The world won’t end today…and that’s a bit of a tragedy

May 21, 2011

Anyone who has grown up in a North American “fundagelical” household can probably relate to the feelings of bemusement over prophecy specialists who go so far as to set an exact (and often pressing) date for Christ’s return. Even most of those who fervently believe in the end-times trinity of Rapture, Antichrist, and Tribulation and see signs of one-world governments and false prophets in every technological advance or New Age guru see these particular believers as misguided–for doesn’t Scripture itself declare that “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (1 Thessalonians 5:2), and that none will be able to predict its coming? (As an aside, given this requirement, the best strategy for those who desperately want their dispensationalist apocalypse to unfold–Tim LaHaye, Hal Lindsay, etc.–might be to studiously AVOID making any predictions about its timing or preconditions.)

Still, fringe nutbars continue to assert their position with absolute certainty. Harold Camping ( has been prominent in the news recently for his insistence that Judgment Day will begin bare hours from now, to be followed by a great period of suffering which ends finally in five months. To make matters worse, apparently this man has a history of making similar predictions. 1994 was also put forward for the end of the world. Who believes this stuff? Are any of those disappointed by the previous gong-show results putting their trust in Camping once more, sure that he must have gotten things right this time?

This is tragic on a number of levels. First of all, it shows the power of bad ideas–the farce of “premillennial dispensationalism,” a hack job of sewing together dozens of unrelated Bible verses into an apparently coherent whole–to continue to influence fundamentalist and evangelical Christian believers. Sadly, this doctrine has migrated far from its North American origins to become almost common currency among many Protestant believers who follow the “Great Tradition” of historical Christian orthodoxy. Secondly, it makes all “Bible-believing Christians” look like fools who will willingly entertain any number of insane ideas.

But the real tragedy, and reason for my title, is the human one. What about the apparent thousands of followers who are honestly convinced by this guy? Camping is preying upon very real fears–his tract advises readers to examine their Bibles carefully, “with all your family (especially your children),” and to “pray to the merciful and gracious God of the Bible that He might deliver you from the approaching destruction.” This is simply horrific. Again, those raised fundagelically will identify with the terrible memory of possibly being “left behind”…entering a quiet house where you expected your mother to be, not realizing she had stepped out for an errand, for example. Real people are praying right now that God will deliver them from the wrath he is about to inflict upon a sinful world.

What recourse will they have tomorrow? A number of options, of course, but I imagine that many will lose faith in the whole endeavour. Christianity as a “house of cards,” where God’s existence depends upon an imminent Second Coming and a 6,000 year old earth and homosexuals who are evil and malicious people and a secular conspiracy against the Bible…and so it goes. Disprove any one element–remove a single card–and the whole thing collapses (thanks to slacktivist for this analogy). Similarly, Jesus himself warned us not to build our houses on the sand (Matthew 7:26).

One tragedy of May 21st will be people who decide that they can no longer be Christians, based on a doctrine that was never actually a Christian fundamental in the first place.

Where’s the Good News?


Religious education and the public school–thoughts on the Quebec case

May 19, 2011

According to, a family in Quebec has decided to challenge a “compulsory ethics and religious culture” course, mandated provincially since 2008, by removing their two daughters from the class. The case has gone all the way to the Supreme Court, as the original ruling stated that “no exemptions” were to be granted.

Shades of Madalyn Murray O’Hair and the 1950s, in what is paradoxically Canada’s most secularized (in terms of actual church attendance and apparent social values) and most religiously homogenous (in terms of personal identification–the overwhelming majority of Quebecers still consider themselves Catholics, like on the order of 80-85%) province? Not quite. This is a tricky case, but two wrong-headed responses can be gleaned from the article’s comments.

In the words of angus99, “This is a thinly veiled attempt to reintroduce RELIGIOUS INSTRUCTION back into schools when it was already taken out.” A passing read of the article reveals quite a different story. This is not a Jesuit-led attempt to turn all Quebec students into faithful little Catholics. Rather, the course appears completely non-sectarian, discussing the different religions that have featured prominently in Quebec’s history–not only Catholicism, but Protestantism, Judaism, and something nebulously described here as “aboriginal spirituality,” for want of a better term. In my view, this is the way religion should be presented in schools. Let’s face it, religion has been an incredibly important force in human history. It would be impossible to do justice to the past by somehow pretending that religion had never existed and screaming “separation of church and state.” A well-rounded, educated individual should have the chance to learn about different religious traditions, their beliefs, and how these beliefs have shaped and continue to shape society. If this knowledge doesn’t come about in the fairly objective environment of a school, it has a great likelihood of being shaped by bias (from any number of directions).

However, a public school is rightfully not in the business of conversion. This is where the second instructive(ly wrong) comment comes into play. Tom 15 argues that the course “treats one’s religion as irrelevant folklore. This is the problem. It is an atheist indoctrination of our children.” This, in fact, is closer to the feelings of the course-challenging parents, who are Catholics and feel that the course violates their religious beliefs. The main criticism seems to be either that the course is too respectful of religion (from the secular standpoint) or too relativistic (from the religious parent’s standpoint). But frankly, a relativistic, respectful, but non-sectarian approach to teaching this content is the only possible way to get this done in a public educational setting. Different religions have competing truth claims. It is not the government’s business to take a stand on one particular religion and define that religion as absolute truth (here I’m showing my Anabaptist colours). Canada, even less than the United States, can make no claim to having ever been a unified “Christian nation.” From our founding, we have been religiously pluralistic, with the right to choose between Catholic and Protestant education for children enshrined from the very beginning. It goes without saying that our country is exponentially more pluralistic now than it was in 1867, and this situation is not going to change. The course basically seems to state “here’s what Catholics believe, here’s what Hindus believe, here’s what Muslims believe…” without saying “and that’s why you should believe THIS.” Students should learn, at the very least, that other religions exist, just as they learn that other countries, languages, and ethnic groups exist. The parent’s role as primary moral guide (along with their ability to share personal beliefs and opinions) is not diminished by this legislation whatsoever.

In short, knowledge about religion is basic to any kind of educated understanding of the world, but the school’s role should be to teach ABOUT religion, not to PROMOTE it. While doing this in a fair and objective way may be difficult, it is not impossible, and it should certainly not be avoided.


May 18, 2011

The number of blogs that deal with matters of Christian faith from what might be called a “post-fundamentalist” or “liberal evangelical” standpoint is already large.  In starting this blog, I hope mostly to clarify my own thoughts about some important issues, and perhaps to join in with the broader conversations already floating around the blogosphere at some point.

For now, I’ll show my colours as an academic-in-training by discussing a few important terms that are–and will be–meaningful here.

Evangelical” and “Fundamentalist“: two highly contested terms.  To many, they smack of all kinds of unpleasant connotations, like rigidity, intolerance, judgment, bitterness, reaction.  To (perhaps) even more, they are equated almost immediately with “conservative,” although whether that connotation is unpleasant or pleasant is highly subjective.

As descriptive words, “evangelical” and “fundamentalist” both have positives to offer.  “Fundamentalist,” in a literal sense, merely connotes an insistence on certain doctrines that are held as foundational, and a laissez-faire attitude toward less important doctrines that are more or less up to individual preference.  However, if this word started out as a fairly empty container, it has filled up with a lot of junk over the years: a sense of moral superiority and of victimization by a conspiracy of secularists, a willingness to pronounce judgment on “sinners” and to define who those sinners are, an insistence on a particularly bizarre cut-and-paste interpretation of Scripture called “dispensationalism” that can only be construed as a “literal interpretation” in the loosest sense of the term “literal,” an obsession with “genital politics” instead of economic and social justice (and a consequent defaulting into certain political parties), and a dogged conviction that faith in God depends on believing that the earth was created in six 24-hour days no more than 6,000 years ago.  For these reasons, I feel comfortable leaving “fundamentalist” behind as a descriptive term for myself, even though I have my own set of fundamentals.

By now, I’ve already tipped my hand.  But let’s look at the term “evangelical” for those who are about to excommunicate me.  The early members of the evangelical movement, such as Billy Graham and the founders of Christianity Today, actually founded that movement as a rejection of fundamentalist cultural separatism, feeling it important to actually engage with non-Christians and take an active interest in reaching them as full human beings–not only feeding their souls, but their bellies and minds as well.  More importantly, though, “evangelical” means some kind of association with the good news.

Good news is the Kingdom of Heaven.  Good News is the promise of a better way and maybe even of wholeness somewhere down the line.  Good News is proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favour, setting the oppressed and the prisoner free, restoring the sight of the blind (Luke 4:18).  Good News is for the poor, the sick, the lame, the broken, the OK, the rich, the great, the proud, the humble.  The Jew, the Gentile, the Greek, the Arab.  The conservative, the liberal, the communist, the terrorist, the activist, the professor, the gay man, the lesbian, the libertarian.  The soldier, the banker, the prostitute, the bartender, the drunk.  The Good News is that we are all equal in the sight of God, and all loved and cherished.

Most of all, Good News is grace.  For these reasons, I am unwilling to completely throw the term “evangelical” away.  Although I understand the reasoning of people like Tony Campolo, who prefer to go by “Red-Letter Christians” to escape the negative connotations of fundamentalist and evangelical, I think “good news” is still a powerful overarching description of what Christianity should be.

In “dispensing grace,” I hope to show how one follower of Christ understands the relevance of Christ in a pluralistic, complicated world.  I’m also “dispensing with” a few things here.  Dispensing with the default link between Christianity and conservative politics (not because those politics are all bad, but because they’re politics–not Christianity).  Hopefully dispensing with evangelical Christianity’s frequent fear of the “other” (whether that other is homosexual, Muslim, atheist, etc.).  Definitely dispensing with dispensationalism.

But I want this to be more than just another fundie-bash.  Fundamentalists are people too, who profess to believe in the same God and Christ that I do.  It would be arrogant of me to paint all fundamentalists with the same brush–there are millions, after all, spread throughout hundreds of denominations and reaching every corner of the globe.  For the most part, their intentions are good.  I still have things to learn from them, such as a love for service and a personal willingness to give their money to charity.

But I also believe that there is more to the Christian story than the fundamentalist way.  More than the Anglican or Russian Orthodox way, too.  We can all learn from each other, as we are reminded of the heart of Christianity: the Good News brought by Jesus.