Liberal and Conservative theologizing — a caricature using song lyrics

mirrorIn my last post, I introduced language about theological liberalism and conservatism, and I got the sense that I needed to give more definition.

Some notes about what I mean by “liberal” and “conservative”

Most people conflate the theological divide with political ideologies, but they’re almost entirely separate ideas. You can be politically liberal and theologically conservative, and vice versa (although I expect the majority are actually conservative in both or liberal in both, for reasons I won’t get into here…)

So the way that I’m using “liberal” and “conservative” isn’t intended to address politics. In fact, even within the Church, I gather that there are different definitions. I’m using these the way I primarily see and experience them in Protestant-world.

Regarding conservatives, I’m really referring to fundamentalist theology here. I’m dealing with any sense of the Bible being inerrant as typically understood, which is often listed as a core tenet of conservatism.

Here’s a simple attempt to present these different theological methods.

Disclaimer 1: This is, admittedly, quite caricatured and limited. I do this to highlight starkly and basically the differences in these methods. If you want all the nuance behind these, I’d suggest Nancey Murphy’s Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism (affiliate link) as a good start.

Disclaimer 2: I’m using a song lyric, which is not Scripture. So all analogies can’t hold. But enough can to paint a starting picture.

Let’s imagine we found the lyrics of the brilliant Fleetwood Mac song “Landslide” in the Bible:

I took my love and I took it down
I climbed a mountain and I turned around

And I saw my reflection in the snow covered hills
‘Till the landslide brought me down

Oh, mirror in the sky
What is love?
Can the child within my heart rise above?
Can I sail thru the changing ocean tides?
Can I handle the seasons of my life?

How would liberals and conservatives each read this?

The conservative reading

The conservatives would say that the writer must have climbed a mountain, then turned around. And just as she saw her reflection in the snow covered hills, a landslide – probably caused by God – brought her down. Now, since mountain climbing didn’t work out, she should consider sailing, but that could prove an obstacle, too.

The conservative might begin to conjecture about why God brought this avalanche at just such a time. God must have wanted to put her in a better place. Or perhaps climbing the mountain in the first place – or gazing in the snow for too long – was a sin, and the landslide was punishment.

Prove to the conservative that the singer has never actually climbed a mountain or encountered a landslide, and their faith will be seriously shaken.

The liberal reading

The liberal reads this and knows that it’s unlikely for someone to survive a landslide on a mountain. They begin to reconstruct the real history of this account: the author was probably so focused on looking at her own reflection in the snow that she slipped and tumbled. To her, it felt like a landslide. But we know better.

Indeed, much modern psychology shows that when someone becomes obsessive about a love interest, she can lose all sense of reality. This can cause both the dizzied state that caused the author to fall, and the irrational state that caused her to blame her fall on a “landslide.” The song reveals the experience of all humanity and confirms our modern psychological findings.


It’s not too difficult to see the problems in both of these caricatures. Oddly, both remain focused on what was actually happening in the historical account. One accepts the historical account as inerrantly true. The other seeks to reconstruct the “true history” and the real, universally applicable human experience. One presupposes that God was active in the historical account, and acting literally as presented. The other presupposes that God’s direct involvement isn’t really necessary.

You could say that simple attention to genre would help solve these problems. And you’d be at least mostly correct. Do you see how our inattention to different genres in Scripture has caused problems? And especially how it causes problems to ignore all of the Bible as first a theological document rooted in history? But genre confusion isn’t the only problem here.

You see, at heart, both of these expect that language is descriptive — either to describe objective historical reality or to describe subjective human experience. But what if neither is really the case? Many would say that the Enlightenment – with all of its science and rationalism – convinced us to start thinking about theology and reading Scripture in a different way than we should. The assumption of modern thought forced people into two camps — relying either on the Bible or human experience as their ultimate foundation. Anything that contradicted that foundation would need to be explained away or outright refuted.

But what if there are other options? Some lead down similarly bad roads. But I think others help us think about God and read Scripture in a much more helpful way. More on that later…

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