Saturday, April 02, 2011

Conflicting Narratives and "Uncivility"

I try to read a healthy number of other people's blogs.  While I try not to remain within what's commonly called the "bell jar" (for those who don't know the term in this context, the idea suggests a person that only visits sites that promote opinions the person already has, thus isolating the person from ever hearing anything else), I will confess that some sites interest me more than others, and that some opinions are simply stated too harshly for me to continue reading for long.  Among the sites I've been to, I've been noticing a trend in the ways that people use scripture references to make opposing cases.

Here's an example I've used in the past:
Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. (Matthew 12:30)
“Do not stop him,” Jesus said, “for whoever is not against you is for you.” (Luke 9:50, see also Mark 9:40)
I try to be careful not to suggest that only one of these passages is "correct" while the other is "wrong."  Indeed, I try to point to context to try to work out what Jesus (the speaker in both of these instances) is getting at in each situation.  But the point remains that when people appropriate these passages for whatever argument they're trying to make, they often do so in ways that make it look like the Bible doesn't have the passages that look to go in exactly the opposite direction.

Here's another example, using two verses from the same dialogue:
My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? (John 14:2)
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6)
The point of mentioning this isn't to suggest difficulty in getting to what Jesus is talking about in this passage (or any other).  While some passages are more difficult than others, the point here is simply that it's very easy to make Jesus (or the Bible) appear to say contradictory things.  And whether we intend to do this or not, we find ourselves doing this all the time.  Even trusted scholars often do this, despite their own best efforts.

This is why I tend to suggest that we separate our interpretation of the Bible from what the Bible actually means.  Notice I didn't say "what the Bible actually says."  "What the Bible says" is nothing more nor less than using quotations such as I already used above.  When people say "what the Bible says," especially in the context of a discussion of doctrine, they almost invariably do so in an attempt to assert a particular meaning, and this is the crucial point.

When someone says "you don’t agree with Jesus" and then cite something Jesus said, that's not playing fair, precisely because Jesus did also say other things, some of which could easily go in another direction. Many of these things can be reconciled, to be sure, but if I don't reconcile those quotations the way you do, you would be acting as though you are Jesus when you say that I disagree with Jesus (rather than the reality, that I simply disagree with you, a mere mortal).

In a related discussion, I see more and more people responding to calls for civility, noting (correctly!) that that Jesus, Paul, and others weren't afraid to be "uncivil" in certain circumstances, such as when opponents might called a "brood of vipers."  This came up a lot in the recent flare-up since Rob Bell started being accused of suggesting that too many people get into heaven (or perhaps more correctly, that too few people get into hell).  I feel that I have to point out that the anger of Jesus seems directed not only to religious authorities (a point often made by many), but specifically against those authorities who were more restrictive than the narrative he was trying to tell (I could say the same for Paul).  I haven't yet found an "uncivil" argument made against those who were too permissive.  (I've seen statements that are indeed "restrictive."  Some are above.  But these hardly seem to have the force or nature of the "brood of vipers" statements.)

Clearly there are more than enough passages in Scripture to indicate that God is not an "anything goes" God.  What we do on this Earth matters to God.  But I think we need to keep the "uncivil" statements of Jesus and other biblical figures in mind, and specifically what kinds of arguments they were used against, when we frame our discussions.  These are, indeed, important matters.  We will naturally be passionate about them.  But let's stop short of calling people "heretic," "apostate," or otherwise "against Jesus" for suggesting too open a view of God's mercy.  If they're wrong, we need to challenge them, to be sure.  But let's do so with the remembrance that they, too, will almost certainly be with God in heaven if they themselves proclaim Christ as their Lord and savior.  We are not saved by the rightness of our doctrine, but only by the saving acts of Jesus Christ.

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