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Theology

The Parable of the Good Samaritan, revised

[content note: violence, racism, transphobia, misogyny]

There was once a young black man, traveling alone. It had been a long, hot, grueling day and he was eager to be home. As the hour grew late he decided to take a shortcut home through a neighborhood. There, he saw a group of men armed with clubs and guns, and he felt his heart begin to race. He told himself to stay calm, to look respectful. It didn’t do any good. He saw them start to run toward him– he put his arms in the air, but when they didn’t stop, he threw himself on the ground and prayed.

No one answered his prayer as they viciously beat him. No one came when he felt his bones begin to snap. Finally, they left him alone, in the middle of the road, and spread tape around his prone, dying body.

POLICE LINE — DO NOT CROSS, it said.

He could hear voices as people began to gather, could hear them over the pounding in his ears as his heart struggled to beat.

“He does have a wide nose. You can see it, plain as day.”

“Probably stole those skittles, anyway.”

“I heard he stands on the corner and sells cigarettes.”

“Actually, I heard it was CDs.”

He could feel their stares. He could feel it when they crossed to the other side of the street to pass by him.

***

There was once a trans woman trying to move through her day without attracting any attention. She hadn’t eaten anything, or had anything to drink, since she’d left her house that morning but it had been long enough where that didn’t matter. She had to stop at the grocery store, there wasn’t anything left to cook for her family that night, but her bladder was about to burst. She stared at the door to the ladies room, nervous but trying not to be. Finally, taking a breath and bracing herself, she slipped into the bathroom and hurried into the closest stall, heedless to how clean it was or if the toilet was clogged.

She didn’t notice the man watching her enter the bathroom. Didn’t see his hands clench into fists, or rage spark in his eyes.

Exiting the stall, she kept her eyes down and her body as small as she could make it. As she reached for the towel to dry her hands, an arm stopped her. Terrified, her stomach dropping into her feet, she met his eyes in the mirror. It was the last thing she saw before he started beating her.

Minutes later, she realized she was on the floor. Everything hurt, but she could hear voices.

“I tried to tell you about those predators.”

“It’s so sick. Gender confusion is ruining our culture.”

“Pervert. Rapist.”

What hurt even worse was the silence as they left her behind, bleeding and broken.

***

There was once a woman at a college party. It was the biggest kegger of the year, and she was out to enjoy the night with her friends– the last night she’d probably get to spend with most of them. After this it was graduation and job searching and moving away and adulthood. She didn’t want to think about it. Tonight she wanted to be carefree one last time.

She spent the night on the dance floor, had a couple drinks. After a few hours she settled onto a couch between two of her friends, but wanted one more beer before calling it a night. As she was about to get up to get it, one of her best friends offered to get it for her. Grateful, since she was tired from dancing and her shoes were killing her, she handed him her cup.

A little while later, she started feeling awful. Maybe three had been too much– but that didn’t seem right. She didn’t normally get this drunk off just three beers. Dizzy and sick, she turned to her best friend and asked him to take her home.

She doesn’t remember anything after that when she wakes up. Nauseated, she can taste bile. Slowly she realizes she’s freezing. Her dress is torn to pieces and with a horrified shock she realizes her panties are gone. What in the world happened to me? Opening her eyes, she nearly shrieks at the cockroach on the ground next to her face. Why am I behind a dumpster?

That’s when she hears the voices.

Slut. Whore.”

“He has such a bright future ahead of him.”

“Did you hear he was a swimmer?”

“Wait. Isn’t he on the football team?”

“At any rate, she shouldn’t have been drinking. What did she expect would happen?”

Each word is a knife in her heart. The sound that sinks the deepest, into her bones, is the sound of them leaving.

***

But the people who we see as a Samaritan– Syrian refugees. The #BlackLivesMatter movement. Gay Pride. Trans men and women.– the people we despise, the people who make us uncomfortable, who disrupt our otherwise “pleasant society” … as they travel, they come to where the black man lies in the road, where the trans woman is crumpled up in a bathroom, where a woman lies torn and bleeding behind a dumpster, and their hearts are stirred to compassion.

They bandage their wounds, they offer their help. They give them shelter, a space to heal and to be safe.

Jesus turns to us and asks “Which of these was a neighbor?”

The expert in the law, a man who has dozens of Bible verses at his fingertips, who goes to church every Sunday, who tithes from every paycheck and serves in the bus ministry, replies: “The ones who had mercy, who were kind.”

With a prayer that we will finally, finally, understand, Jesus whispers “Go and do thou likewise.”

Artwork by Jan Wignants
Theology

what does it take to be a Christian?

I’m bumping into this question a lot recently.

I’ve started working at a bookstore, and a little while ago a man came in to kill time and chat. Most of our conversation was interesting, and at one point we started talking about faith. He grew up Christian but no longer identifies that way, and was talking about some of the problems he has with the Bible– the same problems any moral person should have, in my opinion, like the fact that it endorses genocide and slavery. My response was largely a shrug, and when he asked how I could be so ambivalent I replied with “I believe that the Bible is a complicated library the reflects a rich and ancient religious tradition. It’s the views of those who spent lifetimes trying to understand God and how they relate to us.”

Ok, so I probably wasn’t quite that eloquent, but I’ve written about this topic often enough that I’m comfortable talking about it with strangers in pick-up theological discussions. He instantly jumped on my answer though, with an actual “aha!”– telling me that attitude disqualified me from being a Christian. Christians believe the Bible is the Word of God, he said.

My response was simple, if a little heated: “A Christian is someone who follows the teachings of Christ.”

***

I can’t find the quote now, but a long time ago I read an analogy that I liked. Veganism isn’t about believing that people should follow a plant-based diet. Being vegan means actually eating a plant-based diet. If you say you believe we should only eat plants, but eat bacon every other day, you’re not actually a vegan and insisting that you are because of your “beliefs” is ridiculous. They went on to apply this example to Christianity: you can have any sort of “beliefs” about Jesus and God and the Bible, but if you fail to act like a Christian, then calling yourself a Christian because of your supposed intellectual positions is equally ridiculous.

I thought of that quote the other day when I got this comment, which I’ll quote from in part:

I would have a lot more respect for you if you would just stop applying the Christian label to yourself. In every article you seem to revile the teachings of scripture. You don’t seem to hold a confident belief in any traditional Christian doctrine. I doubt you really believe the resurrection occurred or believe there is a personal God or afterlife. So why do you cling to the title Christian?

He went on to accuse me of “infiltrating” Christianity so I can “destroy it” from the inside– honestly, it’s one of the more hilarious comments I’ve ever gotten, right along with being accused of sorcery. But, I get these sorts of comments and e-mails all the time, and they fit a spectrum of everything from frothing-at-the-mouth to concern trolling. I don’t seem to hold a confident belief in Christian doctrine, and to this sort of person that means I’m most definitely not a Christian.

The fact that I do my best to act  like Jesus taught us to doesn’t make a lick of difference.

Of course, I have the freedom to act this way because of an intellectual position: I don’t believe a loving God would subject anyone to eternal conscious torment. My views on the afterlife are continuously evolving, but that growth happens with the basic assumption that the afterlife doesn’t matter as much as the physical present. Jesus is Immanuel, God With Us; he became man and dwelt among us. He thought that our physical existence mattered so much that he took on human form.

His teachings are centered on the actions of loving God and each other with all our hearts, souls, and minds. Blessed are the mourners, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, the salt of the earth– blessed are they for what they do (Mt. 5). The Kingdom of Heaven will be inherited by those who fed and housed and clothed and healed and visited (Mt. 25). On the road to Damascus, Paul was confronted by a Jesus focused on what he was doing, not what he believed (Acts 9). Later, another follower of Jesus taught that faith without works is dead (Jas. 2), and John the Beloved said “if we say we have fellowship with him and walk in darkness we lie and do not practice the truth, but if we walk in the light … the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin” (I Jn. 1).

To my childhood self– and to many others– the above paragraph is heresy. I’d toss it out, and the rest of this blog, wholesale on that paragraph alone. For it is by grace alone that we are saved, not by works. Entrance to heaven isn’t something we could possibly earn. We cannot possibly be “good enough” to deserve salvation, which is why Jesus had to be crucified. To even suggest an alternative method of seeing these passages means that I’m hopelessly lost in darkness, and most likely one of those God has given over to a reprobate mind.

Except I’m working with an entirely different context than I used to. When I was growing up, nothing was as important as where I would spend eternity– nothing. Considering I believed there were only two options– paradise or torment– that’s the only position that makes sense. In that framework, Christianity must of necessity be preoccupied, even consumed with answering the question “how do we avoid hell?” Catholics answer it one way, Protestants (in general) another– but there are thousands of conflicting views on how to be sure we’ve made it. In my childhood church it was to confess our sin, repent of it, and accept Jesus’ offering of salvation– which we did in the Sinner’s Prayer.

But that’s not my framework anymore.

It doesn’t mean that I don’t think that vein of theological questioning isn’t important. As much as Matthew 25, James 2, I Corinthians 13, and Mark 6 has become more of my Christian foundation than Romans 10, I still find concepts like the Resurrection and Salvation incredibly important to how I think of my faith. I believe in the Resurrection– in many ways, my hope is tied up in it. Part of my faith rests in everything the Resurrection means, but I don’t have to walk around firmly and intellectually convinced that the Resurrection is a factual, historical event on which our entire religion is hinged. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, but whether or not it actually literally happened matters less than whether or not I follow the teachings of Jesus. Do I love my neighbor? Do I feed the hungry, heal the sick, visit the prisoner? Do I feast with publicans and sinners?

The theological concepts that constitute our religion, as well as the two-millennium history we have of arguing about them, are important. They’re important enough to me that I’m planning on starting seminary this fall (if I’m accepted) … but they’re not important to what makes me a Christian. That’s based on what I do, not what I think. We now see through a glass darkly; our understandings of God and religion are cloudy, only grasped in bits and pieces. But, in this present, it’s love that we can count on.

Theology

thy word is a lamp unto my feet

In college I picked up Beth Moore’s So Long, Insecurity while browsing in a Lifeway. You’d think, given my interests, that would be a book I’d be excited about– and initially I was. But, in her introduction, she spends (what seems to my recollection a significant amount of) time telling us that So Long, Insecurity is a book that God wanted her to write, a book that God gave to her, and that she heard God audibly speaking to her about — and I found the whole thing off-putting.

It wasn’t the first time I’d encountered the idea of God speaking audible, actual, words to Christians– that God does this is a pretty common idea in evangelical culture. But it wasn’t something I’d ever personally experienced, and the thought of hearing God’s voice inside my head, to be quite honest, freaked me out. My instinct was that if that ever happened, it would be a sign of a significant mental illness. I was solidly certain that God did not do that, it did not make any sense, and all those people who said they heard God talking to them were either a) in genuine need of psychiatric help, b) lying, or c) confusing “God’s voice” with something else.

I still don’t think I’m wrong about that.

Interestingly enough, I’ve bumped into this concept again a few times in the past few days. At the end of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Joshua relates a story of how his parents met and fell in love. His mother, sick and tired of men hitting on her, prays that Gregg– his father– won’t call her. Gregg almost has his mind made up to call her, when this happens:

But that night Dad encountered something different. He clearly sensed God speaking to him. “Gregg, don’t call her.” (207)

There’s an interesting word there– sensed. The following muddied that up a bit, but that was the sort of thing I used to comfort myself way back when. God hadn’t actually talked to Gregg Harris, he’d just sensed something, and that was how the Holy Spirit chose to work in that moment … yadda yadda.

I spent a lot of time– a lot of time– trying to understand this Christian phenomena of people hearing God’s voice. When people were talking about it, I tended to point to two incidents in my life that felt like they were an approximation of what everyone else was going on about.

My sophomore year in college I was facing a decision: did I want to continue on in the piano performance major, switch to piano pedagogy, or completely change tacks and become a music education major– a major designed for employment (a serious question for a Stay-at-Home-Daughter). One day, as I was vacuuming my dorm room, it suddenly crystallized for me: I wanted to be an education major. The only thing holding me back, I realized, was my old church which we no longer attended. It was like an epiphany– all the doubt and worry I’d had evaporated. In relating this experience to others, I depended on language like God’s calling. At the time it felt true, but looking back it was a fairly ordinary moment. I’d been chewing on the problem for a while and had finally made a decision. When I’d finally made up my mind, I felt a sense of rightness about it– and I was convinced that was God’s doing.

The second reference point I had was after the man who raped me broke our engagement. For the next month devastated doesn’t quite encompass the despair I felt. I was rudderless, broken … and I felt ruined. Looking back over that time, I feel almost positive that if he’d asked, I would’ve taken him back in a heartbeat.

Which makes it weird that I didn’t.

About a month after he’d dumped me, he called my dorm room and asked if we could have a do-over, to ignore that the last month had ever happened. I remember everything about this moment vividly, even sharply. I felt my lips shape words, felt my jaw slide up and down, felt my lungs forcing air through my throat, felt everything get cold … and it all felt like it was happening to someone else. I told him no.

For several years I talked about this incident as though God had saved me from myself, that something had happened that made me speak those words. Today, though, I’ve learned about disassociation, and I know now that’s what happened. He called me, and hearing his voice, his needling little manipulative voice, caused me to disassociate. That floating, out-of-body, numbing experience is fairly common for trauma survivors when they encounter a trigger … such as their abuser trying to control them again. But, when I told this story to others, I attributed the dissociation to God’s intervention, to God’s voice.

I still don’t know what other Christians experience when they say they hear God’s voice.

All I know is that I was able to dress up a handful of experiences as being “God’s voice,” and everyone around me accepted it. I’m led to believe that maybe my experience isn’t unusual. Maybe we’re all dressing up our experiences as being some monumental, mystical thing when in reality they’re all fairly ordinary events.

***

Outside of the weirdness that is God speaking directly into our thoughts with things like “become a music education major” or “don’t call her,” there’s a slightly more common version. The experiences I’ve related above are generally recognized as special– even Joshua notes how God saying “don’t call her” was “something different.”

But God speaking to us is part-and-parcel of the Christian cultural experience. If you’re not experiencing God revealing Themself to you, well …

This seems to come about in a myriad of ways. Feeling peace about a decision. The tug of your conscience. Events lining up in a particular way, like a fleece being wet or dry. By far it seems the most common of these is when Bible verses spring up into you head, seemingly unbidden, at important moments. I spent the bulk of my childhood, teenage, and early adult years memorizing and hoarding Bible verses. From AWANAS, to my entire church memorizing whole books and lengthy passages together, to the endless stream of verses I had to replicate on quizzes every week in college, those are still at my fingertips.

It struck me yesterday as I was again trying to figure out what the hell Christians mean by “God’s voice speaking to them” that it’s probably nothing more significant than that. The Bible is sprinkled with apparent directives to memorize it— to write Scripture on the “tables of your heart,” and we do it because those verses are supposed to be helpful. In a moment when we’re faced with temptation, if we have God’s Word at our fingertips we’ll have the strength to defeat it. If we need to make an important decision, we’ll be impalpably guided by those verses.

It’s not that I don’t think that Scripture can be a guide, a reference point, or that it can’t be helpful. It’s a beautiful library, rich with human experience and wisdom of all kinds. I still — mostly– appreciate having so much of it knocking around inside of my head, even if it is all in Elizabethan English. And maybe it’s a good thing so many of us endeavor to make our sacred religious text a primary touchstone for our lives.

But it doesn’t necessarily mean that every time a Bible verse comes to mind that it’s God directly using that to speak to us. I memorize things easily, so I also have a lot of song lyrics and movie quotes at my disposal, and those have always come up as often as Bible verses in my walkaday life.

The problem with believing that every time a Bible verse comes floating out of long-term memory (and yes, I just saw Inside Out so I’m referencing that) is that it’s coming to us not just with the verse, but with the sermons we’ve heard about the verse, the interpretations we have about that verse. If it is God, it’s not just God– it’s our culture, our lives, the way we’ve recorded our experiences, the ways our recollection is shaped and molded over time.

I’ve gotten to the point when I can hear a phrase like God’s justice rolling down like the watersfrom Amos 5:24– and I’m not cringing away from it. It doesn’t have associations with God’s wrath and judgment. I used to hear that and picture a flood washing away a city, with dogs and children being air-lifted away from rooftops. Now, I see the way a river like the Nile or the Jordan enriches a land, how they make it possible for life to grow, for people to to thrive on their banks. That shift happened because my way of thinking about that verse shifted. My whole theological system surrounding a concept like “justice” transformed.

Nothing about those words, that verse, changed. I changed. There’s new meaning in that verse for me– it’s one of my favorites, now. But today I know better than to confuse how I understand a verse with God’s voice.

photo by Andres MH
Theology

what Christians mean when they say I’m “bitter”

My great-grandfather was stationed in the Aleutian Islands during WWII. He told us a lot of stories about living there– like being trapped inside the mess hall once because a moose was standing out in the street and no sane person screws around with a moose— but one of the tidbits that stuck out to me the most was an interesting detail about their water. It wasn’t clear, and had a bitter taste to it. When he asked someone why, they explained that the pipes were made out of wood and plants had grown through them to get to the water. Those roots left an oily residue that caused the bitterness.

That was the mental image I carried with me any time I heard a Sunday school lesson or sermon on bitterness. Most often the speaker would turn to Hebrews 12:15 where it uses the phrase “root of bitterness,” and I would think about those wooden pipes in Alaska.

In my experience, “bitterness,” much like “sin,” is one of those terms that get tossed about in Christian culture without a clear, workable definition. In contrast to colloquial use, all those sermons and lessons were pretty consistent about what bitterness is: it’s “unforgiveness fermented.” It’s holding onto a hurt or slight long after you probably should have let it go. It’s resentment.

A while ago I wouldn’t have been able to tolerate reading all those posts and sermon transcripts I’ve linked to above because bitterness was being used, almost constantly, as a cudgel to beat me. I stopped thinking about bitterness entirely, stopped evaluating whether or not I was bitter– and it’s been one of the healthiest, most life-affirming decisions I’ve ever made. If someone called me bitter, I’d mentally shrug it off because I didn’t care whether or not I was bitter. If being “bitter” was what I needed in order to deal with the pain in my life, I was going to embrace it.

It’s been a few years since all that though– conservative Christians have mostly stopped reading my blog, so I’m not hearing “you’re just bitter” every day– and I’m willing to embrace the concept of bitterness again, because I think it can accurately describe something about the human experience. We’ve all had our encounters with people that bring up some incident from their past over and over again and rant about the injustice they faced because of it. Today, though, instead of being worried about whether or not their “well is poisoned,” I acknowledge that I don’t understand their life. Maybe, when they’re talking about that one incident that seems inconsequential to me, it’s emotionally emblematic of how the entire relationship they had with that person was toxic. Maybe they need to hold on to that one moment because it’s a clear reminder to them that what happened to them wasn’t their fault, that they weren’t to blame for the abuse they suffered.

I can’t know either way, so I don’t concern myself with other people’s “bitterness” or lack of it. I know that I often return to a handful of stark moments– highlights that prove I was coerced, that he raped me. In the dark times when the whispers say you’re lying, you’re exaggerating, you’re to blame I point to that moment when I was flat on my back on filthy carpet begging him to stop.

That’s not bitterness. It’s coping. It’s hope.

Bitterness can happen to people. It’s not our job to evaluate how or why, but I think we can self-reflect and say y’know what, self, I think we can let go of that now. It’s done it’s job, and we can have peace about it. I think those moments of self-honesty are important, but they’re yours, and yours alone. It’s no one’s job to tell you when it’s an appropriate time to “let it go,” or “forgive.” You get to decide when all by yourself. For me, the answer for some people is “never”– in the sense that absolution is not mine, cannot be mine, to bestow.

Because, in the end, that’s what it seems many Christians mean when they say you’re just bitter. They mean that you haven’t absolved someone of their guilt, that you haven’t personally allowed the consequences to evaporate. In everyday Christian parlance, “forgiveness” has been confused with “absolution,” and the fact that we’re even daring to speak about an injustice or wrong means we haven’t forgiven them. That’s proof positive that we’re bitter. Heaven help us if we’re still angry about what happened while we’re speaking out.

But, most often, it seems like they’re not even talking about absolution and my refusal to not hand it out like candy. Most often, “you’re just bitter” is evangelical shorthand for “you’re criticizing something I believe is right.”

This insight revealed itself last week when a commenter on my post about the Pulse shooting told me that he’d gone back to read several of my recent posts and had concluded that I was “just bitter” and then preached a sermon at me about it. I responded light-heartedly, all the while thinking whaaaa? How could he have read my recent posts and concluded from those that I’m bitter? I went back and re-read all the ones it was obvious he was referring to, and suddenly what he meant by bitter was as plain as the nose on my face.

It meant that I disagreed with him, and that wasn’t allowed.

And it didn’t even matter how I disagreed. In some posts I was sympathetic, gracious, charitable, kind. In others– like the one where Joshua Harris described gay men as “those people are so sick!” — I said the words “this makes me angry” and “I’m furious” and that meant that I’m bitter. I disagreed. I disagreed and expressed my emotions, no less.

A woman? Expressing her opinion *gasp* forcefully?! That is not to be borne! Quick, call her bitter!

In the past three years I’ve had a lot of Christians call me bitter, and it only happens when I’m criticizing an issue they happen to think is “correct” or “biblical.” In the early days of my blog when I was mostly just chronicling my life growing up in a deeply abusive church, I had several regular readers who considered themselves conservative Christians, even fundamentalist. I was describing something they could condemn right along with me– pastors abusing congregations, Sunday school teachers telling us to essentially self-flagellate, evangelists being horrifically racist– but then I started critiquing positions they held, and suddenly I was bitter.

The first time it happened, it came from someone I considered a personal friend. She’d been cheering on my writing for the first few months, but when I turned from talking about my specific church background and directed some of my criticisms toward fundamentalism in general, she lost it. She de-friended me on Facebook, accused me “divisiveness” on top of being bitter, and declared she’d never read my blog again.

Don’t let the door hit ya, I thought, but it kept happening. Friends, colleagues, readers, they all started calling me “bitter” once I’d started making the connections, started talking about systems, started explaining to others what spiritual abuse looks like in a big-picture, top-down way.

They loved my blog as long as they got to use it to say “God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican!” As long as they got to point to how bad other Christians were, they were happy. The second I said, “well, actually, this thing you do is also pretty bad,” all they had to do was accuse me of being “bitter.”

It’s an “in-group signifier,” used to police their borders and boundaries. It’s a tool used to destroy credibility– they’re linguistically stringing caution tape around my blog, to warn off other Christians like them. “This woman here is bitter, you can ignore what she says. No self-reflection necessary.”

Photo by Craig Sunter
Theology

what do we do when saints are sinners?

Lately I’ve been wrestling with the concept of ethics and what that means to me. What are my ethics? What should they be? It’s clear that my values have been shaped by a white supremacist, patriarchal culture, and maybe there are some things that I should examine more closely. Through all of this, one of the things that I’m becoming more convinced of is that there is a difference between the morals I can personally hold and ones that I believe should govern society in general.

For example, I believe that following Jesus means that I’m required to love my enemy, to do good to those who persecute me. However, that’s a standard that I have freely chosen– and I think it’s impossible to actually live out unless it is chosen. Loving one’s oppressor– even in the radical form of resistance I think it is — isn’t something that should be forced on someone as a universal moral imperative. In fact, I grew up in a culture where that was demanded of me, and they did so in order to further oppress and abuse me.

I don’t think Christians will ever be on the same page when it comes to ethics. The most glaring example of this is abortion: being pro-choice alone disqualifies me from being a moral person to a significant number of American Christians. However, I do think that there are some things that aren’t quite so fraught and intense, and that are a little more universally held among Christians, like they shall know us by how we love one another. Maybe we don’t all agree on what that practically looks like, but I think we all know we should be at least trying to demonstrate our love to the world so clearly that it’s noticeable and obvious.

But what do we do with the fact that we’re all human, and fallible?

The justification that I grew up with– and one that isn’t isolated to fundamentalism, but seems to be endemic to American evangelicalism– is that of course becoming a Christian doesn’t make you a better person. This is, hopefully, obvious. Christians are “just sinners saved by grace,” after all. We half-joke about how “no church is perfect, because all churches have people in them,” or “my ‘old man’ is alive and well today!”

Looking back, I don’t think any of the people I’ve known who have said these things were trying to excuse sinful behavior from Christians. They weren’t trying to argue that because we’re “prone to wander” that we can do whatever we want and then receive “grace” and “forgiveness” for our actions. That’s not the point– we’re supposed to “become more like Christ.”

All of that doesn’t change the fact that when I comment on how my worst employers were Christians, inevitably someone comes along to quip about how “everyone is flawed” and we have to “forgive” them for it. This happens all of the time, in large and small ways. Over time I’ve noticed a pattern: Christians only seem to come out of the woodwork to order the rest of us to “forgive” when it’s a Christian who’s screwed up. The problem with this attitude is that I think the reaction should be the opposite: when a Christian is the one doing wrong, we should be coming out of the woodwork to make it right.

Shame and condemnation shouldn’t have a place in Christian culture. God didn’t send his Son to condemn the world, but to save it. If we’re to be like him, that should be were our priorities lie: in saving the world (of course, I have a slightly different definition of “saving the world” than most evangelical Christians). Swarming over someone and shrieking endlessly about their sin isn’t the ideal I’m striving for, but neither is removing the consequences for their actions.

Too often, getting defensive on other Christian’s behalf overtakes good judgment. Today, it seems like standing up to support Saeed Abedini and Josh Duggar is more important than anything else. Apparently, we can’t let a Christian even be criticized by the public for abusing his wife or molesting his sisters, because saying “yes, you’re right, that is wrong and their victims deserve justice,” would somehow tarnish Christianity’s reputation. We rush to to stand in solidarity with other Christians regardless of what they’ve done or the harm they’ve caused for no other reason than they supposedly share our religion.

Except, in our religion, one of God’s chief aims is justice. The characters in our sacred texts don’t get to escape consequences just because they’ve repented, and neither should we. Forgiveness shouldn’t exist in isolation, and forgiveness and absolution are not the same thing. Forgiveness without justice is meaningless.

For those who share my faith, it’s not unreasonable to expect better-than-average behavior, and it bothers me that Christian culture resists this so ferociously. Yes, we’re only human, but the whole point of following Jesus is to become as like him as we can possibly manage. Whenever one of us fails– sometimes publicly, sometimes catastrophically– we should deny the impulse to remind everyone that Christians aren’t really any better than other people. No, we aren’t, but we should be.

This dominant urge to defend monstrous acts and monstrous people is one of the reasons why I fight so hard to re-articulate the Christian religion to myself and others. In the last fifty years we’ve gotten caught up in this vision of Christianity as predominately being about avoiding Hell. “Being a Christian” means I will go to Heaven when I die, and not “I choose to follow the teachings of Jesus and to be like him.”

If all being a Christian means is that we’re not going to burn in Hell forever, then it could be a natural outworking for us to try to absolve every Christian of every wrongdoing, since that would be the basic premise of Christianity. After all, we all deserve eternal conscious torment, but we chose to accept God’s forgiveness and therefore get to spend eternity in paradise instead. If you’re going to reduce the beauty and entirety of Christian theology down to I won’t experience just punishment for my sin, then why not apply it to this vaporous existence?

I don’t think that being a Christian is about avoiding consequences, eternal or temporal. I think it means holding ourselves to the higher standard of following Christ.

Photo by Davide Gabino
Theology

sinful hearts: the consequences of Inherited Sin

One of these days, as I keep promising, I’m going to write an in-depth article on why I’m against the concepts of Inherited and Original Sin, but today I have a migraine that I can’t shake so for now I’m just going to make an observation.

There are many good conversations out there talking about the negative consequences of teaching people that their innermost selves, that the core of who they are, is absolutely corrupt and wicked. I’ve talked about one here– that telling me that I cannot allow myself to trust my instincts caused emotional harm. When you’re utterly convinced that everyone else’s opinion of you automatically carries more weight than what you think about yourself … you’re going to be particularly vulnerable to emotional abuse and bullying.

On top of that, teaching your children to believe that they are horrible, disgusting, repulsive monsters is an inherently abusive thing to do to them. If your theology even remotely resembles the tactics that nearly every abuser relies upon, you need to evaluate your beliefs. My friend R.L. Stollar has an excellent long-form article on this subject, and even though it might take you a while to plow through it, you should. While Stollar is dealing with the way Inherited Sin appears in the fundamentalist homeschooling subculture, the same basic idea– although not taken to the same extreme– is present in the rest of Christian culture and the bulk of Christian tradition, fundamentalist or not.

I don’t need much else to convince me that teaching Inherited Sin is a woefully bad idea, but this morning I saw this come through my private facebook feed:

The truth is that the more intimately you know someone, the more clearly you’ll see their flaws. That’s just the way it is. This is why marriages fail, why children are abandoned, why friendships don’t last. You might think you love someone until you see the way they are when they’re out of money or under pressure or hungry, for goodness’ sake.

Love is something different. Love is choosing to serve someone and be with someone in spite of their filthy heart. Love is patient, love is deliberate. Love is hard. Love is pain and sacrifice, it’s seeing the darkness in another person and defying the impulse to jump ship.

I won’t deny that love is hard sometimes. Forgiveness can be difficult. Relationships can be trying. Occasionally, you’ll saw your tongue in half just to keep the peace. People can be careless, thoughtless, and sometimes you’ll find yourself staring at your reflection repeating “she didn’t mean it that way, you know she didn’t, just let it go” while you practice breathing exercises and your heart pounds with frustration and hurt. You’ll even hurt the people you care about, and you hope they have same patience with you.

However, if you are convinced that all people are born with “filthy hearts” and “darkness,” that they’re innately evil, and that it’s your job to “love them in spite of their filthiness” … you’re going to stay with an abuser, and you’re not going to be surprised when someone is horribly cruel or incomprehensibly selfish. You’ll expect it. “Love is patient, love is kind” will exist against a backdrop of believing that every person was inescapably born to be an abuser.

Becoming an abuser isn’t something that happens to people because they were born monsters. Our culture is permeated with millions of tiny little ways that enable abuse, that teach us all that abusing others is how to win, how to be successful. After all, racism and misogyny are really just abuse writ large.

However, becoming an abuser is not our default. It is not the thing we’re born with that only accepting Jesus into your heart can overcome. What happens is the opposite: only a few people become abusers, and they target specific victims. Most of us can cause harm, could even do abusive things on occasion, but the intentionality of abusers is absent from decent people. Most of us don’t want to break down another human being into a tool we can use for our own gratification. Instead, when we look around the world, we generally see people who have a right to their autonomy.

The consequence of teaching us that we are all born desperately, unimaginably evil is that we won’t be able to recognize true evil when it happens to us. All we truly know is ourselves, and systematically destroying another person’s sense of self wouldn’t occur to us– but we’re all evil, right? So if our partner spends a lot of time telling us how untrustworthy we are, how terrible we are, how we deserve having our possessions destroyed, our body beaten, our souls violated, where is the space to call this abuse in the context of Inherited Sin?

I’m not saying it’s impossible, of course. I was calling my ex an abuser and rapist long before I stopped believing in Original or Inherited Sin. But what I do know is that I told myself love is patient, love is kind when he was abusing me. I comforted myself with the understanding that we’re all Fallen, but God is doing a work in him. I just had to stick it out until Jesus overcame his “Old Man.”

Jesus gave us a tool to help us evaluate doctrine: a good tree cannot bear bad fruit. If the doctrine is good, then the natural outworking and practice of that doctrine will be beneficial, just, and life-giving.

The lived reality of Inherited Sin is none of those things.

Photo by Sophie & Cie
Theology

panic at the dentist: on moral neutrality

“I have a lot of hangups” would be a most profound understatement.

I was thinking that again on my way to the dentist this morning. To explain why dentist = hangup, you’ll need some context. My family never misses seeing the dentist, and I mean never. Dental hygiene was a monumental deal– one of the most memorable spankings I received was the one night I tried to lie about brushing my teeth (the spanking was mostly for lying, but also a little bit for not brushing my teeth). Hygiene in general was important, but somehow I got the message that having clean teeth equated with being a morally good and responsible person.

So, you can imagine how incredibly proud I was of the fact that I’d never had a cavity. Every time the dentist would joke “if everyone had teeth like yours I’d be out of business!” and I’d say something about drinking three glasses of milk every day. That record lasted until a) not seeing a dentist for two years in graduate school, b) while I was drinking buckets of coffee every day, c) had an diagnosed vitamin-D deficiency and d) was not regularly flossing. The first time I saw a dentist after I got married, I had ten cavities. Ten. Flash forward two years later and one of them needed a crown.

Needless to say, I now dread going to the dentist.

This morning’s appointment was the first one I’d had in a while since I’d had to cancel my last appointment unexpectedly (as in: I was standing in the waiting room obviously about to throw up and they sent me home because they are nice, considerate, lovely people and I was being a little silly). All week I have had nightmares because I was utterly convinced that they were going to find cavities in all my teeth and I was going to need at least six root canals. At least. I was actually up until 3 am Wednesday night because I couldn’t stop feeling anxious about my dentist appointment that wasn’t for another two whole bloody days. I also kept having intrusive thoughts about the hygienist somehow picking all my fillings out (it’s happened before, with a filling that didn’t set properly).

Turns out I was freaking out for literally no reason (something I already sort of knew, but this is how JerkBrain works). The cleaning went fine, none of my fillings fell out, and they didn’t find any new cavities. I was in an out in twenty minutes, and I even got a compliment for having practically no tartar buildup.

***

I’m obviously having trouble deconstructing the idea that developing a cavity is a moral failing. If I were a good person, I’d floss twice a day and use mouthwash every night. Instead, I rarely use mouthwash and I floss maybe once or twice a week, which means that I’m a bad person. Bad people let all their teeth rot of their head, which is clearly what I’m doing when I don’t floss every single day.

However, this isn’t just about dental hygiene. Growing up, there was absolutely nothing that didn’t have a weighty, moral significance. Everything we did, saw, ate, read, or went all had eternal import. I heard a few verses tossed around to support this concept, notably one from Philippians:

Only let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ: that whether I come and see you, or else be absent, I may hear of your affairs, that ye stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel …

That word “conversation” is politeuomai, and it basically means “living as a citizen.” In the context of this verse, our entire lives, all of our affairs, our conduct, were supposed to be lived as a citizen under “the gospel of Christ”– and in such a way that you’d have a reputation for living that way. There wasn’t a single aspect of our lives that wasn’t evaluated for whether or not it was a “Christian” thing to do or be or think or say.

Including, apparently, brushing your teeth.

I was talking to a friend recently and, in trying to be encouraging, I stumbled into something that I think could be helpful for a lot of us:

Not everything is meant to be received as a comment on your character.

Some things just … are. They just exist. You do them or not, you say them or not, you read them or not, you eat them or not, and none of it says anything about who you are as a person. A doughnut is just a doughnut, regardless of how your body is perceived by our culture. Curse words are just curse words, and saying them doesn’t actually mean you have a shallow vocabulary. Cavities … are just cavities, no matter how much your dentist might tsk at you about flossing.

Last night my small group met, and we got to this passage in our Bible study:

Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.

After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable … “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.”

He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.” (Mark 7:14-23)

Aside from the hilarity of hearing Jesus say (roughly) “you eat then you shit,” this passage has a place in my heart because it’s the exact opposite of what Christian culture generally communicates. Don’t watch R-rated movies. Don’t drink alcohol. Don’t listen to “bad” music. The implicit idea is these things are capable of defiling you … except Jesus says they can’t, that it’s only defiling actions that matter, and he lists some pretty obvious ones.

I especially loved this passage last night, the night before my dentist appointment, because Jesus is responding to the Pharisees freaking out about him not washing his hands. Jesus is saying “look, y’all, whether or not I wash my hands has nothing to do with whether or not I’m a good person. The only thing that matters is whether or not I do good, loving things.”

Whether or not I have a cavity can’t say anything about my character. Whether or not you exercise, or clean, or diet, or whatever,  doesn’t say anything about yours.

Theology

when Good Friday lasts forever

The first Holy Week I was blogging, back in 2013, I wrote a brief post for Good Friday, describing the resonance I felt with those who watched Christ suffer, bleed, and eventually die from being crucified as a rebel:

A few years ago, I stood in a dark place. The ground trembled and shook under me, and I stared up at heaven and watched my god die. Everything that I thought I had known– known with an absolute, unreachable certainty, was gone. Shattered. In a moment, in the space of a few words, it felt like everything in my universe was a lie. I had been deceived, tricked.

Horror-struck, I watched the truth pierce the side of the person I’d thought was god made flesh, and the pain was so intense I could feel a hollowness inside– an emptiness torn apart by swords and spears. Truth and reason and experience and emotion were the pallbearers that carried my faith away. And suddenly, the world was cold and dark and empty, because all the light had gone out. The veil was torn, and I couldn’t see anything worth hoping in behind the curtain. It was just a room. It was just a piece of lumber, a few pieces of iron. It was just an empty space carved into rock.

Tears washed my face in the night; my heart echoed along with the cries of “why can’t you save yourself? Why can’t you save me?” Why did I carry a back-breaking cross in your name? 

They carried him away and buried him under a mountain of shame and terror. I sealed the door shut with guilt and fear and betrayal and anger and rage.

Eventually, the sun shone, piercing clouds and making the world seem strangely normal again. I went back to work. I continued learning. I talked with friends who never knew what I had just witnessed. I hid in upper rooms I created inside of my head, places where my god had never been– and never would be. All the promises I’d ever known were broken, and the lie of them was bitter. I couldn’t speak them to another person, and every time I offered an assurance to another, it felt like feeding them false hope and platitudes. I wanted to rage inside of my own temple and hear the crash of silver on marble tile.

He was dead. The god of my childhood was nothing more than a corpse.

I wrote all of that, and then immediately wrote the post that followed it, words filled with hope and ultimately confidence. It’s been a long three years since then, though, and my faith has continued to take heavy battering. It’s shifted, struggled, grown, transformed. In many ways, the sort of Christian I was three years ago and the Christian I’m becoming bear little resemblance to each other. Back then I still thought it was important to cling to a certain set of facts to be a Christian, and now I feel that facts have very little to do with faith at all.

I’ve had my faith challenged, shaken, even broken at times. In a way, I’ve faced down the same choice Judas did: abandon Jesus because what he offers makes no earth-bound sense, or go to Good Friday with him like Mary Magdalene? Some days, like Judas, I almost feel like giving up. If I can’t know that Jesus is resurrected, if I can’t be sure that he’ll come back to break all chains and cease all oppressions, then what is the point? If Christianity doesn’t make any logical, realistic sense, then I might as well side with those who are more pragmatic– dreams and belief and pixie dust don’t do anything real.

For me, it feels like Good Friday isn’t just a day during Holy Week– it’s every day of my life.

Nearly every day I stare at a bloodied cross and a body laid to rest in a tomb, and I wonder and doubt. I wonder sometimes if I’m being completely ridiculous. If there is a god, then why does the world look like this?  Nearly every day I lay my God to rest again. I bury him. I mourn him.

But, I still have a choice in those moments. Maybe my God is dead. Maybe he’s not miraculously coming back from beyond the veil to give me the proof he gave Thomas. But does it matter? If I want to follow him, does whether or not he resurrected and ascended truly make the difference between whether or not I try to do what he said? If the resurrection never comes, if I’m never given concrete-hard proof that Christianity is the religion, what happens?

Do I stop believing that it is my responsibility to make the world a better place? Do I stop trying to bring an end to misogyny, racism, ableism, transphobia– bigotry in all its forms? Do I stop seeing every person as worthy of love, respect, kindness, equality, and justice? Do I lose hope in redemption for each of us individually and for the world?

If my life is a perpetual series of Good Fridays, do I spend all my days hiding, afraid of leaving an upper room of privilege and security? Do I spend these hours more afraid for myself then for those Jesus charged me to clothe and feed and heal? Do I huddle together with other Christians, separate and unmoving, cut off from our communities, unwilling to reach out and love the widow, the orphan, the prisoner?

We’re all moving through Good Friday, really. Maybe you have the assurance that in three day’s time Jesus will roll back the stone and walk among us in the flesh. Maybe, like most, you’re utterly convinced that the resurrection is a well-established fact, testified by multiple eye-witness accounts and all the other evidence Habermas and Strobel and Licona and Wright have spent books and books explaining.

Except, in the end, even with all of the arguments, all the proof in the world, we’re all still facing the same choice: hide in our upper room, or go out and do what Jesus showed us. We could be so afraid of the world around us with all its dangers and threats and, like Judas, turn to political powers for our protection. Or, we could leave the false security of the upper room and take up the same cross that Jesus bore.

That’s the choice of Good Friday. It’s a choice between fear and love.

Photo by Der Robert

 

Theology

“Radical” review: 183-217

Well, folks, this is it: the last chapter review from Radical. Since it’s largely a summary chapter, it gives me the opportunity to talk about some things I haven’t had the space for earlier.

One of the first problems that this chapter amptly highlights is David’s tendency to present things as either/or dichotomies:

Meaning is found in community, not individualism; joy is found in generosity, not materialism; and truth is found in Christ, not universalism. (183)

While there are certainly problems in individualism, materialism and in some ways universalism, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the opposite of those concepts are immune to critique or excess. Community at the expense of the individual can be unhealthy, even abusive. Even viewing generosity as the opposite of materialism is in itself a problem; materialism is the belief that the physical is more important than the spiritual, and giving all your stuff away isn’t actually a repudiation of that belief. In fact, generosity could be an affirmation that the physical is more important than the spiritual, and it’s possible to be generous for selfish reasons instead of altruistic ones.

Lastly, as a universalist, I staunchly reject the notion that I stand in opposition to Christ.

These things are not opposites. You don’t have to reject one to embrace the other. In part, David seems to have spent this book arguing that being “radical” is at least somewhat a rejection of nuance.

The rest of this chapter is an explanation for how the reader can live out a “radical experiment” over the course of a year, and he gives us five things to do that “guarantee[s] that if you complete this experiment, you will possess an insatiable desire to spend the rest of your life in radical abandonment to Christ for his glory in all the world” (184). These five steps are:

  1. pray for the entire world
  2. read through the entire Word
  3. sacrifice your money for a specific purpose
  4. spend your time in another context
  5. commit your life to a multiplying community

One problem, David: I spent the bulk of my teenage years doing all of that, and the only thing I learned to do was be heartily sick of all of it. I read my Bible through at least seven times in a variety of ways. I kept prayer cards in my Bible cover and prayed for a half-dozen missionaries every day. Every Wednesday my entire church would literally get down on our knees to pray for every single missionary we supported across the globe. Every year I would commit to give sacrificially “in faith.” I spent several hours every single Thursday going door-knocking, and every few years we would have cycled through our entire city. I was devoted to a church, and then a college, with similar goals as David’s Brook Hills Church.

Turns out it was all a cult and not really good for much except being ridiculously good at Sword Drills. I certainly did not graduate from almost ten years of living out those five steps having an “insatiable desire” to live in “radical abandonment to Christ.” In fact, it had the exact opposite result: me, in general, saying fuck it, I’m done.

So. Try not to make promises you can’t keep, David?

I’ve commented before on David’s apparent readiness to ignore any aspect of Jesus’ sayings that don’t agree with him for the purposes of this book, but it happened again in this chapter. He uses the instructions Jesus gave to his apostles in Matthew 10– which even a first-year Bible college student could tell you might maybe not apply universally to the entire Church for all of time— in order to convince us that prayer supersedes action in any believer’s life (186-87). Supposedly, Matthew 10 overrules all the other instructions Jesus gave to the apostles at other points, like the times when prayer doesn’t enter into it (“do you love me? Feed my sheep”).

You can’t just take what’s convenient at the moment. Yes, at several points, Jesus emphasizes the need for us to pray, both in word and example– but the bulk of his life points to action as being at least slightly more important. And, in encouraging us all to view prayer as primary to a Christian’s life, David cites Evan Roberts and his prayers as having “precipitated a revival in Wales in which an estimated hundred thousand people came to faith in Christ in a matter of months” (190). Except I looked up Evan Roberts, and the man didn’t spend all his time in a broom closet with his hands folded. He was a preacher, and an effective speaker capable of drawing huge audiences. That’s not prayer; that’s charisma.

Another glaring problem with David’s perspective is that it borders on idolatry of the Bible:

God has chosen by his matchless grace to give us revelation of himself in his Word. It is the only Book that he has promised to bless by his Spirit to transform you and me into the image of Jesus Christ. It is the only Book that he has promised to use to bring our hearts, our minds, our lives in alignment with him. (192)

Maybe I’m forgetting something, but I’m almost positive that God promised no such thing. Yes, they sent us their Word, but according to this “Book,” that Word is Jesus (John 1). Jesus transforms us. Following Jesus brings us into alignment with them. But only if we choose to act on what the Word illuminated for us: a radical life committed to love.

I also want to take a moment to highlight something that’s more an annoyance than anything else, and David is hardly the only one guilty of this. Jen Hatmaker did the same exact thing in Seven:

We are affluent people living in an impoverished world. If we make only ten thousand dollars a year, we are wealthier than 84 percent of the world, and if we make fifty thousand dollars a year, we are wealthier than 99 percent of the world. (194)

While yes, this is “true” after a fashion, these sorts of examples fail to take cost of living into account. If I made only $10k a year in my area, I’d be utterly destitute. I wouldn’t be able to afford rent, regular bills, and buying food regularly would be a serious concern. However, if I lived in Cambodia or Vietnam or Mexico and made $10k in American dollars, I’d be living it up. But, like I said, on the scale of things, this is merely annoying.

I think one of the larger problems woven throughout the entirety of Radical is David’s nearly overriding sense of white guilt, only translated onto a global scale. He dismisses the crises facing us here at home– how does one blithely use the $10k number without bothering to consider whether we here at home might be struggling with homelessness, even if we make that much? America, comparatively, is a wealthy nation, true– but that doesn’t mean we don’t face homelessnes and food insecurity, or point-blank food deserts. Many areas lack access to clean water, even. Collectively I think we’ve lost sight of that amid all our talk about “first world problems.”

In step #4, David encourages us to seek out “another context,” and pushes us toward contexts dominated by his idea of global poverty and ethnicity– an idea inculcated by his whiteness and economic status. Despite all the time he’s spent overseas, he has never let go of his tendency to see non-American peoples as the Other; he’s also never let go of the idea that he– and other middle-class white Americans like him– are “burdened with glorious purpose” and that brown and black people– who, because they’re not white and middle-class Americans– need us to fix them, their cultures, and their economies.

That position dismisses the disaster and harm white people have caused over the course of our many neo-colonialist attempts to assuage ourselves of guilt. Guess what? Black and brown people in Africa, Asia, and Latin America (since, apparently, no individual countries exist in David’s world) are perfectly capable of handling their own damn problems, and many of their problems would be best served by white people staying the hell out of their way. (Which, of course, is not to say that foreign aid and investments and the like are all ill-conceived efforts we should totally abandon. We just need to re-examine our ready acceptance that TOMS shoes are a good thing.)

In the end, there are a lot of things that David and I agree upon, especially our mutual desire to help people. However, if this review demonstrates anything, it’s that when someone ignores how their white, male, able-bodied heterosexual, American experience affects their interpretive bias, inevitably there will be concerns.

Theology

the road to perdition: evangelicals and the Bible

As I started writing this blog, initially just chronicling my journey out of fundamentalism, I thought of fundamentalism and evangelicalism as radically different things. At first, evangelicalism seemed pretty harmless by comparison. However, as I became a member of evangelicalism through my church and the culture I was absorbing through books and blogs and sermons, I realized that while fundamentalism and evangelicalism look remarkably different, they have far more in common than I’d realized.

To anyone familiar with the history of fundamentalism and evangelicalism, that’s a remark on the obvious. Of course they’re similar: they come from the same ideological tree. At first, around the turn of the 20th century, there were only fundamentalists, unified by a set of essays called The Fundamentals. Eventually, those essays were condensed into The Five Fundamentals. Interestingly, what those are can vary a bit (see here and here), but they essentially are:

  1. The nature of God is that of a Trinity; Jesus was born of a virgin and was fully God and fully man.
  2. Salvation is by faith, not by works; it was achieved by Christ through the substitionary Atonement.
  3. Scripture is divinely inspired by God and totally sufficient for Christian living.
  4. Jesus was bodily resurrected from the dead and now reigns at the right hand of the Father.
  5. There will be a literal second coming of Christ.

The most important idea to be more fully articulated at this time was what it meant for Scripture to be inspired. While not new– there are echoes of this principle in Catholicism and in the Reformers’ belief in sola scriptura— the way these early fundamentalists started treating the Bible was new.

Over time, “inspiration” became a sort of short-hand for the concept that the Bible could be easily read, easily handled, easily interpreted. God meant it for all peoples, all times, all places– and he wouldn’t have done that without giving us the ability to see the “plain meaning of the text.” As the fundamentalists gained power, it birthed men like R.J. Rushdoony and Charles Ryrie who advocated not only for inspiration, but inerrancy. An argument for the inerrancy of Scripture wasn’t present in The Fundamentals, but to fundamentalists it was the only logical place a belief in biblical inspiration could go. After a while, the fundamentalist view of inerrancy became that the Bible is totally without error: it contains no contradictions and is completely and utterly factual.

Around the time that inerrancy was being affirmed by fundamentalists, the evangelical movement began. Fundamentalists began teaching the doctrine of separation, and evangelicals opposed them. Men like Billy Graham rejected the idea that the Church was strictly for Christians– that Christians should retreat into isolated sanctuaries in order to remain unsullied by the corruption of “The World.” Instead, they advocated for the guiding principle of being in the world, but not of it. How could a Christian hope to reach the lost if they kept to themselves all of the time?

Hence the term evangelical.

However, evangelicals didn’t leave their theology behind. They still held to the Five Fundamentals, but they didn’t go along with the movement to accept inerrancy the way the fundamentalists did. At least, not at the time.

In 1979, roughly thirty years after fundamentalists had totally bought into inerrancy, the evangelicals did the same when 300 evangelical leaders signed the Chicago Statement. If you read it over, you’ll notice that the ideas they affirm and deny are important, balanced, and to a degree fairly nuanced; so it shouldn’t surprise you to know that it didn’t go anywhere near far enough to fundamentalist men like Charles Ryrie, who had already moved from biblical inerrancy to biblical literalism.

At this point, fundamentalists started proclaiming ideas like verbal plenary inspiration, and double inspiration. Men like Jack Hyles and Peter Ruckman became fundamentalist figureheads, and they taught the Bible as almost literally dictated, word-for-word, by God themself. These men believed that God chose the men because of the wordings they would  choose, and “guided” them to the exactly “correct” words and phrasings. Not only that, but some men like Ruckman took it one step further: God had even inspired the KJV translators toward choosing the “correct” words in English. Along with all of that came other teachers like Bill Gothard, who took these concepts and started applying them. In fact, if God had chosen the very words, then there could be no harm in taking the Bible literally. It was meant to be taken literally.

Young Earth Creationism sprang out of a belief in biblical literalism, and so did a slew of other problems like the anti-LGBT movement and complementarianism. It took a while for Hyles and Ryrie and Ruckman and Gothard to have an effect, but their words and ideas are now being championed by some of the most influential evangelical leaders– most notably in the neo-Reformed movement, which is dominated by a strict adherence to biblical literalism.

Oh, but the fundamentalists have, again, already moved on. They’ve moved through inspiration, inerrancy, and literalism to finally arrive at biblical docetism.

Historically speaking, docetism is the notion that Jesus was not really human, that he only appeared human but, in reality, that was just a pretense. That idea was roundly condemned by virtually everyone as heresy. However, I believe modern American Christianity has done something even more insidious then denying the embodied Incarnation of Christ: they’ve made the Bible only “appear” like a book.

It was not really written by men– it was written by God. Biblical docetists don’t have to pay attention to how these men had their own personalities, their own vendettas, their own ambitions, their own priorities, their own flaws and their own achievements. To be honest, biblical docetists don’t just ignore how Paul was quite a vociferous fellow frequently given to tantrums (I will never ever work with John Mark ever again!) and tirades (Cretans are all liars!); the fact that Paul had a temper with a tendency to see things in blacks and whites is irrelevant.

To biblical docetists, cultural contexts don’t have to have any bearing on the text– it’s not really an ancient library of texts gathered together over time and with a lot of arguing. It is divine, it is holy, it is preserved. God intended every word exactly as it was recorded to reach our ears today. They knew that we would be reading it, and mythically they imbued it with the power to make perfect, clear sense to ancient readers, and modern readers, and people reading it thousands of years in the future. It is not really a book. You can’t treat it like any old book, or expect it to follow the common sensical rules of other ancient texts. Everything we understand about how ancient near-eastern cultures viewed history or biography doesn’t ultimately matter. It’s the Bible.

In fact, the Bible is so magical that you can rip sentences– halves of sentences, even!– out of their paragraphs and force it down other people’s throats as God’s divinely ordained word for that specific moment. We can all read every letter and stand sure in the knowledge that every word was ultimately meant for our ears, not necessarily for the church to which it was written. Genre– whether it’s oral tradition, poetry, myth, parable– should be erased, for it’s not just any book. It’s not predicated on ideas of style or voicing or purpose or audience. Everything in it is literally true, literally factual, and literally meant for us today.

Hopefully it’s obvious that I’m describing not just Christian fundamentalism, but evangelicalism as well. Evangelicals might not take it as far as a man I knew who actually plucked his eye out because it had “offended him” through a pornography addiction. But just because they’re not going that far doesn’t mean that evangelical biblical docetism isn’t having real-world and devastating consequences. We may not be plucking out our eyes, but we are voting for a man who (possibly) thinks LGBT people should be stoned to death. We are taking Jesus’ words about persecution and forcing it apply to photographers and bakers. We are proclaiming doomesday messages about being in the End Times because a black man was elected President. We are telling women to stay in abusive marriages.

Fundamentalists have already been treading the path through biblical docetism for almost two decades now, and it’s had disastrous consequences. If evangelicals don’t experience some sort of course correction in their view of the Bible, then it’s going to lead them to places the rest of us don’t want to go.

Art by Valeria Preisler