There Is Nothing Neat Or Unified
The book titled If God Is Love, Don’t Be A Jerk is the most recent offering from the minister championing the LGBTQ cause, John Pavlovitz. On some levels, it was a great read and on others, it was a disappointment.
I came across John’s online presence this last year and was intrigued. I identified with his frustrations, particularly with regard to the same-sex marriage debate so I was really looking forward to this book. He was a prominent voice with the dubious distinction of having been ousted by the religious community promoting intolerance for sexual orientation issues and I was hoping he could offer arguments and rationale that hadn’t been thought of yet.
Unfortunately, his arguments weren’t that fresh. In fact, same-sex issues weren’t the main theme and when mentioned, were usually lumped together with other issues which in the end only minimized the topic. The other issues are important also but I was looking for something different.
What surprised me most was his ideas emerged from a very different perspective than the one in which he’d spent much of his ministry labors.
I grew up in fundamental evangelical circles, much like the one John was ousted from, but, like John and many others, have grown concerned about Christian obsessions over political issues and personalities. I didn’t vote for Trump in either election and I’ve known professing Christians who were far worse than the same-sex-oriented folks they decry.
John was an interesting breath of fresh air. He writes on many political/cultural/social issues on his blog and he often hits home. Many people don’t like him or his remarks but that might be because many of the arguments stem from the very words of Jesus and that makes them hard to refute.
I was hoping the book followed the same line of reasoning and was focused specifically on issues revolving around sexual orientation. It wasn’t.
I don’t say this in a mean-spirited way but I think John speaks to/from both sides of the aisle, Bible-believing and Bible rejecting. I wondered at several points in the book who his target audience was. I’m still not sure.
That’s not a criticism. It’s just an observation. People ask me the same question about the books I’ve published and, to be honest, I’m always tempted to say, everyone.
But I was motivated to read his book because I knew there had to be something better than full-on intolerance toward same-sex issues and I was hoping John could offer something to bridge the gap to a better place. Unfortunately, there was no bridge. It seems John simply leapt the gap and now wants everyone else to do the same.
The Book’s Focus Is Religion
What I realized while reading the book is that the focus is more about religion than any particular social issue. That’s a problem. Religion is a very broad and unspecific topic. Even if you narrowed the discussion to the category of Fundamentalism (which was the apparent aim in John’s book), the focus is still too broad.
Fundamentalists share a few core beliefs like Jesus is the pre-existent Son of God and Savior of the world, and the Bible is genuinely God’s inspired Word but that’s where the agreement ends. There is nothing neat or unified about fundamentalism as a religious category. It ranges from down-to-earth pragmatism (prayer plus appropriate action) to airy-fairy idealism (name it and claim it).
Fundamentalists all agree that the Bible is God’s Word. It is to be honored, respected, diligently studied, and shared, but their combined interpretive efforts produce an expansive sweep of diverse, often contradictory, results. There are many Fundamentalist schools of thought. You can’t talk about one segment and think you’ve solved the fundamentalist problem, whatever that is.
That seems to be what John did. His critical remarks target only one corner of fundamentalism, the more emotional version and that’s his background, apparently. His previous devotions were more the impractical sort. And I would agree that he needed to change but that doesn’t mean the Bible no longer applies, which in the end is what he implied. All of his arguments read exactly like folks who claim to love the teachings of Jesus, at least the ones they find tolerable and reject everything else especially large sections of the Old Testament.
On a side note, I would love to give you a list of doctrines about which fundamentalists disagree but that would take a separate post, several actually.
So to be clear, although I am a fundamentalist, I don’t agree with many fundamentalist interpretations of the Old Testament, or the associated applications, but I still believe it is an inspired, God-given text and the only appropriate response is to think more carefully and study more diligently to interpret it more correctly, not throw it out.
Understanding The Bible vs Eliminating The Bible
Maybe I’m wrong, but my impression was John is now eliminating the Bible, or huge sections of it, rather than attempting to understand it. In one part of the book (page 115), he does say he loves the Bible and has studied it for twenty years. But he follows that with:
And it’s because I love it and because I’ve studied it that I would never dare to claim that I’m ‘Bible-believing,’ because the phrase isn’t helpful or honest or complex enough for the subject matter.
There is truth in what John says here but it’s hardly an argument. As I’ve already pointed out, many Bible-believers come to very different conclusions but that reflects badly on the educational processes in which we were trained, the ones that develop rational thought, not the Bible.
John admits that he does cherry-pick portions of the Bible to emphasize or deemphasize, as the case may be, but he justifies that approach by suggesting that we all do that.
That just isn’t true. Fundamentalists believe the Bible is true even when they get it wrong.
It’s one thing for two different people, both of whom believe the Bible is inspired, to come to different conclusions (and maybe both are wrong), and another thing entirely when two people disagree because one accepts the Bible as inerrant and the other thinks it’s full of mistakes.
To be fair, John mentions many verses that fundamentalist-minded Christians often overlook or minimize when they’re hyped up over political ideologies, and I would agree they are wrong, but this bigotry is motivated more by misunderstanding than investigation. It’s one thing to misuse a passage in the Bible, and that has been done a lot. It’s another to redact a passage because it doesn’t fit with our sensibilities.
The only way to make the point is to share his words and go from there. Please bear with the lengthy quotes.
First of all an example of John’s dismissive (if not derisive) remarks about biblical events.
Strictly speaking, a biblical God has a falling out with the first two people He makes, holds a grudge, and levies a permanent penalty against them and everyone else who came after them for ignoring instructions and sampling some explicitly excluded fruit. Rather quickly in the narrative, a biblical God grows so exasperated with the humanity He fashioned in His own image that He determines the only reasonable course of action (among a surely infinite number of available possibilities) is to drown everyone on the planet, with the exception of one extended family and a boatload of animals.
The diatribe goes further but this is sufficient to give you a sense of the tone. Again, to be fair, John does try to explain why he resorts to mockery.
I’m not having these confrontational conversations to create some sort of gotcha moments. I’m reminding people that to one degree or another all Christians create a personal, redacted Bible. I’m showing them that we can’t simply believe or not believe the totality of Scripture. It’s intellectually dishonest. We all have to sift through it and interpret it and try to apply it as best we can on a moment-by-moment basis, given what we learn and what we experience. When I’m presented with biblical examples of a violent and vengeful God and confronted with my own tendencies to cherry-pick from the Bible, I don’t feel the need to deny their existence or run from those passages. I acknowledge that those alternative traits and less desirable images are there and admit the tensions they create in me. I cop to my inconsistency in selectively choosing from the Bible, and I do my best to find ways of letting uncomfortable verses expand my understanding. And ultimately, after all that, I return to the question, “Is this passage consistent with the character of a God who is infinite love?” and I rest in the conclusion I come to.
There are several thoughts here that reveal the differences between John’s approach to the Bible and that of a fundamentalist.
- First, suggesting any passage in the Bible is defined by violence or vengeance or alternative traits or less desirable images is just wrong.
I do understand the emotion. A superficial gaze at the flood makes you flinch: get out of the way and move fast. Rage is happening.
But, that’s a premature reaction. How bad was the world of that day? Humans lived a long time, hundreds of years, (at least the ones not murdered by other humans), and every person was hampered with a sinful nature. There was no law enforcement to speak of. In fact, other than natural laws (gravity for example), there were none.
And humanity was in a bad state. Genesis 6:5 & 11 describes it in chilling terms.
And GOD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually…and the earth was filled with violence.
We can’t say that none of these people were believers but even if they were, they had no new nature (new birth) to help brace them against sinful, compromising urges and they clearly gave in. Once a person gives in to evil, they get worse the longer they live and according to the Bible, they lived hundreds of years.
How long should this state of things endure? If the earth was filled with violence, was the “violence” of the flood worse than the violence that occurred continuously between humans? Who should we side with in that situation? Should we ask everyone to just play nicely?
It’s interesting that John reacts regularly to bullying and abuse on his blog, and he should, but what about a world where adamant, vehement demands for justice were never voiced? What happens then?
Even today, with all the Christian influence, people give themselves over to evil. Documentaries have chronicled a few and we have no compunction about taking just measures in such cases. So, if the entire world is corrupted beyond measure, which means everyone is given over to evil, what should we do? How should we handle it?
That’s not an easy question for finite humans to answer, even the most clever of us, but until we can answer it absolutely, we need to be a little more open, a little less presumptuous.
- Another point of difference between John and fundamentalists is fundamentalists don’t second-guess God.
I might question another person’s interpretation and I might even struggle to discern a rational explanation for certain passages but questioning the Bible is not an option.
John suggested there must have been an infinite number of possibilities to solve the problem of evil in the antediluvian world other than the flood. He didn’t mention any. I looked. None there.
I would suggest he elaborate in a future post.
I may be wrong but I get the impression that John doesn’t really believe what the Bible says. I’m talking about the details. Maybe he doesn’t believe in a six-day creation. He often refers to the creation story as just a poem.
That, of course, has no bearing on the literal nature of the information provided but it is often put forward by those who don’t take the Bible literally as proof that creation is a myth. The fact is poems were used then for the same reason they’re used now, poetic rhythm makes the information more memorable. We don’t forget poetic rhym so easily. To reduce poetry to nothing more than conveyancers of myth and fairy tales is emotionally ignorant.
Maybe he doesn’t believe humans lived as long as the Bible record indicates. Noah was six hundred years old when the flood came (Genesis 7:6) and nine hundred and fifty when he died (Genesis 9:28). If he refuses those details then it’s understandable why he throws those passages out, but suggesting I or any other fundamentalist does the same is nonsense, even if we do arrive at different beliefs along the way.
- And a third issue has to do with John’s last condition: Is this biblical event consistent with the character of a God who is infinite love.
This, more than any other remark, illustrates the difference.
I have taught for years that when the Bible says “God is love” it means that everything God does or says, in one way or another, is an expression of His love. Everything! Not the things that make us feel good and warm our hearts.
The ugliest, most repulsive event in the Bible was God the Father forsaking God the Son and allowing Him to be tortured to death on the cross but Jesus Himself clearly said that was an expression of God’s love not just for a chosen few but for the entire world. John 3:16. We all know the verse.
God is love. The Bible is genuine. Why would I look at any passage and assess it as consistent or inconsistent with the character of a God Who is infinitely loving? I assume it is consistent with God’s love and work hard to explain why that is so.
John Is Not Alone
John is, of course, surrounded by a lot of company: people that have little or no connection to the Bible. He even shares a story or two in the book about such people. I mean no unkindness to John but it’s as if his experience has now become the rule and the Bible no longer matters.
What I didn’t realize when I began reading the book is where John was going or really where he was coming from. I made the assumption he was coming from a biblical perspective (based on his training and ministry work for years) but I kept coming across passages, like the ones above, that were so out of sync with belief in the Bible that it stunned me.
In one conversation with a couple he met while walking his dog in a dog park, he effusively countered their ideas about being undeserving recipients of God’s grace and blasted them with a litany of rhetorical questions suggesting Jesus didn’t have to die and God could have reduced the whole salvation process to just “Forget about it and let’s just get on with eternal life.”
So, God lovingly made you and gave you life and placed you here in the middle of a world you’ve never been to—but despised you out of the chute for something two people supposedly did millions of years before you were ever born? God held a grudge against you for the failing of your ancient ancestors?…couldn’t God have just forgiven you (and all of us) preemptively, without needing Jesus and his death, and without you needing to believe any of this or pray any prayer? I continued, without pausing very long for a response. Couldn’t he just have forgiven and forgotten—and if not, isn’t he really just saving you from himself then, anyway?
John gets points for honestly admitting that he made such comments and that it was more eruption than discussion but these ideas are very revealing. This is exactly the reasoning used by unitarian types who believe Jesus wasn’t the pre-existent Son of God and is not now the Savior of the world and there is no need to call upon Him for salvation.
It also smacks of universalism. Everyone will get there in the end anyway.
If that is true, if I’m reading John correctly, he doesn’t believe Jesus is necessary for salvation and everyone will be saved in the end anyway.
It’s concerning. Does John really think this or was he just venting his frustration?
I’m inclined to give people the benefit of the doubt and John might prove I’m wrong but I’m concerned. I know people have contended with John about his views. I wonder if anyone has had a serious, personal, honest, open conversation about salvation. That’s what Christians are supposed to do first and foremost. I don’t say this accusingly but I’m not sure that’s happened with John.
For The Record
I agree with a lot of what John says. We need to find a better more “Christ-like” way. Not because John says it but because Jesus would endorse it.
I don’t think John is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He’s too honest and forthright for that. There are people I believe who fit that description but I’ll spare you the mention for the time being.
I disagree with John’s reasoning but I don’t believe he is a bad guy or a liar or intent on doing harm.
I recommend you read the book. The one thing it does is make you think and that’s good for everyone.