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.

 

The long and dangerous road of theological tradition

Members of the Westboro Baptist Church hold anti-gay signs at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia on Veterans Day, November 11, 2010. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS) - RTXUI58

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque (UNITED STATES – Tags: POLITICS) – RTXUI58

By Joe LaGuardia

As a requirement for her Master of Divinity degree at the McAfee School of Theology, Atlanta, Georgia, the Reverend Karen Woods wrote a thesis on race relations in the local church.  In it, she argues that slavery, discrimination, and contemporary conflicts surrounding race did not suddenly appear out of nowhere.

Rather, the dysfunction of racism grew out of long theological traditions that manipulated the Bible to justify one race’s subjugation over another.  Sadly, although our ancestors were people of their time, this theological context sat squarely on a certain systemic interpretation of the Bible that dehumanized people.

Woods’ thesis reminded me that beliefs surrounding a variety of issues these days result not from spontaneous decisions or platitudes, but from long-held convictions and traditions that require (consciously or otherwise) theological gerrymandering and interpretative acrobats over a long period of time.

If we are still embroiled in the consequences of racism even today, then it should not surprise us that contemporary debates over other hotbed topics will last well into the next generation of Christendom.

Traditions and experience inform how we read the Bible (if we read the Bible at all), and shaping our reading of God’s Word according to such embedded ideologies threatens to undermine the authority of Scripture.

The worst part is when we declare that God agrees with our positions rather than change our minds when we know some things simply contradict Christ’s or the Bible’s teachings.

M. Craig Barnes, writing for The Christian Century, wrote of the dangers associated with biased interpretations of scripture.  He recalled Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address delivered on March 4, 1865, in which Lincoln lamented the toxicity that imbues any theology that forces ideology on humanity’s understanding of God.

According to Lincoln, “Both [the North and the South] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes [God’s]aid against the other . . . The prayers of both could not be answered.  That of neither has been answered fully.  The Almighty has His own purposes.”

Lincoln went on to declare that the institution of slavery–250 years in the making–will not come untangled as easily as many people in the Union had hoped.  Yet, it was imperative to “finish the work we are in” so as to bring about harmony to a nation divided by political ideology.

Lincoln hit the problem squarely on the head.  Our debates surrounding the most pressing issues of the day such as gun control, environmental stewardship, war, immigration and refugee policy, and federal budgets must indeed play out in the philosophical and political arenas, but must avoid any declaration that God is taking one side over another.  Otherwise, we too will be embroiled in divisions that rend the very fabric of our nation.

Ultimately, when a Christian surrenders to God, she surrenders her “rights” in this world in order to become a fully-recognized citizen in God’s kingdom.  It is to sacred Scripture that a citizen of the Kingdom submits, not to any man-made document or system of government.

God’s call is a singular mission to march towards the cause of the cross.  This results from self-denial and, sometimes, death, if not physically, then of those embedded convictions that conflict with Christ’s values.

Most significantly, submitting to Christ’s lordship means divesting our theologies about God and social politics that perpetuate some of the more hostile elements of faith that play out in our places of worship, politics, and the public square.  Without this important reformation in our churches, we remain steadfast in the very bigotry that our faith condemns.

Without analyzing the long-held beliefs that shape our worldview, we fail to “be transformed in the renewal of our mind,” as Paul so aptly commands in Romans 12:1-2.

My prayer for the New Year is that we will have robust debates in an otherwise uncommon election season, but that we will not use religion as a weapon to wield rather than a balm to heal, and that we will use Scripture to transform our thinking rather than support our myopic opinions about so many issues we face today.  May Christ, not the fascination with our own interpretations of Him, be Lord over our lives.

 

 

 

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.