Thursday, August 19, 2010


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.


Like a Child said...

I almost didn't read your post, so you can imagine my shock when I see you mention my blog. First, thank you for thinking that my struggle is meaningful enough to mention it in your own blog.

Oh - I could think of so many shibboleths. I think that would be a good blog post wouldn't it? Some of my shibboleths aren't even as controversial as evolution v creation, but they still caused huge struggles for me. It does often feel like Christians have their own "club" doesn't it - reminiscent of the "good ol' boy" networking in politics.

"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. "Your remark reminds me of something the Internet Monk said. Have you read Mere Churchianity? I have it in my stack of books. He became famous for prediction of the "coming evangelical collapse".

Cliff Martin said...

Your situation dovetailed into my own; I am not dealing with doubt to the same degree that you are. But I am facing the shibboleth problem.

I'll tell you what prompted the whole post. It was a comment from a friend on you blog, encouraging you to "test the waters to see if there is someone in your life you could share your feelings with." Good advise, thought I. Except that, it is somewhere between difficult and impossible to find people in the church who will not condemn you either because of your views on origins and on the Bible, or because of your persistent doubt. As I thought about that, "shibboleth" popped into my head, and I started writing.

I noticed that you husband has "guest posted" on your blog, and I'm going to read that this afternoon when I get a moment or two.

I pray for you. Somehow, I feel like I know you much better than I actually do, and care for you deeply. Please know that I am pulling hard for you!

Moses said...

sss...sibboleth...can't say it anymore. Great post. Keep 'em coming.

Moses said...

The stories in the book of Judges like this one are partly why I have given up some of my "Shibboleths". Oh they are great stories, but if there is any inspiration of God in the book it has to be the sense that one gets as you read it. This cannot possibly be the God Jesus says is his one with, etc. I don't wish to serve a God who would take credit for endorsing such violent, disturbing behavior. But then again, looking at the ancient past, through modern/post modern sunglasses is not really a fair way to judge it.

Mike said...

Cliff, Like a Child,

I’m very much in tune with you! Hang in there, both of you. I support you.

Mike said...

Moses said, “But then again, looking at the ancient past, through modern/post modern sunglasses is not really a fair way to judge it.”

Moses, if you don’t mind, could you elaborate on what you mean by this? Please excuse my ignorance in case the comment is obvious by itself.

Moses said...


When I say "sunglasses", I simply refer to my perspective or worldview. I would wish that I had no sunglasses, and saw things objectively all the time, but alas even my best attempt at objectivity still has a tint to it.

Presently, we look at slavery as a horrible thing. But a couple hundred years ago, even some of the founding fathers of America ( the land of the free) were slave owners. We still respect the people of the past, even though some of their faults would not be tolerated in the present.

Perhaps a better example would be smoking. Today, you rarely see an actor or actress smoking on the big screen. But a few years ago, it was commonplace. Is smoking any more dangerous today than it was in the 50's? No. It's just that we have become aware of the dangers of smoking, so now it is more taboo.

When reading the Bible we see things that what we today might consider "Un-Christian" behavior. Yet in the text it is tolerated, celebrated, or even apparently instigated by God himself. In my religious upbringing, we sought to find acceptable explanations for these problem texts. I have since given up on that futile effort. I don't believe for a minute that genocide, rape, slavery, or treating women like property were ever inspired by God-yet the writers of the Biblical texts did. But as I read about such things in the Bible, I have to admit, that there are probably behaviors, values and beliefs of my own that will be offensive and "un-christian" to some future generation. So I do see God at work even in the dirty bits of the Bible. As I read them in disgust, He is holding up a mirror to my own heart reminding me that I'm not so perfect either. It is from this imperfect, screwed up religion of the Old Testament that Jesus emerges and begins to plant seeds of love that eventually allow us to mourn genocide, free the slaves, give women the right to vote, and even discourage smoking in the movies:-) I have faith that Jesus will continue to emerge, especially in our imperfect, screwed up modern/post modern Christian religion.

Cliff Martin said...

Well said, Moses.

I plan to be up your way the last week of October. I will be taking some friends from Cambodia out to Vanderhoof. It would be great to get together if it works out.

Moses said...

Cliff, would love to meet with you, however we recently moved to Nanaimo, BC ( on Vancouver Island ) I may be up in Prince George around the same time as you though. Likely the 25th/ 26th of Oct. My cell is 250-668-0273

Mike said...

Moses, thanks for your explanation. I see what you’re saying about how our current behavior may in the future be construed as improper. But I must tell you I really have a problem with some of the “un-Christian” things in the Old Testament that were “apparently instigated by God himself.” It is very difficult for me to accept that God instigated that stuff. How can that stuff be right in any time?

Cliff Martin said...

Well I think you know my view, Mike. Those things were most definitely not instigated by God, not the God Jesus came to reveal, not the God John identifies as living LOVE itself.

One of the primary motivating factors for my development of a Bibliology that is decidedly non-literalist and non-inerrant is the need to uphold the honor and integrity of our Lord. When I express my views on progressive revelation, and describe what I consider glaring theological errors in, say, the writings of Moses, my fundamentalist friends accuse me of attacking God and the Bible. In point of fact, I am fervently defending the character of God! Saying so often (but not always!) disarms their distrust of me.

Mike said...

Cliff, yes, I pretty much know your view. Thanks for your response. I just felt like I needed to make my view clear concerning that little discussion there with Moses.