Pharisees

Assuming the article on NBCNews.com is accurate, LifeWay Stores, which are associated with my denomination (the Southern Baptist Convention), pulled the movie, The Blind Side from their shelves about a month ago because a pastor in Florida by the name of Rodney Baker complained.

And the current SBC president thinks it is a good idea that LifeWay did what Rodney Baker wanted.

I think both Rodney Baker and the current president of the SBC, Fred Luter, are behaving Pharisaically. Assuming the article on NBCnews.com is accurate, of course.

The problems exemplified by these two men’s actions and statements are widespread. Take Christian publishing as an example. Because of the fear of complaints by people such as Rodney Baker, one of the things I’ve noticed is that when it comes to fiction, what Christian publishers put out is all too frequently insipid. Two genres of fiction that have never done well for Christian publishers are science fiction and fantasy. There has been some puzzlement on the part of the Christian publishers as to why it hasn’t worked well for them given how popular those genres are (consider, out of the ten highest grossing movies of all time, eight can be classified as either science fiction or fantasy).

It’s not hard to figure out why.

Though there are a large number of Christians who read science fiction and fantasy–we joke that to be a member of the church I attend, it helps to like Star Trek–Christian readers of science fiction and fantasy don’t buy Christian science fiction and fantasy (what little of it there is). Why? Given the choice between reading good science fiction and fantasy and what Christian publishers are allowed to publish thanks to folks like Rodney Baker, most Christians stick with good science fiction and fantasy.

Of course, part of the problem, too, is that bookstores such as Barnes and Noble—that is, bookstores that are not “Christian” bookstores—tend to stock any fiction published by Christian publishers, no matter what sort it is, not with the other fiction books, but in a ghetto all to themselves: the “religious” or “inspirational” section, making it hard for fiction readers, Christian and not, to find them. Is that ghettoization because of a choice by Barnes and Noble, or is it that Barnes and Noble is merely doing what the Christian publishers have asked them to do?

Fiction requires conflict and characters that are something more than cardboard cutouts. Characters must be less than perfect and should undergo some change from the beginning to the end of the story. That is, the events they face should alter them, for good or ill.

Will we ever see a Hannibal Lecter in a Christian book? How about a Sherlock Holmes? Or a Macbeth?

Doubtful. At least as long as people like Rodney Baker are feared and listened to.

Even though we see people just like Hannibal Lecter, Sherlock Holmes and Macbeth in the Bible.

But the fact that something is done in the Bible seems not to matter to Christian publishers and Christian bookstores. They live in fear that people like Rodney Baker might complain, and since too many Christians will do and believe whatever such people tell them, the loss in sales is, sadly, a very real concern. Christian publishers and bookstores have to make a profit, after all. It’s business, not charity.

That the Rodney Bakers of the Christian community thrive and bully the rest of us is perhaps because most Christians haven’t actually read their Bibles very much—especially not the Old Testament—and so they don’t actually know what is in it. For example, I know several of the most well-known pastors have rarely, if ever preached a sermon out of the Old Testament. And since Sunday morning is the only Bible most Christians ever get, Marcionism is alive and well in the Christian church.

The chances of reading a piece of fiction published by a Christian publisher which has characters as flawed as Lot or Jephtha (people who appear in the Old Testament and are listed as paragons of the faith in Hebrews 11) is a rare occurrence.

Lot lived in Sodom, offered his daughters to a mob to be raped and later committed incest with them and got them pregnant. Lot was not a very nice man. (Genesis 19)

Jephtha acknowledged the existence of gods other than Yahweh and later sacrificed his daughter as a burnt offering. And the daughter thought this was a fine idea. (Judges 11)

In fact, I think most of what happens in the book of Judges would make most people like Rodney Baker uncomfortable if it appeared in a novel or a movie. Consider Samson: he consorted with prostitutes, gambled and cheated, and committed bloody murder—not to mention property damage. (Judges 13-16)

There’s a Levite toward the end of the book of Judges that lets his concubine get raped by a mob. Then he takes her dead body and cuts it into twelve pieces. He sends those pieces, one each, to the twelve tribes of Israel. After that, eleven of the tribes nearly commit genocide against the tribe of Benjamin. Then later, the leaders of those eleven tribes let the men of Benjamin kidnap their daughters and force them into marrying them (Judges 19-21).

And I hardly have time to talk about the family values of David or Solomon. After all, David did such a fine job raising his kids: one raped his own sister, then another murdered his rapist brother and later tried to kill his father so he could take his throne—and then he slept with his father’s concubines. (2 Samuel 13-16) And just how many wives did David and Solomon have, anyhow? (2 Samuel 2:2, 5:13, 1 Kings 11:3)

I suspect most Christian publishers are glad that no one actually reads the Old Testament in the Bibles they sell. They’d probably get complaints from people like Rodney Baker.

What is called “bad language” is generally not acceptable in Christian fiction. That’s why Rodney Baker wanted The Blind Side removed from LifeWay Stores. He should go after the Bible next. Especially the KJV. It has the word “piss” in it twice (2 Kings 18:27 and Isaiah 36:12) and “pisseth”, six times (1 Samuel 25:22, 34; 1 Kings 14:10, 16:11, 21:21; 2 Kings 9:8).

Modern translations, of course, don’t use that KJV word. They use words that won’t bother people like Rodney Baker so much. Even so, despite the best efforts of translators to obscure the unsavoriness in the Bible, some things just can’t be hidden. Check out Ezekiel 23:20:

There she lusted after her lovers, whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose emission was like that of horses.

Worse, the rest of Ezekiel 23 quite graphically describes Israel and Judah as prostitutes (just like it did in chapter 16, too). Rodney Baker should read those chapters in their original Hebrew. Doubtless he’ll then want to make sure LifeWay never sells the Bible in Hebrew. Of course, given the stuff that leaks through in English, perhaps he can get the SBC to pass a resolution against the Old Testament, or at least those parts that have bad language, violence and people generally behaving as reprobates. I’m sure the current SBC president would approve. Can’t be exposing innocent Christians to such unpleasantness.

One of the difficulties with the Christian fiction market is that publishers seem to have focused on only a small subset of the Christian population, who they oh so reasonably live in constant fear of. It is fine to target books for those Christians who enjoy the cloistered, fifties-era sort of book that contains nothing that might cause any disturbance in their self-satisfied and self-righteous lives. The Rodney Bakers of the Christian community are doubtless pleased and there’s probably money to be made from them.

But what about the rest of us? We might have some cash to spend, too.

A Christian organization is unlikely to ever bring out something like the movies The Passion, or Bruce Almighty, and yet both movies appeal to Christians. Of course, it wasn’t a Christian publishing company that published C.S. Lewis’s writings, either. I’m sure if C.S. Lewis approached them today, they’d reject The Chronicles of Narnia for its occultism and have conniptions over The Screwtape Letters given that a demon is the main character and the whole story is told from his perspective.

Innovative. Cutting edge. New. Trendsetting These are not words associated with Christianity, or at least its organizations, anymore.

Instead, they mostly play catch-up and imitate. Badly. And they play it safe. They aim at the lowest common denominator. If someone complains, then apologies must be given, heads must roll, and rings must be kissed. Which is odd, given that Christianity historically was radical in its origins, dangerous in its methods, and transformed world civilization and culture by radically transforming the hearts of individuals.

But little that actually impacts the culture, or changes the culture, or alters how people see themselves and their world still arises from Christianity. Where today is the great art, literature, poetry and music that we used to produce that changed the way the world thinks and acts? Probably not in LifeWay Stores.

Today, the Christian community seems to be run by those who subsist on milk (Hebrews 5:11-14). And the rest of the community cowers before them in terror.

My youngest daughter is reading Animal Farm for a literature course. The story is about animals who take over a farm because of the farmer’s oppression. They oppose the men who run the farm. But as the story proceeds, some of the animals become oppressive rulers themselves, just like the farmer and the other men they overthrew. Orwell’s book ends with the following lines:

No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

I look at the attitude of pastor Rodney Baker of Florida and those who run LifeWay and the SBC and quite frankly, when I look at them, I think I’m looking at the Pharisees in the New Testament.

It’s impossible to say which is which.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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3 Responses to Pharisees

  1. Eric Miller says:

    Yep, sarcastic, livid and controversial. Censorship and “protecting” people from ideas betrays a nearly complete lack of faith in God’s love and power.

  2. Joe Bonhage says:

    Very good read. So true.

  3. Jolene McCreery says:

    Yes, I think many Christians have joined the “politically correct” crowd and for the reasons you stated. Some refuse to read anything that might upset them…hence, the Old Testament remains closed. With history books being rewritten to suit new educational ideologies, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone proposed rewriting the greater part of the Bible to appease our “finer sensibilities”, thereby altering historical fact. Even in my little book, I felt “pressured” to replace harsh or crass words with kinder ones so as not to offend anyone. Good argument, Robin!

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