WWJD and the Myth of a Christian Nation

A thoughtful reader emailed me recently regarding my post entitled “Quandary.” The reader brought up the question of what Jesus would do in the present election. As it was already a subject revolving in my mind, I decided to get some thoughts down here.

The problem with “WWJD” thinking is that it often simply evolves into what a person thinks anyway. Once I heard my two daughters surveying their extremely messy playroom, and one said, “I wonder what Jesus would do with this room.”

“He’d tell us to clean it up,” advised my responsible older daughter.

“Or, maybe he’d ask an angel to do it!” replied my more carefree younger daughter.

Render Unto Caesar (Rubens)
Render Unto Caesar (Rubens)

What would he do in a democratic republic? No idea. God chose a different age as the “fullness of time” for the Messiah to come, an age of emperors that demanded to be worshiped as gods, an age in which church and state were not separated. The more salient question is what Jesus actually did do about political involvement. The answer is, not much — at least, not much that was recorded. His disciples reflected different political points of view, and he didn’t sanction any of them or allow himself to be identified with any specific political movement. The only expressly political statement I can think of that Jesus made was, “Render unto Caesar what belongs to him, and to God what belongs to him.” (He said this because political groups were trying to trap him into defining himself in their terms.) He didn’t make any effort at all to help the Jews overthrow their oppressive Roman overlords. He did claim to be himself the King of kings — a political statement if ever there was one! But he said his kingdom was “not of this world.” Mostly, he seems to have had the kind of long view we would expect a Creator to have toward human establishments. He wasn’t a political activist in the sphere of human government.

This article is an interesting summary of Jesus’ politics. It concludes,

As the King of kings and Lord of lords, Jesus was political, though of an order that transcends this world and intersects this world all at the same time and calls it to account at every turn. As Jesus intersects our paths during this election season and beyond, do we realize that our ultimate allegiance must be to him?

How is this “ultimate allegiance” expressed? The New Testament gives us the general exhortation to live with integrity, in a manner worthy of our calling. This amounts to much the same thing any democratic republic tells its citizens to do: vote your conscience. For starters, Philippians 4:8 lays out some standards for a Christian conscience. Galatians 5:22-23 does too. 1 Timothy 3 lays out some standards for church leaders, and although a president is not a church leader, these standards define the kind of good character that marks a trustworthy leader.

As I said in my previous post, voting my conscience does not mean I’ll be “sitting out the election.” It means I’ll be voting for someone I can support. That means neither of the two major party candidates. I have watched every debate since last summer, read avidly the candidates’ positions on issues, and followed their public statements in an effort to be informed. I don’t see how either one is worthy of public office. Neither even amounts to a lesser evil. There is a slight difference in the party platforms, but in practice these platforms don’t seem to mean anything. In terms of moral outlook and political philosophy, a Clinton or a Trump presidency would look about the same. In terms of personal character, both are demonstrably dishonest, both are long-time political insiders who have played the system for years, and neither has any intention of reforming the excesses and corruptions of government. I’ve held my nose and voted for candidates in the past who may not match my criteria in every respect, but who meet at least some of them and are in the main decent people. This year, both parties are offering people below that threshold. I will have to find some other alternative to vote for, even if it means writing someone in, and in this way exercise the privilege of having a vote.

77832Some would argue that voting in this way is somehow disloyal to, as one person calls it, “our nation of Christians.” A nation of Christians would not have chosen these two candidates. The astonishing voting performance of self-proclaimed evangelicals and prominent church figures in the primaries reveals (among other things) a chasm between true Christianity and what Greg Boyd calls “civil religion” in his excellent book The Myth of a Christian Nation.

Christianity is based on a relationship practiced by individuals. It’s not a set of political positions or, as Dallas Willard called them, “boundary markers.” Christians in any nation retain (or lose) their identity and integrity independently of who’s in office, or what laws are on the books, or what party keeps its majority. Christians have thrived the most when politics have not gone their way, as the church’s vitality in ancient Rome, or modern day China, show. From that standpoint, perhaps the best thing that could happen in America is for us to stand with some courage against the moral tide now flowing against Christians, rather than rushing like lemmings to a figure whose only virtue is the promise of political control.

In this passage from The Myth of a Christian Nation, Greg Boyd describes the contrast between Christianity and civil religion:

A second thing that happens when we fail to distinguish the civil religion of America from the kingdom of God is that we end up wasting precious time and resources defending and tweaking the civil religion — as though doing so had some kingdom value. We strive to keep prayer in the schools, fight for the right to have public prayer before football games, lobby to preserve the phrases “under God” in our Pledge of Allegiance and “in God we trust” on our coins, battle to hold the traditional civil meaning of marriage, and things of the sort — as though winning these fights somehow brings America closer to the kingdom of God. This, we think, is part of what it means to “take America back for God.”

Now, you may or may not agree that preserving the civil religion in this way is good for the culture. Vote your conscience. But can we really believe that tweaking civil religion in these ways actually brings people closer to the kingdom of God, that it helps them become more like Jesus? For example, does anyone really think that allowing for a prayer before social functions is going to help students become kingdom people? Might not such prayer — and the political efforts to defend such prayer — actually be harmful to the kingdom inasmuch as it reinforces the shallow civil religious mindset that sees prayer primarily as a perfunctory religious activity? Might it not be better to teach our kids that true kingdom prayer has nothing to do with perfunctory social functions, that true kingdom prayer cannot be demanded or retracted by social laws and that their job as kingdom warriors is to “pray without ceasing” (I Thess. 5:17) whether the law allows for it to be publicly expressed or not?

In other words, rather than spending time and energy defending and tweaking the civil religion, might it not be in the best interest of the kingdom of God to distance ourselves from the civil religion? Couldn’t one even go so far as to argue that it would be good for the kingdom of God if this civic brand of pseudo-Christianity died altogether? Isn’t one of the primary problems we’re up against in this nation the fact that Christianity has been trivialized by being associated with civic functions? And aren’t we actually reinforcing this trivialization by fighting so vigorously to preserve this pseudo-Christian veneer? Maybe Kierkegaard was right when he stated that the worst form of apostasy the Christian faith can undergo is to have it become simply an aspect of culture. Perhaps it would be a benefit to the advancement of this kingdom if America looked as pagan as it actually is, if the word God wasn’t so trivially sprinkled on our coins, our Pledge of Allegiance, our civic functions, and elsewhere. Then perhaps the word might come to mean something significant to people who genuinely hunger and thirst for the real thing!

Ancient Israel was a theocracy, not a democratic republic. But their history shows some of the same dynamic we see today in America. Just this morning, I read about the era just after King Solomon, when the kingdom split in two. Jereboam wanted to maintain control of his ten tribes by preventing them from having to travel to Jerusalem, where all the true Levite priests had fled. So he made a couple of idols and proclaimed, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” Those who “set their hearts on seeking the Lord, the God of Israel” fled to Jerusalem. But the rest obediently stayed home and worshiped the idols.

It’s a chilling picture, all too similar to what is happening today in America. Those people had to make a choice. Would they follow a political personality who seemed sympathetic to their needs, but who wanted to use their religion, changing it in the process, to consolidate his own power? Or would they turn away and hold firm to the faithful God who had taken care of them so far? Rather than selling our souls at the altar of a political party or a personality, let’s hold firm to the One we know is true and real.

Epic

EpicI’ve had a great experience reading this little book by John Eldredge aloud to my two daughters. Epic: The Story God is Telling and the Role that is Yours to Play takes up the question of why the most popular books and movies move us so deeply. Its answer? They follow the same pattern as the creation/redemption story which, Christians believe, defines the terms for understanding human experience. We recognize its themes and movements instinctively because we are born into this story, and it creates the framework for all of our deepest fears and longings.

Eldredge breaks the book into four chapters, capped at either end with a prologue and epilogue:

  • Act 1: Eternal Love
  • Act 2: The Entrance of Evil
  • Act 3: The Battle for the Heart
  • Act 4: The Kingdom Restored

Illustrating his points not just with passages from the Bible, but with quotations from numerous great stories and movies, Eldredge appeals to our experience to affirm his argument that there is a universal imaginative language for “reading” one’s own life and understanding our connection to human history. Like the best stories, there is a “Once upon a time” in an Eden; an enemy who robs and corrupts; a battle in which a hero rises to fight for someone; and a restoration. All of these themes appeal simultaneously to our ways of understanding life, and to the Bible story of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. Eldredge’s ideas will be familiar to those acquainted with Lewis and Tolkien’s views on myth, or the ideas of archetypal criticism.

The girls really enjoyed this little book. Eldredge’s style is always winsome and engaging and appealingly honest. He acknowledges the hard things frankly, and admits to his own failings. He is not afraid to show his enthusiasm for the tales he discusses here. Also, he makes reference to so many familiar, loved stories that it was a fantastic introduction to literary discussion.

I noticed a couple of things. One was the seeming silence on the subject of self-sacrifice, or one person giving up something precious for another, that seems such a common motif in the “battle for the heart.” Second, it left me musing over how all of this really plays out in someone’s life. The book is short and concise, which works well. But a life is long and often baffling. Which chapter is this? Are we to the point in the story where things turn for the better yet? Why is this section taking so long?

But then this is why the book is worth reading, and what I liked about reading it to my daughters. It makes you think about “the role that is yours to play.” It casts a vital, adventurous vision and provides the terms for seeing it in your own life. One key trait of a humanity made in God’s image is the process of making meaning of raw experience, and this little book offers some eloquent insights to remember along the way.

The Bible Tells Me… What?

So here I am, again, writing about The Bible Tells Me So — which I already reviewed here. I’ve continued mulling over the book, bothered by various things. I wanted to return and complete my earlier representation of my experience with it here.

Basically, I think it reflects some degree of scholarly hubris on the part of its author, Peter Enns. I have a lot of respect for him, and I believe his intentions with the book are good and God-honoring. But the overall result is to make the Bible into a book that’s not so much a human-divine hybrid as a human recasting of the divine. It never really deals with the resulting elephant in the room, which is: why bother to read it? There are plenty of other ancient stories regarded as fairy tales. Why read this one as anything more? Somehow, the recommendation to defer to tradition and read in faith rings hollow (quoted in my review) after all that’s gone before.

For instance, after a discussion of how troubling it is that God would order genocide, it suggests that God simply didn’t tell the Israelites to attack and destroy the Canaanites; they just thought he did. Archaeology hasn’t confirmed the story either. Same with the story of the dramatic exodus from Egypt. No archaeological evidence unearthed of Pharoah’s army, and no extra-biblical accounts of the tale. Just stories, then, says Mr. Enns. But that’s okay, because God likes stories. He likes for his children to make stories about him, even when they are filled not with occasional factual errors based on the knowledge limitations of the time, but with grand misconstruals of God’s character and communication with human beings.

It takes the point too far. One wonders how the author feels so confident making a pronouncement of this scale after so many centuries.

One of the main thrusts of the book is that it has been wrongly read — and defended — as a literal historical or scientific “manual for living.” We should not project modern questions and concerns on to an ancient text written by people with a tribal mentality. True enough. It doesn’t reward efforts to wring geology and biology and physics and astronomy out of it. Still, it claims to be “inspired by God.” In the passages about Israel’s history — tales that are not offered as mythical — we can expect to see a flat earth as the conceptual framework, different concepts of time, imprecise numbers, some exaggeration. But assertions of things that never happened? That’s a little different.

I wonder if the author is committing the very error he warns against: bringing a modern sensibility to an ancient text and saying, “This can’t be true. God can’t be like this.”

I’m not saying I don’t struggle with the Bible. There’s plenty there to stop us in our tracks and make us struggle and question and pray and seek answers. I struggle with the violence too, and the many supernatural events recounted matter-of-factly in the Old Testament.

But the fact that I struggle with it doesn’t mean I can make it disappear. In the end I am much more comfortable concluding that somehow, the ancient writers didn’t get it totally wrong. They did capture some aspects of God, however mystifying to me. And even if they exaggerated, the didn’t make up historical accounts out of thin air.

My faith can accept the uncertainty of this. But the seeming certainty of The Bible Tells Me So — a certainty that doesn’t even stop short of proposing that the Son of God “creatively interpreted” the Scriptures he himself inspired — seems to overreach. I was listening for a humility that should accompany study of the Bible, but I had a hard time hearing it in The Bible Tells Me So.

John on the Island of Patmos (Gustave Dore)
John on the Island of Patmos (Gustave Dore)

More than once in The Bible Tells Me So, Peter Enns affirms the tradition of debate in Judaism. I wanted to offer an extended quotation toward the end of the book that captures that tradition. I love the picture it gives us of God:

A famous story from the Talmud, Judaism’s early medieval core text on Jewish faith and life, records a debate between rabbis. The debate is over whether an oven that has been made impure could be purified and used again.

The majority opinion was no but one rabbi, Eliezar, argued the opposite, but, alas, to no avail. Exasperated by his colleagues’ dim-wittedness, he challenged them with some miracles. If I am right, he said, may that tree over there move — whereupon the tree picked itself up and moved about the length of a football field. But the others weren’t convinced. They were certain their argument from the Bible was sure, and no moving tree was going to convince them otherwise.

Eliezar wouldn’t give up. He called a stream to reverse course and then the walls of the house to bend inward, but the others responded the same way. Finally, Eliezar asked whether hearing the heavenly voice of God himself would convince them, at which point the voice of God declared that Eliezar was absolutely right.

This didn’t work either. The others responded that God had already given his Torah on Mount Sinai. In that Torah we read that God’s commands are “not in heaven” but right here, available to all. God himself is bound by his own recorded words in Torah, and so even his heavenly voice can’t change that.

At hearing this, God laughed with delight. “My children have defeated me! My children have defeated me!”

This story illustrates something Judaism seems to have a good handle on but that many Christians do not: debating each other, and debating God, is what God wants. (Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So)

Reflections on the Bible

6a00d834890c3553ef01b8d06778a3970cPeter Enns’ Evolution of Adam was one of my favorite reads of 2013. So I didn’t think twice about tackling his newer book The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. This one has a similar purpose — recalibrating our expectations of the Bible. But it leaves me with a very different mixture of reactions.

Like The Evolution of Adam, The Bible Tells Me So showcases Enns’ considerable knowledge of the Bible and skill with historical criticism. It takes us on a very readable and interesting tour of what we might call the Bible’s human features — and limitations. And it challenges us to think. Enns’ main purpose with this book is to encourage readers to accept the Bible for what it is rather than projecting modern expectations and questions on it or treating it as an instruction manual for life.

What is it, then? An ancient text, one full of truth claims and purporting to be inspired by God (although we don’t hear much about that), even as it’s unavoidably marked and shaped by the historical, culture-bound human minds through whom God inspired it (and we hear a LOT about that).

That sums up my response to this book. It’s strong on supplying evidence of Enns’ thesis about the Bible’s human shaping. But it does little to balance these features against its transcendent qualities. The bulk of the book shows us the contradictions, historical accounts unsupported by archaeology, competing perspectives on God, and rhetorical stretches by its writers. If I didn’t have prior experience with the Bible within the context of my own relationship with God, I would wonder, by the time I got to the end of The Bible Tells Me So, why we should bother to read it at all.

The strange thing is, I agree with Enns in the main when it comes to what kind of book the Bible is. I agree that it bears plenty of human markings, and what’s more, I see this as a strength of the Bible. How God inspired it tells us almost as much about him as what’s on the pages. He is a God willing to humble himself, even to take on human flesh and enter into the limits of space and time — and, in the Bible, into human language and imagination and experience.

Yet despite this basic sympathy, I reached the end of The Bible Tells Me So with some disappointment. It’s probably because I was expecting a different kind of book — much like some people do with the Bible, a point Enns returns to many times. As the subtitle indicates, he feels that excessive defense of the Bible is the last thing it needs, so it’s no wonder that he doesn’t mount one here. Sometimes, I thought that Enns was trying too hard — too many jokes, too much eagerness to point out problems, too much overstatement. (There are, after all, other interpretations out there.) But he provides an honest assessment of a believer’s struggles with the Bible. This will come as a welcome alternative for those who feel they can’t investigate the Bible or get a hearing for their questions.

I’m a Christian, but the book did something for me too. It made me listen from beginning to end to some specific problems with the Bible — without the author kicking into rational defensive mode. It made me uneasy, but this was good in a medicinal kind of way. I guess I have more “defending the Bible” pulsing through my veins than I realized. (Edited to add: Still, his assertions require some defense, whether or not the Bible does. Essentially he proposes that much of the Bible is simply humans misunderstanding of what God is trying to say, but we should read it anyway.)

I didn’t accept or agree with everything, but I really liked a lot of what I read in The Bible Tells Me So. It was unfailingly engaging, and as I scribbled my questions in a notebook while reading, I was reminded that the Bible isn’t the end-all of the Christian faith. Restored relationship with God is. One thing God gains from a Bible inspired in this way is that it repels our tendency to bibliolatry. We aren’t meant to be Bible-worshipers, and this Bible invites too much struggle and debate to become a passive idol. It invites us to read and study, it stirs up confusion alongside the wisdom and reassurance and instruction, and in our best moments we take our questions to God.

All this talk, and I still haven’t offered a single quotation. I’ll give Peter Enns the last word:

The Bible is God’s Word. The Bible has been around a long time and it’s not going anywhere. Even with all its challenges and odd stories, its naysayers and skeptics, it’s got staying power. People just keep right along meeting God there.

Forget everything else. Forget all the reasons we might have for putting it away in a box somewhere with other ancient relics. Forget the fact that God often has a temper and commands strange things. Forget the fact that its writers thought the earth was flat, a flood covered the earth, or the first woman held a conversation with a snake.

The Bible, just as it is, still works.

Don’t try to explain it. Just accept it. That won’t make you a mindless zombie. It just means you are accepting your own human limitations and acknowledging by faith something bigger than ourselves is happening, someone bigger is behind it, and we have the privilege to be a part of it.

Hold on to the time-tested wisdom that in order to know God better, we should keep reading and wrestling with the Bible. It’s God’s Word and that’s what he wants.

Edited to add: Afterthoughts here.