Seriously, Not Literally

Seriously, Not Literally

If you’ve been following my recent blogs, I have written a good bit about theology. I’ve also used a couple of terms that might not be common to some of you, hermeneutics and exegesis. In a Christian context, both are terms describing how one approaches Scripture.

Exegesis refers to the process of studying a passage of Scripture contextually, syntactically, grammatically, historically and lexically. Hermeneutics is the philosophical and linguistic underpinnings of Biblical interpretation.  I will confine my comments to Biblical hermeneutics.

Hermeneutics is the lens through which we view the Bible. To understand the difference between the lens of evangelicalism and the lens of post-evangelical Christianity, an American government analogy is appropriate.

Today’s Supreme Court is divided into two camps. One camp is comprised of originalists, those who believe the US constitution should be interpreted according to its ordinary meaning at the time it was written. They believe it is therefore fixed, and not at all fluid. The other camp is comprised of non-originalists, those who believe the constitution is a living document and should be interpreted according to its meaning at the time it was written, but also according to the body of knowledge that has been attained since that time.

Evangelicals hold a view of Scripture akin to the view of the constitution held by the Supreme Court originalists.  They practice a hermeneutic that not only believes the Bible should be interpreted according to its meaning at the time it was written, they also believe its words, in the original copies of scripture, are without error. They interpret the words of Jesus that Scripture cannot be broken as a statement of its inerrant nature. We do not have the original manuscripts, so their argument is theoretical.

Not only do evangelicals believe Scripture should be interpreted according to the original meaning of the words, they also claim that approvals and prohibitions contained within those words are as binding today as they were when they were written. If the Bible prohibited homosexual relationships when it was written, that prohibition remains in force today.

The problem with this hermeneutic is two-fold. First, we do not understand exactly what is meant by the words Scripture uses for homosexual behavior, because adult consensual gay relationships were not commonly known in that era. Most homosexual behavior was with those unequal in power, men with boys.  That is a very different world than the one we experience today.

The second problem is that some issues in Scripture are treated very differently than others. With some issues, evangelicals readily accept that human knowledge gained since the time of the Bible takes precedence over what was understood to be true or acceptable in the first century.

Though the Bible suggests the sun revolves around the earth, we now know that is not true. Unfortunately the Roman Catholic Church did not understand that in the time of Galileo, who was placed under house arrest because of his rejection of a geocentric universe. Today, you will find nary an evangelical who holds to the notion of a geocentric universe. On that issue, they readily agree that current knowledge supersedes ancient understanding.

The same could be said of slavery, divorce and remarriage, women remaining silent in the church, and other subjects. Evangelicals readily make accommodation for the growth in human understanding on those subjects. For instance, though it was routinely done in the first century of our fledgling republic, you never hear evangelicals defending slavery in modern culture. Our increased understanding has caused us to redefine our interpretation of the Bible’s tolerance of slavery.

This inconsistency in how Scripture is interpreted is a problem. On slavery, there is broad agreement that today’s understanding supersedes the first century understanding. On the subject of homosexuality, however, evangelicals do not believe our current understanding should supersede the first century understanding.  By what criteria do they make that assumption?

People outside the Christian camp understand both issues to be matters of basic human rights. They see the inconsistency of the evangelical view, and it reinforces their belief Christianity itself is outdated.

Even Millennial evangelicals understand the problem. While only 36 percent of evangelicals are supportive of marriage equality, 51 percent of Millennial evangelicals are supportive of marriage equality. I believe within 10 to 20 years evangelicals will reach the tipping point on this subject, just as they did on slavery and a geocentric universe.

I do believe Jesus when he said Scripture can not be broken, though I do not know exactly what Jesus meant by that. Even the way in which the canon of Scripture was created was messy, not completed and generally accepted until the middle of the third century. That is the equivalent of America just now coming to a unified position on the actual words and sentences of the US constitution.

I take the Bible seriously.  I also take it too seriously to take it literally. It is a historical record of God’s work in the world. It is not a constitution. It is an inspired guide, helping us apply its principles in an ever-changing world.

What Did You Expect?

What Did You Expect?

When evangelical Christianity became a consumer religion focused on heaven as a commodity, it lost its soul. I suppose it might have been inevitable, since American Christianity never got off on the right foot. From the beginning, when it was equated with the Puritan work ethic, American evangelicalism was focused on religion as a transaction. Work hard, and you will receive your just reward.

From there it wasn’t hard to move toward a world in which Christianity became inextricably attached to our consumer culture, peddling heaven as the ultimate prize, purchased by our work ethic, church attendance, tithes, volunteer hours and the sacrifice of our savior to a demanding God.

Given that reality, should we be surprised when American Christianity fails to fight for the underprivileged? Conservative pundits say, “Why should we fight for a group that just won’t pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, like we did.” Of course what “we did” was often accomplished through opportunities not available to others. Turns out if we were white, male, straight, and from the right side of town, reaching for our bootstraps didn’t require much effort.

When the basic focus of religion is to save yourself from hell, your religion will be self-centered. Years ago I asked one of my employers, “What if we all go to heaven?” My employer’s answer was telling, “Then why would I bother being a Christian? What motivation would I have?” I imagine his reply would be more nuanced nowadays, but it would still have the same self-centered essence.

Evangelicalism failed to understand Christianity is a religion of transformation, not transaction. It failed to see Christianity as a way of life, not a system of beliefs. It did not realize Christianity does not exist for itself. It exists for the common good.

I have a unique position from which to understand the impact of this self-centered form of Christianity. I was a white male, unaware of the privilege granted to me by a religion that does not allow women into leadership. I was able to soar in my career, in part because half of the population had been removed from the equation.

Now I am a female who routinely makes her way through the world without being identified as transgender. Privilege remains, but it is noticeably less than what I experienced previously. And if I returned to evangelicalism, it would be worse. I would be denied my greatest joy – preaching. But I am still privileged. I am white, college-educated and live on the right side of town. Plus, I undeniably brought some of my male privilege with me.

But there is one more layer to my reality. When it comes time to look for work, it is necessary for me to reveal I am transgender. A cursory search of the Internet will turn up that information within 10 seconds, so I really have no choice. And that is when my privilege pretty much disappears.  The Puritan work ethic will get me absolutely nothing in today’s polarized society. Not many people want a transgender pastor, church consultant or pastoral counselor.

Of course the problem is not just within evangelicalism. It permeates our culture. A white male, well educated, can work hard and become a success. A woman can work harder and still be hindered by a glass ceiling. A transgender person can work as hard as she wants, but not much is going to happen. A transgender person of color does not stand a chance.

American Christianity should be the solution to this problem, but instead it has become one of the major contributors. It begins with the Puritan work ethic, with its white male patriarchal privilege. And in today’s political environment in which rights are being rescinded faster than 45 can tweet, the church’s silence is staggering.

I do wish I could go back and right the wrongs from earlier in my life, when I had the kind of power to bring about change more rapidly than I can bring it about today. But we only know what we know when we know it, and there is little to be gained by denying oneself grace.

I am worried about the evangelical church. I love it so much, but it has moved so far from the message of Jesus that it might not be able to regain its soul. Maybe a new kind of Christian must rise from the ashes, embodying the message of Jesus, that everything begins and ends in love.

And so it goes.

Yes, But Is It True?

Yes, But Is It True?

For the 500 years known as the Modern age, reason was king. Unfortunately, it was also held to a standard it could not bear. Despite the beliefs of Descartes, Locke, and the other philosophers who ushered in the Enlightenment, reason did not have the ability to deliver truth objectively. It could deliver something close to what is commonly called absolute truth, but as long as humans are involved, truth will never be completely objective.

As is often the case with religion, evangelicalism arrived late to the Modern age party. Once it arrived it became an enthusiastic participant. If you come from an evangelical background you have probably heard of the term inerrancy, a construct of the Modern age. Inerrancy is the belief the original autographs of scripture (which we do not have) were without error in every tiny respect. Scripture claimed no such thing for itself, but the evangelical adoption of modernity demanded it. One single error would lead to a slippery slope from which we could not recover. Such was the necessity when you embraced the notion of absolute truth.

Swinging pendulums have always played a leading part in the movement of history. A culture moves far to one extreme, then rides to the other. The discoveries of Quantum physics showed the impossibility of holding onto the notion of objective truth. Hard as we might try, the scientist, with his biases, gets in the way of absolute objectivity. Once that reality was firmly grasped, it wasn’t long before the pendulum started swinging again, and we moved from an age fixated on objective truth to a post-empirical age in which the existence of any kind of verifiable truth was questioned.  All supposed truth was seen as social construct.

According to an excellent article by Kurt Andersen in The Atlantic, this move away from the search for verifiable truth began in the 60s with the oft-repeated catch phrases of the Baby Boomers. Mantras such as “Do your own thing” or “It’s all relative,” commenced the swing. But it took the Internet to move the pendulum to warp speed.

Let’s say you believe the government adds subliminal mind-controlling technology to television broadcast signals. (According to Andersen’s article, 15 percent of Americans hold that belief, while an additional 15 percent believe it is possible.) Before the Internet you had to go to great difficulty to find others who agreed with you. Magazines that touted conspiracy theories were tiny and poorly circulated. Your idea was eventually dropped not only from lack of evidence, but because you couldn’t find a tribe that agreed with you.

The arrival of the Internet changed all of that. Today, if you want to believe the earth exists on the back of a turtle swimming in a giant ocean, you can find a group on the Internet that believes the same thing and has the “evidence” to prove it. This disregard for truth is maddening.

When our culture first began its journey away from truth, New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan started saying, “You are entitled to your own opinion. You are not entitled to your own facts.”

Just a couple of decades later we have a presidential spokesperson who speaks of “alternative facts” and a president who, when confronted with one of his too frequent lies, replies with a shrug, “Well, I read it on the Internet.”

The notion of truth is under attack, and leading the way is a rather surprising group, evangelicals. That’s right. The same evangelicals who hold to the notion of absolute truth when it comes to the inerrancy of scripture, embrace with enthusiasm a president who has publicly lied 2.5 times a day since taking office. Those same evangelicals deny both global warming and evolution, despite massive scientific evidence supporting both.

Evangelicals still embrace the idea of absolute truth when it suits them, but when it doesn’t, like when you preach about the statistical realities of your likelihood of a harsher prison sentence if you are a person of color, they cry, “Yeah, but statistics can say whatever you want them to say.” Well folks, you can’t have it both ways.

The proper response to realizing all truth is less than objective is not to abandon the notion of truth. All truth is not social construct. The proper response is to rigorously get as close to objective truth as is humanly possible. Truth matters, whether it is the truth of scripture, or the truth that LGBTQ people do not pose any kind of threat to the moral order of a society, or the truth that blacks do receive harsher prison sentences than whites.

Maybe one of the most concerning parts of this whole conversation is that I am well aware a lot of my readers have abandoned this post before they even got to this paragraph.  Discussions about truth seem esoteric or intellectual, and of no immediate concern.  It is a shame, because truth matters, greatly.

I spent much of my life aligned with the evangelical camp, but I was never comfortable with their commitment to “absolutes” and used to regularly get myself in trouble with more conservative folks for refusing to accept the doctrine of inerrancy.  What I see happening now, holding to inerrancy while having a complete disregard for verifiable truth in other areas, is not something I saw developing to this extreme.  Its arrival is disconcerting.

As for me, I  believe what Daniel Patrick Moynihan said remains true. “You are entitled to your opinion. You are not entitled to your own facts.”  It is truth that sets us free.

And so it goes.

Oh, Those Desert Religions…

Oh, Those Desert Religions…

While I was preaching recently at a large church, a person marched up to the senior pastor and lambasted him for allowing me in the pulpit. The individual was not a member of the church, but someone who “just happened” to attend that Sunday. Uh, huh. Forgive me for being a tad suspicious, but attacks against me have been on the increase.

There are reasons. Recent articles in the Denver Post and the New York Times have certainly increased my visibility. A couple of segments on Colorado Public Radio played a part as well. But I believe the main reason is generated more from our current political reality than we might like to admit. With his unfiltered remarks, our current president has stoked fires of hatred, and those who once kept their opinions to themselves have been empowered to publicly attack people not like them.

I understand the genesis of these attacks. They are fear based. The evangelicals who attack me have a fragile God, one who might break if he did not have rigid rules about who is in and who is out. Their God is fragile because their faith is fragile. I believe their particular expression of Christianity is an example of desert religions at their worst. Whether speaking about Islam, Judaism or Christianity, the desert religions have always had a tendency to be religions of scarcity. “There’s not enough to go around, so I’ve gotta take care of me and mine.” That desert mentality is a threat to the ongoing welfare of the species. If we don’t rid ourselves of scarcity thinking, we might accidentally end the human experiment.

Today #45 made life far more difficult for the children of parents who arrived here as illegal immigrants. The average “Dreamer” is 26 and came here at age six. Ninety-one percent are employed and one hundred percent do not have a criminal record. They pay $500 every two years so they can remain, which has brought our treasury over 800 million dollars. Yet somehow these young people who remember nothing but America are a threat to other Americans, a significant number of which are evangelicals.

Fear-based reaction caused Texas to spend one million dollars on a special session to stop transgender people from using the appropriate restroom. The proposed law, which failed to pass, was based on the fear transgender people would assault people in restrooms. The fact that there is not one recorded instance in the history of our nation in which this has actually occurred is apparently irrelevant. When you are afraid, facts do not matter. You are a hammer and everything that does not look like you is a nail. You’re gonna whack it.

Native American and Pacific Islander religions do not begin from a place of scarcity. Theirs are religions of abundance. No wonder Native Americans readily accepted the whites that came onto their lands. They believed there was enough for everyone. They did not see the massacres coming.

At their extremes, over the centuries all of the desert religions have been guilty of dehumanizing those outside their tribes. The Sunnis and the Shiites of today remind us of the Catholics and Protestants of times gone by. Fear drives hatred.

I do not hold to a religion of scarcity. My faith is in a God of abundance. God has no favorites. God loves me as much as he loves the man who marched up to the pastor and expressed his displeasure. God loves me as much as she loves those who continue to vilify me with their relentless fury.

I will fight for my rights and the rights of all minorities, but I pray I can do so without attacking the people who choose to attack me. I have received thousands of negative emails, Facebook messages, letters, phone calls, and personal confrontations. I have responded to fewer than a dozen. Two were to protect people who did not realize they had written on a public forum. The rest were short replies expressing sorrow about lost friendships. I have lived long enough to realize that responding in kind to hateful rhetoric is like swallowing poison and hoping the other guy dies.

In the midst of these incredibly tumultuous times I am convinced of one great truth.  We are placed on this earth to learn to love well. It is incredibly simple, but not simplistic. If we could love our enemies as Christ loved us, we could reconcile the creation to the creator. I want to love well. Some days I succeed. Some days I do not. And so it goes.