Civilizing the Barbarians

Civilizing the Barbarians

In the words of Hanna Arendt:

Every generation is invaded by barbarians—we call them “children.”

From where I sit, that resonates. Especially since my three-year-old just ran through the kitchen like a tiny, unclad Gaelic warrior screaming “Captain Underpants!”

And in response to Arendt, Jonah Goldberg adds this:

Society doesn’t civilize the barbarians. Schools don’t either. That’s what families do. Other mediating institutions certainly do important work and they can fix some of the problems that come from an unstable home life, but all you have to do is talk to any teacher or social worker to appreciate that everything starts in the home.

People learn virtue first and most importantly from family, and then from the myriad of institutions [the] family introduces them to: churches, schools, associations, etc.

I agree.

And I agree also with Goldberg’s claim that our culture is now imperiled, in part, because families have eroded—leaving many to seek a home in what one might call the “fictive kinships” of tribalism, populism, nationalism, and identity politics. (At least that is his list.)

A WAKEUP CALL

For parents, this is yet another reminder of how important our job is.

Frankly, it doesn’t matter how good I am at my “job” if I fail at being a dad. All the lectures, publications, sermons, and promotions in the world won’t raise “Captain Underpants.” Nor will they guide him to love Jesus, tell the truth, and stand up for the vulnerable.

He needs a family.

On such points, Goldberg makes a strong argument that traditional notions like marriage, monogamy, and child-rearing are crucial for a healthy society. Obviously.  And one doesn’t need to see many stats on, say, the effect of absent fathers on incarceration rates in order to agree.

And yet.

DON’T JUST “FOCUS ON THE FAMILY”

One danger in some modern idolizations of the “nuclear family” is that they may coincide with a withdrawal (or enclave) mentality with regard to culture at large.  Hence, Christians especially may be led to just “focus on the family” and leave the world to rot.  We might call this “The Benedict Option” run amok.

Hence James K. A. Smith has this to say (Awaiting the King):

Curtailing the state’s monopolies in order to devolve power to smaller communities only works if smaller communities actually exist.

That’s not an argument for continuing to prop up the behemoth, but it is the reason why policies that encourage “private” endeavors sound like—and can sometimes be cover for—the pursuit of enclaved special interests that abandon the common good.

If these smaller communities (most notably, the family) do not exist, then all the talk of their importance by folks like Goldberg may sound about as helpful as the 911 operator telling you all the ways you could have prevented the fire that now fully engulfs your home.

Ah yes… sounds like faulty wiring and a lack of smoke alarms. We’ll add you to the statistics! 

Which brings me to the church.

REDEEMING FICTIVE KINSHIP

There was, of course, a time in which western civilization was overrun by so-called “barbarians”—and not the three-year-old variety.

Germanic hordes swept over Rome in the 5th century. And in the 8th century, Viking warriors began their raids upon the West.  Yet in both cases, the “barbarians” were conquered, not so much by armies, but by a culture and a faith.

They were transformed not by the nuclear family, but by a “fictive kinship”—the family of God.

To be sure, such claims must be qualified.  For one, the civilization overrun by these “barbarians” was not always as civilized as one might think. Nor was the church that transformed them anywhere near perfect. (In many instances, it was a hot mess.)

Still, it bears noting that Jesus-movement originated as a “fictive kinship group”–to use a phrase I first heard from N.T. Wright–that sought to relativize the bonds of the (nuclear) family, so that they were made subservient to God’s Kingdom-agenda.

Even Christ’s choosing of twelve (motley) disciples signifies something like this:

“These are my mother and brothers,” says Christ, pointing to his disciples (Mt. 12.49).

And:

“No one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times…” (Mk. 10.29–30).

CONCLUSION

None of this changes, of course, the importance of the (nuclear) family in shaping a stable society.

But it does mean that Christians must focus on more than just blood-ties if we want to “civilize the barbarians” (ourselves included); or more rightly: If we want to see the kingdom come.

 


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God is not male (or female)

God is not male (or female)

For Christians, one danger of not knowing the tradition is the chance that you might set out to defend it with great boldness, only to discover that you are actually contradicting it.

Like, blatantly.

We might call this the Saul of Tarsus model of apologetics: boldly going in the wrong direction. And for the record, I’ve done it.

I was reminded of this danger recently as I watched an online argument in which a few Christians argued quite strongly, on “conservative” grounds, that “God is male.”

Yet the irony is that if you showed up at the councils of Nicaea or Constantinople with that argument, they wouldn’t call you a conservative; they would call you a heretic.

In fact, the Christian tradition has never claimed that God is male.

On the contrary, God is beyond gender, not least because God does not have a body.

“THEOS” AND THE FATHER

To be sure, Jesus (the second person of the Trinity) is male—and Scripture is clear that he retains his maleness to this day. After all, he ascends bodily to heaven. Yet while Christ is fully divine, the term theos (“God”) is almost always a reference to the first person of the godhead (a.k.a., the Father).

Things get confusing, of course, because “Father” sounds pretty “male” too. Yet the tradition has always viewed the label as a metaphor, just as it has the masculine pronoun “he” when used to speak of God the Father.

As with all metaphors, these come with a whisper of “it is” and “it is not.”

In other words, when applied to God, such labels shouldn’t be over-literalized. To call God “Father” doesn’t make him “male” any more than to call God “Rock” (Ps. 18.2) makes him a lump of granite out of which to make a countertop.

AN IRONIC CONTRADITION

As at least one person pointed out during this online conversation —there is an ironic contradiction in the (so-called) “conservative” contention that God should be seen as male.

In its simplest form, the contradictory logic runs like this:

  1. Sex and gender are connected to “bodily” realities.
  2. God does not have a body.
  3. Still, God is male.

To be clear, I actually agree with the first two points (as I’ve noted elsewhere: here and here). Yet to try to add the third point to the list is about as consistent as yelling “Meat is murder!” one minute, and “Down with vegans!” the next.

It’s contradictory.

And it has no precedent in orthodox theology.

ON FEMININE METAPHORS

Since God is not male, the next question is often whether we should complement our masculine pronouns with female ones.

In truth, the Bible does supply some feminine metaphors for God. These include likening God’s protective heart to that of a mother bird sheltering chicks (Ruth 2.12; Ps. 91; Mt. 23.37). While Isaiah likens God’s cries to those of a woman in labor (42.14), and God’s comfort to that of a mother with her children (66.13; 49.15).

Even so, Scripture stops short of calling God a “she.”

To do so in the ancient world may have risked certain problems in a culture filled with fertility cults, goddess worship, and copulating deities.

If one were going to supply a feminine pronoun to one person of the Trinity, the Spirit would be the most likely candidate. After all, the Hebrew word for “Spirit” is feminine; and the Greek is neuter. Yet not even this means that we should think of the Spirit as predominantly female.

To do so, would be to make the same error that was previously made with the unorthodox conception of “the Father.” And it would also be to forget that masculine and feminine nouns (in Greek and Hebrew) do not equate with “male” and “female.”

After all, the Greek word for “table” is feminine, but this hardly means that we should think of that thing you sit around for dinner as having “xx” chromosomes.

As the feminist theologian Sarah Coakley notes, to speak of the Spirit as a “she” may not even be advantageous to the cause of women’s equality—first, because it could simply replace blanket male stereotypes with unhelpful female ones, and second, because the church has often (tacitly or overtly) subordinated the Spirit to the other members of the godhead.

This too runs counter to orthodox theology– and it has resulted in what Coakley sees as the Spirit being drawn and painted as an ever-shrinking “pigeon” in our hierarchal artwork.

CONCLUSION

In the end, one takeaway from all this is that it is important for Christians to actually know the tradition before seeking to defend or overthrow it.

And on this matter especially, the tradition is not nearly as “patriarchal” as one might have been led to think.

Likewise, it is important to remember the “otherness” of God when discussing such matters.

To cite Karl Barth: “God is not ‘man’ said in a loud voice!”

And the same goes for “woman.”

 


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Preach to Mirabelle Mercer

Preach to Mirabelle Mercer

For a writer, reading Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead can be a bit deflating.

Not because it’s bad, but because her countless perfect sentences—so simple yet so penetrating—are enough to make almost anyone despair of what they’ve written.

In Gilead, we read the letters of a dying pastor (Rev. John Ames) to the young son that he will leave behind.  In one of them, Ames tells of preaching during the carnage of World War 1.

In his attic, there are boxes of old sermons.  Yet:

One sermon is not up there, one I actually burned the night before I had meant to preach it.

THE ONE THAT BURNED

At the time, the Spanish flu had broken out in the midst of the Great War, killing millions. Hence many young men were dying before they even made it to the trenches.

As Ames writes:

It was a strange sickness—I saw it over at Fort Riley. […] They drafted all the boys at the college, and influenza swept through there so bad the place had to be closed down and the buildings filled with cots like hospital wards, and there was terrible death, right there in Iowa.

Now if these things were not signs, I don’t know what a sign would look like. So I wrote a sermon about it.

I said, or meant to say, that these deaths were rescuing foolish young men from the consequences of their own ignorance and courage, that the Lord was gathering them in before they could go off and commit murder against their brothers.

And I said that their deaths were a sign and a warning to the rest of us that the desire for war would bring the consequences of war, because there is no ocean big enough to protect us from the Lord’s judgment when we decide to hammer our plowshares into swords and our pruning hooks into spears, in contempt of the will and the grace of God

Now the part that I care about:

It was quite a sermon, I believe. I thought as I wrote it how pleased my father would have been. But my courage failed, because I knew the only people at church would be a few old women who were already about as sad and apprehensive as they could stand to be and no more approving of the war than I was.

So he burned the sermon, despite the fact that it seemed like the most honest thing that he had ever written.

As Ames puts it:

It might have been the only sermon I wouldn’t mind answering for in the next world. And I burned it.  But Mirabelle Mercer was not Pontius Pilate, and she was not Woodrow Wilson either.

APPLICATION: PREACH TO THE PRESENT

My point here is not whether Ames was right about God’s hand within in the Spanish flu. In fact, I tend to detest such claims to omniscience when it comes to God’s judgement via natural disasters (see here).

My concern is with a more common problem amongst preachers, myself included.

That is:

The temptation to preach to those who aren’t present, rather than the ones who are.

After all, it’s easy to condemn the Woodrow Wilsons and the Pontius Pilates when they do not sit in front of you.

It’s easy to decry those “soft” and “lazy” millennials to a room of aging baby-boomers–or to a room of “superior” millennials (see here). It’s easy to bemoan liberal rot to a room of midwestern conservatives; or conservative fundamentalists to an educated group of East Coast mainliners.

It’s easy.

But what good is it?

It’s like railing to poor Mirabelle Mercer about the Kaiser’s war policy.

To preach to those who are present is more difficult, not least because you might step on the toes that sit beneath the pews. It forces us to ask about our besetting sins, which are always the ones we’d rather ignore.

The well-known Dallas Baptist, Matt Chandler, notes this tendency within his own context:

If I preach the sermon out of the book of Isaiah on justice, my inbox would fill with their glee that I would broach the subject. But if I applied it to the subject of race, then all of a sudden I was a Marxist or I’ve been watching too much of the liberal media.

If I spoke on abortion, I was applauded as courageous, as a ferocious man of God, and yet when I would tackle race I was being too political …

If I quoted the great reformer Martin Luther … never did I get an email about his blatant anti-Semitism. But let me quote the great reformer Martin Luther King Jr., and watch my inbox fill with people asking me if I’m aware of his moral brokenness.

His point is that it’s not just preachers who prefer the sermon to convict the absent, it’s often the parishioners too.  “Lord thank you that we are not like those people.”

CONCLUSION

In the end, if there is a lesson here from Gilead, it’s that sermons must connect, convict, and encourage the audience that will actually hear them—not the one that won’t.

In short: Preach to those present.

Preach to Mirabelle Mercer.


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“Pull the goalie” — What preachers like me can learn from Malcolm Gladwell

“Pull the goalie” — What preachers like me can learn from Malcolm Gladwell

“Preaching,” said the late, great Haddon Robinson, “is like playing the violin: it’s easy to do badly.”

If you’ve tried it, you know.

I teach preaching to college students. Yet I am acutely aware that I am still a novice. Like many pastors, I often sit back in my seat after the message with that line from W.E. Sangster running through my head: “Next time, I shall preach!”

Even so, the fact is that we preachers can learn a lot from the communication habits of non-preachers, like Malcolm Gladwell in his fantastic podcast: Revisionist History .

One of my most popular blog posts (here) was on another episode of Gladwell’s podcast. But this piece is on his most recent episode, entitled: “Malcolm Gladwell’s 12 Rules for Life.”

gladwell
Malcolm Gladwell; p: kris krüg

TWELVE RULES FOR LIFE

The title is misleading.  Because while Jordan Peterson offers a dozen rules for living, Gladwell has only one:

“Pull the goalie.”

Without spoiling the episode, Gladwell’s basic point is this: In order to make wise decisions when others won’t, you need at least two things:

  1. The willingness to follow data where it leads.
  2. The stubbornness to be profoundly disagreeable.

Most of us have neither.

Hence, like the majority of hockey coaches, we refuse to “pull the goalie” till the very last minute, when tradition and opinion dictate–and when it’s already too late.

You’ll have to listen to learn what Gladwell’s rule has to do with

  • hedge funds,
  • poker players,
  • home invasions, and
  • the life expectancy of NRA members.

I won’t ruin it.

BACK TO SERMONS 

My point is that preachers (like myself) could learn a lot from Gladwell’s podcast—and from this “puckish” episode particularly.

Here are seven lessons:

1. One point to rule them all

The first takeaway involves the elegance of a single, simple big idea.

Gladwell doesn’t give his hearers a list of points as I often do in sermons — because lists aren’t memorable (including this one).

Instead, he gives them one intriguing big idea: “pull the goalie.”

For as J.H Jowett argued:

No sermon is ready for preaching, not ready for writing out, until we can express [it] in a short, pregnant sentence as clear as crystal.

While this doesn’t prohibit a good sermon from having points (I’m working on one now for Sunday), it does mean that those movements should come in service to a single, simple big idea.

2. Short but pregnant

“Pull the goalie” is just three words.

But the phrase is “pregnant” because it demands unpacking.  Its brevity gives birth to a variety of explanations and applications.

3. Enigmatic till explained

In fact, it needs unpacking because the phrase is enigmatic till explained.

Its meaning isn’t obvious (outside of hockey). In my experience, the best big ideas are often opaque at first blush.  They require elaboration, despite their “stickiness.”

“Unless you hate your father and mother…” would be case in point.

4. Counterintuitive, not counterfactual

In preaching, as in life, “boredom is a form of evil” (another Haddon Robinson quote).

Thus the value of a counterintuitive message is its ability to get people interested.  Getting someone to say “Huh…!?” means they’re listening.

“Blessed are the poor and persecuted…” does that.

But “interested” isn’t enough; the statement must also be true.

For Gladwell, the counterintuitive use of “pull the goalie” is supported by a mass of evidence from hedge funds to homicide statistics.

It’s “moneyball” for life.  And while the strangeness is designed to suck you in, the data is designed to convince you once the “Huh?” wears off. 

5. Applied specifically

While Gladwell’s research is often esoteric, he never fails to make it matter.

Hence “Pull the goalie” is applied to far more than hockey.  As he argues, it could be the difference between life and death.

(Pay attention if you own a handgun.)

6. Qualified appropriately

In some cases, the difference between a fascinating preacher and a “fired” one is the ability to say something provocative and then move to qualify it appropriately.

One must anticipate the objections of the audience and then answer them in the sermon, as opposed to waiting for a series of angry emails (or board meetings).

Jesus didn’t always do that.

But he was God.

And also, they killed him.

7.  Repeated

Unlike many of my mediocre sermons, there is no doubt about what Gladwell’s big idea is—because he repeats it with emphasis on more than one occasion.

“Pull the goalie.”

“Pull the goalie.”

“Pull the goalie.”

And by the end, it’s not some trivial bit of Canadian appropriation (though Gladwell is Canadian); it’s a rule for life–and preaching.

 


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Rethinking Roe v. Wade

Rethinking Roe v. Wade

The Ministry of Magic has fallen.”

That’s the apocalyptic phrase that a good friend of mine used yesterday to convey to me the news of Justice Kennedy’s retirement.

If you don’t speak “Potter,” it’s a quote that signals the totality of the Dark Lord’s takeover of all branches of Government.

And according to CNN, my friend was right—especially when it comes to “Abortion Rights.”

with kennedy gone
Screengrab, CNN.com

According to Jeffrey Toobin, “Roe v. Wade is doomed” because of Kennedy’s departure.

And while I wish that were true, I’m not so sure.

ROE v. WADE

My aim here is not to evaluate the full scope of Kennedy’s influence, or even the net gain or loss because of his departure on other legal matters.  If you’re interested in that discussion, please see the comments section on my MySpace page.

My interest here is narrow.

It is merely to explain (without hyperbole or divisive WWE-inspired rhetoric) why young, Pro-Life Christians like myself think it would be a good thing if Roe v. Wade were overturned—despite the fact that I am about the furthest thing from a so-called “Court Evangelical” as is imaginable.

Here is the basic line of reasoning:

  1. All human beings have basic human rights.

In this way, my reason for opposing Roe v. Wade is the same as my reason for opposing slavery, Jim Crow, the Nazi holocaust, human trafficking, sexual assault, and the “ripping” of small children from their immigrant mothers to create a psychological deterrent bolstered by some out-of-context Bible verses (see here).[1]

It’s about “human rights”—not merely “reproductive rights.”

  1. Unborn children are human beings.

This, of course, is the sticking point.

It is not that my friends who disagree with me on abortion are “moral monsters” who want to murder kids.  The issue is that they differ with me on what constitutes a “human being.”

This is where the conversation must take place, because this is the point on which the whole validity of Roe hinges.

And let’s be honest, if one looks at an embryo shortly after sperm and egg unite, it is not hard to differentiate between that zygote and, say, my one-year-old son.

They look very different.

But the problem is that even if one grants this point, almost all abortions take place after this very early stage.  They take place later, when it is often quite obvious that the unborn child is, indeed, a human life.

With the advent of, say, 3D ultrasound technology, it is now far more difficult to speak of a fetus as “just a lump of tissue.”  Hence many women who are contemplating abortion change their minds upon sight of an ultrasound.

We are talking about babies with heartbeats, some of which can recoil from pain, and some of which can even respond to the sound of their own mother’s voice.

Heartbeat – 3 wks.

Hear sounds – 16 wks.

Recoil from pain – 20 wks.

Roe v. Wade says that killing those babies is permissible. I disagree.

The reason, however, is not because I want to tell women what to do with “their bodies,” but because of a conviction over the baby’s right to live.

  1. Current law is inconsistent.

As it stands now, the dividing line between “human” and “not human” is determined, in some cases, by whether one wants the child. 

And this position is inconsistent with other laws.

Case in point: If a pregnant mother is hit by a drunk driver en route to an abortion clinic, the guilty driver can legally be convicted of the “homicide” (sometimes called “fetal homicide”) of the unborn child.

Yet if the mother arrives safely, the same death of the same fetus is now fully legal.

The problem here is that human rights are not determined merely by the question of whether someone wants you to exist.

And while we may forfeit our rights, say, by committing a crime and going to jail, a fetus has done nothing of the sort.

  1. No one has unfettered rights over “their own” body.

One of the more common arguments in favor of abortion is that a woman ought to be allowed to do what she wants with her own body.  And in many cases, I agree. One of the great values of the #MeToo movement is its reminder of how frequently (and violently) women have been deprived of basic bodily respect.

Yet having said that, no one gets to do whatever they want with their body. No one. That’s actually what laws do—they regulate what you can and cannot do with your physical “self.”

Every law does that: from traffic violations, to burglary, to criminal assault.  You can’t do certain things with your body; and the most basic thing you cannot do is to unduly deprive another “body” of their right to be (See #2).

The mere fact that a baby is inside its mother does not erase the child’s unique humanity (See #3).  The unborn child has her own heartbeat, her own fingerprints, and her own right to go unmolested by others (See #1).

CONCLUSION

Of course, none of the these arguments would eliminate abortion in the extreme case that a mother’s life is in grave danger. Nor do they give Pro-Lifers permission to fight violence with violence.

Many women contemplating abortion have been placed in a terrible position.

Hence Christians especially should be known for responding to all pregnant moms (and indeed all people) with grace and truth.

Nothing hurts the Pro-Life cause more than the sense that its adherents are suspiciously selective in deciding which “lives” deserve love, respect, and hospitality (See this fantastic piece by Karen Swallow Prior).

Still, my argument does mean that Roe v. Wade should go.

If it did, it would not end abortion, but rather throw the decision back to the states (and the people) to decide which persons are worthy of protection.

And for many of us, the decision would be very difficult. Not because the “Ministry of Magic” is fallen—but because we are.

 

 


Notes:

[1] In case it’s not obvious, I’m not equating every violation in that list as equally heinous.

 


 

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Beyond outrage

Beyond outrage

It is by now cliche to note that we live in an “outrage culture.”

And there are obvious drivers:

  • partisan politics,
  • social media (see here),
  • the satisfaction I receive from virtue signaling,
  • And (of course) the financial incentives that some have to keep us in a constant state of amygdala agitation.

On that last point, see below for a humorous look at how Facebook in particular makes a fortune this way (warning: some profanity).

 

In light of all this, I’m considering drafting an illustrated children’s book in which tiny, anthropomorphized logos of Twitter, CNN, and Fox News hold a frenzied footrace to the bottom of the brainstem.

Working titles include: “3, 2, 1… Civil War” and “The fast and the furious-er.”

(It will be a sequel to my classic children’s tale on bias: “Everybody skews” [see here].)

THE RIGHT KIND OF OUTRAGE

But there is also another reason for outrage, and we must not forget it.

That is, some things are genuinely outrageous.

Some things are simply wrong.

And if those things fail to bother us, then the problem is not an “outrage culture” or “the social media mob,” but our own callousness, and the fact that our allegiances have been coopted by rival kings and rival kingdoms.

THE PHOTO BY THE WINDOW

Perhaps the ultimate example of such callous compartmentalization is relayed by the British spy, John Weitz (here), who helped liberate the Nazi death camp at Dachau.

Upon approaching the gas chamber where countless families had been slaughtered, Weitz noticed a photograph of young German children taped next to the window that looked in upon the death room.

A Nazi father had apparently taped the photo there, by his “work station,” so he could gaze fondly on his own children while remaining unmoved by the wanton evil being done to “theirs.”

He was a loving dad – no outrage here.

THIS PAST WEEK

So this past week, I added my own voice to thousands of others (Republicans, Democrats, Independents) calling for a halt to using kids as pawns in a dispute regarding immigration—especially by way of out-of-context Bible verses.

Then, to my surprise, something happened: it worked. Kind of.

Public outcry brought a change (Thank God!), albeit an incomplete one since many children remain separated from their parents and there is some question over if and when they will ever be reunited. Apparently the whole process was pretty chaotic [*resists further comment and keeps moving].

Nonetheless, this good change raises an important question:

What next?

What comes after an initial spike in outrage achieves a portion of its goal?

BEYOND OUTRAGE

My interest here is not just with this particular issue (though it is important), but with a “meta-phenomenon” — that is, what outrage does well and what it does more poorly.

Here then is my tentative conclusion:

In some cases, the same traits that are needed in a crisis can be counterproductive to crafting long-term solutions.

I say this because long-term solutions require compromise, listening, and the ability to ratchet down the rhetoric in search of common ground.

Hence the problem is not that outrage is unwarranted, but that it is incomplete on its own. We need more. In the aftermath of crisis, we need to transfer some energy from the amygdala to the other parts of the brain.

We all know this in other areas, I think.

  • The person you want next to you in the Zombie apocalypse may not be the one you want running your company, chairing the school board, or leading your marriage counseling.
  • The skills needed to facedown Hitler may not be the ones that make for a successful peacetime leader (Read a Churchill biography; or a Stalin one).
  • And the recipe for alerting the masses (amygdala!) may not be the same as that required to solve complex problems with the prefrontal cortex.

My fear, however, is that we are far better at the former than the latter — I know I am.

So here’s to wisdom on how to translate righteous zeal into Christian justice, and on how to going beyond outrage to thoughtful long-term solutions.

 


On the subject of immigration reform and border security in particular, I am particularly thankful for the statement set forth recently by my own denomination, The Wesleyan Church (see here).


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Jeff Sessions and the “Whisky bottle Bible”

Jeff Sessions and the “Whisky bottle Bible”

ON THE DANGER OF MISUSING SCRIPTURE IN PUBLIC

In the words of Miss Maudie, from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird: 

“Sometimes the Bible in hand of one man is worse than a whiskey bottle in the hand of [another].” 

And after the statements yesterday by Jeff Sessions and Sarah Sanders, we see why.

In response to the U.S.A.’s cruel and unnecessary practice of now separating even nursing babies from their undocumented mothers on the southern border, Sessions offered this gem of biblical interpretation:

I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.

Likewise, Sanders said:

I can say that it is very biblical to enforce the law. That is actually repeated a number of times throughout the Bible.

She then claimed that any inability to grasp this “biblical truth” was due to rank stupidity: “I know it’s hard for you to understand even short sentences, I guess.”

Well, I don’t know if I’m stupid.

But here’s a short sentence: “You’re wrong.”

And I don’t say that as some Lefty shill who opposes all border security [see here]. In fact, my point holds even if you agree with the abhorrent practice of forcing moms and dads to listen to the screams of their young children for no reason other than a kind of psychological torture.

WHAT SCRIPTURE ACTUALLY TEACHES

This post is about the meaning of the passage Sessions cited.

In fact, I happen to teach an entire course on the book from which it comes (Paul’s letter to the Romans), just in case he wants to audit it this fall.

What Romans 13 actually commands is not an obedience to (much less an endorsement of) to all governmental laws.  Rather, its call is that we “be subject” to the ruling authorities by giving “what you owe them.”

If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor (vs. 7).

Yet as Paul’s life shows, what you “owe” Caesar is not carte blanche obedience. That’s idolatry. (Another short sentence.)

In fact, by the implied “Bible-logic” of Sessions and Sanders, Pharaoh’s daughter should have drowned young Moses in the Nile; Israelite exiles should have bowed to the idol of Nebuchadnezzar, and the apostles should have stopped preaching when commanded by the “ruling authorities.”

“Obey the ruling authorities…”

THE “WHISKY BIBLE”

With a nod to “Miss Maudie,” this is precisely the kind of nonsense that results when you start quoting from your “whisky bottle Bible”—i.e., a sacred text that is decontextualized and twisted to affirm a sinful, partisan agenda.

And Romans 13 has a long history of such abuse.

It was used by Hitler and the German Christians; and it was leveraged to justify laws on slavery and segregation.

It bears noting, however, that Paul himself was eventually killed by the government for his annoying refusal to stop proclaiming a greater King named Jesus.

So let me say this in summation of Jeff Sessions’ exegesis: His reading is on par with the claim that “Speed Limit” signs are meant to regulate one’s daily dose of amphetamines.

And it’s not just me who thinks so  – even Franklin Graham, one of the President’s biggest mascots amongst religious leaders, has condemned the policy, calling it “disgraceful” (here).

NOT JUST A TRUMPIST PROBLEM

In truth, however, use of the “whisky Bible” is not unique to one political party—just as the separation of illegal immigrant families seems not to be entirely unique to the current administration, even though the practice has been codified and universalized by it. (Recall the famous picture of undocumented children caged up like dogs during the Obama years.)

All partisans (or rather: all Christians) have a tendency to hijack Scripture to serve our preconceived agendas.

On the Left, this happens (say) when passages on love and inclusion are taken to mean that particular moral absolutes are exchanged for a gospel of warm fuzzies. Or, more likely, when some forget that unborn children don’t deserve to be literally “ripped” from their mothers either.

“Whisky Bibles” come in a variety of flavors. And the tendency is to just play one off against the other. Southern comfort versus, uh…, whatever they drink in California.

Some Christians even swap out their favorite “tipsy” proof-texts depending on who’s in power at the time.

For example, it’s fascinating to see that the same crowd who was just three years ago shouting “We must obey God rather than man” (Acts 5.29) now cites Romans 13 as a divine endorsement of all governmental policies.

Could any sober person miss the irony?

A CALL TO DEEPER FAITH

One solution to such “drunken” interpretations is for Christians to be more deeply formed by the text we claim to believe. We need more than prooftexts plus a CableNews subscription.

Yet unfortunately, even amongst so-called “evangelicals,” such deep formation by the word of God is actually somewhat rare.

As Alan Jacobs writes (here):

The lesson to be drawn here is this: the great majority of Christians in America who call themselves evangelical are simply not formed by Christian teaching or the Christian scriptures. They are, rather, formed by the media they consume — or, more precisely, by the media that consume them.

The Bible is just too difficult, and when it’s not difficult it is terrifying. So many Christians simply act tribally, and when challenged to offer a Christian justification for their positions typically grope for a Bible verse or two, with no regard for its context or even its explicit meaning.

CONCLUSION

We must do better.

But it will require, in Luther’s words, that our “conscience [be] held captive to the word of God,” rather than the “boozy” whims of ill-informed and partisan prooftexting.

 


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