Recovering from Evangelical rhetoric
Having had over 40 years of exposure to the evangelical rhetoric and sermons, Chris rings me (the editor) up from time to time to try and ask if I can make sense of the issues that still bother him to this day.
My part of the conversation is to listen and try and understand the issues and ideas that he has encountered. I then try and reflect these back to him in a restated way so that he can re-assimilate them into his thinking or reject them, whichever is more appropriate.
Recently Chris mentioned the phrase that he had heard a lot of when he was younger ‘work out your salvation with fear and trembling;’ This passage from Philippians had encouraged him to take a very inward almost selfish attitude to faith. The passage seemed to imply that his personal salvation was the idea of key importance and took precedence over any ideas of social responsibility.
Other passages quoted and drummed into his consciousness were those which talked about personal holiness. ‘Be ye holy as I am holy’ and ‘keep yourself unspotted from the world’, are two passages that come to mind and reinforce the idea of personal purity above other responsibilities.
Chris grasped very quickly that these passages and others were being used in a way that would help to isolate the Christian group from others. In other words the Bible was being used to create what most of us would call a cultic group. This effect was particularly apparent when, as in his experience, the idea of purity was linked to personal salvation. In other words unless you kept yourself apart from the contaminating effects of non-Christians your eternal destiny is in peril.
Responding to Chris I pointed out that purity doctrines were very much a feature of Old Testament morality. Separation from paganism was a major area of teaching implicit in the sacrificial system as revealed in the early Law books. One of the horrific episodes of the Old Testament, and there are many, is the event in the Book of Ezra when the Israelite men are commanded to cast out their non-Jewish wives and children. It is hard for us to identity with the cruelty that such separation involved. Purity ideas, even when they lingered on into the Christian period do not seem to have preoccupied Jesus, although the encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman shows even Jesus sometimes struggled to make sense of the strong Jewish traditions about personal purity.
Whatever we think about the Syro-Phoenician woman story, the story of the Good Samaritan shows that by the time this story was told ideas about ritual contamination were firmly on the back burner. The way we treat people and our responsibility to help others can be clearly seen from this story to outweigh any ritual obligations placed on us. I could of course continue to point out the way in which that the story of the Samaritan is deeply subversive on the ritual obligations of the Jewish faith but I am sure most of my readers have heard enough sermons on the topic.
To summarise, Chris is correct to notice that certain passages from Scripture are being manipulated to create the impression that Christianity is all about getting into small groups and shutting out the world and all its problems.
What I have written does not make the passages that were made important to Chris in his early days go away. They still exist but they need to be balanced against other passages which speak of a wider fuller way of dealing with the world. These passages might be summarized by the texts in the Sermon on the Mount which speak of the importance of being salt and light. Such salt and light was destined for the ‘earth’ and to shine ‘before men’. It is hard to suggest that this teaching was a request to be active only in the context of a special closed group.