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My High School Essay on Why I Was Not Going to College

By the time I had finished two years of public junior high school, my Lutheran upbringing had proved ineffectual for practical purposes. My primary companions were three boys with a penchant for getting into trouble. There were brushes with law enforcement; one of the three would eventually develop a criminal record. For two of the three, there would eventually be automobile crashes, involving alcohol or attempted suicide, resulting in both cases in permanent brain damage. The third one would die of a readily detectable form of cancer that our health classes did not teach us to detect.

Perhaps I lead off with those words because of my exposure to the Christian coffeehouse that I discovered in 1971, near the start of my junior year of high school. It seems a little contrived in retrospect, but at the time it was compelling to hear the stories of longhaired former drug addicts whose lives turned around when they discovered Jesus. I never did manage to become a drug addict, but at least the boy who would die of cancer was able to nearly kill me when the tractor he “borrowed” for transportation one day (from someone else’s farm) proceeded to flip over on us.

So, yeah, I was badbutt. (I was raised to consider “ass” impolite.) And then Jesus saved me. Kidding aside, he really did, even if he remains as dead as a nonbeliever might assume. The Jesus movement was religion on steroids. It was exciting. God was doing amazing things in the world. The End Times were at hand. It seemed ridiculous to waste years in college when there was such an urgent need to save souls.

We arrived, then, at my last semester in high school. Mrs. Walton, teacher of my composition class, assigned us to write an essay about our college choice. I don’t remember the exact assignment. It was probably just to say something about which college we had chosen or, if we had no college plans, why not, or what we intended to do instead.

In response to that assignment, I wrote an essay. I no longer have it, only an image of an old photocopy. Some of the words are no longer legible. But here is the text that I have been able to resurrect (sorry) from that photocopy. I provide this material because I’m sure others continue to face that sort of choice. As indicated in the post about my experiences as a Jesus Freak, I did ultimately go to college after all, with consequences for my faith that some would deplore and others would applaud.

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Not Going

There is one thing that has kept me out of college. This one thing is my knowledge of God. If it weren’t for this I would have decided to continue my education and would have gone on like the rest of the world, searching for fortune. But I do have this knowledge. The things contained in this knowledge are: knowing that God scorns worldly knowledge, knowing that a religious person does not strive to make money, and knowing that in those years I might have spent in college I can accomplish far more of lasting value and can derive infinite satisfaction for myself and others by telling the Word to everyone. So, this knowledge of God is enough by itself to keep me out of college.

The knowledge that God scorns worldly knowledge is probably the main reason why I decided not to go to college. Basically, this speaks for itself. If I was to go to college I would be taught many things about this world.* But since I am a religious person I know that it won’t help me to know these things, and that really this knowledge may get in my way, may be a barrier between me and others. Since God scorns worldly knowledge he scorns those who search for it, so I will spend my time with a better purpose in mind.

I have said that I am a religious person, and that I know of God and some of the things that he has said.** Often, probably more than for any other reason, a person goes to college to learn a trade or skill that [will equip?] him to make a good deal of money. But since [I have?] my religion I believe that the proper attitude for me would not be one of [digging?] for treasure, but instead of giving away my treasure and knowledge of God. [Illegible] would be [Illegible] religious [Illegible] money is [surely?] not worth the time that such a person has been given.

This gift of time, I feel, can [be wisely invested if I do not go to college?] [illegible] [spend four years?] [illegible] working to obtain a degree or title which would give me recognition and honor among men. I would be a man of intelligence, according to [illegible]. This is not what I seek. Instead, I will spend those years among the poor people who haven’t heard the Word of God. Those years ahead are a blessing beyond measure if used to the best, and a curse if not, and I will have the blessings when I am on the street helping the down and out, people who live [hard and lonely lives?]. I seek honor and recognition from God, where it should come from. Men may laugh at me, not [illegible] while they have the gift of time on earth. So I will spend my time wisely while I am on earth. I will bring the Light to those who are in darkness, both rich and poor, [college?] graduates and the rest.***

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Mrs. Walton’s Comments

* What if you went to a college which trains you to help others and spread your [rest of comment lost].

** Avoid this change of ink if possible. [Apparently I switched pen colors: the old image is less legible from this point forward. Words and question marks in brackets offer my best guesses as to what the actual written words were.]

*** Nicky Cruz wanted to do the very thing that you do but he discovered that it was difficult to communicate without advanced study; therefore, he went to college to train to spread God’s word and gain other knowledge which would aid him in helping people. You know of the impact he has had on this country. Others could also be named such as Billy Graham – I think you should weigh your decision strongly before you completely reject college. You have a lot to offer society and the more you know the more you can offer. I learned [rest of comment lost].

The Amazing Meditation Experience

It was autumn 2002. I was trying to recover from a crushing divorce. I went back to school at the University of Missouri – Columbia, and I started seeing a student counselor at the university’s counseling center. That part was actually kind of funny. I lived in New York and northeastern New Jersey for a dozen years, around the 1980s. I can be a pretty fast talker. So of course they assigned me to this counseling PhD student who barely spoke English, a Chinese woman named Yu-Wei Wang. Not to overstate — she actually did speak English OK, but … well, one time, after several weeks of sitting there and rattling on, telling her all kinds of stuff, I paused and said, “You know what I mean?” She shook her head no, kind of sadly, and I suddenly realized she might not have been following half of what I’d been telling her, week after week.

But Yu-Wei really redeemed herself in one of our sessions. I went in, kind of wondering what we’d talk about. She said, “Ray, you said you wanted to learn how to meditate, right?” I said yeah. She said, basically, OK, let’s do that. So she had me sit down in my chair, facing her. She said, close your eyes, get yourself physically comfortable, and focus on your breathing.

I’ve heard that part done in different ways since then. Some meditation guides have you focus on your breath at the tip of your nose; I think someone (or maybe it was me) came up with the idea of focusing on your breath in your throat. Yu-Wei was the only person I’ve encountered (not that I’ve made a study of it) who told me to focus on the rise and fall of my abdomen. I hadn’t actually been in the habit of breathing much with my abdomen, but I promptly came up with a working version of what I thought she meant: I made a point of pushing my stomach muscles up and down with my breathing, basically sucking my breath in toward my stomach each time I inhaled.

So let me tell you how that went. If you’ve ever had the experience of blacking out (i.e., fainting), maybe it worked for you as it works for me. It all happens pretty quickly, but here are the phases of the process, as I learned to experience them when I was selling blood plasma in Denver. It’s the Mile High City — in more ways than one, these days — and as such it gave me ample exposure to the experience of being a bit lightheaded. Which, to those who have followed my career history, may seem like pretty much my life’s story. Selling plasma reduced what was already marginally low blood pressure, because I was a pretty intense runner in those days. And with low blood pressure comes the risk of blacking out and, in fact, there was at least one occasion when I did find myself momentarily on the floor of the plasma place.

What I experience, when I’m about to faint, is that the lightheadedness gives way to a narrowing of my vision. It’s like I’m looking down a tunnel, and it is closing in: my peripheral vision turns to black, and very quickly it all becomes black, and then I fall over. So when the lightheadedness and rubbery legs arrive, that would be a good time to get down on one knee, so that you don’t have so far too fall if the process continues.

I mention this because of what happened next with Yu-Wei. I was sitting there, minding my own business, thinking about the rising and falling of my abdomen. That was at about 10:15 AM. And the next thing that happened was that I awoke, looked at the clock, and saw that it was 11 AM. To that, I had two immediate reactions. One was, like, “Oh, damn, I fell asleep and wasted the hour.” And the other was that, as I looked at Yu-Wei, I had an almost physical sense of being momentarily free of my hurt and depression and all the other stuff that a divorce can bring — and then I felt the grief flow back down over my face, almost like someone had poured a can of oil on my head. It’s the only time I’ve ever experienced anything like that. It was remarkable.

The reality was that I hadn’t fallen asleep. It was more like I had passed out. Because when you pass out, you lose all track of time. You may have been out for three seconds; you may have been out for three days. You really have none of the sense of time passing that you get when you sleep. That 45-minute period with Yu-Wei had just vanished.

Later, I Yu-Wei that I thought maybe she had hypnotized me. She denied it. And I think she was right. If anybody hypnotized me that day, it was me. Apparently I had the ability to be suggestible in that way. Somehow I was affected by the combination of her talking to me, giving me the usual starting information about meditation, and my own breathing. These influences evidently put me in some kind of unusual mental state. She really only said a few things, like they always say at the start of a guided meditation session — like, “If you have any stray thoughts, let them pass, and return to focus on your breathing.” And then I was out.

The reason I wondered if I was hypnotized, or something like it, was that this little introduction to meditation turned out to be very powerful. For a while after that episode, I found that I could turn my attention to my breathing, and I could enter an inner zone that regular meditators work for months if not years to achieve. A month or two later, I went to some woman’s house, where a bunch of meditation types were assembling. She called it a dharma. Not sure if that was a reference to the house, or to the meeting of these people. Anyway, we all sat on cushions in her living room, and she sat up front and gave us the meditation coaching I just described, like, “Focus on your breathing … Let your thoughts pass … ” and so forth. And at one point, she said something like, those of you who have been meditating for years may be best able to appreciate what we are going to do next — and I was one of them. I was totally in the groove.

I don’t know if it will make sense, but maybe a way of communicating what this zone was like was when someone told a story about a person who had practiced her meditation and did finally get to the point where her thoughts and her self were all put aside, all doing their own thing somewhere else. At last, meditating one day, she arrived at the place of emptiness. Later, someone asked her what this emptiness is like, and all she could say was, “It’s so full.” And I’ve been there. It’s amazing, how rich an experience it can be to just sit there with nothing going on, more of an experience of nothing than you may ever have again. Across the Universe does very vaguely hint at what it’s like, though I never did understand the “nothing’s gonna change my world” part.

So, by some miracle, I got to that wonderful place because Yu-Wei hypnotized me, or I hypnotized myself, or something. I have no idea what she was doing, during my 45 minutes of being pseudo-unconscious, sitting there in my chair. I have always wondered whether maybe she really was giving me hypnotic instructions, like, “When you awaken, you will squawk like a chicken, and then you will never again feel the same pain from your divorce.” Or, more to the point, “When you awaken, you will remember how to return to this place of meditation in your mind.”

The perfect end to this story would be that I never lost that ability, and I have been successfully meditating ever since. Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out that way. I think it must be a kind of membership. Like, you’ve got this going for you, for now, but at some point you will be expected to re-up. On that, it seems I dropped the ball. That dharma day was a one-time experience. I didn’t maintain a regular meditation practice, and perhaps that’s why the ability withered. Within a month or two after that experience, I was reduced to the point where my meditation experience was really only good for helping me go to sleep. Basically, I could roll over on my side, think about my breathing, and by the time I hit my third breath I’d be out. That ability has stuck with me for these 17 years since, though it’s not as strong as it was.

Since then, I’ve had times of struggling with meditation, like most people, and for the most part I really haven’t bothered at all. That’s not because it wasn’t worth it. I can totally believe the cool things people say about meditation. There’s really a whole world in there. It’s not about self-indulgence, sitting around and thinking about your navel. It’s about becoming aware of a different kind of human ability, or a different way of backing up and gaining some perspective on things. I would strongly recommend that those who doubt it give it a serious go.

One time, I was with a group of backpackers, in a kind of training mission. We were out in the desert in Utah. Each member of the group was supposed to conduct a brief training or teaching session for the other members of the group. When it came my turn, during a brief pause in our hiking, I gave an introduction to mindfulness meditation, like what I’ve just described. The other members of the group were good sports. They all played along. Maybe a few of them got something out of my too-brief five- or ten-minute intro to the topic. But one guy did seem to get it. When I wound it down, after those few minutes, he sounded regretful that we couldn’t continue. That’s what it’s like. There’s an opening, an opportunity to feel something different, to realize that there might actually be something to it. That, I think, is a realization worth exploring.

Killing Me Softly With His Sermon

Today, I attended a Methodist church. It’s not a bad place, as churches go. The minister has a knack for funny moments in his sermons, though I hope he manages to find something new to be funny about, beyond his feminist-friendly self-deprecation as a hapless father of four. I’ve only been there a few times, and that’s been the basic story line each time, and I can imagine that at a certain point it might wear thin.

Like today, maybe. Because while he was going on about — actually, I don’t quite remember what the topic of the sermon was; but whatever it was, my mind was drifting, along with my eye. I happened to be seated at the far rear, which is normally a good place from which to make an escape if I just can’t stand it anymore, though today my exit was blocked by the woman to my left, a cute, pudgy, little old thing who kept falling asleep, slumped forward. I still probably could have climbed over the back of the pew — always an option in the rearmost seating tier — but then I’d have gotten a stare, again, from an old guy in a wheelchair, off to my right and slightly behind me, back in the empty space, where I guess wheelchairs belong. He seemed to notice every time I raised my little digital recorder to whisper some additional brilliant observation about the experience of being there. So, what the hell, it was OK: I stayed.

I did have what I considered one especially brilliant insight. When I arrived, a few minutes before the service started, I noticed that people were talking to each other. It’s not a bad thing to do, but in my particular case I didn’t know anybody and wasn’t about to horn in on the discussions of the families and couples seated around me. I’d be happy to do so, but I find that’s not necessarily understood or appreciated. The little old lady to my left could have been a candidate for conversation, but she had already seemed rather oblivious when I first arrived — she didn’t notice me standing at the end of the pew; I had to ask her if I could squeeze by — and I didn’t really want to force myself upon her or disrupt her reverie.

In fact, I think she and I might both have appreciated it if the church had implemented what I recognized, in my brilliant insight, which was this: they should have been playing quiet, contemplative music before the sermon started. I’ve been to some other churches that do that, and I’ve liked it. If I want to shoot the breeze with people who won’t remember my name, I can go to a bar. In church, I prefer to church; and for me, churching includes trying to imbibe whatever traces of spirituality may be floating around on the conditioned air. With the aid of the right music — and maybe the right fragrances, though I know that’s controversial — I’ve found that the ten or fifteen minutes before a church service can actually be the best part of the whole experience. At other churches, I’ve been known to make a point of getting there early, whenever the music starts.

To tell the truth, I also think a meditative period prior to the service would aid my project of meeting a nice woman, somewhere around my own age. It’s not much of a project — I’m not actually doing anything to achieve that — but I’m just saying it wouldn’t hurt if the church gave me an excuse to arrive early, other than some unexplained desire to sit there like a doofus when there’s no music playing and nothing else really going on for a party of one. If I could arrive early enough to give everyone fair warning of my presence, it seems like I might have a chance of being approached for conversation, given my convenient location in the back row, where an individual or her friends could stand somewhere behind me, chatting, hoping to catch my eye. There is, of course, the possibility that nobody in that place would ever do such a thing. I’m just saying it beats the alternative, which is to arrive, church, and leave. There isn’t a space or an excuse to hang around anywhere else before or after. The church does seem to want to promote a sense of community — they have various dinners and brunches and whatnot throughout the week — but for some reason they don’t seem to think their members would be interested in spending any time with each other before or after the church service itself. The minister was talking in his sermon about how they are a family, and I suppose that’s what some families are like.

I was thinking of sending the pastor an email, to suggest this thing about contemplative music. Two fears restrained me. First, if he did take my suggestion, I was afraid the person assigned to provide spiritual tunes would be the guy who plays the organ during the service. This is an organist who loves the power of his instrument. “Contemplative” might not quite describe the experience he would produce. The second fear was that the pastor would respond to this second email conveying a suggestion as he responded to my first — which is to say, he might ignore me.

My previous emailed suggestion was that the minister could slow down a bit. He’s a fast talker, and judging by the heavy representation of retirees in his audience of maybe 300-400 people, I wouldn’t bet they’re all keeping up with him. Here’s how I phrased it, in that previous email to the pastor, a few months ago:

You probably noticed me during the sermon. I was the guy sitting in back. Regarding which, I wanted to offer a suggestion. I heard somewhere that the lead singer for AC/DC, or some metal group, decided to take lessons from an opera teacher, so that he could keep on screaming without damaging his throat. This is not my suggestion to you. It is more like an analogy or metaphor or something. The thing for which it is a metaphor or analogy is that I think you must master the art of overly dicting, or whatever they call it when singers are taught to crisply deliver the starts and/or ends of their words, almost to a fault, almost as if they were attempting to sound like cultured individuals instead of being mere musical wastrels.

What I mean is that, when you get on a roll, the syllables come fast and thick, and I think it must be hilarious for those seated in the front rows. But, alas, my family was never given to the front row at church. This was partly because we lived next to the church, out there in the countryside, and Dad liked to turn on the buzzsaw and roar through a pile of poles to be cut, during Sunday School, invariably dropping heavy pieces on his toes and cursing loudly to make it feel better — and then realizing he had better get into the house and put on a suit and slink into the back pew next to Mom before the sermon was halfway done. So, as I say, no front row for us.

So I, this morning, observing family tradition, was partly defeated by the acoustics. I could see your lips moving; I could hear people laughing; I believed that was my cue to laugh too; and therefore I did, even if those around me did not. For this, we could blame their aged ears; we could blame mine as well. But I really do think it might just be the delivery. An alternate hypothesis would be that it is male hearing — not lack of auditory detection, so much as a craving for a firm grip on each syllable, honed perhaps by millenia of needing to make sure that spearing the man is the proper response to what he just said.

There is, however, a scientific method of testing this, to wit: I suggest sending your adjunct choir members abroad as missionaries, more precisely assigning them singly or in pairs to sit randomly throughout the auditorium, and thus to lend moral support to those would-be hymn singers, such as myself, who are only too happy to warble audibly, given assurance that we are at least in the vicinity of the desired musical note. In other words, if someone near me seems to be singing, I feel encouraged to do likewise. Such was not the case this a.m., and that brings us to the scientific part of the expedition: to gather data. Your proposed missionaries would hypothetically report back from the trenches, sharing valuable intelligence as to what is seen and heard, way back there in the outer darkness — just in case I happen not to be present and am thus unable to serve in that capacity.

Having acquired social skills in New York City during my formative years, when he ignored that first email, dismissing all the effort I had put into it, I sent another, asking why he was ignoring me. That one did get a reply, though a brief and tired one that seemed to wish I would just go away. And that’s understandable. A father of four can tend to only so many things at once. He did thank me for my suggestion. I can’t say that it registered, though; neither I nor the sleeping lady to my left seemed to notice that anything had changed since my last visit. So I am not going to bother him again, except perhaps to send him a link to this post.

In coaxing the minister to make sure his audience can understand what he is saying in his sermons, I could be overlooking a fundamental rule about churching, which is this: nobody cares about the sermons. If they did, they wouldn’t be there, because sermons are generally aimless indulgences of random thoughts that achieve nothing. Admittedly, this is not how ministers see it. As I know from my time among ministerial types, they usually believe the sermon is driving home an important message — about some Bible passage, or consumerism, or how God restores the spice to life. And some of that stuff does sink in sometimes, at least for listeners predisposed to take it seriously. I guess I was moved to offer the suggestion to this guy because, especially in that first visit, I thought he was very good. His sermon actually made me think. Evidently I did absorb some of its essential thoughts, even if some of the fun stuff did blow past me. It even affected my behavior a bit. For a sermon, that was something.

Today, however, as I say, my thoughts and my eye were straying. The key moment was when the minister interrupted his sermon to show a brief video created by the church itself, featuring a black guy in dreadlocks who turned out to be the church’s own director of outreach to college students. The guy was well-spoken, young, and — did I mention? — black. This raised, for me, a question, halting my mind in its travels: was his skin color an important reason for his hiring? For instance, was he making important gains in proselytizing among an enormous population of black students at the nearby university — a population that I had not detected, during my visits there? Or was his video perhaps being played for some other reason, to this audience of hundreds, among whom my roving gaze found no nonwhite people?

I’m not doubting the black guy’s qualifications. He was photogenic. In that brief video, he seemed intelligent. I’d be delighted to learn that he was hired strictly for his abilities, in a color-blind hiring process. That would be different from being hired because the church was determined to hire a nonwhite person even if s/he was less capable. There would be an issue of discrimination, but the question on my mind was whether perhaps the church hired a black guy for purposes of using him to improve its image, to make itself seem more multicultural than it actually was.

Let me put it this way. In this city, non-Hispanic whites account for only 27% of the population. Hispanics account for 63%. In my time of sitting in that pew and watching who walked in and out — and also during my previous attendances — I saw no blacks, indeed only one or two who appeared to be in any sense nonwhite. That’s among an attendance that I would estimate, as in this instance, at 300-400 souls, in each service I’ve attended so far.

As a point of comparison, I’ve also attended the Lutheran church down the street a few times. I’d be surprised if Sunday attendance averaged 100. Compared to Methodism, Lutheranism is closer to Catholicism. Maybe that would explain why the Sunday morning congregation at the Lutheran church included a significant percentage of Hispanics. They even had a black woman, who for her own reasons endured or conceivably appreciated the white male minister’s joke at the expense of Muhammad Ali.

A different guess would be that the two churches seemed to have different cultures, and the Lutheran one was more congenial to minorities. I’ve mentioned the soullessness, for me, of the experience of this Methodist church — the experience of walking in, seeing no sign that anybody wanted to talk to me, having noplace to go other than my spot in the back pew, not having spiritual music or fragrances or anything else to justify sitting there alone in that spot, for any longer than absolutely necessary — and then seeing, at the end, that everybody stood up and just walked out to their cars, evidently without any concept that there could be what we in the Jesus movement used to call an afterglow experience. For us, afterglow was where a person would want to sit and marinate, after the church service, alone or with friends, savoring the sense of having encountered the presence of Christ and the love of his children. In other words, we just didn’t want to leave.

I mention those factors because that Lutheran church, more than most others I’ve attended, seemed to be making a diligent effort to populate its little lobby, before and after services, with church members who would barely let a stranger enter without having someone at least say hello to him/her. Beyond that, if you want to really blow someone’s mind, you might tell them that I was sitting alone in the pew before services, at that Lutheran church, minding my own business — listening, yes, to their organist’s contemplative music — when a young, pretty, married woman off to my left actually slid down my way, offered me her hand to shake, and introduced herself. This simply doesn’t happen to old white guys in America, especially not to those who aren’t anyone’s boss or banker. I don’t think she was attracted to me for my money. I think that, at some point, somebody at that church called a come-to-Jesus meeting, as it were, and delivered a choice: either we make a real effort to reach every stranger who comes through our door, or we wither and die, and with us the gospel.

A reader of my other posts may suspect that I would not be entirely averse to the prospect of churches withering and dying. Some of them, anyway. But the focus in this post is on a somewhat different thought, namely, that I’m not too sure the Methodists have a workable game plan. I’ve contrasted the Lutheran and Methodist ministerial style before, but in that previous post I noted especially that the seminary training of Methodists seems to emphasize practical aspects of how to run a church, while the Lutherans are more up inside their heads with theological study of the Bible and its ancient languages. You’d expect that a practical, methodical Methodist minister would be living up to his own concept of building a real worship home — but instead, to me, despite all his theologizing, the Lutheran pastor was doing a much better job of that.

I would say the difference was subtle and yet remarkable: you could miss it, and yet it could really matter. At the end of my first visit to the Lutheran church, I noticed that people were not getting up and walking out. I guess I assumed that’s what they would do; but after I stood up, I saw that a number of them were remaining in their seats. I’m not sure why. I mean, of course some did get up. I almost felt like I should sit back down, to see what happened next. Instead, I left. But as I observed in my next visit, a fair number hung around in their pews for at least five or ten minutes afterwards. I’m not sure how long, actually, because I only went a few times, and after a certain amount of pretending to read and re-read the paper bulletin and inspect my fingernails and listen to the music and so forth, I ran out of excuses to be still sitting there without looking like some kind of lurker, so I had to go — being accosted, again, on my way out, by people who wanted to shake my hand and thank me for visiting.

My guess is that, for all his lack of polish — or perhaps precisely because he wasn’t putting on a slick production — congregants appreciated that the Lutheran minister was sincere. I mean, I even emailed this guy some links to my anti-religious writings, and yet he still wanted to buy me coffee. This was, obviously, a profound contrast against the Methodist’s response. The message from the latter was, hey, I’ve got a thousand members; I don’t need you. He so clearly didn’t need me that he didn’t even bother assigning someone on his ample staff to treat emails from people like me as a sign of potential interest. Outreach to me, making people feel welcomed — it wasn’t happening.

But if I’d been black? That, I think, would have been a very different matter. I think in that case the Methodist minister would have fallen all over himself to welcome me. That would fit with hiring a cool, middle-class black guy to run the ministry to white and Latino university students. It was like the 1970s, when radical Marxist professors at Harvard were declaring their solidarity with the working man, because that was the academically fashionable thing to do, but they still didn’t want the working man as a neighbor, unless he turned out to be working-class economically but middle-class socially.

This city’s demographic makeup was only 7% black, as compared to 13% for the U.S. as a whole and, say, 24% in Boston or 49% in St. Louis. In this neighborhood, it was probably not even 7%. So it was pretty clear that the black guy was not hired for outreach in the black community: wrong part of the city; wrong city altogether. Very few black people were going to visit that Methodist church on Sunday morning, and those who did were very unlikely to say, “Oh, wow, they hired a black guy for their student ministry; I belong here.”

So then why hire the black guy? One possibility was that the church was completely color-blind. They just hired the most capable applicant, regardless of skin color. That is possible. It is not likely. According to Pew Research, the United Methodist Church is 94% white and 1% black. From this, one might estimate that, when the church advertised this position, there would be 94 white Methodist applicants for every one black Methodist applicant — even if we assume, contrary to the data, that blacks and whites obtained college degrees (presumably required for a position involving university outreach) at the same rates.

Well, if a black guy probably couldn’t deliver much increased interest from the nearly nonexistent local black community, how about hiring a Hispanic, in hopes of persuading more Hispanics to join this Methodist church? In a majority-Hispanic city, that would make sense. And that is precisely what did not happen. Indeed, the staff page, with photos, suggests that, among at least a half-dozen primary and auxiliary pastors and other public-facing leaders in this church, this black man is the only member of a racial or ethnic minority. Sure, the Methodist church is only 2% Hispanic nationwide — but to achieve that average, one would expect the Hispanic membership, in cities like this one, to be much higher.

It seems rather obvious that the black guy would be hired only if he was what the white membership wanted. For purposes of persuading college students to attend a church, it is not clear whether a cool black man would be more effective than a cool white woman or Latina. In any case, it did not seem that the church’s white members and leaders were making a serious effort to bring more Hispanics into the picture. It appeared that, if you want to prove that you’re socially aware and diversity-oriented, you can shoot for a 30% Hispanic mix, and risk upsetting the comfortably white composition of your congregation; or you can just hire a young black guy who looks really different from your graying Baby Boomer membership.

So there was a question of tokenism — of the perceived need to hire a relatively flamboyant representative from another race. I guess that was what I was wondering, as I sat there in the pew and watched that black man in that video. I would have preferred to just watch and be impressed, but I’d had so-called “diversity” thinking rammed down my throat for too many years; I had learned that the presence of a black man, where you would not expect to find one, is probably due to the misguided bureaucratism of a white social justice warrior, the type who would consider male and female fraternal twins to be more “diverse” (because their genders differ) than Billy Graham and Adolf Eichmann (because they were both conservative white males). Basically, in that world, if you can check a box on a standard form (female, check; African-American, check), then you’ve got diversity, even if you wind up with a lot of people who look different but think alike. If they could have their own personal Obama on staff, that would pretty much prove, in their minds, that they were morally superior to those of us who just don’t care that much about skin color until someone shoves it in our face.

These were my thoughts and impressions. Obviously, I wasn’t on the church staff. My surmises could have been completely off-target. But that’s sort of like saying that a customer decided not to buy your toaster because she thought it was a Frisbee. The customer would be completely wrong, but misunderstandings are to be expected when you present people with strange appearances. I was looking at a cool young black guy in church full of old white people; I had my years of victimization at the hands of privileged whites who congratulated themselves for believing that they gave a damn about blacks like the ones I’d had as roommates 30 years earlier; I was drawing my own conclusions. C’est la vie.

Observe, then, what has happened here. I went to church. There was the dim possibility that I would make friends or meet a woman there, but the primary mission was to church — to have at least a bit of a spiritual experience, possibly from a sermon that would give me something to think about, or perhaps just from being in that place, among those people, hearing that music.

To emphasize, I had nothing against the black guy. I didn’t see that he said or did anything wrong. My reaction had nothing to do with him personally. The point is rather that his appearance was so glaringly incommensurate with that incongruously white assembly that I couldn’t help being distracted by questions and frustrations arising from past attempts to reason with sociopolitical ideologues — among whom, as I suddenly recalled, some had been Methodist. I wondered what the minister and his people were up to, what they would assume about me — what he had in fact assumed from my words and/or surname, resulting in his decision to essentially dismiss my emails.

Evidently I was primed for these reactions. I hadn’t thought so, when I decided to attend church today. But now it seemed my mission had gone completely off the rails. There was a question of whether this church would be, for me, a sanctuary or, rather, an arena. True, I didn’t fit with the true believers in the Lutheran church, where I definitely didn’t share their views of the Bible and such; but at least I was safe there, for the time being. Better than that, actually: the minister remembered me, and went out of his way to talk to me. You might think I would be safer in the big Methodist church, where I could be completely anonymous — and I was, as long as I stayed silent and unknown. But if I ever dared open my mouth, what would they think of my reactions to their black minister? I was certainly welcome to add my name to the attendance roll, my voice to the hymns, and my dollars to the collection plate. But why would I want to?

There is talk, these days, about the contrast in membership trends, between liberal and conservative churches. I don’t know if such trends affect this particular Methodist franchise, within the liberal United Methodist Church. But as I recalled the number of old people in attendance today, I had to chuckle at an observation by a pastor in Minnesota, talking about that state’s churches:

United Methodism in Minnesota since 2000 has lost 35 percent of members …. The Presbyterian Church USA in Minnesota has lost 42 percent …. And the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in Minnesota [i.e., not the more conservative Wisconsin and Missouri synods, to which my neighborhood Lutheran church belongs] has lost 22 percent ….

Answers to some of these mysteries might be found at the Presbyterian Church USA General Assembly meeting last month and the Episcopal General Convention meeting this month. At their current rates of decline neither denomination will exist in 20 years. Yet neither convention focused on evangelism or church growth. Episcopalians debated whether to compel a handful of dissenting traditional dioceses to host same sex nuptials. They also discussed editing their liturgies to become more gender neutral. Presbyterians denounced Israel and USA border policies, opposed religious liberty in favor of LGBTQ and abortion rights, and pondered whether to divest from fossil fuels. A senior church official claimed there’s increasing excitement in their denomination over “justice” issues. No doubt. They lost 68,000 members last year.

The conservative churches were losing members too, but not nearly as rapidly. Declines over the past 20 years seemed to be in the neighborhood of five to ten percent.

So the question there is why the liberal churches are in free-fall. I don’t know — do you suppose it could be bad for membership to align oneself politically with progressive non-Christians who voice unremitting disrespect toward white males, when that demographic accounts for at least 40% of your members — more like 60+%, if you include the wives and girlfriends those guys may drag elsewhere?

Politics itself may be a culprit. It seems that a substantial share of the public finds politics stressful and distasteful. Disputes about socioeconomic policy could be just about the last thing most people want to deal with in a church, where the whole idea is to encounter beliefs and ideas that are in some sense constructive, sociable, redemptive, or otherwise supportive of a shared religious experience. Being mad about stuff belongs elsewhere. It appears there’s just not that much of a market for a religious sphere that would seek to repeat what you can already get from a debate with your next-door neighbor.

But there I go again, talking about issues instead of the personal experience of being in the church. And yet, when the personal experience is so empty, one can’t be surprised that other thoughts would fill the vacuum. The thought occurring to me at this point was that maybe the black guy served to assuage worries about diversity among the white faithful. Maybe his presence provided reassurance that we couldn’t be racist — after all, we voted for Obama — and so, never mind that stuff about outreach to the Hispanic community.

Maybe the real conclusion, from all this, would be that the Lutheran church felt safer because damnation was safely postponed. Until I died, those people would probably be praying for me, hoping I would come to accept Jesus as my savior, or some such thing. But in a church with a social justice orientation, questions arising from the discovery of that black minister reminded me that eternal judgment could come almost immediately, as soon as I asked the wrong question. At least the Lutherans would give me time to listen to the music.

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Postscript: regarding the situation for the black employee at a heavily white religious institution, consider these quotes from an article in Slate (Graham, 2019), describing the situation at Relevant, an evangelical culture magazine:

A few weeks ago, Andre Henry’s friend sent him a tweet from the evangelical culture magazine Relevant, announcing it was working on a podcast episode about racism in the Christian community. Henry, who is black, had been the magazine’s managing editor for nine months, until last fall. Based on his experience there, the podcast idea didn’t sit right with him, and after some deliberation, he decided to sit down and write about his time at the Orlando-based magazine. …

[T]he ongoing ramifications of Henry’s post— “Black Christians Deserve Better Than Companies (And Churches) Like Relevant Media Group”—have exceeded his expectations. It has already led to a “sabbatical” for Relevant Media Group’s [CEO and founder Cameron Strang], an outpouring of solidarity from other ex-employees, and a sprawling online conversation about race, gender, and office politics in Christian organizations. …

In Henry’s Medium post, he wrote that working at Relevant made him feel like a “token” at an institution afraid to alienate its largely white constituency. … “I’ve come to accept that many young-ish, white, evangelical leaders with large platforms … are simply not committed to being antiracist, but only in appearing non-racist,” he wrote, “and they’re using us as props for the show.”

Buoyed by Henry’s essay, [Rebecca Flores, a Latina and another former managing editor at Relevant] decided to write her own post about her experience …. Others noted that Relevant’s reviews on Glassdoor were scathing. …

Josh Lujan Loveless, a former Relevant podcast host and senior editor of a now-folded spinoff magazine, tweeted that he had been asked to use female or “ethnic-sounding” pen names when he had written too many articles under his own name because leadership wanted Relevant to seem more diverse. … Although [Flores] had always written under the name “Rebecca Marie Jo,” Strang insisted she use her last name in her byline. … She now believes that he wanted her to use Flores because it is a recognizably Hispanic surname. “I really feel like a character in Get Out,” she said. “It’s become increasingly obvious that Cameron wanted tokenized parts of me, but never the whole. Once I lost my value as a token, I was disregarded.” Strang eventually fired her via email. …

Flores questioned whether Relevant is as progressive as its graphic design and cover subjects make it appear at first glance. “They might push boundaries and make a white evangelical think about issues and consider social justice, but they’re not saying, ‘We should support Black Lives Matter,’ ” she said. “They’re not saying anything revolutionary.” Reflecting on the cancellation of his Black History Month package, Henry arrived at the same conclusion. “They’re trying to avoid optics that would upset people. But when we say people, which people are we talking about?”

Response to a LiveScience Article about Herod

LiveScience is one of a number of websites that report on current research. As such, LiveScience frequently displays various liberal biases. I sympathize with liberalism on a number of points. I don’t, however, sympathize with the abuse of science to serve prejudice — in this case, prejudice against religious belief. This post contains the text of a comment I posted on LiveScience, in response to an article about something reported in the Gospel of Luke.

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Jarus [i.e., the author of the LiveScience article] links to another LiveScience article that suggests Josephus may have declined to mention the slaughter of the innocents just because it would have been a small-scale event, involving only a handful of babies in a smallish town. Based on that LiveScience article, it appears that Jarus is misrepresenting the history. The present article would have been stronger if Jarus had provided actual support for his assertion, rather than merely quoting the opinion of some random professor.

Jarus further says that “there’s no evidence of a census occuring [sic] during Herod’s reign.” That’s an interesting slip. The Bible is, of course, a source of evidence on what occurred during Herod’s reign. Jarus’s evident unwillingness to treat it as such suggests a preexisting bias. I’m skeptical toward overblown claims about the Bible. But that would not justify intellectual dishonesty. The Bible is a source; it is a collection of ancient and, in many regards, historical documents.

Jarus appears to mean that there are no other sources supporting Luke’s timing of the census. There appears to be some truth to that. For instance, Wikipedia cites a Christian commentator for an admission that Luke’s timing of the census raises presently insoluble historical problems.

Yet if Jarus is correct in saying that Herod might have lived until several years after Jesus’s birth, those problems do not necessarily mean the story is false. In the vacuum left by this article’s superficial treatment, the reader might wonder whether perhaps Luke’s mistake was not in the timing of the census, but rather in its scope. For instance, is it possible that the 6 AD census was based in some instances on local data gathered in previous years? Maybe; maybe not. We aren’t told.

Questions of that nature may illustrate that it could be rather arrogant to declare an ancient source mistaken, when it is not clear that the author of such a declaration has engaged in any firsthand historical inquiry. For instance, Jarus would have us believe that the first readers of Luke’s gospel were ignorant of their own recent history. Wikipedia says that gospel may have been written as early as 80 AD. If someone handed me a document asserting that my parents gave me a false story about an event occurring in 1939 (i.e., 80 years ago, when they were ~20 years old), I would question that document. Jarus offers nothing to defeat the impression that the Gospel of Luke did pass the straight-face test at the time of its creation.

There appears to be a historical problem in Luke’s account. It would have been interesting to read an informed discussion of that problem, not to support a preexisting ideology, but rather to flesh out various possibilities. The result would still not be science — it is not clear what this discussion is doing in LiveScience — but at least it would be credible and open to the evidence.


The Amazing Thing About Christian Belief

The amazing thing about Christian belief is that, somehow, among the billions of possible planets, and the billions of people on this one, divided into innumerable sects and shades of belief — somehow, against all odds, my group got it right! Isn’t that amazing? God could be gods, or no god; they could have four heads or five hooves, or could speak only in the language of Zoltran — but no! None of that! By a coincidence beyond “inconceivable,” somehow, when it comes to God, I’m the one who wound up being completely right! about everything!

Nothing arrogant about that, right? I mean, obviously, this core belief is as good a reason as any to get mad at people — the ones who don’t recognize my superiority, that is — and call them names, ridicule their claims to know more than I do, even kill them. Not that contemporary Christians would do any of that, or at least not the killing. That’s medieval. That was when Christians had the power to do such things. They don’t anymore, and they won’t, and that’s too bad — because, aside from the tortures and the murders and the bad science and all that, at least the Middle Ages did give people the Kingdom of God. Right?

And so the question at hand is, how can we get back to that? Because that’s what God would want and, of course, he can’t do these things without our help.

Well. I’m no authority, but I’d say the first thing to do is to make sure God stays in his place. So let’s start with theology. The science of God! Gotta chuckle about that one. Theology tells us that God has to be a Trinity, even though the Bible itself doesn’t say so, and nobody can make sense of that — because, without a Trinity of just the right configuration, certain Bible passages will contradict each other. And that’s not acceptable because that would mean God wrote an imperfect Bible. Which, in turn, is not acceptable because it would mean that God didn’t actually write it and/or that we should not treat it as a legal document, replete with numbering of chapters and verses that God, himself, forgot to add. Neither of those options is acceptable because, really, how can you ever hope to have a religion that completely departs from practicing its founder’s most important message about the treatment of other people, if you don’t have an infallible scripture with which to overrule him?

So, like I say, the first thing is to help God explain who he is (the Trinity, I mean), and help him provide that explanation in a form that we can lawyer into submission — because, rather pathetically (for an all-knowing deity), he failed to realize that we would need this, so as to have specific reasons for burning people at the stake. Frankly, there are a lot of things that God forgot to put into that Bible, starting with a list of the books that it should include, so that our forbears wouldn’t have to spend centuries (continuing to the present) disagreeing about which books those should be, and also including an explanation of how the Bible can be the word of God when it says that, no, Jesus was the word of God.

The question posed by Ms. Olmstead is this: “To what extent are we called to flexibility and empathy in our doctrinal choices?” In other words, if the Bible says something, can we disregard it? For virtually all Christians in America, the answer is a resounding yes, if it happens to be something we don’t wish to make part of our religion. There’s that classic scene in The West Wing about that, but really we don’t need TV for this: everyone knows we can come up with reasons not to stone people, regardless of what God’s supposed laws might say. I mean, you have to keep the divinity in his place. He has his laws, and we have ours, right? Am I right?

Ms. Olmstead’s title asks, “Where Should Christianity Draw a Line in the Sand?” Because you can only put up with so much guff from these people who (like oneself) selectively decline to treat the Bible as it does not ask to be treated. Because, as I say, by some unbelievable (and I do mean unbelievable) coincidence, when it comes to drawing lines in the sand, it’s like Phil Collins says: Jesus, he knows me, and he knows I’m right!

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This post was submitted as a comment on an article by Gracy Olmstead in The American Conservative (2018).

Seeking Conclusions About Fundamentalist Christian B.S.


Four years ago, I met a fundamentalist couple. This was not my first encounter with people who want to believe that the Bible is God’s word. To the contrary, as detailed in another post, I had been raised as a conservative Lutheran, had become a Lutheran pre-ministry student, and had spent several years deeply engaged in the Jesus movement of the early 1970s.

I say this man and woman (let’s call them Jack and Jill) were fundamentalists. I have seen other terms for their general kind of belief — “evangelical,” for instance, and “biblical literalist.” Maybe those words would be more accurate. I will stick with “fundamentalist,” here, because it is the word I used in a prior post that I will be citing shortly.

We got along well, these two fundamentalists and I. It seems this happened largely because I listened to their views and did not make much of an effort to present any other perspective. I suppose diplomacy is almost always a part of friendship, and deception is always a part of diplomacy, at least in the sense of choosing what one dares to say and how one dares to say it. These are uncomfortable realities, but they seem to reflect how most people approach interactions with persons of differing viewpoint.

The Internet is often criticized for removing important human dimensions of communication. In Facebook, email, and other digital interactions, we experience each other primarily as collections of words, attitudes, and opinions. We don’t necessarily get the smiles, the body language, the things left unsaid. Such media can promote misunderstanding; they can downplay some of the best aspects of the experience of communicating with an appreciated acquaintance.

And yet such media can also be liberating, and can facilitate learning and awareness. The side of me that wants to be honest seems to fare better in this digital realm. Here, online, those of us who stay diplomatically silent in person are sometimes more inclined to demonstrate that we have thoughts and ideas too, and that those thoughts and ideas deserve as much respect as those of the person who dominates face-to-face conversation.

So when I was with Jack and Jill, I tended to sit and listen as they — Jack, especially — went on and on about various topics. He did very much dominate the conversation. Then, and in our subsequent online conversations, he showed little interest in my life or my views. To the contrary, he frankly admitted that he did not consider himself openminded. He knew what he wanted to know, and that severely limited what we could talk about, and how much respect I would get.

I appreciated that Jack seemed to feel that I was a decent guy. But I think that was because I did not make a serious effort to stand up for myself, to explain why I had concluded that his form of belief was false. As many have found, you become less enjoyable when you stop serving as someone’s admirer.

Fundamentalist Christian B.S.

I am not very well equipped to be an admirer of someone who promotes fundamentalist Christianity. As I discovered in my own pilgrimage, that sort of religion requires an extraordinary determination to lie to other people, and to oneself — or, at best, a remarkable inability to realize that one might be mistaken.

In those years of deception and self-deception, I did meet people who tried to get through to me, as I came up with Bible passages to explain other Bible passages, and explanations to explain other explanations, and so on ad nauseum, in a never-ending circle. The problem is obvious to me now: I was afraid of going to Hell. To avoid that, I had to “believe in Jesus” — which meant, bizarrely, promoting a kind of religion that was not remotely what Jesus stood for.

The religion I was promoting was a legalistic one, based on lawyerly interpretation and analysis of Bible passages — whereas Jesus had made clear his opposition to the lawyers and the scribes of his day. Consider these remarks from Matthew ch. 23:

Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. . . .

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. . . .

Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town . . . .

Perhaps God did send us sages, in the form of scientists who contributed to our understanding of our world. How do Christians react to science? They reject it and cling to the Bible, as they always have done, from Galileo and Copernicus right down to evolution and global warming. Believers like science, when it says what they prefer — which is another way of saying that believers don’t like science at all, because science is all about questioning and seeking to replace one’s previous beliefs with better explanations.

(In these remarks, I don’t mean to suggest that secular science or liberal perspectives are always superior. I address that side of the table in 1 2 other posts.)

The fundamental problem of fundamentalist Christianity is that you can’t teach someone who does not want to understand. As soon as so-called Christians gained power in Rome, within a few hundred years after Jesus, they began to torture and kill people who did not interpret the Gospel their way. In the words of Jesus, these Christians were whitewashed tombs, seemingly righteous and yet full of lawlessness. And they only got worse, as elaborated in another post: they took over Europe and held control for a thousand years, from the Dark Ages to the Enlightenment, when people finally began to throw off the Christian yoke.

There was no humility in that sort of Christianity, no willingness to be the student. Bible-believing Christians always have been, and continue to be, proud of their ignorance. Indeed, they turn Jesus on his head, excusing and even glorifying their status as know-nothings, because Paul observed that not many members of the church at Corinth were wise by worldly standards. In the words of one interpreter of that passage, God “does not depend on education, philosophy, science, or any human device for doing His will.” As I learned during my fundamentalist years, real education is OK, as long as it doesn’t interfere with your Bible study.

If you were to think seriously about Jesus, you might focus especially on his message of love. “Love your enemies,” he said; “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” You might contemplate that message as you consider what people have done in his name — as they have diligently pursued the textual, lawyerly, scriptural project that he had nothing to do with. Think about it: he could have enlisted his disciples in the task of writing a scripture; he could have written one himself. That didn’t happen. But that was what his Gentile followers wanted, just as his Jewish would-be followers wanted him to be the conquering Messiah. So, like the Jews of his time, the Gentile believers of later centuries rejected who he actually was, and what he actually said, in favor of building their own preferred religion. From there, it was only a series of small steps to the point where, guided by Bible passages that he neither wrote nor authorized, his so-called followers would proceed to murder others, and each other, by the millions.

My other post discusses that in some detail. It speaks about the tortures, the abuses of prisoners and the mentally ill, the tolerance of slavery, and some of the other ways in which Bible-led Christians abused their centuries of power. Certainly the Middle Ages had their achievements — their Gothic cathedrals, for example, and their Gregorian chants. But, overwhelmingly, they represent a time that nobody wants to go back to. They demonstrated that a Bible-led society is a really bad idea.

And yet there I was, during my Bible-believing years, standing up for the Bible-based church. It’s not that I really approved of tearing people’s skin off in Christ’s name. Rather, like most fundamentalists, history was one of those subjects on which I was confidently ignorant. I didn’t necessarily know much about what had happened; but, whatever it was, I was sure that, now, we were past all that. We were on to something powerful and holy.

And yet, even there, I look back and shake my head. The Bible, itself, didn’t add up. For instance, fundamentalists see no problem in the fact that God forgot to number the chapters and verses of the Bible — that he needed human assistance to make those thousands of changes to the original texts of the manuscripts and letters now gathered together as so-called books of the Bible. God also forgot to even mention the Trinity, much less explain it — but that didn’t prevent the lawyers of fundamentalist Christianity from spending centuries sorting it out, burning Unitarians at the stake along the way for their failure to embrace this theological invention.

Bible believers do not ask themselves why, if God was unfolding his divine plan, the process of forming the official list of Bible books would require centuries of dispute — why, indeed, we still have disagreement among Christians as to which books belong in the Bible. Such believers are comfortable with the fact that, in a vast number of instances, surviving biblical manuscripts do not agree with one another — mostly in small instances, but sometimes in major ones. Somehow, Christians who find it exceedingly important to study the original Greek and Hebrew texts, so as to get to the exact meaning of God’s alleged word, are not in the least dismayed by the obvious fact that there have been hundreds of different translations of the Bible into English — disagreeing, again, on many small points and on some larger ones. To the kind of person who can swallow all this, it’s fine that the “original” Greek texts were, themselves, translations — that, historians tend to agree, Jesus primarily spoke Aramaic and probably knew very little Greek. The message is, never mind that, let’s study Greek anyway — as I did, for two years, during my own pre-ministerial studies.

Faced with such realities, an honest person will conclude that this Bible was not the work of a God seeking to provide a perfect text. Either God was not involved, or he was seeking something other than the human invention of biblical inerrancy — the notion, that is, that “the Bible is without error in all that it affirms” ( Certainly a person seeking to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, after reading his reported words about lawyers (e.g., “the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves” and “Woe to you, lawyers!” — in Luke 7:30 and 11:46), will marvel at the legalistic acrobatics that theologians perform, in their desperate attempts to lawyer the Bible into submission.

Consider, for instance, how tries to rationalize the many, often glaring, contradictions among Bible passages: it says biblical inerrancy “allows for variety in details in explaining the same event” and even “allows for problem passages.” To explain the latter admission, says,

[I]t is impossible to provide solutions to all the problems [among seemingly contradictory Bible passages]. In some cases the solution awaits the findings of the archaeologist’s spade; in another case it awaits the linguist’s research; in other cases the solution may never be discovered for other reasons. The solution to some problems must be held in abeyance. The answer, however, is never to suggest there are contradictions or errors in Scripture.

So there you have it. The answer is never to suggest that the Bible contains errors or contradictions. Never is a big word. It means that no evidence of any sort will ever be allowed to shake the determination to make the Bible into something that the Bible, itself, does not claim to be. Because, let us be clear, what says is not remotely found in the Bible itself. Unlike any halfway competent human writer, we are to believe that God did not have enough intelligence to simply list the books that he wanted in his Bible, provide authoritative copies of the originals, and give us what has given us: a straightforward, definitive assurance that this Bible contains absolutely no errors.

There is no source other than the Bible that Christians commonly consider controlling in matters of faith, and the Bible itself fails to support the notion that its constituent books were all inspired or otherwise contributed or even influenced by God. Religious Tolerance offers a brief review of the passages most commonly cited in support of scriptural inerrancy — pointing out, for example, that when 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God,” it could only have been referring to the Old Testament, because the New Testament did not yet exist. Defending Inerrancy illustrates the dishonesty of Christian theologians in such matters, claiming that certain statements by Jesus “speak to the Bible’s infallibility” when, again, the New Testament (focused substantially on the gospel of Jesus) would not come into existence until long after he had left the scene.

By this point, you might agree that, as I pointed out in another post, these Christians are guilty of blasphemy (commonly defined as speech conveying great disrespect) against their own God. According to Wikipedia, “Blasphemy has been condemned as a serious, or even the most serious, sin by the major creeds and Church theologians.” And that’s exactly what it is, when you make God out to be some kind of idiot, who failed to grasp the obvious need for these basic materials and statements, and thus has always been desperately dependent upon his so-called followers to help his religion remain viable. In fundamentalist Christianity, the followers are actually the leaders. They have thought of things that completely eluded their God; they are way ahead of him. No wonder they enjoy their religion — it tells them that, in their own way, they are the real masters of the universe.

Some Christian fundamentalists would reply that we should not second-guess God. But, in writings like this one, we are not second-guessing God. We are second-guessing Christian fundamentalists. If there is a God, it would be inordinately stupid to treat him as though he were stupid.

Rather than make the Bible into something that it patently is not, the humble and sensible thing is to take the Bible as it is. It is a collection of manuscripts, some pertaining to the Jews of the Old Testament, some to the Christians of the New. For those who find particular value in Jesus, the most important message of the Bible may have to do with his gospel. There is no denying that Jesus was, and remains, an extraordinary person with a remarkable message.

Goodbye to the B.S. Artist

As I say, I met Jack and Jill four years ago. A year and a half later, I wrote a blog post about some of my subsequent online interactions with Jack. Among other things, that post examined the practice of “lying for the Lord,” as I had once heard some Mormons call it. I summarized one section of that post in these words:

In several ways, then, it seems that pathological lying may serve as a relatively understandable (albeit informal and sometimes confused) diagnosis of the behavior practiced — indeed, encouraged — in fundamentalist Christianity. That impression would seem to apply especially to ministers and Bible students who waste enormous amounts of time trying to rephrase and repackage their beliefs in superficially credible terms.

Another section of that post offered some examples of online interactions with Jack and Jill. The main difference between them, for my purposes, was that Jill might express a view against vaccines, for instance, apparently based on nothing more than rumor; but if I questioned it, she would not waste my time inventing goofy arguments, playing games with words, or evading obvious points. Jack, by contrast, was a bullshit artist; as noted earlier, he had no interest in intelligent discussion. He knew where he wanted the discussion to go, in advance: it needed to reach a conclusion consistent with his fundamentalist beliefs — and he was going to get us there, by hook or by crook.

That, I think, was probably why I got out of Christian fundamentalism, whereas Jack will probably always stay in it. For all my attempts to invent scripture-based rationales supporting various conclusions, at the end of the day I was reachable. As described in another post, a professor did in fact get through to me: he listened to my arguments; he replied intelligently; I tried to work through what he was saying; a crisis of faith resulted; through strenuous efforts continuing for about a year, I concluded that he was right; and eventually I ceased to be a fundamentalist Christian.

When I realized that Jack was completely insincere, in the sense of seeking a predetermined outcome rather than the truth of a given matter, I unfriended him on Facebook. I hesitated to do that, but ultimately I had little choice: as illustrated in the other post, he kept inserting his irrationality into otherwise earnest discussions between people who were trying to explain their disagreements to each other. More than two years later, I still think that was the right thing to do. If you can’t or won’t be reasonable, I don’t want to help you bother people.

During the two years after I unfriended Jack, I continued to be Facebook friends with Jill. It was the usual Facebook interaction: she would “like” things that I posted, and vice versa. I would occasionally challenge her more extreme views, but those exchanges were invariably brief and to the point.

I assume Jack continued to be Jill’s Facebook friend throughout these past two years, and as such I assume he saw at least some of our interactions. He generally seemed to be a pretty mellow guy. My guess was that he saw that I didn’t care to interact with him anymore, and he was content to leave it at that.

For some reason, that changed recently. Jack decided to join in an exchange between Jill and me, probably because it was about a Bible passage and he is a minister. (He could inject himself into that exchange, on Facebook, because Jill had both of us as friends.) And immediately it was like old times: once again I was getting, from Jack, these long, rambling posts, unreasonable claims, and the same obvious desire to “win” rather than discuss. Here’s how it went in one such case:

  • First exchange: I posted a two-line response to Jill; she posted a two-line reply; Jack jumped in with two posts totaling 42 lines.
  • I did object to that verbosity. But eventually I took the bait and replied at some length. Jack (no advanced degrees) proceeded to explain things about the law to me (a lawyer). When I questioned that, he said he meant only to be discussing the law of Moses — on which he (having never studied theology, and having no substantial exposure to Jewish culture) felt that I (12 years in NYC; Jewish ex-wife; former theology student) had only “marginal knowledge.”
  • Seeing that Jack wanted to approach the Bible as a lawyer, I asked him for (a) “a straightforward statement of God’s intentions, regarding which laws are to be observed” and (b) a summary of the arguments against his position. Jack ignored those requests, choosing instead to bury me in another long, rambling reply.

I made those last requests, in part, because I wanted to see whether my impression was mistaken. It seemed to me that Jack just liked to hear himself talk, but I realized I could be wrong; he could be driving toward a coherent point in some way that I wasn’t recognizing. If he did have something specific to say (as distinct from trolling for interminable debate), it seemed reasonable to ask him to state, not his own point (which might have been construed as inviting yet another longwinded discourse), but rather the opposing points, on which he would presumably not expostulate at length. On the other hand, my exposure to counseling psychology suggested that, if he couldn’t say what his opponents argued, he might not be listening to them.

I might have had more patience with Jack if we hadn’t already gone down this road. I had written that previous post — I had rambled, in that previous post, I think — because I was trying to come to terms with, in some sense to gain some perspective on, this unpleasant kind of individual.

I don’t want to overstate the unpleasantness. In his (long) last remark, Jack did make some positive remarks about me. Unfortunately, he mixed them with some attacking remarks and some inaccuracies. It seemed to me that he may have found that he could keep people enmeshed in his debates by holding out that kind of olive branch. By that point, though, I really only cared that he had disregarded my reasonable request for a summary of what, exactly, he was disagreeing with.


From time to time, we must all deal with people who seem to be (or really are) disagreeable or unreasonable. In such situations, it seems best not to rush to judgment: sometimes those whom we find most annoying are those who have the most to teach us. At the same time, the person who strives to keep an open door and an open mind is at risk of being dragged into fruitless debates, or worse, with people who may be insincere, manipulative, or mentally ill.

I have recorded these reactions to this episode here because, as with the previous post about Jack and Jill, it gives me a point of reference that will remain readily accessible, long after the Facebook debate is buried — and also because, for more complicated or extensive issues, Facebook’s little posting space is not adequate. I hope these materials are useful, in the future, not only to me, but also to others who grapple with questions of faith, and with the frequently false statements that some believers make.

You Shall Know Them By Their Fruits

In other posts, I have occasionally reminded Christian readers of this excerpt from Jesus’s famous Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:15-23):

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. . . . A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. . . . Many will say to Me in that day, “Lord, Lord, have we not . . . done many wonders in Your name?” And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me . . . .”

Christian or not, it seems advisable to check oneself and one’s beliefs and projects, to make sure there has not been slippage between what was supposed to happen and what is actually happening.

What was supposed to happen, in Christianity, was the development of a religion reflecting the priorities that Jesus set forth during his time on Earth. In that same Sermon, he expressed one such priority: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Or, as expressed in Romans 13:9-10, “[T]he commandments . . . are all summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”

Love for others is an important theme throughout the New Testament. It does seem reasonable to ask whether the project of Christianity has indeed been Christlike in the particular sense of demonstrating love for one’s neighbor. The answer is very much in the negative. The remainder of this post provides historical examples, some continuing into the present.

In my experience, Christians do not like to read this sort of thing. Certainly they are not big on preaching it and learning from it. To the contrary, they seem confident that, unlike all the generations of believers before them, they are different. They are better. They are not supporters of a disgusting religion.

That may be true of certain individuals and even of certain Christian denominations. And let us not deny that religious belief can have positive effects upon people and communities. Whether the positives outweigh the negatives is a topic worth discussing. The following evidence suggests that, over the 2,000-year history of Christian belief, the overall answer would be no: the Christian project started going off the rails within its first few centuries; it was enormously harmful for more than a thousand years; and it has become prettier and more tolerable in recent centuries only because secular political and intellectual pressures have reduced its control over daily life.

What I offer here is, obviously, only a fraction of the evidence on those matters. If any reader feels that the evidence does not support the conclusions just stated, I am open to comments and, time permitting, I will investigate further and revise this post as needed. For now, the material presented below is provided just to make clear that Christianity has been really terrible, in many ways, throughout its history.

In my view, as I say, the core problem lies in Christianity’s longstanding determination, very much against the advice of Jesus, to prioritize a lawyerly, text-oriented approach to the words of the New Testament, and on that basis to disregard the key Christlike priority: love of one’s neighbor.

Torture, Murder, and War

This section drew the bulk of my attention, as it seems to address the most extremely violent outrages committed in the name of Jesus. These are just a few examples, starting shortly after Christianity obtained political power during the Roman Empire.

  • Roman Emperor Theodosius I (380) ordered,

It is our will that all the peoples who are ruled by the administration of Our Clemency shall practice that religion which the divine Peter the Apostle transmitted to the Romans . . . . We command that those persons who follow this rule shall embrace the name of Catholic Christians. The rest, however, . . . shall be smitten first by divine vengeance and secondly by the retribution of Our own initiative . . . .

[T]he successors of Constantine were ever persuaded that the first concern of imperial authority was the protection of religion and so, with terrible regularity, issued many penal edicts against heretics. In the space of fifty seven years sixty-eight enactments were thus promulgated. All manner of heretics were affected by this legislation, and in various ways, by exile, confiscation of property, or death.

  • Charlemagne (774) defeated the Saxons and gave them a choice: be baptized or be killed.
  • The Catholic Encyclopedia acknowledges widespread public demand, by ordinary Christians in the Middle Ages, for heretics to be tortured and burned at the stake.
  • Wikipedia on the Crusades (primarily occurring in the 11th to 13th centuries):

Crusaders often pillaged as they travelled . . . . During the People’s Crusade, thousands of Jews were murdered in what is now called the Rhineland massacres. Constantinople was sacked during the Fourth Crusade. . . . The Crusades also reinforced the connection between Western Christendom, feudalism, and militarism.

  • The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) ruled,

Secular authorities . . . shall be admonished and induced and if necessary compelled . . . to take an oath that they will strive in good faith and to the best of their ability to exterminate in the territories subject to their jurisdiction all heretics pointed out by the Church . . . .

  • Wikipedia reports that the Spanish Inquisition (1478-1834) resulted in countless tortures and an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 executions by the Church. The Catholic Encylopedia admits that even witnesses were tortured.
  • I encountered and verified some claims by a site called Heretication (which, later, I found was probably based on a webpage in the Bad News About Christianity website).  Having determined that the claims I investigated were supported by other sources, I was inclined to believe other Heretication claims, including these:

The Waldensians . . . were excommunicated as heretics in 1184 at the Council of Verona, and persecuted with zeal for centuries. 150 were burned at Grenoble in a single day in 1393. . . . Anyone in Villaro who declined to go to a Roman Catholic mass was liable to be crucified upside down, but there was some variation in the manner of killing in other towns. Some were maimed and left to die of starvation, some had strips of flesh cut off their bodies until they bled to death, some were stoned, some impaled alive upon stakes or hooks. Some were dragged along the ground until [their] flesh was scraped away. One at least was literally minced. Daniel Rambaut had his toes and fingers cut off in sections: one joint being amputated each day in an attempt to make him recant and accept the Roman faith. Some had their mouths stuffed with gun-powder which was then ignited. Paolo Garnier of Roras was castrated, then skinned alive. Children were killed in various ways before the eyes of their parents. . . .

The term heresy covered ever more and more areas of belief. . . . Pope Innocent III . . . said that those who interpret literally Jesus’ statements about limiting their statements to a straight Yes or No were heretics worthy of death . . . . In 1229 Pope Gregory IX . . . [organized] a crusade against the Stedingers, a Germanic people living near the River Weser, whose heresy amounted to no more than rejecting the temporal authority of the Archbishop of Bremen. . . . The whole population was exterminated. . . .

It was heretical to eat meat on Friday, to read the bible, to know Greek, to criticise a cleric, to refuse to pay Church taxes, or to deny that money lending was sinful. . . . Franciscan spirituals were burned at the stake for such behaviour as claiming that Christ and the apostles had not owned property, preaching absolute poverty, wearing traditional hoods and habits and refusing to lay up stores of food. The Apostolicals, a sect founded in 1300, tried to live like the apostles. The luckier ones were burned at the stake like the sect’s founder, but others suffered worse fates. Dulcino of Novara, the successor to the founder, was publicly torn to pieces with hooks, as was his wife. . . . Cecco d’Ascoli, an Italian scientist, was burned at the stake in 1327 for having calculated the date of Jesus’ birth using the stars. . . . Heresy still covered everything from refusing to take oaths to refusal to pay church tithes. Any deviation from Church norms was enough to merit death: vegetarianism, the rejection of infant baptism, even holding the (previously orthodox) view that people should be given both bread and wine at Mass.

In 1482, under Pope Sixtus IV, 2000 heretics were burned in the tiny state of Andalusia alone. Pope Leo X condemned Martin Luther in 1520 for daring to say that burning heretics was against the will of God. Evidently he thought it presumptuous for an ordinary human being to claim to know God’s will. Perhaps he was right, because Luther changed his mind in 1531 and started advocating the death penalty for heretics and blasphemers. He thought it should be a capital offence to deny the resurrection of the dead, or the reality of heaven and Hell.

Translating the bible into vernacular languages, or helping with the printing of such a bible was heresy according to the Roman Church. Generally, in Europe, women were buried alive for this offence. Men were burned alive. . . .

Anabaptists, the precursors of modern Baptists, were persecuted by Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists alike. The Anabaptists’ main crimes were to call for social reform, to favour adult baptism over infant baptism, and to embrace pacifism – they would not kill, condone capital punishment or serve in armies. They also allegedly advocated ancient Antinomian views. Their leaders died in various ways. Thomas Münzer was burned at the stake in 1525. Feliz Manz drowned in 1526 (drowning was a favourite way of executing Anabaptists because of their views on baptism). . . . When a whole town, Münster, went over to the Anabaptists in the 1530s Catholics and Protestants joined forces to retake the city. The Anabaptist leaders were publicly tortured to death with red-hot pincers and their bodies hung in cages outside a church, where they remained for some years. . . .

A Protestant writing master from Toledo was burned at the stake in 1676 for having decorated a room with the full text of the ten commandments. . . . Around 1520 the diocese of Lincoln alone was convicting over 100 people a year for the crime of “not thinking catholickly”. . . . In 1528 Patrick Hamilton was burned at St Andrews for holding heretical opinions, notably a denial of the freedom of the will. In 1546 Anne Askew was burned at Smithfield because of her beliefs about the Eucharist. In 1592 Henry Barrow and John Greenwood, who preached congregationalism, were hanged at Tyburn for “obstinately refusing to come to church”. . . . Unitarians were executed in 1612 in London and Lichfield, and one in 1651 in Dumfries. William Prynne, a Puritan lawyer, published criticisms of Archbishop Laud. For this had his ears hacked off by the public hangman in 1633. Along with others he was charged again and tried by the Star Chamber in 1637. The others charged had their ears cropped, and as it was discovered that Prynne still had stumps left on the side of his head, these were severed too. He was also branded on the cheeks, and then imprisoned for life along with the others.

  • Wikipedia’s article European Wars of Religion includes some of history’s deadliest wars. Examples include the Thirty Years War, with a death toll nearly half the worldwide toll of World War I — at a time when the population of Europe was only one-quarter of its 20th-century level — as well as the Hundred Years War, the French Wars of Religion, and the Crusades, each taking roughly two to three million lives.

Other Areas of Christian History

Bad News About Christianity (BNAC) offered additional reports on a rather astounding number of areas in which Christians have displayed execrable attitudes and behavior. Here were several examples:

  • Rape. “The words of Deuteronomy 22 . . . were often used to justify the rape of virgins. If a man wanted to marry a woman – whether she wanted him or not – a standard method was to abduct her and have sex with her. As “soiled goods”, she would be unlikely to find another husband, so her choice was to marry her abductor or live out the rest of her life as a spinster. . . . [This practice] was popular well into the twentieth century in conservative Christian countries.”
  • Freedom of Expression. I was concerned that, lately, liberal views were tending toward mild persecution of religion in the U.S. Yet it was difficult to sympathize with Christians who had brought this on themselves by failing, so intensively and for so long, to stand for scientific learning and for the universal human right of freedom of expression. Excerpts from BNAC:

Within a century of the introduction of printing in Europe a formal process was required to keep track of books that the Church had ordered to be destroyed. . . . [including works by some of the greatest minds in history, e.g., Dante, Copernicus, Galileo, and Locke]. Also placed on the Index were writings that told the truth about the forged documents that the Church had produced . . . .

Christians in secular states have often managed to ban respectable works, again well into the twentieth century: Webster’s Dictionary for example was banned in Arkansas because of its entry on Darwinian evolution. Information about family planning and birth control has been banned in many Christian countries.

Over the centuries the Christian Churches have burned countless thousands, perhaps millions, of books of which it disapproved. . . . Some writers destroyed their own unpublished works, fearing the consequences of discovery. . . . Philosophers were also obliged to publish posthumously or anonymously, for fear of the consequences. . . .

The traditional Christian obsession with sexual matters resulted in prosecutions for obscenity not only against books about birth control, but also against respectable literature and even books on psychology. . . .

Christians still seek to impose their views on others. Because of Christian sensitivities the film Monty Python’s Life of Brian . . . could not be shown on British commercial television. . . . In Britain and the USA attempts were made to ban Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ when it appeared in 1988. . . .

Fundamentalists in California have managed to ban schoolbooks that deal with a wide range of subjects, including the theory of evolution, race relations, nuclear war, sex discrimination, human sexuality, birth control and the Holocaust. . . .

During the whole period of 1,500 years or so that the Church enjoyed absolute power the concept of penal reform was unknown. Prisons in 1800 were as insanitary, cramped, infested and dangerous as they had been when the Roman Empire first adopted Christianity. . . .

Christian tortures took many forms. People were restrained by irons and fetters, sometimes locked into agonising positions with neck, wrists and ankles held within inches of each other. After a short time in this position they were permanently disabled. Alternatively prisoners could be racked, beaten, flogged or otherwise abused. One method was to keep their feet in water until they rotted. . . .

The pioneer of modern penology was an Italian rationalist, the Marquis Cesare Beccaria-Bonesana, who published Dei Delitti e delle Pene (On Crimes and Punishments) in 1764, claiming that the prevention of crime, not punishment, should be the prime aim of an enlightened society, and that crime was deterred by the likelihood of detection rather than the severity of punishment. The Inquisition condemned his ideas. For the Churches the prime purpose was punishment and retribution, as affirmed by the Bible, not rehabilitation, which was not mentioned in the Bible. . . .

The idea that gaols should be primarily for rehabilitation was entirely a secular one. So were the beliefs that prisoners had rights; that they were entitled to basic sanitation, and freedom from flogging, torture and mutilation; and that they should receive access to medical attention, adequate nutrition, and education. . . .

[The following are captions accompanying photos on the webpage.]

[C]hurchmen branded people with crosses and with letters: A for Adulterer, B for Blasphemer, etc, Sometimes in the forehead, sometimes in the cheek, sometimes on the chin. . . . Prisoners were often chained to an immovable object, or to a heavy object . . . not only to immobilize the victim, but also to cause pain: note the spikes on the inside of the iron ring. . . . [In the Iron Shoe, a] screw mechanism allows the torturer to crush the victims foot. . . . [The Scold’s Bridle included] various mouth-pieces that can be fitted to restrict speach and cause acute pain. . . . [In the Iron Maiden,] the doors shut “slowly, so that the very sharp points penetrated his arms, and his legs in several places, and his belly and chest, and his bladder and the root of his member, and his eyes, and his shoulders, and his buttocks, but not enough to kill him; and so he remained making great cry and lament for two days, after which he died.”

The Churches considered it wrong to attempt to eliminate poverty, since Jesus himself had given an assurance that the poor would always be with us. . . .

Oppression of the poor and aged has been common in all Christian countries. . . . On the other hand Churches have traditionally provided wealth and power to the younger sons of noble families whatever their beliefs. . . . Throughout Christendom the poorest were liable for a range of Church taxes. The nobility, which provided almost all senior ecclesiastics, was generally exempt. . . .

Not so long ago the rich sat at the front of the church and the poor at the back. Sometimes the rich took Communion on a different day from the poor, and sometimes the rich and poor were offered wine of different qualities. Some priests even preached that there were different heavens for the different sections of society . . . .

Churches have changed their ideas since secular principles of equality have become widely accepted. Few of them now use the third verse of the hymn All Things Bright And Beautiful although its truth was unimpeachable within living memory:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

As in so many other areas of social improvement, the dynamos of change were almost all outside the mainstream Churches [being advocated instead by freethinkers, Utilitarians and Quakers]. . . .

[Photo caption:] Children were sold throughout Christendom . . . . This brace of babies was offered for sale around 1940 in France . . . .

Christians opposed all attempts at [workplace] reform, saying that existing conditions were natural, and reform was contrary to the Bible. Churchmen in the nineteenth century opposed the reduction in working hours, protection for women and children, and even safety legislation. Agitation to improve industrial working conditions came from freethinking Utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham and J. S. Mill. Ideas like safe and hygienic factories, education for workers, and infant schools were pioneered by the philanthropist Robert Owen, who had rejected all religions at the age of 14 after reading Seneca. . . .

At this point, I desisted from providing additional long excerpts from BNAC on other subjects of interest or, should I say, disgust. Briefly, here are a few examples of what some of those summaries would have contained:

  • Family life. “Relying on biblical passages, early Christians inferred that family life was worthless and hailed virginity as the ideal.”
  • Slavery. “For many centuries slavery was perfectly acceptable to Christians . . . [who] used a number of Old and New Testament quotations to prove their case.”
  • Treatment of mental illness. “According to Christians, lunatics were possessed by unclean spirits. . . . [Thus] for many centuries no advance was made in understanding the nature of mental illness . . . . [and] many thousands of men, women and children, already burdened with madness, were confined in chains and subjected to routine torture.”
  • Abuse of animals. “The Church deduced that because animals did not possess souls, they were . . . disposable toys provided for mankind’s amusement. Activities in which animals were tortured for sport, were recorded without any hint that there might be anything wrong with them. . . .” (Examples: cat burnings; blood fiestas; dog fighting.)

“What Is Truth?”

“What is truth?” is a question. You realized that, and you also realized that it is the title of this post. What you may not have fully registered is that the title is in quotes. I am not asking, here, what truth is. I am asking what the question is.

That may seem rather ridiculous. I say it is no more ridiculous than many of the things that people think, and say, and believe are true. At least I am not claiming anything significant. I am just observing that those three words, arrayed in that order, comprise a question.

But if you’d like, I can try to explain why the question would catch my attention. To me, there are two noteworthy things about it. First, it focuses on truth, and truth is commonly considered important. Second, it is the question that Pontius Pilate asked Jesus (John 18:38).

Pilate’s question has been interpreted in various ways. For instance, Wiersbe (2007, p. 303) observes that Pilate may have been either “sneering or sighing . . . we do not know.” Wikipedia, citing Wiersbe, suggests that Pilate could have been implicitly criticizing either the nature of Jesus’s trial or his claim to speak the truth.

Pilate’s utterance is probably why the question seems to be of interest especially to religious people. For example, at this writing, among the first 50 results in a Google search for that question, the large majority are patently religious — mostly Christian, but with a few Mormon entries and at least one that looks Hindu. Christian commentators (e.g., Rolheiser, 2011; Sancto, 2012; A Catholic Thinker, 2012) often consider Pilate’s question ironic, insofar as he seems to have been expressing uncertainty about truth while looking directly at the one who claimed, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

These insights suggest a characterization. “What is truth?” is a question that matters to many Christians because it highlights the contrast between their religion and the Greco-Roman philosophical tradition. In that tradition, someone like Pilate could (and perhaps Pilate did) snidely or sincerely allude to the complexity of philosophical truth, while completely missing the presence or possibility of religious truth.

Pilate, presumably not stupid, was able to miss the significance of Jesus (as portrayed in the New Testament), just as many Christians fail to understand various philosophical truths, because the alleged answer to the question of truth was not provided in an acceptable form. In that light, “What is truth?” points to the phenomenon, witnessed recently in the polarization of American politics, in which a given event can be interpreted in deeply incompatible ways, depending on one’s prior mental and emotional needs and commitments.

It could seem reasonable to respond to this state of affairs by striving for an open mind, freeing oneself from the distortion of those prior commitments. Unfortunately, while that may make sense from a secular perspective, it could be the exact opposite of what faith requires. In response to Thomas’s doubts (John 20:29), Jesus said, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” The greatest faith, within this religion, may be that which is most extremely capable of disregarding or reinterpreting evidence, so as to conform with prior mental or emotional commitments.

From a secular perspective, that may seem like craziness. Playing games with reality is a good way to get hurt or killed — even more so when believers exult in their freedom to behave irrationally, by seeking out endless nonsensical sociopolitical perspectives that have little or nothing to do with faith. You can support the Bush Administration’s counterproductive wars; you can insist on keeping guns in your home as a political statement; you can fight against vaccines and taxes; you can claim expertise in climate science and other fields in which you have no training. But your faith does not require you do to any of that — if anything, it is directly opposed to most of it — and if you insist on looking for trouble, eventually you will find it.

It is neither considerate nor intelligent to behave as if you need not try to make sense to your neighbors. And yet one might say the same thing to the philosophers. At least the believers do have a relatively coherent response to “What is truth?” By contrast, among the results of my Google search, I found these words in the introduction to the Truth entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP, Glanzberg, 2013):

The problem of truth is in a way easy to state: what truths are, and what (if anything) makes them true. But this simple statement masks a great deal of controversy. Whether there is a metaphysical problem of truth at all, and if there is, what kind of theory might address it, are all standing issues in the theory of truth.

So, not a bad start, given 2,500 years to work on it. With religion as an obtrusively irrational counterpoint, it has been easy for the secular types to assume that they all agree on science as a superior alternative. Yet this is not so. Another SEP article (Oberheim, 2013) observes that Kuhn (1962) and Feyerabend (1962) were labeled “the worst enemies of science” because their philosophies supported doubts about the rationality of science. Oberheim says the sociology of science became a recognized discipline as a result of that challenge — and, again citing the SEP (Longino, 2015), research within that discipline has contended inter alia that “philosophical analyses of rationality, of evidence, of truth and knowledge, [are] irrelevant to understanding scientific knowledge.” Going further, Good (1999, p. 186) says that some views held by mainstream philosophers of science “have actually been serious hindrances” to the science of chemistry.

So the philosophers are not consistently on the same page with one another, much less agreeing en masse with the scientists. “What is truth?” thus leads us around to the suspicion that truth may be perceived in multiple ways, depending upon one’s perspective or purpose. And — as if to suggest that we might finally be approaching the actual state of affairs — that sympathy to multiple perspectives may irritate believers, scientists, and philosophers alike, insofar as all seem to think they know a lot about truth, and are prepared to explain it to me in detail.

If I had to venture a guess at this point, I might say that truth appears to begin with those statements that must be true, in order for a certain enterprise to proceed. For instance, you have to start by assuming certain things about Jesus, in order to proceed with the Christian project; and you have to assume things about language or the physical world, if you are to get anywhere in philosophy or science. The assumptions will seem well founded in some situations, less so in others; the assumptions of one project may seem much more solid than those of another; but their basis in reality typically becomes less of an issue, once you roll up your sleeves and get absorbed in the details of the project.

That seems to explain Balkin’s (2003) contention that “law creates truth” — that “[i]t makes things true in the eyes of the law. And when law makes things true in its own eyes, this has important consequences in the world.” For instance, what the law makes true regarding taxation is “not true and false from the standpoint of mathematics or natural science” but rather just “from the standpoint of law . . . in ways that matter to us.” The idea seems to be that you start with your own little corner of the world; you say and do things that seem true within that limited physical or mental space; and then, at some point, what you have been saying and doing begins to affect people and things outside of your sphere. As Balkin observes, that can become problematic:

As soon as law creates a category or an institutional structure, it is possible for things to become true or real in the eyes of the law whether or not they are judged true or real from another perspective– for example the standpoint of medical science, religious belief, or political philosophy. . . .

As in religion, philosophy, and science, Balkin observes that legal truth gives people “tools to think with” — “a way of understanding”:

When law “recognizes” a cause of action for sexual harassment, for example, it sees that such a thing exists as a legal wrong. At the moment the wrong becomes cognizable to the law, it becomes real to the law, whether or not it had been real to generations of individuals before that point.

Balkin suggests that other forms of knowledge, behaving in roughly similar fashion, include medicine, psychology, social science, and history. These ways of knowing can conflict because “truth and knowledge are shaped by institutional purposes.” For instance, to a doctor, a person who walks into a hospital’s emergency room is “a set of clinical problems to be tested, identified, diagnosed and cured” but, to a lawyer, that same person is “a potential tort suit.” Both perspectives may be correct, but they can be unrelated or even opposed to one another.

In words that also apply to religion, philosophy, and science, Belkin closes with these remarks:

Law’s construction of a social world and its development of the social imagination can do enormous good. But it always also has other effects. It always also serves other ends, including the empowerment of legal institutions and legal forms of thinking. . . .

My point is to focus on the ways in which legal concepts, legal thinking, and legal imagination colonize moral and ethical imagination. To do this, we must pay careful attention to the many ways in which . . . the moral imagination becomes ensnared by and held in servitude to the legal. Then the truth of law does not necessarily set us free. . . . Law’s power grows organically and relentlessly out of law’s colonization of social imagination.

With those words, “What is truth?” takes an ominous turn. No longer are we talking about a familiar conflict between the old antagonists, God and science, each comfortably sealed in its own self-congratulatory echo chamber. Now, much to the contrary, Belkin portrays truth as an aggressive, colonizing force, a weapon with which to take control of what people think and do. This characterization resonates: this is, after all, what religions and philosophies have always seemed to be hoping for.

In such a setting, the question may be whether truth is your friend — whether the world is actually better off when you or I think we can answer the question, “What is truth?” The image comes to mind of two theologians or lawyers, fighting for years on end, to advance their own firm convictions as to the only permissible outcome of some dispute. When people think they have the truth, they dig in their heels. They become angry; they become hardened. This, it seems, is where wars begin.

Yet there is, perhaps, a response to such concerns. This post adopts a God’s-eye metaposition, standing above the fray, critiquing claimants to the prize of Truth. These various special-purpose forms of truth — legal, religious, etc. — do not generally seem so wise and true as to justify ignoring other forms of truth. In other words, by writing about these perspectives, I have implicitly taken the view that these are all just pieces of the puzzle. The heretofore unstated claim is that, approached honestly, “What is truth?” ultimately drives us toward questions and adaptations, rather than answers and verities.

Pilate asked, “What is truth?” We don’t know what he meant by that. And that is fortunate. Because what he achieved, by leaving us in limbo, was to exemplify the nature of the question. The query pushes us to keep asking him, and each other: Why do you say that? What do you mean? If the scripture is to be our guide, in this case it guides us to keep thinking about religious people, like Jesus; and about philosophers, like the Greeks and Romans in whom Pilate may have been schooled; and about the political and legal and other influences at work, in that moment of Christ’s Passion.

Repentance and the Methodist Minister

In prior posts in this blog, I have described the pursuit of truth that shaped my thinking about Christian belief, as well as some of my experiences with the ministerial profession, during my early years as an ardent reader of the Bible and as a pre-ministry student. Given that background, I have criticized instances of falsehood and hypocrisy that I have encountered among conservative Christian ministers and apologists.

In this post, I turn to the phenomenon of hypocrisy among liberal Christian ministers, mostly encountered in my later years, with particular focus on the topic of repentance. As above, this discussion explores a situation arising from my personal experience.

This is a long post. For those short on time, I suggest reading the Introduction and then deciding whether to skip on down a ways.

(Note: if a linked webpage is no longer available, or if its content seems to have changed, the Internet Archive may show what it looked like on some prior date. I also have screenshots for some webpages, and could insert those if necessary.)


Contrasting Concepts of Christian Ministry
The Meaning of Repentance
Repentance as a Weapon
The Inclination to Repent
The Homeless Center
Repentance Requires Truthfulness
Repentance vs. Hubris
Resisting Repentance
Witnessing Against the Enablers


This post presents a critique of certain acts by a liberal Christian minister, some of which are summarized in the accompanying video. I knew this minister pretty well: her name is Meg, and she is my ex-wife.

I decided to write this critique upon discovering that Meg has been conveying false information about me. That discovery surprised me. We were divorced more than 14 years ago. We didn’t have kids. I haven’t seen or heard from her since. There didn’t seem to be any reason for these false statements. But as I worked through this post, I arrived at a possible explanation of her motives.

Maybe it was just as well that this issue arose. For one thing, this inquiry into Meg’s words and acts helped me to arrive at a better understanding of our divorce. Working through these materials also highlighted the role that repentance can play in healing people’s lives and relationships. And I suspect there will be people who will need or appreciate the information provided here.

Further, as I explored the topic of repentance within the context of our divorce and more recent events, I began to perceive that a failure to take repentance seriously, on the part of a liberal Christian denomination like the United Methodist Church (UMC), might shortchange members and ministers in that denomination. It may also result in harm to innocent and vulnerable people. Hence, this post considers how such a denomination might benefit from an improved understanding of repentance.

Aside from what I learned during our marriage and divorce, the materials cited in this post are mostly those that I have been able to uncover in a moderately diligent online investigation. As far as I can tell, I did arrive at a basic understanding of relevant matters. But I welcome additions, corrections, and clarifications. There are still some things that I was not able to figure out. Readers should feel free to contact me or post comments (anonymously, if desired) at the end of this article.

The next two sections provide the backdrop of ministry and repentance. To me, this material is important. But I realize it won’t appeal to everyone. Those who can’t stay awake through those preliminary sections might want to skim on down to where we start talking about particular events.

Contrasting Concepts of Christian Ministry

Meg had grown up in the UMC. At some point, four or five years after our 2002 divorce, she went back to school, earned a Master’s degree in divinity (M.Div.), and became a UMC minister.

I had a sense of what was involved in becoming a minister. As described in another post, I was baptized in the conservative Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod and, after two years of intense religiosity in high school, I enrolled in a pre-ministry program at a Lutheran college.

It appeared, though, that the Lutheran and UMC concepts of ministry differed. For Martin Luther and his followers, the Bible was the starting point of faith. Hence, the Lutheran seminary sought to produce Bible scholars who also knew something about running a church. We started studying ancient Greek in the first semester of our freshman year in that undergraduate pre-ministry program, because the seminary expected us to be able to read the original New Testament texts, in Greek, upon our arrival. That was in the 1970s, but that is apparently expected today as well. I am not sure whether I would also have been expected to read Hebrew. The minister in our church, when I was in high school, was able to read Hebrew, Latin, Greek, and also German, Luther’s native tongue; my first-year studies thus included German. Altogether, an M.Div. from the Lutheran seminary presently requires the equivalent of about 59 semester credits of theological study, where “theology” largely means the study of the Bible’s text and its interpretation, plus a small number of courses in other areas.

I did not see a straightforward statement of courses required for the M.Div., at the websites of either the UMC General Board or the particular seminary Meg attended, but another seminary on the official list did make a course catalog available. In their program, the M.Div. required only 24 semester credits of study covering the Bible, the history of Christianity, and theology. That would be less than half (actually, about 40%) of the Lutheran seminary’s requirement. Everything else seemed to be oriented toward the practice of ministry, with required or elective courses in a variety of areas (e.g., pastoral caregiving, prison ministry).

In a video, I captured an amusing discussion in which Meg and I talked about Bible stories. She had a very limited grasp of what was in the Bible, consistent with her more or less agnostic beliefs. The lack of biblical orientation may have reflected the priorities of the seminary that trained her local minister, at the church she attended in her youth. To that minister, no doubt, the important thing was not to learn the content and meaning of Bible passages, but rather to pursue the practice of faith in contemporary life, with the aid of references to the occasional scripture. The Methodist seminary training may have been more useful for purposes of running an appealing and relevant church. But as I developed this post, I had to wonder whether UMC pastors in training, including Meg, were shortchanged in their understanding of essential Christian doctrines. It will soon become clear why I was particularly interested in what she had learned about the doctrine of repentance.

The Meaning of Repentance

It seems repentance can mean what you want it to mean. In its weakest form, some construe it as no more than an awareness of a tactical error, as in, “I shouldn’t have borrowed the neighbor’s grill without asking. He might call the cops.” From both a religious and psychological perspective, that weak construal leaves out much of what repentance can be.

Repentance is central to the teachings of Jesus. According to the very first chapter of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus began his ministry by calling upon his hearers to repent. Numerous commentators conclude that, in Christian belief, repentance is essential for salvation.

But repentance is not an exclusively Christian concept. In various forms, it appears in other religions and also in secular contexts. For instance, Piquero (2016) finds a positive relationship between repentance and reduced juvenile re-arrests; Baron (2015) argues that repentance was underestimated in the amnesties granted by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa; Bastian et al. (2012, p. 158) cite repentance as a means of regaining one’s moral standing in the community after committing immoral acts; and Bench-Capon (2016, p. 12) suggests incorporation of a repentance element in an artificial intelligence system designed to assess human behavior. Within the sphere of religion, Lerner (2015) considers repentance important in Jewish religious practice; Lee et al. (2016) likewise in Buddhism; and Wikipedia states that tawba (i.e., “retreat” or “return”) is “of immense importance in Islamic tradition.”

Dictionary definitions of repentance tend to emphasize feelings — notably, deep sorrow or regret for a wrongful act. The key ingredient appears to be the conscience, typically understood as an inner sense that encourages a person to choose right rather than wrong action. In psychiatry, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) offers Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD) as the most likely diagnosis for a person who seems to lack a conscience — although, according to PsychCentral, ASPD requires at least three of these traits, usually occurring by age 15: feels no guilt or remorse; regularly breaks or flouts the law; constantly lies and deceives others; is impulsive and doesn’t plan ahead; is prone to fighting and aggression; has little regard for the safety of others; or is irresponsible or fails to meet financial obligations.

Outside of psychiatry, people often use “psychopath” or “sociopath” to denote ASPD-type attitudes and behaviors. Sources disagree on whether those two terms mean the same thing. Among those who see a difference, the dominant view (from e.g., Psychology Today, Huffington Post, PsychCentral) seems to be that a sociopath has problems with social contacts or society in general (e.g., nervous, easily agitated, prone to emotional outbursts, unable to keep a job or stay in one place, generally viewed as troubled), but may be at least somewhat able to form one-on-one emotional attachments and feel empathy, and may have enough of a conscience to feel bad about what s/he is doing. The psychopath is rather the opposite: calm, charming personality, easy to trust, fits in well (e.g., has a job, may have what seems to be a loving relationship with a partner), and good at faking emotions — but cold inside, with no conscience and no ability to form emotional attachments or feel empathy. As those descriptions imply, the crimes of a sociopath tend to be disorganized and spontaneous, while the psychopath’s are carefully planned. The psychopath’s lack of emotionality is believed to result from brain structure, perhaps genetically determined, while sociopathy is believed to result from childhood trauma and abuse.

These concepts raise the question of whether a person who lacks a conscience, and thus cannot experience deep regret, is capable of repenting. My search led directly to 1 2 3 discussions in which people grappled with this question. Possibly a working response would be that even if someone has never felt horrible about harming some other living creature, s/he could nevertheless achieve what amounts to repentance, by coming to understand that certain acts s/he has committed are morally unacceptable, being convinced that s/he must change, pursuing such change with determination, and achieving a style in which s/he largely succeeds in doing the right thing, even though s/he does not have the guilty feelings that a dictionary definition might require for repentance.

Indeed, for some purposes, that solution might be better than an overly emotion-oriented concept of repentance. The problem with emotions is that they provide flaky guidance. If I define repentance as a predominantly emotional matter, it will be tempting for me to assume that everything is OK as soon as I feel OK. The people I’ve harmed may not agree.

In 1530, Philip Melanchthon wrote, and Luther approved, the Augsburg Confession. Article 12 of the Confession stated that Christian repentance starts with contrition (i.e., “terrors smiting the conscience through the knowledge of sin”) and continues through faith (i.e., the belief that, “for Christ’s sake, sins are forgiven”) to produce good works, which are “the fruits of repentance” and “are bound to follow” (see Moldenhauer, 2016).

Similarly, the UMC states that salvation entails repentance, defined as “turning away from behaviors rooted in sin and toward actions that express God’s love, and another UMC webpage states that “repentance should be accompanied by . . . works of piety and mercy.” The general idea seems similar to the Lutheran view, but the phrasing in those quotes is less strict: “should be accompanied” sounds like a mere suggestion. It is not the same as saying that good works “are bound to follow.”


Thus, in the Lutheran Commentary, Horn (1895, Philemon, p. 229) says, “Christian repentance demands restitution,” defined as repayment to the victim for injury or loss. If you’ve stolen someone’s bicycle, it is not sufficient to pray that God will make that person feel better. You owe them a bike. You need to pay back.

That does seem to have been the 19th-century Methodist concept as well. For instance, Rev. John Prickard preached that “repentance was all that we could require for the offence against God, and restitution was all we could insist on for the offence they had committed against their neighbour” (see Jackson, 1872, p. 187). But you won’t necessarily get that nowadays, in the observation of one Methodist minister (2006):

For Zacchaeus repentance meant something concrete: ‘Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount’ (Luke 19:8). This sounds rather different from the conversion testimonies that we sometimes hear in our churches today. . . . [I]t has been a long time since I heard a testimony like that of Zacchaeus, for whom repentance meant costly restitution for some serious moral failure against others in the past.

Frankly, the same seems true of the 20th-century Lutheranism in which I was raised — in practice, if not in doctrine. There was much talk of forgiveness, but very little mention of restitution — in effect, Bonhoeffer’s cheap grace. So I suppose it depends on what you want to believe. If your God is content to let you repent by planting a tree in memory of some guy you killed, then maybe you belong in a heaven with others who feel the same about their sins against you. But if I were that dead man’s child, I think I’d be more impressed if you found a way to replace his paycheck. Onerous, I know, but probably conducive to a reduced murder rate. In the process, you might learn something about love. And you might end up with a religion worth belonging to.

For a boiled-down summary, WikiHow says that Christian repentance includes thinking about what you’ve done and why it was wrong; repenting for the right reasons; getting help; changing your behavior; making right the problems you caused for others; and living a life that pleases God.

Today’s UMC is willing to go partway toward meeting the WikiHow expectations. For example, in a webpage titled “Act of Repentance for Racism,” the UMC acknowledges that it previously engaged in “acts which have perpetuated the sin of racism”; resolves to adopt “a study guide which addresses the church’s role in racism”; and “requests all local congregations in the United States to engage in study sessions” using that guide. It’s a start. But the acts being repented of, involving alienation or segregation of blacks within the UMC, occurred between 1816 and 1939. Pretty safe to repent of them now, right? The relevant parties are all dead. Nobody will be suing you for what you admit. Not that the UMC statement actually admits much: it does not name specific acts of wrongdoing. If you want to know what racist acts the UMC has committed or is now committing, it seems the lawyers are more forthcoming than the church.

So, within Christian practice, we have a lame pseudo-repentance that shields the wrongdoer from real, present-moment responsibility, and then we have a more legalistic concept of repentance calling for a stricter identification of wrongs and remedies. But there may also be a third dimension. Often, where law is involved, social science is or should be involved as well. There are usually reasons — psychological, cultural, historical — for the things people do. Understanding those reasons may help all parties — the wrongdoer, the wronged person, bystanders, and the system — to arrive at superior ways of preventing and responding to undesirable behaviors and events. To a considerable extent, this post is about the difference between the “repentance lite” practiced by today’s UMC and these other — deeper, it seems, and more meaningful — approaches to repentance.

Repentance as a Weapon

Ironically, it was Meg herself who helped me to realize that repentance might now be the key issue between us. When I became aware that she was telling tales, and searched for further information, I came across an article (archive link) that she wrote. That article described her participation in a protest, in October 2014, against police brutality in the predominantly black suburb of Ferguson, Missouri.

In this section, I criticize some aspects of Meg’s participation in that protest. I do sympathize with resistance to police brutality and racism. But Meg’s handling of the situation illustrates that repentance can be misused: one can apply it incorrectly against others, or can fail to apply it properly to oneself.

In that protest, held at the Ferguson police department headquarters, Meg joined several dozen other clergy from around the country in what the Huffington Post described as an effort to persuade police officers “to ‘repent’ for the [fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown] and for other acts of brutality against people of color.” At face value, that did make some sense. If the police were doing wrong, surely they needed to repent.

I wondered about Meg’s own motives for participating, though. In my experience — and now, in the materials that my Google searches have brought to light — she rarely if ever participated in political protests or took an active role in race-related matters. The 45 videos in her Vimeo channel present sermons whose titles refer to veterans, finances, baptism, serving God, and other topics; but I don’t see that she has delivered a sermon on such subjects as police brutality or discrimination. The titles are not very informative, for most of the sermons in her YouTube channel and for many in the Vimeo channel, so I could be missing something. But it doesn’t seem I am missing much. Throughout the materials that I reviewed while preparing this post, it appeared that she made many statements and took many actions related to homelessness, but few related to race.

As Meg used to tell me, and as demonstrated by her videos and by my own video, she loves to be onstage. Going to Ferguson as a member of that group of ministers was much more visible than being a mere anonymous protester. I do think she considered it important at the time. But I also think that it was dramatic and exciting, and that she got her face and name in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch — along with a couple of black women whose names, ironically, weren’t mentioned.


The Huffington Post article quoted a minister who explained that repentance required both an admission of wrongdoing and a commitment to make changes. He said, “[T]here has not even been any admitting of wrongdoing yet by any of the powers that be in Ferguson.” It appeared that the city was not fulfilling its responsibilities to its citizens. An investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice (2015) found pervasive injustices, in Ferguson’s police practices, violating multiple federal laws and constitutional rights. New York Times article conveyed the view that nothing would change, however, unless the Justice Department sued Ferguson and demanded systemic restructuring.

That raises the question of what individual police officers can do. Meg’s article said that, in Ferguson, she confronted two different officers with these words: “You are a part of a system that killed Michael Brown. I call you to repentance and offer to hear your confession.” That may have made good theater, but it seems like questionable religion. For one thing, most Protestants don’t ordinarily do confession, per se. That’s a predominantly Catholic thing — and, even then, you rarely if ever see priests walking up to people on the street and demanding a public confession. The Catholic Encyclopedia says that “secret confession, sacramental in character, has been the practice of the church from the earliest days.” That seems to be the case in the UMC as well: its Book of Discipline ¶ 340.2(a)(5) requires ministers to “maintain all confessions inviolate” except where otherwise required by law. But if I’m wrong about that — if Methodist ministers are in the business of demanding public confessions — why aren’t they (including the Methodist ministers in Ferguson) doing it every day, in the ghettoes of their own home towns? For that matter, why aren’t they publicly shaming the exploitative and abusive members of their own congregations? Isn’t it a little suspicious that this handful of protesting ministers (many from out of state) only now decided to demand confessions, when the world was watching through the cameras in Ferguson? It seems someone might have reminded them that Jesus told his followers not to make a show of their religion in public (Matthew 6:5).

Not to say these ministers were all just glory hounds, but their approach does seem unfair. The Justice Department’s report (p. 12) noted, for example, that some Ferguson officers had tried to do the right thing, but were defeated by the dominant culture within the Police Department. The officers who would be most stricken by conscience might be the best of the lot: they might be most likely to give someone like Meg a public confession — thereby putting themselves at risk of lawsuits, imprisonment, and retribution from fellow officers. A minister whose form of protest leads to punishment of the best officers is not necessarily doing us any favors.

In her article, Meg says that tears came to the eyes of both of the officers she confronted: “We looked into each other’s souls. What I saw was pain.” Or maybe not. Maybe what she saw was frustration at being falsely accused — because, for all we know, the officers selected to handle that protest may have been those who were actually the best at working with members of the community. Or maybe she was seeing tears of grief or fear arising from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — if, for instance, the officer happened to be a veteran, presently experiencing a flashback to his military experience with angry crowds in Iraq. As another possibility, she may have been seeing humiliation, as in the 1970s, when protesting women treated returning Vietnam veterans as baby killers, just as Meg seems to have assumed these officers were racist. In other words, a skilled mental health worker would probably not assume that s/he could know what was going through the mind of a police officer being publicly accused during a political protest — and would surely not be the one making such a potentially unfounded accusation. Automatically labeling someone as racist because he wears a certain uniform is not a Christlike departure from labeling someone as dangerous because of the color of his skin.

In her article, Meg tried to explain why she made the four-hour round-trip drive from Columbia to Ferguson that day:

The congregation I serve is celebrating 100 years in ministry. During those 100 years we have been guilty of sins of racism, sexism, heterosexism and classism. The fact that I have only been a part of this congregation for four and a half years does not negate my responsibility within a sinful institution. . . .

This is the context from which I went to Ferguson on Monday to participate in a clergy protest. I needed to be with other people of faith to name our own sinfulness, our own complacency within sinful systems. I needed to confess, repent and make a commitment to pursuing a new direction.

Those remarks seem confused. Meg can’t repent of sins that were committed by other people, or before she was born. Repentance may include feeling bad, but that doesn’t mean every bad feeling is repentance. She didn’t really repent of “complacency” or make a commitment to a new direction: as noted above, there seem to be no signs that her ministry became reoriented toward issues involving race or police brutality, during the two years that have passed since that Ferguson protest. She didn’t need to make that trip in order “to be with other people of faith”; the people of faith in her congregation were right there in Columbia. She didn’t need to go to Ferguson to confess or repent; Columbia was perfectly adequate for that too.

It is not clear why Meg made those statements. Maybe she feared that people would suspect she was seeking the limelight when, in her mind, she was just trying to do something meaningful. Maybe the Ferguson experience turned out to be upsetting, or not quite what she thought it would be, and she felt obliged to try to resolve a bit of the disorientation that it generated within her. Maybe her training taught her that people are used to fuzzy thinking when they hear seemingly religious words like “repent.”

It does appear, though, that what the UMC taught Meg of repentance, in her childhood and in seminary, involves a double standard. When confronting herself, her article follows the UMC formula (above) of claiming a fake personal responsibility for unspecified acts committed long ago, by people who are probably not even alive anymore. There is no real bite to it, no identification of specific sins, on her part, that might require a potentially costly personal restitution. But that approach was not going to be acceptable for the cops she confronted. For them, the vague words about involvement with a “sinful system” were just the starting point. She expected those officers to confess specific racist acts — acts that, if overheard, could cost them.

If Meg was serious about facing up to her sins, her article needed to say pretty much the opposite of what it said. It would certainly have been refreshing if, for instance, she had told us about being confronted by a cop who said to her, “You are a part of a system of poverty pimps that uses the failings of police officers, and the suffering of black people, for your own self-glorification. I call you to repentance and offer to hear your confession.”

The message that Meg carried to those police officers was a message from a position of privilege. It said, in effect, “We have standards in this country, and if you want to wear that uniform, you need to live up to those standards.” That would not be a bad message, for some purposes. But from a Christian minister, it is off-key. The message of Jesus was, “Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but fail to notice the beam in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3). He does not seem to have led his disciples on political missions, to insure that Roman guards were complying with Roman regulations. Those disciples were having a hard enough time just understanding and applying his teachings to their own lives.

It is possible to approach such matters differently. Imagine an article on race, written by a different sort of minister. Instead of spending a day making a trip to Ferguson, joining in the protest, and writing about that experience, this minister uses that time to listen to the complaints of the Ferguson protesters, and humbly tries to apply those complaints to herself. Let’s say she’s a UMC minister in Columbia, and is aware that the UMC has been growing whiter, such that it is now 90% white and only 6% black, while the city of Columbia is 79% white and 11% black. Let’s say, moreover, that her particular church is located in a more heavily minority area, and yet her congregation is mostly white. Plainly, if that minister is genuinely concerned about engaging the UMC with black people, such as the ones in her neighborhood, she has some work to do. So perhaps she has noticed the Columbia Missourian article indicating that Columbia’s police department has been devoting a disproportionate amount of attention to black motorists in the predominantly black part of town. Now, instead of picking on the police located at a safe distance, in far-off Ferguson, she can make a more courageous nuisance of herself right there at home, where she might face consequences. In her article, she can name the Columbia officers she spoke with, and can describe what she got from them. She can also describe specific instances when she has caught herself perpetuating covert racism, so as to educate her audience and keep herself honest. Unfortunately, that is not the route Meg chose.

To sum up, repentance is not a weapon. It is not a matter of going out, finding fault with people, and demanding public confessions. Moreover, in Christian teaching, the primary purpose of repentance is personal change leading to salvation, not political change leading to a better society. Even if political change were a suitable preoccupation for a minister who claims to be following in the footsteps of Jesus, it does not appear that Meg, herself, was sincerely committed to the pursuit of political change on the specific topic of racism. But even if she had been, it would still have taken a lot of nerve for her to demand repentance from others — as we are about to see.

The Inclination to Repent

So Meg raised the topic of repentance, and did so in such a way as to call into question her own grasp of, and investment in, that topic. She seemed unfamiliar with the language and behavior of the genuinely repentant person.

I was sensitive to that possibility because, after all, I had spent nine years living with her. The end of those nine years began on a summer day, just a week before the sixth anniversary of our wedding. On that day, I suddenly came to understand that, in being her biggest fan, I had been blind to behaviors that would destroy our marriage.

That day was June 29, 2002. That afternoon, she came home from a business trip, and informed me that she had been carrying on affairs with other men for the past eight of our nine years together.

Now that, you might think, would be a great opportunity for someone to show that they know what repentance is. Not to get ahead of the story, but that was 14 years ago, and I am still waiting for an apology.


So, yes, I do have some basis for paying careful attention to the words Meg uses, when she writes about repentance. For me, this was a brutal experience — and as described below, she has deliberately compounded its brutality.

In case anyone is wondering, it is hard for me, even now, to present these facts. Obviously, I could have told this story at any point in the past 14 years, if I had been inclined to make a public statement against Meg. YouTube tells me that she started posting videos of her sermons five or six years ago. If I had been following her activities, I would have found those videos when she posted them. My critique of just one of her videos, provided below, suggests that I probably could have found quite a bit to criticize in her weekly sermons, if I had wanted to do that. There probably were other relevant videos or webpages too, put online by Meg or others (e.g., newspapers), that have since been taken down. I wouldn’t know. I wasn’t following her; I made no public statement on these matters before 2016; and I have not interfered with her ministry or with anything else in her life.

To anticipate one question, after she told me of her affairs, back in June 2002, I don’t think I was ever seriously tempted to call her names and leave, slamming the door on the way out. There seem to have been several factors moderating my reactions, as her story unfolded. For one thing, I was 15 years her elder, and sometimes our relationship felt like that of mentor and protégé. I was often in a position of providing guidance, especially in her career but also, sometimes, in other areas of life.

I was in no rush to terminate our relationship, also, because I wanted to try to understand what was happening. I had been divorced once before. I felt that I could have learned more from that experience. This time, I wanted to proceed more cautiously. So, rather than throw Meg out or leave in a huff after her June 29 confession, I spent the next two weeks continuing to live with her, keeping things on an even keel to the extent possible, and using the time to ask a lot of questions and do a lot of thinking.

My state of semi-detachment, during those weeks, comes through in the accompanying video. As one might expect, I wasn’t always calm. But when I got upset, I usually responded by going out for a walk, to think about what was bothering me. Usually, with Meg, during those two weeks, I was in more of a clinical state of mind. Maybe I was retreating to rationality as a source of structure in a crumbling personal world. Or maybe it was just the nature of the story she was telling me, and other things she was saying along the way. Sometimes it was really over the top. As I began to develop a sense of what Meg had been doing and thinking, the strangeness of her account made it interesting. It almost removed me from the picture. It was like she contained the whole opera within herself, and I was just sitting in the audience, observing as the tale unfolded.

I think it also helped that I was reasonably confident of myself, where women were concerned. My years with Meg had followed other relationships in which I had matured. I felt that I had become a faithful and pleasant boyfriend and husband. Her drama did not erase the evidence that I was able to do my part in making a relationship succeed. So I couldn’t entirely take it personally. This story didn’t seem to be about me, exactly. She didn’t seem to think that I was guilty of any terrible act or personality trait that would drive her to this. For me, it was more like a nightmare, where bizarre things happen and you just have to try to get through it.

With Meg’s permission, I made hours of audio recordings, capturing many of her statements on these matters, during those weeks in July 2002. At present, it seems unnecessary to disclose the contents of those recordings at length. The accompanying video provides a couple of brief excerpts, sufficient to establish that I am telling the truth about the reason for our divorce. Here, I will add a few points to flesh out the contrast I am developing, between the glib salvation of the phony Christian and the real, heartrending sorrow of true repentance.

Meg said that most of her affairs had been with married men. She indicated that some of their marriages had broken up because of those affairs. Yet she insisted she was not responsible for those breakups. Moreover, she said she wanted a divorce so that she could continue with more of the same. At one point, she said that someone had asked her how she had gotten away with so much lying to me for so long. Her reply, expressed with pride: “It just depends on how good a liar you are.”

Those behaviors were consistent with the attitude toward me that emerged during those two weeks of discussion. It suddenly seemed she did not take me too seriously as a lawfully wedded husband who had subordinated his own career and desire for a stable home — spending all those years following her across a half-dozen states where, for the most part, I did not want to live, as we focused on helping her to achieve rapid promotions in the American Red Cross. Instead, it now seemed that, in her mind, I was almost like a parent from whom she was trying to conceal the adventure of a teenage romance.

A jilted spouse, encountering this sort of situation, could be understandably skeptical toward the philosophy of today’s no-fault divorce, in which marriage is an arrangement of convenience, within a toothless legal structure that offers no protections against even gross irresponsibility and exploitation. As I explain in another post, the old-fashioned legal alternative rejected “marriage as contract” in favor of “marriage as status.” It was in the marriage-as-status world that marriage was literally an institution, a sphere protected against third-party interference and made safe for lifelong intimacy and trust. Those who would treat lightly the marriage vows made by themselves, or by some other married person, could be punished by criminal law and/or sued by the offended spouse (for e.g., “alienation of affections”). Of course, traditional marriage-as-status had problems, especially for women whose husbands abused or exploited them. But some may feel that a story like this one favors the protections that the institution gave, or could give, to the trusting spouse. It is not surprising that, as discussed in that other post, the tide in the past several decades has been turning back toward a more traditional and less frivolous attitude toward marriage.

As our discussions continued, in July 2002, another aspect of the situation emerged. To a certain extent, I started to feel sorry for Meg. It seemed that she might be a bit pathetic. I know my partners tend to become more appealing to me as I become more attached to them, over a period of time; but I did honestly think she was an attractive woman. But now it sounded like she overplayed her hand, sometimes failing to seduce married men who declined to pursue the opportunity. I think those hours of conversation brought me to see her, through her own eyes, as a sort of ugly duckling, trying to be pretty and to feel glamorous, and yet rarely managing to be the life of the party. As I say, I did not think she was an ugly duckling; but if that was her self-perception, I could see how that might play a role in some of her behavior.

In her article, Meg said that, when she confronted those two police officers in Ferguson, what she saw in their tearful eyes was “a need to release the doubt and guilt and confusion and fear.” If that is the test of regret leading to repentance, Meg failed. During those two weeks of talk about her extramarital affairs, the only time I saw tears in her eyes was on June 30, the day after she informed me of all those years of cheating. We were in the kitchen. I was asking her questions and she was answering them. At that stage, there was still a great deal of new information. It was a lot to handle. The things she was saying were so personally devastating to me that, at one point, I sagged against the doorway, put my head down, and moaned in grief. It was an almost animal sound, like a wounded cow. I don’t think I had ever done anything like that before. I didn’t mean to; it just came out. I think that scared her; she did shed a few tears at that. But the moment passed. Throughout the following weeks, and in the period of more than 14 years since then, there has been no glimmer of regret on Meg’s part.

As we spoke, during those two weeks, she said she had finally decided to tell me about all this because she felt “hideous” about lying to me. But that turned out not to be the case: eventually I found that some of these “confessions” included brand-new falsehoods. For instance, on a couple of occasions we talked about her affairs during the past twelve months. At one point, she told me that she had not cheated on me in that period of time. She said she had vowed to be faithful during that past year because now, at last, we had a nice home in a town we liked. But then, at another point, she said she was upset because, during that year, she had not been able to keep herself from cheating, and in fact had cheated more frequently than before. Her accounts contradicted each other in other ways as well, and were also inconsistent with other things that I knew then or would eventually figure out. For example, she failed to confess an affair that she had pursued rather flamboyantly in work-related settings. (I think she didn’t tell me about that one for fear that I would figure out who the guy was. It seemed her primary ethical concern, at this point, was to protect the identities of her lovers, to the extent possible.) So I don’t think she really felt hideous about lying to me. I did ask further questions about her alleged remorse — when she first felt it, for instance, and what had triggered it — but she didn’t seem able to provide much detail.

When I heard her confession that she had been cheating on me during the last eight of our nine years together, I finally understood a phone call I had received a year after I met her, back in 1994. We were living together. A young man called and asked for her. When I said she wasn’t home, he started insulting me. I had no idea what was the matter with him. I just hung up on him. I didn’t have his name, so she didn’t have to worry that I would figure out who he was. So now, in 2002, she was willing to confirm that he was the first of her affairs. It seemed that he had insulted me because he had the impression that I was a worthless boyfriend. Apparently this was what she was telling these guys, to justify her cheating.

I also figured out the identity of another one of her lovers, and we talked about him a bit. She described him as mentally unstable. During those two weeks of conversation in July 2002, she suggested that she had “comforted” him by having sex with him. She had apparently forgotten that, a year or two earlier, in previous conversation about her colleagues and her work experiences, she had told me (without mentioning any sexual involvement) that this man was needy, that he had become a pain in the neck, that eventually she had to avoid his attempts to contact her, that he went on to suffer a mental breakdown, and that ultimately he was institutionalized with severe mental illness. I don’t know whether her sexual involvement aggravated his symptoms. But that is one thing they warn against in mental health training, and I hope the same is true in ministerial training. You don’t have sex with clients; you don’t take advantage of people in vulnerable situations. Certainly one would hope that she eventually stopped believing that an affair with a married woman (with its potential for guilt and for ultimately being rejected as she did reject him, among other things) would be an appropriate form of therapy for a mentally disturbed man.

That particular story has ramifications beyond Meg herself. As discussed in more detail below, one might have expected the UMC to pay more attention to what can go wrong when it certifies a minister who considers herself capable of sexual healing — especially when she goes on to choose a form of ministry in which she would have considerable power to provide counseling and other assistance to the homeless population, which includes substantial numbers of needy, vulnerable, discouraged, and mentally ill men.

The Homeless Center

The preceding section supports a belief that it would be risky and inappropriate for the UMC to produce ministers who lack the spiritual foundation and religious commitment necessary for ethical ministerial practice. In Meg’s case, this is not a hypothetical matter. We now have the results of her work at the Wilkes Blvd. United Methodist Church in Columbia, Missouri, over a period of six years. This section discusses outcomes, at that church, that support some of the concerns and conclusions expressed above.

According to an article in the Columbia Missourian, Meg’s first goal as a minister was this: “Don’t be a church with a split personality.” The article did not explain the reasoning behind that goal. A church would ordinarily consist of not one, not two, but a hundred personalities. Presumably she meant a single focus. But there, again, one might ask why. Churches commonly offer members the opportunity to participate in several different kinds of service or fellowship.

Meg told the Missourian that, before she arrived, there was “a great group of people” involved in the addiction recovery groups that met at the church. If her concern had been simply to make sure that her congregation had a single area of focus, it would have made sense to build upon that established addiction recovery mission. She didn’t do that. But neither did she tell the addiction recovery groups to find another place to meet. They apparently continued to meet at her church, throughout her years there. From what I can tell, she didn’t give them much attention, but also didn’t bother them. She was evidently willing to let them do their own thing.

So it does not seem that Meg was really concerned that her congregation might be engaged in more than one pursuit. There does not seem to have been a genuine commitment to a single congregational personality. The bit about a “split personality” bit may have been just an excuse to disregard some traditional ministerial priorities, so as to focus on what she really wanted to do.

What she wanted was clear enough. She told the Missourian that apparently God wanted her to revive her old interest in homelessness, harking back to her undergraduate volunteer work with Habitat for Humanity circa 1992.


To explore that personal area of interest, she used her congregation’s savings to create a day center for homeless people, located on the third floor in the church building. This center, called Turning Point, reportedly brought, to the Sunday morning church services, people who were sometimes not just unwashed, but also intoxicated and/or snoring. Certainly Jesus preached to the lowly, but lowly does not necessarily mean holy; he also advised against casting pearls before swine. There was apparently quite a conflict: the expenses, and the disruption of Sunday services, were extensive and disturbing enough to drive away a majority of church members. According to the Missourian, “All but about 20 parishioners left.” But evidently Meg felt they lacked vision; those who departed were accused of “resistance to change.”

The departure of so many members was apparently quite upsetting for those who remained. The Missourian article quotes Meg as saying, “[W]e had to process through a lot of that grief because folks were losing friends that had been with them and worshipped for a long time.” In other words, she seems to have seen that many of them were actually rather close-knit. Here, again, it does not seem that the congregation had a split personality when she arrived.

In March 2014, the Columbia Daily Tribune reported that Meg started out on the homeless center project as just a temporary “stopgap” fix, until the city could establish a more permanent day center. That was surprising. One might expect that the decision to tear a congregation apart would be made with great reluctance, and only in anticipation of an enduring mission. She told KOMU News that, as long as Turning Point did remain within her church building, they would be “working to raise funds to eventually be able to keep the center open all day and serve more people.” I don’t know whether that was realistic at the time. It did not pan out. Nearly three years later, in November 2016, the Tribune suggested that funding was keeping up with needs, “more or less.” But it also noted that, as had been the case three years earlier, the center was still only staying open from 8 AM to noon, and only on weekdays.

Let us not withhold credit where due. My years of exposure to the social work profession lead me to think that Meg would have made a good social worker. I’m glad the homeless and marginally housed people of Columbia have that day center. They might not have it without her. The materials I reviewed, in the course of preparing this post, have convinced me that she cared, that she and her second husband worked hard, and that they achieved something of value. (It looked like he devoted quite a bit of time and effort to the homeless center, and to other projects in Meg’s church. I did not see that he got much public credit for it, in her articles, interviews, and media photo opportunities.) People began to recognize her as a key person in Columbia’s response to homelessness. On December 15, 2015, the Tribune said, “As the Turning Point continues to grow, the most positive force of all regarding the future is the Rev. Meg Hegemann.” A month later, she and Turning Point were the 2016 winners of the Columbia Values Diversity award.

That was right before she decided to quit and move back to Maine — leaving others to carry the burden of keeping her project alive. She gave her last sermon four months later. In an interview with the local NPR radio station, they said she was merely going “on leave”; she apparently told the Missourian that she was “retiring”; and at present the UMC website says she is on “sabbatical.” But those characterizations appear inaccurate. Her job at the church in Columbia was promptly filled by someone else, and she has taken a position as a minister in her home town in Maine.

Meg admitted that there was initially “some nervousness” when people discovered that she was bailing out. She claimed those worries had vanished by the time of her departure, but that seems unlikely. One can hope that, in 2017, Turning Point will survive a political environment in which the National Council of Nonprofits perceives considerable risk to the financial stability of nonprofit organizations. It appears that nonprofits whose funding is shaky will be at particular risk.

Without Meg (and her husband) to wear two hats, Turning Point had to become a more clearly separate entity. As one would expect, the new minister appears to be focused on Bible study and other traditional religious preoccupations, and less invested in the homeless center. It was evidently necessary to hire a separate director for Turning Point. That new director is not a member of the church staff. This seems to mark the end of Meg’s attempt to straddle the worlds of ministry and social work at Wilkes Blvd UMC. Far from eliminating a split personality within the church building, the available information suggests that she created one.

Why am I giving her a hard time about this? I’m not, really. To save money while attempting to start my life over, after our divorce, I spent a year sleeping in a tent while taking graduate courses in that same city. Having had that experience, I can believe that Columbia would benefit from a center for homeless people.

The problem I perceive in this situation is just that, as in our marriage, there seems to have been a difference between what Meg committed herself to do and what she felt like doing. The world does need homeless centers. It needs many things. But when you take a job as a minister (or, for that matter, when you take wedding vows), you have to understand that people are depending on you to behave in a stable and reliable manner, toward building a future. That is what commitment means. You say goodbye to the endless possibilities that you might have pursued, and you turn your full attention to producing good results in what you have promised to do. If you’re not interested in doing that, you don’t make the commitment. You sure don’t make the promise, and get others to depend on you, when you know that you are going to let them down.

Ministers do have leeway. But there are limits. The UMC’s Book of Discipline ¶ 340 specifies the “Responsibilities and Duties of Elders and Licensed Pastors.” There are a number of such duties, listed in four sections. The first three sections contain the religious component: Word and Ecclesial Acts; Sacrament (especially baptism and communion); and Order (i.e., church administration). Those three religion-oriented sections dominate this list. The fourth section, Service, is brief; moreover, it assumes that the more traditional religious work is already being done. For example, the Service section speaks of “ordering the life of the congregation,” which won’t be feasible if the congregation is on its deathbed.

Needless to say, if you’re a minister, you can participate in a homeless response team. If your congregation is willing, you can let that team use your facility. The Tribune says that a number of others in the community were motivated to get the homeless center running. So yes, by all means, work with those people — but keep your eye on the ball. As a practical matter, you should remember that the underlying religious institution needs to be healthy, if it is to continue to pay your salary and to contribute volunteers to your homeless center. In an era of declining church membership, don’t run roughshod over people, if you want them to show up on Sunday mornings. Don’t take an attitude of “my way or the highway,” as one ex-member of that church described Meg’s style. Don’t taint God’s name with goofy claims that he is the driving force behind your brainchild, when most likely he isn’t.

Why did Meg lose sight of the core mission prescribed by the Book of Discipline? I have a theory. In the election contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton during the fall of 2016, I saw that well-educated, well-meaning liberals are human — that, like their less-educated and conservative brethren, they can become frightfully intolerant and narrowminded, once they have decided they know The Truth. Based on my years with Meg, I suspect she brought herself and her congregation to a crisis point of mass departures, culminating in what she called a “lynch the pastor meeting,” partly because she became too immersed in that liberal echo chamber — because, in effect, she believed she was smarter and more compassionate (toward homelessness, especially) than the people she worked for.

I have wondered whether she needed to believe that — whether becoming a minister gave her a sense of moral purity, a way of writing off her reckless handling of our marriage, without having to do the hard work of repentance. It would be unfortunate if that’s why she went into ministry — if the desire to feel like a good person led her to waste her midlife career change opportunity on a profession that will probably allow only occasional dabbling in the social issues she cares about.

It has certainly been interesting to observe that Meg’s seminary gave her an award for her distinguished service as a minister, praising specifically her work with homeless people. Consistent with that priority, as noted above, her preoccupation with the homeless center is obvious throughout the materials I reviewed while preparing this post, including articles, videos, and local media coverage cited on her version of the church website. She seemed to treat the rest of her ministry as almost an afterthought. Those priorities had severe consequences for that hundred-year-old congregation. The sometimes angry, sometimes heartbreaking departures of so many members probably explain why the previous minister’s five Sunday School classes and iGod youth group vanished on Meg’s watch.

It seems, in other words, that the seminary had its priorities wrong, when it commended Meg’s focus on service. By contrast, the priorities of the associate pastor who replaced her, Brad Bryan, seem to be what the Book of Discipline expects. Since he took over, his entries on the church’s Facebook page have included some references to homelessness, but they have paid much more enthusiastic attention to Bible study, Sunday morning services, and other traditional church priorities. Likewise, Bryan’s redesigned church website indicates that he has started five different small groups — all devoted to scripture, devotion, and other religious topics. At this point, his focus on basic ministry seems to be working. Here is his Facebook entry from November 14, 2016, almost a half-year after Meg’s departure:

78 of us gathered for worship yesterday; AMAZING! Let’s keep it up. Keep telling your story of the impact Wilkes Blvd UMC has in your life and keep inviting!

Granted, 78 people is not a megachurch. But in comparison to the newspaper photo showing very sparse attendance at one of Meg’s last sermons, 78 people seems like real progress. In which case one must observe that the seminary can go ahead and hand out awards but, again, the seminary is not paying the minister’s salary.

I have criticized Meg for putting her congregation through wrenching changes to create the homeless center, only to turn around and abandon it. In fairness, I should acknowledge the possibility that she was asked to leave — that membership had flatlined and the UMC district was tired of covering budget shortfalls at her church. That could explain why, at the time of her departure, the church’s Facebook page did not present the usual congratulatory announcement about her acceptance of an appointment back in Maine. It could also explain why the going-away commemoration of a visible public leader who had been with the congregation for six years seems to have been rather subdued. This would be a regrettable come-down for the rising star that Meg was, at the time of our divorce, in her Red Cross career that we had both worked to develop, during our years together.

I’m sure Bryan, previously serving as associate pastor, was eager to take over. There may have been an informal understanding, between Meg and the pillars of the church, that she could feel free to depart on any schedule that would work for her. Her friends and relatives in her small town back home may have heard, some time ago, that the position in Maine was going to be available within the next six months or so; she may have been waiting for that opportunity to open up. But this orientation toward Maine draws attention back to what the Tribune (above) described as Meg’s plan of providing a mere “stopgap.” As a person very aware of her feeling that Maine was her real home, I have to think that, when she splintered her congregation to create the homeless center, she was probably not committed to stick around and make sure that either the congregation or the shelter would survive in the long term.

Creation of the Turning Point homeless day center does appear to have been a noteworthy achievement. Yet that achievement, and the contrasting decline in the church, seem to suggest that, as in our marriage, Meg’s dedication to a new project might last a year or two. As her former mentor, I found that the challenge was to figure out next steps, in her employment path, that would continue to keep her engaged, and that would also have a logical connection with what she considered important. It took many, many hours to keep up with, and to think about, her feelings and priorities, and to research her possibilities, proofread her résumés and cover letters and other writings, and so forth, over a period of years — but, as I say, those efforts did pay off, in terms of building her Red Cross career.

One way to interpret Meg’s experience with the homeless center is that a talented and energetic person, stuck in the wrong profession, may find a way to achieve remarkable things — but may do so in an eccentric manner that does not necessarily pass customary tests of success in that profession, and may cause unnecessary damage in the process. A lesson emerging from that interpretation might be that a feeling of frustration, with the seeming stupidity or indifference of people unsympathetic to one’s vision, does not always mean that those people are wrong.

It seems, then, that an experience of genuine repentance after cheating on me, back in 2002 — or, perhaps, a careful exploration of the absence of regret — might have yielded (a) personal and professional insights leading Meg to a more suitable choice for her next career and (b) a stronger inclination to work with, rather than against, people who seem to stand in the way of the questionable thing that one suddenly wishes to do.

Repentance Requires Truthfulness

I mentioned, above, that I have been waiting 14 years for an apology from Meg. At some point, of course, I realized that I might never get that apology.

It took me a bit longer to realize that matters might not end there. I have already mentioned that it seemed she was depicting me, to her lovers, as a useless boyfriend and husband. She used the same line on me, when we first met: as noted in another post, she portrayed her previous boyfriend as abusive, when it would eventually develop that he wasn’t.

With that background, let us consider: what is Meg going to tell her second husband about me? What is she going to tell her congregation? I’ll give you a hint: she is not going to stand up in front and admit, to them, that she cheated on me rather wantonly for eight years, repaid my years of prioritizing her needs by dumping me like a piece of garbage, and showed no remorse at any time in the period of nearly a quarter-century between her first fling and the present day.

If she had sincerely repented of that misbehavior, she would have felt the need to be truthful with me, finally, and also with the congregation. That would have been the first step toward redemption — in terms both spiritual and worldly.

Instead, in 2016, I started to become aware of what has actually been going on, in the years since our divorce. The other post discusses a newspaper article in which, according to the reporter, Meg told her congregation of her “personal experience” in the area of violence against women. As that post indicates, I knew Meg’s background up through summer 2002, and I was developing a general idea about it since then — specifically, that she has been with her present husband since the year after our divorce. If she was claiming personal experience in the area of violence against women, it seemed she had to be inventing false stories — and it wasn’t too hard to guess who those stories might be about.

Naturally, I wanted to verify this. But that’s where I started to encounter suspicious behavior from others. First, as the other post describes, Rev. Bryan (i.e., the minister who replaced her) ignored my repeated attempts to contact him. It wasn’t because he was too busy; I was able to verify that his office did respond promptly to others who contacted him by Facebook and email, as I had done. And then I found that the newspaper reporter refused to tell me what sort of “personal experience” Meg had alleged, in her sermon about violence against women. The reporter and I exchanged several emails on the matter. She seemed to be a reasonably friendly and responsive person. There did not seem to be any reason why a reporter would refuse to discuss a sermon that she had mentioned in her own article. The ethics of her profession seemed to call for obtaining and sharing information with the public. The reporter did not offer any explanation for refusing to answer my simple question. It certainly appeared there must be something controversial about the situation: she said that she would need her supervisors’ approval before giving me such information — and her supervisors refused to give that approval.

As often happens, the stonewalling couldn’t hold forever. I did eventually discover that Meg herself had given me, and the world, a brief but enlightening summary of what she has been telling people about me. Here are her own words, published in another article (archive link) that she put online:

Though my first marriage ended, I had family support to float me enough cash to remain housed. My forever marriage is safe, healthy, loving and respectful.

Plainly, those words do not reflect well on me. She seems to be saying that, after her first marriage ended, she did not even have enough money to pay rent. The implication is that I drained her in our divorce. That was not so. In the divorce, Meg and her father decided how our property would be divided, and I accepted what they gave me. Their decisions on property division appeared to be steered by the desire to avoid a legal battle, though I did not threaten one and was not even represented by an attorney. I made one request in our discussions, and her father said no. Her lawyers wrote up the papers, and I signed them. The whole thing was done within a few weeks. Meg walked away with about $20,000 in liquid assets, as well as her pick of our physical possessions. Furthermore, at that time, she was a national-level Red Cross employee. According to her court filing, she had a gross income of $3,874 per month. For a single woman with no dependents, in a small midwestern city with a low cost of living, that was more than sufficient to help her “remain housed.” I mean, I saw the place she moved to: I went over, one time, to drop off a few remaining possessions she had neglected to take. It was nicer than the apartment we had shared. Not to mention that she was looking forward to very bright prospects for salary growth.

Then there’s her other remark — that her “forever marriage” is “safe, healthy, loving, and respectful.” Those words seem to suggest that her first marriage was unsafe, unhealthy, unloving, and/or disrespectful — that, in other words, she was a victim of domestic abuse.

There, again, we could start with a look at the divorce papers. Meg’s divorce petition made no claim of domestic abuse. That was atypical, according to the attorney with whom I had an initial consultation. He told me that the “divorce mill” law firm that Meg hired to represent her would typically insert what he called “a bullshit domestic violence allegation” in order to gain leverage for their female clients during divorce negotiations. It appeared that, at that point, when Meg was still speaking to me, she may have actually made sure that they did not make any such false claim against me.

Someone might ask whether possibly she felt intimidated into remaining silent about actual domestic abuse. That would be unlikely. Here’s how events transpired. After I had interviewed Meg and recorded her statements in July 2002, as mentioned above, she flew back to Maine for a previously scheduled vacation, to visit her parents. That seems to have been a dramatic trip. When I called to make sure she had gotten there OK, she spoke to me in an odd voice, like a rather bratty teenage girl. I do not know what that was all about. Her arrival was apparently very stressful to her mother, to the point of requiring hospitalization. It was heart-related, according to Meg. Meg let me know that her mom was being taken to the regional hospital by ambulance, and that she and her dad were going to follow along a few hours later, after they attended somebody’s birthday party.

At the end of her week in Maine, Meg flew on to meetings in Washington, DC, and then flew back to Missouri. Meanwhile, her dad was so motivated to protect her interests, or to get her divorced, that he drove 1,700 miles, from Maine to Missouri, to accompany her during the weeks of our fast-track divorce. In doing so, he left Meg’s mom behind, apparently alone and in a decidedly sick condition. She sounded very weak when I called to see how she was doing, and to ask if she wanted an update, from my perspective, on what was happening in our divorce situation. Leaving nothing to chance, it appeared that Meg’s dad was even staying in the same motel room with Meg, there in Missouri — or at least he seemed to be present, alongside her, whenever I might call, night or day. So it’s not as though I could have somehow intimidated her without him being aware of it.

Even if Meg’s divorce petition had alleged domestic abuse, she would have had a hard time supporting such a claim. Bear in mind, first, that she was a feminist, a college graduate, and a professional woman, with years of work experience, who had received extensive on-the-job training in subjects such as sexual harassment. Meg knew how to document things. It would be difficult to believe a domestic violence complaint, from a woman like this, when our years together had produced no police reports of domestic violence; no records of relevant physical or emotional harm from doctors’ offices, counselors, or emergency rooms; no visits to women’s shelters; no mentions of domestic violence in other relevant professional correspondence; and no friends or family members claiming knowledge of any domestic abuse.

To the contrary, the people closest to Meg were as confused as I was. Her sister said to me, “We don’t understand what Meg is doing.” Meg refused to tell her mom what was going on — she felt her mom would be judgmental. I was the one who informed her mom of Meg’s confession that she had been cheating on me for all those years. Her mom’s reply surprised me. She said, “Some people have no shame.” Her dad expressed uncertainty as to Meg’s reasoning, when I asked him about some of the confusing things she had said. He said, “Maybe she doesn’t know what the truth is. Maybe she’s making it up.” He didn’t seem to know if she was telling the truth, even to him. I did not know what to make of those reactions, from her own parents. They didn’t seem surprised. One might ask whether they had seen something like this before.

Along with these facts, we have the video presenting Meg’s own statements about her affairs, making clear that infidelity, not domestic abuse, was the issue leading to our divorce. We also have other videos from our marriage, showing how she and I interacted in various settings. In those other videos, Meg seems happy. She doesn’t seem downtrodden or fearful. Indeed, there are hints of verbal and physical assertiveness on her part.

None of this supports her implication that her first marriage was not “safe, healthy, loving and respectful.” She got safety, love, and those other things from me. I was the one who didn’t get them, whose marriage turned out to be unsafe. Obviously, it was emotionally damaging, but there was also a physical dimension. I was healthy, and I was lucky, so I came through OK. But it might have turned out otherwise. There was, for instance, the time when we were sitting on the couch, and I told Meg that I was suddenly feeling an uncomfortable and somewhat alarming pressure in my chest. Did my loving wife run for aspirin, or ask if I wanted her to dial 911? Not exactly. She went into the bathroom and stayed there until the symptoms had passed. Not to mention her report that none of her lovers, during our years together — starting in the mid-1990s, when AIDS was a virtual death sentence — had worn a condom.

Meg’s article, in 2014, may have portrayed me as someone best left behind, but in fact she was still finding me useful. Just as she had apparently told her lovers that I was a lousy husband, she was now bearing false witness on a larger scale, telling her congregation and her online readers that I was abusive to boot. And apparently the story was going over pretty well. The reactions of Rev. Bryan and the reporter — the failure of the reporter, or anyone else, to check that story with me — suggest that the tale of this poor, helpless female was accepted as gospel.

As just shown, Meg’s article contained two brief negative statements about her first marriage. But that may be just the tip of the iceberg. It appears she may have worked up a more elaborate performance, conveying a substantial amount of false information. The reporter’s published article seems to say that Meg’s “personal experience” was the most notable element in her sermon on violence against women, suggesting that she made multiple derogatory remarks about her marriage to me.

I think, now, that Meg may have given me an advance notice that she was going to be developing that performance. As illustrated in the accompanying video, we were still getting along fairly well in July 2002, for the most part, during those two weeks of discussion, before she flew back to Maine. But after she returned, in August 2002, it seemed that things were changing. There were several small episodes in which she seemed to be trying out the role of the abused woman.

Two of those episodes occurred when she and her father drove over from the motel to our apartment, so that she could pick up some of her things. In the process of loading his truck, she said something, I forget what, that gave me the impression that she was concerned for her safety. I asked what that was about. I remember her smiling and saying, “I really am terrified,” as she carried a box outside. It wasn’t a forced or fearful smile, either; just a regular smile, as if she hadn’t yet worked out that part of the routine. And then, when it came time to divide up the things we had stored in the basement, she pretended to be afraid to go down there with me. So her dad and she and I all went down together. But then something came up that I wanted to talk to her about privately. She calmly asked her dad to go outside so we could talk. She wasn’t the least bit fearful. It seemed she had just needed to put on a little show. At the time, it merely seemed odd. But now, as I say, I wouldn’t be surprised if, over the years, she has assembled a regular mini-drama about her supposedly terrible first marriage.

Why would Meg invent a story of domestic abuse? I think there were two factors. First, as noted above, she did have that prior history of falsely accusing a boyfriend. She knew, already, that it was safe to make such accusations — that people would readily assume the woman was the victim and, in fact, would take her to their breast and offer their support. Second, in ordinary life, and certainly as a future minister, Meg would be needing an acceptable explanation for her divorce.

I’m not sure she was clear on that second point in July 2002. When she was letting me record her confessions and other matters, as shown in the accompanying video, she seemed to think the cheating was no big deal. I have struggled to understand that. Somehow, it seemed, she had gotten very much the wrong idea about marriage and infidelity. I thought that perhaps this came from her background. Another post describes how law and culture did become much more supportive of divorce, and of sexual experimentation in marriage, back in the 1970s and 1980s. My guess was that maybe some influential person(s) in rural Maine in the 1980s, when Meg was a teenager, gave her the impression that cheating is a sort of wink-wink thing that all the fun people do. Maybe she had grown up feeling that her mom’s “judgmental” attitude reflected a victim mentality, or was outdated or excessively strict.

If that was the situation, then it seems the United States (and especially central Missouri) circa 2000 may have been too old-fashioned for Meg. As I discuss in the other post, America has indeed developed a hookup culture in recent years, for those who don’t want to tie the knot. But marriage remains a different story: virtually nobody endorses open acceptance of marital infidelity in present-day America. If anything, as mentioned earlier, what we have seen since the 1980s is a resurgence of belief in traditional marriage, backing away from the 1970s climate of somewhat more freewheeling extramarital experimentation.

So it appears that the next step, for Meg, was to get up to speed — to discover, that is, that most people would not think her behavior was really cool. Perhaps she had a wake-up conversation with a person she respected. Maybe something like that happened when she took that trip back to Maine, in July 2002; maybe a discussion up there persuaded her that she would have to start developing that domestic abuse story, as a much more acceptable explanation for why our marriage ended. Her father did tell me, at the end of July, that he had told her it was unacceptable to interfere with other people’s marriages. So maybe he was the person of influence. At the same time, he seemed puzzled as to what I meant, when I asked him, How about me? As far as I could tell, he had not explained to her that it is also unacceptable to cheat on your spouse.

In short, the information available to me, at present, tends to indicate that Meg walled herself off from me, starting in summer 2002, because she was transitioning from being my friendly wife to being a person who would paint me as an abuser. Did Meg’s transition to that viewpoint contribute to the strong antipathy that I received from my feminist professors at the University of Missouri – Columbia in 2004-2005, when I started my social work studies there? I don’t know. They weren’t the kind of people who would be forthcoming about such things. I do know that my male classmates in that largely female program didn’t seem to be getting that sort of treatment. I was the only student, in my year there, whom any professor yelled at, when I was just asking a question. So, yeah, that was strange too, and maybe not a coincidence.

I will never get a full accounting of what Meg has been saying about me since our divorce, nor of whom she may have said it to, in sermons and conversations. I also won’t know what she may have emailed to people, or posted on webpages that didn’t come up in my search, or that have since been changed or taken down. But I do have the fact that she has never apologized or shown signs of remorse; I have the behavior of Rev. Bryan and the newspaper reporter; and I have Meg’s article falsely implying that she left our marriage in poverty, and that I was not a “safe, healthy, loving and respectful” husband.

Perhaps it is clear, now, why I found it remarkable that Meg would drive to Ferguson, to demand repentance from those police officers. In doing so, it appears she was able to capitalize on several popular prejudices: favoring the minister over the sinner; favoring the polite little female over the big, intimidating male; favoring anyone who would confront any Ferguson police officer on race. It got her some publicity and, apparently, a sense of self-righteousness. But it was not appropriate. The problem was not just that, as described above, she abused the concept of repentance, using it as a weapon. The problem discussed in this section is that she hypocritically dared to demand repentance from someone else when she, who abused her marriage and her congregation as few women and few pastors ever do, was not repentant herself. It appears, to the contrary, that she has been deliberately deceiving people in order to avoid admitting her own misdeeds.

Repentance vs. Hubris

Repentance is, by its very nature, a recognition that one has done wrong. A mistake has been made. Repentance entails some humility toward others. This is substantially opposed to arrogance, in which one displays a sense of personal superiority.

There are many ways to be arrogant, and each of them has its own potential for public embarrassment. The more visibly you flaunt your successes and your specialness, the more you invite the sort of come-down that Jesus described (e.g., Luke 6:26). As I have discussed in a separate post, arrogance seems particularly inappropriate for ministers.

As noted above, Meg has posted videos of more than 40 of her sermons on Vimeo, most dating from 2013.

(Update, Feb. 13, 2017: it appears that Meg’s videos remained available for several years, and also remained there for six months following her departure from the Wilkes Blvd church; but now, within the past month or so, all those videos have suddenly been removed. The “Pastor Meg’s Videos” page now says, “Sorry, no videos found.” Presumably Meg would be the only person with access to the contents of her Vimeo channel. Possibly she had some reason for removing those videos, other than the obvious coincidence that it happened shortly after I posted this writeup. But removing 40+ videos, in response to a critique of just one video, would certainly raise a question of what might emerge if I were to view the others. Regardless, the critiqued excerpts from her sex sermon do remain available in my accompanying video. I have decided to retain the following discussion of those 40+ videos, but readers will apparently be unable to view them directly.)

One useful feature of sites like Vimeo is that they count the number of times a video has been viewed. A minister, or a church committee on ministerial excellence, might have found it interesting to review those counts. As of my initial visit to Meg’s Vimeo channel, those counts were as follows:

Viewed 0-5 times: 26 sermons
Viewed 6-15 times: 7 sermons
Viewed 16-30 times: 7 sermons
Viewed 31+ times: 3 sermons

Some of her videos seem to have covered non-sermon events. One not included in this count — the most heavily watched of all — is a 94-second announcement of a fundraiser. It has had 377 views. So it’s not as though people were unaware of her Vimeo channel.

(Note that just opening the Vimeo webpage appears not to increment the count; I think you have to start watching the video to make your view count. By contrast, YouTube appears to increment the count as soon as the page is opened. I probably added at least a half-dozen views to each of Meg’s YouTube video counts, in the process of wrestling with a Firefox browser add-on that was supposed to make each of those videos visible in separate tabs, but instead just managed to keep crashing the browser after the tabs had opened. Before I started tinkering with that, the view counts for the older sermons in her YouTube channel, dating from earlier in her ministry, were probably a little higher than the counts for her newer Vimeo videos.)

There would be no guarantees that online attention would translate into bodies in church on Sunday mornings. But at least the number of times that people viewed a sermon posted on Vimeo might provide useful information on what viewers care about. It is harder to determine that from church attendance. People may not even know the topic of a Sunday sermon in advance. In that case, the topic can’t influence their planning. Other factors (e.g., weather, holidays, friends’ plans) will also influence individual decisions on whether to attend church on a given Sunday.

First, then, let’s dismiss the bulk of Meg’s Vimeo sermons. The view counts seem to say that those sermons were not setting the world on fire. That is consistent with the impression of continued low attendance through the end of her tenure.

Yet there is a bit of a puzzle here. You might expect that a person who loves being onstage would want to be successful up there. She might strive to become a more exciting speaker; she would surely avoid actions that might drive people away. Meg’s actual behaviors seem to indicate that she didn’t prioritize church membership, attendance, or enthusiasm for her sermons. One possibility is that she felt she was saying things that people needed to hear, not necessarily things they would want to hear — that, in other words, those who came to church might tend to be those who actually wanted to hear what she had to say. If that was the situation, it would seem that, in her mind, her sense of mission was more compelling than the visible results. That interpretation seems plausible: she seems likewise to have prioritized her mission to the homeless over her congregational responsibilities.

I have some sympathy with that sense of mission. People like me, who write things, have to be reconciled to the fact that some of our efforts will be useful to many people, and some won’t. Of course, if you’re getting paid for the work, and if you want to keep the job, it may behoove you to take account of what people want from you, as distinct from what you think you should give them. If Meg had hired a career advisor or marketing consultant during those years, that person would presumably have noticed the low numbers of views of her sermons on YouTube and Vimeo, and might have advised doing a bit of experimentation, to see what gets attention.

As it turns out, among the Vimeo videos, we do have an exceptional few that drew relatively large numbers of viewers. At this writing, Meg’s three most frequently viewed Vimeo sermons have been viewed 211, 123, and 66 times, respectively. On closer examination, we see that two of those three came from the same four-week series of sermons, and the topic of that series was sex.

One of those four sermons on sex is not presently available on Vimeo. That seems odd. The missing sermon, if it had been posted, might have turned out to be another of Meg’s most popular online sermons. Based on what I saw in the two sermons that I did view, both from this sex series, I wondered whether she posted that missing sermon, but then decided to remove it — or decided not to post it in the first place — because she (or, perhaps, members of the congregation or other UMC observers) decided that some of its sex-related content might be too controversial.

Another odd thing is that, of the three sermons on sex that are available, one (week 2, “Marriage”) has been viewed only four times. Plainly, we are not dealing with viewers who sat down and watched the entire series of three or four available sermons. For some reason, viewers have homed in specifically on the sermons for weeks 1 and 4 in that four-week series.

To refine the suggestion offered above, the fact that a sermon has drawn numerous viewers does not necessarily mean that the minister should do more sermons like it. When specific sermons are singled out for very atypical attention, and especially when the subject is sex, the view count might not provide an accurate reflection of what present and would-be members of the congregation care about. Instead, it could be that random individuals, completely unrelated to the church, have stumbled across those videos. It would also be possible that the view counts are high because people who are now (or were previously) affiliated with Meg’s church found something especially disturbing in those particular videos, and have been discussing those videos among themselves.

As I say, I, myself, have not even started to watch most of Meg’s sermons. But as an ex-husband whose marriage was destroyed due to her sexual infidelity, I confess that I did take an interest in seeing what she might be telling people about sex. So I watched the first one in the series, and later I watched the second one. In the accompanying video, I limited my critique to brief excerpts from the first one.

My first observation is that, of course, it is common for preachers to stand up and spout off about all sorts of things that they do not necessarily understand very well. Having been a believer who experienced deep and painful discrepancies between what the preachers claimed and the way things actually worked, however, I am not very sympathetic to that particular form of arrogance.

I noticed, in particular, that Meg said, “We can decrease the power that sex and sexuality has over us, by just naming it for what it is.” She did not cite any research supporting this proposition. Again, having been a believer who tried naming things and exercising willpower and implementing other simplistic solutions — and who incurred great frustration and doubts about my spirituality and some self-loathing when I proved unable to achieve the outcomes I had been told to expect — I did feel that the audience should have been spared such speculations.

Wikipedia tells us that human sexuality is a complex subject, with “biological, physical, emotional, social, [and] spiritual aspects.” Attempting to cut through all that, Meg’s sermon offered the opinion that sexual attraction between adult humans “tends to wane after about 12 to 18 months.” She cited one source for this view. I was not able to find that source. As discussed in a separate post, this view does not accurately capture current research. Among other things, research suggests that — for women, especially — sexual satisfaction often increases in long-term relationships.

In another portion of that same sermon, Meg tells us that sex with what she calls “a forbidden partner” is far more stimulating than sex with a permitted partner. Here, again, it appears that she may have been expressing her own personal experience, as distinct from research findings. For instance, a brief search led to Trudel (2002, p. 238), who found that only one-third of survey respondents reported that they had fantasies of a sexual affair with a forbidden partner, and that women were significantly less likely than men to have such a fantasy; and to Bivona (2008, p. i), who found that women who did have erotic rape fantasies had such fantasies only about four times per year, on average, and that nearly half of those women found that such fantasies had undesirable aspects.

(Of course, “forbidden partner” could include not only extramarital affairs, homophilia, and rape, but also incest, pedophilia, necrophilia, zoophilia, and other paraphilias. Meg may have intended merely to evoke a daring or glamorous fantasy fling, but some viewers of her sermon or video could infer that she tacitly condoned sexual preferences ranging from the unorthodox to the criminal. I did wonder whether her ambiguous remarks near the end of the second sex sermon were pointing in that direction as well.)

In my brief research into the question, the best evidence seems to suggest that only a fairly small minority of married women ever cheat on their husbands. That perspective does not come through in the sermons I viewed. In her remarks about forbidden partners, Meg failed to place sex into a larger context of what makes a great relationship. She did not present the perspective of a woman who loves sex with her husband; she did not seem to recognize that people whose relationships survive may not be primarily interested in forbidden sex. Regrettably, it sounded like not much had changed since I had last heard from Meg on the subject of sex. For her, it still seemed to be largely a matter of biological drives; there wasn’t much talk of feelings or attachment; and — in 2002, at least — guilt was a factor only when it spoiled her momentary lover’s enjoyment of the experience.

At some point, it occurred to me that the guy holding the video camera, during Meg’s many videotaped sermons, was probably none other than her husband. He did seem, in any event, to attend services and to be involved in her church. One can imagine him sitting there, filming, while she explains how it is normal for a wife to find marital sex boring. (By the way, she did not undo that impression in the second video in her sex series, on the topic of marriage.)

I mean, I agree: experiences with Meg taught me that it is possible for a wife to refuse to communicate and work with her husband and, through such dysfunctionality, to arrive at a degree of sexual dissatisfaction that she will then fail to mention to him — that, indeed, seems contrary to what he thought he was observing in the marital bedroom. It would be rather perverse to persist in that direction through years of marriage to a highly motivated and communicative partner. Let me emphasize that the things Meg told me in July 2002 did contribute a great deal to my lifetime collection of remarkable experiences.

Some might suppose that, during our nine years together, Meg may have been too young and inexperienced to develop a mature way of working with her partner. That supposition would not fit with Meg’s realities; and in any case, by now, it would wear very thin. She is obviously not afraid of the subject of sex. She had ample time, experience, and education with which to make a wise decision on whether to commence and continue a sexual relationship and a marriage with her second husband. At this point, it was pretty lame to stand up there, posing as a minor authority on sex, and tell her congregation that sexual dissatisfaction in marriage is the ordinary experience after the first 12 to 18 months.

For such reasons, I am not very enthusiastic about Meg’s words, on a church webpage that has since been taken down (archive link). On that page, speaking of her second husband as she once spoke about me, she wrote, “I’ve got an amazingly patient husband who puts up with my stubbornness and mood swings and loves me anyway.” I have to say, I was sorry to find that webpage. I have hoped that he is not in the same situation I was in. Nobody deserves that. I have seen some of their current published photos of the two of them together. I hope that her smile in those photos is genuine — that she is not telling him (or the world) one thing while privately nursing its opposite. Regardless, I think he probably does not deserve her innuendos about sexual dissatisfaction in long-term relationships, and probably does deserve the bulk of the credit for their marital stability.

As for the decision to give that sermon, I don’t know that sex is the best topic to present to an audience of all ages. Even if it were, Meg’s sermons on sex suggest that she may not always have devoted careful thought to the words she would be sharing with the public. The advice is sound: stick with what you know. If you’re not an expert on sex, then common sense and self-restraint would advise against standing up there and pretending otherwise. If you are convinced that your congregation needs your help to learn about sex, it could make sense to invite, as guest speaker, a sex therapist or social scientist who has some experience in making public presentations in his/her specialty, phrasing things appropriately for a church service. Or you could have a Wednesday night study session, or assemble a video in which you interview such a person, perhaps with a blog post featuring answers to questions posed by the audience, and a list of good books and websites on various sex-related topics. But unless you are completely cavalier about the value of research and expertise — unless you’re just seeking the gratification of standing up there and pretending to convey truth and wisdom — you have to realize that sex is an extremely important, delicate, and potentially upsetting topic to many people. On that topic, especially, it is not appropriate to make your captive Sunday morning audience sit there and squirm while you reveal your potentially disturbing personal views.

After that bit about forbidden sex, as shown in the accompanying video, Meg’s sex sermon moves on to her interpretation of the Bible story of Ruth and Boaz. In that story, Naomi tells Ruth to notice where Boaz lies down, and then “go and uncover his feet and lie down” (Ruth 3:4). Doing so would signal submission. But that’s not how Meg prefers to interpret it. Instead, she says, “It wasn’t his feet she was uncovering.” She proceeds to explain that this is a euphemism for having sex. She claims the real meaning “gets lost in translation.”

But that is almost surely false. Of 22 translations offered by Bible Hub, only one, the NET Bible, offers phrasing that varies at all from a literal reference to feet — and even there, the NET Bible’s accompanying notes specifically reject Meg’s interpretation, as do most commentators. There are many reasons why scholars take this passage literally. For one thing, if Ruth and Boaz had sex when she “uncovered his feet” upon arriving, why would Boaz be surprised to see her when he awoke later in the night? (Ruth 3:8). Meg’s interpretation also makes a hash of the text’s repeated indications that Boaz was aware of Ruth’s integrity and was concerned about handling matters appropriately (Ruth 3:11-12). There is no obvious reason why the writer of the book of Ruth would deviate from the inclination against premarital sex found in the law of Israel (e.g., Deuteronomy 22:13-23). Moreover, if “feet” were a euphemism here, why is it not also a euphemism in many other places (e.g., Genesis 18:4)? And why would we need a euphemism for sex in this story, when the Hebrew scriptures speak frankly about other sexual encounters (e.g., 2 Samuel 11:4)?

Meg didn’t provide any textual analysis to explain her unorthodox interpretation of the Ruth story. She just went out of her way to find and share a sexual interpretation not supported by the evidence. Such behavior raises a fair question of whether she approaches ministry as a wounded healer who continues to inflict her own sex-related confusion or corruption on people whom she is supposed to be helping.

My accompanying video adds another clip, this one provided by the church’s Facebook page (May 29, 2016). This clip shows Meg standing in her church and singing a portion of a song. The song is “Something to Talk About.” The lyrics of that song include the following:

I hear them whisper, you won’t believe it
They think we’re lovers kept under cover . . .
Let’s give them something to talk about
A little mystery to figure out

Of all the songs in the world, it is remarkable that Meg would choose to perform this one in a church. The primary problem is not that the song really does not have much to do with faith, and that Meg’s attempt to Christianize it produces a mess (e.g., changing the second line, above, to refer incoherently to “Christians kept under cover”). Nor is the problem that the song is necessarily scandalous: its lyrics do not specify whether the proposed affair would be extramarital. The problem is that the person singing this song is Meg.

Suppose she had preceded that performance with a confession. Suppose she had taken the microphone, looked at the congregation, and said, “I cheated on my husband throughout my first marriage. Also, on Vimeo, a few years back, I posted a sermon explaining that, in my view, forbidden sex is much more appealing than sex with a steady partner, such as my husband.” Then she starts singing these lyrics about giving people something to talk about, as her second husband sits right there in the church. Do you suppose some members of the congregation might have found that scene rather awkward?

Let me put it this way. One time, I had an ex-alcoholic roommate. He feared alcohol. He did not want it anywhere in sight. He knew that, sometimes, the temptation would be too much. So he steered clear of it. And that is simply not what appears in Meg’s sex-related behavior. Her morally unacceptable behavior did, in fact, cause the end of our marriage, with severe and permanent adverse consequences for my career and my life — and, it seems, for her career as well. But, for Meg, it appears that was a price worth paying. She is not coming across as someone whose path to ministry led through a profound personal struggle to overcome the kind of sexual addiction with which her own sermon seems preoccupied. There are no signs that she endured a painful ordeal before she finally got herself sorted out, or that she has an addict’s deep-seated fear of the destructive power of sexual misbehavior. Here, again, there is no sign of repentance.

After making the mistakes Meg has made, wise people learn that fooling around is not something to fool around with. But apparently Meg still doesn’t get that. Someday, if she ever comes to recognize her own arrogance, she may give a truly rousing sermon on repentance. That day has not yet arrived.

Resisting Repentance

Sometimes our society seems to teach us that it is naive if not dangerous to admit our mistakes and try to do better. If you’re a lawyer, for instance, you don’t usually win lawsuits by conceding fault. But it will be a sad day when that mentality becomes ingrained even among ministers who encourage others to confess their sins and repent.

Meg’s story, as presented above, is not the story of someone who consults with people, tries her best to reach solutions that will work for everyone, sincerely regrets her mistakes, and attempts to find a way forward that everyone can live with. In our marriage, and also in her homeless center, Meg’s story is that of a person who decides what she is going to do, and does it. That achieves results, for some purposes. She got her homeless shelter; she got a new husband. But there’s a lot of wreckage in her wake.

Let us be clear. Most of us are able to take a hint. In the situations described above, church people usually understand that you have to be sorry for your sins, and try to do better, if you want to call yourself a Christian; you have to be humble enough to listen to congregants who claim you are straying from your core purpose, if you want to be a successful minister; you have to be honest and faithful where your spouse is concerned, if you want your marriage to work; and you have to realize that, if you can’t or won’t do these things, you will be responsible for the ensuing failure of your Christian faith, your ministry, or your marriage.

In the context of repentance, this raises a question. What should we do, when dealing with someone who just doesn’t get it — someone who ignores the quiet hints, the loud complaints, even the howls of anguish? What kind of person or situation are we dealing with here?

On that, I don’t know if I can offer much insight from the years when I thought we had a generally good relationship and a fairly happy marriage. But I do think the weeks between June 29, 2002 (when Meg told me of her affairs) and early August 2002 (after which we had few interactions) were a time when the blinders were coming off, for me. In this section, I will try to convey, briefly, a sense of what it was like to try to understand and work with someone who appeared resistant to repentance, at a time when repentance seemed so necessary.

I will say, first off, that those were weeks of transformation in our relationship, and not just for the obvious reasons. One of the most striking discoveries, from that period, was that there could be such a swift and severe change in Meg’s attitude. Up until the day of her confession, she had seemed to be happy, to love me, to really enjoy our life together. And now, within a matter of weeks, she decided that she was not my friend, and that she would not be talking to me anymore. At all. Ever. And that is exactly how it has been. In the 14 years since then, I have not heard from her once. I did try making contact a few times, with small gestures of friendship — emailing her a link to an obscure song she had been interested in, for example — but, again, with zero response.

We didn’t have kids, so this was feasible. But it was weird. It wasn’t because we had somehow become enemies during the divorce. We hadn’t. The divorce was a simple paper-processing matter, concluded quickly and on relatively amicable terms, as divorces go. This was simply, somehow, what Meg preferred.

In case you haven’t experienced anything like this, let me assure you: if you have spent nearly a decade structuring your life around someone, if you consider that person your best friend in the world, and if she suddenly stops speaking to you and says you aren’t her friend at all, that can be immensely confusing. Was this some kind of negotiating tactic? Had she gone crazy?

In those two weeks of conversation in July 2002 — our last weeks living together — I began to wonder whether I really knew Meg at all. She said, for example, that I was the only person with whom she had ever looked through photographs of events enjoyed together. How was that possible? She said, moreover, that that sort of activity meant nothing to her. But she had seemed to enjoy it when we were narrating the stories of our trips. She also said it was a waste of time to spend time with friends. Granted, she wasn’t the most gregarious person, but over the years she had initiated visits to see friends and relatives. I didn’t realize she had that kind of flatly dismissive attitude toward people who considered her their friend.

And, you know, maybe she didn’t. Maybe there was a certain element of make-believe. I think, for instance, of an episode, during those two weeks of discussion, when we went for a bike ride, as a break from the hours of talking. At one point, on that ride, I became exasperated with the grumpy attitude she had adopted. I asked her to do me a favor and just treat me as she would treat some random guy whom she was trying to seduce. The change was remarkable. Instantly she was fun, funny, flirtatious, cute.

That was really pretty strange. I didn’t know what to make of it. At the time, I took it at face value. As such, I wasn’t sure whether to be angry with her, for having the ability to be pleasant at will, but not bothering to do that for me, or disappointed in myself for often accepting her unpleasant, moody side — indeed, for making excuses for it. When she seemed unpleasant or depressed, I would think maybe it was because she wasn’t getting enough sleep, or because the weather had been cloudy lately. I noticed that we rarely argued when we were living together normally. If there was to be an argument, it would tend to happen when she came back from a business trip. To me, that suggested that we did better when we had stability and spent more time together. I didn’t imagine that maybe the trip had included a romantic fling, and that it was such a drag, for her, to be back home with me, until a few days had passed and she could transform herself back into my happy, loving wife.

In the process of trying to understand who Meg was and what she was telling me, in July 2002, I called one of her friends. This friend told me that, four years earlier, in 1998, anticipating her own upcoming marriage, she had eagerly asked Meg what marriage was like. Not long before that, we had lived with this friend and her fiancé for maybe six weeks, while transitioning between apartments. She had seen how we got along. She assumed Meg would have nice things to say about marriage. Instead, Meg stunned her by replying — shaking, and in tears — that marriage was horrible and that she wished she had some way out of it. Of course, Meg did have a way out of marriage, any time she chose. But apparently she decided not to pursue that option until I had devoted another four years helping her to find a stable home in a place where she would be willing to remain for a number of years, and to advance to a national-level position in the Red Cross.

Long after our divorce, it would occur to me that Meg’s reaction might have been her way of telling the friend not to marry her handsome, successful fiancé because Meg had slept with him. I don’t know that she actually did; it was just speculation, based on an incident when the four of us were together and he stood up and made a loud, lewd remark and gesture conveying an interest in having sex with Meg, or perhaps indirectly bragging that he had already done so. At the time, I didn’t think of that. It seemed like frat-boy behavior. I just wrote it off to immaturity and poor social skills, and I don’t know — maybe that’s all it was.

After that phone conversation in June 2002, I asked Meg about her friend’s story, about how Meg had cried and said she wished she could get out of marriage. Meg said she didn’t remember it. So, wow, it was starting to feel like I was getting lost in layers of confusion: Meg claimed she had been miserable in our marriage, but didn’t really seem to be; Meg didn’t remember telling her friend that she was miserable, maybe because Meg meant something else at the time; maybe Meg really was miserable, but maybe that had nothing to do with me. I did not know what to make of all this. From my knowledge of the friend, I wouldn’t think she would invent things out of thin air. So maybe Meg did remember it, but didn’t want to say so? Or maybe that conversation was an unpleasant experience that she blocked out? I have no idea.

I mention those episodes because it actually took me quite a few years to understand that maybe Meg was more of an actress than I had realized. For instance, maybe the sudden switch from grumpiness to sunshine during that bike ride was just a put-on. Maybe she was just letting me know that, in her view, I should be grateful that she did sometimes bother to behave pleasantly toward me. Maybe the shaking and crying with her friend was just an act, like those instances when she seemed to be trying out the make-believe role of the abused spouse.

It was possible that she had been simply pretending to love me and to be happy, for all those years. But why would someone do that? During those two weeks of discussion, she repeatedly insisted that my companionship was less meaningful, to her, than that of the men with whom she had had those affairs. In most cases, she barely knew them. So that was weird too. From what she said, even the few affairs that had seemed deep and important at the time had faded out pretty quickly. That simply wasn’t true of our marriage. I remembered, for instance, the day when she cried because she hadn’t had time to get me a birthday present. The crying didn’t seem to be the behavior of someone who didn’t care. So then why would she say, and seem to believe, that she had no feelings toward me? Unless, of course, that crying, too, was an act. But why would someone pretend to be having normal emotions, for years on end? Wouldn’t that seem like a colossal waste of time?

During those two weeks in July 2002, Meg repeatedly said that she wanted me to want a divorce. But why? Maybe she wanted to be able to say that I was the one who decided to end our marriage, though I wouldn’t think she would consider that important enough to invent — and to repeat, on tape — this bizarre story of multiple affairs, and all the other things she said along with it. Or maybe she thought that, if I was disgusted enough, I would hit the road and never look back, thereby sparing her the hassle of having to deal with me anymore. For whatever reason, it did seem that, like a flipped switch, she (or at least a part of her) had suddenly become completely and thoroughly sick of me.

As mentioned earlier, I did figure out that at least some of the things she told me, during those two weeks, were fiction, because the details kept changing, as I thought about what she had told me, and came back with further questions. It occurred to me that maybe she was inventing the whole thing, just to make the story as outrageous as possible, to make me want to leave her. But, as I say, there was clearly some truth mixed in. Information from third parties, and things that I was able to piece together, made pretty clear that some cheating had been taking place. Overall, she did seem to be presenting a lucid account of numerous attempts to seduce men, over a period of years.

I also thought maybe she was trying to convince me that she was crazy. But that seemed unlikely. She wasn’t foaming at the mouth. We were sitting there, or walking on the trail, talking, as we had done many times before. She was behaving more or less rationally. She was responsive to questions. For the most part, I did seem to be getting some of what she was actually thinking and feeling at the time.

In short, Meg’s evident resistance to repentance did not appear stupid or insane. I seemed to be dealing with someone who was attempting to provide information, with the caveat that what was real or true might be subject to revision, according to the needs of the moment. And maybe that was the key. Maybe real repentance would require a person to believe that there was a right way to behave, and that it wouldn’t be acceptable to behave in a very different way later, and to believe that this opposite approach had now become the new right way to behave.

I could imagine someone being subjected to torture, and learning that s/he would have to say and believe whatever someone expected, however false it might seem. On a less extreme level, I have encountered people for whom “truth” seems to be whatever gets them through the moment. I could imagine having to survive childhood with a parent who would play with your mind, approving your words or deeds at one point, and then turning around and punishing you for those same words or deeds later. I could also imagine having one parent punish you for a certain act or attitude while the other would reward it. Such contradictions could drive a child nuts. Or maybe not. Kids are resilient. Maybe they learn to treat this sort of thing as normal. Maybe some children, in such conditions, would conclude that there was no real need to resolve such contradictions. Just go with whatever works for now, even if it makes no sense.

I didn’t know whether any of that would actually apply to Meg. I did see clear differences between her parents, in terms of how they viewed her and how she viewed them, during these weeks. I thought they probably had differing disciplinary styles. I saw that her father could be wishy-washy, saying whatever someone seemed to want to hear at the time, and that wasn’t generally her mother’s style. I had to wonder whether possibly she had learned two very different approaches to marriage during her childhood, and had lived two different perspectives during our marriage.

I would have liked to learn more about what was going on. Doing so would have resolved some extremely painful mysteries for me. But for some reason, when Meg flew to Maine after those two weeks of discussion in July 2002, her dad seemed to decide that she needed to get a divorce immediately. So that was the end of our detailed discussion of what she had been thinking and doing.

When the dust settled, I was left with a very poor understanding of what had happened to me, to my wonderful wife, and to our marriage. I talked to other people about it, in the months and years that followed. People had different theories. One woman said that she, herself, had endured a rocky series of relationships and marriages in adult life because she had been sexually abused as a child. Her theory was that Meg bore the classic signs of such abuse: flirty, little-girl behavior; no kids; promiscuity; an interest in older men. To this woman, Meg was in the grip of multiple personality disorder. And, honestly, I could see how that might explain things. Maybe the personality who lived in Meg’s suitcase, and came alive on the road, had finally gained the upper hand, shoving out the personality that had wanted to build a home with me.

The problem with such theories is that, unless you’re an experienced mental health specialist in the particular disorder, there are often other diagnoses, other theories, that point in very different directions. For example, maybe the split personalities that affected Meg were not internal to herself, but located in her external world, on the organizational level. Now that I was beginning to investigate these things, some people told me that the national Red Cross tolerated a culture of remarkably unfaithful married people. If that was true, maybe Meg was struggling to reconcile (or fit in with) what she perceived as the de rigueur infidelity of life on the road versus the expected fidelity of married life at home.

Or, in a different direction, maybe a split personality in our marriage was tolerable, for her, because she viewed me as the person primarily responsible for that marriage; but maybe she could not tolerate a split personality in her congregation, because in that case it was her baby, and she saw herself as the responsible party. Or maybe, when she referred to a split personality, what she actually feared was an uptight, judgmental element in the congregation (somehow reminiscent of her mother’s concept of religion?), an element that could seem unwelcoming to the less religious, more easygoing, socially helpful types. Maybe — possibly without even being aware of it — she threw herself into building the homeless shelter, and neglected her congregation, precisely because that would drive away the churchy, Bible-oriented individuals who weren’t on board with the service-oriented plan. Maybe, as in her approach to our divorce, driving away inconvenient people was her preferred way to eliminate complicated interpersonal issues.

In the end, I decided that Meg probably didn’t have a split personality. Dissociative identity (i.e., multiple personality) disorder seems to entail “distinct identities” that “recurrently take control of the person’s behavior” and various other extreme phenomena (e.g., may include hallucinations; each personality may have its own distinct history and name; may include self-destructive or aggressive behavior) (Psychology Today, 2014, “Symptoms”). What she was experiencing seemed to be more mixed together into a single life. When she was away, sometimes she would call me and would seem to miss me; and when she was at home, my understanding is that sometimes she would miss some other guy to whom was currently feeling an emotional attachment. As far as I can tell, her lovers and I got some exposure to both the fun, flirty girl persona and also the mature, married, professional woman persona.

Instead of the split personality theory, other people have had an entirely different reaction to the Meg story. One woman with whom I shared the story felt that it was all very cut and dried. In her opinion, Meg wasn’t confused, and wasn’t struggling with alternate personalities; she had a plan, and she knew exactly what she was doing all along. Here, again, I am not a psychiatrist. But I have to doubt that Meg was pursuing a coldly psychopathic, long-term scheme to mislead me as to her real feelings, always pretending to enjoy our life together but never meaning a word of it. This was not your purely calculating social climber, always looking for an angle. There was some of that in Meg, no doubt, but I don’t believe that sort of person would focus her career on helping homeless people — assuming homelessness does, eventually, re-emerge as a focus of her work, and was not merely something she wanted to play with, or an area that would be especially likely to make her look good.

This discussion could continue with other possible theories. For instance, Wikipedia quotes Dike et al. (2005, p. 343) for the view (apparently originating in Healy, 1926, p. 1) that “pathological lying” is lying that may be very complicated, that may unfold over a period of many years, and that is disproportionate to any visible purpose. There also seems to be an element of fantasy, although not beyond the point of believability. Wikipedia suggests that pathological lying may sometimes be an attempt to spice up a life that seems unpleasant or boring. PsychCentral (Hill, 2015) says that pathological lying can occur in conjunction with a variety of other misbehaviors, including selfishness, manipulativeness, social isolation, and low self-esteem. Here, again, we have a theory that seems partly relevant. But that’s no way to do diagnoses. That’s what happens when you first start studying the DSM: you see that you, and everyone around you, has some of the qualities of various forms of mental illness. It’s as if you had an object that’s shiny and cold and red: that could describe a billiard ball, but it could also describe the side of an automobile. Meeting a few random psychiatric criteria doesn’t necessarily tell us much.

So I was left with a lot of unknowns. Unfortunately, the passage of years has not really clarified much. When I looked into these things in 2016, I saw that one of Meg’s articles says she moved a short distance to Fulton, a year after our divorce, to be with the man who would become her second husband. I haven’t explored it in detail, but according to a free search it looks like he was married until after we came to Missouri. So that added some wrinkles. Had they already met at the time of our divorce? Was he one of the affairs she said she’d been having in Missouri? Is that why this seemingly nice woman would never speak to me again — was she afraid that he might come to hear my side of the story? That would explain a lot — but it wouldn’t explain the part where, in July 2002, after telling me her tales of infidelity, she said she was having second thoughts about rushing into a divorce. Another possibility was that maybe she was able to have a stable second marriage because she had finished her exploration of split personalities in marriage, and was now experimenting with split personalities in ministry. Or did she finally come clean with me, not because she felt hideous about lying to me, or about having affairs, but just because she didn’t need me anymore, now that one of those affairs had finally hit pay dirt for her?

I mean “pay dirt” in the sense of finding true love, but I guess I should be asking it in a more literal sense as well: she did tell a newspaper reporter that her house in Columbia was “too big for just me and my husband.” I’m pretty sure she didn’t buy that house on her salary as minister of a small church. (I’m guessing it wasn’t in the predominantly black part of town.) So maybe she saw him as not only a meal ticket, to support her during her years in seminary and in a low-paying ministry job, but also as someone who would be willing to move back to Maine and deal with her family, as she and he have now done.

I didn’t explore the question of how that move might affect his career; I don’t know what sort of work he was doing in Columbia, or what job he might find in Maine. One can only hope, on his behalf, that the move to Maine doesn’t also entail having to deal with the ex-boyfriend whose wife once called me, complaining that he and Meg were still in touch. I would eventually discover that they continued to be in touch, even after we moved to Missouri. So, yes, we can add that to the several instances, during our nine years together, where I would have had reason to be more paranoid, if I hadn’t chosen to be trusting instead.

But now, let us review. This section of this post began with the question of what happens, or what one should do, when dealing with a person who does not “get it” — who may actually favor attitudes or behaviors hostile to repentance. It seems that, if a person disregards or does not see what others consider obvious, it could be because s/he is pursuing an agenda or responding to a threat not visible to others. We have the examples of the psychopath who has a plan; of the person with disordered identity who has lurched into a different persona; and of the pathological liar who is moved to tell stories from his/her fantasy world.

This line of thought suggests that, as one would expect, talk of repentance is premature if the person in question lacks a good awareness of reality. But in Meg’s case, it is not clear that the person does have an obvious problem with reality. This may be someone who is dedicated to being a good liar, for reasons we can only guess at; it may be someone who has spent a lifetime learning how to mask his/her differences from others. Really, it could be anything.

The practical conclusion seems to be that this is all very complicated. We could respond by suggesting that this person needs to spend years in therapy. That may be. But for some purposes, that is passing the buck. When you are a deeply unsettled spouse or a shattered congregation, trying to decide how to deal with someone like this, you may not have the luxury of waiting months or years for Dr. Freud to arrive at a diagnosis and provide a cure. You may need to make the best decisions you can, in a short timeframe, under conditions of great uncertainty. What we have seen here is that those decisions may not be very well informed — not if you have to gather your information and reach your conclusions on the fly, using only the bits of knowledge and insight that you can pull together, by yourself, on short notice.

It appears, in other words, that the task of identifying someone who is not presently capable of repentance, and who would therefore not be appropriate for marriage or for Christian ministry, could require more knowledge than I, or the congregation deciding whether to hire Meg, would be able to assemble by ourselves. The quality of our decisions would be greatly improved if we could gain access to relevant prior learning, as discussed in the next section.

Witnessing Against the Enablers

At the time of our divorce, as noted above, someone asked Meg: How were you able to get away with so many lies for so long? Back then, the question had to do with her years of infidelity. But a person could ask the same question now, in her ministry. She starts with the same premise in both contexts: evidently her tales of a lousy husband served to justify infidelity, when told to her lovers, and also served to justify her divorce, when told to her congregation. And the response, likewise, seems to have been rather predictable in both cases: back then, she enjoyed the gallantry of men who probably liked to hear that they were superior to her husband; and more recently, some members of her congregation may have appreciated the opportunity to present themselves as caring persons who felt sorry that she ever had to experience abuse.

I don’t know whether it would have been possible for Meg’s lovers, back then, to verify whatever stories she may have told them. Probably most of them didn’t really care about it very much, once the moment of gratification had passed. This may be the case, as well, for members of her congregation. It is pleasant to pat oneself on the back for showing kindness to a person who has experienced hardship, and to take that person’s side. Suspicion is often considered undesirable, especially in the company of individuals who are determined to put on a happy face.

There surely were people who could have tried to verify that Meg was what she seemed. We don’t have the details regarding anonymous parishioners, but we do have the unfortunate examples of Rev. Bryan, who did not even bother to return my messages, and of the newspaper reporter from that liberal college town, who was interested only in the side of the story that favored a women’s rights angle. Ironically, both of those individuals claim to be in the business of seeking and reporting truth.

Yet those failures of responsibility came at the tail end of the process. Let’s back up five or ten years, and consider how different the situation would have been, if the seminary or the UMC had played a responsible gatekeeping role before conferring admission, graduation, or ordination. Let’s suppose they have received an application from someone who wants to be admitted into seminary, or who wants to be ordained as a minister. What should they do with it?

Well, the ex-spouse would be a pretty obvious person to contact, if you actually wanted to find out whether the ministerial candidate had any skeletons in her closet, any lurking issues — gambling, drug addiction, mental illness — that could blow up when she gets out into the real world and starts running a congregation. Not everyone will have an ex-spouse. But when the applicant does have prior experiences suggesting major problems with people who knew her well, it is just common sense to pick up the phone and spend a few minutes talking to those people.

You wouldn’t have to believe everything they might say about your candidate. If you came across anything unexpected, you could ask the candidate for a response. If you were getting two very different stories — about, say, the reason for the candidate’s divorce — you could inquire further. The present case suggests that, when the two sides of the story are very different, it may not be too hard to find out where the evidence points. In this case, sixty seconds’ worth of recorded audio would have been enough.

If the inquiry did suggest that the candidate had a bad history, that would not necessarily be the kiss of death. Ministry is a special profession. From Bible times forward, some of the best Christians have been those who found redemption. If you took repentance seriously, you could ask what the candidate has done to demonstrate sincere regret for his/her past misbehavior and a desire to set things right and to make sure it doesn’t happen again. It would be especially appropriate to make such inquiries where there is a history of domestic difficulties: 1 Timothy chapter 3 recommends choosing bishops and deacons “of good behavior” and proven ability to build a family.

The seminary and the UMC had great power to avert a potential tragedy in Meg’s congregation. I would say the same, for me personally, about some members of Meg’s family. I think they had information that would have helped me to avoid the long-term disaster of marrying her. But, like the seminary and the UMC, they shirked any responsibility for notifying me. To the contrary, they were actually offended when I noticed some relevant family issues, and invited them to discuss those issues with me.

It is not clear why the seminary and the UMC would fail to make concerted efforts to choose appropriate candidates. This is not an era when everyone can trust that ministers will be free from sin. To the contrary, we have been living in a time of backlash against clerical misbehavior. While sexual abuse of children has been the dominant theme in recent years, we have also seen many exposés of other forms of ministerial hypocrisy, including extramarital affairs. One would expect that seminaries and denominations, wishing to avoid potential liability and to defend their reputations, would take common-sense steps, documenting reasonably diligent efforts to verify basic moral suitability in the people being admitted into M.Div. programs and ordained as ministers.

Beyond that, it does not take a graduate degree in theology to grasp the essentials of Christian faith. In this case, a simple inquiry, at the time of application to seminary or for ordination, would have raised a serious question of whether the applicant had an appropriate grasp of the repentance necessary for salvation. It would be rather negligent to make a minister out of a person who was apparently not even a Christian, by your own definition of the term. Doing so might say that you have more faith in that applicant’s tuition dollars than in your verbiage about ministry.

This case suggests that the seminary and the UMC did not make reasonable efforts to determine that their future ministers would meet criteria suggested by the Bible and common sense. They appear to have functioned as enablers, in the sense provided by Wikipedia: they followed procedures that perpetuated and perhaps even exacerbated a preexisting problem — procedures “that make accommodations for a person’s harmful conduct.”

As a result, the congregation was harmed, to the extent that the seminary and the UMC did not provide vitally important and easily acquired information on Meg’s suitability as a minister. I was harmed: those institutions gave Meg a status from which she was able to broadcast, and be believed in, her false statements about me. Others affected by her ministry may have been harmed, in ways we will never know. And Meg herself was harmed. If the seminary had discovered her unrepentant attitude toward me circa 2007, she could have been appropriately redirected to a career (in e.g., social work, community organizing, or public administration) consistent with her glaring lack of interest in religious practice and her long-term preoccupation with social issues — where, incidentally, she might have enjoyed a far greater potential financial upside.


In this post, I have examined certain matters related to my divorce in 2002. The focus here is upon the topic of repentance, as it pertains to behavioral patterns that came to light at the time of our divorce and that seem to have recurred in Meg’s ministry in Columbia, MO. This post advances the view that it is advisable to repent of — that is, to take to heart, learn from, and make amends for — the errors leading up to, and the harm resulting from, major personal mistakes.

The foregoing discussion suggests that our divorce provided an important learning opportunity. Among other things, it seems Meg would have delivered a very different sermon on Good Sex, and might even be a better wife in her second marriage, if she had genuinely repented for so grossly abusing her first one. It does appear that she learned very little from that prior experience. It’s not just that we see her, more than a decade later, continuing to believe that a sexual relationship predictably goes downhill after the first year. It’s that maybe there’s something else at work — that perhaps her loss of interest is not sex-specific, but would instead be repeated in the arc of her rising and falling commitment to the homeless center.

Repentance leading to honest dialogue with me, either before or after the divorce, might have been good preparation for ministry. It might have taught Meg something about keeping people informed, and about working with them rather than against them. Despite my own openness and my frequent inquiries as to whether she was happy, and whether there was anything we needed to talk about, she apparently believed that her only option was to keep sweeping things under the rug. That failed catastrophically. I regret that I was not more effective in breaking through her phony “niceness” (see Russell, 1957, p. 148). In the end, this “nice” minister bears false witness against me, just as she blames those who left her church for being “resistant to change.” Somehow, she still does not seem to take to heart the disasters she causes.

Rolling over people like an army tank, and then criticizing them for being in the way, is not the behavior of an individual who has felt shame for her past acts, and who wants to make things right. Refusal to learn from huge errors is not the behavior of a person qualified to lead others in wise living.

The materials in this post suggest that Meg has not yet become acquainted with the experience of real repentance. If that impression is correct, it appears she has not achieved the salvation of which Jesus spoke; and that would entail the conclusion that her ordination is not legitimate. I realize that a liberal church like the UMC is very unlikely to take its own alleged principles so seriously as to reach any such conclusion. But one can hope. Perhaps it will “repent” of this behavior, too — maybe 50 or 100 years from now, with a nice booklet that congregations can use in study sessions.

I would think that perceptions of quality would be important in attracting members, and there are reasons to think that repentance is crucial for quality control in Christian ministry. But until UMC recognizes that it has been negligent in this regard, ministers who need guidance and parameters, as Meg did, will be left to find their own way. In other words, if failure to own up to one’s current mistakes suggests an absence of repentance for the individual, perhaps it suggests the same for the denomination.

* * * * *

Postscript (6/10/2017): when or if I ever receive a reply from Meg or the UMC, I will post an update here. So far, six months later, I have heard nothing in response to any of this.

Taking Ministry Seriously, with Humility

I started first grade in 1961, in a one-room elementary school just down the road from our home in rural Indiana, as the child of a housewife and a railroad worker. The teacher, and the preacher in the Lutheran church supporting that school, were the first professionals whose work became familiar to me. When Mr. Gemmer, the teacher, would ask the two dozen (or so) kids in our eight grades how many of us wanted to become teachers, a majority of hands went up. Mine was among them.

In 1967, the school closed and Mr. Gemmer went away. I finished my primary and secondary education in public schools. In the last two years of high school, I became involved in the Jesus Movement of the early 1970s. During my senior year especially, a group of perhaps 15 students, participating in our school’s prayer group, generated an environment of caring and companionship that I have never forgotten.

At times during my junior and/or senior year in high school, I taught Sunday School in the Lutheran church next door, worked as the president of that church’s youth group, and served as an office assistant to the minister, Rev. Hillmer. In my private religious practice at that time, I was studying the Bible intensively, memorizing substantial pieces of it verbatim, fasting (for one or more days at a stretch), speaking in tongues, praying at length, and wrestling with the real or imagined demons of the pentecostal worldview pervading our portion of the Christian life.

These experiences gave me a foundation of religious conviction as well as some minor exposure to leadership, in those roles as Bible teacher, informal prayer group leader, and elected leader of the youth group at the Lutheran church. Through my encounters with Rev. Hillmer, I began to see that it could make sense to pursue a career in the ministry. That was the basis on which I decided to attend college rather than just study my Bible and await the Second Coming of Christ, which I understood was imminent. In fall 1973, I became a pre-ministry student at Concordia Lutheran Junior College in Ann Arbor, MI.

In their work at that time and in years to come, Rev. Hillmer and Mr. Gemmer embodied the faith of the committed Christian. I did not find, in their Lutheran church, the drama and intensity of our prayer group and of other Christian worship and practice in the Jesus Movement. But there was no question of their sincerity and devotion to the Christian faith.

It appeared that such devotion likewise motivated many of the professors at Concordia. By contrast, my pre-ministerial classmates were more of a mixed bag. Some did go on to become ministers, but others visibly lacked the kind of personal religious commitment that would motivate them to be vigilant against the Devil and to strive to expel sinful thoughts and acts from their lives. Frankly, in some cases I saw no real difference between these would-be future ministers and the completely secular young people I had known in high school. For instance, I wasn’t surprised that a first-year college student would want to have a female student climbing in his window at night; I was just surprised that he would want to be enrolled in a conservative religious college, much less a pre-ministerial program.

My own future as a minister did not pan out, but for a different reason. What waylaid me was not the temptations of the rich life, but rather the intellectual problems of faith. As described in another post, I discovered that things I had been taught and/or had assumed about the Bible and about Truth were not necessarily so. Starting during my year at Concordia, and with increasing intensity over the next two years, I struggled, sometimes rather desperately, to find a way to continue in the faith or, if necessary, to be certain that leaving it was the right thing to do.

I was not always alone during those years, but that was an extraordinarily lonely experience. It seemed like nobody else among my acquaintances wrestled with this sort of thing. It was as if I were somehow required to endure my own version of what Martin Luther had endured more than 450 years earlier, when he rejected the religious orthodoxy of his time with the famous words, “Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me.” Luther’s drama might seem overblown to some; but in fact that moment, as much as any, heralded more than a hundred years of religious war that would rage across Europe.

As such, that moment may have more current relevance than meets the eye. Because — to move quickly through the subsequent years — what happened next in my own life was that I drifted some distance away from conservative Christian practice and belief. I became a philosophy major and then moved to New York City, married a Jewish woman, and became a lawyer. Throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, I watched scornfully as Christian conservatives confronted sex scandals in their midst, including adultery by famous ministers (e.g., Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard, Jim Bakker) and sexual abuse of minors, as well as fraud within churches. To me, such developments vindicated my hard-won realization that wanting to believe something does not make it so. If it’s not the cold, hard truth, then you have no business dragging God into it. He did not create your problems, and he is not likely to fix them for you.

I say that Martin Luther’s line in the sand has contemporary impact because now, in this U.S. presidential election season of fall 2016, we are seeing a quasi-religious confrontation among true believers reminiscent of Luther’s 16th century.

There was a time, in my years as a lawyer and, later, as a student of social work, when I could join liberal America in smug agreement with St. Paul’s words to the church in Corinth, “Few of you were wise in the world’s eyes . . . when God called you.” In other words, religious rigidity tends not to be very compatible with worldly concepts of intelligence; smart people tend to remain skeptical. My own experience persuaded me that people committed to finding truth will realize that the Bible is not what believers want it to be.

But I failed to take account of what happened next. Luther’s followers became as legalistic and dogmatic in their beliefs as the Catholics ever were — and now, as if to follow their example, liberal America has likewise departed from a commitment to truth, however unpleasant it may sometimes be, and is preferring instead to take a perverse pride in the sometimes destructive poses that it adopts on behalf of its self-appointed crusades. Like the Lutheran armies inflicting death on fellow Christians, supposedly in the name of a God of love, today’s liberal opinionmakers too often use their purportedly truth-oriented occupations — in academia, in journalism, and, yes, in liberal churches — to promote their preferred beliefs, distorting reality to win arguments. Such behavior recalls, all too clearly, the deplorable conservative habit of lying for the Lord.

In this 2016 presidential election season especially, I have been appalled at the supposedly educated liberals who evidently lack the capacity to think critically about their chosen dogma. In conversation after conversation, I have seen the kind of extremely partisan thinking that insists it is right every time, about every issue. That is not the mentality of a thoughtful person. And it comes out in public displays. Consider, for instance, the conflict between the New York Times‘s self-perception as a national “paper of record” and the palpable fact that the Times is grossly partisan, or the contrast between Hillary Clinton’s stated desire to bring Americans together and her claim that “you could put half of [Donald] Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables.” Regardless of my own dislike for Donald Trump, these are not the behaviors of people who care enough about truth to have learned that it quickly departs from those who claim to own it. In the words of The Guardian (Mallaby, 2016), the privileged class “has never been so dangerously isolated from its surroundings . . . . its arrogance enhanced by the conviction that its privilege reflects brains and accomplishment, not luck and inheritance.”

Unfortunately, I have experienced this deadly liberal arrogance about the truth in my own life and career. In other blog posts, I have described, for instance, the corruption of procedures for fairly resolving grievances in the very heart of the liberal enterprise, in master’s and PhD programs at the universities of Michigan, Indiana, Missouri, and Arkansas. As documented in those linked webpages, the professors and administrators responsible for that corruption tend to prioritize other things over the truthseeking that society has traditionally expected from its intellectuals. Today’s university ambiance favors those who will readily sacrifice principle for self-advancement, so for the most part this corruption has become a de facto element of university ethics. In some cases, truth is disregarded, not only where it is inconvenient, but also where it would interfere with the gratification of power — with, that is, the latitude to abuse those who cannot protect themselves. Such sadism is perhaps most notorious in the university’s treatment of graduate students, but it also emerges in abuse of junior faculty and, in many ways, of the public trust.

To recap, earlier paragraphs in this post explain that I was dismayed to encounter instances of false faith among conservative Christian ministers, and these last several paragraphs explain that I have been, if anything, even more dismayed to see that false faith is rife among the alleged truths with which liberal Christians and nonbelievers confront the conservative believer. Yes, there are many problems with claims based on or implied by the words of the Bible. But, these days, those who claim to prioritize reason over faith are not championing a consistently superior worldview. Yes, to cite one example among many, they do far better with their medical machines than the believers do with prayer. But that is merely an argument that certain matters are best left to science. One can just as easily retort that other matters, including some very important ones (e.g., faithfulness; generosity; the richness of present-moment experience) tend to be better left to a worldview that does not glorify selfish individualism above all else — a worldview, that is, that prioritizes, not the corruptible pursuit of personal advancement, but rather an unselfish commitment to the well-being of one’s community or, possibly, the expectations of one’s God.

It is easy to assume that you know the truth and that others do not. But how can you be so sure? Those who have attempted the philosophical and/or psychological study of what we know, and how we can be sure we know it, are likely to affirm that such questions are vastly more difficult than one might expect. In fact, human beings tend not to have simple and clear knowledge of things. Learning this about oneself is essential, if one is to be well educated.

It is regrettable that colleges and universities are so frequently failing to introduce students to those fundamental insights. Their failure leaves us with the spectacle of this year’s election contest, in which Americans seem more partisan and less truthseeking than ever before — where one can observe, as just discussed, that the supposedly smarter and more reasonable liberals remain unable and/or unwilling to grasp and respond effectively to conservative concerns.

But even if the universities are no longer reliably able to teach students what truth is like, at least the schools of religion should do so. The person who claims to have the answers, thanks to his/her own liberal intellect or conservative interpretation of selected Bible passages — the person who simplemindedly rejects the knowledge, intelligence, experience, and sincerity of those who disagree with him/her — may lack a basic sense of perspective on the breadth and complexity of life. Such a person does not seem a likely candidate for a divine calling.

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