Book Review – A Free People’s Suicide (Os Guinness)

Os Guinness, A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future, (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2012), 205 pages plus substantial endnotes.

Os Guinness is becoming one of my favorite authors. He personifies what I consider to be the best attributes in an author: first, he is aware of and interacts with authors who have dealt with the same subject – going back to the classics of Greek and Latin. Second, he does not shy away from calling a turkey a turkey, if that is what he genuinely believes. And third, his prose is beautiful to read. In other words, he is not a contemporary American author.

In A Free People’s Suicide, Guinness asks the question of the sustainability of American freedom. He points out that the founders of America both won and ordered our freedom, but the issue of its sustainability is open to debate. In point of fact, Guinness is rather melancholy about the prospect, although in the concluding chapter he expresses a measured optimism, but only if there are some (rather significant) changes in our current leadership and citizenry.

The book is organized into seven chapters, and I believe the key chapter is the middle chapter (4) where he provides what he calls the “golden triangle” of sustainable freedom. That triangle consists of the conviction that freedom requires virtue, and that virtue requires faith. The exercise of faith then requires freedom, which must must be built on virtue, which then returns to faith, and on and on. Guinness is forceful in his rejection that America will remain free (or great, for that matter) if all its citizens do is rely on the Constitution or our ever-expanding quagmire of laws. His point, which he returns to repeatedly, is that unless the super-structure of the Constitution and our laws is built on a stronger foundation than what he calls “parchment freedom,” all freedom will eventually disappear and America will fall, just as every major empire in the world has ultimately fallen.

It should be noted, and Guinness does make this point, that there is a big difference between what most modern Americans call “freedom” and the much more poisonous concept of “license.” What we see in so much of our domestic debate today is not a discussion of freedom at all – it is an infantile demand for license to do whatever we want, the consequences be damned. Freedom, as Guinness expounds beautifully, demands self-control and the virtue of a people that is rooted deeply in faith. (Spoiler alert – while Guinness does refer to the Judeo-Christian features of so much of our founding documents, he is painstaking in not asserting that our nation is a “Christian” nation. He is far too educated not to know that many of our founding father were deists at best, and some were outright humanists.)

The publication date for the book is 2012 (I thought is was much later), so I would really be curious to know what Guinness thinks of the petulant little toddler that currently resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington D.C. Whatever that opinion might be, Guinness’s observations and warnings are even more critical in 2019 than they were in 2012. The tendencies that Guinness criticized through the G.W. Bush years have only been magnified in the Obama and Trump presidencies, and the “slippery slope” (Guinness never uses the term) that he warns about is on the verge of becoming a national catastrophe. He question is chilling – will a leader stand up who has the courage to put a stop to our self-chosen suicide?

I cannot end without providing Guinness’s three tasks if America is to save itself from a certain demise. First, “… America must strongly and determinedly restore civic education, and education that is truly ‘liberal education,’ or an education for liberty. Conservatives must get over their shortsighted aversion to the ‘L word,’ and liberals must reexplore what liberal  education really means and why it matters.” (p. 192) Basically, what Guinness is calling for is an education in citizenship – and everything that entails. Guinness illustrates this beautifully, but painfully, “With civic education, for example, the clash between backward-looking teachers’ unions  and forward-looking foundations concerned only for educational ‘skills’ leaves the United States industriously turning out students who are deficient not only in global competitiveness but in American citizenship and in Socrates’ examined life.” (p. 196)

Second, “… America must strongly and determinedly rebuild its civil public square, leading to a profound resolution of the current culture warring and a re-opening of public life to people of all faiths and none, so that all citizens are able to play their part in a thriving civil society and a robust democracy.” (p. 194)

Third, “… America must strongly and determinedly reorder the grand spheres that make up American society and its powerful cultural influence in the world.” (p. 194) By this Guinness means reordering the “spheres” of business, law, education, entertainment (and others) to serve the “wider public good,” a system of “checks and balances” that is frequently quoted in terms of our federal government, but rarely (if ever) applied to other aspects of our culture.

There is a fourth task, that Guinness demurs from expanding, that requires a “… restoration of the integrity and credibility of the faiths and ethics of the citizenry, which in many cases in America today are as faithless, flaccid and fickle as the health of ordered liberty itself.” (p. 196). This, he believes, is outside the responsibility of the government to address, and I would agree. If the church is “faithless, flaccid and fickle,” it is the church’s responsibility to address those issues.

A final word to my fellow members of the Churches of Christ. We are heirs of a heritage that is commonly referred to as the “American Restoration Movement.” All too frequently, however, the concept of restoration has fallen into disrepute among our congregations. From the extreme conservatives we hear that the restoration is complete, that there remains nothing to restore. From the extreme left we here that restoration is a folly, that the very idea itself is unchristian. “We cannot look back, we have to look to the future” is the mantra of far too many preachers today. I was dumbfounded to read in Guinness’s closing comments one of the best defenses of restoration I have ever heard – not in the sense of restoring some kind of pristine past (which was never pristine to begin with, and which can never be done in the second place), but a return to the very foundational concepts and practices of our faith. Two quotes must suffice: “But history shows that when it comes to ideas, it is in fact possible to turn back the clock. Two of the most progressive movements in Western history – the Renaissance and the Reformation – were both the result of a return to the past, though in very different ways and with very different outcomes.” (p. 197, bold emphasis mine PAS) And this, “In other words, all three movements – Jewish, Christian and American – share a striking feature that sets them apart from much modern thinking: A return to the past can be progressive, not reactionary. Each movement in its own way best goes forward by first going back.” (p. 198, italics by Os Guinness, bold emphasis mine, PAS). As I have said, and perhaps written elsewhere, the American Restoration Movement must continually remain a restoration movement, or it becomes a statuary monument – an idol.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is a painful read – but Guinness’s words must be heard if health is going to be restored to our republic. I for one believe Guinness’s medicine to be too strong for us to stomach. I tend to be much more apocalypticist in outlook – I just do not think we have the political will to do what Guinness recommends. But, be that the case or not, this book needs to be read and digested by everyone who is concerned about the direction our country is headed.

Top Authors – Who Rocks Your World?

Just a random thought today – seeing as how it is Friday and no one is paying attention anyway —

I got to thinking about the authors that have really influenced me – maybe not convinced me of the truth of every one of their thoughts, but the authors that invariably make me think deeply about their subject. I came up with 7 (a good biblical number) based on the number of books in my library, and by the significance of the author’s ability to cause me to reflect on my own beliefs and to think holistically.

Here are my seven: (well, I will actually throw in an eighth, but with a caveat)

  1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (if you know me, this was a no-brainer)
  2. C.S. Lewis (I am continually blown away by Lewis’ logic and penetrating insights)
  3. Thomas Merton (a contemplative’s contemplative; profound insights into human nature and Christian theology)
  4. Henri Nouwen (a poetic theologian, or a theological poet)
  5. N.T. Wright (a scholar who can write so I can understand him – a rare trait; has just exploded my understanding of many points theological)
  6. Os Guinness (just learning more about Guinness – but right up there with Bonhoeffer for penetrating intellect and Merton and Nouwen for powerful prose)
  7. John Stott (had to put a preacher/commentator on the list)

(And for my wild card – Glen Stassen, although with Dr. Stassen his influence has been primarily in the field of ethics, specifically in relation to the Sermon on the Mount and Christian ethics)

By the way, I have to explain why no authors from my own heritage are on this list – primarily it is because I already approach the subjects with which they interact in a posture of basic agreement. But, for sheer brilliance and depth of intellect, no one can even hold a candle to Everett Ferguson. I would be hopelessly lost in my journey in the Restoration Movement without such guides as Richard Hughes and C. Leonard Allen. In terms of historical knowledge and critical analysis, the peak of Mt. Olympus belongs to David Edwin Harrell, Jr. There, I think I have covered all of my bases.

So, who makes your list? Why? Any thoughts about new voices on the horizon? (Six out of my top eight are deceased, hmmm. Why is there such a dearth of theologians who can write anything more than vapid pablum today?)

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

I Don’t Get It (Church Division)

I have often said, and now once again confess, that I am not the sharpest bulb in the drawer, or the brightest blade in the box. There are many things about which I am confused, and when someone explains them to me I want to say, “Duh, why didn’t I think of that?” So, the following conundrum may not be a problem to you at all. But for me, well, I’m stuck . . .

The problem to which I refer was illustrated by a recent conversation when, in a room full of individuals representing many different churches, a person said, “We are all Christians, we may have different labels, but we all believe the same thing, believe in the same God, believe in Jesus.” To which I thought to myself, “Um, no we don’t.”

You see, in my limited intellectual capacity, you either believe something or you don’t. If you believe something, it is important to you and you are at least willing to defend it as a personal belief, or you are willing to discuss your belief in the hopes of arriving at a better belief. Let me state a necessary deduction to my way of looking at the world:

Those who claim that all “Christians” believe the same thing and are simply divided by different “labels” are either (a) ignorant or ambivalent about the beliefs of their own church or are (b) ignorant about the beliefs of other churches or (c) are of the opinion that said beliefs are totally irrelevant.

If you hold position (c), then my only question is why do you affirm any of your current beliefs? If such beliefs are irrelevant, then it seems to me you would discard those beliefs and accept the beliefs of other who are utterly and totally convinced of the importance, and correctness, of their beliefs. So, let’s look at positions (a) and (b), which are really just two sides of the same coin.

To be as honest as I can, and to be as gentle as I can and still be clear, it is simply impossible for followers of Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, Calvinism, and various other stripes of free church theology, to be “united” in any realistic sense of the word. For example –

If you are a Roman Catholic, and you firmly believe in such dogmas as Papal infallibility, apostolic succession, transubstantiation (and its related dogmas), the veneration/adoration/worship of Mary (and the perpetual virginity of Mary as well), then it is simply impossible for you to be “united” with those of us who reject those dogmas. Those doctrines are not just incidental to the Catholic faith – they are what makes Roman Catholics what they are. If you reject Papal infallibility, if you reject transubstantiation, if you reject any kind of special place for Mary – well, it is very difficult for you to consider yourself a Roman Catholic. And if I reject those doctrines, how can you say you are in fellowship with me?

Likewise with Lutherans – if you  hold to consubstantiation, if you hold to the doctrine of “faith only,” if you defend infant baptism, then I would suggest it should be impossible for you to consider that a Roman Catholic on one side or me on the other would be faithful Christians. The Catholic should (if he/she is being true to Catholic doctrine) reject the idea of “faith only,” as do I, for entirely different reasons. The Roman Catholic and I both believe we are saved by faith, but I flatly reject (and I have reason to believe the Roman Catholic would too) the addition of the word “only.” Martin Luther added it to Paul’s teaching in Ephesians (and elsewhere) and in so doing completely changed the meaning of the text.

Calvinists (and all their permutations in the Presbyterian and some Baptist churches) are in more of a pickle than Lutherans, in my opinion. If you hold to the traditional TULIP explanation of Calvinism (Total depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints) then I am so far away from being a Christian as to be an atheist – I reject every one of those doctrines. But, if you reject any one of those teachings, the house of Calvin folds like a wet paper bag. You cannot hold to total depravity and reject irresistible grace. You cannot believe in unconditional election and reject the idea of limited atonement. In other words, to be consistent, you have to hold all of these concepts in a tight bundle, or your concept of Christianity comes unraveled. I would certainly not be in the “family” as it were.

The point I am trying to make is that when someone makes a statement like, “All Christians believe the same thing and we are all saved by Christ and the only thing that makes us different is our different names,” they either are woefully ignorant of the differences they claim are unimportant, or they do not really believe the fundamental tenets of their respective church.

If you believe that Christ is sacrificed every time the priest blesses and elevates the host, if you believe that Christ’s body is physically present in some form in the elements of the Lord’s Supper, if you believe that an infant needs to be baptized and receives the forgiveness of “original sin,” if you believe that a person is born to eternal salvation and someone is born to eternal damnation – then I suggest that you and I have very little in common except some generic teachings of a wandering rabbi who lived approximately 30 years before the final destruction of the Jewish temple. Jesus then becomes a more pious Plato or Aristotle. If you think that those distinctions are merely “opinions,” then I suggest you need to reject those opinions, because it is those “opinions” that are the main sources of division between churches who claim the name Christ.

I also want to make another point very clear – some of my favorite authors and “mentors” (in an impersonal sense) hold Roman Catholic, Lutheran or Reformed (Calvinistic) beliefs. When I want to learn more about the spiritual disciplines I find that more often than not I am drawn to Roman Catholic authors (or, Anabaptist writers). When I want to learn more about the Old Testament, chances are I will end up with a Presbyterian or Anglican author. If I had to get rid of every book in my library except for one author, I would keep my collected works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran and someone to whom I am deeply indebted for my understanding of what it means to be a Christian. So, am I making a blanket condemnation of those who hold these various doctrines? No, I hope not – that is not my intention. My only goal in this little exercise in rambling incoherence is to point out that despite our best intentions, and regardless of what sweet sounding words we may use, if we truly hold to the major confessions of our faiths, we are NOT united as Christians.

I freely confess – I am a child of the Restoration Movement and I am convinced that if disciples of Christ would simply return to the teachings “once for all” delivered to the saints (and in my world that would be Genesis-Revelation), then we could call ourselves united. Then there would be differences of opinion (types of worship, perhaps, other truly incidental and transitory questions), but we could at least convey to the world that we are united on the very basic core of our Christian beliefs.

Maybe someone can explain to me how people who hold diametrically opposing viewpoints can be said to be one united faith, but until someone does, I just don’t get it.

Headed for Oblivion

A number of circumstances have converged in my life recently and I have (once again, for the millionth time) started playing my guitars. I have been channeling my inner Peter, Paul, and Mary, my inner Statler Brothers, my inner Don Williams, my inner Don McLean, my inner many, many others. Mostly I have just been channeling my inner John Denver. I have been listening to and watching a lot of JDs songs. One song in particular always leaves me with a lump in my throat, its called “What are We Making Weapons For (Let Us Begin).” One brief little snippet of a verse is this,

Now for the first time, this could be the last time.

At the time Denver wrote and recorded the song there was no real certainty but what the “cold” war would suddenly and irreversibly go “hot” with no mechanism for controlling it. For the first time in human history, it was a very real possibility that any “shooting war” would be the last of our civilization.

I don’t think we face that kind of mutually assured destruction today – at least not at the degree of uncertainty that caused Denver to write that song. But, at least in the United States, I do think we are headed for a form of oblivion. How far progressed we are will be a question for historians to determine. I do not hold much optimism for the future, however.

Observers of political history are right to point out that we as a republic have always had our rancorous moments – and just about every national political contest has generated some form of ugliness. In the defense of our current situation, at least we do not settle disagreements with a duel. But that is slight reassurance for what we do to each other.

I can attest that every presidential election – and I mean ever blooming one – since 1980 has been styled as “the most important election in the history of the United States.” Even given some slack for hyperbole, that is really quite a mouthful. Somehow I think the elections of Lincoln and later Franklin D. Roosevelt to have much more significance for our republic than Clinton, Bush, Obama or Trump. Maybe all four combined! I would even rate the election of Kennedy to be more significant than Clinton, either Bush, and certainly Obama.

But with each election cycle I am noticing how much more divided the electorate is becoming, how much more unforgiving the contestants are, and how the victors are becoming so much less inclined to set aside their election mentality and settle down to the process of governing. Today it is all campaign, all the time. There simply is no time to govern.

So, maybe for the first time in our republic, this could be the beginning of our journey into oblivion. A nation of 350+ million people cannot continue to exist with the hate, the anger, the vitriol, the passionate and long lasting intolerance that all sides have for each other. The “middle ground” of American politics is evaporating before our very eyes. What has taken its place?

As goes culture, so goes the popular religions within that culture. Which means, dear Christian, that the church of Christ is every bit as threatened by this headlong march into anarchy as is the government. Note: this is not an attack from the outside – it is clearly an internal war. In America in 2018 there is less tolerance of opposing viewpoints regarding Christ, the church, and how we are to relate to one another than in any time in our history.

How we are to come out on the other side of this is still a matter of the future. But, just as one person’s opinion, I do not think that we can deny the division and the passion that accompanies this division. I think I am also correct in suggesting that if we are ever to make any progress in slowing down or eliminating the eventual melt-down of the church, we are going to have to put down our weapons and pick up some towels and some wash basins.

What are we making weapons for? If peace is our vision, let us begin.

The Danger of False Analogies

It should come as no surprise that in today’s emotionally over-charged world, where every slight or mistake is regarded as an epic outrage, that not only the topics of conversation are dangerously over-wrought, but so are the manners in which those conversations are conducted. This is true in theology as well as politics, but for ease of observation I am going to highlight a couple of analogies that are currently being used that, to my semi-professionally trained eye, do far more harm than good. I want to say at the outset that I am critiquing a process, and I have no-one in mind as a guilty party, so if you have used one of these analogies rest assured I am not picking on you individually, just the bad analogy.

The first one compares what is going on with immigrant families being separated at the southern border with abortion. The line of thinking is this: you cannot be against abortion and support the separation of children from their families at the border. The analogy fails on just so many levels. To begin with, the question of the separation of children from adults in detention centers is muddied by the fact that most of the reporting is done by journalists and media personnel who utterly despise the current president, so their reporting is hardly to be considered fair or equal. On the other hand, no one doubts what happens at an abortion clinic – a pregnancy is terminated. Euphemisms aside, no one is doubting that result. The policy of separating children from adults is done, at least ostensibly, to protect the children from predators housed in adult detention centers. No one can argue that abortion protects the unborn. The policy of separating children from adults may be clumsy, misguided, and poorly administered, or it may be violent and immoral, but no one is suggesting that the end result is the mass extinction of millions of babies. The analogy is simply horrendous.

The second analogy follows along the same lines – you cannot be pro-life and support capital punishment. All life is sacred, so the argument goes, so if you are against abortion, you must be against capital punishment or you are a hypocrite. Once again, the analogy is simply false. Capital punishment is only administered at the end of a long and contested legal proceeding. Theoretically at least, only those who are guilty of certain crimes are executed. [Note: I am aware of the mis-management of the use of capital offense prosecutions. I am not arguing that such prosecutions are always fair or equal – only that the analogy to abortion is a false one.] On the other hand, no one argues that an unborn child is guilty of anything, and the baby has no advocate, no legal system in which to make appeals, no jury trial, no judge to oversee the proceedings. The analogy is actually hideous – all life is not equal, and anyone with a high school education should be able to understand the difference between a murderer or rapist and an unborn child. This argument also completely dismisses the fact that it was a holy and just God who commanded, not just allowed, the execution of murderers, rapists, and kidnappers. To suggest that God equates murderers with unborn children is simply obscene.

The problem with such analogies is that they are tremendously effective – for those who are in complete agreement with the speaker/writer. “Wow, how brilliant!” is the sycophant response. On the other hand, for the opponent, the argument is typically either ignored, or is actively mocked. I know of no one who has had their mind changed about the immigration debate, capital punishment, or abortion, due to such over-strained analogies.

I think what is worse is that, for the person who can see through the emotionalism, the analogy actually makes the speaker/writer appear uneducated and churlish. When I see or hear such analogies (and these two are not the only ones) I don’t immediately reframe my views; I think, “Poor fella, he needs to learn the rudiments of logical argument.” And I think this whether I agree with the writer/speaker 100% or disagree 100%.

One other extreme danger is that the truth of what the writer/speaker is trying to communicate gets lost in the emotionalism of the analogy. To separate a child from his/her parents at the border may indeed by a moral crime. The policy may indeed need to be changed – or just flat discontinued. There can be no debate that the judicial system has grossly mis-administered the capital punishment laws. Innocent men (and perhaps women) have been executed – of that I have no doubt. And there is no recourse when such a mistake is identified. The American system, with all of its checks and balances, has simply not worked in too many cases.

But, the truth of the matter gets lost in crass emotionalism when false analogies are used. The questions surrounding the immigration debate do not need to be clouded by illogical connections to the abortion debate. Likewise with  capital punishment. The issues revolving around the just administration of any penalty (corporal or capital) needs to be separated from the moral tragedy of the murder of unborn babies.

Obviously, the very same is true regarding theological debates. Whether a congregation has a fellowship hall cannot be compared to the role of baptism in salvation. Whether a person has a cup of coffee in a Bible class is not a question equal to the deity of Jesus. Whether or not it is appropriate to raise one’s hands during worship is not a question on par with whether God raised Jesus bodily from the grave. To equate something of mere opinion to that of saving faith is to make a false analogy, and in the final analysis, the entire conversation is corrupted.

Let us debate the serious issues of theology – and politics – but let us conduct those debates intelligently and with respect toward our opponents. False analogies do not build bridges – they are hand grenades tossed into the camp of the enemy. Jesus told his disciples to be wise as serpents, yes, let us be that wise! But – he also said to be as innocent as doves. That, my friends, is the mark of a thoughtful and intelligent debater.

Let us become wiser by descending lower.

The Disappearing Art of Communication (Or, Why it is Important to Listen/Read Carefully)

The digital world has increased our ability to communicate with each other, and has also made exponentially easier to totally misunderstand each other. Never before in the history of mankind has it been this easy to talk around and beyond those who are supposedly our communication partners. To illustrate, I will use myself as an example.

I am on record as saying I do not believe the Bible can be used to prove the age of the earth. Because I have said (or written) that, I have been accused of denying the inspiration of Scripture, of being an evolutionist, of having my Christianity questioned, and worse. I have never said I do not believe in a young earth, or that I believe in evolution; I certainly have never denied the inspiration of Scripture (quite the opposite, in fact); and, to be honest, I do not know any human who is qualified to judge what is in another person’s heart. So, what did I say (or write) that was so controversial?

To repeat – I do not believe the Bible can be used to support either a young earth, or an old earth. It matters not one little bit to me that people believe one way or the other – what bothers me is that the Bible is being used in a manner in which it was never intended to be used. And, in that sense, I feel like God’s word is being abused.

I am a stickler for consistency. I would much rather argue with someone who is tediously consistent than someone who constantly changes the rules of the discussion. And, to a large extent, I believe that is what is happening in the current debate over whether Genesis should be read “literally” or not. For many, the fact that Genesis 1 speaks of creation in six days means that you have to accept six literal, 24 hour periods of time, or you deny the inspiration of the Bible. But here is the fly in that ointment – the sun was not created until the fourth “day.” Now, logically and scientifically, you cannot have a “day” without a literal, physical sun. Without a solar time-table you cannot have a 24 hour cycle. It is true that light was created before the sun, and that you do not have to have the sun in order to have light. But you cannot have an “evening” and a “morning” without a sun.

So, in order to have creation in six, 24 hour periods, there has to be a suspension of literal, “scientific” accuracy – you have to suggest that a method of keeping time existed before the only method of keeping time that the ancients were aware of. Now, this is perfectly acceptable to me – but it has to be clearly understood that a suspension of a literal and scientific understanding of time has been suggested here. If there was a method of keeping time before Genesis 1, it was not mentioned or described in Genesis. Therefore, a “literal” and scientific 24 hour “day” did not exist before the fourth “day.”

So, in order to prove that the world was created in six, literal 24 hour periods, you have to re-define the meaning of the word “literal” (or, “scientific”) to mean something that supersedes literal, scientific precision.

Which is exactly the point I am making when I say that you cannot use the Bible to prove the age of the earth. In order to do so you have to make some statements that were never intended to be used with scientific precision to be scientifically precise, and you have to take some other statements that appear to be “literal” in very non-literal (i.e., metaphorical) ways.

How old is the earth? It simply does not matter! I cannot stress that fact enough. The Bible nowhere states how old the earth is, and to make a belief in the age of the earth a measure of someone’s faithfulness is to become the most pharisaic of Pharisees. It goes way beyond straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel. There are really good Christians who believe in a 6,000 year-old earth, and there are really good Christians who believe in a millions-of-years-old earth.

What does matter, and what should concern all of us, is how the Bible is being used, both by its “friends” and its enemies. Those who claim to believe in the Bible, yet use that Bible solely to promote a conservative political or social agenda, are no more friends of the Bible than those who openly ridicule it. In both cases the result is the same – the Bible simply becomes a pawn in a vicious power struggle.

I have a much better solution: let us speak where the Bible speaks, as the Bible itself speaks, and for the purpose for which the Bible speaks. That way we can hold our private opinions, and can even try to convince others of the correctness of our opinions, without treating the Bible with contempt or disrespect.

Speaking of communication – I think that is the way God wants his word to be read and understood – as HE intended it, not as any old way we want it to be understood!

Definitions – Scripture

I love words – a gift I gratefully acknowledge that came from my father. If a lover of books can be called a bibliophile, then I am a logophile. I love words for the power that they have, for the humor that many contain, and for the manner in which we use them. I also find it both amusing and frustrating that, especially in religious conversations, we cannot come to a common understanding about what words should mean.

I have previously discussed the word baptism. Today I take my pitchfork to the word scripture to see if I can sift out anything concerning that word. Spoiler alert – not much of a chance. Just like baptism, the meaning of the word scripture is totally in the eye of the beholder, but maybe I can cause us to think more deeply about what we mean when we use the word.

I begin by noting that there are a number of ways in which we differ when we use the word scripture. For some it is a matter of ecclesial, of church, dogmatics. For example, in the Roman Catholic church, many books are considered as part of Scripture that are not included in the Bibles used by Protestants. These books are identified by Roman Catholics as deuterocanonical (added second to the canon) or by Protestants as apocryphal (hidden). Thus, which branch of Christianity you claim to follow can have a bearing on what you consider to be scripture.

There is another manner in which a person can identify scripture, and that is purely utilitarian. In this process one sifts the wheat from the chaff by deciding if the book, or passage, in question actually works in real life. Thus, for an increasing number of egalitarians and feminists, much of what Paul wrote is simply not scripture because it is outdated, patriarchal, and sexist. Great swaths of the Old Testament are removed for the same reason, or because God is pictured as being a warrior, or for his seemingly unquenchable desire for ethnic cleansing. Although it would not be defined in quite so bluntly, this method of identifying scripture can be labeled, “It’s not scripture if I disagree with it.”

Then there is the paring down of the totality of scripture through either ignorance or avoidance. In his category I place many “New Testament” Christians, who avoid much or all of the Old Testament because it is unfamiliar, or because it challenges them too severely (very similar to the utilitarian approach discussed above). Genesis is okay, because there are some really cool stories written therein, but the rest of the Pentateuch (Exodus – Deuteronomy) is verboten – too much law and not enough gospel. Heaven forbid any sermon or class come from the prophets – especially those pesky (and incriminating) minor prophets. So, while they are technically included in the canon of scripture, these books are carefully and intentionally excised in order to preserve a level of safety and comfort.

So, how do you determine Scripture? (and I now return to the practice I believe is proper, that of capitalizing the word when used to refer to the entire and normative Word of God.) In my opinion, we can only stand under Scripture when we confess that there are many teachings within that canon with which we are going to disagree, and therefore we are faced with a decision. We can either allow those passages to be normative, or we will use some other point of reference to decide what is Scripture and what is not. If we use some other point of reference, we are no longer standing under Scripture, but we are standing over it – the as-yet-unidentified point of reference then becomes normative, and Scripture becomes its servant. For some that point of reference is their gender, or their understanding of gender. For some it is their idolatrous understanding of who and what God should be (idol in the sense of something created that is less than God). For some it is their wealth, which has displaced God. For some it is their nationalism, their racism, their philosophy of economics, or any one of a dozen more issues which compete with a person’s view of Scripture.

I will admit I am biased in certain directions. I just do not understand how we can appeal to Paul for his powerful exposition of God’s grace and at the same time utterly dismiss his directives for congregational polity. I do not understand how we can fawn over Jesus’s words of love and forgiveness and blithely reject his commands regarding justice. How can we adoringly quote from 1 Corinthians 13 and just completely disregard Amos?

I will also admit to being imperfect in applying my hermeneutic of Scripture – which is why I am all the more adamant that Scripture remain normative. If I get to decide what is Scripture and what is not, I have, in the immortal words of Pogo, become my own enemy. I will further admit that it is not always easy to determine what is normative for all time and across all cultures, and what was recorded because it was normative (or simply descriptive) of one time and in one culture. I think we can have those conversations, but only if we first agree that the words of the Bible must be their own judge, and not any aspect of our temporally limited understanding of such.

So, just as with baptism, the issue remains clear – as mud. I believe with all my being that there is a way forward – but it can only be successful if we first agree to ascend lower in our search for the meaning of Scripture.