The Bible is the problem, says Michael Kirby

CRITICS OF THE BIBLE | John Sandeman

Thursday 10 March 2016

(An Eternity space where from time to time we report views that challenge traditional Christianity, on the basis that we need to listen to those with contrary views.)

It is a sad fact of life that if I tell you that Michael Kirby helped launched a new book on Christianity you have probably guessed one of the book’s main foci. Such is the super-heated nature of Christian discourse these days that the answer, inevitably, is homosexuality. The other focus of the book being launched by Kirby, Keith Mascord’s Faith Without Fear: Risky choices facing contemporary Christians is women’s ministry.

Former High Court Justice, Michael Kirby, launched 'Faith without Fear' a new book from Keith Mascord this week.

Former High Court Justice, Michael Kirby, launched ‘Faith without Fear’ a new book from Keith Mascord this week.

Mascord is one in a long line of rebels from the evangelical and conservative Anglican diocese of Sydney.

The upper floor of Gleebooks was packed for the former High Court Judge, Michael Kirby to launch Faith without Fear which he described as a book of “great nobility and quality”. Sending himself up, he called himself “Australia’s premier book launcher”, inheritor of a mantle once held by Gough Whitlam and then briefly by Barry Humphries.

Kirby relays a conversation with his partner, Johan, who tells the Judge that he does not know why he keeps “that thing buzzing around his head”: the thing is Christianity.

“I had the great blessing of being brought up within the Anglican Diocese (region) of Sydney,” said Kirby.

He noted that he feels blessed by his upbringing, and plans as a gay man to say it again because, “it is annoying to them [the leadership of the Diocese] for you to declare that you are comfortable being in the Diocese of Sydney.”

He explains to the Gleebooks crowd that the diocese believes in a simple, unadorned Christianity with little ritual, for example.

“The basic problem of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney is that its belief in simplicity is that it drives people to go back and search in the text. Keith’s book is an examination of that problem ­– a common problem of the people of the book.

“As I discussed about three years ago with the Dalai Llama on a topic I disagreed with him about, it is a problem of Buddhism as well. He said to me ‘but you see we have to look at the text.’ That is a problem with any religion with a text.”

(Kirby did not say, but it is likely he was referring to a speech by the Dalai llama that criticised homosexuality.)

Kirby reached into the first part of Fearless Faith, which describes the anguish of Christian parents with gay children. “My parents were Sydney Diocese Anglicans, I have an almost exact replication [of the story in the book] of what happened in my family.”

In a moving story Kirby told of his 95-year-old father ringing him at 2am the night he died.

“Sometime before, I had dedicated a slim volume of mine to him.” It seems his father had not accepted Kirby’s coming out, and could not come to terms with his son reaching out to him. “‘Why did you dedicate that book to me’, his father said. ‘That hurt me.’”

Despite that personal story, Kirby counselled “We must treat the father and the mother (in the stories in the book) with respect.”

The lesson for Kirby was that “love must overcome the text.”

He continued on the theme of Sydney Anglicans: “Peter Jensen [the former Sydney Anglican Archbishop] is a very nice man. I think he is wrong in saying the Bible is inerrant – that you have to accept every word.”

Kirby recounted the story of Lot, of the visitation by angels, and Lot offering his daughters to the men of Sodom who wanted to rape the visitors. He described it as a horrific moral teaching, and wondered why anyone would teach it. Sitting in the audience, Eternity wondered why the Judge did not realise that it was narrative, and that Peter Jensen would not be reading it as moral instruction.

“As a judge I learned that if you adopt inerrancy in reading texts, there are problems in the law if you adopt that position. There are greater problems if you adopt it in regards to religion. Inerrancy is not a sensible way in which to approach interpreting the Bible.”

Kirby concluded, “it would be very easy to walk away from Christian belief. But if you have been brought up in the beautiful liturgy of the Anglican church, and the beautiful words of Jesus you do not wish to give it up.”

Keith Mascord, Faith without Fear: Risky choices facing contemporary Christians. Morning Star Publishers, 2016. $55 at Koorong in a few weeks.

Screen Shot 2016-03-10 at 1.54.18 pmYou can tell a book by its cover

Keith Mascord’s first book, A Restless Faith, had the plotline of Keith’s life: a continuous glide from Canadian prairie fundamentalism, through the heart of Sydney Anglican evangelicalism to a more liberal Christianity neatly captured in an image of a river winding to the sea.

And along comes Faith Without Fear, adorned by an image of a vulnerable country church building under a very stormy sky, but with a rainbow and illuminated by a shaft of light.

Mascord invites us to join him in making risky choices – which are seen to be safe ones – of supporting equality for women and inclusion of the LGBTI community in the church.

When chatting to Mascord, there is a note of surprise in his voice, that you have not floated down the river, whether from fundamentalism or evangelicalism to join him in the new world. He is confident that a lot of us will.

Fundamentalism, of the six-day creation variety, did not last for Keith who was brought up in it, and a move to the cool intellectual but still conservative style of Christianity found in the Sydney brand of Anglicanism nurtured his faith at university, and as a young country minister. Later, Mascord was a lecturer at the very citadel of conservative Anglicanism, Moore Theological College in Sydney.

A Trojan horse has never been required to plant a liberal thinker inside Moore College: it has always supplied its own rebels. It is large enough for that. Keith is unusual in that it is rarer for a lecturer to turn critic.

Mascord has a view of courage: that it is found in those who question authority, those who smash, or try to smash boundaries. For Mascord, being honest, looking at the evidence, will bring people to a position rather like his own.

He has some sad stories of people who became casualties in church culture wars.

Yet in any large network of churches there will be preferred ways of thinking or acting. To be different enough that you will not get preferment (a chance at a job) is particularly hard on students at a Bible college, and it is one reason that this maverick writer is pleased not to be a minister. Less centralised versions of Christianity – like the more entrepreneurial church planting groups – can provide more space for some. There is room for many thousands of churches in Australia; the supply of pagans is increasing.

What is missing in Faith Without Fear is an account of those who have been casualties of the left rather than the right. More liberal churches can be tough on people too. Possibly the strongest section of the book are the parts which cause us to wonder if we are not too tough on each other. There is authoritarianism to be found (on occasion) in all varieties of Christianity.

To be fair, Mascord acknowledges the right of an institution to police its boundaries. But the “fear” he describes always comes from upstream, from the right. He does not acknowledge the courage of a Nehemiah who defends a wall.

Some readers will find the treatment of the science of homosexuality as a challenging part of this book.

If one was unkind, one could say that the chapter on the science of homosexuality is presented as absolute truth and ask, “Has Mascord found his new fundamentalism?” This reader is less convinced than Mascord that the science is settled. Neuroscience is a developing field and a degree of caution is required. Mascord is up-to-date (as far as I can tell). Several studies previously cited to show neurological differences between gay and straight people have been revised, yet other studies stand at least for now.

Mascord leaves out the studies that have been revised, and concentrates on those that prove his point. But neuroscience is a field where hypotheses may extend beyond the actual evidence. Sample sizes in the critical studies cited by Mascord on homosexuality (and also transgender) are small. Biology might be destiny, but right now we are not sure.

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