Monday, October 19, 2009

Keeping an ear on the liberals

A couple of decades ago, a revolutionary shift happened in Biblical scholarship in North America that ushered in a different and better way of studying the Bible. The concept was simple, yet profound: read the Bible as if it were literature written by real human authors, who used literary devices and conventions to communicate their ideas. This idea shifted the focus of liberal OT studies away from picking apart the text by trying to identify which sections came from which supposed source documents (the “documentary hypothesis”). And it shifted conservative studies away from reading every statement in the text as a literal statement about reality, a proof text for a doctrine, or a rule that can “plug and play” in a church covenant or Christian school student handbook. This shift caused students of Scripture to look more carefully at what figurative language was communicating and how the genre (or category) or literature affected the meaning.

Who were the thinkers that brought about this positive paradigmatic change? The two names you hear the most in connection with this shift are Robert Alter and Meir Steinberg. Who are they? Liberal scholars. If you read Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative, you will find that he does not accept the inspiration and authority of scripture, yet gives some important insights into the author’s intended meaning. What these men, as non-believers, wrote and taught helped us, as believers, better approach and understand the text that God uses to shape our lives. This is one instance that shows why its important to keep an ear on the liberals - to check in every now and then and see what they are saying. Sometimes they can point out things that we cannot see about ourselves. Kind of like the time you walked around with a piece of spinach sticking to your front teeth, and didn’t look in a mirror for hours, then somebody pointed out that it was stuck there - no, not there…a little further over…still there…okay, now you got it.

So what have I heard from the liberals lately? Some insightful criticism about conservative Christianity and American nationalism, and how they are far too closely connected. As I plod my way through portions of Karen Armstrong’s The Battle for God, a history of fundamentalism in Judaism, Islam and Christianity, I’ve shaken my head and furrowed my brow several times over her statements about how religious ideas are not meant to be applied in any workable way to reality, but are important only in the personal quest for purpose and significance in life. What a wonder that kind of religion would be: to give us meaning from something which has no meaning for events in the real world. Like having confidence in confidence alone. But that’s another topic for another day. The insight Ms. Armstrong gave me is in the characteristics of fundamentalism, namely that fundamentalist movements are based on looking back to some “golden age” in the history of their religion and idealizing that age. The vision they build of that age becomes the goal for which they strive, the better world which has been lost and needs to be restored.

The early leaders of the fundamentalist movement in American Christianity seemed much more focused on the New Testament era as their ideal age. They wanted to get back to the Bible, to preserve doctrinal truth when it was under such severe attack, and to build strong churches that had a distinctive faith based on revelation, not a group that accommodated the culture in every respect and conformed their idea of Jesus to every idea of enlightenment modernists. These people made dramatic moves and took bold, difficult and admirable stands for truth by separating from institutions that claimed to be Christian, but did not uphold many of the basic elements of Christian belief.

But by the time the fragmented fundamentalist movement had recovered and gained momentum, they launched back into the mainstream with a different mythos - when Robertson, Falwell, Lindsey, Lahaye and others urged conservative Christians into the public arena, they called them to take back their nation. The Christian education systems they had developed taught believers U.S. history as a story of Christian people and Christian ideals building a Christian republic. By exerting their influence, evangelicals could restore the traditional values of their nation. The golden age had shifted forward by roughly 1700 years. No longer was the movement about getting back to the New Testament church; now it was about getting back to Christian America.

As I move about on the west coast, I most frequently hear about this kind of thinking when people are describing it to complain about what’s wrong with Christianity. Sometimes people talk about this problem to explain why they are not Baptist (apparently assuming Baptists to be a monolithic denomination co-founded by Jerry Falwell and a KJV-only preacher, who now direct their empire from the grave, commanding their drones to condemn people who drink alcohol and write legislation intended to cause global warming to destroy the world). After awhile, I start to wonder whether it’s a caricature of days gone by, whether there are really people who still act this way. But then I remember that just a few short years ago I sat in convocation at Liberty University the day after Bush’s re-election, listening to the loudest cheering I had ever heard there. (well, I guess there was the time the president of Chik-Fil-A came and announced he was giving us all coupons for a free chicken sandwich. That got pretty loud.) I got the distinct impression that some of my fellow students had asked George W. Bush into their hearts to save them. Dr. Falwell, a man I immensely respect for his strengths, showed one of his faults at this moment. He gave the glowing approbation that the election results were proof that evangelicalism was growing - that we were “getting people saved, baptized, and into the voting booth.” I can’t count how many times guest speakers admonished the student body that the only way we could save our country from being destroyed by God’s judgment for its moral behavior was to go out and evangelize and get involved in the political process. Is saving the greatness of America our highest end? Is Christianity simply the best way to get to the glorious days of “back when” - when people knew their neighbors, worked hard, and (supposedly) didn’t smoke, drink, or cuss in front of women? Is the command of Christ in the great commission not enough reason to evangelize, that we must throw American hegemony and prosperity into the mix? Is compassion for the lost such a weak incentive for doing the work of the church that we must add the dream of getting prayer back in schools and the ten commandments posted in courtrooms?

Please don’t miss my point. The point of this post is not about George W. Bush or Jerry Falwell; it’s not about quirky cultural rules or rage against my alma mater (I have more good memories than bad from LU). It’s not about making an opposite and equally wrong reaction by identifying with the political left and their vision of America instead (as some in my generation have been eager to do). It’s about remembering the mission and identity of the church, and placing those things high above political power, national pride, patriotism, or moralist visions of society.

Last week, I heard a lecture from a liberal who had something to say about this. John Dominic Crossan pointed out that Christianity survived the fall of the Roman Empire because it was not dependent on an empire for its identity. He declared, “If Christianity in America only supports the American empire, then it will go down with the American empire.” If Crossan’s vision of Christian belief survives, it will not survive because of its truth, but in spite of its error - I strongly disagree with how he defines Christianity. But his comment about conservative Christianity is right on. Let’s remember our identity.


Sabrina said...

I wasn't exactly sure what to expect at that lecture, so I was pleasantly surprised when I found myself agreeing with a statement made by a liberal. :)

Anonymous said...

Nicely written as always. My observations about equating these two areas have caused shifts in my own views in the last few years. I think we have some major blindspots when it comes to understanding our history (both nationally and spiritually), our mission/purpose, and what that actually should look like. I keep saying this, but I really wish more people could read this.

Austin said...

I feel I have something intelligent to say about this (not the American Fundamentalist insights, just the keeping an ear on liberals insight). I am currently neck-deep in moderate/liberal ideology at The Hebrew University (I wish I could spend more time talking about all this! If only we could just meet up a Shakabra's a talk!). The one focus of the school (that may or may not have originated with liberals) is the importance of studying the context of the Bible (i.e. the Ancient Near East). I read just thirty pages from a book called "Biblical and Oriental Studies" by former Hebrew U prof Umberto Cassuto and I was quite instrucuted. All he did was point out how certain sterotyped phrases from the OT are found in Ugaritic literature- Ugarit was a place located a bit north of Israel's borders and existed a few hundred years before Israel got into the land.
Does it scare us that the Bible is so Canaanite in its phraseology? No, it shouldn't, especially when we compare the phrases of the OT (which is much like Ugarit) to the religious ideas and ethical concepts of Israel (which was radically different from their neighbors.)
Where was I going with this?
Anyway, I tough I was going to have to slosh through certain classes because of liberal ideologies, but it really hasn't been so bad. Some things are not valuable, but others are.
Too long- I'm done.