We Live in Different Worlds

We Live in Different Worlds October 14, 2016

A CNN interview has been posted to my Facebook page. Those posting it expressed shock that Christian woman would express her support for Donald Trump by saying that “God could even use a harlot.” The outrage was on several levels. First that Trump’s behavior could in any way be overlooked. But more importantly that Trump could be understood within a framework of God’s providential use of sinners, and in particular a derogatory reference to a woman who should properly be called a sex worker or victim of misogynistic patriarchy.  Perhaps it would have been better if the interviewee had referenced God’s use of the Persian pagan emperor Cyrus, also a man of disturbing moral character, to save Israel. It certainly would have been less immediately inflammatory, but probably equally incomprehensible to the CNN interviewer.

But let’s look more closely.

An analysis of the 18th century founder of the Methodist, John Wesley, rather easily shows that his writings are permeated with Biblical language. It isn’t just that he supports his arguments by quoting the Bible. He actually uses words and phrases from scripture as his natural idiom. The Bible was the world he inhabited, not a merely a historical document. Abraham and David and Jeremiah and Jesus and Paul were as present for Mr. Wesley, and maybe more so, as King George and Shakespeare. He would certainly have referenced Rahab (the woman has a name) and Cyrus as if their role in God’s plan was instructive for contemporaries. I expect he would have called her a harlot.

This isn’t true of most modern Christians. We don’t read the Bible enough for one thing, and for another we are acutely aware of historical and thus cultural difference. Even if we accept the these people in the Bible were historically real they aren’t as present for us as they were for Wesley and others of his generation and those preceding. Certainly we wouldn’t casually, without some hermeneutical effort, toss out a Bible story as a relevant example of why a modern political figure might be used by God. And we would be careful of allowing the patriarchy and misogyny of an earlier age to infect our language.

Except for some of us.

There remain significant Christian populations in the US for whom the Bible is the world they inhabit. Typically they are part of the group identified as “evangelical.” For them, and the woman on CNN was one of them, the Bible and its stories are both the world they inhabit and are completely contemporary, comprehensible, and applicable. This has nothing to do with whether they believe in evolution or creation or new or old earth theories. They are not ignorant that things in the Bible happened a long time ago. It is simply that out of dwelling with the Bible and in the world of the Bible through constant reading, hearing, and assimilating through preaching and worship it has become the world they inhabit. The people in it are effectively contemporaries, the stories immediately relevant, and the language the normal mode of discourse.

The same thing can be found in other cultural realms. I once had the pleasure of interviewing an elderly Muslim leader in Malaysia. When he spoke English his world was that of colonial Malaya, the world in which he spoke English. But when he spoke Malay it was different. His language was heavily influenced by the Qur’an and Hadith, which he quoted directly and referenced indirectly. The world he inhabited was the world of the Qur’an, a world full of apocalyptic foreboding and the threat of judgment. The natural world around us was a world of signs pointing to God’s providential presence. Its invisible dimension the world of angels and jinn. And the people of his world included, equally arrayed around us as invisible conversation partners, the prophets of God, the ancient Caliphs and heroes of Islam, and the great Malay national heroes like Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat.

His son, who I knew well, had little time for that world. He was an international businessman for whom the old Malay Muslim world was fading, a whisper of ghosts. His world was a story of business cycles, contracts, and judgment that came in the form of a balance sheet. It was inhabited by bankers and lawyers and somewhat further off the heroes of late 20th century capitalism. If an apocalypse was coming it wouldn’t be ushered in by earthquakes and strange signs in the sky, but by falling markets, corrupt politicians, and foolish investors. He and I got along great. Malay or English, we spoke the same language and lived in the same world.

We could multiply this diversity of worlds that contemporary humans inhabit, and the groups for whom they are present within the same society and broad culture. Here in the United States Americans live in different worlds. Worlds shaped by religious difference, social location, ethnicity, marginalization, class, and even gender. Listen to Spanish language radio in Texas and travel through the dominantly Latino neighborhoods of Dallas, or just listen to your hairdresser or watch Univision and you’ll become aware of what a different world this community inhabits when it isn’t forced to live in mine.

Our problem is that rather than learning about and from one another’s worlds we want to judge and condemn. “God could even use a harlot” is a phrase from a world many of us do not live in and have no desire to inhabit. We may believe that it is a dangerous world for women and wish they would escape it. But that doesn’t mean the woman on CNN wasn’t speaking the truth.

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