aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

Through the Evangelical Looking-Glass

So, I came home today to find that I had been quoted in a Charisma magazine internet post; however, I had been quoted out of context, and it wasn't clear that my thoughts were actually separate from the unnamed "source" the writer was relying on. Very sloppy reporting, though it could have been much worse.

This is not the first time I have found myself unintentionally famous (or notorious) at the hands of what should have been my spiritual allies.

In the late 1970s (c. 1976-7?), when I was in seminary, there was a movement gaining momentum in churches across the USA to petition Congress to pass a Right to Food Act. Congregations were being asked to endorse the petition in worship services and business meetings. It was described as a "simple liturgical act."

I opposed this, and when the issue was raised at Asbury Theological Seminary, I wrote to my seminary student newspaper to say so. Mind you, I wasn't opposed to feeding the hungry, here and around the world, but I was deeply troubled by what I saw as a movement asking the USA to declare a Right to Food. For in our legal tradition, rights are not just aspirations; they are part of the Constitution, enforceable even upon governments. Establishing a juridical Right to Food is not the same as expressing the desire that we should all work to eliminate hunger.

Well, my letter went largely unnoticed until we had a special speaker come to campus: Paul S. Rees of World Vision. Somebody handed him my letter and he took special care to denounce the uncaring attitude that infected even such a bastion of the Spirit as Asbury in his magazine (I forget whether he mentioned it in his address to the student body).

People leading moral crusades of one kind or another are always apt to see anybody who objects to their pet projects as either enemies or dupes of the other side. They don't see those who point out the pitfalls and constitutional tangles as being their kind of people. But those of us who do the wonk-work and think through what is actually possible to accomplish aren't opponents of the goal; we're just not going to go along with the crowd and think that sloganeering = policy. A "simple liturgical act" may make you feel all warm and fuzzy, that you did something to combat hunger, but if that movement had gained its object and been passed into law, it would have been either unenforceable or a confounded nuisance; and either way, I doubt it would have fed many hungry people.

Now, I was not mentioned by name in Paul Rees's magazine column. I was shamed anonymously. Quite the opposite happened a few years later, when I ran afoul of Moody Press.

It was c. 1980, and the fear of Satanic cults, of human sacrifice and cannibalism and whatnot, was being fanned by evangelical leaders all over the US. And just at that time, what should become the hot new toy, but the game Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. TSR, the company which produced AD&D and other game-related products, was under siege by religious conservatives. In addition to the bad press, they had kids writing in to them saying things like, "My Sunday School teacher thinks I'm in danger of going to hell/playing with the occult/worshiping false gods; what do I do?"

Now, several of us had gotten into playing AD&D shortly after graduating from seminary. For us over-educated types who had read fantasy and science fiction and fairy tales our whole lives, this was a neat way to play with the same concepts. I even wrote an article that was accepted by what was then called The Dragon, TSR's monthly gaming magazine. Having established a relationship as a budding writer, I mentioned -- by the way -- that I was also an ordained minister. Would they like an article written by a clergyperson that explained the Fantasy Role-Playing Game phenomenon sympathetically?

Boy, howdy, would they! "Reflections of a Real-Life Cleric" was rushed into print as soon as I could get it to them. And so began my journey as one of the few clergy in the country who had written on these games in terms other than condemnation and dread. And soon a whole book appeared in Christian book stores -- published by Moody Press -- called Playing With Fire, which stoked the hysteria. I was one of the few published writers who'd written for the other side, so my little article was extensively quoted. My wrong-headedness was critically analyzed, as if I were a public danger whose works might influence the destiny of thousands of souls. Not that anybody told me I was being attacked, by name, in a popular book issued by an evangelical publisher. But my fundamentalist brother-in-law bought the book and gave me a copy -- for the good of my soul, I'm sure.

Sigh. I'm afraid there is a long history of distrust among Puritans of all sorts for works of the imagination. Only Milton, among Puritans, really embraced the imagination, though sadly he was also a heretic. But really, the small-minded fearmongering of evangelicals can get too much too fast for a lot of us. I dropped my subscription to The Moody Monthly after this. A year or so later, I dropped my subscription to Christianity Today, when they published a ridiculous article on fantasy gaming, replete with dark hints born of ignorance. For instance, they mentioned that kids play these games with something called "hex paper." Occultism? No, it's just paper with a hexagonal grid printed on it, like a honeycomb. It allows movement in six equal directions instead of the four that a square grid gives you. If they'd bothered to actually ask anybody who played games what hex paper was, they'd've been set straight -- which only demonstrates that they didn't ask anybody, they just wrote up their tendentious screed and considered it a duty well done.

Ya know, I believe all the right stuff, and I fight to maintain our doctrinal and behavioral standards in The UMC. I have done so for over forty years now. But there are times when evangelicals -- holiness people, charismatics, fundamentalists, revivalists, the lot -- just weird me out. And I'm so glad that Good News and The Confessing Movement seem to get it, that the orthodox believers and clergy in United Methodism are a larger category than just the evangelicals, though they may be the largest portion of us. But here's the thing: we are trying to maintain an orthodox United Methodism, not just an evangelical one.

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