In his often witty and frequently brilliant daily news summary, NextDraft, Dave Pell draws the following conclusion regarding the mess of denial about Bill Cosby’s crimes:
At this point, I’m within 3 leaked depositions, 26 victims, and a couple colorful sweaters of losing faith in Bill Cosby. That sounds crazy. But, for a long time that was a common reaction even as the list of accusers accumulated.
What were people waiting for; Cosby to take his dates home in a White Ford Bronco? At this point, even Fat Albert is like, “Hey! Hey! … Huh?” There will be few remaining doubters after this powerful NY Mag piece that allowed 35 women to tell their stories about being assaulted by Bill Cosby, and the culture that wouldn’t listen.
This tragic way of thinking, or lack thereof, struck me as all-too-familiar. Christians who boldly profess belief in biblical inerrancy, or ascribe to practices of biblical literalism, hold similar reality-denying fantasies about the Bible with those who still imagine that Bill Cosby is anything other than a serial rapist.
For some people, the existence of conflicting early manuscripts projects no doubt upon their translation of preference. The preserved record of unseemly political influence upon the formation of the biblical canon casts no shadow upon their presumption of the Holy Spirit’s perfect work. The appearance of numerous internal contradictions within the accepted scriptural text opens no room for doubt about the manner with which they approach it. And whenever scientific inquiry challenges a premodern understanding contained therein, such things are seen as an attack on the faith, or even as the direct work of Satan.
Now the Bible is both a gift and a treasure for the church, collecting as it does such diverse and spiritually rich writings from across the centuries. And of course it captures for us several early understandings of Jesus, his work, and his vision for God’s Kingdom. Used gracefully, the Bible provides deep roots for our tradition keeping us both grounded and well-nourished.
However, the refusal of a loud segment of the church to adopt a sensible biblical hermeneutic casts a pox on both of our houses. Despite the fact that many Christians have a thoughtful approach to scripture that is adaptive and open to science and, well, reality, the faith is increasingly seen as anti-intellectual.
Of course, these problems don’t exist in a vacuum and fundamentalist Christians aren’t the only people guilty of blurring opinions with fact; progressive people are gifted at creating and believing their own fantasies too. After all, Whoopi Goldberg, hardly a conservative icon, was one of the last to carry the flame for Cosby. And progressive Christians hold their own unchecked beliefs with some proclaiming a Jesus, no longer white, but still heavily burdened with their latest perspectives and constructs of how the world should be.
But the recent spat of Christians sharing fake news, which has even been condemned by prominent conservative Christians, only reinforces the point. Church folk need to balance their sincere professions of faith with a healthy openness to biblical criticism, and of scientific inquiry and discovery.
Let me suggest that the deep skepticism of inconvenient biblical and scientific facts, so prevalent throughout parts of American Christianity, is actually the grandest cultural accommodation to a world that prefers simple “truths” in place of theological complexity; a neatly packaged God over one beyond our understanding. It leaves us a Gospel which is non-sensical to those outside the fold with little to say to and about the world they understand and live in.
Dave Pell concludes his focus by quoting an early article on Cosby’s crimes from 2006:
“It’s a crazy game Americans in particular seem to play, the way we need to believe desperately in our heroes — we want Bill Cosby to be as sweet as Cliff, to be as noble as his desire to lift up his people.”
It’s understandably difficult to separate the lovable and model father, the character of Heathcliff Huxtable, from the man who apparently was so very different. It’s also tragically understandable that some Christians may go to their graves never accepting a mention of biblical criticism or allowing experience or reason to significantly impact their understanding of evolution or human sexuality.
But our evangelism, our full engagement with the world, suffers for it.
Just as there was a moment when people began to see Cosby’s ardent defenders as unreasonable, there is a moment where out theological stances place us beyond civil discourse; a point where the way we read the Bible, and mold Jesus to our liking, communicates that we take neither seriously.
Until we are willing to look hard at our own assumptions and accept that there is much to learn from and about the good world God created, and from a first century itinerant preacher who couldn’t even dream of television or mechanical chariots, we’ll be left talking about things in ways that leave those outside the church shut out from the conversation.
Do not remember the former things,
put away those old sweaters and bowls of Jello.
God is ready to do a new thing;
But we have to better evangelists if we expect folks to believe it.
*By Bible I mean the inerrant, literalistic interpretation too often presented to the world.