Saturday, January 27, 2007

A tight timeline for Letter to an Atheist

Regular readers of this blog are aware of the mid course correction my writing has taken. Fort Desperate remains in hiatus, awaiting the final edit, while I focus furiously and exclusively on finishing Letter to an Atheist by February 10.

It will end up being about 150 pages, and the first complete draft is done. The problem with a polemic is to write with an engagingly clever and zingy style. My nemesis, Mr. Harris, has accomplished such a style, so the standard for writing style is quite high.

Readers will pleased to know that my appendix listing of 25 factual errors in Letter to a Christian Nation is complete, and quite zingy.

We've selected a book cover style, got the printer (Print-on-Demand) lined up and ready to go on receipt of the PDF files.

I'll be relying on the members of the Williamson County Public Library Writers Group for last minute editing help, but I feel pretty confident we'll make the February 10 deadline.

Book blurbs present a bit of a timing problem. I'm looking for just three good blurbs, but don't know if I'll have enough time to get the galleys out for review, with time for comments before the final publication. We might see a back jacket with no blurbs. Can you say second edition ?

Working backwards to the March 4 joint book signing with Christine Schaub at Landmark Booksellers in Franklin, I'll need to send out a couple hundred post cards around February 18th, which means they need to be ordered around the 10th. We're also looking at email blasts late February, and Christine's publicist will take the lead on press releases.

Walden Media sent the DVDs of the movie Amazing Grace and some additional materials, and Christine and I have our first "dry run" of our book signing presentation scheduled with a small group of a church on February 9.

One issue remains to be decided, and that's the name we give the book signing event. I had original considered "The Role of Christian Faith in the Abolition of Slavery", but that sounds a little too stuffily historical. And, abolition is really just an example of the role of Christian faith in the political process.

So, dear blog reader, if you have any ideas as to what we should call the book signing event, please leave a comment here with your thoughts.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Is God Working Through a Lesbian Canadian Muslim ?

No that question is not the punchline to a bad joke.

Irshad Manji, a Muslim woman who was born in Uganda and emigrated at the age of four to Canada with her family, has written an extraordinarily hopeful book, The Trouble with Islam. Published in 2005, the book argues that the Muslim world's fanaticism stems directly from an overly literal reading of the Koran. Manji advocates the revival of an early Muslim tradition -- the ijtihad, a process in which theological answers are determined by Muslims using other Islamic works as well as a process of dialogue and inquiry.

Her goal is to establish a worldwide network of moderate Muslims who reject the violent fanaticism of jihad.

A very encouraging start that suggests a couple of thoughts.

First, notice the eerie parallel between the difficulties caused in 19th Century America on the topic of slavery by an adherence to a rigidly literalistic interpretion of the Bible.

Second, consider the extraordinarily poor job we in the West have been doing to aggressively advocate and support the growth of the type of moderate Islam championed by Ms. Manji.

Lest I overestimate the optimism one can associate with Ms. Manji and her philosophy, consider her very "feel good liberal" suggestions made earlier this month on 3 ways to improve the world.

1. If this hellish war [in Iraq] is all about democracy, why not hold a simultaneous referendum in America and Iraq about what to do? Politicians from each country would go to the other country to make their case to the people. American politicians would have to get out of the green zone -- which the Iraq Study Group barely did -- and Iraqi politicians would have to stump in those states where the loss of U.S. soldiers has been highest.

Imagine an established democracy and an emerging democracy working together to resolve a conflict of global proportions. If nothing else comes out of this cross-cultural referendum, the people of each nation would learn something about each other. Like "Wow, they're just as confused as we are." Empathy can only be a good thing.

2. Which brings me to another nagging problem -- American power. I'm not one of those resentful Canadians who screams that the United States lies at the root of all evil. (Sorry to disappoint.) But as a global citizen who's affected by Washington's decisions, I have the right to propose this idea: The American constitution should be amended so that any president who declares war must commit a family member to the front lines.

Consider the pressure this would put on the president at the next family gathering, when the relatives interrogate him or her about why their own flesh and blood is on the firing line. The price of launching a premature war is that you could become an outcast in your household. That's sure to make the commander- in-chief think twice (or, in the case of pure ideologues, think once).

3. None of this is to let Europe off the hook. The European Union can be an honest broker between the U.S. and Iran to defuse the nuclear issue. The key is to engage Iraq's top Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Here's the idea: Europeans should quietly lobby al-Sistani to issue a fatwa (legal opinion) against Iran's efforts to go nuclear.

All three of these suggestions are relatively naive non-starters, but, on balance, I can do nothing but cheer Ms. Manji on in her efforts to create a worldwide network of moderate Muslims.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Transforming a "necessary evil" to a "positive good"

Digging more deeply into research on the origins of the "slavery as a positive good" argument first articulated on the national scene by John Calhoun in a speech to the United States Senate in 1837, I'm finding a fascinating story. (photo of Calhoun on the right)

Calhoun was a moral objectivist, United States Senator, and plantation owner from South Carolina, and though the most well known and first national politician to set forward the thesis, he was not the first.

Sam Harris would have us believe that the argument originated with Southern clergymen, who were simply reading the Bible as it is written.

But the originator of the argument was not a Christian clergyman, but another moral objectivist, Thomas R. Dew (1802-1846), a political economist and President of William and Mary College who published in 1832 a glowing utilitarian defense of slavery in his Review of Debates in the Virginia Legislature.

The first Christian clergyman to advance the argument was James Smylie of Mississippi, who published his Response to the Chillicothe Congregation in 1836. As historian Lawrence Tise pointed out, Smylie, along with the other early clergymen who advanced the "slavery as a positive good argument" were all slaveholders themselves. Smylie owned 53 slaves, and was the third largest slaveholder in Amite County, Mississippi.

The abolitionist Gerrit Smith responded to Smylie with his own defense of the abolitionist position in 1837. Smith lived in Peterboro, New York, a small village in central New York, near Munnsville, another small village in which I lived as a young boy. I remember learning of Smith at the time, reading a few road side signs about him , and being disappointed that his role was that of an intellectual and not a general. Now, I wish I had learned more about him !

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The curious case of James Henley Thornwell

James Henley Thornwell (1812-1862) was a Presbyterian clergyman from South Carolina who was one of the most articulate defenders of the "Bible sanctions slavery" argument during the three decades preceeding the American Civil War. Unlike John C.Calhoun, who argued that "slavery is a positive good" purely on grounds of social utility (and without a single reference to the Bible), Thornwell advanced a more subtle argument.

While "man-stealing" and the African slave trade were prohibited by the Bible, the institution of slavery itself, he argued, was not prohibited. Christian masters, however, had certain obligations which they must fulfill towards their slaves. Slaves owed their labor to their masters, but nothing more. Thornwell promoted literacy, knowledge of the Bible, establishment of the institution of marriage within slavery, and respect for the slave family.

First heard on the public stage in the 1840's, Thornwell had, by 1860, significantly modified his views. Though pointing to a long list of Bible passages he claimed supported slavery, Thornwell acknoweldged that the institution itself was clearly not within the spirit of the Gospel. Discouraged that masters would be able to consistently fulfill their Christian duties towards slaves, and mindful of the likelihood of terrible war about to break out around the topic, Thornwell was about to unveil his own proposal for the gradual emancipation of all slaves when his fellow South Carolinians fired on Fort Sumter.

Once the issue was joined, however, Thornwell threw his lot in completely with the Confederacy.

History is filled with "what ifs" and "if onlys". The student of history today can only wonder how events would have unfolded had Thornwell come to his epiphany as little as a year before 1860.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Mike Cope reviews Letter to a Christian Nation

Mike Cope, the wonderful preacher at Highland Church of Christ in Abilene, Texas, offers a surprisingly gentle review of Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation.

When [Sam Harris] says that “atheism is not a philosophy . . . it is simply an admission of the obvious,” I think he’s self-deceived. Isn’t that like an overly-confident declaration of being opposed to over-confidence? And when he’s utterly amazed that “80 percent of Katrina’s survivors claim that the event has only strengthened their faith in God,” perhaps he should ask if there is more going on in this world than a scientist can test and a rationalist can figure out.

Why does faith flourish in pediatric oncology wings of hospitals? (It’s the question that led Dr. Diane Komp, a pediatric oncologist, back to faith.)

But having said that, I think Harris has done us a favor by writing honestly and clearly about what faith looks like from his perspective. He has pointed out some things that we must face if we’re going to have a voice in this world. I’d love to be in a study group with a bunch of university students working through this. I trust that our faith is not too fragile to face such arguments with compassion and truth.

For his complete blog posting on the topic, check out his blog at Preacher Mike.

I am surprised that Mike attributes honesty to Harris' argument. I've already documented 25 instances of intellectual dishonesty in Harris' slim 91 page volume (starting off with completely misrepresenting a Gallup Poll on creationism and evolution, continuing to knowingly misquoting Christian evangelicals, and ending up with falsely portraying study data that he should know is flawed).

I don't disagree with Mike that we should be ready to take atheism's best shot at our Christian beliefs, but if Harris' argument is the best shot that philosophy can offer, none of us need worry that any clear and honest thinker will have his faith shaken !

Friday, January 12, 2007

Joint Book Signing March 4 at Landmark Booksellers

Christine Schaub, author of The Longing Season, and I will hold a joint book signing at Landmark Booksellers in Franklin, Tennessee on Sunday, March 4 from 3 pm to 5 pm. The event will include our joint presentation on The Role of Christian Faith in the Abolition of Slavery, as well as selected film clips from the soon to be released movie Amazing Grace.

I will be signing copies of my first book, Letter to an Atheist, scheduled for publication by Harpeth River Press on February 23, 2007, the same day Amazing Grace the movie premieres.

I devote an entire chapter of my book to debunking the false claim that Christian Faith, acting in complete concert with the Bible, created and sustained slavery in America. Contrary to the argument made by Sam Harris in Letter to a Christian Nation, a two fold failure of the Evangelical Christian movement in America contributed to the Civil War as the ultimate arbiter of the slavery question.

First, both traditional and Evangelical Christians in the South were inordinately influenced by the "slavery is a positive good" argument developed by moral objectivists such as John Calhoun, William Yancey, and Edmund Ruffin, and constructed contrived arguments from Old Testament passages to falsely claim that the Bible not only tolerated slavery, but in fact sanctioned it.

Second, Evangelical Christians who knew that the golden rule -- "love thy neighbor as thyself" -- could only mean that the Bible and Jesus Christ condemned slavery -- Methodists who followed John Wesley and Stone-Campbell movement revivalists -- either kept quiet in their Southern homes, moved North, or like John Fee of Kentucky, suffered terrible ostracism and persecution from their neighbors.

Where Evangelical Christians in Britain waged a successful political fight to end slavery, Evangelical Christians in America either failed to wage that fight effectively, or were co-opted in their theology by moral objectivists.

Ms. Schaub and I have put together quite an interesting presentation, that should run about an hour or so, and we welcome the opportunity to speak to your small group prior to the book signing for a practice trial run. If you would like to "book" this preview presentation, please email me at

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Christine Schaub reviews "Amazing Grace"

Here's novelist Christine Schaub's review of Amazing Grace, the movie:

The movie does a good job explaining that the commerce of slave trading was not a moral issue to the majority of Britons. The filmmakers’ greatest error is having the movie’s central figure—William Wilberforce—introduce his impromptu singing of “Amazing Grace” with an attribute to “…my old preacher-friend who was a slave ship captain for twenty years…” Not true—but it flashes by so quickly, most viewers won’t catch it.

I like to tell readers The Longing Season is a good primer to the film version of “Amazing Grace.” My book introduces the conflicted young man who becomes one of many powerful voices for humanity decades later. The subjects of slavery and redemption are still weighty and poignant today, and there’s nothing like a good read and an afternoon in a darkened theatre to explore one’s mind and soul.

Click here to see Christine's full review.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Darnell Arnoult is Fabulous

Tennessee writer Darnell Arnoult, whose debut novel Sufficient Grace has received rave reviews spoke to the Williamson County Public Library Writers Group this evening.

A group of 14 local writers sat enthralled by the very Southern, very gracious Miss Arnoult, who left us with more than a bakers' dozen of excellent ideas to improve our writing.

Miss Arnoult describes the process of writing in lyrical but practical ways that inspire the listener to look at his or her work systematically but still artistically.

I hear tell that the Williamson County Public Library may be bringing Miss Arnoult back again soon to conduct a Writer's Workshop. My advice: Walk don't run to sign up when it's announced !