Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Painters and Kickboxers

It seems to me that the issue of what one considers "the" Bible to be is at the very beginning of the rift between liberal and conservative forms of Christianity. (Please note I put the quotation marks around the "the" in "the" Bible because there are so many versions, translations, and book counts throughout history that I can't accept the term "the" Bible as meaningful. It is not out of disrespect to the scriptures contained within.) We have on one side a group of Christians who see "the" Bible as a collection of various stuff that may or may not relate to reality or their lives, but has a nice man who said some nice things. We have on the other end of the spectrum a group of Christians who view "the" Bible as a perfect, word-for-word-and-as-literal-as-possible book with real history, real science, real prophecy, and containing every answer to any question anyone could possibly have. The folks close to this end are conservative Christians, the folks closer to the other end are the liberal ones. I was raised more towards the conservative end, viewing "the" Bible as a perfect, God-directed book. Or a "love letter" as some have cutely called it. All my Christian friends and family are on that side, so it's a bit sad to find myself on the other side now. Probably more sad for them, since most conservative Christians have serious doubts about the salvation of those on the liberal side. (Though I don't consider myself a 'liberal Christian' at all.)If there is a clear line dividing the two groups it is called inerrancy. The liberals will consider the input of critical scholarship concerning the origins and interpretation of our sacred scriptures, the conservatives will not. To them, even considering that some of the books attributed to Paul might not be his, or that parts of the Gospels were added hundreds of years later, is tantamount to betraying God.

That's where I used to be until my quest for a gospel that doesn't contradict itself or nature took me away from conservative orthodoxy. Since I was brought up in an atmosphere of mistrust of any sort of criticism of "the" Bible, I always assumed all the liberal theologians and Biblical scholars were simply tools of the Devil on a mission to subvert as many pure Christian minds as possible. That could still be true, but I figured in the name of intellectual honesty I should still at least investigate some of these claims. I'll talk about this some more in another blog when I review What Paul Meant by Garry Wills.

Right now I want to focus only on inerrancy. I'm going to selectively quote from the last lecture of a set on Christianity by Luke Johnson for The Teaching Company. Here, he's speaking about the way scripture was viewed pre and post-enlightenment.

"As Anselm said: 'Theology is faith seeking understanding'. So you begin with faith and then human intelligence tries to figure out what that means. The enlightenment turned that around. Now revelation has to answer at the court of human reason. Human reason itself is defined in a fairly narrow fashion. Not all ways of reasoning are considered to be equally valid. Rather, that form of reasoning that can be empirically verified, is the judge of all things. So that if we're in the realm of natural science: that which can be demonstrated through experimentation, replication, prediction and so forth… If we're talking about history: that which can be empirically verified by means of evidence and so forth."

I'm not sure that Anselm's quote about faith seeking understanding presents us with a comprehensive, inclusive view of the pre-enlightenment religious worldview. But then, the concept of an "enlightenment" is a construct of history and the result of a need to categorize and separate historical eras, so nothing here is a simple before/after equation. But the vision of pre-enlightenment thinking that I've been handed is one where faith is valued above most things, including reason. But then this pairing of faith vs. reason presupposes a conflict. Much like the current faith vs. science B.S. we are fed. As though when one wins ground the other loses ground. I don't buy this, and I don't buy the idea that pre-modern thinkers were going around like imbeciles ignoring reason and acting on 'faith'. I mean, what is faith if you aren't using reason to apply it to your life? How often did people run into a problem that had an ascertainable explanation and a contradicting "faithful" explanation and picked the later simply because they valued faith over reason? I'm sure it happened. But should that era of history be defined by it more than ours, where we put our faith in the scientists who create the data that is most politically expedient, allowing us to promote more government intrusion in the name of saving the earth? Just like back then, today it all comes down to shaping our actions based on the authorities we WANT to believe. We moderns still put faith before reason when it tickles our fancy and reinforces our chosen beliefs.

But there IS a big difference when it comes to which authorities are more popular. I've read that in times pre-enlightenment, people tended to view anything old as true. And the older it was the truer it was. That is why Aristotle (Who promoted logic and reason very heavily I might add.) both drove and stagnated scientific progress for so long. If he said it in his Physics book, it must be true. Since people respected age, religious claims clearly held more weight than they do today, where everything old is generally seen as wrong. And also, since we have such a huge blind spot to our own narcissistic impulse to assume we moderns have finally figured it all out, we dismiss what the religious claims may say about our lives. Psychology is for scientists. Anger, grief and most other emotions are to be treated by Psychiatrists and doctors. As every human need because systematized, categorized, and treated by specialists and scientists, matters of ultimate concern are pushed further and further into the periphery since they can't be treated scientifically. There aren't many new answers to the age-old mysteries, so they don't interest a society that is infatuated with the new.

All this to say that while I reject some of the sweeping assertions of Prof. Johnson, I agree that as a species, our focus has shifted. We moderns do value empirical evidence over revelation. We just fool ourselves into believing that empirical evidence is less prone to bias and interpretation than it really is.

Next Johnson categorizes different postures that Christians take towards the criticism that the enlightenment spawned. According to his category, my heritage is called the active-resistant response. As opposed to Christians who accept higher criticism, changing their beliefs accordingly, or those who passively accommodate everything that society has to offer.


 

"Paradoxically, the active-resistant response [Of some Christians concerning critical scholarship of the Bible] is, in some sense, most defined by modernity. Because in fact, by actively resisting, it actually accepts the categories of modernity as the categories that need to be fought. So, if the enlightenment says that scripture can only be true if it is literally true and historically true, the fundamentalist responds by saying, 'Well it IS literally true and historically true.'. Accepting the very limited understanding of rationality that is offered by the enlightenment… Rather than saying, 'My goodness, language can be true in a number of ways… it can be true mythically, it can be true poetically, it can be true through metaphor, and so forth.' So even though the active-resistant response is militantly opposed to modernity, it's also very much defined by modernity. It's impossible to think of the contemporary evangelical Christians, let us say, in the 15th century. …[their viewpoint] simply would not be thinkable apart from the conditions of modernity." (emphasis mine)

This, I can get behind. It sounds precisely true to me. We conservative Christians are fighting on the enemy's battleground under their conditions. (In first-world technologically advanced areas.) No wonder we are losing! It's like an award winning painter being put in a ring with an award winning kickboxer. Both are great at what they do, but are in different categories and it's obvious who will win when one is put in the other's arena. The arena of religion is where stories are made, inhabited, experienced, acted on, and given form with hope and faith. The arena of post-enlightenment secular humanism is where physical challenges to survival are met and solutions are offered. One deals with the big questions (Like: Is there a God? and, Do we have a purpose?) that shape the way we approach the little questions. (Like: How should we power our cities? And, What is the fasted rout between trading posts?) In my kickboxer / painter analogy, a kickboxer does not have to think about the art and craft of painting in order to kick a painter's ass. But a painter has to develop an entirely new repertoire in order to even approach defeating the kickboxer in a fight. And no matter how hard a typical painter trains, he isn't going to do well in a fight. And I think this is where modern conservative Christian apologetics fails. Christianity is waning because we are pretending to have better solutions to the mechanical, the physical, the practical. But Jesus and Paul were never about those things. They were about big ideas that animated thought life and worldview. Renewing minds, not agriculture or paleontology. Changing hearts, not educational or justice systems. Granted: OT God was into all that stuff too.

But what I'm trying to get at is the idea that we don't need to spar in the same arena. Just because modern society finds only scientificy sounding concepts of value doesn't mean we have to accommodate that proclivity. Because the fact of the matter is that secular humanism leaves an aching void in the public consciousness. A desire to find answers to the big questions that it ignores. (It could be said that the popular science fiction mythos of aliens kick-starting society is one secular attempt to supplant the religious need.) But we painters are too busy trying to kick a professional prize-fighter rather than doing what we are called to do… which is paint. I think we need to take out the mouthgaurd and take off the puffy helmet, and pick up our brushes are start painting a picture of what a full life looks like. A life that does not ignore the big questions as irrelevant. C.S. Lewis did this brilliantly. And he did it precisely by painting images that escaped the strictures of doctrinal walls, firing imagination in directions that are unorthodox. Look at The Great Divorce where he tells the story of every soul in hell getting a chance to go to heaven if they really want it. Not theologically kosher at all!

Of course the beauty of us Christians setting examples of full life rather than defining what's out of bounds, is that as people begin to rekindle their interest in the big picture questions, their answers will affect how they approach the little questions, and society can change for the better. They just need to be shown in a captivating way how grappling with big questions can fulfill people. And that's something a painting can do much better than a fight. My contention for the specific issue of inerrancy is that we painters have decided that "the" Bible has to be more than a painting that moves people. It also has to be blunt object that can contend with flying feet and fists. We make demands of "the" Bible that I've come to believe are completely inappropriate. Just as a painting is not made to physically damage people, (great idea for you fine artists who can't figure out how to shock people anymore.) the scriptures we have inherited were clearly not made to teach history, form scientific theories, or teach us how to farm. Those are all little picture questions. Those are mechanical processes that come and go with the generations. What our scriptures were made to do is to bring answers to the big questions that are the same for every person in every time and location. So when we say that Noah's flood had to have happened exactly as described or "the" Bible is false, I think we are entering the wrong arena.

If I give you a love letter that says, "Take my heart, it is yours!" and you show up on my doorstep with a knife and a sandwich bag, you are not honoring the intent of my letter. Taking something literally that was not meant to be literal is not respectful, and you shouldn't expect good results from it. I think that's what we modern Christians do when we try to prove this or that story from "the" Bible according to modern terms of historical analysis. We are leaving the studio and entering the ring.

I need to be careful here, because in dealing with Christianity we are dealing with a religion that is cemented in history with actual people and claims of actual events. This is unlike Buddhism Taoism, Confucianism, Hinduism, and most other non-Abrahamic religious systems that make truth-statements independent of any historical claims. There has always been a strain within Christianity that seeks to completely spiritualize "the" Bible, essentially cutting it out of history. To me this seems to cause it to lose any individuality it has. And maybe that's the point. I'm not ready to go there. I still feel like there has to be an anchor that keeps a truth-claim contextualized and realistic in order to resonate. But hey, that doesn't stop all those other religious traditions from doing well.

To me, there is a difference between rooting Biblical narratives in history, and insisting that every detail is a perfect revelation, scientifically accurate and historically real in every sense. When I changed my focus from "the" Bible to Jesus, I lost the need for the modern interpretation. I can see each gospel as a community interpretation of Jesus' life and words. I can see Paul as a brilliant interpreter and councilor, fitting Jesus' work into a context that was beneficial to the early Christian communities. I can see the OT stories of the creation and fall, Noah's flood, and such as cross-pollinated myths that a particular people latched onto and found deep meaning in. And none of these ways of seeing are disrespectful. I'm not saying "the" Bible is full of lies. That's how a modernist would interpret it. I'm trying to see our scriptures in a comprehensive way, free from the strictures of enlightenment rules. When God says His heart is mine I don't want to be reaching for a knife and sandwich bag.

Furthermore, I find the whole process of coming up with hard-and-fast answers to all the open-ended questions in "the" Bible (Like: What the heck WAS Jesus?) to be a folly-ridden endeavor. This one can't be pinned on modernity, it was happening in the first generation of Christians and will continue until the last. But what I find with our systematic theology is an attempt to cram every shaped peg of scripture into a single hole. (Which not coincidentally is shaped exactly like what we want it to be shaped like!) When one regards every scrap of scripture to be equally important and true in exactly the same way, one has to shave off edges, twist meanings, distort forms, and pretty much kill Mystery. Yes, Mystery… with a capitol M. Why is Mystery important? Well, once I stopped viewing "the" Bible through the lens of modern-historical-narrative, I found that it's really more akin to a spiritual Mystery novel. But not like a novel because it doesn't have a resolution to all the mysteries. It's like the first season of Lost. What's that giant invisible monster? What is that whispering sound? Why are there polar bears in the jungle? Who are the Others? What's in that locked hatch? I'm sure if you took all the great Christian theologians and set them on it, they could find a way to make everything in the first season of Lost coheir in some fashion, convoluted as it may be. And I'm sure it would be completely wrong. The assumption that "the" Bible is the full picture of spiritual reality, complete in every way with answers to ever question is the false premise upon which Theology is built. We think that since we are shown the beginning and the end of history, it must be a complete work. I don't think that necessarily follows.

Mystery permeates everything in "the" Bible. If Jesus didn't want to be mysterious He would have written down His teachings and commissioned portraits of Himself. If He was omniscient and didn't want thousands of warring denominations founded in His name He could have cleared up most the mysteries. He could have forgone parables for treatises. He could have used much less symbolic language. Heck, God could have positioned Jesus' life in plain view of a prominent historian. I think we are fighting the artform of Jesus' revelation when we approach "the" Bible as a puzzle that must be put together perfectly in order to attain salvation. But what if God purposely left out 90% of the pieces? We are seeing kickboxing lessons where we should be getting moved by a beautiful portrait. Moved to the point that WE want to learn to paint like that. How "historical" that portrait is by modern standards is not the point. Sure, it helps if there is something historical to ground it; that makes the portrait more stirring and motivating than the kind offered by Shiva or Hercules. But getting hung up on the particularities seems like a futile exercise. Seems like it forces you to miss the forest for the trees. It feels to me like theology has done just that. It's caused us Christians to get caught up in particularities that end up excluding the heart of Christ's message.

Our system forces us to try to fit disparate imagery together into a hodgepodge image that ruins the individual pieces by decontextualizing them. We are forced by our rigid philosophy of scripture to assume that a psalm, a pre-historic lineage, a sexually explicit poem, dietary regulations, and Jesus' words are all exactly equal. All to be revered as perfect revelation. And that framework turns "the" Bible into a postmodern collage. Bits and pieces of material thrown together in a big mash-up. Imagine as an exercise, collecting a random assortment of a couple hundred YouTube videos, putting them together in a cannon, and trying to find a through-line; a theory that explains all of them as a totality. Well the assortment of literature in "the" Bible is like that. Diverse perspective, belief systems, cultures, styles, genre, and motives, spanning thousands of years. My apologetic training has taught me that the refutation to this diversity is that there is a clear, common theme throughout that proves their unity and message.

Well… to be honest… I think that is complete crap. Yes, you can FIND commonality if you search hard enough. And mostly, if your a priori assumption is that all these writings are supposed to be part of a set. But that a priori is found nowhere within these writings! There is no claim in any of them that they all go together as a whole. If you believe they do it is because you have faith in a council, not in the writings themselves. Or faith in what you think God would or should do. You are "leaning on your own understanding". Exactly what inerrantists charge of those who don't buy their theory of "the" Bible. If you gave me 200 random YouTube videos and told me they were hand-picked by God to deliver a message, I guarantee I could find a way to thematically unify them and proffer a theory about how and why they go together. Anyone familiar with art criticism can tell you a person can read almost anything into a piece. Critics have found a way to eek brilliance out of a single-colored canvass and a urinal for crying out loud! I think this is what mainstream theology is: a reading-into based on the assumption that all the parts came from the same source.


 

It's not faith "in the Bible" they have. It's faith "in a particular interpretation of a specific version of Bible"; and before that it's faith "in a concept of what the Bible is or is not". Just like it's not faith "in science" that secular humanists have. It's faith "in a particular interpretation of specific data"; and before that it's faith "in a concept of what science is or is not". And when we tailor our faith in God to the categories of secular humanists… we lose. Modern Christian fundamentalism/inerrancy is based on enlightenment ideas about what Truth is or can be. Rejecting metaphor, embracing modern historical analysis. Diminishing the heart to accommodate the head. What we Christians would be wise to remember is that the heart has always been, and will always be more powerful than the head. It sets the agenda that the head follows. It determines what is, and is not acceptable. Let's stop kickboxing with our Bible's and start painting with them.

But of course life is not lived entirely in the heart, and if our Gospel was confined to that realm it would have died long ago. "The" Bible is not a one-dimensional document full of sentiment and void of substance. And reason must always be exercised in order to apply any of it to our lives. But one thing that virtually all Christians -inerrantists and non- agree on is that we don't apply all of "the" Bible to our lives in a literal or straightforward sense. We have used reason to adapt our theology to our times and cultures. We don't sacrifice animals like God commands in the Old Testament. We don't marry multiple wives like the patriarchs did. Instead we came up with a theory about why those particular aspects of "the" Bible don't apply to us. Well, I'm expanding that critical thinking to the whole kit-and-caboodle. Maybe Paul's advice wasn't all perfect. Maybe John was hallucinating. Maybe the book of Revelations was written by someone else pseudonymously in order to raise the moral of struggling Christians. I'm not making these claims, I'm only considering that they are possible. And that doesn't hurt God or insult Him or exalt myself. It's simply the same process of applying human reason to Biblical interpretation. Just like we all do when we sleep in the same bed as our wives when they are menstruating. Or go to church on Sunday instead of Saturday.

My virtual professor said: "To find a middle position in which loyalty to the tradition and the use of critical intelligence are combined is a very difficult place to occupy." I agree with this, but want to point out that he said loyalty to "the tradition", not loyalty to God or Christ, or community. I'm not being disloyal to them by critically approaching my traditions. One of those traditions is the theory of what "the" Bible is. That theory has profoundly shaped Christianity, so to question it seems like it is to question Christianity. I insist that it is not. I insist that whatever work God did through Christ is effective and binding regardless or our apprehension or misapprehension of it. I insist this because reason dictates that if near-perfect apprehension of Christ's work was necessary than God is either a poor planner, (Not omniscient) doesn't want many to figure it out, (Not loving) or can't make the message more clear and apparent. (Not omnipotent) If God wanted us to all get the same message from "the" Bible I think He would have sent a kickboxer instead of a painter.

But He didn't. He painted us a picture through Christ, open to many, many interpretations that range from solemnity to silliness. And I think He must find value in them all, otherwise He would have not have left so much unpainted canvass, beckoning generations of Christians to add to it. And we have filled in all those mysterious blank spots with our silly theologies and doctrines, pretending that our contributions can come close what God did. Instead of glorious color and life we fill in the blanks with meticulously scribed charts, diagrams, bullet pointed lists, institutional operational manuals, and hierarchically progressively taller hats. All I'm doing is trying to ignore that garbage, (as necessary as it might be for most) and savor the purity of a painting that is mostly blank darkness, with spots of illumination revealing a beauty so profound that no medium could capture it. I don't care if all the higher critics are right, and actual apostles didn't write the Gospels or Revelations. I don't care if King Solomon was as rich as was claimed. I don't care if Paul was a closet homosexual. I don't care if half the words attributed to Jesus were never spoken by Him but were the collected legends of a nascent church community. There is an essence. An anticipation built from the scant information available. I see many possibilities in the deft strokes of this painting. I can't make it out clearly because so many have tried to paint their version over the top of it, but I sense brilliance. I'm motivated to delve deeper into this story. To investigate which of these lines are real, and which were redacted. I want to get at the mind of the Artist. I want to learn from the Artist. I want to be like the Artist. I want His breath of life to animate me and to flow through me to animate others.