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I’m a heretic, so what?

2010 February 14

So I finally got around to reading Dan Brown’s latest book, The Lost Symbol. My point here isn’t to comment about the book – it was entertaining, I wasn’t expecting more. What I found intriguing through are the ways he managed to weave in comments directed at the people who freaked out about The Da Vinci Code. At various points in the book, he had Robert Langdon comment about the sorts of people who aren’t capable of seeing the world from another’s perspective and who cause trouble for those who think differently from them. It was cute, and not a very subtle response, but given the way he has been demonized, it had to be addressed.

I had read The Da Vinci Code before it got really popular (I was on a “intellectual thriller” reading kick at the time). A year or so later I heard the pastor at the church I worked at talking about an upcoming Sunday School series he was leading about how evil the book was. He was shocked to hear that I had actually read the book, since he had not and had no plans to read it (even as he taught a class about it). I soon learned that his was the typical response of many evangelical Americans. When confronted with an idea that is outside the way they had been taught to see the world, they engaged fight or flight – denounce the work as evil or protect themselves from being exposed to its ideas.

Hence Dan Brown’s asides in The Lost Symbol.

I don’t agree with all of Brown’s ideas in The Da Vinci Code or The Lost Symbol (that’s not my point here), but I appreciate how he started a conversation around topics that might otherwise remain hidden. There is truth in the fact that the church is driven by ideology. The Bible we have today was shaped by opinions of factions in the church. Systems of patriarchy marred the name of Mary Magdalene by suggesting then upholding as doctrine that she was a prostitute. With the way Bible history is taught (or isn’t) in churches and schools today, this side of the story gets forgotten as embarrassing history to the point that basic biblical scholarship is labeled shocking heresy by the average Christian. Whether or not one agrees with Brown’s ideas, he at least helped some people ask if perhaps their way of viewing the world isn’t the only way.

It’s when we are willing to think about our beliefs in those ways that we truly learn. Granted we might end up believing as we always have, or we might tweak our beliefs a little, or change them entirely. And while I understand the people that instinctually engage with fight or flight when presented with anything other, what I don’t understand are the people who go through the charade of pretending to engage with other ideas only to reassert their original belief because they feel like they have to. I read a book recently that did just that. It claimed to be a fresh new perspective for evangelicals on a controversial topic, and while it did a great job deconstructing why a new perspective is needed, in the end it simply reiterated the same old traditional answer. In that evangelical tradition only one answer on the topic is acceptable, and so instead of actually allowing the intellectual wrestling to actually inform his perspective, the author ignored everything he had written about and parroted back the one acceptable answer. It made no sense. It wasn’t intellectually honest. But it kept the author (and publisher) safe within the box of their tradition. It wasn’t about truth, it was about allegiance.

So that’s why I am beginning to care less and less about being labeled a heretic. The term has nothing to do with truth (as much as they accuse us postmodern of abandoning truth). It has everything to do with toeing the line of a particular tradition. Call it what you will – “orthodoxy” “historic Christianity” “biblical Christianity” – all it is is the box that you feel comfortable in and pledge allegiance to. People who look, think, and act like you are in and everyone else is out. And while I fully acknowledge the need for community and tradition and admit I have allegiances, when that box becomes a shield to defend against ever learning anything new or entering a conversation in order to grow, then I have no use for the box. So while I love and appreciate (to varying degrees) The Apostles’ Creed, Augustine, Martin Luther, Calvin, Barth, and McLaren, I’m not going to exchange my faith in the living transforming God in order to cement myself in their camps. I may be a heretical Barthian or C.S. Lewisian, but since that really isn’t the point of my faith, I no longer really care.

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31 Responses leave one →
  1. February 15, 2010

    Welcome to the club. :)

    Oh, and I enjoyed The Lost Symbol too.

    Drew

  2. February 15, 2010

    The last paragraph reminds me of 1 Corinthians 3: “When one of you says, ‘I am a follower of Paul,’ and another says, ‘I follow Apollos,’ aren’t you acting just like people of the world? After all, who is Apollos? Who is Paul? We are only God’s servants…”

    While we probably come from different viewpoints (I am much more in the camp of the first four authors you mentioned more than the last two), I certainly agree that evangelicals freak out way too much about things such as the Da Vinci Code. Give me a break… if your church members are so affected by a FICTIONAL book, then you seriously need to look and see if you are really making disciples like Jesus commanded.

  3. February 15, 2010

    Luke – I was thinking of that verse when I wrote this. And what I find really amusing is that in the tradition I grew up in Barth was considered an out there liberal. If you even read him your salvation was questioned. Now I get called a heretic for not toeing the line of orthodoxy according to Barth. All I can really say to that, is “you’ve gotta be kidding me”

  4. February 15, 2010

    well ideas *are* dangerous you know.
    ideas like the sun is the center of the solar system.

    i mean, what if people started thinking for themselves?
    and started to realize…

    we might have another reformation.
    and something new could emerge.

  5. February 15, 2010

    So well said Julie, thanks.

  6. February 15, 2010

    One of the biggest shames of the church is that we have consistently told people what to think and not taught people HOW to think for themselves. The Dan Brown thing always made me laugh. I remember when the big seminar was held at Liberty University to “address” the Da Vinci Code (i.e. discourage students from reading it or seeing the movie and bashing the author). One speaker said, “If this lie were true (that Jesus was married and had a child) it would destroy Christianity.” It made absolutely no sense to me. I don’t believe Jesus was married, I really don’t think there is any solid evidence that points to that, but IF He was was, so what? How would that somehow negate His divinity? If Christians were always taught Jesus was married, it would be one more thing we’d accept about his life on earth, probably think of it as example of how the perfect marriage should be. It seemed so silly to me that all these evangelicals were flipping their lids over something. It just how distorted and heinous they view sex. Because that’s what it really comes down to. If Jesus was married and had a kid, that means He had sex. And sex is bad, a necessary evil in order to procreate, but surely Jesus, even in sacrament of matrimony, could never engage in such a filthy activity!

    I tried relaying that to some of my friends, basically, saying, I don’t believe Jesus was married, but if He was, it wouldn’t change my faith in Him. I was surprised how many of my friends implied that that face WOULD destroy their faith. It’s like how Rob Bell talks about a theology of bricks; remove on piece that’s incorrect and the entire wall falls down. Very strange to me indeed.

  7. February 15, 2010

    Wow, I should have really spell checked that. I am so sloppy when I am in a hurry. Hope you can decipher some of that. LOL.

  8. February 15, 2010

    My experience has been that there is no bigger box that people are put in than the box into which are placed conservative Christians by Religious Leftists.

    No. Bigger. Box.

    McLaren and Wallis being prime examples. They are in large respect more fundamentalistic than most fundamentalists… they’re simply more skilled in hiding their black and white thinking. Thankfully, more and more progressive Christians with integrity are seeing them for what they are.

  9. February 15, 2010

    I never understood the fear of “DaVinci Code” … I read it and I read “Angels & Demons.” Both were pretty good and … errrr … it was FICTION. I thought Dan Brown did a pretty good job of making that clear. And I thought his theology was not any more scurrilous than that gobbled up by the gluttonous truck load presented in the “Left Behind” series, which was NOT presented as fiction, but as what the authors believed would happen. This was compounded by the atrocious writing which never should have seen the light of day.

    What I think is most weird is that a concern of Luther and his reformers was that people, under Roman Catholicism, were not being allowed or taught to think for themselves. Hence their mottos of “Sola _____” which combined mean that people do not need an intercessor. But maybe … that’s exactly what they want.

  10. Dave H. permalink
    February 15, 2010

    Gutsy.

    And deeply appreciated.

    Thank you, Julie!

  11. February 15, 2010

    Rick – “the other side does it too” is never a valid counter-argument. Just sayin…

    Also, I’m not sure what your comment had to do with Julie’s post. She was talking about the boxes groups create for themselves. Not the ones they put around others. Your observation is sort of off-topic.

    Though if you really want to start an argument on that topic, you probably need to provide some specific examples of what you are talking about, or else the rest of us have nothing to actually respond to except your own unsupported assertions.

  12. February 15, 2010

    i am glad to be a heretic. it just means somethin’s happening. seriously.

  13. Happy permalink
    February 16, 2010

    I can only speak for myself: There was a point when all filters had to come off. I can say that coming to a faith later @ 21 :) and being raised by someone who spent her years raising me searching that my filters were few but that would be a naive just as I would say all my filters came off. But as I slowly rebuilt my faith there were “things” and will leave them as “things” that had no place under the loving glare of the Father. I was convinced that I would never be like “them” again. So, after being angry for a while, OK still am a bit, and processing those filters one I keep in place for myself is that I won’t put anything on myself that God wouldn’t put on me. So, instead of 8 levels of consciousness I have one level of Love to work off of. Thanks Julie, and I’m proud to be a heretic and in the words of RD “i’m just sayin….

  14. February 16, 2010

    I have to admit. I hated Da Vinci Code. But I did read it. He’s a hack writer with one tremendous skill–knowing how to manipulate pacing so as to pull the reader along through the story. That’s one reason why I didn’t like it. The others have less to do with my being offended by any religious message. I wasn’t offended as a Christian, I was offended as a lover of history and art. It wasn’t the big claims he was making, it was the minor, inconsequential points that seemed to flood his work, constant bits of utter fiction when it wasn’t really necessary, the sorts of fiction that comes out when a person just hasn’t really done any decent research and feels comfortable just making stuff up.

    It’s fiction, I know, but still… historical fiction should have some respect for itself.

    So, I suppose, I was aesthetically offended more than anything else.

    That being said, I would never warn anyone off of reading it, except for aesthetic reasons. Indeed, I think he did such a bad job with the surrounding context that the questions he raised are given rather easy responses, making Christianity, oddly enough, the intellectual participant in any related debate.

    I also heartily applaud the idea of not being deflected by charges of heresy. Everyone is a heretic. In one way or another our conception of God is not right, and may be completely wrong. We don’t have a full sense of who God is, what God is doing, of how God is doing it. The Gospels suggest that not a single one of his closest followers really fully understood Jesus. That’s not the expectation. We’re witnesses to what we are taught and experience. We’re called to respond to those who God loves in loving ways.

    God is not going to greet us with an exam about theological minutiae. Being free to explore the bounty of his being and love means being willing to explore his whole revelation, asking questions as the disciples did, taking risks, being willing to step off the boat of some safe religion, and towards whole life with Christ and his community.

    We’re all wrong about our perceptions of God in some ways, and those who think they have the full picture are probably the most dangerous. There is idolatry in that. There is always a measure of humility when we speak of God. For God is not tame and under our mastery.

    I tend towards the more conservative side of things on most questions, but even in that I remain humble and hopeful before God knowing there is a wideness to his work that I’m not ever going to comprehend. So, I want to talk to those who take risks. Because instead of the usual safe answers that everyone thinks they have to provide, those who risk want to see the fullness of truth and the depth of God’s work, provoking and responding in ways that reveal where the real questions are. Those who play it safe wear masks, and those masks are never all that helpful when life turns dark or the floodwaters rise.

    Not having the entirely right perspective on God is not heresy. Jesus was open to his disciples questions and wanderings. Real heresy, as I see it in the prophets and the NT, is about our actions. If we do evil in the name of Christ, we are heretics. If we refrain from doing good when we can, we are heretics. When we despise the least, we are heretics. When we do not love, we are heretics.

    God save us from our real heresies.

  15. February 16, 2010

    Mike Clawson,

    I wasn’t attempting to counter-argue Julie’s points… I was agreeing with them but pointing out that it seems it’s the Left today who are as quick (if not quicker) to find someone to be heretical… it’s the Left that now pushes a new orthodoxy… and if you disagree, you’re labeled and quickly… or dismissed out of hand.

    As for examples, take the critiques I’ve been reading of McLaren’s new book. Darryl Dash has one. And Mr. Dash links to another.

    Let me know if grants the support to my assertions you’re looking for.

  16. February 16, 2010

    One of the most startling revelations I had in grad school was when I mentioned to a Jesuit priest/professor that what I was about to say was likely heretical, he quietly listened and nodded.

    And then informed me (gently) that I might not be mainstream, but neither was I heretical. Over the next few weeks, he showed me that my faith was not so out of place historically, and in fact, was under the wide, sheltering umbrella of Christian orthodoxy (it might be more accurate to call them orthodoxies).

    Then I read “When Jesus Became God” and realized that we’ve been fighting the Arian controversy basically for the past 1,800 years.

  17. February 19, 2010

    Hopefully this won’t get me accused of toeing the line to defend a mindless allegiance to a frozen ideological box of stale tradition so I don’t have to wrestle with new ideas, but isn’t “historic Christian orthodoxy” vs. “faith in the living transforming God” kinda sorta possibly like a false dichotomy, maybe?

  18. February 19, 2010

    Rick – you’re going to have a hard time persuading me that theological conservatives are some kind of persecuted minority with McLaren and Wallis as grand inquisitors. Brian and Jim have what? A website, a magazine, a few books and some speaking gigs? Compared to dozens of seminaries, publishing houses, denominations, mega-churches, radio and television empires, and enormous political clout on the conservative side? Of course people on the “Left” speak up in disagreement with conservatives. There isn’t just one Christian perspective out there and you can hardly expect them to remain silent about their deep convictions. But labels of heresy are about more than just expressing disagreement with others. They’re about exercises of power and exclusion. And frankly conservative Christians have way more power to exclude these days than Wallis or McLaren could ever have. After all, it’s not emergents or progressive evangelicals who are kicking people out of churches, denominations, and schools for not toeing the line. We are the ones currently being kicked out.

  19. February 20, 2010

    Mike,

    You’re setting up straw men man… I never said that conservatives are some kind of persecuted minority… not sure where that came from… what I’m telling you is that McLaren and his ilk are neo-fundamentalists who are quick to decry those who believe not like they do… period…

    Of course it’s true that there are some in conservative circles who are quick to claim heresy… but it’s as true that if you run from conservatives into the arms of far too many progressives, you’ll find the same sort of black and white thinking only the tenets to which one must swear are different…

  20. Argh permalink
    February 21, 2010

    I agree with Rick- ideology is in many ways more of a circle than a line- those further left and further right, politically or theologically, are actually quite a lot more like each other than they think. It’s not about how conservative or liberal you are- there are fundies on both sides, there are hateful people on both sides. I’ve known people who you would label ‘theologically conservative’ who’ve had far more gracious and civil conversations (even while ultimately disagreeing with my more liberal conclusions) with me on religion, faith and politics than those who’d you’d expect to be more inclusive. While the paradigm of progressive Christianity has proved a far more helpful one to help me work through my own faith, I’ve found as much judgement, if not more, on the left than on the right. Of course, as Mike has so often said- that the other side does it too is not a good argument. No it’s not. This isn’t about taking sides. I just think as much as we need to move beyond conservatism, we also need to move beyond merely seeing conservatism as ‘the other side’.

  21. February 21, 2010

    My point was that there is a big difference between expressing disagreement with others and labeling those others a “heretic”. The latter is about using one’s power to condemn and exclude, and frankly, I don’t see Brian or Jim doing those things. You might not like what they say or that they disagree with your theology and/or politics, or that they say so publicly, but that doesn’t make them hateful or neo-fundamentalists or whatever.

    Honestly, have you ever even met Brian? He is one of the most gentle, generous, and irenic people I have ever met, especially considering the huge amount of genuinely hateful condemnation that comes his way all the time. Almost every single one of his books (including his most recent one, which I am currently reading) contains some kind of disclaimer about how he is NOT trying to condemn or vilify those who think differently than he does – he is simply presenting his own views for those who will find them helpful (and usually recommends that those who do not find them helpful simply ignore him.)

    I’m sorry, but simply expressing an alternative viewpoint is not the same as accusations of heresy. As one who has been a target of the latter, and forced out of a job because of them, I definitely know the difference. (And I have to be honest, I sometimes wonder why critics of the emerging church often have such a thin skin in this regard. Can you honestly not see the difference between honest disagreements and exercises of power?)

  22. February 24, 2010

    I love this, Julie! I’m proud to be a biblical heretic myself. Interestingly, when I started blogging, my posts received an average of about 6 or 7 comments a piece. I then made a post about the importance of prioritizing loving God and loving others OVER doctrine, and my average quickly went up. Comments–no, debates–ensued.

    Some struggle to let go of their preciously held doctrines, even at the expense of abandoning the simple message of love. Oh…and the title of my blog post? ‘heretical. but biblical.’

    Interesting.

  23. Kenneth permalink
    May 27, 2010

    Liberty University is built upon the false doctrine of Pre-trib Rapture.
    Tim Lahaye’s Left Behind books are a bunch of crap.

    Christ shall return exactly as He said He would,ever read God’s Word instead of crapture teachers books?

  24. December 26, 2010

    If your readers think you and they are breaking out of a “box” of traditional Christianity by snuggling with Dan Brown for comfort in believing you’ve found some sort of secret suppressed truth, welcome to the box of gnosticism, rather old, confining, and boring. There’s no there there. And that’s a box too.

  25. Austin Mallison permalink
    September 22, 2014

    I’m not certain what you mean by the Bible we have being reshaped, do you mean the english translations we often use or the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts that while believed to be exact copies of the original, we do not have the original available to us.

  26. Austin Mallison permalink
    September 22, 2014

    I’m not certain what you mean by the Bible we have being reshaped, do you mean the english translations we often use or the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts that while believed to be exact copies of the original, we do not have the original available to us?

  27. Austin Mallison permalink
    September 22, 2014

    Sorry about the double comment.

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