Archive for category biblical literalism

No Hell = No Jesus


As long as I can remember  my mother has said, “As a Christian you have to believe in Hell but you don’t have to believe anyone is  there.”  This is her gracious understanding of an essential Christian doctrine.  Though she didn’t know it,  this understanding is a Christian “heresy” called Universalism, a heresy  that says all of us,  even non-Christians, will go to Heaven. And it was expressly against Catholic, and most Christian doctrine. But wasn’t she right about one thing:  Don’t you have to believe in Hell to be a Christian? This must be the case, if Universalism is a heresy.

Not long ago Rob Bell was  in the hot seat with many Evangelicals (and some Catholics)  because his recent book, “Love Wins”,  suggested that no one goes to Hell.  He set the conservative Christian bogs on fire and most of them essentially condemned Bell to hell for not believing in Hell.

The ensuing progressive  Christian defense of Bell was great.  Many Emerging Church and progressive Christian bloggers  busted the chops of people like the Three Johns ( Piper, MacArthur and Hagee) for accusing Bell of  Universalism . They rightly criticized the conservative Christian tendency to make Hell such a big part of their theology, to the point where this doctrine  obscures a lot of the Gospel message.  But, unfortunately, few of them go far enough.

Because in their defense of Bell they made it quite clear that they also believed in the doctrine of Hell, they just adapted it to make it more palatable.  Most seemed to accept the conventional orthodoxy  of a Final Judgment and the potential prospect of Hell (even with little or no scriptural support for it) coupled with the salvic solution of Jesus dying for our sins on the cross, as God’s blood sacrifice, to free us from eternal damnation.  Which, to me, flies in the face of what Jesus spends a lot of time telling us about God.  As I heard a pastor once say, God is either merciful or God is just, but God cannot be both.

I think one reason why so many Christians are unyielding about Hell, and why the progressives still can’t shake the doctrine off, is that, in reality,  Hell is the cornerstone of the Church, not Jesus.  Because without Hell, what is there for Jesus to do? What does he save us from?

No Hell = no Jesus. Or at least the Jesus that many Christians claim to believe in, have faith in.  Without Hell he loses his job description. He loses his purpose along with the primary meaning he may have for millions of Christians. So the idea that there is no Hell is just too damn frightening to consider.

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. 1 John 4:18

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The Bible is not The Good Book or a bad book. It is just a….book.


The Bible is a collection of diverse ancient Hebrew writings by many authors who never intended their works to be collected between the bindings of a book.  It is full of spiritual stories, poems, myths, biographies and various historical accounts. It may or may not include recorded attempts at predicting the future. Wisdom and beauty abound within its pages and the reading of this book has helped millions of people, in many spiritual ways,  to encounter God.  By this definition alone, it is a sacred book.  But as St. Paul  once said, the scriptures are useful for instructing a person in the ways of God, implying that they are only some of the tools at our disposal and not the sole repository of spiritual wisdom.

The common thread that runs through this assortment of writings is how a particular group of people interacted with their God over a very long time, in ways that were both moral and immoral.  Inspired by a sense of wonder, the authors attempted to understand God’s nature, God’s will and how, why and if God works in their lives, often depicting God as speaking and acting within the natural world.

The second, smaller part of the Bible concerns Jesus of Nazareth, his life, crucifixion and resurrection. It also includes his teachings and the teachings of some of his disciples.  These teachings have undoubtedly inspired generations of people to live lives of peace, mercy and love while at the same time championing justice.  At the same time,  different interpretations have helped others to rationalize behavior not so commendable.

The Bible had no release date, there was no publishing date. At some point, around 1700-1800 years ago, powerful religious men decided what Jewish scriptures would be included in what we call the Canon and the Apocrypha.  Everything else  (probably more than what was included) was discarded or destroyed, though some of these manuscripts survive today. Throughout its history the Bible has been translated in different ways and there have been a few cases where it has been altered to serve a religious agenda, but these were rare occurrences.  There has always been a very active, and often heated,  debate over what many portions of the Bible actually mean.

The Bible may, or may not, be relevant to us today.  The stories and poems and letters within have been used as a guide for morality, compassion and self sacrifice.  They have also been  used to justify genocide, torture, slavery, misogyny, bigotry and war.  If God has spoken through the Bible then some have certainly heard the voice of Satan as well.

Although a great work of historical literature and sacred to millions,  it has no magical qualities or powers. It needs to be interpreted contextually, framed within the time and circumstances of the people who populate it, lest whatever lessons it might contain remain hidden.   It is undeniably a very, very important book.  It is certainly a great book, one of the world’s greatest.  But it is not the GOOD book any more than it is a bad book.  In the end, with all that it has to offer, it is still…just…a…book.

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But if you’re a Christian, then what am I?


Over on the Wall Street Journal blog, one of the members has (hopefully) started a thread by asking this question:

How do Christians define Christians? What makes you or not a Christian?

I often come across the argument that “said person is not a real Christian”, many tend to use this argument to exclude particulars who happen to shame the religion calling themselves part of it, or act in the name of it.

I think it would be interesting to see, how does every one define it, is it simply believing in a higher authority?. Is it taking every literal word of the bible?. Is it following the “reasonable” aspects of the bible?

Now, so far, only one person has given an answer, and it is one that I suspect the majority of American Christians would agree with:

A Christian is somebody who believes that Christ died on the Cross and shed his blood as the ultimate atonement(replacement for the blood sacrifice of the Old Testament law) for the sins of mankind. They believe that Christ is who He said He is. ie, The Son of God, and therefore God Himself. The concept of the Trinity applies here. God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Christ was the product of the immaculate conception. Christ was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophesy. Isaiah 53:3-7 is an example, among others of the prophesy.

The first chapter of John in the New testament, gives a good representation of what Christians believe about Christ.

To be saved (ie a Christian), is nothing more then the realization that man is born into sin, and the acceptance and acknowledgment of the free gift of eternal life(made possible because of Christ sacrifice on the Cross), that is offered to mankind, should they(exhibit their “free will”) except it. It is nothing more then Gods grace being demonstrated through mans faith.

If all of the above needs to be believed in order to be a Christian, then I guess I am not one.  Of course, for many reasons I think the above definition, although perhaps “orthodox”,  is incorrect.

Over on Ric Booth’s blog there is an interesting conversation taking place about a new organization that John Shore is spear-heading called ThruWAy Christians, particularly their controversial acceptance of gays and lesbians.   The stated goal of ThruWAy Christians is to provide moderate Christians with a new forum.  As it says on their website:  “If you find conservative Christianity too oppressive and exclusionary, and progressive Christianity too theologically tenuous, you’re probably a ThruWay Christian.”   Which means that, though I agree with much of the content of their founding document, my theology is much too “tenuous”  (something which I am sure the Conservative Christians could accuse the ThruWay people).

Surprisingly,  I don’t believe my theology is any weaker than theirs or any one else.  It’s different to be sure.  Maybe not as orthodox as they would like.  And like Christianity, it is evolving. But that doesn’t mean that it is “flimsy, insubstantial or lacking in strength”.  This is a charge that the orthodox have always levied at those who had the audacity to question theological authority.

The good folks over at ThruWAy Christian are not really challenging conservative Christian theological authority, though. They are only challenging the  conservative interpretations of certain scriptures that they believe lead to intolerant and mean spirited attitudes and behavior.  But I would suggest that the overarching theology that both the moderates and the conservatives still hold in common ( much of which has been condensed by the commenter from the WSJ blog and jives with the  first line of ThruWay’s creed )  is actually what drives this intolerance.  And has for centuries.

I ‘ve found that it is nearly impossible for Christian moderates to  engage Fundamentalists in any meaningful dialog that might result in a change of perception on the part of either, so  I’ve given up on it myself.  If this is the goal of the folks at ThruWAy, well then, have at it.  But  if they would be open-minded enough to engage some Christians whose convictions are not quite as solid, substantial or strong as theirs then perhaps they might find that ‘progressive’ is not such a bad word after all.

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Pentagon cover-up: UFOs found Noah’s Ark!


Not really.

But on the way into work,  I happened to catch about 5 minutes of the Steve Quayle show on XM radio.  There is political commentary on this station in the evening but I always switch to another station in the morning, as Quayle’s program is devoted to talk about things like aliens, pending doomsday scenarios and ancient astronauts.  But today, before I had a chance to touch the dial,  I heard the word’s “Noah’s Ark”, which quickly stayed my hand.

I find the obsession some people have for the Biblical flood scenario fascinating.  The Flood is essential to the cause of Creationism,  since the magnitude of such an event is said to be sufficiently energetic to sculpt an Earth that only appears to be millions of years old.  But, no offense folks, I’ve always found the idea that this is more than a Biblical fable to be just a little bit goofy.

Just like talk of the Mayan prediction of the Earth’s demise in 2012.  Or UFO abductions.  Or Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster. Or the prophecies of Nostradamus and John of Patmos or the ghosts of the Nazis.   Essentially the combined prime-time line-up of the History, Discovery and Learning Channels. And let’s not forget the silliness of filming the hi-jinks of a semi-literate Alaskan ex-governor’s dysfunctional family – but that’s a different (although perhaps related) story.

Within the five minutes that I listened to Quayle’s program the talk went from an international conspiracy to hide the discovery of Noah’s Ark, to the pending Mayan apocalypse and how it was predicted in Luke’s gospel and the Book of Revelations to the ongoing Pentagon cover up of visiting alien spacecraft (fallen angels), finishing with the coming New World Order that will overshadow the tyrannical excesses of Nazi Germany. The guest on the program (who’s name I did not catch) as well as the few callers, all professed to be Christians who possessed special knowledge of the world given to them by studying the Bible and other ancient texts.  The evidence was incontrovertible, they claimed, and the inability of most of the world’s people to see the handwriting on the wall was proof that Satan was actively at work in the world, undermining the will of God. It was up to each and every Christian to spread the word and take up the good fight.

The crazy thing is, that though it is easy to call these folks crack-pots, they are not that rare of a species.  Similar ideas can be heard from pulpits across the country (like the Wasilla Assembly of God)  and on numerous “legitimate” websites.  Even a mainstream media personality like Glenn Beck talks of the pending apocalypse, apparently orchestrated by the minions of Satan.   In their world,  ‘faith’ trumps reasonable skepticism every time.

Madness.

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Thumping loudly on the Bible and the Constitution


Today the Republicans in the House of Representatives are reading the Constitution aloud, as symbolic token to the Tea Party’s devotion to the document.  A good civics lesson, or “sanctimonious reverence” ?

The Tea Party. Why is it that bible thumpers (of which the Tea Party abounds) claim to love the Constitution so?   Because it’s not that the two world views are inextricably wed, there are plenty of conservatives and libertarians who are religious moderates or even atheists (like Ayan Rand).  And there are even a number of left wing Evangelicals like Tony Compalo and Jim Wallace. But today’s political conservatism embodies the yin and yang of both Christian and historical fundamentalism.  Biblical literalism meets Constitutional orginalism.

Which I guess should not be too surprising.   It makes sense that if you hold to a literal and inerrant view of the Bible that you would look at the US Constitution in much the same way, especially if you you believe that Americans have replaced the Jews as God’s chosen people (and  like the Israelites, we have often gone astray).  If we asked a  Tea Partier,  I think we would hear some interesting similarities in how  both the Constitution and the Bible are viewed.

They both:

-should to be taken literally, meaning that the written words are to be  understood precisely as they were written and not subject to individual interpretation

-share the ultimate authority on how Americans should live their lives, holding to the author’s  original intent (and God’s will)

-are able to transcend time, speaking  as authoritatively on today’s issues as within their own day, having been written by devoutly religious  men who were directly inspired by God to be  both prophetic and prescient, able to anticipate every correct response to all future events.

These assertions are, of course, absolutely incorrect, as proven by a reading of the historical record, accompanied by a dash of the much heralded “common sense”.  It is obvious to most who study scripture that the circumstances and situations  addressed in the Bible are not always, if even very often,  germane to today’s world.  Christian fundamentalists realize this as well, since they are very selective about which ‘fact’ they will believe or which stricture or dictate they will obey. Very few still believe that the Earth is flat, as suggested in Genesis, and no one (outside of the Chalcedon Foundation) wants to have sassy children put to death.  Though they may not allow women to be ordained, they no longer force them to wear scarves in church.

Times change and not everything written 200 or 2000 or 4000 years ago is relevant today. Though it may have made perfect sense in that time and place, neither the Bible or the Constitution present the perfect solution to every challenge we are presented with today. They were written by flawed men (and maybe women) who were doing their best to define the truths of the universe while addressing the challenges of their day.  Like it or not, their work must be interpreted, which means that there will always be differences of opinion and no accurate or permanent orthodoxy can ever take form.  No orthodoxy  has ever endured without some sort of evolution.  Centuries later we cannot delve into the writers’ minds and we cannot know their intent, any more than their writings can convey to us the true will of God.  Nor are the authors’ intentions (or their understanding of God) necessarily relevant today.

Though the Constitution is undoubtedly a work of genius and in its time came very close to offering the ideal formula for engineering a sustainable American liberty, it was not then and is not now perfect.  If it was perfect then it is unlikely that there would still be heated scholarly debate over its meaning.  The perfect Constitutional solutions to so many problems have long eluded us.  If perfect, there would have been no allowance for slavery and there certainly would have been no Civil War.

If Americans had allowed themselves to become slaves to their rigid interpretations of both the Constitution and the Bible, we would have no Emancipation Proclamation, no Civil Rights Act, and  no women voters.  Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, John Adams  and St. Paul could  never envision a world in which the injustices of slavery and misogyny did not exist and each day produces new challenges that they never could have imagined.

But there is something very comforting to think of both Bible and Constitution in special supernatural ways, providing us with a cosmic link to the past and the men we have come to see as our spiritual fathers.  And as devoted children, we develop a fierce defensive posture whenever the work of our fathers is threatened, or even questioned.  Especially when that work provides us with a sense of security, a defense against those who might take from us or as a means of preventing rewards being bestowed upon those who do not deserve it.  “Strict” interpretation of both Constitution and Bible have been used to shore up the positions of the powerful and the entitled at the expense of the underrepresented and the different.

I can think of no other reason for the forced marriage of the Bible to the Constitution other than that religious fundamentalism and a fundamentalist view of history are both the result of psychological insecurity and fear. Which becomes  abundantly clear when we see the slogans and signs and  hear the speeches emanating from the Right, hysterically linking God the Father with the Founding Fathers,  equating love of the Bible with love of the Constitution. It is ironic  that so many of these folks, when asked to provide some positional support from their two most sacred texts, seem to know so little about either of them.  Or of those who wrote them.

“Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human”    – Thomas Jefferson

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Why the Right was against repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell”


Because that’s how they handle the issue of sexuality themselves.  Keep it in the closet. (The other closet, not that ‘prayer closet’ – which doesn’t get used much by today’s crop of budding theocrats.)

It’s ironic. Although conservative evangelicals (who are now the power base of the Republican party) claim to be the champions of morality, they have such a hard time living up to their own standards.  Sure, liberals have their share of fallen angels, but rarely does the left claim to be the standard bearer of morality. Yet it is common for the most strident of the ‘moral majority’ to find themselves in the public spotlight with their pants down,  sometimes quite literally.

Why do so many conservative, evangelical, Republicans expose themselves doing precisely the opposite of what they say others should be doing? Henry Hyde, Helen Chenowith, Mark Foley, Ted Haggard, Larry Craig, Bob Allen, David Vitters, Glenn Murphy Jr. – the list goes on. How many of these scandals have resulted in the outing of aggressive homophobes?  After years of rumors that he might be gay,  it looks as if  Lindsey Grahamw will soon find himself in the same predicament. What ‘s the deal?

A 1996  psychology experiment conducted at the University of Georgia found strong evidence that (at least among males) “homophobia is apparently associated with homosexual arousal that the homophobic individual is either unaware of or denies.” If this is true, and since most politically conservative evangelicals are  vigorously opposed to the ‘gay agenda’,  then it makes sense that a significant portion of these people might very well be closet homosexuals.  Of course, this is just speculation, yet it does hold up fairly well under the historical evidence.  But why would people who are confused (or in denial) about their sexuality gravitate towards the evangelical right-wing of the Republican party?

Is it because, having been forgiven for all their sins, both past and future, these closet homosexuals no longer feel the need to confront and conquer their inner “demons”?  That Jesus has already taken care of that for them? Yet eventually many of them will find out that their religion is not sufficient to facilitate lasting personal change (if this type of change is possible or even desirable).

A huge part of Christianity is the idea that we are all broken people who can be healed through the redemptive power of God, as revealed to us by Jesus. But that does not mean that we are somehow magically, perfectly, made ‘whole’ (i.e conforming to someone else’s orthodox world view) – that we are completely changed by God’s grace or the Holy Spirit or the love of Christ.  It doesn’t mean that we can let our guard down and expect prayer alone to obliterate years of habitual behavior.  Or obviate our personal natures.  Nor, apparently, will the threat of punishment, divine or otherwise, accomplish this.

I think a better guess might be found in the attraction they may have to the hard-line theology of neo-evangelism.  It’s as if,  though perhaps in denial, they suspect that they are ‘bad’ boys in the eyes of God and feel a need to be part of an ideology that embraces the clear-cut rules of stern father figures, from Yahweh to James Dobson.

‘We’ve decided the Bible is the word of God. We don’t have to have a General Assembly about what we believe. It’s written in the Bible. Alright, so we don’t have to debate what we think about homosexual activity. It’s written in the Bible.” -Ted Haggard

‘Some strong-willed children absolutely demand to be spanked, and their wishes should be granted. . . Two or three stinging strokes on the legs or buttocks with a switch are usually sufficient to emphasize the point, ‘You must obey me.’ ” – James Dobson

“Part of my life is so repugnant and dark, I’ve been warring against it all my life…the dirt I thought was gone would resurface … the darkness increased and dominated” -Ted Haggard

Christian fundamentalist parents, James Dobson included,  should know by now that children cannot be spanked into submission, not unless the goal is to create sadly warped versions of themselves.   Who has ever really benefited from this? What type of person is attracted to an intolerant,  domineering and violent task master? For many of these people violence comes to be associated with love.

“In Revelation, Jesus is a prize-fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed. That is the guy I can worship. I cannot worship the hippie, diaper, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up” – Mark Driscoll

The threat of punishment, even the ultimate punishment of Hell,  apparently cannot compel people to change their natures beyond a superficial level.  It can, however, compel them to mimic the doctrinaire natures of their overlords, even to the point of absurd and shameful  hypocrisy.  Or develop an appetite for hate filled language, perhaps even violence.  History has provided us with an undeniable pattern.

“People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” – Nelson Mandela

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It’s time for Christians to declare jihad on Christian Fundamentalism


I’ve finally realized (as some have suggested here) that for years I have been dishonest.  In order to help rectify this I’ve decided to change my tag line. Though it’s always said “Sharp Iron: testing the mettle of conventional religion”, my focus has really been on questioning the validity and the intentions of Christian Fundamentalists. I never seriously wanted to take Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists to task (enough Christians were already doing that) but did so occasionally to throw the odd bone to my Fundamentalist critics.  I wanted to be perceived as being fair. But I have dropped the charade and my new tag line now reads: “testing the mettle of Christian Fundamentalism” (which if you think about it, is a much simpler task than the previous one).

Over the years my opponents often accused me of being just as intolerant as those I accused of intolerance. I no longer waste my breath trying to point out the fallacy inherent in this argument. But I am not going to pay lip service anymore to the idea that there is value, perhaps hidden, in the theology and politics of the Christian Fundamentalists. I strongly feel that Fundamentalist of all stripes are allowed, by the Constitution and just plain civility, to voice their skewed opinions but there is no reason for me to pretend that they might edify  me or anyone else.

I know this because I used to be one of them. I believed all that they believe. I was once a Right Wing Christian Fundamentalist and believed that all those outside of that particularly narrow interpretation of the faith were destined for eternal damnation, that other religions were evil, and that all people needed to convert to Christianity before they died. I shared their paranoia: that there was a great conspiracy of non-Christians (the media, the United Nations, homosexuals, Muslims, Liberals, socialists, communists, the Supreme Court, New Agers, environmentalists, feminists, secular humanists etc.) out to destroy America and the ‘true’ Church. I believed that God uniquely favored America and that only the ‘right’ Christians were his means of recovering the country from perdition. I believed that everything and all one needed to know was in the Bible. I believed that the End Times were near (or hoped that they were) and was proud of the fact that I was among those who would avoid the promised violence and suffering. I was a utopian longing for a return to a strong (and mythical) Christian Nation: a Christian Dominionist.

So, I know what they believe. I also know their character. They are not bad or evil people.  On the contrary, most of them  are good people, well-meaning yet led astray by ‘false prophets’.  Up until recently, I never took them as a serious threat to America (and consequently, the world).

But in these recent difficult times Christian Fundamentalists have developed an ever stronger voice and this voice is angry. Their words are divisive and at times violent. They leave no room for dissent. Insulting and ridiculing those who disagree with them is the order of the day. They make broad political statements that are not grounded in facts but in their theology. And they are influencing large segments of the voting population: they are putting like-minded people in office and on the bench and exerting political pressure on our leaders.

Just as I could no longer tolerate my own fundamentalism, I will no longer pretend to tolerate theirs. Because they are always controversial and frequently entertaining, the media (including bloggers like me) gives them extraordinary exposure, helping them  grab hold of the insecure populist mindset of America. They have essentially become the face of Christianity to the non-Christian world.  If we are in any way concerned about this, if we can imagine any danger from this, then we need to drop the tolerance card and confront them wherever and whenever opportunities arise.

In the same way that they demand all Muslims denounce Islamism, it’s time for  all Christians  to rigorously denounce the Fundamentalists (and their version of Islamism: Dominionism) who claim to represent our faith. We need to be intolerant of the intolerant. It’s time to declare jihad on Fundamentalist Christianity.

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