I Wanted To Be Like You

I arrived at Wesley Theological Seminary for my first year of grad school in the fall of 2007. It was only a few months prior that I decided to visit the school on a whim. I wasn’t seriously considering going there as I had known since I was a little kid where I would be attending seminary, but a free trip to DC to check out a grad school sounded like a good idea. Wesley wasn’t like the other schools that I had visited. Other places talked about how great their school was or how great their programs were. They talked about the quality of their library, their prestigious alumni, or their advantageous church connections. Not Wesley. Instead, its students, professors, and staff talked about something else. They talked ideas. They talked students. They talked politics. They talked DC. They were brash and idealistic, and they were not ashamed about it. At the end of my first day, it was over. That was my school. I accepted their offer as soon as it arrived.

(It also didn’t hurt that my girlfriend decided to move to DC, but whatever.)

Wesley also had something else to which I was attracted that was a bit muted during my visit but became apparent as soon as I became a full time student: Outrage. They called it “righteous anger”, but I still think “outrage” is a better description. The students, the faculty, and the staff were outraged at injustices throughout the world. Racism, sexism, homophobia, war, and greed were the main culprits. It wasn’t just during conversations or during political debates, outrage extended to the manner in which we interpreted the bible. It was present in our reading of history. Outrage poured out from our creation of church liturgy. It was broken and consumed during communion in our weekly chapel services. Outrage became a lens through which I would read and preach the biblical text and how I would approach ethical problems. I was a better preacher because of it, and I am still better person for it. After years of being away, I remain outraged, and I am grateful to Wesley.

At first, the amount of outrage left me with a strange feeling. I was intimidated. Intimidation over ideas or disagreement was a new feeling for me. I had never before backed down from an argument and I was never anxious about some disagreement, but at Wesley, especially my first year, it was a constant feeling. I could not escape a feeling of dread and fear so I addressed it by doing the only thing I knew to do. I read constantly. I studied more than everyone else. I studied subjects of which I wasn’t a student. The prayer room in our dorm became my personal reading room. Every bit of my anxiety was channeled into trying to prove myself or others wrong.

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Black Lives Matter, Single Parents, And Bad Arguments

I had been on the phone for two hours with Social Security. I spoke to multiple different people, answered the same questions dozens of times, and was once again on hold waiting for someone to help. Our office manager at the church brought a chair for my friend, Anthony, as he was tired of standing. He was staring at the wall. He was afraid and ashamed. I didn’t know how to help him, but I was trying my best.

He had been in my office many times before looking for help. Sometimes I gave him some money, and other times I took him out to lunch, to the grocery store, or to the pharmacy. One day, he came into my office with light pants and only a thin windbreaker jacket on one of the coldest days of the year. He was sleeping outside. They didn’t let him stay at the shelter anymore, and even on these days where the city declared a weather emergency, he often did not go. I went home and brought back to him a jacket, a winter hat, some gloves, and a blanket. He was thrilled. I felt good, like I had done something right and these small victories were becoming rare. When he returned a few days later, the jacket, the hat, the gloves – they were all gone. Anthony sold them. He told me later that he spent the money on drugs and a prostitute. I wasn’t mad. I felt helpless. Both of us were helpless in the face of his problems.

On this particular day, Anthony needed to call Social Security to have his payee changed, but he wasn’t able to do so himself. Social Security did not pay him directly, but instead paid a second person as he was deemed unable to properly manage his own finances. His payee did not want to do it anymore. I asked a lot of questions, and thought I could help by talking to his payee directly to see if we could resolve the situation. I was a pastor. The payee would listen to a pastor, right?

Anthony gave me the number. I called. It was the number of a church in Baltimore. His payee turned out to be his brother who was the pastor of the church. The receptionist told me that the pastor didn’t want to speak to me. He didn’t want anything to do with his brother anymore. He had tried, for years. He just couldn’t do it. I told my friend. He wasn’t surprised, but he was ashamed. I felt guilty for even calling.

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Theology of Bullshit: Part 3

*If you haven’t read it yet, check out Theology of Bullshit Part 1 and Part 2*

Pastor Craig, Bullshitter

It didn’t take long for me to feel like a fraud. My wife was in Cambodia working for a small NGO when I started my first appointment as a pastor in the UMC. People were a bit shocked at how young I was. I don’t think the church had ever had a lead pastor under the age of 55. The congregation knew that I had just moved to Baltimore, that my wife (then fiance) was out of the country, and that I was trying to adjust from being a student to being an independent adult. They tried very hard to be hospitable and were incredibly generous.

After my first Sunday service, I learned that the congregation served food and drinks for members and guests. I was excited. Free food. Oh my God, yes! I think I ate about 3 plates. I could have eaten more, but it was getting kind of embarrassing. There were some leftovers. “Craig, why don’t you take some leftovers home?” Oh my God, yes! I would love to. Every week, I would keep eating more and more, and the leftovers kept coming. The members would laugh. I would play it up a bit. “I bet he can’t wait until Loren comes home to cook him some food! He’s so thin! Do you ever eat?” I was glad to take leftovers home, and they were glad to give them to me. It seemed like a perfect arrangement.

One day, somebody brought cupcakes. Oh my God, yes! Cupcakes! I ate about five. After everyone left, there were about 25 cupcakes leftover. “What should we do with the cupcakes?” “Just give them to Craig. He’ll eat anything!” I automatically responded, “Of course I will!” Everyone laughed. But really, what was I going to do with 25 cupcakes? I didn’t eat any of them. They all ended up in the garbage. “Did you eat all those cupcakes Craig?” “Of course! They were gone by Sunday evening!”

The “Craig can’t take care of himself” narrative kept up for years, even though I was an adult who knew how to walk to a grocery store and follow basic cooking instructions. I was sent home with hot dog buns but no hot dogs. Condiments. So many casseroles. Lasagnas. Cakes. And in one instance, multiple bottles of Catalina salad dressing with no salad. “Craig will eat anything!” Don’t get me wrong, I loved the food, and I was appreciative of what they were doing for me. My lunches were often the leftovers given to me by the church. There was a core group of people who made sure that I had enough to eat on Sunday and who wanted to make sure that I knew I was appreciated by giving me lots of delicious food. I remain very grateful for their hospitality. But every time I walked home and carried bags of leftovers with me that I knew I wouldn’t eat, I felt like a fraud. I wasn’t lying. It was just bullshit.

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Theology of Bullshit: Part 2

*If you haven’t read it yet, check out Theology of Bullshit Part 1: Re-reading John 8*

Richard Beck, Professor of Psychology at Abilene Christian University, writes at Experimental Theology. I found his series “On Bullshit, Psychology, and Theology” online as I was reading about bullshit a few years ago. His five part series is fantastic, and you should read the whole thing.

In Beck’s third part of his series, he argues, referencing philosopher Scott Kimbrough’s essay Letting it Slide, that we are more tolerant toward bullshit than lying because we can’t do without it. To make his point, Beck tells the story of Nick Saban who in 2006 prophetically declared “I’m not going to be the Alabama coach” while closing out the season as the head football coach for the Miami Dolphins. Less than two weeks later, Saban announced that he would be accepting the head coaching position at Alabama. Saban claimed afterwards in response to allegations that he lied, “I get asked questions that I really shouldn’t answer. You should have the opportunity to weigh those options and I didn’t have the opportunity to do that.”

Beck argues, “Saban realized that his speech prior to the end of the Dolphins season could not be engaged in truth-claims. To do so would distract his team. But neither did Saban wish to lie. So what does he do? He bullshits. And his defense is basically this: If you ask those kinds of questions prior to the end of the season you cannot legitimately expect truth. It’s an inappropriate question requiring a bullshit answer. And you should know this. Thus, to retrospectively call me a liar misses the whole dynamic of the December 21st exchange. The context of the conversation should have clued you in that you would only get bullshit from me. Not truth, not lies. Bullshit. Note Saban’s actual words: “I get asked questions that I really shouldn’t answer.” His point? If you ask those kinds of questions you are going to get bullshit answers. And bullshit, technically, isn’t a lie.”

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Theology of Bullshit: Part 1

Re-Reading John 8

My grandfather once paid me to do some work on his farm. He drove around in his truck while I followed behind with a shovel. My job was to literally shovel bullshit into the bed of his pickup. Even though my grandfather’s jobs paid at the going rate of farm work in 1955, I had a great time hurling bullshit 10-20 feet into his truck like I was shooting a hook shot in basketball. He would stick his head out of the window and loudly compliment me with a mouth full of chewing tobacco, “Good job, Aviator!” At the end of the day, I was tired, sweaty and stinking of, well…, and I asked my grandfather, “Why do you keep calling me ‘Aviator’?” He laughed, “Cause you sure know how to pile it!” I guess you could say, I’ve always had a talent for shoveling.

Eleven years ago, I was sitting in my room on a Monday night watching television alone. 10:00 pm meant that I was watching The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. The guest for the evening was Harry Frankfurt, professor of philosophy at Princeton University, discussing his new book, On Bullshit.

Watch Interview Here

Read On Bullshit Here or Buy it Here

For me, it was revelatory.

I was a marketing student – I studied bullshit. I was on my way to seminary to be a pastor in the UMC – I aspired to bullshit. Everywhere I went, I thought I was the smartest person in the room, and I wanted everyone to know it – I was full of bullshit. As Frankfurt wrote, “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted.”

Frankfurt believes that the essence of bullshit isn’t that a statement is true or that it’s false, it’s that the source of the bullshit – the bullshitter – doesn’t care either way. To paraphrase Frankfurt, liars tell lies. They misrepresent the facts as they understand them. Truth tellers tell the truth. They represent the facts accurately as far as they understand them. Bullshitters don’t just misrepresent the facts – that would be lying. And, they often make statements that would otherwise be true. What bullshitters misrepresent is themselves. They would have you believe that they care for the truth or that the statements they make are decided upon according to the facts of the situation. Instead, bullshitters are up to something else entirely. They make statements in support of their hidden motivation, and the facts, whatever they may be, have no bearing at all. Frankfurt claims, “He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”

If, like me, you’re interested in bullshit, or if like my grandfather, you just like to watch people pile it, there isn’t a better time than election time, and there isn’t a better scripture for it than John Chapter 8.

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Can Anything Good Come Out Of Syria?

The civil war had been raging for years. Rebels, religious extremists, nationalists, criminals, bandits, and a foreign backed regime all fought each other over a land whose leadership and borders had been determined by competing foreign empires. Powerful nations to its east and west, to its north and south and across seas by thousands of miles had long determined its fate. After decades of failed rebellions, and decades of foreign backed minority rule over oppressed and increasingly angry religious groups, nationalism, sectarianism, and religious extremism were on the rise. The foreign backed regime grew weak. The foreign backers themselves were caught up in their own internal disputes. Taxes remained high. Regime control over the economy remained tight. People remained poor. And, civil unrest by an angry populace was met with overwhelming and often indiscriminate regime violence.

Before long, entire towns and cities would be burned to the ground. Brothers betrayed brothers. Parents and children turned against each other. Murder, rape, and violence became the norm. Refugees streamed from once peaceful villages by the thousands, permanently relocating a once proud-people now scattered across the nations. The land, as it once was, would never recover. The world looked on in horror.

This is Syria. In 70 CE.

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