I was raised in Southern Baptist circles. While my family was too educated to ever be classified as fundamentalists, our approach to biblical interpretation was literalistic and we were surrounded by and preached to by people who were literalists and fundamentalists. These were the kind of people who had a verse for everything and knew that God almighty was keenly aware of and concerned with the problems and annoyances of middle class white people in Alabama. The phrases “God’s Word” and “the Word of God” passed easily and blithely from their lips when talking about their King James Versions.
I began to grow out of this way of thinking in college. In fact, it was at a Southern Baptist University that I learned that Adam and Eve were not real people, that Jesus may not have been a literal divine miracle worker, and that the virgin birth and resurrection stories were highly problematic. That journey began one day in World Religions class when the professor entered the room, read the sermon on the mount, then tore a page out of his Bible and threw it in the garbage. His point was that it doesn’t matter what is written in a book if its words are not written in your heart. It was a fine point. The problem is that we all have things written in our hearts before we read scripture and I believe it is those things that need to be addressed and that the scriptural interpretation wars are incapable of addressing them.
Imagine my surprise when after a brief journey into atheism, I turned to a more progressive version of Christianity only to hear progressive Christians also talking about scripture as God’s authoritative word. They did take some parts of it metaphorically and they even disagreed with some of its more loathsome sections, but they still felt it necessary to talk about the bible as though it were somehow authoritative.
It was about this time when I started comparing the Bible to my grandmother. I honored and respected my grandmother. She formed me in many ways. But she knew nothing about technology and understood very little about science. She was someone I admired and loved but she was hardly authoritative for my life. I would share this with people and say that my attitude towards scripture was similar. Many lay people really appreciated my words but I always seemed to encounter progressive clergy who took issue with my casual dismissal of the authority of scripture. Usually they would say that “authority” can mean other things than a top down authoritarianism or they might say that they believed that parts of it were authoritative because they heard the gospel speaking through those passages that upset the status quo. For such people, the parables of Jesus are important, the Old Testament prophets are crucial, and Paul’s passages on inclusivity are essential. I think these are important too, but not because they are authoritative.
It is all well and good to like parts of the Bible and find other parts abhorrent. Both conservatives and progressives do that, though conservatives don’t like to admit it. What I don’t understand is what it does for progressives to cling to the authority of scripture as a concept. I am not talking about admiring or taking scripture seriously. I am talking about regarding it as authoritative. It certainly isn’t about providing a foundation that grounds common discourse. If the recent General Conference of the United Methodist Church showed anything, it is that scriptural authority does not create any common ground among Christians. Since it does not provide common ground, does not establish acceptable criteria for debate, and is often disagreed with by progressives (and conservatives), I see no role for the authority of scripture to play, unless it is a trick progressives use to try to convince conservatives that we really are on the same team. If it is a trick, and even if progressives are unaware of the fact that it is a trick, the joke is actually on us. As long as we progressives play the authority of scripture game we are playing by fundamentalism’s rules. I think this is one reason why many progressives have given up on debate and persuasion. They struggle when talking with conservatives because the authority of scripture keeps the game on conservatives’ home field. As long as progressives allow conservatives to use the authority of scripture to set the ground rules, every scriptural or theological debate will be an away game.
Progressives need to drop the authority of scripture so that the field of play shifts. When we do this, we leave fundamentalists or conservatives in a bind. Do not kid yourself, for the most part, people in the Wesleyan Covenant Association do not really think progressives are Christians so they hear our authority of scripture language as lip service used to trick laity into thinking we are on their side. Let us admit that they might be right to a small degree, though I think that degree is smaller than they think. Most progressives do value the authority of scripture. On the other hand, I hear some of my progressive colleagues vocalize an appreciation of scriptural authority but only when it is directly brought up. Otherwise, they never quote the Bible or refer to it as God’s Word.
If we drop the authority language, the debate shifts to our home field and leaves fundamentalists at a disadvantage. The real reason to drop authority language however is not to gain home field advantage with fundamentalists, it is play on a different field altogether (maybe even a different game) with disaffected Christians and the skeptical culture that surrounds us. Fundamentalists do not need to be taken seriously, Fundamentalism does. We need to take it seriously and discredit it so that no one else is tempted to play the fundamentalist game. This is easily done because everything is on our side. As long as we seek to have credibility with fundamentalists, we lose credibility with other groups and it is with these other groups that we have most in common. The truth is I have much more in common with progressives, whether they be Buddhists, atheists, scientists, or the spiritual but not religious than I do with conservative United Methodists or Fundamentalist Christians.
We need to remember that something doesn’t have to be honored as an authority in order to be valuable. We claim that Jesus’ humble beginnings say something important about God. Why not let the book that is also supposed to say something important about God be humble too?