Text: John 21:24-25
In its Easter issue in 1966, Time magazine asked “Is God Dead?” on its cover. Forty-three years later, in 2009, just in time for Holy Week, Newsweek’s April cover proclaimed, “The Decline and Fall of Christian America.” In the forty-three intervening years between Time magazine’s question and Newsweek’s proclamation, the issue of the relevance of God and Christianity was hotly debated in America. And it is a debate that continues today in 2010. But in 1882, long before the question on the cover of Time magazine and the proclamation by Newsweek, a German philosopher by the name of Friedrich Nietzsche shook the foundations of Christian thought when he made the assertion that “God is dead.” Since that time philosophers, theologians, scholars, and some of the world’s greatest literary writers have debated the existence of God and the relevance of faith.
As these debates and conversations have taken place, many in the religious establishment have viewed them as threats to Christianity and to faith, especially as it relates to Christianity in America. Take for instance this statement by Jerry Falwell:
If we are going to save America and evangelize the world, we cannot accommodate secular philosophies that are diametrically opposed to Christian truth … We need to pull out all the stops to recruit and train 25 million Americans to become informed pro-moral activists whose voices can be heard in the halls of Congress. I am convinced that America can be turned around if we will all get serious about the Master’s business. It may be late, but it is never too late to do what is right. We need an old-fashioned, God-honoring, Christ-exalting revival to turn American back to God. America can be saved! (Jerry Falwell, “Moral Majority Report” for September, 1984.)
Or consider this quote by the well-known Christian evangelist, Pat Robertson.
If Christian people work together, they can succeed during this decade in winning back control of the institutions that have been taken from them over the past 70 years. Expect confrontations that will be not only unpleasant but at times physically bloody…. This decade will not be for the faint of heart, but the resolute. Institutions will be plunged into wrenching change. We will be living through one of the most tumultuous periods of human history. When it is over, I am convinced God’s people will emerge victorious. (Pat Robertson, Pat Robertson’s Perspective octavo 1992)
If you google the topic “threats to Christianity” here’s what you will find on the first two pages.
– Political Interpretation of the Bible: Greatest Threat to Christianity
– Hedonism: Today’s threat to Christianity
– Naturalism: Why it threatens Christianity
– Islam – A Threat to Christianity
– The ZDay movement is a threat to Christianity
– Yoga and its threat to Christianity
– And my personal favorite read: Waybuloo – Greatest threat to Christianity yet. (Waybuloo is a kids TV show patterned after the popular Teletubbies kids’ TV show)
I did find one entry from a blogger who had conducted a poll asking the question, “What do you consider the biggest threat to Christianity?” that caught my attention. The bloggers poll showed that the biggest threat to Christianity is not cults, New Age philosophy, or even atheism. Rather the biggest threat is spiritual indifference and complacency. In the end, he concludes: “that means the biggest threat to American Christianity is not some dark and gathering force beyond the walls of the church. Rather the biggest danger to Christianity is … Christians!”
This morning, I want to add my voice to the debate and the question of what poses the greatest threat or danger to Christianity and faith today. I believe that one of greatest threats to our faith, to Christianity, is the Bible— specifically how we read it, understand it, use it, and interpret it. Simply put, the idolatry of the Bible is, I believe, one of the greatest threats or dangers to faith and Christianity in the 21st century.
The Bible is a lot of things to a lot of people; but to Christians, especially, it is a source of inspiration and a guide to daily living. To others, the Bible is a historical document and a source of controversy. To others still, the Bible is a self-contradictory mish-mash of arcane rules, mostly relevant to long-dead cultures in far away places. To really understand the Bible and what it intends to say to present generations, it is necessary to understand who wrote it and why, and the cultural context in which it was written. The story is an interesting one, in no small part because the story is so much messier than most of its advocates would have us to believe. And its very messiness is why it is a story rarely told in any completeness, especially in Christian churches.
As Shakespeare observed, the Bible can be made to advocate for anything you desire. Want a blatant, wrathful, vengeful god, zapping everything and everyone who doesn’t stay out of God’s way, demanding genocide and even slavery? Exodus is the book for you. Want a harsh, strict, angry, mean-spirited code for living? Then turn to Leviticus. Want a quiet, subtle, unknowable god who seldom intervenes but can be known only by sincere prayer and soulful supplication, who is kindly, gentle, and forgiving? Then Paul has written the scriptures you want. It’s all there in the same book.
Shakespeare is right, the Bible has been used and misused to justify just about everything—especially in modern Christianity. Slavery, prohibition, abortion, polygamy, homosexuality, women’s rights, and imperialism are but just a few of the moral and ethical issues that have been either justified or refuted by Christians on both sides of these issues using the Bible. A growing trend today by Christians is to use the Bible to promote a prosperity gospel, while others cite the Holy Scriptures as their reason for taking on vows of poverty. At the heart of these debates is how one interprets the Bible. The same passage of the same book of the same translation of the Bible can mean entirely different things to people of different religious, political, and socio-economic backgrounds. It can mean entirely unrelated things to the Mormon, to the Baptist living in the United States, to the Baptist living in Cuba or the Republic of Georgia, to the Seventh Day Adventist and to the Guatemalan Catholic, as well as to the African Pentecostal. And so the crucial question we are left with is, “Who is right?” And it is precisely that question that has people of faith literally fighting holy wars over what the Bible says or does not say; what it means and what it does not mean. The interpretation of the Bible—of our Holy Scriptures—has divided God’s people into camps of “us” and “them” and this fight has become one of the greatest threats to Christianity. I am reminded of one prominent theologian’s remark when he said, “Jesus would be horrified at how Christians are fighting over the Bible.”
For many of us the Bible is the bedrock of our faith. No other book has shaped my life and living more than the Bible. While I don’t always understand its teachings or incorporate them into my life the way I would like, I depend on the Bible for comfort and guidance; for wisdom and truth; and for meaning and purpose. I love the stories it tells and how in those stories I can find my own pain and joy and hear my own questions and affirmations. For me, the Bible is central to my faith. And yet, I am aware if I read and interpreted the Bible the way the prevalent Christian culture does, I would not be standing in this pulpit today, nor would I be able to give witness to being a gay Christian. And if I read the Bible literally and took it at face value I would not wear the clothes I wear, or eat the food I eat, or go to the grocery store today and carry my groceries to the car because that would be considered work on the Sabbath. But because my own life and experience did not give witness to the prevalent Christian interpretation of scripture I, like many of you, had to reach deeper and search for the meaning behind the literal words. For example, is how I love more important than who I love? Is it more important to be who others and society expect me to be or to discover who God is calling me to be? Is it more important to believe that the world was created in six days or to understand God as the creator of all things? Is it more important to believe that Jesus was literally raised from the dead or to believe in resurrection—the resurrection of dead dreams and hopes? Is it the church’s job to say who God loves or to live believing that every single human being is God’s beloved? You get my point.
I believe that the Bible is the Word of God. And I believe that God is not contained nor bound solely within the pages of the Bible. The Fourth Gospel says it this way, “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” To this day, I can still recall the hope and excitement I felt when I heard Elizabeth Barnes talk about “continuing revelation” in Systematic Theology class over twenty-five years ago. I can still hear her words, “God is still at work—creating, revealing, and working in the world and in you and me.” The affirmation that God is still revealing God’s self and God’s truth in new and relevant ways is one of the most transformative lessons of my faith journey.
Recently, I was watching a video with the Young Adult Group titled, Living the Questions. In the video, theologian John Domonic Crossan made the statement, “The future of Christianity rests in our ability and willingness to continue the Jesus experience. We have Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John’s gospel. But what is your gospel? What is your experience with the Jesus story?” Crossan makes the point that the story does not end with Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, or the church of God that is in Corinth, or with the churches in Galatia, or the saints who are in Ephesus, or the brothers and sisters in Colossae. The story continues today with Seth, Katie, Norman, Susan, Jack, Jim, Mary—with each one of us sitting here today. The gospel—the good news of Jesus—is still being written in the church of God called Pullen Memorial Baptist, with the churches in Cuba, with the saints who are in the Republic of Georgia, and with our brothers and sisters in Nicaragua.
If there is any truth in my assertion that the Bible is one of the greatest threats to Christianity, our best response may be to take seriously Crossan’s question: “What is your gospel?” It may be that the only way for Christianity to remain relevant in our world is live as though we are still writing the Bible and telling the Jesus story with our very lives. As central and crucial as the Bible is, God’s creating and revealing activity is not solely contained in the Bible. God’s creating and revealing activity is contained in you and me. This is the good news of the gospel. What is your gospel?