Friday, August 29, 2008

the one book I'd recommend to church groups....

... is Struggling with Scripture, by Walter Brueggemann, William Placher, and Brian Blount. It's three short essays, actually lectured delivered for popular audiences -- only 69 little pages and $9.99. This little book opens the best, most honest discussion about the role of the Bible in Christian life of which I'm aware. I've been recommending it for years.

The problem is, churches often get tied up in conversations about the Bible without seriously pausing to reflect on the Bible as a whole. In the current sexuality debates people throw proof texts at one another, often with interpretations that are tenuous at best. That sort of process, something like choosing up sides for a softball game, naturally leads to conflict. Struggling with Scripture opens space for a very different kind of conversation.

Brueggemann resists any attempt to reduce the question of biblical authority to a simple doctrinal statement. Scripture, he says, always surprises us if we're open to the possibility; thus, we cannot determine in advance what it can and cannot mean. He acknowledges that the biblical authors wrote from within their own cultural contexts -- how could they not? -- and that their perspectives were naturally limited. Yet the bottom line, for Brueggemann, is the Bible's inherency, its inherent and consistent testimony to a God who created life, who redeems life, and who will one day bring life to its joyous consummation.

In my view Placher is the star of the show. He acknowledges his gratitude for a life-giving, lifelong encounter with Scripture. Yet he notes that the church has a way of interpreting the Bible to fit its agenda of the moment. Not long ago, historically speaking, the churches used the Bible to defend slavery, then segregation. Not long ago the churches used the Bible to marginalize divorced persons. Now that divorce is more common, the churches have changed. Not long ago at all the churches used the Bible to silence women in ministry. Given this trajectory of "not long ago but now," what will the churches do with the homosexuality question? If we are honest with ourselves, Placher shows us, we have a habit of interpreting to the advantage of the powerful. In the long run Placher defines faithfulness to the Bible as a lifetime of serious, daily engagement with Scripture. We try to see how the parts relate to the whole, we humbly acknowledge we don't know everything, working through those passages that make us uncomfortable. Placher's transparent honesty marks the book's most compelling moment.

Blount's essay raises the stakes even higher. He regards biblical authority as contextual biblical authority, reflecting not only sensitivity to the contexts of the authors but attentiveness to our living context in the here and now. For Blount the Bible is an elusive, living word: "Nothing that is living is ever last." Blount calls attention to how both African American slaves and New Testament writers engaged the Bible to address the emergent concerns of their own communities. It's a high calling, a demanding calling, to interpret the Bible apart from the illusion that we have a final handle on the truth. Blount quotes Tom Hanks from the film A League of Their Own: "It's baseball. It's supposed to be hard. If it weren't hard, then everyone would do it."

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

the elusive link -- religious experience

Several years ago Luke Timothy Johnson called out the neglect of religious experience among students of early Christianity in his Religious Experience in Earliest Christianity: A Missing Dimension in New Testament Studies. In the interim several attempts to explain the spread of early Christianity have emerged, usually with sociological frameworks.

For my part, 1 Thessalonians 1:5 has long arrested my attention. Recalling his first visit among the Thessalonians, Paul writes, "our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but with power and the Holy Spirit and full conviction."

I take Paul seriously here. Paul is calling the Thessalonians to recall the basic religious experience they shared during Paul's visit. In fact, he devotes most of the letter to this very subject. Apparently, he's trying to maintain a positive relationship with this church he has not seen in a long time. His task, then, is like that of a lover writing a letter to the beloved. She or he had better not overstate how great things were when they were last together; otherwise, the whole enterprise is in trouble. I imagine that Paul actually recalls a shared and powerful religious experience from that first visit.

What I'd love to know is, what does Paul mean by power? What sort of religious experience lies behind this? As we consider how early Christianity spread, let's not shut down our imaginations to the work of religious experience.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Jesus on Bullshit

I just finished Harry G. Frankfurt's bestselling little book, On Bullshit (Princeton, 2005). If I were really cool, I would've read and commented on it a couple of years ago. Then again, I've long since learned that any attempts at coolness on my part always backfire.

For those who don't know, On Bullshit is a serious work of philosophy though it is less than 70 pages long. Frankfurt has since published On Truth, which I have not read. Frankfurt's distinction between bullshit and lying may illuminate Jesus' saying concerning oaths (Matt 5:33-36; cf. James 5:12). Lying, according to Frankfurt, requires a concern with the truth. Lying happens when someone says something that they know to be false in an effort to lead others to believe what is false. In other words, to lie you have to care about the truth. But bullshit happens when people don't care about the truth at all. Bullshit is simply talking for the sake of some purpose unrelated to the words coming from one's mouth.

Perhaps the most simple case of bullshit occurs when a student says something like, "I bullshitted my way all the way through the exam." What that student means is usually something like this, "I wrote and wrote, hoping to confuse the instructor into thinking I had something of value to say, hoping I got lucky and said something relevant, most of all hoping to cover up my ignorance."

Jesus' sayings concerning oaths strikes somewhere near this point. The saying stands among the famous Antitheses of the Sermon on the Mount: "You have heard it said, but I tell you...." Jesus begins by addressing a commandment concerning fulfilling oaths, then he moves on to prohibit oaths altogether. Just "Let your word be, 'Yes, Yes' or 'No, No'' anything more than this comes from the evil one" (NRSV).

And what is the purpose of an oath? An oath serves not to make a truth claim but to attest to the sincerity of the person speaking the oath. In other words, an oath is a kind of personal guarantee having nothing directly to do with the matter at hand. In short, oaths are a specific form of bullshit.

I grew up in Alabama, where bullshit is an art form. To be honest, I enjoy bullshit a lot. However, Christian groups have occasionally emphasized Jesus' teaching concerning oaths. These promote a sober approach to human interaction, where people say exactly what they mean, no more and no less. Personally, I find that approach to life a little stifling. On the other hand, I see way too much bullshit in the church, from fake enthusiasm in worship leaders, to fake happiness in ordinary people. Folks can spot that kind of bullshit a mile away, and it does great harm to the church. Indeed, I bullshit may be one of the major reasons that most churches are declining. If Christian faith isn't strong enough to engage real life, why bother?

I recommend Frankfurt's On Bullshit.