Ask Professor Burge 13: Christianity on Bleach in the Middle East

by | June 10, 2021

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Professor Ryan Burge‘s website states: “I am an Assistant Professor of Political Science as well as the Graduate Coordinator at Eastern Illinois University. I teach in a variety of areas, including American institutions, political behavior, and research methods. My research focuses largely on the intersection between religiosity and political behavior (especially in the American context). Previously, I have completed an appointment as a post doctoral research fellow at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute in Carbondale, Illinois. While there I was an adviser on issues of survey methodology and polling, as well as providing data collection and analysis.

I have published over a dozen articles in a number of well regarded peer reviewed journals including Politics & Religion, the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, the Review of Religious Research, the Journal of Religious Leadership, RepresentationPoliticsGroupsand Identities, the Journal of Communication and Religion, the Journal of Religion, Media and Digital Culture and the Social Science Computer Review. 

In addition, my research has been covered in a variety of media outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, NBC, Vox, 538, BuzzFeed News, Al-Jazeera, Christianity Today, Religion News Service, The Daily Mail, Deseret News, World Magazine, Relevant, and C-SPAN. I am the co-founder and frequent contributor to Religion in Public, a forum for scholars of religion and politics to make their work accessible to a more general audience.

Finally, I am a pastor in the American Baptist Church, having served my current church for over thirteen years.”

Here we talk about higher levels of social forgiveness for pastoral leadership, Jordan Peterson, Mark Driscoll, and Eric Metaxas, and the nature of American Christianity.

*Interview conducted on August 4, 2020.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Does this bubble phenomenon reflect something akin to the rapid growth of Mark Driscoll – Mars Hill Church, followed by its scandal, popping, and collapse? He came in with the infinite forgiveness given within some of these communities. Of course, he’s starting again in a different state. However, is this a common phenomenon also tied to that? You use the term “guy” many times. Why are guys given all the authority, as well, in most of these churches?

Professor Ryan Burge: Because the Bible says so. It is really clear that they take their cue from Epistles, and it says women can’t be pastors. They have to be silent in the church. I mean, very few Evangelical churches allow women anywhere close to the pulpit. I mean, almost none. Like that is the distinction in the sort of conventional ways you can never be a woman pastor. So, I think guys because, most of these non-denominational pastors, I would say 95% or more are men as well. Even though they don’t have any sort of the doctrinal statements that the Baptists do. The only outlier I can think of was Willow Creek in Chicago. The pastor was going to retire. His church managed to appoint two people to replace him as the senior pastor. And what was the matter? One was a woman. That was scandalous for a lot of Evangelicals. That just doesn’t happen. But in Evangelicalism, 98% of pastors are men, especially preaching pastors because women can’t preach. It is just not theologically allowed. So, that’s why I say men because it is just always men.

Jacobsen: What explains the phenomenon of individuals, including Francis Chan, Matt Chandler, Rick Warren, Mark Driscoll, and others, at times, with this very belligerent presentation of church theology? How people should act, what their roles are in society, and the ways in which they should live out the religious life, often, comes in a very proselytizing form, sometimes abusive.

Burge: People are drawn towards certainty and surety and confidence. They want to be told what to believe. They want to be told how to act and why that’s important. They want that. Not everybody, but a lot of people are drawn to structure, they’re drawn to order. They’re drawn to clear guidelines of what the community wants and what it demands and what it requires of you. They don’t want to have to work things out themselves. They are sort of want to be told what to believe. And actually, that’s precisely what makes it easy to hold a group together because you’re all on the same page theologically. Not to excite over things like, “Well, we’ve got a woman here who wants to preach. What do we do? No, we’re not going to let her preach.” Like, that’s great from a sociological standpoint, a group dynamic standpoint, because you don’t have debates over every little thing.

So, there’s an old John Wesley quote, who is the founder of Methodism. He said, ‘If you set yourself up on fire, people will come to watch you burn.’ And I think that’s a lot of it. These people like these pastors who are so sure of themselves. It becomes viral. You hear Mark Driscoll yelling at young men to grow up, stop being kids, take care of your wife, be a man. You’re like, “Yes, let’s do that.” Those are the kind of services that go viral and grow your audience bigger. So, I think it is all tied up in the sensationalism of the whole thing. Mark Driscoll would preach for an hour every Sunday like that. It would go on forever. And people just like that. They like that he was bold and courageous and said what he thought. And he said some stuff that was outside the mainstream. It was like, “Jesus loves you, get saved.” It was like, “Men be men, and women be women, and be a good father.” The sort of masculinity project that a lot of people like because they felt like young men were not being as masculine, as responsible as they could be. And they sort of aspired to be what Mark Driscoll was. Come to find out the dude was like abusive to his staff and really was not a great leader in a lot of ways, but that’s beyond the point for them because he helped them get to be in a better place.

Jacobsen: Do you think this explains some semi-secular, semi-religious phenomenon, including the clinical psychologist from the University of Toronto, the mythologically-oriented Christian-in-the-closet Jordan Peterson?

Burge: I don’t know. I don’t understand Jordan Peterson. I don’t get the of this appeal man. It’s crazy. As you were talking, I was thinking. There is this book that just came out called Jesus and John Wayne by a Christian from Calvin College, which is actually a pretty conservative Evangelical school in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She talks about Christianity’s very odd relationship with masculinity. In the 2000s, there was a book called Wild At Heart by John Eldridge, which basically argues men want to be like heroes. They want to go on conquest and they want adventures and all this kind of stuff. And those women want to be rescued, like this very like gender roles thing that happened. Evangelicalism has always been tied up with masculinity. Even American conservative politics has been tied up with same thing too, “We don’t apologize. And I don’t care about your feelings, and I don’t care what you think.” That kind of confidence is what a lot of people like, especially on the conservative side, theologically, and politically too. They don’t want to have like, “Well, let’s talk about it. Let’s discuss viewpoints, and we are going to be right.” They don’t want that.

They want to be told what’s right. And they want to say, “You know what, Donald Trump is the greatest thing ever for us because he says the quiet part out loud.” They’ll say, “Listen, you’re somewhat forgetful for black and brown people. We don’t like that. You re-elect me. We’ll get them right out of there.” It’s more like, “Democrats are going to destroy Christianity.”  He said that as point one. They like that. They want that straight talk because that’s how they talk. I don’t like locker room talk. We’ll get a little rough over there because we’re just getting more racially diverse. So, that kind of talk works from the pulpit. It also works from the political lectern because people want to be. They want to have you say what they say just directly and straightly without any of the nuance of political correctness. And that’s makes pastors successful and the politicians successful too.

Jacobsen: Now to the original tweet from Eric Metaxas, “Jesus was white.” Now, if I pose to you a geography of two thousand years ago or so in the Middle East, or in a heat and blistering sun, of a Jewish person who is described as having skin of bronze and hair of sheep’s wool, would you describe this person as blond haired, blue eyed and white?

Burge: No, I don’t know how you came up with a Norwegian fella, but like there he is. And that’s tied up the whole idea of how we create God in our own image. We create Jesus in our own image. And if you just have a cursory understanding of geography and ethnicity and how all these things play together with demography, Jesus wasn’t white. Even if he was white, he sure as hell wasn’t white like Americans are white. He was dark skinned. There’s no way in the world he wasn’t dark skinned either, like olive covered, Middle Eastern. There’s just no way. But it is posturing. It is all posturing because, listen: Jesus is white because American Christianity is white. That’s the way it is. And so, what you’re really getting is a conflation between theological identity and political identity and racial identity, the American Republican Party is the party of white Christians. The American Republican Party is the party of white Christianity and the Democratic Party is the party of everybody else. That means Christians of color, but it also means atheists, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, everybody else. There’s sort of a catch-all.

And in order for the Republican Party to stay what it is, it has to keep mustering the troops in and the discussion about Jesus being white is like bread and butter for the Republican Party because they are the party of white Christianity. But you have to keep in mind that, Jesus was white. Systemic racism does exist. Because that’s the world you live in, because ‘white people don’t do anything wrong.’ So, all those things are tied together: conservative theology, conservative politics, but also whiteness is intimately tied to American Christianity. A great book called The Cross and the Lynching Tree, by James H. Cone really tied all this stuff together, talking about how American Christianity has been intimately tied up with slavery, racism and all the things that go with that since the very beginning. And you can almost not pull one thing for another. They are intertwined in such a way that you can’t extract one from the other to our own detriment.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Professor Burge.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight Publishing and Editor-in-Chief of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal (ISSN 2369-6885). Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and the advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere.

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Image Credit: Ryan Burge.

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