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Undoctrination

 “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”
  This bumper sticker slogan popularized by some conservative Christians  encapsulates a fundamental flaw in the way many Christians see their faith.  Aside from the fact that this statement does not include any distinctly Christian descriptor and could just as easily be said by any theist–Jewish, Muslim, Mormon, Baha’i, etc.–this mindset is a nonstarter in any religious conversation with a non-Christian even if it were referring specifically to the Bible.  If these Christians were really honest with themselves, then the Bible ought to say something to the effect of this statement, but it doesn’t.  It becomes apparent that the intent of this motto is not the advancement of Christianity, but instead the promulgation of a philosophy to make the religion doctrinaire:
doc·tri·naire /däktrəˈner/ adjective:  seeking to impose a doctrine in all circumstances without regard to practical considerations.
  Now in the broadest sense, any belief system can be said to be doctrinaire compared to a belief system without any distinctive doctrines (such as New Thought or Unitarian Universalism), but for the sake of clarity I will focus the meaning here to a specific methodology of doctrine formation.  Doctrines themselves are not necessarily problematic, the problem is when the doctrine itself is the starting point for a belief, rather than basing belief on reason, fact, or evidence.  A real doctrine should be the conclusion of an argument, not the origin.  The logic in the above example works just the same with the more straightforward re-phrasing: “I believe it, that settles it.”

  Doctrinaire thinking is not unique to Christianity.  Communism is an obvious example of a doctrine system that’s tried often despite all evidence demonstrating it simply doesn’t work (as is trickle-down economics).  Other religions, like Islam and Mormonism, are even more doctrinaire, demanding belief in their sacred texts first for their books’ claims to be believable.  Even the total rejection of doctrine can ironically become a doctrinaire position.  The difference with Christianity, however, is that doctrinaire thought is not essential to believing Christianity, and I would argue the religion is better without it.

  Doctrinaire faith leads people to seek support for pre-determined beliefs, as opposed to the proper method of arriving at conclusions based on supporting facts.  A doctrinaire believer is characterized by having their own set of “facts” in harmony with their faith but in conflict with reality.  These doctrinaire assumptions can eventually distract from their original intent altogether and take on a life of their own.  For example, racist doctrines devised to discourage race mixing, such as black skin being the mark of Cain or rock music coming from darkest Africa were still perpetuated by people removed from segregation who no longer saw themselves as racists.  The insistence of a literal reading of Genesis started as an attempt to defend the Bible against equally-literalist critics in light of scientific discovery, but has now become an association of so-called “ministries” that focus entirely on their interpretation of Genesis as if that were the essence of Christianity.  Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter comes to mind as a literal embodiment of doctrinaire ideology, going so far as to try to make it a physical reality in theme park form.  In this way, doctrinaire doctrines tend towards redundancy, because the end goal is just to support the original premise.

  But does Christianity actually need to be so doctrinaire?  Its basic assumptions about life are well grounded in observable reality:  men are imperfect, prone to do wrong, and die once.  In contrast, the doctrines of reincarnation or inherent divinity found in eastern religions, or pre-existence in Mormonism, require unprovable doctrinal assumptions.  The cardinal belief of Christianity in life after death is demonstrated by a man rising from the dead and supported by witnesses.  One does not have to believe in a book first to believe this is true.

  Not only does it unnecessarily affect theology, but doctrinaire beliefs can pollute the overall practice of Christianity in the most basic ways Christians treat other people.  Much of the criticism the church has earned in the last centuries have been due to indefensible policies that people would only accept if they already believed a certain version of Christianity.  Church leaders jump to the conclusion that every natural disaster, every epidemic, or every act of terror is God punishing innocent people for some unrelated sin because faith.  At a loss to explain why things are right and wrong outside of a deontological “because we say so”, they try to control people with empty threats of hell and damnation which they never have to prove.  Christians perpetuated the inequality of women, blacks, and gays based on nothing more than a prejudiced scripture reading.  I expect some of my readers might cringe at my inclusion of gays in the list of the oppressed, but when institutions like the Southern Baptist Convention have cried wolf about slavery, lynching, segregation, women’s suffrage, abortion (whichever side you’re on, they’ve been on the other side at some point) and interracial marriage, it’s hard to convince me that banning same-sex marriage is the one thing they’ve been right about.  Strangely, when I grew up in a fundamental baptist church, I was taught that Southern Baptist churches were wrong, but never for the obvious reason that they only exist because of a split over slavery.  Looking back at historical sermons from the South, it’s a marvel that the church today has so easily forgiven its past racists when those same preachers effectively condemned virtually every Christian living today as Satanic heretics.

  Some might argue that churches arrived at those horrible conclusions because of a misreading of Scripture.  That may be true, but that certainly hasn’t stopped the same churches from being repeat offenders.  The convenience of doctrinaire thinking is that you always find what you were looking for in the Biblical text, therefore the solution should not just be a commitment to better Bible reading, but a complete overhaul in how we formulate doctrines.  I don’t demand or expect that every Christian on earth could instantly convert to my way of thinking, but I will attempt to lay out some guidelines that I think everyone could consider whether they come from a literary or literalist approach to the Bible.  First, Christians should take inventory of their essential beliefs and determine, like the ones I listed above, those that are grounded in reality.  These principles, rooted in love, life, and liberty, should be the driving force of the faith that we communicate to the world.  Next, we should calculate the risk of positions that have the potential to cause more harm than good; a position that can’t stand up to objective scrutiny probably isn’t suitable for public policy, and we should avoid looking like we just want to control the behavior of unbelievers. Christians should be especially cautious when judging others, focusing less on subjective sins and more on universal, objective morality.  Note that as critical as I am of certain churches for documented moral lapses, I have still never judged them as strongly as they have judged me for imaginary reasons.  Some have accused me of trying to create a “Christianity for atheists”, but that’s not really my intent.  I’m not trying to strip Christianity of doctrines or the supernatural, I just want to promote and strengthen its best doctrines which all too often take a back seat to shameful ideologies.  Perhaps in that way it is a Christianity for atheists, I always want to present a Christianity that’s for everybody.
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Unsaved

A Sunday school song I used to sing in my childhood:

One door and only one,

And yet its sides are two,

I’m on the inside,

On which side are you?

Looking back, I have to wonder the intent behind having children recite this verse over and over.  After all, it’s not a song of praise or worship.  It doesn’t embody any distinctly Christian theology (aside from a nondescript allusion to Jesus as the “door”, which probably went over the heads of most children).  The only purpose it seems to serve is to to establish and reinforce an ingroup and outgroup mentality.

An ingroup is a social group to which a person identifies as a member, whereas an outgroup is one in which they do not identify.  I would say that the clear motive behind a song like this is indoctrinating an ingroup mentality, not a statement of faith or a belief in exclusivity as some might argue.  After all, this song is taught to children of all ages and levels of understanding, by those raised in the church and by first time visitors alike.  Far from evangelism, what it taught children even from before the time they made any personal confession of faith (let alone understood the concept), was to divide the world into two groups: those on the inside, and those on the outside.

Ingroup/outgroup psychology is prevalent in a lot of religions, but it’s noticeably pronounced in the world of Evangelicalism, particularly on the outgroup side.  It has been said that developing a belief in assurance of salvation was the defining moment that distinguished Evangelicals from their Puritan and Protestant forbears.  In fact, some Evangelicals practically make a secondary conversion out of this today.  I can recall going to Baptist youth camps as a teenager, where the attendees were mostly from church groups like me.  The fire and brimstone sermons and altar calls were directed not just to the lost, but also to the faithful, where preachers encouraged the teens to go forward to talk to a counsellor either to pray a standard “sinner’s prayer” to be saved, or receive assurance that they already were saved.  The college hosting the camp would record and report on the number of decisions made, first those who had accepted Jesus as their lord and savior, and second those who had received assurance of their salvation.  In retrospect, it seems almost absurd to me how people who sincerely believed Christianity, attended church regularly, tried to be like Christ, and had made a public confession of faith were made to feel as if they were missing something in their life.  After all, they generally weren’t struggling with any doubt about the truth of their religion, it was the sincerity of their faith that probably caused them to respond; instead what they questioned was their salvation.

You see, to Evangelicals one’s salvation isn’t just an act that occurs when one converts or believes, their salvation is a status if not a status symbol.  Indeed, questioning another’s salvation (or even just being perceived as doing that, such as by calling out an obvious heresy in their theology) can be seen as a supreme insult in Evangelical circles.  They tend to divide the world into the “saved” and the “unsaved”, but not from any reading of Scripture.  The word “saved” appears numerous times in the Bible, of course, but always as a verb, never as a noun or adjective the way Evangelicals use it.  The word “unsaved” never appears at all.  There are certainly many Biblical words that they could choose to refer to non-Christians, such as “lost” or “unbelieving”, but this distinct term persists so prominently in the Evangelical lexicon largely because it serves their outgroup mindset.  “Lost”, for instance, is a difficult word to apply in a predominately Christian society where most of the prospective converts are simply members of other denominations, not other religions.  It’s also hard to use “unbelieving” when they’re trying to seed insecurity among fellow believers.

It’s troubling on many levels how Evangelicals express their soteriology through terms entirely absent from the Christian Scriptures.  In comparison, Islam has the term “kaffir” to refer to non-Muslims, which is used repeatedly in the Qur’an by prophet Muhammad.  Often misunderstood in the West to mean “infidel”, this term more closely resembles a derogatory slur.  Outgroup hostility is undeniably written into the doctrine of Islam, but this need not be the same in Christianity.  In contrast, while Muslims freely use “kaffir” derisively to people’s faces, Evangelicals are more guarded with how they use “unsaved.”  You don’t really see them telling prospective converts that they’re “unsaved”, it seems to be a word limited to insider conversation.  In that sense, it can be borderline cultic, a secret doctrine reserved for the initiated.  And like in an Islamic state that becomes 100% homogenized, wherein the Muslims simply target other sects of Islam for outgroup hostility, similarly Evangelicals in ideological isolation may start to focus on their own co-religionists as the outgroup.

Considering how these same Evangelicals try to be Biblical in almost every other area, it would seem easy for them to avoid the potential problems of this word by simply not using it.  Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done.  Just challenging the Evangelical ingroup/outgroup complex can be seen as an attack on the essence of Christianity itself, effectively putting oneself in the outgroup.  Even if you aren’t of the outgroup mindset, suggesting that it’s wrong to Christians who are may ironically be perceived as outgroup hostility towards them.  They may not only be unable to relate to a Christianity without it, it may be so ingrained in their nature that they cannot imagine anybody else not thinking the same way too.  Evangelicalism seems to have become an obsession with classifying people into “saved” or “unsaved” groups, graduating beyond mere assurance of salvation to assurance of damnation (other people’s, that is).

Of course, there are many ways to end up on the outgroup list.  Seemingly inconsequential disagreements, like not believing a six-day, literalist interpretation of Genesis or not thinking the U.S. Constitution has any basis to ban same-sex marriage or marijuana (even if one personally doesn’t approve of either) can cause you to lose your salvation status among your friends.  Historically, it could have been for supporting integration in the Bible belt.  Once you’ve been “outgrouped” by Evangelicals, it can be hard if not impossible to recover your standing among them.  Different rules of engagement are employed when they interact with the “unsaved.”  They may hold beliefs that further alienate the outgroup, such as believing that God doesn’t hear the prayers of the unsaved, or that the unsaved can’t really understand the Bible.  The outgroup mindset has an unfair advantage (in their mind, anyway) in that they can shut you out because they believe you’re going to hell, but if you don’t really believe people are damned for petty political differences, then you can’t even honestly fake it in return, not even to level the playing field (even though they may mistakenly think the field is level anyway because they assume everybody would naturally think that).  Outgroup psychology trumps the universal languages of logic and reason, an outsiders ideas and views are rejected simply because they’re an outsider, like the Republican party’s irrational opposition to the “Muslim, Kenyan, socialist” Obama.

When the outgroup hostility isn’t even based in reality, but on imaginary criteria there’s little that can be done about it.  But if you’re an Evangelical reading this who feels threatened that I criticized a cherished children’s song or knocked the legs out from under your core theology, don’t write me off because you consider me an outsider.  You can think whatever you want about the fate of my soul (which you conveniently never have to prove), but I can still appeal to your desire to live a Biblical faith.  Just stop using the word “unsaved”.  That’s all I ask.  Limit yourself to the terms actually used by Jesus and his followers in the Bible, and you may find your theology naturally changes because of it.  You may then ask yourself whether certain songs or words are used for a theological purpose, or whether it simply serves the outgroup mentality.  Just like me, you may find your outgroup mentality eroded when the words that reinforced it are no longer available to you.  You may risk becoming less Evangelical, but you may gain becoming more Christian.

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The End Is Near

I have an embarrassing confession to make.  For a person who analyzes forged sacred texts as a hobby, I have to admit that until Pope Benedict XVI resigned, I had never even heard of Saint Malachy’s “Prophecy of the Popes”.  If you’re like me and don’t normally associate with crazy conspiracy theorists, then it might be news to you too.  Basically, the so-called prophecy is a series of 112 supposed predictions about future popes first published by a Benedictine monk in 1595 but attributed to a 12-century Irish archbishop.  Most likely, the prophecies were forged in the 16th century as part of a cardinal’s campaign efforts to gain the papacy.  Like a typical “found” prophecy–say, the Book of Mormon–the descriptions are remarkably accurate up until the time it was claimed to have been discovered, and then become noticeably vague immediately thereafter.  The last pope in the list is ominously apocalyptic:

“In the final persecution of the Holy Roman Church, there will sit Peter the Roman, who will pasture his sheep in many tribulations, and when these things are finished, the city of seven hills will be destroyed, and the dreadful judge will judge his people. The End”

Final part of the prophecies in Lignum Vitæ (1595), p. 311

Final part of the prophecies in Lignum Vitæ (1595), p. 311

Coincidentally, this 112th pope would correspond to whoever becomes Benedict’s successor, and now the prophecy’s proponents have gone wild over “Petrus Romanus”, or Peter the Roman, as heralding the end of the world.  Frankly, it makes Mormonism look rather rational by comparison.  The Roman Catholic Church, scholars, historians, and logical people all dismiss it as a forgery, but strangely an unlikely segment of the Evangelical community have become the most vocal doom prophets.  Striking while the iron is hot, they’ve cashed in on hastily written anti-Catholic books (ironic since they’re exploiting a prophecy that originated within the Catholic Church) and google-bombed every corner of the internet with this nonsense.

Why are Bible-believing Evangelicals so susceptible to such an easily refutable, unbiblical fraud?   Eschatology has ballooned into an Evangelical obsession that consumes an undeserved amount of the church’s time, energy, and resources.  It was inevitable because Apocalypse-obsessed Christianity is the ultimate expression of the “Me” Generation’s faith.  Not content just to have a book from God to them, these believers want the Bible to be a book about them.  The easiest way for them to insert themselves into the text is to contextualize Biblical prophecy into the present day, and no book better serves this self-involving purpose than the book of Revelation.  Stories about Moses, Elijah, or Jesus from 2,000 years ago in another hemisphere fail to satisfy post-Baby Boom narcissism; the “Me” Generation needs to be able to see present-day America (ie: themselves) as an active participant in their religion.

For instance, the Seven Asian Churches in Revelation 2-3 are almost never taught to be the actual churches described in that context, but are most often interpreted to mean chronological church “ages”.  Throughout history, however, all believers to have held this dispensationalist view have conveniently always interpreted themselves as the last age, or the Laodicean church.  Wishful anticipation of being in the “last days” seems to drive this interpretation rather than any sound exegetical method. The worst casualty of this motivated eisegesis is the neglect of the fundamental moral and spiritual messages to the preceding six churches.  In trying to find themselves in the scheme of Biblical events, these Christians can very often miss the entire point, message, and application to be found there for them.

Despite rampant Biblical illiteracy, Christians who in reality know very little about the Bible or Christianity still have strong opinions on the end times.  As many as 40% of Americans will always be confident that Jesus Christ will return in their lifetime, even if less than half of them can name the four gospels.  Ignorance on the life and teachings of Christ pervades even among the devout, yet apocalyptic expectations of the mark of the beast, the rapture, and the anti-christ have attained a folk level of awareness.  Believers and non-believers alike are probably more familiar with the terms and images of Revelation than other parts of the Bible.  This is unfortunate, because Revelation is perhaps the most reference-dense book in the New Testament, depending predominately on an assumed understanding of Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel.  Anyone not versed in the Hebrew prophets is unlikely to hold an accurate knowledge of Christian eschatology.

Historically, the Jews and subsequently early Christians did not hold to a “flat” canon as is common today, at least in the Evangelical sphere.  The Hebrews esteemed the Torah more than the rest of the writings, poetry, and prophecy in the Bible, and scriptural canons varied somewhat among the Church Fathers.  The Book of Revelation in particular was controversial in the early church, omitted altogether by some, questioned by others, and never incorporated into the liturgical calendar.  I say this not to cast doubt on its canonicity, but rather to emphasize that not all scripture was intended to be transmitted equally.  Christians wouldn’t try to use the Song of Solomon as an evangelization tool, yet they will inappropriately misuse the Apocalypse of John of Patmos with great enthusiasm.

Evangelicals in particular tend to treat Revelation like a March Madness bracket, filling it out with contemporary figures, nations, and organizations in the various slots for horsemen, prophets, or beasts.  When one world leader dies or an empire wanes, like the head of a hydra another takes its place, always shoehorned to the current preferences and tastes of contemporary evangelical culture.  For instance, an actual communist dictator like Hugo Chavez could never have rated as a possible antichrist to anglo-centric American Christians, whereas Barack Obama is suspected by 24% of Republicans as being the antichrist.  This has less to do with any real or imagined threat of him actually being such, because Obama would be the “Me” Generation’s favored choice simply because he’s American and also not Republican.  Candidates who could arguably make more sense in that role like Kim Jong Un just don’t rate as high with them because, despite his abundant church persecution and human rights violations, he has little direct involvement in their lives.  The faithful just ignore their track record of 100% failure in this scheme of understanding Revelation, and question the faith of anyone who doubts their then-current interpretation, even though they will eventually bench President Obama just like they have other former players in the past.

Despite these eschatological shortcomings, evangelicals are usually given a free pass.  After all, they’re not claiming to be actual prophets receiving private revelations in the embarrassing league of failed end times predictors like the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Or have they crossed that line?  I dare say in the short span of Harold Camping’s twice-fold Second Coming failures and now the rising hum of “Petrus Romanus” conspiracy theories, evangelicals are progressing beyond the point of no return.  Apologists may argue that only a fringe minority of his radio audience actually followed Camping to the point of throwing away their life savings, yet the same could be said of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the 70’s.  In fact, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society effectively covered their backs by never explicitly printing their much-hyped 1975 prediction, whereas the same cannot be said of Camping’s visibly damning paper trail.  Fellow evangelicals may have ridiculed Harold Camping and his followers, yet some of these scoffers were the first to jump aboard the next crazy train after the Pope resigned and a 400-year old forged “prophecy” was suddenly in vogue.

Sadly, anyone raised in an Evangelical background these days would automatically assume this is the only way the book of Revelation could be understood.  Idealist, Preterist, and Historicist possibilities are marginal if not entirely unknown.  The biggest problem with this Futurist tunnel-vision is that it invalidates the book of Revelation to all previous generations.  If one can only see it as a coded “sign of the times” for those in the last days, then the book wasn’t applicable to anyone who’s ever died before its fulfillment.  That also means if you devote your life to such a reading and you die before the Second Coming, then all that eschatology study was pretty much wasted time and energy.  I’m not actually suggesting that all Futurist interpretations should be abandoned, or making a case for any of the other views in its favor, but I would simply suggest that Christians look for meaning in Revelation that is both relevant and applicable even without a prophetic fulfillment within their lifetime.

As the sensationalist description for Thomas Horn and Chris D Putnam’s conspiracy theory-laden book, Petrus Romanus: The Final Pope Is Here, says: “the time for avoiding Peter the Roman just ran out.”  This is unfortunately true, albeit only in the sense of a self-fulling prophecy.  For the duration of the next papacy, an unquantifiable army of fanatical Christian soldiers will be bunkered down in Apocalypse-now mode.  These easily misled lunatics and disruptive village idiots are not withdrawn from society, however; they actively vote, petition, protest, blog, and anything else to exert disproportionate influence and prioritize their insane agenda above more pressing national and global interests.  With the usual cultic bullying tactics of an “end is near” street prophet, they dismiss every voice of reason as part of the conspiracy and declare their fellow Christians apostates just for rejecting their apocryphal eschatology.

In fact, I can already hear the predictable objections from the crazy choir: “You’re not a real Christian if you can’t see that we’re living in the End Times!”  or “Only a godless liberal would defend Obama”, regardless of how ridiculous the accusation (conservatives never seem to understand how spreading falsehoods like birtherisms about the president forces those of us who value the truth more than partisanship into his defense, whether we even like him or not).

Now more than ever, it’s important that any of the few remaining rational Evangelicals shut out these voices loudly and vehemently before they consume and poison the whole movement.  If such a belief is permitted to spread, it could be more damaging than any of the other recent Evangelical embarrassments.  After all, President Obama will cease to be a plausible candidate for the antichrist in a few years when he leaves office, but the next pope could be around for decades.  An entire generation could be faced with disillusionment when this ultimately fails, and it will.  As the prophecy’s proponents draw a line between them and the rest of us, we should allow them to recluse themselves from the mainstream community, or risk being the laughingstock by association.  To them, it never gets old, like the Mormon church calling themselves “latter day” saints for the last 200 years.  Logic and reason are already lost on the firm believers of such conspiracy theories, but no matter how marginal or fringe they may be, they must not be permitted to define a generation of Christians.

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