Now the evangelicals are not happy with Mr. Bell. In this 10,000-word takedown, one such Christian calls the book inaccurate, indefensible, naive, muddled, blasphemous, and – horror of horrors! - liberal. In many mainstream Christian circles, it seems, there is no greater insult than the l-word. (No, the other one.) (No, the other one.) (No, the other other one.) Dearly beloved leader of the free peoples of Shorelandia John Shore has written several articles in response to readers asking questions like “Is the Devil Making Me Believe in a 'Liberal' God Who Isn't the True God?”, “Does the Holy Spirit Vote Republican?”, and, in 2008, “Will God Forgive Me if I Don't Vote for McCain?”.
The assumption that Christianity and conservatism go together like Charlie Sheen and incoherent bragging has always baffled me. To me it's self-evident that, in the words of another dearly beloved leader of the free peoples, Stephen Colbert, “reality has a well-known liberal bias”. And maybe my third-world upbringing gave me too much of an affinity with Liberation Theology, the Latin American Christian movement of the 1970s that condemned oppression and gave a theological voice to the poor, but it's equally self-evident that God has a liberal bias.
I could proof-text this. I could point to Old Testament passages that demand welfare provision for poor and vulnerable groups in society; to the Psalms' many strong words about God's hatred of injustice and concern for the oppressed; to the way Jesus hung out with people on the lowest social rung, and told people to pay their taxes and keep church and state separate; even to the passage in Acts where the early Christians practiced – yes, they did – communism. But proof-texting is a peculiarly evangelical tactic, and so, having availed myself of a rhetorical device of which Cicero would be proud, I will move on.
The problem with proof-texting – the problem with conservative and evangelical Christianity as a whole, really – is that it privileges one's own reading of the text, to the exclusion of all others. To return to that gargantuan panning of Love Wins, you'll notice a severe insistence that “[b]oth sides [of the universalism debate] cannot be right”, and a constant appeal to both traditional Christian orthodoxy and what the Bible “clearly” says. If you can't understand why “it's tradition, so it must be right” is a specious argument, you're clearly not cut out for critical thinking; but it's the appeal to Biblical authority that bothers me more.
I know that I have been steeped in semiotics for some months now, and that it is a difficult and obscure field, but I really think more conservatives need to engage with it on a fundamental level. I've talked before about my uncertainty as to whether any text, the Bible included, has meaning independent of what we read into it; in fact, I'm rather hoping to make this the topic of my prospective post-graduate studies; and I believe that all interpretive truth-claims need to be approached with a healthy barrel of skepticism. A poem doesn't 'mean' one single thing; its meaning lies in the tension and harmony of all the different interpretations that can possibly be laid on it by its readers. The same is true of all writing. Even something most people would consider should be unambiguous, such as a legal document, bears this multitude of meaning – that's what lawyers do all day. When I consider the interpretive ambiguity of a sign that reads
it seems completely absurd to claim any single “correct” interpretation of a text as dense, complex, even perhaps self-contradictory as the Bible.
Whether that leaves us in a chaotic, Crowleyesque free-for-all of wanton eisegesis, I'm neither sufficiently advanced in my hermeneutic studies nor intellectually arrogant enough to judge. However, in the absence of external referents, I maintain my skepticism toward interpretive absolutism; and I ask, along with arguably the world's first semiotician, “What is truth?”