Monday, September 21, 2009

What Matters

I used to visit a blog occasionally that entertained some pretty hot debate. Here's a comment left by a man named Scott:
"“If I use 'biblical' (and I’m not sure I ever have), it’s not in the sense you outline. I’m far too postmodern to believe a text has any real meaning apart from interpretation. There is less argument over what the Holy Scriptures say than there is over what they mean. When someone says, 'The bible says …', I immediately mentally translate that to 'Here’s what I interpret the words of the text to mean …'”

"I'm far too postmodern to believe a text has any real meaning apart from interpretation."

What a statement. It struck me like a thunderbolt then, and it still does.

Can you imagine that we live in an age when text -- even text that comes from God Himself -- has no intrinsic meaning? The implication here is that the writer -- even Writer God -- has no unique, discernible message that he can communicate in the writing. The writer has no intent, or if he does, we can't know it.

We can just interpret. And, in our postmodern world, interpretation is individual; the Bible (or any other text, or movie, or even facebook conversation) may have one meaning for you, and a different (even opposite) meaning for me.

And guess what? They're both right! That's the wonder of post-modernism! Miracles still occur -- mutually exclusive statements remain simultaneously, illogically true, in our post-modern world.

So, you can customize your pizza, and your ice cream cone, and your perfume. And your philosophy. Truth is assembled by you, for you, cafeteria-style.

I ran into this same concept lately in the fun movie, "Julie & Julia." I enjoyed the whole movie (minus a few cuss words), but then one conversation jarred me. Julie Powell finds out, shockingly, that the REAL Julia Child is rather disgusted by Julie's whole blog project. She is affronted by it. So, what comforts Julie when the REAL Julia is a disappointment?

She decides that she prefers the OTHER Julia, you know, the one in her head! The Julia Child that she has imagined for herself. The Julia that "speaks" to her and guides her through her troubles, soothes her with sauces and cheers her with stews. THAT Julia. Her personal Julia. The real Julia Child doesn't matter.

Personal interpretation of another human being, that's what matters. Right?


Adam mentioned to me another cultural wonder, Reinhard Bonnke, faith-healer extraordinaire. You know, that kind of public Christian who makes sincere followers of Christ look like cheating snake-oil salesmen? This fellow was investigated and found out to be a total fraud. Did it matter to his followers?

Evidently not. They liked Mr. Bonnke as he was, in their imaginations. What he was in real life, rather like the REAL Julia Child, was of no consequence.

So, what matters? Is there truth out there somewhere? Can we even claim, like John Keats, that "Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty"? There was some certainty for you! Romanticized certainty, but it's better than the insipid drivel we tolerate these days.

No, thank you. I will stick to some pre-modern stuff, in which truth is objective and definable, God and His Word are what he intends and not what I prefer, and there is only ONE Julia Child.


  1. Thank you, M.K. Well-said. This is a real problem, for which we need to prepare our children, because if they don't have their epistemology straight, their theology will not hold.

  2. Hey, M.K.,
    I think that you may have misunderstood what Scott was saying... There is no doubt about it that I believe in Truth, and that He has meaning, whether or not I ever understand it or not, and that He has meaning whether or not I ever interpret that meaning or not.

    There is a difference, though, when people say, "This is what, say, 1 Peter 3 means, and therefore you have to believe it this way---you cannot think about it or study it for yourself---and if you have a different interpretation or a different conclusion about the passage, then you have just deviated from GOD's word." THAT is a whole 'nother thing, and that is more what (I think) Scott was saying and is certainly more what *I* am saying.

    Truth, Absolute Truth? Absolutely. That would be God, as manifested Triunely, Father, Son, and Spirit.

    Me and my interpretation of things? Up for discussion. Because I am neither all-knowing or all-seeing, and I'm not perfect, either, and I'm also subject to error. I'm going to hold the truth I derive from Scripture with a light fist, because I am open to the fact that I can be wrong......because I have been wrong. I was so certain I was right...but time...and growth in wisdom...revealed that my certainty and my interpretation of "absolute truth" was wrong. Dead wrong.

    Is God wrong? No, never. Can I be wrong? Yes, sometimes.

    (More in next comment):

  3. (Continued from above):

    Just as an aside, you may want to read what Scott wrote here, about Jesus, in a comment recently on AinM, to a young woman who has become an atheist:

    "Sadie, I’ve heard and even at different points in time believed the commonly stated thing about the “golden rule” being universal. But I’m far too interested in history, especially ancient history, and in forms of spirituality to say that without a lot of qualification.

    It is true that today most of the major world religions hold to at least some form of the negative version of the golden rule, “Don’t do to others what you don’t want them doing to you.” But even today you can only say that with a lot caveats. For instance, in Hinduism in India, even today, the application of that rule has to be considered in light of caste and particular path of the adherent. And in Africa, where particularly oppressive forms of ancestor worship remain common among certain tribes, it hardly has any meaning at all.

    And that’s just the modern world.

    When you delve back into the ancient world and especially the ancient pagan religions, you find very little of that. Even in classical Greek culture (often pointed to as the high water mark for eventual influences on Western culture — even though it wasn’t really a Western culture itself), you did for those who were like you. Those who were unlike you in rank or village or city or status didn’t really enter the equation at all. In fact, the rule of thumb among peoples often was that if we could conquer you, that meant our gods were more powerful than your gods.

    However, even though the positive form of the golden rule is a part of the Christian standard AND in an almost unheard of usage is applied to everyone across every boundary, that isn’t actually the ultimate standard. Do to others as you want them to do to you is the starting point. The goal and the command of Jesus is to love others as he has loved us. Love your enemies. Love those who curse and persecute you. Pray for those who wish you harm.

    Love is hard. Love requires, as Dallas Willard puts it, that we actively will the good of the other no matter what. And that requires that we judge (with all the warnings Jesus put on judging) for only through our judgment and the Holy Spirit can we possibly discern what is truly good for the other. It doesn’t mean give them what they want or satisfy their passions because we often desire things that are not to our good. So sometimes loving the other demands that we say no, that we act to restrain their self-destructive (or other-destructive) acts.

    Love is the hardest thing there is. But Jesus tells us that only as we learn to abide in him and love with his love will we find our true humanity.

    I’ve practiced quite a number of religions, believed some of them, and explored many more. Christianity is the only one I’ve found that demands love for all from its adherents. It’s an impossible standard. But Jesus assures us that there is endless, overflowing, unbounded love in the Triune God — more than enough to fill to overflowing our empty reservoirs. As we lose ourselves in the love of God, we discover who we truly are.

    That’s why I’m Christian. That’s why I stay Christian. That’s why I have a hard time imagining really going back to anything else. I can barely envision the scope of that love. But the little that I see stuns me and leaves me speechless.

    The Fathers (in the Eastern sense of that word) sometimes speak of Christianity as the end of religion. I have some sense that I understood what they meant."

  4. (And the LAST part, yeesh----I wrote such a big comment, lol, that blogger wouldn't let me submit it unless I broke it up---sorry about that!)...

    I know that we may perhaps disagree...and that's certainly okay! :) I share the quote so that you can have a better view of what Scott was saying. I think you can agree with me that the above italicized quote does not sound like someone who has rejected absolute truth or that the Bible has absolute meaning. ...I just didn't want to see the statement/thought be misrepresented.

    I'm sure you didn't mean to do that. It's just that a skepticism about human interpretation is *not* at all the same thing as saying that there is no Absolute Truth. Not at all. And, sure, a line or two out of context of the conversation can be made to sound like anything...and I'm sure you didn't mean to take anything out of context. I'm just here providing a little context that perhaps was missed. :)


  5. Thanks, G-J!
    Molly, I appreciate that you want Scott to be understood. I did try to include more than just the one sentence, to give a context to a bit of the conversation (that we were talking about Scripture and about people describing things as "biblical." And I understand that Scott was taking issue with people thinking that their interpretation was the only correct one.
    But ... shouldn't we have confidence (without meanness) in our positions and our understandings of Scripture? If we constantly dilute it with "well, this is only my opinion," I think we rob Scripture of some of its power.

    But the big word that Scott used that told me where he was coming from was the word "postmodern." Postmodern relativism is a very definable thing (haha!), and by attaching that word, Scott was telling me that he has a deconstructionist methodology toward texts, and especially that text. If that's not what he meant to say, then he probably needs to be more careful what terms he uses.

    This post was certainly no personal attack against Scott; he's free to adhere to any position he chooses. I just found his position to be part of a theme I see in our culture.


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