How to Think by Alan Jacobs, read by P.J. Ochlan – Audiobook Excerpt

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a few years ago megan phelps roper a

member of Westboro Baptist Church in

Topeka Kansas a church founded by her

grandfather fred phelps decided to start

using Twitter to spread the Westboro

message that message might be summed up

by the statement most closely associated

with WBC God hates the church

registered the URL god hates

dot-com all the way back in 1994 as

Adrienne Chen reports in his New Yorker

profile of phelps roper twitter was a

perfect venue for getting this kind of

message across

thus this typical phelps roper tweet

thank God for AIDS you won't repent of

your rebellion that brought his wrath on

you in this incurable scourge so expect

more and worse but there was something

phelps roper didn't anticipate on

twitter people talk back to you when she

began tweeting at a jewish web developer

named David Abbott Bowl oh and at Julius

you're dead wrote rituals equal true

repentance we know the diff Revelation

chapter 3 verse 9 you keep promoting sin

which belies the ugly truth

Abbott Bowl responded with bemused humor

he would later comment that I wanted to

be like really nice so that they would

have a hard time hating me

this kind of response through phelps

roper off-balance as she later told

Adrienne Chen I knew he was evil but he

was friendly so I was especially wary

because you don't want to be seduced

away from the truth by a crafty deceiver

we're probably all subject to what the

literary critic Gary saw Morrison calls

back shadowing foreshadowing after the

fact that is the temptation to believe

that we can look into the past and

discern some point at which the present


inevitable I should have seen it coming

but it's hard not to think that by

engaging with Abbot Bowl in a friendly

way phelps roper had already set off

down the road that would lead her away

from Westboro Baptist Church

she started responding to others who

shared Abbot Bowles skepticism about her

beliefs and some of them also proved

funny or interesting or kind she told

Chen I was beginning to see them as

human instead of as the faceless rco but

it was the relationship with Abbott Bowl

they even met in person ironically

enough when phelps roper picketed a

gathering that Abbott Bowl had helped to

organize that mattered more than any

other and that relationship became so

decisive for phelps roper largely

because abbott bowl took the trouble to

look into what Westboro members believed

and why they believed it they claimed to

base their views that homosexuality

should be punished by death on the Bible

particularly Leviticus chapter 20 verse

13 if a man lies with a male as with a

woman both of them have committed an

abomination they shall surely be put to

death their blood is upon them but wait

a minute Abbot Bowles said didn't Jesus

say when a woman was found to have

committed adultery that the one without

sin should cast the first stone at her

and by the way didn't Megan's own mother

have an illegitimate son the product of

an affair she had had in law school

shouldn't she surely be put to death

phelps roper knew and deployed the

standard Westboro response that gays and

lesbians attended gay pride parades they

were proud of their sins whereas her

mother had repented to which abbot bowl

replied how can gays and lesbians ever

repent if you kill them to this phelps


had no ready answer and when she asked

the leaders of Westboro they had none

either phelps roper had already realized

that believing in the bible didn't

necessarily require her to perform the

hostility that most members of Westboro

exemplified when questioned about her

friendliness to unbelievers she replied

by citing proverbs chapter 25 verse 15

by long forbearing is a prince persuaded

and a soft tongue breaketh the bone but

now Abbott bole was asking deeper and

harder questions not about whether the

Bible was true but rather about whether

her community really bothered to discern

and obey what they claimed was their

supreme authority in all matters phelps

roper 'he's response to this crisis in

her mental history is fascinating and

extremely telling she took two actions

first while she continued to go

picketing with other Westboro members

she stopped carrying the signs that read

death penalty for and second she

ceased her correspondence with David

Abbott bull this twofold response

perfectly embodies the mental state of

the person who has begun to think she

didn't leave the church she didn't stop

picketing but she drew a line in her own


but had the inevitable effect of

separating her to some degree from the

community which until that point had

given meaning to her whole life which

helps to explain why she took the second

step ending communication with Abbott

bole on some level if not consciously

phelps roper had to have known that that

one issue death penalty for was

unlikely to be the end of the story

if Westboro was wrong about that

then what else might they be wrong about

if the answer turned out to be a lot

then the result could be exile from the

only world she had ever known

the only belonging she had ever


so she closed the door from which she

perceived the greatest threat