Evangelicals and Christianity, Part 3: The Trouble With Biblical Authority
But before I launch into a statement about the Bible, I think I need to address bibliolatry. Much like Islam (which also has no priests, no religious hierarchy, and very little in the way of sacramental worship), evangelical Christians have to focus their piety pretty much on the Bible. They don't necessarily feel it this way---their focus is on Jesus, and the Bible is their tool to reach further to that connection---but from the outside, since the spirit world can neither be seen or proven, one can only conclude that evangelical Christians, for all practical purposes, worship the Bible. The Bible is constantly memorized; people choose 'life verses" to operate by; it's stitched on pillows and printed on pens in your local Christian bookstore; and most especially, it is dragged in to supply answers for every uncertainty an evangelical faces, no matter how irrelevant it is to the Bible’s original context.
A good case in point: Because of their understanding of the Bible, Evangelical Christians pride themselves on having a clear view of “family values,” as seen in things like James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, or the Rev. Wildmon’s Family Research Center, or Promise Keepers, or the plot of literally every Christian movie I have ever seen, which always involves some man who’s neglecting his family because of his work, and comes to realize the importance of his home after a run-in with The Man From Galilee. But anyone looking to the Bible for lots of information about how to have a happy family will find themselves, after a 66-book search, returning to maybe two little sections of Timothy and Corinthians. (And sometimes staring in bafflement at Song of Solomon.) And on this allegedly central issue, the big guys are especially no help at all: Jesus repudiated his entire family, and Paul thought you should marry only if you were disgustingly horny and couldn’t control yourself.
But let’s set that aside, because for all practical purposes, the Bible, because it serves as a kind of answer book, or proxy voice of god, could be said to be “about” whatever evangelical Christians are concerned about. (At the turn of the last century, fundamentalists asserted that the Bible was “about” the dangers of wine and beer; Charles Sheldon called it the chief moral crisis of the age, and he had millions in agreement.) What concerns me for the moment is not how the Bible is misread but with the nature of its authority. So let’s move to that.
In an evangelical's mind, the Bible is so true and so reliable that it gets first hearing on almost everything: about history, about cosmology, about marriage and family...and most especially about right and wrong, where what the Bible says overrules the individual evangelical Christian's own conscience. You hear this all the time from evangelical preachers---and especially from apologists: "We may not like the fact that Jesus is the only way to salvation, but that's what the Bible teaches, and who are we to judge the words of God?" Or words to that effect. There are scads of evangelical Christians who are, in their heart of hearts, deeply unhappy with certain aspects of the world as the Bible conceives it. But since the Bible Knows Best, they say things like, "I personally don't have a problem with homosexuals (or with female pastors, or with god sending decent Buddhists to hell), but the Bible's teaching is quite clear..." (It usually isn't, but that's a matter for another post perhaps.)
To be fair, this isn't always true. Goodness knows the Old Testament in particular is full of weird stories where God acts pretty horribly, and while some evangelicals make a career out of justifying some of God's crazier reported behavior, others are comfortable saying, "that part of Joshua is strange, but it's not really relevant to my life, so whatever.' But where it speaks in a more or less contemporary voice---particularly in the letters of Paul---the Bible is more valuable to an evangelical than common knowledge, and, all too often, common sense.
This isn't because evangelicals are stupid. It's because the Bible "teaches" (as evangelicals see it) that human beings are corrupt, that the world is corrupt and corrupting, and--in the Calvinist lens that evangelicals read through---that we can't even trust our own judgment in moral matters. This last point is absolutely key. In fact, I think if you could change just two elements of evangelical belief---the belief in hell and the belief in the absolute depravity of man ( i.e., humanity's inability to know what's "really" right and wrong)---you'd change evangelical Christianity instantly for the better of Christianity and the entire world. Because it is precisely for this reason---that evangelicals are morally anxious, wanting-to-do-good people who are taught that their own consciences are unreliable---that they are so dependent upon the Bible. Without it, they have literally lost the only sure truth there is. And any attempt to point out a crack in the inerrancy of the Bible is therefore an assault on the entire edifice. Evangelical Christians may want to believe differently, but they're trapped in a structure they really can't get out of, and this sometimes means they are obliged, as the price of membership, to believe some very unfortunate things.
I’ve mentioned two of those things already: hell and “absolute depravity.” (Or, as I like to think of it, mankind’s endless moral insecurity.) This leads to an obvious syllogism: 1.) Humans can’t know right from wrong. And 2.) if you make the wrong choice, you will be tortured in the afterlife forever and ever and ever. Put together, this leads to a third disastrous belief: catastrophism, a particularly depressing form of black and white thinking. To the evangelical, Adam and Eve, who literally existed, ate the wrong fruit and ruined everything for everyone in the entire human race. The Bible is full of stories of people doing innocent things and getting horribly punished: a guy touches the Ark of the Covenant to prevent it from falling off a cart, and he’s killed. A fig tree refuses to bear fruit out of season, and Jesus curses it and it dies. Ananias and Sapphira lie about how much they’ve tithed and they drop dead instantly. The pattern is clear: death is all around, and God is always ready and willing to open up some whup-ass. His mercy, as it is expressed in The Prophets and in Paul’s theology, consists primarily of God not killing people who don’t always know how richly they deserve it. And what enables God to lighten up? His own son volunteers to be killed instead.
You can’t live around a theology like this without it affecting your world view. (For example, I think it’s one of the reasons evangelicals are traditionally more likely to get upset about sex than they are about violence. And why they’re willing to have their rights infringed upon as long as the guy in charge is an evangelical who speaks fluent Old Testament.) And one of these effects is that it makes the evangelical tend to be rather ungenerous in listening to other points of view. This is what I meant back in my first post about evangelical Christians grabbing the football—when religion comes up in conversation, they stake their claim instantly and fiercely, and it’s not because they’re intending to be jerks; it’s the inevitable result of accommodating your mind and emotions to a very harsh theology. (And one of the things their theology teaches, by the way, is that you can't trust people; anyone who raises questions must be resisting God out of perversity or dangerous ignorance. Why should such people be allowed to talk?) For most people, spirituality is a mystery to explore: for evangelical Christians, it’s a deadly serious enterprise with potentially horrifying consequences. You literally can’t afford to make a mistake, and they love other people too much to allow those other people to make any. Evangelicals who’ve grown up in this environment eventually get used to it, and tend to socially normalize by putting hell out of their minds (pretty easy, since they’re saved so it’s not really their problem) or accentuating the positive. But their house is built on a premise of ever-imminent disaster for the morally unwary, and anxiety is never far from the surface. It is not a breeding ground that naturally lends itself to generous moral growth.
It’s getting late, and I have to get to sleep. But I feel I should close with a few meta-thoughts: First: To all you evangelicals reading this, I hope I’ve been more or less reasonable so far, but if I’m not, I hope you’ll let me know. Second: To all you non-evangelicals, I apologize if I’m belaboring something you care little about. I didn’t intend for this to suddenly become the I-Dislike-Religion Channel, but this is clearly something I’m passionate about, and once I’ve bitten down on it I have to worry it till it stops moving. Third and finally: Since the primary purpose of this site is to amuse and entertain my friends, I want to apologize for the rather serious and long-winded turn this has suddenly taken. I’ll post another funny picture right after this, I promise.