One of the accurate criticisms of disbarred lawyer and self-styled preacher Fred Phelps and his repugnant Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka is that he has focused on one tiny matter in scripture and built a whole theology around it. In Phelps' case, he has taken a few references to homosexual acts in the Bible and built a church that thinks of almost nothing else.
Not only is this cherry-picked theology, but, worse, he gets it all wrong. For why he's wrong, I invite you to read my essay on what the Bible really says about homosexuality, which you can find under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.
Another biblical passage that sometimes gets attention from Christians who seem unable to absorb the breadth of the gospel is found in the 16th chapter of Mark. It quotes Jesus as saying that believers will be able to pick up snakes and that their bites will not hurt them. Thus we get the so-called snakehandlers, who demonstrate their faith by playing with rattlesnakes and such.
The first thing it's important to note about this is that the last part of Mark 16, which contains the snake remarks, is not contained in the earliest available manuscripts. Many scholars have concluded that verses 9 through 20 were a later addition.
I'm not suggesting (and most scholars don't suggest) that these verses should be tossed out of the Bible. But I think it's wise to be quite careful about making them the center of your theology or at least a highlight, given their semi-uncertain position in the canon.
With that as background, we come now to the news that the National Geographic Channel is about to launch a television series about real snakehandlers in churches. The only reasonable conclusion is that this is one more example of seeking to sell soap by focusing on religious sensationalism.
But it's not much of a surprise. We have seen this from National Geographic before. NG promoted the highly problematic "Gospel of Judas" a few years ago, for instance. And NG was instrumental in promoting a scholar who claimed to have found the tomb of not just Jesus but also his wife and son.
So find some kind of over-the-top religion story and National Geographic may well have a hand in promoting it. It's weird because there are so many important stories about religion in the world today that don't get nearly enough attention. Given that, why focus on snakehandlers and similar wackiness? Ask National Geographic.
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ANOTHER STEP TOWARD INCLUSION
Back to more mainstream (or, anyway, Mainline) stuff, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America elected its first female presiding bishop the other day, Elizabeth Eaton. Religion News Service has done this piece to help you see how she's part of a trend toward breaking down barriers in Mainline churches.
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P.S.: The new online catalog for Communiversity, the community university operated through UMKC, now is available here. Once there, scroll down to page 14 and you can sign up for my Nov. 6 class on essay writing.