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 II)

 

Last week I highlighted two ideas from Pastor Kyle Idleman’s recent book, not a fan, and I noted how poor biblical exegesis leads to misunderstanding the Bible.  Yet is that really something “bad” that we do with Bible verses?

Hmmmn.

Maybe not so much.  But let’s see what comes from examining Kyle’s notion that “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” (not a fan, 95).  .

Sadly, none of the half dozen verses Kyle uses in this chapter actually support his view.  But let’s help him out—let’s suggest a passage, like Galatians 2:20: “and it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me . . .”  This is likely the clearest basis upon which this notion can be based.

But is Kyle’s view of the Holy Spirit actually borne out here—what does this verse mean?

To start, let’s put matters in context by taking (at bare minimum) the whole idea that Paul is expressing: So Gal 2:19-20 reads: “For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God, I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live but it is Christ who lives in me.  And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

As author N. T. Wright observes, “there was nothing wrong with wanting to keep Torah, it was merely impossible to do it.” (Climax of the Covenant, 197).  Rather, the point about this section of Galatians “is not, in other words, a small number for whom ‘national righteousness’ avails after all, but those who, like Paul himself, have died and risen with Christ.”  (Climax, 247).

The point is clear: Gal 2:19-21 actually concludes a long argument that the opportunity for right relationship with God has been made possible through the life and death of Jesus.  Christ “living in me” is the state of embracing this opportunity, whereas for all other approaches (even attempting to keep Torah—itself a good gift from God) it is “I who live,” which is insufficient.

But is there is another problem here?

To my mind, the bigger issue with Kyle’s preference for self-effacement (and preference it is, lacking biblical support) is that it ignores, and so undermines, the truth and wonder of human relationality.  In essence, Kyle undermines the very truth of created existence, truth that God has established to point us towards Godself.

How so?

Well, as any parent knows, when a new child enters your life you are not forced to love your spouse, friends, etc. less.  Likewise when a second child comes into a family it does not mean that you must divide in half the love that you give to your first child.  No.  In either case, the result is actually more love: love begets love.

So where it essentially detaches our love relationship with God from healthy human love relationships, Kyle’s view abstracts God from our experience: God no longer informs our existence, and we no longer understand God through our existence.

The upshot: Christians effectively burn bridges with those whom they most wish to communicate because such Christians do not live in (nor can they relate to) the real world!

Compounding matters, such Christians often explain the negative responses non-Christians have to their witnessing on the basis that the gospel is “offensive” or a “stumbling block,” or that “the world hates us.”

I wonder if it has occurred to these Christians that it is only the content of the Gospel (i.e., the truth claim that Jesus is God’s son who has come to reclaim all existence—and so all humanity—for God, as part of God’s kingdom) that should rightly be an obstacle, and not the ignorance, miscomprehensions, and perversions of both real life and the Bible that so many Christians seem so willing both to accept and pass-off to others?