Monthly Archives: May 2011

Something Was “Raptured” on May 21: Fundamentalism

Fundamentalists themselves are not gone. We certainly haven’t heard the last from them, either. But any remaining sliver of Christian Fundamentalism’s influence was effectively “raptured” in the waning hours of May 21, 2011. This was the day Harold Camping predicted a worldwide judgment day and rapture of a faithful few Christians.  The day came and went with barely a fizzle. And now, incredulously enough, Harold Camping has announced yet another prediction… well sort of. You can read all about if you care to.

Now I know that it’s all the rage today– certainly a politically correct must— for Christians like me to distance ourselves as far from Fundamentalism as we can by publicly trashing it when the occasion suits us while using the stupidity of May 21’s failed apocalypse as a chance to say, “See there? What a bunch of simple-minded, radical kooks… Oh, and by the way, for the record, let it be known I am not one of them.” Well, as much as I’d love to jump on the bandwagon, that’s not my goal, especially when the vast majority of Christian Fundamentalists I know were just as adamant, many of them far more vocal than the rest of us, denouncing Camping’s May 21 predictions as a fraud, well before the actual day.

Even then, disturbing behaviors like the the May 21 Doomsday shenanigan, the repugnant Westboro Baptist Church and Pastor Terry Jones jeapordizing our national security with his Koran burning have thoroughly demonstrated that any lasting value of Fundamentalism has been “raptured” away and is no longer any good for the Church, Christianity, or for anyone else. All that’s left behind is a liability. When pastors like me have to spend increasingly more time and effort dispelling the damage done by Fundamentalism in recent decades while not coming off as self-righteous jerks ourselves, then I think it’s safe to say in the memorable words of astronaut Jim Lovell, “Houston, we have a problem.” Fundamentalism as a movement has run its course.

Still, I do believe that in its heyday, Fundamentalism had a degree of value and place within Christianity, even if the majority vehemently disagreed with its teachings. And to be fair, Fundamentalism has been apishly caricatured by those who do not understand what it is and why it came to be. So as a eulogy for Fundamentalism, perhaps a brief, non-partisan description would be helpful.

Fundamentalism began in the early 20th Century as reactionary movement to the rising influence of new science and biblical criticism, i.e. Modernism, that was vastly reshaping the Protestant church. Darwin had famously challenged previously unquestioned assumptions about our origins in a way that radically departed from a face value reading of Genesis 1. Literary and historical criticism began to take a more critical view of the Bible’s authorship, historicity, and divine influence. As a result, Protestant church leaders, especially in the Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Anglican churches began to question the necessity or relevance of the more supernatural, “mythical” elements of the Bible and Christian doctrine, taking a step back from theology that now seemed to be too primitive and unnecessary in light of new scientific, literary, and historical findings.

Fundamentalists slammed on the breaks and insisted that there are “fundamentals” of the Christian faith that cannot be abandoned. In fact, a pastor/evangelist named A. C. Dixon published a series of essays called The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth that upheld what he considered to be several fundamentals of the Christian faith including:

  • the verbal, plenary inerrency of Scripture
  • the literalness of the gospel accounts, especially Christ’s miracles and resurrection
  • the Virgin Birth of Christ
  • his bodily resurrection
  • Christ’s physical return
  • the substitutionary atonement of Christ on the cross.

These were all essential beliefs that Fundamentalists claimed were being compromised in the wake of modern scholarship. Since those days, I believe that Fundamentalism served as a direct, or most often, an indirect counterweight to the rapid pull of Modernism.

For all their faults and follies, I believe that at a bare minimum Fundamentalists challenged the Protestant Church to not give up on several things, namely three things: 1) the central importance and uniquely divine inspiration of Scripture; 2) a vigorous confidence in Jesus’ miracles and his actual, historic resurrection; and 3) his promised return as a definitive future historic event. I get the sense that at one time much of the mainline Protestant Church was tempted to reshape these three historic doctrines to be mere allegories or even a fanciful fiction.

But somehow, enough of the Protestant Church has been kept from sliding away on these “fundamentals” of our faith. Even though I’ll get slammed by some people for saying this, I believe we have Fundamentalism to thank for part of the conservation effort. And for that reason alone, Fundamentalism has had its place as a vocal counterweight to the more unhealthy sways of Modernism.

The main character flaw of Fundmentalism– and granted it’s a big one– has been their failure to be self-critical and adaptive. That’s the fatal flaw of any movement whose inception is a reaction to circumstances it sees as a threat. They become a self-pronounced and appointed “faithful remnant” whose job it is to zealously guard the faith against unfaithful incursions while ceding no ground doing it. The defensive nature of Fundamentalism has made it nearly impossible for them to self-critically evaluative their assumptions and methodology. While the cultural landscape has continually changed, offering new challenges and opportunities for the Church, Fundamentalists ardently entrench themselves while denouncing what they claim to be further spiritual and cultural backsliding.

Only now they have dug themselves in too deeply to see and understand their own shortcomings and damaging behaviors, and that’s why Christian Fundamentalism in the Protestant Church has met its functional end.

When a Fundamentalist like Harold Camping horse-blinders his understanding of the Bible to mean that every single word of Scripture is the the literal, historically, scientifically (and apparently mathematically!) infallible Word of God and then turns around to rebuff any honest critique of his organization’s teaching, even from other like-minded Christians, the results are the failures of May 21 and the embarrassment he causes the rest of us. Worse still, people got hurt, and Camping has taken no personal responsibility for it. I think of those who believed Camping and threw away their jobs, lifesavings, and reputations to “sound the alarm.” [Brief time-out…. Before you proudly regard yourself as smarter or wiser than they are– for you would never fall for such an idiotic thing as that— think about this: how many times have you found yourself wronged because you honestly believed in something or someone that didn’t live up to their promise?]

Aside from even the far extremism of Harold Camping, the biblical literalism of Fundamentalism flatly ignores and rejects any reasonable way to read and honor the Bible as God’s Word in any other way than strict literalism. That makes it nearly impossible for Fundamentalism to inform and be informed by ongoing scientific, historic, and cultural awareness while still upholding the Scriptures as God’s Holy Word. In effect, that has rendered this movement a dead sect which does not produce enough good and far too much bad to justify its continued existence. Harold Camping and crew proved this beyond any reasonable doubt this past Saturday. Not only that, but Christian Fundamentalism has been implicit in propagating attitudes within the Christian community that are sexist, homophobic, racist, and anti-scientific. Please note: I’m not saying that all my Fundamentalist brethren are themselves all those terrible things. However, Fundamentalism has aided and abetted  these attitudes, and that has become a black eye on all of Christianity. I have personally worked with too many victims of these unchristian attitudes espoused by “good, loving Christians.” Therefore, while Fundamentalism may have played a role in Christianity at one time, it does no longer.

So to honor whatever contributions Fundamentalism has made in its storied past, let’s give it some dignity and say, “You’ve been raptured!” The rest of us are still here, trying to build the kingdom of God with as much Christ-like integrity as we can. I only hope my Fundamentalist brothers and sisters will acknowledge this “rapture” and join in on building the kingdom of God’s righteousness here on earth as it is in heaven while joyfully anticipating the return of our Lord in glory and power!

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Two Lessons Learned from the May 21 Judgment Day Predictions

I would feel remiss if I didn’t say a little something about Harold Camping’s Judgment Day prediction slated to happen today May 21, 2011. I’m formulating something to say around May 22, too, but in the mean time, I have two personal thoughts of lessons learned: 1) the incredible capacity for anyone to create worldwide hype and 2) my thankfulness for this experience.

Amazing Hype

I never would have dreamed that Harold Camping and Family Radio were capable of creating this much worldwide stir over a doomsday prediction that 99% of the world has laughed off as Christian kook-fringe nuttiness at its best (or worst). As a teenager, I remember laughing at this guy’s corny, eerily creepy radio shows that my friends and I would listen to once in a while for sheer entertainment.

But now this Christian Fundamentalist organization that no one has ever taken too seriously whose founder and president has been written off by many prominent Christian teachers/preachers as a heretic and fraud are now more popular and known than ever before! They are all over the news, widely discussed in the blogosphere and are the subject of more Facebook updates and events (like post rapture parties!) than I ever would have predicted. It just blows my mind.

I mean, consider this for a moment… They’ve got hopelessly campy radio shows. They’re using second-rate, blocky billboard signs, have kooks running around with t-shirts, tracts, and posters, and are running an archaic website. If for nothing else, Harold Camping and crew have proved that we can effectively throw slick, cool, hip advertizing schematics out the window. With enough money, intentionality, organization, and a catchy phrase, anyone can get the world’s attention. Of course, I seriously doubt Family Radio will keep all the attention much past May 21, but they don’t expect to anyway. That’s just brilliant!

A Reason to Be Thankful

It’s true that one can find something to be thankful for in even the most outlandish things. While I have substantial reasons to believe Harold Camping’s doomsday predictions are dangerously wrong (namely because of his false predictions from 1994 and the clever way he has sidestepped a clear warning from Jesus that no one knows the day or hour of Christ’s coming) I can’t deny that all the hubbub has gotten me to more deeply reflect on the essential Christian doctrine of Christ’s return, the Final Judgment, and God’s creation of the new heavens and the new earth. Part of me has come to hope that somehow all this May 21st stuff would actually be true, even though I think the predictions themselves are bunk.

(On a side note: I’ve thought it would be absolutely wonderful if Christ does return today, but not in the way or in the same spirit that Harold Camping has predicted! Maybe all of God’s people except Camping’s ilk would be raptured. Wouldn’t that be divine humor?? But I digress…)

In my experience, most Christians vastly undervalue, ignore, or are even embarrassed by belief and talk of the End Times. We affirm these things in classic affirmations of faith like the Apostles’ Creed: “[Christ] will come again to judge the living and the dead.” Our Eucharistic liturgy affirms it as part of the “mystery of faith”: “…Christ will come again.” And yet most of us have a hard time living in ready, joyful expectation for it.

No, it never helps that the Christian kooks have given the End Times a bad rap or that so many before have given apocalyptic predictions only to see another normal day come and go. It’s even clear that the New Testament writers expected Christ’s return to happen within their lifetimes. Obviously, we’re still here and still waiting… Well, maybe some of us are.

But I’ve been thinking to myself: Do I really live each day or even each hour as if this is my last here on earth, as if Christ would come at any moment? If  he were to come right now, would he find me awake and ready? That’s a question every Christian should be asking, especially if we take Christ’s promises of his return seriously. Paul wrote something along these lines to the church in Rome that is apropos for days like today:

[U]nderstand… the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh. (Romans 13:11-14)

So, while I have good reason to believe that May 21 will come and go just as May 20 has, I’m not going to poke fun or belittle the day either. If it’s wrong to predict that Judgment Day is May 21, it would be equally wrong to predict that it is not just because we think Harold Camping’s predictions are phony. After all, Christ could return at any time, and we Christians do hope and pray he will return sooner rather than later. I want to live with him forever in his resurrection. I want him to finally set the world aright and to once and for all put an end to the powers of sin and death. I want God’s kingdom of righteousness to reign without end, and I want to be a part of it with the rest of redeemed humanity and creation.

May 21 would be fine with me, and by God’s grace I would be ready. May 22 would work, too, or the day after that. One never knows when the world’s last night will be. But am fully confident that the new dawn is closer than we can imagine. I’m going to live as if it is!

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Dear Professor Hawking: You Stick to Science and I’ll Stick to Theology

An open letter to Professor Stephen Hawking in response to his latest comments on the existence of heaven…

Dear. Professor Hawking-

In light of your recent comments that “heaven or afterlife” is  “a fairy story for people afraid of the dark” I would like to a make a wonderful deal with you. This deal will add integrity both of our fields, science and theology. Truth be told, it’s a deal that needed to be struck back in 1632. But I digress…

Here is my deal proposal: You stick to science and I’ll stick to theology. So from now on, if you promise to keep your work focused on science and steer your scientific observations clear from faith and theology, then I promise I’ll keep my work focused on theology and keep my theological observations clear from scientific knowledge, discovery, and inquiry while encouraging others to do the same. (As a token of good faith, Kirk Cameron, this also applies to you.)

Science and theology could carry on side by side quite civilly, don’t you think? After all, theological discussion has no business making or evaluating scientific theories of physics, biology, geology, and cosmology. By the same token, science has no business informing theology, specifically the existence of God, heaven, and philosophical questions of existentialism, i.e. Why are we here? What is our purpose? What is our role? What happens when we die?

Professor Hawking, I have always had a deep degree of respect for you and your work, and I still do. Your theories in physics and cosmology have been an invaluable gift not just to science but to all of humanity. And your courage to face and live through the painful ordeal of ALS has encouraged and inspired generations of people, especially those with disabilities and their families. All told, your life’s work will reverberate through the annals of scientific research and knowledge for many years to come.

However, just as it surely irks you to no end when religion meddles with science, people of faith become equally irked when science meddles with religious belief. I neither need or desire a scientist to tell me whether or not God or heaven exists. Yet this kind of thing happens when the roles of science and religion get mixed up and cross over into answering questions that neither is properly tasked or equipped to answer.

We each have our separate but complementary fields of inquiry, Professor Hawking.

Science best answers the empirical questions of “what”, “where” and “how.” I look to you and others within the field of science to explain the physical make up and mechanics of the world and the universe. According to all we know of mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology, how did our world and the universe come to be as it is? What is it made of? What does it do and how does it do it? According to what we know of mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology, what will it become in the future?

Faith and theology, on the other hand, best answer the philosophical questions of “who” and “why” and the non-empirical, metaphysical questions of “what” and “how”.  Who are we? What is the purpose of the world and universe? Of what value are we and to whom? Is there a Reality (God, heaven) beyond the world I can empirically see, touch, hear, and taste? What is that Reality? How and where does that Reality intersect the physical/empirical world? What is the end? What happens when I reach my end?

So as you can see, professor Hawking, we both operate together, side by side, responding to vastly different questions and inquiries which together provide a full-color lens through which we can begin to understand the make-up and nature of us human beings, our world, and the whole cosmos. Since the days of Galileo up until now, we’ve had a hard time learning to mutually respect and accept one another. We’ve made some steps towards peacefully co-existing as separate sides of the same human ontological coin. Obviously we still have a long way to go.

Yet, you as a scientist and I as a pastor can make a deal today. We can sign a pact with which we can encourage others within our respective fields. You and your colleagues can agree to stick to science. And religious teachers, preachers, leaders, and I can agree to stick to faith and theology. I can teach and preach that ” The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1) and you can write and teach the theoretical cosmology and quantum gravitational properties of that same universe. Together, we paint one gloriously beautiful picture on the same canvas. How about if we agree to paint from our own pallets?

Respectfully Yours,

Rev. Christopher D. Owens

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