Thursday, October 29, 2009

Mainline Christians vs. Biblical Literalists

 Chalicechick ponders the shared literalism of atheist Christopher Hitches and evangelical pastor Douglas Wilson and wonders why Wilson is so moored to a literal understanding of Jesus. Go read the whole post, then come back for my thoughts, which expand on a comment I've left there.

[*humming to myself*]

Ok, glad to see you back.

CC gets to my biggest beef with the New Atheists: that they tend to be as literalist about the Bible as the fundamentalists/conservative evangelicals. Then they either impute that literalism to liberal and mainline Christians -- or else (as Sam Harris does) castigate the mainliners for not speaking out more strongly against the fundamentalists.

But if anyone is going to speak up for metaphorical understandings of Jesus, it's not gonna be Douglas Wilson. He's very much in the conservative wing of Christian thinking. A far more provocative -- and effective, I contend -- pairing would have been to put Hitchens up against someone like John Buchanan, editor of the Christian Century and pastor at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago (DairyStateMom's old church).

You'd run into another problem there, though. Mainline Christians do seem to be loath to call out Evangelicals on a lot of the doctrinal stuff. Sam Harris is strictly speaking accurate on this charge. There are probably many reasons why that is. What follows is based more on my speculation than detailed investigation, with all the potential risks thereto. That said...

One probable reason is that the folks in their pews represent a broad spectrum of understanding about various pieces of doctrine. Take a mainline Christian preacher who didn't literally believe in the virgin birth: why would she or he want (in a sermon, say) to insult those parishioners who do? Why even need to go there? If the preacher is going to make parishioners uncomfortable, better to do so about something here and now that matters -- like speaking up for gay equality (as Buchanan has done). And similarly, when communicating with the wider world, I suspect many mainline pastors feel that it's unseemly -- and ultimately un-Christian, that is, uncompassionate -- to insult fellow Christians around such doctrinal matters.

In a similar vein, when Marcus Borg writes about non-orthodox understandings of God and Christ, his audience probably isn't made up of fundamentalists. It's more likely to consist of people who grew up in the church but became estranged from a belief system that came to seem irrational to them, yet still find a need and desire to connect with God and Jesus in some way.

On on the other hand, if there aren't many, or even any, literalists in our aforementioned hypothetical pastor's congregation, why spend any time tearing down the literalists then, either? That's not what parishioners need to hear, after all. Far better to point out the way Jesus welcomed even the outcasts, and what that calls us to do today.

A while back, I do recall the senior pastor at DairyStateMom's current church preaching very pointedly about the errors of Joel Osteen's approach to the Bible. But her critique was its self-centeredness, not its literalism. Personally, I think the point she made was the more important one.

For some mainliners, the literalist mindset may actually be fairly far out of their current everyday experience, and therefore something they don't feel a need to confront at all. I got a sense of this when I asked another pastor at DSM's church how kids deal with the topic of evolution. (I asked in part because their vacation Bible school focused on creation, and the whole evolution thing is a personal hobby horse for me, the son of an anthropologist.) Her response: It's never really come up, and perhaps that's because "we don't embrace a literal interpretation of scripture..." The primary message was that everyone is in God's image, and therefore is worthy of love and caring.

I do wish sometimes that mainline Christians would be more willing to directly confront and critique the more negative and even destructive interpretations of Christian doctrine held by some of their evangelical bretheren and sisteren. I know many Christians who despair at the way fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals have appropriated the term "Christianity" to the exclusion of more progressive Christians. (Interestingly, when I did some Googling on that, the first example to come up India. But the person seeking the confrontation appears to be a journalist, not a cleric.) In the end, though, I can understand why they don't. As DairyStateMom puts it, it may feel a little too much like airing dirty laundry in public -- about matters that for them just aren't that important.


  1. Furthermore, a large number of Evangelicals are not literalists or fundametalists. Especially those who remain within the mainline denoms. (No, Southern Baptists are not "mainline" in the sense of being in direct descent from one of the three "main lines" of the Reformation -- Lutheran, Anglican, Reformed.) And many Christians take some parts of the Bible more literally than others. For example, they may think it is necessary to believe literally in the Virgin Birth in order to properly understand the Vicarious Atonement, but they don't also believe in a literal six-day creation, and may be perfectly willing to consider that what Paul experienced on the road to Damascus was some sort of hallucination or seizure.

  2. I just finished reading "Jesus, Interrupted" by Bart Ehrman. He says that most Christians read the Bible reverently whereas they might want to read it critically. In the book, Ehrman points out many important points of disagreements among the gospels as well as points upon which Jesus and Paul are diametrically opposed to each other.

    Ehrman is a professor of religious studies at NC State in Chapel Hill, NC.

  3. Anon 7:10 AM:

    I've been interested in reading some of Ehrman at some point... just haven't gotten to him yet. As for Jesus v. Paul, for what it's worth, in "The First Paul," Borg & Crossan make the case that Genuine Paul, who wrote something like 7 (+ or -) of the letters attributed to him in fact is in sync w/ Jesus, in contrast to the suspect Pauline letters (whose provenance is doubtful) and the definitely NOT Pauline letters, which flatly contradict Genuine Paul in places...

  4. I have just finished reading the first chapter of "Jesus, Interrupted" and was disappointed that so early on he admits to agnosticism. I think he loses quite a bit of his audience right there. He went to Moody in Chicago for goodness sake! I could not help but think of Emily Dickinson's words: "the abdication of belief makes the behaviour small--better an ignis fatuus than no illume at all."

    As someone has posted on ChaliceChick's blog perhaps the selection of panelists could have been a little more balanced.

  5. I personally feel sorry for anyone who is not open enough to interesting ideas that they refuse to read Borg and Crossan .... and Ched Myers. These new style biblical scholars take so seriously the message of love and how it can make a difference in the world, as shown in the life of Jesus, that they are willing to look again at the writings and come at them with fresh eyes. To decide the Jesus story is evil - simply because the writings about him by his fans, printed after his death, are not 100% - is sad and in the end not helpful to understanding what humanity can do to make a better world. - Sis to DMD ;o))

  6. "For some mainliners, the literalist mindset may actually be fairly far out of their current everyday experience, and therefore something they don't feel a need to confront at all."

    I have a handy test, ripped from my real life, to measure this:

    On my last visit to my in-laws, I noted their current reading included two books. Next to each other were one on young earth creationism and one on evolution from a Christian perspective. They are reading both seriously.

    Where in the spectrum of belief here in the South do you think they fall?

  7. Here's an alternative link for the one at the end of the above post, which no longer works.


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