Andy Stanley and Our Problem with the Old Testament

Wesley Hill’s Post

Andy Stanley

Wesley Hill’s response to Andy Stanley’s sermon about “unhitching ourselves from the OT” is emblematic of a larger, systemic and long standing problem in the church. In order to understand the nature of the problem, one needs to be able to step back from the historical investment the church has placed in the OT canon, and try to look at church history more objectively. The problem, as I will describe, is not uniquely evangelical, but has marred the church’s understanding of Christ’s teaching for over 2 millennia. I apologize for perhaps over estimating the evangelical responsibility in the matter.

What Andy Stanley, in this sermon has done, is attempt to bring to our attention a certain problem within the church, that has historically hindered the church from truly grasping the nature of the Heavenly Father that Jesus introduces us to. Wesley Hill’s response that the various councils, the church Fathers, the Anglican Church, etc., have all revered the Decalogue is true. He is stating the obvious. But when you understand that the Decalogue is symbolic of and integral to the Jewish covenant alone, as Christians we must be careful how we appropriate it for ourselves.

Stanley has used the Ten Commandments as a sort of code word for the church’s attitude towards the OT as a whole. Marcion was not the only Christian leader to be troubled by the apparent dichotomy between the OT Jewish understanding of God and the new revelation of God’s character presented in Jesus’ teaching and in Paul’s theology. Origen and others in the early church tended to smooth over the difference by the use of allegory, that the Bible had spiritual meanings that superseded the literal meanings of the text. Unfortunately, the grace and unmerited forgiveness of God through Jesus Christ has been muddied by a literal appropriation of much of the legalism of the OT.

For Augustine of Hippo, AD 354-430, there was a “veil” over the OT. One had to get past it to understand the spiritual sense of the passages, even the more scurrilous ones. As a Manichaean, Augustine had spurned the OT scriptures as rather crass and uninspired, but with the influence of Ambrose, and his subsequent re-conversion to Christianity, he changed his mind. It is important to note that, like Origen, Augustine and other church Fathers were not unaware of the ethical problems inherent to the OT. They dealt with the tension by spiritualizing the passages. 

With the collapse of the Roman Empire and increasing pressure from Islam, the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity grew further apart, until Catholicism, the Western branch, became dominant. During the Middle Ages, survival of the church relied on support from various monarchs, and the success of the monarchies relied, in part, on the approval of the Pope. While there were various reforms, and good Popes, there was a growing unhealthy symbiotic relationship between the secular state and the church. While technically not a theocracy, it became increasingly difficult to differentiate between the secular and the divine.

The state’s use of violence, war and coercion had a parallel in the OT, and the church’s collusion with the state implicated the church increasingly with that same coercive, violent mindset. Abandoning the more allegorical interpretive understanding of the OT, treating the enemies of the church violently became a way of treating heresy, following the similar pattern of ancient Israel.

The die was cast. According to the Catholic Catechism, the church was the new Israel. Protestantism had similar parallels. As a result, what we have seen historically in the church, is a gradual departure from the Sermon on the Mount as descriptive of the Kingdom of God, to a church that uses much of the same playbook as earthly kingdoms do. Ask any atheist about the church’s ethical shortcomings. We ignore the past to our own peril.

Frankly, I am a bit shocked that a scholar such as Wesley Hill does not seem to understand, that for Paul the Law leads to death and failure. That you can never have enough laws, nor follow enough laws to merit favor. Stanley’s point that we do not “need” the Ten Commandments as Christians, while certainly controversial, is, at root, true. We have something better, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the example of Christ and the teaching of the apostles. The Decalogue is so incredibly obvious, why should we need it as a reminder? Does anyone here need to be reminded that murder, lying or sleeping with the neighbor’s wife is a bad thing?

Instead the author of John and the apostle Paul, repeatedly remind us to LOVE others. Why? Because it is far harder than keeping the Law of Moses. The Pharisees kept the Law fastidiously yet failed being loving. This is the draw of legalism. It lets you off the hook in the love department. This is why the church, in its efforts to keep doctrinal, legalistic purity, could burn people at the stake, or torture them to get them to convert. In their perversion of love, they saw it as a way of saving souls.

While we no longer burn people at the stake for heresy, witchcraft or being Gay (except in Africa), the same obsession with legalism and doctrinal purity ostracizes people and turns people away from Christ. It is the old “love the sinner, hate the sin” mantra that fails so miserably. Like Paul in Romans 2, people instantly know hypocrisy when they hear it.

While Origen and Augustine may have understood the OT in allegorical terms or spiritualized difficult passages, today’s evangelical is not so sure. With the rise of the Princeton School of Theology and the pushback on Christian liberalism and the historical critical method, inerrancy and literal interpretation has become the defecto evangelical methodology of understanding scripture. In effect, it mires scripture down to the understanding of scholastics like Aquinas and legalists like Calvin. Unintended side affects are a gospel that is irrelevant today and a rigid doctrinal system that cannot be reformed. It cannot be reformed because in the declaration of an inerrant scripture, the defender becomes inerrant himself. Check out Roger E. Olson, “Reformed and Always Reforming, The Postconservative Approach to Evangelical Theology,” for more on this matter.

The danger with understanding scripture this way concerns us most when coming to the OT. While the Decalogue is certainly a wonderful document, Christian appropriation of certain Levitical laws generally ends up backfiring by creating legalistic Christians. Instead of manifesting God’s love and forgiveness, they become harsh and judgmental. This, of course, can happen when using the NT as well. I think Wesley Hill’s comment are illuminating:

It is striking how frequently flirtations with Marcionism are aimed at revising Christian teaching on sexual morality. Though he doesn’t walk through it himself, Stanley’s sermon opens the door to this revisionism. He says that Paul tied sexual behavior not to the old covenant, not to the Ten Commandments, but to “one commandment that Jesus gave us: that you are to treat others as God in Christ has treated you.

For Hill this is simply not enough. The example that Jesus showed us in his life. The forgiveness he showed his tormentors on the cross, the admonition to love greatly by Paul and John…not enough. As he further states:

we Christians so often fail to discern what real love amounts to, and we need the Old Testament’s commandments to shine a spotlight on our slippery self-justifications. We may intend to treat a sexual partner as God in Christ has treated us, we may try to act toward them out of self-giving love, but the distorting effects of sin mean that we must be told what love looks like in action if we’re not to get it wrong. That divine telling, sadly, is what Andy Stanley’s sermon would keep us from hearing.”

So here we have the real reason behind the uproar: the need for Christians to monitor others sexual behavior. This is the slippery slope conservatives fear if the church “unhitches” itself from following certain OT “moral laws.” Heavens! Some one might interpret that as freedom to love someone else of the same sex! And as Hill has pointed out, the OT is such a stellar example of marriage and sexual relations, come on Wesley Hill! Really? We’ve all seen the Facebook mimes. OT marriage looked nothing like marriage today, even among Southern Baptists!

So here’s the deal. The human tendency to legalism, is a universal. We gravitate towards laws. When they are used to protect us from each other, they are useful. When used to exclude, marginalize or persecute others…not so good. When treated as absolute inerrant codes of conduct, and end up hurting people, it’s time to step back and reassess things. It is my personal opinion that the doctrine of inerrancy actually produces unethical behavior in the church. One of the things that has come out of the battle for marriage equality, that SS relations would destroy the family, the nation, would result in pedophilia, that it was immoral, were false. The claims were disingenuous, misleading and were fear mongering. In Biblical parlance, it was bearing false witness.

A rigid inerrant view of scripture “unhinges” the church from the love of Christ unconditionally for others and replaces it with a “performance minded” conditional Christianity, something Stanley obviously was critiquing. As Robert Farrar Capon puts it:

I’ve always had a problem with the phrase, ‘cheap grace.’ As far as I’m concerned, nobody can make God’s grace in Jesus any cheaper than it already is: it’s free”. “…But what I really object to is people who use the so-called danger of cheap grace as a way of browbeating others into thinking there’s some level of performance they have to achieve before they can be worthy of grace.”

“…I guess what I really don’t like is the way people start out by defining sin as ‘moral failure’ and then go on to think that if they commit ‘sins’ they will cut themselves off from grace. That’s all nonsense of course: ‘sinners’ are the very thing God gives his grace to —lost sheep, lost coins, lost sons. As a matter of fact, the true New Testament opposite of sin isn’t virtue, or moral success, or getting your act together: it’s faith in the grace that takes away all the sins of the world. Paul says, ‘all that is not of faith is sin.’ And Jesus says, ‘the one who believes is not judged.’ We’re not on trial: ‘there is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.’”

“The Mystery of Christ and why We Don’t Get it.” p. 171-172.

I just don’t think Wesley Hill understands this, nor unfortunately, do many Christians.

Peace

Evangelical Thuggary

If you’ve read my brief introduction to my blog, you are aware my background is (or was) evangelical. When I first woke up to the realization that trouble was brewing in the evangelical camp, I did not know where this knowledge was going to lead me. The current culture wars that were being waged by the Religious Right seemed over the top mean spirited. As a concerned evangelical I thought there must be a way to better present the love of God for humanity. Having gone through the sexual revolution of the 60’s followed by the Moral Majority’s reaction in the 70’s and 80’s, I realized that there was a pattern here.

In both cases, the hard right conservatives within evangelicalism pushed for political control, both within evangelicalism and within the American legal system, drowning out more moderate voices within evangelicalism. It was becoming increasingly difficult to separate neo-fundamentalism from evangelicalism as a whole. As a result, I wanted to understand more of what it meant to be evangelical. So a few years back I somewhat timidly decided to step outside the evangelical “bubble” and get third party perspectives on the movement, especially the unique American manifestation of it.

The first books I read were “American Apocalypse, A History of Modern Evangelism” by Matthew Avery Sutton, and “God’s Own Party, The Making of the Christian Right” by Daniel K. Williams. It was an eye-opener. The history revealed was nothing like the rosy narrative of evangelicalism I had been taught. But it rang true as I had actually experienced a great deal of it coming of age in the 60’s, I had simply submerged it under the more flattering presentation of my chosen tribe.

I soon realized I was going to have to set all my beliefs on the table and begin to examine all in the light of the gospel. At this point I was still very much an evangelical, just a very concerned one. Then, when the Christian Bakery in Oregon refused to bake a wedding cake for the lesbian couple hit the news in 2013, red flags went up. Mind you, at this point I was somewhat typical of most evangelicals: SS marriage was not “Biblical marriage” in my thinking. But the thought of Christians refusing to serve others seemed so anti-Christian. Serving others, even one’s enemies, is so central to the story of Jesus, I could not wrap my brain around how anyone calling themselves a Christian could treat others that way. It also brought up memories of a time past when other Christians declared “we don’t serve your kind here.”

So the last 5 or 6 years has been a gradual move away from evangelicalism to a more inclusive, less judgmental faith in Christ. This was never my original intent, but after a few years I realized I had so little in common now with the tribe I had grown up in, that I was now outside that tribe. This has been confirmed over and over in my interactions since with evangelicals. I have dealt with trolls and bullies, Judaizers and self righteous bigots, my interactions, when they find out I am progressive, are seldom pleasant. There is an unfortunate tendency among the evangelicals I deal with to pummel and bludgeon you into compliance with their “orthodox” views.

I attempt to be thorough, critical and cite sources for my views. This is seldom met in kind. Thuggery and name calling is the more typical response. This seems to be the new norm among what I would call the “Fox News Christians,” the “MAGA Christians.” Evangelicalism is now defined in the public eye, largely as represented by the Christians that put Donald Trump in power. For evangelicals, this is a sad turn of events that has been almost 50 years in the making. Post-conservative and moderate evangelicals struggle to have their voices heard, and are generally drowned out by the thuggish majority that have found a champion in Trump, the much anticipated “Cyrus,” that will return fundamentalism to a major force in America.

This is not just my online experience, either. When I share Christ with friends and coworkers the apprehension is palatable. They assume at first, I am an evangelical. I have to get past that hurdle in order to share the gospel. People this is sad! It is only after they learn I am not an evangelical that they feel free to open up and share with me.

While there are notable exceptions, Beth Moore, Jen Hatmaker, Phillip Yancy come to mind, most I fear have been or will be drummed out of the evangelical camp. Like Andy Stanley and his recent sermon on “unhitching” from the OT, they will be deemed “heretics.” It is a relentless process of gradually cutting off any novel or critical thinking in favor of a Borg-like assimilation of all theological thought by the Pharisaical thought police. I do not think history will look back kindly on the movement. Nor do I think the neofundamentalists are going to suddenly become moderates. They taste victory and victory is sweet.

The Boy Scouts of America: What’s in a Name?

There has been a great deal of hand wringing and accusations of being overly politically correct in response to the recent change within the Boy Scouts to include girls and young women. Soon after the decision was made, and the announcement that the organization would change its name to a more gender inclusive “Scouts BSA,” the Mormon Church broke with the Scouts to start their own program, more specific to their own beliefs. Although denials were made that it was because girls were now included, knowing something of the history of the conservative church makes that claim somewhat incredulous.

Mind you, I respect any religious organization to have their own “scouting” program, I just wish conservative religious organizations were a tad bit more open minded. Organizations like Scouts BSA are often depicted as having “liberal agendas,” and subversive to “Biblical teaching” of distinct male and female “roles.” Yes, more inclusive programs do have agendas, as do more exclusive conservative programs. We all have agendas, get over it. The accusations by conservatives that the Girl Scouts have a feminist agenda and the Scouts BSA pushes gay “lifestyle,” are examples of questionable “facts” that are raised by fringe religious right groups, then picked up by conservative Christians in general and assumed to be true.

But the reaction by the Mormon Church is illuminating as it illustrates a widening gap between conservative Christianity and society as a whole. While society is clearly postmodern, the church behaves as though it is still modernist. The conservative church is giving answers to questions society is not asking, as though the gender roles are still best represented by Ward and June Cleaver.

Wading through a popular blog post by a young woman who bemoaned the merger and (supposed) blurring of gender roles that will result, I was struck by how many women responded that the Girl Scouts were not as fun or adventurous as the Boy Scouts. There are conservative minded assumptions about what girls find fun, and what boys find fun that, frankly, ignore the fact that those assumptions are based on outdated ideas of gender roles.

Herein lies the problem with attempting to have clearly defined gender roles, and organizations that segregate the two: many children simply don’t fit. It mirrors the problems within conservative orthodoxy as a whole: some individuals needs will not be met, and their unique giftedness will not be used or nurtured. Worse still, the message some will receive is that they are not wanted or valued. The church has for eons been trying to operate under the “separate but equal” paradigm. It just doesn’t work. Honestly, if you are equal why are you treated separately?

Maybe I am being a bit of a maverick, but I just don’t see conformity as a virtue to teach our children. I am more of a “be the best version of yourself” type of a guy. After all, Jesus seemed to spend most of his time with non-conformists, rejecting the religious conformists when they tried to correct him. It might be a good idea.

Thinking Out Loud: Atonement Part 2

The “penal substitutionary atonement theory,” PSA, is the default standard amongst evangelicals for explaining Jesus’ atonement on the Cross. The theory goes back about 500 years in the church, championed by John Calvin, who had a legal background, hence the legalistic slant. While Anselm 1033-1109, saw the atonement largely as a compensation paid back to God for the debt we owed, Calvin and the other Protestant Reformers saw Christ’s death not so much as payment or satisfaction of a debt owed, but taking on a punishment that we deserved. Thus basing the atonement on satisfaction of God’s wrathful punishment.

The basic critique of the Reformers new view came from Faustus Socinus, 1539-1604, who brought up some strong criticisms of the PSA view. First off, taking satisfaction negates giving pardon, they are incompatible. Justice is not served by killing an innocent in the place of the guilty, which is scapegoating, nor can a temporary death of one cover the eternal death of many. Basically he set the stage for a debate that continues today.

Gregory Boyd has some interesting objections I will share.

1 “Does God really need to appease his wrath with a blood sacrifice in order to forgive us? If so, does this mean that the law of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is the ultimate description of God’s character? And if this is true, what are we to make of Jesus’ teaching that this law is surpassed by the law of love? Not only this, but what are we to make of all the instances in the Bible where God forgives people without demanding a sacrifice (e.g. the prodigal son)?”

2 “If God’s holiness requires that a sacrifice be made before he can fellowship with sinners, how did Jesus manage to hang out with sinners without a sacrifice, since he is as fully divine and as holy as God the Father?”

3 “If Jesus’ death allows God the Father to accept us, wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that Jesus reconciles God to us than it is to say Jesus reconciles us to God? Yet the New Testament claims the latter and never the former (e.g. 2 Cor. 5:18-20). In fact, if God loves sinners and yet can’t accept sinners without a sacrifice, wouldn’t it be even more accurate to say that God reconciles God to himself than to say he reconciles us to God? But this is clearly an odd and unbiblical way of speaking.”

4 “How are we to understand one member of the Trinity (the Father) being wrathful towards another member of the Trinity (the Son), when they are, along with the Holy Spirit, one and the same God? Can God be truly angry with God? Can God actually punish God?”

5 “If God the father needs someone to “pay the price” for sin, does the Father ever really forgive anyone? Think about it. If you owe me a hundred dollars and I hold you to it unless someone pays me the owed sum, did I really forgive your debt? It seems not, especially since the very concept of forgiveness is about releasing a debt — not collecting it from someone else.”

6 “Are sin and guilt the sorts of things that can be literally transferred from one party to another? Related to this, how are we to conceive of the Father being angry towards Jesus and justly punishing him when he of course knew Jesus never did anything wrong?”

7 “If the just punishment for sin is eternal hell (as most Christians have traditionally believed), how does Jesus’ several hours of suffering and his short time in the grave pay for it?”

8 “If the main thing Jesus came to do was to appease the Father’s wrath by being slain by him for our sin, couldn’t this have been accomplished just as easily when (say) Jesus was a one-year-old boy as when he was a thirty-three year old man? Were Jesus’ life, teachings, healing and deliverance ministry merely a prelude to the one really important thing he did – namely, die? It doesn’t seem to me that the Gospels divide up and prioritize the various aspects of Jesus’ life in this way. (I maintain that everything Jesus did was about one thing – overcoming evil with love. Hence, every aspect of Jesus was centered on atonement — that is, reconciling us to God and freeing us from the devil’s oppression.)”

9 “To raise a more controversial question, if it’s true that God’s wrath must be appeased by sacrificing his own Son, then don’t we have to conclude that pagans who have throughout history sacrificed their children to appease the gods’ wrath had the right intuition, even if they expressed it in the wrong way?”

10 “What is the intrinsic connection between what Jesus did on the cross and how we actually live? The Penal Substitution view makes it seem like the real issue in need of resolution is a legal matter in the heavenly realms between God’s holy wrath and our sin. Christ’s death changes how God sees us, but this theory says nothing about how Christ’s death changes us. This is particularly concerning to me because every study done on the subject has demonstrated that for the majority of Americans who believe in Jesus, their belief makes little or no impact on their life. I wonder if the dominance of this legal-transaction view of the atonement might be partly responsible for this tragic state of affairs.”

Boyd

http://reknew.org/2015/12/10-problems-with-the-penal-substitution-view-of-the-atonement/

The legalistic position of PSA adherents, that it satisfies justice, as I have pointed out before, really is not a just system, as Jesus was unjustly murdered. It presents us with an unjust Heavenly Father. Hyper-Calvinists like John Piper usually revert to “mystery,” that is, God’s purposes are unknowable, beyond our understanding. (I am constantly amused that those who can build elaborate intellectual rationales for God’s behavior, then fall back on mystery when flaws are revealed). 

As Piper has stated “It’s right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases. God gives life and he takes life. Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die. God is taking life every day. He will take 50,000 lives today. Life is in God’s hand. God decides when your last heartbeat will be, and whether it ends through cancer or a bullet wound. God governs.”

Piper YouTube

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=taYhbRm6pnU

Piper’s basic rational, and an underlying principal of PSA, is that “God is not beholden to us at all. He doesn’t owe us anything.

Now add to that the fact we’re all sinners and deserve to die and go to hell yesterday, and the reality that we’re even breathing today is sheer common grace from God.” (Ibid.)

It is rather difficult, as one might imagine, to understand A. How is God loving? B. Is this a good “Father image?” C. How can rape, genocide and the murder of children be attributed to the loving God Jesus presents us with.

Was PSA the dominant view held in the early church? No, it was Christus Victor for the first millennium. In this view, Christ is seen as victorious over sin, death and the grave. Mankind was viewed as captive to the powers of evil, Christ rescued us. Sometimes attached, is the view that a “ransom” payment was made to the devil, as is presented in “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe,” a trap of sorts sprung on Satan, but this is not intrinsic to the Christus Victor theory of atonement, nor particularly convincing.

One of the awkward aspects of PSA that CV overcomes is the disjuncture of the Godhead necessitated in PSA. Christus Victor “reverses this view by uniting Jesus and His Father during the Crucifixion in a subversive condemnation of the unjust powers of darkness. This is followed by the natural emphasis of Christus Victor: the Father’s vindication of Jesus in His victorious and bodily Resurrection.” 

“While largely held only by Orthodox Christians for much of the last one thousand years, the Christus Victor theory is becoming increasingly popular with both paleo-orthodox evangelicals because of its connection to the early Church fathers, and with liberal Christians and peace churches such as the Anabaptist Mennonites because of its subversive nature, seeing the death of Jesus as an exposure of the cruelty and evil present in the worldly powers that rejected and killed him, and the resurrection as a triumph over these powers.”

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christus_Victor

I think it not inconsequential, and a bit ironic, that historically the church has been divided on these two views of the atonement. There is more at play here, then mere theological hair-splitting. The PSA teaching arose out of a church world view in which the Catholic Church (and later, the Protestant Church) sought to control all of society through dominance and violence. In Christus Victor, it is those very evil tendencies that Jesus fights and overcomes. Gods who are violent produce violent followers. This has been proven time and time again historically, and is true of all religions. What we see happening in western Christianity is a concerted effort to disavow its past violence and any connection to its conception of a violent God. To repaint its past, if you will.

Unfortunately, orthodox evangelicalism begins with a violent God in the OT, continues with God’s need for a violent atonement, and ends with Jesus returning to slay most of mankind. God is straightjacketed into this human mindset of violence as the ultimate solution. It is a betrayal of the Jesus, who, on the cross, employed his Heavenly Father to “forgive them,” the very ones murdering him. The church needs a better solution to mankind’s problems then one that starts and ends with violence.

Is American Christianity too Exclusionary?

One of the many books I am reading is Robert Gagnon’s “The Bible and Homosexual Practice.” As one can deduce from the title, Gagnon assumes from the start a couple of things. One, being Gay is a psychological pathology and, two, it is something one chooses to do, a practice. To be honest, I am not particularly invested in what he has to say about what the Bible says about LGBTQ individuals. I am more interested in HOW what he has to say affects others, and whether typical American white patriarchal hypocrisy and its exclusivity ends up being counterproductive to the gospel message.

Being a heterosexual Gentile, I don’t find arguments based on Levitical code particularly compelling, or indeed, relevant to a 21st century Christian’s worldview, nor understand why scholars like Gagnon spend so much time dissecting them and passionately defending prohibitions that defined the covenant between JEWS and YHWH. There were many things listed in those codes that were forbidden, toevah, and were designed to set Israel apart from her neighbors. Evangelicals tend to concentrate on a few toevah that have little impact on them, while disregarding all the other toevah that would inconvenience them or that they enjoy, such as shellfish or wearing clothing of mixed fabrics.

Indeed, some of Israel’s practices were anything but moral. The prohibition against human sacrifice was cruelly circumvented in Israel’s Canaan holy war, where women and children were slaughtered as “herem,” set aside, dedicated to and destroyed for YHWH. This ethnic cleansing was a form of human sacrifice, just not done in a ritualistic manner. The same literalistic “if it was ok for Israel, it’s gotta be ok for the US Cavalry” was the go to excuse for American Manifest Destiny as an American Christian nation systematically raped and pillaged across the lands of the First Nation peoples. Conservatives go to great lengths to rationalize and validate Israel’s genocide, why, so that they can justify their own attacks on others.

The excuse for imperialism from a religious standpoint has always been grounded in the view that the Church universal has replaced Israel as God’s “set apart” people. There is a certain self conscious pride that accompanies that claim, an underlying arrogance that says “we know what’s best for everyone else, and we are going to force it on you.” “We will assimilate you, and if you resist, we will alienate you.” Conservative Christianity has always had a Dr. Jekyll Mr. Hyde relationship with society, loving, if you meet the requirements for membership and know the rules, but don’t step out of line, or you’ll be ostracized.

This tendency towards religious imperialism is currently on full display in America amongst white conservative evangelicals, Mormons, and other conservative Christians. The outcries against women’s reproductive rights, against minority, immigrant and refugee rights, against the women’s movement, against the LGBTQ community, all give evidence of the need to exclude others, and set one particular group, apart, and above all others. Conservatives have taken the worst aspect of Israel’s past and appropriated it for their own form of Levitical law. While Jesus, and later Paul, show a marked departure and trajectory AWAY from legalism, conservative Christianity shows a dogged determination to return to as much literal interpretation and legalism as possible.

Indeed, the great commandment and the Golden rule seem to almost get in the way of the conservative agenda of “defining” Christianity, of establishing its boundaries. When someone mentions God’s love for all mankind, when Jesus’ cry for God’s unconditional forgiveness for sinners is brought up, all sorts of exceptions are raised. God loves you except if you do this or that.

And, of course, what follows whenever you have religious imperialism, is the effort to impose laws that maintain that religious superiority, again, as we are seeing in America. Just as we saw in ancient Israel with it’s insistence on conformity of society, while maintaining its “apartness” from the heathen, we have this concerted effort to force Christianity (one form of it, anyway) on society, while retaining a sense of superiority at the same time. Time and time again, I have heard my evangelical brothers and sisters talk about America needing to be a Christian nation, while not the other hand, refer to “wide is the path to destruction” and few will find the “narrow gate.” I have even heard Christians joke about it. Their exclusiveness becomes a badge of honor.

Gagnon and others fall into the same trap of seeing Christianity as exclusionary, legalistic and controlling. They make the mistake of defining the relationship God wishes to have with his children as following a set of rules. In doing so, being a child of God becomes something you DO rather than something you ARE. And in the process of defining, as narrowly as possible, who God’s children are, they turn away the greatest amount of people they possibly can. This should not be the goal of Christianity.

Conservatism’s Troubled Marriage to the Bible

Recently on Patheos, the following meme was made by a fellow progressive concerning fundamentalist Christians and their relationship with the Bible:

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The context for the meme was a discussion on James McGrath’s Blog Here As one conservative, Realist1234, on Patheos pointed out, everyone comes to the Christian Bible with an agenda, progressives rejecting the parts that don’t fit their views. At the same time, Phil’s meme resonates with what I know to be true, in large part among evangelicals and fundamentalists. What has happened historically within orthodox Western Christianity is that in the development of the Christian canon, in the development of the various creeds, in the creation of various denominations, the church has built a framework of understanding scripture that subconsciously “bends” the Bible to meet certain religious and philosophical presuppositions. Fundamentalists would point out, I’m sure, that progressives do that very same thing: bend scripture to meet their own presuppositions.

Fair enough, but the key to fruitful dialogue between conservatives and progressives has to start with a willingness to examine those presuppositions for validity and whether those presuppositions promote a “healthy” religion or a toxic one. It is interesting that Phil chose to frame his statement within the marriage context, that of the Bible being the faithful “wife” and the fundamentalist as being the “husband.” I am reasonably sure fundamentalists would state just the opposite, that they are the dutiful “wives” obeying their husband, God’s Word. It is interesting to me because the marriage image is so often used in both the Hebrew canon and the Christian, as an apt metaphor for mankind’s relation to the Creator.

For me, where the marriage “hits the rocks” among conservatives is when literalism becomes the “glue” that holds their marriage together. It tends to promote a “contractual” relationship with God, where the contract becomes the object of adulation rather than God, the husband. This is due, at least in large part, to the Reformers, who raised scripture itself on to such a high pedestal that it detracts from our marriage to Christ. 

I think conservatives miss the irony that Jesus spoke in parables when they scour the scriptures for propositional truth statements. They are missing the fact that scripture uses, as Gary Dorrien calls it, “true myth,” to impart spiritual insight. The conservative church is not content with the beautiful poems and allegories her husband brings her, but obsesses with the marriage license, reducing the relationship to hard facts. In doing so, conservatism misses the broader truths that parables and myths bring. The search for propositional truth stops short of discovering broader principals of living and applying Christ’s teachings. Instead of a developing love story the Bible becomes a rule book, a legally binding document stipulating the terms of the marriage agreement.

Don’t get me wrong, as a progressive Christian I have great respect for the Bible, but I am not married to it. I am married to Christ, and it is he whom I desire to please. The Bible is very valuable in helping us understand how to best serve God and others, but if it becomes the focus of our adoration, it becomes idolatry.

White House Correspondents Dinner: Is Civility in America Dead?

The White House Correspondents’ Dinners are usually a time of good natured fun at the expense of a current White House administration, with a tastefully concealed political barb or two thrown in the mix. Last night’s 2018 dinner was much more than that. Comedian Michelle Wolf’s comedy routine went far beyond a simple roast of the current Trump administration and ended up being a vicious character assassination of individuals in the White House who were in attendance at the dinner. If Ms. Wolf’s intentions were to garner ill feelings toward the Trump administration, I think she failed miserably. In fact, if anything she strengthened, among conservatives, the image that the mainstream news media is hopelessly elitist and liberally slanted. The mean spiritedness shown merely feeds into the Right’s sense of paranoia and sense of victimhood.

This morning’s ABC “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” guest hosted by Johnathan Karl and the ensuing “round table discussion,” confirmed my belief. The general opinion, with the exception of one panelist, was that the comedy was a low blow and not funny. The one who did not agree with the overall sentiment, defended her view by referring to the Trump administration’s hurtful actions and comments as an invitation to return bad behavior in kind. What happened to the liberal mime of “when they go low, we go high?” Out the window, it would seem.

I suspect a fair number of liberals found Wolf’s attack on Sarah Sanders’ eye makeup (as the result of her burning the truth and applying the ash of lies to her eyes) was something she got coming to her, as well as Wolf’s wishing a tree would fall on Kellyanne Conway, but these attacks only widen the rift between conservatives and liberals. Wolf’s routine was not an attempt to be funny nor to foster a feeling of accomplishment amongst the correspondents, but with Conway and Sanders sitting mere feet away from her, she had a captive audience to bully and belittle. It was embarrassing and humiliating beyond pale. She had an agenda of hate and self-promotion. 

Well, she may not have been a well known comedian before last night, but these things have a way of backfiring as we saw last year with Kathy Griffins beheaded Trump joke. People usually know the difference between humor and vitriol.

What concerns me most, and was the subject of a small survey of people on the Stephanopoulos show, was the growing anger and divide between Americans in the last decade or so, that divides friends and family. As Americans we have gotten to a point where we don’t listen at all to others, but only shout each other down. And we often do it in the most belittling and hateful ways. Technology and social media has enabled instant character assassination and the easy button to spam hateful rhetoric. I have family members who left Facebook because it just got too much. Family get togethers became increasingly more and more awkward as far politics was concerned, to the point that after last Thanksgiving we quietly requested that politics no longer be a subject of conversation at family gatherings. When strong and angry political views are present, dialogue and understanding is impossible.

And this is where we, as a nation, have arrived. One can look at a number of contributing events, and fingers can be pointed, but without a “time out,” and some introspection, it’s all just “wind and fury.” There is a lack of civility on all sides that acts as a rip-current, sucking everyone in its path out to sea. I know, because I too have been caught up in the current. As a Christian, leaning considerably to the left of many friends and family members, I have too often succumbed to a feeling of desperately trying to head off what I perceive to be the wrong direction they are heading, and end up sounding shrill or attacking. On line, in the forums, it is too easy to get caught up in the negativity and sarcastic remarks. I recognize I need to do better. 

As the church we, both liberal and conservative, have taken on the ways of the “kingdom of this world” rather than the “Kingdom of God.” Rather than speaking love and truth we end up sloganeering and jeering the “other” side. This is not Christlike. It has to stop. “Speaking the truth in love,” Ephesians 4:15, does not involve anger, bitterness, sarcasm or bullying. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” Ephesians 4:29-32.

God help us all.