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Why are they afraid?


Question & Answer



by Nancy Rowles

One suspects that some institutional churches are still AFRAID if reality demands that scriptures are not to be taken literally.  Why?


 by Fred Plumer

Dear Nancy,

Nancy, you have asked a short question and yet I cannot give you a short answer. But let me start with the statement, you are right. Most institutional churches are afraid of what I refer to as true “progressive Christianity.” What I mean by that is we do not look at any scriptures as if they are literally true, nor do we believe that was intended by the original authors. It takes a bit of work to study the Bible from the standpoint of Midrash or myth and most people do not want to work when reading the Bible. It is one of the most important things Bishop Spong has done for us in his long career. He would seldom say, “The Bible says…” but he would ferret out the real meaning of scripture that would often change the whole meaning of the scripture.

In the Old Testament, the stories go back as much as 3000 years, shared obviously for centuries in an oral tradition. This is the way the early Jews told their stories as they tried to figure out where they had been and how they got there, often in difficult situations. But they were stories, shared over and over through the centuries, with lots of changes in both facts and instructions depending on what group the story teller represented in any given period.

In the part of the Bible we call the New Testament, this is true as well. The early Christians were myth-makers as well. They told stories that had a point, but after anywhere from 40 to 90 years from Jesus’ death, they had developed their own bias and different views of who and what Jesus was. That is why our four gospels are so different and when laid side by side, quite frankly, they do not agree.

Now to answer your question again, yes different denominations have different reasons for being afraid and it is a valid fear. I have given lectures across the country on exactly this topic, almost always to groups who find this subject highly interesting. Most of the group want to know what books to read and are often willing to continue their own research. But there are ALWAYS a few who walk out in anger or stay but want to argue my main thesis. They want to hang on to an interpretation of the Bible and the old story, in spite of the reality that a vast majority of scholars have left them behind for well over fifty years.

The truth is the old story still gives people, including clergy a sense of comfort. The people who have been reciting the same creeds for example may not believe them but they enjoy saying them together. They feel good when they hear about Jesus coming back to life at Easter time. However almost all of our churches are having serious problems attracting young people. They are challenged when someone new comes into their midst who has not been raised on the old story. This is one of the challenges of dealing with the Millennials and unchurched people in general. And this is one of the reasons our churches are dying.

If you attend or visit an Episcopalian church, for example, one is encouraged to recite words and ideas that are frankly out of date. Before communion you may be asked to stand and recite the Apostle’s Creed, or during a baptism, the Nicene Creed. Then you may hear a powerful, progressive sermon about a human Jesus who had a vision about how to live in unity with your fellow human beings. Does that sound confusing? Although it may feel like dissonance to you, it happens every Sunday in our churches across the country.

Sadly, the same kind of thing can happen in any of the denominations. We read scripture from the Holy Book, and ask for “God’s” intercession in our prayers. Right now most of our churches are confused and frankly afraid. Pastors in UCC churches probably have the most freedom in our denominations but still resist changing. They are afraid to tell their parishioners what they learned in seminaries. Our denominations are afraid to rewrite our liturgies and our creeds. And our leadership is afraid if we did these things too many people would walk out the door. I am afraid too many people come to church for comfort and not a challenge and frankly, I do not see that changing anytime soon.

Thank you for your question.

~ Fred Plumer

This Q&A was originally published on Progressing Spirit – As a member of this online community, you’ll receive insightful weekly essays, access to all of the essay archives (including all of Bishop John Shelby Spong), and answers to your questions in our free weekly Q&A. Click here to see free sample essays.

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