The Death of a Personal Hero

Malcolm Boyd, circa 1967

Malcolm Boyd, circa 1967

One of my personal heroes died recently. I met him once or twice and he made an indelible impression on me each time. His name was Malcolm Boyd, an Episcopal priest and author who challenged racism, war and religious complacency in the 1960s and 1970s, and was one of the first prominent clergymen in America to acknowledge his homosexuality publicly. Boyd died on 27 February and a celebration of Boyd’s life was held on 21 March at the Cathedral Center of St. Paul in Los Angeles. Malcolm Boyd was 91.

I first met Malcolm Boyd when I was a young rector in a parish church outside of Baltimore, Maryland. At the time, youth in the area were being recruited by an evangelical group known as the Campus Crusade for Christ. I wanted the youth in my parish to hear a different message than they were hearing from this group. A friend of mine told me about this priest in Washington, DC who was very “hip,” dynamic and could relate to youth. His name was Malcolm Boyd. I contacted him and he graciously agreed to come and speak to our youth. I then invited the youth from other neighboring churches to come to hear Father Boyd. What an evening that turned out to be. Boyd was in the process of writing a book on prayer and shared his manuscript with the group. He had not decided on a title yet, but from what I was hearing that evening I knew that it would be a special book. The prayers were unlike any public prayers I had ever heard. They were informal, gutsy and relevant. Boyd took prayer out of church and onto the city streets in a slangy vernacular not found in Sunday missals. Just a few examples will illustrate what I mean:

“Look up at that window Lord, where the old guy is sitting. He just moved a short bit away from the window. Maybe he moved because he felt my eyes on him from the sidewalk down here. I didn’t mean to embarrass him, Lord; I just wanted to let him know somebody understands he’s alive and he’s your brother, so he’s not alone or lost. Does he know it, Jesus?”

“The young girl got pregnant, Lord, and she isn’t married. There was this guy, you see, and she had a little too much to drink. It sounds so stupid, but the loneliness was real. Where were her parents in all this? It’s hard to know. For the girl, they probably seemed indifferent, absorbed in their familiar routines, uninterested in her real life. But did she ever try to tell them about it? And would they listen? There’s nothing ahead for her with the guy. She tells me he’s really in love with somebody else. She’s not in love with anyone; she’s sure of that. And she’s honest enough to admit, even knowing what she does now, that she’d go back to sleeping with the guy. Does she really think that’s all she needs? She admits she’s thought of suicide, but she says she doesn’t have the strength to make any real decision, let alone that one. What am I going to tell her, Jesus? How can I help her understand the nature of the love she’s looking for?”

Well, we were all spellbound with Boyd’s approach. The youth loved what they heard and many said that they found a new way of practicing their faith. So did I. Boyd fulfilled my every expectation – and he did not let any of us down that evening. The manuscript that Malcolm Boyd shared with us that evening became a best-selling book in 1965, entitled, Are You Running With Me, Jesus.

Malcolm Boyd was born in Buffalo on June 8, 1923, to Melville and Beatrice Lowrie Boyd. His father was a New York investment banker and his mother a fashion model. Much of the family fortune was lost in the 1929 stock market crash. His parents were divorced in the early 1930s, and he lived with his mother in Colorado.

Boyd graduated from East Denver High School in 1940 and from the University of Arizona in 1944. It was at the University of Arizona that he came to uneasy terms with his sexual feelings. “I dated girls but I longed for boys,” he wrote in a 1989 essay. “I had to learn to hide my feelings … and show a face that bore little resemblance to my real self.”

Bronchial trouble kept him out of World War II military service. In 1946, he joined Republic Pictures as a publicist, then became a producer. He and the film stars Mary Pickford and her husband, Buddy Rogers, formed a television production company in 1949. His friends included Elizabeth Taylor, Gloria Swanson and Edgar Bergen. He became the first president of Hollywood’s Television Producers’ Association.

Despite his success, Boyd felt that life had become meaningless. In 1951, he quit Hollywood to study for the Episcopal ministry. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California in 1954; traveled and studied in England and Switzerland; was ordained in Los Angeles in 1955; and received a master’s degree from Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1956.

Controversy surrounded Boyd from the start. At his first parish – a white parish in a black section of Indianapolis – the all-white membership was distressed when he invited an African American pastor to speak. Later, as a chaplain at Colorado State University, he hosted poetry readings and group discussions in a coffee house. Finding it easier to communicate informally, he met students in coffee houses and became known as “the espresso priest.” His bishop fumed, and Boyd resigned in 1961.

He was next hired as a university chaplain at Wayne State University in Detroit, where he became involved in the desegregation movement and traveled often to the Deep South on voter registration drives. After the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) organized “Freedom Rides” to challenge segregated transportation in the South, Boyd and twenty-seven other Episcopal priests made a “Freedom Ride” trip from New Orleans to Detroit through angry white mobs in Mississippi and Tennessee. Boyd was among a handful of white clergymen in the 1960s who were nationally known as champions of civil rights and opponents of the Vietnam War, a group that included Paul Moore Jr., the Episcopal bishop of Washington and later of New York; William Sloane Coffin Jr., the Presbyterian chaplain at Yale University; and Philip and Daniel Berrigan, the sibling Roman Catholic priests who were primarily peace activists. It was at a rally held in Washington DC that I saw and spoke with Malcolm Boyd a second time. Again, he impressed me, this time with his commitment to social justice.

In 1965, Boyd was named writer in residence at Washington, DC’s Episcopal Church of the Atonement. He traveled, lectured and read his poetry on college campuses. He and guitarist Charlie Byrd gave concerts, including one at the 1966 Newport Jazz Festival. Boyd read his poetry and prayers while Byrd improvised on the guitar. Boyd’s “genius,” South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, was to illustrate the presence of God “even for those who say they do not believe in God.” That year, Boyd also appeared at the hungry i nightclub in San Francisco. Some nights he warmed up the audience for Dick Gregory, the comedian and social activist. Every night, Boyd wore his clerical collar and told the audience that he was there as a priest not an entertainer.

Boyd also wrote voluminously – plays that challenged assumptions about race; newspaper and magazine commentaries on everything from politics to global affairs to traffic jams; and more than two dozen books that explored human rights, religion, sexuality and other subjects. Detractors, including many church leaders, called his work trite; others called it witty, provocative and entertaining.

But his book The Lover – his reflections on Jesus (the lover of the title) – drew praise from Bishop Paul Moore in The New York Times Book Review. “He is realistic about humanity,” Moore wrote. “He knows the black scene as well as any white man can. He feels it as deeply as any white man can. He knows prisons, shacks in Mississippi, funky alleys in downtown Indianapolis. He thinks The Lover is really there too.”

Fame came crashing down on Boyd in 1976 when he announced that he was homosexual at an Episcopal convention in Chicago. This announcement was just at the moment when Jerry Falwell was about to launch the Moral Majority and Anita Bryant was preparing to unleash her virulently homophobic “Save Our Children” campaign against Dade County’s anti-discrimination ordinance. At the time also, most Christian churches including Boyd’s own Episcopal Church, condemned what they referred to as the homosexual lifestyle, which he was living. Boyd followed his public statement with the book Take off the Masks, saying he wrote it because he was tired of living a lie. One former admirer burned Boyd’s books. For years afterward, he had trouble finding work in the church. “It was wilderness time,” he said in a 2003 interview. “There was criticism; there was unemployment. I learned you have to be flexible in life.” It was a lesson he struggled with repeatedly. “The single great war of my life has been against fragmentation and for wholeness, against labels and for identity,” he wrote in his 1969 memoir As I Live and Breathe. After announcing his homosexuality, Boyd led consciousness-raising groups for gay people and wrote books about gay spirituality.

For several years afterward Boyd was turned down for staff positions at Episcopal churches. Today, when sexual difference is generally accepted and embraced and seen as a significant strength within such rising movements as “Black Lives Matter,” it is almost hard to recall a time when the disclosure of sexual difference could lead to disgrace and to severe social exclusion. But it did back in the late 1970s. However, even with the prospect of losing members, the Reverend Frederick Fenton, rector of Saint Augustine-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Santa Monica and a longtime friend, invited Boyd to join his staff in 1982.

While he was based at Saint Augustine, Boyd was elected president of PEN, an advocacy group for writers’ freedom of speech. He started living with Mark Thompson, who was a senior editor for the Advocate, a national gay and lesbian newspaper. At the time, it was generally expected that gay Episcopal clergy remain celibate.

Twenty years later in 2004, when Boyd and Thompson renewed their vows in a church ceremony, the majority of Episcopalians had approved of gay marriage at a national convention. Boyd’s anniversary service was held at the Episcopal Cathedral Center of Saint Paul in Los Angeles with five bishops among the guests and the Right Reverend J. Jon Bruno presiding. Boyd and Thompson were legally married in July 2013, after Proposition 8 was overturned and same-sex unions resumed in California.

In his later years, Boyd was writer-in-residence at the Episcopal Cathedral Center of Saint Paul. He also worked as a chaplain for AIDS patients and helped to establish a gay history archive at USC.

And Boyd continued to write. In a 2014 Huffington Post column, he asked, in his down-to-earth style, for a chat with Pope Francis about religious discrimination against gay people. “Is this asking too much?” he wrote. “Pope Francis, are you on board? I’d like to spend a reflective evening with you, send out for a pizza from a great place near the Vatican, open a bottle of Chianti, put our feet up, relax, and share thoughts and aspirations.” Well, that is typical Malcolm Boyd!

Malcolm Boyd, circa 1990

Malcolm Boyd, circa 1990

Late in 2014, Boyd was found preparing for the 50th anniversary of the 1965 release of Are You Running with Me, Jesus? Anticipating that occasion, Boyd wrote: “My book of prayers clearly now belongs to the world. I know that. I love prayer and am grateful it is a powerful part of my life. I wish we could – or would – pray with more passion, greater sensitivity, even more passion. I identify with what a writer for The New York Times wrote about the prayers: ‘The eloquence of the prayers comes from the personal struggle they contain – a struggle to believe, to keep going, a spiritual contest that is agonized, courageous and not always won.’ I am grateful for his insight. I agree with him.’’

And so do I. Rest in peace, feisty fighter for freedom and personal integrity.

The prayer that started it all:

Are You Running with Me, Jesus?

malcolm boyd4It’s morning, Jesus. It’s morning, and here’s that light and sound all over again. I’ve got to move fast … get into the bathroom, wash up, grab a bite to eat, and run some more. I just don’t feel like it. What I really want to do is get back into bed, pull up the covers, and sleep. All I seem to want today is the big sleep, and here I’ve got to run all over again. Where am I running? You know these things I can’t understand. It’s not that I need to have you tell me. What counts most is just that somebody knows, and it’s you. That helps a lot. So I’ll follow along, OK? But lead, Lord. Now I’ve got to run. Are you running with me, Jesus?



Wearin’ of the Green – With a Bloody Twist


We talk about the practice of “wearin’ of the green” on Saint Patrick’s Day, which we celebrated just two days ago. I could make a case for the “wearin’ of the orange” as well, but that will have to wait until another day.

Well, here is a twist on the wearing of the green tradition that perhaps is not widely known. As Paul Harvey would say. . . “And now, the rest of the story.”

The Irish Guards, one of the Foot Guards Regiments of the British Army, have a quaint tradition that continues to this day: Every Saint Patrick’s Day, a member of the British irish guard shamrock2royal family presents the Irish Guards with shamrocks for their headgear. Sometimes the green clover falls so far it covers their faces. As I said: it is a quaint tradition.

But many people may not be aware that this quaint shamrock tradition has a grisly history. Queen Victoria devised the “wearing of the green” in 1900 in support of one of the British Empire’s most brutal wars.

The Boer War (Boer was the common term for Afrikaans-speaking settlers in southern Africa at the time) was fought from 1899 to 1902 in South Africa, and was, in part, precipitated by the discovery of gold in the Transvaal. As the British moved into the region, they came into conflict with the white, non-British settlers known as Boers. War soon broke out, with the Orange Free State and Transvaal allied against the British Empire.

Great Britain thought the war would be a cakewalk. It was anything but that. 20,000 British Troops were laid to rest in the heat and dust of the South African veldt, with another 22,829 being wounded. The Boer guerrilla warfare hit-and-run tactics caused not only losses the British could not afford, but also such tactics did not conform to the usual “gentlemanly” rules of war. The British, in turn, responded with scorched-earth policies and concentration camps that resulted in the deaths of thousands of Boers and black South Africans. Of the 107,000 civilians who were interned, nearly 28,000 Boer civilians died in concentration camps, plus an unknown number of black Africans. Throughout it all, Queen Victoria remained staunch in her advocacy of the British military, saying in 1899: “We are not interested in the possibilities of defeat. They do not exist.”

And that brings us to the shamrock. Irish volunteer soldiers made up a few regiments of the British military. And, as Irish casualties mounted, Queen Victoria responded with a gesture of support. On 1 April 1900, the Queen formed a new unit, the Irish Guards, to commemorate the Irishmen who fought in the Second Boer War for the  British Empire and declared that they could wear a sprig of shamrock on their headgear to celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day.

This was a sharp break with tradition. For years, the British  forbade “the wearin’ of the green” because it symbolized Irish rebellion. The sudden reversal was portrayed as a way to hold together the Empire and to maintain Irish support of the war. A volunteer regiment required volunteers, and the shamrocks were an easy way to keep support. It was not just a way of shoring up the military in South Africa, however; it was also an attempt to maintain relations with Ireland.

On 2 April 1900, Queen Victoria continued her push to maintain positive relations with Ireland by visiting Dublin, Ireland’s largest city and for a brief period, the second largest city in the British Empire. Despite the threat of attacks by those advocating republicanism during the campaign for Ireland’s independence from the United Kingdom, Queen Victoria stayed for three weeks, openly campaigning for Irish support and sharing gratitude to “the motherland of those brave sons who had borne themselves in defense of my Crown and Empire.”

Not everyone was swayed by the Queen’s flattery, however. It was reported that the trip brought into broad relief the neglect of Ireland by Great Britain that preceded the trip. Like the shamrock on Irish headgear, it was a symbol rather than a change in policy.

Today, it is still a tradition for Irish soldiers to wear shamrocks on 17 March. The shamrock is usually presented by a member of the royal family; in 2014, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge did the honors.

The Duchess of Cambridge visits the Irish Guards on their Saint Patrick’s Day Parade 2014

The Duchess of Cambridge visits the Irish Guards on their Saint Patrick’s Day Parade 2014

The Boer War ended with British victory in 1902, but only after a bloody conflict over gold that rewrote British war. It was followed in 1910 by the Union of South Africa, and in 1921, The Irish Free State was created,  occupying about five-sixths of the island of Ireland and sharing its only land border with Northern Ireland, still a part of the United Kingdom. Slowly, the British empire was shrinking. But one strange tradition borne out of imperial necessity – a pile of shamrocks on a soldier’s head – endures even today.

. . .And now, you know the rest of the story.

irish guards


bible idol

Last week I wrote a blog about whether the Bible is the inerrant word of God. This week, let me continue in that vein by looking at how the Bible has been surrounded with such an aura that the average person in the pew finds it almost impossible to make a critical study of the book.

In the email that prompted my response last week, the author of that piece of correspondence states: “The entire Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, bears the mark of Divine inspiration.” That statement demands a thorough response. So here it is.

Many within the church practice a form of Bible idolatry, acting as if the written word is the highest authority. Now please do not misunderstand me. The Bible is an important book and should be studied. As I wrote last week: “the Bible is the source of spiritual insight and thought that is taken to levels of discernment and beauty that, in my experience, literalism has never produced.”

By translating the Bible into the vernacular, the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century began the process of eroding ecclesiastical authority. That erosion has yet to be stopped. That same Reformation, however, also produced a Protestant tradition that no longer had a central authority such as the Pope to determine truth for all believers. Feeling the anxiety of that lack quite deeply, Protestants began to treat the Bible as a paper Pope, investing its words with the same infallibility that the Roman Catholic tradition has claimed for the Papal office, thus powerfully reinforcing the aura around the Bible even as expanding knowledge tore it away.

So the first step in studying the Bible is to navigate a pathway through this biblical aura – this bibliolatry – in order to examine the text of the Bible itself without the presuppositions of religious propaganda.

The Bible has been the best-selling book in the Western world every year since Johannes Gutenberg invented his printing press in 1450. Having said that, I suspect that the Bible is also probably the least read best-selling book in human history and it is surely the least understood. It is also simultaneously the most quoted and the most distorted book. To refer to all of the words of the Bible as “the Word of God” or as “The Word of the Lord” encourages a kind of ignorant fundamentalism that sucks the very life out of Christianity today.

Let me illustrate with a few examples.

The book of Psalms promises happiness to the defeated and exiled Jews only when they can dash the heads of Babylonian children against the rocks! (Psalm 137:9) Is this “the word of God? What kind of God would it be who would say such a thing?

The book of Deuteronomy when read literally, for example, states that children who are willfully disobedient to their parents shall be stoned to death at the gates of the city. (Deuteronomy 21:18) Is that the word of God? Would any rational person be drawn to worship such a deity?

II Samuel suggests that God will cause the baby born out of an adulterous relationship to die as punishment for the adultery of the child’s parents! (II Samuel 7:11b-16) Is that the word of God?

Leviticus tells us that people who are homosexual shall be executed. (Leviticus 20) “A man who lies with a man as with a woman is an abomination. Both shall be put to death (Lev. 20).” This is one of nine biblical texts, stretched to the breaking point to cover the visceral, uninformed prejudice that has plagued and victimized gay, lesbian, transgender and bi-sexual people for centuries. Matthew Shepard, a young student at the University of Wyoming was beaten, tortured and left to die near Laramie, Wyoming on the night of 6 October 1998, and died six days later from severe head injuries. The reason for his violent death? He was gay. Members of the Topeka, Kansas Westboro Baptist Church, led by their pastor, Fred Phelps, picketed Shepard’s funeral with signs bearing homophobic slogans stating “God says fags should die – see Leviticus 20” and “God Hates Fags – Romans 9:13” This same group picketed military funerals with similar slogans. In response to Phelps’ protests at military funerals, President George W. Bush signed the Respect for America’s Fallen Heroes Act into law in May 2006, and, in April 2007, Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius signed into law a bill establishing a 150-foot no-picketing buffer zone around funerals. There are terrible texts in the Bible and some of these texts have without doubt been used to cause great pain in the lives of many people.

But such terrible texts are not only found in the Hebrew Scriptures, but also in the Christian texts as well. The Epistle to the Colossians, for instance, instructs slaves to be obedient to their masters. (Colossians 3:2) Slaves must be returned to the life of bondage, says Paul in his letter to Philemon. The injunction against enslaving a fellow Jew is found in the prophets and the direction to Jews to take their slaves from nearby countries is stated in the Torah. Each of these texts has in the past been enlisted in the service of the human institutions of slavery, segregation and apartheid. The “Bible Belt” of the South, home of Protestant Evangelical and Fundamentalist religious exponents, the region of our nation where both church-going and Bible reading are clearly hailed as values, is the same part of our nation that first established, then protected and fought to defend slavery. After defeat on the battlefield forced these good, Christian people to end slavery, they installed segregation as the law of the land. When segregation was finally declared illegal, these same evangelical Christians employed police dogs, fire hoses, bull horns and even murder as legitimate tactics to keep segregation alive. We just celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the outright horror of the “Bloody Sunday” police brutality that took place on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge on 7 March 7 1965 – a bridge, by the way, that was named for a Confederate general during the American Civil War, a United States Senator, and the Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan. How ironic that later this bridge would become a landmark of the African-American Civil Rights Movement. I wonder how many of those Southern police, who refused to arrest the guilty and those Southern juries that refused to return appropriate guilty verdicts were made up largely of those who regularly attended their respective churches and who acknowledged Jesus as their personal savior. The Bible, they felt, justified this behavior toward those whose true humanity they could not see. Are these attitudes in compliance with “the Word of God?”

Paul writes that women should be silent in the churches. (I Corinthians 14:34) Is that the word of God? And the author of I Timothy says: “I forbid a woman to have authority over a man.”(I Timothy 2:12) or Paul again: “Woman was created for man (1Cor 11)” and “Wives obey your husbands.” (Ephesians 5) These are just a few of the texts from the Bible that have been used to dehumanize the feminine half of the human race. Are we reading in these instances “the Word of God?”

In response to the these biblical definitions of what a woman is, higher education was denied to women until the 20th century; the right to vote in national elections was not extended to women until 1920, and the doorways to economic opportunities and just wages were closed to women until fairly recently. The “glass ceiling,” a political term used to describe the seen, yet unreachable barrier that keeps women and minorities from rising to the upper rungs of the corporate ladder, regardless of their qualifications or achievements has been cracked, but not broken. Even in contemporary churches, Christians still use the definition of a woman as the property of a man. In the wedding ceremony, for instance, when the question is asked: “Who gives this woman to be married to this man,” a man (usually the father of the bride) answers as if either he or the groom had or would later own the woman. Surely we need to face this dark side of our religious past, but that is not the whole story of the Bible’s history.

Words from the Bible have also been instrumental in creating a quest for learning and thus in forming the great educational institutions in the Western world. The college from which I graduated has as its motto: “I call you from darkness into light.” Those words are based on three biblical texts: John 12:46, II Corinthians 4:6, and I Peter 2:9. Those words are appropriate because that is what a college or university is supposed to do. Yet when we come to the church and knowledge has challenged religious presuppositions, the Bible-quoting church was and has been the fiercest critic of knowledge and became the persecutor of scholars from Galileo Galilei to Charles Darwin to Stephen Hawking. Historically, that college motto seems to be reversed and darkness has been preferred to light.

So we have this book – the Bible – that has permeated just about every aspect of our cultural life and at the same time has caused untold pain, suffering and horror. What are we to make of it? What are we to do with it? Can we extract the Bible’s benefits and dismiss its ignorance and its self-serving inspiration to violence? Do we accomplish this dichotomy by an act of radical surgery, such as Thomas Jefferson was able to do by cutting and pasting with a razor and glue numerous sections from the New Testament as extractions of the doctrine of Jesus? Jefferson’s condensed composition is especially notable for its exclusion of all miracles by Jesus and most mentions of the supernatural, including sections of the four gospels that contain the Resurrection and most other miracles, and passages indicating Jesus was divine, thereby reducing the New Testament to 46 pages of acceptable text. Or do we dismiss it all as little more than the last vestige of a superstitious world that is no longer and then consign the God we meet in this book to the museums of human religions where this deity can take a place beside the Twelve Olympians – the principal deities of the Greek pantheon residing atop a mythical Mount Olympus, or the gods and goddesses of the fertility cults who encouraged child sacrifice and temple prostitutes during other now embarrassing stages in human development? Or can we see the Bible as an imperfect but unfinished chronicle of the human quest for understanding life, finding meaning and exploring transcendence? Are we able to see the changes in the text that moved our minds from a tribal deity who hated the enemies of the chosen people, to a book that enjoins us to love our enemies? This latter path offers, I believe, some hope.

Amazing as it may seem, these perfectly obvious questions are seldom raised in the various Christian churches and indeed are regarded by some Christians as hostile, faithless and inappropriate. In the great theological seminaries, however, these inquiries are routine and commonplace. They certainly were part and parcel of my seminary experience some fifty or so years ago. But something happens when one leaves these hallowed halls of theological training for a career as a pastor serving people who occupy the pews of our churches. There appears to be almost a conspiracy of silence about biblical knowledge. In the heartland of religious life – the parish church – newly-minted clergy are met with a Bible that has been covered with an aura of sanctity, which is so powerful that it blunts critical questions, regarding such questions not as a search for truth, but as attacks on holiness, on the Bible, and on God himself. I know from personal experience what it means to look critically at the Bible. As a rector of a parish, when I confronted and questioned the belief in the virgin birth of Jesus, I was met not only with hostility, but also with threats of parishioners leaving the parish and of withdrawing their financial support – two intimidations that scare the hell out of clergy who depend upon a vibrant and financially-sound parish for their support. Such pressures, however, did not deter me, but I did lose three important members of the parish – and their financial support – and I was reported to my bishop. Such is the price one pays for intellectual integrity.

One runs into this biblical aura almost everywhere. It is present in the propaganda emanating from religious fundamentalists such as the author of the email I received. (See last week’s blog) Television evangelists such as Albert Mohler, Pat Robertson, James Dobson, and the late Jerry Falwell constantly refer to the Bible as “the inerrant word of God.” They quote from its pages to attack evolution, the rise of feminism, homosexuality, and even environmental concerns such as climate change. These contemporary fundamentalists have their roots in a group of Evangelical Protestants who, between 1910 and 1915 published, with the help from the Universal Oil Company of California (Unocal) and spread across the world, a series of tracts called “The Fundamentals.” This tractarian movement actually produced the word “fundamentalism” and proclaimed that the only true Christian position on the scriptures was to regard every word of the Bible as both revealed and inerrant truth.

If one looks back in history, one discovers that this mentality was present even at the time of Galileo Galilei in the 17th century when representatives of the Roman Catholic Church condemned Galileo’s idea that the earth was not the center of a three-tiered universe and that the sun did not rotate around it. In the Roman Catholic world before Galileo, the majority of educated people subscribed to the Aristotelian geocentric view that the Earth was the center of the universe and that all heavenly bodies revolved around the Earth. On what basis did they condemn Galileo? Well, the Bible, of course. Support came from a passage from the Book of Joshua (10:12-14) in which God, in response to Joshua’s prayers, stopped the sun in the sky to allow more daylight in which Joshua could pursue his military rout of the Amorites. Additional biblical references included I Chronicles 16:30, where the text states that “the world is firmly established, it cannot be moved.” In the same manner, Psalm 104:5 states, “The Lord set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved.” Further, Ecclesiastes 1:5 states that “And the sun rises and sets and returns to its place.” These texts, the church fathers argued, were clear proof from the “inerrant word of God” that Galileo was wrong. The matter was investigated by the Roman Inquisition in 1615, which concluded that heliocentrism (the Earth and planets revolve around the Sun at the center of the Solar System) was false and contrary to scripture, placing works advocating the Copernican system on the index of banned books and forbidding Galileo from advocating heliocentrism. Galileo later defended his views in Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, which appeared to attack Pope Urban VIII, thus alienating not only the Pope but also the Jesuits, both of whom had supported Galileo up until this point. He was tried by the Holy Office, found “vehemently suspect of heresy,” was forced to recant, and spent the last nine years of his life under house arrest. I must add here that on 31 October 1992, Pope John Paul II expressed regret for how the “Galileo affair” was handled and issued a declaration acknowledging the errors committed by the Roman Catholic Church tribunal that judged the scientific positions of Galileo Galilei. Such an acknowledgment was only 360 years overdue!

This biblical aura is also revealed in other far more subtle ways. Until relatively recently, Bibles were generally printed on gilt-edged tissue thin pages inside a floppy leather cover, sometimes with a gold lettering that read “Holy Bible” on the front, all of which served to designate this book as different from all other books. The Bible was to be given the place of honor on the book shelf or to be prominently displayed on the coffee table, especially if the local pastor was making a call on the parishioner. My mother-in-law, for example, would not have any other book placed on top of the Bible for that would be a desecration. I do not know if she ever actually read the Bible, but that was her rule. I do not know what she thought would happen if, God forbid, one placed another book atop the Bible. I must confess that I did not test her to find out. These “family Bibles” were seldom opened and then primarily not to be read, but to record the family history of baptisms, marriages and deaths – what we clergy affectionately term “Hatch, Match and Dispatch” matters. This book thus served as the repository in which all of the solemn, sacred moments of a family’s transition were recorded. One dared not trifle with the content of its pages.

Biblical literalism also creeps into public worship in subtle ways. It is customary in my church to say at the conclusion of a reading, “The Word of the Lord,” but in every parish where I have served, I have instructed lay readers to simply say at the conclusion of the reading, “Here ends the reading” (or “Here ends the lesson”), instead of “The Word of the Lord.” It is a small step, but one that hopefully discourages this kind of Biblical literalism.

Some of our other traditional, liturgical customs feed this same literalism. In the worship of my beloved Episcopal Church, for example, I have to ask what are we as a church communicating to our congregations when we process into our Sunday services holding the Gospel Book high above the head as if it is to be worshipped or adored? What are we communicating when the one reading the Gospel (always an ordained person, never a lay person), proceeds to the center of the nave, led by a full complement of crucifer, torch-bearers, Gospel Book bearer, and thurifer, and goes through all kinds of physical acts of crossing oneself and making the sign of the cross on the text of the Gospel before it is read or in some places intoned? What are we communicating when, before the Gospel is read, the reader censes the Gospel Book with no less than three swings of the thurible so as to cover its words with a “mystical” fragrance? All of these practices suggest that it is the Gospel itself, rather than the One to whom the words of the Gospel point that is the object of worship.

Biblical literalism has plagued the church for centuries. It needs to be exposed for what it is. These “pious practices,” which we have so universally wrapped around the Bible, are not just, as their defenders claim, acts of devotion; they are rather practices rooted in the claims we have made for a literalistic attitude toward the Bible. That attitude reflects a form of idolatry that is called “bibliolatry.”



Due to eye surgery, I have not been able to work at my computer until now. I was amazed at how many emails were in my mailbox during my absence from my computer. Most of those emails I deleted, but a few items I kept because I wanted to comment on them. One such email that I received was from a friend who asked me what I thought of its content. I suspect that he sent the email to me because I am a priest. I further suspect that he will not like my response. The email that he sent me is as follows:

Is the Bible the Inspired Word of God?

During a question and answer session at a recent speaking engagement, a university student asked, “Why should we believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God?”

Now this is a very good question; and probably one of the most important questions anyone could ask themselves. What is so special, so unique about the Bible that Christians believe it is literally the inspired word of God?

In answering this student’s question, consider the following facts about the Bible:

First, the Bible is not just one single book. This is a more common misconception than many people realize, especially with people who do not come from a Judeo-Christian background. Rather than being a single book, the Bible is actually a collection of 66 books, which is called the canon of scriptures. These 66 books contain a variety of genres: history, poetry, prophecy, wisdom literature, letters, and apocalyptic, just to name a few.

Second, these 66 books were written by 40 different authors.  These authors came from a variety of backgrounds: shepherds, fishermen, doctors, kings, prophets, and others. And most of these authors never knew one another personally.

Third, these 66 books were written over a period of 1500 years. Yet again, this is another reminder that many of these authors never knew or collaborated with one another in writing these books.

Fourth, the 66 books of the Bible were written in 3 different languages. In the Bible we have books that were written in the ancient languages of Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic; a reflection of the historical and cultural circumstances in which each of these books were written.

And finally, these 66 books were written on 3 different continents: Africa, Asia, and Europe. Once again, this is a testament to the varied historical and cultural circumstances of God’s people.

Think about the above realities: 66 books, written by 40 different authors, over 1500 years, in 3 different languages, on 3 different continents.

What’s more, this collection of books shares a common storyline – the creation, fall, and redemption of God’s people; a common theme – God’s universal love for all of humanity; and a common message – salvation is available to all who repent of their sins and commit to following God with all of their heart, soul, mind and strength.

In addition to sharing these commonalities, these 66 books contain no historical errors or contradictions. God’s word truly is an amazing collection of writings!

After sharing the above facts with this student, I offered him the following challenge: “If you do not believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God, if you do not believe that the Bible is of a supernatural origin, then I challenge you to a test.”

“I challenge you to go to any library in the world, you can choose any library you like, and find 66 books which match the characteristics of the 66 books in the Bible.

You must choose 66 books, written by 40 different authors, over 1500 years, in 3 different languages, written on 3 different continents. However, they must share a common storyline, a common theme, and a common message, with no historical errors or contradictions.” “If you can produce such a collection of books, I will admit that the Bible is not the inspired word of God.”

The student’s reply was almost instantaneous, he emphatically stated,” But that’s impossible!”

It truly is impossible, for any collection of human writings. However, the Bible passes this test. The Bible contains 66 books, written by 40 different authors, over 1500 years, in 3 different languages, on 3 different continents, with no historical errors or contradictions.

The entire Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, bears the mark of Divine inspiration.

The next time you encounter someone who asks you why you believe the Bible is the inspired word of God, try sharing this challenge with them.

Better yet, don’t wait until you’re asked, just go ahead and share this challenge with a friend today. You don’t even have to mention the Bible up front, just ask them if they think it would be realistic to assemble such a collection of books. After they say, “But that’s impossible!” you’ve got a ready-made opportunity for sharing the truth of God’s word with somebody! In God We Trust

As far as I can determine, the content of this email was written by Ron Carlson, an evangelical (read fundamentalist) Christian, and founder of Christian Ministries International. Carlson, who died in 2011, was praised by some as a great Christian apologist and an expert on world religions and cults, and blasted by others as an evil bigot. Whichever he was, there is one thing that he was not. He was not a Biblical scholar. If he were, he would never have written the article that appears in the email that I received. As a Christian apologist, Carlson and others like him, enter into a discussion of a topic with some pre-conceived “truths.” When it comes to the Bible, the underlying “truth” is that the Bible is the inerrant word of God.

A sincere Biblical scholar would never begin with that premise. Instead, there are several questions that need to be answered before one can begin. For example, at least the following questions should be asked:

  • How did the Bible come to be written?
  • Does the Bible reflect a single point of view, even a single inspiration or has that been an idea imposed upon it by religious devotees?
  • Since what we now call the Bible was written by many authors over a period of about 1000 years, what were the particular circumstances that prompted the writing of each piece?
  • What was the process by which these individual pieces got designated as “Holy Scripture?”
  • Were there other works that competed for inclusion in the Bible, but for some reason were not chosen? If so, who made those decisions and on what criteria?
  • Are all parts of the Bible to be regarded as equally holy, equally valid or does the Bible embrace concepts that are demonstrably untrue and proclaim attitudes that modern sensitivity and an expanded consciousness now find both repellant and repulsive?

From what I can gather from Carlson’s article, none of those questions were ever raised.

Some of what Carlson writes is true and can be considered factual. For instance, it is a fact that the Bible was written by different authors over a span of time. But beyond that statement, there is not much that can be considered “fact.” Let me just raise a few objections to what he wrote, quoting from the email.

“First, the Bible is not just one single book. This is a more common misconception than many people realize, especially with people who do not come from a Judeo-Christian background. Rather than being a single book, the Bible is actually a collection of 66 books, which is called the canon of scriptures.” It is true that some Bibles have 66 books. Protestant Bibles have this number of books. But some Bibles have more. The Roman Catholic Church considers the number of books in the Bible to be 73. Of these books, Tobit, Judith, 1 and 2 Maccabees, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, parts of Esther and parts of Daniel are deuterocanonical, and are found in some Protestant Bibles in a section called The Apocrypha, and are found in the Bibles of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Some books should be in the Bible, but have been lost over time. The Bible itself mentions many books that are not found within, such as the book of Iddo the Seer, and the book of Nathan the Prophet, both referred to at 2 Chronicles 9:29.

“Fourth, the 66 books of the Bible were written in 3 different languages. In the Bible we have books that were written in the ancient languages of Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic; a reflection of the historical and cultural circumstances in which each of these books were written.” This statement is misleading . Biblical Hebrew is the main language of the Hebrew Scriptures. Biblical Greek is the main language of the Christian Scriptures. Aramaic only accounts for about 250 verses (about 1%) in the Aramaic section of the book of Daniel (chapters 2–7, not the entire book of Daniel) out of a total of over 23,000 verses in the entire Hebrew Scriptures. There is not much Aramaic in either the Hebrew or Christian Scriptures. To say otherwise is to mislead the reader.

“And finally, these 66 books were written on 3 different continents: Africa, Asia, and Europe. Once again, this is a testament to the varied historical and cultural circumstances of God’s people.” This is not accurate. One would be hard pressed to prove any of the Bible was written in Africa. The narratives/books supposedly written by Moses were written AFTER leaving Egypt, after entering the Levant, which is not part of Africa. Many biblical scholars do not believe that Moses was the author of the books of the Pentateuch (Torah). One of the primary reasons for not believing the Moses tradition comes as a result of observing the presence of doublets in the Pentateuch, such as the two creation stories in Genesis. The doublets generally do not agree fully. Why would Moses – or any author – write two creation stories? Scholars reason that a much more logical explanation is that the books were written by multiple authors who lived long after the events described. That would have allowed the oral tradition to be passed from generation to generation in different areas of the land so that they had a chance to deviate from each other before being written down. In a few cases, triplets have been found in the Pentateuch where the same account appears three times.

“. . .these 66 books contain no historical errors or contradictions.” First of all, if the bible were divinely inspired, it would not have so many contradictions, and yes it does have many contradictions. I have counted at least 500 such contradictions. Here are just a few of the more obvious ones.

Where did Joseph and Mary live before the birth of Jesus?

  • They lived in Nazareth, and traveled to Bethlehem because of a census. (Luke 2:1-7)
  • They lived in a house in Bethlehem and moved to Nazareth after returning from Egypt (Matthew 2:1-2, 11, 22-23)

Who buried Jesus?

  • Joseph of Arimathea (Matthew 27:57-60) (Mark 15:43-46) (Luke 23:50-53)
  • Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus (John 19:38-42)
  • The Jews and their rulers (Acts 13:27-29)

Who carried Jesus’ cross?

  • Jesus carried his own cross (John 19:17)
  • Simon of Cyrene carried Jesus’ cross (Matthew 27:32) (Mark 15:21) (Luke 23:26)

How many of each animal did Noah take on the ark?

  • Two of each kind. (Genesis 6:19)
  • Seven of each kind. (Genesis 7:2-3)

 So, do I believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God?

No, I do not believe that the Bible is in any literal sense “the inspired word of God.” (I will have more to say on this subject next week when I write about the aura that surrounds the Bible, making a critical study of the book almost impossible to the average person in the pew.)

As a priest, do I believe that God – the eternal, non-physical, ground of Being itself – actually “wrote” the Bible and gave it to us exactly as we have it?

No, I do not believe that.

Do I believe that the Bible is the source of spiritual insight and thought that is taken to levels of discernment and beauty that, in my experience, literalism has never produced?

Yes, I do believe that.