Westboro and Dogmatics


Here's a really fascinating interview with a former member of the Westboro Baptists. (I should point out that the interviewer, Sam Harris is an atheist, but I don't think anything he says in here should bother most Christians.) They touch on the subject I've been exploring for many years now, and have not found a good way to articulate to most people of faith. That is: the interpretive layer that takes place between your sacred text and what you consider it to mean. (Your doctrine.) Most people of faith don't realize or won't acknowledge that it exists. Fortunately, most faith doctrines don't lead to Westboro (or ISIS) behavior, but the problem I have is that without recognizing the fallible state a human is in, even if the scripture is divine, you can't know you're interpreting everything correctly. In theory, that SHOULD cause you to be a lot more graceful to those who disagree and a less dogmatic in pointing fingers at others.

24:20 of the podcast in particular is interesting in this regard.

Speaking about the attitude at Westboro, she says about the idea that anything but a flat, literal reading:

"You are substituting your judgement for God's judgement. Clearly, the book says this..."

Of course the irony is that (as the thousands of Christian denominations attest) every person who reads the same set of texts somehow ends up with variant opinions about "what the book says". Some small variations, some huge. And so the only move a doctrinal purist has is to say that all those variations are "of the devil" or caused by confusion, sin, or some other problem with the person who disagrees with your conclusions. (Or they sweep the differences under the carpet and say they aren't important.) It seems to me that all of this goes back to a stubborn refusal to admit that it is simply, literally impossible to extract a flat, literal reading of any text, let alone a massive compilation of works spanning centuries and translated through several languages from vastly different cultures.

So why is it so hard to convince my fellow Christians that their doctrine comes not directly from the Bible, but is the end result of a very complex and rich process of history, scholarship, board meetings, politics, etc? Well most will admit to parts of that, but then go back to saying there is really only one RIGHT interpretation from that process, and it just so happens to be the one that they and their church adhere to. But the complex and rich process is all full of humans using their reasoning, biases, etc. to make judgement calls about the "real" meaning of the Bible.

But there's a lot of fear about admitting this, and I think she puts it well at 41:10, where she talks about her first questioning of her church's doctrine. She had to go with how she feels, or lose everything. The fact is that once you pull one string, you absolutely can find it easier and easier to keep pulling until the whole thing is unraveled. I think the churches that are still around have evolved a coping mechanism to avoid this slippery slope. She talks about that as well. It's basically the Job answer: WHO ARE YOU TO QUESTION GOD?!. (53:20) If the premise is accepted that there's a creator God, then yeah, we humans are clearly less-than, and it's silly to rebel against Him. The PROBLEM is that, as I've been trying to point out, and what Megan points out, it's not GOD ALMIGHTY you are questioning if a doctrine seems out of line to you. Because there are so many possible interpretations of any given subject, the doctrine you've inherited, or that your church proclaims, that does not mean that's what the "true" meaning of the text is.

So why do I care about all this? Because I would love my fellow Christians to be less dogmatic about all their opinions about Truth, because I think that would 1. Allow us to be more loving, and 2. allow us to have more unity, and 3. make us less like "the world" by which I mean the human tendency to be absolutely sure of oneself to the point where dissenters are demonized.

Sadly, it seems that for many people of faith, any diminution of the certainty of their interpretations means an equal diminution of their faith in God. So pushing for this idea seems like it's pushing for people to reject their faith. But again, it's not about faith in God, it's about faith in their doctrines because those are clearly man-made artifacts, and that kind of "faith" to me, is another way of describing pride or arrogance.

Thing about it this way. What if you were raised in the Westboro church like Megan? Would it be "questioning God" to decide that picketing funerals was not what God wants from you? While your church does not do those terrible things, that does not mean that it's the lucky one that got every single doctrine correct. Clearly, it's possible to have full, rich, happy, spiritually fulfilling lives in a church that got some or all of its doctrines wrong. Otherwise there would be only one church in the world with happy thriving people and every other one would be a hell hole.

So all I want to do, is to encourage anyone who thinks that they have to look down on anyone, or pursue political power to stop some group, or anything else that feels less loving than you could be... maybe question that doctrine. Look into alternatives. Pray about it. Maybe God wants you to help change your church to be more like His hands and feet, and less like his sword.


Syp said…
Hey Josh,

Great post -- and one that is quite important and relevant to any believer. Interpreting scripture is something any Bible reader does and -- if you believe that this is the inerrant word of God -- needs to be done properly. The task of exegesis (finding out what the text originally meant) and hermeneutics (hearing that same meaning in our current context and culture) is not just for pastors but for any who want to minimize doctrinal disputes and apply the Bible the right way to their lives.

I've been digging into hermeneutic books lately (I recommend "How to read the Bible for all its worth" by Fee and Stuart as well as Exegetical Fallacies by Carson for good jumping-off points), because I want my interpretation from the pulpit to clearly reflect the accurate meaning of the passage, not just what I want to read into it.

One other thought: A fellow pastor once told me that on issues in Scripture where doctrine (teachings) are hard to discern (perhaps only hanging on a single verse or two), one must be cautious. But where doctrine is clearly stated over and over, one can't be afraid to teach that with conviction (and grace).
10 Virgins said…
I appreciate the book recommendations, understanding cultural context of the times in the scriptures is what I look for most in a pastor, and they are hard to find those pastors who care about this - so I also appreciate your dedication to that.

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