A couple days ago Friendly Atheist Hemant Mehta started a fundraising campaign at Kickstarter.com to fund a new book he wanted to write provocatively titled God is an Abusive Boyfriend (and You Should Break Up). (See the proposal here.) My thanks to Gabriel Renfro for giving me the heads up on this unfolding story.
Did I say “unfolding story”? In fact, the story has already folded. One day after the campaign was launched it was summarily cancelled. The reason? Of course, many religious people will be offended at the tasteless caricature of their relationship to God. But that wasn’t the problem. After all, there is no ground here that has not already been well trodden by the new atheists. (Think, for example, of Christopher Hitchens’ comparing God to a despotic tyrant like Kim Jong-Il.)
Instead, people took offense to the insensitive way the book riffs off the theme of domestic abuse. Consider the view of Heidi Anderson, an atheist who works with victims of domestic abuse:
“It’s highly insensitive to victims of domestic violence and a gross simplification of the way some people view religion. Many victims of abuse find healing in their spirituality.” “It’s also a really bad example to me as an atheist, because unlike God, abusive partners are real and cause real damage.” (The quote comes from this article in The Washington Post.)
All this is quite unfortunate. Christians and other religious people do need to confront and reflect upon depictions of God as an abusive consort within their traditions. For example, I regularly challenge Christians to consider Ezekiel 16, a passage that depicts Yahweh in terms that would immediately be considered abusive were they applied to any other agent. To fail to reflect on this text while decrying this kind of behavior in all other circumstances is a recipe for cognitive dissonance. Consequently, we do need to reflect on these types of images and in what sense they are to be appropriated and/or critiqued within communities of faith.
There is already a large body of literature within Christianity that engages in this self-reflective critique. Consider, for example, Phyllis Trible’s influential 1984 book Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives. Alas, Mehta has no interest in informing readers of the extensive critique of these texts and images within Christianity because he wants to use putative abusive images only as a springboard to promote his atheistic, secular beliefs. In other words, his project is concerned more with promoting his ideological perspective than providing a serious critique of potentially abusive images and themes.
Mehta attempted to sell his proposal as an appropriate distillation of rigorous discussions on the theme of God as abusive consort. He wrote:
“This idea of God as an abusive partner is not a new one and a lot has been written about the parallels. Many of those essays, however, are written for a more academic audience. Our goal is to simplify those thoughts and present them in a way that will hopefully be more effective.”
However, it’s quite a leap from an “academic audience” to a quasi children’s book. Perhaps Mehta was attempting to capitalize on the success of novelty books like the parody lullaby Go the F*%k to Sleep. But if so, it seems to have gone over like a wet firecracker. Unfortunately, Mehta’s proposal calls to mind the one phrase everybody knows from Marshall McLuhan: the medium is the message. When the medium is a quasi-children’s-joke-coffee table book replete with a quirky humorous, irreverent tone, whatever message there may have been is inevitably simplified and trivialized beyond all recognition.