Canaanite Prize: Who will win this year?

Noah is in the news.

He is famous for his ark and the grace he found in the eyes of the Lord, but his struggle with drunken behavior is less well known. A man who saw the world before the Flood destroyed it evidently could not face life in the wreckage and so he drank, as foolish men do, to dull the pain. Self-medication left him passed out naked in his tent and one of his sons decided to expose the shame to the rest of the family, which in this odd period of Biblical history meant the world.

Noah was not pleased and so cursed the offspring of this undutiful son proving he was an undutiful father and grandfather: the prototype for the angry drunk as ruler.

Ever since Canaan was cursed, he has had eager followers: those young adults, and not so young adults, eager to expose their parent’s nakedness for profit. In the decaying West, there is a whole career path for this person. There is not much profit or social cachet in writing on one’s liberal or atheist parents failing, but there is a sub-genre of books, and entire careers, spent writing on the failings of religious right parents. Of course, I am not talking about people who experienced horrific or abusive situations: these stories need to be told on the right and the left.

We are speaking of “first world problems.” Kids not allowed to listen to Michael Jackson in the the seventies or warned against the dangers of Dungeons and Dragons qualify.  Kids with pitiable tales of not being exposed to R rated movies or evolution as children, though taught to write well enough to be articulate and witty about the foibles of the evangelical Christian subculture can be Canaanites. They tell the tales of the childhoods of millions of young people to secular folk in the same breathless manner that the National Geographic used to write of African tribal culture. “You cannot believe what these people do and believe!”

Generally, the Canaanite will show the “shallowness” or “hypocrisy” of the movement the parents helped build, though the Canaanite misunderstands the nature of the term. The Canaanite parent is generally trying to live up to standards and failing in some area: this is called being a hypocrite even if the parent acknowledges the failure! This parents is imperfect, not a hypocrite.

The Canaanite generally contributes to the sort of breathless semi-annual Washington Post or New York Times story where we discover that church members (especially Southern Church members!) struggle with sin (especially sex sins!). This insight, discovering sinners in the Church, is akin to finding sick people in the hospital, but somehow shocks the finders every time. “After all,” they report,” if Christianity worked, then why are people still struggling with sin.” Fortunately, these people are not so consistent as to refuse medical care from overweight doctors or nurses, sick doctors or nurses, or doctors and nurses who are mortal.

Frank Schaeffer, son of a man of actual accomplishment the late Francis Schaeffer, has dominated this prize for decades. First, he was the angry young man living off his father’s legacy, then he converted to Orthodoxy and became more Orthodox than the Ecumenical Patriarch, now he is a kind of religious skeptic living off his ability to expose the “roots” of the religious right. Sadly, Frank is testing the shelf life of the Canaanite strategy so this year he must be term limited out of wining a prize that might someday be named for him.

The Canaanite prize winner is the man or woman who had a decent childhood and whose main career claim to fame is reacting to that childhood. They are marked with only middling accomplishments, rarely do they have advanced degrees in fields like theology that they examine, but achieve a certain fame by de-converting or moving to the left of their parent’s center. The most accomplished Canaanite does so while expressing “love and appreciation” for the good his or her parents did while undermining the values they held (or hold) most sacred. The best Canaanite can expose his father’s nakedness and convince his parent to thank him for it.

Winners of the Canaanite prize must have four characteristics:

First, decent communication skills turned toward “exposing their parents nakedness.” They are most often liberal Christians or secular liberals, but there would be no story there. Instead, they must posture as a “loving critic” . . . “one who knows the movement from the inside.” The best work of the Canaanite is always in “exposing” and never in proposing. When they propose the alternative, they are predictable. The Canaanite’s best work must always be reacting to or showing the absurdity of their parents or their upbringing.

Second, the Canaanite is marked by no deep study. No prize winner should have done advanced graduate work in theology or philosophy of religion. The Canaanite winner must not be marked by a mature crisis of faith, but have worked out the problems with an entire worldview in college or their twenties.

Some argue the Cannanite must be taken seriously, but this is only because other Canaanites take them seriously. They also become the only young or nearly young speaker at left of center Christian conferences for decades. If not for the Canaanite “authentic” Christian conferees would be as geriatric as their churches. Like the occasional mainline preacher who, we are breathlessly informed, now draws hundreds to his or her mainline church, Yee Canaanite is only cool in the dying world of theological liberalism.

They must criticize their childhood faith using the tools (mostly) given to them by their childhoods and during a middling college education. The “intellectual crisis” described must be with the Sunday School or basic apologetics they were given as teenagers or in their early twenties and further writings must dismiss or ignore more sophisticated work by folks such as William Lane Craig or Richard Swinburne. Extra points if they kept dialoging with a local pastor or their parents, always with the predetermined outcome in mind. “It was painful to leave,” the Canaanite says . . . though they managed to talk themselves into rejecting their upbringing in less than a decade of life.

The intellectual trick is to conflate Kent Hovind and Bill Craig: “Craig is just a more sophisticated form of what I got. . . ” This is, of course, like losing faith in the advice of an advanced surgeon, because the local quack turned out to be using similar language, but it does save the Canaanite a lot of work. Instead of wrestling with forms of their childhood faith more sophisticated than where they started, they can tread the well worn road of theological liberalism.

Next, is the “young people” argument. Since I was a young person, the traditional  American church was doomed if  we did not get more sophisticated which always means more liberal. “If Evangelicals/Catholics/Orthodox were more like the Episcopalians, young people would not leave.” This is so absurd nobody ever quite says it, but it is the essential element of the Canaanite argument.

The Canaanite must take any criticism as being “defensive”  or motivated by fear. Since all the Canaanite is doing is telling his story (“I said Dad drunk!”), any disagreement is personal to the Canaanite. Critics are not attacking the faith they fear “exposure.”  This is usually done by sorrowful reflection that the person being attacked does not “want to hear my story.” This is, of course, not true: we cannot avoid hearing the story. What is true is that it is a story traditional Christians have heard since the days of the Apostles: heresy and heterodoxy are not new the Church. The Canaanite strategy for attention is even older.

The Canaanite always argues that his or her experience is legitimating to the arguments, even if the arguments are shallow. This twisting of the value of the Christian testimony to the Christian witness is one residual fruit of the Canaanite childhood, but it is misused. A bad argument is not improved by a jolly disposition and a good argument is not harmed by a narrow childhood where one had to listen to Adventures in Odyssey  instead of watching Troy. 

The Canaanite is generally careful to love Church art, the Bible (though not the way traditional Christians read it), or Jesus. Generally, they love religious art, the Bible, and Jesus in ways that will be inoffensive to the local United Methodist or Episcopal Church. Extra points to the nominee who uses book blurbs praising his or her courage in attacking targets lampooned every day at the Onion. 

Extra points for the nominees who uses the “I am in the middle argument” … they find a virtue in being dismissed by “fundamentalists” and extreme secularists.

Finally, a prize winner must pretend to be conflicted on politics or social issues while inevitably adopting the mainstream view of the American cultural elite. Diversity of thought means France not Nigeria, liberal Anglicanism not Russian Orthodoxy, and diversity of experience equals the local United Methodist church not Ethiopian Coptic Christianity. In fact, the end of the Canaanite’s career comes when he or she inevitably adopts all the important elements of the Democratic party platform and have erased most of the “moral embarrassment” of being a traditional Christian.

Frank Schaeffer is disqualified because this process is now so complete that there is nothing he could disclaim from either his Evangelical roots or his Orthodox present that would shock anyone. His “dialog” with the culture is done and so an opening is created.

I will take nominees for the rest of this month and announce the winner in Bright Week after Easter. The winner will be sent a copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy.


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