The evangelical habit of bearing false witness against mainline Protestants

Brian McLaren shares a confession, and a personal testimony, about the pernicious and pervasive temptation to bear false witness against one’s neighbors.

Specifically, he addresses the widespread convention among white evangelicals — so widespread it’s an expectation, almost a requirement — that says it is somehow acceptable, and not vicious, to bear false witness against mainline Protestants:

I agree with Tony [Jones] that there’s a common rhetorical strategy among Evangelicals that I myself have indulged in, as has Tony by his own admission: trying to seize the middle ground as morally high ground. If you have critics to your right, the only way to gain some space to differ “to the left” is by throwing somebody farther to the left under the bus, so to speak. …

One example: years ago, I spoke with disdain about a “mainline liberal” writer — my attempt to bolster my Evangelical credentials and seize middle-moral high ground by throwing “a liberal” under the bus. I had actually never read anything he had written, but people I respected thought he was dangerous. So I echoed them, needing to bolster my reputation to my right, a sign of my immaturity and insecurity on my part. Again, things I’m not proud of.

Some time later, I was asked to speak at the same event as this person. He was easy-going and gracious. I suppose he knew what I had said about him, but he didn’t throw it in my face. Anyway, at the end of the event, there were long lines of people waiting to talk to us and get books signed. His line was much longer than mine.

So when my line dwindled away, I had the chance to eavesdrop on what people said to him. Person after person said, sometimes tearfully, “Thank you. If it weren’t for your books, I wouldn’t be a Christian,” or “Through reading your book, I became a Christian,” or “I left the church 30 years ago, but when I read book X, I came back.” That’s pretty moving for an evangelical to hear, you know? I realized that this fellow was actually an evangelist, reaching people for Christ who never would be reached by my more conservative friends, or by me!

… One of the challenges of getting older is that you have to keep leaving behind rhetorical “tricks” that you considered acceptable (or were completely unconscious of) when you were younger.

My guess is the other author was John Shelby Spong, the liberal writer unread but widely reviled by evangelicals as history’s greatest monster. But it could have been any number of other mainline Protestant writers. When it comes to liberals routinely condemned as “dangerous” by respected members of the white evangelical establishment — and thus supposedly fair game for disdainful, dishonest attacks — there’s no shortage of potential candidates.

"I guess they were outraged on my wife's behalf, little suspecting she is 2% West ..."

‘Don’t you agree?’
"Aren't they co-dependent then?"

We have violent rivers that nobody ..."
"Let's explore the solution space a little.Let's say that there is a Rapture (if you ..."

Moody people
"Or a student who didn’t read The Hunchback Of Notre Dame and gives a book ..."

We have violent rivers that nobody ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • FearlessSon

    If you have critics to your right, the only way to gain some space to differ “to the left” is by throwing somebody farther to the left under the bus, so to speak. …

    This is the manner in which epistemic closure happens…

  • hapax

    Stealers Wheel Syndrome: “Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am stuck in the middle with you…”

  • SisterCoyote


  • Slash

    RE the lines of people at book signings: You mean most people are more receptive to welcoming messages of love than hateful messages that tell them they are worthless sinners? Get the f____ outta here.

    What’s most amusing to me (now, with the benefit of age and perspective) is how the hateful message people actually think they’re smarter. They actually think they have the superior arguments. Or, I guess, they claim they have the superior arguments. Whether they actually believe it or not is another matter. I think some of them do believe it. Again, amusing. Kinda sad, if you’re inclined to feel pity for them, which I’m not, usually.

  • FearlessSon

    I doubt it is so much that they think that they have the superior arguments as much as they think that they are morally superior. To them, the strength of an assertion lays not so much with the argument itself but with the perceived righteousness of the person who makes it. Everything is tiers of authority with them, and a higher authority overrides a lower authority. In the case of mortals, more orthodox, more pure and “uncontroversial” people are closer in spirit to the highest authority, and thus trusted more than those who are more divergent or challenging. Unfortunately, those who are highest up the chain of perceived authority are the ones who get to decide what that righteousness is.

    Sadly, for many people like is just easier when you do not have to self-examine and evaluate arguments on their own merits rather than just accept them from a trusted source.

  • MaryKaye

    Years ago my pagan ritual group did a vision meditation in which we ended up talking to the Hierophant from the Tarot. He said to me, roughly, you can go off the route I show if you choose. But then you are on your own, and I won’t be able to help you. You’ll be choosing your own route and of course you may get hopelessly lost. Don’t come crying to me if you do!

    I said to him: Each man holds the keys to heaven; they also open the gates of hell. There’s no escaping that. Even if I were to follow you it would still be *my* choice, right or wrong. So since I can’t be safe anyway, I’ll choose the route that strikes me best.

    He just smiled and wished me luck. I liked him better than I thought I would, actually. But it is hard for a real-life person to play his role and be so cheerful about it. Authorities tend to want to retain their authority.

  • FearlessSon

    Speaking of pagans and tarot, and since you are local to the greater Seattle area, do you know Dave from Eyes of the Wolf Tarot in Bothell? I spoke to him at a party once, and he associated me with the King of Swords, since I was apparently the most “sword” person he has ever met. I still struggle with emotional understanding, but am getting better at it.

  • MaryKaye

    No, sorry. Since becoming a parent I have pretty much put other parts of my life on hold.

  • stardreamer42

    Each man holds the keys to heaven; they also open the gates of hell.

    I really like this phrasing.

  • arcseconds

    Ha, now, that’s interesting, because I was acquainted with someone who made exactly the reverse kind of choice than the one that I guess you made.

    She was a Wiccan, but then converted to Catholicism of the most dogmatic sort.

    While she was a smart and quite intellectual person, and not lacking in curiosity, what appeared to be going on is that she really wanted answers. Wicca doesn’t really deal in firm answers to questions as far as I can see, whereas the Church has had a lot of fine, philosophical minds spin out a huge, largely consistent web of teachings on this and that. So someone with her mindset can ask all the questions she likes, and find answers that are intellectually satisfying in a puzzle-picture kind of a way.

    Now I should say that as far as I could work out, for all practical purposes at any rate she never insisted that anyone else should be an orthodox Catholic, which wouldn’t have gone down with her friends very well at all, given that they were largely either Wiccan or atheists.

    Me, I found the whole concept rather disturbing, because she had apparently outsourced her reason to the Vatican.

    So, yeah, accepted the guidance of the Heirophant, completely and utterly.

  • seniorcit

    Several years ago I left a large conservative Baptist church where I had been an active member for over 20 years for a small mainline denomination church. Meeting a former Baptist friend one day I was questioned about where I was attending church. When I confessed to being a member of a local mainline denomination church I was told that the church was so “liberal” because that was where many of the teachers in the local school district attended.
    By the way, when I mentioned to my Baptist pastor that I had read many of C.S. Lewis’ books he confessed that he had never read any of Lewis’ writings and the Lewis quotes he inserted in his sermons came from a book of quotations. C.S. Lewis, evangelicals’ claim to Christian intellectualism, evidently is not part of their day to day reading.

  • Albanaeon

    Considering how often their one-and-only-never-wrong-and-always-perfect King James Bible is never actually read by so many Bible Believing Christians, are you truly surprised?

  • seniorcit

    Why read the whole Bible? Selective reading, selective hearing, selective preaching. We can skip over the gospels and Christ’s teachings, and concentrate on the judgment narratives of the Old Testament and the rules of the Epistles.

  • FearlessSon

    Altemeyer, yet again:

    Since fundamentalists insist the Bible is the revealed word of God and without error, you would think they’d have read it. But you’d often be wrong. I gave a listing of the sixty-six books in the King James Bible to a large sample of parents and asked them, “How many of these have you read, from beginning to end? (Example, if you have read parts of the Book of Genesis, but not all of it, that does not count.)” Nineteen percent of the Christian High fundamentalists said they had never read any of the books from beginning to end, which was neatly counterbalanced by twenty percent (but only twenty percent) who said they had read all sixty-six. (I tip my hat to anyone who put her head down and plowed through the first nine chapters of Chronicles I. Look it up.)

    On the average, the high fundamentalists said they had read about twenty of the books in the Bible–about a third of what’s there. So they may insist that the Bible is totally accurate in all that it teaches, but most of them have never read a lot of what they’re so sure of. They are likely, again, merely repeating something they were told while growing up, or accepted when they “got religion.” Most of them literally don’t know all that they’re talking about. (But they are Biblical scholars compared to others: Most of the non-fundamentalist parents had not read even one chapter.)


    The answer appears to be that, while they may tell everyone the Bible contains God’s revealed truth to humanity, so everyone should read the Good Book, in truth they–like an awful lot of their parents–don’t know what’s in it because they haven’t read much of it either.

    I’ve also asked parents who do read the Bible how they decide what to read. Most fundamentalists said they read selected passages, which often were selected for them by their church, a Bible study group, the editor of a book of devotional readings, and so on. Very few bother to read all the infallible truth they say God has revealed. If you only get into heaven if you’ve been devoted enough to read the whole Bible,there’ll apparently be no line-up before St. Peter.

  • guest

    I remember being astonished by this when I lived for a short time in the Midwest (I’ve never READ the whole Bible, but had listened to all of it at least once on cassette tapes in my Walkman). I remember grabbing a thick cookbook off a shelf in a fundamentalist’s house and shouting ‘every word in this book is the absolute truth! I totally believe this! I haven’t actually read it, but I totally believe it!’

  • Jamoche

    Most fundamentalists said they read selected passages, which often were selected for them by their church, a Bible study group, the editor of a book of devotional readings, and so on.

    And they’ll be the same ones who rail at Catholics for not reading it ourselves, just listening to what gets “selected” for us by the lectionary. Which, if you include daily Masses, covers about 80-90% of it, skipping things like the genealogies ;)

    My grandmother is 90, Southern, but not evangelical (her family picked churches based on which of the two in the small town wasn’t Southern Baptist) and she’s read most of it – I got the impression it was something her generation just did.

  • Jurgan

    This seems remarkably similar to the centrism practiced by the Very Serious People in the media. They want to criticize the political right, but can’t bring themselves to do it unless they can claim there’s someone on the left just as bad.

  • Mark

    “1. Theism, as a way of defining God, is dead. So most theological God-talk is today meaningless. A new way to speak of God must be found.

    2. Since God can no longer be conceived in theistic terms, it becomes nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity. So the Christology of the ages is bankrupt.

    3. The biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.

    4. The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes Christ’s divinity, as traditionally understood, impossible.

    5. The miracle stories of the New Testament can no longer be interpreted in a post-Newtonian world as supernatural events performed by an incarnate deity.

    6. The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed.

    7. Resurrection is an action of God. Jesus was raised into the meaning of God. It therefore cannot be a physical resuscitation occurring inside human history.

    8. The story of the Ascension assumed a three-tiered universe and is therefore not capable of being translated into the concepts of a post-Copernican space age.

    9. There is no external, objective, revealed standard writ in scripture or on tablets of stone that will govern our ethical behavior for all time.

    10. Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way.

    11. The hope for life after death must be separated forever from the behavior control mentality of reward and punishment. The Church must abandon, therefore, its reliance on guilt as a motivator of behavior.

    12. All human beings bear God’s image and must be respected for what each person is. Therefore, no external description of one’s being, whether based on race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, can properly be used as the basis for either rejection or discrimination.”

    –John Shelby Spong

    I don’t agree with everything he says, but I do think that he falls much more squarely into the realm of secular humanism, as far as his teachings go. I think a lot of the anger (although I think it’s an overreaction to say that evangelicals widely call him history’s greatest monster) comes not from his actual teachings, but from the fact that he used his position as a bishop to spread them. Perhaps I’m just biased, though, since my dad has had a few run-ins with Spong, and that was more of my dad’s problem with him (my dad’s greater beef was with the Episcopal leadership that did not rebuke him for his statements). In either case, his theology does make that of most liberal or emerging Christians look tame.

    Again, take my reaction with a grain of salt. I agree with much of what your blog says, Fred, and have become a faithful reader, but Spong probably still has too much personal meaning for me to be able to step back and look at him objectively.

  • VorJack

    ” I do think that he falls much more squarely into the realm of secular humanism,”

    Spong would freely cop to being a humanist, but secular? He’s spent far to long laboring in the mines of sectarian theology to be considered secular.

    ” … his theology does make that of most liberal or emerging Christians look tame.”

    I suspect that it’s not so much his theology as the straight forward way he presents it. I remember he once said that he’d rather be screamed at than ignored, so he doesn’t bother to couch his claims in careful language.

  • Mark

    You’re right, I shouldn’t have used the word secular–it doesn’t apply, since he worked in a nonsecular field. Atheistic humanism, then.

  • Lliira

    From this, I think if I’d found Spong during my doubting period, I might possibly still be Christian. I’m glad I didn’t, but I bet he gets a lot more converts than all of the “YOU ARE A HELLBOUND DEVIL-CHILD now come to my church where we will love you, so long as you stop being EVIL DEVIL-CHILD :D” assholes combined.

    Calling him “secular”, however, doesn’t make sense. He’s a bishop in a church and believes in some kind of God, and spreads that belief.

  • AnonymousSam

    If it’s not too personal to ask… do you ever have regrets that you’re not? I keep having these weird feelings of “I almost wish but I absolutely couldn’t now”…

    I blame Fred. If I’d met him a lot sooner, I’d probably still be Christian. At this point, though, it’s impossible for me to ever go back. It’s not a matter of “I don’t believe, but someday I might change my mind” — I’m at the antithesis of belief: apathy. I’m not an atheist, I’m a nontheist. It makes no difference to me whether it’s true or not, so I have no interest in speculating.

    Sometimes, though, I still wish I could. I have no idea why. Maybe just to be one more good Christian in a sea of ones with which I find myself wanting to give some loving with Unmentionable Device of Gentle Correction.

  • Lliira

    Nope, no regrets. I am very glad not to believe in any religious or supernatural stuff. There’s a famous quote by an atheist saying he just doesn’t believe in one more god than monotheists believe in. I never believed in Krishna or Frejya or all the dozens of other gods, I knew about. So not-believing in the god I used to believe in is just one tiny little addition.

    I’m a better and happier person for it. I consider atheism Good News.

  • AnonymousSam

    I’m glad you don’t have the same weird feelings as I do. It’s not as bad as cognitive dissonance, but it does leave me feeling unsettled from time to time (usually after having to give someone a whap from said Unmentionable Object and inform them that not all Christians are bastards)…

  • Alix

    OT, but:

    There’s a famous quote by an atheist saying he just doesn’t believe in one more god than monotheists believe in. I never believed in Krishna or Frejya or all the dozens of other gods, I knew about. So not-believing in the god I used to believe in is just one tiny little addition.

    The kind of hilarious thing about this, for me, is that I went exactly the other way. :P

  • misanthropy_jones

    I was raised as a sort of half-assed methodist. my paternal grandparents were serious about their church, my dad would rouse up and take us to church when he was home (his job involved a lot of travel), mom and her family weren’t really religious at all. by high school i had completely drifted away from christianity.
    read a lot of stuff, mostly eastern philosphy, tried a few different things, but nothing really took.
    then, at about 30, i sat back down and read the gospels. realized that, whether they were true or not, this was how i wanted to live, what i wanted god to be like.
    so, back to christianity, but more out of idealism and hope than blind faith.
    to each his own, right?

  • other lori

    This is where the work of liberal Christian theology can come in very handy, because it’s not a matter of, say, disbelieving in Krishna or Allah or whatever. It’s a matter of seeing God as something/someone we cannot fully grasp, and that people have different ways of understanding that Ultimate Reality. For some of us, Christianity is the story that makes sense of it, that is most accessible; for others, it isn’t. It’s just false to say that most liberal Christians don’t believe in Krishna in the same way that atheists don’t believe in God. (Leaving aside it doesn’t really show much understanding of how Hindus understand their faith, which tends not to be literalistic.)

    A person could fully believe that Christian language and the Christian story is one way to approach the mystery of God that will never be fully comprehensible. Because of their culture or background or personal make-up, it’s the story that resonates most with them. But, they can also believe that, for other people, the Hindu story or Buddhist story or Muslim story is a way for them to approach the incomprehensible mystery of God. Just because they don’t worship Allah or Krishna or a Pagan deity doesn’t mean that they don’t believe that such worship or the language around it can be a way to access the Great Mystery.

    Now, I’m certainly not arguing that all Christians feel that way; many don’t. But, the idea that Christians are atheists about all gods except their own is just false. Many Christians believe that God is beyond human comprehension and that all attempts–including the Christian one–to understand it are partial and inadequate.

  • gpike

    I kind of feel the same way… But I’ve still got a long road of recovery ahead of me, and frankly worrying about whether or not God exists is just not useful in the process.

  • AnonymousSam

    Yeah, I don’t do that. That part is irrelevant to me. It’s more wondering how my life would be different if I hadn’t had the bad experiences I did which caused me to lose my faith early on.

  • Lliira

    I didn’t stop being Christian because of bad experiences caused by others. If anything, the fact that so many Christians were complete and utter assholes led me to hang on longer than I would have otherwise; I wanted to try to reclaim Christianity, as Fred seems to be trying to do. But I realized that, no matter how much I loved my grandparents or how troubled my parents would be, I couldn’t pretend any longer to believe something I did not believe. Plus I had some bad psychological experiences within myself that were caused by my Christian beliefs.

    Are you maybe feeling bad because you feel that you were somehow forced to lose your faith by these bad experiences? I always feel much worse when I feel I wasn’t able to come to a decision about something on my own, but was forced to it by others.

  • AnonymousSam

    I wonder if that might be it.

    Basically, I ran into the problem of evil. It didn’t bother me before then (because, yeah, APD), but as soon as it affected me, I needed an answer for it. There were no answers. There were no people who would even entertain the question. So that was that.

    If I’d had a Fred in my life, someone to answer “I don’t know either, but I’m sorry for what happened,” then I might not have concluded that the whole thing was one cruel lie and turned into the poisonous creature I was for about a decade.

  • Invisible Neutrino

    For me, it was simple, comparatively. I kept seeing Christians telling me (not to my face, but I saw enough of it in the media and in the Plain Truth magazine I used to read) that being anything but heterosexual was bad and you should pray to God to get yourself fixed.

    Surprise, no fixie.

    Conclusion: No more Christianity for me.

  • Lliira

    See, whenever I see or hear them, I just — I don’t know where they got it. They should have heard my grandfather on the subject, or on the subject of equality for anyone at all (especially after my grandmother sat his butt down and told him this was a feminist family now, in the late 80s.) I was raised to believe that God created all of us equal — all of us. And to cast anyone out, was a sin.

    This caused me problems because I believed I wasn’t allowed to cast out assholes. But Christianity to me still means equality. I was taught that the devil can use scripture for his own ends, and that he always has. (And that the devil is metaphorical, and people saying otherwise are… confused, to be charitable.) From not allowing women to preach, to murdering women for being supposed witches, to slavery in all its forms, to discriminating against anyone: these (along with war) were all the truest, deepest sins of humanity. They were the reason Christ died on the cross, quite literally, since he died because he preached against these things.

    It’s the same old story, as it’s always been, but unless Fred and the Christians like him and my grandparents get a LOT louder, Christianity is going to keep losing people in droves.

  • FearlessSon

    It’s the same old story, as it’s always been, but unless Fred and the Christians like him and my grandparents get a LOT louder, Christianity is going to keep losing people in droves.

    To quote theology professor Ronald J. Sider (himself an evangelical) from his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience:

    It strikes me as being incredibly tragic and, yes, hypocritical for the evidence to show that precisely at a time when evangelicals have more political power to raise the issue of moral values in this society than they’ve had in a long time, the hard statistics on their own living show that they don’t live what they’re talking about. And sure, I’m afraid that’s hypocrisy.

  • Ben English

    It’s interesting the way you say that, because I *did* find this blog around the time the fundamentalist framework I was rasied in collapsed. I spent months through 2008 and 2009 searching for a framework of understanding Christianity that did not seem hateful or abjectly delusional. I only found Fred’s blog when someone linked me to the Left Behind posts (in a context of mocking bad literature, not even discussing Christianity.) Maybe I would have eventually moved in this direction anyway if I hadn’t found Fred’s blog, but you never know.

    Maybe I’ll write an AU fanfic about it.

  • FearlessSon

    Sometimes, though, I still wish I could. I have no idea why. Maybe just to be one more good Christian in a sea of ones with which I find myself wanting to give some loving with Unmentionable Device of Gentle Correction.

    I can actually identify with this, despite not being from a particularly religious background myself (my family went to a Baptist church regularly until I was about four, my memories of it are distant and vague.) Mainly our attendance there was due to my father’s influence, which was in turn was mainly due to his mothers influence on him. My grandmother was a very devout woman, who had read the Bible cover-to-cover several times (when she finished one read through she would start back at Genesis 1:1 again and repeat.)

    We stopped going for reasons which are incidental to my point and I was too young to understand anyway. However, my father once told me that he did miss church somewhat. It was not because he was ever a particularly devout believer himself, though I doubt he is an atheist (I never asked and it never came up, though he is convinced that God must be a woman.) What he did say he missed about church though was the sense of community he got from it. Going to the same place, seeing other people you know, bonding over shared experiences. Most humans desire that, to greater or lesser degrees, and find comfort in it.

    Heck, like you I am a nontheist by way of empiricism rather than conviction (makes no observable difference and is beyond all but cursory speculation so why bother getting worked up about it?) But even I sometimes feel that tug. Not so much that I feel the need to believe, but in my case like I feel the need to be judged. Not to assert my righteousness but to be tested, evaluated, and possibly condemned. I do not know if I am a good man, if I pass muster being as “damaged” as I worry I am, and there is some sense of comfort in knowing that you will be concluded by some ultimate wisdom, rather than exist in a broken state. At least if some God judges me, I can stop judging myself.

  • fredgiblet

    I have times where I wish I was religious. KNOWING would be nice. Feeling that there is indeed something more going on and someone who actually cares about everyone would be nice.

    But ultimately I can’t bring myself to believe and in the end the feeling passes and I move on.

  • alfgifu

    I am a believer, but I identify with this because at times I wish I were a fundamentalist for the same reason. It’s disconcerting sometimes, being sceptical and acknowledging the limitations of the human mind.

    (As an aside, I’m beginning to wonder if this is one of those irregular verbs: I’m a believer; you’re religious; s/he’s a superstitious fool.)

  • AnonymousSam

    I prefer to avoid it. It implies that there’s only two states of being: Believing in Christianity (usually a specific denomination) or Not.

  • NYC Momma

    I was one of the professional choristers at the cathedral in Newark when he was Bishop of Newark, and although we only got to hear him on Christmas and Easter, he was a large part of my decision to be baptized in the Episcopal Church and to become a Christian. For me, in my early 20s then, he was eye-opening, and I am still an active member 30+ years later.

  • arcseconds

    I get the impression, though, that Spong’s beliefs are not actually all that different from those of many other people ordained in churchs in the Anglican Communion, and in many other ‘mainline’ Protestant churches besides.

    It’s just that Spong is more open about this than others.

    I’ve heard similar things about Lloyd Geering, who’s a presbytarian. The problem that the ministry had with him, so I’ve heard, was not his beliefs, which were not all that unusual, but that he let the cat out of the bag publically.

    There are lots and lots of theologically liberal Christians (in the sense they self-identify as Christians, attend ordinary Christian churches, and sometimes even are ministers of those churches) who don’t believe in literal bodily resurrections.

    I don’t know what Fred believes on this score, but several of his fellow travelers on the progressive christian thingy on Patheos don’t, e.g. James McGrath.

    Also, and this came as a surprise to me recently, Martin Luther King was highly theologically liberal and as far as I can make out, didn’t believe in a literal bodily resurrection either.

  • Sagrav

    Thanks, though it would be good to find a source of King’s theological thoughts besides Free Republic. That site’s a depressing cesspool of right wing propaganda and paranoia.

  • alfgifu

    You might be right that a lot of people agree with Spong but don’t put it so bluntly. On the other hand, I suspect a more people don’t put it do bluntly because they wouldn’t go as far as he would in rejecting the miraculous elements.

    You don’t have to be a Biblical literalist to find meaning in the creation story, for example – dismissing it as pure nonsense, post-Darwin, smacks of throwing out a baby with the bathwater. I’m not a fan of treating it as history, but taken as a myth I find it powerful and compelling.

    Dismissing miracles as impossible to accept in a post-Newton world ignores that they were impossible to accept in a pre-Newton world as well. By their nature, miracles don’t obey the observed natural law – that hasn’t changed, no matter how much our understanding of the natural world has developed. I can understand rejecting the miracles because they are, well, miraculous. It doesn’t make so much sense to me to reject them because of Newton, Darwin, or the progress of science.

  • AnonymousSam

    What he means is that as humanity masters the sciences, things which were previously inexplicable are suddenly no longer miraculous, forcing us to look back at things we previously considered impossible and to understand that there may (or perhaps must) be alternate, plausible explanations for the occurrence.

  • Ben English

    Honestly it just doesn’t make any sense to me. He makes assertions without any argument or evidence and then uses those assertions to support subsequent points.

  • Lliira

    It’s just a list of what he believes. People don’t write essays under every single point of their belief when they’re making lists like this.

  • Eric Boersma

    I would probably disagree with at least some of Spong’s reasoning on many of those points, but this, this is something that I’ve been led to believe for the past couple years and it’s so refreshing to hear someone else say it:

    “11. The hope for life after death must be separated forever from the behavior control mentality of reward and punishment. The Church must abandon, therefore, its reliance on guilt as a motivator of behavior”

  • AnonymousSam

    12 is great too. “All human beings bear God’s image and must be respected for what each person is. Therefore, no external description of one’s being, whether based on race, ethnicity,gender or sexual orientation, can properly be used as the basis for either rejection or discrimination.”

  • Lliira

    Which is really just a re-wording of Galatians 3:28. That this is considered scandalously left-wing is bemusing.

  • Dash1

    Now I really am wondering who that author was. I’m guessing Spong would be way too liberal. I’m guessing Tony Campolo or Ron Sider. (It’s a “him” so that narrows it down a bit.) Maybe even Jim Wallis (although I think Wallis is one of those convenient evangelicals who allows other evangelicals to claim that evangelicalism does indeed care for the poor because Wallis is taking care of it).

  • AndrewSshi

    My vote is Campolo. Last time I was actually in the evangelical subculture (a while back, granted) Campolo-bashing was a quick and convenient way to shore up one’s political bona fides.

  • Jim Roberts

    Still is, really. He made a statement to the effect that if the crucifixion and resurrection wasn’t exactly as described in the Bible, it wouldn’t be the death of Christianity and, well, that’s all she wrote. Can’t be caught saying that kind of thing.

  • FearlessSon

    He made a statement to the effect that if the crucifixion and resurrection wasn’t exactly as described in the Bible, it wouldn’t be the death of Christianity and, well, that’s all she wrote. Can’t be caught saying that kind of thing.

    I want to criticize those offended by it and say, “Is your faith really that weak and fragile?”

  • other lori

    Campolo isn’t mainline.

    My guess would be Crossan.

  • AndrewSshi

    I do not get why Fred feels a need to snidely mock people who point out that Spong writes in his own words that he believes that the corpse of Jesus of Nazareth rotted in the ground. To say that Jesus died and didn’t rise again is many things, but it’s sure as f*ck not Christianity.

    (And yes, I’ve read Spong.)

  • AnonymousSam

    Really? Christianity utterly hinges upon the resurrection of Christ? It’s a great deal more relevant than whether or not the Flood literally happened, but it’s certainly not what I reach for when I fight to be Christic.

  • AndrewSshi

    Um, yes… There’s that whole business of “If Christ isn’t raised then our faith is in vain.”

    “A long-dead religious teacher had some neat ideas about social justice” isn’t Christianity.

    Or, to illustrate: I think that Muhammad had some neat things to say about the power and love of God and also about personal morality. But I don’t believe that he received any supernatural revelations nor do I believe that he was the seal of the prophets. So I can occasionally draw on things that a long-dead religious leader taught, but that doesn’t make me a Muslim.

  • AnonymousSam

    Interesting. I respectfully disagree, but think it best not to pursue it into an argument.

  • AndrewSshi

    Fair enough.

  • Alan Alexander

    I can agree with this. I freely admit that the fact that I find the supernatural aspects of the Bible to be preposterous nonsense to be one of the reasons that I cannot in good conscience call myself a Christian. I believe in God. I believe in the moral value of the teachings of Jesus Christ as I understand them. The rest of it has as much relevance to me as Ovid talking about which poor girl Zeus was sexually assaulting this week.

  • FearlessSon

    Sounds like you are reading from the Jefferson Bible.

  • baronsabato

    Spong believes in the resurrection. He just doesn’t think the resurrection means physical resuscitation of a dead body. You can argue about whether he’s right or wrong, but as he identifies as a Christian, and believes in Jesus enough to write books about him and apparently follow his teachings, then I think he’s a Christian.

  • baronsabato

    For what it’s worth, I’m a progressive Christian (UCC) who happens to believe in a physical resurrection. I’m honestly not always sure what I mean when I say that though, but I do prefer the language of physical resurrection over the language of a spiritual, metaphorical resurrection. But the essence of my beliefs and the essence of John Spong’s beliefs aren’t particularly different.

  • other lori

    I’ve come to believe in a physical resurrection as well, largely because I find NT Wright’s ideas about new creation so compelling, and it helped me to make sense of the idea. But, I don’t think the spiritual vs. physical resurrection issue is particularly central, and certainly Episcopalians have a diversity of views on the issue and are generally comfortable with that.

  • Lliira

    “Some neat ideas about social justice” is an incredibly dismissive way of treating the teachings of the son of God. I was raised to believe living those teachings were what was central to being Christian. I don’t believe Jesus was divine any longer, and I still think “some neat ideas about social justice” is incredibly dismissive.

  • christopher_y

    As an atheist who was a liberal Christian in the past, I think you’re right. As Paul put it:

    And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty.

  • Lliira

    Paul said a lot of things that I, as a Christian, was taught were wrong. That line looks heretical in the framework I grew up in, frankly, because he’s saying that Christianity is about the supernatural rather than the actual teachings of Jesus Christ.

  • Alix

    And, well, not all of Christianity accepts Paul as valid.

    It’s funny how so much of a largely Jesus-centric religion puts him in second place to a prolific and idiosyncratic letter-writer.

  • christopher_y

    Intriguing. Which denomination was that?

  • Lliira

    Liberal Lutheran and a non-denominational liberal Mennonite-Baptist-Quaker church in Virginia. Most religious stuff is from my maternal grandparents and their group of Friends that met about every week or so. I once asked my mother what we were, religiously, and she said something like, “uh, your [paternal grandmother] is Lutheran and I think my parents are some kind of Baptist… whatever, we’re Christian.” Reading and discussing the Bible was paramount in both churches — actually really truly reading and discussing the thing.

  • stardreamer42

    I have to agree with AndrewSshi on this one. As I was taught, the Resurrection is THE central mythos of Christianity, the foundation upon which everything else rests. At the very least, it’s an extremely widespread viewpoint in the Christian community — one that unites people from the left-liberal to the extremist-Evangelical. They fight like cats and dogs over everything else, but that one thing is just unassailable.

  • AnonymousSam

    I think Spong begs to differ. ^^;

  • Alan Alexander

    Interesting. So the things Jesus said about how people should live their lives only have relevance because of the provenance given them by a supernatural event. If Jesus didn’t rise from the tomb, then The Golden Rule is worthless and we should all be utter bastards to each other. You know, the way most self-styled Christians are whether Jesus rose or not.

  • Lliira

    I was taught that the central point to being Christian was the Golden Rule. The other points were related to it: love thy neighbor, God loves you (his love is infinite, and so is his disappointment in you), and you must always put others before yourself.

    Believing that Christ literally rose from the grave in the same body he had when he was crucified… I can’t remember it being talked about.

  • SisterCoyote

    Heh. “His love is infinite, and so is His disappointment in you,” is a great way of capturing the doctrine. I think I might steal that one, if you don’t mind – I’ve never seen a way that so handily illustrates the Christian doctrine while also explaining how it can be used as a guilt-complex catalyst.

  • Lliira

    Go ahead :). I don’t know how good the description is for flavors of Christianity other than the Lutheran-Quaker blend I grew up with; I can’t remember Fred dwelling on this particular kind of guilt, for instance. It’s not that you’re not doing enough good in the world, it’s that you literally never can do enough good in the world, but you must try anyway, and if you don’t, God will cry. God, from whom all blessings flow, who loves you so much more than you can ever imagine in your pitiful little sinful human heart, will be heartbroken either way by your horribleness, of course, but still, you must try.

  • SisterCoyote

    H’m. Fred always speaks of his family rather lovingly, and has mentioned that they were on the sane end of the scale – but I think it’s pretty common, across the harsher ends. My old boss, who was a Baptist, gentle soul and amazing person, suffered from the same crushing guilt complex, but had learned to laugh at it. I know my sister’s got a bit of the same.

    “You must try to be perfect, even though it is humanly impossible, because every time you’re not perfect, you are disappointing/hurting God and contributing to the sins for which Christ was crucified, so, y’ know, stop it. Even though you can’t. …Good thing God is so merciful, huh? We have to stop imagining God as a giant boot, waiting to stomp us all into dust the first time we step out of line…” (Guess what my mental image of God was, following that sermon, for quite some years.)

    But yeah – it’s definitely applicable for a lot of us, I think.

  • Lliira

    My family wasn’t harsh at all. I think my maternal grandparents believed pretty much exactly what Spog does. They were just… really guilt-ridden. I dunno if it was a Northern European ancestry thing, or a Great Lakes region thing, or what. I think on my mother’s side, part of it was that we have ancestors who were slaveowners in the antebellum South. On my father’s side… well, they’re Swedish Lutherans.

    I never thought of God as punishing. I remember a sermon in which the priest said God forgave everyone, literally everyone, and I thought “that means Hitler’s in heaven”, and it was a really powerful moment for me. My idea of God was more — disappointed. Sad. Guilt tripping.

  • SisterCoyote

    *sigh.* Yeah; painfully heavy guilt is one of those things where I can understand how someone could look at religion and go “This stuff is really toxic.”

    I can sympathize. Earthly authorities were the ones I thought of as punishing and angry – God always… I dunno, I guess the concept wasn’t well-developed enough. I remember overwhelming guilt, but not how it all connected.

  • Alix

    “that one thing is just unassailable.”

    Not really, and it never has been. Plenty of Christians have held the view that Jesus didn’t experience bodily resurrection or didn’t even really exist, and they’ve still been Christian.

    On another point, the modern mainstream-Christian views of Jesus and a whole host of other things have a heck of a lot more to do with politics, spreading their version of the gospel by any means necessary, and concerted efforts to stamp out any dissent than the obvious rightness of their doctrine gently persuading the hearts and minds of the unbelievers (though some of that happened too). It’s the foundation of mainstream doctrine because mainstream Christians made damn sure no one else survived in great enough numbers to challenge them – and also because mainstream Christians all ultimately derive from one specific form of Christianity, several schisms down the line.

  • Lliira

    Have you read When Jesus Became God by Richard E. Rubenstein? Excellent book.

  • Alix

    No, I haven’t, but it looks fascinating. Thanks for the recommendation. I think I need to make a library run…

    Edit: Actually, screw that. I’m buying it on kindle.

  • other lori

    In general, the debate among Christians would likely be more about what kind of resurrection we’re talking about, rather than whether or not there was a resurrection. (Although you would find some Christians, like classic Unitarians, who could deny the resurrection altogether.)

    Borg, for instance, believes in a spiritual resurrection: he thinks that the disciples really did have post-Easter experiences of Jesus–it wasn’t a lie or a delusion–but that if you had followed them around with a video camera, you wouldn’t have recorded Jesus.

    The debate is more over whether the resurrection was a spiritual event, where Jesus had some sort of spiritual existence post-Easter that wasn’t corporeal in the same was his pre-Easter existence was, or whether he had a fully-corporeal post-resurrection body. But I don’t think there are many Christians who would deny that a resurrection of any type took place, that after his crucifixion Jesus was just dead and done.

  • Alix

    Um. Not true – there have been and still are many forms of Christianity that don’t think Jesus bodily rose from the dead. And on the other end, there are those who think he was never crucified, because he never had a mortal body.

    Hell, there’s still at least one branch of Christianity that doesn’t think Jesus was the savior, but a treasonous con man who stole the spotlight from the real messiah.

    Christianity: more varied than you think, despite many, many attempts at wiping heresy off the face of the earth.

  • AndrewSshi

    From a straight, comparative-religion POV, sure, you can classify anyone from a Bogomil to a Gnostic to a Manichaean as a (heterodox) Christian. But if you’re a Christian in any since of the meaning that it has in the major creeds–as Fred is and the fellow in the OP are!–then no, a Christianity that lacks the supernatural and a God isn’t Christianity, anymore than an Islam claiming that Muhammad wasn’t a prophet is Islam.

    And this post got started on the basis of evangelicals saying that main-liners don’t believe in God. In the sense that Fred was talking about in the main post, John Shelby Spong is indeed a mainline Christian who doesn’t believe in God or the supernatural.

  • Alix

    Since when does the mainstream dictate the definition, though? Just because the major creeds hold to one definition – largely due to concerted efforts to destroy any others – doesn’t mean that other definitions are or were invalid. This is sounding very similar to “if I like them, they’re a religion; if I don’t, they’re a cult.”

    And while we’re at it, when the hell did I say these definitions of Christianity lacked “the supernatural and a God”?

    You know what? We heretics can identify as Christian if we want to, if we feel we are, and our self-definition is perfectly fucking valid, no matter how uncomfortable it makes you. The major creeds don’t get to boot me out of Christianity any more than I get to boot out Fred Phelps.

  • baronsabato

    Most Christians in the US today cannot recite any of the major creeds or have any idea whether or not they agree with them. As a former Southern Baptist, my first introduction to the Nicene Creed (back when I was still a Southern Baptist) was, “Wow, what a load of bull!” All that “God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God” stuff sounded incredibly pagan to me (and as a Southern Baptist, “pagan” is not a compliment, although I don’t mean to offend any actual pagans). All that controversy about the filioque clause, etc., well, I thought it was all crazy, heretical junk. In general, I was taught that creeds are all products of apostate, Satanic churches that attempt to enforce allegiance to a human being (i.e., the Pope) rather than God.

    I guess my point is that every Christian is a heretic to somebody else, regardless of what we actually agree on and what we disagree on. John Spong claims belief in God, in Jesus, and in the resurrection; he defines them in ways that is heretical, at least to somebody. But there are enough people who agree with him and find meaning in the Biblical narrative through his interpretation of it that I don’t think you can just automatically say he’s not a Christian.

    I think what’s important is that he still uses vocabulary and a language set that is recognizably Christian. He talks about Jesus. He talks about God, even if he understands God in a somewhat different way than most Christians do (although not so different from the way many mystics have throughout history). He quotes the Bible and reads the Bible and uses the Bible. Hence, he is still, inasmuch as ANYONE is, a Christian.

  • Alix

    every Christian is a heretic to somebody else


    And I am totally stealing that line from you, just so you know. :P

  • Alix

    Also, really minor point in comparison, but:

    sure, you can classify anyone from a Bogomil to a Gnostic to a Manichaean as a (heterodox) Christian.

    You probably should, if you really want to be honest about any investigation into either Christianity or those various heterodoxies. They self-identify as Christians and exist in relation to Christian doctrine, they’re Christian. The only possible exception are, potentially, a few “Gnostic” sects that seem to have branched off of Judaism and never absorbed Christian teachings, but “gnostic” is a bit of an overstretched term anyway.

  • ngotts

    Late antiquity (by which I mean here, 1st-7th centuries CE in the Mediterranean and Middle East) seems to have been a time of extensive religious experimentation and syncretism, as well as the time political leaders caught on to the value of a state religion with a well-defined doctrine and an organized, centralized body to enforce it. Four religions eventually precipitated out of this ferment – Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Islam – but even the two that predated it in some form were extensively changed.

  • Alix

    Both the syncretism and the state religion bit aren’t unique to that time period, but yeah. Something seems to have come to a head around that time, and you can actually pretty much throw Buddhism into the mix, too, if you broaden the region a bit.

    People have remarked on it before: all of the world’s major modern religions either stem from that time period or, as you say, were extensively changed by it, and no one, to the best of my knowledge, has put forth a really cohesive explanation as to why. (Aliens coming down to seed human religions during the Great Refueling or something doesn’t count.)

  • Lliira

    In the West, the Western Roman Empire going kaput pretty much required a new belief system to account for it. You could no longer travel the roads safely; no one was taking care of the aqueducts any longer, so you didn’t have clean water any more; the economy crashed worse than we can probably imagine; people started to forget how to speak and write Latin and Greek, which meant they could no longer communicate with each other across distance. On the other hand, the Roman Empire wasn’t exactly popular and beloved outside Rome and its immediate environs. So anyone saying Rome’s fall was part of a greater plan was likely to be welcomed with open arms.

    The Eastern Roman Empire kept going, but still, the world seemed to be cut in half for them. Also, Justinian axed education funding in order to gather more power to himself (my Byzantium professor made a direct parallel between Justinian and Bush II). It was already known that religion was an excellent way for the state to control people, and that it didn’t work so well on educated people. The old religion didn’t seem to be doing so well, but this new religion had all the buzz, and like the old religion, you didn’t have to be born into it.

    Plus you might lose your personal divinity, as emperor, but you could claim God wanted you to be emperor, which might be even better. It was monotheistic, so you could control literally every other belief system by saying if they didn’t fall into line, they were the enemy of the one and only God.

  • Alix

    I agree, with the small caveat that it’s overly reductionist to think of it as one old religion vs. Christianity – there was, firstly, no unified pagan religion*, and probably more importantly, there was a huge explosion in new religions in the Roman Empire during its last few centuries.

    Christianity was one of a crowd, and the more I dig into this, the more I get the sense that, regardless of how certain kinds of Christian scholars like to frame it, the fact that Christianity came out on top at the end was more luck of the draw than anything else. No Constantine** setting up Christianity – no rise of the Roman Catholic Church, and Christianity probably would’ve dimmed with the other cults.

    *Not directing this at you at all, but the notion that all paganism was some unified single religion is probably one of my biggest pet peeves, right up there with the notions that no one in the ancient world ever traveled, dared sail on an ocean, invented machines, or lived past thirty.

    **It occurs to me that Constantine was perfect timing for Christianity – it gave Christianity just enough time to establish itself as legitimate before the whole damn empire fell apart. Too much earlier, and Christianity might’ve been too entwined with the Roman system; too much later, and it would’ve been too new.***

    ***And I need to stop with footnotes in the comments section…

  • Lliira

    Oh, my entire comment is hugely reductionist :). I think Christianity happened to have a lot of the right things combined (women are human, not merely sex toys/baby incubators; slaves are human; monotheism; you don’t have to be born into it) at the right time. It could very easily have gone another way.

  • Alix

    The really fascinating thing to me is how many of the other new religions had a lot or even all of the same things going for them – the “women/slaves are human” thing in particular. The Isis cult, especially, is interesting in this regard – it’s hard to know for sure, but it seems to have been even more widespread than Christianity, and more generally accepted, until the collapse of Rome, and in fact people (even some Christian apologists!) have noted the high amount of similarities between Jesus’ teachings and the Isian movement – to the point that some of Jesus’ sayings are basically ripoffs of some attributed to Isis, and to the point that some people think he was far more influenced by his stay in Egypt and Egyptian religion in general than most mainstream Christians nowadays would find comfortable.

    …All of this is why I really, honestly think that early Christianity was far more weird (from the perspective of the modern mainstream) than people are really comfortable even entertaining, let alone admitting. And it really seems to me that most mainstream Christian arguments about their own history and the authenticity and preeminence of their own version of Christianity are … disingenuous, to put it mildly.

    On a completely different topic: the eastern empire fascinates me, but I find it kind of overwhelming and I haven’t really dug into its history like I ought. (Aside from the history of Greek Fire, which made for a series of very weird papers for school.) Do you have any favorite books on the topic?

  • Lliira

    I’ve only taken two classes on the Eastern Roman Empire — all that were offered below the graduate level at my schools. The professor of the class I took a few years ago apologized for our “textbook” being such a hard slog, but there just wasn’t anything else written in English for us to use that would cover the same ground. You know that part of Alice in Wonderland where they all read something “dry”? It was written like that.

    Iirc, it was the first edition of this book:

    It looks like he’s substantially improved it, especially in writing style. So I think I can recommend that one.

  • Alix

    Thank you!

  • Nick Gotts

    One quibble: the pagan Romans certainly regarded slaves as human. Manumission was common, and the manumitted slave of a citizen became a citizen.

  • Lliira

    Manumission was common. So was raping your slaves and working them to death. While someone was a slave, they were definitely regarded as less-than, especially less-than a citizen.

  • Ross

    I think the root of the misapprehension is that for the ancients, (unlike, say, the american form of slavery), counting-as-human was not thought of as something conferred by birth and immutable. Someone could earn counting-as-human, and they could lose counting-as-human. The fact that manumission was common didn’t mean that the romans regarded slaves as human; it meant they regarded them as eligible for promotion to humanity.

  • Lliira

    Yes, that is a good way of putting it.

  • Nick Gotts

    I think the timing is wrong for your first paragraph to be right. The adoption of Christianity preceded the loss of the western half of the Empire: it looks to me like part of the response to the crisis of the late 3rd century, which stemmed in large part from the rise of the Sassanian Empire (see my comment above). Constantine also toyed with the idea of adopting the cult of Sol Invictus, but the Christians had a better administrative structure, which conversion to Christianity put at the Emperor’s disposal. Moreover, the East was much more Christian than the West in Constantine’s time (as well as richer and more cultured). I agree with your second and third paragraphs, though. Peter Heather, in The Fall of the Roman Empire, notes that replacing the cult of the divine Emperor with the Emperor appointed by Christ was straightforward.

  • Lliira

    People still argue over when and why the Roman Empire fell. The entire time frame in my comment is somewhat… mushy. The Western Empire falling wasn’t a plummet so much as a saunter downward. I think Rome started to crumble a bit before people started to adopt Christianity in large numbers, and it definitely fell before they did so in large numbers in Northwestern Europe. I should have been more clear about the regions and timeframe there.

  • guest

    I’ve read people drawing a connection between the development of these religions and the use of currency (didn’t find a Google reference quickly, but will look harder/rack my brain more if you’re interested).

  • Alix

    Oh, that’s an interesting idea. I’ll have to look into that.

  • Nick Gotts

    Is that also true of Hinduism and Jainism? Also, which are “major” is rather subjective. If Judaism, why not Sikhism, which has more adherents (and many more than Zoroastrianism) and dates from the 16th century.

    I think it is closely linked to state-building, at least in the region I was talking about – although I admit this hunch stems from broad reading as an amateur, not professional scholarship.

    The new Persian Empire of the Sassanian dynasty (replacing the looser Parthian empire) revived and reformulated Zoroastrianism from the third century, and put down various “heresies” including Manichaeism. The new state was a far more formidable enemy to Rome. I think Constantine’s adoption of Christianity as effectively the state religion may have been a strategic response to this; and the Arabs, either during Muhammad’s lifetime as is traditionally believed, or somewhat later, got into the act with Islam. Even Judaism was adopted by the Khazar state in the 8th century – possibly to finesse having to choose between Christianity and Islam! So in brief, once one state discovered the utility of a doctrinally and administratively unified state religion, the idea was copied and adapted.

  • Alix

    Is that also true of Hinduism and Jainism?

    I’m not actually sure, given that the only eastern religion I know much about is Buddhism. As for which are major – I was building off of your comment, but I wouldn’t usually count Zoroastrianism or Judaism myself, in the modern day, unless we’re using a definition of “major” that involves political influence.

    I think it is closely linked to state-building

    I don’t think you’re wrong, exactly, I just think it’s a lot more complicated than that, because late antiquity was not the only time of intense state-building and certainly not the only time of intense linking of a single religion to the state being built – the Babylonian Marduk cult and the rise of the Osiris cult in Egypt come to mind. (Actually, most of the history of religion in Egypt comes to mind, and while Egyptian paganism is effectively dead, it sure in hell lasted for more than 2000 years.) And there are plenty of other examples of state religions in antiquity.

    …I’m actually starting to wonder if the problem is more a matter of perspective than anything else. We have a really annoying tendency to lump all of paganism together, which makes it look like there was never a unified religion before monotheism, and we also tend to assume that 2000 years is exceptional for a religion. Neither is really true, and so I sometimes think we’re putting too much weight on the religions that are still major players now, when really they’re following pretty much the same pattern, over more or less the same span, as other religions. Like something has to be different/special about them because they’re still around, but the more I pry into things the less special/different they are.

    Constantine’s adoption of Christianity was … complicated. For one thing, it doesn’t appear he was actually a convert. For another, he didn’t actually give it preeminence; he just legitimized it, but he didn’t de-legitimize anything else to do so. Christianity just became one of many religions that were legal to practice in the Roman Empire.

    I know next to nothing about the Khazars – do you have any good starting points for learning about them? That sounds fascinating.

  • David S.

    I don’t think there is a reason why. The period was picked because it seemed special, but that’s problematic. If you throw darts at a wall, you can almost always find a few clustered and draw a circle around it, but it doesn’t mean that circle is special. 1st-7th centuries CE is seven centuries, so it’s not even a tight circle. Then the data’s cherry-picked. “Or extensively changed by it”, combined with seven centuries, is broad enough that you could say that Buddhism and Hinduism was extensively changed by that period, but I don’t think scholars of those religions would jump on that period. And what about Taoism and Confucianism? You mention Judaism and Zoroastrianism, but those are relatively minor religions demographic-wise. Sikhism and Shintoism both post-date that period and their adherents outnumber Jews, and Bahá’í, Cao Đài, Rastafari, Wicca and Scientology all have more adherents then Zororastrianism and post-date the period in question. You could say that they aren’t considered major modern religions, but part of the reason Judaism and Zoroastrianism are and they aren’t is their age, which messes with your sample.

    I don’t dismiss what Lliira says; there certainly are reasons why Christianity and Islam developed and flourished in the time periods they did, but I don’t think it’s something amazing in need of explanation. I find the connection to be artificial; I don’t see that there’s any reason it’s 1st century – 7th century besides the need to connect events six centuries apart.

  • Alix

    I think I basically agree with you, for all the reasons you’ve laid out. The more I think about it, the more the whole “these religions are special, so something clearly happened to make them special” thing … really doesn’t hold up.

    “Extensively changed” also has another flaw, which is that no religion is static, and they all change dynamically all the time. You can make things seem unchanged by emphasizing certain aspects over others, but that’s again selection bias.

  • Ross

    There’s a bit in ‘Earth The Book’ where the hypothetical future alien reader asks why Judaism is considered one of the “Major world religions” (And, indeed, ranked ahead of Hinduism) given the relative numbers of adherents.

    The narrative voice makes an allusion to the holocaust and then “subtly” implies that the alien is antisemitic until it apologizes.

  • Gregory Peterson

    My take is that Jesus was killed because of his alleged sins…which should make us very careful about accusing others of sinning.

    Bayard Rustin, a Quaker, had an interesting thought for everyone thinking of the Resurrection. ‘Easter is the symbol of hope resurrected out of a tomb of hopelessness.’

    From the book I’m reading, A Stone of Hope by David L. Chappell…which I’m too lazy to copy myself. But Gale wasn’t.

    “Everyone saw Jesus as a lot of trouble, but even crucifixion could not
    get rid of Him. ‘Easter in every age . . . recalls the imminence of the
    impossible victory, the power of the impotent weak.’ Rustin took the
    opportunity to note that Jesus’ followers ‘need to be reminded that
    Easter is the reality, and that the awesome structures of pomp and power
    are in the process of disintegration at the moment of their greatest
    strength.’ He was surely aware that he was echoing the Prophets’ scorn
    for human institutions. But he could not have known that he was
    prophetically anticipating a key phrase in a new prophet’s greatest
    speech: ‘Easter is the symbol of hope resurrected out of a tomb of

  • ngotts

    Everyone saw Jesus as a lot of trouble

    Really? Where’s the evidence for that? Jesus was a Galilean and did most of his preaching in Galilee, but the tetrarch, Herod Antipas, didn’t find him threatening enough to have him executed, as he reportedly did John the Baptist. There doesn’t seem to have been any attempt by the Romans to round up his followers either before or immediately after his death, as there would have been if they had thought him a serious threat, rather than a minor nuisance. Some back-country hick causing a disturbance in the Temple and annoying the Sanhedrin just before Passover? Better crucify him just to be on the safe side. The only evidence for any sort of persecution pre-Nero comes from Christian sources, and we know from current events that Christian claims of persecution are not necessarily well-founded. Acts claims that Saul/Paul was rounding up Jesus’s followers and imprisoning them, but how do we know this is any more than the common “Oh what a wicked person I was before I converted” claim?

  • Alix

    I love this whole summary. :)

    I will say, the New Testament does indicate that the disciples were fearful of something post-crucifixion – they were all hiding out, conveniently, so Jesus could show up all resurrected.

    But the other thing to bear in mind is that this was a time period where it really wasn’t unique for revolutionary apocalyptic would-be messiahs to pop up in Judea. The scant evidence points to John being fine until he started making political comments against Herod*, and going by the N.T. Jesus stayed well away from subversive comments or inflammatory actions until he was ready to be arrested and killed – to the point that many people have suggested that Jesus stage-managed his own death, and it’s a pretty compelling argument.

    *Which Herod he was sniping against is something of a question, as is what exactly he said that got him into hot water. The New Testament, perhaps not surprisingly, is really garbled on this.

  • Nick Gotts

    That you are fearful of something doesn’t mean it’s actually likely. Having their leader seized and executed might well make the disciples fearful, but there’s no claim even in the NT that the Romans came looking for them, nor the Sanhedrin in the immediate aftermath (i.e., before Pentecost).

    many people have suggested that Jesus stage-managed his own death, and it’s a pretty compelling argument.

    I don’t find it so. If he had, he’d surely have prepared his followers for it better than he appears to have done. More likely, he either expected God to intervene on his side, or just miscalculated through ignorance of the big city and its politics.

  • Alix

    That you are fearful of something doesn’t mean it’s actually likely.


    If he had, he’d surely have prepared his followers for it better than he appears to have done.

    There’s some really interesting evidence that some of his followers – the bit players who inexplicably drift on and off the stage of the gospels – were in on the act. And for what it’s worth, both canonical and noncanonical writings tend to portray Peter and his group of disciples as either stupid or chronically in the dark about things.

    I mean, none of this plotting is foregrounded in the gospels. But the explanation makes sense of a lot of little inexplicable bits that otherwise are just … weird.

    More likely, he either expected God to intervene on his side, or just miscalculated through ignorance of the big city and its politics.

    Both also perfectly possible. And of course all this is made even more complicated because it’s … really not clear who killed Jesus or why. The accounts in the gospels make no sense, really, once one pries into them.

  • Gregory Peterson

    “Some back-country hick causing a disturbance in the Temple and annoying the Sanhedrin just before Passover?”

    Sounds dreadfully sinful to me.

  • Nick Gotts

    I didn’t say anything to the contrary. I doubted whether “Everyone saw Jesus as a lot of trouble”. There’s no good evidence that they did.

  • Carstonio

    So? Religion isn’t about protecting a copyright. What deserves to be mocked is the arrogance of believing that an individual’s or group’s version of a particular religion is the only true one. At least when the band Manowar proclaimed “Death to false metal,” it was for the entertainment value.

  • Carstonio

    So? Religion isn’t about protecting a copyright. What deserves to be mocked is the arrogance of believing that an individual’s or group’s version of a particular religion is the only true one. At least when the band Manowar proclaimed “Death to false metal,” it was for the entertainment value.

  • Wednesday

    FWIW, some branches of early Christianity didn’t believe in the literal original-body-returns-to-life resurrection, either. (Heck, some Christian groups believed Jesus and Christ were actually two separate beings.)

  • Gregory Peterson

    If ancient memory serves, the every reliable Pat Robertson said that Mainline Protestants were the spirit of antichrist.

    But then, if memory still serves, Frederick Douglas said that the Black Methodist denomination (and I suspect, Christianity in general) which had ordained him, consented to the spirit of slavery which kept his brethren in bondage.

    I sort of feel that way about Christianity and Gay people. Christianity in general is guilty, with denominations bearing various degrees of culpability.

  • Gregory Peterson

    Memory sort of served. The Douglass quote is “I attached myself to a small body of colored Methodists, known as the Zion Methodists. Favored with the affection and confidence of the members of this humble communion, I was soon made a classleader and a local preacher among them. Many seasons of peace and joy I experienced among them, the remembrance of which is still precious, although I could not see it to be my duty to remain with that body, when I found that it consented to the same spirit which held my brethren in chains.”

    My Bondage and My Freedom
    by Frederick Douglass
    Chapter 22

  • Gregory Peterson

    The Pat Robertson quote. “You say you’re supposed to be nice to the Episcopalians and the
    Presbyterians and the Methodists and this, that, and the other thing.
    Nonsense. I don’t have to be nice to the spirit of the Antichrist. I can
    love the people who hold false opinions but I don’t have to be nice to

  • Albanaeon

    That man never fails to amaze me in how singularly terrible a person he really is.

  • FearlessSon

    I sort of feel that way about Christianity and Gay people. Christianity in general is guilty, with denominations bearing various degrees of culpability.

    Another Altemeyer:

    You can find other examples of such a backlash. Attitudes toward homosexuals have become markedly more tolerant and accepting in North America in a very short period of time. When I asked students what had affected their attitudes toward gays and lesbians, personally knowing a homosexual proved the most positive influence (as I reported in chapter 2) and the scientific evidence indicating sexual orientation may have biological determinants (as mentioned in chapter 3) finished second. But in third place came, “I have been turned off by anti-homosexual people.” Virulent opposition to homosexual causes may, in the long run, backfire and hurt the opposers and benefit their intended targets, especially when the attackers claim they are acting on moral grounds and actually “love the sinner” they are smiting.

  • David Policar

    Yeah. Which is why the next wave is taking this into consideration and doing its best to frame the nasty gays and their fellow-travellers as oppressing decent moral Christians for their beliefs.

  • Baby_Raptor

    “One of the challenges of getting older is that you have to keep leaving behind rhetorical “tricks” that you considered acceptable (or were completely unconscious of) when you were younger.”

    Calling BS on this one. Wisdom does not come with age. It comes with living life, maturing, growing as a person. None of those things are directly tied to how many years you’ve managed to exist…They tend to result from what life throws at you and how you act in response.

  • Stone_Monkey

    I agree…to a point. You’ve had more of a chance to have had life throw things at you and react in response to them if you’ve lived longer. And therefore have had more chance to live a life. So wisdom perhaps correlates with age rather than being caused by it.

    That is, a person is more likely to be wise if they’re older, but it’s not necessarily the case that an individual older person is actually wise.

  • Baby_Raptor

    I see your point and bow to your more nuanced view.

  • Nick Gotts

    I doubt there’s any correlation at all. For one thing, a number of forms of bigotry seem to correlate with age – as do voting Republican in the USA and Conservative (or most recently, UKIP – our very own Tea Party) in the UK.

  • Joan Jacobson

    Could have been Jim Wallis. He has a new book out and although he identifies as evangelical, they don’t accept him back. In fact, a professor at Colorado Christian University got fired for even suggesting (not requiring, just suggesting) that his students read Wallis’ writing for a diferent theological perspective.

  • other lori

    It was Marcus Borg’s The Heart of Christianity that convinced me that being a Christian was an intellectually and morally viable option, when I was in grad school in my early 20s. 10+ years later, I’m probably now a bit closer to NT Wright than Marcus Borg on the spectrum of Episcopal theology, a story I’m not sure these evangelical critics would allow for. It’s because of the work of liberal Christian theologians and authors that I can sit in services with my evangelical friends and worship with them.

    The idea that these authors destroy faith is absurd. I’m not aware of anybody who was comfortable and content with their evangelical and/or conservative faith who picked up Borg or Spong or Crossan and lost their faith. The people the works are intended for, and the people who are actually going to read them, are people who are already liberal Christians, people who are questioning their Christian beliefs and want an alternative so they can remain Christian, and non-Christians who are interested in a Christianity that makes some sense to them.

    I consider liberal Christian authors to be great evangelists, who make the Christian message accessible to people who are rightfully turned off by many of the loudest Christian voices in our culture. And, the fact that they are disdained just as much if not more by New Atheists than their conservative counterparts is a testimony, I think, to the fact that they are pretty effective evangelists, by presenting a Christian faith that is both intellectually tenable and morally sound.

  • seniorcit

    Right on! I started with CS Lewis and worked my way through Buechner, Nouwen, Merton and others until I came to McLaren and Borg. I’m still reading. And I still consider myself a Christian.

  • lowtechcyclist

    Hell, it seems to be acceptable among evangelicals to bear false witness against anyone outside their tribe. For instance, bashing of secular liberals for largely imagined sins is just as common at evangelical pulpits as altar calls are.

    More so, now that I think about it, because generally there’s only one altar call per service, but hippies and libruls can be bashed multiple times in a single sermon.

    Basically, the Ninth Commandment is a dead letter among evangelicals.