Re-assessing the problem

Here’s a standard critique of a standard caricature of American, conservative, evangelical Christianity:  Its central problem is a poor use of scripture.  It lacks a theologically coherent understanding of the authority it ascribes to scripture.  It lacks a hermeneutic beyond selective literalism.  Its ascription of infallibility to scripture is at best unexamined and naive, at worst utterly foolish and dishonest.  Its readings are uninformed by context, genre, history…. It orbits around a few favored texts and their appropriation in most cases could best be described as ‘proof-texting’.

This is essentially the critique I have brought myself — at least when eager and willing to paint with broad strokes — when trying to point up the basic problem with the Christianity I find myself around when I run in conservative, evangelical circles.  Folks in those circles would likely say my basic problem is the same, in the opposite relief.

I’m not interested in discussing these issues with this particular post, although I will say (with standard caveats about painting in broad strokes) I think all of these and more are serious problems with our relationship to scripture.  What I want to discuss is my analysis that our primary problem was doing scripture poorly.  I was wrong.  Our main problem is how poorly we do church.

A couple points that lead me to this:

  • I’ve certainly underestimated how well and faithfully some of my brothers and sisters, though (I think) theorizing the Bible poorly, have still managed to use it.  And overestimated my own abilities with the same.
  • The returns (in terms of faith and practice) from hashing over these issues with peers are seriously diminishing and it’s unclear that the resulting disagreements are worth the hostility they often expose.
  • At a recent discussion of Christians and money, we were collectively far more adept at articulating scripture than answering a question like “how do you decide how much to give to the church?” (relatively more adept – we were piss-poor at both.)
  • At a similar meeting, we were asked whether we preferred to be known as church members or disciples.  Said question was clearly crafted with the intention of receiving the latter answer, and it did without hesitation.  I was appalled it was ever formulated.
  • Finding and staying with a single church congregation seems to be an incredible problem for many of my peers. (20-smthgs)
  • All the improved reading of the Bible I have done over the past 3-4 years has pushed me toward the church, not toward refining my ability to read/interpret.

Failing to do money well is a failure to do church, not scripture.  Living with a vision of discipleship to which even that most tepid of concrete commitments to a community, church membership, is incidental is a failure to do church, not scripture.  Failure to be able to disagree about, say, scripture without some sense of how our discourse ought to reflect different goals, practices, community arrangements than those of democracy or academia is a failure to do church, not scripture.  Failing to exhibit much difference between how we choose our current Sunday morning place of worship and how we choose our current favorite coffee shop is a failure to do church, not scripture.

Of course, scripture addresses all these matters, so we are failing to do scripture too.  But in scripture we see our money, communal commitments, discourse, relationship to the word itself addressed via the formation of a people called church.  Thus, the failure to do church is primary.  The failure to do church is not only indicative of, but constitutive of failing to do scripture.  

If we re-assess our main problem as a failure to do church well rather than a failure to read scripture well, what do we get?  We’re first of all more faithful to the text, which seems far more interested in creating a community called church than good readers for itself.  With an ecclesial focus, we have a (the!) reason for pursuing constructive discussion of the Bible in communities that include both liberal and conservative readers.  Further, the church provides a model for this discussion which forms an alternative to the controlled antipathy of the democratic/academic sphere.  Our ethics becomes communal commitment rather than disembodied theorizing.  We can begin to be faithful prior to completing all our understanding.  Our lives become involved in a project far more exciting than refining our ability to read and interpret.  And we can only learn to do scripture better along the way.

7 Responses to “Re-assessing the problem”

  1. 1 rosessupposes November 7, 2008 at 3:23 pm

    This sounds like a response to a comment I made Sunday night about my frustration with Scripture. I’m not sure that I’m satisfied with this answer. I’d need to have a clearer idea what it means to have a bible study centered on doing church rather than doing scripture. Does that mean we would talk about practicalities? Or about scripture applications? These are things I’ve done in bible studies, without a clearer sense of how the bible should actually inform our lives than our more academic questions.

    Listening to Speaking of Faith this morning, I heard something I really liked about building an actual relationship to scripture, putting up with the good and bad like any other relationship. I’ll copy some of it here:

    From an interview with Sharon Brous, a young rabbi in LA;

    Ms. Tippett: One of the ideas at Rosh Hashanah is that two books are opened before the heavenly judge, the Book of Life and the Book of Death. I mean, those are such huge and strange images.

    Ms. Brous: Mm-hmm.

    Ms. Tippett: So, I mean, how — do you think images like that can come to life for — or how do images like that come to life for modern people in Los Angeles?

    Ms. Brous: Right. Look, not everything works. I mean, not everything resonates.

    Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

    Ms. Brous: And so, and I think this is part of the beauty of really engaging in the tradition seriously and with an open heart. It’s just like how in your own family everything doesn’t always work.

    Ms. Tippett: Right.

    Ms. Brous: But sort of recognizing that this is mine and what works for me now might not work for me next year. And what works for next year might not work for me now. And, I mean, I’ve had people in my community who have been diagnosed with cancer who say, ‘I now get for the first time what it means to pray to a warrior God, because I want God to be fighting the cancer in my body.’ And I never would have thought about God that way before, because I’m a pacifist, you know? And so I mean, and there are things that happen in our lives and in the world that open us up to the possibility of, you know, different interpretations of things. And so I don’t take things out of the book. I struggle with things, and there are things that I scream out against. I mean, I see them and I think, oh, this, you know, this either just doesn’t speak to me or this just seems wrong, but it’s still in the book, because next year I might get it in a different way. And I think that’s kind of, it’s sort of some kind of religious humility in a way. It’s to say, like, it doesn’t work for me at all, and yet I’m going to continue to struggle with it, or I’m at least going to continue to keep it on the page. And I had this experience, you know, in rabbinical school about every six months, and I was really in a love affair with the study of Talmud and …

    Ms. Tippett: Yes.

    Ms. Brous: … rabbinic text. And about every six months I would come across some text that I found utterly paralyzing as a woman, as a human being, as a Jew, I just felt like this is the text I’m in love with and this is what it’s saying. How can I, you know, how can I deal with that? And I came to recognize those moments as incredible gifts also, because the relationship with Judaism should be no different than your relationship with your, you know, with your partner, your spouse, or your kids.

    Ms. Tippett: When you find things about them that you don’t like and you have to live with nevertheless.

    Ms. Brous: That’s exactly right. And you struggle with it.

    Ms. Tippett: Can you remember an example?

    Ms. Brous: Yeah, sure I can.

    Ms. Tippett: OK.

    Ms. Brous: There’s a story in (speaking Hebrew), in this Tract 8 of Talmud that talks — it’s talking about sexual relationships. And it’s — it says that a husband and wife are allowed to do — basically, they’re allowed to do whatever they want with each other sexually. You can enjoy each other, that’s OK. That’s not heretical. I mean, we’re not an ascetic tradition and that’s permissible. So then there’s a story in which a woman comes before Rav, one of the great rabbis, and says, “My husband did this thing to me, and it’s caused me incredible pain.” And Rav says, “What can I do? The Torah permits you to him.” And like, sort of throws his hands up in the air. And so, you know, I read things like that and I think of where is the, like, where is the understanding of human relationships here. Like, where is the understanding of how men and women operate and how law interacts with humanity. And you know, sort of read things like that. Even in the Book of Deuteronomy. I mean, this is not a rabbinic text but a biblical text, but you know, the punishment for raping a woman is marrying her. But you — your punishment is that you need to spend — you marry her and you’re not allowed to divorce her. And you know, you read things like that and, I — read things like that and I think, my god, you know, this tradition is so painful in some ways and if I were writing the book, I would not have written that, I’m quite sure of it.

    Ms. Tippett: Right. Right.

    Ms. Brous: You know? But I didn’t write the book and the wisdom that flows from this text comes from the same source as the excruciating pain that flows from it. And I feel now that that’s part of being in a relationship with the, you know, with a tradition that’s thousands of years old. And what’s so powerful to me about this is, because I’ve cried so many tears over texts like this, I feel like my tears are now part of the mix of the, you know, of the conversation of Jews who, for the past 2,000 years, have used these texts as their, really, as their sustenance.

  2. 2 withastone November 8, 2008 at 12:41 am

    The post is not primarily a response to your comment.

    If you want to know how to deal with a text we cherish but that sometimes is or has been used in ways that are hurtful, I don’t have a lot to add to Brous’s comments. But note that several parts of what she says indicate a relationship to a community that uses scripture, not just to scripture one-on-one.

    If you want a sense of how scripture should inform our lives, I must admit I’ve found this and this entirely satisfactory and more than sufficient.

    With the post I’m trying to say that the relationship-to-scripture problem is not our most pressing one. Bible study should be focused on doing church, on how we shape our lives together in our various faith communities. Often it has been. The discussion of Hays was explicitly this. Discussions we’ve had about infant baptism, communion, the failings of our various churches have been explicitly this. This week for Colossians 2 I think we will be able to say some things about how our Bible study’s project should fit into a church context. Sometimes this is practicalities and applications, although those aren’t my favorite words. But we probably ought to be discussing much more why the things we already know the church ought to be doing and being aren’t happening, and what our failure is doing to us.

  3. 3 withastone November 9, 2008 at 11:26 pm

    Maybe I should be more clear. I think understanding how scripture should inform our lives is very important. On the theory side I’m quite happy with what Wright and Hays have to say. Perhaps you disagree, Roses?

    But I did waste time and energy thinking my main aim ought to be refining my understanding of this process. At some point one has to do what the scripture demands: buck up and commit to being part of the church. Then we begin to be faithful and to be shaped without complete understanding or total control of the process. That’s where we’ll learn together how we are shaped, and that’s where it will actually make a difference. Being the church will involve plenty more wrangling about how scripture shapes us, and working on this is the project of our Bible study. But isn’t it far more important, faithful, liberating and exciting to start, for example, trying to tell each other the truth about money, than to forever parse the niceties of interpretation?

  4. 4 rosessupposes November 10, 2008 at 2:56 pm

    I’ve started too responses to this and erased both for being entirely too much of a wet blanket….yep, broken record, wet blanket……that’s me.

    I look forward to hearing more of your thought process on being part of the church.

  1. 1 church/world reading plan « conversations with a stone Trackback on November 17, 2008 at 3:33 pm
  2. 2 Colossians Remixed reaction « conversations with a stone Trackback on January 4, 2009 at 12:49 am
  3. 3 Big changes, people, big changes! « conversations with a stone Trackback on January 26, 2009 at 9:54 am

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