Strange Christianity Made in America: Part III by Randy Woodley

I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ! -Gandhi

Christians in America are infamous for being so unlike Jesus. I like the bumper sticker that says, “When Jesus said love your enemies I think he probably meant don’t kill them.” Ever wonder how Christians went from loving their enemies to killing them? We love to blame it all on Constantine, and true enough, he contributed to the problem, but I think the problem goes deeper and farther back—all the way to the Apostle Paul, or at least to the way we view him and his role in the Scriptures—our hermeneutic of Paul.

Don’t get me wrong, Paul was probably a solid guy, but (and he’d be the first to admit) he doesn’t even hold a candle to Jesus. Over the centuries Paul’s words have been used to sanction everything from American slavery to the oppression of women to 5 Point Calvinism. So, why do we give the words of Paul and the words of Jesus equal weight? I think mostly our hermeneutic fails to deal with our worldview and our own “non-objective” perceptions of reality.

I don’t consider myself a biblical expert, but neither am I an armchair scholar. I have all the right creds; the required biblical and theological training, all the right degrees, and I have put in the time it takes to understand how complex this question really is, and most importantly, I could be wrong. I’m not offering a simple solution, just making the observation that some things are very wrong with our traditional hermeneutic of Paul’s writings and that we pay too little attention to Jesus.

The Apostle Paul was correct when he said we all “see through a glass darkly.” What he didn’t say is that in the right light, glass reflects like a mirror. When looking through our own glass lens we bring more of our own worldview and preconceived notions to the Scriptures than we would care to admit. Having bias is unavoidable and it is natural, so why can’t we admit to the deeper levels of our own bias? I think there are several reasons. Identifying and admitting them is the first step in a long process of developing a fresh hermeneutic.

1. Objective Reality

The Western mind has developed a “scientific,” dualistic worldview that favors a skewed perception of this thing we call reality, interjecting something called the objective/subjective split. Other worldviews understand “reality” more holistically with the ability to think easily in gradations. In the Western worldview, the “both/and” scenario is not often seen as reasonable or decisive; it is assumed the truth must be found on either one side of the binary or the other (either/or ‘ism’).

In the Western worldview the objective always trumps the subjective. In other words, the objective is always seen as good, provable, progressive thinking and the subjective is seen as irrational, relative or indecisive and given little weight. The result for the purposes of this discussion is that the doctrine of inspiration is applied generally to all the Scriptures (or at least we like to say that). The Western worldview teaches us to apply the one-size fits all rule to the Scriptures. If not, we assume they can’t be “perfect,” thinking they are either all inspired the same, or not inspired at all.

Interestingly, we don’t do this with the Hebrew Testament. When it comes to interpreting the Hebrew Bible we employ greater variation including dispensational views, or for those of us who are not dispensationalists, we create quasi-dispensational thinking. Either way, God somehow gets converted or partially converted in between the Testaments, which allows us to apply the whole of the Newer Testament more literally. Somehow, we have actually utilized gradations of inspiration (although we don’t call it that), when applying the words of the two Testaments to our lives.

2. Occasion

A second reason we are in denial about the bias we bring to the Scriptures is related to #1 but it has a strange twist. Usually the Euro-American worldview creates extrinsic categories and then begins understanding them in ways that make them seem like they are describing the whole of reality.  A relevant example of this would be the division of practical theology (pastoral) and theology (for scholars). These are two extrinsic categories–divided from one reality.  Interestingly, when it comes to the Scriptures, the European and Euro-American worldview has done the converse. As I said, the Newer Testament Scriptures, each letter with its own history and reality, have all been lumped together into one book and they are given equal weight via the interpretive process described here, and a new reality is created. This is how we can justify using the words of Paul over the words of Jesus when “context calls for it.” Doctrinally, we muddy the waters by saying “it’s all inspired”—as if the Spirit can’t have allowed gradations of inspiration.

Yet, each of Paul’s letters are written with a specific occasion in mind and to a particular group of people, or to several groups, addressing distinct concerns. Each is written in the context of a particular culture, making it difficult, if not impossible for interpreters living two millennia later to fully understand Paul’s immediate concerns. At the minimum, we should view these letters with extreme humility and suspicion of our bias and our own limited understanding prior to forming major doctrines from them like original sin, penal substitutionary atonement and limitations on women’s leadership roles, just to name a few.

Of course there is overlap between Paul’s letters. They contain some universal understandings about who Jesus is and how people are to live in shalom community. But, I don’t think that Paul’s letters were meant to be read in the same way as the four gospels. They should be read more akin to the way we read the Book of Acts. Acts is largely a history that opens a window to certain times and places to allow us to see something about the lives of the early followers of Jesus and the Church. Paul’s letters tell us what is happening among a particular group of believers at a particular time and place. With such particularity present, it is unjustifiable to create major doctrinal stances from Paul’s letters unless they corroborate or are a logical extension of Jesus’  life and teachings. In other words, interpreting Jesus through Paul is shaky ground.

The four gospels, (albeit, each unique in their unique cultural settings) were written primarily for the purpose of spreading the good news about Jesus. They were meant to go far and wide, and in a real sense (again, not taking away from their distinctiveness) were for all people at all times. The message is both particular and universal, which perhaps grants us a bit of official pardon as we try our best to determine their cultural context and meaning.

3. White Cultural/Racial Bias

White Male Supremacy was the placeholder in America for the White Privilege that exists today.  There is a long line of European and Euro-American theologians over the past 500 years who have captured the high ground for the battle of biblical interpretation (not to be confused with the “moral high ground”). They have naturally interjected their own cultural worldviews into the grand theological schema and then they, and their followers have normalized them. This happened, not because the best arguments won out but because all other theologies were forced out. Even though European and Euro-American theologies were made dominant through a process of militant colonialism, they are not more objective, or more ordained than any other contextualized theological tradition.

This theological bullying allowed one race to dominate all others through force, unjust laws, and erroneous philosophies like Social Darwinism. The result is that even today, all theologies, except mainstream European and Euro-American theologies are treated as specialties, aberrations and/or sub-categories (remember what they did to Rev. Jeremiah Wright?). What in actuality are White; European contextual-based theologies, are normalized in our theological schools and in our minds with names like “Biblical Theology” and “Systematic Theology.”

4. Written Words and Orthodoxy

In tandem with #3 (above), the European worldview, of which some parts are highly dualistic, understands the written word as a final arbiter in all matters. Law, Constitution, Bible, Doctrine, History, etc., become the means by which “civil” societies are measured. This is true even when those written documents were often constructed after great injustices, “written in blood” by the winners. In such a “civil” system, one can even denounce the very type sins committed in order to obtain such documents, as long as the winners are in the majority, forbidding anyone referring to such actions as hypocritical.

This is why supposedly great theologians (their doctrine) can be revered in spite of their unsavory character, and how supposedly early American freedom fighters and founders (their Law) can construct a constitution (and a new nation state), on the back of atrocities like genocide and slavery. In the same way it is why a man like Martin Luther can be honored for his doctrinal positions while he simultaneously condemned many commoners to death by encouraging the princes to crush the poor peasants in their quest for freedom in the Peasents’ Revolt. It’s why we can revere the mind of a man like John Calvin who was largely responsible for burning Michael Servetus, a fellow Christian at the stake for his non-Trinitarian views. By the same token, many early American theologians like Cotton Mather and Jonathon Edwards were slave owners, as were twelve of our first eighteen Presidents (including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (need I mention Sally Hemmings?).

I think Jesus spoke directly to this type hypocrisy in the following story:

“But what do you think about this? A man with two sons told the older boy, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’ The son answered, ‘No, I won’t go,’ but later he changed his mind and went anyway. Then the father told the other son, ‘You go,’ and he said, ‘Yes, sir, I will.’ But he didn’t go. “Which of the two obeyed his father?”

They replied, “The first.” Then Jesus explained his meaning: “I tell you the truth, corrupt tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the Kingdom of God before you do. For John the Baptist came and showed you the right way to live, but you didn’t believe him, while tax collectors and prostitutes did. And even when you saw this happening, you refused to believe him and repent of your sins. Matt. 21:28-32

Jesus made a clear distinction that favored correct actions over correct doctrine so I ask, why should we hail these and other, unrepentant, murderous and racists people in the hallowed halls of Christianity? Why should we hold their theologies and philosophies as sacrosanct? Some would answer, “They were people of their time.” My reply to their reasoning is that there were many other men and women in Christian history, (during the aforementioned times) who suffered unjustly because they chose to act like Jesus rather than misinterpret and, misappropriate the words of Paul in order to act differently to Jesus’ life and teachings. We dishonor these men and women’s sacrifices when we solemnize these people’s words as powerful, intelligent and creative, when their character did not reflect that of Jesus.

Conclusion

Because the Western worldview can’t imagine “both/and” scenarios well; because we compile them all in one book and call it all the same reality; because we see orthodoxy as more important than orthopraxy—concerned more about what we say we believe than how we actually live; because we have disallowed women, minorities and the marginalized from participation at the “Grown-up Theological Table” and have normalized the voice of White Theological Supremacy, we often fail to see Jesus clearly or understand how we are to live as his followers. If we could develop a fresh hermeneutic to see Jesus clearly, taking all our central doctrines from Jesus in the gospels; giving the words of Jesus more weight than any others; I believe that we (Americans especially), would probably be a lot more like Jesus than Christians have been up to this point.

 

 

  • Ralf

    Great article. Language, words and its hierarchic interpretation as highlighted in the book “A Stimulus Mind” (Ralf W. Iverson) reveals the power of the interpreter.

  • TT

    Thank you for your insights. As a woman I have long wrestled with the often repressive words of the Apostle Paul. You shed additional light on the subject.

  • http://www.rainsongmusic.com Terry Wildman

    Thank you for a humble yet bold presentation of the problems of American Biblical hermeneutics. I often find that the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels also present us with a more local and cultural presentation and application of God’s universal truth–similar to Paul. I think the book of Acts and the Letters of Paul and Peter can give us a valuable window to view how the teachings of Jesus were being applied in a local context. I think the problem with much of the Western interpretation of Paul is the result of cultural and social blindness. I don’t think Paul’s teaching or application really countered Jesus teaching in any way, sometimes it helped clarify the application for the local church. The hard work of a modern interpreter is separating out the universal from the local cultural context and the specific problems faced by the early Christians Paul was writing to. Thanks for encouraging us to dig deeper! –Peace!

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  • Alan

    Doctrinally, we muddy the waters by saying “it’s all inspired”—as if the Spirit can’t have allowed gradations of inspiration.

    This. Even Paul acknowledges that not all his sayings have equal value (or spiritual inspiration), so it saddens me when fundamentalists insist on obeying Paul’s every utterance instead of listening to the Spirit for themselves and receiving the law that has been written upon their hearts where it is readily accessible: the law of love.

  • Shawn Andrews

    Wow, what a great post! I love the idea of gradations of inspiration and also the reminder that Jesus’ words ought to be weightier than Paul’s. Thanks to Bo Sanders for pointing to your blog!

  • Luke

    Thank you for these words Dr. Woodley! So true and I’m so thankful to have taken a couple classes from you too. May we all (as white American Christians especially) take these words to heart and spread to true freeing gospel of Jesus Christ in word and deed, seeking to walk as Jesus did by the power of the Holy Spirit above all else.
    ~Many blessings to you

  • Joris Heise

    Your post is part–Thank God–of the whole and genuine return to a Wholeness of viewing History, Scripture and Reality. Richard Rohr and Bart Ehrmann, Raymond Brown and John XXIII, C. S. Lewis and Martin Buber, Kearney’s “Anatheism” and the author of this article–are all part of this wonderful, life-giving stream–in not only returning us to our roots, but finding once again the whole point of faith. The Point of Faith is not Religion, but the Father of Jesus, not “holocausts and sacrifice,” but Hosea’s injunction about how to live, not telling other people how to live, but living with a living God as Thou . Thank you. Thank you.

  • Brian Gomes

    I agree we insert our worldview into our interpretation of Scripture as we seek to make sense of Scripture, but it seems to say Jesus was concerned with right action over right doctrine is a bit simplistic. From the sermon on the mount the issue seems to be a both/and (or action and doctrine) situation where the doctrine was incorrect because the Pharisees and religious leaders chose to limit their application to suit their own comfort rather than the intent of the law in relationship with God. The assertions being made seem to have a Jesus +1 and all other scriptures -1 perspective in how we ought to view them. Paul does say we should guard sound doctrine and John’s gospel (as well as other NT writers) reminds us that is a revelation process that is still being perfected in us as we spend time reading the word, obeying God’s commands in how we relate to God and others and relating to God through prayer asking the Holy Spirit to help us understand and apply God’s word.

  • Bert

    I don’t disagree with this, but two little things I would add:

    1. I highly recommend you check out “What Paul Meant” by Garry Wills. He offers a full throttle liberal defense of Paul against many popular misconceptions.

    2. We should not discount the influence of the Enlightenment on the Western colonial project. This is something NT Wright really opened my eyes on. The popular view is that Christian theology alone was/is responsible for colonialism. But colonialism and white supremacy came out of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment emphasis on rationalism, science, and the individual led to some of the cruellest acts of injustice in human history. I am not in any way letting Christian theology off the hook here. The Churches provided all of the support they could to the colonialist project. It is just interesting to consider that many of the Enlightenment architects were adament in abandoning the “dark ages” of Medieval Christian superstition. But despite this they failed so miserably in treating their non white brothers and sisters as fellow human beings.

  • Randy Woodley

    Brian, Thanks for your input. I appreciate your thoughtful reflections. What I would say at this point is that I think history has shown pretty clearly that correct beliefs do not lead to correct actions.

    • art brokop II

      part of the problem here is the lack of left foot right foot execution (walking in balance). Often the “walk” is a hop one or the other – un – balanced and single minded leading to a fall after all Jesus did say those who hear and do not just hear and not just do. Art

  • L Schulz

    ” What I would say at this point is that I think history has shown pretty clearly that correct beliefs do not lead to correct actions.” You mean there are people who sin but profess Christian beliefs–how alarming! I would be careful about condemning people because they are just human and don’t completely fullfill the law. Jesus told us that the pharisees were less righteous than the tax collectors not so much because of their bad deeds but because they did not repent—like we all should because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. I agree that just because we believe something it doesn’t mean that we will not sin but it seems like you are accusing certain people of the or an unpardonable sin and therefore anything they say or believe should be discredited.

  • Dreday

    Sounds like you’re just making excuses for a closely examined piece of fictional literature that so many people have based their lives on. It’s supposed to be the word of god but the enormous spectrum of morality presented within the book leaves it meaningless (even while leaving the OT out of the discussion).

  • http://emilycrawford.net Emily Crawford

    Wow Randy… really loved this. I’m glad you are bringing this stuff up even though sometimes it can be an uncomfortable conversation. I know that I for one, struggle with some of these issues and am trying to wrap my mind around how Paul’s words are any more divinely inspired than christian writers living today.

  • https://sites.google.com/site/holyhugs/god-in-a-box Jim Fisher

    Yes! And now after looking at the Codex Sinaiticus, which is one of the oldest and most complete Bible sources we have, I am gaining a deeper understanding of our Biblical interpretive bias. It extends even to where the translators decide to start and end words, sentences and paragraphs, put things in quotes, and capitalize. It goes way beyond just deciding which English words fit the Greek (or the Aramaic/Hebrew that was already been translated/interpreted into Greek).

    With these and other great study tools now available on-line for free, we are entering into an age of the democratization of Scripture. We no longer need to rely entirely on experts to pre-chew the Word so that we can digest it.

    Check this out: Breakthrough on Paul and Women. The author, a Bible teacher, has gone back into the Codex to study the “Women should remain silent in the churches” passage because it always bothered him that it just didn’t fit with what Paul was saying earlier in that letter. There, he found evidence that Paul might be quoting that text in order to refute it! “You think women should remain silent in the churches? Phooey! Who died and made you God?” (my paraphrase). The little “Phooey” particle is in the Codex, but seldom gets translated into English. Oh, how that little Greek letter changes everything.

    To me, this is exciting news which honors the authority of Scripture in a new way. And because I hold all interpretations of Scripture loosely, to allow the Holy Spirit to do her work in me, I have no problem with it. But, I suspect, some who have cast their interpretations in either/or concrete have trouble letting go of their grip in order to allow the both/and Word breathe truly new life into their souls.

  • art brokop II

    AMEN!

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  • Tyler Vance

    So just to clarify; what we are saying in this is that Paul’s words, throughout a majority of the New Testament were written (and inspired by God) only so that we would know something about another culture? 2 Timothy declares that ALL Scripture is breathed out by God and ALL Scripture is useful for correcting, rebuking teaching and instructing. I think that we have to be very careful to oversimplify Paul’s words. They were put there for the purpose of us being corrected by, being rebuke by, being taught by, or being instructed by them…if not, 2 Timothy 3:16 contradicts itself. Just my 2 cents.

    • Randy Woodley

      Thanks for your comment, you bring up a very important point. Now, I’m not arguing over the status of Paul’s writings at this point, but think about it. Do you really think Paul was saying, “all my letters are the Holy Scriptures” ? In fact, if you read the verse in context you should be able to tell that the Scriptures he is referring to are the ones Timothy has known from infancy, which would make it impossible for him to be thinking of his own letters since they were not written at the time of Timothy’s infancy. The scriptures he is referring to are the Hebrew Scriptures. In my opinion, and I could be wrong, I think Paul would be very disturbed that his words are given equal weight to the words of the Creator-Son, Jesus.

      15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,

      • Tyler Vance

        I would have to say that it is equally risky to proclaim that Paul’s words are separate from other parts of Scripture…to do so, is as risky as declaring that Old Testament is no longer applicable to us because it was the Old Covenant. We don’t have the right or authority to decide or proclaim parts of Scripture that are less important than others. You are right, Paul may have been referring to the Scripture that Timothy would have grown up with, in verse 15. However, notice the difference between vs 15, “Holy Scripture” and vs. 16 “Scripture”…it is my opinion that Paul is making the very point that we are not to pick and choose parts of the Bible we do and do not believe to be valid or “carry equal weight”. I think it’s a very slippery slope and I struggle with knowing where that slope ends. For instance, Revelation wasn’t written by Jesus either, so therefore, we can just put it to the side as well, stating that it doesn’t carry equal weight. Again, we don’t had the right or authority to do so.

        • http://ethnicspace.wordpress.com randywoodley

          “We don’t have the right or authority to decide or proclaim parts of Scripture that are less important than others.”

          C’mon, practically, we do this everyday. While I appreciate your viewpoint, I think the all or nothing inspirational dualism of Western Christianity in interpreting Paul, John, or anyone else over Jesus, is a slippery slope. And given the shape of the church we are now experiencing that has been formed by this doctrine, I’d say we have just about reached the bottom.

  • Tyler Vance

    To clarify, I am not saying that Paul’s words are the same as those of Christ himself, however, I am saying that we cannot, and should not, separate them as an inferior portion of God’s Word. To be perfectly honest, there is probably a lot that Paul, Peter, John, Moses, Solomon, David (and the list goes on) said that was left out of Scripture therefore, for God to have inspired the words that Paul did write, all the more reason for us to read them and apply them as we do the words of Christ!

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    Another Good Topic for us

  • Joseph M.Parish

    Wonderful article! It expresses many of my own views! Do’hi

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