Red Letter Law: Responsibilty in the Shade of the Trees

I came across an article today on a site called “Forward Progressives” with the provocative title “Religious Right Politicians Don’t Take Jesus Seriously.”  The article describes a theological debate that took place on the floor of the House of Representatives.  Putting aside, for the moment, the whole question of whether “what would Jesus do” should be part of our political debate in a country that separates church and state, I would like to speak a bit about the argument itself and the article on “Forward Progressives.”  Here is the background:

When the House Agriculture Committee decided that they gradually need to cut costs to the farm bill by $40 billion, they decided that more than half of that should come out of the mouths of poor families. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (commonly known as food stamps) would be cut by over twenty billion dollars over the next decade.

In what appears to be a last-ditch effort by some members of the committee to inject some holy humanity into its more conservative members, Rep. Juan Vargas (D-CA) quoted passages from the 25th chapter of the Gospel According to Matthew. It’s the part of the Bible where Jesus says that how we treat poor people, sick people, and other marginalized people is how we treat Jesus.

In response, Committeeperson and Christian K. Michael Conaway (R-TX) took umbrage.

“I take umbrage to that. I take Matthew 25 to mean me as an individual, not the U.S. government.”

First let me say that I think the word “umbrage” should be used more often in conversation.  Literally it means a shadow “especially as cast by trees.”  How it got its figurative sense of offense is not clear to this author.  But I am already trying to come up with opportunities to talk about having a picnic in the umbrage on a hot summer day.

Moving on.  I’m sympathetic to the argument that budget cuts should not come at the expense of the poorest and least powerful members of society.  I am also more sympathetic to the notion that Jesus would not cut food programs for the poor in order to fund tax cuts for the wealthy, but I can’t know that for a fact.

This is where I take a wee bit of tree shade with the Forward Progessives article.  The author of the piece (identified as “jasdye”) writes:

…generally conservative Christians tend to read the Bible literally. You know, like the Earth was created in six days type of literal. The Creation Story of Genesis is treated literally, but not Jesus’ words to his followers?

Conaway – and many others in the Religious Right – do not take these passages literally because they want to believe these words are advice to individual followers when it is obvious it was not spoken or written in that matter… In that very passage Vargas quoted, it is the nations that will be judged for taking care of or not taking care of the poor. Not individuals. Nations. Large communities.

Indeed, the passage does talk about nations.  It describes what it will be like when the Kingdom of God arrives.  The Son of Man sits on a throne and the nations gather at his feet, he divides the righteous on the right and the unrighteous on the left.  Then he explains how he has divided the two groups and he says one of the most marvelous things in the New Testament.

“For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me…when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!”

Treat every person, no matter how poor and powerless, as though he were the Son of Man.

In the next verse he condemns to hell those who refuse to do these things for “the least of these.”

Now if you are really going to be “the Earth was created in six days literal” about this passage, you have to say that it does not literally speak to Mr. Conway as an individual, nor to the United States nor to the world.  It speaks to the people in the Kingdom of God in this envisioned future.   Of course, that is not the full story.  If the stories contained nothing more than their literal meaning they would not have lasted.

The art is in the interpretation of this story.  What does it mean to us here today?  Why should I take this to heart?  There’s nothing at all wrong with Bible stories being a matter of interpretation.  It’s important to acknowledge that this is what you’re doing though because otherwise you get into a foolish argument in which one person says, “It means this.”  And the other says, “No it doesn’t. It means this.”  Both claim to have the correct interpretation. You can’t get very far with that.   That is, unless your goal is to continually argue.

So let’s strip down this story in Matthew.  The Son of Man in the story is addressing nations.  He is speaking to the world.  The story doesn’t actually specify whether the people at this gathering are condemned to hell based on their individual or their collective failure to help “the least of these.”

You could turn to history and say that early Christians were known for their collective works to the poor– acting, as later interpreters will call “the body of Christ.”  Jesus worked with his disciples, so there was always a collective, community feeling to his messages.  Even this does not specifically address governments.  Conway might interpret the “render unto Caesar” parable as meaning that the government is irrelevant and we need to act separately from it.

I can’t entirely discount the idea that Matthew 25 is referring to individual action.  Even though the Lord or Son of Man is addressing the people as a group, he may have separated them into the righteous and unrighteous based entirely on what they or failed to do as individuals.

So let’s for a moment say that Conway is completely right and Jesus’s requirement in Matthew to do for the least of these is an individual requirement not that of the government.

The argument here seems to be that the government has no moral obligation to act in accordance with what the Lord says is righteous.  This does seem to be a tacit admission by Conway that taking money out of the food stamp program  is not the righteous or compassionate course.

Taking money out of the food stamp program is not a problem, he says, not because it is the most moral choice, but because the government is not required to be righteous.  (The clear implication is that Conway does not think his favored path is the most moral one, but he thinks he should do it anyway for some reason.)  This is, obviously, a departure from how values conservatives talk about the government’s role in things like same sex marriage or funding Planned Parenthood, but I don’t want to dwell on that right now.

What concerns me more is the idea that in a democracy we, as individuals, will not be held accountable for the collective actions of the people we elect to govern on our behalf.  If we look the other way when unrighteous actions are carried out for our benefit are we not guilty?

So let’s take this premise as given and say we are not.  We, as individuals, will face no moral judgement at the pearly gates for what our government did or did not do for “the least of these.”

Mike Conway, however, is in a slightly different position than most of us.  He is in a position of power.  He has wealth and privilege.  What is his obligation as a Christian and a legislator?

Earlier in Matthew (Chapter 22) Jesus is asked what is the supreme commandment and he says it is “Love God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind.”  The second is “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

These are the two things.  Devotion to God, and compassion for man. How is that manifest?  How do you do that?

This is what the Apostles did.  “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.” (Acts 2)

When St. Paul met with the Jerusalem Council with his idea to spread the gospel to the gentiles there was only one thing they said the gentiles had to do. Paul wrote, “They only asked us to remember the poor—the very thing I also was eager to do.

So it seems that loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself means being generous with the poor, sharing all you have with them and specifically feeding them.  If this is how you manifest your love of God then you should do it with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind– with everything you are.

If this is an individual requirement then shouldn’t a member of the House of Representatives use all of the tools at his disposal, every power he has, to carry out this mission?  Should he ignore the greatest tool he has, his political position?

When the subject of wealth, poverty and Jesus comes up, one of the first stories that comes to mind is the one about Jesus and the rich young man who did everything right, except one thing:

Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.

Mike Conway’s net worth is between $3,122,115 and $8,283,999.  (When you have a certain level of wealth it gets to the point that it’s hard to even count.)  He is the 62nd richest House member out of 435.

“I take Matthew 25 to mean me as an individual, not the U.S. government.”

What is his individual responsibility to the least of these? Will he sit on the right or the left hand of the Son of Man in the judgment day of Matthew 25?  That is between him and his God.

Here’s the Story of Gay Rights and a Brady: Why the Definition of Religion Matters

“…we toss the word ‘Christian’ around and write it into our bylaws like it means the same thing to everyone… It doesn’t– and we know it. So why aren’t we talking about this issue?”

I posted this quote from the article Theological Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell written by Danny Spears last week.  Some time back I also posted an article of my own called What is a Christian and Who Gets to Decide?  Yesterday, in fact, I posted thoughts that came to me on reading a book review.  The reviewer felt as though the depiction in my novel Angel of a Christian church did not fully reflect the reality of the many different types of Christianity that exist.

Today as I was reading an article on the actress who played Cindy Brady in The Brady Bunch, it became clear to me why the answer to this question matters.

Susan Olsen decided to express her feelings on the marriage equality momentum this week via Facebook,  She posted an emotional tribute to Robert Reed, the actor who played her father on the series.

“Bob was a family man. Had he been allowed to form a relationship with another man, he would have been the best husband ever and might still be alive,” she wrote.

She went on to say that because she realized that the treatment of her important father figure by religion was wrong, she could never be religious.

“I could never worship, let alone LOVE, a God who would put my beloved father into the fires of Hell because he loved men. THAT is a God who deserves disdain. THAT is a God who must be ignored. THAT is a concept of God that must go away just as surely s humans have shed their prehensile tails.”

In this, I would agree as would many people who consider themselves to be “religious.”  It is frustrating that one form of Christianity has managed to become synonymous with the word “religion” in the minds of many people.  “Is religion good or bad” is a nonsense question.  (I have written on this subject before.  See for example “Is Religion Good for You?“)  No one practices a generic thing called “religion.”

What is more, a minority of Christians have come to create the picture of that religion for everyone.  Almost every book that I read on the Bible or Jesus scholarship spends a great deal of time arguing against the proposition that the Bible should be approached as the literal, inerrant word of God (God’s instruction manual, if you will) even though, as I have mentioned here before, a poll done by a Christian organization of Christians showed that only 30% of self-identified Christians approach the Bible in that way. Why is it that almost every discussion of Christianity addresses a minority view as though it is the default assumption?

Drama sells, and it serves the purpose of entertainment driven news media to show religion and the gay community as polar opposites, to juxtapose a guy in drag at the Pride parade with a spokesperson for the most conservative Christian group.

Religious people should object whenever such spokespeople claim to speak for “Christians.”

It probably doesn’t matter in the greater scheme of things if “Cindy Brady” has shunned religion.

But I do think that there is value in people coming together in community to celebrate their sense of being a “family,” and at least in theory, to put the needs of the group above their own.  There is value in sharing a sense of wonder at this marvelous thing called life, to talk about transcendence and mystery with other people instead of contemplating it alone.

Susan Olsen, I was moved by your love for Robert Reed, and by your heartfelt tribute to him.  A lot of religious people will be too.

“The Angels Look Too Gay”

Because it involves keywords “angel” and “gay,” (As does my novel Angel) I stumbled across this story from 2010 about a priest in Santo Domingo who wanted to destroy a mural in his parish because the angels look “too gay.”  This happened in 2010, and I did some basic searching to try to figure out what ever happened, but I didn’t find any follow up stories.  Anyone know if the priest got his way?

“The Angels Look Too Gay”

“It’s Not Me, It’s the Bible.”

An article from the Huffington Post came through my Twitter feed this evening that compels me to get theological again. The article is sadly typical and tells the story of a man who was told he could not play music in his church any more because he was gay.

The minister was quick to say they are not a “church of hate” and that the musician, Chad, is still welcome to come to services.  Do the people who make these kind of statements really believe that the person will take them up on the offer?  “Sorry about the whole being damned to hell thing, but if you want to come worship with us, it’s fine.  Just want to make it clear we disapprove of you.  See you on Sunday!”  They can’t really imagine such a thing, can they?

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been delving deeply into the letters of Paul lately.  It is Paul who provides the New Testament ammunition for people who feel strongly that homosexuality is a sin.  (By any way you count references to homosexuality are few in the Bible.  None attributed to Jesus. Our emphasis on it is of an entirely different proportion than it is in the Bible.)

Some will point to Leviticus and Deuteronomy for support, but because Christians have not found it necessary to abide by all of the other Jewish laws included there: dietary laws, temple ritual and circumcision, the argument that we should be bound by only the laws from these Old Testament books that happen to deal with homosexuality is not particularly strong.

Most Christians who feel that homosexuality is a sin try to make a distinction between the desire and the act.  It is not the person, it is the activity.  If they would only stop doing those dirty deeds there would be no problem with them being gay.  The pastor in the Huffington Post article takes this position:

“We love our neighbors as ourselves. No matter what you hear or read, that’s what we practice here.” he said.  “…The difference with Chad is that he switched from struggling with his sin to embracing it.”

Here is the problem:  Paul specifically condemns homosexual desire.  In Romans Paul says that as a punishment for idol worship: “God gave them (the Greeks) over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.”  (Romans 1:27-28)

It is shameful lust not only shameful action.

But don’t get too comfortable.  It is not only homosexual desire that is a sin for Paul, it is any desire, the desire for status, the desire for wealth, and good old fashioned heterosexual desire.

When it comes to the last on that list, Paul believes that the ideal is for all people to remain celibate as he is.  “It is good for a man not to touch a woman.”

The best thing he has to say about marriage is that it is a lesser evil than promiscuity.  It is better not to be married, he says, but “as a concession” if men are not able to control their desires, they should marry and render to their spouses the affection due them. Marriage, in Paul’s mind, is a way to contain desire. “If they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” Being married puts the fire out.  (1 Corinthians 7:1-9)

In Paul’s view humans should not desire anything carnal and of this world, their desire should only be for God.

Straight members of Cross Point Church, do you ever burn with desire for things other than God?  I bet you do.  Do you even try to “struggle with” your desire for your husbands and wives or have you crossed over to embracing your sin?  Do you “struggle with” your desire for more money and status such as better job titles or have you actually started embracing that sin?  Shouldn’t you all be fired from the church?  Be thankful for God’s mercy.

If having no worldly desire except for God seems far too high a burden for human beings, you’re right.  We are not perfect.  We are human beings not angels.

Paul describes the human predicament in Romans: “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

Paul and Jesus both say, in too many places to cite chapters and verses, that God knows we fall short and he loves us anyway.  We are brothers and sisters and our duty is to love one another.

In Paul’s theology Christ’s sacrifice is the answer to the problem of our complete inability to live up to our highest expectations of ourselves.

Remember that Paul immediately follows Romans 1 with its condemnation of homosexual desire (and lots of other stuff) with Romans 2.

“You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment?”

It is not your place to pass judgment on man, that right belongs to God.

I, personally, do not feel that a Christian has to embrace every part of Paul’s world view.   I happen not to think that desire is sinful, whether homosexual or heterosexual.  The question is whether sexuality is expressed in a spirit of love or exploitation.

But even if you affirm that you must agree with every one of Paul’s beliefs, there is no basis in scripture for defining sin as “pointing out other people’s shortcomings while overlooking your own.”

The main test for how to behave towards others is whether or not you are acting with love.

“For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” (Galatians 5:14)

“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2)

So to the people at the church who were involved in the decision detailed in the Huffington Post I would ask: How did Chad Graber feel when you, the members of his community, told him you did not think he was moral enough to share his music with you any more?  Do you think he felt bathed in your love?

Turning the Tables: Why Conservative Christianity Bears the Burden of Proof

What I want to challenge is the persistent and difficult-to-kill assumption that conservatives occupy some kind of religious and ethical high ground, and that any deviation from a particular kind of conservative orthodoxy isn’t merely a matter of interpretation, but is tantamount to initiating hostilities against God, motherhood, and the flag—all of which, interestingly enough, are conflated in some people’s minds. But that’s another article.

The smug certainty with which some conservative religious and political types believe not just that they occupy the side of truth on every issue, but that they occupy the side of God’s truth is alarming—not because they believe these things of themselves so uncritically (self-righteousness is a time-honored religious and political posture on both sides of the ideological divide, after all), but because so many in the culture agree to cede them this authoritative land of milk and honey….

I am weary of playing defense against fundamentalism, as if it holds some sort of privileged theological position that requires a special deference, as well as the expectation of an explanation from those who would deviate.

It’s not that I resent having to come clean about my own hermeneutical presuppositions, to be required to set down the story I’m telling about how I interpret scripture. What makes me unutterably weary is the popular assumption that a fundamentalist reading of scripture is somehow the hermeneutical true north by which all interpretations are to be judged. The assertion that the bible is to be read in a common sense fashion, as close to literally as possible, is not only itself merely one interpretative strategy among other strategies, it’s also a fairly recent development in the history of interpretation.

Turning the Tables: Why Conservative Christianity Bears the Burden of Proof

200 Years from Now It Will Still Say…

(Joel) Osteen has repeatedly tried to tip toe around his stance on homosexuality, telling Piers Morgan in October of 2011 that he’s not “mad at anybody” and doesn’t “dislike anybody,” while reiterating his belief that the scripture says homosexuality is a sin,” and “two hundred years from now, the Scripture is still going to say that.”

This is a quote from an article on Huffington Post which quotes Osteen as saying that he doesn’t believe heterosexuality is a choice, but he still thinks homosexuality is a sin.

What he says about the text of the Bible being unchanging is true.  We have locked in what we consider to be scripture at this point, and even as society changes the words will not.  So what do you do with texts that are talking about an ancient way of life, about slaves and eunuchs and the demon possessed? Aren’t we fairly happy that we don’t have people performing animal sacrifices in our churches?

Two hundred years from now the Bible will still say: “If any man takes a wife … and evidences of virginity are not found for the young woman, then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones …”

I’m hoping we won’t follow that rule 200 years from now either.

Excerpt from Wayward Things interview with author Laura Lee

Will Green: What book are you reading right now?

Laura Lee: I usually have several going at any given moment. I’m on a theology kick right now.  I’ve been reading The Restored New Testament by Willis Barnstone (a translation of the New Testament) and The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen. I’ve been reading through the New Testament of the Bible in chronological order, the order in which scholars think it was written. I’ve been reading a lot of books on Biblical interpretation, the development of Christianity and the historical Jesus as well. After writing from the perspective of a Christian minister in Angel, I’ve become very interested in reading about Christianity. What I take away from it is probably idiosyncratic and unconventional. Then again, I think we all have our own internal theologies. It’s conventional to be unconventional.

Will Green: See I’ve tried to read more than one book at a time, but it just doesn’t work for me. It seems like it takes so long to get through just one if I do that. I prefer to concentrate on one and get through it. But you take the cake, you’re reading those deeply religious books at the same time. I agree it is “conventional to be unconventional.”

Now without getting too heavy into the subject would you agree or disagree that there are some contradictions in the story of the Bible?

Laura Lee: Of course there are. There are supposed to be. I would just note that there is not a story of the Bible, it is a collection of works. The different books of the Bible have different perspectives. They are in dialogue with each other. My way of thinking about God is that he did not make a man in his image, he made mankind in his image, and to get as full a picture of God as possible you need to listen to many different perspectives. In fact, the people who compiled the New Testament chose to include the same story told four ways. (The Gospels) They were not stuttering. They were trying to include a richness of perspectives. It frustrates me when people try to “debunk” the Bible by showing its internal contradictions or by saying that this or that wasn’t historical or scientific. To me, that is not the point. Whether Jesus was born in a manger in reality is not the point. You can believe that he was and that it is important that he was, or you can believe it is mythological. In either case, the important question is why people are telling this story and what it means. Why have people been telling this story for years? What are we supposed to take from it? Is “that it happened” really the moral of something like the resurrection or Noah and the flood? No, I don’t think it is. I don’t think that is really the importance of those stories for the people who believe that it literally happened, nor should believing that it didn’t literally happen be a reason to abandon those stories or assume they have nothing of value for us today. To me the literalists and the atheist “debunkers” are arguing within the same framework and it sometimes misses the point.

Will Green: That is a very intelligent and well informed response, thank you for that. It’s refreshing to know you are so open minded about all things religion. You don’t seem to let yourself be too strict in any one area of religion.

Laura Lee: I see it as a process of discovery.  I don’t expect to come to a final conclusion.  I don’t want to stop exploring. When it comes to questions of the nature of the universe, I am not sure we’re equipped to say we, as human beings, know it all.  Every time you decide you have the absolute answer, you’ve closed the question.  For most of the big questions, I tend to find that the truth doesn’t come down to an either/or question.  The answers tend to be a matter of balance and context.  I do think that the type of religion that speaks to a person has something to do with his personality.  Some people are comfortable with things being more open ended, and some people are not comfortable unless they have things resolved.  I am fine with things being more open ended.

Read the entire interview at Wayward Things.

Debunking Debunking

There was recently an episode of the television series House in which an ailing novitiate comes in to the hospital for a diagnosis. One of the doctors on House’s team came to medicine after dropping out of the seminary.  He tries to test the faith of the aspiring nun by asking her questions about the Bible.  He quizzes her on stories that are told differently in different books of the Bible.  For example, “How many times did the cock crow before Peter denied Jesus?”  

It seems unlikely that someone who attended seminary would have such a superficial understanding of faith that the whole thing could be unraveled by one extra crow.

It got me to thinking about this whole idea of “debunking” the Bible.  The idea that the Bible is something that can be “debunked” by showing factual inconsistencies assumes that the book is a certain type of thing.  You can debunk junk science.  You can debunk false journalism.  You can debunk bad history.  But the Bible is not science or a history text book or journalism.  It is art. 

You can’t “debunk” Picasso by saying human noses don’t really go there.

Nor would you debunk Shakespeare, even though he wrote plays based on history.  You might point out that the real Henry V did not give the marvelous St. Cispan’s speech before the battle of Agincourt, but that hardly “debunks” the play. 

Shakespeare was capturing the essence of how the English people felt about this episode.  He was illustrating (not reporting on) the drama of the nation’s cultural history.

That is the same type of story telling that occurs in the Bible.  It illustrates and dramatizes the moments that shaped the culture of the Jewish people and their religion and later of the proto-Christian people and their culture. Much of what is written is based on history, but it is not told in the voice of the historical scholar.

Debunking the Bible because it is bad science or history and reading the Bible as though it were literal historical scholarship and science are two sides of the same coin. 

The purpose of religion is to inspire, to invite wonder and contemplation, to give people a sense of common community and to teach us how to ethically relate to one another in the here and now.

If the Bible was a perfectly factual, scholarly report on historical events it would fail as scripture.

When you read the page on the Battle of Agincourt in your British history class (if you had one) did you want to cheer, or were you doodling on the back of a note pad and waiting for the class bell to ring?

Henry V may not have said “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” but he should have.  It took a poet to capture the dramatic truth.  That is the type of truth that one can find in the Bible.

The Illusion of Tradition

A follow up, of sorts, to my first article on tradition.

When you start to read books on the history of Christianity it becomes clear that many of the ideas and approaches that seem non-traditional and novel are actually as old or older than the approaches considered “traditional.” I have read many a 19th century text making the same arguments that might be published in books today as shocking new ways of approaching religion.

I was recently reading the book American Jesus by Stephen Prothero, which talks about how our distinctly American ways of understanding Jesus and Christianity have evolved.  One of the things that surprised me was the prominence of Unitarians and their kind in shaping our national religious culture.  In spite of having our patron saints Emerson and Channing, I don’t recall learning much in Sunday school about Unitarian history.  We learned about other religions and their traditions but I do not remember having a sense of Unitarians having traditions and history of our own.  Instead, I had a vague sense of Unitarianism being modern and forward thinking.  Unitarians, I generally believed, reacted against the ills of mainstream religious culture.  We did not create or influence the mainstream.

Prothero points out that the forms of Christianity that came to the United States did not put Jesus at the center of their theology as we do today.  The second person of the trinity was present in the faith of the Puritans and Calvinist of course, but the focus was on the first person, God.   Christ “functioned as more of a principle than a person.”

The shift towards a “personal relationship” with Jesus came from a place you might not expect, what we would now call the religious left, Unitarians, Transcendentalists and Universalists or more accurately, the dance between traditionalist and “the religious left.”

Thomas Jefferson’s approach to scripture was to try to get back to the original teaching of Jesus and away from all of the interpretation that had built up over the years.  The Jefferson Bible removed all of the miracles and supernaturalism and got down to a few core teachings that Jefferson believed were authentic to Jesus.  Even though his theology would not resonate with many modern Christians, his focus on the fundamental teachings of Jesus over institutional traditions became a hallmark of American religion.

Thomas Jefferson’s influence on American religion can be overstated. His theological views, unorthodox upon his death in 1825, remain unorthodox today; the overwhelming majority of Americans are now Christians who affirm the creedal view of their Savior as fully divine and fully human. Nonetheless, they have inherited from Jefferson a strategy for understanding Jesus and Christianity that continues to drive religious change, from both the left and the right. That strategy begins with a bold refusal. It starts when a religious reformer refuses to equate Jesus with the Christian tradition. The religion of Jesus, the reformer asserts, is not the same as the religion about Jesus; and what really matters is what Jesus did and taught. The second step is to isolate certain beliefs or practices in the Christian tradition as unreasonable or antiquated or immoral. The next step is to use the cultural authority of Jesus to denounce those beliefs or practices as contrary to true Christianity—to call for religious reform. As these alternative understandings gain ground, Jesus is gradually unmoored from the beliefs, practices, and institutions that in the past had restricted his freedom of movement. He loses no authority among the traditionalists, who continue to see him as they had, but he gains authority among the innovators. As his authority expands, Christians are all the more likely to champion reforms.

This opened the door for a form of Christianity that encouraged members to think of Jesus as someone with whom they could have a personal relationship and to try to get back to fundamentals of the religion of Jesus.

Prothero also referenced the “Unitarian Controversy of the early nineteenth century… That controversy, which ran from 1804 until the establishment of the American Unitarian Association in 1825, touched on the doctrine of the Trinity, but centered on human nature. While traditionalists affirmed Calvin’s dogma of the total depravity of human beings, Unitarians defended the more optimistic view that human beings were essentially good.”

An interesting historical note is that one of the reasons the UUs merged was that the Universalist church, which had once been very popular and growing, started to lose its appeal as many other mainstream Protestant faiths toned down their talk of hell and started adopting a more universalist approach themselves.  “God is love and he loves everyone” is the chorus of a popular Christian song right now. Rob Bell’s Love Wins expresses a more universalist Christian theology.  So, in a way, the success of universalism also became the universalist church’s down fall.  When Methodist churches started to focus more on heaven and the goodness of people than on damnation and sin a lot of Universalists jumped ranks.

Christianity has never been a monolith.  In fact, the earliest Christian writings we have in the Bible, the letters of Paul, seek to address heated arguments within the early Jesus movement as to what was required to be a follower of Christ.  At the fourth-century Council of Laodicea, early Christians met to close the canon of the Bible.  Some argued that there should be one Gospel.  Others fought for four, one for each corner of the earth.  As you know from glancing at your New Testament, this side won out.  (I touched on this in an earlier essay on the “What is a Christian” question.)

A view that is orthodox in one era is heresy in another.  Some of the heresies are older than some of the orthodoxies.  Some former orthodoxies are modern heresies.

For example, approaching the Bible as the literal, inerrant word of God is actually a fairly new method for interpreting scripture gaining prominence only in the 20th century.  (There are many sources on this.  One that I can think of off hand is Pedagogy of the Bible by Dale B. Martin because I happen to have read it recently.)

If a non-literal approach to the Bible predates that of Biblical literalism, why is it that we consider literalism traditional and a less literal interpretation as new?  I believe it has less to do with history and more to do with a sense of identity.  Liberal religious types value their sense of identity as free thinkers and agents of social change whereas fundamentalist types value their sense of being part of an ongoing tradition with firm foundations.  We accept each group’s self-definition.

The interesting effect is that a viewpoint that is, in fact, a minority opinion becomes the working default assumption of what counts as mainstream thought.  Almost every book that I read on the Bible or Jesus scholarship spends a great deal of time arguing against the proposition that the Bible should be approached as the literal, inerrant word of God (God’s instruction manual, if you will) even though, as I have mentioned here before, a poll done by a Christian organization of Christians showed that only 30% of self-identified Christians approach the Bible in that way. Why is it that almost every discussion of Christianity addresses a minority view as though it is the default assumption?  It is only because it has been dubbed the “traditional approach.”

Rather than using our self-definitions, and seeing the people who value tradition most as the most traditional, what if we were to view a more questioning approach to the Bible as mainstream American thought and to view fundamentalism as a modern counter-cultural faith?  How would our dialogue change?