Friday, July 28, 2006

Rejecting the Rapture: Reasons for a More Mainstream Eschatology or More Conservative Bashing? (Revised)

Thanks to another Baptist blogger, I was tipped off to the recent publication of Left Behind? The Facts Behind the Fiction, published by American Baptist Judson Press and penned by American Baptist Seminary of the West Old Testament scholar, LeAnn Snow Flesher (2006).

In little more than 150 pages, Flesher succeeds in reviewing the storyline behind the publishing phenomenon by authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, describes premillennial dispensationalism clearly, cuts to the subtext of a “war” against secular humanism she sees animating the series, ventures into the realm of hermeneutics, applies her principles to an analysis of Left-Behind’s approach to Daniel and Revelation (along with her own corrective interpretations), and extrapolates implications for the church.

In Flesher’s view most “real” scholars do not read the books, nor do pastors take the time to explore either the novels or the dispensational ideas behind them. But, with more than 60 million copies in circulation she concludes that “prophecy belief is far more central in American thought than previously recognized” and the “explosion of interest in the series can be directly connected to the catastrophic events of 9/11” (pg. 7). Furthermore, she argues that seminary professors and pastors “can no longer afford to ignore the phenomenon the premillennial dispensational prophecy teachers are sustaining" (pg. 13).

Clearly Flesher has been shocked and appalled by the popularity of the books. After all, they “perpetuate a massive misunderstanding of the nature of Scripture,” “create and support a separatist worldview,” and the admixture of good theology (seminary taught pastors) and bad theology (dispensational notions drawn from the “self-designated prophecy teachers” held by lay people)may “thwart . . . healthy forward movement in local congregations” (pg. 13).

Flesher should be lauded for her clarity, succinct and precise exposition, and relative restraint. Yes, she trots out the stories of early dispensationalism’s pioneers, replete with their lack of formal theological training, jail time for forgery (prior to Scofield’s conversion he was implicated in accusations of stolen political contributions while serving as an U.S. attorney in President Grant’s administration), and that their view represents a “minority of a minority” position. Still, her chapter reads like a dictionary article on the subject. She rightly locates the central issues in dispensationalism as a literal hermeneutic and a distinction between Israel and the Church.

Clearly Dr. Flesher does not appreciate the Left Behind series very much. In her mind, the books are based upon bad hermeneutics and lead to worse ecclesiastical, theological, and social consequences. Her chapter on hermeneutics opines that interpretation is as much art as science (pg. 58). And, her clear and helpful delineation of basic principles of context and sensitive handling of language would hardly be objected to by anyone.

For this scholar, Daniel (given a dating between 167 and 164 BCE) and Revelation were never intended to be interpreted futuristically. Practically anything but an idealist or preterist handling of Revelation receives swift dismissal. Obviously the point of Revelation has to do with a “call to nonviolent resistance” by Christian disciples she suggests (pg. 99).

More controversial will be the lumping together of a philosophical war against “secular humanism” with opposition to the “social gospel” (pg. 37). Throughout her discussion, she critiques Left Behind theology as a “gross oversimplification” and misreading of the Bible and church history. A claim to “literal” interpretative principles can only be called “unrealistic” or even “deceptive” (pg. 58).

Add to this her complaint that some of LaHaye and Jenkins’ assertions are “absurd” (pg. 43), they come from “ultraconservative . . . fundamentalists” (pg. 44), are filled with anti-Catholic propaganda (pgs. 45-55), reinforce stereotypes that prostitutes and drug addicts are “salvageable but lesbians are not” (pg. 54), engage in howlers of ethnocentrism, particularly against Asians (pgs. 54-56), and that a martyr’s death in the series seems reminiscent of Palestinian suicide missions” (pg. 53).

At root, Dr. Flesher says LaHaye and Jenkins pit the apostate mainline denominations and their apostate ministers “who had been indoctrinated in apostate seminaries” against God’s gift of “twentieth century people like D.L. Moody (sic) and the establishment of Bible institutes, Christian colleges, and training centers” (pg. 104). Her fear is that in the lexicon of premillennialists (at least those of a dispensational stripe), “churches that retain an ethic of social justice – that is, believe the Bible teaches Christians to strive for justice and equity for all people—are apostate because they do not hold to the ‘moral absolutes’ promoted by those who share the view of LaHaye and Jenkins” (pg. 104).

While most evangelicals accept what Luther called the sensus literalis (i.e., “literal”) approach to biblical interpretation, not all evangelicals are dispensational or pretribulational (as Flesher herself acknowledges). In that sense, much of what Flesher castigates as unrealistic and even deceptive derives from her critique of the LaHaye/Jenkins version of premillennialism, although a fair reading of her book would lead you to believe that anyone holding to a claim of a “literal” hermeneutic must necessarily be guilty of the errors she ascribes to LaHaye and Jenkins. Indeed, many practioners of a “literal” interpretative method would hail from the amillennial and preterist side of the aisle (cf. R.C. Sproul), not dispensational premillennialism.

Flesher reports that when someone accuses her of abandoning the authority of Scripture, she replies: “‘Right back at you.’ We are all guilty of this because we each read from our own location, because we cannot know for sure that we have comprehended the intended meaning of the author and, because as human beings, we all see in the mirror dimly” (pg. 65).

I cannot help but get the feeling that professor Flesher takes special delight in disabusing young seminarians of their na├»ve views of biblical authority (cf. pgs. 64-66; pg. 151). Certainly the number of times she complains against the terms “Bible believing,” “literal interpretation,” “authority of Scripture,” and the like reveal this as the most persistent theme in the book. Others will judge whether the analysis of dispensationalism fairly represents that system. However, the dismissive and adversarial tone of the criticism speaks more than merely to the idiosyncrasies of “Darbyite” theology. Flesher grinds her ax against premillennialism generally and, by implications, against all conservatives of whatever eschatological persuasion who operate from traditional Reformational hermeneutics.

Judson Press has made a small group study resource available as a companion to the book. Designed to "help readers explore alternative understandings of Scripture passages that have been linked to the end times . . . it will provide specific perspectives that challenge the end times views promoted by the best-selling series."

As a seminary educated evangelical, much of Flesher's critique makes sense to me. However, her dismissal of LaHaye and Jenkins engaged in reductionistic analysis and broad brush claims that seem overreaching. No pretribulationalist I know, at least those receiving their educations in the Christian colleges and Bible institutes she pits against seminary educated pastors, was taught the kind of ignorant literalism she alleges. From my own personal knowledge of reading lists currently in use at Christian colleges and Bible institutes, the hermeneutics texts required in courses teach a sophisticated, albeit conservative, Reformational approach to interpretation. Gordon Fee, Moises Silva, Walter Kaiser, and Craig Blomberg hardly represent the ranks of ignorant literalists.

Frankly, given the choice between a Left Behinder who loves the Lord and trusts his word and a sophisticated seminary graduate who spends most of his or her time proclaiming ambiguity and explaining what the Bible does not "really" mean, I would rather fellowship or do ministry together with the Left Behinder.

[His Barking Dog does not even pretend to understand the grammar of the two aorist active indicatives, ezēsan in each case, in Rev. 20:4 and 5 or other eschatalogical arcana. So, obviously these opinions are solely my own and should not be imputed to anyone, anything, or any authority anywhere outside my cyber doghouse]

1 comment:

Amill-Presup said...

It's not an issue of whether or not to have a literal hermeneutic...

It's whether to have the brains to recognize that the Bible is literarily true. Do LaHaye and co. believe that Jesus is literally a door (i.e. made of wood with a knob, hinges, etc.)? For that matter, do they believe that the bread and wine are literally Jesus' body and blood? If not, they aren't very consistent with dragging a literal hermeneutic into their intellectual ghetto.

I can write an even more succinct critique of the L.B. books than Flesher's:

Horrible writing + 150 year old cult-like eschatology + Christian consumerism at its worst = A seemingly neverending stream of skubala from the minds of Jenkins and LaHaye straight to the shelves of the Family Bookstore.