Defining Narrowness rather Narrowly UPDATED

Someone emailed over this interesting interview with Bruce Bawer on his book, Stealing Jesus; How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity.

I have not read the book, although I might be tempted to buy it, but just from the interview, I think I might be disappointed. Bawer’s point seems to be that Fundamentalist Christians are nothing more than Pharisees concerned only with what he calls “The Church of the Law”, and not with the “Church of Love”. To illustrate his point, he brings up one of Jesus’ parables:

For Bawer the difference between the two churches boils down to their view of love. “In fundamentalism, love is often looked upon with scorn as weak,” he says. “They don’t want a God that’s weak, they want a God that is strong and can smite their enemies.”

“Because Jesus wasn’t about [the Church of the Law],” Bawer replies…

Bawer uses the parable of the Good Samaritan to make his point. He says being Christian is “not about being a preacher or a Levite and avoiding helping someone by the side of road because you might defile yourself by touching a dead body. The priority is loving somebody else, and doctrine is nothing compared to that. Fundamentalism, by definition, is what loses sight of that. The men who passed by the injured man on the road to Jericho were fundamentalists.”

Bawer says the Jesus makes it clear that we are to steer away from fundamentalism in all forms.

“When Jesus loses it in the book of Matthew [Chapter 23], yelling at the scribes and Pharisees, he’s yelling at the fundamentalists. How biblical literalists can read that passage and not take that to heart is beyond me.”

Hmmm…putting aside just how “loving” Bawer is or is not being in making his moral judgements on fundamentalists, I cannot wonder how he can witness the Fundamentalist/Evangelical Christians who took into their homes and fed and clothed refugees from Hurricane Katrina and declare that they know nothing about love because they are too wrapped up in the law. Were his argument solid, then the “law-loving” fundamentalists would be guilty of following too closely the greatest law of all, to love others as we love ourselves.

It is true that there are always extremists in every religion – even in the religion of political correctness or secular humanism – who take things too far, who lose sight of the big picture because they start over-focusing on the small stuff. We see it every day, particularly lately, as we watch some Muslims lose it over a bunch of cartoons of a mere man, not even a god. But to taint an entire group of people with the uncharitable label of “Pharisee” because of the actions of a few seems to me to be very narrow-minded.

And I have a problem with Bawer doing precisely the thing that many complain fundamentalists do – he chooses one scriptural passage and uses it to define down something that is very broad – the very teaching of Christ.

Yes, Jesus taught against mindless obedience to the law. But he never said the law did not matter. Jesus certainly taught about Love and Mercy, and Christ is certainly that. But Christ is also JUST, and Christ also told the leper whom he healed, “go show yourself to the priests and do what Moses prescribed…” He told the adulteress to “go and sin no more.” In the story of the Prodigal Son, Jesus affirmed the mercy and love of God, in the Father’s forgiveness of his wayward son. But he also reminded us that the other son – the one who strove to serve both love and the law – that “everything I have is yours.”

Jesus was an observant Jew who tried to teach us that while love can move BEYOND the law, it does not work OUTSIDE of it. That’s a subtle distinction too few people get.

Sometimes, in fact, the law must move BEYOND love.
Think of a parent who loves a child, but must allow him to spend a night in jail to re-inforce the fact that some behavior is completely unacceptable. The love is not negated; it simply is being applied together with the law – in that case, the law moves beyond love.

It cannot be either/or. Love or Law. Both must work together, sometimes they are equal. Sometimes Love takes the lead, sometimes Law moves ahead of it. Thus we shuffle through life. If Love and Law were feet, they would have to compliment each other, or we would stand still. If only Love led, the dragging foot of Law would inhibit our progress and vice versa.

Jesus healed a shriveled hand, and broke off grains of wheat on the Sabbath and he suggested that no sensible person would wait for Sabbath to end before trying to save a lamb who had fallen into a well. But he also prayed the minyan and advised people to follow the law. Christ was teaching us about balance, which our humanity requires. Yes, love supersedes law in exceptional cases, but exceptional is the operative word, here. You still need the framework, the laws and guidelines to keep life sensible and sane, balanced and livable.

In parenting, it is the same. There are rules. “Laws,” if you like. And occasionally – under exceptional circumstances – the rules are put aside, but they are not put aside habitually. They are not minimized for the sake of “loooooove!” No parent could successfully raise a child if the child was served only love, without respect for law. And no child wants to think there are no boundaries.

“If we get in the habit of talking more freely about our spiritual lives, that’s a big step. Then people get a wider understanding of what the word Christian can mean,” Bawer says. “Once people talk we can change the world. Simply by not talking we’ve allowed fundamentalism to grow.”

By wearing our religion on our sleeves, aren’t we in danger of becoming just like the fundamentalists, pushing our religion on others? Bawer says it’s a chance we must take.

“This is why there has been so little engagement on this subject because we think by talking about it we become like them. We don’t want to be smug, self-righteous, or judgmental, we don’t want to criticise anyone’s religion. It’s a fine line to walk. But we must remember that when Jesus got angry it was over this. He got angry at fundamentalists. He got angry at people trying to close the door of heaven on people. That’ s what got him angry, not what people did in their bedrooms.”

I am quite sure Mr. Bawer absolutely does not mean to come off as smug, self-righteous and judgmental as he does, there, and yes he is criticizing someone’s religion. And while Jesus may not have gotten “angry” at what people did in their bedrooms, he did tell them, lovingly, to cut it out and “sin no more.”

To “follow the rules.”

In truth, Jesus preached the ideal that too many do not want to hear: don’t sleep around, don’t sell your body or your humanity short, don’t marry recklessly or mindlessly because a vow is sacred and cannot be broken. He preached that we should love each other, yes. He said that if we hate in our hearts, we’ve as good as murdered. If our eye causes us to sin, we should (metaphorically) pluck it out.

In our era, those are very heavy “laws” that are not terribly popular. They are delivered with unfailing love, but they are still delivered, by the Christ – who is Love and Justice – who preaches Love, but also Law.

If, as Bawer suggests, the fundamentalists are “failing in love,” but Christ preached both “love and law,” then isn’t Bawer at risk, here of “failing in law,” and encouraging others to do so as well?

Is Bawer suggesting that the door of heaven is closed to fundamentalist Christians? It almost sounds like he is saying that, but I’ll give him the benefit of a doubt. I may have to read the book, to know.

UPDATE: A friend of mine who is in a diaconate program emailed me this comment, that I liked a lot: One of our teachers, discussing the gospel of John, points out that when the disciples rush to the empty tomb at the end, John arrives first, but waits for Peter to lead the way. John, who represents Love, follows Peter, who represents the Law

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!