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Venom of faith

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Lauren Pond recently detailed some of her thoughts as she photographed the final agonizing moments of Pastor Randy “Mack” Wolford. Pond, a photographer with the Washington Post, recounted how she struggled to fulfill her duties with the paper versus her human urges to attempt to try to help Wolford, who was dying, needlessly and just like his father, from a rattlesnake-inflicted bite. And all, presumably, because of this dubious passage in Mark 16:

And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; (18) They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover. (KJV)

Even more disparaging than the fact that fringe Christians are handling snakes, and thus testing god’s protection over their lives (I think the Bible also has something to say about not testing the lord, but that’s beside the point), is that this passage is probably not authentic in the first place. John Dominic Crossan said as much in his “The Historical Jesus” (p. 415-416):

My proposal is that the original version of Mark’s Gospel ended with the centurion’s confession in 15:39. What comes afterward, from 15:40 through 16:8, was not in Secret Mark but stems from canonical Mark. … it fits very well with a Markan theology in which faith and hope despite persecution and death is much more important than visions, apparitions, and even revelations.

I found it telling that after observing Wolford’s faith and the agonizing death that flowed and followed from it, that Pond could actually write sympathetically about this man and his fellow believers:

My thoughts have been especially muddied because of the context in which I knew Mack. He wasn’t just a source and a subject in my year-long documentary project about Pentecostal serpent-handling; he was also a friend: We shared a meal at the cafe where members of his family work; he screened videos about himself for me at his house; I once stayed the night on his couch.

The practices of the Signs Following faith remain an enigma to many. How can people be foolish enough to interpret Mark 16: 17-18 so literally: to ingest poison, such as strychnine, which Mack also allegedly did at Sunday’s ceremony; to handle venomous snakes; and, most incomprehensible of all, not to seek medical treatment if bitten? Because of this reaction, many members of this religious community are hesitant to speak to the media, let alone be photographed.

But Mack was different. He allowed me to see what life was like for a serpent-handler outside church, which helped me better understand the controversial religious practice, and, I think, helped me add nuance to my photographs. His passing, my first vivid encounter with death, was both a personal and professional loss for me. …

Mack’s family has accepted his death as something that he knew was coming and something that was ultimately God’s will. The pastor believed every word of the Bible and laid down his life for his conviction, they said. For them, his death is an affirmation of the Signs Following tradition: “His faith is what took him home,” said his sister Robin Vanover, 38.

What a stunning statement from Wolford’s sister. If Mack really believed every word of the Bible, he was foolish to do so since it was already disproved in the death of his father. Doesn’t the passage in Mark 16 clearly say that believers will be able to drink poison and handle snakes, and they will not be harmed? Yet, both Wolford and his father diligently and faithfully followed the biblical passage but, as ever, the biblical promise of immunity was not kept. So, the life of Wolford and his father actually had the unintended consequence of serving to further disprove the validity of the Bible. His faith took him to the grave, all right. So did his unabashed stupidity and failure to understand the text on which he supposedly based his life.

I wonder how many times does the Bible’s promises would have to be broken before these people would be willing to pry open their closed little minds. To borrow a line from Hitchens, to ask the question is to answer it.

Your thoughts?

Written by Jeremy

June 2nd, 2012 at 8:19 pm

Sharpton vs. Beck: Round 1

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Credit: Kevin Wolf/AP (left); Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post (right)

So, should we reclaim the dream or restore honor?

As it turns out, it depends on who you talk to. Whichever ambiguous path you choose, it’s sure to curry favor with either the Rev. Al Sharpton, who led an event today to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic March on Washington in 1964, or Glenn Beck, and we all know his reputation. As it happens, Beck, the presiding FOX News lunatic who was holding his “Reclaim the Dream” rally in Washington on the same weekend, a gathering that he said was not, necessarily, planned, to coincide with King’s famous march and speech. Sure.

Here’s how The Washington Post has framed it:

On the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, steps away from where it was delivered, Sarah Palin and other speakers at Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally staked a claim to King’s legacy and to that of the Founding Fathers. They urged a crowd that stretched to the Washington Monument to concentrate on the nation’s accomplishments rather than on its psychological scars.

“Something that is beyond man is happening,” Beck said from the base of the Lincoln Memorial. “America today begins to turn back to God.”

The event was billed as “nonpolitical,” and Beck steered clear of the partisan commentary that has made him a hero to many conservatives and a nemesis to many on the left. But political overtones were unmistakable, and the rally drew a large crowd – including many who said they were new to activism – that was energized and motivated to act.

The effort by Beck and Palin to lay claim to the mantle of the civil rights movement drew protests from the Rev. Al Sharpton and others who marched in a separate and much smaller event, to the National Mall from Dunbar High School in Northwest Washington, to commemorate King’s speech 47 years ago.

“The ‘March on Washington’ changed America,” Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said at the Sharpton rally, referring to King’s speech. “Our country reached to overcome the low points of our racial history. Glenn Beck’s march will change nothing.” ((

Not only will it not change anything, at least not for the good of the country, it will further splinter America. Beck, in all his civil rights fake-profundity, forgets that the tax cuts that he so trumpets nearly every day on his TV show will hurt many Americans who are the very people he claims to so embrace in the rally: low- to middle-income Americans.

Of course, there’s much over-excited banter from the other side as well. Here is Avis Jones DeWeever, executive director of the National Council of Negro Women:

Don’t let anyone tell you that they have the right to take their country back. It’s our country, too. We will reclaim the dream. It was ours from the beginning.

It is, indeed, black folks’ nation as well, but DeWeever, I think, misunderstands the point the Tea Party crowd, Beck, Palin and others have been attempting to make all along. They aren’t attempting to take the country back from black people or any race (That would be a perversion of the original intent), but from what they refer to as the liberal movement. Now, to me, the word “liberal” is a meaningless term. Even so, the point on Beck’s part is a political one, not a racial one.

And now, let me turn to numbers.

The Washington Post reported that thousands had descended on Washington for the Beck event, while Beck himself estimated that between 300,000-500,000 had attended the event. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), talking to a crowd after the Beck event had this to say:

We’re not going to let anyone get away with saying there were less than a million here today – because we were witnesses.

I find her use of the words “We were witnesses,” interesting. The numbers at the conservative event balloon from 300,000 to 500,000 then to a million? And yes, because we were witnesses, a million turned out to Washington to rail against the government. And because “we” (the gospel writers) were witnesses to the event, Christ performed miracles, raised Lazarus from the dead, exorcised demons and appeared before the disciples after death, and hundreds or maybe thousands were “witnesses” to UFO sightings or abductions and others were “witnesses” to paranormal activity and myriad other happenings that transcend the laws of nature. To simply establish that a person was a witness to a certain event doesn’t make the said event true. It makes the claimant either trustworthy, misunderstood, deceitful or, most plainly, wrong.

As it happens, the actual March on Washington likely consisted of between 200,000-300,000 people without any gross, and in Bachmann’s case, terribly gross, number-fudging.

Here is King’s monumental speech on that monumental day:

Written by Jeremy

August 29th, 2010 at 12:14 am

Health care bill information as vote nears

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Health care vote tally (updated continuously)


As I’m listening to President Obama’s speech on health care at George Mason University today, I’ve again come to realize how embarrassingly slow, not only this year’s attempts at health care reform has been, but nearly a century-long debate on the issue in this country. Even more so when compared to country’s like Germany and Great Britain, which enacted univeral health care more than a century ago and a half century ago, respectively.

The New York Times, which came out yesterday editorially in favor of passage (no secret there), has put together a historical timeline tracking America’s slow progress on reform.

A vote in the House will likely come Sunday, which would be one of the most historic pieces of legislation in history, and the single most important one regarding health care. Obama, who said at George Mason that he wasn’t sure how the vote would implicate his presidency, has, nonetheless, staked his career on it.

Here’s some resources to help you sort through the details of reconciliation bill:

Here’s my favorite chart, and the most enlightening regarding who’s pockets are lined by the health industry, a table mapping campaign contributions, how House members voted Nov. 7 and their current leaning:

Who’s in play: House health-care vote (Hint: check out Rep. Joe Barton)

Journalism’s ‘death’ merely return to form

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Given the increased prominence and influence of partisan outfits like MSNBC and FOX News, increased job cutbacks and failed newspapers around the nation, increased information on the Internet, and given a decreased presence of good journalism, many have noted the obvious, and inevitable decline of journalism in recent years.

Michael Gerson, with The Washington Post, is the latest, who in his Nov. 27 column, “Journalism’s Slow, Sad Death,” outlines this decline, describing the old newspaper fronts displayed at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., as looking more like a mausoleum than an archive of living history. And he’s right. Journalism, or more accurately, newspapering, is almost a forgotten craft at this point in our history. But while he calls it a “slow, sad death,” I call it a return to form.

In the dictionary, one can find two definitions for “journalism,” one that includes the stipulation that the news gathering and presentation of information be given without interpretation or analysis, and one that simply says it’s about news gathering. Thus, magazines, tabloid publications and standard broadsheet newspapers “do” journalism, but it’s the broadsheet sort that Gerson is referencing, though he never really makes the distinction.

Of course, those who are actually in the newspaper business know what he means when he says “journalism.” We mean the kind of news gathering that attempts to leave commentary or interpretation out of straight news stories, opinion being relegated to the editorial page. But without that distinction, most people in the body politic can’t even distinguish, or don’t know how to, between the kind of journalism done by People Magazine and that of the L.A. Times or the St. Petersburg Times. Celebrities can’t even distinguish. Often, like in this Tiger Woods fiasco, movie or sports stars will refer to “the media” as a blanket term for everything from the trash tabloid publications to The New York Times. As the L.A. Times reported about Woods:

In a Q&A on his website last month, a fan asked Woods why she rarely saw photos of the couple in the gossip magazines. Woods replied that they have “avoided a lot of media (italics mine) attention because we’re kind of boring,” and he described a home life that included watching rented videos and playing video games with friends.

Many people don’t see the distinction, and that’s one point in which journalism as we know it might be going the way of the dodo. Thanks to the tabloids, Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann and others, true objective journalism is simply being drowned out and stamped down in preference to opinion and innuendo (Admittedly, there is no such thing as “objective” journalism as an ideal. Journalists are not robots, but humans. We interpret news and make decisions on a daily basis about what is important to include in news stories and what is not. That skill set largely distinguishes our product from claptrap put out daily by People, the National Inquirer and others.)

All that said, Gerson’s “slow, sad death” is a return to form because his “journalistic tradition of nonpartisan objectivity” is a fairly new phenomenon beginning at some point in the early 20th century. Prior to that, especially in the yellow journalism era and in the mid-19th century right around the Civil War,  newspapers and other publications were merely talking heads for political parties. They took a public stance, one way or the other, for slavery or against, for the Barnburners or against, for the Copperheads or not. So, if print newspapers followed the trend of television news, they will more increasingly become partisan, like FOX News and MSNBC.

I, of course, would hate to see this happen and hope that newspapers still practicing good journalism can find ways to remain solvent. Were newspapers to make that eventual turn, it wouldn’t necessarily be the death of journalism, for journalism, objective or not, can live on without getting “newsprint on your hands,” as Gerson lauds newsmen at the end of his column. But it would be a return to its former self. Remember, journalism wasn’t objective first in its history. It was partisan first. The turn to non-partisanship was a turn for the better, in my view, and here’s hoping print journalism remains true to its 20th-century transformation.

Couple hours with talk radio on Friday night

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Thank goodness for fringe talk radio to keep me angry enough late at night so I’m not attempted to fall asleep at the wheel while returning from a lengthy trip Lexington, Ga., to cover a football game.

I’m not sure what radio host, Mark Levin’s, obsession is with The Washington Post (Levin calls it The Washington Compost) writer, Dana Milbank, but Milbank is linked on Levin’s Web site, and Levin, in usual form, went into a 10-minute rant about this column, appearing Friday in The Post. In it, Milbank detailed some of the more unusual features of a protest held Thursday on Capitol Hill by House Republicans and Tea Party supporters, who were rallying against the health care reform bill currently under consideration. To briefly point out some of what Milbank observed:

In the front of the protest, a sign showed President Obama in white coat, his face painted to look like the Joker. The sign, visible to the lawmakers as they looked into the cameras, carried a plea to “Stop Obamunism.” A few steps farther was the guy holding a sign announcing “Obama takes his orders from the Rothchilds” [sic], accusing Obama of being part of a Jewish plot to introduce the antichrist.

According to Milbank, also being displayed was a banner which read: “National Socialist Healthcare, Dachau, Germany, 1945.”

Levin on the radio show claimed he saw none of this nonsense, and was quick to point to a 90-year-old veteran he saw in a wheel chair on the front row and the numerous American flags, etc, etc. Levin seemed to indicate that among 20,000 people (He must have had a different math teacher than Milbank, who only recorded about 5,000 in attendance), there were sure to be a few crackpot, zany signs and that you could pick out fringers anywhere, like Waffle House on any given day. But the tough news for Levin is that he is a fringer. In his long rant on the air tonight, Levin accused liberals of doing everything in their power to ridicule some of the strong, female leaders of the conservative movement, like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann. He awkwardly threw in the word “attractive” in his description, but I have no idea what physical appearance has to do with anything.

But the point is this. He accused some of ridiculing the intelligence and the very being of people like Palin and others, but leveled a barrage of belittling names Milbank’s way in response to the column. In his vitriol, in which by the end, Levin was for all practical purposes, screaming into the microphone, used the following choice words to describe Milbank (I wrote some of them down as I was listening): “jerk” (three times); “moron”; “propagandis,” and a “pathetic” one at that; “liar”; “coward”; “punk”; “hack”; “ass”; and “backbencher”. The liar and coward accusations begin teetering into slander territory. Regardless, what sort of person do you have to be to, in one breath, accuse someone of belittling or mocking Palin, while not more than two minutes later, to begin such a barrage of insults I just listed against another person?

I want to address one more thing. The use of the word “patriots” to describe Tea Party attendees or Republicans or anti-Obama zealots is just plain offensive to the spirit on which this country was built. One person who called in to Levin’s show described the attendees of the aforesaid rally as “citizen patriots,” whatever that means. This type of nonsense basically throws feces over the venerable graves of John Adams, Sam Adams, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Hancock, George Washington and the thousands who fought from Massachusetts and the other colonies against the British to help us win independence. I’m not a patriot. Obama isn’t a patriot. Levin isn’t a patriot. Neither is Milbank. The New England Patriots aren’t even patriots. The dictionary definition of the word generally means anyone who loves her country, but look deeper, and the word originates from Greek root, patēr, meaning “father,” hence, as it relates to this country, Founding Fathers. Using that word so lightly after all that this country has been through in its 200-plus year history makes a mockery of what the above men worked to accomplish, and it’s personally offensive to me, and it should be to anyone else with a brain.

I’ll probably have more to say on Levin later when it’s not 2 a.m. after having worked 12 hours. …

Obama, the peace prize and country

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Much has been said and written today about the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to President Barack Obama, from Michelle Malkin’s spastic, right-of-right, true-to-form fragmentary post on the subject, to the Huffington Post’s more rosey view of the man. This BBC story attempts to give a sweeping view of some of the sentiments coming from the American media on the announcement.

Obama is the third sitting president to have been given the honor, followed by Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt. Jimmy Carter has also won it, but that award came 20 or so years after he left office. Al Gore has as well.

I think this award, more than anything else, amounts to Obama being perceived in much of Europe as the “un-Bush,” as David Ignatius of The Washington Post dubbed it, perhaps fueled, in part, by his speech Sept. 23 to the U.N. General Assembly, and his speech in Cairo, and in his speech on race, and his diplomatic policies, his reaching out to the Muslim world, and, finally, his stance on nuclear nonproliferation. As Ignatius notes,

That’s what he’s being honored for, really: reconnecting America to the world and making us popular again. If you want to understand the sentiments behind the prize, look at the numbers in the Transatlantic Trends report released last month by the German Marshall Fund. Obama’s approval rating in Germany: 92 percent compared to 12 percent for George Bush. His approval in the Netherlands: 90 percent compared to 18 percent for Bush. His favorability rating in Europe overall (77 percent) was much higher than in America (57 percent).

Some, of course, like Dick Cheney, would argue that it doesn’t matter whether we are popular. It matters that we are safe. But, unless our plan is to continue our imperialistic ways forever, I think it does matter, and is a good thing, if other, respected countries within the global community think we are on the right track internationally. No good at all can surely come from being disliked by most of the industrialized, modern countries of the world, as we were under the last woeful administration.

This award, in truth, is not about any one thing Obama has done, for he hasn’t done much on the global stage. It’s about an ideal for a more globally connected America. And while some will cry foul and say many of  the other 200-something candidates were actually doing hard, hands-on work to promote peace, I do believe that this award says more about this country than this president, signifying the stunning reversal from the last administration’s G.I. Joe approach to foreign matters to our election of a diplomat. The Nobel Prize committee, using any rational, could never give this award to Obama based on any tangible accomplishments (and Obama admits this), but as he said, it’s a “call to action.”

Some, like this YouTube user, wrongly suggest that the Nobel Peace Prize committee’s decision was “apparently made just after the president took office.” (One can gauge this person’s level of credibility by noticing the channel he happens to be watching in this video.) No. In fact, nomination submissions close Feb. 1, but the choice isn’t made until October. Thus, it is true: someone nominated Obama just after his inauguration, but Obama’s leadership through these seven-eight months must have had some impact.

Regardless, as I’ve said, does he deserve it on his own merit? Probably not. And he says so himself. Is it a good thing for our country? Absolutely. John Adams, a founder whom I’m come to revere greatly, saw, not only the importance of believing in his “country,” but also recognized the importance of being respected on the world’s stage. If we aren’t, we’re cowboys. Though Cheney and Bush would seemingly have it no other way, the era of cowboys and gunslinging is long gone, and we must move with, not against or in spite of, other sovereign, modern, democratic nations.

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