been manufactured for dramatic interest): (1) they are pretty stubborn characters, and (2) they don't even agree about why they're fighting. • They will never stop fighting because they both stubbornly cling to one of a pair of extreme views, and the very premises of their arguments are so different it makes agreement pretty much impossible. This is why conservative Christians and gays will never party together: One side views being gay as a natural character trait, while the other views it as a flaw and temptation to be overcome. The argument isn't about whether it's bad or not to be gay; it's over whether being gay is a choice, and the two sides are so violently apart on where the base their positions that they will never find a middle ground. It's like staging a debate between someone who believes in a heliocentric solar system and someone who thinks green is the best possible color. The two theses aren't even in the same ballpark. That's why Matt and Harriet, if they continue their current course, will never stop fighting. He's not saying her specific beliefs are irrational; he's saying that any kind of belief at all is irrational. She likes the sun, and he wants to color it green. • However, most of the time I found myself either unmoved completely by either side or deferring to Matt, mainly because Harriet bugs the hell out of me. When Matt breaks the news to Harriet about Tom Jeter's brother being kidnapped — so much for just standing in the middle of Afghanistan — she drops to her knees in the writers' room, surrounded by her colleagues, and begins to pray. Later, she explains to Matt that she believes what Jesus said when he instructed his followers to ask things in his name, going so far as to quote 2 Chronicles 7:14: "If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land." (Leave aside for a moment the fact that Harriet is surprisingly conversant in the Old Testament, when most evangelicals only know Genesis 1:1 and Jeremiah 29:11, the latter of which has been printed on so many mugs and cards and shirts it would make you puke.) But Harriet's piety is relentlessly annoying, mainly because someone clearly so familiar with the gospels would (one assumes) be familiar with Jesus' exhortation in the Semon on the Mount, detailed in Matthew's (ha) gospel, in which he specifically tells people not to pray like Harriet does. Matthew 6:5-8 reads in part:

And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (emphasis added)

If Harriet legitimately believed with even a fraction of the fervor she claims to have and with which Sorkin has supposedly imbued her, she would have bolted from the room and found some place she could have been alone, where she could have more honestly acted out her faith to petition God. I know it's a small point to some and likely nonexistent to others, but the way her faith became a public performance was unsettling. I was grateful the scene ended there, instead of having her pray on camera; moments of genuine spiritual connection are notoriously difficult to capture on camera, and I have a feeling hers would have felt horribly phony. • That's actually what made the episode's closing moments so intriguing. Harriet offered to teach Matt how to pray, and he brushed her off, but as they were leaving the building, he hung back and spent one brief moment on the edge of frustrated tears: He gave his chest one quick tap over the heart and lifted up a hand and pleaded, "Show me something." This is one of the most honest prayers I've probably ever seen on TV, and certainly more refreshing and compelling than Harriet's acts of public sanctimony. Matt's doubt is a key ingredient to the maturation of any kind of belief system, whether it's political or religious or anything else, and instead of statically coasting like Harriet, he's actually willing to concede in his moments of desperation a need for help. And who can't relate to that?

Go Forth And Read

It's time once again for everybody's favorite religion column:Jesus, Etc. Go take a look. In a somewhat related coincidence, Jerry Falwell died today. It's worth remembering that his family is probably having a rough time right now, but that doesn't mean he's not a divisive, small-minded, angry little guy, who was publicly destroying my faith. Okay then. That's all for now. P.S. A fresh hot pretzel for whoever names the chapter and verse of the two oblique but still pretty guessable scripture references.

Students, Scientologists, And Trips To Hooters: The Youth Group Flashback — 3

riverwalk.jpgThe main problem with youth groups is one of ontology: Namely, the youth group isn't really the youth group unless it's assembled, and that almost never happens in an official capacity unless there's a trip involved. Sure, many or most of the members might come together on a particular Sunday morning or Wednesday evening, but that's a matter of routine. And, yes, it's common for the members to hang out together as a group in a distinctly secular capacity, like the time my youth group got together to go see American Pie, after which a couple guys who were sitting near our group latched onto us outside and picked up two of our single female members, making the entire evening a pretty good example of things the youth minister doesn't want you to do at all, especially if his name's attached to it, hence our hanging out as friends and not some kind of bizarre group of emmissaries for the church. Of course, the American Pie night wound up being a bust long-term for the girls in question: One of the guys turned out to be a local pot dealer with no small amount of paranoia, and the fact that he coincidentally dealt to one of the male members of the youth group is just one of those freakish twists that makes you think P.T. Anderson really knows what he's talking about. Anyway, once the girl found out he was holding, they broke up. But back to the thing about trips: Youth groups go to all kinds of conventions, camps, and what have you throughout the year, and the process usually entails loading everyone up in a trusty van — again, completely absent of any mouth-to-body hanky-panky — and driving to a nearby major city and crashing in a hotel for a night or two and in general throwing every last ounce of decent behavior right out the baptistry window in pursuit of the kind of low-grade trouble that fuels young men's very being. Some examples of said screwing around: • When I was 12, there was an event in downtown San Antonio, which the youth minister must've viewed as a plus, since we wouldn't have to lodge anywhere, just drive downtown every day and spout off randomly memorized verses before collecting some cheap ribbon we would throw away later and heading for home. Of course, being in 7th grade and hanging out with other boys my age, we were flabbergasted at the relative amount of freedom we had to roam the Riverwalk in the free time we were able to carve out, not to mention the fact that there were girls everywhere. At 12, your body is producing so much testosterone you can't see straight, and you don't even want to. Girls drive every word, thought, action. Basically, it's the same as your 20s, only without cars. Which is probably why we, being 12 years old and thinking we were pretty much as good as it gets, went to Hooters for lunch one day. Just walking in was some ultimate combination of defiance of our moral leaders and acceptance of the carnal desires we were howling to let loose: They were like fire shut up in our bones; we were weary of holding them in; indeed we could not. I remember loving it there, even though the waitresses were probably either annoyed or slightly creeped out by our little band of horndogs. And in retrospect, they probably weren't even objectively hot or anything; this was, after all, downtown San Antonio. • There was an event in Austin when I was in high school, either a junior or a senior. It was toward the end. I remember roaming the streets of downtown with a few other guys, wandering through the UT campus, and eventually coming across a Scientology center, at which point the leader of our group suggested we go in and take the test these people were offering us. And being very, very bored — and broke — we did. I left before I found out my results, though, since we were around 24th and Guadalupe and I had to be at 6th and Congress in a very short time, so I jogged my fat ass back through town, which isn't exactly easy in flip-flops. I almost didn't want to make it back on time for whatever lame event I was supposed to "compete" in (they said it was a competition, but everyone still got a plaque or ribbon or some retarded certificate saying they'd done their due diligence), and had I been older, I would've just blown it off. But I made it back, and performed, and didn't really care what happened. I didn't even care about hanging out with this blonde I'd been minorly obsessing over, which was probably just as well, since the sight of me showing up sweat-drenched and heatstrokey probably wouldn't have sent her libido into overdrive. I just went in and did what the adults wanted me to do, and hated myself every moment. I wonder if the adults ever know how little we cared about those trips, or the church-as-corporation aspect of them. I guess not.

Life, Love, And Lube: The Youth Group Flashback — 2

Slip-n-Slide.JPGAs I've already indicated, growing up in a South Texas youth group adds considerable confusion to the normal adolescent yearnings. It was probably in the spirit of answering those yearnings that, when I was in high school, our youth minister — an unnervingly energetic man in his early 30s with a wife and kids — arranged for our youth group to go on a weekend retreat wherein we would follow curriculum provided by the folks at True Love Waits. For those who didn't grow up in either the South or Colorado Springs, True Love Waits is an organization dedicated to keeping Christian teens from screwing their brains out like their hormones are telling them to. (For what it's worth, I have no idea if the program actually works; the teens I knew who actually left high school with their virginities intact did so out of circumstance, not a higher moral calling. Teens think about sex, food, and sex.) So anyway, we all piled in a van — this time careful not to touch each other — and headed to a dirt-blasted waste of a campground in the middle of nowhere. One evening, the youth minister and his wife held a kind of panel session, where we, the sexually inexperienced, could submit anonymous questions to them, the sexually knowledgable. Many of the questions were pretty predictable: One guy (it had to be a guy) asked about the moral/spiritual implications of, um, onanistic pursuits, to which the youth minister, not wanting to start a mutiny, gave his grudging and qualified approval. But eventually things got downright weird. I don't remember how the subject came up; it was 10 years ago, and to be honest, I've done a fair amount of work to bury specific moments like this one. But at one point the youth minister began to wax poetic about the kind of unforced errors that can plague recently married couples who, either from having grown up in somewhat conservative households or just out of a reluctance to do a little research beforehand, find themselves in a bit of a wedding-night pickle. On the topic of lube — and it was here that my fragile teen mind began to crumble under the unfortunate weight of the mental image of my youth minister and his wife in coital repose — my youth minister cautioned us not to use too much, or else things might "become like a Slip N Slide." I believe he even extended his arms briefly when making this joke, much like the guy in the photo above, though that detail could just be my subconscious screwing with me. It's happened before. Anyway, what little information I'd managed to retain from the disastrous Q&A went pretty much straight to hell because all I could see was my youth minister and his wife in what had to have been a small kiddie pool's worth of KY. The rest of the night was pretty much a wash, too. The girls in the group gravitated toward my youth minister's wife and began sharing their own horror stories from the private hell that must be the female puberty experience (not that the male side of things is a cakewalk, but still, everyone knows we got off way light). The girls invaded the cabin that had been assigned to the boys and began to sit around and have a lengthy confessional in which they each talked about their individual tales of getting their periods in the school cafeteria, etc., as if finding the horrible remnants of their burgeoning womanhood smeared into a tacky paste on their seats was like any other story worthy of cocktail-party reminiscence. The other guys and I stood outside for what felt like hours, throwing the football in the crisp evening and wondering when the hell they would tire of their mutual shame circle and let us go to bed. He and his wife left a few years later.

I Didn't Know She Had The G.I. Joe Kung-Fu Grip: A Slowly Going Bald Correction

van.jpgAs loyal readers — all seven of you — may have noticed, I have deleted a post from earlier in the week wherein, in a whimsical and honestly pretty entertaining tone, I recounted a legendary story from my youth group days as a bewildered teen in South Texas and how two of my peers had engaged in some low-level sexual hijinks in the back of a van on the way to church camp. I have since received mountainstwo emails advising me of the factual errors in my story and requesting either a correction or full retraction of same, and since the missives themselves were from the once-horny parties at the center of the story — she righteously pissed off, he merely bemused — I felt obliged to comply with their wishes and delete the post. I was a little surprised to find that my (I thought) harmless ramblings had stirred up all kinds of crazy ranging from coast to coast, though I take that more as a sign of the power of gossip as opposed to any indication of my global popularity. (Although, if the map on the left side of this page is to be trusted, I'm currently blowing up across the continent.) Anyway, sexual hijinks were indeed part of the story, but in a different manner than I previously implied. But that tale grew with the telling, and was something of a minor legend among my compatriots in those depressingly formative years, and for what it's worth, I almost prefer the myth to the history. Nevertheless, I wanted you all to know that I got it wrong, and I won't actually be filling you in on what actually happened between the couple, but instead let you fill in the images for yourself. It wasn't even that big a deal, but you'd almost never know it to be on the receiving end of all this. Finally: I've got more harrowing tales of church-based pubescent angst coming up in the future — including a kind of Q&A panel session with the youth minister and his wife that scarred me for years — but that's for another day. For now, simply know that I was incorrect in my previous story, and will endeavor in the future to hew more closely to the facts, whatever they may be.