Don't look at the finger

Molly Worthen’s Slate piece — “Sign Here, and Here, and Here” — on the weirdly slavery-friendly “Marriage Vow” being promoted by the Iowa religious right group “FAMiLY LEADER,” includes a shrewd summary of why such declarations and manifestos have become so common, and thus so meaningless, in the evangelical subculture:

These Declarations and Calls and Vows underscore the ongoing problem of authority that has defined evangelicals ever since they first thumbed their noses at the pope and—in many cases—fled the pews of the older Protestant churches for younger denominations or independent congregations allergic to the idea of granting too much authority to human hierarchies or historical tradition. Evangelicals say that their authority lies in the Bible alone, but agreeing on what scripture actually means in practice has always been easier said than done.

As a result, evangelicals are constantly squabbling, schisming, regrouping, and claiming their faction alone is the holy remnant and the authentic Christian voice. Obscure groups like FAMiLY LEADER have the same right as anyone else to speak as if they are the magisterium. The very label “evangelical” has been a source of consternation for decades, as rival claimants endlessly qualify or redefine the word and demand new doctrinal and political bona fides.

Yep. The steady stream of manifestos and the endless demand for “doctrinal and political bona fides” are what you get when the idea of the priesthood of all believers morphs into the papacy of all radio hosts, mega-church pastors and parachurch president/founders. Having one pope is, at least in theory, a tidy solution to the “problem of authority.” Having thousands of popes only makes it an even bigger problem.

Handwringing over this “crisis of authority” is almost as common among evangelicals as is the issuing of Declarations and Calls and Vows. These days, such concerns are often expressed as a rejection or condemnation of “postmodernism.”

That criticism assumes that this is a viable choice — that we have some other option here and now. The premise seems to be that modernism never failed, it was simply abandoned voluntarily, and that thus there’s nothing intractably chronological about that prefix “post-” in postmodern. I’m sometimes asked by these anti-pomo evangelicals if I am a “postmodernist” — the question usually coming with an accusatory tone along the lines of “are you now or have you ever been …” I’m not sure what that question even means. I understand that word in some contexts, a bit, but not really in this one. So, for lack of a better response, I check the calendar. It says I was born in the late 1960s and that it is now 2011 so, yep, I guess we’re all pretty much post-modern.

But what is the point of such a question? I suppose if I were an artist it might be useful for deciding where in the museum to display my work, but I’m not an artist and the people asking me this are not curators so, again, why such concern with this ill-defined label?

What I think prompts the question is the fact that we disagree, my inquisitors and I, about “what scripture actually means in practice.” Usually in particular about what it actually means with regard to abortion and homosexuality. I’m pro-choice and I advocate for the full equality of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered persons — both their civil equality and their equal treatment within the church. My inquisitors disagree strenuously, and a big part of what they mean by a “crisis of authority” is the desire for some mechanism that could settle such disagreements with finality by declaring views like mine anathema or, at least, getting people like me to stop using the words “evangelical” or “Christian” to describe ourselves.

That latter point is what Worthen describes as the endless qualification and redefinition of the word “evangelical.” Whether or not that word can or should be reduced to meaning “anti-gay, anti-abortion white Protestants” is a matter of ongoing controversy.

But having, as Worthen says, “thumbed our noses at the pope,” we lack any ultimate referee to decide such disputes. All we have is scripture or, as my friends would say, the “authority” of scripture. That understanding of the authority of scripture helps illuminate why “postmodernism” has become such a bugbear for these evangelicals. Postmodernism suggests that the clarity and certainty promised by modernist readings of a text are just illusions, and those modernist readings are the basis of this idea of “the authority of the scripture.”

Christian fundamentalism in America is, in large measure, a reaction against modernity. But it is also, in large measure, an application of modernism. The fundamentalist-modernist schisms of the 1920s could just as accurately be described as the birth of modernist fundamentalism. These fundamentalists approached texts as self-evident storehouses of singular, obvious and objective meaning. They imagined that the study of the Bible could provide the same certainty and clarity as physics, unfortunately embracing this belief just as physics itself was taking a quantum leap in the other direction. (For an excellent discussion of fundamentalism’s modernist approach to scripture, see Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind — a book I have recommended many times before and will likely recommend many times again.)

So when someone like me is accused of being “postmodernist,” what the accuser really means is that they think I’m reading the Bible wrong.

“You shall not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination,” they recite as proof that I am wrong not to treat our GLBT neighbors abominably.

OK, I say, but you eat shrimp “that have not fins and scales in the seas,” and that, too, is called “an abomination.”

Ah, they say, but in the book of Acts, God said to Peter, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean,” so the prohibition against shrimp was explicitly lifted, but the prohibition against The Gay was not.

Ah, I say, but in that very same chapter of the book of Acts, Peter says that God’s message wasn’t about diet, but about people and that he must not ever “hinder God” by excluding some category of people.

And back and forth we go. They support their position with appeals to scripture and I support mine with appeals to scripture — sometimes the very same scripture. The impasse remains unresolved. We remain stuck at just the point that Worthen described, unable to agree on “what scripture actually means in practice.”

The next step often is for my rivals to appeal to tradition. I think that’s a good and appropriate thing to do. Unlike those who cling to a naive claim of “sola scriptura,” I think tradition — the “democracy of the dead,” in Chesterton’s phrase — ought to help guide our reading of scripture. One way to better understand what the text means is to find out what others have thought it meant.

But I would not say, however, that tradition should be “authoritative.” I believe that trajectory trumps tradition.

Tradition can be like the proverbial finger pointing at the moon. The point of the pointing isn’t to direct the eye toward the finger, but toward the moon — to get you to look in the direction the finger is pointing. I think the trajectory of that direction is more important than the tradition of the finger itself.

Such concern for trajectory is a very Pauline approach. Or, for a more recent example, it’s very much like the way Martin Luther King Jr. appealed to the “authority” of the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” the great Virginian slaveowner Thomas Jefferson wrote. A strictly modernist approach to that statement, or any approach based mainly on tradition, would conclude that it could not possibly mean what King insisted it must mean. But King wasn’t obsessing over the finger, he was looking in the direction it was pointing.

This contrast between tradition and trajectory, between finger and moon, is probably a more useful way of describing the dispute between Christians like myself and those Christians who believe — sincerely — that my advocacy of GLBT equality is dangerously wrong.

Here at Patheos, the areas for Christians were recently reshuffled to create a “progressive Christian” portal. That’s a serviceable word, “progressive.” It requires that a bit more be said — namely, what it is that we “progressive Christians” are hoping to progress to. Without some clearer explanation of that, the word can acquire some quaintly EPCOT-ish connotations or overtones of unchastened millennialism.

I would point us back to that pointing finger and to the direction it indicates for us to go. What we are hoping toward and hopefully progressing toward can be found in that Pauline sense of the importance of trajectory. Paul wrote of our calling as “the ministry of reconciliation.” That provides both a trajectory and an indication that we have a long way to go. There remains a great deal of progress to be made.

None of that addresses the “problem of authority,” that Worthen describes so well, but it may be a helpful step toward achieving disagreement.

In the absence of an authority that can compel us to come to an agreement, we can at least choose to come to a disagreement. And that would be a marked improvement over constant “squabbling, schisming, regrouping, and claiming [each] faction alone is the holy remnant and the authentic Christian voice.”

  • Lori

      Still, the demagoguery itself isn’t an ideology, and need not adhere to conservatism in every instance. 

     

    I think there are very few things that make it on air at Fox that don’t adhere to conservatism. They have one or 2 hosts who occasionally buck the party line, but for the most part everyone colors inside the lines. Even their relentless, exploitative coverage of the Casey Anthony trial was presented very much through a conservative law & order, family values lens. 

    The thing is, there are plenty of standard conservative talking points the Murdoch doesn’t actually give a shit about, like the War on Christmas. That stuff is there as red meat for the base, aka bait. 

  • Tonio

    Thanks. That makes sense. My own view of the government role in the economy is that it’s not necessarily to shape the market but to counterbalance the power of corporations. I don’t know if any economists have already suggested this, but my opinion is that without that counterbalance, nations with free market economies will naturally become oligarchies. I see social issues the same way, where the lack of government protection for minority rights and individual rights naturally leads to the tyranny of the majority. I suppose that both for me are about moving toward the ideal of a just society.

  • Tonio

    Even their relentless, exploitative coverage of the Casey Anthony trial
    was presented very much through a conservative law & order, family
    values lens.

    That view struck me as specifically authoritarian rather than generically conservative, if one defines conservatism as preservation of the status quo and aversion to change. But those two ideas often seem like kissin’ cousins, and it may be likely that authoritarian attitudes are driven by aversion to change.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Well, I’m talking about the basic philosophy. As I said, very few people are ideologically pure. The left/right distinction is “by and large”. My observation is that most people and groups have a broad leaning one way or the other, which they are happy to deviate from in their own special circumstances.

    You wouldn’t believe (actually, you probably would) the number of people I come across who think that they government generally should not be in the business of redistributing income–a right wing view–except in the case of people like themselves. That philosophy is most accurately called self-interested and full of shit, but that’s a less helpful descriptor.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    And of course things are complicated by the intersection of a range of “value scales” (for want of a better term), and the degree to which each individual or group balances the importance of different scales.

    Frex, right wingery often comes into conflict with the protectionism/free trade dichotomy. Someone who’s broadly a right winger but is also a protectionist, and who places more weight on the protectionism scale than the left/right one, will tend to support policies with a right wing philosophy domestically, but also want to subsidise local industry heavily.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    I don’t know if any economists have already suggested this, but my opinion is that without that counterbalance, nations with free market economies will naturally become oligarchies. 

    I’m pretty sure ADAM FRAKIN’ SMITH said that, _The Wealth of Nations_.

  • Anonymous

    Very true, but even my Economics professor told me that no one actually reads Adam Smith…

  • Guest

    Here’s another one for that category. 
    From the New York Times:

    “Mr. Bloomberg said the city would hold a lottery to determine which couples, gay or straight, will be allowed to marry at the five borough clerks’ offices. He said the 764 marriages would be the highest number ever performed by the city in a single day.
    The city said it was imposing the cap in an effort to avoid chaos on Sunday. The clerk’s office has already received 2,661 applications for licenses since it started accepting online applications from same-sex couples. City officials estimated that 1,728 of those applications were from same-sex couples. Most couples do not apply online for licenses before showing up at a clerk’s office, so the number seeking to marry on Sunday would probably be much higher.”

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_NYIMSCWWLA5XTAYXL3FXNCJZ7I Kiba

    Crap. The above post on marriages in New York was done by me. I messed something up trying to change my avatar. >.< 

    What I get for trying to do that when I should be in bed.

  • Guest-again

    ‘I think there are very few things that make it on air at Fox that don’t adhere to conservatism.’
    Or to use an old phrase, the ‘Silent Majority’ – a term quite in vogue at Ailes’s former place of employment, when he was writing a memo describing the need for the ‘Silent Majority’ to have its own TV network, a memo from the Nixon years.

    Fox isn’t really about ideology, it is about political power (and yes, there is a real paper trail to prove it). Something Murdoch understands, though arguably, he considers power simply a tool in the pursuit of ever expanding personal wealth, as contrasted to power as its own exclusive drive. 

    And with anything resembling a functioning legal/political culture, Murdoch’s empire wil be broken into bits (this process has started, but its end is not yet clear) – and with something approaching justice, just in time to ensure that Ailes’s lifelong project will founder for the same reason Nixon did – amorality finally meeting its end when undeniably exposed to everyone.

    Not that the Fox crazies won’t wander to new pastures – it is just that the their political exploitation will no longer be in the simple control of a network that employs how many current (and recently current) Republican 2012 presidential candidates. Does anybody else admire he brilliance of getting around various campaign finance laws on the part of a Republican operative like Ailes? – both in terms of exposure, and in direct cash infusions into those candidate’s personal bank accounts.

    The whole evil empire cannot sink too quickly for me.

  • Lori

     Fox isn’t really about ideology, it is about political power (and yes, there is a real paper trail to prove it). Something Murdoch understands, though arguably, he considers power simply a tool in the pursuit of ever expanding personal wealth, as contrasted to power as its own exclusive drive 

     

    I’m sort of worn out of the whole discussion on whether or not Murdoch is supporting and ideology so I’m not going to get into that again, but whatever drives Murdoch it’s not purely money. The NY Times article about all the lawsuits that News Corp has settled for huge amounts of money makes that clear. Murdoch not only has supported people who literally cost the company more than they made for it, he’s promoted them. Something (whether it’s pure power, or power as part of a larger plan or ideology) is more important than the money. 

    I suppose one could argue that he was taking the long view and figured that he was accepting short term loses in pursuit of larger gains later, but it doesn’t seem like the numbers really support that. 

     And with anything resembling a functioning legal/political culture, Murdoch’s empire wil be broken into bits (this process has started, but its end is not yet clear) – and with something approaching justice, just in time to ensure that Ailes’s lifelong project will founder for the same reason Nixon did – amorality finally meeting its end when undeniably exposed to everyone.  

     
    I fear you may be expecting too much, but we’ll see. 

  • Anonymous

    His death is considered “not suspicious.”  Look, I’m a recovering conspiracy theorist*, but when the whistleblower of something as big and potentially as damaging as the phone hacking scandal DIES I sure as hell consider it ‘suspicious.’

    * – ‘Recovering’ as in, I realized that there doesn’t have to be some sort of world-spanning global conspiracy, just rich and powerful assholes cooperating casually with other rich and powerful assholes. When you and your new best friend control a significant fraction of a percent of the world’s wealth, just *breathing* becomes a market force.

  • Guest-again

    ‘I fear you may be expecting too much, but we’ll see.’
    Disappointment certainly seems a constant when getting older, but for a while in my past, people like Murdoch lost when their crimes where laid bare.

    I’m cynical, but I can’t lose the idea that sometimes, the scum loses. And till now, Murdoch is being revealed as scum, and it really seems as if his time is ending.

    This includes his paywall attempts, I might add – Murdoch is someone whose various visions I find appalling, not just his opportunistic approach to politics.

  • Dan Audy

    VMink, I’m totally in agreement with you that the death is suspicious as hell.  The ‘not suspicious’ in quotation marks was something the police (who are being investigated for accepting bribes from him and other NotW employees) said.  Honestly I find the fact that a third party police force wasn’t brought in to handle (or at least oversee) the investigation profoundly disappointing because there is a massive conflict of interest and no one should trust the results of this investigation.

  • Anonymous

    Oh, sorry, I wasn’t suggesting that you weren’t also saying that!  But yes, with NSY already being looked at suspiciously you’d think they’d get a third party in to confirm their findings.

    I’m afraid that this whole thing will be swept under the run and Murdoch will come out smelling like some mild flower scent and will get away with these shenanigans.


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