Notes From The Balcony

Progressive Reflections on Post-Modern Living in a Multifaith Age

To Debate or Not to Debate – Is that the Question?

18 months ago, if someone had told me that I would be drafted to fight in the current religious cultural war by joining what was then a United Methodist sponsored site, 7 Villages, I would have laughed. Now, I am saddened and deeply troubled.

I joined that previous site, because I was looking for a place that I could make available introductory commentaries on a study of Mark’s gospel that I had been asked by friends to facilitate. Rather quickly the membership of our church group that I initially sought to reach by the internet was expanded to include many of a growing number of on-line friends, some new and others old, that I was connecting with on this site.

Early on, I discovered myself in a conversation with a former villager who initially very politely asked me to comment but also lectured me about the Christian doctrine where Jesus is understood to be sinless. The exchange was occasioned by my observation that in the gospel of Mark, we find no hint of embarrassment on either Jesus’ or John’s part as Jesus is baptized making a sign of repentance. We do have some contradiction here with later doctrines.

As the discussion continued, I pointed out the fact that several scholars were aware of this difficulty and also that the Jewish context of sin and repentance was significantly different than the images that emerged later as the church developed in a more Mediterranean context. The conversations closed, but foretold many other exchanges to come where because I did not subscribe to fundamentalist interpretations of doctrine, I was eventually proclaimed the minion of Satan.

Oh I knew that fundamentalists were still around, but my sense was that they were marginal in United Methodist discussions.

I had a lot to learn.

I don’t generally run in those sorts of circles. I do have one friend from work who expresses these sentiments and I will return to our relationship in coming posts. But by and large, my associations with the religious right are very limited.

My post-graduate work (six years) was done at the University of Chicago and then with the federated faculty members at Chicago Theological Seminary. These mainline institutions, Northern Baptist and UCC, introduced me to many of the best faculty at work in later 20th century religious and theological studies. I’m a 7th generation Methodist and a proud member of the quasi fraternity/sorority made up of PKs. My father represented the best of mainline church preaching, grounded in the general theological consensus affectionately known as BOMFOG, the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man..

Those heady years were a time when that mainline consensus was rightly subjected to critique from emerging groups who were finding their voices in the midst of newly empowered pluralism. I was mentored by Liberation Theology, Feminist and Womanist thought, post-war European Political Theology, the emerging voices from Asia and finally North American Process Theology. Of course, process thought was born at Chicago, although by the time I got there, most theologians had dispersed – Ogden to SMU, Day to Union, and John Cobb (first to Emory following Hartshorne) and then to Claremont. Still at Chicago, Frank Gamwell held the fort along with Catholic scholar David Tracy and at CTS, Widdick Schroeder tutored me in the fine points of Whitehead.

While BOMFOG was changed forever, this explosion took place in the midst of mainline institutions and mainline thought, not separate from it. The mainline became pluralist but still held both power and theological unity.

As far as fundamentalism goes, I knew the history of the early 20th century modernist fights around the so-called fundamentals: the inerancy of the Bible, the historicity of the Virgin Birth and Resurrection, the hegemony of the doctrine of Substitutionary Atonement and the Imperial assessment of Christianity in the midst of the world’s great religious traditions.

I also knew how that while this was finally a modernist heresy, fundamentalists hijacked terms like orthodox and traditional in order to give credibility to their positions. But my theological studies happened in both post-modern and post-fundamentalist times where the rigid separation of fact and truth was rejected and a whole new appreciation of the narrative and metaphorical context of our received texts and doctrines transformed the theological discussions.

My understanding of fundamentalism was traditionally grounded in theology, not sociology. That is what my encounters on 7 Villages has taught me about myself. Oh, I knew about Bible Colleges, a couple of more evangelical schools like Trinity and Wheaton. I had never paid much attention to the growing fundamentalist network- first of institutions, and then in the last several years, media outlets including radio, TV and the internet. I have erased them from my cable remote control.

There has been much written about the disenfranchisement of the mainline consensus and power base. On reflection, I am not finally convinced that it has to do with movements away from the theological center. However, I am learning that these changes in the American religious imagination might best be described by the analysis of sociological factors like birth rates and population shifts rather than the wholesale take-over of the popular consensus by the Religious Right. While Saddleback may have 10,000 in attendance – we in the UMC still have 10,000 small to medium sized congregations.

Having said that, we are still faced with the difficult fact that while I believe that fundamentalism is both theologically and sociologically marginal, the nature of the public discussion of religion creates a different impression. In more secular terms, a Fox news outlet or clone will demand more “fair and balanced” coverage of the news and claim that they are a corrective – in fact, their coverage and commentaries bear little relationship to journalism, but end up being a ideological arm for the dissemination of right-wing talking points.

The Religious Right media giants like Faith and the Family networks and others are dangerously analogous to this more secular situation. The religious right and right-wing media are becoming more and more interlinked. Huckabee is now a Fox commentator and hosts a show.

So, there is an assumption that fundamentalism must have a place at the discussion tables, even though they almost always highjack the conversations. Tony Perkins is now a regular guest on CNN.

So, it seems the long and short of it all has to do with what a responsible approach might look like. Should we engage in the right wing sport of apologetics? I didn’t even know that word as it is used today by the religious right. It now seems that every right wing school, seminary and “neocon” think tank sponsor apologetics teams like our more mainline schools sponsor football.

I believe that we need to call fundamentalism what it is, not a quaint relic, but as dangerous movement reasserting itself in the American religious imagination.

What about media? There are thousands of 3 minute clips from the religious right on You-Tube – yes I know about 30 Good Minutes and the latest Wesley Seminary curriculum, but how do we compete in a “sound byte” world? Does anyone really listen to Air America?

First posted on Holy Leftovers


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