The way we were (are)

The way we were (are) August 1, 2022

• The Adirondack Explorer profiles Word of Life’s Schroon Lake Bible camp on its 75th anniversary. It’s mostly a puff-piece, but also a glimpse of what late 20th-century white evangelicalism was often like before it was reshaped by Gingrich and W. and the tea party and Trump. That’s not to say it wasn’t “political” or “politicized,” just that it was political in a different, subtler, more implicit way. (Local reporter Chloe Bennett does a nice job capturing that aspect of the place.)

I never went to Word of Life, but dozens of my friends from church and my private fundamentalist Christian school went every year. It was a popular pilgrimage for youth groups and whole families from our Central Jersey white fundie world. My friends came back from Schroon Lake every summer with tales of all the fun they had there (and of how they had, of course, re-rededicated their lives to Christ at campfire one night). And I was happy for them, but never really jealous except for the one year that two classmates of mine went to basketball camp there and got to play in a game with Dr. J and Bobby Jones. (Heisman Trophy winner and former Rumble Pony Tim Tebow is up there this summer.)

“It’s an amazing feeling to be standing with a group of people, looking over a lake, all singing together, and feel like you’re part of something,” one former camper says, fondly recalling her summers as a camper and a volunteer at the Bible camp. She had been all-in — determined to attend Word of Life’s “Bible Institute” instead of college where she hoped to train to become a missionary in “full-time Christian service.”

But her story took a different turn because — well, because Word of Life is also the kind of place that invited Anita Bryant as a guest speaker during the height of her 1970s anti-gay campaigning.

There’s so much going on here.

We should note that Word of Life reached that 75-year milestone without any hint of Kanakuk Kamp-style horrors. But there’s a deeply creepy Jordan Peele vibe to an island filled with kindly smiling white faces saying “This is the day that the Lord hath made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!” before adding, “Now, let’s get you signed up for reparation therapy.”

But this same crisis of faith awaits every happy camper. Even if you can easily check “No” on that volunteer application asking about “gay thoughts,” you may find yourself confessing to the sin of being awed by those pictures from the JWST or of having watched Prehistoric Planet and entertaining sinful thoughts about the age of the universe. There are so many ways one can wind up rubbing up against the boundaries of white fundamentalist identity, prompting a response that makes it’s subtle, implicit politics suddenly unsubtle and explicit.

• Alex Morris’ Rolling Stone interview with Bonhoeffer biographer Charles Marsh gets at the appeal of what’s going on at those bonfires and lakeside ritual revivals:

The world of the evangelical is really overcharged with meaning. I mean, there is nothing more associative than the evangelical mind at first blossom. It’s a psychedelic kind of world that you inhabit. In those times when you are in worship and celebration and repentance and in the deep community of evangelical fellowship, you feel that you are right in the center of the metaphysical whirlwind, and you have been invested with a divine, almost superhuman destiny. That excess of emotion and feeling and energy leaves its mark.

But Marsh is also very insightful on the downsides of this me-o-centric encounter with ultimate meaning. Hence the title of that Rolling Stone piece: “‘An Evangelical Childhood is a Total Mindfuck’ New Memoir Recounts the Anxiety and Thrills of Growing Up a Conservative Christian.”

• Dave Gushee writes about how the current Fox- and Trump-ified strain of white evangelicalism is a departure from the mid- and late-20th century forms of white evangelicalism my classmates experienced up there at Schroon Lake, “When Christianity becomes toxic ‘Christianism’.” I want to unpack that a bit, to suggest that, when push comes to shove, the current form of this religion is just what it always was before push came to shove. Here again is Charles Marsh:

It’s an identity that is totalitarian in its understanding of the world and its understanding of truth. It doesn’t admit difference. If it sees difference—whether sexual, political, or racial—it wants to obliterate that or consume that or overwhelm that by its own powers. The awakening into a new identity, a born-again identity, is also an awakening in too many cases to a sense of having an answer for every question and a prescription for every kind of sexual behavior, human behavior, of having such supreme confidence that you’ve been brought into this one truthful, eternally enduring identity. And so when it observes difference, it simply can’t abide difference. It can’t ignore difference; it has to remove it.

Push came to shove when the white evangelical subcultural bubble was no longer sustainable — when the campers had to leave the island — and it became impossible not to observe difference. Ethnic and cultural difference. Religious pluralism. (Even internal pluralism, which is especially intolerable for those adamantly insisting that their every doctrine is based on a common-sense, literal reading of the plain and perspicuous, nice and accurate holy scripture.)

Marsh describes white evangelicalism, in other words, like the people of Krikkit in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide:

They flew out of the cloud.

They saw the staggering jewels of the night in their infinite dust and their minds sang with fear.

For a while they flew on, motionless against the starry sweep of the Galaxy, itself motionless against the infinite sweep of the Universe. And then they turned round.

“It’ll have to go.”

In any case, that’s not the most important part of Dave Gushee’s piece. The most important part is this bit:

Even the handful of proto-Christian Right types I met at my own church still were playing by the same faith rules as everyone else there. I remember when a woman from church asked me to be a bit actor in a film called “Can Soviet Imperialism Be Stopped?” (Will someone please find this film, in which young David Gushee, dressed as a Soviet soldier, menacingly pours red paint over a globe? Thank you.) This woman was a serious Cold War Republican who worked hard to get Ronald Reagan elected. But she — and her organization — bore no resemblance to the debased freak show we are now seeing wrapped in the banner of Jesus.

Again, I’d argue that this form of white Cold Warrior evangelicalism was mainly a proxy for opposition to segregation and an attempt to assert moral superiority by folks who were increasingly aware of their moral bankruptcy being made increasingly evident by their fierce opposition to the Civil Rights Movement. The National Indignation party demonizing JFK before his visit to Dallas in 1963 was not, as they claimed, actually upset about Kennedy’s training of Yugoslavian pilots. They were upset about the prospect that Brown v. Board of Ed might someday be enforced. McCarthyism and zealous Cold Warrior posturing provided a pretext for the self-flattering illusion of “We’re Still the Moral Authorities” until Gorby ruined the fun and all of those same Cold Warriors flipped a switch and suddenly began pretending to be everyone else’s Moral Superiors by pretending that everyone else was a Satanic baby-killer.

But, again, that’s not the most important bit. The most important bit is that somewhere out there is this low-budget movie with a young Dave Gushee in a Soviet uniform. And that anyone who has access to this film needs to stop whatever else they’re doing and upload “Can Soviet Imperialism Be Stopped?” to YouTube. Please. Thank you.

• The linking between Marsh and Gushee here is partly due to the serendipity of my RSS feed, but it’s also due to the grim warning they’ve both provided to 20th- and 21st-century white Christians in deeply unsettling (in the best way) books.

I’ve previously mentioned Marsh’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Strange Glory, as a much-needed antidote to the toxic, self-flattering Bonhoeffer book that drove Eric Metaxas off the deep end. I describe Metaxas’ wretched Marty Stu hagiography as the Benjamin Button version of Martin Niemöller, a weirdly pro-fascist argument that wound up rallying its author and many of its readers to demand that “They come for the Communists …” and the trade unionists, and the LGBT people, and the Jews.

Marsh’s book, by contrast, provokes the kind of sober reflection that Niemöller arrived at only when it was far, far too late. It probes how it was that Bonhoeffer’s faith forced him to take responsibility and to take sides when most white Christians failed to do so. In other words, it forces the reader to confront the same haunting questions raised by Dave Gushee’s excellent book on The Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust. Gushee examines hundreds of case studies of resisters and rescuers to see what they had in common but winds up frustrated and chastened and dismayed to realize there is no magic secret, no pattern of education or politics or religion that explains this small minority’s exceptional courage and clarity in a fearful, confused world.

I wish there were some such magic secret — This One Trick Will Keep You From One Day Too Late Realizing You’re Complicit In The Slide To Genocidal Fascism. The closest Gushee comes is suggesting that all those rescuers and resisters shared an aversion to what he calls “boundaries of moral obligation.” That phrase — “boundaries of moral obligation” — is also an apt description of what Niemöller confesses in his famous My-God-What-Have-I-Done? prayer/poem.

And so, again, I suspect that the only sure way to become more like Bonhoeffer is to accept that we’re probably more like Niemöller. And vice versa — if we flatter ourselves by thinking we’re just like Bonhoeffer, then we’re bound to become like a pre-repentance Niemöller (or like Eric Metaxas).

Let me leave you with this: Reggie Williams delivering the 2018 Nordenhaug Lectures at the International Baptist Theological Study Centre in Amsterdam. Williams, author of Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus, is speaking on “Bonhoeffer, leadership and responses in the context of European nationalisms.” In four years, that video has only been viewed 147 times. I think it would get more attention if the IBTSC changed the title to “This One Trick Will Keep You From One Day Too Late Realizing You’re Complicit In The Slide To Genocidal Fascism.”

And I think that title might, in this case, be accurate.

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