This is a collage of images from the beautiful Tiffany stained glass windows located in the sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church of Topeka. I have never visited the congregation but judging from their website, they seem like a wonderful group of people, humble and gentle in their worship of Jesus and sincere too.
Upon seeing that the newspaper of record in Ireland reported the death of Fred Phelps on the front page, it occurred to me that I didn’t know one damn thing about Christianity in Topeka, Kansas. I actually can’t tell you anything about Kansas, except that it is in the middle and Kansas City is in a different state. Since I couldn’t locate Kansas on a map, you can rest assured that I have no idea where Topeka is. Apart from the fact that it is home to Westboro Baptist Church that is.
Like you, probably, I encountered the Phelps family initially through a fantastic Louis Theroux documentary. It was hard to even understand how appalling these peoples’ religion was. I was an atheist and profoundly Biblically illiterate but even then I knew that Christ was big on forgiveness. That’s probably how I would have put it. “Big on forgiveness”.
More than fifteen years later, on a daily basis I hear from Louis directly. I follow him on Twitter. He is living in LA now. I am drowning in data now. Everything from pictures of hippos charging naked men (Louis shared it this week – it’s HILARIOUS!) to statistical analyses of the suicide rates among the American veterans that Phelps taught were hated by God. I have the information. What the hell do I do with it?
Here’s a thing. If you accept that the course of modernity is a course that encourages being spiritual but not religious, then it follows that the narrative the Phelps family represents was primed for potency. Or put another way, when we imagine that the “individual” is the best way to think of human beings, then it follows that we are going to be geared for suspicion against “organised religion”. After all, thick accounts of community are in contest with thick accounts of individuality.
If this is true, then when we encounter the Phelps we encounter community of the worst kind – a family that is also a church. NiGHTMARE, right? Sure, their spirituality is repellent. And their lives appear to repudiate the God that they are notionally aligned with. But what we find in the Phelps clan isn’t just a story about how bad “religion” is. Our offence is of course riled on behalf of the gay people and the army families who suffer the onslaught that the Phelps clan dispense. But our offence strikes us with such personal potency because they stand for us as a sign of what we have escaped.
We don’t have to be like them. Brainwashed. Sheep. Blind. We can be rational. We can come to our own conclusions. We are not blinkered by prejudice or warped by bias.
We have no idea what Topeka is like. Is it mountainous? Is there a river running through it? Is it segregated? Do they prefer baseball or basketball? We know a family of lawyers went sort of mental and ended up creating a website called godhatesireland.com. We know that is ridiculous. It is theologically ridiculous but also, what do they know about Ireland?
Then we turn the page of the newspaper and click on the next link and get offended or appalled by the next thing designed to offend or appal us.
If you think I am being harsh in my description of the world in which we have immersed ourselves, ask yourself again why a newspaper published off Pearse Street and distributed around the island called Ireland would feature so prominently the report of the death of an old man in the middle of America who did horrendous things that mostly weren’t illegal? Why is that news?
Topeka Presbyterian seems like a community that is pretty interesting. In the aftermath of the Phelps family making Topeka famous for “religion”, I’d love to see a documentary about that congregation. Their three senior staff have doctorates. They are part of a rapidly shrinking denomination famous in many quarters for embracing every political and theological fad that passes by its General Assembly. But they declare themselves “missional”, even while they employ organists and proudly share photos of their stained glass. I suspect that if you hung out with them for a weekend with a video camera, you would find stories of deep human struggle and compassion, not a jot of anti-intellectualism, and a community of people comfortable with doubt and difference. It wouldn’t be weird enough for Louis Theroux and their leaders will never be memorialised on the front pages of Irish newspapers. But at least that programme would feed us data about Christianity as it is practiced, about America as it really is, about Topeka as a city where people live and breath and have their being. It would be hard to make that a programme about cartoon villains.
But seriously, what do I know?
Your Correspondent, The word “lover” bums him out unless it’s between meat and pizza.