The following is an email I sent to my father-in-law in reference to Sen. Obama's "Call to Renewal" speech in June, 2006. What do you think?
I've never been much of one for political discussions. Politics do interest me, but I'm driven by a different passion. I do applaud your mission to "educate the masses"; we could always use a greater dose of education.
When I first heard about Sen. Obama's "Call to Renewal" speech I only picked up on the news story that it had offended some in the evangelical camp, particularly Dr. Dobson. I happen to be one of those "Dr. Dobson doesn't always speak for me" people so I paid it little attention. However, your email and referenced video clip intrigued me to take a deeper look.
My first reaction to the video was it was disturbingly agenda driven. I don't care to engage those who are unable or are unwilling to take an objective look at things. The beauty and curse of today's internet media such as YouTube and the blogosphere is that anyone can say anything without any real sense of accountability. These are opinion pieces, not news; people often confuse the two.
So my next step was to look at the speech straight from the horse's mouth (regardless of who was the horse.) I found a copy of Sen. Obama's speech on his website (http://www.barackobama.com/2006/06/28/call_to_renewal_keynote_address.php). I quickly discovered that the video was a bit edited and somewhat taken out of context. Here is the paragraph that the video referred to:
"Moreover, given the increasing diversity of America's population, the dangers of sectarianism have never been greater. Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.
And even if we did have only Christians in our midst, if we expelled every non-Christian from the United States of America, whose Christianity would we teach in the schools? Would we go with James Dobson's, or Al Sharpton's? Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is ok and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount - a passage that is so radical that it's doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application? So before we get carried away, let's read our bibles. Folks haven't been reading their bibles."
What is to be made of Sen. Obama's remarks? First of all I would tend to agree with his statement that "we are no longer just a Christian nation"; I would argue that we never were, but that's a debatable point depending on one's definition of the term "Christian." That response belongs to another discussion.
Second, if I understand his point correctly, I agree that we are on shaky ground to blindly adopt one leader's version of Christianity. I often encourage my congregation never to believe something because I said so, but to believe it because that's what they see to be true from the pages of Scripture. I am simply the messenger-and hopefully an accurate one.
Third, I whole heartedly agree with the last two sentences that "before we get carried away, let's read our bibles. Folks haven't been reading their bibles." I agree with this not as a blanket statement, but as a pretty fair generalization. Of course we could argue what he meant by this; that what he meant by "read our bibles" is different from person to person. Nor do I claim to know what goes on in the private devotional life of every American. In my experience I have found that many Americans are simply biblically illiterate. I would guess that the percentages are only slightly better among regular church goers, but again I can only assume based on personal observation.
Perhaps a better way of saying this is that folks do not understand their Bibles. As a "professional" as you've so kindly deemed me, I believe that this is where I come in my role as a pastor-teacher. It is what I spent four years in seminary training to do. I am a tour guide for biblical wanderers. I want people to understand God's Word.
The first key is that the Bible is meant to be understood as God's Word not words about God. Again this is a debatable point, but one of my fundamental beliefs (I guess that makes me a fundamentalist) is that the Bible was revealed to us by God himself. I do not believe the Bible is merely a collection of men's thoughts and reflections upon God. Where one stands on this point I believe shapes every other view they might hold, i.e. it is fundamental.
The second key is that the Bible itself helps it's readers to know how it is to be understood. We are not permitted to put our own framework on the Bible to understand it as we will. I believe God has built into the Bible his own framework for understanding biblical truth. Most of us "evangelicals" would say that Jesus Christ is in fact that framework of interpretation. Here is what Jesus said about himself as that framework:
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished." (Matthew 5:17-18)
The way we understand those "strange" passages in Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and the Sermon on the Mount (which by the way is the context in which the above passage appears) is through the lens of their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Men much wiser than I have written volumes on these things; I hesitate to say much more and will instead yield to their expertise. This however is where I believe Sen. Obama and others who follow this line of thinking have taken a wrong turn. It is not only a lack of biblical knowledge on our part; it is also a lack of biblical understanding.
Unfortunately the challenge doesn't end there. The Bible describes itself as spiritual truth. The difficulty with spiritual truth is that it can only be understood by spiritual people. Many people describe themselves these days as "spiritual" but I would argue that relatively few understand what it means in the biblical sense. To be spiritual means to posses the Holy Spirit within. It was the Holy Spirit who inspired men to record the Scriptures in the first place, therefore anyone who does not have the Spirit can not understand spiritual truth. Only those who by faith in Jesus Christ through his saving work on the cross are given the Spirit of God. That may sound like an arrogant statement to some that we Christians have some sort of monopoly on truth. By God's grace all people have some knowledge of truth; they just fail to fully perceive it on their own.
You can understand then how difficult it is to ask the question "which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy?" We have access to truth to guide us, but many are incapable of knowing what do with the truth when they get a hold of it. We can attempt to guide our nation with Christian principles, but apart from Christ we will always come up short.
I imagine you weren't expecting a theological treatise when you sent me that email. My apologies; I'm a preacher, it's what I do. Like the old Resees commercials, your chocolate found its way into my peanut butter and we ended up with a mixing of our two worlds. Thanks for the opportunity to think through these things in words. Hopefully I've been able to return the favor after years of enlightenment from Professor George.
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