The Dishonest Church


I have begun reading a book, The Dishonest Church by Jack Good, that directly addresses my concerns about the "game" that seems to take place in many liberal-to-progressive churches. The game that I describe involves, during worship services, the recitation of biblical myths verbatim as if they were all true, without any associated commentary or critical discussion, even though the clergy or congregation may not take those biblical myths literally.

Good argues that many clergy members, at least within mainline denominations, learn about higher biblical criticism in their seminaries, and thus develop a non-literal interpretation of the Bible; but in many cases, they never relate this understanding to their congregations, perhaps out of fear of rocking the boat. As a result, there is a disconnect in some congregations between what the clergy says in church, and what the clergy actually believes.

It all seems like a case of "wink wink nudge nudge".

I once had a conversation with the then pastor of the UCC church I frequently attend. I mentioned that one reason Christmas was not my favorite holiday was that I didn't believe that the biblical birth narratives that it celebrates were literally true. She said that a lot of pastors don't believe that either. She described a process that takes place in seminaries, after the first semester or so, when many students undergo a crisis of faith as they become disabused of their previous notions about the Bible. This is apparently a well known phenomenon in seminaries.

As Good puts it in his book,

Pastors and other trained professionals of the church often have developed a system of beliefs that is qualitatively different from the faith they communicate to local congregations. Their individual faith has developed, in most cases, after an intense and sometimes painful time of questioning, dismantling, and reconstruction. For reasons that are not clear, these leaders assume that local church members are either unwilling or unable to survive a similar process. So, in an act of dishonesty that threatens to erode the core of the church's mission, they hold one kind of faith for themselves while the literature they produce for the laity and the sermons they deliver assume another, basically different, style of faith for the non-professional.
My feeling is that this process of pandering to the orthodoxy actually can lead to a lot of disillusionment among thinking members of the congregation, and probably has a lot to do with increasing membership in what John Shelby Spong calls the "church alumni society".

I remember when I was in school many years ago, in English class the students and teachers would discuss the actions, motivations, and personalities of fictional characters in the novels and stories we read, as if they were real people. We would draw inferences about the human condition from these stories. The same can certainly take place on a spiritual level from the events and characters depicted in the Bible. But the difference is that, in English class, we discussed the fictional events and characters as if they were real, never pretending that they actually were real; and we always were aware of the fact that these works were constructed by authors, who had intentions that lay behind what they wrote. The ability to look at fiction on these two levels is what makes it so compelling.

Church, of course, isn't the same as English class; the Bible, for one thing, is not all fiction, and it is not secular literature; it is a mixture of history and fiction, theology and mythology, poetry and prose, and sometimes it is difficult to discern what is historically true and what isn't, although in many cases we can make reasonable guesses. Nevertheless, I want to make clear that I certainly can accept that I can see the value in discussing the mythological stories in the Bible as if they were real, just as I did with literature in my old school English classes. I don't have a problem with relaying the biblical myths in that way. But, especially since there are fundamentalists out there who actually take these myths literally, it would be nice every once in a while for progressive clergy to just come out and admit that these stories are myths and to treat them as such. Why not admit, for example, that the Jesus birth narratives didn't literally happen as Matthew and Luke told them? I rarely hear so much as peep to that effect in the churches I have attended. Maybe I'm attending the wrong churches or something; but from Good's book, it appears that this is a fairly common phenomenon.


Cynthia said...

Good's book is on my list to read; thanks for writing about it.

Christmas is also difficult for me; I go into a sort of funk after Thanksgiving and hopefully emerge sometime before Christmas Eve so I can sing in the choir with some integrity.

Even though our pastor openly preaches in his sermons that the story of Christmas is simply that, the children's Christmas pageant still looks like "this is what happened so long ago". Ironically, Sunday school teachers often do not hear the sermons, nor do they have time to attend an adult study class. And the Christmas story is one of those sacred cows that most folks do not want to feel like they have to give it up, even though they really don't.

Recently I read an ordination paper written by a woman my age, who will graduate from seminary this spring, who still believes in the virgin birth! When I commented on it during the editing process, it wasn't even couched a little differently. Some folks need their faith comforts to deal with the big bad world. But when it starts to affect decisions and choices and how that influences others, that's when the red flag goes up.

We have a great group of thinking Christians at my church, but we haven't gotten together in a while because of the change in the Sunday a.m. schedule. That adult study class was church for me: the opportunity to talk about and listen to theology and what difference that makes in our daily lives.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

If you were to listen to (or read my sermons) you will find them to sound pretty orthodox. I don't think it dishonest to not share everything I know in a sermon, because I don't think that the sermon is generally the place to do the kind of instruction that is required to deal with difficult critical issues. Now, there are churches that are by their very nature liberal and make no bones about it. But I pastor a small church in a small and conservative city. I have liberal and conservative members. I try to deal with critical issues in my study class, which allows for conversation and exploration. I really don't think that the pulpit is the best place for such things. But that's just me.

Grace said...

God have mercy, Cynthia. My undergraduate major was anthropology focused in comparative religion. Then I graduated probably from one of the most progressive seminaries in the country for my denomination.

I actually believe in the virgin birth too, along with the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Last time I checked I haven't checked my mind at the church door. :)

God bless!

Steve Petermann said...

I had first hand experience with this. I went to Lutheran seminary in the '70s and was shocked at what was been taught there. It shocked a lot of seminarians and many had a crisis of faith. In my particular case I studied for two years and embraced the best theology I could find. In particular I gravitated to Paul Tillich. I was supposed to do a one year internship in a congregation for my third year. As I pondered, like the book notes, how very different my beliefs had become from that in the grass roots, I decided to quit seminary and go back into engineering. I just didn't see how I could hide by beliefs in the congregations and I was pretty sure this would cause a lot of problems for me and the congregation. Perhaps this was a bit cowardly but, at the time, I was not interested in being a part of a crusade. Today times have changed somewhat. In the 30 something years since then a lot of liberal theology can be found in popular theology (Marcus Borg and Spong for instance). Still, the few times I go with friends to church confirms that most congregations have no clue about the liberal theological thinking that is out there.

Michael said...

Interesting stuff...
I wonder whether a more accurate title though would be 'the dishonest clergy'...