Some advice for my evangelical friends

Sometimes my blog posts aren’t terribly academic in nature, but are purely personal. This is one of those.

If you’re an evangelical Christian then you and I have some pretty important things in common. In fact if you’re a Christian at all – a serious Christian (I hope you know what I mean: you’re self consciously Christian, Jesus is at the centre of your faith, you believe in the supernatural and the ability of God to do the humanly impossible, you don’t want to change the religion to make it easier for you or others to accept, you accept that you actually have a duty of obedience towards God, you agree that there are no cases where you’re right and the the Bible is wrong, you think the truth matters, you think that there really is such thing as sin, you even have the audacity to state as historical fact that God raised Jesus from the dead etc) – then we have a lot in common. You could say we’re family.

This post is mostly directed at those family members who call themselves evangelical, but the whole family (and anyone else interested) is welcome to listen in. I’ve shared similar thoughts before here, but this blog post was prompted by fairly recent events. Consider this one of those family meetings that has come about because someone has said “listen, we need to talk.” For some reason, it appears that the problem we need to talk about is one that affects the younger members of the family more than most (I’m 35, so I’m not an older member just yet). I’m not going to try to analyse why this is the case, but it looks like it is (and maybe my observation here is mistaken).

OK, let’s move toward the point. Example 1: In August 2010 there was a public debate between Matthew Flannagan and Raymond Bradley over whether or not God is the source of morality. Matt is an evangelical Christian and Ray is an atheist. Part of that debate involved Ray repeatedly referring to acts of God in the Old Testament, whether commanding the Israelites to (allegedly) engage in outright genocide and slaughter entire civilisations, or issuing laws that were unjust and harsh. Ray then alleged that since these things violated his moral mores and those of most of the modern milieu, they are therefore immoral and the God of the Bible is evil. A major part of Matt’s response to this involved appealing to biblical scholarship that is informed by research into Ancient Near Eastern literature and culture, which is just the kind of research required to understand the Hebrew Scripture as Ancient Near Eastern literature. Armed with the answers provided by this kind of biblical scholarship, Matt was in a position to explain that many passages of the Old Testament that Ray was referring to actually did not mean what Ray assumed. By comparing the way historical Old Testament passages were written with common methods of writing in that era and in that part of the world, biblical scholars have observed that probably the best way of reading some passages is as intentional hyperbole or rhetorical overstatement. Passages describing the conquest of Canaan, for example, might use the language of absolute and universal annihilation of all life in the land, but by comparing these passages with other Ancient Near Eastern literature that uses this writing technique, we can see that this language was frequently used but not intended to be taken as literally true. Instead this terminology refers to the defeat of the enemy, and to driving them out of the land. This reading is further bolstered by other historical passages in the Old Testament, where we see that the very same people groups who were supposedly absolutely annihilated were in fact still living nearby just a short time later. In Leviticus 18 and 19, the people of Israel were themselves threatened with the same fate as the former occupants of the land if they did not keep the law that God gave them, and there the fate is described as being “spewed out” of the land, and not outright slaughter.

So using what I take to be pretty straightforward evangelical methods of interpretation – which has always, so I assumed, involved taking the historical context of a text into account – Matt was able to show that some parts of the Bible were being misunderstood and wrongly used to attack the God of Christian and Jewish theology. This is just one example, but the relevant issue here is that Matt was claiming that some passages of the Old Testament have a genre derived from a particular historical setting and its practices, and cannot necessarily be read in the same way that modern history can be read.

Example 2: In June 2009 at this blog, I came out of the closet and explained that I don’t accept what I take to be the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. I explained that I fully accept that the message of the Bible as a whole, and the message of every part of the Bible (every chapter of every book) is correct, but that we don’t need the idea of inerrancy in order to affirm this, and that inerrancy appears to me to be false. In response to some criticism I received for admitting my views on this, I wrote a couple of follow up posts (here and here), and I also provided some historical background, explaining that inerrancy has not been the default universal conservative Christian stance held throughout history. On a few occasions I stressed that I think the teaching of the Bible is the very word of God and that it is completely trustworthy, and I noted that in defending inerrancy we actually work against our apologetical best interests, because we end up bending over backwards to avoid the conclusion that there could be even the slightest historical or scientific claim in the Bible that isn’t absolutely accurate, when any sensible observer can see that we’re just engaging in mental gymnastics.

In response to Matt’s debate with Ray, a lot of people thought that he did well and that Ray’s objections were clearly addressed. But a number of our family members – who as far as I know had never themselves engaged in the study of the historical context of the Old Testament accounts, had major issues with the fact that Matt would even countenance the thought that not everything in the Bible was intended to be read as absolutely literal in the way that a modern history is written. A number of evangelical Christians and at least one evangelical organisation took great umbrage at this and Matt became regarded as a bit of a liberal. Matt was involved in organising a recent public lecture that I gave at the University of Auckland on the new atheists, science, and morality, and a particular evangelical organisation and some individuals made a point of not attending or being involved because of the association. In response to my blogs on inerrancy, a number of Christians have taken more or less the same approach to me. Somehow I have sold the farm and moved into liberal territory. I was accused (not necessarily at this blog, but on other sites) by family members in public blog posts of “picking and choosing” what to believe, and of being utterly “theologically inept.” Since it’s no secret that Matt and I are friends, and no secret that I generally endorsed what he had to say in his debate with Ray Bradley, apparently I’m suspect because of that too, to the point that anything I have to say on a subject like atheism and morality clearly couldn’t be worth listening to.

It’s said that you can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your family. That’s the position I’m in (as are others, like Matt). I’m not all that sure on the best way to say this. I don’t demand that we all agree. Nobody can demand that. But there are ways of having family disagreements that are appropriate, and there are ways that just aren’t, and which don’t help anybody (least of all the family as a whole). How is it that we recognise the folly and immaturity of siblings who effectively say “well I’m not talking to him again!” but we don’t see it amongst ourselves sometimes? How is it OK to write off a brother or sister as “theologically inept” or to impute impure motives because in the midst of doing what you otherwise think is great work, they said one thing that got your nose out of joint?

New Zealand is a very small pond. Do you realise that people in the position that Matt and I are in are actually passed over for teaching employment in some cases because we vocally defend conservative Christian faith? Do you realise that because of the openness with which we admit that we belong to you, our family, we suffer setbacks, rejection and even ridicule, and do you realise that we do it willingly because we are committed to belonging to you? Do you realise that just by trying to get even Christian institutions to take our call for excellence in Christian scholarship seriously, we end up being sidelined? Do you actually support our cause?

One of the worrying things that is suggested to me in all this is that the conservative Christian community wants its scholars as long as it can control them. It’s as though there are communities of believers who really think that they already know and understand as much as can possibly be understood about the Bible, theology, philosophy etc, and what they want is someone with letters after their name who can just give voice to what those communities already know. Of course, if someone has spent years studying this stuff and comes to a conclusion not shared by those particular Christians, then that’s no good and it must be false, and it’s fair game to turn on the poor graduate and shun them. But what’s the point of wanting qualified people if you won’t allow them to think for themselves? Maybe, just maybe, someone who has invested huge amounts of time into these disciplines might have learned something that you haven’t. And even if it turns out that they are mistaken, is it really fair game to (to stretch the family metaphor) take them out back and hose them down? Or to stand on the roof and announce to the neighbourhood that since your brother doesn’t share your beliefs exactly he’s a fool?

I really don’t know, sometimes, if my family members realise or not that I’m one of them. You, who wants to not merely disagree with me but go on record calling me out as a compromiser of the faith, as an inept liberal or worse – are you going to spend this many years in training and then make yourself a Pariah by defending Christian belief in public forums? I have to say, it’s pretty hard to have confidence in fighting a war (metaphorically, of course) when you can never be sure if the rest of your platoon is going to retreat behind you, or worse yet, put you in their sights! There may be people reading this who recognise themselves individually or recognise their organisations as being among the perpetrators of the stuff that I’m complaining about. I didn’t write this to fight about it with you, which is why I’ve tried not to identify anybody. All I want is for you to think a little bit more about what it means for us to belong to each other as a family – especially in a fairly small place like New Zealand – and also about the obligations placed upon you by love and  wisdom.

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30 thoughts on “Some advice for my evangelical friends

  1. I’m sorry Glenn. Sometimes I think more Christians (or “Christians” need to read what John said: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:21).

    I think I know where you are coming from. Ya know I myself am a college student, and am part of an on-campus fellowship. Like you, I’ve made the mistake of telling people what I believe about things, and I think I’ve managed to push away people from both sides of the spectrum! Being an annihilationist who doesn’t pirate music and naively expects Christians to be more forgiving, more civil, and more emotionally mature than their counterparts doesn’t always work too well in group of college aged evangelicals…

    Do you ever wonder if some believers ever outgrow the faith of their parents and develop their own?

  2. As someone who grew up in a christian family and has been involved in christian churches for nearly a half-century, I understand of what you speak. However, it seems to me that all this is evidence against the religion and not just the people.

    At some point, I could no loger brook the idea that the bible is somehow right yet people who believe in it are largely anti-intellectual and/or incapable of tolerant behavior. If the bible were true, maybe people who prayed and followed Jesus wouldn’t be such miserable jerks.

    Another problem for me was the OT. My own rule is no god tells people to harm each other. As far as the OT was concerned, there are plenty of places where god does in fact order wanton killing and punishes Israel if they don’t do it. Whether the text was meant to be understood literally, that yhwh would even lead people to war against another is evidence of immorality.

  3. Thanks for these thoughts. I just posted on my blog today asking if it’s worth trying to preserve the “Evangelical Christian” label, and if so how we should be striving to stake out new/old ground for what that means.

    The suggestion that we should strive to make ourselves known by our love is timely. Thanks for these thoughts.

  4. PF,

    I used to be an atheist, but I found that they’re mostly all hypocrites, saying morality doesn’t exist but behaving like it does, even to the point of moral outrage against fictitious gods. That’s why I became a Christian 😉

    Re- OT outrages: They’re outrageous only if you assume an atheist view point (except not really (see first point above)), because it would be bad if there really wasn’t an eternal afterlife (and especially if there was no God and these people are doing bad things just cause they want to).

    But if Christianity is true, and the eternal is infinitely more important than this life, what’s wrong with the creator of all things doing a recall on “faulty
    products” to benefit the eternal side of life? (He made it so He can break it)

  5. In some cases, Evangelicalism is a religion of fear. Most Christians, if they took heir faith seriously, would benefit from a year at an academic bible college like Laidlaw and learn to think a bit more critically (atheists could learn a thing or two also).

    Personal comment from a Bible college graduate:

    Jesus rocks our presuppositions.

    If we are truthful with ourselves we will realise that in many ways we are no better than the Pharisees who persecuted Jesus. When we fail to understand why Jesus didn’t stone the adulteress despite the Law’s apparent demands, and yet despite that why he somehow still upheld the Law then we in our hearts still stand with the Pharisees and scoff at this Galilean. We fool ourselves that because we use the language of the Gospel that we somehow understand it. If we do not understand the reasons of Jesus then we do not understand the Gospel. We merely parrot the Gospel. If we cannot understand why it was absolutely necessary that Jesus teach, heal and ascend as well as be born of a virgin, die and be resurrected then we will continue to interpret Scripture as a Pharisee. We will not understand what grace is even though we use the language. Thinking like a legalist we will contaminate the language of grace. We will not judge rightly and we will stone the adulterers that come in through our doors.

    I put it to you that if our theology does not adequately teach us to judge in a way consistent with Christ then it is a false theology. It is either legalism or license masquerading as the Gospel. We will be either unwitting graceless legalists or unbounded licentious rebels. What we will not be is Christian.

    Thank God that he is both patient and merciful!

    Note from the “Chicago Statement on Inerrancy XIII”:

    We deny that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose. We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations

    In other words, you are off the inerrancy hook if you can assert that the passage in question did not intend to come up to a particular standard of truth!

    Sooo… I don’t believe the Bible was ever intended to be true in comparison to contemporary science, history, astronomy, geology, medicine, anatomy, psychology or the interpretation of Rugby Union Law 6.A.4!! Can I go to lunch now?

  6. PF, “However, it seems to me that all this is evidence against the religion and not just the people.”

    No, that’s the ad hominem fallacy, where you reject somebody’s ideas or arguments because of some feature of the person.

  7. PF I assure you the secular community can be just as intolerant and anti-intellectual, try this: point out to a secular liberal that some of the arguments they use against “homophobes” and in favour of homosexual conduct are fallicous and quite obviously so… watch the love, tolerance, intellectualism and comradeship that ensues…

  8. Stunning that Christians are being critical of Matt’s debate with Raymond Bradley when Atheists are conceding Matt took Bradley out.

    Look at what Common Sense Atheism’s Lukeprog had to say on the debate:

    “I listened to Matt’s debate with Ray Bradley.

    Matt responded directly and clearly to Ray’s arguments and showed why they didn’t work. Ray did indeed misrepresent Matt’s position, and made vague statements that are difficult not to describe as sophistry. Toward the end, Ray was left to babble about irrelevant issues.

    I suspect there are many Biblical passages that Ray could have used that cannot be shown to be plausibly figurative like the genocide of the Canaanites or the Noachian flood. But as Matt showed, Ray’s particular argument was already flawed for other reasons. In the end, Ray has to “sum up” by arguing against Young Earth Creationism! WTF?

    And as matter of style, Ray is rather melodramatic and Matt more analytic. In philosophy, I happen to prefer the latter, though good arguments can be presented with both styles.”

    Lukeprog finished by stating he’d like to read more of Matt’s research.

  9. How many other Christians could elicit a response like that from a hard core atheist who follows all the major academic debates between Christians and atheists and who himself in a PhD candidate in Philosophy?

    How many other Christians could take Bradley out?

    Do we thank Matt? Do we encourage him?

    No, we accuse him of being a liberal and we keep hiring people to teach in our churches, organisations and bible colleges whom Bradley would have eaten for breakfast and whom Common Sense Atheism would be laughing at and mocking.

    We hold up people who set to one side the biblical prohibitions of women in leadership, the endorsement of capital punishment, (these scriptures are far harder to brush off than the claim God endorses Genocide) who always want to have conversations and talk about the narrative and the story yet who never actually say anything or address any critical questions head on. Small wonder we live in a secular society.

  10. Clearly, Glenn, I am a fan of you & Matt, so I’d prefer you were more comfortable with the situation. But, while I don’t have tentacles in all the places I’d like to, I haven’t really seen much evidence for the idea that people (in, say, Auckland) are taking ‘umbrage’ or that in the caseof the recent talk “a particular evangelical organisation and some individuals made a point of not attending or being involved because of the association” – there are communication issues for sure, but that’s the nature of campus ministry atm which is fractured and and for the organisation I assume you’re talking about at least, is still being built up after a re-start and is student-led on the ground. There’s a difference between actively avoiding an event and not actively supporting it (in the inter-semester break). Working out which actually occurred is trickier. With better organisation on the part of people like myself, I see no reason events featuring you &/or Matt couldn’t be well-supported in the future – but perhaps I’m not privy to all the info here.

  11. Sorry Glenn – but this post really isn’t helping you. The Christians who have the jobs and money you and Matt are after invest vast time and energy in building relationships, not making public complaints about how much they’re misunderstood.

    I am really disappointed that you would lack the maturity to “go to your brother” (Mathew 18:15 is clear that you start by making it “between you and him alone”) – and to do so with humility rather than this show of public indignation.

    For the record – I agree with what you are saying, and really hate seeing you and Matt’s talents and passion wasted like they are. It really is very sad for the Christian community and a huge missed opportunity for the Church. But please realise that posts like this only serve to isolate you further from the Christian community – not to open the doors of opportunity.

  12. Rodney, my “brother” in this scenario is not one person, whether in blog or otherwise. What I’ve sought to address is a tendency that exists in the conservative evangelical community, hence this attempt to bring the matter to them all at once.

    If you think there is something I have said here that is out of line, rude, unfair, unduly harsh, singling anybody out for ridicule, breaching confidence, mean spirited or anything of the sort, I am open to being shown with specific references. In fact I think that if you’re going to publicly address me and call me out as “immature,” the least you owe me is such a direct explanation.

    I am aware of the mindset that I should just let it all go, ignore it, pretend it doesn’t happen, that I should just affirm the state of evangelicalism here as though all is well, keep my head down and put up with more or less anything. As you may or may not be aware, this is what I do most of the time. We evidently do not agree about whether or not I’m being immature to state the facts in the way that I have on this fairly rare occasion.

  13. Andre, yes it’s true that there’s a difference between actively avoiding and simply choosing not to support. I did not mean to suggest the former.

    As I hadn’t wanted to go into specifics (and I still don’t) since my observations were based on comments made by several people, I’ll send a question via email.

  14. Glenn, a few things:

    1) You’re going to offend some people, in particular those who have the mindset that you’re concerned about. Some people might begin to smell the coffee, while others will use this as an excuse to become even more hardened in their attitude toward people like you. The latter group cannot be helped anyway, so the fact that you might have some influence ont he former makes it worthwhile.

    2) There’s a sense in which you’re speaking prophetically here. Any time anyone does this there will be a polarized response. Some will hear what you say and recognise the need for ongoing reform, others will stone you. You shouldn’t rock the boat, they will tell you.

    3) Contrary to what one commenter recently said, a number of the Christians in the kinds of positions you (and others, like Matt) are interested in are going to find that your concerns resonate very strongly with them and yours is a message that they want people to hear as well.

    A couple of examples:

    http://exploringourmatrix.blogspot.com/2010/09/quote-of-day-glenn-peoples.html

    http://www.jrdkirk.com/2010/09/17/evangelical-does-it-matter/

    Don’t be easily discouraged. I have followed your blog long enough to know that you’re not a complainer in general but an agent of change. You are rarely as candid as this about your concerns, and I appreciate that. I also appreciate the fact that you have the right to raise them, and that the concerns themselves are right.

  15. I had hoped that this would be clear, but I acknowledge that perhaps I might not have made it clear: I used myself as an example, but it’s not about me. I used Matt as an example, but it’s not about Matt. I regret the fact that when I actually do share concenrs like this, I need to point out that it’s not all about my self interest and desire to get a certain type of job. I don’t know how many people would assume that after reading this blog post, but I would hope that people extend to me the charity of not thinking that things only bother me when they hit me in the pocket.

    The critical reflections I have on the modern conservative evangelical community stand or fall regardless of whether or not I exist.

  16. Glenn, I think you’re completely right about this. I’ve discovered over the years that the hardest, most courageous place to be in modern society/culture — including evangelical society/culture — is in the middle. Being at either extreme is always easier. But it’s not an intellectually honest place to be.

    My only advice as someone a bit older than you is: explore the liturgy and traditions of the church. There is peace and restoration to be found in the sacraments and historic practises of orthodox (small ‘o’) Christian worship.

  17. I think that a lot of this stems from the notion that if God’s intention is to bring everyone to salvation, His communication of doctrinal truth to us must necessarily be completely crystal clear and comprehensible to everyone at every time (of course some Calvinists would take issue with the very notion that God’s intention is to bring everyone to salvation; this form of Calvinism is not my point of view, but I digress…). According to this line of thinking, everyone on the face of the planet must be able to completely and clearly understand scripture, regardless of the reader’s intellectual ability, educational level, cultural background, how far removed in time from the historical context of the initial writing, etc. Therefore, anyone who comes up with something other than the most “obvious” interpretation must have wrong motives for doing so, since it is impossible to legitimately misunderstand scripture (“obvious”, of course is going to be different depending on the person making this claim, which is why there are 30,000+ denominations in the USA). To suggest that there might be some non-literal interpretation would mean that there are people who without an adequate level of education or access to the work of right hermeneutic experts might possibly misunderstand some portions of scripture, and this just does not square with the idea that ALL of the cookies must categorically be on the bottom shelf. This seems to be the trap that Dr. Bradley fell into while still a fundamentalist Christian, as well as other outspoken “former” Christians who make a lot of noise on the Internet. Having been raised in a fundamentalist environment myself, it was one of the many things I struggled with when I went through a grievous crisis of faith a couple of years ago (from which I have thankfully recovered). Again following the type of thinking I’m trying to describe here, there is also the idea that God would have been engaging in deception if he were to have said anything sufficiently ambiguous as to have multiple conflicting interpretations by those with insufficient insight (in other words, if God knew that John, Billy and Bob would not correctly understand doctrines x, y, and z, then for him to permit an expression of those doctrines without enough clarity for John, Billy and Bob to “get it,” then he would by default be deceiving those individuals by allowing them to believe something inaccurate).

    But this is a pretty naive view of things. First of all who says that God owes us a perfect understanding of all things? Although there are a few minimal doctrines you have to properly understand in order to follow Christ and be “saved,” it is not necessary to have perfect clarity on everything discussed in scripture. Take the disciples, for example. From reading the gospels its pretty clear that there were a ton of things they didn’t really comprehend, but Jesus did not spend a lot of time trying to explain the complicated nuances of creaturely freedom in the face of divine sovereignty, or how the atonement was supposed to work, or even the trinity for that matter. It wasn’t necessary at the time. He told the disciples exactly what they needed to know when they needed to know it. The disciples’ reaction to the resurrected Christ makes clear that they still didn’t quite “get it.” But that didn’t stop them from being disciples or apostles. They had faith, comprehended what they could and did their best. Gradually they acquired more nuanced understanding, but that took time. Why should we expect to be any different?

    Anyway, it sounds like I’m starting to preach, so I’d better stop. The point is that it is ridiculous to insist that because it is possible for some people to misunderstand some portions of scripture that God might as well have not even inspired it in the first place, as is so often insisted by both conservative evangelicals of the fundamentalist bent and by fundamentalist atheists.

    (By the way, this line of thinking also lies behind a lot of the “King James Only” stuff).

  18. TAM. Ah yes, if only I had heard what one more person says, suddenly I would change my mind on everything I believe.

    If 5,000 people haven’t done it, I doubt 5,001 will turn everything around. Nice optimism though!

  19. Come to think of it, Lukeprog is from Common Sense Atheism. I have read plenty of his stuff.

    I guess some strong suspicions are little more than wishful thinking. 😉

  20. TAM, having read some of Lukeprogs stuff myself I suggest you would benefit from reading it. He does quite often point out the bankruptcy of the kind of popular athiest reasoning you so often engage in.

  21. TAM, funnily enough Lukeprog is a big fan of Greg Dawes, who was one of my PhD examiners and was a kind of academic sparring partner of Glenn and mine at Otago.

  22. Sorry Glenn – I didn’t mean to suggest you were being rude, unfair, etc – nor to discourage you. I think you are right in what you say, it’s just the tone of your post that I felt was counterproductive.

    IMHO personal relationships are the key to fighting the silliness that you have identified. If certain people personally understood who you were and why you are fighting the good fight I think things would be quite different. I have seen occasions where the misunderstandings you have identified are shown to be unfounded when people actually start to dialogue on the issues and build up some mutual trust and respect. I just don’t think this sort of dialogue is possible on such a public platform.

    Besides this – know that ‘we’ are right behind you. Please keep up your efforts – we need a thousand more like you.

  23. Rob, like a flaming heretic?

    Why I oughtta!

    By the way, don’t take this personally, but when the day comes that you join us in the dark side in open theism, well, you should give up your stance inerrency, or just not join up. It’s not that you are necessarily wrong, it’s because there is only so much indigestion that the hard right conservative evangelical can take.

    ON Luke Prog, I’m happy to link to his articles in discussions with atheists to point out “see, even this guy recognizes your popular atheist apologists are amateurs”.

  24. Example 2: In June 2009 at this blog, I came out of the closet and explained that I don’t accept what I take to be the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. I explained that …

    I didn’t read the link, but it seeme to me that what you go one to say here is exactly what ‘biblical inerrancy’ refers to.

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