Saturday, July 30, 2011

Unforgivable Sins

God Laughs & Plays: Churchless Sermons in Response to the Preachments of the Fundamentalist Right  a review by Mike Dodaro

When David James Duncan was a boy his mother made him go to church. He's still mad about it. His book, "God Laughs and Plays; Churchless Sermons" could as well be titled "God Laughs at People Who Still Go to Church, and, Himself, Prefers to Go Fishing and Play Baseball". Duncan says he's a Jesus loving non-Christian. His "Sermons" sound a bit like old revivalism, but he vilifies religious people who engage in politics the way preachers used to condemn drinkers and card players. In Duncan's view anything supported by the Religious Right must be wrong and is probably unforgivable.

In "The Brothers K", the author seemed to have some sympathy for oddly religious characters. Now he fires his indignation telling certain segments of the American populace what they want to hear about the war in Iraq and the Religious Right. In Duncan's view the war is misconceived by hypocrites and plainly evil. He doesn't tell us what God thinks of the religion of people who fly airplanes into buildings or blow up buses and restaurants, but he's certain God has no tolerance for religious metaphors used by presidential speechwriters. The idea that there could be any resonance between the "light that shines in the darkness" and Western human rights and freedom is anathema. I don't know what he makes of this kind of language as found in the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, or the speeches of Martin Luther King.

There are many groups on the left seeking advocates with religious pretensions who might help divert Christians away from the Religious Right. According to an article April 17th in the Missoula, Montana newspaper, members of the Triad Group prodded Duncan into this book. Jim Wallis of the Sojourners group, who also publishes Duncan, is making a career of slamming the religious right. Duncan acknowledges Wendell Berry as an influence. He and Berry both have nice lyrical gifts for nature writing. Berry is passionately anti war.

Of course, in Duncan's view George Bush has unleashed the four horsemen of the apocalypse by expanding energy exploration and drilling for natural gas. I felt a bit of sympathy with his accounts of birds seeking vainly for drinkable water in regions polluted by saline emissions from gas excavations. Duncan is known for outdoorsy lore, so ecological concerns are close to his heart. We don't expect fiction writers to be experts on economics or science when they evoke the emotional impacts of complex issues. We might hope for some awareness of complexity before they spew indignation.

Duncan quotes John Calvin on human depravity and then announces with a smirk, "That's why I don't go to church." Calvin can sound as pompous as Duncan at full tilt, but, he is a bit more rigorous in his theology. If Duncan knew as much about history as he knows about fishing he'd be aware that isolating people's deeply held beliefs from politics has never been possible or desirable. Calvin's appraisal of human nature was at the core of American Puritanism, which had a fair share of influence on people who drafted a Constitution that institutionalized skepticism about human nature in the separation of powers. Like all ideas, religious doctrines have consequences. Until very recently in this country Calvinism was part of an established culture of self restraint.

Duncan has built up a following writing fiction. Apparently people listen when he rants about politics. Now he feels qualified to be a prophet with his Gnostic gospel. It's true that Jesus denounced the religious authorities of his era, but the current situation, in which liberationist creeds are the norm, is a complete inversion of the puritanical shibboleths of Jesus' era. Some Religious-Right characters have clout among their followers--Pat Roberson comes to mind--and they sometimes make egregious comments in public, but they are quickly called down from their pedestals. Prevailing opinion runs counter to everything they say. In this context Jesus would attack the authorities of politically-correct nostrums with the same scandalous irony he used on the Pharisees.

Sunday school left some embarrassing gaps in Duncan's religious knowledge. The enthusiasts for his churchless sermons are waving hands and swooning, but they're only about as well informed as he is. Anybody seriously interested in the influence of religion in politics would not be reading this fisherman from Lolo, Montana but responsible scholarship. The sociologist of religion and historian Rodney Stark has just published a new book that would be a good antidote to Duncan's "Churchless Sermons".

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