There's an internet meme doing the rounds online at the moment that unintentionally tells you a lot about the divide in many major denominations.
Originating from the Naked Pastor cartoonist (nakedpastor.com) towards the end of last year, it shows Jesus looking at a bunch of Bible-clutching men and women while saying these words: 'The difference between me and you is [that] you use Scripture to determine what love means, and I use love to determine what Scripture means.'
The cartoon – entitled 'Scripture Versus Love' – is fascinating in what it reveals about a certain mindset, and more generally about liberal-conservative church divisions in many major church groupings.
1. We love to put down others. Ah, how easy it is to proclaim Christian values such as love – while embodying exactly the opposite qualities. And this cartoon is a classic in that sense. Yes, it says, 'you are the nasty Bible-clutching fundamentalists' (and, indeed, they are portrayed looking pretty miserable), 'while we are the enlightened, liberal, loving ones who are so loving like Jesus we can be represented directly by him in this cartoon. And we're so loving towards others we're going to caricature you lot as repressed bigots.'
Of course, those of us who are more conservative Christians can be just the same. We can all too easily become like the self-congratulatory figure in the parable of the tax collector (Luke 18:9-13) who is so grateful for his own righteousness (perhaps in terms of conservative sexual doctrine, in our case) that we are completely blind to the glaring sins that we do have (maybe in the areas of taming the tongue, money, or even sexual hypocrisy).
2. We love to over-simplify theology. Christians of all major denominations have consistently recognised three major sources of authority which determine what we believe and how we behave. Those three are Scripture, Tradition and Reason. Roman Catholics, broadly speaking, believe in the ultimate twin authorities of Scripture and Tradition. Classical Protestantism came about as a desire to reassert that Scripture should trump Tradition. Thus the Anglican theologian Richard Hooker declared: 'What Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that the first place both of credit and obedience is due.' And liberals have tended to put Reason top.
The problem with the meme is that it makes 'love' into a new, fourth authority which tops Scripture. There is a place for something called 'the hermeneutic of love' (interpreting the Bible through an understanding of God's love). For example, St Augustine, in his De Doctrina Christiana, developed what Canadian theologian Paul Allen has called 'a theory for how to read Scripture that turns on the meaning of God's love and our love for God'. But that 'love' would itself be defined by what God has revealed in Scripture – not independently of it, as the meme would have us do.
3. We love appeals to quick emotion rather than to careful thought. This particular meme has an instant, superficial appeal to it, doesn't it? After all, we all 'like' love, don't we? And none of us want to be like the miserable-looking bunch of buttoned-up conservative Christians – even if we are a conservative Christian! But this particular cartoon leaves many questions unanswered. And the main one is simply this: how is 'love' being defined? If it is defined in any way that is biblical (for example, 'love is patient, love is kind', or 'This is how we know what love is...' etc) then the cartoon has immediately defeated the very point it is making – by choosing a Scriptural understanding! But if love is defined in a non-biblical way, then how can it be described as Christian? The meme appeals to emotion, not thought.
At its crudest heart, sadly, this cartoon, with its liberal agenda, simply says, 'Our lot are nice, and your lot are nasty'. But conservative Christian memes may be similarly dismissive: in some circles the Church of England is often portrayed like the sinking Titanic. The message is clear – if you've got any sense, leave it now; if you don't, you're obviously in denial. But real life is complicated, and, as they say, other metaphors are available. Sadly, much theological discourse more generally between liberals and conservatives seems to operate at this sort of 'yah boo' level.
There's a final twist, however. Although this meme is doing the rounds widely, it has now in fact been taken down from its website of origin and replaced by a new version without Jesus (albeit making a similar point). Apparently the cartoonist apologised for the original, fearing that people might see it as antisemitic, if those clutching the Bibles in the meme are viewed as Jewish. This would not have occurred to me and I suspect to most people, and the apology itself now seems to have vanished too. But once these memes are out there they tend to have a life of their own, often generating rather more heat than light. And that's the trouble.
Perhaps the moral of the story is simply this: Jesus was good at simple, striking, religious pictures – in other words, parables. Most of us, by contrast, are not. It's probably best to leave that kind of thing to him.
David Baker is a former daily newspaper journalist now working as an Anglican minister in Sussex, England. Find him on Twitter @Baker_David_A