AND THAT’S OUR STORY

The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It by Peter Enns. HarperOne, 2014. Paperback, 267 pages, $15.99.

BibleRecent years have seen a sizeable number of spiritual autobiographies by evangelicals who have made the journey from fundamentalism to the kind of church communities usually described as “mainline” or “liberal.” For them, despite their gratitude for the gospel they had received as children, and their fondness for the church community that had nurtured them, it was no longer possible to maintain allegiance to the evangelical-fundamentalist subculture, with its fixed focus on personal salvation and the avoidance of personal sin; its adherence to certain key doctrinal and moral (and, increasingly, political) identity markers, especially the doctrine that the Bible is verbally inerrant; and its anxious fear and suspicion of secular learning, secular culture, and even of any doubt, questioning, or alternative interpretations of the Christian tradition itself.

American evangelical fundamentalism arose in the late 19th century as a reaction to modernity. One way to think of it is to say that it imposes a halt in the process of faith development at what James Fowler calls the “synthetic-conventional stage”—the stage when the individual, while capable of self-differentiation and abstract thought, continues to draw on a group and its authority figures as the arbiters of belief and behavior, and (consciously or unconsciously) suppresses doubt and questioning, both because they are explicitly frowned on by the group and because they represent a threat to the sense of security, identity, purpose and certainty that the group imparts.

A church culture founded on deeply sectarian absolutism and intolerant of doubt or dissent offers members only two choices at a moment of spiritual crisis: continue to grimly tamp down—or deny—all doubt and dissent … or acknowledge them, and leave the church.

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FAITH IN ACTION

caravaggio-call-to-matthew

In his open letter to the Church the week after the election, Episcopal Presiding Bishop Michael Curry reiterated our commitment, as “the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement today,” to living out in full the motto on our signage: “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.”

The remainder of Bishop Curry’s statement addresses, primarily, the role of the church in society, in the light of the political sea change that our nation has now brought on itself. In a nation torn by competing visions of how we should live, and fed by competing versions of facts and policy and competing interpretations of history and of sacred texts both religious and civic, Bishop Curry issues a call to the Church for a proactive witness on behalf of the marginalized, the scapegoated, and the demonized.

For those of us now in our sixties—the infamous Baby Boomer generation—this document evokes memories, not only of the political activism that engulfed us in our young adulthood, but also of the dramas of conscience from World War 2 and the Cold War whose retelling colored so much of our childhood. And if the divisions in our society continue to harden, as the new president—so unprepared, so vindictive, and so recklessly infatuated with power—begins to flex his muscles, it is not inconceivable that the witness Bishop Curry calls for might lead to actual risk: risk to livelihood, even to personal safety.

And this in turn leads me to ask a related, but different question: If the vocation of the Church (Episcopal or otherwise) is to convey a holy welcome to all in the context of society as a whole, then what does it mean to welcome people into the church itself? What is the Church’s vocation in dangerous and unbalanced times? Does Jesus offer us safety? Can we offer it to others? Or is the Church a community defined by its embrace of risk and danger in the service of its witness?

I went to high school in the late sixties, that long-ago age of idealism and activism, of the civil rights movement and the peace movement, when the Baby Boom was coming of age and beginning its God-given mission of proving to our parents how small-minded and conformist they were, and how much better we would be at running the world once we got the chance. We saw our parents’ generation as fearful and calculating—more concerned to protect their material comforts and security than to live by the very ideals they had taught us. The struggles that had so shaped their world were ancient history to us. Deep down inside, we thought everything bad was as unreal as the Depression and War were to us—as easily mastered as the small challenges of our own sheltered lives. Unlike our parents, we would not compromise our principles in any way. We would be courageous and pure, and we would change the world in ways they never had.

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