Binary BS and PC Politics

When the choices seem simple its probably because you’ve already stepped in it and just need to get out.

Recently Jeff Greenway of the Wesleyan Covenant Association posted a short historical rational for their work. https://wesleyancovenant.org/the-bible-is-true/.

In a recent blog Professor Steven Tuell sought to explain why the Wesleyan Covenant Association claims about the “clear meaning of the Bible” don’t hold water. http://um-insight.net/perspectives/pennsylvania-scholar-refutes-wca-statement/

That little exchange says a lot about the deepest problems in the UMC today.

Let’s take Jeff Greenway’s words, but look beyond his assertions about “the Bible clearly says.” Instead lets look at his understanding of how we got where we are. “In the last forty years our modern culture has decided that God’s Word and God’s will for us is no longer the truth.”

Let’s leave aside that the term “40 years” is surely symbolic, a reference to the 40 years in the wilderness and the promise of a new start. (It certainly has no historical basis)

This is a classical binary reading of Christian history. It is rooted in an understanding that history in general is a history of binary choices. After 40 years Moses places before the Israelites blessings and curses. Joshua places before the Israelites life and death. The prophets placed before the Israelites obedience or disobedience, worship of the one true God and idolatry. Jesus faced the choice in his encounter with Satan, and his disciples faced the same choice: “follow or do not follow.” There is no try.

This is the binary choice that I grew up with. It is what animated every revival. It was the point of every Christian tract. Will you put your faith in Christ or will you go to hell? Will you obey God or will you be punished eternally? It is the religion that delivered my grandfather out on the high plains of Texas from the silence of Quaker mysticism, and it leapt from the preaching of old Rev. Kiker in Austin and the radio preachers of “Sky, KSKY, the voice of the gospel in Dallas.”

It is a religion I know and that I respect – it shaped me and many good people. it certainly shaped the Texas frontier.

“If it hurts it’s probably doing you good. If it’s pleasant it’s most likely wrong. And that twisty road down which life leads you irretraceably farther each day is pocked with dust-disguised holes into which if you step, will you or nill you (most Methodists, for instance, will; pure Presbyterians don’t), you break not your grandmother’s back but your own soul’s. 

That certainty rose and spread like a smell from the meetings beneath the oaks and the elms, from brush arbors on the sun-seared, cicada-droning hilltops; the hammer rhythms of the old hymns pulsed it forth: Far away the sound of strife upon my ear is falling, … or: What have I to fear, what have I to dread, Leaning on the everlasting Arm? … or: Whom on earth have I beside Thee, Whom in Heaven but Thee? …  

Just beyond the circle of sacred emanation the saddled horses quivered their hides and switched their tails against long gray flies, and the oaken wagons sat loaded with fried fowl and cornbread and wet-wrapped jugs of buttermilk, and Henrys and Colts lay ready in oiled leather to meet the violence of the unredeemed, red or black or white. And inside the circle, if the sect was one that allowed such doings, old Alfred Tinsley, known as Bug Eye, lay down on the ground and wallowed like the hog he shout-confessed himself to be, and sweated out twelve years of bad whisky, worse language, and what strange women he’d been able to find. It struck home, that religion; it bit. 

And six months later the ecstatic angry job was there to do over again; fluid evil seeped ever in through the crack that Eve had made in the font, and had to be sloshed away.… What other brand of godliness, though, would you have substituted for it—in that time, in that place, in that people? A gentle Brahmin reverence for Creation? The flickering-candle mysteries of Rome? The dignified static Episcopalianism of the Old Dominion? Those other ecstasies of fierce locust-eating saints, divorced almost from ethics, above them? Today’s sectless well-wishing?” (John Graves, Goodbye to a River.)

It is easy to move from the choice that animates evangelism to reading all of history as this simple choosing. It started with Adam and Eve. And every generation of their unruly children has faced it, now transposed into a choice faced by whole societies. Be your brother’s keeper or bear the mark of Cain. Choose between God and the fleshpots of Egypt. Choose God or a king like other nations. Follow God or remain in the Babylonian captivity.

This last was the choice which two thousand years later the Reformers and Puritans placed before Europe to launch a century of bloody wars. Choose or die really. Really.

And Europe’s Christians had barely quenched their zeal for calling society to choose when a new beast arose from the pit to confront Christendom. But this time it didn’t rise in Rome, but from Berlin and Paris and Edinburgh: modernity.

The offspring of Wesley and Luther and Calvin, and they would add Augustine and Paul and Jesus, have always been historical reductionists if not absolutely a-historical. “Give me that old time religion . . It was good for Paul and Silas, its good enough for me.” Deceit seeps from the depths of the earth and:

 “once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide, in the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side.”

And for the descendants of the first culture warriors the evil of our time, the falsehood that defies the gospel and defines the Christian struggle, is the denial of the clarity and truth of the Bible.

Because springing from the Reformation’s sola scriptura and wending its way through the Enlightenment came a narrowing, a focusing of the great binary decision for or against God until it became a decision for or against the authority of the Bible.

In our culture oaths are taken on the Bible. It is accepted as the symbolic representation of Christ by confirmands, and is presented to ordinands with the words “take thou authority.” A Bible in a breast pocket saves the soldiers life. Beneath a pillow it opens the womb, having already by its presence sanctified the marriage with a reminder of God’s abundance in Christ and the admonitions of Paul to Timothy.

Remember that great scene from The Apostle with Robert Duvall? Where the disturbed young man from the bayous of Louisiana is willing to kill humans and destroy their church, but faced with the choice of running over the Bible breaks down and repents. “What other brand . . . “

Of course, this devotion to the Bible is a product of modernity as well, with its printing presses, inexpensive Bibles, and eventually widespread literacy. We have a different relationship to the Bible than our ancestors in the faith, which may be one reason that as important as it is for modern Christians, it gains no mention as an object of belief in the classic creeds.

Did you know that according to a Gallup poll 75% of Americans believe that the Bible is the Word of God? (http://www.gallup.com/poll/1690/religion.aspx) That is vastly more than attend church, or even believe that religion can solve human problems. This also gives the lie to Rev. Greenway’s assertion that our culture has turned away from God’s Word. Or more likely, reveals that when he says “authority of the Bible” what he means is “authority of what I believe the Bible says.”

Still, Rev. Greenway’s video, taken in its cultural context, makes perfect sense as both an evangelical reading of history and a call to decision.

The problem is that it is nonsense within any other reading of history or any more complex decision a Christian faces in being faithful to Christ in society. Because as the Gallup poll reveals, the relationship of the Bible to everyday decision making is more complex than just “has authority/doesn’t have authority.”

Rev Greenway isn’t the only one inflicted with binary thinking. Progressive Christians often share with him the same reading of history as a history of choice. It’s just that the choice that emerges with modernity is for them quite different.

“New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth. They must upward still and onward, Who would keep abreast of truth.” (John Lowell, 1845)

Directly within the great American revival tradition of binary decisions Lowell offers a new choice: embrace progress, keep abreast of truth.

And this becomes a second great stream (among many smaller) of American Christianity, upward and onward keeping up with scientific understandings of nature and human nature. Letting go of ancient but uncouth goods, embracing new duties. What doesn’t change is the demand for choice, to be on the side of progress or against it, to be on the side of God’s unfolding revelation of what constitutes human justice, human decency, and human goodness or to instead favor injustice, bigotry, and imperialism. (For numerous examples I refer the reader to the Facebook Page “The New Methodists.)

We American Christians, and our offspring across the globe, are all descendants of our revivalist ancestors.

The progressive binary choice is, I think, as overly simplistic as that advanced by Rev. Greenway, although ultimately my reading is the progressives are more conscious of complexity. Still, neither human knowledge nor human decision-making move forward in a steady rising tide of rational ethics and scientific understanding that replaces the receding tide of out of date readings of the Bible.

Scientific descriptions of the complexity of the human genome and its relationship to sex, gender, sexuality, and behavior do not offer decisive council as to the ways in which any society should organize for the common good. And it isn’t only the biological sciences that one must consider, but also social sciences that study the intersection of the individual and the equally necessary society without which the individual cannot exist.

Realistically even the breadth of scientific understanding cannot finally determine the common good unless it reduces that good to some biological imperative that humans long ago gave up as the sole source of personal and social well being. Other authorities come into play, not least religious traditions that are shaped by human experience over millennia with regard to how the individual and society both achieve their aims and fit within transcendent frameworks that give meaning to both.

Just as the WCA must place the authority of scripture within a framework of tradition, experience, and reason, so UM progressives keep coming back to the Bible and its transcendent values to compliment the progression of new truths offered by science. It turns out that for both decisions about the ethics of human sex, gender, sexuality, and behavior are complicated, although both seem loath to admit it.

Ultimately political reasoning requires the constant engagement of multiple, complex interests toward a wide variety of common goods and common goals. And none of these can be accomplished within a binary system of mandates, whether those mandates are in the form “God told us things we should not do and things we must do” or in the form “human progress demands that we abandon uncouth ancient truths.”

But while political reasoning requires engaging complexity, political action requires affiliation, alignment, and decision. And this is really what is happening in the UMC. Political reasoning has long since ceased. We’ve chosen our teams. Now the primary purpose of discourse is to attract potential supporters, align their goals with ours, and put them into action.

Rev. Greenway’s video and the many progressive blogs that are its counterparts are not intended to instruct. They are intended to describe a human experience in such a way that a political “base” recognizes its particular tribe and comes to its defense.

This kind of speech is classic political correctness; speech that affirms a single simple paradigmatic understanding of the social world for the sake of solidifying tribal identity. Of course evangelical pc speech is different from progressive pc speech. But both are of a type in that they are intended to subvert the robust public expression of diverse opinions and experiences of being human in the world. And thus neither is helping the UMC or its many members, or for that matter anyone else.