The American Christian Dilemma

This post describes the contemporary religious dilemma that inspired me to write Breaking the Silence (or whatever I end up calling the book that’s rattling around in my head) .

Conservative Christians warn  that the slightest deviation from doctrinal orthodoxy  (especially the doctrine of biblical inerrancy) is a one-way ticket to apostacy.

But is it true?

It doesn’t have to be.  When we stop telling the Bible what it’s supposed to be and what it’s supposed to say, our lives can be transformed by what the Bible is actually about.

In fact, dozens of books have been  written by former fundamentalists who say they didn’t understand Jesus until they kissed the rigid certainties of childhood faith goodbye.

Unfortunately, the people who write these books have typically got a seminary education under their belts.  Even with this advantage, the trek from fundamentalism to Jesus-centered faith is typically nasty, brutish and very long.

Most conservative Christians realize that their Bibles don’t say what they’re supposed to say.  If the preachers are anything to go by, the Bible should be internally consistent, and it isn’t.

And the Bible should present a clear path to salvation supplemented with  helpful maxims for victorious Christian living.

But it doesn’t.  Sure, you can find a few John 3:16 type passages that seem to reduce salvation to a simple formula, but these passages disagree with one another at significant points.

The greater part of the Bible consists of legal stipulations, predictions of doom, gruesome battles, wholesale slaughter and cautionary tales about the evils of worshipping false gods on the high places.

Conservative Christians are dimly aware that most of the Bible is confusing and not particularly edifying, but they still believe every word of it.  Forced to choose between the Bible and the scientific community, they’ll go with the Bible.  Every time.

They do this because, if they let go of perfect-Bible orthodoxy, they have no plan B.  They have no idea how to rebuild their religion.  If the Bible falls apart, they have no idea how to put it back together.

And even if they could repackage their faith, it wouldn’t sound right.  It wouldn’t be recognizably Christian to their brothers and sisters in Christ, and it wouldn’t sound like the religion you get from the TV preachers.

So you go looking for another church, a church where people believe like you do.  This doesn’t usually end well.  Liberal churches know what they don’t believe, but if you ask where Jesus is leading them somebody changes the subject.

If you like the folks at the new church you might stick around, but you can’t help noticing how fuzzy and passionless the faith has become.

They will tell you that God is loving, accepting and gracious.  But if you ask them to explain the massive hunks of Scripture dominated by a pissed-off potentate in the sky they just shrug.

Alternatively, you can flee back to the old familiar certainties; or you can ditch the religious quest altogether.

Initially, going religionless can be exhilarating.   Suddenly everything is simple.   As the burden of belief slumps to the ground you breathe a sigh of relief.

Then your kids ask you what life is all about, and you aren’t sure how to answer.   You say life is about being loving and kind.  But that’s not the way life looks most of the time.  What if life’s about mere survival?  What if life isn’t about anything?

Am I being fair?  Do you resonate with this account of our contemporary religious dilemma, or am I missing something?

3 thoughts on “The American Christian Dilemma

  1. :You hit the nail on the head, Alan. Believing neither in life after death nor supernatural content of the Bible, my faith is this: Life, mine and those around me, will be better if I do unto others as I would have them do unto me, if I do what I say I will do, if I do no harm, and if I maintain charitable attitude and actions. I like simple.

  2. Thanks Gene Elliott. Thanks Alan Bean. We need to quit focusing on what we believe and what we don’t believe, and focus our lives toward Jesus.

  3. I think that sums it up pretty well, Alan. Fortunately there are some preachers and writers who are also thinking that way and suggesting some ways to look at it. We may not agree entirely with what they say (with whom do we agree entirely anyway?!) but they are heading in mostly the right direction. Or at least provide food for thought.
    The writers I am thinking of are Peter Enns (“The Bible Tells Me So” and “The sin of certainty”), Brian Zahnd (“Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God” and “Water into wine” etc.), Brad Jersak (“A more Christlike God” and “Her gates will never be shut”). I’ve also derived great benefit from reading Brian Mclaren (“A new kind of Christianity” and “A generous orthodoxy” etc.)
    Of these, I particularly like Brian Zahnd’s approach and indeed his journey from Charismatic Jesus-movement church pastor to … I’m not sure what exactly, but “Water to Wine” tells part of his story and is well worth reading. His latest book, “Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God” provided me with some real revelation – for example, how about the mount of transfiguration being the scene where the law giver, Moses, and the prophets, represented by Elijah, hand the baton of authority to Jesus? God says, “This is my Son, listen to Him.” Their job and that of all the OT was to point to Jesus – now He is here and the OT’s job is done. Anyway – read the book and you’ll see this for yourselves.
    In conclusion, good points, Alan, and you are not alone! Also there is a way forward without relinquishing faith or making it complicated.

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