Updating Common Sense: What Christians Really Believe

As a kid I took for granted the fact that popping out of the womb as a male beat the hell out of the alternative. Any girl with half a brain, if given the choice, would obviously opt for checking “male” on the census form.

In fact, so clear was this bit of wisdom, and so desperately did young males my age need it to be true that we used “woman” as a slur: Sissy. Fem. Girly-man.

One time I called my little brother a woman in front of my mom. She said, “You know, woman isn’t a dirty word. There’s no shame in being a woman.”

I said, “Sorry, Mom.” But deep inside I knew she was wrong. Everybody did. The reality of male superiority was woven into the fabric of the universe.

But it wasn’t only women. I also took it as read that being gay made you somehow defective. We used sexual orientation as an epithet, too. You know the ones. I don’t need to repeat them.

We just knew these things, as surely as we knew the earth revolved around the sun, or that the sum of the interior angles of a triangle is 180º, or that Michael Jordan is the best basketball player of all time.

We didn’t argue that men were superior to women or that gay people had made some shoddy lifestyle choices any more than we argued about gravity or the law of the conservation of matter or entropy. Because, why would you?

That’s what taking something for granted means: You don’t have to argue about it anymore. It’s the way the world is. It’s not even conventional wisdom, because conventional wisdom implies that there might be another side to the story. This stuff is just eye-rollingly obvious.

But then one day that stuff about women and gay people didn’t seem nearly so obvious anymore. I realized that I knew women who were smarter and funnier and more successful than me. I spent time with LGBT folks who seemed much more together, much more empathic, much more generous than I am. Now, a lot of that stuff I once took for granted seems not only laughably false, but something that I should be actively attempting to stand athwart.

We need to take a look at this whole “taken-for-grantedness” thing. We need to update common sense.

I was reading some analysis recently about the HuffPost/YouGov poll that indicates a problem with Americans’ perception of the budget deficit. In short, the deficit has been steadily falling over the last four years -- which you’d never know by asking the average American, 68 percent of whom believe otherwise.

Why the disparity between reality and perception? Because reality changes, while perception very often does not.

People, according to George Lakoff, make sense of reality by relying on a deeply embedded structure of frames. These frames are the taken-for-granted things we use as shortcuts to understand a complex world.

In many ways frames operate as “what-everybody-with-any-sense-knows-to-be-true.” In the worlds they construct and over which they have dominion, these frames are things that no longer even need to be asserted, let alone argued. Everybody just knows.

But we’ve come to understand that some frames are so wrongheaded that we have a moral responsibility to leave them behind -- like the idea that some classes of people are fit for nothing more than slavery, or that women are inherently hysterical and unfit for positions of responsibility outside the home, or that sexual orientation is a choice to be made -- a choice that is open to praise or blame. Obsolete and unchallenged frames can be moral liabilities.

The liability of certain frames is also true when it comes to religion. Christianity, for instance, has long suffered from some popular certainties that need to be shed. The “taken-for-grantedness” of some frames in popular Christianity is no longer just a hidebound inconvenience; it’s an obstacle to faith. But because the fundamentalists who rely on those yell louder than anyone else, their vision of the world sits at the forefront of the public consciousness as “the Christian position.”

Well, some of the frames popularly believed to be “the Christian position” aren’t; they are distortions of what many folks who claim to follow Jesus believe.

So, here is a list of popular Christian frames that come to mind that need to go away:

Christians are credulous dolts, who view science as a threat.

  • In fact, an overwhelming majority of U.S. Catholics and white mainline Protestants take evolution to be the way we got here.

  • Across the board, a significant majority of Christians believe climate change is underway.

  • A majority of Christians (Evangelical, Mainline Protestant, and Catholic) view stem cell research as morally acceptable or as “not a moral issue.”

Christians hate gay people.

Christians are nationalists who hate immigrants.

I’m tired of playing defense against fundamentalism. Fundamentalists don’t occupy “the Christian position,” which requires some kind of special deference, not to mention the expectation of an explanation from those who would deviate. Christianity, in large part, is much more progressive than is popularly taken for granted.

Common sense about what the majority of Christians believe needs an update.

(This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post.)

Our Great Big American God: A Review

By Derek Penwell

When teaching history, I tell my students about the exciting worlds we will inhabit for just a little while. Some of them give an almost silent “ugh!” complete with glottal stop. A couple of students will sit up a bit straighter, and look expectantly at me, as if I’m the storekeeper who’s just gone into the back and returned with a slightly dusty box of candy bars for which our earnest young inquirer’s have been searching, and about which they have despaired of ever finding. Some of them duck back down behind their laptops, doubtless sharing another YouTube video about a man on a motorcycle riding headlong into a fountain or a precocious armadillo who’s learned to play Fur Elise on a Snoopy piano. But most merely stare straight ahead, the vacuous look of sufferance or indifference; I always find it difficult to tell which.

Then, I ask, “How many of you find history boring?”

This question places them in an awkward position, since I’ve just told them that history is a large part of what we’re going to be doing. If they say “yes,” they can feel good about their honesty, but risk annoying, and thus potentially alienating, me. If they say “no,” in their minds they get to stay on the good side of the professor, but will be actively lying—a thing I believe most people still have a difficult time doing casually.

I want them to feel the awkwardness. Part of teaching centers on confronting the inertial challenges of boredom and resistance to learning. Awkwardness upsets the stasis, if only a tiny bit, allowing opportunities to engage their minds.

“History,” I continue, “is really only professional storytelling. Historians tell stories not just about dates, and battles, and great men, but about the stuff that made up the life of a particular people, in a particular time, in a particular place in the past, stories that attempt to disclose a glimpse of what things looked like, and to give a plausible account of why things turned out the way they did. Boring history amounts to poor story-telling. A good historian can tell the story in such a way as to make the Irish potato famine gripping. My job is to try to be a good story-teller, so that you get a sense not only of what happened, but why, after all these years, it’s important for you to know about it.”

Matthew Paul Turner, in my estimation, treats history the way I enjoy history to be treated—that is, as a good storyteller. In his book, Our Great Big American God, Turner traces the evolution of the American perception and presentation of God through America’s history. Beginning with the question posed by a friend, “Where would God be without America?” Turner’s sets himself the task of exploring the many ways that God has been used to advance various American projects, from the God of the seventeenth century Puritans all the way through the God of the Moral Majority.

Like Stephen Prothero’s, American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon—which surveys the way Jesus has been a giant screen, upon which different eras have projected their ideals, Turner details the ways that God has been portrayed at the hands of American theologians and crackpots (sometimes indistinguishable) over the years. Turns out, God has had a pretty rough go of it in America, suffering the indignities of apparently having such a protean nature.

And while projecting onto God the desires and fears of a culture is nothing new, Americans, because of their enduring association with all things divine, have been amazingly adept at the marketing work of doing God’s branding work for the masses. God in the hands of angry sinners like Jonathan Edwards, for instance, gave us a vindictive and petulant deity, whose antipathy to human sinfulness was so pronounced that God apparently spends most of God’s time waiting expectantly to administer ever more creative methods of punishment and torture. In the hands of D.L. Moody, on the other hand, God became a commodity that, when properly advertised, was available for purchase by the hoi polloi.

Throughout the history of America, Turner examines the extent to which God has been called upon to fortify the spiritual and political prejudices of God’s followers. Those prejudices, as I’ve indicated, are varied and numerous. What remains consistent, however, is the theme “that God and America are usually sleeping in separate bedrooms. And it’s always America’s fault.”

This last quote brings me to my favorite aspect of the book: Turner’s voice. As I suggested in the beginning, good history is the product of good storytellers. Turner is just such a storyteller, one whose voice sounds both conversational and acerbic. His sarcasm (which I love) is always in the service of his story, not just a device to draw attention to itself—a common problem for those who employ it. The manner in which Turner tells his story never loses sight of the seriousness of its subject matter, but nevertheless communicates a playfulness that engages. While some folks won’t cotton to their history of the American God being served with a twist, Turner’s wit will be exactly the thing that draws in others who wouldn’t ordinarily spend time reading, what amounts to, a theological history of God in America.

And though I know it seems like in every “serious” book review some space needs to be set aside to establish the reviewer’s objectivity by providing at least some quibble, I don’t feel any particular need to do that … at least for its own sake. I will say without equivocation: I liked this book a lot, and you should buy it.

I will say, however, more for the purpose of edification than anything else, there was one thing I found slightly jarring. Presumably, the primary audience for a book like this is mainline clergy and the people who teach them in seminary. Oh, I know that the book will be read by Evangelicals and by laity; it will be read by atheists who have no particular theological dog in the fight, other than to observe with a modest amount of opprobrium the way American Christianity has put a hammerlock on the divine—and, by extension, the rest of a culture heavily influenced by that God. But for the most part, if we’re honest, the book’s biggest appeal is to my colleagues and me.

One thing we mainline clergy have been taught (at least those of us who began our theological education after sometime in the 1980s) from the first day in seminary is the theological problems with assuming divine masculinity as the standard for our own (at least as it appears to those outside the guild) parochial form of discourse. That is to say, we had it drilled into us that since referring to God with masculine pronouns serves to underwrite patriarchy by making normative a particular way of speaking, we should never—on pain of having our essays and exams graded severely with all the disapproval a red pen can muster—refer to God as “he” or “him.” It’s now a reflex with most of us, on the order of, but not quite as acute as, a racial or ethnic slur or a positive claim that Justin Bieber is a musical genius.

Objecting to the use of masculine pronouns for God sounds so very P.C. (I know. Get off my back already.) And I swear I don’t want to sound all fancy pants by bringing it up. However, I actually do think it’s theologically important. And, if the audience for a book is largely made up of folks sensitized to a particular way of speaking, it makes sense to observe slight adjustments to vocabulary, if only for the sake of etiquette.

[Update: I was alerted to a note on the copyright page in which Mr. Turner writes: "I have elected to use the masculine pronoun for God, not because I think that God possesses a gender, but for the sake of narrative flow and because all of the people I write about in this book refer to God using male pronouns." From this, it seems, we can conclude that while seminary taught me inclusive language, it didn't do enough to ensure my ability to read thoroughly. My apologies to the author.]

Having said that, though, let me once again enthuse: Matthew Paul Turner’s book, Our Great Big American God, is worth your time. As history goes, it’s good work. Not only does he get the facts right, he gets them right in a way that makes you care about the story he’s telling—a story he tells exceedingly well.

Open Doors

By Rev. Mindi

During the entire first half of 1998, from January until June, I attended one worship service. It was the folk mass at my host family’s Catholic Church in England. Before I had left the states for my semester abroad, several people had told me about various churches—Baptist, Methodist, Anglican—that I could attend while I was abroad. But I chose not to. I chose, quite purposefully, not to attend worship the rest of that spring. 

I was at a crossroads in my faith. I had been part of a few conservative Christian campus ministry groups, and found that while I enjoyed the spirit of the music and the community, I could not abide by the legalistic approach to the Bible nor the narrow theology. I was also involved in our campus’ Gay-Straight Alliance group (this was the late 90’s), was reading feminist literary theory and I always claim that my Introduction to Sociology course the fall of my junior year saved me from fundamentalism forever. While I attended a fairly liberal congregation in college, I found my faith conflicted—I loved the spirit of worship among my conservative friends, the relational nature of God in Jesus that was expressed—but not the narrow ideology. During that time in my life, Christian community was stifling. I equated Christian community with conformity, and liberal or conservative, I did not want to conform. So I chose not to attend a worship service.

However, I was in a church, a chapel, a cathedral or other sanctuary at least every week, if not more often. I lit candles in York Minster and Notre Dame, sat and listened to the choir in Westminster and Winchester, and lifted my eyes up to the stained glass everywhere. I sat in the pews and lit candles under the names of saints I had never heard of.

I grew up Baptist, and am a Baptist minister serving in both American Baptist and Disciples congregations. But in those days, having the opportunity in those old Anglican and Catholic churches to pray, to sit and be silent in the presence of God—or even in the emptiness in some of those dark days of my faith journey—helped me in my faith journey.  It is something I lament in the free church tradition, that often we do not have our sanctuaries open.  The few times I have participated in opening the doors of my own churches I have served have been after major tragedies, such as 9/11 and Sandy Hook. Most of the time, our doors are locked.

In the debates about SBNR (Spiritual But Not Religious) what often gets argued is the need for community—and the assumptions that those who are not in church do not have community. But I am starting to wonder if those of us in the church have been arguing from the wrong angle. Besides the fact that many people who claim to be spiritual gather in other settings for community, what about those who are seeking, or who are spiritual, or even *gasp* religious, but find community stifling? What about those who have been wounded in community?

Are there ways we can be open, be a place of prayer to the public, where people can come and pray, or sit in silence, or listen to music, or light candles? Our Catholic and Episcopalian brothers and sisters, among others, have kept up this ancient tradition, but many of us in the free church tradition have forgotten. We have placed such great emphasis on community that we have forgotten other’s needs. There are times in people’s lives in which community can do more harm than good. But it is the work of the community in providing the space set aside specifically for God, that can reach those in need of solitude.

I still value community and worship together. When I returned from England, it took me a while to get back into church, but I remember clearly the first worship service I attended when I came back was Communion Sunday, and I was never so glad to participate in the breaking of bread and the meal of remembrance with the church I had been raised in, with the people who had always been there for me. But I wouldn’t have appreciated it nearly as much had I not had the time away. I also feel that had it not been for the open churches, the candles in the chapels and the opportunities to pray or sit in silence, I would not have felt as assured of God’s presence even in my own dark valleys.



Fundamentally Surprised

By Dr. Mark Poindexter

This past week, I read Frank Schaeffer’s newest book, “Why I Am An Atheist Who Believes in God.”   Those who read [D]mergent on a regular basis know that earlier this week J.C. Mitchell in his article, “Actions Speak Louder Than Doctrine” wrote of his appreciation for Schaeffer’s book.  I have the same positive sentiment.  With an honesty that is beautiful, Schaeffer speaks of that place where I think many people live. In-between times of belief and disbelief, times of faith and doubt.

A brief history for those who don’t know who Schaeffer is.  He is the son of Francis and Edith Schaeffer, well-known figures in the Christian fundamentalist movement.  Francis and Edith believed that the Bible was literally true in every aspect and thus “inerrant.”  Correct doctrinal belief was sought along with a strict moral code.  Frank Schaeffer, in his younger years, was likewise a darling of the American Christian Right.  Overtime, however, Frank could no longer hold to the fundamentalist theology that had been taught to him.  It did not balance with the world that he experienced.   He has not left the church.  For the past quarter century he has worshipped in an Eastern Orthodox congregation.  He prays every day and he finds in Jesus, if it is to be found anywhere, what God is really like.  His book is an honest acknowledgement that he lives in the paradox of belief and disbelief.

I have a deep appreciation for his book especially as it helped prepare me for a recent encounter.  Though Frank writes that his parents were “deluded by their fundamentalist certainties,” he also writes that they did not always live up to their fundamentalist doctrine which sometimes ended up being for the good.  He wrote about his mom.

She thought that to follow Jesus meant declaring every word of the Bible is literally true. My mother affirmed this belief, again and again and again. . . .Luckily for people she helped, my mother was glorious inconsistent.  She lived according to the more enlightened parts of the Bible and ignored the rest. For instance no matter what she claimed the Bible taught about homosexuality, Mom acted as if being born gay was just another way to be human.  She provided refuge, love and compassion to many gay men and lesbians at L’Arbi, long before the secular world began to acknowledge that gay people are normal and healthy.

Dad and Mom had a lesbian couple living in our chalet for several years in the early 70’s.  One was Dad’s secretary, the other Mom’s helper.  They shared a room. Fortunately, my parents were hypocritical and acted as if, no matter their official religious absolutes, the higher call was to ignore what the Bible said in favor of what they hoped it meant. . . The result was that Francis and Edith Schaeffer were nicer than their official theology.”

The statement that his parents could be nicer than their official theology was in my mind recently during a meeting I attended.  A local minister in our community has been spearheading a good faith effort to bring together congregational leaders and helping organizations with the hope of better addressing the issue of poverty in our community.  The goal is for us to begin working together not only to meet immediate needs, but also to address some of the systemic issues that perpetuate a culture of poverty.  It is an honorable effort and a conversation that I am glad to be part of. 

At our last meeting, we had about a dozen people representing different congregations with various theological perspectives, along with several helping agencies, including our local family shelter.  It is the only family shelter in a five county area.  The shelter has both emergency housing for short-term immediate needs and long-term transitional housing.  Fifteen years ago, the congregation I presently serve was instrumental in the development of this shelter.  Presently, the interim director is a member of my church.   When it came time for her to share about the work of the family shelter, she began my saying, “When we say family we mean families of all different shapes, sizes and configurations, including same-sex couples.”  I held my breath.  I knew that at least three of the congregations represented at that table would have a very conservative understanding concerning same-sex relationships. I was waiting for the meeting to explode and for folks to walk away from the table.  I didn’t hear another word the shelter director said.  I was watching with great intensity the faces of all those around the table.  I was sure this meeting was going nowhere.  To my great surprise, nothing happened.  I’m ready for somebody to be pounding the table and telling us that there is no way they can be part of this conversation and the promotion of “that lifestyle.”  But what I saw was everyone at the table, except me, paying close attention to what was being said.  There was no explosion.   And when the shelter director was done talking, I was surprised at the next person who spoke and what he said.   It was a person I would have pegged as the most conservative one there.  He is the pastor of a church that once had on its sign “This Sunday: What God’s Word Really Says About Same-Sex Marriage.”   The congregation he serves has a middle school and high school.  I know a family who sent one of their children there.  I know how conservative this family is.  The mom told me, “It’s kind of strange to be at a place where we are considered the liberals.”   

But when this conservative pastor of this conservative congregation spoke after listening to the director of the family shelter where same-sex couples are treated like everyone else, what he said touched me deeply.  He said, “We are grateful for what you do.  Because you do good work there.”  After he said that, I immediately thought of Frank Schaeffer’s words that I had read earlier in the week about his parents, they were “nicer than their official theology.

Like Frank, and so many others, I have made a journey away from the fundamentalism that was part of my early walk in faith.  Through my studies, experiences in my own life, and lessons I have learned as a pastor, I have found that theology and way of understanding the Bible to be a house of cards that can collapse very quickly.  I also have seen that way of understanding the Christian faith do a lot of damage to people as it heaps upon them unattainable ideas of perfection both in behavior and belief, ideas which ultimately collapse into overwhelming feelings of guilt and shame.   

Though I have come to a point in my life when I have been able to dismiss that way of understanding the Christian faith, I need to be very careful and not dismiss all the folks who still think that way.  Whenever they are willing to sit down at a table with me and work on an important matter like addressing the root causes of poverty, I need to be willing to sit down with them.  I’ve learned recently both in print and by experience that people can be nicer than their theology.  There are folks who can still be motivated more by Jesus’ compassion than their understanding of God’s judgment.  I was “fundamentally surprised” by what I experienced at the community meeting on poverty and for God’s surprising ways I am grateful.      

Turning the Tables: Why Conservative Christianity Bears the Burden of Proof

By Derek Penwell

Word on the street has progressives engaged in a “war against religion,” or if not a war, then at least a Monty Python-esque call to “run away” from all that is good, Christian, and decent. A column by Russ Douthat in yesterday’s New York Times, as Diana Butler Bass points out in her wonderful response , rehearses the old trope that liberal mainline denominations are dying because they are liberal. Without naming it, Bass draws attention to the fallacy of the liberal-kills-churches meme, that is, the confusion of correlation with causation, by offering the reminder that conservative churches are also experiencing decline.

The tired charge that liberal mainline churches are dying is, ironically, itself difficult to kill off. This fact has caused liberal churches for at least forty years to find themselves always on the defensive. Underlying this indictment of liberal Christianity is the assumption that a progressive reading of scripture and its ethical conclusions are somehow an accommodation to a purely secular system of meaning, while conservative interpretation is self-evidently the gold standard of biblical faithfulness.

What I want to challenge is the persistent and difficult-to-kill assumption that conservatives occupy some kind of religious and ethical high ground, and that any deviation from a particular kind of conservative orthodoxy isn’t merely a matter of interpretation, but is tantamount to initiating hostilities against God, motherhood, and the flag—all of which, interestingly enough, are conflated in some people’s minds. But that’s another article.

The smug certainty with which some conservative religious and political types believe not just that they occupy the side of truth on every issue, but that they occupy the side of God’s truth is alarming—not because they believe these things of themselves so uncritically (self-righteousness is a time-honored religious and political posture on both sides of the ideological divide, after all), but because so many in the culture agree to cede them this authoritative land of milk and honey.[1]

In fact, I not only want to challenge certain popularly held assumptions about the rightful place of the Right at the center of theological discussion, I want to suggest that if a war on religion is being waged, it’s main combatants aren’t progressive Christianity, Barack Obama, or left-leaning political types at Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. I want to set down a more radical charge:

The real war on religion is being waged by those on the Right who read the bible not as the story of God’s saving interaction with the world through the unfolding of God’s reign, but as foundational for a conservative politics of self-interest or as a blueprint for a post-Enlightenment cult of individual piety.

There. I said it. The greatest damage to Christianity comes at the hands of those who display their devoutness with such practiced conspicuousness.[2] Jesus spends the better part of the Gospels crossing rhetorical swords with those who have arrogated unto themselves the mantle of God’s special emissaries for a publicly muscular show of religious devotion.[3] Ironically, Jesus, when faced with an opportunity to cash in on his religious popularity, always seems to strike out in the opposite direction.

I am weary of playing defense against fundamentalism, as if it holds some sort of privileged theological position that requires a special deference, as well as the expectation of an explanation from those who would deviate.

It’s not that I resent having to come clean about my own hermeneutical presuppositions, to be required to set down the story I’m telling about how I interpret scripture. What makes me unutterably weary is the popular assumption that a fundamentalist reading of scripture is somehow the hermeneutical true north by which all interpretations are to be judged. The assertion that the bible is to be read in a common sense fashion, as close to literally as possible, is not only itself merely one interpretative strategy among other strategies, it’s also a fairly recent development in the history of interpretation.

If, for example, one holds that LGBTQ people should be embraced and welcomed as full participants into the life and ministry of the church, the popular assumption among some is that one makes such moves in spite of rather than because of one’s reading of scripture. I have been asked on more than one occasion why I don’t “just quit pretending to be be a Christian,” since I “obviously don’t believe the Bible.”

Apart from the general incivility of such dismissiveness, claiming that Christians who don’t read the bible in a “literal” or “common sense” way are cynically attempting to circumvent taking scripture seriously is captive to its own set of prejudices, which are most often transparent to the speaker. That form of biblical interpretation (viz., “The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it”) is question-begging in its most basic sense.

My hunch is that much of what gets put forward as the practical policy implications of fundamentalism have at least as much to do with conservative economic systems as with biblical interpretation. If progressive Christians have merely uncritically baptized liberal ethical systems when it comes to issues like homosexuality—as is often suggested by our fundamentalist brothers and sisters—why is it not the case that the conservative embrace of tax breaks for the wealthy, the adoption of a do-it-yourself attitude toward healthcare, welfare, and unemployment benefits, and the enthusiastic correlation of patriotism and militarism are merely a baptism of conservative (or worse, libertarian) ethical systems?

So, here’s what I’d like to see: A turning of the tables (or perhaps better, a “turning over” of the tables)—a rebalancing of the burden of proof.

  • I’d like to see a fundamentalist defense from scripture of such policies as cutting taxes for people who already have enough for several lifetimes. How does one “literally” read the prophets or the Gospels and come away thinking that protecting the ability to purchase another yacht or vacation home at the expense of those just struggling to feed their children is something Christians ought to have any stake in?
  • I’d like to see someone defend from scripture fighting for a healthcare system, the chief motivation of which is to figure out ever more ingenious ways to deny coverage to those who can least afford it.
  • I’d like to see a scriptural justification for treating undocumented workers not with Christian hospitality—if not as potential friends and neighbors, then at least as fellow children of God—but as an insidious threat to “our way of life” (in which “our” refers to American and not Christian).
  • I’d like to see how scripture works as a legitimator of arms stockpiling in the service of military adventurism in other countries (see, in particular, Iraq).
  • I’d like to see how the bible comes to the aid of those who would stand idly by while LGBTQ kids endure the dehumanizing and often deadly effects of bullying.
  • I’d like to see how the bible can be put to use defending the belief that our ultimate loyalties to flag and faith are interchangeable, that to have invoked one is ipso facto to have named the other.

I don’t see these arguments being made in convincing ways; and my fear is that this is so because these arguments don’t need making in our culture, since everyone already knows that if Pat Robertson, or James Dobson, or Gary Bauer, or Ralph Reed, or John Piper, Albert Mohler, or Mark Driscoll say it the burden of proof is on anyone who would disagree with them.

If Jesus is any model, turning over tables in the temple is a necessary, if potentially perilous practice.

  1. Before you start emailing me, let me just say that I know, love, and am related to some fine people who read scripture differently from me. I regret, however, that the hard won devoutness of these folks is a moral commodity traded on by religious entrepreneurs and politicians hoping to plant the victor’s flag on the cultural landscape.  ↩
  2. I am using Christianity and religion interchangeably, not because I assume that Christianity is predominant or that other religions are merely placeholders for the “real” truth of Christianity, but because some Christians do assume something very nearly like this. Other religions, generally speaking, stand to lose considerably more than Christianity when a “war on religion” has been identified in the United States, since certain constituencies within Christianity tend to protect a form of Christian hegemony against all other religious comers—often with deadly enthusiasm.  ↩
  3. See, for example: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matt. 6:1); “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them” (Matt. 23:14); “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to sit at the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation” (Mark 12:38–40). You get the point.  ↩

The Thing I Thought I'd Never Say

I’m a minister.  Which is to say, I work as a minister in a church.  Historically, I’ve found myself reluctant to offer that bit of information in casual conversation, not because ministry occupies a position inherently more shameful than a host of other vocational options, but because when people find out that I’m a minister they either want me to answer their questions about I watch TBN, or they want to impart some theological nugget they’ve mined from The Prayer of Jabez or The Left Behind series.  Please don’t misunderstand—I like questions. In fact I entered the ministry because of some of the questions I had about life and its ultimate meaning.  My problem lies not in questions in themselves, but in questions about whether or not I believe that the World Council of Churches, Democratic politicians, and certain cartoon characters on prime time television form a shady cabal intent on ushering in the anti-Christ and a one-world government—complete with standard issue UPC codes emblazoned on everyone’s forehead, or whether I’ve finally come to my senses and realized that mega-churches are the goal of God’s reign here on earth.

The fact is I like being a minister, in large part, because of the conversations that attach to a life spent following such a strange, quixotic, compelling character as Jesus.  The conversations, however, that seem to me to be important to have center on questions of justice, non-violence, grace, faithfulness, friendship, and devotion, rather than the sort of mass-produced fare provided by a popular religious culture that asks nothing more of Christians than that they act nice, refrain from swearing in public, and support any military action proposed by the American government as, ipso facto, God’s will.

To put a finer point on it, I like being a minister at Douglass Boulevard Christian Church.  I’m blessed to belong to a community of faith that takes seriously our call to live out the example of Jesus in the best way we know how.  DBCC is a community unafraid to take a chance on following Jesus down a dark alley.  I like that.  I like the sense of adventure I find in a church like that, as well as the adventurous thoughts I have when I think about what we can do together.

I guess this is all a long way of saying that my thoughts about ministry have evolved since coming to Douglass.  Many of the things I do don’t even feel particularly like work.

In fact, now when I’m asked what I do, I tell people I’m a minister at this really great church that seeks justice for the marginalized, that provides embrace for those who’ve been excluded, that looks into the eyes of the forgotten and says, “You’re welcome here.”

Though we’re not perfect, we are constantly looking for ways to grow and be better.

I’m a minister.  I just thought you should know.



The Second Reformation Sunday, October 31, 2010 on the 493rd anniversary of the posting of the Thesis of Martin Luther

Reclaiming the Fundamentals of The Way

by Douglas C. Sloan

The Way is to...

* live the sacred life - here and now - of the one universal Good News message as the Kingdom of God.

* worship God, who has never been, at any time for any reason, a capricious God of death, war, murder, destruction, violence, abuse, vengeance, hate, fear, lies, slavery, systemic injustice, oppression, conditional acceptance, exclusion, segregation, discrimination, shunning, ostracism, eternal condemnation, eternal punishment, retribution, sacrifices, patriarchy, matriarchy, empire, nationalism, only one culture, only one race or portion of the population, parochialism, sectarianism, dogma, creeds, pledges, oaths or censorship – and who has never behaved as a Greco-Roman or narcissistic deity.

* worship God, who is singular, solitary, nonmaterial, immanent, transcendent – the sacred and ultimate reality, the divine mystery, the more – and who has always been a consistent God of life, peace, creation, truth, healing, rehabilitation, restoration, forgiveness, reconciliation, inclusion, participation, diversity, liberation, justice, resurrection, transformation, love and grace. There are neither multiple nor opposing divine forces or entities or identities or personalities. There is only God.

* know the grace of God to be unconditional and boundless – my acceptance by God requires nothing of me.

* know the love of God... be unrelenting and unlimited; .........makes no exceptions and has no qualifications; be the constant inviting presence of God; and be the unconditional acceptance by God of me in my entirety as a gift.

* worship God, whose will is and who has always yearned for us to... free and independent; .........think; curious; intelligent and wise; .........value knowledge over ignorance and compassion over knowledge; creative; .........grow and mature; long healthy satisfying lives; non-violently without vengeance; generous; hospitable; compassionate; no harm; .........heal and rehabilitate and restore; .........forgive and reconcile and include all and have all participate; good stewards of all resources; here and now as one family; in a loving intimate relationship with God; transformed through resurrection; and the kingdom of God.

* worship God, who has always been the same and whose character does not change and who is not capricious or abusive or narcissistic. God performs neither miracles nor acts of retribution. God neither saves nor condemns. God has never required and never accepted a sacrifice by anyone for any reason. God desires worship as relationship, not praise or euphoria. God does not preplan or predestine or interfere with the course or end of my life.

* reject as components or identifying characteristics or requirements of faith and worship and church and Christianity and life and God and Jesus and the Good News message and the Kingdom of God: death, war, murder, destruction, violence, abuse, vengeance, hate, fear, lies, slavery, systemic injustice, oppression, conditional acceptance, exclusion, segregation, discrimination, shunning, ostracism, eternal condemnation, eternal punishment, retribution, sacrifices, patriarchy, matriarchy, empire, nationalism, the superiority of one culture or one race or some portion of the population, parochialism, sectarianism, dogma, creeds, pledges, oaths, censorship, the valuation of thoughts or beliefs or praise or euphoria over justice and service and relationships, and any consideration of post-mortal existence.

* read scripture... a sacrament for the experience and presence of God; .........for inspiration and motivation and contemplation and meditation and .........spiritual truth and insight and illumination about God is a presence and influence in my life and better understand the love and grace of God and discern how God is calling me forward and .........beyond my previous understanding of God a better and more complete and more mature understanding of God and God is calling me forward a more loving relationship with others and with God.

* know the best understanding of scripture requires... .........a scholarly knowledge of the original languages of the scripture and .........the linguistic devices used in the scripture .........(cultural assumptions, coded language, humor, sarcasm, hyperbole, .........poetic metaphor, etc.), .........of the cultural and historical environment in which the scripture was written, .........and .........of the people of that time by whom and for whom the scripture was written.

* know scripture as the metaphorical and narrative and thoughtful writings by the ancestors of my faith, who recorded their contemporary and historical, personal and cultural perception and understanding of the presence and influence of God in their lives and in the life of their community. While, at most, it can be persuasive or instructional, the scripture is not controlling.

* know the community of followers of The Way and worship and living the Good News message as the Kingdom of God to be more important than dogma and creeds and land and structures and debt and continuing expenses and material abundance and wealth accumulation and to be more important than pledges and oaths and empire and nationalism and patriotism and citizenship and civic religion and patriarchy and matriarchy and parochialism and sectarianism and political influence and social standing and financial clout.

* know largess to be more important than largeness and to hold that generosity and hospitality to all is a fundamental element of the Good News message and a defining characteristic of the Kingdom of God.

* know compassionate service to those who are hurt or lost or oppressed as a fundamental element of the Good News message and a defining characteristic of the Kingdom of God. Service requires partnership between the server and the served. Holy and wholesome service requires that the server be competent and healthy. Service is not slavery, not some form of enforceable servitude, and not an opportunity or a justification for the server to be oppressed or abused.

* know that as the children of God, we are one family in one place. There are no races, no tribes, no indigenous peoples, no ethnic groups, no castes, no nations, no royalty, no aristocracy, no social classes, no economic classes, no genders, no sexual orientations, no geography, no religions, no denominations, no sects, no churches, no elite, no privileged, no saved, no unsaved, no slaves, no outcasts, no untouchables – none of these are a consideration or a barrier or a limitation to the possession and development and utilization of time and effort and gifts and talents for service to others or participation in the Kingdom of God – there is no “us” and no “them”, no “here” and no “there”, no families other than the one family of all people together in one place as the children of God.

* know Jesus as: an intelligent compassionate Jewish mystic who had a strong persistent connection to and participation in and understanding of God; who could explain the reality of God to others and introduce them to a personal experience of God and a personal relationship with God; a messenger of the Good News and an example of the Kingdom of God. Because Jesus was effective as a messenger and successful as an example, he was killed. Both in message and self-understanding, Jesus was non-messianic and non-eschatological.

* know an experience of “the resurrected Jesus” or any other positive divine experience as an experience of the immediate and tangible presence of God, to know with confidence the reality of being and being in and of the Kingdom of God.

* not regard Jesus as divine or as a sacrifice or atonement or ransom or a substitute for me. The Good News message and the Kingdom of God and the presence and experience of God are what are divine in mortal life. Because of the love and grace of God, sacrifice and atonement and ransom and substitution on my behalf are not required for me to be accepted by God and to participate fully in and as the Kingdom of God.

* know the reemergence and revitalization of the disciples after the death of Jesus: ......–– as the first followers of The Way; ......–– as the first Good News resurrection and transformation; ......–– as the first example and witness that ......–– resurrection and transformation do exist and ......–– do not require death as a precedent; ......–– as example and witness that ......–– resurrection and transformation are available to all; and ......–– as example and witness that ......–– the Kingdom of God is here and now and active.

* know baptism, regardless of the method used, as a public act of private intent – to commit to living as a follower of the Good News message by being the Kingdom of God. Other followers are to provide the new follower with tolerance (ideally, acceptance) and the safety of time in a place devoid of condemnation and retribution which is necessary for the new follower to put behind and to put away a past life, to let the previous life die and in its place resurrect a new transformed life and person.

* know communion, regardless of the frequency it is shared or what elements are used, as a public act of universal unity. We gather at an open table where, without exception and without qualification, all are invited. At an open table, we celebrate and affirm the ever-present life of the Good News message and the ever-present all-inclusive unifying love of the Kingdom of God.

* proclaim “Jesus is Lord” and mean that I have no other Lord, that no person of any social or political or religious position has dominion over my life. To proclaim “Jesus is Lord” is to take a moral and spiritual stance and to commit an act of radical counter-cultural non-violent defiance of the oppression and systemic injustice committed by empire and civic religion and by individuals who are more interested in power over others than in service to others. My faith is personal. My faith is not a matter of proxy or the authority of others.

* know that the Good News message is not a loss of my freedom or independence, indeed, it is a much fuller realization of my freedom and independence; is not a forsaking of intelligence or wisdom or knowledge or the search for new knowledge or learning or finding new ways to see reality, or new insights into the workings and purposes of reality, or discovering or creating new visions of what reality could be; is not to forsake seeking or questioning or doubting or examination or reexamination or analysis or reanalysis. The Good News is dynamic, not static; is life, not death, not after death; is growth, not stunted development; is moving forward and moving beyond my current existence and is moving forward and moving beyond my current understanding of my existence and of God.

* be guided and instructed by the Good News message, which is: ......–– God is unconditional boundless grace and unlimited unrestrained love ......–– and always has been;

......–– God wants to have a loving intimate relationship with each of us ......–– without exception and without qualification;

......–– seek justice as healing and rehabilitation and restoration;

......–– seek universal reconciliation and inclusion and participation;

......–– in healthy partnership, ......–– compassionately serve all who are hurt or lost or oppressed;

......–– be generous and hospitable to all;

......–– live non-violently without vengeance and ......–– with a cheerful fearlessness of death and worldly powers; and

......–– be – here and now – the Kingdom of God.

Whatever we do – Whatever we are – Wherever we are – – can never separate us from the love and grace and the surrounding and inviting and welcoming and inclusive presence of God.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - PDF FILES - to download and print REFORMATION II - poster size --- 11" x 17", 1 page (appropriate size for posting on the doors of churches and other institutions)

REFORMATION II - letter size --- 8.5" x 11", 6 pages (appropriate size for copying and sharing)

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BIOGRAPHY Doug is a member of Central Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), 4950 East Wabash Avenue, P.O. Box 3125, Terre Haute, IN 47803-0125 (812-877-9959). Central Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is an open and affirming congregation where Doug has served as Elder and Treasurer and enjoys his continuing membership in the choir as the lowest voiced bass. He graduated in 2009 with a M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction from Indiana State University and a BS in Management Information Systems from Ball State University in 1997. Since August 2005, he has been a member of the CIS Adjunct Faculty at the Terre Haute campus of Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana. He has been published in DisciplesWorld and Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice. In the summer of 2010, Doug became a contributor to [D]mergent. Of the 7 articles he wrote, 5 are in the top 10 most-viewed articles at [D]mergent. Doug is married to Carol, a First Grade teacher, and is the father of two sons.

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STUDY RESOURCES To better understand the theology of Reformation II, please read the previous seven [D]mergent articles by Doug Sloan, listed here in order of publication: ..........RECLAIMING CHURCH ..........GOD IS... ..........RECLAIMING GOD ..........RECLAIMING MIRACLES ..........RECLAIMING NOT ..........RECLAIMING the GOOD NEWS - an epistle ..........RECLAIMING FORGIVENESS - it's personal