It's not true, in any case. I actually fall pretty squarely on the orthodox end of the scale. I believe in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, affirm the ancient creeds, practice baptism and eucharist, and look forward to the resurrection and Jesus' return at the end of time.
And yet, I'm a pretty progressive guy. I certainly don't read the Bible literally. How is this possible?
I don't want to rehash the entire debate between fundamentalism vs. modernist readings of the Bible. Suffice it to say that one of the unifying characteristics of progressive Christians is that we do not believe the Bible to be the "inspired, inerrant, infallible word of God." Rather, we see scripture as the record of a people's journey with God over time - about 1500 years - and reflecting many divergent perspectives on the meaning of that story. Nuances, differences of opinion, and downright contradictions are a feature, not a bug, because scripture records a conversation, not settled doctrine. The early church explicitly rejected a synthesized gospel in favor of the four we know today for exactly this reason. It was held that the event of God's coming into the world in the form of Jesus was simply too large, too complex, to be contained in a single perspective.
Which is not to say that there is no unity to be found in scripture. Christians discern a narrative arc from the origins of the world in Genesis to its destiny in Revelations. Jews see consistent ethical concerns - holiness, concern for the poor and the stranger, among others - in the Hebrew books. Still, given the number of voices recorded, it's no wonder people get dizzy. How do you know which voices to trust? How do you know which imperatives to prioritize over others?
You know because you read scripture in community. The conversations of the Bible take place not just within its pages, but in the living, breathing community of believers. For Christians, that means in theory all believers in the world today - but even worse, all believers through time. Love or hate St. Augustine, Gregory the Great, or Martin Luther, they are our conversation partners as we seek to discern God's will through the reading of scripture. That doesn't mean that we must agree with them - in fact, we are free to accept or reject their perspective, just like any other - but they deserve to be heard, and considered. Often, in disagreeing with them, we come away with some crucial piece of wisdom we wouldn't have had otherwise.
It is this willingness to continue the conversation over the course of centuries that prevents modernists from being truly "freelancers" of religion. Modernists such as myself, that is. I don't cotton to the idea of adding books to the Bible, or throwing others out. We've been fighting over basically the same texts for twenty centuries. I'll be damned if Dan Brown is going to screw that up. We've got enough shit to deal with as it is. Why make up new shit? For better or worse, being in that single conversation is what makes us Christians. It is what gives us our moral authority, such as it is.
As you might imagine, continuing that conversation is a frightfully complex project. Modernist readers of the Bible must attempt to enter the world of Biblical writers, and engage their perspective. Ditto later commenters, right up to our own time, sorting through the pros and cons until - hopefully - we come up with something solid.
Tenous? You bet. Prone to error? Sure.
Requiring considerable intellectual enterprise? Damn skippy. Call a modernist reader "mindless" and you deserve to get a poke in the nose. It's hard work, this Bible.
But it's more than a cerebral workout. Our readings must respond to the living concerns of the community. How do we choose between Luke's message of radical grace and acceptance, and John's apparent exclusivism? In one context - say here at Daily Kos, where many have felt keenly the sting of rejection at the hands of the church - Luke's message is surely preferable. Another group - for example, a pre-Constantinian church threatened with harassment, if not death, for their faith - might have responded more to John.
So, then God must mean all things to all people, and religion be ultimately an empty concept, right? Not at all! Scripture afflicts as much as it comforts. At least it does, if you're honest enough to allow such a thing. Looking at how John's "way, truth, and light" has been used to oppress countless non-Christians challenges us to look at the ways we have participated in the marginalization of others in our society, and to find ways to put an end to it. And whatever else you want to say about the Levitical writers - dirt-obssessed sex-hating freaks, for starters - the legal code found in Leviticus challenges us to think about the ways in which we use our bodies, and whether they are in the end as acceptable as we thought. That's particularly true in the modernist way of approaching scripture because of the importance it places on reading scripture together. It's one thing to sleep around when you have no one to answer to. It's quite another when you are responsible to an entire community.
Look, I don't expect you to believe in or agree with everything written above. I imagine that readers who buy into Enlightenment ideals will find the idea of a living stream of history to be offensive, if not downright nutty.
What I do want you to get ahold of, though, is this: the modernist reading of scripture is a profound threat to conservative Christianity, for a number of reasons. Because it is an essentially democratic way of reading, it threatens the authority of pastors and church elders passing along The Truth paternalistically. And because it allows communities to read scripture differently, it makes a hash of the narrative of Absolute Truth on the march across the land.
We progressive Christians are really inconvenient. There are a lot of people who are quite heavily invested in the idea that all Christians care about is abortion and keeping teh gay down. But here we come, with our little Bibles in hand, saying "well, umm, actually, in our church we like to accept people, and we seem to be more concerned about poverty than Ellen DeGeneres."
This infuriates right-wing Christians. It scares the crap out of them. They'd like you to think that progressive believers have submarined themselves with all their wild-eyed loonie beliefs, that our organizations can't attract anyone new, and we're all going to die out soon, before we have a chance to change anything. (Sound like the criticism lodged against any other group you know?)
But the truth, as I say, scares the crap out of them. For they know that community knows no end. Don't get me wrong - communities have, and need to have, boundaries to keep alive - but in principle, there is nothing to prevent me from sitting down with a Jew, a Hindu, or a secularist to work through the Beatitudes, or Isaiah, or Paul's Letter to the Romans (as we did at Yearly Kos), and finding there common cause. The fundamentalist way of reading the Bible derives its authority by obedience to an external truth. The modernist reading finds authority in agreement negotiated through dialogue. In a society that continues to grow more diverse - and more secular - every day, which of those perspectives do you suppose stands a better chance in the long run?