Review of Evangelicals, ed. by Mark Nolls, David Bebbington, & George Mardsen

Evangelicals

Up front I confess that I read this book as a progressive clergywoman baffled by the reported 81% “evangelical support” of Donald Trump in the 2016 election and beyond.   I came to Evangelicals:  Who They Have Been, Are Now, and Could Be (Eerdmans, 2019)  with the questions that the subtitle proposes to answer: What are the differences between the evangelicals who voted for Trump and the ones who didn’t?  What happened in the history of this movement that results in such wildly different understandings of Christian faith and practice, all described under the umbrella term evangelicalism?

The book didn’t disappoint.  I discovered that many evangelicals ask the same kinds of questions and that there are no simple answers. I was left with a deep appreciation for the complexity of the issues, for the writers represented in this extensive anthology, and especially for the creative curation of editors Mark A. Noll, David W. Bebbington, and George Mardsen.  These three globally respected historians bring their vast scholarship to address “the contemporary American controversies posing the greatest difficulties for a coherent, factual, and responsible understanding of ‘evangelicalism’” (1).

In the introduction  co-editor Mark A. Noll, Research Professor of History at Regent College who previously taught at the University of Notre Dame, identifies three crises related to the word “evangelical.” The most obvious is the support that a huge majority of white U.S. evangelical Christians give to Donald Trump.  When Daniel Deitrich’s “Hymn for the 81%” went viral in January, only a small percentage of followers of American politics failed to recognize its subject matter by its title alone. While not denying that support, Noll points out that pollsters usually identify evangelicals as those who say they were born again.  Then he asks this question: “ . . . if significant numbers of African Americans have been born again and have been voting for Democrats–in even higher proportions and over a longer period of time than white evangelicals have voted for Republicans–how can anyone speak responsibly about “evangelical support” for Donald Trump?” (3).

Part 1, covering over half of the four–part book, deals with “The History of ‘Evangelical History” and leads off with co-editor George Marsden’s introduction to his 1984 Evangelicalism and Modern America Marsden, professor emeritus of history at the University of Notre Dame, calls evangelicalism as a “conceptual unity” defined by its emphasis on five beliefs: “1) the Reformation doctrine of the final authority of Scripture; 2) the real, historical character of God’s saving work recorded in Scripture; 3) eternal salvation only through personal trust in Christ; 4) the importance of evangelism and missions; 5) the importance of a spiritually transformed life” (22-23).

Co-editor David Bebbington, Professor of History at the University of Stirling in Scotland and currently a visiting professor at Baylor University, has also articulated another widely used characterization of evangelicalism which is less theological and more descriptive than Marsden’s.  He describes a “quadrilateral of priorities that is the basis of Evangelicalism” [a term capitalized in the U.K.]: “conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort;  biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and what may be called crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross” (34).

The rest of Part 1 contains essays reflecting on the meaning of evangelicalism, the difficulties in defining it, and debates evoked by Mardsen’s and Bebbington’s descriptions of its characteristics.  All of the writers in Part 1 focus on the long, rich, and complex history of evangelicalism.

The essays in Part 2 attempt to explain the origins and growth of evangelical support for Trump.  The titles themselves are intriguing: “A Strange Love? Or: How White Evangelicals Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Donald” (Michael S. Hamilton);  “Donald Trump and Militant Evangelical Masculinity “ (Kristin Kobes Du Mez); “The ‘Weird’ Fringe Is the Biggest Part of White Evangelicalism” (Fred Clark).  Part 3 contains 5 essays that assess the meaning of evangelicalism today. Thomas Kidd asks whether the term is redeemable. Timothy Kelly reflects on whether evangelicalism can survive Donald Trump and says, “The movement may abandon, or at least demote, the prominence of the name, yet be more committed to its theology and historic impulses than ever” (255).

One of the most provocative essays in Part 3 is Molly Worthen’s “Idols of the Trump Era.”  For it she interviewed Kaitlyn Schiess, a student at Dallas Theological Seminary and author of The Liturgy of Politics:  Spiritual Formation for the Sake of Our Neighbor  to be released later this year [1]. Schiess describes a new ritual that has taken the place of Sunday worship and Bible studies–nightly viewing of conservative cable news.  Worthen quotes Schiess: “The reason Fox News is so formative is that it’s this repetitive, almost ritualistic thing the people do every night.  It forms in them particular fears and desires, an idea of America” (257). Worthen, intrigued by Schiess’ ideas, writes, “When I sought out conservative and progressive critics of white evangelical politics and asked them how to best understand it, this was their answer:  pay attention to worship, both inside and outside of church, because the church is not doing its job. Humans thrive on ritual and collective acts of devotion. And the way we worship has political consequences” (257-58).

In his essay  “To Be or Not to Be an Evangelical” Brian Stiller contends that the  word evangelical has been “disfigured by political pundits, muddied by protestors from the left and right, and brought into dishonor by self-proclaimed spokespeople who excuse inappropriate behavior and language as the necessary price for political power.  The center has shifted, and many Evangelicals now wonder where they fit” (273). Then he examines the term’s global nature, the way it defines “a major, self-conscious stream of Protestantism,” its roots and history, and the polarization with the U.S. and concludes that he will keep it because it will outlive the current controversy.   However, he rejects the term’s baggage: “To impose this first world debate on hundreds of millions of Christians world-wide would be worse than a mistake; it would be a new form of first world intellectual colonialism” (277).

In Part 4 the editors reflect on how evangelical history might inform current American debates,  George Marsden offers a global perspective on American evangelicalism, and David Bebbington reflects on the political history of British evangelicals. In the concluding essay Mark Noll writes,  “In the United States, it may be the case that the ‘e-words’ should be put to rest for a season because of their excessive entanglement with national political controversy. But even where ‘evangelicals’ and evangelicalism’ lose their cogency in one location, it does not mean that the words are irrelevant for those with the world in view.”

To reflect on and appreciate this book is to live in the tension between the historical perspectives of Noll, Bebbington, and Marsden and the immediacy of the political / religious controversies in the U.S.  I found myself wanting to skip over some of the historical essays to the ones about the current situation. At times I wished that the editors had found a way to integrate the historical with the contemporary.  On the other hand, this tension is embedded in the nature of anthologies, and this one offers the equivalent of a college course on evangelicalism past and present. For those who seek to understand who evangelicals “have been, are now, and could be,” this book is an excellent place to start.

[1] https://www.apologeticssimplified.com/podcasts/2020/1/13/interview-with-kaitlyn-schiess-exploring-political-theology

This review appeared in April 2020 edition of Englewood Review of Books.

Review of Shea Tuttle’s Exactly as You Are

Exactly as You Are

Fred Rogers was an overweight, shy, lonely, and often sick child who seemed to attract bullies. At home he felt safe and comfortable, enjoying his puppets and piano, which became a means of expressing feelings of sadness and loneliness, but school was another matter.

Early in her new book Exactly the Way You Are: The Life and Faith of Mister Rogers (Eerdmans, 2019), Shea Tuttle makes the point that Fred never forgot those bullies. “ ‘I resented the pain. I resented those kids for not seeing beyond my fatness or my shyness,’ he told audiences sixty years later, marveling at how well he still remembered that day” (11). Her book shows how he transformed experiences such as this into an internationally beloved children’s television program that in multiple ways told millions of children during its 33-year run that they are loved just as they are.

Shea Tuttle was one of those children, and she brings her love of and fascination with Mister Rogers, her role as the mother of two children in grade school, and her theological training (M.Div., Candler School of Theology, Emory University) to her exploration of his life and faith.

Tuttle makes clear that there were many positive formative factors in Rogers’s life, including loving parents, a vibrant church, and a passion for music. His parents were leaders in their town of LaTrobe, Pennsylvania, which gave him a model of what a neighborhood could be. His father was an industrialist who respected and valued his employees. Both parents were people whose faith was expressed in serving their community and helping those in need. The local Presbyterian church was central in their family life, and Tuttle shows how its liturgy formed Rogers’s understanding of a disciplined life and the importance of a stable routine for children’s development. She also emphasizes the importance of music in his formation: “Very early on, music began to carry a meaning in his life that his other important hobbies—his puppet play and photography, hosting friends and helping in the community—couldn’t touch. When he was bullied at age eight, he “explored his grief at the piano” (31) and as a homesick college student he found solace in the “ancient tradition of expressing raw emotion through music” (33). It’s no wonder that music became such an integral part of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

After highlighting aspects of Rogers’s growing-up years that shaped his character and sense of vocation, Tuttle focuses on how he became Mister Rogers and continued to develop Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as long as it was in production. Chief among his mentors were Dr. William Orr, a professor at Western Theological Seminary (now Pittsburgh Theological Seminary), and Margaret McFarland, an acclaimed expert on child development.

Tuttle says the core of Bill Orr’s theology “began with the biblical assertion that God’s creation, including humanity, is good (Gen. 1:31). Upon that foundation Orr laid the belief that we are therefore lovable.” She continues, “Put another way, if we are lovable and acceptable because we are God’s, then our neighbor, who is equally God’s, is also lovable and acceptable. And we are called into the work of that loving and accepting” (59).

Orr’s example spoke as strongly to Rogers as his academic teaching did. Tuttle relates Rogers’ comment that “when you see someone go out to lunch on a winter’s day and come back without his overcoat because he had given it to a person who was cold, you have a growing understanding of ‘living theologically.’ When we asked Dr. Orr about the coat, he said, ‘Oh, I have one other at home,’ and that was all he said about it” (56).

Just as Dr. Orr, through his example and teaching, influenced Rogers’s concept of neighborliness, so Dr. Margaret McFarland helped form his philosophy of child development and children’s programming. “Anything human is mentionable,” she taught, “and anything mentionable is manageable.” Tuttle explains that Rogers, absorbing this lesson, “worked to mention his feelings rather than deny them. He knew that, acknowledged or not, revealed or not, his feelings would find their ways to expression. And he wrote a song [“The Truth Will Make Me Free”] about that belief for the Neighborhood. The song ends with these lines:

I’m happy, learning
Exactly how I feel inside of me.
I’m learning to know the truth,
I’m learning to tell the truth.
Discovering the truth will make me free (149).  

It’s safe to say that many viewers weren’t aware of the biblical foundation for Rogers’s love of neighbor and the other the theological principles that informed Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. That was by design. Although he was an ordained Presbyterian minister, Rogers was reticent to talk explicitly about his faith. Tuttle relates a conversation between Terry Gross and Fred Rogers when Fresh Air was still a local show. Gross said, “Obviously you’re very religious, but . . . it’s not a denominational program, and I’m sure that’s intentional on your part.”

Fred replied, “It’s far from denominational and far from overtly religious. The last thing in the world that I would want to do would be something that’s exclusive. I would hate to think that a child would feel excluded from the Neighborhood by something that I said or did” (78).

Rogers often quoted this line from his favorite book, Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince: “What is essential is invisible to the eye” (126). That notion permeated the life-lessons Rogers shared daily with children through his television show. This bedrock wisdom was applicable to regard for neighbor—be cautious about assuming what is essential in other people.

Tuttle’s biography reflects that same kind of regard of her subject. While there is no doubt that she did thorough, impeccable research and thought deeply and creatively about Fred’s life and faith, her approach to the material is humble and respectful. In an interview on the podcast Things Not Seen, she said, “I can’t figure him out, even after spending a whole lot of time working on his writings or listening to people talk about him or watching the show. Part of what draws me to him is that he is unusual and complicated. I want to figure him out so I keep looking. I think that was part of his power, and that remains part of his power.” (1)

Part of the power of Exactly as You Are is that it offers deep insight into the life and faith of Fred Rogers while not pretending to know all about him. At a time when politicians and pundits and ordinary people with a social media platform routinely make definitive statements about the motives of others, Tuttle succeeds in honoring both his complexity and his core message that each of us should be loved exactly as we are.  

(1) “The Magnetic Strangeness of Fred Rogers: Shea Tuttle, Things Not Seen podcast #1923 (40:30-41:20)  https://www.thingsnotseenradio.com/shows/1923-tuttle

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This review was originally published in the Advent 2019 issue–the last print edition– of Englewood Review of Books.    It is available online at https://englewoodreview.org/shea-tuttle-exactly-as-you-are-feature-review/ 

Celebrating Incarnation

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Yesterday Englewood Review of Books published my review of   Somethin’ Special:  A Noel Paul Stookey Holiday Recollection  (Neworld Media, 2018).   I’ve also created a video of one of the tracks on the album  “There’s Still My Joy.”

Very few pop Christmas albums help us to celebrate incarnation, the central affirmation of Christianity, but I find in Somethin’ Special:  A Noel Paul Stookey Holiday Recollection many songs that point in that direction and offer a most moving encouragement to reclaim that connection.  This new full-length holiday CD released in early November presents the new, the traditional, and the disquietingly ordinary and says “Look in these stories and in these places. God is right before your eyes.”

Stookey, one third of the iconic folk trio Peter, Paul, and Mary, took on a solo career as singer/guitarist /songwriter in the early 70s after the group began a seven-year leave of absence from each other.  Since reuniting and performing with Peter and Mary until her death in 2009, he has written songs for 21 solo albums and continues to perform solo and with Peter Yarrow in concerts around the country.  His songs are not just folk, but eclectic in content and style, and many of them speak of the Divine in metaphorical terms, central of which is Love with a capital L.

“A recollection can be a distant memory – suddenly recalled – or in this instance, a gathering of childhood stories, unique to the holidays,” Stookey states in his liner notes.  “Some are highly personal, some are musical remembrances of Christmases in concert with Peter, Paul and Mary, but most of the songs reflect an evolving appreciation of the expression and the reason for the holiday: the birth of Christ.”  Truly, he seems to be re-collecting carols, his own compositions (old and new), and others into a new appreciation of meaning of Christmas and the larger holiday season.

Many people want to divide life into the secular and the sacred.  It’s a convenient tactic of church folk who protest any mention of social justice in their congregations.  “You’re getting too political, pastor. Stick to spiritual things.” This notion gets press every December when some Christians step up on soap boxes about putting Christ back in to Christmas.  Similarly the secular notion of Santa Claus usually ignores its lineage to Saint Nicholas, who was born to wealthy parents in the third century in what is now Turkey.  His Christian devotion led him to spend his whole inheritance on attention to the poor and defenseless, particularly as a protector of children. His generosity and compassion led to the custom of gift-giving during the holidays.

With this recording Stookey is suggesting compatibility.  Why not have both Santa Claus and nativity scenes?   There’s a theological reason for having both Santa and Jesus in our year-end celebrations.  After all, some scholars say the root of the word religion means to bind together or to connect–a meaning that is ironically obscured in our current cultural, political, and religious divide–and Christmas, more than any other part of the liturgical year, affirms the connection of heaven and earth, divine and human, spirit and matter.

The incarnation is the ultimate reason for rejoining that which has been broken asunder by misguided religiosity.  This baby Jesus grew up to be a carpenter and a friend of the marginalized–including prostitutes, tax collectors, women, and those hated Samaritans. He healed the sick, played with children, and hung out with fisher folk. He concerned himself with practical parts of living–meals, friends, health, community, respect for others, shelter, cooperation, love, and bread and wine.  Are these things not sacred?

Somethin’ Special celebrates the binding together of what our culture wants to divide into the secular and the sacred. Three of the songs about childhood are Stookey’s own compositions. In “For Christmas” a department store Santa Claus gains a new life after talking with the last child on Christmas Eve.  In “Christmas Dinner” an orphan boy of the streets and a woman old enough to be his grandmother share “the happiest Christmas” in town. “Somethin’ Special,” the title song, is a recollection from Stookey’s own childhood when his creative parents gave him “the gift of patience, the gift of faith.”  To this listener these reveal the sacred value of love and connection without mention of the baby Jesus.

In Stookey’s treatment of traditional carols, there is new appreciation of the sensory and the material as well as a bit of reframing.  The sound of uilleann pipes that open “In the Bleak Midwinter” take us to the cold desolation of Scottish moors and make us wonder about the song’s metaphorical message for times such as these.  Stookey adds lines to “Away in a Manger”:  “Across a great desert three wise men they came / Seeking a king though they knew not his name / A heavenly light, bright shining and blest / Had led to the stable where Jesus did rest.”  How often have I been too literal minded to see these visitors from the East as representative of those who know not Jesus’ name but are drawn to this sacred baby born in the most earthy of places, an animal stall? Another new verse shows forth the sacredness of the most ordinary acts in a household–comforting children, praying, and keeping watch over a cradle.  Who can know the results of these faithful actions?

“Still My Joy”–written by Melissa Manchester, Beth Nielsen Chapman, and Matthew Charles Rollings– is the sparking gem of the album, holding in tension joy and grief.  I think of the treble range of a piano as silver and the sound of a cello as gold.  It is keyboardist Michael McInnis’ genius to bring the two together. The piano is bright and hopeful and underlines the “still my JOY” and the cello is the gravitas, the honest facing of the inevitable losses that come the longer we live.  It is the gold of wisdom standing in creative tension with the joy that makes the joy credible. Stookey sings the song with such emotional range, grace, and vulnerability that it becomes an invitation for listeners to enter its safe space to feel and hold together both grief and joy. What a gift!

Richard Rohr writes, “I believe our inability to recognize and love God in what is right in front of us has made us separate religion from our actual lives.”   Stookey’s album encourages us to recognize God in what is right in front of us.   Without saying so, it is about incarnation, the scandalous notion that in God came in a baby born in a stable and continues to dwell among us mere mortals.

God with us indeed!

Merton and Dylan: A Review of The Monk’s Record Player

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“You may think, as I did at first, that pairing a Utopian hermit monk and a demon-haunted rock star is just plain perverse or at the very least willfully paradoxical,” said David Dalton in his foreword to Robert Hudson’s The Monk’s Record Player:  Thomas Merton, Bob Dylan, and the Perilous Summer of 1966.  That drew me in.  Then Dalton said Merton and Dylan were “Siamese Twins joined at the hippocampus”(ix-x) and asked, “why wouldn’t two people as inventive, desperate, supernaturally talented, and aghast at the temper of the times have a lot in common?”(x)   Ok, so I was highly curious, but the clincher was this:  “Both were willful sinners, antiheroes of mysterious virtue and reluctant saints involved in issues of street-legal theology, Symbolist poetry, radical politics, morbid psychology, women (why leave them out?), the imminent spiritual crisis, and Doom—eschatology, to use theological terminology”(xii).

For serious seekers of increased understanding of either Merton or Dylan, Hudson’s book may not satisfy, but for readers who want an engaging look at possible parallels between two seemingly very different influencers of American culture and politics, it could be a good fit.   One was Trappist monk living as a hermit at the Abbey of Gethsemani in rural Kentucky who nonetheless wrote books that attracted the attention of both official Roman Catholic censors and the spiritual seekers the world over. The other is a Jewish singer/songwriter who “went electric” at the Newport Folk Festival in 1966, a performance that’s been the subject of much debate in American music history, and who won the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Hudson begins his introduction with a quote from Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changing” (“Come writers and critics / Who prophesize with your pen . . . .”) and notes, “In the 1960s, these two were among the most outspoken writers and critics to prophesy with their pens, and they did indeed change the times they lived in” (1).

Although Hudson calls his book a “selective biography” and a “parallel biography” (7), its focus is much more on how Merton understood his own crisis in the summer of 1966 through the soundtrack of Dylan’s music. The monk, having fallen in love with Margie Smith, a nurse half his age, had to choose between her and his monastic vows, which included not only celibacy but the solitude of a cloistered life, a solitude that was always in tension with his public life as a writer and activist in the peace movement.

Claiming that “their souls were next door neighbors,” Hudson shows the “surprising parallels” between the two.  Both were

  • “cultural icons of the 1960s” and had to deal with interruptions from fans and interviewers”;
  • “prolific to the point of compulsion”;
  • “amateur visual artists” with “a love of photography, both behind and in front of the camera”;
  • “as inscrutable as they were brilliant”;
  • fiercely in “need for autonomy” and freedom, Dylan from the expectations of his fans and manager and Merton from the constraints of the Catholic Church and his monastic vows;
  • “unflagging spiritual pilgrims, perpetually restless, intense, and curious” (3-5).
  • poets, one a poet-singer and the other a poet-monk.

Perhaps their most interesting parallel was their gift of “the ability to hold within themselves beliefs entirely at odds with each other, dissonances usually more upsetting to their fans than to themselves.”  Merton explained, “We are not meant to resolve all contradictions but to live with them and rise above them.”  Dylan simply said, “Chaos is a friend of mine”(5)   Hudson expresses his understanding of this ability in Merton in this statement:  “Just as he believed that he could only achieve unity with humanity by being alone, so too he realized that he could only be true to Margie by remaining true to his vows of celibacy.” (150)

Dylan fans may be disappointed that there is not more about Dylan in the book—three “interludes” that focus singularly on him—but Hudson makes up for sparse attention by doing justice to his crisis of the summer of 1966—no, not the motorcycle accident itself but the larger problem that it symbolized.  Hudson says that “if Dylan had done no more than stub his toe, a serious accident took place, one that involved the high-speed collision of his fame, his drug and alcohol abuse, and an impossible number of commitments that had been foisted upon him”(113).  His manager, Albert Grossman, was pushing him to promote his newest album, Blond on Blond, to go another tour, to write new songs, and to write a book (for which Grossman had signed a deal with Macmillan without consulting Dylan).  In addition, he simply needed to disappear from public view—from fans both adoring and hostile—“to find out what it felt like to be a family man, a patrician farmer, a father who was there for his kids.”  Hudson sees the “accident” as the beginning of “Dylan’s own search for solitude” (117), a search that in some ways mirrored Merton’s.

Merton had planned to write an article about Dylan.  Hudson says, “The core of the article would no doubt have been Dylan’s ‘prophetic’ voice . . . . For Merton, prophetic implied both a high level of truth-telling and the state of being ahead of one’s time,” and he believed poets possessed a prophetic vocation (159).  He never got around to writing it.  Merton died by electrocution in December 1968 when he touched a defective floor fan at a conference center in Bangkok, Thailand.

On July 25, 1966, at the Newport Folk Festival Dylan sang, “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more . . . .”  (51)  Hudson calls that line “a chilling declaration of defiance that has resonated through the decades for anyone who has ever wrestled with authority, who has ever kicked against the oppression of society’s leveling influence.”  In The Monk’s Record Player he subtly shows how those words came to expression in Merton’s life and writing as he lived out his vocation as prophet and poet.

The Monk’s Record Player pays close attention to the influence Dylan had on Merton, documented in the monk’s journals and letters and evidenced in changes in his writing style, particularly in Cables to the Ace, in which Hudson says Merton “went electric, every bit as much as Dylan did at Newport the previous year”(139). Hudson gives reasons Dylan may have known of Merton, though the songwriter never mentions the monk in his own writings.  Nevertheless, Hudson makes a convincing case for affinities between the two men and succeeds in what he sets out to do—to write a book  “about solitude and love, originality and autonomy, and the extent to which music—functioning therapeutically—touched the life of one particularly gifted and troubled thinker in a time of crisis” (8).

Silence, Poetry & the Salvation of Seamus Heaney

In the spirit of “telling it slant,” I offer my friend Alex Joyner’s review of poet Christian Wiman’s new book. I especially like this quote from Wiman: ” What might I have said? All you have to do, Seamus, is open your big Irish heart to Jesus. One more truth that dies with the utterance. No, the casual way that American Christians have of talking about God is not simply dispiriting, but is, for some sensibilities, actively destructive. There are times when silence is not only the highest, but the only possible, piety. (94)”

Heartlands

taylor-ann-wright-1136612-unsplash Photo by Taylor Ann Wright on Unsplash

 A Review of Christian Wiman’s He Held Radical Light

The poet Seamus Heaney paused in the middle of dinner and leaned over to make a confession to Christian Wiman, who was, at the time, the editor of Poetry magazine. Knowing Wiman to be a Christian not only in name, Heaney admitted that he “felt caught between the old forms of faith that he had grown up with in Northern Ireland and some new dispensation that had not yet emerged. That was trying to emerge.” (88-9)

Wiman still wonders at his response to the confession:

What might I have said? All you have to do, Seamus, is open your big Irish heart to Jesus. One more truth that dies with the utterance. No, the casual way that American Christians have of talking about God is not simply dispiriting, but is, for some sensibilities…

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