Ozark Hillbillies? Hardly!

The Ozarks is a region of the North American continent that includes portions of five of the United States. It is defined both by geography and by culture. In terms of geographical features, the bulk of the region is in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, but it also includes the northeast corner of Oklahoma, a small section of the southeast corner of Kansas, and a sliver of southwestern Illinois along the Mississippi River. Most of the Ozarks is characterized by rolling hills and deep ravines or hollows, heavily forested in some areas and rich with rivers, creeks, and springs. It is a major portion of the U.S. Interior Highlands, and its features are the result of a deeply dissected plateau. It is a beautiful part of the country.

The geography of the Ozarks has had a significant influence on its culture, primarily because so much of the area was isolated from the more populous regions east of the Mississippi until the late 19th century. Although farming was and is difficult here because of the terrain and the rocky landscape, there has always been a strong connection to the land and rural living by its inhabitants. The major exception to this rule is the rapidly growing urban sprawl along a north-south corridor extending from Springfield, Missouri, down to the kingdom of Walmart and the flagship university in northwest Arkansas. In general, Ozarkers are fiercely independent and tend to distrust government. Much of the population is made up of white people of Scots-Irish descent who are religiously and politically conservative, especially in the more rural portions of the region.

Throughout much of the 20th century, the people of the Ozarks were represented in popular culture as poor, backward, shiftless, and uneducated. Similar to the inhabitants of parts of Appalachia, the Ozarkers were considered a bunch of hillbillies by the sophisticates of the east and west coast. Even in modern times, many Americans still think of the Ozarks as a place of mystery, perhaps dangerous. In books and movies, Ozarkers are usually poverty stricken, which in some cases is true. Those who have wealth acquire it through lawless activity. They are depicted as depraved folks delighting in illegal and deplorable lifestyles with virtually no moral compass. Netflix created a sensational and wildly popular series, Ozark, based on these stereotypes.

Not all Americans buy into this ridiculous assessment of the Ozarks, but it still prevails among many people in the country, mostly those who have never spent any time in the region. It is true that most Ozarkers have a rural mindset and still have an appreciation for simple pleasures like homegrown music, small-town festivals and fairs, church gatherings, school athletic events, and outdoor recreation like fishing and floating on rivers. But they are anything but lazy. It takes a lot of muscle and sweat to make a living in these hills, which helps explain the high rate of poverty. However, it is a mistake to assume Ozarkers are all a bunch of stupid, immoral hillbillies. Perhaps a few examples of some amazing people in the Ozarks provide the best evidence to make this case.

Tom Akers is from one of the poorest counties in the Ozarks, Shannon County, located in south central Missouri. He worked hard as a young man and earned a degree in mathematics from a branch campus of the University of Missouri in the Ozarks town of Rolla. He joined the U.S. Air Force, got his pilot’s license, and eventually decided to take a shot at becoming an astronaut with NASA. He became a mission specialist and logged an impressive number of space walks with the Shuttle program. His missions included deploying the Ulysses Spacecraft, repairing the Hubble Space Telescope, repairing a satellite, and visiting the Mir Russian space station. He eventually moved into administration with NASA and became a spokesman for the administration. Not bad for an Ozark hillbilly, wouldn’t you say? I had the honor and privilege of interviewing Col. Akers for an oral history project and can personally attest to his intelligence, integrity, and character. Oh, and just for the record, the Hubble Space Telescope was named for the astronomer Edwin Hubble, who was also from the Ozarks in Marshfield, Missouri.

Col. Tom Akers
Col. Tom Akers

Pat Johnson went to the 1st through 8th grades in the 1950s at “Pocahontas Colored School,” a small, one-room structure in Pocahontas, Arkansas, on the eastern edge of the Ozarks. Ms. Eddie Mae Herron was the only teacher for that school and all its students for over 15 years. Pat recalls as a 10-year-old going with some of her white friends to a local ice cream store, but when she walked inside with them, the manager quickly approached her and told her she could not come in. She had to pick her ice cream up from the window outside. She went on to graduate from a high school in the next county. She wasn’t allowed to attend the segregated high school in Randolph County where she lived. Pat got married and started a family shortly after high school, going on to work in the local hospital and then later for a government agency in Pocahontas. In the late 1990s, she spearheaded an effort to preserve the old one-room schoolhouse. She garnered support from the city, the Chamber of Commerce, outside government agencies, and the community. Now, the fully-restored little school house is the Eddie Mae Herron Center & Museum, which brings together people of all races and ethnicities for educational, civic, and cultural programs. Pat Johnson is about as far away from being a hillbilly as I can imagine. She will be the first to say that she doesn’t really identify with the Ozarks region, because it has largely been unwelcoming to African Americans. But she has moved past that rejection to bring people together, regardless of the color of their skin, because she knows that communication is the key to acceptance and understanding.

Eddie Mae Herron Center
Eddie Mae Herron Center

Noel is a small township in McDonald County at the southwest corner of Missouri bordered by Arkansas and Oklahoma. In the late 1990s, Tyson Foods took over and expanded the operation of a poultry processing plant in Noel. To meet the demand for workers in this labor-intensive industry, Tyson began to recruit foreign-born people who would endure the grueling conditions in the plant for year-round employment and relatively good wages compared to seasonal migratory jobs. At first the non-native workers were exclusively Hispanic, but moving into the 21st century, Tyson began to employ immigrants and refugees from around the world including Central America, Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands. In a few short years, Noel’s population went from predominantly white to almost 50% nonwhite, which also introduced new and unfamiliar languages, religious practices, and cultural norms. These rapid changes strained the governmental and educational resources of the town. Some local leaders and many of the native inhabitants were less than welcoming to their new neighbors. The most disgruntled of the locals sold out and moved away to nearby towns or left the county altogether, which presented its own set of problems by lowering the tax base.

Fast forward twenty years and the situation is looking different and in a good way, thanks in large part to two community leaders who refused to give up on the town. Angie Brewer grew up near Noel. She moved to Texas with her first husband and started a family while working as an elementary school teacher. The marriage ended in divorce and Angie moved her children back home where she eventually remarried and became the principal of Noel Elementary School during the tumultuous period after the initial impact of the immigrant population shift. Angie and several of her close friends made an important and life-changing decision. They were going to buck the trend of distrust and alienation to live out the Christian faith they have claimed all their lives by loving their neighbors regardless of race, faith, or origin. They became social media soldiers, quickly shooting down disinformation and rumors about immigrants and refugees. They petitioned government and business leaders, including the suits at the Tyson home office, to assist in helping foreign-born families assimilate into the community. Officials at the county level obviously recognized Angie’s leadership efforts, promoting her to principal of McDonald County High School and Assistant Superintendent of the county school system. She has made a tremendous difference in the lives of so many students and parents, crushing the Ozark hillbilly stereotypes of isolationism, xenophobia, and even white supremacy.

Community Baptist Church, Noel, MO
Community Baptist Church, Noel, MO

Joshua Manning was working at Walmart in 2017 and contemplating becoming an overseas missionary when he was called to be the minister of a small Baptist church in Noel, not far from where he was born and raised in Southwest City. The congregation had dwindled to only a few families. They had no pastor. Many of the white members had abandoned the church and moved to other churches in the county during the drastic shift in the town’s racial and ethnic balance. And although Manning and his wife initially thought their time in Noel would be brief, they ended up finding an opportunity to share their faith and reach out to immigrants and refugees, giving them a place to gather and worship freely – a place where they are loved and welcome. Today, Community Baptist Church facilitates several different worship services in multiple languages. The church sponsors a food pantry and provides a variety of goods and services for anyone in the area in need. Manning is the first to admit that building this ministry has been a struggle and that Community Baptist is anything but a normal church. But he and his family have found their place of service and seem to be content. Rev. Joshua Manning’s moral compass points straight and true. Thankfully, there are many more like him and Col. Akers and Pat Johnson and Angie Brewer in the hills and “hollers” of the Ozarks.

I Will Miss You, Rick

I lost someone recently, and the space left behind seems unimaginably large right now. For over 30 years Rick was my close friend, longer than anyone has been a close friend to me. Others were probably friends with him longer than I was, which is quite fortunate for them. I don’t remember the first conversation we had when he came to my church as minister of music and youth. I can’t really say why we forged such a close bond. We had some things in common. We both loved BBQ; we liked bike riding together on farm roads back in the day; we both liked to travel, especially out West; we liked reading and occasionally made book recommendations to one another. In fact, I was reading a book that he had recently recommended when his sweet wife called to tell me Rick had suffered a serious incident with his heart.

We both loved music, but our abilities in that regard were not equal. I’ve always been a lazy musician, learning how to play something just well enough to get by, and he certainly knew it. He never said it, but he knew it. Rick was anything but lazy. He was quite accomplished at the piano, but that’s because he worked and worked at a piece until he got it right. He was like that with a lot of things, which made him so good at what he did in ministry, and then later as a piano technician.

We also shared a similar sense of humor, and for those who know me best, I hope they won’t hold that against him. He was so patient with my endless disruptions during choir practice. We ribbed each other mercilessly, and Facebook was just like . . . fuel. I consider myself so very fortunate to have had the opportunity to talk to Rick less than 24 hours before he passed away. I had texted his wife asking about his condition, and a minute later he called me. He told me he’d had a good day and was feeling much better, which is such a deceptively cruel but common occurrence with critically-ill patients. During the conversation, I said something — I don’t know what — but it was most likely ridiculous, as I am wont to do. Rick chuckled lightly and said, “They’ve got me hooked up to all kinds of monitors here, so I can’t laugh, or I’ll set off the alarms.”

Rick and I certainly didn’t see eye to eye on everything. But that’s not what defines true friendship, is it? One of the many qualities I admired in Rick was how honest he was. He would give it to you straight – always. And if he were able to speak right now and I could hear him, I have no doubt he would say, “The least you could do in my memory is get a haircut.”

I don’t really know what Rick got out of our relationship over the decades. I hope somehow I made life better for him, because he definitely did that for me. What I do know is that I became friends with Rick at a pivotal point in my life. I had serious questions without a lot of good answers. He was only a few years older than I was, but his maturity far exceeded his age. On those Thursday mornings we got together for coffee before heading into work, we had some really deep discussions that I will never forget and for which I am eternally grateful. I told my wife and his, I can’t imagine the world without Rick in it. I’m not going to get used to that. I love you Rick, and I’m going to miss you for as long as I’m still around.

A Charitable Manifesto

Thanksgiving Day and the religious holidays that follow tend to make me more conscious of how fortunate I am to have a spouse and partner who adores me and who means the world to me. I also have two sons that I love dearly who are independent and responsible people, finding their own path in life. I am proud of them. I have an extended family that loves me; we have a lovely house in a good neighborhood; I have a great job; and as far as I know, we are in pretty good health for our age and habits. I know how lucky I am to live in a country that is mostly prosperous, reasonably governed, and quite beautiful. In so many ways I have lived a charmed life, which I cannot necessarily attribute to wise decisions or abundant skill sets. On too many occasions to count, I have been in the right place at just the right time.

What I am also reminded of at this time of year is the contrast between my comfortable existence and the plight of so many people here and around the world. I know that living conditions have improved for most of the world’s population over the last hundred years, but the disparity between the haves and the have nots has only widened further. Throw in a pandemic, a few civil wars, wide-spread political unrest, and several natural disasters, and the last two years have presented a setback for a whole lot of people. Those of us who never have to worry about our next meal, a place to sleep, or adequate healthcare have a moral responsibility to share from our abundance with those who struggle just to survive.

I have spent a good portion of my career trying to raise money for charitable causes, mostly associated with education and historic preservation. For me, philanthropy was a commodity I peddled. As important as these activities were, they did not address the most serious challenges that people face. My wife and I also work with and financially support organizations that provide services to people in our community and elsewhere who are in need. We enjoy being involved in directly helping local folks, mostly through our Episcopal parish. On the rare occasions that I pause and give it much thought, I know I’m not doing enough.

If all goes according to plan, we will be retiring in a few years, which means that our schedules will drastically change with a lot more free time on our hands. Like many retirees, we hope to travel and enjoy leisure activities that entertain us. But we also have talked about the desire to volunteer for local organizations, and I am feeling more compelled these days to concentrate my efforts on helping the most vulnerable people in our town. I haven’t been generous enough with my time and resources through the decades. Promoting philanthropy is fine, but I need to spend the last chapters of my life living it.

Recommended Reading List: African American History and Race Relations

From the silent protests of athletes like Colin Kaepernick to the massive ground swelling of the Black Lives Matter movement, examples of discontent and outrage are growing in reaction to systemic racial injustice in the United States. Understanding and facing these challenges requires historical context – how we got to this dark place – and analysis from scholars and journalists who follow the issues closely and are gifted with the ability to explain the problems and offer possible solutions. The following annotated bibliography is in no way intended to be exhaustive. It doesn’t even scratch the surface of the books that have been published in recent years on African American history and race relations. It is simply a list of books I can honestly recommend because I have read them and think they are representative of the topic.

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

Although she is not the first person to write about America’s caste system, Wilkerson probably has better examples and research to support her conclusions than did previous writers on the subject, especially after the presidency of Donald Trump. She makes a compelling argument for why we need to dig much deeper than race and class to understand the complexities of white privilege, discrimination, injustice, prejudice, poverty, and a whole host of other societal ills in America.

She draws comparisons to the ancient caste system in India to explain how arbitrary lines are drawn between groups of people that are irrational, indefensible, and immoral. She illustrates the paradox of a country that was founded on liberty and justice for all that at the same time enslaved people for 250 years of its history and continued to enforce a segregated society, often with horrible acts of violence, long after slavery was abolished. The chapter describing how the Nazis in Germany used the rhetoric and Jim Crow policies of the United States to construct their own pogroms is chilling and painful.

One of the major strengths of this book is Wilkerson’s use of metaphors to describe how the caste system in America originated and continues to be perpetuated by the dominant caste: the power base mostly of European descent. She uses a neglected house as a symbol of how the caste system has slowly but effectively compromised the structure of American society, eating away at its foundation and crumbling its walls. The inevitable result will eventually be a pile of rubble if we continue to avoid the problem.

Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

What a fine book. Not only does Gates bring a mountain of research to the table, but he also offers insight and thoughtful commentary based on decades of reading, thinking, teaching, and writing about Reconstruction and the Redemption period in American history that encompasses almost 100 years following the formal end of slavery. This topic has been covered to some degree by several scholars in recent years, with Doug Blackmon being the first to come to mind. I think what sets this book apart is the examination and analysis of the concept of the New Negro as it was proposed and argued by the major figures of African American society in the late 19th century and moving through the period now referred to as the Harlem Renaissance: W. E. B. DuBois, Frederick Douglas, and Booker T. Washington.

Gates recently published a book titled The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song, which is a wonderful history of African American religious communities and a study of how churches served much more than just places of worship. I am currently reading the book and cannot review it properly yet, but I do highly recommend it.

White Man’s Heaven: The Lynching and Expulsion of Blacks in the Southern Ozarks, 1894-1909 by Kimberly Harper

Harper presents a thoroughly researched and well documented scholarly study that helps explain why the southwestern Ozarks is such a white region of the country. Lynching occurred in many places across the South, and obviously, into the Midwest. Many white people who had lived during the time of slavery, whether they actually owned slaves or not, resented the new autonomy of black people in their communities during Restoration. Over the decades, resentment evolved into a fear. Obviously, much of the paranoia centered on the perceived sexual predation of black men. “It was believed that women were not safe in the country or the city, so long as African American men roamed free.”

However, Harper goes beyond the acts of horrible white mob violence to explore why African Americans were driven out of communities, often at the same time lynching took place. Similar action was taken in other parts of the country — Forsyth County in north central Georgia comes to mind. Other areas of north Georgia, especially in the Appalachian foothills, still have small black populations to this day. This book is a fine addition to American history and African American studies.

White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity by Robert P. Jones

Well, this was painful . . . and so relevant. Jones is armed with a searing spotlight that reveals how Christianity in America was nurtured and sustained by white supremacy throughout its history and is still embracing it today. With compelling data, careful research, and thoughtful commentary, Jones forces readers to confront how racial discrimination and social injustice are far more prevalent in all denominations of Christianity than most people are willing to admit, including clergy and elected officials.

One of the lightbulb moments for me in this book was the realization that people who do horrible things while also identifying as Christians, are indeed Christians by the way our society defines it. He uses the horrific case of Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who shot and killed nine African Americans during a Bible study session at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston in 2015. This young man was an active member of his Lutheran church and frequently posted Bible verses and Christian doctrinal messages through social media and his personal documents. He justified his actions with his Christian beliefs. As Jones astutely observes, if Roof had killed white Christians and had been attending a mosque and posting verses from the Koran, how many white Americans would have denied that he was a Muslim? Roof is a Christian terrorist, and the justification for his violence is directly linked to white supremacy. And, he is not alone in that twisted mindset.

The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X by Les Payne and Tamara Payne

I had a pre-conceived image of someone who was much more violent than Malcolm X actually was based on this book. I was intrigued with how the man born Malcolm Little evolved from being a petty criminal, often robbing even members of his own family, to become an intellectual force to be reckoned with by the U.S. government and even foreign powers. It may not be fair to say that a few years in prison turned his life around. It would even be a weak cliché; however, there is no doubt that some of the relationships he developed with older mentors he met while in prison had a tremendous impact on his self-awareness, his belief system, his intelligence, his understanding of racial inequality, and his vision for the future of African Americans.

It was also interesting to watch how he eventually abandoned his complete devotion to Elijah Muhammad as the head of the political organization, Nation of Islam, to pursue his own leadership role within the framework of Islam as a world religion. Leaving the NOI and speaking out against it precipitated his violent death. Before he died, Malcolm moved to the forefront in the fight for civil rights and was unapologetic about the means employed to overcome racial injustice. Malcolm X had no patience for pacifists who advocated a moderate approach. He wasn’t asking for justice — he demanded it.

Malcolm’s parents were heavily influenced by the separatist and sovereign ideas for people of color espoused by Marcus Garvey, which probably led Malcolm to make distinctions between segregation and separation. The former was imposed, but the latter was voluntary and desirable — a fascinating perspective. He wanted to see black people become completely independent of white influence, dominance, and charity. His disdain for white people (white devils, as he called them) waned toward the end of his life, but he never felt compelled to be conciliatory or to make excuses for racial discrimination and the privileged white society that perpetuated it. Nobody could ever mistake Malcolm X for a “team player,” and his vision for black people presented a stark contrast to that of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (Revised Edition) by Michelle Alexander

Alexander presents us with a comprehensive and disturbing study of how mass incarceration resulting from the “war on drugs” in America has disproportionately imprisoned people of color in comparison to whites. As a well-trained attorney, she presents a mountain of evidence to argue her case, using quotes and testimonies from a wide array of historical and contemporary figures along with hard data and heartbreaking stories. No segment of American society escapes her stinging indictment: blacks and whites; conservatives and liberals; rich, poor, and middle class; champions of the Civil Rights Movement; and modern political figures, all the way up to Barack Obama (the book was published in 2010). This is an important book that deserves serious consideration by decision makers at almost every level of government, and especially those who are in any way connected to the criminal justice system.

Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America by James Forman, Jr.

To some degree, Forman’s book takes up where The New Jim Crow leaves off. Understanding mass incarceration of black people at the hands of a legal system that is dominated by white people is not too difficult, but the situation gets cloudy when it happens in cities across the country that are largely governed by black people. In Forman’s experience as a public defender, Washington D.C. is a model city for the disturbing phenomenon. Using personal accounts from his own case files and extensive research into the historical developments that bred the “war on drugs” and “war on crime,” Forman carefully examines why the arc of the moral universe is longer than Martin Luther King, Jr. may have imagined, and it doesn’t seem to be bending very much toward justice for people of color.

Critics will argue that, first and foremost, breaking the law is not justified simply because we don’t like the laws and that black people cannot expect a pass just because they find themselves in difficult circumstances that often leave them with few options other than criminal activity. They will likely argue that Forman is proving the point that race is not a factor at all, especially since black people are arrested and convicted by black officers and judges. However, Forman digs deeper than the surface appearances to uncover complicated and nuanced systemic issues that lead to discrimination and inequality on our streets, in our courts, and in our prisons.

I had the opportunity to sit next to Professor Forman at a luncheon when he was honored with a Lillian E. Smith Book Award in 2018 for his work. His own life story is fascinating; his methods of teaching law are innovative and inspiring; and his passion for justice is akin to a minister’s drive to lead his congregation. He even sounds slightly like a preacher when he talks about the topic of this book. Readers will have to judge if he presents a convincing argument, but I don’t believe anyone can doubt his conviction.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson

This is such a compelling story from the man who leads up the organization that most recently brought us the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (the lynching memorial, as many are calling it) in Montgomery, Alabama. I was particularly drawn to Stevenson’s reflections near the end of the book in the chapter titled “Broken.” He observes how our society has legalized vengeful and cruel punishments, how we surrender to the harsh instinct to crush those among us who are most visibly injured by circumstances that are in many cases beyond their control. Stevenson explains that we are all broken, but we are not defined solely by the mistakes we have made.

“I am more than broken. In fact, there is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy. When you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise. You see things you can’t otherwise see; you hear things you can’t otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us.”

Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause by Ty Seidule

Ty Seidule has written a book that immediately and unequivocally transformed him into a heretic in the eyes of many Americans, especially those in the South. It takes amazing courage for a southerner who is also a decorated officer of the U.S. Army and a retired history professor at West Point to openly and very publicly admit that Robert E. Lee committed treason and should be viewed as a traitor to his country. And that’s exactly what Ty Seidule has done. I applaud his bravery and the extensive research he has completed to make that claim. This is a damn fine book, not because it covers new ground or reveals any real hidden truths, but because it says what has needed to be heard and understood for a very long time by someone in a position of authority who deserves respect and serious consideration.

Seidule has heard every excuse in the book for why the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, for why the Confederacy didn’t really lose the war, and for why Robert E. Lee was such an honorable man. For the first 20+ years of his life, he believed the excuses too. He probably doesn’t give quite enough credit to his wife for finally helping him escape the vortex of Confederate mythology. She forced him to question what it means to be a “Christian Southern Gentleman,” something he had aspired to from childhood through his graduation from Washington and Lee University, an institution that has been responsible more than any other place for perpetuating the cult of Robert E. Lee. His definitions of Christianity and gentleman have drastically changed through the years, and his perception of the South is much clearer than it was when he was a young man.

This book should be required reading in just about every college and university in the South, and even in many other parts of the country where the Civil War is still romanticized beyond recognition for what it truly was: a rebellious uprising against the United States of America. Seidule spends a lot of time talking about the impact of the novel and movie “Gone With the Wind,” which is appropriate; however, I wish he had given some attention to the earlier movie, “Birth of a Nation,” especially in his discussions of the Ku Klux Klan. One of the most striking arguments he makes concerns the inaccurate terminology that has been used for generations to describe the Civil War, including the ridiculous names for the conflict itself, from “the recent unpleasantness” to “the war of northern aggression.”

He also makes a convincing point about how using the term “Union” is an inappropriate way to describe the U.S. Armed Forces while they fought against the Confederacy, as if the Union were some entity separate from the United States. That distinction brings us back to the problem with Robert E. Lee, who abandoned his commission as an officer of the U.S. Army and chose to side with a rebellious confederacy of states – a domestic enemy against whom Lee had sworn to protect his country. In the end, Lee was more loyal to the State of Virginia and the other southern states than he was to the United States, and that makes him a traitor. And it’s about time southerners and the rest of the nation came to terms with that stinging but absolutely honest indictment.

Packaging Jesus in America

The United States is a country that knows how to sell. The backbone of entrepreneurship here is not necessarily based on providing a product or service that is valuable. The secret to success in business is convincing Americans that they need or want what you’re selling, and we do it well. Where else could you take a smooth stone, nest it in a little clump of straw, place it in a cardboard box with a tiny book of “instructions,” and sell it for $3.95 as a Pet Rock? An ad executive named Gary Dahl did exactly that in the mid-1970s and became a millionaire in just a few months. Other examples include mood rings, Lucky Break plastic wishbones, and HeadOn headache relief wax. We can probably all think of a few “universities” and other nonprofits that are worthy mentions.

We will sell anything in America, and I mean ANY thing. When I was the director at Andalusia, the historic home of American author Flannery O’Connor, we scooped up red clay from the yard, placed it in small plastic pill bottles, and sold it for .75 a bottle in our little gift shop. We did the same with pond water from the property. Adoring fans and generous supporters of our house museum bought them by the dozens. No, I can’t say I’m proud of stooping to such obnoxious commercialistic measures, but it helped keep the lights on. At least we didn’t make any claims about the supernatural qualities of the clay, with all due respect to the folks at El Santuario de Chimayo who offer up mystical holy dirt on a Native American sacred hill in New Mexico.

Speaking of the sacred, I believe that Americans do a better job at marketing religious belief than just about anything else. We borrow myths and customs from various cultures and across the centuries, synthesizing them into a giant brand that we couple with Christianity, making it a lot more attractive. For example, we skillfully package up the entire Advent season in a display that can practically fit in the palm of your hand – a nativity scene that comes complete with Mary, Joseph, some livestock, and a few shepherds gathered snugly in a small stable admiring the baby Jesus. We even throw in three wise men and a guiding star over the structure, although we know these guys didn’t see the holy family until long after everyone had vacated the manger scene. We simply don’t have room for two dioramas on the coffee table. We have to save room for Santa, the reindeer, and the scioto ceramic Christmas village.

There are other practices to further illustrate the point: bunny rabbits and eggs at Easter combined with passion plays that reduce the death of Christ to a one-act skit. I am reminded of the time I was driving through the foothills of Appalachia in rural north Georgia on a Good Friday back in the late 1990s when I passed a small country church. Thankfully, I happened to turn my head in time to see three large crosses on the front lawn of the church, which would be completely expected. What prompted me to slam on brakes and swerve into the entrance of the adjacent parking lot, however, was the fact that there were three men in what appeared to be white bed sheets draped around their wastes “hanging” on the crosses. They were standing on small pedestals attached to the upright beams and holding on to large spikes driven into both ends of the crossbeams. There were several folks standing at a respectful distance in front of the display taking photographs. No banner or marque could have possibly commanded more attention. The man on the middle cross, playing the part of Jesus, I presumed, had a slightly protruding belly and was offering a modest smile for the photo op. As I moved in closer, I noticed he was also chewing gum. Who wouldn’t want to be in THAT church two days later to celebrate the resurrected Savior? What a shame Flannery O’Connor died before this happened.

Even people who love to celebrate the winter holidays with garish decorations have become disgusted with big-box stores that start filling their shelves with the stuff in early September. Now we can walk into our local Walmart before the summer ends, wander over near the garden section, and find all the accessories we could possibly need for Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas with just one trip. All the aforementioned illustrations may cheapen a faith tradition that is almost 2000 years old, but I don’t find them too offensive really. They simply reflect the way Americans think and operate under the encompassing influence of capitalism, which is the true soul of the Republic, morally bankrupt as it may seem at times.

What I do find reprehensible is how people in high places have notoriously attempted to hijack religion and use it to further their personal or institutional agendas, and Christianity has perhaps fallen victim to this evil form of abuse as much or more than any other faith. It happened with the late Roman Empire, the rise of the papacy, the Crusades, the witchcraft trials, the perpetuation of slavery in America, and many other pivotal points in western history. And it’s happening today – right now. The most effective way to pitch a policy package or promote a public figure to a large block of this country’s population is to make sure Jesus is clearly visible on the label.

All your past and present failures, bad decisions, naughty behavior, crude language – all your transgressions can be immediately forgiven and forgotten as long as you claim that Jesus is your co-pilot. He doesn’t even have to be in charge of the flight! In spite of the separations set forth in the 1st Amendment to the Constitution, the United States throughout its history has wedded patriotism to the Christian faith. You can bet that when most Americans read the phrase “In God We Trust” on their money (why is it still there?), they aren’t conjuring images of Zeus, Shiva, or even Allah. They are envisioning the Christian Trinity.

No other demographic is more committed to maintaining the dominance of Christianity in this country, right up to the three branches of government, than strongly conservative evangelicals. They are a powerful lobby and voting bloc, spreading out over multiple denominations and encompassing all races and socio-economic sectors. Their influence has waned slightly in recent decades as the overall population is becoming more secular, but they have a loud and clear voice in public affairs, especially on the national level. Sadly, even the least qualified candidates can overcome a multitude of sins and ineptitude by claiming they are guided by Biblical principles and dedicated to protecting this brand of Christianity from resistance or competition. By focusing on a few essential staples that evangelical Christians hold sacred, these con artists can easily sell them the rest of the merchandise regardless of how cheap, useless, or even dangerous it may be. Jesus is central to the deal, and we Americans can’t pass up a good deal.

Toward a Better Understanding of Our Species: A Reading List

Over the last few years, I have been on a binge reading books about the human species — everything from how we got here to where we might be going. These studies have explored topics such as evolutionary biology, immunology, sociology, psychology, futurology, and perhaps a few other ologies I can’t identify. Mostly, these books have been enlightening, informative, and even entertaining at times. I decided to share some of my favorites here.

Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation by Bill Nye (audio version)

It takes a special talent to translate complicated scientific principles to lay readers like me. One of my favorite scientists who excelled at it was Carl Sagan, so it was no surprise to learn that Bill Nye was a student of Sagan. I have read and listened to many books through the years exploring the topic of evolution, and this is certainly one of the most accessible. The inspiration for this book comes from a debate the author had back in 2014 with Ken Ham, founder of the Young Earth creationists. He spends some time in the first part of the book presenting the major points he and Ham made in the debate, and he refers to the event on several occasions in subsequent chapters. In reality, the debate is just a launching point. Nye’s discussions mostly focus on science, leaving creationism in the dust.

Bringing to the table his skills as an entertainer, a television personality, and a fine writer, Bill Nye presents a fine overview of evolution — not just human evolution, but evolution of life on this planet and even speculation on how life may have evolved and may still be evolving elsewhere in the universe. Hearing him read his own book makes the narrative even more compelling, and his quirky sense of humor keeps it from getting dry or boring. Bill Nye is still making science fun! Highly recommended for readers who like popular science and aren’t looking for too much detail or depth.

The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease by Daniel H. Lieberman

Lieberman takes a different approach to evolution and human origins than what I have seen thus far in most books. Using human evolutionary principles to explain the development of environmentally and socially induced medical problems turns out to be astounding, and for the most part, convincing. The author uses the latest fossil evidence to provide a chronicle of the development of modern humans, tracing our origins back to the earliest hominids and even more archaic common ancestors. Perhaps this discussion gets a bit too deep in the weeds for the ultimate purpose of the book, but I have always been interested in the topic and didn’t mind the extensive review. Readers who are short on time can probably skip the first section on human origins and still benefit from the rest of the book.

Lieberman uses terms like “mismatch” and “de-evolution” to explain how human culture, especially in affluent parts of the world, has facilitated ailments or diseases that are partially if not completely avoidable. As humans moved away from being hunters/gatherers to farmers and eventually industrialists, we developed some rather bad habits of excess and self-indulgence that our bodies have not evolved to handle very well. Instead of addressing the root causes of the problems, we have used our well-developed brains to create methods of treating the symptoms with varying degrees of success.

It seems to me that Lieberman’s observations are indisputable when he writes about unhealthy diets and sedentary lifestyles resulting in illnesses such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Toward the end of the book he employs more speculation about issues such as overcrowded wisdom teeth, foot problems, and myopia, but even so these chapters are thought-provoking and carefully explored. Lastly, Lieberman is another good writer and joins the league of scientists who can make complex subjects accessible for lay people. Well done.

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert M. Sapolsky

If there were one word to best describe Sapolsky’s book in my mind, it would have to be “thorough.” Okay, “long” would work too, but that would make me sound like a simpleton. Truthfully, there were times during this book that I felt like one. Sapolsky spends a good portion of his book explaining how the various systems of the human body work in concert to shape our behavior: the brain, hormones, sensory organs, nerves, etc. For the lay reader, the detailed descriptions of the brain’s components alone, with their complicated functions and not-so-familiar names, are challenging enough. Then again, we are warned by the subtitle that this is a book of biology. Sapolsky provides more neuroscience than most of us probably need in order to accept his conclusions about how the body, right down to the molecular level, functions with our environment, circumstances, and experiences to make us behave or misbehave. Honestly, at times it gets a bit laborious.

The author’s amount of documentation is staggering. He addresses a host of other scientists and social scientists whose research in human behavior parallels his own, and I think his treatment of them is respectful and fair, even though he may disagree with their findings. He is also never short on evidence and examples to substantiate his own findings, sometimes to a fault. He has a tendency to repeat historical events to support his claims, such as the World War I Christmas truce of 1914 between British and German soldiers or the My Lai Massacre on March 16, 1968 during the Vietnam War.

Getting to the heart of this book is difficult without resorting to cliché and oversimplification. By the time I finished, I had decided that human behavior is complicated and that there are far too many internal and external factors involved to come up with a unified theory on why we do what we do. Evolution, genes, DNA, secretions, and synapses all play their part, but they are no more essential in our actions than upbringing, peer pressure, education, traditions, and a whole host of outside influences. Our behavior is shaped as much by what happened to our hominid ancestors thousands of years ago as it is by what happened to us an hour before we committed some act of compassion or cruelty. On a grand scale, our behavior as a species is somewhat predictable. On an individual level, not so much.

This is a book worth reading, even though it will occupy many hours of your time. Aside from the science and psychology, it’s entertaining. Sapolsky is quite funny, blending in pop culture references, occasional profanity, and good old clever wit. He has a talent for breaking down intricate scientific principles with common, everyday illustrations to which almost anyone can relate. For those who have a serious interest in this area of study, Behave is worth the time. I predict it will be an important addition to the scholarship for years to come.

Human Errors: A Panorama of Our Glitches, from Pointless Bones to Broken Genes by Nathan H. Lents

It is clear from early on in his book that Lents has a side motive in this study, which is to dispel the myth of intelligent design in biology, specifically human biology. The paraphrased common refrain throughout the book is “if you were an engineer tasked with designing the human body, this is not the most efficient means by which to achieve the goal.” One of the most interesting parts of the book to me is the assortment of problems humans have as a result of not yet fully evolving to upright, bi-pedal locomotion. Many of our joints and bones are subject to easier injury. Our sinuses try to defy gravity by draining upward instead of downward. And then there is the deadliest problem of all — women trying to give birth to infants with big heads through a narrow pelvis.

Although the author focuses on human “errors,” he also mentions when other species do or do not share our evolutionary challenges. Readers are given detailed explanations of issues associated with vision, swallowing and breathing through the same tube, diet, vitamin production, reproduction, immunity, and even cognition and social interaction. He will perhaps lose a few readers toward the end of the book when he explores the prospect of immortality, which delves a bit deeply into the speculative.

As other scientists have observed (like Lieberman above), Lents argues that modern technology and especially modern medical advances have made, and will continue to make, evolutionary adaptations unnecessary, thus altering the “survival of the fittest” model of passing on genes from one generation to the next. I suspect the jury is still out on whether or not that modification will be beneficial to our species in the long run.

Superhuman: Life at the Extremes of Our Capacity by Rowan Hooper

I have read other books about people with extraordinary abilities (memory, strength, musical talent, etc.), but Hooper covers a range of amazing traits and characteristics, some of which are not so mysterious but nevertheless admirable. He includes individuals who have faced incredible injury, disability, and other challenges with remarkable grace and joy. He even explores what it means to be happy. I found the chapter on sleep and dreams the most fascinating of all. It’s an uplifting exploration of humanity and the potential of our species.

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker

Speaking of sleep, here’s a book that received considerable attention in the media. Perhaps a more accurate title would be Why We Must Sleep. Adding “dreams” in the subtitle is almost a ruse to attract more readers, but we can give Walker a break here – he does include a discussion on dreams, but it is not even close to being the main attraction. Nor should it be. This book explores the necessity of sleep while explaining in detail its different phases and their importance. The author freely admits in the opening pages that he loves sleep, and he has obviously devoted his career to the study of it, not just in humans, but many species.

The overwhelming conclusion is that sleep is not an option nor a luxury. It is absolutely essential to survival. Perhaps most of us could have guessed that, but Walker presents us with an ocean of data to prove it and drive the point home convincingly. There are some fascinating stories in this book about sleep research that most of us have never dreamed of (sorry), and again, not just on humans.

The major takeaway from the book is simple. In order to remain healthy and happy, people need to be consistently getting 7-8 hours of sleep a night (9 hours wouldn’t hurt, but don’t go far beyond that threshold). Walker argues, not always convincingly but most of the time, that sleep deprivation can harm us in almost every way we can fathom — physically, mentally, and emotionally. I expected him at any moment to write, “You know that ingrown toenail that’s been bothering you for the last few weeks?”

Anybody who cares anything at all about general health and how to improve it should read this book. Of course, anyone interested in sleep has to read it. I can’t imagine a more thorough study of the subject for a popular audience. Fair warning: Walker is a scientist and a purist. He is laying out the facts to the best of his knowledge, which is extensive. There is no sensible approach or moderation, no wiggle room. If you want the very best sleep, and by extension the best health, you have to give up everything that hinders sleep, including alcohol, caffeine, jobs that interfere with sleep schedules, late-night activities, etc. And don’t even think about sleeping pills! Therapy is the ONLY answer to sleeping disorders. This level of slumber austerity is going to be rejected by most people, but at least we can be better aware of how important sleep is to our well-being and do our best to get a little, or a lot, more shut eye.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari 

I know this book gets dinged by reviewers for some outrageous claims, unsubstantiated conclusions, and superficial treatment of 100,000 years worth of history. Much of the criticism is warranted. For instance, one of Harari’s recurring suppositions is that humans from the past, although they lived in more hostile environments, were no less “happy” than people in modern civilization. This revelation shouldn’t come as a surprise if we consider that humans can only truly appreciate the living conditions of the present, not the future. Most of us are content with our world as it is because it is all we know.

Still, Harari is a good writer with some thought-provoking theories. He charts the process of how our modern species won the evolutionary competition to become the dominant primate and eventually reshape the global environment. At times he pushes the iconoclastic approach a bit too far in order to ramp up the buzz factor, and thus more readers. Based on the sales, his strategy worked. Academic historians are not going to be pleased, and critical readers of history will probably be disappointed. Popular audiences have enjoyed it immensely, and that’s fine. Most readers will take away a few fascinating nuggets from this ambitious survey of human history.

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari 

Harari waits until the very end of his book to tell readers that the previous 450 pages of forecasting are not really a prophesy, only an exploration of possibilities. Some of the ideas will sound ridiculous, but many of them are certainly plausible. The discussion of a hybrid creature combining human and machine that could possibly surpass homo sapiens to become the dominant species is not so far fetched. Interestingly, Harari spends an unusual amount of time near the beginning of the book writing about religion and its impact on human evolution and modern society, which may explain the title. It’s almost as if this could be two different books. The only place that the book became tiresome for me was the final chapter on data. If I had to classify it, I would describe Homo Deus as speculative nonfiction. I think his previous book, Sapiens, is more important. If we don’t take it too seriously, Homo Deus is a fun and intriguing read.

Housing Faith

My attitude toward organized religion has changed considerably over the last few decades, and my opinions are usually not so favorable. Raised in the Southern Baptist tradition, I am more familiar with Protestantism as it is practiced by that denomination; however, I have studied other Christian traditions and the major world faiths. I disagree with the modern atheists who argue that religion is superfluous and will ultimately become obsolete. Religious practice dates back long before written history, and although it is waning in some parts of the western world, it is thriving in other areas. Many people obviously possess a need for belief in the metaphysical, whether it’s in the form of organized religion, personal faith, or spirituality. Perhaps religious practice is even an evolutionary trait in humans, an idea that has been explored by sociologists, religious scholars, and even some biologists.

I am now an Episcopalian, mainly because the Episcopal Church seems to be so inclusive and focuses energy on advancing causes of social justice and charity, especially for people we often identify with the margins of society. There are probably other inclusive faith traditions with similar characteristics, such as the Congregationalists, Unitarians, and others from outside the Christian world. Admittedly, the cultural, intellectual, and even social aspects of religion are more appealing to me than the supernatural. St. Paul wrote that these three remain: faith, hope, and love. I cling less to the first than the other two.

One common criticism I notice expressed against organized religion concerns the number of resources spent on designing, constructing, and maintaining houses of faith, such as cathedrals, mosques, temples, and tabernacles. I understand the issue and the disconnect between the message of charity and the often-obscene wealth exhibited in these magnificent structures. At the same time, I can also appreciate what these places of worship mean to parishioners. Beyond their religious significance, these architectural masterpieces also serve as cultural icons, fine art repositories, points of community or even national pride, tourist attractions, and centers of activity.

I am conflicted about the money spent on such palatial houses of faith when there is so much poverty, examples of which are often present right at the doorstep of the structures. Still, I find myself attracted to their beauty and will make every effort to visit them when we travel to places known for ecclesiastical architecture. They are just too amazing to miss. And as formidable as these edifices are, occasionally we are all reminded how easily they can be destroyed, such as the horrible fire that consumed Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in 2019.

Here I have posted photographs of some of the most spectacular houses of worship we have visited during our travels. I look forward to seeing more.

Notre Dame, Paris, France
Notre Dame, Paris, France

 

Notre Dame, Paris, France
Notre Dame, Paris, France

 

Westminster Abbey, London, England
Westminster Abbey, London, England

 

St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome, Italy
St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome, Italy

Our Final Destination

One of the most magnificent places I have ever seen is Grand Teton National Park in northwestern Wyoming. My wife, younger son, and I combined a visit to this park with our exploration of Yellowstone during the summer of 2015. Formed by a series of earthquakes dating back about 10 million years, the Teton Range rises an impressive 7,000 feet above the valley floor. The jagged, rocky peaks are quite a spectacle and can be seen for miles across the expansive meadows, forests, and flood plains that make up so much of the park’s terrain.

Grand Tetons from Jackson Lake Lodge
Grand Tetons from Jackson Lake Lodge

There are numerous options for staying overnight in the park, including campgrounds, cabins, and lodges. Jackson Lake Lodge is a full-service resort hotel that features a spacious lobby with two-story windows looking out on Jackson Lake and the 40-mile-long mountain range beyond. We didn’t actually stay at this lodge, but we spent some time in the lobby, out on the deck, and on the nearby trails where we could gaze at the ascending peaks still dressed in patches of snow even in July. As I wrote in a previous blog about this view, “Grand” doesn’t do it justice.

Grand Tetons near Jenny Lake
Grand Tetons near Jenny Lake

Human occupation of this region of the state began approximately 11,000 years ago when Nomadic paleo-Indians first entered the valley shortly after Pleistocene Ice Age glaciers retreated. The first euro-American explorer who may have entered the area was John Colter. He served as a member of the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery expedition, but he left the expedition in the fall of 1806 and traveled through this region in the winter of 1807-1808. As America expanded westward, survey expeditions mapped the landscape, documented natural resources, and scouted for future railroad access. Congress created the original park in 1929 to protect the Teton Range and several lakes at the foot of the mountains. More land from the federal government and from private donors was added over the next few decades, and by 1950 the park was the size that it is today: 310,000 acres.

Just inside the southern entrance to the park is a place that holds special meaning for my wife and me. The tiny Chapel of the Transfiguration was built in 1925 on land donated by Maud Noble. It was constructed so that the early settlers would not have to make the long buckboard ride into the nearby town of Jackson for Sunday services. The structure also served guests and employees of the dude ranches that stretched north of Jackson along the base of the Teton Range. It is still a functioning Episcopal church and is operated by St. John’s Episcopal Church in Jackson. Services are held at the Chapel from late May to early September each year. A large window behind its altar frames the magnificent beauty of the Teton Range. A good friend of mine and a former Baptist minister of music once said, “It wouldn’t matter what the topic of your sermon was in that chapel. You’d always get an ‘amen’ at the end.”

Grand Tetons - Chapel of the Transfiguration
Grand Tetons – Chapel of the Transfiguration

My wife is a cradle Episcopalian, and I joined the denomination after we were married in 2008. We sometimes visit Episcopal churches when we are traveling, especially in historic locations. Although we did not attend a service at this little chapel, we were quite taken by its simple construction and its beautiful surroundings. In the summer of 2012, St. John’s created a Garden of Memories at the Chapel of Transfiguration for those who would like to repose their cremains on the grounds of this unique sacred place. Instead of being spread, ashes are poured into the ground and covered with soil. The names and dates of the deceased are inscribed on a plaque mounted on a large stone in the garden. We both decided a long time ago that we wanted to be cremated when we die, and after visiting this lovely place of worship in the valley below the Grand Tetons, we have chosen to make this garden our final travel destination.

Books for Critical-Thinking Christians

Does the title of this post sound a tad arrogant? Intellectually elitist even? Arrogance is not my intent, and I don’t have an elite intellect. I do have a keen and personal interest in religion generally and Christianity specifically. I was raised on conservative Christian values — the Southern Baptist variety, which is quite fierce. Over the years, my beliefs, practices, and worldview have changed considerably due to education, travel, social interaction, and perhaps above all, reading. The following is an annotated bibliography of authors and books that have influenced my thinking about religion. I offer this suggested reading list for those who want to approach faith from a critical and thoughtful perspective that does not always confirm but instead challenges traditional assumptions about religion.

I have read all or parts of numerous books on world religions, and there are plenty of good introductions by major publishers, especially academic presses like Oxford, Yale, and Cambridge. A book I read not too long ago that addresses religious faith in general is Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief by Huston Smith. No one would question how influential Huston Smith was (he died in December, 2016) in the study of world religions. His book on the subject has sold over 2 million copies since it was first published in 1958. In 2000 he wrote this apologia for religion in the face of the growing post-modern position that faith is no longer necessary in the age of enlightenment. He is a skilled writer, and his prose is certainly accessible, even entertaining. In Why Religion Matters, Smith lays out his case for why religion exists, why it has survived for tens of thousands of years, and why it will continue in spite of opposition from the agnostic and atheistic sector of the scientific community.

I think Smith makes some good arguments, and I tend to agree with him that there is evolutionary evidence for the necessity of religious faith for humans. Where I question Smith is on the broad assumptions and emphatic stands he takes along the way. I also take issue when Smith seems to resort to tired religious clichés and platitudes. As an example, Smith writes: “Scientists would give their eye-teeth to know what the non-material component of photons is. For religionists, it is Spirit.” With this type of dismissive assumption, Smith is falling into the “god of the gaps” trap that atheists so often describe.  At any rate, this book is a good source for lay people (like me) who want to hear justification of faith by someone who spent a lifetime studying the subject.

CHRISTIAN HISTORY

It is probably my interest in history that has attracted me to books on early Christianity, so I add here several titles from well-respected scholars. The Historical Figure of Jesus by E. P. Sanders studies the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, distinguishing the certain from the improbable, and assessing the historical and religious context of Christ’s time. In Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews: A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity, Paula Fredriksen explores the religious worlds, Jewish and pagan, of Mediterranean antiquity, through the labyrinth of Galilean and Judean politics, and on into the ancient narratives of Paul’s letters, the gospels, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Josephus’ histories. Both of these books are dated now but are fine contributions to our understanding of the social and religious contexts within which Jesus of Nazareth moved, and to our appreciation of the mission and message that ended in the proclamation of Jesus as Messiah. For a less traditional perspective on the historical Jesus, I recommend The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus by Amy-Jill Levine, who has dedicated her career to helping Christians and Jews understand the Jewishness of Jesus, thereby deepening the understanding of him, and facilitating greater interfaith dialogue.

One of my favorite scholars who enjoyed studying the life and legacy of Jesus is Marcus Borg. He apparently also enjoyed stirring up controversy, along with his frequent co-author, John Dominic Crossan. It isn’t really necessary to provide details of these books here because the subtitles are fairly descriptive. I freely admit a significant bias toward Borg and his approach toward examining the Gospels in a historical context, and I know that many readers will criticize him for recycling material in his books. The man was a master book salesman, and his prose is accessible and thought-provoking.

  • The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Birth
  • The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem
  • Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith
  • Jesus: A New Vision: Spirit, Culture, and the Life of Discipleship
  • The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon

A recent title by another scholar whom I respect is The Triumph of Christianity: How a Small Band of Outcasts Conquered an Empire. Bart D. Erhman doesn’t break any new ground here, but as in previous works, he manages to make early Church history more palatable for a large audience. He writes well and can manage to find opportunities to be witty with a subject that is not inherently humorous. Most of what we read here is generally covered in any survey of world civilizations, except in far more detail, which is why the book is worth reading for those of us who are not scholars but are nevertheless interested in history, religion, and the evolution of Christianity. Ehrman takes a direct and well-documented approach to explain why Christianity did indeed triumph over all the long-held religious traditions of the classical world.

THEOLOGY

Again, the titles in this category are not necessarily complex nor heavy. My intent is to introduce books that the rest of us can grasp and appreciate. Some of these would be considered more like apologies than theology, but subject headings are not my focus either. Here are a few books that have had the greatest impact on my thinking.

  • Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis
  • The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton
  • Mystery and Manners by Flannery O’Connor
  • Waiting for God by Simone Weil
  • Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith by Marcus Borg (I told you I was a fan)

I will add a couple of books here that are much more recent than the previous selections. These two titles by Philip Gulley and James Mulholland changed the way I thought about some fundamental tenants of Christian theology. If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person presents a radical departure from traditional teaching for most Christians. The element of this book I found most interesting was the authors’ belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, which begs the question: do they believe in the supernatural traditions of other major religions, like the stories surrounding Muhammad or Siddhartha Gautama? I decided to email Philip Gulley and put the question directly to him, and he wrote back! He responded, “Yes, bodily resurrection is an issue with which we both continue to struggle.” I truly admire his honesty. The other book by Gulley and Mulholland I recommend is If God Is Love: Rediscovering Grace in an Ungracious World. As idealistic as the premise of this book is (and perhaps a bit naïve in places), these guys make a compelling argument for how challenging it is to truly embrace the teachings of Jesus and the basic tenants of the major world religions.

RELIGION AND SCIENCE 

In so many ways, the last 250 years of religious thought and practice have been defined by the conflict between religion and science.  My intellectual interests as an adult have been concentrated in these two areas resulting from my heritage and a childhood curiosity about the natural world. Much of my reading that touches on both topics has been in the area of anthropology and evolution. Here are two titles that take a more general and conciliatory approach, one from a scientist and one from a minister. Stephen Jay Gould’s Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life allows science and religion to coexist peacefully in a position of respectful noninterference. Science defines the natural world; religion our moral world in recognition of their separate spheres of influence. More recent scholars have scoffed at Gould’s compromise, especially scientists and humanists, but I still believe the concept is worth considering.

Luminous Web: Essays on Science and Religion is the fourth book thus far that I have read by Barbara Brown Taylor. It is actually a collection of essays from 2000 that predates the bestsellers by this Episcopal priest who left the ministry to finish her career teaching in the small liberal arts college where I am working now. Taylor was named by TIME magazine as one of the most influential people in the world in 2014. The principle thesis and the sharp observations in this book are still perfectly relevant. Taylor is a priest with a sincere interest in science, which places her in good company with some of the greatest minds in history going back to the Middle Ages with Thomas Aquinas and up to the 20th century with people like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who was both a priest and a scientist. I think Taylor believes in and is always searching for what Teilhard de Chardin named the “Omega Point,” that evolutionary conclusion where God and the physical universe are united, or as some have phrased it, a “divine unification.” To Taylor, God is not superseded by science nor is God made irrelevant by the scientific method. She clings to the idea that science and religion are equally in pursuit of the truth — the former in its exploration and explanation of the physical universe and the latter in its attempts to find meaning and purpose.

AGNOSTICISM AND ATHEISM

A critical study of Christianity is incomplete without the most challenging opinions of all. My fascination with science has led me to scholars and writers who completely dismiss religion as supernatural nonsense at best and dangerous, manipulative propaganda at worst. On any given day, I may find myself in sympathy with their judgments, but I still embrace mystery in the universe that I am not yet convinced science can explain nor dismiss. Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe by Greg M. Epstein is a nice overview of how people who do not believe in God live an ethical life, how they are charitable, loving, compassionate, fulfilled, and inspired without religion as their primary motivation. Epstein is obviously trying to soften the message of the irreligious that has been expressed with sarcasm, indignation, and even rudeness by leading atheists. It does seem to me, especially toward the end of the book, that Epstein is attempting to find ways in which humanists can enjoy the worldly fruits of religion through culture and ritual, as if living a humanist life without the type of community that faith offers is empty or disconnected. No doubt, his Jewish heritage is coming into play here, which he fully discloses. Perhaps this perspective also comes out of his role as a humanist chaplain (still an odd title for a humanist in my opinion) at Harvard.

In his cleverly-spelled title, god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Christopher Hitchens is just a bit too unreasonable about the evils of religion in general. Of course, he is correct about so many of the atrocities committed in the name of religion, and I certainly wouldn’t dispute his calculated and logical arguments dispelling the myths that are at the center of religion. However, I maintain that religion seems to be a necessary component for so many humans, as history and other social sciences have firmly demonstrated. He thinks because he has successfully faced facts, reality, mortality, and the cosmos apart from the supernatural, that everyone else should be able to do so as well. Obviously, he is mistaken. And frankly, no amount of evidence or persuasion on his part or that of any other atheist will likely win over the multitudes around the globe who prefer supernatural beliefs about the universe instead of rational, scientific explanations. I suppose he is, nevertheless, compelled to keep trying. Hitchens is as brilliant as any of his contemporaries who have presented the case of atheism.

Speaking of brilliant, it is probably good form to give the last word on critical thinking to one of the leading evolutionary biologists in the world, who also happens to be the most outspoken and popular atheists of the 21st century. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins asserts the irrationality of belief in God and the grievous harm religion has inflicted on society, from the Crusades to 9/11. As much as I respect Dawkins as a scientist, scholar, and writer, I think he overstates the danger of religious practice. I prefer the more mellow and considerate position of humanists like Greg M. Epstein. However, anyone who truly wants to cover the range of opinions about religion, from pure devotion to intransigent denial, should consider reading this and other books by Richard Dawkins. Oh, and you can’t insult him by calling him the Devil’s advocate — he doesn’t believe in Him either.

(Note: some of the book descriptions in this post were lifted from the Goodreads website.)

Schooled by the President

My wife and I joined a group of people from our community to mark off another travel experience bucket list item. In this case, the distance from home was short enough for a road trip. We traveled through pines and vast farmland to the little village of Plains, Georgia, where we gathered with a couple of hundred other people before sunrise in anticipation of the big event: Sunday School at Maranatha Baptist Church. Okay, I haven’t attended Sunday School in over twelve years, and we could have easily found a class to attend much closer to home, but the teacher wouldn’t have been the 39th President of the United States.

Jimmy Carter has been teaching Sunday School for most of his life, reportedly even during his presidency (1977-1981). However, in recent years his class at Maranatha Baptist Church has been drawing capacity crowds, especially after his diagnosis of brain cancer in 2015. This health scare may have interrupted his teaching, but it didn’t stop it. He teaches his class in the church’s sanctuary that seats about 350 people when filled to capacity, and there is an overflow adjacent room that seats 100 more people who watch  via video feed. The 93-year-old former Commander in Chief is still greeting anywhere from several dozen to a few hundred pilgrims multiple times throughout the year for a 45-minute session, although there are rumors that he will scale back if not completely stop teaching sometime this year (2018).

The charming little red-brick church is tucked in a pecan grove a couple of miles outside the center of Plains, a hamlet of less than 800 people where Jimmy Carter was born and raised and the place he and First Lady, Rosalynn, still call home. No part of the state defines “rural Georgia” better than its southwest section, and Plains is a bonafide representative. Maranatha Baptist Church looks like so many other little churches I have seen and visited during my life. The members are equally familiar: genuine, proud, polite, but above all in this case, fiercely respectful and protective of their world-famous congregant. Those who are charged with orchestrating this unusual ministry of the church do so with humility, humor, grace, and above all, efficiency.

The church’s website advises attendees to arrive no later than 6:00 a.m. in case the crowd is large. We arrive at ten after the hour. Entrance to the sanctuary is based on a simple numbering system. When we pull into the dirt driveway of the property, a friendly fellow welcomes us and hands us through the car window a slip of paper with a sequential number indicating what will later be our place in the lineup to file into the church. We are number 58 — obviously not quite as committed as 57 other sojourners, the earliest of which we later learn arrived at 4:00 a.m.

Like many activities that combine religious practice with celebrity status, the President’s Sunday School class attracts an eclectic assembly that writers like Chaucer would find fascinating, as do we. One notable example is the chap who arrives in a mint-condition Model-T, sporting the requisite hat/goggle combination and accompanied by an extraordinarily tall tabby cat that he walks among the pecan trees on a leash. We learn that he is just beginning a long journey across the country to visit various attractions, an adventure he will record in a travelogue — think Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, the feline version.

On the Sundays the Carters are attending, the glaring distinction of this church is the early and abundant presence of law enforcement, which includes local sheriff deputies and at least six Secret Service agents, complete with bomb-sniffing dogs canvassing the exterior of the church building and weaving their way through the herd of vehicles parked under the trees behind the church. A member of our group observes what a misnomer “Secret Service” is to describe a team of people at a little country church dressed all in black with sunglasses and ear pieces, handguns clearly visible. Their service is no secret whatsoever. During the hour of worship that follows his class, President Carter sits in a pew next to one of the two center aisles (the Carters are indeed members at Maranatha). There are agents at the entrances to the building and one agent sitting directly behind him. Every time President Carter stands with the rest of the congregation, the agent stands and shifts his own position slightly out into the aisle just behind Carter’s left shoulder — an added measure of protection. Without a doubt, we are attending the safest worship service in the state that morning.

On the Sunday we attend, illness has descended upon a significant portion of the congregation, including Rosalynn Carter who is recovering from surgery in Atlanta. A few of the members are having to pull double duty. Jan is the fearless and funny woman, school teacher turned event coordinator, who lines everyone up outside and gets them ready to go through security and enter the church. She is joined by several other members inside who provide instructions for the Presidential encounter, all the dos and don’ts that are expected, including no applause for the President. We are reminded this is church, not a campaign rally. Jan also plays the piano later in the morning for the worship service. Shortly before the teacher enters the sanctuary, the recently-installed pastor, at the ripe age of 23, provides a Q&A about himself, his family, the church, and the Carters. Another woman who helps with the orientation before the President’s arrival identifies herself with the last name “Carter,” and someone in the audience asks if there is any relation. She replies, “Yes. Billy Carter was my father.” Later that morning, this jovial niece of the President returns to the podium to lead the singing — the music minister is out that day involved in a church-related activity out of town. They are a resourceful and flexible church family.

President Jimmy Carter
President Jimmy Carter

 

President Carter could not be more charming. We just barely make the cut to get in the sanctuary and are sitting in the choir loft behind him, but he graciously turns around to include us. He spends the first few minutes greeting everyone and asking, by sections of pews, “where are ya’ll from?” Place names are shouted out: Maine, Texas, Canada, Illinois, Kentucky, Colorado, and many others. We are amazed by the distance some of these folks have traveled to hear a great statesman with humble beginnings speak of a faith that has no doubt sustained him through trials that would crumble most of us.

Jimmy Carter is judged harshly these days by so many of our population who consider his presidency to be lackluster at best and a dismal failure at its worst. He faced insurmountable challenges and horrible crises while in office, and admittedly some of his decisions perhaps did not serve the country well. Many of his accomplishments in the White House are overlooked now, but he should always be remembered for brokering a peaceful resolution demonstrated by a handshake between a Jewish prime minister and a Muslim president that undoubtedly saved many, many lives in the Middle East and beyond. Also, no one denies his decades of post-Presidential humanitarian achievements with Habitat for Humanity, the Carter Center, monitoring elections around the world, and so much more. To my way of thinking, he is a remarkable testimony to the charity and love most often identified with Jesus, the one he calls Savior. In the end, his Sunday School lesson always comes back to that simple but profound profession of faith.