What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: The Sacredness of Questioning Everything??

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First off, I want to say thank you all for reading and providing feedback on my series this week.  If you missed my posts on Christian Fundamentalism you can start here.

I put the basic rubric of those posts together last weekend but on Monday started to read a book called The Sacredness of Questioning Everything by David Dark.  Surprisingly those posts emerged out of the same spirit which David Dark used to write his book, mainly that spirit of doubting our prejudices.

Like the title suggests, David Dark argues that we should question everything and that to do so is a sacred and spiritual act.  Following his thesis, I have to wonder out loud if David Dark is his real name.  I mean, come on, any name that alliterates is surely a pseudonym, right?  Though, I must say, David Dark is a lousy name for a writer.  It is way more fitting for a super villain in a comic book.

Putting my sacred questioning of the author’s name aside, I rather enjoyed reading his book.  Or did I “read” it?  I mean how do we define “reading” and is “reading” the accurate description for my cognitive interaction with this text?  After all, in chapter 6 Dr. Dark (who I presume to be the nemesis of Dr. Light) did say we should question the very meaning of the words we use.

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Either way, I did enjoy the book.  However, once again I question my use of the word “enjoy” but it is as good a word as any for a book (or was it a collection of essays?) that gave me much food for thought.  The book (or maybe “novel?”) outed the brainwashing and cultural programming that goes on in the world and insisted we question everything we think, perceive and say.  I was all ready rather familiar with this argument but Dr. Dark (who I presume is currently designing a way to blot out the sun’s light in a diabolical plan of world domination) displayed a level of writing that was quite impressive and profound.

Yet again, I must admit that it was the modern, western, literary tradition that taught me how to distinguish between profound and banal and Dr. Dark’s second chapter taught me to call that tradition into question.  But in that tradition (that lousy, imperialistic, brainwashing tradition) the book (or essay, or novel, or collection of symbols on my screen) stands as an exemplary model of great writing.  Every word is carefully chosen. Every sentence is painstakingly constructed.  By reading it, or rather cognitively interacting with it, I found his words and sayings expressed poetically what I have often sought to say but didn’t have the literary intelligence to articulate.

Dr. Dark (whom I presume has all ready been thwarted by the valiant Dr. Light) uses his poetry to give wonderful examples of contemporary cultural icons who aid us in questioning everything.  The book begins by describing in humorous detail an episode of “The Office” and ends by giving similar care to the lives of Martin Luther King Jr., Thich Nhat Hanh, Alice Paul and Ghandi.  Along the way Dr. Dark makes pit stops in the endeavors of John Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Woody Allen.  He labels these people “Artisans of the Possible” which itself is a gorgeously constructed phrase if you are one of those who has sold out to that mind controlling, imperialistic tradition of modern literary critics.  But the overriding purpose is to expose the empires that surround us and the ways they brainwash, violate and control us.  We fight them, Dr. Dark argues, in the way of those glorious “Artisans” who questioned the Empire’s vocabulary, structures, mediums and levels of authority.

However, as much as Dr. Dark (who I can only imagine is currently plotting his escape from Lunatic Asylum Federal Prison) looks outward to the empires, he also looks inward to our prejudices.  In chapter 3, Dr. Dark talks about the spirits that make us crazy and mean and who use small minded labels to feed our hatred of one another.

Therefore, I must become a little bit serious.  While I was thinking and writing about Christian Fundamentalism this week, putting the finishing touches on Sunday’s sermon and engaging in other responsibilities, I was also dealing with an extremely painful situation in my local parish.  To go into detail here would be vastly inappropriate but at the minimum I will say the situation left me damaged, off kilter and bleeding for myself, my church and for a world gone crazy.  I spent time in prayerful silence where I asked the sorts of questions Dr. Dark recommends.  I rejected the stereotypes and divisions that easy answers would provide and I fought with those “spirits” that wanted to make me crazy and mean.  I called into question my own opinions, my own calling, my own measures of effectiveness and my very identity.  Over the course of that sacred, but painful, questioning I came face to face with our God of infinite possibilities.

In the words of Dr. Dark (whom I just heard has escaped from prison to conquer the world), my sacred questioning led me to the God “in whom love and justice meet, the God whose love radically exceeds whatever low definitions we settle for.  .  .the God who is most present among us when we’re having a go at that complicated practice of loving one another well.” (p. 51).

So thank you David Dark, if that is indeed your real name, and God bless your efforts at global domination.

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Christian Fundamentalism Part 4: What is the Harm Cont.

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This post is the last in a four part series based off of my very real interactions with Christian fundamentalists.  You can read posts one, two and three here and here and here.

Yesterday I wrote about the Fundamentalists’ view of Scripture and why I disagree with their claim that “Scripture is God.”  Today I want to talk more practically about the ways the fundamentalists I know read Scripture.   Truth is, I can get over their view of Scripture, as long as they read it, which many do.  But as I conversed with the most ardent of Fundamentalists, I discovered they don’t just believe Scripture is inerrant, they also believe that 1950s, “traditional” America was the best expression of the Kingdom of God.  So their reading of Scripture tends to read 1950’s American culture into the text, rather than hearing the text speak to the new things God is doing in the 21st century.

This wouldn’t be so bad if fundamentalists understood the 1950s.  They paint pictures of “traditional American values” with white picket fences and families getting along and the husband as the head and spiritual leader of the family that watches wholesome television and follows the laws of a just government that legislated Christianity by mandating prayer in schools.  Then they proof text this picture with shady exegesis and angry homiletics that insist we need to return to God and God’s white picket fences.

To be sure, some of that picture is desirable but if you study the 1950s or the 1940s, 1930s, or even the 1800s or way back to the founding of America you will find “traditional America” only ever existed on a billboard selling Coca-Cola.  The truth is that the 1950’s were an incredibly evil time in the United States.  It is true that fathers were the heads of the family but all that meant was the government and church fully supported spouse and child abuse.  In that decade thousands of black people were killed by sheer prejudice (source).  People who were not crazy could be locked up in a mental institution without trial and the government taxed 87% of the top earners’ incomes (source).  The teen pregnancy rate was higher that it has ever been (source).  The average age of death was still hovering right around 60 (source).  In sum, the 1950s were only a glorious decade for white, middle class men between the ages of 20-50.  And if you go further back in time from there the picture just gets worse.

To be sure, I do long for a day of white picket fences and happy families living in peaceful homes but that day is likely to be in the future because you won’t find it in the past, especially in the United States.

This brings me to the greatest harm perpetuated by fundamentalists.  They are overwhelmingly pessimistic.  By painting such a beautiful picture, then placing that picture in the past, they argue that God will only destroy us as we move into the future.  This cynicism has led to deep obsession on the doom and gloom in Revelation, which has furthered the bitterness and pessimism that refuses to see God doing anything good in the world.

In contrast, when I read all 1,189 chapters of Scripture I am overwhelmed with optimism.  In our Great Book God has a way of bringing about peace and love and good for, through and in all the good and all the bad.  I cling to the claims in Job where God says, “I make it rain in the desert” (Job 38:26).  Jesus picks up on this in the Sermon on the Mount where he says, “God makes it rain on the just and the unjust” (Matthew 5:45).  A God like that fills me with hope for the world to come because we serve a God who pours out blessings for anybody and everybody to pick them up.

So I reject the fundamentalist claim that every step away from 1959 is a step towards the horrid end times.  Instead I long for the day that is coming when Jesus will return and establish his reign on earth as it is in heaven.  On that day I will probably join hands with my crazy fundamentalist cousins and sing the songs of praise, knowing that despite their inquisitions, cynical pessimism and misplaced dogma God still used them to feed hungry people, clothe the naked and house the homeless.  That is a crazy powerful and crazy loving God.  Come, Lord Jesus.

Christian Fundamentalism Part 3: What is the Harm?

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This post is the third in a four part series based off of my very real interactions with Christian fundamentalists.  You can read posts one and two here and here.

Two days ago I wrote about my real life experiences with fundamentalists and defined them for the purposes of this conversation as those Christians among us who believe in the absolute inerrancy of Scripture and that 1950s America was the perfect expression of God’s kingdom.

The question that inspired these posts was, “what is it about fundamentalists that makes me so eager to hate and judge them?”  As I pondered that question it led to a greater question:  “What actual harm are fundamentalists doing to the world and to Christianity?”  Yesterday I answered the first question by saying, “there is not much that deserves my eager angst.”  Today’s and tomorrow’s posts are the answers I have arrived at to that second question.

I believe there is real harm being done by the fundamentalists among us.  As I have interacted with them I find that they are doing harm to the Christian doctrine they claim to defend and to the fellow Christians they try to convert to their thinking.  Today I will talk about the harm to greater Christian doctrine.  Tomorrow I will talk about the practical, personal ways they violate others.

First I want to tell about a conversation I had with one of the most hardcore fundamentalists in town.  Like most of my conversations with fundamentalists it began with me complimenting him and ended with him insulting me and calling me not Christian.  The conversation began by me sharing that I feel like some Christians worship Scripture instead of Jesus.  He was baffled by that comment because, as he explained, “Scripture is the Word of God and Jesus is the Word of God so Scripture is Jesus and we must worship Scripture.”  I was shocked by that statement, not only because Scripture never calls itself the Word of God but always reserves that title for Jesus but also because it proved to me that fundamentalists really believe that the Bible is God.

By contrast, in historical Christianity Jesus has always been the absolute revelation of who God is.  After Jesus ascended into heaven, the Holy Spirit continued and continues to reveal Jesus in several means.  Scripture over time (a lot of time) became the primary (but not the only) way the Holy Spirit reveals Jesus to us.  And in my tradition, it is a necessary book to keep the church from getting off track.  By metaphor it is the chief tool in our tool belt and we desperately need it because without the Bible a congregation is a carpenter without a hammer or a barber without scissors or a writer without a computer.

But the Bible cannot do for us what Jesus did on the cross and the Bible cannot replace the Holy Spirit who guides us into all truth using many means.  Scripture can only remind us about what Jesus did and encourage us to enter into life giving relationship with Jesus through the other means of grace.  Those means are things like prayer, congregational worship, Christian conversation, academic study, and exercise, among many others.  They, along with Scripture, sustain our right relationships with God and others.

But for fundamentalists Scripture is God, particularly King James’ Version of it.  It is God’s arm instead of the church’s hammer or scissors or computer.  They think Scripture is fully God, or at least the only part revealed to us.  Thus Scripture becomes the only work of the Holy Spirit and fundamentalists end up with no room for Jesus or the Holy Spirit.  To them God is just a book and interestingly a book they talk a lot about but seldom ever read (but that is another post for another day).

Then they read Scripture as if it provides correct logic to us.  But logic will not save the world in the way that the very human and very God, Jesus saves the world.  I have not had one honest debate with a fundamentalist that didn’t end with their insistence that if you think the wrong thing about God you are going to hell.  So their evangelism often takes the form of displaying right logic instead of Godly love.  But Scripture, the very Scripture they claim to protect, claims that people will only know Christ by our love.  It is not doctrine or logic that saves us, except the doctrine and logic of right relationship with God and neighbor and enemy.

Therefore Scripture, in their thinking is God itself, a God who is as small as a logical system and cannot do anything but be words on a page.  Put another way, they don’t use Scripture to worship God made flesh.  They worship Scripture as God made paper.

To end with another story that illustrates these points, the Baptist church in town sent out a mailer that invited people to come to their events.  The mailer was a wonderful idea with the church’s calendar of events and mission statement.  It even had a letter from their pastor that spent three paragraphs explaining how their church was all about Scripture:  How Scripture tells us how to be better parents and how to manage our finances and all the right rules and wisdom to live a happy life.  But not once did the pastor or the entire packet mention Jesus.  The church seemingly doesn’t need Jesus because they have the Bible.  For them evangelism isn’t about introducing people to Jesus.  It is about introducing people to Scripture.

But what Christianity has always had to offer is not petty moralisms or God given self helps or divinely revealed logic.  We have always offered the very presence of the resurrected Christ through the Holy Spirit.  But fundamentalists believe they have all they need in the sacred words of Scripture, so they don’t need or want Jesus or the Holy Spirit.

This is how the fundamentalists are killing themselves.  They cut themselves off from the presence of Jesus by choosing to worship the created Scriptures instead of the creator God.  And now they have empty doctrine that cannot sustain itself.

Come back tomorrow to see how this plays out practically.

Christian Fundamentalism Part 2: Why It Isn’t So Bad

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This post is the second in a four part series based off of my very real interactions with Christian fundamentalists.  You can read post one here.

Yesterday I gave some biographical information about my experience with Christian fundamentalists and ended with a working definition of 21st century fundamentalism.  I believe its two defining characteristics are the belief in the absolute inerrancy of Scripture and the clinging to 1950s American culture as the standard for Christian society and living.

I want to begin today by repeating what I tried to say yesterday.  Often when dealing with fundamentalists I am guilty of committing the straw man fallacy where I meet a conservative Christian and immediately picture them as an angry, closed minded, sinner who thinks they are better than everyone else.   I am repenting of that sin in these posts and instead trying to engage with the fundamentalist Christians I know and explain them in a way that is more honest.

When I put aside my hasty stereotypes and engaged with Fundamentalists I found that they are nowhere near as bad at being Christians as I assumed they were.

First off they really do want to see people join the church and become Christian.  They fear becoming irrelevant and are grasping at anything (politics, movies, music, etc) that will get people to hear them out.  Although I felt panicked and awkward when they announced their latest propaganda movie, I still advertised it to some non-church youth I knew because I legitimately thought the movie would get the kids interested in God.  And so I do share and celebrate the evangelical thrust of the movement, even if that thrust turns more into a rhino charge at times (well, most of the time).

Second, the fundamentalists I know will listen to a reasoned argument from Scripture.  What they will not respond to are exaggerations and generalizations.  For example, when I make the statement, “Obviously God wants us to care about poor people” they shrug me off.  But when I open my Bible to the verses in Deuteronomy 15 about open handed care and concern for the poor, they listen.  When I blandly state, “well your sin is as bad as theirs” they roll their eyes at me.  But when I read Romans 1 and show them that gossip is next to adultery and how Paul’s argument about “their” sin suddenly turns to the claim that “you are without excuse” they seriously rethink their legalistic attitudes.  If you open Scripture with them they will pay attention and I find that admirable.  However, if you keep Scripture close and substitute it for generalizations they will turn on you.

Third, they are a very generous bunch, at least the ones I know.  They give a lot of money to a lot of non-profit organizations who specialize in social justice.  Ironically fundamentalists hate the phrase “social justice” but when I bring up sex trafficking they are the first to write a check or ask me what to do.  They donate to homeless shelters, teen pregnancy clinics, missionaries and third world farmers.  And they certainly give well above 10 percent to the church.  Their belief in the generous God in Scripture certainly encourages generosity on their part.  Unfortunately a lot of their money goes to conservative politicians, 6 day creation curriculum and Bible museums but that is not the limit to their generosity.

This brings me to a story about the most fundamentalist family in our town.  This is the family that goes to the “Fundamentalist Baptist Church,” think Obama is the anti-christ and that Jesus is coming back tomorrow because Israel fired a rocket yesterday.  They readily try to test me in conversation to see if my Christianity is strong or weak.  They turn every conversation about the weather to a heated debate about abortion or homosexuality or Obamacare.  Simply put, they have a tendency to annoy me.

However, a year ago a girl in the high school got into a brutal argument with her mom and was thrown out of her house.  She had nowhere to stay, so the fundamentalists took her into their all ready crowded home.  She went with them on family vacations.  Though they were financially strapped, they still bought her clothes and school supplies.  All this was incredible in and of itself but then they did something I did not expect.  They scheduled meetings between the girl and her mother and worked with them on reconciliation.  Their purpose was clearly stated to me: “Our goal is to see them forgive each other, get along better and have a more peaceful home.”  In the end they accomplished their goal and the girl moved back in with her mother.

The non Christians in town, and some Christians too, took sides.  They gossiped about the girl or her mother using not so friendly terminology.  They stood on the sidelines and cheered or booed their team but the fundamentalist Baptists did the messy work of peacemaking.

A few months before that another wealthy fundamentalist-leaning family in town discovered a family of six who was homeless.  THey invited them into their mansion to live for a month.  It was a very gracious act.  Another family drove an orphaned girl halfway across the country so she could get to the public university that had accepted her.  Ironically this is the same family that bad mouths all public universities.

It was these stories and others like them that convinced me to rethink my blind hatred and vicious anger against them.  It is these stories I try to remember when I meet the fundamentalists on the road and they insist I advertise their new 6 day creation seminar or side with their hatred at the Obama administration.  I will not do either but I will at least smile and nod and welcome them as the eccentric Christian cousins they are and celebrate God’s work through them.

I hope you keep that last post in mind when you read my post for tomorrow.  .  .see you then.