Sunday Meditations: Knowledge Problems

This morning, my good friend and alter ego Cory gave a talk on Bible study.  It was very good.

Cory and I talk about this subject off and on, and we agree on most of it and share the same concerns.  There are a few things we see differently or would handle differently, and as I was driving home meditating on his talk, I think some of that comes from what we see when we look at the Western church, and “what we see” is probably at least partially shaped by our personalities and gifts.

On the one hand, Cory sees a Western church that is in love with knowledge but not so in love with doing anything about it.  He used this great illustration of a group of summer staffers sitting around debating theology while one staffer was going around cleaning up their trash, stacking the chairs, etc.  From this standpoint, the Western church loves to hear and debate, but we don’t like to do.  We invest a lot of time and energy into articulating the right WHY, and we consider that to be the sum of our Christian duty.  As long as the correct WHY gets out there, that’s all that’s really important.  If we have time for the occasional WHAT, that’s icing on the cake.

He’s not wrong.

I mean, think about the last few blow-ups in evangelicalism where the lines were drawn defining who the true and false Christians were.  Were those lines about behavior, or were they about doctrine?  Because somewhere along the line, being a true Christian became equated with “believing the right things.”  We are saved by believing the right things about being saved.

I don’t know that there’s one, specific thing that is the cause of this.  Part of it may be that the West has always loved knowledge and inquiry for its own sake.  Part of it may be the Protestant backlash against “faith plus works,” and “faith” got defined as “the stuff you believe” as opposed to “trust.”  When you tell people that the only thing God cares about is believing that Jesus died for your sins, that’s bound to create a strong skew toward what you know versus what you do, and it takes a lot to turn that ship around.

“Ok, so if I believe this thing, I’ll go to heaven when I die, and my works will not affect this in any way, shape, or form?  Ok, done.  Oh, now you want me to do stuff?  Oh, ok, well, if I get around to it.”

Another cause is that, culturally, the church tends to define faithfulness by what you abstain from rather than what you proactively do.  As long as you are keeping yourself from moral impurity, this is the faithful, Christian life, and you don’t even need to talk to someone else to do that.  In fact, it’s probably easier if you don’t.

Whatever the causes may be, it’s hard to look at Western evangelicalism and not see it.  People will happily attend a Bible study for an hour once a week, but they will not go pack food for a soup kitchen for an hour once a week.  They will teach Sunday School, but they will not pay their neighbor’s bills to help them in an emergency.  They can explain the various Greek words for love and the distinctions in their meaning, but they will not forgive a slight.

This is not an insignificant problem.  If you look at biblical passages that portray groups that have plenty of accurate knowledge but are not faithful with their actions, you know that does not turn out well for them.  If you look at biblical passages that portray people who probably don’t have it all together in the belief department but are, as John the Baptist might say, “bearing the fruits of repentance,” those people are held up as examples to everyone else.  We do not have the luxury of having churches full of people who are passionate about correct doctrine and do very little in terms of the faithful expression of what they say they believe.  God is not ok with this, and it says something that one of the mainstays of what makes a Protestant Protestant is the protestation that my works are irrelevant to my standing with God.

It is also true, however, that we see episodes in the Bible where people were doing the things God had asked, but their hearts were far from Him, and this also seems unacceptable, and that’s sort of a segue into what I see when I look at Western evangelicalism.

When I look at Western evangelicalism, I see a lot of people who don’t know what the hell they’re doing or why.

If you’ve never seen the movie version of The Scarlet Letter starring Demi Moore, first of all, don’t, second of all, you will find that the relationship of that movie to the book is kind of tenuous.

Your first clue is that the movie begins with a disclaimer: freely adapted from the novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne.  So, they’re adapting it, which you have to do if you’re going to make a movie out of a book; you can’t just convert a book into a movie by changing all the “she said” or “he said” to the characters’ names and a colon.  And they’re doing it “freely.”  What does this mean?

Well, all the characters are there.  Hester, Pearl, Dimmesdale, Chillingworth, the Puritans, etc.  And the adulterous affair and the community response to it is a big part of the plot.  Seems legit so far.

However, where the novel focuses entirely on the aftermath, the movie wants to tell you a story of tragedy and burgeoning love climaxing (no pun intended) in the consummation of the actual affair (which happens in a grain silo, thus illustrating that you should always be careful about where you get your bread).  Chillingworth is sort of a psychotic commando who skulks around at night gathering intelligence and killing animals.  Hester and Arthur are both condemned to execution, but they are saved at the last minute by Metacomet and his Indians who take revenge on the Puritans for their unjust treatment of them.  After the slaughter of the Puritans, Demi Moore closes the movie by saying something along the lines of, “You may think it was wrong for me to sleep with this other guy, but who knows if God agrees with you?”  The End.

Those of you who have read the novel realize that, although we can clearly see that the movie was informed by the book, it bears only the broadest of resemblances to the book’s actual story (much to the delight of high school English teachers, I guess, who can spot someone who just watched the movie in a heartbeat) and the central point it presents is kind of light years away from anything intended by Hawthorne.

The relationship of that movie to the original novel is analogous to how I see Western evangelicalism and the Bible.  The same characters are important, and you see at a very abstract level some of the same elements, but it’s really a different story broadly informed by the first one rather than being that same story brought into present day in a different format, and the main point it wants to get across may not be antithetical to the author’s intent, but it’s also not where He was going with it.

So, where Cory sees an unhealthy love of a body of knowledge that is taking away from our drive to do good works, I agree with that and also want to throw in that the “body of knowledge” we are addicted to is also pretty much crap.  It is scholarship that is built to hold up an edifice that we have created using the raw materials of the Bible as inspiration while paying very little attention to what those writings are actually about in and of themselves.  It is a Western Theology Perpetuation Machine (WTPM) that is a great vehicle for doing that, but a very poor vehicle for helping me step into the world of the text and understand Jesus’ sayings through his own eyes, which I hope we agree is an important thing to see.

I don’t care about a lengthy etymological study that helps me appreciate some subtle nuance of a Greek prefix.  I don’t care about some trivial cultural detail that makes the world of the Bible more interesting or more lifelike.  I care about scholarship that grabs me by the collar, yanks me out of my 21st century white guy American plain reading of a 2000 year old Near Eastern document, drops me into the world of the text and says, “Deal with me NOW.  This is MY HOUSE, and you are here on MY TERMS.  Now, LISTEN.”

That is something that, I’m sorry, will not happen without scholarship and teaching.  It could have happened without scholarship and teaching.  We could have always made it a point to pass down the Bible’s world, context, and narrative.  We could have always decided that the story was more important than the integrity of a body of doctrinal formulations.

First century illiterate Judean fishermen do not need help understanding where Jesus is coming from, not because they don’t have fancy book larnin’ getting in the way, but because they already live in that world, and even then, they needed a little help from time to time.  They are right smack in the middle of the Bible’s world – the political circumstances, the travails of Israel, the idioms, the cuss words, the debates – they’re already there.  We are 2000 years removed from that, and because we have not made it a careful point to pass down the narrative, the most brilliant of Bible scholars among us has to work their butt off to close that distance.

And does that distance need to be closed in order to understand Jesus?  Yeah, you bet.  And I don’t just mean to correct a bit here and there; I mean to change the game.  We are so, so far away from Jesus’ perspective if we think the gospel is, “Believe Jesus will save you, and you’ll go to Heaven when you die instead of Hell,” and the church’s mission is to get as many people to also believe that as possible.  Because our WHY is screwed up, our WHAT is screwed up, too.

This influences not only how the church spends her time, money, and people power – it influences life and death in the real world.  One group of American Christians wants to keep immigrants out of the country.  Another group wants to let them all in.  Neither group is coming from the standpoint that they know what God wants but they just don’t feel like doing it.  The issue isn’t (well, mostly isn’t) an unwillingness to obey, it’s that our Obeyinator Device is all screwed up.  Both groups are fighting for things that have real ramifications for people in the world, and both are convinced they are obeying God.  Same with support for Israel and/or opposition to the Palestinians.  Same for policy in the Middle East.  Same for what you think you should do if you get mugged in a parking lot.

I think more knowledge will not help us with this if what we mean by knowledge is scholarship that just shores up our systematic theology.  However, I do think more knowledge will help us with this if that knowledge helps us break out of our present filters and dispositions (and theology) to come to grips with our formative texts in new ways.  But by definition, that’s not something we can just produce ex nihilo.  If I just keep reading the Bible the way I always read my Bible then my reading can’t be critiqued.  Where will the critique come from?  The Bible?  I’m the one reading it.

The critique has to come from the outside, and maybe that will happen as a mystical operation of the Holy Spirit, but it is far more likely that critique will come from another person – a person who is more capable than I am of helping me get out of that paradigm.

To bring this to a close, I guess you could say the situation is like all of us being on a ship.  Cory pointed out this morning that, if we all just keep talking about the right direction, the mechanics of sailing, how navigation works, etc. we will still be broken on the rocks.  I could not agree more.  But then, I look at our oars, and they are full of gaping holes.  And I look at our rudder, and it’s barely hanging on – one more good wave will probably break it right off.

By all means, THE most important thing is that people quit talking about navigation and hydrology and start rowing.  But I think we are without the tools with which to row, and if we keep rowing with this crappy stuff, we’re just going to have a harder and harder time of it.