Reading In the Land of Believers: An Outsider’s Extraordinary Journey into the Heart of the Evangelical Church by Gina Welch, which I reviewed yesterday, gave me a lot to think about. Please keep in mind that this is my own subjective reaction based on my understanding of a set of beliefs that I don’t personally embrace, and I may not have all the facts right. If you’d like to correct me on any of those, please do so respectfully, but understand that this is largely an expression of my opinions.
Some of you know that I lived in Memphis, Tennessee for ten years. My son grew up there, and I still consider it my hometown – in some respects, but not all. Memphis has been called “the buckle of the Bible Belt,” and the clasp on that buckle may be Bellevue Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist “mega-church” that less-reverent citizens have been known to refer to as “Six Flags Over Jesus.” Living in that environment, I’ve known a few Evangelicals. I never set foot on Bellevue’s grounds, but my ex-husband’s sister was a member, and my son went to services with her a few times, just out of curiosity. I understand and share the curiosity, which is one reason I wanted to read Gina Welch’s book, but I’ve never wanted to get that close to it. The beliefs and practices of Evangelicals – which aren’t necessarily the same as Fundamentalists, as I learned from Susan Campbell’s Dating Jesus last year – are very different from my own Catholic tradition, but there are other reasons I can’t envision myself embracing them.
Evangelicals believe there’s nothing you can do to earn your way into heaven. Good deeds and right behavior are expected, but ultimately don’t have much of an effect on your destiny. As long as you say the “sinner’s prayer” and accept Jesus as your personal savior, it almost doesn’t seem to matter what you do after that. You’ve been “saved,” and can’t be unsaved – after you die, and when the Rapture comes, you will be with God. My issue with that is that a lot of “saved” people seem to behave and express opinions that don’t seem terribly consistent with things Jesus preached to his followers, like charity and acceptance – and I think that really is supposed to matter. How you live out your faith should count more than it seems to. (Granted, Catholics do have the sacrament of “last rites” – confession and absolution of sins before dying – that ultimately does the same thing, but by definition, they won’t be living much after that.)
Being “saved” means believing and accepting that Jesus died for your sins – therefore, he has taken your punishment for you, and thus saved you. There’s a lot of emphasis in Evangelical teaching on Jesus’ passion and death. I come from a church background that certainly acknowledges that, but places more importance on Jesus’ resurrection after death. The forty days of Lent lead up to the celebration of the Easter miracle, not the solemnity of Good Friday, although that’s not disregarded. The forty days (again!) between Easter and the holy day of Jesus’ ascension lead up to the feast of Pentecost, observing the founding of the church. This goes back to the Evangelical focus on a “personal relationship with God” as compared to being part of an institutional Church. Some Evangelical churches have thousands of members, but there’s not much of a structure connecting those churches to one another. (Then again, I’m not sure that’s been such a good thing for the Church that traces its history back to that original founding…)
Evangelicals believe the Bible is literally true and correct, effectively dictated by God. I can believe that God inspired what’s been written in the Bible, but I can’t accept it as the literal “word of God.” It’s a work of literature in itself, and it has inspired many other works of literature. I think it was the work of many authors – some known, others not – and for that reason, it’s not always internally consistent. I know that what’s included in it was decided by human beings – there are books that were left out, and others that were moved around – and that shapes it in a particular direction; I also know that time and many translations have changed its language. I think that if the Bible is read symbolically rather than literally, the ideas of evolution and creationism don’t have to be mutually exclusive. I believe that if your beliefs are genuinely “Christian,” their Biblical basis should be drawn from the teachings of the New Testament – the books after and about Jesus – and not so much on the ideas of the Old Testament, which is by definition B.C.
I don’t really have a problem with anyone believing that God has inspired a particular idea or course of action for them, although I’m not so comfortable having them tell me about it; I’d rather just know that they gave it serious thought (if that included prayer, fine, but that’s their business). But I don’t believe God takes direct action to make one thing happen over another; whose prayers get precedence to be answered? And an idea can just be an idea – something that the human brain and human emotions considered, and given credit as such. “Leaving it all in God’s hands” sounds like an excuse for inaction to me; I tend to subscribe to “the Lord helps those who help themselves.”
Ultimately, I can’t embrace that there’s only one right way, but that’s my thinking on any one religion compared to another, period. I see the appeal of the sense of certainty and reliance on absolute answers that make complex issues seem like simple questions, and how that can draw people to a particular set of religious beliefs. But I can’t – and don’t want to – dismiss or disregard scientific discoveries and philosophical debate and historical fact. I accept the randomness of life and that sometimes things just happen; it’s human to want to ascribe meaning, but sometimes there just might not be any. I just don’t think I can – or really want to – think the way Evangelicals seem to, although I think it’s valuable to have gained a little understanding of those who do. That last sentence in itself strikes me as an illustration of my mindset, actually.