Recommended Reading: More of Tim Gombis on Evangelicals and the Bible

Tim Gombis, a professor of New Testament studies at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary who blogs at “Faith Improvised“, started a series of posts a couple of months back about evangelicals and the Bible.  In this series of posts he is looking at comments he hears from students and others that betray a warped sense of understanding of the proper place of Scripture in our lives.  The first three posts in the series were about the comment “I’ve never heard this before” as a response to some new or different interpretation of Scripture, and its implications for how evangelicals relate to the Bible.

Recently Tim Gombis has added two more posts to this series.  These deal with the comment “What would you say to someone who says …?”  This question arises from a place where we view Scripture as nothing more than a collection of source material for arguments that will convince unbelievers or fellow believers who disagree with us on some theological point or another, of the rightness of our position and the wrongness of theirs.  The idea:  The material is all there, the arguments are all there, and those who are more advanced in their understanding of Scripture know all the answers and all the arguments to use in any conceivable theological conundrum.  It is our responsibility to learn what the Bible says so that we may instruct others and convince them.  This is an inappropriate use of Scripture.

Christians ought to engage Scripture in order to first understand, and then to give extended consideration with the further aim of strategic, glad obedience.

…We don’t have the Bible for the purpose of fighting and squabbling, strategizing so that “our side” might dominate “their side.”  God gave his word to his people that we might gain a heart of wisdom, that we might love and serve God, loving and serving one another with gladness and singleness of heart.

Read:  Evangelicals and the Bible, Part 4   Part 5

Part 1   Part 2   Part 3

Overcoming the Christian-Majority Complex

Picture this:  You are with several of your Christian friends, discussing the latest Saturday Night Live, and how SNL hasn’t been worth anything for two decades at least.  Invariably the conversation turns to how SNL is rude and crude and un-spiritually edifying, and how the makers of SNL just don’t get that the vast majority of Americans (80 percent or 90 percent, depending on your favorite pundit) are Christians who can’t relate to the kind of filth they’re putting out.

How do we get that America is 80 or 90 percent Christian?  No offense, but you are living in an alternate universe if you think that 80 or 90 percent Christian means that 80 to 90 percent of Americans go to church every Sunday, attend small group, study their Bibles, and are in a meaningful and growing relationship with Jesus Christ.

So you get there by including a whole lot of people who are only marginally Christian, if that.  The Southern Baptist Convention has been embroiled in a controversy about the integrity of church size numbers for the past few years, something akin to baseball’s steroid use issues.  SBC churches have been inflating their numbers by including in their membership anyone who ever came to their church and filled out a card somewhere along the line.  Never mind that the vast majority of these people have never since darkened the doors of these churches.

The same sort of thing plays out on a larger level in evangelicalism as a whole.  We think of ourselves as a whole lot bigger than we really are, largely because we include in our ranks anyone who ever showed up at a church service, conference, crusade, youth camp, or other evangelical function and walked the aisle, prayed a prayer, stood up, raised their hand, put their right foot in and shook it all about and did the hokey-pokey and turned themselves around because that’s what it’s all about.  Never mind that the vast majority of these people have never come back for anything else.  Never mind that the vast majority of these people are only marginally affiliated with us, if that.

Big changes are coming to evangelicalism in the coming decades, and evangelicalism will look a whole lot smaller because a lot of these people who were only marginally with us if that, will become no longer with us at all.  Michael Spencer had some things to say about this in a piece he did a couple of years back called “The Coming Evangelical Collapse”.

Not only do you have to include a lot of people who are only marginally with us (if that) to get to 80 or 90 percent, you also have to include a lot of people whose beliefs you may find disagreeable, offensive, bizarre, outlandish, or just plain whacked.

How about the Lutherans?  They baptize babies, practice closed communion (some of them, at least), and use real wine for communion (sorry Baptists).  You may have to count them to get to 80 or 90 percent Christian.

How about the Catholics?  They pray to Mary and send their kids off to Catholic school to get whacked on the head with rulers by nuns.  (This explains a lot.)  You may have to count them to get to 80 or 90 percent.

How about the Episcopalians and ELCAs?  They ordain women, queers, atheists, Buddhists, Muslims, Sikhs, Wiccans, Rastafarians, Michael Jackson, and God knows what else.  You may have to count them to get to 80 or 90 percent.

How about the other godless liberal mainlines?  They cut all the supernatural parts out of the Bible, march for abortion and pass out communion wafers with the rainbow flag on them.  You may have to count them to get to 80 or 90 percent.

How about the Mormons?  The Jehovah’s Witnesses?  The Seventh-Day Adventists?  The Moonies?  The peeps out in California who drank the Kool-Aid when the comet came through and the ATF burned down their compound?  (Sorry, I get my cult-related tragedies mixed up these days.)  You may have to count them to get to 80 or 90 percent.

How about Barack Obama?  He says he’s Christian but he goes to one of those godless liberal mainline churches and his middle name is Hussein so we all know he’s really a Muslim terrorist and he’s not even an American citizen because we all know his birth certificate was forged.  You may have to count him to get to 80 or 90 percent.

How about Fred Phelps?  An awful lot of you out there are very uncomfortable with his strident anti-gay rhetoric, and you talk (correctly) about how his church’s activities do not represent what Christianity is about.  But you may have to count him to get to 80 or 90 percent.

How about Michael Jackson?  Never mind.  We have to draw the line somewhere.

How about Rob Bell?  He doesn’t believe in hell and John Piper says he’s not a Christian.  You may have to count him to get to 80 or 90 percent.

Which leads to another question:  If America is a Christian majority, what sort of Christian is it?  John Piper says that Rob Bell (and presumably anyone else who is asking the same sort of questions that Rob Bell asks in his latest book) is not Christian.  Francis Chan says that lukewarm believers are not Christian.  The KJV-only crowd says that anyone who doesn’t use the KJV is not Christian.  The Landmark Baptists (there may still be a few of them running around out there somewhere) say that anyone who doesn’t belong to one of their churches isn’t Christian.  The Catholics have their own views on Protestants which we don’t need to get into here, while there is no shortage of Reformed-type groups who say that anyone who doesn’t come out of the Catholic church is not Christian.  They also say that anyone who doesn’t hold to their formulation of certain doctrines which they claim to be essential but which really aren’t that essential, is not Christian.

And if America is a Christian majority, does that make Christianity any more true?  Germany was a Nazi majority back in the 1930s, and look where it got them.  If it turns out that America is something less than a Christian majority, does that make Christianity any less true?  For the first two centuries of Christianity’s existence, Rome was not a Christian majority by any stretch of the imagination.  Christianity should never have even made it out of the first century.  But here we are.

C. S. Lewis says in The Screwtape Letters:

…we do want, and want very much, to make men treat Christianity as a means, preferably, of course, as a means to their own advancement, but, failing that, as a means to anything–even to social justice.  The thing to do is to get a man at first to value social justice as a thing which the Enemy demands, and then work him on to the stage at which he values Christianity because it may produce social justice.  For the Enemy will not be used as a convenience.  Men or nations who think they can revive the Faith in order to make a good society might just as well think they can use the stairs of Heaven as a short cut to the nearest chemist’s shop.  Fortunately, it is quite easy to coax humans round this little corner.  Only today I have found a passage in a Christian writer where he recommends his own version of Christianity on the ground that “only such a faith can outlast the death of old cultures and the birth of new civilisations.”  You see the little rift?  “Believe this, not because it is true, but for some other reason.”  That’s the game.

Prophetic words for our generation.  Attempting to use Christianity as a means to an end, even the end of creating a just society, is not a good road to go down.

Finally, could it be that we are just taking ourselves too seriously here?  Can we recognize that movies like “Saved!” and “Talladega Nights” and the Landover Baptist website and other such things poke fun at us in ways in which, quite frankly, we deserve to be made fun of?

I haven’t watched SNL in a couple of decades, because, well, it’s been a couple of decades since SNL was decent.  But I would be willing to bet that you might actually enjoy it, or at least be a little less bothered by the things you say are non-edifying, if you can watch from the standpoint that, quite frankly, we evangelicals do silly things sometimes and we deserve to be poked fun at.  Whether or not there is a Christian majority here in America, there is clearly a sizeable amount of people who believe that evangelicals do stupid things that deserve to be made fun of.  The makers of SNL are hip to this, and they will continue to poke fun at us as long as we are doing things that deserve to be made fun of.

Les Miserables 79: Cab Rolls in English and Yelps in Argot

lesmiserablesThe next day was June 3, 1832, just a couple of days away from the events that would mark the climax of this story.  Marius was on his way to meet Cosette at the Rue Plumet again that night, when he recognized Eponine standing in the same spot where she had met him the previous night.  This time Marius changed his route.  We learn that Eponine had camped out in that spot and watched Marius go by every night when he went to see Cosette, but only on the previous night did she attempt to speak to him.  This time she followed him, something she had never done before.  This time she saw him go through the gate and into Cosette’s garden.  In a poignant scene she thinks about following him in but decides against it:

“Why!” she said.  “He’s going into the house.”

She went up to the gate, felt the bars one after another, and easily recognized the one Marius had moved.

In an undertone she murmured mournfully, “None of that, Lisette!”

Victor Hugo has gone all minimalist in his treatment of Eponine’s love for Marius, but here we have another indication that she has very strong feelings for him.

Instead of entering the garden, Eponine finds a nook in the wall where she is completely hidden, and sits and waits.

About an hour later, six men show up at the gate.  They intend to force it and rob the house.  One of the men steps up and examines the bars of the gate one by one, just as Eponine had done earlier.  Just as he gets to the one Marius had moved, Eponine reaches out her hand and stops him.  In that moment, we recognize him as Thenardier, her father.  The other men with him are the Patron-Minette principals.  What follows is an almost comical exchange where Eponine is playing the spoiled daughter who misses her father terribly while Thenardier is trying to brush her aside and get to work.  This exchange further shows what a horrible father he is, but we knew that already.

Throughout the exchange Thenardier and the others are speaking argot quite liberally, but Eponine avoids it:

It is remarkable that Eponine was not speaking argot.  Since she had known Marius, that awful language had become impossible to her.

And here lies the point of Hugo’s essay on argot a couple of chapters back.  Ever since the Thenardiers closed their inn and moved to the city to join the Parisian underworld, they (including Eponine) had lived and breathed argot.  Victor Hugo took tremendous pains to show us what a horrible thing the language of argot was, and how it was a fact of life in the Parisian underworld.  Anything that could make Eponine want to give that up would have to have had a tremendous impact on her.  And here we see Marius had in fact had that effect on her.  Yet another indication that Eponine had very strong feelings for Marius.

This was the possible robbery that Eponine had scouted out earlier, and about which she had sent back the biscuit signifying no-go.  Obviously Thenardier and the others were not convinced.  Despite all her objections they were determined to press ahead.  Finally she said in a low but firm voice, “Well, I don’t want you to.”  She went on to threaten to wake the neighbors and call the cops.  She explained that they could do their worst to her but she didn’t care.  In the midst of this speech we see that Eponine has gotten very thin and sickly, that she is perhaps no more than a year away from death.

The men conferred quietly, and then they left.  Eponine followed them to make sure they would not return, and saw them leave the street and disperse.

Now Victor Hugo offers his own commentary on what just happened:

What had just taken place in this street would not have surprised a forest.  The clumps of trees, underbrush, briars, the branches roughly intertwined, the tall grass, have a darkly mysterious existence; this wild, teeming mass has sudden glimpses of the invisible; there, what is below man distinguishes through the dark what is above man, and things unknown to us the living confront one another in the night.  Nature, bristling and untamed, takes fright at certain approaches in which she suspects the supernatural.  The forces of the shadows know each other and have mysterious equilibrium among them.  Teeth and claws dread the intangible.  Bloodthirsty brutality, voracious and starving appetites in quest of prey, instincts armed with claws and jaws, which find in the belly their origin and their object, anxiously watch and sniff the impassive spectral figure prowling beneath a shroud, standing in its hazy trembling robe, and seeming to them to live with a dead and terrible life.  These brutalities, nothing more than matter, confusedly dread having anything to do with the boundless darkness condensed into an unknown being.  A black figure barring the passage stops the wild beast dead.  What comes from the graveyard intimidates and disconcerts what comes from the den:  the ferocious is afraid of the sinister:  Wolves recoil before a ghoul.

Eponine, in her sickly, near-death state, had become like a ghost.  As such she frightened Thenardier and the others, who were like animals.

The imagery is significant here, because throughout the story animal imagery is linked to the Thenardiers.  Eponine is a Thenardier, and yet she is not likened to an animal but to a ghost.  As animals, the Thenardiers are hopelessly earthbound creatures with no chance or hope of rising above their circumstances.  As a ghost, Eponine is as completely opposite of this as it is possible to be and still be in this world.  This shows that Eponine is made of different stuff from the rest of the Thenardiers.  Though she lives the same miserable life as they do, she is not at all affected by it in the way that they are.

As the Thenardier gang is leaving the Rue Plumet we catch this cryptic snatch of dialogue:

“Where’re we going to sleep tonight?”

“Under Pantin.”

“Do you have the key to the grate with you, Thenardier?”

“What do you expect?”

Under Pantin, meaning under Paris, which is to say in the sewers of Paris.  Hold this scene in mind, because Victor Hugo is planting a clue about something that will happen.  At some critical point later on in the story, we should not be surprised to see the action shift to the sewers of Paris, and we should not be surprised to run into Thenardier there.