Debating the Bible is Good for the Soul

By Joe LaGuardia

In a sermon on Genesis, the Reverend Lillian Daniel told of an Israeli program that required rabbis to study the Torah in groups and learn how to debate its meaning.  Debate was not something to avoid, but significant because, as the theory goes, sacred scripture is too sacred not to debate.  Like weighty family matters that require push-and-pull negotiation, these rabbis are forced to negotiate a text that is often more dangerous than delicate.

We American Christians seem to do the opposite and avoid debate at all costs.  We do not want to seem pushy, mean, or antagonizing.  We do not want to offend, and we tend to spend more time with people that agree with us than those who cause discomfort because we can’t get along.

Our churches tend to instill this in us, and debates are few and far between in congregations for several reasons:

  • We have the mistaken view that the pastor has all of the answers.  We do not want to confront or contradict our spiritual leaders–they’ve been trained in this stuff, after all–and we do not want to offend their sensibilities or insult their intelligence.  Its easier to go along with the crowd, keep quite, or do what most Christians do, simply migrate from church to church.
  • We do not want to sow a “seed of discord,” and people confuse differences of opinion or theological beliefs with disunity.  If we all agree that scripture is sacred, regardless of some conclusions we draw about the text, then our debates are not the same as discord.  It is our scheming, disrespect, and distrust of one another that are the real culprits behind church splits.
  • We make debates synonymous with hostility.  Given what we see in politics and on television, this is no surprise.  We believe that if there is a debate to be had, then we better dig in our heals and make it personal.  We do not know how to have a civil conversation in which disagreements occur because we think that differences of opinion lead to sundered friendships.
  • We think we are right, so debates are a waste of time.  If you think you know it all and God is on your side, and you see every debate as a competition to win, then, yeah, you will not be very fun to debate.  I have met many people who think this, and they often confuse being right with being a jerk, and no one likes a jerk.
  • We believe that it is somehow a sin to change our minds.  From the time of Adam and Eve, we humans have been trying to play God.  Since much of our Christian theology rests on the belief that God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, then we assume that we have to be unchanging too.  What if you read something that goes against your knowledge, and you change your mind about something?  We have made transformation and conversion into weakness and lack of conviction.  If we refuse to change our minds, then why even study the Bible at all?

As a minister that has served Christ’s Church for over two decades, I believe that a little bit of healthy debate would go a long way.  The most significant issue, however, is that–even given the opportunity–we do not know how to debate.  We do not know how to draw boundaries, de-escalate rifts, untangle theological convictions from threats of excommunication.  We mistreat God’s Word by either sanitizing our conversation or avoiding deeply held beliefs and issues that we may actually need to revise or jettison altogether.

We’d rather stick with our tribes, relegate ourselves to like-minded niches, go to churches that preach and pray according to our preferences.  We stop growing as disciples and merely become echo chambers of our own making.  We don’t seek each other for new information, we watch the nightly news, which ends up shaping our theology more than the Good News of Jesus shapes our theology.

Here are a few tips that might bring back the spiritual discipline of debate.  If anyone has any testimonies about any of these, I encourage you to comment below:

  1.  Make space for conversation about the Sunday sermon in a well-facilitated environment.  Some churches no longer meet on Sunday evenings, but this would actually be a good time for pastors to meet with parishioners in a study group to go deeper, build off of the sermon, and invite conversation in which differences are examined and even celebrated.
  2. Set boundaries in Sunday School classes or Bible study groups that help people present alternative arguments or opinions about the scriptures being studied, while learning how to hear opposing viewpoints.  Getting to a place where people do not feel the need to have the final word might be a healthy goal!
  3. Set a goal for debates.  Agree that when you reach a certain time or achieve a certain goal, you and your friend(s) will cease and desist in talking about the Bible.  Go get some coffee and share something else in common.  Go bowling, complain about your spouses, go for a hike, go birding.  The sum of our belief in Christ is more than our ability to have an opinion about the Bible–we need to get out of the church and do things together, to learn what makes us who we are as individuals.

Take it from the rabbis: In a polarized world, we cannot afford to talk past each other or avoid each other.  We need to strike a balance–the Bible is too valuable to avoid debate.  Let’s get into it, let’s discover where we stand, and let’s move–together–closer to the God who exists above and beyond all our opinions, arguments, and beliefs.  We are to be conformed to Christ, not the notions married to our limited knowledge.

 

Learn from the Italians: talk over one another!

telephone

By Joe LaGuardia

In the South, it is considered rude to speak over another person.  It is polite to listen and yield to your conversational partner.  After all, Southerners are known to be humble, mannered folk.

Not so for us Italians.  While growing up around a table full of bread, wine, and pasta, I learned that speaking over one another with exuberance was a way of life.

Italians bicker with each other, debate politics, and gossip (just a little) at the dinner table, often, all at the same time.

Our embedded cultures bleed into religious life.  Take funerals for example.  There is nothing like planning a funeral in the South.  Funeral directors around these parts are as close as siblings and as invested in the local church as your favorite deacon.

In the North, planning a funeral is like strong-arming in the Stock Exchange.  When we planned my father’s funeral, I wish I could have transported Scot Ward and company up north just so my mother did not have to fight with the director about whether to make the visitation an sixteen hour or eight hour event.

I was not happy.

Yes, Italians are anything but humble, but when it comes to speaking their mind, they are on to something.

On the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13), scripture tells us that the Holy Spirit filled the earliest disciples with power and charismatic gifts fit for heaven.

Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them ability.”

In other words, a cacophony of voices rose in praise and proclamation to God.  A divine wind blew manners out of the windows, and a chorus of different languages erupted like a fight in an Italian household.

“At this sound,” Scripture tells us, “the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each” (2:6).

Pentecost, like the Italians, teaches us that we have lost the ability to talk to one another.  I don’t mean to say we’ve lost the ability to be rude, but to say exactly what we mean and to mean exactly what we say.

Italians can get overwhelming at times, but they value communication, which generally leads to intimacy, growth, and honesty.  You may fight, but you’re still family at the end of the day.

We have removed the power of Pentecost not by only silencing voices in our midst, but by congregating (no pun intended!) around people with whom we agree and share a common language.  We forgot how to welcome diversity and talk robustly about things that matter and about which we may disagree.

There is no shortage of topics worth debating at church.  Race relations and violence come to mind.  We need to be frank about how violence has made its way into faith as if violence is a part of faith.

There is the subject of ecology and policies related to global warming.  Did you know that Christians feel differently about these topics, and our theology shapes where we are on matters related to our earth’s future?

How about gun control?  Just because some people want to regulate gun control to curb violence does not mean that people want to curb gun ownership, no more than people who value gun ownership want to shoot everyone who gives them a dirty look.

The sanctity of life demands that we assess honestly the protection of all lives that are made in God’s image, whether guilty of heinous crimes or as innocent as doves.  Talking out our differences is a start.

On that Pentecost day so long ago, the result of disciples talking together — talking over one another even — resulted in a revival that inspired 3,000 people to accept Christ as Savior.  The church has lost something along the way.  We, like the Italians, need to engage in conversations that matter.

4 Ways to use Social Media for the Gospel

By Joe LaGuardia

Over the past two years, many church visitors found us by our website.  Our online presence is a major draw for our guests, second only to personal invitations.

If that is the case, then it stands to reason that churches, especially those concerned about fulfilling Jesus’ Great Commission, need to think intentionally and “missionally” about the use of social media.

The use of social media is not for the church leadership or administration alone.  Every person in the church must think critically about how social media may harness the power of evangelism and testimony in a world that has entered the digital age.

Meredith Gould, author of The Social Media Gospel, states that a church-wide approach to social media has to do with a church’s philosophy of ministry.  If a church is teaching that each person is a minister called to share the gospel, then the use of social media must come under the lordship of Christ.  No word published should be without some spiritual scrutiny.

There are several models for social media usage that might guide churches–and Christians–on the appropriate use of online communication.

Santa Clara University professor and journalist Elizabeth Dresther, for instance, argues that Christians can keep in mind the acronym, LACE, when online.*

The L stands for listening.  She argues that Christians can use social media by listening to others and assessing the emotions and needs behind the opinions and posts that people often publish.

Ask yourself: What are the concerns that people express in social media?   Do fears, prejudices, or anxiety seem to be a common theme?  How might God’s Word address these fears and empower friends to “love thy neighbor” rather than disparage the unknown?

The A in LACE is attend.  We Christians are asked to be the presence of Christ for others; this can happen in person or online.  Our comments and contributions on social media platforms can attend to people who need encouragement.

C is for connect.  Our digital world gives the illusion that we are relating to each other intimately and in real-time.  Yet, people feel more isolated than ever.

A recent article in the New York Times by Adam Grant revealed that people are less likely to make friends at work because people spend time on online or on phones during breaks instead of talking to co-workers.

We must keep our connections authentic and vibrant.  We cannot settle on being a voyeur in the lives of others, keeping people at arm’s length.  Connecting to people is the intentional act of moving past the “like” button.

The E stands for engage.  Engaging others online for Christ encourages that we share words of edification on our profiles and in emails.

Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing. (1 Thess. 5:11)

Are we promoting the cause of Christ and challenging people to think in new ways with our communications?  Are we building an alternative community with quality content and thoughtful reflection fitting the Christian faith?

Too often, our engagement is limited to promoting political or theological views that reinforce our embedded beliefs.  Status quo can be dangerous in this setting: if Christian engagement does not inspire transformation and conformity to the image of Jesus, then why share it in the first place?

We all know that social media is a powerful tool in keeping up with friends and family.  It even has the power to shape our day if it exposes us to a heartbreaking story of a loved one in need or bombards us with offensive opinions that linger in our minds well after the computer is turned off.

Likewise, it can be an effective tool for Christ, for it has shown that it can influence people to mobilize and get excited about a cause, religious or otherwise.

Although the Bible did not originate in a digital world, its principles are just as applicable.  We are still commissioned, whether in person, at church, or while surfing the world-wide web, to share the Good News of Jesus’ love, make disciples, and, ultimately, baptize all in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

“Digital Media–It’s All About Relationships,” in Bearings for the Life of Faith (Autumn 2014): 4-8.