Friday, February 17, 2012

Born-again in Bakersfield

LA Times columnist Steve Lopez drove around California's central valley finding out whom conservatives favor in the upcoming presidential race--mainly because California's primary next June could actually carry some weight in when Republicans choose their candidate.

The answers he got to his questions were both funny and scary.,0,5204952.column

Steve was lucky enough to be invited into the home of Rosalyn Strode in Bakersfield to listen to her views and those of several friends.

Those present favored Rick Santorum as having the most "Bible-based" values.

Loren Hodge, director of a ministry providing food and clothing to persons in need, expressed his views, and is quoted in Steve's column, "Taking pulse of state's GOP:"

"What's happening in this country," said Hodge,  "... is downright scary. With all this "abortion and homosexuality," he went on, the United States may be headed for a hell "worse than Pearl Harbor, worse than 9/11."

"God," Hodge said, "will not be mocked." 

Those words are from Paul's letter to the Galatians, chapter 6, verse 7, where he tells the Christians to "bear one another's burdens" and "test their own work."  They should "not grow weary in doing what is right... God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow."

Is it respectful of the Bible to take these personal words to new believers and interpret them as a hellfire-and-damnation message to the USA?

When I was attending First Presbyterian Church in Bakersfield in the 1960s, Bible-based values did not include opposition to legalized abortion or to same-sex marriage.  Those issues hadn't come up yet.

There I heard the call and accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and saviour, thus becoming born-again.

The main requirements to be accepted as a Christian then were to accept the Bible as God's Word--every verse of it--and to be "in but not of the world" as explained in Paul's letter to the Romans.

"Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God--what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Romans 12:2). 

Being transformed so that your life would reflect your new relationship with Jesus was expected, but that didn't go much beyond the Ten Commandments.  No sex outside of marriage was part of the deal, and of course, wives were expected to be "in submission to" their husbands.  I figured I'd get around that one by not marrying.

The only political issues that divided "real" Christians from the average church-goers were your position on divorce and your position on evolution--at least as far as I knew.  Jesus made clear his views on men's easy access to divorce in 1st-century Israel, and I accepted my church's view that you couldn't believe both Genesis and the theory of evolution.

Randall Balmer in The Making of Evangelicalism: From Revivalism to Politics and Beyond (Baylor U Press, 2010) documents the rise of the abortion issue as a litmus test for Christian orthodoxy. 

He explains that before Ronald Reagan became a candidate for president, having a "Bible-based" position on divorce was the true marker of an evangelical Christian.  An Episcopalian or some other Christian could be more likely to toss out of the Bible a particular verse that seemed inconvenient. 

Frank Schaeffer in Crazy for God reveals his own role in moving abortion into a central place dividing truly biblical Christians from those who might not turn to the Bible for answers to social issues today. 

It's been almost fifty years since I became a Christian in a Bible-believing church community in Bakersfield. 

Today I teach RS 304 Women & Religion at California State University, Northridge. 

I still cherish the Bible and read the Psalms or one of the Gospels almost every day, but I have learned to study who wrote each book of the Bible, for whom, in what social context.  I still see it as God's Word, but I appreciate how each part of it came to be and when it was written.  I value it as truth but not factually "inerrant."

I study Genesis but do not view it as a scientific document that could be in conflict with the theory of evolution.  In fact, I am amazed at how scientific theories, such as that of the "Big Bang," can go hand in hand with the words, "And God said, 'Let there be light.'"

I have studied the handful of biblical texts that are used to combat legalized abortion and to oppose same-sex marriage, but I don't come to the same conclusions as Loren Hodge, Rick Santorum, or Jerry Falwell.

My views today are aligned with those of Nicholas Kristof in his column "Beyond Pelvic Politics" in the New York Times on February 12.

"I may not be as theologically sophisticated as American bishops," he writes, "but I had thought that Jesus talked more about helping the poor than about banning contraceptives."

What does it mean to have biblically-based values? 

Certainly one of those values is to read the Bible (all of it--not just a few verses), to study each book of the Bible in its own context, understanding who wrote it, when, and why, for whom--and only then to presume to make conclusions about what God wants us to do today.

That's how to respect the Bible and form values that are truly Bible-based.

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