Friday, August 16, 2013

Fun with AM Radio, Peter Leithart and the "Protestant Metanarrative"

Earlier in the summer, I had occasion to rent a car while traveling over a long weekend in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.   Although I never do so at home, I always tune in the AM radio “preaching channels” when driving out of state.   I get a lot of entertainment out of listening to these small local stations where old-time preachers still go at it.  This perverse pleasure does me no credit--and my wife lectures me about it -- but I relish them in the same way as someone would enjoy a carnival sideshow.  Even here in the South, such broadcasts are relics of an earlier time.  That said, I am more at home in that world than I would be in the schmaltzy Christian praise music stations on the FM side of things.

Most of the broadcasting consists of recorded sermons from local congregations (invariably either Baptist or Pentecostal), itinerant small-time “radio preacher” segments, and recordings of evangelists with a national audience.  The local characters are the best—and the most revealing—but I soon realized that the syndicated national figures fill the largest segment of broadcast time.  And of this number, three in particular loom large:  Dr. Adrian Rogers, Dr. David Jeremiah and Dr. Tony Evans.

Dallas-based Dr. Evans is the best of the lot, and I heard several of his sermons back and forth on I-85.  Maybe I caught him on a particular tangent, but he surprised me a little with his repeated preaching on the wrath of God. 

I found Dr. Jeremiah, head of a California mega-church, to be the least credible.  He harped on “the Rapture” with planes falling out of skies as their pilots were taken, buses careening off highways as their drivers were taken, men coming home from work to find their wife had been taken, etc. , as if this was settled matter-of-fact theology.   Of course he hawked his upcoming Caribbean Cruise Conference, and later his Holy Land Tour--in other words, a religious huckster.  Several years ago, I had lunch with an old church friend from my previous life.   By that time I had long since “swam the Bosporus,” as they say, and was dried-off and comfortable on the other side.   He had  always been dissatisfied with our church and during the entire time of our acquaintance had either been halfway in or almost completely out, but not quite.  To my knowledge, that is his condition yet.  He turged me to listen to some tapes that would revolutionize my life, from a preacher that really, really had it together, etc.  Well, it turned out to be this Dr. Jeremiah guy.  Thanks, but no thanks. 

If you spend any time with these stations, you are going to hear a LOT of Dr. Adrian Rogers, the late Baptist minister of a Memphis mega-church.  Dr. Rogers was as smooth a preacher as I’ve ever heard—and I do not necessarily mean that as a compliment.  He spoke with an exaggerated accent that some Southern evangelists seem to prefer (Billy Graham, for one.)  Anyway, the sermon that caught my interest was one on the “infallible, inerrant, incontestable Bible.”  The talk was standard evangelical bibliolatry until Dr. Rogers dipped his toe into church history.  He referenced the persecutions under Diocletian, though in his telling it was the emperor’s “War on the Bible.”  He elaborated that Diocletian burned a Bible and then erected a monument above it declaring “Extincto nomini christianorum,” or for the Latin impaired, “The name of Christian is extinct.”    I googled the phrase and all that appears is the same little snippet on innumerable  Protestant websites, usually as an anecdote to flesh out a sermon--and never sourced.  Well, Diocletian may have very well burned some scriptures and erected such a monument--or it could just be an evangelical urban legend. 

It matters not, for Diocletian’s war was certainly not against the “Bible.”  Somehow, I expected more of Dr. Rogers than that.  Either he was grossly ignorant of how, and more particularly when the “Bible” came together, or he was being purposely disingenuous.  Close to ninety more years would have to pass before such a statement could be conceivably, if not practically, true.  Certainly Diocletian would have had the Christian scriptures destroyed given the opportunity—whether they be the letters assembled later into what became known as the New Testament, or other writings of the early church fathers.  But his "war,” if you will, was on Christians, based on who they were, what they did and what they would not do, rather than on their particular scriptures, much less a “Bible” that arrived much later on the scene.

Dr. Rogers was not content to leave it there, however.  He continued on--that the Council of Nicea in 325 AD declared the Bible to be “the infallible word of God.”  Here he proceeds from the twisting of history to outright fabrication.  I fear that in our broad American Christianist culture, that it is this sort of thing which passes for historical knowledge.  It reminds me of my own attempt in my old church to find anything approximating our view of “New Testament Christianity” between 100 AD and Alexander Campbell.  For a while, I latched on to the Paulicians, of all people, but dropped that before I embarrassed myself unduly.

All this came to mind when I recently read an article of Peter J. Leithart at the First Things site.  I am somewhat familiar with Dr. Leithart who is a Protestant of the Reformed persuasion, I believe.  I do not follow his writings, however, nor do I frequent the FT site.  Leithart begins as follows:

Once upon a time, everyone followed a simple, relaxed, guilt-free religion, uncluttered by rites and dogmas. Along came the greedy priests, who complicated and corrupted everything. They added ceremonies and demanded payment for their performance, elaborated precise doctrines, and persecuted deviants, and in all this perverted the God-and-me immediacy of true religion. It’s as predictable as gravity: From the beginning, every religion devolves from primitive purity to decadent ritualism.

Leithart agrees with John Milbank that this myth is the “liberal Protestant metanarrative” and that it “has had a remarkably long run.”  Realizing that many would be uncomfortable with his characterization as liberal, Leithart explains that it is so because “it treats religion as fundamentally an internal reality, regards ceremonies as expendable distractions, and advocates free expression and universal toleration.”

 Despite its age, the liberal Protestant metanarrative continues to influence not only religious studies but also…the social sciences of religion. Outside the academy, it continues to be a foundation myth for a large segment of Protestantism, and not only liberal Protestantism…[for] immediacy is the defining characteristic of Evangelicalism, and any Protestant who gives too central a place to liturgy and sacraments is driven from the camp. Evangelicals recoil when told they sound like liberals, but the underlying notion of religion is the same, and it suggests that the liberal Protestant metanarrative has become the Protestant metanarrative, pure and simple.

Leithart goes on to advocate a rooting-out or reformation, if you will, of this “metanarrative” for the future health of Protestantism.    But I do not see, Lutherans and Anglican notwithstanding, how can there be one without the other?