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The Flag of the World

-G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

This here blog is a glimpse or two or three at the condition of the 'fortress of our family' through the eyes Timothy Goddard, a Christian writer with an unhealthy interest in politics living in the Puget Sound area.

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Saturday, April 26, 2003


Secular paranoia
A few of you may have heard about the "mysterious" Christian group that provides housing to various Christian politicians while they live in Washington. Now, there's something of an expose in Harper's magazine about it (via the Christianity Today Weblog). Jeffrey Sharlet, editor of KillingtheBuddha.com, an online magazine for non-religious people who want to learn about religious things from people who aren't religious (which, to me, that sounds a lot like trying to learn biology from people who aren't biologists, but I'll get to that later), spent several weeks at a different house, The Cedars, owned by the same group, pretending to be a believer, all the while studying the people there like Jane Goodall studied chimps. Or, more accurately, like a 1950's Russian spy in Washington DC. I'm not sure what Sharlet wants us to think about such an act, but I consider it despicable, and I wonder how the people who's trust he betrayed feel about it.

But Sharlet very obviously doesn't want anyone to consider who he is or why he is doing what he's doing--he wants us to consider The Family, as he calls it, and what they do. Even then, it's unclear what he wants us to think about them--except that we're not supposed to like "America's Secret Theocrats." He criticizes the organization for ties to anti-communist dictators during the Cold War, and for not focusing on "the thousands of literal poor living barely a mile away but rather the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom: the senators, generals, and prime ministers who coast to the end of Twenty-fourth Street in Arlington in black limousines and town cars and hulking S.U.V.'s to meet one another, to meet Jesus, to pay homage to the god of The Cedars." He also spends a great deal of time psychoanalyzing the group, trying to tease out their rather odd theology into something he can understand--because when he does, at the end of the article ("Their faith and their practice seemed closer to a perverted sort of Buddhism, their God outside "the truth," their Christ everywhere and nowhere at once..."), he can tell us what it is.

But in doing so, he tells us nothing at all. Everything he says is filtered through the eyes of someone who really doesn't understand even the basis of what he's seeing, yet thinks he does. This is remarkably common amongst the sorts of people who want to approach religion in a non-religious manner, and the sorts of people who write for Harper's--to think they understand Christians and Christianity (we're simple folk, of course, and it is simple for such wise liberal elites as Sharlet to see what makes us tick), when they really misunderstand it bizarrely.

Another problem with Sharlet's reporting is his immense paranoia surrounding anything and everything in relation to the Family, ascribing everything both more significance than it needs, and always a sinister significance. Consider this description of the mysterious game of "bump."
On my first day at Ivanwald, on an uneven court behind the house, I learned to play a two-ball variant of basketball called "bump" that was designed to sharpen both body and soul. In bump, players compete at free throws, each vying to sink his own before the man behind him sinks his. If he hits first then you're out, with one exception: the basket's net narrows at the chute so that the ball sometimes sticks, at which point another player can hurl his ball up from beneath, knocking the first ball out. In this event everyone cries "Bu-u-ump," with great joy.
I'm not quite sure how a game I learned in middle school can be described as "designed to sharpen both body and soul." Apparently, Sharlet did not learn this in middle school, and so fell into the all too common trap of assuming that the person they learned a game from was the inventor. Jr. highers do that all the time with their PE teachers and camp counselors, but so, apparently, does Sharlet.

All in all, the piece is downright worthless. We get slivers of life at the Cedars, non-sequiter anecdotes and scraps of the history of the Family, all seen through the pretentious, paranoid and generally distorted view of someone who was living a lie the entire time he was there. There may well be something fishy going on at the Cedars, but I wouldn't trust Sharlet to find it any more than I would send a blind man to hunt shadows.
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