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Learning From Our Adversaries

Long ago Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” Nothing clarifies a person’s thinking on this question like going head to head with an antagonist. And if a single antagonist clarifies, a tag-team encounter crystallizes.

I found myself on stage recently for a panel discussion following the viewing of a recently released DVD, “The God Who Wasn’t There,” a documentary-like rehash of the claims that Jesus never existed, that Paul made up Christianity, and that it is essentially harmful to our minds and culture.

The film is written, narrated and produced by Brian Fleming in a Michael Moore style. It is at various points funny, brassy, one-sided and relentless in its dubious “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” type hatchet job on Christianity.

Toward the latter part of the film, Fleming reveals that he himself was raised in a fundamentalist Christian church and school, an experience that left him deeply wounded, and now a hostile preacher against faith.

Despite this description, I found Fleming, seated to my right, to be a gentle, interesting person. I also found myself agreeing with many of his objections to exclusivistic, thought-controlling and domination-seeking brands of fundamentalist Christianity. If this brand of faith is our only option, I’m siding with Fleming in saying “no thanks.”

To my left was Russell Moore, from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, a brilliant thinker and articulate communicator. I concurred with his scholarly critique of Fleming’s dismissal of the historicity of Jesus.

And yet, though Moore and I are both Christians and Baptists, we were hardly bedfellows. He and I agreed on some of the history of the New Testament. But we were as far apart from each other–and perhaps more–than I was from Fleming the atheist. Moore was perfectly fine with the exclusivistic, thought-controlling, domination-seeking brands of fundamentalist Christianity.

Among the three of us, Moore and Fleming seemed to have more in common. Both were intent on arguing the facts in a rational, propositional manner: Did Jesus exist? Is the Bible objectively true? What can we say is propositionally true? Fundamentalist Christian versus fundamentalist atheist. I was the odd man out.

But my sympathies were with Fleming’s painful recollection of being held hostage by an ultimatum: believe the facts (even if they mean nothing to you) or be damned to hell. After three youthful attempts at conformity failed, Fleming said, in essence, the hell with it.

Fleming, however, was not looking for sympathy from me. He viewed “moderate Christianity” as merely a watered-down version of fundamentalism–a thought-control system that arranges facts to suit its agenda.

This rebuff became an occasion to consider the nature of my faith, and the faith of all of us called moderate or mainline–two terms that have far outlived their usefulness. Are we simply a softer brand of fundamentalism? Are we merely a variation on the “just-the-facts, ma’am” crowd? What distinguishes my expression of faith from fundamentalists? And if facts aren’t the foundation of our faith, what is?

“Moderates” like me believe Jesus lived, healed, taught, died, rose and ascended. But our faith is not ultimately contingent on the verifiable accuracy of the story’s facts. We were not forced to faith by “evidence that demands a verdict,” as one author put it. Rather, we experienced a life-transforming love from God that came to me from the story of Jesus and that called us to a new way.

I grew up singing a hymn that includes the refrain “You ask me how I know He lives. He lives within my heart.” The story included details–facts, if you insist–but the heart of the story wasn’t found in facts.

A new description for my brand of faith began to crystallize: love-based Christianity. That is, an understanding and application of Christianity that originates and critiques itself by love.

Love-based Christianity sees self-giving love as the key to understanding the Bible and the life and teachings of Jesus, to being changed in your heart by his story, to living a transformed life. Without love as the key, knowledge, eloquence, even generous acts fall woefully short, as Paul says in I Corinthians 13.

Several years ago, Al Mohler, president of now-fundamentalist Southern Seminary, spoke at my church, a mile from the seminary, for a forum called “Will the Real Baptists Please Stand Up?” Mohler proposed that the difference between his brand of Baptists and our “moderate” brand is that his brand focuses on “Truth,” while ours focuses on “Freedom.”

He was almost right. Fundamentalists do base their construct of the Christian message on “truth”–propositionally presented, objectively claimed and infallibly delivered in the Bible.

But the core of “moderate” Christianity is not “freedom,” but love: a Love-based Christianity. The point of the death of Jesus, obscured in Mel Gibson’s gory “Passion of the Christ,” is the self-giving love of God that is strong, humble and ultimately resilient (thus the Resurrection).

Love is not a formula or a fact. It is a message transmitted by a story that touches a deep place in the heart. Without the base of love, the story loses its meaning and its power to heal. It becomes, like the Passion movie, merely weird.

I thought of this on Sunday evening as the rains washed out a church picnic with local Albanians befriended by our congregation over the last several years. While others grilled burgers under makeshift covers, we gathered in the sanctuary with our Muslim friends to wait on dinner. How did they feel as we sang some of our faith songs for them, as they were literally surrounded by depictions of the Cross of Jesus?

For these refugees from Kosova, the Cross is not a symbol of love, but of division, domination and enmity. Did our songs of joy and faith sound like victory songs of the oppressor?

Can the Cross ever become a symbol of love, rather than a symbol of physical, emotional or intellectual coercion for Albanians or the Brian Flemings of the world? If so, it won’t be because we argued someone into a new belief system.

Arguing is quicker and safer; it just doesn’t work. Rather, it will be because we followed Jesus, and embodied love patiently, humbly and painstakingly.

Joseph Phelps is pastor of Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky.