Having attended seminary, I am of the firm belief that the Bible is not magically able to be properly interpreted by everyone who reads it. This is in contrast with many evangelicals, who generally expect the Bible’s message to be self-evident to the average attentive reader open to the Holy Spirit. Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith recently wrote about this, as well as various other problems with how evangelicals approach Scripture, in his book The Bible Made Impossible. For a while now, I have been with Smith in considering this an inappropriate approach to Scripture because it simply does not work in real life: People who don’t know better very often read Scripture quite poorly, despite their best efforts and intentions.
Some might consider it elitist to believe only certain better-equipped people can properly interpret the Bible, but consider this: There was a time when most people were illiterate, making the entire Bible completely inaccessible without some sort of mediator. Was it elitist for God to inspire Scripture to begin with? Then neither is it elitist to acknowledge that the Bible was written in unfamiliar languages and cultures a long time ago and that it is therefore not always easily understood. In fact, even with additional training there is a lack of consensus about certain passages, highlighting how complicated the Bible really is. This situation need not create a separate class of Christians who keep the Bible to themselves, but rather demands we do a better job connecting academics, clergy, and laity to one another so that everyone might have as many tools as possible to understand as much of the Bible as possible. And in the event that having been better equipped, there are still certain parts which are harder to understand, lay people should have access to people and books who can point them in the right direction. This highlights the importance of educated leaders, as well as for academics who take a strong interest in helping the church as a whole connect to their life’s work.
Too often today pastors are uneducated or focused solely on ministerial training rather than biblical studies and theology, and too often even the best educated pastors with an interest in theology do not know how to make this information accessible to their congregants. We need strong educational requirements and a culture which values learning among our pastors. We also need to train them in how to teach others about that which often stays shut up in the ivory tower. We should encourage basic theological literacy among lay people through the sorts of preaching, Sunday school curricula, adults’ and children’s books, etc. to which we expose people in our churches and other Christian settings. In my view, it would be wise to come to a general consensus on what sorts of topics every Christian deserves some basic instruction in and to make certain our teaching ensures anyone growing up in church or later joining a church has the opportunity to learn such material—in other words, we need more and better catechesis.
Another thing we need, however, is to recognize that the way evangelicals conduct many of their ministries is simply theologically irresponsible. In particular, I am talking about the very lax standards for ministry in parachurch contexts. I do not doubt that many of these individuals are called by God to serve and that God uses them in meaningful ways. But we need to do a better job distinguishing between those in deacon-type positions vs. those with significant teaching and mentoring responsibilities. Those who focus on practical service (ministries of compassion, social justice, fostering community and fellowship, the arts, etc.) need not possess a theological education, though some might find it helpful to have a background in theology, not to mention other sorts of training (to play certain instruments, to understand social issues, etc.). However, this is not the case for those who preach and otherwise guide others through Scripture as a regular basis as part of their ministerial profession.
A perfect example of this is campus ministry. Campus ministry organizations (whether interdenominational or denominational) need educational standards for their staff. Period. A typical campus minister may refer to their lessons as “speaking” or “teaching,” but there is no practical difference between the nature of their “talks” and a sermon the student might hear on Sunday morning. For those who consider it problematic for pastors to lack theological education, the same standard should apply to campus ministers. They play a very significant role in determining how young people form their theology, not only through preaching but also through “discipling” relationships. Without educational standards, there is an enormous variance of “quality” of teaching between campus ministry staff, which is rather unfortunate.
Campus ministries, as well as other parachurch organizations, often have enormous power to influence the direction of the church. We must consider it “worth it” to require—and then, of course, help fund—the education of those in such influential positions if we want to avoid perpetuating poor biblical interpretations, not to mention broader ignorance of theology and church history and the very large problem of evangelical anti-intellectualism.
While studying the Apostolic Fathers last semester I came across a non-literal reading of Genesis in 2 Clement. Just as background, 2 Clement, which is not written by Clement, is an early Christian homily that probably dates to around the mid-to-late second century. It is interesting in large part because it is evidence of allegorical interpretation of the Genesis story occurring very early on in Christian history. Here is the passage (Ehrman’s Translation):
But I cannot imagine you do not realize that the living church is the body of Christ. For the Scripture says, “God made the human male and female.” The male is Christ, the female the church. And, as you know, the Bible and the apostles indicate that the church has not come into being just now, but has existed from the beginning. (2 Clem. 14:2)
There are similar comments sprinkled throughout the passage. The church “was created before the sun and moon” and the author exhorts the reader to be apart of the “first church, the spiritual church.” Interesting stuff. I noticed similar ideas in other Apostolic Fathers texts, but none of them made use of Genesis.
I’d like to take this opportunity to tell my friends and fellow-biblibloggers about a new book I have coming out from Major Evangelical Publisher. A few months ago, MEP contacted me about a book opportunity to continue a series exploring the church life and theology of the Fathers. I must admit, I was surprised that they chose an obscure grad student for the project, but when I confronted them about it they replied, “Who is willing to work cheaper than a grad student?” Who indeed? After accepting their offer, I got to work right away. I thought I’d use this blog to provide a preview of the content of the book. The first chapter focuses on Ignatius of Antioch and examines his three point rhetorical strategy, a strategy that I dare say would remain effective even today.
Step I: Dehumanize
The easiest way to challenge the legitimacy of your opponents is to portray them as somehow subhuman. After all, nobody goes to the zoo for theological advice (except perhaps a “pastor” whose name rhymes with Lark Griscoll who pioneered the quadrant-based flung-monkey-poo method of discernment). Watch as Ignatius elbow drops his opponents with the gospel. His opponents are:
- “wild animals” and “raving dogs” (Ign. Eph. 7.1)
- “seemingly trustworthy wolves” (Ign. Phil. 2.2)
- “beasts in human form” (Ign. Smyr. 4.1)
Step II: Demonize
Once you show that your opponents are subhuman, you really have to prove that they are evil instead of just stupid. Try finding as many ways as possible to associate your opponents with the Devil. Be creative like Ignatius, he said his opponents were:
- “a weed planted by the Devil” (Ign. Eph. 10.3)
- “filthy” and they “will depart into the unquenchable fire” (Ign. Eph. 16.2)
- an “evil offshoot which produces deadly fruit” (Ign. Trall. 11.1)
- bearers of “the stamp of this world” (Ign. Magn. 5.2)
- promoters of “evil teachings” (Ign. Eph. 9.1)
- doomed to become bodiless daimons (Ign. Smyr. 2.1)
Step III: Delegitimize
Finally, find ways to smear your opponents with unpleasant titles, and whenever possible exploit the prejudice of your audience. You can call your opponents names:
- those who say he only appeared to suffer are “atheists” (Ign. Trall. 10.1)
You can exploit the growing Anti-Judaism in Christianity by characterizing your opponents as:
- partakers of the “bad yeast” of Judaism (Ign. Magn. 10.2)
- believers of “old fables” who by living “according to Judaism” “have not received God’s grace.” (Ign. Magn. 8.1)
And you can attack the legitimacy of their worship:
- Their eucharist is “invalid” without the bishop (Ign. Eph. 5.2; Ign. Smyrn. 8.1)
Obviously the church fathers give us powerful examples of theological reflection, prayer, and worship, but they can also help us deal with divisions in our churches. A quick rhetorical rout can leave your opponents decimated, and bring your church back under your impartial, divinely-appointed control with great speed. Watch for the book to be published later this year, and check the table of contents below to see what other church fathers I mine for that decisive rhetorical victory today’s churches really need.
Table of Contents:
- Chapter 1: Irate Ignatius
- Chapter 2: Mighty Justin Martyr
- Chapter 3: Indomitable Irenaeus
- Chapter 4: Testy Tertullian
- Chapter 5: Combative Chrysostom
- Chapter 6: Antagonistic Augustine
Harvard University Extension School has a website where they have essentially posted the lectures from online courses for free public consumption.
Harvard open courses feature video of Harvard faculty. The following noncredit free Harvard courses are offered online by Harvard Extension School’s Open Learning Initiative. Featuring Harvard faculty, the courses are open to the public.
- Intensive Introduction to Computer Science
- The Heroic and the Anti-Heroic in Classical Greek Civilization
- Bits: The Computer Science of Digital Information
- Shakespeare After All
- China: Traditions and Transformations
- World War and Society in the Twentieth Century: World War II
- Sets, Counting, and Probability
- Abstract Algebra
Of particular interest is the course titled, “The Heroic and the Anti-Heroic in Classical Greek Civilization.” Enjoy.
I had a Facebook interaction that I found so amusing I decided to share with all of you. First, a little background. I went to a semi-conservative undergrad, the sort of place where professors are tolerant of views both more liberal and more conservative than their own but the official positions of the school say all the “right” things. I’m Facebook friends with a former classmate of mine who even then displayed a certain level of mental instability. I recall the stunned and awkward silence as he gave his sermon in our preaching class and used it to suggest that Christians should support the summary execution of any person who engages in homosexual activity. He was one of those people who espouses extreme views, but simultaneously is generally very nice and otherwise pleasant to be around. Even though I know it is futile, from time to time I attempt to comment on his more extreme postings and nudge them back towards some sense of sanity. It was his response to my gentle prodding which is prompting me to write this post. His comment is many things: loony, bizarre, uncharitable, and sad, but above all it is sort of hilarious. This man made a post about how he will enjoy murdering U.N. troops when they come to take over the U.S. for their “One World Tyranny.” I suggested that such an attitude does not correspond to the advice given by Jesus in the Gospels. I reproduce his response in its entirety:
Right, like Jesus Christ Himself [sic] wasn’t a Radical [sic]. Like He didn’t say to “put away you [sic] sword” for later use. Not Get[si..oh nevermind] Rid Of It! Like We Aren’t Supposed To Fight Tyranny And Evil… Dude, Your Social Justice Christianity has your head screwed on wrong. I am Scripturally Sound and your wanna help Pussify The Nation God Gave Us And Turn It Over To The Evil Of EDOM HE HATES. Go Ahead, But Not This Republic. Move To Canada Where Pussification Has Already Taken Hold But Don’t Dare Try To Un-Do The Christian Nation God Has Blessed Me With. Your Liberal B.S. Is Exactly Why Our Troops Get Spat Upon In Airports By Those Claiming To Love Our Country Then Turn Around And Fist Those Of Us With Balls Enough To Defend Her. Perhaps You Don’t Dig My Kind Christianity But At Least My Balls Have Dropped Enough To Be A Good American Hard Core. Time To Grow Up And See It’s Not All About Love And Flowers J.B.[that’s me] … Perhaps It Is That You Just Never Knew Who I Am? I Use Scripture As A Sword… You Must Be An Awfully Protected Guy Not To Have Your Eyes Open To Reality Yet. Grow Up.
Is it wrong that I cracked up reading that?