Sunday, July 06, 2014

Second Anniversary Book Offer!

2nd Anniversary of Book Offer! Get a free hard copy of my book, Confessions of a Bible Thumper--my illuminating journey (with a craft beer theme) out of conservative Christianity that carefully debunks traditional views on the Bible, church, gays, the "end times," hell, Christian America, and more.

AMAZON REVIEWS: "A very thoughtful and much-needed book." "Really makes you think." "Compelling..." "Well-researched" "This is a book that has reached it's time. A great example of what happens when people truly pursue God."

Learn why Marcus Borg, Tony Campolo, Frank Schaeffer, and Mel White endorse this book! Free copy to those who agree to review it (positive or negative) on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powell's, or your blog. First 20 to email me get free copy, including shipping. Contact michaelwcamp@comcast.net with physical address (My apologies, I can't take requests outside the U.S) and indicate place you will review. Visit MichaelCampBooks for videos & endorsements. Cheers and enjoy!

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Myth #2: Jesus Founded Christianity and the Church

In the first myth on the list, we saw how Jesus, historically speaking, was not a "Christian," but a Jewish wisdom Teacher and "Anointed One" who came to reform first-century Judaism and open up a new way to connect with God (that welcomed non-Jews), based on love and the testimony of the Jewish prophets and writings. From this, we can see that, since Jesus was not a Christian, he did not found a new religion called "Christianity."

In reality, Jesus was against religion, all religion, Jewish or otherwise. In his movement, there were no sacred priests, pastors, places, or proscribed religious practices (only love was its guide).[1] In Christianity, all this came later (Frank Viola, Pagan Christianity). Jesus announced that the Jewish Temple, along with its Priests and sacrificial system, was about to become unnecessary. It would be destroyed and a new way of worship was coming, and had come, where it didn't matter what place people worshiped, but only the state of one's heart. (John 4:21-24). Jesus did not come to replace the Temple with a new Christian system, but to instill what Garry Wills calls "a religion of the heart." (Wills, What Jesus Meant, page 76).

Jesus didn't found a church. The word translated "church," ekklesia, merely means a gathering of people. The same word is used to describe a mob in Acts. Jesus and other New Testament writers describe gatherings of people that were non-hierarchical. They met in homes not church buildings. They were not led by pastors or apostles ('apostles' means ones who are sent, and could include women), let alone professional clergy, but either were self-regulating or facilitated by a egalitarian plurality of elders--unpaid, non-professionals. Where two or more are gathered in the name of Jesus, Jesus said, he is present. This is the meaning of the original "church." The notion that Jesus founded a Church on Peter or otherwise and/or began an apostolic succession is a myth that began centuries later (see Wills, What Jesus Meant and Robin Meyer, The Underground Church). The practice of assigning bishops did not begin until the second century. All the other church practices we know of from buildings, to altars, to choirs, to worship teams, to sermons, to statements of faith, etc., arose in the centuries after Christ (see Viola).

No, Jesus did not found a new religion called Christianity, nor a new institution called Church to replace the Temple or synagogue system. He came to demonstrate the love of God and announce that "the reign of God" (misleadingly translated 'Kingdom of God') had arrived and would be growing--and in a way that would welcome and include all people and not be proscribed through a religious system. So, why do we have churches, denominations, professional clergy, church planting, and a mentality that Christianity is a religion began in the first century?

[1] Many demonstrate historically that things like communion were instilled later. The "Lord's meal" was merely a Jewish custom that Jesus said "as often as you eat it it, remember me" and didn't proscribe a schedule for it nor command it. As for baptism, that appears to mirror the Jewish custom of ritual cleansing and many argue it was not technically a legalistic prerequisite for conversion or salvation that it has become. 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Walking the Religion-free Path of Christ

Wild Goose Festival 2014 | June 26-29 | Hot Springs, NC

A few months ago I submitted the following speaking proposal to the Wild Goose Festival. They had over 300 submissions this year! Unfortunately for me, I was not chosen. Fortunately for you, there will be plenty of incredible speakers more accomplished than myself, including Sara Miles, Mark Scandrette, Brian McLaren, Melvin Bray, Jim Wallis, and Frank Schaeffer. This year’s theme "Living Liberation!" explores how our walk with Christ can lead beyond our legacies of racism, sexism, homophobia, colonialism, and economic inequalities. Check out the speakers and musicians lists and consider going. Although I won't be attending this year, I have gone three times and have always been blessed and encouraged. The fellowship with like-minded folks in the beer tent is worth the price of admission! The blurb below includes some of what I've been involved in lately. Cheers!

Walking the Religion-free Path of Christ 

Former evangelical missionary to African Muslims and author of Confessions of a Bible Thumper, Michael Camp uncovers the critical importance of historical rather than “biblicist” faith in “The Religion-Free Path of Christ: Walking an Old Paradox in a New Paradigm.” He gives examples how ignorance of history and misreading the Bible have caused erroneous views on women, homosexuality, the church, evangelism, and the future, and offers a vision for religion-free but Christ-centered world service that fosters love, goodwill, and social justice. Michael co-leads a Seattle-based missional house gathering, facilitates theological discussions in pubs, and serves Rotary International on community development and microfinance projects empowering the poor in Africa based in a club in Bainbridge Island, WA.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Myth #1: Jesus Was a Christian


[Part of series, 36 "Christian" and Secular Myths You Should Know]

Most people make this common and unexamined assumption that Jesus Christ was what we call a “Christian” and, in fact, the very first Christian, the one for which the religion was named. Travel back into the first century, however, step into the sandals of anyone who knew or encountered Jesus of Nazareth and you will realize how untrue this is.[1]  As history, the New Testament, and other sacred texts attest,[2] Jesus was a Jewish teacher or Rabbi living in first-century Palestine who closely followed the tenets and traditions of the Jewish prophets and law. The difference was, not that he represented a new faith, but that he brought a revolutionary way of interpreting an existing faith—pre-rabbinic Judaism of the first century.

His way was to interpret the Torah in light of its very own love ethic, making love the priority over law, while closely following the voices of the Jewish prophets. These were reforming prophets who identified corruption within the Temple sacrificial system, foresaw its demise, and announced a future new covenant between God and the descendants of Abraham. Jesus followed their lead with his own authority and called for the original purpose of the Jewish community—to be a light to draw Gentiles (non-Jews) to the one true God of justice and love. Jesus was not a Christian. He was a Jew calling for radical reform of the Jewish faith while opening the doors for non-Jews to enter into relationship with God in the spirit of a new Jewish covenant that made the Jerusalem Temple system obsolete. His first followers were all Jews. They believed he was the “anointed one” (the meaning of ‘Christ’) whom the prophets had foretold, not someone who would abolish Judaism and begin a new religion, but someone who would reform it.   



[1] What Jesus Meant, by Garry Wills
[2] Did Jesus Exist? by Bart Ehrman

Monday, March 31, 2014

36 Modern “Christian” and Secular Myths You Should Know

Yes, I believe all of these are myths, in one way or the other, either as specific assertions or as blanket statements. At least, I will attempt to make the case that they are, based on biblical, historical, linguistic, archeological, and, in some cases, scientific evidence. Think about each one and see if some of them surprise you in light of others. Stay tuned for a blog post on each.



1 - Jesus was a Christian
2 - Jesus Founded Christianity and the Church
3 - America is a Christian Nation
4 - Jesus is a Myth
5 - Jesus is Irrelevant
6 - The Bible is Infallible
7 - We Should Obey the Bible
8 - The Bible is Altogether Unreliable
9 - English Translations of the Bible are Trustworthy
10 - The Bible Has No Spiritual Authority
11 - The “Kingdom of Heaven” is About the Afterlife
12 - Jesus Predicted the End of the World
13 - The End Will Come When the Gospel is Preached to the Remaining Unreached Ethno Linguistic Groups of the World
14 - Jesus is Coming Back
15 - Only Christians are Saved
16 - Atheists are Evil
17 - You Deserve to Go to Hell
18 - Jesus Took the Punishment for Our Sins
19 - Jesus Taught a Literal Hell
20 - Universalism Means God Won't Judge Us
21 - Paul Was a Misogynist
22 - There Were No Women Leaders in the New Testament
23 - Monogamous Heterosexual Marriage is God’s Standard
24 - God Condemns Homosexuality
25 - Sex Outside Marriage is Always a Sin
26 - Sex is Not a Moral Concern
27 - Science Has Proved There is No God
28 - Progressive and Liberal Christians Are Heretics
29 - Conservative Christians are Bigots and Religious Nutcases
30 - God Commands that Believers Belong to a Local Church
31 - Believers Should Tithe to a Local Church
32 - All Religions are the Same
33 - All Religions Besides Christianity are False
34 - God Hates Divorce
35 - Evolution is Not Biblical
36 - Intelligent Design is Not Science

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

VIDEO: 9 Theological Ideas You Should Question and Why - Part I


Have you ever questioned theological views of yours or others' faith tradition? Have you ever wondered if there is more to it than what pastors and religious leaders teach? Then listen to my "9 Theological Ideas You Should Question and Why" video based on my own journey coming out of evangelicalism into a faith more closely based on the biblical and historical evidence. In Part I, you'll get a glimpse of why you should question:

1) The Infallibility of the Bible - neither worship it nor trash it.
2) The Bible as a Self-Evident Rulebook - learn a more responsible way of using it.
3) The Modern Concept of Church - history teaches us "church" is not what most think it is.
4) The Notion of the "End Times" - where the "last days" really belong.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

A Challenge to a Literalist View of the Bible

There are two things that must be said in challenge to literalism. One, if you believe every word of the Bible is true, then you are obligated to rethink certain issues in light of biblical evidence. For example, salvation, in light of evidence that reveals the original Greek language of the NT does not teach the doctrine of everlasting damnation but rather teaches what some call "Christian Universalism," and the fact that many if not most of the early church fathers also held this view. This is part of the historical record for anyone to see if they look carefully enough. 

There are of course many other issues as well that demand attention because of misreadings stemming from the literalist community's practice of lazy biblical interpretation that is not true to the original language and culture of the Bible, e.g. the need to rethink the church, homosexuality, the end times, etc. If one believes the whole Bible is true then make it the original words and historical context that you believe, not later traditions, mistranslations, or misinterpretations. Be sure your Bible belief is on a firm foundation.

The second challenge is that a literalist viewpoint is tantamount to worshiping the Bible, not God. The Bible never claims we should view it the way literalists do. It never claims to be inerrant and the early church never used the NT as such. Literalists go beyond the original intent of Jesus, Paul, and the earliest church. If you believe the Bible is all true, you must go beyond the pat answers and proof texts and go straight to the original language and historical setting when addressing contentious issues. If this is not done, it's using the Bible irresponsibly. 

If in the course of this examination it becomes evident that the Bible is not all 100% factually true, the question is, Then what in the Bible can we trust? It must be hit home that there's plenty to trust in a fallible Bible, written by humans who claim to have encountered God, just as there's plenty to trust in any fallible historical manuscript. Just as historians use tools of historical evidence, authenticity, archeology, logic, etc., people of faith can use their minds, spiritual discernment, common sense, and historical & biblical evidence to ascertain what's trustworthy in the Bible. We won't all agree on details and some things will remain a mystery, but there are many things we are bound to agree on. For example, the love ethic of Christ, the new way of relating to God and humankind through the lens of love not the written code, that runs as a powerful theme throughout the NT. A theme that says Love for neighbor, not religious affiliation or believing the exact right doctrines, fulfills what God desires.

What can one trust in the scriptures? We trust the overall themes, the conclusions, the overall message of the Jesus Movement (as portrayed in the NT and other historical commentary), not assigning equal absolute authority and certainty to every individual word, verse, or passage. We draw out a message from the pattern and conclusions the biblical/historical record comes to (the Gospels, Pauls' letters, and historical evidence that reinforces the NT or highlights reasons to suspect parts of it). That kind of trust in holy writings is a more genuine faith. It respects the mystery of God's revelation and calls for a responsible use of a set of historical writings from which we can learn an inspired message, rather than insisting on a strict, adherence to an "infallible" text, or else. The former leads to unity, not uniformity, as readers major on what really counts: love, trust, and hope. The latter leads to division, as readers focus on whose interpretation is the absolute correct and infallible one and judge others who disagree.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Why Christians Should Thank Bart Ehrman

As I shared in my book, Confessions of a Bible Thumper, my spiritual evolution drove  me to a place where I began to view the Bible differently; not as an inerrant, wholly-Divine , unified book, but  as a human collection of writings that, in my mind, still had telltale signs that Divine fingerprints were on it. It wasn’t the infallible Word of God throughout anymore. But it also wasn’t altogether a myth or nowhere inspired. It had inherent problems, yet still contained the Logos (rationality, reason) of God in many narratives, passages, and themes. Suddenly, the Bible became “possible,” not “impossible.” Author Bart Ehrman helped me make this transition.

I call this moving from a devotional approach to the Bible (not always bad) to an historical-critical approach. When I looked at the Bible only devotionally, I was forced to ignore the contradictions and inherent problems I saw within its pages. But I wasn’t being biblically and intellectually honest. When I learned how to look at it historically and critically, I could finally reconcile being honest (about what I read and studied in the Bible) with my faith in Christ.  For me, when people only look at the Bible devotionally, with no deep questions about its origins and inspiration, they can’t have a wholly genuine faith. Authentic faith only comes when we are intellectually honest about our doubts and misgivings. It also only comes when there’s a desire to find the original intention of Jesus and his earliest followers, or else one’s faith rests on later human tradition.

Many Christians fear Bart Ehrman because he has written
several books that challenge the traditional view of the Bible, Jesus, and Christianity. (By the way, this is a pathology soon to be categorized in modern psychology as “Fear of Bart” or “Bartophobia”). They think embracing his views will cause people to lose their faith. After all, Bart Ehrman, a former evangelical, is now an agnostic. These people forget one very important point. Bart Ehrman never claims historical criticism of the Bible logically leads to agnosticism.  “It did not lead me to become an agnostic,” he confesses. He continues: “My personal view is that a historical-critical approach to the Bible does not necessarily lead to agnosticism or atheism. It can in fact lead to a more intelligent and thoughtful faith.”[1] In truth, he admits many of his scholar colleagues, who also agree with most of what he reveals in his books, are still strong believers. Ehrman’s agnosticism didn’t come from studying biblical origins, but from a separate philosophical problem: how to reconcile faith with “the powerful reality of human suffering in the world.”
Historical criticism of the Bible has led me and others to a more reasoned faith and it can do so for Christians who fear the implications of reading a critic like Ehrman.  Bart Ehrman has done Christians a great service. He has opened the door that most conservative theologians and pastors (many of whom learned the logic and reason of the historical-critical approach in seminary but were afraid to share it for fear of confusing their audiences) have kept closed for too long. This is a door to an intellectually-satisfying and therefore more genuine faith. Not one that is one hundred percent certain about everything because “the Bible says so,” but one that follows where the historical, cultural, and linguistic evidence leads and finds much to trust about the Path of Christ without  insisting everyone believe the same thing. Thanks Bart Ehrman, for opening that door and helping many of us to walk through it. And, thanks for being intellectually honest in the way you have defended the historicity of Jesus in Did Jesus Exist?

What are your thoughts on Bart Ehrman? Do share your opinions, pro or con.




[1] Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus Interrupted,  pages 272-273.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

VIDEO: A Slightly Irreverent Spiritual Journey - Why I Wrote "Confessions"

video
I invite you to watch my latest video on one of the major reasons I wrote Confessions of a Bible Thumper: to reveal a pursuit of a fact-based way of looking at faith and help readers get closer to the original message of Jesus and the earliest Jesus Movement. When one follows where the historical and biblical evidence leads, it supports the notion that many traditional theological doctrines are in error. In a future video series, I'll share the nine theological positions that I address in the book and why they should be questioned.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Why It’s Good to Rethink Our Faith

Note: After, hearing feedback from the UCC Church, I revised my message for this topic, rather than focusing exclusively on sacred texts (last post). What do you think about rethinking ones’ faith?

Abridged version of my message to UCC Church of the Manger in Bethlehem, PA, August 2013:

I want to take you on a journey of rethinking faith. I’ll share how I had to do that, why I believe it’s good to do, and encourage you to do the same. You see, I thought I had arrived at the station. The movement I was a part of (evangelicalism) had figured most everything out. But I still had nagging doubts. Are we really right about the doctrine of hell? The gay issue? How we practice the institution of church? How we proof-text everything in the Bible? Is the Return of Christ really at hand? I saw contradictions in the Bible. Doesn’t anyone else see them? The pat answers I heard didn’t work for me.

I also saw the fruit of the status quo: Fundamentalist mindsets, wooden literalism about the Bible, wild proclamations about the end times, legalistic churches, spiritual abuse in certain conservative churches, gays and lesbians treated like broken toys that need to be fixed, and gender inequality, to name a few. So I began a journey into the world of forbidden questions. Why should we rethink our faith? I discovered three reasons:

1 – We may have unwarranted assumptions

Like the three blind men who touched different parts of an elephant and thus each defined it differently because of the assumptions they held, we can assume one thing is true when it isn’t. Only when we have a “paradigm shift” and see the whole picture, do we get closer to the truth.

Example: I had a genuine spiritual experience connecting to Christ but then assumed the tradition I joined had historically and culturally accurate interpretations of the Bible, salvation, the end times, etc. One example is the view of original sin and the atonement. It wasn’t until I discovered the Eastern Orthodox view of sin and salvation that I realized my tradition—evangelicalism—had an interpretation based on Augustine’s theology and there was a whole history and tradition of Christianity that had an alternate view that makes more sense and is more consistent with the teaching of the NT. Eastern Christians, who trace their traditions back well before Augustine, have very different notions of how to view the Bible, original sin, atonement, and salvation than traditional Protestant, Reformation, and Catholic views.

Lesson: We need to come to the Bible—the source of much of our theology—with a clean slate, without assumptions, and with a broad knowledge of history, culture, and original language. Most of us don’t, reading it with a lens of assumptions we learn from our tradition that may or may not be accurate.

2 – We or our teachers may not have all the facts

One day while learning the Somali language in the 1980s in East Africa, I approached three different people with the customary greeting, “How’s your soul?” They all three burst into laughter. Turns out, I mispronounced one word. Rather than asking how their soul was, I had said “How’s your diesel fuel?” When we don’t have all the facts, we inevitably mispronounce, misread, misinterpret, and/or mistranslate the Bible and history.

Example: See the earlier post on this topic to see a list of facts I learned about the Bible that are essential to deciding how we should view and use it.

Lesson: These facts lead one to conclude that the Bible is not a uniform, universally applicable Rulebook or Instruction Manual. When we take the Bible on its own terms, in historical context, in light of how it was compiled, copied, and translated, we learn it never claims to have as much authority most people give it. It is still reliable, because much of it is verifiable history and full of timeless wisdom. But it is not infallible. We should take the Bible seriously, but not always literally. Not everything has equal weight. Discernment is needed. This fits Paul’s teaching: The new Way is to be led by the Spirit and not by the written code. Scriptural principles and grand themes and conclusions supersede instructions regarding specific first-century issues. Jesus and Paul sum up the Scriptures: Love is the only Law. In fact, we are released from the Law, as Paul concludes, and from a law-based approach to God. Hence, we should refrain from using the OT or NT like a book of timeless axioms.
 
3 – Rethinking our faith can lead to walking closer to the original Path of Christ

Finally, as we rethink our faith, we often discover we actually get closer to what Jesus, Paul, and others meant in their original context. We become more solidly grounded on the original Path of Christ.

Example: Did Christ really teach there is such a thing as eternal damnation? Revisiting that question has led many to conclude the answer is “No.” There are serious mistranslation issues with the terms “hell” and “eternal punishment.” Many early church fathers and leaders throughout history believed and taught the “universal reconciliation” of all humankind—that all eventually would be reconciled to God through Christ—without circumventing God’s judgment on sin and evil. (Within evangelicalism, I was totally blind to this fact and the facts cited about the Bible).

Lesson: Learn what historical figures and movements have taught about controversial doctrines. You’ll discover that some were harsher than we thought and others were more progressive. For example, when researching the history of Bethlehem, PA [the town where I gave this message], I discovered Peter Bohler, a Moravian leader and founder of Bethlehem and Nazareth, PA in the 1740s. Universalist tendencies were not unknown among Moravians and Böhler himself believed in the universal reconciliation of all people. Böhler believed that the grace of Christ was so compelling that it would eventually win all hearts!

Conclusion: Why rethink our faith? We never know what we will learn. We just might discover a whole new and encouraging way to look at the world.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Rethinking Sacred Texts

This is a 7 minute  speech I'm giving to my Toastmasters group next week. It's pracitce for a part of a larger talk I'm giving to a United Church of Christ congregation in Bethlehem, PA on August 4th.
______________________________________

Thank you for inviting me to speak. I want to take you on a journey today. As you are familiar with my book, you know I came to a crossroads in my Christian experience,  where I began to question some long-held traditional beliefs, did some research, and began to change many of my viewpoints. Today, I’ll share an important leg of my spiritual evolution—how I came to rethink what sacred texts are.
First, what do I mean by sacred texts? Well, the Bible of course, but also other documents less familiar to most of us. Has anyone heard of the Gospel of Mattathias, Gospel of the Egyptians, I Letter of Clement, Letter of Barnabas, The Shepard of Hermes, or the Wisdom of Solomon? Most people haven’t. But these are all books that either a prominent church father or the early church accepted as part of the Bible!

When I was in the evangelical tradition, I was taught there were only two ways to look at the Bible.
1 – The [conservative] “correct” way - a uniform, infallible, authoritative, clear set of rules for humankind. An instruction manual. Submit to scripture. Obey the Word of God.

2 – The liberal way - contains many historically inaccurate accounts and is largely unreliable and irrelevant for the modern world. Yes, read the Bible as great literature. But it doesn’t hold real answers to the questions of life.  
One of my main discoveries is history teaches us both of these views are wrong. There’s a middle way that is more true to the evidence. The first place that points us to this middle way is the historical record of where the Bible came from. Let’s examine some facts. Imagine that I’m tacking these facts on a board and later we’ll tie them together.

·        The NT was not dropped from the sky in its entirety – it is a collection of books that took years to compile and there was substantial disagreement about it.

·        The first complete, uniform, recognized listing of the NT wasn’t until 363 AD and it didn't include Revelation, which wasn’t accepted until 397 AD.

·        The four gospels were written 30-60 years after Jesus. Paul’s letters were written 15-33 years after Jesus. The first followers relied on oral tradition, not scripture, for the Jesus story. For decades, even centuries, there was no NT in its modern form.

·       The Bible of the early church was the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the OT which included the Apocrypha, 11 books that Protestants don’t accept. 

·        There were many gospels besides the four – e.g. Hebrews, Egyptians, Peter, Thomas; some thought to be forgeries, some not.

·        The respected church father Clement of Alexandria had a 2nd century NT that included many books that never made it into the NT.

·        Revelation was never fully accepted by the Eastern Church (today, it's not used in liturgy); it was rejected by many church fathers.

·        Luther advocated that the NT should be graded, some books more inspired than others. He thought Hebrews, James, and Revelation should be secondary.

·        The Bible we have was copied over and over. There’s strong evidence that some NT passages were inserted by copyists to reinforce a theological bias.

·        Scholars and historians have found errors in the NT (and the NT never claims it is inerrant); but most of them are immaterial; however, a few aren’t.

·        There are good reasons why some of the other sacred texts were not included in our Bibles; e.g. bizarre teachings and forgeries; but the Bible itself has bizarre teachings, e.g. women can’t speak in church and the Jesus-like-he's-on-acid book of Revelation. Also, a consensus of scholars say I & II Timothy and Titus are inauthentic.  

·        There are good reasons many books were included, e.g. Jesus’ and Paul’s sound, timeless, egalitarian, teaching on love, forgiveness, and community that revolutionized Jewish and Roman society.

Conclusion: Now, let’s tie these facts together. What can we conclude? Perhaps you’ll agree with me, that these facts show it's better to hold the Bible more loosely in terms of it being a universally applicable, uniform message from God. Don’t grip it so tightly. Come to respect it more, not less, as we see both the wisdom of God within its pages and the human element in its formation… and that the early church, although they generally agreed on some of the books, often accepted books that are not in it and questioned books that are. The New Testament is not always internally consistent and wasn't considered infallible.

This "lighter" approach is taking the Bible and other sacred texts more seriously, in historical context, albeit not always literally. When we do that, we can look past the dross and find the gems of the Bible—the principles that teach us about what God is like and how to live our lives; but not in a legalistic way, but a way that is consistent with how the Bible was compiled and copied and what it teaches in its historical/cultural context.
In summary, these list of facts I shared influenced me to rethink how one should view sacred texts and come to a new conclusion: that there is a middle way, between a conservative and liberal position, to view the Bible, that is more true to history.   

Saturday, May 04, 2013

6 New Paradigms Essential for Convergence Christianity - Part II, the "Church"














In Part I, I suggested “Convergence Christianity” (defined as the merging of progressive Evangelicals and progressive Catholics/Orthodox with missional Mainliners) needs to articulate a new paradigm for the Bible. I called that an “historical approach to the Bible.” I actually think a better name is an “historical-critical-contextual”approach. I’m suggesting we need to unpack the oft-said phrase “we take the Bible seriously, but not literally” and put it in better focus. An historical-critical-contextual approach to the Bible lets go of the inerrancy claim but is more than “letting go of the literal,” for when we talk about history, we are looking for events that are literally true, that aren’t myths. We recognize metaphors and cosmic imagery in biblical teaching (and the limits to what is called the Word of God) but we also look for historical evidence to inform our faith. For the Path of Christ is an historical Path, and when our faith communities, doctrines, beliefs, and practices, contradict sound historical evidence, we have left the Path. I make the case that, with some notable exceptions, Evangelicalism has done just that. Progressive can’t afford to do the same.

Part II is about letting go of the modern notion of “church.” Frank Viola reveals in Pagan Christianity (also see Was Church God’s Idea?) that the original Path of Christ did not have faithful communities that look anything like our modern churches. Church or “ekklesia” in the Greek, were simply gatherings of believers or what they called “followers of the Way.” Today, churches are patterned more after modern corporations than simple gatherings of the faithful. We have a professional class of pastors and missionaries. We have a clergy-laity distinction no matter how much some churches try to deny it. We have church leaders with authority over others. We have a system of “tithing” to meet its financial obligations (mostly for salaries and facilities), even though it wasn’t practiced in the earliest gatherings. We have myriad denominations claiming to have the correct doctrine. Fundamentalists have a gender divide denying women their right to take leadership roles. “Church planting,” with the definition of “church” being a modern, professionals-driven, tithing-dependent, hierarchical institution has become the method for extending the kingdom of God. The trouble is, as much as people are free to establish modern churches (but not free to impose them on others as the only way to have Christian community), none of it was practiced by the earliest faith gatherings.

Convergence Christianity needs a new paradigm for faith communities that is informed by history and unbound by church walls and institutions. One where gatherings of followers of the Path can be truly inclusive. Where doctrines or even Christian conversion, as important as those might be, is not the foundation or the driving force of the community, but rather simply love for God and neighbor. Where the Golden Rule rules and is the only non-negotiable. Where, as a result, gays and lesbians are truly welcome. Where customs are derived from original traditions, like sharing a meal together and remembering Jesus’ sacrificial life (that got lost to an almost empty practice we now call communion). Where there is no need for a professional class—although people are free to develop one; this can’t be legalistic, but it’s optional; and moreover, no need for facilities but where homes, and coffee houses, and pubs, and taverns suffice.

I’ve envisioned gatherings of followers of Christ’s Way of love that are centered on making the world a better place—extending Christ’s call to love the needy and oppressed. Where local gatherings choose a calling to focus on, a social-justice issue, such as fighting sex trafficking, homelessness, global poverty, supporting microfinance programs in developing nations, jobs creation, caring for the depressed and mentally ill, working for prison reform, mentoring youth, or practicing creation care. The possibilities are endless. Some gatherings will stay small and local. Some will link with existing social-justice nonprofits. Others will grow, but rather than building a religious empire, they’ll form their own nonprofit organization to fulfill their mission in a broader more practical way.

How do you see this new paradigm? How will a reformation of our modern “church system” look to you? Where is it happening already? Comments needed and welcome!

Monday, April 08, 2013

Local Microbrew Celebrates Author Camp’s New Book!

If you're in the Seattle area, do stop by next Saturday for the launch of "Confessions Ale" at Valholl Brewing, Poulsbo, a specialty ale crafted by Jeff Holcomb (on right in photo) in honor of the book. Just a short ferry ride from downtown to Bainbridge Island and short drive to this beautiful Norwegian town. Here's the details. Hope to see you there!

Article in North Kitsap Herald

Beer Launch and Author Event
Saturday, April 13,  2013
6 PM to 9 PM
Valholl Brewing, 360-930-0172
18970 3rd Avenue NE, Poulsbo, WA

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Is Your Church Guilty of Spiritual Abuse? Check the Top Ten Signs

Don't underestimate the danger of spiritual
abuse. It devastates one's pysche, causes
depression and post traumatic stress disorder,
and leaves victims spiritually barren.  
Spiritual abuse: When those in spiritual authority manipulate, intimidate, and control others out of lust for power or fear of sin or insignificance. One or more of these signs doesn’t necessarily mean abuse is present, but the more signs, the more likely it is taking place.

Spiritual abuse is a stain on the body of Christ (I experienced it and write about it in my book). Today, many American churches and denominations are susceptible to it, particularly “reformed” Calvinistic churches or those with a highly disciplined authority structure. I cite examples from my experience including Sovereign Grace Ministries and Calvary Chapel. But spiritual abuse is also subtle and not easily recognizable unless one knows the signs. Learn these top ten signs so you can detect, expose, and help prevent abuse in your Christian community.

1 – Your pastor has an authoritative style of leadership. Churches that abuse typically have one controlling leader whose personality and ideas dominate church sermons, teaching, and decisions. He gathers elders and other pastors around him who submit unquestioningly to his authority. Members and other leaders are not encouraged to think and develop independent of his influence. Signs: (1) Lead pastor’s Sunday sermon is streamed via video to satellite churches. (2) The polity of the church is such that the lead pastor or pastors are shielded from real accountability. (3) There’s a strong focus on members submitting to their leaders and lower leaders submitting to higher leaders. Jesus never organized a hierarchy but told people to be servants. Paul’s form of biblical eldership was based on equality not submission.

2 – You are expected to commit to rigid rules for church membership and submit to church leaders’ authority. Despite no biblical mandate for formal church commitment or ecclesiastical authority in Scripture, spiritually abusive churches push a rigid form of membership and submission to church leaders as obedience to God. A hierarchy develops of members submitting to group leaders to elders to pastors to an executive board, which is controlled by the founder or lead pastor. Signs: (1) Members are required to sign a contract or agreement with strict rules for doctrinal beliefs and behavior. (2) A church discipline process is spelled out in detail that members must agree to.

3 – The church has a very wide view of what’s considered non-negotiable doctrines and behaviors and a very narrow view of what’s considered negotiable. Rather than making Christ’s one law of love for God and neighbor as the most important characteristic of a believer, belief in the right doctrines and certain religious behaviors becomes the main measuring stick for Christian maturity. Signs: There’s a lot of church documentation and teaching on correct doctrine.

4 – Any expression of concern about church decisions, teachings, or behavior of leaders is interpreted as disloyalty or sin. When a member or leader questions or challenges the status quo, they become suspect of being disloyal, told to submit, and even manipulated to do so. If they don’t, they are forced out. Signs: The history of the church or denomination includes leaders and members being fired or leaving under less-than-peaceful circumstances.

5 – The church deflects tough questions about their faith and doctrine. Only safe questions are allowed. There’s a veneer of openness but the bottom line is people are told not to be divisive about church doctrine. Pushed too far, sincere, reasonable questions are shut down in the name of unity. But biblical unity is not about creating uniformity. It’s about loving one another. Signs: Members are not encouraged to accept and explore their doubts but rather submit to what the church says is “orthodox” teaching.

6 – Church discipline is overdone and over taught in the church. Leaders will deny this by pointing to the percentage of discipline cases. But you need to measure the threat of discipline as well and how it’s done. Spiritual abuse happens when the interpretation of Matthew 18 and other Scriptures is very narrow and goes beyond what is stated or what can be reasonably applied to a contemporary situation. Signs: (1) There’s a long document about church discipline policy. (2) There is no appeals process for someone accused. (3) Members suspected of needing church discipline, or who are subject to it, must sit through lots of long meetings with leaders. (4) Shunning the accused is common when someone is deemed unrepentant or chooses to leave the church. Identifying “sin” and real “repentance” can become highly subjective and the church ends up shunning people for minor offenses (disagreeing with leadership or doctrine or what constitutes moral behavior) and rejecting people who have repented but haven’t jumped through sufficient hoops (e.g. signing a “discipline contract”).

7 – Your church and/or denomination has ex-member websites with stories of spiritual abuse. It’s one thing if a few disgruntled ex-members complain, but when a large number of people come out with stories about spiritual abuse, and are willing to post their stories, it’s a huge red flag. Especially when the stories reflect a pattern of misuse of authority, manipulation, and doing damage control to protect the reputation of the church. (See sample list of ex-member websites below).

8 – The church has a very strict definition of gossip. When members have concerns about the church or strains with relationships, they are expected to keep their thoughts to themselves. Signs: Any sharing of negative experiences in relationships, even if it’s healthy venting to a close friend, is perceived as sinful gossip.

9 – The church interprets Bible verses on women in submission to the nth degree. Women are expected to submit to their husbands. Paul’s teachings on women are rigidly and unevenly interpreted—e.g. wives are reprimanded for being unsubmissive but husbands are rarely reprimanded for not loving their wives like Christ and never for not submitting to their wives (Ephesians 5:21 tells believers to “Submit to one another”!! ). Signs: (1) Some churches teach husbands to monitor their wives communications, e.g. email. (2) The debate about women’s roles in the church is not up for discussion despite many alternative biblical interpretations, even in conservative churches, e.g. Four Square, Vineyard, and Evangelical Covenant churches allow women in leadership.

10 – A church deals with cases of sexual abuse in ways that serve the interest of the church not the interest of the victims and their families. When a member of the church is sexually abused by another member, rather than following the law and best practices (reporting it to local police and social services), a church will keep the abuse quiet under the guise of handling it “biblically.” Victims are forced to “forgive” their abusers and remain in their social sphere with no protection from post-traumatic stress and future abuse. Abusers are protected from local authorities and social stigma while victims and families are forced to remain silent about their pain, even to close friends, in the name of squelching “gossip.” Signs: People are familiar with this happening in the Catholic Church but it’s also common in Protestant churches. E.g., in 2012, a lawsuit was filed against several Sovereign Grace Ministries churches, the co-founders, and other leaders claiming cover up of child sexual abuse.

What should you do if you think spiritual abuse is taking place at your church? There is no set answer to this question, as it depends on the situation in the church. People should leave highly abusive churches and don’t look back or feel guilty. If spiritual abuse is not entrenched and it’s only in isolated cases, you should consider approaching a trusted leader in the church with your concern. How they respond will to tell you to what extent it is prevalent or if they desire to stop it from spreading. If they don’t acknowledge a problem and use abusive techniques like 2, 4, 5, & 8 above, it’s probably a highly abusive church and you should leave and consider warning others.

Have you seen other signs? Are there other ex-member groups we can add to this list? Please comment and add your thoughts and experiences with spiritual abuse.

Helpful Resources:
Spiritual Sounding Board – a blog that exposes spiritual abuse and encourages the abused
Abuse Resource Network – information on both sexual and spiritual abuse for Christians
Provender – a clearinghouse of sources on spiritual abuse
The Wartburg Watch – Dissecting Christian trends including spiritual abuse

Ex-member Sites:
Mars Hill Refuge
Joyful Exiles (Mars Hill Church)
SGM Survivors (Sovereign Grace Ministries/People of Destiny)
SGM Refuge
Calvary Chapel Abuse

Books:
Toxic Faith by Stephen Arteburn and Jack Felton (classic from early 1990s; one of first to uncover the problem in run-of-the-mill churches)
Churches that Abuse by Ron Enroth
Recovering from Churches that Abuse by Ron Enroth
The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by David Johnson and Jeff Van Vonderen
Spiritual Abuse Recovery by Barb Orlowski

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Problem of Love: A Beautiful Mystery - Movie Review of The Impossible

I don’t do movie reviews. That is, until I saw The Impossible, an intense realistic film based on a true story about a European family vacationing in Thailand. On the day after Christmas 2004, they are ripped apart by the Indian Ocean Tsunami that struck Southeast Asia. Don’t consider this your average catastrophe movie. It is so much more. A gargantuan wall of water the likes of Niagara wreaking havoc on unsuspecting tourists? Yes. Physical, emotional, and mental survival in the face of frightening events? Yes. Incredibly acted by a less-than-star-studded cast? Yes (As brilliant as Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts are, they are equally matched by three children, particularly young Tom Holland’s debut as the oldest son). But what really makes this movie is the underlying message: despite an epic natural disaster the likes of which most of us, thankfully, will never experience (a non-man-made “act of God” and the epitome of the problem of evil in the world), the “problem of love” still rules.

As the aftermath of the disaster unfolds, Maria (Watts) and her oldest son Lucas (Holland) struggle through a torrent of water and deadly debris to get to safety only to find her injuries are more serious than she thought—the skin on the back lower part of her right leg has been stripped away and she suffers a puncture wound to her chest. Separated from her husband Henry (McGregor) and the other two children, they assume the worst. Meanwhile, Henry has the younger ones holed up in the destroyed resort, as he frantically searches for his missing wife and other son. They are surrounded by utter devastation, dead bodies, and other desperate survivors. The problem of evil reigns.

As the waters subside, Maria, despite severe pain, is compelled to save a toddler crying in the wreckage over the objection of Lucas. Meanwhile, Henry meets a group of survivors who sympathetically share their stories of trauma. One of the men gives Henry his cell phone to call his father back home despite the low battery and his own painful wait for a return call from his family. To help in the search, he joins Henry, who is forced to send the two younger ones to a shelter on their own under the protection of a complete stranger. Native villagers rescue Maria, Lucas, and the newly adopted Daniel. The suspense builds as Lucas must care for his mother fighting for her life in a local, chaotic hospital bursting at the seams with bloody victims as dedicated medical staff perform heroic feats. Lucas’ heart turns from self-preservation to empathy as he finds joy in helping and seeing others find their loved ones, including Daniel. Meanwhile, Lucas’ younger brother—now separated from the woman entrusted to him—must fight back fears to parent and protect his own younger brother.

In the end, life-threatening tragedy and harrowing suspense is overcome by empathy, kindness, love, and the dogged determination of the human spirit. Atheists may point to the problem of evil in the world as to why they disbelieve in a loving God, but journeys like The Impossible point to a far greater challenge. One more difficult to explain in the face of senseless destruction: the problem of human love and compassion for others in the wake of inexplicable suffering and death. That kind of sacrificial love may be a problem for the materialist who believes life is ultimately meaningless, but for the spiritual, it’s evidence of a beautiful Mystery. This one’s a must see.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Update on Conservative Evangelical’s Dirty Little Secret: Spiritual Abuse

Last year I blogged about two major denominations’ recent exposure of spiritual abuse in the media and blogosphere, Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) and Seattle Mars Hill Church. With new developments, I offer this update. SGM (which I attended in the 1980s and early 90s and tell the story in my book) is now the target of a lawsuit that names several pastor defendants claiming they covered up both sexual and physical abuse done by members and possibly one pastor.

First of all, this sounds eerily familiar. My friend Darla Melancon wrote a book a couple of years ago (Things I Learned After Being Kicked Out of Church) exposing a similar cover up and manipulation in her SGM church (the church I used to attend years ago). Second, after reading an amendment to the lawsuit, I discovered my old friend from that same SGM church, Pastor Mark Mullery, is named as a defendant in the lawsuit! One good thing is the church he pastors now, SGM Fairfax, VA, just voted last week to leave the denomination. I’ve reached out to him, but he hasn’t revealed anything about their specific situation (it’s been 18 years since I’ve seen him). Bottom line is, SGM is going through a huge shaking due to persistent, documented accusations of spiritual and now sexual abuse. (As catalogued by the good folks over at SGM Survivors and SGM Refuge).

Now Seattle. With SGM’s lawsuit ringing in my ears, years of following stories by SGM and now Mars Hill ex-members (see Mars Hill Refuge and Joyful Exiles), a wonderful phone conversation with a new blogger friend Julie Anne over at Spiritual Sounding Board (she’s a tigress when it comes to exposing abuse), and a new development at Mars Hill Church (they moved one of their branches closer to where I live), I decided I needed some first-hand experience getting to know Mars Hill. I visited the downtown branch last Sunday. Kind of twilight zonish, it was, going back to a conservative evangelical church after 7 or 8 years. Mostly smiling, friendly twenty-thirty-somethings, terrific upbeat music, polished and professional leaders, and state-of-the-art technology streaming video of Mark Driscoll preaching on a massive screen.

The problem of pinpointing spiritual abuse and warning people is these churches often look so good on the surface. Everyone is smiling, there’s a spiritually-satisfying atmosphere, the sermon is full of jokes and encouraging teaching. It takes a discerning eye to spot it. I was reminded of Jonna Petry’s story from Mars Hill that reveals this problem of an appealing veneer over destructive abuse behind the scenes. I also remembered the long Membership Covenant members are required to sign before they join, which lays out strict rules for adhering to church doctrine and understanding church discipline. That document was red flag number one.

Seeing Driscoll on the screen was red flag number two. All the churches in the city stream Mark for sermons. There is no local teaching at MH church plants! No need to clone. Every church gets the same guy and sermon. This fits one of the major characteristics of spiritually abusive churches—they have an ambitious, charismatic, and controlling leader with little or no accountability. Streamed sermons to all church campuses is a great control mechanism.

As sermons go, Driscoll’s was upbeat, funny, encouraging, and extremely simplistic. I had heard he had toned down his more bombastic side, so no expletives. There were the typical Calvinist fundamentalist beliefs, almost hidden behind the charismatic delivery. “We all deserve to go to hell,” he slipped in. “God chose you, predestined you to be in Christ…” [with the corollary, God predestined non-believers for eternal wrath, left unsaid]. “Don’t build your children’s identity by telling them what they are good at… but that they are in Christ.” This was the put-down-worldy-social-sciences-for-the-true-biblical approach. Why not do both, Mark, and tell them they’re good at some things because God made them that way? Red flag number three. Beware of manipulation through fear of hell and black-and-white thinking.

In a fascinating twist, one of the first people I saw when I approached the church was… my across-the-street neighbor! Despite the fact that last year I warned him about Mars Hill, he and his wife joined the church. He told me he’s now a home group leader and has meetings every Tuesday, right across from my house! It’s a small world. (As I write this, they are meeting). He revealed red flag number four. He told me they discuss the previous week’s sermon every meeting. No need to address local concerns, just reinforce Mark’s teaching. This is a tactic my SGM church used to make sure everyone swallowed the red pill and ensured the “anointed leaders” are in charge—even of what to discuss at home groups.

After the service, which included a long appeal for giving and the church’s financial situation (not pretty and which was red flag number five; members are pestered to give more and more to the church to meet pressing needs), I went up to talk to pastor Tim Gaydos, a handsome man with a friendly smile. I’m not sure what he thought when I told him I don’t believe in biblical inerrancy and am a Christian Universalist. “Is there a place for me here?” I asked, after explaining some of my background (25 years in evangelicalism before jumping ship). The conversation continued something like this:

"Sure, we welcome everyone who attends,” he said. “Not everyone is a member.”

”But I read your membership covenant,” I said. “I found it very narrow. Does that mean, someone with my beliefs could never be a member?”

I detected a switch in tone. “Well, yeah, there are doctrinal conditions for members.”

“Why?”

He used his hands as an illustration. “We hold on tight to the non-negotiables and are open handed to negotiables. Most large evangelical churches today don’t have membership. But we think it’s important. It tells us who our real sheep are to care for.”

Sounds like attendees are second-class citizens, I thought. “But what if I couldn’t agree with the covenant… your non-negotiables?”

“If you decided you couldn’t agree with them, why would you want to become a member?” he asked.

Good question. Why indeed? I thought. “I get that. You’re right,” I answered. Later I realized I should have said, Because I believe that loving people in community is more important than believing all the same doctrines. “But my question is,” I continued, “why are they so narrow? Why does the church see the need to have doctrinally rigid conditions for members, like believing in inerrancy? Many sincere believers don’t believe in that and consider it a negotiable.”

He didn’t answer directly. He seemed a bit flustered. Said something about not apologizing for believing the Bible is inerrant. Nice guy, Tim. But I detected red flag number six. Abusive churches don’t welcome questions—especially tough questions. And I hadn’t even gotten started! They also hate ambiguity and have a paranoid need to have everyone agree.

Bear in mind before the streamed sermon, they played an interview with an Ethiopian pastor who apparently is one of Mars Hill’s overseas church plants. I asked Tim about how that works. They pay the pastor’s salary, he told me. “What about the future of that church?” I asked, implying there is an unhealthy dependency potential.

“Well, the goal is that the church would eventually support their own pastor to make it sustainable.”

Having been a church planter/missionary myself in Africa for seven years, I am all too familiar with this model. It’s probably the worst strategy one could undertake if you wanted to plant healthy long-term churches, but the best strategy if you wanted to do something quick and easy and look really good. Typically, such a model produces a dangerous dependency (sustainability becomes a pipe dream), local residents don’t trust the pastor—they know he’s milking the white foreigners and suspect he’s only in it for the money—and oftentimes he is. I warned Tim about this problem, but he didn’t seem to take it seriously. Red flag number seven. Were appearances more important than strategic thinking? Then again, why should he trust some fallen-away Universalist?

Finally, after our conversation, I strolled over to the bookstore. Not very big, that’s for sure. Why? Well you can only fit so many Mark Driscoll books on shelves. They made up more than half the books along with a few others like fellow Reformed pastor John Piper. Red flag number eight. Control members’ library. I had also heard Driscoll on YouTube tell members not to read The Shack.

Julie Anne has spurred me to think about doing something more concrete about exposing abuse and helping to prevent it. This visit was a start. Next, I’ll talk with my neighbor. Stay tuned. Comments welcome.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Shooter, not God, caused Newtown tragedy

Someone wrote a letter to the editor of my hometown newspaper, The North Kitsap Herald, and implied God used the Newtown tragedy to punish the country for legislating God out of the public sphere. Here's my response (and below) that was published on January 4th, as well as another good response from James Behrend: http://www.northkitsapherald.com/opinion/letters/185674471.html
______________________

I don’t doubt Don Wiens is well meaning (“Reaction to school shootings in Newtown,” page A4, Dec. 28 Herald). But when he implied that God didn’t prevent the Newtown shooting because we’ve legislated God out of public life, he parroted the standard conservative “Christian” line from the likes of James Dobson, Franklin Graham, and the American Family Association.

They’ve been touting a vindictive God for decades, stating mirrored threats at every national tragedy to scare and manipulate the populace to buy into their warped theology: the nation has fallen away from God (pushing prayer out of schools and permitting gay marriage) and divine judgment has prevailed. I know. For 25 years, I was a part of that movement and trace my spiritual evolution out of it in my book, “Confessions of a Bible Thumper.”

Wiens and his national counterparts overlook the heart of the very God they claim to serve. Jesus condemned public displays of religion, told his followers to pray in secret, and taught the reign of God is not about Old Testament-style retribution, but rather cultivating a kind heart, loving your enemies and fighting for social justice.

Wien’s citing a C.S. Lewis book as proof of divine judgment is also misguided. A loving God may not always be “safe” because His justice is restorative — He has a knack for winning over renegades — not because He’s vindictive.

The truth is, the Newtown shooter was a home-schooled, mentally ill loner whose mother had an arsenal of guns. His deranged act wasn’t God’s instrument of justice for our rejection of fundamentalist religion. There may be underlying reasons for violence in our society, but God’s revenge isn’t one of them.

Michael Camp
Poulsbo, WA

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

6 New Paradigms Essential for Convergence Christianity - Part I, the Bible

For years now, Christian writers and thinkers like Brian McLaren, Eric Elnes, and Phylis Tickle have been talking about a New Convergence (NC) in Christianity--a coalition (some know it as the emergent church and expressed in such movements as The Wild Goose Festival) of liberal mainliners, restless evangelicals, and progressive Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, all converging over a progressive, social-justice-focused theology, closer to the original message and movement of Jesus. My contention is, in order for this modern recapturing of Jesus' love-ethic-over-religious-dogma to stick, there needs to be a clear demarkation between the old world view that all these streams held at one point to a large degree and new spiritual, well-defined paradigms based on solid scriptural and historical evidence. Othewise, the conservative roots and branch of each stream will continue to hold it back and deem it suspect. So, here's my take on 6 essential paradigm shifts the NC needs to embrace and express.

1 - An Historical Approach to the Bible - By historical, I don't mean one must accept everything in the Bible as exactly historically accurate, but that the "biblical" way (true to what the Bible actually teaches and how it was compiled) of viewing the Bible is as an historian reading a human document (parts of which, each individual 'historian reader' deems inspired by God). Without an historical approach, the Bible is abused and used to oppress others, e.g. the anti-gay error (both of these I expound in my book). This historical view is opposed to the traditional, literalist view, which claims the the Bible is wholly God's Word and inerrant, self-sufficient, self-evident, internally consistent, and universally applicable. Christian Smith, Garry Wills, and many others have shown the fallacy of this literalistic view, while maintaining respect for the Bible as containing a message from God. The NC must be able to articulate this historical approach. For example, perhaps, stating the following, not as a litmus-test creed, but as an alternate paradigm:
  • The Bible is not the Word of God but contains the Word of God.
  • The Word of God is the Logos, the rational wisdom of God, as best expressed in Christ.
  • We discern God's Logos and how to apply it by reading the Bible with an understanding of its historical, cultural, and literary context, how it was compiled and translated (biblical/historical scholarship), with the help of the Spirit, and a dose of common sense.
  • We learn to apply the Logos of God in the Bible to our lives by focusing on its grand conclusive themes--trust (faith), grace over law, hope, and love--not specific admonitions that don't claim to be universally applicable.
There are five other new paradigms I'm suggesting, which I'll describe in future posts. They have to do with recapturing the meaning of "church" (hint, it's not an institution), rediscovering the Good News, embracing hope not fear of the future, understanding the inclusive, universal message of Christ, and embarking on a spiritually-fueled social-justice mission. Stay tuned for these other five and let me know your thoughts on New Paradigm #1.

Friday, December 14, 2012

4 Ways the Bible is Abused

Read the Bible like drinking beer, not sipping wine. – N.T. Wright

In my book, Confessions of a Bible Thumper, I tell the story of how I came to believe the Bible is routinely abused, particularly by fundamentalists and evangelicals, but also by the general public. I make the case the Bible should be taken seriously as an historical document written by human beings that has much inspirational material from God, but nevertheless, is not a heavenly, literal instruction manual to be applied across the board. Discernment is necessary in applying the Bible’s message to modern believers. Here are four ways well-meaning readers abuse the Bible, usually unknowingly:

1 – Not Understanding Translation Problems – Contrary to popular belief, the translation of the Bible is not straightforward. There are many instances where scholars can’t agree on the correct translation for a Hebrew or Greek word or there are variant meanings. Moreover, there is sound linguistic evidence there are many words in our English Bibles that are mistranslated. Bottom line: Although this doesn’t mean we have to question everything we read, readers should not be dogmatic that what they read is the end-all meaning for a word, verse, or passage.

2 – Misinterpreting Passages – There are three major ways this happens. (1) reading verses out of context (not paying attention to the surrounding background or a writer’s overall point), (2) misunderstanding the history, culture, or literary style behind a text, and (3) selecting certain passages from the Bible while ignoring other themes or principles on the same topic in other parts of the Bible. This is why one should read the Bible like drinking large glasses of beer (gaining fuller context), rather than like sipping wine and reading things piecemeal. Moreover, without an understanding of background history and culture, it’s very easy and common to misinterpret the meaning of a passage.
 
3 – Misusing the Claim to Authority – The Bible is not a set of timeless axioms to be strictly obeyed to the letter. It never claims to be such. Even most narrow literalists prove this by ignoring certain verses. For example, most conservatives don’t allow women to be pastors or teachers but, contrary to Paul’s admonition in I Corinthians 14 and one in I Timothy, they permit women to speak in the church. They are selective literalists. The point is, as N.T. Wright says, “…there is no biblical doctrine of the authority of the Bible.” Don’t get me wrong, I believe the Bible contains authoritative material. But its authority is not an across-the-board application. Its authority is found in as much as it reflects rationality and a remarkable dose of wisdom and moral inspiration that applies to one’s modern context. The Bible doesn’t always do this nor claims to. Not making this distinction gets “biblicists” in trouble as they attempt to get people to “submit to scripture.” Encouraging people to “love your neighbor as yourself” is a worthy goal, but teaching that all Christians must follow Paul’s admonitions for church order (which is also often misinterpreted) in the name of obeying God is just stretching the limits of whatever authority the Bible has. It also leads people to worship the Bible over and above God.

4 – Mislabeling Authenticity – Inerrancy advocates would have us believe the Bible is infallible with no errors whatsoever. But this flies in the face of biblical evidence. In my book, I cite a sampling of places where the Bible is clearly contradictory. As an historical document that sometimes cites eyewitness testimony, the Bible is comparable to other historical writings—it inevitably gets it wrong sometimes. This doesn’t mean it’s mythological, just that it’s a human document at its core (it doesn’t claim to be dictated by God). Such advocates also claim the Bible is wholly authentic. This also flies in the face of the evidence. Textual criticism is an important part of Bible study that not only reveals original meaning but how close and to what extent our modern Bible matches the ancient texts closest to the originals. Evidence suggests the Bible contains copyist errors and inauthentic passages. These aren’t huge discrepancies, but they need to be taken seriously. For example, that one passage (I Corinthians 14:34-35), where Paul says women shouldn’t speak or teach in church, was most probably added by a copyist with theological bias who wanted to keep the status quo of suppressing women in society (See Paul the Egalitarian).

In my studies, I discovered the modern, Western, evangelical way of looking at the Bible (infallible and the only authority for faith and practice) is not even supported by the Bible itself. And, other Christian traditions—the Eastern Orthodox Church, for example—have more rational ways of viewing the Bible that are much less susceptible to Bible abuse. I’ll continue to explore how to expose Bible abuse in later posts, but this is a good introduction to four common pitfalls serious students of the Bible need to avoid. Agree? Disagree? Please join the conversation.