The Bible and Culture


On the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I have a Dream’ speech, somewhere between 300,000 and 600,000 people showed up for a rally at the Lincoln Memorial featuring speeches by Glenn Beck (a Mormon) and Sarah Palin (some sort of conservative Protestant).  Here is the link to the NY times article on the matter this morning—-

Meanwhile at Dunbar High School in D.C., a much smaller rally was held, led by actual Civil Rights leaders and the main speaker was Rev. Al Sharpton.

If nothing else these two parallel rallies show that we still have a very long way to go when it comes to race relationships in this country. It is understandable how many African Americans might find the rally led by Beck, which was not focused on improving our race relations and was in that regard not in accord with King’s speech and vision cast on that very day so many years ago now, offensive in various ways.

Glenn Beck disavowed this was a political rally and instead concentrated on saying that America needs revival, needs to get back to God, and also needs to get back to the vision of our Founding Fathers and our charter documents.  What should we think of all of this?   Several observations are in order.

1)  As I have pointed out on various occasions on this blog, our Founding Fathers were a religiously mixed multitude.  There were Deists, there were Christians, and there were even others involved.  Any one who has done serious religious research into the faith of people like Benjamin Franklin or John Adams or Thomas Jefferson or other early luminaries will realize that many of the guiding lights at the founding of our nation were not ‘born again Christians’ in the modern sense at all.  Take for example Thomas Jefferson, the man who famously produced the Jefferson Bible, a Bible which was said to have inspired Jesus Seminar founder Robert Funk.  The Jefferson Bible deletes various miracles of Jesus and the NT ‘dogmatic’ passages to focus on a ‘Judaeo-Christian’ ethic.  Of course at the same time Jefferson was producing Gospel light (less filling, tastes great), he was also advocating principles espoused by John Locke when it came to things like freedom or  private property, principles that don’t exactly jive with what the Bible says about property—- namely that ‘the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof’. 

2) While I quite agree with Mr. Beck that this nation needs revival badly, it is right to be leery of the sort of uncritical amalgamation of our civic religion (‘God bless the U.S.A.’) and our Christian faith that we hear coming out of Mr. Beck’s mouth.   It was precisely this sort of amalgamation of Americanism and Christianity that Martin Luther King often took exception to, and which caused him to be accused of communism among other things.  We need a revival alright in this country, but it needs to be a genuinely Christian counter-cultural revival, not a rebirth of a slightly Christianized civic religion.

3)  A counter-cultural Christian revival would indeed have to involve repentance of the serious sins of our country, not the least of which are racism, materialism, and militarism.  There is a reason why Paul told us that ‘in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, no male and female, for all are one in Christ’ (Gal. 3.28).  There is no spiritual Gospel that doesn’t have such social implications, and despite Glenn Beck’s ranting and raving about liberation theology, the truth of the matter is that God cares about justice issues, and salvation from our besetting sins inherently involves dealing with things like racism, greed, and a host of other isms. 

At the end of the day,  what yesterday revealed to us is that we are still a deeply divided nation, indeed even the Christians, who were present in considerable numbers at both rallies, are deeply divided.   My hope would be that this Fall the politics of fear doesn’t overwhelm the politics of faith, for our country has been making too many fear-based decisions in the last decade.  We are at a place of profound cynicism in our culture about our major institutions—- political, educational, and yes religious institutions.  Movements like the Tea Party movement reflect this profound cynicism. 

A society however can not be held together, or make progress on the basis of fear based decision-making.  There has to be trust, there has to be faith,  and there has to be meaningful discourse and dialogue….. not merely ideological posturing by either the left or the right.  Dueling banjos are incapable of playing in harmony or producing a meaningful and helpful ensemble.   We need less bombast and posturing and more of the spirit which says ‘come let us reason together’.  

My prayer is that there will indeed be both a funeral and a revival.  We need to hold a funeral for cheap talk, dirty politics, character assassination, fragmentation and posturing from whatever point on the political spectrum  We need a revival of co-operation, can-do spirit, and bipartisanship.   We need to hold a funeral for talk shows which are high on moral outrage and ideologically driven vituperation and low on actual facts or reasoned discourse.  We need to simply stop watching such shows— it is noise not news. 

But more than anything else we need a true revival that centers on Jesus Christ who famously said ‘if anyone would come after me, let him take up his cross and follow me’.   The road that Jesus is walking down doesn’t lead to either the Lincoln Memorial or  Dunbar High School, necessarily.   It leads to Golgotha and the death of self-serving, self-centered, selfish behavior of whatever sort.   It leads to the death of all our short-sighted parochialisms for God loves the world not just America, and that is why he sent his Son so that all of us, yes all of us, might have everlasting life, freedom from sin in Christ, and the happiness of the pursuit of God’s calling on our lives to make this world, including this country, better, not bitter.         

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