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Category: Evangelical

Religious Crazy

06

There’s a lot of crazy in the world. England has a cheese chase (canceled this year for health and safety reasons). Spain has a tomato fight. Lind, Washington, has a demolition derby for combine harvesters. And crazy comes in all shapes and sizes. Exhibit A: some people still drink instant coffee. Exhibit B: Tootsie Rolls.

But the kind of crazy I’d like to discuss here is the kookiest, scariest kind of crazy I know, the kind of crazy that doesn’t know it’s crazy: religious crazy.

Early Monday, nine members of a religious militia were charged with conspiracy to “kill an unidentified member of local law enforcement and then attack the law enforcement officers who gather in Michigan for the funeral. According to the plan, [they] would attack law enforcement vehicles during the funeral procession with Improvised Explosive Devices.”

The men and women involved in this group identified themselves as followers of “the testimony of Jesus.” They claim on their Web site that they “live by faith” and that they have been called to “stand, stay and pray for the defense of the word.” They claim Jesus has called them to a full-on fight with the government.

I can see that this kind of thinking is inconsistent with the message and witness of Jesus. So can you. Neither one of us is in danger of falling for such a specious reading of scripture. Or are we?

The real problem is that this fringe group wasn’t as far out on the fringes as maybe we’d like to believe. Their ideas about faith (as promoted at their Web site) don’t sound so different from things I’ve heard at my own church.

So how does this kind of crazy come about? It has to do with belief. Belief serves as a prism through which I filter experience. As a result, my beliefs also direct my interactions, dictate the ways in which I view others and the treatment they will receive from me.

Dr. Jerry Falwell, now deceased, held the belief that every event is an act of God. Not so crazy. Is it?

Here’s how the reverend used that belief to filter his experience. He said the collapse of the Twin Towers in 9/11 was a God-ordained act that killed thousands of innocent Americans in order to teach the country a lesson about the evils of homosexuality, abortion, and feminism.

This belief justifies acts of terrorism. Definitely crazy.

Author and historian David Barton, founder of WallBuilders, published an online essay in which he indirectly called for the elimination of the capital gains tax, federal minimum wage, inheritance taxes, and the end of a progressive income tax: “In the Bible, the more profit you make the more you are rewarded. . . . The landowner had a right to determine the wages his workers received. . . . The current income tax structure in the United States mandates a higher tax rate or percentage the more a person makes. This tax system is contradicted by scripture.”

This belief favors the rich over the poor, encouraging those who have to gain even more at the expense of those who have not. Might not be crazy, but it certainly is inconsistent with Jesus’ teaching.

One of my favorite thinkers, Erich Fromm, claims the real problem is belief itself (although he refers to it as dogma). Fromm suggests that evangelical Christian churches created a problem for themselves when they decided to do away with high-church tradition and symbolism: “Religions which are consolidated by extra-religious elements are able to dispense almost completely with a system of dogmas.”

What’s wrong with a little dogma? It tends to control the mind. Again with Fromm: Dogma is a “powerful suggestion, which is experienced subjectively as reality because of the consensus among believers.”

What he’s saying is that if it’s you that’s crazy, it won’t feel crazy. And if it’s me that’s crazy, I’ll probably just call it “faith.”

Exhibit A: some people still drink instant coffee. Exhibit B: Tootsie Rolls.

Denominationalism

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Seems to me that denominations have largely served as regulators, means of identifying who’s in and who’s out. The kind of us/them mentality that fuels such boundaries is alive and well in America today, but it’s not p/c: a big problem for churches that want to “reach out” (code for getting bigger).

Denominations may never succeed in ridding themselves of the kind of on-or-off theology that’s guided the Church since Augustine (and Western culture since Socrates). But sometimes I wish people would learn to acknowledge this failing rather than simply covering it over with words.

People see right through that kind of crap (unless, of course, they’re the ones making it in the first place).

People see right through that kind of crap

On Biblicism

Two weeks ago, I came close to losing my job.

I was confronted by a colleague who wanted to know if I believe the Bible is true. I’d earlier made the claim that the Creation story in Genesis is myth. Of course, I explained that the word “myth” in literature refers to any explanation of origin. It’s a question of genre not of truth.

The conversation ended well, and I was encouraged by my colleague’s attempt to understand rather than judge. But the incident reminded me of a concern I have with Christian culture and biblical interpretation.

Many Christians – particularly evangelicals – claim the Bible is completely and literally true, a claim that fails to account for human subjectivity or theological nuance. Take the book of Leviticus, for example. Christians are quick to point out that the book is completely true, especially when quoting 18:22, a verse that is widely interpreted as a prohibition of homosexuality: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind: it is abomination.” But these same Christians too often cast off the rest as “cleanliness rules” that no longer apply, especially the bits about mildew and baldness.

There is some reason for this reading. A controversy in the early Church considered how to apply the book of Leviticus to Gentile believers. A special council of elders and apostles was held at Jerusalem (Acts 15), and James recommended that the new followers of the Way be encouraged to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals, and from blood. In one fell swoop, the council erased all of Leviticus except 7:26-27; 17:10-12; 18:6-25; 19:4, 26 & 29; 20:10-21; and 26:1.

Later, in his first letter to the Corinthian church, the apostle Paul acts without the benefit of the council and further erases all that’s left of Leviticus except for 18:6-25; 19:4 & 29; 20:10-21; and 26:1.

In the first case, the council members didn’t claim certainty or special knowledge. It just “seemed good.” In the second case, Paul appealed to logic in making his argument.

But Christians today widely accept both “reinterpretations” of Leviticus because it’s stated in one case that the Holy Spirit inspired or confirmed the decision, and it’s implied in the other.

Unfortunately, new “reinterpretations” aren’t allowed in fundamentalist or evangelical circles, and I fear this inability to reconsider is a sign of our weakness, not of our strength.

The Jerusalem council didn’t question its ability to hear God and respond in obedience.

Neither should we.

Unfortunately, new “reinterpretations” aren’t allowed in fundamentalist or evangelical circles, and I fear this inability to reconsider is a sign of our weakness, not of our strength.

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