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When I was a child there was a local fundamentalist radio ministry that had obtained a worldwide listening audience over the years. It was one of the first to beam tent evangelists nationally and grew until it had it’s own 24 hour programming. This ministry was called Back to the Bible broadcast. I grew up in a church where many of these Evangelist/radio personalities attended, as well as, the founder of this international radio station.
As fundamentalists the entire programming was Bible studies, choir music, preaching and testimonies of missionaries from far off land. The constant thread in the programming was the unwavering belief that the Bible was to be taken literally, word for word and that it could answer any question that life posed.
When I started Jr. High a new program was started on Back to the Bible called Teen Scene. This show was meant to appeal to Jr. High and High School students with short moral lessons that helped these kids understand what was expected of them Biblically to live the Christian life. Open auditions where set for the “teens” that would be a part of teen scene. So, my best friend Jesse and I determined that we would try out for parts on this new show.
After going through our readings I was told that I was not right for the part, but Jesse was given the role of the weekly characters on the show. I was jealous and hurt, but I was a good Christian. This meant that I acted as if it didn’t affect me and I soldiered on.
I listened to that first show and wasn’t sure if the reason I hated it was because of the rejection or that it was so simplistic. Yet, I only lasted listening to a couple of the shows. I am not sure if my friend Jesse ever even listened to the shows after they were produced and beamed worldwide.
What I remember were that they were little moralistic tales that the producer’s thought Jr. and Sr. High minds might digest easily. I remember thinking that it was neat that my friend was being beamed all over the world on this show, but that these lessons were too overly simplistic answers to my increasingly complicated adolescent life. It was the first inkling that I had that a literalistic reading of the Bible was not always helpful for me in living out my life.
30 years later evangelicalism has improved the way that it conveys its message and it reaches audiences that these pioneers of Christian radio could only imagine. We have American evangelists whose literal reading of scripture about homosexuality is influencing legislation to execute and prosecute homosexuals in countries like Uganda, whenever a Christian voice is sought by national news outlets for comments it is almost exclusively an evangelical that is used as the “orthodox” voice and prosperity gospel authors routinely sit atop the New York Times bestseller list for Non-Fiction literature. I do not believe that we completely see how deeply evangelical/fundamentalism has changed the way our culture sees Christianity and practices their faith.
Often I feel like that same high school child, listening to over-simplistic answers from a bunch of scripture cobbled together for life’s most complex and intractable problems. It may sooth you that there is an a bible verse in the book that answers your life questions like a magic eight ball, but the Bible is not a talisman. This is the entirely wrong way to look at the Holy Book.
The use of the Bible to create a new set of rules and regulations for life is actually antithetical to the Pauline message of freedom. It seems that these compilers of “how to live” guides from harvesting selected scripture passages forget the Pauline admonition that there is now no law but freedom in Christ through life of the Spirit. We are reminded that these legalistic views are not the results of following Christ, but are actually antithetical to living a deeper, human life. Today’s text alone refutes simple moralism by claiming that the Word is not something confined to a page but living on our lips and in our hearts.
This idea of a living word is not alien to scripture but mystically returns over and over again in the New Testament. In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God John reminds us in the gospel. We are reminded that the word is so alive that it is breathing and sharper than any two edged sword. This doesn’t sound like a bunch of lists for life situations, but something that grows inside of us, transforming our very lives!
What these evangelicals/fundamentalists have tapped into is the public’s craving for simplistic morality plays that give us instruction or validation about our current situations. We want security, surety and guidance for what can be a sometimes-messy human condition. Our lives are filled with banality, intrigue, fate, tragedy, greed, joy, lies, denial and satisfaction. This literalistic moralism places all of these in a much broader Biblical system and tells us that if we follow a preset group of rules we will inherit salvation. Unfortunately, life’s complications do not always fit into a neat set of rules. The Bible does not always answer life’s questions. It is not intended to, that is the job of the living Word being worked out in our lives through the Spirit of Christ.
In the end literalism is the artificial belief that words are engraved on monuments and our lives should memorialize the God entombed underneath the marker. May it never be. Faith is by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. This word is the faith of Christ that is growing in and amongst us. For a disciple of Christ faith consists of the radical belief that even in small doses it can shake, challenge, regenerate and resurrect our dead hearts into life. Jesus contends that if you have the faith of a mustard seed you can move mountains.
So, this Lent let us break free from the cultural inheritance of legalism that Fundamentalists have left so pervasively throughout our society and actually live faith in freedom. This will come with a radical trust in the Spirit of Christ growing amongst us to give us the wisdom for living in these days. Then we will be able to answer the Russian Orthodox saint Mother Maria Skobtsova’s question “Piety, piety, but where is the love that removes mountains?” The answer will be, “we are living it here at The Palisades Community Church through the living Word.”
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