There is no “War on Religion” in the United States


Crusaders

Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople - Gustave Dore (Wikicommons)

With his usual surgical wit, Jon Stewart chastised the “Religious Right” saying, “You’ve confused a ‘War on Religion’ with ‘Not always getting everything you want.’”  He is spot on, but their confusion is not accidental.  The far right in the United States has come to realize that the only way they can justify their anger at being left behind by a culture that has moved into the twenty-first century is to hide their medieval priorities in religious rhetoric.  They know that “War on Stupidity” does not sell as well as “War on Religion,” but it would nevertheless be more apt.

To be clear, thanks to the First Amendment and our pluralistic heritage, you can believe anything you want about the supernatural, your god(s), other people’s god(s), the afterlife, and anything else that falls into the category of religious belief.  Claims about metaphysics are the provenance of religion, and neither the government nor your neighbor is going to force you to stop receiving the body of Christ in the Eucharist and start burning incense at a shrine to Ganesh.  No one is challenging your right to believe whatever you will about the Divine.

On the other hand, if you use your religion as an excuse to demand that we teach Babylonian myths instead of actual peer-reviewed research in our science classes – yes, the general public is going to stop you.  This is not because we dislike your religion.  In fact, many of us come from religions that also have those same Babylonian creation myths.  We are fighting back because we do not want you to make our children stupid.  We are not challenging your religion, we are challenging your right to use the schools to teach ignorance and illiteracy – we need an educated electorate and a literate, productive populace to survive as a nation.

Likewise if you want to tell women they do not have the right to choose if  they get pregnant, the vast majority of this country (including adherents of religions that teach contraception as sinful) will push back against your claim to authority over women’s bodies.  Like you, many of us come from traditions that were founded when people believed that women were property.  Thankfully, thousands of years have gone by since then, and we as a society no longer believe the heinous fallacy that the body a person is born in makes them belong to someone else.  In stopping you from pushing your patriarchal agenda, we are not going to battle against your faith, we are standing fast against your disgusting attempt to subdue, oppress, and control half of the population of this country.

Unfortunately, “religion” is not just used as a weapon to challenge the power of the female majority in the United States.  It is also used as an excuse for oppressing minority groups, most obviously in the right wing’s desire to withhold basic civil rights from lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender Americans.  As those of you on the far right have already realized, the ship has sailed and your stereotyped, provincial understanding of sexual orientation is no longer socially acceptable in this country.  If you are an anti-LGBT bigot, you increasingly have to keep your beliefs closeted or face the social stigma of being viewed as a Neanderthal (with apologies to the actual Neanderthals).  This is not the result of a struggle to overcome the influence of your religious beliefs.  This is America – the cradle of the Civil Rights movement – and we are not going to let you use any excuse to make our brothers and sisters second-class citizens.

Trying to paint yourself as the victims of a “War on Religion” may give you the sound bites and comforting rhetoric you need to keep from facing the reality of how socially unacceptable your worldview has become, but no amount of colorful phrasing changes the truth.  You cannot admit this to the press, your parishioners, or even yourself, but the real source of your anger and wounded pride is the realization that your anachronistic worldview makes you irrelevant in the modern world.  The American people are not at war with your faith.  Most of us come from the same faith traditions you do.  We are at war with ignorance, oppression, and bigotry – and until you let these despicable “values” go you will always find yourself at odds with a time and place that values knowledge, freedom, and inclusion.

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Why Shorter’s Demise Matters

Galileo faces the Church

A 19th century depiction of Galileo before the Holy Office, by Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury (Wikicommons)

 

When the Board of Trustees at Shorter College in Rome, Georgia lost a long legal battle with an increasingly fundamentalist Georgia Baptist Convention, many of us held out hope that the faculty, students, and alumni would be able to fight back against the pernicious influence of fundamentalism.  Our vigil is finally over.  Shorter (now “Shorter University”) has drawn its last breath as a legitimate institution of higher learning.  On October 25, 2011, Shorter’s Board of Trustees adopted a collection of documents which, according to university president Dr. Don Dowless, are to serve as a “continuing affirmation of our Christ-centered mission.”

On the surface, that sounds like a fantastic idea.  A university centered on the teachings of Jesus would be an exciting place to study.  Imagine a learning environment where students are taught to question everything they had ever learned, and to never settle for pat, easy answers [John 8:1-11].  Think of a school where students are taught to reject the materialism and acquisitiveness of modern society [Luke 3:11] and give all of their possessions to the poor [Matt 19:21].  An education centered on the teachings of Jesus would constantly challenge both conventional wisdom [Luke 6:20-26] and religious traditions [Matt 5:38-39]. It would certainly  reject religious fundamentalism, just as Jesus did [Matt 12:1-12; Mark 2:27; 7:19].  Studying in such a place would mean joining into that beloved community of Jesus’ disciples who shared all their possessions with each other [Acts 2:44-47] and who shared constant fellowship in a setting that was free of prejudices of sex, social standing, or ethnicity [Galatians 3:28].

Unfortunately, the documents created by Shorter’s Board address none of these core biblical, Christian concepts.  Instead, they talk ambiguously about “truth” and “biblical faith” and a “biblical worldview.”   A little more digging reveals what they mean by these vaguely positive terms.  The “Statement of Faith,”  for instance, asserts that the institution takes the contradictory Babylonian creation mythology in Genesis as a literal, “historical account.” It even claims that there were two historical people named “Adam and Eve, from whom all human beings have come.”  For Shorter, then, being a “Christ-centered” university means rejecting the major academic disciplines of History, Geology, and Biology.  In addition, it means rejecting the well-established biblical scholarship that helps to preserve the value of these texts without requiring adherents to attain the cognitive dissonance necessary to take them literally.

The document goes on to outline other fundamentalist boundaries on the school’s theology, most of which would only matter to Religion scholars.  Where the consequences of this meticulously worded theology become worrisome, though, is in the “Biblical Principles on the Integration of Faith and Learning.”  That document states (and underlines) that “University staff will submit an annual plan with the letter of agreement that details how they will integrate the Christian faith into their specific areas of work.”  Viewed in light of the preceding document’s definition of what the “Christian faith” is, every professor at Shorter – not just their Religion faculty – is now expected to conform their curriculum to Shorter’s incredibly narrow, and intentionally academically ignorant, characterization of what “Christian” and “biblical” belief entails.

This “Christianity” of Shorter University has little to do with the historic faith of the Church.  Instead, it is a reactionary rejection of the past two hundred years of human evolution: progress that has given us ethnic and gender equality;  progress that has freed us from ignorance about our past; and, progress that has saved us from superstition when we study the world around us.  Since the Enlightenment, scholarship and study have toppled the authority of those who wish to indulge in prejudice and ignorance to advance their social and political agendas.

Consequently, fundamentalist groups like those now in charge at Shorter exist primarily to help those on the losing end of the Enlightenment reclaim the anachronistic superstitions that make their worldview possible.  Fundamentalists camouflage their rhetoric in comforting terms like “Christian” and “biblical” in the hope that no one will have the theological or biblical literacy to recognize the hypocrisy and deception inherent in their approach.  As a result, the greatest threat to their methods is an educated, literate populace – and so fundamentalists move their culture war to public school systems and, whenever possible, to institutions of higher learning.  Shorter’s new policies make this agenda abundantly clear.  Academic freedom at Shorter is now subject to an obscure and willfully obdurate understanding of “biblical truth.”

But the tragedy does not end there.  The most bizarre and offensive of all these documents is the “Personal Lifestyle Statement” which all Shorter faculty must now sign.  The document speaks of being “Bible believing Christians” and maintaining a “Christ-centered institution,” yet it makes no mention of pacifism, giving to the poor, rejecting religious fundamentalism, or any of the teachings of Jesus enumerated above and in the New Testament.  In fact, being a “Christ-centered” professor at Shorter means having only four concerns: 1. Loyalty to Shorter and the Georgia Baptist Convention, 2. Drugs, 3. Sex, 4. Alcohol.  Interestingly, the alcohol section is by far the longest and most detailed.  Apparently Georgia Baptist fundamentalists are still fighting the Prohibition battles of the last century.  That is particularly ironic since the Christ on whom the school claims to be “centered” famously made wine at a wedding [John 2:1-11] and was called a “drunkard” by his critics because, unlike John the Baptist, he drank alcohol [Luke 3:33-34].

Hypocrisy concerning alcohol aside, the statement on sexuality in section 3 is perhaps Shorter’s most tragic.  That section equates premarital sex, adultery, and homosexuality – actively attacking the trend towards increasing inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Christians in the larger Christian Church.  As most of Christianity, and most of Western society, moves forward in rejecting anti-LGBT bias, Shorter University has chosen to plant its Crusader’s shield on the hill of bigotry and intolerance.  As with all organizations that side with prejudice and ignorance, the judgment of history will record Shorter’s shame.

Shorter University has chosen to ally itself with those who want to draw a curtain of medieval shadow over the light of reason, learning and inclusiveness that sustains the work of a modern university.  In so doing, they have consigned themselves to the ignorant backwaters of self-perpetuating fundamentalist scholarship, and they will eventually disappear into irrelevance – as happens with all institutions that uproot education and then plant indoctrination in its stead.  By its own decision, Shorter University no longer matters in the modern world.

So then why should we care?  What happens at Shorter matters for several reasons.  First and foremost, the takeover and transformation of Shorter University should remind us all that education is a fragile thing.  Many of the world’s evils are shielded by ignorance, and if we do not work actively to protect rigorous, open, free research and study we will lose them to forces eager to destroy them.

Secondly, it matters because we cannot allow people to easily ignore or dismiss what has happened to Shorter under the heading of “Well, that’s just what they believe.  They should be allowed to teach what they believe.”  Belief, like every other aspect of human experience, must be held accountable for its consequences and conclusions.  Hiding ignorance and prejudice behind language of “faith” and “the Bible” cannot be tolerated.  Slaveholders and abusive husbands did the same for centuries, and we can never return to a world where religious rhetoric becomes a sacrosanct excuse for oppression and bigotry.

Finally, what has happened at Shorter matters because, if it becomes the norm in Christianity, it foretells the death of the tradition.  The Board of Trustees at Shorter College has chosen to define Christianity and biblical fidelity in terms of a small set of narrowly-constructed political issues.  Apparently, for them being a Christian means:  rejecting Biology, Geology, and History; oppressing LGBT persons; limiting academic freedom to narrow constructions of “truth” based on  3,000-year-old superstitions; and not consuming alcohol.  If that is what Christianity becomes, it will be meaningless and dead within a century.

Standing against the forces of fundamentalism at Shorter University and elsewhere is not simply about fighting back against a far-right and reactionary political agenda.  It is about preserving the ideals of post-Enlightenment education, holding religious beliefs accountable to the same standards of logic and cognitive health as any idea, and it is about preserving the expansive breadth of Christianity in a way that allows it to be continuously relevant to future generations.  Shorter University has made it clear that the school stands directly in opposition to all of these things.  The task remains for the rest of us to continue to move the world forward into a place where scholarship and faith instead work together to overcome superstition and injustice.

 

The Rev. C. Joshua Villines taught a wide range of courses – including Hebrew Bible, New Testament, Christian Theology, Church History, and Critical Thinking – as an adjunct from 2006 to 2008 in the Professional Studies Program at the former Shorter College.  He now teaches as an adjunct in the College of Continuing and Professional Studies at Mercer University.

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Shorter College is No More

Asesino alevoso, ingrato a Dios, y enemigo de los hombres es el que,  so pretexto de guiar a las generaciones nuevas, les enseña un cúmulo aislado y absoluto de doctrinas y les predica al oído, antes que la dulce plática de amor, el evangelio bárbaro del odio.  

(Treacherous assassins, ingrates before God, and enemies of humanity are those who – under the pretext of guiding future generations – teach them an isolated and absolute system of doctrines, and who preach into their ears, instead of sweet words of love, the barbarous gospel of hate.)

– Jose Martí

Galileo faces the Church

A 19th century depiction of Galileo before the Holy Office, by Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury (Wikicommons)

Shorter College in Rome, Georgia is no more.  On the most basic, linguistic level, this is obviously true.  On June 1, 2010, the institution founded in Rome Georgia in 1873 as “Shorter College” became “Shorter University.”  But the soul of a college is not in its name, and the poison that eventually killed Shorter College was first injected into the school’s veins in 2005, when the college’s Board of Trustees lost a long legal battle with an increasingly fundamentalist Georgia Baptist Convention.  Many of us held out hope that the faculty, students, and alumni would be able to fight back against the pernicious influence of fundamentalism.  Our vigil is finally over.  On October 21, 2011 Shorter drew its last breath as a legitimate institution of higher learning.

On that day, Shorter’s Board of Trustees adopted the following:  “A Philosophy for Christian Education,” “Biblical Principles on the Integration of Faith and Learning,” the “Shorter University Statement of Faith,” and a faculty “Personal Lifestyle Statement.”   The purpose of these documents, according to university president Dr. Don Dowless, is to serve as a “continuing affirmation of our Christ-centered mission.”

On the surface, that sounds like a fantastic idea.  A university centered on the teachings of Jesus would be an exciting place to study.  Imagine a learning environment where students are taught to question everything they had ever learned, and to never settle for pat, easy answers [John 8:1-11].  Imagine a school where students are taught to reject the materialism and acquisitiveness of modern society [Luke 3:11] and give all of their possessions to the poor [Matt 19:21].  An education centered on the teachings of Jesus would constantly challenge both conventional wisdom [Luke 6:20-26] and religious traditions [Matt 5:38-39]. It would certainly  reject religious fundamentalism, just as Jesus did [Matt 12:1-12; Mark 2:27; 7:19].  Studying in such a place would mean joining into that beloved community of Jesus’ disciples who shared all their possessions with each other [Acts 2:44-47] and who shared constant fellowship in a setting that was free of prejudices of sex, social standing, or ethnicity [Galatians 3:28].

Unfortunately, the documents created by Shorter’s Board address none of these core, biblical Christian concepts.  Instead, they talk ambiguously about “truth” and “biblical faith” and a “biblical worldview.”   A little more digging reveals what they mean by these vaguely positive terms.  The “Statement of Faith,”  for instance, asserts that the institution takes the contradictory Babylonian creation mythology in Genesis as a literal, “historical account.” It even claims that there were two historical people named “Adam and Eve, from whom all human beings have come.”  For Shorter, then, being a “Christ-centered” university means rejecting the major academic disciplines of History, Geology, and Biology.  In addition, it means rejecting the well-established biblical scholarship that helps to preserve the value of these texts without requiring adherents to attain the cognitive dissonance necessary to take them literally.

The document goes on to make affirmations of traditional Trinitarian theology, evangelical doctrines of soteriology, and the meaningless modern doctrine of “biblical inerrancy.”  Outside the Religion department, these other claims are not necessarily as inimical to academic rigor as the claims of historicity in Genesis, but they are noteworthy in their narrowness and unambiguous Christian triumphalism.  It is perhaps not accidental that the shield on the new Shorter University logo looks like it fell off the arm of a Crusader who recently returned from slaughtering Jews, Muslims, and other “heathen” in the Holy Land.

Where the consequences of this meticulously worded theology become worrisome, though,  is in the “Biblical Principles on the Integration of Faith and Learning.”  That document  states (and underlines) that “University staff will submit an annual plan with the letter of agreement that details how they will integrate the Christian faith into their specific areas of work.”  Viewed in light of the preceding document’s definition of what the “Christian faith” is, every professor at Shorter – not just their Religion faculty – is now expected to conform their curriculum to Shorter’s incredibly narrow, and intentionally academically ignorant, characterization of what “Christian” and “biblical” belief entails.

The “Christianity” of Shorter University and its parent organization the Georgia Baptist Convention has little to do with the historic faith of the Christian Church.  Instead, it is a reactionary rejection of the past two hundred years of human evolution: progress that has given us ethnic and gender equality;  progress that has freed us from ignorance about our past; and, progress that has saved us from superstition when we study the world around us.  Since the Enlightenment, scholarship and study have toppled the authority of those who wish to indulge in prejudice and ignorance to advance their social and political agendas.

Consequently, fundamentalist groups like the Georgia Baptist Convention exist primarily to help those on the losing end of the Enlightenment reclaim the anachronistic superstitions that make their worldview possible.  Fundamentalists camouflage their rhetoric in comforting terms like “Christian” and “biblical” in the hope that no one will have the theological or biblical literacy to recognize the hypocrisy and deception inherent in their approach.  As a result, the greatest threat to their methods is an educated, literate populace – and so fundamentalists move their culture war to public school systems and, whenever possible, to institutions of higher learning.

Shorter’s new policies make this agenda abundantly clear.  Academic freedom at Shorter is now subject to an obscure and willfully obdurate understanding of “biblical truth.”  As a result, a Shorter University diploma is now meaningless.  Many of my friends who have taught for Shorter or who graduated from there are now putting asterisks on their resumes even as we speak.

But the tragedy of what fundamentalist politics has done to Shorter does not end there.  The most bizarre and offensive of all these documents is the “Personal Lifestyle Statement” which all Shorter faculty must now sign.  The document again speaks of being “Bible believing Christians” and maintaining a “Christ-centered institution,” yet it makes no mention of pacifism, giving to the poor, rejecting religious fundamentalism, or any of the teachings of Jesus enumerated above and in the New Testament.  In fact, being a “Christ-centered” professor at Shorter means having only four concerns: 1. Loyalty to Shorter and the Georgia Baptist Convention, 2. Drugs, 3. Sex, 4. Alcohol.  Interestingly, the alchohol section is by far the longest and most detailed.  Apparently Georgia Baptist fundamentalists are still fighting the Prohibition battles of the last century.  That is particularly ironic since the Christ on whom the school claims to be centered famously made wine at a wedding after everyone was drunk [John 2:1-11] and was called a “drunkard” by his critics because, unlike John the Baptist, he drank alcohol [Luke 3:33-34].

Hypocrisy concerning alcohol aside, the statement on sexuality in section 3 is perhaps the most offensive of the bunch.  That section equates premarital sex, adultery, and homosexuality – actively attacking the trend towards increasing inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Christians in the larger Christian Church.  As most of Christianity, and most of Western society, moves forward in rejecting anti-LGBT bias, Shorter University has chosen to plant its Crusader’s shield on the hill of bigotry and intolerance.  As with all organizations that side with prejudice and ignorance, the judgment of history will record Shorter’s shame.

Shorter University has chosen to ally itself with those who want to draw a curtain of medieval shadow over the light of reason, learning and inclusiveness that sustains the work of a modern university.  In so doing, they have consigned themselves to the ignorant backwaters of self-perpetuating fundamentalist scholarship, and they will eventually disappear into irrelevance – as happens with all institutions that uproot education and then plant indoctrination in its stead.  By its own decision, Shorter University no longer matters in the modern world.

So then why should we care?  What happens at Shorter matters for several reasons.  First and foremost, the takeover and transformation of Shorter University should remind us all that education is a fragile thing.  Many of the world’s evils are shielded by ignorance, and if we do not work actively to protect rigorous, open, free research and study we will lose them to forces eager to destroy them.

Secondly, it matters because we cannot allow people to easily ignore or dismiss what has happened to Shorter under the heading of “Well, that’s just what they believe.  They should be allowed to teach what they believe.”  Belief, like every other aspect of human experience, must be held accountable for its consequences and conclusions.  Hiding ignorance and prejudice behind language of “faith” and “the Bible” cannot be tolerated.  Slaveholders and abusive husbands did the same for centuries, and we can never return to a world where religious rhetoric becomes a sacrosanct excuse for oppression and bigotry.

Finally, what has happened at Shorter matters because, if it becomes the norm in Christianity, it foretells the death of the tradition.  The Board of Trustees at Shorter College has chosen to define Christianity and biblical fidelity in terms of a small set of narrowly-constructed political issues.  Apparently, for them being a Christian means:  rejecting Biology, Geology, and History; oppressing LGBT persons; limiting academic freedom to narrow constructions of “truth” based on  3,000-year-old superstitions; and not consuming alcohol.  If that is what Christianity becomes, it will be meaningless and dead within a century.

Standing against the forces of fundamentalism at Shorter University and elsewhere is not simply about fighting back against a far-right and reactionary political agenda.  It is about preserving the ideals of post-Enlightenment education, holding religious beliefs accountable to the same standards of logic and cognitive health as any idea, and it is about preserving the expansive breadth of Christianity in a way that allows it to be continuously relevant to future generations.  Shorter University has made it clear that the school stands directly in opposition to all of these things.  The task remains for the rest of us to continue to move the world forward into a place where scholarship and faith instead work together to overcome superstition and injustice.

The Rev. C. Joshua Villines taught a wide range of courses – including Hebrew Bible, New Testament, Christian Theology, Church History, and Critical Thinking – as an adjunct from 2006 to 2008 in the Professional Studies Program at the former Shorter College.  He now teaches as an adjunct in the College of Continuing and Professional Studies at Mercer University.

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What Do Christians Believe? A Response

Orthodox Icon of Pentecost (Wikipedia)

Orthodox Icon of Pentecost (Wikipedia)


This piece ran as a letter to the editor on the Religion Dispatches site.

My friend Dr. Gary Laderman led us into the Triduum by asking “What do ‘The Christians’ Believe?”  His thoughtful essay led to the inescapable conclusion that one cannot define a common “Christian” view on any controversial social, ethical, political, or moral topic.  Whatever the issue – slavery, polygamy, homosexuality, abortion, feminism, pacifism, genocide, ethnocentrism, kosher food laws, Sabbath observance – there is no definitive Christian position on any of them.  Our Scriptures were written and edited by too many people.  Our tradition spans too many cultural sea changes.  Our constituency is simply too broad.

That is a hell of a point to make right before Maundy Thursday.  If being a Christian is not, inherently, about believing the things that the media and televangelists claim we believe, then what is it about?  Why do we bother?  What does a Christian believe?

Some might argue that we should return to the good old days, when Christians were untroubled by the moral relativism of postmodern ideas and pluralistic friendships.  Unfortunately, even if we were to turn the clock all the way back to first-century Jerusalem we find, as Acts 15 reminds us, that even the Apostles who knew Jesus personally were divided on how Christians should behave.  This diversity of opinion continued into the fourth century, when the leaders of the Church gathered together to clarify what Christians actually believed.

Those meetings ultimately produced three documents that remain the only consensus writings on Christian identity.  Two of them – the Apostles’ Creed, and the Nicene Creed – provided the theological logic that guided the selection of the writings for the third:  the Bible.  It is worth noting that, in a time of profound Christian diversity, leaders from Christian communities from around the known world did not include a single social, ethical, or moral issue in either creed.  In addition, they were comfortable including in the canon of Scripture writings that offered a wide variety of ethical perspectives.  When the early Christians got together and described the consensus of their beliefs, they did not talk about social issues.

So what, then, does it mean to be a Christian?  In the hopes of standing in the tradition of the early Church, and limiting myself to where there is actual Christian consensus, my own answer follows the logic of the Apostle’s Creed…

“I believe in God…”

Christians are people who believe in a divine reality, one beyond the material world perceived by our five senses.  We believe that there is more to life than what we can control or understand.  We believe that there is something beyond our comprehension, and that “something” is conscious, vital, wise, and loving in a way that is not limited by space or time.  While Christians might have different perspectives on the value of the experiences and content of the material world, we are united in our belief that there is more.

“I believe in Jesus Christ…”

As Christians, we do not simply believe in a distant and untouchable divine presence.  We also believe in “incarnation.”  We believe that in some inexplicable way almighty and perfect God took on human form and stepped into all of the messiness of human experience.  As Jesus, God healed us, taught us, comforted us, and fed us.  To be a Christian is to believe, not only in the unique incarnation of Jesus – but also to have faith in the possibility of incarnation itself.  Christians believe, even when all appearances are to the contrary, that God is present with us.  We believe that, no matter how different the divine reality is from the world in which we live, God is able to reach into our lives and touch us.

“…[Jesus] was crucified, died, and was buried…”

For Christians, believing in the incarnation means also confronting the reality of the cross.  God in human form, despite power and wisdom beyond our comprehension, did not wipe out disease.  God did not overthrow oppressive empires.  God did not create a new, Christian empire (although many lesser leaders attempted to make that claim).  Having lived among us and walked beside us, God surrendered to the forces of greed, selfishness, and power.  God was tortured by them, and eventually God died at their hand.

Surprisingly, Christians do not have a consensus as to why.  By privileging certain biblical passages over others, Christians have offered a variety of explanations:  Jesus was a ransom, Jesus was a sacrifice, Jesus was an example, and Jesus’ death reconnected creation to the Creator – just to name a few.  No single explanation is normative or even completely satisfactory.  Where Christians agree, however, is in the inevitability of Jesus’ murder.  For whatever reason, the incarnation of almighty God leads inexorably to God’s death – at the combined hands of a self-serving empire, a cruel bureaucracy, and an ignorant crowd.

This gives Christians a rather odd perspective on suffering, grief, loss, and failure.  If God, who created the world in the first place, can experience these things – then they are not the ultimate defeat they can sometimes appear to be.  If the collision of what is true, good and perfect with what is venal, debased and selfish can lead to a painful defeat even for Jesus, then when we experience those same things in our own lives we are not truly defeated. Christians believe that sometimes, perhaps often, choosing what is truly good and noble means utter failure in the eyes of a world which limits itself to honoring the shallow gain of material wealth.

“On the third day he rose again…”

Ultimately, those apparent failures are vindicated.  Christians believe that death itself, the fear of which looms over nearly all human endeavors, is neither an ending nor a defeat.  In the days of the early Church the first “witnesses” to Christianity were those who staked their lives on that claim, and as a consequence the Greek word for witness (/martyr/) became synonymous with choosing death over infidelity.  At the close of the Easter Vigil, Christians around the world will share in their hope by standing before the mystery of an empty tomb and we will feast together, trusting that Jesus’ encounter with death means that someday all graves will be empty.  Christians believe that death is itself defeated.

“and [Jesus] will come again to judge…”

Christians believe that the choices we make, our actions and our omissions, matter.  As Dr. Laderman has rightly pointed out, we do not agree on which choices we should make or how we should act.  We are united, however, in our common effort to work to make choices whose long-term consequences lead us closer to the person and example of Jesus.  Young seminary students are often discouraged to learn, on studying the Scriptures and Church history more closely, how little clarity there is on the specifics of what we should and should not do.  It is impossible for Christians to be defined by being completely correct about what is right and what is wrong.  Instead, we are defined by our desire to try.

“I believe…in the communion of saints…”

Christians believe that we make those efforts as part of a community.  We are accountable to each other, and to the long history of those who have gone before – from Moses to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Christianity is not a faith of or for individuals.  It is a single body formed by the concerted efforts those who (guided by God as the Holy Spirit) seek meaning in the teaching, life, and death of Jesus.  To be “Christian” is to trust that humanity is greater than the sum of our individual abilities and limitations.  Christians value and nurture community.

“Amen.”

This leaves a lot of things out, and those seeking clear guidance as to what “Christians” believe on controversial issues are likely to be disappointed.  Those who make a living off of claiming Christian consensus where there is none are likely to be livid (if they even bothered to read all the way through).  On the other hand, those who fear that – because their own views have differed from the popular Christian stereotype – they are not “real” Christians, they should take hope!

Perhaps more importantly, those from other traditions and those who claim no tradition at all, should likewise be encouraged.  There is much common ground here.  Although this specific combination of beliefs is uniquely Christian, there are many areas of commonality with widely-held views.  Most of us believe that there is more to life than what we can see and touch.  Most of us believe that what we do matters, and that fighting against evil systems and greedy desires is worthwhile even when we pay a price.  Most of us, when push comes to shove, harbor at least a suspicion that death is not final.  Through this lens, Christianity looks familiar to all who have asked these kinds of questions.

Which allows us to return to Dr. Laderman’s question original query. “What do Christians really Believe?” If we limit ourselves to widely-held stereotypes, the answer seems filled with cognitive dissonance.  On the other hand, if we allow his response to help us brush away all the detritus of easy caricatures and selfish political agendas, we can then answer honestly.  When we do, we can preserve a voice that is uniquely Christian, and we can allow that voice to speak in a way that is neither shrill nor strident.  Instead, the Christian voice becomes one that can sing in harmony with the rest of us, the rest of humanity, as we all seek to find hope in the darkness of empty tombs.

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Avatar is not Anti-Christian

Neytiri - Avatar ScreenshotThis piece was picked up by Religion Dispatches and published here.

The conservative, evangelical Christian community has an automatic response to nearly every widely popular artistic creation.  As soon as a new one hits bookstands (Harry Potter), televisions (“Glee”), or the movie theater (Twilight), the far right has to condemn it.  The most recent example is James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar.  The movie’s worldview is the subject of countless critiques on conservative websites, and a discussion of its theology even made the New York Times editorial page.

Many of these articles attack the religion of the indigenous people of the alien planet Pandora for its pantheism and planet-worship.  Other articles challenge the anti-imperialist themes of the movie and their implied critique of current U.S. foreign policy.  All of this manufactured outrage – which presumably serves primarily to tack a political agenda onto a new cultural phenomenon – misses the mark by a wide margin.

First, Christians have always been able to find theological depth in stories and traditions that are not explicitly Christian or Jewish.  The first creation myth in Genesis, for instance, is a polytheistic account of a world made by a host of heavenly deities who appoint a sun god to “rule the day” and a moon god to “rule the night.”  Later in Genesis an ancient story about wrestling with a river god becomes the story that provides the nation of Israel with its name.  Much later on, the author of Revelation use the myth of Apollo’s birth as an image for the birth of the Messiah.  Christians can and should find truth in the beliefs of other cultures.

And the Na’vi are an alien culture in every sense of the term.  There would be little point in Cameron spending fifteen years creating the ecology and culture of another planet only to impose Christianity on it.  The religious beliefs of the Na’vi are completely consistent with the realities of life on Pandora.  Immersing ourselves in that world means experiencing the otherness of its theology along with its biology.

Of course, the beliefs of the Na’vi are not completely foreign.  Although they are in part shaped by their unique ecosystem, they also reflect a somewhat idealized synthesis of the nature religions common to the indigenous peoples who have borne the brunt of Western imperialism over the past few centuries.  Part of the genius of Avatar is reframing the conflict of imperialism away from battles among different ethnic groups.  Instead, in Avatar, all of humanity bears the collective guilt of imposing its selfish whims on an entire planet.

Avatar makes the sins of commercialism and Western triumphalism into universal, human sins; and it does so after helping us to lose ourselves completely in the lives of the native people threatened by human avarice.  As trite as this message might be, the human propensity for recreating these mistakes would seem to warrant Cameron’s retelling of this familiar cautionary tale.  Even were that not true, the beauty and passion with which he tells the story alone would make the repetition worthwhile.

It is the seductiveness of that vision that is the real threat to which these conservative pundits are responding.  There is no moral ambiguity in Avatar, and the clear villains are those who claim a manifest destiny for humanity and human commerce.  This is a direct threat to a hierarchical understanding of creation which, in placing humans at the top of a divinely ordained pyramid, is often used to justify the exploitation of the environment for short-term gain.  Such a view is not inherent in Christianity, but it is an essential tenet for those who wish to subvert Christianity into the service of their ethnocentrism and their greed.

The artistry of Avatar is not a threat to Christian belief, but it is a threat to arrogant assumptions about our own exclusive claims to truth, power, and wealth.  Dig deeply enough and it becomes clear that it is in fact these desires which many people actually worship (after layering a veneer of Christianity over them).  Unlike our fragile, human egos, the God of all creation is not threatened when we explore all of the possible permutations of that creation.  Nor is God minimized when we seek to understand those who honor that creation in different ways.

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