Sunday, March 05, 2006

Idolatrous Interpretation of the Bible

When I was in college at U. Mass Amherst, a friend of mine from Intervarsity fellowship told me about the time she visited a cult meeting (I believe it was called "The Way"). She said, "I know this sounds strange, but it was like they worshiped the Bible, not God."

Years later, that statement doesn't sound so strange to me. I've seen too many times where a Bible verse or teaching (more accurately, a certain traditional unsound interpretation of a Bible passage or theme) is worshiped above a more historically, culturally based reading of that passage. A second type of this practice is what I call selective literalism. When a reader says they take the Bible literally but in reality only accepts passages that fit their theology. They worship their theology above truth.

I believe the first main cause of this is the failure for churches to teach people good practices in studying the Bible. People who are told that it's the "Word of God" will take the English words in each verse at face value with little attention to the cultural, literary, or original-language context of those words. So a verse like "I wish above all things that you prosper", becomes 'God wants me and you to be wealthy'. "Flee sexual immorality", becomes 'Don't practice whatever I envision sexual immorality to be, e.g. masturbation, oral sex, viewing graphic sexual images, (all behaviors that the Bible doesn't address at all as a sin issue) or singles sexuality (a behavior that it addresses only as an ownership issue for a father or a bridegroom).

Selective literalism could take, for example, Jesus' discourse on the 'last days' and make it fit a present-day scenario (where every earthquake and disaster becomes "proof" that we are in the last days) but ignores Jesus' clear-cut statement "I tell you the truth, this [1st century] generation will not pass away until all these things take place". Or, refusing to address the obvious acceptance of polygamy, concubinage, and certain sexual freedoms in the OT, when interpreting sexual mores for today. Think about it. How many times has one heard a Bible message on the implications of God honoring these figures in the Hebrews hall of faith: Samson, who slept with a prostitute and took Delilah as a girlfriend, Rahab the prostitute, and David who had several wives and concubines and to whom God said he would have given more if he only asked?

Idolatrous interpretation can be annoying at best and dangerous (see my comments on Pat Robertson) at worst. Either way and even when it's sincere and well-meaning (often the case), it dishonors God to so casually call something his Word for people today when there is strong Biblical evidence to the contrary.

Make Happiness Normal

I disagree with the thesis of Time's article called "Happiness Isn't Normal," (Feb. 13, 2006), about a new form of psychotherapy that tells people to embrace pain to overcome sadness. Face emotional pain, yes, but know need to embrace it, it can be overcome with a dose of realistic perspective and unconditional love, often through the vehicle of cognitive therapy. Here's my letter to the editor:

Having been depression-free for seven plus years due in large part to cognitive therapy, I am skeptical of Hayes' ACT therapy. Its refusal to challenge distorted thoughts dismisses reality and can only lead to its conclusion that happiness isn't normal. Cognitive therapy is superior, I believe, because it helps the depressed put things in proper perspective and to overcome the tendencies of blowing negative things out of proportion and disqualifying positive things in life. The result is that the positive exceeds the negative and happiness is normal. Perhaps one reason ACT is having some success is because it does mimic cognitive therapy to some degree. When ACT teaches a response to a negative thought to be "I'm thinking I'm a lousy parent," rather than "I'm a lousy parent," it at least diffuses the power of that thought and plants a seed thought: "Since I'm only thinking it, perhaps I'm not one." Cognitive therapy does this more directly and by facing reality, not dismissing it.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Challenging Closed Minds

World Magazine, the evangelical national news publication, did an article on Soulforce's Equality Ride (a group of young self-proclaimed evangelical homosexuals) campaign that is visiting Christian campuses to challenge their ban on gay and lesbian students (Uninvited Guests, March 4). Joel Belz first imagines a college deciding if they should allow a group of Muslims on campus who want to do a cultural exchange. That's seems fine, he concludes, it would give opportunity to build bridges, be a positive Christian witness to Muslims, without compromising the college's values. But then, what if the group was Soulforce's homosexual activists--part of Equality Ride? All of a sudden, that proposition makes Christian colleges uncomfortable. They wouldn't want them to show up, but might tolerate them for a discussion before sending them on their way.

Why are they unafraid of welcoming Muslims but afraid of welcoming homosexuals--even ones that call themselves believers? This is the closed-minded attitude that permeates many traditional Christian groups. They have already made up their mind because they already know the truth--so they say. If they are sure about the truth, they should not be intimidated. That is why they should welcome Equality Ride and encourage open dialogue. It should be interesting to see how the 20 campuses respond to these visits, including my graduate school, Eastern University. My experience is that we Christians don't always know what we are talking about when we say we know the truth about something. Misunderstandings, mistranslations, and misinterpretations of the Bible unfortunately are not uncommon. See What the Bible Says... as an example.