Colorful States


Kevin Smith is one of New Jersey’s own. I’ve always considered it one of life’s great ironies that Loki and Bartleby, the fallen angels in Dogma, move from Wisconsin to New Jersey, the exact same route my career took. (Feel free to read into this.) I was therefore curious when I heard, a few years back now, that Smith had come out with a horror movie. Now I’m not a fan of horror for its own sake as my sensibilities are more towards the ambiguities of gothic, but I finally decided to view Red State. I had no prior idea what the movie was about, but it speaks volumes that the title suggests quite a bit with just a simple adjective and noun. If there’s anyone out there even slower in getting to movies than me, and who is hoping to watch Red State, consider this a spoiler alert. Read further at your own risk.

Red State deals with religious fundamentalists—the Five Points Trinity Church, to be exact. The group is loosely based on the Fred Phelps gang, and the film actually makes reference to Phelps to say that Abin Cooper’s group is even worse. They’re weaponized. You’re probably starting to get the picture already. Cooper’s congregation is his extended family, and they’ve been protesting against homosexuality and other forms of what they consider immorality, but in an extreme way. They lure sinners into one of their sting operations, incapacitate them, and then murder them during church ceremonies. When the Feds discover evidence of a murder, a Waco-like Branch Davidian stand-off occurs with the predictably bloody gun fight that follows. There are moments of humor, but it is a bleak parable—yes, there is a wholesome message here—that speaks loudly about intolerance.

Analysts, well actually just some analysts, have realized that horror movies and religion are very close compatriots indeed. Reading the Bible may be a little easier on the eyes, but even some parts of the Good Book can inspire nightmares. Indeed, as Adin Cooper’s sermon emphasizes, fear of God is very important. As is fear of fear of God. The regression can go back as far as you wish. Religions develop in response to fears. Not only in response to fears, but clearly this is part of the mix. Horror movies show us what we fear the most. Is it any wonder that they cross paths with religion so often? The only unusual aspect for Red State is that it is so explicit about it. It is a traumatizing film in many ways. Maybe because (spoiler alert) the one who concocts the whole religion is alive and well at the end and is the last character that we see. Such are parables.

The Skinny on Kansas

Perhaps it was just a slow news day, but Monday the Associated Press ran a story about a year-old skinny-dipping episode involving Kevin Yoder, US Representative from Kansas, and, by extension, Jesus.  Given that I’ve just posted on the skinny-dipping priest in A Room with a View, this seemed an apt place to consider what is being shown to the public. First of all, Yoder did not go au naturel in the swimming hole behind his house. The incident took place last August in the Sea of Galilee, the very body of water Jesus putatively walked upon.  Here’s the rub: with or without a boat, because of the association of Jesus of Nazareth with the Sea of Galilee, many people consider it a holy site. Even an Israeli police spokesman seemed a little put off by the mental image that, even if a year old, is a bit disturbing.  (The thought of any politician undressed is a bit jarring to the puritan imagination of the United States, and, one imagines, in many cases it is a reasonable phobia.) Yoder was reportedly in Israel for a trip funded by the American Israel Education Foundation. They were traveling to discuss international relationships, apparently.

As much fun as it is to catch a big player with his (less often her) pants down, I do wonder at the fuss. During my time in Israel—granted, many years ago and fully clothed except when in the shower—I noticed that American standards were not completely in force. A stroll down the beach in Natanya would easily prove my point. We like to hold our public officials to a higher standard that the average citizen, and given what they take from the system, rightfully so. Nevertheless, I wonder what harm is really done by a bit of juvenile fun. Obviously I wasn’t there, and I don’t have the context with which to judge such behavior accurately.  The Israeli police representative stated that public nudity is forbidden at the Sea of Galilee, so I suppose the legality of the act was an issue. American sexual mores, in addition to having been tempered by Victorian attitudes, are largely based on religious prejudices. The Bible is not shy on nudity, however, and people in the early Christian centuries participated in that world.  According to the Gospels, Saint Peter went fishing naked on that very same lake.  Progress obviously involves putting a cover on it.

Ironically, in trying to explain himself, Yoder said that the jump in the lake was spontaneous, a moment of joie de vivre, “just to have the experience.” He conceded that the Sea of Galilee is a special place.  And, he avers, drunk diving was not involved in the incident. No matter your level of tolerance, the emerging picture is an odd one. A group of government officials, one of them naked, standing around the Sea of Galilee at night.  A 30-something from Kansas jumps in for 10 seconds and it seems as if a storm arose over the feted Sea of Galilee just like New Testament times. One wonders how well our government represents the puritanical interests of their constituency.  Kansas, as we all know, is immune from evolution and provides a home for Fred Phelps and company. And it’s also a land-locked state. If you want to run around naked, and you’re a public official, it looks like you—like Dorothy—have to get out of Kansas.  Even then you might find yourself rocking the boat. Let’s just hope that if Peter’s inside he has the sense to pull on at least the girdle of righteousness before company comes.

From Palin to Phelps

People get shot every day, but that does not take the sting from the January 8 shootings in Tucson, Arizona. We live in a nation filled with angry, violent people. Most of them hold their rage in check, but others act out their frustrations aided by the obscene ease of firearm ownership. Into this volatile brew, mix in the warped rhetoric of a politics of fear and who knows what might happen. Sarah Palin and other outspoken conservative ideologues hold up their pristine hands to demonstrate they have nothing to do with the hate-mongering that haunts our streets. She calls the jabs at conservatives “blood libel.” I say if you propagate the politics of fear you’re liable to get blood on those hands. Often in the bookstore I see titles like How to Talk to Liberals: If You Have to. The liberals I hear talking are only asking for dialogue and coexistence. One side wants a chance for everyone to be heard, the other wants to throw stones at those who are different.

Students do presentations in my classes. The assignment is to choose a social issue where the Bible is brought to bear on the topic and present to the class what you learn about the subject. Two groups last night presented on the Westboro Baptist Church and its outspoken pastor and founder, Fred Phelps. Both presentation groups showed videos of members of the Westboro Baptist Church speaking out about various and sundry liberal groups/causes/nations they hate. Plucking verses from the Bible like a chicken pecking at the ground, they cite only those passages that justify hating those who are different. They seem to have overlooked the part that says, “by their fruits you shall know them.”

On today’s schedule? According to the Westboro website: “WBC to picket the funeral of Christina Greene, the 9-year-old girl cut off in her youth for the rebellion of the parents, preachers, and leaders of this nation.” They’ll have a hard time finding any place in the Bible that condemns children, shy of sly old Elisha calling out she-bears to kill 42 of them. Having read the Bible for practically my whole life, I have a very difficult time reconciling those who use the Bible for conservative causes with their own sourcebook. What will it take for them to realize that “what I want” is only part of the picture? Whether presidential hopefuls or crazed curmudgeons, we would all sleep better if we took to heart that inequality is very easily transformed into iniquity.

From Bragg to Phelps

Religious freedom is proving to be a two-way street. The news is rife with stories of religious groups pushing the limits beyond their right to state an opinion into arguably unconstitutional behaviors. At Fort Bragg, the Army is sponsoring Rock the Fort, a Christian rock concert promoted by the Billy Graham Evangelical Association. Although Christian bands are spiritually minded, they do not perform for free, raising the question whether military (government) money is being spent to promote a particular religion, a particular strain of Evangelical Christianity. In offering this concert, is the government endorsing this one religion? Statements that other religions are free to send their rock groups to Army bases rings hollow when, with rare exceptions, such groups simply do not exist.

Meanwhile, Time magazine brings the curious Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas back to the headlines now that Supreme Court has been called in to argue whether their outspoken condemnation of the military is constitutional. Fred Phelps, the founder of the church, has led divine hate campaigns across the country. It is his protests at the funerals of soldiers killed in action that has forced the question of whether his group has the right to condemn indiscriminately. The question of good taste need not even be asked.

What these Evangelical groups are pointing out is that God apparently suffers from schizophrenia. Simultaneously the great general upstairs loves soldiers and wishes to convert them and also hates them and condemns them to hell. The jury, it seems, should be the taxpayers. We are the ones footing the bill for Christian concerts and paying the not-insubstantial salaries for Supreme Court justices to argue about the legality of religious hatemongering. In these days when many feel that Islam is a threat (as Christian clergy threaten to burn the Quran), it might be worth asking where the real threat to religious freedom comes from. Religious zealots often make excellent soldiers, no matter what the religion.

These guys love God, but is the feeling mutual?

Hate, in the Name of Love

I knew I was in trouble when I looked up the concept “codependency” on Wikipedia this morning and read, “This article has multiple issues.”

I was reminded of an article my wife pointed out to me on MSNBC earlier this week concerning Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church. My thoughts about religious freedom clash with my outrage over what may be legally classified as a religion. I’ve mentioned Phelps before, but the deeper issue here is whether freedom of religion can truly be free. Westboro is being sued (rightfully, imho) in a case that is going to the Supreme Court. His codependent hatred is causing excessive grief to the father of a soldier killed in Iraq. Phelps claims it is God’s will that he spread his Gospel of Hate.

Reading Frans de Waal’s Our Inner Ape, it quickly becomes apparent that empathy is what makes human society possible. Without our ability to feel for another, nature would lead us on a selfish rampage that would not be satiated until everyone but the alpha male was ruthlessly butchered. This seems to be Phelps’ idea of Heaven. It should be a stark warning sign when apes have better bred manners than a pastor.

Hatred and religion may form a codependent bond. Each feeds off the fear and distrust of the other, striking blindly at anything that is different, challenging, or unclear. Religion does have its noble children – those who in the name of their faith try to make life better for others. If the world were run according to Phelps’ religion, however, I would opt for life on the planet of the apes.

Religion’s Double-Edged Sword

This podcast discusses a recent visit of Westboro Baptist Church’s “protesters” to Rutgers University. The issue is whether religious freedom includes the right to encourage hate crimes on the part of those not directly involved in the “protests.” Religious freedom is the phenomenon that allows such groups to develop in a democracy, but the end results of such groups is destructive to the democracy that engendered it. This is compared to the Scientology case that is simultaneously taking place in France and noting the differences between them.