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Old 10-07-2001, 08:31 AM   #1
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On Hell and Fundamentalism

Okay, when I found that other post on "God and the Simpsons," I came across this one as well, which is equally intriguing for different reasons.


"Inside Matthew's Brain"


preached October 1, 2000
St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church
Ann Arbor, Michigan

"Hell, Damnation, & The Simpsons"

And if your hand gets you into trouble, cut it off! It is better for you to enter life maimed than to wind up in Gehenna, in the unquenchable fire, with both hands... where the worm never dies and the fire never goes out! -- Mark 9: 43, 48

On Thursday nights at 10:00, when most rational creatures are snuggling up on the couch getting ready to watch E.R., you will find your intrepid chaplain making popcorn in the kitchen of Canterbury House in preparation for the arrival of his undergraduate students, who will soon be crowding into the kitchen to bake cookies, make hot chocolate, and otherwise fortify themselves for the very serious theological discussion we will soon have on the topic, “The Simpsons and Religion”.

And so it was that last Thursday night we watched the classic Simpsons episode entitled “Homer vs. Lisa and the 8th Commandment.” In an especially memorable scene we found Bart, Lisa and their friends sitting politely in front of their Sunday School teacher, Miss Albright, as she writes the word HELL on the chalkboard. She says, “Alright, children, now I don’t want you to get frightened but it’s my responsibility to teach you this. Today’s topic will be Hell.” The children gasp -- she said a bad word! -- and Bart says, “Alright! I’ve sat through mercy and I’ve sat through forgiveness. Finally we get to the good stuff!”
This inspires Miss Albright’s sweetly-rendered speech: “Oh, Hell is a terrible place! Maggots are your sheet, worms your blanket. There’s a lake of fire burning with sulphur. You’ll be tormented day and night for ever and ever. As a matter of fact, if you actually saw hell you’d be so frightened you would die!”

The fact that popular culture routinely ridicules the cartoonish visions of hell rendered by fundamentalist preachers should not surprise any of us. But the fact that, thanks to their rantings, Christianity is regarded with contempt by many young people; the fact that so many in our culture actually believe that churches are little more than circus sideshows, where credulous hicks are separated from their dollars by bizarre fantasies of an afterlife populated by little red demons with pitchforks; the fact that the threat of hell remains the sinister subtext of most Christian ministries on this very campus -- these facts might give us pause.
But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. The first question, I suppose, is this: what do we think of the idea of hell? Do we believe there is a place of unquenchable fire, where the worm never dies, to which we will be consigned should we fail to live up to Jesus’ very high standards? And if not, what do we make of this and similar passages in the gospels, in which Jesus very clearly seems to make the same kinds of threats we hear from the Diag preachers nearly every day.

Well, I happen to be persuaded by the scholars of the Jesus Seminar, which includes Marcus Borg, Dominic Crossan, and our very own Bishop Spong, who contend that these words do not in fact belong to the historical Jesus, but were, according to the ancient custom of the time, put into his mouth a generation later in order to accomodate the popular belief in apocalypse -- a belief which Jesus himself explicitly opposed.

The scholars of the Jesus Seminar make their argument by pointing to the parables of Jesus -- sayings that are almost universally believed among scholars to be earlier and more authentic -- in which Jesus consistently goes out of his way to contradict the notion of apocalypse. In Luke’s gospel, for instance, Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, `Look, here it is!’ or `There it is!’ For in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” (Luke 17:20-21) Or consider the famous parable, found in both Matthew and in the much earlier Gospel of Thomas: “The Father’s imperial rule is like a person who had a treasure hidden in his field but did not know it.” (Thom 109:1-3, Mt 13:44) These are not the words of one who believed, as the apocalyptic churches later preached, that we are profoundly separated from the realm of God and can only be reunited by a cosmic cataclysm. Instead, Jesus kept saying, over and over, as he does in the Gospel of Thomas, that heaven is here and now: “My Father’s imperial rule is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see it.” (Thom 113:2) If there is a hell in this theology, it is the hell we are all too familiar with: that of spiritual blindness to the presence of God’s boundless love.

Well, you might ask, how could the early churches have been so wrong about such an important question? But we only need to reflect on the ways in which Martin Luther King’s radical words of economic equality have been co-opted by the current defenders of the status quo to see how easily popular culture can, in just a few years, turn a radical into a compliant tool of the powers that be. Add to that the ancient practice of putting words into the mouths of former teachers, and you get the conflicting images of Jesus which appear in the gospels.

Contrary to what the fundamentalists tell us, we have no choice but to use our brains to sort out the various images of Jesus in the Bible, and decide for ourselves, with the aid of the best research and scholarly advice we can find, which image of Jesus we are willing to believe, and which image of Jesus we feel does not ring true. In fact, the necessity of having to choose goes beyond the image of Jesus to the more fundamental question of Why Christianity? Why not Buddhism? Paganism? Or what about those Rastafarians -- they seem to know how to have a good time...

This is what sociologist Peter Berger calls “The Heretical Imperative.” To be a heretic, in the true sense of the word, is to choose for yourself what you are going to believe, rather than to meekly accept the word of a church authority. In our day and age, we have no choice but to choose. Nobody these days makes it through adolescence and into adulthood without at some point realizing that they are perfectly free to leave the church of their parents and find a different path to God. There is no religion in the world that can prevent this from happening. We are forced to choose. We are all heretics.

Fortunately for us, we follow in the footsteps of a teacher who had a special place in his heart for heretics. I quote the Anglican theologian Frederick W. Robertson, who wrote over a century ago: “To the question, Who is my neighbor? I reply as my Master did by the example that He gave: `the alien and the heretic.’”
In fact, we in the Episcopal Church have a proud history of heresy; we attend a church that has the honor of having been officially excommunicated by the Pope nearly 500 years ago; and if Cardinal Ratzinger is to be believed, it remains the considered opinion of the Catholic Church that we are all going to hell.

This is why you will find, in Canterbury House’s current advertising campaign, the slogan “Heretics Included.” There is no genuine orthodoxy anymore, but for the desperate claims of the fundamentalist churches, who look into the face of modernity with the same dread with which the medieval church of Rome viewed our Henry. They know that their only authority is coercive, and so they threaten us with damnation.

Over a century ago, a liberal Baptist preacher by the name of Harry Emerson Fosdick witnessed the birth of Christian fundamentalism in America and became alarmed by what he saw. He said, “Science treats a young man’s mind as though it were really important. The churches, by contrast, say “Come, and we will feed you opinions from a spoon. No thinking is allowed here...” Fosdick correctly predicted that if this approach to Christianity became widespread, we would begin to lose our young people.

In his excellent book, Stealing Jesus, Bruce Bawer summarizes Fosdick’s important crusade against fundamentalism: “Because of fundamentalism, Fosdick warns, `educated people are looking for their religion outside the churches.... A religion that is afraid of the facts is doomed.’”

Because of the work of Fosdick and many others, the spread of fundamentalism through the 20th century was confined to the rural and southern parts of the United States -- areas that were entirely off the radar screen of mainstream popular culture. But with the advent of television, many of the central tenets of fundamentalism are now a part of the popular mainstream, forming most young people’s ideas of what Christianity is all about.

I mean, I don’t mind it when I come across an intelligent young person who has earnestly thought about it and concluded that there is no god. But what drives me crazy is when I meet -- and this happens time and again -- otherwise intelligent people who have summarily dismissed Christianity because the only gospel message they know is the one they see on TV: narrow, self-righteous, dogmatic, and exclusive. People, in other words, who have not yet heard the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is this: that if Jesus stood for anything, he stood for an open table; he stood for forgivenes and inclusion; and he stood for justice and truth.

Jesus trembled in the presence of the Spirit of God; his only desire was for us to open our eyes and lift our hearts to the same presence, which is breaking in right here and right now, as we speak. If the way is narrow, it is only because there are few people who have the eyes to see; who have the courage to accept just how wide God’s love is; the courage to accept the fact that no matter how broken we are, no matter how low we feel, God loves us completely and without reservation.
This is a love that moved the Samaritan but was not recognized by the priests; a love that touched the leper but went unnoticed by the rich man; a love that was obvious to the nameless children but was invisible to the grown-ups; a love that invited everyone to the table, even if it was only the prostitutes and sinners, the disabled and the outcast, who accepted the invitation.

This is the work of the Episcopal Church on campus and throughout the world; this work is as important now as ever: we are working to rescue Jesus from the prison of his church; we are working to spread the good news of our savior in a world that remains hostile to him. But we cannot do this work without your prayers and your support.

This gospel work is meeting with great success; but with every new success comes a new challenge. Many of you have heard about our grant from Trinity Church in New York, which challenges us to share what we are doing with the national Episcopal Church. We can only meet this challenge with your support: put in very crass terms, we need to raise $20,000 by December 31.

I ask for your blessing and your prayers as we continue this gospel work on the campus of the U of M; I thank you for all the support you have given us in the past; and I ask you to continue to help us us proclaim the presence of God’s realm in our midst.

Somebody say AMEN.

The Rev. Matthew Lawrence
Chaplain, Canterbury House
Director, Institute for Public Theology


What do you think?


"He had lived through an age when men and women with energy and ruthlessness but without much ability or persistence excelled. And even though most of them had gone under, their ignorance had confused Roy, making him wonder whether the things he had striven to learn, and thought of as 'culture,' were irrelevant. Everything was supposed to be the same: commercials, Beethoven's late quartets, pop records, shopfronts, Freud, multi-coloured hair. Greatness, comparison, value, depth: gone, gone, gone. Anything could give some pleasure; he saw that. But not everything provided the sustenance of a deeper understanding." - Hanif Kureishi, Love in a Blue Time

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Old 10-07-2001, 09:37 AM   #2
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Whether or not you accept the images of unquenchable fire and brimstone as literal, the fact remains that the doctrine of judgment is all over the pages of the Bible. I don't know what hell is like, and I'm not the gatekeeper of Heaven, but there are plenty of other passages in the Bible that make it quite clear that it is possible to lose in the final judgment--that is, a future of eternal separation from God is a possibility.

And as for the Jesus Seminar's interpretations of Scripture quoted below, well, Matthew 13:44 says that "the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought the field." The point of this parable is clearly not to introduce or debunk the idea of a final judgment, but simply to point out that entrance into the kingdom of God is worth more than all of life's worldly possessions.

And when Jesus answers the Pharisees' question of when the kingdom of God will come in Luke 17:20-21, well, the Pharisees might have believed that the coming of the kingdom of God would have been some massive event. But in fact, the ruler of the kingdom of God was standing right in front of them, and the citizens of the kingdom of God are those who believe in Jesus, so Jesus was quite right to say that "the kingdom of God is among you". This answer is very much in Jesus's style of answering such questions obliquely. Indeed, the coming of the kingdom of God was far from a pompous event, if you consider that Jesus was born in a barn and worked in a carpentry shop until he was 30. But I don't think that Jesus necessarily meant to address the notion of a final judgment in this passage.
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