September 28, 2006

Cafeteria Christianity

I was recently asked to review a commentary titled, "Thus Saith the Lord. No Exceptions." It was written by Leonard Pitts Jr., Pulitzer Prize winning syndicated columnist for the Miami Herald. He is also a member of the United Church of Christ, a self-consciously liberal denomination, and that fact strongly colors this particular commentary. What follows is the text of Pitts' commentary in full accompanied by my own responses.

First Baptist Church of Watertown, N.Y., fired Mary Lambert for being a woman. They say the Bible told them to do it.

Nothing against women, says the Rev. Timothy LaBouf. The church is just trying to obey 1 Timothy 2:11-14, which says in part, “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.”

So, after 54 years as a Sunday school teacher at First Baptist, Lambert was given the heave-ho a couple of weeks ago. She and others have said the firing probably had as much to do with church politics as with scriptural injunctions, but let’s stick with the stated reason as given in her letter of dismissal: the Bible forbids women taking positions of authority. There is, for the record, a similar injunction in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, which warns that it is “disgraceful” for a woman to speak in the church.

So Pitts readily admits that there is biblical justification. Unless he wants to argue that a private, voluntary organization should not have the right to set its own standards, then the most he can rightly say against this church is that it was hypocritical in letting Mary Lambert begin teaching in the first place. I could go in to the "politics" of the situation, or the theological issues, but these do not beg a response here; Pitts has chosen to entirely bypass these points and seems willing to lean on the unstated assumption that any limitation on the role of women in the church is just "disgraceful."

So the church is scripturally right. It’s just not right right.

Pitts seems to have his theology all nailed down here. I wonder what canon he's using to derive his doctrines about spiritual leadership and church politics. It is certainly not the Bible; he admits right here (rightly or wrongly) what it has to say and that he rejects that. For this reason, any further appeal he makes to the Scriptures must be suspect.

So what grounds does he have for being dogmatic about how Christians ought to believe and practice? If it is merely his own spiritual feelings, then I will have to wonder what he does with the feelings of the rest of the spiritual people of the world, many of whom have very different ideas from his own. Perhaps Pitts might be so humble as to consider that he has not felt his theology correctly.

The Lambert case intrigues me because it illustrates a point I’ve made on many occasions when people bring out Bibles to explain why gay folk deserve no civil rights. Maybe now, without the reflexive emotionalism that gay brings to cloud their view, a few more people will see the obvious: Bible literalism is impractical and impossible. Or maybe they won’t see.

Gay's deserve no civil rights? I've never heard a case made that they shouldn't be able to vote, hold office, own property, have legal protections, etc. I think what Pitts is really referring to is the "right" to marriage. But they have the same right there that everyone else has: The right to marry one person of the opposite sex. The difference is that they don't want to exercise that right; they want a new right: The right to marry someone of the same sex. But heterosexuals are denied that right as well. Just because someone has a desire for a thing does not mean they ought to have that thing. But that is another issue, which, by the way, we do not even need to appeal to the Bible to speak against.

As far as Bible "literalism" being impractical, I would beg to differ. It is only when you have persons in your community that do not agree with your theology that problems arise. This happens to be the state we are in here in America, as in the world at large (we are not ancient Israel, having made a covenant with God). For this reason, the theocracy that Pitts is so fearful of is not a "practical" reality, and most American Christians are satisfied to stick with the political vision of our founding fathers. But for some, even that is too much.

Allow me to share by way of example an e-mail I received last week from a gentleman named Al who took exception to a column I wrote condemning capital punishment. Said Al, “When one criticizes the death penalty one criticizes God’s judgment in the matter, as scripture ordains death for numerous crimes. It is not wise to criticize God.”

I shot back a note pointing out that among the crimes for which scripture ordains death are cursing your parents (Leviticus 20:9) or committing adultery (Leviticus 20:10). Did Al really believe those misdeeds should be treated as capital offenses?

“Only if one wishes to accomplish God’s will in the matter,” Al said.

I don’t mind telling you, people like him scare me.

Methinks Al's chief mistake was alluding to the Bible in answer to Pitts in the first place, as though it were some authoritative playbook in shaping his opinions. If Pitts actually believed the testimony of those who delivered the religion he presumes to correct, then he would remember that Jesus is scheduled for a return visit; and when He does, it will be the end of many things, including smart-mouthing and unfaithfulness.

What we humans should do about sin in this post-messianic era is another question, but if Scripture is to be believed, even broadly, then we at least know what God thinks about it; and the Levitical laws are but a foreshadowing of the fate of those who think of sin as nothing more than a little harmless shenanigans.

As it happens, one of America’s greatest churchmen recently weighed in on the question of Bible literalism. In a twilight-of-life interview with Newsweek, Billy Graham spoke of the way age and perspective led him to reject the absolutism of the left and right and to make his peace with the notion of God as a loving mystery. People of faith, he said, can “absolutely” disagree about the details of theology. “I’m not a literalist in the sense that every single jot and tittle (of the Bible) is from the Lord,” he said. “This is a little difference in my thinking through the years.”

It is a difference people like Al would do well to emulate.

It is what Graham has preached and lived that makes him credible to those whom Pitts would seek to correct, and I suspect that some of those doctrines that he has not begun to rethink in his twilight years would still give Pitts cause for heartburn. However, I'm sure that it is only as far as Graham's comments support Pitts' selective theology that he is much interested in him.

Or has no one else noticed how literally some Christians interpret those scriptures that give them license to condemn, yet how elastic and liberal their readings are when dealing with scriptures that convict their personal behaviors. Meaning that it’s always a little more difficult to catch people being literal about turn the other cheek, do not store up treasures on earth, do not turn away the borrower, love your enemy. Yet, you can’t go to the store without tripping over someone who wants you to know the Bible calls homosexuality an abomination.

Pitts is correct that it is easier to see and judge other people's sins than your own, but this does not mean that they are not, in fact, sins; and it may be but a demonstration of the fact that it is easier to be objective about others than about yourself. He's also right that we see in Scripture only what we prefer to see and filter out the rest. But I'm not sure how he imagines he has escaped the same mistake, especially since he's already admitted that Scripture is not to be taken too seriously. The very methodology of liberalism is to pick and choose from the Scriptures, whereas his only complaint against the conservatives can properly be that they have not taken it all into their view.

When someone like Pitts makes their decision on which biblical ideas they will keep and which to discard, what standard do you suppose they will use? If one were disposed toward promiscuity or homosexuality, do you think they would be more inclined to accept the verses that speak against these things, or the ones that speak of God's love and mercy? It is a far easier thing to believe that God holds no grudge against your behavior. But if we remove such a bias, yet retain the liberal, cafeteria approach to Scripture, the truth could turn out to be something far different than Pitts would be comfortable with.

Why is it that liberal Christians find the portions of Scripture that speak of love and charity to be the ones that have survived the misinterpretations and corruptions of the ages? Given that Scripture is equally filled with talk of God's righteousness and justice, it seems equally warranted, according to the liberal approach, to say that the verses regarding God's mercy and forgiveness are the ones that we have taken too literally! That is a fearsome idea, but what grounds does Pitts have for thinking it is the wrong one?

People obsess on the fine print, yet miss the big picture, the overarching themes of sacrifice, redemption, love.

Unfortunately, some seem to miss even the overarching themes! Words like "sacrifice" and "redemption" may be part of that big picture, but you can't just hang them out there without definition. Just what or who is this sacrifice, and what are we being redeemed from and to? It does not take too many such questions before we find ourselves looking at the "fine print" for clarification, and it doesn't take a magnifying glass to find things like sin and Christ's atonement all over the text.

In their selectivity, they are reminiscent of the Islamic fanatics who bomb and behead, citing some passage of the Quran as justification, yet conveniently ignoring a dozen other passages commanding mercy and love.

Ah, he wants to be provocative, eh? All right, how would it be if I pointed out that his kind of theological subjectivism has led to (or sustains) almost every one of the cults? "God is still speaking" to them too, ya know. Unfortunately, it's not always the same things that the UCC is hearing.

To address his point, though, Pitts rightly implies that there are passages in the Qur'an that advocate aggression against unbelievers, but he wrongly implies that the Bible is similar in kind and that a wise reader should then heed only the more genteel passages.

If the Qur'an teaches both violence and inclusiveness toward other religions, then we can only pray that Muslims practice Pitts' brand of liberalism and hear only the non-violent passages. Fortunately, Christians are not in this same dilemma. There are no applicable biblical mandates that teach aggression toward unbelievers. And the contrast could not be more stark between the spread of Islam by the sword from its outset and the spread of Christianity by the blood of the Apostolic Fathers, who were very much biblical literalists.

Those Old Testament passages that might be accused of condoning violence (e.g., the taking of the Promised Land and the penalties in the Mosaic Laws) nowhere give license beyond the scope and borders of pre-messianic Israel. Even if we were inclined to do so, and even if anyone has ever done so, there is nothing in Scripture, at least, that would support going after peaceful unbelievers with bombs and swords.

People are much less apt to be selective in the direction of mercy and love.

I disagree. Just like Pitts, the vast majority of those who select anything at all from Scripture (even atheists) select only those things that speak of "mercy and love." The biblical "literalists" include these things as well, but the difference is in the understanding of what these things mean and how they are exercised. The difference is on par with a parent who "loves" a child by giving and allowing everything versus a parent who offers boundaries and discipline with the goal of raising a healthy and mature adult.

I’ll close by observing that Exodus 35:2 requires death for those who work on the Sabbath. Were I a member of First Baptist, I might wonder where the church leaders stand on that one.

Of course, I’d be scared to ask.

Since it turns out that the historical church has worshipped on Sundays, in honor of the resurrection, and not on the Sabbath (Saturday), then Pitts should know that something new is in play. But since Pitts most likely rejects a literal resurrection, then he is probably not inclined to see Jesus as the fulfillment of the law (as He claimed to be) in any meaningful way.

The lens of the Messiah is the key to reconciling the whole of Scripture. I think that Pitts would prefer to see it as one big incoherent jumble containing interesting mythology and a few good moral lessons. The curious thing is that Pitts' UCC believes that God is in there somewhere. Were I a member of that denomination, I might wonder what kind of God it is that is so incompetent or impotent that He can't get a decent revelation to His creation. And if this truly is the kind of God we're talking about, then I wouldn't be scared to ask such presumptuous questions, since apparently He's all love and mercy without law and judgment anyway.



At 10/05/2006 9:38 PM, Anonymous cb said...

"In their selectivity, they are reminiscent of the Islamic fanatics who bomb and behead, citing some passage of the Quran as justification, yet conveniently ignoring a dozen other passages commanding mercy and love."

Interestingly, it is often teachings from the hadith and subsequent law tradition in Islam that is invoked, especially when it comes to radical enforcement of morality and/or jihad (take the morality police in Iran as an example). Unfortunately, these traditions accumulate and are given theological weight because they come from the mouths of absolute authority (a similar phenomenon occurs in the Mormon tradition, where each subsequent "prophet's" word trumps the former). Fortunately for Christians, but unfortunately for your critic here, there is no comparable phenomenon in the Christian church (even papal authority in Catholocism doesn't "go there").

At 1/10/2010 5:47 PM, Blogger Kold_Kadavr_flatliner said...

Amen to the post above, brudda. However, just as we live in a communications X-factor, so I will scribble my pervasive, radical, Miss Understood thots unto thee, my just and worthy liege --- This Finite Existence is like a triangle: our base is earth, yet, as we grow older, we finally succumb to our demise till we meet our Maker (top of the triangle). So, HEAR YE! O HEAR YE!! Meet me Upstairs in the Great Beyond for a celebration of our resurrection where we'll have a BIG-OL party till well after sundown. God bless.

At 1/11/2010 1:00 PM, Blogger Paul said...


Even while your "amen" suggests agreement, your "however" makes me think we have some differences. Are you suggesting, as I hear quite often, that we just can't sort out the theological obscurities and we'll just figure it out in heaven? Are you suggesting, similarly, that all people ultimately wind up at the top of the pyramid – heaven? Or, maybe you are suggesting that heaven is achieved by a process of climbing the pyramid to its summit?


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