It will probably never cease to seem ironic to me the extent to which conservative Evangelicals engage in historical revisionism on topics like the Bible and inerrancy, atonement, faith, science, abortion, and countless others. I distinctly recall how much emphasis was placed by the Evangelicals around me, when I was in that context, on getting back to authentic Christianity in contrast with the many counterfeits on offer. Yet those who study the early Christian movement with the tools relevant to the task, i.e. historians and other scholars of antiquity, are largely ignored if not adamantly rejected. With hindsight it is clear why. Historical research will challenge the depiction of the past, the “Golden Age,” that is used as an authority and motivation. It is an imagined past that conservative Evangelicalism seeks to recover, and its authority for doing so is an equally-imaginary Bible.
Conservative Christianity made the word “cult” famous as a negative epithet they placed on all sorts of religious communities and ideas. Yet the sectarianism, the insistence that one not trust mainstream sources of knowledge (now most visible in how conservative Christian Republicans talk about “mainstream media” by which they mean every news outlet around the world saying things they don’t want to believe and refuse to accept) are all characteristics of these supposedly anti-cult Christians. The truth is that they were never opposed to being a cult per se, but only to all the other cults that are wrong, unlike them.
What I’ve come to realize is that “getting back to the Bible,” “Bible-believing Christians,” and emphasis on the “fundamentals of the faith” are all marketing slogans. Advertising may be true or false, obviously. In this case, the “clear teaching of scripture” and “historic Christian faith” that are pointed to are a construction from a patchwork of biblical texts that are pushed into the service of an ideology that often, on the one hand, ignores many things that are given much more attention in the Bible, and on the other hand, emphasizes things that the Bible pays little or no attention to.
One place where there is consistency is nothing to be proud of. There is an emphasis on speaking boldly and sharing one’s faith. As conservative Christianity has bought into paranoia, pseudoscience, and conspiracy theories over the decades, it has evangelized and won converts to those falsehoods. Ironically, those of us who seek to understand the Bible more honestly and thoroughly, who embrace the Bible’s emphasis on the need for humility in view of our own fallibility, and who recognize that in judging others we risk condemning ourselves, often set aside the emphasis on speaking the truth boldly. The result is that those who only pretend to have the truth are left to spread lies unchallenged. We need to do a better job of combining the introspective self-criticism that authentic Christianity teaches us to have, with the boldness to speak the truth as we perceive and understand it, while still remaining open to being challenged and corrected.
In the meantime the phenomenon of conservative Christianity will continue to betray Jesus and the Bible while believing itself faithful. Its adherents will continue to promote lies with a smug air of righteousness because they genuinely believe they are standing on and for truth. Merely calling them out or working to expose the deceit at work is not enough. Those of us committed to the Bible’s emphasis on redemption must find ways to win those who have been deceived over to the truth. We must persevere despite frequent disappointments knowing that being as consistently honest and loving as we can may have an effect, in the longer term if not immediately. The true way of Jesus is not at all easy. But it is rewarding and bears fruit.
There is a lot more that has appeared on blogs I read in recent days that ties in with this topic, and so let me share some of those things on the next page…