Friday, April 16, 2010

A Cacophony of Rival Voices


The blog over at Tikkun featured this (-->) photo today. It is a copy of the Koran being read by a Sufi in Somalia. On the surface, one would not expect a follower of this minority and uber-spiritual brand of Islam (overwhelmingly characterized by a pursuit of peace and chastity) to be toting an AK-47, let alone with a strap advertising the most famous pornographic literature in the universe. But the image cuts to deeper questions about the context and framework that we all read our texts through, specifically the power of globalization and the presence of corrupt and violent military dictatorships in that corner of the world. An image like this should open our eyes in the West to all kinds of interpretive influences, despite the repeated proclamation that I've heard recently from American Christians who claim to read the Bible objectively or as so many seem to be claiming: "just Jesus." On the contrary, I submit that all Christians see and live Jesus through a lens that sheds light on not only our "spiritual life" but also "everything else there is."

This "Jesus Plus Nothing" movement, understandably, is responding to a variety of denominational, political, racial, economic, as well as pastor-ego quarreling within Christianity. It seeks refuge in the oasis of a simple, spiritual, eternal-savior Jesus who is doesn't ruffle anyone's feathers and seeks unity above all else. This Christian strand reflects the opening days of the Enlightenment that reacted (quite wisely) to the series of religious wars (Protestant versus Catholic versus Anabaptist) that dominated the European landscape in the 17th century. It should be commended for its desire to be ecumenical and refusal to squabble about petty differences. However, it should be pressed into a more nuanced and honest understanding of the particular, subjective and traditioned nature of every form of Christian faith.

One of the major problems with "Just Jesus" is that those who adhere to it actually think there are self-evident, universal interpretations of key components of the Christian faith. For instance, I cannot tell you how often I have heard Christian leaders shrug their shoulders and give the "obvious" interpretation of the "render unto Caesar" passage in the Gospels. It is used by Christian pastors and political leaders to "prove" that Jesus ordained clearly-defined boundaries for both spirituality and politics, never to be crossed. Usually, it promotes a down-playing of the importance of "politics" for Christians. I have even heard a variety of conservative Evangelical Christians tell me they just had to leave Saddleback Church because Rick Warren had gotten too "political" (meaning that he emphasizes "social justice" issues like HIV/AIDS, orphan-care and fighting poverty).

In addition, I continue to hear sincere, passionate Christians tell me that "nature" and "the Bible" are clear on the homosexuality issue (virtually parallel to what Southern pastors were saying about slavery back in the 19th century). Science is actually deeply contested on the "nature" of sexual orientation and acclaimed Bible scholars (like Walter Wink and Jeffry Siker) are doing great interpretive work, using historical context and the original languages (Hebrew and Greek), to give a much more nuanced view of how the biblical documents attest to "sexual orientation." In addition, my own experience with gay and lesbian followers of Jesus who undoubtedly bear the fruit of the Spirit continue to show me just how contested the issue is within the Body of Christ.

Side-Note: Last weekend, I blogged about my own shifting interpretation of Colossians 1:13-14, revealing how phrases like "dominion of darkness" and "the kingdom of the beloved Son" reflect a different reality now (continuous personal and prophetic transformation) than they did just 5 years ago (eternal destiny after I die). My good friend Ty, a brother in Christ who happens to be gay, interprets Colossians 1:13-14 through a different lens: as a journey from decades of hiding "in the closet" (the dominion of darkness) to a coming out process where he has received full acceptance and unconditional love (the kingdom of the beloved Son) from God and his Christian family. His "redemption" story is fully legitimate because it beckons every member of the Body of Christ (in fact, all of humanity) to plunge deeper and deeper into understanding how wide and high and long and deep is the love of Christ--it compels me to live a fuller life of authenticity and empathy.

As we acknowledge our diverse perspectives on Scripture and life--when we really lay our cards on the table--we can appreciate our God-given differences and learn how to love and serve God more deeply. We can also learn how to disagree with each other and form much-needed interpretive accountability. After all, not all Bible readings are created equal. Indeed, some interpretations of Scripture and life can lead to destructive and de-humanizing outcomes and we can learn to be vigilant about the cultural baggage that leads us to interpretations that, in our society, tend to be more individualistic and self-absorbed than the story of God, Israel, Jesus and the Church found in Scripture. This has everything to do with the influential role of our own family rules, the saturation of media advertising and our own human penchant towards self-protection due to all the abuse, alienation and anxiety that life dishes out.

In his book Texts Under Negotiation (1993), Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann proposes that there exists a "zone of imagination" between the reader and the text shapes how the Bible is read. He says that the live Word of God competes with "a cacophony of rival voices" like family expectations, peer pressure, powerful vested interests, deep fears, deep unresolved hurts, economic opportunity and social ideology. In short, it's never "just Jesus."

God, grant us the space to cherish the diversity of Your Creation as we listen and learn from each other. Remind us that nothing can separate us from Your Love and give us the strength, wisdom and discernment so that we may speak truthfully and gently to one another, throwing off everything that so easily entangles our perspective of the Kingdom of the beloved Son.

--Theological Autopilot

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