Shuck and Jive

Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

How Literalist Christianity Often Appears to Those Who Are Not Christian

This is from Steven Carr's blog. It is a definition of Christianity:

'The belief that a cosmic Jewish Zombie who was his own father can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree, which never actually existed.'
The Christian beliefs when taken literally look like the above definition. No wonder more and more people are saying, "No thanks." Yet there are many of us who are participating in the reform of Christianity that regards symbols and stories as symbols and stories.

Marcus Borg is one such Christian. We are reading The Heart of Christianity in our Thursdays with Jesus group. Rather than regard Christianity as statements you must believe in order to get transported to heaven, Borg sees Christianity as a way of living.

We just finished his chapter on being "born again." This is a key phrase among literalists. Borg suggests that it is a powerful metaphor that can be reclaimed by progressive Christians. Being born anew is about the process of dying to an old way of being and becoming transformed into a new way of being.

The content of this new way is characterized by the teachings and actions of Jesus.

However, Borg points out that Christianity holds no corner on this new way of living. All enduring religious traditions, in their unique way, invite their adherents to participate in this transformation.

Progressive Christianity is not for everyone. But for those who find the symbols powerful and literalism impossible, it is an alternative.


  1. Yes, yes, yes! Shout it from the mountaintops! Shout it everywhere!

    This is such an important message to spread. So many people turn against religion because they believe that literalist Christianity is the same thing as Christianity per se. They think that being a person of faith means that you have to believe the unbelievable.

    People who were never religious in the first place will never give Christianity a second thought because they equate Christianity with its literalist variant (and whose fault is that?) And then you end up with people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens who attack all of religion without even making a passing reference to people like Marcus Borg. And you get ex-fundamentalists who are so bitter over their personal experiences that they themselves turn into atheists.

    It's a mess, a big giant mess. Progressive Christians have a big task before them.

  2. Progressive Christianity is not for everyone.

    That reminds me of what was said on the "Living the Questions" video. Religion is not a competition. It isn't a race to see who gets the most adherents. The success of progressive Christianity should not be measured by how many people are attracted to it.

    Some people are stuck in spiritual adolescence, and they will want the certain answers and the unambiguous theology of literalism and fundamentalism. They will never be attracted to progressive Christianity. On the other hand, there is a vast number of people out there, the "church alumni society", who are disenfranchised by religion but who still have spiritual cravings. Many of those are the ones who can can find fulfillment via a progressive faith.

  3. I did say '... never actually existed.' in my definition.

    Christianity does not teach that there really was a magic tree.

  4. It is an interesting irony:

    That people who reject the Bible and the Fundamentalists nevertheless believe what the Fundamentalists tell them the Bible says.

  5. It seems that while pastor Bob is busy building walls of theological doctrines to define abstract propositional statements that are to divide those who are Christian from those who are not, Jesus’ invisible spiritual brotherhood of faith sons and daughters of God who love the truth are seeking to define anew what it means to follow Jesus way of learning to love God and one’s fellows. This to me is the true Jesusonian fellowship.

    What religionists like pastor Bob are doing is trying to define religions of authority based upon intellectual assent to propositional statements. The irony is, that in so rigidly defining their doctrinal “essentials” they are straining at gnats and swallowing camels. They give meticulous attention to defining as doctrinal “essentials” of trifling importance to human welfare in both time and eternity, while they fail in the recognition of high and holy obligations of truly spiritual nature.

    They are not even consistent in that they hold their doctrinal beliefs more important than truth, and when truth exposes the weakness of fallacies in their “essential” doctrines are quick to retreat into theological obscurantism and dogma. This is truly a religion for the timid and those who fear every new truth or fact that might challenge their safe established harbors of creed, dogma, and abstract theological “essentials.”

    And to their everlasting shame, some are quick to use scripture to teach that Muslims are “accursed” because they don’t believe what these so-called Christians have defined as “essential belief about Jesus,” thereby overlooking the weightier matter of fairness, mercy, and truth. Go into any bookstore in the current events section, and you will find a plethora of narrow minded and bigoted works from so-called Christians seeking to define Muslims in the image of their narrow doctrinal “essentials” and thereby asserting either openly or tacitly that they are not saved. You cannot say you love your flesh and blood brother and at the same time pronounce him accursed before you have even met and come to know him, simply based upon abstract theological dogma. This is the practice which Jesus denounced the Pharisees for, telling us such teachers are like the blind leading the blind.

  6. Mr. Carr's problem is not so much with literalism but his own embrace of anti-intellectualism. It should not move a thinking person one iota in any direction.

  7. While I can laugh at the silliness of such a definition and even see how someone completely ignorant of Christian tradition would think such a thing - or how a satirist would concoct such a depiction, it isn't particularly useful for actual discussion.

    One of the problems with "progressive Christianity" is that it buys into the whole myth that there History is a story about progress. It says that people in the past believed such nonsense as this because they didn't know, better but now we do, when of course that is not the case at all because Christianity never taught this kind of baloney, nor are we now entering into some kind of mystical age where we are so much wiser and superior to people of a past age.

    It also tends to promote a kind of binary view of Christianity which is unhelpful. It says - either you're like Marcus Borg or you believe in eating Jewish Zombie flesh. That's just not interesting or helpful.

  8. They are not even consistent in that they hold their doctrinal beliefs more important than truth, and when truth exposes the weakness of fallacies in their “essential” doctrines are quick to retreat into theological obscurantism and dogma. This is truly a religion for the timid and those who fear every new truth or fact that might challenge their safe established harbors of creed, dogma, and abstract theological “essentials.”

    This is very well stated and captures in a nutshell a big problem with the erecting of walls between "Christians" and "non-Christians" on the basis of supposed "essentials". The whole "essentials" idea is not just an exercise of power over who gets to be in and who doesn't, but also a ticket to the sort of dogmatism that you are describing, because it inevitably creates a fear of any fact, research, or finding that would contradict those "essentials".

  9. Does Christianity teach that there is only one being called God and that Jesus was God and that God was the father of Jesus?

  10. Aric,
    Excellent observations.

    God is not like you or me. Christians believe Jesus is God's Son, AND that Jesus is one with the Father, AND that God is one.
    This would be contradictory if God was just a mere human. But He's not.

  11. An excellent history of liberal Christianity is Gary Dorrien's trilogy:

    1. The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion, 1805-1900.

    2. The Making of American Liberal Theology: Idealism, Realism and Modernity 1900-1950.

    3. The Making of American Liberal Theology: Crisis, Irony, & Postmodernity 1950-2005.

    An excellent overview of the issues being contested in this ongoing debate between conservative Christianity and progressive Christianity can be found in Paul F. Knitter's No Other Name?: A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes Toward the World Religions.

  12. A couple of points for clarification.

    I grabbed this quote from Steve Carr's blog to use as an illustration of my point, not to talk about Steve.

    I could have used anything, but his definition fit the bill for the point I am making.

    That point is simply this: popular (literalist, fundamentalist, whatever) Christianity is absurd. To equate the main dogmas of Christianity with any of kind of reality save mythical and symbolic is incredible. Steve's definition simply removes the pious veneer. Is the Apostle's Creed credible on any level except myth?

    The choice we have is to...

    1) reject Christianity as absurd,
    2) regard Christianity in a mythical, symbolic framework,
    3) remain absurd.


    Progressive Christianity does not say that we are wiser or superior to people of a past age. Far from it.

    John Dominic Crossan said:

    "Are we so smart that we take these stories (Gospel stories) symbolically when they were written literally? Or are we so dumb that we take them literally when they were written symbolically? I think the latter is true."

  13. The choice we have is to...

    1) reject Christianity as absurd,
    2) regard Christianity in a mythical, symbolic framework,
    3) remain absurd.

    I choose option #2.

  14. John,

    You are taking this notion of symbolic framework too literally. You need to take it to the next level.

    The apostle Paul already knew the Gospel story was absurd. That's what made it so real. He had seen a glimpse of the Universe from God's point of view. What he saw made everything else seem absurd.

    John 1: We who are flesh, write in symbols. God who is symbol writes in Flesh.

    The message of the Gospel is that we have been given an alternate absurdity to choose from.

  15. Of 1,2, or 3 I choose "none of the above". Part of the gospel is to be understood literally and other parts are metaphoric. Jesus spoke in parables and he spoke directly. We are invited to be drawn into His Word so we can have a better understanding of God.

    This "literalization" of " eating Jewish Zombie flesh" is stupid. If that's how the fundies sound, then let them be stupid, but why join them? Intellectual laziness should be shunned, not joined.

    John Dominic Crossan's work has been discredited over and over. His arguments are founded on the idea that there is no supernatural. By presupposing philosophical naturalism, he draws his conclusions about Jesus before he's even begun. His logic is circular; everything is based on experiences, but nothing supernatural can be experienced.

  16. My point is more of an evangelistic one. The Christianity of Borg, Crossan, or other progressive Christians is not for everyone.

    If there is an alternative to a literalist approach to Christianity other than the metaphorical/symbolic one, I am open to it.

  17. The mystical?




    That's four off the top of my head...

  18. Hi Jodie,

    I think we may be comparing apples and oranges. My concern/issue/point is really on a simple level.

    Many people (Christian and not Christian) feel that the Apostle's Creed et al is something that one affirms as one affirms an event in history, like any other event.

    Further they feel they must understand Christianity in that way to be Christian.

    I am not sure what word I can use to get the concept across. Literal, face-value, journalistic--help me out.

    Others do not see Christianity in that way. You can be mystical, sacramental, liturgical, and charismatic with either view.

  19. In reality, the three options that you describe, John, correlate pretty well with the three stages of faith that Borg talks about in one of his books.

    What he calls "pre-critical naivite" corresponds to option 3--remaining absurd. What he calls "critical thinking" corresponds to option 1 (reject Christianity as absurd). And the third stage, "postcritical naivite", corresponds to option 2.

  20. John,

    Then I would have to add the "all of the above" option.

    For example, my faith starts at the same place the apostle Paul's faith starts. With the realization that Jesus lives. I don't know him as a flesh and blood person, but mystically perhaps as a living interacting person nevertheless.

    I know the Bible says Jesus is alive, that he died and rose again, and that after spending some time with his disciples as flesh and blood, he did something they could only describe as "ascended into heaven" - whatever that was I have no idea. But he also said he would be with them till the "end of the age". My experience of Him is consistent with that. He is with me and many other people I know and don't know describe a similar awareness.

    That's where I start.

    The second thing I would have to say is that it is obvious to the most casual and minimally intuitive observer that vast portions of biblical teaching rely on metaphorical reasoning. That makes sense. Aramaic is a richly metaphorical language. Jesus enacted metaphors (washing of the feet) as well as said metaphors (this is my body you eat). His parables all use metaphors. I would say that the art of metaphorical reasoning was more advanced in that culture than it is in our own culture. We are a technological society, and historically speaking technological societies tend to be more literallist than agrarian societies.

    The Romans were the technological powerhouse of their time and had very little understanding of metaphors. So when they heard "this is my body you eat" they invented transubstantiation.

    Our religion comes to us from this amalgamation of the Greco Roman world and ranged the gamut from metaphorical to literal right out of the gate.

    The point is, there is a literal historical core of events that was written down and explained by witnesses as best they could, and the language they used to explain it all was metaphorical and rooted in Jewish literary traditions that in some ways were vastly more sophisticated than what we are accustomed to in America today.

    Its a shame that religion and cultural arrogance gets so much in the way of appreciating all the facets of this beautiful gem we have that we call Christianity.

    But without the a priori knowledge that Jesus really lives it is all either quite absurd or just a really cool myth.

  21. Hey Seeker,

    Thanks for reminding me of the three stages. That is it exactly (for me at least).


    Thank you for that. That is something I can go with!

  22. Jodie,

    Let me say a bit more. I think you are talking about faith from the starting point of experience. You have experienced the risen Christ. Actually, that is where I begin as well.

    But that is quite different from Christianity as popularly understood and preached by the vast majority of Christian preachers including many Presbyterians.

    That is our problem. The problem is not with 1st century Aramaic/Jewish culture, the problem is with us in a real sense. We are historically/factually based.

    We are trying to find value in something that comes from a different world.

    So, in our world, the Christian story (or other religious story) is either literal/historical or "just" a myth.

    Yet we live in our world. We cannot go back.

    How do we find again that sense that we matter, that In Christ that Paul speaks about in our time with what we know today?

    Anyway, my real point of this post was an evangelistic one. I have run into person after person who has rejected Christianity because of its literal presentation.

    I am not saying that they have an accurate view of Christianity, but they do have a pretty accurate view of a version of Christianity. They are not to blame. I don't argue with them. That is what they see.

    If Christianity is going to speak meaningfully to these folks we have to recognize that and I think be honest in how we view these claims and these stories.

  23. John,

    Your last three paragraphs are exactly my objection to what conservative Evangelicals and Fundamentalists have done to the Gospel. But the more you try to explain that to them, the more they do it and the more they cover their eyes and ears so as not to hear you.

    But I think the problem has always been there.

    I think the essence of the Gospel is that we do not >have< to live by the dualisms of the world we live in. The Kingdom of God is a foreign Kingdom and it speaks a foreign language, as much today as it did in the time of Paul.

    The invitation to live in the Kingdom of God is an invitation to live in this foreign culture and speak its foreign language.

    But I don't know anything about "evangelism". Most of my friends are non-Christian and/or non-churched and I have never found a way to make the Gospel make sense to them. At least not in the language of this world.

    I only know how to speak to them about the Kingdom after they learn to speak its language. And in my own experience, that new language comes only as gift of the Holy Spirit.

  24. Not long ago John you posted a link to a book by Paul-Gordon Chandler called "Pilgrims of Christ on the Muslim Road." Have you read it?

    I think the value of this book goes beyond how Mazhar Mallouhi lives his descipleship with Christ among Muslims. It is an example of the living religion of the spirit vs. the dead religion of authority.

    It seems periodically that Jesus' Spirit of Truth quickens humanity to seek after the living religion of Jesus, which was based upon a personal spiritual experience of living in the presence of God, and that this ever finds itself oppossed by those who elevate the religion of authority based upon mere intellectual assent to propositional dogma above the religion of the living experience of finding God personally, for oneself, by oneself, through living faith, and thereby being transformed and learning to live in the presence of God.

  25. Embodying the Spirituality of Christ

    Living In the Presence of God

    In reading the Gospels, Mazhar sees Christ as someone who naturally lived in and embodied the presence of God as he journeyed throughout Palestine. Interestingly, this is quite similar to a Muslim's understanding of prayer, for to a Muslim, prayer to God can take place anywhere--in the street, on the sidewalk, in a field, at a football match, and son on.... In this sense, Mazhar embodies a unique display of spirituality in his following of Christ: one that is very akin to Brother Lawrence's "practicing the presence of God at all times." Mazhar takes a "God view" of life, and brings God into all of life quite spontaneously. He sees his faith in Christ as a way of living out his life, and desires to display to all the beauty of Christ. It is fascinating to watch him talking about the sweetness of Christ to those gathered around him in Arab cafes, as he puffs on a water pipe and fingers his prayer beads. An avid walker, Mazhar prays while walking, and describes prayer as living in a continual listening disposition toward God. In this sense, he sees prayer as essentially attempting to participate in God's will--which more often than not he believes will involve him directly in the answering of the prayer request. (Chandler 2007: 139)

    (....) Today his spiritual interaction is largely with those focused on seeking harmony and who are interested in getting closer to Nabi Isa (Teacher Jesus), and experiencing him as someone whom they desire to have become more a part of their lives. In his embracing of greater and greater mystery throughout his own spiritual pilgrimage, he needs fewer answers to the more complex questions of life. (Chandler 2007: 139)

    When Mazhar is asked by Muslims if he is a "missionary" (due to his passion of sharing about "his Master" with them), he asks them in response, "Are you a missionary?" When a Muslim asks him what he means by that question, Mazhar says, "Well, you have a shahada don't you? [The shahada is the statement of belief that all Muslims recite out loud daily: "There is no God but God, and Muhammad is His Prophet."] Well, when you confess the shahada and tell others about it, does that make you a missionary? I too have a shahada, and I must talk about it with others. Does that make me a missionary?" (Chandler 2007: 141)

    We do not love our fellows in abstraction; one cannot approach one’s brother in humility and love them in action and begin a farcical dialogue by insulting and denigrating that which they hold as most dear by pushing on them a “negative essential belief statement” that “Muhammad is not a prophet of God,” which is to insult that which they hold most precious, the shahada. We see most clearly the stark difference between these two approaches; one based upon the religion of the Spirit of Truth, the other based upon the religions of authority and the man-made dogmas and doctrines which require little more than intellectual assent.

    “The religions of authority can only divide men and set them in conscientious array against each other; the religion of the spirit will progressively draw men together and cause them to become understandingly sympathetic with one another. The religions of authority require of men uniformity in belief, but this is impossible of realization in the present state of the world. The religion of the spirit requires only unity of experience--uniformity of destiny--making full allowance for diversity of belief. The religion of the spirit requires only uniformity of insight, not uniformity of viewpoint and outlook. The religion of the spirit does not demand uniformity of intellectual views, only unity of spirit feeling. The religions of authority crystallize into lifeless creeds; the religion of the spirit grows into the increasing joy and liberty of ennobling deeds of loving service and merciful ministration.”

  26. From Rob's quote, a keeper:

    "one cannot approach one’s brother in humility and love them in action and begin a farcical dialogue by insulting and denigrating that which they hold as most dear"

  27. The thing about Steve's definition of Christianity is that it is actually right on the money (though the "never actually existed" is up for debate--I think that most think it disappeared along with most other things in American-occupied Iraq: WMDs, mobile laboratories, oil revenues, etc). I can find Scriptural proofs for every statement in the definition.

    What strikes me is that this same kind of language is regularly used by Christians to deride other religions (Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism in particular). Funny how fundies react when the same tactic is used on their own faiths.

  28. I find the words of the Christian scholar of comparative religion very relevant:

    [I]t is morally not possible actually to go out in the world and say to devout, intelligent, fellow human beings: "We are saved and you are damned;" or, "We believe that we know God, and we are right; you believe that you know God, and you are altogether wrong."

    This is deplorable from merely human standards. It is doubly so from Christian ones. Any position that antagonizes and alienates rather than reconciles, that is arrogant rather then humble, that promotes segregation rather than fellowship [brotherhood], that is unlovely, is ipso facto un-Chrisitan.

    -- Smith, Wilfred Cantwell. Patterns of Faith Around the World. Oxford: Oneworld Publications; 1998; c1962 p. 13.

    Faith as Generically Human

    Our modern situation enables man, for the first time, to be significantly aware of the whole sweep thus far of his and her history on the planet. As one looks out over that panorama, one perceives, as observational fact, that humankind is characterized by faith. The history of religion is the history of man. It has been so from paleolithic times to the present–on every continent, in every culture, in every age.... Faith, then, so far as one can see as one looks out over the history of our race, is an essential human quality. One might argue that it is the essential human quality: that it is constitutive of man as human; that personality is constituted by our universal ability, or invitation, to live in terms of a transcendent dimension, and in response to it.... A true understanding of humankind involves a recognition of our potentiality for faith. One may or may not like to articulate this by saying that man is homo religious, or is body, mind, and spirit. (Smith 1987: 129)

    Human faith has always, everywhere, been limited. Historical criticism shows that the faith of any person, however open it may be to transcendence and the infinite, however much it may be a divine gift, however ideally absolute, yet in actual fact has always1 been limited by psychological, sociological, and other contextual factors, by the knowledge and the temperament and the situation of the man or women whose it is. Every person is child of his or her times; and this truth applies to every person of faith, even though one's having faith is another way of saying that one is not totally a child of one's time. One's faith opens one to what is timeless. Yet so long as one lives on this earth, although faith may enable one to triumph over one's mundane environment, and always enables one to reach beyond it, or is evidence that one has been reached from beyond it, nevertheless it never means that one escapes it altogether. (Smith 1987: 131)

    [W]hatever idea of faith one may form, it must be an idea adequate to faith as a global human quality. (Smith 1987: 133)

    -- Smith, Wilfred Cantwell. Faith and Belief. Princeton: Princeton University Press; 1987; c1979 p. 129; 131; 133; 137.

    The religious life of mankind from now on, if it is to be lived at all, will be lived in a context of religious pluralism.... This is true for all of us; not only for "mankind" in general on an abstract level, but for you and me as individual persons. No longer are people of other persuasions peripheral or distant, the idle curiosities of travelers' tales. The more alert we are, and the more involved in life, the more we are finding that they are our neighbors, our colleagues, our competitors, our fellows. Confucians and Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims, are with us not only in the United Nations, but down the street. Increasingly, not only is our civilization's destiny affected by their actions; but we drink coffee with them personally as well. [Wilfred Cantwell Smith, The Faith of Other Men (New York: Harper and Row, 1962), p. 11.]

    Pluralism is today a human existential problem which raises acute questions about how we are going to live our lives in the midst of so many options. Pluralism is no longer just the old schoolbook question about the One-and-the-Many; it has become the concrete day-to-day dilemma occasioned by the encounter of mutually incompatible worldviews and philosophies. Today we face pluralism as the very practical question of planetary human coexistence. [Raimundo Panikkar, "The Myth of Pluralism: The Tower of Babel—A Meditation on Non-Violence," Cross Currents, 29 (1979), p. 201.]

    -- Knitter, Paul F. No Other Name? A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes Toward the World Religions. Second ed. New York: Orbis Books; 1986; c1985 pp. 1-3; 5-6.

  29. Hi John,
    I've been following this conversation with interest.
    My comments got too long and onto a slightly different topic, so instead of crowding your comments page, I posted them here.

    It's called "a good word for dogma" which gives you some idea of my perspective, probably :)

    cheers, Heather

  30. Thanks all! Thanks Heather! I will check out your blog!