You should go out and buy this magazine right now (and no, it's not ours)

I read Harper's maybe twice a year, usually when I find myself either at lunch or in an airport without a good book and I'm not in the mood for one of the men's glossies: GQ, with its tips on how I could dress if I were a multi-millionaire yachtsman, Esquire with its profiles of the beautiful people, Details and Men's Health with articles and photo spreads that toe the thin (and constantly blurring) line between metrosexuality and homosexuality.

I always read the Harper's Index and the "readings" section, both of which are at once hilarious and troubling (and both of which, I just discovered, are available free online here here and here. I usually try to read at least one of the features, but they're often a bit overwritten and high-minded for my taste. They're like the serious (and thick) nonfiction books I buy sometimes in my more ambitious moments, then leave to wither away unread on my coffee table or my bookshelf.

So it was with a little trepidation that I moved beyond the "readings" section in the August Harper's and into the meat of the issue. But I'm glad I did, since the magazine ran one of the best essays I've read in a long time, on one of my favorite topics (as evidenced by repeated postings on this blog): Christianity in America.

For the last few years, as the rise of evangelical mega-churches has officially become a national phenomenon (and my parents have moved to Dallas, home of more arena-sized churches than you can shake a vial of holy water at), I've been wishing some non-evangelical Christians would at least enter into the debate over America's religious future, a debate that seems to be dominated by a lot of red-faced screaming and smiting but not a lot of actual substance.

Well, Bill McKibben, a scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College and a practicing Episcopalian, has finally answered the call. In his Harper's essay, he provides a nuanced, well-reasoned discussion, which is increasingly rare these days when the subject is either politics or religion (or in this case, both). Here's the opening paragraph:

"Only 40 percent of Americans can name more than four of the Ten Commandments and a scant half can cite any of the four authors of the Gospels. Twelve percent believe Joan of Arc was Noah's wife. This failure to recall the specifics of our Christian heritage may be further evidence of our nation's educational decline, but it probably doesn't matter all that much in spiritual or political terms. Here is a statistic that does matter: Three quarters of Americans believe the Bible teaches that 'God helps those who help themselves.' That is, three out of four Americans believe that this uber-American idea, a notion at the core of our current individualist politics and culture, which was in fact uttered by Ben Franklin, actually appears in Holy Scripture. The thing is, not only is Franklin's wisdom not Biblical; it's counter-Biblical. Few ideas could be further from the Gospel message, with its radical summons to love of neighbor. On this essential matter, most Americans — most American Christians — are simply wrong, as if 75 percent of American scientists believed that Newton proved gravity causes apples to fly up."

The rest of the essay is at times funny, at times distressing. But it gets down to what I find to be the most worrisome part of the new American Christianity: that it doesn't very much resemble Christianity at all. What it does look like, as McKibben points out, is our culture at large, which is so focused on the individual that it's lost sight of that call to selflessness and community so important to the Gospels.

"A rich man came to Jesus one day and asked what he should do to get into heaven. Jesus did not say he should invest, spend, and let the benefits trickle down; he said sell what you have, give the money to the poor, and follow me. Few plainer words have ever been spoken. And yet, for some reason, the Christian Coalition of America — founded in 1989 in order to 'preserve, protect and defend the Judeo-Christian values that made this the greatest country in history' — proclaimed last year that its top legislative priority would be 'making permanent President Bush's 2001 federal tax cuts.'"

"The power of the Christian right rests largely in the fact that they boldly claim religious authority, and by their very boldness convince the rest of us that they must know what they're talking about. They're like the guy who gives you directions with such loud confidence that you drive on even though the road appears to be turning into a faint, rutted track. But their theology is appealing for another reason, too: it coincides with what we want to believe. How nice it would be if Jesus had declared that our income was ours to keep, instead of insisting that we had to share. How satisfying it would be if we were supposed to hate our enemies. Religious conservatives will always have a comparatively easy sell.

"But straight is the path and narrow is the way. The Gospel is too radical for any culture larger than the Amish to ever come close to realizing; in demanding a departure from selfishness it conflicts with all our current desires. Even the first time around, judging by the reaction, the Gospels were pretty unwelcome news to an awful lot of people."

Ah, I could go on quoting this guy all day. But buy the issue and read the essay for yourself. It's definitely worth it. I'm tempted to borrow a move from my mother's playbook: clip the article and Xerox it, then mail a highlighted copy to everyone in my family. Especially the kooky evangelical arm of the Ingram clan, though that might get me disinvited from future family reunions. Which, now that I think about it, would be like killing two birds with one stone. To the copy machine!


dave said...

At the risk of getting out of our usual pop babble wheelhouse, here's a new group that's trying to reclaim some territory and create a kind of Christian left. They don't think gay people are going to hell, and Jerry Falwell think they're "hardly Christian," which makes me like them more.

Oh, and Gwydion, I think this is the second generation of groups stealing our design.

Mike said...

What I also meant to say, before the post deteriorated into a rambling diatribe about religion, was that there are several other really good articles in the new Harpers that make it worth the rather steep $6.50 cover price.

joe said...

I found Harpers totally hit or miss. I had a subscription a few years ago and some issues were really, really great. On the other hand, some were so ridiculously lefty that they had ultra liberal me feeling like Pat Robertson. One guy actually wrote a ten page essay on why the United States should abolish the Senate. The whole thing was so far beyond the realm of reality it wasn't worth the paper it was printed on.

That being said, the fiction was almost always good. And the subscription rate was dirt cheap, like $12 for a year.

joe said...

Sorry, posted that last one before I meant to. I also meant to say that being raised Catholic, which is still Christian despite what some evangelical nutballs will tell you, one thing that really slipped through between all of the anti-choice rhetoric was the idea of generosity. I think I'm a fairly giving person and I believe it's because I had that base in my education from the very beginning. Granted, I eventually stopped being generous because God told me to and started doing it because it's the right thing to do, but that's neither here nor there.

Now getting back to the evangelicals not liking Catholics. I think it has to do with spin-off envy. Let's be honest, in terms of Christianity, Catholicism is Three's Company and Protestantism is The Ropers. I know it hurts to admit, but the most popular religion in this country is totally a spin off.