The first generation to leave the church en masse were the Baby Boomers. As the oldest Boomers (b. late ‘40’s) became teenagers, Sunday School attendance began to decline. Now the Barna Group has published a book entitled, You Lost Me, documenting the alarming loss from our mainline churches of adults born since 1980.
I see the loss of millenials in my own family. We have seven “millennial” grandchildren, all of whom I baptized and all of whom their parents reared in The United Methodist Church. Today, one is a senior at Duke Divinity School and will be appointed as a pastor next summer. He is the only one who is really active in a UMC Church. One of the others has been discipled by “Young Life” and worships at a Fundamentalist Church with contemporary worship—a church packed with his university classmates. Unless your church is in a suburban or exurban neighborhood of affluent young adults, Sunday morning pews are occupied by older people, many of whom will be in heaven in ten years. Lovett Weems is the “Noah” of our generation; the death tsunami is coming. We will “laugh at Noah” at our own peril.
Addie Zierman has written a book on behalf of her post-1980 generation: 5 Churchy Phrases that Are Scaring Off Millennials. My next five columns will respond to her, phrase by phrase. Her lists of “scary churchy phrases” begins with: “The Bible says….” Preachers who use this term are virtually throwing a verse of scripture like a sword of the Lord. The Bible, to them, is a weapon. The phrase belongs to the Fundamentalists. That phrase usually reflects the belief that every word of the Bible is inerrant, literally “dictated” by God to the writers, and accurate not only in matters religious, but in geology and anthropology. I therefore realize why, to many millennials, the term “The Bible says” is a turn-off; indeed, it is to me personally. However, our response to a given phrase such as “The Bible says,” is part and portion of a larger and very important concern. That is, “How can we reclaim the Bible for the church without frightening or boring the young adults?” Fundamentalist theology might scare them, but Fundamentalist worship does not bore them! Furhermore, it fascinates tens of thousands. Indeed, most new converts to Christ today are coming through churches, campus groups, and individual relationships with a very “high view” of scripture as the inspired Word of God. I have come in my old age to affirm the words of Roy Harrisville who taught New Testament at Luther Northwestern Theological Seminary: “What needs to be done in reclaiming the Bible for the church is not what needs to be done in order to save the Bible, but in order to save the church.”
If we have an alternative to a Fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible, we must take care not to liberate the Bible only to incarcerate it again in a positivist, naturalistic, humanist world view. According to Alister McGrath, “The assumptions of the Enlightenment were just as prejudicial as was Fundamentalism.” Jesus warned us about cleansing our spirit, only to “go through waterless regions looking for a resting place,” until the last place of the person is worse than the first.” (Luke 12:43-45)
Brevard Childs of Yale wrote that “the critical hypotheses of the 19th century irreparably shattered the church “pre-critical” interpretation of the Bible.” Their premise was/is a child of the Enlightenment. Its philosophical underpinning was “positivism,” (introduced by Auguste Comte, father of sociology) that adolescently celebrated human progress, autonomy, and reason. Comte insisted human thought went through a metaphysical stage into a theological stage and into the scientific stage. Positivism denies the reality of anything supernatural. Positivism decimates the authority of scripture as having any dimension of divine inspiration. To the “positivist,” saying, “the Bible says” has no proof of truth, no authority, no real meaning. When biblical higher criticism limited its scriptural interpretation to “Christian humanism” (or, Israel’s understanding of God) not Bible study it found few converts outside academia and its graduates.
Higher criticism was seen by some as ‘throwing out the baby with the bath water.” Preeminent Bible scholar Walter Bruggemann has written convincingly, “For well over 150 years, critical scholarship sought to interpret the Old Testament according to an evolutionary scheme of development from the simple to the complex.” Bruggemann wrote, “By the end of the nineteenth century, the Old Testament had ceased to be a part of Scripture with any authoritative claim for the church. In the academy, it was an object of study…that in principle had to distort or deny the most defining characteristics of the text itself.”
Fundamentalism was the pushback to biblical higher criticism. John Darby, an Irish Anglican who left his church to found the Plymouth Brethren, He designed a scheme that cast the whole Bible into seven “dispensations” until the end of time. This theory was picked up by Cyrus Scofield, an erstwhile lawyer with a checkered personal past. In 1909, he published the Scofield Reference Bible, which was based on Darby’s weird paradigm of “dispensationalism.” It made its way to the desk of nearly every pastor and has caused much “hermaneutical mischief.”
Concurrent with the publication of the “Scofield Bible” from 1910-1916, came a well funded series of twelve tracts called “The Fundamentals.” They were free and distributed by the millions. That also was the year of the infamous “Scopes trial” in Tennessee, which the press made a national conversation. The “Fundamentals” insisted that God created the world in six 24-hour days at the same time that public schools were adopting Darwin’s theory of evolution. In that same year, 1924, Dallas Theological Seminary was founded on the theological premises of biblical inerrancy, dispensationalism, and pre-millennianism. The die was cast for two theories of biblical interpretation to be in perennial conflict.
To see this from a personal vantage point, I refer you to the biography of a Baby Boomer, Carlene Cross, born in 1959. Carlene had been sent to a Bible College in Montana, and then accompanied her husband to two very conservative seminaries and to a dozen years when he was pastor of “CALVARY BAPTIST, A MEMBER OF THE INDEPENDENT BAPTIST CHURCHES OF AMERICA.” Sadly, his morals, their marriage, and her theology all fell apart. The title of her autobiography, written in 2006, is Fleeing Fundamentalism.
Carlene’s favorite professor in Bible College, on the first day of class, summarized the doctrine that is behind the phrase, “The Bible says.” He said, “The foremost lesson in Bible interpretation is that every word of Scripture is inspired. Not some of it, parts of it, but every letter. This means that every detail of history, every doctrine, every word of prophecy is without error and must be taken in its literal sense. These are God’s very words here, young people. Don’t ever let me hear you say differently.” Her commentary on him was, “we were to avoid any and all books or voices of liberalism.” Her boyfriend insisted that they follow the teachings of Bill Gothard, whose widely read books insisted that Christian couples must refrain from all physical contacts during courtship. Her boy friend insisted that they times together be spent memorizing chapters of scripture to be used as the “sword of the Lord to defend against the attacks of Satan.” They also rehearsed the classroom teachings about dispensationalism and premillenianism.
Most campus student groups are both Calvinist and neo-Fundamentalist. We must admit that Fundamentalist faith groups are rescuing more kids from drug addiction than our more liberal youth ministries. We must also admit that some “liberals” in theology are “fundamentalist” in their positions on social justice issues, and will denigrate novices who do not know the latest word in politically correct jargon. This is the stuff of which a “holy war” could develop.
Interpretation of the Bible is important. Who is the more important interpreter—the parish or the academy? Most of us who are seminary graduates were tutored by the academy and must “rightly handle the Word of truth” in the parish — no easy task! We must carefully combat the extremes of biblical literalism and we must reclaim and recover the Bible for the church. Indeed we must devise ways and means to learn the scriptures. Biblical illiteracy is a seedbed for biblical literalism. I was a Fundamentalist as a tutored teenager and cannot go there. I have “been there, done that, and have the scars.” Just as Carlene Ross in the Northwest, I too had to “flee from Fundamentalism.”
I congratulate scholars like Brevard Childs for forcing us to ask first, “Why did the Jews or early Christians include this in the canon?” John Wesley, before the days of biblical criticism, advised that we wrestle with difficult passages in the context of the whole Bible. In our idiom, Wesley was saying, “Look for the Word of God in the macro, not the micro.”
We must come to the biblical text to hear the word of the Lord! As Dr. Childs puts it, “Both Testaments bear witness to the One Lord, in different ways, at different times, to different people, and yet both are understood in the light of the living Lord himself, the perfect reflection of the glory of God (Hebrews 1).” As for critical study, we must first appreciate the theological coherence of the Scriptures rather than using our carving knife to dissect every passage and conclude an irreconcilable diversity. The cultural climate in which any part of the Bible was written is important, but it is not the supreme issue.
We must recover the Bible both in our personal “mastery” of the STORY, the characters, and “golden texts we commit to memory.” In the words is the WORD, “making wise the simple.” Our hope is that the church and the academy can forge a new partnership with mutual appreciation for each other’s role in mastering “the Word of God for the people of God.” If so, we can respond with a great voice, “Thanks be to God.”