Book Cover

Noted author Garry Wills wrote an excellent book last year about American Christians. Or rather, ‘Head and Heart: American Christianities.’ After reading it, I was finally able to make sense of the relationship between seemingly disparate phenomena, such as:

  • Where did Christian Zionism come from, and why is it strongest in the US?
  • Why do some Christians call themselves ‘nondenominational’ when they are clearly following some quite specific theologies?
  • Why do some evangelical fundamentalists reply with ‘I’m just a Christian’ when asked to define what kind of Christian they are?
  • Who the hell are the Methodists and what role did they play in our nation’s history?

His thesis is that in the interplay of sects, denominations and schisms there has been a dialog of sorts between Enlightenment principles and Evangelical principles. While it may be tempting to place denominations on one side or the other, these are actually poles of attraction that have support in ways that don’t coincide with organizational boundaries. It reminds of Lerner’s right hand/left hand of God thesis, but instead of using scripture to make his points, he uses history and the words of famous Christian leaders over the past 300 years. (Let them use scripture!)

Some of us educamated folks already know what ‘premillenial dispensationalism’ is and how it relates to far right Christians like Christians United for Israel (CUFI) supporting Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian Territories. What I learned was the role of the Scofield Reference Bible in setting a precise set of meanings for the Hebrew and Christian holy books, which many believers set about to memorize, rather than challenge. It’s like the Scofield Bible is the anti-Talmud; instead of opening the door to debate, it closes it so that the answers will be clear and undisputed. The motive behind this effort is the need to defend the Bible’s ‘inerrancy’ or the idea that it’s all the word of God, and therefore never wrong. Never wrong that is, if you interpret it properly….

I remember an article describing the method of instruction at a Baptist seminary, in which the students were called upon to remember which verse was connected to which biblical principle. When you see Christians wearing jewelry or their cars with bumper stickers that say ‘John 10:14’ or ‘Luke 3:24’ they are proclaiming their allegiance to some verse’s significance. Jews don’t do that. For us, the joy of a verse of Torah is deeply connected to the debate over its many meanings, not to a verse as a specific and eternal signifier of one meaning.

Garry Wills seems to be quite progressive, on the side of ‘Enlightenment’ principles within Christianity. But only on the surface. He respects that this aspect of faith is often ‘all light but no heat’ and does a poor job of entering the heart. Evangelical principles, in contrast, give power to the heart, your heart, and its ability to forge a direct link with Jesus. No matter your level of education or wordly status. This is key to understanding the appeal of this strand to folks we want to ally ourselves with – poor white folk in the exurbs who don’t understand that the Refuglicans are screwing them over.

Ah, but the Evangelicals are saying something that the Enlightened are not; they are saying ‘you are worthy, and part of God’s great plan, no matter how much education, wealth or social status you are. Just by believing as you do, you are fully accepted into the community and sincerely valued.’ Contrast that with how I (and others) feel sometimes in synagogue: “you are poor, you don’t fit in, you don’t dress right, you aren’t as successful, you haven’t cultivated the right relationships, you haven’t been here long enough, you don’t know the code, you don’t know how to move your feet.” The rabbis of brick and mortar pulpits, even if they recognize this as a problem, are constrained by the need to fundraise and the (legitimate) desire for success.

One of the synagogues I still belong too has done a good job of integrating ‘heart’ into the services, and has become very well known for it. But a snapshot of who has prestige within the synagogue community does closely mirror the snapshot of who has wealth and professional success. It is not ‘come as you are, friend’ it’s more like ‘come as you are, this far, no that’s far enough buddy.’ Not entirely; but mostly. Keep in mind, I’m not trying to join a shul for people ‘like me.’ I want to be part of one that is just for Jews, without the layers of class, gender, ethnic and heterosexist privilege woven through.

Near the end of the book I found a wonderful, illuminating quote which Wills brings from William Lee Miller: “the faith is not in God but in faith; we worship our own worship.” This felt like such a fit for some of the feelings I’ve been having lately about my own Jewish practice. I want authenticity, I want to be moved. But what so often stands out for me is clever stage management, not just in actual synagogues but in the texts themselves. I want the heat and the light, but right now it’s dark and I’m a little chilly.