Well, that’s a relief. After years of fanning the flames of religious doomsday fears, television preacher John Hagee, long one of the most prominent banner carriers for fundamentalist Protestant bluster and bombast, has decided to enter the apocalypse sweepstakes for real by giving a specific timetable for — well, something non-specific. But he says it will be “a world-shaking event,” and he says it will happen between now and October 2015.
Hagee is not, of course, alone in this. The blood moon phenomenon has set off an apocalyptic debate among many Christians. And suddenly I’m gripped by memories of myself, at age 17, watching the apocalyptic religious horror flick The Seventh Sign and finding it so cool as a Jewish kid sits translating a famous end-times passage from the biblical Book of Joel — specifically, Joel 2:31, which states that “the sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful Day of the LORD” — when he looks out his window and sees the large full moon suddenly overtaken by a wave of crimson that turns it a deep bloody color. Demi Moore, what have you wrought?
But all joking aside, I think it’s important to recognize that the type of apocalyptic religious theorizing advanced by Hagee pointedly ignores certain aspects of the very sacred text that he and his ilk claim to take as absolute, infallible, and unchangeable holy writ. Consider, for example, the fact that the biblical/canonical Jesus’s right-hand man, the apostle Peter, states explicitly in Acts 2 that the Joel prophecy, including the part about the moon turning to blood, is already fulfilled in the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles at the Day of Pentecost. Obviously, such a claim represents a distinctly different understanding and interpretation of apocalyptic matters than the model of a literal timetable advanced by the Hagees of the world. Likewise for Jesus’s statement in Luke 17:20-21, where he directly tells the pharisees, who have asked when the kingdom will arrive, that it is not the type of thing that will come by looking for external signs, because God’s kingdom is already within or among them. Call me naive, but I doubt we’ll hear Pastor Hagee addressing the clash between his claims and this subtler view as he continues to spout and tout his literalistic apocalyptic views over the next 18 months.
It’s the funniest and most pathetic fraud I’ve come across in quite some time.
A couple of months ago,, in March, the Rev. Bill Keller, founder of a Florida-based fundamentalist Christian “ministry” named Live Prayer (and yes, it deserves the scornful quotation marks), publicly challenged Oprah Winfrey to a debate about religion. Here’s the YouTube clip:
In the clip Keller announces to the world that Oprah Winfrey, because of her promotion of Eckhart Tolle’s book A New Earth, is leading people to hell. At one point he tells her, “God will take you down. It was God who raised you up and it is God who will take you down.” He concludes by not only asking but demanding — he uses the word itself — that she engage him publicly in a debate about religious matters.
To my surprise, Fox News gave Keller a huge platform by interviewing him remotely about his views on Oprah. (Or maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, it’s Fox News we’re talking about.) The ostensible justification for the einterview was the kickoff of Oprah’s network reality show Oprah’s Big Give but Keller devoted the whole of the three-minute interview to explaining why he believes Oprah is “the queen of the New Age gurus.” He even called her “the most dangerous woman in the world,” since she is “leading people down the path of destruction” if “you believe that the Bible is true and Christ is the only way to be saved.”
Here’s the YouTube clip of the Fox interview:
And now, most recently (as of April), Keller has posted to the Internet a video of the supposed interview he ended up conducting with Oprah. You can watch it below, but first be advised that the whole thing is a fraud. When I saw the title of the video, I was momentarily shocked that Oprah would even give the guy a second thought. Then as I went to click the link, before the video even started playing, I thought the thing had to be a fraud. Then I thought, “No way. He wouldn’t be that ballsy.”
But in point of fact, yes, he would. Observe:
What Keller has done is to create the illusion that he is debating with Oprah, with him sitting in a chair in his personal production studio and asking Oprah questions while she answers via video link from the studio where she held her webcasts for A New Earth. But what’s actually happening is that Keller has simply recorded himself asking the questions and then edited in segments of Oprah talking to the camera during the Tolle webcasts. He asks her what she thinks of Jesus Christ. Then he inserts a clip of her talking about her understanding of Christ. And so on.
I watched the video with a mixed emotion of hilarity and incredulity. Even when I caught on to what Keller was doing — which took about 30 seconds; it’s really a clumsy piece of work he’s put together — I kept thinking there was no way he could play it straight all the way to the end. I thought he would have to break down at some point and admit that this was all a simulated debate. I figured he would justify it by saying something along the lines that he had to do it this way, since Oprah wouldn’t respond to his challenge and the issue was so danged important.
But no, he played it as genuine all the way through. If you watch the video, I hope you pay particular attention at around six minutes into it when Keller cuts back to a shot of his own face while the Oprah clip keeps on playing. He winces. He rolls his eyes. He mugs shamelessly for the camera to show his disdain for what Oprah is saying. Then he starts taking her to task and laying down “the truth” for her. In other words, he really works hard to pull off the illusion that he really is debating her live, and that she really is present on the other end of a video linkup, responding in real time to his questions and comments.
Not since the glory days of deliriously fraudulent, fatuous, and breathtakingly funny Robert Tilton in the late 80s and early 90s have I witnessed such televangelistic gall. Tilton fell like an anvil dropped from the Empire State Building after ABC’s Primetime newsmagazine exposed him for what he was. I have to wonder whether Keller will suffer a similar fate, since he seems to be possessed of the same astonishing audacity and cartoonish presentation. If Sister Oprah decides to turn her baleful eye upon him, we can know that his fall will be great indeed.
Not incidentally, aside from his really amusing theatrics and lies, the man also amuses by mispronouncing Tolle’s last name as Toll, like in “toll bridge” (the name is correctly pronounced “Toll-ay”) and claiming that Oprah is promoting something called “A Course on Miracles” when it’s actually “A Course in Miracles.” He can’t even bother to get his facts straight, so it’s hard to take him seriously.
But then, he positively begs not to be taken seriously via the media persona he has deliberately cultivated. Is he maybe winking at us all as he drives home his schmaltzy schtick? I don’t think so but I can’t rule it out. So in the absence of evidence either way, I’ll just adopt an attitude of (sharp-edged) amusement toward him and enjoy the show.
A few weeks ago I went and jumped headfirst into the ruckus about Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth over at Oprah Winfrey’s message boards.
Surely you’ve heard about the controversy, haven’t you? Ms. Winfrey recently picked Tolle’s book as the subject for a groundbreaking 10-week video class that streams across the Internet and around the world. Her decision has catapulted the book to the top of the bestseller lists (making it by far the most awesomely popular of her numerous book club picks) and has elicited both great excitement and great negativity from crowds far and wide.
The excitement has come from two types of people, those who already know Tolle’s brilliant work as a spiritual author and teacher and those who are thrilled to be introduced to it for the first time. The negativity has come from legions of fundamentalist Protestant Christians who are filling Oprah’s message boards, and also a lot of the rest of the Internet and World Wide Web, with criticisms of and attacks upon Tolle as an evil New Age deceiver and Oprah as the founder of a proprietary cult that probably has something to do with the anti-Christ and is certainly leading many people away from God, Christ, truth, and so on. It’s as if Winfrey’s decision to promote Tolle’s book has popped a kind of boil on the face of American religion, releasing a flood of pent up, festering nastiness.
You can find out all about it, if you like, by visiting YouTube or Google and entering Tolle’s and Oprah’s names as search terms. You’ll find homemade video segments about Tolle and Oprah that aspire to the status of exposés. You’ll find Pentecostal pastors speaking to large crowds at revival meetings about poor and/or dastardly Oprah Winfrey and her satanically inspired deception of the masses. You’ll find an Internet pastor challenging Oprah to a public debate about religion. You’ll find articles and blog posts by fundamentalist Protestants arguing that Tolle is just America’s “guru of the moment” who preaches a watered-down New Age pantheism and feel-good self-help philosophy, and that Oprah is a veritable she-devil who has made it her mission in life to twist, corrupt, and oppose the (literal, inerrant, non-negotiable, non-interpretable) truth of the Bible.
You can also visit the section of Oprah’s message boards devoted to discussing Tolle and A New Earth, where you’ll find vigorous conversations and arguments in progress about all of these things. If you poke around there long enough, you just might stumble across the following message written by me in response to somebody who suggested that participants in those conversations should consider drawing distinctions between types of Christians, since not all of the self-identified Christians who have been jumping into the conversation at those message boards are writing from a fundamentalist viewpoint.
I happen to know a little something about religion in general and Christianity in particular. I even have the by-God academic credential to talk with some authority about the matter. So here’s what I wrote in response to this very reasonable suggestion:
* * *
You raise an excellent point. Over the past 30 years the words “Christian” and “Christianity” have been hijacked, so to speak, in America’s general public discourse to refer primarily or even solely to fundamentalist Christians and Christianity.
Fundamentalism is the attitude or approach to any given subject or issue (not just religion) that reduces it to a handful of rigid beliefs that are then held as utterly nonnegotiable. They’re also viewed as being pretty much the only points worth talking about. Moreover, in the specific phenomenon of religious fundamentalism, the beliefs are generally held in a literalistic, externalized sense. Anybody who won’t give assent to these rigid beliefs is viewed as an outsider, somebody who’s completely wrong and probably dangerous to those insiders who assent to the beliefs. In short, fundamentalism reduces religion etc. to a dogmatic belief system.
For American fundamentalist Christians this belief system involves a number of standard items, including the idea that Jesus of Nazareth was and is the only Son of God; that his death on a Roman cross was in reality a substitutionary sacrifice where he played the part of a sacrificial lamb according to the old Jewish system of ritual animal sacrifice (an idea that came not from him but from later interpreters of his life, death, and teachings, including, especially, Saint Paul); that the 66 books of the Protestant Bible are completely without error, are to be read in a literalistic sense (six days of creation and so forth), and are the sole statement of religious truth, beside which all other purported scriptures are satanic deceptions; and so on. Fundamentalist Protestantism is entirely about “right belief.” It teaches that spiritual salvation is found in intellectual assent to its propositions.
That’s why fundamentalist Christians are so suspicious of competing belief systems: because their entire religion is at root nothing more nor less than embrace of a belief system. Doctrinal purity is everything to them. This means they’re putting intellect in the chief position. Their religion is, as Tolle would say, “nothing but thoughts in their head.” That means they have trouble even recognizing that some religious and spiritual approaches are completely different, that some religious and spiritual paths are not belief-system based but what we might called “way” based, that is, ways of transformation instead of systems of doctrines. For fundamentalists this is generally incomprehensible and often infuriating.
Obviously I’ve drawn an ideal type here. Most fundamentalists aren’t really as rigid as all this. But they are pretty danged rigid, and some of them conform entirely to the broad picture I’ve drawn. Thankfully, there are lots of other Christians who are not like that.
Recently I was involved in a group conversation about religion that ended up centering on the issue of the “pick and choose” approach, in which a person explicitly chooses which tenets, doctrines, etc., to adopt and which to reject among a given religion or group of them. A number of participants criticized this approach on the grounds that it represents human hubris, that it is “man’s attempt to play God” and all that, and advocated by contrast the approach of surrendering one’s autonomy to an authority higher than oneself, such as the Bible (conceived as inerrant and supernaturally authoritative), or Jesus, or God.
Now, I myself am certainly no dogmatic supporter of the modern-day cafeteria-style approach to religion, although I have fiercely cherished my own personal freedom in this domain. There really is something vitally important in the recognition of a force or truth or principle or reality that transcends, dwarfs, and encompasses your personal, individual selfhood, however you may conceive that ultimate whatever-it-is.
And yet . . . and yet . . . I grew up with the evangelical Christian version of the “surrender your self and your autonomy” message being proclaimed all around me, and I still hear it being proclaimed today by a great many Christians of various stripes (and also by adherents of other faith traditions). And I can’t help taking serious exception to it, or at least to the version that’s almost always put forth.
Because in point of fact, nobody can actually achieve the epistemological-metaphysical feat advocated by the surrender-yourself camp. Nobody can really submit ultimately to a supposed ultimate authority, because the very recognition of such an authority is an a priori impossibility based on the brute fact of human self-consciousness and the human epistemological position.
This objection, not incidentally, goes much deeper than the positions expressed by the participants in the conversation that originally got me to thinking about all this. It goes deeper than the assertion that it’s right or wrong to pick and choose cafeteria-style between various religious texts, beliefs, doctrines, worldviews, etc.; deeper than the standard argument that develops when one side claims to choose from various possibilities and the other claims to forego this in favor of surrendering to an external authority.
The depth of what I’m talking about is expressed with exquisite clarity, and in terms that are universally applicable, by Richard Tarnas in his masterful intellectual history, The Passion of the Western Mind. In the section of his book devoted to explaining the post-modern viewpoint, Tarnas writes, “The fund of data available to the human mind is of such intrinsic complexity and diversity that it provides plausible support for many different conceptions of the ultimate nature of reality . . . . Evidence can be adduced and interpreted to corroborate a virtually limitless array of worldviews . . . . Because the human understanding is not unequivocally compelled by the evidence to adopt one metaphysical position over another, an irreducible element of human choice supervenes.”
An irreducible element of human choice. Aye, there’s the rub, and also the hub. Applying Tarnas’s statement — whose fundamental truth is self-evident — it’s obvious that the very decision to surrender one’s authority in matters of ultimate belief is actually an act of assertion and interpretation. Because to claim that you’re surrendering to a metaphysical or moral authority outside of yourself is merely to say that you are choosing, under your own sole sovereignty, to elevate that belief, doctrine, church, ideology, principle — whatever it may be — to the normative status of your highest ruling principle. The belief-doctrine-worldview-etc. doesn’t come with such authority pre-stamped, as it were, onto its invisible ideological visage, which you have somehow mystically managed to recognize, and which many millions of people who believe otherwise have somehow managed to miss.
In point of fact, the act of surrendering to religious authority — say, for example, by espousing a belief in the supernatural inspiration and absolute inerrancy of the Protestant Bible, or at least the original autograph manuscripts (which are conveniently lost to history [!]) — is just another case of the same ideological sleight-of-hand that has always been involved throughout history in the political arena in the “divine right of kings” shtick. It’s blatantly obvious to pretty much all of us that such a maneuver was and is a mere gimmick by which entire populations have invested certain people and social structures with authority over them, but have then chosen to believe that the authority is simply “natural” and “God-given.” But amazingly, the same principle at work in contemporary religion somehow slips under the radar of a great many moderns. Who knows, maybe an unconscious recognition of it accounts for the fact that a goodly part of the modern post-1970s evangelical explosion has been devoted to perpetuating outmoded monarchical images and stereotypes for describing the deity.
This is seen especially in contemporary evangelical music with its fetishizing of the kingly image of Jesus. Consider the titles of many popular praise choruses: “All Hail, King Jesus,” “Worship His Majesty,” “King of Kings and Lord of Lords,” and so on. I think this phenomenon is due to more than just the simple fact that such titles inarguably represent valid New Testament-type language (although it’s significant that in the four canonical gospels Jesus frequently and vociferously refuses kingly labels). It’s likely that the monarchical thrust of so much modern evangelicalism comes from the sense of dislocation and the loss of the “sacred canopy” (as sociologist Peter Berger famously called it) of shared cultural religious meaning that has so afflicted the modern world at least since the 19th century, when Nietzsche correctly pinpointed nihilism as the spiritual virus that would come to define the 20th century. Today’s evangelicals fight that sense of dislocation and meaninglessness by simply trying to assert divine authority, according to their own interpretation of the matter, back into existence. And you can witness this very thing at work not only in their music but in the mountains of theological and apologetic writing they have produced, and continue to produce, in defense of the indefensible.
At this point I’m ineluctably led to quote Tom Ligotti, from his wonderful, brilliant short novel My Work Is Not Yet Done, from the portion where the narrator lays out the three-point view of reality and the “grand scheme of things” that has come to define his outlook:
A: There is no grand scheme of things.
B. If there were a grand scheme of things, the fact — the fact — that we are not equipped to perceive it, either by natural or supernatural means, is a nightmarish obscenity.
C: The very notion of a grand scheme of things is a nightmarish obscenity.
It was this passage, with its arch-Ligottian twist on an idea that’s more familiar from post-modern philosophy, existentialism, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and elsewhere, that I turned to when I was searching for an appropriate title for my currently unpublished private journal, There Is No Grand Scheme. And for a detailed explication of my interpretation of the quote itself, you can check out a post I made to Thomas Ligotti Online early last year.
I suppose my attitude is also related to the classic statement about religious authority that is an oft-quoted part of the Buddhist scriptures, and that is supposed to have come from the mouth of the historical Siddhartha Gautama [i.e., the Buddha] himself:
Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense . . . . Believe nothing on the faith of traditions, even though they have been held in honor for many generations and in many places. Do not believe a thing because many people speak of it. Do not believe on the faith of the sages of the past. Do not believe what you yourself have imagined, persuading yourself that a God inspires you. Believe nothing on the sole authority of your masters and priests. After examination, believe what you yourself have tested and found to be reasonable, and conform your conduct thereto.
This has always resonated strongly with me, which probably explains, or at least illuminates, my antagonistic feelings toward the more authoritarian religious traditions.
So that, in a very large nutshell, is my problem with the surrender-yourself attitude. But as I said at the beginning of this screed, I also accept that the recognition of a transcendent reality that encompasses and supersedes one’s individual selfhood is quite valuable. So how do I reconcile these attitudes?
In part, or maybe in whole, I do so in quasi-Zen terms, in the language and from the viewpoint of nondualism as articulated, for example, by Douglas Harding in his philosophy of headlessness, which seeks to awaken people to the paradox of their simultaneous first-person and third-person modes of existence, the former of which is the center and essence of conscious personal identity (and from which viewpoint one manifestly, in actual present experience, does not exist, but is instead a spacious absence). This recognition and/or approach runs all through the mystical literature of the world, finding exquisite expression in the West in, for example, the many writings of Meister Eckhart and Plotinus, and more recently in the writings of Eckhart Tolle, Ken Wilber, and others. It’s how I’m literally forced to understand things now, based on my own personal experiences, insights, and understandings. But of course that’s the type of statement that would lead a surrender-yourself evangelical or fundamentalist to criticize me for relying on my own judgment. As if I have any other choice.
In a related but distinct vein, I also reconcile these aspects of my understanding by making recourse to the daimonic theory of personal selfhood and ultimate identity. But that opens up another can of daimons altogether.