In times past, Christians were seen as catalysts for change. The Books of Acts traces the impact of Christians on a preponderantly pagan society.
FIRST CENTURY IDOLS
When St. Paul encountered the worship of idols, he called the people out, challenging them to turn to the “one true God.”
According to church history, wherever the apostles, who were scattered by the Great Diaspora, wound up, they preached the gospel (“good news” of God’s love), a new way, and consequently thousands of people adopted a new ethic and a new lifestyle.
Ostensibly, twelve men (the Bible leads us to believe) were ultimately responsible for altering the way of thinking and believing in the first and second centuries.
THE RUINS OF JERUSALEM
The least we can say is that after the fall of Jerusalem and the spreading of this newborn faith throughout Eastern Europe, the world was never again the same. Yes, there was change, but the central question is: Was it for the better or for the worse?
A study of religious movements, disputes, outrages and wars provoked by Christianity (the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Reformation and Puritanism, to name a few) raises valid questions.
Today, Christianity has a tremendous worldwide presence. The twelve have become 2.18 billion! A substantial majority of Americans claim they are Christians. Christian missionaries are proclaiming the gospel in all parts of the modern world.
A CHURCH IN ADELAIDE AUSTRALIA
And a new question is raised. Has Christianity lost its power to significantly affect society? As I see it, that appears to be the case. And largely, I suspect, because modern Christians have perverted the message of Christ. What the modern church, in general, espouses is neither attractive nor effective!
If it were attractive, hundreds of thousands of new converts would flock to the churches annually. Sanctuaries would be overflowing–not half full. Churches, not the government, would be the most visible, successful protectors of the impoverished.
If it were effective–that is, if it had the power and the authority to change society–most of the prominent issues the church occupies itself with would be moot. It is unlikely that terrorism would be a major concern, and crime blotters might take up a column inch in our local newspapers.
Something is radically wrong with modern Christianity. It ought to be making an impact in and on our daily lives, but it isn’t. It should be changing our society, but it isn’t. It should be a proactive force for what is just, right and good, but it isn’t.
Is the church no longer a major, positive force for change in our society? I’m afraid so.
If you have doubts about this, consider the number of social issues where the church establishment is on one side and the majority of its congregants are on the other. The church needs either 1) to re- invigorate its message or 2) stop slighting its relevant, major message with minor irrelevancies.
It might also practice what it preaches!
[This article first appeared in the Huntington, West Virginia Herald-Dispatch a number of years ago. It seems as relevant today as it was when it first appeared. Readers can find a weekly column by this writer in the Monday morning issue of the Herald-Dispatch.]
The back story is a tragic one. My brother apparently succumbed to depression, sought solace in a bottle, was disowned by his family, divorced by his wife, and died in a homeless camp.
He and I had not been in contact since my mother died seventeen years ago. I got a vaguely uncomfortable feeling around him and his wife and I just didn’t make an effort to stay in touch. As the years went by it got easier and more comfortable not to call. Of course his phone dialed out. That’s what I told myself, but I felt guilty about it.
Now I know the reason for that uncomfortable feeling. He, his wife, and children got drawn into a very fundamentalist church after moving to Colorado Springs from California (where they were completely secular as far as I knew).
LANDSCAPE OF THE FUNDIE CAPITAL OF AMERICA
This church is part of the Presbyterian Church in America. They split off from the Presbyterian Church USA because they opposed the ordination of women. Not only are women not allowed to become ministers, they are allowed no other role in the church although I suppose they can teach Sunday School. In addition to the usual fundie stuff–anti-gay, anti-women, Biblical inerrancy, etc.–and the hardline Calvinist stuff–double predestination, they are tied in to the Colorado Springs dominionist complex. They are heavily involved with Navigators for instance.
So I went out to attend the memorial service with great trepidation. I didn’t know if he would be held up as an object lesson in which happens to sinners and reprobates or if there would be a lot of airbrushing–glossing over how he died.
It turned out there was both. We got a hardline sermon worthy of Jonathan Edwards about justification by faith alone.
And there was airbrushing. Actually, airbrushing doesn’t begin to cover it. I got home yesterday and my mind is still blown. That’s why I felt compelled to write his diary.
Now I have no knowledge of the accuracy of what was told about their life in Colorado Springs since I was not in contact with them during that time, but I know something about my brother’s and my life growing up, about my brother’s young adulthood before he moved to California and I know something about my parents.
The first alternative fact was that my brother and his wife were not divorced. This church does not allow divorce except in cases of violent physical abuse. Apparently that was the initial story–that my brother had been physically abusive to my sister-in-law. I never believed it. My brother was not a violent person ever. By the time of the memorial service, though, it seems the story had changed. There simply was no divorce. It never happened.
Then came the alternative facts about my parents. My father was elevated to the bench. He was an attorney. In fact he was a member of the National Lawyer’s Guild (Oh, how I would have loved to have laid that one on the Elder and watched his face), but he was never a judge. My Unitarian Democratic mother was simply airbrushed out of the story. The word “mother” was not even spoken, as if my brother, like MacDuff, was not of woman born.
Then there was the story about how my brother met his wife. I know the facts in that case because I was there at the time. They met when she married on of my brother’s close friends. My brother was married to his first wife at the time. Her husband later deserted her and my brother’s marriage fell apart and they eventually got together. In the alternative fact version, there was no previous spouses. They met on a canoe trip. My brother lost his hat. She dived into the water to retrieve it and it was love at first sight.
All of this is so strange I had to write about it. It was fascinating, in a horrifying way, to see the way in which these people manufacture an alternative reality not just with respect to politics or science, but even with regards to the very day trials and tribulations of the human condition.
The gist of the alternative story is that my brother was never divorced from his second wife. There was no first wife. There was no Unitarian Democratic mother. He was not an apostate, but a faithful Calvinist believer to the end. He died of pneumonia in the loving bosom of his family, not in a homeless camp.
I know one thing no one else knows, however. After my cousin got the first disturbing phone call from my brother, we were frantically googling to find any kind of contact information for his kids to try and see what was going on. We found it on Colorado’s outline data base of registered voters. As I was searching for an obituary this past week, I stumbled on that data base again and I discovered that my brother had updated his voter registration (he must have used someone else’s address) and changed his party affiliation from Republican to Independent. I would like to think that he died in a state of grace–Unitarian grace–that he knew a moment of peace before he passed and that he did not suffer.
[This article is reprinted with the permission of Daily Kos. The author is, obviously, anonymous.]
l.. MILTON HANKINS
I am working on my fourth book, tentatively called “A Sensible Look at Genesis.” It will be a companion volume to “A Sensible Theology for Thinking People.”
In “A Sensible Theology…” I barely touched on issues like time and beginnings, the creation, Adam and Eve, Noah and the Ark, etc., which comprised merely fifteen pages in the published work. The first two chapters of Genesis alone raise lots of questions. Some of them will forever remain unanswerable–at least to the inquisitive mind–or answered unsatisfactorily.
An in-depth look at Genesis raises many questions about the “beginnings,” as we might expect.
The Quest Study Bible (NIV) published by Zondervan (1994), responds to the question “How technical is this description of creation?” in this way: “While the ‘days’ of creation could be either a figure of speech or literal 24-hour periods, this passage is nevertheless an orderly narration of what took place.” I take exception to both assertions.
A few sentences later, it adds, “…human beings have been given the privilege to explore, through scientific investigation, how God may have engineered these events, and how long he took.” This is an astonishing admission by the authors of the study guide that God welcomes our inquires. Of course, it could also be a tongue-in-cheek statement implying that our questions will never find satisfactory answers beyond the Bible text.
I was reminded of several occasions, when I was a youngster, being told by pastors and Sunday school teachers, “There are some thing we human beings are not supposed to question!” They would sometimes say, “It’s a sin to question God!” These same, well-intentioned spiritual advisors further suggested that unseemly inquiry into the nature and work of God diminishes our faith. I found this response exceptionally offensive. Even if the pastors were not able to, God was surely clever enough to come up with a satisfactory answer to any question I, a mere lad, might frame.
I always wondered, too, if the Bible writers were inspired by the “Holy Spirit,” why didn’t this Holy Spirit simply tell them how things were done–forthrightly and accurately! What was the point of stories that mostly spurred further speculation? Why the obfuscation and obscuration?
STUDYING THE BIBLE
The result of not questioning what we read (yes, even reading the Bible), can lead to stagnation in our way of thinking about spiritual matters. As a matter of fact, if our only understanding of scripture comes filtered through pastors or Sunday school teachers without questioning, we are in danger of indoctrination or brain-washing. Many cult leaders have flourished under the notion that their followers must believe every word they utter and follow it to the letter…even to committing mass suicide!
If I gained any particular impression of the members of the churches I served it would be that they readily admitted their lack of Bible knowledge. Bible study classes never exceeded ten percent of the members of the congregation. More distressing, of those parishioners who attended Sunday evening services, very few could remember the text of the morning’s sermon.
Going back to the “beginnings,” in my dotage, is a fascinating adventure. Amazingly, considering the number of times I have read the book of Genesis, I continue to ask new, thought-provoking questions. If it is a sin to question God, I plead “guilty!”
I hope my effort, when it is finished and published, will be a successful, rewarding read (and study guide) for anyone wondering about how everything came to be!
[Dr. Hankins’s book “A Sensible Theology for Thinking People” can be most easily obtained through Amazon.com. It can also be ordered through your local bookstore.]