Forty-two thousand. The number of retreating warriors of the Israelite tribe of Ephraim slain because they couldn’t pronounce the S-word. Well, not that S-word. But it might have worked just the same. Thirty-four hundred years ago (or so), the in-fighting between Israelite tribes came to blows, and the Ephraimites invaded the lands of their brother tribes living across the Jordan River in Gilead. They lost the war, and the surviving troops, forty-two thousand of them, retreated. But the Gileadites cut them off, securing all the river crossing fords. But a Jew is a Jew, and they could not tell an Ephraimite from a Gadite or a Manassehite; they all look the same! How could they determine whether a traveller was a member of the retreating invasion force? Well, it just so happened that Ephramites were afflicted with a mass speech impediment, and they could not say sh*t worth sh*t. So the Gileadites picked a word, any word, starting with SH. They happened to choose “shibboleth”, a word which means nothing particularly interesting, but was impossible for the poor tongue-tied Ephraimites to pronounce. They used the word as a password, a test for any would-be west-bound crossers at the fords. When anyone attempting to cross the river answered the password request, “sibboleth,” he was put to the sword then and there!
There may be a lesson here about teaching diction to our children. But more to the point, this word, “shibboleth,” has been passed down and still to this day it refers to those group-think words or phrases, those passwords of practice and speech, which distinguish the insiders from the outsiders. Shibboleths are like badges of belonging. Pronounce them just right, and you are “one of us!” Mispronounce them, and watch out.
Funny thing about shibboleths. Their usefulness in identifying insiders often outlives any connection to the veracity, or the importance of the actual identifying issue. That is, the shibboleth functions to maintain group-think, despite overwhelming evidence that the shibboleth is a based on mistaken, or false assumptions.
The insidious power of the shibboleths of American evangelicalism is something that many free-thinking, analytical, and informed Christians experience first-hand. Those who have encountered (whether by choice or not) the irresistibly compelling evidence behind the science of evolution, or who have encountered (whether by choice or not) the insurmountable logical and evidential problems with Biblical inerrancy, find it increasingly difficult to go on pronouncing their shibboleths correctly.
I’ve been corresponding on the web with a Christian, a wife and a mother of young children, who just so happens to hold a PhD in science. Put simply, she just knows way too much to go on pronouncing all her shibboleths in the accepted form. Many of the things she knows with clarity are at odds with the beliefs of her church leaders and friends. That she struggles with doubt is not surprising. I know of few evolutionary evangelicals who do not. And many of us who have come to understand that the Bible is not the magical word-perfect book it is hyped to be, deal with doubt, at times heavy and oppressive. This is not the fault of our acceptance of evolution, or good textual study. It is the result of the false dilemmas created by the stark contrasts between the group-think of our evangelical friends, and reality as we have come to see it. Nevertheless, we are evangelical! We seek to follow and obey Jesus. We choose to remain with those believers with whom we identify. We just cannot seem to get our shibboleths to come out right anymore.
So my friend is in the violent throes of painful doubt. At a time when she most needs the support of her faith community, when she needs to be embraced and accepted by her pastors and friends, she is instead “preached at”, she is told that her doubts must be the result of some secret moral failure. She is haunted by the pulpit finger-pointing which identifies doubt as sin. She fears being punished for her doubt. She is told by her Calvinist friends that faith is a gift, and those who doubt incessantly must not have the gift; in which case there is little hope for her. She finds herself increasingly isolated, turned out, because group-thinking Christians are taught to fear, as part of an invading force of evil, those unable to pronounce “shibboleth”. How can my friend, or my other evolutionary friends, be accepted in a community which is currently being assured by that trusted source, Focus on the Family, that evolution is lie from the pit of hell?
My experience is similar to my friend’s. As I take a few steps back from the accepted traditional theology of the evangelical church to which I belong, that very church keeps nudging me to step further away. I am asked to keep my concerns to myself. When I try to warn my friends that the edifice of Christianity is supported by pillars of styrofoam, I am told things would go better for me if I would just keep it to myself. I am told that the personal rejection I endure on so many fronts is my own fault. I come on “too strong”, they tell me. The fact is, I haven’t found any polite way to tell people that the survival of evangelical faith will require the shedding of many cherished shibboleths.
I recently wrote the following words of encouragement to my friend:
Please, do not be deterred by the many Christians whose faith is based upon illusion, and blatantly false suppositions. Who wants that kind of faith, anyway? You seek a faith that can stand up along side volumes of data, data which most believers have never encountered, and from which (sad to say) they are sheltered by their Christian leaders. You didn't ask for the evidence for evolution. You didn't desire an understanding of the historicity issue surrounding the books of the Bible. These are empirical data, brute facts, of which but a small minority of Christians are even remotely aware. You and I are aware ... and this leaves us with the huge challenge, but also the wonderful opportunity, to build a faith that is truly durable, robust, and reality-based. My friend, this challenge is not insurmountable.