From The Archives: Things Your Minister Wishes He Or She Could Tell You

There are things your minister, pastor, priest or preacher would love to be able to tell you, but cannot because of concerns about job security. I am not only thinking about the scandalous revelations that occasionally come to light, nor even the relatively minor fact that your pastor sometimes comes to the pulpit the same way all of us come to church at times – feeling less than inspired, having just argued with a spouse, or in some other way or for some other reason less ready than we would like to do what we need to in church – whether preach or simply worship.

Most ministers have had theological training that exposed them to a diverse range of viewpoints. In some very narrow seminaries, it will be reiterated again and again which is the “right” opinion, which is the “sound” theology. Be that as it may, even pastors who studied in fairly conservative schools have wrestled with issues and confronted evidence that many Christians are simply unaware of. I remember when, towards the end of my doctoral studies at the University of Durham in England, I was invited to give a talk on my research at a sixth form study day (i.e. for students doing A Levels in religion, the approximate equivalent of advance placement (AP) exams in the United States). Wanting to have a sense of the appropriate level, I asked for copies of syllabi or exams for religious studies A Levels in the U. K. As I looked them over, it struck me that teenagers in the U. K. who choose to study religion are expected to deal with subject (such as the Synoptic Problem) that many Christians who have attended church for 60 years have never even heard of. Is the relationship between the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke really of such little importance for those who (we hope) read them that we can set this issue to one side altogether? No, the reason why the subject is never addressed is that it might make some people uncomfortable to talk about it. Many pastors and preachers will give a wide berth to other issues, such as creation and evolution, to avoid controversy, even though they may feel strongly that fundamentalist approaches are misguided. Why rock the boat? But is lack of controversy really preferable to having well-educated believers? Is preserving one’s job worthwhile if it means leaving fundamentalism to grow and fester?

I reflected on these questions yet again as I read the short book by Rev. Oliver “Buzz” Thomas, 10 Things Your Minister Wants To Tell You (But Can’t Because He Needs The Job). While it is not the case that all the things Thomas mentions are things that all ministers would tell you if they could, I suspect that enough of them are, and if not these things then there are other things that they could tell you were they not afraid that ordinary Christians, rather than welcoming a deeper understanding of the faith, of the Bible, and of Christian history, would complain, argue, and eventually drive the minister out who dared expose them to uncomfortable truths.Although a very short book, it packs a serious punch and reveals more in its 108 pages than many other works of much greater length on more specific subjects. It was particularly refreshing to encounter someone else so adamant about the importance of the fact that the main character in the creation story in Genesis 2 is called “Human” and not “Adam” as though the latter were a name in Hebrew. Although his language at one point seems to leave a door open for “teaching the controversy” (p.9), his approach to most topics is balanced and healthy. His recognition not only of the fact that Jesus gave more than one answer about salvation (p.47), but that Jesus was mistaken about the end of the world and this simply makes him human (p.97), are refreshingly honest but even more than that refreshingly Biblical compared to the selective quote mining of the fundamentalists. And he too emphasizes, as I try to whenever I get the chance, that fundamentalists only claim to take the whole Bible literally and believe it all, but this is far from an accurate representation of what they in reality do and believe (p.101).

Here are a few particularly memorable quotes:

…my old Irish Catholic uncle used to say: “Trying to use the Bible to prove the church wrong is like trying to use the phone book to prove there isn’t a phone company” (p.23)

Authentic religion is not a theology test. It is a love test. (p.41)

God will not be locked into the culture of the first century, whether we like it or not. If God exists, then, he is alive today and is continuing to reveal himself. (p.63)

This may be a useful book for you to read, or to pass on to those who are interested in understanding the Bible better and in a broader way. But certainly the subject of the book is one whose time has come. To paraphrase a famous quote that the book mentions at one point, all that has to happen for fundamentalism to thrive is for those who have actually studied the Bible and understand it in depth and detail to keep silent.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07725829998119648772 Matt Kelley

    I'll have to check it out. Thanks!

  • http://cleverbadger.net Jay

    I read this one fairly recently and thought Thomas did a good job of putting some issues on the table that a lot of folks haven't been exposed to.

  • http://clayboy.co.uk Doug Chaplin

    Sounds interesting.However, I would suggest that there's more mention of some of these issues in the UK's pulpits than in US ones.On a related topic, see my argument for the place of critical study for pastors here.

  • http://cleverbadger.net Jay

    My experience in my fairly liberal Catholic parish is that our pastor will hit issues like this at a fairly high level during sermons (e.g. he'll refer to the relationships between Mk, Mt, and Lk and the differences between those and Jn) but he won't actually use the term "synoptic problem". In smaller group discussions, he'll approach things at a level not unlike Thomas' book. One on one, he'll go as far into details as you care to go.My sense is that the U.S. is, in general, quite a bit behind the curve on subjects like these, and considering how many people in the U.S. self-identify as Christians of one stripe or another, that's not a good thing.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00565212411446092552 smijer

    It was particularly refreshing to encounter someone else so adamant about the importance of the fact that the main character in the creation story in Genesis 2 is called “Human” and not “Adam” as though the latter were a name in Hebrew.What importance do you see in this fact? I don't see the "fundamentalist" interpretation of Adam as the first individual bearing that name as being problematic, but I may be missing something. It seems to me the story treats Adam as an individual, and certainly later writers refer to Adam this way. It is interesting that he was named "man", but I can't help but wonder if this is some representation of him being the first of his kind and either the rest of us named after him or him being named for his kind.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    It seems to me far more natural to understand a figure called "Human" as representing typical humanity rather than one specific human individual, than it is to understand someone you think has a specific human name in that way.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00565212411446092552 smijer

    I do agree that it seems more natural to interpret it generally, except that the story seems to be written from the perspective that it at least also has an individual in mind… possibly both. I'm looking forward to acquiring and reading your new book. It comes well recommended!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12399706958844399216 terri

    just to piggyback on smijer's commentIt does make more sense to interpret the names as a general label for all of humanity….but did the writer/writers of the narrative think of Adam and Eve that way?It would seem that an ancient biblical writer would have no reason to think that Adam and Eve weren't historical persons and that humans didn't descend from two original people. After all…simple observation of how families increased through normal marriages and births would seem to be fairly obvious to ancient people….wouldn't it? In cultures in which marrying close family members was not considered inappropriate, why would tthey need to believe that God created a group of human, instead of just two?We could say, if we're inclined to think the creation story is inspired and is at least in some way a revelatory story from God, that the "truth" of the story is greater than its parts. If we go that route, which many Christians do, then we are back to applying mystical forces to the text….assuming that there are hidden "truths" which the original writers and hearers had no concept of, but which were somehow supernaturally intertwined within their stories.So, in some ways, appealing to the technical meaning of Adam, and interpreting it as a premodern hint of evolution, is only part and parcel of an approach which is awfully close to inerrancy in its methodology….or am I the only one who thinks that?Maybe I'm wrong… it wouldn't be the first time….but is there any reason to think that ancient Judaism ever viewed Adam and Eve as anything other than historical figures?


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