Monday, August 2, 2010

I Do Not Like Your Christ. I Like (Some of) Your Christians.

I just picked Frank Schaeffer's latest book off the shelf at the public library: Patience with God: Faith for People Who Don't Like Religion (or Atheism). Schaeffer is the son of Francis Schaeffer, a Presbyterian pastor who left the US in 1948 to bring the gospel to the European heathen. The father cultivated a chin beard and founded a retreat in Switzerland, where some of his disciples recorded his teaching and turned it into books with a pseudo-countercultural veneer. He had quite an influence on the American Christian Right, and Ronald Reagan's Surgeon General C. Everett Koop co-wrote a book with him.

The Father died in 1984, and the Son, who had already been producing books and films, apparently broke with his family and friends, wrote a fine autobiographical novel called Portofino, criticized the Christian Right of which he'd been a part, and eventually joined the Greek Orthodox Church. Evidently he decided he didn't dislike religion that much.

I glanced through Patience with God in the library before I checked it out and noticed the chapter on apocalypticism, "Spaceship Jesus Will Come and Whisk Us Away." It's mainly an attack on Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins's Left Behind series. Schaeffer declares (110):
No, I am not blaming Jenkins and LaHaye's product line for murder or racism or any other evil intent or result. What I am saying is that feeding the paranoid delusions of people on the fringe of the fringe contributes to a dangerous climate that may provoke violence in a few individuals. And convincing folks that Armageddon is on the way, and all we can do is wait, pray, and protect our families from the chaos that will be the "prelude" to the "Return of Christ," is perhaps not the best recipe for political, economic, or personal stability, let alone social cohesion.
It's not certain, though, that Left Behind fans are "the fringe of the fringe," though we are often told that the early Christians were. Paul Boyer wrote in his history of such beliefs, When Time Shall Be No More (Harvard, 1992, page 100):

Nor did premillennialism in the 1865-1920 years appeal solely to the poor and disaffected; it also found support among the middle classes, the well-to-do, and even the elite. The signers of an 1891 memorial to President Benjamin Harrison written by premillennialist William Blackstone and urging support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine included Cyrus McCormick, J. P. Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller. Two Los Angeles oilmen, Lyman and Milton Stewart, financed the publication and distribution of The Fundamentals. Chicago department-store owner John Pirie hosted Cyrus Scofield's annual Bible conferences at Sea Cliff, Pirie's estate on Long Island. The head of the Quaker Oats Company, Henry Crowell, chaired the board of trustees of the Moody Bible Institute. Large middle-class Baptist and Presbyterian churches in New York, St. Louis, Boston, Cincinnati, Minneapolis, and many other cities were bastions of premillennialism in these years. As Ian Rennie has written, dispensationalism attracted some of the most outstanding evangelicals of the day – and some of the wealthiest. Whatever else may be said of, belief in an imminent Second Coming, in punishment of the wicked, and in a Millennium when the injustices of the present age will be set right, cannot be dismissed -- in the Middle Ages, in the pre- World War I, era, or in the late twentieth century -- as merely the desperate creed of the disinherited.
It's also not true that believers are told that all they can do is wait, pray, and protect their families -- they can, and must, make more converts to Christ. Groups which preach the imminent "Return of Christ" are usually socially cohesive, as long as they work hard on missionary work. It worked for the early Christians, after all.

Schaeffer blames "a literalist interpretation of the biblical Book of Revelation" for the Left Behind theology (111):

This weird book was the last to be included in the New Testament. It was included as canonical only relatively late in the process after a heated dispute. The historic Churches East and West remain so suspicious of Revelation that to this day it has never been included as part of the cyclical public readings of scripture in Orthodox services. ... In other words, the book of the Bible that the historical Church found most problematic is the one that American evangelicals latched on to like flies on you know what.
If only it were that simple! It's true that Revelation is important for End-Times Christianity, but the whole New Testament contains similar material. Matthew, Mark, and Luke show Jesus beginning his public career by announcing that the End was near, and all contain speeches by Jesus in which he lays out the signs that will presage his return. Revelation contains more of the same kind of stuff, but if it hadn't been included in the Bible, Christians would still have enough to support an obsession with their lord's return. Even John, odd man out among the gospels, pays at least lip service to the idea. Paul's letters show him trying to keep a lid on end-times fervor, which shows that a "literalist" interpretation of these teachings is not due to a modern misunderstanding of ancient allegory. People in Jesus' and Paul's day who heard "The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is at hand" (Mark 1:15) took it to mean, reasonably enough, that "the form of this world is passing away" (1 Corinthians 7:31) in time as human beings reckon it. That may be why the second letter of Peter, probably the last New Testament book to be written, must explain the delay in Jesus' return. Scoffers "will say: where is this 'coming' he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation. ... But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years is like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief" (2 Peter 2:4-10).

What restrained End-Times fanaticism in the Christian churches was religion in the sense of Schaeffer's subtitle: organized, conformist religion. In any case it's dishonest of Schaeffer to pretend that such beliefs are due only to one marginal book in the New Testament.

He then eulogizes the great Jewish artist Marc Chagall (120):

It seems to me that a lot of us non-evangelical, non-fundamentalist followers of Jesus find ourselves where Marc Chagall found himself vis-a-vis his faith in God and the public perception of what that faith really means. Chagall is proof that not all people who identify with Christianity and Judaism (or religion in general) are of the Hagee, LaHaye, Rushdoony, and Jenkins ilk.
Ah, the Golden Mean again! There are Fundamentalists to the Right of him, and Atheists to the Left of him! Into the Valley of Death rode the Archmandrite! I've written about the middle path before, and about this whingeing that you can't call yourself a Christian anymore because of all the Bible thumpers preaching hate who cause decent Christians to be stereotyped. (Anne Rice did that very thing last week. Look, fool, if you "follow Christ" you're a Christian. But for a real emetic, check out this article by an atheist who assumes that because Rice has renounced the church, she's "going to be become an atheist." Then read this incoherent babble by a Christian who questions whether Rice ever was, like, really a Christian. *CORRECTION at end of post.) I don't refuse to call myself gay because Andrew Sullivan does and I don't want to be stereotyped as a Catholic Republican with a second-rate mind. If you don't like the image presented by members of a class you belong to, you do your best to present a different image -- not to replace the "bad" image, but to make it harder for others to stereotype the group.

But this is something I've been fighting about with liberal Christians for a couple of decades now, who seem to think that if we could just get rid of a few embarrassing teachings here and there, no one could reasonably object to Christianity or refuse to join it. Yes, it would be very nice if Christian churches were all pro-gay, pro-feminist, pro-choice, anti-racist, and so on. And yes, Christians should be nice to people of other religions and not believe that they have a monopoly on truth or morality (since they don't). But achieving those minimal conditions wouldn't mean that Christianity is true. You don't have to be a Christian to take any or all of those stances, and I don't see that Christians are obliged to take them.

I gather from what I've read of Patience with God that Frank Schaeffer is critical of Israel (he denounces both Christian and Jewish Zionists), and I guess I'll have to read the rest of the damn book to find out what his positions are on homosexuality, women's equality, abortion, contraception, political economy, and other hot-button issues. It wouldn't surprise me in the least if he agrees with me on many of them. But that doesn't mean that his positions are therefore the Christian positions, let alone that Jesus would have agreed with him. Since I don't stereotype Christians, I know that they aren't all homophobic Bible-thumping literalists. Many Christians -- and that includes some homophobic Bible-thumping literalists -- are quite decent people. Many atheists are not. That has nothing to do with the validity of either Christianity, any other religion, or atheism.

Schaeffer tries to get rid of the embarrassment of End-times theology by blaming it all on Revelation. Either he doesn't know, or he's deliberately not mentioning, that the whole New Testament is a collection of End-times tracts. What does he do with the gospels' Jesus: the faith healer, the hellfire and brimstone preacher of damnation, the end-times fanatic? Most liberal Christians I've known have never read the gospels, let alone the rest of the New Testament, so they have no idea what to do with that Jesus. Most of them are better people than the gospels' Jesus, but I can't credit them with much intellectual integrity.

Here's a good bit to close with, from page 99: "I can't prove this, but I think that any person who remains a 'professional Christian' in the evangelical/fundamentalist world for a lifetime, especially any pastor, risks becoming an atheist and/or a liar." I don't see atheism as a risk myself, and I make bold to suggest that it isn't only the evangelical/fundamentalist Christian professional who risks becoming a liar.

*CORRECTION: I got e-mail from the blogger I linked to here, pointing out with justifiable snark that I'd misread their post and that they were siding with Rice. I plead guilty: I was reading too fast. But on rereading it I still think the post is incoherent, partly not the fault of the blogger because Rice is claiming that she isn't a Christian, because Christians are bad; she's a follower of Christ, and therefore good. This Is So Gay regrets the error. Let that be a lesson to me not to rush postings.