The New Year’s cover story of Newsweek was an article by Kurt Eichenwald on the “state of the Bible” in American culture.
What is perhaps the most visible response to it by Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, seems to be the latest round in an ongoing fight that is sure to find fans jumping from the stands to join the fray. That seems to be how these things work.
Eichenwald’s article makes the reasonable case that the Bible becomes the center of controversy because of the wide range of understandings that embrace it as foundational for life and faith.
He also seeks to demonstrate how a limited understanding of its history and development can lead to ways of thinking about it and applying it that are quite extreme.
The author describes behaviors that are familiar from the kind of in-your-face expressions that we see in the protests of fringe groups and others who seek to have their particular brand of faith made the law of the land, or at least its dominant expression.
Mohler’s response rightly points out that such extreme expressions are not representative of “evangelical Christians.”
He continues his analysis by identifying Eichenwald with liberal theologians who, Mohler asserts, have been challenging “those committed to historic Christianity” for two centuries now with their attacks on the Bible, using the results of historical critical analysis to “undermine” biblical truth.
By dividing Christians into the two camps of “liberal” and “those committed to historic Christianity,” Mohler basically suggests that those who are not in his camp are not Christian, at least as far as their biblical loyalty is concerned.
Two things have struck me from looking in on this “contest” of perspectives from the two sides of what appears to be a widening theological divide among Christians.
One is a reminder from our recent political year that the side of a debate that can most effectively misrepresent the other side is the one that will win the contest.
As we have seen on many fronts, such misrepresentation can have a definite short-term advantage, but it contributes little to understanding or to the development of community.
By presenting a certain part of the Christian family in terms of what some extremists do in its name, the article does not promote the kind of conversation that can lead to understanding where people come from and where they might go in their embrace of the Bible.
In the same way, by dismissing all who have been part of the “liberal” tradition of biblical and theological study as being “uncommitted to historic Christianity,” Mohler’s response draws a similar line in the sand.
He suggests that his way is the right way to understand the Bible and to think theologically, which invites conversation only on his own terms and implies that all other ways are wrong.
Looking back over the decades of my adult life, this kind of “divide-misrepresent-conquer” technique has been part of the strategy of many sinful practices, including anti-Semitism, racism, anti-Catholicism, classism and the host of other divisions that have been obstacles to human community.
When the Apostle Paul distinguished between the “works of the flesh” and the “fruits of the spirit” in Galatians 5:19-23, he listed “quarrels, dissensions and factions” among the former and “patience, kindness and generosity” among the latter.
I wonder in which category he would have included “misrepresentation of one’s opposition”.
The second and deeper issue reflected in the “debate” has to do with the nature of the Bible itself.
If its inspiration is seen as a divine dictum, whose text is holy, inerrant and non-negotiable in terms of its application, then “being biblical” means one thing.
If, by contrast, its inspiration is seen in the lives of those who experienced God and were led by the Spirit to give expression to that experience, which became the “trail guide” for subsequent generations along the journey, then “being biblical” means accepting the invitation to embrace a family history that is still being written.
These two ways of “being biblical” have been the options for generations – for “liberals” as well as for “those committed to historic Christianity,” to use Mohler’s categories.
Given the power of those who profit politically and economically from this theological divide, we will probably continue to have this challenge to community within the Christian family.
I continue to be drawn to a comment by Martin Buber, when he was asked why he didn’t become a Christian, since his “I-Thou” philosophy was so compatible with Christian faith.
“When we Jews and you Christians care more about God than we do about our concepts of God,” he said, “we will be on our way to becoming children of God.”
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.