Maybe we’re not throwing the dog high enough

Maybe we’re not throwing the dog high enough August 20, 2019

Vox’s Alissa Wilkinson and Emily Todd VanDerWerff are both fine critics and also perceptive observers of American-style white evangelicalism. When they write about evangelicals, they’re writing about family. So I trust them when they tell us that HBO’s new mega-church comedy The Righteous Gemstones is worth checking out.

It’s from Danny McBride, who is something of an acquired taste that I haven’t yet managed to acquire. But for me this is more than made up for by the presence of John Goodman.

Yes, please. More of this.

Wilkinson and VanDerWerff contrast the show with HBO’s 1-percenter soap opera, Succession, which features another loathesome family led by patriarch Brian Cox — another actor who, like Goodman, I’ve never seen give a bad performance. I mention this just as an excuse to repeat what Lindsey Beyerstein said about that show on Twitter: “Virtue is rarely its own reward, but thoroughgoing evil is pretty reliably its own punishment.”

That’s one part of what I mean when I talk about “salvation.”

• I really like this story (via Charles Kuffner) about the secret, precious New Jersey mud that makes Major League baseball possible: “Mud Maker: The Man Behind MLB’s Essential Secret Sauce.”

I think Jim Bintliff deserves some kind of recognition in Cooperstown. Maybe the Hall of Fame could order some of his inimitable mud for an interactive exhibit that lets kids rub up baseballs just like they do in the majors.

I also think this story has the ingredients for a comic thriller involving a Bintliff-type character whose life is turned upside down as he’s forced to go on the run to protect his family’s treasured secret from multiple nefarious forces (corporate thugs, criminal thugs, commissioner’s office bureaucrats, Steinbrenners, etc.). I would watch that movie whether or not they cast Bill Murray in the lead (as they should).

• “ELCA Churchwide Assembly calls sexism and patriarchy sins, condemns white supremacy.” They’re not wrong on either matter.

It’s odd that statements and actions like these are not generally considered “newsworthy.” A wild-eyed Kenneth Copeland angrily defends his private jet and that makes every newscast in the country, but a denomination with 3.4 million members does something like this and it barely registers. That’s 1 percent of the country. Way more people went to ELCA church services last week than watched America’s Got Talent — the No. 1 rated show on TV. They’ve got more than 9,000 congregations — that’s more locations than Wendy’s and Applebee’s combined. Seems newsworthy.

I think part of why things like this haven’t been treated as “news” is that churches retain a benefit of the doubt that puts them in the category of “good people” (or at least of “nice, well-intentioned people”). And good/nice people do good/nice thing isn’t “news” — it’s just dog-bites-man. The Copeland story, by contrast, involves someone who’s supposed to be good behaving awfully. That’s man-bites-dog. That’s “news.” By now, though, I think most of us have read thousands of stories like the Copeland one, and relatively few stories like this one about the ELCA. So at this point, “Pastor does awful thing” seems more like a humdrum, dog-bites-man piece of non-news, while “Church actually loves neighbor” seems more like the man-bites-dog exceptional story that needs to be reported.

The main reason stories like this don’t make the news, though, is because right-wing Christians — white evangelicals especially — have been working the refs for decades, insisting that theirs is the only legitimate form of Christianity and that folks like the ELCA aren’t real, true churches and thus that anything they do or say cannot be real, true news.

See also this other recent RNS story: “‘Let our voices be heard’: Churches march against immigration raids.” That’s news. But it won’t make the news, unless some CNN host opts to use it as the hook for a “panel discussion” in which they invite Robert Jeffress and The Liar Tony Perkins on to explain why the voices of such churches don’t count and don’t deserve to be heard.

• The thing about musical chairs is that after every round there will be fewer places to sit. That’s what you have to remember when any demagogue stands up and says something like this:

Our movement is built on love and it is and we love our families. We love our faith, we love our flag and we love our freedom and that’s what it’s about. And add to that the fact that we love our neighbors and we love our country. Together, we are all united by one fundamental principle. A nation’s first duty must always be to its own citizens. Its own. We got to take care of our own.

The thing about “our own” there is that each time the music stops, the inner circle included in “our” gets a little smaller. The thing about exclusion is that it never stops. The demagogue is saying this, reassuring his worshippers that they’re OK, for now, because, for now, they’re still part of “our own.” Accepting that reassurance is as unwise as it is morally depraved.

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