Sunday, December 19, 2010

Everything in Moderation

I often remind my children that it's best to observe this rule of thumb--everything in moderation--when it comes to personal behavior. Without it people fall into the trap of alcoholism, drug addiction, and obsessive gambling, etc. The same rule of thumb can be said about religion and faith. Without moderation, people succumb to extremism, whether Islamic radicalism or Christian fundamentalism/evangelicalism. The cure for extremism is for moderate and progressive voices to speak sense, expose lies, and stand up for the victims of extremist ideology.

I introduced the abuses of evangelical extremism in the Christian Right in my nine lessons and expound on it in my forthcoming book, Confessions of a Bible Thumper. Here I want to share two examples of how moderation fights extremist Islam. First is Somali women's rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former Muslim turned atheist who exposes the victimization of women in radical Islam in her book Infidel. This is a courageous yet disturbing account of her journey out of fundamentalist faith and into rational and compassionate humanism. Although I think she ignores progressive ideas on faith when she rejects all religious thought and becomes an atheist, I applaud her heroic stand against the radical elements of Islam and her defense of women's rights. Her atheism seems to be a natural reaction to her experience and not the fundamentalist variety. A kind of moderate atheism.

Another more promising example is Dr. Hawa Abdi, another Somali woman (I've always admired and loved the strong-willed beautiful women of the horn of Africa) who stood up to the Party of Islam in Somalia in defense of her own moderate humanitarian efforts to fight suffering and injustice (which includes, like Hirsi Ali, the condemnation of female genital mutilation). Read the details in Nicholas Kristoff's article, Heroic, Female, and Muslim. The Party of Islam's militia tried to take control of her hospital but she heroically faced them down.

As a moderate Muslim, Hawa Abdi has much more influence to stop extremism because she remains a Muslim and attracts other moderate Muslims to support her efforts. (I make this point on Lesley Hazelton's excellent post on the subject). Whereas Hirsi Ali's atheism hinders Muslims from hearing her message, Dr. Abdi's Muslim faith helped rally other moderate Somali Muslims to protest the Party of Islam's actions.

It's encouraging to see moderate and progressive thinkers exposing the lies and abuses of extremists wherever those extremists are. In Somalia, Hawa Abdi's courage to fight Muslim extremists, and the outrage voiced by the world's Somalis, is an encouraging glimmer of hope that moderate ideals can win out.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

John Shelby Spong and the Hereafter

When I first started this blog five years ago, people told me "your ideas remind me of Bishop Spong," the liberal theologian and former Bishop of the Episcopal church. Having never read him (as one just starting to emerge out of the sheltered enclave of the evangelical subculture), I checked out his books. In a way, these people were right. Spong was coming to similar conclusions as I, saying we should rescue the Bible from fundamentalists and that the popular literal and narrow interpretation of scripture is nonsensical (e.g. on gays, women, inerrancy, etc). While still embracing Jesus as one who revealed God and encouraging us to follow his example of selfless love.

Yet upon closer examination, I decided Spong goes too far. He seemed to doubt almost everything, concluding there was no supernatural elements in the Bible including the resurrection. Those positions seemed to me to be just as "fundamentalist" as the literalists, by deciding on these issues, not on the merit of objective biblical scholarship itself, but from a preconceived position. Like other progressives like Garry Wills would, I still feel that way. However, after seeing Spong speak last month in Seattle (touting his new book, Eternal Life: A New Vision), I have a new appreciation for his spiritual journey. I found him to be delightful, sensible, and full of compassion. And, one who believes in life after death, albeit without telling us exactly what it will be like. (I mean, who can?)

That's exactly what the new movie Hereafter does as well. Although sometimes excruciatingly slow, the movie gives us a glimpse of a place beyond death where light and peace await, without labeling a source of the light as God or Christ. Hereafter seems to base its theory of beyond on the many near death experiences that have been documented. Spong's book doesn't focus on those but is based on Spong's own personal research and vision for experiencing eternity starting now in a way that transcends religion. To me, the movie and Spong's book is at the very least a wonderful sign of spiritual yearning and sense most people seem to intrinsically possess, which is a stark contradiction to the popular view of materialism. Just some of my observations.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Firing Based on Religion: A Right or Wrongheaded?

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that World Vision can hire and fire employees based on their religious beliefs. Three former employees, terminated for their beliefs, had filed a lawsuit alleging discrimination. Having worked for World Vision for two years, here's my take.

World Vision has a right to maintain their organization according to their purpose, which is to render the poor humanitarian aid motivated by Christian faith. Other Christian and non-Christian organizations have that same right. But is the narrow way they define Christian faith accurate?

World Vision argues if they don't screen their employees for their Christian commitment, the organization would not be pursuing their mandate, to help the poor (regardless of the faith of the poor) as followers of Christ.

Here's a couple considerations. World Vision and other Christian organizations like them only follow this policy within the U.S. and other predominantly Christian countries. In Muslim countries, for example, they are forced to hire local non-Christians since there are too few believers. Why doesn't this prevent them from pursuing their mandate?

Other Christian organizations, like Habitat for Humanity and Mercy Corps (this organization's founders were evangelicals), maintain their Christian identity without requiring their employees to be believers. If these organizations can do it, why not World Vision? Is there something wrong with an organization that purports to give aid indiscriminately but has discriminatory hiring policies?

Then there's the terminated employees themselves, two of which worked for World Vision for ten years. Turns out they are still Christians, they just don't see eye to eye on the deity of Christ and the Trinity. World Vision's statement of faith, which new hires have to sign on, is based on conservative interpretations of the Bible (including the infallibility of the Bible). Two questions: (1) Why don't they allow people to differ if they still consider themselves Christians? and (2) Shouldn't employees have the same freedom of religion as all U.S. citizens, the freedom to change their religious values without fear of losing their job? (as long as those values don't undermine the core purpose of the organization--which in this case, they surely do not. I don't see how a worker's stand on the Trinity or the deity of Christ will harm relief and development efforts).

Conclusion: World Vision has a right to run their religious-motivated organization as they see fit, but I believe their hiring and firing policy is wrongheaded. When their daily operations of humanitarian aid does not require each worker to have an orthodox faith (as they define it), why not let people of all faiths and no faith take part? As Jesus said, "whoever is not against us, is for us." If the employees weren't undermining the mission of World Vision, allow them their freedom of belief. World Vision needs to rethink their policy.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Certain and Uncertain

I Survived the Christian Right
Ten Lessons I Learned on My Journey Home

Conclusion: Certain and Uncertain - As much as I defend these nine lessons, I’m not insisting I’ve suddenly arrived at absolute certain truth. What I am saying is that we must be willing to go where the evidence leads even if it goes against out long-standing tradition or personal bias. Although I believe Christians can be certain of many things (the historical Jesus, his practical and spiritual wisdom, a transcendent meaning and power in the world—God—and a new way of relating to God found in the good news of Jesus), we should hold many views lightly because most of us don’t have a clue what really was happening culturally when Jesus spoke about his coming again, or the aionios punishment of the age, or when Paul spoke of porneia or arsenokoitai, or how the Bible was compiled, copied, and made into a canon of scripture by an editorial committee in the fourth century. There will always be an element of mystery and uncertainty.[69] If we are to come to sound conclusions about the Christian faith, we must ensure we humbly attempt to follow a reasoned course and not swallow whole what others before us have said—be they conservative or liberal—without careful evaluation.

69 Schaeffer, Frank, Patience with God: Faith for People Who Don’t Like Religion (or Atheism)

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Embrace Universal Life

I Survived the Christian Right
Ten Lessons I Learned on My Journey Home

Lesson 9: Embrace Universal Life – Before I went to Malawi and early on in my evangelical walk in 1982 I got one major thing right. Faith in Jesus includes emulating his concern for the poor. I packed my bags, joined an evangelical relief agency and headed off to the “ends of the earth,” in this case Somalia, to aid refugees devastated by war.

I also wanted to share my faith with Muslims. My evangelical theology taught me they were lost without someone like me converting them. It didn’t take long to see the logical conclusion of that doctrine. The overwhelming majority of Muslims, steeped in their own fundamentalist religion since birth, were not coming to Jesus. They were toast. Burnt toast and destined for an eternity in hell according to evangelical theology. Problem was, I didn’t buy it. Since I experienced God’s love personally and felt divine love for my Muslim friends, I surmised God’s character demands He not destine people to eternal separation and torment. I adopted, and kept secret for the most part, the very minority position of inclusivism—that salvation is possible outside of Christendom.

Fast forward to my seventeenth (I lost count) crisis of faith in 2007. Having changed my view on scriptural inerrancy and authority, the church, tithing, the return of Jesus, sexuality, and gay rights, why not go for broke? I had become an open-minded seeker desperately trying to prevent my brains from leaking out. After reading three thoughtful, progressive evangelical authors[61] and another former Pentecostal minister,[62] a long-time puzzle was solved. Through a combination of Bible abuse and upholding man-made tradition, the evangelical church had squelched a view of salvation that had been espoused by several church fathers including Origen and Gregory of Nyssa.[63] It was universal reconciliation—that all would eventually be reconciled to God, thus more in line with God’s character of unconditional love. “Even while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”[64]

Turns out that pesky word “eternal” used in conjunction with “punishment” and supposedly talking about hell doesn’t really mean forever. A better translation is “punishment of the age to come,” for the Greek word aionios is more accurately rendered “pertaining to an age.”[65] Also, the Greek word for “punishment” always refers to the remedial variety.[66] So, universal reconciliation doesn’t mean God doesn’t punish evil, just that it’s temporary and always corrective and not for retribution. I concluded that Paul was right all along: “As in Adam, all will die, in Christ, all will be made alive.”[67]

If you’re going to believe, believe in the really good news.[68]

61 Talbot, Thomas, The Inescapable Love of God, MacDonald, Gregory, The Evangelical Universalist, and Keith DeRose,
62 Pearson, Carlton, The Gospel of Inclusion
63 MacDonald, Gregory, The Evangelical Universalist, page 173
Romans 5:8
64 MacDonald, George, Op. cit. page 147
65 Talbot, Thomas, The Inescapable Love of God, page 91.
66 I Corinthians 15:22
67 Luke 2:10 – “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people.”

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Science vs Religion - Go Where the Evidence Leads

I Survived the Christian Right
Ten Lessons I Learned on my Journey Home

Lesson 8: Science vs. Religion - Go Where the Evidence Leads
Us vs. them attitudes are in the science vs. religion and creation vs. evolution debates. Typically, the people debating are the extremists, who only see things in black and white. There can be no mixing of their cherished positions. Fundamentalist young-earth creationists who believe in a 10,000 year-old earth based on a literal interpretation of the Bible are pitted against fundamentalist evolutionists, like the New Atheists (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris as opposed to reasonable atheists like Michael Ruse), who mock all theists for believing in the myth of God and the fairytale of religion. Yet 67 percent of Americans say it is possible to believe in both God and evolution. [48] The media often reinforces these polarities by distorting any moderate views. For example, they rarely differentiate non-literalist old-earth creationists (who include reputable scientists and technically, theistic evolutionists who believe God created the first life forms) and lump them together with the antiquated ideas of the Dark Ages. Given these realities, here are the lessons I learned:

Evolution is not the enemy. First, it’s possible to reconcile evolution with a biblical worldview. Francis Collins does it persuasively.[49] Don’t let staunch atheists who have an axe to grind tell you evolution proves there is no God. They delude themselves.[50] Nor should you allow staunch creationists to argue evolution is incompatible with the Bible. They hold to a rigid literalism.

Evolution is not immune to criticism. Evolution is usually portrayed as one specific unified theory held by all reputable scientists. There are in fact several competing theories and many ways to look at the scientific data. Stephen J. Gould and Niles Eldridge proposed the theory of punctuated equilibrium that critiqued the Darwinian view of continuous gradual evolution. Gould said the absence of fossil evidence for intermediary stages between major transitions of biological design was a nagging problem for gradualistic evolution.[51] Eldredge said the fossil record screams loudly that what Darwin theorized—slow, steady, evolution—is not the case.[52] Molecular Biologist Michael Denton critiqued orthodox Darwinism in his landmark book[53] and subsequently made the case for a form of guided evolution.[54] Biologist Dean Kenyon, who pioneered evolutionary self-organizational theory, later repudiated it and embraced a design hypothesis.[55]

Intelligent design is neither the enemy nor immune to criticism. Intelligent Design (ID) theory is commonly represented as a fundamentalist wolf in sheep’s clothing. The facts don’t warrant this. ID theory is misused by the Christian Right to bolster their exclusivism[56] and therefore deemed guilty by association. It should be examined critically, but remarkably diverse intellectuals support the idea. These include agnostic mathematician and Darwinism-critic David Berlinski[57] and the former most renowned atheist in the world, Antony Flew, who announced to a shocked world that intelligent design must have been involved in the origin of the coded chemistry in DNA.[58] Moreover, ID is not incompatible with evolution. Tenured professor of microbiology Michael Behe, a leading ID proponent, holds to the evolutionary tenet of common descent.[59] Finally, critics who claim ID is not a real scientific theory probably have not carefully evaluated the case.[60]

Question the rhetoric of the extremists and look carefully at the evidence for both theistic evolution and intelligent design. Go where the evidence leads.

48 CBS News poll, October 23, 2005
49 Collins, Francis, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief
50 Berlinski, David, The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions
51 Gould, Stephen J., Is a New and General Theory of Evolution Emerging? Paleobiology, vol 6 (1), p. 119-130 (1980)
52 Eldredge, Niles, Confessions of a Darwinist, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Spring 2006
53 Denton, Michael, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis
54 Denton, Michael, Nature’s Destiny: How the Laws of Biology Reveal Purpose in the Universe
55 I heard Kenyon speak at a Discovery Institute event in Seattle, WA in the summer of 2007
56 The Christian Right-influenced school board of Dover, PA forced teachers to make a pro intelligent-design statement in classrooms, despite the advice of the Discovery Institute not to do so.
57 Berlinski, David, The Deniable Darwin
58 Flew, Antony, There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind, page 95 and 123
59 Behe, Michael, The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism, page 182.
60 Meyer, Stephen C., Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design, pages 403-415

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Support Gay Rights Not Wrongs

I Survived the Christian Right
Ten Lessons I Learned on My Journey Home

Lesson 7: Support Gay Rights Not Wrongs
- Most of my evangelical friends thought I went off the deep end when I changed my view on this issue. I have to admit, for years I had wondered how anyone could defend homosexuality in light of certain passages of the Bible. But that was before 2004, when I did an honest study of those passages and discovered misinterpretations and before I learned that several words in those passages are almost certainly mistranslated.

It started when I began hearing stories from Christian gay people on how they had pleaded for God’s help to overcome their “sin” of homosexuality. They were saying it didn’t work. A personal friend told me a similar story. Despite seeking help in “ex-gay” ministries, God wasn’t changing them into heterosexuals nor taking away their sex drives.[40] I read a Philip Yancey book[41] where he recommended people read Mel White’s story (without endorsing his conclusions).[42] White was a former ghostwriter for evangelical heavy weights and had come out declaring his homosexuality and the futility of trying to change. It was then that I clearly saw there was a pastoral problem with homosexuality. But was there a scriptural problem? Was there evidence evangelicals were misreading the Bible on this issue?

Turns out there is. For instance, one word in the Greek New Testament commonly translated “homosexual,” is the word, arsenokoitai, which is rarely found in ancient literature and whose meaning is uncertain.[43] It must be a condemned sexual behavior but does not denote homosexuality across the board. To translate it “homosexual” without at least including a footnote about its ambiguity is irresponsible. To understand what the New Testament teaches on homosexuality, one must understand the landscape of sexual practices in the first century.[44]

For instance, when Paul talks of homosexuality in Romans, he’s speaking in the context of idolatry. Historical and literary context leads many scholars to conclude that when the Bible alludes to homosexuality it is talking about common forms of it in the ancient world, namely pederasty[45], cultic prostitution[46], and homosexual rape (e.g. implied in the story of Sodom), and not committed, loving homosexual relationships, which are supported by Christian movements like Metropolitan Community Church, SoulForce, and even the late Lewis Smedes[47], an evangelical author who taught at Fuller Seminary.

Don’t misread the Bible on homosexuality. Open your heart to gay people, who can’t change their orientation despite well-intentioned efforts.

40 Stossel, John, Myths, Lies, and Downright Stupidity: Get Out the Shovel—Why Everything You Know is Wrong, page 185.
41 Yancey, Philip, What’s So Amazing About Grace
42 White, Mel, Stranger at the Gate: To Be Gay and Christian in America.
43 See Campolo, Tony, Speaking my Mind, page 67 and Rogers, Jack, Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality, pages 73-74
44 Helminiak, Daniel, What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality and Cannon, Justin R., The Bible, Christianity, and Homosexuality
45 The oppressive male-initiation practice in the Greco-Roman world of men having sex with boys
46 For example, Cybelene worship in Corinth, Athens, Ephesus, and Rome, which included castrated male priests, and the temple of Aphrodite in Corinth, which had 1000 sacred female prostitutes. See Stark, Rodney, Cities of God, pages 50 and 92.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Have Sensible Sex

I Survived the Christian Right
Ten Lessons I Learned on My Journey Home

Lesson 6: Have Sensible Sex – By now, I’m sure some have declared me a full-fledged heretic. Brace yourself, there’s more. Now for something totally uncomfortable—the subject of religion and sex. In my experience, with some noble exceptions (there are some excellent evangelical marriage manuals on sex), the evangelical church has largely been sex-negative, in other words, either it has suppressed open discussion or portrayal of sex for fear of promoting immorality, or it has condemned certain sexual behaviors, from nudity to masturbation to oral sex to all pre-marital sex, based on misinterpretations of the Bible. 31

My historical studies reveal today’s church views on sex have more to do with Greco-Roman Platonism and Augustine’s warped perspective—despite his wisdom on other topics—than a rational reading of scripture. For instance, the Jewish tradition from which Christianity arose was sex affirming. Correspondingly, contrary to popular belief, the Greco-Roman world, in which the early church grew, was not wholly a debauched sexual culture. The sex-negating Platonists and Stoics, who had fearful attitudes toward “irrational” sexual pleasure, influenced much of it. 32 This had impact on early church fathers like Augustine.

One specific is how these sex-negative Greco-Roman values influenced the English translation of the Greek New Testament word porneia. Raymond Lawrence calls it “perhaps the most deliberately mistranslated word in the biblical literature,” 33 when it is rendered “fornication,” and I would argue when it is also translated “sexual immorality” (as in ‘flee sexual immorality’ 34). Conservative Biblicists have condemned a host of sexual behaviors under that one word, commonly summing it up as perverted sex or all sex outside of monogamous marriage, without understanding what it meant to the original audience. One scholar believes a better translation is “harlotry,” 35 for the connotation of porneia is selling oneself to break covenant. Moreover, it is not always about sex, as is evidenced by the times it or its Hebrew equivalent is translated as “idolatry.”

Despite the fact that I would never endorse polygamy as a good idea, the fact is polygamy is never condemned in the Bible nor is monogamy strictly endorsed. In fact, the Torah commands polygamy in the case of the Leverite law 36 and supports it at times. 37 Polygamy and concubinage were practiced by Old Testament heroes of the faith from Abraham to Jacob to Gideon to David and never censured by God, except excessive polygamy with foreign women outside the faith. The truth is that if Bathsheba had not been married to Uriah, David would not have committed adultery. The biblical literature defines adultery differently than we do in our modern context. 38

Likewise with pre-marital sex, the Bible puts limitations on it because of the Jewish concern for pure lineage and because unmarried women were considered property of their fathers. There was no equivalent of today’s single woman, living outside her family’s home. Therefore, the Bible does not specifically condemn all singles sexuality. 39

This is not to say that we should emulate the male-dominated society of the Bible or married men have license to run out and grab the first single, pretty woman they see bathing on a rooftop (how David first saw Bathsheba). Promiscuity rooted in selfish, personal gratification cannot be defended. However, it does mean, if we are honest, that we should take the above facts into account when we decide on a sexual ethic for today.

In sex, let the admonitions to love one another, treat each other kindly, and be responsible in our relationships, be the guiding principal, not absolutist rules that were never a part of the Bible’s historical and cultural milieu.

31 Thelos, Philo, Divine Sex: Liberating Sex from Religious Tradition
32 Lawrence, Raymond, The Poisoning of Eros
33 Lawrence, Raymond, Op. cit., page 2
34 I Corinthians 6:18
35 Countryman, William, Dirt, Greed, and Sex
36 Deuteronomy 25:5-10
37 Deuteronomy 21:15-17
38 Countryman, Op. cit., page 159
38 Countryman, Op. cit., page 264.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

A Model for Community Change through Local Nonpartisan Politics

by Jo Ann Goodson, Deep Thought Pub guest blogger

“If you don’t vote Republican or for this candidate, hell will break loose. If we pass Obama’s health care bill, the government will take over your life and God will judge us for funding abortion and disobeying the Ten Commandments.”

This statement represents one of the things I think is so very wrong in our politics today and makes me want to run and hide instead of fighting back. For one thing I really do not like getting involved in politics but I do not have a choice if I really want changes to be made in the way we live in community. There are good things happening but there appears to be so much more that is wrong. I am involved in a group in my city that is trying to make a difference in how we live in community and how we can best help each other. We want a much better place in which to live and have our being. Our group is made up of Christians, Jews, Muslims and folks with no faith. The name of our group is called CHANGE, Community Helping All Neighbors Gain Empowerment.

We are not trying to make our city Christian. We are trying to organize to bring about social justice, equal opportunities for everyone, good education for our children and promote an environment in which they can better learn, health issues, what can be done about suspensions, dropouts and bullying in our school system. These are only a few things that we are currently working on. Some of the things we want to accomplish can only be done if our city government and CHANGE can work together. Thus I must be involved in politics if I want my wishes and prayers for my city/county to be accomplished.

I think we can be an example of how good politics can be performed. Working together for the greater good of all. Respecting each other and our differences by putting aside our own agenda, whether Christian or other, and working for the good of everyone. We do not threaten anyone with what will happen if they do not do as we say. We compromise and come to a good working plan together. In the end we can celebrate together on a job well done as we look at the results of our efforts. Our national government could take a lesson or two from us. We have accomplished some really good stuff together so far.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Don’t be Seduced by Political Power

I Survived the Christian Right
Ten Lessons I Learned on My Journey Home

Lesson 5: Don’t be Seduced by Political Power - I learned one of the warped mindsets of heavily financed political activism is an us vs. them mentality. Today, this attitude continues to fuel the Christian Right in their quest to save America from moral depravity and reclaim it for Christ. Us vs. them mindsets can also be present in left-wing politics, but that is another story.

Within evangelicalism, black-and-white, us vs. them, groupthink is pervasive. I saw that clearly when I was involved in the pro-life movement and Operation Rescue in the late 1980s. The attitude is one of drawing lines: Republican over Democrat, pro-life over pro-abortion, religious America over secular America, etc. But “power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.”26 Evangelicalism within the Christian Right has always been about taking control, getting the right candidates in, overcoming the enemy (abortion, homosexuals, liberals), legislating the right laws, forcing an abortion clinic to close, and reclaiming America for Christ, all by manipulating the masses through fear and demonization of opponents. If you don’t vote Republican or for this candidate, hell will break loose. If we pass Obama’s health care bill, the government will take over your life and God will judge us for funding abortion and disobeying the Ten Commandments.27

But these are lies, or if you’re inclined to be more gracious, false dichotomies. We live in a pluralistic society. Good politics is about compromise, not taking control. Real influence comes through open-minded persuasion and loving others, not by winning at the polls or banning abortion or suppressing gay rights. Democrats, as much as Republicans, care about decency and values. God works through more than one political party, outside of evangelicalism,28 and in people of other faiths. As comprehensively argued by evangelical author Mark Noll, the historical record is clear that America is not a Christian nation the roots to which we must return. 29 Christianity has had both positive (abolition and civil rights movements) and negative (intolerant, legalistic Puritans and endorsement of slavery) influence on our country.

Do not lust for political power and cultural influence. 30

26 Thomas, Cal, Blinded by Might: Why the Religious Right Can’t Save America, page 54
27 In a prayer cast organized by the Family Research Council on December 16, 2009, Pastor Jim Garlow claimed the health care reform legislation currently being deliberated in the Senate, violated just about every one of the Ten Commandments!
28 Cox, Harvey, When Jesus Came to Harvard
29 Noll, Mark, In Search for Christian America
30 Ballmer, Randall, Thy Kingdom Come: An Evangelical’s Lament

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Don't be Deluded by the Last Days

I Survived the Christian Right
Ten Lessons I Learned on My Journey Home

Lesson 4: Don't Be Deluded by the Last Days: As a brand-new believer in 1979 I tended to accept the pre-tribulation Rapture view that the Bible predicts Jesus would return a second time before a period of tribulation, to whisk believers up to heaven and leave unbelievers behind to face seven years of apocalyptic trials. After reading several critiques of this view,18 I realized it was farcical and unbiblical, not to mention highly manipulative the way preachers or authors—Hal Lindsey in the 70s and 80s and Tim LaHaye (Left Behind) today—use it to “persuade” people to come to Christ, or else. Despite this, like the majority of evangelicals, I still believed the return of Christ was in the future and possibly eminent, given the state of the world.

Then around 1999, the preterists 19 entered my life; the likes of R.C. Sproul, Gary DeMar, and Kenneth Gentry, ironically conservative evangelicals who introduced the notion that everything that Jesus predicted in the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21) was fulfilled between 64 and 70 AD.20 They also viewed the speculation around the return of Christ as madness 21 and the book of Revelation as written prior to 70 AD;22 hence its predictions were not speaking about thousands of years in the future.

Their reasoning was refreshing. They cried Bible abuse by dispensationalists and the bulk of evangelicals in the widespread unreasonable belief that Jesus spoke of two events in the Olivet Discourse: a coming calamity on Jerusalem within a generation, and then in the next breath about his return to earth 2000 years in the future. After reading the preterists, I reread all those prophetic verses and suddenly they made perfect sense. 23

What I didn’t expect was to come to believe these preterists weren’t going far enough. Considered “partial preterists,” they still believe in a future return of Christ at the time of the resurrection. But for this position to stand, there must be two second comings of Christ, one in 70 AD in judgment on Jewish Temple worship and one at a future resurrection. But this view is problematic because the New Testament does not speak of two second comings at all, or more accurately, a third coming. I found myself agreeing with the “consistent preterists,”24 who say that all the prophecies about Jesus returning occurred at or before 70 AD based on a rational reading of the New Testament and first century historical evidence. 25

Imagine that for a moment. Jesus has already returned. The drama is over. There is no need to unmask the mystery or fear the Antichrist, let alone shape American foreign policy around the return of Christ and the end of the world.

Get on with the business of saving the planet and promoting social justice in the world without secretly believing it will all be for naught in the end.

18 DeMar, Gary, Last Days Madness: The Obsession of the Modern Church
19 Preterists believe biblical events were fulfilled in the past as opposed to futurists, who believe they will be fulfilled in the future.
20 Sproul, R.C., The Last Days According to Jesus, and Josephus, The Jewish Wars
21 DeMar, Gary, Op. cit.
22 Gentry, Kenneth, Jr., Before Jerusalem Fell: Dating the Book of Revelation
23 e.g. Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, this generation shall certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” Matthew 24:34 and “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place.” Revelation 1:1
24 J. Stuart Russell, The Parousia, and
25 Josephus, Tacitus, and Eusebius. They cite occurrences of false prophets, famines, earthquakes, wars, and astronomical signs leading up to 70 AD that match what Jesus predicted.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Avoid Legalism Like the Plague - Lesson 3

I Survived the Christian Right
Ten Lessons I Learned on My Journey Home

Lesson 3: Avoid Legalism Like the Plague - One day I was enjoying a beer with a friend in a popular pub near my home when I noticed someone who went to my former evangelical church. After I picked myself off the floor due to shock from seeing him in a bar, we greeted each other and I asked if he still attended.

“I finally left last year,” the man said.
“Do you mind me asking why you left?” I asked.
“I got tired of jumping through hoops.”

What an apt way of describing what I also experienced in the majority of the six or seven evangelical churches I attended over the years. Why do some churches make our faith journey into an obstacle course on a field of required religious practices and doctrines? Could legalistic control have something to do with it? Again, there are some admirable exceptions, but as Brennan Manning once said, “the American church accepts grace in theory, but denies it in practice.”

Evangelical Christians largely conform to a performance-oriented approach to God: Regularly attend church to worship God our way, pray and read the Bible daily, go to a home group, adhere to a particular statement of faith, believe in the right doctrines and the future return of Christ, be pro-life, dress modestly, don’t drink (or if you do, please don’t do it in front of us), avoid questionable movies, don’t put swear words, sex scenes, or questionable doctrines in your books, refrain from producing music on a secular recording label, and whatever you do, don’t vote for a Democrat. And those are the more moderate rules! In summary, avoid contamination by the world, heretics, and liberals and insulate yourself in the squeaky-clean alternate evangelical world we created.

I saw many evangelicals forget that “we are no longer under the supervision of the law,” and “whoever loves his fellow human being has fulfilled the law.” The lesson? Evangelicalism is inundated with religious baggage and a host of man-made written and unwritten regulations that have nothing to do with authentic spirituality. Since “Christ is the end of the law” or a law-based approach to God, we are free to govern ourselves under Christ’s one overriding law of love.

Find ways to love God and love your neighbor and don’t worry about fitting into some legalistic evangelical mold. Or any kind of Christian mold, for that matter.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Leave Churchianity - Lesson 2

I Survived the Christian Right
Ten Lessons I Learned on My Journey Home

Lesson 2: Leave Churchianity - Surprise! Jesus didn’t found an institutional church. 9 For that matter, he didn’t found a religion either. He also didn’t expect his followers to set up a Christian version of the synagogue, let alone create a parallel Christian universe where microbrews are banned.

When I worked on a church planting team in Malawi, Africa in the 1990s, I studied the early church and began to realize how unbiblical our modern concept of church is. I came to see that professional salaried clergy, a clergy-laity distinction, meetings in buildings, church budgets, hierarchal leadership, and legalistic requirements were not present in early Christianity. Frank Viola and George Barna make the case that most of these elements of church were borrowed from pagan culture. 10 That doesn’t make them necessarily evil, just not based on the original, and not the model for Christian fellowship. The word translated “church” is the Greek ecclesia, which simply means “gathering” and does not denote an institution. The same word is used for a “mob” in the book of Acts. 11

Evangelical churches routinely espouse modern church membership and active involvement as God’s only way of building the Kingdom and creating mature believers. I recently heard a pastor describe his love for the institutional church in terms normally used for ascribing worship to God.

Undoubtedly, there are churches that are healthy places to grow spiritually, but my experience also reveals how prevalent spiritual abuse is found in fundamentalist and evangelical churches. One could argue that the doctrine of the institutional church is largely to blame for abuses. Why? It promotes churchianity—the practice of making belief in Jesus largely focused on the habits and demands of the institutional church (doctrinal purity, religious behavior), rather than on God’s love. Churchianity encourages authoritarian leadership, which is at the core of spiritual abuse. It also doesn’t encourage people to think for themselves. Blind compliance is sure to follow. “Evangelicals are enamored with power and control. That’s why numbers and measures are so important to evangelicals, and why compliance is next to godliness.” 12

Don’t put up with churchianity.

9 Wills, Garry, What Jesus Meant, page 78.
10 Viola, Frank and Barna, George, Pagan Christianity, page xix.
11 Wills, Garry, Op. cit., page 78.
12 Mike Yaconelli, in The Post Evangelical by Dave Tomlinson, page 28.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

I Survived the Christian Right: Beware of Bible Abuse

Ten Lessons I Learned on My Journey Home

OK, I confess. There are only nine lessons, but ten sounds better.

A quest for a reasoned faith based on reality. That was largely what my 27-year sojourn in evangelicalism was about. Although evangelicals are not a monolithic block comprised only of conservatives (progressive evangelicals are becoming more influential), I found the movement and my experience saturated with the mindset of the Christian Right.

This mindset often calls things “truth” when they are only half-truth, thus making falsehood hard to detect. I didn’t find my whole experience bogus—I was and still am enthralled with Jesus’ teaching, signs of God working in my life, and supportive of things evangelicals do right, like fighting poverty through organizations like World Vision. But what I increasingly found was a lack of authenticity and reasoned perspectives on faith.

I weathered the theological storm and made it home to a progressive Christianity, taking with me valuable insights derived from ten eye-opening discoveries. There I go again. I mean nine. The following are lessons readers open to new paradigms can learn.

Lesson 1: Beware of Bible Abuse – With some notable exceptions, most evangelicals I know primarily read the Bible devotionally, meaning they read it in a superficial way without regard to the conditions of history, culture, genre, or its own literary context. They also believe it is the infallible Word of God and expect God to speak to them personally through its message. I read the Bible this way for years. But I gradually learned a valuable lesson. Although harmless on occasion, a predominantly devotional approach to Bible study inevitably leads to Bible abuse—handling scripture in a way that the original author did not intend and the original audience would never recognize. Although it is mostly done unintentionally, I find people abuse the Bible in three ways.

Misinterpretation – The most common form is when people take verses or passages out of their literary context, for example, the practice of citing isolated verses to bolster a doctrine. In other words proof-texting. That’s why we should “read the Bible like drinking beer, not sipping wine.” 1

Another form of this is practicing poor exegesis and hermeneutics. Exegesis is ascertaining a passage’s original meaning through understanding its historical and cultural background. Hermeneutics is deciding how to apply a passage to our modern circumstances. Without doing the hard work of both of these, it’s easy to misinterpret what the Bible teaches. 2 Passages are applied with a wooden literalism, which causes a host of problems, including dogmatic teaching on divorce, tithing, the eminent return of Christ, and sexuality, to name only a few.

Applying Strict Authority – Despite the fact that the Bible does not claim to be inerrant, 3 fundamentalists and many evangelicals insist it is. When I visited L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland in 1984, I studied this doctrine and concluded there was little evidence to support it. Gradually, I came to believe that the Bible is not a set of timeless maxims to be obeyed to the letter. It never claims to be the Word of God, only that Jesus is the Word come down from God and the Jewish prophets spoke the word of the Lord. When every isolated verse or passage is applied with equal authority, the phenomenon of Bibliolatry results.4

Moreover, the evidence supports the notion that parts of our modern Bible were added by copyists and go beyond the original manuscripts, which we don’t have. 5 One example is the controversial passage in I Corinthians 14 often used to justify the suppression of women. It states women should not teach but be silent in church and in full subjection to men. Yet the evidence is strong that Paul did not write these verses but later copyists added them. 6 The Jesus Seminar makes this mistake in the opposite direction when it dogmatically concludes portions of Jesus’ sayings are not genuine based on subjective opinion, not on manuscript evidence. 7 These discoveries reveal how our modern Bible can still contain divine inspiration—and powerful lessons rooted in godly wisdom—without every part of it being the Word of God or wholly free from human error. 8

Mistranslation – There are several places in the New Testament where the English word chosen in most popular translations is almost assuredly not correct. I will cite several of them below. Our modern English translations are not as accurate as we think and should not always be taken at face value.

Read the Bible in its own historical, cultural, and literary context. Don’t worship it.

1 N.T. Wright
2 See Fee, Gordon,
How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth
3 Countryman, William,
Biblical Authority or Biblical Tyranny?
4 Bible worship; see Thatcher, Adrian,
The Savage Text: The Use and Abuse of the Bible, page 4.
5 Erdman, Bart D.,
Misquoting Jesus
6 Fee, Gordon,
The First Epistle to the Corinthians, and Erdman, Op. cit., page 183.
7 Wills, Gary,
What Jesus Meant, page xxv.
8 Wills, Gary, Op. cit. and Countryman, William, Op. cit.