When the U. S. Army started employing a marketing motto “An Army of One” in 2001, my friends in the military howled that such a slogan was antithetical to the entire concept of martial teamwork. An officer noted that an army of one was more like a vigilante than a soldier.
I thought of that when I read about last spring’s meeting of the Jesus Seminar (yes, apparently they still meet), which discussed whether or not Jesus was literate. The logical gymnastics they enjoyed while arriving at the decision that he was not are interesting in their own right, but what caught my eye was this nugget about re-imagining almost everything theological or scriptural: a leader, Bernard Scott of Phillips Theological Seminary,
at one point suggested to the audience of 40 mostly elderly participants to “make up your own canon” of scripture. “I would trade the book of Revelation for Hamlet any day,” Scott announced, adding that he would swap the Pastoral Epistles for any two Emily Dickinson poems. “We’d be way better off.”
As a literary critic myself, I tried to re-imagine myself standing before a Shakespeare Seminar and saying, “Re-imagine Shakespeare! I would trade two Faulkner novels for Hamlet any day and I would swap the sonnets for a sheaf of Browning poems without hesitation.” I suppose my comments would be thought a bit on the odd side and few would join me in such a quest.
According to the Jesus Seminar story, though, the leaders complained about the predominance of evangelical thought that held to the text and “the failure of liberal religious thought to gain widespread traction.”
I suppose it’s hard to gain such traction, however, when we pander to our own idiosyncratic imaginations and inclinations. How do we create a movement of “one” when we have created theological vigilantes who stand not merely apart from but contrary to broader conversations and communities of faith that are defined by scriptural or doctrinal coherence? How do we create a respectable theological movement when we have deleted “theo” and substituted “ego”, along with exchanging divine “logos” for literature? It seems like it would be hard to get much momentum behind an egological literary movement.
Perhaps a reading of Romans 1:25 might be in order: “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served something created instead of the Creator, who is praised forever. Amen.” But such a view would subordinate human “logic” to divine revelation, and most of us at our hearts share the viewpoint of the infamous Duke in Browning’s poem “My Last Duchess”: “I choose never to stoop” (line 42).