Sunday, November 26, 2023

Bishop Carlton Pearson (1953-2023) & Cosmic Christian Universalism


Those “NPR moments” are probably right up there with yoga & pumpkin spice as an ultimate sensitive-progressive-white- person cliche, but this was one. 

I actually remember the day well, around the winter holidays, almost 20 years ago. We were on a long drive with my parents, coming back from Georgia to Tennessee, if I remember correctly.Though I am not a huge “This American Life” listener, we were that day, as we stumbled quite accidentally on the “Heretics” episode, featuring former Christian superstar, the  Bishop Carlton Pearson, & I was moved to my core & quite beyond myself. 

Pearson’s “heresy” was simple: there is no hell. This “revelation” cost him cash, status, real estate, & reputation, but he held onto more humanist, more loving, more flexible, & more radical theologies right until his death from cancer, at the age of 70, on November 19, 2023.

Pearson’s profoundly compassionate yet provocative “Gospel of Inclusion,” coming from a black, then-conservative, evangelical, Pentecostal place in the red-dirt heartland reverberated across the culture & foreshadowed the contemporary spread of Christian universalism among white mainliners & even some evangelicals, marked later by such books as “Love Wins” by Rob Bell & “That All Shall Be Saved” by David Bentley Hart.

The now well-known public-radio episode spawned a huge response & even a Netflix movie called “Come Sunday,” several years later. At the time I heard the episode, I felt profoundly tugged back toward the Jesus I knew as a child & teenager. At the time that I heard the episode, I was a 30-something neopagan, even heathen, but also struggling with yet-to-be self-diagnosed addictions & alcoholism. 

Now I want to say I don’t observe anything objectively wrong with being a heathen or a pagan or even with drinking or drugs per se (or abstinent or Buddhist for that matter), but for me at that time, the maniacally medicinal path wasn’t working. In my case, I was on a hedonistic trajectory for personal trauma & the reported rock-bottom of so many addicts’ journeys.

An attractive, subversively merciful, nonviolent Jesus who spoke in Zen-like riddles & metaphors drew me like a magnet. Someone with the honesty, backstory, & charismatic fire of a Carlton Pearson only pulled me in more. Around the same time I first heard this episode, I was also enchanted with the lyrics on U2’s 2004 album “How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb,” lyrics that implied religious universalism, lyrics like, “blessings not just for the ones who kneel.” There’d be a few years between first hearing that episode (or that album) & my full-blown reclamation of my baptismal vows, but teachers who taught with such uninhibited & truly unconditional love really called to me. 

Among some circles of the religious, without the possibility of punishment, religion or even morality have no point. The logic goes that such a radical, loving, non-coercive Christ who wields no carrot-&-stick threats of torture can’t sell tithes or fill the pews. We’d all be raving rapists, murdering maniacs, & lusty losers, the argument proceeds, without a God whose plan for eternal infernos of incarceration eclipses any cosmic correlation for sweet salvation. Who needs generosity & goodness without cosmic cops to coercively chain-up the bad? Sadly, it’s often people who promote that human beings are irredeemably depraved who choose such despicable descriptions of the divine! 

Contrary to this cheap doctrine with its devil-fetishes & divine fascism, the mystic & revolutionary Jesus story is still truly strange & scandalous, no matter how familiar some of its traditions & trappings might be. Since my deconstruction journey began in 2020 (after serving as a pastor in the PCUSA denomination!), I have bounced around between different churches & different ideas about my own doctrines or theologies. I have had profound existential moments of the “eff-its,” which reminded me of my drug-addled departure from the church when I was 20-years old. I have also had fiery, Holy-spirit moments that have soothed my sore heart & sought me with infinite compassion. 

The last few years, my cravings to “come home” are triggered by the changing seasons & the start of a new Christian year, which on the calendar begins in Advent, late November or early December. Frequently, I am knocked over by certain events or even a series of events or by certain mystical experiences, sometimes triggered by intentional spiritual practices. Sometimes simply listening to an album on my headphones while walking will knock me out & turn me around. An understanding of universalism with its infinite mercy & endless forgiveness, this fits for a season of recursive & repeated deconstruction & reconstruction. 

It was at the conclusion of just such a recent walk, when I learned about the passing of Carlton Pearson. It hit me with such a gust of wind, such a punch to the guts, such an aching appreciation of everything Bishop Pearson did & said & with profound pull to the bosom of our brother Jesus, the cosmic & universal Christ.

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Religious Relapse - a poem for the Feast Day of CS Lewis

Religious Relapse

“I belong here. 
This is the land 
I have been looking 
for all my life, 
though I never knew it 
till now... 
Come further up, 
come further in!”
CS Lewis

“Like thunder needs rain
Like a preacher needs pain
Like tongues of flame
Like a sheet stained
Like a needle needs a vein
Like someone to blame
Like a thought unchained
Like a runaway train
I need your love”

It’s like a switch
in my brain
It’s like a sip
of something strong
It was only found
listening to a song

If religion was 
just another drug for me
I am in full relapse mode
Ravenous for meaning
Craving the god shots
Undiluted & pure

If religion were
more bad than good
in the world as a net
why do folks still place the bet
like in a desert & drought
a dry being walks to water 

If religion were
only certainty & war
doctrine & control
why all this breathtaking art
all this heartbreaking poetry
all this always awesome awe

If religion is a drug
I might try what 
you are dealing
drink what you are spilling
smoke whatever
I am smelling

There was always
something sad about
my abstinence from
the booze of beauty
the crack of creation
the weed of wonder 

My sojourn from the wildness 
of God must confess that
it was domesticated dreary
orderly ornery
fulsome fears
& boredom’s tears

Like SciFi & fantasy
dance & trance
sports & games
simple distractions from
the finality of fatality we are
a fragile utopia of friends

This is the fix that I need
a hunger that diminishes greed
a place where from the chains
we have been freed
with only a muse of love
that we must please

No guarantees that
these feelings will last
accountable to my future
by admitting my past
though some days are pious
some others are crass

Feast Day of CS Lewis, 2023 


Wednesday, March 1, 2023

We All Live In The Submarine Church With The Left-wing Hippy Christians

The movement depicted in the Jesus Revolution movie was either right-wing in its roots or made a hard-right turn not soon after the beginning. But that was not true of all hippy Christians. Some were in the New Left & stayed left! Check it out!! 

From --
"We All Live In The Submarine Church: Confrontation, Celebration, Contemplation, and the Legacy of the Left-wing Hippy Christians" (presented at AAR in 2017)

Part one: the free church of the late 1960s
When the Reformation was but 451 years old, a gaggle of hippy Christians took to the streets in California’s East Bay for a provocative All Saints and Reformation Day parade, including all: “fairies, minstrels, priests, prophets, exorcists, angels, archangels, wizards, soothsayers, nymphs, elves, hobbits, priestesses, and saints, as well as all other people of goodwill.” This celebration had a direct proclamation, still available in the “Berkeley Free Church Collection” online archive, with exclamation points indicative of their gospel enthusiasm: “Out Demons, Out! The Demons are Exorcised! The Saints go Marching in! The Radical Jesus is Winning! The Submarine Church is Surfacing! Hallelujah! The Liberated Zone is at Hand!” 

Somewhere just past the intersection of the New Left and newer liturgies, a passionate and polemic Christian counterculture danced and ranted their way to the end of the 1960s and the birth of the 1970s with vivid pamphlets and poetic visions. The head of steam that had been building for a decade in the various Christian youth movements had already begun to subside, and several attempts at unity began to splinter. Alternately called the free church, the hip church, the underground church, and the liberated church, the little-studied and subversive Submarine Church took its name from a Beatles’ song and comprised a well-funded renegade cell of pastors, authors, activists, seminary students, denominational bureaucrats, and their friends. With their coalition known as SCAN, the Submarine Church Action Network, they were—as documented in Harlan Douglas Anthony Stelmach’s stunning 1977 dissertation titled The cult of liberation : the Berkeley Free Church and the radical church movement, 1967-1972—“an emerging national network of local communities struggling to shape a new social order by bringing to it the radical vision of Jesus, the prophets, and the beloved community” (211).

In one of their many small-press manifestos titled “Jonathan’s Wake Stirs Late Awakening,” these leaders declared themselves “evangelical, conversion centered, pentecostal, post-liberal, post-secular, remythologizing, nongeneration, inside-subversive, outside-related, Wake-Up Oriented, youth black Third World supporting, democratic, post-Protestant, post-Catholic, Non-existent Reality, nonmembership, leaderless, post-Mao, post-SDS, happening joysprung mobile unit.” 

From the heartfelt energies and playful hyperbole of mimeograph prophets, street actions were organized and liturgies written. It seems that Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and Methodist leaders were so mystified and enchanted by the hippy, they were willing to pay younger pastors to participate in the revolution. Of course, we wonder if the denominational committees hoped that the likes of Richard York, Stephen Rose, and a dozen more pastors of their tribe would more-or-less contain and coopt the radicals—or at least, babysit them. 

On the one hand, the Free Church began by helping runaways and druggies get the help they needed, but they had some rather unconventional ideas about teaching the street youth to make peace with society too, such as performing exorcisms on police with the so-called “Man-Mind-Blowing-Exorcising-Device,” as explained in the Pantheresque “Ministry of Defense, Communique #1.” Whether the Free Church’s interest in exorcisms got inspiration from the Yippies’ surreal actions to cast evil out of the Pentagon in 1967 or not, they clearly talk a lot about systemic injustice in spiritual terms. Contemporary theologians teach us that demonic evil is in fact real—but manifests in systemic patterns of oppression as much as in possessing people per se. It’s a wonder that today’s many militant movements have not looked more closely at exorcism as a potential tactic in our unprecedented and unfolding reality. 

Years later on his blog, Rose would openly reference the Yippies as an inspiration for the Submarine Church’s creative confrontations. Rose himself witnessed the intense confrontations between police and protesters in Chicago at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, before moving to the east coast. “With the smell of tear gas still in my nostrils, I moved with my family from Chicago to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, in September,1968,” Rose chronicles in the post, “1969—Jonathan's Wake, Yippie, Reparations and Ecclesiastical Lassitude.” “Within a year, I was more embroiled in activism than since the early days of the 1960s.”

By the time York and Rose had formed their bicoastal alliance with an eastern faction nestled in Stockbridge, they had graduated to staging guerrilla theater-type actions at the national assemblies of major denominations, as well as at the National Council of Churches. So interestingly and somehow fittingly, the stiff suits of mainline Christianity paid for their own disruption in the form of these radical experiments, sometimes under the guise of New Church Developments. According to numbers charted in archival documents, the overall annual budget for the Berkeley Free Church in the early 1970s exceeds fifty thousand dollars; with no adjustments for inflation, this is more than the actual annual budget for a smalltown church I serve as a part-time pastor in the late 2010s. 

Like the Marxist statists who worked for the day when Marxism and state would be no more, this was a tiny node inside the mainline church interested in abandoning itself, in superseding itself, in replacing itself with the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, with the authentic beloved community. Typical demands of these submarine subversives included more support for poverty programs, for black churches, and for antiwar efforts, all the while engaging in rapturous and rhetorical zeal to denounce the complicity and hypocrisy of a church that even implicitly supports racism and war.

Just like the children of the age ultimately became their parents, the Berkeley Free Church’s robust and rebellious tenure ultimately met its own decline and self-destruction long before the end of the establishment churches that parented it. Internal squabbles and ideological differences perhaps hastened what was probably inevitable. While many have predicted the last days of denominations for decades, they carry on, well into this new century. Perhaps some free churches folded back into larger congregations, while others simply dissolved, as some members followed their peers into careers as well as into New Age spirituality or continued with radical secular activism, only outside the church.

-to read a PDF version of the Master thesis Banjo & Bread or its sequel on the Submarine Church, send an email to preacherandrewsmith [at] gmail [dot] com
-@presbyhippy Andrew William "Sunfrog" Smith is a poet & DJ, a "hippy Jesus freak" of the left-wing variety, a preacher, teacher, & sober creature living on the occupied Cherokee land of Tanasi

Monday, February 27, 2023

From Jesus Revolution to the Revolutionary Jesus: thoughts on a movie, a movement, & more

pictured- the cover of the the first volume of the only Lonnie Frisbee autobiography, which was consulted in the composition of this piece

While it might not have bested Ant Man or Cocaine Bear, the movie Jesus Revolution opened to surprisingly strong numbers, drawing down $15.5 million for its opening weekend. Hot on the heels of the "He Gets Us" ad campaign and the Asbury Revival, Jesus is making mainstream headlines. 

To be clear, the new movie is intimately groovy and gorgeously shot through with that shimmery ambiance of oh-so-many California sunsets. It’s well-produced and deeply moving, as if to convey some cinematic smells along with the accurate costumes and folk-rock sounds, as much as any other Hollywood psychonautical time machine. And there have been many. 

The film has multiple main characters, including several key figures from the actual Jesus People movement, with evangelist and author and pastor Greg Laurie, being one who is still alive, here to help manage the movie’s buzz and make sure it fits his particular theology. While Laurie’s story in the film is strong and moving, the emotional heart of the story centers around the generational culture-clash between an older preacher named Chuck Smith and all the barefoot long-hairs who were everywhere at the time; Smith navigates his anxiety about the hippies by ultimately embracing them. 

After seeing the flick, I was immediately eager to discuss it with fellow-travelers on social media. Folks on lefty religious Twitter were all immediately speculating if the numbers would have been so strong if the film had been more transparent about one of its several protagonists, the gritty and gregarious Lonnie Frisbee, who makes sure we keep a bit of the freaky in the Jesus Freak movement, even as the straights and squares are bent to take over. Frank conversations about this unconventional preacher are percolating on the margins of the movie’s buzz. 

For several years, I immersed myself in studies of the Jesus hippies, as I was inspired by them and felt intuitively that I descended from them. From the folky psychedelic music to the beach baptisms, it all had an intoxicating attraction to all spiritual seekers. Reading, viewing, and studying primary sources can expand our interpretations of the film, and these are behind my comments here.

So Frisbee’s visionary pedigree takes us right through the lysergic technicolor tapestry of the Summer of Love, where the teenage art school dropout was at the center of everything from the politics to the partying. His incessant seeking finally gave way to extravagant encounters with an expansive God, who Frisbee found in the voice and person of Jesus, who came to him while buck naked on one of his many hikes up Tahquitz Canyon down near Palm Springs. Frisbee wasn’t just a trippy hippy. He was also a queer man, who later died from HIV-AIDS complications in the early 1990s, at the age of 43.

If we were willing to have this conversation, I mean really just go there, understanding this film and embracing Lonnie Frisbee, this could mean that the larger church could finally confront its toxic masculinity and terrifying war of hatred against the LGBTQ community. But don’t ask Greg Laurie, who is making the podcast circuit saying how much he loved Lonnie Frisbee, while calling him an immoral prodigal and backslider who repented from his “lifestyle” while in hospice, emaciated from his disease. The church still doesn't understand that being LGBTQ itself is not a sin. The church needs to repent from homophobia, for the queer folks are queer because God made them queer.

Outside the liberal mainline churches and a tiny scattering of enlightened evangelicals, the church is as institutionally dangerous and demonic as ever when it comes to its bullying and blind-spots and virulent exclusion of sexual health, from refusing to recognize and celebrate queer folk to enforcing purity codes on young females to enabling powerful and predatory male pastors. 

Another conversation this movie could inspire, but it probably will not, outside of a few small circles, concerns the vitality of the psychedelic experience for spiritual seekers and the role that sacred substances have played (and could play) in our understanding of religious awakening and conversion. The hipper of the hippies clearly knew the difference between the body-destroying hard drugs and the mind-expanding mind medicines, but the jump-cuts in Jesus Revolution between the churches and the be-ins, between Timothy Leary and Lonnie Frisbee, could not have been more austere and simplistic, bordering on a Go Ask Alice level of paranoid fear-mongering, as if it repeated the singular goal of scaring everyone straight. Drugs bad. God good. End of story.  

Of course, cats like Lonnie Frisbee probably didn’t need drugs to get high or stay happy, but their particular flavors of vagabond mysticism are anything but square, straight, or conformed to the mundane aspects of this world. One of Lonnie’s early groups was a commune called The House of Acts, which among other things, scavenged for day-old-bread and bruised-vegetables to create perpetual Food-Not-Bombs-style free feeds. While some may bristle at calling such arrangements communist or socialist, they sure as heck were not capitalistic. Lonnie traveled the byways and highways with a wine bottle filled with oil, mixed with frankincense and myrrh, cinnamon sticks and witch hazel, all for the purpose of anointing people. 

Lonnie believed he was walking in this Bible verse: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” He described the movement as unapologetically freaky and nonconformist, “born out of the cow manure” to be the proverbial “blade of grass that came up through a crack in the concrete, because we had to have the sun.”

All these vividly visionary vibes and mystically manic moods, this makes things ever wonkier, when we understand how completely co-opted this Jesus movement was from the beginning, taken in for hardcore evangelical conservative values around everything from patriarchy to abortion to Israel. 

On the surface, the recent ad campaign "He Gets Us" and the Jesus Revolution are gloriously off-brand for conservative Christians. Nothing about hating the gays or keeping your wife submissive at home in any of that. I keep thinking, maybe the audience most eager for this movie, today’s evangelicals, might meet the actual revolutionary, that first-century homeless criminal and mystical outlaw that we call Jesus. But just like we learned that the fuzzy warmth of He Gets Us was funded by some pretty brutal right-wing actors, the “Jesus Revolution” movement that descends from the counterculture depicted in the film, this was not revolutionary at all. It was actually quite reactionary. 

There’s a direct counter-revolutionary lineage from that original Jesus People movement straight through Billy Graham and Richard Nixon, then through Jerry Falwell and Ronald Reagan, and right up through the wild and contemporary apostolic and prophetic scene that anointed Donald Trump. Sadly but not shockingly to anyone who studies this, there is a direct line from the so-called Jesus Revolution to the January 6th Insurrection for a right-wing white-supremacist Christian-nationalist autocracy. 

America has yet to recover from this calculated bargain with Babylon, though the entire crusading history of Christianity is so crammed with such crimes against humanity, which is not to say the wide-eyed and hungry participants at the time of the Jesus hippies, especially those kicking hard habits and sincerely seeking something real, were simply pawns in some predictable authoritarian pathos. There was a passionate love and humble sincerity there then, just as there might be in the people who attended the recent Asbury revival, its problems notwithstanding. 

By the time the Jesus Movement got to Texas in the summer of 1972 for its “Godstock” festival, the Jesus hippies were needed to help re-elect Richard Nixon and build up youth support for the war in Vietnam. Sojourners magazine founder Jim Wallis, then himself a young Jesus rebel, was not received fondly when he and friends tried to stage an anti-war protest from within the Cotton Bowl, where 75,000 had gathered to rock out for the Lord. 

While all this was going on, I was born into the Christian hippy movement in the Midwest, and I know that not everyone got played by the conservative evangelical exploitation of existential craving and colorful expressions. Born in the 60s and coming up in the 70s and 80s, I remembered some things. 

Not all the hippies and freaks got co-opted by the straights and the squares. Not all of this was superficial and lifestyle stuff, either, but the radical core values of an anti-authoritarian loving Jesus, whose face appeared on mock-“Wanted” posters, for his alleged practice of vagrancy and conspiracy of “criminal anarchy.” Other versions of this poster produced by the Christian World Liberation Front might include citations for “practicing medicine, winemaking, and food distribution without a license”; “interfering with businessmen in the temple”; “associating with known radicals, subversives, prostitutes, and street people.” Finally, to catch this at-large and “notorious leader of an underground liberation movement,” the public is advised to look for the “typical hippie” with long hair, beard, robe, and sandals, hanging out in the slums or sneaking out in the desert.  

When it came time to finish my Master of Theological Studies thesis at Vanderbilt in late 2014 through early 2015, I got duly disillusioned by all the articles tracing the Jesus hippies to the far-right, so I ditched my original idea to talk about the drugs and music as they intersected with the California Jesus scene. Instead, I fortuitously met my friends Calvin and Nelia Kimbrough, who way-back-when (1964 to 1971, to be exact) were living out a much different version of the Jesus revolution, right here in Cookeville, Tennessee, at the public university where I have worked since 2001. There was actually a “left wing” of the movement that never veered right, and a version of that was rooted in the United Methodist campus ministry in my adopted hometown. 

For some, the values where hippies intersected with the New Left, including pacifism and antiwar, vegetarianism and environmentalism, feminism and queer liberation, socialism and anarchism, black and brown liberation, the entirety of revolutionary anti-establishment everything, all these were seen as stemming directly from the radical witness of the crucified Nazarene, who was found guilty and executed for the crime of abolishing the boundaries between heaven and earth, human and divine. If this all seems like a bit much, it was and is, as controversial as embracing crooks and hookers, as radical as feeding the thousands from a few scraps or defying your imperial executioners to rise from the grave.

But as to the American counterculture versions of this, thank goodness there are primary documents that a person can view in university libraries. There are also a handful of these veterans of the left side of the movement, who never sold out, never veered right, and never adopted the secularized and sanitized versions of the new age or social justice movements, where the plain freaky and supernatural sides of the religion itself still weird-out the only-the-facts and only-the-science crowd.

It’s my fervent prayer that some folks seeing Jesus Revolution will actually seek out the revolutionary Jesus, who would have no part in the cruel, creepy, and outraged Republican counter-revolution currently simmering in the state legislatures of the former confederate states. Also praying that confusing detours around cancel culture and political correctness on the established left or the uncomfortable realization that the Q Anon Shaman actually looked a lot like Lonnie Frisbee, praying that these are just tempting mind-trips to distract us.

Seek ye first, the Beloved Community. Seek this: the unconditionally redemptive truly revolutionary message of Jesus, and imagine it once again finding itself in the service of the marginalized and against the imperialisms and materialisms of late capitalism and empire that would destroy God’s good earth and God’s good people, all in God’s name. And never forget: God is revolution. God is liberation. God is love. 

-to read a PDF version of the Master thesis Banjo & Bread or its sequel on the Submarine Church, send an email to preacherandrewsmith [at] gmail [dot] com

-@presbyhippy Andrew William "Sunfrog" Smith is a poet & DJ, a "hippy Jesus freak" of the left-wing variety, a preacher, teacher, & sober creature living on the occupied Cherokee land of Tanasi

Saturday, February 25, 2023

The Rainbow Sign - a sermon for Lent

Did you know that some communities are trying to ban public displays of the rainbow flag? {I don't want to guess how many of those also fly the 'thin blue line' or want to fly the so-called Christian flag. If you were to ask me, the last thing Jesus needs is a flag. But I do feel differently about the rainbow flag. Read on.]

The Rainbow Sign -A Sermon for Lent 1 preached two years ago (2021) around this time at the United Church of Cookeville (UCC)

As I prepare to preach my topic, The Rainbow Sign, my notes say I need a short disclaimer about church hurt. (Add your own story of church hurt, here).

So, you want to start a fight with a fundamentalist? 

Tell them that the Noah story, as depicted in Genesis, is not a perfect fact. Suggest that, perhaps, the story of the flood is mere myth or parable, or at the very least an exaggerated rendering of a lost legend, or tell them that the earth really is more than 4 billion years old, then we might be ready to rumble.

Taking this further, we could also suggest, that while the science behind a young earth and global flood are sketchy, that is not all. 

We can hit this difficult text harder, by reminding folks that any God who would destroy the entire human race, save one family, with a dramatic weather event, that this monstrous mercy might not be appropriate for Sunday school singalongs, might not even reveal the good God we have come to know as love in our lives, in the wisdom found in other parts of the world’s sacred scriptures, in the person of Jesus. 

In recent years of floods and wildfires, of hurricanes and tornadoes, of even this week of ice storms and snowstorms, it’s more than a little problematic, perhaps even cruel, to suggest that God controls the weather as some kind of disciplinary mechanism against our communities. Just last spring, when describing to someone how close in proximity that the March tornado came to my house, that someone suggested that my house was spared, because I was “right with the Lord.” 

Really? And the folks who died in the tornado, our God had it out for them? I must rebuke this way of thinking.

Yet this idea that God controls the weather, that Noah’s Ark is strictly reliable as history, these are taken by so many as unquestioning articles of faith. Which might make me a really, really bad preacher, for my lack of faith in these epic events and their standard-issue interpretations. 

But perhaps Noah’s Ark is a parable about loving the earth and respecting the creation. Interpreted today in light of climate change, we can see how the human wickedness of unchecked greed and pollution and progress are contributing to melting ice caps and rising sea levels. 

We will never know for certain if God destroyed all creation by water as depicted in Genesis, to teach us a lesson about our own evil. But with the evidence and knowledge we have now, we can interpret the Biblical flood as a cautionary tale. We do know that we have it within our collective power to at least mitigate future floods by changing our way of life.

As controversial as debates about the factuality of Genesis or the theology of meteorology might be, today’s text ends with an unendingly hopeful and yet even still controversial image. The Rainbow Sign. In these few verses that we read today, the covenant between God and creatures and creation has been restored. The rainbow recommends a future bright and light. 

Fast forward to 20th Century pop culture and the rainbow remains a compelling image in song, from Judy Garland’s “Over The Rainbow” in The Wizard of Oz to Kermit and the Muppets and “The Rainbow Connection.” The rainbow redeems even the gloomiest rainstorms of moods, so much as to create the cynical reminder that life isn’t only rainbows and unicorns. To which I like to reply, some rainbows and unicorns would be nice. 

In 1984, when civil rights leader, the Reverend Jesse Jackson ran for President, he did so under the banner of the Rainbow Coalition. Jackson spoke, “Our flag is red, white and blue, but our nation is a rainbow - red, yellow, brown, black and white - and we're all precious in God's sight. 

Jackson continued, “America is not like a blanket - one piece of unbroken cloth, the same color, the same texture, the same size. America is more like a quilt - many patches, many pieces, many colors, many sizes, all woven and held together by a common thread. 

The white, the Hispanic, the black, the Arab, the Jew, the woman, the native American, the small farmer, the businessperson, the environmentalist, the peace activist, the young, the old, the lesbian, the gay and the disabled make up the American quilt.”

Now, I am guessing you also understand why even the rainbow itself, as a symbol, causes controversy for us now. The same conservative Christians who spend millions to build larger-than-life Ark replicas, they also accuse the LGBTQetc community of stealing the rainbow from Noah, to celebrate it on our flags. And what beautiful flags they are.

In the late 1970s, Gilbert Baker is credited with the first Rainbow Flag to be used as a symbol for Gay Pride. Baker reflected,

“In 1978, when I thought of creating a flag for the gay movement there was no other international symbol for us than the pink triangle, which the Nazis used to identify homosexuals in concentration camps. 

I almost instantly thought of using the rainbow. To me, it was the only thing that could really express our diversity, beauty and our joy.”

In 2014, I was given this rainbow scarf by the More Light Presbyterians, when we went to the PCUSA General Assembly in my former home of Detroit, Michigan, to advocate for and achieve marriage equality in our denomination, one year before the Supreme Court decision to make equal marriage the law of our land. This came just a few years after we relaxed our ordination standards, removing the requirement that our pastors must either be married heterosexuals or chaste outside of marriage. 

Those of you who know your United Church of Christ history might mention to the Presbyterians, that we were late to the party. Bill Johnson was the first openly gay minister to be ordained in a historic protestant denomination. He received his ordination through the United Church of Christ back in 1972. 49 years ago.

The UCC passed an equal marriage resolution in 2005, which included this language:

“Let us explore our faith in relation to these issues: the meaning of Christian marriage, the blessing of unions among same-sex couples, the honoring of diverse expressions of loving and caring human relationships, being guided in all things by the love of Jesus. Above all, may these conversations be ventured in humility and prayer.”

Today, in addition to the UCC and PCUSA, other mainline Christian churches where we are likely to see same gender marriages widely affirmed include the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the Disciples of Christ.

Despite so much progress for the LGBTQetc community in many churches and in our culture at large, instances of significant pushback, even hatred and homophobia and discrimination, occur every day. 

Each year, the Human Rights Campaign monitors what it calls “the slate of hate” in Tennessee and other states. Just this year, our state is trying to prevent transgender students from participating in high school and middle school sports. Just last year, Governor Bill Lee signed a controversial measure that would let religious adoption agencies deny service to same-sex couples. 

During Pride Month the last few years, President Trump prevented the United States embassy in places like Israel, Germany, Brazil and Latvia from flying the rainbow flag as a sign of solidarity with the LGBTQetc community. 

Many churches that fly the rainbow flag or have rainbow banners announcing their generous welcome for the LGBTQetc community have been victims of hate-speech vandalism, something strongly on the rise since 2016.

Queer Christian writer John Russell Stanger sees Lent as a time to take the ways that the world has humiliated us, in all our variety and diversity, and how the world has derided our dedication to said diversity, Stanger suggests, with Jesus, we can take all that and flip it around, all the way to the Palm Sunday parade, all the way to the cross, all the way to resurrection. Stanger writes, 

“This Lent, reflect on the places you’ve internalized shame because other people have feared all that you’re bringing to the parade of life. And then ask yourself, what if I was proud of what others would seek to humiliate me for?” So for this Lent, let us give up shame. For this Lent, let us give up those negative internal messages imposed by society to make us feel less than.

Another adjacent sermon might help us unpack the so-called bully passages to see how the Bibe has been incorrectly weaponized against the queer community, that will have to wait for another time. Yet remember: God made us in all this beauty and diversity. God made us for this rainbow sign. No need to be ashamed of the people that God made us to be. Let me say it with some playfulness and much conviction, it can all be the same rainbow sign. 

The rainbow mentioned by God to Noah in Genesis, but also the rainbow that Judy Garland and Kermit the Frog sang about. The same rainbow sign. The rainbow that the Reverend Jesse Jackson called a coalition and spoke so eloquently about when he was running for President. The same rainbow sign. The flag made by Gilbert Baker and many others from the 1978 pride parade decorations committee and the flag that still flies today in so many places, even at so many UCC churches. It’s the same rainbow sign. 

The rainbow covenant read strictly reminds us that God will never destroy the world by water again. A new rainbow covenant suggests that Christians of conscience will share solidarity with the LGBTQetc community and wave the rainbow flag proudly and say “no hate in our state,” undoing generations of church hurt and theological malpractice. 

It’s the same rainbow sign. Because this rainbow is for hope and love and inclusion for all of God’s children. That is the new rainbow sign but also the same old rainbow sign. The same, beautiful, multicolored rainbow for our world of multiple beauties, like each of you. May it be so. Amen.  

Friday, January 6, 2023

Let’s Dance: a call for a better revolution & beloved revival (for the spiritually adventurous on the religious left)

That’s not my apocalypse. This is not our revival. That’s not my insurrection. How many times have I thought this during the last six years!? 

But don’t think that we don’t need a spirit moving through this place. We are ready for revelation & for revolution. In fact it’s past due time for revival. Are you ready? Are we? 

A friend sent me a video from the frontlines of Christofascism. The rallies. The roadshows. These people obviously don’t realize that “awakening” is just a white man’s conjugation of “woke” & the battle for the muther-flipping soul of America has a bloody rift along racial, geographic, & theological lines.

Look at it. They are dancing to praise music. Every face is white. This hyper-drama is an unapologetic hand-signal for white supremacy. The whining about “black privilege” on all their channels is not a distorted hallucination but a distilled hatred, all wrapped up in the religious language of “spiritual warfare.” 

My atheist friend who sent me the video said it all terrified him. At the political level, it should terrify us all. But at the spiritual level, something else is happening here. But what it is ain’t exactly clear. But but but but!

Buried in this video, one of those fast-paced jump-cut collages created for the TikTok Instagram masses, & it could take hours to dissect it all, but right before the end, one of the speakers at one of these whipped-up-frenzy white citizens’ red-white-&-blue raves, she says something jarring. Or at least jarring to me. 

She says “we are the laughing ones, & we are the dancers.” Say what now? This toxic cracker jack honkey hoedown is infused with a bizarre voltage of visionary joy. They are the dancers? Did they not see that Dancing In The Streets by Barbara Ehrenreich was not written about them? Now this revelation makes me want to puke, like Sean Feucht’s long locks make me consider a crew-cut, but it’s undeniable that these folks are having fun, throwing down, & getting into it. 

I have studied this all from podcast-to-podcast, essay-to-essay, & in the countless front-yard shrines of Everywhere, in the Appalachian Statelessness of rural Amerika. 

(Of all the podcasts that lurk in the background of this essay, Straight White American Jesus & Conspirituality are prominent among them. As much as I try to understand something about the underlying motives & meanings of the current religious nationalism in what follows, I cannot in any way condone the threats & violence, much less the theocratic vision that underpins it all.) 

Now, there’s plenty of sober, studied, academic, activist take-downs of “White Christian Nationalism.” There is a decent, polite discourse on White Christian Nationalism, penned by credentialed professors in religious studies & folks on the loosely configured religious left. We can even sign the statement of “Christians Against Christian Nationalism.” 

Bless their hearts, bless our hearts, we need every last one of these. Full disclosure, I am all these things too: Christian, leftist, academic, activist. Yet I am also an unhinged poet with fire in my bones. So this essay is decidedly not a sober discourse nor a practical plea; this is, instead,a desperate hopeful surrealistic caffeinated sermon revival poem manifesto that is going to propose & ask for something else entirely. We want our revival, too. 

Like Larry Norman asked us years ago “why should the devil have all the good music,” I  am asking something else in the same spirit: Why should the right-wing Christ-hating angry racist homophobic sexist apostates be the only people who get a charismatic holy ghost revival? (I know they say they love Him but that is not the Jesus of the Bible or of history that they are praying to, & you know it. They might know it too.) 

We need a dancing, laughing, arm-waving, tongue-speaking, prophecy-flowing revival on the so-called Christian left right now. There are some black churches where this has always happened & is already happening & maybe some progressive white churches should simply shut down & turn their buildings over to the houseless & addicted & simply join black churches. 

Although others have pointed this out, I want to remind & reiterate again & again, that today’s far-right counterculture (even as much as it is for being the arbiters & tastemakers of The Culture), can trace its lineage to the apocalyptic revival of the Jesus hippies of the early 1970s. This thread follows through the whole CCM & contemporary worship scenes of the 1980s & 1990s, through the so-called “compassionate conservatives” of the early 00s, falling right into the full-blown fire of mega-MAGA, with its ringing bells of entitled evil & anointed authoritarianism (even as it might smuggle anti-authoritarian tactics into its toolkit), all of this blasted from really good hi-fi speakers where they get high on their own supply of fascist lies. 

January 6th was a wild revision of white-bread Woodstock 99, like the Days of Rage of the Weathermen but in the costumes of Proud Boys, Patriot Front, Oath Keepers, & the dark web, yet all of this also but cloaked in the robes & language of the right-wing church. Maybe the fascists just stole their ideas from the anarchists, especially when too many folks cannot discern the difference between those movements or their ideologies. 

January 6th was also the morning after 12th night, Epiphany, the conclusion of the festival of Christmas & the beginning of a new church season. But from some reports, the petulant prayer warriors weren’t just drunk on the holy, some were actually stopping by liquor stores on the parade route, to get ripped & loaded on liquid spirits, too. A fascist festival, a religious revelry, a hard-core carnival of the cruel & entitled. 

Please forgive me for not focusing only on how totally toxic & hyper-masculine the entire attack actually was. Not my insurrection, not my revolution, but we should not be so shocked or distraught or in any way deny the sincere imagination & day-to-day organization that provided the pretense & pageantry of that problematic day. There was something weird in the air that woeful Wednesday in 2021. American Christians can never see Epiphany in the same pre-2021 ways again. 

As someone raised in church, raised & trained in the traditions of mainline Christianity, sometimes called the “frozen chosen,” for our staid, even sometimes stuffy, style of worship. I confess some long-term “expression envy,” if you will, for all the sparks & spontaneity, exuberance & ecstasy, that we see in charismatic churches. Is it any wonder that the “religion” for my generation of secular lefties could more likely be found in places like Bonnaroo or Burning Man? 

A few years ago when I was seriously researching the “hippy Christians” of the 60s counterculture left & the “Jesus hippies” of the right & the split that occurred when those paths diverged in the early 1970s, I was grateful to learn that, for at least a brief period in the counterculture heyday, the left churches wove folk & rock music,  beatnik poetry, & psychedelic slide shows into liturgies. Churches themselves became poetry podiums, experimental theaters, & coffeehouse hootenannies. 

While mainline liturgical churches tend to be more liberal or progressive, they don’t always tend to be liberationist, & they are not locales for living breathing beckonings of holy spirit revival energy. Black churches or a handful of inclusive megachurches are the only places lefty Christians can go to find some full-tilt sanctified boogie on a Sunday morning. Not going to lie, I did once catch some shade & unfriendly side-glances for saying “Amen” out loud in a mainline church. “Maybe you would be more comfortable in a Pentecostal church,” someone said to me after worship. 

Today, the rural Wild Goose Festival community organizes Jesus liberationists across countless intersections as an incredible antidote to the same-old normie vibes found in many liberal mainline churches. This community can also be seen in other conferences, in books, on podcasts, & the socials, but my guess is that it’s not currently a sizeable social justice counter-force. It’s also my humble speculation that the career aspects of pulpits & professorships restrain so much of our revolutionary potential.  Rev. William Barber’s Poor People’s campaign may be a notable exception, but I don’t think we currently have the kind of organizing potential in the churches that the far-right has. 

Because of my already interspiritual inclinations & the battles I have encountered inside some institutional churches, I am already a great candidate for the “spiritual but not religious” crowd. Just go on a hike on Sundays, pray silently as you do, & be done with it. Sure, this nature mystic can “get the spirit” with trees, mountains, streams, every moonrise & sunset. But the rub is, I am religious too. For all of us, there is something about collaborative spiritual action, about collective & corporate worship that’s healing & empowering. As a person who practices continuous sobriety, one day at a time, I need some sense of who my higher power is & isn’t. It may dwell within me, but it’s not me. I have tried it with & without God, with & without spiritual disciplines & religious practice. No matter how unfashionable it feels sometimes to admit it to other leftists, especially in the fundamentalist neo-fascist Bible belt, I love Jesus. As much as I try to shake off religion, it shakes me up from within.

Unlike a recent marketing brand's attempt to rescue Jesus from all the bad press the Christians keep giving him, I have no need to be a PR rep for the Jesus movement. But as a person who is in it, reluctantly at times, I need to voice my hopes & fears more directly. Moreover, as a person on the religious left, I feel a great need to grapple with & confess what Christianity has meant in colonial & imperial contexts for the last several centuries. Especially as a white American, we are not done acknowledging or admitting our shared sins & collective crimes. The aggressive assertive arrogance of dominator religion doesn’t make this dance easy. At first glance, Christianity can look pretty darn disgusting. It’s not fair to look at the liturgical festival of the fascist attack on America two years ago & just shrug & say “they’re not real Christians,” even though I want to. I can call them apostates & heretics, but they would say the same about me. We rather have to wrestle with it all. As honestly as possible.

When I look back across my life from a more reflective angle, I was always raised in & nurtured by liberation theology. That’s just what church was & is to me. This spirit infected me from the first time I heard an MLK speech or sermon, even as a toddler. This spirit followed me as I grew older, even as I studied & spoke about MLK & civil rights as a high school student, with my first major research project as a young scholar being a year-long investigation into James Baldwin. As an adult, some of my studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School would focus yet more on Black liberation, through entire semesters focused on MLK, Howard Thurman, & other locations of intersectional oppressions & emancipation. 

The holy spirit as a radical force messed with my career arc. My first attempt at college was jettisoned by activism & a desire to distance myself from the expected middle-class professional path. For several seasons, I was a counterculture dropout. I was also a resident volunteer in a Catholic Worker style house of hospitality, run by Presbyterian pastors with much in common with liberation movements & base communities across the Americas. Even during my years as a neopagan who went all in for the drugs & booze, I stayed close to revolutionary movements for peace, economic & environmental justice, & for queer liberation.

Whenever I open my Bible, the liberatory themes in the text, these perk & percolate, even pop right off the pages. I cannot deny the text also has toxic & authoritarian interpretations, these are also out there. But frankly, my training as a theologian & pastor, even my literary & poetic disposition, foreground a liberatory reading of the text, not just a strategy or “lens,” but as the living reality at the core of the stories. As much as I may as an educated white guy, I read the text & experience religion from the margins & from below. 

One of my mentors had talked about & taught me about the Eucharist (or Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper, however we call it), as something so central & so compelling to her faith & life journey, that even when every other sign says “leave the church,” the poetic, prophetic, & practical nourishment of this meal means that she must stay. I had relatively recently returned to church when she first told me that story, & in my last two years of trying unsuccessfully to leave, my desperate & primary hunger for that meal keeps me coming back. 

But there is more I need to say. More than that is calling me back. I feel the call of laughter & dancing & celebration. It’s fair or honest or freeing to simply dismiss the supernatural, the irrational, or the ecstatic aspects of religion as simply belonging to “them,” or even worse, being evidence to invalidate or otherwise desecrate the potential of religious experience as out-&-out too weird or scientifically unverifiable. 

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think every calm, literate, or refereed criticism of the religious far-right is an implicit indictment of the prayerful parties of holy euphoria. But I sense that we misunderstand the appeal of that movement without having some sympathy or understanding as to why it appeals to a certain sector of folks. I am trying to tease out something problematic that I think is implied by these academic criticisms, to call us into the possibility of something else joyful & powerful that is percolating on our fringes. 

I do get the sense that the “conspirituality”-critique-industry that attempts to unpack the “woo-to-Q pipeline” (which goes after yoga & wellness spaces more than the church) risks a kind of flattening of healthy variety in human communal expression, moreover a kind of end-game reification of bureaucratic institutions that ultimately serve the mechanized, dehumanized, self-propelled megamachine of neoliberal global capitalism. To put it another way, I don’t think masking or vaccinating during a pandemic are the authoritarian clampdowns that conspiritualists say they are, but we can at least understand the decades of distrust in potentially demonic principalities that brought us to this place. 

When I see all the public praying, all the wild & wacky theater of the far-
right so-called prophets’ scene, of which January 6th is only one strident symbol & symptom of something much larger & more terrifying, same for Sean Feucht & his anti-mask preaching parades that came to proclaim its entitled refusal covid-safety as well as a belligerent nationalist response to the BLM uprisings, when I witness all that wildness, I confess that the genuine weirdness of religion has been weaponized as a fierce force for fascists, which inadvertently has started turning the liberals into the normies & the squares. 

But it’s not the weirdness per se that makes it wrong, only discombobulating. Interestingly, it’s drag shows & queer spaces where the liminal lights of sacred parodic performances still shine. Where are the jesters, pranksters, & sacred clowns of lefty religious resistance? The revolution won’t be a podcast or a zoom or an academic white paper. At least not only that! 

Pray-ers praying endless prayers & vigorous charismatic expressions & spiritual warfare & pentecostal praise & righteous rebukes of the institutional principalities & their very real potential for human harm & control, as moral & theological frameworks or even overt political strategy & eccesial practice, I don’t think these contexts or containers, if you will, are inherently dangerous or decidedly insane. What I think is that these passionate parachurch reckonings, which have been crudely & rudely weaponized for fascist political gain, are not wrong because they are weird or involve the daily deliberate devotional application of Ephesians 6:12. 

I come from a part of the Christian left where the teachings of Walter Wink & William Stringfellow & their student Bill Wylie-Kellermann have most precisely & prophetically schooled me on how the institutional principalities of the domination system enacted as craven capitalism, monstrous militarism, & widespread white supremacy (not to mention destruction of the earth & anti-queer & anti-female violence), these do require us to put on the armor of God & enter into nonviolent moral combat. We do need to call down the angels of love against the demons of hatred. 

Whether these spiritual templates are “real” or they “work,” they are relevant & energizing in folks’ lives. They would not be engaging in these frenzied acts of fantastical & freaky spiritual fighting were the style & substance of said rituals not providing something utterly profound for the participants. I suspect a tendency & temptation among my “progressive” peops (I never liked that term, because linear “progress” appears an illusion when reality seems to work more cyclically & recursively, where we are just relearning how to be human with each new generation) to prefer “rational religion,” a thoroughly demythologized humdrum hopeful humanism, devoid of anything remotely supernatural, because how dare us ever be perceived as wrongly superficial or dangerously superstitious, or someone forbid, anti-scientific. 

More than 20 years ago when I was hanging with the puppets & parades of the global justice movement which sought a kind of ecological & economic revolution from below, I think we fully grasped the contagious power of collective rituals & creative festivals. This movement was deeply connected to the antiwar movement. I recall moving from a Presbyterian prayer vigil with the laying-on-of-hands to a neopagan chanting circle with activist author Starhawk, where all prayers, whether Catholic or Protestant or pagan, were collaboratively consecrated to confront the demon of militarist terrorism being taught for profit at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (aka the School of the Americas). Going back further, this is the communal anarchist energy that animated movements like the Wobblies (IWW) & the Catholic Workers, creating the new world in the shell of the old. 

We need a revival of that joyful revolutionary energy in every left movement today, but we also need a reminder of what those issues were that we were fighting for back then. I dread to say this, but I must: we have allowed our allergy to, & fear of, the ultra-MAGA, to sanitize the intellectual left in this country, to forget its calling even, as an antiwar movement & as a global justice movement, even to the point that some on the far-right have stolen our genuine suspicions of Power & massaged them into something else, on behalf of a right-populism that gleefully celebrates the American left’s total jettisoning of its morals to be subsumed by whatever the right-wing of the Democratic Party does or wants, even when that is anti-worker, anti-earth, pro-prison, pro-police, & pro-war.

These are apocalyptic times. The fierce urgency of now that MLK pleaded for is only more fierce, more now. We may just be teetering on the edge of the last precipice overlooking the last abyss of absolute destruction. Are we not trembling in our homes & in our bones? Don’t all the apocalyptic dystopian novels read like nonfiction? Surely what I am experiencing as a force as strong as gravity & deep inner love might be more like the quicksand & undertow pulling us all under for the final time. 

It’s all of the above that has led me to be unkempt in my unconditional love & universalism, interspiritual yet still rooted in the Jesus tradition that is my home lineage & true calling. The holy misfits of the religious left, & I know I am not the only one, are still here, even if we are scattered, tired, frustrated, & occasionally depressed. Yet I am trusting the love that is genuine & the peace that passes understanding & that we need a wide & wondrous revival on the religious left. 

We are also necessarily hopeful, inclusive, & ecumenical. We are for love & peace at home & abroad, we are for the healing of earth & community both economically & ecologically. We are antiracist & abolitionist at our core. We are unapologetically pro-choice & queer-affiriming. These values get practiced, though, not just with creative protest, but with expansive mutual aid & radical hospitality. 

I seek our revival to be the new world in the shell of the old, the dancing, exuberant, ecstatic, sanctified, holy, messy, blended, beautiful, creatively chaotic unchurch of unlimited love & mutual aid in multiple forms. When this is truly devoted to love without concern for domination system perks, it works like an inverted theocracy, an anti-authoritarian communal love contract, with all, for all. Some call that Beloved Community. It’s the reign of God because it is raining goodness on folks without playing favorites. Come on, friends. Let’s dance. Let’s shout. Let’s get slayed in the spirit. Let’s bring it on. 
Epiphany 2023

Listen to a reading of this essay here: