Dear Reader, I was prepared to write this week about a really bad Abortion Argument on Salon.com. But it seems that stupid arguments must alas trump bad arguments. Self-proclaimed “thought leader” Steve McSwain decided to vent his frustration with American Christianity by posting “6 Things Christians Should Just Stop Saying” at the mixed-bag that is Huffington Post. This particular post follows his other attempts at criticism such as “I Wish Christian Preachers Would Just Shut Up” and “Why Christianity is Dying but Spirituality is Thriving.”
As I read through McSwain’s commentary I was struck with what I hope is righteous indignation but I’m humble enough to admit is probably my sin nature bathed in deep and cultivated sense of sarcasm. My friends, there are some things that people say with such thoughtless disregard for both decency and logic, that perhaps the only appropriate response is sarcasm.
Douglas Wilson has defended the use of sarcasm in Christian commentary with his book, A Serrated Edge: A Brief Defense of Biblical Satire and Trinitarian Skylarking. He points out several examples of the use of satire in the Bible. When Elijah taunted the prophets of Baal who were desperately trying to make a altar burn, I smugly imagine he was feeling the way I was when I read McSwain. Before I launch into my snark, I would like you to know that I have thought and prayed over how to respond to McSwain’s post. I even sought council from several Godly people to make sure I wasn’t simply wallowing in angst or just trying to make a name for myself. After seeking their council, they agreed:
Nope. McSwain’s tattered rant is still stupid.
So I will treat his “6 things” with the same respect he gives to thoughtful, intelligent Christian scholars, theologians, and public figures he self-righteously declares to be poor benighted fools. May God have mercy on us both.
1. The Bible is the inerrant, infallible Word of God.
It isn’t inerrant and not likely even in the “original manuscripts.” But then, I cannot say that with absolute certainty, anymore than anyone else can either.Why? Because no such “original” manuscripts even exists. That’s like saying, “We believe there are aliens on other planets!”Good for you. Now, prove it. As we have it, no matter what translation you favor, the Bible is replete with errors. To pretend otherwise is your right. To say otherwise is a lie. You are entitled to your opinions, your assumptions, even your beliefs. What you are not entitled to is a misrepresentation of the facts.
As with all serious error, there is a grain of truth here (the objective kind, not the squishy, truth-is- dogmatically-undogmatic-variety likely favored by McSwain’s admirers ). Every time Evangelicals make the claim of inerrancy, there is the implied “of course I could be wrong” As Norm Geisler, arguably the staunchest defender of inerrancy breathing, once said in response to atheist Paul Kurtz’ skepticism, “I’m certain that I exist; I’m pretty sure you exist.” Everything else is subject to degrees of certainty based on the available evidence. So McSwain does nothing special to spank Christians for not making explicit the “I could be wrong” for he would have to spank everyone from President Obama to Barbara Boxer. The mustard seed of truth in his first straw man argument, however, is that “extraordinary claims should be followed by extraordinary justification.”
Case in point: McSwain’s own claim that the Bible is replete with errors. This obvious point (so obvious he presents none) is supposed to simply brush away Evangelical arguments about Biblical authority with a brush as broad as McSwain thinks his mind is. A theologian friend of mine who does not buy into Evangelical inerrancy confirmed that McSwain was logically challenged: Not all errors in the Bible are the same and to think otherwise is just asinine. The point is that even those who deny the Evangelical definition of inerrancy but still hold to biblical authority should consider McSwain’s plea as compelling as a Teleevangelists tearful confession . Without delving into the inerrancy debate let me say that the “Bible is replete with errors” is the kind of hasty generalization I’ve never seen survive the follow up question, “Give me five of the worst.” I’m not suggesting that critics like Bart Ehrmann can’t catalog apparent inconsistencies that I believe can be reconciled with good hermeneutics and common sense. However, reconciling or sustaining inconsistencies are a far cry from bromides like “the Bible is full of errors.”
By far the worst sin against reason that McSwain makes is when he says “To pretend otherwise is your right. To say otherwise is a lie.” What happened to all that humble uncertainty Steve-O? If errors are up for debate then it is question begging at the least to suggest you are right and to claim otherwise is a lie. Even worse to claim Evangelicals are entitled to their beliefs but not to misrepresent the facts. As agnostic J.S. Mill said, it is pure sophistry to claim everyone has a right to one’s opinion but not to the facts. One’s view of the facts is part of one’s opinion.
2. We just believe the Bible.
That, too, is false. What you really believe is your interpretation of the Bible. And the last I checked, the history of the Christian church is the history of disagreement over “interpretation.” How else do you explain the scores of denominations within Christianity alone? It would be patently more honest of Christians to say, “The following represents our understanding and interpretation of the Scriptures, but we are also aware there are many equally sincere Christians who interpret the Scriptures differently from us.”
Actually, this one is more charitable if by “We just believe the Bible” he means “We don’t go in for all that fancy Greek Exegesis, We let the Bible Speak for Itself.” I too have done the face palm when some well meaning Christian says, ” We should should let the Bible speak for itself.” usually in response to someone attempting to refute some pet doctrine using Biblical languages and daring to invoke logic. So I sympathize. Humility is the soul of grace let’s say. It is one thing, however, to say “I might be mistaken but here’s my claim” and another to say “I don’t know if I’m right, and we can never have access to the means to discern better or worse interpretations and bad exegesis.” My worry is that McSwain’s statements imply the latter.
3. Jesus is the only way to heaven.
What you are really saying is, “The way we interpret John 14:6 is that Jesus was clearly drawing a line in the sand and telling his hearers and the world: ‘If you do not believe in Me, you won’t go to the Father when you die.'”For this, I refer back to No. 2 above: what you and your group of believers really mean to say is, “It is our interpretation of John 14:6 that Jesus is saying that He is the only way to heaven.”
Okay. Yes. We got it. You want us to constantly qualify our statements with “It is our interpretation.” But why? Are there people out there who are somehow being misled by our dogmatic statements as if we didn’t believe that yes we might be wrong? I suspect not. I’m only guessing but I bet McSwain doesn’t require this constant qualification from people he agrees with. This is mere conjecture (there you happy Steve?) but I suspect the reason he wants to beat this particular dead horse is because he’s offended when these dogmatic pre-modern fundamentalists dare to claim the mantle of truth as if anyone doesn’t claim that mantle every time the make an exclusive claim like “Christian Preachers Should Just Shut Up”. But I digress. Here’s McSwain again:
There are scores of Christians, however, and I am one of them, who do not interpret Jesus’ words in John 14 the same way. Just because I do not makes me no less Christian than you are. So stop drawing lines in the sand, please, between equally sincere followers of Jesus.
And we are back to question begging again. Of course, we can have different interpretations and still hold the same faith, hope, and baptism. However, this doesn’t that any interpretation of John 14 is equally Christian just because they are equally sincere. Because if those poor benighted evangelicals are right about John 14:6, then Steve you might not be part of the historic Christian faith. Now you might want to deny that historic Christian faith is anywhere near what Christ wanted but that requires an interpretation of a lot more passages than John 14:6. And of course Steve you have that right. But don’t smuggle your conclusion (We can hold differing views about what makes a Christian and still be equally Christian as long as we are sincer) into your premises that we can hold differing views about John 14:6 and still be true to the Christian faith.
What follows this bit of logical gymnastics is an alternative interpretation of John 14:6
When I read the 14th chapter of John, I see a context that yields an alternative reading of the text. Instead of Jesus starting some new religion here and saying, “OK, fellas, I’m going to go away soon” — referring to his death — “but, before I go, you should know that where I’m going you, and others who believe just like you, will one day be, too — that is, of course, if they believe like you believe that I am the only way to heaven. That is to say, if the people around you and who come after you don’t believe that I am the only way to heaven, then, of course, they’ll have to go to hell. Is all that clear?” . . . Sensing the fragility of their faith, seeing the anxiety on their faces, he reassures them that, in God’s house are many rooms, “mansions” or places. Yes, He’s going away but where He’s going they, too, will go. Just as He has led them this far, He will lead them further still . . For me personally, and many other Christians, too, Jesus is no more pointing to himself as the “one-and-only-way” to God than Thomas is expressing in his question concern for Hindus, Muslims or Buddhists and whether they’ll go to heaven? I can assure you that Thomas, and the others, were only concerned about themselves. And yet, even at that point, Jesus is tender in His care of them and seeks to reassure them that . . . Yes, he was leaving them. But no, they would not be left alone. . . And so, the Church is here today. But not because Christians declare, “There is no way to go to heaven if you don’t believe in Jesus.” The Church is here today because when people do trust the things Jesus said about HImself, about HIs relationship to the Father…when people believe and so live the teachings of Jesus they, too, are changed — they, too, become “new creations in Christ,” as Saint Paul put it (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Interestingly, McSwain doesn’t qualify his statements with “I could be wrong.” I’m sure they are implied. I’m confused, however, when he waxes so passionately about what he is sure were on the faces of the disciples in a room Steve has never entered. He also assures us what was in the mind of Thomas and the others and what they cared about. In fact there are interpretive leaps here that no serious Evangelical would make. The word you are looking for is eisogesis. “Reading into the text” rather than exogesis “Pulling out of a text.” But, you know, I could be wrong. Furthermore, Steve-O commits yet another fallacy. He cherry picks a key passage for the exclusivity of the Gospel as if this were the sole reason Christians, “seem stuck here, thinking that there’s only one way to interpret Jesus’ words about being the way.”
Thanks for the condescension, Steve. Evangelicals and other Christians rely on a bit more scriptural evidence that one passage in John 14. (Hey, isn’t prooftexting what people like Steve seem to hate?) No, we have something called systematic theology encompassing what you might call a grand narrative. We even include Paul, who said if anyone preaches a Gospel other than the one he preaches, let him be anathema (Galatians 1:8). Anathema. Paul was so vehement on this point that he resorts to his native Aramaic like Ricky Ricardo when he’s mad at Lucy. So pardon us McSwain if we don’t fold because you trot out your pet interpretation of John 14.
Dear reader, thanks for holding on with me through the snark storm. I’ll take up three more of McSwain’s things Christians should stop saying next time, but let me finish with this little gem.
Now, there is one thing I think all Christians, including me, should remember — no, should practice (and we should practice this between ourselves first, too) — and that is the one simple thing Jesus once said would be the one-and-only thing the world would know us by…Not our beliefs. Not our doctrines. Not our denomination’s distinctions.
Not even our declarations. Jesus said, “They will know you are my disciples by your love” (John 13:35).When we love, what more needs to be said?
I feel like Lewis’ Screwtape when I read the hypocrisy in this statement; I may just turn into a salamander. He quotes John 13:35 but adds “The one and only thing the world would know us by” I guess, unlike the targets of his rant, Steve is entitled not only to his interpretation but the misrepresentation facts as well. The text says:
By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Nothing there about “One and Only.” And he conveniently leaves out the “one another.” it is not love in the abstract that will designate us as disciples but our love for one another. And lest people accuse me of being unloving by turning McSwain’s snark back upon him, let me publicly extend the hand of friendship in saying, I would welcome a calm and reasonable discussion about my points here. I will lay done my snark if you do Steve.