Jim Wallis and Believe Out Loud, Part 2

When I worked for Evangelicals for Social Action — a progressive evangelical group in the same general orbit as Sojourners — one of our big supporters liked to tell the story of his first encounter with Ron Sider and Sider’s book, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.

He was furious. He read just enough of the book to grasp Sider’s main theme, that the Bible commands believers to share what we have with the poor. This is, Sider notes, a massive, pervasive and central theme of the Bible. The supporter, who was not yet a supporter, thought this was outrageous.

This man was an evangelical Christian, which meant that the Bible was immensely important to him. He tried to shape his whole life according to what it taught. He had read the Bible cover to cover many times. He had read it devotionally every day for years and years. He had, for all those many years, heard the Bible preached and expounded upon every Sunday morning and Sunday evening and had faithfully and attentively participated in his church’s Wednesday night Bible studies. He knew his Bible thoroughly and intimately. He had large chunks of it memorized. And all of that long study had been conducted with the urgency of someone who believed that he was reading the most important thing in the world.

So how dare this Mennonite upstart suggest that all that time in all that study he had somehow been missing one of that Bible’s most central themes? Full of determined anger, he set out to disprove that nonsense.

And suddenly he found himself reading a brand new Bible. he found himself encountering a book he had somehow never read before. The book had been transformed or he had been transformed. Or both. And now he was encountering the Word of God with eyes that began to see there what they had somehow never seen before. The scales had fallen from his eyes.

The project of reading the Bible to prove Sider wrong was replaced with a new project, an even more urgent one. He had found in the Bible a new priority and it was becoming a priority for him and for his life, because he was an evangelical Christian and he must obey what the Bible says. The way he tells the story, it was for him like Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas morning — a thrilling and reckless headlong leap into a newfound generosity and what became for him a lifelong passion for the needs of others.

Some of his friends thought he had gone “liberal” on them, but that had not happened at all. Not yet, anyway. He was still very much a conservative American evangelical — a “Bible-believing,” Bible-thumping proponent of “the authority of scripture” according to a largely unchanged conservative American evangelical hermeneutic that imagined it was based on a “literal” and “common sense” reading of the text at face value. He did not immediately cease to be the same man who had earlier advocated a more genital-centric politics premised on that same approach to this same text, he had simply discovered that the authority of scripture also entailed a great deal about wealth, poverty, possessions, justice and generosity.

He was, at that point in his story — I haven’t seen him in years and so I don’t know what’s happened in the recent chapters — a theologically conservative person whose conservative reading of the Bible led him to what we tend to think of as a progressive position on economic justice.

This is not uncommon. It’s the situation Tony Jones describes in his discussion of the recent controversy between Jim Wallis and Believe Out Loud:

Can someone who is theologically thoughtful and progressive on other biblical and social issues remain conservative on issues of human sexuality? Jim Wallis, Shane Claiborne and others have, to this point, answered yes to that question. I have my doubts about whether that position is tenable in the long run.

This category is much larger than just Wallis and Claiborne (and Ron Sider and Tony Campolo). The good folks at Jesus People USA, for example, are also radically committed to economic and racial justice, but even more than Jim and Shane, they tend to be very conservative when it comes to sexuality. That reflects their roots in the Gospel Mission movement, which has a long history of being staunchly, sometimes radically, on the side of the poor while at the same time advocating a moralistic piety little different from what one might find in the kinds of fundamentalist churches that wouldn’t go anywhere near Skid Row. Or think of the Salvation Army’s long history of tireless work for the poor and its early, longstanding insistence on the full equality of women — and think of how it yokes that work and history inextricably with a fundamentalist piety that seems like William Booth’s Victorian mores preserved in amber.

Or consider the more conservative Anabaptist and Mennonite traditions. In both doctrine and practice, those good people are far more progressive and far more impressive than, say, me, when it comes to economic justice and peacemaking. Yet when it comes to gender equality they tend to be reactionary. Catherine Booth would never have stood for their ideas about the role of women.

Or look to some of the prominent black evangelical groups who are at the forefront of efforts for economic justice while also taking the point on the backlash against marriage equality.

(Alas, I have just realized that here is another important point to contend with, one that will I suppose require a Part 3. Is it desirable, or even possible, to cooperate with such partial allies on the vitally important matters on which we agree given the equally vital importance — for all sides — of the matters on which we do not and cannot agree? If that were a simple question with a simple answer then we could deal with it quickly here. Since it’s not, I’m afraid we’ll have to bookmark that point for now and return to it in all of its unwieldy detail in a Part 3.)

The point here is that there are many, many people besides Jim Wallis who inhabit the terrain that Tony Jones describes as “conservative on issues of human sexuality” while “theologically thoughtful and progressive on other biblical and social issues.” I think that Tony is right that such a position is, in the long run, untenable.

That doesn’t mean, however, that all of the occupants of that terrain will come to realize that their position is untenable, even in the long run. If there’s one thing we humans are good at, it’s living comfortably in untenable constructs.

But I do think that these folks, including Jim Wallis, ought to come to realize that their position is untenable, and thus that it ought to be changed. And I think that there are ways we can try to help them realize this. I want to touch on two of those ways here.

The first is something that Tony Jones suggests in a comment to his own post and that Chad Holtz follows up on. Tony writes that a “progressive hermeneutic is necessary to argue for racial equality and gender equality from scripture.” Holtz — whose name you may remember due to his getting fired as a pastor for writing a blog post titled “What I Lost Losing Hell” — responds by telling the story of his change of mind on women’s ordination while writing a research paper that wound up being titled “Let Women Preach”:

I said to my feminist theology professor after turning it in, “I am convinced this is what the gospel insists upon — women pastors. But how do I continue to insist on my interpretation of homosexuality? The same mechanics are at work in both arguments.”

She just winked and smiled.

What he’s getting at there is the matter of how one approaches what Jay Bakker calls “clobber verses,” the handful of biblical passages wielded like ammunition for their actual or apparent clarity — when standing alone, apart from context, and read in English translation using a common-sense, literal, face-value non-hermeneutic hermeneutic — as a defense of whatever it is that the clobberer wants to defend against the clobber-ee.

Anyone advocating the full equality of women in the church has to contend with the presence and use of the usual clobber verses wielded by those who oppose such equality. The prooftexters swinging such clobber verses will always loudly proclaim that anyone failing to submit to their clear teaching is “denying the authority of scripture,” but the fact is that such authority is meaningless unless one rightly determines what the scripture actually means. Determining that requires much more than prooftexting and arrogantly assuring oneself that one’s supposedly common-sense, face-value reading of an English translation needs no further confirmation.

Every believer in gender equality in the church — from William Booth to Jim Wallis — has, in some way, contended with those clobber verses and come to believe that they do not require what the clobberers claim they require one to believe. Whatever approach or combination of approaches they take to this conclusion — a greater appreciation for textual or cultural context, a greater openness to scholarship, the decision that Paul’s teaching that love trumps all actually means that love trumps all — reaching it entails a change in category. It means that one is no longer the sort of Bible-reader who is subject to the reign of clobber verses. And once those clobber verses — or, rather, the particular interpretations of those verses promoted by authority figures pretending they’re not engaged in interpretation — cease to be the unassailable final word on the word, then one is liberated from the need to submit to the pronouncements of those clobbering authority figures.

Or, as Holtz put it, one is free to begin to apply “the same mechanics” to other topics, including the full equality within and without the church of GLBT persons.

So my first advice for or plea to Jim Wallis et. al. would be for them to begin to see where this takes them. If you have come to see the “mechanics” of the argument against gender equality in the church as unconvincing, look again at the mechanics of the argument against GLBT identity and equality and see if they are actually any more convincing.

I don’t think they are. Which is to say that for me, as for Tony Jones and Chad Holtz and an increasingly large number of so-called “post-evangelical” believers, that full equality is something I have come to believe because of, not in spite of, “the authority of the scriptures.” Taste and see. Test everything, hold on to the good. Give it a try.

My second approach goes back to that story above about that good man who set out to disprove Ron Sider and instead encountered an epiphany and the discovery of a whole new Bible he had never seen before. It was, as I said, as though “the scales fell off his eyes.”

That’s an allusion to the story of the conversion of Saul in the biblical book of Acts. After his blinding epiphany on the road to Damascus, Saul is taken to the home of a Syrian believer who tends to him “and immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored.”

But what were those “scales” that had previously blinded the eyes of that devout evangelical man in the story above? Their lifelong effect and effectiveness was really a remarkable thing, if you think about it. This man wasn’t just some pick-and-choose student of the Bible who followed the selective path of a Tim LaHaye or some other leader who would steer him through the biblical minefield of demands for economic justice. He wasn’t some young-earth creationist who only ever read Genesis 1, or some prophecy enthusiast who never read anything but Revelation and the stranger parts of Daniel. He had read Leviticus, Amos, Isaiah, the Gospels, Acts and Paul and he had read them over and over again. And all that time, through all of that reading, he had completely missed their anvilicious and unambiguous message of economic justice.

That’s really pretty amazing. I’d have said it was impossible except, of course, that the same thing had happened to me and to many tens of thousands of other American Christians. We had all been afflicted by such scales on the eyes. We had all learned, or been taught, to read the Bible in such a way that — despite our best intentions or our best desire for the best of intentions — we were simply blind to a great deal of what it said. We were unable to look in its pages and see what was actually there or to understand what it might actually mean.

Now, as I said above, the realization that this is the case does not always mean, at first, that one begins to abandon that conservative non-hermeneutic of common-sense, face-value, “literalism.” But it ought at least to convince us that such a reading cannot be trusted. Or, more pointedly, that we cannot be trusted with such a reading. We cannot be relied upon to read the Word of God with the eyes of God, only with our own, fallible, errant, scaly eyes.

One of the things I am grateful to Jim Wallis and Sojourners for is helping me to understand this unreliable scaliness in my own approach to the Bible. Sojourners introduced me, for example, to Robert McAfee Brown’s book Unexpected News: Reading the Bible With Third World Eyes — an argument that caught me at just the right time and so caught hold of me.

Wallis is very insightful on this point — on the perils and pitfalls of trusting ourselves to go to and come away from the Bible without forcing into it and drawing back out of it our own privileges and biases, ideologies and preconceptions. He has, over the years, helped me to do a somewhat better job of avoiding that.

So I’d like to return the favor and encourage him, in turn, to try to read the Bible with someone else’s eyes and see what previously unseen unexpected good news he might find there with regard to the message that groups like Believe Out Loud are proclaiming.

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  • arc

     armchair cultural theory of sexual mores part II:

    So, rather than grouping sexual mores alongside instinctual fears and automatic behaviour like foals’ walking, I’d group it with patterns of behaviour that to me seem much more similar: norms to do with food and eating, excretion, purity rules, and things of that nature.  These are all universal: every culture has ideas about what not to eat, what to eat, how to prepare it, how to distribute it and how to eat it.  These norms are also held extremely strongly (try pooing in the kitchen sink at a friend’s house if you don’t believe me). But the exact content of those norms varies considerably from culture to culture, just as sexual mores do.

    Similar phenomena deserve similar treatment when possible.  Of course, we can explain these phenomena by means of instincts, as you have done with sexual mores.  But then we will need one instinct for sexual mores, one (or maybe several) for food preparation and eating, one for excreting, one for general purity, etc.  Each of these needs a genetic basis, presumably more or less distinct from one another.  Plus of course this doesn’t actually do away with the cultural story, as you still need to tell some kind of story as to how the various instincts are shaped by the culture anyway. 

    So it’s suddenly looking not so good on the parsimony front.

    My suggestion is that instead we have a general facility for learning important rules of our culture.   This seems pretty plausible, as really sexual mores and food norms and all the ones I’ve mentioned so far, while they tend to evoke strong responses, are a small subset of the more general rules of a society, like how to greet someone and how to complain, etc, so we probably need such a general facility even if we think sexual mores have their own more specific instinct. When we learn particular rules during our formative years that are strongly reinforced by other members of our culture, they become particularly engrained.  All cultures end up with broadly similar sets of rules governing a few very important aspects due to (a) some things that are more plausibly instinctual (sexual attraction, hunger, food smells good, poo smells bad…), and (b) because they’re answering similar important questions – how to feed, how to find a mate and have kids, how not to get disease, etc.

    That means I’ve got a general and quite plausible account of how all of these things come to be, which can also be extended to cover things like ritual purity, racism, and maybe even getting furious about grammar.  Parsimony and generality doesn’t get you truth, of course, but it does get you a theory that’s easier to reason about and allows the various phenomena to inform one another.  With my account, if you find out something about how food norms are established it can be expected to shed light on sexual mores, whereas there’s no reason to suppose that different instincts will work in similar ways.  Also, as I alluded to earlier, it seems to me that an instinctual account has to tell a similar story to the one I’ve told to show how the culturally-informed manifestations of the instincts come about, and also essentially the same story for anything not prompted by instincts.  So I think it complicates things unnecessarily and breaks the generality.

    Even if you still prefer the instinctual account, hopefully you can see that a cultural account can still be a strong contender, Margaret Meade notwithstanding.

  • Kevin Alexander

     You have obviously put a lot of thought into this and I’ve learned a lot here. I can’t really fault your reasoning. You’re right that the phenomenon can arise by purely cultural reasons. 
    But that still leaves one last puzzle, the one that I started with. If sexual repression is a feature of most but not all social mammals then the highest probability is that we or our precursors at least once had that feature. It could be that we never had it but if we did we would have to have lost it only to reinvent by purely cultural means. Or maybe I’m starting to see a synthesis here. We’re both looking at the same beast, you from the beautiful cultural face end and I from the uglier business end.
    Anyway my thinking is much expanded thank you, that’s why I keep coming back to this site.

  • arc

    I got a little distracted by evolutionary psychology just now, but I did want to note that I find the fact that someone can be very familiar with a text, and then one day read it and notice something completely new in it which fundamentally changes their understanding of it, absolutely fascinating.