Tag Archive: Book Review

Missionary Kid: How I Learned to Say Goodbye by John Haines

missionary kid

Missionary Kid: How I Learned to Say Goodbye details the fascinating life of a friend of mine, John Haines. Raised in a devoutly Evangelical home, John spent much of his life on the foreign mission field as his parents attempted to win Moroccan Muslims for Christ. John later returned to the United States, and is now a professor at the University of Toronto where he teaches music, film, and things medieval.

John’s book is memoir, but written in a delightful conversational form.  I prefer this style of writing. Far too often, memoirs are page after page of boring minute details. Missionary Kid, instead, tells John’s life story in a way that allows readers to enter the story and travel along with the author as goes from Morocco to France and from Germany to the United States. If you are interested in reading a first person account of what it was like growing up in the home of Evangelical missionaries, this book is for you.

Missionary Kid: How I Learned to Say Goodbye comes in at 202 pages and can be purchased from Amazon, either in print ($9.95) or Kindle ($4.95) form.

Book Review: Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church by Lauren Drain

banished lauren drain

I recently finished reading, Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church. The book is written by Lauren Drain (along with Lisa Pulitzer) a former member of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. The book is 295 pages long and is published by Grand Central Publishing.

Lauren Drain spent her teenage years as a member of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church. The Drain family moved to Topeka to join the church in 2001 and they remain members to this day. In 2007, Lauren was kicked out of the church. For a time she continued to live in Topeka. She is a nurse and now lives in Connecticut with her fiancé.

I wanted to like this book, I really did. Anyone who can escape the clutches of Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church is to be commended. Throughout the book, it is evident that Lauren was mistreated and abused, and it is a wonder that she escaped with any sense of self-worth. The church and her family did their best to destroy her mentally and emotionally, yet she came through it, and she deserves a lot of praise for what she has done with her life post-Westboro.

Banished reads like a teenage girl’s diary. Page after page detail Drain’s angst over boys, make-up, dating, marriage, and the fear of going to hell. Drain spends significant time repeatedly detailing how she craved the approval of the Phelpses and how she went about trying to gain their approval. Sadly, the book became quite redundant and I found myself speed reading.

Banished does offer a first-person account of how the Phelps clan lives. However, Drain has very little negative to say about the Phelpses or the church. As one reviewer on Amazon noted, it seemed that Drain, if she could, would go back to Westboro. I doubt this is actually the case, but Drain spends little time critiquing the vile behavior and beliefs of the Westboro church family. I don’t want to be harsh in my judgment because I have not walked in her shoes, and since her family is still members of Westboro, I can easily understand her hesitation to be severely critical of the Westboro church family.

Drain was not kicked out of Westboro because of her beliefs. She still believes in the Christian God, albeit a different version of the Christian God — a kinder, gentler, loving God – than that of the Westboro Church. She still reads and studies the Bible and has come to see that there are many different ways to interpret the Bible.

In telling her story, whether intentionally or not, Drain shows that the Phelps family and the Westboro Baptist Church is made up of vile, nasty, vindictive people, who, due to their doctrinal beliefs, have lost the capacity to love anyone other than their own (and even then, their love is conditioned on obedience to what the church beliefs and the edicts of the pastor).

Drain reveals that the Phelps family has a few secrets of its own, such as the fact that two of Fred Phelps’ daughters became pregnant outside of wedlock. I am sure this was especially galling to Drain, since the reason she was banished is because she desired to have a relationship with a boy who was not a member of the church. That’s right — her big sin was being a normal, heterosexual teenage girl.

And this is the crux of the story. It is the story of an American teenage girl who wanted to be like other teenage girls. She wanted to have a boyfriend. She wanted to feel loved. She had wistful thoughts about getting married some day. (The only available boys in the church to marry were grandsons of Fred Phelps.) Her parents, the Phelpses, and the Westboro Baptist Church robbed her of her youth. They used and abused her and then threw her away like a piece of trash. (To this day she has no contact with her parents.)

I wish Lauren Drain well. She deserves a good life, a life with those who will love her for who she is. I hope that someday her family will be delivered from Phelps’ cult and that her relationship with them can be restored. I can only imagine the pain she must suffer from being completely cut off from her parents and siblings.

Drain gives the impression that the Westboro Baptist Church in an aberration and that most Christian churches and people are not like the Phelpses and Westboro. Unfortunately, my extensive involvement in Evangelicalism tells me this is not the case.

Westboro uses the threat of church discipline to control its members. I know of many Calvinistic Baptist churches that do the same. When I was co-pastor of Community Baptist Church in Elmendorf, Texas, I saw church discipline routinely used to keep people in line. People who refused to obey were excommunicated. When I decided to leave the church and return to Ohio, I was excommunicated because I did not ask the church’s permission to leave. To this day, the church considers me a publican and heathen.

Drain reveals that Fred Phelps is the domineering, controlling man everyone thinks he is (as is his daughter Shirley, who rules the church with her father). As the pastor of the church, he rules the church with a rod of iron. His word is the law. Is such behavior by a pastor an aberration? Maybe in some sects, but in the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church and in many other Evangelical sects, extreme pastoral authority and control is the norm.

Westboro Baptist Church is a cult. Drain refuses to say this in the book, but any cursory reading of Banished will clearly show that the Westboro Baptist Church is a cult and Fred Phelps is a cult leader. The same cult markers found in the Westboro Baptist Church can be found in countless Evangelical churches. If anything, Banished should be read by every church member in the IFB church movement. If they are able to set their cognitive dissonance aside, IFB church members should have no trouble seeing themselves in the book. As I have often said, there is little difference between many Evangelical churches and pastors on the one hand and Westboro Baptist Church and Fred Phelps on the other. The difference is one of appearance rather than substance. There is nothing in the beliefs of Fred Phelps and Westboro that can’t be found in Calvinistic churches in the IFB church movement, in the Reformed Baptist movement, the Founder’s Group in the Southern Baptist Convention, and the Sovereign Grace Baptist movement. Theologically, there is little difference between Fred Phelps and Al Martin or Al Mohler.

While I cannot give Banished a 4 star rating for the reasons mentioned above, I do think people investigating the Westboro Baptist Church or Evangelical cultism in general will find the book helpful.

You can purchase the book here.

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Book Review: Manuscript Found in Accra by Paulo Coelho

manuscript found in accra

Manuscript Found in Accra is written by Brazilian author Paulo Coelho. The book was translated from Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa and is published by Alfred A Knopf.

The publisher graciously provided me a copy of the book to review. Manuscript Found in Accra is 190 pages long and can be read in several leisurely sittings.

This is the first Paulo Coelho book I have read. Quite frankly, until the publisher representative contacted me, I had never heard of Paulo Coelho. This is my loss, since millions of other people know who Paulo Coelho is. According to back flap of the book, Coelho has written numerous books; books such as The Alchemist, Aleph, Eleven Minutes, and The Pilgrimage. His books have been translated into 74 languages and over 140 million books have been sold.

Manuscript Found in Accra is best described as wisdom literature. Drawing on the collective wisdom of the world’s religions, Coelho tells a masterful story that forces readers to contemplate and consider their own lives, and the meaning, purpose, and direction thereof.

While the book is littered with religious and spiritual references, it is not strictly a religious book. Coelho takes readers beyond the boundaries that sectarian religions erect and encourages them to see the wisdom found not only in religious texts but also in the collective experiences that humanity shares.

The main character of Manuscript Found in Accra is the Copt. The book focuses on the Copt’s interaction with the people of Jerusalem on July 14, 1099.

Roman Catholic Crusaders have surrounded Jerusalem. Attack is imminent. Many of the residents of Jerusalem will flee before the battle, yet others will stay to fight, knowing that they will likely die. Before this historic battle takes place, the Copt asks all the people to come to the city square. He asks the leaders of the three Abrahamic religions to join him there.

The Copt is described as:

…a strange man. as an adolescent, he decided to leave his native city of Athens to go in search of money and adventure. He ended up knocking on the doors of our city, close to starvation. When he was well received, he gradually abandoned the idea of continuing his journey and resolved to stay.

He managed to find work in a shoemaker’s shop, and—just like Ibn al-Athir—he started recording everything he saw and heard for posterity. He did not seek to join any particular religion, and no one tried to persuade him otherwise. As far as he is concerned, we are not in the years 1099 or 4859, much less at the end of 492. The Copt believes only in the present moment and what he calls Moira—the unknown God, the Divine Energy, responsible for a single law, which, if ever broken, will bring along the end of the world.

The people, along with their religious leaders, gather in the city square, the very same city square where Jesus was condemned to die. The Copt says to the people:

From tomorrow, harmony will become discord. Joy will be replaced by grief. Peace will give way to a war that will last into an unimaginably distant future…

They can destroy the city, but they cannot destroy everything the city has taught us, which is why it is vital that this knowledge does not suffer the same fate as our walls, houses, and streets. But what is knowledge?…

It isn’t the absolute truth about life and death, but the things that help us to live and confront the challenges of day-to-day life. It isn’t what we learn from books, which serves only to fuel futile arguments about what happened or will happen; it is the knowledge that lives in the hearts of men and women of good will…

I am a learned man, and yet, despite having spent all these years restoring antiquities, classifying objects, recording dates, and discussing politics, I still don’t know quite what to say to you. But I will ask the Divine Energy to purify my heart. You will ask me questions, and I will answer them. This is what the teachers of ancient Greece did; their disciples would ask them questions about problems they had not yet considered, and the teachers would answer them.

Someone in the crowd asks, what shall we do with your answers?

The Copt replies:

Some will write down what I say. Others will remember my words. The important thing is that tonight you will set off for the four corners of the world, telling others what you have heard. That way, the soul of Jerusalem will be preserved. And one day, we will be able to rebuild Jerusalem, not just as a city, but as a center of knowledge and a place where peace will once again reign.

A man in the crowd says, we all know what waits us tomorrow. Wouldn’t it be better to discuss how to negotiate for peace or prepare ourselves for battle?

The Copt turns and looks at the religious leaders to see if they have anything to say, then he turns back to the crowd and says:

None of us can know what tomorrow will hold, because each day has its good and its bad moments. So, when you ask your questions, forget about the troops outside and the fear inside. Our task is not to leave a record of what happened on this date for those who will inherit the Earth; history will take care of that. Therefore, we will speak about our daily lives, about the difficulties we have had to face. That is all the future will be interested in, because I do not believe very much will change in the next thousand years.

The people proceed to ask the Copt twenty questions. Each chapter in the book details the Copt’s answer to their questions. The questions and answers deal with matters close to the heart of all of us: love, fear, loss, death, beauty, courage, friendship, and dreams. Regardless of one’s religious persuasion, Manuscript Found in Accra is a treasure-trove of wisdom. It is a book that can be read over and over, with each reading giving new insight.

My favorite chapter is one where a person preparing to die in battle the next day asks:

We were divided when what we wanted was unity. The cities that lay in path of the invaders suffered the consequences of a war they did not choose. What should the survivors tell their children?

The Copt replies:

…do not seek to be loved at any price, because Love has no price.

Your friends are not the kind to attract everyone’s gaze, who dazzle and say: “There is no one better, more generous, or more virtuous in the whole of Jerusalem.”

Your friends are the sort who do not wait for things to happen in order to decide which attitude to take; they decide on the spur of the moment, even though they know it could be risky.

They are free spirits who can change direction whenever life requires them to. They explore new paths, recount their adventures, and thus enrich both city and village.

If they once took a wrong and dangerous path, they will never come to you and say: “Don’t ever do that.”

They will merely say: “I once took a wrong and dangerous path.”

This is because they respect your freedom, just as you respect theirs.

Avoid at all costs those who are only by your side in moments of sadness to offer consoling words. What they’re actually saying to themselves is: “I am stronger. I am wiser. I would not have taken that step.”

Stay close to those who are by your side in happy times, because they do not harbor jealousy or envy in their hearts, only joy to see you happy.

Avoid those who believe they are stronger than you, because they are actually concealing their own fragility.

Stay close to those who are not afraid to be vulnerable, because they have confidence in themselves and know that, at some point in our lives, we all stumble; they do not interpret this as a sign of weakness, but of humanity.

Avoid those who talk a great deal before acting, those who will never take a step without being quite sure that it will bring them respect.

Stay close to those who, when you made a mistake, never said: “I would have done it differently.” They did not make that particular mistake and so are in no position to judge.

Avoid those who seek friends in order to maintain a certain social status or to open doors they would not otherwise be able to approach.

Stay close to those who are interested in opening only one important door: the door to your heart. They will never invade your soul without your consent or shoot a deadly arrow through that open door.

Friendship is like a river; it flows around rocks, adapts itself to valleys and mountains, occasionally turns into a pool until the hollow in the ground is full and it can continue on its way.

Just as the river never forgets that it’s goal is the sea, so friendship never forgets that its only reason for existing is to love other people…

I heartily recommend Manuscript Found in Accra. I am an atheist, and I know that some of you might find my recommendation of Paulo Coelho’s book strange. Yet I found the book affirming many of the humanistic values I hold dear. Yes, Coelho is a religious man, a practicing Catholic, but can we not all learn from people who are different from us, people who, despite our differences, hold a common humanity with us?

This is the first  spiritually oriented book I have read since leaving Christianity almost 5 years ago. For a time, the wisdom-well was poisoned and I could not read books with any religious or spiritual sympathies. But now I find myself yearning for books that speak to my humanity, books that call on me to reflect on who and what I am and how I want to live my life.

The strict materialist will find little to like in Manuscript Found in Accra. But for those who dream of a better tomorrow, who still have hope and seek a world of peace, Paulo Coelho’s latest book will inspire and provoke us to be better human beings.

You can buy Manuscript Found in Accra here.

Note:

TLC Book Tours handles some of the book reviews I have done. If you have a book that you would like to publicize please contact them. I have found the staff at TLC Book Tours a delight to work with.

Book Review: The Divinity of Doubt by Vincent Bugliosi

divinity of doubt

The publisher Vanguard Press sent me a review copy of Vincent Bugliosi’s latest book, Divinity of Doubt, The God Question. Divinity of Doubt is 272 pages long (338 pages with chapter notes and index) and is Bugliosi’s attempt to establish agnosticism as the only valid choice in the God debate. Bugliosi neatly divides views about God into three categories: organized religion, agnosticism, and atheism.

Bugliosi spends significant time — in fact the entire book save 3 chapters  — dismantling and shredding Christianity. He makes it clear that he does not believe the Christian God exists. He dismisses the rest of the major religions of the world in a chapter titled “Hey, Look at Us. We are Just as Silly as They Are.” Bugliosi makes it known that the world would be far better off if organized religion died a quick death.

Bugliosi’s critique of Christianity is standard atheistic fare. Long time atheists and agnostics will bore quickly when reading Divinity of Doubt. I found myself saying yeah, yeah, yeah, I agree. Ok, next. That said, Bugliosi’s book is a great primer on the theological and textual issues the Christian church faces. This would be a great book for someone who is considering leaving Christianity.

Bugliosi is rightly critical of those who believe in certainty but he often appeals to theological certainty when he writes about what bible scholars believe concerning this or that theological or historical issue. He often makes it sound as if bible scholars are unified when it comes to the textual and historical problems of the Christian bible, when, in fact, unity is a word rarely used to describe bible scholarship. Proof? Consult the true God of this world  — Google  — and you will quickly discover that practically every aspect of the Christian religion is endlessly debated. Christians can’t even agree on basic things such as God, communion, baptism, or how a person becomes a Christian.

I was astounded that Bugliosi did not mention Bart Ehrman even once. (I did not read the chapter notes so there is a small possibility Ehrman makes an honorary appearance there.) Ehrman is clearly the most popular and most widely read theologian of the 21st century. His books are a devastating critique of Christianity and Bugliosi’s failure to mention Ehrman’s books is troubling. (Not that Ehrman would have necessarily added anything to the book. Bugliosi comes to many of the same conclusions as Ehrman.) In passing I should note that Bugliosi incorrectly states that William Lane Craig is a Catholic apologist. Craig is actually an Evangelical Christian apologist.

Bugliosi spends several chapters on the subject of evolution, creationism, and intelligent design. He admits he is not a scientist but this does not keep him from diving right in anyway. Bugliosi writes:

But apart from science, I have problems with the Big Bang theory. For one thing, I simply cannot even begin to imagine how at some tiny point in time and space, some microorganism, or what have you, self exploded and created the universe, though I obviously am in no position to challenge this theory…But I do know that whatever they are, they are something, and that is the big problem. It would seem that no one can actually believe that the Big Bang exploded out of nothing, completely empty space, which would be an impossibility. It had to have exploded out of something. And no matter how small or subatomic that something is, the question is who put that something there? If it wasn’t the creator, and how did it come into existence? Remember, nothing can create itself because if it did, it would proceed itself, an impossibility.

Unlike Bugliosi, I confess not only am I quite deficient when it comes to matters of science, I also have no intentions of exposing my ignorance to those who are experts in science. I will leave it to my readers who are well-schooled in science to deal with Bugliosi’s claims. I will stick to the Bible and theology.

In a chapter titled “Atheism and Its Current Leading Prolocutors,” Bugliosi deals with the subject of atheism. Bugliosi focuses only on the writings of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. For some unexplainable reason Bugliosi assumes that if he reads the books written by the Big Three of the Atheist movement (he ignores Daniel Dennett) he has adequately surveyed the necessary material to make a proper judgment about atheism. As a result, Bugliosi paints a truncated, incomplete picture of atheism. His book would carry far more weight with atheists IF he had broadened his horizons and referenced books written by atheists, agnostics, humanists, and skeptics who offer a different viewpoint from those of Harris/Hitchens/Dawkins.

Bugliosi hates the certainty he sees in the writings of Harris/Dawkins/Hitchens. Bugliosi wrongly assumes that these three authors are the face of atheism and that their beliefs are the beliefs of all atheists. Bugliosi rightly contends that no one can know for certain whether or not there is a God yet he discounts atheists who say just that. Dawkins admits that a person cannot, with certainty, know whether or not a God exists. Dawkins states “God almost certainly does not exist” and Bugliosi takes this to be a disingenuous statement. Why?

Atheism is all about probabilities. Does God exist? I don’t know. Is it probable God exists? No. Is it likely God exists? No. Does the Christian God, as taught in the Bible, exist? No. Rare is the atheist who says with certainty that no God exists. In fact Bugliosi proves in his book that he is every bit as much an atheist as most of the atheists I know. Bugliosi would have been better informed about atheism if he had, at a bare minimum, read the WIKI on atheism.

In the future, I hope Bugliosi will broaden his horizons when it comes to atheism. I have profited greatly from the books of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. That said, there are many other authors, such as Michael Shermer, Richard Carrier, Hector Avalos, David Eller, S.T. Joshi, A.C. Grayling, Paul Kurtz, Bart Ehrman, and Scott Aiken/Robert Talisse, all of whom have written significant books about atheism and humanism that I have found quite helpful; books, it seems, that Bugliosi paid no attention to. Bugliosi also fails to mention the books by John Loftus  — Why I Became an Atheist and The Christian Delusion  — two books which are very helpful in laying the foundation of modern atheism.

If you are a confirmed atheist or agnostic, Divinity of Doubt will not plow any new ground for you, and it certainly does a poor job of surveying the current popular atheist scene. The book is bombastic at times and its biggest defect is how Vincent Bugliosi portrays himself. To-wit:

I seem to naturally—and not as a result, I can assure you , of any special intelligence at all—see what’s in front of me completely uninfluenced by the trappings of reputation, hoopla, conventional wisdom, and so on, put on it by others.

I suspect some readers of Divinity of Doubt will be unable to get beyond Bugliosi’s naïve view of himself. As I read what Bugliosi said about himself I found myself wanting to toss the book in the corner where I store all the books I have read by authors filled with self-importance. (Granted my sensitivity to this stems from a lifetime in a religious movement dominated by arrogant, self-important preachers.) I didn’t toss the book, and I am glad I didn’t. I had to remind myself that sometimes I have to get beyond the messenger and listen to the message. Forget Bugliosi’s character flaws; is what he preaches the truth? The answer is Yes, especially when dealing with Christianity.

I heartily recommend Divinity of Doubt, especially for people who considering leaving the Christian faith. The book will be a help to Christians who are questioning the tenets of the Christian faith. Divinity of Doubt answers many of the questions pastors hope their members never ask.

I close this review with Bugliosi’s own words concerning religion:

I can say with relative confidence (because what I’m saying, at least it would seem, has to be true) that there is only one necessary religion that has any merit to the people who inhabit this earth, and that’s the Golden Rule: “Do unto others what you would want them to do unto you” (from the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount [Matthew 7:12]). To treat others as you would want them to treat you is the highest, most noble form of human behavior and the basis of all morality. No matter what some papal encyclical says; no matter what some bishops’ conference says; no matter how many sacraments of the Catholic church there are, or chapters and verses in the bible, or thick and complex books by theologians, or Sunday school classes and sermons by pastors; no matter how many heated arguments there are about God, Jesus, and religion; no matter how many pilgrimages there are to Mecca, Jerusalem, and other holy places; no matter how many thousands of hours Jewish scholars struggle over the meaning of the Torah; no matter how many multimillion-dollar churches and synagogues and grand cathedrals to Christ are constructed, nothing can ever change that simple reality…..

If we must have religion, the seminal test as to the value and merit of any religion worth its salt has to be not what you believe, but what you do—that is, how you treat your fellow man. Yet in the thousands upon thousands of books, and billions upon billions of words that have been written, particularly about Christianity and the bible, what percentage of these books do you think are devoted to the only thing that counts—the Golden Rule?

To these words this atheist says Amen.

You can purchase Divinity of Doubt here.

Book Review: The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

sound of a wild snail eating

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is a delightful tale of Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s interaction with a wild snail. Bailey, afflicted with an illness that keeps her bedfast most of the time, interweaves her story of affliction with that of a wild gastropod. In 189 pages, Bailey succeeds in telling readers everything they will ever need to know about snails. After reading the book I felt as if I had earned an advanced degree in snailology.

One early spring day, a friend of Bailey’s spotted a snail in the woods and decided to take it back to Bailey so she could see it. The friend dug up a few violets, put them in a pot, and delivered it and snail to Bailey, thinking that her invalid friend would enjoy the snail’s company. Bailey thought, at the time:

Why, I wondered,  would I enjoy a snail?  What on earth would I do with it? I  couldn’t get out of bed to return it to the woods. It was not of much interest, and if it were alive, the responsibility—especially for a snail, something so uncalled for—was overwhelming.

Thus begins the relationship of Elisabeth Tova Bailey with a lowly common forest snail. Over the course of a year Bailey details her interaction with the snail. She pays close attention to its habits and what the snail likes to eat. Bailey also details when and how the snail sleeps and how it reproduces (quickly and in great numbers).

If this book was just a science text about snails, I suspect that many readers might bore of all the snail minutia dispensed by Bailey. Personally, I loved the precise details. Such minutia is just the kind of knowledge needed to impress people at a social gathering. Things such as, do you know that snails have teeth? Do you know that snails are hermaphrodites?

I found myself drawn into Bailey’s story, not so much because of the subject, a snail, but because of Bailey’s debilitating illness.

Bailey writes:

There is a certain depth of illness that is piercing in its isolation; the only rule of existence is uncertainty, and the only movement is the passage of time. One can not bear to live through another loss of function, and sometimes friends and family can not bear to watch. An unspoken, unbridgeable divide may widen. Even if you are still who you were, you cannot actually fully be who you are. Sometimes the people you know well withdraw, and then even the person you know as yourself begins to change.

There were times when I wished that my viral invader had claimed me completely. How much better to live an exuberant life and then leave as one exits a party, simply opening a door and stepping out. Instead, the virus took me to the edge of life and then left me trapped in its pernicious shadow, with symptoms that, barely tolerable one day, become too severe the next, and with the unjustness of unexpected relapses, that, overnight, erased years of gradual improvement.

I wept as I read this passage. It resonated deeply with me; as a fellow pilgrim on the road of debility I understood the cry of Bailey’s being. The remembrance of what once was. The lament over what has been lost. Sometimes, it is a simple thing, like a snail, that comes along to give us a bit of purpose and meaning; to remind us that life is still worth living.

I heartily recommend The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating.

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“The Big Book of Bad Baptist Preachers” by Jeri Massi

big book of bad baptist preachers

Jeri Massi recently asked me if I would do a write-up for her latest book, The Big Book of Bad Baptist Preachers. I am delighted to do so. While Jeri and I are philosophically as far apart as two people can possibly be, we both share a desire to expose sexual predators and child abusers who just so happen to be Baptist preachers. Thanks to an ecclesiology that turns pastors into rulers, potentates, and kings, many abusive Southern Baptist and Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) preachers have ready access to potential victims. Accountable only to themselves, these predator pastors molest, rape, and assault with impunity. Church members are conditioned to not question the man of God’s behavior, out of fear of God’s judgment if they do.

Often, acts of abuse are quietly swept under the rug. The offending pastors, under no ecclesiastical authority but their own, leave, move down the road to a new church, and start over. In many instances, the new church is not aware of past misconduct. This is especially true when the predator pastor starts a new church. Since there is no central database for checking whether a pastor has committed sexual crimes or been fired for alleged misconduct, church members are often unaware of their pastor’s checkered past. And sometimes they know, but like sheep to the slaughter, they consider their pastor’s past “sins” as “under the blood of Jesus” and forgiven. (please see Blood Washing the Past) Sadly, this allows these pastors to continue to abuse. In some cases, like with the late Bob Gray, pastor of Trinity Baptist Church, Jacksonville, Florida and David Hyles, the son of Jack Hyles, the abuse goes on for decades, all because those who knew what was going on said nothing.

The Big Book of Bad Baptist Preachers is a compendium of 100 pastors who were accused and/or convicted of sexual misconduct. Each pastor’s crimes are listed, along the outcome, if any, with regard to their predatory behavior. If you are looking for a summary of the notable sex scandals that have rocked the Southern Baptist Convention and IFB church movement over the past two decades, The Big Book of Bad Baptist Preachers is the book for you.

Jeri plans to update the book next year. One thing is for certain: the abuse will continue until churches and denominations decide to aggressively expose abusive pastors and make sure they can never preach again. And this means Jeri will have more sordid stories to add to The Big Book of Bad Baptist Preachers.

The Big Book of Bad Baptist Preachers is available at Amazon.com

Jeri Massi’s blog, Blog on The Way

The Myth of Persecution by Candida Moss, A Book Review

myth of persecution candida moss

HarperOne, the publisher of The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented A Story of Martyrdom, sent me a review copy of the book.  The book is 260 pages long, 308 pages long including the chapter notes and index.

The author of the Myth of Persecution is Dr. Candida Moss, professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame.  She is a graduate  of Oxford University and earned her doctorate from Yale University.

The Myth of Persecution deals with the persecution of Christians during the first 300 years of Christianity.  Moss shows that she as an excellent grasp of Christian and non-Christian  literature written during the early centuries of the Christian church.

While Moss admits that Christians were persecuted on and off throughout the first 300 years of church history, she thoroughly debunks the claim  that Christians were always persecuted. In fact, many of the instances of persecution were actually prosecutions.

Moss writes:

The Sunday school narrative of a church of martyrs, of Christians huddled in catacombs out of fear, meeting in secret to avoid arrest, and mercilessly thrown to lions for their religious beliefs is a macabre fairy tale. When Christians appeared in Roman courtrooms, they were not tried as heretics, blasphemers, or even fools. Christians had a reputation for being socially reclusive, refusing to join the military, and refusing to swear oaths. Once in the courtroom Christians said things that sounded like sedition. They were rude, subversive, and disrespectful. Most important, they were threatening. Even if the actions of the Romans still seem unjust, we must admit that they had reasons for treating Christians the way they did. The fact that religion and politics were so intimately blended with one another means that it is difficult to parse the motivations of Roman administrators as either religious or political. But from a Roman perspective and from the perspective of members of most ancient religious groups and political organizations, the Romans had the moral high ground. They were protecting the Empire from the wrath of the gods and its effects. That Christians were executed should not surprise us, this is a world in which people paid the “ultimate price” for seemingly small offenses.

As we have seen in the past two chapters, a close look at the evidence shows that Christians were never the victims of sustained, targeted persecution. Even the so-called great persecutions under emperors Decius and Diocletian have been vastly exaggerated in our Christian sources. In general, when Christians were executed, it was for activities that were authentically politically and socially subversive. In the case of the emperor Decius , it seems that the so-called persecution of Christians wasn’t aimed at Christians of all. It was a way of bringing about social and political unity in the Empire, something more like a pledge of allegiance then religious persecution.

Throughout the book, Moss details how many of the source documents for the stories about Christian martyrs were embellished, and,  at times, fabricated out of thin air.  Even some the saints revered by the Catholic church  have histories that call into question their authenticity. I was quite surprised and delighted that Moss, a professor at a Catholic university, did not shy away from the controversies surrounding the mythic stories of the Catholic church.

Moss also details how some of the ancient martyr stories were actually borrowed from other cultures and religious traditions.  There were times when I thought Moss was stretching these connections a bit, but I found the chapter, Borrowing of Jewish and Pagan Traditions, to be quite fascinating.

Moss wrote:

Even a brief study of early Christian martyrdom literature reveals that Christians were influenced by ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish traditions about death. The heroes of the classical world were reshaped into soldiers for Christ. When people admit that Christians were heirs to this legacy, they do so selectively. Many acknowledge the Christian martyrs inherit or at least claim to inherit the mantle of martyrdom from ancient Judaism. The references to and comparisons with the Maccabees provide incontrovertible evidence that Christians saw their martyrs as part of this tradition. This much is acknowledged or at least implicitly acknowledged in most scholarly and religious treatments of the subject.

When it comes to the Greek and Roman influences, however, things are very different. We would be hard-pressed to find any modern denomination of Christianity that admits Greek and Roman heroes and heroines in their canon of martyrs, even if Christians like Justin Martyr were willing to revere Socrates as a Christian before Christ. Why the difference? The distinction is not based on the evidence, but on the way that people think about the relationship between Christians and Jews. For Christians, the Old Testament is believed to contain a series of prophecies about Jesus and the church. If Christian martyrs seem to be like figures from the old and new Testaments, it is because their deaths are fulfillments of prophecies. They are seen as being part of a single unbroken tradition, a single witness to truth.

In the case of Greek and Roman examples, the connection between Christian and pagan martyrs is more problematic. There is no prophetic or divine time between Christianity and Greek and Roman religion and philosophy. On the contrary, the adaptation of paganism and Christianity threatens the idea that Christianity alone has the truth. Those who reject the classical tradition for religious reasons and hold Christian martyrs in high esteem tend to ignore Greek and Roman antecedents to martyrdom.

This is a game of cultural favorites. There’s a theological explanation for the fact the Christian martyrdom stories are similar to biblical narratives of persecution, but there is no such explanation for the similarities with pagan traditions. That Christianity might have borrowed from pluralistic, polytheistic religious traditions is difficult for those who conceive of themselves as part of an unbroken singular tradition. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that Greek and Roman religious practices no longer exist. The idea that Christianity borrowed from or was dependent upon morally questionable failed religions ruffles feathers and prayer books.

The truth of the matter is that as we have seen, Christians adapted their ideas about martyrdom and sometimes even the stories about the martyrs themselves from both ancient Jewish and pagan writers. We cannot help but note the irony here. Christians are thought to be unique because they die for Christ, but the stories by which they communicate their uniqueness are borrowed from other cultures. Clearly Christian martyrdom is one of a number of ancient varieties of martyrdom. Even though early Christians adapted, augmented, and otherwise contorted ancient models in their own stories, they were nonetheless dependent upon earlier literature. To be sure, Christian martyrdom stories depart from classical examples of noble deaths, but toying with, trumping, reversing, and usurping are not the same as inventing. Early Christians consciously and deliberately harnessed the cultural power of Greek, Roman, and Jewish heroes for their own ends.

All in all, The Myth of Persecution was a great read. If I were to have any criticism of the book it would be that the chapter on how the myth of Christian persecution affects our modern culture was quite sparse, only ten pages long. I wish she had spent a lot more time dealing with how the religious-right in the United States has a martyr complex that finds its root in the ancient Christian martyrdom stories.

I also found myself wishing that Moss had written a chapter or two about the martyrdom tradition and stories found in the Protestant church.  This, I suspect, was beyond the scope of the book.

As any Evangelical knows, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs is considered one of the foundational texts of Evangelical belief. (especially in the Baptist church)  I suspect the stories complied by John Foxe have their own problems, and while Moss did briefly mention Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, she said nothing about the stories contained in the book. Maybe her next book will be on the martyrs of church after Constantine.

I heartily recommend, The Myth of Persecution.

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