Is biblical Christianity bondage or freedom?

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, November 3, 2004

Last week's column on the term "evangelical" generated a passionate polarization of responses.

Some readers thanked me for illustrating the proper usage of "evangelical." Others thanked me for affirming their evangelical identity. A Jewish reader from Calgary, just back from Israel, even used the column as an opportunity to tell me how overjoyed she was with the evangelical love she found throughout Israel. Those evangelicals "are number one in my book," she said, "and God bless them all!"

Then there were the other responses.

One outraged reader thought I should be "hung up by the heels for such a diatribe," while another concluded that I must be "one of them" – a "considerable menace" and a hate-mongering religious propagandist "of a most distasteful kind."

A provocative letter in this week's Cochrane Eagle from Bill Hudson, of Bragg Creek, deserves special comment. (Internet readers of this column can read Bill's letter in its entirety on the paper's Web site,

In summary, Bill felt last week's column did "little to dispel the reality of bias and closed-mindedness that is fundamental to Evangelical Christians... the Jesus of the Bible is not a light but is instead a dark shadow driving us back into the evening of the dark ages." We must oppose this shadow and its rigid, entrapping biblical worldview, Bill wrote, and practice instead the freedom of "critical thinking and caring."

First, I need to clarify my purpose in writing last week's column. I was trying to correct a misunderstanding of the word "evangelical" as used in news coverage and commentary. I did this as someone with a Ph.D. in religious studies who strives for fair play in public comment on all religious and humanist traditions, as a review of some of my past columns will support.

In this case, news reports have sometimes used "evangelical" when what was really meant was "fundamentalist" – and even here, one has to be very careful to distinguish the various meanings of "fundamentalist" – or even "wild-eyed fanatic."

True, some ultra-conservative groups and movements in the U.S. with their own take on theology and politics do refer to themselves as "evangelical," but it's wrong to paint all evangelicals with the same brush. Labels can be so dangerous.

Now to the heart of Bill's letter, that a biblical worldview imprisons those who hold it.

Admittedly, there are those who think of the Bible as a rulebook, and any infraction is a cause for guilt and anxiety. Such stifling religious experience can go way beyond what is actually written in the Bible.

I once asked a group of earnest Bible school students back in the early 1960s how people would recognize that they were Christians. To a person they responded: They'll know we are Christians because we don't drink, smoke, swear, go to movies, or play cards.

For them, it seems, being followers of Jesus was all about obeying a list of don'ts – they were locked in a prison of legalism that affected thought and practice. Of course, too often that legalism expressed itself in judgmentalism and an us/them smugness that is all too happy to see "sinners" sizzle.

Strangely, not one of those students mentioned love, joy, social justice or peace – though today they might have added advice on whom to vote for.

There are others, however, whose conservative reading of the Bible releases them from a prison of purposelessness, guilt and alienation. These are the ones who read Jesus' Beatitudes and are set free from the tyranny of bad religion, hate, and human power games to embrace a worldview of compassionate mindfulness and forgiveness.

These are the ones who read what is arguably the greatest story ever told, experience that God is love, and through that love are liberated in thought and practice to be agents of love without fear of the consequences.

As a Roman Catholic, I am reminded of that biblical truth every time I attend Mass. And I am thankful to kneel in its shadow – not the "dark shadow" of which Bill speaks, but the shadow of the cross.

© 2004 Warren Harbeck

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