Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Criticism of a Criticism of a Criticism

There's a new viral video wherein a man recites a poem he wrote, railing against certain views of Christianity. Watch it, if you haven't already.

Now, there's also an article going around which criticizes that video. Read it, if you haven't already.

I don't like that article. I see some issues in it. Here's my analysis of it:

Fitzgerald begins his criticism of Jesus>Religion by talking about one of Bethke's other poems, trying to build a sentiment against him without actually saying anything about the poem in question. This goes on for an entire paragraph. I won't dissect that paragraph in detail  I'm just going to dismiss the entire thing as irrelevant.

In the third paragraph, Fitzgerald finally begins criticizing the poem. He doesn't actually say much about it. There's just a sarcastic statement which implicitly questions the very notion of "chains of religion" without actually offering an argument against the idea, and accusations of "false dichotomies and outright bad theology." Maybe in later paragraphs he'll expand on what, exactly, he means by that. Let's read on and see!

Fitzgerald says that Bethke "begins by suggesting that Jesus came to abolish religion". What he's failing to recognize is that this is a poem, not an essay. Words have different meanings than they do in prose, sculpted over the course of the poem. Clearly, "religion" does not mean the same thing here as it does in common English. Of course Jesus didn't want to abolish the belief in cosmic forces and entities which underlie the universe and give it meaning. To claim such would be absurd  he was, after all, a religious man himself. Bethke is giving the word "religion" a new meaning for his own purpose, and Fitzgerald ignores that.

Fitzgerald claims that the statement that "Republican doesn't automatically mean Christian" is off-topic. Is he even listening to the poem? The entire thing is about misguided notions of what it means to be Christian. Bethke is criticizing instutionalized, standardized approaches to religion, particularly those with the tendency to condemn groups which they classify as "sinners". In the United States, one aspect of this is that people who espouse conservative values  which are traditionally the mainstay of the Republican party  often call them "Christian values". Bethke is criticizing that. He does not think that those values are what true Christian values were intended to be, even if they have been values within various denominations for a long time.

Fitzgerald identifies one of Bethke's statements as playing "right into the hand of the so-called New Atheists". Now that is just sensationalism. There is no actual criticism there. He's just implicitly identifying "New Atheists" (whatever those are) as the enemy, and saying that Bethke is naively helping them along, without actually saying how or why that makes him necessarily wrong.

Then Fitzgerald says something that I, frankly, find hilarious. "See, he’s not actually on about religion, but about people whose expression of their faith doesn’t match his criteria. It’s not religious people he’s talking about, it’s what we used to call Sunday Christians." Yes, Fitzgerald, you are exactly right! That is, in fact, what he is using the word "religion" to mean! Except he's broadening it a bit  Bethke is also including the people who embrace their religion all week long, but focus on the rules rather than the sentiment. If you follow all the rules of your religion, but you never give a dime except when required, and you harshly condemn with an unforgiving attitude anyone who commits certain sins, then, according to Bethke, you are not truly in the spirit of it. Bethke is taking issue with the people who focus on the religion itself, not the faith and love behind it.

A few times, Fitzgerald claims that Bethke departs from the subject of religion. I'm honestly not sure where he's seeing that. And he pulls out a few nitpicky criticisms, like pointing out a slant rhyme, in an attempt to worsen the reader's opinion of Bethke. It's a good rhetorical trick  specifically, it's damaging Bethke's ethos  but, ultimately, it doesn't mean Fitzgerald is right in anything that he says. Those irrelevant details should be ignored in considering what both of them are saying.

Fitzgerald spends a few paragraphs doing little more than quote Bethke, then, at the end of it, says, "Where do we begin?" I would ask the same question, because it doesn't seem like Fitzgerald ever actually does begin on some of his arguments. Here's that accusation of false dichotomies again, but he's not naming what they are or why they're false. Then he questions a few statements: "Religion is an infection? Religion puts you in bondage? Religion makes you blind?" He never really refutes them, though. Keeping in mind Bethke's unique definition of "religion" for the purpose of this poem...yeah, all those statements seem to ring true. It's an infection in that this particular type of faith which Bethke dislikes does spread from person to person and, in his eyes, damage them. It puts people in bondage because they feel bound to follow the rules, rather than inspired to follow their morals. It makes people blind in that they do not see what is, in Bethke's opinion, the true Christian path.

Fitzgerald claims, "What Bethke is actually railing against is people whose expression of religion doesn’t look like he believes it should." Yeah. Yeah he is. That's what Fitzgerald is doing to Bethke, too. That's what everyone does when they express what they think religion should be like. Criticism implies disagreement, and disagreement implies an opinion. I don't see a problem here.

In Fitzgerald's closing, he summarizes his point that what Bethke is criticizing isn't actually religion as a whole, but a particular manifestation of religion. I'm astounded that he thinks that needs to be said. It's pretty clear, isn't it? That's the whole point of the poem. But Fitzgerald states it like it's a piercing insight into poorly chosen words. I think it's quite obvious that Bethke is building a specific concept, drawing a dichotomy between what he calls "religion" and what he calls "Christianity". He could just as easily have picked "doctrine" and "faith", or "rules" and "heart". It's a poem. Interpret it like one.

Fitzgerald seems to be good at scoffing, but bad at actually constructing arguments. Maybe he has some good reasons to dismiss Bethke. He never actually said most of them, though. The only ones that he did state were based on very literal interpretations of the poem. Which is rather like responding to "I have a frog in my throat" with "There's no way you swallowed a whole frog."

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