Thursday, January 24, 2008

"Biblical," older than "change" and "hope"

So this is more of a confession, but today is the third day in a row I unintentionally got in a conversation only to find out it was actually an opportunity for me to informed on my deviance from 'biblical' truth. I have found I can talk to almost anyone about most things except for conservative Christians. Atheist, Jewish, Agnostic, Hindu, and Muslim friends don't make me agree with their presuppositions when we talk, but for three days three different conservative Christians did not know how to have a conversation without me agreeing to their assumptions about the Bible. They couldn't figure out if I was one of them or a non-believer, as if the only legitimate opinion a Christian could have was their own. Not because they are arrogant, but because it is Biblical. So below is my observation and then I am going to ask for some advice if you have any.

Everyone knows the fights among conservative evangelicals over the Bible.  There are all kinds of theories of inspiration and fights over language.  Is the Bible innerrant, infallible, God's answer book, unquestionable Truth, and so on.  While those are important discussions for some, I don't feel tempted to deify the Bible, make the text itself sacred, or come up with some unnecessary and presumptuous compliment about that Bible that then makes me squeamish when I read the terrifying and outlandish texts.  Basically I am saying that there is enough in the Bible I don't want to claim for God that making the text itself the point isn't even attractive to me.

For example, the Bible has plenty of slave owners who get good face time and there is ample material for at least 15 good pro-slavery sermons in there.  Believe me I took Baptist history where famous expositors of scripture come to conclusions like, "the holding of slaves is justifiable by the
doctrine and example contained in Holy writ; and is; therefore
consistent with Christian uprightness, both in sentiment and conduct" (Richard Furman ).  There is just no one 'biblical' interpretation of most things.  In fact, the word 'biblical' is a word that unnerves me.  I actually read (or think about reading) the Bible every day with the expectation to commune with the Spirit and be engaged in spiritual transformation - hopefully towards the pattern of Christ - BUT when I hear 'biblical' it usually serves as a conversation stopper.  When someone says "belief or action X is biblical" they mean "my belief or action X is one that I find in scripture (or my religious authority said was in scripture) and since these 66 books all agree on everything, X is God's opinion.  So on behalf of God I can no longer talk to you without rolling my eyes in holy indignation unless you yield to my opinion.  To be charitable and sympathetic would be to compromise X which, while being my opinion, is really - thank God - God's. Believe X or get the X!"  Maybe if the word biblical meant "belief or action X is one sensible and legitimate interpretation of the diversity of witnesses within scripture that could apply to this situation, issue, or idea," but it doesn't function this way in conversation.  Furman makes some wonderfully 'biblical' points about the sacred support of slavery.  Abolitionists made some equally 'biblical' points against slavery, though they had a smaller total number of biblical footnotes.  Hopefully one can see why something being 'biblical' does not necessarily make it wonderful.  Despite the 'biblical' status of slavery I think it is horrible and thoroughly unchristian.

There are other more contentious issues in our contemporary setting than this one, though slavery remains a cloaked part of our economic reality, such as issues of gender, sexuality, and violence for which the 'biblical' phrase gets thrown around and I just want to say that is not how I want the Christian community to come to its decisions (or more appropriately justify their decisions).  I would like to say, I read the Bible with a liberating hermeneutic that coheres with both the inclusion of Gentiles and rejection of slavery and brings me to support the full dignity and humanity of women, homosexuals, my enemies, and Republicans.

SO QUESTION: Is there an option for conversations with 'biblical' Christians that does not necessitate
a. being purposefully vague (though it feels deceitful) so they do not notice a difference or actually understand the meaning of your statements
b. deciding to play within their framework and attempt to make your point or deconstruct theirs without ever saying why and how you actually came to your conclusion.
c. accept that their hermeneutic does not make conversation with any difference possible and walk away thinking that they are ignorant fundies who need to be enlightened...for those who have eyes.....

A and B are uncomfortable ethically and are made presuming a certain elitist stance. C is something I work hard at avoiding and may give up for Lent.

ohhhhh I thought of another example during that yelling spell.  About every way of ordering the life of the Church is biblical if you pick the right passages.  I can understand being a Catholic, or a Presbyterian, or a Congregationalist..... all biblically.  There are verses that sound like Christ wanted to give the disciples special ontological power and create a sophisticated hierarchy to solidify power, but even there we can employ the liberating hermeneutic (PS - it is called the Free Church). 


Drew said...

In your example you raise two important aspects of the phenomenon:

1) The Bible functions almost as a reified totem without which and without seen through a very specific lens somehow affects the being of God in a negative way. I call this idolatry or as you say "deify the text".

2) That based on this apprehension of scripture the person with whom you are speaking has a special duty as vicar of God. And this special status is legitimated by their apprehension of scripture. So you can notice the circularity here.

You also hear this same kind of self-referentiality in "hermeneutics" such as allowing the Bible to interpret the Bible and not relying on any other interpretation (you hear this on Family Radio).

So I look at the discussion by keeping the best intentions of critical theory in line. Critical theory is sort of the bastard cousin of deconstruction that did not get all of the press, but it corrects tendency towards nihilism in deconstruction theory.

The goal of the conversation is to uproot the ground of the circularity. This is to explore the unvalidated assumptions in the argument first and then from there to reconstruct the argument from the ground up to see where the rational gaps are. The problem is that for this to work the best way you need a willing participant. Since the participant is hardly a willing one here, it often therefore looks like deconstruction. But unless we work on the assumptions that fuel the hermeneutic, no ground can be gained.

What I find is what is assumed is this sort of logical positivism that is applied to scripture. It is this assumption that we can read the Bible and understand its meaning apart from the very cognitive processes in our brain that determine how we understand the bible. This sometimes will drill down to "the Holy Spirit must have guided my understanding".

The question is always, why is it that you came to this or that belief? What are the values and experiences in your life to lead you to this indubitable conclusion? Or, Do you really believe that your experiences in life and your own values do not shape how you understand the bible? So that's the angle I take and it's pedagogical in a way that is not patronizing or condescending.

Zach said...

I'm glad you are blogging on this. I know in campus ministry students would always come to me with accusations that what I was saying or teaching was "unbiblical". One hundred percent of the time they could never qualify what that meant. And when they tried it always boiled down to their attempt to assert their interpretation over mine.

In the end, folks who want to argue "biblical" vs, "unbiblical" are only really fighting for their interpretation.

My response to situations like that now is to simply draw attention to their attempt to universalize their interpretation. I try to do that in a non-patronizing way as Drew mentioned, but most of the time they get pissed. I think the anger has more to do with recognizing their own hubris...although it gets dumped on the person calling it out.

Pedagogically I would rather piss them off than tiptoe through the bullshit.

Pete said...

From my dad's email about this blog:

Tripp posed a difficult question. A few things come to mind as I think about
his post. These do not directly answer the question, but they are related:

1) It reminds me a bit of a story our pastor used to introduce his sermon yesterday
"Right or Wrong." He told of a church a couple hundred years ago that issued a formal
rebuke to one of their members for dancing and also rebuked their pastor for gesturing
his sermon with a closed fist rather than an open hand. Meanwhile the church did nothing
to condemn the child labor and the slavery that both were prevalent at that time.

2) I also think about the words in I Peter 3:15 about being always ready to make a
to everyone who asks us to give an account for the hope that's in us, but do it with
gentleness and reverence. This seems to be addressing those outside the Christian faith,
rather than fellow Christians. If we respond to unbelievers with gentleness and reverence,
should we respond any differently to those in the faith?

3) Then I think about Jesus, who called the religious leaders of his day (both the
conservative Pharisees and liberal Saducees) "you brood of vipers" and condemned them
numerous times, saying such things as `You search the scriptures because you think that
them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come
me to have life." It doesn't seem that Jesus showed much respect and gentleness with
these religious leaders.

So do you respond as in #2 or as in #3? Or something between? And how do you decide?

bigdeac said...

I've been thinking about responding to this post for a couple of days. This post is very insightful and a problem very close to many of people, myself included.

It occurred to me on the bus this afternoon that the question might be framed a bit differently, though gesturing at the same issue. Often I find that in my attempt to uncover a workable matrix for dialogue with my more ‘biblical’ breathren, I am already operating out of a implicit premise about the goal of an intentional dialogue, which they do often (but not always) do not share. That premise is that, for me, the goal of religious dialogue is to raise questions or paradoxes which allow me to contemplate the nature of my existence and relationship with God. In fact, this is not only my experience of dialogue, but of many things: the bible, worship, etc… For many of my ‘biblical’ brethren, that goal is not only problematic but can be understood as heretical. The goal of religious dialogue, for many of them, is not necessarily to raise questions – in fact, its often not even to search for “Truth,” but is simply to assert the “Truth.” Therefore dialogue, for them, is often not a catalyst to faith, but an affront to it.

That being said, the question is: where the hell do we go from here? Truthfully, I don’t know. I believe there has to first be a willingness from both parties to engage (see also: something along the lines of Miroslav Volf’s concept of embrace, of which are deeply familiar). If that isn’t an option, I believe the best alternative we have is a synthesis of empathy and honesty, knowing it will most likely lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings. But I also believe there is hope, particularly if we are able to discuss the deep rootedness of the problem, rather than just talking in biblical quotes.

I believe you are on the right track. Cheers.

Tripp said...

good insights everyone. nice to blogger-meet you Drew.

Stoller or BigDeac - I'm glad I still get to get your input.