Kenton L. Sparks is professor of biblical studies and interim provost at Eastern University, St. Davids, Pennsylvania, and author of the new book Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture. In this post, he discusses dilemmas faced the church in light of Western society’s shift toward secularization, and he councils Christians to avoid two common cultural pitfalls — intransigence and intolerance — as they work to share the gospel in an increasingly secularized world.
Update: This article has been updated (twice) not only to include a photo of Dr. Sparks but also to reflect accurately the final subtitle of the book: “Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture.” We apologize for the confusion.
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By unconscious drift and self-conscious dash, Western society is on a trek that takes it ever farther from religion in general and Christianity in particular. Christians often lament this “secularization” process — as well we should — but if we care at all about the human consequences of this social process, surely we should consider the underlying causes of secularization. If the gospel is God’s true and beautiful “good news,” why are people rejecting it in droves?
My experience is that Christians usually point the finger at everyone else. Secularization is thus envisaged as a natural result of human nature which, being dark and sinful, is determined to choose paths that lead away from God. Understood in this way, secularization is in some measure inevitable. That is, in spite of our good-faith efforts to halt its onslaught, the temporal victories of “Babylon” will only multiply until Christ returns and puts everything into its proper order.
Anyone who takes the Bible seriously will agree with this explanation to some degree. Both the Bible and everyday experience teach us that human beings are broken people who sin against God and neighbor. But however true this diagnosis is, I believe that it is an incomplete diagnosis as it stands. For if we base our diagnosis on a full-orbed engagement with the Bible and human experience, surely the finger points not only at others but also at us. I believe that secularization is also caused by intransigent and intolerant expressions of our faith.
When faith is intransigent, it is unable to adjust adequately to new insights and information that render elements of the faith obsolete. The evidence for evolution, for example, has rendered impossible any literal reading of Genesis 1-2. Because evolution is now believed by just about everyone who is not a Christian and by many who are, Christians who preserve a connection between the faith and literal readings of Genesis will only give aid to the forces of secularism. Similar problems are created when Christians hold fast to some of the Bible’s antiquated moral elements, such as its laws about slavery and commands to slaughter enemies wholesale. These reflect ethical viewpoints that no reasonable person can tolerate in the 21st century.
When we say that the faith is intolerant, we usually mean that its adherents don’t know how to get along with those committed to other religions or to no religion at all; in the worst case it means that believers cannot even get along with other confessing Christians. But what, precisely, is “intolerance”?
Intolerance does not stem from faith commitments that are wholly wrong but rather from unbalanced commitments that are devoted to certain elements of the faith (such as doctrinal truth) but neglect or ignore other elements of the faith (such as loving others and protecting their God-given freedoms). In other words, I would say that “intolerance” is actually a catchword for behaviors that are shaped by partial rather than full-orbed expressions of love and respect for God and neighbor.
Intransigence and intolerance are closely related vices. Behind both stands an unbalanced tendency to protect the faith without asking any questions about it. These vices thus prevent us from noticing and confronting the errors and dangers in our warped faith commitments. The Pharisees and teachers of the law, who hated Jesus so much and ultimately were behind his execution, were people of this sort. Though they were believers in God and devoted students of Sacred Scripture, they insisted on using old wineskins that could not contain Jesus’ message of radical love. Jesus readily saw that the Old Testament command to “love God and neighbor” was incompatible with the “eye-for-an-eye” theology of Moses (as we see in Mt 5:38-39), but his Jewish opponents were so committed to and comfortable with the Mosaic law that any message to the contrary could only be viewed as blasphemy. Jesus challenged their traditional views of God, Scripture and theology . . . so they killed him.
My new book, Sacred Word, Broken Word, is an attempt to help Christians recapture the spirit of Jesus in our reading of Scripture. Insofar as we can, let us try to follow in the footsteps of Jesus rather than of the Pharisees.