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Recommended Reading 33

Recommendations this week, spanning a vastly broad variety of trends, issues, ideas, people, and subjects, include: the pressure on American policymakers to adapt to increasingly wild weather; Daniel Pinchbeck’s analysis of the wild weather and other aspects of our current ecological crisis as a collective planetary-spiritual experience of initiation into higher levels of consciousness; an assertion from Rupert Sheldrake that minds are not limited to brains; renowned philosopher Elliot Sober’s critique of renowned philosopher Thomas Nagel’s new book Mind and Cosmos; an analysis of the crisis facing the American publishing and literary world in an age of epic corporate mergers, along with a (self-admittedly futile) call for the enacting of government policies to protect culture; and a fascinating analysis of the “Gospel of O”: the idea of “emptying yourself for Oprah” that stalks proudly and prominently throughout the American media-cultural-psychological landscape. Also see the final entry below for a heads-up about a conversation that’s currently unfolding both here and elsewhere on the Internet about the meanings of horror, as spurred on by a recent Teeming Brain column. Read the rest of this entry

Fundamentalist preacher “debates” religion with Oprah

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.

Oprah, Eckhart Tolle, and the fundamentalist hijacking of Christianity

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.