Thursday, 20 December 2007

God Hates Fags?

I was genuinely blown away when I accidentally came across the website of Westboro Baptist Church the other day. It really is amazing, it depicts in the most blunt and explicit terms how totally depraved interpretations of God and his Gospel can be extracted from the Bible. It's as if the Bible is a beach of different coloured stones, and it's up to the interpreter to pick them up and rearrange them in what ever fashion he wants. The criteria for arrangement may well say as much about him and his culture as about the Bible itself.

So what is their central message? God hates you! Isn't that amazing? They actually consider it their God-given duty to tour America with placards, picketing military funerals and other symbolic events with the message that everyone (but them) are going to burn for an eternity in the lake of fire, where "their worm shall not die", in the most exquisite agony, in full display of the elect in heaven.

Not only is the message shocking and bemusing, but so is the professionalism of the website. Whoever did this is not an unintelligent red neck whose education consists in stacking shelves at Walmart.

The congregation is led by Fred Phelps, who defends his "profound theological statement" that "God hates fags" in a video clip here. You can watch clips of other members of his congregation (most of whom are relatives of his) defending the various placards they carry here. Here are some of the slogans they carry: "Thank God for 9/11", "God hates fags," "AIDS cures fags," and "Fags die, God laughs (or mocks)", "priests rape boys".

A full documentary of the man has been made here.
A great clip from a church sermon plus interview with Louis Theroux can be found here.
A new generation? Phelp's scary granddaughers are interviewed here.

What does this say about theological exegesis? One thing it does for me is emphasise the importance of 'ecclesial tradition' as a mediator of the gospel. From earliest times, Christian reading of the Bible was understood to be a 'ruled reading', in which a specific theological framework was already presupposed, the regula fidei or 'rule of faith'. This rule of faith, or the 'Gospel', was not understood to be an alien structure imposed onto the Bible, but a faithful summation of the content of the Bible, or perhaps better, the reality to which the Bible witnesses (its 'substance', as Childs puts it). The starting point of all our thinking is not an abstract commitment to a book, but our relationship with the resurrected Son of God. Through his eyes we turn to Scripture as his primary witness, and there starts the dialectical dance as wrestle with God (Israel=Yisra-'el) in hope and faith.

Fred Phelp's primary problem is not his biblical interpretation, it's the God he worships.

11 comments:

Drew said...

Best Phelps quote from the Theroux piece:

"They're gonna eat your babies!"

Reminds me of Mike Tyson saying, "I'm gonna eat your children!"

Nice peep into the true nature of a cult where one depraved man holds all the chips and subdues people with fear.

John said...

When Phelps comes to town around here (that is, when goes to Madison, a sort of Athens that appeals to Phelps as the essence of what he is not), a number of my conservative evangelical friends make a point of going right up to him and chewing him out.

He accepts fraternal correction from no one, not even from fellow Baptists.

ancienthebrewpoetry.typepad.com

Flint Cowboy said...

The Phred Felps Phamily (it calls itself a church, but is really one family) is an embarrassment to my whole state. I live about 40 miles from them. We mainly try to ignore them, though I occasionally write a post about that kind of perversion of faith (at alterfaith.wordpress.com).

Topeka has been host to other religious movement. Charles Sheldon was a congregational pastor there, and his series of Sunday night sermons became the book In His Steps, the origin of the WWJD movement that was revised by Sheldon's grandson. If you visit our state capital, you can see Sheldon's tiny study in Gage Park (home of the "world famous" Topeka zoo).

The Pentecostal movement also was born in Topeka on the first day of the 20th century (Jan 1, 1901) when some folks at a Bible study spontaneously burst into tongues. The citizens of Kansas are tolerant enough to accommodate a wide variety of religious expressions, but they are too reserved to become followers of anything too unusual.

The Pentecostal movement never really caught on in its home state; it moved south to Oklahoma and Texas, where it gathered steam and moved to Azuza Street in Los Angeles.

When you are in Topeka you should also go into the Capitol building and see the giant mural of John Brown with a Bible in one hand and a rifle in the other. Many of the early settlers were abolitionist and "free-staters."

Reformed Baptist said...

I must agree with you about the "rule of faith". I went to a conservative baptist seminary, and it always amazed me that they would mention this as an apologetic device in order to show that the "liberals were wrong", but when it came to taking it to its logical conclusion they would not go there. I suspect that it was because it hit to close to "tradition".

Blake

Phil Sumpter said...

Thanks for the background information, all.

Drew - I'm sure fear plays a big role, but did you watch the interview with his granddaughters? They seemed as happy as can be.

Blake - It's taken me a while to get round the the whole rule-of-faith thing. Childs kept talking about it and I couldn't figure out what he meant. Making the distinction between the Bible as a Witness to the Word, which is the true subject matter of the Bible but not totally identifiable with it really helped me.

Deane said...

But Phelps' church is the One True Church, didn't you know - so he is following (true) ecclesial tradition in his exegesis ...

On a related note, a few months ago, the ultra-orthodox Jews in Jerusalem (Haredim) put up a number of posters throughout the streets of Jerusalem. The posters were aimed against homosexuals, with the words "God Hates Immorality" in large type. This was intended to coincide with a gay rights march through the streets of Jerusalem. The URL below links to one of these posters. But the Israeli graffiti in the picture changes "God Hates Immorality" to
"God Hates Hate": Eloqim sane sanah. That's a good response (although perhaps not a biblical one).

Phil Sumpter said...

Deane,

I guess I just don't belong to his church.

Thanks for the link. My experience of Orthodox Judaism is that the law is often put before the person. Having said that, I've been guilty of that crime too ... It's a hard balance to maintain.

In principle, I don't think any theological system would reject the idea that 'God hates immorality', which is different to saying God hates homosexuals. I think the Jews would make that distinction too. As for "God hates hate", well it depends on what is meant by 'hate'.

Deane said...

In the context--where the posters were posted to oppose a gay pride march through Jerusalem--the words "God hates immorality" is precise metonymy for "God hates homosexuality". There's no "difference", except one is literal, one is a trope.

Likewise, in this context, the graffiti "God hates hate" is precise metonymy for "God hates homophobia".

Phil Sumpter said...

You're right, context determines the meaning. Nevertheless, there's still a difference between homosexuality (=immorality) and homosexuals (=fags). That should make a theological difference when "God hates ..." is prefixed.

Deane said...

But I hear God has a "Hate the sin - Hate the sinner, too" bumper-sticker on the back of his Merkavah ...

Stephen (aka Q) said...

One thing it does for me is emphasise the importance of 'ecclesial tradition' as a mediator of the gospel..

If only it were that simple. Christians who reverently bow the knee to ecclesial tradition have been known to fall into error, too. But it certainly helps to have a community of faith to hold one accountable. It isn't foolproof, but it's an important safeguard nonetheless.

As for Phelps: the guy is simply nuts, to judge from the Wikipedia article. I don't think he represents any part of the Christian church any more than Jim Jones and his lethal koolaid did.