Richard Beck: hermeneutical self-awareness and a neurotic spiritual nightmare

Richard Beck is on a roll this week with a short series on reading the Bible. In Part #1 yesterday he states premise #1: “Interpreting is inescapable.”

Do the hard work of Biblical study, put in the time and effort to explore, but don’t think you can avoid, in the final analysis, the necessity of making a call. So make it. 

Today in Part #2 he highlights the terror that can come when the self-awareness of interpretation is paired with a belief that God will judge you if you get it wrong.

Hermeneutical Self-Awareness + Judgmental God = A Whole Lot of Anxiety

I don’t know that I ever verbalized this thought myself, but I think it drove a lot of my study and reading in my 20s and 30s. Here’s how Beck describes it:

Biblical interpretation is so anxiety-inducing because it’s viewed as so high stakes. Your eternal destiny hangs in the balance, so you have to get it right. And yet, given the hermeneutical situation, you lack any firm guarantees you’ve made the right choice. The whole thing is a neurotic spiritual nightmare. In fact, it’s this nightmare that keeps many Christians from stepping into self-awareness to own and admit their own hermeneutics. It’s more comforting to remain oblivious and un-self-aware. 

This put me in mind of a piece I wrote a few years ago where, as an aside, I mentioned that I’m certainly wrong about some percentage of beliefs, but I can’t tell you which ones. Turns out I was interacting with a Richard Beck piece in that one, too. So what do you do? How do you get your way out of Beck’s “neurotic spiritual nightmare”?

By reevaluating one of the terms in the equation.

So I told my students, You have to believe that God’s got your back, that, yes, you might make a mistake. But that mistake isn’t determinative or damning. Just be faithful and humble. You don’t have to have all the correct answers to be loved by your Father. Each of us will carry into heaven a raft of confusions, errors, and misinterpretations of Scripture. It’s unavoidable. We will not score 100% on the final exam. 

But don’t worry. Let your heart be at rest. God’s got your back.

As I like to paraphrase something Robert F. Capon said in Between Noon and Three: yes, I’m assuming that God is at heart loving and gracious. Because, let’s face it: if God is a bastard, we’re all screwed.

An Easter 2021 Meditation

This last year has felt a lot like death.

We’ve had a pandemic sweep the world, and in this country had our leaders fail to lead, instead spreading rumors and assigning blame. Hundreds of thousands are unnecessarily dead. We’ve necessarily stayed cut off from work, family, friends, school, church, and travel plans to protect ourselves and each other. It feels a lot like death.

We left our church last year. This year I‘ve been watching as the evangelical church in America consistently chooses the hope of political power over truth and justice. Chooses to side with abusers rather than victims. Chooses to marginalize women in the name of Biblical literalism. Chooses to persecute LGBTQIA people rather than love and accept them. Chooses “personal freedom” rather than taking basic steps to protect others amid the pandemic. It feels a lot like death.

In August last year we had a derecho destroy our city. The majority of our tree canopy is gone. Everyone had house damage. Our power was out for almost two weeks. Eight months later, I don’t have to drive further than my own street to see houses still missing siding and fences, roofs with tarps where shingles should be. In my own yard where three old friendly trees once stood, all that remains are ragged scars and chips left by a hurried stump grinder. It feels a lot like death.

There are other stories too personal to post. Stories that aren’t mine to tell. Stories that have kept us awake at night, on the floor in desperation, in helpless gnawing realization of things that aren’t alright. That has often felt a lot like death.

This is the first Easter in my memory that I haven’t been to church to celebrate. That, too, feeels like death.

Somehow, through all this, Jesus still holds on to me. I don’t know how. Even after I put away the fear wrought by legalism, after the habits are ripped away, after the culture that taught me Jesus for 40 years has turned from Him in the name of power and freedom, Jesus is still there. Faithfully loving and sustaining me. Faithfully promising that, in the end, this mess will be redeemed.

In this year that has felt a lot like death I will cling to the hope that Jesus is risen. Somehow, He feels a lot like life.

Teenage Vernacular Update, circa March 2021

“Yeet” is passé. “Ye” has entered the common vernacular as an affirmative response.

“Pog”, “big pog”, and “poggers” (expressions of happiness or approval) have become common enough that the teens don’t think it’s too weird if Dad says them.

“F in the chat for <thing>” (paying respect / acknowledging something that died or failed) is still new enough that Dad gets weird looks when he says it. Multiple attempts result in Dad being told he is “trying too hard”.

Recent reading: Queer Theology by Linn Marie Tonstad

The past couple months I’ve been participating in a reading group hosted by Matt Tebbe. (Matt leads an Anglican church plant in the Indianapolis area.) This group, framed around “Reading for the Sake of Others”, is focused on reading outside of the usual conservative white male authors that fill our reading piles. The intention is not that we will agree with everything we read—indeed, if we do, we’re probably not reading widely enough—but to expand our horizons, to acknowledge our blind spots, and to stretch us at least a little.

Our first book in March, then, is one I would likely have never picked up otherwise: Queer Theology by Yale Divinity School professor Linn Marie Tonstad. It’s a short book—less than 200 pages—but provided me a lot to think about. I won’t try to summarize it all here, but wanted to recount some thoughts that I scribbled out on Twitter last night.

  1. I appreciate the focus in queer theology on the reality of embodied existence. Our embodied experience is complex, messy, and should not be ignored. We should pay more attention to what it means for Jesus to have been incarnate.
  2. I appreciated the thought that, though we might hope or imagine otherwise, we are not “self-transparent, rational, autonomous individuals”—i.e., that we are to some extent unable to make choices that determine our outcomes. This means that the categories that we learn and filter our view of life through are so built-in that they are beyond our control and will inevitably affect our view of everything, but especially of the non-normative.
  3. I appreciate an approach that acknowledges that there are queer members of the body of Christ, and works from that given to then think through what this might mean about Christ’s and the church’s nature.
  4. I am challenged by the assertion that if (since) Christianity is “a story in which each person is the object of God’s care, attention, and love”, then Christians should reckon more seriously about those implications, aprticularly regarding politics, economics, and sexuality. This quote reminded me a lot of reading Robert Capon: “The question is this: what does an economy of infinite, inexhaustible love look like?”
  5. I am conflicted about the queer theology assertion that our sexual self and experience is so fundamental to the experience of being a spiritual human being. The theology I have grown up learning is heteronormative, insisting that other experiences/desires are sinful. Yet, it’s hard to deny the assertion that our sexual selves are fundamental to our human experience, and thus to our spiritual being as well.
  6. Finally, I really appreciate the language of “human thriving” to describe that which God wants and we should strive for. I have read others (I forget who) who describe sin as that which is contrary to human flourishing, and that’s been a helpful frame for me to think through sin, the result of sin, and the goodness of the law.

I am definitely looking forward to the group discussion on this one next week!

Thoughts upon Rush Limbaugh’s passing

Rush Limbaugh passed away today at age 70.

I spent countless hours listening to his radio show as a pre-teen, teenager, and into early adulthood, largely absorbing both his Republican political views and his cruel, snarky attitude toward those who disagreed with him. I tried calling in to the show on multiple occasions. (I remember getting through to the call screener once, but never got on the air.) I recorded some of the political spoof songs he played and memorized the lyrics because I thought they were funny. (The spoof of “Bette Davis Eyes” as “Billy Clinton Thighs” to commemorate the jogging President’s short shorts is still in my head today.) I laughed as he called people names and ridiculed people who weren’t like him: Democrats, environmentalists, feminists, immigrants, LTBTQIA people…

Rush made it easy to dismiss people who disagreed with you, and made sure you knew who those people were. I carried those views and attitudes well into adulthood. If you search back far enough you will find posts on my blog here that reflect that sort of snarky and uncaring attitude toward political opponents. I’ve spent the last decade or more regretting and repenting of those words, actions, and attitudes.

Rush caused a lot of people a lot of pain over his lifetime in talk radio. I am glad that his passing means he will stop causing people more pain. Sadly, the effects will linger far longer than his voice did on the radio waves. He had a massive amount of talent and opportunity to do a lot of good for a lot of people. It’s sad that he chose not to.

I’ve seen a lot of understandable pain and bitterness on Twitter this afternoon as people react to Rush’s passing. I don’t want to criticize those reactions. Pain has to be acknowledged to be worked through. I’ve seen a lot of comments about Rush now in eternity finding out how wrong he was and some sense of justice that he might be in hell. I get it. I do.

But I can’t gloat in his passing, and I can’t hope for his eternal torment. Rush was a human created in God’s image the same as everyone else, and he deserves that respect even if he refused it to others.

I’m hopeful of some sort of universal reconciliation through Christ. I know you can interpret the Bible to say otherwise, but after a decade of reading on the topic that’s where I land today. Does my sense of justice think Rush deserves punishment? Yep. But if I can hope for something more beautiful, it’s for a bitter old man with a lifetime of hate coming to sorrowful repentance and being eternally reconciled to Democrats, feminists, immigrants, gays, lesbians, transsexuals, and everyone else he hurt through the transforming love of God.

It feels wrong somehow to say “rest in peace” for a guy who caused so much discord. Maybe instead I can wish that he will rest in a discomfort that will lead to repentance and eternal reconciliation. Then I can pray for and work toward healing for those he hurt.

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

2 Corinthians 5:18-20, NRSV

Richard Beck: Political detox for evangelicals

Richard Beck has a wonderful post up today, describing American evangelicalism as “addicted to politics”, with a need to detox. He lists “three simple steps” to get free and sober of the addiction.

1. Do not vote in an election for the next ten years, or even ever again.

Basically, go cold turkey. An evangelical who stops voting is like an addict flushing pills down the toilet or emptying bottles down the sink. Break the connection between God and country. 

2. Abstain from or delete social media, cable TV and talk radio.

Stop going to the drug dealers. Avoid the street corners where they are pushing their pills. 

3. Invest in an apolitical local ministry that cares for the hurting or marginalized.

Sobriety requires a new lifestyle. So stop haunting the crack houses. Find a service, organization, or ministry in your town that cares for hurting or marginalized people. Invest all the hours you used to spend on social media into looking some hurting person directly in the face. Keep doing that until you know her or his name. And keep going until the names become your friends. 

Beck notes that these same steps would be appropriate for politically-addicted progressives, too. I dunno if I’d call them “easy”, but it’s helpful to think about the kind of radical steps that would show the problem were being taken seriously.

Love hopes all things, but I’m still hitting the ‘Unfriend’ button

Over the past month or two I have been making a renewed effort to engage in good faith political discussions my Facebook friends. I had been hoping that since the election was over and there are a handful of key points that are very obviously matters of fact, maybe I could reason with my friends through those topics.

1 Corinthians says that love hopes all things, and my rationale went along these lines: I love these people, and I hope that eventually their eyes could be opened to the truth rather than the lies they’ve been chasing. My engaging and speaking truth could be a pathway toward that realization for them. After all, if everybody who disagrees with them just gives up and disengages, the echo chambers just get worse, right?

It’s been an exhausting month. Maybe I’m just really bad at this. Maybe people are far more entrenched in lies than I wanted to believe. Maybe Facebook is really not a good platform for those conversations. But whatever the case, I got nowhere with my arguments, got called a bunch of names, and my stress level went through the roof every time I was inexorably drawn to tap the Facebook app icon.

So last night enough was enough. I went through Facebook and unfriended a bunch of people who aren’t really in-person friends, and unfollowed a whole bunch of people who I do know in person. I still love these people and pray and hope that their eyes would be opened, but this can’t be the way. At least I hope that if they someday reach a point where they see things differently and want someone to talk to about it, they’ll remember me as someone who’s willing to talk.

My current side project

One of my favorite 2020 discoveries (which, ok, only came out in 2020, so I was on it from the beginning) is the Young Adult Movie Ministry Podcast. A production of Sam Thielman and Alissa Wilkinson, two journalists and movie critics, YAMMPOD approaches movies from a sort of post-evangelical perspective. In Episode 1 of the podcast, Alissa notes that she was homeschooled through her youth, and then says that when asked about being homeschooled, her usual response is that she was very homeschooled. I resemble that remark.

The podcast moves quickly and is rife with references to other movies, books, and other cultural artifacts. The podcast show notes are perfunctory but not particularly detailed. Hmmmm, I thought, I know how to fill that gap.

Enter YAMMPOD.info, where I’m creating a post per episode to itemize all the movies and references that the hosts and guests drop. 28 episodes in, this is kinda fun.

If I were to recommend one particularly meaningful episode, I’d go to Episode 21, “Bread Alone”, with guest Jeffrey Overstreet discussing Babette’s Feast. Other standouts are Episode 6, “Sullied by Monotheism”, with the hilarious Lyz Lenz discussing The Story of Ruth and Episode 12, “Noir 101”, with guest Jamelle Bouie addressing not just The Maltese Falcon but the whole noir genre.

Head over to YAMMPOD.info to check out my project, then go visit YAMMPOD itself to listen and subscribe!

Psalm 126

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
    we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
    and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
    “The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
    and we rejoiced.

Psalm 126 has been chasing me around this past year. I read it shortly after the COVID shutdowns started in March 2020. Our church had just stopped meeting in person on Sundays. I was the music ministry leader, and I made a mental note to remember this passage for when we started meeting again. Once things got back to normal, I thought, that first Sunday back would indeed feel like a dream, with good cause to rejoice.

Three months later our church’s insistence on a mask-optional reopening was the last straw in a multi-year struggle over whether to stay. I resigned from my music ministry duties and let the pastor know we’d be looking for a new church once things reopened.

It’s now January 2021 and we’re still waiting.

Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
    like the watercourses in the Negeb.
May those who sow in tears
    reap with shouts of joy.

This past summer a friend invited us to join their church group’s Zoom meetings. They’ve been a godsend this year — a regular time of discussion, prayer, and Bible study with some likeminded people. It’s not the same as a local in-person meeting, but I’m already anticipating the loss when they start meeting in person again and the Zoom is no longer available to us.

2020 was hard for lots of reasons, in lots of ways; some of them public, some personal. One Monday last month during Advent, the pastor of our online group had us read this psalm. It felt different. There’s still a lot of going out weeping, a lot of sowing tears. We’re still in verses 4 and 5. Searching for hope, praying for joy on the other side of all this sadness. It’s January. The days are short and cold. I always feel fragile in January; this year even more so.

At this point in a post like this there are traditionally some words of hope, something about spring coming and things getting better. But I don’t really have those words in my heart today.

I’m thankful there’s still a verse left in the psalm.

Those who go out weeping,
    bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
    carrying their sheaves.

2020 Reading in Review

Another year, another review of my annual reading. The mess that was 2020 definitely affected my reading – there were a couple months in there where I simply didn’t have the mental energy for anything challenging. Nevertheless, I completed 60+ books, logged as usual over on Goodreads.

Last year in my roundup I said I should try to read some more engaging fiction in 2020. I wasn’t very successful there – only 23 novels (out of 64 books) this year. I did read a few very good ones, though, so I guess that’s something. I only read 13 female authors all year… I could get more rounded there.

Fiction

Some of my favorite fiction of the year:

  • Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jemsyn Ward
  • A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet
  • Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Non-Fiction

  • Caste: The Origin of our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
  • Jesus and John Wayne by Kristen Kobes Du Mez
  • The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power
  • The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Horst

It’s not lost on me as I list these out that many of my favorites of the year were written by women. That could be a clue to me that a well-rounded reading list will also be an engaging reading list.

Really Long Books

It’s entirely possible my book count would’ve gone up if I’d not read some really long books… but then I would’ve also missed some really good books. Notable really long books this year:

  • A Secular Age by Charles Taylor (896 pages)
  • Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West (1181 pages)
  • The New Testament in its World by. N. T. Wright and Michael F. Bird (992 pages)
  • Crucifixion of the Warrior God by Gregory Boyd (1492 pages)
  • Dominion by Tom Holland (a paltry 624 pages)

Maybe my goal for 2021 should be some shorter books…