Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Biblical Interpretation and Christian Charity

Rachel Held Evans is a fantastic woman of faith and prolific writer, speaker, and blogger. Recently this outspoken Evangelical has been embroiled in what can only be described as a sandal in Christian circles. Her book was dropped from LifeWay, the main gatekeeper publishing house for the Southern Baptist Church, because it contained the word "vagina" in reference to her True Love Waits pledge. Both religious and non-religious news sources have picked up on the "vaginagate" story (at here and here). Rachel has recently written some blog posts in response, and there's one I particularly like, "When our interpretations differ..."

I want to re-post the full text of her post because she says everything I have wanted to say for a very long time. It's not long. I hope you'll read it. Here it is:
As we discussed last week, the Bible is an eclectic collection of letters and laws, stories and songs, prophecies and proverbs, philosophy and poems, spanning thousands of years and multiple cultures. And as such, it lends itself to multiple, competing interpretations. It always has.

I believe that all Scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, challenging, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the people of God are equipped for good works. I acknowledge and submit to the authority of Scripture, even though I often wrestle with it, even though it frustrates and confuses me at times.  And I try to read Scripture with ultimate deference to the teachings of Jesus Christ, who said that all of its laws and stories and prophecies could be boiled down into two principles: 1) love God, 2) love people.
The fact that the Bible lends itself to competing interpretations should be cause for celebration rather than dismay, for these competing interpretations among people of faith who love and value Scripture help bring us into relationship with one another and with God. They bring us into conversation.  They remind us that faith isn't simply about believing something in isolation, but about being part of a community.

What is perhaps most frustrating about engaging in such conversations within the evangelical community in particular, however, is that differences regarding things like Calvinism and Arminianism, baptism, heaven and hell, gender roles, homosexuality, and atonement theories often disintegrate into harsh accusations in which we question one another’s commitment to Scripture.  In some cases, folks are so committed to their particular views on these issues they seem incapable of making a distinction between the Bible itself and their interpretation of it, and so any critique of that interpretation is seen as a critique of Scripture itself!  And so we miss one another entirely. Instead of a lively, impassioned debate about the text, we engage in lively, impassioned debates about one another’s commitment to the faith. 

Now, just because I have observed this phenomenon does not mean I am immune to perpetuating it. Often I find myself questioning others people’s motives; often I find myself assuming the worst; often I am too lazy (or threatened or fearful or angry) to hear my fellow Christians out. But the fact that someone interprets the Bible differently than I do does not automatically mean that the person does not love or value the Bible as much as I. It doesn't mean they are trying to hurt me, or hurt women, or hurt Christianity.
For constructive dialog to happen, Christians must stop conflating differences in interpretation of Scripture with differences in commitment to Scripture.  We must respond to one another’s questions, arguments, and ideas in kind, with more questions, arguments, and ideas, rather than avoiding the conversation altogether by dismissing one another as unfaithful.  

I’ve seen this work in beautiful, constructive, and God-honoring ways…and I’ve seen it fail miserably. Interestingly, it seems to work best in communities that also value gathering around The Table for communion—perhaps because The Table reminds us that it is our shared brokenness and our shared healing through Jesus that ultimately unites us as brothers and sisters in the faith.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Methodist Pie! ...and a teaser

And now for something completely different...

I found this video surfing the Internet this week in The Massachusetts Observer. It's a song from the days of Methodist camp meetings and it happens to combine the twin Methodist loves of singing and eating. The music has an Appalachian feel:

Went down to camp meeting just the other afternoon
Just to hear 'em shout and sing
For to tell each other how they love one another
And to make the hallelujahs ring
There was old Brother Daniel and Cousin Ebeneezer
Uncle Rufus and his lame gal, Sue
Aunt Polly and Melinda and old Mother Bender
Well, I never seen a happier crew

Oh, little children, I believe
Oh, little children, I believe
Oh, little children, I believe
I'm a Methodist till I die
I'm a Methodist, Methodist, 'tis my belief
I'm a Methodist till I die
And if you want to hear my holler like I found a silver dollar
Just pass that Methodist pie.

Well they all go there just to have a big time
And to eat their grub so sly
Have applesauce-butter, sugar-in-the-gourd
And a great big Methodist pie
Well you ought to hear the ringing when they all get to singing
That good old bye and bye
See Jimmy McGee in the top of a tree
Saying, how is this for high

Then they all join hands and dance around a ring
Just a-singing all the while
You'd think it was a cyclone coming through the air
You could hear about half a mile
Then a bell brings loud and the great big crowd
Breaks ranks and up they fly
While I took board on the sugar in the gourd
And I cleaned up the Methodist Pie

Now I kind of want some pie! I can't figure out what on earth sugar-in-the-gourd is. I Googled it and came up with old-timey Appalachian fiddle music. Clearly not a dish. This song makes me want to go back to the old Methodist camp meetings as a fly on the wall- er, tent. They were an important part of American spirituality. Can Methodism take on that role again in the 21st century and beyond? Join me as I explore that question next week!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Immigration Round-Up

Immigration is one of the less-important issues in the election this year, but it shouldn't be. This issue actually has a lot to do with the economics of our country, and lax labor laws in certain parts of the country that negatively affect citizens and non-citizens alike. Sojourners sent around an email recently highlighting some key stories on immigration and our economy recently. I recommend checking out one or more of them.

New York Times on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals:
Undocumented Life Is a Hurdle as Immigrants Seek a Reprieve 

NBC on trends in industrial farms, which are huge employers of undocumented immigrants:
The Farm Labor Crisis: Imagined or Real?

Time Magazine, also on farm labor:
Bitter Harvest: US Farmers Blame Billion Dollar Losses on Immigration Laws

Sojourners blog on how our rhetoric affects immigrants:
Dropping the "I" Word

Friday, October 5, 2012

Broke vs. Poor: Continuing the Conversation on Poverty

As some of the members of CUMC have said on our Facebook group, it's important to understand what we mean when we talk about poverty. I suggested that I might be considered "almost poor" when I realized that I qualified for food stamps. But Christian Piatt over at the Sojourners blog has made a distinction between "broke" and "poor." He writes,
"Broke is a short-term condition; poor is an inevitable way of life. Broke is asking friends or family for help; broke is having no one else around you in a better state than you’re in to even ask. Broke is buying ramen and rice for a while; poor is imagining what it would be like not to feel hungry or worry about having enough to feed your kids, every day of your life."
I think Christian's distinction is great, and I think it's what we were trying to articulate in our Facebook discussion. Based on his definition, I'm considered broke and not poor. But I would shade it even more. For instance, I have a friend who is poor and homeless. She lives in a trailer parked in her friend's driveway. She doesn't necessarily go hungry, but she does eat very cheaply (no meats, few produce, ect). Her son often asks why there are no meatballs in the spaghetti. And yet she doesn't qualify for food stamps. Her car insurance and gas eat up a huge portion of her income. My friend tells me her parents won't help her. But if I offered to give her some of the canned goods in my pantry, she wouldn't take them.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that socioeconomic status, like gender and race, is socially constructed, and therefore is not a static thing, that is, it's "fluid." What makes a person poor? Who is poor and who isn't? The answer to these questions is situational more often than we would like to admit. The way to respond to poverty is not to dissect it, it's to do something about it. Sojourners suggests we should get political and press our politicians to address the issue of growing poverty in America. For some, it's more up their alley to take action locally, by donating food to a food pantry, serving at a soup kitchen, or donating money to local charities. But for all of us, we must first respond with compassion and care for those who are poor. As God cares for those who are poor, hungry, disabled, and elderly, we must care also. The first step is to care enough to do something about it. The next step is to actually do it.