|KEYNOTES-One Foolishness or Another|
ONE FOOLISHNESS OR ANOTHER:
The Gospel and Foolish Galatians, Gays and Lesbians
You can do yourself a great big favor by getting rid of three bad words: "should-a", "could-a", and "might-a-been." We can’t say a reasonable thing about life on the road not taken, though implied, in these three "if only" day-dreams. It’s self-defeating nonsense to talk on and on about make-believe roads we never trod.
But what if we try to protect ourselves with this awareness of the inherent dangers of "if only" thinking and, thus forewarned, go ahead forearmed, speculating on how some things might have been had some other things gone differently? We can’t be sure about how it would "go" with us if things were to "go" differently, but knowing that we can’t, let’s play a little game of speculation. For example: What about homosexuality in an "if only" church, an "if only" church history?
Some people say we’d have been a lot better off "if only" the Apostle Paul hadn’t written so much, especially what they call his anti-gay writings. But we can’t blame Paul for the ways we’re often mistreated by people who run churches. Paul is not our problem; he’s their problem. Paul has always been a problem for people who try to run churches. And that’s our problem.
The really relevant "what if" is this: What if Paul were not such a problem for churches? What if the churches were more welcoming of Paul’s basic theology? Would the church then be more welcoming of us?
Paul "is probably the most vilified Christian since Pentecost." [Leander E. Keck and Victor Paul Furnish] Says another biblical scholar: "Paul in the 20th century has been used and abused as much as in the first." [N. T. Wright] Paul’s message has always been too radical for religionists. Paul’s Law-free Gospel wasn’t easily welcomed by other Christians during his own lifetime and it’s been problematic to legalists ever since.
According to a Harvard Bible scholar: "At least three hundred years after its writing and distribution the basic insight of Paul’s theology – justification by faith (alone), without the works of the law – seems to have been more or less lost in the teaching and thinking of the church." [Krister Stendahl] He reminds us that "It was not until Augustine, more than three hundred years after Paul, that a man was found who seemed to see, so to say, what made Paul ‘tick,’ and who discerned the center of gravity in Pauline theology."
Among the some 300 popes of history, only six have been Pope Pauls. It took 100 popes to reach the time of Pope Paul I (757) and almost 250 popes to get to (homosexual) Pope Paul II (1464), in the generation of Martin Luther’s parents.
Once Christendom divided between Roman Catholics and Protestants, Paul became, in a Catholic scholar’s words, "intrinsically ‘alien,’ especially to Catholics." [Wolfgang Trilling] But within Protestantism, too, rules and regulations were imposed on Luther’s sola fide, legalisms grated against sola gratia, and sola scriptura was turned into a bibliolatry to be mined for more do’s and don’ts.
"What Paul says as clearly as he can," according to an evangelical Bible scholar, "is that the Law … has been eclipsed by the revelation of God in Jesus Christ and must now be seen as obsolescent." [Ben Witherington III] Paul has always been a problem for the church because people who want to run churches want to lay down the law. Instead, Paul simply laid the law down. He set the Law aside.
Considering what a wild word it was that Paul was preaching, it was to be expected that those who came after Paul couldn’t resist trying to tame it. Human beings want to be in control; we want to save ourselves. We’re always tempted to try to put others, including the gods – and even the Most High God – in our debt.
The ecclesiastical rejection of Paul and his outlaw Gospel is what’s been the problem and continues to be the problem for legalistic religionists as well as for lesbians and gay men caught in the trap of churchly legalism. And that rejection of the true Good News in Jesus Christ is truly bad news for a church that then, in turn, has nothing but bad news for lesbians and gay men.
The Foolish Galatians
Paul’s outlaw Gospel of God’s grace in Christ Jesus is nowhere more urgently proclaimed than in his letter to Christians in Galatia. This letter is "the least disputed of any of Paul’s epistles" so far as authenticity is concerned. [Donald Guthrie] But it’s always been hotly disputed so far as theology is concerned. And it’s as relevant to heresy in Evangelicaland on the eve of the 21st century as it was relevant to 1st century heresy in Galatia.
The letter is heavy with Paul’s deep disappointment, disgust and distress over the Galatians’ falling for legalistic codicils to God’s covenant of grace. His indignation over their having allowed themselves to be distracted away from the true message of the freely-given grace of God to something that they somehow also had to earn prompted the Apostle’s addressing them in these now famous words: "O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?" [Gal 3:1]
What was going on in Galatia that deserved such a negative response – the most negative of all of Paul’s letters? Briefly this: Paul had preached the Good News of God’s free grace and peace to these gentiles and, seemingly, they had received it gladly. They became Christians. But then some Jewish Christians came along to urge them to adopt what the Jews claimed was the "full gospel" – the addition of Jewish Law on top of faith – requirements of circumcision, Sabbath-keeping and the like. They insisted that without becoming Jewish, these gentiles couldn’t really be followers of the Jewish Messiah.
That seemed to make sense to the gentiles. It seemed, on second thought, to be more recognizably "religious." It was "genuinely" Jewish. It was not so altogether shockingly new. But G. K. Chesterton hadn’t yet come along to advise them that "Unless the Gospel sounds like a gun going off it has not been uttered at all."
And yet as evangelical New Testament scholar F. F. Bruce notes: "We can appreciate how slender Paul’s case for the gospel he preached must have appeared if he was the only one who preached it." Were they to try to believe that everyone was out-of-step but Paul? Still, didn’t they know that even Socrates and their other sages had been out-of-step with most of their ancient colleagues as well as out-of-step with the masses? Were not Hebrew prophets of old virtually minorities of one? Wasn’t Jesus himself out-of-step with the crowd? Wasn’t he left all alone in the end? How good a record did "moral majority" tradition and convention really have as such?
On hearing of the sad turn of events in Galatia, Paul wrote to tell them that if they were now to add qualifications to the Gospel, they’d be rejecting the Gospel. He said, flat out, that grace plus rules and regulations is no grace at all. He urgently warned them not to fall for false "gospels" – even if they thought they had been "touched by an angel" or even if he himself came preaching something at odds with what he’d already preached. He repeatedly prays that the preaching of perverted "gospels" be God-damned. [Gal 1:8f]
The Law was a Nanny
The Law "is shown [by Paul] to have been intrusive, temporary, secondary and preparatory" in the first place. [Bruce] To Paul, "the law is a second-hand thing." [William Barclay] Paul argued that the Law, after all, didn’t go all the way back to Abraham, Isaac or Jacob. It went back only to Moses. Paul pictures the Law as a nanny. [Gal 3:24f] Don’t think Fran Drescher. The Law-as-nanny was charged with attending to the minor children until they’d grown up to maturity. That maturity came with the coming of Christ.
That "the Mosaic law … was intended by God to be in effect for God’s people only up until the coming of Christ" was not a new concept. [Richard N. Longenecker] As a Reformed scholar reminds us: "it was [Christ] to whom the promise pointed and in whom it was materialized." [Herman N. Ridderbos] A Jewish doctrine from antiquity had posited three epochs of sacred history, each lasting 2,000 years: an age of chaos, an age of Law and an age of Messiah. It was understood that "if the Days of Messiah have begun, those of Torah have ended. On the other hand, if Law is still valid, Messiah has not come." [Bruce] So what Paul was preaching was entirely consistent with traditional Jewish thought, even if the Jewish Christians from Jerusalem weren’t grasping this: If Jesus Messiah has come, the Law is over!
Another New Testament scholar puts it this way: "Paul envisages the role of the law as at an end. … [F]or the Gentile Galatians now to seek to emulate the traditionalist Jews would mean a return to immature, restricted childhood." [James D. G. Dunn] Paul goes so far as to define death to the law (Rom 7:4-6) as the same experience as death to sin (Rom 6:2). In the words of yet another biblical authority: "For Paul’s doctrine of the law it is fundamental that the law is indivisible. Therefore, the curse of which he speaks also applies to the moral law." [Gerhaard Ebeling] Said Luther: "If the days of the law be not shortened, no flesh should be saved." According to another evangelical Bible scholar, "no longer could it be argued that circumcision, Jewish dietary laws, following distinctively Jewish ethical precepts, or any other matter having to do with a Jewish lifestyle were requisite for the life of faith. Certainly not for Gentile Christians in any sense." [Longenecker] As he points out, it wasn’t just so-called ritual or purity laws that Paul had in mind in teaching that the Law’s custody has ended. It was all the Law, including the ethical and moral laws.
Today the demand is "ex-gay." Back then the demand was "ex-goy." It’s the same demand. And if we buy into the demand of legalists today, we’re as foolish as those foolish Galatians.
Says a New Testament scholar: "So long as all the believers were already circumcised there was no critical problem. It did not even dawn on them all at once that Christianity involved a totally different approach to the law." [Donald Guthrie] We might paraphrase for today’s circumstances: So long as all the believers [assumed that all fellow believers were likewise heterosexual] there was no critical problem. It did not even dawn on them all at once that Christianity involved a totally different approach to the law.
These are not matters of merely abstract systematic theology. They are practical matters of pastoral care and concern. According to John Calvin’s comments on the Galatian letter: "It is no light evil to quench the brightness of the gospel, lay a snare for consciences and remove the distinction between the old and new covenants."
"Male and Female?"
One of the "traditional values"-Christians’ favorite weapons against gay men and lesbians is from Genesis (in the Law or Torah): God created humankind as "male and female." They shout at us: "Male and female, male and female! Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!" We must joyfully remind them: Messiah has come! The theological distinctions of the Torah classifications are ended!
Paul gets very specific about this matter of the significance of "male and female." In the Galatian letter, he asserts that over against the significance of the heterosexual pairing of "male and female" in Torah, there is now "in Christ, no male and female" that’s theologically significant. [Gal 3:28] Here he takes the very words of the Greek translation of Genesis – the same Bible verse that traditionalists use against us – and states in no uncertain terms that for the Christian, there is now no theological, ethical or salvation significance to sexual distinctions and the male/female pair.
Now notice that this verse, Galatians 3:28, is often mistranslated and misquoted and so the point that’s relevant to the issue of homosexuality today is missed. It’s usually quoted like this: "In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female." That’s not what Paul wrote. What he wrote was this: "In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, no male and female." Paul deliberately changes the "nor" of the first two examples to an "and" in the third example. The "male and female" alliance is pulled right out of the Torah’s "God created them male and female." Bruce indicates that the "male and female" reference is a quote from Genesis by placing quotation marks around "male and female." But ignoring Paul, legalistic Christians still shout at us: "Male and female, male and female! Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!"
This particular set of examples in Galatians 3:28 was illustrative of the entire range of traditional distinctions that Paul was now proclaiming to be resolved in Christ, so far as any continuing theological significance was concerned. But Paul’s preaching along these lines was as threatening to the tradition-bound of his day as our application of his preaching to our circumstances is threatening to the tradition-bound of our day. Bruce observes that these racial, cultural and economic distinctions "had considerable importance in Judaism [but in Paul’s gospel] in Christ they are all irrelevant." All human distinctions are irrelevant in Christ.
Traditionalists have never found the abolition of the theological significance of these and other distinctions easy to take. Bruce notes that "Paul’s ban on discrimination on racial or social grounds has been fairly widely accepted" in our day. But even when it comes to racial reconciliation in Christ, at least according to John Perkins, the black founder of Voice of Calvary ministries in Mississippi, there has been no significant progress among his fellow evangelicals during his lifetime. He says that most change on race issues among evangelical Christians has been "forced upon them by society. They have not seen it as a theological mandate." Racial distinctions still matter theologically to certain groups of fundamentalist and conservative Christians, especially in the American South and in South Africa. And Bruce is perhaps too optimistic about social distinctions as well. After all, a major principle of the "church growth" movement is that churches are much more likely to grow if they are socially homogenous. Besides these racial and social issues, however, Bruce observes that "there has been a tendency to restrict the degree to which ‘there is no "male and female." ’ " And that continuing unbiblical sexual restriction, whether in application to women or to people who are gay or lesbian, obstructs the clear preaching and living of the true Gospel of Christ.
Paul says he has just one question for these foolish Galatians. He asks: "Did you receive the Spirit by keeping the law or by believing the gospel?" [Gal 3:2] The obvious answer was that they had received the Spirit by believing the Gospel. We can paraphrase Paul’s question to Christian goys by asking Christian gays: Did you receive the Spirit by being heterosexual, by becoming ‘ex-gay,’ by celibacy, by getting heterosexually-married, by having kids, or by being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered? Or did you receive the Spirit by believing the Gospel? It’s obvious. Receiving the Spirit has nothing to do with sexual orientation or gender.
Paul goes on to warn the Galatian Christians that there are many other so-called "gospels" to watch out for. He insists that they’re really, of course, not gospels at all. But they’re pawned off as "gospels," as good news. And they’re bought into as good news. So, watch out! The Galatians had already been duped by the legalists from Jerusalem. What else would be coming down the pike to distract them from the pure Gospel? We don’t know if they accepted Paul’s admonitions and took them seriously. But we can’t answer for the Galatians. We do, though, get to answer for ourselves.
So what do you think? Do you think we’d be better off "if only" the churches would take Paul more seriously? It would seem so. But we can’t really say how we’d experience the road that has not been taken.
What we can say, however, is that we should take Paul more seriously. That’s not easy for any of us to do. There are always so many other "gospels" grabbing for our attention and allegiance. It’s to some of these other "gospels" that we now turn our attention in order that we not turn over our allegiance as well.
What is the Gospel?
Before looking into other "gospels," let’s make sure we have a good idea of what the true Gospel is.
The Gospel is more than just a category at Tower Records or HMV. It’s not just anything someone thinks is unquestionably true, as in "the gospel truth." Our English word "gospel" comes from the Old English "god" (good) and "spell" (news) – "good news." "Good News" translates the Latin evangelium and the Greek euongelion (from which we get our word "evangelical"). So what is this Good News, this Gospel?
Contrary to popular notions, the Gospel is not fundamentally about our salvation. As A. W. Tozer so often said: "The gospel in its scriptural context puts the glory of God first and the salvation of man second." The Gospel is "the story of the one who is himself the good news, the gospel of God," said George MacDonald, "the Word is the Lord; the Lord is the gospel." As a New Testament commentator explains: "That ‘Christ’ (Gal 1:16; cf. I Cor 1:23; 15:12; 2 Cor 1:19; 4:5; 11:4; Phil 1:15) can be interchanged with ‘gospel’ [in the New Testament] (Col 1:23; I Thess 2:9) … is a reminder of the extent to which the infant Christian movement focused its identity and message on Christ, his life, death and resurrection." [Dunn]
Paul summed up the tradition of the Gospel in the 1st-century church in these words to the Corinthians: "In Christ, God was reconciling the world to Himself, no longer holding people’s sins against them." [II Cor 5:19] Paul writes to the Colossians: "In [Christ] God chose to dwell in all his fullness, and through him to reconcile all things to Himself, making peace through the shedding of his blood on the cross – all things, whether on earth or in heaven." [Col 1:19f] Therefore, as an evangelical New Testament commentator explains, the proclamation of the Gospel is not a call for people "to make their peace with God, but to tell them that God has made peace with the world. … When Christ’s work was done, the reconciliation of the world was accomplished." [Ralph Martin] What other term but "Good News" could apply to such news? What other even good news can compare with such Good News as is the Gospel? The 16th century Bible translator William Tyndale celebrated this Good News, saying that the Gospel "signyfyth good, mery, glad and joyfull tydings, that maketh a mannes hert glad, and maketh hym syng, daunce and leepe for joye."
Sadly, we hear this Good News disparaged and see it neglected by all sorts of Christians these days – not only by liberals and those who are dominated by the rhetoric of secular lesbigay and transgendered agendas but by many in Evangelicaland as well, captivated by homphobic heterosexism and legalism.
Other "gospels" are other "gospels" because they pose, in effect if not by intent, as substitutes for the true Gospel. They are other "gospels" because they pose as objects of ultimate concern. Either directly or indirectly, they claim for themselves what only God may claim. They are other "gospels" because they appear as something around which we should finally organize our lives, solve our basic problems and preserve ourselves. The other "gospels" are self-serving, they’re set against Christ and Christians, and they’re superficial substitutions.
The other ‘gospels" are self-serving.
The other "gospels" are consumer-oriented. They’re market-driven. This is true of both secular and spiritual substitute "gospels." Their self-serving bottom line question is this: "What’s in it for me?" The very same question can be asked in other words: "What’s in it for my group?" The focus is on me or on me-writ-large. These days, other "gospels" can be rationalized as identity politics.
One of today’s most popular other "gospels" is self-servingly arrogant, do-it-yourself spirituality. A New Yorker cartoon shows a bookstore customer seeking assistance from a clerk who’s standing at his computer saying: "The Bible – that would be under self-help."
A Union Theological Seminary graduate student recently wrote an Op-Ed piece for The New York Times in which he attacked the pope’s critique of New Age ideas. He advised John Paul II to "reinvigorate" Christianity by throwing away the idea of Jesus as the Son of God who was crucified for our sins and raised from the dead. Accordingly, he says, "It doesn’t matter what people turn to in their spiritual search, be it Christian mysticism or spiritual traditions like Buddhism, Hinduism and Native American spirituality. What matters is the search itself because that – if charted according to one’s deepest psychic needs – is what will eventually give life meaning." [James Kullander] People, he declared, need to have "Christianity on their own terms." But Smith College religion professor Philip Zaleski, writing in The New York Times Book Review, observes that "Above all, … great spiritual writing springs from struggling against oneself and against one’s times." And as Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow expresses it, a "compelling [spirituality] must be rooted in authoritative traditions that transcend the person and point to larger realities in which the person is embedded. … rather than [in] fragmented, self-indulgent experiences."
Unfortunately, contemporary individualism puts faith primarily in its "own stories" and so-called "indigenous stories" from non-Christian traditions instead of putting it in the indigenous stories of the saints of the church, Bible stories and the Lord and Savior of "The Greatest Story Ever Told."
This self-centered, self-serving orientation of the other "gospels" runs counter to the true Gospel’s orientation: Reconciled for the ministry of reconciliation. [II Cor 5:18f]
In his book, Habits of the Heart, sociologist Robert Bellah describes the approach of a woman named Sheila. She’s typical of many contemporary Americans when it comes to today’s ubiquitous "spirituality." Sheila says: "My faith [is] Sheilaism. Just my own little voice. … It’s just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself." Her religion is a warm-fuzzy version of "The Reflective God" by Goth rocker Marilyn Manson. Manson’s lyrics: "I went to god just to see / And I was looking at me / Saw heaven and hell were lies / When I’m god everyone dies." Self-centered Sheilaism can be just as careless of others as Mansonism is. Each is a narcissism that can ill-afford to address the needs of others.
The other "gospels" don’t’ really concern themselves with Jesus’ summary of what old Nanny Law meant: "Love God, the One Lord, with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as you love yourself. Nothing," said Jesus, "is more important." [cf. Mark 12:30ff pars; Matt 5:43; 19:19; Rom 13:9; James 2:8; cf. Deut 6:4; Lev 19:18] Notice how both the Law and Jesus assume one’s love of self. Neither Sheila nor anyone else needs to command herself to love herself.
Paul was echoing Jesus’ summary of the Law’s essence when he summed up the whole law in the single commandment: "Love your neighbor as yourself." [Gal 5:14] The Apostle was saying that if the Galatians were guided by the Spirit, they are not subject to an ever-expanding legalism full of loopholes. [Gal 5:18] Instead, they’d be looking for all the ways they could keep up with the Spirit’s love for their neighbors.
The other "gospels" are set against Christ and Christians. All four New Testament gospels record Jesus’ own warning that all sorts of people will hate those who follow him. [Matt 10:22; Mark 13:13; Luke 21:17; John 15:18] After all, they hated him. Why should they not hate those who follow him? But it’s more than a matter of hating Jesus’ followers. As people took offense at Jesus himself, there is an inherent "offense" in the Gospel. Said Oswald Chambers: "The Gospel of Jesus Christ awakens an intense craving and an equally intense resentment."
The Village Voice recently ran a large photo of a man wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words: "JESUS IS A CUNT." A reader objected in writing. His gentle letter was printed under the Voice’s crude headline: "CHRIST ALMIGHTY." A New Yorker cartoon depicted a smiling dog sitting on a front porch and holding up a sign that reads: "Jesus Loves You." There’s a sign in the front yard that reads: "Beware of Dog!"
In a New York Times review of a book about Jesus, written by a biographer of Marilyn Monroe, the reviewer says the author’s "religious devotion is valid because he thoughtfully challenges … the plausibility of [Jesus’] miracles" and because he concludes that Jesus lives on [merely] in "our yearning to be loved … [and in] human dignity." [Alexandra Hall] Apparently heresy validates religious devotion. In another New York Times review, this one of Alec Guinness’ autobiography, movie critic John Simon belittles the actor’s simple Christian orthodoxy as "religiosity – a convert’s overzealous Roman Catholicism."
It’s reported in The New York Times that "among the members of the American press in Cannes, the reception [to the world premiere of the new Bob and Harvey Weinstein film, "Dogma"] was ecstatic." And why wouldn’t it be ecstatic? God is played by a rock singer known for her nude videos, the film features an abortion clinic worker who is a descendant of Jesus, the Mass is compared to lousy sex, and a thirteenth apostle says he’s been overlooked because he’s black. The director, Kevin Smith, claims that this politically correct slam against orthodox Christian "dogma" is a "love letter" to faith and God.
All this smug anti-Christian bias again exemplifies what historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. once called "the anti-Semitism of the liberals." As Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy observed, the secular elite are not receptive to orthodox Christian interpretation. Annie Dillard says that it’s a death knell for an author to be classified as a Christian in secular society these days. A Princeton political science professor, reviewing William F. Buckley’s autobiography of faith, notes that "no matter how eloquent, moving, or intellectually sophisticated the presentation, and regardless of the status, credentials, or political ideology of the presenter, nothing raises secular elite hackles, suspicions, and whispers quite like a well-educated, well-positioned person expressing deep religious faith without temporizing or apologizing for it." [John J. DiIulio, Jr.]
Whether from the so-called counter culture or the cultural elite, secularists are set against Christ and Christians.
The other "gospels" are superficial. The other "gospels" are prone to quick fixes, short-cuts of instant gratification and surface solutions.
Popular other "gospels" of contemporary spirituality tend to be intellectually lazy. They offer "an inspirational buzz that has no intellectual toll" says a critic writing in The New Republic. She says they’re "not really speaking the language of spirituality. They are speaking the language of television." [Ruth Shalit] Zaleski, in The New York Times, evaluates the flood of "spirituality" books as "marked by reckless scholarship, flamboyant theorizing, and a penchant for goofy New Age formulations and watered-down or sexed-up presentations of traditional faith."
The other "gospels" are superficial on sin! They therefore not only misdiagnose the deepest spiritual problem that a person has but are in no position to prescribe an effective remedy. "I’m o.k., you’re o.k." is a cheap bromide for all the ways in which we’re not o.k. at all. And that’s unfair to people in real need.
Plenty of other "gospels" are "into sex," as they say. But the sex they’re into is skin deep. It isn’t core sexuality. It’s Monica Lewinsky’s silly philosophy: "Sex is like eating. Sometimes you have fast food and sometimes you eat a gourmet meal." Can we really do no better than the rantings of Religious Right-wingers and Queer Theory pimps who push promiscuity as what it means to be gay? When it comes to truly safer sex, dare we define "harm reduction" as narrowly as we do? Might we not also need cognitive condoms for our largest sex organs – our brains?
A letter-writer to the gay/lesbian newsmagazine, The Advocate, decries the "images of 20-something men with no body hair, no body fat, and bulging muscles [as] the only visuals … of gay life." Another Advocate reader confirms: "Yes, all this fitness and body building is about getting laid. Duh!" So a writer for the gay/lesbian New York Blade News well asks: "With images like this influencing our self-perceptions and desires we have of men, how are we to create real relationships with others, relationships that are emotional and honest and longer lasting than one night?" He laments that "Today, being gay seems more about being big and ripped and beefed and buffed and shredded and juiced and chiseled. How sad, for all of us. For none of this epidemic self-indulgence works to create meaningful lasting bonds." [Lorne Opler] And though many heterosexuals are not doing it any better, they at least have the option of society-supported marriage.
The latest culture fashion is hip hop. Its proponents proclaim it to be "a way of life." Nothing expresses the hip hop "way of life" quite so well as materialism. But new as hip hop culture is, its materialism is as old as human culture. Calvin College president Gaylen Byker reminds us that "consumerism … has always been a major problem – just read the Old Testament prophets or Jesus’ parables." However, now along comes James Twitchell’s heralding shopping as America’s religion. He enthusiastically boasts of "redemption … through [the] purchase" of stuff: "Salvation through consumption is not a contradiction, but a necessity." Puh-leeze!
Our needs run deep, but solutions are offered in superficial spirituality, sex, status and stuff. And people wonder why they’re angry, anxious, empty!
Contrary to their ads, Starbucks is really not "more than a coffee." Starbucks can’t really be "a Way of Life." No "lifestyle label" can support real life. No matter how strong you order it up, a cup of Starbucks is just never that strong. None of the other "gospels" is.
The other "gospels" of Postmodernism
Self-serving, anti-Christian superficial short-cuts, sex, status and stuff are age-old other "gospels." These days, we’re up against some newer alternative "gospels." These are the other "gospels" of what’s known collectively as postmodernism.
Postmodernism is a reactionary movement. It rails against the excesses and failures of now old-fashioned modernism. But it also rails against fundamental assumptions of the whole of Western civilization. It doesn’t intend to be merely postmodern; it intends to be post-all-other-eras.
Now a critique of Western philosophy had been due for a long time. But what was needed was a far more radical critique than postmodernists ever dreamed of, far deeper than they ever proposed to go. And a truly more radical approach was already being developed in the 1920s by Dutch Calvinists at the Free University of Amsterdam. Their’s was a radical critique of all theoretical thought. It was built on what they called the "discovery of the religious root of thought [that’s] rooted in faith in the [presumed] self-sufficiency of human reason." [cf. Herman Dooyeweerd]
Postmodernism is the post traumatic stress disorder of modernism’s unfounded faith in rationalism. Under the disillusioning loss of such faith, postmodernists throw out the baby of rationality with the bath water of rationalism. Postmodernism is the hangover of manic modernism. It’s the morning after soused scientism. It’s the cynical aftermath of the overdrawn optimism of the Enlightenment. Now the Enlightenment produced John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards as well as Voltaire and Tom Paine – but it degenerated into the West’s cultural arrogance, even while overcoming a lordly Christendom that had strayed from following the Lord.
Postmodernism’s close-minded intolerance of the past is what C. S. Lewis used to call a "chronological snobbery," the silly notion that only the up-to-date is worth knowing. All that’s best really did not show up just since we got up this morning! And what’s particularly pathetic is that, as one critic observes in The Times Literary Supplement, postmodernists "apparently need not know much about old perspectives to purport to offer new ones." [Robert S. Miola]
What G. K. Chesterton said about modernism can be said about postmodernism as well: "A man who seriously describes his faith as Modernism might just as well invent a creed called Mondayism, meaning that he puts special fiath in the fancies that occurred to him on Monday; or a creed called Morningism, meaning that he believes in the thoughts that occurred to him in the morning and not in the afternoon."
Over against the arrogance of such time-bound insularity, Chesterton spoke of his believing in "the democracy of the dead." That’s what writer P. J. O’Rourke calls "giving a vote to the dead" and what theologian L. Gregory Jones calls being "apprentices to those who have gone before us." Those who were thinking long before we came along were perhaps also capable of thinking things through. Do we all really need to reinvent the wheel whenever a spoke is broken or a tire goes flat? Perhaps not. But C. S. Lewis once wrote that "The process of living seems to consist in coming to realize truths so ancient and simple that, if stated, they sound like barren platitudes. They cannot sound otherwise to those who have not had the relevant experience." Lewis says that "that is why there is no real teaching of such truths possible and every generation starts from scratch."
Postmodernist contempt for earlier eras is also contempt for any grand context or what postmodernists call "metanarrative." All that’s left are supposedly emotionally-authenticating self-sufficient stories individuals tell about themselves. There is no Great Story. There’s certainly no God’s Story. Yet Jean Francois Lyotard’s assertion that the postmodern is defined as "incredulity toward metanarratives" is, itself, postmodernism’s own metanarrative! There is no escape in self.
So now, let’s take a look at just four interlocking dogmas of postmodernism that are so prevalent these days in pop culture, New Age and even liberal Christian spiritualities, pop psych and Queer Theory. They’re of the Zeitgeist we have to push against – as Flannery O’Connor always urged – as much as the Zeitgeist pushes against us.
Dogmas of Postmodernism
The Denial of Certainty and Objective Truth. In February, I was invited to attend – as an auditor (i.e., without comment) – an all-day seminar at the New York headquarters of the American Bible Society. The seminar was entitled "Futuring the Scriptures: The Bible for Tomorrow’s Publics." As it turned out, it was the Bible conference from postmodernist hell. Well, I’m no longer muzzled.
There in the board room of the Society that, since 1816, has been sending forth the Bible, and under what seemed to me to be the disgusted gaze of the Society’s founders’ portraits, some seventeen seminary and cultural academics steeped in the jargon of postmodernism ridiculed what they called the "arrogance" of spreading the Bible and its Christ-centered Gospel. The only panelist from an evangelical seminary was too polite or too out-numbered to challenge any of it.
Bruce Birch, a Wesley Theological Seminary professor, kept insisting triumphantly that we’re all at "the end of settled certitudes!" Conversing during the first coffee break, I said to one of my fellow auditors, Asbury Seminary president Maxie Dunnam: "I wanted to ask Birch: ‘Are you sure?’ "
Now it didn’t take postmodernism to tell us that absolute intellectual certainty about anything that’s really important is not what we should be expecting. There was nothing more important to St. Augustine than knowing God. But he expressed impatience with silly insistence on absolute certainty in knowledge about God: "We are speaking of God – is it surprising if you don’t understand?" After all, we’re called to walk with God by faith, not by sight. And for everything else? We’re always learning how little we’ve learned. But without some objective truth we can’t even know how little we know.
And it didn’t take postmodernism to tell us that everyone has his or her own take on things. But everyone’s having an opinion doesn’t mean that everything’s only a matter of opinion. What someone believes to be true is not the same as truth’s being what someone believes.
And it didn’t take postmodernism to teach us that there are no theory-free facts. Twentieth-century Calvinists built their whole new critique of theoretical thought on the cornerstone of a heart-rooted, faithing-oriented presuppositionalism. As Cornelius Van Til said over and over to his apologetics students at Westminster Seminary: "There are no brute facts; only interpreted facts."
Postmodernism’s polemic, however, is not simply descriptive; it’s prescriptive, it’s ideology. Postmodernism isn’t pushing subjectivity; it’s pushing subjectivism – the dogma that the only valid standard for truth is an individual’s take on it. It’s revealing though, how subjectivists who say that we should not be under the moral authority of the Bible, churches or preachers, for example, try ever so hard to put us under their moral authority and convert us to their subjectivism!
Today, subjectivism confuses truth with what’s "true for me." What’s said to be true is what one feels, and these feelings must not be questioned. Failing to understand that feelings are the emotional results of what we’re thinking – which may or may not be true – feelings are elevated to the status of truth with all its old clout but without its old basis. They’re truly feelings, of course. But do they source in truth or falsehood? And it isn’t only a matter of the inevitability of feelings following our take on truth. We’re told we have a "right" to those feelings which gets translated as: Don’t you dare challenge my take on anything. For example, pop-psych says that we have a "right" to our anger as proof we’ve been wronged. Woe to anyone who suggests that it’s our interpretation that’s wrong. So sadly, even unwanted feelings get the last word because the notions that fuel the feelings are not allowed to be challenged and changed.
Back at the Bible conference from hell, panelists spoke out of their own individual, subjective experience as though that established some sort of truth or authority over against the collective experience and communal authority of 2,000 years of Christianity and even the revealed truth of the Bible itself. A Union Theological Seminary professor said that "starting with [outside] ‘authority’ has not been good for me … ‘authority’ is not something that is useful to me. … ‘authority’ does violence to my self." [Vincent Wimbush] It was by their own authority that they were "deconstructing" the Bible as they did violence to the text in terms that invalidated even the basis on which they tried to say what they thought was true. And they didn’t "get it."
Peter Gay, Director of the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, says he "pitch[es] my tent among late-nineteenth-century atheists like Freud." But he argues for truth the way Christian seminary professors should and don’t. "Surely it is worth saying once again," Gay reasons, "that we must judge religion, not on its possible social utility but on the truth value – if any – of the propositions it asserts."
University of Miami philosopher Susan Haack points out that "everyone who believes anything, or who asks any question, implicitly acknowledges – even if he explicitly denies – that there is such a think as truth. Truth," she says, "is not relative to perspective." Haack goes on to explain that "although what is true is not relative to perspective, what is accepted as true is." She warns that "a dreadful argument ubiquitous in the Higher Dismissiveness [her term for postmodernist posturing] confuses what is accepted as true, what passes for truth, with what is true." She says: "When it is stated plainly, the Passes-for Fallacy is not only obviously invalid, but also in obvious danger of undermining itself; for if, as the conclusion says, the concepts of truth, evidence and honest inquiry are ideological humbug, then the premiss couldn’t be really-and-truly true, nor could we have objectively good evidence, obtained by honest inquiry, that it is so." Haack’s caution in conclusion is that "if you don’t distinguish what is true from what is taken for true, it will seem that truth must be subjective or relative."
There’s plenty of ideologically-driven short-changing of truth on the Right as well as on the Left, of course. Take, for example, the Right-wing’s Internet jockey, Matt Drudge. According to him, it’s more important to be the first to post a story that’s "interesting" than to worry about what he disdains as "high-falutin’ rules" about whether the story’s all that accurate. In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy at Columbine High School, Drudge put two stories on his Web site based on a posting from a so-called "gay biker" who hailed the killers as "a bunch of our fellow homosexuals [who] decided that they had taken enough." The politically incorrect wording itself should have clued him to the fact that this posting was an antigay hoax. Jerry Falwell picked it up from there, pushing the notion on Geraldo Live that the Christian kids at Columbine were killed by homosexuals. Fred Phelps and his followers then went to Littleton to picket the memorial services. They carried signs that claimed "Fags Killed Them."
So postmodernism isn’t the only "-ism" that trims truth to its taste. But it is the first to try to proudly patent the process.
The Reductionism to Power Politics. Much depends upon one’s political agenda. But do political dimensions explain all that the postmodernists claim they do? Must objectivity always be "patriarchal" and "oppressive?" Is everything to be viewed in terms of the politics of gender, race, class and sex? When high PC payoffs are at stake, the answer is yes.
A literary critic acknowledges that "we have all learned in the last decades to be more attuned to politics and to inscribed political agendas. But," he points out, for postmodernists to say that there can be only one" lens through which something must be viewed, "smacks of the dogmatic essentialism" postmodernists themselves say they deplore. [Miola] Their heavy politicization is reductionist when everything is to be viewed in terms of the politics of gender, race, class and sex. For example, there’s the new "Queer" art film genre. Reviewing "Get Real" from screenwriter Patrick Wilde and director Simon Shore, one film critic faults the "idealizing [of] youthful experimentation and wonder along the lines of presumably progressive sexual politics." [Armond White] He finds "its sappiness is doctrinaire" and says that "Wilde and Shore (in blissful ignorance) misconstrue adolescent gay male attraction as a political imperative."
In the words of a sage social critic writing in the Atlantic magazine: "It is a simple logical error to start from the indisputable fact that everything has a political dimension and arrive at the proposition that politics is always the most important dimension." [Frank Kermode] He goes on to reason that "The acceptance of [postmodernist] reduction of history to a conflict of powers, so that the purpose of [postmodernist] critics is merely to seek evidence of oppression, also depends on a logical error. It is held to be axiomatic that all knowledge, being socially constructed, has no objective validity – though the knowledge on which this belief is founded is silently excluded from censure." Postmodernists approach everything in terms of "the one thing that interests them, a political content of which the significance is predetermined," says Kermode. This is committing what John M. Ellis, in his book, Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities, calls "the fallacy of the single factor." Kermode sees that these people simply "take away from the object of study what they bring to it."
Moral Relativism. It didn’t take postmodernism to tell us that people have different opinions about what’s moral and what’s not, what’s right and what’s wrong. But what is new is the widespread adoption of the rationalizing dogma: There’s no objective moral standard; there’s no right and wrong. Morality is said to be a matter of mere opinion or feelings. The new moral imperative is this: Everything’s relative! Including that rule?
Everywhere we turn we run into the new rules. They’re quintessentially postmodernist: category-busting, transgressive, destabilizing. Their marketers are Springer, Stern and South Park. According to an NYU media studies professor, "Tastelessness is the new orthodoxy." [Mark Crispin Miller] A Fox TV promotion promises: "We ran the censors off, and boy, does it show!"
The new rules are supposed to bubble up from inside. Actually, they come from outside – from the "tastemakers" who have done their market research on what people will buy into. From Neiman-Marcus: "No rules here." (Except, we may assume, rules about paying for merchandise.) From Crunch Gyms: "No Judgements." (But, of course, judgments are what drive the body culture that sustains Crunch Gyms!) From Johnnie Walker Scotch: "It’s not trespassing when you cross your own boundaries." From Don Q Rum: "Break all the rules." Ads for "Detroit Rock City" say "Kiss the rules goodbye." The Isuzu ad depicts the vehicle ripping right through a huge sign that reads: "Rules." An NFL video game promises "no refs, no rules, no mercy."
These items illustrate "the unquestioned cultural belief" in a mistaken autonomy that John F. Kavanaugh, writing in the Jesuit journal, America, calls "the key to the ethos of America" He sees that it has "come to reign almost supreme," noting that "as individuals, we seem to think that self-rule is at the bottom of our beings … that autonomy gives us both our dignity and our personhood."
Contrary to all the wishful thinking, moral relativism cannot escape rules. Even "no rules" is a rule. And in "no rules"-morality, no rule rules more than "Thou Shalt Not Judge!" One sociologist calls it America’s 11th commandment. [Alan Wolfe] Anti-judgmentalism is the cornerstone of moral relativism.
A gay press review of Andrew Sullivan’s book, Love Undetectable, objects to Sullivan’s calling "promiscuity as a collective way of life … [a] tragic lie." As the reviewer judges Sullivan: his "hyperbole seems to come from a small-minded gadfly … [whose] views are informed by his own religious and moral beliefs" and so, the reviewer judges, Sullivan’s judgments are "irrelevant." [Otto Coca] On the basis of the reviewer’s own philosophy on judgment, his own review becomes just as "irrelevant." But the fine-print loop-hole in his rule is: When I judge others I’m venting my feelings; when others judge me they’re being judgmental! Neat trick.
But these convolutions and contradictions are commonplace these days. Those who style themselves as tolerant, open-minded advocates of moral relativism and inclusivism are as judgmental, exclusivist, and close-minded as they judge the others to be. But they cannot help it. "Absolute tolerance is altogether impossible," as political theorist Leo Strauss explains. "The allegedly absolute tolerance turns into ferocious hatred of those who have stated clearly and most forcefully that there are unchangeable standards" of right and wrong.
Among moral relativists, the "11th commandment" is broken repeatedly. But politically correct judgmentalism is presented as though it’s not judgmental. This requires a sloppy use of language. The Planned Parenthood Web-based e-zine for teens 13 years old and up is one example. Teen-agers are promised "uncensored, unbiased" information on sex. This is what is pushed in terms of moral authority: "Frankly, a Web page can’t decide for you if you’re ready [for sex] or not." Having satisfied the legal department, Planned Parenthood’s Web site goes ahead and tries to do what is supposedly not being done. "Neither can your best friend, boyfriend, girlfriend, parent, brother, teacher, minister, counselor, rabbi – well, you get the idea." Certainly do. Having put each of these very different relationships for authority on exactly the same disqualified level, Planned Parenthood now lights up the screen with its own advice: "The only person who can know when the time’s right is you." Cool – but not quite true. On what basis of authority does the teen-ager decide? On the basis of what Planned Parenthood says, of course. So the teen-ager isn’t really left to himself or herself. Planned Parenthood injects its own authority as a substitute for parental authority and pastoral authority. And proving that moral relativists are not above playing fast and loose with conventional vocabulary, here’s what is pushed on the question of sexual abstinence: "To make it simple, let’s say that there are two kinds of abstinence. In the first kind, partners have only very limited sex play – maybe you kiss, but there’s no nakedness, no groping, no orgasms, nothing. This is the type encouraged by your parents, probably." Really? "The second kind [of sexual abstinence] includes lots of sex play and is more open to possibilities … how about a little mutual masturbation that ends with orgasm?" This is sexual abstinence?
Here’s another example of the meaningless use of terms in the moral relativism of the contemporary urban sex scene. This is from the Village Voice classified ads under "Multiples." The ad reads: "Seeking Bi-[bisexual] Curious Male. Monogamous MW [man/woman] couple 40’s. Seeking well in dowed [sic] non-promiscuous, clean, BI-curious WM [white man] 30-50’s for LTR [long-term relationship] and sensual times." Go figure!
Pluralism, Inclusiveness, Diversity. The denial of certainty, the reducing of everything to political deprivileging, and the moral relativism in contemporary society wind up pushing the politics of pluralism, inclusiveness and diversity. These three mantras of postmodernism constitute a new canonical trinity. Now there is much to recommend in concerns against unnecessary divisiveness. At their best, such concerns are overdue correctives to some of the gross wrongs of the past. But on closer examination, postmodernism’s pluralism isn’t really pluralistic, its diversity is not really all that diverse, and its inclusiveness excludes – with a vengeance – anyone who disagrees.
Back at the Bible conference from postmodernist hell, a New Testament professor from Vanderbilt Divinity School asked rhetorically: "Why spread the Bible? Is it because those who don’t have it are missing something? That’s tremendously condescending. … Pluralism," he intoned, "is the defining myth" of our postmodern world and "I rejoice in it!" He said he was "speaking as a Christian" in asserting that "the Bible does not have an answer in the 21st century" and is, instead, "harmful." [Fernando Segovia] Since the mandate for politically correct conformity is, in the words of one secularist, as "inflexible as any holy writ," [Jane Dark] this Vanderbilt Bible professor was not challenged on that. His New Testament colleague at the seminary – from a Jewish viewpoint – weighed in with sarcasm about the notion of Jesus’ being God incarnate: "What’s the relevance to the 21st century? What’s the pay-off?" [Amy-Jill Levine] Again: no objection.
This provincial postmodernist bowing and scraping to a triumphalist pluralism seems to have no awareness of history. As Oxford University theologian Alister McGrath points out: "The Christian proclamation has always taken place in a pluralistic world, in competition with rival religious and intellectual convictions." He notes the "emergence of the gospel within the matrix of Judaism, the expansion of the gospel in a Hellenistic milieu, the early Christian expansion in pagan Rome, the establishment of the Mar Thoma church in southeastern India – in all these situations Christian apologists and theologians, not to mention ordinary Christian believers, have been aware that there are alternatives to Christianity on offer. And that has not stopped them from preaching the good news!" Not only in the early church, but also at the church’s mid-point, and "for more than three centuries [1066-1460], the British Isles [for example] were, with the exception of the Norman kingdom of Sicily, the most significantly multilingual and multicultural territory in Western Europe." [Susan Crane] Anglo-Canadian evangelist Michael Green says: "I find it ironic that people object to the proclamation of the Christian gospel these days because so many other faiths jostle on the doorstep of our global village. What’s new? The variety of faiths in antiquity was even greater than it is today. And the early Christians, making as they did ultimate claims for Jesus, met the problem of other faiths head-on from the very outset." So, in the words of Duke University chaplain William Willimon: "Demetrius was right in his charge that Christians want to deprive Artemis of her majesty." Sadly, that’s not as true today.
A collection of eighty-six extracts from the works of contemporary feminist academics is entitled Feminisms. According to the editors: "The plural of our title reflects both the contemporary diversity of motivation, method, and experience among feminist academics, and feminism’s political commitment to diversity." But a reviewer for The Times Literary Supplement observes that "it would take a connoisseur of the postmodern to find any diversity here." [Louise M. Antony]
GLBT leaders push the postmodernist ideology of a pinched pluralism, inclusivism and diversity while rejecting groups and ideas that demonstrate the wide plurality and diversity of people who are just as gay or lesbian. Where is the "inclusivity," "diversity" or "pluralism" when it comes to the repeated efforts at exclusion of gay and lesbian pro-life activists and gay and lesbian Log Cabin Republicans from the GLBT table by those in charge of the table?
Most self-proclaimed inclusivists don’t seem to mind some types of exclusivity. For example, there is an accepted and even celebrated appeal to exclusivity in everything influenced by Madison Avenue: designer labels, "exclusive" gym memberships and credit cards, celebrities, the "A-crowd," the "in" clubs, trendy neighborhoods – location, location, location. There is an acceptance of the idea of organizations open only to people of color, exclusively leather bars (with very strict dress codes), gatherings of lesbians where men are not welcome, and so on. Those who decry the exclusion of openly gay/lesbian organizations from St. Patrick’s Day parades exclude "ex-gay" organizations and gay/lesbian pro-life groups from Gay Pride parades. Whatever reasons may or may not be used to explain these exclusivities and exclusions, one argument that cannot be used is the notion that exclusiveness is bad per se, inclusiveness good per se. Inclusivity is meaningless if it includes everything and excludes nothing.
The Prism of the Gospel
Having now looked at some of the issues involved in false "gospels," can we find these same issues addressed in the true Gospel: the Good News that in Christ, God was reconciling the world to Himself? Since the Light of God that shines through the Gospel spreads an ever-expanding spectrum of radiant Love, enlivening beyond imagination all that it enlightens, we’d expect that these concerns are, indeed, within its bright embrace. Let’s see.
The Gospel’s Individuality. The concern with self-preservation that prompts the self-serving agendas of the other "gospels" is addressed in the true Gospel’s loving concern for "whosoever," "the least of these," and "every sparrow that falls." But in the Gospel, it is in losing one’s self-centered life that a person finds real Life; it’s in self-denial that one finds his or her true self.
The Gospel’s Law. The self-righteous efforts of the other "gospels" to earn God’s love by putting God in our debt resulted in our entanglement in endless lists of do’s and don’ts and endless feelings of guilt. These legalisms were never really effective. They addressed symptoms. Only the Gospel reaches the heart of the matter: God in Christ, loving us into loving Him in loving each other. Paul wrote to the Galatians and Philippians saying that Christians fulfill Christ’s law when we bear each other’s burdens. [Gal 6:2; Phil 2:4] Gospel law is Love.
The Gospel’s Truth. The Gospel’s Truth is a Person before it is our personal, propositional or practical truth. Responding to an inquirer about "truth," George MacDonald professed "only to have caught glimpses of her white garments – those, I mean, of the abstract truth of which you speak. But I have seen that which is eternally beyond her: the ideal in the real, the living truth, not the truth that I can think, but the truth that thinks itself, that thinks me, that God has thought, yea, that God is, the truth being true to itself and to God and to man – Christ Jesus, my Lord, who knows, and feels, and does the truth. I have seen him, and I am both content and unsatisfied. For in him are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge."
Nonetheless, Christians believe that a sufficiently true sense of who’s who and what’s what is provided as general and special revelation sourced from outside the contingencies of created reality. Such truth is Truth’s gift – to be discovered, received, worked, but not devised.
We don’t construct the Gospel’s Truth; we can’t conjure it up. The Gospel’s Truth reveals Himself. That’s why, as Chesterton said, "Truth … must of necessity be stranger than fiction, for we have made fiction to suit ourselves."
The Gospel’s Certainty. There can be no self-confirming certainty within all the limitations of derived reality. But that doesn’t mean there can be no certainty at all. The heart can faithe from, through, and to God’s revelation instead of putting its faith in its own delimited and disoriented assumptions. Said Wittgenstein: "If I am to be REALLY saved, what I need is certainty – not wisdom, dreams or speculation – and this certainty is faith. And faith is faith in what is needed by my heart, my soul, … . So this can come about only if you no longer rest your weight on the earth but suspend yourself from heaven."
A Gospel word of caution: "The faintest suggestion that Christian language dispenses infallibility would be the earliest symptom of its morbidity [in a postmodernist world]. Here we [Christians] make no tactical retreat before postmodernism’s reduction of all knowledge into irony (which can be just as smug as positivism at its worst). The roots of real humility lie deep in the Scriptures, and we ‘premoderns’ should continually recall that patent biblical fact. Not only are we supposed to remember our knowledge is limited and limiting, but even what little we do have will soon pass away (I Cor 13:8-10). Epistemic humility derives from acknowledging not only our created nature but also the ‘noetic effects of sin,’ our own dissolution of Edenic order. These two sobering facts have us by the epistemic scruff of the neck." [Jonathan Tucker Boyd]
The Gospel’s Power. Jesus promised his disciples that they would receive the power of the Holy Spirit of God in order to be his witnesses – from Jerusalem to "all Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost parts of the earth." [Acts 1:8] But the occasion for the fulfilled witness-bearing turned out to be religious persecution in Jerusalem and the witnesses had to skip town – and in doing so, they did go out to "all Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost parts of the earth." [Acts 6ff] The power of the Gospel achieved its purpose in and in spite of persecution and even martyrdom.
The power of the Gospel is, as Paul states, "the power of God." [I Cor 1:18] This Gospel’s power doesn’t look like what merely passes for power – whether personal, socio-economic, military, or whatever. Rather, God chose what is weak and lowly. [I Cor 1:27] God is not beholden to this world’s system of values and ways of doing things. God has humiliated the hubris of the powers of this world through the humility of the Power of His Word.
The Gospel’s Relativity. Albert Einstein was appalled when he heard that some people were arguing from his theories of relativity in physics to their own special pleading for relativism in ethics and morality.
A Gospel relativity nonetheless does inform Christian morality. How more mature Christians exercise their freedom in Christ in their relations with more conservative Christians must take into loving consideration the effect on these weaker Christians, as Paul argues. [Rom 14:14; cf. Mark 7:15, 19] Christians who agree with Paul (following Jesus) that nothing is unclean in itself, must yet be mindful that many other Christians have a hard time with such freedom. So "only when liberty is liberty to deny oneself and not just liberty to enjoy all that God the creator has provided is it the liberty of the Spirit of Christ." [Dunn]
The Gospel’s Tolerance. From the days of the Jerusalem Council’s compromise over gentile inclusion, some Christians have seen the need to be tolerant of those who don’t see eye-to-eye with them about what Paul called indifferent matters. They agreed to disagree. In the second century, Justin Martyr explained to Trypho the Jew that "I and many others are of this opinion [on millennial expectations] but, on the other hand, many who belong to the pure and pious faith and are true Christians, think otherwise." In A Catholic Spirit, John Wesley asked other Christians: "Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike?"
Though Paul allowed no compromise on the crucial issue of God’s free grace in Christ, free grace itself brings freedom from the necessity of any allegedly required add-on. This man who has been called "the most liberal and emancipated of first-century Christians" [Bruce] told the Galatians that "it is for freedom that Christ has set us free." [5:1] But he warned that this freedom is not to be used for self-indulgence which would only re-enslave.
The Gospel’s Diversity. Gospel diversity is displayed in the Body of Christ. [I Cor 12:4-12] Here we find a wide diversity of backgrounds, needs, interests, styles, gifts and abilities.
In their introduction to a book on "the Evangelical Tradition," two very conservative evangelicals state flatly: "No single evangelical tradition exists." [D. G. Hart and Albert Mohler, Jr.] This Orthodox Presbyterian and Southern Baptist explain that "evangelicals are heirs to a variety of ethnic and confessional traditions." According to another evangelical theologian: "There are many types of evangelical: some still marked deeply by Enlightenment qualities; some more in a confessional Reformational, or historic Puritan, or Romantic style; some expressing the historical consciousness of nineteenth century movements; and still others articulating the gospel in a bewildering range of twentieth-century modes, whether process, liberation, feminist, or charismatic – not to mention increasing varieties of theology arising beyond the developed West." [John G. Stackhouse, Jr.]
Church historian Timothy George notes that at a conference in Manila ten years ago, "4,000 evangelical delegates gathered …from 173 nations." He points out that this number represents more countries than does the United Nations. "We [evangelicals] do not claim to be the only true Christians," George says, "but we recognize in one another a living, personal trust in Jesus the Lord, and this is the basis of our fellowship across so many ethnic, cultural, national, and denominational divides."
The diversity of evangelicals results from the fact that the Gospel is not bound to any one society, culture, gender, personality, temperament, socio-economic or educational level, style or sexual orientation. The Gospel transcends everything.
The Gospel’s Inclusivity. "God so loved the world" is the Gospel’s inclusivity. [John 3:16]
The 18th century English Calvinist who wrote the hymn, "Rock of Ages," also wrote: "The purpose of God is not restrained to [people] either of particular country, or age of time, or religious denomination. Undoubtedly, there are elect Jews, elect Mohametans, and elect Pagans. In a word, countless millions of persons, whom Christ hath redeemed unto God, by his blood, out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation." [Augustus Montague Toplady] Toplady believed that even animals would be saved!
His fellow Anglican evangelical, the poet William Cowper, wrote many hymns for John Newton’s Olney Hymnal, including "There is a Fountain Filled with Blood." He also penned these lines: "Is virtue then, unless of Christian growth, / Mere fallacy, or foolishness, or both? / Ten thousand sages lost in endless woe, / For ignorance of what they could not know? / That speech betrays at once a bigot’s tongue, / Charge not a God with such outrageous wrong." Cowper then concluded with the basis of his faithful hope: "But still in virtue of a Saviour’s plea, / Not blind by chance, but destined not to see, / Their fortitude and wisdom were a flame / Celestial, though they knew not whence it came, / Derived from the same source of light and grace, / That guides the Christian in his swifter race; / Their judge was conscience, and her rule their law; / Led them, however faltering, faint, and slow, / From what they knew to what they wished to know."
As John Wesley, a contemporary of Toplady and Cowper, rode along in his coach one day, he was contemplating the Apostle Peter’s divinely-inspired insight on Gospel inclusivity. Wesley recorded these words in his Journal for that day: "Is it not high time for us … to return to the plain word [of Acts 10:35], ‘He that feareth God, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with Him.’?"
When the outstanding 19th century American evangelist D. L. Moody was asked about the eternal destiny of the most infamous agnostic of the day, Moody replied: "I don’t know. We are not judges. It is for God alone to judge." Moody’s colleagues went even further. C. I Scofield, the compiler of the popular Scofield Reference Bible, was asked about the eternal destiny of those who die without ever hearing the Gospel. He answered that if they follow whatever light God gives them, "they will find their way to God."
The first editor of the Scofield Bible was A. T. Pierson, Charles H. Spurgeon’s successor at Metropolitan Tabernacle in London. Pierson contributed to The Fundamentals, the doctrinal series that gave Fundamentalism its name. Here’s what Pierson wrote in The Crisis of Mission in 1886: "If there be anywhere a soul feeling after God, following the light of nature and of conscience, in hope and faith that the Great Unknown will somehow give more light, and lead to life and blessedness, we may safely leave such to His fatherly care."
Sir Norman Anderson, a scholar of Islamic law and a longtime evangelical leader in the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, wrote a book on Christianity and world religions in our own day. He argued that, just as in the Old Testament times, people are saved today by God’s inclusive grace even apart from any Christian confession.
With all of this history of evangelical and even fundamentalist support for a broad inclusiveness in the Christian doctrine of salvation, how is it that so many people, both within and outside Christian circles, continue to think of the Gospel’s lacking this wideness of God’s mercy?
There’s another inclusivity that’s germane to the Gospel. It’s expressed in these stunning words of the theologian who was once the prime minister of The Netherlands: "There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human experience over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’ " [Abraham Kuyper] A Gospel lifestyle involves a person’s whole life. After all, hadn’t the Gospel lifestyle been summed up in loving God with all we are and have? As Christians, Paul urged us to "make every aim captive to Christ." [II Cor 10:5] Even Hitler knew that the Gospel of Christ demands our all. Hitler asserted that one is either a Nazi or a Christian but that one cannot be both. Each demands all.
Yet another inclusivity of the Gospel is that of the church as an assembly, a family – and a dysfunctional family at that. The church is not merely me. The church is not merely me-writ-large. There’s an old evangelistic line that says that Christ would have gone to the cross for you even if you were the only sinner in the world. Yes. But’cha aren’t, Blanche, ya’ aren’t! You’re not the only sinner and you’re not the only saved sinner. The descendents of faith are, as God promised Abraham, as "numerous as the stars in the sky and the sands on the seashore!" [Gen 22:17]
There’s a Gospel inclusivity that exceeds even this. It’s not merely that the children of the Covenant will be as "numerous as the stars in the sky and the sands on the seashore." It’s that the stars and skies, the sands and seashores themselves are included in Redemption. Paul wrote that "all the creation groans together and travails together with us, … in eager expectation of redemption." [Rom 8:22] I think of this when I see that ITT television commercial with all the fish and other creatures of the sea singing Handel’s "Hallelujah Chorus." If they can sing like that over ITT’s cleaning up the lakes and rivers, what will they do when, in the words of Charles Spurgeon, "the redeemed will be all the world!"
The Gospel’s Judgment. Gospel inclusivity requires the corrective of discernment. Paul’s term for this is the "testing of the spirits" to see if they are or are not from God. Therefore, there is no Good News of inclusivity that does not come to terms with the Good News of judgment. But the Gospel’s judgment is never merely a negative note, as is the harping of self-serving judges who don’t know or who forget the deep mercy God shows them. When Gospel judgment must sound a negative note it is a necessary note on the way to a crescendo of mercy.
The Gospel’s Plurality. John Paul II grieves that "a legitimate plurality of positions has yielded to an undifferentiated pluralism, based upon the assumption that all positions are equally valid."
There is a plurality of personnel and approaches in the ministry of the Gospel. Ever since Jesus reasoned with his disciples that "anyone who is not against [Jesus] is on our side," [Mark 9"40] Jesus’ followers should not think that all the other followers of Jesus are ipso facto illegitimate. The "outsiders" can be in Christ.
One of my John Wesley autograph letters was written to a friend, Nancy Ford, in 1769. In her confusion over some of the preaching of a Calvinist Anglican priest, William Romaine, she had contacted Wesley, an Arminean Anglican priest. She wanted some clarification on matters raised by Romaine. In his response, Wesley goes on at some length to point out that Romaine doesn’t know what he’s talking about on the subject in question. He says Romaine’s reading things into the Hebrew that just aren’t there. Then, towards the end of the letter, Wesley says: "I have not time" to say more, except to add that "I have no right to prescribe. Please yourself and you will please, My Dear Nancy, Your affectionate Brother, J. Wesley."
That’s in the good tradition of evangelical pluralism. In old words repeated by English historian and Methodist, Sir Herbert Butterfield: "Hold to Christ, and for the rest be totally uncommitted."
The Gospel’s Story. In contrast to our superficial, short-sighted and self-serving stories as individuals and identity groups, the Gospel Story is God’s own Story of us all and Him. It comes from deep within the Heart of God to dwell deep within our own hearts. It transcends and transforms all our scribbling. The Gospel Story is God’s Word against ours – for our sakes – in Christ. It’s from God’s "Complete Works," a rewriting of all our sound-bites of despair into true stories of real Redemption.
Postmodernists reject all over-arching stories or metanarratives as merely power games – except, of course, this metanarrative of their own. But as Oxbridge New Testament scholar N. T. Wright explains: "The biblical metanarrative offers itself as the one story which resists deconstruction." He reminds us that "it speaks from first to last of a God who did not need to create, but who did so out of overflowing and generous love. It speaks of a God who did not need to redeem and recreate, but did so as the greatest possible act of self-giving love. The problem," says Wright, is "that the way we have reshaped this story has turned it into a power-ploy of our own. But the biblical metanarrative itself is not a controlling narrative: it is a self-giving narrative. It is not a power-play; it is a love ploy." The Gospel’s Story, as he points out, "challenges all other large-scale stories of God, the cosmos and the human race. But it challenges them not as one power-play to another, but as the subversion of all power plays by the self-giving love of the creator God." And, yes, the Gospel’s Story does the same with all our individual stories.
Which Foolishness will it be?
As gay and lesbian evangelical Christians, we have no option but to be or appear to be foolish. The question is: Which foolishness will it be?
Is our foolishness like that of the foolish Galatians? Do we, too, add other "gospels" so that, in effect, we repudiate the true Gospel? Do we define ourselves by the Gospel of God’s grace and peace in Christ Jesus or by the anti-Christian "gospels" of self-serving, superficial legalisms – whether of Evangelicaland or Queer Theory? Does our identity rest in our Savior or in our sex? Are we called to self-denial or to denial that we’re sexual selves? Do we know, with Phillip, Paul and Peter and the Law-free Gospel, that nobody is "unclean" or out-of-bounds merely because of his or her given social, racial, gender, or sexual status? To us, is the rainbow more a symbol of lesbigay and transgendered agendas than it’s a reminder of the promise of mercy from our Covenant-keeping God? Is the triangle more important to us as a pink symbol of lesbigay and transgendered identity or as a symbol of our Triune God? Are we more interested in sharing our stories than in sharing "The Greatest Story Ever Told?" In other words, is our foolishness like that of the foolish Galatians?
Or – is our foolishness like Paul’s "foolishness" of faith in the "foolishness" of God? Paul granted that he was taken to be a fool by the Corinthians whom he sarcastically called "wise." [II Cor 11:17] He went along with their caricature that he wasn’t up to snuff. [cf. II Cor 11:21ff] Of course he wasn’t up to snuff. His Gospel wasn’t the result of market research to see what they’d be comfortable hearing. It wasn’t a projection of wishful thinking. It wasn’t a construction of the religious establishment. It wasn’t a baptizing of the popular themes of first-century pluralism. It was the unconventional proclamation of a crucified Christ raised from the dead – a stumbling block to religionists and nonsense to secularists.
As he had once written to these Corinthians: "Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world [by sovereignly choosing] to save those who believe by the foolishness of the preaching" of the Gospel? [cf. I Cor 1:20f] Paul recognized that "the message of the cross is foolishness to those who identify with this perishing world’s values." [I Cor 1:18] He realized that "his preaching of the crucified Christ [was] a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to gentiles, but to those whom God called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ [was] the power of God and the wisdom of God." [I Cor 1:21ff] He knew full well that this "foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength." [I Cor 1:25] He even goes so far as to call true disciples "fools for Christ’s sake." [I Cor 4:10] He’s being sarcastic, of course – a "fool for Christ’s sake" is no fool!
How do we understand who we are? Are we evangelical Christians who happen to be lesbian and gay or are we lesbians and gay men who happen to be Christians? Is Evangelicals Concerned a group of evangelical Christians who happen to be gay and lesbian or a group of gays and lesbians who happen to come from Evangelicaland? Do our meetings, speakers, publications, resources, and Web sites merely repeat and link lesbigay and transgendered agendas or do they proclaim the foolishness of the Gospel: God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself? That’s not a popular theme in either Lesbigayland or Evangelicaland. So Christian gay men and lesbians are not popular in either place.
Henri Nouwen cautions that "the basis of the Christian community is not the family tie, or social or economic equality, or shared oppression or complaint, or mutual attraction." In Bonhoeffer’s words: "We have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we really do have one another. We have one another completely and for all eternity." We do not choose each other. We don’t even choose God. But God chose us all in Christ before the foundation of the world.
In those rare moments when we’re caught up in a hint of Who it is that so loves us all – the God of all universes, Creator of all time and space, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ – then we surely know that "in our hands no price we bring / Simply to the cross we cling." [Toplady] We can claim nothing but one foolishness or another. We can posture the deadening foolishness of ecclesiastical identity, political identity, ideological identity, racial identity, sexual identity, cultural identity, GLBT identity, or we can plead the liberating "foolishness" of a crucified Christ, the Wisdom and Power of God, and the One in whom all other identities are brought into submission and sanctified.
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DR. BLAIR’S BOOKLETS:
Etiological and Treatment Literature on Homosexuality (1972)
An Evangelical Look at Homosexuality (1972)
Holier-Than-Thou Hocus Pocus and Homosexuality (1977)
Homophobia in the Churches (1979)
Getting Close: Steps Toward Intimacy (1980)
Getting Closer: Structure for Intimacy (1981)
Evangelicals (?!) Concerned (1982)
Ethics and Gay Christians (1982)
Hope’s Gays and Gays’ Hopes (1983)
Wesleyan Praxis and Homosexual Practice (1983)
With Sunshine and Rainfall for All (1983)
Doubtful Christians Make Queer Saints (1984)
Christian Faithing and Self-Esteem (1985)
Jesus Who? (1986)
Paul Who? (1987)
What’s the Bible? (1988)
Nevertheless Joy! (1989)
The Lord’s Prayer (1990)
Homosexualities: Faith, Facts, and Fairy Tales (1991)
Immortal Intimacy (1991)
Temptation and The Truly Alternative Lifestyle (1992)
Gifted to Give (1993)
One Foolishness or Another (1999)