Monday, March 23, 2015
"Bully pulpits and closet prayers"
In 1640, Boston had more educated people, per capita, than London, because Protestantism, Calvinism to be more exact, was all the rage. Hard to imagine, I know, but it's true. Puritanism wrote the mission statement for Harvard College. Jonathan Edwards, the most famous Calvinist preacher in American history, was once president of Yale.
Protestantism built schools all over the world. In Africa even today, differences between countries where England and France colonized still exist because the predominately Protestant Brits pushed universal education. Early American Protestant missionaries to this country's indigenous peoples were almost always responsible for the preservation of Native languages, not because those missionaries were anthropologists, but because they wanted, above all, to teach Native people to read the Bible. If the Reformation was about anything, it was about democratizing the Holy Scriptures, taking the Word out of the hands of the priests and placing it lovingly in the open hands of the laity. Sola Scriptura.
All of that is noble, a history I'm proud of, but it has its dark side.
Just for a moment, imagine you know Christianity in the way the Christian faith can be known in America even without participation. You love the Christmas season, and you know the Pope is rare because he gets headlines for saying things that no other pope has. You get that.
You also know that in some places three or four different churches stand inside just a couple of city blocks, that the internet has a million religious sites, and that any hour of the day or night you can find two or three TV preacher saying woe and woe and woe. Christian billboards are as ubiquitous as bumper stickers. Kids wear t-shirts with Bible verses--so do their moms and dads. And, oh yeah, someone down south somewhere is building an some big fat ark. What's that about?
So one day you ask the really nice woman you work with--she's got a bible verse on her coffee mug--that you don't get this whole Christian thing. That comment lights her up like nothing at work has in a long time, and she brings you a Bible. "Read this," she says.
So you go home, put your feet up, and open about halfway through--I mean, what do you know?--and find the book of Hosea. You start reading.
Hosea has a story, but that story--honestly?--is bizarre, half real and half parable. It's about a man who is ordered by God to marry a whore. He does, a spike-heeled street-walker named Gomer. She continues to make a living the hard way, but he buys her back. Seriously? Is that what happens? Anyway, the guy, Hosea, has kids by some wife--the tramp?--and gives them really bizarre names.
That's it. All of this happens in three chapters, and what follows are eleven more of sermons from Pat Robertson on steroids. Mostly the same, too, playing on a film loop.
Teaching the world to read was a noble effort, just as putting the Bible into the hands of everyone was a blessed event that, in its own way, gave birth to democracy.
But it also created a gadzillion readings, from Martin Luther to Martin Luther King, from Joseph Smith to David Koresh, from you and me and the weird guy down the street who's in sackcloth and ashes beneath that bizarre sandwich board. Isn't freedom a riot? Yes, it is.
Our little Bible study "did" Hosea this month, and I for one found this minor prophet a mystery, a scrapbook of sermons that no one took the time to edit. It rips up the Jews of the northern kingdom, but promises love anyway in a fashion that any believer--including this one--simply calls grace. I get that.
But it wouldn't work well on a flannelgraph. It requires interpretation, as does every last verse of the Bible. Listen, "Thou shalt not kill." Very true, except for police, of course, and Navy Seals and U.S. Marines. It's a raw and difficult rule, but it seems to me to be true that you can't just believe every word the Bible says.
Those first Calvinists knew it. That's the Geneva Bible at the top of the page, first Bible "of the people, for the people, and by the people" you might say. Have a look at the running commentary on the sides. That's there to teach you and me how to read because you can't just "read the Bible."
If it's the Word of God--and I believe it is--then, well, "it's complicated." David Koresh had a faith that was vastly deeper and stronger than mine, but he was also out so significantly out of his tree that he believed every woman on the compound was soon to be yet another Mary mother of God by his divine insemination.
I like what Samuel Mahaffy says in a recent post: "It is time to put religion back in the closet where it belongs. With fewer bully pulpits and more closet prayers, we may yet find our way back to the sacred."
He's not just talking about just Christians either. He's talking about Sikhs and Muslims and Mormons and Roman Catholics and Evangelicals and fundamentalists of all persuasions. It's time to pay attention to these words of Jesus: "But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen."
Mahaffy says we need fewer bully pulpits and more closet prayers, and he's right.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 6:55 AM