Monthly Archives: May 2013

The Apostate Attendee

If you write for a Christian audience, especially a conservative Christian audience, the Blue Ridge Mountain Christian Writer’s Conference (BRMCWC) is the place to be.  With three classes per day, plus a keynote address each evening, the agenda is packed with information, and the people leading the classes that I attended not only had the credentials as practitioners, they were also excellent teachers — a combination that isn’t always guaranteed.  Of course, with more than twenty classes to choose from in most time slots, I sampled only a fraction of the material available, but the consensus of everyone I talked to was that the fire hose effect was a near constant across all the various classes.

The best networking opportunities came during meal times, served cafeteria style, with round tables seating six-to-eight people.  At lunch and dinner, instructors were spread out, one to a table, offering an extra opportunity to pester successful writers, editors, and agents.  Even for a shy person, the meals offer plenty of chances to practice your seven-second introduction and, possibly, your elevator spiel.

Most attendees appeared to revere James Dobson and Focus on the Family (before it went soft, that is).  Still, I managed to make it through the conference without serious difficulty, despite my closet deism/agnosticism and my mission of getting the Old Testament out of the Christian Bible.

I did get a lot of “You want to do what, again”?  A few responses consisted of “You can’t do that,” but an equal number of actual conversations balanced out the rejections from on high.  One conversation actively encouraged me, especially when I mentioned that the OT isn’t really PG-13 material, and the lady I was talking to mentioned the Lot-and-his-daughters story without being prompted.

To offset the encouraging conversation, I only had one near altercation — totally my own fault for pushing too hard against somebody clearly not receptive.  The woman told me I was being too legalistic, which I haven’t quite deciphered even now.  But I got the “you need to be very careful” message, while her opinion that “tolerance and acceptance are going to lead a lot of people to hell” was a good place for the conversation to end.

There may be conferences that draw a more progressive Christian audience, but wherever you fall on the political spectrum, the BRMCWC remains a good place to learn about the craft and the business of writing.

Is The Old Testament Authoritative?

According to a post from the “Practical Theology For Women” blog, “The Spirit is regularly moving to realign the Church with the Word of God. The Church isn’t to reform according to culture but according to the Word” (“Notes on Starting a Movement“).  That quote demonstrates the willful delusion that we can make the Bible mean whatever we want.  There wouldn’t be any need to “realign the Church” if society’s morals had remained fixed in place.  Only because our moral arc has curved upwards, as M.L.K. would say, has it become necessary for the “Spirit” to change the meaning of the words on the page.

Increasingly, our interpretation of the OT has become not just clever and creative, but has actually inverted the original meaning of the text – and this is true of all Christians, though it is more true of progressives.

If we wanted to be fully honest, we would acknowledge that the motivation here is to use the Bible as an authority, so as to privilege our personal beliefs and opinions over those of others.

An example of this can be found in a blog post by Emily Timbol, called “Is the Bible ‘Clear’ on Those Verses?’”

Timbol’s passion is to promote equality without regard to sexual orientation, a goal that our modern culture generally deems to be worthy and high-minded.  However, Timbol also wants to privilege what the Bible says, which forces her to get creative with her reading of the OT, so that it is seen

not as an instruction book, or a composition of verses meant to be dissected – but as a whole. A story….  There’s the Old Testament Scriptures, filled with pain, suffering, sacrifice, and the longing for the coming of a savior.

What Timbol describes is a non-canonical resource.  Once a book becomes a mere story – once a book describes history, not present day belief – it no longer deserves to be part of the canon, and it should no longer be treated as anything other than a book.  And yet, according to Timbol, “What is a sin is misusing the Bible….”  In saying that, Timbol elevates the OT above the ranks of ordinary books, so that she can use it to validate her predefined beliefs.

Such inconsistency is dangerous.  By insisting that the OT is a guide to morality, progressive Christians implicitly lend credence to those who use the OT to justify hateful agendas.  While the two sides disagree as to interpretation, what remains constant is the OT’s unquestioned authority.  Indeed, when progressive Christians are faced with a troublesome passage, they prefer to “change their interpretation” (Timbol) rather than accept that the OT is a kind of ink-blot that means whatever we want it to mean.

If progressive Christians want to treat the OT as a story or as a product of its time, fine.  But then let them stop promoting it as an authoritative guide to higher morality.

 

Practical Theology for Progressive Christians

Wendy Alsup runs a very successful blog called “Practical Theology for Women” (http://www.theologyforwomen.org/), where she approaches Christianity from a progressive point of view.  I want to respond to one specific blog post of Alsup’s, called “Some things you should know about women and the Old Testament,” (http://www.theologyforwomen.org/2013/05/some-things-you-should-know-about-women.html).

Alsup begins by saying “The Old Testament gets a bad rap among progressive Christians at times.”  This is true, but it is also an understatement, as it leaves out the agnostics, atheists, and former Christians who also view the OT as being morally unacceptable.  And while the so-called “texts of terror” that Alsup refers to do often describe the harsh treatment of women, that’s not the end of it.  Children, and sometimes even men, are seen as the unfair targets of extreme violence and bigotry within the pages of the OT.

Alsup points out how unfair these objections to the OT are, telling us that “without carefully connecting the lines, broad conclusions are made” about the OT.  However unfair and inadequate these broad conclusions are, they are conclusions that have shown up repeatedly over the lifetime of the church, with some of the first recorded Christian objections being raised by an old boy named Marcion in the 140s CE.

As Alsup points out, such misguided people sometimes conclude that the OT “is no longer God’s revelation of Himself to His people.”  It’s even worse than that, though, because such people often conclude that the OT was never God’s revelation.  For the Marcionites and the Manichaeans, this led to a focus on the New Testament.

For more recent objectors, the result can be worse still:  it can be a rejection of the NT as well.  This is one cost of associating Christianity with a book that is as subject to misunderstanding and misinterpretation as the OT.

Consider the philosopher Thomas Paine, who wrote The Age of Reason as a denunciation of not just the OT but of Christianity as a whole back in the 1790s.  More recently, former evangelist Dan Barker, now an aggressive atheist, discredits all forms of religion in his book godless.

You Win!

Now, don’t get me wrong.  Christian apologetics has dozens of interpretive approaches for defending the OT.  What’s more, starting with Marcion, the church has always won that argument!  (If we exclude the fourteen books of the Apocrypha that protestants pulled from the OT during the Reformation, I mean.)  The church has a 6-0 record!  (Or else 5-0-1, if you consider the loss of the Apocrypha a tie.)   Congratulations.  Give yourself a pat on the back and treat yourself to an ice cold Fresca.

Now, though, let’s consider the cost of those victories.  The Marcionite and Manichaean religions were both major competitors to Christianity for several centuries.  But to bring the matter closer to home, consider the millions of people today who are raised in the church, but who leave, never to return.  Consider the millions of people who might like to be part of a kinder, gentler, more progressive spiritual community, but who can’t get past what they see in the OT.

It’s a mistake to think that we can reach those people by teaching them complicated interpretive methods.  The history of this is pretty clear:  the very presence of the OT inside the canon drives people away, and keeps people away.  And no amount of apologetics, hermeneutics, reason, or prayer can fix that.

On top of which, teaching people how to ignore their conscience isn’t the right answer.  That’s not a business Christians should be in.

The time has come for Christians to stop winning this argument.  It’s time for those who are stronger in their faith to listen to what Paul says in Romans 15:1, and stop pleasing themselves with the OT, without taking into account the spiritual cost their pleasure has for others.

As Alsup says, “this is how I’ve reconciled these with the Spirit in my own heart.”  Unfortunately, her attitude takes into consideration only herself, not the people who are being lost as a direct result of the OT’s presence in the Bible.  In effect, Alsup is herself ignoring the message in Judges 21:25, where “everyone was doing what was right in their own eyes.”

Given that we don’t have a king (or religious dictator) who can force everyone to acknowledge the OT as the Word of God, we need to pursue a more NT approach, and ourselves make a sacrifice, rather than demanding that those people make a sacrifice.

It’s time for progressive Christians to decanonize the OT.

The Berean and Amos 2:4-5

The Berean publishes a “Daily Verse and Comment,” and you can subscribe to receive these meditations via email at BibleTools.org.  Typically, the newsletter is two-to-three pages long.

One recent newsletter from The Berean, written by John W. Ritenbaugh, covered Amos 2:4-5, which says, in the King James Version,

Thus saith the LORD; For three transgressions of Judah, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof; because they have despised the law of the LORD, and have not kept his commandments, and their lies caused them to err, after the which their fathers have walked: But I will send a fire upon Judah, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem.

Ritenbaugh begins his commentary by comparing the punishment described in Amos 2 with the punishment described earlier in the book of Amos, where God goes on for a full chapter, talking about how “for three mistakes, and for four” he is going to burn up everybody in Damascus, the house of Hazael, the inhabitants of the valley of Aven, Gaza, Ashod, Ashkelon, Ekron, Tyre, Edom, Teman, Ammon, Rabbah, and Moab.

For the cynical modern reader, the issue here is divine violence, but Ritenbaugh’s commentary doesn’t seem to worry that readers will be apalled by the fire bombing of an entire city or country. This is worrisome, as it suggests that Christianity has done something to Ritenbaugh to make him insensitive to such extreme violence.

Ritenbaugh’s article focuses on the issue of truth, and he weaves his discussion around that topic:

If we are not extremely careful, and if we lose our sense of urgency, we will gradually lose our understanding of what is true and what is not. Our ability to distinguish between right and wrong will become blurred. We must make sure that God, His Word, and His way are always first in our lives.

The problem here is that fear of violence is being used to promote absolute, unquestioning obedience. This is very Old Testament, but it is also guaranteed to turn off a large chunk of the modern world.

Though Amos talks of the lies of the people, the lies here are that God is legalistic, that he would punish the innocent alongside the wicked, that truth can only be obtained through the Bible, and that the penalty for questioning the Bible is total destruction of the perpetrator and anybody who happens to be in the vicinity at the time.

Those are lies.  And those sorts of lies are what drive many people away from Christianity.  Some people aren’t willing to ignore the rain of fire or the inane “they were bad people” rationalization that goes with it. These are the people who are driven away from Christianity for reasons of conscience.

To avoid getting pummeled in the rain of disdain and repugnance that pours out from society in response to scriptures like Amos 2:4-5, the church needs to distance itself from such violent scriptures, not treat them as examples of what Christianity is all about. 

Sources

Ritenbaugh, John W.  “Amos 2:4-5.”  The Berean: Daily Verse and Comment, 2013.