Review of Silent No More (2006)
Review: Rod Parsley. 2005. Silent No More: Bringing Clarity to America... While Freedom Still Rings. Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House. 200 pp.
"[T]his book isn't designed to move you to think great thoughts," confesses Rod Parsley--Christian rigorist, senior pastor of the World Harvest Church, and founder of The Center for Moral Clarity--in the introduction to his new book Silent No More. One could at least credit the pastor with candor and consistency, I suppose, had he not recorded the sentence "I don't apologize for writing a book that requires thought" only one short paragraph earlier. Confused? So was I, until I grudgingly accepted that both con and contradiction are core elements of Parsley's style.
Silent No More might not inspire great thoughts, but it certainly invites a great deal of criticism. Each chapter, in fact, seems to build on the last in terms of both incredibility and spectacle. Let's explore the text, then, section by section.
"The Constitution," Parsley points out in chapter one, "never mentions the word church." He offers this fact as proof that separation of church and state (or, more aptly put, 'religion and government') is contrary to the founders' intentions. He never considers the possibility that the Constitution's failure to refer to religion (except, of course, in Article VI and the First Amendment) constitutes evidence of secular intent; and he never addresses the all-too-conspicuous fact that this Constitution--this foundation and cornerstone of all American law--never mentions a supernatural entity of any kind, most notably the pastor's Christian god.
Untroubled by such details, Parsley concludes that among America's founding fathers, "[n]o one wanted a secular state." In support of this clumsy boast, he submits various personal acts of dubious consequence. James Madison, for example, sat on a committee that approved congressional chaplains and recommended days of thanksgiving. George Washington (whom Parsley mistakenly labels an outspoken Christian) spoke in churches and prayed in public. As for Thomas Jefferson, Parsley grieves that he surely "would have been astonished to witness how his words [to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802, calling for 'a wall of separation between church and State'] had been twisted," perhaps judging that Jefferson was too thick to comprehend the difference between a wall and a door or a window.
What Parsley fails to disclose are literally hundreds of quotes from the revolutionary generation that clearly evidence secular purpose. For example, the pastor should have researched more diligently the declarations of James Madison, who warned as follows: "Strongly guarded as is the separation between Religion and Government in the Constitution of the United States, the danger of encroachment by Ecclesiastical Bodies may be illustrated by precedent already furnished." Once researched, perhaps Parsley should consider heeding Madison's warnings as well.
But it was the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between America and Tripoli (1796-97), negotiated during Washington's presidency and signed by John Adams (while Jefferson served as his Secretary of State), that spoke for the country itself: "[T]he government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion." Did Parsley innocently overlook this famous treaty, or did he intentionally attempt to deceive his audience? One would withhold judgment, I suppose, until one reads further into chapter five, where Parsley flaunts his knowledge of the Tripolitan War for other purposes. In either case, let the founders' voices be silent no more.
In chapter two, entitled "Race," the author contends that "no one could ever make a case from the Bible for hating a man because of his color ... [u]nless someone tries to make a peculiar case for racial division or slavery from an obscure passage ... deep in the Old Testament." I can only guess what Parsley means by a "peculiar case," and I am equally powerless to divine under what standard one Bible passage might be deemed more "obscure" or deeply embedded than any other. Nevertheless, Parsley is plainly mistaken.
First, consider the Bible itself. Indeed, in the Old Testament, Christians are commanded to refrain from interfering with another person's slaves (Exodus 20:17, for example). But, contrary to Parsley's claim, even more obvious support for the miserable institution can be found in the New Testament, where slaves are instructed that, in order to please God, they must be submissive, respectful, and even loyal to their worldly masters: "Slaves, be obedient to the men who are called your masters in the world, with deep respect and sincere loyalty as you are obedient to Christ: not only when you are under their eye, as if you only had to please men, but because you are slaves of Christ and wholeheartedly do the will of God.... Work hard and willingly ... but do it for the sake of the Lord" (Ephesians 6:5-7). One must wonder how "obscure" these verses really are, given that a life-long atheist like me was able to locate them with little trouble at all. For his readers, Parsley divulges neither passage, but let them be silent no more.
And what about the Church Fathers? Basil of Caesarea (329?-379 CE) ruled that escaped slaves desiring admission to the monasteries had to be returned to their masters unless those masters were exceptionally cruel. According to Leo (390-461 CE), bishop of Rome, slaves were categorically ineligible for ordination. Most notably, though, in City of God Saint Augustine (354-430 CE) decreed that slavery was nothing less than divine justice: "The primary cause of slavery, then, is sin ... and this can only be by a judgment of God, in whom there is no unrighteousness, and who knows how to assign diverse punishments according to the deserts of the sinners." Parsley, by the way, appears to be sufficiently familiar with Augustine's work, referring to him in passing as "the father of Western civilization."
Next, consider the relationship between Christianity and the institution of American slavery. Ex-captive Frederick Douglass (1817?-1895) surely did so in 1846 when, in front of a packed house in London, he attacked Christianity for encouraging slavery: "The church and the slave prison stand next to each other.... The church-going bell and the auctioneer's bell chime in with each other; the pulpit and the auctioneer's block stand in the same neighborhood.... We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support missionaries, and babies sold to buy Bibles and communion services."
Ponder also the voices of Christian leaders in America during the antebellum years. Peter Cartwright (1785-1872), for example, exposed other Methodist clergy who, in large numbers, appeared to embrace slavery once they discovered its economic benefits: "They began to apologize for the evil; then to justify it on legal principles; then on Bible principles--till lo and behold! It is not an evil but a good! it is not a curse but a blessing!" Dutch Reformed minister Samuel B. How (1790-1886) argued that the Bible taught slavery was no sin, that "there are rights of property; that there are masters and that there are slaves, and [the Bible] bids us to respect the right of the master, and not to covet his man-servant or his maid-servant." Roman Catholic bishop John England (1786-1842) defended slavery on the basis that it was approved by God, and Baptist Richard Furman (1755-1825) observed that the "right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example." These are voices, one would think, with which a senior pastor at an American megachurch would be familiar. Regardless, let such voices be silent no more.
But the effects of biblically justified racism have never been limited to slavery, American or otherwise. While Parsley claims that "Jerusalem was meant to be the United Nations of the kingdom of God," the facts reveal a tale of religiously and racially motivated butchery. Jerusalem, Parsley ought to recall, has been fought over 118 times, completely obliterated at least twice, besieged 23 times, attacked an additional 52 times, and captured or recaptured 44 times. It has seen 20 revolts, innumerable riots, and five distinct periods of violent terrorist attacks during the past century. Jerusalem, in fact, has changed hands peacefully only twice in 4000 years. Most significantly, however, those who killed for Jerusalem believed that they alone possessed a God-given right to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sherif.
Consider the Christian Crusaders' own accounts of their sacking of Jerusalem in 1099 CE: "The pagans were mercifully beheaded, others plunged from towers, others tortured and burned to death in searing flames. Piles of heads lay in the streets." Such pious Christians, incidentally, burned or disemboweled these darker-skinned infidels alive simply to pilfer their swallowed coins. "After a great and cruel slaughter of Saracens, of whom 10,000 fell ... we stabbed women [and] seized infants by their feet, dashing them against walls, breaking their necks." All this for the glory of their God. Parsley mentions the Crusades, but apparently deems these details too trivial or, perhaps, too inconvenient to relate. Let them be silent no more.
Chapter three, ostensibly concerning poverty, is replete with tiny tidbits of Parsleyan wisdom. First, he posits that it is "the liberalization of divorce laws ... [that] have left women more vulnerable than ever before to the ravages of poverty," the unavoidable implication being either that women simply can't resist the pleasures of divorce or that American voters should force women to remain in bad marriages because women are incapable of caring for themselves. Next, the author claims that liberal poverty programs only reward fatherlessness, as if broken and single parent homes were every woman's and every child's secret fantasy. Then, in typically Christian fashion, Parsley declares that, if not categorically denied assistance, the "poorly educated will choose the path of least resistance." One might suggest that only a hopeless dogmatist who honestly believes that every newborn baby arrives steeped in original sin could be so patronizing and cynical.
Next, in the chapter entitled "Homosexuality: The Unhappy Gay Agenda," Parsley defines for us "the profile of the new 'political correctness' ... [and] of 'cultural diversity,' 'tolerance,' and 'inclusiveness.'" According to the pastor, those of us in favor of equality will stop at nothing in order to "abolish marriage altogether," instruct all children in homosexual behavior, force "older people" to accept homosexuality, and "expunge a number of passages from [the] Scriptures and rewrite others." The gay agenda is absurd regardless, Parsley reasons, because "gays [are] turning away from the homosexual life and culture in record numbers" [emphasis mine]. Where he located the statistics corroborating this "record," Parsley never tells us.
But, once again, inconsistency is the foundation of Parsley's literary edifice. Initially, the pastor cites Patrick Henry, who wisely judged that "[t]he Constitution is not an instrument for government to restrain the people; it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government." Then, manifestly unmoved by his own choice of quotes, Parsley implores his readers to "[p]ush for passage of the Marriage Protection Amendment to the United States Constitution." Granting his intellect the benefit of every inflating doubt, one can only conclude that Parsley believes and wants others to believe that homosexuals are not people. As Aldous Huxley once remarked, "The propagandist's purpose is to make one set of people forget that the other set is human. By robbing them of their personality, he puts them outside the pale of moral obligation." So much for hating the 'sin' but loving the 'sinner.'
Jesus, Parsley should note, was never married as far as anyone knows. In fact, as R. Joseph Hoffman, author and professor of religion at Wells College, insists in an article for Free Inquiry, "There is no inkling ... that Jesus was pro-marriage (as opposed to anti-divorce) or interested in 'family' values." (See also: Luke 8:19-21, Matthew 12:46-50, and Mark 3:31-35.) Indeed, all indications are that Jesus expected his male companions to eschew marriage and family as impediments to and distractions from his teachings. (See, for example, Luke 14:26, Matthew 10:37, and Mark 3:31ff.) "Jesus," according to Hoffman, "did not define marriage as the 'union' of 'a man and a woman' but define[d] the man-woman union as the (optional) form of contract that ha[d] child rearing as its purpose." Quite to the contrary, "Jesus the Lord, ... with his band of spiritual brothers, ... [saw] the homosexual union as less strenuous, more perfect, and more in keeping with the times." In Secret Origins of the Bible, biblical historian Tim Callahan assumes a less revolutionary position, but concurs nonetheless: "[T]he level of fundamentalist hysteria against homosexuality is out of proportion to [the Bible's condemnation of] an act upon which Jesus did not waste any time, energy or words." Apparently, the jury is still out with respect to Christian family values and their relationship to human sexuality.
"Hypocrisy" ought to be the title of chapter five, relating to Islam. "America was founded," Parsley writes, "with the intention of seeing this false religion destroyed." In support, the author cites Christopher Columbus' eagerness to sail west to India, and America's decision to make the Tripolitan War its very first war (never mind either the American Revolution or the continuing wars against the American natives).
Parsley denounces Islam as a "superstition," completely ignoring or repressing the fact that Christianity as well is based on nothing more than faith. Moreover, the author declares, Islam is a superstition "that fully intends to conquer the world." Forget about the Christian Crusades. Worse yet, writes the pastor, "Islam is responsible for more pain, more bloodshed and more devastation than nearly any other force on earth." Never mind the Christian inquisitions and witch hunts. Muslims are the ignorant worshippers, Parsley continues, not of a benevolent God, but of "a demon spirit, which portrayed itself as a ... deity." Pay no attention, readers, to the Book of Job, where the Christian God allows his obedient servant to be covered in painful and debilitating boils only to sate his morbid curiosity; and ignore Deuteronomy, chapter 13, where the Christian deity commands his followers to murder any person who refuses to believe in him--family, friends, and neighbors included.
"This is Islam," concludes the pastor--"[c]onceived in a land of illiterates, in a world of oral transmission and simple tales of broad meaning." It is a "flawed religion, filled with inconsistencies, that sanctions violence." Do any of these criticisms ring familiar?
"Knowledge is not all that it is cracked up to be." This is the opening line to Parsley's sixth chapter, entitled "Education: Recovering Our Lost Legacy." I should have predicted as much, I suppose, given Parsley's epistemological archetypes.
Jesus, for example, undermined serious education by affirming unquestioning obedience as the hallmark of virtue. As represented in the Bible, he was by no stretch of the imagination a friend to either reason or knowledge. Faith and belief without understanding is what Jesus demanded. Of course, he promised to reveal the answers to life's mysteries at the end of the world, which he apparently expected to happen very soon. But, much to the disappointment of his sadistic devotees, the end has not come and nothing has been clarified.
Before inquiring why "most Americans are so poorly educated that they don't even know they are poorly educated," which is clearly true, Parsley might have taken the time to actually research the Christian educational legacy. If he had, he might have stumbled upon the words of Augustine (again, "the father of Western civilization"), for example, who designated "the disease of curiosity" as the source of evil. Or, he might have recalled Origen (185?-254? CE), a famous Christian theologian, who confessed, "I have to reply that we accept [faith] as useful for the multitude, and that we admittedly teach those who cannot abandon everything and pursue a study of rational argument to believe without thinking out their reasons." Saint John Chrysostom (347?-407 CE), ecumenical leader of Constantinople, might have proved equally instructive, warning his fellow Christians to "restrain our won reasoning, and empty our minds of secular learning, in order to provide a mind swept clear for the reception of divine words." And finally, the pastor might have reflected on the words of Basil, Bishop of Caesarea, who suggested, "Let us Christians prefer the simplicity of our faith to the demonstrations of human reason.... For to spend much time on research about the essence of things would not serve the edification of the church."
And what about the Church Fathers' modern successors? In 1907, for instance, Pope Pius X condemned all critical studies of the Bible to the Index of Proscribed Books. Other authors were similarly distinguished, including Descartes (selected works), Voltaire (Lettres Philosophiques), Locke (Essay on Human Understanding), Montaigne (Essais), Swift (Tale of a Tub), Swedenborg (Principia), Diderot (Encyclopedie), Rousseau (Du contrat social), Paine (The Rights of Man), Gibbon (The Decline and Fall the Roman Empire), Sterne (A Sentimental Journey), Kant (Critique of Pure Reason), Flaubert (Madame Bovary), and Darwin (On the Origin of Species). Descartes' Meditations was added to the infamous Index in 1948. "With all that had occurred earlier in the decade," adds philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris, "one might have thought that the Holy See could have found greater offenses with which to concern itself. Although not a single leader of the Third Reich--not even Hitler himself--was ever excommunicated, Galileo was not absolved of heresy until 1992."
By contrast, the Enlightenment's ambassador to America was quite serious about public education. Thomas Jefferson's Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge, to which many Christian leaders were vehemently opposed, was intended "to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large." Rather than resorting to the Bible's ambiguous and archaic prescriptions for morality, Jefferson envisioned an America where children would learn from the mistakes, both intellectual and moral, of their worldly predecessors, studying the history of Greece, Rome, and Europe. "Let our countrymen know," Jefferson wrote to a prominent educator, "that the tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance." The Bill was ultimately defeated in 1785 and 1786, but fortunately, Jefferson's dream of secular and publicly funded education for all eventually came true for the most part.
To say that serious education has never graced Christianity's index of priorities would be an epic understatement. As author and political scientist Shadia Drury has recently affirmed in Terror and Civilization, "Faith without understanding remains the ideal of [Jesus'] Church." Indeed, the church has strained mightily at every opportunity to thwart rational investigation, and whether Parsley would admit it or not, the true underpinnings of his vision for American education are best represented by the foregoing testimonials of the Church Fathers.
If Parsley's faithful minions eagerly anticipate a chapter railing against the evils of abortion--and I suspect they do--such supporters will be thrilled by chapter seven. The author fumes against Planned Parenthood throughout, ironically likening it to both a "communist cabal" and a "multinational corporate conglomerate, dedicated to spreading the proabortion message and lifestyle as far and as wide as it possibly can." One might presume that Parsley, courageous father to an autistic child, knows all about the birds and the bees. One might presume as well that, as an experienced husband, Parsley acknowledges a woman's ability to make decisions pertaining to sex. Nevertheless, the pastor somehow reaches the conclusion that it is not women and their partners who render reproductive decisions, but rather Planned Parenthood that "virtually guarantees that women will get pregnant." One might just as convincingly claim, I imagine, that neighborhood crossing guards "virtually guarantee" pedestrian/automobile accidents.
An unabashed absolutist, Parsley also supposes "there is no question about whether the victims of abortion are actually people." Wrong again. Bioethicist Andrew Johnson, for example, recently raised that very question in Free Inquiry. "Mere membership in the species Homo sapiens no more accords moral standing to human beings," Johnson reasons, "than mere membership in Culex pipiens accords moral standing to common house mosquitoes." The moral status of species "lies not in their taxonomic classifications but in their possession of characteristics conferring personhood." It is "intelligence, autonomy, self-awareness, emotion, future-regarding intentions, and moral responsibility" that denote persons. Johnson seems to say, in more general terms, that no harm results from aborting a human that is both incapable of experiencing loss itself and incapable of eliciting reasonably foreseeable feelings of loss in others. "Abortion is not murder," Johnson concludes, "because only persons can be murdered." Perhaps we can assume that Parsley would reject Johnson's reasoning. Even so, he would be well advised to address these complex issues in less rigid terms, if for no other reason, because such terms tend to render his claims about such issues patently false.
Parenthetically, the pastor reveals earlier in the book that both the white race and the Christian faith are "losing ground" against their darker-skinned and Muslim counterparts "largely because of abortion." In fact, in case you didn't know, Europe "is aborting itself to death." One must wonder: is it really human life that the author seeks to defend, or is he perhaps more interested in the proliferation of his arguably bigoted views and attitudes? But most disturbingly, Parsley closes this chapter with a sparsely disguised threat against his unsuspecting readers. In recommending an abortion in any "complicated situation," Parsley warns, a person has just "recommended the elimination of ... the Lord Jesus Christ." Apparently, the pastor realizes on some level that he possesses nothing more creditable than his followers' fears as vehicles for his ideas.
The final chapter pertains to the media. Therein, Parsley encourages his readers to demand of Hollywood producers that they make "[n]o film or episode [that] may throw ridicule on any religious faith," and depict no "[m]inisters of religion ... as comic characters or as villains." At this point, one might wonder whether the pastor wants his readers to worship the Christian God, or to worship Rod Parsley.
In the introduction to his book, Parsley promised to "offend everyone." But in the end, I wasn't offended at all. I wasn't even annoyed. Honestly, I felt sad for Parsley, who quite apparently believed he had a serious message to impart, and who evidently obsessed so intensely over controlling others' thoughts and actions that, in the absence of any clear and meritorious vision, he opted instead for emotive rhetoric and thinly veiled deception. The pastor quite correctly observed that "people are grasping for spirituality at any price." But I hope "any price" will not include the purchase of this book, because I would feel especially sorry for any person who bought it expecting to learn something.
 Charles Freeman, The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise and the Fall of Reason (New York: A.A. Knofp, 2003).
 Edwin Gaustad & Leigh Schmidt, The Religious History of America: The Heart of the American Story from Colonial Times to Today (San Francisco: HarperSanFranscisco, 2002).
 Eric H. Cline, Jerusalem Besieged: From Ancient Canaan to Modern Israel (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2004).
 Thomas Asbridge, The First Crusade: A New History, The Roots of Conflict Between Christianity and Islam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).
 And so is incredibility. According to Parsley, "female homosexuals are ... twelve times more likely to have had an oral infection from penile contact than female heterosexuals."
 R. Joseph Hoffman, "Jesus, the Defense of Marriage--and Other Unspeakable Acts: Were Christian Values Always Family Values?" Free Inquiry Vol. 25, No. 3 (April/May 2005).
 Tim Callahan, Secret Origins of the Bible (Altadena, CA: Millennium Press, 2002).
 Freeman, The Closing of the Western Mind.
 Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2004).
 Merrill D. Peterson, Thomas Jefferson & the New Nation: A Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970).
 Andrew Johnson, "How Not to Argue for Abortion Rights: Fighting for Choice Is Not Enough." Free Inquiry Vol. 25, No. 2 (February/March 2005).
 In typically incoherent fashion, Parsley first maligns television in his prologue as a tool of the liberal elite, and then exalts the medium in his introduction as the "miracle" that allows him to preach his message to the world.
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