Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Opinions and the Bible Part 2

"The Church is a whore, but she's still my mother,"---Augustine, early church father.

See Opinions and the Bible Part 1

I sure do have beef with Augustine, but boy, do I know exactly what he meant with that statement above. I just finished a short history book, entitled "The Dark Side of Christian History," and could barely grapple with how such atrocities were carried out in name of Jesus, at the hands of the Church (both pre-reformation and post-reformation). The witch hunts, heresy hunts, the crusades, the "purification chambers," all came down to one thing: the church needing to be right and enforcing their "rightness" on others, even if it meant torturing and killing dissenters. Anyone who thought differently was quite literally stomped out. Thankfully, the Church has progressed quite a bit, leaving behind the physical torture and killing, but that need to be completely right lingers on. The Church has split apart into thousands of factions with thinly veiled slogans of "We're really the right ones." A lot of churches create safe havens, making it completely possible for their members to live out their lives never truly interacting with any other brand of Christianity but their own.

This sort of quarantine leads to elitism, automatic skepticism of other "outsider" Christians, and unquestioning allegiance to a particular denomination, movement, or pastor. Ultimately our faith winds up in a segment of the body of Christ, while cutting ourselves off from the rest.

This is why I believe it is so imperative to listen to the various voices of Christians and consider what they have to offer; to at least consider the possibility that "they" may have something to teach me or "they" may have examined a topic or scripture from an angle I've overlooked. Do not misunderstand what I am saying, I do not think we should fling our convictions out the window and just agree with every christian or alternate viewpoint that comes along. Quite the contrary, actually. It's not that I think we need to turn off our discernment, but that we need to crank it up so high that the beliefs within our own camp, within our ownselves, are examined rigorously as well. And ultimately, that all interpretative options are laid at the feet of the Holy Spirit with humility. True unity has little to do with everyone thinking exactly alike, but is about working with each other for God's kingdom, despite our differences.

Those of us in the church have all acted like whores, unfaithful to what Jesus has called us to do and be, at one time or another. Since we all fall short, all have limited understandings, all see in part, all have cultural biases, we really do need each other in sorting our matters of faith AND bringing God's kingdom to earth. We should esteem each other higher than ourselves and at least consider where Christians of different persuasions and convictions are coming from. While we should never put blind faith in one church, one denomination, one theology or one person to hammer out the Bible for us, we should carefully consider the various understandings of the Christian faith and the scriptures and ask the Holy Spirit to guide us, convict us, and give us discernment. But most of all, we should love one another. And loving one another does not include segregating ourselves from believers with whom we disagree or thoughtlessly dismissing/demonizing their expressions of faith, experiences with God, or understandings of the scripture. "The Church" may be a whore at times, but she will always be my mother, and I will always glean from the imperfect, diverse, and strange people within it, whom God seems particularly fond of using to call those of us who think we got it all figured out to the carpet.

So, when I hear people say, "Read the Bible for what is says and don't listen to what others think about it," I know that I, myself, am an "other," my church is an "other," my pastor is an "other," and it would be foolish for me to rely on my own understanding and isolate myself within my own camp without consulting God's great gift of the Body of Christ. These are my brothers and sisters in Christ, from the past and present, who share my struggle in wrestling with God, the scriptures, and desire to better know and serve Him. So, I will honor them enough to listen to what they have to offer.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Opinions and The Bible

No man ever believes that the Bible means what it says: He is always convinced that it says what he means." ~~George Bernard Shaw

Before my blogging hiatus, I received an email from a reader who rebuked me for reading so many books about God and the Bible. (Apparently, she took a gander at my Shelfari book list.) She said, "You should take the Bible for what is says alone and not listen to what others think about it."

I've heard others express similar sentiments, either directly toward me or as a general rule of thumb. In one sense, I agree with the heart of this sentiment (or at least what I'm hoping is the heart of it), which is read the Bible for yourself and allow the Holy Spirit to guide, teach, and give understanding. Far too many fall back on their preconceived ideologies, pastors' teaching, and church affiliations to "seal up" the scriptures for them, instead of personally engaging the Bible and opening themselves up to the Holy Spirit.

Now, here's why I part ways with the concerned woman's recommendation to cease listening to other people's "take" on the Bible.

1. It assumes that I, the individual, am free from bias, prejudice, preconceived interpretations, cultural and historical ignorance, and the ancient language gap. Let me assure you, I am not free from any of those factors and neither are you. :)

2. This approach just further polarizes Christians from one another, as well as boosts our own pride and unwillingness to listen to other perspectives, because we can just dismiss any other point of view with "Well, if they just would read the Bible for what it says, then they wouldn't think that," since we have convinced ourselves that's what WE do. I said almost those exact words once to a friend who attended a church with a woman preacher. Needless to say, now that I'm passionately for women in all ministry roles, I know exactly how my friend felt when I dismissed him without ever looking into the evidence. This attitude allows us to negate all other positions but our own, without having to weigh the evidence or critically examine the other perspective or our own.

3. Some passages taken for "what they plainly say," leave us with lots contradictions. If I take the verse in 2 Timothy "as is" where Paul writes, "Women will be saved through childbearing" and never consult the original language, historical/cultural context (which I have to rely on other people to find), on my own, I would be left to believe women are SAVED, not by grace, but through the act of childbearing. And even this verse by itself could mean many different things. This is just one example.

4. This approach is nearly impossible. Since all people are prone to a particular set of lenses and most Christians place themselves under a particular denomination, movement, or pastor, which all have the weaknesses listed in #1 above, this undoubtedly influences HOW believers read and understand the Bible.

Let me use the example of Christians who experienced church/Christian parents at an early age, which accounts for a large chunk of American Christendom. Do these children read the bible for themselves to determine its meaning or are they taught what it says and means by their parents, Sunday school teachers, pastors, and so on? The answer is obvious. Right from the beginning Christian children are taught a particular understanding of the Bible before ever opening the good book themselves. Depending on the affiliations of the parents and the church, children are geared from the beginning to understand the bible in a certain way, a way that supports the theology of their family/church, whether it be in the areas of Calvinism, Armenianism, Complementarianism, Egalitarianism, charismatic practices, baptism practices, whether or not alcohol is permissible, whether or not tongues are a gift for today, whether we ask or demand for healing, the nature of hell, a particular understanding of eschatology and so many others issues...

All these lenses become so ingrained within segments of the Church, that we don't even see them for what they are: interpretations. We see them as absolute truths that the Bible clearly says and teaches, end of story. We can shut our brains off and rest in the fact that we "know" exactly how it is. Anyone who thinks differently is suspect of embracing heresy or being a wolf in sheep's clothing. It becomes unbelievably difficult for people in this situation to even consider that there may be other valid understandings of a particular biblical topic or scripture. And far too often, the evidence for any other understanding is either never presented or is never examined.

So, the "Don't listen others' opinions on the bible, but read it for what it says" stance usually means "Don't listen to others' opinions on the bible, read it for what I think it says..."

The next post will be about why I find it so imperative to sincerely listen (not blindly follow) to the various voices in Christendom......