Sunday, October 22, 2006

Handy Guide for Evangophobes

(This book review originally appeared in LEO.)
The Sinner's Guide to the Evangelical Right
Paperback: 272 pages
Publisher: NAL Trade (September 5, 2006)
ISBN: 0451219457

In the years since Muslim extremists launched their jihad against America, and Christian extremists retaliated with their crusade against, um, a totally unrelated country, the experts have written enough books on religious lunatics to fill all the remainder bins in hell. But that hasn't stopped satirist Robert Lanham from adding fuel to the hellfire with "The Sinner's Guide to the Evangelical Right," a helpful guide for an ever-growing number of "evangophobes" – Lanham's term for those who fear evangelicals.

But do we really need another book about religious extremism? The answer is yes, but only if it has jokes. And Lanham has jokes. For example, he describes how, through divine intervention, Christians get "seated quickly at Red Lobster and encounter light traffic on the way to Kohl's."
But Lanham cautions against taking evangelicals too lightly. If you think fundy leaders are just con artists preaching to crowds of bovine followers, well… you'd be right. But the crowds are huge. 63% of Americans think the bible is literally true and, according to Lanham, they wear flag sweaters, shop at Wal-Mart and elected a republican government he expects to soon begin "filibustering in tongues."

In describing evangelical culture and the spread of megachurches, Lanham occasionally reaches that high art of satire typical of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert – hilarious, but also educational. He describes the hypocrisies of the most famous evangelical leaders, including James Dobson ("The Evangelical Pope"), Joel Osteen ("The Evangelical P. Diddy"), Tim LaHaye ("The Evangelical Stephen King"), and many others. He assigns them each a score on the "Fire and Brimstone Scale," ranging from "1 - Liberal, even likes the gays" to "8 – Sociopath, thinks Jesus will return any day with a flamethrower."

Lanham also provides a glossary of Christianese, so sinners can decipher evangelical code like "How's your walk?" -- shorthand for "How's your walk with God?," which Lanham explains is "like asking 'How's it hanging?' you know, without all that scrotum." And he cites some frightening examples of how President Bush's speeches are peppered with such religious code, aimed at his base.

One section that might come in handy around the water cooler cites some of the key Bible passages that literalist evangelicals choose to ignore, including ones advocating rape, slavery, women wearing veils, and ones barring shaving. There's even advice for Christians who want to be prepared when the Rapture finally comes and they fly up in the air to meet Jesus ("Avoid handcuffing yourself to things; hire a Jew to drive your car so it won't be unmanned and cause an accident").

Throughout the book, Lanham includes perspective from five real-life evangelicals, plus former Black Sabbath and solo Satanist Ronnie James Dio, who surprisingly believes in Intelligent Design because it's "evident on everything from the symmetrical spots on the wings of a butterfly to the evenly spaced thorns on Lucifer's smoldering member."

Kentucky is well represented in the book and probably ranks behind only Colorado and South Carolina at inching toward theocracy. Louisville's Southeast Christian McChurch and Northern Kentucky's Creation Museum both get a nod, as do Senators Jim Bunning and Mitch McConnell for voting with the evangelical right 100% of the time.

One problem with the book is that the "pastorpreneurs" are so nutty it's sometimes hard to tell when Lanham is joking. For instance, when he quotes James Dobson advising fathers to teach their toddler sons to be heterosexual by pounding pegs into a pegboard, it's almost too surreal to believe.

If reading about how evangelicals influence everything from homophobia to spanking, birth control, global warming, Chick-Fil-A and Armageddon makes you want to crawl into the fetal position, skip this book. But if – in that instant before your internal organs boil out of your body during the coming nuclear holocaust, you'll want to know exactly who was responsible – you might as well get a chuckle while you learn.