This is following on directly from last week’s post – I was talking about Psalm 21, and there’s some stuff regarding the Bible’s meaning & the process of interpretation that I should probably go into a bit more. It’s a bit less of a theoretical article and a bit more of a ‘How to Deal with Shit-Head Christians’ article. You could call it Christian apologetics, if you like – that is, a defence of your faith against Christians.
Basically I ended my post last week by saying that I wasn’t satisfied with the strict division whereby only Christians were good people and non-Christians all hate God. That’s a division we find in Psalm 21 (or at least we find it after we pinch it off the Jews). So on the one hand, I don’t accept this division, but on the other hand, here it is, sitting in the text. It seems like I’m taking my own word over the authority of the Bible – which, as some Christians will be very quick to tell you, is bad and naughty. And they’ve got a well-founded fear – if we’re going to treat the Bible as authoritative, we need to respect that authority, because otherwise it can become hard to hear God when He’s trying to tell us something we don’t want to hear. We just write it off as ‘Not Authoritative (Because I Don’t Want to Hear It)’. That’s bad. However, often what’ll happen is that this argument about respecting what the Bible ‘Actually Says’ gets employed to sell a specific reading of the Bible. For example: “Either you literally take everything the Bible says at face value, or you’re Just Not Listening.” That’s also bad.
Here’s my position so far. I’d argue that the Bible was written by a bunch of Jews (and maybe some Christians) 2000+ years ago. It’s the authoritative self-revelation of God to humanity, but it’s not transparent – that is, we can’t read it and assume that we just automatically understand perfectly what’s meant to be communicated about God’s exact nature. To my mind, part of the reason the Bible isn’t transparent is because there’s a cultural lens in the way. It’s not particularly controversial to say that the Bible is written from within a cultural context – for example, in the Greek version, Peter (‘Petros’) and rock (‘petra’) are very similar words. Thus, when Jesus says “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church”, he’s actually saying “You are Petros, and on this petra I will build my church.” It’s a pun, right – but it’s rooted in the language. If you don’t know something about Greek, you’re not going to get it. In that sense, the meaning of the text is bound to at least one contemporary cultural form – the language.
So the Bible is written by these 2000-year-old Jews from their 2000-year-old perspective, and arguably their perspective is actually bound up in the meaning conveyed. However, their perspective isn’t necessarily perfect, because they’re human, and flawed, and restricted to their time. For example, in the New Testament, there’s this general assumption that slavery is generally fine as a cultural practice. There’s that one bit in Philemon where Paul says “Let’s let Onesimus not be a slave”, but he’s certainly not saying “Slavery itself is actually bad as an institution”. He’s just picking one individual dude in one specific circumstance and saying “Let’s free that guy”. Today, by contrast, there’s kind of this general understanding that people shouldn’t own each other – we could even say that slavery is against God’s will, and we only now understand that. In that sense, our cultural perspective on slavery is (arguably) more aligned with God’s will than the cultural perspective at the time the Bible was written.
If that’s the case, and if the cultural perspective is therefore partly unreliable, part of our job as Christians is to set about discerning which bits are God and which bits are unreliable cultural perspective. This is a point I’ve raised before with reference to Augustine, and again with reference to, uh, Babylon Bee. As an example of that in practice, I ended the post last week by saying that the whole ‘non-Christians are bad people’ thing that comes up in Psalm 21 seems to me like unreliable cultural perspective, rather than a revelation of God’s actual nature. In defence of that claim, I offered a very subjective and personal point of view:
“Well, because as a Christian I’m actively seeking after the face of God, allowing Him to speak on His own terms, and this doesn’t seem like Him.”
In many ways this is what a great deal of these discussions boil down to. We can toss different ideas and theories around, and that’s all fine and dandy, but when it comes to actually committing to something, you can’t just pick whichever one makes you feel happy. The point of reference has to be God Himself.
Often one of the things that happens is that Christians who don’t share your point of view weaponise the authority of God as something to bludgeon you with. They say things like ‘I’m being obedient to God and what He has said in His word’ – implying that their interpretation of the Bible is objectively correct and yours is grounded in faithlessness and/or ignorance. I’ve found that these kind of assholes tend to be more conservative Christians, but I tend to disagree with conservatives more, so perhaps I have a skewed experience.
Anyway – my point is that the correct response to these assholes is to assert the integrity of your faith. If you’re a genuine Christian who’s honestly and wholeheartedly seeking after God and being led by His word, and you find yourself led to the conclusion that actually non-Christians can be decent people too, then that’s a reasonable response to the assholes. It’s not necessarily an approach to take with the non-religious, because they don’t think that there’s an Almighty out there listening to you. But when you’re talking with other Christians, and that’s a shared belief – well. We do believe that God is out there, and we do believe that He is guiding us and teaching us. To my experience, liberals tend to be a bit more antsy about asserting things as truth, because they’re more aware of the limits of their own subjectivity. However, I think there is a point where (especially in Christian community) we have to be willing to assert the integrity of our faith in order to be respected by the people who disagree with us.