By Alan Bean
David Gushee, a theologian and ethicist who teaches at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology, struck a nerve when he suggested that moderate Baptists with roots in the Southern Baptist Convention could benefit from a statement of faith.
Bill Leonard, my esteemed church history professor, asks which of the many Baptist statements of faith we would use.
Others worry that creeds have traditionally been used to patrol the borders of acceptable belief, drawing a line between us and them.
Finally, with all the theological diversity evident within moderate (and immoderate) Baptist life, how could we agree on language that was acceptable to everybody? What’s the old joke: when you have four Baptists you have five opinions.
As Dr. Gushee would surely agree, these are valid concerns, but I’m not sure they address David’s primary argument. Responding to his respondents, Gushee put the matter succinctly:
When our young ministers are asked, “So what about other religions? Do all roads lead just as well to God?” And “How exactly does Jesus dying on a cross 2,000 years ago help me?” And “My Dad is leaving my Mom and it’s tearing our whole family apart; what does God think about that?” Are they equipped to answer these questions? I fear our reticence to be clear and concrete in our theology and ethics is leaving churches, ministers and families speechless before the most important perennial and contemporary questions.
With Millennials (those with birth dates between 1980 and 2000) abandoning our churches at an alarming rate, is it okay if we maintain a discrete silence on the issues that trouble them the most? Maybe we can’t achieve a rough consensus on the big issues, but can we at least get a lively conversation started?
At issue is the character of God. Does God love all of us, all the time, no matter what; or will God favor a select few with the splendors of heaven while consigning unbelievers, and those born into the wrong religious culture, to the fires of hell?
This may strike you as a singularly crude way of stating the issue; but the Millennials streaming out of our churches don’t have a lot of theological tools to work with. All they know is what they hear from the small circle of Christian superstars who control the media microphone. Most of these young people want nothing to do with a God who damns GLBT people for being the way he made them. Nor are they interested in a deity who bars the pearly gates to non-Christians.
Most Millennials read the Bible randomly and with few contextual clues. They find themselves with nothing much to do and they see the black book sitting on the coffee table or the motel night stand. Succumbing to mild curiosity, they open the black book and read a few sentences. What do they find?
I just opened my Bible at a venture and here’s what I found:
Do not rejoice, all you Philistines,
that the rod that struck you is broken,
for from the root of the snake will come forth the adder,
and its fruit will be a flying fiery serpent.
The firstborn of the poor will graze,
and the needy lie down in safety;
but I will make your root die of famine,
and your remnant I will kill.
— Isaiah 14:29-30
Informed Bible students will recognize the familiar voice of the prophet Isaiah and will understand the reference to the Philistines and a rising Assyrian empire. We may also note God’s preferential love for poor and vulnerable people — a common biblical theme.
But the people turning their backs on organized religion are not informed Bible students. They read without context and catch the most dramatic details; the fiery serpent, death by famine, and the slaughter of the remnant. The takeaway: God is mad and determined to do some damage.
Having completed my experiment with random Bible reading, I just flipped on the television and checked out the first religious program I ran across. I learned that the Palestinians should stop asking for their own homeland because they are the descendants of Ismael (the child of a slave woman), while the Jews are the descendants of Isaac (the child of promise). I also learned that God takes a dim view of Obamacare and that humans are constantly besieged by evil spirits. All this in five minutes.
Put all of this together and we see why Millennials are fleeing the church. Ain’t nobody got time for a vengeful God with a knee-jerk preference for status quo politics. And that’s the only God they know.
Viewed against this cultural backdrop, our theological silence is a big problem. For better or worse, most of the current crop of young people didn’t grow up in Sunday school, they aren’t familiar with the great hymns of the faith (from whence we get most of our theology), they haven’t been exposed to hundreds of reassuring sermons about a loving God, and they have no idea how to read the Bible. All they know is what they hear on the radio, see on television, and discern from the half-dozen times they have randomly cracked a Bible. If we want these people to believe that God loves them, all the time, no matter what, we must be able to make our case in simple and persuasive terms.
The essential features of Christian theology aren’t all that complicated. First, we must read the Bible “Christianly.” If Jesus is the full and final revelation of God, his vision is decisive. Christ is lord of scripture.
Drawing on Old Testament teaching, Jesus portrays God as infinitely loving, forgiving, merciful, long-suffering and kind. Since God’s like that, we should be like that. Because God loves the enemy, so must we. Because God demolishes us-them distinctions, so must we. Because God takes the side of poor, vulnerable people, so must we. Because God condemns cruelty and oppression, so must we.
Jesus used hell language to dramatize the fate of those who exploit defenseless children, poor people, immigrants, widows and orphans. (Think of the parable of Lazarus and Dives in Luke 16, or the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25.)
These simple principles define the kingdom of God, the concept at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus lived out the kingdom and it cost him his life. Easter morning is God’s thunderous ‘amen’ to Jesus and the kingdom he proclaimed.
To follow Jesus is to live the kingdom of God he preached. That’s why we pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Heaven and hell are this-worldly realities that invade the world as a consequence of the choices we make. When we live the kingdom, heaven takes root. If we look out for number one, the scent of sulfur hangs in the air and the wrath of God is upon us.
Serious theological discussion is controversial. You may disagree with my take on Jesus and the kingdom. Or we may agree about Jesus but disagree about what kingdom living looks like in the real world. Theology is a spirited conversation that never ends. But if we play by kingdom rules, no one gets hurt and the potential for blessing is great.
But if we maintain our polite silence, we will have nothing to offer the folks who are forsaking organized religion. They have very good reasons for going; can we tell them why they should stay?