After two years on the General Assembly Council, I have come to a conclusion. It is time for the Presbyterian Church (USA) to sever its relationship with the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation (PPC) and take back the Presbyterian name. The PPC has effectively demonstrated that they are not capable of make sound decisions that honor the denomination. I will present two episodes to illustrate why I believe this to be the case. (Note: The Presbyterian Publishing Corporation is an entity of the General Assembly. No funds are provided to the PPC by the denomination and the denomination has no editorial authority over their publishing decisions. The institutional linkage is through the nomination and election of board members by the General Assembly.)
Episode 1: The Wide, Wide Circle of Divine Love
During the last two years the General Assembly Council began a practice of reading a book in advance of our stated meetings and setting aside time for discussion when we gathered. Prior to our September meeting of 2005, the PPC was invited to offer a book for discussion at our next meeting. When I received the book I erroneously understood the book to have come from the General Assembly Council leadership. I learned later that the PPC had mailed the book without any consultation.
The book chosen was The Wide, Wide Circle of Divine Love: A Biblical Case For Religious Diversity by W. Eugene March. As I offer a few quotes to you from March’s book, keep in mind that this was happening just three years after a contentious debate about Christology within the denomination. The 214th General Assembly (2002) affirmed and commended to the church a document called Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ by a vote of 497-11-5. It was an exceptional document that contained the following statement.
Jesus Christ is the only Savior and Lord, and all people everywhere are called to place their faith, hope, and love in him. No one is saved by virtue of inherent goodness or admirable living, for "by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God" [Eph. 2:8]. No one is saved apart from God's gracious redemption in Jesus Christ. Yet we do not presume to limit the sovereign freedom of "God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth" [1 Tim. 2:4]. Thus, we neither restrict the grace of God to those who profess explicit faith in Christ nor assume that all people are saved regardless of faith. Grace, love, and communion belong to God, and are not ours to determine. (Emphasis mine.)
March’s book is a direct refutation of this theological affirmation. He admits within the book that he departs from orthodox Christianity.
Christians do have a special calling, but it is not to lord it over others or to deny the validity of the beliefs and experiences of others. We will turn to this important subject later. But for now it is crucial to affirm that other religions have an equally important place in God’s world. Sikhs and Taoists are part of God’s divine handiwork. Muslims, Jews, and Buddhists offer significant contributions to understanding the diversity of religious experience. These expressions of religion are precious to God and thus should be honored by all who call themselves religious.
Be under no illusion. This alternative view is not the position of most Christians, at least at present. But it is legitimate interpretation based on a significant number of biblical passages.” (21)
March concluded describes three positions in his book.
Exclusive – Christianity is the only valid religion.
Inclusive – Christianity is the best religion but allows that others could be saved.
Pluralist – Christianity is one valid religion among other more or less equally valid religions.
Fewer people who are actively engaged in a faith community [compared to those who are not] tend to adopt the pluralist position. By reason of their involvement in a particular faith they tend to assume that their religion alone is valid (exclusive) or that among all the other possibilities it is the best (inclusive). But a growing number of people who have carefully studied the religions of the world find the pluralist position the most honest in light of the evidence. (28)
What then, some will ask, is the advantage of being a Christian? None, except having a God-given license to love one another freely and with abandon to talk about it. (138)
I wrote a lengthy response to this book a few weeks before the GAC meeting laying out my dissatisfaction with the selection of this book as a topic for the governing board of the denomination to use in official deliberations. My summation of the book in the analysis I did was:
Repent of “Jesus as Lord of all” thinking. View Christianity as a valid option among many that, like the other religions, teaches us to observe universal ethical values like the Golden Rule. All religions were created more or less equal and should be valued as such.
The book discussion was changed to an optional side event for a Friday evening and was not used as part of GAC deliberations. But what struck me about this whole episode was the seeming lack of good judgment on the part of the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. With the advantage of hindsight and the release of another book this summer it appears to me that the episode was more likely a well calculated strategy.
Episode 2: Christian Faith and the Truth Behind 9/11.
In July of this year, just two months prior to the fifth anniversary of 9/11, the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation published Christian Faith and the Truth Behind 9/11 by David Ray Griffin under the Westminster John Knox imprint. Griffin is a process theologian and a retired professor from Claremont School of Theology. He is also key member of a network of writers know as the 9/11 Truth Movement. At the heart of this loose network of conspiracy theorists is the belief the events of 9/11 were perpetrated by the Bush administration as a false flag operation. A false flag operation is where one entity stages an attack on themselves and frames their enemy, thus justifying retaliation and the execution of a pre-existing agenda. According to the conspiracy, al-Qaeda had nothing to do with 9/11. Planes were flow into buildings by remote control or some other means. Demolition explosives were set inside the trade towers. The pentagon was hit by a cruise missile not an airplane. The bottom line is that the Bush Administration conducted a false flag operation involving the premeditated deaths of the thousands of people in order to initiate a Neoconservative move for world domination.
Griffin gives a brief synopsis in the book of processes theology and offers a discussion of the divine and the demonic. He turns this analysis on the United States claiming that the nation is the most demonic empire that has ever existed. The US is worse than the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany because the US is responsible for 180 million poverty-related deaths each decade.
It is a free country and Dr. Griffin is free to write and publish whatever he wants but the decision of the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation to publish this book is utterly irresponsible. This book isn’t scholarship. While I disagree with Griffin’s chapters dealing with process theology and Griffin’s assessment of America’s place in the world, they are within the bounds of scholarly discussion. However, his chapters on the false flag conspiracy are anything but scholarly. Having a “Dr.” in front of a name and including lots of sources does not make a work scholarly. As the adage says, “We are each entitled to our own opinions but we are not entitled to our own facts.” The selective use of data and tortured reasoning used to achieve predetermined conclusions is as transparent as it can be.
The consequences of the PPC publishing this book are not trivial. First, by publishing this book, the PPC has certified this book as a credible presentation of the issues it addresses. This book is a slanderous defaming critique that accuses the President of the United States and high government officials of treason and coldly calculated mass murder. There is no question that Christians are called to question government authority and to speak out against injustice when it is identified but when we do so we should do so with rigorous scrutiny of the issues. To suggest that this book is that rigorous scrutiny is beyond laughable.
The publication of the book destroys the credibility of the Presbyterian name in the eyes of those who are looking for direction on how to be the faithful people of God in the world. But more sinisterly, it gives credibility to anti-Semitic and anti-American propagandist in other nations who are fomenting hate and destruction. (I include anti-Semitic because some in the 9/11 Truth Movement identify Israel as a con-conspirator in the 9/11 events.)
Second, this book decimates the good will between the denominational national offices and the members of our denomination. The PPC likes to draw distinctions about the various missions of their imprints and about their carefully delineated status within the denomination. That is irrelevant in the life of the church. The typical PCUSA member, much less those outside the denomination, makes no such delicate distinctions. All they know is that the PCUSA published a book calling their president a mass murderer.
Third, from April of last year to April of this year I estimate that I spent more than a month attending GAC meetings, Mission Work Plan meetings and doing other GAC related work. (Next week I go to spend five more days for another GAC meeting.) I have written at my blog and elsewhere attempting to interpret the new vision emerging for the GAC and trying to build good will for the denomination. I have traveled and spoken to presbyteries to accomplish these same ends. Now multiply my story by a few dozen other GAC elected members. Add to that the hard work of dedicated GAC staff people working under conditions of enormous upheaval and stress as the try to live into a new way of being the Church. With all that, now guess what question I have most frequently gotten over the past couple of months when the topic of the PCUSA comes up (inside and outside the denomination)? “How could you allow the publication of such a book?” Discussions of imprints and denominational organizational charts have not been persuasive.
What is the upside to episodes like these two books? The PPC made a few bucks.
The Presbyterian Publishing Corporation either is clueless about its impact within the life of the church or is quite aware of its role and doesn’t care. The episodes I have related here with the March and Griffin books suggest to me that the PPC is focused on the controversial and the sensational. They seek a profit by trading on the credibility of the denominational name and, in the case of this last book, of the misery and death of thousands of people. Our denominational structures exist in service to synods, presbyteries, congregations and individuals as they seek to be the body of Christ in the world and that mission seems to be lost on the PPC.
What can we do? Very little at the moment. The only source of accountability we have is through the board members of the PPC whose names (as of 2005 year end) you can find at the bottom of this page. In the short term, I think it is a matter of making our dissatisfaction known to denominational leaders.
Yesterday, September 21st, former moderator of the GAC, Jeff Bridgeman (2001-2002), wrote a letter to Presbyweb suggesting that we spin off the PPC and take back our name. I endorse that solution. The good that is done by the PPC can be accomplished by other means. While it can not be accomplished until the General Assembly in 2008, it is time to drop “Presbyterian” from the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation.
Quotidian Grace has a post today that adds to my observations: A Call To Spin Off the PPC