I sat in a parking lot watching an auto transfer truck unload its cargo. The cars were either black or white — perhaps a dark charcoal mixed in. Having recently bought a new white car, I was especially tuned to the issue of color, and the very limited options for choosing between shades of dark and shades of light. I discovered that I had to be very intentional and willing to perhaps pay more or give up options in order to get an attractive color. Even then there were just not many attractive colors to choose from. In watching that truck unload, I believe I watched a parable of what our lives have become.
There are so many writers and commentators who point out the divisiveness in our culture that I am somewhat reluctant to add yet another reflection. Politics has always been partisan, and typically nasty in that partisanship. Underlying the partisanship are cultural conflicts about values, about status and power, about feeling safe or threatened, and about money. The information age has overwhelmed us with a torrent of facts, opinions, and outright lies. In ways unimagined in earlier times, we have beliefs and behaviors thrust “in our face” that cannot be ignored whether we find them attractive or repulsive.
No wonder we just want the security of relief and reassurance. No wonder we feel very threatened when our trusted values begin to be challenged. It feels like an attack! Yet too often that desire for security pushes us to seek simplistic responses to complicated issues. Simplistic responses beg for black/white thinking, and that kind of thinking is doomed to failure.
What is truth? Pontius Pilate asked the question at the trial of Jesus. Thinkers have asked the question over and over through the centuries. Everyday folks wonder the same thing, though probably not in such an academic manner. Fake news is a buzz word, but one only needs to look at the tabloids lining the grocery checkout to be reminded that fake news is not a new thing. Donald Trump hates fake news. From the opposite end of the political spectrum, Senator Al Franken’s recent book describes being the victim of distorted and outright fake news. There are frequent warnings to be suspicious of internet and social media stories, but ridiculous and destructive posts go viral with no shred of evidence that they are true.
A common thread in the missing truthfulness is an effort to dumb down complex ideas into sound bites and bumper stickers. For people of faith, the temptation is to “proof text” by taking a fragment of scripture and using it as a weapon to establish a very limited view about how to live. Secular or religious — this way of thinking tries to make a point that cannot be argued against. But real life is far too complicated for sound bites and proof texts; disconnects are inevitable if one thinks only a bit.
In my most recent column, I used the term “progressive Christians” to describe those who celebrated the Wild Goose Festival. A few days after the column appeared my conservative friend Mike asked me if I could define what I mean by the term. (Mike and Gary and a couple of others who do not necessarily agree with my thinking have honored me by taking me up on the invitation “let’s talk.”) I offered that progressive Christians believe true faith requires both personal morality and social action. A faith that would disconnect the two cannot claim to follow closely behind Jesus. Progressive faith is not satisfied to simply follow a religious authority figure’s dictates. It asks questions and challenges the cultural status quo because its faith is deepened when it moves beyond simplistic black and white thinking.
The Rev. Brian McClaren was one of the leaders at Wild Goose. McClaren believes that the life of faith is best understood as a journey between two inadequate but tempting extremes. He notes that one form of faith becomes so rigid that it is like a fortress. God is totally about strength and certainty. The function of fortress faith is to attack and defend. On the other extreme is a faith more like a pleasant cloud that can’t really be defined. God is “somewhere out there” but a choice to follow this God is not much more significant than a choice of what restaurant to choose for dinner tonight.
I am very grateful for the good hearts and good works that have characterized many who have nurtured me in my Baptist heritage. Now I am confused, saddened and alienated by the current public face of white evangelical voters. It appears that they have abandoned both the demand for personal morality in our leaders and any pursuit of social justice and compassion in public policy. The fortress faith of attack and defend seems to increasingly become the “brand name” publically associated with religion in America.
Faithful progressives will, like the theologian Karl Barth, “read the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” I think it is accurate to say that the political climate has challenged progressive Christians like myself to become more vocal and more active. I write in part to share faith and cultural perspectives that are not readily familiar here in the Bible Belt. I believe that progressive Christian faith offers a path far closer to the way of Jesus and better suited to deal with the complex issues of faith and culture. Simplistic, black/white thinking must be abandoned politically and religiously if we are to follow the Carpenter from Nazareth.
The Rev. Gary Batchelor is an ordained Baptist minister and active church member. He is retired after a nearly 40-year local ministry as a hospital chaplain. His particular interest lies in issues of faith and culture.