With God, and the Times, on his side (Creeping Fundamentalism XI)

seccomAs you may have noticed, your friends here at GetReligion.org rarely, if ever, comment on op-ed columns. We’d need to open an entire second site if we started chasing religion into the editorial pages.

But sometimes, a columnist such as Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times creates news as well as comments on the news, such as his stunning work on the genocide in Sudan. He has also, in recent years, gone out of his way to probe the global role of faith in public life, even aiming a few shots of praise at evangelical Christians.

Thus, it was of more than passing interest recently that Kristof lashed out at the pop theology of the “Left Behind” novels and, to get specific about it, offer his opinion that its vision of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ was bloody dangerous to the world as the New York Times understands it.

These are the best-selling novels for adults in the United States, and they have sold more than 60 million copies worldwide. The latest is “Glorious Appearing,” which has Jesus returning to Earth to wipe all non-Christians from the planet. It’s disconcerting to find ethnic cleansing celebrated as the height of piety.

If a Muslim were to write an Islamic version of “Glorious Appearing” and publish it in Saudi Arabia, jubilantly describing a massacre of millions of non-Muslims by God, we would have a fit. We have quite properly linked the fundamentalist religious tracts of Islam with the intolerance they nurture, and it’s time to remove the motes from our own eyes.

Truth is, millions of traditional Christians — especially Arab Christians — share some of his anger at Christians whose beliefs fit inside the large “Left Behind” tent. But Kristof is, in this case, painting with a much larger brush. He comes very, very close to condemning the very heart of traditional Christian faith in both the Second Coming and the belief that salvation is found through Jesus Christ, alone. At one point he asks:

These scenes also raise an eschatological problem: Could devout fundamentalists really enjoy paradise as their friends, relatives and neighbors were heaved into hell?

Now, these beliefs are controversial to many and clearly clash with other world religions, which is why the word “infidels” is so popular with radical Islamists. There is no need to ignore the obvious (or beheaded missionaries).

But Kristof seems unaware that the “Left Behind” books are only one take on these hot doctrines. Last time I checked, the likes of Billy Graham and Pope John Paul II and perhaps even George W. Bush and John Kerry were not saying the Nicene Creed with their fingers crossed. Unless a flock has lapsed into heresy, this creed does proclaim belief in “in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God” who will “come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.”

It is one thing to criticize believers because the specifics of their doctrine can somehow be shown to have affected their political views and actions. This is what is going on with the folks on the political and religious left who seem convinced that Bush’s alleged evangelical convictions are shaping his actions in the Middle East. There are those — people with documentary cameras, even — who seem convinced that Bush either believes that his policies can speed up the Second Coming or he is willing to pretend that he does, to excite, well, millions of people who read “Left Behind” novels. This seems to have soaked into Kristof’s view of traditional Christian theology.

Or check out another op-ed exploration of this theme — by Mark Morford in San Francisco. It was called “Hello, God? It’s Me, Dubya” and included the leader of the free world asking his Heavenly Father:

Look, I’ve done everything you asked. I’ve been good. Haven’t I? I take the message to the people, don’t I? I spout that evangelical born-again crap in pisswater Podunk conservative churches across this burned-out fear-drunk nation like I was emceeing a freakin’ rodeo in Crawford. And they eat it up, Lord. They eat that stuff up. Hell, I even believe a lot of that fire-breathin’ Second Comin’ evildoer-hatin’ stuff myself.

Kristof did not go that far, of course, in the sacred pages of the blue-state Bible. He stressed that he had reservations about writing the column because he didn’t “want to mock anyone’s religious beliefs, and millions of Americans think ‘Glorious Appearing’ describes God’s will. Yet ultimately I think it’s a mistake to treat religion as a taboo, either in this country or in Saudi Arabia.” Still he believed that he needed to speak out against hatred and intolerance.

I would offer journalists one suggestion if they are trying to be fair to believers on the various sides of these complicated doctrinal disputes. Try, try, try to separate those who believe that they are supposed to proclaim their gospel using free speech from those who believe they should do their evangelizing with bombs, swords and guns. Yes, there are people on all sides who have crossed that line. We can have journalistic arguments about how many believers in various faiths have crossed that line. But reciting the Nicene Creed, leading an evangelistic crusade or even handing a friend a copy of a “Left Behind” novel is not the same thing as flying an airplaine into a building.

Kristof knows that. Sort of. Maybe.

But he is certain that he has God on his side in the debates over salvation and Christology, along with, of course, the New York Times.

People have the right to believe in a racist God, or a God who throws millions of nonevangelicals into hell. I don’t think we should ban books that say that. But we should be embarrassed when our best-selling books gleefully celebrate religious intolerance and violence against infidels. That’s not what America stands for, and I doubt that it’s what God stands for.

UPDATE: The Dallas Morning News published the Kristof column and also offered this response by Robert Spencer of JihadWatch.org.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://jeffthebaptist.blogspot.com Jeff the Baptist

    It’s disconcerting to find ethnic cleansing celebrated as the height of piety.

    Umm, except it can’t be ethnic cleansing when all ethnicities are represented in the Kingdom of Heaven. You know that “every tribe, tongue, and nation” bit. Now it might be some sort of religious cleansing, but its certainly not ethnic.

  • JohnH

    While I disagree with the eschatology of the left-behind series, I do have to say there’s a difference between saying ‘God will wipe out unbelievers’ (Left Behind) and ‘God wants you to wipe out unbelievers’ (Radical Islam).

  • http://www.doxos.com Huw Raphael

    I would offer journalists one suggestion if they are trying to be fair to believers on the various sides of these complicated doctrinal disputes.

    Why do you imagine they are trying to be fair? I know it’s your profession and all… but I have seen no evidence that the majority of the club’s leaders wants to be fair. Most of them seem to want to discredit every believer equally.

  • Joe Perez

    Terry: “Kristof knows that. Sort of. Maybe.” Well, Kristof wrote: “No, I don’t think the readers of “Glorious Appearing” will ram planes into buildings.” I think he gets it. What I think YOU don’t get is that people who believe in a racist, ethnocentric, hateful God are free to do so, but their beliefs are rightly subject to the mockery and scorn that folks like Kristof delivers so appropriately. Although you don’t here lapse into the sort of overly simplistic comparison between Christianity and Islam as does commenter JohnH, many Christians today somehow think their religion is pure, whereas Islam is filled with evil. In fact, both traditions–and all cultures and religions–are filled with examples of evil, and right into the heart of the scriptures. To give only one example, you have Leviticus 20:13 urging followers not only to condemn homosexuality, but to murder homosexuals and blame the victim: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them.” At least today when Muslim countries behead homosexuals, they’re being consistent with their scriptures; Christians and Jews tend to be in denial of what their scriptures actually say, then act all puffy and self-righteous and superior to the Muslim radicals.

  • Prophetic Ray

    I’ve been a Christian for nearly 65 years now, and I’m convinced that God is both loving and just. Surely all right-thinking persons will see that evil should be resisted by men of good will and punished by God. All who turn away from sin will be accepted by a just God if the repentant sinner obeys the gospel of Christ. No one is forced to NOT beliee in Jesus. Everyone is free to believe and obey Him and be saved. Bible passages which speak of God’s justice at work are in the Old Testament and in the prophetic book of Revelation. Christians are told to let GOD do the judging. The message of Islam is to NOT love infidels. The message of Christ is that we ARE to love both friend and foe.

  • http://knitandcontemplation.typepad.com Karen

    God is Love. The greater part of justice is mercy. I’m not too worried that those who love will be left behind.

  • http://www.karagraphy.com joy

    wow. lots to think about. thanks.

  • http://www.wildfaith.com Darrell Grizzle

    Is “creeping fundamentalism” the same as “creepy fundamentalism”? :o)