Being the Poem: On Liberal Christianity as Subversion
“It is a tenet of liberal Enlightenment faith that belief and knowledge are distinct and separable and that even if you do not embrace a point of view, you can still understand it. This is the credo Satan announces in Paradise Regained when he says, ‘most men admire / Virtue who follow not her lore” (I, 482-483). That is, it is always possible to appreciate a way of life that is not yours. Milton would respond that unless the way of life is yours, you have no understanding of it; and that is why, he declares in another place, that a man who would write a true poem must himself be a true poem and can only praise or even recognize worthy things if he is himself worthy.” (Stanley Fish, The Trouble with Principle, 247).
Over the last 10 days, I’ve had occasion to be congratulated and insulted (usually with a lot of capital letters), since Douglass Boulevard Christian Church, where I am senior minister, voted to support marriage equality by refraining from signing marriage licenses until LGBTQ people are extended the same rights. It is surreal to watch people who’ve never met you argue about what kind of person you are. Some people are certain that I wear my hair long to cover up devil’s horns. Others have suggested that our stand at DBCC must signal some latent truth about my own sexuality. While, still others are convinced that I recline only on beds of freshly pick spring flowers, tended to by angels still in their probationary period. But, for the most part, it’s difficult to take any of it too seriously. They don’t really know much about me apart from a few news reports.
There is one criticism, though, that I find difficult to look past. It goes something like this:
The bible clearly says that homosexuality is wrong, and if you say it’s not, then you must not believe the bible. In fact, you’re only doing what you’re doing because you’re a liberal boot-licker. Any good Christian can see that you only care about a left-leaning social agenda, not about obeying Jesus. You should just drop the pretense, and quit calling yourself a Christian.
Underlying this allegation is an assumption that I think liberal Christians need to challenge—vigorously and often. Sentiments like this, it seems to me, center on the conviction that what is most important about following Jesus is believing all the right things about him (e.g., the correct human/divine ratio, the substitutionary nature of the work he accomplished on the cross, the precise blend of personal ethical maxims, capitalist free-market economics, and national pride, etc.). If you happen to raise questions about any of those, or, more actively, to offer disagreement, you will have ventured into some form of vicious heterodoxy unknown since the days of Torquemada. That is to say, that well-known 1960s Christo-hippie chorus has been transformed at the hands of some Christians, so that now it proclaims that “they will know we are Christians by our appropriately worded bumper stickers.” This presumption of the necessity of verbalizing correct belief is what constitutes Christianity for some folks. If you know the right answer, you should be fine. On this account, the church’s job primarily revolves around disseminating correct information, while enthusiastically seeking to overwhelm those whom it perceives to be its opponents.
The claim that I think liberal Christians ought to defend more scrupulously, however, is that the actions they take, the positions they stake out are not merely self-conscious attempts to avoid taking scripture seriously. Quite to the contrary, in fact. The liberal Christians I know seek justice for the poor, the marginalized, the powerless precisely because they believe that in so doing they are being faithful to the witness of scripture. That liberal Christians don't view the bible as some sort of casuistic step-by-step guidebook to discerning, for instance, whether God opposes any Rock 'n Roll not preceded by the qualifier "Christian" doesn't mean that they don't value scripture as authoritative, any more than saying that conservative Christians who read the Sermon on the Mount and come away from the experience believing that "Jesus would have been cool with thermonuclear weapons" means that they don't value Jesus as authoritative. It really comes down to the interpretative strategies one employs--an issue I won't try to solve here. My point is that though liberal Christians read the bible with a different set of assumptions about the kind of truth the bible is capable of producing, it does not follow that they are not committed to the bible--or, less generously, that they are not even Christians--just because they don't share the same set of assumptions as conservative Christians.
I am aware that my description of the value placed on scripture by liberal Christians will be heard by conservative Christians as rationalization, as merely a justification for making the scriptures say whatever liberal Christians want them to say. And that, I think, is the problem. It is this primary posture of suspicion that forecloses conversation. To say that liberal Christians have some ulterior motive in interpreting scripture (while conservative Christians "just read the clear truth of what's there"), is to begin from the premise that liberal Christians are either the overeager but unwitting dupes of 19th century German theologians or 20th century French philosophers, or that they are evil dissemblers disguising themselves as Christians for the purpose of . . . what? I'm not sure. On this reading, liberal Christians are being led around by the nose at the hands of their cigarette-smoking post-structuralist overlords, or they are the mendacious toadies of the coming one-world government. (Let me be quick to point out that liberals can shut off conversation with the same kind of dismissiveness--namely, conservatives as handmaidens of a discredited form of overconfident Enlightenment rationalism, or as rubes and hicks who learn theology at the feet of preachers who've spent too much time in front blow-dryers.) I think liberal Christians ought not to cede the hermeneutical high-ground.
It's not that liberal Christians are trying to figure out the most diabolical ways to dismantle "old-fashioned Christianity"; instead, the liberal Christians I know love Jesus so much they can't imagine living in a world organized and structured in ways that would grieve him by doing harm to those whom he loves. Liberal Christians, in other words, aren't just trying to speak the poem correctly; they are, as Milton said, trying to be the poem. Because as Christians we believe that scripture isn't something first to be understood, and then lived. It first to be lived, with the hope that understanding will meet us somewhere along the way.
That the way liberal Christians go about honoring Jesus' compassion and concern for justice for those on the outside subverts some conservative ways of reading scripture shouldn't surprise us. Jesus was always stomping about in someone else's petunias, always dismantling traditional expectations of who's in power, and who ought to go to the back of the line. He was all about breaking down the walls everyone had always thought were insuperable. I'm not sure what they call it now, but in liberal Christianity we call it Easter. And Easter's as subversive as it gets.
by Derek Penwell
Derek Penwell is senior pastor of
(Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities. He is the author of articles ranging from Stone/Campbell history to aesthetic theory and the tragic emotions. He is a graduate of Great Lakes Christian College (B,R.E.), Emmanuel School of Religion (M.A.R.), Lexington Theological Seminary (M.Div. and D.Min.), and a Ph.D. in humanities at the University of Louisville. He currently blogs at
, and on Twitter at
. Penwell frequently crochets Mexican serapes from the tattered remnants of repurposed 1970s tube socks.