Modern Parables 5: The Escape

I love the parables. I think they give us insight into Jesus’ personality as well as the character of God. They are carefully crafted to shock the religious assumptions of his hearers. So I thought I’d try my hand at writing a few:

A Wall Street banker encountered an angry mob, so he invited them into his home. “Take whatever you want,” he told them. While they ransacked his house, he and his family fled to France. “But we don’t even speak the language!” said his wife. “At least we’ll have decent health care and will eat well,” he replied.

 


Modern Parables 4: Genes

I love the parables. I think they give us insight into Jesus’ personality as well as the character of God. They are carefully crafted to shock the religious assumptions of his hearers. So I thought I’d try my hand at writing a few:

The reign of God is like a tiny mutation on a single gene, and that mutation is spread to the whole human race. Overnight, we woke up with the ability to fly.

 

Modern Parables 3: The Revival

I love the parables. I think they give us insight into Jesus’ personality as well as the character of God. They are carefully crafted to shock the religious assumptions of his hearers. So I thought I’d try my hand at writing a few. (This one is inspired by David Buttrick):

A hedge-fund manager and a pastor both attended a revival. The pastor knew all the lyrics to all of the songs, raised his hands in worship, and gave his personal testimony. The hedge-fund manager stood at the door, too ashamed to sit among the congregation. “God, I shouldn’t even be here. I’m no damned good,” he prayed. At the altar call, he turned around and left. Truly I tell you, of the two, the hedge-fund manager went home justified.

 

Modern Parables 2: The Brothel

I love the parables. I think they give us insight into Jesus’ personality as well as the character of God. They are carefully crafted to shock the religious assumptions of his hearers. So I thought I’d try my hand at writing a few:

The reign of God is like a prostitute in a brothel who owed a huge debt to her madam. One night her favorite client, a wealthy politician, had a heart-attack. So she forged a wedding certificate, inherited the senator’s money, and took over the brothel. The madam commended the prostitute and told her, “You will go far in this business.”

Modern Parables 1: The Lost Cat

I love the parables. I think they give us insight into Jesus’ personality as well as the character of God. They are carefully crafted to shock the religious assumptions of his hearers. So I thought I’d try my hand at writing a few:

Which of you, if you lost your cat, wouldn’t wander all over the city looking for him, leaving all your windows and your house door wide open in case he came back? And when you found him, instead of going home, you’d be so overjoyed that you would take him out for drinks with your friends, and celebrate for days.

Finely Crafted Fertilizer

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“Deceptive misrepresentation, short of lying, especially by pretentious word or deed, of somebody’s own thoughts, feelings, or attitudes.” That’s Max Black’s definition of humbug, and it provides a jumping-off point for Harry Frankfurt’s essay On Bullshit.

Of course, the essay is itself BS, an example of the kind of delightful writing that’s more poetry than philosophy. Frankfurt waxes rhapsodic about the metaphor: He says BS implies a lack of refinement: “Excrement is not designed or crafted at all; it is merely emitted, or dumped. It may have a more or less coherent shape, or it may not, but it is in any case certainly not wrought. The notion of carefully wrought bullshit involves, then, a certain strain.”

The key distinction, Frankfurt says, between BS and lying is that a lie requires the liar to know or at least be interested in the truth, and to misrepresent it. The BS artist, on the other hand, is not really interested in misrepresenting the truth. He is interested in misrepresenting himself. The truth is irrelevant.

As I said, Frankfurt’s essay is, in many ways, also BS. Like a signpost, though, it points beyond itself to something that is true. Much of our language is not about truth, but about performance: gaining the upper hand, making peace, shaming, praising, wooing, or persuading. We often do one thing while pretending to do something else: shaming while making peace, gaining political advantage while praising, and so on. It is drama, performed by actors (or hypokrites, in the Greek).

Jesus and Paul used similar scatological metaphors (see Luke 13:8, Luke 14:5, 1 Corinthians 4:13, Philippians 3:8) to describe flavorless followers or praiseworthy credentials. Our English translations tame the metaphors into “manure” and “rubbish.” First century “rubbish” did not consist of aluminum cans and take out containers. It was far more vile. Manure is… well, bullshit. I don’t think either Jesus or Paul would have a problem with the way Frankfurt uses the word.

What happens among Christians, though (and especially preachers), is that since we have these important commandments to love each other, and we want to be more Christlike in our behavior, we pretend. We wind up attempting to be bullshit artists. Honestly, we’re not very good at it. We have too much invested in creating the illusion that we are nice people. We are especially fond of smarm, the kind of BS that allows us to occupy a morally superior position because we are so nice about it.

You may have heard the famous Winston Churchill quote about diplomacy being the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions. Most preachers, though, can only aspire to Churchill’s art. Instead of learning our rhetoric from schools (where it is no longer taught) we learn it from television. Our BS is not finely crafted. It is dumped.

At our Annual Conference, for example, one of my colleagues got up and made a speech, that went something like, “I am colorblind. Anyone who knows me will tell you I don’t see color. I don’t care who we elect to the delegation as long as we choose somebody who believes in the authority of the Bible.”

See, like cable news anchors, we have become practiced at using dog-whistles and code words. I actually agree with this colleague’s statement. (Well, except for the reality or even the desirability of being “colorblind.”) I, too, was eager to elect representatives who believe the authority of the Bible for faith and practice. I would say I want representatives who are orthodox (they can say the Apostle’s Creed without crossing their fingers,) evangelical (they believe in the Good News of Jesus Christ,) and Spirit-filled (they are pursuing sanctification.) But I mean very different things when I use those words. In the context of our Annual Conference, and in the context of the recent brouhaha over LGBTQ inclusion and rumors of schism in the United Methodist Church, what he said and what he meant were two entirely different things.

Of course, everyone listening knew it. There was no question that what he was really doing was making a campaign speech, asking folks to vote for someone who would not support LGBTQ inclusion. It was bullshit, a statement that had no interest in any particular truth-claim, that misrepresented the desire and intentions of the speaker. It was a performance. I could have made a similar speech by saying, “I think we should elect someone who really believes the gospel is Good News for all people.” With my voice and eyes, I could have communicated quite a bit. Of course, at that point, people would have groaned because I would have drawn attention to the BS performance in which we were all complicit. It would have been like polishing a turd.

And certainly, progressives often do the same thing. They can make pointed comments, insinuate, connote, and cast aspersions under a veil of politeness. People who claim to be neutral or moderate often bring buckets of smarm to the conversation, denigrating “both sides” as being extreme and virtuously claiming the middle. BS, all of it.

As Frankfurt concludes, insofar as we are unaware of our own selves, “sincerity itself” is BS. All language is, in some sense, a performance, and whether we find something convincing or not or even label it as true has a lot to do with how good the performance is and how much we trust the speaker. Most of us who read Catcher in the Rye resonate with Holden Caufield’s complaints about all the “phonies” in the world, even though the narrator himself is a compulsive liar. But we develop a sense that he is trustworthy. I have friends who I disagree with about a great many things, but I trust their yes to be yes and their no to be no. I trust them well enough to participate in bull sessions, in which we try out different ideas or points of view to see if we can convince ourselves of their truth value. If one can’t “pull off” the idea, another will usually point it out. So perhaps the real issue with BS is whether we trust the person with the shovel not to hit us with it.

I do not know if it is possible, or even desirable, to reduce the amount of BS in church life. Certainly, some of it is good fertilizer, well-seasoned, out of which may grow tasty fruit. But too much just stinks, and bad fertilizer can scorch roots and stunt growth. I’m not actually sure which I want more: better-quality BS, or more clergy colleagues who I can trust enough to fight fair. Honestly, I think I could go for either.

Reframing Heterosexist Rhetoric: Playing Offense Instead of Defense

Christian arguments about LGBTQ issues follow a pretty rigid rhetorical structure, and you can probably lip-synch to most of them. Too often, Christians in favor of full inclusion or marriage equality wind up playing defense with scripture, letting their opponents rattle off a series of proof texts while they scramble to offer one alternative interpretation after another. It’s like playing rhetorical Whac-a-Mole! There are some very good ways to play defense (I recommend both Mark Sandlin’s Clobbering Biblical Gay-Bashing and Matthew Vines’ moving sermon on the topic), but in order to shift the conversation, you have to play offense. This is part of what I was attempting to do by writing God Shows No Partiality: to offer biblical rhetoric to people who often abdicate the Bible to literalists and fundamentalists.

Classical education involved the study of rhetoric—an education which we desperately need today.

I apologize, in advance, that rhetorical metaphors often use combat and sports metaphors. In ideal world, we would have conversations around an open table where every voice is equal. But the very definition of rhetoric recognizes that language is always connected to power and privilege, and that there are social dynamics hiding beneath the things we say (and do not say). (The word “dynamics” comes from the Greek word for “power.”)

Any given debate is an attempt to control or shape a public narrative. This applies to everything from formal arguments in a court of law to the most juvenile trolling comments on the internet. Discussions among equals happen when we share power in shaping the narrative; we may disagree about some things, and we may advance certain arguments, but ultimately we’re cooperating in telling a story about the way the world is. Debates happen when we wrestle for control of the story.

If you read through the comments on my previous post, How Being a Pastor Changed My Thinking About Homosexuality, you’ll see that commenters who disagree with me seldom spend much time addressing the scriptures I cite, or my comparison of anti-gay attitudes to the parallels with the anti-Gentile attitudes in the gospels and Acts. This is because they believe they control they narrative, or frame, of the biblical argument on this issue, and addressing the points I am actually making would give me control of the narrative.

So, in the spirit of playing offense, here are some questions for dialogical opponents, along with scriptural references. I offer these not because they are definitive or exhaustive, but simply to illustrate how to reframe and refocus an argument. I will also say that I deploy these kinds of questions only when it’s clear that we’re not actually having a discussion, but instead wrestling for control of a narrative:

  1. How is your objection to homosexuality different than the Christian Pharisees who insisted that Gentiles be circumcised? How is it different than their insistence that Gentiles follow Jewish dietary laws? (Acts 10, 15)
  2. Which is more difficult: changing one’s sexual orientation or cutting off one’s foreskin? Which is more difficult: changing who you love or refraining from eating meat sacrificed to idols?
  3. Paul describes women with short hair as being “against nature” (1 Corinthians 11:14-15). He also says that Gentiles being grafted on to Israel’s tree is “contrary to nature” (Romans 11:24) This is the same word he uses in Romans 1:26. Is being “contrary to nature” a bad thing? Is a woman having short hair worse than, better than, or equivalent to homosexuality? What about a man with long hair?
  4. What does Jesus mean when he says that the Pharisees “lock people out of the Kingdom?” (Matthew 23:13). How did they go about doing so, or what does this phrase mean? Does anyone “lock people out of the kingdom” today, or was it just something that happened then? Who does it today?
  5. What does Jesus mean when he says his yoke is easy and his burden light (Matthew 11:29-30)? Was he only talking to Jewish people? Is your opposition to committed same-gender relationships increasing or decreasing a religious burden on people? How would Jesus talk about requiring something of someone else, like celibacy, that you don’t do yourself (Matthew 23)?
  6. Jesus complained that the Pharisees were more concerned with what goes into a person than what comes out of them (Matthew 15:10-20). How is your concern with homosexuality different than their concern with unkosher food? What makes someone pure: the food that they turn into poop, or the language that comes out of them? What makes someone pure: where they put their genitals, or how they talk to other people?

I find that, in general, questions are more powerful than statements. Questions can be open and welcoming, inviting further discussion. But questions can also be power plays that people use to draw you into their way of framing an issue. I have also found that simply exposing the rhetoric operating in any given argument helps to shift people from debates toward discussions—it makes us into equals again. “How do you interpret [such-and-such a scripture]” can be met with, in a non-antagonistic way, “Do you really want to know how I interpret that scripture, or are you just offering it as a proof text?”

One commenter cited scriptures prohibiting sexual immorality, as though we had already established that same-gender romantic love was a sin. At best, this is begging the question (assuming the conclusion), a simple logical fallacy. But the goal of citing those scriptures is to shame one’s debate opponent instead of actually engaging the argument. By arguing for inclusion, I become an enemy of God and false teacher, promoting sexual immorality. Which might be true—if I’m wrong. But if I’m right, advocates of exclusion become the Pharisees of Matthew 23, “locking people out of the Kingdom of God.” Now we have a different way of looking at what’s going on.

This will sometimes be met with complaints that “You’re being just as X as the other side.” This, too, is sly, shaming rhetoric. I am sure that Paul’s opponents in Corinth and Rome also accused him of being “divisive” and “judgmental.” It is also an attempt, by so-called  neutral Christians, to capture the moral high ground, to claim a pastoral and more Jesus-like perspective. In the debates between those who say “I follow Paul” and “I follow Apollos,” they sanctimoniously claim, “Well, I follow Christ.” This is an attempt to assume the position of referee or commentator while pretending you aren’t actually playing the game. In my own experience, they are the bossiest kids on the playground, and they usually side with the bullies.

Jesus had a knack for seeing through questions to the narrative and rhetorical tricks behind them (Matthew 21:23-27, Mark 12:18-34). While he probably had divine insight into people’s hearts, he also lived in an age where rhetoric was part of a typical education, and he had such a firm sense of his purpose and his mission that he couldn’t be drawn into someone else’s narrative.

If someone actually wants to discuss how the Bible is an inspired document, or how to interpret various texts, or how Christians should think about the authority of scripture, I am more than happy to discuss any of those things—as equals. But if we’re just going to compete over who controls the narrative, and which of us is doing what by speaking, I’m going to play offense, not merely defense.

Zealots, Essenes, Pharisees, and Sadducees

Simon the Zealot

In my last post I mentioned that there were at least four political groups of homeland Jews in Jesus’s day: Pharisees, Essenes, Zealots, and Sadducees. I think modern Christians could learn a bit about their own politics from each of these groups. At the risk of oversimplifying, here is a thumbnail sketch of each group:

  • Zealots believed in the overthrow of the Roman Empire. They would not tolerate pagan idols and practices in their land. God would bring about the Kingdom with their help.
  • Essenes believed in withdrawing from the corrupt Temple system and the Empire. They would live holy lives in an alternative world until God brought about the Kingdom without their help.
  • Pharisees believed in radical personal holiness. They believed in internalizing their religious law, and that God would give punishment and reward in the afterlife.
  • Sadducees believed in the establishment. They made peace with Rome and focused on religious ritual. They believed divine punishment and reward happen in this life.

Rather than thinking of the world in terms of liberal and conservative, I like thinking about how Christians of various kinds fall into similar groupings. For example, Zealots are those social activists who are passionately committed to political action. Essenes react negatively to Zealots, warning them against putting their faith in politics.

There were also polarized parties in the early church. While we often love to talk about the unity of Acts 2, when believers were “all of one mind,” I think Luke’s depiction of the church is a bit more rosy than other evidence indicates. There were disagreements between Greek and Hebrew Jewish Christians. They fought over gender equality. They fought over food regulations. They fought over circumcision. They fought over how literally to understand resurrection. They fought over who was in charge. Of course, the most sanctimonious ones claimed they simply followed Christ.

They struggled to figure out how to deal with slavery, classism, and their relationship to a pagan government. Sound familiar? Of course, Paul’s words to the Corinthians give disputing groups some guidance on how to treat each other. Basically, if you can’t be loving, at least be civil! And while he acknowledges that some members may be jerks (what he called “body parts you do not display in public“), they may also play an essential function.

I believe our contemporary polarization is not some aberration from the ideal early church, but entirely consistent with the action of the Holy Spirit within a group of highly committed political and religious people. In any given conflict, there will be winners and losers, as there were from the debates before, and the terms of debate will shift, and we’ll be arguing about something else fifty years hence. But if we don’t look at the history of these disputes, and only focus on the rosy picture of church unity in Acts, we will never really ask, or learn, or care what God is doing, right now, in the midst of this debate. How has God acted before? Where would you have stood in the circumcision debate? In the food-sacrificed-to-idols debate? In the women-in-leadership debate? In the prohibition debate? In the civil rights debate? Are your religious and political attitudes closer to the Pharisees, the Essenes, the Zealots, or the Sadducees? We’re really good at finding prooftexts for our own beliefs in scripture. Can we also find examples of how to talk about those beliefs?

Lies My Preacher Told Me: Three Ways We Censor the Bible

In my last post, I talked about the “secret” history of Red Alabama, and how that history gets sanitized. How we sanitize history is the subject of the book Lies My Teacher Told Me, which argues that how we teach history affects our thinking and our politics. There is a similar “secret” history of biblical interpretation, which also affects both our thinking and our politics.

I’m doing a Bible study called “Your Vulgar Bible” on Monday nights in a local pub. I’m sharing the stories and passages that don’t get preached. These are stories that do not get shared, either from the pulpit or in Sunday schools, and so people get a skewed vision of the Bible.

I argue that there are three ways the Bible gets censored:

  1. In translation. Translators often make ambiguous passages more explicit, and explicit passages more ambiguous. When Saul calls Jonathan the “son of a perverse and rebellious woman,” who is a “shame to [his] mother’s nakedness,” he is not making a claim about Jonathan’s parentage. He’s insulting him, calling him a son of a bitch. While “bitch” might not be a literal translation, “perverse and rebellious woman” conveniently hides the gist in such a way that it will not shock the people in the pews. Likewise, when Rehoboam’s friends make derogatory statements about the size of Solomon’s genitals (and thus his manliness), we can translate the phrase in such a way that makes readers think we’re talking about his waist circumference. In both cases, we’ve gone very literal in order to hide the meaning. It’s possible to censor the latter passage by going very vague. Either way, you hide the scandal of the language used. That’s censorship.
  2. In selection. Some passages simply never appear in the lectionary or sermon series, nobody talks about them in Sunday school lessons or devotionals, and they just don’t come up. This is like the history of Helen Keller’s socialist leanings, or the fact that Birmingham was once a hotbed of communist agitation. There are people who know these facts exist, and choose to avoid the topics when they teach them. If we talk about the fact that there is cussin’ in the Bible, or allusions to sex outside of marriage, then the very categories we use to think about the world get called into question. It’s easier to never talk about it than to let it challenge us. We tell only part of the story, or don’t tell the story at all.
  3. In interpretation. We can read some passages a thousand times and never pay attention to what is being said, because we skew the interpretation to be about something more palatable. When Paul talks about the church as the Body of Christ, he is likely not the first to do so. What he does with the metaphor, though, is to twist it in such a way as to make a point: “The church members you dislike,” argues Paul, “may be assholes, but would you want to live without yours?” Paul refers to “body parts with less honor” that we “cover up,” When these less honorable body parts rejoice, all the body rejoices, he says. His hearers would have known he was talking about sex.

Most contemporary church people never hear the subtext of Paul’s passage, though. Paul figured his listeners 2000 years ago were smart enough to figure it out. Unfortunately, when it comes to the Bible, a lot of preaching makes us dumber! When we never hear alternative interpretations, we are less likely to hear delightful subtext, allusion, double entendre, humor… in short, everything that makes reading fun. This is why so many nonreligious people think the Bible is full of dry-as-dust moralistic writing.

Like the story about Helen Keller’s socialist leanings, these aspects of the Bible are lies by omission. We are sold a vision of history—and the Bible—that is shaped by an ideology, a narrative that censors every voice that might contradict it. When we buy into that narrative without question, we rob the Bible of its ability to shock and challenge us. We silence the voices of its authors by setting the Bible up on a pedestal. Rather than let them speak, we talk over them, drowning out their own words with ours.

I would also argue that we silence God. It is hard for me to comprehend how white Christians in slave states in the South could have read the book of Exodus without casting themselves in the role of the Egyptians, or how child-labor supporters and anti-suffragists and Jim Crow supporters could ever read the Bible and simply not hear prophetic calls for justice for orphans, widows, the poor, and the oppressed. Yet they did.

And they do. Because of biblical censorship, people will continue to “look without seeing” and “hear without understanding.” These are the folks who claim to read the Bible literally and believe every word. Yet the Bible they believe in is missing most of its pages.

Letting God speak through the authors takes a willingness to expose ourselves to other interpretations. We have to be willing to make a claim, test a hypothesis, and admit that we are wrong. All of this happens in the context of conversation! Jewish sages have been doing this for centuries, like Hillel and Shimmei, wrangling over what it means to “honor the Sabbath.” Our faith encounter with the Bible has always been dialogical, and part of my mission is to resist attempts to turn it into a monologue.