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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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Modern Snobbery

One of my biggest pet peeves today are modernist snobs, like people who refuse to watch black & white movies or silent movies just because they’re old.  Perhaps the best example of this is when people ask me what the point is in watching classic movies on Blu-ray because, after all, they didn’t even have HD back then.  Ok, I realize those who watch movies on their phones probably wouldn’t know this, but 1080p will never compare to the resolution of film.  That’s right, that old-fashioned analog projector at the silent movie theatre actually presents films better than your expensive, state-of-the-art HD TV.  Oftentimes, we’re so accustomed to the superiority of the next generation of technology that we lose sight of the advances that got us from A to B.  We use cell phones even though the average person has no idea how they work, yet we consider ourselves more advanced than everyone in history before us who didn’t have a cell phone just because we do.  It’s a natural human tendency to view older technology as primitive, and while it may be, this view becomes snobbery when we start to equate primitive with stupid.

Modern snobs tend to have a low opinion of our ancient ancestors.  After all, if they lived before the Enlightenment or the Renaissance then they have little to offer us in this day and age.  Yet drop these modern snobs in the wilderness without their modern technology and most of them wouldn’t know how to survive at a stone age level.  The ancients may not have had combustion engines or the scientific method, but even primitive civilization requires a great deal of sophistication to function.  Perhaps the biggest error made by the modern snob is to judge a past civilization’s progress from the vantage point of modern advances.  This is not to say that civilizations cannot be judged for lack of progress or regressive social change, as seen with the spread of Islam today, just that forward moving progress should be acknowledged even when a society is in transition.

Enlightenment fundamentalists can be particularly guilty of this judgmental attitude.  The new atheist revision of history holds religion responsible for any perceived lack of progress in the world until the emergence of reason in the 18th century, and then gives credit of all subsequent progress thereafter to the decline of religion.  This is an obvious myth because the 18th century atheists proved to be even more oppressive of dissent than their religious contemporaries, as evidenced by the Cult of Reason and the Reign of Terror.  While atheist societies were young compared to the scope of their religious predecessors, they wasted no time in stacking up a body count to eclipse all of the religious wars in recorded history.  Far from pioneering the way towards progress, the atheists that emerged were a product of their time, a product that could have only arisen at that point in history because of the progress made by their ancestors.  Today’s atheists often try to take credit for the advancements of society in general, when the reality is they have little understanding of how civilizations develop from precedent and accumulated knowledge, nor how few of their most esteemed values actually originated from atheists.

A favorite criticism of the enlightenment fundamentalist is the Mosaic Law.  Their greatest champions like Richard Dawkins draw the majority of their anti-Christian ammunition from misrepresenting the Old Testament as a backwards law code by today’s standards, without acknowledging the advancements that it presented for civilization at the time it was delivered.  Critics are quick to point out slavery, seemingly harsh punishments, and perceived misogyny in the Pentateuch, while ignoring advances like the Jubilee, limits of excessive punishment (which is the intended meaning of “an eye for an eye”), and protection of women.  They also conveniently overlook the fact that these causes were not historically championed by atheists until more recently.  Despite its egalitarianism, the Enlightenment fathers still valued property law over human rights and did little for the cause of abolition, which was largely a Christian movement resulting from an increased emphasis on Christianity from the Second Great Awakening.  The United States Constitution’s compromise on slavery shows just how difficult it is for the architects of any new civilization to change longstanding practices overnight.  American progress towards abolition is routinely criticized for being too slow by modernists, who’ve never lived with legal slavery.  While it’s easy for those of us living in an economy with no dependence on the slave trade to judge even the abolitionists for being too soft on slave owners, we also have the luxury of not having to fight a bloody Civil War to end that institution once and for all.  Likewise, the Constitution did not afford women the vote, but this right was won later following another Christian revival period.  Nevertheless, the Constitution was a watershed moment in the evolution of law and freedom, as was the Mosaic Law for its time.

One particular remnant of America’s past that atheists have heavily criticized are blue laws.  Seen as enforcing religious standards on a secular society, blue laws stem from traditional observance of Sunday as a day of rest and no work.  Now that global economies operate 24/7, these days blue laws are generally more of an annoyance in that they merely restrict commerce of certain “vice” items, such as alcohol, cigarettes, or tampons.  Admittedly, forbidding the sale of tampons on any day of the week was ridiculous, but the original spirit of the law in line with the 4th commandment served an important social purpose.  While atheists may have a knee-jerk aversion to consecrating any day as “holy”, a day off is sacred to the worker in the simplest definition of the word, meaning inviolate or cherished.  We need to remember that these laws date back to the time when slavery was still legal, so guaranteeing every worker a day off every week was a necessary human right.  Abolition was just one of the many reforms that needed to be installed before society was ready to abandon compulsory days of rest.  Today we have the benefit of countless other improvements often taken for granted: 40-hour work weeks, hourly wages, overtime, sick time, vacation time, etc.  Worker’s rights are now protected under a complex law code instead of a simple umbrella, but the present status quo would have been unattainable without its antecedent principle, embedded in religion.  Most modern atheists don’t even consider that striking this law from the books even just 150 years ago would have been a license for slaveowners to abuse their workers, and would have been a far cry from liberating.

Today’s atheists have inherited a civilization that they couldn’t have built themselves.  Attempts to create an atheistic civilization in Revolutionary France or any Marxist experiment have been colossal failures.  Some atheists may view religion as a nursemaid that carried civilization to maturity, which can abandon religion now that atheistic reason is here to move us forward, but this is an erroneous assumption:  the precedent of freedom of conscience can be traced to the Puritans, much to the surprise of modern snobs; education of both sexes of all classes was an early Christian innovation; women’s suffrage and abolition have already been traced to their Christian roots; and despite however much atheists complain about Christians impeding gay rights in the US, we still have gay marriage legal in several states and DADT has been repealed, while you don’t find same sex marriages or openly gay servicemen anywhere in all of China.  In virtually all aspects of reform, atheists find themselves trailing behind theists, and particularly Christians.  Rather than being ready to take the wheel, atheists have been backseat drivers to Christian progress.

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Inspiration vs. Revelation

I always cringe when I hear Fredric March, playing a William Jennings Bryant-inspired character in the 1960 film Inherit the Wind, defending the Bible as “the revealed word of God.”  You probably wouldn’t know it from American Christianity (you might even be questioning why I would dare criticize it), but this phrase reflects a distinctly American view of scripture as revelation that’s not really supported by the Bible itself.  Despite the absence of this wording in the Bible itself, this is one of the prevailing beliefs about scripture in America today.  However, things weren’t always like this.

In the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1630’s, a Puritan woman named Anne Hutchinson came to the attention of church leaders for hosting a weekly Bible study that had outgrown her home and was being held in the church.  Her interpretations of the preacher’s sermons had started to deviate dramatically, and when question by authorities, the reason she gave was “an immediate revelation” from the Holy Spirit.  Eventually, she was banished from the colony.  To modern Christians, this judgment seems particularly harsh, even for the Puritans.  Many of them might even profess the doctrine of  sola scriptura and still not see the doctrinal conflict with Anne Hutchinson’s claims.

It was only a few decades later the climate in the colonies would start to dramatically change.  The Quakers arrived in the 1650’s to spread their message of continuing revelation, coincidentally in the same Massachusetts Bay Colony which had expelled Anne Hutchinson.  A clash was inevitable.  But over time, both traditions would come to define religion in America, producing the schizophrenic climate in the 19th century that would be the perfect storm for a wide range of new movements to form: Mormonism,  Adventism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, and later, Pentecostalism.

The fundamental flaw with the view of scripture as revelation is that it makes any apparent revelation scripture.  However, Judeo-Christian scriptures as exemplified in the Torah and the Gospels, were not in themselves a revelation, but rather a record of it.  In this paradigm, the revelation is not a transmission of information or data, but the revealing of God Himself.  Scriptures were not information dictated word-for-word from the mouth of God into a mouthpiece, as was claimed of the Qur’an.  The Gospels are witnesses of things seen and heard, not information revealed to a person with no natural knowledge of the actual events, like Muhammad.  Perhaps the single most damaging incorrect belief held by Christians today is to view the Bible the same as the Qur’an, or any other “revealed” text.

This certainly worked in the favor of Joseph Smith, although the Book of Mormon was hardly unique for its time.  By this point, many people held the erroneous view that revelations from God had ceased, and this was the reason no more scriptures were being written.  Naturally, this false belief opened the door for a mountain of new sacred texts to be published by prophets trying to revive the Age of Miracles.  Mormonism alone produced several splinter cults following the succession crisis of its founder’s death.  Ex-Mormon James Colin Brewster published his own purported translations of lost manuscripts, including an abridgment of a “Ninth Book of Esdras” as a warning to the Latter Day Saints.  Self-proclaimed Mormon prophet James Strang claimed to have translated additional Nephite plates, today called the Book of the Law of the Lord by the 300-or-so remaining Strangite Mormons.  During the Era of Manifestations, a Shaker (portmanteau of “shaking quaker”) similarly received revelations from an angel in 1842, published as A Holy, Sacred and Divine Roll and Book, and held as equal to the Bible by the Shakers before they dwindled into obscurity (as of this writing, there are only 3 left in the whole world).  It seems the only remarkable quality of Mormonism was that it was the only such American movement to survive past the Great Disappointment of 1844.

Perhaps more important than believing the Bible is believing the Bible for what it is.  If faith in a book were sufficient, as in the message of Mormonism, then there’s seemingly no way to discern between any of these other so-called companions to the Bible.  This concept of revelation also has implications beyond scripture, which corrupt theology and philosophy in general.  Post-Christian atheism takes this heresy to its logical conclusion as a reason for rejecting religion.  After all, if revelation is merely text, data, and information, then why is an omnipotent God’s revelation so limited?  In this view, the Bible should logically give instructions for making the first wheel or nuclear power plant; revelation should have graduated to more modern forms of communication, like silent movies and comic books.  For that matter, it shouldn’t be confined to Arabic, King James English, or Reformed Egyptian, the revelation may as well be a language in itself.

The Book of Mormon is not just a heresy, the entire Mormon concept of scripture is heretical.  The problem is, this same understanding is also shared by millions of Christians who should (in theory, at least) know better.  The rise of “revealed” religions in America like Mormonism and Islam are signs of the decline of the principle of sola scriptura.  It’s evident as more Americans consider themselves “spiritual” than “religious”, that there has been far too much emphasis on feelings, intuition, and subjectivity in our culture.  It seems many Christians, in an effort to appear less rigid or dogmatic, have abandoned the rational branch of our religious heritage because it was descended from the puritans, and have fallen into apostasy instead.

James Strang, an apostate of Mormonism

James Strang, an apostate of Mormonism

For further reading on other obscure, early American scriptures, I recommend American Scriptures: An Anthology of Sacred Writings

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