“I believe the whole Bible”

How often I have heard this emphatic statement from fellow Christians, often followed by another declaration, “I believe the CLEAR teaching of scripture.” What is not understood is that we all read the Bible through “lenses.” Those lenses, whether they be cultural, or derive from a certain theological framework, (Dispensational, Catholic, Reformed, etc.) change the meaning and intent of the original writers. More often than not, we skip over the original intent and situation the authors were dealing with to arrive at a simplified message of “what the Bible is saying to me.” While it is good to seek directions and application from scripture, we often prefer to bend the author’s statement to fit our own racial, political and cultural biases.

Part of this is due, no doubt, to the particular individualistic bent of American Christianity, and partially due to the Protestant reformation’s rescue of scripture from an ecclesiastical elitist priesthood, declaring the “priesthood of all believers,” in a sense, putting scriptural interpretation into the hands of the masses. 

Having gone through seminary doesn’t make me an authority on theology, but it has given me a unique understanding of HOW biblical interpretation ACTUALLY works in our churches. The term “Bible believing church” is actually a bit misleading. A more truthful statement would be: “we are a church that interprets the Bible following the framework of belief devised by John Calvin, Martin Luther, Charles Hodge or (insert your favorite theologian).”

Most “Bible churches” are either thinly veiled Calvinist or, in the case of those Pentecostal, an amalgamation of dispensational authors and the “Princeton School of Theology,” a 19th century reformed view of scripture. What few parishioners seem to realize, is that their pastor, priest or minister has been TRAINED TO READ THE BIBLE A CERTAIN WAY. While exegesis in the original languages is taught, the APPLICATION of scripture is almost always put into some sort of systemized school of interpretation. When I was a seminary student it was Charles Hodge and B B Warfield, two systematic theologians who followed the reformed Princeton School of thinking of the late 19th century that formed our framework. Today, in many seminaries and Bible schools it has given way to the systematic theology of Wayne Grudem, which is a rehash of Hodge.

What has happened in American churches and denominations is that we have fallen into different camps theologically speaking, whether liberal, fundamentalist or conservative, each thinking they are truly disseminating the “truth” of scripture, while, in reality, the unique historical situations the original authors faced and were concerned with are overlooked in an attempt to make the writings directly relevant to today. Jesus was not a liberal, he was not a conservative, he was not a socialist, he was not a capitalist. Paul did not preach against  “homosexuality,” (a 20th century term), nor did he condemn feminism. These are examples of how the church has reinterpreted the Biblical message to reflect our own modern biases.

Does this mean the Biblical messages are hopelessly archaic and irrelevant for today? No, certainly not. Actually the answer to understanding scripture is not hard. But a little un-learning is necessary. First, the Bible was not “written to me.” There is this myth that dogs much of popular American Christianity: that the Bible is God’s “love letter” to ME. No, JESUS is God’s “love letter to me,” period. The Bible tells us much about that love letter, but is not the letter itself. 

Speaking of letters, there are a number of them in the New Testament. Learn who they were written to and why. This is the second step, and related to the first: the letters were written to someone else other than you, but to whom? This is critical for it establishes what theologians call the “sitz im leben,” of scriptural passages: the cultural and religious situation in which author wrote. We often assume the authors somehow knew about our current situations (because God “wrote” the Bible?) and therefore jump to an application that was furthest from the authors’ minds.

Thirdly, there is this overwhelming desire to harmonize scripture into an homogeneous whole, where everything neatly fits and there are no contradictions. While the Early Church Fathers were aware of the problems, it has become a particularly dishonest and misleading practice of the church in the last two centuries. The Bible is not inerrant…get over it and move on! It is extremely discourteous to both scripture and the original authors to try to bend scripture into a mold it does not fit. This is basically the trap brought on by the Princeton School of Theology and the fundamentalist movement in American Christianity. It will affect one’s reading of scripture, and not in an honest fashion.

Fourthly, scripture is not meant to be read in a “flat” fashion. Not every word, not every sentence and not every book is equally important in understanding the gospel message: “God loves you.” Trying to see Christ in every line of scripture actually started quite early in the church. Some of it is apparent in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, which were written by anonymous sources. But he is not in every line of scripture. Again, this is related to the third erroneous attempt: harmonizing scripture. Furthermore, it can have disastrous results. The heinous practice of American slavery is the direct result of Biblical flat reading, the fundamentalist distrust of science is another.

And lastly, the Bible was never meant to be “weaponized.” While there are pronouncements of judgement in scripture (a topic due its own post alone), we are not the ones to do the judging. The gospel message is good news, not a legal indictment of impending punishment that we are (self-righteously) to post to nonbelievers doorsteps. Far too many of us, and I have been guilty too, bash non believers with various clobber passages to prove how “sinful” they are (and somewhat smugly, how we are not). The key element to sharing the gospel is love, not judgement.

Hopefully these suggestions will prove helpful. Thank you.

The Billy Graham Rule: Sexual Segregation

A number of lawsuits have been cropping up where Baptist men claim they are victims of religious discrimination because they have refused to work closely with women. Like Billy Graham and recently, Mike Pence, there is this reticence about men being alone with women, other than their wives, that permeates the patriarchal culture of some evangelical communities.

It is very unlikely, given the history of misogyny among S Baptists, and their reluctance to allow women into leadership positions, that this is entirely about avoiding sexually charged situations. S Baptists have fought hard the last 6 or 7 decades, against the woman’s movement, against women’s rights, and against women “taking men’s jobs. Entering the 20th century was hard enough for them, let alone the 21st! So, I believe a large part of this backlash against women in the workforce has to to with animus towards women for being there in the first place.

But that is not all. There is a general tendency among evangelicals towards legalism. For example, I grew up in a culture where attending movies or dances, was considered “sinful.” I saw my first theater movie at age 20, when I attended college out of town. The tendency, therefore, is to create extra-biblical rules to avoid even the remote possibility of a “real sin,” like fornication. It is as if, they are saying humans are of such weak moral fiber that they must be baby-sat with rules in order to keep from sexual transgressions.

No doubt, a lot of this comes from our Puritan heritage, total depravity and Calvinism, but it reflects neither adult behavior or reliance on the work of the Holy Spirit to lead us rightly. I can speak from my own personal experience on the matter as I was a victim of harassment in the workplace myself. I worked alone with a woman for 6 years in a large manufacturing facility. It did not end well, unfortunately, and became increasingly uncomfortable towards the end. But I did not decline to work with a coworker because she was a woman, I made the situation work as long as I could, only raising concerns when she became abusive and possessive. I went through the proper channels, gave her chances, until, the company had no other recourse than firing her. This is the adult way to deal with situations as they arise.

I cannot help but feel the recent rash of evangelicals wishing to have odd and discriminatory exemptions in the workplace reflect their general animus towards gays, minorities and women. There is no practical way to create a “separate but equal,” workforce, where women and men are kept segregated, or where business are allowed to discriminate against others based on gender, gender preference or sexual orientations. Yet this is exactly what the Religious Right would have society embrace. Are there any adults in the room?

https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/north-carolina-police-officer-fired-following-billy-graham-rule-lawsuit-n1045706

People Are Getting Sued Over the Billy Graham Rule Now

 

Blinded by the Light: The Boss, and What it Means to be Human

I just finished watching the movie: Blinded by the Light in our local theater. It is based on the real life story of a young Pakistani in Great Britain who is inspired to achieve something other than the pedestrian ambitions of his conservative father. I walked away uplifted and strangely spiritually moved. A Pakistani, and a Muslim at that, and yet I felt more in common with him than my own conservative Christian background.

At movie’s end, Javid comes to realize that the Springsteen lyrics “blinded by the light” were not referring to a love affair, or something solely personal, but referred  to how blinded we become to our shared humanity, our shared struggles as humans, how we are family. No matter how far we roam, we are still family, both literally and figuratively.

Javid’s journey in many ways, mirrors my own. No, not that my father was unsupportive or that my parents weren’t proud of me, but that we all belong to non biological families that we are “born into.” The family I am referring to, that I was born into, was American conservative Christianity.

The movie, set in the 1980s, shows a Britain in turmoil. Loss of jobs, a slumping economy and severe racial tensions. Javid is caught between two worlds, the world of White GB and his Pakistani heritage. His father’s stern warnings about becoming “British” instead of Pakistani, reminds me of dozens of sermons I’ve hear over the years in church. In listening to The Boss, Javid is suddenly aware that someone who doesn’t look like him, with an entirely different culture than his Pakistani one…understands!

In his 1980s GB, the culture wars are in full swing, White Nationalism and the inevitable clash between working class whites and working class immigrants. Sound familiar? Both traditions strove to separate themselves from each other, to concentrate on their differences rather than commonalities. Javid is exasperated when his father refuses to confront racism and ignorance, but instead states Pakistanis must keep their heads down and not draw attention to themselves. Like the way blacks were expected to behave in America for so many years.

And this is where it started to hit home for me. Conservative Christianity, like the practice of Javid’s father’s Muslim heritage, is divisive. At core, religion done badly points to the faults of others and creates an “us vs them” mentality. It was this realization, some half dozen years ago, that started me down the road of deconstructing my Christian heritage. Christians like James Dobson, Jerry Falwell and Franklin Graham, to name a few, didn’t sound like Christ.

At first, I thought it was mainly their tone that was unlike Christ. As though there was a polite way to tell gays they were living in sin and going to hell! The problem was, the church offered no way to simultaneously “witness” in a loving fashion, without completely invalidating another’s existence. And this hits at the heart of the evangelical “problem,” they say they love others with the love of Christ, but their actions say otherwise. This is not to say that all individual conservative Christians fall into this category, but rather, the system is rigged to be judgmental and exclusive. There is a great, big “IF’ attached to the so-called, unmerited love of God. God loves you IF you’re not gay, God loves you IF you’re not a Muslim, God loves you IF you believe the Bible is inerrant, there are myriads of “ifs” attached.

The biggest “if” is attached to being white and conservative. And of course, Republican. This is a shoe-in for being on God’s “good side.” A rather slip-shod and shallow reading of the New Testament gives the conservative church a platform to build a narrow, divisive and somewhat paranoid version of Christianity that leads to a church that no longer feels itself a part of the human race, the vast majority of whom “are not lovers of truth,” and are “going to hell.” While hell-fire preaching has fallen out of vogue among evangelicals, the animus is still lying just below the surface. It comes out, rather, in the way conservative Christians wage the “culture wars.” The way they throw their support and hopes onto someone who represents everything Christ is NOT about. Abortion is a diversion from the ugliness that so much the church in America has come to represent. And please, this is not politics I am talking about. Rather, it hits at the core of not only what kind of America do we wish to be, but what kind of Christian do we wish to be.

In conclusion, the movie helped me see that I am a human first, and share that bond with the entire human race. If I strive to be anything, it is to be a better human, or as Jesus said, a better “neighbor.” It’s not about being a better “Christian,” although that should logically follow if one seeks the first. This is backwards, from most sermons I have heard, I know, but I think if the church started behaving more human, they’d end up being more Christ-like.

The Real Reason for the Conservative Attack on Gays: Deflection

While the church has a long infamous history of violence and persecution of gays, as well as other minorities, many in the church have moved on, recognizing that to continue that pogrom against sexual minorities is unchristlike.  Unfortunately many conservatives would continue that discrimination and slander. Fortunately, in America, there are laws against hate crimes and discrimination against minorities.

The church has a public relations problem. When the American church and society marched in lock-step, i.e., anytime before the late 60s, few questioned its authority or its moral aplomb. But times have changed. The stage was set prior to the American Civil War, when those who held a “high view” of scripture argued that slavery was “Biblical,” and therefore “right.” While many Christians joined forces with society to oppose this narrow-minded and hurtful view, conservatives as a whole, did not. Rather than seeing it as a humanitarian crisis, those that had the most to lose if Blacks were given their freedom, argued to do so would be to “attack scripture.”

The egregious rape, torture and brutalization of fellow humans was of less importance than the defense of scripture. The outcome of the Civil War and subsequent emancipation of Blacks did little to change that prevailing view among many conservatives. In the years that followed White Christians continued to decry the general rise of liberalism, communism and just about any target outside themselves, whilst dismantling reconstruction of the South and creating Jim Crow Laws to further the purpose of segregation. Mingling of the races was seen as unbiblical.

So I will get to the point of my post, the church has always been good at the deflection of valid criticism. Using a bit of slight of hand, the church focuses on the splinter in society’s eye, while turning a blind eye to the blight that has set within the heart of “orthodox Christendom.” This is strikingly similar to the conservative push to marginalize Blacks in the 60s. There has been much emphasis on superficial morality like “purity culture,” no sex before marriage and male headship, while total silence about misogyny and racism within the church.  The church has become fascinated, even obsessed, with what people do in their bedrooms. Like the argument for slavery, the church scrambles for proof texts to validate their voyeurism about other people’s sex lives. It is no coincidence that the Bible Belt states have the highest viewership of gay porn.

The last 50 years has seen a flood of criticism, attacks and misinformation directed at the LGBTQ community by the likes of Falwell, Franklin Graham and James Dobson. In the meantime evangelical churches have a growing scandal of sex abuse and misogyny that has been covered up. It is deflection. “Look over there! It’s a homosexual” (says the youth pastor who’s sexually abused a 14 year old. It’s really not even about the Bible and what it says (or doesn’t) about SSM. It’s about being in everyone else’s business while not taking care of the problems in your own family. It’s about not facing the church’s problems and covering them up by pointing out the “sins” of others.

As Paul said the religious leaders of his day, after quoting their screed against the Roman orgies in Romans 1: “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.” (Romans 2:1)

Conservative church leaders: get your house in order, address your church’s sexual misconduct and abuse, then maybe you’ll have the street cred to talk about other’s sexuality.

Further reading:

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/progressivesecularhumanist/2014/03/bible-belt-leads-the-nation-in-consumption-of-gay-porn/

https://baptistnews.com/article/sexual-abuse-in-the-sbc-what-will-it-take-to-prompt-meaningful-action/#.XVHmaMplCfA

https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2019/06/12/southern-baptists-take-action-sex-abuse-some-question-whether-its-enough/

https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2019/02/evangelical-apocalypse

White Nationalism: The Republican New Normal

“Go back to where you came from” appears to be the new rally cry for Republicans, a more honest, yet ugly slogan than the previous MAGA one. Yet the two are intrinsically linked as their meaning is clear: “America is for White people. If you don’t like that, you can leave.” Republicanism is no longer a “big tent” party, but is has increasingly allowed itself to be distracted by White Nationalism. In doing so it has become clear that Republicans under the leadership of the current occupant of the White House, have given up on appealing to a wide swath of Americans. Instead, they have realized that increasingly they are at odds with the majority of Western Democracies and the progressive gains in them, and so have decided to appeal to a smaller constituency: White Racists.

The adage “you can’t please everyone” may be part of the strategy the White House is employing here. Democrats may fail in trying to be “all things to all people,” while Republicans will, perhaps, have greater success by appealing to a smaller group: their base. It is far easier to appeal to a small group rather than a larger, disparate group. There is no concerted effort, it would seem, to appeal to people of color, women, sexual minorities, non-Christians, in short the Republican appeal seems to be directed straight at middle class Whites with 2 years or less of college education. As this is a shrinking demographic, we may be witnessing the “beginning of the end” for the Grand Old Party.

The Two Party system itself may be partially to blame here, as in other countries xenophobic populism is more confined to minority parties. Here in the US it has no choice to do so but has become the “mainstream” alternative to a broader centrist party: the Democratic.

“The difference is that in Europe, far-right populist parties are often an alternative to the mainstream. In the United States, the Republican Party is the mainstream.”

“That’s the tragedy of the American two-party system,” Mr. Greven said. In a multiparty government, white working-class populists might have been shunted into a smaller faction, and the Republicans might have continued as a “big tent” conservative party. Instead, the Republican Party has allowed its more extreme elements to dominate. “Nowhere in Europe do you have that phenomenon.” 1

Thomas Greven is a political scientist at the Free University of Berlin who has studied right-wing populism. He goes on to say that “The Democrats fall closer to mainstream left and center-left parties in other countries, like the Social Democratic Party in Germany and Britain’s Labour Party, according to their manifestos’ scores.

And the United States’ political center of gravity is to the right of other countries’, partly because of the lack of a serious left-wing party. Between 2000 and 2012, the Democratic manifestos were to the right of the median party platform. The party has moved left but is still much closer to the center than the Republicans.” 2

One of the arguments used on both sides is the “no true Scotsman” fallacy. You hear it constantly. Those women “hate America!” They are “unAmerican,” or “antiAmerican.” To be fair, the Democrats, in turn, return the jib: Trump is “unAmerican.” Let me be perfectly clear, this is not a contest to determine who is the most patriotic or nationalistic candidate to run our country, but, what kind of America do we wish to be!

You see, America was not always welcoming, inclusive and color-blind. We quickly forget our past history with our First Nation peoples, slavery and Jim Crow. We forget the arrogant assumptions of Western European imperialism. We prefer to gloat over a false narrative of American exceptionalism, and pat ourselves on the back over our Constitution, one that claimed universal “truths” yet denied those privileges to a large swath of people. So when the current White House occupant-in-Chief says, “Make America Great Again,” he is talking about returning to that America, the narrow, small minded one. Those who don’t like that can leave.

Trump is Saying What Many Christians Think

The latest racist tweet from Mr. Trump is the most overtly racist yet. It is reminiscent of America in the 1950s, when people felt emboldened or entitled enough to directly jeer, mock and criticize others based on the color of there skin. The sad part is, many Christians will still support this moral midget. In a segregated South, Christians were openly hostile towards Blacks and other people of color, and didn’t apologize for it, nor see the conflict between being Christian and being a racist. This holds true for many people of faith still today.

Telling others to “go back to where they came from,” is the cry of White Nationalism, the bedrock belief that only people of White, European descent should have a say in the governance of our country. That people of color, who have traditionally not had the same benefits or opportunity as Whites, do not have the right to criticize social injustices, and should meekly accept what ever scraps fall of the White man’s table.

Yet, those who have bought into the “Pro-Life” narrative cleverly devised by the Republican-Religious Right two-headed monster, will still support this bigot because he is “Pro-Life.” Yet, he reeks of the stench of bigotry and all that is ungodly!

But I would posit that this has less to do with his Pro-Life stance among evangelicals, than with his bigotry, which is the real reason for overwhelming White evangelical support. He is viewed as a beleaguered and much maligned outsider in the same manner as many White evangelicals view themselves. It is the same disgusting and narcissistic twisting of real social injustices—where the oppressor paints themself as the one actually wronged.

Yesterday, we sat through yet again, another awkward sermon at my mother’s evangelical church. The associate pastor admonished us to “respect” the “authority” of “those God puts in power.” The usual cherry-picked Bible verses were thrown out on “obeying the rulers,” and “rendering unto Caesar.” And, after the latest racist tweet as well. Odd, but that sermon would never have been preached during the Obama administration!

Hypocrites! I am so disgusted with all of it!

The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of a Dying Church

One of the noticeable trends in Christendom over the last few decades has been ever decreasing church attendance. While it could be argued that the death of Christendom has been a long time coming, perhaps even already realized in Europe, American evangelicals have always pretended they never received the memo.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal discuses the possible political and social ramifications of declining church attendance in America. I think the greatest tragedy or failure of American Evangelicalism is its inability to change and its resistance to change. In short, like the words: “diversity, inclusion, social justice”—change is seen as a “bad” word. It is something the “world” does, but not the church. The perception of holding on to the Truth, once delivered to the apostles and prophets of yore, creates a powerful deterrent to improvement.

While the world steadily marches toward social justice, greater inclusion and diversity, the American church seems to be marching the other direction. The problem is further complicated by the history of racism within fundamentalism, the well-spring from which the evangelical movement sprang. As such, the evangelical movement, especially on the Southern reformed side, is solidly a movement of White privilege and superiority. The affects of “the Southern way of life,” cannot be overlooked when trying to understand why the church is in the position today of fighting against so many different attempts by society for greater social justice.

The Wall Street Journal article links the declining birth rate and decrease in church attendance as two factors that are putting tremendous pressure on conservatism:

“Together, these trend lines suggest significant changes in the shape of society in years to come. Some will be comfortable with them as simply signs of the natural evolution in ever-changing American society. On the other hand, such trends tend to alarm and motivate supporters of President Trump, who essentially promises a return to an America of yore. Either way, they are worthy of discussion in the 2020 campaign.”

This may be true, but I don’t think conservative Christians are in a position to deal with the issue in a healthy manner. Yes, they, for the most part, are aware of the decline in church attendance, but their understanding of the “why” is misplaced. Dispensationalism and a 150 years of “end times” hand wrenching has provided an answer for them: it is inevitable that before Christ returns there will be a “falling away” from the Faith. There you have it: “it’s not our problem, it’s yours.” As America becomes younger and far less White, the fear among many evangelicals will only deepen and provide further “proof” that they are right, while all others are wrong.

For someone who grew up in the evangelical faith it is a bit like watching a train wreck in slow motion. While I long to see reform come to evangelicalism in America, reformers such as Beth Moore seem like such a long shot. The powers behind the evangelical movement are too firmly entrenched in their control, too white and too male. Make no mistake, it is a control and power issue. The old hard-liners within evangelicalism represented by groups such as the Gospel Coalition have thoroughly bought into the dispensational, end times scenario, because it keeps them on top of the power curve. The influx of immigrants and undocumented aliens, the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements, feminism and even abortion rights all attack the belief that white men are in charge. The erosion of power can be seen in real time and has produced a frantic, panicky response from many of these men. The recent response of SBC men to Beth Moore’s request to allow women to fully express the gifts of the Holy Spirit within that body was immediate and almost comical. They went on full panic attack. What is it about a tiny blond Southern Baptist woman that creates so much fear among these men?

My wife who is evangelical, keeps admonishing me to see the good in evangelicalism and not concentrate so much on the faults. I do try, and find encouragement in the efforts of men like Scott McKnight, Roger E. Olson or Beth Moore, but they are fighting an uphill battle and time is not on their side. Society is changing too rapidly, I believe, for evangelicalism to catch up.

As for myself, I find the atmosphere on the other side of the fence much healthier and liberating than the evangelical side. As I have pointed out in a past post, Western society seems to be, at least for now, acting more Christlike than the conservative church in America. This is undoubtably, because conservatism is given a higher priority than Christ-likeness among many American Christians. There are a number of scenarios I can see play out here. There is a strong possibility that conservatism will win out and evangelicalism will become more insular and removed from society, which would best fit the self-fulfilling prophetic vision of dispensationalism. A slightly less likely possibility is that the church realizes it is headed in the wrong direction, and with glacial speediness, changes over the next couple decades, and actually starts practicing true Christian charity—but only after the tremendous loss of influence over society and the sad realization that much of the damage they’ve done cannot be undone. A third highly unlikely option is that evangelicals suddenly wake up, repent and once again become powerhouses for change in society.

If history is any indicator, I think the second option the most likely. What do you think?