Word of God or Just a Storybook?
This Q&A was first published at www.progressivechristianity.org on Feb. 7th, 2018
Question & Answer
JP from the Internet, asks:
I don’t understand why, for centuries the BIBLE has been and IS the inspired word of GOD. Now, for some reason, a few (and not chosen few) think it is just a storybook. It is their fault that the United Methodist church is breaking up. The BIBLE is clear on what GOD thinks of homosexuality. If you notice, the churches that are growing are not mainline liberal churches but fundamental Bible-believing churches. I was raised a Protestant Methodist.
Answer: Rev. David M. Felten
Wow, growing up in the Methodist Protestant Church makes you a member of a unique and particularly tenacious group of Southerners! I understand this is a group that walked out of the 1939 Methodist merger bringing together denominations that had split over slavery 100 years prior. Your MPC ancestors were (and I believe still are) convinced that the Bible is infallible and inerrant (which is demonstrably NOT the case). It did, however, help them make a Biblical case for slavery (and the “attacks of the Abolitionists,” who “would disturb the settled order of Providence, and dissolve the connection between master and slave, that has been recognized by the great Governor of the Universe).
My guess is that the MPC probably doesn’t support slavery any more (at least publicly), but back in the day, they made the same argument for slavery that I think you’re making for opposing basic civil rights for non-heterosexuals: the “settled order” “recognized by the great Governor of the Universe.” I hope we can agree that God’s “settled order” was wrong about slavery. According to the Bible, God’s “settled order” also included the advocacy of genocide, women as property, and rampant xenophobia. I’d like to be able to say that these ideas are no longer considered acceptable, but like zombies, they don’t want to die. Sadly the’ve been given new credence by President Trump (who doesn’t understand why, “if we’ve got the nukes, why we can’t use them”, brags about grabbing women by the genitals, and dismisses whole countries as “shitholes.”) So, far from being embarrassing chapters we’d rather forget, we’ve still got to contend with people who think genocide, misogyny, and xenophobia are OK, but homosexuality is bad.
It begs the question: What is it about the issue of homosexuality that makes people so upset? What is it about basic civil rights for all Americans that causes people to resort to getting God involved in opposition? That’s a strategy that hasn’t worked out too well for God over the years. Breaking news: “God is against basic human rights.” Yikes.
Look, I don’t have an answer – and neither do the poor sots who’ve been tasked with trying to keep the United Methodist denomination from breaking up over the next year or so. It goes right back to the slaveholder vs. abolitionist playbook: anti-LGBTQ advocates clinging to disreputable Bible-passages vs. those convinced that all human beings are of sacred worth (despite what a few passages in the Bible say).
You may not believe it, but I have deep respect for the Bible. I’ve spent my entire adult life studying it. And I’m here to tell you (as evidently one of the “not chosen”) that it is indeed a storybook — but not “just” a storybook. It contains the stories of people who have spent their whole lives wrestling with and interpreting the meaning of life. It is not inerrant. It is not historical. Its books contain stories — stories with way more meaning than mere history. Our job is to interpret those stories for a new generation, not simply try to conform to old ways of thinking.
One of the books I recommend to people who are wrestling with some of the things it sounds like you’re wrestling with is Bishop John Shelby Spong’s “Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism.” He, too, grew up in a Southern fundamentalist denomination and has since come to a different understanding of the Bible and his faith. If you get it and read it, I’d love to correspond with you about any questions you have.
Wrestling with new ideas is never easy – especially when they seem to threaten a comfortable, established way of looking at the world. To paraphrase Harry Emerson Fosdick (a Baptist, BTW), “The enemy of Christianity isn’t change, but stagnation.” To celebrate and encourage the cessation of change will continue to drive young and old alike out of what’s left of the church.
But, if we embrace the core values of justice and compassion expressed in the Bible, we are compelled to stand with the oppressed and voiceless, accommodating the reality that the Spirit is flexing with our evolving humanity. For me, clinging to values that exclude and disrespect others is made even worse when they’re justified by out-of-context Biblical proof texting. It’s theological malpractice.
Read Jack’s book. Go sit in a quiet place and ask yourself, will God really love me more because I hate the right people? I’ll leave it to you.
Committed to Progress,
PS: Just to be clear, I doubt the MPC is growing (I think there are only a few dozen MPCs left, scattered across the Confederacy). And as a matter of fact, it’s a myth that “fundamental Bible believing churches” are growing like crazy. Everybody’s losing members — even those wildly liberal Southern Baptists have lost a million members in the last 10 years. If you want more statistics, you can find them on the web.
About the Author
Rev. David M. Felten is a full-time pastor at The Fountains, a United Methodist Church in Fountain Hills, Arizona. David and fellow United Methodist Pastor, Jeff Procter-Murphy, are the creators of the DVD-based discussion series for Progressive Christians, “Living the Questions”.
A co-founder of the Arizona Foundation for Contemporary Theology and also a founding member of No Longer Silent: Clergy for Justice, David is an outspoken voice for LGBTQ rights both in the church and in the community at large. David is active in the Desert Southwest Conference of the United Methodist Church and tries to stay connected to his roots as a musician. You’ll find him playing saxophones in a variety of settings, including appearances with the Fountain Hills Saxophone Quartet.
David and his wife Laura, an administrator for a large Arizona public school district, live in Phoenix with their three often adorable children.
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