Five Problems “Bible Believers” Face

The first major problem for evangelicals and other Christian fundamentalists is preliminary assumptions made about the Bible. Starting off with, the term, “THE Bible.” It is not A book, but a series of (often unrelated) letters, poems, laws, prophecies, warnings, instructions, historical propaganda, creation myth, etc). Fundamentalists largely ignore this and attempt a broad scale synthesis, forcing scripture to conform to their presuppositions about it. 

 Secondly, the “word of God,” small letter “w.” Fundamentalism, a hundred years ago, in its reaction to textual criticism, mistrust of science, the suffragette movement and desegregation, arbitrarily decided to call the Bible “inerrant” so that key verses could be pulled out of original context to combat evolution, the woman’s right to vote, and the “Negro” from equality with Whites. The result has been, as Roger E. Olson points out in his “Reformed and Always Reforming,” a church that has become stagnant and cannot reform itself any longer. Once you have nailed all your theology about God down, and it is based on inerrancy, there is nothing more to learn. Evangelicals have an exclusive corner on the TRUTH!

 Thirdly, evangelicals are thoroughly docetic, that is, scripture appears to be human but with humanity essentially strained out. The result of this is not a living series of documents that we can wrestle with and see our imperfect selves in, but a prodigious tomb of encyclopedic propositions on the nature of God.  The Bible becomes a rule book instead of a guide to the Kingdom.

 Fourthly, scripture is put on par with Christ, rather than allowing (as Jesus did in his ministry) to stand above scripture and interpret it for us. Instead of Christ-followers we have a large group who are “Bible-believers,” with the defense of an inerrant scripture taking precedence over “true religion” which is taking care of those who are marginalized and to avoid improper entanglements with “the world.” As we have seen historically, those who defend the inerrancy of scripture loudest, have been the most instrumental in marginalizing those with a different skin color, different religion or those who have a vagina and uterus. Inerrancy killed 100s of thousands in the American Civil War, all because a group of people with an inerrant text saw in the Bible the excuse to own other human beings.

 Lastly, Jesus was not, contrary to what evangelicals believe, a particularly observant Jew. His treatment of the Sabbath was scandalous, in the Sermon on the Mount, he twisted laws that hurt others, that were violent, into loving laws, something evangelicals seem to have a hard time grasping or promoting politically. The result of ignoring how Jesus replaced the Laws of Moses with the Law of Love, has been the biggest failure of evangelicalism.

Abortion: The Great Evangelical Trigger

All social constructs have their own particular interpretation of their history, their own myths. The supposed lengthy anti-abortion stance among evangelicals is one such myth, as well as the supposed abhorrence for abortion that has supposedly existed for time immemorial. Prior to 1979, most evangelical leaders viewed abortion as a “Catholic issue.” Life began at birth. The reason for the timing of the switch in 1979 coincided with increased pressure on evangelical “segregation academies,” in the American Bible Belt to desegregate or be fined and lose tax exempt status. Evangelicals seem to conveniently forget the seamy underbelly of racism that was such an integral part of much of the fundamentalist Christian background in America.

Jerry Falwell needed the support of Catholic conservatives to turn the tide of progressive social action and desegregation (he was a segregationist). Catholics had always been consistently anti contraceptive, anti abortion. Together with the fundamentalist theologian, Francis Schaeffer and Paul Weyrich a plan was concocted to launch a movement Falwell called “The Moral Majority.” By doing so, undermining desegregation and fomenting racial tension could continue largely hidden by a “righteous and noble” cause.

This is largely unknown among the evangelical faithful even though the information is readily available online and many books have addressed it. I do not doubt the sincerity of most evangelical parishioners. The tragedy is that they are being used, and have been for the past 35 years. Falwell’s plan was brilliant, as the simple mention of “abortion” is a powerful dog-whistle to those that have been brainwashed. It is a convenience relied on by evangelicals like John MacArthur, to discourage attempts at social justice while still appearing highly moral. It is the underlying reason evangelical talking heads like James Dobson use such inflammatory language as genocide, murder and infanticide…to rile up their supporters. For evangelical leadership it has always been about control.

The reasons behind the evangelical about-face on abortion may be highly suspect but they are right about one thing: both Jews and Christians have generally opposed abortion on ethical grounds. Of course, it should be noted that, for the most part, we are talking about Patriarchal societies, where women were highly controlled by men. Evangelicals will claim the Bible is unequivocally “pro-life,” but is it truly? Sanctity of life covers more than the human fetus in the womb. The intrinsic value of EVERY human life lies at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. Yet, this was not the message of large swaths of the Old Testament. This is problematic for evangelicals that claim the Bible is GOD’S WORD and inerrant in everything it claims. While God may be against abortion, that is not an easy deduction from a “flat” reading of scripture.

Much like the swordsman in Princess Bride when evangelicals claim the Bible is pro-life, they keep using that word, but I don’t think they truly know what that means. Parts that are inconvenient to the pro-life claim are glossed over, or ignored completely in favor of Bible harmonized to fit their agenda. The evangelical “flat reading” of scripture tends to result in some very questionable understandings of pro-life, such as strong support for the death penalty among evangelicals. Also lost on most evangelicals is the role poverty plays in the decision to have an abortion, and the disproportionate financial burdens draconian abortion laws place on poor Black women in America. This is due in large part because evangelicals think in terms of sin and punishment.

Then again, evangelicals are not known for nuance in their reasoning. Having an inerrant Bible, read largely literally and a history of distrusting science has led to a dangerous political climate in America and has put a great deal of women’s lives in jeopardy.

Back in 2016, after the first large Women’s March on Washington, I wondered why Pro-Life women’s groups were not listed as officially in the march, as they comprise a large group of women, and I thought, women should be allowed to iron out the differences and arrive at a reasonable compromise without men’s input, after all it’s their bodies at stake here. Silly me. Fundamentalists do not compromise. This is the danger of fundamentalism when it infiltrates the politics of a democratic nation. Dialogue ceases and progress stops.

Yet this does not address the ethical questions abortion raises, and I believe they are valid. What makes dialogue extremely difficult among Christians I have found from my own experience, is the difference between how the Bible is used and what are the underlying presuppositions about the nature of scripture itself. The pro-life inerrantist will marshal numerous quotes from early christian leaders showing the church believed abortion to be a sin. Likewise Jewish sources as well as carefully selected scriptural passages. Scripture is seen as a monolithically pro-life “rule book.” Conversation grinds to a halt when I explain that I do not follow scripture, but instead follow Jesus Christ. To a Biblican this is heresy. Let me be clear, the average evangelical “follows” the Bible, and because the Bible is unevenly “pro-life,” we end up with a group of people claiming to follow Christ that end up supporting the same man Neo Nazis do. There is a deep incongruity that results from treating the Bible as a rule book rather than a guide leading us to Christ.

So rather than ask the difficult questions of how to reduce unwanted pregnancies and how to prevent the need for abortions, evangelical pro-life leadership attempt to push laws outlawing abortion. Draconian measures to force women to bear children, even in the instances of rape for example. Obsession over sexual activities before marriage lead to ineffectual purity culture and sexual abstinence teaching as a birth control method. 

So, what we have ended up with in the current political crisis in American is a rather large group of citizens that is easily controlled and directed primarily by one “trigger.” “Vote pro-life” becomes the only qualification a candidate needs to meet to garner the evangelical vote. It covers a multitude of sins. This type of reductionist reasoning has had disastrous results for both the church in America and for our country.

Further reading:

https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/05/religious-right-real-origins-107133

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/slacktivist/2012/02/18/the-biblical-view-thats-younger-than-the-happy-meal/

https://newrepublic.com/article/140961/amazing-disgrace-donald-trump-hijacked-religious-right

https://www.huffpost.com/entry/why-evangelicals-hate-jes_b_830237

“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

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!