Phil Robertson spoke in his church on Sunday. From the report:
Earlier he stood in front of the small class, at White’s Ferry Road Church wearing his full camouflage suit and addressed the group for around 45 minutes.
He said: ‘I have been immoral, drunk, high. I ran with the wicked people for 28 years and I have run with the Jesus people since and the contrast is astounding.
‘I tell people, “You are a sinner, we all are. Do you want to hear my story before I give you the bottom line on your story?”
‘We murder each other and we steal from one another, sex and immorality goes ballistic. All the diseases that just so happen to follow sexual mischief… boy there are some microbes running around now.
‘Sexual sins are numerous and many, I have a few myself. So what is your safest course of action? If you’re a man, find yourself a woman, marry them and keep your sex right there.
‘You can have fun, but one thing is for sure, as long as you are both healthy in the first place, you are not going to catch some debilitating illness, there is safety there.
‘Commonsense says we are not going to procreate the human race unless we have a man and a woman. From the beginning Jesus said, “It is a man and a woman.” Adam was made and Eve was made for this reason. They left their fathers and mothers and be united to become one flesh, that’s what marriage is all about.
‘But we looked at it and said it was an outdated stereotype. When you look back at the human race, the sins have always been the same: We get high, we get drunk, we get laid, we steal and kill.
‘Has this changed at all from the time God burnt up whole cities because their every thought was evil?’
Then reading from the Bible he said, ‘The acts of the sinful nature are obvious. Sexual immorality, is number one on the list. How many ways can we sin sexually? My goodness. You open up that can of worms and people will be mad at you over it.
‘I am just reading what was written over 2000 years ago. Those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom. All I did was quote from the scriptures, but they just didn’t know it. Whether I said it, or they read it, what’s the difference? The sins are the same, humans haven’t changed.”
More raw Christianity from a raw man. And you know, if you have a problem with the substance of what Phil Robertson said here, you have a problem with the Bible and St. Paul, who wrote in I Corinthians 6: 9-11:
Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
Granted, I prefer the far more irenic approach of Pope Francis, but it cannot be denied that Phil Robertson is only repeating what St. Paul said. So many American churches are embarrassed by Paul, because his teaching — which is fundamental to Christianity — clashes head-on with modern sensibilities. What kind of Christianity is it that decides it doesn’t have to take St. Paul and his letters, which are in the canon of Holy Scripture, seriously?
This, I think, is the deeper thing being revealed by the Phil Robertson controversy: how ignorant most Americans are of the Bible and the Christian tradition. If you are a Christian and are shocked by what Phil Robertson says, you should wonder why that is, given that he’s either closely paraphrasing Scripture, or stating basic Christian doctrine, though in ways you would expect to come out of the mouth of a duck hunter from north Louisiana, as opposed to an Oxbridge theologian. Writing on the Atlantic site, Larry Alex Taunton says that the real issue here is that you cannot easily reconcile contemporary attitudes towards homosexuality with Christianity. Excerpt:
Missing in the controversy over A&E’s handling of its golden goose—or duck, rather—is the fact that the real conflict here is not between Robertson and A&E; it is between gay activists and a solid majority of Christians who believe homosexual acts are wrong. As indicated above, Robertson’s views are hardly anomalous. Christians may disagree on the details, but the Bible strongly condemns homosexuality in both the Old and New Testaments; the marriage model of one man and one woman is first given by God in Genesis 2 and reiterated by Jesus in Matthew 19; and in Romans 1 the Apostle Paul denounces homosexuality as a hallmark of a degenerate culture. The point here isn’t that you have to believe any of this, but many Christians do believe it and feel morally bound to believe it.
Instead of acknowledging this tension, however, A&E, GLAAD, and their supporters have responded with disingenuous expressions of shock and horror. And it matters that it’s disingenuous, because if they actually acknowledged that there is a genuine conflict between orthodox Christianity and homosexual sex (along with several forms of heterosexual sex) they would have to confront head-on the fact that calling for a boycott or pressuring for Robertson’s suspension tells orthodox Christians that their religion is no longer acceptable, and that’s not a very politically correct thing to do. Right now, they are trying to weasel out of it by characterizing Robertson as a backwoods bigot who takes his moral cues from Deliverance rather than from a straightforward reading of the Bible and the historic teachings of the Christian religion.
On the substance of the matter, there is not much difference between Pope Francis, the Advocate magazine’s Person Of The Year, and Phil Robertson. People who think there is simply don’t understand the Christian religion as it has been practiced and understood for almost all of its existence — even if they profess that religion. St. Paul’s teaching about sexual purity, which has its roots in Hebrew religion, is far more difficult to cast aside than his opinions about whether or not women should speak in church.
Christianity is not just the parts we like and find easy to take. It includes the hard stuff too. If in his GQ interview Robertson had read the riot act to the rich who grind the faces of the poor, he wouldn’t have been in trouble at all. He would have been well-grounded in Christianity had he said that — not just from the Gospels, but from St. Paul’s teaching. Here he is in I Timothy 6:
But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.
Frankly, I would like to hear what Phil Robertson, who is extremely wealthy, has to preach about the temptations of money. It’s easy for people to condemn sins that they aren’t subject to; I don’t think the Duckmen are tempted by homosexuality. Then again, Phil condemned his own past sexual sinfulness in his sermon on Sunday. This is not a man who claims to have been spotless. Anyway, my sense of Robertson is that if he were to shut up or retract his words for the sake of saving his TV show, he would consider himself to be exactly the kind of weak believer St. Paul condemns in I Timothy.
The point of all this is to say that Phil Robertson is taking the Bible more seriously than many of his detractors. You may, of course, believe that the Bible is wrong about homosexuality, or anything else, but please don’t act shocked when people who profess to believe in the Bible as the Word of God repeat things that are written in it and say, “I believe this, and I am bound by it, because it is God’s word.”
The public is divided over whether engaging in homosexual behavior is a sin: 45% say it is a sin while an identical percentage says it is not. In 2003, a majority (55%) viewed homosexual behavior as was sinful, while 33% disagreed.
Among several religious groups, there has been relatively little change in these opinions over the past decade. Fully 78% of white evangelical Protestants view homosexual behavior as a sin; 82% said this in 2003. About as many black Protestants view homosexuality as a sin today (79%) as did so ten years ago (74%).
However, opinions among Catholics have changed substantially. In 2003, more Catholics said homosexual behavior was a sin than said it was not (49% vs. 37%). Today, a third of Catholics (33%) say it is sin, while 53% disagree.
People who attend religious services weekly or more continue to view homosexual behavior as a sin by a wide margin (67% to 24%). Nearly six-in-ten (57%) of those who attend less often think such behavior is not a sin, while 34% say it is; 10 years ago, opinion was divided (44% sin, 45% not a sin).
So, while Phil Robertson’s views on homosexuality are explicitly validated by Scripture and are thoroughly within the mainstream of Christian thought for the past 1,950 years or so, they are becoming outdated in American Christianity. I get that. Honestly, I do. What I don’t get is the ahistorical, pearl-clutching outrage over the fact that an Evangelical believes what the Bible says. O. Wesley Allen, theologian contacted by CNN to explain the passage Phil Robertson paraphrased said that it’s more complicated and nuanced than Robertson believes, in a way that (in Allen’s view) makes it inapplicable to gay relationships today. But he adds:
Even so, scholars such as Allen acknowledge there are no Bible passages that support same-sex relationships, and at least seven that appear to condemn gay sex.
“There’s no way around the fact that those passages take a negative view of homosexuality, and nowhere in the Bible is a positive view offered,” Allen said. “So conservatives and liberals continue to debate.”
We’ve had a couple of generations of Americans raised without basic teaching in the Bible and what it says. I was talking last night with a Protestant friend about how ignorant kids — even Christian kids — today are of common Biblical stories and themes. They don’t even know what they don’t know. It would probably shock a lot of American churchgoers to open up the New Testament and discover what they find there.
A few years back, Evangelical theologian David Nienhuis observed that the students in his Scripture classes at a Christian university are shockingly illiterate on the Bible:
There are, no doubt, many reasons for the current predicament. In general we spend far less time reading anything at all in this culture, much less dense and demanding books like the Bible. Not long ago I met with a student who was struggling in one of my courses. When I asked her what she thought the trouble was, she replied, in a tone suggesting ever so slightly that the fault was mine, “Reading a lot is not a part of my learning style.” She went on to inform me that students today learned more by “watching videos, listening to music, and talking to one another.” She spoke of the great growth she experienced in youth group (where she no doubt spent a lot of time watching videos, listening to music, and talking with people), but her ignorance of the Bible clearly betrayed the fact that the Christian formation she experienced in her faith community afforded her little to no training in the actual reading of Scripture.
Indeed, a good bit of the blame for the existing crisis has to fall at the feet of historic American evangelicalism itself. In his book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know–and Doesn’t, Stephen Prothero has drawn our attention to various religious shifts that took place as a result of the evangelistic Second Great Awakening that shook American culture in the first half of the nineteenth century, key characteristics of which continue to typify contemporary evangelical attitudes. For instance, there was a shift from learning to feeling, as revivalists of the period emphasized a heartfelt and unmediated experience of Jesus himself over religious education. While this strategy resulted in increased conversions and the creation of numerous popular nondenominational voluntary associations, it also had the effect of requiring Christians to agree to disagree when it came to doctrinal matters. There was a corresponding shift from the Bible to Jesus, as more and more Christians came to believe that the key test of Christian faithfulness was not the affirmation of a creed or catechism, or knowledge of the biblical text, but the capacity to claim an emotional relationship with what Prothero calls “an astonishingly malleable Jesus–an American Jesus buffeted here and there by the shifting winds of the nation’s social and cultural preoccupations.”
The most important shift, according to Prothero, was the shift from theology to morality. The nondenominationalist trend among Protestants tended to avoid doctrinal conflicts by searching for agreements in the moral realm. Christian socialists, such as Charles Sheldon, taught us to ask not “What does the Bible say?” but “What would Jesus do?” Advocates of the Social Gospel, such as Walter Rauschenbusch, taught that it was more important to care for the poor than to memorize the Apostles’ Creed.
Christians schooled in this rather anti-intellectual, common-denominator evangelistic approach to faith responded to the later twentieth-century decline in church attendance by looking not to more substantial catechesis but to business and consumer models to provide strategies for growth. By now we’re all familiar with the story: increasing attendance by means of niche marketing led church leaders to frame the content of their sermons and liturgies according to the self-reported perceived needs of potential “seekers” shaped by the logic of consumerism. Now many American consumer-congregants have come to expect their churches to function as communities of goods and services that provide care and comfort without the kind of challenge and discipline required for authentic Christian formation to take place.
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is replacing historical Christianity. It’s not just that the media and corporate types don’t grasp that Phil Robertson was merely channeling St. Paul. It’s that many American Christians, especially young ones, don’t get that either, or if they do, don’t see why that should have anything to do with what they believe.