Friday, July 6, 2012

Customized Christianity: Do As I Say, Not As I Do

The following is one of a multi-part response to an article by Jim Burklo entitled "How To Live As a Christian Without Having to Believe the Unbelievable." For an introduction to these thoughts, see Burklo's Bible.

In spite of his unorthodox view of the nature of Jesus and his divine spark, Burklo does put an appropriate stress on Jesus as the central figure in the Christian religion. It is his thought, his teachings, and his deeds which need to take critical importance rather than Calvin or Wesley or Luther or Campbell (to steal an old and mostly unfounded intra-Protestant polemic). Unfortunately, Burklo thinks that it is appropriate, for whatever reason, to be very selective about what in those human documents about Jesus are really important and which are not.

We have already observed that Burklo was prepared, inexplicably, to declare the unique passage in Matthew 5-7 the central message of the gospel and the resurrection, retold by all four gospel writers and Paul, doesn’t really matter. This is really reflective of a broader fallacy for Burklo of paradoxically trying to affirm what Jesus said and reject what he did. He admits that Jesus’ moral teachings are hard to swallow, but insists that therein lies their moral force. Then, in direct contradiction, he declares the stories about Jesus hard to swallow and therefore expendable. It isn’t just the resurrection imperiled by Burklo’s Jeffersonian attempts to purge the Bible of the unbelievable. In the course of listing all the things Jesus doesn’t mention, he points out:

The Sermon on the Mount makes no mention of believing in miracles, believing the doctrine of the virgin birth of Christ, believing in the Trinity or the Apostle’s Creed, or even “accepting Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior”.

Ironically, in the previous entry we noted that one of the core features of Burklo’s vision of love is healing the sick. It’s unfortunate that, in spite of that commission, Christians are being instructed to disbelieve the miraculous healing stories. Not to mention the famous reply of Jesus to John, “the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” Having made clear already that he doesn’t believe in miracles and especially not in resurrection, Burklo makes Jesus a liar or at least his human biographers. If that’s the case, why should we even bother to take the all-important Sermon on the Mount all that seriously? Perhaps it is just hyperbolic or distorted or metaphorical. Perhaps turning the other cheek isn’t a hard and fast rule. Perhaps God really isn’t all that invested in the success of marriages. Of course, that’s the way Christians throughout the centuries have treated the famous sermon, but the strength, the cornerstone of Burklo’s vision of Christianity is the weight it gives the radical ethical challenges presented in the Gospel. Unfortunately, his own vision of biblical credibility compromises the integrity of his favorite passage.

It isn’t that I believe you can’t be a Christian without believing that Jesus walked on water. As someone who has taken my fair share of criticism for doubting the historicity of numerous Old Testament narratives, it would be hypocritical to impose that standard on anyone. The real problem is that the blithe way in which Burklo treats essentially all the deeds of Jesus directly contradicts and undermines the confidence he has in the moral teaching of the Gospels. There is at least a greater deal of intellectual honesty and consistency with groups like the Jesus Seminar that apply rigorous scholarly criteria to determine what the historical Jesus might actually have said, and approach the entire Gospels with a heaping dose of doubt. Burklo has decided what he wants the gospel to be—love, defined as God and the divine spark within all of us and the social justice impulse of Jesus’ recorded ministry—and invested only those passages of Scripture with credibility. It is not convincing as an objective hermeneutic, as appealing as it may be as a sanitized, politically correct incarnation of the faith.

Of course, it isn’t merely the stories about Jesus’ life that Burklo takes the knife to. He also makes no positive mention of any non-ethical teachings of Jesus or even those ethical teachings which might not fit neatly into his social gospel. That, however, is the content of my next and final complaint.

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