Generous Orthodoxy  




Sunday, October 04, 2009

And God said…

Well, here goes The Wall Street Journal (new Murdoch version) again. I have always looked forward to its weekly “Houses of Worship” column. Today (October 2), this week’s author, Stephen Prothero, begins this way:

“Any claim of revelation is preposterous. It presumes that God exists, that God speaks, and that all is not lost when human beings translate that speech into ordinary language.”

It is tempting to think that the whole column is a joke, though I suspect not. The rest of it is devoted to a (boring) discussion of a project to recover the “original text” of the Book of Mormon, alleged to have been transcribed in the 1820s by Joseph Smith from golden plates which, conveniently, "disappeared" long ago. This endeavor has just been published by the Yale University Press. Dr. Prothero is a professor of religion at Boston University. Never underestimate the capacity of religion departments to get Christianity wrong. Except this time, possibly without realizing it (?), Dr. Prothero has it exactly right. The Holy Scriptures of the Christian church do indeed “presume that God exists, that God speaks, and that all is not lost when human beings translate that speech into ordinary language.” Exactly. Couldn’t have said it better.

Now, let’s move off Dr. Prothero’s radar screen altogether, to observe that the trouble arises when the Christian church does not believe this foundational premise of its own Scriptures. That’s what’s at stake, not the debate about homosexuality (although that is admittedly important and needs to be much more serious). The more crucial question is, “Has God said anything to us?” My friend Will Willimon says that everything hangs on these three words from the first chapter of Genesis: “And God said….”

If we had more preachers in the mainline churches who were willing to take a stand on those three words, I believe we would see a renewal of the faith. Does this mean “fundamentalism,” that all-purpose word that the mainline churches’ ruling classes like to attach to those of us who still believe in revelation? Absolutely not. That’s why the third part of Dr. Prothro’s dictum is so perfectly tuned: a lot is lost in the transition from the divine speech to human speech, otherwise we could not bear to hear it in our present condition—but not all is lost. It is the gracious will of God that human beings should be attuned, anew in every generation, to his living voice—the Word in the words.