Make Religion Great Again? Beware When Religion Makes You Feel Nostalgic

06/10/2016 11:40 am ET Updated Jun 11, 2017
An Open Bible.
An Open Bible.

I hear it all the time--nostalgia for the "olden days". For some, it's the innocence of childhood, for some it's the boom-time of the 1950s or the 1990s. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY, in a recent news story on NPR, points back to the Biblical times and principles as the days worth returning back to. He's not alone in his nostalgia. Donald Trump's "Let's make America great again" attempts to create nostalgia. Hillary Clinton, in her victory speech as the presumptive Democratic nominee, criticized Trump's slogan as code for taking America backward to a time when opportunity and dignity were reserved for an exclusive few. In the American religious landscape as well: Did anyone else grow up attending Christmas plays featuring idyllic, peaceful pastoral scenes with shepherds tending sheep and angels appearing in the clouds? Remember Sunday school and Bible school lessons that painted Abraham, Moses, and David as pastel cartoon heroes, ignoring the more complicated and less worthy aspects of their lives?

We want to have heroes, and we want to remember the good times, but the times our Bible discusses were not idyllic, not even really good. The days of our Old Testament were rife with perpetual warfare and constant fear. Political and religious rulers held ordinary people as minions or slaves. Ideal manhood was a warrior king; women and children were taken in military conquest. Men owned slaves and multiple wives, and there were few avenues out of hardship, excepting the ruling elites.

The New Testament days were brutal and violent as well. Terror reigned via the perpetual threats of starvation, violent attack, homelessness, and extortion. Domestic violence and sexual assault were kept under wraps or perhaps were not even concepts.

Sorry to destroy that pretty picture. This is the complex and ugly reality of the models for family life in the Bible. Yet, this reminds us that referring back to history, including and especially Biblical and salvation history, without a critical thinking perspective, is dangerous, oh so dangerous. If church leaders try to evoke those tremendous sensations of nostalgia by pointing to utopian-sounding Biblical-times, please think, and re-think.

What, is at the root of the inclination to point back to idyllic, simple-sounding Biblical days as the ideal, and clamor to "stand on Scripture alone, not man's wisdom"? Consider four interrelated motivations. On surface level, the desire is to get as pure a version of the will of God as possible. Below that is a pandering for a moral code to evaluate oneself as good, to give oneself a check-mark "well-done, good and faithful servant" pat on the back. And, in an age of complexity, it provides a clear-cut identification of who and what is "wrong". Religious leaders thereby sustain and build their power by creating an inside-outside mentality. People, including the men preparing to be Southern Baptist pastors who attended the recent Together for the Gospel conference, pander to conform and not question. The tendency too many church people is to hide in shame and secrecy rather than to doubt the validity of long-held claims, which, after all, were established not during perfect times by perfect people, but rather by complex and messy people during messy times.

Is the "cultural shift" really the enemy?

Southern Baptist Seminary President Mohler refers to the current cultural shift in ideas about women's rights and abilities, about relationships and divorce, and about sexuality as if these changes are a fanged monster lurking in the night waiting to grab our children. The ability to invoke fear of change has produced great success at simultaneously generating fear of doubt and dissent, fear of sexuality, and fear of others and of difference.

Take a moment and let me tell you what these changing times look like to me as a pastor of a Baptist congregation and as a pastor-leader in my wider community. It looks like a grandmother and a mother of a teen coming to see me because their teen won't talk to them. They say he's questioning his gender identity; he can't even understand it himself, much less articulate anything but confusion and anger to them. He struggles with guilt and shame, much of which church and religion taught him. The mother and grandmother struggle with the temptation to hide away their problems, conditioned by too many churches that warned, "You better not talk about it. Or else." Or else face judgment, scorn, or pity.

It looks like a young couple struggling to make new patterns in their relationship because they see each other as complete equals, not one at the head and the other as a second. They ask: How do we share the breadwinning, household, and child-rearing duties in an equal way? They feel like they are swimming upstream in this society with so much remaining gender role bias.

To me, shifting cultural ideas looks like more and more sexual assault victims sharing their stories rather than suffering in silence. This pastor's anecdotal experience is that the popular statistic that one in four women has been sexually assaulted is probably an understatement.

To me, its looks like the age-old tradition of church members throwing a baby shower, but this time for a couple that does not want to blindly follow gender expectations. Who says girls must like pink and baby dolls and boys like blue and tool sets? This seemingly innocuous conditioning begins a life often full of teaching girls and boys to conscript their abilities, their talents, and passions along gendered lines.

So-called cultural change is families wanting their children to know that regardless of their gender or sexual identity, they each fully mediate the presence of God. "Pastor," they ask, "what does God say?"

My question, then, to the pastors and churches that paint the cultural shift as scary and needing to be stopped: Can people be honest and vulnerable with you? Can they let themselves be known to you, their full questioning, doubting, deep, sexual selves? Or do people avoid opening the deepest and most tender areas of their lives, already expect an "easy" answer ("no, don't do it") when everything is more complicated than that? I wonder if people do not feel they can be fully known at church or by their religious leaders, can they really let themselves feel fully known by God?

Yes, the deep questions of today's world are complex. Yes, it is uncomfortable to sit in ambiguity and the unknown. There are often no words quite adequate to clarify or instruct in the way I would want. There are not easy answers nor exclusive right or wrong in the biggest questions in life. Yet, Mohler and other Southern Baptist leaders posit themselves as harbingers of truth and surety. They pretend there is surety where there are still many questions, security where there is insecurity, clarity where there is complexity. That wasn't how the world was then, and it isn't how the world is today.