Smile Politely

Fired!: The Humble Heretic goes down

For those of you who read my column last week (“The way things are goin’…”), you will remember that I discussed some local conservative religious organizations that deemed it necessary to discuss me and this column in their meetings. I ended that column by saying I’d rather be burned at the stake than have my column discussed by a bunch of mindless, bible-thumping, Christian bureaucrats in one of their impotent meetings.

Well, I am here to report that I have been burned. Or, more accurately, fired because I have exercised my freedoms of speech and religion.

Yes, discrimination and censorship are alive and well in the U.S.A. and, more specifically, here in Champaign-Urbana. Indulge me for a moment while I tell you my story.

Two years ago, in January 2008, I was hired as the piano accompanist for a Christian men’s choir. This choir is organized and funded by an obscure local Christian radio station. Not to brag too much, but I am an excellent accompanist who rarely hits wrong notes. And in the two years that I played for this choir, I never missed a rehearsal or a performance. I also showed up for every rehearsal and performance on time (which is more than I can say for how I was paid — which was often late and for less than I was supposed to get).

The music I was asked to play was often crude, rudimentary transcriptions without any kind of accompaniment whatsoever — just chord symbols — so I would have to improvise the accompaniment out of my head. And when the director was late or absent, I was asked to fill in for him. In other words, I exceptionally performed my duties above and beyond what was actually required of me. But it was all good. I’m a go-with-the flow kind of musician and I easily and good-naturedly met these challenges without complaint.

Now, I knew from the outset that this organization was very conservative in nature, both politically and theologically; being an open-minded liberal Christian, I have no problem getting along with folks who believe things differently than me. And not everyone in this choir was a conservative Christian. In fact, some of the guys were regular readers of this column and they would often tell me which articles they liked and note my absence when I hadn’t written anything for a while.

So things went along very nicely between me and this choir for two years. Then, a month ago, one of the listeners of the radio station wrote an email to the station president. I have not yet gotten to read this email, although I have asked on two different occasions to see it. The station president told me the listener was very upset because they found out that I wrote “Your Humble Heretic” and that they were going to stop giving money to the station and coming to hear our concerts because I have labeled myself (albeit tongue-in-cheek): a “heretic.”

Now, as any of you who have read my column know, I am a Christian. I believe in God and am a follower of Jesus. I jokingly refer to myself as a heretic because I am a liberal, progressive-thinking Christian who happens to live in a geographic area where conservative Christianity abounds.

I have written about many issues and given my opinions (which is what one does when one writes an opinion column). But I have never written about this choir or this radio station in any of my columns (until now, and I’ve very gracefully omitted their names so as not to embarrass them). Nor did I ever espouse any of my “radical, liberal” Christian beliefs at any of the choir rehearsals or performances.

But apparently, because I do not subscribe to certain right-wing ideologies such as biblical inerrancy (which isn’t even an authentic Christian belief, but has its roots in 19th century fundamentalism), I can no longer be the accompanist for this choir.

Yes, folks, I have been fired for my beliefs.

Now, I talked with the radio station president for about 45 minutes about this. He came “armed” with a folder full of printouts of all of my articles. And I have to say I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone contradict themselves on so many issues in such a short period of time. At one point, I even asked him to put the things he was saying in writing because I was seriously having trouble following him as he talked out of both sides of his mouth. He, of course, declined. He probably didn’t want to leave paper trail of contradictions.

The radio station president seemed to be very confused on the issue of whether I was actually an employee. At first he said that I was an employee and that my beliefs (or at least what he perceives my beliefs to be from reading a few of my articles) were incompatible with his station’s doctrine and mission statement; therefore, he didn’t see how he could continue to employ me. But when I pointed out that businesses do not have the legal right to fire someone based on their beliefs (See Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964), he was quick to change his mind and say, no, I was not an employee after all — I was simply paid an honorarium for my services.

The station president also could not give me any specific examples of what, exactly, he thought I believed that was in conflict with his station’s “Doctrinal Statement” other than the issue of biblical inerrancy, which is a controversial doctrine, not just among individuals but among churches. Some churches, such as Southern Baptists, subscribe to a doctrine of biblical inerrancy, while others, such as United Methodists, subscribe to a doctrine of “biblical inspiration.”

I, too, reject biblical inerrancy in favor of biblical inspiration.

At our meeting, the president showed me for the very first time the station’s “Doctrinal Statement” (I was never showed this when I got the job, nor was I ever asked to sign any kind of agreement to this doctrine) and it clearly confuses the two doctrines of “inerrancy” and “inspiration” by trying to redefine the latter as meaning the former. The following is the station’s “doctrine” on the Bible:

The Bible, including both the Old and New Testaments, is a divine revelation, the original autographs of which were verbally inspired by the Holy Spirit (II Timothy 3:16; II Peter 1:21).
Biblical inspiration may be defined as God’s superintending of the human authors so that, using their own individual personalities (and even their writing styles), they composed and recorded without error His revelation to man in the words of the original autographs. Inspiration means that “the Holy Spirit of God superintended the human writers in the production of Scripture so that what they wrote was precisely what God wanted written.” (emphases mine)

The above is quoted verbatim from the station’s “Doctrinal Statement, Article II.” This “Doctrinal Statement” does not list its sources, but the above quote was clearly plagiarized from a previous source as its exact wording can be found floating around on numerous fundamentalist sites on the Internet.

Unfortunately, the doctrines of “Biblical inerrancy” and “Biblical inspiration” are two very different things. As noted above, “biblical inerrancy” is a 19th century fundamentalist notion (neither the words nor even the concept of biblical inerrancy appear anywhere in the Bible) whereas “biblical inspiration” is an older, more authentic belief. The difference is that “inerrancy” claims that there are no errors whatsoever in the Bible, whereas “inspiration” allows for the many human errors and contradictions that can be found in the Bible. I don’t know who originally constructed the station’s “Doctrinal Statement,” but it was clearly not by anyone with a seminary education who would know the difference between these two doctrines.

Anyway, it kind of makes my head spin to try and follow the flip-flopping people do when they attempt to justify something that is unjustifiable. But, as one local church leader to whom I related all this said, “I’m not so surprised.”

And neither am I.

But I am saddened to know that this kind of witch-hunting happens to people. And I’m sad for the choir, too, because I like and care about the guys who sing in it. But now their music is going to suffer. Not because I am no longer playing for them — they will find another piano player, maybe even one who is more conservative. No, their music will suffer because every time they begin their concert with “The Star-Spangled Banner” and they sing “o’er the land of the free”, they will know that, at least in their choir, people are not free to believe what they think is right.

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