This post is part of a three-part series on The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture by Christian Smith
This is an extremely difficult post to write, primarily because I consider Christian Smith a friend. I am a huge fan of his work, and I have admiringly cited him in almost all of my academic work. Both his research and his theory are, I think, the very best in the sociology of American religion these days.
Also, I have stood in solidarity with him in the past as he struggled with the theology and policies of Young Life. In fact, knowing something of his struggle in that regard, I am tempted to think that his struggles there led directly to this book. And possibly to what I consider its fatal flaw.
Further, I think this is a very, very good book, and I’m glad that Brazos published it. It is both well-written and well-researched, as are all of Smith’s books.
To summarize the posts of the last two days, Smith argues that biblicism, practiced by a large number of conservative evangelical Protestants in America, is an untenable position to hold. It is, he argues, ultimately unreasonable. For instance, biblicists claim that the Bible is without error, yet they seem unable to account for the myriad evangelical interpretations of a particular passage or issue in the text.
Instead, Smith proposes a christological hermeneutic, which he borrows from Karl Barth (by way of Jeff McSwain, who was at the center of the Young Life controversy). In this reading, Christ is the key – Christ renders unimportant the contradictions in the Bible; Christ makes the archaic prohibitions in the Bible inapplicable (e.g., women should wear head coverings and stay silent in church); Christ and his salvific acts supersede all arguments about ancillary biblical issues and texts.
So far, so good.
But here’s the paragraph from the introduction where this all comes undone for me, and herein lies the reason that this post is so difficult to write:
I should also say up front, for the purposes of full disclosure, that, since completing the writing of this book, I have joined the Catholic Church. My reasons for becoming Catholic – an evangelical Catholic, I might add – were many, and only partly related to the issues raised here. This fact of my autobiography, however, takes nothing away from the importance and legitimacy of this book’s argument for American evangelicalism – a movement about which I still care, in certain ways admire, and want to see realizing its best potential. Toward that end, for evangelical Protestants who intend to remain evangelical, the argument of this book stands strong and deserves to be engaged and answered. The constructive suggestions with which I conclude this book hold true for evangelical Protestants, and, to be clear, no reader needs to become Catholic in order to embrace any or all of them.
He adds in an endnote,
Of course the Catholic Church itself professes a very high view of scripture and must reckon with the same interpretive challenges outlined in the following chapters, although it arguably brings to that task a fuller toolbox of resources.
Now, I must make clear that I am not personally critical of Smith’s conversion to Catholicism. I, of course, respect his right to believe and practice whatever religion he’d like, and I don’t know the circumstances of his conversion. Neither, I hope, am I letting my own admitted antipathy toward Catholicism overshadow Smith’s contribution.
However, I must disagree with him. This fact of his autobiography does undermine this book’s argument.
Here’s why: Smith argues that the dominant hermeneutic in evangelicalism – which he calls “biblicism” – is ultimately untenable because it is unreasonable. Biblicism leads to all sorts of hermeneutical and theological gymnastics, which Smith catalogues at length in the book. These gymnastics lead evangelicals to hold theological, moral, and even political positions that are downright silly, and can clearly be shown with little effort to be out of step with the biblical narrative. Evangelicals’ lack of care for the welfare of the poor, their support of the death penalty, and their inherent racism – all of which have been established by research in Smith’s earlier books – are just three examples.
However, Smith has now submitted himself to the Catholic Church, surely the most authoritarian and dogmatic hermeneutical community in all of Christendom. In other words, he has exchanged one community of irrationality for another.
- As a Catholic, Smith will have no say in the church’s position in any of the church’s theological positions. He won’t get a vote in exegetical disputes on the very texts that he writes about in this book.
- I hope the fact is not lost on Smith that, as a layperson, he was allowed and even encouraged to write book very critical of the evangelical church by an evangelical publishing house. In the Catholic Church, non-clergy members are both formally and culturally not encouraged to question the Church, particularly in print.
- Even preeminent theologians in the Catholic Church are kept from the very kind of critical engagement with the church that Smith engages in this book – and, I might add, that Smith holds dear in the tradition of liberal democracy. I wonder, for example, what Smith would say about the magisterium’s treatment of Hans Küng – arguably the best Catholic theologian of the 20th century, Küng was silenced by the church for writing a book that questioned papal infallibility.
- The Catholic Church has a dismal record of encouraging laypersons to study and engage the text of scripture, another practice that Smith seems to hold dear.
- The Catholic Church has a long history of tortured readings of the Bible, from the Crusades to the selling of indulgences.
- That tortured hermeneutic continues today. The Catholic Church readily uses biblical justifications for the veneration of Mary, a hierarchical ecclesiology, a claim that it is the “one, true church,” and an all-male celibate priesthood. And this lattermost interpretation, it can be argued, has led to the rampant sexual deviance and pedophilia that, unbelievably, continues to be uncovered on a weekly basis.
And I could go on.
I’ve argued before that all religious systems are, at some level, irrational, and I’ve argued that some are more more irrational than others. I don’t like it, but it’s true. By submitting yourself to a religious system, you necessarily embrace a certain amount of irrationality. So be it.
However, one can choose the hermeneutical community to which one submits oneself. I have, and Christian Smith has.
But Smith’s critique of evangelicalism is that evangelicals read the Bible irrationally. I agree. But I submit that Smith has now joined a hermeneutical community that is just as irrational, but it’s one in which his voice won’t be valued.