As you may have noticed, your friends here at GetReligion.org rarely, if ever, comment on op-ed columns. We'd need to open an entire second site if we started chasing religion into the editorial pages. But sometimes, a columnist such as Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times creates news as well as comments on the news, such as his stunning work on the genocide in Sudan. He has also, in recent years, gone out of his way to probe the global role of faith in public life, even aiming a few shots of praise at evangelical Christians.
Thus, it was of more than passing interest recently that Kristof lashed out at the pop theology of the "Left Behind" novels and, to get specific about it, offer his opinion that its vision of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ was bloody dangerous to the world as the New York Times understands it.
These are the best-selling novels for adults in the United States, and they have sold more than 60 million copies worldwide. The latest is "Glorious Appearing," which has Jesus returning to Earth to wipe all non-Christians from the planet. It's disconcerting to find ethnic cleansing celebrated as the height of piety.
If a Muslim were to write an Islamic version of "Glorious Appearing" and publish it in Saudi Arabia, jubilantly describing a massacre of millions of non-Muslims by God, we would have a fit. We have quite properly linked the fundamentalist religious tracts of Islam with the intolerance they nurture, and it's time to remove the motes from our own eyes.
Truth is, millions of traditional Christians -- especially Arab Christians -- share some of his anger at Christians whose beliefs fit inside the large "Left Behind" tent. But Kristof is, in this case, painting with a much larger brush. He comes very, very close to condemning the very heart of traditional Christian faith in both the Second Coming and the belief that salvation is found through Jesus Christ, alone. At one point he asks:
These scenes also raise an eschatological problem: Could devout fundamentalists really enjoy paradise as their friends, relatives and neighbors were heaved into hell?
Now, these beliefs are controversial to many and clearly clash with other world religions, which is why the word "infidels" is so popular with radical Islamists. There is no need to ignore the obvious (or beheaded missionaries).
But Kristof seems unaware that the "Left Behind" books are only one take on these hot doctrines. Last time I checked, the likes of Billy Graham and Pope John Paul II and perhaps even George W. Bush and John Kerry were not saying the Nicene Creed with their fingers crossed. Unless a flock has lapsed into heresy, this creed does proclaim belief in "in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God" who will "come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end."
It is one thing to criticize believers because the specifics of their doctrine can somehow be shown to have affected their political views and actions. This is what is going on with the folks on the political and religious left who seem convinced that Bush's alleged evangelical convictions are shaping his actions in the Middle East. There are those -- people with documentary cameras, even -- who seem convinced that Bush either believes that his policies can speed up the Second Coming or he is willing to pretend that he does, to excite, well, millions of people who read "Left Behind" novels. This seems to have soaked into Kristof's view of traditional Christian theology.
Or check out another op-ed exploration of this theme -- by Mark Morford in San Francisco. It was called "Hello, God? It's Me, Dubya" and included the leader of the free world asking his Heavenly Father:
Look, I've done everything you asked. I've been good. Haven't I? I take the message to the people, don't I? I spout that evangelical born-again crap in pisswater Podunk conservative churches across this burned-out fear-drunk nation like I was emceeing a freakin' rodeo in Crawford. And they eat it up, Lord. They eat that stuff up. Hell, I even believe a lot of that fire-breathin' Second Comin' evildoer-hatin' stuff myself.
Kristof did not go that far, of course, in the sacred pages of the blue-state Bible. He stressed that he had reservations about writing the column because he didn't "want to mock anyone's religious beliefs, and millions of Americans think 'Glorious Appearing' describes God's will. Yet ultimately I think it's a mistake to treat religion as a taboo, either in this country or in Saudi Arabia." Still he believed that he needed to speak out against hatred and intolerance.
I would offer journalists one suggestion if they are trying to be fair to believers on the various sides of these complicated doctrinal disputes. Try, try, try to separate those who believe that they are supposed to proclaim their gospel using free speech from those who believe they should do their evangelizing with bombs, swords and guns. Yes, there are people on all sides who have crossed that line. We can have journalistic arguments about how many believers in various faiths have crossed that line. But reciting the Nicene Creed, leading an evangelistic crusade or even handing a friend a copy of a "Left Behind" novel is not the same thing as flying an airplaine into a building.
Kristof knows that. Sort of. Maybe.
But he is certain that he has God on his side in the debates over salvation and Christology, along with, of course, the New York Times.
People have the right to believe in a racist God, or a God who throws millions of nonevangelicals into hell. I don't think we should ban books that say that. But we should be embarrassed when our best-selling books gleefully celebrate religious intolerance and violence against infidels. That's not what America stands for, and I doubt that it's what God stands for.