The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."
Jesus said, "Feed my sheep."
September 28, 2007
...and nothing but the truth
Christians argue that God created the world and has acted throughout history to bring creation back to his vision through people who were faithful to him, through his chosen people Israel, through the church, and most importantly, through the life and work of Jesus. We claim the Bible records events that actually happened and tells us about people who actually lived. Josh McDowell, Lee Strobel and other apologists for the faith have developed good resources based on the historic validity of ancient texts, archaeological finds, even expert scientific testimony.
The claim to historicity, along with the assertion that the historical person Jesus is divine sets the Christian faith apart from religions based on mythology or single person revelation or philosophy.
That's why it is frustrating that through the ages, Christians have watered down the historical nature of the faith by introducing legends and folklore alongside what is known from the biblical accounts.
The early church gathered and developed stories about Mary's parents, Mary's own miraculous conception and childhood, where various apostles' ministries took them, and the lives of the earliest Christian saints. Its successors today (the various Orthodox churches and the Roman Catholic church) considered these accounts historical and developed holy days and doctrine around them, such as the immaculate conception (Mary was conceived without sin) and assumption (Mary did not die but was assumed into heaven) and perpetual virginity (Mary never had other children, indeed never had sex). None of these concepts is found in the Bible, but are later additions by the early church.
Millions of Christians around the world do make extrabiblical things part of their faith—beliefs about Jesus, Mary, the apostles, the power of saints to assist us, how the afterlife is set up and so on. But the addition of apocryphal information, myths and legends to the history and information found in the Bible also has confused folks, kept some away from the faith and diluted the power of the gospel. One effect of these add-ons is to imply the Bible's account of the good news isn't good enough. They also made it easier for truly heretical later writings and ideas to gain ground among those struggling with faith.
It is easy for Protestants to sadly shake our heads at things our Orthodox and Roman Catholic brothers and sisters believe. We're rather proud of all the tradition we turned our backs on during the Reformation. Sola Scriptura!
But we shouldn't be so hasty. Fables and folklore pervade Protestantism too. We sneak our own apocrypha into our faith and pass it along as fact. It just looks a little different.
Have you ever seen a children's Christmas pageant in church? When I was a kid our church staged performances of “The Littlest Angel,” “The Little Drummer Boy” and other tug-at-the-heartstrings spins on the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke. These pageants are full of plot lines, implications, messages and people that do not exist in the biblical accounts. We mix Santa into Christmas and the bunny into Easter.
Have you ever received or sent along one of those Christian emails? You know, the kind that tell some anonymous heartwarming story of God's miraculous intervention in someone's life? Or the ones where God makes some nonbeliever look like a complete fool or kills them when they don't acknowledge him? Or that demand you pass them along to 10 other people so God will be forced to grant you a special blessing? By the way, if you don't comply, then you really don't love Jesus.
Have you ever heard a “true story” in a sermon, then a while later heard a different preacher tell the same story, but with noticeably different details? Have you heard Christian experts claim that all other world religions have been formed by Satan? Or heard hell and the demonic world described in detail that comes from Dante's Inferno or Milton's Paradise Lost instead of the Bible?
Welcome to the Protestant version of legends and fables.
Whether such embellishments are used in apologetics, as a sermon illustration, as delightful children's fare, or as poignant emails, they all have one thing in common. They are made up, fiction, opinion, extra-biblical. If they are properly labeled as such, they are often quite useful. But when the implication—stated or unstated—is that they come from the Bible, or that they actually happened when they didn't, or that they are something one must believe or do to call oneself a Christian, then they are harmful indeed.
This summer, a group of people in our church met to learn how to dialogue with atheists and agnostics. We read I Sold My Soul on Ebay by Hemant Mehta. He visited churches around the country as a “friendly atheist” and critiqued what he saw. Now, some of his observations were way off base. But others stung in their truthfulness. Mehta recalled hearing the same “true story” told in two different sermons, but with all kinds of differences. This bothered him greatly. How, he asked, could Christians expect outsiders to accept their faith was true when pastors weren't being up front about the veracity of a sermon story?
It's not just Hemant Mehta who's bothered by the legends of Christianity. There are many others like him out there. Some are atheists, some agnostics. Some are members of other religions who know their own beliefs, and the origins of them, a lot better than the Christians railing incorrectly against them. Some are just people who want to see factual facts and truthful truth from a religion that claims to have Absolute Truth.
I don't think that's too much for them to ask of us.
Why do Christians, especially Christian leaders, give in to the temptation to embellish, to bend the truth, to spin, to make stuff up out of whole cloth?
Perhaps we are ignorant. Maybe we don't know that hierarchy of demons we preach about comes from literature, not Scripture.
Maybe we're pressed for time or just lazy. That sermon deadline is looming and we just can't check out all our references. Or it's too much bother to check, especially when we trust the viewpoint of the Christian leader whose quote or statistics we're using.
Maybe we have a point we want to make, and we're going to make it no matter what—so we look around until we find “facts” that fit what we want to say, hoping no one will notice the ones we left out.
Could I encourage you to stand up for the real faith, the faith that truly is sola scriptura, without embellishment? Maybe you could read Milton's Paradise Lost, Dante's Inferno and other classic literature to see where some of the ideas about the afterlife and the underworld come from. Maybe you could check out snopes.com's religion page before you pass along apocryphal Christian email. Maybe you could be sure to tell your congregation that the modern-day parable you're telling is just that.
In an age when people constantly have to deal with spin and other truth bending tactics, wouldn't it be great if the church were one place where truth and integrity were a matter of course? A lot of good could come out of such practices. We might even win a few more folks to Christ.