Reading the Bible, reading myself

In a recent discussion someone raised the idea that personal experiences of God should not be treated with skepticism:

“When someone sees something beautiful in their life and recognizes it as the hand of God and through that experience moves an inch closer to intimacy with Him, woe is the man (or woman) who answers them with skepticism! There is a deeply in-grained skeptical attitude within the hearts of many of those who claim the name of God. Take the example about the eagle flying and someone seeing that as something God has given them as a demonstration of His love and attention, no one should take that from them. Did God put the eagle there in the first place? Maybe. Maybe not. But if He didn’t, He turned that person’s attention to the eagle and turned their thoughts to Him. And if that person relates this story to another person and they respond with a scoffing attitude, what they are in essence saying to that person is….’there is no way that God would go out of His way to do that for you…you really aren’t that important.’ ”

I very much agree with you that God desires good things for each person. More specifically, I believe that God does so such that the content of this goodness and the manner in which it is manifested or disseminated is situated within the broader context of furthering God’s kingdom. Thus in my view a Christian perspective contains a dual context for defining such important benefits as goodness, care, and love. On the one hand, goodness is only truly good if it is situated within the greater project of realizing God’s kingdom. On the other hand, goodness is only perceivable as good—it is only really “for me”—if it manifests and impacts me as beneficial, rejuvenating, etc.

This of course raises the matter of interpretation, but more broadly than we normally think. Typically we think of interpreting texts and, for many Christians, good interpretation is what permits us to understand the Bible correctly. I agree. However, another type of interpretation is also at play, though typically those interpreting in this way are unaware of doing so and unskilled in its use.

Specifically, all of us are engaged all the time in interpreting our own experiences. The vast majority of us do so without reflection or consideration, and certainly without special “training” (indeed most events require no great consideration or training to understand).  Now coming back to this comment: Christians explain God, to other Christians and to non-Christians, both through how they read (or interpret) the Bible and how the understand (or interpret) events in their lives that they believe have some bearing on God, such as having some form of encounter with God).

Now to some people the notion that we interpret the Bible (instead of simply “reading what’s there”) may seem surprising.  More so, to some it means that human beings are “in charge” of determining who God is, which can cause distress. For if God’s love (or perhaps worse, truth!) is a matter of my interpretation or that of others, then how can we be certain that we’re not misrepresenting God or characterizing God in any number of potentially conflicting —and even harmful—ways?  As such, Christians not only appeal to a source of information about God (the Bible) but many Christians also favour particular approaches to biblical interpretations, reading techniques such as proper exegetical method, historical and literary awareness, etc.

In other words, most Christians most of the time would not be content to “make of the Bible” whatever we pleased. Yet accepting experientially-based claims about God as authoritative without examining their interpretation is precisely what we would be doing if we agree that we cannot (indeed, must not) doubt the validity another person’s perspective about how God acted / communicated / was present in that person’s life in some special way.

A bit of a problem, I think. Yet the matter doesn’t end here. For considerations of accuracy and truthfulness in interpreting experiences have further similarities with interpreting Bible readings.

Interpretation needs not only to be viewed more broadly (as encompassing the interpretation of experience) but it also needs to be understood as a “skill,” which means that the individual’s skill as an interpreter of themselves is now also at issue.  In other words, if it’s reasonable to prefer N. T. Wright’s reading of a given biblical passage because I have good reason to think N. T. Wright is a more skillful interpreter of the Bible than another exegete, why is it not also reasonable to prefer my (or yours or John’s) interpretation of an event because I think I am (or you are or he is) a better interpreter of experience than another person?  Must it be the case that someone is always the best interpreter of their own experience?  I think not. 1

Stated differently—and I think this is crucial—I would characterize Christians as truth-seekers whose seeking is to be oriented by and toward loving God entirely, love themselves rightly, and love their fellows likewise. From this context Christians are called to act in in the service of both love (of God, myself and others) and truth (biblical and personal), and so are OBLIGED to engage not only with someone’s claims about God based on their interpretation of John’s gospel but also claims about God based on her / his interpretation of their experiences.

And when we do so, we not only prevent certain problems but acquire certain benefits. A willingness to investigate and question may keep us from falling prey to the common, North American orientation that Jesus died “for me,” to “save me from my sins.”  It would do so by promoting deeper engagement with the biblical text that may well lead us to seeking fuller explanations of who Jesus is (and so move us toward broader, more covenantal presentations of the gospel, such as N. T. Wright proposes).  I wager that this joint orientation toward love and truth also creates stronger and more vibrant communities, communities that love and listen while not losing the ability to speak (and where necessary, critique).

Bad things we do with Bible verses (Part I)

 

“I love you, but really you’re unimportant—it’s all about me.”

“In fact, you should love me so much that you hate everyone else by comparison.”

It’s easy to hear these perspectives in television or films.  We might, sadly enough, hear them in people’s homes or even our own.  But hopefully we recognize them for what they are: warped and twisted.

So while reading Kyle Idleman’s not a fan (a recent Christian publication that garnered some acclaim) I was dismayed and saddened to find these perspectives not only meekly hidden but openly espoused.

Here are two examples:

First, the author explains about being filled with the Holy Spirit: “The only way to be filled with the Spirit is to empty myself of me. . . . The more he fills me, the less room there is for me” (95).  Sure, God loves me, but the more of God there is in me (and the less of me), the better.

Second, the author describes the type of relationship that God wants with us: “Jesus isn’t just saying, ‘I want to be first place in your life.’  He is saying, ’I don’t even want there to be a second place.’ (page 59).  This means that if you follow Jesus “you’re so committed to him that by comparison, you hate everyone else.” (65).

Where does he get this stuff?

The Bible.  Or so he claims.

For reasons of space I’ll focus on his second idea, which Kyle takes from Luke 14: 26, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father or mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

But because he misunderstands the verses he uses to support his view, Kyle also misunderstands what it means to follow Jesus (and love God) .

As I discussed earlier, verses cannot be rightly understood when taken in isolation either to the book that contains them or to the remainder of, in this case, the New Testament.  So the meaning of Luke 14:26 is understood in light of the greater context of Luke and its parallel account in Matthew.  Let’s see how.

Matt 10:37-39 offers a slightly different rendering of the same idea: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  Those who find their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Next, Luke 8:20-21 contextualizes Luke’s view of ‘family’: “And [Jesus] was told, ‘Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.’  But he said to them, ‘My mother and brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.’ “

So what does this mean?

One commentary puts it this way: “In antiquity the extended family meant everything. . . . But a surrogate family, what anthropologists call a fictive kin group, could serve many of the same functions as a biological family.  The Christian group acting as a surrogate family is for Luke the locus of the good news.” (page 335). 1

Concerning the passage immediately prior to Kyle’s verse—the story of inviting everyone and anyone to dine with you (Luke 14:15-24)—the same commentator notes that “Jesus’ call for inclusive table fellowship . . . is here made explicit and the price to be paid for it [(i.e., Luke 14:26)] is spelled out.” (369).

Taking this information together, we should read Luke 14:26 as follows:

As those who are “to love the Lord your God” with all their being and love their neighbours as themselves (as per Luke 10:27), Christians are to embrace each other even to the point of violating traditional norms of interaction (such as restricting table fellowship to those of the same class or family), even where such violations—in the culture of antiquity—could be perceived as hateful acts towards one’s own family.

Magical Jesus

 

“I don’t have time or energy for friends, only for my church and my family.”

A good friend and pastor recently said this to me, and then noted that emotional support from his church has been nearly nonexistent this past year.  I remarked that it is unhealthy and dangerous to expect that much support from his spouse—that marriages don’t work that way.

“But I don’t get my support from my family,” he said.

“Then if not your family or your church (nor your friends), then from whom?” I asked.

“I get my support from Jesus.”

Hmmmn.  Really?

How?

Enter “Magical Jesus.”  Magical Jesus is, well, magical!  For example, Magical Jesus can do anything (“For God all things are possible.”  Mt 19:26) and helps me do anything (“I can do all things through God who strengthens me.”  Phil 4:13).

Now I have two problems with Magical Jesus.

First, contact with Magical Jesus is entirely personal (and thus no one can challenge my view of the matter) and divine (and thus it defies explanation).  As such, when Magical Jesus is the reason for an action, then that action is beyond critique.

Now if people were perfect, maybe Magical Jesus would be too.  But because Christians believe in (and perpetuate!) wrong-doing and self-deception, anything impervious to criticism is also a great place to hide one’s true intentions and motives, especially from oneself.  In short, Magical Jesus conveniently sidesteps the requirement of providing truth values in order to substantiate our truth claims.

Second, biblical and historical evidence show that Jesus doesn’t work this way.  Against general notions that “everything is possible” for God and I can “do anything” through God, the Bible shows that what God ‘empowers people to do’ is to communicate the good news concerning Jesus despite the most daunting of circumstances.1  In turn, what is “possible for God” is for this good news to find purchase (and so restore right relationship with God) with the most unlikely of people.2

Thus we (its messengers) are strengthened to bring the good news and God (whose message it is) is capable of fructifying that message for all.

History too shows the matter differently.  Take Blaise Pascal and Thomas Aquinas.  Both claimed direct, personal encounters with God.  The results were staggering.  After his encounter Aquinas, author of some of Christianity’s most esteemed theological writings to that point, viewed all his writing “as straw.”  Pascal, a philosopher and mathematician, saw his life’s work as nothing in comparison to the God he encountered, “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—not of philosophers or scientists.”

When I challenged this pastor he seemed dumbstruck, like I wasn’t allowed to question what was between him and Jesus.  The problem for me, as his friend, is that Magical Jesus was coming between us—making my relationship with him unnecessary.

In fact, Magical Jesus actually opposes truth and deters love.  So by appealing to Magical Jesus my friend all but sidestepped the hard questions about truth (i.e., why he’s acting this way) and, because such appeals cut off critique, the only valid response is acceptance.  This in turn withers any relationship, such as caring friendship, that will not be so constrained.

But where Magical Jesus opposes truth and deters love, the real Jesus does just the opposite.  Pascal’s perspective adds a finer point on the matter.

It was not that Pascal’s profession (as mathematician and philosopher) was unimportant.  Rather, God’s interest is in people—Abraham and Isaac; you and me.  Thus Jesus came to renew right relationship (person to person, person to world, and person to God).  In this context, God’s truth that is quintessentially “for me” is the claim that I am deeply beloved by one whom I may love / by whom I would most desire to be loved.

And while this truth may remain incomprehensible for many, surely understanding it begins with parallels in our real-life relationships: sometimes with parents and siblings, sometimes with spouses and children.  And sometimes, too, with friends.