In case you missed it, CrossPolitic interviewed Atlantic Monthly writer Jonathan Merritt on this week’s episode, talking to him about his new book Learning to Speak God from Scratch and very related, women’s ordination.
In short, Merritt’s new book is his attempt to explain why he has become theologically liberal. It’s not being marketed that way, but that’s the cash value. As we will see, Merritt essentially sketches a faux-Christianity reminiscent of Richard Niebuhr’s famous description of theological liberalism: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”
I believe Merritt still claims to be a “moderate conservative” and sure, he still holds some token theological/political conservative stances (I believe he’s still Pro-life, for example, and he still technically wants to affirm the Apostles Creed), but in reality, his conservative ship has sailed and it’s foundering off some foreign coast. And incidentally, this is also Merritt laying the framework for publicly justifying and blessing homosexuality. Speaking of which, you may recall that Merritt was interviewed by Ed Stetzer in Christianity Today back in 2012 in which Merritt confessed to a brief homosexual relationship. In that interview, he affirmed what the Bible teaches about the sinfulness of homosexuality and declined to be identified as “gay.” But more on that in a bit.
The central play being made is the left jab of misunderstanding and hurt, followed by the uppercut of feigned theological prowess and sophistication. So the set up is the concerned presentation of mass confusions by moderns about what words from the Bible actually mean, people leaving the church in droves, misunderstandings, hurt feelings, offenses given and taken, or just straight up ignorance. That’s the problem. And if the Apostle Paul had known about this problem he wouldn’t have been so cavalier in his missionary journeys, throwing sacred words about like Jesus owned the place. Apparently he wasn’t familiar with the S.P.E.A.K. method of engagement (now available in Merritt’s last chapter). But be that as it may, sacred words are now vanishing from common parlance, and what Christian wouldn’t be against that? And, as the subtitle suggests, Merritt would like to help us revive them — but definitely without all that Pauline pizzazz. Modern people wouldn’t understand that sort of thing, unlike the people of the first century who consistently invited Paul for tea and biscuits and discussed the infinite mysteries of the universe in low tones with knowing glances and light chuckles in every city. But I digress… Though one does wonder if Merritt has gotten off on the wrong foot by including the word “sacred” in the subtitle. What kinds of confusion might that be sewing in the minds of readers? I mean, in our interview, we thought he might be interested in reviving words like propitiation or actually sharing the gospel with someone like Donald Trump, but he declined.
So Merritt suggests, drawing off of the wisdom of liberal sages like Richard Rohr and Walter Brueggemann that Bible words need to be re-imagined into better and truer understandings. “Better and truer” — who could be against that? But what does that look like exactly? Well, as Merritt explains, it begins by deconstructing what you thought the Bible said. And this is a job for experts. Really smart people. Lots of people have been hurt by what we thought the Bible said. I mean, you do remember slavery, right? And turns out the Bible is way, way more complex, difficult, ambiguous, metaphorical, and poetic than anyone ever imagined for two thousand years. But wait — why doesn’t Merritt appreciate John Calvin’s imagination of what the Scriptures mean especially on 1 Timothy 2? What about Donald J. Trump’s re-imagination of the Scriptures? Was Trump feeling a “God-nudge” when he was tweeting at 3am last week? How do you know? What makes us so special? What gives us the audacity to take such leaps of imaginative daring-do? What makes us think that our re-imagining will be heading in anything like a correct direction? In short, we don’t know. But we suspect it has to do with the fact that Merritt got this book deal and a blurb from uberhipster theologian Carl Lentz.
So for example, Merritt explains that the Fall of Adam and Eve may or may not have occurred. They may or may not have been real historical figures. But that doesn’t really matter. It’s not so important that the Fall happened, but rather that we recognize that Fall happens (123). As Merritt’s pastor encouraged him: what if you just unfurl your fingers and let go of these questions for a moment? What if you began to “replace questions about the historicity of the story and instead welcomed questions about the truth of the story” (122)? But, Jonathan, this is the path to utter absurdity and incoherence and it leads straight out of the Christian faith. No, seriously. What is the foundation of truth except historical reality? In what meaningful way do we know anything to be true that is not grounded in history? You may say that historical realities are always interpreted through our experiences, or that historical truth only touches down in our various histories, our experiences. Ok, but without an actual historical grounding, you are just another flavor of relativist. If truth is true only because it resonates with my personal historical experience, then it is only true for me. But what if you experience truth in different ways from me? What if one man experiences the truth of love by sodomizing another man? What if another man feels very deeply that he is actually truly a woman? If you reason from non-historical truth and try to bring it down into history, it will not stick. But if truth is grounded in history and arises from what has actually happened in real time in this world, then it is applicable throughout history in various ways because it actually reflects reality. But you cannot have it both ways. You cannot have truth be disconnected from history and then magically summon it up to be connected to history when you want it to be. And even though reality is complicated and mysterious and poetic on certain levels, you cannot have any kind of meaningful discussion of those things without a firm foundation of historical truth.
And we really should be clear here that there is no meaningful reason why Merritt shouldn’t use the same sort of argument in evaluating the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. And while Merritt seems to want to hold on to those few things specifically mentioned in the Creed, he will soon find that the force of arbitrary reasoning is about as strong as a wet noodle. He’s already caving on creation which is also explicitly mentioned in the Creed. It doesn’t matter so much how or when or even whether God created the heavens and the earth, does it? Doesn’t it matter more that creation happens? Unfurl your fingers, bro.
Unsurprisingly, Merritt goes on to explain that “sin” was a word that meant many different things in the Bible and throughout Church history (125-126). Paul would not have even recognized the way Moses used the word sin. Luther might not have recognized the way Jesus used the word. It’s all very complex and mysterious. And sure, we can say that God hates sin, but only after we have assured everyone that God is not really angry or furious — that’s way too one-sided and not poetic enough. If we’re going to talk about sin it needs to be primarily about us. Let’s first stroke our egos with words like “flourishing” and “shalom.” Sin is really all about us not reaching our fullest potential. God is not really offended or constrained by a holy justice to punish sinners. Rather, God is a kindly grandmother who has no higher goal than to serve us continuous plates of spiritual milk and cookies. He just wants us to be happy and flourish. He would never be against us. He’s just against that icky-force that resists us having abundant life (129).
The cash value of all of this is a massive devaluing of our sin problem. “We are all deeply flawed and often engage in destructive behavior” is a preening far cry from the “wages of sin is death.” And so it is no surprise that “grace” is reimagined as a cutesy Hallmark story of Merritt giving up his umbrella multiple times to various (apparently) ungrateful fellow pedestrians caught unprepared in a rainstorm in Brooklyn only to arrive at his lunch date all disheveled and soaked, but also still rather dashing and clever. The real gospel of God’s redeeming grace is Christ crucified on a Roman cross, bearing the sins of the world, taking our guilt and shame in our place, crushing the head of the serpent, washing sinners clean. And Merritt has a precious story about a rainy day in Brooklyn and sharing umbrellas with strangers. This is one of the great curses of liberal theology: not merely the fact that its gospel can’t actually save sinners (which is the worst part), but also the plain fact that it is painfully banal, boring, cliche, in a word, lame. In the name of poetry and mystery, liberal theology kills beauty, destroys the haunting harmonies of truth, and leaves us with trite moralistic muzak. This is like Veggie Tales with skinny jeans.
I hope to have time for another folllow up post soon on our discussion of how to read the Bible’s prohibition against female elders and pastors. But I would like to close this post noting that Merritt includes a chapter walking back his 2012 statement that his homosexual sin was a sign of his “brokenness.” And while he does not come out into the open to identify as gay or endorse such a thing explicitly, his chapter is a coy and cloying middle finger to God’s clear word, building his case from “genital electroshock therapy” and “scientific studies” and sleight of hand exegesis, pointing out for example that “brokenness is rarly mentioned in the Bible.” Right, Mr. Merritt, but sodomy and effeminacy are mentioned in the Bible. He closes by saying, regarding homosexual sin, “I say that if something can’t be fixed, then it probably ain’t broken.”
And I want to close this post by keying off this last line which among other things is full of despair. Jonathan, I know that you don’t know me, but I believe this is your central problem: Despair. In Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress Despair is a Giant who captures pilgrims and keeps them in his dungeon. And he abuses his victims by beating them over their heads with their guilt and shame and pointing out all of the pilgrims who have strayed and died along the way. Francis Schaeffer pointed out this tendency toward despair in modern thought in his little book Escape From Reason, which I highly recommend to you. But the point I want to make here relates back to Bunyan’s depiction of Christian and Hopeful trapped in the Giant Despair’s Doubting Castle. The breakthrough in the story comes when Christian finally remembers that when he was saved he was given a key called Promise. And it turns out that this key can unlock any door in Doubting Castle, and so Christian and Hopeful escape Despair. Jonathan, Pilgrim’s Progress is an old evangelical story that surely you are familiar with. It isn’t very cool or sexy, but I would argue that it is wonderfully and refreshingly true. It’s true in this case because the promises of God really are the answer to all our doubts that keep us locked up in despair. You have a chapter all about disappointment, and I hear that sentiment heavy in your voice and in your book. But wherever that disappointment aches that worst, you need to know that the promises of God are sure and they unlock every door in every doubting castle. The promises of God in Jesus Christ will never let you down, will never disappoint. And I pray that one day soon you will find that key.