Foundational texts and the stories we tell with them.
I can't stay on top of the news cycle right now. But I can still read (sometimes).
Depending on where we are in the country, we are two months into lockdown in the United States. It’s rather pointless to try and summarize what this experience has been like. As of this writing, over 90,000 people have died in the US. The loss of life alone is a matter of impossible grief and mourning that we have no metric for, no scale with which to measure it that would not be an insult to the dead and those who grieve them.
Our whole world has been upended by this pandemic. To make matters worse, in a time when we most desperately need competent leadership to organize a response using the vast resources of the federal government to rally public and private enterprises to action, we have an administration that thrives on capitalizing amidst disarray and chaos, shallow culture-warring, and shifting blame using weak conspiracy theories.
It’s of course had smaller order effects in our individual lives - things happening to us that affect our individual ‘productivity’ that, when multiplied across a global society, have consequences.
Take reading, for example.
Prior to the pandemic, my goal for this newsletter was to try and be more timely with the news cycle. But I found my anxiety couldn’t handle following the news, working remotely, and keeping my daughter’s remote school on track. It became too much for me to handle. I limited my exposure.
(If you’re looking for coverage of the Religious Right, evangelicalism and politics, and other related topics, follow the Straight White American Jesus podcast and Chrissy Stroop’s commentary on Twitter and elsewhere.)
So I turned to books (though it’s harder to read than before).
Over the past month, I have been working through Katherine Stewart’s Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism. It’s been a great primer on both the history of the religious right as well as recent developments in evangelical politics since the election of Trump. Its revelations are uncomfortable but necessary.
Alongside that book, I have been reading The Written World: The Power to Shape People, History, and Civilization by Martin Puchner. This book is about how stories and literacy have shaped the world throughout history, and explores how not only the inherent power of stories but how they are stored and transmitted has power. For example: Alexander the Great’s obsession with The Iliad drove him to conquest, and his empire spread the Greek alphabet; Ashurbanipal’s training as a scribe not only helped him rule, but also helped preserve the Epic of Gilgamesh. (I am early in the story of literacy in this book, and it is still a power of the elite - even though they are remembered for what they made common by today’s knowledge). The book is interested in foundational texts and the means by which they became foundational.
If there is one thing that post/ex-evangelicals are good at, it is knowing that how a story is interpreted is as vital is how it is told. The Bible is the sacred text of progressive Christians and Christian nationalists - where one Christian sees the justification of socialist policy through the Year of Jubilee, another sees absolute free market capitalism justified in the words of Paul.
This is why books like The Power Worshippers are so important. In her book, Katherine Stewart examines how institutions like the Museum of the Bible, and the writings and political lobbying of the “historian” David Barton are to shaping how millions of people view the Bible.
Barton is a key figure in Christian nationalist politics. His lobbying is both public and private, and his influence is hard to overstate. To his audience, it doesn’t matter that his work is largely discredited. His book The Jefferson Lies was called “the least credible history book in print” by the History News Network and was lambasted by academics, evangelical historians, and its publisher Thomas Nelson halted production. Stewart writes:
But none of that has mattered. Barton’s pseudo-history is too valuable to the Christian nationalist machine to let facts and scholarship get in the way, and his standing with his own audience has continued to soar. For at the heart of Barton’s project is an assault on the very idea of history as a meaningful subject of scholarly investigation and a source of objective truths. Embedded in Barton’s enterprise—and visible in the very title of his magnum opus, The Jefferson Lies—is the message that history is just a political battlefield where the votaries of “the Left” spin their secularizing falsehoods from the comfort of “the Academy,” and the only alternative is to spin better stories from those who believe rightly. As with the many utterances of Donald Trump—“God’s Candidate,” according to Barton—the fact that liberal critics find no end of lies and contradiction in his work only serves to confirm in the minds of his followers his authentic commitment to a deeper truth.
The Museum of the Bible fills a similar role. Its stated purpose, according to its website, is to “invite all people to engage with the Bible.” MOTB does so, however, with an unstated agenda and perspective. Stewart again:
It appears that the guiding assumptions in this museum are that the Bible has only one meaning, that this meaning is directly accessible by dint of individual effort, and that this particular meaning is the foundation of the Christian religion (at the very least). These are very Protestant assumptions. But no matter: the museum has attempted to simulate nonsectarianism by mixing in displays of Jewish and Catholic aspects of the history of the Bible. (Islam, on the other hand, shows up sporadically; the various Orthodox Christian traditions are neglected; and you can pretty much forget about the Mormons.)
Both of these efforts to shoehorn and distort history to fit a particular narrative have been largely successful. People believe them, and can tend to believe them more when they are discredited by “the Left,” as Stewart mentions in the first quote above. (I am not naive and know this can be done from a progressive point-of-view, but it is not the driving engine of a majority political party, as it is on the right.)
To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, “electric man lives mythically and all at once.” It matters little to Christian nationalists whether their narrative is true, what matters is whether they believe it. That belief serves as the motivation for them to pursue their social and political goals.
Yesterday, Donald Trump’s re-election campaign launched an “investigative website” with the telling title “Truth Over Facts.” To those with ears to hear, it will not sound contradictory.
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