Book Revew: Ten Things Your Minister Wants to Tell You (But Can't, Because He Needs the Job)

Ten Things Your Minister Wants to Tell You (But Can't, Because He Needs the Job)
by Oliver Thomas

A pipe dream of a more tolerant Christianity

Oliver Thomas, a Baptist minister and writer for USA Today has written a breezy little volume that he hopes will make American Christianity nicer and (he thinks) more in line with the teachings of its Founder. The book is organized into ten areas ("How it All Began," "Why Are We Here," etc.) that allow Thomas to examine issues of creationism, prayer, miracles, the end of time, the nature of the afterlife and many others. His views are what some call "liberal," which to me is an irritating misnomer, as many of his ideas are condensations of wisdom taught in most mainline seminaries and divinity programs. For instance, Thomas writes in support of a non-literal reading of Scripture, asking that readers keep in mind the historical context in which it was written. He points out that Jesus was a friend of women and that Paul's opposition to homosexuality is misunderstood. Thomas is also willing to be agnostic about the details of the afterlife and the end of the world. He is definitely no fan of the "Left Behind" books, or of the hateful rhetoric that often substitutes for religious thought in this country.

All well and good.

Thomas's theological points are often in line with the way many people think, here in the post-modern era. Where we are less certain to subscribe, for instance, to the golden images of heaven accepted by our forebears, Thomas points out that even in the Bible, the afterlife has been imagined in many ways. And Hell? Thomas (surprisingly) dilutes Hell by noting correctly that it is a mistranslation of "Sheol," a shadowy place of the dead, or "Gehenna," Jerusalem's garbage dump. Here, I think Thomas is off base, taking literally a word that Jesus may have meant figuratively. One would have to work quite hard to insist that every reference to "the outer darkness" or "the fiery furnace" where there is "weeping and gnashing of teeth" is simply a cute, figurative description of having one's life be considered worthless, rather than damnable. Now I am no fan of Hell, and I see an immense inconsistency in a loving Father who tortures his wayward children for eternity. One does not have to believe in a literal, physical Hell of fire to imagine an undesirable spiritual consequence for bad behavior. But Thomas is rather blithe in dismissing the dark side of the gospels. Are there solutions to this problem other than jettisoning the parts of the gospels that one doesn't like?

Thomas does score points. His examples of the inconsistencies in Scripture (contradictory creation accounts, etc.) should be enough to send any open-minded fundamentalist back to the drawing board. And he makes a valid point that the Bible's proscription of homosexuality loses a great deal of its meaning when put into context of the many other strictures of the book of Leviticus (shell food consumption, tolerance for Sabbath breakers, beard trimming, etc.) that we break as a matter of course. And speaking of gays, Thomas is probably right that Paul was not acquainted with men and women living in committed gay relationships. These are solid pieces of evidence that we need to be careful about the way we apply ancient moral wisdom to our own era.

But the length of Thomas's book works against him. His more controversial contentions -- such as that what Paul condemned as homosexuality was actually pederasty -- need much more discussion than Thomas provides. The book's title -- with its implication that ministers believe what Thomas writes -- is problematic. Perhaps this is true of Thomas and a few of his like-minded minister friends. But there are plenty of ministers -- from many faith communities -- who seem quite satisfied to disagree with Thomas. In my own Roman Catholic community, where there is virtually no chance of a priest losing his job, there are more than a few who gladly espouse much of what Thomas rejects. These people could actually stand to be afraid of what their congregations think!

As one who has struggled for a lifetime to find value in religious observance, who prays but wonders why, and who grieves for a world in which birth, death, and marriage have little value beyond themselves, I appreciate encountering a man of the cloth who struggles with the same issues. That the man is a Baptist, not a group know for its fuzzy-headed liberalism or lack of absolute certainty, is extraordinary. I would very much like it if the Bible could be used to support unambiguously the tolerant and positive theology that Thomas subscribes to. But wishing for it will not make it so.

If you can't quite imagine a Christianity that is less arrogant, more accepting of other faiths, and that welcomes gays, women and minorities, you may find a template for your new thinking here. Will anyone change their minds after reading Thomas's "10 Things"? Believers are notoriously hard to rock, especially if they are convinced that their opinions are scriptural. Neither will the non-believers be moved; it's unlikely that the vast mass of the apathetic will join a Church, even one of Thomas's more tolerant sort, based on this book.

The only question is whether enough of us still have a burning need to wrestle with life's ultimate questions, or whether a shrug, a "whatever" and a channel change are enough to keep the existential bogeyman at bay.