Two Masters and Two Gospels

A review of Two Masters and Two Gospels Volume 1: The Teaching of Jesus vs. the “Leaven of the Pharisees” in Talk Radio and Cable News, by J. Michael Bennett, Ph.D.

I recently received a copy of this book and was excited to dig in because I found the premise fascinating. The set-up in the introduction really drew me in. I find myself in a unique position to offer the following review because (a.) I have spoken with Bennett and know him to be a kind, thoughtful man and was able to ask some clarifying questions about the book, and (b.) as a Christian who holds politically conservative views, I embody his target audience. (That said, I am not affiliated with any political party, and I gave up watching the news a couple of years ago. But my voting record and my position on the issues largely align with the conservative platform.)

What I Liked

I found equating modern false teachings to the biblical concept of “leaven” a great analogy. Bennett does an excellent job of laying out the six properties of leaven and its effects on the bread in which it’s used (p. 22). This is a clever angle, and he uses it to make some great points.

I also appreciated Bennett’s willingness to take on the “religious right” where they stray from Jesus’ teachings. He makes some strong statements about maintaining the fidelity of the Christian church by holding its leaders accountable for bad behavior:

This position of fidelity is only made credible by our public denouncement of these deeds and attitudes, otherwise, we are viewed as giving tacit endorsement, or see the corruption as trivial, which tells the world more about our own heart’s integrity as “guilty bystanders.”

Page 36

And he is not afraid to point out that “Many of the leaders of ‘God’s people’ still look for money rackets to take advantage of their position as well as the people.” (p 51). For those leaders that do, this book has some important things to say. On pages 41-43, Bennett makes a great point about how greed and the love of money is at the root of corrupt Christian leaders and figureheads, including many televangelists and those who preach the prosperity gospel. We Christians certainly should not suffer leaders who are greedy and exploit people.

On pages 37-52, Bennett adeptly sounds the warning that America today may be akin to the Rome of old, and he draws some strong parallels between them. And the section on Jerry Falwell, Jr., while a bit long, made for perhaps the most compelling argument in the book. Bennett utilized a lot of cited sources and quoted material to effectively paint a picture of Fallwell as a morally-questionable Christian leader. 

Also, I felt he did a solid job with his biblical interpretation and the theological conclusions he drew from Scripture. 

Constructive Criticism

As an author myself, I am convinced that the most valuable feedback is the tough stuff. Comments like “Great job,” “It’s fantastic,” and “I loved it” are wonderful to hear, but they don’t help me make my work the best it can be. When I put something out there, I want to hear about what I got wrong, what I missed, where my arguments are weak, and so on. It’s in this spirit that I offer my open and honest feedback to Bennett. Nothing here is intended as an insult, or to be disparaging. I tried my best to keep my comments detailed, factual, and unemotional, and to support them with examples and reasoning. In the end, these are merely the opinions of one man, so feel free to use what you can and throw away the rest.

Translations

The King James Version is a beautiful translation, but it reads in a stiff and antiquated way to the modern ear. In my opinion, there are better and more accurate translations which are more contextualized to Bennett’s intended audience and might help make his biblical excursions cleaner.

Tone & Voice

Every writer’s style is different and a creative choice for them to make. My personal opinion is that the tone and voice used for this book is not conducive to his arguments. It would certainly provide a sense of satisfaction and emotional validation for those predisposed to Bennett’s conclusions. But for readers approaching the book from a neutral or opposing viewpoint, the tone comes across like that of partisan propaganda.

There are a several reasons I say this:

  1. Bennett consistently uses morally-charged words and phrases—e.g. fleeced, gluttonous, cronies, schemes, “religious right leaders and their conservative henchmen,” “coddled, naïve and sheltered fundamentalists,” “incestuous religious ideals “—which reveal a personal bias on the part of the author regarding those he is writing against. There is, of course, nothing wrong with an author having a personal bias. But the net result for this book is that the average reader will not get the sense that this is a fair, even-handed look at the subject matter.
  2. When building his arguments, Bennett uses many unsubstantiated assumptions, presuppositions, and personal opinions. I found this made his arguments far less compelling. Many of the claims about his opponents are not supported by quotes, citations, or examples. Here are a few examples of assertions offered without substantiation. They could be true, or they could be false; the reader is left to his own devices to decide.

Here are a few examples:

Many of the media figures alluded to in this work have used their platforms in talk radio and cable news, while often exhibiting some form of religious piety, to promote political positions directed against others (particularly the poor and disadvantaged) that suggests they do not believe in any accountability to God and his biblical prescriptions in the afterlife either.

Page 24

A hallmark of today’s Christian and conservative media is presenting a misleading record of the messages and statements of those they oppose.

Page 37

When the Religious Right votes to install “their people” in secular government, Bennett suggests their motivation is “to oppress religious minorities domestically, provide cover for a white supremacist, and contempt for the refugee, immigrant and poor” (p. 39). I find this a dangerous and irresponsible generalization that I believe is also demonstrably false.

“Religious Right followers do not care about civil rights, human rights, the downtrodden, justice, laws, or even the golden rule.” (p. 40). This is another dangerous and irresponsible generalization. Was this meant to be taken literally? Statements like this weaken Bennett’s argument and make the book read like emotionally-based partisan literature. This is further solidified by the rest of the sentence in which Bennett reveals that his opinion is based on “…their unflinching support and justification of the scoundrel and law evader President Donald Trump and his agenda.”

  • There is a regular use of broad claims about the motivations and positions of Christian leaders and conservative commentators. These claims may or may not be true. It would help Bennett’s case if he were to supply specific quotes from the people he is impugning. What did Sean Hannity (and “others of his ilk”) actually say about “despising immigrants, encouraging war, justifying torture, suspicions about people of other faiths, love of money,” etc.? As an interested reader, I wanted to hear the horrible things these people said in their own words.
  • The opponents being targeted by Bennett are often referred to in imprecise terms such as the Religious Right, conservative Christians, the right-wing, etc. This sort of “us vs. them” approach reads like biased propaganda. To be fair, Bennett does offer some specifics about the members of the groups he considers his opponents, though that doesn’t happen until page 93.
  • As someone who generally aligns with conservative political positions, I found myself mischaracterized to a great degree in this book. I did not feel Bennett correctly understood my positions and motivations. As a result, (a.) I began to question his conservative Christian bona fides, and (b.) I began to view his claims as strawman arguments.

If Bennett’s intention was to offer a tome of reference for left-leaning thinkers, this book does a great job. On the other hand, if his hope was to persuade modern conservative Christians to his point of view, I believe a more measured and circumspect tone would be more effective.

One last note on voice and tone. I found the long run-on sentences unhelpful. Bennett told me they were an intentional choice on his part. For the most part, I did not have trouble following them; the ideas are laid out logically and flow nicely. But if his hope is to convince and persuade the reader—or even just make them stop and think—I believe presenting his ideas in a more consumable and cleanly edited way would be advisable.

Rabbit Trails

Bennett chases a few rabbit trails that I felt distracted from his larger argument. Some prudent pruning might help to strengthen the overall case he is making. For example, I think the impressive, 20-page section on Jerry Falwell, Jr. could be reduced by 75% and still have the same impact on the reader. And the ten pages he spends discussing the Parthenon replica in Nashville were superfluous. He never ties the Parthenon to Christian leaders, talk radio or cable news. His point seems to simply be that Nashville (like old Ephesus) is a town built on the “business of religion” (p. 85)

Engaging with the Arguments

My feedback now shifts from editorial comments to engage with the ideas presented in the book. Here I am wearing twin hats: that of a friend and fellow writer wanting to help strengthen Bennett’s arguments, and that of a fellow Christian thinker who disagrees with many of his propositions. I hope both perspectives are ultimately profitable to Bennett’s work.

A Captive Audience

One of the ways Bennett ties right-wing media to modern Christians is by suggesting that:

  • “Tens of millions of conservative listeners listen to these heavily-opinionated (and many extreme) worldview formers as a ‘captive audience’ every day in their cars, with their focused attention during their 30 to 60-minute drive times each day, as well as being on the radio at work, or shuttling kids.” (p. 12)
  • “There is a long legacy of conservative conditioning of the public, for which the Evangelical community appears most vulnerable and gullible.” (p. 17)

I would argue that there is no concept of a “captive audience” when it comes to media in modern America. The days of my youth, when news choices were limited to a handful of TV and radio stations, are long gone. At any given moment, whether in our cars or our living rooms, Americans have literally thousands of media options to choose from. We are able to listen to any number of podcasts and news channels from across the political spectrum. (Not to mention audiobooks, Spotify, Pandora, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, YouTube, websites, blogs, social media channels, and the list goes on and on.) Americans regularly “vote with our feet” to borrow an antiquated phrase from the halcyon days of retail. If we don’t like something, we move on to one of the thousands of other options we have at our disposal.

Therefore, I find the premise that right-wing media holds Christians captive unconvincing. Which introduces another perspective that may be worth examining. If Christians are not being indoctrinated as a captive audience, it means they are willfully choosing to consume conservative media. Out of all the options out there, why do Christians tend to gravitate toward talk radio and conservative news? Perhaps it’s what resonates the most with them. Maybe something in non-conservative media turns them off. Perhaps it’s something in the way the American church teaches the Gospel. That would be an interesting area to explore.

I would also add that a stronger “captive audience” argument could be made for our halls of higher learning. There’s a great deal of data that shows a significant, secular, left-leaning bias in academia, which students are forced to endure if they want a degree. This is a much stronger place to look for “conditioning of the public.”

Capitalism & Wealth

Bennet takes the position that capitalism is diametrically opposed to Christianity. I would tend to agree with him if I subscribed to his understanding of capitalism, which is an economy where:

Those already with money (capital) hold the keys to wealth making and creation of jobs and resources over everyone else, with the abilities and agenda to hoard and collect evermore stockpiles for their personal use, [which] justifies their insurmountable leverage over working people whose families subsist on weekly wages (with only unions providing minimal mitigation) and the masses at large (even family, small and medium businesses).

Bennett’s definition of ‘capitalism,’ page 96

This single sentence is enough to challenge the author’s bona fides as a former conservative. It also openly displays his deep biases and lack of fairness in stating his opponents’ positions. Bennett adds that “capitalist conservatives” today are “turning their backs on sharing the wealth from their business schemes” (p 43). He opts not to give conservatives the benefit of the doubt that their wealth was come by honestly.

In contrast, the definition of capitalism I and my fellow conservatives subscribe to is simply “an economic and political system in which a countries’ trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state.” What Bennett is describing could perhaps qualify as “crony capitalism,” where businesses thrive not as a result of risk, but rather as a return on money amassed through a relationship between the business class and the political class. That is a real problem in America and worth writing about.

Regarding wealth, Bennett displays a deeply held presupposition throughout this book that wealth equals greed, which is not a biblical position. The Bible presents many different facets regarding wealth and it’s use—Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; Joseph and his brothers; Lot, Job, Boaz, Abigail and Nabal, King David, Solomon, Hezekiah, Zacchaeus and Matthew; Joseph of Arimathea, the Roman Centurions, Lydia, Dorcas, Barnabas, Philemon and more—and wealth does not always equal greed. In fact, in some instances, wealth is seen as a blessing given by God. Its wealth misused that becomes sinful.

Bennett makes a strong point about how greed and the love of money is at the root of corrupt Christian leaders and figureheads—and it’s true that such immoral endeavors can find fruitful soil in capitalism—I remain unconvinced that capitalism is an economic system that can be denounced on a biblical basis. Corruption and abuse exist in all economic systems. On this point, I felt that Bennett failed to achieve the necessary level of distinction to make his arguments against wealth stick.

The Bad Guys

There was a lack of specificity early in the book as to who the “bad guys” are, which was troublesome for me. The accusations Bennett levels are likely to be true when it comes to particular people or organizations. But when he paints with broad-brush strokes, full of presuppositions about his opponents’ motivations, it smacks of classic strawman argumentation in which he is refuting a position or argument which is not actually held by one’s opponent.

To Bennett’s credit, he does finally give us some detail on the “bad guys,” but it’s not until page 93 where Bennett describes them as, “Conservatives, Fox News, Sean Hannity,” as well as “fellow traveler conservative media figures such as Michael Savage, Laura Ingraham, and the deep well of regional conservative celebrities.” (p 93)

Fact-Checking

Perhaps the biggest criticism I have of this book came as a result of one piece of fact-checking I did. Bennett made a statement that began with a surprising claim:

“Just like Billy Graham recommending and submitting his formal proposal to President Nixon that the U.S. should blow up the dams in North Vietnam to drown the villagers…” (p. 34). He repeated this claim on page 73 where, again, it raised my eyebrows. To his credit, Bennett cited his source, which was a 2017 Masters’ Thesis by a student named Daniel Alexander Hays at Eastern Illinois University. In checking the source material, I found Bennett’s summary to be misleading, uncharitable, and inaccurate. In his thesis, entitled “A Babe in the Woods?”: Billy Graham, Anticommunism, and Vietnam, Hays claims that Graham’s missionaries in Vietnam presented policy options to President Nixon, believing that South Vietnam should organize a government in exile for North Vietnam, which would encourage and support insurrection in the north.

This government could use propaganda and Viet Cong defectors to ‘expose communist tyranny.’ These defectors could also be used ‘to bomb and invade the north. Especially let them bomb the dikes which could overnight destroy the economy of Vietnam.’ Journalist Cecil Bothwell claimed that bombing the dikes might have killed a million people and would be considered a war crime, but Graham seemed to endorse the proposal. The missionaries told Graham that their intelligence operations revealed that, out of the 27 million people in North Vietnam, only 10,000 were hardline communists, meaning that controlling the north was possible. Essentially endorsing these views, Graham wrote, ‘Why should all the fighting be in the south?’

Hays, p. 123

Bennett summarized this passage by claiming that Billy Graham (a.) proposed that the U.S. should blow up the dams in North Vietnam (b.) to drown villagers (p. 34). In other words, Bennett assigned Graham (a.) the authorship of the proposal and (b.) the motive of drowning villagers. However, neither assertion is supported by the source material. While this section opened my eyes to the extent in which Billy Graham was involved in U.S. political policy, Bennett’s untruthful summary of Graham’s involvement became a stumbling block for me, causing me to view his other statements, cited or not, with a generous grain of salt.

Conflating Categories

Another issue I wrestled with is the connection Bennett makes between conservative media and Christianity. On page 86, he offers 31 points which he says “comprise the foundation of the message now given in conservative and Christian talk radio and cable news.”  I found his conflation of conservative media and Christian media problematic.

Talk radio and cable news is not (at least in my mind) in the same category as Christian teaching and Sunday sermons. The former is a source for political news and commentary on the state of the world today, the latter a source of moral and religious teaching about salvation, God’s Kingdom, and the state of our hearts. In other words, it’s not Sean Hannity vs. your pastor. The spheres overlap to some degree, of course. But their purposes and aims are different. The Pharisees were Jews who were putting undue religious burdens on other Jews. What religious burdens are Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity putting on Christians?

For this reason, Bennett’s assertion that right wing media is “leaven” that is being placed into the bread of Christian teaching is a bit of a stretch for me. I don’t deny that media does influence the Church today. And if he had suggested that all media—right wing, left wing, mainstream news, TV, movies, etc.—is having a negative influence on Christian teaching today, his argument would be much more compelling.

Thirty-one Points

The 31 points that start on page 86 are comprised of many assertions I did not find established in the previous pages of the book. Instead, the list contains mostly broad, unsubstantiated allegations that predominately apply to Christian leaders rather than talk radio or cable news. As I mentioned earlier, Bennett does an excellent job of laying out the six properties of leaven and its effects on the bread in which it’s used (p. 22). I was hoping he would extend that analogy and at the end of this chapter show us how those six things play out in the world of talk radio and cable news.

Food for Thought

Through the book, I sensed a double standard in which the Christian virtue of “eating with sinners” is extolled for Christians, yet “eating with Trump” is condemned.

Biblical Application

As mentioned earlier, Bennett does a solid job with his biblical interpretation and the theological conclusions he draws from Scripture. However, I found his application of biblical teachings to modern-day politics flawed. He misappropriates prophetic words given to Israel and applies them to modern-day conventions—such as big business, the stock market, and retirement assets—which have no analog in antiquity. For example:

Jesus, and His prophets before Him and apostles after Him, had a different view as to the innate virtues of big business and their agendas as the “messiahs” of society, to bring it to a utopia of big houses and bank accounts, the latest consumable goods, and big retirement assets. The prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel, for example, recorded the views of God regarding the crowns of global capitalism and big business in their day (the “Wall Streets,” if you will, like those hedge fund managers selected by our president to run the Treasury and other departments), and the control they demonstrated not only over the world’s trade of commodities but over the welfare and fate of men themselves.

Page 103

Disclaimers & Bona Fides

On page 93, Bennett offers a disclaimer:

The views expressed here are my views of not only what Christ and the other saints of the Bible taught on these various matters, but also what I grasp are the general consensus views of most conservatives on these topics, in a generalized form, both from what I have intently heard from them for years, and also what I believed for years as a card carrying member of the conservative clan.

Page 93

That sounds fair and reasonable. However, based on the content of the 92 pages that precede this statement, it rings hollow. By this stage in the book, Bennett’s view of conservatives has already been revealed as biased and inaccurate. (I say this as a conservative.) Thus, his claim to have once been a “card-carrying member of the conservative clan” is likely to be met with suspicion by a neutral or right-leaning reader.

Contrasting the Gospels

In the chapter The Gospel of Jesus Vs. the “Gospel” of Hannity, Fox News, and Conservative Talk Radio and Cable News—Issue by Issue, Bennett gets to the meat of his book. This is the good stuff I was waiting for! Here Bennett tackles over 20 different topics with the intention of contrasting what Jesus teaches with the teachings of Hannity, Fox News, and conservative talk radio and cable news (a group he collectively refers to as CFNH).

He examines each issue by first providing a summary of the CFNH position, and then contrasting it with what the Bible teaches on that issue. As a conservative Christian, I found his summaries of the CFNH positions—which, again, lack supporting quotes, citations, or examples—both uncharitable and inaccurate. And his summaries of the biblical positions are not always directly correlated to the issue at hand. Thus, this section of the book has the feel of comparing apples to oranges. Here are a few examples.

American Exceptionalism

Bennet compares an inaccurate summary of CFNH’s opinion of the nation of America with what Jesus says our opinion of ourselves should be.

“In actuality the consistent message from Jesus Christ and His Father was one of one’s value being given by grace, but sustained by one’s devotion and humble service to God and others, rather than inherent genetic or cultural merit.” (p95)

Apples and oranges. There is plenty of fodder in the area of nationalism and how Christians can “wrongly order their loves.” I was hoping Bennett would address that angle.

The Spiritual Holiness of Capitalism

After railing against American wealth, the author turns his sights toward wealthy Christian leaders, which I agree is ripe territory for criticism. The affairs of wealthy evangelists like Kenneth Copeland, Pat Robertson, Creflo Dollar, Jerry Falwell, et al. are fair game, especially since Christian leaders are held to a higher standard by God. When Bennett got to Jesus’ position on the issue, I expected a substantial biblical case against greed and the dangers and misuse of wealth and treasure. However, he took a different tactic. He instead examined the words of the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel and anachronistically applied modern conventions such as “Global capitalism and big business in their day” (p. 101).

And So On

Bennett continues on in this same “apple and orange” pattern through a list of other topics including:

  • Business Regulations
  • Big Business as The Saviors of Society
  • Redistribution of Wealth
  • Assistance for The Needy, Immigrants and Those of Other Cultures and Ethnicities
  • The Use of Military to Extend Influence
  • National Interests Versus Interest of Other Humans
  • The Dangers of Progressivism
  • The Danger of Other Religions
  • The Use of Government to Enforce Christian Principles
  • Traditions of Society And Status Quo

In each case, he mischaracterizes the CNFH position and then turns to scripture to refute it. Notice how the section titles are slowly beginning to incorporate the author’s bias on the topic?  In a section on the consideration of others (which he entitled “Conservatives Think Consideration of Others Is a Weakness”), Bennett notes that conservatives “have no value for gentleness, respect for those who are different, meekness or consideration, or ‘loving their neighbor’” (p. 150). I found this statement ironic in that he is accusing his opponents of the behavior he himself is displaying in this book. In the titles of the remaining section, one can’t help but notice that Bennett has largely shifted from listing the topic to stating his opinion:  

  • Conservatives Think Sustainability and Environmental Care Are Subversive
  • Conservatism and Survival of The Fittest
  • Apologizing for America or Anything Cultural is a Sign of Weakness and Subversion
  • Conservatives Love Their Tough Guys
  • Conservatives Think Social Justice is of the Devil
  • Conservative Christians Are Always Worried About Their Own Rights or Persecution and Further Think That Not Controlling the Behavior of Others Is “Persecution” Itself

Interesting Questions Raised

The topic of this book is fascinating and raises some interesting ethical and philosophical questions. Questions which I would love to see Bennett engage with:

  1. Is President Trump our religious leader? He certainly plays a role as a moral standard-bearer as the leader of our country. And his personal morals are far short of what Christ taught. Then again, shouldn’t we let “he who is without sin cast the first stone?” Aren’t we told to pray for our leaders? Is it more Christian to judge him or love him?
  2. Bennett is really addressing three groups, each with different concerns: the individual Christian, Christian leadership, and secular government leadership. It’s a very interesting ethical landscape. How should an individual Christian behave in the political sphere? How should a Christian behave if they are a member of the secular government?
  3. When it comes to immigrants and refugees, is there a legitimate difference that needs to be recognized between legal and illegal immigrants? Are Christians obligated to follow the law? Should we be promoting law-abiding behavior? On a human level, the Christian should love, show compassion, and care for both legal and illegal immigrants. Is the same thing true of the government? Is the secular government called to love the immigrant?

Summary

Despite the warnings in the introduction of the book, I was not offended by any of the ideas Bennett put forward. However, I can see how some people would be. Bennett, to his credit, pulls no punches. That said, I believe the reason most neutral and conservative readers would reject his book without reading the whole thing (and, as Bennett quipped, “throw it across the room”) is not necessarily because he is making controversial claims and attacking their “sacred cows.” Rather it’s because his work contains an undeniable ideological bias and, thus, does not come across as fair or reasonable. I did not notice a single incidence in which Bennett conceded a point, ascribed a virtue, spoke graciously toward, or gave the benefit of the doubt to his conservative opponents. His arguments would be much stronger if he were to take the time to point out where he and his opponent agree on an issue, or where his opponent is right about something. Even a broken clock is right twice a day!

In the final analysis, Bennett is not covering new ground or pulling back the curtain on abuses and hypocrisy. He is merely repeating leftist/progressive talking points, such as claiming that conservatives “do not care about civil rights, human rights, the downtrodden, justice, laws or even the golden rule.” (p. 40). For readers who are already predisposed to Bennett’s conclusions, Two Masters and Two Gospels could be an inspiring read full of fodder for promoting their positions. For neutral and conservative readers, however, it is a polemic likely to be dismissed as propaganda after a few pages.

Because I was able to speak with Bennett and hear his heart, and because I am that special kind of nerd who enjoys engaging at length with ideas I disagree with, I stuck it out to page 168.  The book takes a turn on page 169 and begins examining the historic roots of the Religious Right. This is the section of the book where Bennett claims the magic really happens. While he is a highly intelligent man and I have every reason to believe his research is thorough in the second half of the book, because of the issues and biases noted above, I could not bring myself to read the rest. But I’ve got it bookmarked, should I change my mind.

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