Monthly Archives: January 2013

Cliché-anity

I find myself relating less and less to fellow Christians, sometimes when I survey the comprehension level of those around me I start to wonder if we even belong to the same religion.  Among Evangelicals in particular, I see Christians more aligned with American folk wisdom than with anything resembling Biblical Christianity–even when they’re quoting from the Bible!

American Christianity seems to have become as predictable as the the Republican Party agenda: a few rehearsed talking points on some controversial wedge issues, gut feelings, and a lot of denial.  Difficult situations are met with common canned responses like “God is in control”, “Everything happens for a reason”, or when stumped by a theological question that they can’t explain, they defer to Isaiah 55:9 (“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways”).  It doesn’t matter to them if the context in Isaiah has nothing to do with the divine nature of Christ or the destruction of the Canaanites, it’s a catch-all stock answer for anything they don’t understand.  They know little of the sophisticated philosophy presented in Job, Ecclesiastes, or the prophets, and favor catchy sound bites instead.  Ignorant of centuries of complex theological development within the Judeo-Christian traditions,  they reduce Christian thought to a dumbed-down catechism of clichés, a phenomenon that I’ve coined as “Cliché-anity.”  While this might be expected among lay adherents of any faith, it troubles me to see it prevalent even among the clergy and church leaders.

Too often, Evangelical Christians view the Bible as a revelation in itself.  This is problematic, because it dilutes the claims of the Bible to the level of any other religion claiming its scriptures as direct revelation from God, such as the Qur’an or the Book of Mormon.  While this approach may not be as noticeable a problem among believers in the Bible, or even between believers of other religions, it’s absolutely meaningless for nonbelievers.  In this manner, the Bible is only authoritative to those who already believe it, therefore expecting anyone outside of a Christian worldview to accept it as truth just because it says so is a logical fallacy, and goes completely against why the Bible was written!

A prime example of this is how Evangelicals generally seem unable to express Christian exclusivism except by reciting John 14:6’s “I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”  This is so ingrained in the Evangelical mindset that I can already hear some readers starting the fire to burn me at the stake just for criticizing it, as if I’m denying the Bible is true or promoting universalism.  However, this reliance on textual citations for truth claims is actually a greater disservice to absolute truth.  Atheists, for instance, are prone to compare this statement with any of Muhammad’s claims in the Qur’an, and dismiss them both as competing fairytales.  After all, if Jesus can be the only way to heaven just because he says so, then Muhammad’s requirements to believe in him as God’s prophet would have to at least be equally considered, if not equally valid.  This usually forces the Christian into the unnecessary position of having to discredit Islam to prove Christianity true.  It becomes even sillier when Christians try to use this prooftext methodology to refute the faith of Catholics, Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses, who also accept Biblical authority.

Probably the best expression of Christian exclusivism that I’ve heard in the last decade came from Asia Bibi, an illiterate peasant Catholic in Pakistan, who has been sentenced to death under her Islamic country’s draconian blasphemy laws simply for defending her beliefs in saying, “My Jesus died for me what has Muhammed done for you?”  No chapter and verse citation, no verbatim memorization, yet she demonstrates the essence of the gospel’s exclusive claim to salvation better than any of the learned Evangelicals, who would probably dismiss her just for being Catholic.  Perhaps she would have been accused of blasphemy either way, or even if she had said nothing at all, but I can’t help but think her accusers were more offended by this statement because it cannot be cancelled out by a competing Islamic claim: if Christ is indeed the Savior, then no claim Muhammad could make can trump that.

I wouldn’t say that all Christians who use this canned response don’t really understand the concept of salvation in their religion, but it does leave me wondering.  If their grasp of truth is entirely dependent on the claims of a text and nothing more, then their religion could easily be changed simply with the introduction of a new text.  This helps explain why Mormons and Muslims are so successful at converting today’s Evangelicals.

Unfortunately, there is no quick remedy for this problem.  Actively learning or re-learning one’s religion more thoroughly is certainly harder than it was to acquire a set of clichés.  My first suggestion would be a complete overhaul of the way Christians perceive the Bible as God’s Word.  Too often the doctrine of divine inspiration is mistaken for divine revelation, which the Judeo-Christian scriptures are not.  Unlike Muslim, Mormon, Baha’i scriptures, etc. that claim to be directly revealed, the revelation of Christianity is not in a book but rather the revealing of God himself.  The Christian concept of inspiration is not what gives the scriptures their authority, they would still be true even without that doctrine.  There were no Muslims until Muhammad started to recite the Qur’an, there were no Mormons until after Joseph Smith published the Book of Mormon, but there were Christians before any of the New Testament was committed to writing.  The revelation of God in Christ and the truth of Christianity are indeed recorded in the Bible (in case you were doubting my faith in the written word), however both would still exist without it.  Nothing is true just because the Bible says so, as is the common misconception, but rather the Bible is true because of what it contains.

Make no mistake, I am not proposing that Christians abandon the Bible, since (as I hope to explore in greater detail) many of the common Cliché-anity catch-phrases have no connection whatsoever to Biblical Christianity anyway.  But this over-used method of reducing the Bible to a collection of proof-texts can certainly turn believers into doubters if they miss the overall point of scripture because they’re unable to pinpoint a specific text to support a doctrine.  Ultimately, it leads to losing battles with outsiders about the absolute truth of Christ, and major and minor doctrinal squabbles within the church.

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Where Did Evangelicals Go Wrong?

Things got a little heated during the presidential campaign, and several factors discouraged me from pursuing this blog for several months.  First and foremost, the depressing reality that while the predominately Christian religious right came together to try to elect a Mormon president, they were largely uninterested in any in-depth examination of their candidate’s religion.  Conservatives weren’t ready to accept a textual analysis on the Book of Mormon as anything other than an arm of the Obama re-election campaign but the Left wasn’t a viable market either, as they were only interested in anti-Mormon polemics until election day.  It was doomed to be forgotten the very next day like all opposition movements.  I had been anticipating an explosion of Mormon interest similar to the rise of Islamic awareness following 9/11, but it turned out to be a dud.  The project I envisioned would ultimately have a very limited audience; obviously devout Mormons weren’t going to read it, and if Christians weren’t interested either, then that pretty much left only questioning or ex-Mormons, as if those who’ve already left the LDS church would care to read the reasons why theology they no longer believe is wrong.

But ex-Mormons or even practicing Mormons were never my target audience anyway, this was always a project aimed at fellow Christians, and their resistance discouraged me the most.  Now that Protestants are no longer the majority in the U.S.; with no Protestant Supreme Court Justices on the bench; disproportionate under-representation in congress (compared to Mormons, Jews, and Catholics, who have greater representation in both houses than in the population at large); and finally, no Protestants on the Republican presidential ticket for the first time in history, there’s no denying that evangelicals are in steady decline.  Catholics and Mormons are the new religious right, as evangelicals willingly vote themselves out of office.  Where did evangelicals go wrong, and what, if anything can be done to change it?

Christianity Has Become Self-Absorbed

The reason I first felt a Christian-perspective primer on the Book of Mormon was needed was because I noticed Christians are usually handicapped in the inter-religious debate.  Mormon missionaries must, by necessity, familiarize themselves with Christian theology, whereas Christians are more often ignorant of any essential information on Mormonism; quite often the case is that the Mormon missionaries are more knowledgable about Christianity, too.  But the issue isn’t just with Mormons, American Christianity has become increasingly ghettoized, and evangelicals don’t really know how to win converts anymore.  The illusion of any growth in the last decade has mostly been congregants shifting from one church to another, but not necessarily bringing in outsiders, and worse, failing to prevent attrition.  The rise of New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris has been especially disastrous, as the largest demographic increase in the last few years has been among the nonreligious.  Like Mormons, atheists have become adept at talking to Christians, meanwhile Christians have not seemed to learn how to communicate effectively to atheists (or anybody else outside of a Christian position).  Since most atheists are converts from Christianity, they know the predictable evangelical cliches and how to counter them.  Cloistered in self-affirming gospel-speak, evangelicals in particular seem to have become as cultic as Mormons, reading from a script and hopelessly lost when anybody takes them off script.

Evangelicals Have Become Know-nothing Know-it-alls

The text of the evangelical’s script isn’t necessarily the problem, but an inevitable flaw of any belief system is that it is a fully developed system, but the average lay follower is not fully developed in that system.  Religious people often feel great pressure to be, or at least appear, knowledgable about their faith, and even when they know little or nothing about their own religion or the topic at hand, Christians may still feel that their religion should have all the answers, and by extension, they should have all the answers as well.  Politically, this has manifested in inept candidates like Todd Akin, who clearly knew little about female physiology through his infamous “legitimate rape” comment, yet still felt an entitlement to be able to write abortion laws solely by the virtues of his pro-life stance.  This was not a gaffe, an unintended blunder, that cost him the election, he simply showed himself to be unqualified, and regrettably did irreparable damage to the pro-life movement in the process.   Christians need to stop being content at just holding certain positions on a short list of wedge issues like abortion and gay marriage, they must also be prepared to defend their positions or face justified ridicule.  Perhaps even harder to do for less educated evangelicals who may rely on their faith to compensate for their academic shortcomings, they need to be able to admit they don’t always have all the answers, and–God forbid–be able to stand down when their positions prove indefensible.

Conservative Identity Politics Outweigh Christian Identity

Identity politics played a huge part in the last election, but this time it exposed the misguided identity at the heart of the Republican party.  Their claims of Biblical values, regardless of how right or wrong they were, held some modicum of credibility in previous elections when candidates at least professed to be conventional Christians.  This time, however, Billy Graham’s attempt to mobilize Christian voters behind a Mormon candidate with the Biblical values card seemed incongruent.  Evangelicals aren’t really trying to save the world, America, or even their neighbor in this mindset, the objective has instead become to preserve an evangelical way of life which, ironically, is utterly irrelevant if the majority of the country no longer even identifies as evangelical.  Conservative politics and evangelicalism have become so intertwined that many evangelicals can’t distinguish between the two, even when that means remaining tied to a party candidate that doesn’t identity with them theologically.  It seems most of them refuse to seek out any other political identity at the risk of losing the consolidated Republican base, because winning elections and trying to hold onto power (or as it is now, opposing those in power) has become the all-important end in their culture war.

As evangelical influence wanes and they stubbornly refuse to change course, the real question is whether the movement even deserves saving.  In their compromises to try to win culture battles, evangelicals sided with the GOP and lost the war.  Gone are the days–and good riddance–that a popular majority vote could win a gay marriage ban, these were never really moral victories to begin with, since they could have just as well been interchangeable Mormon or Muslim statutes.  Demographics will continue to shift, and America may reclaim a new Christian identity, but it won’t necessarily be an evangelical resurgence, in fact that’s rather doubtful with today’s evangelicals.  But, Lord willing, it would have to be a movement that knows how to engage the lost , that understands that just having faith isn’t a good enough qualification, and how to do more than just grumble bitterly if their candidate doesn’t win.  In short, it would have to be a more Christian movement.

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