Book Club Discussion: It's all relative!

It’s Monday! Time for the final post on March’s book club selection- How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith by Crystal Downing. 

In Chapter 7, Downing examines a variety of approaches to relativism, arguing that what she calls “building relativism” is favorable to Christianity. This kind of relativism allows for absolute truth, while maintaining many of the epistemological ideas associated with postmodernism. In in, “truth meets human beings on their own ground…Truth, then is relative to each; all come to the light differently. Nevertheless, it is the same Truth they come to: Jesus is the way, the truth and the light.” Through Jesus, truth is found in relationship, not in a set of beliefs or ideas to which one ascribes. 

I like that. The beauty of relationship with God is that each individual experiences it quite differently. 

 However, what I enjoyed most about the last few pages of Downing’s book is what she says about the Bible. She writes that “while many modernists saw scriptural discrepancies as evidence that the Bible was not ‘true,’ postmodernists would attribute discrepancies to the pluralistic situatedness of interpretation,” making the Bible a more true-to-life and authentic account of human interaction with the divine. Therefore, “the incredible diversity and apparent contradictions within Scripture are its strength. Its pluralistic pronouncements and parables can speak to the pluralistic experiences of Christians…” 

I don’t know about you, but this calls to mind the many theological volumes that have been written in recent years seeking to address the discrepancies in Scripture. I’ve known theologians who could explain away everything from the historically impossible numbers associated with Hebrew battles to the differing accounts of the Sermon on the Mount to the alternating emphases on works and faith in the apostolic letters. These explanations always used to stress me out because I secretly felt like they sounded more like rationalizations than anything. They sounded a bit desperate, if you know what I mean. 

But Downing’s approach, which I’ve encountered in several places recently, is refreshing. Perhaps one of the greatest themes of Scripture is that there is no one theme. Perhaps in allowing such diversity in the writing and compiling of Scripture, God sought to protect us from making an idol out of any one interpretation of it. Perhaps rather than fearing apparent contradictions, we should celebrate them, knowing that they serve as affirmation that God speaks to all kinds of people in all kinds of ways.


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Selective Literalism II: Who Would Jesus Stone?

In the book I’m reading, The Year of Living Biblically, author A.J. Jacobs is trying to figure out how to handle the Bible’s capital punishment laws, and has taken to tossing pebbles at adulterers and Sabbath-breakers. At this point in his year-long quest to obey the Bible literally, Jacobs has yet to deal with the New Testament, and it’s too bad because I think it would take some pressure off if he could read Jesus’ words that “he who is without sin can cast the first stone.” I’m looking forward to getting to that part of the book later. 

I don’t know about you, but whenever I read the gospels, I find myself identifying, not with the sick and the poor to whom Jesus ministered,  and not with the disciples who followed Him, but with the Pharisees clinging to their stones. I can be so judgmental about other people and such a know-it-all when it comes to Scripture. I know lots of Christians who think it would be super-cool to have lived in the time of Jesus. Honestly, I’m not so sure…I fear I would have rejected Jesus for being too liberal or too anti-intellectual or too darn convicting. 

I generally try to avoid finishing the sentence “If Jesus were here today, He would…” because I’m pretty sure I’d be wrong. The Pharisees were wrong about what they expected from the Messiah, and they were experts on the subject. However, I have a feeling that if Jesus were here today, He would turn selective literalism on its head. 

Throughout His teachings, Jesus consistently challenges people to refocus their judgments and criticisms away from others and onto their own hearts. Perhaps when He says He “did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it,” He means that He intends to teach us not to be selectively literal, but to be introspectively literal, to apply God’s teachings more aggressively to ourselves and hold ourselves to higher standards. 

You’ve heard it said that murder is a terrible sin? Well, being angry and calling people names are sins worthy of punishment in hell. You’ve heard it said that you shouldn’t commit adultery? Well, simply lusting after a woman is like committing adultery in your heart. You want to stone a woman for her sins? Well, let’s give the sinless person the first shot. 

With this in mind, I sometimes wonder how Jesus would respond to a question about homosexuality. I can’t say for certain, but I have a suspicion that the conversation might suddenly turn to gossip…or materialism…or pride…or some other “lifestyle sin” we’d rather not talk about because it hits a little too close to home. 

This happens to me almost every time I go to Scripture looking for ammo against someone else’s theological position or lifestyle choices. By the grace of God, nine times out of ten, I bump into a passage that reminds me that I’ve got a couple of logs lodged in my own eyes. 

“Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” 

The biggest mistake we can make with selective literalism is to hold others to higher standards than we hold ourselves.


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Selective Literalism

I’m reading a really funny and engaging  book called The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs. In it, Jacobs tries to follow the Bible as literally as possible for a year. His journey yields unexpected epiphanies and struggles, and highlights the challenges associated with biblical literalism. For me, it has served as a reminder of how often I pick and choose which portions of the Bible I decide to take literally and how dependent I am on selective literalism.

So, what exactly is selective literalism? I define selective literalism as the tendency to elevate certain biblical principles over others in order to best accommodate one’s personal opinions. For example, most Christians do not believe that rebellious children should be stoned to death (Deuteronomy 21:18), but many support the death penalty as punishment for murder (Genesis 9:6). 

Author Randall Balmer believes that selective literalism has been exploited by the Republican Party in order to attract one-issue voters.  In his book Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America, he writes that “selective literalism continues to serve an important function for the Religious Right. It allows them to locate sin outside of the evangelical subculture (or so they think) by designating as especially egregious those dispositions and behaviors, homosexuality and abortion, that they believe characteristic of others, not themselves.” (10) 

[I would add that it is equally hypocritical for the democratic party to champion human rights while ignoring the concerns of so many Christians regarding the unborn.] 

While applying selective literalism in interpreting Scripture is largely unavoidable, I see it playing a particularly harmful role in the following areas: 


A few years ago, my church got really involved in Tennessee’s push to include an amendment to the state constitution banning gay marriage. Forums were held, signs were posted in the church lawn, and bumper stickers were passed out. It was a classic example of evangelicalism’s continued  obsession with homosexuality, an obsession I believe has done irreparable damage to the relationship between the Church and the gay community. 

Now, I am certainly aware of the biblical passages that condemn sodomy. However, I find it very interesting that Jesus Himself never mentions the issue. 

He does, however, talk about divorce. Jesus said that “anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.” 

So why isn’t the evangelical community pushing for legislation against divorcees? Should we make it illegal for divorced women to remarry or to adopt children?

(To be clear, I don't think pursuing anti-divorce legislation is a reasonable response to Christ's teachings. Considering the context of His remarks, we might as well imprison folks for calling other  people names...which Jesus likens to murder. I bring up divorce only to highlight the inconsistency in the evangelical response, not to judge anyone who's been divorced.) 

Women in Leadership. 

Why is it that so many evangelicals disregard Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians that “any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head,” while adamantly supporting his instruction to Timothy to “suffer not a woman to teach…but to be in silence”?  

It seems that whenever Paul talks about clothing, his words are interpreted as being culturally influenced; but whenever he talks about leadership, it’s suddenly considered a “biblical” thing.  Honestly, I have more respect for Mennonite and Amish communities that are at least consistent in this area than for fundamentalist churches that pick and choose and then claim to be biblical literalists.

I echo Balmer’s concerns when he writes, “I guess what worries me…is that if I had been alive 160 years ago or 60 years ago, and the issues of the day were, respectively, slavery and segregation-I worry that I might have been one of those people quoting scripture in defense of slavery and segregation.” (30) 

So, what do we do about this? What other issues are being affected by selective literalism? If it’s impossible to take the entire Bible literally, what should “make the cut?” 

I’m interested in your thoughts on this.


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Where's the "liberal" media when you need them?

With all the fuss over the controversial remarks of Barack Obama’s former pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright, I was surprised the media didn’t make more of John McCain’s recent acceptance of endorsements from right wing preachers John Hagee and Rod Parsley. 

The two are known for making inflammatory remarks against gays, women, Catholics, and Islam. 

Hagee once claimed that Hurricane Katrina was an act of God “for a society that is becoming Sodom and Gomorrah reborn.” Hagee said, “I believe that New Orleans had a level of sin that was offensive to God, and they were recipients of the judgment of God for that.” He said he believed God unleashed the hurricane on the people of New Orleans in response to a gay pride parade that was held a few days before the storm.

(Personally, such comments offend me deeply, as I feel they take God’s name in vain in a very destructive and detestable way. I think of those families getting air-lifted from their roofs and my heart just breaks.) 

Hagee is also well-known for delivering anti-Catholic sermons, and his attitude toward women is questionable. 

In his book What Every Man Wants in a Woman, Hagee asks, “Do you know the difference between a woman with PMS and a snarling Doberman pinscher? The answer is lipstick. Do you know the difference between a terrorist and a woman with PMS? You can negotiate with a terrorist" 

And then there’s Rod Parsley. 

Parsley has said, “I do not believe our country can truly fulfill its divine purpose until we understand our historical conflict with Islam. I know that this statement sounds extreme, but I do not shrink from its implications. The fact is that America was founded, in part, with the intention of seeing this false religion destroyed, and I believe September 11, 2001, was a generational call to arms that we can no longer ignore.”

Regardless of one’s position on American foreign policy, I think very few people would consider eradicating Islam to be the responsibility of our country. 

You can read these quotes and others in their entirety at:

Now, I know that these guys are not McCain’s personal spiritual mentors, but McCain can choose to accept or reject any endorsement he pleases. Instead, he made a joint appearance with Hagee, in which he claimed to be “very proud to have Pastor Hagee’s support.”

Is there a double standard here? Or is this just what people have come to expect from the religious right?


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Book Club Discussion: Confronting our "situatedness"

Crystal Downing’s How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith is our book club selection for the month of March. It’s Monday, so let’s continue our discussion. 

I don’t know about you, but I think Downing does an excellent job of bringing to light historical examples of the tendency of Christians to use the Bible to support views that, in hindsight, seem pretty irresponsible. This reinforces her point that interpretive communities do in fact  play a significant role in helping us define truth. Our  own history shows us that Christians are not immune to “situatedness.” Downing’s examples include: the Church’s stubborn marriage to geocentricism, the brutal persecution of the Anabaptists by Protestants for believing that confession should precede baptism, the use of Scripture to support owning slaves and marginalizing women. 

We would all like to believe that, had we lived in the days of the early church or the Protestant Reformation or the Civil War, we would have chosen the right side of things, but I think that’s a bit presumptuous. We must be careful not to imitate the Pharisees, who bragged that had they lived during the time of the prophets they would not have shed the blood of innocent men, but who then proceeded to crucify Jesus and persecute his disciples (Matthew 23:30-34). 

I can’t help but wonder what convictions I might have held had I lived in my hometown of Dayton, Tennessee just five, ten, or fifteen decades ago. Would I have used Scripture to defend my right to own slaves? Would I have opposed racial integration?  Would I have remained silent as the Cherokees stumbled by my house on the Trail of Tears? With this in mind, I often wonder if evangelicals will someday look back on our treatment of the homosexual community and wish we had done things a bit differently. 

Perhaps for this reason, Downing is refreshingly non-condemning of our historical counterparts. Instead of issuing a sweeping indictment on past believers, she uses these historical examples to warn Christians of the tendency to “presume that their construction of language is the true one: the tower that reaches into the heavens, the tower that encompasses the mind of God.” 

I think an appropriate response to this analysis is an attitude of humility, a willingness to release the death grip I personally have on certain theologies and interpretations of Scripture. All my life I was told that the most mature Christians were the convicted ones, the ones who believed without a doubt that they were right. Now I’m beginning to wonder if true spiritual maturity is marked by a healthy dose of trepidation, a willingness to be wrong and an openness to new ideas.


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