Ask Rev. Oliver "Buzz" Thomas about the recent run of religious bestsellers, fiction or nonfiction, and a simple question gets you some plain answers:
The secret behind the popularity of The Secret? "Norman Vincent Peale on steroids," Thomas says. The Left Behind series? "Horrific theology" is what Thomas thinks of it. And as for that book about the five people you meet in heaven, call it "an ode to sentimental spirituality." Thomas does. Surely, though, he's all for the purpose-driven life. Hardly. Thomas describes that so-titled megaseller as "cocksure answers to some of life's most perplexing questions, all the while condoning the persistent ancient stereotypes of both women, who must be submissive, and gays, who must repent."
The status of women and the guilt of gays ... biblically based understandings of the power of positive thinking ... scare-tactic depictions of the end of time ... don't get Rev. Thomas started. Or do. He'll gladly tell you where he stands, and in 10 Things Your Minister Wants To Tell You (But Can't, Because He Needs the Job) (St. Martins Press), Thomas does just that — because, despite being a Southern Baptist minister, he doesn't need the job.
He's a constitutional lawyer trained at the University of Tennessee and the University of Virginia, and he's a lecturer on First Amendment rights, as comfortable before church congregations (Baptist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, you name it) as he is before parent/teacher groups, including the statewide PTA convention in Memphis held earlier this month.
He's worked in Washington as legal adviser to the National Council of Churches, he's argued before the Supreme Court, and he's co-authored The Right to Religious Liberty for the ACLU. He's guided school boards on the teaching of religion in public schools, and he's director of Knoxville's Niswonger Foundation, which works to alleviate poverty through education. He's also a regular guest contributor to the Op-Ed pages of USA Today, but he grew up, in his own words, "a white-bread country boy" in East Tennessee. A typical Southern Baptist minister he admits he is not.
"You can call me Southern, and you can call me Baptist," Thomas said in a recent phone interview, "but Southern Baptist probably doesn't fit these days."
After reading 10 Things, it's easy to understand why. Thomas wrote it because he was "weary of the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons of the world." He was also concerned with what he calls America's "steeple dropouts" — believers who are turned off by the dominant voices they're hearing and repelled by what they view as the misuse of strictly interpreted biblical teachings.
When Thomas started writing 10 Things, a small, "reader-friendly" book is what he wanted it to be. A "conversation-starter" is what he's hoping it becomes. But a "broadside against the Bible"?
According to the author, who was a biblical-studies major at the Union Theological Seminary in New Orleans, 10 Things is anything but. But it is a book "written for all the people who want to live lives of purpose and meaning without having to put their brains in their pockets." Go to the Bible, he argues, but read it with care and some notion of history. And see it for what it is: a well of meaning. "If we're not careful," he writes, "we see only our reflections and miss the water entirely."
Thomas himself has gotten into some hot water. His outspokenness on behalf of the poor can be traced to his pastoral work in inner-city New Orleans in the late 1970s. His traditional view of gays took a turn when he welcomed a gay high school student into his home after the boy's father threw him out.
In the end, Thomas said, "Christianity doesn't have a lot do with what we say about the Bible. The Bible didn't float down from heaven one day as the inerrant word of God. It was written by human witnesses. It isn't a perfect document." Christianity, on the other hand: "It boils down to what we're willing to do."
God willing and you're reading this in time, you have a chance to meet Thomas when he signs 10 Things Your Minister Wants To Tell You at Borders in Germantown (6685 Poplar) on Wednesday, May 16th, at 7 p.m.