What’s Happening in Religion

November 14, 1999


What’s Happening in Religion

There is a chain of hair-care places in Wichita calledSnip and Clip , and it occurred to me last week that their name describes perfectly one of my minor addictions as a minister. I read a number of religious journals to keep up with what is going on in churches, and whenever I find something I think you might find interesting, I snip and clip — and store it in a file for some Sunday when I can share it in a room filled with curious minds. Today is one of those days, so here are some different items from the (sometimes) strange world of religion.
You have probably heard about those recent booklets issued by the Southern Baptist Convention asking their members to pray hard for Jews and Muslims to convert to Christianity as the year 2000 approaches. Response from the national director of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League was quick and to the point: “It is pure arrogance for any one religion to assume that they hold ‘the truth,’ especially on the eve of the holiest days for the Jewish faith.” In newspapers and magazines around the country others piped up, some in approval, some in condemnation. A few days later, Southern Baptists issued 30,000 more booklets which added Hindus to the prayer list and called on their members to pray for those millions of people whom they described as “lost in the hopeless darkness of Hinduism.” As you might expect, Muslims and Hindus have been as irritated as Jews to be told that it’s either convert or be damned forever. I was still thinking about that kind of proselytizing fever when I read a delightful piece by a black columnist named William Raspberry, writing in the Washington Post about an experience I know some of you have had.
He recalls how the minister of his grandfather’s church would say a few words about the dear and then take advantage of a captive audience to warn certain friends and relatives of the deceased that they were going to Hell. “Not because we were bad people,” the columnist writes, “those of us who didn’t subscribe to his particular brand of religion, but because his brand was the only one ordained of God and thus the only sure ticket to glory. He would urge us to [get right with God and join his church] before it was too late. Then he would return to the business of the funeral…..We felt the way a lot of Jews felt [recently when Southern Baptists urged their members to pray during the Jewish high holy days for Jews to convert to Christianity].”
But as distasteful as that attitude is to him, to other world religions, and to a great many Christians, he says it helps us understand it if we look at it from the point of view of those who believe that they have found the one sure path to salvation. Southern Baptist leaders, he reminds us, feel the same duty to warn Jews, Muslims and Hindus as his grandfather’s minister felt about people at his funeral service who had not gotten right with God. “It was,” he writes, “as though he knew the bridge around the next mountain curve had been washed out and that to allow us to continue along that route would mean our death. Who would refuse to warn an unwary motorist, even if the warning might be misinterpreted as rudeness? We were, by his lights, on the wrong road, even though we were as sure of our Christianity as he was of his.
“This whole proselytizing thing is annoying,” Mr. Raspberry writes. “It is one thing for friends of different religious persuasions to exchange views and try to bring one another around. It is quite another for one religion to target another as ignorant and in need of conversion. I am a little annoyed even by the mild-mannered Jehovah’s Witnesses who come around to disrupt your Saturday, just when you are mowing the lawn or engrossed in the game of the week. But,” he concludes, “if they know that they are right and that you are tragically, damnably wrong, just what are they supposed to do?” His article is a plea, not for approval, but for understanding….and that never hurts.
Another religious note I found interesting is that the Vatican has just released a new edition of its Manual of Indulgences. If you know the story of Martin Luther’s role in the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, you know that the sale of indulgences, or forgiveness of sins, was one of his major targets. An overzealous friar named John Tetzel made such extravagant claims about how gifts of money or property could shorten the time you or your departed friends might spend in purgatory, that Luther made a daring attack on his own Catholic church for allowing Tetzel to preach the gospel of quick forgiveness if you had the cash. Tetzel was guilty of distorting Catholic theology at its best, but money raised in this way had become such a prime source of papal revenue — financing both wars and the building of churches — that Rome managed to look the other way until Luther posted his famous 95 theses on the door of the Wittenburg church and began the great confrontation that would ultimately lead to the new world of Protestantism.
Now comes an updated manual on the use of indulgences, out just in time to guide the millions of Catholics who in the year 2000 will make pilgrimages to Rome, where they will be blessed and grow in grace if they visit historic churches, if they are kind to immigrants, if they pray at work, and if they give up alcohol and cigarettes. Protestants who believe in salvation by grace have reacted somewhat nervously to the idea that the church has power to confer favor if prescribed works are done, and Lutherans, who only two weeks ago signed a historic joint declaration with Roman Catholics designed to bring both groups closer together, indicated their preference that a red-flag word like indulgences had not been brought up right at that moment. It is no easy thing to work out strong differences of opinion which have divided the Christian world for centuries, but Catholic and Lutheran leaders who worked out the joint declaration are still hoping it will become one more small step toward the eventual unity of all Christians.
Meanwhile, if the new update on the doctrine of indulgences still struck some as a bit too commercial, they had hardly time to catch their breath before news came of a strange new marriage of religion and capitalism on the banks of the Jordan River. Do you remember someone’s idea of building a causeway out into the Sea of Galilee, located just a few inches under water, so tourists could have their pictures taking while appearing to imitate Christ in walking on water? Well, down south in Israel there is a new wrinkle. Looking forward to hordes of Christian tourists during the year 2000, a group of Jewish entrepreneurs are making noises about a new shrine which they realize will have immense appeal to many Christians: the exact location where Jesus was baptized in the river Jordan. As an American who has benefited in many ways from the free enterprise system, I can’t blame the Israelis for putting it to work, but I am fascinated by the mentality of tourists who will pay to stand and look at a place of such dubious authenticity.
Before I’m written off as a hard-hearted cynic, I should confess that I have my own healthy share of romantic sentiment — I still use, with tender feelings, some tools my father used when I was a child, I treasure old and yellowed family pictures, and I was moved just the other day to come across my mother’s distinctive handwriting on a 50-year-old postcard. But my strong conviction that Jesus knew how we should live has never had anything to do with physical geography. I have no wish to offend anyone may feel differently about this latest tourist attraction, but the prospect of someone’s telling me that right over there, close to that big rock and five feet out into the river, is where Jesus was baptized, would hold no excitement at all for me. In the first place, it is pure nonsense to think anyone knows or can know the exact spot where Jesus was baptized, and in the second place my fascination is with his spirit, not with his flesh.
Some of my dearest friends find it puzzling, but this is why I am not an idolator of places. I have no regrets at all about not having stood somewhere in Palestine while a guide assured me that this was the spot where Jesus was born, this was the Upper Room where he sat at supper with his disciples, this was the exact path he followed on the way to the cross — not even if I thought the guide might be right, which he would almost certainly not be. Nor am I an idolator of things . My faith is based so completely on what Jesus taught, on the love and compassion that marked his life, that even if someone could prove that a fossilized footprint found in the suburbs of Nazareth was his, I would be only mildly curious.
I deeply appreciated the friendship that lay behind someone’s bringing me a jar of water once from the Jordan river, but I had no interest in adding a drop of it to the water of each christening on grounds that somehow it would make the baptism more sacred or effective than water from the tap or from the pond behind my house. The significance of baptism thrills me every time I perform that ceremony, but the thrill comes from what it means and the spirit in which it’s done.
I have similar feelings about the Bible. I have spent a lifetime studying it in dozens of different translations, but it has never occurred to me for a moment to adore and revere it as a physical object. I would consider that a form of idolatrous superstition, something people come close to when they carry a Bible bound in white leather down the aisle at a wedding, or make sure that one they never open is kept on the coffee table as a way of reminding God and guests that this is a holy house.
I know….I’m sounding more like Andy Rooney all the time, but even as a seminary student I was amazed one day by what happened when I accidentally knocked a fellow student’s Bible off his desk. He was a Jewish boy who had been converted to Christianity, and when the Bible fell to the floor he quickly picked it up, kissed it with great reverence, and placed it back on his desk. Some would say, “What marvelous devotion,” others would be surprised at a kind of idolatry the Bible itself condemns. I honor that book as a guide for living , for the wise and saving words that can be mined from lumps of ore that are not always solid gold, but it seems to me a form of idolatry to worship it as a holy object.
Then there is that strange banquet scene a few nights ago after the Rev. Jerry Falwell invited a delegation of gays to a meeting at his church. Mr. Falwell, as you probably know, has directed such incendiary rhetoric against gays that a number of them from 30 different states gladly came to the meeting in hope that Falwell might be making a genuine gesture of reconciliation. There were some indications that he would stop using language that encouraged violence against gays and lesbians, but to newmen after the meeting he sounded like the Falwell of old as he compared his efforts to “building a bridge as we do to drug addicts, alcoholics and other sinners.”
So, many remain sceptical about much of a reconciliation, especially in view of the almost unbelievable thing that happened at the banquet I mentioned a moment ago. A couple of hundred fundamentalist Christians shared tables with an equal number from a gay rights group, but with a compromise arrangement as bizarre and judgmental as anything I’ve heard about in quite a while. When Falwell’s supporters decided they could not eat with people their leader calls sinners, they did one of those hair-splitting things literalism is famous for, and kept their skirts clean by choosing to drink water instead of eating food. If you know the life of Jesus, you know he was not that persnickety — that, in fact, he was so inclusive in friendships and table fellowship that the super-pious Pharisees of his time sneered viciously at what they saw as his loose lifestyle. Probably a good thing he wasn’t a guest at that banquet in Virginia; his after-dinner remarks might have scorched the tablecloths.
And finally, for the third time this year, Israeli authorites have rounded up a group of fundamentalist Christians waiting in Jerusalem for Jesus to return as a new millennium draws near. Police are afraid that the tourists, with 20 Americans among them, are planning some sort of violent action to hasten the 2nd Coming — either mass suicides or an attack on Muslim-controlled areas of the Temple Mount that might start the war they think will be part of the Endtime. It would be pleasant to think that millennial fever would subside after midnight on December 31st, but 2000 years of history suggest that those who express their faith in these ways will simply reset the date for December 31st of next year — you know the arguments over when the millennium really ends — .and the countdown will begin again.
But if he did come, wouldn’t he be surprised by what we do in his name?

May we leave this morning, Eternal God, with these words
on our hearts: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and
what does the Lord require of you but to do jsutice, and to love
mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” Amen.