Come Sunday

Biblical Literalism and Religious Tribalism

By Alexis Waggoner | 4.24.18

“Come Sunday” — produced by Ira Glass with This American Life and Netflix — is the true story of the successful preacher, evangelist, and revivalist Carlton Pearson. He led a mega-church in Oklahoma founded on fundamentalist, evangelical teachings, but came to the conclusion in the early 2000’s that Hell is not real and began preaching universal salvation. The movie chronicles this huge sea change, its effects on his livelihood, and the charges of heresy brought against him.

What struck me was an interview portrayed in the movie where a minister in San Francisco states that the position of universal salvation is nothing new — but what’s new is that someone like Pearson is proclaiming it, in his context. The movie is a thoughtful, compelling, and painful meditation on the pitfalls of biblical literalism and religious tribalism.

The literalist worldview sets up a system where often no threads can be pulled for fear of the whole system unraveling. In Pearson’s case, he faced criticism because if he believed hell is not real, then everything he believed must be fraudulent too. Literalism provides very little daylight between these two options and certainly isn’t helpful in providing a framework to explore the nuances of a question or even raise the possibility that what you believe might not be true.

Further compounding this is the reality Pearson faces. He is entirely wrapped up in a community that interprets the Bible literally. It is his life’s work, his livelihood, his support system, his identity are here. Yet, a faith community that operates under a rigid framework of scriptural interpretation is not the place to think through cosmic questions, especially in such a public way.

The work Westar seeks to do is to provide a space where critical thinking about religion and the Bible are not off the table. But asking questions, pulling at threads, and seeking to open up systematized belief can be daunting and even isolating if you’re in it alone. So Westar also offers a place for folks to come together and explore all facets of belief and non-belief together. There are many connections to be made between “Come Sunday” and the work of Westar, much to be said — and put into practice — about dispelling the practices of biblical literalism and religious tribalism.

And that’s exactly what we seek to do. Over the next few weeks, you’ll be hearing from some of our members, scholars, authors and more as they use “Come Sunday” to springboard into discussions of faith, scripture, politics, cultural issues and beyond. We look forward to this opportunity to share some of our work, and hope you’ll share your own thoughts with us!

As Marketing and Digital Education Director, Alexis Waggoner works closely with both Westar’s Marketing Committee and the Executive Director to advance the presence and value of Westar in our culture through social media and the use of digital media in public education. Alexis brings to Westar a unique blend of digital marketing and religious education experience. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism and a Master of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary.