I was seventeen in 1988, and Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ had just landed in theaters. I had just started getting into his filmography with Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, and The King of Comedy. I couldn’t wait to see Willem Defoe’s Jesus and David Bowie’s Pontius Pilate.
When I got to the movie theater in my small town, local churches were picketing the film. To get from your car to the box office, you had to push through crowds of Christians making a nuisance of themselves. A middle-aged couple approached me and shoved a pamphlet into my hands, telling me I shouldn’t see this movie. The ensuing conversation went like this:
Man: “This film dishonors God.”
Me: “How so?”
Woman: “Well . . . it’s not accurate.”
Me: “Do you think the people here believe the script comes from the Bible?”
Man: “I should hope not. This movie presents Jesus as confused and unsure of why he was here.”
Me: “Oh. So you’ve seen it?”
Man: “Absolutely not.”
Me: “Then why do you have such strong opinions about it?”
Woman: “Our pastor told us how awful it is.”
I wasn’t a Christian but I was more than familiar with this attitude. It’s the same mindset Christians in my smallish town had about other things I enjoyed, like roleplaying games and rock music. They didn’t require personal experience. In my experience, Christians were more than happy to limit other peoples’ behavior based on their incredibly strong second-hand convictions.
I became a Christian four years later, serving in various ministry roles before becoming a pastor myself, and that’s when I saw how this sausage was made firsthand.
When opinions become gospel truth
In American evangelicalism, the church service revolves around the sermon. This is the part of the service when the pastor spends 20–40 minutes (sometimes longer) interpreting Scripture, exhorting church members, and dispensing life advice.
Depending on your church, these sermons can have all kinds of flavors. Some popular churches offer Scripture-sprinkled self-help advice with sermon series like “Winning at Life” or “The Marriage Makeover.” This is what you tend to find in large churches with unbelievable budgets.
Other churches prefer a more exegetical approach, walking through books of the Bible verse by verse. This is the approach of a lot of Calvary Chapel churches. For many Christians who consider themselves purists, this is the only way to preach and stay true to the Bible. But honestly, I’ve seen this method abused a lot. A lot of more conservative churches take an interpretive approach to preaching, ignoring context and using verses as jumping-off-points for culture war nonsense.
What’s never, ever acknowledged is that the service revolves around opinions. Some of these opinions may be more informed or educated than others, but they’re still opinions. You might prefer or agree with some of these opinions more than others, but they’re still opinions.
But they’re never presented as opinions.
Sermons are always delivered as TRUTH™. The information presented in sermons are always framed as enlightened gospel facts. The pastor speaks for God and offers God’s opinion on the day’s most pressing issues. And this TRUTH™ becomes a lens through which churchgoers see the world. After a while, hunting for a church becomes about finding one that agrees with the TRUTH™ (which typically means conforming to the opinions of a previous church).
Please don’t get me wrong here. If God exists and the Bible is accurate, then these opinions exist on a spectrum, and some are more accurate than others. Some church opinions align with my own opinions more than others. At this point, I just want to acknowledge that they’re all opinions.
Developing learned opinions
Emo Philips, the quirky 80s-era comedian, used to tell a joke that went like this:
I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. I immediately ran over and said, “Stop! Don’t do it!”
“Why shouldn’t I?” he said.
I said, “Well, there’s so much to live for!”
“Well . . . are you religious or atheist?”
“Me too! Are you Christian or Jewish?”
“Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?”
“Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?”
“Wow! Me too! Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?”
“Baptist Church of God.”
“Me too! Are you Original Baptist Church of God, or Reformed Baptist Church of God?”
“Reformed Baptist Church of God.”
“Me too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915?”
“Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915!”
To which I said, “Die, heretic scum!” and pushed him off.
Funny? Yes. But it really operates as a cutting piece of religious satire.
These pastors’ opinions don’t come out of thin air. Many attend colleges and seminaries where they’re given lenses through which they read and interpret Scripture. Maybe they read Scripture through Calvin’s Reformed lens, but is it a Cumberland Presbyterian lens or a Reformed Baptist lens? Questions like these matter and impact people in the pews.
I know many people raised in the church who felt called into ministry. And when they attended seminary, they discovered that the lens they were raised with was restrictive and unhelpful. They joyfully soaked up their education, excited to go back to their hometown and help reframe how people experienced God and Scripture only to discover that people didn’t want their perspective changed.
Too often, there is an anti-educational bent among Christians that assumes that a different opinion is a sign that a seminary student has been screwed up by their education. In fact, any opinions beyond the ones the hearer is familiar with is written off as aberrant and dangerous.
It seems like religious faith could be a lot healthier if we all admitted that our convictions are opinions, allowing ourselves to be open to better-informed opinions. Can you imagine if more religious people admitted that there are educated and sincere people who had different convictions? Can you imagine what it would look like if we tried to deeply understand alternative opinions rather than learning just enough to argue with them?
This sanctification of opinions has helped contribute to an evangelical morass that is actively hurting American dialogue.
Why American evangelicalism is more insular than ever
The problem with American evangelicalism is that it makes people accustomed to being told what to think instead of how to think. Like baby birds, they’re passively waiting for authority figures to regurgitate truth into their open mouths. After a while, they can only stomach certain opinions and viewpoints. If they’re unfamiliar with these opinions, they reject them.
This means that pastors are very careful to offer opinions that their congregations will accept. Often dancing around their strongly held opinions so as not to offend churchgoers—especially since those churchgoers pay their salary.
As the evangelical church began to battle the “social gospel” at the beginning of the twentieth century, it began to move farther and farther right. “Liberalism” became a buzzword that meant “anti-Christian.” More and more, the opinions shared in churches contained a lot of culture-war nonsense heavily focused on the conservatives fighting the evils of liberalism.
In the 1990s, right-wing media personalities like Rush Limbaugh began amassing a following in popular culture. Evangelical Christians recognized the viewpoints in these talk shows aligned with a lot of the “opinions” they heard regularly in church. So for more than three hours a day, these folks would fill their minds with mean-spirited nonsense from people like Rush and Mark Levin.
Nothing in their presentation sounded loving or kind like Jesus, but the opinions were so familiar and presented in the most entertaining (if not mean-spirited) manner. And for 15+ hours a week, these folks were being discipled by these personalities. It was impossible for pastors to keep up, and any attempt to bring alternative viewpoints and correction was opposed, lumping those pastors in with “the enemy.”
In the end, pastors ignored the problem and allowed it to grow, choosing not to go to battle with the vocal minority in their congregations who were willing to wage war over these opinions. Others took a “if you can’t be ‘em, join ‘em” approach, choosing to double down on conservative opinions and culture wars.
With the creation of Fox News in 1996, American evangelicals and the right-wing media machine began chasing each other further and further right. American evangelicals, used to being spoon fed their opinions, gobbled up everything these outlets fed them. It wasn’t too long before they were completely inoculated against facts and data. If something didn’t align with their minority opinion, it was because the devil was using popular culture, scientists, and secular establishments to hide the truth.
Many of these evangelicals only see faith through the lens of their politics. I have a family member who is always posting the most effusive religious updates, but they’re all the same. It’s all about trusting God to rescue the world from the evil liberals. They’re always sharing prophecy videos from Julie Green Ministries, which are just goofy prophecies about how God’s going to save Donald Trump and destroy democrats. It’s a complete synthesis of political opinion and religious conviction.
It’s what happens when the church tells people what to think instead of how to think. It’s what happens when religious leaders refuse to challenge congregants about their imbalanced perspectives.
It’s what happens when we refuse to acknowledge that the stuff we’re teaching in churches are opinions, and it’s dangerous to assume that we’re speaking for God.