The more you encounter something, the more you tend to dismiss its radical nature, its strangeness, its challenges, its difficulty.
When you’ve been in an toxic relationship for 5 years, you cannot remember what “normal” is anymore, and it creates a space in you that breeds contempt for those who don’t understand your reality. The same thing happens in the Church.
I was talking with someone about “Bubbles” today, and how we all live in our own bubbles. The only way to expand someone else’s bubble is to accept an invitation and to bring along something you love and share it with them. If they’ve never encountered it before, it will expand the bubble and create space for something new. If they choose to reject it, fair enough. But their bubble will still be stretched by the encounter.
In the Church in the US, we have gotten to a place where our desire to have our Bubbles stretched is almost eradicated in the world of Certainty and Absolutes – concepts which have almost no foundation in Hebraic or even Ancient Christian Tradition. They actually come out of a time in history called the Scottish Enlightenment, which focused on knowledge based on common sense, rather than wisdom and knowledge based on experience, contemplation, reason, and reflection. It also has roots in what’s called “modernist anti-modernism,” but that’s a whole other blog post. Basically, we took the premise that things could be proven from the Scientific Revolution, we added some Scottish Enlightenment Common Sense Theology, and we mixed it all up in some “literalistic” interpretation of Scripture which had no resemblance to the previous 3600 years worth of reading biblical texts. And certainly no resemblance to how the authors of the texts would have read them.
And this is deeply troubling, and wildly problematic.
As a church, we have often scorned theological study – and particularly the field of hermeneutics, which is basically the lens by which we read a text. Now, even if I grant the premise that the Bible is inerrant or infallible, that does NOT lead to the conclusion that my interpretation of the text is inerrant or infallible, because no matter what, my life experiences, my gender, my history, my beliefs, they ALL color the reading of the text and the way that I apply it to my life.
This is why theological study – with an understanding of Ancient Near Eastern context and the “author’s original intent” and understanding the history and the author’s background are important. Because it says that scripture is God-breathed, but not God-dictated. (you can hear me talk a bit more about that on my conversation with Stephanie Michele on last week’s Relatable recording.
Now…what I’m getting at in this post is that we have to understand that we, as a CHURCH, are failing to honor the scripture and the Holy Spirit in our current method of using and reading the text. When we use it as a bully-pulpit to defend literally indefensible positions, or when we prooftext (take a snippet out of context to make it say what we want it to say) in order to prove a point, I honestly believe that we are grieving the Holy Spirit. Because we are making the Truth out for a lie, and calling lies Truth (quick reminder, in the New Testament, it is clearly stated that Truth = Jesus, not an abstract concept). When the religious leaders in Jesus’ day did this, he identified it as a heinous sin.
Now we get to the way that this affects our witness of Jesus and the Welcome of God in our churches and our lives. Our current use of the bible to justify pedophilia (https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/roy-moore-paedophilia-allegations-joseph-mary-bible-defence-jim-ziegler-alabama-republicans-senate-a8047246.html_) or to dismiss rape and domestic violence (https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/05/23/613604818/head-of-southern-baptist-seminary-removed-over-remarks-on-rape-abuse-of-women) or to excuse separating families at the border (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2018/06/15/sessions-says-the-bible-justifies-separating-immigrant-families-the-verses-he-cited-are-infamous/) or…or….
This is poor theology, and it’s why theological education and expertise matters.
I am a firm believer that regular reading and practice can give you a depth of understanding about personal application and raising a family, and interacting with other people. I believe that regular immersion in scripture and even reading commentaries and theological texts can provide some helpful ideas and methods for looking at texts in new ways.
But just like we can use WebMD to sorta kinda figure out what’s wrong with us, and we can use the Google to sort out a million different possible ailments that are causing our symptoms, we want a medically trained specialist to not only diagnose the problem, but give us some solutions and help us resolve the issue.
We don’t hard code our own websites, but hire a programmer who’s studied and learned and has experience addressing complex issues.
We don’t (often) represent ourselves on trial, but hire a lawyer who has a degree and has passed an exam, and is held to ethical standards.
We don’t try murders on Judge Judy.
We need to begin holding the same respect for the ways in which we interpret the texts that we can wield for either extreme violence or extreme reconciliation and healing. We need to begin to honor the scholars in the field and stop thinking we can find a verse that says what we want and make it mean what we want.
We simply cannot.
Theological Education Matters. A Theological education cannot give me a spiritual practice, and I believe that spiritual practice has to inform our theological education. But a spiritual practice (however lifelong) does not equal a theological education. Spiritual practice and personal growth and development and discipleship can make you a phenomenal leader, care-giver, small group leader, even pastor. But if you are inclined to use the scripture to justify wide-spread sweeping policies that do not just affect your local communities, but can destroy and ravage others’ lives, you need to strongly consider doing the hard work of getting a theological education.
James, brother of Jesus, lets us know in his letter that not many of us should be eager to be teachers or to instruct in the church because we are held to a higher judgment. And immediately before this, he is talking about our faith and works and the way that they inform our interpretation of scripture. We have to come back to a place of greater accountability.
In the first century, understanding context wasn’t as critical – you were embedded in it. If I offered you the red pill or the blue pill, or if I talked about a light saber or even Alohamora… you wouldn’t even blink. But can you imagine what that would mean to someone born even just 100 years ago? They’d be baffled. So it is with our understanding of our beloved sacred texts.
All that being said, our witness is suffering, and we need to reclaim the heart of the church. Which will take a conscientious effort to interpret the world through the lens of scripture instead of trying to use scripture to justify our heart’s whims and desires.
I want my bubble to continually be expanding, to make more room for the growth that God wants to do in me, and to make more room for the Presence of the unBounded God in my life. I want my bubble to grow in compassion and understanding, and I want the icky parts pushed out by better, more realistic understandings.