Years ago, I was in an argument with a friend about Jesus and evolution. It ended with him saying, “You know how badly I can kick your ass, right?” I did know. It was obvious. It was like a scene straight out of Adam Sandler’s Billy Madison.
The debate was pretty simple. I supported evolution. My friend supported creationism. I argued that the biological record showed no support for creationism in agreement with conclusions from a number of other established sciences. My friend argued against evolution through “irreducible complexity” or the argument that modern life is too complicated to have slowly evolved into its modern form. I had read extensively about this argument before and repeated responses from mainstream science educators. My friend abandoned his argument and declared that the Bible clearly detailed a creationist account. I argued that his position is a denial of the world that God actually created while attempting to build up a world of his own, and that his argument was nothing less than a rejection of what God had done and blasphemy to God’s work and plan for salvation.
In my mind, he couldn’t just be wrong. He had to be a blasphemer. And a heretic. He was rejecting God. Also, he had to be stupid. I was all too excited to let everyone know.
He attempted debate. I attempted humiliation. He didn’t succeed. I did.
“You know how badly I can kick your ass, right?”
For the first time in my life, I’ll be voting for a Democratic candidate for a major public office. I’m not happy to do so, nor I am I particularly excited about the public policy consequences if my chosen candidate is elected. I have been, and will remain, a libertarian who believes in open markets, a free society, a peaceful foreign policy, and good news for the poor. Oddly enough in this strangest of election seasons, the best way to advance such beliefs and to safeguard many of our hard-won liberties is to vote for Hillary Clinton for President.
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.
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.
“Then he waved his hand, two cops stepped behind the altar of the church and dragged out a sixteen-year old Iraqi boy.” – Benjamin Julian
*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.
*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.”