I hope you’re enjoying my comments on 1 Thessalonians – I plan to wrap up this short letter in one or two more posts later this week. I know my secular outlook on how Paul’s teachings play out in everyday American life might not be exactly the sort of exegesis everyone is looking for – believers will probably feel I’m being overly critical, non-believers may think I’m not critical enough. Since Christians rather loudly proclaim that all of our ills as a nation could be solved if we’d just follow the teachings of the Bible, I think it’s a fair response to examine those teachings – verse by verse – and see if their claim is valid. So far, it’s a mixed bag.
I’ve been thinking today about some of the influences that have been instrumental in shaping my worldview, and the Bible has to be right there at the top. In fact, I think you can’t really understand Western civilization without some understanding of the teachings of Jesus and the apostles.
My appreciation for the scriptures – and the way I read them – comes from my Dad. Dad pastored a number of evangelical / charismatic / Pentecostal churches over a span of nearly four decades, and I think it’s a shame that his congregations never numbered more than a few dozen. In spite of listening to him preach 2-3 times a week until I was in my mid-20s, I always thought he was one of the most interesting preachers I had ever heard. Dad was a real believer in expository preaching as opposed to topical sermons, which is what gave his sermons some real meat.
Topical preachers tend to get an idea for a sermon based on what they want to say to their flock – or what ax they have to grind – and look around for a few verses here and there that appear to support their ideas. This is by far the most popular method in American churches, and constitutes probably 100 percent of the sermons you hear on radio and TV. I think this is how Christians get some pretty messed up ideas – especially those who never bother to read much for themselves. You can pretty much get the Bible to say whatever you want it to say this way. Dad used to jokingly illustrate this point by putting together Matthew 27:5 and Luke 10:37, “And (Judas) cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself. Go, and do thou likewise.”
An expository approach uses a complete text – usually an entire chapter – and looks at what the writer has to say in the proper context. It helps to understand some of the circumstances surrounding the particular writing – who wrote it, to whom was it written, what circumstances did the writer feel compelled to address, etc. This kind of reading / preaching is likely to reflect the original intent of the scripture more accurately, and tends to discredit pet doctrines that have been assembled by cherry picking verses from here and there. In other words, study what the writer actually says and let the topics arise from the text itself. I hope you can see evidence of this in my approach to writing this blog.
Another influence on my personal philosophy was an essay I read in college, Albert Camus‘ Myth of Sisyphus. It is such a powerful work that I dropped out of school for a semester when I first read it so that I could devote more time to thinking about it. His description of the ‘absurd man’ gave me meaning and hope at a time in my life when nothing else did, least of all the faith of my youth. His ideas are existential in the best sense of the word; he advises how to continue existing when it seems there’s no reason to do so. If I’d never read Camus, my life would have certainly gone in another direction; I most definitely would never have chosen to live abroad for a decade.
A number of professors introduced me to the writings of Joseph Campbell, which greatly influenced my views on the nature of the scriptures. Once you’ve read a flood story that pre-dates Noah by a thousand years, it’s hard to view the latter as ‘fact’. The same goes for the virgin birth, Jesus’ descent into hell, his resurrection, and a number of other phenomena I had previously thought exclusive to the Bible narrative. Being exposed to what Campbell has to say doesn’t necessarily mean you have to stop believing, but you do have to believe in a different way. I had always heard from church folks that stories from other cultures that seemed to mimic Biblical ones were simply copy-cat versions, inspired by the Devil to try to confuse people. That must be one clever Devil to copy stories sometimes hundreds of years before the originals.
There is a half-remembered interview between Campbell and Bill Moyers that I’d love to come across again – it may be more of a mental collage I’ve made that incorporates some of his ideas with those of Douglas Adams and others; if anyone has a clearer idea of what I’m referring to, please point me in the right direction. In the interview, he compares the religion we grow up with to the software that’s installed on your computer when you buy it. There’s really no need to get rid of it, as long as it allows you to you to accomplish your goals and enjoy your experiences. Sometimes, however, there’s a problem. You come across a situation that your software wasn’t designed to handle. You’re presented with problems that you are ill-equipped to solve. You can’t enjoy certain applications that the creators of the old software were unable to foresee the need for. When you try to force things along anyway, a crash occurs. If it’s your computer, you can throw it away and buy a new one; if it’s your life, things are a bit more complicated.
Modifying your religious beliefs is akin to upgrading your software – no one uses MS DOS anymore, because you couldn’t get it to do anything you wanted it to do – watch a video, download a song, or edit your photos. Yet there are thousands if not millions of people in the world today who are trying to navigate through the 21st century with a 500-year-old translation of a 2000-year-old book. Dan Dennet and Richard Dawkins are telling us that we need to throw out that old operating system, switch to Linux or iOS or something radical.
Before I even think about doing that, I’m going to read through that old instruction manual one more time. I hope you’ll join me.