06 October 2016

Post-Christians and the Bible

Sources: www.albertmohler.com/about; www.andystanley.com 
Last week I linked to this article on the disagreements between Albert Mohler and Andy Stanley concerning the centrality of the Bible in Christian faith. Since then, someone forwarded me Andy Stanley's Outreach Magazine article, "Why 'The Bible Says So' Is Not Enough Anymore," so I decided to look a little deeper into their dispute.

First of all, Josh Daffern, the author of last week's linked article, warns us that the two men involved are indeed "heavyweights." If you don't believe it, just go to their own Web sites! Mohler's site informs us that Dr. Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, "has been recognized by such influential publications as Time and Christianity Today as a leader among American evangelicals. In fact, Time.com called him the 'reigning intellectual of the evangelical movement in the U.S.'" His site then provides us with an impressive list of the newspapers and television programs that have featured him, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Atlanta Journal/Constitution and The Dallas Morning News and television's Larry King Live, NBC’s Today Show, Dateline NBC, ABC’s Good Morning America, and the list goes on.

Andy Stanley's site is also not shy about listing his credentials. "A survey of U.S. pastors in Outreach Magazine identified Andy Stanley as one of the top 10 most influential living pastors in America." That's not surprising in view of his audience stats, according to his home page: "In the digital world, his success reaches well beyond the Atlanta area. Each month, nearly 1.5 million of his messages, leadership videos, and podcasts are accessed from North Point’s website." His television program Your Move with Andy Stanley gives him "an even wider audience with which to share his culturally relevant, practical insights for life and leadership. Currently, over five million episodes are viewed each month through television and podcast, underscoring his impact not only as a communicator but also as an influencer of culture." Plus there are his live-audience events: "In high demand, he speaks to nearly 200,000 people at various annual events before audiences of both church and organizational leaders...."

Now that their "impact" has been "underscored," perhaps we're in a suitably respectful mood to evaluate their arguments. And it turns out to be much ado about rather little. Albert Mohler, whose education and position locates him in a very specific tradition regarding the Bible, naturally defends that tradition is being totally adequate and indispensable. If he or his institution deviate one degree from that position, his market evaporates.

Andy Stanley is also anchored within that tradition -- note how he uses famous mentors and documents to represent that anchor -- but his place in the religion industry involves attracting an audience whose upbringing, education, and employment may have no connection with the centrality/infallibility tradition at all. Mohler cannot afford to alienate the traditionalist audience; Stanley cannot afford to confine himself to that audience. I'm not saying that Mohler is limited only by his tradition, since it is also his sincerely held conviction. It is the flag that flies from his watchtower. Stanley, on the other hand, knows that this flag is an incoherent and incomprehensible symbol for post-Christian people. For both men, the Bible serves as God's provision for discernment as well as wisdom unto salvation, but somehow Mohler seems not to be able to believe that Stanley is as dependent as he should be on this provision.

Where am I in all this? (Forgive me if I leave out my super-impressive list of credentials!!) It seems to me that Quakers generally have a functional theology rather than a metaphysical theology. On the one hand, most Quakers clearly believe in the supernatural. Many of us are mystics, and most of us understand that the founding events of our faith -- the incarnation, the resurrection, and Pentecost -- are entirely beyond mechanical explanations. But, on the other hand, we don't tend to spend time creating metaphysical doctrines that explain those miracles, or require believers to hold to those explanatory doctrines.

In the case of the Bible, we honor its self-descriptions, observe how it functions as our family history and a unique resource for discernment, and we read it with prayer, asking to be in the same spirit as its writers were. We realize that the Bible was gathered and assembled as a work of the Church, ratified by the Church, and preserved by the Church -- in other words, it is a living collaboration between the Holy Spirit and the people. We totally rely on this miraculous and earthy (i.e., functional) understanding of the Bible, because we continue to base our present-day church government on the same understanding: the people can still gather and collaborate with the Holy Spirit to understand our Godly tasks for today. We cherish the Bible as the pre-eminent expression of this miraculous collaboration, but we emphatically do not make the Bible a fourth member of the Trinity.

I can honor Mohler's commitment to the Bible, but his white-knuckled defense of the Bible's inerrancy relies on supernatural qualities that the Bible itself never claims -- and furthermore can be incoherent to someone outside his tradition. However, Stanley's willingness to de-link doctrines about biblical authority from the Gospel's core message has hazards of its own. A kind of drift could set in where the Bible's family-history and discernment functions could eventually be lost as we become (as Mohler warns) "dependent upon historians (among others) to tell us what parts of both testaments we can still believe."

To me, the stubborn defense of biblical authority and the post-Christian imperative to communicate the Good News outside the traditionalist camp is an example of the dynamic division of labor in the Church. We have the mind of Christ, but NOBODY can comprehend all the vectors and tangents and facets of that Good News simultaneously, or apply it with total adequacy to every situation, every audience. We simply must consult, compare, and, if necessary, dispute!

One more thing: we're not just talking about theoretical doctrines or comparative piety here. Every day we hear about new occasions of suffering and cruelty -- or we fall into such situations ourselves. We are either watching people searching for refuge, or we are ourselves refugees. How does the authority and inerrancy of the Bible relate to these situations? Quakers in Burundi, trying to understand their tasks after the civil war, read Nehemiah in a new way, seeing themselves in the text. When the death squads invaded the University of Central America in 1989, killing six priests, their housekeeper, and the housekeeper's daughter, the Bibles too had bullet holes. U.S. president Obama, addressing the plight of undocumented immigrants, read Scripture to the nation: "[We] were strangers once, too." If we cannot figure out how to apply biblical authority in confronting violence, bondage, racism, despair in those concrete instances where we are present and have influence, we should not be surprised if biblical authority means nothing to those around us.

Related post: Is the Bible nice?

Albert Mohler is "embarrassed by past support of women in ministry."

Svetlana Alexievich and today's militarism.

Karen Greenberg on what actually keeps Americans safe.
When civil libertarians defend their side of the liberty-security debate, they usually claim that liberties are just as important as security. Perhaps what they should be saying is that protecting our liberties means ensuring our safety; that surveilling everyone produces more but not better information and is not a national security measure; and that the informed interrogation of prisoners who have rights, including the right to a fair trial, is not only more consonant with the American way, but more effective than secret prisons and physical abuse.
Parker Palmer at Yale Divinity School urges soul work to animate social change.

Forget the bingo: in Chicago, a parish priest who's an unruly model of biblical urgency.

Speaking of Chicago (again!),


Daniel Wilcox said...

What troubles me most about Albert Mohler is that he is strongly committed to the horrific doctrines of Reformed theology--the worst one being that God foreordains most of us human beings to eternal damnation before the beginning of time:-(
that God wills for only a limited number of humans to be saved.:-(

Andy Stanley's view of such theology is unclear.

The early Quakers rejected this despairing cosmic determinism by the Puritans as D. Elton Trueblood pointed out in his book, The People Called Quakers, (and by other Quaker history scholars).

It's so tragic that some Quakers now are turning to Reformed theology, including the worst forms of it, as NCYM:-( a couple years ago.

Johan Maurer said...

Predestination and the related doctrine of total depravity are examples of what I'm referring to when I talk about Friends' preference for functional theology. I tried tackling this business, at least modestly, a few years ago in my post on evil.

I'm not sure why some Friends abandon this strong theological heritage for various imports -- whether it's myths and genealogies, or vain mortifications, to borrow from Paul's acid comments. The consequences of those imported doctrines are often harmful -- encouraging us either to give up the ethical dimensions of discipleship and evangelism, for example, or subordinating ourselves to a monopolistic priestly hierarchy. Many wonderful people have taken those tangents, of course, but if these paths were wholly adequate for all Christians, the Quaker movement would never have been needed.

forrest said...

A little late for me to butt in... but there is a significant distinction between what a document (let alone an anthology) says -- and the intentions of a person/Being circulating it.

The basic premise of the Bible is that God can and does communicate with human beings... but as we see this actually working out within the Bible's stories, human beings are all too inclined to finish God's sentences for Him. So "forever" frequently turns out to mean "so long as the party-of-the-second-part will continue to perform his duties under this arrangement"; and that often means a tragically-short period of time. Eli's sons are groping the women bringing donations...? That line of priests is no longer keeping the shrine "forever". The Israelite monarchies turn out no better than monarchies should be (as Samuel warns everybody before naming Saul war-chief) and so the Davidic line falls out of power, the Temple gets destroyed... and people's hopes for eventual liberation from foreign masters, oh well, don't work out in terms of weeks of years or weeks of decades or any other time period.

When God later sends Jesus into the resulting turmoil, are we to conclude that Israel asked for bread and got a stone? Or was there something flawed in the original conception (not that God didn't want the nation liberated, but that the methods they'd had in mind weren't going to do the job.)

So: They got a great many things wrong; and we can too! But the difficulties are with our reception, not in what God is trying to convey...