Thursday, December 19, 2013

Why I don't stand with Phil Robertson (or his critics)

In recent news, a Christian said something controversial in the news again and everyone is making a big deal about it. Other Christians rush to his defense, saying he was only standing for his beliefs and his his free speech rights have been violated, while others explain that this isn't how free speech works.

Sigh. Usually I keep silent on hot-button news stories like this one, but this time I'm going to give my two cents and hope they're helpful.

As a Christian, I can certainly understand the comments commending Phil Robertson for standing up for his beliefs. The Bible is full of examples of Christians suffering more than banning from a TV show and public ridicule for holding onto their faith. But I worry that many of the people who say this haven't looked too closely at the beliefs he actually expressed—particularly the context in which he expressed them. Here is the relevant section from page 2 of the GQ interview:
“We’re Bible-thumpers who just happened to end up on television,” he tells me. “You put in your article that the Robertson family really believes strongly that if the human race loved each other and they loved God, we would just be better off. We ought to just be repentant, turn to God, and let’s get on with it, and everything will turn around.” 
What does repentance entail? Well, in Robertson’s worldview, America was a country founded upon Christian values (Thou shalt not kill, etc.), and he believes that the gradual removal of Christian symbolism from public spaces has diluted those founding principles. (He and Si take turns going on about why the Ten Commandments ought to be displayed outside courthouses.) He sees the popularity of Duck Dynasty as a small corrective to all that we have lost. 
“Everything is blurred on what’s right and what’s wrong,” he says. “Sin becomes fine.” 
What, in your mind, is sinful? 
“Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men,” he says. Then he paraphrases Corinthians: “Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”
The first thing to notice about Robertson's controversial remarks is that they were a response to a request to define sin on a major news site—an opportunity any pastor or theologian would long for. But I can't defend his answer. Saying that "homosexual behavior" is the very epicenter of sin isn't just offensive, it's grossly unbiblical. To his credit, he does follow this up with citing Scripture, but cites one of Paul's "sin lists" in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. These lists weren't meant to be definitions of sin any more than his later lists of spiritual gifts (see 1 Cor 12:28-30) were meant to be comprehensive—more likely, Paul was targeting specific sins that the Corinthians were shamelessly practicing in the name of "freedom in Christ". His purpose was to convict and bring about repentance in a church that was under his pastoral care, not to provide a proof-text to Christians who want to tell openly gay people why they're going to hell.

Even more generally, I can't agree with defining sin as any list of specific bad behaviors or rules broken; as I know all too well, such a list will always serve as a license to freely do things that aren't on it. Any definition of sin that leaves anyone feeling as if they've dodged a bullet isn't big enough, because we're all sinners—and prone to forget that fact if we're not reminded of it. What if the outrage at Robertson's comments aren't simply the expected sinful resistance to Christian teaching, but directed at an uneven definition of sin that designates the one giving it a paragon of righteousness and "those people" the problem? Paul actually does define sin in Romans 14:23: "For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin." This verse makes me deeply uncomfortable because it shows how impossibly high the bar for righteousness is set. There is no one in a lifeboat floating above the flood of sin, calling out to haul people in; we're all slowly sinking, and Jesus is our (metaphorical) lifeboat. Anyone who uses other peoples' sin simply to condemn them or feel better about themselves has missed the point. First take the log out of your own eye (Mat 7:5).

But neither do I want to join the torrent of outrage over Robertson's comments. Parts of the outcry also worry me. The secular pattern of sacralizing the ideal of "tolerance" and demonizing anyone who dares infringe on it with labels like "bigotry", "hate speech", or "homophobia" is surprisingly reminiscent of conflicts within conservative Christianity in which [DOCTRINE] is righteously defended from all its unbelieving naysayers, whose Christian credentials are (respectfully) questioned for their refusal to believe God when He tells them [DOCTRINE]. Not that I'm saying every gay-rights advocate is like this—but I do often see what appears to be incredulity that anyone would dare to be so backward as to question gay rights or the homosexual lifestyle. Let's not get intolerant for the sake of tolerance.

Finally, the whole shenanigan reminds me of what the apostle John said about the world. Christians are not supposed to be surprised that the world hates them (1 Jo 3:13), and should remember that it hated Jesus first (Jhn 15:18). But this is often taken further from not being surprised, to expecting the world to hate you as a sign that you're successfully shining as a "light for Christ" in the darkness. This expectation makes it remarkably easy to miss how comments like Robertson's are a problem and damage peoples' views not just of Christians, but of their God. But neither should we be willing to go to any lengths to avoid being branded a "bigot" for the sake of being "all things to all people" (1 Cor 9:22) in order to win some, until we're bending over backwards to our culture to show how "hip" or "relevant" Christianity can be. Maybe it's best to just not worry what people are calling us.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Nativity Story and Interpretive Tradition

As the celebration of Christ's birth comes nearer, I thought it would be appropriate to share an article (previously alluded to) examining our tradition of saying Jesus was born in a stable. Specifically, the author points out that the nativity account in Luke 2 never says that Jesus was born in a stable (much less a cave), that the word for "inn", katalyma, is translated to "guest room" the other two times it is used in the NT, and asks some very good questions that the born-in-a-stable account raises. This leads to a new hypothesis for the circumstances of Jesus' birth:
Archeologists have excavated houses from the time of Jesus, and they are very much the same as some rural Palestinian (and Mexican) farmhouses today: a guest room for visiting family or friends; other than that the whole house is basically a big open room. The family cooks in this corner, sleeps in that corner, sits and visits in that other corner. There’s a little “mud room” (that’s what my Wisconsin farmer friends call it) or “dirt room” (that’s what my West Texas farmer friends call it) at the entrance. You walk in, take off your dirty farming boots, then step into the rest of the house. But it’s all one big room. The cow or donkey was brought in at night and kept in the mud room. This served the dual purpose of protecting the animal and adding warmth to the house. And there was always…yep, you guessed it…a feeding trough - a manger - for the animals to eat from while they waited through the night.
I'm not trying to be provocative or rain on anyone's Christmas parade here. Maybe I'm being a bit of a perfectionist (don't get me started on Nativity scenes with the wise men). If you find this alternate theory of Jesus' birth interesting, feel free to share it with others. If you find it offensive, let me suggest that you have too much invested in an account on which no Christian doctrine or practice are based. The only difference it makes whether Jesus was born in a stable or a "mud room" is for our understanding of Luke 2, and whatever significance we have vested in it. The truth is, though we Protestants like to elevate Scripture and demote tradition, that doesn't stop us from formulating our own, by making certain interpretations of Scripture identical in our minds to "what the Bible says".

Or maybe a stable is just easier to draw/carve/animate.