Sadly, people like Jen Hatmaker give us poor examples of contextualization. In her recent interview with Peter Enns, she cast aside nearly every principle of biblical interpretation.
Because interpretation is the first step of contextualization, various comments on the podcast superficially resemble statements I and others make about contextualization.
Hatmaker’s Appeal to Jesus
To give a little context, Hatmaker and the podcast hosts were discussing how she came to believe that Christians should affirm same-sex marriage and welcome LGBTQ people into the church as they are.
She explains why she finally took this position. She says the turning point came when she studied “Jesus’ teaching on fruit.” She concludes,
Basically, Jesus is like, “Ok, well, some things are hard to understand, some things are confusing, people are confusing; there’s conflict. When you are not sure, when there’s something, be it a relationship or a person or a doctrine, whatever, that feels ambiguous or it feels contentious or there’s tension around its interpretation, look to the fruit. Like the fruit is going to tell you the truth. Because ultimately, however you slice it, a good tree is going to bear good fruit and a bad tree is going to bear bad fruit. And there you go. There’s a clue….”
The above paragraph is breathtaking in its disregard for Scripture. Where in the world does Jesus say anything like this? She would likely equate my objection to her comments with a blind or uninformed acceptance of traditional teaching. However, one need not accept everything “tradition” teaches to see the gross flaws in her use of the Bible.
Defining Fruit without Faith?
Before I examine her method of interpretation, consider what she then says. He compares “the fruit of the non-affirming Christian tree,” i.e. people who affirm traditional biblical teachings about homosexuality, etc. She points to:
“broken families, folks kicked out of their churches, …. self-hatred, self-harm, and depression, crushing loneliness, separation from God self-imposed…”
By contrast, Hatmaker celebrates the fruit of “the affirming Christian tree.” By this, she describes
“gay men and women [as] thriving and welcomed and affirmed and leading, using gifts to build the body of Christ and to serve the world well. The fruit was so universally good. There was just so much joy and life and health there. And I just couldn’t deny it.”
The problems with her reasoning are legion.
1. She utterly misunderstands the meaning of “fruit,” treating fruit as the mere consequence of certain actions. What she calls “rotten fruit” is also the natural consequence of sin! To use the “fruit” argument, she ought to see that the “fruit” of sin argues against such behavior.
2. Her argumentation is a bit disingenuous. How so? She merely compares the worst consequences that result from her opponents’ actions with a flurry of (supposedly) positive results from her side.3. Hatmaker begs the question by subtly assuming her conclusion.
What she calls “fruit” from “the affirming Christian tree” is either assumed or too general to be called Spiritual fruit. Descriptions like “thriving” and “using gifts to build the body of Christ and to serve the world well” merely assume the conclusion that is up for debate. No doubt the Jewish leaders in Jesus’ day would have said they were serving God pretty well before Jesus came along and disrupted their “thriving” work.
In effect, fruit is severed from the Spirit and root of faith. Next, I’ll highlight two ways that she defends her views.
True Words Applied in False Ways
First, she makes positive sounding or true (enough) statements but applies them in false ways. For instance, she says,
“There has never been unanimity on anything ever” (in church history).
“None of us obey [the Bible] on its face.”
God “invites us into a spirit of inquiry.”
The result is
“greater inclusion and compassion and wholeness and health… humility and curiosity.”
“Internally, [being] in partnership with the Holy Spirit [leads to being] free, strong, nourishing.”
Such word plays are common techniques people use to appeal to emotion rather than make an argument. After all, who could not want “humility” and “freedom.” The problem comes in how she applies her terms.
Words have meaning. What is the consequence in a day where evangelicals are increasingly anti-intellectual (in that theological training and rigorous study are seen as “extras” or unnecessary “abstraction”)? The church becomes vulnerable to brutish appeals to the heartstrings without respect to the mind.
The Experience of “Rediscovering” the Bible
Second, Hatmaker and her interviewers take refuge in experience.
Enns summarizes Hatmaker’s process. He says her experience helped her “rediscover the Bible.” She found that various parts of the Bible could “connect with [her] experience” and “connect with our circumstances.”
Hatmaker concurs with Enns and adds,
Experience matters. Experience is how everybody in Scripture ever came to God. Experience is giving us a different story [compared to the chaos produced by the evangelical church], which is “This is a wonderful road to be on in partnership with the Holy Spirit.”
The podcast sinks to a new low when the other cohost, Jared Byas, says Hatmaker’s remarks remind him of John’s words,
…where he says, “That which we have seen and that which we have heard we proclaim to you.” It’s experience-based. That’s what we are proclaiming…is our experience. And in a lot of ways that is the good news; that is the gospel.
These comments are breathtaking. How do they possibly embrace such a reader-response type approach to the Bible? In part, such conclusions are the consequence of faulty reasoning, particularly the sort that is born false dichotomies.
For instance, Enns appeals to his Jewish mentor Jon Levenson, who claims that Jews see the Bible as a book to be solved whereas Christians regard is as a unified message to be told (in which case there is no room for ambiguity).
Such is the way of most every false dilemma. They ignore logic and exclude what we have all learned from “experience.” To say the Bible has a united message does not logically require it not have passages that are unclear to us. This is a classic non-sequitur.
Hatmaker’s approach to Scripture is not biblically faithful. It is not culturally meaningful from a Christian perspective. And, friends, it is not biblical contextualization.
* This post is about contextualization and specifically biblical interpretation, not homosexuality and gay marriage. Please let your comments reflect the correct focus.
For those interested, the above comments come after the 30-minute mark in the interview found here.