A co-worker of mine read Sharlett’s The Family and suggested I read it myself. He and I are very different: He’s extremely faithful, but suspicious of religious institutions. I’m suspicious of claims of the supernatural, but optimistic about the charity works of religious institutions. We probably come together on this sort of issue. We also agree on politics.
The Family chronicles the history of American fundamentalism, both popular and elite. He focuses on the branching of elite fundamentalism, though, and its implications for American politics. The thesis of the book is that there is an elite fundamentalism that is largely independent of political party that reveres power through the belief in the concept of Key Men — God puts key men into positions of power. This philosophy tautologically justifies a powerful man’s actions and helps him feel like he not only deserves his power, God wills it. The Key Man idea requires sister concepts such as submission to authority — those beneath the Key Man must submit to God’s Will through him, and he must submit to Jesus. If a man deposes another man for power, it was because God willed it; if he fails, it is because it was not God’s Will. Power, power power. Let me quote a passage:
“Absence?” I said, realizing that what he meant by the absence of doubt was the absence of self-awareness…
…God was just what Bengt desired him to be, even as Bengt was, in the face of God, “nothing.” Not for aesthetics alone, I realized, did Bengt and the Family reject the label Christian… His commands phrased as questions, His will as palpable as ones own desires. And what the Family desired, from Abraham Vereide to Doug Coe to Bengt, was power, worldly power…
Power is revered by prayer cells at the highest levels, arranged by The Family, the group that runs the National Prayer Breakfast among so many other things. They use prayer cells as ways to organize access to power, to enforce consensus on political aims, and to spread the Idea. What political ideas does the Family push? Concepts that help their Key Men in positions of power, of course: Free-trade and electoral obfuscation (e.g. the Citizens United case); but also politics of authority: Pro-life, anti-gay-marriage, etc.
Sharlett returns to this theme over and over. Contemporary American fundamentalism does not care for the nuances of scripture, so arguments from scripture are pointless. That leaves only arguments from authority and appeals to emotion — the tools that are used to drive elite and popular fundamentalism, respectively.
One problem I found with The Family is that Sharlett doesn’t offer a good alternative. He spends one or two pages discussing “deliverance” (by seeking, questioning, reflecting) as an idea that can defeat the big idea of “salvation” (through submission and banishing reflection); but he doesn’t create a clear path to a nationwide elite or popular ideology of deliverance — secular or sacred.
It made me want to go back to writing a book on how Jesus was a communist.
I’ve been slacking here! Home renovation, you know. Well, plus I’ve been reading a lot of fiction. Anyway, I’m considering two books.
Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife
According to various polls, most Americans believe in heaven even, as Miller points out, when they don’t know what heaven means. Miller, Newsweek’s religion editor, addresses what and where heaven is and why the concept endures. Having covered many aspects of religion and interviewed people of many different faiths, she offers portraits of famous and ordinary people as well as experts in religious studies to educe how their views do or, more commonly, do not reflect the “official teaching, whatever that is.” The crux of the book focuses on believers, not beliefs, “for how people imagine heaven changes with who they are and how they live.” Miller discusses the heavenly city, afterlife in the Hebrew Bible, resurrection, and salvation, includes a chapter on visionaries, and comments extensively on how heaven is portrayed in pop culture ranging from the Talking Heads’ song “Heaven” to Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones (2002). Miller’s whirlwind tour of heaven is an entertaining primer on a most complex subject. –June Sawyers
God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question–Why We Suffer
From Publishers Weekly
In this sometimes provocative, often pedantic memoir of his own attempts to answer the great theological question about the persistence of evil in the world, Ehrman, a UNC–Chapel Hill religion professor, refuses to accept the standard theological answers. Through close readings of every section of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, he discovers that the Bible offers numerous answers that are often contradictory. The prophets think God sends pain and suffering as a punishment for sin and also that human beings who oppress others create such misery; the writers who tell the Jesus story and the Joseph stories think God works through suffering to achieve redemptive purposes; the writers of Job view pain as God’s test; and the writers of Job and Ecclesiastes conclude that we simply cannot know why we suffer. In the end, frustrated that the Bible offers such a range of opposing answers, Ehrman gives up on his Christian faith and fashions a peculiarly utilitarian solution to suffering and evil in the world: first, make this life as pleasing to ourselves as we can and then make it pleasing to others. Although Ehrman’s readings of the biblical texts are instructive, he fails to convince readers that these are indeed God’s problems, and he fails to advance the conversation any further than it’s already come. (Mar.)
Feel free to suggest other freethinker-related books in comments. They don’t have to be religion-related. In fact, I might even prefer if they weren’t!
“You see, Dr. Stadler, people don’t want to think. And the deeper they get into trouble, the less they want to think. But by some sort of instinct, they feel that they ought to and it makes them feel guilty. So they’ll bless and follow anyone who gives them justification for not thinking. Anyone who makes a virtue – out of what they know to be sin, their weakness and their guilt.”– Dr. Ferris to Dr. Stadler (Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, p. 322)