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December 20, 2011 7:01 AM   Subscribe

Fred Clark posts at a blog called "Slacktivist", so he is often referred to by that name. But this left-wing Christian is far from a slacker. His blog is a powerful voice against the usual conservative Christian presence in America, and the best distillation of his strength is his series of posts analyzing the Left Behind novels of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. Fred savages these books for their "bad writing and bad theology" but it's not the usual Internet snark; Fred has a larger mission here than just pointing and laughing. He just finished dissecting book two, Tribulation Force, so it's a great time to jump on if you already haven't. (He has promised that after a holiday break, he's going to do the Tribulation Force movie, and then on to book three.)

This index will help you out, though it's currently incomplete.

Left Behind begins at part 1 and goes through part 196.

Left Behind: The Movie goes from part 197 to part 208.

Part 209 is an aside on another bit of rapture literature.

Tribulation Force begins at part 210 and just wrapped up yesterday.

It seems like a lot, but it's not only insightful, funny, educational, and enlightening, it's essential reading for getting into the minds of many conservative evangelical Christians.
posted by Legomancer (183 comments total) 118 users marked this as a favorite

 
Fred Clark is a treasure. His series The Gay Hatin' Gospel was an interesting look into the mindset, and he has a lot to say about the tensions that exist in the Evangelical world.

He's basically essential reading for people interested in the Evangelical worldview.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:09 AM on December 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


I just finished reading Tom Perrotta's new novel, The Leftovers, and, while it's pretty good, its existence really only makes sense if you view it as a direct reaction to the Left Behind books and (especially) to Clark's ongoing, devastating critique of how LaHaye and Jenkins fucked up their portrayal of what a post-Rapture world would be like.
posted by COBRA! at 7:16 AM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Fred savages these books for their "bad writing and bad theology"...

According to the erstwhile seminarian I know, the whole Rapture/apocalyptic/eschatology thing in those books has no Biblical basis whatsoever - because he tried, and failed, to find one. In one of his theology classes he picked "the Rapture" as a research assignment -- but then found that he literally couldn't do it, because he had to be writing about things based on Catholic teaching and could find absolutely nothing from any Catholic source to support any of it. He even tried cheating and going with other closely-related denominations' writings, but still nothing.

So then he really got serious about tracking down "where the hell did this all come from anyway," and he said as near as he could determine, it's an entirely home-grown American thing from the early 1800's during the Great Awakening. And that's about the time that the Left Behind books joined the big list of Things He Will Take Great Pains To Tell You Why They Are Total Bullshit (alongside "Dan Brown's books" and "Jerry Falwell").
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:16 AM on December 20, 2011 [43 favorites]


He's basically essential reading for people interested in the Evangelical worldview.

More precisely, he's essential reading for people interested in people who are moving away from the "evangelical worldview," to the extent that there is such a thing.

Clark has essentially punted, not necessarily knowingly, on the doctrine of Biblical infallibility. This, or at least the weaker form which excludes Biblical inerrancy, is pretty much a required tenet of faith for people who want to call themselves "evangelical." It's also largely the doctrine which first split conservative and liberal Christianity more than a century ago.

The post I linked to is quite problematic, actually. He rejects Biblical inerrancy, i.e. the doctrine that every single allegation of fact in the Bible is "true" in the way that a physicist would mean it. Which, I mean, isn't all that hard a target, when it comes right down to it, and it's something that even very, very conservative theologians have been pretty comfortable with. But in doing that, he then implicitly rejects Biblical infallibility, i.e. the doctrine that everything the Scriptures affirmatively teach about doctrine, faith, and practice, is true, even if there are some mathematical errors or confusion about dates, etc. You can reject inerrancy and still be evangelical, but infallibility is as close a thing as there is to a litmus test for the tradition.*

So if you're looking for an inside vision of an evangelical becoming a theological liberal, there's really nothing better out there. But Clark doesn't represent historic or even mainstream evangelicalism.

*The history is a little more nuanced than that, as The Fundamentals do take an inerrantist position, but that's been less of a sticking point than infallibility.
posted by valkyryn at 7:25 AM on December 20, 2011 [7 favorites]


By what possible criteria could someone's theology be "bad"? Isn't theology basically a hermenuetic free-for-all?
posted by phrontist at 7:25 AM on December 20, 2011 [7 favorites]


Also, on the subject of eschatology, previously.
posted by valkyryn at 7:26 AM on December 20, 2011


Fred Clark is a treasure.

The most remarkable thing about it is that it's insightful, rewarding reading whatever your religious inclination (provided you're not an evangelical with a millenial-dispensationalist bent, I suppose). Regardless, in my heathen opinion he consistently produces some of the best writing on the intertubes.
posted by mhoye at 7:26 AM on December 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


By what possible criteria could someone's theology be "bad"? Isn't theology basically a hermenuetic free-for-all?

*channeling Seminarian friend*

Everyone interprets Scripture a little differently, sure. But there's a difference between "interpreting the Biblical account of Creation as metaphor and basing your theology on that thusly", and "digging up an obscure alternate translation for the word 'cousin' which then lets you go back and argue that every time the Bible says 'cousin' it REALLY meant 'spackle paste'." And yes, some people's theology does get that wacky.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:31 AM on December 20, 2011 [8 favorites]


By what possible criteria could someone's theology be "bad"?

Internally inconsistent, or morally/aesthetically bad I guess. Left Behind is certainly all of those.
posted by communicator at 7:32 AM on December 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


Isn't theology basically a hermenuetic free-for-all?

Not really.

First of all, Christianity places a pretty strong premium on staying in harmony with previous Christian tradition. Exactly how that works and what it looks like varies quite a bit, but the accusation of theological novelty is something that almost every Christian at least takes notice of.

Second, even putting the issue of tradition aside, theology can be "bad" if it has no real internal logic. And a lot of the Left Behind stuff, and Dispensationalism generally, just doesn't. It doesn't even really succeed on its own terms, and as Clark shows, leads to or at least strongly implies outcomes which are both distinctly unpleasant and not really what the dispensational types were probably looking for.

For example: Dispensationalism holds that the Book of Revelation is more-or-less a literal if somewhat mysterious account of a specific seven-year period that will occur at the end of history. Okay, let's go with that for a second. You know what the implication is? That the Book is of absolutely no value to anyone not living in that time period. Seriously, it doesn't have anything to do with us. First of all, that makes Dispensational obsession with eschatology sort of confusing, as there doesn't appear to be any real reason to be concerned with stuff that doesn't affect us. But second, that just runs contrary to the way Revelation presents itself in its very text, i.e. as a message of comfort for the church of all ages.

Stuff like that is just rife in the Dispensational tradition. If one takes the theological underpinning seriously, i.e. that God has seven distinct "dispensations" with which he deals with creation, and these dispensations don't really have all that much to do with each other, then we don't really stand to learn anything from the entire Old Testament, the Gospels (which occur before Pentecost), or Revelation. That leaves us with Acts and the Epistles. Yet Dispensationalists talk about the rest of the Bible all the time and want to draw all sorts of ethical and personal lessons from parts of Scripture that their hermeneutical framework suggests should be irrelevant.

I mean, not to put too fine a point on it, but fail.

So no, it isn't really a free-for-all.
posted by valkyryn at 7:35 AM on December 20, 2011 [22 favorites]


Fred savages these books for their "bad writing and bad theology"...

Did anyone else's language parser get stuck for a second there?

I now have the voice of Joe Cocker singing a Beatles cover stuck in my head...
posted by trackofalljades at 7:35 AM on December 20, 2011 [15 favorites]


Doh! The "essentially punted" link should go here.
posted by valkyryn at 7:36 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


So if you're looking for an inside vision of an evangelical becoming a theological liberal, there's really nothing better out there. But Clark doesn't represent historic or even mainstream evangelicalism.

He's also been pretty honest about that over the past several months as he's written: although he believes that what now passes for "mainstream evangelical belief" is not compatible with the principles of Jesus' teachings and the Bible, he acknowledges that he is not representative of "most evangelicals."
posted by verb at 7:37 AM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


By what possible criteria could someone's theology be "bad"? Isn't theology basically a hermenuetic free-for-all?

One of the recurring motifs that Clark brings up in his readings of the Left Behind books is that the character of God as presented in the universe of the books not only allows evil to exist in the world but perpetrates evil in the world. The metaphysical nature of end-times prophesy as experienced in the novels is such that the antichrist rising to power, slaughtering millions of people, etc., is all God's Plan, and is simultaneously terrible and pointless to resist because God Wants It To Happen. And then in a later book, Jesus himself comes and kills way more people than the antichrist even attempted to kill. This may not be bad theology if it's the theology of some Lovecraftian horror, but as an attempt to lay out your view of the universe's moral center, it's pretty horrifying.
posted by shakespeherian at 7:37 AM on December 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


He rejects Biblical inerrancy, i.e. the doctrine that every single allegation of fact in the Bible is "true" in the way that a physicist would mean it. Which, I mean, isn't all that hard a target, when it comes right down to it, and it's something that even very, very conservative theologians have been pretty comfortable with. But in doing that, he then implicitly rejects Biblical infallibility

I'm not sure I follow you here: Aren't you saying that even very, very conservative theologians have been pretty comfortable with implicitly rejecting biblical infallibility?
posted by shakespeherian at 7:42 AM on December 20, 2011


the usual conservative Christian presence in America

I feel like we're living in a pretty awesome time in which Progressive Christians are reclaiming their presence in the public discussion about intersections of faith and ethics. I've been following the Christian Left on Facebook for a while, and it's grown enormously over the last year. It's very active, daily offering some food for thought or good discussion, and does lots of cross-posting of other blogs and political content. Over the last few years I've been trying to be a little more vocal so as to be one of many who refuse to cede the descriptor "Christian" to the contemporary right, where I really don't think it much belongs.
posted by Miko at 7:42 AM on December 20, 2011 [15 favorites]


an entirely home-grown American thing from the early 1800's during the Great Awakening

That's interesting...Based on the timing, I assume he means the Second Great Awakening? Are there any other sources where I can read about how this arose? Because it is really weird.
posted by Miko at 7:43 AM on December 20, 2011


More precisely, he's essential reading for people interested in people who are moving away from the "evangelical worldview," to the extent that there is such a thing.

There certainly is such a thing, and I myself moved away from it years ago. Yet I find Slacky ("May I call you Slacky?") brilliant, have read his blog for years, and I will defend him night and day. Although I am an atheist now, I have never once read a thing of his I disagree with. If I ever were to return to Christianity, it would absolutely be his kind, and not that of those benighted pointy-roofed cross-boxes I once attended.

If the churches I went to was as thoughtful, as incisive, as questioning, as kind-hearted, as vigilant, and as concerned with the sorry state of the world as Fred Clark was, I might never have left. And all those attributes are Christ-like in the purest senses of the words.

They are taught that belief is the path to heaven, when not everything said in Da Bibble supports that. They are taught that everything there is true, when some of it is inherently contradictory. And they are taught of the primacy of a certain highly problematic interpretation of those supposedly infallible words, when many are possible.

What evangelical Christianity has brought us is a legion of brittle Christians. Strong if force is moved against them in one way, but only from head-on. Any slight nagging doubt shatters the whole worldview, so they try to defend against that by creating elaborate thought-traps that seek to eliminate self-examination and critical thought, the sad results of which are currently running roughshod over our unfortunate nation's political processes. This cannot stand -- it is entirely assertion, a house of cards that stands only because the tenants are told not to question it. It has created a legion of people who think to change their mind is not the necessary process of a healthy mind, but damnation. It is reprehensible, and you don't have to be an atheist to see it.

Fred Clark recognizes all these things, has weathered them, has come out with his faith intact, and is the stronger man because of it.
posted by JHarris at 7:45 AM on December 20, 2011 [65 favorites]


The Third Great Awakening is, of course, Cthulhu.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 7:45 AM on December 20, 2011 [14 favorites]


valkyryn, I don't see where the post you link to "punts" on infallibility. It doesn't spell out inerrancy, but that's not the same thing. It looks to me like a pretty minimal reading of scripture to indicate something like the Apostle's Creed. I haven't been an Evangelical for about a decade now, but my recollection is that one could find a perhaps-somewhat-uncomfortable home with the Evangelicals if that Creed were all you had to agree on.
posted by gauche at 7:46 AM on December 20, 2011


That should be "doesn't spell out infallibility".
posted by gauche at 7:46 AM on December 20, 2011


Doh! The "essentially punted" link should go here.

valkyryn, can you explain more? That reads to me as an endorsement of biblical infallibility.
posted by escabeche at 7:47 AM on December 20, 2011


Aren't you saying that even very, very conservative theologians have been pretty comfortable with implicitly rejecting biblical infallibility?

No, on inerrancy.
posted by valkyryn at 7:47 AM on December 20, 2011


(There are some problems with my comment, a result of moving around a paragraph and adding some words at the last second before posting. I trust you understand what I mean regardless of them.)
posted by JHarris at 7:47 AM on December 20, 2011


Miko, Valkyryn's wikipedia link has dispensationalism covered for you - here's a bit more on John Nelson Darby.
posted by Wylla at 7:47 AM on December 20, 2011


What evangelical Christianity has brought us is a legion of brittle Christians. Strong if force is moved against them in one way, but only from head-on. Any slight nagging doubt shatters the whole worldview

This is 900% true.
posted by shakespeherian at 7:49 AM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Hit post too soon...and here's wikipedia on the basics of the Scofield Reference Bible.
posted by Wylla at 7:49 AM on December 20, 2011


One sample of the Left Behind critique: The Lex Luthor Factor

Are there any other sources where I can read about how this arose? Because it is really weird.

Hal Lindsay (expect the Soviet army of the Antichrist sometime in the early 1980s)

The Scofield Reference Bible (source of the habit of slicing up Daniel and Revelations a few verses at a time and calling it a literal interpretation)

John Darby (source of the problem - dispensationalism)

Lovecraftian horror

Slacktivist: Welcome to the Hellmouth
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 7:49 AM on December 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


I feel like I should point out now that I am a loudmouth Atheist. Personally, while a more progressive Christianity is preferable to the version that dominates the culture now, I don't have much patience for Christianity whatsoever. In fact, for me, when Fred goes on about Christianity qua Christianity I just sort of scroll past it.

For me, the value of these writings -- which as I said I consider essential -- is understanding that dominant culture, especially in a world and during a time where candidates for the highest office in America are required to show proper deference to an apocalyptic blood-and-money cult that claims to be persecuted because it's not allowed to persecute as much as it wants to.
posted by Legomancer at 7:50 AM on December 20, 2011 [8 favorites]


They are taught that belief is the path to heaven, when not everything said in Da Bibble supports that.

JHarris, it would be nice of you to not refer to that book this way. Thank you.
posted by gauche at 7:57 AM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


JHarris, it would be nice of you to not refer to that book this way. Thank you.

There's no law against it, at least not yet. If this book is such that misspelling its name in a playful way in any way harms it then it must be weak indeed. This is exactly the same kind of thing as militant Muslims demanding no one draw a picture of Mohammad -- except no wait, they have an actual edict saying that.

I admit it, I've been spelling it that way for years just waiting for someone to mention it.
posted by JHarris at 8:04 AM on December 20, 2011 [5 favorites]


...but, on reflection, eh, in the name of keeping discussion going and stopping the other side from shutting down completely and not listening, I'll grant it and stop making the joke, at least for the time being.
posted by JHarris at 8:07 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Sure. It's a free country, and nothing I said indicates that you don't have a right to spell it that way. I totally support that right.

And yeah, I don't want this to become a derail either. Thank you again. This is about the best way this could have gone.
posted by gauche at 8:10 AM on December 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


valkyryn, can you explain more? That reads to me as an endorsement of biblical infallibility.

Yeah, I was looking for some other of his posts which show the kinds of thing that I mean, but couldn't find any right away. More searching has, however, revealed what I was looking for.

Take this one, for example. He essentially argues that because he can make three particular passages mean something other than the classical concept of hell-as-eternal-punishment, that hell-as-eternal-punishment isn't taught by the Scriptures. In essence, he's explicitly rejecting an inerrantist/literalist hermeneutic but effectively rejecting an infallibilist hermeneutic. The "punted" link was the place where he seems to do that most clearly, but the above link is another great example.

Why? Because those aren't the only places where Christians draw our concepts of eternal punishment. It may be the only places where we get Dante's Inferno, but one can reject the image of seven hierarchical levels of Hell topped by Limbo, just below Purgatory, and still believe in eternal damnation, yes?

And the thing is, Scripture says lots of stuff, all over the place, about the reality of divine judgment. Two verses in Matthew 28. The Parable of the Weeds and the Parable of the Net in Matthew 13. Those are just four mentions I came up with in five minutes, and that alone is enough to defeat his argument, which is predicated on tying the doctrine of hell to exactly three passages. But read the Gospels with a careful eye, and you'll see that Jesus talks about judgment way more than he talks about heaven. Don't even get me started on Ezekiel.

So okay, maybe those three passages that Clark cites do not, in and of themselves, have to mean that the doctrine of hell is true. But what about the rest of it? And if you put it all together, doesn't the message as a whole start to get pretty damn suggestive? But because Clark is confident that he can defeat an inerrantist/literalist interpretation of a few passages, he's completely comfortable rejecting a doctrine which is based less on a few key verses than on the whole testimony of Scripture. He's acting as if an argument against a rather weak position is sufficient to deal with a significantly more robust position without actually making an argument to that effect. The effect is to toss the whole forest because he wants to quibble with the interpretation of a few particular trees.

Thus, my conclusion that he's not really representative of evangelicalism anymore. He's got some great critiques of evangelical culture, and indeed, I've made many of those same critiques myself. I just managed to convince my family to attend a church other than their evangelical home church on Christmas Eve because I won't go there with them anymore. But his critiques of evangelical theology leave much to be desired. They're basically just a disguised and probably unconscious liberal theology without the benefit of a principled and explicit argument for such. I think Spong's a loony, but at least I know where he's coming from. Clark, not so much.
posted by valkyryn at 8:12 AM on December 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


Based on the timing, I assume he means the Second Great Awakening? Are there any other sources where I can read about how this arose? Because it is really weird.

I'm afraid I don't know offhand; usually my friend just scoffs at how ridiculous it is and then says "but if you get me going I won't be able to stop" and then changes the subject. And I've been afraid to ask for clarification because usually when you do that with him you get a 689-page Oral Thesis on the topic complete with digressions and footnotes, and that's usually way too heady for when you're at a bar.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:12 AM on December 20, 2011


I like Fred Clark. Whenever I start to generalize about Christians — usually based on some hate monger in the news — he, along with Larry Wall, remind me plainly how wrong I am.
posted by benito.strauss at 8:16 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


But Clark doesn't represent historic or even mainstream evangelicalism.

No, but he describes it (and its internal struggles) pretty well, especially for the outsider. Since MeFites largely (not entirely, mind you) react to cobbled-together strawevangelicals in comments all the time, pointing out a resource that will explain and give insight to a lot of the elements of Evangelical thought without trying to convert is a net positive, I say.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:17 AM on December 20, 2011 [5 favorites]


I think Spong's a loony, but at least I know where he's coming from. Clark, not so much.

I know only a bit about Christianity (I am an American), but from reading Slacktivist I feel I know pretty much where Clark is coming from.
posted by benito.strauss at 8:22 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


The Third Great Awakening is, of course, Cthulhu.

Bah, the Third Awakening was the Wichita Brethren in the 2120s. The Ninth Awakening is when the Yithians co-optthe Coleopterous race somewhere in the mid-3400s. Cthulhu's awakening is pretty big, by almost any reckoning, but, since it results in renewed hostilities with the Elder Things, I am not sure it's really all that "great" in, say, Azathoth's scale of opinion.

Of course, Azathoth is widely derided as an idiot, so who can say?
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:22 AM on December 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


I don't see Fred "punting on inerrancy" in that link - what he's doing is rejecting the strange notion that the Bible is 100% literal. He's also rejecting the idea that a specific doctrinal belief is necessary to be considered a Christian:
The arithmetic is straightforward and simple: If I do not believe what the Bible says about the date of Jesus’ death, then I must not believe that Christ is risen or that Christ is Lord. If I don’t accept the simple, straightforward fact of what the Bible teaches about the dates of Jesus’ birth and death, then I must not really be a Christian at all — just one of those liberal impostors your pastor warned you about.

Funny thing, though: the Bible doesn’t actually say what year Jesus was born or what year he died. Any guess as to those dates is nothing more than that — a guess.
Conservative Christians obsessed with "inerrancy" do so to gloss over the fact that the Bible is not a textbook - it is not in total a statement of facts ("God created the earth 4000 years before he enfleshed his son. Here is the name of every head of household between Adam and Jesus. Jesus was born on December 25, 1 C.E. and he died on a day that has a complicated relationship with the full moon and the spring equinox.") The rejection of metaphor as "lies" or "errors" leads to the curious insistence that Jesus was a liar.

(Also, I agree with the slactivist commenter who thinks that there's a too-fine line between "liberal evangelical" and "mainstream Protestant", although I suspect the line is drawn at the insistence of, you know, evangelicalism. Which is, bottom like, what the slactivist blog accomplishes - whether the regular atheist readers want to deny it or not, Fred's purpose is not just to critique conservative evangelical principles but to present a version of "good Christianity" to liberal agnostics who are uncomfortable with religion because of all that persecution.

On preview: which is predicated on tying the doctrine of hell to exactly three passages

I think that's a misrepresentation of Fred's post. His objections to the conservative interpretation of the passages he listed aren't exclusive or exhaustive (although a blog post which objects to the insertion of a literal hell in every single mention of heaven would be pretty exhausting for the writer and the reader).
posted by muddgirl at 8:22 AM on December 20, 2011


And the thing is, Scripture says lots of stuff, all over the place, about the reality of divine judgment. Two verses in Matthew 28. The Parable of the Weeds and the Parable of the Net in Matthew 13. Those are just four mentions I came up with in five minutes, and that alone is enough to defeat his argument, which is predicated on tying the doctrine of hell to exactly three passages.

None of those cites you give say anything about eternal torment, which is what Clark is pushing back against, not the idea of divine judgment. He says, 'These three passages aren't the only basis for the belief in Hell as eternal fiery torment, but they provide the strongest evidence to support the idea. And as you can see, this evidence is not really that strong.'
posted by shakespeherian at 8:23 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


The thing I don't like about Christian Left perspectives is how obviously, nakedly reactionary they are (reactionary in the strict sense of the word, as in, clearly formed in reaction to the Christian Right zeitgeist).

Those perspectives also strike me as more essentially political than even the Christian Right does, as well. For instance - I think a plain reading of the Bible makes it clear that Christians are to, at a very minimum, feel deeply ambivalent about abortion (note that this is not how I feel; I'm not Christian). But tons of Christian Left blogs and writers will loudly proclaim their pro-choice affiliation, the theological justification for which seems just as flimsy as the Right's affinity for the "End Times".

Basically, both sides feel like they use religion as a cudgel for their favored political outcome.
posted by downing street memo at 8:23 AM on December 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


Because those aren't the only places where Christians draw our concepts of eternal punishment.

valkyryn, he addresses this point obliquely in this post on Rob Bell's book "Love Wins".

In summary: Paul doesn't talk about hell at all, but Paul does say that he has presented a complete Gospel and that anyone who adds anything to the Gospel he has presented is accursed. Ergo, a complete Gospel does not include a doctrine of Hell.

The "punted" link was the place where he seems to do that most clearly, but the above link is another great example.

I don't think it's as clear as you're saying it is. Again, it seems to me that the "punted" link seems to be about how a reading of scripture compels, at a minimum, something like the Apostle's creed. Can you point to the places in that post where he is indicating that scripture contradicts or is unclear on these things?
posted by gauche at 8:23 AM on December 20, 2011


Not only is Fred Clark an amazing writer, I have it on good authority that he's a pretty cool guy in person. I'm still sorry I never managed to wrangle a lunch with him or something while I still lived in Delaware.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 8:24 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


By what possible criteria could someone's theology be "bad"? Isn't theology basically a hermenuetic free-for-all?

All properly-constructed belief systems premised on faith ought to be basically equivalent to the nonbeliever, but an improperly-constructed belief system could be objectively described as "bad" even by a neutral outside observer. Improper construction could include a bunch of things, but lack of internal consistency would seem to be the major one. If your theology isn't even internally consistent within the bounds of its own logic, then it's probably crap.

And I think the argument goes that much of American ultraconservative Evangelical eschatology is "bad" by virtue of being hugely internally inconsistent; the whole system claims its intellectual legitimacy from Christian tradition and texts, but then frequently makes claims that aren't supported by, or are even strongly contradictory of, centuries of tradition and textual analysis. It's trying to have your hermeneutic cake and eat it too, and it doesn't work and understandably irritates people who take that sort of thing more seriously.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:28 AM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Bible makes it clear that Christians are to, at a very minimum, feel deeply ambivalent about abortion

Not to derail this in an abortion debate, but I think it's possible for an honest person to go... In my system of beliefs "though shall not kill is pretty strong," and life might begin at conception, but you're allowed to reach you own decisions based on your own views of morality and when life begins.
posted by drezdn at 8:31 AM on December 20, 2011


"how a reading of scripture compels, at a minimum, something like the Apostle's creed"

... and "compels" is not the right word here. Probably more like "supports" or "is pretty clear about a formulation of faith that is,"
posted by gauche at 8:32 AM on December 20, 2011


Yeah not to make this The Abortion Thread but I describe myself as a Christian much along the same lines as Fred Clark (although IIRC he's some form of Baptist whereas I'm Episcopal because we get to drink wine in church) and I don't see any conflict with my pro-choice stance.
posted by shakespeherian at 8:46 AM on December 20, 2011


Basically, both sides feel like they use religion as a cudgel for their favored political outcome.

Well, yeah, once "for I did hunger, and ye gave me to eat; I did thirst, and ye gave me to drink; I was a stranger, and ye received me" is thoroughly politicized, Christianity is going to run hard into politics.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:48 AM on December 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


I quite like Fred Clark and feel that I have come to a similar position regarding the confessional Calvinism of my upbringing that he has in regards to his Evangelical background:

It is not a place of outright rejection. It does not seek to deny core doctrines, but instead to work out of the tradition and to bring the theological work that past generations have done to the table. Above all, it recognizes that "All truth is God's truth" -- that is, the many different ways of human knowing, be they Scriptural texts, scientific inquiry, lived human experience or the traditions and theologies of the Church (which is another way of saying "the lived human experiences and reflections of Christians across many generations and nations") should eventually converge, if we accept the basic premise that God has created, structured and ordered Reality in a basically coherent way. The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward truth.

So, let me give an example of this way of thinking.

For most of the Christian era, it has been assumed that plant, animal and human species were created directly by God at some point in the past. Evidence was given by the Creation narratives in the beginning of Genesis, and by the scientific/observational evidence that distinct species do in fact exist and cannot produce fertile offspring together.

Ongoing scientific inquiry in the 19th century by paleontologists and people like Darwin and Mendel exposed new facts which led to new theories about how species have differentiated and come to be, and to new theories about the age of our planet.

At this point the Church had to deal with how to reconcile these new facts-on-the-ground with her lived experience of God and with her previous theological understandings. Both liberals and conservatives responded in different ways; the former by seeking to 'demythologize' Christian texts and traditions to make them fit into a strictly non-supernatural framework, and the latter by rejecting or minimizing the findings of science and by explicitly defining a new and quite strict literal reading of Scriptural texts ('infallibility') as a test of orthodoxy.

My approach, and I think also the approach of Mr. Clark, would be to say that neither scientific theory nor theological tradition should be able to have absolute authority over the other. I think they should be in constant dialogue as independently legitimate ways in which human beings have endeavoured to understand reality. Ultimately (and again, the arc is long), they should be completely reconcilable.

This third-way position is neither fundamentalist nor liberal/modernist. Rather, it sees both those sides as responses to the situation of modernity and industrialization. Note that both treat the words of Scripture as fundamentally (no pun intended) a textbook, a technical manual or a law code, in the manner that texts Get Read in the context of a rationalizing, mechanizing and dissecting culture -- to be either accepted as The Literal Truth or rejected as an erroneous set of documents.
posted by tivalasvegas at 8:54 AM on December 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


Well, yeah, once "for I did hunger, and ye gave me to eat; I did thirst, and ye gave me to drink; I was a stranger, and ye received me" is thoroughly politicized, Christianity is going to run hard into politics.

For every quote like that, there's something negative about gays, or women, or whatever.

My point is this: Christian Right adherents omit the love your neighbor stuff, Christian Left adherents omit the "stone the gays" stuff. Both are very obviously forming their religion around already-held beliefs about the nature of man and society.

That I agree with one of those sides doesn't really matter; my point is that in no way does this seem to actually be a religion, just an elaborate, mystical framework for justifying things people already think.
posted by downing street memo at 8:54 AM on December 20, 2011 [7 favorites]


Shakespherian, what parish do you attend?
posted by tivalasvegas at 8:55 AM on December 20, 2011


The thing I don't like about Christian Left perspectives is how obviously, nakedly reactionary they are

This isn't my experience at all. I don't experience my spiritual path as in reaction to anything. In politics, though, I do participate in debate, which is why it might seem like this is "in reaction." In fact, I think the Christian left's self-identification as such is in clear reaction to the right's hegemony, but on an individual level, moral convictions are not formed in reaction to anything but personal seeking and judgment.

I think a plain reading of the Bible makes it clear that Christians are to, at a very minimum, feel deeply ambivalent about abortion (note that this is not how I feel; I'm not Christian). But tons of Christian Left blogs and writers will loudly proclaim their pro-choice affiliation, the theological justification for which seems just as flimsy as the Right's affinity for the "End Times".

I don't think that's "clear" at all - flawed premise. After all, the Bible doesn't posit life beginning at conception, because people in Biblical times often could not even know they were pregnant until quickening (4th month or so). In any case, the relationship of different kinds of Christians to the Bible, or parts of the Bible, can be different. Your reading seems to lead you in that direction, but your reading isn't everyone's reading. There's nothing mutually exclusive about having leftist political stances (if you could even call pro-choice leftist; I'm not sure that makes complete sense) and being Christian.
posted by Miko at 8:55 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


* not an evangelical worldview, but then, many many many Christians are not evangelical.
posted by Miko at 8:56 AM on December 20, 2011


But tons of Christian Left blogs and writers will loudly proclaim their pro-choice affiliation, the theological justification for which seems just as flimsy as the Right's affinity for the "End Times".

The problem is, the Bible (or should I say, 𝔱𝔥𝔢 𝔅𝔦𝔟𝔩𝔢*) doesn't mention abortion or End Times. The words "end times" and "rapture" are mentioned zero times in the KJV. The difference between them is, the second is a much bigger assumption to make than the first. In fact, the support for the second is problematic, based upon particular interpretations of passages that, on ordinary sight, would appear to be obviously metaphorical.

But concerning abortion, I did a Google search for "abortion in the bible" and came up with this page for justifications, with eight points listed. Of those, seven are non-sequiturs, fluffy-minded things like "the Bible teaches that children are a blessing" or "the Bible teaches that God is a God of justice." The only one that truly supports the argument, point three, only does so when you take the text of the bullet point as granted, and don't read the verses it's based on.

So no, I don't think the Christian Left and Right are two sides of a coin here. Jesus is so obviously a hippie. THAT'S RIGHT I SAID HIPPIE.

*Aren't you glad you installed that font I posted about now?
posted by JHarris at 8:58 AM on December 20, 2011 [5 favorites]


Let me know when atheists have finished outlining the doctrinally correct Christian reading of the Bible again.
posted by mobunited at 9:00 AM on December 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


Point 3 is also utterly dependent on the translation of the words "child," "infant," and "conceived" and ultimately, doesn't have anything to do with abortion anyway.
posted by Miko at 9:01 AM on December 20, 2011


Are you Catholic, or just trying to reinvent medieval Catholicism?
posted by JHarris at 9:02 AM on December 20, 2011


(previous comment meant for mobunited, both uses of "Catholic" should refer to medieval Catholicism actually, the point I was trying to make was that there were huge doctrinal wars, literal wars, about people's right to read the Bible and interpret it as they saw, not what people told them it meant)
posted by JHarris at 9:03 AM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Well, yeah, once "for I did hunger, and ye gave me to eat; I did thirst, and ye gave me to drink; I was a stranger, and ye received me" is thoroughly politicized, Christianity is going to run hard into politics.

Sure. To the extent that Christianity is a value system that indicates that certain ways of interacting with your fellow man are better and others are worse, it necessarily implicates politics (at least in the sense of how to get along in a polis, if not the extended sense of liars with expensive haircuts standing in front of bunting).

I don't think the problem is Christianity in politics, I think the problem is the rejection of certain necessary second-order principles necessary to have a functioning politics in the first place, coupled with a truly bizzare persecution complex that is fed into by the kind of end-times tribulation fetishizing that has been a part of the main stream of something calling itself Christianity in the U.S. since the 1970s.

My point is this: Christian Right adherents omit the love your neighbor stuff, Christian Left adherents omit the "stone the gays" stuff. Both are very obviously forming their religion around already-held beliefs about the nature of man and society.

Do you have any idea how little of the Bible even mentions homosexuality? Do you have any idea how much of the Bible talks about feeding the poor? I would bet that it's on the order of 100 mentions of poverty for every mention of homosexuality. These are not equivalent omissions.

There are a lot of us working to undo the distortion of Christianity that has taken place in the US. Please don't buy in to this distortion.
posted by gauche at 9:04 AM on December 20, 2011 [5 favorites]


Jesus is so obviously a hippie.

Right, but as a lot of folks have said, modern readings of the words of Jesus aren't the only important thing here; 2000 years of tradition, interpretation, and analysis - as well as the old testament, Paul's letters, etc. - ain't nothing to shake a stick at, either. And those things quite clearly point at "sex is for reproduction", "sex is for married people", "women's primary role is reproduction and motherhood".

A lot of folks have ragged on American right-wing Evangelical Christianity for being ahistorical, inconsistent with tradition, and all that. And then turn around and endorse a vision of Christianity significantly at odds with all but the last fifty years of the religion. Which is fine, don't get me wrong, because Christianity is, and was, a deeply illiberal institution. But at least keep it consistent; you can't fault Evangelicals' novel interpretations of scripture when the Christian Left does the same thing.
posted by downing street memo at 9:06 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Should add, at the end of the first para above, "all of which are inconsistent with the idea of reproductive choice".
posted by downing street memo at 9:08 AM on December 20, 2011


Shakespherian, what parish do you attend?

St. James Cathedral in Chicago.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:10 AM on December 20, 2011


I think a plain reading of the Bible makes it clear that Christians are to, at a very minimum, feel deeply ambivalent about abortion (note that this is not how I feel; I'm not Christian). But tons of Christian Left blogs and writers will loudly proclaim their pro-choice affiliation, the theological justification for which seems just as flimsy as the Right's affinity for the "End Times".

That may be more of a political reaction, though -- sort of the theological equivalent of how some people say "I'm a feminist, but not that kind of feminist." "Reactionary," maybe, but the "reaction" is to the members of the Religious Right who've made Christianity noxious with their own behavior.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:11 AM on December 20, 2011


St. James Cathedral

Nice, I'm at Church of the Advent in Logan Square.
posted by tivalasvegas at 9:12 AM on December 20, 2011


D'oh -- I mean, "the members of the Religious Right who've made the public perception of Christianity noxious".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:12 AM on December 20, 2011


You would think that codifying a modern framework of morality and justice from a 2000+ year old book written by shepherds and fishermen wouldn't be this difficult, yet here we are.
posted by Legomancer at 9:13 AM on December 20, 2011 [11 favorites]


Progressive Christians may look reactionary now, but I think it's only possible to come away with that view from the last thirty years. Since at least the 1800s, there have been progressive Christians pushing for an end to slavery, civil rights, and more.
posted by drezdn at 9:14 AM on December 20, 2011 [6 favorites]


And those things quite clearly point at "sex is for reproduction", "sex is for married people", "women's primary role is reproduction and motherhood".

Yup. So then, given that the Bible and most theological reflection were written in a unquestionedly patriarchal setting in which women (and others) were considered to be property, and that the sexual norms articulated therein follow from that, it is incumbent upon contemporary Christians to bring the first-order theological principles of our faith (for example, the fact that human beings are all (and each) created in God's image with all the freedom and dignity that that entails) to bear on these second-order and third-order issues that have been elevated to dogma and/or culture-war litmus tests.
posted by tivalasvegas at 9:18 AM on December 20, 2011 [9 favorites]


Nice, I'm at Church of the Advent in Logan Square.

Hey I've been there! It's gorgeous inside, and the people were almost aggressively nice.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:22 AM on December 20, 2011


excellent, 'aggressively nice' is exactly the ethos to which we aspire. :)
posted by tivalasvegas at 9:27 AM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Fred Clark is my absolute favorite Evangelical Christian blogger, and that's a weird thing for a rather prickly atheist like myself to say.

I started reading his blog because of his Left Behind dissection, which as legomancer observes is not merely sanrky but a platform for his own evangelism and his desire to correct the theology of LaHay and Jenkins.

I stayed for his posts on, well, just about everything. He's given me a new viewpoint on Evangelical culture and broadened my horizons quite a bit.
posted by sotonohito at 9:27 AM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


For every quote like that, there's something negative about gays, or women, or whatever.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I'll wager you can't actually support that. The Gospels in particular are way more focussed on the "for I did hunger" end of things, and include text clearly intended to dismiss the Old Testament notions of someone or something being "unclean."

Christ's teachings are not hard to parse. What IS increasingly hard to parse is the degree to which modern right-wing Christianity ignores them.

The prohibitive Christians are missing the forest of tolerance and love because of a single weedy stand of trees back in Leviticus, more or less.
posted by uberchet at 9:28 AM on December 20, 2011 [5 favorites]


One of the recurring motifs that Clark brings up in his readings of the Left Behind books is that the character of God as presented in the universe of the books not only allows evil to exist in the world but perpetrates evil in the world.

But that wouldn't, by itself, be a refutation of that theology, would it? So much theological argument seems to come down to "I have an idea of a God in my mind and I have a series of ethical commitments--now let me interpret the Bible in such a way that it leads to that God and those ethics." Everybody finds it easy to explain away even the most plain language in any part of the Bible if it happens to contradict their own personal ethical commitments (who, nowadays, thinks it likely that God condones slavery? Where, in any part of the Old or New Testament can you find anything to support such a view?).

No candid reading of the Old Testament suggests a God who is in any simple sense averse to "perpetrating evil in the world"--why shouldn't the lesson of Revelation be that God's actions have nothing much to do with anything we humans recognize as morality?
posted by yoink at 9:31 AM on December 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


So okay, maybe those three passages that Clark cites do not, in and of themselves, have to mean that the doctrine of hell is true. But what about the rest of it? And if you put it all together, doesn't the message as a whole start to get pretty damn suggestive?

Fred's critiques are consistently leveled at the school of Christian thought that insists "pretty damn suggestive" is insufficient -- that theology is based on obvious, literal Scriptural texts whose truths are 100% internally consistent and impossible to ignore. Differing with them on anything more important than order of service tweaks is not a matter of interpretation, but of deliberate and willful rejection of God's revealed truth.

You can certainly say that there are other ways to make the case for doctrinal points held by Fundamentalists, but the dispensationalists and fundamentalists that are the focus of the Slacktivist blog do no make those "stronger arguments" that you wish he would address. In that sense, you and the people you agree with are outsiders to mainstream Protestant thought in North America, just as much as he is, because you are a critic of the cultural flotsam and jetsam that are treated as co-equal with Scripture.


...his critiques of evangelical theology leave much to be desired. They're basically just a disguised and probably unconscious liberal theology without the benefit of a principled and explicit argument for such. I think Spong's a loony, but at least I know where he's coming from. Clark, not so much.

The worst that can be said about Clark, IMO, is that he looks at the actual results of theological positions and asks whether those results are palatable and consistent with his understanding of the principles of Christ's teaching and the rest of Scripture. That approach is incompatible with flavors of Christianity that insist any God -- even a monstrous and cruel one -- is to be worshipped and adored and held up as Good, simply by virtue of being God.

Your contributions to these threads consistently interesting and valuable, but there's also a strong element of "only my critiques of Christian culture or bad theology are legitimate; others' critiques of it brand them as illegitimate." I understand, because I was there myself for a long time, and it may not even be something that you realize. But it overshadows a lot of the valuable stuff you share about perspectives when you basically characterize everyone who critiques fundamentalist theology from outside of fundamentalism as a wolf in sheep's clothing.

Suggesting that someone's critiques are "probably unconscious liberalism" is no more useful than saying that your critiques of his writing are "unconscious fundamentalist nationalism," or something like that. Fred Clark has spent a long time -- years, in fact -- writing about his beliefs and critiquing a particular popular strain of Christian thought. It's pretty unfair, I think, to say that there's no way to know where he's coming from.
posted by verb at 9:36 AM on December 20, 2011 [7 favorites]


So the theology of Left Behind is really cosmic-dualist in a later Zoroastrian sense? Or is it full-on Gnostic?
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 9:39 AM on December 20, 2011


So the theology of Left Behind is really cosmic-dualist in a later Zoroastrian sense? Or is it full-on Gnostic?

Actually - I literaly just shot miko an email about this (I felt guilty for not having more info from my friend's lectures), and did a quick search and found that the technical name for this kind of theology seems to be Dispensationalism.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:42 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Well, yes, but Clark's point seems to be that Dispensationalism doesn't seem to have any recognizable Christian underpinnings, so there is still the question as to what sort of cosmology we're dealing with.

I haven't yet read all of his Left Behind pieces. Does he address this?
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 9:45 AM on December 20, 2011


So the theology of Left Behind is really cosmic-dualist in a later Zoroastrian sense? Or is it full-on Gnostic?

Well, there certainly are interesting dualistic thought-strains in the whole mess.

But the basic error, I think, is a complete failure to understand what the prophetic texts in the Bible are there for.

They are not predictions in some sort of crystal-ball, cabal-occult-truth way.

They were written to communities that were suffering under the whip of a variety of increasingly-terrifying foreign powers, and which were longing for a sense of God's presence and promise for liberation.

The book of Revelation is the best-known example of this genera (other texts are scattered through the Old Testament prophets like Isaiah and Daniel). In Revelation, the text's focus shifts back and forth between cataclysms, persecutions and plagues on earth and the underlying (superimposed?) conflict in the heavenly realm between God and the forces of evil. Its overall message is that there is a reason for your suffering and that reason is the powers of darkness have done their worst and now are being dispersed and therefore you should rejoice because Christ will return in victory with an extra-large side order of do not lose hope.

So the whole "tomorrow's news today!" interpretation is not only a rather shitty reading of the texts, but also forces a rather shitty conclusion about the nature of God. Fred's basic argument is, "hey fundamentalists, did you really mean to come to the conclusion that God is an evil sadistic bastard?"
posted by tivalasvegas at 9:52 AM on December 20, 2011 [8 favorites]


Well, yes, but Clark's point seems to be that Dispensationalism doesn't seem to have any recognizable Christian underpinnings, so there is still the question as to what sort of cosmology we're dealing with.

Ah, I see. Then I think the term is "wack-a-doo." :-)

(But seriously, what Tivalasvegas says about the misunderstanding-of-prophetic-texts is very apt.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:54 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


But that wouldn't, by itself, be a refutation of that theology, would it?

Right, like I said, it doesn't invalidate itself as theology, but it certainly invalidates itself as a theology of the loving, personal, self-sacrificial god that the Left Behind books posit themselves as.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:56 AM on December 20, 2011


@ valkyryn

I'd like to expand on your earliest post. I'm someone who can be called an Evangelical Christian and in my world, if you don't believe that the Bible is the inerrant and infallible word of God, then you cannot really call yourself a follower of Jesus. Basically, to walk this path, you have to accept both the baby and the bath water but not one or the other.
posted by RedShrek at 10:02 AM on December 20, 2011


Dispensationalism doesn't seem to have any recognizable Christian underpinnings.

This seems like a completely semantic argument. A calls himself and his beliefs Christian. B says no, your beliefs are not Christian because you are deviating from The True Tradition which I adhere to. An onlooker asks B why said tradition is The True Tradition, and often they'll refer to The True Tradition's interpretation of the Bible to justify the True Tradition's biblical interpretation. Circularity abounds. All parties want to be seen as the inheritor of big-C Christianity's prestige and safety, rather than as creative.

It all seems like bad faith to me. In the end y'all must have extra-biblical differences of opinion, and these drive your divergent readings, and you should cop to that instead of blaming it on the text. All the biblical interpretation stuff seems like a proxy argument masking the real issues.

You see a very similar dynamic in the world of U.S. jurisprudence around questions of constitutional interpretation.

but it certainly invalidates itself as a theology of the loving, personal, self-sacrificial god that the Left Behind books posit themselves as.

Are they positing themselves as those things the way you mean them? I don't think they are, having spoken to many Christian LaHaye fans.
posted by phrontist at 10:09 AM on December 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


He's STILL working his way through Left Behind? I stopped reading Slacktivist years ago, his LB analysis seemed like beating a dead horse.

All you need to know about the Left Behind industry is his alternate explanation: the rapture already happened back in biblical times, everyone on earth is left behind.
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:13 AM on December 20, 2011


Are they positing themselves as those things the way you mean them?

Well, that's the point -- the answer is generally 'Yes', in the sense that fundamentalists would say wholeheartedly that God is indeed loving and personal and self-sacrificial. What Clark et al. are trying to get across is that they need to consider whether or not the implications of the end-times theology they espouse are consistent with belief in a God who does love everyone.
posted by tivalasvegas at 10:14 AM on December 20, 2011


Excellent post, Legomancer! I think Slacktivist has been linked here before (In comments, maybe?), because I've spent many a spare hour reading his hilarious Left Behind posts. Never read the books themselves, but his descriptions are so pointedly hilarious I don't really need to. It wouldn't be any more amusing.
posted by Kevin Street at 10:16 AM on December 20, 2011


Well, that's the point -- the answer is generally 'Yes', in the sense that fundamentalists would say wholeheartedly that God is indeed loving and personal and self-sacrificial.

Right, but they define what all of that (loving/personal/etc) means in terms of their beliefs about judgement and sin and so forth. They take as their fixed point these ideas, and everything else rotates around them. This is no more or less arbitrary than the position of Slacktivist, who seems to focus on a certain notion of loving/personal/self-sacrificial and can't brook the opposing fire and brimstone current.
posted by phrontist at 10:29 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Right, but they define what all of that (loving/personal/etc) means in terms of their beliefs about judgement and sin and so forth. They take as their fixed point these ideas, and everything else rotates around them. This is no more or less arbitrary than the position of Slacktivist, who seems to focus on a certain notion of loving/personal/self-sacrificial and can't brook the opposing fire and brimstone current.

Yep. This is basically the point I was trying to make (although you boil it down to principles rather than political beliefs, which I think makes the case better).

There's also a strong element of authoritarianism vs. anti-authoritarianism between right and left wing Christianity, which is again an arbitrary jumping off point (the Bible contains lots of stuff about individual dignity and worth, and a lot of stuff about submitting to authority, too)
posted by downing street memo at 10:38 AM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


From the "Left Behind begins at part 1 and goes through part 196." link, these kind of thoughts absolutely horrify me:
The Book of Daniel, he told Leggett, predicts that increased earthly devastation will mark the “End Time” and return of Christ. Paradoxically, Leggett notes, many fundamentalists see dying coral reefs, melting ice caps and other environmental destruction not as an urgent call to action, but as God’s will. Within the religious right worldview, the wreck of the Earth can be seen as Good News!
They have wagered the entire fate of the planet that their beliefs are true and accurate, and that prophesy will happen exactly as they have foretold. And if it (the rapture) doesn't happen, then in their minds it is just too early, or they didn't pray hard enough. Truly terrifying.
posted by I am the Walrus at 10:48 AM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Right, but they define what all of that (loving/personal/etc) means in terms of their beliefs about judgement and sin and so forth. They take as their fixed point these ideas, and everything else rotates around them.

But, that's not legit! Love is not consistent with a thunderbolt-casting, arbitrarily-smiting God.

Look, pretty much everyone has a good idea what love looks like from a bottom-up, anecdotal perspective. I don't care how fundamentalist one is, ideally we have all received some measure of self-sacrificing, genuine love from childhood on, and can at least begin to articulate things like "Smacking the shit out of your two-year-old for crying at bedtime" is not loving behaviour; "Working three jobs to put food on the table for your family" is loving behaviour, etc. From that point we can start to generalize about the nature of love.

It is at that point that fundamentalists need to consider what it means that God is love, that God loves humanity.

For me, belief in this particular end-times theology is not ultimately compatible with that first-order belief in God's love. Now, if dispensationalist types want to say that belief in God's ultimate wrath and judgement takes precedence in belief in God's love and mercy, that's perfectly coherent and the conversation is pretty much over. I hope that most would not go that direction, though.

Basically, I do think (and hope!) that Christian fundamentalists and Christian progressives share enough baseline principles that we can have a conversation about how those principles get interpreted and filter down into second-order issues.
posted by tivalasvegas at 11:07 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


*takes precedence to belief in God's love....
posted by tivalasvegas at 11:08 AM on December 20, 2011


For anyone who wants to read the Left Behind analysis but, like me, had trouble figuring out how: start at the first link. At the very bottom, below all the comments, there is a link to the next page in chronological order.
posted by vogon_poet at 11:09 AM on December 20, 2011


It is not a place of outright rejection. It does not seek to deny core doctrines

Not as an explicit goal, no. But it does wind up rejecting some of what the bulk of the tradition has considered to be "core doctrines," not by arguing against them, but by redefining them as "non-core". Which amounts to the same thing. Rejecting what one person considers to be a "core doctrine" while saying that you're still basically in the tradition because you don't consider that to be a "core doctrine" may be rhetorically effective, but it's intellectually dishonest.
posted by valkyryn at 11:12 AM on December 20, 2011


For me, belief in this particular end-times theology is not ultimately compatible with that first-order belief in God's love. Now, if dispensationalist types want to say that belief in God's ultimate wrath and judgement takes precedence in belief in God's love and mercy, that's perfectly coherent and the conversation is pretty much over. I hope that most would not go that direction, though.

I'm not a theologian, nor am I a practing Christian, and when I was it was Catholicism anyway. But I think I can speak to this --

I think the way to square this is to believe that God reserves His love for those who deserve it, and reserves His wrath and judgement for those who've wronged Him and His followers. Some people are very, very attracted to the idea that the people that they don't like are eventually gonna Get Their Comeuppance, and so their fixation on God's Wrath and Judgement may be the theological equivalent of "I'm gonna tell my big brother on you, and boy, is HE gonna kick your ass!"
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:16 AM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Are you Catholic, or just trying to reinvent medieval Catholicism?

I really don't care who a true Christian is, but man, lots of atheists seem to. Lots of "If you believe this, you *must necessarily* believe this," even though many Christians actually don't.

Insisting that Christians adopt a totalist, self-consistent world-system is pretty Catholic, however, since those values come from Catholic adoption of Greek philosophy for the purpose of developing authority over the getting to know God through the system. Many atheists adopt these values unconsciously because we need them for science and swindling (or "economics").

But in my experience as a former devout Anglican (who is not now a member of any religion that can be easily described) who did lots of interfaith stuff is that most Christians are decent people who are inconsistent on points of doctrine and morality. In fact, I do not know a single person who *is* consistent. Certainly, atheist activism is inconsistent because it applies skepticism to religion more stridently than to rational-actor based economics, even though both are elaborate intellectual structures based on a non-falsifiable core, and both have done tremendous damage to millions of people. But I have a feeling that Richard Dawkins has more than a few quid invested in the faith-based exchange of goods and services. Totalist worldviews are funny in that nobody can actually follow them without being hypocrites, so it's probably better that we accept that we're all hypocrites and judge folks on their material works.
posted by mobunited at 11:16 AM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


The humans have besmirched everything bestowed on them. They were given Paradise, they threw it away. They were given this planet, they destroyed it. They were favored best among all His endeavors, and some of them don't even believe He exists. And in spite of it all, He's shown them infinite fucking patience at every turn.
--Bartleby, from Dogma

(Another atheist who finds Clark's perspective refreshing here.)
posted by Gelatin at 11:19 AM on December 20, 2011


To be human is to be inconsistent and hypocritical. Wisdom is the process of being a little less inconsistent and hypocritical each day, whilst accepting that perfection is impossible.
posted by Kevin Street at 11:30 AM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


valkryn, you and I have gone in circles on this issue before, and I expect we'll do it again. :)

I simply do not believe that there has ever been a consensus within the Christian tradition on what exactly constitutes 'core beliefs'. The closest we've come is possibly the Nicene Creed (less the Filioque) and even that is problematic when one takes into consideration some of the political and linguistic issues surrounding post-Constantinian Christian synods. However I believe it is a good starting point.

To give but one example, the Protestant Reformers were totally willing to reject huge portions of what up until that point had been reasonably settled Christian practice from very early on -- for example, the divinely-ordained leadership of bishops in apostolic succession, the importance of monastic life. They also were willing to elevate disputed or previously non-existent doctrines such as the priesthood of believers, sola scriptura, memorialism (for some of the later Reformers) and a somewhat intensified-Augustinian view of soteriology to a central position.

So, semper reformanda, eh?
posted by tivalasvegas at 11:36 AM on December 20, 2011 [5 favorites]


Your contributions to these threads consistently interesting and valuable,

Thanks.

but there's also a strong element of "only my critiques of Christian culture or bad theology are legitimate; others' critiques of it brand them as illegitimate."

I can see how it might seem that way, but if you look, I'm generally pretty careful to be as ecumenical as I can. I'm coming at this from a conservative Reformed perspective, but I never critique things which are objectionable solely on that perspective. I say what I believe a confessional Lutheran, conservative Anglican, or conservative Catholic would say, and I'm usually pretty explicit about saying such.

I do tend to privilege internal critiques over external critiques, regardless of whether we're talking about religion. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. Saying that a particular tradition doesn't hold water based on axioms said tradition rejects is basically just begging the question. Of course atheists don't believe the Bible means what it says: they don't believe there's a God. As a result, their interpretations of the Bible are, frankly, rather uninteresting. And of course liberal theologians take issue with the church's historical stance on sexual ethics. They explicitly believe that culture should determine our interpretation of Scripture rather than the other way around.

But saying that a particular tradition has a problem based on its own axioms? That's worth listening to. So when Clark starts criticizing evangelicalism, I want to point out that he's doing so by rejecting some pretty basic core assumptions of evangelicalism, which, in my view, diminishes the value of his critique. What we've got here is not your typical evangelical offering a critique of the tradition on its own terms. Instead, we've got someone who's abandoned the tradition critiquing it on terms that the tradition explicitly rejects, which isn't really fair. So yes, I do think I'm better positioned to offer a critique of evangelicalism than most people, because even though I share most of evangelicalism's basic assumptions, I still come up with fairly radically different answers.

I think what makes me sound idiosyncratic is that, as far as I can tell, I'm one of if not the only theologically conservative MeFite who engages in these sorts of discussions and takes a stand for the orthodox position. Are there any LCMS people around? ACN? NAPARC? I've run across plenty of Unitarians, ELCA members, ECUSA members, emergent types, etc., and plenty of people who used to belong to more conservative churches, but very few people who speak up still do.
posted by valkyryn at 11:40 AM on December 20, 2011 [5 favorites]


Look, pretty much everyone has a good idea what love looks like from a bottom-up, anecdotal perspective.

I'm not entirely sure I'd agree that pretty much everyone has a good (i.e. healthy) view of what "love" entails. If you grow up being beaten by someone who tells you that this is what "love" is, or that he loves you but has to beat/abuse you because of your failings, well, you're going to get a somewhat warped vision of what love is. And that in turn is something that you will transmit to those around you and below you on the social hierarchy throughout your life, including children.

I don't think that "God loves us and brutal, eternal punishments are a corollary to that" is too hard a leap for a great many people to make.
posted by AdamCSnider at 11:42 AM on December 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


Aw, Slacktivist has never been an FPP? He's genius.

Though his endless, meticulous, brilliant dissection of the Left Behind books feels a little like Leonardo da Vinci painting a frame by frame copy of a Scooby Doo cartoon.
posted by Sebmojo at 11:46 AM on December 20, 2011 [7 favorites]


Some people are very, very attracted to the idea that the people that they don't like are eventually gonna Get Their Comeuppance, and so their fixation on God's Wrath and Judgement may be the theological equivalent of "I'm gonna tell my big brother on you, and boy, is HE gonna kick your ass!"

Yes, this perspective is sometimes the psychological underpinning of the more screwed-up fundamentalists. It is usually unconscious, except in the case of the truly sociopathic splinter sects such as the Phelps family/hatecircle. I continue to hold out hope that even the Phelpses may come to the point where they are able to recognize that their hateful God is a projection of their own tortured psyches. This probably won't happen until they come to a point of theological tension either between two deeply held and incompatible beliefs, or to a point of tension between a belief and an event that directly confronts that belief.

We see this latter occurrence, for example, every time a kid outs themselves to a religious parent who never considered 'homosexuality' anything but sinful, and now has the opportunity to allow their love for their child to win out over their previous theological beliefs. Sometimes love does win.
posted by tivalasvegas at 11:49 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't think that "God loves us and brutal, eternal punishments are a corollary to that" is too hard a leap for a great many people to make.

Yes, and that's precisely why I put in the weasel-words "pretty much". Your point is unfortunate but true. As I note just above, though, I do hold out hope that love can make it through to the hardest heart. Actually, (to swing full-circle), that's probably a core theological belief of mine.
posted by tivalasvegas at 11:52 AM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


To give but one example, the Protestant Reformers were totally willing to reject huge portions of what up until that point had been reasonably settled Christian practice from very early on -- for example, the divinely-ordained leadership of bishops in apostolic succession, the importance of monastic life. They also were willing to elevate disputed or previously non-existent doctrines such as the priesthood of believers, sola scriptura, memorialism (for some of the later Reformers) and a somewhat intensified-Augustinian view of soteriology to a central position.

That's just historically inaccurate.

Luther didn't reject apostolic succession and his view of the Magisterium is little different than Roman Catholicism's. He had a procedural objection to Papal authority--an objection which Constantinople had been making for centuries--and his position existed within the Christian tradition until 1517. Monasticism was actually not all that old by the sixteenth century, in that there hadn't always been monks and everyone knew it. Yes, he disagreed with the importance of monasticism, but you can hardly say that it'd been a permanent feature of Christianity. As to the rest of it, you've basically conceded my point: all of those doctrines existed within Christianity essentially from the very beginning. There wasn't a lot of novelty going on. Even universal literacy had been a pretty strong component of Israelite culture.

But I think you're responding to a stronger version of my argument in this thread than I'm actually making. I've never said that Clark is a heretic or that he isn't a Christian. I've said that he isn't an evangelical anymore, and that he isn't critiquing evangelicalism by using its own internal logic. I don't think anyone has actually disagreed with that, and it's been pointed out that Clark himself has all but conceded the point.

So it doesn't really matter what we consider "core doctrines" to be. What matters is that if we've got two competing sets, the person who has the shorter list doesn't really get to say that he's in full agreement with the person with the longer list on all the things that matter unless he can show, using the longer list's axioms, why said list should be shorter. Otherwise, the person with the longer list is entirely justified in saying that the person with the shorter list is no longer in step with whatever tradition we happen to be talking about.
posted by valkyryn at 11:52 AM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


What evangelical Christianity has brought us is a legion of brittle Christians. Strong if force is moved against them in one way, but only from head-on. Any slight nagging doubt shatters the whole worldview, so they try to defend against that by creating elaborate thought-traps that seek to eliminate self-examination and critical thought, the sad results of which are currently running roughshod over our unfortunate nation's political processes. This cannot stand -- it is entirely assertion, a house of cards that stands only because the tenants are told not to question it. It has created a legion of people who think to change their mind is not the necessary process of a healthy mind, but damnation. It is reprehensible, and you don't have to be an atheist to see it.

This is a wonderful paragraph, JHarris.
posted by Sebmojo at 11:54 AM on December 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


mobunited: I really don't care who a true Christian is, but man, lots of atheists seem to. Lots of "If you believe this, you *must necessarily* believe this," even though many Christians actually don't.

This is an interesting comment in a thread where multiple atheists have expressed interest in Clark's work.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 11:55 AM on December 20, 2011


I guess since I broke the symmetry of my MetaTalk numbers here, I might as well break the symmetry of my MeFi numbers in this thread, since it's the best religion thread I can remember and serves as partial refutation of the frustration and disappointment I mentioned in my profile-page rant. Kudos to Legomancer for making the post and introducing me to the excellence of Fred Clark, and to all the thoughtful and well-informed commenters who have made the thread what it is. (In case it's relevant, I am an atheist.)

But I have a less noble reason for jumping back in; I wouldn't be languagehat if I didn't take issue with this:

> (reactionary in the strict sense of the word, as in, clearly formed in reaction to the Christian Right zeitgeist)

That is not "the strict sense of the word"; it is a new development that I personally first heard in the 1980s (and instantly disliked and still dislike, though that of course is neither here nor there—as a descriptivist I don't condemn usages just because they make me twitch). The only definition in Merriam-Webster is the traditional one: "relating to, marked by, or favoring reaction; especially : ultraconservative in politics" (reaction being "resistance or opposition to a force, influence, or movement; especially : tendency toward a former and usually outmoded political or social order or policy"). The words reaction (in its social/political sense) and reactionary (which derives from it) are outgrowths of the French Revolution and referred originally to attempts to restore the prerevolutionary order; they have naturally evolved to refer to any attempt to restore an imagined state of order based on authority, but to use them to refer to a left-wing or liberal view is confusing and (in my view) unjustified.
posted by languagehat at 12:01 PM on December 20, 2011 [19 favorites]


Perhaps "reactive" is the best word.
posted by downing street memo at 12:16 PM on December 20, 2011


I can see how it might seem that way, but if you look, I'm generally pretty careful to be as ecumenical as I can. I'm coming at this from a conservative Reformed perspective, but I never critique things which are objectionable solely on that perspective. I say what I believe a confessional Lutheran, conservative Anglican, or conservative Catholic would say, and I'm usually pretty explicit about saying such.

I do tend to privilege internal critiques over external critiques, regardless of whether we're talking about religion.


Totally understood, valkyrn. It's just very rare to encounter a critique that you considered 'internal critique' -- I'm not sure I ever have in the various discussions. Even those who claim to be believers from a particular faith tradition, and actively defend that faith, are quickly recategorized as wolves in sheep's clothing or accidental dupes. That's what rubbed me the wrong way about your quick dismissal of Clark as a crypto-liberal, and thus not a True Evangelical.

It's particularly noteworthy because on the Slacktivist blog he's always gone to great pains to avoid making sweeping statements about "Evangelicals" or other broad doctrinal categories, focusing instead on dispensationalism theologically and what he refers to as "Real True Christians" culturally. He's critiquing what most people outside the church think constitutes Evangelicalism, or even Christianity as a whole, because of its disproportionately loud voice and influence.

I think you hit the nail on the head when you noted part of the dissonance comes from the fact that you're one of the few people who represents an articulate Reformed position on the blue. I don't want to misrepresent you, but sometimes it does end up sounding a lot like "Liberal Christians can't critique Conservative Christianity because they're not real Christians, because real Christians are Conservative." You're not putting words in anyone's mouth, but I think you're definitely making an unambiguous case for a position that is... contested. ;-)
posted by verb at 12:29 PM on December 20, 2011 [5 favorites]


Valkryn, thanks for that response.

Certainly Luther had a fairly robust view of the apostolic succession (and enlighten me if I'm wrong, but I seem to recall that there were even some feelers sent early on from the Lutheran camp to the Eastern Orthodox), though the churches he founded appear to take a spectrum of views on that issue.

But it seems obvious to me that the Belgic Confession, for one, rejects wholeheartedly that view when it says:
Neither may we compare any writings of men, though ever so holy, with those divine Scriptures; nor ought we to compare custom, or the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of times or persons, or councils, decrees, or statutes, with the truth of God, for the truth is above all: for all men are of themselves liars, and more vain than vanity itself.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but that would've been a decidedly minority view within Christendom prior to Luther's theses-nailing.

It is not a bad thing that Christians have continued to explore and rethink the traditions and doctrines that have been handed down; on the contrary, it is a sign that the Holy Spirit is continuing to work within the Church to make manifest the living power of Jesus Christ to each successive generation. We make wrong turns sometimes, but that's better than refusing to move.

Regarding Fred Clark and the definitions of evangelicalism: I see your point, and agree with you that an immanent critique is better than a transcendental one any day of the week. I'm not sure if he has written a succinct definition of what he would call 'evangelicalism' -- I'll do some looking around on his blog for one. But I am inclined to say that he does stand in the tradition of evangelicalism, if a much older and (ironically) more radical-leftist sort. Roger Williams and William Wilberforce were by no means social conservatives, after all.
posted by tivalasvegas at 12:31 PM on December 20, 2011


I don't want to misrepresent you, but sometimes it does end up sounding a lot like "Liberal Christians can't critique Conservative Christianity because they're not real Christians, because real Christians are Conservative."

If you replace the word "real" with "conservative," you're actually not far off. And the reason I'm okay with that is because the conservative position on any given subject in any given tradition is usually the historic one. As previously mentioned, Christianity puts an active premium on continuity with tradition, so that's how it works out.

Honestly, I find disagreements amongst liberals to be almost as interesting as disagreements amongst conservatives. But disagreements between the two generally strike me as pointless. We're working from different sets of axioms, so unless we're going to talk about those, there's not really any way to come to consensus. Issues of "social justice" and sexual ethics are so far down the logical chain that there's just no odds in addressing them without dealing with logically prior commitments.
posted by valkyryn at 12:52 PM on December 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


So when Clark starts criticizing evangelicalism, I want to point out that he's doing so by rejecting some pretty basic core assumptions of evangelicalism, which, in my view, diminishes the value of his critique. What we've got here is not your typical evangelical offering a critique of the tradition on its own terms. Instead, we've got someone who's abandoned the tradition critiquing it on terms that the tradition explicitly rejects, which isn't really fair.

I can completely understand why you wouldn't value this sort of critique as much as what you term an internal critique, but if you've read enough of Clark's posts you'll find that what he's doing is articulating exactly the reasons that he's rejected those basic core assumptions of evangelicalism.

But disagreements between the two generally strike me as pointless. We're working from different sets of axioms, so unless we're going to talk about those, there's not really any way to come to consensus.

This is exactly the conversation that Fred Clark has every day on his blog-- the conversation about how he, personally, moved from one set of axioms to another.
posted by shakespeherian at 12:55 PM on December 20, 2011


As one of the other theologically conservative MeFites who dips into these discussions (though not as articulately as Valkryn), I'll leave aside most of his description of the Reformation, which I think is generally fair, though slightly partisan, but this:

Monasticism was actually not all that old by the sixteenth century, in that there hadn't always been monks and everyone knew it. Yes, he disagreed with the importance of monasticism, but you can hardly say that it'd been a permanent feature of Christianity.

is historically and not just theologically difficult.

Luther was an Augustinian, and the Augustinian rule was written by St. Augustine was more than a thousand years old by the sixteenth century. Even though the institutional body of monastics Luther belonged to was not that old, it had clear historical roots in the fifth century.

St. Anthony, called "Father of Monasticism", went off into the desert in 285, but was hardly the first to do so.

St. John Cassian, whose writing depict something clearly recognizable as cenobitic monasticism, which he brought from Egypt to France died in around 435, more than a thousand years before Luther was born.

(I used to be a Unitarian and am now Catholic, so I get to reverse the usual Mefite perspective there...)
posted by Jahaza at 12:56 PM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


But it seems obvious to me that the Belgic Confession, for one, rejects wholeheartedly that view

Maybe it does, maybe it doesn't, but it doesn't do so there. For one thing, the Belgic Confession is one of the Three Forms of Unity to which continental Reformed churches subscribe. The Lutheran confession is Augsburg. Lutheranism, as such, doesn't seem to reject it. So, yeah.

But second, the passage you cite doesn't even really reject apostolic succession as a means of ordaining clergy. It isn't talking about that at all. It rejects apostolic succession as being capable of generating authority equal to that of Scripture. It is possible to do this and still believe that clergy are called according to apostolic succession.

Further, the nature and rule of church authority was a hotly contested issue in the Catholic church up until the issue was settled, for the West anyway, at Trent. The Eastern Churches have had a different view of how that works, and they do put a strong emphasis on tradition, but they don't have any provisions for papal supremacy, and never did. But it would be incorrect to say that Luther's position there was novel. Controversial, perhaps, but not novel. Not even particularly recent.
posted by valkyryn at 1:02 PM on December 20, 2011


the conversation about how he, personally, moved from one set of axioms to another.

I've looked at his work several times over the last year, and I've never really gotten that impression. Could you give me some specific links?
posted by valkyryn at 1:03 PM on December 20, 2011


Well the first one I linked, for one.

Also, this is going back a bit, and I really don't feel like having a big argument about it or anything, but this:

And of course liberal theologians take issue with the church's historical stance on sexual ethics. They explicitly believe that culture should determine our interpretation of Scripture rather than the other way around.

is, at least in my liberal Christian circles, completely untrue.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:17 PM on December 20, 2011


is, at least in my liberal Christian circles, completely untrue.

According to the view in your circle, has the Church just systematically gotten questions of sexual ethics vis a vis scripture wrong over the last 2000 years?
posted by downing street memo at 1:23 PM on December 20, 2011


It's more an issue of prescriptivism vs. descriptivism. The cultures that the various proscriptions in the Bible are written for are pretty far from our own, but that doesn't mean that I think culture should determine interpretation. If I think that there's a prohibition on eating shellfish because Leviticus contains a list of ways to keep the Hebrew people distinct from the cultures around them and certain rules also kept them from physical and ceremonial uncleanliness, and that that prohibition isn't relevant to us in a different time and place and culture, does that mean I'm letting culture determine my interpretation of scripture? It seems like a leading question.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:31 PM on December 20, 2011


Well the first one I linked, for one.

Yeah, I read that in the past, and he's doing exactly what I said he was doing: adopting an argument against literal inerrancy and using it to punt infallibility.

I can address his argument head-on to show you what I mean.

Take the issue of interest. Yes, the Bible says some pretty nasty things about it. But it also explicitly talks about the charging of interest in ways that it treats as morally neutral at worst. What sorts of ways? Business ventures, mostly. Lending money, i.e. making a loan with the expectation that it will be repaid but with no real concern about how, is generally viewed by Scripture as being problematic, but when it's lending to the poor, it's always bad. But investing money, i.e. using it to try to make more money, shows up from time to time too, and it's never spoken against.

So, I would argue, the proper thing to learn here is that Scripture actually has a more nuanced view of interest than a rigidly legalistic interpretation that only focuses on one set of passages would lend one to believe.

But the message Clark takes away? "In our very different world and very different context, applying the letter of the law would mean, for those people, violating its spirit," and "We haven't abandoned the morality that in another time and place expressed itself through the prohibition against interest, we've just learned how to express that same morality in this time and place, in this world and this economy."

And it's that hermeneutical move that I object to. It's really a series of several steps. First, one assumes that everything in the Bible is culturally mediated. That's sort of problematic right away, because one of the things that Christians believe God is doing in his revelatory work is trying to shape culture, not just respond to it. But that aside, the second step is to assume that one can strip out the cultural mediation of any random part of Scripture to get at the "principle" behind it, i.e. that the cultural mediation is irrelevant. This is problematic for two reasons. First, it runs the real risk of leading to a misinterpretation, as the cultural mediation itself may teach something important about the principles in play. But second, it ignores the possibility that hey, maybe God really meant this the way he said it. Because hey, that could be, you know.

So let's take your shellfish example. The liberal reason why we don't bother with that one anymore is the one that I describe above, and that Clark has adopted, i.e. it's all just a cultural expression, and we don't need to pay attention to the details, but to the principles involved. But the conservative reason couldn't be more different: God explicitly abrogated the dietary laws in Acts 10 because their purpose had been fulfilled.

Now maybe that abrogation applies to more than just the dietary laws. In fact, the strong implication--and the one that Peter seems to have taken from it--is that God was really just intending to get rid of the Jew/Gentile distinction, period, suggesting that a whole lot of the Mosaic code is now obsolete. Some try to make a moral/ceremonial distinction, keeping the former and viewing the latter as abrogated, but the Torah never really makes any distinction like that, and the text goes back and forth between the two regardless of how you define them. Paul takes it a step further in Romans 6-7, but the basic idea is still that the Mosaic code is obsolete not because culture has moved on--God doesn't ever seem to give a fig about that--but because Christ has come.

Approaching Scripture with the assumption that we can basically ignore the clear language of a text because it is no longer culturally or economically appropriate is a radically different approach than saying that a particular text is no longer applicable because another text says so. The former basically does open up that hermeneutical free-for-all alleged upthread. The latter doesn't.

So all I really see here is someone who has seen that there's a real critique to be made of legalistic, overly-literalistic hermeneutical traditions. And there is! But rather than trying to see if maybe the Bible has more to say on the subject than he had originally thought, he just goes straight to "Well that's all just their culture, and we're all so Modern now," i.e. liberal theology.

For me, anyway, that dog won't hunt.
posted by valkyryn at 1:55 PM on December 20, 2011


Approaching Scripture with the assumption that we can basically ignore the clear language of a text because it is no longer culturally or economically appropriate

seems like a 'Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath' thing, to me.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:03 PM on December 20, 2011


But like I said I really don't feel like having a big argument about it. I appreciate that you have cogent arguments for your position, and I understand that you disagree with Clark, but for my interests, at least, I find it worthwhile to read someone discussing why and how he passed from one paradigm to another, which was my point.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:21 PM on December 20, 2011


Indeed, and I think that's why it's interesting to see the distinction between "insider" and "outsider" being drawn in realtime. The idea that "insider critiques are privileged" makes sense in a lot of ways -- when we're talking about the nature of a particulate belief system, those who are part of it are generally more knowledgeable about its ins and outs than those who aren't.

What's interesting is when some of the internal points of dogma cannot actually be critiqued, because accepting them uncritically is what defines insider-ness. Or at the very least, you're allowed to "question" them as long as you always arrive at the agreed upon answer.

In the Slacktivist blog, he relates the slow but steady process of becoming a theologically liberal Evangelical. Dismissing his critiques of conservative/fundamentalist evangelical thought because became a liberal evangelical is begging the question. Only insider critiques of fundamental assumptions are acknowledged, but insiders don't, by definition, critique the fundamental assumptions. Instant win!
posted by verb at 3:49 PM on December 20, 2011 [10 favorites]


Thank you for articulating that. I've been thinking that all afternoon without being able to even approach how to say it.
posted by shakespeherian at 4:43 PM on December 20, 2011


I think I'm square in Fred Clark's target audience. I grew up Evangelical and still hold to a somewhat more traditional version of Christianity than he does, but I think he makes a lot of good points and has some very worthwhile critiques for Evangelicals and other more conservative Christians.

He's particularly strong in pointing out the ways our economic system allows rich people and corporations to screw over poor people, (pretty much anything with the "class warfare" tag), which is something I think all Christians, by their own standards, ought to care about. He has some really strong biblical explication like this from the story of David and Bathsheba:

I called this an alien story from another world because it illustrates just how vastly different our view of the world and of God has become from the view that Nathan and David shared. David was guilty of adultery and murder. He knew himself to be guilty of those things. And Nathan didn’t walk in and point his finger at the king and say, “You are an adulterer and a murderer!” Instead, Nathan told a story to help David understand that he was guilty of something even worse. He told a story to help the king understand that he had become a rich man who had stolen from a poor man.

or his advocacy for people living in trailer parks.

Fred's not always successful. Sometimes he lets his passion for an idea or his rhetoric run into unfairness and caricature, or occasionally just sneering at an idea rather than trying to refute it. But on the whole I think he does a really good job of challenging conservative Christians to consider whether some of their actual beliefs and axioms don't in fact lead in more progressive directions than they've traditionally thought.
posted by straight at 4:50 PM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Don't suppose anyone has a script that will move the Next/Previous links above the comments...?
posted by Decimask at 4:52 PM on December 20, 2011


The idea that "insider critiques are privileged" makes sense in a lot of ways -- when we're talking about the nature of a particulate belief system, those who are part of it are generally more knowledgeable about its ins and outs than those who aren't.

I think what valkyryn is getting at with all that insider vs. outsider stuff is that conservatives and liberals have different kinds of disagreements. Some are differences in their fundamental axioms, beliefs, and values. Others are disagreements about how those fundamental beliefs are worked out.

I think it's important when engaging with someone who strongly disagrees with you to sort out whether they are asking you to change your fundamental beliefs or pointing out that some of the conclusions you've drawn (or that others have taught you) are mistaken, that they aren't actually true to your fundamental beliefs.

I think it's very important, if he wants to reach evangelicals, for Fred to figure out whether he's saying, "You really shouldn't trust the Bible" or "If you really trust the Bible, look with me at what that should entail..."
posted by straight at 4:56 PM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think I've read every post of his for the last four years or so and feel pretty confident in saying that it's the second one. But he also doesn't want to let anyone off the hook on what it means to 'trust the Bible,' given its sometimes-contradictory contents and its internal arguments and its wildly differing genres: While he is saying 'This is what the Bible overwhelming says, so ignoring all the bits about the poor means you aren't really following as closely as you think' he is also saying 'The way you may have been taught to read the Bible by your Evangelical upbringing is often incorrect, but that doesn't mean that I'm asking you to throw up your hands and shelve the thing.'
posted by shakespeherian at 5:12 PM on December 20, 2011


This post is providential (says the taoist/shamanist/athiest who loves some Fred Clark) because this, today, was so beautiful I had to put it *somewhere*. It's from a post riffing off the idea of "Havel, Hitchens and Kim Jong Il show up at the pearly gates." Not to speak for anyone else, but if lots n lots of atheists like this guy's writing, it's probably because of stuff like this:


"(T)hat, of course, gets me thinking about how our focus on the powerful and famous keeps us from seeing the very “powerless” about whom Havel wrote so beautifully and whom Jesus loved (and St. Peter, too, eventually). And then I start to think that maybe this set-up isn’t actually all that funny, since it requires us to pretend that these three would be all alone there at the Pearly Gates instead of being surrounded by the thousands of others who also died this past week, unmentioned and mostly — but not entirely — unmourned, most of them dying due to easily preventable causes arising from unjust patterns of distribution that persist not because we are unable to correct them but only because we are unwilling to do so.

And then, again, I’m back to chapter-and-verse, back to the eschatological hope of John’s revealing, and to those scenes he describes of “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” and of the promise that:

They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

And clearly by that point I’m just not in the proper frame of mind for figuring out how our narcissist/hero/madman Pearly Gates joke is supposed to go.

I’m still pretty sure there’s a joke there somewhere, but somebody else is going to have to write it."

TLDR abt Fred Clark- I came for the mockery, I stayed for the profound compassion.
posted by hap_hazard at 5:13 PM on December 20, 2011 [5 favorites]


Dismissing his critiques of conservative/fundamentalist evangelical thought because became a liberal evangelical is begging the question. Only insider critiques of fundamental assumptions are acknowledged, but insiders don't, by definition, critique the fundamental assumptions. Instant win!

It would be begging the question, but that's not what I'm trying to do.

My problem, as I've expressed elsewhere, is that he's making an argument against a feature of evangelicalism that's pretty easy to attack, i.e. the wretched hermeneutic that is legalistic literalism, and acting as if because that particular thing is wrong, the answer is clearly liberal theology. He hasn't actually argued for that conclusion. It was offered to him as a viable alternative, and he accepted it as a pleasant answer to what is ultimately a false dichotomy. It's possible to critique the bad things he doesn't like without questioning a lot of fundamental assumptions, so his questioning of said assumptions is something of a non sequitur.

As a result, I don't think his conclusions are justified. He's got an argument that demonstrates P, but he acts as if it proves P, Q, R, S, and T. It doesn't.
posted by valkyryn at 6:35 PM on December 20, 2011


My problem, as I've expressed elsewhere, is that he's making an argument against a feature of evangelicalism that's pretty easy to attack, i.e. the wretched hermeneutic that is legalistic literalism, and acting as if because that particular thing is wrong, the answer is clearly liberal theology... It was offered to him as a viable alternative, and he accepted it as a pleasant answer to what is ultimately a false dichotomy.

The funny thing, though, is that the most vocal and "respected" voices inside of the Evangelical world, Protestant culture, and in general North American Christendom are very explicit when they claim that the only alternative to legalistic literalism is liberal theology. More accurately, they say that anything that ends up disagreeing with legalistic literalism is liberal theology by definition, and that liberal theology is by definition not Christianity.

And naturally, they claim they are not in fact being legalistic, because "legalistic" is a code-word for "bad," and they are not bad, so they can't be "legalistic." They are just reading the plain and simple words of Scripture and trusting that they are true, without the fancy liberal "spin."

I mean, I get what you're saying and where you're coming from, but this is where the problem of massively circular definitions and question-begging come in. (Not accusing you of it, just noting that which-theological-camps-are-allowed-to-talk-theology always tends to play out that way.)

The wording of your above comments has the same underlying message: Clark's salvation is not something that he worked out with fear and trembling, but a "pleasant answer" that someone "offered to him." Fundamentalism, as I've said before, doesn't care much about atheism: it's the moderate and liberal religious believers that are the true enemies, and the targets of its fiercest anger. They are an implicit challenge to its claim of exclusive truth, and they are the ones that it has to other to secure its position.
posted by verb at 6:55 PM on December 20, 2011 [5 favorites]


since it's the best religion thread I can remember

Amen. What a great discussion. Thanks to everyone above who made it so fascinating.
posted by mediareport at 5:52 AM on December 21, 2011


Yes, this [God's gonna kick the ass of the people He doesn't like, yay!] perspective is sometimes the psychological underpinning of the more screwed-up fundamentalists. It is usually unconscious, except in the case of the truly sociopathic splinter sects such as the Phelps family/hatecircle. I continue to hold out hope that even the Phelpses may come to the point where they are able to recognize that their hateful God is a projection of their own tortured psyches. This probably won't happen until they come to a point of theological tension either between two deeply held and incompatible beliefs, or to a point of tension between a belief and an event that directly confronts that belief.

Y'know, though, I'm wondering now how much of this perspective may have also been informed by Calvinism. The notion of God's sovereign grace is key in Calvinism - the idea that without God's intervention making some of us holy, we'd all be total shitsmacks. God has picked and chosen ahead of time which of us He wants to save. Except -- we have to accept that being-saved, and if we don't, we end up in Hell with all the other losers God decided He didn't want.

It's this sovereign grace that the famous sermon Sinners In the Hands of an Angry God was supposed to be about. The idea of the sermon was to emphasize that "Look, without God saving our bacon, we'd really, really, really be screwed" -- it was a sermon delivered in a church where people had up to that point been kind of lukewarm about their zealotry, and so it was supposed to be a sort of "scared-straight" sermon, getting people to embrace God saving them ("because just look at what happens to you if you don't"). So Edwards really laid it on thick to tell parishoners, "Look, you really gotta commit to this, because if you don't...."

The imagery he used in the sermon (full text is here) has really stayed in the collective subconscious -- the lake of fire, the wrath-filled God. Except, where in the original it was meant for the listener to think that it was about them -- "wow, that's going to happen to me unless I accept God's salvation", leading to a gratitude towards God that He will spare them from that -- it's often used as a sort of neener towards the non-believers: "Well, I've already accepted God and you haven't, so guess what He's gonna do to you!"
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:37 AM on December 21, 2011


God has picked and chosen ahead of time which of us He wants to save. Except -- we have to accept that being-saved, and if we don't, we end up in Hell with all the other losers God decided He didn't want.

Well, mostly, except Calvinism also has the idea of predestination, in which God exists outside of time and thus he hasn't really hand-picked specific people to be saved so much as he already knows who is going to be saved and who isn't, and those are the elect-- there isn't any way to be one of the specially-picked-and-chosen and then go on to Hell.
posted by shakespeherian at 6:51 AM on December 21, 2011


Well, mostly, except Calvinism also has the idea of predestination, in which God exists outside of time and thus he hasn't really hand-picked specific people to be saved so much as he already knows who is going to be saved and who isn't, and those are the elect-- there isn't any way to be one of the specially-picked-and-chosen and then go on to Hell.

....Hmm. I thought that one of the points was that the elect had to agree to be elect on some level?

I mean, yeah, you've got the whole "God Exists Out Of Time And Knew You Were Going To Do That" thing going on, but there is some kind of free-will choice a believer does need to make to accept that; the onus is still on the believer to do something, or else they'd be all, "well, it doesn't matter what I do, I guess, because God's already made up his mind about me anyway so fuck it."

This is where things generally get murky in terms of cosmology for me, and probably have been also doing for a lot of other people (I've seen the "but if God knew you were going to do that, what kind of free will do we have" argument scores of times).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:58 AM on December 21, 2011


Well I've never spent much time around Calvinism, but my understanding is that the whole emphasis is on the supremacy of God: that it is God that saves you, and you don't get to claim credit for your measly little tinkling effort of saying 'I so believe.' I mean, on a personal human-based time-constrained level, observable to other so-constrained humans, you have to make a decision and live a life and all of that, but on a way-zoomed-out-to-outside-of-time level you have exactly zero agency in your salvation, because otherwise, the understanding is, you're telling God what to do. The Calvinistic understanding (again, it's possible I am misinterpreting this) is that for me to have free-will control over my own ultimate salvation and metaphysical state is to disempower Almighty God, which is nonsense.
posted by shakespeherian at 7:15 AM on December 21, 2011


Maybe "believe" isn't quite the right word choice so much as "accept." I'll admit Wikipedia is my source at the moment, but here's what they say about the situation:
"In this view, all people are entirely at the mercy of God, who would be just in condemning all people for their sins, but who has chosen to be merciful to some. Thus, one person is saved while another is condemned, not because of a foreseen willingness, faith, or any other virtue in the first person, but because God sovereignly chose to have mercy on him. Although the person must believe the gospel and respond to be saved, this obedience of faith is God's gift, and thus God completely and sovereignly accomplishes the salvation of sinners. Views of predestination to damnation (the doctrine of reprobation) are less uniform than is the view of predestination to salvation (the doctrine of election) among self-described Calvinists."
The idea of God's Grace is mainly about one's own nomination for being saved. The idea is that "God hasn't hand-picked you because you're prettier or smarter or worthier or whatever, He's just hand-picked you to offer you a hall pass because He felt like it." The idea was supposed to be an alternative to people who tried to do good deeds to "earn" their way into God's grace. But we still have to accept this hall pass, and if we say "nah, no thanks," that'd piss God off. It's kind of like the Oscars: Price Waterhouse already knows who's gonna win the Academy Award ahead of time. But the person still has to go up on the podium and accept the award, and it looks bad if they send up Sacheen Littlefeather instead to make a public statement about how they're refusing it.

I realize that someone saying "Nah, no thanks" sort of flies in the face of "God is omnipotent and almighty", but that may be where the "God exists out of time and knows everyone's destiny" comes in -- it's sort of the cosmological equivalent of "yeah, well, I knew you were gonna do that, so there."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:27 AM on December 21, 2011


Yeah, it's definitely the case in Calvinism that God doesn't elect anyone who isn't going to accept.
posted by shakespeherian at 7:31 AM on December 21, 2011


Yeah, it's definitely the case in Calvinism that God doesn't elect anyone who isn't going to accept.

Yeah, but they still have TO accept eventually. I mean, the HR office at my new job only sent me the offer letter once they already knew I was gonna take the job, but I still had to sign the letter for their records or else there'd have been an issue.

Also, I don't think Calvinism has a statute of limitations for "the time by which you need to sign the offer letter," so to speak -- if you're one of God's elect, but you say "no thanks no thanks no thanks no thanks" your whole life but then say "wait, I mean yes" at the very end that still counts. So the preaching and witnessing is a way to tell the elect, "look, you've gotten the offer letter, just sign it already before it's too late".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:39 AM on December 21, 2011


Right, like I said from the human point of view there is definitely a choice that is made, but from the cosmological point of view you are a person who has always been going to accept Jesus so there wasn't any question and the issue of free will is a non sequitur.
posted by shakespeherian at 7:50 AM on December 21, 2011


Right, like I said from the human point of view there is definitely a choice that is made, but from the cosmological point of view you are a person who has always been going to accept Jesus so there wasn't any question and the issue of free will is a non sequitur.

Right, I agree with this.

I think I'm focusing on the human point of view exclusively -- because I'm talking about the effect that this thinking had on humans' interactions with other humans. The sturm und drang and hellfire was meant to encourage people to sign their offer letter sooner rather than later; I was positing that there was an unforeseen side effect that some jerky people could then also use that same imagery to tease the non-elect.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:57 AM on December 21, 2011


And I'm mostly trying to convince myself that it's a tenable theology, because I've had anger rants about Calvinism before.
posted by shakespeherian at 7:59 AM on December 21, 2011


Fair enough; but whether you believe it yourself is, to my mind, a separate issue from how other people who DO believe it may be applying their belief.

I mean, I don't have to believe in the Tooth Fairy myself to understand how a child's belief could perhaps be motivating that child into a particular behavior pattern.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:10 AM on December 21, 2011


(Although, if it wasn't clear that "speculating on a behavior pattern" was what I was trying to do in the first place, I apologize.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:13 AM on December 21, 2011


I'd suggest both listening to anything valkyryn offers on the matter in clarification, as he's mentioned that he's from the Reformed camp -- aka Calvinism -- and can probably offer a clearer picture of the specific doctrines.

Calvinism accounts for about 30% of the Protestant congregations in America, and like most doctrinal differences those who are serious about Reformed theology tend to insist that the majority has their understanding of the essentials of the faith completely, dangerously wrong. Anyone interested in understanding it should probably skim through an article or two on it and pay close attention to "TULIP," the shorthand acronym that has come to summarize some of its key doctrines.
  1. Total Depravity -- every human being is corrupted and sinful and no one has the capacity to change that by their own actions. Period, end of story. All your best efforts are like trying to "clean" a mud puddle with a glass of water: you dirty water, not clean dirt.
  2. Unconditional election -- God chooses who will be saved without considering anyone's acts, or merit, or birth, or good deeds, etc. If His decision were precipitated on some action taken by an individual it would be possible for an individual's actions to result in their salvation, undercutting the 'T' above.
  3. Limited atonement -- Jesus died to take the punishment for others' sin so that they could escape punishment, but that atoning act only applied to the sins of the people God chose in the 'U' of unconditional election.
  4. Irresistable grace -- If God elects to save you, the incredible compelling power of his graciousness will overcome any objections that you have. Literally, God saving you isn't something you can resist or choose to avoid. (This is important in part because 'not resisting God' is a choice, and the 'T' and 'U' in TULIP make very clear that no one's choices are responsible for their salvation.)
  5. Perseverence of the saints -- If God elects to save you, there is nothing that you can do to 'screw that up.' You are saved and you never have to worry about not being good enough or not pulling your spiritual weight.
Now, it's important to recognize that TULIP isn't the be-all end-all of Calvinist thought: Calvin himself didn't coin the acronym, it grew out of a systematic response to later theological challenges by Armenianism, a related but conflicting school of theology. The "Five Points" above have come to define how a lot of people understand Calvinism, though, because they offer a pretty fair summary of how Calvinism/Reformed Theology differs from the 60-70% majority of American Protestants. (Note: There's been a lot of buzz lately about how Calvinism is "On The Rise" in America, but the numbers don't seem to bear it out. The numbers have been pretty steady at 30-ish for a long time, a few percentage points of up and down drift.)

Now, the critique! At its best, Calvinist theology leads to someone who believes they have been saved by God and transformed into someone capable of doing good and helping others, someone who is humble about their own failings and believes that their own good deeds are basically a gift they can take no credit for. At its worst, Calvinism leads to a profoundly degraded view of human worth, a smug assurance of one's own righteousness-by-fiat, and picture of God that is monstrously capricious. I've known people on both sides of that spectrum, and I think that it has less to do with the points of TULIP than their own choices about life and how they would live it.
posted by verb at 8:14 AM on December 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


At its worst, Calvinism leads to a profoundly degraded view of human worth, a smug assurance of one's own righteousness-by-fiat, and picture of God that is monstrously capricious. I've known people on both sides of that spectrum, and I think that it has less to do with the points of TULIP than their own choices about life and how they would live it.

Yeah, this. This is what I was trying to say.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:17 AM on December 21, 2011


> there is some kind of free-will choice a believer does need to make to accept that; the onus is still on the believer to do something, or else they'd be all, "well, it doesn't matter what I do, I guess, because God's already made up his mind about me anyway so fuck it."

God knows I'm no expert, but my understanding is that the believer does not in fact have to "do anything," and the "it doesn't matter what I do, so fuck it" consequence is what James Hogg's great novel The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is all about. (Anyone with any interest in this stuff should go out and read it posthaste!)
posted by languagehat at 8:20 AM on December 21, 2011


I actually went to college with John Piper's son, who cited TULIP frequently, so I think it's fair to say the acronym has been embraced by [at least some] Calvinists as accurate.
posted by shakespeherian at 8:21 AM on December 21, 2011


I actually went to college with John Piper's son, who cited TULIP frequently, so I think it's fair to say the acronym has been embraced by [at least some] Calvinists as accurate.

Oh, yeah. I don't mean to say that it's inaccurate, rather that Calvinism isn't simply TULIP. It emerged as a quick point-by-point summary of how its doctrines on salvation differed from other schools of Christian thought, not an encapsulation of ALL Calvinist thought.

Related: A lot of Calvinists I've known have been really big on the idea anyone who studies Scripture honestly will see the truth of Calvinist theology. That the majority of Christians are not Calvinists is treated as proof that most Christians "are weak on theology" or "just want to have their ears tickled by pleasant words on Sunday," etc. This isn't exclusive to Calvinists, mind you, but it seems to come up with startling regularity. Not-Being-A-Calvinist is a consequence of insufficient theological "seriousness" or rigor, rather than an expected statistical reality given the diverse history of Christian theology.
posted by verb at 8:26 AM on December 21, 2011


God knows I'm no expert, but my understanding is that the believer does not in fact have to "do anything," and the "it doesn't matter what I do, so fuck it" consequence is what James Hogg's great novel The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is all about. (Anyone with any interest in this stuff should go out and read it posthaste!)

Right. Mind you, the basic Calvinist response to that is that anyone who would take such a position wasn't actually one of the elect to begin with, even if they thought they were, because the elect wouldn't do that. It's sort of a No True Calvinist thing, and it's where the third option between 'the virtuous saint' and 'the egocentric self-righteous person' comes in: the person who genuinely wants to do good, but realizes they have no idea whether they've been elected for salvation or not. I've known good-hearted folks driven to the edge of breakdown by that fear, and it's not to be dismissed.
posted by verb at 8:33 AM on December 21, 2011


Oh yeah, if memory serves me correctly the probably number-one theological question that was endlessly debated at my (nondenominational low-churchy) Christian high school was whether it's possible to 'lose' your salvation-- whether there's a like Once Saved Always Saved deal going on somehow or what. Of course this was all high schoolers, and we were all idiots, so the idea of salvation was a lot more bound to the sort of reciting-the-magic-words idea that Slacktivist rails against with frequency, coupled with frequent altar calls and admonitions that if you've been sinning recently you should recommit your life to God and slippery slopes and all that bullshit, so we all basically lived in mortal fear that at any moment we could die and go to hell, which we completely believed in but didn't know if we were Christian enough to avoid at any given moment.

Hoo boy, the evangelical subculture is basically designed to fuck well-meaning kids up.
posted by shakespeherian at 8:43 AM on December 21, 2011 [4 favorites]


Yeah, proponents of Calvinists generally tend to point at that kind of stuff and say that it's precisely what "Perseverance Of The Saints" offers reassurance about. You can't lose your salvation, basically, so instead of freaking out and being terrified that you're not good enough you should just relax and focus on growing into the kind of loving and good person you can now become since God saved you from your Total Depravity.

The flip side of that, however, is that believing there are tons of people out there who think they're Christians, but really aren't leaves anyone willing to extrapolate wondering how they are supposed to know that they're part of the elect. The answer, as best as I can tell from man-weeks of reading and conversations with Calvinists is, "You'll just know, in your heart." Which works for some people but not for the well meaning spiritual hypochondriacs.
posted by verb at 8:53 AM on December 21, 2011


The flip side of that, however, is that believing there are tons of people out there who think they're Christians, but really aren't leaves anyone willing to extrapolate wondering how they are supposed to know that they're part of the elect. The answer, as best as I can tell from man-weeks of reading and conversations with Calvinists is, "You'll just know, in your heart."

Which also serves as a convenient cop-out for the people who are mean-spirited enough to make fun of others or do ill, but also in denial enough that they just think "but I just know in my heart that I'm one of God's elect. So it's all good!"
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:00 AM on December 21, 2011


Which, to bring it back to what EmpressCallipygos was talking about, means that the well-meaning focus on Don't Go To Hell! Go To Heaven! from Edwards et al. has had a pretty degenerative effect on a big portion of Christendom, such that we spend an inordinate amount of energy neurotically worrying about whether we're good (or whatever) enough rather than seeing the focus of Christianity as loving our neighbors, caring for the poor and the sick, etc. Paul says in some epistle or other that 'true religion is this: to care for orphans and widows,' and it seems like, at least in a lot of the Evangelical world that I'm from, we focus far too much on the 'am I truly religious' portion rather than the 'do some shit' portion, as if they're distinct.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:06 AM on December 21, 2011


Which, to bring it back to what EmpressCallipygos was talking about, means that the well-meaning focus on Don't Go To Hell! Go To Heaven! from Edwards et al. has had a pretty degenerative effect on a big portion of Christendom, such that we spend an inordinate amount of energy neurotically worrying about whether we're good (or whatever) enough rather than seeing the focus of Christianity as loving our neighbors, caring for the poor and the sick, etc....

....and in the interest of SCRUPULOUS clarity about what EmpressCallipygos meant, it also lets some people engage in a really odious form of "I'm better than you are" bullying. (Which probably is related to the neurotic worry you're talking about, if you think about it, but definitely has a different target.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:16 AM on December 21, 2011


Oh yeah, and I'd contend that the 'Better than you are' asshattery is possibly even more abundant between believers than it is between believers and nonbelievers.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:22 AM on December 21, 2011


The worst that can be said about Clark, IMO, is that he looks at the actual results of theological positions and asks whether those results are palatable and consistent with his understanding of the principles of Christ's teaching and the rest of Scripture. That approach is incompatible with flavors of Christianity that insist any God -- even a monstrous and cruel one -- is to be worshipped and adored and held up as Good, simply by virtue of being God.

You write that as if that were a bad thing. I bet if you lived on Apokalips you'd worship Darkseid. Granted, he is pretty awesome.
posted by JHarris at 9:23 AM on December 21, 2011


Hoo boy, the evangelical subculture is basically designed to fuck well-meaning kids up.

I can personally vouch for this conclusion. I hate how it preys upon earnestness. The people who want to do the most genuine good in the world are exploited worst of all.
posted by JHarris at 9:27 AM on December 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


And I mean like basically any Big Problem it's systemic and not, like, malicious. It's an organically occurring problem that arises out of millions of people all trying to do The Right Thing but with unintended consequences.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:29 AM on December 21, 2011


Well, mostly, except Calvinism also has the idea of predestination, in which God exists outside of time and thus he hasn't really hand-picked specific people to be saved so much as he already knows who is going to be saved and who isn't,

Sorry to have missed this conversation, but verb is right, and the above expression is actually the Arminian doctrine. The Reformed doctrine of unconditional election and effectual calling does involve actual choice on God's part, not just foreknowledge, and specifically denies that the choice of man plays a factor. See Westminster Confession of Faith, ch. X, sec. 2:
This effectual call is of God's free and special grace alone, not from anything at all foreseen in man, who is altogether passive therein, until, being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit, he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it.
So yeah, there's that.

As to this suggestion about this one, uh, no. That stream of thought has existed in Christianity since the very beginning and is indeed drawn partially from Judaism. I mean, Psalm 137. And Gen. 12:1-3.

And one really can't say that being Calvinist/not pushes one in any particular direction on how much emphasis one places on God's judgment. Some Calvinists don't really talk about it much at all, because it's something that's just kind of there, and trying to scare people into conversion doesn't really fit with the way they think salvation works. Some Arminians go all in on it, because scaring people into conversion does make sense if you think salvation is dependent upon individual choice. On the flip side, some Calvinists talk about judgment a lot to better encourage people towards piety and holiness, and some Arminians won't talk about judgment at all under the theory that you attract more flies with sugar than vinegar. The stereotype isn't really justified.

What's even more interesting about a lot of the fire 'n brimstone Fundamentalist preachers who seem given to this idea more than most is that they tend not to be Calvinists at all! Most of them are dyed-in-the-wool free will Arminian types. Arminianism is, broadly speaking, sort of an offshoot of the Reformed tradition, in that the former finds its historic roots in the latter, but that's sort of like saying that Lutheranism has its origins in Catholicism. It's true, but it doesn't really do justice to the current and historical relationship between the traditions. Calvinism and Arminianism are the two competing doctrines of salvation extant in evangelicalism.

Which makes this statistic misleading. It's true that about 30% of the congregations in the country have their historical roots in the Reformed tradition. Unless you're Lutheran, Catholic, or Orthodox, that's really all that's left if you're a Christian in America. But broad sweeps of the Baptist tradition don't hold truck with almost any Reformed doctrines, and even groups like the Southern Baptists, while increasingly if vaguely Calvinistic in their soteriology, have major disputes with the historic Reformed tradition over ecclesiology and sacramentology. Methodism, which along with the Baptist tradition is the most uniquely American Christian tradition, springs from Anglicanism, which is historically part of the Reformed tradition (read the Thirty-Nine Articles), but neither Methodists nor Episcopalians will typically describe themselves as Reformed, and neither group tends to hold to doctrines which are compatible with the Reformed tradition. Even the Unitarian Universalists, widely regarded by contemporary Reformed observers as outright heretics, have their historic origins in French Reformed immigrants. So yes, 30% of congregations in America can probably trace their institutional ancestry to the Reformed branch of the Reformation, but a much, much smaller percentage of congregations would actually identify themselves as being Reformed in any sense of the word, much less in full harmony with the tradition.

But I think one thing is quite clear: divine judgment is a subject in the Bible, both Old and New Testament, and that a Christian who wants to take the Bible seriously does need to have some way of dealing with passages that involve rejoicing over the destruction of the wicked, because they happen too frequently to just ignore.
posted by valkyryn at 12:12 PM on December 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


One of the most educational experiences I had in high school, believe it or not, was when my history teacher screened Left Behind: Tribulation Force for the whole class. This certainly wasn't some kind of indoctrination; he was a Jew with a PhD from Berkeley, and we were in hedonistic San Francisco. Rather, it was about having some kind of basic exposure to a series of books, movies, and video games popular among tens of millions of Americans that routinely produced #1 best-sellers, and yet basically none of us would ever take any real notice of it on our own.

I think it's an incredibly important thing for non-evangelicals to learn about and be aware of. Not because it necessarily represents the will of all its fans, but simply to have some understanding of a worldview with non-trivial popularity that is so bizarrely inconceivable to many of us.
posted by zachlipton at 12:40 PM on December 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


What's even more interesting about a lot of the fire 'n brimstone Fundamentalist preachers who seem given to this idea more than most is that they tend not to be Calvinists at all!

Indeed. Calvinism is sometimes used as the umbrella-label for certain kinds of fundamentalist thought because the doctrines of Total Depravity and Election feel like the sort of thing you'd expect a fire and brimstone preacher to believe, but they aren't necessarily related.


So yes, 30% of congregations in America can probably trace their institutional ancestry to the Reformed branch of the Reformation, but a much, much smaller percentage of congregations would actually identify themselves as being Reformed in any sense of the word, much less in full harmony with the tradition.
Well, the 30% stat I pointed to was based on congregation self-selection -- ie, what percentage of churches self-identified as "Reformed" or "Calvinist" when asked. There are probably issues to be taken with the methodology (I haven't looked too closely), but it's not just a matter of counting denominational membership.
posted by verb at 1:24 PM on December 21, 2011


Related: A lot of Calvinists I've known have been really big on the idea anyone who studies Scripture honestly will see the truth of Calvinist theology. That the majority of Christians are not Calvinists is treated as proof that most Christians "are weak on theology" or "just want to have their ears tickled by pleasant words on Sunday," etc. This isn't exclusive to Calvinists, mind you, but it seems to come up with startling regularity. Not-Being-A-Calvinist is a consequence of insufficient theological "seriousness" or rigor, rather than an expected statistical reality given the diverse history of Christian theology.

This is, broadly speaking of course, more-or-less true of all of the confessional traditions, i.e. the Reformed tradition, Lutheranism, Catholicism, Orthodoxy. This slightly less so when they talk about each other, as there's frequently at least a sort of grudging respect there, a la "I think you're wrong, but I see where you're coming from and at least respect your methods." Even Calvin's most ardent Catholic critics recognized he was describing a consistent system. This sort of thing is more common when confessional-types talk about the liberal wings of their own traditions, but it's and especially common when talking about non-confessional evangelicalism and Pentecostalism.

It's not very difficult to understand why such sentiments might emerge if you look at the way the confessional traditions do theology and the way non-confessional traditions do so. All of the major confessional traditions have long, sometimes ancient traditions of serious academic theology, and no small portion of their clergy make it an active priority to stay conversant with those traditions, requiring seminary training as a condition for ordination at the very minimum. Many adherents make active study of theology part of their individual piety. Sunday School classes tend to be pretty heavy on Scriptural and doctrinal instruction, and a lot of families actually still catechize their children. Coming from that perspective, it's not difficult to see why people that don't do that might appear to be somewhat wishy-washy on doctrine.

Evangelicals, on the other hand, get these types of books written about them and are the subject of blogs like the one that kicked off this whole discussion. The moniker "evangelical theologian" isn't exactly a contradiction in terms, but it does describe either a rather small group of people, none of whom have been particularly influential, or people who are actually Reformed or Lutheran but who happen to answer to the term "evangelical," usually with some reluctance. The most prominent evangelical figures tend to be evangelists and missionaries, not theologians.

Liberal theology is a slightly different fish, from this perspective, and to be quite honest, a lot of confessional types, particularly Calvinists, aren't as conversant with what is actually a tradition in Christian theology, albeit a recent one, as they probably should be. Bultmann and Schleiermacher, for example, both have some really important ideas, and confessional types in general and Reformed types in particular would be well-served to spend some time there. Tillich is just downright interesting. But the thing of it is, a lot of liberal Christians aren't any more conversant about their own tradition than a lot evangelicals are. From the perspective of one who spends a lot of time trying to figure out what they believe and why, including the history of said beliefs, this can look unserious. Further, there is some truth to the idea that conservative theologians--and parishoners!--tend to be far more conversant in both the content of the Bible and the salient features of their particular beliefs than their liberal equivalents. This is partly why people like me have such a negative reaction to people like Clark: he thinks he's making a rigorous Biblical argument, or at least he seems to act as if he thinks that, but he really, really isn't. He's sort of doing anti-proof texting, and though he makes lots of claims about the message of the whole Bible, he really hasn't supported that with the kinds of arguments one would expect to see in reaching those types of conclusions, or dealt with the passages that would seem to contradict him.

So I think a more charitable description of the phenomenon you identify is that confessional Christians, broadly speaking, tend to think that non-confessional Christians simply don't pay enough attention to their Bible or their theology, and if they did, they'd probably change their minds. This undoubtedly comes across as kind of arrogant, but I don't think it's entirely unjustified, at least not when understood in context.
posted by valkyryn at 1:29 PM on December 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Well, the 30% stat I pointed to was based on congregation self-selection -- ie, what percentage of churches self-identified as "Reformed" or "Calvinist" when asked.

Actually, the stat is more precisely about their soteriology, particularly as the only two options presented are "Calvinist/Reformed" or "Wesleyan/Arminian". This would include those broad swaths of the Baptist tradition I talked about above, churches that may have some vaguely Calvinistic ideas, but that don't really look or act like churches in NAPARC, or even the PCUSA. NAPARC is something like half a million people, more than half of which are in the PCA. A lot of non-denominational or broadly evangelical church leaders might as well flip a coin for a the difference their "self-identification" makes to their practice and beliefs.
posted by valkyryn at 1:36 PM on December 21, 2011


Actually, as I think about it, that question is just confusing. It doesn't even leave room for one to answer "Lutheran." This is kind of odd, because there are about 6.7 million baptized Lutherans in the largest two denominations alone. Their doctrine of justification is slightly different from the Reformed position, though there's more agreement there than either has with the Wesleyan/Arminian tradition. Further, as discussed above, the Wesleyan/Arminian tradition is a historical offshoot of the Reformed tradition, which confuses matters even further.
posted by valkyryn at 1:39 PM on December 21, 2011


Good point, valkyryn, though in the context that I was talking about -- Calvinism as a theological minority inside of the Christian world -- that actually makes the point a lot stronger.
posted by verb at 1:40 PM on December 21, 2011


Calvinism as a theological minority inside of the Christian world -- that actually makes the point a lot stronger.

Oh, it definitely is. If anything, that stat way over-estimates its numbers. I'd say cutting it in half wouldn't be unreasonable.
posted by valkyryn at 1:44 PM on December 21, 2011


I think it's totally okay to disagree with Fred Clark's line of thinking without veering into No True Scotsman territory. It's a blog, not doctrine.
posted by desuetude at 10:47 PM on December 21, 2011


Well, I'm wondering how people manage to disagree with Fred Clark. He is extremely knowledgeable, and is obviously on the surface much more in line with the obvious message of Jesus' teachings, which is 180 degrees against current pop-Christianity which is all about missing the overall message forests for individual cherry-picked verse trees, and giving priority to socially-derived specific

I mean, how does a Christian respond to accusations that, say, speaking specific words results in one's eternal soul being saved, is nothing more than another form of magic? Because viewed without coded Christian or cultural interpretations (it's not magic because magic is demonic etc) it looks exactly like magic -- you're invoking the power of an unseen spirit to perform some service.

If you say something aloud and the words themselves literally have some power to affect the world, that is magic, and that is the very thing the Bible cautions against.
posted by JHarris at 6:26 AM on December 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


JHarris, the difference is that Fred Clark and the kind of Christianity you describe are not the only alternatives.
posted by Jahaza at 7:47 AM on December 22, 2011


[Folks, please take it to MeTa if you're going to carry on getting along like this.]
posted by gauche at 7:53 AM on December 22, 2011


I agree with almost everything Clark writes, but I can pretty easily understand why valkyryn or someone else would disagree with him. And, at the end of the day, Slacktivist is a blog, and not a devastating philosophical treatise, so of course Clark's arguments aren't going to be rigorous and 100% circumspect-- that's not the medium or the platform.
posted by shakespeherian at 8:32 AM on December 22, 2011


I mean, how does a Christian respond to accusations that, say, speaking specific words results in one's eternal soul being saved, is nothing more than another form of magic?

Well, I don't want to put words in anyone's mouth, but valkyryn's point seems to be that many Christians would agree with Fred Clark about that point, yet still disagree with him about other issues. Valkyryn's frustration seems to be that Clark then extends those critiques and treats them as if they also call other more theologically "rigorous" doctrines into question as well.

I'm sympathetic to Fred Clark's approach, which I think of as a fundamentally aesthetic critique of popular Christian doctrine. He says, "Here is a thing that some people believe. Does that set of beliefs lead somewhere we can live with?" In one sense, that's not theologically rigorous, but it's where I find myself these days and I think that's why his writings resonate strongly with me.

Interesting side note: The Dispensationalist theology that drives a lot of the rapture concepts Clark writes about are very, very controversial inside of Charismatic Christian circles. The "Speaking in tongues" folks, basically, are at odds with the Dispensationalists because the Dispensationalist timeline of history says that "Gifts of the spirit" like prophesying and speaking in tongues ended at a hard-fixed point in history, roughly when the moden Bible was solidified as a document.

It'd probably take another post to explain why that's interesting, but it gives an idea of the kinds of internal debates that play out inside of any body of belief that includes two billion people.
posted by verb at 8:53 AM on December 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


which I think of as a fundamentally aesthetic critique of popular Christian doctrine.

Yes, that's precisely it. It is an axiological critique, not a metaphysical one,* and not really an epistemological one either. He sees certain aesthetic and ethical results, doesn't like them, and then concludes that the underlying metaphysics must be wrong. But he doesn't actually check to see if the underlying metaphysics actually support the aesthetic and ethical results he doesn't like and thus ignores the possibility that it's not the metaphysics that are the problem.

And as I think about it, that's not the only problem I have with the method. He basically picks his ethics based on his aesthetics, which makes them outworkings of his personal taste rather than the outworking of his doctrine. Further, he then uses his ethics to drive his metaphysics rather than the other way around, which doesn't work, because it more than one metaphysical scheme can lead to the same ethical conclusion. Yet he insists that this isn't so without ever presenting a reason for choosing one option over the other.

So, for example, take the issue of murder. Murder is wrong. I think we're all on the same page there. But why is murder wrong? It could be because there's something inherently meritorious about human individuals so that killing them without cause is wrong. That's one option. But it could also be because man is made in God's image, and a strike against man is thus essentially a strike against God. Which idea leads to the same ethical result, but is based on an entirely different metaphysical scheme.

Where I'm going with this is that because we're talking about theology, heresy is a problem. It'd be one thing if he were just making stuff up in a undergrad philosophy course, trying on ideas for size basically in a vacuum. But he is, whether or not he knows it, part of a larger tradition that's already thought about most of this stuff before, and which has already come to conclusions about almost everything he's saying. And because his arguments basically underdetermine his metaphysical conclusions, there's a real risk of heresy here. What a lot of Christians--myself included--are afraid of is that if you back off from any kind of strong commitment to the text of Scripture as having meaning in and of itself, i.e. you adopt the hermeneutic he and others like him seem to be using, there's no inherent reason why the Gospel should work the way Christians believe it does. This is a problem. The whole thing just falls apart at the seams.

So yes, Clark doesn't deny the resurrection. Okay. But I don't see any non-arbitrary reason why he shouldn't or couldn't, because by letting his ethics drive his metaphysics (i.e. his doctrine), there remains no real reason why that isn't an option.

*By "metaphysical" here I really mean "doctrinal," but as the term is one of the main branches of philosophical discourse, I retain it to show how religion isn't the only situation where this could be a problem. I'd have a problem with anyone who did philosophy this way by accident.
posted by valkyryn at 1:33 PM on December 22, 2011


if you back off from any kind of strong commitment to the text of Scripture as having meaning in and of itself

I still think this is an entirely begging-the-question criticism. I think that the conservative critique of liberal hermeneutic as arbitrary is inaccurate: For myself, at least, the liberal hermeneutic is based on the primacy of Christ as revealing the character of God rather than the primacy of scripture (insert pseudo-clever reference to John 1 w/r/t the Word). This is tricky and complicated, obviously, because the only real basis we have for knowledge about Christ is scripture, so where do we go from there? But my understanding of scripture is that it's a loose assemblage of human documents based around a number of central theological themes, and so as far as I can tell any sensible hermeneutic has to take into account that a given writing will have an author who inserts himself and his opinion into the writing as well as the fact that any human work will by necessity have errors, so a reading of scripture will always be inexact and tenuous and hopeful and working towards the character of Christ without necessarily ever getting to where you want to go. This doesn't mean that my ethics are informing my metaphysic as much as my metaphysic is informing my ethics are informing my metaphysic: Christ is the lens through which I read all scripture, including that which informs me of the character of Christ: It's a continual working-towards.

I fully understand why conservatives are unlikely to adopt this hermeneutic, but given my understanding of the nature of scripture, it's the only one that I feel I can adopt with anything approaching honesty. The inexactness and tenuous nature of course means that my arguments will always be developing and less forceful and self-assured as those of someone whose hermeneutic has a 1500-year tradition, but I feel that to embrace the conservative hermeneutic would consist of lying to myself about what I know about how books are written and what I read in those written books.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:50 PM on December 22, 2011 [3 favorites]


For myself, at least, the liberal hermeneutic is based on the primacy of Christ as revealing the character of God rather than the primacy of scripture (insert pseudo-clever reference to John 1 w/r/t the Word).

Scripture is not foundational in the Protestant way for either Roman Catholics or the Orthodox. "Angularis fundamentum lapis Christus missus est..."

This is tricky and complicated, obviously, because the only real basis we have for knowledge about Christ is scripture, ...

Catholics and the Orthodox read the Bible as a text (an inspired text, yes, but a text) written by the Church and authentically so interpreted by the Church in accordance not just with the text itself, but with the broader tradition handed down by the Fathers.

To an extent, most conservative Protestants do this as well (indeed, they probably do this more in practice than they'll be willing to admit in theory.)
posted by Jahaza at 3:12 PM on December 22, 2011


I feel that to embrace the conservative hermeneutic would consist of lying to myself about what I know about how books are written and what I read in those written books.

It's worth pointing out that the action of the Holy Spirit does a lot of heavy lifting in conservative theology. The conservative critique of your position--and basically of liberal hermeneutics generally--would be that it appears premised on doubt that the Spirit speaks through and preserves the Word in ways that permit us more confidence in our interpretations than you seem to be willing to posit.

It's less the fact that we've got an old tradition as such. Jahaza starts down this road, but doesn't really spell it out entirely. It's the faith that the Spirit has acted to guide that tradition, i.e. "The Spirit will lead you into all truth." Evangelical Protestants are pretty skittish about tradition, but they wind up just making up their own instead of relying on actual Christian tradition most of the time. But confessional Protestants--Presbyterians, Anglicans, and Lutherans, mostly--are entirely down with Jahaza's description. Again, the objection is not quite as much to the nature of tradition (though there is some of that too) as the procedure of tradition, i.e. we'd join Constantinople and Alexandria in rejecting the supremacy of the Pope.

That aside, from where I'm sitting it sounds a lot as if your starting point is a denial of the activity of the Spirit in the world, which is basically a non-starter for conservatives in any Christian tradition. I mean, if you're willing to admit that yours is basically just a hermeneutic of doubt, hey, more power to you, but that's where we part ways, because that's why Christians in conservative traditions tend to have such a dim view of Christians in liberal traditions. If you believe that the Holy Spirit works in the way that conservative Christians believe that it does, the entire liberal project seems premised on insufficient belief if not outright unbelief, and no amount of protesting to the contrary is going to make much of a difference.
posted by valkyryn at 3:24 PM on December 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Evangelical Protestants are pretty skittish about tradition, but they wind up just making up their own instead of relying on actual Christian tradition most of the time.

Actually, most evangelicals in practice rely on Christian tradition for the majority of their doctrine. They just don't like to acknowledge this and instead claim that their doctrines are based on "the plain reading of scripture" when in fact most of how they read scripture is very much shaped by Christian tradition.
posted by straight at 3:51 PM on December 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


And as I think about it, that's not the only problem I have with the method. He basically picks his ethics based on his aesthetics...

I have never met anyone -- not even the most dedicated Calvinist, not the strongest believer in Christ, not the oldest and most weathered Orthodox believer -- who didn't do this. I have come to the conclusion that anyone who says they don't do it, at least to some extent, is fooling themselves. I may be wrong, of course, but I've yet to meet anyone who didn't pick and choose their premises and their arguments based on the final outcome.

This is not to say that theology or philosophy or any other systematic approach to belief and thought is useless but at the end of the day neither nihilism or Cthulhu worship is terribly popular. The real issue is what kind of conclusions some people are able to live with. I mean, it's important to remember that this is religious belief we're talking about. No matter how much you believe that the heavens declare God's glory, they don't say jack about soteriology -- and those kinds of thought systems are basically built as ways of getting from Point A to an acceptable Point Z without tripping over one's self.


It's worth pointing out that the action of the Holy Spirit does a lot of heavy lifting in conservative theology. The conservative critique of your position--and basically of liberal hermeneutics generally--would be that it appears premised on doubt that the Spirit speaks through and preserves the Word in ways that permit us more confidence in our interpretations than you seem to be willing to posit.

The Holy Spirit does a fair bit of lifting in liberal theology too, it just keeps telling the Liberals different things than it tells the Conservatives. God's tricky that way. That's the problem when one believes that an invisible, 100% subjective "internal whisper" is the evidence of one's correctness. I don't say that in a dismissive or condescending way, and I'm not trying to use prejudicial language. Just pointing out that in the real world, it usually just boils down to "The confident people announce that they're correct, and the people who disagree get dismissed as faithless."


If you believe that the Holy Spirit works in the way that conservative Christians believe that it does, the entire liberal project seems premised on insufficient belief if not outright unbelief, and no amount of protesting to the contrary is going to make much of a difference.

This doesn't seem really startling, though, you know? "If you start with a conservative's premises, and you accept a conservative's evidence, you should arrive at a conservative's conclusions." This is really a discussion about a set of premises, and -- lo and behold! -- some premises are unacceptable to conservatives because they lead to unacceptable conclusions. ;-)
posted by verb at 5:25 PM on December 22, 2011 [4 favorites]


This is tricky and complicated, obviously, because the only real basis we have for knowledge about Christ is scripture, ...

Keep in mind that is a minority position inside of the Christian faith. Sola Scriptura is for the johnny-come-latelies who refused to submit to God's authority. ;-)
posted by verb at 5:30 PM on December 22, 2011


This is really a discussion about a set of premises, and -- lo and behold! -- some premises are unacceptable to conservatives because they lead to unacceptable conclusions. ;-)

Well yes, but only sort of. Sure, it's not surprising that if you start with different premises you reach different conclusions. But a person who espoused a liberal hermeneutic but reached conservative conclusions--which it's certainly possible to do, as the liberal hermeneutic doesn't actually require all that much--would still find themselves catching flack. The premises are important in and of themselves, not just because of the conclusions they imply or require.
posted by valkyryn at 6:42 PM on December 23, 2011


I worry we're just talking to each other at this point, but it's fun, so who cares. ;-)

Well yes, but only sort of. Sure, it's not surprising that if you start with different premises you reach different conclusions. But a person who espoused a liberal hermeneutic but reached conservative conclusions--which it's certainly possible to do, as the liberal hermeneutic doesn't actually require all that much--would still find themselves catching flack.

I think I must be missing something here. I know lots of Christian traditions that adopt what many conservatives would call a "liberal hermeneutic" but have no problem with many "conservative conclusions." It's not as if there is a line in the sand with Spong on one side and Luther on the other; there is a staggering diversity of beliefs inside of Christendom and few of them are wholly "liberal" or "conservative" in the sense you refer to above. Many "conservative" reformed congregations allow women in the congregation to cut their hair or men to shave, for example, and many "liberal" protestant congregations are opposed to, say, gay marriage or abortion.

It seems like you're still making the case that theological rigor is the key issue, and I understand that's important. But it seems like the end result is just highlighting that you have a set of premises you consider a prerequisite for legitimate Christian theology. This puts you in the same camp as every other Christian sect, though, and that's what ultimately leads me back to the aesthetic critique. Given a large set of equally subjective claims to exclusive doctrinal truth, which set of premises seems to lead to the best outcome, belief-wise?

That, in my opinion, is where the really interesting action is. And barring any supernatural experiences in which a deity reveals to me that a particular set of beliefs is correct, the aesthetic critique is the only one that any of us can rely on.


The premises are important in and of themselves, not just because of the conclusions they imply or require.

I think we might be talking past ourselves on this. Take something like "The Christian Bible As Recognized by the Protestant Reformers Contains No Errors In Any Way." Why is that important? There is no way to pretend that it is a critical belief per se. Rather, it's really a referendum on how one regards the consequences of accepting or rejecting that premise. Arguments in favor of Biblical inerrancy are about what wouldn't be trustworthy if Scripture weren't reliable.
posted by verb at 9:37 AM on December 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


verb: I totally agree, but you are begging the question of whether they are begging the question.
posted by phrontist at 9:00 AM on January 2, 2012


I really feel like I should unlock some sort of achievement for that.
posted by verb at 10:01 AM on January 2, 2012


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