Category Archives: Religion

The Gingrich Problem

According to exit polls in South Carolina, more than half of the people who voted in the Republican primary describe themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians.  Most of those voters said that it is very important to them that a candidate share their beliefs.  Most of them voted for Newt Gingrich.

These polling data are strange.  To begin with, the only Protestant still running for the Republican nomination is Ron Paul, who is a Southern Baptist.  Gingrich is a recent convert to Roman Catholicism.  Santorum is also a Catholic.  Romney is a Mormon.  So, if South Carolina voters who describe themselves as born-again or evangelical want a candidate who shares their beliefs, Ron Paul would have been the better choice.  A few of them, apparently, made that choice, but most did not.

Of course, the more glaring problem is Gingrich’s personal life.  I won’t rehash it, as it is well known by now.  I do not understand how evangelicals in the Republican Party can overlook Gingrich’s indiscretions.  The reason that I do not understand it is that evangelicals, as a general group, were out for blood when Clinton’s affair with an intern came to light.  They wanted him impeached and found guilty and ousted.

Here’s the thing.  Everyone who was willing to overlook Clinton’s bad behavior has no business maligning Gingrich.  Likewise, everyone who wanted Clinton’s head on a platter has no business excusing Gringrich’s behavior and supporting him in the nomination process.  It is called hypocrisy and a lack of integrity.

I am speaking in generalities, which has its drawbacks.  Obviously each individual is responsible for his own actions.  I myself was against Clinton for his disgraceful conduct; therefore, I am against Gingrich.  My moral sensibilities do not change just because a candidate has a different party’s initial after his name.  In fact, a case could be made that Clinton is an overall morally superior person to Gingrich, since he has stayed married to his first wife and apparently–one can hope–has learned to be faithful to her.

It is probably unfair for nonchristians to judge Christians as a group; it is always unfair to judge individuals for the behavior of a group.  However, unbelievers will judge Christians, and the judgment will not be favorable.  As a group, the so-called Christian right acts hypocritically, excusing the sins of Republicans and hammering on the sins of Democrats.  (Of course, the same thing happens in the converse, but let’s not go there.)

Here’s the bigger problem.  Nominee Gingrich will carry a lot of baggage.  Faithful family man, Barack Obama, will be his opponent.  Not only will Gingrich’s moral failings come into play, but so will the ethics charges that were brought against him in the House of Representatives.  He might be well qualified to be President, and I believe he is, but his dirty laundry will be a huge liability.

It makes no difference to me who the Republicans nominate.  However, if they are smart and–more so–if they want to live up to their stated principles, Republicans who are evangelical will not help to nominate Gingrich, and they will not vote for him if he does get the nomination.

 

Dealing With Sin

Christians are notorious for dealing with sin in all the wrong ways.  There is always a tendency to deal with it too leniently or too harshly.  Sometimes a Christian deals with his or her own sins too leniently and with the sins of others too harshly.  Occasionally it’s the other way around.  A certain Christian might carry a heavy burden of guilt for his or her sins but be overly lenient on the sins of others.

A proper way to deal with sin is to take it seriously but not to treat it too harshly.  What does that mean?

1. Acknowledge that a certain sin–or that sin in general–is wrong and bad.  Don’t say, “It doesn’t really matter.”  It does matter–to God and often to other people who suffer from a person’s sin.

2.  Don’t minimize it.  Don’t say, “It’s not SO bad.”  All sin is bad and wrong, and in one way every sin is equally bad and equally wrong.  Every sin, even the “small” ones, is a failure to meet the standard set by God.   Jesus said, “Be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.”  There is no point in saying that you are better than other people, since you are certainly not as good as God, and He is the standard.

3. Realize that committing one sin is as bad as committing all of them.  In the First Epistle of John it says that whoever is guilty of breaking one of God’s commandments is as guilty as a person who breaks them all.  So even if you have not murdered or stolen anything, you are just as guilty of disobeying God’s law as the people who have.

4.  Besides, it is likely that you have murdered or stolen in your heart.  Jesus said that if you have hatred or unresolved anger in your heart, it is as though you committed murder against the target.  I’m sure that makes most of us murderers.  If you covet what somebody else has, you have stolen it in your heart.  You are guilty of the sin of greed and selfishness.

5.  Recognize that all of the teachings on sin in the Bible leave us utterly helpless and hopeless on our own.  That’s why the Gospel is “Good News”–it’s literal meaning in Greek.  It is good news, because what we are utterly unable to do–redeem ourselves and atone for our own sins–Jesus did for us.  We cannot be perfect, but Jesus can make us perfect.  We cannot be sinless, but He declares us innocent of all sin.

6.  So, own up to your sin. Don’t blame somebody else or try to excuse or justify it.  There is not use in trying to hide it from God.  He knows what you did, so you might as well confess it to Him.  If the sin harms others, then confess it to them and make restitution if you can.

7.  Realize that being a sinner makes a person the same as everyone else.  You are no worse or better than anyone else, in the grand scheme of things.  Nor is your neighbor, ultimately, better or worse than you.  All of us are guilty of sin–some more dramatic or consequential than others.  Nevertheless, not one of us can claim to be without sin.  We cannot cast the first stone.  We cannot try to take the speck out of our neighbor’s eye, because that beam in our own eye blocks our view.

8.  When someone else sins, we should be ready to forgive and restore that person.  We should remember that we are guilty of our own sins and could end up guilty of the same sin as the one that our brother has committed.  We mustn’t stand proudly before God and say, “I thank you that I am not like that person.”

9.  Jesus died on the cross to somehow take away the penalty of sin.  One version of it is that He paid the price that we owed.  Another is that He took our punishment.  Another is that He demonstrated perfect repentance, even though He had nothing to repent of.  Whichever way it is, because of His death on the cross, we can be free from the eternal consequences of sin.  It really is good news. 

10.  We should realize that every sinner, no matter how bad, may receive Christ’s offer of forgiveness and salvation.  No one is good enough to merit God’s favor, and nobody is bad enough to disqualify.  In fact, only bad people (which really means everybody) are qualified for grace, since the good people (of which there are none) do not need it.  Jesus said that only the sick need a doctor.

So, we should be hard, but not too hard on our own sins.  We should be lenient, but not too lenient on the sins of others.  If we are the sinner, we should confess our sin and make restitution and receive God’s forgiveness.  If somebody else is the sinner, we should forgive and restore that person.

The War on Thanksgiving

     We’ve all heard about the war on Christmas, but I think that there is also a war on Thanksgiving.  I have been reading a lot of things about Thanksgiving in the last few weeks, and especially during the last few hours.  What I notice is that giving thanks, at least giving thanks to God, has been taken out of most people’s understanding and most people’s celebration of the holiday.

     Some people call it Turkey Day.  That’s it?  We have a nationally recognized holiday about eating turkey?  If I were an outside observer from another planet, I would surely want to know why the eating of turkey was the sole subject of a holiday.

     I have heard people, including our President, say that it is a day to celebrate community.  That is partly right.  In the myth of the “The First Thanksgiving” the Pilgrims were celebrating community.  I have heard people say that it is a day to celebrate friendship.  That is also partly right.  The Pilgrims celebrated with their new friends, the Wampanoags.  However, there is no mystery about the true purpose of the holiday.  The name of it indicates that it is about giving thanks.

     I have heard people talk about what they are thankful for.  Some have been doing so throughout the month of November.  I applaud these people, but in some cases there is a missing element.  People are talking about what they are thankful for but not whom they are thankful to.  In the President’s weekly address he talked about being thankful, but did not say, as presidents before him have said, that we should thank God for our blessings.

     When you say, “I am thankful for my children,” what do you mean?  If you only mean that you are happy that you have children or that you are proud of your children, then say so.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  But if you are thankful for your children, it means that you are thanking somebody for them, and the one who gave them to you is God, so thank Him.

     I have seen in a politically correct textbook the statement that the Pilgrims held a thanksgiving feast to thank the Indians for helping them.  What?  I guess that when we say we are thankful for our homes and our health, we should write a letter to the head of the Iroquois Nation and express our gratitude.

     No, thanks.  I’ll be expressing my gratitude to the God who is the ultimate source of all blessing.  I will be giving thanks, which is what Thanksgiving is obviously about, to somebody–not just for something.

Great Grace

There is already a song about amazing grace, so I wanted my title to be different.  The alliteration is pretty good, I think.

I have been thinking a lot about grace,  the Christian concept that is. 

There are a lot of songs about it, but it is not just something to sing about.  You can look it up in a glossary of theological terms, but knowing the definition is not enough.  Grace is something to be experienced and something to be acted out.

Jesus told stories about grace.  In one of them a man owed a debt to a king that was way more than he could ever pay back, and the gracious king cancelled the debt. But the man whose debt was cancelled went and demanded repayment of a very small debt that another man owed him.  The king heard of the man’s ungraciousness and had him punished.

Christians, who should understand grace better than anyone, should be willing to extend it to other people.  Alas, it is not always the case.  However, in light of the enormous debt that God has cancelled for us, we should be willing to forgive anything that anyone does to us.

Another story that Jesus told involved a son who demanded his inheritance early and then went out and squandered it away.  He headed back home, ready to beg his father to take him back as a servant.  Instead the father ran to him, embraced him, and did many things to honor him, including throwing a party in his honor.  The other son, the one who had stayed at home and had done what was right, was indignant.  He could not bring himself to be happy that his brother had come to his senses and had come back home.

The most amazing part of the story to me is that the father ran to the young man.  He did not wait for him to come crawling back in abject remorse.  He did not listen to his request to be allowed back in as a servant.  No, he took him back, forgave him, and restored him to his place as a beloved son.  That is grace.

Grace is free, but it costs.  It is free to the recipient; otherwise, it would not be grace.  It costs the giver.  For example, if I give my annoying neighbor a plate of brownies and expect nothing in return, it was a completely free gift to him.  But it cost me a lot, and not just the value of the brownies.  My desire to treat an unworthy neighbor kindly cost me my pride and my cost me my right for revenge.

God’s grace is his desire to treat us favorably, even though we do not deserve it.  It is free to us.  It cost God more than we could ever understand.  God the Father gave His son.  God the Son suffered and died a cruel death and endured the mocking and rejection of those He loved. 

When I think of God’s grace to me, I really am amazed.  It makes me want to exted grace to others.

Variants in the New Testament

     Let’s face it–textual criticism is a boring topic.  Who wants to read a list of textual variants in the New Testament, especially since they number in the thousands?  The lay person, then, or the non-expert must rely on what he or she reads–usually in the popular media.  Unfortunately the popular media are not always good at reporting on complex subjects involving scholastic work.

For anyone interested, here are a few examples of actual textual variants in the New Testament.  You can judge for yourself what their significance is.

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In Revelation 1:5, some manuscripts read:

“. . .To him who loved us and freed us from our sins by his blood, . . .”

While others read:

“. . .To him who loved us and washed us from our sins by his blood, . . .”

The Greek words for freed and washed are similar, which might mean that a scribe could have misread the word or could have “corrected” it according to what he presumed the author meant or could have written it incorrectly from memory.

Does it matter?  The two versions mean roughly the same thing.  And in other passages of the Bible we find both the idea that Jesus freed us from our sins and the idea that he washed or cleansed us from our sins.  Therefore, neither reading contradicts other Bible passages.  Nor does either reading contradict any doctrine of the Christian faith. 

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In Philippians 2:30 some manuscripts read:

“. . .because he almost died for the work of Christ. . . .”

While others read:

“. . .because he almost died for the work of the Lord. . . .”

And others read:

“. . .because he almost died for the work of God. . . .”

And still others read:

“. . .because he almost died for the work. . . .”

Does it matter?  “The work” is obviously the work of God, and according to Christian doctrine, that would be the same as the work of Christ, since God and Christ are united.  Both Christ and God are called “Lord” in the New Testament, so that reading fits as well.

I’m no expert, but it seems possible that it originally had no divine name at the end but later scribes inserted one or another divine name to be more specific.  There are many variants of the New Testament in which a name has apparently been inserted where there was a pronoun or nothing before.  Far from “corrupting” the text, the scribes were trying to make it clearer, and they did so. 

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In Matthew 3:5, some manuscripts read:

“. . .People from Jerusalem went out to him. . .”

While others read:

“. . .The children of Jerusalem went out to him. . .”

And others read:

“. . .The Jerusalemites went out to him. . .”

And still others read:

“. . .All Jersualem went out to him. . .”

While the last one is a bit different in meaning from the others, all the versions are essentially the same.  The last one implies that every single Jerusalemite went out, which is probably an exaggeration.  The point is that none of the versions says the opposite–that nobody in Jerusalem went out to him.  None of the versions contradicts any Christian doctrine or any other passage in the Bible.

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The few examples above are how almost all of the textual variants of the New Testament are.  In many cases the correct reading (the one most likely to be original) can be determined, and textual critics have established criteria for determining it.  Sometimes it is a matter of how many manuscripts attest to a particular variant, how old the particular manuscripts are, or how reliable the particular manuscripts are.  It is even more complicated than that, however.  Only an expert can hope to make the determination.

Many of our modern English Bibles do the reader the service of indicating in footnotes or brackets when a variant reading exists.  It is not some secret that fndamentalist Christians know but don’t want anyone else to know.  Neither is it something that only liberal Bible scholars know and that fundamentalists are ignorant of.  It just doesn’t faze the fundamentalists or shake their faith in God or their faith in the Bible as God’s word.

Misleading the Public

If somebody wants to talk about the text of the Bible, then he or she should realize up front that it is a complex and complicated topic and full of nuance.  It is not just as simple as waving one’s hand and saying, “Well, after all, the text of the Bible was tampered with and the books of the Bible were selected by those in power.”  There is much more to it than that, and even the experts are not in agreement on many of the particulars.

Think of textual criticism in the same way that you think of economics or psychology.  Two “experts” can reach contradictory conclusions even though they are both well-trained and highly knowledgeable of the subject.  They bring to their studies a set of biases and presuppositions that color their findings.

I have this subject on my mind because a friend of mind mentioned that he is reading Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman and that he finds it a “wonderful book.”  I disagree with him completely.  I think it is a terrible book–one that has the power to do much harm by misleading people. 

Ehrman is a former born-again, evangelical Christian who is now an agnostic.  He is a professor of religion who knows as much as, if not more than, anybody else about the subject of the text of the New Testament.  He has come to believe and to propagate the following ideas:

  1. Scribal errors have corrupted the text of the New Testament so much that it is impossible to treat it as authentic or reliable.
  2. Those Christians who held what was to become the orthodox version of Christianity inserted things in the New Testament to bolster their views.
  3. Other versions of Christianity were purposely stamped out, and their books were kept out of the Bible by those in power.
  4. Variants in the text make it impossible to discover anything close to the original text, which makes it impossible to discover anything close to the original intent of the authors.
  5. Without being able to determine what the original New Testament authors intended, it is impossible to claim that the Bible is God’s word and impossible to know if orthodox Christian doctrine matches it.

Other people, with more knowledge than I, have written reviews and critiques of Ehrman’s works that refute most of those points.  One good one is the book Misquoting Truth by Timothy Paul Jones.  Here is a quick run-down of some of the critiques of Ehrman’s works:

1.  Most, as in almost all, of the scribal errors are obvious and easy to correct.  They involve spelling errors, misuse of similar words (think of the difference between affective and effective), transposition of words, omission of words, and insertion of extra words.  The fact that these errors can be spotted also allows them to be corrected.  In fact, textual critics understand how and why such errors are made and have developed excellent techniques and methods for finding them and correcting them.  The discovery of more and more early manuscripts has helped a lot. 

2.  Most, as in almost all, of the variants are of little consequence to the reliability of the Bible or of the Christian faith.  For example, where some manuscripts have a pronoun he, others have the personal name Jesus.  In such a case, a later scribe decided to make the passage clearer by specifying the person speaking or acting.  Another example is the substitution of God for Lord or vice versa.  Obviously, these variants are not significant enough to debunk the Christian faith or to undercut the authenticity of the Bible.

3.  Even when there is a significant variation, such as in the last few verses of the Gospel of Mark, which might not have been in the original version, there is no destruction of the Christian faith.  Every Christian doctrine can still be supported by other passages in the New Testament.  The same holds true for the story of the woman caught in adultery, which might not have been a part of the original Gospel of John.  Its exclusion from the Bible would not eliminate a crucial passage for Christian orthodoxy.  In other words, if the disputed passages are removed, the orthodox Christian faith is still supported by what is left.

4.  There is no variant of any Bible passage that categorically contradicts a Christian tenet.  For example, there is no manuscript of the New Testament that contains a statement to the effect that there is no such thing as God or that Jesus did not really rise from the dead or that human beings do not really have a soul.

5.   The books of the Bible were not selected in the way that some people imagine.  It was not as if a king or a pope issued a decree and decided that among many rival books only 27 that he liked would be a part of the New Testament.  Rather certain books were highly respected and widely accepted by the majority of Christian leaders throughout the world for many years, and these books were eventually put together into the New Testament.  The books that were rejected were used by fringe groups and were not respected or accepted by most Christian leaders.

Probably the best way that I can rebut Ehrman’s arguments is to point out that lots of conservative scholars know all about the variants in the text of the New Testament.  They know all about the problems inherent in scribal transmission.  Yet, they retain their trust in the Bible and their faith in Jesus.  If Ehrman’s arguments were ironclad, lots of evangelical Bible scholars would renounce their faith and announce to the rest of the world that Christians have been wrong all along.  I’m not trying to prove that Ehrman is wrong, but only that he is not absolutely, unquestionably right.

Things Happen

A man that I know died recently in a plane crash.  He was the pilot.  He was regarded as a highly skilled pilot by his colleagues, and he had 30 years of experience.  Still, he went down.  He and his two passengers were killed–instantly it looks like.  That last part is a blessing.

I was not very close to Paul, but my kids are friends of his son.  I spoke to Paul on several occasions and found him to be very personable and a man of integrity.  I respected him, as did those who knew him even better than I.  His son now gushes about what a great man and a great father he was.

It was an accident, but as a Christian, I cannot just leave it at that.

We Christians are not superstitious, as some of our detractors claim.  We believe that there are causes for things.  Was it pilot error?  Mechanical failure?  Bad weather?  An investigation is ongoing, and I hope that a clear determination is made.  It could give a sense of peace to Paul’s loved ones, and it could help prevent such things in the future.

We Christians believe that God knows the future; therefore, He knew that this accident would happen.  We believe that He has all power; therefore, He could have prevented the accident and chose not to.  He could have put the idea into Paul’s mind not to fly that morning.  He could have changed the weather.  He could have kept the airplane running properly.  We will probably never know why God let the accident happen, but we have to trust that a good and loving God chose not to prevent this terrible event.  We can pray for God to use it to bring about much good–so that it is not “wasted.”  We can watch for what good does come from it.  Ultimately, we Christians are supposed to pray for God to receive glory through it.  We live, after all, to glorify God and not to satisfy ourselves.  (Paradoxically, it is by glorifying God and denying ourselves that we find the most satisfaction and become the selves that we are truly meant to be.)

The Bible indicates that God knows exactly how long each one of us will live.  “All the days ordained for me were written in your book” it says in Psalm 139.  In other words, we Christians do not believe that it is possible for a person to die “before his time.”  They die before we wish that they would, or before they wish that they would, but not sooner than they were meant to die.  God, in a combination of foreknowledge and planning, chose that particular day for Paul to finish his life on earth and enter a different sort of life–a far better one.

I used to be a functional Deist, even though I was a Christian.  I believed that things “just happen” and that God was basically a spectator.  I now believe that God is directly involved in everything that happens.  I do not believe that He directly causes each thing that happens, but He does choose to let things follow their natural course or to intervene and change the natural course of things.  Beyond that, I believe that when he spoke the universe into existence and set up what we call “natural laws,” He knew exactly what would happen at every moment.  He knew how it would all play out–what we would decide, what changes would occur in the climate, how that glass would break that your child dropped on the floor yesterday, how that mosquito would bite you on the arm last night–everything.  He also knew how and when He would act and in what way.

As Christians, we do not grieve like other people.  We do not believe that Paul is totally gone forever.  He has simply moved from his temporary tent into his permanent house.  We will see him again.  He is the blessed one among us, for he has left a world of suffering and entered a realm of bliss.  We do not believe in hastening death, but we do not fear it either.  It is a loss to the ones left behind, but a victory for the soul of the departed.

So, things happen.  But they happen as God plans and in His time.

The Real Deal

I recently watched a British television series in which a minor character was a snake oil salesman.  He paid one of the local women to pretend that his so-called medicine had affected a sudden cure for her.  It made me glad that we now have medical doctors and researchers who can tell us what really works and what doesn’t.  Even more so, we can know what is safe and what is toxic.

Of course, people still believe in non-medical cures.  Some people flock to health food stores to buy the latest vitamin and herb supplement.  Others order magnet bracelets online.  Some people drink “cleansing” potions or perform enemas on themselves.  Oh, and some people go on fad diets–like my friend who ended up needing colon surgery because of a popular diet that he went on.

The same thing happens in religion.  People join cults–strange versions of traditional religions or strange mixtures of different religions.  Other people remain in a traditional religion but adopt heretical views.  I know of people who are nominally Christian who have decided that the noncanonical books are where “true” Christianity can be found.

The thing about most heresies is that they have already been tried and were found wanting.  Young people adopt them as though they have discovered something new, but the truth is that they are simply reviving something that has already been discredited.

The thing about most cults is that they are mainly about enhancing the popularity and the wealth of the leader.  Nothing more needs to be said, I think.

I am not trying to persuade you to be religious.  I am pointing out that if a person chooses to be religious, he or she should join an authentic group and hold authentic beliefs. I am sure that it is exciting to go against the mainstream in religion, but it is just as foolish to accept bogus religion as it is to accept bogus medicine.  It can probably be spiritually deadly, as well–just as it can be physically deadly to take quack medicine.

My Admiration For Tariq Jahan

     I cannot begin to understand how mobs of people feel justified in looting business in their own neighborhoods in England or anywhere.  I certainly cannot fathom murdering one’s neighbors and community members.

     When Tariq Jahan’s son was killed by a looter in Birmingham, he certainly would have been justified in wanting revenge against the killers.  However, he stood for peace.  He said:

I lost my son.  Blacks, Asians, whites, we all live in the same community.  Why do we have to kill one another?  Step forward if you want to lose your sons.  Otherwise, calm down and go home.

     The crowd did calm down and disperse.  Good for Jahan!  What courage!

     Tariq Jahan is a Muslim who believes in peace.  His faith also appears to be giving him comfort in the wake of his son’s death.  And his faith gives him the firm conviction that no other son should die–regardless of that son’s race or religion.

     Maybe Jahan’s faith points by contrast to the underlying problem in the United Kingdom.  Maybe people need faith in something outside themselves.  Maybe they need to adopt the virtues that are taught by the great religions of the world.  Stealing and killing, are wrong, after all, and that is not just somebody’s opinion.

     Some leaders in the United Kingdom are shocked by the apparent lack of “values” among the rioters.  But values are not the problem.  The rioters have values–they value getting what they want by any means.  What they lack is virtue, and virtue stems from having faith in something beyond oneself.

     Virtue says, no matter how angry or disappointed I am, I have no right to harm somebody else by stealing and killing.  Virtue says, if I have a grievance against somebody I will confront that person and not take out my frustration on random people in my own community.

     I admire Tariq Jahan for realizing the benefit of having faith in God and of acting according to that faith.  I admire him for not letting his grief turn into lust for revenge.  I admire him for trying to bring some good out of a terrible evil that hit him so personally and so deeply.  May others follow his example.

Those Arrogant Fundamentalists

A reader here recently commented on the topic of interpretation and of understanding what a text says in context. The title above is a good example of why context matters. You do not know if this post is about Christian fundamentalists, Muslim fundamentalists, or some other fundamentalists. You might assume that I am going to give examples of arrogance among fundamentalists or simply rant about how arrogant they are; however it is possible that the title is sarcastic and my intent is to show that fundamentalists are not arrogant.

Here you go.  I am writing about Christian fundamentalists, and I am hoping to show that they are not as arrogant as some people think.  Now you know what the title means–from the context that I just gave you.

In one sense I am a fundamentalist. I believe in the fundamentals of Christianity–the inspriation of the Bible, the virgin birth of Jesus, the atonement provided by Jesus on the cross, and the resurrection of Jesus, among other things. However, in another sense I am not a fundamentalist. I do not identify with the stereotypical fundamentalist. I play poker (though never for money), I watch movies that would make my mother blush, I sport a goatee, and I drink alcoholic beverages on special occasions.  I have a master’s degree from one of those secular universities.   I am also kind to my wife and consider her my equal. Oh, and she is not my blood relative.  So, when I hear wisecracks about fundamentalists, I do not at all see myself as the object of the jokes.

Based on the fact that my beliefs are consistent with fundamentalist Christians, I feel that I can comment to some extent as an insider.  I certainly have had the typical charges leveled against me, namely–

  • You think that you are right and everybody else is wrong.
  • You are narrow minded.
  • Who are you to speak for God?
  • Why are you so arrogant?

When I hear the first charge, I am tempted to ask, “Do you think that you are right about that?”  You see, the fallacy in it is that everybody thinks that they are right about what they believe.  An atheist, for example, doesn’t think that he is wrong when he says there is no God.  He thinks that he is right, and he thinks that the people who believe in God are wrong.  That’s how everybody operates.  So, if you tell me that I think I am right and everyone else is wrong, my answer is of course, and so do you.  You might say, no, I am willing to accept that I might be wrong.  So am I, but until I know that I am wrong I am going to keep on believing what I think is right.  I am sure that you will do the same.

When I hear that I am narrow minded, I think so what?  It doesn’t actually matter if somebody is broad minded or narrow minded.  It only matters if he or she is right.  Would you want your surgeon to be broad minded or narrow minded?  If she knows how to perform the operation properly, I would not want her to be broad minded about it.  I want her to be very, very narrow minded about how it should be done.  I don’t want the chef in the restaurant to be broad minded about whether to cook fresh food or spoiled food.  I want him to be very narrow minded about that.  Don’t you?  I don’t want the bank to be broad minded about how much money is in my account.  I want them to be very narrow minded when it comes to my balance.  Who wouldn’t.

You might say, but religion is not so straightforward.  I suppose that’s true, but religion is a lot more important than any of those things.  If we need to right about anything, I suggest that we should be right about religion first and foremost.  There is a lot at stake, according to those who are religious.

You might say, yes, but you should be open to new ideas.  True, but there are two ways to respond to new ideas.  One is to accept a new idea, and the other is to reject a new idea.  Both are possible, and sometimes the latter is more desirable.  Should I drink the arsenic or not?  Should I punch my neighbor for returning my rake with dirt on it or should I overlook it?  Should I withdraw the money in my retirement fund and risk it at the casino or should I keep it in there a while longer?  When one is presented with either-or choices, it doesn’t really matter whether one is broad minded or narrow minded but whether one makes the right choice.

Asking who somebody is that they think that they can speak for God is an excellent question.  Anybody with half a brain would ask such a question.  The answer is that I am nobody.  Absolutely nobody.  I do not presume to understand God on my own or to be able to figure out by myself what he is like or what he might say or what he might do.  When fundamentalists appear to speak for God, it is because they believe that God has spoken to them.  In most cases that means that God has put his message in the Bible, and when we faithfully transmit the words of the Bible, we are transmitting the message of God.  You can disagree with the Bible, or with God himself, but fundamentalists claim to be nothing more than feeble and imperfect messengers.  So don’t take it out on them.

Some fundamentalists believe that God has spoken to them in other ways–or at least that he has shown himself to them somehow.  Nobody would think it arrogant if a person said, “Hey, your wife just called.  She wants you to buy some milk on your way home.”  So why is it arrogant for a fundamentalist to say, “Hey, God has some things to say to you in the Bible.  Would you like to hear them?”

You might think that fundamentalists are wrong for taking the Bible as the Word of God.  That is a different matter.  You are welcome to think that you are right, and they are wrong.  However, you should not accuse them of something that they do not intend.  They intend to represent what God has said.  They do not believe that they are making up the words but that they have found the words and are passing them on.

Which is why fundamentalists are not arrogant.

Joe Fundamentalist did not wake up one moring and say, “Hey, I think I’ll make up a new religion.  It will involve a guy called Jesus, and I’ll say that He was crucified and that He came back to life.  I’ll say that you can go to heaven after you die if you believe that Jesus died to forgive your sins.”  If Joe Fundamentalist did that, then it would be arrogant for him to say that he is right and everyone else is wrong.  If he really made the whole thing up in his imagination, then he has no right to expect anyone else to believe it.

Joe Fundamentalist did not make up the Christian religion.  He received it.  And he believes that what he recived is true and right and good.

Under those conditions, it would be arrogant if he denied those things or if he withheld that information from other people.  It is humble for him to accept what he believes to be true and to risk ridicule (and death in some parts of the world) in order to pass that news on to other people.

It is not arrogant for the surgeon to say, “Yes, I know how to perform this operation.”  It is not arrogant for the chef to say, “This meat is rotten.  I will not cook it.”  It is not arrogant for the bank to tell me that I have only $50 in my checking account.

Fundamentalists might be arrogant in other ways, and I am sure that they are.  I know that I am.  However, they are not arrogant for holding on to what they believe is true or for realizing that the opposite cannot also be true or for wanting other people to know what they believe is true.  Not by a long shot.