Monday, September 03, 2007

am I dissing the Baptist Church in my book?

A pastor friend of mine, a Baptist minister, emailed the following back in June with regard to a passage in my book (in the chapter titled "The Perils of Comparison"; specifically, page 16 and the "First Petit Village Baptist Church" example I give on page 17):

Your take on Baptists is, frankly, stereotypical. Fuck you, man. I'm a Baptist and I'm telling you, at least from an historical point of view, Baptists have far more to affirm by way of Buddhism than the Jesuit Catholics you flatter and praise. On the bottom of p. 16, you describe a Buddhist point of view that is remarkably Baptist in tone: we have no magisterium; bishops and popes can go fuck themselves as far as we're concerned; we have NO creed; we affirm experience over some rigid, anal view of scripture as inerrant as the evangelicals (into whose realm you throw us) do; and talk about being prey to schisms--we've mastered that mode of being. So, your view of fundamentalist Bible Belt screwy Baptists, while true for those who live that way, is not at all congruent with original and originating impulses of Baptist history and thought. Your First Petit Village Baptist Church is a condescending stereotype. Historically, we advocated for Jews to be left alone by the state!

My friend doth protest too much, methinks. This is what comes of (1) being a bit too defensive and (2) plucking something out of context. I had thought that I would need to write a detailed, 20-page justification of my admittedly stereotypical image, but upon rereading the passage in context, I'm content that I have not unjustly maligned the Baptist Church. On p.17, I am at pains to note that generalizations are hazardous. Why didn't my friend take this into account, opting instead for the uncharitable interpretation?

As I've said, religions are as they are practiced-- talk all you want about doctrines and certain historical moments, but the important question is what adherents actually do over time. My friend hints above that there are indeed Baptists who act as I describe in my example ("...true for those who live that way..."). He doesn't want to go further and admit that there are many such Baptists, and finding them would not be a problem. These Baptists are as much a part of Baptist history as the "good" ones. I should also note that many Baptists do view scripture as inerrant. There's plenty of overlap among the categories "Baptist," "evangelical," and "fundamentalist."* Hell, my own church (PCUSA) has its share of doctrinaire literalists.

My Baptist example, when read in context, simply aims to provide an illustration of one point within a spectrum of possible interreligious reactions. Reading it as more than that is simply wrong, especially given everything else I wrote in my book.

My friend points out, later on in his email, that Baptists have been at the forefront of the fight for religious liberty, i.e., allowing people of all traditions to practice those traditions in peace, without governmental interference. In saying this, he risks conflating politics and religion, however; a Baptist who fights for religious freedom is not necessarily a religious pluralist-- not in the theological sense. I tip my hat to Baptists who fight for the right to follow one's own conscience, but how many of those same Baptists think Jews and other non-Christians are following the correct spiritual path? How many of them would unreservedly allow their children to marry outside the church? I'll have to look up the stats.

Note to my readers: My friend's "fuck you" isn't meant in actual anger. He'd say the same thing to my face, with a big smile on his. We're laid back like that.





*Marty, Martin and R. Scott Appleby. Fundamentalisms Observed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991. On p. 48 we read:

During the same period [1960s-1970s], Southern Baptist conservatives had been worried about their denomination, and since the early 1970s they had begun to organize. They established a "Baptist Faith and Message Fellowship" (named for the doctrinal statement of the denomination) and started a newspaper, the Southern Baptist Journal. Theirs was a renewed emphasis on the inerrancy of Scripture, along with a strong dose of dispensational premillennialism. They knew that they feared the liberal drift they saw in the seminaries and colleges and disliked the social activism that seemed to be present in some agencies. Like their northern counterparts half a century earlier, they insisted that an infallible Bible had to be the foundation for all other beliefs.

I think this makes my point quite nicely. The passage goes on to talk about how deeply the fundamentalist movement influenced the Southern Baptist Church. My point stands: there is a significant overlap between Baptism and fundamentalism, and contrary to the image my friend is trying to convey, a large proportion of Baptists were and are scriptural inerrantists. My friend isn't one of them, and I happen to know several other Baptist exceptions. But inerrantism is the rule-- especially in the Southern Baptist Church-- not the exception.

Southern Baptists do not, of course, speak for all Baptists, but they are the largest form of Baptism in the US, and they are undeniably religiously conservative. More information on the role of fundamentalism in the Southern Baptist Convention can be found here. Yes, it's Wikipedia, but the article cites a plethora of sources.

Trivia: my friend actually has an ABC background (American Baptist Church), though he says he grew up Southern Baptist; my experience with ABCers has been, overall, much more pleasant than with the SBCers. Another ABC pastor I know professes not to believe in either the literal resurrection of Jesus or the doctrine of the trinity as traditionally conceived. This puts him close to where I stand on such matters, though I'm still pretty out there by traditional Christian standards.

One other note: regarding Baptist advocacy on behalf of Jews (alluded to in the above excerpt from my friend's email): yes, many Baptists have supported Jews. Much of that work is praiseworthy. But Baptist advocacy of the Jewish state (not mentioned by my friend in the excerpt) has interesting motives, some of which are apocalyptic in tone. Not all Jews would be comfortable with those motives.

It's a commonplace in interreligious dialogue that many non-Christians become wary when they see the smiling Christian approaching. This wariness is, unfortunately, sometimes justified. I don't say this to impugn the good and sincere work being done by certain Christians in all denominations (to their credit, Christians are often the initiators of dialogue), but to point out a rather obvious fact of interreligious relations. We see something like this in the various dialogues with Islam: for many Muslims (as one of my CUA friends-- who studies Islam-- told me), "dialogue" is understood as a prelude to conversion, which makes non-Muslims wary of some smiling Muslims.


_

6 comments:

Nathan B. said...

As a former Christian and former Baptist, I can say that you are, indeed, on the money with respect to your characterization of the significant overlap between "Baptist" and "fundamentalist." I grew up in the North American Baptist conference, attended for a time a church in the Baptist General Conference of Canada, and even went to a Bible college for two years that was run by the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptists in BC and the Yukon (also known locally as "regular" Baptists [!]).

I never once met a clergyman or professor from any of those denominations who did not insist on the inerrancy of Scripture, or who did not have a long, long list of doctrines that one had to believe. In fact, my old bible college had articles of faith that all its faculty members had to sign. One of the bullet points was belief in six literal days of creation. Additionally, the Westminster Catechism was universally revered.

In general, in the Baptist churches I attended, we could say that an unhealthy obsession with "sexual morality," abortion, creationism (although not uniformly), and proselytism was the norm.

And the oddest thing to me is that some of the Southern Baptists actually seemed to the theological left of some of the Baptist "thinkers" I knew--Jimmy Carter being a prominent example at one point.

Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

So far as I know, Baptists generally self-identify as evangelicals. Some might still call themselves fundamentalists.

What your friend takes as Baptist is what the Baptists used to represent and what I sort of grew up with, the Ozarks being behind the times.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

Kevin said...

Jeff,

I'd agree: there's major overlap between Baptists and evangelicals. Anyone who argues for neat distinctions among these groups (Baptist, evangelical, fundamentalist) isn't looking at the data.


Kevin

Gondiva Bow said...

"My friend doth protest too much, methinks. This is what comes of (1) being a bit too defensive and (2) plucking something out of context. I had thought that I would need to write a detailed, 20-page justification of my admittedly stereotypical image, but upon rereading the passage in context, I'm content that I have not unjustly maligned the Baptist Church. On p.17, I am at pains to note that generalizations are hazardous. Why didn't my friend take this into account, opting instead for the uncharitable interpretation?"

Actually I think I protested about enough. Despite your self-congratulatory defensiveness with regard to your book (how embarrassing can it be for you to accuse me of being too defensive but then spend time on a blog publicly flogging me for an “uncharitable reading” of what is an uncheritable and reductionist view of Baptists? Now that is funny! Methinks the pot hath called the kettle black). Were you to take yourself seriously about your note on p.17 (o god, why not include the verse notation as well?) you would comprehend the nature of my complaint. You generalize, as does your buddy from the Ozarks, “well, chief, of all the Indians I’ve ever met, they all live on reservations” and you chime in, “and that thar reservation is the biggest one of them all so it’s safe to conclude that all Indians live on reservations and …” what? Run fast? Drink? And this is why you use Wikipedia, I suppose.

One of the first principles of interreligious dialogue is that people get to speak up and say to those who are describing them, “that’s not me.” To in turn respond "well, hell yes that is you and your kind" is a paternalism of the most clammy kind.

The most troubling remarks you make come later as you tip your hat (thank you, thank you, for tipping your hat, we are indeed grateful) to Baptists who have worked hard to safeguard the consciences of others, including Jews and Moslems. But this isn’t the important work of interreligious dialogue for you. No, that is because your notion of interreligious dialogue is this squishy liberal nonsense that would put traditions into the blender and press “whip.” Here is what you say, “but how many of those same Baptists think Jews and other non-Christians are following the correct spiritual path? How many of them would unreservedly allow their children to marry outside the church?” What? Let me get this very clear: you assert that religious pluralism must acknowledge all other traditions as being “correct spiritual paths” and further, that pluralism will also encourage its children to marry outside of their particular tradition. This is what dialogue has become for you? I’m genuinely astonished. I would love to see the reaction of rabbis and imams and priests when you invite them to a dialogue and insist that they commit to the idea that the other tradition is the correct one and at the end of the conference there will be a mass wedding of their children to one another, hosted no doubt by Rev. Moon. Excuse me while I LMAO.

At the end of the day, what each person wants within a tradition to which s/he is wedded, is the freedom to practice their religion without fear of being hounded, ostracized, tortured, imprisoned or killed. Perhaps it should go without saying but after reading you, it is abundantly evident this needs to be said: any truth assertion and certainly anyone who chooses to be a devotee within a particular religious tradition is automatically asserting that, from their perspective, their choice is the correct one. That goes for your own fudgy fluid fantasies about what constitutes a correct pluralist position. The most honorable and authentically pluralist act one can make in religious dialogue is to dedicate oneself to the freedom of the other. I might think your path is incorrect, whatever that might mean. But as a Baptist rooted within historic affirmations of soul freedom, I will work hard and risk my own status to ensure your right to practice it. In the mean time, I will take you seriously by acknowledging where we differ and yes, advocating for my position. As well, I wil do my best to authentically listen to you as you advocate yours. Let the dialogue begin but hold the wedding bells, Quasimodo.

Kevin said...

Dear Gondiva,

I'm trying to figure out how you teach world religions courses without generalizing. Are no generalizations justifiable? Are you able, in a single semester, to describe all the religious traditions you cover in microscopic detail so as to present the fullest picture of them?

Generalizations aren't odious, especially if they're backed up by reality. You're trying too hard to take a few Baptist exceptions and make them into a Baptist rule.

Of course, if generalizations were the end of the story, I'd agree that they are odious. But nowhere have I advocated such a stance. This appears to be something you're reading into my work. Since I can't control how you interpret my work, I'm not going to fret over it, though I will suggest that you continue reading my book in order to put specific sentences in context.


Quasimodo

PS: I did a quickie course on Asian religion at my church a few years back. During the first part of the Buddhism unit, my mother brought along a Taiwanese friend of hers (a folkloric Buddhist) to listen to my remarks on Buddhism. I covered the basics of the Buddha's life and talked about major traditional elements/concepts like the Four Noble Truths (with some discussion of the Eightfold Path), dharma, karma, emptiness, etc.

At the end of the class, Mom's friend came up to me, shaking her head. "I didn't recognize anything about the Buddhism I know in what you said," she told me. So: did I get it all wrong?

Kevin said...

Also:

"Let me get this very clear: you assert that [1] religious pluralism must acknowledge all other traditions as being 'correct spiritual paths' and further, that [2] pluralism will also encourage its children to marry outside of their particular tradition."

I have asserted neither, and that second claim is particularly wild-eyed. Chapter and verse...?

One thing that's bothered me about your reaction to my book is that you've based your judgments on an extremely selective and superficial reading of a narrow swath of text.

You might reply that my own "reading" of the Baptist Church betrays the same haste and superficiality, and that I need to give the BC the same charity I ask of you... but I'd say the cases here are completely different. You are attempting to make claims about the Baptist Church that are plainly contrary to the fact of how Baptism is generally practiced in America, whereas my "stereotyped" image of the First Petit Village Baptist Church has, unfortunately, more than a little basis in fact. I was also surprised by your previous claim regarding Baptists and scriptural inerrantism, a claim with almost no correspondence to reality. True, some Baptists aren't inerrantists, but most are. Care to do a survey?

I would never want to press "blend" on all the world religions. To the extent that I'm a partial convergent pluralist, I do think that certain traditions can be viewed as on a par with others, and that no tradition should arrogate to itself the claim of final or full legitimacy (as, for example, the Catholic Church does).

If you take the time to actually read my book, you'll see that I do explore the question of pluralism's own arrogance (ultimately, I dismiss the entire "arrogance" issue as a digression because both sides of the aisle are deadlocked; see especially the chapter on Plantinga) and heartily agree that pluralists can be just as narrow-minded and hegemonic as religious conservatives usually are.

I agree with your claim that "At the end of the day, what each person wants... is the freedom to practice their religion without fear," but I'll also note that your claim is a standard religious conservative dodge: the whole truth is that a traditional adherent of a missionary faith isn't content to stop at "live and let live." The urgency of the Great Commission prevents Christians from resting on their laurels and leaving their neighbors undisturbed. Ultimately, what such Christians want is hegemony: that's the logical conclusion of the Great Commission.

Do you disagree? You could, on the grounds that many modern Western Christians would be revolted at the thought of going out and "converting the heathen" through some form of the hard sell, or through the more subtle soft sell. But "many modern Western Christians" is not "most of Christianity," as the recent hostage incident involving Koreans in Afghanistan goes to show-- most Christians still believe it is worthwhile to "go out among them" and preach the Word.

So here's another odious general claim: Christianity is a missionary religion. The goal of its mission is nothing less than the spread of Christianity to every person on the planet. To deny this is to play fast and loose with the intent of the Great Commission. To accept this is to affirm that traditional Christians, at bottom, cannot affirm the right of others to practice their own traditions. Only non-traditional Christians-- my crowd-- can do that without being hypocritical.

Because I don't believe Christianity has any substance or essence, I don't believe that Christianity must remain a missionary religion. In fact, it might be nice to see the Christian ethic of self-sacrifice applied to the tradition as a whole: turn off the mission meme, stop bothering other traditions, and yes, let everyone truly practice in peace, undisturbed by the knock on the door or the roadside billboard or the whispered, "Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your lord and savior?"


Kevin