Drastically Different Themes, Same Source

October 17, 2009

scripture

So I recently read two vastly different books that both extensively referenced Christian and Hebrew scripture to espouse two completely antithetical viewpoints. Of course, this is nothing new. Theologians, religious commentators, preachers, teachers, rabbi’s, clergy and laypersons alike all quote scripture to back up their respective viewpoints on a regular basis.

Yet the stark difference in the two books made me step back and reaffirm for myself what many others have: that in any religion or philosophy in which scriptures are held to be canononical, inspired, important, revered, foundational or simply useful, there comes a point when you have to choose which overall thematic consistency you wish to stick with and affirm. That is, if you wish to stay with the scriptures in the first place. Saying that you do wish to keep some grounding with them, you have to decide and I think (like John Dominic Crossan mentioned in “God and Empire”) that it comes down to peace or war; love or judgment; common ground or divide and conquer.

The two books I’m writing about are drastically different in every sense of the word: they were written in different decades, by different personalities, in different styles, from different worldviews, from different religious doctrines and perspectives yet both claim absolute Christianity. One is “The Sovereignty of God” by Arthur Pink. It was written in 1918 as a treatise. It’s writer is very confrontational throughout, claiming most of the religious folks of his day have completely lost their way and turned to a fake, watered down and irrelevant God. His convictions lie in an absolute controlling, all powerful, intimately involved God who selected a few certain souls to save from hell before creation was even formed and who has laid out every breath of every person and every turn of every event before it occurs. For Pink, this is the only possible interpretation of God in light of scripture as he reads it. For Pink, the utmost important thing to realize is that God is mighty, powerful and deserving of deep reverence, fear and awe. Every thing that happens to an individual is for a reason known only to God; humankind is base, vile and created from the “polluted” ground and deserves nothing but punishment and hell–which most of them will get since only a small “elect” are destined for “salvation.” For Pink, the entire purpose of life is to preach this truth and await judgment hoping to be one of those elect knowing that no man truly knows who is among that number. Pink’s treatise is early 20th century hyper-Calvinism; he acknowledges that term with a scoff but never denies it and never delivers anything but it. He’s not crafted anything new, nor does he claim to. He claims it’s the original message of scripture that has been watered down, but more accurately it hearkens back to John Calvin and further back to Augustine. “The Sovereignty. of God” isn’t my typical reading, but it was recommended to me by someone who espouses the same view with full compassion and sincerity today. It’s also a popular theology for many young Christians now, folks influenced by writers like John Piper.
The other book is “The Irresistible Revolution.” It’s not a treatise, more of a memoir in the making. The writer, Shane Claiborne, is a young evangelical yet also a very “radical’ person in the sense of modern Christianity. He is uncomfortable with the term without amending it with the term “ordinary”– thus “ordinary radical,” because he doesn’t wish to puff himself up. He writes of working with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, assisting in leprosy care there near the end of her life. He writes of flying to Iraq to spend time with children and be an “advocate for peace” when the US was bombing them heavily. He writes of the lawsuits he’s been forced to defend himself in for sleeping on the streets, communal sharing, giving free food away to his neighborhood, etc. Claiborne takes the idea of Jesus to “give up all and follow me” literally and tries to do that as much as possible with the hope that he and all around him will have enough to get by.

Although written 80 years apart, both of these styles of thinking have been present for hundreds of years. One sees the thematic thrust of scripture to be that of radical compassion and social justice: protect the stranger and the outsider; love your neighbor; honor God. Turn the other cheek; go the extra mile, if you have two coats give one away, advocate for a world in which the last become first, the wine never runs out at the wedding banquet and everyone is welcome at the table. This type of theology has been present for a long time; it was called “the Social Gospel” in the 1920s and “Progressive Christianity” in our own day (among other more deriding terms in both cases). The other theology is one of judgment, vengeance and damnation. We are vile; we deserve punishment; Jesus paid the debt for some of us; the rest will burn in hell. Care for the world in this theology is relegated to getting folks into church and that’s it–for extreme opinions in this theology even that is suspect since God can call strangers to church so we wait for them and if they come then we care for them–but not before, because the world turned its back on Christ so we must do the same to the world.
Well, you can thoroughly back up either view with scripture…maybe not correctly, but you can throw out and string together verses, phrases and doctrinal interpretations to support either view, and although folks on the other side can refute those verses with carefully selected verses of their own, it can become a circular argument and never stop. If it could be decisively argued, it wouldn’t keep coming back into popularity in certain circles.

Obviously, whether you like to admit it or not, eventually your opinion and worldview within a faith tradition must incorporate things outside of just the scriptures themselves; after all, all the books in scripture were written by different authors with different historical and cultural perspectives, at different times, in different styles, in different languages. They were assembled later, far after the fact. They were translated through multiple languages. If you want to grasp your head around what you believe in their regards, you have to consult historical criticism, personal revelation, faith history, denominational and religious context, modern discovery and ultimately your own intuition, intelligence and heart.

You ultimately have a choice…does your heart tell you the thrust of Religion should be forgiveness, love, compassion, mercy and work that leads toward justice for fellow humankind and honor of God? Or does your heart tell you Religion is about following the rules to the T, discerning that you are indeed correct in a multitude of issues and ensuring you are part of the one “real” in-group rather than part of the out-group? Only one of these viewpoints is compatible to involving all and working with all for the betterment of the world and all people, all religions. The other is very exclusive and has room for but a few. Of course, one view is highly concerned with making this world better while the other is best suited for closing your eyes and waiting for eternity, hoping hell doesn’t await. That’s psychologically difficult on a multitude of levels…

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