Lenten Reflections: Week 4

I have to be honest: I started reading Revelation a week ago, and it has just not been able to hold my attention.  The stuff at the beginning where John offers advice and encouragement to the various churches in the form of words from Christ are kind of nifty, but from there he gets into all of the apocalyptic stuff, and most of it honestly just feels nonsensical.  All the visions and descriptions run together in a mishmash that leaves my head spinning for the most part.

The result of my lack of interest is that my Lent observation has grown relatively slack.  I think I’ve missed a couple days of reading, and the fact that I don’t know for sure underlines the problem that I’m having: so much of this millennia-old writing is just too alien to easily grasp as a layperson.  The common evangelical assertion that reading the Bible as daily practice is useful because it offers practical applications to our daily lives just rings false at this point.  There are some examples of moral behavior that can help inform our decision making, but even those require careful examination and interrogation to try to parse the culturally inflected values that don’t translate to modern society from the universal principles that can serve as a moral foundation.  What’s ironic is that even as I type this and recognize the fallacy of insisting on the Bible’s continued practical relevance, I feel a pang of guilt that comes from naysaying it.  Evangelicalism is so thoroughly built around the need to integrate the Bible with a believer’s day-to-day life that even as someone who only adopted that framework as a young adult before growing into a more mature form of Christianity I still have difficulty acknowledging the worldview’s limitations.  This kind of stuff must be maddening for people who were raised in evangelicalism before getting out, particularly if they retained some form of faith in the process of extricating themselves.

So I’m left with a conundrum of sorts.  The purpose of my Lent project was to return to a spiritual practice that I’ve largely abandoned over the past few years, but nearly two thirds of the way through it, I’m finding that the purpose of the practice is largely missing.  I’m not sure how to proceed; I expected that there would be periods in my reading where I’d likely have no particularly deep thoughts about anything; to expect some profound revelation every time you crack open a text strikes me as more than a little bit unrealistic, and it makes me wonder if that expectation goes back again to the evangelical veneration of the Bible and the belief that if you don’t get something meaningful from each encounter with Scripture then you’re probably the one doing something wrong.  It’s a difficult dissonance to resolve, and in the meantime I’m wondering about the purpose of continuing forward with the project.  Do I keep going because I made a commitment and I want to finish, even though I’m growing more and more frustrated with lack of fruitful reflection, or do I acknowledge that the period in my life where I needed to make this sort of effort at performative spirituality is past and let the project go?  Neither choice is particularly satisfactory, and they each carry with them some sort of frustration to manage.

I suppose I’ll have a better answer to these questions by the time I check in again next week.

Lenten Reflections: Week 3

The thing about doing something for Lent is that you commit to it and the first couple weeks are relatively easy, then you hit that midpoint at the end of week three, and you’re really feeling over it.  Of course, it is a practice that’s built on developing spiritual discipline, so we’ll just keep on keepin’ on until Easter.

I spent most of the last week continuing to read in Jeremiah, but what I found as I got deeper and deeper into it was that I was having a hard time staying invested in the narrative of the exile.  Jeremiah gets heavy into theodicy about the Babylonians conquering Israel and Judah, and it honestly gets kind of repetitive after a certain point.  People were too busy worshiping other gods, God is angry to be ignored, everything that happened to the Israelites is deserved, etc.  There’s hammering a point home, and there’s beating a dead horse, and then there’s the book of Jeremiah.

Fortunately, I’m not bound by any constraints that say I have to stick with Jeremiah during Lent; I just picked it to get a flavor of the prophetic literature from the Old Testament, but at the rate I’m going of reading a few chapters a day, I would have spent several weeks just reading this one text.  So after I got about halfway, I decided to leave Jeremiah behind and look at something else.  I settled on reading John of Patmos’s book of Revelation.

Revelation is a weird coda in the New Testament; much of it is clearly meant to be symbolic, but the significance of the symbolism is largely obscured by time and distance.  I don’t know why there are so many different sets of angels or what’s important about the locusts that have human faces and breastplates like iron breastplates (okay, actually I have some idea of what the deal with the locusts is, but you get my point).  Revelation is dense, and it is opaque.

At this point I’m not terribly certain what I’m hoping to get out of reading this particular text.  I don’t put any stock in Rapture-tinged theology, and I know that I simply don’t have the contextual knowledge necessary to make out a whole lot of the meaning of John’s book.  I think mostly Revelation is on my mind because I know it’s a relatively sharp departure from Jeremiah, even as I recognize that much of it is also intended to be a coded polemic against the injustices perpetrated by the Romans against early Christians.  Maybe it comes down to the fact that our current times feel slightly apocalyptic, and I want to compare that feeling with what’s contained in an actual apocalypse.

Lenten Reflections: Week 2

For my second week of Lent, I decided to throw myself into one of the books of the prophets.  When I look back on my journey from white evangelicalism into more progressive Christianity, aside from the influence of various contemporary people I’ve read, one of the biggest factors was the year I did some more in-depth reading of the books of the minor prophets (they’re only called the “minor” prophets because the texts that are named after them are significantly shorter than the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel; the nickname isn’t meant to imply that their messages are of lesser significance).  Rachael and I spent the fall of 2012 hosting a weekly Bible study on the prophets for a group of UGA students who were involved with the campus ministry that we had gone through when we were undergraduates.  That study was a fun experience, but I remember really stressing over how to present ideas that deviated from evangelical orthodoxy; I think 2012 was the year I abandoned inerrancy, and that was a challenging thing to introduce to a bunch of undergrads who had been spiritually raised on it.

My major recollections of the minor prophet study (we called it “Minor League” because puns are the best) mostly revolve around lots of discussion about how the prophets were all upset with people because they weren’t properly worshiping God; it’s kind of a funny thing to remember in hindsight, because there’s so much in the prophets that is more about how frustrated they are with outward shows of piety that overshadow societal problems about which God is more angry.  It’s a messy recollection, and I think that I’d like to revisit the minor prophets soon, assuming I continue my Bible reading after Lent’s concluded.

For the time being, I’m contenting myself with a relatively brisk read-through of the book of Jeremiah.  I’m pretty confident that I’ve read through the entirety of the Bible at least once in the last ten years, but things do get fuzzy after a while.  I picked Jeremiah mostly on a whim; the idea that sticks out most about this book is that Jeremiah engages in a particularly melancholy reflection on the waywardness of Judah.  What I’ve seen in the first quarter of the book reflects that in part, but there are also some things that didn’t really stand out to me in the past.  The first metaphor that Jeremiah explores to describe Judah and Israel’s relationship with God is of a bride who has forsaken her husband; this isn’t an unusual metaphor in the Bible (the book of Hosea is especially famous for using this extended conceit), but it’s a hard one for me to latch on to.  There’s too much of the sense that the relationship is intended to be one between an owner and property, and that description just rubs the wrong way.

Other things that are notable and generally positive include the sections where Jeremiah rips into Judah for not doing enough to care for the marginalized while hiding behind signifiers of extreme piety:

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!” If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever. But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless.

“‘Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury,[a] burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”—safe to do all these detestable things? 11 Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the Lord.

Jeremiah 7:3-11

That’s some really good stuff.

Of course, the flip side of this is that you have to think about all the seriously negative talk about other religions that’s going on here.  Jeremiah’s primarily a lament and theodicy of the Babylonian Exile, and the major narrative that all the writers in the Bible who were grappling with that national trauma pushed was that Israel and Judah got too cozy with non-Jewish religions.  This context must be remembered when you come across bits like this: “They have built the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as offerings to Baal–something I did not command or mention, nor did it enter my mind” (Jer. 19:5).  We don’t actually have any evidence that most of the other religious groups from the time period were engaging in child sacrifice, so things like this accusation are very likely just part of the propaganda.  This is a hard thing to remember; my evangelical instincts are still primed to assume that there was something wrong with the other non-Jewish religions that Jeremiah complains about.  As I’ve been reading through, I had a thought that the constant refrain of Judah’s unfaithfulness might be somehow tied back to the commandments laid down in the Torah following the Exodus.  The Hebrews established a code of faith that had as a significant part of its structure rules for taking care of people in need, and I was thinking that this communal failure was the infidelity that Jeremiah rails against.  I think that might still be a possibility, but you can’t ignore the historical context of why this and other books of the prophets were written, and I realized recently that I had done just that in my reflections.

Lenten Reflections: Week 1

As I previously mentioned, I’m observing Lent this year by setting aside some time every day to read and reflect on the Bible.  This is a practice that I haven’t done in a couple years, and I’m hoping to rediscover some of the substance of my faith in the process.

To begin my project, I figured I would read through one of the gospels, and since in the past I’ve showed a particular favoritism towards Matthew, I would change it up and spend some time reading the Gospel of John.  I’m about halfway through the book at this point, and the effect it’s having is a really strange one.  My reading this time is done with the understanding that the author of John most likely wrote the account with the intent of emphasizing certain aspects of early Christian practices peculiar to whichever church the author was affiliated with.  Because of that, there are multiple passages where the author of John makes a point of explaining to the reader how things that Jesus is portrayed doing reflect passages from earlier scripture which can be retrofitted to be explicitly about the Messiah.  It’s kind of weird realizing that now when just a few years ago I took a much more face value view of the Bible’s textual origins.  The impact I feel most strongly right now is how much I had been taught to rely on inerrancy as a foundational aspect of my faith; so much of evangelicalism is predicated on a supernaturally inflected view of the world that it really does feel like a house of cards collapsing when you pull the base away.  All that’s left is a skeleton of moral imperatives that you suddenly realize were supposed to be the foundation all along.

These specific observations aren’t really anything new (at least in my mind), but I think this is the first time I’ve confronted how recognizing that paradigm shift changes my interaction with the Bible.

One way where this shift becomes really stark is in how I look at the portrayal of the Jews in John’s gospel.  Christians seem to be in the habit of treating the Pharisees and the Saducees who antagonize Jesus in all the gospel accounts as these cartoonish villains, but they ignore the underlying reality that these groups were also major parts of the Jewish religious order of the day; treating them like villains implicitly paints Jews in a negative light (I recognize that there are a lot of complex factors that play into the perpetration of antisemitism in Western culture, but the part that early Christianity’s sharp rejection of its Jewish roots plays shouldn’t be underestimated).  I’m left wondering how much of the portrait of the Pharisees is manufactured by the gospel authors to establish a distance between Christ’s disciples and their religious contemporaries.  The figure of the hypocritical Pharisee is useful for illustrating the type that we see so commonly these days in conservative Christians (you know, the folks who want to impose their personal, byzantine moral code on others for the sake of establishing “moral purity”), but I can’t help wondering precisely how accurate that depiction is.  I don’t doubt that Jesus was arrested and executed because his teachings were taken as heretical to established Judaism, but I wonder how much of it was a political conflict rather than pure cravenness on the part of the Pharisees.

No True Scotsman

This post is the third in a series about faith and identity.  The first two parts can be found here (Part 1, Part 2).

Today’s post is also written by Rachael.


In my previous post in this series, I talked about outgrowing old labels. In this post, I’ll make a case for why find another label at all. But let’s examine some of the ways labeling can be socially complicated, and even violent.

An old joke goes that a Scotsman was offered sugar for his porridge by a waiter, “No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge,” he says, turning it down. The waiter replies, “My cousin Angus is a Scotsman, and he eats sugar on his porridge.” To which the customer angrily replies, “Yes, but no true Scotsman puts sugar on this porridge!”

The No True Scotsman logical fallacy takes this same name. It commonly turns up in many fundamentalist circles, and not just religious ones (for example, you sometimes run across it in fandom when two fans draw up arbitrary lines to determine who really loves Star Wars; the Fake Geek Girl is one version).

This interests me, because growing up as a conservative evangelical, I didn’t often think of myself as a conservative evangelical. I didn’t realize that many of my beliefs were variants in the wider context of the Christian faith. Instead, we were quite proud of our non-denominational status. We were just Christian-Christians, followers of the Bible. I thought of myself as Original Coke, and the Catholics and Methodists and Baptists and Lutherans and so forth as either variants with additives–Diet Cherry Coke–or knockoffs altogether, something only masquerading as the real deal–Pepsi.

No True Scotsman.

Interestingly, this sort of thinking did me a huge disservice, because it didn’t allow me to appreciate that none of us were really Original Coke, especially not myself.

To illustrate this, let’s do a thought experiment. Consider this statement:

“The Bible is universally central to the faith of all Christians.”

Would you agree that statement is generally accurate?

Think about it. The books of the New Testament were written after the death of Christ, and weren’t codified into a canon until centuries afterward. If the above statement is true, then the Apostle Paul and all the members of the early Christian church shouldn’t be called Christians. It would be anachronistic to suggest that believing in the Protestant Bible as used in Western churches today is a prerequisite of Christian faith, because the book is younger than the faith itself.

Both in fandom and religion, the No True Scotsman fallacy is sometimes used as a form of social violence. Labeling is violent when it is done to another person in an attempt to punish, hurt, demean, or diminish another person’s worth or value. It’s where we get racial, gendered, and homophobic slurs: derogatory terms given to one group by another with the intention of demeaning or reducing them.

In the same way, No True Scotsman can be used to police the boundaries of ideological purity and evict anyone who puts the metaphorical sugar on their porridge. If your religious community only allows you to associate with members in good standing, then the threat of No True Scotsman can be an effective and nasty way to keep anyone from rocking the boat, because the price is losing your whole community in one swoop. Conservative evangelical pastor Mark Driscoll has been widely criticised for using such shunning techniques at his church, for example.

Of course, it’s not as simple as “all exclusion is bad”. Sometimes we draw up lines to ensure personal safety in a community. Other times, we guard against cultural appropriation. While it’s a fallacy to exclude people from a complex label for not belonging to a narrow interpretation of that label, it’s also unhelpful to use no labels at all. Especially since labeling can sometimes be a positive thing.

I think self-labeling in particular can be a strongly positive exercise. For myself, I’m curious how other Christians practice their faith outside the evangelical bubble. What other forms do their beliefs take? What other assumptions am I carrying around unawares? What are people of different races, nationalities, and sexual orientations doing in the greater world of the Christian faith?

I also value community. My departure from conservative evangelicalism isn’t unique; where are others like me gathering? Communities are often better at accomplishing their goals than anyone in isolation. Finding community means better opportunities to volunteer for the causes I believe in and support local charity efforts.

Finally, I think self-labeling might be a good chance for me to practice my own faith, by giving up my own power, my own defaults, and disarming myself from using that weapon against others. Self-labeling can be a way to practice humility, to avoid centering the world around my own experiences. Giving yourself a label serves as a reminder of the lens you’ve chosen to use.

Therefore, throughout this series, Jason and I will take a look at how other people are labeling themselves religiously, and examining what those labels mean to them. In the next post, Jason will lay out our goals in a little more detail, and invite you to suggest where we should begin.

Walk Humbly: Heresies, Damn Heresies, and Universalism

All posts in this series refer back to the conversation found here.

I seriously have a difficult time believing that you are a saved believer with the way you speak about God and His Word.

That’s Damon (as usual).  Following the head explodey moment that I discussed last time, things do begin to get really nasty.  I think this is the first time Damon says explicitly that he doubts my status as a Christian, and for anyone who’s been reading along, it’s definitely not the last.

The issue here, as far as I can tell, seems to be that Damon believes my position on the nature of Jesus’ ministry (that Jesus, as one part of the Trinity, had full authority to ignore portions of the Law as necessary to better fulfill its central purpose as he laid it out in Matthew 22:37-40) and of the Bible (that it is divinely inspired, but it is not inerrant) are heretical and actually dangerous to the spiritual well being of other Christians (“[T]he Bible warns about continued interaction with people who teach such outright lies and blasphemy in the name of Christ.“).

Damon doesn’t cite a specific text here to back up his assertion, but I’m guessing that he’s thinking of 2 Peter 2.  It’s quite a chapter.  Peter pretty much lays out a heap of condemnation on what the NIV calls “false teachers.”  These false teachers “in their greed […] will exploit you with fabricated stories” and “they mouth empty, boastful words” (2 Peter 2:3, 18).  There’s more than that, so here’s the chapter for anyone who’s curious about all the awful things Peter has to say about false teachers.  Damon may also be considering 2 Timothy 2:14-19 or 2 Corinthians 11:1-15, though I don’t know his mind.  The point seems pretty clear that there are always people who will aim to lead us from the path of Christ.

As I’ve said, I’m not a fan of proof texting, so instead of whipping out a counter verse that contradicts this stuff, I’m going to point toward a passage that I think helps refine the meaning here.

19 This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: 20 If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21 Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God 22 and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him. 23 And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. 24 The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us. (1 John 3:19-24)

That whole chapter’s actually fantastic if you’d like to go give it a once over.  False teachers miss the point that the writer of 1 John makes about declaring Christ and demonstrating love.  Defining love is a complicated thing, but I think here the definition that Paul puts forward in 1 Corinthians 13 (that most ubiquitous of passages) will suffice.  All I have been arguing from the beginning of this conversation is that the gospel is founded on the commandment to love.

In writing to Damon, I don’t make reference to many passages from the Bible, but that’s largely because I’m arguing about an interpretation that’s looking at the broad trends of Scripture.  Honestly, pointing out all these passages feels a little uncomfortable after my last rant about proof texting, but I think at this point it’s important for the sake of flashing my Christian credentials to the fundamentalists who would deny that I have a right to that identity (since that’s what people like Damon want: evidence that I can make an argument based on the Bible).

Of course, that’s not the biggest ‘heresy’ that I’m espousing.  I happen to be a universalist, which completely blows Damon’s Calvinist paradigm.  The thought that a Christian might not believe that God intends to damn people to eternal torment is apparently anathema, since when I brought this up in passing, it was pretty much the end of the conversation.  As Damon put it after I finally got fed up and wrote my spiritual history for him,

“Nearly every paragraph leads me to believe that you are not part of the Body of Christ, culminating in your universalist claim, which is, and I cannot say this strongly enough, ABSOLUTELY heretical and completely not in line with the Gospel or any other Biblical teaching. Simply put, I cannot fathom how anyone can read the same words I do and come to such a conclusion.”

And you know what I gather from this reaction?  Damon, and fundamentalists like him, can’t stand the fact that God’s big enough for people who understand him differently.  It’s the only explanation I can come up with to explain being so resistant to the idea that other Christians may disagree with them on a variety of theological points that are all debatable.  Then again, I doubt many fundamentalists of this stripe are comfortable with allowing anyone besides themselves to own the Christian label.

Let’s back up for a second, though, and consider why Damon says that universalism is heresy.  Now, to start off, I should clarify that when I identify myself as a universalist, I’m doing so with a hopeful stance.  I can’t be dogmatic about the existence or nonexistence of hell (the Bible gives conflicting evidence), but based on how I understand God’s character, I find the nonexistence of hell more morally consistent.  I hope it is the case.

As for why Damon thinks this is such a bad thing to believe and counter to the gospel, I suppose it goes something like this.  Many people are familiar with the famous video from Penn Jillette where he discusses what kind of mindset a Christian who believes in hell must have to be so persistent in trying to convert others who really don’t want to be converted.  If you believe in eternal conscious torment, and you believe Jesus is the way to avoid it, then it is not in line with a gospel of love to fail to tell people about that.

Okay, so far that makes sense, but if you throw in the monkey wrench of hell not really being something that’s hanging over everyone’s head, then what happens?  Where is the motivation to continue telling everyone about Jesus?  Heck, what did Jesus do if he didn’t save us from hell?  This problem goes back a ways to what Damon said about substitutionary atonement as the explanation for the Crucifixion:

“If the death of Christ is not the complete substitutionary atonement for all sins of all believers across all time, then what is our faith in at all? […] To what end do we believe?”

Without hell, what was the point of Jesus dying?  I don’t know.  It’s a mystery.  At best, I can say that he died as a means of saving us from our sins.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that we were hellbound before the Crucifixion, because sin is pretty destructive all on its own.  Nonetheless, the gospel isn’t about avoiding hell.  It’s about loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself.  I don’t see anything about a particular doctrine of hell that impacts that message.

I find Damon’s assertion that the nonexistence of hell is heretical troubling, not only because it denies my identity, but because it suggests that at the core of his understanding of the gospel is fear.

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” (1 John 4:18)

I am only trying to drive out fear, so all this ‘heretic’ crap needs to stop.

Denying people’s identities is one of the most debasing things you can do to them psychologically, and it infuriates me to see evangelical fundamentalists (which seems to be more and more the primary group within evangelicalism at large) doing this very thing in such a shamelessly hostile way.  All it does is circumscribe the tribe and insulate the people on the inside of that group so they can believe that they are a persecuted minority while the rest of the Church is just trying to get on with doing good work in the world.

God is for everyone who wants him, and I’ll be damned if someone else is going to tell me I’m not a Christian.

Walk Humbly: The Center Will Not Hold

All posts in this series refer back to the conversation found here.

“There is literally so much in that that I disagree with, I neither know how to nor will begin to respond. All I can say is that I got whiplash when I got to the last paragraph. I literally have no idea how you made that connection. I liked the paragraph before it, but then something exploded…or something.”

This is where things fall apart.  Following a great deal of discussion regarding whether Jesus was legally bound to uphold the letter of the Law in addition to the spirit of it, I finally reached the point where I made Damon’s head explode (that wasn’t intentional at all, and I apologize to anyone whose head has been exploded because of my writing; clearly I am a danger to people and need to stop publishing things if that’s the case).  It’s rather unfortunate that we got here, because up until this point I honestly felt like the conversation was going somewhere, even though we still hadn’t found a whole lot to agree on.

Not so much anymore.

From this point forward in the conversation, things get a lot more heated, and I’m still trying to make sense of how it happened.  In my response prior to the one from Damon that I quoted up at the top here, I tried to tie together the idea of Jesus’ ministry being about moral obligation trumping apparent legalities with why I am not an inerrantist.  Then I pointed out that I think it’s sinful and immoral (which are equivalent terms in my mind) to try to spread information that I don’t believe is true, hence my support of evolution as the best available explanation for the ascendancy of life.

Perhaps I didn’t make a strong enough link in my original writing to explain that train of thought.  I’m certainly not immune to making logical leaps on the page without explaining how I got there in my mind.

Nonetheless, I feel like Damon’s response is unwarranted and ungracious here.  He writes,

“I hold the Bible, all of it, as my top authority in every realm it touches. You do not. I can explain why my perspective is not only viable but the best approach, but you won’t accept it, likely rejecting it with non-Biblical reasoning, which I simply don’t care about. Much of what you say is flat-out heretical to what the Bible expressly states, but that’s fine to you because you don’t care about the Bible.”

This kind of accusation hurts deeply, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that these words and many more that came from Damon afterwards distressed me.  Anyone who’s been following my blog since its inception should understand (I hope) that though I don’t identify as evangelical anymore, I still take my faith as a Christian very seriously.  I treat the Bible differently from most evangelicals (it’s one of the main reasons I don’t identify as such anymore), but that doesn’t mean I don’t care about it.  I certainly care enough to be cautious in making absolute statements about what it does and does not declare heretical.  I also care enough to explore and understand as best as I can what foundation lies underneath my faith in the gospel (rather than zooming around a Mobius strip of “the Bible is reliable because the Bible says it’s reliable because the Bible says it’s reliable because the Bible…”).  I’m not going to disrespect Scripture by making it look like a holy hamster wheel.

The accusation that I don’t care about the Bible is really just a side issue here.  The worse one is how Damon has buried in the midst of his accusations one shining confession: “I simply don’t care.”  I’ve said it before, and I’ll continue saying it.

This is bad evangelism.

Yes, I am quoting Damon out of context here.  There’s a whole lot of sentence before that specially trimmed quotation that sheds light on what he really means by it.  I admit freely and clearly that in this particular instance, I am prooftexting Damon’s words to make a point.  It’s not fair to him, and it’s more than a little disrespectful of me to do it, but that is how I feel about the way he and many other evangelicals approach the Bible.

It is not a book that you should manipulate for the sake of your own opinions and then pass them off as objective truth.

Take more care than that.

Walk Humbly: Background Reading

All posts in this series refer back to the conversation found here.

“I’m also curious about more of your beliefs, though, too (not so much the history as current perspectives).” -Damon, in response to my question about his background.

Following the discussion of evangelicalism and fundamentalism, I was curious about why Damon wasn’t familiar with those terms, and about his spiritual journey in general.  This is a common consideration in talking with people that when you’re having a conversation about beliefs, you should try to get to know one another a little bit.  Knowing a person’s background can help out immensely in trying to understand them.  It’s also a good way to demonstrate that you care about them; I don’t take the time to ask about the background of people I argue with anonymously on forums (given the medium, I suspect few would be willing to give many details about themselves anyway).  With Damon, because our conversation had been protracted at this point, I felt it was a necessary thing to do; I wanted to better understand where he was coming from, so I flat out asked him where he came from.

I have no criticisms of Damon’s background as he presented it, though in reading over the whole conversation again, it occurs to me that I wish I had done more to point out that his beliefs about the Bible were received from the people with whom he studied it.  I didn’t fall into evangelicalism independently after I decided to become a Christian; heck, I doubt anyone even decides to become a Christian without some communal influence.  I only bring this up because in the subsequent exchanges, I think it becomes more and more apparent that Damon is clinging to the belief that he’s reading the Bible the right way because that’s how the Bible says it should be read.

Setting the tautological problem aside for the moment, I find this line of reasoning concerning because it fails to give credit to all the people who have had a part in a person’s spiritual education.  For my part, I can go back and say that I was heavily influenced in my understanding of Christianity first by my pastor in college, then my in-laws after I got married, then my non-Christian friends when I moved to where I live now.  Along the way I read a lot of different people’s work discussing issues related to Christianity, and that had an impact as well.  Never in my nearly nine years as a Christian have I been learning about God in a vacuum.  I feel like when Damon says “I immediately got to [reading the Bible] and read through it cover to cover (while also attending church and going to a Bible study). […] Over time, I came to understand how several of such beliefs conflicted with my belief in the Bible, and I changed my understandings,” he’s glossing over that very important factor of who his spiritual mentors were.

That’s kind of a big oversight.

It’s especially bad when you consider that within evangelical circles, one of the most common ways that Christians are taught to perform evangelism is to prepare personal testimonies that they can deliver to people.  These testimonies are typically not designed to appeal to objective evidence in trying to persuade others about the value of Christianity; they’re about telling stories to others.  Those stories are almost invariably very personal in nature, because they revolve around telling someone where you’ve been in life, what kind of things you’ve struggled with, and how becoming a Christian has affected you.  It’s a lot to lay out for a stranger.

It’s also a lot to lay out to a stranger, which is why typically you have to earn the right to tell someone else about yourself; the fastest way to do that is to ask after them.  Try to get their story.

And for God’s sake, don’t do it with your fingers in your ears; actually listen to what the other person’s telling you instead of just waiting until it’s your turn to speak.

Besides ignoring the fact of nondivine influences on his own development, I feel like Damon made a much more offensive error in telling me that he wasn’t concerned about learning my history.  Yes, he asked about my current beliefs, but it feels dishonest to explain all of those without the context of where I’ve been as a Christian.  I can give an explanation of why I don’t believe in the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, but without the context of all the years where I struggled with that doctrine as it forced me to come to conclusions that weighed against my conscience and the reading and thinking I had to do to finally reject it, my explanation is likely to fall flat.

Also, and this doesn’t factor much in debate (but it matters a whole heck of a lot when it comes to evangelism), but not asking about me hurts.  It shows a lack of concern for the other person, which is totally damning if your goal is to share your own opinions in a manner that will be well received.

But I’ll get more into that later.

Walk Humbly: Defining Terms

All posts in this series refer back to the conversation found here.

“[T]he Christian faith is not about feeling or convincing. It’s about God, through His spirit, revealing and convicting people of the truth.”

This is Damon’s response to the article from Defeating the Dragons that I mentioned last time.  He’s disagreeing with Samantha Field’s statement that “the typical evangelical teachings about faith usually involve this nebulous idea that “faith” equals “certainty”– that you feel sure.”

As far as I can tell, Damon’s model of faith is built around the concept of divine revelation.  You can’t believe in God without God first telling you that he’s there.  At that point, according to Damon, you don’t get a say in whether you have faith or not.  He uses as his proof text the famous passage from Ephesians 2:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Damon’s interpreting that first verse where Paul calls faith “the gift of God” to mean that faith literally must be received from God.  I think from there he might be using verse 9 to support the argument that we can’t do anything to obtain faith, though I’m not entirely sure if that’s the case.  For what it’s worth, my interpretation of this passage goes something like this: we receive salvation as a freely given gift from God, and our reception of it is predicated on faith in Christ.  The “not by works” bit refers to the fact that salvation is not something earned.  The last verse (which doesn’t usually figure in to discussions of this passage’s meaning about salvation) points out that an expression of that salvation is the good work that we do.

I don’t see anything in this passage that expressly denies the possibility that people may choose faith.  Yes, it comes from God, but as a gift.  Gifts can be accepted or rejected.

From there, Damon affirms this list of beliefs as foundational for his faith:

Inspiration and Inerrancy of Scripture
Deity of Christ
Virgin birth
Substitutionary atonement
Physical resurrection and physical Second Coming

Field puts together a pretty succinct explanation of why, from a historical view of the Church, most of these doctrines are suspect as the essentials of Christian faith.  Belief in biblical inerrancy is hard, if not impossible, to put into practice with a view towards the entirety of the Bible.  As Ned Flanders so famously put it, “I’ve done everything the Bible says!  Even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff!”  Substitutionary atonement is only one of a multitude of theories of how the Crucifixion operated in relation to salvation (pretty much all of which require a good bit of inference from what’s said in the Bible about it).  Heck, even the concept of Virgin birth, which I have no problem affirming, isn’t really provable, and is only significant if you subscribe to the additional doctrine of original sin, which theorizes that the sinful nature of humanity was passed down from Adam’s fallen seed (essentially Jesus had to be born of a virgin so he wouldn’t be infected with the sin virus that we all get from our fathers) and which first entered Christian thought in the fourth century by way of Augustine, a huge hedonist prior to his conversion who likely was working through some of his own hangups when he was theologizing.  As for belief in a physical Second Coming, well, I guess you can believe in that if you like, but it doesn’t mesh with Church tradition, and it additionally tends to foster an attitude that this current life doesn’t matter.

In my response to Damon following his affirmation of those same beliefs listed above, I try to lay out my understanding of a couple of terms that Damon says he’s not familiar with.  I was surprised that he expressed unfamiliarity with ‘evangelical’ and ‘fundamentalist,’ especially since they’re rather commonly used terms.  This whole conversation seemed to me to be framed around the question of whether there was a legitimate alternative to practicing Christianity in the manner common to evangelicals, but the terms hadn’t been laid out.

Now, I should say at this point that I’ve been trying to remain fair to Damon.  The conversation started because we had a disagreement, and he approached me for further discussion.  And up to this point things were pretty civil between us.  But look at what I said about fundamentalism:

Fundamentalism is not a specific ideology so much as a methodology. It can be applied to any subculture as those people within the subset who hold to their beliefs so strongly that they are unwilling to consider differing opinions as potentially valid. This doesn’t mean that non-fundamentalists don’t hold their positions strongly, only that they are willing to listen to people they disagree with in an effort to find common ground.

I think that’s a pretty good definition of the term (also as a sidenote, I pulled much of my discussion of fundamentalism in that response from this post by Fred Clark at Slacktivist).  Fundamentalists of any kind of ideology are the ones that people generally recognize as the extremists, the ones who are certain that no one else but them may be right about the way the world works.  They almost always fail to uphold Micah’s exhortation “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly” (if their ideology even gives any credence to that passage).

So yes, I’m trying to be fair to Damon.

But from here it becomes more and more apparent that even though he’s not familiar with the term, Damon knows a lot about fundamentalism.

Walk Humbly: Trust the Bible

All posts in this series refer back to the conversation found here.

“I think he does a great job explaining the trustworthiness of the Bible.”

Damon’s referring to a video that he sent me of a lecture that Dr. Voddie Baucham delivered to a church regarding why he trusts the Bible as the Word of God.

Baucham’s explanation builds on this assertion:

“I choose to believe the Bible because it’s a reliable collection of historical documents written by eyewitnesses during the lifetime of other eyewitnesses.  They report supernatural events that took place in fulfillment of specific prophecies and claimed that their writings were divine rather than human in origin.”

This is not the first time I’ve heard these kinds of assertions about the Bible’s reliability.  Several years ago, when I was still very much an evangelical and had a keen interest in apologetics (because serious Christians are serious about proselytizing), I received a copy of Josh McDowell’s New Evidence That Demands a Verdict as a gift.  It’s a thick tome laid out in a column format filled to brimming with what McDowell calls his “lecture notes” for his arguments in favor of Christianity as the One True Faith.  I quite enjoyed it at the time, although it’s a slog to read through, and I only made it about halfway through the book before I moved on to read something else.

McDowell’s case is extremely similar to Baucham’s, and when I was watching Baucham’s lecture, I kept going back to what I remembered from Evidence.  It’s mostly appeals to historical accuracy based on a particular narrative of how we received the text of the Bible, which you have to accept at face value to find McDowell’s argument convincing.  Besides the historical appeals, perhaps what stands out most in my memory is a part where McDowell lays out several excuses that he believes non-Christians make for not converting.  He says rather bluntly that in many cases, a failure to believe Christianity has nothing to do with the evidence presented and everything to do with the person’s own will.

I think that McDowell’s partially correct here, but it has more to do with the fact that I think his evidence is flawed than that a person who refuses to be persuaded by it is stubborn.  Faith in any kind of divinity requires a willingness to accept the possibility of supernatural phenomena, and that is a question which can’t be objectively answered through natural observations.  The metaphysical presuppositions of a Christian and an atheist don’t align, so of course arguments for Christianity which rely on appeals to physical evidence will be ineffective.

And it’s those appeals to physical evidence which under gird Baucham’s assertion about why he believes the Bible.  Well, not just believes the Bible, but believes it to be inerrant and a text that should be taken literally.

For what it’s worth, I consider the texts of the New Testament to be reliable historical documents, and I take their accounts of Jesus as reflective of God’s character as revealed in Christ.  I don’t know that they’re entirely factually accurate, and I don’t think we can know.

Nonetheless, I do trust the Bible.  I just don’t trust it in the same way that Damon thinks I should.  I’m also certainly uncertain about my faith.

After viewing the video and considering what Damon had been saying, I came across this blog post by Samantha Field over at Defeating the Dragons.  It reminded me of our conversation because I had noticed that Damon seemed to be relying on his position of Biblical inerrancy being correct because he needed that certainty to hold up his faith.  It’s something I feel that I understand because I also really wrestled with questions of certainty when I was a new Christian.  I wanted to know that God was good and just and was actually there, and part of my voracious consumption of apologetics books was as much about convincing myself of my position as it was of learning how to persuade others.

I wanted certainty to keep away my fear.  Eventually I learned to let go of certainty because it was doing nothing to help me grow in my faith.  As Samantha points out, a faith founded on certainty is neat and tidy, but I don’t think that’s a faith that really goes anywhere.  I’ve been learning to appreciate the messiness that comes with doubt and the humility it reinforces.

I could be wrong about everything.  Even about trusting the Bible.